Fencing Problems: Coordinating a Step and a Cut
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Categories: Medieval, Modern

Fencing Problems: Coordinating a Step and a Cut

a badly chipped illumination of a chaotic battle between knights on horseback
Detail from Universität Kassel, UBK 2° Ms. theol. 4 Weltchronik (painted circa 1385) fol. 46r https://manuscriptminiatures.com/5711/20896#image

These posts are an experiment: can I have fun talking about martial arts problems as problems to a general audience? Talking with other fencers about fencing theory tends to frustrate everyone unless they already agree. If you like this post or have trouble following, please let me know!

One of the fundamental problems in fencing goes like this. You and your partner are both standing in guard, Because the hand is quicker than the eye, and because in armed combat one strike or thrust can kill, you are far enough away that neither can strike the other without stepping. That extra distance (measure) gives you time (tempo) in which to notice their attack and defend yourself. You want to attack first with a cut. How do you do so without walking on to their point?

I’m not a very good fencer, and I can routinely extend my arm and cut or thrust newbies who come too close (especially in situations such as group fights where they are distracted). So if you want to survive the first few seconds of a fight, you have to solve this problem. Settimo del Frate, the first to publish a book on one of the two most influential schools of fence in 19th century Italy, complained:

By lunge (spaccata) is meant that forward movement of the right leg and the body which the fencer makes while throwing a blow, in order to strike the opponent from the greatest possible distance. … (del Frate assumes the fencer is standing with their right side forward, because fencers in his day used a single one-handed weapon).

The greater difficulty in correct performance of the lunge is that of the proper time (tempo) in which he ought to make in relation to the blow which it must accompany.

All advantage is lost if the lunge is performed after the blow has been struck, because it no longer achieves its purpose; it is harmful if done an instant before, because it exposes the body and especially the arm to a strike in tempo.

Settimo del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma di sciabola e di spada (1876) section 9 https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GZjNfgA8JdMC&pg=PA40#v=onepage&q&f=false (my translation)

Early German manuals boasted that masters knew how to break the guard and safely cut at someone waiting in it (so many fencers did not know how to do this), and early Italians recommend that a beginner never attack first in a fight with sharp swords.

The solution which I learned is that the first thing to enter measure must be my weapon, and that it must block the shortest path from their weapon to my body. If they want to strike me, they have to go around my weapon, which takes time, which lets me notice and respond to their action. One modern name for this action is closing the line. This is explicitly taught by many European fencing masters since the 19th century such as John Musgrave Waite and William Gaugler. I got Gaugler’s teachings from one of his students, but Waite left a manual which is on the Internet Archive:


Stretch the sword-arm to its full length as quickly as possible on a level with the shoulder, without stiffness or jerking or any preliminary movement and direct the edge or point of your sword to the part you wish to hit. Raise the toes of the right foot and step straight to the front, until the feet are about four times the length of your foot apart; let the heel touch the ground first.

In attacking, never let the foot touch the ground before the sword reaches its destination.

John Musgrave Waite, Lessons in sabre, singlestick, sabre & bayonet, and sword feats (1880) pp. 22, 23 https://archive.org/details/lessonsinsabresi00wait/

Sir Gustáv Arlow, who trained with both Hungarian and Italian masters, said this in 1902:

The timing of the cut and the lunge is as follows. We tense muscles in our forearms and grip the sabre harder with our fingers. We begin to give the cut momentum starting with the tip of the sabre, followed by raising our right foot and extending our left leg. Our arm accelerates the sabre, it reaches the opponent’s body (or weapon), and then the heel of out right foot, thrown forward, touches the ground immediately afterwards. … Beginner students should be content to have the cut done at least at the same time as the heel of their right foot reaches the ground.

Russ Mitchell (ed.), Annamária Kovács (tr.), Sir Gustav Arlow’s Sabre Fencing (1902; reprinted Happycrow Publishing 2022) ch. 5 pp. 66, 67

Some of the 15th century commentaries on the teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer also say that the sword should move first and the feet should come after to let the cut reach further:

When you stand with your left foot forward and strike from the right side, if you do not follow the stroke (volgstu dann dem haw nicht, modern German would spell the verb folgen) with a step forward of your right foot, then the strike is false and incorrect. When your right side stays behind, thus is the strike too short and cannot have its correct path to the other side before and above the left foot.

Translation from Toebler, In Saint George’s Name p. 110, transcription of the Rome codex 10r c/o Dierk Hagedorn

Some people believe that 16th-century Englishman George Silver wanted the hand to move first and the foot to follow it, but this is disputed. I do not understand all the arguments and Silver was a blowhard with no known influence on fencing until 1898 (if you want to see their arguments, check the bottom of this post!)

