Charge!—The best guards for running into battle

This might not be something you think of immediately when you start any kind of historical fencing. Most sparring takes place in duels between two people. You start off at a nice, safe distance from each other and then step into measure when you’re ready. Group combat is fundamentally different. If you don’t reach the enemy when your friends do, they’re at a disadvantage. Moreover, if you’ve got people behind you pushing you on, you might not have much of a choice. But how do you charge forwards in a way that doesn’t endanger your own side, and gives you the best chance of staying alive in the chaos of two sides colliding?

Let’s start with charging forwards in Long Point. You’re holding the sword in both hands, extended out in front of you as far as can be, pointing towards the enemy. Pretty simple. Pretty stupid too. Yes, if it’s stretched out far it’s probably got more distance on it relative to someone with a similar sword being held back. You’re probably going to skewer them before they skewer you. That’s not how you stay alive though. If you had a spear which was much longer than anything else nearby, that almost makes sense, but there are countless tales of people being stabbed by a spear but running up it and still injuring their opponents. In short, bad plan. Add to that, that it’s not really manoeuvrable so not only can they tell where you’re attacking but you’re less able to block from it, and it gets even worse. The clincher, in my opinion, requires you to think for a second about what you’re doing in this scenario. It’s the sword equivalent of a 5-year old running around with scissors:  sharp pointy object, at speed, little control, chance of tripping… see my point?

Isn’t that all swords though? Aren’t they inherently dangerous no matter what? Sure. I put it to you, though, that running in some guards is more dangerous than others. Let’s take the Ox Guard. It’s a slight step up from Long Point. Because it’s on an angle towards your opponent it’s giving you a few advantages over before. One, it’s already covering a line, so you’re safer than just sticking the point out. Two, because of the angle of it, if you do trip or stumble, you can curve it away from your body more easily; it’s already perfectly set up to go around you if it’s displaced. Three, it’s slightly less extended so you can move it to another guard to protect yourself if need be. Also, it’s still going to have the point on-line so you will still stab the enemy if they do nothing. All in all, probably one of the better stabbing guards you could use but it’s still rather limited.

Why? I hear you ask. See, in a battle, with multiple weapons and people, there are more factors at play than just “killing” that one opponent you’re initially targeting. If you stab someone in a duel, chances are they’re preoccupied with being stabbed and aren’t so likely to retaliate. If you stab someone in a group fight, your sword is trapped while they’ve got their friends nearby, who probably aren’t too happy about you stabbing them. What you want is to cut in your initial charge. Not only does cutting have the power to displace blades and potentially people too, but if you do cut someone, you’ll free your blade sooner by completing the cut than you would by pulling it out after stabbing them. Convinced? That’s good. We still need to figure out what the best guard to cut from is though.

What about one of the most basic guards, Posta di Donna? Your sword is over your shoulder, point hanging over your back, muscles ready to launch a powerful blow whenever you wish. This has a lot going for it. The blade is out of your way while you’re running—no real risk of hitting yourself with it (even Ox has some degree of risk) so that’s a plus. Fiore claims you can strike any of his cuts from it, and he’s right—so you’ve got a lot of options when you do actually strike. Since it’s pulled back as well, it’s ready to spring out so you can move it incredibly quickly to wherever you want to go. Sounds great then, doesn’t it? Well, there’s one key downside to it. Remember I said “the blade is out of your way”? Yeah, big pointy tip over the back of your shoulder, not quite out of the way of the guy running up behind you. You’ve got a chance of accidentally stabbing whoever’s behind you in the face if they get too close, or even hitting them by accident when you actually do strike. So yeah, for you personally, it’s great, for those around you though,  it’s worth considering something a bit more team-friendly.

So what is the best guard to charge in with? Drum roll please… That’s right—Vom Tag. There are two ways of doing this. The first is to hold the sword high about your head, tip to the sky and slightly back. The second is to have it basically in the same position but instead of being over your head, it’s down over your right side, roughly cross-guard near your pectoral muscle or pommel above your hip—whatever works for you. The key advantage Vom Tag has over Posta di Donna is that, because the tip is more vertical, and the sword is overall a bit further forward, you’re much less likely to hit someone behind you by accident. You still have most of the benefits of Posta di Donna, arguably you can’t do as many cuts but you can still do strong downwards blows which should suffice to defend yourself in the initial charge. Of the variations of Vom Tag, I’d actually go with resting it near your right pec rather than over your head, for the following reason: having it there already effectively covers a line. It’s quickest cut is angled to go from your right shoulder  to diagonally across your body. This means you can, incredibly quickly, cover that line since the sword’s already in that plane. It’s still held back and manoeuvrable enough to cut somewhere else if necessary, but covering that line primarily will protect you from most attacks you’re likely to face with two sides charging towards each other. So there we have it, Vom Tag down the right side.

And I stick with Vom Tag, I really do. This is my favourite guard to charge headlong into the fray with (What’s the point of having cliches if we never use them?). But there is a caveat to all this I think is worth mentioning. By all means run in with Vom Tag but you’ll find, I think, that most people slow down before actually reaching the enemy. In every form of battle re-enactment I’ve taken part in and seen, most battle lines slow down and form up, even if just a bit, before reaching the enemy. See, remember when I talked about Viking shieldwalls? A point I made is that you’re much safer a few feet away from the enemy, where they’re just out of range and so are you. In situations like this, you have an ebb-and-flow of one person slightly reaching forward to attack then retreating and another counter attacks him and so on. That still seems to be the main way of fighting once two sides are opposite one another. And I’d say bear that in mind, however, you’re going to need a good guard for running in, regardless, so Vom Tag up and charge!

(Photo accessed online at Wikimedia Commons. And, yes, you could use a horse. That would work too…)

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