Footwork is undoubtedly one of the most important skills to develop for any martial art, and HEMA longsword is no exception.
I have the impression that people often become quite caught up with trying to integrate their footwork into their interpretations of techniques. Instead of making the technique work better, I think this tends to lead to confusion, and I believe it also makes it more difficult to perform the technique successfully in sparring when it is tied to a particular footwork.
It is my belief that footwork and handwork can (and should) occur independently of each other, so that neither forms an intrinsic part of the other. Instead, the one can be used to support the other, in a fashion most appropriate for the any given situation, and this will increase the likelihood of success.
Definition of footwork
For the purpose of this article, a footwork is any kind of technique or action involving the lower half of the body. It could be a passing step, a lunge, a simple turning of the hips without moving the feet… It can be whatever, really. Footwork is really just about how to move from place to place, and how you can put yourself in the most advantageous position to do the handwork that you want to do.
Definition of handwork
For this article, I would define a handwork as any kind of technique or action involving the upper half of the body. It could be a cut, a thrust, a parry, a feint, a guard position… Again, whatever, really. The handwork is what you do with the sword.
Note that this is a different definition from Meyer’s Handtarbeit, which is the middle part of any fencing phrase (between the Zufechten and the Abzug). In this article, when referring to handwork, I am working with my definition instead of Meyer’s.
Don’t the sources tell us what footwork to use for techniques?
Good catch. Indeed they do – sort of. My understanding of these passages is that they suggest the best footwork to accompany the handwork in the most common situation in which that handwork will be employed. Let us take the Zwerhaw for example:
The Zwerhaw with its pieces.
The Zwerhaw takes away
whatever comes from above.
Note that the Zwerhaw breaks all cuts that come downward from above. Do it like this: when he comes at you with an Oberhaw to your head, spring with your right foot against him, away from his cut, out to his left side. In this spring, turn your sword with the hilt high in front of your head, so that your thumb comes underneath, and strike in with the short edge to his left side, so that you catch his cut in your hilt and hit him in the head.
It is clear that this lesson is talking about both footwork and handwork. It also looks like this advice is identifying the spring as a critical component part of the technique. However, I would suggest that the next piece of advice in the gloss is worth thinking about:
A piece with the Zwerhaw.
Do the Zwer with the strong
Mark your work with it.
This is how you should work with the strong of the Zwerhaw. Do it like this: when you strike in with the Zwerhaw, turn the Zwerhaw strongly with the strong of your sword on his [sword]. If he holds strongly against you, then at the sword, strike in to his head with crossed arms behind his sword’s blade, or slice in with the piece through his mouth.
Here, the focus of the technique is on the placement of the strong of your sword upon his sword, as you turn the Zwerhaw into place. Then, if he holds strongly against you, turn the sword again so that you can cut him to the face behind his sword. There is no mention of stepping, but clearly there will sometimes be a need to do so in order to make the technique work.
If we use this advice to understand the previous instruction, then we can paraphrase the instruction as follows:
Do it like this: when he comes at you with an Oberhaw to your head, move away from his cut to get a better angle on him. As you are moving to that best place to be, turn your sword with the hilt high in front of your head with your thumb coming underneath, so that you may turn your strong against his blade, and strike in with the short edge to his left side, so that by pressing your strong to his blade you catch his cut in your hilt, while hitting him in the head from the advantageous place to which you have moved.
From this paraphrasing, it is a reasonable assumption to make that the handwork (the turning of the sword, the thumb coming underneath, the application of the strong, and the striking with the short edge) is the Zwerhaw, and the footwork (the strong) is really just to move yourself to an advantageous place so that you have the best chance of success with the technique.
Against a shorter or taller, stronger or weaker person, with a lighter or heavier sword, you may need to move to a slightly different place each time you perform the technique. Therefore, there is no single “spring” that has to be performed and replicated perfectly every time you do the technique; that is a helpful supplementary motion that makes the handwork more likely to succeed.
Practising footwork and handwork
I have written before on the subject of footwork. I believe one of the best ways to improve your footwork is to play games like children, and that the best way to make footwork exercises work for you is to combine technical and integration lessons so that you can choose the right footwork for the situation and perform it well.
I have also written about different ways to bring footwork into striking lessons, using exercises such as Meyer’s four openings drill to practise performing your strikes with different footworks.
There is a lot of benefit to be gained by being able to do most of your handworks with any given footworks. When you make your Zwerhaw (for example), learn to do it with a passing step forward with the right leg or with the left leg. Learn to do it with a sidestep to both sides. Learn to do it without moving, with either leg forward, or with your feet together. In fact, learn to do it with either leg in the air, since you may need to perform the technique without being as grounded as might be ideal.
Practise making your steps with just one foot – leave the other foot exactly where it is, so that it doesn’t follow after or pivot round or do anything else. Practise making your footwork with a “spring”, where both your feet are off the ground at the same time (not one foot moving first, landing, then being followed by the other, but with both feet in the air at the same time). Practise with a leap, where you try to spring as far as you can to cover as much distance as possible with the technique. Practise a leap or spring, performing the technique only at the moment of landing.
Hop around. Do all your techniques and drilling on just one foot. See how that changes things! You probably won’t be sparring like this, but how often do you find yourself with only one foot on the ground in sparring? Quite regularly, I would bet, since stepping with any footwork involves at least one foot leaving the ground. Hopping is a great way to build balance and stability for the ankle that remains on the ground.
Challenge yourself to keep walking around as you do your sparring. Don’t stop, don’t ground yourself, just keep moving, regardless of what you or your partner are doing with your swords. Allow your handwork to fit the situation, wherever you happen to find yourself, and challenge yourself to keep your footwork independent of your handwork.
When you can separate your footwork from your handwork, and perform any given handwork with any given footwork, then you will have many more opportunities to be successful when trying to do these techniques under pressure.
You will also become able to perform many techniques better, without having to rely on some kind of step to turn the hips; instead, you can engage your core and make the turn of your body that you need for that handwork, regardless of what footwork you happen to be doing.
Of course, we should not lose sight of the fact that the sources often tell us what footwork will support a technique best. So with the Zwerhaw, we should achieve the best successes when we can pair it with a spring to the side. With the Schilhaw, we should achieve the best successes when performing the cut without a step, but then by following it with a thrust with a step as required.
Take another look at the sources you usually work with, and take a fresh look at what they say about footwork and handwork in the same piece of advice about a technique. Can you split the footwork and the handwork? How can you make the handwork functional without relying on the footwork? And once the handwork is functional and independent, what can you do with your footwork to increase the chances of success even further?
 Joachim Meyer. Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens. Strasbourg, 1570. Page 16v.
 Sigmund ain Ringeck. MS Dresd.C.487, Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, Germany. Folios 27r-27v. Translation by Keith Farrell, 2018.
 Sigmund ain Ringeck. MS Dresd.C.487, Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, Germany. Folios 27v-28r. Translation by Keith Farrell, 2018.
 Entirely paraphrased from my translation earlier in this article.
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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 teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.