Haitian machete fencing is a functional martial art with deep roots in Haitian history.
Our project is dedicated to promoting and teaching this system worldwide. Over the course of a ten-year apprenticeship with master fencer Alfred Avril, we have been privileged to document this art form in ways never before seen by the wider world, first through our many rough-cut training videos, and later through collaboration on the documentary short film Papa Machete. We have also been honored to welcome many serious-minded foreigners to our annual training intensives at the Avril family homestead in Haiti. Though Professor Avril passed away in December 2014, his sons and other committed students have received his blessing to continue his practice.
This summer's planned training intensive in Haiti has been canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis. Firm dates for our next program have not yet been set, but we are hoping it will be possible to hold it in January of next year. If you are interested in coming to Haiti to train with us, please see our training in Haiti page for details, and then if you think you might be up for it feel free to contact us.
We are also working on a manual entitled The Avril Family Method of Haitian Machete Fencing, for which we are currently seeking a publisher. A sample chapter of the manual is available below.
Master fencer Alfred Avril
In Haiti, the traditional art of machete fencing goes by many names, among them Tire Machèt (“Pulling Machetes”). Tire Machèt has roots in the Haitian Revolution, when the revolutionaries were often forced to fight with fewer guns than soldiers. Its combination of African combat systems and European fencing proved highly effective both in battle and as a means of individual self-defense. Since that time, a multitude of styles and training methods have proliferated. Though many of these practices remain shrouded in secrecy, Haitian master fencer Alfred Avril extended an invitation to foreigners serious about learning this martial art to come to Haiti to train with him. Over the course of our ten-year collaboration, we had the opportunity to learn and to introduce many others to his practice.
Alfred Avril, whose homestead lies on the wooded slopes of Cap Rouge, just outside the city of Jacmel, was the repository of one such family fencing tradition. At first glance a mild-mannered subsistence farmer, he was a master martial artist who had trained in Tire Machèt since childhood, initially under the tutelage of his father. Over the course of his life, he continued the tradition as a respected professor of Tire Machèt in his own right, training his sons, grandsons, nieces, nephews, and other members of his tight-knit community in the esoteric art of machete combat.
In general, Tire Machèt is practiced in relative secrecy. Family traditions are a closely guarded possession to be passed down through the generations, and only trusted members of the community are permitted to participate in (or even observe) training sessions. Students from farther afield must demonstrate great loyalty to their fencing "professor" in order to gain admittance.
In 2004, Haitian Machete Fencing Project founders Reginald Turnier and Michael Rogers met Professor Avril through one of his sons, and because of this connection were invited to begin training. Over the years, we built a relationship of trust with the Professor and his community such that we were permitted to train with much greater openness, and to bring our own guests to the fencing circle. He encouraged us to make videos of the training in order to introduce this relatively unknown martial art to the world. As time went by, we were fortunate to be able to collaborate with the production company Third Horizon to create the short documentary film about the Professor and his art – Papa Machete – which was an official selection of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Professor Avril often expressed to us his hope that our project might increase the prestige of Haitian machete fencing as an art form, both at home and abroad, and give the younger generation another reason to retain this piece of their cultural heritage into the future.
Professor Avril with his grandson Mackinley
On December 1st 2014, Professor Avril succumbed to a fever and died. The following summer, after a period of mourning, the HMFP staff spent several weeks training in private with Professor Avril's sons Roland, Jean-Paul and Fredo, and came up with a cooperative plan for continuing our annual training programs each summer. Since that time, the Avril brothers have continued to grow into accomplished masters in their own right, each preserving and refining a particular aspect of their father's fencing style. While Roland is a motorcycle taxi driver, Jean-Paul a painter, and Fredo a journeyman mason – and all three brothers work the family agricultural land for food – our project helps them provide their family with additional resources to get through harder times. Together, we continue the work of perpetuating the Avril family and its traditional method of martial-arts training for future generations.
Left to right: Roland, Jean-Paul, and Fredo Avril
A brief history of Tire Machèt
In Haiti, before the Revolution of 1791-1804 (when it was called Saint-Domingue), slaves of African ancestry struggled to keep alive their traditional practices of stick and blade combat by holding clandestine competitions called Kalenda. At the same time, many of the free people of color sought social advancement through service in the French military, where they absorbed the techniques of European dueling culture. Notably, the Haitian fencer Jean-Louis Michel was among the most accomplished European-style fencers of the Napoleonic era. When widespread insurrection finally
broke out, the art of machete fencing emerged to play an important part in combat, since the insurgents were often unable to provide guns and ammunition for all of their soldiers. Gradually, the African and European elements began to merge into a single, synthetic martial arts tradition. Over the course of Haitian history, Tire Machèt has served mostly as a means of individual self-defense among farmers who work day in, day out with a machete in their hand to this day.
