The Austin Historical Weapons Guild Brings Historical Swordplay to Life

Cut, thrust, parry, fun

Founder and Head Instructor Anthony Buonomo (r) teaches writer Robert Penson how to fight with a messer, a German single-edged sword (Photo by John Anderson)

From lovers of history to fans of fantasy, who hasn't wanted to be the weapon-wielding warrior, the knight in shining armor? Who hasn't wanted to storm the castle sword in hand? To face their enemies and cross blades with a foe? Who hasn't wanted to jump into the pages of a Conan comic or onto the screen of a historical epic action movie? Wanted but never could. Enter the Austin Historical Weapons Guild.

In a small business park in the north of the city, the AHWG is on a quest: to teach bygone killing arts to those who wish to learn and spread "HEMA, hospitality, and honor." HEMA stands for historical European martial arts, the study and practice of the armed fighting systems of Europe from the medieval period through the Renaissance. Yes, that means sword fighting. Longswords, short swords, rapiers, daggers: AHWG has it all, focusing on different historical teaching methods for each. For instance, when it comes to longsword, they specialize in the 14th century German swordmaster Johannes Liechtenauer's teachings. For rapiers they focus on Gérard Thibault d'Anvers' early 17th century style as recorded in his Academie de l'Espée. Joachim Meyer's Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechte covers a multitude of 16th century disciplines. Even wrestling is part of the curriculum. "It's the foundation of fighting, with or without a blade," explained AHWG founder Anthony Buonomo. The classes are informal and relaxed, unlike the instructional manuals, written by and for those that lived and died by the sword. The Guild's pursuit is to study these materials, discuss them, and try to decipher what these swordmasters, with their artistic illustrations and poetic writings, meant for their students to glean from them so many centuries ago.

“We are insanely in love with teaching people to hit other people.” – Anna Beard

The school's website succinctly states its raison d'être as "teaching people how to safely hit their friends since 2016." Buonomo embodied that mission even back in middle school, where his battles were fought with faux swords made of PVC, pool noodles, and duct tape. After joining a HEMA group in an Austin park, Buonomo soon found himself leading the class. "It was accidental," he explains. "The guy who was in charge of it had to move, so I'm like, 'I've got martial arts experience. I'll help you guys do things.'" Within a few years, he had founded his very own school, the Austin Historical Weapons Guild.

"We are insanely in love with teaching people to hit other people," said co-owner Anna Beard, a lifelong dancer who uses her experience and training to teach several courses, including "HEMA, Rinse, Repeat," a class that builds muscle memory and improves footwork. "We purposely cultivate a sense of community in our school for anybody who wants to come and try it for whatever reason. Everybody is welcome here."

And who are these people, these modern swashbucklers, these keepers of the flame?

"I'm a nerd," said James Cooper, student and assistant rapier instructor. "I love history, and I like that I can practice history. It feels like archeology."

"I played D&D, WoW, Star Wars, all of these things," Beard said.

Photo by John Anderson

"I discovered it through Olympic-style fencing," added senior student Morgan Sinko.

Whether you love history or you just want to fight like your favorite fantasy character, you'll need to complete a six-week beginners' course before you can hit your friend. "You're learning the basics so that you can function in the classes," Beard described the course, adding that there is no real beginner weapon. "We don't do beginning, intermediate, advanced. It's like an open buffet." And like a buffet, they allowed me a taste of each of their offerings.

That night's class opens with daggers. Buonomo demonstrated techniques with senior student Andreas Fabis (who also teaches the fundamentals classes). Mirroring the teachers, the group of students begin to stab and parry, step in and away. From daggers, the feast continues. The cling-clang of steel striking steel rings loudly in the air, the distinctive sheenk of swords sliding edge to edge echoes in the practice space. But above the clashing of ancient weapons and instructors' commands, another sound rings louder: the sound of laughter. "At the end of the day [HEMA schools] all just want people to have fun," said Beard.

Fun is the main goal here, but you'll get a workout as well. "Those dudes had to be fit," laughed Beard, referring to the swordmasters of old. It only takes a moment with a real weighted weapon to know what she means. The single-handed short sword, called a messer, takes effort and strength to wield and control, and it's just a taste of swords to come. When the time finally comes for the longsword portion, I lift the two-handed blade above my head like a barbarian warrior from a Frank Frazetta painting. It becomes abundantly clear why the fantasy artist's warriors were so muscled. By this time in the class, everyone is sweating.

Offering me a slim and sleek rapier as he politely takes the longsword, Sinko told me, "They're all heavy metal, but they're not sharp." I can relate. I've now held more swords in a few hours than most people knew existed.

How does one choose? "It all depends on what you're in the mood for," Ashleigh Cote, a senior student, answered. "If you want to move around a lot and swing swords, you'll probably like the longsword. If you want to really work on precise, smaller movements, you might like rapier."

No matter your favorite weapon, with the proper protection and enough practice, you will eventually get to hit each other with them. A fencer's mask, a heavy padded jacket, and some serious gauntlets, and you'll be trading blows with the best of them. And so it is, me standing there, fully armored and armed with a sword fit for battle, realizing I've finally gotten my chance to become that knight in (not so) shiny armor.

For more info, go to Adult beginners’ courses are monthly; next teen beginners’ course starts March 6.

For more cuts, thrusts, parries, and fun, check out our photo gallery from one of the school's classes.

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Austin Historical Weapons Guild, Anthony Buonomo, Anna Beard, Historical European martial arts

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