Test Cutting Soft Targets: A Beginner's Impressions

This Forum is a place for students of swordsmanship to ask advice from moderators Paul Champagne & Scott M. Rodell on how to practice test cutting in a manner consistent with how swords were historically used in combat. Readers use this Forum at their own risk.

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Test Cutting Soft Targets: A Beginner's Impressions

Post by G-Man » Sun Feb 26, 2006 2:01 pm

This past Friday, I had my first experience test cutting soft targets, namely water-filled milk cartons and juice containers. Many dismembered duifang later, I see more clearly how test cutting refines our sword practice. Specifically, I have a new appreciation for the following:



1) The fajin must start at a specific point: I found that if I made the fajin to long for the target (i.e. springing out of the leg too soon), I lost a lot in terms of speed and accuracy.



2) The fajin must accelerate to a specific point, like throwing a frisbee: if I didn't have this mind intent, I either had to clench the handle to decelerate the blade after cutting or carry way past the target. In either case, a crafy duifang could easily take advantage of the resulting pause or opening.



3) Swing speed really tests one's body mechanics: I think that unless one practices the form at near full-speed, it's hard to appreciate how much the momentum of a cutting swing can throw oneself off balance. Many times I noticed that when my mechanics weren't good enough or I didn't have the proper focus, my shoulders twisted, the blade carried too far, and my fajin was much less effective.



4) Attention to blade angle: Cuts that were newer to me, such as the liao cut, were not as accurate because I wasn't confident about the blade direction and angle of attack. The nicked corner of Laoshi's stand can attest to this :).



Lots of food for thought. And not surprisingly, all things that Laoshi has scolded us about during sword class :).



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How I overcame my irrational fear of milk cartons...
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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Mon Feb 27, 2006 9:56 am

G-man, glad to see you've overcome your "irrational fear of milk cartons..."



More imporantly, your observations clearly demonstrate the usefulness of test cutting practice in historical swordsmanship. One could argue that one should learn these things from solo form training, & one does, but solo training just is not the same as actually cutting.



It has also been my observation that it is a good idea to begin this practice on soft, easy to cut targets. G-man mentioned nicking my newly built stand. Actually, he sliced off a fair piece of one corner of the 4" X 4". This clearly demonstrated that even when you are not swinging a heavy sword at full speed, that there is plenty of distructive power in the blade (the sword G-man used weighs about 1.5 lbs.). This means that even at slower speeds, this practice is quite dangerous. For this reason it is a good idea to start on targets that do not tempt one to use a lot of power. It is easy to see how an accident could occur if a first timer swings his/her sword with too much power. Imagine, for example, the sword slipping out of his/her hand.

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Post by B.Ko » Fri Mar 03, 2006 1:22 pm

My own observations must be tempered with the following.



I've been practicing Yang Style (Tung lineage) sword form for about 10 months now. I have not received instruction in Fajing in the form. My own spoken Cantonese is not sufficient to take advantage of my teacher's theory and his advice to my reading more about theory was to 'forget about it and do more practice and he'll correct me as I go'. So far with the hand form this has worked and later when I do read translated theory...it all fits!



My own test cutting has been limited to the square thin plastic milk bottles and 2 Liter Pop bottles. I typically fill them with water and screw on the lid tightly...I suspect this may increase rigidity by trapping air. My target stand is usually a table or gas BBQ therefore my cuts are limited to horizontal cuts.



I have had success with 2 types of cuts



1: Palm up...going from right side (I'm right handed) to left.

2: Palm up starting from left side going to right (Phoenix spreads wings)



Unsuccessful cuts basically 'bounce the bottle' right off the stand. Characteristics of such cuts are insufficient speed, rigidity in waist and arm and a sensation of 'muscling' the cut.



Successful cuts in comparison have very little 'feel' in the arm at all. The legs and waist are powering the cut. There is also very little sensation as sword cuts the plastic. For my most successful cuts I basically took the stance and 'walked' through the move straight from the form.



what's interesting is that the most successful cut doesn't feel powerful and also does not 'feel' fast compared to the muscled cut but the cleanly cut tops prove its effectiveness. Physicswise I know it must be travelling at a higher velocity. Perhaps this is what people refer to as a martial art being 'internal' vs. 'external'.



I should also discuss swords. I owned many replicas prior to buying an antique. Some are good. Most are horrible.



Kris Cutlery Gim: I actually bent the blade by about 15 degrees with an off angle cut. the edge geometry (beveled) edge seems to make it harder to cut with. Even with perfect blade alignment the blade is 'bowing' making it look almost saber like. I suspect this is a heat treatment issue? The POB of only 4" also makes it harder to cut.



