Cutting with the German longsword, part 2

My last post, Cutting with the German longsword, (which you can find here: generated quite a bit of discussion on Facebook, so I thought I would write part 2. I wanted to clarify a few things, and also develop some ideas about when cutting or not cutting might be appropriate.

To start off with, a few people made comments to the effect that I thought cutting was unimportant, and I don’t hold with that. I believe strikes that do not cut are perfectly acceptable, but that is not the same thing as thinking that not being able to cut is good enough. It is my firm belief that you should never stop trying to improve. Ultimately we should all aim to be able to make very effective cuts with a very small cutting path, if for other reason than cutting cleanly without telegraphing is difficult, and aiming to be able to cut better will challenge you. There is no excuse to be lazy and never work on your ability to cut.

That said, while I hold that every swordsman must have the potential to cut, that does not need to be true for every strike they hold. Just as there is not one way to do a Zwerhaw or Krumphaw, there is no one way to throw a strike. There is a continuum of strikes, from light tag hits that won’t cut and don’t hit hard and probably won’t accomplish much of anything, to strikes that probably won’t cut or hit that hard but have just enough threat behind them to force the opponent to react, to strikes that will hit incredibly hard but not actually cut anything, to strikes that will cut the opponent a bit, to strikes that will cleave the opponent in half. Some of these will be useful in some circumstances, others won’t be useful at all, but there is no type of strike that must be used in all circumstances.

To start off, let’s look at strikes that hit hard but won’t cut because of bad mechanics. Strikes like these are still valid to the extent that they can disable the opponent momentarily, but this is dependent on targeting. As an example, during a fight I had at SWASH 2012, my sparring partner missed my mask and hit me in the back of head. I was instantly out of the fight, and it was several hours before I was fully recovered. Whether or not that strike would have cut is irrelevant, because even if it hadn’t, he would have had more than enough time to kill me if it were a real fight. However, if he had hit me with that same level of force on say the upper arm I could have kept on fighting. Strikes that hit hard but don’t cut are very effective against certain target areas, but are of limited use because they’re not effective against most of the body, and (assuming this is a fight to the death, which is not necessarily the case) there’s no strategic reason to use them over a strike that will cut if you can cut.

Strikes that hit hard are not, however, the only way of disabling an opponent. Tip hits can sometimes be used to do the same thing. While it annoys me endlessly to see people strike with the tip of a sword, and then end the engagement, apparently thinking they’ve killed the opponent, in certain situations a tip hit could prove very damaging. For example Ringeck tells us to strike with the Krumphaw with the point to the hands. Hits with the tip won’t cut as well as cuts with the CoP, especially if you combine this with the fact that the mechanics involved in a Krumphaw mean it will never cut as well as a generic Oberhaw. However, as I said earlier, if the strike is directed towards the appropriate target, it doesn’t necessarily matter if it will cut or not. The hands are vulnerable targets, and a strike here will not need much cutting power, making crossed arm cuts with the tip are perfectly valid here.

Next, I’ll look at strikes that are not primarily intended to cut, or to disable the opponent, but rather to accomplish some other strategic goal. Fights generally start from a longer distance and progress to a closer distance. If you started a fight at the distance you needed to effectively cut the opponent, you would be putting yourself in a lot of risk. For example, the sword I used in the cutting class at the recent HEMAC Glasgow event had a relatively short blade, at around 36 inches, and the percussion point was about half way down the blade. That combined with the arcing motion you need to cut through a target meant that when I was cutting the target, I did so from a position where I could have punched the target with my back hand if I wanted. However, rarely in a fight would I get to that sort of distance, and it would be impossible to get that close without some sort of strategy.

In a fight you will need to breach the gap, and close measure somehow. There are multiple ways of doing this, and no one method is always correct. One method you might use is to throw a strike from the very edge of distance. Whether or not it could cut isn’t important, it isn’t even important if it hits or not. What is important is that the opponent perceives it as a threat, and reacts, and in his reaction puts himself in the nach, allowing you to act further against him. If you project a strike forward into an extended long point, hitting with the tip, you are unlikely to cut anything, and if you do cut, it won’t be serious, but you will be able to use the fact that such a strike has a very long reach to strike from a long distance, where you are safer, and use the opponent’s reaction to safely move in closer to a range where you could do more damage.  There are of course other methods that can be used, but this one is very useful.

There is a final element to consider, which is context. For what context was German longsword intended? This is far from clear. The 3227a tells us to use Liechtenauer’s art in earnest or in play (folio 18r), but what is meant by earnest combat? Some HEMAists can get a bit too involved with the mentality that almost says “two men will enter the arena. Only one will leave.” Is Liechtenauer’s art meant for an all-out, no holds barred fight to the death? And if you were in such a fight, would you use techniques like say mutieren, or would you stick to simpler techniques? If you read an RBSD book such as those by Geoff Thompson, or earlier combatives manual, such as those by Fairbairn or Applegate, the techniques you are likely to see will be very basic, because very basic techniques are going to be the most useful in a situation where you’re pumping with adrenaline. If Liechtenauer’s longsword was intended to be used primarily in a no holds barred fight to the death, might it not involve fewer, and less complicated techniques? Might it not also cover situations like drawing your sword, or what to do if you cannot draw your sword in time? Talhoffer covers quick-drawing a messer, and one of the Gladiatoria’s plays specifies what to do if your opponent rushes you before you can draw your dagger (folio 32v), yet Liechtenauer’s longsword has nothing like this.

For example, read this account of two fencing masters duelling:

This is still an earnest fight, in that is not play, but there are still strict rules regarding what can and can’t be done. The weapons used in the duel were sharp, but the fencing masters probably wouldn’t want to actually cut each other. Is it possible that Liechtenauer’s art could have been designed (at least in part) to be suitable for use in duels where you don’t actually want to cut the opponent?

Finally, if you look back at my previous article, you’ll see that some of the best depictions I found of cutting through or deeply into targets involve either messers or mixed weapons. Could it be because deadlier engagements are more likely to involve messers or mixed weapons? In a battlefield, messers or smaller swords could be carried as a side arm when longswords, especially the very large ones such as shown in Talhoffer or Goliath, might be less convenient. A mixed weapons scenario is also more likely in a battlefield or skirmish situation, where it is unlikely that you will be facing an opponent who has the exact same weapon as you. Both Mair and Talhoffer depict blood in their mixed weapon sections, but not in their longsword sections. Could this be because mixed weapons represent a scenario where you will definitely want to cut, whereas longsword might not? At this stage, the context (or contexts) of Liechtenauer’s art is still unclear, and I do not want to say one way or the other. It is however worth bearing in mind the possibility that Liechtenauer’s art may have been designed bearing in mind situations where it is will not always be a good idea to cut.

Even ignoring context, there will still be times when it is either sufficient or tactically advantageous to throw a strike that will not cut, either because it does not need to cut to cause damage to the target it is aimed at, or because cutting potential is being sacrificed in order to say strike from further out of distance, in order to set up closing of distance.

Just to reiterate what I said at the start though. None of this is an excuse not to work to improve your cutting. If you cannot cut, or if you cannot cut well, you should work to improve your cutting. Even if you are a good cutter, you should probably still aim to be able to cut better. Every swordsman should be able to cut, even if the same is not true of every strike they throw.

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