Richard Marsden is a teacher, writer, and historical fencing instructor from Phoenix, Arizona. I became familiar with his work early this year when I was searching for information on Polish military history. His book, The Polish Saber caught my eye and was immediately dropped into my Amazon wish list. So… dear loyal readers, due expect a review (which many Amazonian’s have listed as a 5-star book) by the end of the year. As I got to know Richard from his Phoenix Society, Facebook page and website, I was certain that he belonged on our list of CombativeCorner interviewees. Without further ado…. 10 Questions with swordsman-extraordinaire, Richard Marsden.
What brought you to the world of historical fencing?
At 15, in the 1990s I was dragged by a self-proclaimed Hawaiian Prince, Nick Kalanawani Makai Among to Central Phoenix where the SCA, Adria and other groups met. I was put in Adria and quickly latched onto Greg Hinchcliff who had zero interest in dress up and a huge interest in swordsmanship. We had no manuals, nor did we appreciate them, but we had sideswords and rapiers and learned through fighting. Greg created his own organization, the Loyal Order of the Sword and we fought among ourselves for around 15 years. The group did not die so much as age out, and some of them are in HEMAA today. I even have a tattoo on my right shoulder with the group’s symbol and a custom ring or two. Greg is alive and well and is still the best fighter I have ever known. After the group dispersed I started one at the High School I teach at, and decided to focus on manuals. This was in 2006 or so. As the years ticked by I discovered more and more historical treatises and came across Jim Barrows who taught Italian Longsword at his house. For two years I worked with Jim and around 2011 John Phoenix and I decided to create our own group, the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship. Today, my group is the largest HEMA group in Arizona, and I have a host of students and instructors, including Jim Barrows, Kyle Cimerian, John Phoenix, Adam Simmons and up and coming Chris Phoenix. My students are many, but my longest is Randy Reyes, who I trust will be a HEMAA certified instructor in no time!
What is it about teaching swordsmanship that gives you the most joy?
I am a teacher by trade, so I must have a passion for it. My greatest joy is in seeing my students be successful, and better than that, my students’ students. This is now happening, and I feel I have done my job in passing on HEMA to others. Reviving a dead art means we need more people involved, more teachers, more students, and so forth. Small cults, led by a single irreplaceable sensei like figure, do not survive the sensei. I am hoping my cult lives beyond me. I am on a mission to spread HEMA, which is why I ran a High School club, run a large club, attend events, have served for years in the HEMA Alliance to expand services for HEMA, wrote a book, and plan to write more.
What principle/concept/exercise do you wish for your students to best understand/practice/embody?
All of them in the end. However to start with the simplest.
Hit and do not be hit.
Make others better when you are better.
What is your favorite technique to use in sword fighting? Can you describe how it is executed?
There are no favorites, because every opponent is different and I have a host of techniques. However, for effective and or crowd-pleasing…
Inquartata. In rapier stand with your chest slightly presented as a target. When the opponent lunges, intercept in 4th, while your rear foot swings to the right and your hand flings back. You will then void, intercept and thrust your opponent in a showy display.
Agrippa, Capo Ferro, Giganti, Fabris all have variations of it.
When it comes to longsword I enjoy using Boar’s Tooth. Fiore spends a great deal of time explaining how to work from Boar’s Tooth and one I like is the deflection.
From Boar’s Tooth, have a wide stance, wait for the opponent to strike (make sure they are in measure). As the opponent strikes, the front foot moves a bit left and forward, but does not cross the rear. It’s like going from a wide stance to a narrow. Deflect with the false edge of the sword, batting the opponent’s sword to your right. Pass and cut them. I get fancy and do this from Boar’s Tooth but also Left Woman’s Guard and Left Window.
When it comes to Polish saber a cut to the opponent’s right with power, so they parry or get hit. If they parry, then pass while performing a reverse moulinet , where the blade spins backwards, and deliver the tip of the false edge into the opponent’s right wrist.
Invitations. Out of measure, or just barely in, strike any pose you want. The Lee Smith vs Richard Marsden saber fight on you-tube shows a couple of those.
Should all fencers with a love for historical fencing do HEMA? Why or why not?
That is for them to decide. I wave a flag and people come to me, I do not try to push people into HEMA.
