The Scheitelhau, also known as the “Parting Strike,” is the subject of some debate. Some HEMAists find it a useful master strike, while others consider it useless. I found out about this debate when trying to teach the technique in my Longsword Basics class back in December.
You see, four of the five master strikes are meant for getting around the four basic guards in German longsword. Don’t worry if you’re new to all this and don’t know any of these terms, as none but Scheitelhau and Alber will be getting used for the rest of this article. Just know that master strikes are more complex techniques designed to execute simultaneous attack and defense. Zwerchau beats Vom Tag, Krumphau beat Ochs/Ox, Schielhau beats Plow/Pflug, and our friend Scheitelhau defeats the Fool/Alber guard.
Above: The figure on the right is in a good position to execute the Scheitelhau against the figure on the left, who is standing in Alber. For any sticklers: Yes I know the figure on the right is actually illustrating one of the secondary guards in Mair’s treaties where this image was taken from, but it illustrates my point. Bite me.
For anyone new to HEMA, the Fool/Alber guard pointing so far downward, might seem …well…foolish. By all appearances it leaves the user wide open to any attack from above. However, it can be an effective way to set up a counter thrust or short/ inside edge cut, or to bait your opponent into attacking you and creating an opening for you to exploit. Veteran fighters are well aware of this method behind the apparent madness and are therefore wary of charging headlong into someone standing in in this guard. But completely backing off in the face of any technique is for quitters, and we aren’t quitters here. No sir.
Enter the Scheitelhau. The idea is to make a vertical cut from above your head, arms outstretched to maximize your reach, and strike your opponent in the head or face. If done right and timed well, you will ideally outreach your opponent in Alber while still being able to make a clean hit. Now as any practitioner of any martial art will tell you, nothing ever works 100% of the time. Someone quick on their feet can easily evade or deflect an incoming strike to the head. Also remember: the Alber is an excellent guard for executing counter thrusts or cuts.
This brings us full circle to me discovering the debate over Scheitelhau the hard way. When demonstrating the Scheitelhau to a group of students one day, one of them aptly noted that it was easy to simply bring their sword up from Alber and attack my outstretched arms with a short-edge cut. I noted this and decided to do more research, because it felt like I was missing something. Had I misunderstood the technique? Was there an extra mechanic I had forgotten about? Were the masters of yore who wrote down all these techniques wrong?
For those pressed for time: sort of, yes, and no. For those sticking around to get more detail, here’s the scoop. For the “Sort of” and “Yes” answers: I had the general idea of the technique down. Cut from on high, hit the head or chest. Do a bit of stabby-stabby afterwards if the first part doesn’t work (the subject of a future article, to be sure). Got that down. What I had misunderstood, or more misremembered, is how high my arms needed to be. Reflecting on how I had done the technique when I was teaching it, I had let myself lapse into executing a glorified oberhau (basic cut from above for new HEMAists), which destroyed the point of the technique. I had forgotten that my arms needed to be kept high to protect them and maximize my reach. This leads to the “No” answer. Most of the treatises I have seen on the Scheitelhau don’t say this outright, but it is stated by Nicolaus Augsburger’s treatise, where he says:
Execute the hair cut [another name for the Scheitelhau] like this: when you come to the opponent with the initiation of fencing, if they position themselves against you in the fool's guard, advance your left foot and hold your sword high above your head with outstretched arms in the roof guard and dart into them and cut down from above strongly and keep your arms high and sinking your point downward into their face or chest.
The Pseudo Peter Von Danzig treatise doesn’t say anything explicitly about this, but one of its illustrations shows the attacker (figure on the left in the image below) already having their arms up when starting to block their opponent's counter-attack.
It is also important to remember that timing is important for executing any strike and landing any hit. Sure, you may technically be able to hit someone on the head if they’re staying in a low guard, but if your opponent has been in their low guard for more than a moment they can easily thwart your cut with a block or cut of their own (like a short edge cut to your hands). But, if you time it right, you can make it work.
Hugh Knight effectively explains this in the video linked at the end of this article. He explains that if you wait until your opponent has stopped moving into a guard, you are much more likely to fail in your attempt to land a hit. If, however, you move in with the Scheitelhau as your opponent is moving into Alber, it will be much harder for your opponent to bring their sword up in time to thwart you, giving you the precious moments needed to move in and strike your opponent’s head or chest. Easier said than done, I know, but that’s what makes this a master strike instead of a basic technique.
So, is the Scheitelhau useful? Honestly, despite all the information above, there is no clear answer. It may just depend on you and your fighting style, which might be affected by things you can’t necessarily change. You may be a faster or slower fighter than others. Maybe your reach is longer or shorter depending on your height. Or you just may or may not like using the technique for any reason at all. Ultimately the only way to find out is to try it for yourself.
This is of course a short discussion article and not meant to be an exhaustive research or opinion on the subject. If you’d like to do more research for yourself or see where I got some of my information outside of personal experience, a list of some of my source material can be found below....