We in the historical swordsmanship community are often asked about drawing the sword. I wrote a short chapter on it in my book Swordfighting. The chapter was short because there isn’t much information in the sources! I think this is because most sources are concerned with swordsmanship for the duel in a European culture, which for some unknown reason has always begun with the swords already drawn. There’s no tradition of the quick-draw (unlike in Japan, for instance, or the Wild West, for another instance).
Let us begin with Fiore’s sword drawing plays, and then have a look at what other masters have to say on the subject. Fiore gives us five plays of the sword in the scabbard against the dagger, but in each of them, the scabbarded sword is being carried in the hands, either point up or point down. This was actually a quite common way to carry your sword, much as we might carry an umbrella today. This is from folio 19v:
Questo e un partido de daga contra spada. Quello che a daga e tene quello della Spada per lo cavezo dise io te feriro cum mia daga inanci che tu cavi la spada dela guagina. E quello de la spada dise tra puro che son aparechiado. E come quello dela daga vol trare, quello de la spada fa segondo che depento qui dredo.
This is a situation of the dagger against the sword. The one with the dagger has the one with the sword by the collar [and] says: “I will strike you with my dagger before you can draw the sword from its scabbard”. And the one with the sword says “strike as you will for I am prepared”. And as the one with the dagger wants to strike, the one with the sword does the action as it is shown after this.
Note: I translate partido here as “situation” rather than “technique” as it fits better, because a ‘technique of the dagger against the sword’ would imply that the dagger is doing the technique (and will therefore win), which is not the case here. You’ve got to love the smack-talk, which is actually rendered as dialogue. Also note how careful Fiore is to let us know who is doing what: ‘the one with the sword’ or ‘the one with the dagger’.
Also note: Alberto Dainese spotted an error and kindly emailed me to correct it. Thanks Alberto!
The action that follows is lovely: drop the point of the scabbarded sword onto the attacker’s elbow, controlling their weapon; then draw the sword and run them through. Like so:
Quando costuy leva lo brazo per darme de la daga subito glo posta la guagina apozada al suo brazo de la daga per modo che non mi po far impazo. E subito sguagino la mia spada e si lo posso ferire inanci che’ello mi possa tochare cum sua daga. Anchora poria torgli la daga dela mano per lo modo che fa lo primo magistro de daga. Anchora porave ligarlo in ligadura mezana ch’e lo terzo zogo d’la daga del primo magistro ch’e rimedio.
When this man lifts his arm to give me [a strike] of the dagger, I immediately put the scabbard on his dagger arm in such a way that he cannot cause me any trouble. And immediately I unsheathe my sword and can strike him before he can touch me with his dagger. Also I could take the dagger out of his hand in the way that the first master of the dagger does. Also I could have bound him in the middle lock, that is the third play of the dagger, of the first master that is a remedy [master].
This is quite straightforward, and you can see how I do it here:
Yes, I include the trash-talking dialogue!
There are some interesting depths to this. Firstly, you have to love the idea of using your scabbarded sword to constrain the opponent. We tend to think of the scabbard being always attached to a belt, but in fact it was quite common for swords to be carried, especially in town. They would often be handed over to the servants with your cloak and hat when you entered a home. It’s interesting to note that Fiore specifies that you constrain ‘the dagger arm’, rather than ‘his right arm’. This allows for the possibility of left-handed attackers (as are explicitly mentioned on f43v in the context of mounted combat), and echoes the sixth play of abrazare.
Okay, I’ll briefly digress into the abrazare…
The abrazare section begins with the master, shown controlling the player’s arms. The next play shows his scholar breaking the player’s left arm, the one that was extended to the master’s collar. The third play shows what you should do if the player removes their arm from your collar while or before you are trying to break it. The fourth play shows what to do if the original grip is the same, but the player has the right foot forwards. This foot placement prevents both the arm break, and the throw, and requires you to throw them in the other diagonal. The fifth play shows the counter to a situation where the player has grabbed you round the waist (but their feet are as they were in the first-third plays). The sixth play is the first counter-remedy master shown in the entire book, so pay attention:
Io son contrario del Vto zogo denanci apresso. Esi digo che se cum la mia mane dritta levo lo suo brazo de la sua mane che al volto mi fa impazo, faro gli dar volta per modo ch’io lo metero in terra, per modo che vedeti qui depento, overo che guadagnaro presa o ligadura, e de tuo abrazar faro pocha cura.
