Modern analysis of fencing technique includes the grouping of like actions into four basic classifications: actions not intended to result in a touch, offense, defense, and counteroffense. This classification scheme helps systematize training, improves analysis of competition outcomes, and provides a broad understanding of what happens in a bout. Although some have tried to superimpose the modern system on historical fencing in the Middle Ages, there are essential differences in doctrine and technique which suggest the need for a uniquely historical classification system.
The following analysis is based on German Long Sword practice. It may be applicable to other Long Sword traditions, to other weapons, and potentially to Renaissance period fencing. For example, this same system may be applicable also to understanding the small body of surviving English Long Sword material. However, additional study is needed before I will make that assertion.
An examination of Long Sword technique suggests that there are five classifications of actions: guards, offense, renewal of offense, defense, and counteroffense.
In modern fencing a guard is a static location of the blade the fencer adopts when there is no ongoing offensive or defensive action, and is not considered an actual action. This differs from the Medieval understanding of a guard as a place that fulfills a number of roles integral to the other classes of actions. Guards are mobile, with frequent movement between guard positions. A guard is defensive when it closes a line to a potential attack. A guard may be counteroffensive when it poses a direct threat to deny potential action by an opponent (an example is Long Point). A change in guard may force adoption of a different guard by the opponent, creating an opportunity for the offense. In some Medieval systems three guards are part of an attack as starting, middle, and ending points, and ending an attack in a guard position is frequently only a transition into the next attack launched from that guard.
Offensive actions are initial blade actions intended to hit an opponent who has not already initiated an attack. The fencer who has seized the initiative by committing to an attack first is the attacker.
Renewals of the attack are considered offensive actions in modern fencing. However, in the Long Sword renewal of the attack is a core part of fencing doctrine, filling three key roles: maintaining or regaining the initiative following a parry of the initial offense, denying an opponent the ability to make a defensive or counteroffensive action, and physically forcing the opponent to give ground under the sequence of blows. Unlike in modern fencing, where renewals are limited in number and carry risks imposed by the rules, renewals of the offense use different techniques and are as important as the initial offense itself.
Defense is typically viewed as being actions which block an attack with the blade or evade the attack but do not attempt to hit the opponent. This is a valid way to classify actions in German Long Sword. Unlike the counteroffensive action which seeks to intercept the attack, defense accepts the attack and takes action after it has been evaded or blocked.
It is tempting to consider the return stroke following a displacement of the opponent’s blade (the modern riposte) as being part of the defense, especially given the emphasis in German doctrine on the importance of such a stroke. However, at the moment of contact between the blades the two fencers are in indes, and time stands still for a millisecond. If the attacker seizes the initiative, it is a renewal of the attack. If the defender moves first, it is theoretically his attack to which the original attacker must react or be hit.
Counteroffensive actions are strokes intended to intercept an attack and inflict a hit before the attack can reach its target. Ideally, the counteroffensive action both blocks the opponent’s action and lands a hit on the attacker (the cross or thwart stroke is an example). A second key function of counteroffensive action is to deny the opponent the ability to initiate an attack safely (one of the functions of long point) by establishing a credible threat that the opponent must first remove. Finally, cutting away actions to end the engagement are inherently counteroffensive as they are intended to allow an exit and to discourage pursuit.
The afterblow, a feature of fencing with the Long Sword well into the late 1500s (and probably through the 1600s), is a special case. An afterblow is delivered by the original defender, hitting the attacker as he attempts to recover and reposition after the attack. It is tempting to regard these as attacks, but I think they should be classified as counteroffensive, as they were intended to redress the balance in the fight by inflicting at least as much damage as has been received. Long Sword competition rules allow one fencer (the competitor who had established his position as king) to negate an attack completely and win the bout by afterblow.
Unlike in modern fencing where there is substantial agreement that a specific action belongs in a specific category, historical actions may be understood as fitting in more than one category. An excellent example is the family of Master Cuts from the German Long Sword tradition; these cuts can be delivered as offense or as counteroffense. The classification of the technique depends more on the tactical intent of its use than on the specific method of execution.
Applying a classification scheme to German Long Sword technique is important to understanding the balance of technique in the historical record. This serves as the basis for designing and developing training programs that teach students not only technique and tactics for the Long Sword, but also a coherent doctrine for its use.