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Sword fighting as 'strategy in blink of an eye'

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Erich B. Smith,
  • National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. – The metallic clash and clang of two swords striking each other echoed throughout the small room. Tension and anticipation filled the air as the opponents moved swiftly back and forth, thrusting and parrying to gain the advantage and emerge the victor. 

And then it came – the picture-perfect thrust at just the right time, striking home and ending the competition.    

"Very nice," Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Childs called out as the match ended and the opponents lowered their swords.  

A joint anti-terrorism force protection officer with the National Guard Bureau, Childs also has a love of sword fighting – rapier and dagger, specifically – and for more than 30 years, he's competed and taught others about the sport. That includes the two opponents, students of his, whose match he was watching. 
For Childs, it's "strategy in the blink of an eye."

"Or as my first instructor put it, 'playing chess at 90 miles an hour,'" he said. 

Creativity is also involved, he said.

"I love the creativity that it allows for, that free form movement of using two weapons that are independent of each other, yet at the same time in concert in order to take down your opponent's defenses," he said. "It is an expression of both power and grace, lethality and beauty."

That love of sword fighting, Childs said, brought him to Europe on several occasions for competitions. In Sweden, he took home top honors in the Open Rapier and Dagger category of the 2019 Swordfish XIV martial arts tournament. 

"Wherever there are tournaments is ultimately where I will go if I haven't been there already," he said. "The world is a big place filled with swordsmen I have not yet had the chance to cross blades."

Some of his earliest memories, Childs said, are pretending his father's buck knife was a sword as he re-enacted swordfighters he had seen on television and in movies. In high school, Childs expressed awe at an armoire of swords kept by his English teacher. That teacher engaged his interest, he said, and began teaching Childs Olympic-style fencing.

It was then he knew he was hooked. 

"And from there, I just took off," said Childs, who has now mastered other forms of sword fighting and written books on the subject. He's also made instructional videos and taught hundreds of people, carrying forward those lessons he first learned in high school. 

For Tech. Sgt. Mary Walker, a noncommissioned officer in charge of cyber transport systems with the 48th Intelligence Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, California, Childs' attention to detail made for rewarding lessons as a student of his.
"He has a knack for taking each skill and breaking it down into baby steps that with practice are simple to master," she said.

Childs also emphasizes the importance of maintaining focus, said Walker.
"If you're going straight for the kill without getting distracted or opening yourself up to attack, you're much more likely to win," she said, referring to one of the strategies Childs taught her. "You decide what you want to accomplish, then eliminate or ignore distractors, and recognize tells or danger signals and prepare to respond to them."

Those lessons are reinforced after each match his students engage in when Childs has them walk through the match to answer the "fundamental question of why did it work or why didn't it work." 

That self-analysis, he added, can be meaningful for students both on and off the competition field – especially for those students who are service members.  

"An Airman first class has many successes and failures in their future as they progress through their career," said Childs. "It is important to not only learn from failures but replicate successes to even greater effect."

Sword fighting is also the "ultimate equalizer," he said. Mental acuity and the proper application of physics is more important than strength and size.

"If you put together two teams of football players, you're going to want very big, tall and strong guys, but sword fighting is ruled by the laws of physics," Childs said, adding that opponents of all sizes and genders compete against one another.  

"There are no advantages conveyed, except for what you have upstairs," he said.

Childs said every match, and every opponent, allows him to add something new to his approach, both on the field or teaching students. That keeps him going after more than three decades in the sport.

"As for my longer-term plans, those are simple: continue to get better and help others do the same," he said.