On a Saturday afternoon in an old abandoned church, an instructor armed with a steel longsword shouts German commands. Students copy his movements, gingerly swinging their own weighted plastic blades.
This group is getting their first taste of sword fighting at the Broken Plow Western Martial Arts school.
Broken Plow founder Joshua Parise looks on as the intro class goes through the motions, explaining how he and his team like to make sure students fully understand that they’re engaging in a potentially dangerous combat sport.
“Or else something like this happens,” Parise laughs, showing off a permanently bent pinky finger.
Parise, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran with an extensive martial arts background, formed Broken Plow three years ago to “recreate a lost martial art” developed by Johannes Liechtenauer, a 14th-century German fencing master believed to have traveled Europe in search of the best sword fighting techniques. His teachings survived in the form of an ancient text.
Parise says the school attracts everyone from “basement dwellers and dice-rollers” to “super athletes who just want to try something new” to “sword nerds” who simply enjoy the history of the art form. Everyone is welcome to learn regardless of experience, age or fitness level.
Those who assume sword fighting only appeals to young men would find a large number of female instructors and students ready for battle.
“Women are such better fighters than dudes,” says Parise. “They’re relying on a technique that’s proven, whereas a lot of dudes want to come in here and muscle up.”
The school – which is named after the act of breaking through a guard move – quickly grew from a few students to about 70 active members, and growing. They relocated to a church near Pittsburgh in East Deer Township earlier this year after outgrowing their space at the Greater Pittsburgh Wellness Center in Fox Chapel.
Parise says they plan on finishing work on the church, including re-doing the floors and building an altar with a bar. They also want to add an outdoor range for people who want to shoot traditional archery, such as English longbow.
To further its efforts, the school joined the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) Alliance, an international community focused on preserving European martial arts from the 14th century up through the 18th century. The organization supports Broken Plow in various ways, such as covering insurance and the instructors‘ certifications.
Seven days a week, Broken Plow teaches various levels of German longsword, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, and a form of German wrestling called ringen, as well as basic self-defense. Parise says it usually takes a year for students to become proficient with a blade, but those with martial arts backgrounds could advance at a faster pace. Safety gear such as masks is provided to prevent anyone from getting seriously hurt in the process.
A basic membership costs $60 a month or $100 for full access, which includes unlimited classes.
For those looking for a more intense experience, there’s also the chance to fight on horseback using mounts specially trained for hunting. So far, Broken Plow has hosted five seminars on the art, each one with about 10 riders.
Members can also compete with other clubs and schools in regional, national and international tournaments. Justin Clawson joined the school a year and a half ago to learn German longsword and ringen. He has since competed in three tournaments, among them Longpoint, the largest HEMA competition in the country.
Clawson says that those hoping to emulate characters in fantasy pop culture, such as the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, should check their expectations at the door.
“The average layperson wants to see big giant swings and flashy movements in TV,” says Clawson. “Those sell better in a movie, but in a real fight it would probably get you killed.”
Broken Plow also hosts its own tournament called Blood on the River, a Labor Day weekend meet-up where people from Pittsburgh and beyond come to fight and camp. Clawson, who also does marketing for the school, expects more than 100 people to attend this year’s event, among them 60-80 fighters looking to draw swords.
“The big draw for tournaments is wanting to meet different people in the community,” says Clawson. “Each club and school, they kind of teach things differently. It’s a way to learn how they train and maybe pick up some new techniques, and also have fun fighting somebody new and different.”