Meyer’s Longsword: On Parrying

In general terms deflecting the opponent’s sword comes under the term “parrying”, though you may also encounter the term “setting aside”, as well as the German words “absetzen” or “versetzen” (which basically mean setting aside or displacing).  Meyer himself tends to describe all parrying using absetzen/versetzen, but in other texts there are very specific passages referring to the word “versetzen” and “absetzen”, so in casual conversation simply using the word versetzen or absetzen can result in considerable confusion.

To avoid miscommunication generally we will simply use the word “parrying” unless a specific technique from the text is being described, in which case we will use the appropriate German term used by Meyer within its appropriate context.


Historical Context

Generally in earlier (and considerably briefer) texts, the masters explicitly admonish you to never parry without simultaneously attacking in the same stroke and with the point in-line with the opponent so as to offer an immediate and constant threat.  This seems like particularly fine advice, however the earlier masters then go on to utterly contradict this by providing numerous plays which include suggested parries that offer no immediate threat, and sometimes no follow-up threat either.  So here we have what seems to be a dead-lock: we should always parry with the point online, but are then given are a set of plays which you can use which don’t follow this advice.

This apparent paradox is resolved quite simply by Meyer who acknowledges that parrying with a simultaneous cut or thrust is ideal, but often you will be forced to use the simpler parrying because it offers better general protection at the sacrifice of an immediate counter.  Consider just holding out your sword vertically to stop a horizontal cut; it defends a huge area effectively (the full length of the sword), but offers little in the way of immediate counter-threat.

Put simply, parrying with an attack all in one motion is an opportunistic action, not a globally applicable proscription under which all offline parries are expressly verboten.

The context of earlier texts supports this.  Historically, earlier masters already explicitly assume that the fencer is competent in all of the basic practices of fencing; cutting, thrusting, footwork, and, by extension, parrying.  This is one of the reasons they’re so opaque when it comes to these fundamentals.  They assume that much of the time you’ll be using fencing basics, but provide a framework of advanced techniques which give you a competitive advantage over your opponent when they can be applied.


Parrying as a Tactic

In many ways parrying is like chess.  The best way to protect one’s king is to place the opponent’s own king under constant offensive pressure (keeping him in check).  However the realities of a chess game mean that this kind of defense by offence tactic is one to be taken opportunistically; it is not always an option available during a given turn in the game.  So it is with fencing.  The ideal parry is one which also offers a threat (a zwerch which blocks his zornhau and hits him in the same tempo is perfect for this), most of the time, however,  we are using a parry as a purely defensive tactic.

Two things to note here:

First note that I use the word tactic rather than strategy.  A strategy is a broader and more abstract “game plan” (my strategy for a timid opponent may be to put them under constant pressure).  A tactic, however, is a wholly opportunistic action. Changing through, for example, is a tactic for people who beat at the blade too much, but is not a holistic strategic approach with which to enter the fight (fishing for tactics in this way is a sure way to be defeated; you’re increasing your cognitive load by looking for one specific technique to such a point that response times become slowed when other opportunities present themselves).

Second, even though I may not be providing immediate threat with my generic parry/counter, this does not mean that my “chess move” is not setting me up for victory later in the game.  How I make my move reduces the list of valid options my opponent can play in successive turns.  If by parrying I can prune his tree of options to a very limited subset I have, in effect, increased the probability of my next attack being successful, while also improving my parrying choices for their counter attack.

Meyer arrives at the same thesis.  He suggests taking the direct counter-and-attack actions when available, while the rest of the time use parries which take away some of the opponent’s choices and provide you opportunity to follow with your own attack immediately thereafter based on this known set of options you’ve not give your opponent..

For example he recommends that the oberhau suppresses all other cuts down from above by cutting over the top of them and reducing options for blade movement.  Meanwhile a high cut such as an oberhau can be defeated with the unterhau by cutting up under it into a parry, and made against the opponent’s blade without standing rigidly in a fixed guard.  Notice that from a position such as this Meyer admonishes us to immediately follow with a secondary cut such as the windhau, or perform some other handworks.

To summarise, then, while parrying and striking as the same single tempo movement is ideal if you can achieve it, however there is nothing wrong with driving off of strikes with baser parrying as long as you make the most of this opportunity to place yourself for a follow up cut, handwork, or withdrawal.


Defining Typical Parries

We now know that parrying is a defense, but also a strategy for victory.    Continuing our chess analogy, what “moves” can our parrying play on the board?

Broadly speaking parries act either by direct opposition to force, or by redirection of force.  From the physics chapter we learned that redirection works by applying minimal force perpendicular to the line of attacks, while opposition requires momentum or force directly opposite to the line of attack we’re trying to arrest.

Consider the angles of basic cuts.


Each cut has a vector associated with it as you can see here.  This means the energy and momentum of that cut is travelling only in the direction of that arrow.  This becomes important if we wish to set aside a cut, or avoid having our own cut set aside.

The oberhau and mittelhau are the simplest cuts to analyse.  Their vector travels vertically, or horizontally, and as such the oberhau has no momentum or energy in the horizontal direction, and the mittelhau has none in the vertical direction.  This means that we have two choices.

Opposing Force:

First we could parry in direct opposition to the direction of travel (so for an oberhau, for example, we would block with an equal and opposite force in the vertical direction going upward.  This is certainly effective, and we can use what we know about mechanical advantage in the sword to maximise our leverage by blocking with the strong to their weak, using our own inertia in opposition to the blow, and so on.  This type of parry uses direct opposition to the line of force.

Redirecting Force:

A  more energy efficient option, however, is to deflect the blow with a force perpendicular to the vector of the attack, effectively leaving its vertical component travelling down, but giving it a nudge to the side, so it misses its intended target.

Notice that for the downward attack there is no momentum in the horizontal direction.  This means that we don’t need a particularly large horizontal vector of our own to deflect the blow off course.  Removing the need for high momentum in setting aside by changing the direction of the force is exactly what is meant by a redirecting parry.

Another type of redirecting parry exists.  On in which we cut behind their blade to increase its speed and fling it down or to the side along the line of motion itself (if they cut an oberhau, for example, we sidestep and cut down on top of it with an oberhau of our own).  The risk here is that they will flow around in the cut, which is what we should do whenever our own blade is deflected.

It is also useful to note that unterhau and zornhau cuts have vectors which have both a horizontal and vertical component.  The advantage of this is that if the momentum is robbed from a single direction (horizontal or vertical) using a parry or deflection we still have the momentum continuing along the other axis.  It also means that these cuts can be used as a generic counter-cut against horizontal or vertical cuts.

In this way we can place parries in a hypothetical cartesian space where one axis represents; defensive or offensive actions, and the other represents opposing or redirecting actions, with parries occupying a region of this space.  That sounds far too impractical for we simple minded fencers, though, so in the interests of brevity the quad-chart below summarises this idea by grouping by these categories.


Defensive Offensive
  • Crossguard “catch”
  • Straight Parrying
  • Cutting in Opposition
  • Zornhau defeats Zornhau
  • Ochs defeats Zornhau
  • Angled deflection
  • Cutting perpendicular to the blade
  • Cutting behind the blade
  • Krumphau defeats Zornhau/oberhau
  • Zwerchau defeats Oberhau

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, but rather a set of representative examples.  What it does, however, is provides a groundwork for what earlier masters would describe as “common fencing”.  As long as we remember that most of us are common fencers, but are striving for mastery, it still makes sense to use these parries at least some of the time, and so to train in them often.

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