Although there are hundreds of schools around the world that teach Historical European martial arts (HEMA), many of these clubs are based in major cities and other metropolitan areas. There are less HEMA schools teaching medieval sword fighting in more rural areas and this unfortunately poses obstacles to learning historical fencing. So there are difficulties trying to learn HEMA when there is no local club near you.
However we live in a digital age, and there are alternatives to learning HEMA when there is no school located near you. If you have the drive to take on the harder path of self-study using educational resources such as online materials, videos and books then it is entirely possible to learn HEMA without attending a school. Choosing this route can actually result in you forming your own study group in your area, bringing forth a new HEMA club into the world.
As the vast majority of schools teaching HEMA start with the long sword. this article will focus on providing instruction on how to learn this weapon but the advice can apply to any other kind of weapon, too.
What you need to learn HEMA long sword fighting without attending a local school
Read our website
The first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with the the Path of the Long Sword page on our website. This section of our website will provide you a crash course in all of the surrounding history of long sword based martial traditions, and help you understand what kind of historical based sources are available to study.
Another important thing about the Path of the Long Sword page is that it provides a list of modern books which we strongly encourage you to purchase, because merely reading the original historical manuscripts will NOT teach you HEMA. There is a substantial amount of information that is not present in the historical sources themselves that have either been lost to time or simply were not included in the original fight books (Fechtbuch) that is necessary in order to reconstruct the martial traditions these books describe.
It has taken many decades for top level instructors of long sword based fighting traditions to reconstruct the arts in a form that is very close if not identical to what these manuscripts describe. To achieve this result the instructors have had to employ a process referred in the community as ‘frog DNA’ — that is, borrowing things from other martial arts traditions and combining these things with the information present in the historical sources.
As an example, many fechtbuch do not discuss in much detail how to do footwork nor even how to transition between moves. These things have had to be borrowed from later traditions, or studying of multiple different manuscripts within a single tradition (for example, the Liechtenauer tradition has about a dozen or so manuscripts associated with it, each one having various different things unique to them that may not appear in the others). There are even those who have looked at modern fencing, Kendo and other non-martial traditions such as historical dancing in order to fill in the blanks which appear in these manuals.
We also have a List of Recommended HEMA Books article you can read, too.
If you were to try to create your own interpretation of one of these long sword traditions with no input from a pre-existing reconstruction developed by one of the top level instructors in HEMA, it would take you years just to figure out how to do very basic things. And you’d also need to study more than just the historical sources of long sword fighting; you’d need to have extensively knowledge of other historical source material that compliments how sword fighting was done during the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance period of European history. This is not something the average person is going to be able to do.
This is why we strongly recommend that you purchase HEMA specific books produced by contemporary authors in addition to studying historical based manuscripts, whether they be free PDFs accessed on the Wiktenauer website or printed books. Generally speaking printed books are much easier to use when training in places like a park or studio but there are people who print PDFs, too. You can find free copies of the PDFs related to individual manuscript authors from links we have on the Path of the Longsword page as well as direct links to purchase both reproductions of historical manuscripts with English translations, and new books written by some of the best instructors in HEMA today that demonstrate a complete style which you can use without needing to read a dozen different books and essentially forming your own interpretation.If you want to learn other weapons than long sword, see our Weapons page for the full list of weapon specific guides. We currently cover long sword, rapier, military sabre / broadsword, smallsword and great sword, in addition to a section on mounted combat.
You should also read our Guides section, which has numerous very helpful articles on things related to HEMA in general and will serve you well in becoming involved in this community.
Find a training partner to self-learn HEMA
While there are some solo drills, it is pretty much impossible to learn HEMA entirely alone. Many of the techniques must be learned during drills performed with a training partner. All you need is one other person willing to learn with you. So convince a friend to agree to train with you and you’ll meet this requirement.
It only takes two people to begin to start a HEMA school of your own.
Purchase necessary HEMA gear
While many people start out using wooden sticks and such, these instruments do not simulate a sword very well and will often result in developing bad training artifacts in your muscle memory, which can be difficult to unlearn later. We strongly recommend at least purchasing a synthetic long sword produced by Red Dragon for performing solo drilling and low intensity partner drills, as this will be the cheapest option for getting a suitable training sword.
For partner based drilling we also recommend purchasing a fencing mask to prevent any accidental strikes to the eyes or teeth that can cause irreversible damage. Even with a synthetic sword you can seriously hurt someone when you make a mistake.
We have written on our website a dedicated guide on what other gear you need at various stages of your life as a student which you can consult for more information on what kind of gear you should buy and when to buy it. Please read our HEMA Starter Gear Guide for this information, as we don’t recommend going crazy with gear purchases right away until you are ready to advance to more intense drilling and sparring.
Consider enrolling into an online HEMA course that teaches long sword fighting
There is a very excellent program developed by a HEMA school based in Vancouver, British Columbia Canada called Academie Duello. It is among the largest schools in the world that teaches Italian based long sword and rapier, in addition to several other historical weapons. They even have programs for mounted combat on horseback.
As part of their curriculum offering is a program called Duello World, which includes an online video based correspondence course and live streamed sessions with an instructor, as well as assessments of your progress by an instructor from the academy.
This excellent program will teach you medieval long sword, rapier and other HEMA sword fighting from home. You can even gain access to live video classes where an instructor can provide feedback directly to you. It is an excellent program for learning swordsmanship.
You can subscribe to the Academie Duello TV program for $29 a month and it has a free trial period.
Join our HEMA forums and ask questions
We are a relatively new website that has specifically been created to act as an information resource portal for the Historical European martial arts community. Our forums are new but the HEMA Resources Team is willing to answer questions for those who are seeking more information about HEMA. Feel free to register on our forum and ask your questions.
Read other websites and watch HEMA focused YouTube channels
We have a list of Useful Websites on our site that has additional information that is helpful, including direct links to YouTube channels that provide some instruction of HEMA long sword fighting. You should check them out, too.
We hope this guide helps you start your journey into learning historical sword fighting.
If you’d like to learn more information about historical fencing practices please check out our Learn HEMA page for a guide to learning about the historical weapon that interests you. You can also find more guides we’ve written about other topics at our Helpful Guides page.