Combat Con’s Poster Child: Chad Light as Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles

What: Combat Con 3
Where: Riviera Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
When: June 13-15, 2014
How Much: $65 4-Day Fan Admission – $200 4-Day Warrior Admission
Website: combatcon.com

When speaking with Combat Con and ISMAC founder Jared Kirby before Combat Con 2012, he mentioned that science fiction author Neal Stephenson could be considered a poster child for Combat Con. In his own literary career Stephenson brings the world of real life Western Martial Arts which he practices at least weekly into his widely-praised depictions of combat in his works like Snow Crash and The Baroque Cycle. Stephenson hopes to bring more realistic depictions of WMA fighting into the video game world as well and promoted the Kickstarter-funded CLANG at Combat Con. However I believe I may have found a better poster child for Combat Con in the form of Chad Light.

Chad Light re-enactor of Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles at Combat Con with bullwhip around neck in costumeLight, 49, is probably more familiar to St. Augustine’s residents and visitors as Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Until a year ago, Light made his living as a re-enactor at the Fountain of Youth Archaeoloical Park. When describing his vocation, Light called himself “an actor who’s a re-enactor or a re-enactor who’s an actor.” What caught my eye when first meeting Light was his sword, which I recognized as a David Baker-forged recreation from its distinctive hilt. Many St. Augustine residents recognize the weapon when Light wears it, having seen another version of it displayed outside the St. Augustine City Hall.

Steel sword showing pommel and intricate flowing hilt designed by David Baker

Chad Light’s Distinctive Reproduction Sword Hilt

A veteran re-enactor of over 30 years, the original 2011 Combat Con was instrumental in changing Light’s re-enactment practices. One of the workshops he attended that year was Jack Dagger’s class on throwing knives and hatchets. Light already had a familiarity and skill in throwing weapons, but had not incorporated them into his role as Don Pedro. That all changed when Light returned to Florida. He began each tour with a silent demonstration, first throwing knives or hatchets into a round of wood and retrieving them. Then he would throw the weapons backhanded as the crowd quieted down. By the time he was throwing hatchets and knives between his legs, he had his audience captivated and spellbound. Using the theatrical and martial skills enhanced by Combat Con 2011, Light went from a full time employee at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park to a salaried full time employee and was quick to attribute Combat Con as a critical step in his employment elevation.

Light didn’t make as much of Combat Con 2011 as he would have liked owing to an injury sustained while doing a horse stunt at Drake’s Raid in Florida, resulting in a broken collarbone. Nevertheless he attended the inaugural Combat Con and the whip class taught by Anthony De Longis, but wasn’t able to participate fully in the motions. He did buy De Longis’s DVD on whips, watching it over 30 times, and building up his fundamentals. Light had his bull whip when I spoke with him and later attended De Longis’s class that afternoon. He was quite pleased when I caught up with him later explaining that De Longis had corrected a few minor movements and techniques that he hadn’t mastered yet. When I asked De Longis about Light’s improvements, he agreed and praised him as an excellent student.

The Dedication and Background of a Re-Enactor

Re-enactor Chad Light at Combat Con in Las Vegas in Fancy Dress

Light Showing Off Another Side of Don Pedro

Discipline and research are important to Light, a former Army Special Forces officer who served in Panama, Desert Storm/Shield, and Somalia. He doesn’t have a TV or a telephone and only uses a computer for research. As part of their contracts, Light requires the other re-enactors to spend at least three hours a week practicing their swordplay. When questioned about possibly living at the park, Light said that he would if he could. Light is pursuing his doctorate in ethnography, specializing in palaeography. His undergraduate degrees are in psychology and history and he has a Masters in Behavioral Psychology. Yet his studies are much more practical and mundane as well, as Light, like many cosplayers or re-enactors, does much of his own sewing himself. While his external garb was historically accurate, he also doesn’t turn his nose up to machine-sewed undergarments, but pointed out that for many re-enactors this modern compromise would be going too far.

You could say that re-enactment is in Light’s blood. His father is a professor of language at William and Mary and a member of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, a black powder weapons group. Light’s mother grew up in Spain and Light lived there as well as a child, when not attending colonial events with a father “who could crack whips”. Light’s father also served as an advisor on the semi-historical films The Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot.

Playing Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Others

Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés is Light’s main role and he leads the re-enactment troupe the Men of Menedez. Light has respect for Menéndez de Avilés and studiously researches the Spaniard. When asked whether he would have liked Menéndez de Avilés in his own period, Light responded that, “Those around him thought he was charismatic and capable of anything. That would be hard not to like if you were around someone like that when your life was on the line.” Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was also wise in his own way, writing to the Spanish crown that, “There is gold and silver in Florida, but you can’t dig it. You need to grow it.”

Light also participates in the re-enactment of the sacking of Ft. Caroline named after the French king Charles IX. Fort Caroline had been settled by the Hugenots, Protestants fleeing France, but they were set upon by their Spanish neighbors in 1565. The French defenders of the fort were mostly massacred as heretics, establishing a bloody reputation for Don Pedro, especially among civilians. This was only furthered by his slaughter of bound Frenchmen who had been captured in their attempt to capture St. Augustine. Towards the native tribes Menéndez de Avilés was more gracious, writing edicts to protect them from Spanish settlers. A favorite of Phillip II, Menéndez de Avilés was made captain-general and governor of Florida. His downfall was curiously on account of some insects, the cochinille beetles, used to make red dyes. When Don Pedro sailed into a port he failed to declare the cochinille beetles and was prosecuted for it, his reputation slightly marred and his hopes of returning to live in Florida dashed. He caught typhus and died in Spain in 1574. Light travels to Spain multiple times a year, and has close ties with Spanish researchers and re-enactors as he conducts further research into the transatlantic leader.

