During this past Longpoint, I spent a good amount of time watching one of the tournament’s top competitors fight his matches. He was doing something that is all too common both in and out of competitions from a great majority of fencers. He was spending most of the matches within one passing step of his opponent, occasionally getting so close that only a half step was needed. The next day, I spoke to him about it. I suggested that perhaps we are not meant to be defaulting to such a close distance. He explained that he agreed, and that he encourages his students back home to fight further apart. I asked, “Why do you fight so close, then?” The answer, “Because I’m fast enough.” I then asked, “If I replaced your and your opponent’s feders with sharp swords, would you take the same risk?” The answer, “No.”
When I think about this conversation, it isn’t the engagement that I’m focusing on. Once someone gets close enough to cut or thrust another with a longsword, of course you are close enough to not need more than a small step. I’m focusing on the approach. The Zufechten. A part of the fight that all of us recognize as existing, but that many of us neglect. This is the place in the fight where you are safest. It is the place where you evaluate your opponent and decide on a plan for attacking him safely. It is the place that allows you enough time to appropriately respond to what they may strike against you.
I’ve spent the last year mulling over a few subjects that, at the time I started considering them seriously, seemed like separate efforts. Many of these ideas came from discussions with people like Jake Norwood, Jessica Finley, Cory Winslow, Michael Chidester, and others that I regularly speak with. The thoughts were centered around three questions:
- How does Liechtenauer’s system of fencing tell us to close space?
- What does it mean to set your left foot forward?
- Why does it feel like we are often fencing too close together?
First, I would like to address each of these questions individually, followed by talking about how they all suddenly melded together cleanly. Please note that these questions and my attempt to answer them are mostly based on ‘Early KDF’ sources and principles.
How does Liechenauer’s system of fencing tell us to close space?
First, in the general teachings, we are told to hew near to the head and to the body, threatening with the point before his face and breast. I recognize that this could be read as if it is telling you to strike to the head or body, and to leave the point before them if it misses, but I believe that the idea that this is a strike to deliver the point close to and in front of their head or body fits into the system better, especially as is explained throughout this article.
Second, in the section of the Zornhau, within the gloss of the Four Openings, we are told how we may search for these openings. It covers both what to do in the Zufechten and what to do in the Krieg. In the Zufechten, we are given the following advice: “one shall search from the pre-fencing with Nachraisen, Travelling-after, and with shooting-in the long point.”
The ‘shooting in the long point’ section of this line could be read in one of two ways. It could simply be part of the Nachraisen action, instructing you to read long with the traveling after, or it could be a separate option, which would essentially be Ansetzen, Setting-On. I believe that either interpretation is fine for this article. Interestingly, if it is read as Ansetzen, it fits in well with the previous interpretation of cutting to put the point in front and then driving with a thrust. They are very similar actions in both form and function.
Third, we have the Vier Versetzen. The Zwerchau, Scheilhau, Scheitelhau, and Krumphau, used appropriately. Going through all of these in depth is outside the scope of this post.
Then, lastly, we have the least ideal option; they have closed distance for you, and are likely attacking you.
This is it, these are all of your options for closing distance as advocated by Liechtenauer’s system. Ansetzen from a cut or from a thrusting guard, Nachraisen, and the Vier Versetzen are the things you should be considering for claiming the Vor in the Zufechten if you wish to follow the system as closely as possible. Nowhere does it advocate a simple oberhau or unterhau to the head, body, or limbs if the opponent is standing waiting to see what you will fence against them; these simple strikes are reserved for actions from Nachraisen, whether the opening is created by their strike, guard transition, or other opening-creating movement during the approach.
What does it mean to set your left foot forward?
All over the plays, we see phrases like ‘so set your left foot forward’ or ‘when you come to him with the prefencing, then stand with your left foot forward’. Many of us have, perhaps inadvertently, interpreted this to mean that we almost always keep our left foot forward in the Zufechten. Many of us certainly drill this way, starting with our left foot forward and taking a single passing step with our right foot to complete the play. I no longer believe that this is correct, and I think it is so incorrect as to be detrimental to our fencing and training.
Setting your left foot forward seems to be a tactical choice. It is not a default position. It is the position you move into when you wish to communicate that an attack is imminent. What happens before you set your left foot forward is completely open. You could be wandering around out of distance with the sword hanging down at your hip. You could be feinting a bit to try to get a measure of your opponent. But as soon as you set your left foot forward and move into the guard of your choice, you have a plan and you’re going to act on that plan as soon as possible.
Why does it feel like we are often fencing too close together?
