Thursday, September 5, 2013

The USFCA Has No Right To Govern Me

I recently read a blog entry by Guy Windsor concerning the modern sport fencing organization known as USFCA seeking to establish their own system for granting titles for HEMA instructors, even though their organization does not practice any historical systems.  Guy's comments can be read here:

I find this incredibly disturbing. I am in complete agreement with Guy about the historical ignorance displayed by this "certification," and how its generic format is, in itself, both indicative of their ignorance about the subject and a bar to learning real HEMA.

Far more than that, however, I am deeply troubled by the likelihood that those of us who refuse to participate in this farce will be penalized legally for failing to do so. Guy says: "I agree with my esteemed colleague Randy Packer that this move on their part is dangerous in that once a certification is available, perfectly competent but uncertified instructors may find themselves unable to get insurance or use public spaces without submitting to this farcical exam process. This is deeply worrying." It is more than merely worrying, it is both worrying and infuriating, and it is wrong!

A lot of people refuse to use or recognize the title master. This clearly demonstrates they have a ludicrously exaggerated sense of what that title should mean because they refuse to break away from Asian martial arts memes and the comic-book way in which popular culture represents such things. So my problem is not with the USFCA granting the title master, but with the fact that they have (a) no right to present any HEMA titles of any kind since that isn't where their expertise lies, and (b) no right to decide who is or isn't qualified to teach an art they, themselves don't understand. No group or organization has any right to pass formal judgement over the rank structure of any other--rank should be an entirely internal matter.

I see from Guy's post that Ken Mondschein is behind and/or associated with this--now it becomes much more clear. I've had unpleasant dealings with him, and this is exactly the kind of thing people like Ken would fall all over themselves to put into place.

These people need to stick to poking one another with car antennas and stay out of other people's business.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Else What's a Buckler For?

I just had a teenager roundly criticize one of my sword and buckler videos because I did not displace with my buckler, but just kept it over my hand.  He mistakenly believes that bucklers are shields and must, therefore, be used to actively displace attacks.  His confusion is exacerbated by the fact that bucklers are used to displace attacks in Renaissance rapier or side-sword play.  I have received many such comments over the years, so I felt it was time to discuss the buckler and how it was actually used in the Middle Ages.  (NB:  Everything in this article relates to the Middle Ages; things were different in the Renaissance.)

There are four primary sources for sword and buckler techniques in the Middle Ages:  I.33, Hans Talhoffer (primarily his 1459 and 1467 editions),  Andreas Lignitzer, and Paulus Kal.  There are a few other sources that show the form, but they usually just copy these earlier sources (e.g., the re-drawing of I.33 in Wilhalm and Mair).  This is all we really can know about buckler combat; there are manuscript paintings showing the form, but they are too vague to tell us much.

When we look at the Fechtbuch sources, we see that none of them show a single active displacement with a buckler—not one—and yet that is precisely how most people, including the young “expert” above, who have not studied the art seriously think bucklers were used.  “After all, if you aren’t blocking with it, why have it?  It’s a shield, right?  And shields were used to block, right?”

There are some few plays shown in the Fechtbücher which can be confusing and which might lead someone who has not studied them carefully to believe he was seeing an active displacement.  For example, this plate from Paulus Kal looks like one.  Translation:  “The first technique:  Catch his weak on the buckler while striking down wherever you wish.” (Fol. 53v)

But when you study the source carefully, you find that the initial displacement was done with the sword, and the buckler was then used to pin his opponent’s sword, freeing him to leave the bind with his sword for the leg cut.  Here is the previous plate showing the actual displacement.  Translation:  “Do this in the first bind.”  (Fol. 53r)

So in the plates from Kal above, we are shown that you first displace his cut with your sword (53r), then you pin that sword in place with your buckler to make it safe to leave the bind to cut at his leg (53v).  Folio 53v does not show a displacement with the buckler, it shows what to do after the displacement with the sword in 53r.  This is in keeping with the teachings of the Liechtenauer tradition, which say that you never leave the bind unless you have first done something to prevent your opponent from killing you with a Nachreisen as you do so.