Though in some ways Tire Machèt resembles historical methods of European saber fencing, it bears a clear family resemblance to other roots-African martial arts like Capoeira and the forms of stick fighting currently practiced in Africa. The survival of such roots-African traditions in Haiti is a great source of its cultural wealth. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these traditions are today stronger in Haiti than anywhere in Africa because of the degree to which, during the nineteenth century, when most of Africa itself was being overrun by colonial powers, Haiti suffered the most complete international isolation imaginable. The fact that slaves had succeeded in overthrowing their masters and setting up their own government was anathema to the racist ideology of the slave-holding societies all around them, and these societies responded by cutting off almost all contact with Haiti (other than trading on the most disastrous terms) for more than 100 years. This isolation, though devastating economically, also provided protection for African traditions – from music and dance to religion and painting – to thrive.
On the other hand, the European influences on Haiti’s culture and martial tradition are undeniable. On on the eve of the revolution, there were about 30,000 free blacks and people of mixed ancestry living in Saint-Domingue, which was at the time France’s wealthiest colony, and although they were discriminated against, some had (and many aspired to) a very European way of life. Many of Haiti’s revolutionary leaders were trained in the French military tradition, and part of their prestige was their well known mastery of its style of swordsmanship. Over time, the African and European martial traditions merged, as military training and the martial-arts practices of rural peasants (with their stronger link to the African traditions) began to influence one another and ultimately combine into the art form as it is practiced today.
To learn more about the history of Tire Machèt and other martial arts of the African diaspora, see the excellent work of T.J. Desch-Obi. You can read sections of his book Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World here. To learn more about the Haitian Revolution, see especially Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois, excerpts of which are available here.
A brief introduction to the Avril Family Method
The Avril family method of machete fencing focuses solely on defensive drilling. One partner – typically the more senior practitioner – “gives hits”, while the other partner only defends, without striking back. There is a time and place for live sparring, which typically evolves within the defensive drill between two experienced practitioners, but as a beginner the best practice is to focus only on the drill. The defending partner is really the one being trained, and should expect to work harder than the attacker. It’s a deceptively simple game, yet it contains a complete fencing system. The striking component develops organically, almost accidentally, from within the framework of blocking, pivoting and advancing.
The ultimate goal of each encounter is to move to positions from which – momentarily – you are be able to strike your opponent without receiving a counter-strike. The chief functional virtue of the Avril family tradition consists in its methodology for seeking and holding such positions.
Why no basic striking techniques? The best answer is that, in rural Haiti, pretty much everyone grows up using a machete for all sorts of chores – to the point where chopping or slicing at any angle is second nature. In such a context, the real question of combat training is not “How can I cut up my opponent?” but rather “How can I keep my body intact throughout this encounter?” The Avril family method consists in a deceptively simple game, which over time reveals layer after layer of functionality.
In what follows, we describe the basic game taught by the Avril family, and the four core principles you will need to comprehend for it to yield results. Note that this is only the first, sample chapter to a more complete manual which we are currently working to edit and revise.
If you are planning to try out the basic game described below in your HEMA, Silat or other martial-arts group, remember that it’s best to start very slowly and with great care. Obviously, start with sticks or replicas rather than real machetes (however blunt they seem). But you do have to make an effort to keep the lightness of the machete in mind. When playing the role of attacker, use whatever striking techniques you’re familiar with, as long as you remember to keep it extra light and easy. This will allow the defender to focus on their form, but it also breeds good technique in the long run. After all, you don’t need a big swing to damage someone with a machete. It’s a slicing weapon as well as a chopper, which delivers penetrating push- and pull-cuts. Against an experienced defender, the over-committed inertia of a big swing can prove fatal. That’s why the Avril family method favors lightness, speed and strategy over power.
Once you’ve stepped it up to real-time attacks, it can be difficult for the defender to avoid striking the attacker. Work hard at this anyway. The same neural pathways which you are building by not striking the attacker during the drill will be used offensively later on. You are learning to keep everything you can “in reserve” until the decisive moment.
The 4 Core Principles
When Reginald and Michael first “graduated” to live blades, Professor Avril had them write down four core principles, which encapsulate the Avril family method. Any time you get hit, the Professor told them, it’s because you have violated one of the four principles.
