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How to teach left-handers

I was recently contacted by a reader asking about teaching left handed students. It’s a common and relatively complex problem, so rather than confine my answer to an email I thought I’d post it here.

The Question

How do you teach left-handers?

Why it’s a problem

Left handers are relatively rare (about 10% of the population, including my dad and my sister), and most of the historical martial arts treatises we work with don’t say much about them. Capoferro has one plate of rapier and dagger showing how to murder a leftie:

Fiore mentions that the guard of coda longa on horseback works against right or left handers (click on the image to expand it, and you can read the text and the translation by Tom Leoni):

Perhaps the biggest section of any treatise dealing explicitly with lefties is in Jeu de la Hache, but it’s still a small proportion of the overall material.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many of the techniques we recreate from the sources simply don’t work the same way as shown in the books when done cross handed. In addition, right handers don’t see many left-handers, so in combat sports generally, left handers tend to be far more common at the top levels than they are in the general population. This is entirely due to familiarity. Everybody knows how to handle righties- we see them all the time. (For an interesting book that also addresses this in some detail, see The Professor in the Cage, which is well worth reading if you have any interest in martial arts…)

The question is about teaching lefties, not fighting them, so I’ll address that. (If you want my best advice for fighting left handers it’s this: fight them a lot. You’ll get better at it.)

What difference does handedness make?

In blade on blade actions, not much. Principally, inside and outside are not symmetrical [For those unfamiliar: if the sword is in your right hand, everything to the left of the blade as you see it is ‘inside’, and everything to the right is ‘outside’.] If we are both same-handed and our blades are crossed, we will both be either on the inside or on the outside of each other’s blades. But when one of us is differently handed, if you are on my inside, I’m on your outside, and vice-versa. This means that some targets are different, and the angles of attack may be different. But usually, the rules regarding how to attack remain the same. For example, I would only push your elbow if I’m on the outside of your arm. That doesn’t change; what changes is how I would get to your outside, and which of my hands may be able to reach your elbow.

In wrestling at the sword, it makes a great deal more difference.

Tricky to pull off cross-handed. Trans. by Tom Leoni.











This wrap, for instance, only works well using the opposite arm (eg left against right) and from the inside of the wrapped person’s arm. Because this is over both arms, it can be used cross-handed, but you won't get the same control of the sword arm.

Likewise this counter rarely occurs cross-handed at the longsword, because the preceding wrap would have to be done by the sword arm, which is unusual (though you can see it in I.33, f.18.v).

Ligadura sottana, 15th play of the zogho stretto. Trans by Tom Leoni











I include specific examples of techniques adapted from symmetrical drills to cross-handed versions in chapter seven of The Medieval Longsword. In case you don't have it to hand, I've extracted it for you here:

Medieval Longsword sample Cross-handed

So that's the problem. What's the solution? There are several approaches you can take:

Approaches to the problem:

1) make everyone train right handed. I think this is a bad idea if your goal is to produce great practitioners, but if your goal is to perfectly reproduce the plays of a specific treatise, in which everyone is right-handed, then it makes sense. When Christian Tobler began researching German medieval sources, he switched from his natural left handedness to do everything right handed because it was much easier than converting everything.

2) make everyone train both sides. I think this is advisable up to a point- I would expect all my senior students to be able to do all our basic drills and actions with either hand, and any professional instructor to be able to demonstrate anything within their art with either hand. But it’s probably not the best way to train beginners.

3) create specific ‘cross-handed’ variations of every major drill or exercise you use. I think this is essential. The basic drills usually assume two right-handers. Two left-handers can do exactly the same drill, it’s just mirrored. The problems only start when there are a right hander and a left hander training together. I include set forms for the cross handed version of every basic drill in my syllabi.

Advice to instructors:

  • If your syllabus is lacking cross-handed drills, create them. You can do this by setting up the drill and seeing where you (as a lefty) get stuck. Then following the basic principles of the art, solve the problem. When the problem is solved, incorporate that solution into the ‘cross-handed version’.
  • When you have a lefty in class, it’s your job to make sure that they learn the standard form of the drill (i.e. with a fellow left hander, which may have to be you), as well as the cross handed forms. Also, you should take advantage of their presence to accustom your other students to dealing with cross-handed situations.
  • As the instructor, you can always require the senior students to reverse their handedness (so lefties become righties, and vice versa), which gives  everyone else the chance to face the less-common situation.
  • Start with the simplest drills- make sure that you can do all the solo drills in your syllabus with your left hand, and can see what they should look like in your students when they are left handed.
  • Set up a basic pair drill, and see what happens. At any given point, the left-hander should be behaving normally for them. Never ask them to attack differently or switch hands for the convenience of the right hander (unless they are very experienced and the righty is a beginner).

