mf11.jpg (31296 bytes)Edges of Knowledge:
Parrying With A Cutting Sword

“You must learn the art of setting aside so that his cuts and thrusts may be broken.”
 - Master Sigmund Ringeck, 15th century

By John Clements

Defense with a cutting sword is often a much misunderstood aspect of employing the weapon. It is vital to realize that parries (the opposition blocking of attacks) with a medieval sword or with any edged cutting blade are made not with the edge of the blade but with the flat ("mit der flech"). Yet it is astounding how often this basic fact of swordsmanship is violated or ignored. Many enthusiasts and students incorrectly continue to naively believe that a cutting sword can easily use its edge to parry with –or should even do so preferably.

Whether a sword has a keen hard-tempered edge or a duller, softer one, parrying edge-to-edge will quickly trash it (something witnessed in many films and swordplay videos).  Doing so will also likely break a blade far sooner than not.  For example, even without any sharp edge on them the best replica rapiers today will immediately accumulate a multitude of significant tiny gouges and nicks in their "edges" from the blade to blade contact occurring during simple practice.   This applies even more so to wider swords with dedicated cutting edges. In fact, taking a hard blow on the edge of a real sword's fully-tempered blade can actually cause it to fracture (something seldom witnessed today with softer, case-hardened replicas used for theatrical combat, instead, their thicker soft edges can be repeatedly beaten on and filed over).

DuererFlat1.jpg (28300 bytes)On cutting blades, edges may be quite hard but they are very thin after all. They are too fine to be intentionally placed in the path of oncoming strikes. Edges on cutting blades need to be kept sharp and free of nicks or gouges. How could a dented, nicked, and chewed-up edge on a real blade possibly cut effectively? Though a parry may be made with a cutting edge when completely unavoidable, it is not a technically proper or smart action to take normally. These weapons were not intended to be used that way and it should not be intention or habit to deliberately do so. Still, it is possible today to hear such loony opinions as blocking with a sword’s edge is "stronger" because the sword "bites" into the opposing blade (!). Such comments reflect a profound lack of basic knowledge on the nature of sharp steal. A cutting sword’s flexibility is in the blade’s side-to-side resiliency and good swords are designed with this intentionally in mind. Obviously they cannot bend to flex correctly when hit against the edge.

DuererFlat2.jpg (32587 bytes)As ARMA mentor and sword expert Hank Reinhardt has pointed out numerous times, "If this were not so, how then do we explain the distinct and well-documented lack of significant damage on so many historical swords that have survived? They surely didn’t all have their blades polished smooth." That such weapons could last for many years and even generations clearly says something about and the manner in which they were use to avoid edge damage. Reinhardt also likes to add, "If you still can’t understand why a sword uses its flat to block, simply go take two large, sharp hunting knives and bang them together full-force on each other’s edge and you’ll quickly see why." Of course, when your life is being threatened to keep from being killed you naturally want to block and parry any way that’s possible. But keep in mind that allowing your blade to get forcibly struck could always end up breaking it. You never knew if it would withstand every blow blocked. Besides, letting your blade to be smacked and beat on as you parry can allow the opponent to apply any number of techniques to bind and trap it or let them knock it aside and close in.

It’s probably important here to define exactly what is meant by an "edge" on a sword. The edge can mean just the intersecting plane of the flat sides, something that any and all swords have. But it also can specifically refer to the sharpened, cutting portion of the blade, i.e., the "edge proper". All swords have "edges", but not all edges are sharp or even capable of being sharp. A blade with a thick cross-sectional shape and high bevel can not hold a well-honed edge nor will it cut deeply. There are many examples of such blades from medieval etsocs to later rapiers to most all small-swords. Additionally, sword edges can have varying degrees of sharpness. A katana’s edge is by no means the same as a spadone’s and a falchion’s edge is not identical to a saber’s.

Today, people often want to think they can parry with the edge either because they see it on TV or because they can’t figure out how to possibly block correctly on their own. A major part of the problem of misunderstanding how to parry is the example offered by theatrical fighting and stage combat performances. Surprising as it may seem, it is nearly impossible to yet find any instance of theatrical fighting or stage combat where blades are NOT banged together edge-on-edge. The reasons behind why this is commonly taught in stage-combat classes has more to do with safety than any fighting realism (there is seldom little time is available to teach parrying properly and incorrect methods have now become doctrine).

