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Friday, May 27, 2016

Simplicity and Complexity in the 4 Generals

Hello again,

I realized during practice last night that I needed to put some of my realizations around the 4 general drills into words.  Other than footwork drills, these have been my go to activity to practice since I started working with La Verdadera Destreza (LVD).  The further I go with them the more I discover how awesome and how much complexity there is in what initially seems so simple.

Like driving along the road to a destination and spotting a wild animal on the side of the road, I have seen them show up occasionally in my bouting over the months.  They are beautiful and majestic and you want to see more, but it felt more like random chance than actual skill initially.  Now that I am seeing connections and complexities in these drills and movements I am starting to see them more in my live fencing, which is awesome.

In this post I will be discussing, what the 4 generals are, what I have been doing and why, and recent realizations around these techniques.

Let's start with what they are:

After the three universal methods, in which consists a man's defense, the general techniques rank highest... The names that we imposed on them (without obliging ourselves to defend their correctness, since it is not necessary for them) are the line in cross, narrowing, weak under the strong, and weak over the strong.
- Pacheco de Narvaez, New Science p. 442 (1672)

I initially found them in Puck Curtis' "From the Page to the Practice" which you can purchase in this anthology here: In Service of Mars, Vol. II. This is where I tell people new to LVD to start their journey.

Puck describes them wonderfully in his work as; "The general techniques are four offensive actions used to dominate or deviate the opposing steel in order to initiate attacks. With these techniques the swordsman can control the adversary's blade while moving forward.  In contrast to a defensive action on the blade, such as a deflection or parry, these are performed with the intention of striking."

Other LVD masters reference them in their works with some seeming to believe the generals to be such a foundation that they are described as simply being understood.  They also use them to describe other techniques they are teaching.

This type of atajo movement is composed of three generals, that are the general of line in cross, and the general of weak below the strong, and the case seen that in itself alone, it is the low general.
- Luis Dias de Viedma, Method of Teaching of Masters (1639)

If you want to see them in action you can find them on Ton Puey's youtube channel here: - Academia da Espada - Ton Puey. His versions are more of a Rada interpretation of them, which is wonderful as you can see that while the movements were the same, the masters interpreted them slightly different.  As Ton is Spanish (as is our style of fencing) it is important to learn the Spanish names for these movements if you want to find them on his channel.
  • Line in Cross - Linea de Cruz
  • Narrowing  - Estrechar
  • Weak under Strong - Flaqueza Debajo de la Fuerza
  • Weak over Strong - Flaqueza Encima de la Fuerza - 

Next, why I chose these and what I have been doing:

My logic in choosing these was based on how Puck and the masters describe them as so essential.  I thought this was the best place for me to start.  I went with the idea of the pretentious martial arts quote around fearing the man who practices 1 technique a 1000 times rather than the guy who knows a thousand techniques.  In this case there are 4 techniques not 1, but it was a place to start.  I have been studying and implementing other concepts in my LVD work, but these are what I drill every practice, what I visualize at my desk at work, and on the couch at home in various combinations.

To over simplify what we do.... DRILLING.  I have been working with Xavier, my friend and partner in Spanish.   We began with Puck's material which has all of the attacks occurring in the following stages initiated with a traverse step to the right:

  • Start with an atajo on either the outside or inside line (depending on the general)
  • Take a gaining step and traverse step 
  • Execute the general technique
  • Retreat along the new diameter while keeping the point on the opponent.  

We drill them in a circle. If I am traversing to my right we will move counter clockwise around the circle.  What I mean by this is: I am at 12 on a clock face (or the common circle) and facing my opponent who is at 6.  I execute a general to my right and end up at 9 stabbing him and I stay there.  My partner re-positions himself to be at 3 across from me and I do another general and end up at 6 staying there.  My partner then re-positions himself across from me at 12 for the next general that I execute, ending up at 3.  My partner moves across from me to the 9 and I execute a 4th general to end up at 12 again  having moved full circle.

Sometimes we drill all 4 in a rotation, sometimes we just drill 1 of them 4 times. We also will sometimes just drill 2 of them 2x each, etc.  We also tried to bring them alive with each of us actively circling each other and at what ever point we felt was appropriate, executing one of the attacks.  We pulled back from this as it was getting sloppy, but we will be going back to that version soon I hope.

In order to make things more interesting and hit the next level we started doing all of these drills traversing to the left instead of the right on the attacks.  This opened up a whole new world of blade control and combinations that I will talk about more in the realizations section.  With the left traverse option came the ability to tick tock our drills.  What I mean by this is if I am at the 12, I "tick" or traverse right to the 9.  On my next move I "tock" or traverse to the left and end up back at the 12 where I started.

Recently we have also started drilling them with our opponent standing in a more traditional Italian guard (usually Capo Ferro, but also sometimes in an Olympic stance).  Those stances and the blade contact or refusal you get in them is completely different than facing a Spanish opponent.  Also, since there are so few Spanish fencers in our area, we better learn how to fight the opponent in front of us, not the one in our imagination or ideal.

