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The armed and unarmed martial arts discussed in this article, particularly swordsmanship, are those that were practiced for warfare, self-defense, and dueling according to schools and manuals of fence from the German-speaking lands, Italy, the British Isles, the Iberian Peninsula, and France. It will focus mainly on the 14th-17th centuries, but may cover later periods up to World War I. This article does not cover classical fencing, which in many cases has an unbroken living tradition, or modern Olympic rules fencing, which is a sport rather than a martial art.
In most entertainment media, and even in many supposedly educational media such as textbooks and documentaries, swordsmanship as practiced by Europeans before the advent of the rapier in the 16th century is inaccurately depicted as slow, clumsy, and based upon brute strength rather than skill. In fact, copious evidence tells us that the historical sword arts of Europe were sophisticated, elegant, and ruthlessly effective. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that Europe was a violent place where any skill that would give you an advantage in combat would be highly valued. Besides, this is one of those cases where the truth is actually much cooler than the fiction we've been brought up with.
As happens in so many other fields, media and popular belief lag behind the latest advances in expert knowledge. European swordsmen get a bad rap, though thankfully you'll occasionally find a work of fiction whose creators did a bit of research. In stark contrast, Eastern swordsmanship — especially Japanese — is given deific significance and abilities, with many people actually believing ludicrous urban myths that say a katana is capable of stopping a bullet or penetrating tank armour. While there is no doubt that such swords and their martial arts were and are formidable, their Western counterparts certainly match them in both potential and practice. The reason for this disparity in popular perception is that most European martial arts had fallen into complete disuse by the 18th century, while a huge variety of East Asian marital arts continued to be taught in an unbroken tradition right up to the modern era. This resulted in it being widely forgotten that many of the European schools of swordsmanship even existed, let alone that they were just as well-developed and skillful as their Japanese counterparts, until those arts began to be rediscovered and reconstructed from surviving written manuals starting in the late 20th century. Observant students of European and Japanese swordsmanship will also note a remarkable amount of similarity in the techniques utilized in both styles. To learn about the virtues of Japanese swordsmanship, see Kenjutsu; here we're going to talk about the Western tradition on its own terms.
Pinning down common concepts in European swordsmanship is difficult, because at least one historical sword master will have a technique that contradicts the established concept. Time, geography and armament all influence what is considered "proper" fighting, so each individual type of fighting requires its own explanation.
Disclaimer: The information presented here is merely educational, and is not intended as a substitute for professional instruction. We will not be held liable for any accidents or injuries that occur as a result of historical fencing activities. Do not attempt the techniques described herein without proper safety equipment and supervision by experienced historical fencing teachers.
The Weapons of European Swordsmanship
The following armaments have been used by various schools of European swordsmanship at one time or another. Consult the glossary of terms for the parts of the sword discussed. Please also note that terminology and classification are sometimes subject to interpretation or disagreement, and are affected by changes in the usage of language over time:
Why Use a Sword?
This page is mainly about swordsmanship, and most of the fighting manuals that were written give the sword a prominent place. Before going any further, it is helpful to ask what the role of the sword is. There something undeniably romantic and glamorous about the sword, an Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age, and the constant appearance of the tropes Cool Sword and Heroes Prefer Swords in fiction tends to give modern people the idea that it was somehow "superior" to other weapons of the time. The sword has plenty of uses, but not necessarily what you might think: the reason that many people carried and used swords was a combination of status, combat versatility, and convenience.
A sword was harder to make than an axe or a spear, particularly during the Early Middle Ages when steel-making and bladesmithing were far from exact sciences and had a significant whiff of magic about them: swords were rare enough that only rich and powerful warriors could afford them, and they tended to be luxurious objects with pattern-welded blades and bejeweled hilts. Old stories like Beowulf spoke of swords with magical powers, which had names and a mind of their own. Even from the High Middle Ages onward, during which swords affordable to commoners were relatively numerous and accessible, all swords retained something of that old prestige thanks to the sword's continuing association with the warrior class, as well as Christian heroes such as Roland and King Arthur. Swords were less disposable and more long-lived than shields, as well as wooden-hafted weapons like the spear or axe, and could be personalized in all kinds of ways by those who had money to spend.
The sword's combat role is to be a weapon that prepares you for a wide variety of situations, and which stays at your side until you need it. Opposing lines of battle usually met each other with spears and other polearms, while knightly cavalry used the lance. These weapons had greater reach than a sword, had significant armour penetration ability, and were well-suited to formation fighting. Nevertheless, anyone who could get their hands on one would have also worn a sword into battle. Soon after the melee was joined, wooden spear shafts would be broken, the amount of space between the fighters would have shrunk enough that any intact pole weapons would be harder to wield, and neat lines of battle could turn into a chaotic mess. A shorter weapon like a sword could be brought to bear more easily in these conditions, and replace a primary weapon that was broken or no longer useful. Therefore, even though the sword was a secondary weapon, it was actually used for quite a lot of fighting in many a long battle, making the often-used comparison of the medieval soldier's sword to a modern soldier's pistol a little bit flawed.
Short-hafted weapons such as axes or maces could also be used at close quarters, and these had certain advantages over swords: axes can chop with a lot of force even if you let the blade get dull, and can be used for hooking an opponent's shield or weapon, while a mace can give a man a concussion through his helmet or break bones through mail armor more effectively than a sword could. On the other hand, a sword is much better to have in an unarmored or lightly armored fight. Most combatants in a medieval battle would be less than fully armored, and because of its sharpness a sword can wound any part of the body even with a relatively light touch, while an axe or mace is unlikely to inflict debilitating damage with a glancing blow. Indeed, despite the fact that blunt trauma can be quite gruesome, it isn't as efficient at killing as slicing or stabbing is, and unless a mace is being used against a person who's well-defended against edged weapons, its user would have been done better to use a blade. Furthermore, while each sword has a sweet spot which is most effective to cut with, the blade is sharp enough to inflict wounds along its entire length, while an axe or mace blow will do little damage if the relatively small area of the head isn't right on target, such as when a strike overshoots and the opponent is struck more with the shaft than with the head. A sword is much better for defensive purposes, too. It has a long blade to parry with, the crossguard helps to protect the hand, and it is easy to start, stop, and change the direction of a swing because most of the weight is concentrated toward the hand; an axe or mace has no built-in hand protection, has a smaller area upon which to catch a blow, and has most of its weight concentrated at the end, making it more awkward to use for warding off blows. It doesn't make much of a difference in a fight if both the sword man and the axe man either use a shield or wear full armor, but if you take those away then the sword can be used more effectively to defend.
Axes and maces were weapons of war, meant for use by men wearing armour or at least using a shield, but nobody carried around an axe or a mace to defend himself with in his street clothes because such weapons couldn't match the number of ways a sword could be used to butcher an unarmoured man, and were not self-sufficient in both attack and defence the way a sword was. A spear or similar polearm might beat a sword in an unarmoured fight using reach — at least provided it wasn't in some narrow alleyway or indoors where the spear would be too long — but nobody carried a spear for civilian self-defence either because they were treated as military weapons and their dimensions made them too cumbersome to carry about one's business. A sword in its scabbard could be worn comfortably at the hip on the same belt as one's purse and dagger. A self-defence weapon is only worthy of the name if you have it with you when you need it, and if your enemies surprise you on the road or in the street, your sword is a better weapon that your spear or your battleaxe if for no other reason than it's the one you happen to have. It also goes nicely with the small shield called a buckler, which unlike a full-size shield is small enough to wear on a belt with your sword. If the sword was so well-suited to unarmored combat, it may seem strange that it was also worn by men in full armor who expected to fight their social and military equals, but it was good for a man in armor have a tool for cutting down the less protected foot soldiers, and even a mounted knight would be in trouble if his unarmored horse was wounded or if his reins were cut by his opponent's sword. Techniques using the point could pierce the gaps in armor, strikes with the pommel could have a mace-like concussive effect, and the sword could be used as a lever to wrestle an enemy to the ground. The sword may not have been specifically suited for every challenge, but as a Jack of All Stats the sword was so useful that there was little reason not to carry one.
Hopefully that convinced you of why you might need a sword, but now you're faced with the choice of which one. Many kinds were invented in different times to deal with different challenges. You'd best choose the right sword for the job by consulting this list:
List of Sword Types
- The Longsword: a straight, double-edged sword with a grip long enough for two hands and a simple cross-guard; it starts to appear in art with some regularity around 1300 and stuck around into the 16th century, but the height of its popularity was between about 1360 and 1520note . Longswords were usually about 120-135 cm (4-4.5 ft) in total length with blades of about 90-105 cm (36-42"), and weighed between 1100 and 1600 g (2.5 and 3.5 pounds). Late examples sometimes have extra guards such as side rings. They were designed to be used in two hands but were usually light enough for one-handed use when necessary.
- The historical term "bastard sword", was considered synonymous with "longsword" during the first revivals of the 19th century, but is today commonly used to refer to a sword somewhat between the full-sized longsword and shorter arming sword in length that could easily be used in one or two hands. "Hand and a half" sword is a modernnote term that also applies, since the grip was generally not long enough to fully accommodate both hands, but rather one hand and a couple fingers of the second. Medieval primary sources indicate that a bastard sword was not the same thing as a longsword in the Late Medieval period, as the two weapons frequently both show up in event lists from tournaments, but there are no sources which indicate what style of weapon was actually meant. It's also worth mentioning that the term "bastard sword" is completely non-existent outside England and France.
- The Feder, a blunt metal longsword variant that was already used as a training weapon in the 16th century. Essentially the same weapon is still produced today and is used in modern HEMA groups and competitions.
- The Two-Handed Sword: The largest of the European sword types which ranged about 140-170 cm (55-67 in.) in total length and weighed 5-7 lb. Their straight, double-edged blades were about 100-130cm (40-50") long and often featured a ricasso with parrying hooks at the base, while their hilts were usually very large and featured grip lengths and cross-guard widths of about 45 cm (18 in) each on large examples. Because of its size it could only be practically wielded on foot using two hands. It was favored by elite mercenaries and bodyguards, as well as anyone facing multiple opponents. German Landsknecht mercenaries used the biggest versions, which were called "Zweihander" (two-hander) and weighed 7-8 lbs. The famous Scottish two-handed claymore (more properly called claidheamh dà làimh or "two-handed sword" to distinguish it from the one-handed Scottish basket-hilted broadsword) is also an example of this type.
- The Arming Sword: the straight, double-edged medieval knightly sword designed for use in one hand, which is a direct descendant of the Roman spatha and Viking-era swords. They were seldom more than 90 cm or 3 ft in total length, and most weighed about 1200 g or 2.5 lb. Arming swords were typically not wielded alone, and instead were more commonly wielded as:
- Sword and shield: Exact construction depended on the time period, but the shield was almost universally made of wooden planks, often layered crossgrain to one another and usually faced with linen or leather, making the wood very difficult to split. The rim could be either leather or iron. Early shields were held using a center grip in the manner of a buckler, with an iron boss to protect the hand. Later, leather straps called "enarmes" were used. Many shields could be carried on the shoulder using a sling called a "guige". Shield shape evolved and varied throughout the time period, from the round shields most common in the Migration Era and Early Middle Ages, to the kite shield with its elongated tip to protect the leg, to the classic knightly "heater" shieldnote . The increasing prevelence of plate armor had largely rendered the full-sized shield superfluous by the 15th century, so that it came to be rarely used except by specialized troops. Most fighters grew accustomed to using the longsword and other two-handed arms such as the halberd on the battlefield, and the easier-to-carry sword and buckler for personal defense off the field.
- Sword and Buckler: A buckler is a small, usually round shield about a foot in diameter with a simple grip for the left hand in the center. They were either made entirely of steel, or out of wood with an iron boss and an iron or rawhide rim. While the sword and shield became less popular towards the end of the Middle Ages due to the increasing presence of full-body plate armor, sword and buckler stayed popular for a long time after. Lightly-armored soldiers such as archers and billmen liked to wear sword and buckler as a backup for their two-handed primary weapon, and it was appropriate for personal defense in civilian life where the smaller buckler was easier to carry than a full-sized shield. This weapon pairing is the source of the term "swashbuckler"; Mike Loades suggests it may come from the idea of belligerent young men strutting around town with their swords and bucklers clattering against each other at their sides.
- The Term 'Arming Sword': It is important to note that the term "Arming Sword" — from the French espées d'armes — did not come into use until the 15th century.note This coincided with the natural evolution of armor and the accompanying change in both weapon choice and tactics. The descendants of the Viking sword, with a companion shield, served well into the late 13th century. Only at the very end of the Middle Ages did the sword transition from a main weapon to a side weapon. Similarly the terms "knightly sword" and "knight's sword" are retronyms.
- The Messer: A type of great knife or short sword that was popular in 15th and 16th century Germany, with a straight or slightly curved single-edged blade. They were typically 75 cm (30 inches long) and weighed between 900 and 1200 g (2-2.5 lb). The hilt had a simple cross-guard with a small side protrusion called the "nagel" (which means "nail") to provide some minimal protection for the outside of the hand, while the handle consisted of two bone or wooden panels riveted to the flat, full-profile tang; on the end of this was a small metal pommel that was flush with the rest of the grip. They were wielded alone or with a buckler.
- A development of this was a weapon known as the kriegsmesser; essentially a messer the size of a full-length longsword! Little is known for certain how this particular weapon was used, but what evidence is available suggests it was wielded in much the same manner as the longsword and two-handed sword.
- The messer is also sometimes confused with the "falchion," a similar weapon which was in use across Europe from the 11th century on. The main differences are that the falchion is hilted more like a regular arming sword (with the tang hidden inside the grip), has a larger, more sword-type pommel, and is usually more tip-heavy, with a blade that widens somewhat towards the tip.
