This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 21st February 2014. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
This article will attempt to define and explore the concept of attribute fencing, and why relying on this style of fencing can develop problems both for your own long-term development as a fencer and for the development of training partners. The points raised in this article will be equally applicable for practitioners of other martial arts.
Definition of “attribute fencing”
“Attribute fencing” is a term that I use to describe a style of fencing that relies on personal attributes or characteristics rather than the system and skills that the practitioner is supposedly studying.
For example, this could be utilising only the techniques that make use of one’s superior height and reach over a smaller opponent, or constantly closing to grapple to make better use of one’s superior strength and body mass. It could be ignoring the majority of the system in order to score points using nothing but quick flicks and tags, playing a game of little but pure speed and reactions.
Attributes such as speed, strength, and reactions are valuable for a fencer to develop, and every fencer should seek to improve these skills; but an ideal martial artist will not rely on any single personal attribute, and will try to use all of his attributes as well as the system that he has been training.
Attribute fencing tends to look very different from what people expect a system to look like.
For example, people have a certain idea of Liechtenauer’s longsword fencing, what it should like, and what techniques it prioritises. However, when people fence with longswords and rely on hand sniping from a distance, or consistently close to grapple to utilise greater size, or play a game of “tag” by standing in a right-side forward position in close distance and looking to make strikes with no other skill than speed, the fencing no longer looks like what people tend to think the fencing should look like.
That is because the fencer is relying only on one simple attribute or basic tactic, and is not attempting to employ any part of the system outwith that one thing.
Why relying on “speed” develops problems
If all that an individual relies upon is speed, then this might work well for a while, and it might produce some great results in the short term – but in the long term, it will be detrimental to the fencer’s own development.
Speed is a very tempting and seductive attribute, because of course everything does work better if you do it faster; of course, you are more likely to win a fight if you are faster than your opponent. If you are slow then there is a greater chance of your opponent exploiting holes in your defences, attacks and other movements, and you will be less able to exploit gaps in your opponent’s defence. You should work to improve your speed. Over time, however, what speed you have will eventually decrease.
As a fencer grows older, techniques can still be performed very swiftly, and indeed there are some exceptionally fast fighters in their 40s and older. That being said, not everyone in their 40s or 50s can compete on sheer athletic speed with fresh and energetic fencers in their 20s. This is a poor long-term plan, so it is better to begin training other attributes and skills as well as raw speed.
Furthermore, injuries or other issues may begin to hamper speed. Simply not training for a while will cause speed to drop. Speed is too fickle an attribute to be used as the basis for all your hopes and actions when fencing.
Why relying on “reach” develops problems
If you are taller than your opponent and have more reach, then this is a valuable advantage. In his Paradoxes of Defence, George Silver wrote quite explicitly that the taller person has the advantage in a fight:
Scholar: Who has the advantage in fight, of a tall man, or a man of mean stature?
Master: The tall man has the vantage, for these causes: his reach being longer, and weapon unto his stature accordingly, he has thereby a shorter course with his feet to win the true place, wherein by the swift motion of his hand, he may strike or thrust home, in which time a man of mean stature cannot reach him, & by his large pace, in his true pace in his regression further, sets himself out of danger, & these are the vantages that a tall man has against any man of shorter reach than himself.
Scholar: What vantage has a man of mean stature against a tall man?
Master: He has none: because the true times in fight, ands actions accordingly, are to be observed and done, as well by a tall man, as by a man of mean stature.
Scholar: Why then if this is true, that tall men have the vantage against men of mean stature, it should seem in fight there is no perfection, other then this, when men of like stature, reach, & length of weapon, shall fight together, the which will seldom or never happen, but either in the length of their weapons, statures or reaches (if their swords should be of just length) some difference most commonly will be in their reaches.
Master: Yes verily, the tall man has still the vantage, and yet the fight is perfect, although the men that shall happen to fight, shall happen to be unequal in their statures, reaches, or lengths of their weapons.
Scholar: That can I hardly believe, unless you can tell me by art how to avoid or safely defend my self, being but a man of mean stature, against a tall man.
Master: I will tell you. There belongs unto this art of defence only to be used with the feet, progression, regression, traversing, and treading of grounds. In any of these you playing the part of the patient, or patient agent, your feet are swifter in their motion than are the agents, because his weight and number of his feet in his coming in to win the place to strike or thrust home, are greater than yours, and therefore the true time is yours to avoid him, or safely to defend yourself. So the art is still true, and the tall man has still the vantage.
Scholar: Yet I am not fully satisfied herein, because you tell me still that the tall man has the vantage, and notwithstanding you say the art is true, wherein then has the tall man the vantage, when by your art you can defend yourself against him?
Master: I will satisfy you herein thus. The tall man has the vantage he can maintain his fight, both by nature and by art, with more ease than can the man of mean stature, because the man of mean stature has thereby a further course with his feet to pass to the place, wherein he may strike or thrust home, and in winning of that place, is driven by art to come guarded under his wards to defend himself, because in the time of his coming, the tall man may have both naturally or artificially strike or thrust home, in which time, if the man of mean stature should fail in the least iota of his art, he should be in great danger of death or hurt. But the tall man can naturally and safely come to the true place open, without any artificial wards at all, and therein also endanger the other, or drive him still to traverse his ground, with all the artificial skill that he has to defend himself, and all this the tall man does by reason of his length of weapon, large pace, short course, and long reach, with great safety, pleasure and ease. And for those causes the tall man has still the vantage of men of mean stature, and not withstanding the noble science of defence most perfect and good.
