Cutting the legs

Something we have trained a lot in regular classes since spring has been cuts to the leg. From Manciolino’s introduction we know that cuts to the leg were valued by the Bolognese swordsmen, at least in some context:

Il colpo nella testa: per la eccellentia di tanto membro è riceuuto per tre e il colpo nel piede si toglie per dui hauendo riguardo a la malageuolezza di farlo cosi basso.
The strike to the head, for the excellence of this member is taken for three and the strike to the feet takes two having regard to the difficulty of making it so low.

This seems to refer to a scoring system, and it would make sense there since flashy display of skill was certainly a part of the Bolognese tradition of swordsmanship, as is demonstrated by the assalti.

Oddly enough, in the short instructions Manciolino gives about how to use a sharp sword without a sidearm, his first example technique involves a parry with a falso and a cut to the leg, so it must have been a viable technique for use in a duel as well.

The effectiveness of the cut to the leg relies much in the opponent expecting a cut to a high line, parrying which he renders himself open for an attack to a lower target. Speed is important as well, one needs to be able to deliver the low cut quickly and also recover quickly from it.

In practising these actions I have made a few observations, and while I think I could back most of these up with references to the original texts (thanks to the*Anonimo Bolognese*, which probably hosts every imaginable technique and a few more), but let’s call these my own ideas for now.


I like mixing in to the practice a bit of Joachim Meyer every now and then. Not too much but just a little bit. After all, if it wasn’t for the Anonimo, dall’Agocchie would be the only Bolognese source to really concentrate on the sword alone. And dall’Agocchie couldn’t compete with Meyer in terms of amount of material, in my opinion. Dall’Agocchie is very coherent, but quite basic in nature.

The lower one keeps himself, the less of a target area he exposes to the opponent. The lower he is, the easier it is to reach low targets. This is plain simple, and demonstrated by Meyer both in text and in the illustrations. Compared to Meyer, the illustrations in Marozzo give us a much higher posture, but it is important to note that Marozzo has armed his models with bucklers, which changes the game somewhat to the favor of more upright positions.

With just the sword attacking the legs without lowering the body and simply dropping the arm would be very risky. But if we do it as per Meyer’s instructions, keeping the arm level with the shoulder (at leas trying to!) we get three benefits: lesser target area, better reach and a quicker recovery. Interestingly, there are multiple times in the Bolognese texts where a cut to the legs is said to end in a stretta guard instead of a larga, meaning that the point stays in line. By lowering the body this much it would be possible to do so.

Footwork and execution of the cut

I used to try cutting the legs with a left, diagonal pass. In fact, I used to do everything on a left diagonal pass, and I got hit. But reading the sources I started to notice that often the cuts to the leg were done with a step of the right foot instead of a left.

Now this makes perfect sense as it allows easier access to a low posture, makes the recovery quicker (sort of as in a lunge) and allows operating on a longer distance from the opponent. Often I would read about doing a feint and a strike to the leg on one single step, and after some experimentation this started to work very well (though Tuomas avoids the cut just!):

The difficulty is in actually being able to drop the body low enough while striking, under the stress of fencing.

Other thing I noticed in the source texts was that the cut to the leg was often a riverso, a cut originating from the left side. I finally realised that the reason why a riverso works better in practice is the hand position, where the palm is down and the elbow tends to turn outwards. In this position it is much easier to raise the hand for protection after the cut and to keep the head protected during the cut as well as after it. No different from a low thrust done in prima or seconda, for those familiar with rapier terms.

Something I’ve used in classes a lot is differentiating between a combination of a feint and a cut to the head from a feint and a cut to the leg so that the former involves two steps and the latter just one:

Feint, cut to head

  1. Begin in Coda Longa Stretta, left foot forward
  2. Pass forwards with right, leaving the step slightly short and feinting to throw a mandritto sgualembrato to the opponent’s head
  3. Smoothly transition, with a turn of the wrist, the mandritto into a riverso to the head with a long, diagonal pass of the left foot
  4. Return back with two passes, minding that the head stays covered

Feint, cut to leg

  1. Begin in Coda Longa Stretta, left foot forward
  2. Start passing forwards with the right, raising the body high and feinting to throw a mandritto sgualembrato to the opponent’s head
  3. Smoothly transition, with a turn of the wrist, the mandritto into a riverso to the thigh while letting the still ongoing pass extend forwards long, and your body sinking down
  4. Recover back by pulling the right foot back while staying covered (more options described below)

These drills can be done solo, or with a partner and they develop all of the following:

  • Coordination (being able to do one cut per step or two cuts on one step)
  • Targetting (head or leg)
  • Suppleness in body (extending the pass and dropping the body low)
  • Suppleness in wrist (turning the mandritto feint into a riverso cut)

Of course, the initial feint could be exchanged into a falso parry, thus making the exercise follow precisely Manciolino’s instructions!

