There are various ways to hold a weapon. Most of the fencers are not aware or do not care how they take their weapons in their hands. This is acceptable for several reasons: a lot of sword-users use their weapons mostly with heavy hand protection gear and thus have no tolerance to change their grip. This springs from the sporting aspect coming with the understanding of historical martial arts today, may it be reenactment sport or sword-sport-fencing.
Looking at the historical martial art of one handed weapons we must see that it covers the situation of self defense as well. Thus it was learned, trained and fought with historical “street gear”. We see thin leather hand protection in the training situation. Later on, starting in the first quarter of the 16th century we see more and more hand-protection gear in combination with the training of weapons for the “Fechtschule” (see the gloves from the Weißkunig Plates in the picture below). Manuscripts for the teaching and learning of the Langes Messer start from the 14th century, but most of them are to dated in the second half of the 15th century. So we have a mixture between sport and self defense in mostly all the manuscripts. Looking at the hand positions in the pictures of the illuminated manuscripts we must keep in mind that these may differ if the same movement is used in sport.
Edges and Guards
Before we have close look at the hand positions we must proclaim that the Dussak is not the Long Knife but the Dussak is used to train the Long Knife in sport and war like situations. The Dussak in application is always combined with hand and arm protection, which is partly built in already. Thus the guards of this weapon differ. But as the Dussak in it’s sport version is a perfect sparring tool, it is used to train the heavy version of the Long Knife. Thus we have some similarities and differences, in the fencing style and in the hand positions.
In most guards of the Long Knife the orientation of the Short and the Long Edge is described well. This is shown in the illustration of the guards as up or down. The edge is never horizontally (although the Entrüsthau/Twerhau/Mittelhau hits horizontally – here we find some of the differences to the Dussak fencing).
The text passages to the guards suggest a vertical orientation of the blade (looking to the earth or the sky). But looking closer at the illustrations it can be seen that the back of the blade was drawn despite the profile view of the fencers. This is only possible if the blade is not perpendicular, but held in an inclined position. And if we read further in the texts of the teaching we find the description that one of the edges is pointing to the opponent or the opponent’s weapon. Knowing that stepping to a side is necessary most every movement we can assume that the edges of the Long Knife are in fact very rarely in a complete horizontal or vertical position.
Another essential factor of edge and hand position is the thing called “Fühlen”, Feeling. To determine possible short movements when the blade gets contact in the binding, the blade must be held at an angle. It is much more difficult to feel a 3-dimensional movement of the opponent’s blade if the own blade is positioned vertical or horizontal with the edges. The angle of the skew is different depending on the situation and depends on factors such as body size difference and direction of force and the fencing situation.
So dw den zorenhaw hawest so windt dein messer gegen dem seinen das dy lang schneid übersich stee
Like in modern fencing you do not leave it to chance, whether the short or long edge of the weapon creates contact to the opponent’s blade. For thrusting and cutting weapon the wrist rotation – hand rotation – is critical in the binding of the blades. Even if the slashing movement of a strike dictates the direction of the edge at the beginning of the strike, by winding, rotating, and overturning during the motion or in first contact the edge keeping in contact may differ.
Because a strike from your right side with the short edge is weak and easily to break, it is advisable to start with the long edge and during the motion or in first contact the wrist and elbow rotates the blade. The blade contact with the short edge is necessary for a great many of thrusts with the Long Knife. The lesson of one of the firs plays (“Stücke”) is: do not let the opponent know which will be the binding edge. Consider that the diameter of the cross is a prominent indicator for the edge position. As long as it is in the focus of attention of the opponent, it is wise to hide your true intention. The visual focus of a fencer is at the right shoulder of the opponent (another reason why left-handed fencers are irritating). If the rotation of the edges happen outside the focus and before it is possible to feel, it will catch the opponent by surprise.
Thumbs up or down?
The knife is held in different “thumb grips.” The thumb switch smoothly between the following four positions:
- Hammer Grip
The thumb is opposite the fingers, they form an “O” and are put firmly around the handle.
- Flat Grip
The thumb is on the opposite side of the fingers resting on the the flat of the blade or handle.
- Ridge Grip
The thumb is on the ridge (about 45 ° to the crossbar) of the handle. Most Long Knife handles are not round in the cross-section of the handle. So you have square with four “ridges”. The thumb is put on the opposite side of the fingers.
- Saber Grip:
The thumb is vertically on the back of the handle in front of the crossbar (French fencing grip).
The thumb positions are fluid, but rarely we find the typical Hammer Grip. This can only found in the illustrations in the “strike out” movement at the begin of a strike that ends with the short edge or a binding that requires a rotation of the wrist.
The Edge Grip can be found in a great deal of strikes, and in thrusts the Saber Grip. Due to the high speed of the changing the thumb position from the Saber to the Flat over the Ridge, because the constant change of strikes and thrusts the thumb barely is taking an exact position. Almost always the thumb is not completely extended. This position allows for a “support” of the blade and protects the thumb to the correct angle of the blade very well by the crossbar. This has two consequences:
a) The knife is held primarily by the four fingers against the palm of the hand. The thumb supports the action only on “Contact”.
b) Blade contact is wanted always with the edge of the weapon. Only if the thumb is on the blade, the blade contact is searched on the flat of the opposite side of the thumb.
This “thumb-grips” correspond to the illustrations and are found in practice to be meaningful and helpful. Generally, we have to observe the exact position of hands and fingers in the illustrations with caution, as they often want to express elegance and may be tampered by the artists inability to present the correct posture. Overall these illustrations are nevertheless amazingly accurate and helpful in carrying out the techniques.