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Tag: rapier

Creating a working syllabus is hard. Where do you start? What comes next? How do you know when you’re ready to move on to the next thing? I find it helps to remember that there is no one correct answer, because the optimum structure for the syllabus depends on its goals, and the specific aptitudes and experience of the student. 

The latest instalment of my Rapier workbook series (Rapier Part Two: Completing the Basics) contains the following technical content:

  • Plate 8: voiding the front leg
  • Plate 9: passing to attack (off-hand forwards)
  • Plate 10: dealing with cuts to the head
  • Plate 11: voiding low, and acting in contratempo
  • Plate 17: voiding with the front foot
  • Plate 18: passing to attack (off-hand back)
  • Plate 19: voiding with the waist
  • Capoferro’s three tempi (half, full, and one-and-a-half)
  • Changing direction

That is a lot of material, and hard to remember, so I used the structure of the Rapier Footwork Form to organise it. This way, by the end of this book, you will have a series of actions clearly stuck in your head, which will act as an aide-memoire for all the plates that you know (including everything in the previous book: plates 7, 13 and 16). By running through the Form at the beginning of every training session, you will cover every major action in the system, and be reminded of the areas where you are strongest, and those that need most work.

You can see the form here:

I have also included some essential repetition from the previous book, notably the discussion on safety, and advice on how to use the book, because I know from experience that some readers will ignore “you need to read part one first”, and those things must be read before training. 

Some people just want to learn how to sword fight. Others want to learn how to do the academic research side of historical swordsmanship. And some want to do both. These workbooks are obviously directed towards the “just teach me to sword fight” crowd, but I encourage all my students (and that includes you!) to at least be familiar with the primary source for your art, in this case, Gran Simulacro. 

So what is form? and what it is for? Fundamentally, form is the mechanism we use for creating a narrative of the system within the students’ brains. You can think of a form as a string of pearls. In the beginning, each pearl is just one technique or action. It’s a tiny little seed pearl. But with practise, and a broadening understanding of the Art, each pearl becomes the locus for other concepts and actions to be stored. A single action acts as a trigger for a cascade of related actions. Form is therefore a set of chapter headings, under which you can store everything you ever learn about swordsmanship with the rapier; and once you have filled out each chapter, you have an index to your entire knowledge base.

I cannot state this too strongly: the Form is just the beginning. It is not the be-all and end-all. When you write your own chapters, it becomes The Book of your rapier knowledge and skill. Once that is established you can simply run through the Form at any time and identify the weakest link. Start working on that link, using the “attached” training material, then re-run the Form to see whether what you have been working on is still the weakest link. The Form is therefore a diagnostic tool, an aide-memoire, a mechanics exercise or a guide to the system; in fact, it is the core of your practice. This workbook is about writing those chapter headings, and then filling in those chapters.

The major pitfall of this approach is that the organisation of the material in the Form has more to do with training space constraints and what felt good when designing it (“where do I want to go from here?”) than it does with any overtly logical structure. It does not, for example, follow the order of the plates in Gran Simulacro. Nor is it arranged according to difficulty. You may find yourself wanting to re-arrange things. That’s fine: the structure is (as with all forms) at least partly arbitrary. You only need to have this canonically correct if you are following my school’s syllabus and intending to grade within it. Otherwise, take this and make it your own! 

When I was a kid, I spent some time casting little lead soldiers. It was magic: you heat up the lead in a pan until it melts, pour it into the mould and wait for it to cool down, and out comes a cavalry officer, rifleman or whatever. We then had to trim off the inevitable little leaks and the rather large riser (the extra bit where you pour the metal in, called a “sprue” in the US). Then the figures were ready for painting. You can think of the Form in a similar way. The actions of the person doing the Form are moulded by the actions of the (imaginary or real) opponents, as well as by the overall training goals. As with the casting process, there are artefacts to be taken into account: little bits of metal that don’t really belong, or some turns or steps that you wouldn’t normally use but are necessary to keep the Form in the right shape. So long as you know what the Art should look like and what the applications are, or what a Royal Horse Guards trooper from 1815 is supposed to look like, the Form is useful. As soon as the mould (your understanding of which actions do what) gets sloppy, the Form becomes a shapeless, pointless mess. 

So here is a rule to be followed whenever you think about any kind of Form: 

Application first, Form second. 

We do this in class. When teaching the Form to students, we absolutely always do pair-drill (or handling drill) first, then the same actions solo, and then we add it to the Form. We never, ever, have students practising actions that they don’t know at least one application for, and we distinguish very clearly between a play or technique and a handling drill or skill-development exercise.

This post is an adapted extract from the new workbook. You can find the whole book here.

Or if you prefer learning from video classes, you should try my free Rapier Beginner's Class mini-course.

If you find the ideas here interesting, you may also like this post:

The Dragon: how to write forms or kata for martial arts training

Volume 2 of the new Rapier Workbook series is back from layout, and looking pretty spiffy. It will be going to the printers next week. Huzzah!

