Words of wisdom: R.G. Allanson-Winn on self defence training (1905)

Though it is a good plan to be accustomed to the feel of the weapon which is most likely to serve you in time of need, it is nevertheless a grand mistake to get into a way of imagining that you can only use one kind of stick or one kind of sword effectively.

This is one reason why it is so advisable to range wide in fencing matters. I would always say, commence with the foils and work hard, under some good master, for a year or so without touching any other branch. Then go on to broad-sword, and keep to alternate days with foils. Later on take up the single-stick, and then go on to bayonet exercise, quarter-staff, and anything else you please.

This extended range of work will give you a wonderful general capability for adapting yourself at a moment’s notice to any weapon chance may place in your hands: the leg of an old chair, the joint of a fishing rod, or the common or garden spade; any of these may be used with great effect by an accomplished all-round swordsman.

There is one point on which a few words may not be out of place in this connection.

Good men, with their fists, and those who are proficient with the sword or stick, often complain that, in actual conflict with the rough and ready, though ignorant, assailant, they are worsted because the adversary does something diametrically opposed to what a scientific exponent of either art would do in similar circumstances.

It is certainly trying, when you square up to a rough and expect him to hit out with his fists, to receive a violent doubling-up kick in the stomach; and similarly annoying is it, when attacked by a man with a stick, to experience treatment quite different to anything you ever came across in your own particular School-of-Arms.

But after all this is only what you ought to expect. It is absolutely necessary to suit yourself to your environment for the time being, and be ready for anything.

Depend upon it science must tell, and there is always this very consoling reflection to fall back upon: if your opponent misses you, or you are quick enough to avoid his clumsy attack – either of which is extremely likely to happen – it is highly probable that you will be able to make good your own attack, for, as a rule, the unscientific man hits out of distance or wide of the mark, and this is rarely the case with a scientific man.

When walking along a country road it is a good plan to make cuts with your stick at weeds, etc., in the hedges, always using the true edge, i.e. if aiming at a certain part of a bramble or nettle, to cut at it, just as though you were using a sabre. By this sort of practice, which, by the way, is to be deprecated in a young plantation or in a friend’s garden, you may greatly increase the accuracy of your eye.

It is merely an application of the principle which enables a fly-fisher to place his fly directly under such and such over-hanging boughs, or gives the experienced driver such control over his whip that he can flick a midge off the ear of one of his galloping leaders.

Much does not, in all probability, depend upon the success or failure of the piscator’s cast, and very likely the midge might safely be allowed to remain on the leader’s ear; but if you are walking in a lonely suburb or country lane, your life may depend upon the accuracy with which you can deliver one single cut or thrust with your faithful blackthorn.

I can almost hear people say, “Oh, this is all rubbish; I’m not going to be attacked; life would not be worth living if one had to be always ‘on guard’ in this way.” Well, considering that this world, from the time we are born to the time we die, is made up of uncertainties, and that we are never really secure from attack at any moment of our lives, it does seem worth while to devote a little attention to the pursuit of a science, which is not only healthful and most fascinating, but which may, in a second of time, enable you to turn a defeat into a victory, and save yourself from being mauled and possibly killed in a fight which was none of your own making. Added to all this, science gives a consciousness of power and ability to assist the weak and defenceless, which ought to be most welcome to the mind of any man. Though always anxious to avoid anything like “a row,” there are times when it may be necessary to interfere for the sake of humanity, and how much more easy is it to make that interference dignified and effective if you take your stand with a certainty that you can, if pushed to extreme measures, make matters very warm indeed for the aggressor? The consciousness of power gives you your real authority, and with it you are far more likely to be calm and to gain your point than you would be without the knowledge. Backed up by science, you can both talk and act in a way which is likely to lead to a peaceful solution of a difficulty, whereas, if the science is absent, you dare not, from very uncertainty, use those very words which you know ought to be used on the occasion.

There are necessarily a good many difficulties to be faced in becoming at all proficient in the art of self-defence, but the advantages to be gained are doubtless very great.

An expert swordsman, and by this I mean one who is really au fait with any weapon you may put into his hand,who is also a good boxer and wrestler, is a very nasty customer for any one or even two footpads to make up to.

The worst of it is that it takes so long to become really good in any branch of athletics. When you know all, or nearly all, that is to be learned, you get a bit stiff and past work! But this, after all, need not trouble one much, since it applies to all relations of life. As a wise man once said, with a touch of sorrow and regret in his tone, “By the time you have learned how to live, you die.”

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