by Bill Grandy
“Drill Bits” is a regular series of articles on drills for various HEMA styles. These drills can be worked into existing lesson plans and most can be easily modified for multiple weapon styles.
Weapon style: Longsword or similar style cutting weapon
Skill level: Intermediate (Students should already understand basic footwork and cutting)
The idea of vor, or the “Before Timing”, and nach, or the “After Timing”, is a fundamental concept of the Liechtenauer tradition. In short, the person in the vor is the person who seizes the initiative, and the person in the Nach is the person who is forced to respond to the opponent. For example, if Fencer B waits for an attack, and Fencer A strikes, then Fencer A is in the vor while Fencer B is in the nach. If Fencer B makes a purely defensive action, he remains in the nach. However, if Fencer B defends successfully and counters, he is seizing the vor away from Fencer A. Ideally, a fencer should attempt to remain in the vor when possible, and if forced into the nach, that fencer needs to regain the vor.
The problem arises when people become so focused on a very narrow understanding of the vor, believing they are supposed to be attacking at all costs. This leads many to forget their own defense, causing double hits on both sides. A fencer in the Liechtenauer tradition needs to understand that the position of vor and nach will naturally flow back and forth between the two combatants, and students need to develop a sense of who is in control of the initiative at any given moment. Merely being the first to attack is not good enough; a fencer must feel when the opponent attempts to regain control and therefore respond to it.
Part 1: The pattern
This drill requires two people to memorize a set pattern. This is easiest with cuts, but more experienced students can work in thrusts as well. The pattern ideally should be an even number of attacks, preferably a set of four for simplicity, but you can modify this to your needs. If you have newer students, it may be easier to simply use two strikes: A right oberhau followed a left oberhau. For demonstration purposes we will use the first four cuts from Joachim Meyer’s cutting chart as seen in his 16th century fencing treatise:
Strike 1: Right to left oberhau
Strike 2: Left to right unterhau
Strike 3: Right to left unterhau
Strike 4: Left to right oberhau
Once the pattern has been memorized by both fencers, the two will each take on a separate role. Fencer A will be in the vor, while fencer B will be in the nach. Fencer A begins by using the pattern with passing steps forward, always aiming for Fencer B. Fencer B responds by making the exact same strikes, but as purely defensive parries, passing backwards. After strike 4, the roles swap, and Fencer B seizes the vor and passes forward while Fencer A is in the nach and passes backward. Every time the pattern is completed, the roles should switch seamlessly. Note that if either fencer ends up way too close or way too far, the drill should be stopped and reset.
Goals for Part 1:
-Judgment of appropriate distance (neither fencer should ever be too close or too far)
-Developing a rudimentary sense of which fencer is in control at any given moment
-Training constant, fluid motion, and developing a better sense of flow with attacks
-Developing a better eye for closing off the line when defending to multiple lines of attack
-Setting the stage for the following expansions of this drill
Part 2: Keeping the attacker honest
Part 2 is almost identical to Part 1, but with an important modification. Fencer A is in the nach and Fencer B is in the vor, but Fencer A is also the one leading the drill. Fencer B begins cutting with passing steps forward, and Fencer A defends with passing steps back, just as in Part 1. Unlike the previous drill, however, the fencers do not trade roles back and forth—Fencer B remains in the vor and Fencer A remains in the nach the entire time. Fencer A, who is leading the drill, at any random point decides to stop defending so that Fencer B’s attack succeeds. This needs to be random so that Fencer B does not know when to expect it. In other words, Fencer A may stop after Fencer B’s first cut, or Fencer A may wait until the tenth cut, and Fencer B always needs to make the attack real until he has finally hit.
What will happen when fencers are new to this drill is that when Fencer A stops defending, Fencer B will often strike the blade anyway because he is anticipating the parry. Whenever two fencers are involved in any drill where they both know what the following action is, people naturally start anticipating and reacting earlier than they are supposed to. In the case of this drill, Fencer B, who is supposed to be attacking the opponent with every single strike, may unconsciously start striking the blade because he expects there to always be blade contact. Since Fencer B is supposed to be attacking the person, not the blade, this means Fencer B is not learning properly. This drill should force Fencer B out of that habit so that he never attacks the sword, while still training him to continue the fight if that initial strike fails to connect.
Whenever Fencer A allows Fencer B to hit, the drill is reset. The fencers may change roles every time, or they can keep the same roles for a set amount of times before swapping.
Goals for Part 2
-Continued practice of Part 1’s goals
-Train fencers to attack the opponent, not the sword
-Train fencers not to anticipate during drills
Part 3: Breaking the tempo
The third part of this drill is where things get tricky, so it is important that you and your partner have the previous drills down as perfectly as possible. This cannot be stressed enough, because if not, the following drills will fall apart.
The previous drills set up a very rhythmic, almost musical tempo. You can almost hear someone counting, as if to a dance, “ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and ONE and TWO and…” As human beings, we love set rhythms. We often fall into them in exchanges of parries and ripostes, but a good fencer is able to break that tempo to take control of the fight.