- The Dussack (or Tysak or other spelling and language variants) refers to a type of curved one-handed weapon similar to a sabre or cutlass, or more commonly to a wood or leather (in the modern age plastic) training weapon in the same style. It is taught extensively in historical manuals.
- The Side Sword: A single-handed cut-and-thrust sword with a straight, usually double-edged blade that was popular through the 16th century. It fell between the medieval arming sword and the later rapier in terms of form and technique. The main changes from medieval times were a ricasso that facilitated wrapping the index finger over the cross-guard for better point control during thrusts, and a more protective hilt that might include finger rings, side rings, and a knuckle bow in addition to the cross-guard. There were many cut-and-thrust swords for military use that are not necessarily side swords, and "side sword" is essentially a useful but imperfect modern term for swords that have developed hilts but whose blades are too short or broad to be described as rapiers. A side sword could be wielded alone or with a buckler, dagger, or shield in the other hand.
- The Rapier: A thrust-oriented single-handed sword consisting of a long, straight, and narrow double-edged blade, the edges being often vestigial, and a hilt with a complex hand guard consisting of protective bars or plates. They were most popular throughout Europe from about 1550-1650, though the Spanish continued to use a shorter and lighter version of the rapier well into the age of the smallsword. Like the side sword, it featured a ricasso and was designed to be used with the index finger wrapped over the cross-guard. It should be noted that although a primarily civilian weapon, rapiers are NOT especially fragile; they weighed about the same as an arming sword and were very stiff. Long rapiers typically weighed between 900 and 1400 g (2-3.1 lb) and had blades about 97-114 cm (38"-45") long from cross guard to point, although the most extravagant examples could be even longer. In fact, they became long enough that they knocked over so many objects in England that Queen Elizabeth the 1st decreed a maximum legal length for them! It could be used either alone or together with some kind of companion weapon or off-hand defense. Among these were the parrying dagger, the buckler, dueling gauntlets incorporating plate or mail, and improvised parrying devices such as a rolled-up cloak or lantern. A flashy and uncommon style taught by some masters employed a rapier in each hand.
- Espada ropera: A type of straight double-edged Spanish dress sword first mentioned in the mid-15th century that is thought to be the precursor to the side sword and rapier. It was worn in court as part of one's ropa, or clothing, which from its translation into French is probably the origin of the term "rapier".
- The Basket-Hilted Broad Sword and Back Sword: The backsword was a single-handed sword with a broad, straight (or slightly curved) single-edged blade, fitted with a basket hilt that fully protected the hand. These and their double-edged basket-hilted cousins were sometimes called broadswords to distinguish them from rapiers; the use of "broadsword" to refer to the arming sword is an anachronism. These were especially favored in the British Isles from the 17th century onward and found enduring popularity with the highland Scots. Although little material remains on the use of Broadsword and Targe, the Targe was famously used by Highlanders. Interestingly, Targe and Target were both used as words for shields. Other countries had their own basket-hilts, such as the Italian Schiavona. Ths Schiavona is interesting in that it also had a crossguard inside the basket, so you can finger the guard like a sidesword or rapier.
- The Smallsword: A small, nimble thrusting sword which eventually replaced the rapier and was popular for civilian carry from about 1650-1800. Their straight, symmetrical blades were shorter than those of rapiers at about 33"-36" (84-92 cm) long, and they could weigh as little as 500 g or 1 lb, with most weighing no more than 1000 g or 2 lb. Compared to the rapier's highly protective complex hilt, the smallsword had a simple shell guard supported by two small hilt arms, a single up-turned quillon, and a knuckle bow. Unlike the rapier which was held with the index finger wrapped around the ricasso, a smallsword was usually gripped with the thumb and index finger pinching the quillon block. The blade was made with a triangular or sometimes quadrangular cross-section and usually hollow-ground to be as stiff and light as possible, a feature that is still seen on modern sport fencing swords. The "cholichmarde" was a blade style with a thickened forte that concentrated the blade's mass where parrying was likely to occur. It stopped being a commonly worn item in the 19th century as the flintlock or percussion pistol became more popular for self-defense, but lived on as the Épée de combat or dueling sword, and inspired the Épée and foil used in modern fencing.
- The Spadroon: A light single-handed cut-and-thrust sword that appeared in the late 18th century as an officer's weapon. The blade was usually straight and single edged, and the guard usually had a knuckle bow and upturned quillon. It’s a bit of a cross between the smallsword and the saber or hanger. They often get a bad rap because certain designs performed worse than either a sabre or a small sword: the blade was too light to make strong cuts, and also too flexible for reliable thrusting. However, other models were quite good. Matt Easton suggests a spadroon would have been useful to a foot officer in battle where the opponent's weapons weren’t regulated by the rules of dueling: it could move to parry the unpredictable thrusts of a musket's bayonet more quickly than a sabre, and the blade would hold up better than a smallsword’s against heavy strikes from muskets or sabres.
- The Sabre: A curved, single-handed sword mostly associated with military use and cavalry in particular. While certainly influenced by swords introduced during the 17th century by Hungarian and Polish cavalry, the Western European sabre also traces direct descent from medieval forms such as the messer and hangar. The most familiar type had a single-edged blade and a knuckle bow or basket guard; Polish or Hungarian examples might have a thumb ring and a cross-guard with langets at the base of the blade. Curvature could vary quite a lot, from dramatically curved Turkish-inspired versions to others which were almost straight. The naval cutlass was essentially a short, heavy sabre adapted to the close-quarters fighting of a boarding action. A style known as the hangar was short, but also lighter, and usually issued to troops such as artillerymen who needed it as a secondary weapon. The lighter dueling sabre from the later 19th century was used as the model for the sabre in modern fencing.
Scabbards and Suspension
Most swords were worn in wooden-cored scabbards covered in fabric or leather and metal fittings, suspended from a sword belt of matching material with two straps to hold it at an angle. Right-handed people usually wore their sword on the left hip so they could draw it across the body, but Roman legionnaires always wore their swords on the right, and there are multiple medieval depictions of warriors wearing their swords on the sword-arm side. It can be more convenient to draw from your dominant side in some circumstances; for instance, if you are carrying a shield, drawing cross-body tends to either be slower or involve swinging the shield out of the way — a bad idea in combat for obvious reasons! In the late 16th and early 17th centuries when rapiers were at their longest, special "hanger" belts helped to keep them suspended low and at a more horizontal angle. By the mid-17th century it was common to wear rapiers, smallswords, and hangers tucked into a waist sash or held at the hip by a baldric across the shoulder. In the early 19th century, entirely metal scabbards became common for military swords such as sabers, which were more durable but not as good at keeping the edge sharp.
For further detail on sword types, see Swords.
In the Middle Ages there were five main types:
- The Quillon Dagger, which was hilted like a miniature sword with a metal pommel and cross guard.
- The Ballock dagger, named for the two lobes at the base of the blade that look like a pair of bollocks. The handle is often rather knob-shaped, and the phallic symbolism was not lost on the people who used it. More sensitive modern types may call it a "kidney dagger".
- The Basilard, a dagger or short sword with a hilt shaped like a capital letter "I".
- The Ear Dagger, with two ear-like projections on the butt of the handle. The design is thought to be descended or copied from ancient West Asian daggers and been introduced into Europe by the Moors.
- The Rondel Dagger, where the handle is fitted with two circular metal plates as a guard and pommel. These discs really encourage the ice pick grip, and the flat disc of the pommel facilitates driving it home with two hands or bracing it against your breastplate for extra thrusting power. It is probably the most featured dagger type in the late medieval fencing treatises, and is often depicted in pictures and effigies of knights.
While these medieval daggers would have one or two edges, the edges are mainly there to help you with utility tasks or doing things like cutting the straps of your opponent's armor. The dagger is basically a sharpened metal spike that you try to stab your opponent with while both of you are grappling with each other's dagger arms, and you might even have to grasp the blade in order to give your opponent a nasty twist or disarm.
Renaissance systems added companion daggers to go with one's sword that had side rings and long, forward curved quillons to help with off-hand parrying. Some had a little metal spur that helped wrench or trap your opponent's blade, and one kind called the "sword breaker" or "sword catcher" had a blade full of slots for trapping your opponent's blade. There were even so-called "trident" daggers in which the blade was spring-loaded to divide into three, also in order to catch an opponent's blade. Such gadgets made them a bit less effective for stabbing, but in that situation the sword was considered to be the main offensive weapon and the dagger a parrying device analogous to the buckler.
For all the glamour of swords, giving every man a spear and relentlessly drilling some basic moves and maneuvers into them is the quickest way to turn a bunch of volunteers or conscripts into an army. Staff weapons weren't disdained by the professionals either, and many manuals deem it necessary to expound upon their proper use. The technique of the pollaxe, for instance, is of equal or nearly equal sophistication compared to the sword. Ash was usually the favored wood for the shaft, since it is both strong and springy, but other hardwoods were used as well. Dedicated thrusting staff weapons tended to have shafts with a round cross section, while those for chopping or hammering tended to have a square or octagonal cross section to help the wielder keep the edge aligned properly. Contrary to popular belief, a hardwood shaft can block repeated hits from an edged weapon without being chopped in two. This does tend to wear it down over time, however, and some polearms address this by having tongues or straps of metal called langets that run some distance down from the weapon's head. Langets may have also helped to prevent the head from breaking off. Here are some of the ones that appear in fencing manuals:
List of Staff Weapon Types
- The Quarterstaff: A staff made of ash or some other hardwood, usually round in cross section and 6 to 8 feet (1.82-2.74 meters) long. George Silver calls this the "short staff". Joseph Swetnam, writing in 1615, distinguished between the "quarterstaff" of 7 or 8 feet (2.1 or 2.4 meters) and the "long staff" of 12 feet (3.7 meters). Despite what you usually see in Robin Hood movies, rather than being held with both hands in the middle and used to strike with either end, it was more effectively used with the lower hand on or near the butt end and the forward hand near the middle, and used for thrusting like a spear as well as for striking. Compared to the polearms of war with their points, edges, and nasty bludgeony bits, a mere wooden staff isn't as lethally efficient at inflicting harm, even if a well-placed thrust can poke out someone's eye or smash a couple of teeth. There's not much that it can do against significant armor, either. What it is useful for is brawling and self-defense, since compared to the restrictions on swords and pole weapons there's practically no jurisdiction where you aren't allowed to carry a walking staff, and the reach advantage over an attacker wielding a sword somewhat compensates for the reduced damage potential. The staff was also used as the main training weapon for other polearms, as the techniques learned on the staff translated equally well to spear, halberd, polehammer, and other more complex weapons. Silver went so far as to praise it as being one of the best weapons in his estimation.
- While less useful against armor or at killing people quickly, the staff is arguably one of the more dangerous weapons in a the modern HEMA club and is rarely done in sparring. It's heavy and can easily come down with a lot of momentum, an enthusiastic novice with poor contact control can break the bones of a sparring partner. For swords and other weapons blunted or plastic versions can be used, but there is no "safe" version of the staff with the same feel and weight.
- The Spear: A round pole of ash wood mounted with a leaf-shaped steel point on the business end, this is a simple but effective weapon that should never be underestimated. It can be used either on foot or on horseback, against an armored or unarmored opponent, and wielded either in one hand together with a shield or with two hands by itself. Spears mostly fall into one of two length categories. A long spear is about eight to ten feet (2.43-3.04 meters) long, while a short spear measures about six feet (1.82 meters). The long spear offers splendid reach, helping the wielder to keep the enemy at a distance while probing for a gap in their defense. The short spear on the other hand is more useful for fighting in heavy armor, since a long weapon becomes a liability at the close ranges that armored fighting tends to involve. While a regular spear cannot chop, hammer, or hook like the fancier polearms described below, there's nothing handier for the thrust. You can manipulate the point very easily because it's not loaded down with extra bits of metal. Don't think of it as Boring, but Practical; think of it as Simple, yet Awesome.
- The Lance: A kind of spear adapted to mounted use, usually at least 10-12 feet (3.04-3.66 meters) long, and the primary weapon of heavy cavalry. It was gripped in one hand near the butt end of the shaft and couched under the armpit before impact to prevent it from slipping back, in order to transfer as much of the force as possible into the enemy. The lance was used in the initial charge, but usually broke or became unwieldly once the melee was joined, in which the rider would discard it and draw a short weapon such as the sword or mace. In the Early and High Middle Ages there was not much difference between spears for use on foot and on horseback, except that the hoseman's lance could be a bit longer and heavier. By the 13th and 14th centuries, distinct features appeared such as a disc-shaped flange made of wood or leather near the butt end called a "graper" which helped to brace the shaft against the armpit, and a funnel-shaped metal handguard called the vamplate. Starting in the 14th century it became more common for heavy cavalry to dismount and fight on foot, in which case the lance could be chopped down to a shorter length such as six feet and used in two hands as a spear. By the fifteenth century the wooden shaft of heavy lances had a tapered profile that got thicker near the butt end, and had an hourglass-shaped handgrip; at the same time, more spear-like light lances continued to be used by light cavalry. In the late 14th century a lance arrest was added to the breastplate to brace the lance even better. From the mid-16th entury the lance had to compete with the wheelock, and after 1600 they were mostly discarded by cavalry in favor of sword and pistol. However, they held on in parts of Eastern Europe, and in the 19th century saw a revival of use in Western Europe as well, lasting almost until cavalry itself became outmoded.
