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Tag: dagger

Screen Capture from the Dagger Course: the four blows

Last week I talked about the importance of swordsmen learning dagger techniques, and I promised I'd explain how to integrate training the dagger material with the longsword material. This needs to be done at the level of syllabus design, as well as within specific training sessions or classes. Let's start with the syllabus.

NOTE: In this post I'll be referring to lots and lots of specific drills from my syllabus. It would get ridiculously long if I wrote them all out, or even embedded the relevant video at every step. But you can find all of this material online on video on the Armizare syllabus page.

My Armizare syllabus is divided into seven levels, the first four of which are considered ‘basic'. If we take a look at the first couple of levels you'll see that the dagger content is spread out, as is the sword. Level one, for instance, covers the following:

Mechanics and Conditioning:

  • Weight distribution on the feet
  • Tailbone Alignment
  • The basic guard position
  • The guard positions
  • Standing Step drill (aka push-hands)
  • Basic falling, solo
  • Stick avoidance drill
  • Understanding of safe training, control, and School etiquette


  • Fiore footwork: 4 steps: accrescere, discrescere, passare, tornare; 3 turns: volta stabile, meza volta, tutta volta
  • Four unarmed poste: longa, dente de zenghiaro, frontale, porta di ferro


  • The meaning of the terms remedy, counter-remedy and counter-counter-remedy
  • 4 lines of attack: mandritto, fendente, roverso, sotto.
  • First remedy master (against mandritto or fendente)First 7 plays of the First Master
  • Roverso disarm (third master, from Pisani-Dossi MS), from Third remedy master (against roverso or fendente)
  • Fendente disarm (fourth master)
  • Sottano disarm (ninth master)


  • Five of The 12 guards: Tutta porta di ferro, posta di donna (both sides), posta longa, posta frontale, dente di zenghiaro
  • Two of the Seven Blows: Fendente, Sottano
  • Sword handling drill up, down, around, around.
  • Cutting drill, part one only.
  • The salute
  • First drill
  • Second drill

As you can probably see, there is a minimum of learning large chunks of data (such as all seven blows of the sword), and an emphasis on teaching just enough new elements that the student can start working on applications. So they learn one blow of the dagger, and one defence against it, then the same defence against another blow, then another and another, before they learn all four blows of the dagger as a set to memorise. They also have sword handling drills, and two full-length sword drills. The difficulties they face learning the sword drills will make the dagger material in the next level very welcome; it will solve a problem for them.

In Level Two, they will find:

Mechanics and Conditioning

  • Forearm conditioning: Wrist and Forearm Exercises
  • Forearm massage: Self Massage
  • Basic Breathing exercises
  • Guard position analysis with pressure
  • Volta stabile and pass with pressure
  • The footwork combinations: 1) accressere fora di strada, passare alla traversa, 2) accressere, 3 passi, with tutta volta.
  • Able to competently warm up self


  • The Nine Masters One thing from each of the Nine Remedy Masters
  • Dagger disarm flowdrill
  • The 5 things: disarm, strike, lock, break, takedown
  • Five things from four lines


  • All of the Blows, including the Mezani, and the 5 Punte
  • All of The 12 guards
  • Sword handling drill 3: six grips
  • Exchange of thrust
  • Breaking the thrust
  • Four corners drill
  • First two plays of sword in one hand

Now that the base has been laid in level one, it's quite easy to build on it in level two. Incidentally, I'm sure that some Fiore scholars will be horrified to see the lack of abrazare so far; that is coming in the next level, at which point, as with the dagger material, it will actively solve a problem for the students, rather than be something they have to plod through to get to the shiny sword.

At this stage, the students have a complete set of basic techniques for the dagger; all nine remedy masters, and all five things that Fiore tells us we need to know (on f9v of the Getty Ms).

This pattern of interleaving dagger and sword (as well as abrazare, spear, and so on) continues throughout the syllabus, though the dagger material is essentially complete by level four. It would be remiss of me not to mention the section of the manuscript that explicitly ties the dagger and sword sections together: the defences of the dagger against a sword attack, and the defences of the sword in the scabbard against a dagger attack. We do cover these in the syllabus, but much later than you would otherwise expect, because the defence of the dagger against the sword requires a) both partners to be able to attack safely with the sword and b) both partners to be able to do a pretty tricky technique. They will usually get there in level four when learning the Syllabus Form, which begins with the defence of the sword against the dagger.

