What’s the most important thing in sword fighting?

It’s time to combat a few old myths and give an opinion on the single most important thing in sword fighting. Is it strength? Agility? Speed, surely? Or something more…? To those of you who study and practice HEMA, I doubt my answer will come as a surprise but let’s get into it.

Is it strength then? You know, like in the movies? Badass shirtless barbarian wields a massive sword and our hero must nimbly evade him? He’s so powerful you can’t even block his blows, he’ll just break through your guard? Well, this isn’t completely stupid. We do have some guards which are said to be able to break other guards because of the force of the blow. The idea definitely existed but it was only ever one of a much larger number of options. Brute force has its place but it’s rather a small one. And it’s something most competent swordsmen knew how to deal with. So long as you use a guard that can take the initial brunt of the blow then change slightly to redirect the force, like our Ox Guard of last week, a brutish attack relying on strength alone won’t defeat you.

What about our hero in this scenario? What about agility? The nimble ones who dodge and roll, they’re always outsmarting the big strong men who swing wildly at them, right? There’s a place for agility, certainly. If you’re young and fit you can definitely use it to your advantage but be wary, because an older, less agile fighter can still take you down. The problem with relying on agility is that you still need to get past your opponent’s guard somehow. Anything you do out of measure, unless it tricks them to change their guard, isn’t going to affect them, and while you’re in measure, one wrong move will get you hit.

Speed then? I’ll just learn to be super fast and I’ll hit them before they can hit me. This sometimes happens, I’ll admit. More often than not it’s when a practiced swordsman goes against someone new at the game, notices an opening and strikes. That’s not quite the same as just being the fastest person in the world. If you’re relying on speed, you have a similar problem to agility but it’s even more dangerous. If you’re doing anything really fast out of measure it’s the same as agility, unless you provoke a reaction it does you no good. If you strike really fast in measure though, unless you kill them instantaneously or attack in such a way that you protect yourself too, you might just hit them a tenth of a second before they hit you back. And if you get hit back before you have a chance to recover, being that extra bit fast didn’t do you much good.

So what is it then? What’s the most important thing in sword fighting? Well, it’s actually this nebulous concept of distance and time. Remember the good old S=D/T? This equation, whether you think of it in those terms or not, is what underpins everything. If you both have equal weapons and are out of distance, you are both safe and in the time it takes one of you to step into distance, the other could use that same time to step out of it. This goes for any action. If you are both in measure then in the time it takes you to strike, your opponent can as well. The Italians call this “tempo” and it makes sword fighting sound like a constant stalemate. But using tempo and its relation to distance to your advantage is how you succeed. Putting the balance in your favour, for example, by having a longer sword (see longsword vs shield) is definitely one way to do it. But we’ll relook at our ideas from earlier to see how they can make use of this concept.

Striking with a really powerful blow works really well, so long as they’re not ready for it. The best way I’ve found to make it work is to use it as a follow up attack. If you step back just as they step into what would have been their measure, they’ll often think they can hit you and do whatever it was they were planning. Whether they retreat or push forwards, you quite often have a tempo where striking hard at them will either break through their half-botched return to guard or beat their sword away, leaving you to strike them. Of course, sometimes just striking powerfully at someone in a guard not optimised for taking such a blow can work, but make sure you do it from just being out of measure—it gives you the smallest window where they can hit you at the same time.

As for agility, knowing your distance and timing is key to making this work. If you’re already so close they can hit you, Silver’s “time of the hand” would argue they’ve got a better chance of hitting you than you have of escaping by the time of your foot. As with strength above, the timing of when to be agile is at that moment when one of you is moving into measure. If you’re moving into measure, stepping off to the side can throw them off guard and keep you safe, especially if you cover the line with your sword. If they haven’t adjusted to your change then they’ll be facing where you used to be rather than where you are which can give you a chance to strike. If they’re moving into measure, you can similarly move off to the side, either under their cut if you can anticipate it, or out of the way if it’s a thrust. For the latter, see an impressive Renaissance technique I can never remember the name of here (last third of the video). My key point on it is that they’re using agility at the moment the opponent moves into measure, alongside baiting (in this case) the opponent so they know where he’ll strike.

How does speed factor in then? By this I’m distinguishing between the speed of you actually striking rather than the effect of the distance/time phenomenon. I would say it’s often very similar to the second example I gave of using strength: you can strike someone quickly if they’re not ready for it and there’s an opening but, again, make sure you’re doing so starting out just out of distance so the amount of time they have to hit you is as small as possible. Also, try to cover yourself as you strike, just in case. Apart from this, I would say the speed of moving your sword is partly just getting comfortable with how it moves and how to change from one guard to the next or from a cut to a thrust and so on. Most people who are experienced are similarly quick in my opinion for this reason.

I’d like to conclude by mentioning something some of you might raise. “What about skill?”I hear you ask. If by skill you just mean being good at it; familiar with how to move yourself and the weapon, then that’s essentially what I’m covering. If, however, by skill you mean knowing a whole bunch of techniques and how they counter each other, I deliberately haven’t chosen to discuss that here for two reasons. One, because I consider measure and the distance/time relationship much more important, and two, because I plan to cover the problem with overly relying on specific techniques in a later post. I hope I’ve convinced you so far of the importance of distance and timing, or at least gotten you thinking.

(And no, it’s not your pommel… Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

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