Paul Chen Practical: Forget about 2L bottles. Still it is very springy and has never bent. I will try again when the snow melts since my form has improved since my last testing with this.



D. Guertin Bat Jian...this type of sword seems to be offered by many companies. it is differentially treated 1070 steel and has a polished edge with no bevel. This sword cuts very well. The POB of 5" puts more weight to the tip lending to easier cuts.



My John Lundemo Jian has a thinner diamond cross section. Also has differentially treated steel. He polishes the edge to a degree that is even sharper than an antique Phillip Tom polished for me. this sword cuts through very cleanly. No bending, John tells me he tests his blades prior to delivery, the thing is tough. it is lighter at 1.75'lbs vs. the almost 2 lbs. of my Guertin sword.



I do realize I need to put more control in my cuts to avoid overswing. My experiences have only focused on taking the top off the bottle.



Another interesting insight came with my learning to crack bullwhips. My teacher always used the bullwhip analogy to explain energy generation to me. what I find is that cracking a bull whip involves smooth whole body movements with minimal 'muscling'. This has given me more insight into Tai Chi. the way my Scientific mind understands Internal is that a loose body allows summation of forces from various parts of the body...achieved by perfect timing and no muscle resistance to slow it down. Just like my whip. And just like what my teacher always tells me...TIMING!



My future homework is to get a 4x4 and do more varied angled cuts with better control. I do intend to get some pig feet/shank to do 'live' cutting into an organic medium with bones.



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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Mon Mar 06, 2006 10:02 am

B.Ko wrote:...Unsuccessful cuts basically 'bounce the bottle' right off the stand. Characteristics of such cuts are insufficient speed, rigidity in waist and arm and a sensation of 'muscling' the cut...


B.- One thing that always helps is having a coach observe your cuts (from a safe distance of course). I suspect that since you sometimes cut succesfully & sometimes not, that in addition to the observations you made about your own errors, that you might be rolling your wrist a bit so that your cutting edge is not properly lined up with the target. When you bounce the bottle off the target, have you cut part way into the bottle? And if so, what direction was the cut & was it nice & straight or curving?



I would also consider that since you are not employing a proper cutting stand, that you might feel inhibited sometimes, afraid that you might hit your BBQ. This would certainly interfer with your mind intent.

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Post by B.Ko » Mon Mar 06, 2006 4:00 pm

Yup, rolling the edge with insufficient force bounces the bottle without biting into it. With sufficient force...cuts in an angle then bounces bottle off. It is also how I bent my Kris Cutlery Gim.



As I am practicing my form more, the alignment is becoming more consistent.

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Post by Linda Heenan » Sat May 27, 2006 5:14 pm

I began test cutting last January and have been addicted to collecting and decapitating milk bottles ever since. I have a large stash of them under the house. Test cutting has become just another part of my practise. It gets regular time along with all the other types of training I do in Taijiquan.



I find it very helpful to watch Laoshi's cutting video just before the practise time, and then choose one aspect to work on, or one cut to improve. In a typical session, I will do no more than 10 cuts, and sometimes as few as 3 - just enough to train for the day's goal.



After setting the practise goal, I check my sword to be sure it's in good condition for cutting. I fill the bottles with water and screw on the lids, leaving them close enough to the stand for easy access but not in a position they could be tripped over. There is usually no one else in the yard when I cut, but there is always someone else home in case of needing help if there was an accident.



My sword is about twice as heavy as a jian, so stopping it in an effective position is one of the first things I had to concentrate on. When I get a jian suitable for cutting, I'll have to adjust once more.



I sometimes do a couple of swings in the air before the real cut, to get my body turning the right way and the blade angle correct. My best cuts are done as though they were just another practise swing. Once the body is moving correctly, the blade goes through the bottle as if it wasn't there. I am more successful if concentrating on good body mechanics than if concentrating on a target.



When I practice basic cuts with a wooden sword, I often aim for a specific mark or gap, and work on precision. My next step in cutting may be to mark a bottle with a felt pen and see how close I can come to slicing right through the mark. Once again, I'm better not focussing on the point of contact, but fixing it in my mind as a point to touch in the pathway of a cut. This is the same principle we were practising in my group last Saturday while training Pipa Applications from the empty hand form. If the focus goes through the duifang's body, he will fly off in the direction of that focus. If it stops at the body, he may stand there like a brick wall. Bottles can be similar. The focus of the cut has to go through until the stopping point where the blade is in position for the next cut. At least..... these are my beginner thoughts, and they seem to work.



