A few thoughts on Greatsword (nodachi) fighting by Sato Jiro. Last updated 5-14-08
Below are things I try to pass on to new fighters. Unfortunately many of the weird things I do I dont really think about it, so its difficult to explain it on paper. As I think of other things I will update this page. If anything I say is unclear or you think of a clearer way for me to say something email me.
Let me start by saying that fighting suggestions are like assholes everybody has one, but some you will find stink more than others. I suggest you listen to everybody's suggestions and if there is some part of what they suggest works for you then use it. If you find someone trying to force a "Specialty of theirs" that you don't like or don't feel works for you ....say "thanks for the advice I may try that style later, but I would like to try my own way for now". Take and study the teachings and techniques of anyone you can find. Study it carefully and if it works for you then add it to your "Way". If it does not work for you, do not use it but remember it so you can either counter it or teach it to someone who that technique does work for. Some things will work for you and maybe not for others and vise versa. This can be due to mind set, body mechanics, weight, strength and ability differences. Not a reflection of skill in many cases if you cant make a specialty of someone else's work for you. It might be due to the above differences between you and them.
Having said all that, here is my fighting suggestion.
Remember your strengths with this weapon are your reach and power.
Striking- Push with your upper hand and pull with the lower hand. Using the lower hand to steer the sword where you want it to go, and the upper hand to provide force. Reverse this to return the sword, pulling with the top hand, pushing with the lower. This weapon is heavy and once it stops moving it can be hard to start moving again if your upper body strength or body mass is not great. Some people get around the weight problem by just trying to keep the sword in motion at all times once the fight starts. I prefer to only do this in combination shots or when fighting one handed when I loose an arm.
Blocking- To imagine blocking properly ---your hands should stay waist level with your sword point up and the sword centered on your body. Any shots they make at your legs you can drop your hands down just a little to catch the shot on your sword guard without dropping your point from its straight up position. To block almost anything else imagine your sword is a inverted windshield wiper. Your hands move left to block left and right to block right but the top point does not move at all. This creates a ramp for their shot to slide off of and away from your body and leaves you in position for a counter shot. After many blocks your hands might want to creep upwards. Avoid this and train against it. This drifting up is often times unnoticed by you unless you are guarding against your doing it. When this happens you open up your legs and hips to a upwards sweeping shot. In addition it moves your weapon into difficult to attack from position. If you have seen me fight you may be saying to yourself "Sato stands with his greatsword cocked to his far left?". That is a slightly more advanced preference of mine. I stand with the sword in the left block position with me looking at my opponent from under the sword with the point slightly more towards my opponent instead of point more straight up. This lets me threaten with the point and keep you at distance. And with me already in the left block position my opponent can't hit me on the entire left side of body and is almost forced to swing to my right which I can predict and be ready for. With the angle I am using they cannot usually come straight down on me because the tip of my sword will usually catch it and slide it off to the left. I call this style "looking under the sword". I first saw Sir Donagul do something similar to this and adapted this from watching him. Is this better..I think so..but again this is only my suggestion take it for what's its worth. Some say I am giving up offense with starting in this style.
Fighting shorter weapon systems.
Unlike most of the shorter systems like Sword and shield or 2 swords you cannot attack and defend at the same time, You must be doing one or the other and changing from one to the other constantly and quickly. So it is easier is you are controlling that choice and not your opponent. I always try to start off by attacking with the end of my weapon(last 6 inches) while opponents are still out of their own striking range. Use this range to your advantage, you should get at least 1 if not 2 or 3 good shots in before they close to their striking range, unless they are a fighting a long weapon style. If your opponent will let you, keep attacking at this(you can hit them but they cant hit you) range if they are inexperienced enough to let you.
And against most shorter weapon systems and especially sword and shield, most fighters will expose their leg during their charge into their closing range(which they will be doing so prepare your mindset for it). If you can get the leg right then, or at any point in the fight your are now in control of the rest of the fight. With them on their knees you can choose to close, or stay at your range. While they are charging, you must be retreating/moving in some form. If they get too close their faster system and ability to throw shots to your back will end you. I often use a J hook pattern when retreating. Run straight back for a while then cut left or right suddenly. If you time your cut left or right with a shot at their head, lesser opponents will blind themselves with a shield/sword block and lose track of you. This sudden change of direction left or right while still moving somewhat away from target will often surprise them and will often leave an opening in their defense so watch for the shot and take it. During the whole running backwards be looking for that leg to come exposed due to them running. Running backwards like this requires you to be aware of your surroundings and what foot hazards are around. Try to look around and behind you before the fight starts and have a beginning plan on where you might run to and what is the clearest path. Learning to run backwards quickly while fighting, and knowing your location instinctively, comes with practice. Worst case if you don't know what is behind you, either charge past your opponent suddenly, or go ahead and back up blindly. Either is better than letting them crawl in your lap where there shield will tie up your sword.
