The Unorthodox Fighter


A while ago, I was asked the following question:
„I.33 and most of the other manuscripts are based on the idea that there will be a meeting of the swords and actions at that bind will determine the victor. How do you deal with an opponent who refuses to bind, using only his buckler to engage your sword?“

This is a really good question and a problem, modern practitioners have to deal with each time they are facing what Cornelius Berthold called the unorthodox fighter: An opponent who has a totally different approach and simply refuses to do what he is ”supposed to“. I remember a student with a background in Tai Chi, who in freeplay would never enter with his weapons in conjunction as recommended in I.33. He gave his fellow students severe problems.

Now, if we believe that the historical systems we study are martially sound, they are supposed to work against any adversary, regardless of his approach or style. Unfortunately, the sources very rarely tell us how to deal with them, if at all. The early 14th century manuscript I.33 does, in fact, recommend repeatedly, to follow-on with a thrust or strike against an opponent who remained passive. You could generally look at I.33 as a manual for what to do in duel if one fighter has already occupied the central space between him and his adversary (e.g. by having entered in halpschilt/Half-Shield or some form of schutzin/Cover), like e.g. on folio 9r, where the swordsman on the right has entered and claimed the center. His tonsured opponent keeps his distance and counter-binds to even out the odds:

At any rate, when you are confronted by a fighter who acts completely differently than what you are used to, stay true to what you have learned. Interestingly, I have often witnessed how people give up on their virtues and instead begin to mirror their opponent. So when one combatant approaches in a rather awkward way, say, he is jumping up and down and moving his weapons in frantic circles, oftentimes the bewildered adversary adopts this ludicrous dance, too. But how good are chances that you will beat an opponent who has trained his style or tactics for years when you have just started mimicking him for a few seconds only? Instead, be confident and have faith in your hard won skills and apply what you have practiced. As my former instructors said: „Never play your opponent’s game!“

Looking at the questionable tactics of refusing a blade bind:
If you do so against an apt adversary who has already seized the center, you have no chance to regain it. But this would be a pre-condition of coming out victorious and unharmed: Note that there is no safe way to hit your opponent without controlling the central space between you and him first – and this is true for all swordsmanship. All historical technique is designed to provide exactly this kind of control before concluding with a hit. Striking to hit without having won the center is gambling, not sound tactics, and it is exactly this failure that constantly produces double hits in too many modern engagements. Note also that you do not need a blade bind to win the center – if there is nothing to bind against and no imminent threat either, complete your action by hitting the appropriate opening.

Dierk Hagedorn, who is an expert on German fight books of international renown, believes just like I do that this is the true tactical context of ”vorschlag“ and ”nachschlag”, two terms from late medieval German combat jargon: The vorschlag is the first segment of a two-parted attack, designed to gain the center and thus pave the way to the opening you were striving for, to eventually conclude the attack with a hit, which of course would be the second and final part of the attack. The earliest known manuscript of the German so-called Liechtenauer tradition HS 3227a, dated to the late 14th century, describes it like this: wen her nü den vorslag / tuet / trift her zo volge her dem treffen vaste / noch / Be aware that any translation (including mine) will be coloured by interpretation. I would translate Dierk Hagedorn’s transcription of these lines from folio 20r into English like this: If he now delivers the vorslag, if he hits, he should then follow-after the meeting with pressure. The word “treffen” (= meeting, encounter, gathering) most likely applies to a crossing of swords. So according to 3227a, the combination of gaining the advantage with the vorslag, yet constantly focusing on the final target, is best tactics: ”vnd sal io den vorslag gewyñen / vnd iene~ mt nichte lassen czu~ dinge~ kome~ / als du bas h°noch wirst hören yn der gemeyne~ lere etc” (16r)
And at any rate he should win the vorschlag /  and not at all let the other one come to things / as you will later hear about in the general teachings etc.

The struggle for control of the center is crucial to any sword-fight, and it is decided in a crossing of blades. Informed by pressure sensed through his sword, the able swordsman will choose the appropriate response from his repertoire, while his skilled opponent will strive to do the same: ”weret her aber iener den vorslag alzo das her im den vorslag / is sy haw ader stich mit syme swerte / abeweiset vnd leitet / Dy weile her deñe ieme noch / an syme swerte ist / mit deme als her wirt abe geweist / von der blößen / der her geremet / hat / zo sal her gar eben fülen vnd merken ab iener in syme abeleiten vnd schützen der hewe ader stiche / an syme swerte / weich ader herte / swach ader stark / sey /” (20r/20v). My translation reads: But if he wards off the vorschlag, so that with his sword he turns away or drives off his vorschlag, be it blow or thrust, and while he is still at his sword, with which he is being driven away from the opening that he has been striving towards, then he should instantly sense and realize if the other, in his driving aside and covering against the blows or thrusts, is at his sword soft or hard, weak or strong. In fact, the ability to win the advantage in a crossing of swords, coupled with a relentless focus on the ultimate target could be called the essence of sword-fighting as promoted in 3227a. If the initial vorschlag was not won, then one should respond with appropriate means based on the pressure signals from the bind in order to gain control and finish with the nachschlag: “/ e den / das iener czu keyme slage kome / zo sal her deñe den nochslag tuen /” (20v) Before the other one manages to strike a blow, he should then deliver the nachschlag.

