Four Defences, Three Parries

De Fechtbuch Talhoffer 224

Anyone can defend themselves with a shield. You literally just put it in the way of incoming attacks. You can close off lines of attack, funnelling your opponent’s attacks into the areas you want them to go. The bigger the shield, the more you can hide behind it.

But when you do not have a shield, you need to use your skill. In all cases, the priority is to remain safe from your opponent’s attack. Even if you hit and kill your opponent, if you yourself are simultaneously hit and killed, you haven’t won the fight. Both lose on a “mutual”, and it requires almost no skill to do so.

Hence, the art of fighting is often referred to as the art of defence, and not the art of attack.

There are four basic ways to defend yourself when you do not have a shield, and they are listed here in order from best to worst:

The Pre-emptive strike: If you hit your opponent before they even have a chance to attack, you may be able to end the fight before it begins. You remain safe, because your opponent hasn’t had an opportunity to throw an attack of their own. Attacking first is always the best defence.

Where your opponent has multiple hit points, which is almost always the case in our game, then this alone may not be sufficient to win the fight.

Void and counterattack: The “void” is the subtle and careful art of not being there when your opponent attacks. However, it is important to remember that simply dodging everything your opponent throws at you is insufficient. It keeps you safe, but it does not end the fight, and you cannot win just by dodging.

Hence, the counterattack. You must put yourself in a position where you can strike your opponent, and yet not be struck in return. Moving to their off-side can work, as they need to reach across their own body in order to hit you. Striking at their extended weapon arm can be better. This way you can stay out of the reach of their strike at your body, and stay in reach to strike at their arm.

Counterattack with opposition: Difficult to achieve in practice with bouncy foam swords, the counterattack with opposition consists of intercepting their attack with your own attack, simultaneously striking your target and blocking their attack. Historically, most often seen in rapier schools, where large and impactful swings are rare or discouraged.

I refer to a technique that I call the Cone of Defence. In all positions of the sword arm, you keep the point directed at your opponent’s chest. In the first position, your arm is raised and your hand pointed away from you. Rotate your arm so that it is horizontal and your palm is down to reach the second position. Continue rotating until your arm is lowered to your hip and your palm faces your off-hand for the third position. Raise your arm, palm facing up, for the fourth position which is the opposite of second. In each position, the point remains on target for your opponent’s body.

From an ordinary guard position, you can transition to one of the positions of the Cone of Defence, or somewhere in between two positions, to intercept your opponent’s attack while simultaneously striking their body with your point.

Parry and riposte: Intercepting your opponent’s weapon with your own is the most commonly depicted method of defence in Hollywood movies and video games, yet there’s a good reason for it to be the last of the preferred methods in an actual fight. The reason is that the parry and riposte is a double-time technique. You parry, then you riposte. Your parry intercepts your opponent’s attack, but in the time it takes you to launch your own attack, your opponent has time to move into a parry. Or worse, they have time to actually launch a second attack, forcing you to parry again. And a third, and a fourth, until they get tired of attacking you and decide to give you a break. Because they feel sorry for you or something.

Sometimes it is simply impossible to avoid having to parry an attack. If the attack is coming at you, sometimes you just have to stick your sword in the way in order to remain unhit. And for this reason I will outline the three different kinds of parry, which are block, deflect, and intercept.

Block: This is the simplest and least effective kind of parry, consisting of literally just sticking your sword in the way of the incoming attack. It is weak, because your opponent can often simply power through your block to strike you anyway. It does not put you in a position where you can effectively take your next move, because all of the momentum of your opponent’s attack is transferred into your sword and arm.

For this reason I suggest the Deflect: It is similar to the Block, except that your sword is angled so that the opponent’s blade slides off to one side or the other. If you do the deflect with your point down – a hanging guard – then the weapon will slide off. If you do the deflect with the point up, then your opponent’s sword will get caught on your crossguard, from where you can exert some kind of control over it. Again, with bouncy foam swords it can be difficult, as the weapons will not stay in contact for very long.

The best kind of parry is the intercept. Here, you are beating your opponent’s sword in order to knock it off course. Those who have trained with me have heard me say that you should attack your opponent’s body and not their sword, and this is still true. You should not launch an attack at your opponent’s weapon. An intercept, however, is a form of defence, not an attack. Strike your opponent’s blade with your own – with foam swords you will get a good bounce and their attack will be spoiled. However, you should be aware of what this move will do to your own sword. If you’re quick and clever, you can use the momentum of the bounce in a followup attack.

All of these defences, of course, still work when you have a shield. However, if you are using your weapon for defence, you are not using it for attack. The shield is better at defending than a weapon is – use it.

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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.