How important or unimportant do you consider competition? Why or why not?
Sparring is important, which is a form of competition. Sparring strangers is important. One teaches application, the other teaches application against the truly unwilling. People who never spar are missing out on a valuable teaching tool. Sparring has its faults, but so do static drills.
Competition, such as tournaments are another matter. I have a host of medals, my club has buckets of them. We like tournaments, but we are well aware that they have faults. Tournaments are a good way to showcase one’s skill, meet new people, but also understand that there is a game element to it. There are rules, there are judges, there is a ring, and so forth. Again, like sparring, I think it is a good teaching tool.
You wrote a book on the Polish Saber. What brought you to this weapon in particular?
The introduction to the book explains! Go buy it…
Ok, so I watched a dueling scene set in 17th century Poland and asked myself, “Wonder what the system is really like?”
No set system.
Not much in English.
How can I fix that?
Two years later, with international help, the book was made on what we think the Polish saber system of the 17th century on foot looked like.
Many instructors feel “A Jack of all trades, a master of none.” What do you feel about this as someone interested in many different weapons?
I have enough wins or placements in tournaments in different weapon systems to be a pretty good Jack of All trades, and some of the top performers today are the same. I find that you can’t focus on too much, so I have two or three I work on hard for a time, but I also find that by working with many different weapon systems, even if some for only a few weeks, gives me a greater understanding of HEMA as a whole.
Besides, Fiore for example was meant for wrestling, dagger, sword in one or two hands, spear, pole-axe, mounted and more!
Rapier treatises show single rapier, but also rapier and cloak, or dagger and so forth.
Even inside our systems there are nuances.
My suggestion for most is that they consider, longsword, rapier, single-stick/saber/ or sword and buckler at the same time. Each compliments the other, each teaches a specific set of skills. It’s ok to focus heavily on one, but delving into the others may be beneficial.
What goals do you have for the near future?
Ohhhh you know. Things. A podcast (history), HEMA-centric books, maybe put my Sci-fi novels up as a podcast, possibly another RPG with John Phoenix. More successful students and more HEMAA certifications within the Phoenix Society so one day they can go off and make their own clubs. I have spent a few years on working for others, so I may try to do some catch-up for myself. I need to up my stock portfolio so I can one day pull in a 1000 a month through dividends. I want to visit some places with my family. I’ll be at events for sure, and I’m in hot demand to teach abroad or give seminars, so I’ll work some of those in as well. I’d also like to see the HEMA Alliance continue to grow and support more members and affiliates and certify more people.
Maybe I will sit on the dunes of Arrakis and wonder when the sword-messiah will come from the outer worlds.
Spend time with the wife!
What does Richard like to do with his spare time outside of teaching and fencing?
I am a writer, and I do like video games, especially those with immersive stories like the Witcher 3 and GTA V. Here are my publications.
You die and come back to life as a fencer from the past (real or fictional)…who is it and why?
Interesting one. I am often asked, “What time period would you like to live in?” My answer is, “This one, or 50 years from now is probably pretty awesome. I love A/C, good food, drink and video games and housing….”
But your question says if I had to be a real or fictional fencing person who?
Stilgar of Dune has a fancy knife, rides worms and gets to be in a long, confusing film, but with great imagery.
Syrio Forel from Game of Thrones would be divine justice of a sorts. Teaching… again.
Drizzt do Urden has twin scimitars, but… how would I pick anything up, and all that family drama.
The Emperor does know how to fight, he is a Master, and I get to rule the galaxy for a bit but then get thrown down a shaft that does not have proper OSHA safety precautions.
Solomon Kane, sure I’m dour, but… fighting evil.
Fiore lives in a rather violent time and had to kill/wound five men because he wouldn’t share his secrets. I’m not much into really killing or hurting people.
George Silver seems bitter.
Rapier masters all come across as prima-donas and chasing work.
Jan Pasek, a cool 17th century Polish noble and swordsman, but a life too filled with drama. So, not for me as much as I love the guy.
Alfred Hutton…hmmm, good lifestyle, modern era, interested in HEMA, and seemed happy enough. Maybe him.
Maybe a highwayman?
Maybe a drop of rain?
Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship
THE POLISH SABER (BOOK)