- The Halberd: A multipurpose infantry weapon about eight feet (2.43 meters) long, with a head consisting of an axe blade on one side, a spike on top, and a fluke or spike on the other side. They are mainly distinguished from the pollaxe by tending to be longer, having a head with a larger cutting edge forged in one piece and attached by socket rather than the modular construction of the pollaxe head, and being more well-designed for use by lightly armored foot soldiers rather than heavily armored knights. Strongly associated with the Swiss since the 14th century but used throughout Europe, their Renaissance image was one of soldierly professionalism: they were carried by the guard units of city-states and princes, and were the traditional weapon of the sergeants who enforced discipline on the rank and file in pike formations.
- The Pollaxe: One of the few staff weapons to be associated more with the knightly class than the common soldier, the pollaxe was mainly designed to be used by men on foot in heavy armor against other other men on foot in heavy armor. The pollaxe is not simply a "pole-axe" or an axe on a pole. The etymology is disputed, and may in fact have something to do with the word "pole", but it is also said to mean "poll" as in "head" (as it still does when talking about a poll tax, or the poll of a horse), or to come from a time in the English language when "poll" meant what we call a hammer, and the word "hammer" meant what we would call the pick-end of a weapon. The head was usually modular and consisted of a small axe blade or pronged hammer head on the front, a beak or hammer on the back, a top spike, and short quadrangular spikes on the sides. The butt of the weapon was usually capped with a steel point so it could be used for thrusting as well. Most pollaxes were about five to six feet (1.52-1.82 meters) long overall, since reach isn't as important for men in full armor and it had to remain usable in a tight press. The shaft usually had either two or four langets reaching about a third of the way down to protect the shaft from being severed, often with a disc-shaped hand guard where the langets stop.
- The Lucerne Hammer: A long-shafted hammer weapon popular in Switzerland from the 15th-17th centuries, which is sometimes considered to be a type of pollaxe. The hammer head would have a bludgeoning face with three or four prongs on one side to help it bite into armor instead of slipping off, a beak on the opposite side, and a spike on top. The shaft was usually about 7 feet (2.1 meters) long, a bit more than the average knightly pollaxe.
- The Bill: A favorite weapon of the English, and also popular in Italy as the Roncone, the bill's main feature is a large hook-shaped blade that's sharpened on the inside. Resembling the agricultural billhook used for pruning tree limbs, the military bill also has a top spike, a back spike, and often some lugs at the base of the blade. The hook is particularly useful for hauling knights out of the saddle or hamstringing an opponent on foot. These tend to be about eight feet (2.43 meters) long.
- The Pike: An extremely long infantry spear, usually at least 16 feet (4.87 meters) in length. These are mainly associated with the mass battles of The Late Middle Ages, The Renaissance, and The Cavalier Years, since they allow a disciplined infantry block to present a bristling forest of points several ranks deep, but fencing masters also taught the use of the pike in individual combat, particularly for foot combat at the barriers in tournaments.
- The Partisan (also spelled "partizan"): A cut-and-thrust staff weapon with a double-edged triangular blade, often with two lugs or smaller blades at the base. These tend to be about eight feet (2.43 meters) long.
- The Spontoon: Similar to the partisan, the spontoon was basically a short (as little as six feet/1.8 meters), lugged spear. It was one of the last polearms issued to early modern armies, used by officers mainly as a signaling device, but it was a functional weapon; accounts exist of its use in melee combat.
- The Musket and Bayonet: Not necessarily the first thing people think of when they hear the phrase "historic polearms", the musket or rifle did actually function as a kind of spear when fitted with a bayonet. In the early days of pike and shot, musketeers were obliged to either use the butts of their weapons as clubs, or to fight back with a sidearm such as a sword. Bayonets were catching on by the second half of the 17th century; the early ones were "plug" bayonets, large daggers with tapered handles that were inserted into the barrels, meaning that you had to give up the ability to fire bullets in order to turn your musket into a spear. Around the turn of the 18th century, the problems of mounting "socket" bayonets that fit under the muzzle had been ironed out, and European armies quickly abandoned the pike and halberd in favor of equipping all of their troops with muskets and bayonets. Fencing and drill masters have been instructing soldiers in the ways of fighting with the bayonet ever since; despite its ever-smaller tactical role and many changes in the form and use of the bayonet over time, it is still issued and taught in the 21st century.
Schools of European Swordsmanship
Medieval combat experts such as Tobias Capwell and Roland Warzecha believe that Early Medieval civilizations such as the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons must have had refined fighting techniques to match the finely crafted weapons which have been discovered by archaeology, but unfortunately we do not know and may not ever know for sure exactly how they fought. Tantalizing descriptions of combat appear in epic poetry and the sagas, but besides the fact that the sagas were composed long after the events they describe and may contain artistic license, they only offer glimpses without laying down a comprehensive and organized system. The fact that human biomechanics remain the same throughout history and that the form of weapons can offer clues about how to use them has encouraged many who seek to reconstruct Viking Era combat or high medieval sword and shield as an exercise in experimental archaeology. These groups and individuals have offered compelling theories about what such combat may have been like, but that is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we will deal with the fighting systems for which we have actual instructive texts.
By the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th, we see the first references in chronicles to the practice of fencing outside of the landed warrior aristocracy. There began to be men of lower nobility or common birth who made a living off their skills, either by starting their own schools to teach pupils or by fighting on behalf of others as hired champions in judicial duels. Suspicious nobles and city governments viewed these individuals as unsavory troublemakers or even criminals, and repeatedly tried to crack down on schools for spreading knowledge of fencing among those who were considered liable to abuse it, but the fact that these bans against unlicensed schools were repeatedly renewed implies that they were broken very often. The weapon combination that these early masters were teaching was sword and buckler, and it is probably no coincidence that the first manual that can actually be used to reconstruct medieval fighting, Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33, deals with this subject.
Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 (pronounced "one-thirty-three"), also known as the Walpurgis Fechtbuch, is a sword and buckler manual of anonymous authorship from Franconia, Germany and dates from ca. 1300. The manual is written in Latin with certain fencing terms in German, and consists of 64 pages illustrating wards, counters, and plays with sword and buckler between a priest and his student. The last part features a woman named Walpurgis demonstrating a certain counter, hence the alternate title. The instructions are for the most part clear and well organized, but there are some problems of interpretation. While the sword, buckler, and hand positions are clearly illustrated, accurate depiction of footwork and distance between the combatants is largely neglected by the artist. To some degree those details have to be conjectured from other period artwork as well as later manuals. There is nothing undeveloped or primitive about this system of fighting, and it has all the ingredients of the later systems: footwork, guards, counters, tempo, measure, techniques from the bind, a combination of cuts and thrusts, and integration of sword fighting with wrestling and unarmed combat.
The combatants wear simple robes with the hem tucked into their belts (so as to avoid tripping) and wield simple cross-hilted arming swords with round bucklers. The buckler may have a spike on it to make it more dangerous as a punching weapon. They wear thin-soled leather shoes, putting most of their weight on the balls of their feet. The correct stance is to start with one's feet about shoulder width apart and take a generous step back with the rear foot, sinking into a stable stance with both knees bent. The lead foot and knee face toward the opponent, while the back foot and knee are turned about forty-five degrees outward for balance. An attack is made with a passing step forward, where you bring your back foot into the lead position, and then turn your new back foot outward, all in one smooth motion. Like other forms of fighting, there are essentially three distances: close distance, where the opponents could hit each other without taking a step forward; wide distance, where you cannot reach your opponent without taking a step forward; and out of distance, which is any distance farther than that. Generally the combatants approach each other until they are in wide distance, at which point they adopt a ward or counter, and the ensuing attack or bind will bring them into close distance.
There are seven wards (custodiae) or guard positions from which to launch attacks. Rather than lying in these positions for any length of time, one should adopt a ward once in distance and attack immediately, so that the opponent has less time to counter. Note that these guards assume the fencer is right-handed:
- Under the arm (sub brach), in which the buckler is held in front of the body while the sword is held point back and tucked under the buckler arm. This is probably the most basic and generally useful ward, and the natural attack from it is a cut from below.
- Right shoulder (humero dextrali), where the buckler is held out in front while the sword is chambered over the right shoulder. The natural attack from this ward is a descending diagonal cut from right to left.
- Left shoulder (humero sinistro), where the buckler is held out in front while the sword is chambered over the left shoulder. The natural attack from this ward is a descending diagonal cut from left to right.
- Head (capiti), where the buckler is held out in front and the sword high above the head with the point back. This is chambered for a vertical descending strike.
- Right side (latere dextro), where the buckler is held out in front and the sword held off to the side with the point back. The natural attack from this ward is a horizontal cut.
- Breast (pectori), where the buckler is held out in front while the sword is drawn back close to the chest with the point towards the opponent. The natural attack from this ward is the thrust.
- Long-point (langort), in which the sword and buckler are held out at arms length with the point at the opponent. This is in a sense the ward that the system is built around, since any cut or thrust initiated from the other wards will end in this position.
There are also a series of defensive postures (obsessiones) each of which is used to counter one of the seven wards by defending against the most obvious attack from that ward, and usually allowing an advantageous attack . The first example is Half-shield, in which the sword and buckler are held out together with the point 45 degrees up. It is the position from which to counter Under-arm, but it is so versatile that it can also be used against most of the seven wards. Some of the other counters are more specific.
The first task for the buckler is to protect the sword hand, which is the most forward and vulnerable target when you attack. The buckler should follow the sword hand into the initial attack so that you have a unified defense, not allowing the opponent to slip their blade between your blade and buckler. If neither of the initial attacks connect, then the opponents will generally be in a bind: their swords and/or bucklers are bound together, and they are trying to get around or through the opponent's defense while preventing their opponent from doing the same. You want to make your opponent over-commit to the defense of one opening so that you can attack the one that they necessarily leave vulnerable, and the only way to know what your opponent is going to do is to pay close attention to the pressure you're feeling through the bind. Which direction are they pushing in, and how hard? Are they preparing to disengage and attack the opening you've left vulnerable, or are they doubling down on their defense? You cannot just deal with your opponent's sword or buckler in isolation, but have to think of how you are going to get around them both without leaving yourself open to attack.
The buckler is a multi-purpose tool for defense, attack, and binding. You have to know the advantages and disadvantages of its small size, which mean you cannot use it exactly as you would a full-sized shield. Counter-intuitively, you should not just lift up your buckler to protect whatever part of your body your opponent attacks, because separating your sword and buckler without first immobilizing your opponent's weapons opens you up even more. Instead you have to use your buckler as a tool to intercept, knock around, bind, and control your opponent's weapons. You can perform a shield-knock against their weapons to create an opening for yourself, or bind against both your opponent's sword and buckler using your own buckler so that you can slip your sword out of the bind and attack their vulnerability. If there is an opening for it, you can use your buckler to punch your opponent in the face. In regards to grappling, one's own buckler arm can actually be passed over and under the opponent's sword and buckler arm to trap them both at once, leaving one's own sword hand free to finish off the opponent. This is one move that can actually only be performed by a small buckler, since any shield much greater than a foot in diameter will not be able to slip through. If you get to grips with your opponent you can potentially perform a wrestling throw.
Although there were masters and schools of fence all over Europe in the years 1300-1500, most of whom left no record of their techniques to posterity, the German school is by far the tradition for which we have the largest number of surviving texts. This bibliographic richness makes it one of the most straightforward to reconstruct, hence its high popularity among medieval fencing groups.
What grew to become the most influential school of fence in late medieval Central Europe sprang out of the teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer, a master born in the late 13th or early 14th century who synthesized a highly effective system out of the various traditions he encountered in his travels. At first Liechtenauer's teachings were only written or recited in the form of coded poetry or Merkverse, known as the Zettel note , and only a select few picked by Liechtenauer or his students could learn this art. The function of the Zettel was twofold: firstly to prevent outsiders to the art from gleaning its secrets, and secondly to provide a mnemonic aid to help Liechtenauer's students remember the teachings. We would have very little idea what these verses were supposed to mean if not for a number of masters, some of whom remain anonymous, who effectively ended the secrecy by writing the earliest glosses or explanations of Liechtenauer's poem in the 15th century. Not only did Liechtenauer's successors perpetuate his work, but they also added their own techniques and ideas to the system.
Bloßfechten (Unarmoured Combat)
Most German fencing manuals at least include Liechtenauer's Bloßfechten, which is the most fundamental part of the martial art. It means "unarmoured fighting", being at its most effective when used against an adversary with light or no armour. The Bloßfechten is not quite that limited, however, as the techniques and concepts taught reappear throughout later sections and students are encouraged not to use just one part of the manual, but to use concepts from different parts together. Prime examples of masters who wrote based on Liechtenauer's merkverse are pseudo-Hans Dobringer, Sigmund Ringeck, and Hans Talhoffer.
German manuals mostly deal with the longsword and messer, although sometimes sword and buckler techniques are also included. While they also include spear, dagger, wrestling and general unarmed techniques, they are directly related to the teachings on swordsmanship, working in unison to produce a holistic martial art for combat with any weapon or none at all. Remember, however, that it is necessary to comprehend and practise the unarmed aspects of the martial art for true competence, as sword fights were often resolved with the assistance of wrestling and grappling.
Liechtenauer's philosophy is based on taking the shortest possible path to victory and keeping up the pressure on your enemy with a proactive offense. There are no techniques in the manuals that are purely defensive in nature, as the Germans advocated either responding to an incoming attack with a move that contains a simultaneous defense and attack (in modern terms, a single-time counterattack), or responding with a defensive void or parry that enables one to follow up with an immediate counterattack (in modern terms, a double-time counterattack). Ideally, one strikes before the adversary, takes initiative and presses that advantage to end the fight quickly. This is called fighting in the vor or "before". However, this cannot be relied upon, so there are various techniques for bindsnote , voidsnote and other occurrences. In any sword fight, the most "perfect" action to the least "perfect" action is as follows:
- Strike in such a way that you close off their line of attack while hitting them with your own attack. If you attack first and keep the initiative, you fight in the "vor". If your opponent attacks you first, and your response is a move where you defend and attack in the same motion, you are fighting in indes, which in this context means "in-the-moment".
