Wednesday, October 4, 2017

On Using a Sword in Armored Combat with Both Hands on the Hilt

I see that the Popular Names are trying to reinvent the Kunst des Fechtens.  Again.  Sigh.  The new subject is about whether you should hold your sword with both hands on the hilt in Harnischfechten.

First, let’s define some terms purely for ease of discussion.  One of the lesser-known terms today for halfswording is “gewappeter hant” or “armor hand” (see Krakow Gladiatoria fol. 3v below).  It refers to what we all think of as a halfsword grip, with the right hand on the grip and the left hand holding the middle of the blade.  That appellation alone should make this entire question plain (as in, “armor hand” is what you use in armor), but what the hell, let’s play it out.

And while no one I know uses this term, let’s call it “unarmored hand” when you have both hands on the hilt.  I make no implication with this, it’s purely for the sake of clarity.

Source Material:

Next, let’s turn (as you know I always do; I’m such a rebel—not like the popular kids who just intuit all of this without regard to those boring, stuffy old masters) to the source material.  There are a tiny little handful of techniques in all the material which depict the use of the unarmored-hand grip in Harnischfechten.  I include literally all of them below:

1.)  Fiore:  The figure in the bottom-right corner is in the Middle Iron Gate:
“My name is Middle Iron Gate, and whether you are armored or unarmored I make strong thrusts. I step offline with my left foot and I put a thrust into your face. I can also place my point and blade between your arms in such a way that I will put you into the middle bind, as depicted and identified earlier.” (tr. from Wiktenauer.)

“This cover is made from the True Cross Guard, when I step diagonally offline. And so that you can see what can be done from this cover, my students will show the plays that follow it, and since they are experienced in mortal combat, they will show these skills without hesitation.” (tr. from Wiktenauer.)

There then follow a couple more plates in which Fiore shows different things you can do from (2.) above.  Note, however, that each one is just another way to follow on from the displacement of the unarmored-hand thrust.  When you consider that, you realize that Fiore shows exactly one single technique done in the unarmored-hand grip.  One.  And that the guy doing the unarmored hand is the enemy—the one who loses the engagement.  Note, too, the date of the source:  The first quarter of the Fifteenth century; extremely early.  More on this below.

3.)  Gladiatoria:
“Note the fifth technique: Now if you have thrown your spear and he wants to over rush you with his spear, then take your sword in both your hands and strike out his thrust up from below. And when you have struck out his thrust, take your sword at the armor-hand and work with him for the spear.”

In other words, the only action taken using the unarmored-hand grip is to slap the spear thrust away, after which you assume the armor-hand grip and go to work.

4.)  Talhoffer’s Ambraser Codex (c. 1450):
“This is the first instruction in which one lets the student step ahead, especially it is the upper [posture] after forming up, and it is also advantageous against a thrust. -- This is the other position in the advantage.”

In reality, this is similar to the play in Fiore above (although here the defender uses an unarmored-hand grip, unlike in Fiore).  Rudolph intends an Unterstich, and Ludwig will displace it from above (although Master Hans says nothing about what to do after the thrust).


There we have it, that is all of the plays in the Fechtb├╝cher which depict the unarmored hand in Harnischfechten.  Seriously.  That’s it.  Those plays shown above are the source for the large amount of unarmored-hand fencing shown in videos from this recent sword-tag event.

So, what do we have?  One kind of thrust (a simple Unterstich), and two ways to displace it.  Of those two ways to displace it, only one was done with an unarmored-hand grip, and we were only given the displacement, nothing to do from it, so it’s not even a full technique.

Note, too, that in both those techniques, the person who attacks using the unarmored-hand grip is the one who will lose the engagement, so the masters aren’t suggesting you use an unarmored-hand grip to attack, they’re showing you what to do if your opponent does.  Note, too, that both of these are quite early works, so it’s possible that this might be a throwback to an earlier time when halfswording was not universal (remember, it’s unlikely that all, or even most, men at arms followed Liechtenauer’s teaching).

My personal belief is that in the Ambraser play shown above, Master Hans is saying that since someone might use an unarmored-hand thrust, and since such thrusts have such long range, you can use this upper guard as a way to close to the Zufechten without having to worry about the range disparity; note how he talks about closing (“step ahead,” he says).  That explains why there’s no follow-on actions described for after the displacement—you’re supposed to go to an armor-hand grip.

Then we are given a way to displace a spear thrust, but the follow-on after the displacement is done with an armored-hand grip; as with the Ambraser Codex technique, he’s showing you a way to mitigate the spear’s advantage of reach, not telling you to fight with the unarmored-hand grip.


There are no cuts with the sword (contrary to what I’ve seen in videos recently from a major sword-tagging event), no actions done from or in a bind, no attacks at all other than a single Unterstich (which is never shown being done by the man who wins the engagement) in any of the Fechtb├╝cher unarmored-hand plays.  Nothing.  One thrust (done by the loser), and two ways to displace longer-ranged attacks.  This does not support the argument for the existence of unarmored-hand fighting in armor.  The cool kids need to stop trying to impress the ignorant and gullible and instead learn to focus on the source material we have been given.  In short, take your left hand off of your grip and put it on the blade where it belongs.  Also, stop misrepresenting our art, you’re embarrassing us.