I’ve often seen fight scenes in movies depicting two knights, fully clad in articulated plate armour, slamming the mortal hell out of each other with swords. This, needless to say, is about as effective as flogging a rhino with a broom handle. Swords are designed to concentrate kinetic energy into a tapered edge and they do this very well. Unless, of course, your target is a metal surface that includes a lot of curved surfaces designed to slip blows away. There are faster, more effective ways to dull your edge: might I suggest a rock…
Armour, however, does have weak points, some of which are the result of the suits’ need to articulate to allow a full range of movement. These areas are generally not practical to attack with the edge. But the point is another matter.
Half-swording is the technique of using a longsword (and also applicable to the single-handed sword) where the right hand retains its position on the grip while the left hand moves up to grasp the blade. Where it grasps the blade is determined by the technique you have decided to employ. The upper hand positions can be in the middle area of the blade, (which is good for powerful thrusting) the lower third (also good for thrusting with the pommel braced against the body, or to defend against thrusts) or the upper third of the blade. (which is good for the precise placement of the point at close range)
The hand can be pronated (knuckles facing up) or supinated, (knuckles facing down) again, depending on the position of the sword and the technique to be employed.
The targets for fully armoured combat are the visor, the armpit (which, because the opening in the cuirass needs to be sufficient to accommodate the arm’s full rotation from the shoulder, and is often protected with chain mail sewn onto the gambeson – the padded jacket worn under armour) the inside of the elbow joint, the throat, (if protected by a chain mail aventail or camail) the groin area. (which is also often protected by a curtain of mail, and which target includes the high inside thigh at the top of the cuisse)
Let’s take a look at a few positions found in the FLOS DUELLATORUM written by Fiore Dei Liberi in 1409, arguably the most extensive treatise on combat of the period, containing techniques on longsword, single sword, horse combat, wrestling, etc. There are three versions of this text: the Novati/Pissani-Dossi, the Getty and the Morgan. Let us examine his five main half-sword guard positions.
THE SHORT GUARD (sometimes call The Snake)
Here, the sword is held at the level of the lower abdomen with the pommel just above the right hip. The right hand is grasping the blade in the forte, supinated, about eight to ten inches from the quillon. (cross-hilt) This provides for a powerful thrust backed by the entire body. The pommel could conceivable be braced against the abdomen. Fiore’s text notes: “I have a sharp point to penetrate harnesses.” Here, I would suggest that the “harness” in question is a hauberk of mail or a brigandine, which is leather sleeveless vest inside which are fastened small metal plates. A thrust against a steel breastplate would not be effective. The left foot is the forward foot.
THE UPPER SNAKE
In this guard, the sword is held overhead, just above the helmet, both elbows bent, the left hand grasping the blade immediately below the weak (the upper third) in a pronated grip and the point angled down about 45 degrees. This position provides protection against cuts to the head and upper body and also, as Fiore put it, “levels out great thrusts,” where a thrust to the body can be deflected with the upper blade. The left foot is forward.
THE GUARD OF THE ARROW
Here, the hilt is held at or just slightly below hip level with the elbow lightly bent. The right hand is holding the blade supinated at the middle of the blade, close to the chest (the left hand being about level with the solar plexus) and the point angled up about 45 degrees. From this position, powerful thrusts can be made and the body defended by warding off thrusts with the upper portion of the blade. The left foot is the forward foot.
THE TRUE CROSS
The body is turned away from your opponent so your chest is facing to your left with your right foot forward. The sword is held across the front of the body with the hilt being held low, just below the level of the right hip, and the left hand grasping the blade in a supinated grip just below the upper third and held slightly below or level with the left breast, the point angled 45 degrees upwards. This position invites thrusts which can then be turned aside by pivoting from left to right, then dropping the point onto a target and increasing your thrusting power by passing forward on your left foot.
THE BASTARD GUARD
The right foot is forward, with the sword’s hilt being held at roughly hip level just above the right thigh. The left hand holds the blade in the lower portion of the upper third in a pronated grip. The blade crosses the lower abdomen. The hilt is higher than the point, which angles down so that the point is just above the level of the left knee. This position is good for defending against thrusts or cuts, a strong position from which to close for grappling, and can easily be raised to Upper Snake or Arrow to present the point for thrusting by passing forward onto the left foot while the sword is in motion.
