Using HEMA In Real Life: Where To Start

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When people familiar with Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), their first thoughts tend to be using a sword. It’s certainly mine. However, as I noted earlier this week, HEMA in real life can totally work for self-defense.

Unfortunately, it’s not just so easy as hitting up the internet, watching some YouTube videos on HEMA, and getting rolling.

No, you need to know where to start. As such, here are my thoughts on viable places to begin HEMA training if you’re interested in real-world applications.

To begin with, I recommend people begin with unarmed combat methods within HEMA rather than focusing on longsword or rapier instruction. Sword fighting is cool, don’t get me wrong, and I think there are some benefits to it.

However, from a self-defense standpoint, it shouldn’t be your priority. You’re not likely to be carrying a sword around with you anyway. Local authorities tend to frown on that.

Luckily, there are a lot of places for you to start.


Right now, I’m delving into the world of pugilism. Basically, this is boxing back in the day when the training was more about self-defense than sports.

I won’t say about this because I’m just beginning to understand it myself, but it’s basically bare-knuckle boxing.

To be fair, it looks kind of silly to modern eyes. The hands are way out front, they’re moving all the time, it looks nothing like the fighting methods we’re used to seeing on television.

However, most of the fighting we see has its basis in sport fighting, things like boxing and the UFC. I’m not entirely sure how much of that is applicable to fighting for your life.

One upside of learning this kind of fighting, though, is the low barrier of entry. You’ve already got a body, after all. You can start learning the techniques right off the bat and save money for any other equipment you might need.


I’m not going to lie, I will likely be delving into this one at some point. It’s obscure and was basically forgotten, but there’s always been a lingering interest in Bartitsu.


Well, because it was the preferred fighting style of one Sherlock Holmes.

This method isn’t truly unarmed, though there’s a definite emphasis on unarmed combat. What weapons it does use, however, are things like pocket squares, walking sticks, and umbrellas. All things, oddly enough, you can still carry on an airplane.

Victorian era martial arts versus terrorist would be a somewhat amusing story if you ask me.

Created by Edward William Barton-Wright around the turn of the 20th Century, it never really gained much in the way of popularity. However, Barton-Wright basically created the world’s first mixed martial arts, long before Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.

Barton-Wright studied Japanese martial arts like Jiu-Jitsu and combined with other arts along the way, including something called “single stick” which could be applied to a cane.

In fact, from what I’ve seen of it, it’s actually an oddly effective style. While it’s not quite what you see in the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, the use of distractions and other odds and ends seems to be a hallmark of this style based on my (very limited) understanding.


Unlike a lot of western martial arts, Savate has never really faded away. A French martial art, it was one of several Barton-Wright borrowed from for Bartitsu.

Savate is a method of boxing that also uses kicks. Unlike Muay Thai, though, it doesn’t allow things like knees.

Here in the U.S., Savate can be kind of rare, but it’s still out there for learning. Further, it has much of its origin in street fighting.

But, then again, it’s French. I think if we looked deeply enough, we’ll find that the preferred technique is to surrender.

Catch Wrestling

Professional wrestling is to fighting was movies are to actual romance. In other words, pretty much nothing.

However, once upon a time, professional wrestling was the real deal and many professional wrestlers focused on a style known as catch-as-catch-can or “catch wrestling.”

This is a method that focused on a lot of joint locks, which introduces the strong possibility of injury of your opponent.

This is bad, right?

Nope. Remember, we’re talking about fighting because you have to, not for fun or sport. If you’re fighting, you fight to win. Guess what happens if your opponent’s arm is flopping at his side like a fresh-landed trout?

Yep. You win.

In fact, catch wrestling is apparently so effective that it’s why professional wrestling became fake. People were tired of getting injured, so they started putting on a show that looked like wrestling but was actually much safer.

Sports Wrestling

Most people don’t think of freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling as HEMA, but it kind of is. It dates back ages and ages, originated in Europe, and is a martial art.

What more do you want?

It’s also fairly effective. You see, one knock against pugilism I have is that modern fights tend to end up on the ground. There, you need to know some way to grapple.

Wrestling is pretty much the grappling method for most people, especially if you’re wanting something historical. However, most folks will likely disagree with me that wrestling, as I’m describing it here, is actually HEMA, but it is.

Self-directed HEMA training

Despite already saying longsword and such aren’t the place to start, a lot of the old manuals HEMA folks use also include sections on grappling. As noted earlier, that’s an important skill to learn.

Yet, if you’re one of those people who are having to learn HEMA on your own via manuals and the odd video illustrating a technique, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing it by starting with the grappling instead of starting with the longsword.

Now, the downside is that unless you have people who have already done it, you can horribly misinterpret what you’re seeing. Even then, you might well be wrong, but at least you’ll be making the same mistakes everyone else makes.

Also, it’s difficult to go through those manuals. They’re not a whole lot of fun and even translated, they’re often written with confusing wording and flowery prose. It’s easier to learn from someone else.

However, most schools seem to start off with swordplay. I still haven’t determined if there’s a reason for that or not, but I’m a neophyte. If a more experience HEMA practitioner wishes to let me know, I’d be thrilled to discuss it. I’m learning, after all.


I’m no expert on HEMA, much less HEMA in real life, but I do believe that there are applications for it. We just have to approach it from a real-world perspective and be willing to modify it as needed.

None of this remotely delves into the world of HEMA weapons that might actually be applicable, since that’s a topic for another day, but one I think would be worth delving into in the very near future.

Still, I’ll admit that I’m kind of excited at this new direction. What about you?

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

2 thoughts on “Using HEMA In Real Life: Where To Start”

  1. My unconfirmed suspicion is most HEMA schools start with sword for two reasons: a) it’s the vast majority of what the manuals discuss, and b) SWOOOOOORRRRRRRRDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!

    1. I’m pretty sure you’re right on both counts.

      Plus, truth be told, I kind of want to spend more time on the sword because “SWOOOOOORRRRRRRRDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!”

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