Stopping those charges. As I said before- leg him is one option. Is it a 2 sword, then a thrust at the chest is a difficult thing to stop while running and trying to block with a 2 inch width sword for a blocker. Also many fighters will stop dead to a good hard smack deliberately on the shield. Also I have found putting the point of your braced weapon against a running shieldman's shield will cause some less experienced ones to stumble, stop, or become disoriented. Also just holding the point of your weapon pointed at your opponent, level with you both- like you may aggressively stab them with it, I have seen make people freeze up or pause or sometimes not close so fast(I think its a mental thing that makes them not want to be impaled). This mental feeling/reservation seems to triple if you just stabbed them or they saw you stab someone else earlier.
Force- This weapon allows for a couple of things you just cant do well with smaller weapons. Always be careful to not overpower and injure an opponent in practice. As a friend by the name of Count Sir Fernando said "Properly used an opponent can last a life time". With that said here are some force tricks-- Be careful with them. Most people will block with their sword the minimal distance from their body they know they need to block a typical sword blow. I have found if you power through the last part of the shot you can often blow clean through the sword block to the head beneath. More experienced fighters will be used to power blocking those kind of shots, or blocking them farther from the their body in anticipation. With a rattan sword you can do the same thing against the top of a shield edge moving the shield down by the force of the blow and hitting the head. You can do this against the side of the shield also catching the hip.
Greatsword against Greatsword - First let me say that a long fight between a great sword and another great sword or almost any great weapon is often one of the coolest looking, funnest fights to watch or be in. Biggest thing again.... Remember you can only attack or defend. With that in mind if someone in single combat swings at your legs ...I immediately and quickly at the same time swing at their head. They have legged you and you have slain them. I consider that a good trade. I have tried to ingrain this into my head to fast respond to leg shots. With that in mind if you want the leg- be tricky, fast or always swing at the hip and at the very least you will get the double kill if they don't block and do swing at your head. You can turn the leg/hip shot into a immediate sword inverted hand block while throwing the shot, but that takes a lot of practice to pull off(and I need to be in my groove to even remember to do it). Greatsword against Greatsword has a lot to do with timing. You must either throw enough shots or combinations to force your opponent to make an opening or a missed block in his guard or you must be faster. Throwing a fake half shot followed by a real shot works often to leave the opponent out of place for the 2nd shot. Often times just a small change in your bottom hands location part way through a shot will change its striking area just enough to get past your opponents block or at least where he thought he needed to block. Often times in a great sword fight that lasts more than a few swings the above mentioned upwards creeping arms happens. Because of the angle of great weapons it seems even easier for your hand/arms to want to creep further and further upwards with each block. This is opens that person up for a easy rising leg/hip shot. you can still block most shots as your hands rise. But if the attacker throws a straight down and straight up shot with alot of upwards angle it is very difficult to block once your hands have crept up. Guard against you doing it and watch for your opponent doing it.
Fakes- Fakes can be a half shot at 1 location of the body and finish at another target half way through the shot by turning your lower hand. Often times turning the lower(steering) hand a little part way trough a shot can make it land just enough off where it looked to be going at the start of the shot to avoid their block by the end of the shot. This takes practice due to the weight of the weapon and you needing to foresee where you think they are going to block this shot at. This can be helped by 2 quick shots to the same location to get target used to the incoming shot before you try moving the hand. Other fakes include double head shots(hit at the head fast..then when they block it, immediately hit same spot again without pulling sword all the way back.) This will sometimes catch them dropping their shield from the previous block, this requires arm strength and a opponent who doesn't follow up his shield block with a sword block. Also a good thrust at the face followed with a leg or arm shot without pulling the sword back first can be a good surprise. But this requires some strength and accuracy since you will be using nothing but your arms muscles in the fully extended position and your sword is coming in from an angle you may not be used to.
Small Quarters Fighting- You can't always choose your terrain and a small fighting area can be a huge disadvantage for the greatsword fighter so you must be flexible in your plans. As we discussed moving is important to this style. When I find myself in small areas I tend to be very aggressive. Thrust alot, throw alot of shots from your range right off the bat. Try and force an opening and intimidate your opponent, and keep control of the fight attempting to put them on the defensive. Another caution...intimidating your opponent in does not mean hitting them so hard they would be hurt if they missed the block. It means attacking with such aggression they feel the need to be defensive. Being relentless. If fighting a sword and shield in small confines I sometimes after the opening barrage, charge past the shield on the sword arm side. As you pass them, be looking for their shot. Many fighters will throw a leg/body type shot as you pass them, not sure why but its the common response. As you pass be sure your hands haven't drifted up and you are in a block position at the point of passing the them. In fact you might want your hands a little lower than normal to be safe. Be watching for the leg shot and chop straight down and take that arm after the block or in the same chop that you block the shot. With other great weapons I tend to choose either a mostly thrusting offense or I often close with them locking up weapons and try and jockey your sword so you can throw a shot while they are in sword position that leaves your sword between theirs and their body. This can be done by force or just moving your body and sword while keeping pressure on their sword at the same time. If locked together you can also with enough mass use their blocking sword as a fulcrum. Keeping your swords pressed together take a sudden step to the right or left and pivot your sword hard over theirs like a fulcrum trying for their head. This is a good technique taught me by Master Brumbar and catches people unaware since they never felt your sword leave their sword so they often think they are still blocking.
