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Longsword 101 Curriculum

I’ve been teaching a lot more longsword at my local practices lately.  Someone asked a bit ago about the general beginner’s curriculum I use.  I looked at the rough outline I sent them and thought about posting it publicly, but then realized that I’d probably need to provide a bit more detail than just my half page of teacher’s notes and then proceeded to spend the rest of the day listening to jazz, drinking copious amounts of tea, and writing this all up.  While the focus of this piece is specifically on longsword, almost all of it can apply to teaching any cut & thrust system from the ground up.  Even if what you’re teaching is just thrust centric, there’s still a good bit of it that should prove helpful.  Anyhow, enjoy.

Lesson 1:  How to Stand With the Sword 

This part may seem obvious to anyone who’s been doing this for awhile, but how you stand is vital to how well you fight and more importantly, how happy your joints are.  The stance for longsword isn’t anything special, you’ve got your feet shoulder-width apart, one foot in front, and knees bent.  The two things to home in on here are making sure that the front knee and toe are both pointing in the direction you want the student to step.  If people lunge with their foot turned in, that’s a recipe for knee problems.  Fencing is a fun hobby and we are no longer training people to fight for their lives in 40 days.  Winning the tournament at the end of the month matters a whole lot less than making sure your students’ joints keep working decades down the line.

The upper body tends to be a bit less straightforward than the lower body here.  To ensure students are engaging their lats instead of relying on their rotator cuffs, I have them grab the sword with one hand on the handle and another hand on the blade.  From there I have them rest the sword on the back of their neck, which results in them pulling their shoulder blades back and engaging their lats.  From there I direct them to keep that engagement as they let go of the blade and move the sword in front of them.  Along with knees, shoulders are by and far the most common injury in what we do.  This is almost never from people getting hit in the shoulder excessively hard, but is instead because of the person using the sword relying on smaller muscles (i.e. the four rotator cuff muscles) to do the job intended for larger muscle groups.

The next spot I have them focus on is how their hands interact with the sword itself.  I know a lot of more old-school places have people focus just on footwork for the first year or so.  While I definitely see the upside of that, my thought is that people walking in the door came here to swordfight.  So, if I want them to stick around, I’m going to put a sword in their hands on day one.  There are multiple valid ways to grip a longsword (Germans and Italians have different defaults here), so without getting too far into that here’s just the fundamental bits I have people focus on to keep their wrists happy.  First, I have them line up the bottom corner of their top hand (find your pinkie, go down until you reach the bottom of your hand) with the handle of the sword.  This way the bones in their arm lines up with the sword itself as opposed to running beside it, meaning they’re relying more on structure than on hand strength.  To note, most people will put their dominant hand on top when using a longsword.  However, I do know of a few lefties who prefer to put their right hand on top.  Whatever works for them.

After that I have them form a ring with the index finger and thumb of their bottom hand and place it around the pommel.  Some people like to hold a little higher on the handle and that’s okay.  I just use this as a default as it makes your handle into a longer lever, meaning you have more leverage and can move the blade around more quickly.  The more important thing with both hands is that you want the wrists to bend up towards the thumb instead of down towards the pinkie.  There are definitely positions that will end up with the wrists being held out straight, but as a general rule of thumb your wrists will get angry if they’re exerting/receiving force while bent down towards the pinkie.

Lesson 2:  Mandritto Fendente

Once a student has learned how to stand and hold their sword, I go and teach them their very first cut.  Again, footwork is likely more important here, but people who show up to fencing practices tend to want to learn how to swing a sword before they want to relearn how to walk.  Even if what you’re teaching is more “correct” it doesn’t much matter if the student doesn’t come back the next week.

Mandritto fendente might seem like a big scary Italian phrase, but all it means is a descending cut that goes from the opponent’s left eye to their right knee, assuming the person throwing the cut is right-handed.  If they’re a lefty, it goes the other way.  As an instructor, you can feel free to disregard the technical terminology (or use a phrase from a different system).  I find it helpful as it’s concise and is used by pretty much everywhere else working out of any of the Italian traditions.

To start with this cut, I tend to start students in guardia di spalla/posta di donna/shouldered vom tag. 

Posta di donna

Even though I don’t personally use this guard much while I’m fighting, it serves as a nice relaxed position to start from that makes it easy to focus on all the ins and outs of the mandritto fendente.  It’s also the guard that a lot of my first classes on longsword had us start in, so there’s definitely some bias there.

