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Club In Md. Emphasizes Study Of Ancient Weapons

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By THERESA WINSLOW

The Capital of Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Molly McClanahan got her medieval on.

She donned a plastic chest protector and fencing shirt, picked up a 4-foot sword and traded blows with an opponent.

Metal crunched into metal with ear-ringing efficiency as the weapons clashed.

“I’m really a 5-year-old boy and I get to hit people with swords,” said McClanahan, a Game Shop employee and graduate student from Shady Side.

But the battle was controlled, the tips of the weapons were dulled, and the purpose was practice, not punishment, at the Mid-Atlantic Society for Historic Swordsmanship.

The 12-year-old club — one of three in Maryland — emphasizes careful study of ancient weapons in a way meant to mirror pursuits such as kung fu or karate.

There’s no room for role-playing gamers in the twice-weekly sessions. MASHS has about 20 regular members and meets in Annapolis and Brooklyn Park.

Founder Larry Tom uses centuries-old documents translated into English for his curriculum and training regimen. He refers to swordsmanship as a Western martial art.

“It’s a lost heritage,” said Tom, who is the county’s director of planning and zoning.

For all the seriousness, even he admits it’s a kick to brandish weapons similar to those he saw in old swashbuckling movies when he was growing up. He’s quick to add, however, that the arms and techniques used in those films were not accurate.

Tom’s curriculum centers on five weapons: the 14th-century German longsword, 17th-century Italian rapier, 18th-century French smallsword, 19th-century Italian dueling saber and 19th-century French and Italian dueling sword.

“The more aggressive the weapon, the more protection we use,” Tom said. “We look at this as a combat sport.”

Bruises and a broken finger or two aren’t uncommon.

“Man, it hurts when you get hit,” said McClanahan, one of six women in the group. “It’s physical in a way I’m not used to. Once you realize it hurts, you (try) not to let it happen to anyone else.”

She and other members use reproductions of actual weapons, and while they weigh only 1 to 3 pounds, they still pack a punch.

Their uniforms are a mix of re-purposed fencing gear and lacrosse gloves, as well as copies of historic garments. Equipment costs can mount quickly, since a sword alone can be $500.

About half the members have a background in fencing. But Tom said there’s little in common with modern fencing and what he teaches. Sport fencing is about scoring points, he said, and MASHS emphasizes dueling.

It takes several months get a handle on just one of the ancient weapons, but few members focus on a single blade.

“It’s athletic, it’s fun and there’s a lot it can teach us about history,” said Ed Toton, a systems engineer who came all the way from Virginia to attend a meeting in Annapolis earlier this month.

The majority of the club’s members, who range from high school-age to 62, come from Anne Arundel County and Baltimore.

McClanahan said there are some similarities to the people involved in Civil War re-enacting. “We’re interested in how things work and understanding that history isn’t dates and places,” she said. “It’s people doing real-life things.”

When MASHS members made their way into the Annapolis recreation center earlier this month, it was an interesting sight.

T-shirts and workout wear peeking out of gym bags is expected.The hilts of weapons are not.

But the swordsmen simply walked past spandex-clad exercisers busy watching the NFL playoffs to a gym on the lower level and got down to business.

“This is my football,” said Brian Ames of Pasadena, who works at a Coast Guard yard and joined the group about a year ago. He attends Renaissance festivals dressed as a knight and figured it was about time he learned to use the weapons of the period.

“You see a lot of people go into Eastern martial arts,” Ames said. “But Western arts are just as demanding. Everyone thinks of ninjas and samurai. But a swordsman at the top of his game is just as (formidable).”

Brian Barressi, a molecular biologist from Rockville, chose MASHS over kendo.

As sweat poured down his face after a longsword session, he said he’s happy with his decision. “It’s something interesting to tell people you do,” he said.

After a year, it’s still a challenge for him to maintain the proper tempo and technique, which keeps things challenging. “Like any other martial art, there’s a mental side and a physical side,” Tom said.

Ames said he needs to work on everything. “It’s actually a much more elegant weapon than I thought,” he said, longsword in hand. “Everyone thinks it’s smash, smash, smash, but it’s not.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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