Friday, February 29, 2008

The Myth of Test Cutting

People love to take up their shiny, sharp swords and hack through various objects ranging from pool noodles to water bottles to rolled tatami. Doing so makes them feel cool and fierce and warlike when, in fact, all it really does is to lead them astray. This essay will show that test cutting has no value, no historical provenance, leads to bad swordsmanship, and confuses people about how swords work.

The idea of test cutting comes to us from Kendo and Iaido practitioners. Vast hordes of them practice test cutting of various sorts because they believe it will help them to cut better; they wax rhapsodically about it, actually, telling us that you can tell how perfect a swordsman’s cut is by how cleanly it cuts through the target while at the same time telling us that their swords are perfect razors whose merest touch will slice off a hand, apparently not seeing the inherent contradiction: If the sword is actually that sharp even a clumsy cut will kill—why do more?

In actuality, test cutting is not part of Japanese sword practice (well, not exactly). I know, I know, that sounds heretical, but it’s true. Bushi (what are know as Samurai today) didn’t do test cutting. “What?!” you cry, leaping to the scent of blood, “Have you never heard of Tameshigiri? Do you think we made that up?!” No, you didn’t make it up, you’ve been lead astray as to what it is.

“Tameshigiri was used to test the sharpness and quality of a sword: often it was carried out on dead bodies, tied-up living criminals, or bamboo straw test objects that had been secured to something. Educated or high-ranking bushi did not practice Tameshigiri, as it was purely a test of the sword’s sharpness, and in no way a measure of the samurai’s skills.” (Fumon, T., Samurai Fighting Arts: The Spirit and Practice, Kodansha Int’l., 2003, P. 49)

Bushi *did* practice one kind of cutting practice called “suemonogiri”, but that had a specialized purpose. When a bushi was going to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, he would be assisted by another bushi called the kaishaku; his job was to cut off the head of the bushi performing seppuku (or almost cut it off—there were different kinds of cutting, but that’s outside the scope of this essay). Seppuku was considered an important ritual, and the kaishaku’s role was critical. Bushi spent hours practicing a huge, cleaving, ritualized cut (some ryu-ha have a kata devoted to it) to be used for the decapitation, and suemonogiri was an important tool in this process. But it *wasn’t* combat swordsmanship, and wasn’t practiced as such!

So: Test cutting had no relationship to combat.

Flash over to medieval Europe: We have no records of medieval knights practicing test cutting of any sort. There is one apocryphal story of Richard I but it didn’t actually happen, and it didn’t have any real combat relevance anyway. When we read about training in Europe we actually read only of training on a Pell; this is an excerpt from the anonymous Poem of the Pell:
“Of fight the disciplyne and exercise,
Was this. To have a pale or pile [pell] upright
Of mannys light [of a man's height], thus writeth old and wise,
Therewith a bacheler, or a yong knyght,
Shal first be taught to stonde and lerne to fight
And fanne [shield] of double wight tak him his shelde,
Of double wight a mace of tre [wood] to welde."

So we’ve established that test cutting has no historical provenance and no relationship to sword training. Now let’s look at what it does to your technique: When people practice test cutting they strive heroically to make a cut that’s smoother than the last time and which slices effortlessly through the target. Read any review of a new sword on the internet written by someone who believes in test cutting and a significant portion of his review will discuss how well they were able to do test cutting with it. But in order to get these smooth, perfect cuts the practitioners invariably (look at any video on YouTube) make huge, overblown cuts reminiscent of suemonogiri. They learn to make cuts that start from a high guard and end up with the point near the ground because this kind of follow through yields the smoothest cut.

But Hanko Döbringer (or whomever wrote Hs. 3227a) tells us this about cutting:
“And this art is quite earnest and righteous, and it goes from the nearest in search of the closest and goes straight and right when you wish to strike or thrust. So that when you want to attack someone it is as if you had a cord tied to the point or edge of your sword and this leads the point or edge to an opening.” (fol. 13v). This means we’re supposed to cut in a straight line from guard to the target, not a big swing. He adds to this later when he says: “For you should strike or thrust in the shortest and nearest way possible. For in this righteous fencing do not make wide or ungainly parries or fence in large movements by which people restrict themselves…they try to look dangerous with wide and long strikes that are slow and with these they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves.” (ff. 14r-v)

In other words, real swordsmanship is about making cuts as small and controlled as possible; not to the ground, but to a position usually called Langenort (“long point”). In fact, the earliest Fechtbuch, I.33, specifically says: “Note that the entire heart of the art lies in this final guard, which is called Longpoint; and all actions of the guards or of the sword finish or have their conclusion in this one and not in the others.” (Forgeng, J., The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003, p. 23). You see, when you cut to Langenort you’re stopping in a position in which your point threatens your opponent if you’ve missed, and thus you maintain control over the fight. If you cut to the ground you’re not really threatening him at all. (NB: You can cut to the ground on purpose as a way to lure your opponent into acting as you want him to; this technique is called the Wechselhau and is seen, among other places, in Lignitzer’s third play of the buckler, but note that it’s a special case in which you’re deliberately acting to provoke a response.)

Not only that, but cutting to the ground is dangerous because it gives your opponent an extra “fencing time” in which to act. The masters tell us to react to someone who does this with a technique called the Nachreisen (“following after”): “When he strikes an Oberhau and brings the blade down with the strike, travel after him with a strike on the head before he can get his sword up again.” (Tobler, C., Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001, p. 93)

Why do we cut to Langenort instead of to the ground? Simple: Not only does cutting to the ground expose you to a Nachreisen, but it isn’t necessary. That’s right, there’s no reason to do so. Medieval swords were sharp; not as razor-like as people like them today (such edges are usually brittle), but sharp none the less. It takes very little strength or effort to cut into a skull or hack into an arm with a good sword. The cut may not be perfectly clean, and the head or arm may not be cut completely off, but then you don’t need to do that to win the fight, and avoiding giving your opponent the initiative of the fight more than outweighs the loss of a perfectly smooth cut.

Another ugly habit that test cutting fosters is pulling the hands back slightly to prepare for the cut. It should be obvious why this is incorrect, but I have recently read people arguing in favor of it on various Internet sites. If you pull your hands back to “wind up” for a cut, even the most miniscule amount, you’re telegraphing your intentions to your opponent. Fencers who did this in the middle ages were called Buffel (“buffalos”; slang for a fighter who relies on huge, powerful strokes). They could be defeated either with the Meisterhau known as the Schielhau (“squinter”) or by a different variation of the Nachreisen: “If he raises the sword to strike, travel after him with a strike or a thrust and hit him in the upper opening before he can complete the strike. (Tobler 2001, p. 92).

So, test cutting has no historical provenance, no relationship to sword training, and teaches sword habits that can, at best, be termed “dreadful”. All it does is pander to a misplaced romantic desire to “cut something” with your sharp new sword, and there’s simply no value in that. Is there ever *any* value to be had in test cutting? Perhaps; people have, as I’ve said, an exaggerated sense of the lethal sharpness of swords (and I see the contradiction; I wish they did). The German tradition recognizes three primary kinds of attacks with a sword: Cuts (or blows with the edge), thrusts and slices. Many people believe that the merest touch of a blade on the flesh will give a lethal cut, and this simply isn’t so. This misconception leads to mistakes in the practice of slicing cuts, called Schnitten in the German tradition, in which the swordsman merely lays his edge on the target and pushes or pulls it along his opponent’s flesh. As anyone who’s ever carved a roast at dinner should know, this won’t be enough: you have to Schnitt powerfully with a heavy pressure of your hands to make a deep enough cut to be effective. There may be some justification for learning such techniques by test cutting, provided a realistic material can be found.

In general, however, the simple version is this: Just say no to test cutting.


Ian said...


A razor sharp edge isn't any more brittle than a merely sharp edge, however, it thinner and much more liable to dulling, chipping and nicking.


Hugh Knight said...

You're quite right, Ian, I stand corrected.

CWELCUMA said...


I'll come to the point: whereabouts are you located? Anywhere near Utah, perchance? The reason I ask, is because I have read through some of your material, and am frankly disgusted. Therefore, I throw the proverbial gauntlet at your feet, and make my challenge. This is sincere. I will bout with you how you dare, where you dare, and under whatever conditions you dare. Yo make a mockery of these arts, and I am calling you out. My e-mail address is: If you accept, contact me and we will discuss a time and place that will be convienant, and under what conditions \ rules you feel comfortable with (as I have no fear in this matter, I will leave these up to you). Be assured that I am most serious, and have determined to expose your falacies and lax approach to the Art for what it is. If I have offended with my language, I say only that I have been as courteous as I can to a charlatan.

-Brandon Heslop.

Hugh Knight said...

LOL! ARMAteers need not apply.

It's amazing how often people get riled up by what they can't dispute.

CWELCUMA said...

So, I take it that you decline. I thought as much. It never amazes me how often blowhards are afraid to put their money where their mouths are.


Hugh Knight said...

It amazes me that someone would think I'd get any advantage from beating up a poor, ignorant ARMAteer--and if there's nothing to be gained, why bother? Just to satisfy your curiosity? To stop your uninformed criticism? My boy, being criticized by an ARMAteer is the surest guarantee I'm on the right track.