I am the counter of the fifth play immediately before me. And so I say that with my right hand I lift his arm, of the hand that offends my face, I make him turn in such a way that I put him on the ground, in the way that you see shown here, or I can gain a grip or a lock, and I’ll make your wrestling [skills] useless.
The point I’m interested in here is this: he specifies that you should push the arm that belongs to the hand that is at your face. And you can see that while doing the fifth play exactly as shown has the scholar’s right arm at the face, in the sixth play the counter-remedy master is pushing his opponent’s left arm. This is not a mistake, as such. It’s a general principle, showing what it would look like if the scholar used the other hand.
This is a handy illustration of a) the need to read the text- just following the pictures exactly would be impossible, and b) the fact that these are plays not just techniques. The play will often embody a principle that can be applied in other situations. Returning to the sword against the dagger: it may be obvious that you should constrain the dagger arm, not the other…. Except, in the fifth master of the dagger, you can do either. The master himself, on f38r (which has been bound in the middle of the mounted combat section; this folio belongs between f14 and f15), shows how to deal with an attacker who grabs you by the collar with one hand, and has a dagger in the other.
Io son Quinto Re Magistro per lo cavezzo tenudo di questo zugadore. Inanzi ch’ello mi traga cum sua daga, per questo modo gli guasto lo brazo, per che lo tenir ch’ello mi tene a mi e grande avantazo. Che io posso far tutte coverte, prese e ligadure degl’altri magistri rimedii, e di lor scolari che sono dinanzi. Lo proverbio parla per exempio. Io voglio che ognun ch’ascolaro in quest’arte sazza, che presa di chavezo nissuna deffesa no impaza.
I am the fifth king master held by the collar by this player. Before he strikes me with his dagger, in this way I destroy his arm, because the hold he has on me is a great advantage to me, so I can make all the covers, grips, and locks of the other remedy masters, and of their scholar that are before [me]. The proverb speaks by example. I want that everyone who is a scholar in this art to know that the grip on the collar does not hinder any defence.
The master and his first five scholars all deal with the extended arm, as do scholars eight and nine; the others (six, seven, ten and eleven) deal with the dagger arm. I interpret this as a matter of threat assessment: if the dagger is within reach, or coming towards you, deal with it; otherwise, destroy the extended arm. This clearly relates to the second and third plays of wrestling: if the extended arm is available, break it; if not, then throw. Here in the play of the sword against the dagger, Fiore is explicitly telling us to deal with the dagger arm- perhaps because even if it is held back as a threat, we can reach it with the scabbarded sword, when we couldn’t with just a hand.
This is quite straightforward, and you can see how I do it here:
Yes, I include the trash-talking dialogue!
This page continues with two other ways to do the same defence, starting with the sword held point down.
Questo sie un altro partito de spada e daga. Quello chi tene la spada cum la punta in terra per modo che vedete, dise aquello de la daga che lo tene per lo cavezo, Tra pur cum la daga a tua posta che in quello che tu vora trare cum la daga, io sbatero la mia spada soprano lo tuo brazzo, e in quello sguaginero la mia spada tornando cum lo pe dritto in dredo, e per tal modo ti poro ferire inanci cum mia spada che tu mi fieri cum tua daga.
This is another technique of the sword and the dagger. The one that has the sword with the point down in the way that you see, says to the one with the dagger that has him by the collar “Just strike with the dagger, with your guard in which you want to strike with the dagger, I will beat my sword over your arm, and in that [motion] draw my sword, passing the right foot back, in such a way that I can strike you with my sword before you strike me with your dagger.”
