Recently I was driven to wonder if there are rules for when to use each of the “drei Wunder” or “three wounders” of the German longsword, the cut, the thrust and the slice. Speaking of the Winden, master Peter von Danzig tells us: Take heed in the winding that you not strike when you should stab, and not slice when you should strike, and not stab when you should slice (Goliath fol. 14r).” Unfortunately, he tells us we have to know when to use which, but he doesn’t tell us how to decide which to use. Trying to answer this question drove me to ask whether it was possible to ascertain a general rule about when to use them in all situations, too, not just during Winden.
First, consider that most of the time we are instructed to cut, not thrust, when in the Zufechten. The interesting point about the Zufechten is that we are *never* told to strike a Vorstich, that is, an opening thrust. All of the first attacks we're told to use as opening attacks are cuts, or Vorschlag, not thrusts. Compare this with what Silver has to say about thrusts being so easy to set aside or displace and I think it’s easy to see why this is so. It’s interesting to consider that there’s only one kind of thrust that *is* used in the Zufechten: the Absetzen, and that it’s used against both thrusts and cuts, doing so with a powerful “wedge” effect that completely closes the line of attack.
Second, moving on to the Krieg, consider when we’re told to use which Wunder. If you think about it, most situations can be broken down into a few discrete groups: A.) Your opponent is soft in the bind; B.) he is hard in the bind with his point on line; C.) he is hard in the bind and pushes your point high; D.) he is hard in the bind and pushes your point low; E.) he leaves the bind. Now what do we know to do in each of those situations?
In (A.) we know to simply thrust home—our point is on line and he’s not resisting. In (B.) we know to Wind—our point is directly online and he’s resisting but his point still threatens us. In (C.) & (D.) *both* points are offline, so the thrust isn’t an instant advantage, which drives us to cut in (C.), but in (D.) our point is down which makes cutting difficult, so we always Durchwechseln. And in (E.) his point is offline and we’re free to act as we will.
Looking at these responses to the various situations my take is this: When your point is directly on line and there’s no limit to its use then you thrust because nothing is faster than a thrust from that situation (when you’re already close) and it’s a good fight ender (better than a slice, anyway). Any time your point is *not* on line then you cut (or slice—I’ll deal with them below), unless your point is down which makes cutting difficult (hence the Durchwechseln). Any time he leaves the bind you have to know what he’s doing: Sometimes (e.g., the counter to the Abnehmen from the plays of the Zornhau) you cut because you can bind his sword at the same time for safety, and sometimes you thrust (e.g., the Nachreisen when he pulls back from the bind when your point is forward) because it’s fast and he’s not moving from cut to cut. Note that all other Nachreisen should be cuts because you’re not bound and you are, effectively, using a Vorschlag (see above).
As for slices, they are not sure fight enders, not as sure as cuts and thrusts, anyway, but they are powerful *threats* that prevent your opponent from doing things he might want to. Any time your point is past your opponent but your blade is too close to him for a fast, easy cut you slice. That one’s pretty simple and obvious. Consider the neck slice in the plays of the Zwerchau: You use it when your opponent is soft in the bind. You don’t cross knock so you can make a cut as you would if he’s hard in the bind because a.) you don’t need to since he’s soft in the bind and b.) because it’s faster and it lets you stay am Schwert, which gives you control. Your point is past your opponent’s head (since that’s how you do the Zwerchau) but too close to allow for an easy cut without moving your sword a large distance (which would give your opponent time to do something).
So, in conclusion, I think it goes like this: In the Zufechten, when you strike first (Vorschlag) it should always be a cut, and thrusts are only used when they can set aside (which closes a line) an incoming attack. This is because thrusts are weak and so easily displaced that they’re not much of a threat, and the Vorschlag is mostly about creating a threat to force your opponent into the defensive in the Nach.
In the Krieg you can thrust when your point is online and free (or he’s soft in the bind, which much the same thing) or when both points are offline and yours is down so cutting is difficult; otherwise you cut whenever neither point is on line. And you slice when your point is not on line and your point is past your opponent but too close to allow for an easy cut.
One note about situation (A.) above: When your opponent is hard in the bind with his point on line I say you should Winden, implying it’s a thrust, but we have to remember, of course, that you can use any of the drei Wunder when you wind. The Duplieren is an example of a cut (or possibly slice) done from situation (A.). I don’t think there’s a rule to that, I think they’re just tools in your toolbox to be picked almost at random. No source I’ve read hints at under what circumstances you’d prefer a Winden with a thrust over a Winden with a cut (Duplieren), all of them simply say you do it when he’s hard in the bind. I continue to look into this for more insights. I do believe, however, that you only use the slice from the Winden when your point is past your opponent and you don’t really have room or time for a cut.
One last thing: None of this should be considered carven in stone: This is fighting, not algebra. There are probably exceptions in the Fechtbücher to most of what I’ve written here, so this should be taken only as a guideline, not as established scientific fact.