Once I’ve gotten the student in guard and explained what line they’re supposed to be cutting down, I let them go through and throw a dozen or so cuts before I step in with any more details.  If they naturally do the right thing, there’s no reason at this stage to explain what all they need to keep their eyes out for when performing this technique.  If, however, they don’t magically get it right on the first try, the main thing I focus on in this lesson is the order of operations. 

The most important part here is when moving forwards to go sword and then foot.  Outside of “be nice to your opponent” this is likely the most fundamental lesson in swordplay.  Not only is sword and then foot faster as it better breaks the inertia of a static guard, but it’s also safer for both you and your opponent.  Firstly, it keeps your opponent safe by reducing how hard they’re being hit.  As it turns out, swords are sharp and pointy.  Next time you’re eating a steak (or a Beyond Burger) try poking it with the tip of your knife.  It takes incredibly little pressure for that tip to sink right in.  Next, try throwing a really hard cut at it.  As you’ve probably already guessed, hitting it harder doesn’t make the cut go deeper in.  Swords are not hammers, please don’t use them as such.  By having the sword move before the foot, you prevent the possibility of winding up before you release your shots.  If you look at baseball players, you’ll notice that their foot moves before their bat swings.  This is to maximize the amount of force being transferred into the ball.  Please, for the love of whatever deity you do or do not pray to, do not swing your longsword like a baseball bat.

In addition to keeping your opponent safe, moving sword and then foot keeps you safer as well.  Not only will your opponent be less inclined to hit you like a baseball, but your sword is also clearing the line for you to more safely step in.  If you step in and then move your sword, you’re throwing your body closer to your opponent’s without doing anything to prevent them from hitting you.

The last part of this lesson is how to not get hit in the hands when trying to perform the mandritto fendente.  The trick here is from the shouldered position to pull your hands in to your chest before pushing the blade out.  Not only does this come with the added benefit of hitting with less force, but it also means there isn’t a tempo with your hands being significantly closer to your opponent than your body.  If you try and throw this cut like you’re fishing, you are asking your opponent to hit you before you can do anything about it.

After the student starts to get this down, I have them switch which shoulder their sword starts on and then throw a roverso fendente, cutting down towards my right eye towards my left knee. This will almost inevitably seem alien to the student as it’s being thrown from their non-dominant side, but starts readying them to deal with different kinds of blows and also makes it easier for right handed students to drill with left handed ones and vice versa.

Lesson 3:  How to Win Against a Cut

Now that your student has a basic understanding of how to deliver a cut, it’s time to learn how to counter one.  The first response I like to teach is a simple parry.  You throw a mandritto fendente against them and they respond by doing the same ending with the tip of their sword pointing across the line of your’s.  The larger lesson here is to solve problems via geometry instead of strength.  If they line up their sword correctly, your cut will automatically be diverted away from them, leaving them an open line to attack on.

There are three advantages which determine who wins when two cuts meet.  The first is true edge.  For those who haven’t heard the phrase before, the true edge is the edge of your sword pointing the same direction as your knuckles.  So if you punched someone with your blade, that’s the edge that would be making contact.  For anyone who’s ever done test cutting with sharps, you’ll have noticed that lining the edge up just right makes a world of difference, whereas hitting the target harder didn’t really do much to make your cut go any deeper.  In addition to the geometry of the blade itself, your hand really wants to use tools along one axis and not the other.  You aren’t meant to backhand something with a hammer.  If the head of the hammer is pointed correctly, that nail is not going to go in the way you want it to.  Same goes for swords, except this time the nail is hitting back.  If I can get more of my true edge to line up with more of your flat, I suddenly have a huge mechanical advantage.

The second most important factor is leverage.  As it turns out, swords don’t have muscles.  Thus, they aren’t able to generate any force on their own.  As a result, the closer the crossing of the blades is to your hands/hilt the stronger it is.  At the same time, the closer to the tip the crossing is the weaker you become and the longer a lever you hand your opponent.  I like to demonstrate this by having the student have the sword straight out and pulling up first with me having one finger on the tip and then again with my finger closer to the hilt.

Lastly, we come to crossing.  If I can cross the line of my blade over my opponent’s I’ve aimed the point of my triangle through the flat side of my opponent’s.  I’ll often do this by either stepping in or stepping out at an angle.  Not only does this gain me the advantage of crossing, but it’s also a nice way to start introducing a little bit of footwork to the student.  It’s important to remember here to do this by pointing the tip of your sword across as opposed to trying to push your hilt through.  If you go with option B you might think you’re gaining leverage, but you’re effectively collapsing the angle of your sword and handing over the advantage of crossing to your opponent.  I often describe this as “punch blocking” as you’re essentially trying to punch your forte into your opponent’s.  Learning to point across instead of punch through is right beneath sword and then foot in things that will seem like you suddenly have superpowers when you add them in to your game.

