Why Fool’s guard is actually foolish

It sounds like the coolest guard of all, right? Fool’s guard: your sword is pointing down at the ground in a seemingly useless fashion but when they strike, you quickly parry, rebat or give a strike of your own. What’s not to like?

My point here isn’t that Fool’s guard doesn’t work, merely that there’s better guards you can use most of the time. If the point of the Fool’s guard is to get your opponent off-guard and think you’re open, that’s great but bear in mind most historical fencers these days will see that a mile away. You’re better off giving them a more subtle opening like leaning a shoulder forward or putting a guard slightly off to one side, so they think you’ve just got sloppy technique. When you’re up against other professional swordsmen, you need to think two or three steps ahead, not go with the textbook example of bait.

But remember, Liechtenauer was using the Fool’s guard against people who didn’t know his system! Yes, that’s true. Doesn’t mean it was the best part of his system. Yes, you can Scheitelhau from it and do unexpected parries but it’s biomechanically still fairly unsound. As I talked about previously, I reckon a key part of German (and Italian while we’re at it) longsword fighting is about diagonal cuts. They are much better for intercepting an opponent’s attacks for a start. So when we have a guard which is effectively straight down the centre and the key attack you can do from it is a vertical cut, your options are limited compared to a normal guard. What about parrying though? Some would say the secret is that it looks like you’re so open but you can quickly raise to a hanging parry (effectively Ox but with the point further down) on either side so you’re actually quite safe. Yeah, you can do this but you’ve got to be quick about it and I distinctly remember a certain George Silver mentioning a problem with this kind of thing. His point was basically that if you transition between low and high guards (or vice versa) as a way of parrying, you can be feinted fairly easily because it’s harder to move back than transitioning in the same plane high-high or low-low. His point is basically what I’d like to emphasise here: sure, it can work but it’s not (pardon the pun) foolproof.

What’s a better low guard then? I’m glad you asked. Personally I prefer the Italian Full Iron Gate, Long Tail or even Boar’s Tooth.  Middle Iron Gate as far as I can tell is effectively Fool’s guard but the others share a profound difference. They don’t act across the vertical plane but diagonal ones. This means you can cut from them or transition to another guard and you’ll be moving diagonally which is much better for covering yourself and catching their blade. One way of doing this is by rebatting their blow which, yes, you can do from Fool’s guard, but if you start in a diagonally facing one, you’re already set up to cover that line straight away, with Fool’s guard you’ve got to decide to go left or right and then do so, which leaves you open to being tricked. You can also use the diagonal lines to intercept their blade and get to a bind. One example of this is Fiore’s defence against the peasant strike—a plausible interpretation shown here (start at 2.43)—they’re using Full Iron Gate to intercept the blow then pivot around it and attack from the other side. In all cases, you’ve got a much better chance of intercepting their blow with any of the diagonal guards.

I guess, if you wanted to think of it in these terms, you could consider my dislike of the Fool’s guard to be a strategic decision. If tactics in swordfighting is how you use that guard in the moment, then sure, you can technically parry, cut or thrust from it. But your options are limited and inherently inferior to most other starting guards. It is a strategic decision I make before entering measure not to be in Fool’s guard very often, if at all, because other guards will keep me safer and give me more options on a tactical level anyway.

Why did I say all this? Why rant about the Fool’s guard? Because some people out there think Full Iron Gate is the same as Fool’s guard. They just see two superficially similar guards and don’t realise how fundamentally different they are. And if people will get them confused—either practitioners or just lay-fighters back in the day and now—then why not be in the safer guard in the first place and have them think you’re open but  you’re actually even more protected? I can see no good reason to use it. Whether people have never held a sword before or they’re experts; whether they’re aggressive, defensive, feint a lot or cut straight to you, there is no reason the Fool’s guard should be used, considering the variety of options available.

Or maybe I’m just a fool and still can’t see why it’s so special. Feel free to enlighten me.

(Photo sourced from Wiktenauer)

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