- Void or parry your opponent's strike in a way that creates an opportunity for you to hit your opponent with a counterattack in the next moment, thus regaining the initiative. This is defending in the nach or "after".
- Void or parry in a way that merely neutralizes the immediate threat, without threatening your opponent or taking the initiative from him. (It is him who should be pushed onto the defensive.)
If a fighter is overly defensive, and only wards off their opponent's blows without threatening them in return, Chritian Tobler notes that they will be vulnerable to feints. If you are attacking a person who is always trying to anticipate where you're going to strike so they can block that opening, then all you have to do is feint at an opening so that they move to defend there, but redirect your attack to instead strike a different opening which they've exposed in the process. If someone is attacking you, you want to make sure that your defensive move includes a threat towards your opponent which they will have no choice but to react to. This way they will not get a chance to attempt mind games or manipulation against you, and your knowledge of which techniques can counter the threat you're presenting will help you avoid being caught by surprise.
German swordsmanship also has a tendency to feature the false edgenote as an offensive tool more often than its foreign equivalents. Generally, the true edge is a superior offensive tool, but the false edge is marvelous for sneak attacks and other, more tactical applications. For instance, one may employ the false edge under the assumption that their strike will be parried. If this is the case, one's hand is held differently to when a true edge strike is made, allowing for different options when it comes to binds and redoubled strikes.
One core concept is that all practitioners should move from guard position to guard position. A guard position is not necessarily a defensive position, although some may act in this way. Instead, guard positions are stances from which one can begin techniques and thereby threaten an adversary. This way, Liechtenauer's art of swordsmanship begins and ends all techniques in guards; this ensures that all practitioners are ready to defend themselves at all times unless they are already attacking an adversary, in which case they are forcing said adversary to respond. Following are the four main guards:
- Vom Tag ("from the roof" using the old german translation)
- Middle: Held at the left or right side, at the chest or shoulder, with the sword pointing directly upwards or up to forty-five degrees backwards. This is the most versatile guard from which to launch attacks, as any strike can come from this guard with near equal efficiency. An Unterhau requires a transitional Nebenhut to confirm the right force.
- High: Held above the head with the sword angled no more than forty-five degrees backwards. From this position, descending strikes are powerful and fast.
- Ochs ("ox"): Held with the hilt near one's head at ear height or a little higher, blade pointing at one's adversary or hanging somewhat, and held on either the left or right side. This is a strong guard from which to thrust, launch descending strikes, and defend from incoming descending strikes.
- Pflug ("plow"): Held with the hilt at hip height, blade pointing at the adversary's head or torso, and held on either the left or right side. Much like Ochs, it is a strong position from which to thrust, but it is better at launching rising strikes and defending the lower openings.
- Alber ("fool"): Held with the hilt at hip height, blade pointing down and forward at an even angle, and held in the middle of the body. A highly defensive guard, it invites attack while remaining in a strong position to defend from any strike which doesn't target the head from above.
A strike should come from your stronger side (ie. right if you are right-handed), either from above (oberhau) or below (unterhau) and go together with footwork. There are four openings at which you can aim your strikes, which can be visualized if you imagine your opponent divided into quadrants: The first is the upper-right side of the opponent's body (upper-left from our perspective), the second is the upper-left of the opponent's body (upper-right from our perspective), the third is the lower-right of the opponent's body (lower-left from our perspective), the fourth is the lower-left of the opponent's body (lower-right from our perspective). In all fights, it is your goal to cause your adversary to over-commit to the defense of an opening and strike at whichever opening is both closest and undefended.
There are five special strikes within the German school referred to as the Meisterhau, or "Master Strikes". These can be performed as "single time" attacks designed to attack and defend in the same movement while displacing the most common and useful guards, the best form of defense as mentioned above. However, some of the strikes such as krumphau can also be used in "double time" where your parry and counter attack consist of two movements. The design of these strikes are such that, even if done imperfectly, they aim to lend you advantage for further techniques. Following are the five strikes:
- Zornhau: A descending diagonal strike that closes off the centre. What separates the zornhau from being a common oberhau is that it is made with the intention of facilitating other techniques from the resulting bind which is generally expected to occur.
- Zwerchhau: A horizontal strike with a raised hilt and hanging point, aimed at the adversary's neck or head. It displaces high strikes and guards, aiming to close off the high line of attack.
- Krumphau: A variable strike made with crossed hands that attacks the hands or blade of one's adversary, forcing an opening for a follow-up attack.
- Schielhau: A descending strike with the false edge, used to break low pointing guards and defeat adversaries that rely on strength.
- Scheitelhau: A descending vertical strike performed with the arms outstretched, using geometry to defeat low guards and strikes at the lower targets.
Except for the Zornhau, each of the above strikes have a corresponding guard position which they are designed to 'break', or defeat.
Techniques from the bind
Both combatants are attempting to land a hit while covering the opening that is likely to be attacked by their opponent. For this reason, it is inevitable that often the swords will cross and neither combatant will immediately hit what they were aiming at. This creates a bind between the swords, and actions that proceed from this stage of the bind make up most of the plays and advanced techniques in the system. The correct way of dealing with a bind is not for both combatants to engage in a pushing match as you often see in the movies, hoping to stagger the other and strike when his guard is down. That reduces the fight to a mere contest of brute strength, which is not in either combatants' interest. Instead you must use strength against weakness, and weakness against strength. This means both understanding what the strong and weak parts of your blade are useful for, and sensing your opponent's intention through the pressure signals that you are feeling through the bind between your swords, the concept of "feeling" (fühlen).
Firstly, leverage. The strong (starcke) is the half of the blade closest to the hand, while the weak (schwech) is the half closest to the point. They are so named because of their relative strength in the bind. The farther away from your own hand you make contact, the less you will be able to exert leverage. If you bind against his weak with your strong and start to push his point aside, he will not be able to push you back no matter how physically strong he is. Conversely, if you bind against his strong with your weak and try with all your might, you will not be able to budge him an inch. Sometimes winning is as simple as realizing you have an advantage and pressing it. If you strike zornhau against your opponent's oberhau and feel that he's soft in the bind, you can simply thrust to his face from the bind as you close the line with your strong against his weak. One technique for gaining leverage over an opponent who is trying to push you around is winden, meaning "winding". That technique involves raising your hilt and twisting your blade without leaving the bind so that your strong has been brought to bear against his weak, leaving your point free to thrust him in the chest or face. However, if he knows what he’s doing he may counter-wind, using his strong to push down your weak and thrusting you in the belly.
You have to know how to deal with an opponent who's trying to push you around, either by pushing hard against you in an attempt to overwhelm your defense or by resisting your attack with a hard displacement. The axiom of Judo that you should use your opponent's strength against him is also true in a sword fight. The weak of the sword may have less leverage, but it moves much faster than the strong and can be easily disengaged from the bind either by snapping back or making a small circle under your opponent's blade. In the former case, you can let your opponent's blade slide off your weak as you step to the side, harmlessly redirecting his attack past you and charging your sword with momentum for a counter strike, which he will be vulnerable to as he recovers from his over-committed attack. If you are trying to thrust at him from the bind and he is committed to displacing strongly, you can "change through" (durchwechseln) with your point, slipping out of the bind and thrusting the opening on the opposite side of his blade before he has time to get his sword back in motion. Over-committing in either attack or defense is something you should avoid, and which you should exploit if your opponent does it.
None of this is much use unless you can sense what your opponent is trying to do to you, and the way you do that is fühlen. When you are bound with your opponent's weapon, you can feel through your own hands and blade what he is going to do with his, whether he is soft or hard in the bind and in which direction he's exerting force. A bind between two sharp swords is not easily replicated by wooden wasters or blunt steel simulators. The edges of the swords actually bite into each other on a microscopic level, creating a sticky sensation very unlike the sliding that usually occurs with simulators, and it is very easy to feel subtle changes in pressure from your opponent's weapon. This is why some HEMA instructors such as Guy Windsor urge advanced practitioners to engage in controlled practice with sharps, although for safety reasons this stance remains controversial. As of this writing, a company has introduced a line of serrated synthetic simulator blades which aims to reproduce the feel of binding with sharp weapons to a greater degree.
Harnischfechten (Armoured Combat)
While few people today are familiar with bloßfechten techniques, which were meant to be used on an unarmored or lightly armored adversary, even fewer are aware that there was a separate repertoire of techniques specifically for fighting a well-armored opponent. By the end of the 14th century — which is around the time when the first manuscript of Liechtenauer's verse is thought to have been created — full plate armor had developed to cover almost the entire body of the wearer. Full plate is basically impervious to strikes or cuts with the sword's edges, removing this from one's list of options. However, the longsword can do more than just cut. Not only does it have a point, but the crossguard and pommel are weapons as well. Better still, it is essentially a length of metal about four feet long that you can grip in several different ways and use as a short staff or spear to wind and compete for leverage, potentially setting your opponent up for a nasty fall.
Halbschwert, or "half-sword" where the off hand grasps the blade at the middle of its length while the dominant hand remains on the grip, is the primary method of using the sword in harnischfechten. Four basic half-sword guards are used in Ringeck's version of Liechtenauer's harnischfechten, which resemble the four guards of bloßfechten in purpose if not always in appearance. Unlike in bloßfechten, where attacks are made with a passing step and there are right and left versions of each guard, the harnischfechten guards are only held on your dominant-hand side, and you must keep the same foot forward as you advance and retreat.
- First: In this guard, the hilt is held high over the head while the point hangs down to threaten your opponent's face. A high thrusting guard, it resembles Ochs.
- Second: In this guard, the hilt is held at your side below your waist, with the point upward towards your opponent's face. A low thrusting guard, it resembles pflug.
- Third: In this guard, the sword is held horizontally over your forward knee with the point going to your offhand side. A low guard that invites attack, it is like Alber.
- Fourth: In this guard, the hilt is raised to the side of the chest near the armpit while the point is held forward. It is analagous to Vom Tag in that, while not a cutting guard, it is the most aggressive of the four. In purpose it is like a mounted knight couching his lance in a braced position so that his whole body is behind the point. If your point finds a gap while working from one of the preceding three guards, you should transition into the fourth guard and push your opponent back mercilessly.
From these guards, the following techniques are possible:
- Thrusting with the Half-Sword: Half-swording shortens your reach compared to holding only the grip of the sword, but it has several benefits. Firstly, shortening one's reach is actually beneficial when fighting in very close quarters, as is often the case with armored foot combat. Secondly, half-swording gives you very precise control over your point so that you may accurately target the gaps in your opponent's armor. Thirdly, the forward grip provides more leverage, making it harder for your opponent to set aside your point. And finally, gripping your blade in the middle actually reduces the length of blade that flexes when you thrust, keeping the blade stiff as you thrust home. Unlike in bloßfechten, where the four openings represent large areas of your opponent's body that can be harmed, your targets in harnischfechten are reduced to a few specific areas that are less protected by the armor:
- The face. Many men in armor would open their visors while fighting on foot in order to get improved vision and ventilation, accepting the tradeoff that the face would be an obvious target. Even a closed visor might have vision slits large enough to stick a blade into, and there might be a gap where it meets the chin defense. Also, one could come to grips with the opponent and hold his visor open with one hand while stabbing with the other.
- The throat, which depending on the armor may have a gap between the neck defense and the helmet, or between the helmet and breastplate.
- The armpits, usually protected by the mail shirt or by mail voiders/gussets. Some armors also had floating plates called besagews to provide additional protection to the armpit.
- The groin, usually protected by mail breeches, the hem of the mail shirt, or a seperate skirt of mail. To get around a mail skirt, one could stab up from below, or grab and lift the skirt using one hand while stabbing with the other. The same solution would work on a long fauld or skirt of plates.
- The rump, usually protected by mail breeches, the hem of the mail shirt, or a seperate skirt of mail. The advice about dealing with a skirt of mail or plate applies to this target as well.
- The back of the thighs and knee, which are usually uncovered by plate in order to improve one's ability to ride a horse; these parts could be protected by mail leggings, but very often the fabric hose beneath the leg armor were simply left exposed there. Some foot combat armors had cuisses that wrapped around the back of the thigh, but most of those were still open at the back of the knee.
- The top of the foot. Even if the opponent is wearing sabatons, there is normally a bit of a gap between the top of the sabaton and the bottom of the greave, which may have a small mail patch inside it if the man in armor is well-prepared. Certain groups such as the Italians preferred to wear mail-covered shoes instead of plate sabatons, and still others wore unprotected leather shoes.
- The inside of the elbow joint, which could be protected by a mail sleeve or gusset.
- The inside of the gauntlet cuff, which overlaps the vambrace at the wrist in a way that leaves an opening for a blade.
- The palm of the hand, where the leather glove inside the gauntlet is exposed to allow a proper grip on one's weapon.
A point can potentially force its way between two plates and wound the person inside. A stiff point with a lot of force behind it can penetrate mail by entering a ring and bursting it open, and even if the rings hold, a very narrow point might be able to poke through far enough to draw blood. Mail also doesn't protect as well against blunt trauma as plate does, and a sword point can deliver a lot of that through the mail, especially to a sensitive area like the throat or groin.
