On The Advantages And Disadvantages of Height

I know a lot of tall fighters and a lot of not-so-tall-fighters.  I am a not-so-tall-fighter.  I’m not short by any means but at 5’7” I’m usually shorter than the 6’-ish fighters I generally face.  I know a lot of average and shorter fighters think that height gives tall fighters and automatic advantage but that isn’t really true.  All statures have their own inherent advantages and disadvantages.

A look at historical thoughts on the subject

In his Paradoxes of Defense Silver sets up a dialogue between a master and student about whether a tall man or an average man has the advantage in a fight if both men have a “perfect knowledge” about their weapons. Silver maintains that the tall man always has the advantage over the average man because the taller man has a longer reach, does not have to move as far to gain the “true place”, his pace is longer, and because he is taller his proper sword length is longer than that of an average man. Because of this advantage, the shorter man must be careful not to fail in any part of his fight or he is in great danger. As long as he maintains a true fight and fights in the true time he will still be able to defend himself even though his taller opponent has the advantage.

A perusal of Saviolo’s Practice shows that, in general, he likely would have agreed with Silver’s thinking. He says that if a tall man is fighting a shorter man, the taller fighter may have a great advantage over his shorter opponent due to his longer reach and greater stride, provided that he know how to properly put himself “in ward”. However, if he doesn’t understand proper warding the shorter man could have the advantage. If the taller fighter loses his point the shorter fighter could easily attack him from underneath with a stoccata or a passata.

My thoughts

Personally I tend to believe that each stature holds its own inherent advantages and disadvantages.  A taller fighter generally has the advantage of a larger range.  While tall, average, and even shorter fighters are all fairly just as likely to use the same lengths and kinds of blades, taller fighters are more likely to have longer arms and longer legs, giving them a greater range from which to fight.  Often a shorter fighter will find he needs to use a longer blade to equal the ranger of the taller fighter with a more standard blade.  A taller fighter as has the advantage of being able to more easily make attacks from a higher line than the shorter fighter which does give him some advantage.  However, that doesn’t mean he has all the advantage.  A shorter fighter does have to come further inside a taller opponent’s range in order to make his attack, but once inside his opponent’s range his stature and arm length then become more of an advantage allowing him greater maneuverability in closer quarters.  In this situation a shorter blade can provide even greater advantage for the shorter fighter because he does not have to draw back as far to execute additional attacks.  Similarly, attacks from a lower line are also easier for a shorter fighter.  He’s already closer to the lower line than his taller opponent so executing and attack from that line is not as difficult.

A major part of being successful in fencing is making what you have work for you.  Every body type has its own inherent advantages and disadvantages but not all fighters see that.  Just because you are shorter than your opponent doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.  Pit your advantages against their disadvantages and make them pay for it.

To attack or not to attack. That is the question.

It has often been debated as to whether the offender or defender has an innate advantage during a fight. It was debated during George Silver’s day, it was debated before Silver ever picked up a sword, and it’s still debated today in the minds of many newcomers to fencing. At the center is the question of where it is innately better to make the first attack (and thus get the jump on your opponent) or whether it’s innately better to lie in wait until you opponent attacks you, defend first, and attack him in the opening his own attack has created.

Silver did not agree with either saying that if the fighter who attacks first has the advantage, then what is the point of parrying. Similarly if the advantage lies in defending than why should a fighter risk his life to attack. Silver held instead that there is no absolute advantage in either attacking or defending. Rather he maintained than the advantage lied in having true pace, time, and space in the fight whether he is attacking or defending.

Interestingly, Saviolo also held a similar opinion. He maintained that a fighter should stay in guard until he had gained an advantage over his opponent, through body positioning, etc. and at that point only should he attack whether that means attacking first or not. However, there are times when he maintained that it was more advantageous to maintain your guard rather than to attack. For example, if a fighter found himself being charged by an opponent who was running intensely at him he should maintain his ward and thrust at his opponent when he comes in range. In this situation the defender would have the advantage because just as he maintained his stance, his opponent was neither in ward nor standing firm. Also, the more intense the attacker’s charge the more dangerous the defender’s stance is for him because his speed and momentum could easily run him upon the defender’s blade.

Personally I’ve always held the opinion, like Silver, that it depends on the situation. Sometimes you’ll want to defend first. Perhaps you want to feel out your opponent for a couple of passes to get an idea of the strength of his attack or his technical skill. Maybe you want to lull him into a false sense of security or maybe you are biding your time until he opens that hole you know he always opens on the 3rd pass. Then there are times when you will want to attack first. You’ll want to strike while your opponent isn’t paying attention or you want to close quickly before he can back out of range again. Your choice will depend greatly on the circumstances you find yourself in. If there was an innate advantage in always defending first no one would ever attack and vice versa. Instead, take the time to practice and drill you basics so you will be prepared for whatever situation you find yourself in.

