You would have thought that disarms were fairly straightforward; find some tricky way to take their sword off them, they lose the sword, end of story. Sometimes disarming someone is that simple but there are times when being disarmed is the least of their worries.
Let’s start off with what a disarm is and when you might want to use it. It’s not actually removing someone’s arm (though more on that later). It’s about taking their weapon off them. There are actually lots of different ways to do it. Depending on how they’re holding their weapon, if you strike it with force at the right angle, you can sometimes just knock it out of their hand (e.g. if they’re holding a spear with both hands palm-skyward, and you knock it hard upwards, it may come out of one or both of their hands). Another similar technique is to rotate the sword in their hand in such a way that they lose their grip of it—either from a bind or by grabbing part of the sword yourself. You can also grab their arm or wrist with your own hand and do nefarious things from there. Plenty of disarms for plenty of occasions, but why would you use them?
A lot of masters seem to advise only doing a disarm on someone if they close in on you, and that’s certainly one time to do it. I’ve found another good time is when you know you’re against a less-skilled opponent. Someone who doesn’t understand how to counter a disarming technique won’t be able to stop you once you’ve closed in on them. They might, however, be dangerous enough to counter attack you if you’re trying to cut or stab them from a distance. Someone who doesn’t consider their own safety and just focuses on hitting you at all costs is much more dangerous to fence at a distance, and much safer to fight once you’ve forced them to play a game of skill and prior training such as being at the bind or in a grappling/disarm situation.
Ok, makes sense, disarms have their place. What’s this extra, hidden benefit though? Well, remember I said “it’s not actually removing someone’s arm”—you thought I was kidding, and I was, but only half. Any disarm which rotates something around someone’s fingers or wrist immediately urges them to let go of what they’re holding. And most people do. But not everyone. The kick is, if you’ve done the disarm right, the pressure is still going in that direction. With sufficient force on your part, and stubbornness on theirs, you could break their wrist or fingers if they don’t let go.
Now I’m telling you this out of experience and as a slight warning. Testing out some medieval disarms, I and those I’ve been with have almost injured each other by doing them full-speed and full-force. This, in my book, means they’re worth learning because they’re incredibly effective. The downside is you need to be really careful practicing them, because they are quite dangerous. See, we can mitigate against many dangers of sword fighting by sparring with blunt weapons and protective equipment, but techniques which target the weaknesses of our joints are much harder to protect against. So, as you progress in HEMA, check out whatever disarms are in your chosen system and even others further afield, but practice them with reverence and awe, for you really are playing with fire.
(Photo accessed online at Wiktenauer)