There were many different kinds of armors, which may or may not have had any given one of these vulnerabilities, but most armors for the "field" or battlefield had at least several such weak points. Because tournament armor was worn for short periods and used in sporting contests that were regulated for safety, it could afford to be more heavy and restrictive of movement and vision than field armors were. In contrast, field armors were worn for long periods by men who were fighting for their lives, and eschewed complete protection in order to ensure adequate sensory awareness, freedom of movement, and reasonably light weight. One should never underestimate an armor just because it has some weaknesses, or think that just because an armor has a perceptible weak spot, it will be easy to exploit: the gaps of the joints were sometimes located in places that were difficult to reach (good luck stabbing your opponent in the back of the thigh unless you've snuck up behind him or are practically wrestling with him), and tended to be surrounded by pieces shaped to divert a weapon point away from those gaps, so when you add in the fact that the person wearing the armor is moving around and fighting back, targeting these weak points is easier said than done.
- Blunt Strikes, where the pommel is used to bludgeon the opponent, preferably on the skull or in the face. The blunt force from a pommel strike can give your opponent a concussion even through his helmet, severely impacting his ability to defend himself. One way to do this is from the regular half-sword position or with both hands on the grip, which might be expedient if your pommel gets close to the opponent's face while you attempt a more complicated technique. The other is using the mordschlagnote technique, where the sword is gripped with both hands on the blade and swung so the pommel or crossguard (or both) strikes your adversary. This way, the sword imitates a mace or warhammer. Furthermore, the crossguard can be used as a hook for controlling an adversary's neck or limbs.
- Wrestling Techniques are heavily intertwined with the techniques of armored fighting. While you and your opponent are seeking openings for a thrust, opportunities will arise to try and capture your opponent's sword, restrain and redirect his limbs and body using your off hand, or throw him to the ground where you can finish him off with your dagger. Again, the sword is a helpful lever when trying to throw your opponent.
Half-swording and other techniques for fighting in armor can also be useful against unarmoured adversaries at short distances or in confined spaces where swinging a sword is not possible. There are also a variety of miscellaneous instances where such techniques may be useful, even in an area where regular sword technique is entirely applicable. For instance, a sword may imitate a staff with half-swording; by pulling on one's own blade with the off hand during a bind, they can make a second strike to the same side of their adversary, this time with the pommel. While risky, such a technique can also take one "inside" the enemy's sword, a range too close in for their adversary to effectively wield it. Manipulating range like this is also an important technique against polearms, which are generally better at defeating armour than swords.
By examining armoured and unarmoured techniques, it becomes apparent that the martial art is meant to be implemented as a whole rather than strictly following the headings set out in the historical combat manuals. As such, we may take the separation between techniques as recommendations. Even Blossfechten techniques, with the sword reversed so as to use mordschlag, become applicable to armoured combat. Conversely, the armoured half-swording techniques can find application outside armoured combat as discussed above.
The wrestling element of the German system covers the whole spectrum of unarmed techniques, including strikes, grapples, throws and locks. In general, though, there is far more grappling than striking. The explanation is probably that almost everybody in the 14th-16th century carried some kind of knife or dagger: punching was of no use to a person using or defending against a knife, such that it didn't make sense to train in a whole elaborate system based on it, but being trained in wrestling could help you in almost any situation either in the street or on the battlefield. Being predominantly a warlike martial art for the knightly class, most unarmed techniques in the German system are grapples that end in throws. These can even allow an unarmed combatant to floor an adversary in full plate armour if they can get in close.
Almost all offensive techniques aim to take hold of and manipulate the following points:
- The head.
- The shoulders.
- The elbows.
- The hips.
- The knees.
All the above locations are excellent points of control, as it is most difficult to resist an adversary's strength when they are manipulated. It is not, however, good enough to take control of an adversary's body; they must then be subject to a lock, break or throw. Given the difficulty of locking or breaking the limb of a fully-armoured adversary, most techniques opt for a throw, which in turn sets up a killing technique. To adequately throw an adversary, a combatant must take control of two of the above points, although three is preferable.
Once two or three points have been taken control of, a combatant may push one end of the body while pulling the other, turning their adversary's body into a natural fulcrum and throwing them via their own imbalance. This is easiest with three points of control, which one may take with only two hands. One example may be to place one's forearm against the collarbone of an adversary so that the elbow is near to one shoulder and the hand near the other. At the same time, the free hand takes control of a knee. Once both hands have taken points of control, the upper arm pushes while the lower hand pulls. With control of three points, it is possible to throw even a large adversary to the ground.
The second of the primary "schools" of longsword being practiced today, the Italian school is best codified by the fencing master Fiore dei Liberi. In addition to his occupation as a fencing instructor, Fiore was a 14th century knight, mercenary and diplomat. In his own writings he mentions having widely travelled and studied with 'countless' Italian and German fencing masters, and on several occasions fighting duels against such men or their students due to arguments over his or their teachings. He reports that all of these occasions were fought with sharp swords and without any form of steel armour, and that he won each such encounter without injury.
There is some historical evidence of his students and their impressive performances in arrangements of single combat. One such pupil, Galeazzo Gonzaga of Mantua, is known to have twice beaten the famous French marshal Jean II le Maingre, also known as "Boucicaut" note .
One of the marked differences between Johannes Liechtenauer's Kunst des Fechtens and Fiore dei Liberi's Fior di Battaglia note is the scope and differences in layout. Whereas Liechtenauer's Zettel provides a short summary of his teachings of unarmoured longsword, mounted combat and armoured spear and longsword, Fiore's manuscripts provide a painstakingly detailed and orderly overview first of wrestling and the use of the dagger note , out of which then arises the use of the longsword. The longsword and the dagger are the two principle weapons of Fiore's system, comprising the largest sections. Also present are sections detailing use of the baton, spear, pollaxe, mounted fighting and fighting in armour, as well as numerous unequal circumstances such as spear against sword or sword against dagger.
Tactically, Fiore's and Liechtenauer's longsword systems appear extremely similar to the layman. This is largely a result of physics and human biomechanics; given the same weapon and a similar cultural context for its use, battle-tested martial systems will naturally develop along similar lines. Nonetheless, there are key differences in the systems. Fiore's material prefers to perform a parry against incoming attacks before transitioning to a counter after having dealt with the immediate threat, whereas the Liechtenauer tradition generally expresses the desire that all techniques should strike in such a way as presenting a strong offence while also simultaneously defending by closing off lines of attack. Some instructors, such as Matt Easton of Schola Gladiatoria, have expressed the opinion that Fiore's approach is generally more practical due to the inherent difficulty of simultaneously employing a strong attack and defence in the chaos of a fight.
Another key difference between the two systems is the approach to a bind. Whereas the German traditions make great use of the principle of winden, Fiore's characteristic response to such a situation is often some manner of close-in grappling technique or disarm, whereby the practitioner rushes in to close-range where an effective cut or thrust becomes more difficult to execute. Guy Windsor, chief instructor of the School of European Swordsmanship, has suggested that these preferences might be the result of sword length; with even just very slightly shorter blades, it becomes easier to successfully close the necessary distance with an opponent after a bind, whereas with longer weapons the prospect becomes much riskier.
The Origin of the Italian School of Rapier, and the Four Guards
By the middle of the 16th century, a new style of fencing was developing in Italy that was more geared toward the use of the side sword or rapier in unarmored duels and self defense, as opposed to the earlier systems' greater emphasis on warfare and judicial combat. In 1553, the engineer and architect Camillo Agrippa published his Trattato di Scientia d'Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia (Treatise on the Science of Arms with a Dialogue on Philosophy), the most important early work on the rapier in Italian. Aggrippa certainly didn't "invent" the Italian style of rapier single-handedly, and the groundwork had already been laid by the Bolognese tradition of side sword fencing described in Achille Marozzo's highly popular manual Opera Nova of 1536. Nonetheless, Agrippa's book presented significant innovations in both technique and teaching methods.
Aggrippa's use of classical nude figures, multiple poses to illustrate different stages of the same action, and geometrical diagrams of actions such as the lunge represented his desire to prove that the art of fencing could be treated as a science based on rational proofs rather than uncritically accepted tradition received from earlier masters. In terms of techniques, he declared his opinion that the thrust was superior to the cut in most situations and structured the system around that, with a corresponding change in stance, body mechanics, and footwork. He threw out the large number of different guard positions used by the Bolognese school with their colorful mnemonic names, reducing his to just four hand positions. He named his four guards A, B, C, and D, but all later Italian masters referred to them by number:
- First (Prima): The first guard that you can adopt upon drawing your sword, in which the hilt is held out high above your head with the true edge facing up, the point forward, and the palm of the hand turned toward the swordsman's outside.
- Second (Seconda): The second guard which flows from the first, in which the sword is held to cover your outside line with the palm of the hand pronated towards the ground.
- Third (Terza): The third guard, which Capo Ferro says is the only one you should rest in for any length of time, in which you hold the hand in the position used when shaking hands with the palm facing your inside. You may want to turn your edge a little outwards rather than keeping it perfectly vertical so that you will be stronger in a bind.
- Fourth (Quarta): The fourth guard, the last in sequence from drawing the sword, if which you hold the sword to protect your inside line with the palm of your hand supinated upward.
These hand positions are crucial because they each defend against different lines of attack using the edge and forte of the sword: high and low, inside and outside.
Stance and Footwork in 17th Century Italian Rapier
By the beginning of the 17th century, the Italian school of rapier fencing was at its apogee of popularity throughout Europe and at its full development as a style. The classical canon of Italian rapier includes the manuals of Niccolo Giganti, Ridolfo Capo Fero, and Salvator Fabris. Further into the 17th century the Italian school and the rapier started losing ground to the new French school of smallsword fencing. This summary is going to focus on rapier as codified by these three masters, presenting a general overview that will temporarily ignore significant differences in their methods.
17th century Italian rapier is by far the form of Western swordsmanship where the body mechanics are least intuitive and most difficult for a beginner. This is because it involves sustained poses and dramatic extensions of the body that tax joints and muscle groups that we don't normally use in everyday life. Before going any further, we need to present stance and footwork.
If you are right-handed, then your right side and your right foot are always going to lead. The opposite is true if you are left-handed. The side of you that is presented is said to be on your outside line, and the side of you that is drawn back is on your inside line. Start with your heels together, and your feet forming a right angle, with your lead foot pointing forward and your back foot pointing to the side. Step back with your hind foot, placing it about two foot lengths behind the lead foot and making sure that if you imagined a straight line under your lead foot, your hind heel would not intersect it. As you step back, bend your knees and settle into a stable stance as if you're sitting in a chair, with your bottom positioned over the line created by your heels. You need to keep your bottom at the same level as you step so that your body won't bob up and down, the only exception being when you sink into the lunge.
The defensive stance or posture you should be in by default is to lean back slightly, drawing back your shoulders and placing more of your weight on your back foot while straightening the lead knee. This increases the distance for your opponent to reach your vital targets such as the chest and head, but allows you to lean forward when it's time to attack. If you have a companion dagger, then you will have to open your stance a bit and hold the dagger out just behind your rapier. If you're fighting with the rapier alone, you should hold your off hand at about the level of your throat with your wrist and elbow tucked close to the body, so that the arm will be less of a target but you can potentially use your off hand for a Bare-Handed Blade Block. The offensive posture that you adopt while attacking is to put more weight on your lead foot and lean your body forward into the attack for extra reach.
The steps in Italian rapier include:
- The advance and retreat. For the advance one raises their front foot while pushing off from the ground with their back foot, and when the front foot lands the back foot follows it so that you're back in the same stance, only a step forward of where you started. For a retreat, simply reverse the order: Push off with your front foot as you step back with your back foot, and then withdraw the front foot so you are back in guard. Generally, this is how you are going to step once you are in distance with your opponent, meaning that either of you could hit the other with a single pass or lunge.
- The lunge. The main attacking move in the 17th century systems is the lunge, which is essentially a deep advancing step where the back leg straightens and the back foot remains on the ground while the front foot shoots forward to give the swordsman as much reach as possible. Agrippa's early lunge is a bit more conservative, while the 17th century systems had a deep extended lunge. It's a bit different from the 19th century classical fencing lunge with the smallsword or foil, where you shoot the lead foot very far forward, sink very low with the lead knee no further ahead than the ankle, and keep your back very upright. The 17th century rapier lunge does not put the foot quite so far forward, and instead rolls the knee over the foot somewhat to get that reach while leaning the body forward at the same time. The purpose of stopping the foot before the knee is to make recovery quicker, since the foot is slower to move than the body, and the less time the foot spends in midair the better. Leaning your body forward reduces your recovery time a bit, but many fencers considered that an acceptable price to pay for the extra reach. It is important to be careful and properly train your leg muscles so that you do not develop knee trouble, and if you want to stay on the safe side you should definitely not let your knee pass ahead of your toes.
- Variations on the lunge include the reverse lunge, where you lunge in place by keeping your lead foot in the same position while bending your lead knee forward and shooting your hind foot straight back; the side lunge, where your hind foot leads a lunge to the side that takes your body off line while you thrust your opponent; and a variation on the reverse lunge where you take your body off line by shooting your hind foot back and slightly to the outside.
- The pass. This is where you pass your back foot so that it's now forward, and is the largest step you can take. The front foot will remain straight and the back foot will remain turned outward as you pass the later in front of the former. At the end of the step you will collect yourself back into stance with your sword hand side foot in front as it was before. If you and your opponent start out of distance, meaning that neither of you could hit each other with one pass or lunge, then walking forward by passing one foot in front of the other is the quickest way to cover the distance; once in distance, you should only use advancing and retreating steps until you are committed to your attack.
Measure and TempoMeasure basically describes how much distance there is between the opponents, and how far an attack must travel in order to hit the target. Measure is related to Tempo, which is the amount of time that it takes to perform a single action. Both measure and tempo are quantities which are relative rather than absolute. For example, if one fighter is taller and has longer arms than the other, then the distance that he has to cover in order to hit his opponent is less than the opponent must cover in order to hit him. Therefore, they are in different measures even though they are the same absolute distance away from each other. Tempo is the same way. If you are very close to your opponent and just extend your hand and shoulders forward in order to hit him, that one action takes place in a single tempo, while if you are farther away and also have to take a step in order to hit him, that one action also takes place in a single tempo, even though that particular action takes a greater amount of absolute time to complete.