I'm amazed that anyone who disagreed with what I wrote would publicly show that his arguments were too weak for serious debate by resorting to making playground challenges like a fifth grader. If I'm wrong about whatever has hurt your feelings then document my mistakes--develop reasoned arguments based on actual research.

And please, if you must make challenges, don't steal lines from Shakespeare--it just makes you look even more like a melodramatic child.

Do your research, break free of ARMAs dogma, start practicing historical combat, then come see me. I have lots to show you.

And if you want to talk to me, e-mail me. I can help you if you want, but I don't intend to do so here. I'll delete any more impolite posts from you, so there's no point in making them.

Cor said...


From us here in Holland, I compliment you in giving a clear and sound explanation in how ridiculous test cutting really is (although is does feel good to slice assorted stuff) It has, like you stated no use in learning the Medieval Martial Arts. And will above all, teach you an improper way of striking.

As for the people who, so elegantly try to counter your findings: We are all just students. Take of your eye flaps and take a look around. Master is always student, Student is always master.

With kind regards,

Cor Kronenburg
Zwaard & Steen (NL)

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Cor,

Thanks! It's nice to see others who understand. And you're right, we are all of us students!

Arne Koets said...

Now i agree and disagree!

I think a lot of what you say is sound, and i also agree that the ARMA challenge is the worst way of settling this debate.

It almost seems like you are argueing that a boxer should never hit pads, to train power, and only work on tactics and so forth. Power has a place and nees to be trained to be generated properly. How to achieve that whithout training?

I think it is not the test cutting that is the real mistake, but the way in which it is done. I mean, practising a movement to gain muscle memory is good; and cuts, however simple are important to do right.
I know that it is very easy to do cuts wrong (say a zwerchhau is easily not properly edge-aligned)

That's not to say that one should train themselves in doing all the abovementioned mistakes (winding up and overcommitting and all that) It is interesting to train oneself in doing a cut RIGHT, as opposed to doing as much damage as possible with a blade on whatever target.

So training methods may vary, And i think I will continue to practice 'test cutting' with my new sharp sword. I would like to think however that it has the opposite effect to my fighting, as I'm criticising myself on a different set of criteria to say an ARMA dude.

Also in trying to train onself in tactical thinking it is usefull to spar and it is vital to have an apreciation of probable damage. That can be helped by test cutting if one pays proper attention to the differences to the different media being cut and, say, the human body.

There is plenty of depictions and mentions of cuts severing limbs and really causing a lot of damage. This was to some extent the aim. I also think that one can make a conscious coice half way through the cut to commit to heavy damage, or to keep the point closer to the centre line, for example long point or ochs. Some cuts are more damaging than others, but as you say, does that make a huge difference?

I've noticed how big the difference is between the damage my cuts do, even if i use the same edge on the same target in what i think was the same way. Practice will make perfect IF ONE CRITISCISES ONESELF ON THE RIGHT POINTS. I'd like to get better.

just my thoughts,

Arne Koets

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Arne,

Very well put, but I think you misunderstand me a bit: I don't believe in test cutting because I believe it *always* leads to bad habits. I suppose that theoretically someone could force himself to use only the kinds of cuts he'd use in a real fight, but that's a slippery slope, and besides, why do that when there's a more historically accurate method and one that's less likely to lead to bad habits: Pell work.

You make the point about boxers hitting pads, etc.--quite correct, but you err when you liken that to test cutting. We *know* what medieval knights did to practice swordsmanship: They hit the pell, and, as my essay says, *that's* the right way to train, not with test cutting.

As for free play, or "sparring", I disagree very strongly; all you have to do is to watch the hundreds of videos on YouTube showing folks doing free play to see that they change the art to match their rules and euqipment. I call this the Kendo Syndrome (because this is *exactly* what happened to Japanese swordsmanship) and you can read more about it in another of my essays:

Thank you for your well-reasoned comments. I believe this is an important issue to address.

bart said...

Bravo Hugh, Bravo. I really think that you understand this side of martial arts and the way of effecting striking.

Greetings from Holland,


Hugh Knight said...

Thanks, Bart, I really appreciate that! I have a lot to learn and a lot of things that I have doubts about, but not this.

cold napalm said...

While pell work is a good way to train muscle memory to swing a sword, using a sharp sword on a good test target can help with proper edge alignment and form because you will get more feedback doing this with a sharp sword then using a blunt on a pell. Yes the knight and samuari didn't do this as far as we know...but they had real world feedback. We don't. You can swing at a pell all day long and do it with horrible edge alignment and not even realize it. I know several people who's edge alignment was REALLY bad until I handed then a sharp sword to work with. And it improved their swordwork overall.

As for the freeplay issue...yes most people play instead of train and they play to win. Guess what...the fighter of old might not be playing...but you bet your last penny they were out to win too. Yes we have the words of masters...but how do we know if we are doing it right(they aren't here to tell us after all)? For all we know, we could be taking a mistep that we just don't see when we move in slow motion and you need that adrenaline going and you getting hit every time before you stop and go...humm wait a minute, maybe something is wrong. I know a few times where we had to stop sparring and went "oh, you need to take THAT step."

Oh yeah I got your sword and buckler book. Decent enough primer book, but I'm not so sure about the buckler being used to cover the hand per say. The hand in motion makes for a very hard target. At least once going full speed, full contact, full force and follow through. Unless you expose the hand badly, it's just not gonna get hit very often. However the ARM is another matter entirely and I think the buckler placement as a block in a line if held edge out or a cone is help boss out should be taken a closer look at. Yes stopping a 1 in a 1000 shot to the hand is a nice benefit...but blocking the shot to the arm that will happen 1 in 4 might be a bit more prudent. I made those odd up BTW...but the arm does make for a much more viable target then the hand if you remove the buckler. In fact, in a lot of cases, it makes for a more viable target then the body. So I think the buckler is more for arm protection then hand per say.

Hugh Knight said...


Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and to send your comments. If you aren’t able to teach proper edge alignment with pell work you need to work harder on it—it works perfectly well. Or are you telling me you’ve been having trouble killing people in real-life encounters? ::::grin::: The simple fact is that almost anyone can swing a sword well enough to kill on the first try, almost; perfect edge alignment simply isn’t that essential, and the pell is more than adequate to give people what they need if it is used correctly.

Your argument about medieval knights and samurai having “real world feedback” doesn’t’ hold up for two reasons: First, because such feedback would necessarily come only after the warrior had been in several fights; if teaching edge alignment required real cutting it would come too late. Are they to lose their first few fights to get the experience they need to use a sword adequately? Of course not. Moreover, most knights and samurai (after the warring states period) had little real world experience. Research this and you’ll find most people had few or no deadly encounters, just as most modern police rarely fire their weapons in anger. A knight might only fight in 2 or 3 battles in his entire life and most never engaged in a single judicial combat, so they had to have a way to train for those encounters before they happened—and we know they didn’t do test cutting for that!

As for your comment about free play, you’re quite correct that we need to do something to ensure we’re using our techniques correctly. But since free play is so damaging to our art we need to find other ways to test our performance—anything you think you learn from free play is a lie because it just changes the art you’re practicing, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out. Instead, by using full-speed, full-power but *controlled* drills you can test your ability to use the material for real in realistic situations without changing the art. See my newest blog entry here:

Finally, regarding the buckler: Certainly the arm is a viable target, and a likely one, too. But if you study the plays I’ve included in the book you’ll see that the arm is largely protected by your position and/or by your sword; the buckler is far too small to adequately block for your arm consistently; the same could be said of the legs, for that matter, yet we know from Paulus Kal that both leg and arm cuts are displaced with the sword, not the buckler. Moreover, the Fechtbücher themselves are pretty clear about what the buckler does. As you can see in this picture, the buckler is clearly being used to guard the hand, not the arm:
And when you read Lignitzer, he says: “If you strike an Oberhau, then set the pommel of your sword inside at your buckler to your thumbs...” which is an obvious instruction to guard your sword hand with your buckler. You’re right, of course, that the hand is a difficult target when in motion (but certainly not impossible—I’ve done it!), but it’s far easier to hit when it’s at rest, as it must be when your blow is lying spent—hence the instructions to cut *into* the guard of your buckler so that the hand is protected when the blow is lying spent.

higgins said...


I thought the purpose of test cutting was to prove that the sword doesn't fall apart in the process.


Hugh Knight said...

Hi Higgins,

Not that I know of. In ancient Japan Tameshigiri was practiced by professional test cutters (*not* by Bushi, as the test-cutting crowd like to pretend), and they would usually attach special hilts designed to take the strain of test cutting to the sword before testing.

And since Europeans didn't practice test cutting as far as we know (certainly there's no evidence for it), we can't assume that to be a valid reason.

As for today, I think swords are too expensive (any worth having, anyway) to test them to destruction, so I would argue that's not a good reason now. Besides, most of the test materials people cut on don't adequately mimic flesh and bone so you wouldn't be able to find out anyway.

higgins said...

Aha! I of course meant the types of cutting Cold Steel makes. a'la "See? No loose handle and no significant blade denting when driven through this car hood a bunch of times."


Hugh Knight said...

Hi Higgins,

Well, since I am only rarely attacked by opponents wielding car hoods, and since this never happened in period, I think we can safely ignore this as mere modern entreprenurialism. :::grin:::

Seriously, how tough does a sword need to be? If it loosens up, peen over the tang a little more.