One of Light’s other roles has actually been on-screen. Light is one quarter Native American and played a full-blooded Huron in Michael Mann’s 1992 Last of the Mohicans, serving as an extra. He participated in the field massacre of the English column and can be seen leaving Fort William Henry during its surrender. Additionally he doesn’t confine himself to the 16th Century for re-enactment; Light is part of the Historical Florida Militia American Civil War regiment. Besides re-enacting as Ponce de Leon, Light has also played the role of Navaraiz, a captain of Hernan Cortez’s. The 16th century was a brutal time: Navaraiz had one of his eyes put out by a pike. Light also plays another Don Pedro. Don Pedro Menéndez de Marqués was the nephew of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and a subsequent governor of Cuba first and then Florida.

St. Augustine’s Attractions

The small town of St. Augustine hosts many re-enactment events with others close by. Light participates each year in the “School of the 16th Century” put on by the tourist development board in February. Re-enactors, primarily men, bring their families to enjoy a vacation on the Atlantic coast with their wives and children. Many children and wives join in the education with the children doing what their 16th century counterparts would have done. Many women participate in the combat-side of things, which is where perhaps the re-enactment ends. In another of Light’s activities, the monthly tercio of St. Augustine, there are at least 30 female college students out of a group of 150 re-enactors, Light estimates.

Drake’s Raid, which is one of the largest re-enactments that Light helps organize, is held annually in the first week of June. It commemorates Sir Francis Drake’s raid of 1586 in which the famed British captain sacked St. Augustine. Drake’s Raid attracts over 3,000 visitors annually. In September there is much pageantry surrounding the re-enactment of Don Pedro’s first landing in St. Augustine, which also draws thousands of spectators and participants. Another attraction is the Castillo de San Marcos, a stonework fort with firing cannon. For Light and others, the Castillo de San Marcos is also a bastion against Florida’s hurricanes. In an emergency Light plans to take shelter there.

Light Can be Seen As Don Pedro in Bruce Merwin’s Youtube Video of the Landing Re-Enactment

The Combat Con Connection

Anthony De Longis’s whips classes and Jack Dagger’s knife-throwing aren’t the only appeal of Combat Con for Light. He also attended Maestro Ramon Martinez’s sword class, pointing to him as the best Spanish sword master in the United States. Both Maestro Jennete Acosta Martinez (the wife of Maestro Ramon Martinez and a maestro in her own right) and John Lennox have come to the St. Augustine area for events, confirming that the world of WMA is indeed a fairly small one.

When Gaming and Re-Enacting Collide

Though Light was quick to point out that he is not a tabletop gamer (and certainly not a video gamer) and has never LARPed, he has played Wizards of the Coast’s cardstock Pirates of the Spanish Main game and got his “ass kicked” by his son. He spoke with pride about how the computer game Sid Meier’s Pirates helped his son with a presentation at school wherein his son drew an accurate map of the Carribean, labeling the chief ports, all learned through playing Pirates. Battle gaming or SCA fighting doesn’t interest Light, though he has had many LARPers join him as re-enactors who decide to “put the foam away and put on heavy metal”. In miniature wargaming oftentimes only the first rank or the first two ranks of a military unit are neccessary to fully detail; in re-enactment it is much the same with more detailed costumes like Light’s going into the first ranks and those with less historically accurate costumes able to fill out the rear ranks.

Cosplay at Combat Con 2012

While there were many armored and costumed warriors and Western martial artists at Combat Con in Las Vegas, some of the attendees were dressed up purely for their own enjoyment and not for practical reasons such as absorbing longsword blows. Indeed one of the target audiences for Combat Con besides WMA traditionalists and gamers are cosplayers, with a healthy number of vendors catering to steampunk and fantasy costume play. There were also several panels offered involving costume play at the convention; I attended “Weapons of Cosplay” and “Cosplay: Crack is Cheaper”. Whether used to improve one’s garb for LARPing or battle gaming or even to enhance a regular tabletop RPG session, the cosplay community has a lot of knowledge to offer the gaming community.

Three scantily-clad women cosplaying as barbarians in furs and leather in the Combat Con Vendors' Hall

Cosplay Panelists, Connettes, and Barbarians!: (L to R) Sami Miller, Sara Warner, and Jillian Saint

Weapons of Cosplay

Both of the cosplay panels I attended had mostly the same panelists and were somewhat sparsely attended. The “Weapons of Cosplay” panel ended up spilling out past the topic of weapons exclusively to encompass all cosplay costume considerations with prop master David Baker from Deadliest Warrior and the Hollywood Combat Center lending his considerable cinematic experience and expertise, joined by cosplayers Sara Warner, Sami Miller, and cosplay newcomer Jillian Saint who comprised the cosplay group The Connettes.