The order in which you move the parts of your body is of life-and-death importance. Whenever you attack, which requires bringing yourself closer to your opponent, your sword hand must precede the rest of your body. Moving your body in reach of your opponent's point before first moving your sword forward to cover yourself and threaten your opponent is just asking to get yourself skewered, since in that case your opponent can attack you with little risk to himself. In the correct fashion, your sword enters the danger zone first and the rest of your body follows behind it. As long as you are presenting your point and threatening him, he will first have to deal with that threat before he can try to hurt you. With that in mind, let's consider the different measures from narrowest to widest:
- The narrowest measure, or the one which requires the least time and distance for you to hit your opponent, is when you get so close that you only need to extend your hand forward and then enter the offensive posture by leaning your shoulders forward into the attack in order to hit him.
- The narrow measure is one step further back than the narrowest measure, where you need to extend your hand, then your shoulders, and then push your hips forward by shifting your weight to your lead foot and bending your lead knee (while your feet stay planted on the ground) order to hit.
- The wide measure is one step further back than the narrow measure, where you need to extend your hand, then your shoulders, and perform a lunge with your lead foot in order to hit.
- The widest measure is one step further back than the wide measure, where you need to extend your hand, then your shoulders, and perform a pass by passing your hind foot in front of your lead foot in order to gain the maximum possible reach. Any distance greater than this widest measure is "out of distance", which is when you cannot close the distance and strike within a single tempo.
The narrow measure generally has the advantage over the wide, in that the hand moves faster than the body which moves faster than the feet.
It bears repeating that the order of movement when attacking is always hand first, then shoulders, then hips, then feet. In order to protect yourself while recovering from an attack back into defensive posture, you need to reverse that order so that your feet are the first to draw back and your sword is the last to draw back. First retreat with your feet while keeping your shoulders and sword hand extended, then draw your shoulders back while keeping your sword hand extended, and lastly relax your sword hand into a guard position such as third so that you are back in defensive posture.
The kind of long, narrow rapier depicted in most of the rapier manuals we're concerned with was designed primarily to be used in a civilian setting where the combatants would be wearing street clothes without significant defensive armor. The thrust is emphasized for several reasons: the point is further ahead than the center of percussion (which is further back on acutely pointed blades than ones with a broader tip), meaning that it has more reach; it was considered more lethal, since organ damage and internal bleeding were almost impossible to treat in those days, while even severe cuts could potentially heal; and lastly, in the contest for tempo and measure it was considered to usually be the quickest path from point A to B. The blade had a thick spine so that it wouldn't flex easily and was often of a hard temper so that it could be both narrow and stiff. Cuts continued to play a secondary role, and unlike an estoc blade which was usually little more than a long quadrangular spike, most rapiers did have sharp edges, at least along the weak or "debole" since the strong or "forte" was sometimes left more dull for parrying. Cuts included basics carried over from earlier systems such as the forehand (mandrito) and backhand (riverso), and tricks such as the stramazone cut from the wrist that used the tip of the sword for slashing.
Fencing masters recommended rapiers with long blades, offering various and sometimes contradictory rules of thumb for your ideal blade length: a) as long as the distance between your left shoulder and the fingertips of your right hand held straight out, (b) the distance between the ground and your navel when standing up straight, and (c) the distance between the ground and your armpit when standing straight up, if you were one to put your faith in reach. The advantages of length are significant. One is that it gives you more reach than your opponent, which gives you the advantage in measure: he needs to get closer to thrust you than you need to get to thrust him, and you have more opportunities to attack him at a range where he can't hit you while he attempts to close the distance. Another is that it lends itself to single-time attack and defense; compared to a shorter one-handed weapon such as a falchion or arming sword, the blade is long enough that you can set aside your opponent's attack with your forte while still being able to skewer him with your debole. A sword in one hand like the rapier will also have slightly more reach than a sword of equal blade length gripped in two hands, because on the lunge you can open up your shoulders to be parallel to the thrust in a way that isn't possible to do with a second arm reaching across your chest. On the other hand, blades of excessive length had the disadvantages of being more more difficult to draw from the scabbard, having less agility on account of increased mass and length, and being at more of a disadvantage compared to shorter rapiers if your opponent managed to rush in past your point. Which length offered the best compromise was a matter of opinion.
The heart of the rapier fight is in "finding the sword", which means establishing enough control and advantage over your opponent's blade that you can thrust without danger to yourself because you have closed off your opponent's line of attack. You and your opponent start out some distance apart in defensive posture, your swords in a guard such as third or fourth. As you approach each other, you will get close enough where each of you can touch the other's debole with their own. The three advantages you need to gain in order to establish control are edge alignment, overbinding, and crossing the blades. Firstly, you need to get in a position where your true edge is turned into his blade, because the true edge gives you strength in the bind. This is why the hand positions of the four guards are really important, because each one turns your true edge into one of the lines of attack your opponent might use against you: either high or low, inside or outside. Secondly you have more control if your blade crosses over his, and he can't raise his blade with you opposing. Thirdly, you need to make sure that the blades form a cross or "X" in all three dimensions of the Cartesian coordinate system, x, y, and z. If the blades come close to parallel in any of these planes, it presents an opportunity for a sword to slip out of the bind and makes a double-kill much more likely.
Once you have found your opponent's sword by adopting the right hand position and engaging on the correct side of his blade, then when the two of you attack each other, his attack will slide off your forte and harmlessly past you as you thrust home. Most of the time, once you have found his sword he is will be screwed no matter what he does, because if he attacks, you'll win, if he tries to disengage and reengage you'll interrupt him, and if he retreats you'll be able to skewer him as he steps back. When you practice thrusting at home with a foiled rapier against a target on the wall, you should not let your hand rise up or allow it to be pushed aside by the blade's tendency to remain straight; you need to maintain that diagonal so that your blade will protect you, and to make sure that the force is going into your opponent instead of being dissapated into your arm. You should make the spring-tempered blade flex in the direction of your palm as you press the point against the target, which shows that in a real fight with a sharp, stiff rapier, that force would effectively thrust your point several inches into your opponent's body.
There are two ways to "find the sword": redirection and opposition. Redirection uses a move called the cavazione, where you disengage from one side of your opponent's blade by making a small circle underneath it with your tip to reengage their blade on the opposite side. The circle has to be as small as you can make it, because a large circle wastes time and gives your opponent a chance to interrupt you with a thrust in mezzo tempo or "in between time" before you can complete your action. So if you are in third with your opponent in third and engaging with his blade on the inside of yours, a situation where you are at disadvantage because third is strong on the outside line, then you can simply perform a cavazione so that you are now engaged on the outside of your blade and you have the hand position advantage. However, it is possible to counter a cavazione with a cavazione, so that as soon as your opponent disengages and starts to circle around, you make your own circle around his, so that he reengages against thin air where he expected to find your sword and you reengage him in the same position where you started, except that you've taken the initiative from him and thrust before he has time to negate your advantage. In theory this could continue forever, leading to a sort of I Know You Know I Know mind game.
The alternative, opposition, is akin to Cutting the Knot because it counters redirection. If you are both engaged in third, and he does a cavazione that would take him from the outside of your blade to the inside, then while he's making his circle you can transition your hand position from third to fourth. This way, when he arrives on the inside of your blade, you will be in a different guard which is strong on the inside line, and win the contest of the thrusts. Finding the sword requires a keen sense of tempo and measure, since whoever wastes either time or distance gives their opponent an opportunity to kill them.
Besides redirection and opposition, there are also beats, parries, and moves where you step off line or twist your body out of the way to avoid a thrust while landing yours. Cuts usually come into play as attacks of opportunity. Grappling is part of the system too. A classic move is to sieze your opponent's sword hand with your off hand and set it aside while skewering him with your sword. The aforementioned techniques apply mostly to the sword alone, and are complicated when both combatants are also using a parrying dagger, buckler, cloak, or lantern. Generally the off hand uses the shield or short weapon to snare or deflect your opponent's rapier, while you use your rapier to attack.
While the German longsword is the most popular Historical European Martial Art being practiced throughout the Western world at the moment, the English style of fighting also has some appeal for Anglophone practitioners as it lessens the translation barrier to making interpretations. Interestingly enough, there is a fair amount of common ground between the English style of fighting and the styles in mainland Europe, but there are some key differences.
One cannot talk about the English style of fighting without mentioning George Silver, who was an English gentleman living around the time of Elizabeth I. Little is known about the man himself, except that he seemed to be a Master of Defence, as people who taught such things were called in those days. His works are written in Early Modern English that is relatively easy for the layperson to understand. Probably the most famous thing about him is his beef with the Italians in general and the rapier specifically. His works are:
- Paradoxes of Defence (1599): this is more like an Author Tract than an instructive manual for fighting. In it, Silver argues that the Italian rapier is a poor weapon of choice and the traditional English method of fencing is superior. Ironically, his methods of fencing share a lot of common ground with the Italians, and there's a theory that suggests that Silver's thinking comes from the fact that most "Italian masters" that he would have met would not be up to the standard, as otherwise they would have opened schools in Italy instead of England. In fact, for all we know he might have never seen any Italian fencers who weren't trained by Saviolo, and what a lot of people don't understand is that Saviolo's method was unlike any other Italian rapier method, and certainly not like the more orthodox styles of Giganti, Capo Ferro, or Fabris. Anyway, Silver's grievances against the rapier can be summed up as follows:
- Rapiers are too long. Silver believes that there is a "perfect length" for weapons, and for swords (one-handed or two) he thinks that the blade should be just short enough so that if you hold your dagger with your off-hand straight arm in front of you, the tip of your sword should be able to pass behind the said dagger. This is due to the fact that longer weapons are too hard to uncross when in close distance. In fact, this is actually his method of fighting against rapiers, for you make "narrow space" by putting the point aside and coming straight to your opponent; once you're "inside" your opponent's pointnote he can't do much, except retreat and try again. Silver also talks about quarterstaff as well.
- Rapiers have no protective hilt. In those days, swords in England are starting to have a "basket" hilt. This is, obviously, a serious improvement over any sword that doesn't have one, since one is now less vulnerable to having one's sword removed at the fingers. (Basket hilts, and any other protective guards, would by virtue of added weight also have helped shift the sword's point of balance back towards the hilt, which is a real design advantage for a fencing sword.)
- Brief Instructions Upon my Paradoxes of Defence (ca. 1604-1620): This is Silver's followup to Paradoxes of Defense, where having previously delivered his polemical argument, he now sets about actually describing his own methods of fighting with various weapons. The exact dates when he was working on it are unknown, and judging by bits of it that are rather confusing it's possible he never actually finished it; In fact it languished as an unpublished manuscript seen by few if any people besides Silver himself until 1898, when a certain Captain Matthey published it as an instruction manual for British soldiers fighting in the Boer War. Interestingly, in this Silver doesn't go into the techniques much, unlike other manuals at the time (particularly Italian school) where there is a lot of "if your opponent do X, do Y". Instead, Silver's idea of fighting is based on principles from which you extrapolate what to do in any given situation. The four main principles are:
- Judgement. Exactly What It Says on the Tin. You use your judgement to figure out what to do.
- Distance. There are three distances: close, wide and far distance. Close distance is the distance where you can hit your opponent (or your opponent can hit you) by just moving the hand/hand with weapon, which Silver calls "attack in the time of the hand" (the concept of "time" in this will be discussed below), or where you can cross your sword touching your opponent's sword, which Silver calls "half sword" (contrast with the German definition of "half swording"). Wide distance is further out, where you have to make two steps, or have one foot passing over the other, before you are able to hit your opponent. Far distance is any distance that is even further than this. In Silver's view, you should always fight in the wide distance, since the hand is too fast for you to react to. Thus, in close distance, "the hand of the agent being as swift as the hand of the patient, the hand of the agent being the first mover, must of necessity strike or thrust that part of the patient which shall be struck or thrust at because the time of the hand to the time of the hand, being of like swiftness the first mover has the advantage." In other words, in close fight, the one who moves first will probably hit (or not), and the one reacting is less likely to be able to defend himself. In wide distance, however, since your opponent needs to stepping in to strike, and your hand moves faster than his stepping in, you will always be able to do something before the blow lands.
- Time. "Time" is an interesting concept in Silver's methodology. "Time" here can refer to two things: one is the time it takes for the movement to finish (time of the hand, time of the body, time of the foot and time of the feet); the other is the order of things being done (eg: time of the hand and body). For the latter version of time, Silver has two classifications: true time and false time.
- True time refers to moving the hand, body and feet in that order when attacking, while false time is the other way around: feet, body and hand. True time is generally preferable because you're putting forth your weapon before you put forth your target, ie your body. Thus your opponent will have to deal with the threat you have launched at him (assuming that, like most people, he's not Taking You with Me) rather than your body. Whereas if you move your body or feet first (which brings forth your body), your target becomes available before you've made a threat, and you opponent (whether suicidal or not) will be able to hit you. Of course, Silver also advocates fighting from wide distance, where you need to put a step in before you can strike your opponent, so this takes practice; the hand moves faster than everything else and it is all too easy to have finished swinging your weapon before you have managed to get your opponent into range of it. Thus the trick is to slow down the movement of the hand so that your weapon hits your target (assuming it isn't defended against) the moment your foot lands onto the ground.