Integrating dagger into the class:

In a well-taught class there is a coherent reason for including every item that is taught. It could simply be ‘you're working on this level, and you need to know this new thing'. That is, if you like, the most basic level of teaching: filling gaps in the students knowledge. For this, you must have a syllabus, and the students must be able to track their progress along the path laid out in the syllabus.

At the next level, there is teaching a single idea across different contexts. For example, in our second drill with the longsword, we have a ligadura mezana at step three (the counter-remedy). This first occurs at time 0.13 in this video.

The counter-counter-remedy first occurs at 0.20, and is the 15th play of the zogho stretto (as referred to in last week's post). Most students find this particularly difficult against an enthusiastically applied ligadura. If I'll be teaching second drill, I'll adjust the whole structure of the class to lead up to it. Let me take you through what that would look like, and run you through the usual structure for a 90 minute evening class in my salles at the same time:


Warm-up (10 min or so). This will emphasise shoulder mobility, to prepare for the locks.

Four guards drill, other footwork drills: 5-10 minutes. Possibly include the standing step drill, and work the ligadura and its counter into that.

Dagger (10-30 minutes): starting with first play first master (disarm), then on to the third and fourth plays (ligadura mezana and its counter). This will be taught from scratch, or revised, depending on the level of the class, and may go on to tactical applications, or executing the plays in more complex environments (such as the dagger disarm flowdrill) if the students are ready for it.

Longsword (rest of the time; usually 30-40 minutes):

Sword handling first: sword handling drills, and/or cutting drill, and/or farfalla di ferro. This may be 5 minutes if sword handling is not usually a critical point of failure in the target (in this example, second drill), or 15 or 20 minutes if it is (e.g. when teaching the punta falsa).

Then second drill, step by step, for the remainder of the class. Assuming that the class is ready for the whole drill, then steps one and two should be pretty solid already, so most of the time will go on working on steps three (ligadura) and four (its counter).

So in this example, we are using the dagger plays as a lead-in to teaching the same basic actions with the sword.

At the next level of teaching, once these basic technical issues are fundamentally resolved, then we can start using the dagger material for training tactical principles, and attributes such as speed, timing, and grounding. For instance, working on counter-remedies. One major difference between knightly combat and modern self defence is that knightly combat is not usually concerned with self defence. It's a military art, for soldiers whose main job is to kill people for social or political reasons. So we have multiple examples of the dagger attacker *overcoming the defender*. By modern standards, this is murder, plain and simple, especially as that defender is often unarmed! (This is one of the examples I use to hammer home to beginners the idea that this is nothing like modern, politically correct, or self-defence-oriented martial arts.) Teaching a student to attack, flow around the defender's response, and strike (many times) is easier with a dagger than a sword. The basic tactical structure of any fencing sequence can be reproduced with the dagger, so you can teach the structure with the easier-to-control weapon, and then move on to applying the same principles with the longsword.

I should point out at this stage that it is *perfectly correct* to simply start at the beginning of the manuscript and work your way through from abrazare, to dagger, to sword, to armour, to polearms, and on to mounted combat. It works just fine. But Fiore certainly did not write his book as a training manual for 21st century computer programmers, nurses, lorry drivers or university students. He wrote it as a complete representation of his art, for a 15th century nobleman who was also an experienced warrior. It should come as no surprise that the ideal pedagogical structure for the average student that comes to my classes is a bit different to the ordering that Fiore gives us.

Let me finish off by saying that the way I solve this problem is not the only way; it's just what seems to work best in my experience. And it's worth mentioning that the exact approach I take in any class is actually student-led; I almost invariably ask the students present in my classes what they are interested in learning, and teach them that. For instance, I'll be in Auckland, New Zealand, teaching a seminar in November 4th and 5th (you can find out the details  here: if you're in the neighbourhood do come; I'd love to see you there). The organisers have specifically requested that I spend a day on the dagger, and then a day on the sword; that's fine by me!

Some useful resources:

The Syllabus wiki:

You could check out The Medieval Dagger book. You can even get it in German!

