Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

History Weapons: Men at Arms specializes in the art of ancient battle.

Entering the room, you can hear the clash of sword on sword, dagger on dagger.

Looking in, you see long swords, rapiers, daggers and other fearsome weaponry lining the wall.

This may sound like something straight out of “Game of Thrones,” but it’s actually a scene not far from Harrisburg, at Crone’s Tae Kwon Do School just outside of Mechanicsburg.

Every Sunday afternoon, James Reed, founder of Men At Arms Martial Arts, instructs his students on long swordsmanship techniques following centuries-old training manuscripts from such masters as Joachim Meyer and Fiore dei Liberi.

“We can get a small glimpse of their world,” Reed said.

These manuscripts, written in the 1400s and 1500s, are referenced by the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) movement, of which Men At Arms is affiliated.

HEMA is a 10,000-member, worldwide group of clubs studying historical European martial arts to rediscover historical fighting styles. Started in the 1990s, the organization consists of clubs in the United States, Europe and Canada.

Reed began his affiliated group after trying—and failing—to find one nearby to practice with. So, he decided to start his own.

Recruiting a few coworkers, he set out to found a serious club and to dispel the myth the HEMA is just running around and hitting each other with swords. Instead, fighters pay close attention to technique: proper grip, footwork, body structure, etc.

Reed held his first class about a year ago—just himself and one student. Today, more than a dozen people routinely join him in class, armed with weapons (some plastic, some real) and wearing a mish-mash of lacrosse and fencing gear for protection.

Reed often brings in guest teachers, and, on a recent Sunday, an instructor from Kutztown’s historical fencing group, Patrick McCaffrey of L’Arte Della Bellica, drilled the class on the ninth “dagger master play” by Fiore dei Liberi, a 14th-century fencing master.

In this “play,” students paired up with a partner and learned to prevent themselves from getting impaled in the stomach.

“Fighting with a dagger is wrestling with a sharp point,” McCaffrey said.

He stressed the importance of technique and said that students should train as realistically as possible. Despite the intensity of the subject, he found opportunities to inject humor into the lesson.

“The first rule of daggers is don’t get stabbed,” he said, flatly stating the obvious. And, when it came time to reverse roles from attacking to defending, he said, “They just stabbed you. It’s only polite to stab them back.”

A few weeks prior, another guest instructor brought in both fencing gear and steel rapiers. He drilled students in the parking lot on a few basic moves.

Near the end of most Men At Arms classes, students get fully geared up and free spar, ideally using the skills they just learned in class. But it’s also a chance for them to experiment with different techniques and combinations.

HEMA is not limited to strictly long sword and daggers, though those two weapons are the primary focus for Men At Arms. Students also have sparred with hard plastic axes, sword and buckler (type of small shield), and even a khopesh, an Egyptian sickle-shaped sword.

New sign-ups are allowed to use loaner gear for six months. However, they’re expected to start collecting their own equipment, which they should begin to use as soon as possible. The variety of weapons has given rise to a recurring joke that members participate in an arms race as they collect gear.

On a mid-winter day, students were preparing for FlowerPoint, an annual, three-day tournament held each March near Kutztown. For that, Reed was working on getting tournament-grade sparring gear, complete with the Men At Arms logo, custom color designs and even personal crests for members who wanted them.

“Men At Arms will not be known as the pauper’s club,” Reed said in front of potential tournament attendees, stressing how seriously he wants everyone to take the tournament.

But what was the ultimate reason behind this enthusiasm for ancient weapons and fighting techniques?

“It’s about being able to bond over that passion,” Reed said. “We’re stepping into the shoes of men who have been dead for 400 years.”

Crone’s Tae Kwon Do School is located at 24 E. Main St., New Kingstown. For more information about Men at Arms Martial Arts, visit their Facebook page.

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