I also practice each of these when alone while visualizing a left handed opponent and I also make an attempt to practice these left handed as well, since I know that I do lose my arm in bouts pretty frequently.

As you can see there are an insane number of combinations and variations that you can encounter with just these 4 general techniques.  If you add in the concepts of medio or distance and when or when not to put in a gaining step, oh my goodness there is no shortage of things to work on.

To summarize some of the drill options:

  • Circle and do the 4 generals in various combinations
  • Go to the right and the left with these 4 generals (also tick-tock)
  • Work against various versions of opponents (Italian guard, left handed, etc.)
  • Work all of the drills with the left hand
  • Bring the drill alive with both of you circling each other and executing the generals

My realizations:

Recently there have been a number of "aha moments" when doing these drills.  Things that jump out at me and make me simply say "Wow!".  I will try and describe a few of these simple things that were kind of epiphanies to me.

1. A cool concept that is built into the generals, is what I would identify in martial arts terms as "a flow drill".  There is a natural switch point from "line in cross" to weak under strong" since they are both on the outside line.  On the inside there is a switch point between "narrowing" and "weak over strong".  When executing these general you are not doing them in a vacuum.  They are meant to be alive in a fencing bout and executed without thought at a moments notice.  These natural interchanges and options allow you flexibility when your opponent does something you don't expect (which is all of the time).

2. This one might be harder to explain in words, but I will try.  While there is the above switch point between both generals on the outside atajos and both on the inside atajos, there is also a switch point or mirror between an outside and an inside.  Specifically "line in cross" executed on a right traverse, is the same as if you executed "weak over strong" when it is executed on a left traverse (with some exceptions to throwing the opponents blade away in some techniques).  This also goes the same with "narrowing" and "weak under strong" as a pairing.

This might be an experiential exercise, but pretty much, depending on which way you step, which side of the blade you are on you, and what kind of blade control you have, you are provided with multiple options of generals.

3. Distance and medio are everything and they are relative to the individual and the opponent. Many masters have talked about this.  Ettenhard did at length when mentioning how you can not dictate how long a step has to be.

"I consider determining fixed distance for the steps to perform the proposed actions as extremely difficult (and even impossible)." 
Don Franciso Antonio de Ettenhard, Compendium of the foundations of the true Art and Philosophy of Arms (1675)

There are tons of things that go through my head when fencing an opponent, but one that keeps coming to me every time is distance, distance, distance.  It is like in real estate location, location, location.  I have a long blade and a long arm, do I really need that gaining step all of the time?  The answer is no, but I better know how to do it and execute it correctly because there will be times I need it.  Distance...how you close it, how you visualize it, and how you measure it in a fight are essential to how you will be able to execute any of the generals discussed here.

That is about it for now. If there is a take away from this post I would say it is have fun with the 4 general techniques as there is an endless amount of knowledge to be gained from them.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Excellent post!

    Two things I want to bring up:

    1. In reading Viedma, it seemed like the generals could be done to either side. As such, Line in Cross was not equivalent to a reversed Weak over Strong, and vice versa. I assume this is a difference between different Destreza masters, because in Romagnan's Rada, he agrees with you and Puck here in that Line in Cross is the same as a reversed Weak over Strong.

    2. A common problem I seem to run into is that Destreza masters seem to all aspire to what they believe to be One True Style. And similarly, they all believe that they practice it. This leads to several of them using the same words to mean different things in very subtle ways, which vastly complicates things when one is trying to bounce back and forth between different masters.

    1. Alternately, I could be misinterpreting Viedma. But until I disprove myself or someone else takes the time to show me why I'm wrong, using Viedma's text, then I'll keep believing this thing.

    2. Very cool insight. I agree completely that the use of different language is confusing as heck. A perfect example is Viedma's low general and his description of it. It sounds like he is describing a line in the cross that changes part way through to a weak under, which makes sense, but he is labeling it a "low general". I actually hadn't encountered anyone saying the reverses were the same yet so it is good to hear my interpretation has some merit. I haven't found Puck talking about stepping anyway but right on these. I have only seen him cover the left traverse in his other drill that we do. Much of the actual difference between the line and weak over seems to have more to do with how you throw the opponent's blade away. I read that in one of Pucks blog posts a while back since he doesn't say it in "pages to practice', but couldn't find it again. I need to read more and we need to converse about it. Thank you.

  2. I finally have a practice partner (at least for now) and I was thinking of concentrating on drilling the Generals as my go-to practice, so this post will be most helpful!

    1. Hi Dionisio,
      Yay for a partner. I still practice them alone for muscle memory, but the actual implementation of them with a partner is so important to getting the distance down as well as understanding how valuable the atajo is. I am so happy that my experience with the Generals will help you. I have found that they are the best foundation for practicing LVD as it combines pretty much all of the essentials (distance, atajo, footwork, angles). Let me know how it works out.