These principles allow you to learn from your mistakes. Whenever you are struck during the defensive drill, try to identify the principle (or principles) you violated. As a beginner, try a version of the defensive drill in which both partners pause after each hit to examine positions and call out the violated principles.The four core principles are the key to getting better for all levels. Even the most experienced practitioners still violate one or another of these principles eventually when placed under enough pressure. But by recognizing the principle at work, each hit received in training becomes an opportunity to improve.
In what follows, we have broken up each aspect of the basic footwork and postures according to the principle that informs it. You and your training partners should read each section to the end before attempting the basic training game.
In a later chapter, you will learn to “foreshorten” your form to respond to real-time attacks, and to help you close in from distance. The same principles remain operative though imperfectly expressed in such foreshortened form. Any time you get hit, you can still identify which principle you could have expressed more perfectly – through more strenuous effort – to protect yourself.
Principle 1: Your feet respond to the attacker’s blade.
Keep your blade upright when blocking a lateral strike. When the attacker strikes toward your left side, bring your left leg backward. When they attack your right side, bring your right leg back. This is the first thing you learn when you come to the Avril family to train.
Figure 1: Michael closes off his left side against a shoulder-level attack from Wisler.
Figure 2: Reginald closes off his right side against a shoulder-level attack from Wisler.
When the attacker’s blade crosses from one side to the other, try to keep your machete upright and in place – and move your body behind your blade. In this way, it is possible to block a series of strikes on alternating sides without moving your blade at all. Try this out as an exercise.
The only exception to this pattern that you need to know as a beginner is the roof block, which stops an overhead strike. The roof block should be executed in as low and forward a lunging position as possible, your blade horizontal. If you’re right-handed, your left leg should generally be forward.
Figure 3: Fabienne executes a roof block against an overhead attack from Professor Avril.
In practice, you will struggle with the footwork a great deal. As a beginner, it’s easy to get mixed up. At more advanced stages, under increased pressure from the attacker, it can be difficult to keep pace.
At that stage in your training, a foreshortened version of the footwork is acceptable for quick transitions. Generally this means that the rear foot is brought back against the front leg, rather than thrust behind. Another example of foreshortening would be holding your blade less than vertically when attempting to engage an opponent's blade from range. But these exceptions will not be discussed until this manual's penultimate chapter. In the next chapter you will learn specific situations in which to employ a shoulder-level hanging guard (i.e with the tip of your blade angled downward), though this position too should not be attempted until you have become comfortable with the basics.
Principle 2: Change levels, on time, with the legs.
To block a lateral blow to the upper body or head, it’s a simple matter to deflect with an upright machete. When the attacker’s blade strikes low, the Avril family method calls for you to sink low with your legs, preserving as much as possible an erect posture with the torso. Thus a block at knee-level looks just like a block at belly-level, except with a lower stance.
Figure 4: A) Roland blocks a chest-level attack from Professor Avril. B) Roland descends as he switches his footwork to block a knee-level attack on the opposite side.
When defending, you will often be required to take a stance so low that your rear knee hovers just an inch above the ground. You may sometimes rest one knee on the ground while defending, as long as you’re able to pop back up again when necessary.
This is a simple principle that is difficult – and exhausting – in practice. It will probably make your legs sore. Persist. Don’t give in and hunch over. Keep both your posture and your blade as upright as possible whenever blocking to the side, no matter how low the strike comes. Only if the attacker’s blade comes at your hand while your pommel is touching the ground may you trap their blade against the ground.
Figure 5: David blocks an ankle-level attack from Jean-Paul by placing his pommel on the ground.
In general, your most immediate concern is to protect your exposed hand. Unlike a saber or cutlass, of course, a machete typically has no hand protection. The Avril family method deals with this problem primarily by training you to descend whenever a blow is aimed at your hand, so that it lands instead near the middle of your upright machete. If the attacker’s blade slides down toward your hand after you block, follow it down by sinking with your legs, all the way to the ground if necessary. Ultimately, this response must become reflexive.
Figure 6: A) Michael blocks a shoulder-level attack from Professor Avril. B) Michael sinks low to block with the middle of his blade as Professor Avril attacks his hand.
Principle 3: Suck it in.
When someone swings a machete at your face, your instinct is not just to block the blow but to get as far away from the attacker’s blade as possible. This second instinct is a mistake. The Avril family method places great emphasis on keeping the sword-arm retracted as tightly as possible while defending. This often requires the defender to step in toward the attacker’s blade. In live combat, whenever blade contact occurs, the fighter with the more tightly retracted sword-arm is thought to have a decisive advantage.
