5 ways to train the Abzug (and to avoid an afterblow)

Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz
Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz fencing with the longsword at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2015.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 31st July 2015. It has been modified a little for reposting here.

The medieval and renaissance German martial arts (particularly those with the longsword) include the concept of the Abzug, or the “withdrawal” from an exchange.[1] Not only must you be able to enter safely and effectively with a blow, you must hit cleanly, and you must also withdraw under cover so that you can remain safe even after landing a hit.

Regardless of your personal point of view on the “afterblow”[2] and whether or not you think it is a good thing for practitioners to use in their fencing, it is nonetheless obvious that it is better to be able to protect yourself at all times and never to receive a hit that could have been parried easily if only you were paying attention.

To this end, I will suggest a few exercises and ideas to add into your regular training, to help promote the Abzug and to help defend against afterblows in sparring.

1: Retreat to a guard position immediately after landing a hit

A very simple solution is to encourage your students to retreat to a guard position after landing a hit during drills.

For example, if you are practising a sequence such as a Vorschlag to the head followed by a Zucken to the other side of the head, then the attacker should land his hit and step back, pulling his sword into an Ochs or a Pflug position to cover against any incoming afterblow.

This is a very simple thing to add into your drills. The behaviour it teaches will carry into sparring, where people will begin to retreat to a guard position after landing a hit, rather than pausing, lowering their sword, or doing something else that does not involve covering.

Generally speaking, I recommend recovering to a Pflug position rather than to an Ochs. My rationale is that in Pflug, your hands are low and therefore safe, and you can always lift your blade to cover against a higher strike. Whereas, if you pull to Ochs, then your opponent can slash your arms as described by Talhoffer,[3] and your hands are much more vulnerable if you happen to place your guard incorrectly.

On the whole, Pflug is a much safer position than Ochs. Although people may prefer Ochs, they will probably be safer in Pflug until they learn how to create, place and structure their Ochs correctly. If you run a club where people are just beginning to learn how to Abzug, then the general skill level will probably be such where your students will benefit more from retreating to Pflug than to Ochs.

2: Punish a lazy drilling partner

This idea follows neatly from the previous suggestion. When drilling, allow the person who “loses” the drill (and receives the hit) to test the “winner’s” Abzug. Once the “winner” lands the hit, the “loser” should from time to time make an afterblow to see if his partner is still paying attention.

If the partner is hit, then it was probably because he “gave up” the fight after landing his own hit, and stopped thinking about his own protection. If he is able to draw back under cover, as per the first suggestion, then the afterblow will not be able to hit him.

It should be made clear to students that the afterblow may only occur after the drill completes and the hit is landed correctly. The purpose of the exercise as a whole is still to train whatever skill or technique that the instructor is trying to teach; adding in the afterblow should not take precedence and should not get in the way of the lesson that is being taught. Also, it should not occur on every repetition, just every so often, as a method of ensuring the honesty of the “winner’s” retreat.

Ensure that your students are still making their strikes properly and conducting the drill to the best of their ability. If they start focusing more on the afterblow and the Abzug, to the detriment of the drill, then remove the Abzug part of the exercise until your students are able to conduct the drill correctly again.

3: Make blade contact after striking

After landing a hit on your opponent, get into the habit of finding his blade with yours. You don’t need to strike his weapon, merely put your own blade between his sword and your body, preferably touching his sword with a firm pressure. This will prevent him from using his sword to hit you, because you are stifling it as you move away from him.

This is very similar to a piece of advice from Joachim Meyer, who describes the concept of the “provoker, hitter, taker”.[4] In short, the “provoker” is a cut that provokes your opponent to do something and to create an opening; the “hitter” is a cut that hits him into his newly-created opening; and the “taker” is a cut that parries or otherwise nullifies his weapon so that you can escape safely.

Meyer discusses this concept in his chapter about the dussack, where recommends that fencers string together sequences of three attacks, and ensure that if one of their attacks is a “hitter”, that their next technique is a “taker” to ensure their own safety. Although the advice was written for the dussack, it applies equally well to fencing with the longsword, or indeed with any other weapon.

It is simple to add this into your drills. Once you hit your opponent and “win” the drill, make your retreat, but touch your blade to his in a “taker” action as you withdraw.

4: Make a second technique to the arms after striking

A similar but more advanced version of the previous suggestion is to employ the advice about the Nachschlag from the Codex Hs.3227a:

Then before the opponent can gather himself and come back, you shall do the after strike [Nachschlag] so that he will have to defend yet again and not be able to strike himself. Thus when you strike the first strike [Vorschlag] and the opponent defends against this, in the defence you will always be first to reach the after strike [Nachschlag] before the opponent.[5]

And also:

You will win the first strike [Vorschlag] and as soon as you have done this, then quickly and without any delay do the after strike [Nachschlag] that is the second, third or fourth strike, cut or thrust so that he cannot come to blows himself.[6]

The general advice from this treatise is that once you make the Vorschlag, the first strike, you should make further strikes so that your opponent is kept busy dealing with them, is further incapacitated, or is otherwise unable to hit you.

