Some thoughts about tricks and systems in HEMA

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Singlestick play at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

I believe that there is a difference between a system and a bag of tricks, where historical martial arts are concerned. Both are effective, and both are important to have in your repertoire; the greatest skill, however, the greatest skill comes with recreating a full system, and being able to incorporate a variety of tricks into that system without making it any less systematic.

What is a fighting system?

I would define a fighting system as a coherent, cohesive, and self-contained methodology of fighting. It contains rules or algorithms about how to approach the fight and how to handle any given kind of situation.

In many ways, a system can be very simple, and requires few details. For example, if there is a virtually one-size-fits-all solution, then then the system does not need to offer many alternatives.

A good example of this would be Roworth’s method of fencing with broadsword and sabre, as set out in The Art of Defence on Foot:  the dominant paradigm is one of parry then riposte. Whatever he does, it doesn’t really matter – just make your parry (with a slip) and perform a lightning fast riposte. You do not need to pay any attention to what guard he is in, you do not really need to worry about what attack he makes, you do not need to do anything particularly clever or requiring of thought. Just parry his attack and hit him back before he can escape.

Of course, there must be more to it than that. By itself, that’s just a trick! Roworth includes a variety of guards for different situations, a variety of approaches to take the fight to the opponent, and a variety of more complicated actions that you can do if the situation is appropriate. However, at the very heart of the system, the dominant paradigm holds true: whatever happens, you can always rely on doing a parry (with a slip) and riposte.

Systems can be more complicated than this. But even when they are more complicated, they still rely on making relatively simple decisions; the dominant paradigm can be expressed clearly and simply, and can be followed even when under pressure.

For example, Liechtenauer’s system of fencing with the longsword is a much more complicated system than Roworth’s method for broadsword and sabre. However, at the heart of it, Liechtenauer’s system is comprised of a handful of very simple concepts and decisions.

Can you take the initiative? If so, do it! If not, then keep yourself safe until you can take the initiative back from your opponent. Have the swords come together in the bind? Then who is in control of the bind as it happens? You can handle the situation according to one of just four possible response types, depending on who is in control of the bind. How do you approach your opponent and take the fight to him? You can categorise whatever guard he is in and treat it as one of just four possible guard types, making it easier for you to know exactly how to approach that situation, even if the specifics are unfamiliar to you.

From these examples, we can develop a clear sense that a fighting system has a dominant paradigm for conducting the fight, and some strong algorithms to improve the efficiency with which you recognise situations and choose your response.

This leads to a visible “style” or flavour of fighting. If someone fights according to a system, embodying the concepts and algorithms of that system, then it can often be quite clear which system that person is following.

What are tricks?

Tricks are potential solutions to very specific situations, that probably do not follow a system or algorithm, but just happen to work well under a specific set of circumstances.

This means that tricks can be very effective in precisely the right circumstances. If you are in the middle of a fight, and the stars happen to align, then a trick that “breaks the rules” of the system (or that goes against the algorithm or dominant paradigm) might be exactly what will win the fight for you. We should not take a dim view of tricks, because they are valuable tools in our toolbox, and we can also find many examples in our historical source material – often alongside or within descriptions of systems.

An example of a well-known trick could be the “Gayszlen” (or “whip”) from Talhoffer: the one-handed cut to the leg, with the left hand at the pommel and the dominant hand removed from the crossguard in order to gain more reach. It is a very useful technique (assuming you are able to land it with proper edge alignment!) in some situations, but it is not the “bread and butter” of fencing with a longsword.

Another trick might be to use your offhand on the blade of your sword (for which there are examples in longsword, sword and buckler, rapier, smallsword, and sabre) to gain leverage in a particular situation. Although shortening the reach of your sword in this fashion is not very sensible for conducting the majority of the fight (unless you happen to be fighting someone in full armour!), it can be exactly what you need to do to gain control of the fight at a certain moment in time.

From these examples, we can gain the sense that tricks are useful things that can definitely improve your chances of winning the fight at that moment in time, if you happen to know a trick for that situation, and if the circumstances present themselves in just the right fashion. However, we can see that they do not make up the majority of fencing because they tend to be too specialised and relevant only in a few situations.

Integrating tricks into systems

Clearly, the most sensible approach is to learn a system, and to gain the “bread and butter” skills necessary to follow the dominant paradigm and perform well according to that system’s algorithms. Having that foundation will allow you to progress faster and learn more of the system with a better level of understanding, because you can relate everything back to the dominant paradigm and see exactly how each new concept or technique builds upon what is already there.

A solid system, with even just a small repertoire of techniques, will perform very well when under pressure. However, a solid system, with a larger repertoire of techniques, can perform even better, because you will have more tools in your toolbox to solve a wider variety of problems more efficiently.

There is a saying that “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail”. If your main tool is parry/riposte, then perhaps you begin to approach every situation with that solution in mind; if your main tool is a strong Oberhaw from your dominant side, then perhaps you become predictable.

Having more techniques in your repertoire will help you avoid becoming predictable, as well as giving you more efficient ways to solve a wider variety of problems. Adding tricks to your well-developed knowledge of the system will give you even more opportunities to take the advantage and win the fight when you observe that the stars align and the circumstances are just right to deploy your trick. This is a very healthy approach, and one that seems to be well-supported by our source material!

Conversely, learning a “bag of tricks” without any real system behind them is a problematic approach. Without a system to define your dominant paradigm or to suggest useful algorithms to handle the majority of situations, all you can rely upon is the attempt to keep yourself safe until the stars align and you can deploy one of your tricks. This is clearly a less ideal approach than starting with a system and adding tricks later!


I believe firmly that the system is incredibly important, and we should spend a significant amount of time training that and learning to fence according to the algorithms of that system.

In the beginning, it may feel constraining, and you may wish to explore other things or become a bit less predictable – that’s natural, but you still need to persevere until you have an excellent working knowledge of the system and can display it well enough in sparring that the audience can guess which system you study.

Once you can follow the algorithms of your system under pressure, and can rely on them even in the high intensity environment of a tournament, then the time is right to begin to add tricks.

So, your home for today is to think about the system you study. What is the dominant principle? What are the main algorithms by which you conduct the fight? Is there anything you do regularly in sparring that might be more aptly termed as a trick than as a “bread and butter” part of the system? If so, what can you do to reduce your reliance on tricks while improving your ability to rely on the system when under pressure? Have a chat with your club mates and think about what the “bread and butter” techniques and concepts are for your system, and what common tricks do you see people doing?

If we can understand the difference between systems and tricks, and put more emphasis on systems before integrating the tricks at a later date, then more of us will be able to fence better and more successfully in the style described by the sources we follow. A that is a good goal worth striving towards!