And the first are those who, as soon as they can reach the opponent in the Onset, at once cut and thrust in with violence. The second are somewhat more moderate, and do not attack too crudely, but when an opponent has fully extended with a cut, fallen low with his weapon, or else has bungled in changing, they chase and pursue rapidly toward the nearest offered opening. The third will only cut to the opening when they not only have it for certain, but have also taken heed whether they can also recover from the extension of the cut back into a secure parrying, or to the Defence Strokes; I also mostly hold with these, although it depends on what my opponent is like. Now the fourth position themselves in a guard and wait thus for their opponent’s device; they must be either fools or especially sharp, for whoever will wait for another person’s device must be very adept and also trained and experienced, or else he will not accomplish much.
– Joachim Meyer (Trans. Forgeng)
Understanding Meyer’s Four Types
Meyer lists four types of fencers in the rapier section of The Art of Combat (1570). While it appears late in the book and in a section less frequently perused by modern practitioners of Meyer’s historical fencing system, it is essentially a deductive account of all interpersonal conflict and must be required reading for all students of Meyer’s art.
In order to fully understand this section, the student must have a strong foundation of fencing theory which Meyer spent over 200 pages fleshing out up until this point. Most of this, however, is meant to serve as exemplar of his fundamental theoretical construct in which he places the fighters, and which is passed down to him from the earlier masters in the Liechtenauer tradition.
For the purposes of clarity, we will use the five words as the basic framework for analysis of four fencers. Before discussing the four types of fencers, it will be useful to begin with strict definitions. These aren’t meant to be ultimately definitive, but rather to give a basic structure to the analysis.
Strong: To be strong is to have oriented the arm-body structure such that it is perfectly aligned with the point of the sword, across the center-line on a horizontal plane in the direction of the opponents weapon
Weak: To be weak is to be misaligned. (This can be deliberately, as in an act of deflection, or accidentally)
Within (Indes): Acting within is to act in the moment in which the opponent is weakening, or strengthening and therefore simultaneously weakening, by targeting the weakness – as its being created – (not after).
Before (Vor): Acting before is to perform the initial blade action in an exchange.
After (Nach): Acting after is to respond to initial blade action, to either strengthen or weaken against the opponent’s blade action.
Types of actions:
A Provoker is an action that threatens a Hitter or a position of strength.
A Taker is an action that either absorbs (strong) or deflects (weak) the force of an attack.
A Hitter is a blade action that results in a successful offensive action
Times of the fight:
The Onset (Zufechten) is the distance from the opponent at which acting in before provokes an opponent to respond in order to achieve a position of strength, such as is optimal.
The War (Krieg) is the distance from the opponent at which it is possible to land a hitter.
As a caveat, we will assume that it is optimal to have become strong and in the war. This is because a fencer can immediately go from a strong position to a hitter without creating a moment to work within. While he does create a weakness, it cannot be chased because the opponent must occupy himself with the strong threat. See my article “On the Five Words and Withdrawal” for more detail.
Violent and Somewhat Stupid
When you observe that an opponent is inclined to rush and crowd upon you in the Onset with hard cuts or thrusts, then parry his cut or thrust with extended arm on your long edge, near your hilt in the forte, and thus turn your hilt against all his incoming cuts and thrusts, yet such that in this parrying you do not go too far out to the side from the Longpoint away from your face, since the closer you keep your hilt in front of your face in turning him away, the better it is. And always withdraw your head and face from his blade behind yours. And as you thus hold off his cuts and thrusts, then note diligently if you can pull the parrying from him in the second, third, or fourth cut, with a back-step away, so that he misses with his cut or thrust; then swiftly counter thrust or cut, while he is still falling, or before he recovers.
Meyer’s first type of fencer attacks irrespective of the strength of their opponent’s structure and geometry. Their primary mechanism for moving from the onset to the war is with a Hitter. With weak structure, the force of his attacks will surely blow through any parry. The corollary of this is that with strong structure, the attacks of the type 1 fencer will be channeled into the cross, or oriented away from the target to defeat the parry.
Against an aggressive fencer, it is best to take in a strong way and hit the opponent with advantage, when they bring themselves into the war. It’s important to note, that one must continuously withdraw to remain in the Zufechten. This prevents creating Indes and giving to opponent an opportunity to Nachreissen.
