“They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armour. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal.” De Re Militari, Vegetius, Book I
Practitioners who have previous fencing experience may notice that all of the basic cuts in Meyer’s descriptions have followed the cut all the way through the target and out to the natural and-point for the cut. The zornhau, for example cuts all the way through and down to wechsel, whereupon the motion of the cut can be continued, or the energy is naturally expended. It is possible that in other styles the reader has tried they may have been instructed to always cut “to the point”, which is to say my zornhau should end with the point of the sword directly toward my opponent in a kind of extended pflug position (or more often just plain pflug). This is, in fact, good advice. Earlier masters often advocated cutting to the point within many (most?) plays. Indeed, there are extremely good reasons to do so. Ending point online gives a constant threat of the thrust just by being there, and discourages linear counter movements by the other fencer.
Some instructors, however, take this cutting to the point to almost the point of religious fervour. It is worth noting that Meyer doesn’t disagree in principle with ending a motion on-point. A number of his devices do exactly this, and even though Meyer doesn’t use the thrust offensively in schulefechten, he certainly advocates using the threat of the point to keeping the opponent at bay (the exact differentiation between “put your point in your opponent’s face”, and actually thrusting at them seems, at times, to be purely academic). However is also true that Meyer’s techniques very often flow through past the on-point position only to circle around and cut from another direction.
In asking why this might be the case we find several compelling arguments for cutting through, particularly while training.
“Safety” in the Historical Context:
Meyer notes several times that in his time the Germans have given up the thrust in most fighting circumstances except against the “common enemy”; by which he seems to mean that the cut is not used in the duel, fechtschule, or other dispute, but is perfectly legitimate in times of war. Part of the reason for this choice not to use the thrust seems quite practical. The young men of the town might duel in the streets and use of the thrust would be far too lethal even with blunt or rebated blades, and as such thrusting was outlawed by local laws in many of the mercantile towns in this time. Interestingly historical illustrations from the period also show rounded tips on longswords which seems to support this fact.
Theft of Energy:
In cutting to the point a significant amount of effort is expended in arresting the motion of the blade in time to end on-point with the attacker. Unfortunately this deceleration phase occurs exactly when we need to maintain blade velocity (see the physics section, later). By cutting to the point we’re slowing the blade at the point of impact, taking away from the efficiency of our cuts, and ensure that in fact they do less damage than they otherwise would.
Compare this cut to punching. A cut to the point is the equivalent of me punching then stopping just at the moment I hit my target. A punch like this is entirely ineffective and would be a minor annoyance to an experienced boxer. Typically we strike “through” the target, ending our punch several inches past the anticipated point of impact. In this way we transfer maximum energy into our target by moving through and hitting with maximum speed. So it is with a sword.
Cutting the the point
often compromises the form of your cut. This happens for two main reasons.
At the point of the cut the blade’s lateral axis should be directly in line with the angle of the cut. If the blade is not so aligned then it cuts less effectively. In test cutting this results in scalloped cuts rather than straight lines in the cutting target. At extremest of misalignment the blade can actually scoop entirely around to the vertical and end up lodged in the cutting target.
In decelerating the blade there is often a mismatch in lateral pressure between the front and back hand which twists the blade laterally resulting in this kind of poor cutting form. This can be seen in the diagram – the cut on the right strikes at the wrongangle, resulting in a poor cut.
The second compromise to cutting form is in arm extension. Largely when people arrest their cut they tend to pull the blade in toward themselves, resulting in a lower angle between forearm and blade. This pulling in action results in more of a slicing action in the cut rather than a cutting through action. This means cuts are generally not as clean nor effective as the equivalent cut taken through the target.
That’s just showing off!
Voiding the Cut:
Cutting to the point is easier to void than simply cutting through. This is simple common sense – if my opponent cuts to the point then I need only shift slightly to the side to make their attack ineffective.
Compare three scenarios; the thrust, the cut to the point, and the cut through.
Obviously this is an oversimplification, indeed the thrust is much more manoeuvrable than this diagram suggests, and also considerably harder to parry than the cut, however the point is that a cut through the target gives a greater margin for error and increased difficulty in evasion, over cutting to the point, which can be a useful tool in a fight. After all, controlling our opponent’s movement is as important as our own, and a wide cut can suppress inward movement effectively giving the opportunity for follow up.
An issue worth considering in the training hall is minimisation of injury until appropriate conditioning is achieved. Cutting to the point places considerable strain on the wrists, especially when students have not perfected their cutting form. Consider the diagram:
In this diagram the green section is the acceleration phase of the sword motion, while the red section is the deceleration phase. This means the total amount of force over time used to swing the sword in the green section must be matched in the red section. Even at constant velocity (which it isn’t) the amount of force being transfered through the tendons of the wrist would be at least 15 times that used to accelerate the sword. Furthermore the entire momentum of this swing is transferred through the arms to the small muscles in the shoulder, and onward through the body.
This places considerable strain on the wrists, forearms, and shoulders, and indeed if you take a sword and perform a hundred cuts to the point in a row, followed by a hundred cuts through the wechsel and flowing around, you’ll find that the on-point cuts are considerably more physically demanding. In a training situation this is important; we want to be able to train for hours without undue stress. Certainly over time the body becomes conditioned to the strain, but most people do not train sufficiently often to achieve this conditioning.
A more body-friendly option is to let the cut continue through and decelerate slowly, or keep the momentum going, thus avoiding the issue entirely.
On Point Cutting & Teaching Novices:
When teaching beginning fencers there is always the decision as to whether to begin with cuts through, or cuts to the point. I would contend that for the reasons enumerated above it is better to teach beginners cuts through the target, and perfect this, before moving to cuts on-point.
Many beginners have difficulty with blade alignment and correct biomechanics at the best of times, so there is little to be gained from arbitrarily increasing complexity of the learning process from the outset.
Some of the risks of beginning with cuts to the point include:
- Poor understanding of blade alignment and cutting mechanics.
- Decreased blade control through the cut.
- Balance issues as the student overcompensates for the halting of the blade motion or tilts their core to either side with the momentum shift.
- Increased wrist and shoulder fatigue.
- Frustration at the inability to achieve a correct cut.
- Poor cutting form
On this basis how should we proceed? Clearly on-point cutting should remain a core component of German longsword. Dobringer specifies its use with the zornhau, and other masters likewise suggest it in various points in the text. When teaching beginners, however, it is worthwhile first teaching “common” fencing by cutting through the target, before moving on to on-point cuts.