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Meyer’s Rappier: A Summary of German Sidesword Combat

Introduction

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.

This article, however, will focus on the sidesword (which Meyer called a rappier). 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.

Note that a right-handed fencer is assumed throughout this article. If you are left-handed, simiply reverse the right/left designations.

Components

Components are the individual postures and techniques used throughout a fight. They are the most basic building blocks of Meyer’s system.

Stance

The basic stance is as follows:

  • Right foot points directly toward the opponent
  • Left foot is approximately 2 foot lengths behind the right foot, and slightly off to the side
  • Left foot points outward 45–90 degrees
  • Knees are aligned with their respective feet
  • Right knee is bent so the shin is roughly perpendicular to the ground; right toes should just be visible if you glance down
  • Left knee is somewhat bent
  • Hips, spine, and shoulders are a single unit, straight and upright
  • Hips and shoulders are turned toward the left 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

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.

Guards

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. In fact, Meyer’s term for guard is often translated instead as posture.

All guards are held with the right arm extended.

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.

Straight 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.
Left High Guard
Hold the hilt high above your left shoulder with the point up and back.
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.
Straight Irongate
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.
Right Irongate/Plow
Hold the hilt down to the right of your lead knee with the point forward and up.
Left Irongate/Plow
Hold the hilt down to the left of your lead knee with the point forward and up.
Straight Parrying
Extend forward from straight irongate by raising your arm slightly and keeping the point aimed at the opponent’s eyes. This is one of the few guards Meyer recommends for waiting in defense.
Longpoint
From straight parrying, continue to extend forward in the same fashion until your hilt is at shoulder level.
Straight Low Guard
Hold the hilt centered low in front of you with the point forward and down.
Right Low Guard
Hold the hilt down by your right hip with the point down.
Left Low Guard
Hold the hilt down by your left hip with the point down.

Footwork

Meyer includes the following diagram in one of his illustrations. It can be used to illustrate all the steps he describes in the text:

Meyer’s Footwork Diagram

Note that this is a simplified diagram for teaching purposes. In reality, the three vertical lines should converge toward the opponent.

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
  • Knee-toe alignment should be maintained at all times
  • The right foot always stays in front

Additionally, a lateral motion may be added to any forward or backward steps so that you move at an angle relative to the opponent. While all the steps below are shown advancing (going forward toward the opponent), they may also be performed as a retreat (going backward).

Increase
Move one foot away from the other, widening your stance.
Gather
Move one foot toward the other, narrowing your stance.
Increase-Gather
Perform an increase followed by a gather of the opposite foot to reset your stance.
Gather-Increase
Perform a gather followed by an increase of the opposite foot to reset your stance.
Triangle Step Right
Step to the right with the rear foot, pivoting your body in the opposite direction.
Triangle Step Left
Step to the left with the rear foot, pivoting your body in the opposite direction.
Double Triangle Step Right
Triangle step right, then move the lead foot right to shift your body and reset your stance.
Double Triangle Step Left
Triangle step left, then move the lead foot left 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.

All of these steps can be thought of as building blocks. They may be combined or chained together to form more complicated steps.

Strikes

Nearly all actions in Meyer’s system, both offensive and defensive, are considered strikes. All strikes should be powered by a rotation of your hips and shoulders rather than your arm. This rotation may be aided by pivoting on the ball of your back foot and performing a triangle step. You should also keep your arm extended throughout the strike, with your shoulder at the level of your target in order to maximize your reach. You can adjust the level of your shoulder by widening your stance, bending your knees, and leaning forward.

Cuts

Cuts can be defined as a transition from any point-back guard to a point-forward guard, or as any motion that moves your point across the space between you and the opponent.

Cuts may be full, passing all the way through the target, or half, terminating in longpoint.

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.

Meyer’s Cutting Diagram

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.

High Cut

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
Wrath 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
Middle Cut

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
Low 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
Slash
False-edge diagonal low cut

Thrusts

A thrust is an extension from any point-forward guard into longpoint, or as any motion that moves your point forward through the space between you and the opponent. Remember that, as with all strikes, thrusts should be powered primarily by rotating your body and stepping forward, rather than “punching” with your arm.

Thrusts are organized into three types:

High Thrust
Descending thrust from above
Middle Thrust
Straight thrust
Low Thrust
Ascending thrust from below

Slices

A slice is when you place the edge of your sword against the target, then apply pressure while pushing or pulling it across.

The Relationship between 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 Transitional Guard Ending Guard As a Parry
High Cut Straight High Guard Longpoint Straight Low Guard Suppressing
Wrath Cut Right/Left High Guard Longpoint Opposite Low Guard Slicing Off
Middle Cut Right/Left Middle Guard Longpoint Opposite Middle Guard
Low Cut Right/Left Low Guard Longpoint Opposite Ox Taking Out
High Thrust Ox Longpoint Setting Off
Middle Thrust Straight Parrying Longpoint Setting Off
Low Thrust Right/Left Irongate Longpoint Setting Off
Relationships between Strikes, Guards, and Parries

These relationships are so inherent in the system that, at a high level of mastery, the concepts of guards and parries disappear altogether, being completely absorbed by the strikes.