Allen said...

"There is one apocryphal story of Richard III hacking through and iron bar to prove to Saladin how mighty his arm was and how tough his sword, but it didn’t actually happen, and it didn’t have any real combat relevance anyway."

True, it never happened because Richard III was born almost 300 years after Saladin died...

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Allen,

You're right--not original, but right. As someone else has already pointed out I made a typographical error. It was Richard I, not Richard III. Wow. That ruins my whole argument, huh?

Allen said...

But it wasn't Richard I either.

The typographical error didn't ruin your argument, the deep horrendous flaws in your theory ruined your argument. Practicing cutting couldn't possibly help someone improve their technique... Imagining themselves doing it correctly should suffice if they ever actually plan on putting their skill to practice.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Allen,

Sorry, but in the book I read it was Richard I, also called the Lion Hearted, who had the little altercation with Saladin. Since it's an apocryphal story I suppose anyone could be posted in the role in a different book, but that hardly does any damage to my argument--it's the principle that's being discussed that really matters.

As for the "horrendous flaws" in my theory, may I suggest you actually *read* the theory before commenting? You wrote:

"Practicing cutting couldn't possibly help someone improve their technique... Imagining themselves doing it correctly should suffice if they ever actually plan on putting their skill to practice."

So you *agree* with me that test cutting is unnecessary! After all, that's what my whole post is about--how test cutting is unnecessary. How you can say my theory is filled with "horrendous flaws" then agree with it?

Or perhaps you meant your statement as sarcasm? Please tell me you're not one of those foolish people who think they're every going to have to actually cut someone for real? This is a historical martial art with no relevance to modern fights (except perhaps Ringen); none of us carries a longsword or pollaxe on the subway, I think.

So if you really *do* believe test cutting to be necessary why not post arguments for it rather than picking on my typing? You could start with listing all the fights you've heard about where one combatant lost because they couldn't hit well enough to kill without practicing test cutting.

Then you could move on to discuss how we have to practice test cutting today even though real warriors in period didn't. Sure, that would be a *great* approach! (See? Now *that's* a much better way to use scornful sarcasm!)

I never cease to be amazed at how many people have posted derisive, insulting comments on here without over making a single cogent argument. That's clear proof that the argument I make is perfectly sound, they just don't *like* what I have to say, and to them, that must be enough to prove me wrong.

Hugh Knight said...

Oh, and Allen, while you're studying up on how to make an actual substantive argument, you might try looking for where I wrote that "imagining" the edge alignment was good enough. I very clearly discuss how to learn edge alignment (that is, the same way it was learned in period), and it's more than mere imagination.

Roland said...

Hello Hugh,

I just wander - have you ever tried test cutting yourself?

Not to imply that you are in any way wrong in your observations or that I am an expert in the field (far from it), but have You actually tried cutting a real target with a sharp sword?

I don't know what is a "Pell" (I am not a native english speaker and the excerpt from the "Poem of the Pell" You gave was a bit too cryptic for my english skills to be comprehensible).

I only know from my own experience that even with a fairly sharp sword, when trying to cut an easy soft target like a plastic water filled bottle, when the sword edge is even slightly misaligned, the result is not much different than if I'd hit the bottle with a baseball bat.

Performing test cutting (and for the record, I practice Chinese, not European swordsmanship) is therefore for me useful as a practical means to test if my edge control and alignment are okay and also allows me to validate that I am actually cutting through- and not merely to the target (which is a common problem with many of the people who have never cut actual targets before).

As a side note - when we do our test cutting we do try to pay attention to ending our cuts while the sword is still on the target.

Btw - thanks for pointing out the possible mistake of "winding up" move - I'll definitely try to pay attention to that in the future...

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Roland,

Thank you for your reasoned and polite comments and questions--they're quite a refreshing change!

Yes, I have engaged in the pernicious practice of test cutting. I started my martial arts carreer in Japanese swordsmanship, and while we were part of a very strict, traditional ryu that (naturally!) didn't practice test cutting (not even suemonogiri, which is authentic, as I point out here, but not universal), young men will be young men, and we had to know how our swords really cut. So we snuck off and did some test cutting on our own time.

A pell is like a punching bag for swords. In the middle ages they were simply a post of wood buried in the ground, but I find such pells to be hard on both my wasters and on my joints, so I prefer a pell made of rubber car tires because they more accurately simulate the width of the human body and because they have give to prevent sword and joint damage.

Edge alignment is moderately important: No one can deny that. But it's nowhere near as important as people make it out to be. A sloppy, ragged cut to the head will still kill as long as you actually hit with the edge more-or-less perpendicular to the target--hence the pell work to ensure that you are doing so.

Iaido-ka work on test cutting because theirs is a spiritual art, and they strive for spiritual perfection by perfecting their physical movements. That's fine, one can understand that motivation. But let's not mistake a desire for spiritual perfection for a necessity of combat.

The bottom line is this: When we look at two of the major historical types of swordsmanship, Japanese and European, we find that *neither* of them practiced test cutting (always excepting suemonogiri, which isn't a combat skill). That should close the book on this discussion: The real warriors didn't see it as necessary!

Roland said...

Thanks for explaining in plain english what pell is. Now that you explained it to me, I know that I've seen one (also made of rubber car tires) in a local European sworsmanship practice hall my friend goes to.

Having seen one and tried few cuts on it for a good measure, I can see how a pell can also work nicely for fixing your edge alignment and targeting and whatnot (the way one's wrist twists if the alignment is off really tends to encourage properly aligned sword).

However I still have one final claim that I believe a pell alone can not help with. That is targeting - more precisely, targeting the end of a cut.

With a pell (as well as in paired work/freeplay with wooden/blunt swords), the tendency becomes to hit right up to the target and not cutting through it.

Now I am not claiming that test cutting was some major part of a warrior's training, but I believe (and admittedly having no sources to back up my belief other than my empirical experience on the value of this for a beginner swordsman) that at some point in time and training they've must have done at least some measure of target cutting. The fact that it has not been mentioned might just as well mean that - as with riding a bicycle - once learned, there is no real point in honing this part of one's skill.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Roland,

You're quite right about the danger of cutting to the surface of a target; this is a very real danger, and one that my students face all the time. Fortunately, I have a solution: We use blunt steel practice swords that are specifically designed for WMA practice and which can be used to strike with correct force provided you wear correct safety gear. So what I do is periodically have the students actually hit me with their techniques. From this I can judge the force and the follow through (which I can tell you know are not the same thing) they’re using.

As a student develops in his training these kinds of full-speed, full force (not that we hit tremendously hard—it just isn’t necessary to kill) drills become more and more of a student’s training, until that’s all he does. That way, the drills become a way of teaching students to cut through their targets because the victim can always tell him if the cut didn’t feel right.

As for your claim about the historical use of test cutting, I’m sorry, but with respect, I believe you’re wrong. First, that argument can be used to prove *anything*, and often has been used to “prove” things that are completely wrong. You can’t theorize from a lack of evidence. Second, we might say that the Europeans who were notoriously sloppy about recording their training methods just left out test cutting practice, but if that’s the case, why were they so clear about pell work?

And I know from Kenjutsu practice that the Japanese made a very careful study of test cutting, but it was done by professional test cutters and was done to test the sword, not the man doing the cutting; this was called tameshigiri. Likewise, kenjutsuka practiced the art of cutting as part of the seppuku ritual, and gave this practice the special name of suemonogiri. Moreover, the very formal, traditional ryu of Kenjutsu have been very careful about tracking their training methods, and most of them haven’t changed in hundreds of years (as Otake-shihan of Katori Shinto Ryu says, “All training is kata.”). Surely, if they had practiced test cutting as a way to train their kenjutsuka they would have recorded this since they carefully recorded the other kinds of cutting practice they did (or had done for them). That they did not (if someone tells you his Kenjutsu dojo practices test cutting then you can be *sure* his is a modern style, if not a made-up American one as many are) makes this pretty clear to me.

The bottom line is that people simply have an exaggerated sense of the importance of test cutting. They get this from Iai-do practitioners who make an almost mystical process out of it (which, for them, it is, in a way) and from sword wannabes who like to spout off about things they don’t really understand. Then these spouted “facts” become accepted by a credulous public because they sound reasonable and very deep and “martial” to them.

And even if test cutting *did* have some small benefit, the terrible things it does to people’s cutting would far outweigh the possible benefits. Go look at people doing free play with longsword on the Internet and you’ll see them all cutting all the way to the ground in direct contradiction to what our books teach us (e.g., MS 3227a telling us to end all cuts with our point threatening our opponent).

Roland said...

> As for your claim about the historical use of test cutting, I’m sorry, but with respect, I believe you’re wrong. First, that argument can be used to prove *anything*, and often has been used to “prove” things that are completely wrong. You can’t theorize from a lack of evidence. Second, we might say that the Europeans who were notoriously sloppy about recording their training methods just left out test cutting practice, but if that’s the case, why were they so clear about pell work?You are quite right about my claim not being able to prove anything and in fact I was not trying to :)

I was simply expressing my personal belief and not trying in any way to disprove anything...

And as I mentioned before, I am not practicing neither European not Japanese swordsmanship, so I really have nothing to say about either of those.

