When defending your legs while using a two-handed sword (longsword, zweihander, etc), what are the advantages and disadvantages between blocking low vs voiding your legs and counter-attacking?

(Disclaimer: I understand that nothing is strictly better all the time, and that context matters. My question is asked accordingly, and answers should be made similarly.)

I've heard mention that a major advantage of larger, longer swords is their ability to successfully defend the legs by blocking low - something that shorter bladed weapons cannot do. However, this article discussing the teachings of 14th-century longsword master Johannes Liechtenauer appears to suggest that a superior form of defending one's legs is not to block, but rather to threaten a dodge and counter-attack.

So far we have used the Plow guard to defend against an attack to the torso, and we have used the Ox guard to defend against an attack to the head. It would seem logical, then, that to defend against a cut to the legs one would therefore use the Fool's guard, as it lies low. While this is not an impossible thing to do, it is not actually a very good defense, as follow-up attacks from this position will be too slow. The Schietelhau, or Parting Strike, offers a much more efficient way of defending the legs.

One cannot make a cut for the legs without exposing the head. If your opponent attacks your lead foot you simply need to remove that target from reach while simultaneously striking the now-vulnerable head. In this case, blade contact is completely unnecessary, and this reaffirms the point that you should not be chasing your opponent's weapon, but always attack the opponent. The safest way to move the foot from harm is to move it backwards, though you do not want to step so far back that you cannot reach your opponent. Instead take a half step back as you cut. You will want to make sure that your arms stay high for this strike, as you do not want your opponent to make a sudden change upwards and catch your elbows. You will always be able to do this, regardless of how tall your opponent is by virtue of the fact that your shoulders are high and your legs are not. Keep in mind that this can also be done as a thrust should you have started in a guard such as the Plow.

(Emphasis mine)

The idea here seems to be that making an attack to someone's legs inherently over-commits and leaves them vulnerable (relatively-speaking) to a counter-strike to the head. Is this a more consistent and reliable alternative to blocking? What circumstances effect this?


4 Answers 4


The same source text you're quoting mentions the use of Uberlauffen or overrunning as defense against low threats. The idea is to use a Scheitelhau (or a similarly executed thrust) to strike before you get hit by the opponent while removing the target. Your blade in the opponent's body would then prevent follow-up attacks.

The argument used there is that the shortest path between you and the opponent is a straight horizontal line, so if you can choose a high-lethality target right in front of you (head, for example), you will reach it before the opponent reaches his. The mechanics of a Scheitelhau make it's reach very long and possible to execute even when withdrawing. The best case scenario is that the opponent swings, get struck in the head, and misses your foot (which you are now withdrawing). If he doesn't (e.g. because he overcommits), you get struck with a minor graze, but the opponent is positively dead. If you withdraw too quickly and miss, you still end up pointing your sword at the opponent's face, setting you up for a thrust.


From a non-HEMA perspective: you want to minimize the time it takes to defend the current attack, while maintaining a position that can still adapt for your own attacks or to defend potential future attacks. Whether footwork evasion or a block will be faster depends on where your sword is when the attack begins.

If your sword is high, an attempt to block may not succeed because your sword is too far away and the block is not fast enough. In addition, if you are moving your sword with velocity to defend, its momentum will make it difficult to readjust and leave you vulnerable to later attacks. Evade and counterattack instead.

If your sword is low, then it may be much easier/safer to block rather than rely exclusively on footwork to evade. You can of course add footwork or a counterattack.

A successful fighting strategy minimizes the necessary speed and quickness of your defensive actions. This principle explains why you have some kind of guard; you have to move less to defend, which makes your defense faster than if you must move more.


If we think about things completely in the abstract, slipping the leg while striking the head is a better option: because you're attacking and defending in the same motion it is virtually impossible for your opponent to react and counter your strike. By targeting your leg, your opponent has robbed themselves of a lot of reach, meaning you can usually easily strike the head while keeping your leg safe.

However, this answer ignores certain practicalities. Firstly, measure will have an effect on whether this is an effective defence. The reach of the fighters, distance between them and tricks fighters can use to increase their reach might make a leg slip inappropriate. If you are very close (which often happens if the strike to the leg is not the first strike) you may not be able to keep the leg safe by slipping it. Some fighters like to throw in a low strike after performing several high strikes so you are not expecting it. Likewise, if your opponent has a large reach advantage - from being bigger, by using a one-handed strike to gain extra reach (the infamous geyslen) or maybe both - they might be able to strike your leg while you can't strike back in the head. If you have to slip the leg and then go for a strike, it is much harder to land your counter attack as you will need to close distance rapidly. Parrying in this situations is better defensively, but also better sets up a counter attack as it doesn't leave your opponent's sword free to strike you again.

Additionally, your stance and weighting might make slipping your leg challenging. If you have a very wide base, it will be much harder to quickly slip your front leg (nb. also: it reduces the reach your opponent needs to hit it, as above). Likewise, if your weight is mostly on your front foot, slipping your leg will be much harder. These two tend to go hand in hand. If either of them is true, you will likely need to parry to keep your leg secure.

In terms of historical context, almost no longsword texts discuss attacks to the leg in detail, as well as your quoted passage Fiore only considers a leg slip with a counter attack to the head as an appropriate response. Vadi doesn't deal with it explicitly, but always prefers using a "crossing" to defend (i.e. defending with the blade), and shows appropriate guards for parrying a leg strike. Pagano provides a very detailed description of a bout between two of his students: in this, there are frequent parries against strikes to the leg, and the fighters are seemingly fighting at close distance. (this is a relatively rarely studied text. You can find the translation of that section at the end of this article: https://hroarr.com/article/the-south-italian-longsword-of-marcantonio-pagano-1553/ )


This may not answer your question and depends on your clothing allowing,but western weapon use does not lower the whole body(squatting)as much as in eastern some eastern martial arts.

  • 2
    Please only write answers that actually answer the question.
    – mattm
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 21:53
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    Welcome to the site. Sadly, this is not an answer to the question and thus is attracting down votes. I suggest you take the tour to see how we work. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 7:23

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