The Avril Method of Haitian Machete Fencing
Note that the images you will see are simply mock-ups, taken from screen grabs of my YouTube videos and other sources. The finished images will be of much higher quality and will be comprised of not only diagrammatic illustrations but also candid moments of everyday life. The finished text will also include interview excerpts, interspersed throughout the instructional material.
One of the things that makes the Avril family method of machete fencing distinctive is that it 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, I describe the basic game taught by the Avril family, and the four core principles you will need to comprehend for it to yield results. If you are planning to try out the basic game described below in your own martial-arts group, remember that it is 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” (as Professor Avril used to say) until the decisive moment.
The 4 Core Principles
When I first “graduated” to live blades, Professor Avril had me write down four core principles, which encapsulate the Avril family method. Any time you get hit, the Professor told me, 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, I 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 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.
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.
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.