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
Difficulty: Beginning to Intermediate (Fencers should already know basic footwork and simple attacks)
It is commonly said in the Historical martial arts community that medieval and Renaissance fencing consisted purely of single time counterattacks when defending. In other words, the saying goes that every time you attempt to parry it should always be simultaneously done with an attack and never as a simple parry first followed by a riposte as a secondary action. Time and again the treatises contradict this belief. Even worse, never practicing a two-time defense and counter will only hinder your ability to perfect the single time counter attacks.
Now, it is very true that the masters often praised the single time counterattack as the ideal defense. Gaining control your opponent’s weapon at the exact same time as you strike was constantly advised as the perfect counter whenever it makes sense to do so. The problem for many in the modern world is that people often skip learning the more basic parries first in favor of only training the single time actions (such as the schielhau against a “buffalo”, or the zwerchhau against an oberhau, etc). Doing so means they also skip learning how to analyze the opponent’s angle of attack, the leveraging of their own sword against the opponent, or even whether or not they truly have control of the opponent’s weapon yet. This leads many to make suicidal counterattacks, not because they intentionally ignore the threat of the weapon, but because they don’t know any better due to their training.
Part 1.1: “A sword is always stronger on the side to which it points.”
Fencer A will be leading this drill, and stands in any guard in striking distance. Fencer B begins with the point forward, arms extended but not locked (i.e. in langen ort), and with a neutral but balanced stance with neither foot in front. Fencer A makes a simple attack. Fencer B must parry with the blade by creating a slight angle where the point moves slightly over the opponent’s blade. At this stage Fencer B should not use any footwork or offensive action, relying purely on making a good angle for parrying.
The reason for the angle is that this gives a mechanical advantage over the opposing weapon. The famed Paduan master Salvator Fabris summed this up succinctly in his fencing treatise by writing, “Be advised that a sword is always stronger on the side to which it points.” (Scientia e Prattica dell’Arme, 1606. Translation by Tom Leoni) Fabris used the rapier to demonstrate this premise, but it is universally true of all hand-to-hand weapons. If you meet your opponent’s sword in a bind, by creating a slight angle, the resisting opponent’s sword will slide towards your guard and onto the stronger half of your weapon. A common mistake amongst beginners is to shove the hilt far to the side of the body without moving the point when parrying, but this will cause a resisting opponent’s blade to slide to the weak, causing the parry to fail due to the improper angle.
When doing this drill, if Fencer B is a beginner, then there should be no riposte. This drill is purely to develop the ability to parry properly.
Once Fencer B is competent at making proper defenses, ripostes should be added to the drill. Fencer B should stand in pflug to give an opening on either the right or left side, and Fencer A should attack that opening. Fencer B must riposte after every parry with whatever attack is most logical, along with the appropriate footwork. The riposte can be a thrust or simple cut with either edge. You will note that beginners when thrusting will often naturally start learning to wind with this drill without even being told. More experienced students can and should play around with less simple parries, including parrying with master strikes (such as a krumphau to the blade followed by a quick cut with the opposite edge), but regardless of the type of parry used, this drill requires a parry first and a riposte as second action. Do not try to blend them into one seamless tempo yet.
Every time Fencer B makes the riposte, Fencer A should always allow himself to be hit and then reset the drill. The two can rotate after a set number of exchanges (such as every 10). Note that for beginners, Fencer A’s attacks should be made at a slower pace. More experienced fencers can use a faster speed. Likewise, for beginners, Fencer A’s attacks should be fairly simple (such as a basic long edge oberhau or a simple thrust), but for more experienced fencers, Fencer A can make short edge attacks or master strikes, or otherwise any direct attack (but no feints or changes of line yet).
Goals for Part 1.1:
-Develop awareness of where an opponent’s sword is during the attack
-Make mechanically stronger and more efficient parries
-Get used to turning every defensive action into an offensive action after ensuring one’s own safety first
Part 1.2: Mobility
If the fencers are more experienced, the above drills in Part 1.1 can be skipped. This part of the drill introduces mobility. Fencer A is still leading the drill, but he will move around changing guards constantly. Fencer B must match the distance: If Fencer A moves closer, Fencer B is required to back off, but if Fencer A moves away, then Fencer B must chase him down. At any point Fencer A launches an attack, in which case Fencer B performs the appropriate parry and riposte. Fencer A immediately continues the drill.
Note that Fencer A, upon being hit, should not simply stop, turn around, get in guard, and then finally start over. Rather, Fencer A, upon being hit, should immediately continue moving around, so that Fencer B does not get a moment to pause. Fencers can trade roles after a set number of exchanges. Like with Part 1.a, Fencer A needs to adjust to the skill level of his partner in terms of types of attack as well as speed.
Goals for Part 1.2:
-Building off of the goals of Part 1.1
-Developing better sense of distance and timing
Part 1.3: Variations
1. Parrying the riposte
This variation can be done either as Part 1.1 or Part 1.2 (i.e. with or without mobility). In this case, though, Fencer A, who is leading, has to make a choice with each attack. When Fencer B does the parry-riposte, Fencer A either 1. Does nothing and allows himself to be hit (continuing the drill as normal), or 2. Makes some kind of parry (with or without a riposte). In option 2, Fencer B needs to feel the bind and make the appropriate response, such as to wind, to take off and strike the other side, to recover and do another parry riposte, etc.
-Forces Fencer B to be ready to keep fencing in case the riposte fails
In this variation, Fencer A should continue the drill as normal, but at any random point throw in a feint and attack another line rather than a normal direct attack. Fencer B should still attempt to parry-riposte, and if successful, then the drill continues as normal. If Fencer A succeeds with the feint and hits, though, the drill is stopped and the two partners switch roles.
-Fencer A becomes better at making feints
-Fencer B becomes more aware of feints against his parry
Fencers in video: Tim Hall (Fencer A) and Doug Bahnick (Fencer B)
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.