Btw - just to show the type of test cutting we do, you might want to take a look at a spontaneous cutting session shot at the back of a sword factory in China few years ago:

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Roland,

I apologize if I took your comment the wrong way about how logical it seemed to you that Europeans *must* have done test cutting; it did seem to me as if you were arguing that was the case, and I've heard others posit that as a serious argument.

I watched your test cutting video with great interest. It's clear that in the beginning you *did* make huge, overblown cuts with both weapons, then pulled back and focused on stopping your cuts with your point on line (just as European books teach); this was especially true with forehand cuts, which often ended up above your left shoulder. Was that because you were getting to know unfamiliar swords?

Regardless, it's nice to see someone who pays attention to such an important thing. Still, as we've established in this conversation, there's nothing we *need* test cutting for, and the fact that it is so often done incorrectly and so often leads to bad habits--almost always, in my experience--makes it clear to me that it should be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, it's fun. That's the real problem here: People argue about this with me all the time, making up spurious arguments and ignoring facts and reason because they *want* to do test cutting because it's fun, but don't want to admit that's the only argument they really have. And most people are going to do what's fun regardless of how bad it is.

One last thing: I do think there might be one place test cutting could be useful: Slicing cuts. That's where you place the edge on a target (e.g., a wrist) and push or pull it along the target to slice it. Some of my students don't really see how much force that takes (I think because they have an exaggerated sense of how sharp swords were), and it might be worthwhile to show them on a realistic target if such could be found. I have been thinking about this to make absolutely sure there's no bad habit that would come out of it as with most other test cutting.

Roland said...

A slight correction - it's not me cutting - it's my teacher. And yes - he was testing "unfamiliar swords"...

Roland said...

To be sure - Chinese swordsmanship is a different art than European or Japanese swordsmanship. The only common ground between these arts is that they all deal with handling bladed weapons.

You might also be interested in a thread in out GRTC forum that brought me to this discussion:

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Roland,

I read the discussion at the link you supplied. You might explain to J. Hapworth Young that edge alignment can be taught by striking at a pell or other training target. How do we know this? We know this because two of the great sword cultures of the world, at least, didn’t perform test cutting as part of the training for their warriors. If it was essential to learn edge alignment (and it is, it just doesn’t need to be as fussy as people pretend), and if the only way to learn edge alignment was through test cutting, then it would be a safe bet that all the great sword cultures would have practiced it. And please don’t tell me they picked it up on the battlefield in actual fights as some have tried to say: If that was the case then they’d have had a lot of men killed young just because they didn’t know how to kill at first. Obviously that’s nonsensical. Again, I think people have a grossly exaggerated sense of how good edge alignment needs to be in order to kill someone.

I can’t speak to Chinese practices, but I’ve certainly never heard or seen any references to test cutting being practiced in ancient China. Your teacher claims they did so, but how does he know? Could he be like those who practice Japanese swordsmanship and completely misunderstand notes about Tameshigiri (test cutting) in Japan? In Japan test cutting was done not by warriors but by professional test cutters who would attach a special handle to the sword then test to see how well the *sword* would cut; it was not a test of the wielder’s *ability* to cut. But modern students of the Japanese sword learn about tameshigiri and think it was a part of normal practice for the Bushi because some modern, non-combat-oriented (because they’re -do rather than –jutsu forms) schools of iai-do practice test cutting today as a means of spiritual development. And if they do it now, they must always have done so, right? Wrong.

It’s surprising to me how many modern students of the sword don’t understand this about their art. Many who practice very modern arts don’t realize their art has been completely shorn of all real combat relevance in favor of spiritual development (which is not a criticism!), and they often attempt to explain certain things in their art in terms of real combat relevance when, in fact, that’s not the point at all. Just as one example, consider the fact that they practice seated iai-do kata in sieza: In medieval Japan this was considered a dead or null position and one that was only used indoors. When you were in sieza you’d have your sword either in the keeping of a retainer or loose on the floor or in a rack—not in your obi. Thus, there were no situations in which you would practice iai from sieza in a real combat situation, and older iai-jutsu (note the suffix) schools only practice their art in iai-goshi or a standing posture. For more on this, read Draeger, Don, "Classical Budo: The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan", Weatherhill, 2007, pp. 87-90.


William said...

Always wondered why I procrastinated the straw cutting practice. Make excellent sense for higher level swordsmen. Lower level may need the practice only to stem their cut so as to not over-extend through their foe into themselves. But... then... we live in times where duals are extinct so straw cutting, even for the lower skilled, is absurd... perhaps.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello William,

Thank you for your comments. Actually, unless you're an iado-ka who's interested in making a perfect cut in order to achieve spiritual discipline, there's no reason for higher-level students to do test cutting, either. I can teach someone to cut well enough to kill in 15 minutes using just a pell and a waster--no test cutting required.

As for duels being extinct, you're right, of course, but their absence isn't the reason we no longer need to do test cutting, the reason is that test cutting has nothing to do with actual fighting. If it did, the great sword cultures of history would have used it as a training tool, and the fact is that they didn't.


Colin Gabriel Hatcher said...

Thought provoking article Hugh and your position on "test" cutting is one I actually share as far as encouraging bad swordsmanship, where good form and rational sword tactics are sacrificed just to cut a straw mat in half. As WMA practitioners we seem to have simply taken this from the EMA guys, without considering its value. As if people who own katanas MUST know better than anyone else.

I do see a value in test cutting with straw mats however, as long as you practice cutting to the long point (posta longa for Fioreans)[i.e. stopping your sword INSIDE the target!] and as long as you do NOT constantly cut from high right to low left with hugh haymaker swings.

That I not to say I believe a Fiorean swordsman should never practice a "live" cut on a straw mat from posta di donna to the boar's tooth. Nothing wrong with trying it out, as long as you know it for what it is, and realize that you are violating the principles of good swordfighting when you do it.

Interestingly Fiore calls the big swings the "colpo di villano" - "villein's blow". {meaning a blow made by someone without any skill).

You are right - it is ironic that after endless classes about the importance of cutting to posta longa and stopping the blade on point in the target, we then rush off to the straw mats and forget everything we just learned, forget proper form, tee up huge baseball bat swings of our swords, and believe that unless we can cut completely through the mat with one giant swing we are useless at cutting and certainly could never deliver a lethal blow to a person's neck.

Just how far into the side of someone's neck do we need to cut with a sword to maim or kill them? Half an inch? And yet we constantly strive to cut through 6 inches of tightly packed wet straw mat, as if that is the only test of good swordfighting skills.

Ah but what if you are trying to cut through a mail aventail, or through leather, or a padded jacket? Well you still have to stop the sword INSIDE the target no matter how hard you hit your opponent with the sword.

Controversal position - kudos on taking this particular stand.

Colin Gabriel Hatcher

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Colin,
Thank you for the complimentary and positive comments.

I’m not going to say you’re automatically wrong about the kind of test cutting you describe. In fact, an instructor in NY, Michael Edelson, just posted a video of that kind of cutting, stopping in long point, which made me think about this.

I see two problems, however: First, it’s just not necessary, and why do things that aren’t necessary? Neither medieval knights nor Japanese samurai practiced test cutting, and if they didn’t need to, then neither do we. Second, it’s a slippery slope—things like this always are. One guy does it right, cutting just into the target, then other guys have to do it better, and soon a bunch of nutcases want to make it a competitive sport, and then they make special light swords to improve their cuts (just like iaido-ka have!) and change the way they cut for a better result.

I plan to make a video in which I give a small woman with absolutely no martial arts experience five minutes of training on a pell, then video tape her cutting into a human head analog with my sharp. I can guarantee that she’ll have *no* problem making a killing cut her very first try with the sharp. That being the case, no reason exists to even bother with any kind of test cutting, correct or overdone.

As for fighting against people in light harness, we just don’t know. In spite of Fiore saying he fought duels in an arming doublet, he didn’t leave us any information about what to do differently against someone who is wearing protection (short of a full harness), and neither did anyone else. I think we can extrapolate an idea from Harnischfechten, however: Attack the open spots. If your opponent is wearing a mail shirt or a padded doublet, hit his head (I don’t have much belief in attacking the body even in street clothing—most sources have very few instances in which they call for body shots). If he’s wearing a kettle hat, stab him in the face, etc. My suspicion is that very little changes against a lightly-armored opponent except the targeting.


Colin Gabriel Hatcher said...

Hugh: Your points are all well taken.

I suspect the desire to cut straw mats in half has something to do with we who will never kill a human being wanting to know what a "killing blow" feels like, and this method has become the dominant method (since most of us are not going to buy a pig carcass and put a padded jacket and a mail shirt on it).

We are not going to kill each other with edged weapons and most of us don't even the kill animals we eat. In other words we will never actually put a sword or a knife into a living creature and will never even attempt to do so). Since we have no life experience of edged weapons going into living things and killing them, the straw mat EMA import seems to have become our analogue.

The EMA myth is that if you can cut the straw mat in half then you have generated sufficient striking power to make a killing blow to a human being, i.e., what it feels like is the level of power needed to take off the head of a human being, and therefore is good sword form. In other words, cutting the mat in half proves that while you are not going to kill anyone with your sword, you COULD.