I hope that's helpful! Feel free to make any suggestions or ask questions in the comments below.

For more on how to teach, you may find these posts useful:

How to get started teaching historical martial arts

How to teach a basic class

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

6 Responses

  1. My experience as a left-handed rapier fighter is that, while the essential motions are the same no matter what (a lunge is a lunge, a cavazione a cavazione), the tactics are significantly different. For a left-handed fighter, the closest target provided by an opponent is their sword arm, and vice versa. A lot of my plays revolve around feinting to the extended arm and exploiting the opponent’s attempted defense (it’s appalling how often they take their point off line in the process). By the same token, it is much more common for me to have to defend to my inside line than my outside. If I’m not paying attention at practice, I come home with a lot of bruises on my left shoulder and pectoral. You covered this gently in the above article, but I’d emphasize what I consider the crucial point: The left handed fighter provides a problem not in performing specific plays, but in choosing when and how to execute them for success. I’m always worried when a novice fighter tells me they’re ambidextrous; it suggests that rather than having a left-handed and a right-handed plan for how to win a fight, they have no plan at all.

  2. Tangential but topical:

    I “discovered” a cool disarm that works well only against someone of the opposite handedness. I study German longsword for the most part but I’ll do my best to use Italian vocabulary. Assuming a right-handed fencer deploying the attack against a lefty; also, assuming that a mandritto fendente is “uncrossed arms” cut and roverso fendente is “crossed arms” cut regardless of what hand you fence with:

    Bring the weapon to posta di donna la sinestra to invite a mandritto fendente from your lefty opponent. When the cut comes, cut into it with roverso fendente and step in strongly. If all goes well you’re in a good position to take your left hand off your weapon, grab their ricasso, and yank the weapon straight out of their hands (maybe with a hip twist).

    Obviously a lefty could deploy this against a righty as well. It basically relies on goading the opponent into attacking from their strong side into your weak side, which makes it particularly useful in mixed-handedness situations. It doesn’t work so well for same-handedness because you’d both have to attack from the weak side to end up in the right position for the disarm.

    I haven’t drilled this a lot or had a chance to try it in practice, but I think it could work. I’d be interested if something like this is in the literature or if others have tried something similar.

  3. Both Fabris and Alfieri have plays and comments on what to do against left handers as well.

    As a left hander, think you are definitely correct in doing cross handed variations for drills, but can apply to doing manual work as well. Generally when we are looking at a play for a Manual, we do it first “correctly” (both using right hands as demonstrated) to get the fell for what the play is trying to accomplish, then “bugger it up” by switching to using contrary hands to work out a way to accomplish the same result (or similar) maintaining the same concepts that were demonstrated in the written play. We often find that you may later see what you were practicing later in the manual as well, we found this especially with Capo Ferro.

    A couple of other things we found useful were was changing terminology. You don’t have left and right, you have Dominant and weak, or Sword and off hand sides, and inside and outside lines (not left or right). This makes saying what people should be doing and where they should be stepping much easier.

    Another basic trick we found is when demonstrating, put your lefties on your right when facing them doing line work. This means they’re not craning their necks over their shoulders to look as you.

  4. Hiya Guy, I am naturally left handed. With single handed swords I tend to prefer my natural hand. With longsword, despite the admonitions of the German Masters, working right handed does not seem to be a problem. I have just recently started to play left handed with the long sword though and I find it to be delightful. The emphasis is towards the outside of your opponent. Simultaneous warding cut like a zornhau make more sense from this position if your goal is to strike as you block. It causes cognitive dissonance in opponents as well to strike from the left handed postures. My intention is to play more as a lefty. I will get back to you on this 🙂

  5. I am ambidexterose but I have some tasks preferred to certain hands. Writing left. Eating with forks. Throw right handed. Swords either I train right then flip it to be sinister in all sence of the word. I prefer right handed grip for longsword. But easily switch for sword and dagger and buckler. Duel wielding comes along well. I like teaching left handers the ren faire group I play with always sends the lefty customers that want a few moves to me. Nice article I encourage all groups and teachers to have a senior lefty on call.

  6. I’m fencing (sport) coach and instruct left handed fences. Generally, it6not helpful to replicate right-handed fencing as a left-hander will face a right-hander more often than not. Better to highlight the vulnerabilities of the right handed fencer, and have the left hander capable to exploit them.

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