Back to Basics 2: Some Guards and Cuts

Now that we have established the basics of body movement with the sword we can begin to add a number of the basic guard positions and cuts which help to teach proper motion of the sword through simple cutting actions along the various axes.

The learning objectives for this post are:

  • Holding the sword correctly
  • Basic Guards
    • Vom tag – from the day
    • Langort – longpoint
    • Alber – the fool
    • Zornhut – guard of wrath
    • Wechsel – the change
    • Nebenhut – near guard
    • Ochs – ox
    • Mittelhut – middle guard
    • Eisenport – iron gate
  • Basic cuts
    • Oberhau – over strike
    • Zornhau – wrath strike
    • Unterhau – under strike
    • Mittelhau – middle strike
  • Simple mechanics of cutting

Part 1: Correctly Gripping the Sword

It seems obvious that in order to use a longsword you must first learn to hold it properly, yet often little thought is given to the many ways of gripping a longsword and the difference it makes to the execution of a cut or other technique.

First then, some general advice for gripping the sword:

  • Generally a longsword is not held in the lead hand with the kind of grip you would use to swing a hammer.  This kind of grip causes stiff movements and poor edge control through a cut.
  • Instead grip most strongly with the last three fingers of the hand, with the index finger and thumb not gripping tightly at all this grip is slightly angled so that the wrist does not fall perpendicular to the grip, but instead allows a natural extension of the arm.
  • Keep the grip supple; choking the haft leads to stiff and clumsy techniques.  Usually the grip is fairly soft until the moment of impact, at which point it becomes tighter and more secure.
  • If your wrist is bent at a sharp angle during a particular guard or cut, then chances are you’re doing it wrong.  Generally the structure of the wrist and hand should be aligned without excessive flexion or extension of the wrist.  Sharp wrist angles weaken one’s grip on the sword and afford opportunities for the opponent to use wrist locking movements.

Taking these points into account, we can now identify specific gripping methods to which we might apply them.

The Orthodox Grip

The leftmost plate in the series depicts what we would generally describe as the orthodox grip for the longsword.  In this grip the lead hand is close to the crossguard, with the thumb just touching/overlapping the guard slightly.

orthodoxGuard The rear hand can either grip the pommel, or hold the grip just above the pommel itself.  Which particular grip you use depends on your personal style and preference.  However gripping the pommel usually permits easier winding and levering movements of the blade, while gripping the haft above the pommel seems to improve cutting alignment in larger cuts. As with all grips the hand should not clench too tightly, yet not be loose enough to lost grip on the sword; typically the grip tightens at the moment of impact.  Dobringer, the 15th century fencing master, advocates the use of the grip above the pommel for strong cuts, suggesting it makes cuts faster by creating a balanced pendulum action saying “And you will also strike harder and truer, with the pommel swinging itself and turning in the strike you will strike harder than if you were holding the pommel. When you pull the pommel in the strike you will not come as perfect or as strongly.”

The cutting motion for major cuts with the orthodox grip should use a levering action.  The lead hand becomes a moving fulcrum for our lever and the rear hand imparts the force by drawing the pommel in opposition to the lead hand.  This means that the rear hand is really doing all of the work of turning the blade, while the lead hand casts forward and creates a solid centre of rotation for our cut.  While cutting the wrists should be rolled inward so that they’re pushing it from behind; this prevents the wrists from bending on impact and avoids losing control of the sword.  It also helps keep correct alignment of the blade.

Throughout the acceleration phase of the cut the grip should be supple on the hilt, if cutting through the target the grip will firm at the point of impact, while if cutting “to the point” (that is to say halting the blade with the point in line with the target), there will be a notable tightening which almost “snaps” into position to lock the grip and arrest the motion of the blade.

handgrip1

The Thumbed Grip

thumbedGripThe thumbed grip is seen more often in German longsword techniques than in other longsword arts.  Most often it is used for cuts which use rotation involved in crossing or uncrossing the arms.  These are largely known as “crooked cuts” because they allow angles of attack which are off centre or not in line with the basic cutting lines.

In the thumbed grip the front hand holds the blade with the fingers while the thumb itself is pressed against the forte of the blade to create a rigid rotational structure.  The thumb should usually be facing inward toward the sword wielder, rather than outward at odd angles, during a thumbed cut or block.

The rear hand in the thumbed grip is most often seen on the pommel, though this is just a general guideline and a haft grip can be used if preferred.

 

The Ball & Socket Grip

socketGripThis rather unusual grip is seen in Meyer in situations requiring the pommel of the sword to be moved around with maximum freedom.  In this grip the lead hand is in the orthodox position, but the rear hand is held over the pommel forming a kind of ball-and-socket joint which allows unmatched dexterity in manipulating the pommel.  This grip is seen in techniques which rely on winding or manoeuvring the blade using the pommel.  It provides a fairly poor structure for normal cuts, but for winding and pivoting movements it is an excellent alternative to the orthodox position.

Crossed Hands Grip

crossedGripThe crossed hands grip is essentially the orthodox or thumbed grip just performed with the wrists crossed.  When at the extremes of motion the crossed hands grip may require the pommel to be held quite loosely with the rear hand in order to maintain good wrist structure.