- Place. Silver has one very famous statement in 'Brief Instructions': "because through judgment, you keep your distance, through distance you take your time, through time you safely win or gain the place of your adversary, the place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his place, the reason that he has lost his true place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is out of necessity driven to that will be agent." Basically, the true place is a situation in which you can do whatever it is you want without risk of being hit by your opponent.
- Aside from the four principles, Silver also talks about the four governors (actually three, but he counts the last one as two)
- Judgement: Same as above
- Measure: Knowing the distance when you can strike your opponent and when your opponent can strike you.
- Two-fold mind: Silver considers this to be two governors. A twofold mind in Silver refers to the idea that when you come forward to attack, "so must you have at that instant a mind to fly backward upon any action that shall be offered or done by your adversary". The idea is that when you attack, you have no idea whether that is enough to stop your opponent from riposting or not. Thus, once you've finished with the attack, you get out of distance in case your opponent attacks you back. Silver is very keen on defending, and he says "And here note that in all the course of my teaching of these my brief instructions if both the parties have the full perfection of the true fight then the one will not be able to hurt the other at what perfect weapon soever."
While Silver's work is more principle-based, he does give us a glimpse of the techniques that he'd like us to do. According to Silver, there are three wards in one-handed swords (or shortswords as he calls them):
- Open Ward. Face your opponent with your sword foot back, raise your sword above your head as straight up as comfortable. This is the open ward. It is very similar to the high vom tag ward as depicted in the German longsword above except with a shortsword. This ward is "open" since all lines of attack are open (for your opponent, that is), but since you're in a charged position you can make very fast downward attacks.
- Guardant Ward. This is something more or less unique to Silver. The description given is "to carry your hand & hilt above your head with your point down towards your left knee, with your sword blade somewhat near your body, not bearing out your point but rather declining it a little towards your said knee, that your enemy cross not your point & so hurt you, stand bolt upright in his fight, & if he offers to press in then bear your head & body a little backward". This is a ward more or less a counter to the open ward, as your sword is covering the line of attack that your opponent is most likely to use, and Silver also gives details on how to deal with other lines of attack as well.
- Variable Ward. The "other" category basically. Anything that is not the open or guardant. However, Silver talks about the stoccata and passata ward under the variable ward:
- Stoccata: Hold your sword as normal with your sword foot forward. You're now in stoccata ward.
- Passata: Same as stoccata, but with sword foot back.
- There's also the imbrocata and mountanta, in which you hold your sword on either side of you head with your point at your opponent, much like the Ochs in German longsword. However, Silver doesn't like presenting the point to the opponent, as he thinks that it gives the opportunity for your opponent to do something with it.
An interesting note here: so far what we've discussed is actually agreed with by the Italians. However, Italians like to give point to their opponents and don't like the Guardant ward, and they give detailed instructions on how to deal with people doing something to the point. It's also interesting to note that the names are actually Italian and they originally refer to the thrusts that can be done from those positions. For all Silver's railing against them, he isn't scared to rip them off.
Little is known for sure about the medieval English longsword. While Silver provides some commentary on the matter, he is largely concerned with Renaissance-era single swords, and therefore provides small illumination (his comment basically comes down to "[two handed swords] are to be used in the fight as the short staff."). Furthermore, the English longsword does not have the wealth of manuscripts that the German or Italian longswords do, and therefore those traditions must be taken as a template from which to interpret the English sources that do exist. English longsword sources discovered so far are: Harleian MS 3542 (written around 1450), the Cotton Titus MS (late 15th century) and Additional MS. 39564, signed by “J. Ledall” (early 16th century). The latter is particularly interesting to scholars, as it's one of the few treatises known to focus extensively on describing the footwork, whereas in other manuals the footwork is glossed or implied. Some have speculated this has much to do with the manuscript's origins as being that of a student taking notes for private study, rather than being the work of a master.
On the surface, English longsword bears numerous similarities to the German and Italian traditions. In a tactical sense, the English longsword is less forthright than its German brother. While the German style places emphasis on getting in distance and controlling the bind, English longsword sources instruct us to only be in distance for long enough to deliver a technique. It solves the problem of the bind by doing its best to avoid them. To this end, its sequence of striking is very kinetic, focusing on flowing combinations of techniques that keep an adversary at bay. For instance, where a German falling diagonal strike might end in a hip-height pointing guard, an English one ends with the sword pointing towards the ground, allowing energy to continue flowing so as to more easily continue into the next technique.
Within the English tradition, a falling strike is known as a "hawk." A slicing cut similar to the German schnitt is known as a "rake." A "rabbit" is a cut or beat to the opponent's weapon to gain the line for an attack. Few other techniques are elaborated on, as the sources concern themselves with using such hawks and rakes in sequence and with footwork. One technique named with very narrative intent is the "Dragon's Tail", which is a horizontal beat where the sword circles one's head again and connects with the enemy's temple.
The unfortunate truth about the English longsword is that there is only a tiny amount of available sources, much of it fragmented, and it's possible that there be may no more to be had. Whether or not an entire system can be reconstructed from the sources currently available remains in question for now.
La verdadera destreza (meaning “the true art”) was the Spanish system of fencing detailed first in Don Francisco Antonio de Ettenhard's Compendio de los fundamentos de la verdadera destreza y la filosofía de las armas. Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza and Luis Pacheco de Narváez were among the most revered masters. This Spanish system of fencing focused on the teaching of the sword, usually what would be called a rapier, but was also intended to be applicable to any sort of weapon.
Destreza was based on reason, geometry, and the body's natural movement. In contrast to what they perceived as the strained and unnatural low stances of the Italians, Spanish fencers held the body upright, starting with the feet close together in a relaxed but balanced posture. In guard the sword arm was held fully extended in a straight line, with the point presented to the opponent to deter him from attacking recklessly. The fencer moved with deliberate but natural steps in the manner of walking, sometimes taking larger steps but never using a deep extended lunge in the manner of Italians. A significant principle of destreza was non-linear footwork, which also contrasted with the relatively linear Italian rapier fight. Directly advancing toward the opponent was considered dangerous and risky for the student. Instead, they were taught to make movements towards the left or right to gain a more favorable angle of attack. Distance was important; the ideal distance was to be as close as possible but to still be able to attack.
Spanish masters maintained that cuts (both tajos, forehanded cuts and reveses, backhanded cuts) could be just as useful as thrusts (estocadas) depending on the situation. There was a strong focus on movimiento natural, or attacks from above to below, and on leverage, with the blade of a sword being divided into up to 12 sections, not just the forte and the foible used by Italian and German schools. The atajo was a specific technique for applying leverage on an opponent's weapon, stopping him from raising his weapon without touching the blade above. The word "atajo" later passed into the Spanish language as a way of “to interrupt” or “take a short-cut”, due to its purpose of impeding an opponent's attack.
Glossary of Terms
- Blade: The main offensive part of the sword with sharp edges and a point, considered as a separate entity from the hilt.
- Tang: The tail-like stem of the blade to which the hilt is attached.
- Edge: The sharp portion of the blade used for cutting.
- True Edge/Long Edge: The edge facing away from the person holding the sword, in line with the knuckles.
- False Edge/Short Edge: The edge facing towards the person holding the sword, in line with the wrist.
- Flat: The flat surface on either side of the blade.
- Fuller: One or more grooves that run along the flat of the blade on each side, reducing its weight without compromising its strength.
- Point: The sharp tip of the blade, used for thrusting.
- Ricasso: A blunt rectangular area of the blade just above the crossguard. A small ricasso can facilitate wrapping the index finger over the crossguard, as is the case in rapier, while a longer ricasso can accommodate a hand for half-swording, as in some longswords and many two-handers.
- Parierhaken/Parrying Hooks: A pair of small flanges or hooks just above the ricasso on certain two-handed swords, used to protect the hand and potentially help catch or trap an opponent's blade when parrying. These were usually located above the ricasso.
- Taper: A descriptor of the sword's narrowing towards the point. Swords exhibited both 'profile taper' and 'distal taper'. 'Profile taper' is the more obvious, being the tapering as viewed looking at the flat of the blade. 'Distal taper' is the more subtle way that a sword's thickness changes when viewed edge-on, and it has important consequences for the blade's mass distribution and stiffness in the thrust. As a rule of thumb, swords with a more triangular or acute profile taper are designed with thrusting in mind, while those that taper relatively little until just before the point are easier to cut with.
- Strong: The part of the blade closest to the cross guard where one can bind against an opponent strongly, i.e. "using strength against weakness". In longsword the blade is generally divided into strong and weak, but rapier masters sometimes divided the sword into three, four, or even five parts based on their role. The Spanish even went so far as to divide the blade into sections labelled from 1 (nearest the point) to 10 or 12, due to the principle of leverage used for atajo. Also referred to as the Fort or Forte.
- Weak: The part of the blade closest to the point. A student should aim to hit his opponent with the weak because it has more reach and contains the "center or percussion" (CoP) or "sweet spot" where the blade doesn't vibrate when it strikes the target. In a bind one cannot oppose strongly with the weak against an opponent's pressure, which is where "using weakness against strength" comes into play. Also referred to as the foible.
- Hilt: The grip, crossguard/handguard and pommel when considered as a single entity.
- Crossguard/Handguard: The mediating component between the blade and grip which protects the hand and helps to deflect or trap an opponent's weapon. A simple cross with quillons projecting on either side was the most common type of hand guard until the 16th century, when finger and side rings started appearing and eventually full "swept-hilt" and "basket hilt" styles developed.
- Finger Ring: A small semi-circular bar that protects the index finger when wrapped around the ricasso. A pair on either side is called the "arms of the hilt"
- Knuckle bow: A curved bar that extends downward over the grip to protect the fingers.
- Quillons: The two ends of the crossguard which project out on either side.
- Side Ring: A ring of metal projecting from either the crossguard or the arms of the hilt at a right angle to the blade, meant to protect the hand during parrying actions.
- Counter Guard: A part of the developed hilt that protects the inside of the hand.
- Grip: The handle of the sword, constructed around the tang of the blade. Generally a wooden core was fitted over the tang and wrapped in cord or leather to provide a better gripping surface and appearance. Some swords such as the German messer and Italian cinquaedea had more knife-like handles, consisting of a slab-like full-profile tang sandwiched between two bone or wooden panels.
- Shell: A word for the basket or otherwise handguard used on a basket hilted weapon or sabre.
- Pommel: The metal fitting that secures the hilt on the end of the tang, improving the sword's handling by providing a counterbalance to the blade and preventing the grip from slipping out of the hand. It can be used as a formidable blunt weapon in its own right.
Tropes That Apply to European Swordsmanship
- An Arm and a Leg: Although severing limbs was not a primary tactic, it was certainly known to happen. One play in Talhoffer shows a fencer chopping another fencer's weapon hand clean off with his messer.
- Attack! Attack! Attack!:
- Just about all the systems caution against throwing yourself recklessly against the enemy without thinking about defending yourself. Even the famously offensive minded German school does not tell you to attack blindly; the Germans tell you to do this the smart way, by attacking in such a way that you defend yourself at the same time, or counterattacking in a way that regains the initiative.
- General Georges Boulanger in his duel with Prime Minister Charles Floquet in 1888 demonstrated how to do this the wrong way: He kept charging at his opponent with no technique whatsoever, some say because he didn't even know how to parry. His opponent spitted his throat with a simple parry-riposte, and Boulanger was lucky that he even survived.
- Inverted with the English school of thought which puts heavy emphasis on defense.
- Blade Lock: The binden, binds, as well as the atajo. However, instead of just trying to push back the opponent, you are supposed to meet an adversary's strength with weakness (stepping aside) and their weakness with strength.
- Bling of War: If you had money to spend, it was considered a shame not to have some decoration on your arms and armor. Of course, there were degrees of this. Etching, gilding, bluing, and even damascening do not necessarily weaken the blade, and there are some sparkly weapons that are perfectly functional, but others had impractical things like solid gold hilts and ultra-high relief chiseling that put them in the category of art objects rather than useful weapons.
- Bulletproof Vest: While there weren't bulletproof plate cuirasses compact enough that you could wear them like a concealed bulletproof vest, there were garments of mail and brigandine construction that could be worn inside or underneath a regular doublet. These could be very finely made so that they would stop sword and dagger points while being very flexible and discreet, which is one reason that many rapier duels required both combatants to strip down to their shirts to show that they weren't concealing any armor.
- Brawler Lock: In wrestling, the standing stage often starts with both fighters siezing each other's shoulders and "swimming" in attempt to get on the inside of the lock where they have the advantage. Dagger fights also often begin with both fighters attempting to stab each other, but successfully siezing each other's dagger wrists so they're at an impasse. Of course, you don't just strain against each other with brute force when this happens; you immediately feel where the pressure is going and then apply a technique the defeats strength with weakness or weakness with strength.
- Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Most systems have more than a few techniques that are designed to kill your opponent and forbidden in friendly encounters. There may have also been many more that we'll never know: Medieval masters often refused to write down their techniques in order to keep potential enemies from learning them, and there's little doubt that those who did write manuals might have kept some tricks to themselves.
- Dated History: Many earlier works in which European swordsmanship is depicted as clumsy, crude, and plodding have long since been discredited as the arts have been reconstructed. This also extends to the weapons and armor themselves: Older editions of Dungeons & Dragons have longswords weighing as much as six pounds, (real longswords ranged between 2-4, more commonly in the median of the range) while films such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court helped to popularize the idea of the heavy, cumbersome armor that prevented knights from even mounting their horses unassisted (real combat armor weighed no more than a modern soldier's kit, and that weight was actually better distributed, which made armor quite maneuverable and light to wear).
- Dual Wielding: While wielding two of the same weapon was usually rare, it was sometimes suggested as in the "case of rapiers". Also, most single-handed weapons could be and often were used with a dagger, buckler, cloak, or other off-hand weapon.