After the student figures out the fundamental parry, I introduce a couple of other options for how to respond to a cut.  One of these is what we call a collection.  There are a couple ways of doing this, but the main one is by stepping in and striking your opponent’s blade with your quillions by pushing up into guardia di testa (guard of the head).

Guardia di testa

This move ignores the advantages of both true edge and crossing by dumping 100% of your stats into leverage.  It’s an especially fun technique for people who are more inclined to fight aggressively (as opposed to natural counter punchers) and is also a great opening for a whole lot of grapples, if that’s something that either your or your student is interested in.

The last option for dealing with a cut is a deflection.  This is done by cutting either with the true or false edge into the opponent’s flat, sending their tip flying away from where it can immediately threaten you.  There’s a few options for how to do this, but I tend to start students off by having them stand in porto di ferro larga and have them throw a falso manco (a rising false edge cut that aims up into the opponent’s right cheek assuming you have your right hand on top in your grip).  I have at least one friend who calls this move the “shoveler” at his school.

Porto di ferro larga

This not only shows the student a new way to deal with cuts but is also a great way to start introducing different kinds of cuts and guards.  You’ll notice how I’ve waited until now to start mentioning anything other than variations on one cut and one guard.  A lot of places start by having students memorize all of the guards, all of the cuts, and all of the thrusts.  While this is helpful later down the line, I find that this can often be more than a bit overwhelming for people just starting out.  Plus, if they don’t have any context for how these might be used, the names for everything just won’t stick as well.

Lesson 4:  How to Win Against a Thrust

The next lesson I tend to teach is the fundamentals of thrusting.  For this I start students off in porto di ferro stretta, with both of us having our true edges pointed slightly towards to inside line.

Porta di ferro stretta

I start by throwing a simple stocatta (rising thrust), just extending my tip forwards, pointed at their centerline, and proceed to step forward.  To counter this I have the student perform a smaller version of the same parry we went over for cuts.  The one thing to note here is that the order of importance reverses from being true edge, leverage, crossing; to crossing, then leverage, then true edge.

I then repeat the lesson starting in coda longa e stretta doing all the same stuff on the outside line.  Some students (particularly left-handed ones) might find the outside line to be easier, but most will take a few minutes to adjust to it.

Coda longa e stretta

Once they’ve learned that simple parry, I teach them how to find, gain, and then attack with a thrust of their own.  After that we work on responding to one of my thrusts with one of their own.  Just because your opponent is throwing an attack at you, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a well formed one.  If the student is using proper structure and you as the instructor throw a less than ideal thrust at them, they should be able to counter-find into it and proceed to stab you in the chest.

When they just start to learn how to thrust, they’re likely to be pushing with the hilt of their sword instead of pointing their tip across, so keep an eye out for it.  The earlier you can correct this, the better.

Lesson 5:  Disengages

Now that the student has a decent understanding of how to meet a blade head on, I move them to how to go around their opponent’s blade.  The first bit here is how to disengage an opponent’s blade.  I go back first to how to deal with a cut.  I have them hold their blade out in front of them as I come in cutting a mandritto fendente.  Their goal is to make a mezza volta (half turn) of their blade by cutting over mine and either gaining my blade or immediately striking.  If they seem to have decent control of their sword, I’ll have them just hit me with a cut to my mask.  If they look like they’re still swinging a bit hard, I’ll just have them cut over to regain my blade and then focus on calibration separately.  Ideally in this drill, they should move to disengage their sword before mine makes contact.  We then repeat the exercise with me cutting a roverso fendente from the other side.

Next, we move on to thrusts.  We both start with our swords extended and I move in to strike the same stocatta we learned earlier.  Here I’ll try and end with my sword not too terribly angled up and have the student disengage their tip underneath mine.  The thing to remember is that the disengage should be accompanied with a step (either forwards or backwards), be as tight to the opponent’s sword as possible, and should leave you in a position of strength over your opponent’s sword as opposed to just being on the other side of it.

From here we go to building the student’s very first decision tree.  I start by stepping in with an attack (either a cut or a thrust).  The student then has to decide whether they can counter it by pushing through it, or whether they are forced to go around it.  Play around with different levels of intensity here as well as how well structured your attack is.  As a note, this bit is perhaps the most fundamental of decision trees in fencing.  To a certain degree, every point in a fight comes down to whether it’s safe for you to proceed forwards or if you have to go around.