This is basically the same play, just done from a different starting point. You can see how I do it here:
Finally we have the scabbarded sword being swung up to defend against the dagger attack (a presaging of the plays of the sword in one hand, do you think?). Looking closely at the images, we see that the sword is being held differently: in the first image, where we whip the sword down onto the arm, the sword hand is thumb down; in the second, where we swing it up, it’s thumb up.
Does it make a difference? He doesn’t mention it in the text, but try it both ways and you tell me…
Questo e simile partito a questo qui dinanzi. Ben che non si faca per tal modo ch’e ditto e qui dinanzi. Questo zogo se fa per tal modo ch’e ditto qui dinanzi, che quando questo cum la daga levera lo brazo per ferirme, io subito levero la mia spada in erto sotto la tua daga, metendote la punta de la mia guagina dela spada in lo volto, tornando lo pe ch’e dinanzi in dredo. E chossi te posso ferire segondo ch’e depinto dredo a me.
This is a similar technique to the one that’s here before. But it isn’t done in the same way as is said in the one before. This play is done in in the way that is said here before, that when the one with the dagger raises his arm to strike me, I immediately raise my sword up under your dagger, putting the point of my sword’s scabbard in your face, passing back with the front foot. And so I can strike you in the way that is shown after me.
Then on the next page, f20r, we have the conclusion to this play. Note the way the sword is held like a very long dagger, which accords with the grip illustrated.
Questo zogo sie del magistro che fa lo partito qui dinanzi. Che segondo chello ha ditto per tal modo io fazo. Che tu vedi bene che tua daga tu no mi poy fare nissuno impazo.
This play is of the master that does the technique before this one. I do it in the way that he has said. You can well see that your dagger cannot cause me any trouble.
The text is a little confusing here- is it the same as the play before it, or not? As I read it, it’s similar, but not the same. The action is quite clear though. Here’s how I do it:
You can also see my take on how to do these plays in The Medieval Dagger, pp. 148-154.
Note that when the sword is high, you strike down, but when the sword is down, you can strike both downwards, and upwards. I find that the same general rule applies with the longsword guards; I don’t usually strike upwards from a high guard (though of course Fiore says that donna does all seven blows of the sword, so there are exceptions).
When not carried in the hand, swords were generally suspended from a waist belt in a scabbard, on the non-dominant side (so, on the left for right handers). Daggers, and very short swords, are usually worn the same side as the hand that will use them. The reason for this is blade length. If you snag a tape measure by your right hip and see how far you can pull it out with your right hand, then snag it by your left hip and try the same thing (with your right hand), you will find that drawing across your body allows you to draw a much longer weapon. On me the difference is 90cm (35”) to 130cm (51”).
Some seventy years after Fiore, Vadi shows this play (in his De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, folio 40r, from about 1485. See my The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest for a complete translation and commentary):
Unlike Fiore’s actions, this can be done with the scabbard attached to the belt, as one would expect, but is not shown that way here. The text reads only “Dagger technique” and “Finish of the technique”.
In his Gran Simulacro (from 1610), Capoferro does include a brief mention of drawing the sword, in the text regarding this plate:
Under the title “Way to Place the Hand on the Sword” (as I would translate it) he simply tells us to step back with the right foot, and extend your arm (presumably with the sword attached) in prima (above the shoulder), unless you have your left foot forwards, in which case you can unsheathe the sword without moving your feet. And if you have other weapons (cape or dagger), then draw your left foot back while presenting the sword in quarta (on your left) to keep the opponent away while you sort out your weapons.
That’s it. Nothing at all on how exactly to pull it out of the scabbard, to hold it, or anything like that.
The most detailed discussion of drawing the sword that I can find is in Girard Thibault’s glorious Academie de l’espee (1630, translated by John Michael Greer in 2006, published by Chivalry Bookshelf) He devotes chapter 3 to “The Correct Way of Drawing the Sword and Entering Into Measure”. Most interesting to me is his instruction to advance on the enemy while drawing, “meeting him with a spirited resolve”.
In Tabula III, up in the top left, you see four images, labelled A to D.
I will paraphrase the instructions for the sake of brevity:
A: After a few paces forwards, grab your hanger and scabbard with your left hand; step with your left foot, and as it lands, grip your sword with your right hand, with your forefinger over the outside arm of the hilt.