Recovery from the low cut

After executing the cut to the leg one needs to recover quickly. These I have found to be the most effective ways:

  • Lift hand in Guardia di Testa and pass back
  • Keep pushing in with a thrust or another attack, ready for executing a grapple
  • Pass back while executing a falso dritto as a parry or a cut to the hand
  • Continue with an imbroccata thrust

The right tempo

If the opponent is not expecting it, and you can do it fast, the leg cut can afford you points (or, theoretically, incapacitate your opponent in a duel). To make it safer, make sure that if you feint, feint high to open him on the low line. If you parry, make sure he expects you to return a cut to the high line after the parry, and then change it low.

The danger in the leg cut is a simultaneous avoiding backstep and a cut to your head or hand from the opponent. There is no absolute way to take away this risk, but it can be minimised. As always in fencing, you should assess your opponent and device your strategy and tactics according to the likely responses he will give you. After measuring and testing him, you should look for

  • A tendency to parry and not counter in single-tempo
  • A tendency to over-parry
  • A tendency to retreat while parrying

Now the last one may come as a surprise, but what is important here is that by lowering your body for the leg cut you dramatically increase your reach. Hence, if you condition your opponent to expect you to attack with a simple feint and a strike to the head and he keeps retreating with his parries, he will not be expecting you to go low *and reach him while he is already stepping backwards. *If he would only stand still, you should execute the feint and cut to leg from a longer distance to get similar results.

This can lead to another interesting action, which is the parry against a cut to the leg. If the opponent is already passing back, and notices that he will still be hit in the leg regardless of the pass, he is forced to parry with the sword. The below drill shows an example of this:

The same is true when the opponent is stepping forwards, or sideways for the matter: if the foot is in the air he will be likely to parry with the sword as he can not slip the leg back at that time.

Suicidal opponents

Some people do not have trained reflexes to keep themselves safe. This is especially true in friendly fencing in a relatively safe environment with blunt or otherwise safe weapons. The primary focus is easily shifted from being not hit to hitting the opponent at any cost. Here we often get one fencer throwing a high feint and a cut to the legs, and the receiving person simply standing still and, after being hit in the leg or simultaneously striking the attacker resulting in a double hit.

I am fairly sure this would be less of a problem with sharp swords and evil intentions, but there are easier and safer (though perhaps less effective) ways of remedying the problem. Firstly it needs to be emphasised that as long as we are not totally departing from our roots, the weapons need to be treated as if sharp. The primary goal is to not get hit, and only secondarily hit the opponent. Second remedy is simply practice: it is possible to learn to spot the tempi so well that even a suicidal opponent is unable to strike while being hit in the legs. By learning to do that in a safe environment, I believe one would be even better at it were the swords sharp.

Drills for practice

Apart from the drill already mentioned, I’ll give a few more advanced ways of practising. They are shown in the below video, whose bad quality I apologise. It will probably still make it easier to understand the written descriptions.

Multiple feints

Start by throwing alternate attacks of mandritti and roversi passing with the right and left respectively, with the opponent retreating and parrying with mezze volte or simple, direct parries. At some point, after a mandritto, turn a riverso to the thigh during the pass made for the feint.

Leg tapping

Without swords, play a game of free movement with a partner. Decide that one of you can, at any time, try to touch or slap the legs of the partner with the hand. The partner attempts to avoid the slaps by footwork only.

Offense and defense alternatively

Practice in a group of three people. One acts in the middle and is in turn the agent and the patient. When agent, he feints with a mandritto, and as the opponent parries, he turns it into ariversoto the thigh in the same pass, then turning to face the other opponent inporta di ferrostretta or larga. He then receives the opponent’s attack by parrying with afalso, stepping forwards with the right if necessary and riposting to the thigh with ariverso, then immediately turning around and seeking a measure and a place from where to attack the other partner again with the feint.

In this drill format it is also possible to exchange the parry-riposte into the feint-and-cut-to-head-drill explained above, so as to make sure the student learns to both pass twice or just once with a similar action under some pressure.

I hope these give helpful ideas!

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