Winnipeg Knightly Arts

Historical European Martial Arts School

Winnipeg HEMA swordsmanship school focused on the Lichtenauer school of combat.

We study Historical European Martial Arts and currently focus on German Longsword. In the future we plan to expand into Langes Messer, Dagger, Wrestling, and Pollaxe.

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How To Take Your Fencing To The Next Level

New students often tell me that they don’t know what to do next while fencing, so I’ve been thinking about how to explain this for a while.

This past weekend I was at a broadsword seminar run by Broadsword Academy Manitoba where guest Kevin Cote gave a talk about the exceptionally confusing tactical wheel of fencing and simplified it into something similar to this less confusing tactical fencing wheel (this is not the same, though it is similar in many ways) of fencing and how it applies to historical fencing weapons. This got me thinking about doing something similar with my understanding of fencing.

Kevin did a lot to simplify the wheel that I linked to, but I wanted to cut it down to it’s bare essentials and came up with this

The wheel of fencing goals (x->y means x counters y)

The wheel of fencing goals (x->y means x counters y)

I should point out that this deals with the goals of a fencer, and how those goals manifest. We should view the technique that they have chosen as the manifestation of their goal within the specific scenario occurring in the fight at that exact moment.

The idea is that you start in the Zufechten (prefencing) before any action is taken by either person, then one person chooses an action, an attack for example, and the opposing fencer must choose an action that beats their action.

Some examples of a free attack:

  • Abnehmen

  • Ansetzen

  • Durchgehen

  • Durchwechseln

  • Soft Winden/ Duplieren

  • Schnappen (when close)

    Really any attack where you change from one side of the opponent’s blade to the other. This is specifically relevant with the initial attack, and from the bind when someone decides to move from one side to the other. Normally if you do an attack where your hilt goes from one side of your body to the other, it fits in here. With a thrust oriented weapon it would be any form of disengage and doesn’t necessarily require a follow up attack, though you should expect one

Examples of controlling the center:

  • Hard Winden

  • Constrained cut (attacks that do not change side)

  • Mutieren

  • Counter Cut

  • Parry

    Actions that control the center are normally done by getting the strong of you blade between the opponent’s blade and their target. The goal is to prevent them from hitting you by using a barrier, either you blade or a shield, or some other object to stop their cut as it comes on line. Again these are conceptual categories not specific to any weapon, so you should just fill this in with whatever options are available with the weapon you are using.

Examples of displacing the opponent off the centerline

  • Pogen (with messer)

  • Cross knock from Zwechhau

  • Most of the displacing cuts in Fiore

  • Parries that go wide and don’t threaten the opponent with a thrust/cut

Stepping off the line

This is really any action where you force the opponent’s blade to the side, usually with the intention to side usually with the intention of following up with an attack. However it also includes lateral movement where you move the line such that the opponent’s blade is no longer aimed at you.

These categories form a kind of rock paper scissors that should help you understand the category of attack to use in a situation, and figure out which situation your opponent is putting you in.

I should point out that it is not helpful to try and memorize lists of technique names and compare them to a list of other techniques. This is about understanding what the opponent’s goal is in terms of how they will handle the fight, and some actions (eg the winden) can actually be used in multiple of these situations depending on what they accomplish.

Some examples of how a play might go:

You begin in Zufechten, the opponent cuts to your upper right opening (free attack), you counter with an Absetzen to the upper right hengen (controlling the centerline), the opponent displaces your blade to the left (displacing off centerline) and closes in with a cut to your upper right opening (attacking freely). At this point the best option is to once again control the center, this time with a Zwerchau to the left upper Hengen to hit them in the head on their left.

The last bit happens regularly, but often people choose to counter the displacement into cut with a displacement of their own, causing a parry-cut game. Doing the Zwerchau style Abschneiden actually beats their movement more conclusively by keeping your blade on the same side and smothering their action before it has it’s intended result. Alternatively if they managed to cut around and get to the other side of your blade you would still use the same concept but it would manifest differently, this time cutting down onto their blade so it forces it down and onto your strong as you cut down and if you haven’t hit them thrust (a Mutieren).

Another Example with rapier:

Your opponent is in a guard (controlling the center), you thrust directly at their head (Freely attacking) that slides off to the side and your opponent thrusts you on recovery (constrained attack from a controlled center).

Since they have the center controlled from the beginning with their guard, they don’t have to do anything other than attack you since they already have your blade under their control. Even though you aren’t changing sides, this would still be a free attack, you have just been deceived into thinking there is an opening when there wasn’t one, as they have controlled the center from the beginning, and the first attack from the Zufechten (the pre fencing) is always a free attack since you haven’t actually made contact, and thus you aren’t definitely on one side of their blade or another until the blades actually cross.

A slightly better approach:

Your opponent is in a guard (controlling the center), you feint a thrust and they over commit to their parry (displace your blade) so you disengage and thrust them to the other side, of course reorienting your blade to guard against a possible counter thrust.

