Under: karate, Sword Fighting
17 Sep 2016


Wow that is quite a mouthful – Eastern MA compared to Historical European MA vs Olympic Fencing? Many might not understand the differences and to be truthful – it is hard to see the difference between Eastern vs Western martial arts. Is East Japan Kenpo, Okinawan Karate, Korean Tae Kwon Do, or Chinese Kung Fu? or we talking some Mongolian wrestling or Greko Roman wrestling? Are we speaking Turkish oil wrestling? All might be argued as the “East.”


How about HEMA (historical European martial arts) or Western martial arts maybe? If so what does that entail? So just the French and English Saber or does it include the Turkish Saber? So you see when we talk terms it is easy to be confused. I’ll state what I mean.


What I usually refer as martial arts to me used to mean Japan and China region martial arts. You see in America the word martial arts pretty much became that. Even though boxing and wrestling are “martial” and “art” in the sense that a fighter has to be creative to be good at fighting. The thing about martial arts is they have evolved to modern fighting methods that work better.


HEMA is easy to describe as it is using sword fighting as described in the old manuals by masters. Some use the word “military” swords but I tend to use the word “real” swords. People who train with HEMA try to fight they way sword masters of old did (you know when they last fought with swords). Today we don’t fight with swords so there is no real equivalent or next generation masters.


Or is there? One Olympic event is called foil, eppe or sabre fencing. This is a modern method with really light strips of metal (you cannot really call them swords). Arguably the foil & eppe were supposed to be trainers for the small sword but I don’t see the use of the sabre. The Olympian sabre is too light to be used the same way as real military saber. It is about the same as modern day point fighting. You cannot strike some areas and electric scoring is employed.


We also have the Olympics that have Tae Kwon Do (Korean karate like) karate in the games. Funny thing is the practitioners think it is fighting but to me it is playing. True if you get kicked with one of those kicks – it will do real damage, but if you are a trained fighter – there is not much chance of that – at least for me when I was younger. They score more point for kicks as they get more complex. Even though a knock out is a knock out is a knock out – not matter if a punch or kick or fancy jump spinning kick to the head. So it is a game.


So in both WMA and HMEA you have older methods but in WMA you also have newer methods. In HEMA not having modern methods is the point. I mean soldiers do not use swords in battle. As the styles of swords changed over the years – the sword method (except for the manuals) died out. Watch this video for an overview of the differences between historical and modern fencing and I’ll add my thoughts about karate and why I like HEMA.




So the arming sword in the 10th century eventually transitioned to the side sword (still a cut and thrust sword with more hand protection) and then that transitioned to the rapier (a longer – thrust sword with even better hand protection). No one today was alive during Medieval or Renaissance war so we have to depend on the manuals to see how they used the swords. As sword types fell out of favor one could not find any instructors since the weapon did not exist any longer. So you see that is why HEMA does not focus on modern fencing – there is no modern styles of arming or longsword. All we are left with is some old manuals and modern, scaled back, fencing that for the most part does not resemble any older weapon style.


An arming sword weights 3 to 4 pounds or more. The side sword seems to weight 2 to 2 1/2 pounds and the rapier weights 2 to 3 pounds (all approximate as there were many types of each kind of sword).


I did not that the small sword seems to be about the same weight as the modern epee so it is possible that if one did not use modern fencing rules – he or she could approximate what a real fight must have been like. I would argue that this is not possible to learn on a one pound modern sabre (1 pound) and then try to use a military saber (2 to 3 pounds). They would not behave anything alike even if you threw out the modern rules.


So my argument is modern fencing would not help you in a real sword fight mostly. I like HEMA because I’ve always wanted to learn how to sword fight. Nowadays there is real interest in historical sword play. My goal is if I even have to pick up a medium stick or pipe – I would know how to use that as an improvised “sword” weapon! But I’m interested in your opinion so please let me know what you think.


I would also conversely argue that ancient karate or kung fu would not stand up to modern karate or kung fu fighting standards. But that is fodder for another article.

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7 Responses to “Eastern Martial Arts compared to HEMA vs Modern Fencing”

  1. Matt Klein Says:

    Hi John! Those heavy swords have to be getting you fit….I visited the Battle of Hastings site when I went to London years ago. Super interesting. It was all about the range of combat that dictated the battle. The Normans, armed with lances, with about half of their forces cavalry, tried to draw the English, with their heavy swords and battle axes from their tight formations by feinting retreat. It worked to some extent and the Normans were able to outflank the English, defeating them. If the English had stayed tighter and not been drawn out into the open, they would probably have won. It was an amazingly small battle space for the 17,000 or so men that fought there. I can’t imagine the carnage!

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Matt! I was checking out the wiki on that battle. A couple of things stuck out. A lot of the fighters were not full time soldiers (I guess not a surprise) and the use of the battle ax.

    This is just a guess but sword against an ax with trained warriors – I would give the edge (pun intended) to the sword. The ax hit harder but it is not as easy to move about. Like the difference between a telegraphed move and initial movement. The swords men should easily be able to parry the ax before the moment of impact providing they see it.

    There is no accounting to using novice troupes not holding their line and the impact of the feint! Many battles are won or lost on discipline.

    Thanks for the insights Matt.

  3. Dr. J Says:

    So interesting, John! I’m just a student here with very little knowledge of the weapons and sword fighting you talk about, so thank you for that.

    As to your last statement about karate and kung fu, I can agree with the modern standards being superior, but I tend to think that the ancient practitioner themselves would be a whole different, formidably tough, animal.

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Dr J! Sure I tend to agree. The ancient practitioners gave us a good foundation and as time tends to do, military and sport fighting moved the techniques along to what we have today. And yes modern martial artists are not all that acquainted with the low horse and power moves from there. :)

  5. Chris | Martial Development Says:

    IIRC, human skeletons from 200-400 years ago show that people were stronger back then. if so, I wonder how that influenced their technique, and if “modern karate” is trying to compensate for a weaker human body.

  6. John W. Zimmer Says:

    No idea Chris, I’d of assumed that we are stronger now as food is cheap and plentiful. I love how hand to hand martial arts evolve over time. Much of it is good discounting sport fighting.

  7. karate planets Says:

    Cool! I found this conversation quite interesting to discuss.So,here I go with my view:As I have observed modern fencing is like a ADVANCEMENT to HEMA which has led to the less efforts by practitioners as compared to HEMA.History reveals the proven results of HEMA which has given more learning with real swords.I will defintely like to know more from you If you agree too.