Here is an explanation about what Huscarl involves, followed by some basic training advice for those who would like to try it.
The Huscarl fighting style was first started in late 2000. It is a fighting system for re-enacting combat with Viking Age or Medieval weaponry. It is a way for the combatants to fight as realistically as possible, using copies of original arms and armour, WITHOUT injuring each other. A key phrase, then, is realism combined with safety. In practice, this means weapons are usually restricted to axe, knife and primarily sword. However, much basic work is also done with sticks and padded sticks.
Huscarl was initially intended for Viking re-enactors using the usual international fighting system. So it assumes that people practising Huscarl have already developed a sense of safety and weapon control. It also assumes that the fighters have blunt-edged, well-balanced weapons. Huscarl offers a more realistic alternative to the usual, light "sports" style. As was said from the outset, it is not meant to replace this style. It is an addition to it, for people who enjoy a more in-depth attention to fighting skills.
Many people do not realise that Huscarl is NOT about extending the target area and hitting harder. It is about understanding how to move effectively in a realistic, armed fight, and about understanding the use of the weapon. It is for people who want to learn more about fighting skills.
Since it first started, many people have tried Huscarl, and it is currently (at the end of 2003) being practised regularly around Europe, primarily in Norway and Germany, with some fighting groups in Denmark and Holland using it occasionally. It is no longer only used by re-enactors, but is also being trained by those simply interested in sword fighting. Interest in it is continuing to grow, and the Huscarl experiment itself has developed.
So, in order to define the style, - "realism combined with safety" - I will deal with realism first. The whole body is the target area, although face is usually excluded. When going for targets, we assume that the combatants are not wearing any armour - regardless of what protection they are actually wearing. To score a hit, blows must be delivered in such a way that, if force were used and, if the weapon were sharp, the hit would end the fight. How do we judge this? Since, so far, since we have been unable to find anyone willing to conduct lethal experiments with sharp weapons, we have to use common sense. Cutting tests, medieval manuscripts and expertise from experienced martial artists have also become important guidelines. The edge of the weapon must be used. It should cut across the target area, not only touch it. In short, the blade must be used like the weapon it is, rather than simply as a way of scoring a point. It should be possible to deliver the blow with force. That means that body mechanics become important. The blade must either move through an arc so that it could gather momentum. Or the body movement behind the strike should be able to give it power or cutting force.
Although, in Huscarl, we avoid using force. This brings me onto the subject of safety. We want to combine realism with safety. So, there must be limits to how and where we hit. Blows must be pulled. (At times, in fact, it is not even necessary to land a blow. Hence the possibility that even the face can be considered as a target).
A free-swinging cut or thrust, that cannot be pulled, might be misjudged or badly blocked, and end up somewhere it shouldn't. Control of the weapon is necessary for safety. But, as soon becomes obvious, it is also the mark of the skilled warrior. A controlled weapon, as opposed to a free-swinging one, is always ready to strike and protect. However, since we are still striving to get to this level of control, when it actually comes to fighting, rather than just training, some protection must be worn. For some people, this is just helmet, lower armguards and gloves. I should emphasize that, until we reach a fairly high skill level, VERY good gloves are advisable. Many people prefer to add knee and elbow protection, and even some form of armour. There is a limit to how much speed and force can be used before the fight becomes uncontrolled. Uncontrolled means both poor fighting practice and lack of safety. So, in Huscarl, especially when we are wearing armoured protection, we keep the fight within controlled limits.
To return to the subject of realism once more. We assume that, in a real fight, adrenalin or fighting spirit runs high. This means that you must not only defeat your opponent, but your hit must exclude any counter strike from him. In other words, he must go down or be crippled before he can hit you back. We take this into account in Huscarl as well. It's easiest to explain this concept by giving examples of failure to avoid your opponent's counter strike:
- Your opponent cuts to your head. Just before his blow lands, you cut him across his wrist. But his blow still lands on your head. We assume that, in a real fight, his sword would still split your head, despite having his hand half-severed. With the Huscarl system, you can't claim first strike. You should block his blow or get out of the way. This is why body movement becomes so important, unlike in re-enactment fighting, where the quick kill instantly stops the competition.
- You cut your opponent across the legs. At the same time you move within range of his weapon, which he then brings down on your head. You cannot claim first strike. We assume that, in a heightened state of adrenalin, he would have hit your head anyway. In Huscarl we train balance and footwork especially to avoid this.
- Your opponent starts a determined attack. You cut him across the arm, but the angle of the blade is glancing, rather than direct. We assume that that would not have been enough injury to stop him, and he should continue his attack. We don't count glancing cuts or thrusts. The attack must be true.
As I said before, Huscarl is for people who enjoy a more in-depth attention to fighting skills. There is much to be trained and learned from Huscarl without the need to ever put on armour and fight.
Huscarl is a system of experiment. So there is no single, correct way of training. Just as there is no single way of training unarmed combat. The following is advice is for people who already have some basic skills, at least, in our normal viking re-enactment style, but have no partners who are experienced in Huscarl to train with. Hence it does not go into any description of technique or principles. You already have some understanding of that. (More can be gained at a Huscarl training weekend). There are only a few points written here, but they are all very important.
Think them over carefully before you try anything.