There are several sources that show this kind of pinning action.  For example, in this play from I.33, we see a bind with the sword (top), then the buckler is used to pin the attacker’s hands (and thus his sword) so the defender can safely cut him (bottom).

If bucklers were not used to displace attacks, for what then were they used?  There were several uses for the buckler; we have seen one of them already above: to pin the enemy’s sword so as to make it safe to leave the bind.  In addition, bucklers were used to strike one’s opponent, and for “zone denial.”  Their most important use, however, was to protect the fighter’s right hand—a sort of gauntlet, if you will, without the limits a gauntlet places on flexibility and sword handling.

Striking with the buckler is easy to understand.  While you are bound sword to sword (or, as in this case, cutting), you strike with the buckler as shown here.  Also, in Lignitzer’s last play of the buckler, you displace with your sword in a halfsword grip, then release your right hand, grab his buckler with it, and strike him with his own buckler (see Ringeck fol. 55v); Kal shows the same play (see Kal fol. 56r).

The next use, zone denial, is somewhat less obvious.  We usually see bucklers held out at arms’ length, as in this plate from Talhoffer 1459.  The reason for this is that by doing so, you create a cone-shaped zone in which you cannot easily be hit.  To understand this, we must look (just for a moment) to a master from the Renaissance, Giocomo di Grassi.  In the buckler chapter in his book, we see this picture.  As the lines on the picture show, the further the buckler is held from the body, the broader the area in the “shadow” (protection) of the buckler is.  When the buckler is held close to the body, it protects an area only the size of the buckler itself; at arms’ length, it protects an area several times that size.  This is not a displacement, it is a zone defense intended to force your opponent to strike where you are unprotected, thus limiting the angles at which he can attack.  When he does attack, you cannot just leave the buckler in place and hope it stops his attack, you must actively displace it with your sword.

The primary use of the buckler, however, is as a gauntlet for the right hand.  Unlike later weapons, medieval swords did not have elaborate guards around the sword hand to protect them from being hit.  Thus, an enemy could simply strike your hand or arm as you attack, as we see in this plate from Talhoffer 1467.  To prevent this, the masters taught us to cover the sword hand with the buckler both as we displace with the sword as we see in this plate from Talhoffer 1467, and to cover the hand as we attack, as shown in the top pair of figures from I.33 here.  (NB:  Mair shows figures performing some of these exact same techniques while wearing gauntlets, which can be confusing to some.  Remember that he was copying earlier works in his possession, and that he did not always copy them accurately.  For example, when showing Langenschilt dueling, which was never done in armor, Mair shows the techniques being performed by fully armored men.)

Again, please understand that the buckler is not used for an active displacement in any of these sources—not even once.  If you think that is what you are seeing, you need to study the source more carefully.

In conclusion, bucklers were used for a variety of purposes, including pinning an opponent’s hands or sword to make it safe to leave the bind; buckler strikes; zone denial; and as a pseudo-gauntlet for the right hand.  They were not used, however, for the thing most people who have not studied this art believe they were—actively displacing attacks.

One last note:  Whenever I post something like this, I usually receive comments arguing that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  In other words, they argue that I cannot claim bucklers were never used to displace attacks just because none of the extant sources do so, and claim that there may have been sources showing displacements which did not survive.  There is a microscopic grain of truth in this largely fatuous argument—one which holds in every real-world argument that claims a thing does not exist:  You can rarely prove a negative conclusively.  The fact remains, however, that we have varied sources that show consistency, and since we can only practice the art we are given, the argument is moot.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Intent of the Vorschlag

When we attack first, that attack is called a Vorschlag—a “before strike.”  We are
taught that to fight in the Vor is best, and that to attack first is the preferred (although, contrary to popular misconception, not the only) way to take the Vor.  Döbringer tells us: “The Vorschlag is a great advantage in fighting as you will hear in the text.”  Hs 3227a fol. 14v.  But when you attack with a Vorschlag, what is your intent—what should you be trying to do?  What is Döbringer’s “great advantage”?  Are you expecting your blow to hit your opponent and end the fight in a single action, or is there more to it than that?