B: Keep stepping forwards; as your right foot lifts, grip the scabbard hard; lift your right foot higher than usual, draw the sword while opening your right hand [yes, he really says that]; pause your right foot in the air.
C: Close your right hand; turn the wrist; pick up your point in a half-circle until level with your shoulder, with your point back. Keep your arm slightly bent.
D: Bring the sword down in an overhand blow as you place your right foot; step with your left foot, and while it is moving, let the sword carry on down to your hip, while you turn the sword in your hand and put your thumb on the inside arm of the hilt. [Thibault has a very non-standard way to hold a sword.]
This goes on for another paragraph, and even with all these steps, you are still not yet in measure!
He also includes instruction on drawing while retreating, captured in images E, F, G and H, also on Tabula III.
Domenico Angelo covers the draw briefly, in his definitive l’Ecole des Armes (1763). I use “definitive” advisedly: in Diderot’s Encyclopedie, the first true Encyclopedia ever compiled (between 1750 and 1772), the entry on fencing is simply a complete reproduction of Angelo’s book. Malcolm Fare (owner of the copy of Thibault photographed above, and proprietor of the National Fencing Museum) notes that “Diderot’s Escrime section, although undated, is believed to have been published in 1765 (see the University of Michigan’s translation project, which identifies the section as being included in vol. 4, 1765), 2 years after the first appearance of L’Ecole des Armes.” (Private correspondence, June 7th 2016.)
This is from the English translation, The School of Fencing, produced by his son Harry in 1787, pages 4-5.
The First Position to Draw a Sword
You must stand straight on you legs, with your body sideways; keep your head upright and easy, look your adversary in the face, let your riht arm hang down your right thigh, and your left arm bend towards your left hip; your left heel should be near the point of your right foot, the point of your right foot in a line with your knee, and directed towards your adversary; and, holding your sword towards the dook of your scabbard, you must present yourself in order to draw.
In this position, fixing your eyes on your adversary, bend your right arm and raise it to the height of your shoulder, and carrying your hand the to the grip of your sword, which hold tight and firm, turning your nails toward the belt, draw your sword, raising your hand in a line with your left shoulder, and make a half circle, with vivacity, over your head, presenting the point in a line to your adversary, but no higher than his face, nor lower than the last rib, holding your arm straight, without stiffness in the elbow, or the wrist; in presenting thus the point, you must raise the left arm in a semi -circle, to the height of your ear, and single your left shoulder well, that the whole body may be in a profile; which instruction cannot be too closely attended to.
This is clearly not a quick-draw method! He is describing the formal draw at the beginning of an academy bout, perhaps, or a real duel, in which all the punctilios are being observed.
Note that in all these examples the draw is always done while out of measure; there are no sources I can find to tell us how to draw quickly when surprised. Perhaps because there is nothing to it; you just pull the damn thing out as fast as you can. As I said before, I think this is also because fast-draw techniques were not traditionally part of the fight; you draw out of measure, and then the duel begins. It was thought cowardly to strike while your opponent’s weapon is still in its scabbard.
Returning to Fiore (as ever), the plays of the sword in one hand begin (as we saw) with the sword held in the same position that it would be if it were in a scabbard attached to the waist. You certainly can do these plays incorporating a draw, and it's no coincidence that the sword in one hand plays follow on from this section on drawing the sword against the dagger. But, I am enough of a purist that because Fiore chose not to show the sword in a scabbard at the beginning of the sword in one hand section, I cannot see these plays as sword draws. If they were intended as such, it would be mentioned in the text (it isn't), or shown in the pictures (it isn't). You are of course entitled to your own opinion, which you're welcome to share in the comments!
This project is being published in stages. You can get part one, The Sword in One Hand, as a free PDF by subscribing to my mailing list below, or buy it in ebook format from Amazon or Gumroad. You can get Part two, Longsword Mechanics, from Amazon or Gumroad too! This post will be edited into part one when I put the four sections (Sword in One Hand, Mechanics, Largo, and Stretto) together into one volume for print.