Virtually every example of sword fighting in film, television, and even live-action shows has the combatants blocking directly with their edges. This is incorrect and fundamentally wrong (despite crucial, fundamental misunderstandings like this we are often expected to accept stage-combat theory as somehow offering evidence of legitimate "martial knowledge" on the part of its performers). The respected Italian sword maker Fulvio Del Tin recently had this to say on the subject: "…It is improper to bang swords edge to edge…it is better to deflect the opponent’s sword. These people that perform swordfighting in the wrong way…they use swords with full strength edge to edge…I wish that in (the) future many people (will) learn how to do swordfighting correctly, instead of imitating Hollywood heroes."

So, for those who do not grasp either the intuitive or the technical aspects of how and why you would want to parry with an edged sword’s flat as opposed to its edge, the question may be asked just how we know this as fact. Do any historical fighting manuals describe how to parry in detail? Actually for the most part they don’t (for that matter, they don't even teach how to cut either). Parries were rarely defined in exact terms. They were described more as basic defensive reactions rather than sword placement and the idea was to move to evade and counter-cut rather than block. Tellingly enough, there is even a distinct lack of any direct sword blocking examples within medieval artwork as well. Without getting into the technical aspects of swordsmanship, suffice to say that avoiding a cut is preferable to trying to parry it. The idea for efficiency and effectiveness is to counter-attack a blow, rather than to parry it and then strike back (this itself is described in the manuals). There are many ways of deflecting cuts with a counter-blow instead of obstructing them with a solid block.

There are no real instructions on parrying even among numerous medieval fighting manuals, with the possible exception of a Norse saga. This may very well be because whenever possible blocking with the flat, like cutting with the edge, was considered such an obvious and self-evident function of a sword that it went without saying. In the Norse tale "Kormac’s Saga", Kormac parries Bersi’s sword "Hviting" using the edge of the sword "Skofnung" he borrowed from his friend Skeggi. He breaks the point off of Bersi’s Hviting with the parry but in the process badly nicks Skofnung and this upset him since it was Skeggi’s sword and Skeggi’s was "greatly annoyed". Additionally, illustrations within the anonymous 13th century German sword and buckler manuscript (Tower Manuscript "I.33") do seem to show rather clearly the use of the flat in several deflecting and smacking parries. In fact, in any of the historical medieval or early renaissance sword manuals the very conception of just what a "parry" is seems to have been a deflecting action and not a direct opposition block such as notoriously seen in so many theatrical fights.

PHMflat.jpg (222584 bytes)This is also consistent with what is taught for blocking with the katana in traditional Japanese swordsmanship (where to preserve the keen forward edge the thicker back of the weapon is used –as is the case with other single edged blades as well). In Kenjutsu direct opposition blocking is also discouraged in favor of deflecting strikes and evasive moves. This is consistent with the methods described within Medieval European manuals and is sustained by modern reconstruction practice (but certainly not by either the contrived conditions of sport fencing or stage combat).. Despite many differences both major and subtle, the underlying physical fundamentals of Japanese and pre-rapier European swordsmanship are essential the same.

Indeed, the detailed illustrations of fighting postures and ready stances with in many medieval German and Italian show the blade held configured for blocking flat, not edge on. But confusion typically arises with those actions for using edge against edge to bind, push, or trap after having closed in. But regardless, against strong cuts there are many parries which can be performed properly ONLY by using the flat of the blade. Plus the easiest transition from effective parry to strong cut is achieved only by obstructing blows with the flat of the sword. There’s no special "wrist turning" involved to use an edged sword’s flat in parrying cuts nor do cutting swords do not "wobble" or bend when parrying this way. There are ALSO several ways of deflecting and smacking attacks other than direct opposition blocking. Even cutting at the opponent’s own oncoming blow is a viable technique (and again, one common in kenjutsu).

