A Real Fight Club With Swords—and a Famous Sci-Fi Writer

What's to come?
Oct. 2 2012 6:00 AM

Sword Fight on a Hong Kong Rooftop

How Neal Stephenson and I stopped bashing each other with sticks and learned real swordsmanship. 

Mongoliad author Cooper Moo scores a clean decapitation.
Mongoliad author Cooper Moo scores a clean decapitation.

Photo by Neal Stephenson.

In 2004 I joined a fight club. It was more of a sword-geek guild, really. We met every Sunday morning in a nondescript warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, made our own weapons, and fought with them. It was gloriously homegrown and savage. Olympic fencing this was not.

Our rapiers were hockey sticks with modified handles and a retracting spring mechanism built into the hollow fiberglass shaft to allow us to stab without injuring one another. Much. Our long swords were true-to-form in weight and balance with a wooden core and a metal crosspiece at the hilt. The blade was clad with high-density foam wrapped in ballistic cloth. The handles were covered with the grip tape used on tennis rackets. Shields, when we used them, were wooden and also covered in foam—because a protective shield can become an offensive weapon. For armor, we wore thickly padded martial arts gear and helmets with face cages. Our gloves of choice were either hockey gloves or well-padded “extraction” gloves used by prison guards.

We looked much more Mad Max than Aragorn, and we couldn’t have cared less. In fact, we took a fair amount of pride in suiting up for battle, often acting as squire for one another, strapping up Velcro and slapping the fighter around before he stepped onto the mat.

The rules were simple—try not to damage each other too much. Pain was fine, even respected, just no semi-permanent or permanent damage, especially to the head or hands. We all had day jobs that involved thinking at keyboards, after all.

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You can imagine the scene: two 30-something men covered in black plastic and foam, sporting helmets with face cages, circling each other, wielding foam swords while some smart ass on the sidelines hummed the fight theme from Star Trek. (This quickly became a sword-punishable offense.)

We beat the hell out of one another every Sunday, went to work bruised and bleeding on Monday, and came back the following Sunday to do it all over again. This went on for almost two wonderful years until, one fateful day, Neal—one of our founding members—had some bad new for us.

We were doing it wrong.

We were swinging the swords like bats, he explained, striking our opponents with a contact point about two-thirds of the way down the blade from the hilt. We weren’t sword fighting; we were beating one another with sticks.

The problem with Neal is that his last name is Stephenson. This means that he is a science fiction writer with unlimited time to study the pedantic details of historical sword fighting and tell us why we're doing it wrong.

Neal’s revelation meant we were going to have to change what we were doing—but I unabashedly loved what we were doing. OK, maybe it wasn’t sword fighting, strictly speaking. Who cared? It was fun! I knew damn well what becoming real sword fighters was going to mean. It was going to mean training in technique, drills, and structure. It was going to mean the end of “Sunday Swords” as we knew it.

I fought this epic shift for months. But even my reluctant mind was changed after Neal brought in two of the nation’s foremost sword makers, Tinker Pearce and Angus Trim, to show us the error of our ways. (Pearce and Trim make swords. Naturally.)

The first time we visited Tinker and Angus, Tinker unsheathed a beautiful, long sword. “This,” he said, “is sharp. Really sharp. If you handle it wrong, it will cut you. Badly.”

So much for my beloved foam swords and plastic armor.

“When you cut something correctly with a sword, you cut it with the last six inches of the blade. Not here.” He indicated our baseball bat contact point two-thirds down the blade.

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