Our new season is now open: Spring 1677 !
This is a skill.
Rapier fencing was the first truly “civilian” system of fencing, maximized for single combat and meant to be used without either any secondary arms (although their use continued for quite some time) or protective armour. Originating in Italy, rapier fencing spread throughout Europe.
The rapier was a weapon in almost constant evolution, from its birth in the mid-16th century, until its gradual replacement by the smallsword in France, England, and Germany, at the end of the seventeenth century, and the spada da terrena (dueling sword) in Italy, during the waning years of the eighteenth. Generally speaking, a rapier is a long-bladed sword with a complex hilt, optimized for the thrust but still capable of debilitating cuts. The blade is fairly thin and stiff, and counter-balanced to provide greater point control. Rapiers were neither light nor flimsy; a typical rapier of c.1600 had a blade of 42” in length, a weight of 2.5 – 3 lbs, and was capable of parrying the blows of broad-bladed military swords, including the now old-fashioned longsword. The rapier’s swept hilt was a direct inheritance of the innovations made to the arming sword at the turn of the 16th century, and this in turn was replaced by the cup-hilt in second quarter of the 17th century.
Here are some top tips for rapier fencing by Tom Leoni.
Failing to learn how to stand in guard
Consequences: Poor balance, compromised defense, impairment in required mobility, sloppiness, sub-standard fencing performance.
Correction: First, understand that a guard is not just a randomly-chosen starting position. It is a carefully-formed defensive posture designed also to maximize mobility, offensive potential and effectiveness of everything you do while fencing. Then, study the guard(s) of your period-master of choice very meticulously. Analyze the relative positions of the limbs and body the way you would with a life-drawing model. Get a precise idea of where the weight is placed (hint: for most 17th-C Italian masters it will be on the rear foot). Lastly, learn to duplicate this posture with your body and your sword until it becomes second nature. In this regard, a mirror helps immensely. Remember: if you can’t do it, it’s because of you, not because "the period master had no sense of balance."
Keeping the right arm and wrist too stiff
Consequences: Inability to perform many techniques correctly and in tempo, early fatigue.
Correction: Put the sword down and practice this exercise (since in most historical Italian rapier styles the arm is more extended than withdrawn, this will apply to all of them). Get in your in-guard position. Observe your arm and your (empty) hand. You should look as if you were casually extending your arm/hand to offer someone an apple. Make sure there is a bend in your elbow - how much of one depends on your guard - but it should always be there. Make sure that your hand is in a perfectly natural position, without any strain on it (holding an apple doesn’t call for any force). If you have a training partner, she should be able to make your arm bend without effort just by simultaneously tapping down at the bend of your elbow and up at your wrist. Once you are comfortably familiar with this "feel," add the sword, gripping it gently and without tension. Remember this. The only limb that is ever completely locked in historical Italian rapier is the left leg at the moment of completion of the lunge. So keep your right arm supple and you’ll be amazed at the increased mobility and finesse you’ll be able to achieve.
Flinging the sword-arm forward in the course of a thrusting attack
Consequences: The sword is weakened, point-control inaccurate and sloppy, and you develop the further habit of withdrawing the arm to prepare for the thrust.
Correction: This is a problem on which Fabris spends a long chapter in his book. While in early-16th-Century swordsmanship this technique was acceptable, by Fabris’ age it had become anathema - and remained so throughout the Classical Fencing age. To correct it, make sure that as you deliver a thrust, the sword is carried by the body and the feet rather than by the arm. Depending on how extended your guard is, the arm needs to move either very little or not at all (and always before the body and the foot). This is achieved by drilling repetition and careful self-observation. But once you develop the right technique, you will notice how much stronger your sword is vis a vis the opponent’s (as your whole body-weight will be behind it) as well as how much more accurate your attacks are. Also, when you free-fence and your initial attack fails, learn to be humble and retreat rather than sloppily walking forward in the blind attempt to land one of your wild jabs on the opponent. A point so gained is worth much less than a point received in good form.
Turning the front foot inward while lunging
Consequences: Sloppiness, diminished strength and point-control.