Artful and Sharp
Now against those who will not attack so violently in the Before, but will take heed to attack close behind the opponent’s Before, position yourself in the Onset in one of the guards; then change before him judiciously from one guard into another, and offer him one opening after the other, yet such that your point always remains before him, as I have said concerning changing off. Then as soon as he thrusts or cuts at you during this, fall upon it with setting off or suppressing, and rush at once to the opening he has presented.
An assertive fencer attacks into weakness. Their primary mechanism for moving from the Onset to the War is with a Provoker. He chases to new openings as they are being created, and either takes with them, or hits directly. Against an assertive fencer, fence in the After, provoking them to attack in a predictable way, either take their attack thereby taking strong position in the War, or use Nachreissen by hitting into the weakness they create in their initial action.
Judicious and Deceitful
When you observe that your opponent will not cut first, nor rush to the opening before he has it for certain, then position yourself in the Onset in the Side Guard or in the Change. Remain a little while in it, as if you intended to wait for his devices; but then go back up from the lower guard, and act as if you intended to change into the High Guard; when you almost have come into the High Guard, then rapidly turn your weapon for the stroke; before he realises it, cut through rapidly to the nearest opening with extended arm, so that you make yourself open again. Without doubt he will quickly cut at this opening, since you have presented it to him thus with a sudden stroke. If he does this, then set him off, and work forth to the opening. If he does not cut, then deliver a strong thrust directly after your completed cut. This is a shrewd deceit, acting as if you intended first to go from one posture into another for a while before him, and partly doing this, but just when you have come with your weapon to the High Guard, and you meanwhile perceive your opportunity, then turning your weapon to a stroke before you have fully come into the posture.
A passive fencer stays in a position of strength for as long as they can. Their primary mechanism for moving from the Onset to the War is with a taker. They wait for the opponent to create moments to work within and seize them when they materialize. Against a passive fencer, use a provoker (often with lateral movement to extend the duration of his taker) to cause them to strengthen in a predictable way creating a moment in which you can work within, chasing with hitters to their new openings.
Foolish or Cunning
Now the fourth position themselves in a guard and wait thus for their opponent’s device; they must be either fools or especially sharp, for whoever will wait for another person’s device must be very adept and also trained and experienced, or else he will not accomplish much.
There are two types of Type 4 fencers. The first does not understand the principles of Strong and Weak, the Onset and the War. Their primary mechanism for moving from the Onset to the War is with nothing. They bring themselves into the War without advantage. They are easily dealt with. Enter with strong takers and or hitters.
The second makes you think they are open, but they may well not be. Their primary mechanism for moving from the Onset to the War is with deception. They are cunning. They fool you into perceiving his strength as weakness, his weakness as strength. They do this by manipulation of the times and parts of the fight. Stay in a strong position against them, and learn to recognize the subtlety of their art. They are a master of the fundamentals (Strong and Weak, Onset and War). They have such a command of these that when you think you are safe, you are not. When you think they are in danger, they are not.
… so you must assume and adopt all four of them, so that you can deceive the opponent sometimes with violence, sometimes with cunning, sometimes with judicious observation, or else use foolish comportment to incite him, deceive him
Meyer’s four types of fencers give us a basic sense of his higher-level tactical model. But embedded in this model is his fundamental tactical framework. Two of his fencers work in the Vor, two work in the Nach. Two of his fencers act with regards to strength, two act irrespective of strength. I have also suggested that each of these types represent four basic communication styles, a feature I think merits further exploration. Finally, though he suggests that we should be able to move freely in and out of these roles, there is a clear evolutionary path that they follow.
Brand new fencers typically embody the qualities of type 1 fencers. Give a brand-new student a sword, and they strike without a sense of strength to guide them. They attack to the first target they see. After training for some time, they begin to discern appropriate opportunities to strike. They understand striking into weakness at a basic level. They have graduated to type 2. Eventually the novice learns about control. How to control the center with strength. To enter the War in such a way that threatens strength, creating a moment of strengthening and simultaneous weakening. How to chase new weaknesses as they are being created. These are the qualities of the advanced type 2 and 3 fencers.
The type 4 fencer is curious. Too often, we attempt to embody the qualities of a type 4 fencer, relying purely on our athleticism or intuitive sense of Onset and War. But without an accompanying sense of strength and weakness, we remain unskilled type 4 fencer, who will not accomplish much. However, with a deep understanding of *all* of the fundamentals of swordsmanship, the type four fencer is, in a sense what we all aspire to be.