I have had the privilege of knowing and training with some truly awesome fighters. Fighters that work hard and show the results. Every now and then, though, I come across an odd breed of fencer. These folk win many of their fights with what can only be described as trickery. These sneaky tricks often make use of bad technique. Now it’s important to mention that I have no wish to disparage these fighters and I will shortly explain what I mean by “bad technique.” It’s also important to note that were I called upon to train someone for a life or death duel, I would teach them to fight exactly as I described. I have a repertoire of deadly tricks that tend to work exactly once and if you needed to defend your life in a one time duel, I would drill you with one of these techniques. It’s my feeling, however, that reliance on tricks severely hampers the development of true skill.
When fighting with the rapier, there’s a move I do where I pivot my body and sword away from my opponent. This provides a clear opening for anyone foolish enough to take it. This position breaks all the rules of rapier and tends to work against an opponent exactly once. As soon as they know what’s coming an experienced fighter can instantly defeat it, making it a nifty trick but not a good technique to rely on.
There are historical examples as well. Many old fight books call hits to the legs a bad idea either overtly or implied in context. In my own training I was always told that continuously. I was taught not to try to hit people in the legs and not to worry about people trying to do the same to me. After all, aiming for the leg is “bad technique” so why bother with it and, by the way, why do I keep getting hit in the legs?
It came clear to me when I discovered the likes of John Taylor and the Angelo school. These two share ten lessons that are designed to teach soldiers how to fight with the broadsword. At first reading I was confused. John Taylor specifically mentions that attacking an opponent’s legs is a horrible idea then devotes a significant portion of his manual both to how to do this and how to defend against it. If it’s a bad idea, then why devote so much training to it? The answer took me a long time to figure out.
The answer came from two places. The SCA is a great place for fighters. There are some great combatants who dedicate a great deal of time to their training and then there’s the other kind. The ones who pick up a sword and fight. No drills, no regular training, just fights and pointers from other fighters and damn, if some of them don’t make it work. Some pull some crazy moves that really work for them against “properly” trained fencers. This is because many fencers only train against people receiving the same training. If you don’t know what’s coming it’s extremely hard to protect yourself. The other part of my solution amounts to the same thing. Some novel I read had a quote along the lines of, “the greatest swordsman in the world doesn’t fear the second greatest, he fears the worst because he never knows what that lunatic is going to do.” I wish I could remember the book.
I had a student, once upon a time, who loved the leg shot. I tried to convince him to vary his techniques but since attacking his opponents leg almost always worked for him, he saw no reason to change. I mention this not to illustrate his shortcomings as a student but my failing as a teacher. It wasn’t until I started studying Taylor that I was able to reliably defeat an attack to the legs and thus demonstrate the folly of this technique.
The theory was always there. Withdraw the leg, and counter attack to the open arm or head. Theory so seldom works out in combat. It was only when I finally started endlessly drilling Taylor’s broadsword that I was actually able to consistently perform this seemingly simple action properly. So it seems that practicing bad technique is sometimes necessary, if only so as to better defend against it. Although, through the course of it I also learned the safest way to attack the leg myself. I’m almost embarrassed about that actually.
So anyway. Never attack the legs. It’s bad technique.