I have had the good fortune of being able to recently participate in Fight Night at Lonin, a HEMA collective in Seattle. Fight Night is an open sparring session where HEMA groups can get together to spar with light steel weapons. I acquired a fencing jacket, neck protector, padded pants, shin guards, gauntlets, back of head protector, neck protector, and a steel blunted longsword and joined in their open fight night two weeks ago. The longswords are about 42 inches long so the distance is closer to a larger Chinese jien or a Japanese odachi (greatsword) than a Japanese tachi (sabre), so it is taking some getting used to.
I am learning about how the HEMA community evaluates engagements and it is giving me insight into portions of my kenjutsu. In Jikishinkage-ryu to no kata, there is a finishing sequence to many of the kata where the participant (shidachi) jumps back into a high guard (jodan) after delivering a finishing blow. For many years I didn't really understand the motion, even though I noticed high-level kendoka using the movement after scoring in some of their matches. The jump back in to no kata finally makes sense to me. In HEMA, after you score, the other person can counter-strike. If they hit you, your point gets knocked down a category due to what is known as a failed withdrawal. The idea is to always protect yourself, because you don't know how someone will react once they are hit. If they have armor, you may not know if your cut will penetrate until after they have a chance to hit you. So, once you strike, you need to cover, as there could very likely be a counter-strike of some kind.
At times in sparring I could use some tactics well, despite having to adapt to a different distance and tempo, so I am looking forward to doing that again if I am able. I am practicing Chinese sword with the steel longsword (called a feder or "feather" sword ) in the park a bit to get the movements facile (there is a cross-bar type guard that one must be cognizant of as jabbing yourself in the eye is not to be desired). A person I sparred with at Fight Night wound up taking second place in the men's open steel longsword tournament at Swordsquatch this weekend, so there is clearly a lot of skill to work against in their group.
English Backsword Sparring
Last weekend I attended Swordquatch and took excellent classes in bo (staff) from Ellis Amdur and in wrestling from Mike Panian of Swordfighters, BC. The level of swordsmanship among experienced HEMA practitioners I witnessed at the open steel tournament finals was quite high. They have gotten a lot of mileage from studying the existing texts, rigorous experimentation, and hard physical training. It was refreshing to watch, especially noticing how genuine and down to earth the people seemed to be at this event.
I think it would be good if serious Asian martial arts groups that did sparring or wanted to do sparring with weapons took up HEMA gear and rules as a starting point and integrated free practice into their training after a while, and then sparred each other (even across groups). It would change most of the discussion around koryu. Of course, Kendo has evolved too much from its roots for that to be a meaningful laboratory for Japanese swordsmanship, just as Olympic fencing has for European swordsmanship. The HEMA community has developed or invented a sort of middle ground for themselves, where the German and Italian resurrected traditions can interact.