Distance with the longsword

Distance is a key topic in HEMA, and being able to manage distance is an essential skill for a fencer. However, there are a number of open questions regarding distance. What distance should we fight at? Should we fight from a long distance, or a short distance? If we advance towards the opponent, how do we judge when to attack them? Do we fight at the maximum distance we can, or do we try to get closer to the opponent?

Unfortunately, none of the longsword treatises give much information. The later Italian rapier texts for example break down distance clearly:

Larga (Wide, large).  The distance where, by lunging forward with the right foot, the opponent can be reached with the tip of the sword.

Stretta (Narrow).  The distance where, by bending the body forward, the opponent can be reached with the tip of the sword (without moving the feet).  Both the larga and the stretta are widely used in Italian rapier, with the first being a “safer” distance (albeit conducive to slower attacks) and the second possessing the opposite benefits and drawbacks.

Fuori misura (Out of measure).  The distance between two opponents where neither can reach the other in a single tempo.

Strettissima (Extra-narrow).  Identified by Capoferro as the distance where, while in the misura larga, one can wound the opponent in the sword or dagger-hand (see also mezzo tempo).

Perfetta (Perfect).  Identified by Alfieri as a sub-species of the misura larga where the necessary lunge to reach the opponent is not so long as to disrupt one’s form and balance.”

(Definitions by Tom Leoni, taken from A Brief Glossary of Italian Rapier Concepts, from the ARMA website:
We have nothing like this for the earlier longsword texts however, and any information we do have can easily be misapplied. When I started doing HEMA several years, I frequently heard that zufechten was the distance where you had to step the opponent, and krieg was the distance where you could hit the opponent without stepping. Beyond the fact that this interpretation just isn’t supported by what the early manuals say (for more information please see the AHA German Longsword study guide), it really isn’t very helpful by itself. If zufechten was the distance where you could the opponent with a step, I would have to ask: with what technique are you hitting? A one handed thrust has substantially more range than a cut into a lower hanger, so what technique do you use as the benchmark for the distance where you can hit the opponent? If you’re using a cut as the benchmark, do you mean a cut that hits with the centre of percussion, or hits with the tip? How are you stepping to hit? Are you taking a long step directly forwards, a short step that goes to the side, or something else?

Fiore is also unhelpful here. He divides his longsword plays into gioco largo (wide play) and gioco stretto (close play), however he doesn’t define either term, nor does he give any information about what distance to launch attacks from. Even his gioco largo section however involves plays where you move into half-sword or grappling, so gioco largo does not imply staying at a long distance.

Luckily, we do have a slightly more concrete bit of advice on what distance to fight from, from an English longsword source.

To Encounter with the Two-handed Sword

And as for the first countenance of the two-handed sword . thou shalt walk in with 3 foot [emphasis added ] to thy adversary with a bold spirit and a merry heart with a single quarter . and a single quarter wasted with a quarter [cartr] stroke and thus smite thy counter both off and on and let thy hand and thy foot accord together in good offence.”
MS Harley 3542, modernisation by Jon Pellett

The language is unfortunately obscure, to say the least, although this text does give us some ideas. It might be saying that when you encounter another two-handed sword, you should stand 3 feet from the opponent (which is well within the distance needed to hit the opponent without stepping). The fact that he is saying to walk in with 3 foot makes me wonder if by foot he might mean steps. Walk in with three steps seems to make some sense. So this could mean that you should fight the opponent at a distance where you don’t need to step to hit them, or it could mean advance towards them with 3 steps. If the latter, it is also unclear if the strikes he mentions are to be done as you advance, or after. I don’t study English longsword, so I don’t know the answer, but this passage is nonetheless very interesting.