In Western swordsmanship it was only with the horizontal or "in-line" parrying action of rapiers and later small-swords (as well as some cut and thrust swords) that blocking was introduced --what sport fencers sometimes call the "parry proper". The use of a faster, lighter weapon capable of instantaneous counter thrusting made this a possibility and a necessity. Even then, with the rapier "voiding" was the preferred means of defense. In earlier swordsmanship the use of direct opposition "blocks" against cuts was simply something to avoid as inefficient and modern practice supports this. You bang two sharp blades together edge-to-edge and they are instantly (and often severely) gouged. In a French text of 1460, "King Rene’s Tournament Book", rebated swords used for tournament are described with the following comment: "…the crosspiece should be so short that it can just block any blow that by chance descends or comes sliding down the length of the sword to the fingers" (italics added). If either the edge or the guard was intentionally used to directly parry with they certainly would not have said "by chance".

A lack of mention of direct parrying is noticeable among Medieval German Fecthbucher ("fight books") and Italian fencing manuals. They are also absent among renaissance masters advocating the cut & thrust method such as George Silver and Joseph Swetnam, as well as within the 1639 Pallas Armata and works of various German masters. But, to a certain degree what has perplexed historical fencing practitioners is the use of parries by the early renaissance masters Marozzo and Agrippa. Their treatises are full of passages in which they write to parry this or that blow with either the "true" (forward) edge or with the "false" (back) edge. They often specify which one of the edges to use almost every time that a parry is to be made. There can’t be any doubt that they fought and that they taught parrying with their edges. But unlike solid, angular cuts, thrusts can easily parried with the edge since they need only slide past and be deflected. It’s not surprising then that Agrippa and the Bolognese masters Manciolino and Marozzo lack mention in their texts of parrying strong cutting attacks –either with or against heavier swords (this is also interesting to note given that Marozzo like the later master Lovino, both briefly discuss use of two-handed swords).

But there can be no doubt these early renaissance swordsmen were using neither medieval cutting swords or true edgeless rapiers, but were teaching the use of slender cut & thrust blades. In placing emphasis on the use of thrusts over cuts in their method they would naturally have little concern for any trauma caused to their blades by edge on edge parrying. Additionally, for the same reason they would not be overly concerned with the proper edge alignment necessary in order to cut after parrying (something that is difficult when parrying with the edge instead of the flat). It is also very likely and quite reasonable that deflecting a thrusting attack and then responding with your own thrust is precisely what lead to their rapier-like method of parrying with the edge. Regardless, we can not ignore that they also emphasized defense by voiding.

Rather than a fighting method for battlefield or war, Marozzo, Agrippa and other renaissance Masters of Defence fought primarily in an urban setting against little or no armor. They taught mostly combat for duels, not for war, and duels were often not very long, so swords could certainly withstand a few gouges and notches. Keep in mind that in the civilian street-brawls, ambushes, and back-alley urban encounters of their age, they were not having to throw chopping, cleaving blows against armor in order to cut deep into flesh and bone. Their cuts had only to threaten to lacerate enough that they would either open up the opponent’s defense to a lethal thrust or just deter them off. The mere threat of a stinging, tearing metal edge arcing toward you can, if not deflect or smack your weapon away, at the least make you think twice about attacking. Even on the renaissance battlefield, cuts with lighter blades were directed at the limbs, away from steel chest plates, and thrusts were quite useful.

FLAT151.jpg (877752 bytes)Another major source of misunderstanding about parrying with edged blades comes from the sport fencing perspective on historical swordsmanship. Misconceptions about parrying with a cutting blade are almost always the result whenever foil/epee fencing (or even rapier/small-sword) theory is inappropriately applied to cutting swords. In modern fencing their edgeless pseudo-weapons can block any and all possible attacks using most any blade portion. While this works well for the tools of the sport form, this method is entirely erroneous when applied to real swords with flatter, wider cutting blades. To think in terms of a slender thrusting blade when dealing with strong cutting and countering actions is an inappropriate perspective. Whereas lighter, faster blades fighting point-on can easily make single deflecting or intercepting blocks followed with immediate counter-thrusts, a slashing, hacking blade cannot. Instead, it must make either an evading, counter-cut (which may or may not employ deflecting contact), or else employ a direct opposing parry followed by a separate attack. It is the timed counter-cut that is almost always preferable.

