Absetzen (Parry by Thrust) at WMAW – Part 5: Ted Elsner, James Reilly and Robert Rutherfoord

I was lucky enough to get a late ticket to WMAW 2017 and spent an amazing few days in Racine, Wisconsin, learning from HEMA practitioners from all over the world.

On the last day of the event, I asked eight experienced longsword fencers to explain how they perform a parry by thrust, or absetzen.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts in which I’ll attempt to find underlying principles to be drawn from varying interpretations of this technique.

See the previous posts in this series:

Ted, James, and Robert: A Very Meyer Absetzen

In this three-in-one episode, Ted Elsner (Lead Instructor at Sacramento Freifechter), James Reilly (Lead Instructor at WHFA: Kenosha-Racine), and Robert Rutherfoord of Chicago Swordplay Guild demonstrate another interpretation of Absetzen.

Stab the monkey on their shoulder

Ted emphasizes the need to aim the point slightly over the opponent’s shoulder for the counterthrust, rather than aiming at their face.

“If I aim straight at his face, as he impacts the blade as he’s moving forward, he’s going to set me off to the side and I’m going to miss… Instead as James comes in, I’m going to thrust at the monkey on his right shoulder.”

The opponent’s blow may helpfully direct your point into their own face; if not, you still gain control over their sword through mechanical advantage.

Three footwork options

Ted outlines three possibilities for footwork, from safer to more daring. More conservative options break the absetzen down into a multiple-tempo technique, more like a parry-riposte. The riskiest option carries the highest payoff (and looks the coolest). All three options use the same overbind mechanics.

Long edge is engaged the whole time

Ted keeps his long edge on the opponent’s blade throughout the technique: “One thing that Meyer is explicit about is the way that you achieve the bind, which is with the long edge.”

James agrees: “When he winds the short edge over, he’s giving me his whole flat to just suppress, and I don’t have to do any work for that… his body isn’t structurally sound.”

Extended arms help to close the line

In the previous episodes, our instructors emphasized the importance of keeping a sound structure to make sure the Absetzen can stand up to a heavy blow.  Robert shows us how extended arms also divert the opponent’s point.

“The more I extend my arms, the more I keep his point away from me,” Robert says.

“You can see how far off the line, just by extending his arms and straightening them, [James’ point] has diverted,” adds Ted. “It’s geometry.”


Absetzen (Parry by Thrust) at WMAW – Part 4: Jake Norwood

I was lucky enough to get a late ticket to WMAW 2017 and spent an amazing few days in Racine, Wisconsin, learning from HEMA practitioners from all over the world.

On the last day of the event, I asked eight experienced longsword fencers to explain how they perform a parry by thrust, or absetzen.

This is the third in a series of blog posts in which I’ll attempt to find underlying principles to be drawn from varying interpretations of this technique.

See the previous posts in this series:

Jake Norwood’s Absetzen

Jake Norwood is a HEMA-famous fencer, competitor, teacher, and community organizer. He runs Longpoint and sometimes blogs for the Liechtenauer Federation over at xKDF.org.

Jake demonstrates his absetzen, using Tea Kew as a pell:

In this episode of Absetzen at WMAW, common themes continue to develop. Jake, too, emphasizes hip drive, body structure and timing as critical components of a successful absetzen.

Use hip rotation for power

Jake performs absetzen with a hip twist. “I can do it with a step out – but I find that it’s hard to land the thrust. I can do it with a step in, but it’s too easy to end up in the wrong spot, so I prefer just a hip twist. Then step with the thrust so that the body drives the point, not your arms.”

Don’t raise your hands too high

Jake warns against raising your hands and sword too high in a misguided attempt to keep your hands safe. “A lot of people tell you to protect your hands, get your arms higher. The problem with that is… he’s not in any danger either because I haven’t stabbed him.”

As Jake raises his hands, Tea shows the error of his ways with a slice under his forearms.

“Actually the trick is not to go high at all… you want to stay approximately at eye level to your opponent,” Jake says.

The importance of structure

Jake creates a strong structure by keeping his arms braced in front of his sternum. If he needs to change the angle of his arms, he rotates his torso to preserve that relationship.

He shows how withstanding a hard cut uses the same physical principles as supporting your body weight while doing pushups – both will be very difficult for most people to do if your arms aren’t aligned in front of your sternum.