Looked at in one way, the answer seems obvious:  When you use a Vorschlag you intend to strike your opponent, killing him and thus ending the fight as quickly as possible.  And yet, when we study the instructions for attacking with a Vorschlag that is not what we find.  Ringeck tells us this:  “If you strike an Oberhau from the right side then follow the blow with your right foot.”  Ringeck fol. 12v.  Following the blow means that you strike with your sword before you step forward—your cut precedes your step.

Following the blow is not, however, the fastest way to move your sword, and presumably, if our primary intent was to maximize the chance of our Vorschlag landing unopposed we would want to cut as fast as possible.  The fastest way to cut is actually to step first, then whip the sword in with a powerful snapping motion of the hands, and we are specifically told not to do that.  Thus, if your goal is to guarantee a hit, following the blow is not the ideal way to cut.  Nor should this really be surprising.  The fact of the matter is that if your opponent has judged measure correctly, you will have to take a step in order to hit him.  Since he can displace your attack just by moving his hands, and since his hands will always be faster than your step (unless he gets stupid), there should be little chance of making your Vorschlag hit regardless of how fast you are.

This leads to an inescapable conclusion:  There is little reason to perform a Vorschlag at top speed, because there is no advantage in doing so; in fact, there is a disadvantage in trying to go too fast because people tend to use too much muscle when they do so, making them too tight at the conclusion of the cut, and slow to go on to the next technique.  We have seen this in our classes when we practice drills in which the student is required to react to what his partner does, but does not know in advance what that will be:  When they cut too fast, fighters have a difficult time moving smoothly to the next technique they need to use when their Vorschlag is displaced because a kind of muscular and mental inertia takes place.

Moreover, a careful consideration of the Fechtbücher suggests that physical ability is not the most important factor in fighting.  Döbringer says:  “That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?”  Hs 3227a fol. 22v.  The same may be said of speed and for exactly the same reason:  If you need to be exceptionally fast, then what use is art?  In fact, the real lesson is that art enables us to overcome physical ability—to defeat someone stronger and/or faster than we are.

This should not be taken to mean that we should act slowly—quite the contrary.  Döbringer says this about the Vorschlag: “And when you close with him thinking that you have the correct measure and believe that you can reach him, then you shall go at him quickly and with speed to the head and to the body.”  Hs 3227a fol. 16r.  The reason for this, however, is not because you should expect your Vorschlag to hit—we have already discussed why that is not very likely.  Rather, it is because moving quickly makes it more difficult for your opponent to see what you are doing and to formulate a careful response.  So yes, we should cut quickly, but we do not need to cut at top speed.  Be relaxed and cultivate a flexible mind so that you can see your opponent’s response and be prepared to react to it quickly and smoothly.  There is little point in executing an extremely fast Vorschlag but then not being able to move quickly to the next technique when you come into the Krieg.

So we return to our original question:  If a Vorschlag is unlikely to hit, then what is its intent?  Why bother trying to strike first at all?  Master Sigmund tells us this:  “Note: Above all other things, you must understand the principles of Vor and Nach, because the entire art of fighting is based upon them.  Vor means preempting him with a blow or thrust against an opening before he can hit you, so he must displace.”  Ringeck fol. 15r.  This passage tells us that the Vorschlag is not primarily about hitting first, but about preempting your opponent.  When you follow the blow your sword threatens your opponent, forcing him to displace your attack rather than attacking himself; this allows you to close safely and puts you in the Vor and him in the Nach.

This does not require great speed, it merely requires that you act first and that you present a serious threat.  In a sense, your cut actually clears a path for you to enter into the engagement while at the same time putting your opponent on the defensive.  Of course, if the Vorschlag does land then that is wonderful—the fight is over as quickly as possible and with as little danger to you as possible.  We should not expect that, however, and should not work to find ways to bring that about, such as cutting faster, taking larger steps, etc., because such actions tend to make the necessary next steps after the bind slower and more difficult.