It is truly mind boggling that sport and classical fencing instructors teaching with epees and having little experience in earlier military swords will sometimes argue that wider cutting blades (which are entirely outside of their sphere of expertise) should regularly block with their edges. It is foolish to equate methods of parrying with foils, epees, and sabers (or even historical small-swords and rapiers) to parrying with sharpened cutting blades. It is also worth noting, that although with edged medieval and renaissance swords there are some superficial similarities in their basic motions to parries used in the sport of modern saber fencing, they are not nearly the same. Sport sabers are also very light and thin and their light whipping cuts are delivered only from the wrist. The weapons and method they attempt to simulate are only superficially similar to the historical application of medieval and renaissance cutting swords. Historically, many military sabers had fairly thick edges and were often not very sharp. They were not designed to encounter armor and were used more to slash and even just "hit" with. Much less care was therefore given to whether or not the edge was used when defending. Similar things are seen in styles of Chinese kung fu swordplay and South Pacific blade arts that do little or no test-cutting practice in their training.

At present, some practitioners erroneously believe that using the edge somehow lines up the wrist to better intercept blows with greater resistance. Yet, the opposite is actually the case. Direct blocking with the edge robs you of having the proper blade alignment (edge facing) necessary for both a proper parry and a return strike. This also diminishes the best chance of making a more efficient response cut to any opening created by the adversary’s own attack. Although he later amended his view, even noted sword authority Ewart Oakeshott writing in the early 1960’s fell prey to this fallacy in his short work, "A Knight and His Weapons" (recent reprints however still retain the error). Using the flat actually better aligns both the wrist and sword edge for a quicker, smoother response cut without losing time and momentum in turning the arm. Only in this way can the motion of moving to block be turned into a more effective counter-cut. However, in other actions such as deflecting, binding or beating against the opposing blade, either the flat or the edge may strike their flat. Again, this is something best understood after extensive practice both parrying with replica swords and test-cutting with sharp blades.

After spending considerable time cutting with sharp cut & thrust swords, it can be assuredly understood that an edged blade needs to be kept as keen as possible for it to remain effective in chopping or slashing. Yet, unlike wider, heavier cutting blades, with a renaissance style cut & thrust sword there is ample opportunity to parry both thrusts and cuts (from other slender blades) using either the edge or the flat –though noticeable damage will result. Keep in mind though that most single-hand swords were used in conjunction with a shield. It was the shield that was employed for defense and for blocking thereby leaving the weapon free for its preferred and specialized job of striking. This also applied to those single-hand ones used with a buckler or dagger. In the case of double-hand gripped swords, the role of defense was primarily assumed by voiding, dodging, and deflecting while counter-stepping.

It may very well be the lack of a discernible edge on many forms of modern sparring weapons (i.e., round sticks, bamboo shinais, foam "boffers", etc.) that also affects the parrying habits of some practitioners. As a result, use of the flat rather than the edge is unfamiliar. It is also important to point out that parrying techniques that may work fine in stick-fighting or padded contact-sparring, are not entirely equivalent to those used by a thin piece of sharp metal (i.e., real swords). These differences can be fully appreciated through practice in parrying using unsharpened replica swords. Blows of metal on metal can skip or deflect off, redirecting themselves rather than having their momentum entirely stopped. The difference follows even to the use of blunt theatrical swords. Most stage-combat or theatrical swords are also extra thick and heavy, thereby making them quite capable of holding up under improper edge blocking. Of course, these weapons were never intended to cut with let alone be handled by true swordsmen. Additionally, because many of the cheaper imitation swords commonly available will often have a weak, wobbly blade they confuse novices who cannot see how a substantial parry could be made using the flat.

Unlike mistakenly blocking with the edge parrying with the flat in contrast allows the blade to remain undamaged and the steel’s elasticity and blade shape to let the weapon flex from the impact (the very reason this quality was so vital in a fine blade). Keep in mind that in a fight with cutting swords you are NOT trying to whack at the other person’s blade time and again, but rather to cut their flesh and bone. You don't defensively place your blade in direct opposition to their strikes like it’s a shield so much as try to deflect them by forcing the cut to glance off or be redirected or even be struck away by your own blow. These things are not taught in theatrical stage combat and are rarely if ever displayed in live choreographed performances.

Fundamentally, the farther you get from cutting, the less you understanding about parrying and fighting with an edged weapon. The worse things to base an understanding of parrying on are the refined techniques of modern sports or the dramatic, exaggerated, artificial motions intended for entertaining audiences. In the end, what teaches proper parrying technique with a cutting blade is to train with accurate replicas and practice contact-sparring using safe equipment.

