The armored fighters circle one another a few feet apart on a grassy field, sizing each other up and planning their attacks. The clang of metal on metal rings out as one longsword strikes another. They draw closer and swords clang, then there’s an “ooof” as a strike slides off a helmet, and more grunts. The fighters, laden in heavy armor, pant and break away from each other, then re-engage. As they grapple, one fighter’s mailed arm circles his opponent’s neck, and the takedown begins.
It may sound like a scene from the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” but the action is happening at a park in Dix Hills. The clanging and thumps come from practice bouts between members of the Long Island Historical Fencing Society.
The German longswords the group uses, along with daggers, spears and martial arts moves, are part of medieval fighting techniques resurrected by Historical European Martial Arts aficionados who study and practice the fighting method.
The longsword is a 34- to 38-inch blade with an 8-inch grip that requires two hands. It weighs about 3 pounds.
“It’s a real, challenging martial art, not something out of Dungeons & Dragons,” said Brad Rangell, co-founder of the Long Island Historical Fencing Society, a Uniondale-based group that embraces the historical fighting techniques. “We’re not LARPers [live-action role players] or cosplayers [costume players] or re-enactors.”
The fencing society is a martial arts group that interprets what Rangell, 50, of Woodbury, calls the German canon, a tradition based principally on the manual of 14th century German master Johannes Liechtenauer. What began as a hobby and labor of love for Rangell — who runs Iron Clad Sports, an advisory and investment firm for sports businesses — became the Long Island Historical Fencing Society when Rangell and co-founder Mike Capanelli, of Queens, started the group five years ago.
The group is a member of the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance, an organization that offers education, support and instructor certification worldwide to those interested in historic European martial arts. There’s a lot of history behind the medieval German Kunst des Fechtens (the “Art of Fencing”) martial arts system that members absorb as they study and implement techniques outlined in the old manuscripts.
“It’s intellectually challenging and an interesting time period to me,” Rangell said.
Publicist and fencing society member Greg Fasolino, 51, of Huntington, said the closest images that portray longsword fighting are from “Game of Thrones” and the 1981 movie “Excalibur.” Scenes show fighters gripping the sword halfway up the blade in what Fasolino calls a half-sword hold as they engage, a move that gives them better point control and more leverage as they go for vulnerable points like the armpit or neck.
Members do get a chance to indulge their sense of fantasy a little, branching out into learning about Viking shield warfare, but reality is a heavy load to bear — fully armored fighters can wear gear weighing up to 80 pounds while hefting a longsword with both hands.
“Forget everything you’ve seen in the movies,” said Ryan Zukowski, 26, a Brookhaven resident and carpenter by trade who is a senior instructor with the group. “It’s all wrong [for what we do], there’s been a lot of sportification. It’s a killing art. The hardest thing is to break people’s natural resistance to hitting someone with a 3-pound piece of metal.”
Rangell said the group attracts fencers and practitioners of other martial arts who want to try something new. Most of the group’s 20 members are men, although Rangell said one woman has joined and there are several women active nationally in the arts alliance’s events and with other clubs. The median age of fencing society members is around 30-35, Rangell said, and the group’s youngest member, a high school student who loves history and learning about the weapons, is 16.
“We get the nerds,” Rangell said with a laugh. “We get the guys who play Dungeons & Dragons, who like ‘Star Wars,’ science fiction and ‘Lord of the Rings.’ There’s no profile, really, although we got quite a bump [in interest] from ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”
Read on as fencing society members share more details and history about their group and the martial arts system they’ve become fans of:
Who thought of this and why?
While instructors in many Eastern martial arts kept those arts alive for centuries, most medieval European fighting traditions died out when gunpowder became popular and warfare changed, Rangell said. The Liechtenauer system was reborn in the 1990s when old treatises found a century ago were translated and people began to relearn fighting techniques from the 14th to mid-15th century, Rangell added.
