The first time I heard the clangor of a real-life sword fight, I visibly winced. It’s loud—somehow movies don’t do the crash of steel-on-steel proper justice. The whole body reacts: muscles tense, eyes sharpen, knees bend.
Swordguild Portland is a group of about 20 to 30 sword enthusiasts who meet Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at the Milwaukee Elks Lodge to practice what’s called Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Before my first class, I hadn’t had much exposure to swords. What little I did know had been gleaned from many viewings of The Princess Bride, particularly swordfighter Inigo Montoya’s quest to avenge his father’s murder. Montoya’s skills are what inspired some members to enter the “HEMA-sphere.”
Swordguild’s Paul Miller and I met at dusk outside the Elks Lodge, where he gave me some background while we watched his comrades haul huge suitcases full of swords from the parking lot to the building, like a trail of ants struggling to bring breadcrumbs back to the mound. He’s been practicing for about three years, and says his interest in history and desire for some consistent exercise drew him to the sport.
“We get people from the LARP/SCA community who want to move beyond role-playing and learn real fighting techniques,” Miller told me in an email, referring to live-action role-players and the Society for Creative Anachronism. “We get people who are just athletically competitive and just want to train to compete, and we get people who want to connect to history through the study of fencing.”
Portland (along with Vancouver, BC) is one of North America’s major hubs for the current HEMA resurgence—there are a few other schools in the Portland area, including the Academia Duellatoria, Indes Western Martial Arts, and Northwest Armizare. Though they all practice European fighting styles, Miller tells me there are distinct traditions individual schools choose to follow—like the teachings of 14th century Italian knight Fiore dei Liberi, or 15th-century German fencing master Sigmund Ringeck. Swordguild Portland draws from a few different Pan-European styles.
Miller says these masters’ how-to guides were intentionally cryptic, but the recent ability to translate ancient manuals online has helped breathe new life into HEMA. The swords they use now are dull and the body padding is thick, so there’s minimal danger of serious injury. Still, if steel hits exposed flesh hard enough, it’s gonna hurt. (The night I went, one member got whacked, ending up with a small gash in his arm.)
Swordguild Portland is led by Jason Brown, who has over two decades of experience. Brown began his HEMA career in the mid-’90s at the Spanish Harlem Swordguild in New York, where he “cut his teeth in the porches and alleys of Harlem.” Those were rough and tumble days—with a twinkle in his eye, Brown wistfully recalls nearly losing a pinky in an early fight, before there was much specialized protective gear available. He later moved to the Pacific Northwest, and in 2014 founded Swordguild Portland. Brown notes that the group’s black-and-gold hummingbird logo was inspired by his experiences doing canopy research. Up in the trees, he kept finding dead stellar jays, which an ornithologist said were killed by territorial Anna’s hummingbirds.
“I liked the idea that this small animal used precision and deadly grace to fell a more mighty opponent,” he says. “For me that sums up the art: Survive through skill and grace.”
After Miller’s lecture, I was ready to enter the fray. We took the elevator down to the basement, where the gym was full of Guild members putting on their gear. Before they paired off to spar, Brown called the group together to practice defensive guards, and compared the movement of one particular move to the upward thrust of a boar’s tusks.
There are a few different kinds of weapons in HEMA: the longsword, which requires two hands, the messer, which is similar to a machete, and the rapier, a long, skinny sliver of metal that the Guild’s website describes as “elegant and deadly.” I am forever aspiring to be both elegant and deadly, so naturally I chose to try the rapier. Some HEMA fighters use buckler shields (you’ve probably heard movie pirates call each other swashbucklers, that’s why). I paired my rapier with a dagger for maximum deadly elegance.
But before I was allowed to hold a real sword, Miller introduced me to singlestick, which is basically fighting with a rattan stick with a leather basket at the end to protect your hand. What movies don’t tell you about sword fighting is how vulnerable your hands are. If someone hits your dominant hand it’s impossible to continue fighting, and this makes your hand a prime target. Miller taught me the proper stance—a light lunge with one arm behind my back, the other arm tucked to my side to avoid any imaginary limb severing—and instructed me to hit him on the head repeatedly (we both wore beekeeper-like helmets, so you couldn’t feel anything). It was fun! Turns out I love hitting men in the head with a stick. Then we dueled.
Something changed in me the minute Miller tried to strike. I knew my life wasn’t actually in danger, but when he came at me it was as though the clouds of my learned civility parted and all I wanted to do was survive. For the first time ever I felt very in touch with a primal urge to endure; fighting awakened a ferocity that typically manifests in passive aggressive Post-it notes to my roommates. It was head-clearing, and frankly, addictive. As Brown later told me, “I’m a drug dealer, and my drug is adrenaline.”
He’s right. The higher the stakes, the faster the moves, the more exciting it got. When you’re fighting with singlesticks, the wood-on-wood action smells like a campfire. In the dark, red sparks fly. With metal weapons, white sparks fly. Fighting with a rapier is much more difficult, because the goal is to focus the heavy, needle-like sword on the face of your opponent. The addition of a smaller dagger allows you to lock their rapier and control its direction. My arms felt like they were going to fall off, but the adrenaline definitely augmented my minimal upper body strength.
After about 15 or 20 minutes I was soaked in sweat, but as Brown had promised, “calm as a kitten.” I now completely understand the allure of HEMA—sword fighting is an art of channeling passion with precision, and Swordguild provides a safe space to do it. My one major qualm is that the group is largely male-dominated, though admittedly not by design. The only other woman in the class was Brown’s badass partner Monica Garcia, who fought like a bat straight out of hell.
By the end of the two-hour class, Brown’s perfectly curled handlebar mustache had wilted above his lip. The Elks Lodge has a bar on its main floor, and after each practice the Guild goes upstairs to bond over some beers. Barely able to hold a pint glass because my hand was so sore, I found myself in the crossfire of some cutting one-liners. “Couples who stab together stay together,” Brown and Garcia joke.
When we discuss the violence of sword fighting, Brown looks reflective.
“We don’t want to hurt anybody,” he says. “But if there were a zombie apocalypse, I’d fuck shit up.”
Throughout our conversation, Guild members pass around a condolence card to a friend who’d been injured in a recent tournament.
“What should we say?” someone asks.
“Next time, move.”