Practice Notes: Stepping Against vom Tag

Among the various groups I train the use of Zwerch against vom Tag is taught exactly the same way. Here is there drill:

  1. Starting in wide measure, both fencers assume left vom Tag.
  2. The agent steps far to his right with a compass step while throwing a Zwerch.
  3. The patient stands there like a post. Or maybe he sweeps from right vom Tag to left vom Tag.

Since there were no instructors around to tell us differently, we decided to test whether or not they were right.

The Experiment

The first thing we did was take the shackles off the patient fencer. Once the agent beings the Zwerch, the patient can respond any way he wants. This means the Zwerch has to be real, if the agent makes a mistake he pays for it with a strike to his hands or head.

Then we removed the requirement for left vom Tag. The patient is allowed to assume any version of vom Tag he wants, left or right, high or low.

Finally, we decided on our test variable. The agent would step wide for a series of attacks, then step narrow.

Zwerch with a Wide Step

This has a pitiful success rate. Once the patient is allowed to react with a real counter-attack this had a very low success rate. Even when the cut was thrown perfectly, and the footwork dead on, it could be parried with a simple Zornhau. And if there was any mistake, the Zornhau would cut right through the Zwerch.

It didn’t matter if the person was in low vom Tag or high. It didn’t matter if the Zwerch came in flat, falling, or rising. If the hands were too low it never worked, but if they were high it still was unreliable.

Zwerch with a narrow Step

This is stupid easy. Even if we do something retarded like finish the Zwerch with the hands at chest level the success rate is better than 50%. And if the hands were up high like they were supposed to be the success rate was near perfect.

If against the high vom Tag, the Zwerch would cut the wrists on the way to the head. If the vom Tag was low, on the right or left, then it would constrain the sword and still safely land.

The natural action while using a narrow step is the thrust the arms forward so that your strong goes against his arms or blade. This seems to be the correct action as well, so embrace it.

Why Were We Wrong All These Years?

One, because we assumed we read the text correctly. We saw “step well to his left” and assumed that meant a wide step to our right. What this experiment showed to us is that the author really meant “to his left”. It is still an off-line step, but only barely off line enough to put your body just to the left of his.

Two, because our drills were ineffectual. If the patient isn’t allowed to counter-attack, the agent has no way to know if they did the exercise correctly. The instructor or partner can tell them yes or no, but they are just guessing. They have no way to know if the defense is actually sound throughout the entire action.

Three, because our teachers were too arrogant to experiment. I have never had a longsword instructor say, “Try both and tell me which works better.” Universally they assume that their interpretation is correct, deviation from the drill is not to be tolerated,  and any weakness is merely the result of insufficient practice.

Will my instructors, past and present, read this and reevaluate what they are teaching? Honestly, I hope not. When I meet their students on the sparing field or in a tournament I want them to continue stepping wide with the Zwerch. Winning feels good, and if I can win with a half-heated Zornhau against their carefully trained Zwerch it feels that much better.

Additional Thoughts

I was wrong, Zwerch doesn’t end in Ochs. Ochs has the quillons nearly vertical to catch high cuts. Zwerch isn’t meant to catch cuts that way. Zwerch is meant to stop the cut before it happens via a constraint against the blade or arms. So a Zwerch is closer to horizontal. Not perfectly flat, you still want some backup defense, but much flatter than your typical Ochs.

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