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How to train swordsmanship (or anything else), part 2.

This post is extracted from the new The Rapier, Part 3: Developing Skills Workbook.

If you don't already have parts one and two, you can buy all three volumes at a healthy discount from Fallen Rook Press:

Parts 1-3 Right-handed layout

Parts 1-3 Left-handed layout


The “Rule of Cs”

The “Rule of Cs” determines how every drill can be practised.

1. In the beginning, you learn set drills by Co-operating in creating correct choreography.

2. Once the choreography is smooth, increase the difficulty by increasing intensity, or introducing a degree of freedom, with one player adjusting the difficulty for the other to learn at their most efficient rate—if it works all the time, ramp it up—if it fails more than twice in ten reps, ease off a bit.

This is called: Coaching correct actions.

3. Finally, the players each try within reason to make the drill work for them. This can be dangerous if it gets out of hand, so be careful, and wear full protection just in case. In practice, the more experienced fencer should get most of the hits, without departing from the drill. This is fine, and gives a good indication of whether your training regime is working. So: Compete.

Let’s stick with Plate 7 as our example and run through a specific series of degrees of freedom, and apply the Rule of C’s so you can see the idea in practice.

  • In the basic form of the drill, there are no degrees of freedom.
  • Set up the drill, but the one stringered can, at the moment of the stringering, attack by disengage, or feint. That is one degree of freedom.
  • Start out with the stringerer obliged to attack in both cases. This makes for a nice choreographical drill.
  • Once that is stable, then the stringerer will only attack if they believe they have the tempo. This is a second degree of freedom. The stringered’s job is then to sell the feint.
  • Now we must ask the question who is coaching who? Because if the stringerer is coaching the stringered, then they must adjust their response so that the stringered gets better at feinting. If it’s the other way round, then the stringered must adjust their feint so that the stringerer gets better at identifying feints from real attacks.
  • You can also play the drill competitively. Without changing the drill, but allowing these two degrees of freedom, you can compete with your partner. If you are stringering, you are just trying to get the tempo for the parry-riposte in one tempo; if you don’t get it, don’t go. Your partner will be trying to trick you into it, with the occasional feint. 

There is a significant risk of this getting out of hand; be mindful as you play the drill competitively that you must stick to the constraints of the drill that you have both agreed on. Otherwise you lose track of the rationale behind what you are doing, and mistakes creep in that are difficult to spot and to trace back to their source.


I kind of dropped you in it in the previous couple of drills: I got you coaching without teaching you exactly how. So let’s have a look at that specific skill. In any drill you must have a clear definition of success. In a tournament bout, that’s winning within the rules. In a basic set drill, it’s making the choreography as correct as possible.

  • In a coaching environment, the student’s success is defined as getting measurably better at the target skill.
  • The coach’s success is defined as: the student is successful.

Be very clear on this before moving on. If the coach is doing their job properly, they will get hit over and over. Because in fencing, the student is successful if, and only if, they hit the coach, but do not get hit.

The coach’s job is to create an environment in which the desired action will work, and everything else will fail. Failure is defined as the student not hitting, and getting hit.

The coach is providing a feedback mechanism. If the student is performing the desired action at the desired level, then they will be reinforced by immediate success; if they do anything else, or do the desired action at an insufficient level, the student fails to hit, and gets hit. 

This is why a good coach can get preternaturally fast results, because they can create and control a perfect learning environment, in real time.

In a perfect world, every historical fencer would have access to a high-level coach and spend much of their time one-to-one with her. In the real world, that’s never going to happen, so you and your partner must learn the basics of coaching so you can help each other develop.

As with every other skill, you will get better with specific practice. So in this next drill, let’s be clear about who’s training whom. We are studying coaching, so it is the coach whose performance we really care about. We measure that performance by the improvement of the student.

Coaching the Attack by Disengage

I have been preparing you for this over the last couple of workbooks. Begin with the Buckler Game. The one holding the buckler is the coach. You’ve done this many times before, so pay attention to the mindset: the total focus on your partner’s improvement. This is the mindset you’ll need for the following exercise.

You’re going to improve your partner’s attack by disengage. This action occurs in almost every Plate in Gran Simulacro, so it’s quite important.

  1. Start by setting up a static, basic version of Plate 7 and Plate 16, steps one and two. You step in to stringer, your partner attacks by disengage. Make sure the choreography is there, and that you both know what you’re going to be working on.
  2. Then reduce the window of opportunity for the attack by disengage, by stepping into measure, and immediately back out again. Not fast, but no pause. The student has to time their attack for when you will be there in measure.
  3. Then follow their attack with a strike of your own, in any line. They must be recovering, and parrying if necessary, after their attack.
  4. Then have the student keeping measure with you, waiting for your blade action (taking the line with a stringering) before they attack by disengage.
  5. Finally, have the student keeping measure, and remaining defensive after their successful (or unsuccessful) attack.

The coaching exercises we’ll be doing in the rest of the book will generally follow this same pattern:

  1. Set up the basic, static, drill
  2. Reduce the window of opportunity for the target action, by either reducing the time it’s open, or providing mechanical resistance
  3. Add a step: make sure the student is getting out under cover after striking
  4. Add movement: have the student do the action while moving (so the drill doesn’t start with them standing still). Refer to “Who moves first?”
  5. Add both the step and the movement, so they have to do the target action while moving, and remain defensive after striking.

We are scratching the surface here, but I hope you can see that this approach will turbo-charge your training by deliberately designing your success.

Let me know how it goes!

If you don't already have parts one and two, you can buy all three volumes at a healthy discount from Fallen Rook Press.

Parts 1-3 Right-handed layout

Parts 1-3 Left-handed layout

There won't be a part 3 in this series: if you want the full experience, you'll just have to buy the book!

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