Move quickly, but be relaxed and in control.  Move constantly, too; when your Vorschlag is displaced move immediately on to your next attack and to the next until your opponent is defeated.  Learn to overcome your opponent’s speed and strength with art so that you crush him with attack after attack, never letting up the pressure and never giving him a chance to attack until he is defeated.  Never make an empty displacement that allows your opponent to take the initiative from you.  Take the initiative with your Vorschlag and never relinquish it.  This does not require great speed or strength, it requires art.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Countering the Schnappen

I have long been troubled that the Schnappen, one of the most ubiquitous counter techniques in Liechtenauer’s longsword system, apparently had no canonical counter.  Sure, it’s possible to make a technique up like many people do, but our school is committed to practicing canonical techniques *only*, and this seemed like too large a hole to leave unplugged.

A friend of mine and I discussed this, and he suggested getting under with an Abschneiden, but I pointed out that that would only work if the Schnappen was done with the hands much too high (which, admittedly, is how most people do it, I’m sad to say).  Correctly done, however, a Schnappen is more of a thrust of the pommel over your opponent’s hands with almost no lifting of your hands at all.  And since the main Abschneiden from below requires the enemy’s hands to be raised up, that wasn’t it.  Nor could the Abschneiden against a Zwerchhau work since you can’t really get your blade around correctly.

But then I looked more closely at the other Abschneiden—the one I never see anyone demonstrate or include in books any more (Tobler has it in “Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship,” but he does it incorrectly).  The text says:

Item, wann du im mitt ainem haw oder sunst starck vff sin Schwert bindest, laust er dann sein schwert abschnappen von dem dinen vnnd schlecht dir oben zuo dem kopff, so verwende din schwert mitt dem gehültz für dein haupt vnd schnyd im vnden durch sin arm; vnd setz mitt dem schnitt den ort vnden an sin brust.

“If you bind strongly against his sword and he then snaps his sword over yours to strike at your head, wind your sword with the hilt in front of your head and slice under his arm. As you slice, set the point down into his chest.”  Ringeck ff. 45r-v.

To be honest, I hadn’t looked at this much because I was simply going by the interpretation in Tobler, and it didn’t seem to offer much that the other Abschneiden plays didn’t—except for that word “abschnappen” or “snaps.”  Despite the fact that it actually talks about an abschnappen, I had been looking at that word more generically—i.e., that he simply raises his hands and does a cut.  Then I realized how foolish I’d been:  Of course this was the counter to the Schnappen, and it had been staring me right in the face, if only I hadn’t been so canalized by accepting the incorrect interpretation in “Secrets.”

Tonight we tried this technique out for the first time, and it works amazingly well.  It will not succeed against a Schnappen that is done fast and correctly, but that’s true of many counters—they only work if your opponent hesitates slightly or does something a bit off.  But the action is fast and extremely effective when done correctly.  The biggest trick is to wind quickly and lightly under your opponent’s arms; don’t treat it like a wide, powerful Unterhau; this is a Schnitt, not a Hau.  Try to make first contact ahead of the middle of your blade on the underside of his arm, and then slice by pushing along under his arm as you drive your point into his chest.  Also, don’t pull back any farther than you need to—don’t make contact near your point because that will make the technique take too long.

You can see a video of the technique here:

Edited to add:  I should point out that my friend and colleague, Dave Clarke, figured this out before I did, and I would have known that had I not misunderstood his e-mail to me on the subject.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Striking With A Spear

I have long been skeptical--OK, I have laughed mercilessly--of those who want to believe that spears were used like staves, that is, for striking actions as well as thrusting actions.  For one thing, there's no clear evidence for that in foot combat in any Fechtbuch.  For another, spears just aren't built for that.

There is a hint in one of the Talhoffer books that talks about a "schlag" or strike with a spear, but that word isn't as rigidly used as we tend to think of words being used today, and in the context I really think it just referring to a "strike" with the point, i.e., a thrust.

However, a recent post on Will McLean's blog opens a different possibility.  In a quote from a description of a 16th-century barrier combat, the text says:
"with the but ende of the spere strake the Almaine that he staggared"
In more modern English this would read:
"[the] German struck [him] with the butt end of the spear [so] that he staggered."