So without a shield, refusing to bind when the attacker is already in control of the center means that the fight is lost. If you have failed to bind against a determined attacker, then you have given up on the only instrument that could prevent him from slaughtering you. The manuscript I.33 on single combat with sword and buckler shows on folio 20v that, after a bind had already been established, one combatant does not attempt to win the struggle for control of the center, and rather retreats. The text accompanying the lower plate says (as transcribed by Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng): Ex illa ligatura superius tacta, que ducta est per sacerdotem, scolaris fugit ut supra dictum est, ut patet hic, quia fugit sub brachio quod immediate sequitur sacerdos, percutiendo capud ut hic.” Which could be translated to: From the bind discussed above, which has been lead by the priest, the student flees as has been said above, and as is shown here: for because he flees under the arm, the priest pursues instantly, hitting him in the head like here.

So if you want to prevail, winning the center by dealing with a blade bind is not an option, it is a requirement. Even if you have a buckler, but refused to bind with your blade, your shield may check the opposing blade once or twice, but for its limited reach, your parries cannot win you the center at medium measure. At that distance, it is very easy to out-maneuver a shield with a blade. See how at 2:27 Roland Fuhrmann’s sword is moving so much faster than my buckler:

If in single combat with sword & buckler you expertly enter, and with your weapons seize the center, and there is a shield in your way, but no blade, then this means that your opponent has separated weapons, much in contrast to responses recommended in I.33. So he is doing what my former student insisted on doing.
This is a crucial moment where you have to exploit and punish his mistake. If you fail to do so, the advantage goes back to him. The treatises usually do not deal with with situations arising from multiple mistakes. You are already outside the realm of martial arts if you need luck to even out the odds once again.
So here is a common mistake against the unorthodox buckler fighter: Launching an attack between his wide open arms. While he is not controlling the center, you are neither, and thus you are at best on the path to the double hit. If people separate weapons, NEVER keep advancing on the center line but proceed to attack at an angle. Thus you will have to deal with one weapon only, and you will avoid to find yourself threatened from both sides all of a sudden. It is the same as in skirmish: When the opposing side splits up in two groups, your formation should pick one and attack from the outside, avoiding the other. Your worst position would be being placed between them, where you will find yourself being attacked from two sides simultaneously.

In single combat, you could look at it from much the same tactical viewpoint: Where is the center (it shifts with you as you move sideways) and how do I conquer and control it? Once you have managed to do so, swiftly conclude your attack within the same tempo. So, for example, if he withdraws his blade, keep your distance so no opening is readily availbale to him and pick the target closest to your blade, be it his arm, body or head. Stick to what 3227a teaches you, namely raining attacks on him, just like Roland Fuhrmann did in the video sequence above. Mind your angle of attack, remember to not get between his weapons.
Such a fight should be short and rather boring.
The only way for him to prevent you from successfully using this strategy is to bring forward his blade and bind – and you are back in the logics of historical swordsmanship as reflected in the treatises.

There is one buckler technique, however, that is suitable for effectively binding an opposing blade at the distance under discussion, which you can read about on my public Facebook pages.

Read more on I.33 and “gaining the center” here.

The title picture of Christopher and Ingo was taken by Tom Jersø at the Berlin Buckler Bouts in summer 2015.

6 comments on “The Unorthodox Fighter

  1. “So if you want to prevail, winning the center by dealing with a blade bind is not an option, it is a requirement. Even if you have a buckler, but refused to bind with your blade, your shield may check the opposing blade once or twice, but for its limited reach, your parries cannot win you the center at medium measure. At that distance, it is very easy to out-maneuver a shield with a blade.”
    Loved this.
    Thanks for writing it up, I’ll share it further.

  2. This is a quite interesting view and I wonder how this would be applied to longsword fencing. I know that in sword and buckler it is easy to do a vorschlag that is not really intended to hit the opponent but that has the purpose to win the centre. If your opponent refuses to bind against you and simply steps back, then you can simply chase him with the point because your hands are protected by your buckler. With a longsword (or also with messer, …) you cannot do that since chances are great that your opponent will try to hit your hands while he is stepping backwards. Anyway, I will try to play around with the concept and maybe I can find a decent solution to this.

    • Hi Davy,
      thank you for your comment. I disagree that it is not possible to apply this concept to longsword or messer, however. If your opponent retreats, his weapon’s path to your hands becomes longer, too, and with your blade positioned in the center, it is easy to intercept any such attack and bind against his blade. This, in turn, puts you into a position where you can control both the center and his blade, which gives the advantage to you.

      • Hi Roland,
        thank you for your reply, it got me thinking about the way that I chase with the longsword and I came to the conclusion that my problem is that I chase after the deep targets (head or body) and that this allows my opponent to target my shallow targets (hands). So I think that I should adapt the way that I chase so that I either block his sword towards my shallow targets or that I start chasing the closes target to me (or maybe even both).
        As a conclusion, I think I need to be more dynamic when chasing the opponent and react more on my opponents actions (which Meyer describes as being indes). Thank you for your good reply, it certainly got me thinking more on the subject which makes me find the flaws in my technique, thanks very much!

        Kind regards,

    • Davy, you are most welcome. Happy you found my suggestions useful.

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