War… What is it Good For?

Some time ago one of our club members posted a Youtube link taken in our regular weekly classes; it takes a deep-dive into the Krieg, dismantling it a piece at a time and teasing out some of the issues we need to consider when devising our training, and implementing it while fencing.

This post is a brief transcription of the hand-written lesson notes I used for that class.

Fencing with the longsword can be reduced to several “bubbles” in which techniques are usable, as shown in the diagram below:

Consideration 1: Measure

Out of Measure:  Beyond this bubble we are effectively safe from attack in all but the rarest circumstance. This means we don’t have to even adopt a defensive posture – a useful psychological advantage over a nervous opponent as they see you standing casually without an apparent care.

In Measure: At this distance we can be hit or be hit with the aid of a single step. Meyer specifically mentions a distance of a fathom (about 6 feet) for the range of a truly effective cut, though this can vary slightly (hence the band between measure and out of measure – an opponent can throw a single handed thrust in this space, for example).

Generally this range gives us plenty of time to respond to threats with parries and body movements: without any deceptions at this range our chance to hit is well under 10%.

Krieg: By the time we reach this distance we will more than likely be in a bind with the opponent – if not, someone has probably already been hit, or is about to – a direct attack at this range will hit with 80% chance or better depending on the fencer.

This is the area where all of the really interesting fencing happens.

In the lead-up to Krieg (Zufechten) we see plenty of long range deceptions and setups but Krieg is where everything actually happens.

Grappling: While it’s still possible to fence with the sword at this range (with tight Zwerchs for example), realistically this is the range where grappling may take place.

Be careful though! Grappling should rarely be carried out at any range where you have to extend your arm out – there is far too much chance of the opponent simply flowing off (Ablauffen) and cutting around (Umbschlagen) as they withdraw (Abzug), taking the extended hand with painful results (we’ve seen this in tournaments and general fencing a quite a few times with fencing styles that really want to grapple!)

Generally krieg distance is at the range of a bent arm – basically when the lead legs of each fencer are close or even overlap as you can see in the image on the left.

While simple pushes and blade grabs might work at range, true grappling is only really effective when you can keep your arms close enough to maintain good structure (try doing Judo with one player at arms length and the other bringing the techniques closer, and see what happens).

For most of this lesson we’re discussing issues which arise in the Krieg.

Consideration 2: Line

Most fencing divides the body into discrete “openings”. These can be understood as potential lines of attack, and virtually every fencing system at least divides the target down a vertical centre-line of some kind.

Sainct Didier, who wrote around the time of Meyer, for example, acknowledges that there are infinite possible cuts, but whatever one you do it will fall on either the left or right side of a centre-line.

In a crossing of swords we want to cover as much area between us and their sword as possible, and so generally we cross the centre line with our blade. It’s important not to hold the hilt too far into the centreline (and leave us exposed on the outside). It’s also important not to push our hands too far out to one side in the bind. For example in the image on the right the green section is “covered” (though not well) and the orange overlay is unnecessarily protected.

This is usually an indication that we’re turned too far in profile to the opponent, and that our arms are extended too far out, placing all of the load on the small muscles of the shoulders. This will be tiring. Instead simply “sit” into the position and relax, as seen on the left.

We can consider these extents of coverage to both the left and right (around the line of our shoulders) to be “train tracks” which are the extents of coverage we need to consider.

These lines also provide additional information we can use. When we engage our opponent’s blade we can observe how far across their centreline their point is in relation to our own, and react accordingly. 

In the following diagrams the black blade is ours, pointing toward the opponent, and the red blade is their, pointing somewhat toward us:

In the leftmost diagram we have “won” the centre, and can shoot the point directly at their face (of course they can parry this, but this leads to either of the other two situations).

In the centre diagram we have an “even” bind – neither side has advantage, and so we must either take control of their blade by improving our own mechanical advantage (displacing their weak with our strong for example), or perform some other action such as a deception. In this position it is extremely dangerous to simply disengage – if we do so then the opponent has now “won” the centre, and can simply shoot the point at us. Other options include flowing off, pulling, or even running in with a Kron.

In the rightmost diagram they have “won” the centre, and so we must take action to retake it. A canonical method for doing this from Liechtenaur is “Abnehmen” (taking off) – we rapidly slide up to the weak of their blade and off the tip, disengaging over and cutting down the other side into the centreline. This is not without dangers of its own – it only works well if their own point is too far across to our right (their left), so they don’t have it ready to simply shoot at us. If it isn’t safe to do so, we can use Ablauffen, or withdrawing quickly out of distance.