Correction: This is the easiest one of all: practice the lunge and be aware of it until this bad habit disappears. Besides looking amateurish, lunging with a "crooked foot" disrupts your skeletal alignment and makes your lunge less accurate and much easier to parry.
Always staying out of measure and developing your game around sniping at the opponent’s forearm or hand
Consequences: Fencers who make this their game run the risk of having 90% of the art fall into atrophy - ending up little more than one-trick ponies.
Correction: While arm-shots have their place in 17th-Century Italian rapier, they are a relatively negligible footnote of the art compared to body and head-shots. As Rosaroll Scorza and Grisetti say as late as 1803, real fencing involves taking the measure from the opponent’s body. The best course against developing this habit is being honest with yourself and deciding whether you fence to score easy hits or to learn the complete art. If it is the latter, you must learn to sacrifice some easier shots for historically-correct (and more difficult) ones to the body. Two extremes at the opposite end of this spectrum are Fabris (who only shows hits to the chest and flank) and electrified sport epee (where the arm is the only target save for rare exceptions, and even the lightest touch can result in the buzzer going off). Both are valid disciplines - pick which one you want to pursue and stick with it. Also, for correctness’ sake, when you fence an unfamiliar opponent, clarify which rules you want to use - there is nothing un-martial about it.
Circling around the opponent to find an opening or a tempo
Consequences: Besides being quite far out of style (no Italian master advocates this action), you will rapidly lose your form and achieve the opposite result than the one you are looking for. Your opponent can follow you very efficiently as a "turret" placed in the center of the circumference you describe while walking in circles - and every step you take is a good tempo for him to defeat you.
Correction: When you drill, force yourself and your partner to confine your lateral movements to the space of one foot or little more. I know that many like to think of rapier as a free-floating primitive style with no rules and, wanting to depart from what they are accustomed to see in sport fencing, they make it a point to "fence in the circle." But this is (possibly) even more historically inaccurate than if one were to adopt a perfect classical-foil style rapier in hand. If you don’t want to take my word for it (and you should not), read all the extant Italian rapier treatises from Fabris to Di Mazo.
Making wild and random hand-parries
Consequences: This leads to the habit of chasing the opponent’s point with the hand, thus becoming ineffective and exonerating the sword from its important defensive role.
Correction: Depending on which master you study, identify the hand parries he describes and illustrates. You will be amazed at how few there are - often they are only four (one per line) and very precise. Then, make it a part of your drilling routine to practice them. Make sure that as you perform them, your gloved hand remains open or just barely cupped with all five fingers held together. Besides being the historically-correct way to perform hand-parries, this will prevent you from falling into the habit of grasping the opponent’s blade - something deprecated by Fabris as "a miserable way to defend." Many judged non-SCA historical-fencing tournaments now deduct points for grabbing the opponent’s blade (something on which I tend to agree).
Being unable to slow actions down while drilling, and executing everything with jerky and uncontrolled motions
Consequences: Failing to know how to slow actions down will seriously impair your ability to learn - period. Besides, you will end up looking like a hand-puppet when you fence.
Correction: Every functional human being has the capability to execute any given motion at various speeds, so when this does not happen sword-in-hand we need to identify and eliminate the root-causes. A very common one is extreme stiffness of the limbs. This stiffness inhibits the interaction between antagonistic muscles, and causes all motions to take the form of erratic shudders. So make sure that your body is extremely relaxed when you practice - from your hand-muscles to your neck and shoulders all the way down to your feet. Another cause is psychological. There is the illusion (even when drilling with a cooperative partner) that no action can succeed unless it is performed at blinding speed. Controlled speed should be the goal, not the starting point when building up fencing motor-skills. So make sure you can execute any action as slow as physically possible, remaining aware of what muscles are involved, where your weight is and how accurate and conservative your motions are.
Transitioning directly from a martial, in-guard stance to a casual, purposeless and formless posture at the end of an action
Consequences: In the body-language of any martial art, you should clearly communicate whether you are ready to fight, fighting or done fighting to your opponent and to whoever may be watching. This not only for the obvious aesthetic reasons, but also for the sake of martial soundness. Once developed, the habit of transitioning directly from your fighting stance to nothing will creep into your fencing, take my word for it. And when the opponent hits you as you do this, shame on you; his point is won fairly and squarely. As Fabris says: "When you have a sword in your hand, always assume you are in guard." No excuses!