Smaller fencers have less scope for structural errors

I ask: “If I’m a smaller fencer or less powerful fencer, how can I ensure that I do a correct absetzen against a heavy incoming cut?”

“You have even less wiggle room than I do,” Jake answers. “I’m a fairly strong guy; I can get away with collapsing my left arm a little bit, which I really shouldn’t do but I’m lazy. If you’re a smaller fencer, don’t collapse that left arm at all.”

A smaller fencer can deal with a heavy strike from a powerful opponent by maintaining proper structure:

“Even if I’m a smaller fencer against a bigger person, in most situations, my bone structure is much stronger than their muscle. There would need to be a massive difference in weight and strength [for that not to be true].”

Absetzen (Parry by Thrust) at WMAW – Part 3: Jan Deneke

I was lucky enough to get a late ticket to WMAW 2017 and spent an amazing few days in Racine, Wisconsin, learning from HEMA practitioners from all over the world.

On the last day of the event, I asked eight experienced longsword fencers to explain how they perform a parry by thrust, or absetzen.

This is the third in a series of blog posts in which I’ll attempt to find underlying principles to be drawn from varying interpretations of this technique.

See the other posts in this series:

Jan Deneke’s Absetzen

Jan Deneke is a longtime student of the Liechtenauer tradition.Check out Jan’s videos on his YouTube channel. He is currently training at the Tosetti Institute of MMA.

Jan demonstrates his absetzen against Stacy:

Jan begins his absetzen in right pflug, with his hands crossed near his hip. As Stacy’s attack develops, he uncrosses his hands and delivers a single-time counterthrust, intercepting Stacy’s blade with his short edge.

The uncrossing motion of Jan’s hands when winding from right to left provides leverage and therefore speed: “My favourite absetzen side is from right to left because it’s from crossed hands to open hands and it’s faster.”

For stability and strength in the bind, Jan switches to a thumb grip as he rotates his sword to use his short edge.

A versatile counterthrust

Absetzen can be deployed against a variety of cuts and thrusts, both high and low. Against a low thrust, Jan’s employs the same mechanics – winding from crossed hands to uncrossed, and intercepting with the short edge.

The desired end position of Jan’s blade depends on context:

“It’s situational; it depends on the attack. For an incoming thrust, I wind a lot less [than for an incoming cut]. I keep it a lot lower. I always want a good crossing. I wouldn’t want to go high on a low thrust – I risk that she slips lower and I get nailed.”

Timing is critical

Like Tea and Jessica, Jan emphasizes that Absetzen relies on timing.

“The timing requires practice. It’s the hardest part of the technique. The technique itself is pretty simple.”

Jan starts his absetzen “…when [his opponent] is committed to a thrust or a cut, so that I can nail her inside her tempo.” As we saw in Jessica’s video, if you attempt to deploy absetzen before your opponent’s attack is sufficiently developed, it’s very likely that they will change plans and absetzen will fail.

Gain the advantage of leverage on your opponent’s blade

Jan intercepts his opponent’s blade “…wherever I can get it, but ideally not on her strong. I want to have a strong relationship (between my blade compared to hers).”

Absetzen (Parry by Thrust) at WMAW – Part 2: Jess Finley

I was lucky enough to get a late ticket to WMAW 2017 and spent an amazing few days in Racine, Wisconsin, learning from HEMA practitioners from all over the world.

On the last day of the event, I asked eight experienced longsword fencers to explain how they perform a parry by thrust, or absetzen.

This is the second in a series of blog posts in which I’ll attempt to find underlying principles to be drawn from varying interpretations of this technique.

See the other parts in the series:

Jess Finley’s Absetzen

Jess Finley is a wrestler, fencer, and HEMA instructor. She is the author of Medieval Wrestling: Modern Practice of a 15th-Century Art. Check out Jess’s blog, Ritterkunst, for her research and training ideas.

Here, Jess demonstrates the basics of her absetzen against attacks from Jake.

Jess’s absetzen relies on a clear setup with an invitation to strike at her head. In response to Jake’s overhead cut, Jess drives her sword across the line of attack, using her hips to pivot. Demonstrating the technique against a much larger opponent, Jess creates a strong body structure with straight arms and high hands to stay safe.

Create a rhythm when offering an opening

Jess shows how she would tempt an opponent to strike at her head, creating a dynamic invitation by moving in and out of distance.

