New sport lets you hit your friends with swords
As teenagers, Jason Caggiano and his friends were captivated by the idea of sword fighting.
“We would get PVC pipes and pool noodles and fight. People got hurt — and it was great, anyway,” he said. Then he paused for a moment, remembering. “I think it stopped when someone had their face opened up.”
On a Saturday afternoon about 15 years after that fateful day, the veterans finally had a chance to return to battle.
It was Caggiano’s bachelor party, and the men — now in their late 20s and early 30s — were suiting up in riot gear in an unrenovated warehouse in a not-yet-gentrified corner of the Port Richmond neighborhood in Philadelphia.
This particular fight club, with nary a pool noodle in sight, is known as Battlesword League.
A mash-up of fencing, martial arts and live-action role-playing, it’s a new sport that invites competitors to suit up in protective armor and use polypropylene swords to shatter plastic “crystals” attached to one another’s uniforms.
It’s a surprisingly brisk workout and a chance for friends and strangers to assault one another, apparently without the risk of serious injury.
Steve Spellman, 29, started the business as a sideline about six months ago, inspired by his own childhood fantasies and by what he was seeing on TV.
“After you watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ you’re like, ‘That would be awesome if I could sword fight!’ ” said Spellman, an engineer who lives in the city’s Graduate Hospital section. “But there is no real way to do it, so I made my own version.”
Fencing, he figured, requires years of training and technique, and martial arts was too focused on discipline and form. He wanted instant gratification, but also strategy.
“I don’t want it to be a situation where you’re just beating the crap out of each other with swords,” he said. “I wanted that back and forth like you see in the movies.”
So he ordered two swords and suits of riot gear, adorned them with crystals as targets, and went with a friend to FDR Park to test them out.
After five minutes of fighting, they took a break.
“We were both like, ‘That was the most fun and exhilarating five minutes ever.’ So I went ahead and opened up Battlesword League,” he said.
He now has 16 suits, each customized with brackets to hold seven crystals on the arms, legs and chest. He installed protective visors on 16 hockey goalie masks. And he purchased a selection of swords, ranging from a katana for the modern samurai to a long-sword for the aspiring medieval warrior. (He also printed out a stack of insurance waivers.)
For Caggiano’s bachelor party, Spellman outlined a short list of rules: No kicking, punching or grabbing. Bouts last three minutes. And competitors get a point for each crystal they break on an opponent, as well as for each one of their own still intact at the end of the match.
Then, the fights began.
Kris Konyak of Kingston, New York, was reluctant, noting that he is only passive-aggressive. “I’m more of a stay-at-home warrior,” he said.
But the others were eager to fight. They said it was an alternative to laser tag or paintball, other bachelor party standbys.
Caggiano and a college friend stepped up first, slashing at each other and managing to shatter a few crystals each.
Three minutes later, as they removed their helmets, both were winded and a little sweaty.
“It’s tiring!” Caggiano said. “But that was cool, being able to have a glorious heroic fight with a friend you love and hate. We’re always competitive, and it’s a way you can be more competitive.”
Even more competitive are Spellman’s handful of regulars, who attend open practices most weekends.
Caleb Clark, 24, of Brewerytown, has dominated the leaderboard for the last three months.
A fan of ninja and fantasy movies, he tried Battlesword League in the fall and was instantly hooked. It made him nostalgic for the tae kwon do classes he’d taken as a kid.
“But it’s a lot less serious than that,” said Clark, a roofer. “It’s more about fun than actual skill and training and degrees and belts. It’s more sociable than anything.”
Spellman, who isn’t yet turning a profit on his new sport, envisions eventually franchising the business and holding regional tournaments. Every new sword-oriented TV show and movie that comes out is a boost to his business. The Star Wars reboot, for example, came at an opportune time.
The sport is open to those age 18 and older, but almost anyone can play, he said. He recently saw a mother and son face off at the son’s 30th birthday party. She won.
He hopes those who come for bachelor and birthday parties will return week after week as an alternative to going to the gym.
For those who want to learn technique, he brings in martial arts instructors to run monthly workshops on swordsmanship.
One is Joe Varady, who’s taught traditional martial arts at his dojo in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, since 1994 and who is now a Battlesword fan.
“Some people, they would look at this and say, ‘This is not in our tradition,’ ” he said. “But everything improves. Martial arts should also be progressive.”
Find more information at battleswordleague.com.