However, a skilled opponent, although shorter, can still work artfully and correctly to defeat a taller opponent. I have met a number of tall fencers who have in turn met an even taller fencer, and invariably the comment is something along the lines of “it was really hard to deal with such a tall opponent.” By spending more time consciously working closer to an opponent and removing your height advantage from the equation, or using shorter range techniques to nullify your reach advantage, you can train yourself to be a better martial artist with more option to perform well at different distances.
Even shorter fencers can fall into the trap of relying on reach.
For example, when fencing with longsword, I have the ability to use a very explosive Oberhaw as my Vorschlag, which I can use to close distance very quickly, and so I can land a hit from far away. If I rely too much on this, and on other long-range techniques, then I lose my skill at working in close when someone else presses the attack and closes distance against me – something that would be a much more valuable all-round skill for someone of my size. I do not want to fall into the trap of being a “one-trick pony” who is only good at covering distance with one or two attacks; I want to be the best martial artist I can be, which means knowing how to use my long-range techniques to cover distance and also how to work in close to my opponent just as skilfully.
Why relying on “strength” develops problems
A common attribute that people rely upon is strength. This is a very important and valuable attribute, and just like speed, the ability to deploy strength as and when required is wonderful and makes everything work better. Everyone should work to improve their strength.
Many people have an over-reliance on strength, because they have not had enough experience of being thwarted by someone who can turn an opponent’s strength against him and make it become a disadvantage. Eastern martial arts like judo and aikido are full of examples and methods for using a person’s strength against him, and there are many examples within the European martial arts as well.
The problem with relying on strength is similar to the problem of relying on speed. Eventually your strength will wane, with old age or injuries or lack of training, and you always face the prospect of finding an opponent who is even stronger. As a long term plan for becoming a better martial artist, developing strength is a good thing, but relying on it is not a good strategy.
Furthermore, relying on strength effectively blinds you to other skills and abilities that you need to develop. In European fencing, the concept of “sentiment du fer” or “fühlen” or simply feeling pressure against you is of great importance, and is central to various arts. If you only ever rely on strength then you lose the opportunity to learn how to feel subtle (and not so subtle!) changes in amount and direction of pressure.
It can be difficult to wean yourself away from relying on strength, especially if you have a natural gift of strength, but it is an important step towards becoming a better martial artist in the long term.
Why relying on “previous experiences” develops problems
Previous experience of martial arts can be of tremendous help to historical fencers. Having a background in something like judo or aikido will make grappling a much more familiar and easier prospect; having a background in Olympic fencing will make covering distance with the lunge a much easier and more devastating tactic.
Having a background in an art like karate, with its variety of stances, will be of great benefit when trying to fence with passing steps and other footwork. Previous experience of arts like escrima, working with a weapon in each hand, will be beneficial to systems such as sword and buckler, where employing a weapon or object in both hands is very important.
However, having a previous background with its advantages also brings disadvantages and ingrained habits to historical fencing. For example, my own background in karate means that while I find deep stances very easy and comfortable when fighting with longsword, I fall into stances that are sometimes too narrow for working with broadsword or sabre. Some people with a background in kendo or Olympic fencing tend to rely on certain guard positions or techniques from those sports rather than trying to implement the appropriate guards and techniques from the fencing style that the individual is currently training. A background in other martial arts can be both a major advantage and a significant curse, and often leaves some kind of pollution in the recreation of a historical fencing system.
If an individual comes into historical fencing and insists on relying on habits and skills learned in previous martial arts, then he will never truly understand or perform the historical fencing system properly. He will limit himself, and may end up creating a strange hybrid system that is not authentic.
If you have previous experience, try hard to let go of it during your fencing time, and try to learn the correct postures, movements and habits for the historical fencing system you are learning. It will be difficult, and in the short term you may experience more failure and lose more bouts than you are comfortable with, but in the long term it will help you become a much better practitioner of historical fencing.
There are many other examples of attribute fencing, these are only a handful of examples. Coaches, teachers and instructors need to be aware of the problems when teaching students, and if you see attribute fencing, then you need to correct it and replace it with better, more correct fencing. In the long run, this will be more beneficial to all of your students.
Investing time and effort in weeding out “attribute fencing” at an early stage will result in much better and more correct historical fencing later, and will prepare the individual much more comprehensively to work with and against other people in different situations.
Finally, an individual who stops doing “attribute fencing” and who embraces a more holistic method of fencing will be able to keep fighting and performing at a much higher level until much later in life, and will be able to use tactics, strategy and superior understanding of the art to stay safe and even to win against younger, taller, faster opponents. Invest in your own future and see what you can do to reduce your reliance on “attribute fencing” in your current training.
 George Silver. Paradoxes of Defence. 1598. Page 30.
 I have written before about the issue of shorter fencers dealing with taller opponents:
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.