According to Forgeng, Meyer has this to say:

“In the Onset when you come within a fathom of your opponent [emphasis added], then slash up from your right before him through his face, once, twice, three times; and in the third slashing up before him, come into the Longpoint, yet such that you remain with your left foot forward. From there, let the foible of your blade run off toward your left, and while your blade is dropping, pull your haft up at the same time; step and cut the first from your right at his left ear. As soon as this cut has hit, pull back away in a single motion and cut the second from below diagonally opposite to it at his right arm; and with this cut, keep your quillons up above your head; and with this Low cut, step with your left foot somewhat toward his right out to the side toward him. And when this has also hit, you shall quickly jerk your sword back up toward your right, and cut from your right to his lower left opening. Just as it connects or hits, then pull back away around your head, and cut the fourth diagonally downward at his right ear. From there, deliver a Thwart around and withdraw. These first four cuts shall be executed quickly and swiftly from one opening to another along with their steps.”
Joachim Meyer’s Gründtliche Beschreibung, folios 1.27v-1.28r, translation by Jeffrey Forgeng

A fathom is six feet, so when you come within six feet of the opponent, you advance under cover of three upward strikes, and then you cut to all 4 openings, and withdraw with a Zwerhaw. This tells us that six feet is the distance at which you start advancing at the opponent, but it also tells us that six foot is too great a distance for you to attack the opponent directly. As a side note, this quote also seems to be telling us to close distance slowly and patiently. If six feet is too far away to hit the opponent directly, but when you do start hitting at the opponent, you need to support these strikes with steps, we could guess that the distance at which you are actually trying to hit the opponent is probably around 4 feet or so. So we should close the distance of 2 feet or so under the cover of three separate strikes, as opposed to say leaping straight in. This patient approach also tells me that it’s important to Meyer to close that distance, and get to a slightly closer distance, as he is putting a fair bit of effort to close in here, when he could have stayed at his fathom, and tried to snipe at targets from further away.

Finally, I want to look at the MS 3227a, which tells us nothing directly about what distance to fight at, but does provide enough information for us to be able to tell roughly what distance the author wants us to fight at.

We are warned that distance is incredibly important, and that school-fencers try to strike from too far away, leading them to miss.

“…they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves. They have no proper reach in their fencing and that belongs not to real fencing but only to school fencing and the exercises for their own sake.”
MS 3227a, folios 14r-14v, translation by David Lindholm

This verse seems to be saying that our strikes should end in the four hangings, rather than a more extended position, meaning thatwe are not trying to get the maximum range we can from our strikes.

“And also know that from two strikes alone come all other strikes that are possible to name:
these are the upper strike [Oberhaw] and the lower strike [Unterhaw] from both sides…And from these strikes come the four displacements from each side with which all strikes or thrusts are broken and also all guards, and from them you come into the four hangings”

MS 3227a, folios 23vr-24r, translation by David Lindholm

We are also told that in a bind, our point should be no more than 30 to 40 centrimetres away from the opponent’s face.

“And as soon as the opponent binds your sword then your point should not be more than half an ell [30-40cm] from the opponent’s breast or face.”
MS 3227a, folio 24r, translation by David Lindholm

We are also told that winding is the “rightful art”, or “the real art” according to Thomas Stoeppler’s translation, and the “foundation of all fencing”, and that playmasters dislike it because it is “of the shortened sword”, and they instead fight with outstretched arms and sword, “as if he wanted to run after a hare”. So this tells us that winding happens at a short range (and if winding is the foundation of all fencing, this tells us that all fencing should be done at a short range), and that playmasters will despise this because they want to fence with outstretched arms.

“Glossa. Note here that the turning in [Winden] is the rightful art and foundation of all fencing with the sword. From these stem all other fencings and techniques and it is impossible to be a good swordsman [without knowing] the turning in [Winden].

There are many play masters [Leichmeystern] who despise it and say that what comes out of the turning [Winden] is very weak and calls it “of the shortened sword” since it is so easy and uncomplicated. And look at those who use the long sword and who goes about it with outstretched arms and outstretched sword in order to look dangerous and to look good, using all the strength of the body.

