Unhelpful advice part 1: “Make yourself a smaller target”

Keith Farrell
Keith Farrell with a Polish sabre. Photo by Miri Zaruba, 2013. Note the “side-on” position as described by many authors of sabre treatises.

This is the first article in a short series, discussing common pieces of advice that sound helpful but in fact can be detrimental to your practice of some HEMA systems.

A common piece of advice in HEMA is to stand in profile, with your side towards your opponent (rather than shoulders squarely forward), and the rationale is usually “to present a smaller target”. While this is quite reasonable advice for some disciplines, such as broadsword or smallsword, I believe that it is not only incorrect for other disciplines such as longsword, but that it is detrimental to your practice of such disciplines.

18th century broadsword, sabre, and smallsword

Roworth describes the typical stance for fencing with the broadsword or sabre as follows:

The left shoulder must be thrown back, and the body kept as much in a line as possible, in order to expose no more of it than necessary to your supposed antagonist.[1]

This quote shows clearly that the idea of “presenting a smaller target” is a notion with historical evidence. There is nothing wrong with using this sort of rationale for fencing with the broadsword or sabre, according to Roworth. Similarly, McBane describes the typical position thusly:

… always keep your Body strait up, whether Pushing, Parieing, or on your Guard; keep your Head strait up, except when you push, you must bend it from your Adversary’s Point, or to the contrary side from it, as is hereafter mention’d, when you Push some particular thrusts. For unless you bend your Head from his Point, you may be Hit in the Face; and if you bend your Body forward to your Adversary, besides the Danger it is in by being so much nearer, you can not easily recover your self from a Lunge, nor Retire so easy and quick as you ought: Therefore rather bend a little back from him, than to him. Let your Side be only in his View, for the less Mark you give, the better, this is call’d Light.[2]

McBane is clearly describing a posture intended to keep the fencer as safe as possible, without presenting any unnecessary openings or opportunities to the opponent. As part of this, he describes turning side-on, to give “less Mark”, or to present less of a target. This passage comes from his “General Direction”, which describes what to do “when the Fleuret [foil] is presented to you”, so this serves as provenance for the concept in smallsword and foil fencing as well.

14th century sword and buckler

However, when looking at other systems (perhaps, more accurately, medieval systems in particular), we do not see this kind of advice in the sources. Taking the MS I.33, the earliest known treatise on the subject of fencing with the sword and buckler, there is no advice about how to stand. It gives advice with reference to the images, such as this passage referring to the position of superior Langort (higher long point):

Note that this is a different ward, viz. upper langort which is adopted here by the priest as an example to his pupils, and he instructs his pupil to execute this action, viz. to position himself as shown here in the example.[3]

A common element of body structure that is shown time and again in this manuscript is that the hands are relatively close to each other when they are extended forward, so that the sword hand may benefit from the cover and safety of the buckler. This means that the shoulders must be most square towards the opponent, so that the hands can come close together in front of the chest; if one side is pulled further back, “to make the body a smaller target”, then the hands would not be able to come together in the same fashion. Furthermore, when you consider the reason for placing the sword and the buckler together in front of the body (i.e. to constrain the opponent and reduce his options), there is no need to turn to the side to present a smaller target, because the reduction of target area and the creation of safety is ensured by engaging the opponent’s sword from further away.

15th century longsword

When fencing with the longsword, the advice about footwork in the Codex Hs 3227a (aka the Codex Döbringer) is that:

… one should not follow or step right after the strikes but always a little sideways and in a slope around, so that he gets to his flank.[4]

When you fence according to a system that utilises “passing” footwork (where the back foot steps forward to become the new front foot, as when walking), the act of stepping is made easier by facing your opponent. If you think about walking, it is easy to walk forward when facing forward; but it is much more difficult to walk forward when standing side-on, which requires a shuffling sort of gait and makes taking a passing step with the back foot more problematic. When all you need to do is lunge and recover, as per smallsword and broadsword, then a side-on position is fine, but a system with passing footwork requires a slightly different setup to allow the footwork to be comfortable and easy.

