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The Beginner’s Guide to German Longsword, part 5: The four (plus one) basic guards

We’re moving somewhere! We know some of the basics and how to step. Now it’s time to bring the sword into this equation. However, before we move on, I would like to make something clear: these are all guidelines, especially for the guards. The entire point of guards is that they put you in a position where there is a good balance between offensive threat and defensive ability. If you find that something works or doesn’t work for you, make sure to consult your instructor to see what the issue might be, or if your guard has some weaknesses you hadn’t thought of. However, the guards are something that comes naturally when all the other elements of the art of longsword are understood, so do not over-analyze or over-think them. This chapter is very closely connected to part 3 of our guide, especially in being relaxed. And one last thing before I start describing the guards themselves: all of the information below assumes a right-handed fencer. If you’re a leftie, or fence with your left hand as your lead hand, mirror everything. The four basic guards, also known as the Vier Leger, are:

5.1. The Vom Tag

The Vom Tag, which is translated as either From The Roof or From the Day, is one of the two guards you will most often see when fighting longsword. It has three variations:

5.1.1. The high Vom Tag

The high or middle Vom Tag is held in the regular handshake grip directly above the head. The point is pointing slightly backwards, but should always be facing diagonally up. The high Vom Tag is a psychologically very threatening guard, and can provide strikes that are tricky to defend against. Either leg can be forward, and the stance should be held as was described in Part 3 of this guide. Always keep in mind that the shoulders should still be mostly relaxed, even when your hands are up over your head.

5.1.2. The right Vom Tag

The right Vom Tag is also usually held with the handshake grip (though a thumb grip variation is possible). It is placed so that the middle of the crossguard is at about shoulder-height. Be mindful of this, as often the arms tend to slip lower and lower when fencing, which will mean your strike will be more easily read. The elbows are relaxed and close to the body – do not either press them against your body or flare them out.  As with most things in sword fighting, being relaxed is the key. The crossguard should be facing forward-ish. The blade may rest on the shoulder, but the crossguard must remain about shoulder-height. The point should be inclined slightly towards the head. Primarily, the left foot should be in front. Nearly all strikes can be comfortably executed from this guard, giving it great versatility in attacks.

5.1.3. The left Vom Tag

The grip used is the handshake grip. The crossguard should again be shoulder-height, and the point inclined towards the head. The main difference is that the crossguard is not faced forward, as that would require bending the wrist too much. Instead, it faces mostly outward, and only as far forward as is comfortable. Keep in mind that if you can keep the crossguard facing forward in a way that is comfortable and mechanically sound (i.e. where you can defend and attack without damaging your wrist), that is fine as well. Keep the elbows nice and relaxed, same as with the right Vom Tag. The right foot should be in front most of the time.

5.2. The Pflug

The pflug (plow) is a very threatening guard, since it is so well primed to throw a strong stab. There are two variations, the left and the right:

5.2.1.  The Left Pflug

For the left pflug, stand with your right foot forward. Pull your sword back so that it is at least at your left hip, both in width and height. Have the point aimed at your opponent’s breast or face. This will naturally turn your upper body and hips. You can pull the Pflug even further back (in some of the manuscript illustrations, it’s pulled back to the point of absurdity). You can use either the regular handshake grip or the thumb grip, whichever suits the situation better. Generally, if you hold the thumb grip, you don’t need to switch grips when stabbing so that your crossguard is horizontal, thus keeping your fingers safer. The handshake grip is the one generally used to defend, meaning you should be able to transition between the grips easily enough to make the initial grip choice completely subjective.

5.2.2. The Right Pflug

Stand with your left foot forward, and pull your sword back so that it is at least at your left hip, both in width and height. Your hands should be crossed – don’t try to grip the sword fully, the back hand is there for support. Make sure you are relaxed and mobile, and there you have it!

5.3 The Ochs

You like keeping your point in the opponent’s face? Out of the Vier Leger, this is the stance that does it the most!

5.3.1. The Right Ochs

Both Ochs stances have a lot of variation in how you can stand in them. Though this is true for the whole guide, it is especially true for the Ochses: the pictures are only there as a guideline and for reference. Grab your sword and keep the point aimed at your opponent’s (real or imaginary) face. Now lift your hands up over your head. The back hand is there for support and isn’t fully gripping the handle or pommel. Your torso will naturally turn a bit, but try to keep it as front facing as is comfortable. Your crossguard should be high enough to keep the right side of your head covered from an incoming blow. You can hold your hands relatively far forward or just in front of your forehead, depending on your style. Keep your shoulders nice and relaxed, as well as your elbows. As long as you keep form (i.e. unbroken wrists, relaxed shoulders & elbows), you can hold the right Ochs relatively far from your head or directly above it. The grip can be either handshake or thumb.

5.3.2. The Left Ochs

Again, there is a lot of variation here. What you should not do is break the wrist of your back hand. That is most easily controlled by how far from your head your hands are. If you notice that your wrist is in a broken position, move your hands further to the side and it should fix that issue. The front hand can have either the “handshake” grip or the thumb grip. “Handshake” is in quotes because it’s not actually the handshake position, but a grip where the handle is resting in the nook between your thumb and index finger. Have no worries, the grip is still secure. As with the right Ochs, where exactly the hands can be has huge variations. The main things are that you are relaxed, that your wrists are straight, and that the side of your head where your sword is is covered.

 

5.4. The Alber

The Fool of the bunch. No, really, that’s what Alber means – fool. Stand with either foot forward and extend your sword in front of you. Now lower your sword so that the point is facing towards the ground. That is the Alber. You can use either the handshake grip or the thumb grip, whichever you find more comfortable.

 

5.5. Langort or Sprechfenster

The Langort or the Sprechfenster is likely the most versatile of all the stances. Very threatening, makes space, and gives good defensive option. While only using Langort will limit you severely in your fencing, it is as close to a “default” stance as you can get. (DISCLAIMER: it’s not. A default stance. You should use all of them as the situation arises.)

5.5.1. Right Langort

Stand in the right pflug. Extend your arms as far forward as possible so that they’re still a bit to the side. Congratulations, you’re in the right Langort!

5.5.2. Left Langort

Guess what… Stand as if you stood in the left Pflug. Extend your arms. And there we go! Just like with the left Pflug, you can use either the handshake or thumb grip.

5.5.3. Middle Langort

Extend your hand out in front of you, right in the center. They can be either completely horizontal or a bit lower so that the sword is pointed up a bit. Again, both the thumb grip and the handshake grip are fine here.

 

And there we go! We’ve got the stances done. Now, we have to learn how to strike. And defend. And the tempos. And distance. And Fühlen. And Winden. And Versetzen. Ok, so there’s still quite a way to go… But one step at a time, and we’ll get there!

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