 

Vom Tag – From the Day/Roof

guardThe is a classic starting transitional position for cuts from above.  In this guard the hands are held high overhead either directly over the centre-line, or just to the left or right of it as the situation dictates.  The elbows are held well out and you can just see the pommel in your upper peripheral vision.   The guard can be performed with the left or right foot forward.

One piece of advice for the vom tag guard is that you should allow sufficient clearance to ensure that the crossguard clears your scalp during cuts.

Langort – Long Point

longpointA point online guard held point forward & slightly upward toward the face of the opponent.  The arms are extended forward, making the posture ideal for a thrust, or as the transitional point through which a cut from above traverses on its way down.  Left longpoint is performed with the right leg forward, left longpoint with the right forward.  The blade can be angled to either side or vertical depending on the need.

Alber – Fool

alber

A low guard held with the point down toward the ground in front directly in front of the body.  The left alber is performed with the right leg forward, the right alber with the left forward.

The alber is the terminal point for a full length vertical cut from above.

Zornhut – The Wrath Guard

zornhut

The wrath guard is the natural starting point for attacks such as the diagonal strike from above, though can also be used for defensive handworks such as verschieben.

The right wrath guard (zornhut rechts) is performed with the right leg to the rear and weighted on this leg.  The sword is held on the left shoulder with the arms out behind so the point faces somewhat forward, and the long edge up.

The left wrath guard (zornhut links) reverses the leg and hand positions.

Wechsel – The Changer

wechsel

A low transitional guard which is the end point for a diagonal cut through the target.

Left wechsel has right leg forward and the sword on the left side of the body, with the short edge facing forward toward the opponent.  Right wechsel has the left leg forward, sword beside the body, again with the short edge toward the opponent.

The exact distance to the side the wechsel occupies depending on the fencer, as seen in the images above.

Nebenhut – Near Guard

nebenhut

The guard is similar to wechsel in that it is beside the body, with the main difference being the direction the sword is facing.  This position can be a starting position for diagonal cuts from below.

The guard can be weighted forward (like the wechsel), or backward, away from the opponent, as seen in the image here.

Einhorn – Unicorn

einhorn

A high guard with the point pointing over the opponent’s head.  The left einhorn is performed with the right leg forward and the hands high and uncrossed beside and slightly in front of the left side of the head.  The right einhorn is performed with the left leg forward and hands crossed, holding the blade to the high right of the head.  The blade is angled with the crossguard pointing up and out at around 45 degrees.

This is a possible transitional end position for a cut from below.

Mittelhut- Middle Guard
mittelhutThe mittelhut guard occupies the middle ground between a zornhut or vomtag, and the nebenhut/wechsel position. The mittelhut guard is the natural position at the end of a horizontal cut from right to left along the horizontal, or vice versa.

Part 3: Beginning the Basic Cuts

cuttingRose

We have managed to make it this far into the text without performing a single cut with the sword.  This is not by accident: as a general rule, when people omit the basics, they severely restrict their progress with the sword and have to try and learn footwork, cutting, and guards all at the same time.   In order to properly cut we are better served by first knowing how to move with the sword in hand in a natural and fluid manner.

That being said, the guards in the previous chapter were chosen for a very good reason; by transitioning between these guards you’re actually already performing some basic cuts.  In this chapter we will be investigating three basic cuts; vertical cuts downward, diagonal cuts downward, and diagonal cuts upward, all with the true/long edge of the sword.

The basic footwork for all of the strikes in this section is simply a passing step; though in fact they can be performed with other modes of stepping such as the triangle step.

The learning objectives for this chapter are:

  • Basic Strikes
    • Oberhau – Over Strike: Vertical cut downward from above
    • Zornhau – Wrath Strike: Diagonal strike downward from above
    • Unterhau – Under Strike: Diagonal strike upward from below
    • Mittlehau – Middle Strike: Horizontal cut from side to side.
  • Strikes in continuous sequence
  • Strikes with various stepping methods (passing, triangle, double triangle, etc).

Oberhau: Over Strike

Summary Vertically downward cut
Transitions Vomtag – langort – alber
Advantages The oberhau has the longest range of any cut, the motion is the same no matter which leg is forward at the start.  Comes in from a high position so can be cut “over” other the opponent’s cut.
Disadvantages The vertical line makes the blade easy to evade or to deflect to either side.

The Oberhau is a vertical strike from above accompanied with a passing step.  Beginning in the vom tag (high guard) position in an orthodox grip the fencer casts the tip of the blade out and forward, making sure they don’t throw their hands too far out in front of themselves as they do so.  The lead hand acts as the pivot while the left hand draws the pommel around, both of the hands structured “behind” the hilt as the blade moves forward for maximum control and edge alignment as we learned in the section on gripping the sword.

oberhauLine

As the blade passes overhead and moves out in front of the fencer, he begins his passing step forward, landing as the blade passes through the position of langort (long-point), and the blade should continue down, stopping with the point toward the ground in the guard alber (fool).