Part 3: Relative Blade Position

The third thing to consider is relative blade position.

Weak vs Weak (top left)

If our blades are crossed at the weak we won’t be able to wind. We can’t wind “around” their sword, and can’t effectively displace it, or even reach them. Winding from this position would simply allow them to suppress our blade or we would open our centreline allowing them to shoot the point.

Middle vs Middle (top right)

At the mid-blade we can begin to wind more effectively both inside and outside their blade. Winding will either allow us to set them off and thrust in opposition, or wind around their blade for a blind strike or similar. In either case the opponent will probably try to parry by bringing their blade closer to themself and “closing” the line.

Strong vs Strong (lower left)

In a distinct strong on strong position we can begin to grapple, wind through with the hilt, or perform very quick Duplieren motions while keeping our crossguard in presence (also possible from the mid-blade, though requires a movement of the body as the crossguard cover is lost)

Weak vs Strong (lower right)

If my weak is on the lower half of their blade then I can rapidly disengage under to the other side, or disengage and hit the hands. My point movement is fast (as small hilt motion translates to a large point movement) and is close to their exposed extremities. If the situation is reversed I must be aware of that, and either control their Weak by rushing in with pressure and setting them off, or withdraw.

Part 4: Taxonomy of Techniques

We can characterise the various techniques by the type of blade contact that happens throughout the technique as well:

No initial blade contactRemaining in contact throughoutMoving away but staying close to their bladeDeparting completely from their blade
Schiessen (not Scheissen!)
General attacks

We can look more deeply to see if there is any consistent theme between techniques in similar categories. Consider the following sequence:

Thrusts with an AbsetzenParries aside at midblade
Attacks with BlendthauwParries with a high hanging on the left 
Thrusts with mutierenParries in a circle in to left pflug strongly
Cuts duplieren💀

Notice that as Player 1 moved from technique to technique they were simply performing variations on winding – either with the edge or the cut. In fact in many ways it looks very similar to the Krieg plays from Ringeck or PvD!

Here is a general subcategory then! Winding – a Turn of the hips and movement of the blade either inside or outside the opponent’s blade.

We can continue this with movements where we move slightly off their blade and attack along a different opening. In modern terminology this is Disengaging, which can be over, under, or beside the blade.

Movements where we depart entirely from their blade could simply be called Cutting Around (Umbschlagen).

But what about techniques that don’t move from blade contact? Well in modern terminology we can just call these Direct Attacks (cut, thrust, or slice). You might ask what this has to do with Krieg? Quite simple – if the opponent leaves the bind and fails to cover, this is what we do!

In summary we have:

Direct AttacksThrusting, cutting, or slicing the opponent freely (ie in absence of a threat)
Cutting AroundLeaving a bind and striking a long way around to attack again (eg from a parry)
DisengagingUnder, over, or beside their blade (from a parry)
WindingInside or outside their blade (from a counter-attack/parry)

This is really good news! Instead of having to learn a whole bunch of techniques we can just learn these movements, right? Not quite, though it does mean that once we have internalised the body mechanics of what we generally call “Techniques” we can now throw them entirely out the window (except as teaching tools), and just do one of these things when fencing!

With mindful practice we can “get good” at these four patterns, and then describe them to our colleagues as the “techniques” we’ve all come to know from the texts.

This is a useful outcome: Techniques are descriptive, not prescriptive.  They don’t tell us what we can (or can’t) do- they’re simply training tools that we can use to practice specific principles in context. Instead of saying “I will attack, and then he will lift his hands, and I will do a small cut underneath close to his hilt under his hands,” I can simply say “do a Kneichelhauw”, but what I’m really doing is just disengaging, and the wrist happened to be nearby at the time.

We see this in many other fields of human endeavour; in computer programming we have design patterns, in the military we have predefined “tactics”, and so on, and so it is in fencing. The tactic is the general principle, the implementation of that tactic is a technique.

Bringing it All Together

All of these parts we have listed come together to make up fencing in the krieg – distance, line, blade position, and tactics. It’s simply a matter of training each of these things, both in isolation and together, so that we automate the whole process while we engage in freeplay.

One final note: you might notice that I haven’t considered feints and deceptions here. These are another category of tactic that is worth considering, but that’s an entirely separate topic for another time.

Finally, for those interested in the original video, here it is – as you can see, it’s very much an “in class” situation, so don’t expect magnificent production quality 🙂

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