The Mastercuts – What They Are and What They Aren’t

"I must then remind the gentle reader that, in this art, everything up till now rests upon fully grasping the five Master Strikes, and indeed similarly all grows onward from here only in furthering this art to more flowing and useful levels, and from other sections move onward to find the art, and behave according to the underlying differences, thus you have firmly wrapped this art into another and thus more easily and lightly grasped it by being prepared for different views."
- Fechtmeister Joachim Meyer on the Longsword, 1570

By Bartholomew Walczak and Jacob Norwood
Editing and pictures by Stewart Feil, ARMA Senior Free-Scholar, additional editing by John C.

The fencing master Joachim Meyer in his Thorough Descriptions of the Knightly Art of Fencing (first published in 1570) describes five strikes called Meisterhauwen, or “Mastercuts.” Although this appears to be the first recorded use of the term it certainly isn’t the first appearance of these five core techniques of German swordsmanship: the Zornhau, Krumphau, Zwerchhau, Scheitelhau, and Schielhau. The Medieval German fencing masters of the previous century taught them as “Verborgen Haue” or “Funff Haue”, meaning the “hidden” or “secret strikes” and also “the five strikes.”

As the terms “Mastercut” (Meisterhau) and “secret cut” imply, these strikes were not commonly known. Despite significant overlap into basic techniques, either their form or function set them apart from more instinctive cuts.

In understanding the function of the Mastercuts it is vital to recognize that these five secret strikes were described for use during the Blossfechten—unarmored combat. Grand-Master Johannes Liechtenauer, who prominently featured the secret strikes in his 14th century fighting verses, presented his own, alternate system of armoured combat with no mention or need of these otherwise important techniques (for the obvious reason that such cuts were ineffective against plate armor).

The manner of executing the five Mastercuts results from the nature of Blossfechten—quick, effective, deceptive, without wide or useless motions. In certain instances the strength of a cut is sacrificed in favour of its quickness and innate capacity for both pre-emptive defence as well as versatile follow-up.

The objective of each of the five strikes is to maintain the initiative over the opponent, who has already committed to his own attack, accordingly to the principle of Nach (“After”) or to break a guard (stance) he is standing in accordingly to the principle of Vor (“Before”). While breaking a guard is self-explanatory, the regaining of initiative requires more explanation, as does the concept that these two actions are really one in the same.

The key in successfully performing the Meisterhauwen lies in understanding the geometry of the opponent’s options, and how each of the five strikes overcomes a set of possible or current actions. As clarified in each cut’s individual description, below, the Mastercuts defensively close off a line of attack from the opponent while simultaneously counter-attacking.

Because the stances that a given strike breaks are the same ones from which originate the cuts that those stances favour, one can use the same Meisterhau to break a stance or to counter the attack that came from that stance. The result is a solid defence that closes the line of attack as it transforms instantly into a single-time cut or sets up a powerful follow-up blow (either a cut or thrust).

In this we see the method to the seeming madness when the old masters state that you should not look to what your opponent is doing but act. An important element in successfully performing the Mastercuts is to confidently attack the opponent—not his weapon—while understanding that the nature of the strike used will protect you from the incoming attack without further thought. This is not an issue of perfect timing, as might be supposed, but rather one of correct geometry, put in place by the simple response mechanism of training. If an opponent takes up guard x, you strike Meisterhau y, which automatically defends all likely attacks from guard x and simultaneously strikes your opponent or otherwise compromises him. Mutual kills are unacceptable in this craft; a proper defence protects as it places you into a position of advantage, from which you cut, slice, or thrust.

The five Mastercuts likewise shine in their removal of the distance problem occurring by simply voiding an attack (which removes you from a blow but fails to put you in an offensive position of advantage—constituting a “bad parry,” as Liechtenauer and Meyer taught). Instead, the Mastercuts by their nature place your blade against your opponent’s, allowing you to instantaneously “feel” (Fühlen) the pressure he gives and act accordingly, prompting control of his blade. Liechtenauer’s stress on binding in this way should not be overlooked in practice of swordsmanship, yet many practitioners struggle to attain such a bind with any regularity. The five secret strikes are natural lead-ins to the winding and binding techniques of all the ancient masters, which allow even a failed counter-strike to retain its position of advantage.

Description, Functions, and Practice of the Five Meisterhauwen

All of the Mastercuts have a few things in common. First and foremost, correct footwork is absolutely crucial. Assuming a right handed swordsman, all five techniques should be executed from the right side (usually from over the right shoulder, Vom Tag) with a forward traversing step to the right with the right foot (moving you toward your opponent’s left flank), followed by a slight pivot of the left foot back-and-to-the-right. This pattern is referred to as a “Triangle Step” in Joachim Meyer’s teachings, as well as those of Hans Lebkommer a century earlier, among others.

Second, the issue of grip must be understood as being flexible. While the Zornhau and Scheitelhau have little need of the “thumb grip” (with the blade turned in your hand, long edge facing left, place the thumb on the flat of the blade or ricasso, or upon the lip of the cross), and the Zwerch and Schielhau are nearly impossible otherwise. Added practice and resultant proficiency will reduce your need for slavish adherence to these guidelines of stepping and grip, but only after some time. Lastly, remember that your target is always your opponent’s head or body, never his weapon. Take no thought to your opponent’s attack once you have observed his starting position and begun your masterly counter, and you will prevail; fight the weapon instead of the wielder, and you will find these techniques disappointing.