And yes, I even have a course on it. But before you dash off to buy it, remember that I’ll be launching it with a hefty discount to my email list in a week or so, so it might be a good idea to sign up below in anticipation of that happy event.


I'm a Luddite, it’s true. I resist the march of technological progress because I think that most new technologies aren't labour saving life enhancing devices at all. I was saying this back in the ‘80s when people were extolling the new ‘desktop publishing' thing. “What used to take two weeks can now be done in a single day!” they cried. “Great” I replied. “Do you get the rest of the fortnight off?”

No. What happens, every time, is that as capacity increases, expectations rise, and so you end up with an increase in productivity and more work being done for the same pay. Not fair, and not helpful, except to those who own the fruits of your labour.

But, and this is a very big BUT (I like big buts), there are areas where all this new-fangled gadgetry does actually help people. HEMA would barely exist without the internet, because it is such a niche interest that finding fellow enthusiasts was very hard before the web came along. And for those of us trying to make a living serving those enthusiasts, I think it would be impossible without things like print-on-demand technology, easy-to-use web building tools, and communications of all sorts. I have students in Chile who can send me videos of themselves doing my Longsword Syllabus Form for me to comment on and help them improve. Fantastic.

This is a screen capture not a video link because the video is set to “Unlisted”. Chaps, if it's ok to share it, let me know…

I've also come round to the idea that while the actual use of force (responding to pressure in the bind, that sort of thing) cannot really be taught over the net, there is a place for online courses to help self-study. Lots of people use my Syllabus Wiki in various ways to help them learn, but I am taking a great big step right now and am plunging into creating online courses. The first one is now live, and you can see it here.

I'm using the Teachable platform, because it seems to be the best in class for what I need it to do; unlike Udemy, for instance, I can directly control things like pricing, and tracking student progress.

Another major benefit of the internet is that I can reach vastly more people virtually than I ever could in person. And some of those people are excited by the work I’m doing and want to help. My School and I have benefitted enormously over the years from people volunteering their skills to help. Ilkka Hartikainen shooting the photos and laying out two of my books, for instance. Jari Juslin shooting the photos for the last three. And when I arrived in Ipswich, Curtis Fee (of The Barebones Company) showing up to help unload the lorry for another instance. And when I mentioned the projects I was working on, well, turns out he has a bunch of useful professional skills, which he has applied to making the online school interface vastly more beautiful than it was.
Isn’t this pretty?

It's an exciting time to be teaching swordsmanship, that's for sure. Right now my head is simply buzzing with ideas for other courses that I can create to teach online. Breathing. Meditation. Mechanics. Dagger. Longsword. Imagine if when students finally find a group they can join, or start one themselves, and they already have decent fundamentals in place. Wow.

I've been a tad busy of late (not that that is anything unusual). But the last couple of weeks have been especially interesting.

First up, PC Gamer magazine have published an article based on an interview I gave to the journalist Rick Lane; it's all about trying to make games that involve sword fights more realistic. You can read the article here.

I was also interviewed by Joanna Penn, of The Creative Penn. Joanna is a thriller writer, but more importantly from my perspective she also writes really useful books about how to make a living as an author. She is pretty damn successful at it, and her podcast is listened to by many thousands of people. You might wonder how I got onto her show; well, I followed her own instructions from How to Market a Book regarding making contact with people you admire in your field, and within a few months she had seen this blog, and invited me onto her show. Her stuff works! You can find my episode here, as podcast, video, and  transcription. I was very nervous! This was only my second ever podcast interview (the first being for Chivalry Today earlier this year), but I hope it went ok. What do you think?

Regarding books: I am late getting episode four of The Swordsman's Quick Guide out; this is due to my being not 100% satisfied with it, and not sure how to improve it. I think I've got a handle on that now, so with any luck it should be out this week… or next… In the meantime, here's a preview of the cover; once again by the most excellent Eleonora Rebecchi.

