Joachim Meyer was a German fencing master during the 1500s. He’s considered one of the last masters in the Liechtenauer tradition of fencing, although his style demonstrates some notable departures from traditional German swordplay, likely due to foreign (Italian and possibly Spanish) influences.
Meyer developed a combat system rather than just a collection of specific techniques (although there are plenty of those). This system is based on several rules and principles that can be applied to any type of weapon.
My focus, however, will be on swords, and particularly the longsword and sidesword. This article is not an exhaustive description of Meyer’s system, but rather an overview of what I see as the most important aspects, based on my own study. I have organized Meyer’s material in a way that makes sense to me, first describing the basic technical components, then outlining the overall framework, and finally summarizing Meyer’s notes on how to strategically use the system.
Components are the individual postures and techniques used throughout a fight. They are the most basic building blocks of Meyer’s system.
The basic stance is as follows:
- Lead foot points directly toward the opponent
- Back foot is approximately 2 shoe lengths behind the lead foot, and slightly off to the side
- Back foot points outward 45–90 degrees
- Knees are aligned with their respective feet
- Lead knee is bent so the shin is roughly perpendicular to the ground; lead toes should just be visible if you glance down
- Back knee is somewhat bent
- Hips, spine, and shoulders are a single unit, straight and upright
- Hips and shoulders are turned toward the back foot about 45 degrees
- Hips are tucked directly under the spine, not sticking out
- Shoulders are relaxed, allowed to settle back and down
- Head is held upright, facing straight ahead toward the opponent
There are two grips used in German sword arts. The first, commonly called the handshake grip, is as follows:
- Grip is firm but relaxed
- Middle knuckles should line up with the blade’s true edge
- Sword is canted forward in the hand(s), forming an obtuse angle with the forearm
- When using a longsword, the lead hand should be about an inch below the guard, and the back hand may be anywhere between the lead hand and the pommel
The other grip is commonly called the thumb grip. Starting from the handshake grip, the lead thumb is pushed up onto the flat of the blade. This rotates the sword 45–90 degrees within the hand, making certain techniques (such as false-edge cuts) easier to perform.
With only a couple exceptions, guards are not positions in which you should wait. Rather, they are checkpoints, positions in which you may start or end an action.
Sidesword guards are generally held farther forward, with the arm extended. Longsword guards keep the hands closer to the body. This is likely due to the greater hand protection provided by the sidesword’s complex hilt.
When using a longsword, if a guard is held on the right or left side, the opposite foot should be forward.
In the diagrams below, the circle is centered on the opponent’s eyes. The bottom of the circle corresponds to the knees, the sides to the shoulders, and the top to the space above the head. In real life, the circle would be compressed to an ellipse in order to fit the human shape more accurately. A circle is used here for clarity.
The wedge represents your sword. If it points inward, your sword points at the opponent. Otherwise, the point is directed away from the opponent.
Note that this is not an exhaustive list of Meyer’s guards. The ones I’ve excluded (break-window, crossed guard, key, hanging point, crown) are specialized forms whose purposes lie outside the core of Meyer’s system.
- High Guard
- Hold the hilt above your head with the point up and slightly back.
- Right High Guard
- Hold the hilt high above your right shoulder with the point up and back.
- Right Unicorn
- From right high guard, turn the sword so the false edge faces the opponent with the point up and forward.
- Right Wrath Guard
- From right high guard, drop the point back behind your shoulder.
- Left High Guard
- Hold the hilt high above your left shoulder with the point up and back.
- Left Unicorn
- From left high guard, turn the sword so the false edge faces the opponent with the point up and forward.
- Left Wrath Guard
- From left high guard, drop the point back behind your shoulder.
- Right Ox
- Hold the hilt to the right of your head with the point forward and slightly down.
- Left Ox
- Hold the hilt to the left of your head with the point forward and slightly down.
- Right Middle Guard
- Hold the hilt out to your right with the point out and back.
- Left Middle Guard
- Hold the hilt out to your left with the point out and back.
- Right Side Guard
- Hold the hilt down by your right hip with the point down and back.
- Right Change
- From right side guard, turn the sword so the false edge faces the opponent. This will shift the point forward.
- Left Side Guard
- Hold the hilt down by your left hip with the point down and back.
- Left Change
- From left side guard, turn the sword so the false edge faces the opponent. This will shift the point forward.
- Right Plow
- Hold the hilt down to the right of your lead knee with the point forward and up.
- Left Plow
- Hold the hilt down to the left of your lead knee with the point forward and up.
