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Meyer’s Rapier: German Sidesword Combat

Introduction

Joachim Meyer was a German fencing master during the 1500s, and one of the last masters in the Liechtenauer tradition of fencing, also known as Kunst des Fechtens (KDF, “Art of Fencing”).

Meyer’s style demonstrates some notable differences from the traditional Liechtenauer system. For instance, he broadens the definitions for certain techniques (e.g., doplieren and mutieren) so they can be applied to a wider variety of situations. He also introduces the use of the sidesword (although he calls a rapier), which he imported from Italian masters.

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.

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive description of Meyer’s system, but rather an overview of what I consider to be 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°
  • 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°
  • 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
  • Pinky and ring fingers grip firmly
  • Middle and index fingers grip loosely
  • 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
  • Thumb wraps loosely over top of the index finger

The other grip, known as the thumb grip, is derived from the handshake grip by pushing the lead thumb up onto the flat of the blade. This causes the sword to rotate 90° clockwise 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, end, or interrupt 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 Oberhut (“High Guard”)
Hold the hilt directly above your head with the point up and slightly back.
Right Oberhut
Hold the hilt high above your right shoulder with the point up and back.
Left Oberhut
Hold the hilt high above your left shoulder with the point up and back.
Right Ochs (“Ox”)
Hold the hilt to the right of your head with the point forward and slightly down.
Left Ochs
Hold the hilt to the left of your head with the point forward and slightly down.
Right Mittelhut (“Middle Guard”)
Hold the hilt out to your right with the point out and back.
Left Mittelhut
Hold the hilt out to your left with the point out and back.
Straight Eisenport (“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 Eisenport/Pflug (“Plow”)
Hold the hilt down to the right of your lead knee with the point forward and up. The difference between eisenport and pflug is that eisenport uses a handshake grip with vertical quillons, while pflug uses a palm-up thumb grip with horizontal quillons.
Left Eisenport/Pflug
Hold the hilt down to the left of your lead knee with the point forward and up. The difference between eisenport and pflug is that eisenport uses a handshake grip with vertical quillons, while pflug uses a palm-up thumb grip with horizontal quillons.
Gerade Versatzung (“Straight Parrying”)
Extend forward from straight eisenport 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.
Langort (“Longpoint”)
From gerade versatzung, continue to extend forward in the same fashion until your hilt is at shoulder level.
Straight Underhut (“Low Guard”)
Hold the hilt centered low in front of you with the point forward and down.
Right Underhut
Hold the hilt down by your right hip with the point down.
Left Underhut
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

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

While all the steps below are shown advancing (going forward toward the opponent), they may also be performed as a retreat (going backward) by simply reversing the order of the steps.

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.
Gathering Triangle Step Right
Combine a gather and a triangle step right.
Gathering Triangle Step Left
Combine a gather and a triangle step left.
Double Gathering Triangle Step Right
Perform a gathering triangle step right, then push the right foot forward and to the right to reset your stance.
Double Gathering Triangle Step Left
Perform a gathering triangle step left, then push the right foot forward and to the left to 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.

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 torso rather than your arm. This rotation may be aided by pivoting on the ball of your back foot and performing some variant of 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.

Oberhauw (“High Cut”)

An oberhauw is any downward vertical cut. There are three types:

Schedelhauw (“Scalp Cut”)
Oberhauw through opponent’s head
Demffhauw (“Suppressing Cut”)
Oberhauw through opponent’s shoulder
Schielhauw (“Squinting Cut”)
False-edge demffhauw
Zornhauw (“Wrath Cut”)

A zornhauw is any downward diagonal cut. There are five types:

Achselhauw (“Shoulder Cut”)
Zornhauw through opponent’s shoulder
Huffthauw (“Hip Cut”)
Zornhauw through opponent’s waist
Schenckelhauw (“Thigh Cut”)
Zornhauw through opponent’s leg
Wehrstreich (“Defense Strike”)
Zornhauw against opponent’s sword
Krumphauw (“Crooked Cut”)
False-edge zornhauw with a bit of a “windshield wiper” motion
Mittelhauw (“Middle Cut”)

A mittelhauw is any horizontal cut. There are four types:

Halßhauw (“Neck Cut”)
Mittelhauw through opponent’s neck
Gurtelhauw (“Belt Cut”)
Mittelhauw through opponent’s waist
Fußhauw (“Foot Cut”)
Mittelhauw through opponent’s lower leg
Zwerchauw (“Thwart Cut”)
Mittelhauw with your hilt above your head to catch an opponent’s oberhauw or zornhauw
Underhauw (“Low Cut”)

An underhauw is any ascending cut. There are four types, although Meyer doesn’t explicitly name any of them. The names below are either made up or inferred from context:

Underhauw (“Low Cut”)
Diagonal underhauw
Wing Cut
Vertical underhauw through opponent’s arm
Groin Cut
Vertical underhauw through opponent’s groin
Slash
False-edge diagonal underhauw

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
Oberhauw Straight Oberhut Langort Straight Underhut Dempffen
Zornhauw Right/Left Oberhut Langort Opposite Underhut Abschneiden
Mittelhauw Mittelhut Langort Opposite Mittelhut
Underhauw Right/Left Underhut Langort Opposite Ochs Außnemen
High Thrust Ochs Langort Absetzen
Middle Thrust Gerade Versatzung Langort Absetzen
Low Thrust Right/Left Eisenport Langort Absetzen
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.

Abschneiden (“Slicing Off”)
Redirecting an attack back toward the side it came from by meeting it with a wehrstreich
Absetzen (“Setting Off”)
Turning the long edge of your forte toward an attack while thrusting
Außnemen (“Taking Out”)
Redirecting an attack back toward the side it came from by meeting it with an (often false-edge) underhauw
Außschlagen (“Striking Out”)
Redirecting an attack along its original trajectory by striking it from behind with a krumphauw
Common Parry
Performing a static block with no potential for an offensive followup
Dempffen (“Suppressing”)
Redirecting an attack back toward the side it came from by meeting it with a demffhauw
Durchgehn (“Going Through”)
Redirecting an attack along its original trajectory by durchwechseln, then absetzen or abschneiden from behind
Einlauffen (“Running In”)
Stepping forward with your sword raised so that your blade intercepts the attack without necessarily throwing a strike
Sperren (“Barring”)
Blocking a low attack by dropping your point
Verhengen (“Hanging”)
Blocking a high attack by raising your hilt and dropping your point in a sweeping action upward or across your body
Verschieben (“Sliding”)
From a high guard, shift your blade laterally over your head into ochs on the same side of your body to block a high attack

Parries that redirect from the same side as the attack (i.e., durchgehn and außschlagen) 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 meisterhauw (“master cuts”).

There are five meisterhauw. 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.

Meisterhauw Counters the Guard…
Schedelhauw Underhut
Zornhauw Oberhut
Krumphauw Ochs and Langort
Zwerchauw Oberhut
Schielhauw Eisenport/Pflug
Meisterhauw

The schedelhauw exploits the reach advantage of the oberhauw over underhauw. An oberhauw against a target at or above shoulder level will hit before an underhauw targeting anything below shoulder level. Therefore, a schedelhauw combined with a gathering back of the lead foot ensures that cuts from an opponent in underhut will miss, while the schedelhauw itself will hit. This concept is called überlauffen (“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.

Fülen (“Feeling”)
Sensing the pressure on your blade (whether the opponent is hard or soft)
Hendtrucken (“Pressing Hands”)
Binding and slicing against the opponent’s hands or hilt with your forte
Bleiben (“Remaining”)
Staying in the bind
Verkehren (“Reversing”)
Turning your hand and blade inward to bind over top of the opponent’s sword
Schneiden (“Slicing”)
Binding and slicing against the opponent’s arms with your forte
Winden (“Winding”)
Rotating your blade around the opponent’s while maintaining contact and keeping your point forward
Ausreißen (“Wrenching”)
Either pushing with your forte, or absetzen 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.