This dips into the next level, but can be interpreted purely at the level of goals, they intended to control the center, your feint tricked them into changing from controlling the center to displacing you which created the opening you needed to thrust. You can see that many of the best actions in fencing also combine several of the core goals as well, such as the disengage (free attack) to the thrust from guard (controlling the center). Often times this is why these wheels end up getting so complex in the first place.

Your goal should always be to do an action that counters what they are doing at that instant, as well as defeat their likely followup actions as well. That being said I don’t think creating hybrid categories is as useful as understanding the most simplified goals and seeing how you can do more than one thing with one action, since that is really the key to developing good fencing in the first place.

It is actually not uncommon for people to jump around in this wheel, but every time they choose an action that doesn’t defeat the goal of your action they leave an opening for you to exploit. And that’s really what this is useful for, understanding where openings occur so that you can exploit them.

The next level of fencing comes down to the psychological portion of fencing, ie dealing with the opponent’s intent rather than their actions.

The wheel of fencing intentions

The wheel of fencing intentions

By attack I simply mean any committed attack that isn’t designed to stop an opponent’s action such as:

  • A direct cut or thrust to an opponent’s opening

  • cutting around to the other side to a new target

    Really any action where you aren’t trying to stop the opponent from cutting you before your attack lands, even if you are trying to prevent probable attacks that occur after you launch your attack. This starts to deal with timing since you would predominantly do this when you have initiative, that is any time your opponent isn’t already attacking you.

A Counter is any action that is designed to stop an opponent’s attack that is already in motion, that would hit you were you to do nothing. Some examples include:

  • parries

  • counter cuts/thrusts

  • literally any defensive action that causes their attack to fail, even if it is the form of some cut or thrust of your own

A feint is any attack that is not designed to hit the opponent, but instead draw out an action for you to exploit. A feint can, and should, become a dedicated attack the instant you realize the opponent isn’t reacting. In essence it is a form of deception that causes the opponent to react and allows you to either attack them directly, or counter their action.

Here are some examples of plays examining their intention:

Your opponent is in a guard (intention to counter), they have done several feints previously and you believe that they are going to disengage and thrust from the other side (feint) so you thrust directly at their head (Intention to attack) guarding against the thrust you expect from the other side, your thrust slides off to the side and your opponent thrusts you as you recover (the counter attack works).

This situation seems incredibly stupid from the previous level of analysis (what to do technique wise), but it starts to make a bit more sense when we look at it in terms of psychology. In many ways the point of this is to disrupt the opponent’s intentions with deception until they can’t tell whether you will attack, counter, or feint.

This is my best attempt at distilling what I have seen over the past several years of fencing and martial arts in general, and using it to help inform people to make better decisions in their fencing.

Hey guys, it's been a while

Hey all, I apologize for my lack of activity in the past several months, but I should be posting more regularly again.

For anyone who's wondering we are still training, and didn't stop. However we have changed up out training methods to help students learn more quickly and easily.

The main difference is that instead of extensive solo drilling we have begun using partner drills to teach even the basic movements. This means that instead of cutting the air repeatedly, we get students to cut against a semi resisting opponent in order to fine tune the technique.

We've also taken a more experimental approach to teaching how to use the techniques. So instead of having a prearranged action from your partner, they are to attack with enough speed to challenge the student to figure out the best solutions based on the concepts and movements they know.

Then finally we are regularly dedicating the latter parts of the class to freeplay sessions so that they can learn to recognize when to use what they have been working on against a fully resisting opponent. This phase is usually supplemented with coaching from other members as well.

This approach is designed to help students get a much more practical understanding of the key ideas and solve problems against a semi-resistant partner working up to full resistance.

Here are a couple freeplay videos from this summer (Warning, the wind is quite noisy in some parts).

Exciting Messer News

Another draft completed

I just finished another draft of the Messer curriculum based on Leckuchner's massive treatise. This time around I really worked on making the lessons more practical and accessible.

  • Using clear and consistent terms
  • Focusing on when and why to use techniques
  • Implementing actions into drills and freeplay
  • Organizing content for clear understanding
  • Teaching practice that leads to better performance

New free content coming soon

If you can't wait to learn about the art of Messer fencing, I've got a special treat for you. 

I will be making free videos and posting them on my youtube channel going through the core of the curriculum.

So if you've wanted to learn Leckuchner's art of Langes Messer, you will have access to the videos so you can see the lesson, and later will be able to buy a copy of the book for reference in your training.

How to use Deflections

Deflections are used to stop an opponent action, but they must be done properly.

Any action that deflects an opponent's action from hitting you is a deflection, or displacement and they come in two general flavors:

  • Empty displacements

This is what happens anytime you stop an opponent's cut without threatening them at the same time.

These are usually done as a 'parry then repost' form of fencing. The main issue with this style is the gap between the deflection and attack, creating an opening for the opponent to deflect your blade, or perform a single time counter and steal the initiative from you.