If my goal for the day is to cut with Pi in the effortless way Laoshi does it on the video, that's all I do - a few Pi cuts from each side - just enough to know I've got it right. Then the rest of the bottles stay under the house and I go to wipe off the blade, check it, reoil it, and put safely away in it's place. When I can do any cut I please easily, on plastic bottles, without mistakes, I plan to move on to cutting bamboo.



After the practise, I like to go back to the video again and check up to see if I really got the goal for the day right. My teacher lives a long way away. He isn't here to watch my cutting ..... at least not very often, but we communicate, and I have that video, as well as comments written on forums, etc. Every cutting practise should be used to make progress, not just slicing up things for the fun of it.

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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Tue Jun 13, 2006 7:55 am

Readers of this Thread will probably want to cross reference it with the Thread: Test cutting - A first impression (http://www.grtc.org/forum/viewforum.php?f=9)

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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Tue Jun 13, 2006 8:07 am

B.Ko wrote:...rolling the edge with insufficient force bounces the bottle without biting into it... then bounces bottle off...


We had a lot of this, this past Sunday at our Cutting Soft Targets Seminar. I would say the most common problem amongst all those cuttings was proper edge alignment with the target. When one hits a clear plastic water bottle & sends it flying a good 20 feet without cutting it, its a real eye opener. Edge alignment was a most common problem when students were practicing the chou & ji cuts of the public Yang Style Taiji Jian.



This demonstrates how important using soft targets is during beginning cutting training. If those who hit the bottle off the stand had been cutting into a hard target, like bamboo, then instead of hitting the bottle flying, the blade would have bounced off, possibly towards the cutter. Obviously, a blade bouncing off its target is quite a potentially dangerous stituation.

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Post by G-Man » Tue Jun 13, 2006 3:19 pm

My experience at the Test Cutting seminar on Sunday was definitely in line with Laoshi's and B.Ko's comments. I spent a good amount of time knocking water bottles off the stand while attempting to do a deflection into a liao cut. Eventually I realized that I wasn't rotating my wrist back into the proper position in time for the cut and then keeping it there throughout the cut. If the blade was not angled parallel to the direction of my cut, I would just whack the bottle away without making a dent. If the blade was close to the proper angle or I scooped even slightly through the cut, I usually made a jagged gash in the bottle instead of a clean cut. It's interesting to note that the easier milk carton targets were much more forgiving in this respect. I'm glad I started with the milk cartons first to get comfortable with mechanics and targeting before moving onto plastic bottles. Also, whacking the plastic bottles improperly produced a much more jarring sensation in my wrist, a force which I can easily imagine might disarm me or send the sword ricocheting away against a harder target. Definitely food for thought.
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Still a beginner - a few more thoughts

Post by Linda Heenan » Fri Jul 07, 2006 8:15 am

This afternoon, in Australia, Laoshi did a cutting training session with some students who had been to the Sword Camp last January, and his young son. We had a choice of swords - two different jian, a dao, and a Viking sword.



It was interesting to see how people were cautious in the beginning, a little tense and unsure of how hard to strike. We were being conscious of "getting it right" - trying to stop the cut in a controlled way, and all of the other things we had heard about in the pre cutting instruction. As people loosened up, their cutting became better.



I enjoyed trying different swords. The Viking sword, which I have trained with in target cutting, until recently, is too heavy for me to control the stopping point easily. Lighter swords were much better. It was fun to cut with a dao, but jian is easily my favourite.



People seemed to have favourite cuts which work better for them than others. In my case, liao is still the easiest. I suppose this means more work with the others would be a good idea. When training basic cuts with a wooden jian, I did even numbers of each of the main ones. It's probably a good idea to stick to this policy. Another thing I'd like to work on is cutting with either hand, as we do in practise. I have stuck fairly much to the right hand up until now, when doing soft target cutting.



The more rigid bottles are still a problem. I can see it isn't the bottles - just me, because Laoshi can cut through them easily and one of the other students was also doing well with them. Laoshi demonstrated with bamboo as well. We don't have very good cutting bamboo in my district. We had to tape several stalks together to make it thick enough. It was interesting to see how training with soft targets can prepare us for harder ones by getting the blade angle, the right body mechanics and the right amount of force correct.



We had a wonderful afternoon and have come away from it with lots of individual pointers to work on. I am very grateful to Laoshi for giving us this time and sharing his experience.

