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Q: Master Talhoffer, I trained circular strikes, I pushed, I trained hard to generate power from my hip. But it seems that I am not able to accomplish the perfect strike.
A: I see.
Q: But please Master Talhoffer, can you tell me how I can accomplish the perfect strike?
A: Listen carefully: If you hit with a strike – without being hit yourself, you has accomplished the perfect strike.
Q: But I thought that there is some mystery in it. That I have to move in a certain way.
A: Ask Master Döbringer, he will tell you.

This dialog is fictive and you won’t find it in any old manuscript. Master Talhoffer never explained his fighting in the art of a dialog. But I took the freedom of an author to put his figure in the tradition of teaching dialogs. This very old way of reflecting the thoughts on a subject from different point of views is more amusing than the dry treatises and usually motivates the reader to think on his own. In the so called Döbringer manuscript the GMN 3227a we find all what we need about the perfect strike.

Each strike comes out of a Guard or a Leger, since these are traversed in the backswing or in the strike itself. A at least 1.3kg weapon really does not care, where the impulse comes from while it is directed at the opponent. About the perfect blow has been so much written, that a little myth-busting may be helpful.

George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599
The true fights be these: whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight. The false fights are these: whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefor that fight is false.

A strike begins with the foot
Totally wrong (see George Silver). The foot with the leg has more mass, must get free of the mass of the body and thus is moving much slower than the arm. Interesting to note, that a lot of the fencers move the foot first, so the blow is often preceded by a movement of the foot (heel), telegraphing what will happen next.

A strike starts in the hips
Totally wrong. A strike begins with the will to strike. If this will manifest itself in the hip, then the way to the arm will be quite long. Therefore, it is a mistake to focus on the hip, if one wants to strike with the arm. You may take power from the hip if you think your arm is too weak. But think again: if you use your hip to empower your strike, what part of your body is responsible for a flexible and fast body movement and footwork. So if you use hip-empowered strikes be sure that they hit deadly. Because you will need a relative lot amount of time to recover from such a strike. Let’s look about that a bit closer.

A strike should generate power from the hip
Usually wrong, even if the idea is not so bad. In order for a strike to receive power from the hip, the entire back, stomach, chest, and shoulder muscles need to be tensed enough that the power arrives in the arm and does not seeps in the “soft ground” of the upper body. This requires years of training, since it not only needs to be able to tense very quickly, but also needs to relax extremely quickly. Fighting is above all the ability to be the first one who adapts himself to changes with the correct answer. If you are tensed in the upper body, this is not easily done. You need special training, that tension does not hinder you. For beginners, it would be great if they get the power from the great shoulder muscles into the arm, which is difficult enough.

An elongated shoulder gives a bigger range
First of all such strikes are weaker (which however is not so important looking at sharp swords) and they are more sensible to lateral forces and thus easier to displace (which is not so funny anymore but still something that may be worth accepting on special techniques).  But the real problem is that an elongated shoulder takes away most of the joint mobility of this beautifully engineered shoulder. See how your shoulder is able to move in every direction even in very strange angles. Try this movement again with an elongated shoulder. If you really want to restrict this joint, go ahead and do so. But I would recommend elongating the shoulder only if the planned movement is restricted by default like it is in a Lunge, or long thrust. Same goes for a shoulder which is pulled high. The movement is restricted and it slows you down. The best thing is if the shoulder is slightly pushed down, which tightens the muscles, thus transporting the power from the back, and just by relaxing you get the complete mobility of the joint in an instant.

The same leg must step forward
This is good for two-handed-weapons because you have to align your upper body to the strike, otherwise the second hand will not help you good enough. And because two-handed-weapons are mostly heavier, the starting acceleration provided by the body movement helps a lot. But for one-handed-weapons this does not apply the same. For light one-handed-weapons this is nearly irrelevant.

Drawing (Pulling) and pushing in the strike

Some people think that drawing/pulling the sword backwards in the strike will help the blade to cut better. Others say that pushing is doing the same and is better because you do not lose the range of the weapon as in drawing/pulling. There are three things to say to those funny but sadly completely misleading theories.

  1. Pushing and pulling is of no value for wounding the target.
    You cannot cut bones. Regardless how sharp your weapon is, you cannot cut it without a lot of pressure. You have to hack through hard tissues. Looking at high-speed recordings of cutting tomatoes or other soft tissues you will see the blade is not slicing but hacking through the target. The blade does not move a micrometer thus no sawing effect may happen. Looking at the sheer mathematics of the speed of the first third of the blade you will easily see that nobody is able to pull or push fast enough to present any remarkable effect in the target.
  2. The biggest range is in shoulder height with stretched and elongated arms.
    Every other movement from that line higher or lower is of shorter range and by sheer geometry a backward movement. Depending on the vertical position of your target, pulling and pushing is happening without intention.
  3. Moving of the bodies makes the pulling and pushing irrelevant.
    The distance to the target is defined by the relative movement of the complete picture. The blade moves by your way of striking and both bodies. As you cannot control the movement of your target, you will never know if your blade will move forward or backward through the target. So pushing and pulling of the blade cannot be controlled entirely if at all.