Cover for part 4 of The Swordsman's Quick Guide
Cover for part 4 of The Swordsman's Quick Guide

We had the photo shoot for my next Longsword training manual last week; I have been going through the images this morning to pick the ones that will go into the final product. It looks like this book will have about 250 images in it, so there is much to do! Jari Juslin is the photographer (the same chap who did The Medieval Longsword and The Medieval Dagger; this time he was ably assisted by Petteri Kihlberg, who provided a ton of high-quality equipment; lights like you wouldn't believe:

It's dark in here! Petteri checking the light, with Noora. Jari in charge…
Noora, Jari, Petteri, Satu, preparing the shoot.

This book is on schedule for release before Christmas this year. And as I was going through them, I found this one that I had to share:

Zoë is well known in our school for her ability to target the more vulnerable spots…

I've said it before and I'll say it again; if you can't kick them in the nuts, it ain't a martial art!

Happy Mothers' day, from sunny Finland!

And what could be more motherly than a spot of medieval combat?

It is very hard to defend yourself against a fully-committed attack with a dagger. To be honest, it’s not something we focus on all that much; we tend to prefer sword fights. But a couple of weeks ago I ran a class on dealing with committed dagger attacks. It went like this:

First we ran a diagnostic; did everyone present have a reasonably complete knowledge of the dagger curriculum? The answer came back “yes”. There were no obvious gaps in knowledge (distinguishing carefully between knowledge and skill). Then I polled them; how many felt confident of defending themselves with a sword against a sword attack? All hands went up. Unarmed against a dagger? No hands went up.

The next step was to analyse our drills from the point of view of my “bullshit” theory. Where is the bullshit?

The attacks they were used to from basic classes were a) done with a training dagger, not the real thing; b) done singly; just one blow, or maybe two. No flurries of strikes; c) done without a great deal of force; and d) done usually in a set pattern of some kind, allowing them to predict what the sequence would be, so what techniques were likely to work.

We began with speed: the attacker had to make multiple fast strikes. This quickly overwhelmed the defender. Clearly there was no point being competitive about this, so using my rule of ‘c’s (which is there in the “how to spot the bullshit” post), we had the attacker coach the defender by easing off the speed to the level where the defender was successful most, but not all, of the time.

Then strength; instead of lots of fast blows, the attack was to be done as a single blow, but with maximum force. This generated slower, but more forceful actions. Again, the attacker had to coach the defender; modifying the force to what they could only just handle. All the students agreed that a single hard blow was much easier to deal with than multiple fast ones.

Speed and strength had been trained against using rubber or wooden daggers; it’s easy to be brave against a dummy weapon. So the students were given the option to train with or without masks, and with sharp daggers. Some chose no mask with sharps; some chose masks with sharps; some chose no mask with blunts; some chose masks and blunts. But all of them went more slowly, and more gently. Funny that. It is hard to be bold against lethal force.

It was actually at this stage in the class that I noticed that we were actually working through Fiore’s four virtues (celeritas, forteza, ardimento, avvisamento) one at a time. So I thought for a minute about how to train for avvisamento, foresight. And I came up with responsiveness drills, in which the attacker varies his response to the defender’s initial defence, and the defender has to adapt; they do not know what is coming in advance.

Of course, at each stage of this class, we were working on just one thing. We never did full speed, full force, highly variable attacks with a sharp weapon against an unprotected face, because someone would have died. But by breaking the problem down into its component challenges, we could address each area of bullshit in turn.

Readers of my Seven Principles of Mastery booklet will have recognised the principles at work here: we trained with no injuries, we differentiated between knowledge and skill, we ran a diagnostic, and we worked on the 20% of technique that make up 80% of what you’re likely to use (though we didn’t actually address the range of techniques available except to establish at the start that all the students in class had a sufficiently broad knowledge base). The practice was mindful, and the students were sufficiently challenged that they spent most of the time in a state of flow. The one thing we didn't really go into was adopting useful beliefs; perhaps that should be the subject of another post?


Memory is the key component of mastery. Being able to effortlessly recall and recombine elements held in long term memory is the essence of creativity and expertise. This is why I have deliberately crafted my School’s syllabus to be a memory palace. It is obvious when reading Fiore that his system has been organised for memorisation, which is especially apparent in his use of numbers: the 4 guards of abrazare; the “8 things you should know” for abrazare; the four blows of the dagger, and the “five things you should know” to do against the dagger… five plus four is nine, so is it any wonder that there are nine remedy masters of the dagger?