- Duel to the Death: During the Middle Ages these martial arts saw application in legally sanctioned judicial duels between a defendant and his accuser, usually in the case of a serious crime for which no confessions or witnesses were available. This was generally expected to result in death for the loser; either they would be killed in the duel, or their loss would confirm their guilt in the sight of God, and they would be executed afterwards. As this practice declined it began to be replaced by unsanctioned private duels, which could be similarly lethal if the participants believed the only way to get satisfaction for their grievance was by killing their enemy.
- Averted in the English and Scottish systems as one could be hanged for murder if he killed someone in a duel in England, and the Scots avoid killing each other as it could ignite a clan war. Thus most duels in England/Scotland were to the first blood.
- Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age: Beginning in the 16th century, some fencing masters such as Agrippa would lament how the "diabolical invention of artillery" and the arquebus made it possible for some amateur with a couple weeks of training to blow away a Master Swordsman at a hundred paces, and how the sword represented the ancient values of chivalry that they believed to be decaying in their time.
- Eye Scream: Getting one's eye poked out was a common hazard during practice before the era of fencing masks, and there were a lot of one-eyed swordsmen roaming about. Fencers tried to prevent this by wrapping the points of their foils in tennisball-sized pads that were too big to enter a person's eye socket, but this didn't always work.
- Fantastic Fighting Style: What many people consider this to be before being made aware that these existed. Furthermore, due to the lack of martial lineage, all of these arts are interpretative; we cannot be entirely sure the way we do them is the way they were done historically. By that measure, some elements of their practise may be fictional.
- Halbschwerten used to be a prohibited technique in the SCA heavy combat until it was noted to be a perfectly historical style. Mordhau is still, though.
- Fingore: A krumphau to the hands can cut off your opponent's fingers, and there's a nasty unarmed technique in Ringeck's wrestling: if your opponent tries to reach out and grab you, intercept his hand by siezing his first two fingers in your right hand, his second two fingers in your left, and then yank them in opposite directions.
- Flynning: Any temptation to look like swashbuckling stage heroes is Averted in all cases, and sometimes defied by the authors of the manuals. Liechtenauer goes to the extent of saying "Exercise is better than art, because exercise without art is useful, while art without exercise is useless." In other words, a technique doesn't have to look impressive in order for it to work, and a technique that only looks impressive but doesn't work will get you killed. The German system holds that an attack that threatens your enemy is best because it forces him to defend himself; if you strike at just his sword he can move it out of the way without danger to himself and counter while you're recovering. There are legitimate techniques in double time where you beat away your opponent's sword, but you must follow up with the counter or you've wasted your chance. The same goes for inefficiently large movements; The shortest movements are fastest, so whoever attacks in the shortest distance and time from point A to B will always win.
- Groin Attack: A knee or foot to your opponent's groin can really debilitate them if they're so concentrated on the bind between the swords that they leave themselves open below; George Silver refered to it as "striking with the foote or knee in the Coddes". In armored fighting, a half-sword stab to the groin is effective because it's one of the few places difficult to cover with rigid plate. Even thinking about it's enough to give you the shudders.
- Hammer Hilt: European swordfighting, especially in the German fechtbucher, included half-swording techniques that involved gripping the blade and using the hilt as a warhammer.
- Improbable Use of a Weapon: Many of those unfamiliar with the teachings react to half-swording with bare hands or offensive use of the hilt as if it were this.
- Improv Fu: Encouraged, given that these methods tend to use elaborated techniques to explain principles, to the extent that an incoming technique may have several correct counters.
- Invulnerable Attack: The aim of single-time combat is to attack and defend in the same action; one strikes in such a way that their technique intercepts their adversary's technique. If taken to its ideal conclusion, this is performed in such a way that one's own attack makes contact while defending from the incoming attack. This is just an ideal to strive for, however, as there is no attack that cannot be countered if your opponent has enough time to react. There were supposedly a lot of pretentious masters who claimed to have an unstoppable secret technique to kill one's opponent without danger to oneself, and taught it only to their best pupils in the greatest secrecy, but more sensible writers warned that anyone promising to teach you an unbeatable move was just a charlatan trying to rip you off.
- Invulnerable Horses: Obviously this was not the case in real life, and masters who taught the use of the sword and lance in war often advised dealing with an armored opponent by first taking out his unarmored horse.
- Knife Fight: Any comprehensive manual that purports to teach self-defense will include techniques with the knife or dagger, which was by far the most commonly carried weapon in everyday life. Not just knife vs. knife or dagger versus dagger, but also unequal situations like dagger versus sword, or unarmed versus knife.
- National Weapon: Although subject to modern interpretation, there were various schools associated with a linguistic and cultural area that taught a particular way to use a weapon:
- Italian Rapier
- Italian Spadone
- Spanish Rapier
- Spanish Montante
- French Smallsword
- German Longsword
- German Messer
- Italian Longsword
- English Longsword
- English Backsword
- Scottish claymore (either the two handed version or the basket hilt)
- Off with His Head!: Like chopping limbs, decapitating a person in the heat of a swordfight was very difficult and usually not as efficient as, for example, a descending cut into the skull; nevertheless, allowing for some artistic license in the illustrations, Talhoffer shows a decapitation in one of his plays, and experiments with replicas on animal carcasses suggest it to be possible. In places such as Central Europe where execution by beheading was customary, a specially designed executioner's sword was used.
- One-Hit Kill: Each strike, done with technique and understanding, should aim to kill the oponent outright.
- Four of the five German Master Strikes can be this; three of them are explicitly designed this way.
- Again, averted in the English and Scottish system due to their laws and customs.
- Single-Stroke Battle: The historical reality in many cases was that the fight would be decided with the first blows. Only if opponents were a near-identical match would a fight last more than a couple of strikes.
- Special Attack: The five Master Strikes of the Liechtenauer tradition of Germany are both its trademark moves and some of the most central to the system.
- Stab the Sky: Some guard positions, such as when Vom Tag is held overhead, mimic this posture.
- Swipe Your Blade Off: The traditional fencing salute involves bringing the hilt close to the face as if to kiss the cross, extending the blade high towards the worthy competitor, and giving the blade a dramatic swish before putting up a guard. This has nothing to do with swiping blood off, however, which is not something that the manuals usually discuss.
- Swiss-Army Weapon:
- The longsword, which can be used as a sword, spear, staff or war hammer.
- The pollaxe (as well as its later derivation, the halberd) is this, being a hammer, an axe, a spear, a pick/hook, and a staff, all kit-bashed together into one weapon. The halberd is even literally this, since the Swiss were among the first to adopt it for regular infantry use.
- Sword Fight: While not exclusively about sword-on-sword combat, in most of the manuals it is the main subject.
- Sword Sparks: Sparks flying off the blades can happen, even with blunted training swords.
- Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Although the practicality of this technique is far more situational in real life than what the trope name would imply. While a sword could be thrown as a spear — and more easily than it would appear — it falls short of viability by virtue of the user losing their main weapon upon throwing it, in addition to the low velocity of the sword being easy to deflect at longer distances. At best, this would be a Desperation Attack with a Ranged Emergency Weapon, especially when facing against a ranged combatant.
- Unblockable Attack: A decisive thrust, strike or cut from a bind should be this if done well. The idea is to control your opponent's weapon while leaving yourself free to hit them.
- Black Vikings: Despite the name, these arts weren't practiced exclusively by people of white European genetics, and some people of color even won fame and social status through their mastery of Western-style fencing. See here for more.
- Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), was one of the most famous fencers and renaissance men of the 18th century. He was born in the Carribean; his mother was an African slave named Nanon, and his father, wealthy white planter George Bologne de Saint-George, sent him to France for his education. From his teenage years he was famous for his accuracy and quickness with a sword, and Henry Angelo (son of the famous smallsword master) praised both his skill and sportsmanship. He won many matches, including one against a Rouen fencing master who insulted his race, and another with a Captain of Hussars who boasted to some ladies that he could beat Saint Georges without realizing that the man himself was in earshot. He became an abolitionist who attracted the hatred of people in the slave trade, and successfully defended himself against more than one attack by thugs armed with pistols. Saint George also commanded, as colonel, the first all-black military regiment in Europe, a unit that came to be known as St. Georges’ Légion.
- Jean-Louis Michel was born in Haiti as the son of a French fencing master, and served in Napoleon's army. In 1814 he was part of a Regimental duel near Madrid between the French 32nd Regiment and Italian 1st Regiment, in which he killed or disabled 14 Italian fencing masters in successive bouts totalling 40 minutes. He retired from the army in 1849 at the age of sixty-five to start his own school in Montpellier. Later in life he denounced duelling, and he taught his daughter to fence.
- Basile Croquère, born in New Orleans around 1800 to a white father and a mixed-race mother, was considered one of the best fencing masters in Louisiana at a time when duels were fought more frequently in New Orleans than in any other city in America.
- Black people are sometimes illustrated even in some of the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance fencing manuals as combatants in the plays. While it could be an attempt to spice up the book with some exoticism, it also might have reflected there being at least a handful of nonwhite practitioners in reality.
- The Lichtenauer tradition attributes its wrestling to Ott Jud ("Ott the Jew"). Ott is described as a Christian convert, but also explicitly a Jew and listed on an equal basis with other masters. There's also a number of scattered references to other Jewish masters, with or without a note on their religious allegiance.
- Combat Pragmatist: Most historical European forms encourage you to be completely ruthless and use every trick at your disposal.
- Died During Production: Thibault was going to follow part one of his Academy of the Sword with a second part on cavalry, but died before he could finish it.
- Ignored Expert: Although significant headway has been made in recent years, contemporary instructors of European Martial Arts still face an uphill battle against decades of pop culture and "common knowledge." Much of this experience continues to be dismissed as fraudulent in the face of sources such as Dungeons and Dragons, to the frustration of modern practitioners.
- Knight In Shining Armour: The intended audience for the earlier works. However, the content of the manuals implies that back in the day people were a lot more pragmatic about fighting than the trope suggests.
- Master Swordsman: The authors of the manuals and many of their students.
- Magic Knight: What the authors of the Codex Dobringer thought themselves to be, if the inclusion of magic spells is any indication.
- Multi-Melee Master: This was expected to be the case with every dedicated practitioner of historic fighting arts; the concept of studying only how to use a specific weapon to the exclusion of all others would have been bizarre in the pre-industrial world.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Due to movies and the long portrayal of European swordfighting as either Flynning or two idiots just whacking away at each other without any finesse, people are often disbelieving of the very concept of European Martial Arts even though, logically, with several thousand years of sword use you'd think something more sophisticated than simply swinging wildly at each other would develop. Some people, seeing reconstructed combat techniques, accuse practitioners of just making something that looks cool instead of the primitive techniques they think were really used.
- Renaissance Man: Perhaps not surprising, considering much of it was during the Renaissance, but lots of manuals digress into advanced geometry and mathematics to explain their precepts. Lots of masters were multi-talented, such as Agrippa who was an architect and engineer rather than a professional fencing master, and Thibault who used Albrecht Durer's study of human proportions to illustrate a mathematical proof of his system's efficacy. The Spanish masters in particular seemed to think you had to know a lot about everything in order to be a good soldier, basically looking at it as a lifetime's work.
- Rival Dojos: This comes up throughout the history of European martial arts, as rival masters and schools squabbled, sometimes intensely, among themselves. It often got mixed up with nationalism in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance.
- Of particular note was the Brotherhood of St. Mark and the Federfechter; the former held a monopoly on instruction in the Holy Roman Empire, and were incensed when the latter were invited to the council at Frankfurt in defiance of this.
- George Silver had an ax to grind against the Italians and their newfangled rapier style, especially Rocco Bonetti and Vincetio Saviolo who set up fencing schools in England. His writing contains the story of a certain Austin Bagger who drunkenly picked a fight with "Signior Rocco" by standing outside his house armed with sword and buckler and mocking his claims to expertise, including his advertising slogan that he could "hit anie Englishman with a thrust upon anie button". Rocco came out with his "two-hand sword" to teach him a lesson but Bagger delivered a Curb-Stomp Battle, where he "cut him over the breech and trode upon him and most grievously hurt him." Since Silver was writing about an event that supposedly happened a decade ago, and had an obvious agenda in discrediting those masters, we should take this story with a huge grain of salt. On the other hand, Silver may not have been quite as xenophobic as he is often depicted: he claims that any foreign master who can hold his own in a suitiable trial of arms should be welcome to teach in England, but that if they refuse the test or fail it they should be run out as frauds, which is what he thought Saviolo and Bonetti were because they claimed that such a test was beneath them.
- This has obviously been known to occur even today. Given the reconstructive nature of the various arts, which often creates differing interpretations, heated arguments can be quite frequent and can have a big impact on relationships between various organisations and/or instructors.
- Bilingual Bonus: It helps a lot if you understand German, Spanish or Italian.
- Bling of War: Multicolored, multi-patterned outfits and giant poofy Landsknecht pants with colorful slashes were in in 16th century Germany and show up in fencing manual illustrations.
- Awesome Anachronistic Apparel some modern HEMA practioners wear them.
- Full-Frontal Assault: There was a phase where manuals were illustrated with nude fighters, to better show muscles and posture.
- Doorstopper: While manuals came in all shapes and sizes, those with the most text or illustrations could be huge. Thibault's Academy of the Sword was physically enormous and 423 pages long.
- Take That!: Certain authors took the chance that writing afforded them to mock or insult other masters whom they disagreed with. Silver heaped ridicule and contempt upon Bonetti and Saviolo, while Thibault criticized Salvator Fabris for advocating contorted and unnatural postures. Even earlier than that, Liechtenauer was openly critical of show-fighters (see Flynning above).