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The Combat System of Joachim Meyer

Introduction

Joachim Meyer was a German fencing master during the latter half of the 1500s. He’s considered part of the Lichtenauer tradition of fencing, although his style demonstrates some notable departures from traditional German swordplay.

Meyer developed a combat system rather than 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

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:

  • Feet are shoulder-width apart
  • Lead foot is a comfortable step in front of the back foot
  • Lead foot is pointed at the opponent
  • Back foot is pointed outward at an angle
  • Knees are bent and aligned with the toes
  • Weight is distributed evenly between the balls of the feet
  • Torso is erect and the back straight
  • Head is tilted slightly upward

When using a longsword, either foot can be forward, and your torso is fairly squared up to the opponent. When using a sidesword, the right (or dominant) foot is always forward, and the stance overall is slightly narrower, with the torso slightly more profiled.

Footwork

When stepping, shift your weight fluidly between feet. Steps should not be overly large. Maintain a level stance throughout, not leaning too far or bobbing up and down.

Pass Forward
Move back foot forward so it becomes the front foot; may be straight forward or diagonal
Pass Backward
Move front foot backward so it becomes the back foot; may be straight backward or diagonal
Increase Forward
Move front foot forward, increasing distance between feet
Increase Backward
Move back foot backward, increasing distance between feet
Gather Forward
Move back foot forward, decreasing distance between feet
Gather Backward
Move front foot backward, decreasing distance between feet
Advance
An increase forward followed by a gather forward
Retreat
An increase backward followed by a gather backward
Triangle Step
Step sideways with back foot behind the front foot to pivot your body
Double Triangle Step
Step sideways with front foot, perform a triangle step, then step sideways with front foot again
Broken or Stolen Step
Begin to step forward with one foot, but instead set it down behind the other

Meyer doesn’t use passing steps with the sidesword. They are used freely with the longsword, however.

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

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.

Sidesword guards are generally held farther forward, with the arm extended. Longsword guards keep the hands closer to the body with the elbows tucked in. 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.

High Guard

The high guard is any posture where your hilt is up near your head and your blade points upward and slightly back to threaten a cut. There are three variants:

Straight High Guard
Hilt above your head
Right High Guard
Hilt to the right of your head
Left High Guard
Hilt to the left of your head

Ox

Ox is any posture where your hilt is up near your head and your blade points forward and slightly downward to threaten a thrust. There are two variants:

Right Ox
Hilt to the right of your head
Left Ox
Hilt to the left of your head

Irongate or Plow

Irongate is any posture where your hilt is down at the level of your knee and your blade points forward and upward to threaten a thrust. There are three variants:

Straight Irongate
Hilt centered
Right Irongate
Hilt to your right
Left Irongate
Hilt to your left

Meyer actually describes two different sets of plow guards, one for the longsword and one for the sidesword. The sidesword plows seem a bit out of place in Meyer’s system, and are likely there simply as a nod to German sword traditions. On the other hand, the longsword plows are very similar to the sidesword’s right and left irongates. Therefore, to keep things simple, I’ve chosen to omit the sidesword plows and combine the longsword versions with the irongate guards.

Low Guard

The low guard is any posture where your hilt is down at the level of your knee and your blade points downward. There are three variants:

Fool
Hilt centered
Side Guard
Hilt to your right
Change
Hilt to your left

Middle Guard

The middle guard is any posture where your hilt is held horizontally out to the side with the blade slightly back in preparation for a cut. There are two variants:

Right Middle Guard
Hilt out to your right side, blade pointing right
Left Middle Guard
Hilt out to your left side, blade pointing left

Straight Parrying

Straight parrying is when your hilt is forward and centered, and your blade points forward and slightly up to threaten a thrust. It is the only guard in which you should wait, since it keeps the opponent at bay and can easily shift to any other guard should the need arise.