Having done plenty of straw mat cutting (with both Japanese katana and WMA longswords) it has always struck me that the power needed to cut the mats is invariably much greater than would be needed to maim or kill a human being. It is as if we are not content to generate enough power to cut one inch into the side of the neck of an "enemy" (which would be fatal). No no, that is considered a failed strike to the straw mat. It is not powerful enough unless it goes right through.

I agree with you - rough edge alignment is all you need to make an effective strike with a longsword. It is after all a two handed weapon and hits hard even in an unskilled person's hands.

Then of course we have the required cutting angle. For Fioreans it is posta di donna to dente di cinghiale. High right to low left. The target is usually the corner of the neck (which in WMA can be heavily armoured: padded collar, leather and steel gorget, steel ringed aventail - i.e. NOT a great target, especialy considering the other more vulnerable targets on an armoured foe - armpits, groin, back of knees, etc.)

I suggested perhaps you could do it if you maintained good form and did not violate the rules of striking or thrusting with the sword (i.e. if you strike on point)

You asked a good question in response: why do it at all? Why even strike into a straw mat to posta longa. What is the point? Is it still remaining subservient to the dominant EMA straw mat analog?

You are making an extremely good point when you point out that if you put a sharp longsword into the hands of a completely unskilled person, they would probably be unable to cut through a straw mat. But they sure as heck could kill you with it!

Once again: very thought provoking and I applaud you for putting it out there and inviting the challenge.


Roland said...

Just to point out a relevant discussion on the *benefits* of test cutting:

To be sure, the discussion starts from the article about usefulness of Tameshigiri but there are some valid points brought out to support that at least some experience with test cutting is beneficial to a practitioner of swordsmanship arts.

That said, if any "test cutting" (a really poor choice of a name for this exercise if you ask me) is to be done at all, the practitioner must for sure learn to control all the aspects of target cutting - which are not only the edge control but also involves carrying through the cut (not twisting the blade while cutting through the target), and stopping after the cut has been made.

The point of target cutting can not be one of flashy showmanship, but proper blade control. Keeping that in mind I do not believe that test cutting can be evil. :)

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Roland,

Any benefits a modern person comes up with for test cutting are illusory. Again (and again as many times as necessary, the bottom line is this: The great sword cultures of the world did *not* practice test cutting. Therefore, any theories to the contrary by modern folks, none of whom have ever been in a real sword fight, are simply not worth anything. Period.

Test cutting *is* evil, and serious swordsmen do not do it.

Aaron said...


I will compliment you on little more than excelling in telling only half truths and being an average pompous blogger.

Given that western sword arts are fraught with debate over poor drawings and missing details within manuals, and completely broken lineage of instructors and practitioners without a time machine it would be impossible to say that it was NEVER done historically. You may attempt to make the argument that there is no EVIDENCE to support the practice as a HISTORICAL RECREATION, but really what would be the point? You can't prove it wasn't done any more readily than I can prove it was.

What you have demonstrated in your article is that you understand nothing of the point of modern tameshigiri practice. Moreover you understand very little of Japanese philosophy in swordsmanship. That or you understand perfectly well and have simply twisted your words to better suit your case.

The point of tameshigiri is misunderstood by most. Successfully cutting through the target is a beginners goal. Speed, accuracy, control, and minimal effort are the goal of senior practitioners.

Any youtube video of cutting eh? How about this one?

Not a swing from high guard, not swinging to the ground. The first time this cut was attempted.

I would wager I could kill an unskilled man wielding a sword with little more than a towel and my regular clothes. Give me something more substantial and the outcome becomes more assured. Without understanding of blade alignment or cutting techniques the unskilled practitioner is unlikely to do more than cause serious bruising. Understanding blade alignment is an important lesson that should not be so easily discounted.

Beyond all else warriors of the day were able to test their skill and steel in combat. A luxury no longer afforded us. So even if there is no historical evidence to support the practice, it is a reasonable thing to adapt these living, growing, changing arts to our modern life style.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Aaron,


It’s funny: Whenever you write something in a scholarly way, you’re pompous. When you don’t, you’re an ignorant amateur. You call me pompous? At least I don’t make silly internet claims about my ability to kill people.

As for the historical practice of test cutting, I can, in fact, prove it wasn’t done in Japan—not the way you mean, anyway. In “Asian Fighting Arts,” Don Draeger, one of the most respected authorities on traditional Japanese fighting arts, pointed out that tameshigiri was started only test swords, not swordsmen, and that the tests were performed by professional testers, not by the bushi themselves (see Draeger 1969 p. 104). He also says that Meiji-era schools often abandoned all combat relevance (see his “Classic Budo” 2007 pp. 87-88) and that tameshigiri was taken up after this happened by iaidoka who wanted to add an extra element to their training—that of making “perfect” cuts. The quote from Fumon-sensei in my article says the same thing. A combat swordsman knows a perfect cut isn’t important—a ragged cut will kill you just as dead, which explains why tameshigiri is important to modern students of iai-do, but not to swordsmen practicing the more combat-oriented –jutsu forms which preceded it.

It’s true that one can’t prove a negative. Thus, I can’t prove that no one in Europe ever practiced test cutting. Absence of evidence, however, is not evidence! By your logic, since I can’t prove no one in medieval Europe ever wrote a poem in Japanese, we must assume that it was commonly done. Nonsense. We have sources (Christine de Pizan, Machiavelli, Jen de Meung, etc.) who tell us how swordsmen in the Middle Ages *did* practice swordsmanship, and it was done on a pell, not by test cutting. Absent positive evidence for test cutting, that’s sufficient proof.

Your test cutting video was very nice. So what? OK, one guy avoided the dangers of overcutting. That doesn’t mean the problem isn’t endemic, it just means that one guy didn’t do it in that case.

As for blade alignment, I agree, it’s *vital*. What you don’t understand is that “perfect” blade alignment isn’t important, and that you can learn to do it well enough with pell practice.

And you’re right: We can no longer test our ability in real contests. Let us not then make up an unrealistic practice and pretend it proves our ability to fight. Test cutting proves nothing of the sort, it just lets wannabes pretend they’re mighty warriors.

Aaron, you’ve been fed a lot of nonsense from Japanese martial artists who are just repeating mistakes they’ve been told. It just isn’t so. Read. Learn. Study.


Aaron said...

No I am calling you pompous because of the personal opinions you insert as fact. Particularly the negative opinion you have of those who would practice tameshigiri, going so far as to say they are not real swordsmen. This is particularly proved by your ending comment in your reply. Please note I never said anything about historical tameshigiri. The only historical comment I made was to the problems that plague HEMA. So knowing NOTHING of what I've been told by "Japanese Martial Artists" you jump to the conclusion that it must be wrong.

I've read parts of the Draegar book you've mentioned. Some things it talks about are reasonable, others made me laugh. I placed the book back on the shelf.

You are a zealot for your cause, and there is no sense in "arguing" with you. So I will simply say this:

I study and teach -jutsu style Japanese sword.
You are wrong about the lethality of the "slash" on exposed flesh.
You are wrong about your understanding of kata, and possibly waza.
You are wrong about tameshigiri having NO benefit.
There are many stories/legends of Bushi cutting something as a demonstration of their swordsmanship (not that it was part of training).

Hugh Knight said...


So you’re seriously accusing me of being pompous because you believe I insert personal opinions as fact? First, that shows you don’t know the definition of the word pompous. Second, I find it almost impossible to believe that when I cite documentation to support my conclusions and you do not, you would have the unmitigated gall to accuse *me* of stating mere opinion as fact.

For your information, Don Draeger was one of the most respected and highly regarded authorities on Japanese martial arts. That doesn’t mean he can’t ever have made a mistake, but merely saying “he’s wrong” doesn’t prove it, and is the worst kind of sloppy argument. He supports his arguments with evidence and reason, so to contradict him you must address those.

As for your other comments:
--Just because you claim to teach bujutsu doesn’t give any indication you know anything about these subjects. In the first place, lots of people make that claim when it isn’t so. In the second place, lots of systems that call themselves bujutusu have been modified so that their practices no longer reflect the original combat orientation of the school (see Draeger, “Classical Bujustu”, 2007, pp. 87-88). That means that the traditions of that ryu can’t be used to understand real combat. I’m not saying that makes them a bad school—I think iaido is a wonderful and worthy art! But it’s not a valid way of understanding combat realities, and since I’m writing about a the effectiveness of a technique for preparing someone for combat, so only examples from combat-oriented schools has any relevance.
--If you don’t specify your complaint I can’t show why you’re mistaken about my understanding of kata and waza. Just saying “Well, you’re wrong!” doesn’t actually constitute an argument.
--I never said tameshigiri had no benefit. In fact, for the purpose of spiritual development, it serves iaidoka very well, but it serves no benefit from the point of view of combat. If I practiced iaido I would practice tameshigiri, too.
--Just because bushi cut something doesn’t prove anything. I cited examples of cutting they did, both suomonogiri and to test their swords. Such sword testing was not typically done by bushi, but rather by professional test cutters, but I have no difficulty believing some bushi did it themselves. But it was still done to prove the worth of the sword, not the swordsman. If it was an important test of swordsmanship then swordsmen in *general* would have made it a normal practice, and they *didn’t*, as I’ve provided plenty of documentation to prove.

