The last couple of times I've progressed on the freestyle cutting course I will have been fairly confident about sitting down and detailing how I went about getting through it to anyone who asked. I tried, I made mistakes, I carried on and usually by the second or third actual cutting session, I would of gotten through it and be able to replicate the cuts to anyone who wanted to see them. Any further practice with the cuts would be to hammer in the technique and refine any rubbish out of it so I could feel relaxed about them. Sometimes this doesn't always happen though and you end up with something you're stuck on for quite a while. Maybe your muscles aren't working as they should or it could be the movements feel awkward but whatever it is, you slowly realise that it's gonna take a lot more bottles than you have managed to save up. ;)
With that in mind, today I want to introduce you to a type of cut called the 'Returning cut'. Normal doubles are where the sword moves one way and then comes back in the opposite direction for the second cut. These returning cuts on the other hand, require you to cut in one direction, shift the sword back to its original starting point and make the same cut again.
There are a couple of ways of making these cuts and I'll detail both of them as well as I can. I have found that most people sit with one technique over another and this is usually because they find one method particularly difficult. This is no different with me and although I have managed to perform these cuts with both different styles, if you watch my videos it becomes clear that I dramatically prefer one method over another. I'm sure once you've had a play with them you'll develop a preference of your own too. Whether or not this dominates the way you make your cuts is up to you, although I will say if you manage to competently employ both methods, I will have to take my hat off to you.
Of course, I say this as if there are only two methods to make these cuts. In fact in freestyle cutting where everyone is in essence self taught, this is hardly the case. There are many ways you can do these cuts and my explaining 2 of them does not mean there aren't many more.
The looping method
This method depends on you being able to quickly move the blade around the falling bottle after you've made your first cut.
In essense, what you are going to do is to cut the first bottle, bring the blade up and around and back into alignment with your first cut. From there you should be able to perform exactly the same cut again. It sounds easy to lets break it down a little and that way I can give you pointers for each part.
For arguments sake, I am going to use what I believe is the easiest cut to perform to start with. This belief is largely fuelled by seeing people pick up a sword for the first time and using this cut, the downward diagonal from right to left.
1) The initial cut.
Starting with the blade at a comfortable raised level, line up with the target and make your first cut. You will want to make sure that you only put as much strength into the cut as is needed. This is because you are going to have to control and stop the blade before reversing its direction. This is important and being as its your first cut, you have all the time in the world to set it up and get it right. Getting the first cut right makes the rest easier so make sure you keep tight control over your stopping distance. There is an optimal distance after the bottle that you will want to aim. For me I try and aim for about 15". That doesn't mean I get it but as long as you're consciously controlling that distance then you'll find it gets easier. :p
I find that as far as my feet are concerned, if I turn slightly towards the direction of the cut, it means that I'm forced to engage my core a little more. This becomes more second nature as you progress with your confidence but it's certainly something worth experimenting with. whether that works for you or not, try shifting your feet and the angle of your body with relation to the target and you may find something that helps you too.
2) The repositioning of the blade
Now you need to bring the blade around the bottles quickly as the top one will be falling and the bottom one will hopefully be in two pieces. As I found out, you don't have long to do this. This is the additional movement that makes this cut so much more difficult than the normal doubles.
-How much time do you have? As I've often said before, one way to get the idea of the time constraint that you're under, is to take a bottle of water and hold it a whole bottles height above the cutting post. Then Imagine the first cut and let go of the bottle. that amount of time as it hits the stand and bounces, is how long you have to get the sword over the falling bottles and to make the second cut. not long is it? But it's enough, so don't worry. This is what all the practice is for after all and if it was easy, it wouldn't be as cool right?
The loop that you're going to have to make can be pictured in a couple of ways. It's always pretty much the same cut but I found that picturing it differently got me over the hurdle of not being able to move the sword fast enough.