Volume 2 won't be so useful if you don't already have volume 1. You can get beautifully printed copies from the distributor here, or buy the print files to have printed locally or print them at home. I've set the pricing for the print files to “Pay what you want“. You can have them for free, or you can pay a million dollars for them (go on, I dare you), or anything in between. Just put the number in the price box, and that's what you pay.

You might think I'm mad for doing that, but here's my reasoning:

1) My readers are honest. If they say they can't afford the book, then they can't. But it costs me nothing to allow them to download it anyway, and that way they will get better at swordsmanship, which is the point of writing this book in the first place. Win-win.

2) My readers are generous when they can be. Some people will pay *more* than the suggested price, because they want to support my work.

3) Printing books at home is ok, but professional printing is usually much better. So some people will download the files for free, and then decide they can't live another day without the printed version.

4) This is the first book in a series. If you like the workbook format, and like my writing and teaching style, you're likely to go buy volume 2 when it comes out. Then volume 3, and 4.

So, not mad at all, I think!

Perhaps the most famous fencing treatise of the 1600s, Ridolfo Capoferro's Gran Simulacro is a wonderful book, and an essential read for all fencing scholars. Characteristically, he spells his name as both Capoferro, and Capo Ferro, in the book itself; just one of it's many interesting quirks! It covers fencing theory, rapier alone, rapier and dagger, rapier and cloak, and rapier and shield. You can download your free copy of the treatise from here.

You are welcome to the RAW image files too (at about 25mb per image), just contact and we'll arrange to share them with you. The book is free, but you are welcome to drop some money into the (virtual) tin; once the book has raised enough money to pay for production costs, we will gladly produce an affordable printed facsimile. Please note that this book is in Italian.

Further reading:

Translations: William Wilson and Jherek Swanger (free):  Capoferro

Tom Leoni, The Art and Practice of Fencing.

ed. Jared Kirby: Italian Rapier Combat

For an instruction manual on how to fence in Capoferro’s style, please my The Duellist’s Companion.


Safety Guidelines for the Practice of Swordsmanship

These safety guidelines come from my Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources Course and have been adapted from The Duellist's Companion, The Swordsman's Companion, and The Swordsman's Quick Guide part 1: The Seven Principles of Mastery. All of those books are included as downloadable pdfs in the additional course material.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nothing without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

Edward Whymper’s admonition, from Scrambles amongst the Alps, elegantly encapsulates the correct attitude to all potentially lethal activities. Substitute “practice swordsmanship” for “climb”, and there is the correct mindset for any swordsman, beginner or expert. Take it to heart before you start training with a partner.

When training with weapons you hold your partner's life in your hands. This is a sacred trust and must not be abused.

Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility of any kind for injuries you sustain while you are not under my direct personal supervision. During this course you will be taught how to create safe training drills, and I am certain that if you follow the instructions there is a very low likelihood of injury. But if I am not there in person to create and sustain a safe training environment, I cannot be held responsible for any accidents that may occur.


The basic principles of safe training are:

  1. Respect: for the Art, your training partners, the weapons, and yourself.
  2. Caution: assume everything is dangerous unless you have reason to believe otherwise.
  3. Know your limits. Just because it’s safe for somebody else, does not necessarily mean it’s safe for you. Never train or fence when you are tired, angry, or in any state of mind or body that makes accidents and injuries more likely.

Most groups that keep going for more than a year have a pretty good set of safety guidelines in place. Make sure you know what they are, and follow them.

My senior students routinely train with sharp swords, often with no protection. That’s not as dangerous as it sounds, when you remember that they have been training usually for 5+ years at that point, under my supervision.

Safety first: you cannot afford time off training for stupid injuries. Life’s too short. Whatever training you are doing must must must leave you healthier than you started it. You will not win Olympic gold medals this way, but you won’t end up a cripple either. The path to sporting glory is littered with the shattered bodies and minds of the unlucky many who broke themselves on the way. Don’t join them.

Every time I find myself teaching a group I don’t know, I tell them that the class will be successful from my point of view if everyone finishes class healthier than they started it. Most injuries in training occur either during tournament (highly competitive) freeplay, or are self-inflicted during things like warm-ups. In my school (and other classes) we have a zero tolerance policy on macho bullshit. If any exercise doesn’t suit you, for any reason, you can sit it out, or do some other exercise. If you are sitting it out, a good instructor will ask you why, and help you develop alternatives or work up to the exercise in easy stages, but will never pressure you to do something that might injure you.

This is also true of work-related injuries, like forearm problems from typing, or the ghastly effects of sitting all day. By avoiding the things that will hurt you, you will naturally seek out the things that are good for you. Hungry? Avoid sugar, avoid processed foods, and lo! there’s a fresh salmon salad. Tired? Sleep is better than barbiturates, no?

This requires good risk-assessment skills (I recommend Against the Gods, the Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein) and the courage to take risks that truly serve your overall aims. A safe life is not worth living, but foolish risk-taking will not make your life meaningful.