David Baker holding a metal spear with sharp edges at a 2012 Combat Con cosplay panel

Propmaster David Baker with Spear

A self-proclaimed “lover of metal”, David Baker makes real working weapons, but also a number of props or fakes. “Harbor Freight is your friend,” he advised, citing an investment at the store of $600 as a good, strong start into making your own weapons and props, including getting a scroll saw. For Baker copper and brass are easy to work with and dedicated cosplayers should learn how to solder. The bottoms can be cut out of 5 gallon plastic buckets and an $8 heat gun from Harbor Freight can be used to shape the plastic to the desired effect for armor or plastic components. Baker is fond of Bondo, an all-purpose bonding adhesive and proclaimed that, “God made Bondo. It’s proof that there is a god.”

Baker also pointed out how useful styrofoam, paper mache, foamcore, and PVC pipe can be in making prop weapons and that cosplayers shouldn’t look down their noses at these more pedestrian materials. Besides the expense of getting glue or Bondo which can end up being more expensive than the materials they are adhering to, for Baker the real expense is time. He explained that if he sells a weapon that it took him 20 hours to make for $200 that he would be back to making $10 an hour. His steampunk pistol, seen below, was entirely hand-crafted out of common, everyday parts, the crystal included.

David Baker showing a crystal-powered steampunk pistol at the 2012 Combat Con

Deadliest Warrior Prop Master and Weaponsmith David Baker Showing His Steampunk Pistol

Copyright Issues

The question of copyrights and copyright infringement came up with members of the audience contributing examples of cases they had heard prosecuted. David Baker expressed that he doesn’t make exact duplicates for clients, but instead makes weapons in the style or fashion of an existing weapon, such as Loki’s staff in the The Avengers and Thor. Though it’s not a cosplay weapon, the example of a modeler selling kits of the Doombuggies from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride was brought up; in short order Disney had sent letters and lawyers were calling the man, ending his venture.

Practical and Safety Considerations

Someone pointed out that an important consideration for conventions is lightweight weaponry, because the cosplayer will have to cart the weapon around, in which case real steel or iron would be a detriment. Cosplayers must also be prepared to stop for pictures. Smart costumes, especially for women, will have pockets or another means of storage. Utility belts are excellent if the costume allows one. More importantly, cosplayers should ask themselves “Can I take a poop in it?” J.P. Dostal from Duel at Dusk Productions brought up the recent Labyrinth of Jareth and the need to consider the footprint for any outfit (or weapon). Apparently many women in elaborate ball gowns with hoops have the annoying habit of eating up doorways, if they can even squeeze through. Many costumes, such as Duel at Dusk’s four-legged Egress which resembles a landstrider from Dark Crystal, aren’t suitable for some convention floors (such as Comic-Con’s) and crowded vendor halls.

The talk then moved to the more important topic of safety for weapons. Cosplayers should consider how they will secure their weapons because not every convention or gathering will have a weapons check. Combat Con did; for a nominal fee of $1 or $2, Combat Con attendees could leave their weapons at the weapons check in the Vendors’ Hall, much as one might check a coat at a museum or theater. For those with an Airsoft without an orange or red tip, there could still be municipal laws resulting in fines (if not being actually mistakenly shot by law enforcement). Overall cosplayers should know their own gear and ensure that they have no ammunition for missile weapons to avoid any problems. For those with melee weapons, a great suggestion was to simply use a sheath with a handle since there is typically no reason to draw a blade.

There were further admonitions on safety, particularly pointing guns in faces or even putting one’s finger on the trigger of a fake gun is a big faux pas in the world of cosplay. Safety considerations even extend to corsetry, which can deprive the wearer of oxygen and blood flow. More humorously, they can lead to heavy flatulence once removed, we were informed. Keeping on the topic of gasses, especially when gluing together a respirator or gas mask for a costume, cosplayers should allow 72 hours for any glues to set, so they aren’t breathing in dangerous fumes.

Cosplay: Crack is Cheaper

I caught the tail end of “Cosplay: Crack is Cheaper” on Sunday, finding out that Sara Warner had spent $3500 on her Jack Sparrow costume including $700 for the deerskin coat alone. However the effects of her costume and her transformation into the Pirates of the Carribean character were so convincing that Sara was repeatedly mistaken for a man when in costume. One day during a grueling convention she kicked her boots off to give her feet a break, eliciting a comment from another convention attendee, “Wow, you have beautiful toes. If you weren’t a dude, I would totally suck those toes.” While this anecdote had us all laughing, the subject of costume authorship came up. Not surprisingly taking credit for a costume that others made for you is a big no-no in the world of cosplay. At the very least the tailor or seamstress is unlikely to work with you in the future. Warner is always quick to attribute her costume to its actual maker and suggests it as a rule of ettiquette.

Three attractive female cosplayers sitting at a table at the Cosplay panel at Combat  Con

The Connettes at One of Combat Con’s Cosplay Panels

Another surprising way cosplayers can shell out the big bucks is by politely approaching Hollywood professionals for bleeding edge makeup and prosthetics. While Halloween is a busy season for professional makeup artists, many will take on commissions during their off-seasons in between movie shoots for those willing to pay for the ultimate in costuming. For those without the money, Zappos.com was pointed to as a good source for inexpensive footwear and Hollywood Wig Outfitters for those in Southern California is “always a hit” according to Sami Miller. David Baker also suggested the Rose Bowl Swap Meet, for those in Southern California. William Wilson who runs the Tattershall School of Self Defense and is a steampunk aficionado pointed out another penny saver: skimping on the brocade for waistcoats by having false backs and even false bottoms. Not only is the practice historically accurate, but according to Wilson, “a true gentleman never removes his jacket” and therefore will never expose the cost-saving deception.