- Hold the hilt centered low in front of you with the point forward and up. This is one of the few guards Meyer recommends for waiting in defense.
- Straight Parrying
- Extend forward from irongate by raising your arm(s) slightly and keeping the piont aimed at the opponent’s eyes. This is one of the few guards Meyer recommends for waiting in defense.
- From straight parrying, continue to extend forward in the same fashion until your hilt is at shoulder level.
- Hold the hilt centered low in front of you with the point forward and down.
Meyer includes the following diagram in one of his illustrations. It can be used to illustrate all the steps he describes in the text:
All steps should be performed according to the following guidelines:
- Weight should pass smoothly from foot to foot
- Stance should remain level (no bobbing up and down)
- Feet should lift rather than slide
- Feet should pivot from the hip to maintain knee-toe alignment
Additionally, a lateral motion may be added to any forward or backward steps so that you move at an angle relative to the opponent.
The following steps are used with both the longsword and sidesword:
- Move one foot away from the other, widening your stance.
- Move one foot toward the other, narrowing your stance.
- Perform an increase followed by a gather of the opposite foot to reset your stance.
- Perform a gather followed by an increase of the opposite foot to reset your stance.
- Triangle Step
- Step to the right or left with the rear foot, pivoting your body in the opposite direction.
- Double Triangle Step
- Triangle step, then move the lead foot in the same direction to shift your body and reset your stance.
- Broken or Stolen Step
- Gather one foot, then move it back to its initial position. Any step in which the feet draw close together may become a broken step if necessary.
The following steps are used with the longsword, but not the sidesword. Notice that all of these steps involve switching the lead foot, which Meyer forbids with the sidesword:
- Move one foot forward or backward past the other, switching their positions and mirroring your stance.
- Switch Step
- Gather one foot, then increase the other foot in the opposite direction. This switches the positions of your feet and mirrors your stance like a passing step, but without moving your body forward or backward.
- False Step
- Move one foot forward or backward past the other, as in a passing step, but without changing the orientation of your feet or hips, causing your legs to cross.
Nearly all actions in Meyer’s system, both offensive and defensive, are considered strikes. All strikes should be powered by a rotation of your core, made with an extended arm, and be accompanied by a step. Your shoulder should be at the level of your target in order to maximize your reach; this is accomplished by widening your stance, bending your knees, and leaning forward.
Cuts can be defined as a transition from any point-back guard to a point-forward guard.
Meyer provides a diagram that illustrates all the cuts. The outer circle roughly represents the opponent’s silhouette, and every dashed line represents a cut. The horizontal cut lines represent, from top to bottom, the opponent’s neck, waist, and knee. The right and left vertical lines should pass through the opponent’s right and left shoulders, respectively.
Note that in real life, the diagram would be compressed to an ellipse in order to fit the opponent’s shape. A circle is used here for clarity.
A high cut is any downward vertical cut. High cuts are further divided into three types:
- Scalp Cut
- High cut through opponent’s head
- Suppressing Cut
- High cut through opponent’s shoulder
- Squinting Cut
- False-edge suppressing cut
A wrath cut is any downward diagonal cut. Wrath cuts are further divided into five types:
- Shoulder Cut
- Wrath cut through opponent’s shoulder
- Hip Cut
- Wrath cut through opponent’s waist
- Thigh Cut
- Wrath cut through opponent’s leg
- Defense Cut
- Wrath cut on opponent’s sword
- Crooked Cut
- False-edge wrath cut with a bit of a “windshield wiper” motion
A middle cut is any horizontal cut. Middle cuts are further divided into four types:
- Neck Cut
- Middle cut through opponent’s neck
- Belt Cut
- Middle cut through opponent’s waist
- Foot Cut
- Middle cut through opponent’s lower leg
- Thwart Cut
- Middle cut with your hilt above your head to catch an opponent’s high or wrath cut
A low cut is any ascending cut. Low cuts are further divided into four types, although Meyer doesn’t explicitly name any of them. The names below are either made up or inferred from context:
- Low Cut
- Diagonal low cut
- Wing Cut
- Vertical low cut through opponent’s arm
- Groin Cut
- Vertical low cut through opponent’s groin
- False-edge diagonal low cut
A thrust is an extension from any point-forward guard into longpoint. Thrusts are organized into three types:
- High Thrust
- Descending thrust from above
- Middle Thrust
- Straight thrust
- Low Thrust
- Ascending thrust from below
A slice is when you place the edge of your sword against the target, then apply pressure while drawing it across.
