Longsword Training with F. Braun McAsh -- November 22-25th, 2016

by Wendy Jones

Cold steel struck then rebounded once again – the sharp sound of metal on metal—its force rang out bringing people from all directions to stop and stare in amazement at the two (unevenly) matched combatants facing off with German longswords in a Canadian squash court. Wide-eyed, some watched the drama no doubt wondering if they should call the RCMP or what?

I spent the week of November 20th training with F. Braun McAsh, primary sword master for Highlander. In my opinion, the week flew by too fast – each day moving at warp speed and each lesson ending too quickly for what I was trying to achieve. While the amount of information this man imparted in each lesson was extensive for someone who had never picked up a longsword, the knowledge and information I was absorbing each day was only the tip of the iceberg—as I would soon find out. I wasn't simply training with a Martial Arts Master – I had the privilege of working with a man who represented the summation of centuries of history – the merging of two heritages: a great ancestor of the knight Von Braun and a man who was himself a current Scottish chiefdom of the clan McAsh.

Note* The emblem on the clothing in this photo is a fictional device representing the Strigoi –'demon' bird of the night. It is interesting to note that this word has its very early origin in Roman mythology. More modern interpretations suggest either a demon creature, a person with magical transforming abilities, or even a vampire.

F. Braun is an excellent falconer – shown here with a hawk on his gauntlet.

His basic knowledge of the Von Braun Germanic family history goes back to at least the 1300s. His legitimate heraldic device (emblem) on his families' shield is a complex series of images that were intended to identify its bearer on the battlefield. His true shield is divided into two parts: the bottom half being black with a five-pointed gold star – the top, with a left-facing red dragon, one claw raised and ready to strike [Dragon Guardant] – a green chevron on top and left to right with two gold swords, their points meeting at the base, above the Latin words: Facta non verba, 'Deeds not words.' His great-grandfather Von Braun was the last official knight of his family.

The McAsh clan (spelled MacAsh in most Scottish database citations) was originally recognized by the Crown in approximately 1746 and is officially registered today in the Lord Lyon King of arms in Scotland. This name, translated as 'the son of dwellers by the ash tree', is found in association with both the MacDonalds and the Campbell clan history, though it is unknown if his MacAsh family, in fact, had allegiance to another clan (Historical note – in the 16th century, the MacDonalds and the MacLeods were bitter enemies, feuding for more than 100 years). The thistle is the MacAsh clan's crest.

Today, our F. Braun McAsh is a very real clan chieftain, whose only castle he is required to defend, is a lovely and comfortable home in British Columbia.

Mac Donald and Campbell tartans

Back to the squash court and our audience of the wide-eyed and uninitiated Canadians…

A fellow by the name of Ringeck, who lived in the mid-14th-century, was responsible for diagramming the maneuvers I was learning. If his instructor and senior, Herr Liechtenauer, had left any notes, they were either eaten by dogs, carried off by ravens for a nest, or burned to keep himself warm in his cold, drafty home. In other words, his personal notes are simply nonexistent today.

The philosophy for fighting in the minds of these medieval warriors was very straightforward and basic – choose your target then, simply and unceremoniously walk up to him (or her, in some cases) and begin hacking each other to pieces. If everyone is still standing after the first 20 seconds of battle, you'd better take a rapid step backward and seriously rethink your strategy – no kidding. The idea was to break, cut, or thrust through something seriously important in the first two maneuvers. Why waste time and energy on one person? You would likely have a whole hoard more action from his companions -- who were nearby -- before you knew it. And with a 2.5 pound, or greater weight, sword in your hand, let's hope you have had your protein for breakfast because you are going to be swinging this chunk of metal for the entire day (assuming you survived that long).

Take a look at these maneuvers (Yes – we were definitely in motion when these photos were shot). The obvious idea is to stop a blade coming in your direction – no problem (usually) then you have to execute some attack maneuver. Now, here is where the problem lies. Getting under, over, or around the other sword in motion tends to leave you open for at least a half-dozen different angles. Logically (you say) it should be possible – but in a practical sense, it isn't. Braun showed me time and time again why it isn't going to happen. One big problem you encounter when you are wielding a 48-inch blade, with literally only inches between the two of you, is arc Vs speed – there is too much of one that has to be traversed and not enough time to do it in.

Time and time again I watched the angle of deflection on a strike – and he wasn't even striking with full strength (we would have had serious questions from the management as they watched us pulling swords out of the wall or floor from that kind of force). Realistically, to overcome the speed of his reflexes, and execute a killing (or incapacitating) maneuver, you would have to be moving at least 3X - 4X his initial speed – AFTER you had halted the motion of his blade. It simply is not humanly possible to generate that additional speed at that close of distance with this weight/length of a sword.

Take a look at that determination in his eye – he has a real 'death grip' on that handle and a wicked pommel to use creatively if he gets close enough to you….OUCH!

From the side—over the top—and of course, the good old 'Alber' maneuver (the fool) up from the bottom—any which way I tried, my avenue was blocked. OK…so I was a newbie and we were both moving evenly and carefully but seriously – there was a counter to every move, the question was one of time and whether you could successfully fake one maneuver while executing another. With Braun, no chance!

Incidentally, these swords were correctly balanced and I was surprised that at no time was my arm/wrist sore. I ran into this problem of aching arm with a much lighter saber at Rancho Indalo – no clue why. The pony in my hands that day was noticeably heavier but I had no problems wielding it.

A training session with McAsh would not be complete without a long visit with a most remarkable woman—Mary McAsh. This terribly camera-shy person, sporting a lovely smile and quiet grace, is nothing short of a magician with her fingers. A master seamstress and costume creator, she is the one who has faithfully and lovingly sewn the very authentic clothing – clothing that is totally functional, by the way — for her husband. These beautiful pieces, which he has been wearing in front of the camera, have been generated from her creative, nimble fingers. One of the days I was there, she was off to the other side of the city in search of a specific cloth for a project. Personally, I think she would have gone to the ends of the earth to find what she was looking for -- now that's dedication.

Example of period cloth designs.

Not only does she insist on authentic cloth and designs but buttons (in some cases) as well. These days, she casts pewter buttons for his clothing by hand.

Examples of handmade pewter buttons (photo from Etsy website).

While it probably wouldn't be fair to say that, without Mary's magic, this sword master would be forced to duel in his birthday suit, I do suspect the quality of what he would be wearing would be noticeably less authentic without her creative talents.

In addition to her sewing talent, Mary sculpts and creates very decorative, swirling candles. That house is filled with her unique artwork. A truly remarkable team who are both still very much in love.

This visit was an incredible, educational tutorage, though far too brief.