Unhelpful advice 4: More myths of the short person in martial arts

Keith Farrell and Jacopo Penso fencing with longswords at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 5th April 2013. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

As a relatively short person (5 feet 6 inches, or roughly 167 centimetres in height), I have heard all kinds of “advice” and platitudes in my two decades of involvement with martial arts. People have lots of very strange ideas about how short people should fight, and produce some very dangerous and ill-conceived advice!

The articles comprising part 3, part 4 and part 5 of this series on unhelpful advice will seek to address some of the myths and advice that I have heard other people give to shorter fencers.

Short people should go for the legs

This is one of the worst pieces of advice I have ever heard. Unfortunately it seems to be the default “go to” advice that short people receive most often. “Go for the legs!”

No. This is a bad idea.

It only works, it only makes any kind of sense, if the short person is willing to take a powerful hit to the head whilst delivering a hit to the opponent’s leg. Assuming the short person has any kind of competency or interest in self-preservation, and any kind of skill or regard for his or her own defence, then this is a situation that should never occur. Going for the legs leaves you open to a strike from above. The only sort of person who exposes his or her head in exchange for an attempt to hit the legs is an idiot.

People arrive at this advice through a flawed and naive approach to fighting:

What target is available on the opponent? His legs. Awesome. Hit them. Dammit, got hit on the head in return. Oh well. Round two.

This is often how beginners think about sparring, and I try to train my newest students to stop thinking like this as soon as possible.

Comparatively, a skilled combatant will take a different approach:

What target is available on the opponent? His legs. How will that leave me open? Or alternatively, can I reach the target safely? Well, no, because he will hit me in the head. Scratch that idea then, let’s try something else.

That is the sensible way to fight. Keep yourself safe, and if the proposed action will endanger you, then don’t be an idiot and don’t do it.

Furthermore, several fighting systems have developed effective counters to leg strikes that make these kinds of attack a bad idea anyway, even without having a reach disadvantage.

For example, in broadsword or sabre disciplines, the “slip” draws back the front foot so that it meets (or even comes behind) the rear foot, which takes the leg out of danger. At the same time, the hand snaps forward with a cut to the head, since it is impossible for an attacker to both protect his head and cut towards the legs. The slip counters all cuts to the leg and should result in a split head for the attacker every time.

In German longsword, the concept of Nachreissen (travelling after) does a similar job. When the attacker moves his sword from one position towards any target, the defender can perform Nachreissen: he should ensure that he is not hit by the attack, and then should strike into the place when the attacker’s sword WAS before it began to move. So if the attacker is in Vom Tag and then strikes for the legs, the defender should do something very akin to the slip, or make a short skip backwards, evading the strike; then the defender should launch in towards the attacker’s head with the Nachreissen strike. The result will be the same as in the previous example: the attacker will miss his strike, and will have his head split open for his troubles.

In sword and buckler in the style of I.33, the forward lean of the combatants means that the leg is simply a bad choice of target anyway. If an attacker is dumb enough to go for the legs then the attack will most likely miss anyway, and a simple counter strike by the defender will split the skull of the attacker.

Attacking the legs as a first intention action is never a good idea. As a second or third intention, it can work (while cutting the legs is a standard third or fourth or fifth intention action in Lignitzer’s sword and buckler, his system never describes opening with a cut to the legs), but no one should ever begin an exchange with a serious attack at the legs.

If anyone gives this advice, to anyone else, then they are doing a disservice to the person they are advising. If anyone gives you this advice, stop listening to them, because they are speaking nonsense.

Short people need to be aggressive (or really defensive)

This is an odd idea, that almost has merit, but is usually worded and explained very poorly.

The theory is that if a shorter person stays far away from a taller opponent then there is a lot of danger, so by closing and being really aggressive, the shorter person can reduce this danger. It almost makes sense, except that most people do not understand “aggression” correctly, and as a result behave too aggressively, in an incorrect and inappropriate fashion, and lose all control they may have had over the situation.

At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that short people need to be very defensive and should never go on the attack. This is also quite clearly flawed, since remaining at long distance the whole time without ever closing will allow the taller person to break through the defences at his leisure, and the fight will be lost. Liechtenauer gives the advice that “you cannot defend yourself without danger”, because eventually an attack will always break through and hit you.

The correct advice is that a shorter person needs to be assertive without giving gratuitous openings. Keep yourself safe, don’t do anything stupid, and if the taller person gives you an opening then seize it and take advantage of the situation. Above all, be in control of the fight, and don’t let your opponent (or some well-meaning but really bad advice) dictate how things will happen.

Short people need as long a weapon as possible

This is advice that I have heard given to shorter people, but also from shorter people themselves. The theory is that if you suffer from a shorter reach, then a longer weapon will cancel out the difference. Mathematically speaking, it is true; but in practice, it is nonsense.

Various historical authors (such as George Silver and Philippo Vadi, for example) have written about the correct length for a sword. These methods depend very much on the height and dimensions of the individual in question.

The fact of the matter is that, sometimes, it is more appropriate for a shorter person to use a shorter weapon. For example, with a one-handed weapon like the basket-hilted broadsword, it is very helpful to be able to parry an attack with a hanging guard, bring the left hand into play to control the opponent’s blade, then to disengage one’s own sword to perform some kind of counter strike or thrust. If the weapon is too long then disengaging the blades becomes very difficult, if not impossible.

Certainly, for thrusting and for long range sniping attacks, a longer blade will allow a shorter person to compete with a greater reach. However, landing a long-distance snipe with the very end of the sword, or grazing the target with the point of the sword, in no way constitutes a “good” hit; a “good” hit requires landing the technique a bit further down the blade, which somewhat counters the effort to find a blade that is a few centimetres longer in order to have greater reach!

If the shorter person wishes to learn more about the art, techniques, and principles of the discipline that is studied, then it is important to have a weapon with an appropriate length. A good fighter will be able to apply principles and correct fighting concepts regardless of the weapon length.

Indeed, I find it very beneficial to switch between my Albion Meyer (120cm in total) and my Regenyei feder (135cm in total). Different techniques work better with the different blades; other techniques stop working with longer or shorter blades; and by changing the weapon I use, I become better at judging distance and range in sparring, and so I become a better fighter as a result.

A much better statement is that shorter people (in fact, everyone) should learn how to use their weapon effectively and correctly, and how to handle different distances and ranges. If people fight correctly, then there is no need to compensate with a significantly longer blade!

Concluding remarks

Fighting against a taller opponent is always going to be a difficult task. And, unfortunately, much of the advice that is so often given is actually nonsense. Hopefully this article has addressed some of the myths that plague short fighters around the world, and hopefully it will inspire people to train harder to improve their fighting skills.

To finish the article, I would like to offer a video clip of a sparring match I had with Federico Malagutti at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Federico is taller than I am, and has a very long reach. However, I did my best to apply techniques properly in order to open him up and to give myself opportunities. I did “go for the legs” a few times during this fight, because I had been asked to do so to help Federico improve his defence against such attacks; I certainly wouldn’t have relied on them to the same extent under normal circumstances!

If this fight can inspire some of my fellow short people then I will be delighted.

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.