“One thing that can be useful that I picked up from other martial arts instructors is to offer the same invitation a couple times and back out. So if you give this to him a few times, he’s going to start going ‘Hooo!’ Then next time, he comes in – but you’ve already decided that you’re looking for that. People tend to attack on the third. One, two, and then go.”

Sword and hips go first

Before committing her feet to a step, Jess drives forward with her sword to close the line, powering her body with her hips.

“When I’m thinking about it, the most important piece to me is that if you’re going to cross either to cover the low line or the high line, that your sword and your hips have to go first to cover that line. And then if you know you have the line, then you can commit with the thrust and the step.”

At 2:10, note how Jess turns out her lead foot before she moves her rear foot. This opens her hip position and helps her to use body rotation to close the line and create a strong angle against Jake’s sword.

Relentless threat

After covering the line of attack, says Jess, “sometimes people want to retract, which is no bueno… I pretend that my sword is a fighter jet, like when you see F16s do cool manouevres. It’s always pressing in.”

This forward presssure keeps Jess safe. She doesn’t obsess over details she can’t control – such as where on her opponent’s sword she intercepts their blade.

“I don’t get to choose that. Jake chooses that. So I’m not worried about that, I’m worried about covering the line and presenting as much threat as I humanly can.”

Absetzen (Parry by Thrust) at WMAW – Part 1: Tea Kew

I was lucky enough to get a late ticket to WMAW 2017 and spent an amazing few days in Racine, Wisconsin, learning from HEMA practitioners from all over the world.

On the last day of the event, I asked eight experienced longsword fencers to explain how they perform a parry by thrust, or absetzen.

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I’ll attempt to find underlying principles to be drawn from varying interpretations of this technique.

See the other posts in this series:

Tea Kew’s Absetzen

Edited September 24

Some discussion came out of the first two videos in this series about whether to use the long or short edge to engage the opponent’s blade when forming the parry.

Tea adds:

“Absetzen on your left should be made with the short edge, not the long (ps-Danzig is explicit about this, and it’s implicit in Ringeck from the language about winding). I’d misremembered the bit of sprechfenster material which I used to justify the long edge.”

Tea Kew is an instructor with Cambridge HEMA, a historical fencing club in Cambridge, UK, with a focus on Ringeck’s longsword.

Here is Ringeck’s description of the absetzen:

When someone stands against you and holds his sword as if he will stab you from below, so stand counter against him in the guard of the plow from your right side, and give yourself an opening with the left. If he then under-thrusts to the same opening, wind with the sword against his thrust to your left side and step into him with the right foot, so that your point hits and his fails…

When you stand against him in the guard of the plow from the left side: if he then hews to the upper opening of your left side, then drive up with the sword, and wind to the left side against his hew (such that the hilt is in front of your head), and step into him with your right foot and stab him in the face.

Ringeck on Wiktenauer.com

Tea demonstrates his interpretation of Ringeck’s absetzen against a thrust and a cut.

The key components of Tea’s interpretation of this technique are a clear invitation; correctly closing the opponent’s line of attack; engaging the opponent’s blade with the long edge; and creating a strong body structure to resist a heavy blow.

Start by making a wide invitation

Tea makes a wide invitation to draw a predictable attack from Shanee. To draw a thrust, he starts with his hands low near his right hip, point high and well offline to the upper-right.

Tea emphasizes how he constrains his opponent’s attack to one side of his weapon. This way, he says, “…you can act on the beginning of their thrust without having to read the line on which that thrust is coming.”

Close the line of attack

As Shanee thrusts to Tea’s deliberately widened inside line, Tea takes a step out to his right and crosses his sword over hers to control it with his long edge.

“Importantly, I’m not thrusting forwards; I’m driving my hilt across and planting the point. I have straight-ish arms, which gives me a strong structure to resist any force she tries to push into my blade.”

Tea’s absetzen is a single-time thrust parry. However, to emphasize the importance of correctly closing the line of his opponent’s attack, he suggests thinking about the technique as two actions.

“First close, then deliver. Otherwise there’s a possibility of going straight forward and getting cut on the hands or thrust in the body because you haven’t adequately closed as you thrust.”

Create a strong skeletal structure

Tea makes an alternate invitation, this time to draw a cut. His hands are low at his left hip, and his point drifts to Shanee’s left. Shanee demonstrates a high overhead cut to Tea’s upper-left quadrant. In response, Tea pivots, turning his core toward the attack. He punches his hilt high, arms straight, and delivers his counterthrust.

