Monday, June 30, 2014

Renaissance Method for the Bowie

This is meant to be a follow up post to my last Bowie piece, which can be found here:

After continued contemplation, solo drilling, and experimentation, I have decided to flesh out some of the ideas only previously touched upon before. I intend on keeping as brief and to the point as possible, so that the reader gains practical knowledge rather than airy theory. In essence, this writing will discuss the use of the Bowie knife in the manner other Renaissance one handed weapons. To this end I've examined various plates detailing the rondel dagger, the arming sword, dussack, and the langes messer. What follows constitutes my experiences and thoughts on this beautiful weapon. 


As I've discussed in my previous piece, there are really only a few basic guards needed for a Bowie knife. You have a point ward (Pflug, Boar's Tooth, Guardant Fight), a double handed ward (Middle Iron Door Doubled), and a reverse ward (so-called "slasher"). The wards themselves are useful guides to chambering the weapon, sure, but their main value is in the ideas that they hold. You don't hold a ward; you move through them. A great failure of the modern martial artist is the thought that one "holds" a position or "sits in" a ward. Instead we must think of the wards as postures that we move through in order to kill our enemy. We begin, move through, and end in these wards, but we never "stay" in them. Connected to this idea is keeping the weapon out of range of your enemy until you decide to attack with initiative, and yet not keeping it too far out either. This latter reason is why I do not advise any form of Zornhut or Posta de Donna with the Bowie; your compass will be too large and easily run under by your foe. And yet, we do not want the Bowie too far out from the body. It will be too easy for your foe to snipe at your hand and there is too little weapon to trust your safety to a simple parry. So with the wards I advise here, one keeps the Bowie somewhere close to the hip. And by that, I mean the Bowie does not stray too far from the vertical axis or the horizontal axis that run through the hips. A little chambered back or forward does no harm, but one cannot allow the enemy to too easily bind or take command of your weapon. We can see this idea in Meyer's plates below:

The most forward man on the right keeps his dagger high and yet still in line with his hips.

The man in Stier his weapon in line too.

In short, the Bowie fighter must be dynamic and not waiting in a ward. He must defend his weapon hand and obscure the ability of the enemy to find correct measure, which is done by keeping the Bowie closer to the body. 

Targeting and Striking 

The point of discussing wards first is to bring us to targeting. This refers to both your targeting of the enemy and his targeting of you. Now, let us assume that you and your foe are standing with your right foot forward and your daggers are in Pflug. This is perhaps the most seen beginning of a dagger fight, for many fight with the right foot forward in a middle point guard. This gives quite a bit of reach, though it really doesn't matter what leg you have forward as long as you move aggressively and transverse. Now visualize this as your foe:

This rather crude illustration is meant to describe the idea of "barricading" off your body. We see this in I.33 and other sword manuals, and the principle applies to the Bowie too. Each black circle can represent a beginning ward or position of the dagger. Pflug would be in his bottom right opening. The shaded triangle represents the areas barricaded off by the Bowie. Any attack within that shaded area would very easily be thwarted. The whole point of understanding the idea of warding is to understand that you are consciously, dynamically depriving your enemy of openings in which to attack your person.  You have no choice but to either provoke an attack to disrupt his barricade, attack to the undefended left, or attack a lower opening. By constantly moving, being aggressively, and moving through wards, you limit his options and dictate where he can attack. 

Cutting with the Bowie, then, ought to be easily grasped by any student of the sword. The use of the Dussack teaches the angles of attack. In German, they can be understood as the Zornhau, the Unterhau, and the Mittelhau. We already know that based on how well our enemy barricades himself we will be limited in our cutting targets. However let us revisit our options: Provoke, Attack the Left, and Attack Below. We know from use of the Dussack that we can provoke a cautious enemy into attacking. In that same way, we provoke with the Bowie. If you need an opening, make one! So throw your three Dussack cuts: the Provoker, the Taker, and the Hitter. Your provoking attack forces him to act. You take his attack with your second cut. Your third cut hits him. Not that we are limited to that order but that is an easy way to think of it. Attacking the left is simple enough. His left upper opening will be easiest to hit. But perhaps he is out of range. If he leans back or stands side-on you can provoke him so that he moves, and then cut his left when it becomes open. Attacking below works best with a thrust. Don't trust a cut to the stomach or thigh to end the fight with any knife; trust your point for that instead.

A closing point to wrap it up. Keep your dagger moving and dynamic to keep your right side barricaded. Don't stay in any ward too long, especially since it may telegraph your next cut or combination. Cut aggressively in the way of the Dussack and always through a combination of attacks to get the job done.

