Over the last five years, I’ve given several workshops in both South Africa and Europe focused on sequencing the teaching of techniques from Joachim Meyer’s “Gründtliche Beschreibung… der Kunst des Fechtens”[i]. In my view, each section in Meyer’s 1570 text contains two or more of the following elements- a glossary of terms, a training programme (the “Stucke” or “devices”) and an advanced commentary.
This progression is best shown in Meyer’s longsword and rapier sections, but the teaching programme is a core element of every section. In the teaching section (“second part”) of each weapon section, Meyer lays out a sequence of drills which I argue escalate in complexity, in which different techniques are introduced to the student in order. This series of articles will explore some of these ideas in more detail, and is written primarily for my own students, but will hopefully be of interest to many other practitioners.
This particular article forms the basis for a class I gave at WWOC 2012.
The attacking skill tree
In a fight, attack and defence are the two sides of the fight. An attack must foil the attempted defence; the defence must foil the attempted attack. Some defensive techniques only work against certain attacks; some attacking stratagems are designed to defeat certain defensive techniques. However, many students have a limited repertoire of attacks, and often fail to sequence them particularly well; rather than the continuous flow of skilful attacks depicted in sources such as Meyer, fighters often limit themselves to “1,2, retreat” combos, sometimes using the same sequence again and again. This in turn limits the defender’s options, and many historical techniques described in the manuals are not seen regularly in fights simply because the nature of the attacks does not demand them.
To a certain extent, this can be blamed on the Liechtenauer corpus of work, which focuses almost entirely on the defender’s options in a fight[ii]. Many fighters strive for a “one hit kill” using a contratempo hit, which does not match the long fighting sequence Meyer often describes. Though these techniques are covered in Meyer’s advanced commentaries on the longsword, his teaching progression emphasises parry-riposte actions and defence at all times, which contrasts greatly to what is seen in most modern tournaments. I’ll deal with the contratempo hit (the “Meisterhau”) in a later essay, but it should suffice at the moment to say that I believe such attacks are indeed advanced, and should not be used until the basics of parry-riposte sword play have been mastered.
Before I talk about practicing attacking, I will however start by laying out the attacking progression as described by Joachim Meyer. Meyer’s 1570 text devotes three chapters to teaching a progressive sequence of “devices” (“Stucke”), the second of which, Chapter 10, is devoted to attacking techniques, preceding Chapter 11 which focuses mainly on defensive actions. Chapter 10, entitled “On attacking the four openings” in English, starts by detailing the basic mechanics of attacking between the four openings[iii], then proceeds to detail several techniques to deceive the opponent or evade an attempted parry. For teaching purposes, I divide this chapter up into six “levels” of escalating difficulty, in which each succeeding level builds on the level below. Once the student has learnt the basic attacking sequence, Meyer adds five more levels of attacking technique for the student to master, in order to defeat the defender’s parries[iv]. In each case, the risk to the attacker increases, but it becomes progressively more difficult for the defender to predict and defend against the attacker. Meyer also includes some advice on avoiding contratempo hits, which I include as “Level 7”.
Level 1: Attacking to the openings in sequence (“Umbschlagen”)
The most basic type of attack is a cut or a thrust to an opening, which should be countered by a competent defender, requiring a follow-up attack. Meyer opens his chapter on attacking[v] with a simple sequence of four cuts:
1) Cut from your upper right; cut from your lower left; cut from your lower right; cut from your upper left (followed by a horizontal short edge Zwerchau from your right)
This sequence is referred to in my group as an “X”, and requires a large amount of dexterity and sword control (not to mention footwork) to perform fast and efficiently. This allows the student to flow smoothly from attack to attack as the defender parries, maintaining the initiative (the “Vor” in Liechtenauer terminology) until the defender makes a mistake. It should be noted that every single cut should be intended to strike the defender’s body; if the defender makes a mistake he will be hit.
