I’m talking here specifically about the difference between German and Italian longsword footwork. There are some differences and they’re very interesting. I’m going to offer my thoughts on what the key differences are and how they affect the fight.
I would argue they are fundamentally similar in what options you have, they just use those options in different ways. Both footwork stances are legs apart and knees bent, one foot (and therefore hip) forward with your feet basically diagonal but perpendicular to each other. Both have your opposite foot forward to the side the sword is on when you’re in a guard, e.g. sword over your right shoulder, left foot forward. They also do the same thing when you’re cutting: you follow the cut with the foot the side the sword was on, e.g. you cut from your right shoulder, your right foot comes forward behind it. This nice little dichotomy has the guard and front foot on opposite sides but cuts and front foot on the same side. This is done both for reach and the power generation of rotating your body into the blow. Basically, it makes sense, so both systems do it.
What’s the difference then? Seems pretty similar so far. Let’s consider how the German tradition typically defends. The German system will normally have you move from a guard position to cut at your opponent’s incoming cut to catch and hopefully displace it. It’s about counter-cutting. The idea is, if you do the opposite attack to them then, since you’re mirrored, you’ll meet in the middle. Once the blades meet, that’s when you both start doing tricky things and it comes down to skill and out-thinking your opponent. The footwork with this system is to treat your counter-cut like a proper cut of its own and therefore to step into it.
The Italian system, in contrast, doesn’t have you step into your counter-cut because you don’t perform a counter-cut. You move the sword to block their blow but keep your feet the same. This is often interpreted as moving into a guard. So, say they strike to your left shoulder, rather than cutting to their left shoulder and intercepting where the cuts cross, you move your sword to a guard from your right to your left side which covers the line and takes the blow. Won’t that feel awkward though? Didn’t you say you don’t have the guard on the same side as the forward leg? Yes, you don’t while you’re standing apart but at this point, at the bind, it’s to your advantage. Their energy is spent with that initial attack whereas yours is still kept with your entire body from arms to chest to legs tightly coiled like a spring. By not stepping forward and having the sword on the same side as your forward foot, you’re setting yourself up to either cut or thrust from that side very powerfully. If you cut and step into their attack, you’ve expended your energy just like they have, but if you parry it by changing guards, you’re keeping your energy for the riposte. Richard Marsden, a well-respected HEMA instructor and practitioner, thinks the Italian counters are faster than the German ones at the bind and in my opinion it’s for this very reason: you haven’t expended as much energy so it’s still available to be unleashed.
What’s the advantage of the German method then? Let’s think about this in terms of kinetic and potential energy. The German method effectively utilises kinetic energy i.e. energy of a moving object whereas the Italian method utilises potential energy i.e. the stored energy still available to use. By putting the stored energy into the initial blow, the German cut and follow through is much more powerful to be able to displace the opponent’s strike. The trade-off is that, while you have a better chance of displacing their attack, your energy is largely spent too. The Italian method relies on less power to stop the initial strike, just enough from moving the sword to cover the line and not unleashing the energy of your body to stop it. This works well enough for most blows, and if you’ve parried it sufficiently, you’re better set up to counter attack but if they’ve cut with a really powerful blow, they might “break” your guard and get past it. Everything is a trade-off.
Now can you counter-cut without stepping forward or parry but step behind it anyway? Yes. There are times when you will do this. But these are the general principles and main methods of these two systems. I’m emphasising their preferences so you can see more clearly how different these two approaches are. There’s more to consider though, so let’s keep going.
There’s something about German footwork many German longsword practitioners will be expecting me to have already mentioned. It’s something important. Many instructors of German longsword teach more than just stepping after the blow. You don’t just step straight but, rather, diagonally off to the side as you’re striking. You still move forward but it helps displace their attack by changing your position so you’re not where they’re trying to hit. Moreover, it often puts you at a better angle to be able to hit them too. This way of stepping is encouraged and seen for most attacking and defensive cuts as the proper accompanying footwork. One problem, however, is that it’s not solely a German technique. You see it in Fiore’s dagger play where he seems to think there are better options at the time, but I believe you see it elsewhere in Fiore as well. My interpretation of his “Exchange of the Thrust” section is that the defender is stepping diagonally forward with his front foot and following behind with his back one as he displaces their thrust to the side. So, while I acknowledge this diagonally forward step is used a lot in German longsword, it’s not actually unique to it.
Something I do see in Italian longsword footwork that I haven’t found an equivalent for in German is the Tutta Volta. Rather than passing one foot forward or back, you’re effectively pivoting around one of them. It might sound like a small difference but it allows you to change direction much quicker. As such, it can be useful when fighting multiple opponents but also when you’re trying to come at your opponent from a different angle. If you’re in a wide enough measure to allow you to take a step or two, you can take a passing step but with the new forward foot, pivot on the spot and rotate so when you pass again with the original foot, you’re facing the opponent at a side angle. It might sound complicated and like it takes more time than say just stepping off to the side but it’s a useful option to have. You can also use it, for example, if someone is rushing you. It can sometimes be quicker to catch their blow and pivot your body around your front foot, away from their charge, then once they’re past you follow up with a cut of your own. Saying that, it’s a nuanced and seldom used part of footwork—useful perhaps but not strictly necessary.
That might not be all but should certainly be a start on the difference between German and Italian longsword footwork. Which way is better? I can’t tell you that. Both are worthwhile systems and have their pros and cons. I would argue it’s better to start learning one, basically whichever one corresponds to the treatise you’re studying from, and just learn that system effectively first. Once you’ve done that you can branch out by trying new footwork systems and decide for yourself which you prefer.
(Photo from Fiore’s Fior di Battaglia)