Aaron, you can’t imagine how many frothing fanatics I’ve had read my writings and scream a blue streak because their feelings were hurt when I exposed the flaws in their cherished misconceptions. The worst are those like you, who can’t make a reasoned argument and who have no solid evidence. Learn to research and learn to present solid, well-developed arguments. Hell, I’m one of the few people I know who will admit when he’s wrong in public (look for some examples in my blog). For that to happen, however, requires better arguments and better evidence (hell, at least *some* evidence) than you have presented.


Aaron said...

From Webster's: pompous - having or exhibiting self-importance

You insert your opinion that test cutting offers no value with only evidence of it not being part of historical training. You offer no other actual evidence.

Further more you place greater importance on yourself and automatically look down on anyone who would practice test cutting. Regardless of their performance and clearly not exhibiting the critical flaws you associate with the practice.

I would also like to point out that at no point did I disagree with your understanding of "jutsu" and "do". However your pompous attitude caused you to try and berate me with the terms.

Easiest way to discredit Draeger: He wrote several books about Ninjas.

"--I never said tameshigiri had no benefit." It's in the first paragraph of your article: "test cutting has no value." Slightly different terminology, but the concept is the same.

The rest I don't care enough to argue about. Those were just too glaring for me to leave alone.

Now really I'm done,
Have fun.

Hugh Knight said...


My observations on the lack of test cutting among historical warriors is only one leg of a well-developed set of arguments, but you dismiss it as irrelevant without actually addressing it. If real warriors didn’t need to do it, why do modern ones seeking to learn their art? You have never addressed that argument in your rants.

As for pomposity, I haven’t demonstrated any sense of self importance—that lies entirely in your obviously active imagination. I am careful to present evidence from *others*--real warriors—to support my contentions, which is *not* a demonstration of self importance. You’re the one who has discredited my research and analysis without offering any evidence or reasoned arguments to do so. The implication is that you don’t need to, because your word should simply be taken as gospel. In actuality, to me, that makes you a wannabe and a joke. And, again, it proves you don’t understand what the word pompous means.

Regarding Don Draeger, I am only aware of one book he wrote about ninjutsu. Have you even read it? It is not a how-to book promising the reader magic abilities like all the crap on the market, it is a survey and study of a historical system. Ninjutsu did exist, and there’s nothing wrong with researching it (as long as you don’t try to practice it—I think you and I are together in our scorn for the ninja wannabes). Hell, no less an authority than Otake Risuke of the Katori Shinto-ryu studies ninjutsu: not to practice it (KSR doesn’t practice the art), but to understand it as part of their overall study of warfare (see his “Katori Shinto-ryu, Warrior Tradition”, 2007, Koryu Books, pp.232-235), and no one is any more serious about the study of bujutsu than they. So you’ve rejected one of the great authorities on bujutsu for his *scholarship* simply because you dislike the entire subject. That’s both childish and ignorant.

And as for saying test cutting has no value, you’re taking that out of context. I was *clearly* talking about its place in the study of Historical German swordsmanship. That comment should not have been taken to refer to its value in the study of a non-combat related discipline such as iaido in which it is a valuable tool for developing spiritual discipline. You display an inability to read things in context that makes your misunderstanding of these issues easier to understand.

Finally, you say: “Those were just too glaring for me to leave alone.” Aaron, you haven’t addressed even your key issues at all! No evidence, no reasoned argument, just you jumping up and down and frothing at the mouth about how I’m wrong.


Aaron said...

Draeger: Page 22 of his book he claims Ninja flew over battlefields with giant kites.

Context: It is not until 9 paragraphs later that you mention anything about German swordsmanship.

For people other than Hugh:

Toyama ryu is an excellent example of people who were actually expected to kill others in the theater of war and trained to do so with Tameshigiri as part of the syllabus.

Hugh Knight said...


Can you prove that Ninja *didn’t* make use of hang gliders/kites? I, personally, have not researched the subject, but it was certainly within the technology available to them at that time, so you have to do more than simply point out what Draeger said if you want to refute his contention. See, Aaron, that’s how reasoned debate works: Some presents a position, then you show *evidence* as to the falsity of the claim when you wish to refute it. You can’t just say “See, he said X” and expect anyone to take that as a valuable argument.

You said: "Context: It is not until 9 paragraphs later that you mention anything about German swordsmanship."

LOL! Ummm… Aaron… the entire *blog* is about German martial arts. I didn’t think anyone would be dense enough to think I’d suddenly changed gears and started writing a blog about Japanese martial arts. Apparently I was mistaken. Also, if you read the previous comments above, you’ll find I specifically say that tameshigiri has a place in modern non-combat iaido. In a response to Roland on 25 May, I wrote:
“Iaido-ka work on test cutting because theirs is a spiritual art, and they strive for spiritual perfection by perfecting their physical movements. That's fine, one can understand that motivation.”

You said: "Toyama ryu is an excellent example of people who were actually expected to kill others in the theater of war and trained to do so with Tameshigiri as part of the syllabus."

Gross ignorance! Toyama ryu is a modern, made-up system that has no basis in historical battlefield combat. It was developed by people with *no* battlefield swordsmanship skills in *1925*. See more here:

Yes, they teach tameshigiri as part of their program of instruction, but then, so do many other modern, made-up schools. But when we look at *historical* schools that were created by bushi with actual battlefield swordsmanship experience, we do *not* see any tameshigiri practice (excepting always suimonogiri, which isn’t for combat). That was my point all along: Men who really understood the realities of fighting in life-or-death combats felt no need to teach their students test cutting because test cutting has no relevance to real combat.

I will grant that the creators of Toyama ryu aren’t using it for spiritual discipline as more traditional schools of iaido do, and that they believe it has combat value, but their opinions aren’t worth anything on this subject because they had no combat experience to give weight to those opinions. The *real* experts, those who lived in a time when the sword *was* used in continuous life-or-death combat, *didn’t* believe tameshigiri was an important training tool, and their opinions must outweigh a bunch of nationalists trying to make things up.

You said: "Now really I'm done,"

I knew it was too good to last.

Now I see why you haven’t brought any evidence to this debate previously, Aaron: You don’t have any, and don’t understand what you’ve read well enough to find any. Seriously, I suggest going to books written by experts who have actually studied the subject, not by guys who have only learned things from word of mouth and never questioned what they were told. If you really want to learn, I’d be happy to suggest some starting point sources for you, but I warn you: You’re going to have to be willing to throw off almost all of the unsupported opinions you have now, and that’s often hard for people so emotionally invested in their myths to do.


Aaron said...

read page 49

Also since you see fit to use wikipedia as reference

I know perfectly well toyama ryu is gendai. It is exactly what you asked for: "so only examples from combat-oriented schools has any relevance."

Nothing more combat oriented than training actual soldiers who actually killed people with what they were taught.

You see something you should know is that the people I study under have been to war, and have actually killed people. Some had even done so with a sword.

Believe what you like. My intention has never been to convince you. Only to warn others of your limited training perspective.

Hugh Knight said...


You wrote: “read page 49”

OK, so a popular author with little to back up his claims says that sometimes Japanese swordsmen practiced test cutting—now you’re starting to get into the right approach! Unfortunately, you still need to learn about getting *useful* evidence: In this case, your source provides no documentation—no proof. Don Draeger had actual menkyo from real schools of historical swordsmanship. His words (and the evidence he provided!) count for a lot more than someone like Turnbull writing for a wargaming book!! No serious historian uses Osprey books as references, Aaron, because they’re filled with mistakes.

You wrote: “Also since you see fit to use wikipedia as reference”

You may be correct, that claim of Draeger’s may have been wrong. To be honest, I haven’t read Draeger’s ninja book in many years, and I have no interest in reading it again, so I don’t know if he made this claim as fact or merely passed on legend. So what? Even if it’s true, one mistake does not invalidate his being one of the most educated, knowledgeable and important sources we have. *Everyone* makes mistakes; that doesn’t prove they’re worthless, which is what you’re implying.

You wrote: “I know perfectly well toyama ryu is gendai. It is exactly what you asked for: "so only examples from combat-oriented schools has any relevance.”

Sorry, but that’s not it. It wasn’t created when swords were used as primary combat weapons. *That’s* what I meant by “combat oriented.” Toyama ryu was invented by men without combat sword experience. Combat-oriented schools are those created prior to the Tokugawa period, and not even all of those. Some schools were created during the Warring States period, but have since changed their art away from the former combat orientation toward a Budo approach—in other words, from a fighting system to a system of spiritual development. A good example of this is Eishin ryu (see Draeger’s “Classical Budo”, 2007, pp. 89-90).

You wrote: “You see something you should know is that the people I study under have been to war, and have actually killed people. Some had even done so with a sword.“

That’s not the definition of a combat-oriented system, either. I could take up my sword and walk into a shopping mall and cut down a whole bunch of people. Would that mean I could claim I had experience in real sword combat? Of course not, none of those people had swords or experience in using them. And experience in war isn’t meaningful, either: Your fantasies of Japanese officers cutting people down with katana in WWII are meaningless because most of their opponent’s were either not armed with or not skilled with swords.

It is *impossible* to create a system of combat-oriented swordsmanship today because swords are not routinely used in combat any longer. Toyama ryu is a fake, made-up system. There’s nothing wrong with making up a system if you intend it for spiritual development (e.g., aikido), but to make one up and claim it’s a combat-oriented system is simply nonsense.

You wrote: “Believe what you like. My intention has never been to convince you. Only to warn others of your limited training perspective.”