Defence is Composed of Offence 

Defending oneself with the Bowie is simple. Perhaps it is so simple that many feel a need to make it complex. Let us quote the following Masters of Defence for clarity:

"A proper fencer parries not; as his opponent strikes so he too strikes" - Liechtenauer
"Make all your parries downward blows" - Fiore
"Defense is comprised by Offense" - Francesco Altoni
"Offense is defense" - Capo Ferro

This is the way to understand defence with a Bowie. Some authors, who I won't name, have said that the Bowie ought to be used similarly to a sabre. This is a false method. The Bowie is not a dui tempo weapon, which was the point of my previous piece; it can be used quite well mezzo tempo. Another erroneous idea is to use the Bowie exactly like a langes messer. Much can be gained from training messer material with the Bowie but they cannot be used interchangeably. The principle reason is design: the Bowie generally lacks a substantial cross-guard and it lacks a nagel (hooking nail). We cannot, then, expect the turned-hand (gewenter hand) setting aside of the messer or arming sword to be very effective, for the Bowie lacks the design features to properly execute this motion. Very likely, it will result in the blade of your enemy skipping off your strong and raking across your fingers, if you even time it right at all. 

Instead of fighting with a dui tempo method or a turned-hand setting aside, we need to understand the concept described by the Masters. When your enemy attacks, you do too. What this means for us is that we must aggressively counter-cut whenever possible. Equally important is to become the aggressor yourself. If you are constantly offending your foe, he will only be concerned with his own safety and cannot clearly think of regaining initiative; he is always one moment behind. By counter-cutting, we don't need to rely on parries of any kind. Combinations of cuts and thrusts will aid in this, especially since you have an open hand to aid in your mezzo tempo movements. Consider the following words on the mezzo tempo from Master Vadi:

"I cannot show you in writing
The theory and method of the half tempo
Because it remains in a knot
The shortness of the tempo of his strike.
The half time is just one turn
Of the knot: quick and immediately striking,
It can rarely fail
When it is done in good measure."

If done skillfully, the mezzo tempo counter attacking of a foe will protect you. It may not always successfully wound him, but it will at least defend you better than the parry. If your Bowie has a D-Guard and a large choil, then all the better: these protect the hand while counter-cutting not unlike a nagel. As such, it absolutely crucial that one does NOT finger the choil when fighting unless they want that index finger gone. Unlike the nagel, however, these features won't actually stop a blade from skipping down, since they are found along the side of the long-edge side weapon as opposed to jutting out from the side of the guard. 

Choil depicted above (below Spanish notch).

D-Guard Bowie Knives (left also has a defined choil)

In short, defence with the Bowie is comprised of offence. Attack often and in combinations. Be the initiator and work Indes if you cannot be. When he attacks, so do you. Move through your wards to wound, provoke, and cover your flying out. Step with aggression, transverse, and trust in your Guardant Fight. 

False Methods 

Now that I've discussed a method of using the Bowie that is in line with Renaissance concepts, we can briefly define the opposite. Or that is to say, we can discuss what makes up false defence with the Bowie. If you want to lose a Bowie fight, then please feel free to do any of the following:
  • Be fearful and walk up to your foe like a mantis.
  • Only throw weak snap cuts from Posta Breve. 
  • Don't keep your body in motion.
  • Don't keep your dagger in motion.
  • Only throw a single attack at a time. 
  • Depend on Open Fight and shoulder cuts.
  • Move in false time.
  • Rely on parries and dui tempo methods. 
  • Approach fighting with the Bowie as social club activity. 

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude, we can see that the Bowie is a unique weapon. It's not a langes messer, it's not an arming sword, and it's not a Dussack. But it is not so dissimilar to any of these that we can't learn important concepts from them. As such, we don't need to look to Orientalists for ideas on how it use it. We have a large corpus to study in the West and we can benefit greatly from such study. The problem lies in making it too complex, too esoteric, and too elaborate. It's a dagger: stick the pointy end in the other guy.  

General Rules of Thumb  
  •  Utilize constant motion.
  • Be earnest and aggressive. There is no such as overkill.
  • Train to cut and thrust, but know that the thrust is a more sure way of ending things. 
  • Attack continually and with combinations of good, downright blows.
  • Be serious in your sparring: keep in mind violent intent. 
  • Keep things simple and remember the basic Segno cuts.
  • Understand true time and the tempo that accompanies fighting in narrow space.
  • Guardant Fight is not only a ward to begin in but it can be used to rush under an enemy's compass.
  • Always transverse when possible and force your enemy to move.
  • Regardless of whether or not you incapacitate your enemy, fly out after your combinations. 

Counter-Cutting in Action 

More Counter-Cutting

Bowie-like daggers (esp. top right) depicted in Wound-Man images.