Try adopting these key habits:

  • Before any new activity, do a risk/reward calculation. How risky is it, and how
  • Practice saying no to training suggestions: even safe ones. Most people do stupidly
    risky things due to peer pressure. Being able to say no to your peers is perhaps the most important skill in reducing injury rates. If this is hard, make it a habit to decline at least one suggestion every session, until it’s easy.


Without doubt the single most important bit of safety equipment is good common sense. Fence according to the limits of your equipment, exercise control and respect the weapon at all times, and you will never have a serious injury. Minor bumps and bruises come with the territory.

There were some masters who believed that the safest course is to fence with sharp weapons and no protection. This is how it was often done in the past until the invention of fencing masks (though there are tournament records and declarations as early as the 14th century that record the use of blunt practice weapons; King Rene d’Anjou’s treatise of 1470 is perhaps the best source). Such masters are right in theory, in that freeplay with sharps is the best way for students to learn absolute respect for the weapon, and the importance of absolute control. There are a few contemporary masters with whom I will fence like this, and there is nothing like it for generating a perfect fencing approach. But try explaining that to the insurance companies, or in the event of a slip, the police or coroner. It was often said in the eighteenth century that you could tell a fencing master from his eye-patch and missing teeth. Never forget that even a blunt blade can break bones. When free fencing, or when practicing drills at speed, it is essential that you wear appropriate safety gear. You do this not for your own sake, though self-preservation does come into it, but for the bene t of your training partner. Your protection allows him to hit you safely.

Choosing protection is a very controversial subject. Too little, and you can end up badly hurt (even in practice). Too much, and you can’t fence properly. Firstly, it is important to establish what style of fencing you will be doing. If you are practising armoured combat, then buy the best fitting, best made armour that you can from an armourer who knows how you intend to use it and has seen what you want to do. This is the hardest style of fencing to appropriately regulate, because accurate technique requires you to go for the least armoured spots (throat, eyes, armpits, joints), but safety requirements obviously prohibit that.

As a general guideline, I recommend the following for most weapons.

  1. An FIE standard fencing mask. This allows you to thrust at the face (a very common target), and generally attack the head. This does have three major caveats. Firstly, it leaves the back of the head open, and you must be very careful not to strike at this target. An added apron of thick leather affords some protection. Secondly, it does not protect the head and neck from the wrenching force of over-vigorous blows. It is vital that you and your opponent learn control before engaging in freeplay. Thirdly it is designed to protect the face from high-speed, light, flexible weapons, not slower, heavier, rigid ones. So continually check them for wear, and make absolutely sure that your weapons are properly bated.
  2. A steel or leather gorget, or stiff collar, to protect the throat. Points can slip under the bib of a mask and crush the larynx.
  3. (For women) a rigid plastic chest guard.
  4. A point-resistant fencing jacket rated at least 500 newtons. Sturdy, preferably padded and/or armoured gauntlets, which should extend at least four inches past the jacket cuff to prevent points sliding up your sleeve. I have twice had fingers broken through unpadded mail gloves, and now use a pair of fingered gauntlets from Jiri Krondak, which cost about 150€.
  5. A padded gambeson, or a plastron. If you are making one yourself, bear in mind that it should be thick enough to take the worst out of the impact of the blows, and prevent penetration from a thrust. All openings should be covered. The collar should be high enough that thrusts coming under the bib of the mask do not make contact with your throat. A plastron must wrap around the ribs, and properly cover the collar bones and shoulders. I usually wear a fencing jacket and plastron (as pictured).
  6. A box for men (called a “cup” in the US). You only forget this once.
  7. Rigid plastic protectors for the knees and
  8. For the elbows, of the sort worn by in-line skaters (worn under the
    clothes for that period look if you prefer), will save a lot of pain, and some injury.
  9. Footwear: on the matter of footwear, few practitioners agree. In the longsword treatises, there are no heavy boots, and certainly no built-up heels.  For a completely historical style, it is necessary to wear completely accurate period clothing at least occasionally, because it can affect the way you move. It does not matter much what you wear on your feet provided that you understand grounding, body-mechanics and footwork, but attaining that understanding is much easier barefoot or in very thin flat soles. Excessively grippy soles can lead to joint injury as you may stop too suddenly, or get stuck when you should be turning (particularly in falls at close quarters). The dangers of wearing too slippery soles are obvious. In the salle I usually wear medieval shoes or ‘barefoot’ shoes (aka five-fingers, or ‘toe shoes’), and recommend a thin, flat sole regardless.

The Sword

Training swords come in three main types. Authentic sharp reproductions, which are used for cutting practice and some pair work with advanced students, blunt swords that try to reproduce the handling characteristics of the sharps, and fencing swords that are designed to make fencing safer. These all have their pros and cons, and you should use the sword that’s right for your style and the kind of practice you will be doing.