Now I still reject a striking action with the business end of the spear:  The fact is, as Will has shown, that spears were tapered toward the point, making them thinner there, so striking actions were almost certain to break the spear if any real force was used, and what good is a light stroke?  A strike with the other end, however, which is the thicker end, obviously, might be a different matter.  Having said that, we still must ask several questions.  First, was the strike a swinging blow or a thrust?  Don't assume the word "struck" in the text is definitive--we often see the word struck used for thrusts (e.g., in jousting descriptions).

Second, how relevant is 16th-century barrier combat to Kampffechten?  Many sources (e.g., Anglo's "Renaissance Martial Arts") are quite clear about how artificial such combats were, with everything from artificial techniques to weapons pre-scored to break spectacularly.  It might be that a stunning blow with the butt of a spear was useful in a "friendly" (Will would say "consensual" to distinguish it from a judicial combat) barrier fight but would have been laughed at by someone seeking to kill his opponent in Kampffechten.  We don't know.  And third, if this was a generally viable technique, why doesn't it show up in any Fechtbuch?

Having said all of that, there is one plate in a Fechtbuch that shows an attack with the butt of a lance; it's in the Roßfechten section of two of Jörg Wilhalm's books.  Here is the technique from one of them:

I'm not sure how this relates, however.  We know that the forward motion of a horse changes the effect of strikes (e.g., Dom Duarte's comments about using the motion to add force to a sword blow), and we have speculated that a pommel "thrust" with a sword in foot combat could be effective against someone even in a closed visor because of the percussive effect it would have.  Thus, it's entirely possible that a "thrust" with the butt of the spear would be similarly effective in foot combat.  And such an attack might have been useful, if you held the spear long your hands would be closer to the butt-end of the spear, so you would be able to use it better in close combat (where you couldn't use the point because you wouldn't have room).

So, once again, we have a fascinating bit of evidence that doesn't actually tell us anything definitive.  Sigh.  Still, sometimes by building up little tiny bits of apparently useless data we construct a good argument.  No deep, carefully researched conclusion here, just food for thought.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

New Book: "Formal Partner Exercises"

The fifth book in the die Schlachtschule unarmored combat series has just been released on

Formal Partner Exercises presents a series of two-man forms designed to teach students the flow of combat. Each form starts with a basic technique of Johannes Liechtenauer’s system of combat and builds it into a sequence of plays highlighting specific ideas about combat. Using well over 200 photographs, this book teaches the sixteen formal exercises for the longsword and seven formal exercises for the sword and buckler used for training at the journeyman level in die Schlachtschule. These forms were developed from documentable techniques and will help to teach a more authentic understanding of the way in which longsword and sword and buckler techniques could be combined in real combat while providing a format that provides for structured, disciplined training.

It must be understood that this book is intended for advanced students. It contains no instruction regarding individual techniques at all since it assumes that anyone who begins training on these forms will already be capable of performing the basic techniques of Liechtenauer’s system. To help with that, however, each technique in each form gives a page number reference that the reader can use to look up the specific technique being demonstrated in the author’s books The Knightly Art of the Longsword and Medieval Sword & Buckler Combat, both of which are available from as well.

Formal Partner Exercises is available in two formats: A spiral-bound edition which will lie open easily, making it ideal for taking to classes to use as a training tool, and a perfect-bound edition for use as a reference guide.

All of the books mentioned here can be purchased from on the author’s spotlight page:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Four Oppositions

In Hs 3227a, the anonymous author talks about his “five words,” although he really expresses several others as important as well. I’ve been looking at these things for years, trying to find the core, root principles of the Kunst des Fechtens—the universal ones that apply to all forms in the art, not just to the longsword.

Not all ideas are universal: For example, with the longsword we are taught to attack on a diagonal from the Zufechten, but this doesn’t apply to halfswording. Others, however, are universal: The idea of the strong and weak of a weapon is important even in grappling (although the strong and weak usually refer to places on your opponent’s arm).

Looking at what all of the masters wrote (those to whom I have access, anyway), and boiling them down to the root level, I found something I consider interesting, namely, that these ideas can all be grouped into pairs of opposing ideas. Based upon that idea, here are what I call “The Four Oppositions:” Before vs. After; Strong vs. Weak; Hard vs. Soft; and, what may be less intuitive, Fühlen vs. Indes.