Longpoint

Longpoint is when your arm is fully extended at shoulder level with the point directly forward. It is the endpoint of all thrusts, and the point of impact for all cuts. There are three variants:

High Longpoint
Relatively narrow stance; point extended toward opponent’s face or chest
Middle Longpoint
Slightly wider, deeper stance; point extended toward opponent’s waist
Low Longpoint
Very wide, deep stance; point extended toward opponent’s groin

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 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.

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.

Meyer’s Cutting Diagram

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 thigh
Defense Cut
Wrath cut on opponent’s sword
Crooked Cut
False-edge wrath cut

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

Low Cut

A low cut is any ascending cut. Low cuts are further divided into three 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
Other Scalp Cut
Vertical low cut through opponent’s groin

Thrust

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

Handwork

Handworks are the techniques used to manipulate the opponent’s weapon or otherwise get around their defenses.

Chasing
Striking to a space recently vacated by the opponent
Mutating
Changing a cut into a thrust or a thrust into a cut, mid-action
Changing Through
Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by passing your point underneath
Feeling
Sensing pressure in the bind to determine who has the greater leverage (i.e., who is strong and who is weak)
Winding
Rotating your sword around the opponent’s while maintaining blade contact and keeping your point forward
Wrenching
Using your forte to push the opponent’s blade out of the way
Running Off
Moving your blade from one side of the opponent’s to the other by raising your hilt, dropping your point, and cutting around

Parries

Parries are handworks specifically meant to take 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.

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
Suppressing
Redirecting an attack toward the side it came from by meeting it with a suppressing cut
Going Through
Redirecting an attack from the side it came from by changing through, then setting or slicing it off
Hanging
Blocking a high attack by raising your hilt and dropping your point
Barring
Blocking a low attack by dropping your point
Striking Out
Redirecting an attack from the side it came from by meeting it with a crooked cut
Taking Out
Redirecting an attack toward the side it came from by meeting it with a low cut
Common Parry
Performing a static block with no potential for an offensive followup

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.

Framework

Once you know the individual components, you can assemble them within Meyer’s framework to build a fight.

Distance

A fight is divided into 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.

Timing

There are three moments in which you can act:

Before
Seizing the initiative and forcing the opponent to respond to your actions
After
Surrendering the initiative and responding to the opponent’s actions
Instantly
Taking advantage of windows of opportunity to 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, you should strive to act instantly in order to steal the before.

Actions

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

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.

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 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. Now that the way is safe, Combatant A hits Combatant B
  5. In the withdrawal, Combatant A retreats and throws a taker to ward off any potential afterblows

Strategy

Once you know the individual components of a fight and understand how they fit into the system framework, you must decide how best to employ that knowledge.

Rules

Meyer outlines several rules to guide the decision-making process:

  • Maintain control of your sword and don’t overcommit with it
    • Keep your arms extended
    • Power all blade actions by rotating your core
  • Don’t strike the opponent until you’ve removed the threat of their blade
    • Keep your hilt outside your silhouette
    • Keep your point directed at the opponent
    • Drive the opponent’s hilt outside their silhouette and thrust, or…
    • As soon as you bind, wind inward and:
      • If you are weak, cut
      • If you are strong, thrust
  • Bind on your own terms, not the opponent’s terms
    • Avoid binds by changing through
    • If the opponent manages to bind on your:
      • Weak, change through and suppress
      • Middle, run off and suppress
      • Strong, set off
    • If things go wrong, suppress or beat
    • If your sword is driven outside your silhouette, cut back in behind the opponent’s sword
  • Chase whenever possible
    • When the opponent gathers for a strike, strike in to stop it before it begins
    • When the opponent misses a strike, change around and strike to the region they struck from
    • Striking in is safer than changing around
  • First deal with the opponent’s foible, then their forte, then strike their body

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

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

Opponent Counter
Violent and Stupid Set off 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

Whichever type of fighter you identify yourself with, you should learn to impersonate the others so that you can deceive your opponent and counter them.

Deception

There are two types of deception:

  • With the sword
  • With the body

Deceptions with the sword involve moving your weapon to strike one target, then changing to strike another. Handworks such as mutating and running off are good ways to accomplish this. 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.