Correction: We know from numerous forms of historical European sword-arts that starting and ending actions, stances and routines were taught, employed and encouraged. These range from the common salute to the elaborate solo-forms of the Bolognese school, or from the "first position" in Classical fencing to the gracefully complex salute in XVIIIth-Century French smallsword. At the very least, before and after any drill routine or free-fencing bout, every school should adopt an "at ease" position that is still martial while being somewhere between a fencing stance and the purposeless attitude of just a guy holding a sword. In our school, we use a position similar to Viggiani’s first guard, in which we simulate having the sword in our scabbard. Thus, when we face one-another even for a drill, we begin in that position, we "unsheathe" the sword with our hand in prima and form the guard - at which point the drill can start. At the end of the drill, we "stand up" from our guard with the sword still extended at the opponent, and then "re-sheathe" it. This is an effective way to communicate to our partner and the spectators when we are about to start fencing and when we are done. Ditto when free-fencing, although in this case adding a salute is a necessary form of respect.
Dealing with Your Opponents moves
If the Opponent..Then You Should...
Keeps his sword withdrawn so you cannot reach it (find it) with yours to secure the line
Use the counter-postures instead of finding his sword. Place your forte so that it intercepts the imaginary line from his point to your body - thereby making that line of attack unavailable to him - and direct your point to the closest opening. Do not advance into measure; let him do so, and use the tempo of his step to defeat him. If he frantically brings the sword forward to parry, switch lines and defeat him with a feint.
Relies heavily on his left hand to grab your sword in preparation for his attacks
Keep your sword at a slight upward angle, so that he will have to lift his hand to reach your debole. As he does so, use that tempo to cavazione around his fingers and deliver a thrust in fourth under his arm. You will notice that the left hand is easier to deceive than the sword.
Keeps molesting your sword with his from out of measure
Drop your sword-point, draw your body back and widen your stance by bringing your right foot forward (see Fabris, plate 11). This way, your point will be unavailable for him to molest, and you will look farther out of measure, encouraging him to advance. As he does so, lift your sword and lunge at the nearest opening by a quick extension of the body - you won't even need to move your feet by virtue of your wide step.
Keeps attacking you with wild "charges" and multiple, uncontrolled arm-extension thrusts
Opponents who fence in this manner have very little reach because they seldom employ a proper lunge. This is one case when it is safe to parry and riposte in two tempi: pass back with your right foot (maintaining the right side of your body forward) while parrying his first arm-extension thrust, then deliver the riposte in the form of a good stramazzone to the head. Sometimes, you won't even need to parry, the void from the backward pass being enough: in this case, arrest his forward motion with a stop-thrust to the head or upper chest.
Is good at parrying your attacks, but does not counter or riposte
Employ a simple attack to find out the pattern of his parries. Then, anticipate his parry with a feint; for instance, if he always foils an inside attack with a simple parry in fourth, feint that attack and as he motions for the parry, cavazione to the outside and thrust at his chest or flank in terza.
Is considerably taller than you or has a much longer sword
Remember: by virtue of his longer reach, he will be in measure before you. Make sure that you use the counterposture to secure any line he may use. When he steps into his measure, use that tempo to quickly pass to either side of his sword - but as straight as possible, so as to not lose any distance. Use either the forte or your left hand to secure the line and complete the pass all the way to his body.
Tries to get an advantage by walking around you in circles
This is one of the best gifts an opponent can give you, for every step he takes is a favorable tempo for you to attack, provided that you are in measure. Subtly adjust your feet so that your stance (and the point of your sword) is always directed at him: you will be the center of his circumference. As he comes into measure, predict what his next step will be and meet him there with a well-placed thrust.
Keeps breaking measure every time you advance
Change your game completely, and start retreating. This will give him a false sense of security, and he will start advancing in turn. Make sure that you always maintain the advantage of the sword and/or counterposture. As he advances into measure, use that tempo to deliver a thrust (with or without a feint).