As a principle of defense, keeping the sword-arm retracted greatly reduces the radius you have to trace when moving your body to the other side of your blade. Try this out for yourself by doing the exercise mentioned above under Principle 1, in which you block a series of strikes on alternating sides without moving your blade. If you hold your sword-arm extended, you need to trace a wide circle with your body, wasting time and energy in the process. But with a tightly retracted arm, it’s possible to pivot behind the blade quickly and efficiently.
Figure 7: By observing Principle 3, Crystal is able to respond effectively as Jean-Paul moves his blade from her right side to her left: she keeps her blade in the same position and moves her body behind it.
This principle applies for any angle. From the attacker’s point of view, a defender with an extended sword-arm is vulnerable to a quick change in the direction of attack.
Though this principle seems straightforward, it is devilishly difficult to maintain under pressure. Instead of strenuously descending with the legs, you may wish to extend your sword-arm downward, but this opens up the attacker’s line to your face. Similarly, overextending your arm while executing the roof block leaves your lower body prone. But the most common reason for a defender to violate Principle 3 is that it often requires stepping aggressively toward the attacker in order to maintain blade contact.
This method of aggressive stepping will be the subject of Chapter Four, but for now it is worthwhile to mention that here the defensive and offensive aspects of the Avril family method are most seamlessly integrated. Sucking your sword-arm in (along with keeping your blade upright) means that you hold a tremendous potential for extension in reserve until the moment you need it. This concept too will be the subject of much discussion in future chapters.
Figure 8: A) Michael fails to observe Principle 3 while blocking an attack from Lischa. He should have lunged low to execute the roof block with a retracted arm. B) Lischa exploits the opening, striking Michael in the groin.
For now, begin by observing – any time you get hit – if the opening could have been closed by moving closer to the attacker while retracting the sword-arm.
Figure 9: A) Roland steps aggressively past Professor Avril's blade, blocking against his forearm. B) Professor Avril pulls back his blade. Roland follows with his hand but not his body, causing him to overextend. C) Professor Avril exploits the opening by dropping his blade under Roland's arm. D) Professor Avril slashes upward as he fends off Roland's sword-arm with his own.
Principle 4: Pivot farther.
The closer you get to the attacker, the more important it becomes to pivot your body behind your blade. In this context, “closer to the attacker” may mean blocking farther along their extended blade, closer to their hand. Or it may mean stepping closer to their feet. As a general rule, you can always defend yourself more completely by pivoting farther behind your blade.
Figure 10: A) Fabienne enters Professor Avril's space, closing off any attack from the side. B) Professor Avril drops low to attack the legs but Fabienne keeps pace, dropping only a split-second afterward. C) Fabienne pivots farther to keep her body protected behind her blade as Professor Avril attempts to pull his blade across her front.
This principle is the reason for the Avril family method’s insistence that beginners train with the left hand behind the back (assuming they’re right-handed). This is to train the student to keep their torso arched backward to protect the chest, and to keep their left hand out of the way when it’s not needed. At a more advanced level, one may sometimes bring the off hand up to the neck so it’s available for a grappling maneuver or to take a hit for the throat. But as a beginner it’s important to explore how much you can do with a hand behind the back, focusing only on the machete for defense.
Unless executing a roof block, your chest should pivot to align at least somewhat with the orientation of your legs. This is especially important when blocking on the left (again assuming you’re right-handed) because of the greater exposure of your torso on that side. But no matter which side you find the attacker’s blade on, you will need to pivot your chest farther the closer you get to the attacker.
It’s the same with the feet. The rear foot may be approximately in line with the front foot at middle distance, but should be be crossed behind at close range. While such a cross-legged stance is frowned upon in other martial arts, it becomes a necessity in the context of Haitian machete fencing, where ankles and feet are prime targets at close range. Having the rear leg crossed behind allows the whole body to pivot far enough behind the blade to defend these targets no matter how close to the attacker one gets.
Figure 11: A) Michael closes off his left side against an attack from Wisler. B) As Wisler moves his blade to the other side, Michael launches toward Wisler's back. C) Wisler checks to see if Michael is open for a low attack. D) Michael closes off the line for Wisler's low attack by pivoting his rear leg behind him. E) With Michael's right side closed off, Wisler turns his back to deliver a strike to the other side. In this transition, Michael has the opportunity for a drawing cut against Wisler's back as he sucks his blade in to field the coming strike. F) Michael pivots his feet as he closes off his left side.