The Connettes Themselves

The Connettes were led by Sara Warner. When not dressing up in her velour Star Trek uniform, Warner is an LA-based actor, works on her next costumes, and does the occasional bit of gaming. Though she’s never done a Vampire LARP, she did play some Vampire: The Masquerade in her teenage years as well as D&D. The Connettes do not have their own website or Facebook page yet, but are looking for new female members serious about costuming. Anyone interested in joining up to cosplay with the Connettes can email Sara at sara.a.warner at gmail.com. For Warner, cosplay comes naturally as she likes “to slip into the garb of someone else, assume the role, and play the part”. Hence her vocational interest in acting as well. While she does enjoy the costume-making, Warner is all about the performance as an entertainer and performer. Warner cited the relatively low cost of Combat Con as one of its main draws: “Anyone who is interested in historical Western Martial Arts, weapons training, re-enacting, Renaissance festivals, LARPing, costuming with weapons (for poses and other things of course!) and acting in any kind of action productions would be out of their mind to miss such a comparatively cheap way to kickstart and/or hone skills at this fantastic event.”

With Warner was Sami Miller who was also a veteran cosplayer and a former Dagorhir player. Along with them they had brought Jillian Saint, pointing out that “she’s very new to it.” Saint had gamely joined in the cosplaying for Combat Con with a when in Rome attitude preferring barbarian garb to jeans and a T-shirt for the convention. Saint wears many hats in everyday life working 9-5 as an accountant/administrator for a law firm and doing freelance marketing in her off time. Though Saint’s not into role-playing games or LARPing, she does enjoy a game of League of Legends from time to time. Cosplay, on the other hand, she finds addictive, but so far she has tended to wear the designs of other costumers. Saint would like to play Chell from Portal 2 if she could. She enjoyed the demonstrations and performances, panels, and social events at Combat Con the most, acknowledging that she did like the workshops, but that she was unprepared for them, as many were geared towards trained combatants.

Like the members of Duel at Dusk Productions (and myself), Sara Warner and Sami Miller are already at work on their costumes for Wasteland Weekend in the California desert in September. Warner is currently working on all-leather gladiatrix outfit for the Mad Max-themed postapocalpyptic event.

Combat Con 2012: Luke Lafontaine’s Role in Role Models

Western Martial Artist Luke Lafontaine with a Sword in Hand in Vendors' Hall at Combat Con

Luke Lafontaine at Combat Con

One person I met Friday night at Combat Con 2012 back in July was Luke Lafontaine. He had my attention when he mentioned his first on-screen performance as a martial artist in the original Karate Kid (1984), in which he was originally scripted to fight against Ralph Macchio’s Daniel. An intervention from a social worker because Lafontaine was 16 at the time delayed his involvement and resulted in his scheduled fight going to another actor. However what really caught my attention was Lafontaine’s role in 2008’s Role Models which is easily the most widely-seen example of LARPing captured on film.

Lafontaine was brought onto Role Models by its stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. The battle scenes at the end of the movie were filmed at Disney Ranch and Lafontaine worked on the film for two weeks. Working with foam weapons was a change for Lafontaine, who grew up surrounded by ancient and medieval weapons through his father’s work for the Met in New York City. As for his own role models, Lafontaine ranks the stunt work of Vic Armstrong, Bob Anderson, and Terry Leonard quite highly. Like many of the other WMA enthusiasts I spoke to before Combat Con, Lafontaine was also fond of The Duellists as far as cinematic duels, pointing to the small sword duel at the beginning of the film as his favorite onscreen duel.

Lafontaine took the time to explain some of the basics of the business side of Hollywood stuntwork to me, specifically how a stunt coordinator can subcontract out stuntwork to other coordinators who might in turn train actors or other stuntmen to choreograph a fight. Watching Deadliest Warrior after Combat Con 2012, I was pleasantly surprised to see Lafontaine appear on the French Musketeer team in the Musketeer vs. Ming Warrior episode, firing the flintlock musket and wielding the rapier and main gauche combination. Speaking about the French Musketeer Lafontaine boasts, “There’s a lot of lace, a lot of velvet, and feathers in your hats. You think rock stars get a lot of women? You have no idea the Musketeers’ reputation for pulling in the ladies and being badasses.” As Deadliest Warrior’s Property/Weapons Foreman David Baker had mentioned before Combat Con, he knows many of the specialists on the show from the world of Western Martial Arts and tries to bring on experienced and knowledgeable experts, but sometimes an “expert” is cast because he happens to be the right ethnicity. In the case of Lafontaine though, despite his French roots being spot on, he is the real deal. Lafontaine’s credits include Iron Man, Beowulf, Green Hornet, and The Adventures of Tintin.

Lafontaine heads War Studios and took the time for me to get some of his thoughts on Role Models, Karate Kid, and LARPing on camera. David Baker makes a special guest appearance at the beginning as well.

