A lot of questions are sent in to ARMA about many topics of the ARMA Approach to training and study, none more so it seems than requests for information about learning to parry with cutting swords.

How to Teach an Understanding of Parrying - Part I

In the Houston ARMA class, when covering defense and parrying with either Medieval or Renaissance cutting swords we go about it in a simple way. Even before telling students to void or to use the flat and not the edge, we first just make simple strikes at them and let them defend as best they can (assuming they have already become familiar with getting hit by contact-weapons or learned caution and control with wooden wasters). When hitting at the student they are left free to block in any way they can or want. We hit them with a speed and intent that depends on their aptitude and level of experience, but always at a minimum standard that they everyone must be capable of reacting to (naturally, you can’t learn to block if you aren’t concerned about preventing something from actually hitting you).

What usually occurs during this is that they quickly learn not to make direct, rigid, Hollywood-style blocks. If they do, simple changes-in-line of attack can fake them out or feint them into miss-parrying. After a few times of this the very next thing we usually do is intentionally attack their blade directly. Forcefully hitting their weapon when they are making opposition blocks disturbs their attempt to riposte or recover and typically opens them to a second follow-on strike. By doing this a rigid parry defense is once again shown to be insufficient. Next, when they go to make a block we suddenly move in with the cut and bind up their blade or push in close against it. If they resist with pressure, we quickly disengage to cut elsewhere (under or over) or else step in to seize their arm or weapon (something later covered in detail). If instead they react by pulling their weapon away we continue in with the attack to slice or draw cut.

Following this, assuming they are familiar with basic cuts and thrusts, we have them make their own attacks against a senior student for a little while to witness how proper parries are executed. The student is directed to attack freely without expectation of being hit back or counter-attacked. But as they do this, instead of parrying their attacks, we first intentionally dodge and evade them. We use voids and slips to cause them to miss and misjudge distance, all the while we maintain a good threatening guard posture against the student. Only after this do they get to witness actual parry blocks made with short simple motions. Even, then some counter-attacks are thrown in on them to show how defending is subordinate to countering.

The point of this reasonable sequence of short practical exercises is to demonstrate how defense is achieved, not so much by meeting and intercepting blows, but by effective movement. This is most dramatically demonstrated when the new students get to next witness advanced students in earnest contact-sparring. They see the combatants striking and missing or being deflected and counter-cut. Such fighting reveals a different character that is quite unlike the constant blade-on-blade banging so common in theatrical and performance fights (where, it should be remembered, combatants are not trying to actually make good contact with each other’s bodies).

Lastly, only after these few self-evident lessons is the student then taught the subsequent defensive stances and parries against different attacks. Such parries --the middle plow and the hanging position --are shown as those positions that either are natural guards in themselves or that result from the action of cutting and recovering. Furthermore, examples are offered of the ways faulty parrying easily results in the student getting hit in the hands if they incorrectly move their grip into path of a blow. This includes showing how moving the tip alone or just the hilt rather than the whole weapon causes parrying to fail. Examples are shown of both "over parrying" (which opens you up to a feint and combination) and the opposite error of failing to parry with sufficient resistance.

It is only at this point that the student is shown the mechanical differences between edge and flat parries. In slow motion a parry with the edge is made against assorted cuts exhibiting how the arm and hand must turn out and be placed in the path of the attack (resulting in a strong blow being delivered onto the weapon, damaging and possibly breaking the blade in the process). Steel replica weapons are sometimes even brought out to show how severely this effects actual swords (both blunts and sharps). Immediately next, a flat parry is demonstrated against the same exact cut attacks (to the sides, overhead, to the hips, and lower legs). In each case the sword is revealed to easily withstand blows without being knocked away or preventing it from making any instant return cut. More importantly, it’s shown how the edge remains lined up to properly deliver an immediate return cut afterwards.

Additionally, just as historical warriors would prize swords and not wish to see their precious edges unnecessarily damaged (lest they not cut well when needed), few enthusiasts today desire to see their own expensive replica blade damaged by faulty parrying. This is very different from stage-combat blades, which are sometimes just treated as disposable props or are even specially made to take abuse rather than cut like real ones. Occasionally, damaged blades with chewed-up and gouged edges from accidental edge parries are even taken out for test-cutting practice to reveal just how poorly they will then perform.