It’s perfectly all right to use a wooden waster or something similar to start with, but do not imagine that there is any such thing as a safe training sword. Even modern sport fencing blades engineered for fencing sometimes break and puncture people, and anything heavy enough to reproduce the handling of a medieval or renaissance sidearm is going to be able to do damage.

For specific details on choosing a sword, please see Choosing a Sword, which is included in the additional material on this course.

Looking after your weapon is largely a matter of keeping it dry, clean, and free of stress risers (a stress riser is a weak point, usually a deep nick, which encourages the blade to fold at that point).

Occasional rubdowns with a moisture repellent oil and steel wool or scouring pad, followed by a coat of microcrystalline wax, should keep the blade and hilt clean (follow manufacturer’s recommendations if you have a gilt, blued or otherwise ornamented weapon). Do not be afraid to file down any large nicks, and file off any burrs: this is important from a safety perspective, as the blade is most likely to break at a nick, and burrs can be very sharp. The edges of a blunt weapon should always be kept smooth enough that you can run your bare hand hard up the edge and not get scratches or splinters. Even the toughest and most cherished sword will not survive repeated abuse: the best guarantor of longevity for your sword (and yourself) is correct technique.

Rules of Engagement

Once you have agreed to fence with someone, it is important to agree on rules of engagement. This is partly to ensure safety, and partly to create an environment in which you can learn. The two most simple rules are these:

  1. Confine permitted actionss to the safety limits of your protective gear
  2. Confine permitted actions to the technical range of the least trained combatant. In other words, do not allow face-thrusts when wearing open helms, or throws when one of you is not trained to fall safely. The rules can be adapted further to develop specifi aspects of technique: for instance, you may not allow any close quarters work at all, or even restrict allowable hits to one small target. The idea is to come to a clear, common -sense agreement before facing off. You are only ready for no-holds-barred, totally “authentic” fight simulation, when you can enter such a fight with your judgement unimpaired.

Following the rules of engagement will not make you soft, nor will it dull your edge if it comes to the real thing; rather it it will develop self-control.

These rules apply to all fencing:

  1. Agree on a mutually acceptable level of safety.
  2. Wear at least the minimum amount of safety gear commensurate with rule 1. Confine allowable technique to those within the limits of your equipment.
  3. Confine allowable technique to the technical ability of the least trained
  4. Appoint either an experienced student or one of the combatants to
    preside over the bout.
  5. Agree on allowable targets.
  6. Agree on what constitutes a “hit”.
  7. Agree on priority or scoring convention in the event of simultaneous hits. Usually it is better
    to allow a fatal blow before a minor wound, but simultaneous hits should be avoided whenever possible.
  8. Agree on the duration of the bout either in terms of hits, such as first to five, or in real time.
  9. Acknowledge all hits against yourself. This can be done by raising the left arm, or by stopping the bout with a salute, or by calling “Halt!” and telling your opponent where and how you think she hit you.
  10. Maintain self-command at all times.

Safe Training

In my experience most injuries are self-inflicted. It is far more common for students to hurt themselves by doing something they shouldn’t, than to hurt their training partners. Here are a few simple guidelines for joint safety, which should be followed during all training. I am using the lunge as an example of a stressful action, but these principles apply to any physical action.

  1. The knee must always bend in the line of the foot. Knees are hinges, with usually a little under 180° range of movement. The do not respond well to torque (power in rotation). So whenever you bend your knees, in any style for any reason, ensure that the line of your foot, the line of movement of your knee, and the line of movement of your weight, are parallel. This prevents twisting and thus injuries. This one simple rule, carefully followed, eliminates all knee problems other than those arising from impact or genetic disadvantage.
  2. Whenever performing any strenuous task (such as lunging, or lifting heavy objects), tighten your pelvic floor muscles (imagine you need to go to the bathroom, but are stuck in a queue). This supports the base of your spine, and helps with hip alignment.
  3. Joints have two forms of support: active and passive. Passive support refers mainly to the ligaments, which bind the joint capsule together. This is basically set, and can’t be trained. When training your joint strength, with exercises or stretching, avoid any action that strains the joint capsule. Any action that causes pain in the joint itself should be modified or avoided, as it may damage the soft tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage). These tissues have a very poor blood supply and hence heal very slowly.
  4. Active support refers to the muscles around the joint, and these can be strengthened by carefully straining the joint with small weights and rotations. To strengthen a joint you must stress these muscles, without endangering the ligaments. Any competent physiotherapist can show you a range of exercises for building up the active support around your knees, wrists and elbows, where we need it most.
  5. Rest is part of training. Your body needs time to recover, and is stimulated by the stress of exercise to grow stronger. However, the body is efficient, and will withdraw support from any muscle group that is not used, even if for only a few weeks. So regular training is absolutely crucial.

If you can’t lunge without warming up, don’t lunge except in carefully controlled drills. Warming up is essential before pushing the boundaries of what your body can do.


If you find this advice sensible and useful, please feel free to share it as widely as you like!

If you would like these guidelines as a handy PDF, then drop your email in the box below and I'll send it to you.


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.

A spot of rapier and cloak in the morning?