I shall believe what the facts support. You’re not qualified to judge my “limited training perspective” because you know nothing about it. Unlike you, I feel no need to make dark, sinister claims about my secret ninja-like training because I have no need to—I have *evidence* on my side.

You are a typical modern martial artist who wants to believe the patent nonsense he’s been spoon fed, and are afraid to look anything up for fear of having to set aside your cherished myths, and probably couldn’t look up anything useful anyway because you don’t understand what constitutes good evidence. You are also typical in that you feel justified in attacking those who insist on showing you facts because those facts hurt your feelings, and I find that weak and despicable.


Aaron said...

Toyama ryu - developed 1925

Picture of Chinese troops wielding swords to fight invading Japanese. 1933,895&um=1&itbs=1&iact=rc&dur=203&oei=gbZUTfzhHMiCtgfhrqmCCw&esq=2&page=2&ndsp=37&ved=1t:429,r:9,s:39&tx=112&ty=103&biw=1680&bih=965

Also Draeger lists in his book Muso Shinden Ryu as a Koryu. Nakayama Hakudo, one of the founding members of Toyama ryu, also founded Muso Shinden Ryu.

I also personally find it interesting that you prefer Draeger, a martial artist, to Turnbull, a historian.

Hugh Knight said...

Aaron, Turnbull is a *popular* historian; that's like saying Joseph Gies' books are as valuable as those of Phillip Contamine. And Draeger wasn't only a martial artist, he was a serious (and widely repsected) historian. He founded the International Hopological Society. Turnbull, on the other hand, is an expert in Asian *religion* and has worked as a consultant on computer games.

And not even *you* can believe that picture of poor Chinese conscripts with swords means these were expert swordsmen who regularly fought other swordsmen? Please tell me you're not that lost to fact! Japanese officers mostly didn't fight at all. I defy you to find evidence for large numbers of sword-on-sword encounters--enough for someone to base a system of combat on. It just didn't happen. These wars were fought with rifles, Aaron, not with swords.

As for who founded Toyama ryu, what's your point? Nakayama sensei helped revise Muso Shinden-ryu, but he was not the founder. That was Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto no Shigenobu, who died in 1621. Are you seriously admitting you didn't know that?? By Nakayama-sensei's time, Muso-shinden had long abandoned its combat orientation in favor of an iaido approach (Draeger's "Classical Budo" talks specifically about this). Nakayama-sensei was one of the people who worked hard to popularize the term iaido to show that these arts were no loonger bujutsu. Did you seriously not know that, either? Have you studied *any* of this material? It's all quite widely published, Aaron.

So, once again, there's *clearly* no combat-oriented connection between Toyama ryu and any combat-oriented martial art. It was invented by modern men with no real combat (meaning fighting with swords against expert swordsmen) bona fides. Combat-oriented arts were all created prior to the Tokugawa period; that's actually a good definition for them.

Give it up, Aaron, you simply don't know what you're talking about, and cherry picking factoids off the internet won't give you what you're looking for because it isn't there.

I know you've been lied to about Toyama ryu. So have a lot of people. They're still lies even if a lot of people believe them.


Hugh Knight said...

Aaron, I can see you don't understand enough about the material to see what I'm saying, so let me put it another way. Stephen Turnbull *is* an historian, but most historians focus on the broad sweeps of history, not on the minutiae of how it was lived. In my own specialty, medieval history, many historians are *painfully* unaware of the specifics of how people lived, and moreover, they don’t care. If you focus on weapons in combat, mainstream historians will accuse you of “tank spotting,” an expression used derisively in the profession to denigrate those who care about the details too much. It derives from WWII scholars who care about things like which tanks were used in given battles, and how those tanks’ capabilities effected their outcome.

Dr. Turnbull *undoubtedly* knows the history of Japan and its wars, and you can’t learn all of that without learning some aspects of its culture. But such historians take a lot of minutiae on faith, so to speak. For a similar example, a recent book was published concerning the last official judicial combat in France, which occurred in the 14th century. The author got all the overall facts of the event quite correct, but when it came to describing the combat proper, he erred grievously in a way that made it clear he knew nothing about the armor or weapons of the period.

Don Draeger, on the other hand, is both an historian *and* a highly skilled martial artist, with serious credentials in *real* martial arts, not just fluffy modern ones. He has studied the actual books of the real koryu and learned the real day-to-day facts of their arts.

Moreover, when Draeger wrote, he gave specifics, not just vague generalities. For example, when he spoke of the conversion of Eishin-ryu to a budo (even though it is technically a koryu), he talked about specifics of what made it so—for example, the practice of performing seated kata in seiza rather than tate-hiza—and how those differences derived from real bushi culture. This is how you can look at a source and recognize its validity and its usefulness in this kind of discussion. I hope that helps you in the future.


Edward Clark said...

As an inexperienced student of lichtenaur, I would equate practicing one's hews with going to the driving range. Any golfer will tell you that working on your power drive is useless without being able to put or have a good short game, that a golfer who is terrible at driving but good at short game would be strokes better than the reverse but a golfer with both power and accuracy is clearly optimal.
I think it is a stretch to say that knights never worked on their hewing power just because there are no illustrations of it or equipment for it, that's kinda like saying student drivers dont practice parallel parking because we dont take pictures of it or have equipment for it. You act like people who argue that knights worked on their cuts are arguing that they did it next to the flying spaghetti monster.
All I'm really trying to say is that; if people are so obsessed with cutting things with their swords today, in the world of infinite jest, I think it's safe to assume that people wanted to do the same back then too.

Edward Clark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hugh Knight said...

Edward, your argument is based upon supposition, not on evidence. You think the best way to practice cuts is by cutting objects. Prove that it was done. Show evidence. Mere guesswork based on the ideas of someone like you and me, who didn't live in that time, or train with real masters is meaningless--we need facts and evidence. That's why I presented evidence for my arguments.

You claim they *must* have practiced test cutting. And yet, there is no evidence for this, and we *know*, as a real fact, that other cultures--e.g., the Japanese--did *not* practice test cutting (except as a way to test the sword, not the man--read my post to understand this). That, by itself, dismisses any "they must have" claim absent more significant evidence to the contrary.

Your confusion arises from the fact that you believe the best way to learn to cut is by cutting things. False. The best way to learn to cut is to do two things: Partner practice and pell work--both of which, we know for a fact, were practiced by real medieval swordsmen. Partner practice teaches you how cuts work in the bind. This is the central idea of the Liechtenauer Gesellschaft--binding, and feeling the bind. The pell teaches you angles and delivery--all you need to know about the actual cutting action itself. So, as you can see, medieval swordsmen *did* practice cutting--just not cutting through objects. And the reason they didn't is that test cutting does not teach you anything about what it's like to actually cut someone.

Moreover, as I point out in my essay, test cutting teaches incredibly bad habits which are very much at odds with the instructions we have received about how to cut. When people test cut, to get the smooth, clean cuts they want, they have to cut well through the target in a huge, over-done cut. Yet in HS3227a, the master tells us to end out cuts in long point with the point aimed at our opponent, and to eschew the huge, overdone cuts of the sort we see in test cutting today. Thus, test cutting is nothing like correct cutting.

I have to assume you didn't actually read my essay, because I covered all of this there. Guesses don't really count much against evidence, and the evidence makes it plain that test cutting was not part of swordsmanship practice in the Middle Ages.

Roland Tepp said...

Hey, it's been years since I last participated in this discussion and I have tried cutting practice with pell and I still disagree with your very extreme point of view.

Yes, pell work can be useful part of the training, still there are aspects of "test cutting" (what an unfortunate name), that are hard to emulate with pell work alone.

One of those is following through the entire cut -- nothing working with pell or paired work will prepare you for drawing your blade through the entire cut without twisting or turning it along the way. Smallest twist of hand or curve of the cutting trajectory will immediately cause the blade to get stuck in the target instead of cutting clean through.

Without practicing cutting through real, hard targets, I can not see how one can accumulate the experience and get the "feel" for the cut to go be cleanly followed through the cut.

Also, without having practiced cutting through real targets, how can one learn to control the blade after the cut?

I am not saying that test cutting was a big part of the swordsman's training -- I have no historic facts to back me up even if I wanted to. I am just not seeing how one can train for swordsmanship and not be prepared for something like this.

In any case, I would not be so adamant about calling test cutting in it's entirety a harmful practice. Rather would I caution people practicing it to be mindful of the larger picture. Learning to follow through the target without twisting or turning, learning to control the blade after the cut -- these are the important lessons of cutting practice. They should not be dismissed so thoroughly just because internet is full of bad examples of bad test cutting.

Finally, here is little something that demonstrates (to me at least) that cutting can be practiced for the benefit of the improving your skill as a swordsman:

Hugh Knight said...


First, not all turns of the sword can cause the sword to get stuck. Moreover, *any* cut can get stuck if it strikes a target that can hold it (some bone joints, etc.).

Second, you don't *want* to cut through the target. We are taught to cut so that, if we miss, our point is aimed at the center of our opponent so we can instantly follow with a thrust. If you cut one or two inches into a skull, the fight is over. I don't need to remove your arm, I will render you hors de combat but cutting an inch or so into it. Attempting to cut through your opponent leaves you in a horribly exposed position if you miss.

