Back in the end of May this year we had the honor to be invited to the internationally renowned event and tournament of SKUNKS, which is organized annually in Rybnik, Poland.
SKUNKS is primary a tournament but there are workshops that precede the main fighting part. We were told by the organizers that they’d like the instructors not to have their workshops in a classical event-ish manner, but rather as a demonstration of an ordinary training session at their respective clubs. That made me very happy since I always try to lead my workshops in such way.
We presumed that the participants are not going to be beginners and they will probably get easily bored by static exercises so we chose to introduce a part of the conditional training methods that we use.
Advanced strategy & tactics in HEMA
Defining what is and what isn’t advanced in HEMA isn’t a very easy task. I guess everyone has their own perspective on this matter. After many years watching people practice, fight and develop their skills I came to a conclusion that for me being advanced means to understand the logic between the individual devices and techniques and being able to interconnect the bigger picture. It’s easy nowadays to be able to demonstrate and practice the techniques from the Zettel (or Fiore, whatever) in a very good way under decent tutelage. A majority of modern fencers lack however the basic understanding of strategy and tactics and fight or fence without figuring out the connection between mechanics, intention, psychology and victory itself. They are able to perform an absetzen in practice and in ideal condition, but fail to do so in a freefight. One of the reasons behind it is using extremely simple, improper and incoherent stimulus – reaction methods, mixing illogical actions and often limited by what is written in the surviving fighting manuals (e.g. limiting Twerhaw practice to 5 exercises and one cutting diagram).
To teach both basic and advanced strategy and tactics, I created a sequence of exercises which stem from (in my opinion) the most essential and basic guard or position – Langort or the Longpoint. These exercises start with some very basic distance exercises and develop into a full and complex set of techniques which use advance stimuli and reactions as you might later see. Combining essential and advanced stuff they are appropriate both for beginners and advanced fencers.
One of the greatest inspirations for the workshop was the work of Salvator Fabris, whose work I truly recommend to everyone, even those who are afraid of rapier and use every opportunity to not think that such weapon exists. Reading Fabris can be beneficial to any practice, whether it is sword&buckler or longsword. Fabris’ knowledge and perception of fencing is extraordinary among all surviving works and one can feel he really knew what he was writing about.
I’d also like to thank to Kuba Potocki for filming our workshop and dedicating his free time to edit it. Please note that these videos do not contain the whole material (the workshop took 2 hours). And there are English captions available. Just turn them “on” in the video settings.
Prologue – Langort
Langort (longpoint) is a fantastic position. Even the masters of old describe it somewhat as a pinnacle of fencing. Firstly they mention that there are only 4 guards you should hold (but also say it doesn’t matter since guards are easy to break anyway), afterwards they introduce schrankhut, then even say that there are more good positions called the nebenhutten which aren’t a part of the Zettel and, surprise:
I know you’ve heard before that you should stand against your opponent more or less just in four guards, attack from them etc… I’d like to let you know now that there is this another guard, called Sprechfenster, and actually it’s quite a good and stable guard to be in. And that guard is nothing else than a Langort and, for real, that’s the frickin’ very best defence there is in longsword fighting. Who knows how to get things done from that guard will hit the other guy using his actions against him and won’t let him attack back.
(Hopefully you’ll pardon me the tone of the free translation, I want to stress what the books would like to tell us in modern language:))
So yeah, there goes the consistency. Nevertheless, for didactical reasons we should distinguish between two variants. First is a Langort; when we mention Langort we should understand it as general position of the sword or Langort as a particular guard – position we assume in Zufechten, either for defensive or offensive purpose. The second one is Sprechfenster, a “speaking window”, which is a langort used in bind, e.g. arms are outstreched, holding position/guard, if possible pointing against our opponent and trying to feel and guess his/her intentions. It keeps an opponent the furthest away from our body and allows a simple parry which covers each and every of the four openings just by moving our arms in a small square. We could say every parry or defense from langort goes through the shortest way possible with langort itself being a preventive solution.
As other sources might imply, langort is the very essence of fencing since all cuts and thrust should end in it and it is the very core of fencing. With this amount of stress which suggests essential importance we should not forget to make langort and exercises coming from it one of the very basics in our fencing preparation.
Knowing the fantastic advantages that langort can provide (as written above) there are many techniques and exercises we could derive from the material available. Explicit instructions mention staying on the sword (feeling opponent’s intentions), nachreisen, ansetzen, winden (cut, slice and thrust), durchwechseln, ringen. However they don’t go into much detail, assuming the reader already knows how to do those techniques. I would like to show you, dear reader, how we see and practice them at our club, how we teach and learn to connect one technique with another and to pull as much knowledge and experience as we can from such a seemingly simple thing as a Langort might seem.
Part 1 – Warm-up exercises
My co-instructor Vladimir leads the warmup exercises inspired by various approaches like classical fitness, cross fit, Yoga etc. We often use ladders to develop footwork and coordination.