It is terribly embarrassing to see someone thus stretched out as if he wanted to run after a hare. And this has nothing to do with turning in [Winden] or Liechtenauer’s art, since this art does not require strength. If it was not an art, then the strong would always win.”
MS 3227a, folio 40r, translation by David Lindholm

Taking these quotes together, I very much think the author of the MS 3227a wants us to fight at a relatively close distance. We could fight at a longer distance with outstretched arms, but then we won’t be able to use the windings correctly, since these have a shorter range.

So as I said earlier, there really isn’t much information on distance in the manuals. The MS Harley 3542 makes reference to 3 feet, Meyer tells us to begin our approach at 6 feet, and the MS 3227a seems to be telling us to fight at a very close distance.

Overall, I believe that modern fencers can often fight at too great a distance. It becomes tempting to fight at the maximum distance you can, and rely too much on one handed strikes or outstretched hits that land with the tip of the blade rather than the centre of percussion. However, none of the few bits of advice on distance that we do have seem to support this. Over time I’ve actually been trying to reduce the distance at which I fight. I can’t always force opponents to fight at the distance I’d like to fight at, but when I can fight from a closer distance, I find it much easier to start carrying out techniques from the treatises, especially winding. So if your approach to fighting involves fighting at a long distance, I’d invite you to start making an effort to fight at a slightly closer distance, and develop the skills associated with that.

I hope this post was of interest, and remember, if you want to learn more about the longsword, Keith and I recently released the AHA German Longsword Study Guide, available at Corsair’s Wares.


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  • Michael Smallridge posted a rebuttal of this article with an alternative point of view on his own blog: http://indesidc.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/a-reply-to-alex-bourdas-on-distance.html

  • The Hs.3227a is a very difficult source to interpret, because it makes wide sweeping statements and contradicts itself regularly. It is an immensely valuable resource but it can be read in many different ways.

    Generally speaking, I agree with Alex: I think a lot of the 15th century Liechtenauer tradition longsword fencing (hereafter 15thC fencing for short) was done at a much closer distance than we see with modern reconstructions. Looking at illustrations in Talhoffer, Kal, Falkner and Wallerstein, people are binding at a very close distance. In all of these sources (except for Falkner), the combatants have their swords positioned in such a fashion that a thrust forward from the bind will put the sword up the opponent’s nose, which follows the advice about the half-ell distance from the 3227a very closely.

    I also believe that a lot of winding motions are much more effective if they are supported by and launched from an appropriately structured position, such as a lower hanger (as per the illustrations in Talhoffer and Kal) rather than a long extended position (such as is shown in the Goliath and in Meyer). To make these kinds of structures effectively, you do need to be closer to the opponent when binding and looking to begin winding. I believe Alex and Michael both agree with this, to some extent, but have chosen different ways to express this idea – and so it seems to have resulted in misunderstanding.

    However, I do agree with Michael: it is important to be able to close distance, and the Vorschlag is a critical part of the Liechtenauer system. It is not quite good enough just to attempt to take the fight to a shorter range, one needs to have the ability to close distance at will with a credible threat.

    That being said, I must agree with Alex: for people who are good at fighting at greater distances, it would not be a bad thing to develop some skills at fighting at closer distances as well. If an individual can develop the skill to control and dictate the fight at will, from whatever distance, with a good repertoire of both long and short distance strikes and techniques, then a greater portion of the art will be displayed and the individual will be a better all-round fighter.

    Alex has raised a very good point, that people should consider that the 15th century sources do show (and do suggest) a much closer range style of fighting than we see in a lot of modern sparring. Michael has raised an important caution that the Vorschlag and the ability to close distance in a swift and threatening fashion is also an important part of the art and should not be disregarded. I think both of you are right, and that it is a good thing to aspire to have both sets of skills to deploy as the situation dictates.

    Keith Farrell