The first diagram shows a circular movement and this I've seen many people use but because of its curvature, I've found that it ended up encouraging me to scoop the second cut which resulted in more bounced bottles than I care to admit to. The second is a method that I've found where I try and keep the movements as straight as possible. this allows you to more easily break the cut into the three discernible sections that your brain will find it easier to work on. At the end of the day, it's up to you of course.
You need to to pay attention to your hand positions when you bring the blade back as well. It's a cinch to snap the blade back around the bottles given enough practice, but you will also have to make sure that your dominant hand is further back than the other so you can still utilise that whole snapping action required to bring the tip acceleration into play. Especially with bottles, you're using your wrists and forearms to quickly whip the blade through those soft targets and that whole push and pull thing can only happen if your hands are positioned correctly to start with.
3) The returning cut
Once you're lined up with the target again, you need to perform the first cut again. This goes without saying I suppose but you have an advantage on the second cut that you didnt have on the first, and that's that you don't have to have such tight control over the stopping distance. You're not trying to stop the cut straight after the bottle.
Use this to your advantage. If you properly engage your core as well as your arms, as long as you're quick enough and your aim is ok, you'll slip through that second bottle like it wasnt even there. Starting this combo with the sword higher and stopping shorter after the target, then the second cut, starting lower and finishing further afterwards can also give you an advantage.
I've broken this combo down into three easy to understand parts that you can then think of seperately. I always found it easier to do this because it meant I could concentrate on what individual part needed improvement. Then once I had the motions working, I sped it up.
You're going to find the second part of this cut is where you'll spend most of your time because you'll cut the first bottle but not get around fast enough to even hit the second bottle. Don't get disheartened. I spent so many hours dry cutting and I was still messing it up. These cuts are evil to get down because you need to be so quick and bottle cutting is all about speed.. so when I say they're tricky, I mean theyre really tricky.
The snap back and forth method
This method I find you need more muscle to pull off so it works for people who have either been practicing it for a long time and know exactly how their body works, have well developed arm muscles or both. The concept is simple however, the first cut at the bottom target is made. Straight away, the blade is pulled straight back up along the exact same path and the second cut is lined up and made as the top bottle drops.
So this method is fast. It's fast and it's flashy. Not only that, should you decide to move onwards to returning bottle triple cuts this is possibly the only way you're going to be able to do it.
Do not underestimate the difficulty of this style of cutting. You have all that weight on the sword and absolutely minimal time to stop it and reverse its direction, pulling it back through the pieces of the already cut bottom bottle. If you're lucky then you will meet minimal resistance, but you could hit a piece or even both pieces of the bottle on the way back through and thats going to slow your progress and therefore your second cut. Dry cutting this is absolutely essential as you will need to slowly build the muscles in your forearms that are going to take the punishment when you decide that a pound of metal should suddenly stop moving and instead come backwards.
Another hurdle that you will encounter is that the difficulty only increases as you try cuts that originate from the lower quarters and move upwards. Thats not to say they're impossible, simply a lot more difficult and that should make it more interesting to those that like a challenge.
Last minute pointers
Returning cuts are incredibly difficult when you start off and you'll find the main hurdle is the speed that youll need to develop in order to do them. Counter intuitively to this however, you'll need to start slow and work with dry cutting practice until the movements feel confident.
After that, keep the relocation of the blade after the first cut nice, slow and smooth but try to make the two cuts with force, watching your stopping distance and make sure theyre at roughly the right height.
If you're comfortable with sharpening your sword then do it. A decent edge will help with the cuts.
Remember that training in the cutting height is mega useful but you will in time need to track the second target and alter your aim slightly, "on the fly". This means that one of the most important parts of this cut, is that repositioning of the blade. Make sure you can whip that back around to line up on the second target and thats gonna be another chunk of the battle.
Once you've worked these cuts enough and you think you're ready to give it a shot, you can move onto bottles. Not only is this the best way to train those movements, but if you start on bottles too early, as much fun as it is, you'll end up going through hundreds of the damn things. trust me. ;)