The simplest answer is ‘Because we are’. Most of us have spent years fencing and drilling within one passing step of our partners. Some of us may do this because of our lazy interpretation of the instructions to fight with your left foot forward, followed by a passing step with an action. Some of us, as indicated in the opening Longpoint story, might be deciding to fight here because we acknowledge that we’re not actually in any real danger. Some people fight there because they're attempting to gain an advantage in timing in a sporting context, and often find themselves fighting with their dominant foot forward instead to gain even more time. Whatever the reason, there’s few benefits to defaulting to this distance.
Jessica Finley once described the fighting she sees from this one-pass distance as ‘Quickdraw Swordsmanship’. This seems wholly accurate to me. The only place that is more chaotic and dangerous than one step away from your opponent is being NO steps away from your opponent an lacking a bind. Working in the Krieg, with your sword in contact with your opponent’s sword, is a safer, less chaotic place to be than one passing step away from your opponent. The bind inherently limits their options. Being one step away allows them to do anything they would like, especially if both of you are either lacking communication or trying to communicate the same thing at the same time.
I knew Finley used a drilling circle, so I spent a good amount of time talking to her about it. Her circle is 9 feet across, with the fighters starting with their forward foot on the outside edge of the circle. This seemed like a great distance to me at the time, as it required a very large leap to reach someone if they did not also step forward at the same time. I drew up by own 8 foot diagram, and this is what some of you may have seen me playing with at Shortpoint. Even then, someone Michael Chidester's size had a lot of trouble using it in the poor way I was trying to use.
While this idea was developing, I was already working through Jake Norwood’s suggestion from a few months back that setting your left foot forward was deeper than we generally assume, as was covered above.
At Shortpoint, where I had taped out the diagram I had drawn up the previous week, Michael Chidester could not take a reasonable passing step and strike someone on the other side of my eight foot circle. He casually mentioned that he regularly closes distance with a simple step immediately followed by a pass to reach someone who is taller than him. I didn't really give this any thought at the time, other than agreeing that this was an appropriate way for a shorter person to use the diagram. It didn't hit me until I went back to talk to Finley again about her seemingly very wide distance that I put it together. She mentioned that her 9 foot distance works in two ways. In the first, if both people pass, you end up in Krieg. In the second, if only one person decides to close and the other remains where they are, the attacker has to first close distance before making their attack with a passing step.
It hit me immediately. All of these thoughts were tied to the same thing. I started working pretty heavily on it with a few people at Broken Plow. The idea boils down to the following:
- Fighting at the one-pass distance as a default distance that you generally see in sparring and tournaments is exceedingly dangerous. It results in ‘quickdraw swordsmanship’, which is where we see a lot of doubles and other messy fencing coming from.
- So, then, start at a default distance beyond a single passing step.
- To attack someone, you set your left foot forward up to the one-pass distance and then, as soon as you determine that you are still committed, as quickly as you are able, you execute your attack with a pass to reach your opponent. You remain within this one pass distance for no more than the time needed to evaluate if your plan to enter distance is still safe. This plan should be limited to one of the options for closing distance that was covered earlier in this post.
There are a lot of ideas and obersvations that are shaking out of this. Unfortunatley, the easiest way to cover them is through yet another list. Here goes.
1) If you will show Art, You go left, and right with hewing. This line finally clicks. As I mentioned above, the instructions about setting your left foot forward seem to fit. Additionally, Meyer, talks about only spending a very short amount of time within a fathom of the man (about 6 feet). You step up to it and pass through it within the blink of an eye, enough time to see how your opponent responds to your communication that you are about to close.
2) This better enables a conversation. Starting at a distance of one-pass or closer, an opponent has enough time to register that A Thing Is Happening, and a better fencer may even recognize it quickly enough to perform a 'proper' response, but it often results in an unreasonably high risk situation where you're trying to hit the opponent quickly while hoping he doesn't do something unreasonable in response. Defaulting to further distance, and having to close that distance first, gives your opponent enough time to register that they are in danger and to choose to do something that isn't suicidal, but remains quick enough that all but the upper tier fencers will do something fairly predictable that is not unsafe to you, the attacker, as long as you are following Liechtenauer's rules for closing distance. Real binds were happening much more often fighting from this distance, and doubles were happening significantly less at Broken Plow.
3) This idea does not require your opponent to buy into the idea. Assuming a fighter has a good read of distance and their distance management is as good as their opponent's, enforcing a larger distance is much easier than enforcing a smaller distance. As such, I don't care if my opponent thinks one-pass is the proper distance to remain in. I'm going to enforce the larger distance. If they try to close when I'm not ready, I will back up. If they try to close and I don't have any more room to back up, I attack from this larger distance in a way that follow’s Liechtenuaer’s rules for Zufechten.