Instructing Students According to George Silver

Silver often gets a bad rap for his Paradoxes of Defense and until recently, with the surge in interest in HMA and cut and thrust, he was more often than not seen as an enemy of fencing and rapier combat.  There’s a lot of pro-English propaganda in Paradoxes (naturally, as there should be) but there is also a lot of wisdom to be found there too.  In fact, there is a very interesting section toward the end that discusses the “evil” practices of his beloved English schools of defense.

Silver argues against certain teaching methods in the English fencing schools. According to him, teachers are forbidding students from using a thrust when fighting with broad swords and from using a blow when fighting with rapiers. He maintains that both attacks are necessary to the “true fight” regardless of what type of weapon you are fighting with. He feels that students should be exposed to everything they might possibly see because not exposing them puts them at a disadvantage in real world fighting.

And then Silver gives us a gem: the order in which he believes scholars should still be taught.  According to the old ways first they should learn…

their quarters, then their wards, blows, thrusts, and breaking of  thrusts, then their closes and gripes, striking with the hilts, daggers, bucklers, wrastlings, striking with the foote or knee in the coddes, or groin, and all these are safely defended in learning perfectly of the gripes.

He further specifies that students should be taught with weapons of the correct length. Students of average height should use a weapon that is 1 yard and 1 inch and tall students many use a weapon of 1 yard and 3 or 4 inches, but nothing longer. He says that the rapier should still be taught in the schools to anyone that wants to learn as long as those students are also taught with the broadsword as well.

Silver also makes a strong argument for a complete education. Students should be exposed to all manner of tricks and techniques, especially if a future opponent might use them.  And this is quite possibly one of the greatest pearls to be found in his works.  A lot of times students are taught only one style and this was especially true during Silver’s period.  However this places the student at a disadvantage.  If they’ve only seen and been taught one style and one way of doing things they are often at a loss for what to do when they are faced with a new and unfamiliar style.  Rather they should be made familiar with every style, even if their teachers favor one above the others, so that they can be prepared when they are faced with outside opponents on the field.

Fine advice and definitely worth keeping in mind as we instruct our own students.

The Abiding Place

I’ve been really awful about writing this past week or so. Everything has been really crazy around here with trying to get ready for Bob’s party, the WS/FS Get Together, and our upcoming SCUBA trip. Seriously, I’m about 30 min of hand finishing away from completing my wool jacket and I haven’t done it. And it’s going to have to wait until I finish the commission I’m working on because that takes sewing priority. 

I’ve been reading a book lately called The Unfettered Mind. It’s a collection of writings from a Zen monk, Takuan Soho. At least two of the essays are written to swordsmen (I’m starting the third one now) but where as Musashi’s Book of Five Rings was focused more on fighting philosophy, The Unfettered Mind is focused much more on Zen philosophy and how it can be related to fighting. 

There is a section in the first essay that talks about the abiding place, the place where the mind stops. During the mind’s journey it sometimes get caught in certain places and ceases to be able to move past them in order to continue down it’s path. After reading this passage I realized that I had allowed my own mind to become stuck in its own abiding place with regards to some personal relationships. If I continued to allow my mind to stay stuck, I would never be able to move on. So now I must let go and retrieve my mind so that I can continue on my own journey. 

As Soho discusses in his essay, this can happen with fighting as well. What you want to strive for is a mind that is nowhere and everywhere at once. You need to be able to see the whole fight, not just parts of it. When you allow your mind to become stuck on individual parts of the fight you become more vulnerable to attack. For instance, if you focus just on the position of the sword, you will not be able to defend against it as you opponent continues his attack. Similarly, if you allow your mind to become stuck on your’s stance opponent, you will be able to see the other aspects of his attack that you will need to defend against it. 

Allowing your mind to be nowhere and everywhere at once may sound simple, but as is usually the case, it becomes much more complicated as you try to practice it. Soho discusses allowing you mind to wander free as you practice this skill and he advises that you will need to be mindful of when it gets caught on a particular idea or subject so that you can retrieve it and start over again. 

If this is something you would like to learn to do try practicing. If you’re interested in learning more The Unfettered Mind is available at amazon.com

You should also check out your local library to see if they have a copy or can get you one through ILL.

I’ve enjoyed the book so far. It’s more philosophical than the The Book of Five Rings but still very interesting. And there is much more to Soho’s essay on the abiding place that I’m sure I’ll be writing about.