Combat Con 2012: The Battle Thus Far

Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés portrayed by St. Augustine resident Chad Light from 1565 with David Baker sword

Chad Light as Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Combat Con 2012 started off slow, but by the end of the night had heated up quite literally. While registration opened at 8:00 AM on Friday, the only events until 5:00 PM were the special Master Classes in additional weapon techniques requiring a fee ranging from $75-150 for the two-hour sessions. Instead of shelling out for one of those, I spent much of the afternoon meeting some of the other friendly attendees, vendors, and coordinators whom I will be writing about soon. One of them was Chad Light, seen here portraying the historical Spaniard Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Light is a returning student to Combat Con and would later attend one of Anthony De Longis’s whip classes, having attended the class last year and having had watched the whipmaster’s DVD over 30 times. Last year though Light was nursing a broken collarbone from a horse fall and couldn’t make full use of De Longis’s class. Light later confirmed that this session with the master immediately corrected several nuances he hadn’t been able to master. More on Light and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to follow.

Combat Con 2012 Announcements and Be Here Now Charity Campaign

CombatCon Crowd Listening to Speech, Shot from the Side and Back

Combat Con 2012 Friday Night Crowd Listening Attentively

At 5:00 a film about bartitsu began, but all of the classes started at 5:30. I chose “From Real Combat to Stage Combat” along with roughly two dozen people. Co-taught by Matt Richardson, Paul MacDonald, and Bob Goodwin, the class was very hands-on and saw its students paired off and beating the crap out of each other in cinematic and theatrical fashion. Once it was over, I made my way to the Vendors’ Hall where Combat Con organizer Jared Kirby gave a speech and introduced his staff and the guest panelists and instructors. Kirby also announced several changes to the program. Knife-thrower Jack Dagger will not be able to make it to the convention and nor will Battle of the Nations. With their departures from the programming schedule, Kirby announced that more “X Classes” had been added, including “The Dancing and Dueling Connection”, “Medieval Sword and Buckler”, “Developing Fencing Fundamentals for Gaming”, and “Gigante’s Use of the False Edge”. Several of these X Classes were blocked out in the schedule, but the actual topics and instructors were TBD up until Kirby’s speech.

Last year Combat Con raised approximately $2,000 for the Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation and Combat Con repeated the charitable-focus again this year. For 2012 the charity is the Be Here Now Kickstarter campaign, which has already successfully met its $200,000 funding goal. Additional funds though will be used to help retain creative freedom for the documentary by Lillibet Foster. Star Wars stuntman Kyle Rowling introduced the campaign which is in honor of his close friend Andy Whitfield, star of Starz’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Whitfield passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer, documented in Be Here Now; Rowling had worked with him in the first episode of Spartacus as his on-screen friend and fellow Thracian, Drenis. Various vendors contributed items for the auction which eventually raised over $2,500 for the Be Here Now campaign.

Meet and Mingle, Maxwell Alexander Drake, and Combat Con Gaming

With the start of the auction the Meet and Mingle period had begun with many vendors open for business and Wester Martial Artists meeting old friends and making introductions to new ones. I took the opportunity to catch up with fantasy author Maxwell Alexander Drake whom I’ll also be seeing again at Comic Con and Gen Con this summer.

The picture of gaming at Combat Con also came into sharper focus on Friday. About eight tables were set up in the corner of the Vendors’ Hall for gaming sponsored by Avatar Comics and Games, located here in Las Vegas. While some players were already taking advantage of the space for open gaming, Avatar will be running demos in the area throughout the weekend featuring games like Flames of War, Brushfire, and Dystopian Wars. Avatar also has a small selection of games available for sale.

Flaming End to the Evening

At 10:30 an announcement was made and most of us left in the Vendors’ Hall made our way downstairs to the Tuscany Suites parking lot where we were entertained by flaming whips and swords by Duel at Dusk Productions. Though they kept a safe distance and there were no incidents of a steampunk fan or classical fencer catching on fire, the heat from the weapons was very real. They used Coleman fuel and also brought out Sun and Moon Wheel weapons as well, but I didn’t catch the flaming butterfly swords which came out later on video.

Saturday promises to be a very full day at what is turning out to be an extremely enjoyable and fascinating convention.

Combat Con 2012 Brings the Fight to Las Vegas July 6-8

Sideburned Kyle Rowling poses with sword in headshot

Kyle Rowling: Dooku Body Double and General Grievous

This weekend Las Vegas will play host to the second annual Combat Con convention running from July 6-8 at the Tuscany Suites. Tickets are $80 for the three days or can be purchased individually for $55 on Saturday or $35 for Sunday only at the Combat Con website or onsite at the Tuscany Suites. The focus of the convention is Western Martial Arts (WMA), which includes fencing and other sword fighting, grappling, and wrestling. Combat Con blends Hollywood cinematic fighting with historical martial arts practiced since Roman times, plugging itself as the convention “Where History and Fantasy Meet”. Hollywood guests include martial artists and fight choreographers Anthony De Longis, Paradox Pollack, Robert Goodwin, and Luke LaFontaine and famous science fiction author Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), himself a devotee of Western Martial Arts, will be returning this year as well. One of the most popular and well-received events at last year’s Combat Con was the Star Wars Sword class taught by Kyle Rowling. Rowling will return this year and was a Jedi in Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in addition to serving as General Grievous for motion capture, and as Christopher Lee’s stunt double as the nefarious Count Dooku in both the second and third prequel films.

Combat Con was founded by Jared Kirby and John Lennox and while it is only in its second year, Kirby and Lennox are veterans at leading Western Martial Arts conferences. Combat Con is the successor to their ISMAC (International Swordfighting and Martial Arts Convention) show which ran on the East Coast for ten years. The first Combat Con had an attendance of roughly 500 and Kirby reports that numbers are up this year in both vendor booth sales and pre-registered attendees. For Kirby Las Vegas was a natural choice because of its destination status, worldwide renown, and ease for travelers. Attendeese will be flying in from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico with a contingent of European event guests and convention-goers as well.