I have the enormous privilege of owning an original copy of Salvatore Fabris’s Sienza e Pratica d’Arme, printed in 1606. I bought it from Sr. Roberto Gotti, of Brescia, in 2014. It is in incredibly good condition, and an excellent, clean print. It is still in its original binding. The value of the book comes from two things: the information it contains, and the artefact itself. I own the artefact, it is mine, mine, mine, and woe betide anyone who tries to take it from me. But I believe the information it contains belongs in the public domain. This book is yours. So I asked my friend Petteri Kihlberg to photograph it, and I am releasing those photos (with his permission) free and with no strings attached. If you choose to use them for some commercial purpose (such as printing an edition for sale), then I ask as a matter of courtesy that you give credit where it’s due, but I do not insist on it. I've set it to “pay what you want”, and would be grateful for any donation you choose to give; the more money I have, the more fencing treatises I'll buy, all of which will go online for free.

I want this!

I own this book, but the information it contains is part of your birthright as a human being. I hope you will enjoy it, share it, and make something beautiful with it.

Please share this post so that everyone who wants a copy of the book can get one.

And don't miss my other free books! Marozzo's 1568, Girard's 1740, Seven Principles of Mastery, and many more.

Accolade, by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1852-1922.
Accolade, by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1852-1922.

But it is to the keen swordsman who looks upon foil fencing as the key to all hand to hand fighting, that the historical development of the art offers naturally the greatest interest. It shows him how many generations of practical men were required to elucidate the principles of fencing, and adapt them in the most perfect way to the mechanical resources of the human anatomy, and how utterly unknown many of those principles, which are now looked upon as the A B C of sword-play, were still, in the proudest days of the sword’s reign.

Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence, p 5.

With this paragraph, Mr Castle unfortunately infuriated an entire generation of historical fencers. His seminal work, which should be read by anyone interested in the art of swordsmanship, is coloured by his belief that swordsmanship evolved from “the rough untutored fighting of the Middle Ages” (Schools and Masters of Fence, p 6) into the perfectly understood ideal form of the foil. I chose Edmund Blair Leighton's famous painting, The Accolade from 1901, for this post because it's a good example of the way the Victorians saw and misunderstood the medieval period.

It is patently absurd to view the foil as the “key to all hand to hand fighting”. No MMA competitor has ever needed it. Neither did the knights of old. But, and this is a big but, we can look back on the entire period of recorded historical swordsmanship. Unlike, for instance, one of Capoferro’s students, we can also see what the rapier developed into, and make some kind of educated guesses as to why that happened. We can also use the tools of analysing fencing that were developed to their peak in the 19th century, to aid us in our studies of earlier systems.

This week in our rapier class, I persuaded the students to do a foil class instead, for the purpose of showing them how useful it can be to be able to analyse fencing actions to the degree that it is expected in foil. Modern (and classical) fencing theory allows us to describe what has occurred in a bout with an astonishing degree of precision. For instance:

I prepare my attack with a beat and a step forwards. As my opponent engages my blade, I do an indirect feint, followed by a disengage and lunge, in progressive time. My attack is parried, the riposte is direct, I parry it and attempt a compound counter-riposte with a remise.

And so on.

This system of analysis is summarised here, in the British Academy of Fencing’s Summary of Fencing Theory and Terminology, from 2002.

The structure of foil fencing theory. © British Academy of Fencing
The structure of foil fencing theory. © British Academy of Fencing

This is an incredibly useful structure and toolkit. But it has some major risks when we are studying historical sources. By importing this language, we can unwittingly distort the author’s intentions to a horrible degree.

A good example of this is the term “contratempo”, or, “counter-time”. Capoferro is explicit:


In more manners can one strike in contratempo, but I do not approve of other than two, which will be: finding yourself with your sword in quarta, with its point facing toward your right side, and your adversary coming to gain it, in the same tempo in which he moves his right foot in order to lay his sword upon yours, you will push a thrust from the said quarta, passing forward with your left foot, or with your right instead; alternately, finding yourself in terza, and he coming to gain it from the outside, you will thrust him in seconda while passing as above.

(Gran Simulacro, 1610, trans William Wilson and Jherek Swanger.)

As we can see, as the enemy approaches, we use the tempo of his gaining the sword to strike him.

But in modern fencing theory, countertime describes the timing that I would have to use if, as I attacked, you counterattacked, and I took advantage of your counterattack (or at least parried it). In Italian classical fencing, the term is “contratempo, used in the same way.

So, when studying Capoferro, it is extremely useful to be able to describe the timing of your defence against the opponent’s counterattack; but if you use the term “contratempo” you’ll have to use the same term for two completely different things.

Leaving aside the appalling Victorian arrogance that assumes that the “principles of fencing” were somehow less understood than the people who depended on them for their lives, we have to ask the question of why the theory of fencing was less explicit, analysed to a lesser degree, than it became in the 19th century. I have two answers:

1) it wasn’t. Read Thibault if you don’t believe me.