Strikes and Guards
As mentioned earlier, guards in Meyer’s system (and German fencing in general) are checkpoints rather than static positions. They are the starting, transitional, and ending points of all actions. Therefore, strikes and guards are closely related, and can be defined in terms of each other, as seen below:
|Strike||Starting Guard||Ending Guard||As a Parry|
|High Cut||High Guard||Fool||Suppressing|
|Wrath Cut||Wrath Guard||Change||Slicing Off|
|Middle Cut||Middle Guard||Middle Guard|
|Low Cut||Side Guard||Unicorn||Taking Out|
|Crooked Cut||Any||Middle Guard||Barring or Striking Out|
|High Thrust||Ox||Longpoint||Setting Off|
|Middle Thrust||Straight Parrying||Longpoint||Setting Off|
|Low Thrust||Plow||Longpoint||Setting Off|
Handwork is the set of techniques used to manipulate the opponent’s weapon or otherwise get around their defenses. All handwork revolves around dealing with the bind, the moment when swords meet. Based on this, handwork can be organized into three categories:
Parries are strikes specifically meant to take or bind on the opponent’s blade. A good parry will always provide you with a chance to counterattack. All parries should be accompanied by a step, usually a triangle step away from the attack.
- Blocking a low attack by dropping your point
- Common Parry
- Performing a static block with no potential for an offensive followup
- Going Through
- Redirecting an attack along its original trajectory by changing through, then setting or slicing it off
- Blocking a high attack by raising your hilt and dropping your point in a sweeping action upward or across your body
- Running In
- Stepping forward with your sword raised so that your blade intercepts the attack without throwing a strike
- Setting Off
- Turning the long edge of your forte toward an attack while thrusting
- Slicing Off
- Redirecting an attack toward the side it came from by meeting it with a wrath cut
- From wrath guard on one side of your body, moving your blade up and over your head, shifting into ox on the same side to block a high attack
- Striking Out
- Redirecting an attack along its original trajectory by meeting it with a crooked cut
- Redirecting an attack toward the side it came from by meeting it with a suppressing cut
- Taking Out
- Redirecting an attack toward the side it came from by meeting it with a low cut
Parries that redirect from the same side as the attack (i.e., going through and striking out) will send the opponent’s blade across your body. Therefore, you must be quick in order to avoid harm. The advantage is that these parries engage the opponent’s weaker false edge and use the attack’s own momentum to throw the opponent out of position, opening them up to counterattacks.
The common parry should only be used as a last resort, since it allows the opponent to remain in control of the fight.
Most of the parries listed above provide opportunities for double-time counters, counters in which you parry and retaliate as two distinct actions. There are also single-time counters, in which you parry and retaliate with the same action. Setting off is an example of this, but perhaps the most notable examples in German fencing are the master cuts.
There are five master cuts. Each one (with the exception of the scalp cut) counters a particular guard position by blocking that guard’s most direct line of attack while simultaneously landing a hit on the opponent’s body. This forces the opponent to focus entirely on defense, since any attempt to take a more indirect attack route would allow themself to be hit.
|Master Cut||Counters the Guard…|
|Wrath Cut||Wrath Guard|
|Crooked Cut||Ox and Longpoint|
|Thwart Cut||High Guard|
The scalp cut doesn’t actually block attacks from the fool guard, but rather exploits the reach advantage of high cuts over low cuts. A high cut against a target at or above shoulder level will land before a low cut targeting anything below shoulder level. Therefore, a scalp cut combined with a gathering back of the lead foot ensures that attacks from an opponent in fool guard will miss, while the scalp cut itself will hit. This concept is called overruning.
Controls are ways of manipulating the opponent’s sword during the bind. Their ultimate purpose is to turn the bind to your advantage, allowing you to strike the opponent’s body.
- Sensing the pressure on your blade (whether the opponent is hard or soft)
- Gripping Over
- Pivoting your lead hand up to wrap your fingers around the false edge of your forte, keeping your thumb beneath the quillons, to gain additional leverage
- Pressing Hands
- Binding and slicing against the opponent’s hands or hilt with your forte
- Staying in the bind
- Turning your hand(s) and blade inward to bind over top of the opponent’s sword
- Binding and slicing against the opponent’s arms with your forte
- Rotating your blade around the opponent’s while maintaining contact and keeping your point forward
- Either pushing with your forte, or setting off against the opponent’s hilt/arms instead of their blade
Deceptions include ways to prevent the opponent from binding on your sword, as well as techniques for escaping or striking from the bind.