One of the clever ways of making this Nachschlag is by way of hand pressing (Hende Drücken) or slicing the arms (Abschniden).

With Hende Drücken, once you have struck your opponent, place your blade on his hands rather than on his sword. Then you can press firmly, and he will be unable to move his sword against you.[7] This is better than simply making blade contact as per the previous suggestion, because if you control only his sword, he can drop it and close to grapple with you; whereas, if you control his hands, then he is less able to pursue you in this fashion.

With Abschniden, you cut to his arms when he strikes at you, rather than parrying his strike, and then press his arms away from you.[8] This is superior to a parry, because from a parry he can strike at you again and again; whereas if you go directly to his arms with pressure then he will be unable to make any further attacks because you will have subdued him.

You can apply the idea of Abschniden before he can even make his afterblow: once you land your hit to “win” the drill, immediately shoot your blade to his arms and give pressure, to subdue him before he can begin to make an afterblow against you.

The ability to interpose your blade between his sword and your body, as per the very first suggestion, is a useful skill. The ability to do so by finding his blade and touching yours to it is a more refined and delicate skill, but also a very valuable skill. Finally, the ability to ignore his blade and take control of his whole body and balance by way of Hende Drücken or Abschniden is a very advanced skill, and is possibly the safest Abzug method of all the suggestions so far.

5: Set up an afterblow situation

One final suggestion is to set up a situation where the Abzug and the defence against the afterblow is the primary skill that the exercise intends to teach.

For example, use the following sequence, where both fighters start in a left Pflug with the right foot forward:

– step 1: the coach steps back and lifts his sword to a right shoulder Vom Tag position.

– step 2: the student steps forward and makes a Nachraissen strike to the open side of the coach’s head.[9]

– step 3: the coach steps forward and tries to strike an Oberhaw afterblow to the student’s head immediately after receiving the Nachraissen strike.

– step 4: the student must withdraw under cover immediately after delivering the Nachraissen strike, and avoid the coach’s afterblow in whatever fashion is possible.

This is a trivial example – there are all kinds of drills and sequences you can use to set up an afterblow situation, where the purpose is for one partner to hit the other and immediately to retreat and cover against the afterblow. You can be very creative when coming up with these exercises! And they also allow you an opportunity to think about some of the sequences, techniques and concepts from the treatises in a practical context with due consideration for what the other guy might do if he is not entirely incapacitated from the initial strike.

If you have students who are not used to the idea of the afterblow, or who treat it with suspicion, then this is a good method to introduce it gently. The main focus of this exercise is the ability for the hitter to get out safely, and the afterblow is merely a tool to allow the hitter to practise that skill in the safe confines of this exercise. Even those who are strongly in the anti-afterblow camp should be able to see the value of the exercise and therefore the value of the afterblow in this context as a pedagogical tool. Gradually, it will acclimatise your students to the idea that they should be defending against afterblows, since hitting cleanly and getting out safely with a good Abzug is a core part of the Liechtenauer system of fencing.

Conclusion

There are three main facets of a good and successful exchange in a fight: getting in cleanly, hitting cleanly, and getting out cleanly. If any of these steps are not clean and safe, then the exchange is not as good as it could have been.

It can take a lot of work for people to treat the withdrawal as seriously as they treat striking or closing. Nonetheless, the most successful fighters in the current tournament scene, and also (quite importantly) the most successful fighters who do not compete, are all linked by their ability to keep themselves safe at any stage of the fight. If people want to be a top fighter, or even want to be a good or adequate fighter, then they need to pay attention to what happens after they land their hits.

Introducing some of these ideas into your training will help you and your students to improve your skills in the Abzug, and you may find that it gives you the necessary skills to perform some of the more complex and fine-detail handworks from the treatises we study.

Footnotes

[1] Keith Farrell and Alex Bourdas. AHA German Longsword Study Guide. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, 2013. Page 82.

[2] Matt Galas. “On the After-Blow.” Schola Forum, 21st October 2010, accessed 13th February 2015. http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=16056

[3] “Den Oberhow erliegen und In die arm slahen.” Hans Talhoffer. Codex icon.394a. 1467. Folio 10r.

[4] Jeffrey Forgeng. The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570. London: Frontline Books, 2015. Pages 135-137.

[5] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C.1389. Translated by David Lindholm, 2005. Folio 21r.

[6] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C.1389. Translated by David Lindholm, 2005. Folio 22v.

[7] Sigmund ain Ringeck. Ms Dresden C487. C.1504-19. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011. Folios 44v-46r.

[8] Ringeck. Ms Dresden C487. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011. Folios 44v-46r.

[9] An example of Nachraissen is following after the opponent’s movement into a different guard position, and hitting him where his sword used to be. Ringeck. Ms Dresden C487. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011. Folios 36v-37v.

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.