Not so long ago, in a park not so far away, the forces of light and dark gathered to … whack each other with expensive, glorified flashlights.
In an all-day series of melees at Afton State Park, nearly 50 people — some from halfway across the country — went to war with glowing plastic tubes as their weapons and hockey, lacrosse and motocross gear as their armor.
As a bald eagle soared overhead, two wavering lines of swordsmen, as many as two dozen on each side, converged in a confusing whirl of flashing blades. It resembled something out of an Akira Kurosawa samurai movie, except for the “clack-clack-clack” of plastic meeting plastic.
This is LED saber combat, a “nerd sport” in which Jedi knight wannabes duel with customized replicas of the fictional lightsabers made famous by the “Stars Wars” movie franchise.
The Afton battle, the first of its kind, was the creation of the Saber Legion, an organization that has gained thousands of followers worldwide after starting in Minnesota just four years ago.
“It’s a balance between pursuing excellence and having fun and nerding out and playing ‘Star Wars,’ ” is how Erik Haltson, a 49-year-old physician assistant from Crystal, described saber combat.
Calling itself “the world’s biggest custom saber dueling organization,” the Saber Legion has drafted rules, held meetings and tournaments, awarded world championship belts and built a community that has turned a movie prop replica into what organizers assert is a martial art with athletic benefits similar to high-intensity interval training.
“It’s tremendous exercise,” said Dan MacGregor, a 33-year-old Latin teacher from Ohio who fought in the battle of Afton last month. “It works the whole body.”
Made by companies with such names as SaberForge or Vader’s Vault, the battery-powered, metal and plastic weapons used by the Saber Legion can cost hundreds of dollars. The cost comes largely in customization with an array of lighting and electronic sound effects. They can be programmed to make whooshing noises when they’re swung, flash when they make a hit or play snatches of music or movie dialogue.
Fighters don’t have to add the extra sound effects to make their swords hiss, crackle and whoosh like in the movies. The legion’s rules require only that the weapons have to glow. But many members opt for an upgrade.
“If it doesn’t light up, you’re just fighting with a plastic tube,” said Terry Birnbaum II, Saber Legion’s founder.
And even though they don’t emit an energy beam that can cut through steel, the nerd weapons are made of heavy-duty polycarbonate tubes, the same type of material found in police batons. Dueling with one of these fake lightsabers can hurt a lot more than getting hit by your brother with the cardboard tube from a roll of Christmas wrapping paper.
That’s why Saber Legion competitors wear athletic gear adapted from other contact sports, ranging from groin protection to a fencing helmet. Some show up to competitions in handmade re-creations of protective padded jackets worn by medieval soldiers, armor inspired by Japanese samurai, metal collars called gorgets used by Renaissance swordsmen or a chest plate recycled from a plastic barrel.
Born in a backyard
The Saber Legion’s origin story starts with Birnbaum, a Whole Foods meat and seafood team leader from Brooklyn Park. A cosplaying “Star Wars” fan, he wanted to come up with a safe way to hit his friends with LED sabers.
“It started out as a prop community,” said Birnbaum, 34. “We realized you could fight with these.”
(For the record, the Saber Legion doesn’t use the word “lightsaber” because of copyright concerns. “Disney owns ‘lightsaber,’ ” Birnbaum said.)
Beginning with sparring sessions in his backyard, he and a friend, Josh Linden, developed the rules and protective gear that would make the activity accessible but safe.
“We set the standard for training and safety,” Birnbaum said.
Groin protection is mandatory. Strikes to the neck or back of the head are not allowed. Neither are head butts or kicking.
In 2015, they officially launched the Saber Legion, spreading the word through social media. Chapters quickly started forming across the country.
“It’s a sport. He [Birnbaum] made it into a sport,” said Amanda Jaczkowski, a member of the Detroit chapter of the group.
There are now about 8,000 Saber Legion members worldwide, including about 200 Minnesotans, many of whom are passionate participants.
Lucas Holzheuter, a martial arts instructor, attended the Afton battle despite the objections of his wife, who was due to give birth in a week and a half back home in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
“She was a little upset I came down for this meet,” he said, “but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
‘Golden age of nerds’
Saber Legion members said the inclusive nature of the organization helps to explain its rapid and early success.
The group attracts and welcomes people who have backgrounds in other disciplines of sword sports such as kendo, a Japanese martial art that uses bamboo swords, or HEMA (historical European martial arts), which uses old-school steel bladed weapons such as long swords and rapiers.