2) in sources that are less pernickety, it is probable that a simpler set of theory was more useful in the context of duelling, than in the post-duelling-era fencing salle.

It might be helpful at this stage to consider language itself. Different languages are structured differently, which affects what concepts can be expressed. For instance, in English, we can say “the car”; “a car”; “from the car”, “from a car”, and so on. In Finnish, “the car” would be “auto”. “A car” would be “autoa”. “From a or the car” would be “autosta”. Finnish cannot easily make the distinction between “from a car” and “from the car” that we English speakers do so naturally. But Finns seem to have no difficulty in making themselves understood to their fellow Finnish speakers. And only a fool would suggest that English is somehow superior because of it. We don’t even have a proper word for the steam that comes off a sauna stove when we’ve thrown water on it!

One of the ways in which we can identify the origins of non-native speakers a language is the way that they import words and grammar into their new language. Or use words that sound similar but mean something completely different, with occasionally hilarious results. Most English speakers who learn Spanish make the “embarrassed” mistake at some point. “Embarazada” means “pregnant”. I vividly recall a group of Peruvian friends falling about laughing when I tripped over that one.

Having the language of foil in our heads can be very useful in analysing what may be going on in a historical source; but it can also introduce all sorts of baggage, and lead you to try to force a different language into the grammatical structures of the one you already know.

So what brought all this on? This email, from my friend M. Harold Page.

Dear Guy

Where do you see “attacking an inviting opening line in tempo” fitting in Medieval Longsword? Is it a technique, or the underlying principle of fighting?

(In lay terms I mean, e.g., “You drop into a low guard as a deliberate invitation to me to attack high. I try and hit you as you change guard. You try to respond to my attack which hopefully you predicted.”)

This seems a common concept in approaches inspired by classical fencing.

However, in the earlier German texts — e.g. Goliath, Danzig, Ringeck, — in tempo attacks to opening lines are called “travelling after” (Nachreisen) and relegated to a later section. Most of the text talks in terms of “if he stands in this or that guard”. Also, the Dobringer text has passages like “If you only strike after, you will have little joy of the art”, “do not strike to the sword” and “a good fencer will always win the first strike”. In a similar vein, doesn't Fiore identify some guards as good to wait in?

So, what do you think is going on?

Let’s deal with the easy question first: yes, Fiore does identify some guards as good to wait in; specifically tutta porta di ferro and coda longa.

“Attacking the opening line” is a fundamental principle of all fencing, as I see it; it’s just common sense. If the line is closing, don’t attack it. If the line is closed, the attack will fail. If the line is open, you might attack it. If the line is opening, you have the best chance of making the strike. But if it is an invitation, be wary of accepting it, there will be a prepared response waiting for you.

Making an invitation to attack is a tactic, that we can see in play all the time, but is rarely addressed in medieval sources. The only one I can think of off-hand is in Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, folio 28R, where he wrote:

Per corta lanza aspetto asto partito. 

ACorta elonga tenero linuito. 

With a short lance I’ll wait in this way,

I invite you to come with long and short.

(Translation mine, from Veni Vadi Vici p 155)

But this example is of an open line, not an “opening line”. The tempo is different.

Vadi Spear Guards, f28R
Vadi Spear Guards, f28R

We do see the deliberate creation of opening lines in the use of the concept of breaking the guards, and in the use of feints, both of which are common in medieval sources. I can dig up references from Fiore and Vadi if needed. Liechtenauer too. But this is explicitly not the deliberate invitation of an opening line. The agent is forcing the patient to create the opening.

The invitation with an opening line is clearly described in at least some of the Bolognese sources I have read. Ilkka Hartikainen summarises it well here.

So, I would describe it as a tactic, not a technique, and I’d say it is probably but not certainly part of medieval swordplay, and certainly part of renaissance swordplay. But it is also a good example of a classical or sport fencing background interfering with a clear reading of the sources. Using this terminology to describe medieval fencing actions is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding.

I hope this helps…

Warning: major sword geekery alert. What follows is exactly the kind of nit-picking pedantry that in the end makes this the right job for me; because this is the only area in the world where I care this much about such apparently trivial or minor details. And what to you may seem a minor change is, to me, a huge and fundamental shift in my thinking.

What am I babbling about? The position of my tailbone when holding a rapier.

Those of you that have trained with me know that I am anal about my tailbone. Which makes sense, when you think about it. But what I mean is that the tailbone is the keystone of the arch of which your hands form one end, and your feet the other. It is where things often go wrong when grounding. What am I talking about? this video may help:

About four years ago, my friend and colleague Puck Curtis and I were discussing Spanish and Italian rapier systems, when he used a term I immediately adopted and put in capital letters: Primary Axis of Defence. This is just the default way any system of swordsmanship tends to organise its parries. In Angelo’s smallsword system (for which see his School of Fencing, 1787), it is abundantly clear that the Primary Axis of Defence is left-right, the shift between tierce and carte, or carte over the arm and carte.