Part 2 – Keeping distance & Provoking
To further warm the muscles up we show a simple distance exercise. One guy from the pair assumes a role of a coach; he is leading by stepping randomly forwards or backwards. The coach gives a signal, an invitation when they see it as appropriate. The “student” immediately reacts by extending his or her sword and hitting the coach’s head with a quick lunge. This might be done with a thrust or with a cut. I usually use a cut since it’s a bit safer and requires a deeper lunge / faster movement. It’s very important to start the movement with the arms first and moving with the body afterwards. If done in the other way we would be opening ourselves to a Zeckrur or easy Ansetzen, exposing our body.
Sometimes it happens that we come very close to each other in such exercises. Afterwards, whoever stretches their arms will be able to hit no matter his experience or prowess with the sword. To prevent this, we may add another condition to the exercise, namely an extension of the arms. If the coach feels threatened or sees the distance is very dangerous and that the safe distance has been breached, they will immediately shoot the point towards opponent’s head. It’s not necessary to do it as a Winden or to push the other’s blade very much on the side; we can just try to keep ourselves safe by controlling the middle line. Depending on the level and skill of the practitioner, we may do it fast and unexpectedly or in a very slow pace to teach them to be wary of their steps.
Note: Some people tend to hold their Langort very close to their legs. This is very dangerous since it’s extremely easy to hit such a person with a simple extension of the arms (see below). Also, students tend to get tired very easily and they go low with their cover. It’s very important to always change the pace a little bit and remind them to be cautious. Even spoken signals can be used to keep their attention. It’s always up to the coach to find the proper way how to treat their student.
Another note: The more we stretch particular guards or positions to the front of our body, usually the harder it is to make a quick or sudden strike from it, be it a cut or a thrust. I tend to call such guards defensive, and such should be their purpose – mainly to block the opponent of reaching certain target. On the other hand, the more we pull the weapon closer to our body, the easier it is to launch an attack or to deceive the opponent about our real reach (Pflug or Schlussel for instance). Both have their advantages and disadvantages. But with good distance management it is really easy to hit someone who stands in a short-langort (e.g. arms close to the body) with a nimble ansetzen or well-performed Schielhau. Therefore if we truly seek to be safe in our langort we should find a suitable middle ground for versatile (one-tempo) purposes or the extended edition for pure defensive purposes (e.g. two-tempo actions).
Provoking (3:20): Sometimes it’s too hard to have someone do exactly what we need to. However they are means of creating a tricky opening for our opponent and thus inviting him/her to hit a suitable opening. There are many such examples in KDF, like Schrankhut, but masters always tell us to be careful since it’s not that hard for a skill person to break it. Nevertheless, with a little bit of good caution, distance, timing and trickery, we can get them where we want. So, the coach leads the other one backwards and forwards as before, maintaining the control of the distance with the extension of the arms. This time however the invitation may become a preparation for our attack, which will be an immediate winding and thrusting into our opponent’s attack (no matter whether it is a cut or a thrust; however to beginners I recommend practicing this with a cut first due to the speed and tempo advantages). This can be adjusted to any situations.
Let’s sum up: We have a distance exercise. Next we add an invitation to opponents attack (we can also punish them if they are too slow). We control the distance with a simple time-to-time extension of the arms or a controlled thrust. In the end we can use the simple invitation as the means for our upcoming attack.
Part 3: Invitation and Winden
As suggested before, fencing in my view works as a chess game. Our techniques are our pieces and our opponent reacts with some kind of a strategy. Whether it’s intentional or not is not important. In the end, it is us, who’d like to win, to get our opponent where we’d like to.
Simple opening or leaning of the weapon in stress situation may not work against stressful opponents or against people who oversee our goal. In that case, if we’d still like to play a game we have to employ different means of provoking. Acting, making our opponents nervous with constant hitting of their weapon, dancing, taunting (within acceptable boundaries of course :)) or faked attacks, screaming, stomping the floor are some of these means. It’s ideal against people who often take a defensive stance, tend to react and are good in evading our attacks (e.g. standing in langort/sprechfenster).
Immediately after we get a response, when our opponent will leave his guard either to attack or to “say” to “leave him alone”, we’ll attack with a suitable thrust, whether into pflug, langort or ochs. We shouldn’t forget to move with the weapon first and to move with the rest of the body afterwards. It’s the most secure way to hit our opponent successfully in good tempo and to evade a potential afterblow or doublehit. Every other algorithm will probably result in an unwanted situation and will end up (again probably) as the aforementioned afterblow or doublehit. The rest is luck.
Part 4: Right Ochs
Right Ochs is sad. It’s not being used in modern fencing much. It is not an easy position, even more difficult to assume a stance in full sparring gear. Nevertheless there are a few instances of Right Ochs where we may use it in a safe and good way. One of these is using it as Winden or Absetzen against Langort.
