All my life, I've had a sneaking suspicion that I might be a sword guy.
According to New York magazine contributor Hana Michels, a sword guy is "a man who collects swords, values swords, or has ever used the phrase 'respect the blade.'" She may be right, but I—who am not a man—have plenty of the symptoms myself. Childhood obsession with any novel set in the Victorian era? Check. Been to more than a couple of Ren Faires (at least one in costume)? Check. Overwhelming desire to point a sword at someone and say: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Checkmate.
Despite Michels's definition, a love of cold, hard steel knows no gender, as I found out last weekend at Swordsquatch, an annual festival of historical European martial arts. The basic idea is reflected in the festival's motto: "Make friends, then fight them!"
After signing at least three waivers promising I wouldn't sue if my hand got lopped off, I met "Squatch Commander" Leigh Shocki at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Georgetown, where Swordsquatch was held. We walked past the blue mats and the sounds of clinking metal to where the weapons were kept. Shocki handed me a long sword and instructed me to "Go full Jon Snow" with it. I flailed about helplessly—pathetic mincemeat for any lucky White Walker who happened upon me.
There are two camps at Swordsquatch, Shocki explained: the Victorian camp and the medieval camp. Just then, a fellow in Edwardian garb, sporting a meticulously waxed handlebar mustache, walked past. Victorian camp... obviously, I thought.
"Oh, and balls-out beards are kind of a thing here," Shocki added. Also currently trending in the sword world: Westeros leggings, fingerless gauntlets, buccaneer pants, leather satchels, and T-shirts that say "Still plays with swords."
Deciding I should use a less pointy weapon—my fists—I headed to the pugilism workshop, where I found myself in another strange situation: sparring with best-selling author and absurdist cyberpunk master Neal Stephenson, whose book Snow Crash was currently on my table at home, and who, very politely, asked me to punch him in the face. I did—and in response, he offered up a deft elbow block.
Turns out Stephenson is one of the founding members of Lonin, a martial-arts club specializing in techniques from the medieval and Victorian eras.
"It started out as just a small group of interested people meeting in grungy warehouses in Interbay and Sodo, trying to figure stuff out with very little to go on," Stephenson said. The group would find ancient manuals for Japanese style sword fighting or German, Italian, and English long sword and try to figure out the moves.
Eventually they found like-minded people in HEMA, a worldwide alliance for the study of Historical European Martial Arts, and became a more formalized club.
"And so we were gradually able to go about it in a more intelligent way and get better equipment and better instruction," he explained.
At Swordsquatch, keeping people safe takes a lot of careful preparation, especially for the Bigfoot Brawl—a sweaty, all-day sparring space where you can choose your weapons and just, well, have at someone.
"It's like planning a wedding," Shocki said. "But a wedding where everybody is going to engage in violence." Over the weekend, the Bigfoot Brawl logged 337 fights, a new record for the festival.
In addition to sword guys, there were plenty of badass sword women around, too, and they pretty much ran the show as volunteers, participants, and instructors. One of them was Fran Terminiello, an expert in the Bolognese Sword & Buckler, who couldn't have been more than five-feet-five but was covered in bruises and could probably cut you to ribbons.
Terminiello started Esfinges, an organization for women in HEMA, and also runs a swordplay school back in England with her partner, both in dueling and life.
"I'm like the matriarch there," she joked. "I'm the mama bear who makes sure everybody is doing what they're supposed to do."
Right before I left, Shocki pulled me aside. "I saw you out there during the defensive daggering workshop," she said. "You had some serious murder face." I beamed with pride. Murder face! Oh my God, I am SUCH a sword guy.