And that's why test cutting *is* an *entirely* harmful practice: Because to do it people try to cut entirely through the target because it looks cool. That is a bad practice contrary to the teaching of our art. People are vastly confused as to how deep cuts need to be. The goals of perfect test cutting are antithetical to the goals of combat.

The video link you provided shows impressive skill, no one can doubt that. At the same time, it is *unnecessary* skill. You don't *need* to be able to do that to cut well enough to win a fight; indeed, that level of skill is no more effective in a fight than is the level of skill you can get from practicing on the pell. And since it is obvious that the process of that kind of cutting leads to bad cutting habits, it should not be practiced by people wishing to learn how to actually fight.

To finish, I will post a link to a different video. In this one, the demonstrators are doing *terrible*, poorly done cuts of the worst sort. Short, spastic motions, not neat or clean. And yet, look at the results: A massive, deadly wound that would be the instant end of *any* fight. If such a horrible, unskilled cut can do this, the perfect cuts of the test-cut crowd are completely unnecessary.

Thus, since one does not need the perfect level of cleanness the test cutters claim is necessary, and since practicing their kind of test cutting leads to such horrible cutting mistakes (e.g., cutting past the target), it obviously and unquestionably follows that test cutting is not only not necessary but it leads to terrible mistakes of form and should be eschewed. Now we see why none of the medieval sword cultures practiced it (remember, the Japanese warriors didn't practice it, they had specially trained test cutters who did it to test *blades*, not swordsmen).

If test cutting had value, medieval swordsmen would have done it. They didn't. Therefore, it necessarily follows that we don't need to either.

amberml said...

Howdy. Enjoyed the article. Just a couple of quick things to I wanted to ask after.

Leaving my experience out for now, how would you recommend testing the efficacy of martial blades for the modern practitioner? I am currently working my way through various mediums for various purposes, and was wondering if you had any suggestions? Information for realistic mediums are very sketchy, and polluted with "cut a milk jug" as proper mediums for a living target. And I am asking as blade tester, not as a martial artist. I do wholeheartedly agree that they are, and should remain, two separate entities.

Second, for the modern martial artist, I would like to throw Living History/Bushcraft into the mix. My personal experience teaching people some of the finer points is to set them to historical or survival based tasks with appropriate blades. While I do understand that there is certainly the potential for falling into the same stylistic weaknesses of test cutting, I would present the argument of actually teaching them accuracy and edge alignment in a context that compliments the pell.

Hugh Knight said...

I don't have much experience with testing blades, as opposed to testing the swordsman. In Japan, this role was fulfilled by a very highly trained specialist. He would take your sword and place it in a special (extra-strong) hilt, and then perform various cuts on various mediums to see how your sword held up. I am a martial artist, not a sword tester. I would suggest that sword smiths would probably be better suited to this.

If you can cut the pell correctly, so that a partner watching the hit can tell your blade is pretty reasonably accurate in terms of angle, you are cutting *more* than well enough to kill easily. Nothing more is needed.

If you're in the bush and you're using your sword for survival activities such as cutting saplings, etc., you are unjustifiably abusing your sword. A machete is a far better tool for bushcraft, or a hatchet.

Mamluk Tibor said...

Greetings! A little historical provenance from Mamluk Egypt:

(Hassanein Rabie, Training of the Mamluk Faris)

Fencing, at many stages, was also taught in the tibaq. First, the master brought out four different kinds of swords with different weights, varying from two to five pounds. Exercises began with light swords and ended with heavy ones. Clay was brought which, according to Baktut, had to mature like dough for three days and nights and was then kneaded until it became as soft as ointment (marham), according to specification. The clay was put on a small table, three dhira’s long, two dhira’s wide and one shibr (span) high. The mamluk, under the supervision of his master, approached the clay with the sword between his forefinger and thumb, bent down on his knees, and hit the clay (Plate VII).

In another version, the mamluk approached the clay on the table from the right and then, left leg forward and right leg back, raised the sword to his cheek and hit the clay, bending his right leg and crouching on his left knee. The mamluk hit the clay with his sword 25 times on the first day, 50 times on the second, 75 on the third, and continued increasing the number of blows until he reached 1,000 hits in one day in one posture a feat which was considered to be a proof of attainment. The following stage of practice was to put on the clay a layer of felt which the mamluk tried to cut inch by inch, until he got down to the clay. The thickness of the felt was increased from five layers on the first day, until it reached more than one hundred layers by the end of the trainings. The anonymous author of the Kitab Majmu’ fi al-Rumh says that the clay practice should be followed by hitting a bar of lead, until the sword cut right through it. Here the lead bar seems to have been an alternative to the felt in sword training.

To teach the mamluk under training how to be careful with his sword and how to assess and control the depth of the wound, according to whether he wanted to kill or only to injure his enemy, the fencing master made him cut sheets of paper which he placed on a cotton-filled pillow. Twenty reams of paper were then put on the pillow and the mamluk was required to cut through a certain number of reams at one blow. A sheet of iron was now placed underneath these reams, which were to be dealt with in the same way. The exercise was continued, until the mamluk could cut through a certain number of reams without the use of the iron sheet.

Hugh Knight said...

That's great, Mamluk. I've seen others use that as evidence for test cutting, too. Sadly, it's completely irrelevant: First, it post dates the Middle Ages. Second, it has nothing to do with Europe. So if you want to believe test cutting was practiced in Europe in the Middle Ages, you need other evidence.

Mamluk Tibor said...

1. Most of the Mamluk manuals were composed in the 13-14th century, based on earlier, 10-12th century Ayyubid or Persian sources. I think it completely fits the Middle Ages.
2. You wrote that test cutting has no historical provenance, and continued it with Japanese swordsmanship. So I didn't know that you think only of Europe. ;)

However, that clay-cutting is mentioned also in a 1900 Hungarian Hussar manual.

Anyway, Middle-eastern sources are far from "completely irrelevant".

Hugh Knight said...

As you pointed out, the book you quoted was well past the Middle Ages; I know this, because I have seen this claim put forward before. Thus, it is completely worthless as a source in this case. When Mamluks existed is immaterial, this source proves nothing about them, any more than a Victorian book about knights has any relevance. If you show me a book written in the 13th century which claims Middle Eastern troops practiced test cutting, then you will have a valid temporal connection, but it *still* won't be relevant because the Middle East is not Europe, and the cultures were radically different.

No, I wrote that test cutting has no *European* provenance; I mentioned the Japanese test cutting to show that test cutting did exist, but that when it was practice it had nothing whatsoever to do with testing the swordsman, but only the sword.

And no, Middle Eastern sources have no relevance to the study of historical European martial arts, any more than Japanese sources do, or Chinese.

There is *nothing* to suggest test cutting was practiced in medieval Europe. Nothing at all. And a 19th-century book certainly does nothing to change that.

Mamluk Tibor said...

It is from a 15th century manual:
Is it from the Middle Ages?

And You wrote this: "This essay will show that test cutting has no value, no historical provenance, leads to bad swordsmanship, and confuses people about how swords work."
No Europe there.

And if Japanese swordsmanship has no relevance, then the fact that they tested only the sword has no relevance either. ;)

Lack of evidence is not the evidence of lack.

Hugh Knight said...

I have no idea what that picture shows. What does the text say? What are they doing? If they are cutting the clay, why are they doing it? To test how well they cut, or to test the swords? That picture tells us nothing.

And it's still Middle Eastern, and therefore has *nothing* to do with Europe in the Middle Ages.

And you took my quote out of context. My *blog* is about European martial arts; that's the default. I'm sick and tired of poor debaters who triumphantly jump on my words as if they caught me in some massive error. No, you didn't. I write time and again throughout this blog that it is about activities in medieval Europe. If I say they never made weapons with shark's teeth in them, that means in medieval Europe, it doesn't mean no one did so anywhere else. If I talk about things from somewhere else (e.g., Japan) I make that clear. That kind of word twisting is juvenile.

As to your comment about Japan, once again, you are ignoring the point. Japanese martial ideas have *nothing* to do with European ones, but they do show something else: A reason someone *might* do test cutting, viz., to test the sword. Also, I have to show the Japanese material because a lot of katana fanbois will immediately jump on tameshigiri to "prove" we have to do test cutting today. They confuse the modern spiritual reason it has been adopted by iai-do with a martial relevance, which it does not have and was never intended to have. So I have to show why their claims have no relevance, and how tameshigiri has never had any martial relevance in Japan. Christ, son, did you even *read* what I wrote???

And the stupidest argument ever raised in any living history subject is the "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" argument. You're right, it is a true statement. It is also irrelevant. Using that argument, you can assert that medieval knights fought deeds of arms with tridents and nets like Roman gladiators, which is ludicrously false. We can only go by what the evidence shows they did.

Your 15th C picture (if it is 15C--you didn't even document that) is meaningless. First, because it has no provenance; second because you don't tell us what it is; and third because even if it *was* about test cutting, and that test cutting was about improving one's cuts, you can't say that because one culture did it another one did too.

The Japanese argument is ludicrous. All I was doing is explaining to the katana fanbois that it wasn't used in Japan to improve swordsmanship, and thus their argument that we have to do it is specious.

And your weakest argument about the lack of evidence is simply silly.|

Don't post again, you have exceeded my tolerance for idiots and not even worthy of rebuttal.