You will notice a few main differences between Huscarl and the usual
re-enactment style. When hands and arms are included, the distance changes. The targets become nearer so it is necessary to stand further apart. When the head is included as a target, you can no longer lean forward and look down on the fight. You can't hold your shield statically in front of your body. The basic guard position of the weapon becomes higher to cover the head as well. With these new target areas, the fight expands dramatically. Because light hits with the last centimetre of the blade no longer count, the "quick-flick, game-over" tactic will not work. You must not just make contact with your opponent's body and then pull your weapon back, like a
whip. You must cut across as well. So the flow of movement in the fight comes much more into play.
It is this flow that makes Huscarl such a pleasure to practise.
So you must give special attention to your basic stance and movement. Now, more than ever, if your basic movement is weak, it will betray you. Without good posture, you cannot deliver a strong blow, (remember - this is not one that is heavy! - but one that could be heavy). Nor can you block or turn a strong blow. Most importantly of all, you cannot maintain a flow of movement, where you are always in readiness to attack, without losing your balance. Remember, the fight will not stop the instant when your weapon makes contact with your opponent. So a lot of basic footwork exercises are essential.
To understand what makes an effective blow - or a "good hit" - you need to practise delivering one. Put your weapons away and train in pairs with sticks. One partner strikes, the other offers his stick as a target. Strike with full force. Experiment with the feel of delivering a powerful blow. Remember that the stick represents a blade, so don't forget the cutting movement. Notice the difference between the power that comes from the wrist flick, so often used in re-enactment fighting, and a cut that comes from the arm, shoulder and body. (There are also ways of putting power into a cut or
thrust without an excessive movement of the blade to gather momentum. These are difficult to explain on paper and should be studied at a Huscarl training session). Now comes the important bit. Practise delivering a series of powerful blows, not just single cuts. Your partner can hold up 2 sticks as targets, alternating their positions from side to side, but also backwards and forwards. You must learn to flow without hesitation from one devastating blow to another, using the power of your body and keeping your balance and controlling your distance. Now you need to use these same motions when training Huscarl, but with pulling the blow before the point of impact.
With many of the Huscarl training exercises, and with the sparring itself, it is enough to only deliver half-blows. That is, a blow that stops about 30cm away from the target. The power is there in the body movement, as you trained with the sticks. You do not need to strike.
As you see, you do not need protective equipment to start training Huscarl.
When you practise technique exercises, start slowly at first. Use the sticks and half-blows. No weapon contact, no armour. Then you focus attention on the movements, rather than the distracting last part of the attack. Build up to full speed and to wearing protection, but concentrate on keeping the movement right. Only then switch to steel weapons. When the attacker really tries to hit, does the technique still work?
When it comes to fighting, don't just put on extra protection and start hitting harder. This is the worst enemy of Huscarl. You will get an adrenalin rush, but you will also get very tense, and then it is hard to improve your technique. YOU SHOULD FIGHT AT HALF SPEED. Concentrate on body movements and the form of your attacks, rather than the speed. Is your footwork effective? An unsuccessful attack should not leave you open. Both partners should concentrate on keeping the speed restricted and a relaxed flow to the movements. Acknowledge hits, but DON'T INTERRUPT THE FLOW BY STOPPING. The key is relaxation. Tension works against this flow and the learning process. The best way to do this exercise is without even landing the blow. This helps concentration on movement and stance, rather on the "success" of an attack. If you wear no protection at all and only make half-strikes, never even coming near to making contact, it also helps to take attention away from this "success-distraction", and to focus it on movement. It is much more important to do the exercise this way than with actually making contact with the weapon! So much can be learned from this way of sparring, that some people prefer to
stay with this style, and don't bother with putting on armour and using full speed.
If you decide to fight full speed, avoid forceful blows, unless you have very good hand protection. Even though you will pull the blow before the point of impact, mistakes can happen. Also, avoid horizontal cuts - they are easy to misdirect and hard to control.
Never slap or flick from the wrist. This is an ineffective use of a blade. Cut across the target area. If you find that the fight develops too much concentration on small cuts to the hand, take hands out as targets for a while. Fighting at full speed, with full target area, is stressful - at least at first. This is part of the experiment with realism. You must learn to deal with this pressure. The greatest challenge is not to become tense and resort to force. An experienced warrior will remain calm and keep his movements as precise as they are in the training exercises. Hitting hard or wildly is part of a panic reaction. (A word of advice on safety: don't lean back to avoid blows to the head. You are more likely to catch the tip of the weapon on the chin as it misses your helmet and continues downwards. Don't worry, you will soon get used to hits to the helmet).
You may choose to start fighting without the head as a target zone. This helps to keep the tension down and to develop the vital movement skills, before moving on to a fully-extended target area. Many people do this already, independent of the Huscarl system, but using exactly the same principles. It is called Buckler style and was first developed in Norway and Sweden.
These are only a few points, but there is a lot in them. Give them special attention.
Since it's inception in the year 2000, Huscarl has been changing, as we who practise it learn more. More than anything else, Huscarl is an experiment. There is no unchanging definition of the Huscarl fighting style. Nor is there a central authority. Huscarl develops according to the experience of those who practise it. There is no one way of training, no "one truth". Instead, as we are learning, there are many different ways of reaching the same end. That is, realistic, effective and safe fighting with historical weapons.
(I am indebted to Roland Warzecha, Christoffer Cold and Anders Halseth for essential advice when writing this article. Moreover, without them, Huscarl would not have developed as it has).