Among the many activities on offer at Combat Con is the chance to learn from the best masters in the small community of Western martial artists. According to Kirby this is a large draw of Combat Con, the chance to train with “nearly 30 of the the best Western Martial Arts teachers.” Visitors can sign up for whip training class with Anthony De Longis, whom I recognized as the badass Blade from the live action Masters of the Universe. These sessions require an additional fee ($150 for Techniques of the Star Wars Sword from Kyle Rowling and $150 for Anthony De Longis’ Whip Master), but there are also dozens of seminars scheduled with evocative titles like “Everyday Items as Improvised Weapons”, “Fighting the Horde: One Against Many”, “Grappling in High Heels: Brutal Paschen”, and “Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy: Surviving a Cantina Fight”.

So What Are Western Martial Arts?

When I hear martial arts, I immediately think of dojos, karate, senseis, kung fu, black belts, and Bruce Lee. When I hear Western Martial Arts, I think of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bloodsport, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, or even quite literally of Western dredge like the Jackie Chan-vehicle Shanghai Nights or the crossover action of the recent Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films. The Sherlock Holmes movies are not an entirely inaccurate association to make. Combat Con special guest Tony Wolf is an expert in the martial art of bartitsu seen in the recent Sherlock Holmes films, but originally developed over a century ago in London by Edward William Barton-Wright. Barton-Wright coined the portmanteau bart-itsu having lived in Japan for three years, as Wikipedia reveals. While bartitsu is a Western Martial Art, it is a more exotic one. Simply put, Western Martial Arts are the studies of the many different forms of interpersonal combat throughout Western history. Jared Kirby points out that Europeans training their sons in combat didn’t import martial artists from Japan, but rather built on existing traditions. WMA would also include jousting, wrestling, boxing, savate, grappling, and every other Western Hemisphere weapon in between whether polearm, axe, or shield, stretching from antiquity to present day. Modern firearms and their use do not seem to be included, nor any other forms of missile weapons ranging from slings to ballista, though archery is certainly a Western Martial Art. The focus seems to be on melee and close quarters combat. Even within a discipline such as classical fencing, attempts at putting a start and end date on the martial art to limit it to a set range of years is time wasted, according to Tom Rockwell. He posits that classical fencing “doesn’t have an end date any more than classical music does.”

The Origins of Combat Con and Growth in Western Martial Arts

Black and white headshot of Western Martial Artist Jared Kirby

Combat Con Co-Founder Jared Kirby

When I spoke with Jared Kirby he was taking a break from filming Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter in New York City, where he is based. Besides training actors in martial arts, Kirby teaches combat at a martial arts academy and recently taught stage fighting for three plays in June. Reflecting on ISMAC after ten years of running it with John Lennox, Kirby thought forward to the next ten years and predicted that ISMAC wouldn’t have the same level of impact as it already had and started to rethink the conference. As he put it, he went through a number of “bad ideas” including mixing a music festival in the vein of Lollapalooza with Western Martial Arts. Instead he turned to the common background of most modern WMA practitioners: sci-fi, fantasy, and comics fandom. Whether they arrived at Western Martial Arts via Renaissance Faires, LARPing, or role-playing games, Kirby points to these activities as the entrance points for most professional teachers of WMA and also points to a shared – if subdued – love of comic books among WMA enthusiasts.

For Kirby a Renaissance Faire was the magical introduction to Western Martial Arts. Already a Dungeons & Dragons player, the Minnesota native attended a Renaissance Faire and discovered human chess, played with life-size pieces by actors who battle dramatically. He “thought it was amazing” and vowed to do it one day. He was 15. After graduating from high school, Kirby did eventually get cast for the human chess match at that Ren Faire and went on from his training to pursue it more professionally. Combat Con’s programming director Tim Ruzicki was always into stage combat and a friend of Kirby’s from his youth. When Ruzicki returned from a trip to Scotland, he brought a smallsword back for Kirby and taught him what he had learned abroad. The two had an informal group in Minneapolis, teaching others what they’d picked up, but the call to arms was strong for Kirby and he travelled to Scotland himself, studying under fencing master Paul MacDonald. While in Britain, he attended a workshop taught by Maestro Martinez on Spanish rapier. On the fence about whether to return to Minnesota, the hour and a half class changed Kirby’s life. He informed Martinez that he would be studying under him at his academy in New York. Sure enough, Kirby turned up at the maestro’s academy three months later and is still learning from Martinez, but Kirby also teaches combat there at the academy now himself.

Kirby points to the Victorian era as the start of the revival of interest in historical martial arts. He compares present-day interest in Western Martial Arts to interest in Eastern martial arts in the 1950s before Bruce Lee popularized millennia-old interest. Eastern martial arts were certainly being studied, but there wasn’t a karate or judo school in every town. “we kind of need our own Bruce Lee, which is ironic, because Bruce Lee actually studied fencing and told his protege Danny Inosanto ‘You can’t be a complete martial artist unless you’ve studied fencing.'” Combat Con was born out of this desire to spread WMA, “to create a bigger event that would expose more people to Western Martial Arts and show how many different ways it permeates in our culture, whether that’s films or games or fan-based fiction. All of these things involve some sort of violence.”

