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Three stages of a fight.
“Devices” and Initiative
Across the tradition, combat is presented as consisting of a series of discrete exchanges, each involving only a few maneuvers. In each exchange, the combatant begins in a guard; based on his guard and/or that of his opponent, he selects from a repertoire of “devices”, attack combinations designed to get past his opponent’s defenses.
A device can consist of as few as 2-3 cuts. Devices in the later tradition tend to be longer and more complex than in the earlier sources. Ringeck 29r offers an unusually complete device, including what may be a withdrawal cut.
In many devices, a combatant will make themselves potentially vulnerable to a counterattack; Meyer addresses this specifically in a number of instances, admonishing the combatant to be ready to interrupt the device to defend themselves if the opponent manages to rush in to the opening.
The tradition distinguishes three states of timing: the Before when one has the initiative; the After where one’s opponent has the initiative; and the Instantly, the use of swift countermoves designed to gain the initiative when the opponent has it.
Onset, Handwork, Withdrawal
The fullest articulation of the stages of combat is given in Meyer, where each exchange is divided into 3 phases.
The Onset, or initial attack, is the stage in which the combatant adopts a guard and launches an attack, typically a long-edge cut using the foible of the blade. Prior to the actual first cut, the combatants may change from one guard to another to keep the opponent guessing—presumably while still a bit out of range. Mair (Vienna) 68v shows two combatants approaching each other in something that resembles the Window Guard, and comments that this is the common way for combatants to approach each other in a fight.
The Handwork consists of the actions that take place once the swords have engaged. It is also called the Middle or War. At this stage, attacks are usually shortened, using the short edge. Most handwork techniques emphasize the middle and forte of the blade.
The Withdrawal is the stage in which the combatant seeks to disengage without being hit, often by delivering a cut to cover the retreat; see Handwork: Cutting Away.
The distance varied depending on the stage of the combat and the technique a combatant was using. The “Onset” stage of the combat took place at the point of transition from being out of range to being just close enough to hit with the furthest part of the sword [cf. Meyer 49v.2]. In the Handwork, the blades were engaged and the opponents closer together. At the end of a device, the distance would opened again, and the withrawal cuts were probably delivered for the most part with the long edge.
Long-edge cuts generally work best at a greater distance, allowing the sword to hit toward the foible; short-edge cuts are by nature shorter, and therefore work better at a closer distance; slicing is executed with the forte of the blade, and therefore calls for an even closer distance. Some techniques involve closing further to grapple, called “running in.”
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