I know a lot of tall fighters and a lot of not-so-tall-fighters.  I am a not-so-tall-fighter.  I’m not short by any means but at 5’7” I’m usually shorter than the 6’-ish fighters I generally face.  I know a lot of average and shorter fighters think that height gives tall fighters and automatic advantage but that isn’t really true.  All statures have their own inherent advantages and disadvantages.

A look at historical thoughts on the subject

In his Paradoxes of Defense Silver sets up a dialogue between a master and student about whether a tall man or an average man has the advantage in a fight if both men have a “perfect knowledge” about their weapons. Silver maintains that the tall man always has the advantage over the average man because the taller man has a longer reach, does not have to move as far to gain the “true place”, his pace is longer, and because he is taller his proper sword length is longer than that of an average man. Because of this advantage, the shorter man must be careful not to fail in any part of his fight or he is in great danger. As long as he maintains a true fight and fights in the true time he will still be able to defend himself even though his taller opponent has the advantage.

A perusal of Saviolo’s Practice shows that, in general, he likely would have agreed with Silver’s thinking. He says that if a tall man is fighting a shorter man, the taller fighter may have a great advantage over his shorter opponent due to his longer reach and greater stride, provided that he know how to properly put himself “in ward”. However, if he doesn’t understand proper warding the shorter man could have the advantage. If the taller fighter loses his point the shorter fighter could easily attack him from underneath with a stoccata or a passata.

My thoughts

Personally I tend to believe that each stature holds its own inherent advantages and disadvantages.  A taller fighter generally has the advantage of a larger range.  While tall, average, and even shorter fighters are all fairly just as likely to use the same lengths and kinds of blades, taller fighters are more likely to have longer arms and longer legs, giving them a greater range from which to fight.  Often a shorter fighter will find he needs to use a longer blade to equal the ranger of the taller fighter with a more standard blade.  A taller fighter as has the advantage of being able to more easily make attacks from a higher line than the shorter fighter which does give him some advantage.  However, that doesn’t mean he has all the advantage.  A shorter fighter does have to come further inside a taller opponent’s range in order to make his attack, but once inside his opponent’s range his stature and arm length then become more of an advantage allowing him greater maneuverability in closer quarters.  In this situation a shorter blade can provide even greater advantage for the shorter fighter because he does not have to draw back as far to execute additional attacks.  Similarly, attacks from a lower line are also easier for a shorter fighter.  He’s already closer to the lower line than his taller opponent so executing and attack from that line is not as difficult.

A major part of being successful in fencing is making what you have work for you.  Every body type has its own inherent advantages and disadvantages but not all fighters see that.  Just because you are shorter than your opponent doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.  Pit your advantages against their disadvantages and make them pay for it.

3 Comments

  1. Here’s my take as a not-so-tall fencer. Concepts of engagement and closure are important for all fencers, but they are even more important for short fencers. A short fencer can not afford to close distance without having control of the opponents blade. A tall fencer can rely on their greater reach to hit the opponent long before they are in danger of being hit.

    It seems to me that a lot of taller fencers that I know have had more initial success in competing because of this. However, once they begin to fence other experienced fencers they either start to lose, or learn to adapt their game. Some of the tall people that I fence rely on absence of blade to keep me from finding their sword (which forces me to rely more on counter-time actions as well as better timing).

    My wife was actually reading about an fight in the poem La Gerusalemme liberata from 1581 in which a taller fencer is holding the point of his blade up in front of his face in order to avoid his opponent’s attempts to find his blade. I don’t remember the rest of it, but I think half swording and grappling ensue, and then someone getting stabbed 🙂

    • I agree and I think that’s a lot of the reason taller fighters may have more initial success but often recieve an unpleasant awakening as they begin to fight more experienced fighters. The shorter fighters have already had to learn a lot more about range and engagement while the taller fighters were able to get by relying on their height. When the taller fighters find they can’t always rely on it often they also find that they are now behind the shorter fighters with respect to their knowlege of range, distance, and closure.

      Thanks for the note about La Gerusalemme liberata. I think I will look that up. 🙂

  2. In talking with Letia last week, this came up tangentially to our other conversations. Certainly, short fighters have an advantage in close range, but they often have difficulty getting there (as a tall-ish fighter, if somebody short tries to close range on me and I don’t like it, I take a big step back and regain the range I’d lost). It took me a while to figure out a sound approach to closing with Tall Joe that didn’t get me killed as he stepped back ten feet and thrust at my face.
    What I found worked on him, and what I advised Letia, was to not rely on low guards so much. Fighting Letia when she holds her sword in low ward, I have access to her entire body, and it doesn’t impede much. When she raises it up to a broad ward, though, it starts to give me trouble working around it and opens the opportunity for her to close on me when she can catch me in the middle of another action. If she doesn’t catch me in the middle of another action, I can bail backwards or attempt a disengage and stopthrust, so it has to be a mesotempo attack.

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