Defending with the single handed sword

De Fechtbuch Talhoffer 221

As I have said previously, it is easy to defend with a shield – you just need to keep the shield between you and your opponent. But what if you don’t have a shield? This article explores the options for defending with a single-handed sword.

Three kinds of defence

There are three basic kinds of defence with a sword, which I refer to as blockparry, and void.

The block is where you stick your sword in your opponent’s way. It is not subtle, or particularly strong, and should be a last resort. A static block is weak and easily deceived. With foam swords, it is common for the attacking sword to simply bounce, pushing the defending sword out of the way and continuing to strike the target on a slightly different line. For these reasons, blocking is a last resort.

The parry on the other hand is an active defence. To parry, you intercept your opponent’s weapon with your own. You take control of it and put it where you want it to be. This could be with a beat – which involves striking the weapon in order to move it off its intended line, or with a bind – which is where you engage, maintain contact, and push it offline. Either works, but the latter requires a little more practice.

The void is always the preferred defence where possible. The best defence of all is to not be where your opponent’s sword is. This requires footwork. You must also remember that defending yourself is not sufficient – you also have to strike your opponent in order to win the fight. This means you must manoeuvre yourself into a position where you can hit your opponent, but your opponent cannot hit you. When your opponent strikes, take a small step backwards and strike for their arm. Move around them and strike from their shield side.

Defending against different weapons

Sword against sword is fairly straightforward, but the situation is more complicated when your opponent has a different weapon.

Against two-handed swords, blocks are almost useless. Your opponent has more leverage than you do, and can simply push through or deceive your block. You are much better off with a parry, though you must remember that with two hands on the weapon, your opponent’s grip and leverage will be stronger than your own. Use voids wherever possible and strike for your opponent’s forearms.

Mass weapons – axes, maces and hammers – are very strong in the strike, but slow in the recovery. They move in straightforward circles with little finesse. It is hard for the attacker to redirect them they have committed. However, you can parry and get some leverage over them – the heavy mass at the end carries a lot of momentum, and if you can gain control over that, it is difficult for the opponent to recover quickly. Again, voiding their attack is preferable. This allows you to counter during their long recovery.

Pole weapons such as spears and halberds are problematic for shieldless fighters, as they are very fast and dangerous, and will strike to the leg, which is harder for you to defend. You will need to rely on the void almost exclusively. However, remember that they are reach weapons – they aren’t as good against someone very close. Your best bet is to bind the weapon to control it and move in as quickly as you can before releasing the bind to strike at close range. Never fight at the spear’s range.

Fighting against someone with a shield when you do not have one is always going to be problematic. All other things equal, a fighter with a shield should always defeat one without a shield. However, there are still things you can do. In order to strike, they will need to reach out with their sword arm. Many shield fighters do not adequately defend this arm when they strike – especially if their shield is large. The sword arm is therefore vulnerable to counters. Also, try and manoeuvre to their shield side – they will have to reach around their own shield to get to you. You will need speed and luck.


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