The basic level classes in Helsinki have been focussing on these aspects of the system for the last couple of weeks. Just as Fiore loves us and wants us to be happy, and so provides an answer to every sword-related problem, so too do I love my students, and want them to be happy, so have created all sorts of devices to help them remember the things they wish to learn. Among these efforts are a set of memory verses, published in 2010 as The Armizare Vade Mecum.
By way of a wishing you all a merry Christmas, here is the verse on the nine masters of the dagger. The full text is below the video.
See you next year!

Here we are, Nine masters we,
Teach you all to remedy,
Safe defence for any threat,
We have ne’er been beaten yet!

When the blows come from above,
From right or left, or with a shove,
Left hand, crossed hands, right hand then
Both hands high we win again!
When he comes to collar grab,
Fifth will cover any stab!
Dagger high, it’s sixth you see,
Disarm, stab him, done with glee!
Seventh has the dagger crossed
In armour he has never lost,
Dagger low, eighth of course,
Also done hands joined for force.
Then both hands down for number nine:
See that player wince and whine!

But watchful for the counters thus:
See he comes to elbow push,
Or trap your wrist, or feint you see,
Or see it not! Then one two three!
When he wants to give you strife,
Go fast against his dang’rous knife!
Hands arms and elbows, all must play
And surely you will win the day.

O scholar you must heed our call
Arms crossed armour; never fall;
Make your cover, make your strike,
Then to break him as you like.
The five things all go together:
Like sword and dagger, steel and leather:
Disarm locks breaks throw him down,
Strike to win the master’s crown!

The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.
The first play of the dagger, from the Getty MS.

The real thing is the only bullshit-free scenario in martial arts. If you’re an MMA fighter, that’s the ring on fight night. If you’re a soldier, that’s being in the presence of the enemy. And if you are a swordsman, that is someone trying to take your head off with a blade. But the real thing must be prepared for, so we have drills, exercises and training. Problems only arise when we mistake one scenario (a training drill) for another (the real thing). To properly understand any drill, you must have a clear idea of exactly how it deviates from reality. I call this spotting the bullshit.

Let us take a simple example, a drill that is usually included in day one of our Fiore beginners’ course: the basic execution of Fiore’s first play of the dagger. This technique is a disarm, done against the common overhand blow.

In its basic set-up, the drill goes like this:

“Both players start left foot forwards, hands down, in a proper guard position. This is very artificial, and is intended only to create a consistent starting point for beginners.

Disarm and counter

  1. Attacker and defender both in porta di ferro, left foot forwards.
  2. Attacker passes to strike with a fendente. Aim it at the mask!
  3. Defender intercepts attacker’s wrist with his left hand and
  4. Turns it to the left, creating a leverage disarm with the dagger against the back of his wrist.
  5. Defender collects dagger and strikes”

(Quoted from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger page 51)

There is nothing wrong with this, as a starting point. But it has at least the following dollops of bullshit in it:

  1. The attacker is not trying to kill you.
  2. The weapon is not sharp.
  3. The roles are pre-set, attacker and defender.
  4. You can’t run away or call the cops.
  5. You have to wait for the attack.
  6. You are wearing protective gear, that will allow the attacker to make contact, but would not work against a real dagger (we tried this with a mask on a dummy: the mask failed against all medieval weaponry).
  7. The line of the attack is pre-selected.
  8. Your defence is pre-selected.
  9. The attacker is not allowed to counter or continue.
  10. The attack is done with little force.
  11. The attack is done slowly.

I am sure that you can think of other dollops, but 11 is enough to be going on with. So, how do we deal with this? How can we eliminate the bullshit without killing students?

To start with, number one cannot be trained outside of the real scenario. Don’t even try. It is this one element that really makes the difference between those that have done it for real and those that haven’t. (I haven’t and don’t intend to.) Regarding combat sports, you haven’t done it till you’ve been in the ring or competed in a serious tournament. Fortunately, those are much more survivable environments, so anybody who trains seriously enough can get there and do that art “for real”. This is one of the big attractions of combat sports I think: the real environment is available. I will never forget my first fencing competition. It was an eye-opener, to say the least!

So, if my drill above is so full of bullshit, why do we do it?

