Rules survey

HEMA tournaments and competitions

Competitive sparring is one aspect of practicing a martial art.
The emphasis put on this aspect varies widely between disciplines and schools, say,
on a scale from ‘boxing’ (all training is essentially aimed at improving performance in competitions) to ‘Aikido’ (competitions, if any, focus the execution of forms, not on free fighting).

De facto, most possible attitudes towards competition are found among HEMA practitioners.
Most HEMA-ists will take an intermediate position (intermediate, that is, between the pure ‘boxing’ and the pure ‘Aikido’ schools of thought), essentially along the lines that competitions are fine, offering an opportunity to test the efficiency of the techniques you have trained against somebody who is seriously trying to beat you, but they shouldn’t become all-important, in order to avoid HEMA turning into just another combat sport, all about world rankings and winning medals, losing touch with the aspects involving reconstruction and historical accuracy.

In any case, the reality is that tournaments have become significantly more important within HEMA in a development that started around 2007. It is even possible that something like a ‘tournament subculture’ has developed within HEMA.
There are so far no internationally recognized rules for such tournaments. This is possibly a good thing and should remain this way, as variation between rules makes it more difficult to ‘study to the test’ as it were, i.e. to try to optimize one’s skills relative to the tournament rules instead of the historical art. This is of course the case in any sport practiced on a professional level, and inasmuch as HEMA is becoming a sport in this sense, it is very important to select rulesets that encourage practice of the historical techniques as much as possible.

SFHEMA as of today has no official stance on any of these questions. In what follows, we merely aim at presenting an overview of known existing rulesets which have been tried out in HEMA tournaments. For the time being, here is a list known rules for HEMA tournaments either applicable to individual events or published by HEMA federations.

Included in the list are rules for competition in the following disciplines: sword and buckler, longsword, dussack, rapier, basket-hilted sword, backsword / sabre, smallsword, unarmed (grappling / ringen). Also, there are some events that offer competitions in cutting (i.e. solo demonstration, not contact sport). There is no fundamental reason to exclude competitions in demonstrations of forms or choreography, but no such competitions seem to be held at HEMA gatherings (there are separate competitions in show fighting which judge the execution of historically accurate techniques, but these also tend to judge elements such as historical costume and dramatic expression; e.g. Furor et Ferrum).

Comparison of longsword tournament rules

The following table compares a dozen tournament rules for longsword.
Most are intended for either Feder or nylon wasters. The HEFFAC rules are the only ones to allow for a sidearm (wooden dagger).
The most “versatile” or complex rules (HEFFAC, Longpoint) make for more accurate judgement of fighters’ performance, but they are also harder on the judges. In general, the level of ‘granularity’ with which exchanges can be scored depends on the competence and the number of available judges. The complex scheme used in HEFFAC is intended to reward impressive, complex, fluent series of techniques, one of which which may amount to ten times the score (or more) than a simple hit scored by hand-sniping.

The “Franco-Belgian” rules are a special case, being the only historical ruleset listed, first presented by
Matt Galas
in 2007 on (c.f. 2012 guidelines); these rules were apparently used for “historical sports fencing” in the fencing guilds of Belgium and Northern France from the mid 16th until the late 18th century.

On tournament formats, see also this 2010 article by Matt Galas.

ruleset weapon arena bout duration scoring hits double hits afterblow tournament
Swordfish (2012) Feder overstepping counts as being hit 10 exchanges, or max. 2-3 min, finals 2×3 min 1 point per valid hit, incl. pommel strikes to the mask, dominance in wrestling elimination on third double hit afterblow applies, except where the first blow was to the head.
ÖFHF (2012) Feder 14m x 14m, or 10m x 10m, overstepping counts as being hit first to score 5 hits, max. 3 min, finals: first to score 15 hits, max. 3 x 3 min no hits to hands or feet. 1 point per solid hit, incl. pommel strikes to the mask, dominance in wrestling point for the fencer in the vor
HEFFAC (Lopes Cardozo 2012) Feder + wooden dagger overstepping awards 1 point to opponent 3 min Hits with either sword blade or dagger: head: 4 points; upper body / upper arm: 3 points; legs: 2 points; hands and lower arm: 1 point. Points awarded for “lethal or incapacitating” hits only. Pommel-strike, half-swording punch or kick awarded 1 point if followed up by a hit (or subtract one point from opponent if these actions are followed by a hit scored by opponent). Points are cumulative for two consecutive hits. Only 2 one-handed attacks per bout per fighter. on 4th double hit, bout ends zero points to both fighters score for afterblow subtracted from score given to main hit preliminary round: winning a bout is worth 2 points (draw: 1 point each).
Fightcamp (Easton 2012) nylon 3 points’ lead, finals: 5 points’ lead judge’s discretion, any hit deemed to “would have wounded” elimination on third double hit afterblow counts as double hit pure pyramid / elimination
BFHF (2011) steel First “killing blow”, or third “wounding blow” illegal: hits to knee or below, fingers and back of head, throws double hits count fixed number of bouts against random opponents, top four go to finals
FEDER (v. 1.1) Feder 7m x 7m to 14m x 14m first to score 3 hits, max. 3 min any “clean hit” no points awarded
Arts of Mars (2012) overstepping counts as being hit 10 exchanges, max. 3 min any “good” hit, including throws no points afterblow counts as double hit number of hits received recorded for ranking
Hammaborg(?) any first to score 6 points hands: 2 points, torso, upper arms or legs: 3 points, head: 6 points. count both hits; a double hit which brings both fencers above 6 points results in both losing the bout. as double hit ‘unharmed’ win: +4 points, ‘wounded’ win: +2 points, loss: -1 point. One bout in all possible pairings (if feasible), then rank by points total (no finals necessary)
Hammertertz (2012) nylon circular, 10 m diameter first to score 3 hits, 3 min max. 1 point per valid hit, incl. pommel strikes to the mask, disarmament, throw/takedown no points, elimination on third double hit no points round-robin pool, elimination finals
BSG VIII (2012) nylon circular, 10m diameter. overstepping: 1 point to opponent first to score 10 points, max. 3 min hit to head or torso, disarm or throw: 3 points; hit to other area, pommel strike to the mask: 1 point. no points, elimination on third double hit 1 point 1. qualifying stage with Swiss pairings; 2. single-elimination stage; 3. single-elimination finals with top 4 contenders.
Longpoint (Norwood 2012) nylon circular, 10m diameter. 7 points (2 judges) / 11 points (3 judges), max. 3 min each judge may award up to 4 points for every exchange:
1 point: contact; 2 points: good hit; 3 points: good hit to head or torso; 4 points: good hit to head or torso while controlling opponent’s weapon.
elimination on third double hit (no score in finals) reduces max. score of opponent to 1 point 1. pools; 2. top 16: single-elimination phase using a bracket system; 3. top 4: finals
PNWHEMAG (2012) nylon overstepping awards 1 point to opponent 3 clear strikes in 2 min or 5 clear strikes in 3 min one-handed blows illegal. no points for “hand sniping”. No kicks or closed-hand strikes. point to the “more lethal” hit double elimination format
“Franco-Belgian” Feder first valid hit only cuts with the flat of the blade, only above the elbows and above the waist. “Rising target”: only hits above the level of last hit against King. In-fight illegal. point to King counts only for King series of “Challengers” vs. “King”. Challenger to successfully hit the King becomes King in turn. Fencers eliminated on losing third bout.

