Facing a master swordsman is terrifying, as is facing someone with a spear when you only have a shortsword. But there’s a danger you might come across that you underestimate, someone who trades you blow for blow or, worse, hits you without being hit in return—and it’s the first time they’ve ever picked up a sword. Where did all your training go? Out the window when you fought the stabby newb.
What is the stabby newb? As the name implies, it’s a complete beginner who doesn’t know anything other than “stick em with the pointy end”. They usually hold the sword in a pulled-back guard with the point forward to set themselves up to stab you but deny you a bind on their weapon. Of course, they don’t think of it like that. They just think “arghh go away” or “I’m not going to let them do something tricky to me”. They usually hold it near their chest in a kind of clumsy Poste Breve way and stab for centre of mass. Doesn’t sound so hard to beat, does it? Sounds very predictable.
But it’s an inherently unpredictable guard and they make it even more unpredictable by being unaware of the danger they’re in. You could say there’s a kind of upside-down triangle that governs an important aspect of swordsmanship. At the top, your choices are between committing to an action or controlling a space, which usually gives you an advantage but tells your opponent what you’re doing, and not committing to an action or controlling a space, which gives you the benefit of unpredictability and surprise. What underpins this delicate balancing act (remember, it’s an upside-down triangle) is the need to do the next best move to avoid getting hit. Even someone who constantly feints and doesn’t care about controlling the centre should only truly strike when they believe they’ve controlled the mind of their opponent and created an opening. And someone who fights to control the centre needs to be aware they’re still at risk and make their attacks in the most efficient and safe way as possible, and have well-trained counters ready for any eventuality. The underlying need to not be hit inherently limits the options of each style and stops most swordsmen from doing something so risky it leaves them wide open.
But not the stabby newb. The stabby newb doesn’t know how to keep themselves safe and so the whole triangle collapses in on itself. They end up half controlling the centre and half being highly deceptive and unpredictable, but they don’t think to block or stay in a safe measure. They panic stab at you again and again, pulling the sword back after each thrust, not caring if they’ve hit you or not, just stabbing again until you go away.
And this is a problem, because they have a highly unpredictable guard with a highly unpredictable style. If you just try to cut them they’ll almost certainly panic stab instead of block and if you try to control the centre with Long Point or an oberhau, they’ll probably try to step to the side and panic stab you again, if they don’t just walk onto your point and counter stab you in the first place. Try to feint them and you may succeed but don’t be surprised if they afterblow you with a panic stab before you can safely withdraw or counter it.
What do you try to do then? Trying to catch the panic stab is a dangerous option, and where most good fighters fall victim to the stabby newb. Counter cut, parry, use a rebatta or Fiore’s exchanging thrusts and you will succeed, if your timing is perfect and you didn’t get tricked. See, the only thing they know how to do is to move quickly and unpredictably, which means telling the difference between a feint and a committed thrust is almost impossible because they don’t always know when they’re going to pull back. It’s all instinct. You’re playing poker with a monkey that keeps going all in, but just happens to have pocket aces; don’t call him, it’s not worth the risk and you don’t need to.
What you want is to be able to control the unpredictable. And your best tool for this is time. Give yourself time to see how they fight, and the way you do that is by staying out of measure until you’re convinced it’s safe to enter it. Now, if you wait, you might see a pattern to their panic stabs and be able to parry, rebat or counter cut as you like. Once you have, just go in for a wind or use close-play techniques—nine out of ten newbs won’t have a clue what to do up close either and the one that does will likely not be expecting it. You might get even luckier though in that they might commit to a stab if you stay out of measure in the frustration of trying to reach you. That’s ideal, in which case, make the appropriate block and close as before. What if they don’t though? Then feint them out of measure and see what happens. If you don’t think you can create an opening safe from an afterblow, get creative. See if you can set up a bind rather than a free shot—such as by feint striking then hard parrying to your centre, hopefully triggering their stab and catching it, setting up the bind and chance to close. The point is to play to your strengths not theirs: theirs is a one trick pony of unpredictability, yours is all the principles and techniques you’ve learned over the years.
But so often experienced fighters get cocky against newbs, “I know three different sword systems, this little runt can’t hit me.” Try again. Your biggest weakness against a newb is your arrogance. You might hit them as much as they hit you but that’s embarrassing for you, and nothing to be proud of. Be smarter than that. Be the person who doesn’t get hit and who takes their time to evaluate their opponent. You should always do that anyway, but especially against someone you can’t predict.
Now I have a few final points to make. People who’ve done traditional foil, epee, etc. fencing are also likely to fall into this category. The degree to which they fall into it depends on their level of skill. Someone who fences foil every weekend and picks up your longsword for fun is just fighting you in a different style to what you’re used to but they still know what they’re doing. Someone who hasn’t fenced for five or ten years and only ever held a foil is much more likely to panic stab. Ironically, the opposite is the case for people who are amateurs. They know enough about what they don’t know—and have probably learned by now the point is to not get hit—that they’re much less likely to leave themselves open trying to hit you. They’re much more predictable because they’re playing by the same rules, you’re just presumably better at them so you’re at a true advantage. Give me an amateur over a newb any day.
Lastly, not all newbs are stabby newbs. And it’s probably wrong to think of it as a blanket category anyway. I wouldn’t think of it as a spectrum either, but a category someone often, sometimes or rarely falls into. Nevertheless, many newbs are often panic blockers instead while many others don’t panic at all but just wildly overswing. Panic blockers are easy enough because they very rarely remember to counter. They might block a hit or two but keep hitting or feinting them and you’ll be fine. People who overswing are probably a bit more dangerous but they’re a lot of fun. You probably haven’t met many people you can perform Fiore’s “Defence Against a Peasant Strike” on but when you do, make the most of it. Either that or just use them as practice for making good parry-ripostes, German winds, well-timed blows or perform feints to trigger them in the first place. People who overcut are usually fairly predictable. Make the most of it.
But they’re a blog post for another time, today we’re focusing on the stabby newb. Remember a panic blocker might start panic stabbing at a moment’s notice and even an experienced swordsman can fall victim to it in the wrong circumstances. Train to beat both the stabby newb and the master swordsman alike and you’ll do better against both, and everyone in between.
(Picture sourced from Wiktenauer)