One problem those who use the technique have had to overcome is that illustrations from the Middle Ages weren’t very detailed or accurate, so they re-create the moves as best they can. “You had to martially interpret it once it was translated,” Rangell said. He traveled frequently in his former job as a managing director handling Citi Private Bank’s sports advisory business, and often extended his stay in different cities to study with local masters. “There are a lot of great people in this community, open and willing to share what they know,” he said.
Is there a practical application?
Learning how to grapple — a form of wrestling close in with an opponent — and developing strategy and footwork to advance an attack all help members react quickly and become adept at protecting themselves, Rangell said. “We teach you how to defend yourself and how to injure someone. If one of us was attacked, we’d know how to disarm the attacker and defend ourselves.”
What do people get out of this?
“It’s unique in that it melds athleticism and intellectual study, so you’re engaged on a couple of levels,” said Ian Craig, 32, of Huntington, who is a schoolteacher. Craig was one of three fighters who donned a full suit of armor for bouts on a recent Sunday when the group gathered at the basketball court at Dix Hills Park for afternoon practice.
Fasolino said camaraderie plays a big role. “We have a lot of creative people and passionate people interested in re-creating history,” he said.
How much does gear cost?
Beginners don’t need to buy anything until they decide they enjoy the fighting method and want to stick with it, Zukowski said. If they continue, members accumulate gear gradually, sharing basic equipment as they learn. The first purchase is often a fencing mask for $100 or less, padded gloves and a trainer longsword, which ranges in price from $270 to about $520.
A full suit of armor, which fencers refer to as a harness, is expensive, starting around $2,000 to $2,500 for an entry-level, off-the-shelf outfit and going far higher if it’s custom fitted; Zukowski said he saw one version advertised online at $28,000.
Getting dressed and walking to the bout location can be a workout in itself, joked Peter Angello, 27, of Port Jefferson. A mail shirt can weigh about 30 pounds, and the helmet alone weighs between 10 and 12 pounds. It can take half an hour to get suited up, and the fencer needs a helper, a role squires filled back in the day. “Here goes the armor shuffle,” Angello said at a recent practice, putting his arms up for a helper to drop the flexible mail shirt on over his head, adjusting it as it slid into place. Once on, he added a belt for support and then pulled the mail out over the belt to take some of its weight off his shoulders.
Even with the protective padding, bruises are standard, and there are some stitches on occasion. A heavy whack with a staff or sword can break or bruise fingers, and the fencers train in proper falling techniques so they don’t injure themselves if they fall while grappling.
What weapons do fencing society members use?
The group practices with a number of different weapons, but its main focus is the German longsword. Instructors teach the fundamentals of longsword fighting, footwork and attacks, and how to fight in harness, along with grappling.
Members also learn fighting techniques for using daggers; spears; a combination of sword and buckler, which is a small 8- to 16-inch handheld shield; and a messier, or long knife.
Where does the society hold its fencing lessons?
The Long Island Historical Fencing Society makes its home at the Omni Fitness Center at the Omni building in Uniondale.
Classes meet two nights a week at the center, and outdoor sessions meet Sundays at the basketball courts at Dix Hills Park from spring to fall. About once a month, they hold Friday Fight Nights at the center where members practice their skills. Tuesday night lessons focus on longsword fighting, while Thursday night lessons focus on mixed weapons. Lessons are two hours, and the Sunday outdoor practices can last longer if there’s a good crowd.
Students learn fencing fundamentals as they work at the novice and intermediate levels, then take the haupstück (entry level) exam. If they pass the exam, they have an option to become an LIHFS member. Classes run $20 for a 2-hour session, or a block of 10 classes costs $149, and the first class is free, Rangell said.
For more information, including pricing and class schedule, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 631-780-4682.
INFO for graphic of suit of armor
A suit of armor includes a helmet;
a mail shirt;
either a solid breastplate or a coat of plate that has steel plates riveted to a woolen cover that goes over the fencer’s torso;
shoulder protection called spaulders;
the upper and lower canon to cover the arms;
leg armor that includes a cuisse for the upper leg;
a knee cover called a poleyn;
a shin cover called a greave;
underneath the fencers wear garments with leather strings used to tie the armor in place