Landing the step just as the long-point is reached ensures the strike has the maximum possible reach is achieved, and allows for blade control if the fencer wishes to arrest the motion in long-point and carry on to other works.

Throughout the course of the cut the hips and shoulders should be aligned toward the target and the step should be smooth and without bobbing.  The spin should be straight with the body upright or tilted forward.  Any tilting or bending of the spine, or hunching of the shoulders in the cut is to be discouraged as it leads to poor cutting form and can put the fencer out of balance.  The elbows should not be pointing out to the sides during the cut; they should be kept in and behind the blade.

Notice that this cut doesn’t follow a strictly circular arc; in fact the arc is slightly elliptical because of the “casting forward” motion of the blade which places the blade at maximum speed and extension at langort.

cuttingEllipse

Zornhau: Wrath Strike

Summary Diagonally downward cut, attacking the upper openings.
Transitions Zornhut –  wechsel
Advantages Powerful, the 45 degree angle gives it good structure both horizontally and vertically, so it is difficult to set aside and also effective in cutting into the opponent’s strike as a parry & strike at once.
Disadvantages This is the most common strike seen in most exchanges, as such opponents are usually ready for it.

The zornhau is the most powerful of the strikes in Meyer’s system, and also one of the most versatile.  It is simultaneously a block and strike, and can be carried all the way through and around for follow on strikes, or may be halted “on point” with the opponent to threaten with the point.  We will begin with the cut all the way from the guard zornhut to wechsel.

zornhauLine

Begin in the guard zornhut (wrath guard) with the left foot forward, cast the blade out and downward so it comes around with a downward motion at around 45 degrees.  As the blade’s tip passes the shoulder begin the passing step forward with the right foot, landing it at the blade passes through an angled, somewhat shortened langort position.  The blade continues its motion down and to the guard of wechsel on the left hand side.

The motion of the blade should maintain the same diagonal line throughout the strike, and the cutting line should be straight and not scallop downward to the vertical or across to the horizontal.

Body position should follow the same guidelines established for vom-tag and in the section on how to hold oneself while fencing.

On of the main benefits of the zornhau is that its cutting direction give it both a horizontal and vertical component to its momentum.  This means that it can be used as a cutting parry to both vertical and horizontal strikes, relying on its greater horizontal component to parry vertical cuts (which have no horizontal momentum with which to oppose it), and likewise uses the vertical component to offset horizontal cuts (because they have no vertical momentum of their own).  By the same reasoning it is more difficult to directly parry a zornhau with these single axis strikes.

Unterhau: Under Strike

Summary Diagonally upward cut, attacking the lower openings.
Transitions Nebenhut – einhorn
Advantages Allows cuts under the arms of an attacker, can be used as a rising parry for all cuts to the upper openings.
Disadvantages Tends to be slightly slower and shorter reaching than cuts from above.

The unterhau is a diagonal strike following the same line as the zornhau, but rising up from below instead of descending.

unterhauLine

The unterhau has slightly less reach than the strikes from above because of an effect known as “shortening” of the sword; this shortening occurs because in a rising strike from below there is a larger angle between the forearm and blade, this reduces the effective reach slightly, as you can see in the figure below:

shortVsLong

The figure on the right fights with a “shortened” sword, while the figure on the left fights “long”.

The reach discrepancy is only in the order of perhaps a few  inches or so, but in a fencing bout this is sufficient to make the difference between a successful strike and a miss.

To perform the unterhau begin in a nebenhut stance, the blade beside you, true edge facing forward. Begin to bring the sword forward and up along the diagonal line.  When the blade has passed the hip line passing step through, cutting upward and landing the step as the point passes the opponent’s eye line.

Notice at the end point you are well protected against any blow from above as the sword shields you as it rises.  The unterhau benefits from both horizontal and vertical momentum, as described in the zornhau.

Mittelhau: Middle Strike

Summary Horizontal cut similar to the zornhau, but with a flat trajectory.
Transitions Mittelhut – Mittelhut
Advantages Covers a broad arc, useful for taking oberhau cuts offline.
Disadvantages Easily suppressed from above with cuts.

The mittelhau is a horizontal stroke which covers a broad arc in front of the fencer.  The mittelhau, like the zornhau, is quite powerful, but is easily deflected downward or upward owing to its flat trajectory, and has a predictable line.

mittelhauLine

To perform the mittelhau begin in mittelhut on the right, with the left leg forward.  Cut horizontally forward with the thumb of lead hand (if you’re right handed) facing upward.  As the blade begins to pass in front take the passing step forward with your right leg, landing the step in the moment that the cut is at its maximum point of extension in front.

Let the momentum carry the blade through to your left side.  As the blade passes to your left roll the blade over so the thumb is facing downward and the blade ends its movement in the left mittelhut.  If you cut from here you will do so with your thumb on the lower side of the blade in the cut.

Care must be taken in the mittelhut to avoid rolling the blade over too soon.  This will compromise the angle of impact of the blade and greatly reduce cutting effectiveness.  The cut can be made to the head or body, or can be used to cut aside the opponent’s strike.  It is particularly effective against the oberhau, though can be used against the zornhau provided you account for the downward impact on your own blade.

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