Handwork

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

Parries are strikes specifically meant to take or bind 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.

Barring
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 from behind
Hanging
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 necessarily 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
Sliding
From a high guard, shift your blade laterally over your head into ox on the same side of your body to block a high attack
Striking Out
Redirecting an attack along its original trajectory by striking it from behind with a crooked cut
Suppressing
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 (often false-edge) 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 counters a particular guard position by blocking or evading 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…
Scalp Cut Low Guard
Wrath Cut Right/Left High Guard
Crooked Cut Ox and Longpoint
Thwart Cut High Guard
Squinting Cut Irongate/Plow
Master Cuts

The scalp cut exploits the reach advantage of high cuts over low cuts. A high cut against a target at or above shoulder level will hit before a low cut targeting anything below shoulder level. Therefore, a scalp cut combined with a gathering back of the lead foot ensures that cuts from an opponent in a low guard will miss, while the scalp cut itself will hit. This concept is called overruning.

Controls

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.

Feeling
Sensing the pressure on your blade (whether the opponent is hard or soft)
Pressing Hands
Binding and slicing against the opponent’s hands or hilt with your forte
Remaining
Staying in the bind
Reversing
Turning your hand and blade inward to bind over top of the opponent’s sword
Slicing
Binding and slicing against the opponent’s arms with your forte
Winding
Rotating your blade around the opponent’s while maintaining contact and keeping your point forward
Wrenching
Either pushing with your forte, or setting off against the opponent’s hilt/arms instead of their blade

Deceptions

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
Chasing
Striking to a space recently vacated by the opponent’s weapon
Circling
Performing a squinting cut or crooked cut past the opponent, then using your momentum to flow into a high or wrath cut
Doubling
Attacking an opening, then attacking the same opening by turning the point or false edge inward
Failing
Intentionally missing with an attack
Flitting
Pulling away from an attack that the opponent is about to parry, preventing a bind by striking elsewhere
Looping
Pulling away from the bind to attack the opposite opening, such that your blade describes a circle around your head
Mutating
Changing a cut into a thrust or a thrust into a cut, mid-action
Pulling
Leaving the bind, then immediately striking to the same spot that you just left
Running Off
Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by turning your point away from the opponent’s blade and 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

Framework

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:

Onset
Combatants close the distance and throw initial strikes
Middle
Combatants are within striking range and use handwork in their attempts to penetrate each other’s defenses while maintaining their own
Withdrawal
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.

Initiative

There are three moments or modes in which you can act:

Before
Forcing the opponent to respond to your actions; you have the initiative
After
Responding to the opponent’s actions; you don’t have the initiative
Instantly
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.

Actions

All actions you take during a fight fall into one of three categories based on intent:

Provoker
Any action meant to draw the opponent out of a safe position
Taker
Any action meant to remove the threat of the opponent’s blade
Hitter
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.

Leverage

When swords meet in the bind, combatants can be described by how much pressure they exert on the opponent’s blade:

Hard
You push against and move the opponent’s blade, or at least prevent them from moving yours
Soft
You either can’t resist the opponent’s pressure, or you choose to pull back from the bind

Which state you are in depends on several factors:

  • Raw physical strength
  • Skeletal alignment
  • Positioning of your forte and foible relative to the opponent’s

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:

  1. In the onset, Combatant A seizes the before by provoking Combatant B with a deceptive feint
  2. Still in the onset, Combatant B acts instantly in an attempt to steal the before
  3. In the middle, Combatant A acts instantly and takes Combatant B’s response with a parry
  4. Combatant A is hard in the resulting bind, while Combatant B is soft
  5. Now that the way is safe, Combatant A pushes through the bind and hits Combatant B
  6. In the withdrawal, Combatant A retreats and throws a taker to ward off any potential afterblows

Strategy

Once you know the component techniques and understand how they fit into the overall framework, you must learn how to strategically use the system.

Strategic Goals

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

Tactical Rules

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 a rotation of your core, not your arms
  • 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 weapon 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 and thrust
    • 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 (i.e., going through or striking out)
  • 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 through or around
  • When going on the offensive:
    1. First deal with the opponent’s foible (i.e., take away their attack)
    2. Then their forte (i.e., circumvent their defense)
    3. 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
The Four Opponents in Meyer’s Framework

While some types are simply better than others, all can be beaten with the correct strategy.

Opponent Counter
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
Counters to the Four Opponents

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

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.

Deception also applies to the concept of initiative (before, after, and instantly). As mentioned earlier, acting in the before does not necessarily mean being the first to throw a strike; you can instead manipulate the opponent into striking an opening of your choosing. This use of the before is especially effective because it deceives the opponent into thinking they have the before, thus causing them to act unsafely.

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.

References