From the above comparision, the main points to be decided when coming up with a ruleset for a given tournament are:

  1. bout duration: Most rules end a bout on one fencer reaching a fixed number of points, setting a time limit. Alternatives are: a fixed number of exchanges (Swordfish, Arts of Mars) or a target lead over the opponent (Fightcamp). Some rules have bouts of fixed duration (HEFFAC 3 min, Swordfish 2×3 min for finals), adding a tactical element where a fencer may try to tire out their opponent.
  2. illegal actions (fouls): actions which not just go unrewarded but result in warnings and eventual disqualification. Under all rules, of course, excessive brutality, hitting the groin, unsportsmanlike behaviour in general, etc. are considered fouls. Some rules exclude additional techniques which are potentially painful or dangerous even though they may figure in historical manuals, such as hits with the cross, pommel hits anywhere other than to the front of the mask, hits to the spine or back of the head, closed-hand blows, kicks (or certain types of kicks), certain types of takedowns or locks, etc.
  3. excluded targets: hits that are not necessarily penalized but which do not result in a point. ÖFHF excludes hands and feet. BFHF excludes fingers, knees and lower legs. PNWHEMAG excludes “hand sniping”, i.e. hitting the hands from long distance, while hitting the hands from closer distance is counted as a valid hit. PNWHEMAG also excludes one-handed hits (i.e. Geissler); HEFFAC limits the number of one-handed hits per bout.
  4. rank hits depending on target area: the simpler rules have a yes-or-no approach to counting hits. The more complex ones award more points for hits to the head and/or torso. HEFFAC even awards cumulative points for two hits executed in two successive tempos.
  5. rank hits depending on quality of contact: many rules require a “good”, “clear” or “clean” hit before the fight is even stopped and a point awarded. ÖFHF goes to much detail in defining this notion, others leave the decision to the judge’s discretion. Fightcamp asks the judges to distinguish between “wounding” and “lethal” hits (considering both the target area and the quality of impact). Longpoint is unique in awarding a single point for mere contact, and a second point for good quality of contact.
  6. double hits: many rules penalize double hits by treating both fencers as losing the bout after a certain number of incidents. Note that this works in preliminary rounds but not in finals. ÖFHF has a right-of-way rule. PNWHEMAG awards the point to the hit considered “more lethal”.
  7. afterblow (Nachschlag): some rules disregard the afterblow, others treat it as identical to a double hit, but the more complex ones use a successful afterblow to reduce the score awarded for the first hit. The idea is to award fencers who successfully defend against the afterblow, or equivalently, to allow fencers the chance to reduce the value of a hit scored against them if the hit was scored without proper cover and retreat.
  8. infight: pommel strikes and unarmed techniques including throws and takedowns: some rules treat such actions as valid hits, others merely permit them but do not stop the exchange unless they are followed up by a regular hit. HEFFAC awards extra points for such techniques if and only if they are followed by a hit, but no points if the exchange continues with neither fencer scoring a hit. Some rules break wrestling (both fighters on the ground) after a certain interval (5 or 10 seconds) if neither establishes a clearly dominant position.
  9. overstepping: some rules penalize fencers who step out of or are forced out of the arena. Others simply restart the exchange.
  10. influence of bout scores on tournament ranking (in group phase of tournament): numerous possibilities, either award fixed points to winner, or distinguish ‘perfect win’ from ‘wounded win’, or let the tournament statistics inherit the points awarded in the bout, or inherit penalty based on number of double hits, etc.
  11. mix it up: consider the use of different rules in different stages of the tournament, e.g. qualification round, group round, finals. This forces fencers to stay versatile, focused and conscious of what they are doing; in addition, it may have the practical advantage of reserving more complex rules which require more judges (or more experienced judges) for the finals while using simpler rules for the larger number of fights in the prelimiary stage.