OTHER APPLICATIONS OF THE HALF-SWORD
It goes without saying that the German school of longsword employed half-swording or Halb Schwert technique. Such methods were taught by the great German master Liechtenauer, and turn up in the treatises of Ringeck, Talhoffer, etc. Naturally, many of the guard positions and applications are the same as found in Fiore, albeit with German names. Therefore, Upper Snake becomes Ochs, (the Ox, since the presentation of the point resembles the animal’s horns) The Arrow resembles Pflug, (the Plow) the Bastard Cross is similar to a modified Alber, (the Fool)except unlike the Alber position where both hands are retained on the grip, the Halb Schwert position has you more or less facing your opponent chest-forward, with the left foot leading and the sword held across the body at groin level with the hilt just off the right hip and higher than the point, and the Short Guard is a modified Vom Tag (From the Roof) where the sword is held, left foot forward, with the right elbow pointing straight back, the hilt held at a level just in front of the right armpit, and the upper hand gripping the blade in the middle with a pronated grip and the point angled slightly up.
As with the rest of the German school, the concepts of the Vor (Before) Indes (the Inbetween) the Nach, (After) techniques of winding, binding and “travelling after” all apply.
The German technique also includes Schlachenden Ort, (the Battering Point) which describes the use of the pommel in … well… pummeling your opponent. That is, after all, where the phrase comes from.
Ringeck, in his KUNST DES FECHTENS, in the section dealing with Versetzen (deflections) documents a method for employing the grip and pommel in an interesting fashion. Holding the sword in half-sword grip, after your opponent has deflected your thrust, you can drop your point, setting his blade aside to your left, and, stepping in, deliver a pommel-strike to the left side of his head which can then be followed up by hooking the lower portion of your sword’s grip around the back of his head (hooking from your left to right) and pulling down with your grip hand, elevating the point high with your left (essentially creating a lever action) and, using your forward leg as a fulcrum, pull him off balance, possibly even throwing him.
A SIMPLE HALF-SWORD EXERCISE
Before we close this essay, here’s an exercise you can do with a partner.
Start with your left foot forward and the sword already gripped in half-sword position, angled across the front of the body as in the above description of Alber. (this position makes the exercise simpler)
Your opponent cuts straight down on your head, the German Zornhau or Cut of Wrath. Bring your sword up straight in front of you to parry the blow in the middle of the blade, well away from your upper hand.
Now, you will notice that the cross-hilt of your sword (the quillons) is presented so that turning the wrist slightly will bring the quillons into a position where the arms point straight up and down.
From this position, stepping forward on your right foot, and maintaining the height of your defensive guard, (ie: above and in front of your head) turn from the hips to knock your partner’s blade to your left with the quillion, stopping your action so that your pommel points directly at his face, and with the sword’s hilt inside the line with your left shoulder and with the cross-hilt vertical.
Now, with a fast punching action (if you were doing it for real – I would hope it goes without saying that you will do this slowly and totally without contact) drive the pommel into his forehead. In real life, you would not follow his head as it rocks back – the nature of the blow would be more akin to a jab than a punch.
As his head snaps back, exposing his neck, turning the body from the hips from left to right while simultaneously stepping back with your right foot to your original left-foot-forward position, guiding the upper portion of the blade with your left hand, slash the false edge and point across the right side of the neck (taking the carotid artery) and throat. (again, no contact!)
From this position, if you haven’t over-rotated to the right, it would be further possible to follow up the slash with a thrust through the throat.
Any practice of technique, especially if done without an instructor present, must be done wearing the minimum of a fencing helmet with a throat gorget. Gloves would also be advisable provided they do not fit loosely. Practice must be done slowly and precisely. The safety of your partner is in your hands and must never be compromised.
So – Half-Swording – in a very brief essay. Needless to say, this barely scratches the surface of this useful technique. But the purpose of this and other essays is to create an introduction and basic understanding that will hopefully encourage further personal research.
So… go forth and play nice.