Longsword Guard Analysis – Low vom Tag

I’ve long been taught to avoid raising the right elbow while in low vom Tag, as that leads to the “samurai movie Tag”, as shown in this statue from Happy Mall.

The main reason I was given for this was that it would expose the elbow. This is a rather silly idea. Just looking at the statue, or the drawing that follows, you can clearly see the elbow is well behind the blade.

Furthermore, if I’m in right vom Tag and my opponent is right handed, he has to travel clear to the other side of my body. Unless I’m doing something exceedingly foolish such as turning around so my right shoulder is forward, he’s never going to get close to it.

Given that this is appearing in what appears to be a photocopy of a training manual, one could surmise that the posture is in fact legitimate. But since I don’t know the provenience of this drawing, we’ll move on.

The reason I don’t like this position is that it tends to draw up the right shoulder. My posture is bad enough, I don’t need another factor breaking my structure even further.

Overcorrecting

A common, though not universal, answer to this is to overcorrect and hold the elbow tight against the body. Here are some random selections from an image search.

image image  image image

My problem with tucking in the elbow is that it tends to lead to one of two problems. Either it constrains my movement, or in order to regain my mobility my left hand drops low and is exposed to rising slices. (And being in front of my blade, I’m far more worried about my left forearm than the elbow behind my body.)

So lets go back to the original sources.

Historic Images

What follows are the only three illustrations of low vom Tag that I could find.

Pseudo-Peter von Danzig (circa 1450)

image

Sigmund Schining ein Ringeck (circa 1510)

image

Paulus Hector Mair (1542)

image

Though spanning a hundred year time period, they are quite consistent.

  • The posture is upright. (The weight shift is, however, inconsistent.)
  • The sword is angled less than 45 degrees back.
  • The blade isn’t tight against the head, but instead between the center and point of the shoulder.
  • The cross-guard is at or just below the shoulder.
  • The right elbow is away from the body, not tucked in tightly.
  • The right elbow isn’t raised either, but appears to be falling naturally.
  • The left forearm is nearly horizontal.
  • The left knee is bent.
  • The right leg is straight.
  • The left foot is flat on the ground. (The right foot is inconsistent on this point.)
  • The left foot is turned slightly outwards, not pointing at the opponent.
  • The right foot is turned outwards, but less than 90 degrees.

On that last point, it may seem like Ringeck is in disagreement. However, you need to pay attention to the eyes. Assuming that he is actually looking at his opponent, we’re not seeing this illustration directly from the side. Rather, the figure had been rotated so that we can see more detail.

Cross-checking

One of the things we often neglect to do when investigating an illustration is cross-checking. Under the theory that there is a finite number of ways to efficiently move the body, we can look to other traditions for comparable postures and techniques.

Here is a posture from kenjutsu known as In No Kame.

image

Here is the same analysis, with the differences in bold. The knees aren’t visible, so those points have been crossed out.

    • The posture is upright.
    • The sword is angled less than 45 degrees back.
    • The blade is tight against the head.
    • The cross-guard is just above the shoulder.
    • The right elbow is away from the body, not tucked in tightly.
    • The right elbow isn’t raised either, but appears to be falling naturally.
    • The left forearm is angled upwards.
    • The left knee is bent.
    • The right leg is straight.
    • The left foot is flat on the ground.
    • The left foot is turned slightly outwards, not pointing at the opponent.
    • The right foot is turned outwards, but less than 90 degrees.

This is just one drawing, so I’d like to hear more from an actual kenjutsu fencer before I go too far down that path. But on its face, it speaks to the accuracy of the illustrations.

Theories

Foot Alignment

Regarding the feet, I was told to prefer to land such that you don’t need to rotate your foot when you begin your next step. And this was from a scholar of Fiore, a traditional that loves to pivot on the ball of the foot. That makes a lot of sense, as one shouldn’t be wasting half a tempo to rotate the foot before performing the real action.

It is also more natural when taking off-line steps. The knee works better as a shock absorber when the toe is pointing in the direction of movement. If I turn my lead foot to always face my opponent, I’ll naturally step straight forward to reduce the strain on my knees.

Hand Position

The hand position is comfortable. Tucking in the elbow or raising it high both require effort on their own, and further adjustments to be effective. Instead they are showing us a natural posture than we can assume without thinking about it, which is really important when using it as a transitional guard.

As I mentioned before, I think the blade is intentionally held high enough that the left forearm is horizontal. If it is held lower, the left hand may be pushed out so far that it becomes endangered. Remember, a major theme of the early German (and Italian) longsword traditions is the emphasis on protecting the hands.

Blade Position

There is a really important reason why the point is so high. The farther it falls behind you, the more you have to move to throw cuts against the opponent’s right. While a cut downwards or to the opponent’s left is more common, it is also more obvious and you’ll want to have other options available.

Matching the illustration as best I can, I am almost able to use an effective rising cut from my left. (I say almost because there are some clear flaws in my edge alignment.) I can also perform a rising parry into an extended right Ochs.

If I let the point drop below 45 degrees (not an exact measurement, I need a mirror), then I’m limited to only downwards cuts on the left.

All of these actions become easier as my blade moves closer to the point of my shoulder.

Kinjutsu solves this another way. By having the hilt so high, I can easily perform the rising cuts on the left even when the blade is also close to the side of my head. The point seems to be passing behind my head (somewhat like a cut to the right side from right Zornhut).

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3 Responses to Longsword Guard Analysis – Low vom Tag

  1. Pingback: Interpreting Illustrations – Where are you looking? | Grauenwolf's Study of Western Martial Arts

  2. Jeff S says:

    This is (for me, anyway) a fun article! I love comparing disciplines. I’ve had a few years training with Japanese swordsmanship, and there are a few differences worth considering– primary being that the Japanese swords are typically lighter and smaller, so the elbow up guard in Hasso is less fatiguing (although the version of Hasso I learned held the elbows down)s. Lighter swords also allow for a tenser, more ready-to-fire guard stance. Distance is also a consideration. The western guard seems better suited to a greater measure between combatants.

  3. Antrenteau says:

    Hello, I’ve been lurking this blog not for so long but since you are talking about kenjutsu I’ll give it a go.

    You described in no kamae pretty well, right elbow isn’t actually that far of the body, one or two fists of the chest I’d say. About the knees: left knee is slightly bent, right is straight, both are separated by the distance of one feet, weight is put on the front leg. Now it’s one way of doing this common stance, it’s usually called hasso no kamae in more recent schools and in kendo, but it’s not exactly similar to in no kamae (going by the five stance drawing at the beginning, right elbow is going away from the body, right forearm is almost horizontal, space between the feet is bigger – those stances looks like heresy to me so I’m not such a good judge). It’s called In no kamae only in the schools that comes from the Katori lineage. Now there’s not one only way of doing this ”half-high stance”, Japanese traditions of swordsmanship are diverse, and differences exist even in common stances such as this one. In no kamae is suppose to be the ”safe” posture you fall back when you are pressed (and the one you take when you messed up the darn kata), it takes away the forearms as targets to expose the sides of the chest, however all sorts of attacks, parries and counters are doable from there, it’s very versatile. The main differences with the German stance would be the space between the feet is smaller (but they match in some kata) and the hands are at head level instead of upper chest level, otherwise, I’d say it’s quite the same use and type of stance.

    Kudos for the blog by the way.

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