Zornhau (“Strike of Wrath”)

This is the basic diagonal descending strike from the right which most all fighters instinctively know. It breaks the high guard or Vom Tag. We currently believe that the “secret” execution of this strike is contained in the “Zornhau-ort” technique: namely that the strike should finish not in Ringeck’s Nebenhut or Meyer’s Wechsel, but rather in a lower hanging (similar to a slightly extended left Pflug stance with the short edge up), so your point is directed towards your opponent. This is easier to understand when we realize the blade should maintain contact pressure on the opponent’s once it impacts his own. From here the “ort,” or thrust, is employed.

Alternately a Zornhau performed Indes (in the instant) against another incoming Zornhau, but directed at the opponent’s head—not his weapon—will simultaneously close the line of the incoming strike and hit the opponent in his upper left opening. Should either approach fail, a simple bind results from the attack, from which dozens of techniques might then originate.

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Krumphau (“Crooked Strike”)

This strike breaks the Ochs stance, or any thrust coming from a high outside horizontal posture. Delivered with either edge, but usually the short, with the Krumphau you strike towards from above or towards his hands from above or bind with his blade from below (as in Meyer's Kurtzhauw, itself a Kruphauw derivatives). Make use of the thumb-grip as needed for leverage. Both Talhoffer and Meyer contain excellent illustrations of this often misunderstood strike. Both the Vom Tag over the shoulder (Zornhut) and right Schranckhut are almost invariably listed as the originating stance for the Krumphau, but it can be effectively made from Pflug as well. Perform this Mastercut from Vom Tag over the right shoulder by extending your arms forward and crossing the right hand over to the left, forcing the blade to strike with the hilt moving forward from the Kron or "crown" position and blade coming down, as almost seemingly underneath. The Krumphau is performed by aiming the blow diagonally by raising the pommel and pulling back the cross as you push forward with the hilt and traverse step, adding the hip into the cut as with any other strike. The end
position is equivalent to a Hangentorte ("hanging-point") or even an Ochs stance, depending on how it impacts. An immediate follow-up strike can be a thrust. The action is not at all an over the top or windshield wiper motion nor does it come low from underneath.

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Zwerchhau (“Crosswise Strike”)

The Zwerch breaks the stance Vom Tag and all cuts that come from above, in addition to other Zwerchhauen. This is a multi-faceted strike, the targets of which include the head, the hands or the body. You can strike at any of the four openings with Zwerchhau, so long as you protect your head and face with your cross-guard. Think of it as a “helicopter rotor”, striking from left horizontal Ochs to right horizontal Ochs, making full use of the thumb-grip for leverage. You strike with the short edge from your right and the long edge from your left. This is a deceptively powerful strike and is easily the best representation of what the Meisterhauwen can really do in terms of power (use the hips!), geometry (every overhand cut is thwarted), and versatility of follow up (single-time attack, follow-up thrust, or twitch to the other side, high or low). Additionally, unlike a horizontal cut to the right side using the long edge, cutting with the short edge in a Zwerchau permits the hilt to remain defensively in front of the head and the left arm remains bent for delivering a thrust.

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Schielhau (“Squinting strike”)

There is no sure reason why this strike is so named as the squinting strike, but several clues point to the feint made with a look (squint) towards his weapon or his face. Again you need a thumb grip for this one, and you strike on the same descending path as with a Zornhau but using the short edge (slightly turning the blade and body in the process). The Schielhau breaks the stances of Pflug and Langen Ort, either by running over (Uberlauffen) or by striking the blade with a sliding motion. Its targets include the head or the right shoulder. You either hit your opponent or thrust at him after doing a Schielhau. If done properly, the strike can also disarm your opponent. The cut itself can end in a Pflug position.

Joachim Meyer differs somewhat in his description of the Schielhau, performing it high above the head from Vom Tag and with no mention of its power to break Pflug, instead using it as a downward-diagonal variation of the Zwerch instead of a short-edge version of the Zornhau.

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Scheitelhau (“Crown Strike”)

This is a simple vertical descending strike which targets the top of the head and breaks the stance of Alber through the principle of Uberlauffen, “overrunning” or “overreaching.” As with all other cuts, don’t forget to step offline here as you strike. This cut is otherwise identical to a common vertical Oberhau.

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The Meisterhauwen are but five strikes, but their combination permits all cuts using either edge along the eight possible lines of attack. Delivering them quickly and forcefully follows with Liechtenauer’s instruction to make rapid strikes one after the other without pause. The Meisterhauwen are an integral part of the German tradition under Grand Master Liechtenauer and deserve our attention not only out of loyalty to historical accuracy in training, but perhaps more importantly out of their nearly matchless utility. Consistent training and sparring with the Mastercuts in focus will completely transform an already impressive weapon into one with capabilities we are only beginning to understand in our fledgling study of Renaissance Martial Arts.

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