Furthermore, the focus of the Liechtenauer system of fencing with the longsword is on performing the right action at the right time, taking the advantage of initiative, and taking the fight to the opponent so that he is forced to defend himself. This is reflected by the advice given for the Vier Leger (the “four positions”, or the “guards” as they are often called):

Here he (Liechtenauer) mentions the four guards (Leger or Hut), which he considers useful. But first of all, one should not lie in these for too long, because Liechtenauer has a proverb: “Who lies there, is dead and who moves is still alive.” And this relates to the guards – a man should rather move with fencing attacks and techniques than waiting in the guards, which he may use to leave the Schanze (duelling yard).[5]

The advice is clearly that performing a sensible movement from the position is more important than obtaining a perfect position and remaining there, which is directly opposed to McBane’s advice about forming and holding the perfectly safe guard position.

It is a completely different paradigm of thinking about the relationship between position and action: in the later, more lunge-based systems, holding a perfect position is of great importance, and from this position of safety you can launch your attacks and feints and whatever else you wish to do. However, according to Liechtenauer, what keeps you safe is seizing the Vor (the initiative), making the right choice of action and applying one of the Hauptstücke (the principal techniques) to take the fight to the other guy, so that he is forced to defend himself, so that you are not placed in the unsafe role of being forced to defend yourself. Eventually, a strike always gets through a defence, so Liechtenauer’s advice is to be the person doing the attacking, so that when an attack slips through a defence, it is the opponent to receives the hit.

Liechtenauer’s advice continues:

Also know, that all guards are broken with strikes, by courageously striking, so he must move up and defend. That is why Liechtenauer does not hold the guards in high regard but prefers to let his students try to gain the Vorschlag.[6]

This states that the Leger (guards) can be defeated easily by people who take the Vor (the initiative) and apply one of the Vier Versetzen (the special techniques that defeat the Leger safely and effectively). This is again in contrast to later systems; in broadsword, for example, an outside guard should “close the line” so that any incoming strikes to the dominant site of the body will fail to hit, as the line is closed and the targets covered perfectly. This is quite easy to do with single-handed swords, as the strikes and thrusts are able to project less force than a longsword in two hands, backed up with the full structure of the body behind it, and therefore a good guard position is sufficient to defeat an incoming attack without having to make any supplementary movement. However, with the longsword, an attacking technique supported by competent body mechanics will often overcome one of the Leger, relatively easily, because the longsword is able to project force so well, and because the Vier Versetzen are chosen for their mechanical advantages against the Leger.

So, if there is no value to be gained by waiting in a guard position, because it is better to seize the initiative and because the guard position can be defeated easily by your opponent taking the initiative with the right technique, then it makes little sense to “present a smaller target” and play the defensive game. Rather, it makes significantly more sense to view the guard positions for longsword fencing mainly as “launching platforms” that set you up to seize the initiative with the correct technique and to take the fight to your opponent. Therefore, standing with the shoulders more squarely to the front, toward your opponent, can make more sense, as it makes the footwork easier and therefore facilitates the seizing of the initiative and the moving out from the position. Or perhaps the shoulder is withdrawn a little, but the rationale would still be to facilitate the movement out of the position, by making it easier to step or by allowing the rotation of the body to add strength to the strike. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Meyer’s Zornhut or Fiore’s Posta de Donna (where the body is almost facing to the rear, with the fencer glancing over his shoulder towards his opponent), but these have other tactical and mechanical elements, and must therefore be considered separately.

Other glosses in the “Liechtenauer tradition” confirm this paradigm of thinking, and expand upon it by explaining it in slightly different fashions.

The anonymous (aka the pseudo-von-Danzig) gloss even goes as far as suggesting that one should try to avoid “parrying” at all costs, and should work more actively in order to be safer while taking back the intiative:

This is the text and the gloss that one shall not parry:

Guard yourself against parrying.

If that happens it also sorely troubles you.