Pulling and pushing the blade does in fact help you to concentrate on the edge and align the edge to the movement of the strike. Thus you will cut better on still standing and not moving targets. But why should you train something that has no effect on the target’s tissues, that depends on the vertical position, and that cannot be controlled entirely. You should not. Any movement during the strike should be trained to get as fast to the target as possible. What you do at the end of the strike or directly following the strike is a complete other story and should only be mixed with the strike itself in special techniques like the Fehler, Wecker etc. These movements are for following techniques, getting the weapon free again, and/or in a safe protecting position.

Is there no fixed way to strike?

There is no set way to hit with a sword or long knife. You can hack, cut, throwing the point forward, hit in a circle, snapping, flip, turn or whip. What is possible with a weapon and may hurt the opponent, or gives you the advantage should be applied in combat and most of them are listed in the variety of manuscripts – even throwing the pommel.

There are but few rules that apply depending on the length and shape of the weapons:

  1. The longer a weapon, the slower is the acceleration of the rotation.
    Weapons with “very long arms” like a pike will need quite a lot of power if you want them rotating in the same rotation speed as a machete. This applies already to weapons with the same size but with different geometry in the blade. Does the balance of the weapon moves more to the point than to the hilt, it is needs more power to turn and thus is slower in rotation using the same acceleration power of the arm. So heavy and long weapons needs a different way of striking. That is not based on the strike itself, but on the need to protect yourself during and after the strike. If your weapon is slow in rotating and is long, you are not fast enough to bring the blade between you and your opponent’s blade in most of the attacks. Thus the blade has to be already there or very near, or you need two hands on the weapon, thus allowing the second hand to speed up the rotation.  (This is found in the weapon designs. The long sword was given an extra-long handle and became a two handed weapon, thus was enabled to use the second hand for rotating. The long or heavy one-handed-weapons got the baskets and bells on the hilt. To enable the sword be always in front of you without losing your hand).
  2. The longer a weapon, the greater the speed of the point based on the same rotation speed.
    But a great rotational speed is not necessary with long weapons.  The angle required for a long weapon is smaller compared to a short one to get the same speed at the point. If your weapon is not too heavy at the point you do not need to go back so far and do not need to make a spinning move to get the necessary speed.
  3. Lighter weapons need to be faster.
    The ability of a light weapon to absorb energy and release it again depends on the rotating speed (F = m * a is known since Isaac Newton). When comparing the stroke movement with the staff (e.g. Escrima), a certain type of acceleration is necessary to give a lot of energy to the target or absorb a lot of energy. Using the swords and knifes of the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance we can call ourselves lucky. They are far more tolerant. In fact it is even so that you need to make the long knifes (Langes Meser) shorter and lighter if you want to transfer the movements of stick fighting or machete (although looking at the Bauernwehr, the peasants army long knife, this must not necessarily be wrong).

So for the way you strike the length, the geometry, the balance and the design of the hand protection on the hilt are the main factors. There is no absolute and perfect movement of striking in a fight.

What should I care for?

GMN 3227a:
vnd das man im denne eynen vadem ader snure an seynen ort ader sneyde des swertes bünde / vnd leytet aber czöge dem selben ort ader sneide off ienes blössen den her hawen ader stechen selde / noch dem aller nehesten / kortzsten vnd endlichsten / als man das nür dar brengen mochte

For the sword fight there is a clear guide in the GMN 3227a, how the point has to move in a strike. This states that this must move as being pulled from the starting position by a cord while moving into the target in a straight line. One should not lift the sword and then cut from the top or go any detours. The shortest and direct line from the current position to the target is the best and fastest movement. Everything else is (almost) of no matter and more a question of your own capabilities then of any philosophy. But you should look at some no-goes in the strike, as they are:

  • Stretched elbow joints at any point of the strike
  • Raised or elongated shoulders
  • elongated head (trying to thrust with the nose).
  • Twisted torso during the strike (it should untwist the body or twist only at the end)
  • Leaning forward or backward with the upper body
  • Bent wrist
  • Flying elbows (they should be mostly in the frame of your body if physical possible)

So what is the perfect strike?

Listen carefully: if you hit effectively with a strike – without being hit yourself, you has accomplished the perfect strike.