Pointed Lessons

Pointed Lessons

Swordsman brings centuries of tradition, education to Gadsby's Tavern.

Peter Ryan held the pen in his hand, pointing it like he would a steel rapier. "You have to observe your opponents' behavior. How accurate is he? How fast is he? How tall is he? What's his reach vs. mine?" he said.

If this were the 18th century, Ryan would have fallen into one of three categories of sword instructors. He may have been the local master, teaching sword fighting to the townsfolk before leaving to further his own education. He could have been the hired instructor of a wealthy family, offering lessons in swordplay, dance and French to the nobleman's children. But, most likely, he would have been a traveling master — going from town to town, sharing the latest techniques and showing off the newest equipment to the awe-struck locals.

Back in our century, Ryan travels to Gadsby's Tavern Museum on March 25 for Swordsmen's Rendezvous, an all-ages workshop that features 18th-century swordplay and weaponry.

Ryan said the psychology of swordplay has many modern applications.

"I could do a motivational talk with businessmen," he said. "You have to do the observation. You have to recall what can be done when you see a flaw, to exploit the advantage. Then you have to make the plan — convert your knowledge. Then you have to take a deep breath, without looking like you're taking a deep breath, and launch the attack. If it fails, you have to figure out why it failed. You have to come up with a defensive and an offensive plan. And you have to do all of this while you're terrified."

Those who attend the presentations appear to grasp these time-tested concepts. After one workshop, Ryan recalled, a woman came up to him and began to interview him, furiously scribbling down everything he said in a personal notebook.

"I think she had just seen the light," said Ryan. "Getting him to overreact, hitting him from the other side — I think she had figured out something [about herself]."

RYAN STUDIED FENCING as a student attending Fordham University. He eventually began teaching history in Washington, DC, first at a public school and then at Catholic schools during the 1960s. One day, he decided to take a living history approach to the subject and came to class dressed in the garb of a Western expansion-era fur trapper. "Nobody laughed, thank God," he recalled.

His cousin was one of the founding members of a historical reenactment group called the 2nd New York. He gave Ryan some advice after the living-history lesson: "He took one look at my silly repro gun, and said 'I can get you something better.'" Soon, Ryan had a new rifle and an invitation to join the 2nd New York, which reenactment group that covers the Revolutionary War. He was hooked on historical reenactment.

"I'm an empath. I can feel what other people feel, very strongly. I was trained in anthropology, and it's a key element for what I do professionally," said Ryan, who develops training methods for customs and border protection personnel. "I can imagine how people with different mindsets will react to what they're presented."

Ryan delves into the psychology of swordplay during his presentations, but he also offers a look at the hardware involved. He said he planned on bringing an array of sabers and swords to the event. He'll have about two dozen wooden replica "single sticks," used for training by the U.S. cavalry in the 18th century. There'll be a hunting sword, which Ryan said is "a short saber that a country gentleman carries with him on the hunt. The dogs run the animal down, and then you finish it." There'll also be a Scottish back sword, "designed to split people in half. It's a frightening weapon."

Ryan said he makes it clear in his presentation that swords aren't toys.

"You don't start a kid learning small sword until about 10. They don't have the attention span, and they don't really understand 'dead.' This is life and death — this is not fooling around," he said. "This is not a sport. It's preventing yourself from getting killed, and killing the other guy if you have to."

THE PERSON GIVING the presentation at Gadsby's is Captain Peter Blanchard, late of the army of Maria Theresa. It may look like Peter Ryan — and sound like him, albeit with a slightly different accent — but Ryan literally disappears when Blanchard arrives.

It's been that way for Ryan — director of the Living History Foundation, which puts on the event at Gadsby's — since he caught the reenactment bug. He was a rifleman with the 2nd New York, before moving over to become an officer with another unit. It was then he decided he needed a sword — being an officer and all — and found his first sword in London. "An 19th century reproduction of an 18th century weapon. Got it for a song," he said.

"The one that broke my heart was on the same trip."

It was an original 18th century weapon in a London storefront, one that Ryan estimated could have been from 1745. "I looked at it in the case and I just drooled, because I knew what it was. He handed it to me, and I took it in my hand. I took my fencing stance, and I held it out," he said.

Ryan then held out his pen again. "I could see the tip...flip," he said, moving the tip of the pen ever-so-slightly up and down.

"It was reacting to my heartbeat."

With that, Ryan's eyes grew teary with bittersweet memories.

"Man, if I had the money then...the balance point was half-an-inch in front of the hilt — that's perfect. The thing weighed 16, 17 ounces," he recalled.

"God, it was beautiful."