Part 3 of this drill begins with Fencer A in the vor and Fencer B in the nach. Fencer A begins with the exact same pattern going forward. In this drill, however, Fencer B randomly changes roles without verbally telling Fencer A, seizing the vor, and forcing Fencer A backwards in the role of the nach. Fencer A in turn will, at random, switch back into the vor, and the drill continues back and forth. The pattern of cuts should remain uninterrupted during this change.
There is a subtle but highly critical element to this drill. If you are in the nach, and you suddenly switch to the vor, but your opponent doesn’t realize in time, then you stand a very high chance of causing a double hit to happen. When in combat, there are two ways to make an opponent move: Physically and psychologically. In this drill one needs to employ the latter. Your opponent needs to suddenly feel threatened so that he knows that if he continues forward, he will be hit. In order to do this, one needs to develop a sense of tempo, and more importantly, of breaking the tempo.
As mentioned above, there is a rhythm to this drill. If we use basic music as an analogy, a song is made up of whole beats and half beats. “ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR…” The numbers represent the “whole note” of a song; the “and” between the numbers represent the “half note”. In this drill, the swords clang on the whole note, then the attacker prepares for the next cut on the half note, and then the swords clang again on the whole note.
So if Fencer A is in the vor and Fencer B is in the nach, then Fencer B cannot switch roles on the whole note because Fencer A would be in the middle of his attack and both fighters risk being struck. Rather, Fencer B must time his attack and only switch roles on the half note, or on the “and” portion of the rhythm. This means that Fencer A suddenly realizes he is being threatened while he is preparing, and not while he is attacking, and realizes that he has to defend or else be hit. Fencer A has to become the fencer in the nach.
To sum up: Fencer A starts the cutting pattern forward in the vor, while Fencer B parries going backward in the nach. Fencer B, whenever ready, breaks the tempo by attacking in the half-beat, changing into the fencer who has the vor, and Fencer A is now in the nach. Fencer A does the same whenever ready, and the drill goes back and forth.
It should be noted that the purpose of this drill is not to practice specific counters, but rather to become better at feeling the right moment to perform actions based on whether one is in the vor or nach at any given moment.
Goals for Part 3
-Develop a much stronger sensitivity to who is in the vor and nach (which is easier said than done)
-Develop a better sense of timing and of breaking an opponent’s tempo
-Develop a better sense of when to change from offense to defense (i.e. even if you are in the vor, you may have to back off and defend to avoid a double hit)
Part 4: All together now
Part 4 brings all of the previous drills together. Begin the drill exactly as Part 3, where Fencer A is in the vor, and Fencer B is in the nach, and the roles keep changing at random points. However, unlike Part 3, whoever is in the nach must make one of two choices: 1. Break the tempo to seize the vor, or 2. Stop defending and allow the partner to strike (as in Part 2). This means that the person in the vor has to always be attempting to hit the person, and not the sword, but must also be wary not to be suicidal, being ready to switch back into a defensive position.
Goals for Part 4:
-All of the above
-Becoming more aware of attacks and defenses at any given moment of a fight
Understand that in an actual bout, you should obviously regain the vor as soon as possible rather than remaining in the nach. However, without developing a strong sense of who is in the vor and nach at any given moment, and without developing a strong sense of timing and of breaking tempo, it is easy to fall prey to the mindset of “attack at all cost”, which is one of the primary reasons double hits happen. Seizing the vor does not mean “ATTACK-ATTACK-ATTAAAAACK!” Seizing the vor means taking control of the fight, and part of taking control is the awareness of what the opponent is doing at any time. One cannot consistently take control without the fundamentals of distance and timing and awareness of vor and nach.
For those who have more experience and who have a strong grasp of this drill, there are other variations of Part 4. One is to have the person in the vor perform an additional technique to hit the opponent. For example, whenever a fencer is in the vor he can randomly perform a durchwechseln (change through) to hit the opponent in the nach. This reinforces the habits of the above drills, but includes a random element where the person in the vor is required to interrupt the tempo differently to complete the drill.
A similar variation of Part 4 could be where the fencer in the nach, when breaking the tempo to change roles, also has the choice to do this with some form of feint to provoke the parry and hit on another line, resetting the drill. Another variation is that the fencer in the vor is allowed to break the tempo to strike with a wind at any point. Yet another is that the fencer in the nach is required to use a specific strike to seize the vor, such as a krumphau. If you experiment with techniques you will find a wide variety of ways that this drill can be implemented.
Fencers in video: Doug Bahnick and Tim Hall
About the author: Bill Grandy is the Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, where he has taught professionally since 2001. His HEMA studies began in 1998 (back before anyone called it “HEMA”), though he practiced modern sport fencing since the late 1980’s, and spent most of the 1990’s practicing Aikido before eventually giving up both when he found his true passion with the historical western fighting styles. His specialties are the German Liechtenauer tradition of swordsmanship as well as the Renaissance Italian rapier, though he tries to find time to work with numerous other weapon arts whenever he can. Bill has travelled extensively to study both period fencing treatises as well as antique arms and armor, and he is also invited regularly to teach at major HEMA events.