This sequence can be enhanced by replacing some cuts with either short edge or flat attacks[vi]. The sequence can also be altered to form several more sequences, simply be altering the starting point. Meyer himself offers the following variations:
2) Cut from your lower right; cut from your upper left; cut from your upper right; cut from your lower left
3) Cut from your upper left; cut from your lower right; cut from your lower left; cut from your upper right
4) Cut from your lower left; cut from your upper right; cut from your upper left; cut from your lower right
Level 2: Pulling (“Zucken”)
The simplest modification to the attacking sequence is simply not to let the sword connect with the defender’s parry; as the defender moves to parry, the attacker can simply “pull” his blade away before the clash, and strike to another opening, using one of the sequences above[vii]. This is the most basic type of feint, but it can be very effective. Without the tactile stimulus of blade contact, the defender is forced to rely on his eyes to detect where the attacker will attack first. It should be noted the “pulled” blow is rarely the first blow in a sequence- Meyer teaches pulling the third blow first, then pulling the second blow, and then only pulling the first blow.
Level 3: Running off (“Ablauffen”) and Failing (“Fehlen”)
The next two techniques Meyer details are also feints like the pull, but are more sophisticated. Both are vulnerable to the contratempo “snipe”, but pressurise the defender more.
Running off involves allowing the blades to clash and using the defender’s force to propel the sword around to the next opening; as the attacker perceives the defender’s intent to parry, he relaxes his hands and starts to rotate the sword blade, so when the parry occurs, the attacker’s blade swings freely away from the bind around to another target. Since the edge has been reversed in the collision, the following blow from the attacker is best delivered with the short edge from above. Meyer details two examples of running off:
5) Cut from your upper right. As the defender parries, turn the short edge down to the right use the collision to swing the blade around for a short edge cut from your upper left
6) Cut from your upper left. As the defender parries, turn the short edge down to the left- use the collision to swing the blade around for a short edge cut from your upper right
Failing is a slightly different technique, which utilises the same blade mechanics as running off without waiting for blade contact. As the defender moves to parry, the attacker turns the short edge down and pulls the blade away, so the blade swings around to the other side. Though Chapter 10 does not contain a description of failing, the following description can be found in other parts of Meyer’s manual:
7) Cut from your upper right- as the defender moves to parry, lift the pommel, turn the short edge down, and let the blade swing around your body without meeting his blade- strike around from your left
Meyer also describes a number of variations on failing in his advanced commentaries on the Zwerchau[viii], but the basic mechanism will suffice for this article.
Level 4: Changing through (“Durchwechseln”)
Meyer uses the term “changing through” or “shooting through” numerous times in his text. Since this technique is often used during attacking, I normally teach this technique at this point in my attacking progressions, as it fits well. Changing through involves allowing the attacker’s blade to fall beneath the opponent’s parry, preserving momentum and allowing an attack to the opposite side. The following example is taken from Meyer’s Chapter 5:
8) Cut from your upper right. As the defender moves to parry, sink your blade below his pommel without contact. Turn the blade and attack his left with your long edge
Changing through evades a parry and changes the direction of attack, but effective changing should be done within distance and with care, as the attacker will be exposed to a counter attack as the weapon is regathered.
Level 5: Striking twice to the same side
(At this point in Chapter 10, Meyer begins to mention a number of techniques and presents several examples of different techniques which involve two strikes to the same side or even to the same place. These two strikes may be both with the same edge, or may alternate between the long edge and the short edge. Though the term “duplieren” is only strictly applied to alternating strikes with the short edge and long edge, there is no obvious term for two strikes with the long edge to the same side, so I separate the two techniques for teaching purposes)
Attackers often get into a pattern of attacking from side to side, allowing a defender to predict the next attack despite the use of pulling, running off and failing. Thus, an attacker should vary the sequence of attacks in order to attack the same side. Meyer gives the following examples:
9) Cut from your upper right- as the blades clash, pull the pommel up and attack from your lower left with a triangle step[ix]
10) Cut from your lower right- as the blades clash, pull the blade back quickly and attack from your upper right with a triangle step
These techniques can also be done with pulling, running off and failing, and the blows can be done with a long, short or flat edge. For these techniques, footwork is essential- since the blows are no longer alternating between sides, normal passing steps cannot be used, and the upper body needs to be moved away from the opponent’s blade in order to remain protected.