Passing forward as you cut (ie. bringing the back foot ahead of the front foot like a normal walking step) is slow. Cutting with one foot off the ground is not as powerful as cutting with both feet firmly planted. But this way of striking is safe. Your partner is likely to defend against it, but once they defend you can do something else while their weapon is committed to stopping your attack rather than killing you.

A few people today advocate stepping first and then cutting. I am told that this is taught by the Toyama Ryū Battodo school of Japanese martial arts. (Can any of my gentle readers name other living arts which teach this?) I think if the commentary above had meant this, it would have said:

When you stand with your left foot forward and wish to strike from the right side, if you do not prepare (vorbereiten) the stroke with a step forward of your right foot, then the strike is false and incorrect.

or perhaps it would have said:

When you stand with your left foot forward and wish to strike from the right side, you must step forward with your right foot, or else the strike is false and incorrect. And when you step, the step follows from the cut, for Aristotle teaches in his Physics that an effect must follow from its cause. (ie. if it were written like this, “follows” would mean “occurs as a result of” not “travels after or happens later than”, but it is not written like this)

And most importantly, I never found anyone who could show me how to use this timing safely. That does not mean that nobody can use it, but it means that its not useful to me.

There is never one true way of doing anything in fencing. Everything is a tradeoff between different goods. For example, another way to strike safely is to make your opponent move here and strike there before they can change directions (take the tempo). Early European fencing manuals do not talk much about how to coordinate movements of the hand, the body, and the foot, so the solution was probably obvious to their experienced students. But the solution which I learned works, is clearly part of later European fencing, and seems consistent with one group of 15th century fencing manuals. If you want two side notes for historical fencing geeks, keep scrolling down!

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a line drawing of two 19th century fencers on guard with their swords crossed, their thumbs down, and their sword arms extended forward just above shoulder height

First, Waite and Arlow always keep the same side forward so usually strike with a lunge (step forward of the forward foot). If they had used passing footwork where the rear foot moves past the front foot, they might have given different advice on timing, because this kind of step is slower. But their actual words do not contain any such qualification! And Waite shows that he knew of more powerful ways of cutting things than the one he recommends for fencing:


To cut a bar of lead in two at one stroke.

Having taken your distance, throw your hand quickly back into the bend of the left arm or on to the left shoulder to get an impetus, and keeping both feet firm on the ground, deliver a horizontal cut from left to right as rapidly as possible, using the elbow and forearm freely, and throwing the weight of the body into the cut.

Waite knew that its easiest to cut through heavy targets if both your feet are planted on the ground. But boards don’t hit back. Waite clearly thought that when faced with an armed opponent, it was worth giving up some cutting power to close the line as he entered measure.

Second, I am writing these posts for fun in my spare time, so they can not be as thorough as the things I write for other scholars. But if you want to study this question in a scholarly way, you should definitely read George Silver’s words. Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand have one famous interpretation which is challenged in:

Third, there seems to be little disagreement about the proper order when thrusting. Giganti book 1 p. 7 says that to deliver a lunging thrust first you should extend your arm and then your body, all in a single tempo, and to recover you should withdraw first your head, then your body, and lastly your foot. If there is any significant disagreement about this in arts since 1606 please tell me!

The ideal way to research this would be to survey traditional martial arts and group them by how they solve this problem. Then we could talk about which of the known solutions best fits particular historical sources. I don’t enjoy wandering from salle to dojo to clearing picking up bits of different martial arts and martial arts cultures, but if you enjoy these things and are willing to write what you learn down, he that does more is more worthy!

(written circa 18 November 2022, expanded 24 November, 7 December, 9 December)

Edit 2023-03-07: edited wording about George Silver in paragraph beginning “Some people believe” after email exchange with V.C.

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2 thoughts on “Fencing Problems: Coordinating a Step and a Cut

  1. George Georgovassilis says:

    Thank you, I liked this post (since you asked :)). Wing Chun also has the concept of blocking the centre line with a similar reasoning to fencing, plus an additional one: a strike to the head or limbs can be dodged or balanced off, but a stroke to the centre (solar plexus or chest) can not, it is usually the nearest target a fastest to reach.

  2. Sean says:

    Interesting! I knew someone in Calgary who did some kind of kung fu but life got in the way of learning a bit.

    Its really hard to talk about martial arts across a keyboard, and even face to face egos often get in the way.

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