Feint high, strike low—the oldest trick in the book

The four-move checkmate of the fighting world—if you don’t know it yet, you should and if you do already, it’s worth discussing in depth. Who knows? There might be ways you can improve it.

What is it though? At its heart, it’s the most basic feint you can do. What’s a feint? A feint is where you pretend to do one thing then do something else. The reason why you might do that rather than just do the second thing straight away is because you’re trying to control your opponent’s mind and actions. If you can make them move their weapon to a certain spot, that opens them up somewhere else, potentially giving you a chance to strike. Since the most simple blows and guards are high ones, aimed at attacking or defending your upper body or head, this is the most obvious attack to do. Because it’s the most obvious attack to do, it’s also what people will most expect and so the easiest to make them think you’re going to do.

How do you do it though? We’ll there are a few ways of achieving it. The most common method I’ve come across is someone who starts with a nice big blow coming down from their shoulder but instead of cutting to the opponent’s upper body, they do one of two things; they either slightly delay the cut itself so they can change its direction before impact, or they cut “too soon” so their blade isn’t where you’d expect but actually follows through close to the opponent’s legs. Other ways include having your sword with the tip pointing to the sky but dropping the point as you strike into a descending thrust, and pretending to cut to one direction but pulling the blade back and using the momentum to power it into cutting to another direction (usually in some way “opposite” to the original one thereby making use of the force needed to pull the blade back).

Woah, sounds hopeless to defend yourself against such things doesn’t it? If there’s so many ways you can be tricked, how is it even possible to stop someone like that? My answer here is actually twofold. One to help out our poor, innocent defender and the other as a warning to overly feint-happy intermediate swordsmen. Let’s start with our rookie however.

Although these all sound like very different ways of being attacked, they all ultimately come down to one key thing: the opponent is pretending to do one thing but actually doing something else. Now what if I told you there was an easy way, not only of keeping you safe, but of simultaneously figuring out if they’re feinting you or not? You’d say I was mad, surely! But there is. Just stepping back—or to the side—will, if you’ve kept proper measure, foil their plans. Basically, a feint works so long as you react to the blow and are in the vicinity for them to strike you somewhere else. If you’ve stepped back and they can’t hit you, it matters very little whether they’ve feinted  you or not—they can’t reach you. But it gives you the benefit of knowing if that strike of theirs was a feint or not and can start to give you an idea of what kind of fighter they are, and what tells they have. There’s a reason why swordsmen always go on about footwork; it’s because it’s the basis for all true offence and defence. Learn good footwork, and hence distance, timing etc, and you will keep yourself safe.

What about those who enjoy feinting? Well I’d say, be careful how you do it. There’s an error common to many different types of feints and that is to step into measure as you do the initial feint. If your “feint high, strike low” is done by stepping forward and moving your arm forward but not committing the blade until the last moment, you’ve just endangered your forearm and potentially the rest of your body to someone who likes counter-cutting or panic-stabbing as a means of defence. Who cares that you might hit them too? You’re quite likely to get hit yourself. The same goes for cutting too soon so your blade is under theirs to reach their legs. It’s all good if they tried to parry your feint but if they tried to strike you instead, you’re stuffed. Dropping the point is slightly safer, I would argue, because depending on how you do it you can still cover the initial like between their sword and your body. It’s tricky to pull off but it is doable. It’s still safer, I would argue, to take a German Longsword approach and get a bind first then wind down to their lower openings, if you wanted to go down that path. The last option of pulling back your blade and using the momentum to power an opposite cut is actually quite similar to making the cut too early so it goes short—if you do it within measure as you’re stepping in, you’re very likely to get hit if they don’t try to parry it.

What are the solutions for feinting then? Simple. Don’t step into measure as you feint. If you want a single rule, that’s it. Beyond that, the first kind of feint that I mentioned, where you extend your arm but don’t cut till the last second, personally, I reckon that will endanger you unnecessarily no matter what so basically, don’t do that one at all. For the others though, do them without stepping forward into distance and you’ll be much safer. If they get tricked, you’ll have your time to step into your true cut, and if they don’t, we’ll at least you didn’t step onto their blade yourself.

But there’s something more to talk about. There are more feints you can do than just feint high, strike low! If you do anything again and again, people will figure out that that’s your “trick.” So many people in any kind of sport or intellectual endeavour just learn a few “tricks” that they repeat. The tricks might have real principles behind them but if you limit those principles just to the trick as you know it then you’re limiting what you can do. And if that’s simply feint high, strike low, people will figure that out pretty quickly and find ways to use it against you. My challenge to you if you want to learn how to feint well is to practice moving the blade from any one cut to any other within a single tempo. It’s learning how to feint by changing guards as well as cutting; by practicing as many different varieties as you can and always keeping your opponent guessing. Anything less than that and you will beat new people more often than not but you’ll never truly progress far enough to reach your true potential.

So, never let a feinting enemy get the better of you—step back and shame their trickery. Feint safely and in a variety of ways—or you’ll suffer from the very thing you’re hoping to achieve, an opponent out-thinking you so much they can control or predict what you will do next…

(Photo accessed from Wiktenauer)

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