Counter-cutting—newb error or legit technique?

I hear so many instructors telling people off for trying to block a cut by swinging wildly into it. Is that really a problem though? And if it is, does that mean counter-cutting is useless or is there a way to do it properly?

So yeah, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that swinging wildly into a cut isn’t the smartest way to defend yourself. But let’s figure out why. Let’s take it back a step. Why do people do it in the first place? I put it to you they think, ARRRGH a sword is coming towards me, quick put something in the way! Or, more precisely, their brain makes a few quick decisions, overrides the normal thought process and does that out of instinct. But it’s doing it because, in a sense, it’s the smart thing to do. If you can move something into the path of something travelling towards you, chances are it either won’t hit you or at least it won’t hit you with as much force. That’s effectively what we do anyway once we know what we’re doing, we just do it in a more efficient way.

How so? Well there are a few reasons just cutting wildly isn’t the smartest thing to do. Most Medieval systems in HEMA teach lines of attack. The sword is striking from this side to that side through the most efficient way of reaching it. This is largely due to biomechanics, i.e. what makes sense for the human body to do. If you learn the proper ways to cut, not only will you be more efficient and have an advantage over people who don’t, but you will know the ways a sword can move. This means you’ll know best how to counter them. A further point though is that many new people over-commit when they cut. They swing too far because they use more force than is necessary which means they take longer to move the sword somewhere new. Basically, new fighters can be feinted very easily and to great success, partly because feinting triggers people’s defence and if their defence is to over-swing then they’ve left themselves wide open. A big problem, basically, is that new fighters don’t know how to cut properly.

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then to learn that many instructors teach people not to cut into a cut. There’s so much that can go wrong from them doing that that if they can be taught, say, a parry-riposte system instead, they’re likely to be much safer. And here’s the other thing underlying teaching a parry-riposte system instead: some new fencers don’t realise it’s more important not to get hit than it is to hit the other person. If you just cut at your opponent every time they strike at you, you’ll just end up with double hits. But if you can learn to protect yourself primarily and to counter-attack only once you’ve neutralised the threat, that’s a much safer system. In a parry-riposte system of moving the forte (/strong/i.e. bottom third of the sword) into the blow, it’s actually harder to over-commit the parry than it is a cut and even if you do, it’s easier to recover. So you have the benefit of a defensive system that is easier to perfect and more forgiving if you muck it up. Sounds pretty good. Add to that that it also trains you instinctively to defend yourself when attacked rather than potentially just counter-attacking, and you’ll start to see why it’s so popular.

Is there any point in counter-cutting then? Yes. I still think there is. But we should be considering it a technique for skilled fencers and not something to teach most new ones. See, if done well, counter-cutting can protect you as well as any parry and it has a few other advantages too. Let’s start with doing it properly: if you cut in such a way that you cover the line of the opponent’s swing but cut to the opponent as well rather than their weapon, then if your weapons collide you’ll both be at a bind but if they don’t, your opponent will still get hit. In other words, if you don’t over-swing and you cut on the correct angles, you should be fine. If they feint you out of measure, by not over-swinging you’ll still have time to follow up with something new. Conversely, if they feint in measure, they’ll pay the prince by getting struck from your blow before they can make their second. This, in my opinion, is actually a benefit of counter-cutting over parrying in that it penalises the poor form of an opponent if they feint in measure.  If you do it right, therefore, you can keep yourself as safe as a guard and still be more offensive too. The kicker is that it’s harder to get right.

There are two other reasons I think counter-cutting to defend yourself can give you advantage over your opponent. Let’s start with guards. No guard can move with perfect ease into every other guard or form of cut. Some are more flexible than others while others are more specialised for certain things. The benefit of some guards, however, is that you can make certain cuts from them that are useful in defence. Let’s take the iron-gates/fool’s guard group of low guards. Yes,  you can raise the sword to a hanging parry from them but their strength, I would argue, comes from being able to powerfully displace another cut by counter-cutting it from beneath. Even if you’d rather always raise to hanging parries, you’re limiting your options available. Worse, if your opponent knows how to cut from guards and all you know is parrying, then they will be able to protect themselves in ways you won’t expect. In a game where out-thinking your opponent is key, being able to do things that work but they don’t understand is incredibly useful.

The last reason I have is about binding and it’s very similar to counter-cutting from guards. Basically, if you only ever bind with the forte of your blade, you’ll only ever be good at binding with the forte of your blade. If you learn how to act at the bind whether the blades meet at the top, middle or bottom, you’ll be much better prepared to deal with more situations. This is partly because in actual sparring, people don’t always pull off the tidy move they were expecting but it also means you can use that skill against your opponent if they don’t have it. If you know how to bind at the top third of your blades and they don’t, it’s something you can force on them to your advantage. They’ll either need to give ground or risk playing the game by your rules. Practicing counter-cutting and studying treatises that teach it will give  you the understanding and confidence to bind in multiple ways and therefore be more versatile in how you fight. And to me, that’s something worthwhile.

So is counter-cutting just a newb thing? No. But it’s like any art: there are some things you need to unlearn before you can relearn them in the correct way. Counter-cutting is one of those. It works really well when you know what you’re doing but it’s very easy to get wrong. So maybe put it aside as something to work on later if you’re just starting out but if you’re searching for new ways to improve your swordsmanship, definitely give it a go.

(Photo from Talhoffer’s manuscript. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Try and convince me the next picture doesn’t come from a rising cut…)

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