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cutting with jian

Post by yowie_steve » Tue Jul 11, 2006 5:38 am

My first go at cutting with a jian was on the afternoon with the Aussie mob. At first I was concentrating on getting the cut right and stopping correctly - which ended up with me cutting rather slowly and tentatively. It still went through the bottle; the sword I used was really sharp and cut no problem.



After loosening up and gaining confidence the cuts became more natural, making for cleaner cuts. I really had a good time. And enjoyed using the heavier jian.



I had a hard time getting a cut with the dao right. After wrapping your head there is alot of momentum which is hard to control and stop after the cut. Perhaps if the target was, dare I say it, more 'meatier' the momentum can be slowed down a bit from the resistance. Then again, laoshi Scott had no problem in controlling the cut, so I should be able to one day. Also I picked up a bad habit of the wrap-horizontal cut technique from wushu dao routines which likes to continue with the cut into another cut or wrap, or to wind up the sword behind the back for another horizontal cut in the other direction. It made my sabre cutting less neat.



One thing I'd like to try one day: is to test cut on horse back with a sabre. In full armour. With the wong fei hong theme song playing in the background. Although I can settle for doing that on a motorbike while listening to 'eye of the tiger'. :-)

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Wipe the blade dry between cuts...

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Sun Aug 20, 2006 2:11 pm

We had our second Test Cutting Training for the summer this morning. Cleaning up afterwards, I noticed the jian we used had some minor surface rust beginning. This is normal & to be expected. The Huanuo jian we were using is a dedicated "working" sword, used by everyone in the school, so I'm not concerned about its looks. I clean it up with 0000 steel wool with a little uchiko powder. But it occured to me that I could save myself some time by simply wiping down the blade between users.

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Post by G-Man » Fri Aug 25, 2006 2:33 pm

At the recent Test Cutting seminar, I had the opportunity to cut bamboo for the first time. I made several errors during that session that demonstrated to me how cutting bamboo requires a higher level of skill than soft targets:



1) Not powering through the length of the cut. I had to concentrate on bringing out power over a longer period of time in order to get through the bamboo. If I just focused on a point or one side of the bamboo, I'd either bounce off the edge or slice only partway through. With soft targets, I didn't need that kind of focus.



2) Rotating the wrist during the cut. If my entry plane into the bamboo was good but ended with rotation, I'd usually cut partway through and then bind or snap the rest of the bamboo off, making for a very unclean cut. If I started rotating even earlier, the blade just bounced off the bamboo. In the first scenario, I probably would have cut through the soft target cleanly but with a slight "scoop" in the plastic.



3) Griping the sword so that the blade wasn't in alignment with the bones of the forearm. My grip had a tendency to be incorrect in two ways: either my wrist was bent or the handle was rotated slightly in my grip. The difference between right and wrong was really dramatic. Either I bounced of the bamboo and felt a painful vibration in my wrist, or I cut cleanly through the bamboo and didn't feel much, if any, resistance at all.



4) Having insufficient power because the body wasn't behind the cut. This was particularly evident in my easy-side liao cuts. When I made the deflection but then whipped the blade around without "stepping through" with my body, I had much less cutting power. Whole-body unity is a much larger factor in cutting bamboo than it is for soft targets.



5) Hitting when you're unfocused/distracted/angry. After having made about a dozen dents in a particular piece of bamboo, I vented my frustration by making an unfocused "hit" at stalk. The blade bounced right back at me and was halfway to my forearm before I caught it. After that, I decided that being angry at large stalks of grass wasn't such a good idea :).
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Test Cutting

Post by aquaman » Sun Aug 27, 2006 8:52 pm

I had the opportunity to attend the most recent Test Cutting Seminar out in Virginia. I found that the experience re-enforced the richness and depth of the form. As Laoshi has said many times before 'It's just like the form'.



Cutting plastic bottles really helped to remind me the importance of practicing mindfully. Paying close attention to the grip, the angle of the blade, the power of the cut, and the points raised in the previous posts. It can be a bit overwhelming but focusing on a few things each time and adding on the others later helps improve my taiji.



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Over Swing During Test Cutting

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Mon Feb 26, 2007 10:08 am

I just received photos, via email, of students practicing test cutting. In every case more control was needed after the cut. This is common in the beginning, one doesn't know how much force will be need, so there is a tendency to use too much. That is okay, so long as the swing isn't totally wild & you keep control of the blade; just bring down the level of power each cut until you find the right amount so that you keep the tip oriented toward the target after the cut. Think about what you might do if you were cutting a duifang & missed him or cut him but he didn't go down? What should you be prepared to do next

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