Crucially and without exception, parries are always taught in conjunction with proper movement in stepping into or out of the opponent’s action (and never from "out-of-distance" or artificial stationary positions as in most theatrical swordplay). The whole process is one of common-sense discovery and physical insight rather than "style" or "doctrine". The idea is presented how movement and counter-action to void or dispalce or deflect attacks is superior to direct opposition parrying (this certainly does not count scraping, knocking, or gliding edge-against-edge with another blade as you close-in or attempt to press or bind). This concept is one revealed in historical manuals as well as from gained practical experience in serious contact-sparing.

Overall, students are allowed to experiment to find for themselves the true simplicity and necessity of defensive movements that the weapon calls for. The student is also shown how proper parrying movement using the flat of cutting swords allows a much more effective and efficiency return cut to be made. These are revealed by virtue of the action itself providing the very wind up or pull back necessary for the return blow. This applies whether parrying to the sides, low and close-in against the hips, or low to the legs. This is something impossible to comprehend in words but easy enough once seen in person.

In all parrying, students are taught to never just hold their weapon still and ready to receive a blow. They are shown how to move in or move out to deflect or smack an attack (i.e., to displace it). They are instructed in the two positions to turn the wrists to allow the flat to easily take the force of a blow and leave the edge properly aligned. The act of intentionally sticking your sword out to receive the attacker’s blow (on flat or edge) is an idea that never even arises in the course of teaching parries. In fact, defense is integrated into the whole idea of fighting with the weapon in general and not broken down separately such as in later methods of European fencing.

By example, we teach that rigidly blocking to "absorb momentum" is incorrect and that deflecting or redirecting is more appropriate. We explain how when the other person strikes (even with vertical downward cuts), you can step in and cut at the flat of his weapon or knock his weapon with your flat (edge against flat, flat against edge, or flat against flat). Again, this has to be seen live to fully grasp it. Voiding, deflecting and flat-of-the-blade parries are always preferable to direct blocking. Edge on edge blocking can occur, but only if unavoidable. The reasoning behind not directly receiving strikes on your blade’s edge is made clear by its presentation in a tactical context.

The particulars of using various parrying actions are something that takes practice to be proficient. From the middle or Pflug position, high vertical cuts to the head and collar are actually parried not by a horizontal block but with an intercepting  motion to "set it aside". In some actions the hips must be lowered and slightly turn into the parry.   For "hanging parries" (hilt angled up, point down) the forward ("true") edge faces front. Hanging parries are also taught not as static positions, but as countering actions and horizontal ("St. George") blocks are not even used. They are revealed as vulnerable and inefficient with the long-sword. Later on, deflecting actions are eventually taught wherein attacks are smacked aside or knocked away by either striking at them (edge against flat) as they are made or knocking them in the same direction from underneath or the from side by (flat against flat or flat against edge). All this counter-timing takes considerable practice along with footwork to step in and out.

Fighting postures after all, are defensive stances as much as threatening ones (some more so than others). A fighting posture is not about just getting ready to receive and block an attack. If so they would be predictable and easy to out feint (who’s going to make a direct attack against an obviously blocked target?). Rather, fighting postures are about threatening and countering. They both provoke and deceive the opponent with their inherent defense (potential parry) combined with the possibility of suddenly withdrawing the blade to counter-attack.

All the above then teaches the idea of "understanding parrying" as opposed to learning a "set of parries", as in modern fencing for example. Parrying in this way is learned not as the familiar "one, two" action of fencing’s double time ("dui tempo"). It’s instead ideally taught as a single action who’s goal is to allow you to exploit openings in the opponent’s attack by responding with an instant counter-strike (a similar philosophy is expressed in Japanese swordsmanship). Foil and epee fencing (based mostly on an 18th century small-swords style) teaches a greater separation between attacks, parries, and other techniques. But medieval swords (and other cut and thrust blades) really just do not effectively utilize such an approach. This is evident in the historical manuals and learned in contact-sparring. This is also a very different philosophy than the parrying theory in theatrical swordplay, which must break down parries and attacks into separate structured actions that can be choreographed. Do keep in mind the above describes parrying methods different from that with rapiers or even with some slender cut and thrust blades (and very different also from the sabers, cutlasses and spadroons of later centuries).

Through ARMA’s martial approach to studying and practicing historical swordsmanship, when it comes to understanding parrying emphasis is placed on helping students develop the prerequisite reflexes and perception over "assuming" where incoming blows are being directed. Surprisingly, the above lessons are presented to new sword students in about a mere hour or so of class. Of course, introducing these concepts is only the beginning. Learning them well takes years of practice ..but then that’s what it’s all about.

Go to Part II, Go to Part III

See Also: The Myth of Edge Parrying and Edges of Knowledge

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