“Relatively straight arms are important because this is what provides resistance against the incoming cut. If I have bent arms and she comes in with a heavy cut, my sword collapses into my head.”

Protect your hands with blade alignment

Tea uses the angle of his sword, and proper alignment of his blade, to protect his hands.

“Keeping the hands well out creates a steeper angle with their sword, which prevents it wrapping over the crossguard; and engaging with the edge means the crossguard is guaranteed to be in position to offset their blade. Engaging with the flat allows their blade to run down and bite on the hands.”

Visit Tea’s school, Cambridge HEMA, if you can – and stay tuned for more absetzens when I have time to edit the videos…

Martial control in HEMA

In historical fencing, we have developed a culture of valorizing injury and hard striking. We post photos of bruises or destroyed protective gear, inviting others to admire the risks we take in fencing; our toughness as we fight on through danger, injury, fatigue, and pain. Some instructors brag about their students’ reputation for hard hitting in tournaments.

To avoid singling out individuals or schools, I won’t give any examples except my own. I’ve posted pictures of my bruises online. I’ve shown off my dented fencing mask. I’ve told the story of that time a fencer disarmed me and I punched him so hard in the face that his fencing mask scraped the skin off the bridge of his nose.

Toughness, both mental and physical, resilience, daring, fortitude, and courage are fine qualities, and as martial artists we want to build them all. But does valorizing our injuries and our heavy strikes really promote these qualities? I argue that it doesn’t. Rather, it promotes carelessness, disrespect for our own and others’ bodies, needless risk-taking, and plain stupidity.

Heavy bruising isn’t a good thing; it’s evidence that both fencers screwed up. The bruised fencer got hit. The fencer who hit them did so with insufficient control, or without respect for their body, or both.

I want to fence for the rest of my life. I can’t do that if I destroy my body, or if I’m a drooling mess from accumulated brain injury. Even in the short term, I can’t train as effectively with bone bruises on my forearms and deep contusions in my thigh muscles – no matter how “tough” I am. This goes for my training partners, too.

In Managing safety in martial arts, Devon Boorman of Academie Duello writes: “Good practitioners don’t want to hurt their partners. It should be your goal to leave your fellow fencers healthier than they were when you found them.”

I also want to leave myself healthier after each training or sparring session. In Training for the Future, Keith Farrell writes: “I would quite like to keep fencing until I am 68, or 88, or even 128 years of age (might as well aim high!), and I simply won’t be able to manage this if I tear my rotator cuff a couple of times, or blow out the ligaments in my knee, or give myself permanent wrist pains.”

Keith’s article is about how he avoids injury by consistently using good body mechanics, and by prioritizing stability, balance and safe movement over winning. He acknowledges:

I realise that this does lead to limitations on what I can achieve with my sparring, and I often lose training fights with people who expect me to win against them. It means that in tournaments and competitions, I don’t always place as well as I know I could, if I were to compromise on the standards I set for myself.

This attitude is equally applicable to control and self-moderation in striking. I want to fence until I’m 128, and I want my training partners to do so too. I would rather not land any strike than land one that I can’t control. I would rather not hit my opponent than hit them and injure them.

When I train, my goal is to fence with total control over my sword and my body: to strike where and when I want to, with the exact amount of force that I choose. I want to be able to face off against a heavy hitter and maintain my composure, using only enough impact to make a valid touch, even when my opponent is coming at me like a truck. I’ll give respect, even when I don’t receive it.

Maybe I’m not at that point yet, but I’ll get there. That’s what becoming a martial artist means to me.

How to be an awesome drill partner

In HEMA we spend a lot of time talking about how we can learn new techniques, and use the techniques we already know more effectively. But studying a martial art is a collective activity, and we depend on each other for the quality of our learning.

If everyone’s learning experience is awesome, we all learn faster! Here are some ideas for being a more effective drill partner.

1. Be safer

Martial arts are inherently dangerous, but we can and should try to minimize the risks.

Use tools and equipment that are in good condition and appropriate for the situation, and recognize your responsibility to your training partners. Keith Farrell writes in “Responsibility to our Training Partners”:

[Your training partners] give up their own training time to help you with problems. They allow you to hit them, repeatedly, so that you can learn a new technique or skill. They moderate and control their own strikes so that they do not damage you, even though they may have the capability to do so. This is a critical point: they respect you enough to look after you, keep you safe and help you learn, even if they would enjoy practising harder or faster or with someone better. That deserves some respect in return.

