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Close quarters and unarmed combat


Wrestling is one of the oldest - possibly the oldest - documented martial art, and practically every culture has developed its own system. Within Europe alone, there are several regional variations. It is also the most instinctive way of fighting; even animals and small children wrestle without any instruction.

Traditionally, wrestling would be one of the first things that a student would be trained in at a fencing school; it provides a solid base upon which to build everything else. While this convention has been used throughout history, today we tend to start out with weapons training first, and then move onto wrestling as the practitioner becomes more accustomed to movement and fine control. This is for reasons of safety as much as anything else, since many wrestling techniques have the potential for injuring both the actor and the patient if executed incorrectly or with poor control.

In the source material, writers make it clear that wrestling for sport or entertainment is different from combat wrestling. Most of the writers simply make a note of this and move on, as their only focus in the text is combat wrestling. Some others, like Auerswald, devote a little more space to wrestling for entertainment, including a bizarre wrestling game where "One stands in the hole and may not remove his leg from it and his opponent must hop on one leg. Much art comes of this and it is funny to watch".

Most combat wrestling techniques shown in European fighting manuals tend to depict throws or locks; slamming the opponent into the ground, or manipulating their body in such a way as to immobilize them. This is useful in any kind of fighting, but is quite essential in armoured combat; getting through armour with a sword is a difficult undertaking under normal circumstances, but once the opponent is immobilized it is much easier to find weak spots with a dagger. Or, as a particularly cheeky note in Dei Liberi suggests, force them to submit and write a ransom letter to their family.

Breaks are also represented in the source documentation. Of course we do not practice these to the finish; this is where control is important, as it allows the patient to tap out once the technique is properly established but before any actual damage can occur.


Unarmed strikes are rare in historical fencing treatises, but this does not mean they were not known or used. Historical manuals represent a specialised body of techniques, not the entire scope of western martial arts. Any techniques which existed outside that are of specialisation were unfortunately not preserved through this medium.

The most common strikes depicted in the documentation are kicks, which are used in conjunction with practically every kind of sword. For most part, they are treated as secondary weapons which are used to create distance or an opening, rather than cause direct damage by themselves. Kicks are generally used only from a bind, where both fighters' weapons are temporarily out of play.

Closed-fist punches are not commonly represented in fighting manuals, although references to them can be found in other documentation. Their absence in fighting manuals is probably due to the risks involved in throwing a punch in an armed combat situation. A good punch can certainly end a fight, but getting close enough to deliver that perfect knock-out would be dangerous enough without factoring in the consequences of getting the strike wrong. Since viable targets for a punch are few, our theory is that the writers of the fencing manuals chose not to emphasise them since there are far many, far more useful options available.

Open handed strikes, on the other hand, are quite common. Like kicks, they are not intended to cause significant damage of themselves. Instead, their main purpose is to cause an opponent to turn, or more commonly to provide an entry to wrestling distance. Open handed strikes are commonly represented in dagger defence, where a sweep or a chop can redirect or hopefully numb an attacker's arm and lead to a grab, and in armoured combat, where slaps to the head and neck area can provide entry to a grab.

To summarise, unarmed strikes have an important place in armed combat. While they are not likely to close an exchange on their own, they can be crucial in the management of distance in a fight.

Close quarter combat with a sword

Since most of our practice revolves around unarmoured combat, we generally try to maintain a distance where the sword can be used effectively. However mistakes can happen, or one person may choose to close the distance. In these situations, it is important to know what to do so that the sword remains a useful tool rather than becoming a hindrance.

Apart from using strikes or closing the distance further into wrestling range, there are quite a few options at this range. From punching with the pommel of the sword, to hooking with the cross guard, every part of the sword can be useful here. Half-swording is also an option, effectively using the sword like a staff; this opens up a world of locks to be explored. While this is most typical of the longsword, it is viable with any long, straight blade.

Dagger defences

Most defences against the dagger assume that the defender starts out unarmed. These defences require perfect timing, and usually end up in a lock and disarm, or a break on the arm holding the dagger. You can read more about dagger defences on our dagger page.

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