Level 6: Doubling (“Duplieren”)
Doubling involves striking for the same side or even the same place twice, using a different edge for each strike. These strikes often involve the use of the thumb grip[x] and the triangle step, and require practice to deliver smoothly and fast. These techniques are often used in conjunction with pulling and running off, and some are actually conducted from the bind (i.e. with blade contact), marking this level as the first in which the bind is used directly[xi]. Meyer gives the following examples:
11) Cut from your right with the long edge- before the blades clash, turn your edge and strike his head with the short edge
12) Cut from your right with the short edge- before the blades clash, pull your pommel under your right arm, turn your edge and strike his head with the long edge
Though Meyer presents the doubling occurring before the bind, in other places in his text the doubling occurs in the bind or even after the defender pulls away from the parrying.
Level 7: Countering the interrupt
Any technique which involves pulling the sword away from an attack must give the defender an opportunity to counterattack in the period while the attacker’s sword is not directly threatening. This occurs as the attacker pulls his sword around, when he allows the blade to run off, or when the attacker changes through, and the attacker must always be aware that he is vulnerable at these points. If the defender attempts to interrupt the attacking progression with a counterattack (a contratempo attack), then the attacker must deviate from his original intent and defend against the incoming attack. This is the most critical part of learning to attack safely and where many double-hits occur, as the attacker continues his attack despite the defender’s counterattack. Meyer addresses this issue directly: “And meanwhile still pay heed, if he should fall in at your opening, to be on the sword from the pulling at once with a bind”[xii].
Thus, at any point in the attacking sequence, the defender may counter attack into the attacker’s blade, requiring an action in the bind such as winding or hanging. These are best described elsewhere, but it should be emphasised that these do not form part of a normal attacking sequence. If the defender does not parry, you shall hit him, and if he does move to parry, you will evade his parrying using the techniques above, and attack elsewhere. Meyer never advocates binding on the opponent’s sword except in exceptional cases, and the actions in the bind are to be used only as a last resort.
Teaching the attacking progression
The seven levels of attacking detailed above represent a sequence of increasing complexity, which Meyer presents in an order which I believe represents a teaching progression. Teaching a student how to attack effectively is thus not a simple process, and requires some thought in how best to present this material. The use of static drills is not ideal, as the techniques used in a certain situation are highly dependent on timing and distance. This limitation can be circumvented by using more dynamic drills and by changing the normal emphasis- instead of teaching the defence, task the defender with a very basic parry, and let the attacker practice his attacking sequences.
In my group, we teach these as an escalating set of dynamic drills[xiii]:
a) Nominate an attacker and defender. The defender is tasked to defend with a simple parry. The attacker then attacks continuously, moving through Meyer’s sequence of Level 1 attacks. Both participants are free to move and alter distance, and both are encouraged to work at a speed at which techniques and movement is smooth and efficient (the slowest speed we use is often referred to as “glacially slow”).
b) When the attacker is ready, each of the higher levels of attacking can be added in turn. I generally add one or two levels per week, until the attacker has all the tools of the trade.
c) When the attacker has mastered pulling, changing through and/or failing, the defender can be allowed to add the contratempo attack, in order to keep the attacker “honest” and emphasise safety.
d) These drills can also be paired with an escalating sequence of defending actions for a more complex teaching progression.
At the end of this progression, the student should be able to attack safely and continuously, able to avoid the bind and pick his moment to attack, and keep the initiative in the fight.
Meyer’s description of how to attack with the longsword presents an image of two fighters striving for advantage, in which the attacker skilfully evades the defender’s parries with a mixture of movement and deception, while the defender looks for the right moment to counterattack. The attacker is urged to always look after his own safety, and the bind work is reserved for last resort. This matches with Meyer’s description of how to work from the postures (Chapter 11), in which he emphasises parry-riposte defences. Hopefully, the attacking progression I have laid out here will help train better attackers, who in turn can become better defenders and more skilful swordsmen.