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Liechtenauer’s Longsword: A Summary of German Longsword Combat

Introduction

Johannes Liechtenauer was, most likely, a German fencing master in the early 1400s. He is widely regarded as the founder of the Liechtenauer tradition of swordplay, which was the most influential fencing system in Germany. Liechtenauer codified his method in the Zettel, a poem that summarizes all the major points of the system.

The Zettel can be thought of as a top-down approach to teaching swordsmanship. It begins with strategy and tactics, then introduces the high-level concepts that inform the strategy. Finally, it goes through individual techniques, but touches on them only briefly. Liechtenauer assumes that the reader has already been taught how to fight, and the Zettel is simply a memory aid. A reader with enough combat experience can expand the generic advice in the Zettel to fit many specific situations.

Students of Liechtenauer wrote several commentaries on the Zettel. These commentaries go into greater detail, explaining its principles and offering examples so that those who weren’t taught by Liechtenauer directly could understand his system.

This article is a non-exhaustive summary of the fencing system presented in the Zettel and its commentaries.

Strategy

Liechtenauer’s fight strategy is pretty well summed up by the phrase, “The best defense is a strong offense.”

Attack First

Don’t wait for the opponent to attack you. As soon as you are in range, launch your own attack. If you start the fight in defense, the opponent may never give you a chance to counterattack. By striking first, you control the fight.

Attack Hard

All attacks, and especially your opening strike, should be as strong as possible. Liechtenauer describes several specific ways of maximizing your power:

  • Strike from your dominant side; right for right-handers, left for left-handers
  • From whichever side you strike, step forward with the same foot (e.g., if you cut from your right, step forward with your right foot)
  • Power your strikes with your entire body; push forward with your arms and turn your hips and shoulders into the attack

Maintain a Constant Threat

You are most vulnerable when you attack, so you must strike in a way that keeps the opponent at bay. When you strike, end with your point directed at the opponent. That way they can’t rush in after your attack without getting stabbed.

This point also serves to moderate the previous one. While you should attack hard, you shouldn’t overpower your attacks. Hit as hard as you can without losing control of your weapon, otherwise you leave yourself open.

Keep Attacking

Once you have the opponent on the defensive, don’t give them a break. Press the assault, varying your targets. If you have to perform a weaker strike to maintain the offensive, that’s fine; power is good, but not at the expense of losing the initiative. The goal of this point is to confuse and overwhelm the opponent.

Concepts

Maintaining an effective, ongoing assault requires quick decision-making—something that can be downright tricky in the chaos of a fight. Liechtenauer simplifies things by breaking combat down into just a few basic concepts.

Initiative

Initiative is the most important concept in German sword fighting. Whoever has the initiative can win the fight; whoever lacks it must first seize it if they ever hope to win. This is why Liechtenauer emphasizes offense so heavily in his strategy.

Initiative is comprised of three states:

Vor (“Before”)
You have the initiative, the opponent must react to you
Nach (“After”)
The opponent has the initiative, you must react to the opponent
Indes (“In the Instant”)
You act in a brief moment of opportunity to steal or retain the initiative

Leverage

Leverage is how much pressure you and the opponent exert on each other’s blades during a bind. You can be in one of two possible states:

Hard
You can resist or push through the opponent’s pressure
Soft
You either can’t or choose not to resist the opponent’s pressure

Each state counters the other. Acting soft against a hard opponent will throw the opponent’s blade out of position. Acting hard against a soft opponent allows you to push through the bind and strike.

Which state you are in depends on three factors:

  • Raw physical strength
  • Body structure
  • Where the swords cross each other

The last two can be used to level the playing field against a stronger opponent. Good body structure involves a stable stance and proper skeletal alignment with your blade. The blade itself is divided into two sections:

Strong
From the hilt to the middle; difficult for the opponent to move
Weak
From the middle to the point; easy for the opponent to move

Whichever combatant can place their strong against the opponent’s weak will have a leverage advantage.

Fulen (“feeling”) is the ability to determine who is hard and who is soft in the bind.

The Four Openings

Rather than call out individual targets (e.g., head, right shoulder, left arm, chest, etc.), Liechtenauer divides the opponent’s body into four quarters, or openings. These are:

  • Upper Right
  • Upper Left
  • Lower Right
  • Lower Left

The Decision Process

With these main concepts, a fencer can quickly assess a situation and act accordingly. At the start of the fight:

  • Are you in the vor?
    1. Which of the opponent’s four openings is most vulnerable?
    2. Attack that opening indes
  • Are you in the nach?
    1. Defend until you have an opportunity to act indes and steal the vor

In a bind:

  • Are you in the vor?
    1. Is the opponent hard in the bind? Give way to the pressure indes and strike the nearest opening
    2. Is the opponent soft in the bind? Push through indes and strike the nearest opening
  • Are you in the nach?
    1. Is the opponent hard in the bind? Steal the vor by giving way to the pressure indes and striking the nearest opening
    2. Is the opponent soft in the bind? Steal the vor by pushing through indes and striking the nearest opening

Techniques

Stance

Fifteenth-century fencing masters didn’t record much of anything about basic posture. However, period illustrations and modern experimentation have provided us with the following guidelines:

  • Feet are shoulder-width apart (about 1–1.5 foot lengths)
  • Lead foot is about 2 foot lengths ahead of the back foot
  • Lead foot points directly at the opponent
  • Back foot is turned 45 degrees outward
  • Knees point in the same direction as their respective toes
  • Lead knee is bent so the shin is perpendicular to the ground
  • Back knee is bent so the shin forms an accute angle to the ground
  • Weight is evenly distributed between feet
  • Hips are tucked in
  • Spine is straight
  • Torso is turned 45 degrees to the opponent (chest should face the same direction as the back foot)
  • Shoulders are relaxed, allowed to settle down and back
  • Head is upright, facing the opponent

Grip

There are two main 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, forming an obtuse angle with the forearm

In the other grip, known as the thumb grip, the lead thumb is pushed up into the flat of the blade. This causes the sword to rotate 90 degrees in the hand, making certain techniques easier to perform.

Basic Cuts

Oberhau (“Over Cut”)
Falling cut
Unterhau (“Under Cut”)
Rising cut
Mittelhau (“Middle Cut”)
Horizontal cut

Master Cuts

Zornhau (“Wrath Cut”)
Diagonal oberhau
Krumphau (“Crooked Cut”)
“Windshield wiper” cut; from the right, hit with the true edge and crossed arms; from the left, hit with the false edge and uncrossed arms
Zwerchau (“Thwart Cut”)
Mittelhau with the hilt above your head and the lead thumb underneath the flat of the blade, resulting in a “helicopter” motion; from the right, hit with the false edge and uncrossed arms; from the left, hit with the true edge and crossed arms
Schielhau (“Squinting Cut”)
Similar to a zwerchau, but as an oberhau instead of a mittelhau, and always hits with the false edge
Scheitelhau (“Parting Cut”)
Straight vertical oberhau through the top of the opponent’s head

Guards

Liechtenauer urges fencers to concern themselves with just a handful of guards:

Ochs (“Ox”)
Hilt next to your head, blade pointed at the opponent’s eyes
Pflug (“Plow”)
Hilt next to your hip, blade pointed at the opponent’s eyes
Alber (“Fool”)
Hilt low in front of you, blade pointed forward at the ground
Vom Tag (“From the Roof/Day”)
Hilt next to or above your head, blade pointed up and back
Langort (“Longpoint”)
Arms stretched forward, blade pointed at the opponent’s eyes

Any other conceivable position can be viewed as derivative of one of those.

Guards in German longsword are not static positions of defense; they are checkpoints within larger actions, usually a strike. The following table illustrates how the guards are used to construct various attacks:

Strike Starts In… Transitions Through… Ends In…
Oberhau Vom Tag Langort Alber
Unterhau Alber Langort Vom Tag
Zwerchau Ochs Opposite Ochs
Thrust Ochs or Pflug Langort
The Relationship between Guards and Strikes

At high levels of mastery, the concept of guards disappears entirely, being completely absorbed by their parent actions.

Counters

The master cuts are designed to break or counter the guards. They do this by denying a given guard’s most direct line of attack. This means that if the opponent wishes to perform a simultaneous strike, they must take a more indirect and longer route. Doing so would ensure that your attack landed first, making a simultaneous strike suicidal. Therefore, a properly executed master cut forces the opponent to focus entirely on defense.

This aspect of the master cuts can also be used defensively to perform single-time counters against the opponent’s attack. In this sense, they can be thought of as parries, although you should always use them to simultaneously strike the opponent, not just block their strike.

Guard/Strike Is Countered By…
Ochs, Langort, Overhand Thrust Krumphau
Pflug, Underhand Thrust Schielhau
Alber, Unterhau Scheitelhau
Vom Tag, Oberhau Zwerchau
Counters

Handwork

Handwork is a useful catch-all term for techniques that don’t fit neatly into the categories of strikes and guards.

Abschneiden (Slicing Off)
Block the opponent’s strike by performing an oberhau or unterhau against their arms
Absetzen (Setting Off)
Turn your true edge to intercept an attack while thrusting at the opponent
Duplieren (Doubling)
If the opponent is hard in the bind, let them push your hilt out while you turn your point in behind their blade, allowing you to cut their upper opening
Durchlauffen (Running Through)
Parry by raising your hilt overhead and letting your point drop to the side, then close the distance to grapple with the opponent
Durchwechseln (Changing Through)
Dip your point underneath the opponent’s blade and bring it back up on the other side
Hendtrucken (Pressing Hands)
Perform winden against the opponent’s hands or wrists
Hengen (Hanging)
Use the guards ochs and pflug to parry an attack, and transition between said guards to strike the opponent’s openings
Mutieren (Mutating)
If the opponent is soft in the bind, turn your point down over their blade and thrust into their lower opening
Nachreisen (Chasing After)
If the opponent creates an opening (by changing guards, drawing back for a strike, or missing with a strike), strike to that opening indes
Uberlauffen (Overruning)
If the opponent attacks your lower opening, withdraw your lead leg and strike to their upper opening
Winden (Winding)
Rotate your blade around the opponent’s, maintaining the bind and keeping your point forward at all times
Zucken (Pulling)
Pull away from the bind to deceive the opponent and strike again