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.