Keith’s article outlines what to consider when choosing a weapon to train with, and when selecting protective gear. Essentially, use training weapons that won’t injure your partner or expose them to unnecessary risks; and use protective gear that allows your partner to execute techniques effectively against you.

2. Stay honest

Maintain martial intent in your drills to preserve a sense of realism, and make sure that techniques will work against a genuine threat. When you make a cut or thrust at your drill partner, make sure it will actually hit them! If your attacks are out of distance, you are not helping your partner to learn.

Check distance before you start your drill. Know the distance you’re supposed to be working at and maintain awareness of it.

Pause between repetitions and “reset” your mind and body. When you’re initiating the drill, vary the amount of time that you allow to elapse between repetitions so that your partner must respond to you rather than acting on autopilot. Break up the rhythm and make sure you and your training partner are responding to each other, rather than performing a sequence of movements automatically. Don’t pre-empt your partner’s actions – respond to them.

3. Don’t try to “win”

You can’t “win” a drill.

When it’s your partner’s turn to practice a technique, think of yourself as their teacher, rather than their opponent. When your student successfully executes a technique against you, you’ve done your job correctly!

Likewise, when you walk out of a class having learned a new technique, you have your training partner to thank for that. She deserves the same experience.

Make sure you’re not beating the drill. Provide sensible resistance, so that your partner needs to use martial intent and correct technique in order to succeed. But don’t step outside the boundaries of your part of the drill. If your role is to parry once and then get hit on the head, do that. Don’t parry twice.

If your partner’s technique is consistently failing, consider the possibility that you could be doing your part of the drill incorrectly – perhaps by moving too quickly, or taking some action that isn’t part of the drill.

4. Put equal effort into both sides of the drill

When your instructor or a senior student explains a drill, make sure you understand what you’ll need to do when it’s your partner’s turn to practice the technique. It’s just as important to provide the correct stimulus for your partner as it is to get the technique right.

Even when your part in a drill is very simple, such as initiating with an overhead cut for your partner to defend against, there’s still a lot to get right: Distance, cutting angle, making sure you lead with your sword instead of your body, etc. Instead of zoning out until it’s your turn to do the thing, use the time to hone your own technique.

5. Use sufficient control

Your drill partner is letting you strike them – you have a responsibility to do so respectfully, and with control.

Here’s an example of how lack of control can mess up your drills:

Counter-cut drill

My antagonist initiates the drill with a cut to my left temple. My job is to use correct timing and blade angulation to counter-cut through her attack, and without parrying, strike her head.

This is a technique for a specific situation: When my opponent attacks me with a true, direct strike that is intended to hit my head. For this technique to work, my antagonist must throw a proper cut at my head.

If my training partner is performing her part of the counter-cut drill correctly, I should have no problem making this technique succeed. I may need to clean up my timing and cutting angle a bit, but once I’ve done that, a counter-cut should be a reliable technique against this particular stimulus.

A problem arises if my training partner is not delivering her cut at a consistent angle with proper intent to strike my head. In a previous section of this article I discussed staying honest – part of which involves making sure you deliver genuine attacks for your partner to deal with. However, if I repeatedly strike too hard during the counter-cut drill, my training partner will stop making genuine attacks. She will instinctively start to throw parries instead of cuts, in order to protect her head.

My counter-cut will likely “stop working”, since my partner’s initial stimulus is now different – and requires a different response. If I then decide that my counter-cut is failing, without understanding why, I may be tempted to strike harder, or faster – making the problem even worse.

To avoid this, I need to make sure I’m landing my counter-cut with enough control that my partner can safely put up with having it done to her twenty or thirty times in a row. A fencing mask does not make my training partner invincible. I still need to control my strikes.

6. Communicate with your training partner

We can help to keep our drills running smoothly by checking in with each other. Do you both agree on what the drill consists of, and what to expect? If not, clarify with your instructor or a senior student. Are the speed and level of contact appropriate? Are you both getting enough repetitions of each component of the drill?

Sharing insights is also really valuable. What can you learn from your training partner, even if they’re less experienced than you? How can you help them learn more?

7. Have fun

Training is hard work, but it should also be fun. Apart from keeping yourself and your partner as safe as possible, this is the most important part of all!

Remember why you started training with a sword. New students are an endless source of inspiration because they are excited to learn techniques that more experienced students may find mundane.

Swords are awesome and you should feel awesome.