Before, we used an invitation by creating an opening for our opponent to attack to. We can also try a different approach. We may provoke a response by pusing his blade out of the way. Now, based upon their reaction our following action can be simple.
If our opponent evades our blade by going underneath (durchwechseln) or from above we can react by immediate pushing forward into Right Ochs, assuming a strong position and thrusting him/her wherever we see is it suitable. This is particularly hard to parry for our opponent due to the edge alignment and the fact we’re attacking towards their weak side (assuming our opponent is a right-hander).
Of course, if our opponent isn’t reacting, based on distance, tempo and other factors, we shoot the point directly at their face or chest. If we are not able to do so, due to our opponent being fast or parrying hard, we can react with a simple durchwechseln or, again based on the position of our blades, umbschlagen, preferably a simple abnehmen (which stands up and falls through the same line). So, no matter what are opponent chooses to do, we have a set of simple actions ready to counter their reaction.
Pushing our opponent’s blade out of the way is a very simple and effective trick; we can be almost 100% sure they will react in 3 basic ways. Either they’ll ignore it, which leaves the way to the target open. This isn’t very common, but can happen with a portion of luck and skill. The other way is they’ll leave the bind which creates a suitable tempo for our attack, assuming we have the right distance and correct starting position. If we attack in this tempo, and do it correctly, it is almost certain we’ll be successful in the attack. The last but not least, and a very natural response like in arm-wrestling, is that our opponent will push against our blade. It’s really a very good starting point for our subsequent actions, since it’ll make our opponents open themselves and it’ll add the needed impulse to our weapon. We could use it for example as a starting point for abnehmen, zucken or durchwechseln. Generic umbhawen and other actions are possible, but we should try to use always the shortest way possible.
Part 5: Meyer Zirckel
As a continuation of the action above, we may use a variation of the Meyer Zirckle. Though the canonical Zirckel is a bit different, I work with the version which is described with the Schielhau in his third book on longsword. If for any reason the right Ochs winding will fail (our opponent is parrying the action, we fell short, we missed etc) we can immediately go to a circular motion that we’ll both cover our body and shoot our sword to the opponent’s head from the other side. Or wherever we will see it as appropriate.
If our opponent will hold his arms and hands too high, we may use a Schnappen, pull and block his arms and hit them with a similar movement to their head.
Part 6: Verkehren / Sperren
Some people are hard to hit. They have good distance management; they easily avoid your every trick and lead your blade away with elegance. If every device will fail, we can use the so-called Verkehren (or Sperren; depending on the context) against them. How does it work? Simply: just quickly cross your hands and push your opponent’s blade down, controlling their point. It’s again very important to start with your hands, because every other movement may alert your opponent to be cautious and will make your action fail.
I personally use the short edge to trap the opponent. When you cross your arms and hold your sword with the short edge down it’ll lock your opponent in an easy manner but with a more powerful position than with the long edge. Thus we’ll create a momentary prison for their sword that will make them confused and break the possible course of their action. We only need to do this for a very small amount of time. In the moment when we see our opponent is becoming confused we launch a series of attacks which usually are a cut with the short edge and a subsequent zwerch or a direct thrust.
Part 7: Bonus – grabbing the blade
As one of the last and simple resorts if everything else fail we may always try to grab our opponent’s blade. It’s very natural so I don’t think it is necessary to go into details, but I’ll advise to coordinate the movement of the hand with the attack in such manner that you’ll manage to grab your opponent’s blade and attack at more or less the same time. It’s also advisable to grab their blade in a manner that will at least partially cover your body, e.g. with the hand turned outside.
Part 8: Streching
My co-instructor Vladimir leads the last part of the workshop, stretching. It’s advisable to do stretching after every training session to prevent muscle fever and dangerous muscle tension. It is recommended to do a short break between the full-exercising and stretching to let the body cool down a bit.
Langort is one of the most used positions in longsword fighting nowadays. Even the old masters called it one of the best on the sword and I have no reason to doubt their opinions. I also see Langort as a very good didactical means for teaching people not only the basics, but also advanced variations on how to think in fencing, how to react but above all – how to get our opponent where we’d like to. Of course there are many other variations and exercises that we may do from various situations and after various stimuli but I’m always trying to cover those most practical to me and those I was also able to pull in sparring or tournaments. Please bear in mind those were just some of the exercises we did and not everything that can be done.
In the end, after the students are able to perform a set of techniques from every situation I suggest to let them try to spar with each other limiting their starting and basic position to Langort/Sprechfenster. If students are able to perform some of the techniques in free-fight situations, it will encourage them to use it even under more stressful conditions and create a stronger bond between the position and the technique itself.
I hope that these videos and text guide will help someone in their fencing or inspire some exercises. I still think there is a lot that all of us have to learn to achieve the ultimate goal – to become the fighters and fencers we’d like to. If anyone would like to discuss anything, please feel free to do so here or by contacting me at [email protected]. Thank you for reading!