Your opponent's shield(your friend or your enemy)- Alot of people claim your opponent's shield is as much your friend as it is his. Meaning you can use your opponents shield as cover for yourself as you close and attack. I agree with this a little. Properly placed strikes on your part can force an opponent to move their shield to where it blinds or also blocks them throwing some kinds of shots, or pressing yourself in close onto your opponents shield does protect you from some shots very briefly. But all of these are very timing dependent and often are best only used if you have established your opponent responds to things the same way almost every time. But in my experience the shield is still too much their friend not mine.....they ultimately still control it and a experienced fighter will move it with ease and not be hindered much by forcing them to block. I typically only do these kinds of tacticts with the rare person you see use ing a HUGE monster of shield. Stepping in close to one of these monsters as you pass does provide you with some protection. A good way to tell before committing is to watch how the shieldman moves his shield when you throw shots at him. Does he blind himself on high blocks? Does he turn his body alot to side shots leaving his sword arm in a bad throwing spot? Just a few things to watch for.
War tricks- A thrusting tip will add alot of shots to your opportunities to hit people during a heavy press when chopping is difficult because your own people are squashing you. If you have a choice in where you stand I always choose the farthest right of left side position of the bridge behind the end shieldman. For some reason no one often thinks to swing out over the water instead of straight down over the shields. I have stood behind the end shieldman swinging out horizontally over the water about leg or hip height killing the people behind their front shieldman up to 2 or 3 ranks back. Sometimes killing 7 plus people before anyone realizes what is going on. They are so focused on stepping up to fill the gap from the guy who often times falls dead into the water to get out of the way that they never see what killed him. This same gag works well in a field battle right before the 2 lines crash together. As you march to meet the other line keep your greatsword down low behind you as you stand close behind your front shieldman to hide your weapon system. Then swing out low and fast from behind your shieldman just as they reach your range. if you leg or hip kill their front shieldman it often causes a huge disorder in their ranks since many times during a charge their line will trip over that suddenly legged/killed front rank man. If it does cause their line to stagger the people to their left or right will often continue forward leaving their sides exposed to you for a moment since no one is suddenly charging next to them anymore. With one step around and ahead of your sheildman you can kill alot of people during that few seconds of confusion and exposure and get back in line without dyeing if you aren't to greedy or unaware of what's going on around you.
Focusing on one thing is bad- one thing that almost all new fighters do in war is they focus on the guy right in front of them as they engage. It probably happens because the 1st thing you learn to do is 1 on 1 fighting where you are used to concentrating hard on that 1 opponent. But in war this will get you killed. You need to at first at least be aware of and be watching the 4 or 5 people across from you and the people right behind them who have long weapons--these are the most likely people to kill you or you buddy next to you(yes you should be trying to keep your buddies next to you alive to since they are likely to return the favor.) Now having said watch those 5 in front of you comes the hard part--Remember anyone in their entire line can hit you not just those in front of you. You need to be aware of where spears or long weapons are in the line and constantly watching for them to be moving into their range to hit you or your buds. If you see them moving tell your buds. These long weapons until the lines actually close fully together are your greatest chance for death. As a greatswords man with practice you can easily knock these spears down(not left or right into your friends stomach) if you are paying attention. Now you might be thinking "DAMN how do I watch all these people at once"...learn weapon ranges and you can learn to semi ignore the ones you know are out of their range, keeping them only in peripheral vision and keep closer eyes on the deadly ones. This peripheral vision if developed can be a life safer and let you surprise that guy who thought you weren't watching him when you suddenly throw a shot or counter shot to his cheap shot he took when he thought your weren't looking. Bottom line look around constantly and quickly. Once you have learned this level of battle awareness you need to start trying to remember a new level of awareness. This level includes looking far down your line to your left and right and behind your army when you can. This kind of awareness will help you keep from be surprised when everyone to your left or right has died or a large unit is flanking your unit. It is also what is needed in people wanting to be commanders. The battle is not happening just where you are standing.
Sir Sato Jiro no Bitchu