It's stabbin' time: sparring with the German longsword
Recently, I've been thinking about the role of the thrust in longsword fighting. In some ways it relates a bit to the jab in boxing, although there are important differences as well. I'm writing this post to help clarify my thoughts a bit.
I've been practicing with the local ARMA group for maybe a year or so, focusing on German longsword. For anyone not familiar we practice techniques taken from historical Renaissance manuscripts, some of which may be found here: http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Main_Page
Although fighting with armor is historically important, since none of us owns a suit of armor, we're focusing on the unarmored combat, also known as Bloßfechten.
The biggest difference between a longsword, and any other type of improvised weapon such as a pitchfork or makeshift spear, is that when used as a cutting weapon, the sword can be used to control the opponent's weapon as soon as it makes contact. You can hook the other guy's weapon on your crossguard, knock it offline, and since you've got two edges, flick your wrists and bash the opposite edge into his skull. Or, if the guy blocks you coming one way, flick, you whip around and hit him from the other direction, although you lose control of the other guy's weapon for an instant when you come off it, which is a risk. You've got a lot of agility and a lot of control over the other person's tool when you're the knight with the sword and the other guy is some angry peasant with a makeshift weapon.
When I first started out, unarmed striking combat, i.e. boxing, was the only mental frame of reference I had when I tried to understand the medieval longsword. As I gained more experience with the longsword, I began to feel like the differences between boxing and longsword use were more important than the similarities. But now as I gain yet more experience, I'm starting to see some big-picture similarities again.
Swordsmanship requires deep stances, like what you see in karate or kungfu. You need a really solid and stable base to swing it effectively. At the same time if your posture is too high, and you're more or less standing upright, it actually makes it easier for your opponent to bash you over the head with his sword, because of how the guards and postures work out. "Be small in body but big in sword" is what one of the old manuals says. So in this way it's different than boxing, where the opposite is true, and a guy in a horse stance is going to get jacked up by a guy in a boxing stance.
That being said, I know from some test cutting we have done on meat that the cuts from these swords tend to produce more blunt trauma and crush damage and broken bones, as opposed to clean and deep cuts. This is in part because of the geometry of the blade, being straight, and also because the European swords aren't razor sharp, nor are they really designed to be, since in some techniques you grab your sword by both the grip and the blade in order to ram it into your opponent, or pickaxe his skull with your crossguard.
But when you would thrust at a piece of meat with the sword, it would slide in so easy. It felt like pushing through warm butter. Schhlccck. It didn't matter if you covered the meat with leather, it would just sink in there with an oddly sensual feeling of only very light resistance. The blunt trauma from this kind of penetration, when the sword hit bone, could spinter the bone as well, if you did it with a lot of force.
So in many ways the thrust is actually more capable of causing an immediate lethal injury than a cut, especially when you think A-box thrusts where you're going to be driving a big metal thing into someone's lung or heart. If you think about a thrust to the head, even if you didn't get the point into an eye socket or anything, it's pretty grisly to think about how you might remove a strip of face-flesh from the guy's skull if the tip of your blade slides along the skull instead of penetrating.
The problem with thrusting is that when it comes to this longsword fighting, based on your stance, you tend to be committed either to cutting and binding the other guy's weapon, or to thrusting and deflecting. This is basically because you're set up to cut when you are holding the sword high and pointing at the sky, or to counter-cut if you're holding the sword low and pointing at a diagonal towards the ground, which are two of the historical stances, or you're set to thrust when you're holding the sword high and pointing at the opponent, or low and pointing up at the opponent on a diagonal, which are two of the other historical stances.
So if you're standing in a thrusting position, you can't really cut without changing how you're holding the sword first, and likewise with the cutting position.
Since the cutting is so versatile I used to use it most of the time. I also tended to get countered when thrusting because I now realize I had the wrong mindset about thrusting.
Now, I use thrusting more often and switch to cutting when I feel on the defensive. The key to thrusting is to circle aggressively and use it like a jab. Feel the other guy out and/or frustrate him. So instead of just standing there and aggressively thrusting with lots of power, I focus on circling around the opponent as fast as I can in my super deep sword stance, and if I am too far to thrust at his face or chest, I will thrust at his hands. What I have found is that if you keep this pressure up on the opponent for long enough, there's a chance that he's going to try to cut at you, and at that point in time, you have a chance to land a solid A-box thrust on him as he's moving forward.
The textbook defense to a thrusting attack is to step offline and use a high cut onto the thruster's hands. But, if I am thrusting with the right agility and the right circle-stepping, that counter cut is more likely to miss, since it is coming from off to the side, due to the evasive step. If my opponent misses with his counter-cut, and I am keeping my sword pointed at him as I circle around him, there's a good chance that he's going to end up walking into or leaning into my sword and taking one hell of a thrust.
Basically you just need to make the opponent miss with a cut, and he can practically impale himself on your thrust. But to get to that point you use the thrust like the jab, by circling aggressively, keeping the pressure up, and going for the hands when you don't have a real chance of getting an A box hit.