The primary idea in all of these oppositions is to know what condition prevails in a fight. We aren’t to prefer one over the other, but rather to accept it and know what to do from that condition. As we are told, react to “strength with weakness and weakness with strength”—neither is given as “better,” we just have to know what to do in either condition without trying to force the one we want.

Some may think that the Vor is always to be preferred over the Nach, but that is a misconception. Many people believe Liechtenauer instructs us to always act in the Vor, but von Danzig calls Long Point the best of all positions from which to fight (talking about waiting in it for the enemy to act), and, of course, the plays of the third halfsword guard are all waiting techniques in the same way. Sometimes it is very dangerous to attack a skilled, prepared opponent in the Vor from the Zufechten. No, the real idea is to take the Vor and then keep it, but there are plenty of times when it is far preferable to allow your opponent to start in the Vor and then take it from him when he acts. Again, the important thing is to know what to do in either situation.

Likewise with the strong or weak of a weapon. We shouldn’t care where the bind occurs as much as we should be concerned with knowing how to act in either situation. Granted, there are times we must select one or the other, such as in the Zornhau Ort when we have to make the initial bind with our strong on our opponent’s weak, but if he prevents that from happening we have to know how to act. The same with whether the bind is hard or soft, you simply have to know how to act in either case.

The danger in preferring one of the oppositions over the other is that you will often try to “force” a technique in the wrong situation if you prefer one over the other. By not really caring one way or the other you have less mental inertia to overcome and can act with less hesitation. That doesn’t prevent you from trying to do a technique that requires one over the other (e.g., the displacement I mentioned above), simply that you not be wedded to it; after all, it is a universal maxim that few plans survive contact with the enemy, and the consequences of that truth can best be managed with mental flexibility.

Fühlen and Indes are a special case, one that I didn’t really see for a long time. They may seem too different to be specifically opposed, but in a way they really are contradictory. We are told to act Indes, immediately, or instantly, but we are also told to feel the bind, a thing that takes a moment to do. There is no mystical secret, as some believe, that allows us to disconnect our brains and instantly feel a bind then instantly act in that same moment—we simply aren’t wired that way. This recognition led me to examine many of the techniques and their alternative actions which in turn led to something I call “Active Fühlen.”

Let’s take, as an example, the Zwerchhau counter to the Zornhau. We are told that if the enemy binds with the cut, we must feel the bind, and if he is hard in the bind we can either use a Duplieren or a Cross Knock, while if he is soft in the bind we should use a neck Schnitt. That’s fine, but he’s not likely to sit there and wait even the nanosecond it takes for us to use Fühlen, he’s going to go on to the next thing on his agenda. But instead of passively feeling the bind, we can test it actively by using the technique we would use if the bind were found to be soft—the Schnitt in this case, and doing so Indes, without pause or hesitation. If he’s actually soft in the bind, no problem—we have acted Indes and he dies from a terrible shaving cut. If he’s hard in the bind, however, the technique won’t work, but he will usually push back into the bind as we move against it—in effect, pinning him for just a moment, and in that moment we change gears—mental flexibility through not preferring either one—and do, say, the Cross Knock.

Likewise, if someone is soft in the bind and you use a technique that moves his blade (as most do), he may suddenly and instinctively go hard in the bind to prevent your technique from working. Again, that’s fine—you don’t care what the bind is, you merely care about acting correctly in it. You actively test the bind in a way that tends to cause your opponent not to move on, giving you time in which to act.

Thus, Fühlen and Indes are opposed, but that opposition simply tells us how to use them together.

I am not trying to develop any new ideas through this analysis—any readers of my work will know I completely reject any attempt to “improve” Liechtenauer’s art. Instead, I’m simply trying to find a different way of looking at what we’ve been told in order to better understand it and to find better ways transmit it to my students. So the next time you do a technique, in any form, be it longsword, dagger, pollaxe or grappling, analyze it according to the Four Oppositions.