Huntsville is known as the Rocket City and home of the space program. However, there is a group in town that spends its time looking to the past. Spacesuits aren’t the big fashion statement here, but, rather a different type of suit and the shields and swords that go with it.
It looks like medieval times in this corner of Huntsville. People dressed in masks and armor try to wallop each other with weapons that look like they belong more on an ancient battlefield than the home of the space industry. It’s called HEMA.
“HEMA is an acronym for Historical European Martial Arts," said Walker Skaggs, the head instructor and founder of Rocket City HEMA. “HEMA specifically usually deals with specifically European traditions and the practice and recreation as they would have done it, as close as we can get it.”
Skaggs has been practicing for roughly 10 years. He said the idea of studying the older methods of fighting go way back.
"That’s a bit of an interesting subject because, the earliest kind of records we have of people fighting like people used to even dates back to the period of when we’re studying things," he said. "For example in Italy, around the renaissance, it was very popular to try fight like Achilles and Hector would have, so using a spear and round shield with a sword as your back up, because people wanted to be like the heroes of the Greek myths.”
Classical fencing is something that falls under the HEMA umbrella. It’s suiting up in full armor and going after one another with swords and other weapons that’s the difference. And this sport has been making a slow comeback for nearly 30 years.
While their subject matter is from olden times, the way people find out about it is decidedly modern.
“I saw HEMA on Youtube and I looked up if there was anything in Huntsville for that," Randy Moore said.
He’s been practicing for a few years now. Moore said wearing the armor is a workout in and of itself.
“I found an old Facebook training group that would train in a park somewhere and I posted on there, 'You all still doing this?' They responded 'No, but this other guy is.'"
If you think slinging a sword is the tough part of this kind of combat, Moore said imagine just moving around, head to toe, in armor.
“If you have it made for you, the expensive way, out of spring steel, hardened steel, probably between 50 and 70 pounds. Mine is the less expensive, munitions grade, over built, so its about 90 pounds,” he said.
Moore said it’s easy to wear yourself out if you aren’t careful.
“[It's] exhausting at first. Economy of motion is very important. I try to move at little as possible when I don’t have to, basically," he said.
The extra weight and the physical effort needed to move is also what draws people to practice HEMA. That is part of the appeal for Andy Case.
“I’ve never been a big fitness guy, but just doing this, I’ve lost about 30 pounds. Just this alone has been tremendous for my physical health," he said.
Case found out about Rocket City HEMA much like Moore did, through Youtube and the internet. However, there was something else that helped pique their interest.
“I grew up watching the Errol Flynn Robin Hood movies and stuff like The Mark of Zorro. I got a bug for it, I loved learning this stuff.”
There was one movie that was brought by nearly every person in the class, the 1987 classic The Princess Bride. There is a scene in the movie where the character Inigo Montoya battles the Man in Black on the Cliffs of insanity, they mention the names Bonetti, Capo Ferro and Thibault. These are all real fencing masters. Skaggs and other HEMA fans take inspiration from similar instructors.
"There are some masters you can read about in the big fencing movement that took place in the end of the 1800’s, early 20th century. Some of them still reference using the quarter staff or the longsword, things like that, the older styles," Skaggs said.
Learning historical fighting styles and exercise aside, Skaggs saif there is another benefit from his business that means a great deal to him.
“The mental health benefits have probably been the biggest thing I would say," he said. "A lot of us in HEMA have depression and things of that nature.”
He said it helps people build confidence.
“Finding something like this where can also nerd out but at the same time be serious," he said. "It’s a very accepting community with a lot of like-minded people the difference it’s had on my life has been absolutely astounding, the transformations in people that have been here for a while its incredible, they’re entirely different people than when they first walked in the door."
That’s why Skaggs said he not only practices HEMA combat, he teaches it too. He said his school fits right in with the Huntsville community.
“They have this passion that they can vary easily apply to things, and getting to apply it to a not only a physical sport, but also such a mental sport, it’s something that is so very Huntsville, we have a lot of interesting niche things here," he said.
The team from Rocket City HEMA can be seen all across the southeast doing demonstrations at other HEMA events and festivals. They also compete against other schools. Skaggs is planning a competition of his own for later this month called “Ye H.A.W” which stand for Huntsville Armored Weekend. It takes place next month in Huntsville.