Ablauffen (“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
Doplieren (“Doubling”)
Attacking an opening, then attacking the same opening again by turning the point or false edge inward
Durchwechseln (“Changing Through”)
Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by passing your point underneath
Fehlen (“Failing”)
Intentionally missing with an attack
Mutieren (“Mutating”)
Changing a cut into a thrust or a thrust into a cut, mid-action
Nachreisen (“Chasing”)
Striking to a space recently vacated by the opponent’s weapon
Rinde (“Looping”)
Pulling away from the bind to attack the opposite opening, such that your blade describes a circle around your head
Umbschlagen (“Striking Around”)
Backing out of the bind to attack the other side
Umbschnappen (“Snapping Around”)
Binding the opponent’s sword with your quillons or hilt, then rotating your sword around that point to strike their body
Umbwechseln (“Changing Around”)
Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by passing your point over top
Verfliegen (“Flitting”)
Pulling away from an attack that the opponent is about to parry, preventing a bind by striking elsewhere
Zirckel (“Circling”)
Performing a schielhauw or krumphauw past the opponent, then using your momentum to flow into an oberhauw or zornhauw
Zucken (“Pulling”)
Leaving the bind, then immediately striking to the same spot that you just left

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:

Zufechten (“Onset”)
Combatants close the distance and throw initial strikes
Krieg (“War”)
Combatants are within striking range and use handwork in their attempts to penetrate each other’s defenses while maintaining their own
Abzug (“Withdrawal”)
Combatants perform defensive actions while retreating out of striking range

If the opening strikes in the zufechten incapacitate the opponent, then the fight skips straight to the abzug. On the other hand, a fight may go through several zufechten-krieg-abzug cycles before one of the combatants emerges victorious.

Initiative

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

Vor (“Before”)
Forcing the opponent to respond to your actions; you have the initiative
Nach (“After”)
Responding to the opponent’s actions; you don’t have the initiative
Indes (“Instantly”)
Taking advantage of brief windows of opportunity; you steal or retain the initiative
Gleich (“Simultaneously”)
Acting at the same time as the opponent, without regard for what they are doing

Acting in the vor is preferred, since it allows you to control the fight. If you find yourself in the nach, you should defend yourself until you can safely act indes to steal the vor.

However, it should be noted that, especially in Meyer’s system, the nach is not a terrible state to be avoided at all costs. Remember that although attacking forces the opponent to defend, they may use their defense to turn the tables. Sometimes, acting in the nach is the safest way to claim the vor.

Acting gleich is not advised. It often means you and the opponent attack at the same time and both get struck.

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 zufechten, Combatant A seizes the vor by provoking Combatant B with a deceptive feint
  2. Still in the zufechten, Combatant B acts indes in an attempt to steal the vor
  3. In the krieg, Combatant A acts indes 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 abzug, 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 vor
    • 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 vor
    • Use deception to undermine the opponent’s attempts use indes
  • Steal the vor
    • If you find yourself in the nach, take away the opponent’s attacks with good parries
    • Use indes 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., absetzen), or…
    • As soon as you bind, wind inward and…
      • If the opponent is hard in the bind, cut (i.e., doplieren)
      • If the opponent is soft in the bind, thrust (i.e., mutieren)
  • Bind on your terms, not your opponent’s terms
    • Avoid binds by durchwechseln
    • If the opponent manages to bind on your…
      • Foible, durchwechseln, then dempffen
      • Middle, ablauffen and dempffen
      • Forte, absetzen and thrust
    • If things go wrong, dempffen or beat the opponent’s blade
    • If you are driven outside your silhouette, cut back in behind the opponent’s sword (i.e., außschlagen or durchgehn)
  • Nachreisen 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 durchwechseln or umbwechseln
  • 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 first with little thought toward defense
Artful and Sharp
Attacks the moment they percieve an opening
Judicious and Deceitful
Only attacks when there’s and opening and they can get in and out safely
Foolish or Sharp
Waits in defense with little thought toward offense

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

Opponent Counter
Violent and Stupid Absetzen or dempffen a few attacks from gerade versatzung while retreating, then let one pass by and strike to the opening
Artful and Sharp Present an opening, then parry 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 mutieren and ablauffen 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 (vor and nach). You can set traps in the nach to manipulate the opponent into striking an opening of your choosing, then steal the vor when they take the bait.

Defending against Deception

Meyer offers two tactics to prevent yourself from falling for the opponent’s deceptions:

  • When parrying an attack from gerade versatzung, 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.

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