The Paladin drew his butter knife across the air. “I am putting what the Maestro taught us into words,” he said. “His philosophy for fencing which I don’t think he ever said, but everything we do fits into.”
The knife’s tip carved an arc through space, over the half-empty whisky bottle and the post-meal detritus on the dinner table, to cleave into the head of an imaginary foe.
“It is about efficiency of movement,” he said. “When I make a hit, I imagine a line from the tip of my sword to the target. Not stabbing them in the face, but bringing the point just above the mask so that it hits.”
He recovered and traced another arc, this time to my chest. “Same for the other targets,” he said. “I imagine lines going around their blade, just going around their guard to hit the target. I never take my tip outside because it would take too long for me to make the hit.”
I mimed a parry with my own knife.
“I take my tip outside if they are searching for the blade or taking parry,” he said, disengaging. “But otherwise I take the path with the shortest possible distance between my tip and the target.”
How to hit someone with a sword is one of those topics that seems simple at first but shoves you down the deep dark rabbit hole of controversy if you keep going for long enough. As far back as the 14th century AD, students of the German swordsmaster Lichtenauer were indignant enough to inscribe in their codex (3227A, translated by Harrison Ridgeway):
“It is a complete and legitimate method, where everything is done in the nearest and shortest, simplest and most direct way, as if the cut or thrust of the fencer is guided by a wire pulling on the point or edge of the sword, straight to the openings of the opponent.”
“In this way, the fencer makes their attack in the nearest, shortest and most decisive way they possibly can, and this method will not have the flashy, exaggerated parries, or wide fencing actions which people burden and slow themselves with.”
These words apply to the sabre as much as they do to the Langenswert. The aim of the game in sabre fencing is to hit your opponent with your sabre first and, ideally, not get hit. To paraphrase Zorro, the pointy end goes into the other man.
The sooner you do this, the better. So the best hits go from wherever your sabre is to the closest target on your opponent’s body. Tempting as it is charge close and hack them down, like an axe-wielding berserker, remember they have a sabre too and can hit back. Hit straight and hit soon.
Opponents rarely just stand still to await your hit, Mensur-style, so you will need to launch yourself at them. The ballistics of your flight and the biomechanics of how your joints articulate means that your sabre will carve a segment through the air, its tip tracing a single flat arc to the target.
The arc is the fastest path to the target. You can stab instead or take any number of detours along the way, but those paths are slower.
Single arc hits are called ‘direct attacks’. The simplest direct attack is from your starting guard 3 to the opponent’s head. It is the closest practical target. Their wrist and arm are closer, but they can be yanked away easily in response to your strike, whereas the head cannot. “Head” is a relative position — if your opponent much taller than you, aim lower. My grandcoach taught little children to stab their opponents in the throat.
Head is not the only target for direct attacks. If you have your blade down low across your body, the direct attack is to the flank of a same-handed opponent. If your blade is down on your sword arm side, the direct attack is to the belly. And so on, for every other position you can conceive of.
Sometimes these positions are immediately after a parry. Thus after you parry across your body (‘guard 4’) you can direct attack to the opponent’s cheek. Or after a parry above your head, riposte under their arm.
Direct attacks are great. They make up the majority of hits I use and teach. They hit fast and they hit hard — the most momentum of all attacks, as long as you throw your body weight behind them with your legs, rather than limiting yourself to your relatively puny arm muscles.
The writers of the Codex would be proud of the baby Busan K-fencers who are taught nothing but direct attacks, executed with astonishing force and only supplemented with the occasional beat, for their entire offensive repertoire until they are well within the senior leagues.
One such K-fencer, who came over to crash in our garage for a week and stayed for six months, was so convinced of the direct attack’s merits that he would rather remise and counterparry his opponents than contemplate the possibility of attacking any other way.
For all their advantages, direct attacks also have some glaring drawbacks. The most obvious one is that your opponent can see where your hit will go and guess the path that it will take. So they know where to parry.
That doesn’t help them if you get close enough — to the ‘point-of-no-escape’, or PONE — but that is not always easy or possible. The Paladin taught me a drill, originally from his Maestro, to practice getting into the PONE. But even he conceded that little gracile types like me might need to use beats or binds to get there, and something other than direct attacks if I couldn’t.
A less obvious disadvantage of direct attacks involves its range. The range of your attack is how far you can reach with your sabre and arm extended, and the length of your launch — whether that is a step, lunge, or flunge.
Your arm movements sync with your launch. That is, you start extending your arm as you launch, and fully extend your arm to hit as you land.
Assuming you move your sabre as fast as you can — and you should — the shorter the arc of your direct attack, the less time it takes to get to the target. This means less time for you to be in flight, and thus less range for your overall attack.
It also works in reverse. When you want to make a long attack, you instinctively “wind up” during the hit. This adds path length and time to your arc, so that your hit lands at the same time as your flight. The longer your attack, the bigger the wind up.
This is at the heart of many stubborn technical mistakes that plague sabre fencers. Some of them try to mitigate this by stabbing, which allows them to fully extend their arm before their flight lands, but makes it easy for their opponents to parry.
Classically-trained sabre fencers learn to hold the sabre back during the initial part of the launch, only committing to their hit mid-flight. This decoupling of bladework from footwork is an old idea. But it is difficult to master, and itself vulnerable to counterattacks. So most fencers, under pressure, just wind up.
The alternative to direct attacks are indirect attacks. Strictly speaking, indirect attacks are any attacks with a path that isn’t the shortest arc. Most of these paths are not effective — they just give your opponent ample time to get away, parry, or hit you first. The ones that are effective follow paths that are either short enough to get before the opponent can parry, or just long enough to disengage around them while still hitting in time for the counterattack.
The simplest type of indirect attacks are just those who take a short arc to a target other than the closest one. So from guard 3, the direct attack is to the head, and the short-arc attacks are to places like chest, belly and flank.
These short-arc indirect attacks take a little longer to execute than the direct version, but have more range and are better against parries.
Each short-arc attack also has a long-arc counterpart that hits to the same target but takes the longer opposite path. For example, a short-arc attack to belly curves to the right against a right-handed opponent, and the long-arc version loops to the left around the opponent’s sabre.
The long-arc attacks have even more range than the short-arc version. They also look like you’re hitting to a different target than you actually are, so they are more effective against parries. The tradeoff is that counterattacks work against long-arc attacks; not all the time, but certainly more often than against short-arc or direct attacks.
Then there are the compound attacks, also called ‘feint attacks’. These are the ones that use more than one arc during your flight. You make an arc towards one target, then make a second arc to a different real target.
Compound attacks are most effective against parries, and are sub-classified accordingly: ‘disengages’ go under the opponent’s sabre guard, ‘cutovers’ go over their sabre’s tip. In general, disengages are less effective against parries but more so against counterattacks. Cutovers are the opposite.
You can add more feint-arcs for compound attacks but it isn’t usually practical to do so. To paraphrase Mark Twain, be afraid of the ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before, and doesn’t do the thing he ought to do. You never know whether your opponent will attempt to parry your feints; they might just stick their sabre out in a blind panic instead. Never overestimate the competence of your opponent.
I’m a cranky old man now, by sport standards, so I don’t insist on my students doing what I think they ought to do, advice above included. If you can land your hits, however you do it, keep doing it. And if someone complains, you can debate your flaws with them after you beat them.
But physics is a harsh mistress. Every deviation from the motions that she favours costs you time and momentum. Keep your hits straight, your arcs short, and your attacks simple. That way you hit with physics on your side.