This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 16th October 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
It is a common piece of advice for shorter fighters who face taller opponents that they should “go for the legs”. I wrote about this unhelpful piece of advice in a previous article, Myths of the Short Person in Martial Arts.
However, with the correct tactical set up, the legs can be an interesting target to attack, and it can be quite safe to do so. The important thing is to ensure that the opportunity is set up properly, and to recognise when it is not safe to pursue the target.
It is not worth considering a strike to the legs as an opening action. If you attempt this, then your opponent may well hit you straight to the head or to your arms, and there will be little you can do about it when you are diving downward to strike the legs. Attempting this kind of action as the opening of an exchange is suicidal and fairly stupid.
However, using your opening action to tempt your opponent’s sword up and away from his legs, in order to create an opportunity for yourself to hit there safely, is both skilful and sensible. A good example would be a high feint to the head to draw an overhead defence, followed by a swift strike down to the legs, followed (of course!) by an appropriate cover and withdrawal from the engagement to preserve your safety against any kind of afterblow.
There are many variations on this theme, some of which are dependent upon the weapons in use. For example, in Lignitzer’s sword and buckler, many of the plays show an overloading of the opponent’s defence, either upwards or out to one side, allowing the attacker to go for the legs as the final action in the sequence with relative safety.
Alternatively, in his 10 divisions (or lessons) of the Highland broadsword, Henry Angelo shows an interesting method for attacking the legs. In his first lesson, the attacker cuts to the head, receives a riposte, then cuts for the leg, and receives the riposte. Both participants always “slip” their leading leg when parrying, in order to remain safe from leg cuts, so it is important for the attacker to return to a guard after making the leg strike, in case it was not a definitive enough hit to render his opponent unable to strike back.
In his second lesson, the attacker cuts to the head, receives a riposte, cuts for the leg – but then rather than slipping under cover of a parry, he stays exactly where he finished his lunge and receives the riposte in this position, then makes a further cut to the leg, followed by withdrawing under cover in the usual fashion.
This is an interesting method, as it uses two attacks to the leg immediately after each other; the initial head cut is what facilitates the first leg cut, but then the second leg cut is facilitated by remaining in close to the opponent and receiving the riposte without retreating. This means the only part of the attacker’s body that needs to move is the arm, which moves significantly faster than the legs (as George Silver writes so explicitly, but which is also very noticeable in sparring), so it is easy for the attacker to make his leg cut, parry, then make another leg cut, and hopefully this second leg cut should hit the opponent before he is able to slip completely out of distance.
However, it is a risky method, as shown in Angelo’s fourth lesson. The attacker opens with a head cut, receives a riposte to his own head, makes a leg cut, and slips back to receive another riposte to his own head – but instead, the opponent makes the riposte to the attacker’s leg. Had the attacker remained upon his lunge, as in the second lesson, then this riposte would hit his leading leg. The reason that Angelo emphasises the slip on every parry is to avoid this sort of situation, where an opponent can take advantage of the advanced and undefended leg.
It is worth having a look at Angelo’s lessons for the broadsword, because they are relatively simple, yet teach many interesting tactics for use in fencing. Fallen Rook Publishing has produced a short book illustrating some of his posters, including Guards and Lessons of the Highland Broadsword and the Hungarian and Highland Broadsword posters dealing with the use of the broadsword on foot: The Guards and Lessons of the Highland Broadsword, 1799
In conclusion, attacking to the legs can be a valid and useful action to perform during sparring, but it is suicidal unless you set it up properly. A strike to the legs should probably be the second or third action in a sequence – it should not be the first action. Learning various different set ups will give you immense tactical flexibility to pick and choose your targets while staying safe in sparring.
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.