It does:

  1. Teach core mechanical principles, such as grounding, finding lines of weakness, etc.
  2. Teach core tactical principles, such as control the weapon before you strike; timing, and control of distance.
  3. Given the source of our art, it gives beginners a chance to reconstruct a technique from the book.

It is a perfectly good starting point. Just as a child learning to read sounding out the individual letters and creating the words is not really reading yet, we don’t say that they should just recognise the words straight away. This level of practice is a necessary step on the way to expertise.

But be aware that this drill does NOT:

  1. Teach a survival skill.
  2. Teach situational awareness.
  3. Teach decision making or judgement.
  4. Teach the ability to execute the action under pressure.

But given our list of eleven dollops of bullshit, we can map a route through training to systematically eliminate each of them in turn (except for the first). By applying the “who moves first” multiplier, for instance, we can eliminate point 5, so the “defender” is not required to wait, but can enter or move away, gaining some control. By allowing degrees of freedom for one or other student, we can eliminate 7, 8 and/or 9. By applying the rule of c’s you can increase the intensity in a systematic way, so eliminating 10 and 11.*

It is very important not to eliminate all the bullshit all at once. Especially when eliminating no. 2 by practising with sharps, you should absolutely keep all sorts of other bullshit present to avoid serious injury.

So, by carefully considering all the ways in which a set drill is not a real fight, you can design variations to the basic version to systematically clean up some of the bullshit. You will need lots of different drills, each with a different bullshit profile, to make sure that you are training in all of the attributes of the “real” technique. (For more on customising drills, see Mindful Practice).

Just for fun, and to see if you are paying attention, I have inserted one deliberate dollop of bullshit in this post: a deliberately misleading statement made for pedagogical purposes. Can you spot it?

* The “Rule of Cs” (abridged from Mastering the Art of Arms vol 1: the Medieval Dagger p136) every drill is first worked through with the players:

  • Cooperating in creating correct choreography

This is means exactly what it says: the students are just co-operating in going through the motions of the technique.

Once that is easy, increase the difficulty by increasing intensity, or introducing a degree of freedom (e.g. is the attacker might vary the line of attack), 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

Finally, the players each try within reason to make the drill work for them. When coaching, the attacker would try to make sure the defender can usually counter him; when competing, you just try to make your action work. 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 scholar 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.


The second day of the Sydney seminar began with revision and expansion on the first day’s work, taking some of the dagger plays into a freeplay-type context, then going over much of the sword material again. This established a base, upon which we built an understanding of how the material fits together, and how we can develop the skills needed to apply the art at speed: the bridge between set drills and freeplay. The focus throughout was on how our actions are dependent on those of the opponent. What he is doing determines what will work against him. This lead us in to thinking about avvisamento, foresight, learning to predict the likely blade relationship by manipulating what the opponent sees and can use. (I am working on a post about training methods for developing this skill.)

I try to leave plenty of time for students to ask questions: it is my job to lead them to the next level of their training, which is of course dependent on their current level, experience and interests. The stand-out question was “how do we prevent sniping at the hands in freeplay?” To which my answer is always “don’t expose them when you attack”. Turns out that this gang of Silver fans, like everyone else, was moving in false times. So we spent quite a bit of time working on the basic mechanics of striking without leaving an opening to your hands.

Time and again on this trip it was drummed into me that my best contributions to this Art, and to the students training in it are: the study of mechanics and the coherent organisation of my interpretations into syllabi. These far more than the specifics of those interpretations.

By the end of the weekend I think all the participants came away with a clear picture of the mechanical and tactical structure of Fiore’s system, and an idea of how to develop their skills in an efficient and effective manner. Well done to all!

Monday was spent mostly at the amazing Alexander the Great exhibition at the Australian Museum, then free fencing the Stoccata crew in the evening. This was great fun, and to stimulate their already keen desire to smack me about, I offered a prize of an SES patch for the best hit I received. This was won by Richard Cullinan with a tasty little one-two at single rapier. I didn’t even see it before it landed. Lovely!

This whole trip has been a delight: the students in my classes, their instructors my hosts, the company and the food- even the trips back and forth were not too bad. So, fingers crossed for a return in 2014!

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