In Fiore’s Art of Arms, it is very clearly the fendente-sottano line; attacks are almost always beaten up or down. (I won’t justify this here, but suffice to say that if you disagree with that statement, you and I are so far apart in our interpretations that discussing them is probably a waste of time.) Puck said back then that the Spanish rapier sources he studies suggest something similar; the Primary Axis of Defence is up-down, along about the same diagonal lines as Fiore is using.

In 2005 I’d have said the same about Capoferro’s rapier system. But somewhere along the line since then, I slipped away into thinking of Capoferro’s Primary Axis of Defence as being like Angelo’s; left-right, between seconda and quarta. I don’t know how that happened, because in the text it’s pretty clear that this is not really the case. There is abundant evidence to suggest otherwise, not least the final chapter (A secure way to defend yourself against all sorts of blows). But this lead me into conceiving of the stringering as primarily left-right, not up-down.

One of the secrets of my success, if not the secret, is that I hire in lots of external instructors, whom I may agree with or not, but who always show me other ways of thinking about the things that I am doing. In this year alone (2014), we have had Jörg Bellinghausen teaching the messer; Devon Boorman teaching rapier; Roberto Laura teaching Italian knife; and we have Jessica Finley coming here in a couple of weeks to teach German medieval wrestling.

I cannot overstate how important this is; bringing in new ideas, new ways of doing things, and insights into other systems, are utterly critical to the development of my understanding of my Art.

And Devon’s rapier seminar is an excellent case in point. While we will probably always disagree about exactly how the turn of the back foot specified on plate 5 should be done (he rolls, I pivot on the ball),

Plate 5: the lunge!

his seminar emphasised a vertical Primary Axis of Defence (though I don't recall him using that term), so the stringering is about getting on top of your opponent’s sword, not keeping it off to one side. He also reminded us of the body-lean that I bang on about in The Duellist’s Companion but had let slide gently out of practice in the intervening 8 years. We are doing it a lot more now!

These are related, in that the body lean, and the vertically oriented Primary Axis of Defence lead us to a different orientation of the tailbone. Simply put, against vertical resistance (such as gravity acting on a barbell), your tailbone should be in neutral. Against horizontal resistance, such as someone pushing on your chest from in front, your tailbone should be tucked. Devon’s mechanics, and this is so important, allow us to retain a neutral tailbone position throughout. Which is better, easier, less fatiguing, and looks more like the pictures. Damn. That was money well spent!

This has had a knock-on effect; I am now looking at Fiore’s posta longa of the abrazare in a new light; he seems turned, and to lean, and in other words able to absorb incoming pressure with a neutral spine. Damn again.

Posta Longa

By finding ways to treat horizontal pressure as coming in from the side, not the front, you can get away with an awful lot of neutral spine positions, that otherwise you’d need to tuck for.

In case it’s not clear; when it comes to the study of my Art, I live for this shit. Apparently tiny tweaks that have major, major ramifications. So major that it’s taken me four months to absorb and digest them. So here you are. The take-home lessons are:

1) get as many second opinions as you can afford. I hire on average 4 external instructors per year, and have done since I opened the school.

2) always go back to the book. Check everything, because drift is inevitable.

3) The fundamentals (mechanics, timing, measure) do not change; they are like the laws of physics. But how they are expressed by any art may change hugely (planes and submarines are both governed by the same laws, but behave very differently).

My next book, Swordfighting, is, from a creative perspective, done. It is still being edited, tweaked into better forms, and has yet to be published, but the creative work, by which I mean “writing new material”, is over. I have a bunch of started book projects on my computer, and  I am wondering which of them most takes your fancy; which one would you most like to see finished first. I posted a poll yesterday, and the top three contenders are:

1) Mastering the Art of Arms vol 3: Longsword Advanced Training. The sequel to my latest longsword book, which would cover advanced training, techniques, and concepts. (40% of the votes)

2) A new rapier book, to replace The Duellist's Companion. This will take into account about 9 years of teaching rapier regularly, and so be much easier to follow and use. (22% of the votes)

3) How to Train which has sections on strength training, nutrition, range of motion, meditation, and breathing. In other words how to craft your body to be able to do what you want it to do. The emphasis will be on being able to swing swords, but the principles are sufficiently general that it can apply to any area of life. (31% of the votes)

Or is there something else? I'm open to suggestions, which so far have included: a beginner's Bolognese book, Sword & Buckler, combined martial arts and swordsmanship (whatever that is!), and my interpretation of all of Fiore's plays on foot, among others.

So, if you have an opinion, please let me know it by answering my poll. I added 3000 words to my draft of Advanced Longsword today, inspired by yesterday's responses…

It is an exciting time to be a swordsman. Especially one concentrated on historical swordsmanship. As interest in the Art grows, so there are more pairs of eyes watching out for buried treasure. And in 2012, Piermarco Terminiello found some. To wit, the long-lost Second Book of Nicoleto Giganti, hidden in plain sight in the deWalden library at the Wallace Collection. This book was so obscure that already in 1673 Pallavicini mocked him for saying he’d write one and not following through. But here it is, and it is a little gem. To Terminiello’s credit, he published his findings (with Joshua Pendragon) with some alacrity: his translation of the book came out just before Christmas last year.

