Fence with Novices

Those of you who have been following the forums know that I’ve been rather cranky with some videos on winding and the crooked strike. Simply put, my problem with them is that they don’t work against the novice.

The novice is a nasty beast. When you drill with a skilled fencer, they obey the drill. If you tell them to only cut to longpoint, that’s what they do. If you tell them to cut a zornhau, and you parry it, then they pause. A skilled fencer just stops, allowing you to wind or cut or otherwise perform the action you are trying to learn.

A novice isn’t so generous. I was intentionally not teaching my girl friend to fence because I wanted her raw, instinctual reactions. In yesterday’s post I mentioned the over bind as a response to winding. That’s her natural response to any movement or change in pressure.

A skilled fencer wouldn’t be so eager to over bind. First of all, he wouldn’t want to upset the drill. His partner can’t develop the raw motor skills without at least some leeway. Secondly, a skilled fencer would be too afraid of the Zwerch. He doesn’t know if I’m really winding or if I’m feinting a wind so that he will apply too much pressure. So he just stands there, hanging out in long point.

Something I often see is a restriction of options. The skilled fencer may have never been taught the over bind so he doesn’t use it. As a skilled fencer, he focuses on those skills that he was taught, replacing instinct with technique. While in general this is a good thing, some things are lost in the process.

The “windshield wiper” crooked strike is especially vulnerable to the novice. It is not uncommon for a fencer to be taught to only cut to long point, “for those who cut wide are shamed”. Against such a person, the long edge parry followed by a short edge snap cut works great. His opponent, finding himself in long point, becomes confused and just stands there until he is hit. You need to train for timing and footwork, but the technique works.

But the novice isn’t “wise” enough as to stop in long point. If you don’t tell her otherwise, my girl friend will cut all the way to the ground. The crooked strike will stop the zornhau from hitting my head or shoulder easy enough. But she’ll just step deeper and redirect the cut to the leg. Even if you stop her blade dead, she’ll just repower the cut as soon as you leave her sword.

The novice also doesn’t know when she is dead. I taught her to cut only to long point so that the drill would work. Fat chance of that. The leg cuts stopped, and the belly cuts started. As soon as my blade left hers, she began the slice.

This isn’t a game. (Well yes it is, but lets pretend it’s not.) My attack lands first, that short edge snap cut is wicked fast. But it leaves her sword in long point. It is just sitting there, belly high, and she’s itching for something to do. The novice hates boredom. So even though my cut always lands first, I’ve got nothing but desperate footwork to avoid the belly slice.

If this were a real fight, my short cut cut to her head probably isn’t enough to drop her. It isn’t like a thrust to the face, even if it cracks the skull there is a good chance that she’ll keep fighting. And if it hits the jaw, it won’t even be lethal. Unlike the belly slice that would leave me gutted.

Rigidly structured drills are necessary, you can’t learn everything just by reading and free sparring. But open drills, where your opponent is actively fighting you, are just as important. Nay, they are more important. Your opponent never wants your technique to work, so it has to in spite of them. A complaint opponent allows you do to things that don’t actually work. And a skilled opponent doesn’t do the unpredictable things that confound you.

So fence with novices.

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