  • Single time counters

Ideally a single time counter is done as an attack that intercepts the opponent's blade on your weak as you drive your own weak to their body. 

These are arguably the defining aspect of the German school of swordsmanship and the majority of actions in the Fechtbucher focus on this type of counter.

Displacements are done as counter actions

This means that they are always done in response to an opponent's action. In other words they have acted first and taken the initiative, which you will now need to take back from them.

Alternatively to using displacements you can work to take the initiative from the Zufecthen, the opening of the fight, and maintain control over it through distance, and attacking with good form.

Against a bad opponent this will provoke them into using empty displacements, creating openings for you to attack, i.e. a Nachreisen, Abschneiden, Schnappen, etc. 

In other words if you seize the initiative, there are several options for defeating empty displacements.



Hangings, why and how to use them.

Hangings are an essential part to good swordsmanship, and mastering them is fundamental.

Hangings, or Hengen in German are an integral part of Historical European Swordsmanship, and have some equivalent in nearly every other style of armed combat I've seen.

To use a Hengen, rather than cutting directly to your opponent with maximum reach, or into what we call Langenort or longpoint, you cut into a position with the strong of you blade off to a diagonal with your point aimed at the opponent's face or throat. You should do this initial cut or Vorschlag from thrusting distance as well.

Cutting this way is counter intuitive at first, since the natural tendency is to cut directly at the opponent, but a dedicated initial attack is dangerous since an opponent who recognizes what you are doing will quickly counter you.

There are two main advantages to using the Hengen:

  • Cutting into a Hengen controls your opponent as you attack.

If you cut into a Hengen from thrusting range, an opponent cannot simply displace your cut and hit you, since you should by definition be out of cutting range.

Since your strong will already be off to the side and high or low, they cannot cut you successfully from that diagonal, and allows you to quickly adapt high or low to intercept their weak while you maintain your point on the centerline. 

This give you the initiate and allows you to control the pace of the fight, which is essential to good swordsmanship. 

This also means that they are prevented from rushing in until they deal with your point. This advantage will usually either lead to a fight from the bind, a Krieg, or they will attempt to strike your point which leads to an empty displacement and an opening for you to attack if you are prepared for it.

  • You can strike suddenly from a Hengen.

The real hidden power of the Hengen is that it threatens an attack done in the time of the hand. By that I mean you can straighten your arm without stepping, reaching your point into Langenort and thrusting your opponent to the face or throat.

This requires that you control the distance of your cut in a disciplined manner, and will require practice until you know the spacing instinctively.

If the opponent deflects your point before this thrust is possible, you are still in a good position to adapt to them as well. From here you can easily do Winden, or other cuts or slices against them that would be too slow from Langenort. Another problem is that from a full reach most would require drawing your blade back, causing an opening for a Nachreisen.

Practicing Guards

I was recently asked about how to practice guards for longsword, which brings up a series of related questions to answer the first one fully.

The most important part of training is to remember what your goals are, and how your actions help you accomplish those goals. Our goals in swordsmanship should always be 1) avoid death, and 2) eliminate the immediate threat to your safety. These two goals usually combine into the advice that is most generally useful; get your strong on their weak, and your weak aimed at their body.

A guard helps you to accomplish this by eliminating some potential opening attacks in the Zufechten, the opening phase of the fight, without creating additional openings. In other words they eliminate some of  your opponent's options and do a little bit to simplify what you can expect.

There are two main ways that a guard will help close an angle of attack, the first is through creating a physical barrier such as in Ochs or Pflug. Your blade is aligned along one of the four diagonals such that any cut against you to that Peak (quarter of your body) will be funneled onto your strong, the part of your blade with the most amount of leverage, allowing you to trap their weak while keeping your own point free to attack them, thus accomplishing your goal.

The  Second way that a guard helps you control your opponent's actions is through the threat of counter attack. The guards of Vom Tag and Alber use this by keeping your blade free of any contact until you opponent decides to move against you. In Vom Tag the essential aspects include keeping your hands close enough to the body that they do not become an easy target for a long ranged cut, and the point be back enough that you do not cock back before a cut. I cannot stress how important it is that you do not create unintentional openings for your opponent, especially during the early phases of training. Alber allows you to keep your point nearly fully extended and out of contact so that it cannot be knocked aside, allowing for you to aim your point at them in the time of the hand alone, while they will have to move in time of hand body and foot if you are keeping proper distance.

Now to address the original question: how do you practice the guards? Quite simply other than returning to them after a cut and experimenting to see what kinds of options you have from them, all you can really do is learn their names and make sure that you do them correctly each time you adopt one.

I don't especially advise changing guards a lot in the Zufechten unless you are well out of range of your opponent, as each time you change while within striking distance you create an opening for your opponent since it does nothing to threaten them or create a useful physical barrier.

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