“I love all forms of combat. I like hitting people with swords,” said Candice Blaschke, an LED saber combatant from Maryland.
In LED saber competitions, you score a point if the judges decide you touched an opponent first with your saber. The first to score 10 points in a three- to five-minute period wins a round. The person who takes the best of three rounds wins the match.
Saber Legion fighters typically salute one another before a bout and hug afterward. The group’s motto is “United Through Sabers!”
“It’s the golden age of nerds right now. You don’t have to be closeted,” said Charley Cummings, a Minneapolis resident and vice president of the Saber Legion.
Oakdale man makes plastic sabers look and sound like the real 'Star Wars' thing
Shameem Moshrefzadeh is the arms dealer for the nerd warrior.
“I build lightsabers to pay the bills,” he said.
The 31-year-old Oakdale resident turned his hobby of collecting lightsaber replicas into a full-time business called Shameem’s Saber Customization Services, serving the LED saber combat and collecting community.
He can dress up a saber with powder coating or chrome, gold, copper or nickel plating on the hilt. Or he can artificially age your weapon to make it look battle-tested, “from minor damage here and there, to completely shattered and having barely survived an explosion.”
He also installs the custom sound and lighting options used in replica sabers such as “flash on clash” or “blaster deflection” noises.
Moshrefzadeh will study movie screen shots so he can make a lightsaber that exactly mimics a prop used in a movie. (He once made a limited-edition $1,500 LED saber with glowing “infinity stones” inspired by the most recent Marvel Comics “Avengers” movies.)
An English major in college, Moshrefzadeh is a self-taught sound engineer, creating dozens of “sound fonts,” or the custom sci-fi noises emitted by tiny speakers built into the LED sabers.
His Size Matters Not and Angsty Apprentice II sound fonts feature dialogue from “Star Wars” movies. Another sound font uses the voice of actor Samuel L. Jackson, who played a Jedi knight in the “Star Wars” films. Thanks to Moshrefzadeh, a rechargeable plastic sword can sound like Jackson yelling a trademark epithet he’s famous for using in non-“Star Wars” films.
Depending on the customer, Moshrefzadeh said, he can make the electronic buzzes and beeps sound heroic or villainous.
“Customers will come to me and say, ‘I want my lightsaber to sound like Godzilla,’ ” he said. “Some people are very particular about this sort of thing. There’s different levels of obsessiveness and nerdiness.”
But he doesn’t mind. After all, he’s crafting “arguably the most iconic weapon in all of science fiction.”
Eagan minister is Minnesota's Luke Skywalker
Jimmy Sourile is the Saber Legion’s Luke Skywalker, an ordinary guy who goes on a hero’s journey and discovers he has the hidden skills to be a champion.
Sourile, a 26-year-old youth pastor from Eagan, was just another “Star Wars” nerd until one of his students at church gave him an LED saber made for fighting.
Even though Sourile watched some Saber Legion dueling on YouTube, he had his doubts.
“I thought it was kind of silly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was a thing.”
But in 2017 he gave it a try at a meeting of Twin Cities Saber Legion members in Maple Grove.
“I was exhausted, but exhilarated,” he said of his initial duels.
Sourile didn’t have any martial arts experience. In fact, he hadn’t even played many sports. Growing up, he was into theater and band, “the kind of kid you would expect to really be into ‘Star Wars,’ ” he said.
Still, he started training and seeking out Yoda-like mentors in simulated sci-fi combat.
“If there was anyone who wanted to give me advice, I just listened and tried it,” he said.
He rose in the rankings of Saber Legion fighters using a loose, wonky, one-handed style of swordsmanship that earned him the nickname “Gumby.”
Now he’s considered a “prodigy,” said Ryan Kappes, a saber dueler from Mendota Heights. “He’s just like a sponge. He can soak it all in.”
Sourile, who prays before his fights, asking God that no one gets injured, went on to challenge the reigning Saber Legion world champion, Alain Bloch, a San Francisco martial artist whom ESPN once called “the LeBron James of lightsaber fighting.”
The force is strong with Sourile.
In a January bout at the James Ballentine VFW Post 246 in Uptown Minneapolis, Sourile outdueled Bloch to take the championship belt.
Sourile will defend his title in October. But first he’s moving to South Dakota to start a church — and the first Saber Legion chapter in that state.