Once we get that covered, we move to how to counter an opponent’s disengage and make and force it to be as large as possible.  There are three ways of doing this.  First is through penetration.  The closer my point gets to my opponent, the more sword they have to go around, and the larger their disengages become.  Next is what we call angulation.  If I raise my tip as I lower my hilt, my opponent now has to go around a significantly larger hypotenuse, slowing down their response.  Something to note is that the more angled your blade becomes, the shorter the disengage over the top becomes.  At the same time, the more you straighten out, the more the disengage underneath becomes the better option.  Finally, we take a look at breadth.  If I cross over my opponent’s blade instead of remaining straight on, my opponent’s sword now has a longer path to go along the x axis. 

I spend some time walking through all of these with the student, letting them test out scenarios incorporating all three to see how they play out in front of them.

Once we’ve covered the more conceptual side of things, I walk them through one of their second tactical decision tree:  volta stable vs contracavazione (stable turn vs counter-disengage).  I have the student come in to find my sword and respond with a disengage.  If I come in and our blades cross past the first palmo (one palm’s width from the tip of their sword), the correct response is to perform a volta stable.  All this entails is having them switch from pointing on one line (inside or outside) to having them point their tip the other way and engage their true edge.  Once they start to get this on one side, I then switch to the other side and then proceed to alternate between the two.

The other option occurs when I disengage from farther out.  At this point, because I have less penetration, the contracavazione becomes the faster option.  All this entails is after I disengage, the student performs a disengage of their own.

Lesson 6:  Measure.

With most of the fundamental blade mechanics down, I then tend to move students on to a couple fundamental ideas about fencing more generally.  The first of these is measure.  All measure is, is the distance it takes to strike your opponent.  So, if you’re 6’5” and your opponent is 5’4”, your opponent is going to be inside of your measure far sooner than you are going to be inside of theirs.  To give the idea a little bit more granularity, I give students five different measures at which actions might occur.

Out of measure – Within a single action you cannot hit your opponent

Misura largissima (widest measure) – You require a passing step (stepping forward with your back foot) to hit your opponent.

Misura larga (wide measure) – You require a step of the front foot in order to hit your opponent with your sword.

Misura stretta (narrow measure) – You can hit your opponent just by leaning forwards, but without having to pick up either of your feet.

Misura strettissima (narrowest measure) – You are so close that you can hit your opponent without even leaning forwards/you can hit them while stepping back.

This is a great place to start introducing more footwork options as well as to create games for your students that let them explore the idea of measure in a fun way that isn’t just 100% unrestricted sparring.

Lesson 7:  Tempo

I’ve written more in depth on tempo in the past, but here’s a quick overview:

Primo tempo – You strike as your opponent enters measure.

Dui tempi – You require two tempi to respond to their attack and then return with one of your own (think parry-riposte).

Contra tempo – You strike as your opponent moves to strike. 

Mezzo tempo – You strike as your opponent prepares to strike/disengages.

At this point I like to have students think of scenarios where each of these might be the case and then drill that specific scenario correcting mechanical issues along the way.  If they can’t think of any instances on their own feel free to provide some for them, but if at all possible it’ll generally click easier if the student is the one thinking of examples.

Lesson 8:  Cuts & Thrusts

It’s only at this point that I walk students through all the different options for cuts and thrusts.  The names for these, as well as the total number described, will be dependent on the particular system you’re using.  If you’re at all interested in learning the lingo for Bolognese longsword, feel free to check out these incredibly low-fi videos I made awhile back:

Lesson 9:  Guards

This is the last major step on what I like to refer to as Mt. Vocab.  While I have used a few technical terms here and there, this is generally the part where you find the most amount of specific vocab words.  I know of some schools that try and make this easier by just referring to all the guards by their translated English names.  I personally prefer to stick to the original language, but will generally teach them by referring to them first in Italian and then in English for the first while until the student gets familiar with them.

Again, the specific names here are going to depend on what system you’re using.  If you’re interested in going with Bolognese, here’s a nicely edited video showing all the guards:

If you want a less comprehensive, worse edited version of the same material, here’s a video I made a few years ago:

Lesson 10:  The Rest of the Journey

This, I leave up to you.

Published by Arik Mendelevitz

A martial artist since the age of 8, I picked up a rapier for the first time in March of 2008 and have never looked back since.

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