- Changing Around
- Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by passing your point over top
- Changing Through
- Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by passing your point underneath
- Striking to a space recently vacated by the opponent
- Performing a squinting cut or crooked cut past the opponent, then using your momentum to flow into a scalp cut
- Attacking an opening, then attacking the same opening by turning the point or false edge inward
- Intentionally missing with an attack
- Pulling away from an attack that the opponent is about to parry, preventing a bind by striking elsewhere
- Pulling away from the bind to attack the opposite opening, such that your blade describes a circle around your head
- Changing a cut into a thrust or a thrust into a cut, mid-action
- Leave the bind, then immediately strike to the same spot that you just left
- Running Off
- Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by dropping your point down and back so that the false edge faces downward, then cutting around
- Snapping Around
- Binding the opponent’s sword with your quillons or hilt, then rotating your sword around that point to strike their body
- Striking Around
- Backing out of the bind to attack the other side
Once you know the individual components, you can assemble them within Meyer’s framework to build a fight.
Stages of the Exchange
A fight is divided into three stages based on the distance between the combatants:
- Combatants close the distance and throw initial strikes
- Combatants are within striking range and use handwork in their attempts to penetrate each other’s defenses while maintaining their own
- Combatants perform defensive actions while retreating out of striking range
If the opening strikes in the onset incapacitate the opponent, then the fight skips straight to the withdrawal. On the other hand, a fight may go through several onset-middle-withdrawal cycles before one of the combatants emerges victorious.
There are three moments or modes in which you can act:
- Forcing the opponent to respond to your actions; you have the initiative
- Responding to the opponent’s actions; you don’t have the initiative
- Taking advantage of brief windows of opportunity; you steal or retain the initiative
Acting in the before is preferred, since it allows you to control the fight. If you find yourself in the after, defend yourself until you can safely act in the instant to steal the before.
Note that, especially in Meyer’s system, acting in the before does not necessarily mean you are attacking. If you invite the opponent to attack a particular opening, and they accept, they are acting in the after even though they attacked first. This is because you manipulated them into attacking that particular spot, and presumably have a response ready to turn that attack to your advantage. Therefore, they are responding to you, and you have the before.
The key is your intentionality and readiness. Planning for an opponent to attack a particular opening, making them attack that opening, and punishing them for doing so is acting in the before. Simply defending against an attack and countering is acting in (and then using the instant to escape) the after.
All actions you take during a fight fall into one of three categories based on intent:
- Any action meant to draw the opponent out of a safe position
- Any action meant to remove the threat of the opponent’s blade
- Any action meant to strike the opponent directly
Note that provokers and takers can become hitters if the opponent responds poorly to them. What truly distinguishes the hitter from the other two is that its first intention is to hit, while provokers and takers consider landing a blow only as a second intention.
The Four Openings
A combatant is divided into four major regions, or openings. These basic divisions simplify the decision-making process when targeting the opponent’s body or defending your own.
The divisions are formed by two lines—one vertical through the combatant’s center, and the other horizontal through the combatant’s waist—and are named simply:
- Upper right
- Upper left
- Lower right
- Lower left
Remember that when you stand before an opponent, your right openings are opposite their left openings. In other words, throwing a cut from your right results in hitting their left.
Pressure in the Bind
When swords meet in the bind, combatants can be described by how much pressure they exert on the opponent’s sword:
- You push against and move the opponent’s blade, or at least prevent them from moving yours
- You either can’t resist the opponent’s pressure, or you choose to pull back from the bind
Each mode of binding counters the other. If you intentionally make yourself soft against a hard opponent, you can use the opponent’s own pressure to throw them out of position. On the other hand, if you are hard while the opponent is soft, you can push through their defense.
