Sometimes I will see two people fencing, and either a few exchanges in or after the bout they will say “I didn’t notice you/they were a lefty” or some variation thereof. When I was briefly fencing left-handed due to tennis elbow in my right elbow last year, I sometimes got the same thing. Sometimes people realized right away, and sometimes they did not. I have also been there, earlier in my longsword fencing journey it would take me a while or an entire match to realize that my opponent was left handed. My first tournament comes to mind, fencing in my first elimination match, I did not realize my opponent was left handed until after the match. Here I will explain why I think you should notice that right away, and how it will help your fencing.
Now when I am fencing, right handed or left handedness is one of the first things I look for when I am fencing someone new. I do have to say that my club has more left-handed people than the general population, so that is probably a contributing factor as to why it’s something that I look for, or at least a trigger to me starting to look for it. At the time of my first tournament, I had been doing longsword for about half a year and there were no left-handers in my club, and my background was in kendo in which fencing left-handed was not allowed. So if you are in a situation in which you don’t regularly get to fence against left-handed people, I can understand why you might not notice it at first. But now that I do look for it, I think it’s important, and also speaks to the larger issue of observing your opponent.
So why do I think it’s so important now? Well, I don’t think it’s more important than any other observation in and of itself, but it is an aspect of your opponent’s game that is easily observed; it’s the low-hanging fruit of observation. Whether the match is righty vs lefty (RvL) or righty vs righty (RvR) is going to affect the tactics used by both sides. There has less of an effect in longsword than in one handed swords, but it is still there. The key differences are direction of strong sided attack, and which side has open arms vs crossed arms when they move the handle of their sword to either side. I go into this a little bit in my Fechtlehre article about double hits. This article is not about the RvL matchup in particular, but the idea of taking and using observable information from your opponent. Maybe I’ll make an article specifically about the RvL matchup in the future.
I think it’s important to gather as much information about how your opponent fences and what they are likely to do in order to form a game plan for it. When doing this, handedness is probably the second easiest thing to notice after height, because you don’t have to watch them prepare or do any fencing, you just need to see what hand is near the guard when they hold their sword. I think it’s fair to say if you don’t notice if they are right or left handed, then you won’t notice other, more subtle things about their fencing.
An argument against this is that you should just go in and do your own fencing, and not let things like the rules or the way other people play get in their way. Some fencers go so far as to say they actively ignore the rules and just try to do their own thing. I think to an extent that’s true, you should have a game plan, know your own strengths and weaknesses, and play to your strengths. But your game plan should also include contingencies for different situations. Adjustments to your standard plan should be prepared and practiced in order to adapt to different rulesets and styles of fencers, either to counter their plan or bring the bout into your area of excellence. You are still doing your fencing, it’s just that your fencing also includes the ability to adapt. If it does not, then you may develop a game that beats a lot of people, but you will hit a brick wall when you fence someone who does things differently, or who is able to adapt.
The same is true if you’re trying to represent a specific fencing source or tradition, such as Fiore or RDL. If your source is good, then it should provide the tools to deal with different tactical situations such as fencing people with different body types or fencing under different rulesets. Your job as the fencer is to figure out which tools provided by your source to emphasize in a given situation.
The main idea here is it’s always beneficial to make observations about your opponent and form a game plan based on what you observe. The game plan will still be your fencing, but different aspects of it can be emphasized. Noticing whether someone is right-handed or left-handed is the low-hanging fruit of observation. If you’re not noticing whether they are right or left-handed, there are probably other things that you are not noticing. If you make an active effort to observe things like this, then you may start to see patterns, which will help you make decisions in your own fencing.