Comments on a Personal Level:

I have spent years using a range of historically accurate Medieval and early Renaissance swords both of fine and lesser quality. I have seen plenty of blades gouged and nicked by edges hitting each other, but never have I had any difficulty parrying properly with the flat or avoiding unnecessary edge trauma. The reason? Because in using blunt blades for semi-contact sparring with protective equipment and in test-cutting with sharpened swords, you learn how they are supposed to be handled to fight effectively. These two vital elements of swordsmanship (blunt practice and sharp cutting) are entirely absent from the practices of those believing a cutting sword uses its edge to block with. Contrary to the cliché’s of stage combat pretending, true swordsmanship is NOT about trying to hit the other person’s weapon, it is about trying to hit them.

Unfortunately there are active sword aficionados and sport fencing instructors dabbling in choreography who continue to make faulty, erroneous assertions on edge-parrying with cutting blades. They disseminate their opinions on the Internet even though they admit to having little or no interest in "military weapons" that are wholly outside the realm of their narrow specialty. Their theories on Medieval and early Renaissance fighting do not stem from long-term investigation of the historical manuals, nor serious training and earnest contact sparring with edged replica swords, nor from test cutting with sharp blades. They are instead derived from their understanding of what can be done with epees, rapiers, and thick stage combat blunts. Together with the habits of sport fencing it explains how they falsely interpret matters that should be entirely a matter of sheer common sense.

Apparently, the irrelevance of theatrical combat theory appears to form the foundation for much what they believe. They base what they think they know about parrying on the singular proclivities of stage combat …which remember (and this is highly significant), does not involve actually touching an opponent or cutting anything, but rather the unnecessary, exaggerated (and frequently senseless) dramatic banging of blades. To anyone with considerable time handing real weapons or doing realistic training their views shows a deep ignorance of both the nature of steel itself and of sharp cutting edges --not that the role of stage combat is necessarily to be martial or historical.

As someone who has been instructed by one of the nation’s leading sword expert as well as spending almost more than decades in handling, training with, sparring with, and cutting with all manner of replica swords, it makes me nauseous to here  misguided opinions being offered with hollow "authority". To individuals such as Hank Reinhardt and myself who spend their time in the study, research, and practice of historical edged swords, many notions on parrying with cutting blades are foolish. It’s really very sad that this pervasive and wholly unsubstantiated myth of cutting sword edge parries continues to perpetuate .

Those who view parrying with cutting swords in terms of 18th and 19th century foils and epees or small-swords are deluded. Further more, appealing to the earlier rapier method as support for edge parries by cutting swords is equally ridiculous. For a cutting blade, there is simply no historical evidence whatsoever for parrying with the edge. The clear and indisputable facts of just what happens to edges when struck cannot be overlooked. It is important to understand that while steel is tough and strong, swords and their edges are not indestructible. As well, the concurring reference we have within Japanese swordsmanship alone for not using the edge to block cannot in any way be ignored or dismissed as "stylistic". Yet somehow there are those who continue to discount all these many things and they look idiotic as a result.

In conclusion, the real question here is not really whether or not Medieval and early Renaissance cutting swords can properly defend with their flats (they do), it is why people cling so fervently to obvious misinformation and myth. When it comes to parrying with cutting swords, if one does not train realistically with accurate replicas, does not practice with realism against skilful adversaries, then one can not possibly know what one is talking about.

“Remember the flat of the blade...”
- Johannes Leckuechner, Der Alten Fecter, c. 1482

See also:

Parrying: Part I, Part II, Part III

and: The Myth of Edge Parrying


An example of the trauma inflicted on even a blunt blade by parrying with the edge. This fully-tempered, high-carbon, historically accurate replica long-sword was used with full-force flat-parries without damage or any noticeable blade degradation. But after one edge-parry and two edge-on-edge deflections, the blade was gouged and knicked in three locations within the space of one minute. Note the edge deformation below and opposite the distinct notch. This medieval long-sword was a quality Del Tin custom-made piece, not a wall-hanger or theatrical prop...and it wasn't even sharpened.

Edge2.JPG (11717 bytes) Edge1.jpg (10354 bytes)

 

 
 

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