As it is part of the mission of the school to further the Art by making the treatises available, and to support this kind of work, I of course bought the book, and not just the paperback: this book also comes in a lovely leatherbound edition. Readers of this blog may be aware of my feelings on proper bookbinding.


So, what does this book contain? I will teach a seminar on its contents (basically a walking tour of the highlights) on February 23rd,  but in the meantime, here is an overview of its contents.

Firstly, it is intended to be read by those who already have Giganti’s first book, from 1606. You can download a scan of the original here and buy a copy of Tom Leoni's translation here. This is a must-read for any serious rapier enthusiast; it’s by far the clearest and simplest rapier source we have, and deals with the sword alone and the sword and dagger. It emphasises the use of the lunge, and clearly explains the basics of the Art. In contrast, the 1608 book covers a wide range of combat situations, including defence against multiple opponents, and even defence with only a dagger, against a spear!


In case you have not already bought this book (Go! Buy!), or indeed if you have it already and want a handy contents reference, this is what you get:

(All page references are to the hardback edition, they are the same in both, as the hardbackery is stuck onto the paperback covers. Ingenious.)

7-8: a short foreword by Toby Capwell, of the Wallace Collection

9-17 Introductory material, a concise but informative overview of:

9: Giganti’s life and work.

10: the historical trail of the second book.

11: the accusations of plagiarism levelled against Giganti by Hynitzsch in 1677, which was probably done by unscrupulous publishers long after Giganti’s death.

12: the discovery of the book.

13-4: Giganti’s employers: serious knightly pirates, the Order of Santo Stefano; and about his Patron, Christofano Chigi.

15: the relationship of this book and its contents, to the 1606.

19-145: the book itself. Which comprises:

19: Title page

23: Letter to the Patron

25-6: Preface to the Reader. This is where the meat begins. Here Giganti discusses what he is trying to achieve in this book. This is mostly concerned with dealing with other weapons, defending against cuts (of which he says there are three types; “concerted blows” learned from masters, natural blows, and artful blows), and using the pass (instead of the lunge which was the main offensive footwork in Book 1).

28-49: Parrying cuts of various types. This includes 7 illustrations, and 9 sets of drills. 47-49 are another preface, which would actually be more helpful coming before the plates.

51-79: Rapier and dagger plays of various types, including 13 illustrations, and a particularly detailed discussion on finding the sword, on pages 68-69. At this point Giganti puts two plates together, to show two stages of the action, which is very unusual in a rapier treatise.

80-106: Plays of the sword alone. These include 13 illustrations. Page 95 is titled “method of defending… with a counter-disengage” though, oddly, the description of the play does not include one. Especially interesting is the last set of four, which are grapples: the first (on 98-99) has you grab the sword hand and thrust; the second (on 100-101) has you grab the sword hand and cut; the third (on 102-3) has a similar grab but done with a twist to disarm, and threaten a thrust; the fourth (on 104-5) has a wrap and pommel strike (huzzah!). As with the first section, on cuts, he concludes this section with another preface (106).

107-128: Plays of the sword with other weapons. This starts with a preface on 107, and continues with two illustrations and a page of discussion of the sword and rotella shield, including how to hold it, and that it is “good at night, when attacked by more than one opponent”. This is followed on 112-115 with two illustrations and a page of discussion of the targa (a kind of square buckler), then the same (on 116-119) of the sword and round buckler. The sword and cape gets twice as much space (120-127), and he goes so far as to distinguish between wrapping it once or twice around your arm.

129-143: The cool stuff. This section begins with a one page preface, in which Giganti promises another book, “dedicated to the dagger alone against a variety of weapons” due out “next year”! (If it was ever written it is lost to scholarship). This section covers  plays of the dagger against another dagger (129-135), including four illustrations; a defence with a dagger against an opponent armed with a sword and dagger (two illustrations, one play, 136-139); then the same defensive idea executed against a polearm (140-143).

144-145: Giganti just can’t help himself: here he provides an advert, complete with an illustration, for yet another book, this time about “fencing entirely with the left foot forward”. Back to the archives, Mr. Terminiello, you have books to find!


I hope it is clear then that if you have any interest in the rapier at all, you should buy this book. My only cavil is that the original Italian is not included. This means that we are entirely dependent on the translation skills of Mssrs Terminiello and Pendragon. To be fair, this seems to be an accurate, high quality piece of work, but as a professional in this field it sets my teeth on edge to rely on someone else’s reading. Looks like I will have to go to the Wallace (again), and read the original for myself. Oh no, poor me. Surrounded by all those glorious swords and fabulous books, how will I cope?




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Sad news, but be happy

My father Roger Windsor died on Tuesday 22nd, at home. Sometime in the night- so