On his current project Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter, Kirby is designing the way the hero interacts with the vampires. It’s intriguing for him because the vampire hunter doesn’t kill his prey (or other humans for that matter). He does fight with stakes though, with techniques Kirby has lifted from the combat manual Flower of Battle, published in 1409 by Italian master Fiore dei Liberi’s, or Flos Duellatorum as it was known at the time. One of Kirby’s own favorite on-screen sword fights is the cliffside battle between Wesley and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, not for its swordplay or authenticity, but rather because of how it advances the plot and story of The Princess Bride by revealing more to the audience about each character than they knew at the start of the battle.

When asked about a possible surge in interest in Western Martial Arts from the upcoming Olympics and its broadcast of fencing events, Kirby corrected my assumption and gave the analogy that “kendo is as close to katana as Olympic fencing is to real fencing.” He explained that even the term of fencing came from the shared root of offense and defense; literally to fence is to practice the art of self-defense. Modern sport fencing focuses only on offense, but as Kirby says “in what we do, if you get hit while you’re hitting the other guy, we call that ‘two dead idiots’.”

While he will be busy behind-the-scenes managing and running Combat Con, Kirby will also be co-teaching “Rapier and Smallsword for the Screen” with Luke LaFontaine as well as co-teaching on the dusack, which is a training tool for messer combat. As into medieval weapons as I am, Kirby had to explain that the messer, German for knife, “was the most common sidearm in the Germanic areas” from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Particularly exciting though, Kirby will be co-demonstrating the instructional possibilities of the shock knife, a “training tool” that features an electrical current through the knife’s edge with four settings ranging from Low to “Insane”. According to Kirby, for one and a half seconds, you actually feel like you’ve been cut by the blade. Of course, I think I need to verify this for myself at Combat Con, but sadly shock knives are restricted, besides being expensive. No shock knife LARPing… yet.

Combat Con and Its Vendors

When not attending a workshop or seminar, attendees can browse a selection of weapons, clothing, and other props on offer from Combat Con’s vendors. Clothing companies include Dark Fire Clothing with a range of T-shirts, Bad Attitude Boutique offering corsetry, and Enchanted Eras also offering corsetry, as well as Renaissance and Victorian garb. LARPing or re-enactment garb can be accentuated with jewelry from Gryphon Song Gems or Obsidian Moon Creations who will also be selling in the Vendors’ Hall. Alexandra Wolfe, proprietor of Dark Fire Clothing, attended last year and will be selling new shirt designs as well as chainmail jewelry this year. Her shirts are mostly targeted towards gamers and WMA enthusiasts. Wolfe is no stranger to sword combat herself and enjoyed talking shop with other fighters at last year’s Combat Con, though she did find sales to be slow. Having fought for over half her life, Wolfe describes herself as a fencer, but she also likes to fight “heavy” in full armor with rattan weapons just as much and enjoys a variety of weapons.

Of course, at a convention called Combat Con though, the focus is on weapons and there will be plenty of them there, along with their makers.

David Baker’s Hollywood Combat Center

David Baker admires long sword that he forged in workshop

Sword Maker and Prop Man David Baker

David Baker from the Hollywood Combat Center will be bringing aluminum training swords, rapiers, prop swords, and small swords to Combat Con, ranging in price from $250-$500, but arguably Baker’s claim to fame at Combat Con is his three-season run on Deadliest Warrior aired on SpikeTV. All of Baker’s blades are custom-made, designed either by himself or based off a historical design. Some of his customers are historical re-enactors and Baker attempts to match the weapon created for the re-enactor with his or her real life counterpart’s weapon.

Speaking about last year’s inaugural Combat Con, Baker said that it was a lot of fun and that the theatrical “crowd” got very involved with the historical community, leading to an exchange of information. Baker is excited by the merging of the theatrical community, the entertainment industry, Renfaire fans, and classical martial artists that goes on at Combat Con. The result, in his words, is that these related groups “come together to promote the Western Martial Art as an actual martial art as opposed to what it’s been for years with guys trying to do swashbuckling.” Not that swashbuckling doesn’t have its place, but Baker and the professionals of Combat Con would like to see more reality in depictions of Western combat, which has gradually been emerging in the last few decades.

The hilts and blades of a sword and a dagger custom-made by David Baker

Examples of Baker’s Workmanship

Baker started out in Hollywood as an actor, moving behind the camera into the production-side of films after a decade pursuing roles on-screen. He now describes his primary business as being a “prop-builder and/or prop man in the entertainment industry, but I specialize in historical weapons, bladed weapons primarily. So I study them and when I’m making something, I’m making it to be used, not just for looks.” Anything else that looks good, but doesn’t have the right heft or function is a “wall hanger” in Baker’s opinion.

Baker doesn’t know of any comparable convention to Combat Con. Any similar gathering of Western martial artists usually focuses on the skill set and not on the performance aspects of the combat. “By combining the theatrical and/or entertainment industry aspects,” Combat Con “opens Western martial arts up to a much larger audience who otherwise might not see good technique,” says Baker. Baker is “always frustrated” when he sees bad sword fighting in movies, “because it just promotes more bad sword fighting and/or more myths about how ‘Oh broadswords weigh a ton!’ or ‘Oh, you can take a small sword and cut a rope with it.’ Things like that.”

