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.

Simple, right?

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.

This is the reason you'll often see an attacker doing non-strategic things like turning their back in our videos. The attacker is inviting the defender to close in, and thereby forcing them to play the game of pivoting farther. Even though reaching the attacker’s back is one way to the defender’s ultimate goal – setting up a position from which they could safely execute a strike – they must first learn to field the coming counter-strike from a desperate attacker. In subsequent chapters, you will learn how to create these openings for yourself, primarily by combining pivoting steps with aggressive forward lunges.

Extra bonus excerpt from Chapter Two: The Hanging Parry

Once Professor Avril saw that a new student had mastered the basic principles, he would throw an additional defensive position into the mix: the hanging parry. He wouldn’t typically explain it. Rather, in the middle of a training session, he would suddenly grab the student’s sword-arm and sweep it low as he swung his own blade downward, slapping the two blades together. He would then guide the student’s arm as he swung it upward to the correct position – blade at shoulder-level, pointed downward at a 45º angle. Here the hanging parry provides momentary protection.

In this chapter I describe four specific situations in which the hanging parry will allow you to advance your position while observing the four core principles.


The most important thing to understand about the hanging parry is its limitation. The hanging parry is not as solid as a standard, upright block. It should never be used to field an attack at distance. But it is a vital transitional position to take in at least four specific situations: after executing a low sweep, when following the attacker’s blade overhead, when blocking a rising attack, and when attempting to eject an opponent’s blade that has already entered your guard.


These specific situations should be the only ones in which you attempt the hanging parry when playing the basic Avril method training game. Over time, as you become more advanced, you may discover more. But for the time being it is important to train yourself not to use the hanging parry in the wrong situations, since doing so will often open you up to a devastating attack.

In all the positions discussed in the previous chapter, with the exception of the roof block, the blade is held upright. The hanging parry calls for the blade to be held tip-downward, but it is not exactly the opposite of the standard block. Instead, the hanging parry should be executed at close to a 45º angle. While with a standard block the principle of “sucking it in” (Principle 3) is important, with the hanging parry it is even more so: the ideal position is to have the 45º downward-pointing blade resting on your shoulder. This requires strenuous, aggressive stepping to accomplish in practice.

The footwork described in Principles 1 and 4 above also applies when executing the hanging parry: whichever side the attacker’s blade is on, bring that foot backward, pivoting as far as possible.

For beginners, there is sometimes confusion as to which way to turn the blade in the transition to the hanging parry. Always lead with the pommel as you turn your hand over. Your elbow should point outward toward the attacker (from which position an elbow strike to the attacker’s face becomes a implicit possibility). Your palm will face outward when executing a hanging parry over your left shoulder, assuming you’re right-handed.

Situation 1: The low sweep

The low sweep is an exception to the rule that you must always descend to block a low strike with your blade upright. In this sense it is a bit confusing to teach. In general Professor Avril would train us to execute a low block in the standard way, but he also clearly believed that the low sweep was an essential part of a fencer’s toolkit. As a beginner, the low sweep should remain an exception, because the ability to do the standard low block remains crucial and it takes a lot of work to master. But as you advance, the low sweep to hanging parry transition will take on more importance as an aspect of your defensive game. The key will be in learning to discern when the low sweep is called for versus the standard low block.

The low sweep only works when followed up with a hanging parry. Even when the hanging parry is just a momentary beat within a series of transitions, it is essential to stick the position as well as you can in that moment to prevent the attacker’s blade from entering your guard.

The low sweep is a sweep rather than a simple block because it must move the attacker’s blade upward to your shoulder level. You can always sink low with your legs to set a lower shoulder level, but the hanging parry should never be attempted with your hand lower than your shoulder. This means that you need to generate enough momentum to be confident of moving the attacker’s blade. Because of the mechanics of the human body, batting a low blow to the side will invariable cause the blades to rise in an arc.

For maximum effectiveness, you must step in toward the attacker (i.e. into the circle partially described by the arc of the blades) as you turn your blade over. This puts you in a position “inside” the attacker’s guard while keeping them outside your own. In a later chapter, I will go into more detail on how to capitalize on such moments to launch a relatively safe attack of your own.

The most important thing to keep in mind when executing the low sweep is that it requires you to extend your blade, bringing it roughly in line with your sword arm. This creates a “pathway” directly to your neck and face. You must close off this line immediately upon clearing the attacker’s blade to the side. Do this by angling your blade downward, introducing an angle of 90º (ideally) between your blade and forearm.

If you can then follow it up to the ideal position with your blade resting on your shoulder, that’s great. But often, especially at a more advanced stage, the attacker will respond immediately to the low sweep by drawing their blade down toward your tip – after you have introduced the downward angle in your blade but before you can fully stick the position. This is okay. When it happens, just turn your blade right-side-up as you sink with you legs, pulling your pommel down and inward, arriving at the standard low block. In this type of exchange, the hanging parry is still a crucial transitional step, even when imperfectly realized.

Even if you are not given time to fully express the position by drawing the attacker’s blade upward to your shoulder-level and stepping in to bring your shoulder against your blade, this is always the direction you should be moving until the attacker changes their line of attack.


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