4) The initial forward movement of setting your left foot forward very often begins to prompt a response from your opponent. This response is often fairly predictable with relation to what guard they're in and what guard you're in. Because you are simply stepping up to the one pass distance, instead of already committing to an attack when their initial response is prompted, you are given just enough time to decide if you should continue engaging, modified or not, or bail out.
5) The prompting of a response from your opponent with the movement of setting your left foot forward makes almost every play I have worked through so far make more sense and function significantly better. The greatest difference I've seen is in Scheitelhau and Krumphau.
In using Scheitelhau to break Alber, we often hear about an opponent simply raising their sword to stab you in the guts or trying to snipe your hands. This is a result of immediately being in distance as you are attempting to strike their head without engaging their blade. Starting further out, you have to set your left foot forward to reach the one-pass distance. As stated before, this prompts a response from your opponent. When they are in Alber, this usually prompts them to either move up to Longpoint, try some form of a strike from below, or to begin moving up to a kron-like position if they perceive that you are about to strike their head. By prompting this response early, as you move up to one-pass distance rather than moving through it as you would have had you started there, they have already begun extending, making an offline pass with a strike to their head MUCH less risky. If they start moving up to kron, the play continues as normal.
Using shrankhut to prompt a strike to your upper left opening has also become much more consistent. Before, starting at a one-pass distance, simply moving from Vom Tag to Schrankhut was usually not enough to prompt this strike to your opening. It usually had to be accompanied by some form of forward movement as a threat, which would put you too close to your opponent for the play to really work out well. Starting further away, the initial forward movement with a transition into Shrankhut likewise prompts a strike, except that now it's from a further distance where a Krumphau the flat is much easier to employ.
This kind of ease of use is showing up all over the place.
6) The contexts for using the hidden strikes against an opponent who has claimed the Vor and is striking an oberhau becomes way more granular. We know that Zornhau, Schielhau, Zwerchau, and Krumphau can all be used against an incoming oberhau. For review:
Zornhau: Used against an oberhau from your opponent to gain center and thrust them in the face. This works best against a strike that is out of distance.
Krumphau: Used either to strike at the hands of an oberhau OR to strike the flats of a master to deny them a bind they can work with.
Schielhau: Used against a buffalo. Someone who is charging in and relying on strength.
Zwerchau: Used against any strike from above.
When we fight at one-pass as our default, and perceive an Oberhau coming in, trying to decide in the moment which of these strikes to use is unreliable. Very often, what happens is that we decide which strike we'd like to use and prepare that for the next time they strike an oberhau, using instinct to try to make the right decision before the oberhau ever happens.
When we start further away, the ability to make this decision becomes significantly easier. Are they trying to strike you out of distance? Zornhau. Always. Are they rushing into distance hard, obviously relying on strength? Schielhau. Are they someone you really don't want to bind with because you think they are better in a bind than you are? Krumphau. Are they striking an oberhau in distance that doesn't fit the schielhau or krumphau criteria? Zwerchau.
The time granted to make this decision seems deceptively short when you watch a match, but when you're facing an opponent, especially after years of defaulting to a one-pass distance, it feels like an eternity.
7) Techniques that place an emphasis on distance are also much more commonly seen and fit into this concept much cleaner.
Drilling Nachraisen against a cut at a one-pass distance has always left me skeptical, and you rarely see it in tournaments because of how close people are to each other. But by enforcing a longer distance, people more often strike from too far away, making Nachraisen a much more easily employed technique. This is important especially because Nachraisen and shooting the long point are the ONLY two options we are given for choosing closing distance before we learn of the Vier Versetzen.
Ansetzen is also much easier to employ for similar reasons. If you enforce a distance beyond one-pass, your opponent may step up to a one-pass distance while preparing to strike. As they prepare to strike, you also close, shoot the long point, and set on to the opening they provided you.
Durchwechseln is likewise more commonly seen. Staying further away means that an opponent is more likely to try to deal with your point as they close to a distance where they can strike, at which time you change through and set on.
9) Techniques that instruct us to 'spring' with the strike, such as Krumphau or Zwerchau, are significantly easier. Springing from a static position works, and is sometimes necessary, but performing a springing passing step is much simpler if you're already moving forward due to setting your left foot forward first.
10) Finally, I believe this idea is supported by what we see when two people are really fighting with two sharp blades. Be it Holmgang fighting with sharp longswords, Haitians fighting in the streets with machetes, or knife fights, people rarely stay within a distance where their opponent can fairly easily reach them. Most strikes fall short because neither fighter wants to get close enough to strike their opponent. This would mean their opponent can also strike them.
Given that a lot of Liechtenauer's advice is about how to safely enter distance, and that putting this into practice with a few key people I work with has produced very good results, I feel that this approach, for all of the reasons covered in this post and more, is one that more of us should be moving towards.