Assembling a Fight
The following is a textbook example of the framework in action:
- In the onset, Combatant A seizes the before by provoking Combatant B with a deceptive feint
- Still in the onset, Combatant B acts instantly in an attempt to steal the before
- In the middle, Combatant A acts instantly and takes Combatant B’s response with a parry
- Combatant A is hard in the resulting bind, while Combatant B is soft
- Now that the way is safe, Combatant A pushes through the bind and hits Combatant B
- In the withdrawal, Combatant A retreats and throws a taker to ward off any potential afterblows
At a high level, Meyer’s strategy looks like this:
- Seize the before
- Attack first if you can do so safely
- If you cannot attack safely, use deception to provoke the opponent into giving you an opening
- Keep the before
- Use deception to undermine the opponent’s attempts to use the instant
- Steal the before
- If you find yourself in the after, take away the opponent’s attacks with good parries
- Use the instant to convert those parries into counterattacks
- Stay safe
- Never perform an attack that leaves you open
- Always parry during a retreat, even if you’ve successfully hit the opponent
On a more tactical level, Meyer provides a set of rules that help you accomplish the strategic goals. Those rules are summarized below:
- Maintain control of your sword and don’t overcommit with it
- Keep your arms extended
- Power all blade actions with your core
- Don’t strike the opponent until you’ve taken away the threat of their blade
- When taking the opponent’s blade:
- Keep your hilt near the edge of your silhouette
- Keep your point directed at your opponent
- Drive your opponent’s hilt outside their silhouette and thrust (i.e., setting off), or…
- As soon as you bind, wind inward and…
- If the opponent is hard in the bind, cut (i.e., doubling)
- If the opponent is soft in the bind, thrust (i.e., mutating)
- Bind on your terms, not your opponent’s terms
- Avoid binds by changing through
- If the opponent manages to bind on your…
- Foible, change through and suppress
- Middle, run off and suppress
- Forte, set off
- If things go wrong, suppress or beat the opponent’s blade
- If you are driven outside your silhouette, cut back in behind the opponent’s sword
- Chase whenever possible
- When the opponent gathers for a strike, crowd in to stop it before it begins
- When the opponent misses a strike, strike to the region they struck from
- Cutting in is safer than changing around
- First deal with the opponent’s foible, then their forte, then strike their body
The Four Opponents
Meyer defines four types of opponents, each with their own temperament and approach to a fight:
- Violent and Stupid
- Attacks with little thought toward defense
- Artful and Sharp
- Waits for an opening before striking
- Judicious and Deceitful
- Creates openings in order to strike safely
- Foolish or Sharp
- Waits in defense with little thought toward offense
A simple way to differentiate the types of opponents is to look at their knowledge and use of Meyer’s framework:
|Acts in the Before||Acts in the After|
|Ignorant of the Middle||Violent and Stupid||Foolish or Sharp|
|Aware of the Middle||Judicious and Deceitful||Artful and Sharp|
While some types are simply better than others, all can be beaten with the correct strategy.
|Violent and Stupid||Set off or suppress a few attacks from straight parrying, then let one pass by and strike to the opening|
|Artful and Sharp||Present an opening, then take the attack and strike|
|Judicious and Deceitful||Use deception to draw them out of safety|
|Foolish or Sharp||Adopt the mantle of the judicious and deceitful combatant|
Meyer clearly considers the judicious and deceitful fencer to be the best, but you should learn to impersonate the others so that you can deceive your opponent and counter them.
Deception is a key tactic in Meyer’s system. It comes in two main forms:
- With the sword
- With the body
Deceptions with the sword involve moving your weapon. Begin to strike one target, then change to strike another. Handworks such as mutating and running off are good ways to accomplish this. You may also go to parry an opponent’s attack, then instead let the attack pass by while you strike. Deceptions with the sword should be as fluid as possible to both hide and quicken your transition from the feint to the true attack.
Deceptions with the body can involve a variety of actions. Broken or stolen steps can threaten an imminent attack. Glancing at a particular part of your opponent can trick them into thinking you will attack that particular area. You can also act like one of the four types of opponents, then switch your demeanor when the opponent attempts to counter you.
Deception comes into play when executing the three actions. Provokers are innately deceptive. A deceptive taker allows you to steal or maintain the before by preventing the opponent from taking advantage of the bind. If your provokers or takers are deceptive enough, they can become hitters.
Defending against Deception
Meyer offers two tactics to prevent yourself from falling for the opponent’s deceptions:
- When parrying an attack from straight parrying, do not move your hilt more than a hand’s breadth from the center in any direction
- Do not chase after an attack with your hilt; instead simply turn your long edge toward the attack
These pieces of advice prevent you from moving your sword too far out of position, so you can quickly respond to changes in the opponent’s attacks.
Because these tactics limit your blade movements, you should combine your parries with steps to make sure your body is always covered by your sword.
- The Art of Combat by Joachim Meyer, translated by Jeffery Forgeng
- The Art of Sword Combat by Joachim Meyer, translated by Jeffery Forgeng
- The Art and Practice of 16th Century German Fencing by Robert Rutherfoord
- Sacramento Freifechter of the SHFA
- Scholar Victoria Historical Fencing (Web Archive Link)