Steel sword showing pommel and intricate flowing hilt designed by David Baker

Custom-Made by David Baker

One panel that Baker will be part of this year is “The Reality of Reality TV”, covering what really goes on behind the scenes on reality TV productions. He will also naturally be on a panel about the third season of Deadliest Warrior. Baker’s favorite depictions of on-screen sword fights include Tyrone Power inThe Mark of Zorro (1954) as well as Scaramouche with Stewart Granger (1952). He also enjoys the French film Le Bossu (1997) with Vincent Perez, calling the sword-fighting in it “wonderful” and “a lot of fun.”

Rockwell Classical Fencing Equipment

Two smallsword hilts for classical fencing from Rockwell Classical Fencing

Rockwell Smallsword Hilts

Tom Rockwell heads Rockwell Classical Fencing Equipment, based out of Santa Fe. His swords are for classical fencing, being essentially the same as modern sport fencing weapons except for the grips and the lack of electricity built into the blades. Rockwell calls it “Olympic fencing pre-electricity”. One thing that sets Rockwell’s blades apart is that they use Italian grips instead of the more commonplace French grip. For Rockwell, Combat Con is a chance to meet with customers face to face whom he has only dealt with via email, as well as a chance to make both new friends and customers in the small community of classical fencers. Rockwell explains that his customer base is “worldwide, but it’s a really shallow pond.”

One new category of product that Rockwell will be bringing are castings of smallswords. Rockwell is personally a fan of the saber, citing the heavy saber duel between Harvey Keitel’s character and Keith Carradine’s in the cellar in the middle of The Duellists as his favorite on-screen duel. Jared Kirby on the other hand favors the smallsword and prefers the opening fight in The Duellists, during which smallswords are used. Rockwell will be bringing Italian epees and for the first time will be offering true ricasso blades, in addition to the new smallswords.

Unsharpened edge of a ricasso weapon from Rockwell Classical Fencing

Rockwell True Ricasso Blade

Some of Rockwell’s customers are fans of steampunk or steampunkers as he refers to them, but he points to Tom Badillo and Dave Charles as classical fencers first and steampunkers secondarily. Badillo uses the walking sticks that Rockwell manufactures in his classes on Victorian Cane and 19th Century Defense Against Thugs. Famous in the steampunk community, Badillo taught and demonstrated at last year’s Combat Con and sponsored the singlestick tournament. In the world of LARPing, battle gaming, and the SCA a “stick jock” fights with a foam boffer or rattan sword and prefers combat to role-playing, but within the world of WMA, singlestick isn’t a reference to a single sword, but rather a wooden cudgel and a very historic branch of combat according to the Wikipedia entry on singlestick.

And Others: Macdonald Armouries

I did not speak to Paul Macdonald, but I definitely heard a lot about him from those I reached. Another maker of weapons, Macdonald runs Macdonald Armouries in Scotland. Tom Rockwell knows him first and foremost as a fencing master, followed by his design of weapons. Jared Kirby studied under MacDonald and speaks highly of his work in forging weapons and posseses a few MacDonald-crafted blades. Another MacDonald production was a gem-encrusted replica of the Six-Fingered Man’s sword from The Princess Bride for a fan of the film. One anecdote that Rockwell shared involved the egos that can be involved in the small world of swordplay, when I asked whether rivalries existed and if I might possibly goad sword masters into fencing one another. He related how an online exchange in the pre-Facebook era resulted in MacDonald and Rockwell’s own fencing master, John Sullins, meeting in San Francisco to settle the online dispute and crossing blades with one another.

Other Combat Con Offerings

Bald wasteland wanderer and woman on cover of Maxwell Alexander Drake's DownfallBesides best-selling author Neal Stephenson, Las Vegas’s own Maxwell Alexander Drake will be attending. Like Stephenson, Drake attended last year and sat on a panel about writing fight scenes. As an exhibitor Drake must man his booth most of the time though he did enjoy the Highlander Tournament at the 2011 Combat Con. Drake will be previewing his comic collaboration with Jason Engle, Downfall and found the relatively small size of Combat Con to be intimate, allowing for increased fan access to professionals.

On Saturday, July 7 there will also be a Time Traveller’s Ball from 9:30 PM to midnight, featuring a costume contest. On Friday night there will be a Meet and Mingle from 7:00 to 10:30 PM. Besides those social events and all the classes, panels, and demonstrations, there will also be a number of tournaments. Registration includes admission into the Unarmored Longsword Tournament, the Armored Tournament, the Rapier and Smallsword Tournament, the Stage Combat Tournament, and the Costume Contest. There will also be actual gaming of the wargaming or role-playing variety as well. Additionally, Combat Con sent out an email reminder that a weapon-check is available and SHOULD be used because the Tuscany Suites forbids carrying weapons or wearing masks on or near the casino floor, just the sort of exciting warning that hints at how serious the attending fans will be.

Stay Tuned for More Combat Con 2012 Coverage

Having never heard of Combat Con until a few weeks ago, I was somewhat skeptical about it until I spoke to Kirby, Baker, and Rockwell and discovered their wealth of knowledge and expertise. Now I can’t wait to see how they fight in person and possibly learn a thing or two to up my game in Dagorhir or NERO LARP, both of which I have been getting into in the last two months. It is thrilling to be out of my depth and exposed to new knowledge and I hope to pass along as much as I can in the coming week or two.