You’ve heard of overreaching but have you heard of overswinging? It seems straightforward right, if you swing you can overswing. Anything you can do, you can overdo. The principle is rather straightforward but, as with many things in sword fighting, it’s easier to understand in theory than apply to your own fights. Maybe you need to overswing less yourself, or maybe you don’t take enough advantage of those who do. Either way, it’s worth discussing.
So let’s start with the problem of overswinging. What is it? Basically, if you make a blow (usually a cut—and that’s what I’ll be focussing on here, though you can ‘overthrust’ as well and similar principles apply), if you make a blow you shouldn’t put more energy than you need to into it. The more energy you put into it, the harder it is to change, and the harder it is to recover from. Overswinging is often not just about force though. It’s often about angles or targets. Someone who overswings with a basic cut from their right shoulder is likely to end up with their sword pointing offline at the ground on their left side. Combine ending in this position with having too much force and you stay in this position for much longer than you should—that’s the crux of overswinging.
Now many systems teach you to keep your sword as threatening to your opponent as possible. An example of this is the German idea found both in i33 and the Lichtenauer lineage of ‘cutting to the centre’. Basically, rather than your cut ending at the ground, it’s meant to finish its journey, even if you have no blade contact, in the centre line between your chest and theirs. While I mainly practice Fiore, I can appreciate the wisdom being such a general rule. If you train yourself to cut in this way, you’re very unlikely to overswing, and much more likely to be constantly threatening your opponent.
And yet, it removes some of the options available to you. So let’s say you’re either a beginner or you practice a system that doesn’t inherently teach you to cut in a way that deliberately avoids overswinging. What do you do when you find yourself doing it? Well, for starters, use less force—or, ironically use more. It’s all about your plan. If you’re making a feint (out of measure) to follow through the cut and transition into another blow, then be fast about it and use your momentum to get to that new blow. By all means use more force than normal if you need to but the key is to do this out of measure so you’re safe as you do so.
If you’re in measure, or your blow brings you into measure, then cut like you mean it—cut to hit the opponent. Cut in such a way that if they don’t block it, they’ll get hit. But what if they step back out of the way? This is where not putting more energy than you need to comes in. Of course you need enough force to make a solid cut, but it doesn’t need every fibre of your back to be put into it. Ironically, if you do that, not only will you have telegraphed your attack, but you might make it too slow to hit them. Use less energy, be faster, and that way you’ll also be able to change the direction of your sword, or slow it down, if you need to.
But the other key point is to make sure you have good angles. Practice making cuts that travel efficiently to your opponent, that block you along the way, have great initial leverage at the bind and can transition to other cuts either by pulling back or following through. In short, make good diagonal cuts. See this earlier post of mine on why diagonal cuts are so important, but suffice to say, if you make diagonal cuts without too much force, you’ll be most of the way there.
Also, this might sound strange, but actually practice returning to guard after you make an attack. You might not have too much force, or be the wrong angle, but if you keep an offline position, you’ll still be at a disadvantage. Don’t let your practice drill end at a cut. Always let it end at a parry or return to guard afterwards. Most people who overcut do so because of too much force or bad angles—don’t be someone who’s trained to overcome them but just stays in a bad position for no good reason.
The one caveat to all this—the one time it’s good to overswing, is when you’re not actually doing it. It’s great to feint overswinging—but not actually go through with it. Fiore himself has a version of this which is tricky to pull off but the essence is still there. If you pull your sword back that little bit further, if you tense your shoulders looking like your about to strike, then when you do, they’ll often think you’re striking in the way you telegraphed it. So long as you do something else, or set yourself up for a counter to a counter—importantly, without actually overswinging—then you can use it against them.
But what if your problem isn’t that you overswing, it’s that you don’t take advantage of it when others do? It seems to me there’s two main benefits to when people overswing and it comes down to why it’s a problem for them in the first place. It almost always means they aren’t threatening you with their weapon, and it almost always means they’re a tempo away from being able to strike you. The way you use that against them is to either strike at them in that tempo without mercy—ideally in such a way that it covers your line against a potential counter-cut—or close in on them. I believe it was either Swetnam or Silver who said to never close in on an opponent but to use closing methods against one who did. I get his point, but I disagree. If you’re better at close play than your opponent, then when they overswing is one of the best times to use it. The only other best time is when you’re at a bind—especially a bind with a guard that sets you up for close play.
But that’s perhaps a blog for another time. For now, hopefully I’ve left you with enough to ponder about overswinging. Whether you do it yourself and need to train not to, or you don’t take enough advantage of others when they do, hopefully you’ll be able to improve. Lastly, though in my head I’m imagining a longsword as I write this, overswinging is common to all fighting. It can be with a short sword, a long sword, a curved sword, a thin sword. It could be in boxing, MMA, or knife fighting too. Overswinging is something that all fighters need to wrestle with, so let’s wrestle with it, and come out on top.
(Photo sourced from Wiktenauer)