Gloss: Mark, that is that you shall not parry as the common fencers do: when they parry they hold their points high or to the side, and that is to understand that they do not know to seek the Four Openings with the point with their parrying, therefore they often become struck. When you will parry, then parry with your hew or with your stab, and seek Meanwhile the nearest opening with the point; so may no Master strike at you without being injured.[7]

In other words, don’t stand there in your guard to make static parries (as can be done perfectly well with the sabre), but instead work more actively with counter-cuts and counter-thrusts, to defend yourself and immediately turn the threat back to the opponent, to make him begin to defend himself instead of pursuing his attacks against you. Ringeck’s gloss agrees with this point of view, although expresses the idea a little differently:

And guard yourself from all displaces which the simple fencers deploy, and note when he hews, so you also hew; and when he thrusts, so thrust as well; and how you shall hew and thrust, you find that written in the five hews and in the setting-aside.[8]

Although it is much more brief than the previous quote, Ringeck makes the important point that the techniques that are to be used instead of “parries” are the Fünff Hewe (the Five Strikes) and the Absetzen (the setting aside). In other words, you should rely on actions from the Hauptstücke to stay safe while putting the attack back at the opponent, and not rely on the guard position to keep you safe.


To bring this article to its conclusion, the idea that you should stand in profile, side-on to your opponent, is quite valid and is supported by some sources, mainly those from later periods, describing the use of weapons that perform best in a system of lunging and recovery. The rationale that the profiled stance is to “present a smaller target” is also valid and is supported by historical sources.

However, other systems, especially medieval systems for weapons such as the longsword or the sword and buckler, require different paradigms of thought regarding the nature of offence and defence, the role of the “position” or Leger as a lanching platform for further techniques as opposed to a safely guarded position, and the general approach to conducting the fight.

The MS I.33 talks about a system of performing an “obsessio” to each “custodia”; using your position to shut down the opponent’s options and possible actions, and to give you the most sensible and safe entry against him as he stands in his current position.

The longsword sources in the Liechtenauer tradition place little value on the Leger and suggest that you should pay more attention to moving out of them with the correct choice of technique from the Hauptstücke to constrain and defeat your opponent, perhaps as he stands in his own guard, or perhaps to turn the threat back towards him after he has made the first strike. The emphasis is on your movement and on seizing the intiative, rather than standing in a position that minimises the target area that you present to your opponent. In fact, if the area of the target that you are presenting to your opponent is of any importance when fencing according to Liechtenauer’s teachings, then the fight has gone drastically wrong, because your opponent has the initiative and you are seeking to defend yourself and minimise your own target area instead of deploying your Fünff Hewe and acting Indes to take the initiative away from him.

When considering the way you hold your guard positions, pay attention to what the source material for your discipline suggests you should do; that is the most important advice to follow. Trying to shoehorn advice from modern fencing or from 18th century fencing into 15th century systems does not always work, and in fact often creates more problems than they solve. If your source material tells you to stand side-on to “present a smaller target”, then by all means do exactly that. If your source material does not tell you to do this, and does not present this reason, then look at what else the source is saying and consider that perhaps there may be a different overriding principle that requires a different way of standing for a completely different reason.

Sometimes, the best way to “present a smaller target” is to ensure that the only targets available belong to your opponent.


[1] Charles Roworth. The Art of Defence on Foot, with the Broad Sword and Sabre: adapted also for the Spadroon, or Cut and Thrust Sword. Improved, and Augmented with the Ten lessons of Mr. John Taylor, Late Broadsword Master to the Light Horse Volunteers of London and Westminster. London: T. Egerton, 1804. Pages 11-12.

[2] Donald McBane. The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion: Or the True Art of Self-Defence. With An Account of the Authors Life, and his Transactions during the Wars with France. To which is Annexed, The Art of Gunnerie. Glasgow: James Duncan, 1728. Pages 2-3.

[3] Anonymous. Royal Armouries MS I.33. Ca.1290-1320. Folio 21r. Translation by Dieter Bachmann, 2003.

[4] Anonymous. Germanisches Nationalmuseum Hs 3227a. Ca. 1389-1430. Folio 19v. Translation by Thomas Stoeppler, 2014.

[5] Anonymous. Germanisches Nationalmuseum Hs 3227a. Ca. 1389-1430. Folio 32r. Translation by Thomas Stoeppler, 2014.

[6] Anonymous. Germanisches Nationalmuseum Hs 3227a. Ca. 1389-1430. Folio 32r. Translation by Thomas Stoeppler, 2014.

[7] Anonymous. Academia Nazionale dei Lincei Codex 44.A.8. 1452. Folio 26v. Translation by Cory Winslow, 2013.

[8] Sigmund ain Ringeck. Sächsische Landesbibliothek MS Dresden C.487. Ca. 1504-19. Folio 35r. Translation by Christian Trosclair, 2017.