Smallsword in Salem, OR

Waterfront Park, Salem, Oregon

Despite the cold and wind (it was 28F/-2C), a few of us met down by the waterfront in Salem this evening for smallsword. Though I am able to teach more often indoors again, there are still times where we lack that option, and so one either finds a way or doesn’t practice. The crew in Salem is dedicated, in no small part thanks to my friend Joshua, who approached me last year about the weapon and has done more than anyone to get others interested. It’s important to me to honor that commitment and drive, and to be honest easy to do since I enjoy smallsword so much. If they’re willing to meet on a chilly evening, I’m happy to make the trip.

It’s difficult working in the cold, especially in a two hour block, but we did our best to keep moving and stay out of the wind. Lucky for us, the amphitheater where we met has surprisingly good lighting, and thus we were able to continue practice after sundown. We were less successful avoiding the wind, but it kept us moving! We spent most of the time drilling specific actions and a few permutations following from them, but some measure/footwork exercises too.

Anatomy of a Lesson
From time to time I discuss lessons and lesson-planning on this page, and tonight’s class provides another great opportunity to do that. Since this was a two-hour block it’s important to organize what we’ll cover–there is only so much “new” material one can digest. What I typically do is consider first, whom I’m teaching, and next what they need. In this case, one of the two students who showed up has been away for a while, so some review of fundamentals (which I always include at some level) seemed appropriate. The other student has been practicing with me and at another school, and so is less in need of a refresher, but was happy to go over things again. [1] Regardless of topic, I usually structure lessons, long or short, the same way:

  • warm up
  • progressive drill
  • main lesson
  • cool down [or depending on the type of lesson, bouting, then cool down]

The warm up tends to consist of plyometric-oriented drills and/or fundamental actions. For rapier and smallsword, for example, I often start people out with something like an arrest drill–this requires me to make purposeful mistakes by exposing the weapon arm in various lines and the student to counter attack via arrest to the exposed section and then cover/parry and riposte. From there, I might add a counter-parry/riposte on my side, and so on. Varying the measure, the speed, and line make this warm-up more realistic and sort of primes the pump as it were for the main lesson.

Format for Sunday Evening
This time we began with a fencing version of a “push hands” drill. Joshua and Robert started with a glide in third, one fencer starting the attack, the other making a yielding parry in third, gaining leverage, and then attacking with a glide in their turn. There is a see-saw quality to it, but done well it’s a valuable drill: it helps both parties gain better sentiment du fer, helps them work on closing the line, provides them a convenient way to monitor how far to move the hand to parry, and tests the height of the hand on the thrust. [2] The same drill is useful in carte, half-circle/7th, and seconde. There are additions one can make to the base drill, but tonight we used the four main lines only and as a warm-up.

Next, we took this drill one step farther—we used the glide in third as a feint to draw the opponent’s tierce, then disengaged and made a thrust to the inside line with opposition in carte. Both fencers are taller than I am, and so one aspect of this exercise that proved particularly useful was changes in measure. Though the same attack can be made “firm-footed,” as the treatises refer to it, it’s important to vary the distance. Not every opponent stands still.

Girard, Traité des armes, 1740

I’ve often had students work from a glide, but at a certain point, once they have the concepts the glide teaches so well down, I expand upon it. [3] This time we discussed a guard where the glide doesn’t work well—Girard’s more extended tierce. One can make an attack by glide against this straighter guard, but it’s much easier for the defender to defeat it. [4] So, we discussed using a beat-feint instead. This was familiar ground, both offensively and defensively, but works a number of fundamental actions. It was a good set up to the prise de fer in seconde, and, the defenses against it.

The first line of defense against this attack, one anyway, is the derobement, that is, avoiding the envelopment by performing a tight circle around the opposing steel. Next, we used a yielding parry in seconde. Lastly, we upped the difficulty level and used a change of line from yielding seconde to yielding carte. This is not easy to do—it requires a keen sense of timing, distance, and evaluation of the line of attack. [5] It also raised additional questions—if one transports the blade to carte, one could riposte by flanconnade, but this is harder to do if the attacker’s hand is in tierce instead of carte.

As a way to reset and take a break from a complicated drill, we next played a version of glove tag. Often termed restricted or constrained bouting, this type of game limits one or both fencers to specific options. We started out having both fencers attack the inside line, but they could not parry—the only option was to use the feet and measure. Ideally, one provokes the opponent to fall short, then attack them as they recover back into guard, or, catch them on the march. It can be a workout. Next, each fencer could respond by parrying in carte and riposting, but nothing else.

Joshua lunges; Robert parries in carte

In the last twenty minutes we enjoyed a few unrestricted bouts. I urge fencers to do their best to use what we cover that day, and when I’m up I do my best to present students with opportunities to work on those actions. If the student is new, the cues I give are more obvious and I might hold them a second longer, but as much as possible I try to maintain the same conditions students face in actual bouts. Everything we do should relate to what students will need on the piste or in the ring, otherwise we do them a disservice. Footwork, warm-up, lessons, teaching bouts, pair drills, whatever it is we have students do, should always serve to improve their game.

Have Plastron, Will Travel
Fencing, State-side at least, is an obscure pursuit and outside the Olympic world, which is far better known and supported, it can be difficult to attract and retain students. There are a number of models for running a club and providing lessons, but the one I’ve opted for is as flexible as my other responsibilities allow. The “they can come to me” approach might work for some, but I’ve become a big believer in meeting people half-way whenever I can.

These days I teach six days a week in some capacity, which can be a lot when one has a day-job and family duties. Four nights a week I teach for parks & rec, Sunday mornings I meet people outside that system either at the local Grange or at the community college satellite, and twice a week I provide individual instruction (sabre with one 11 year old girl, rapier for one man in his 60s). It can be a lot, but I love it. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful to my spouse and children for their generosity with time and the various clumps of fencing gear that occupy different corners of the house.

The Portland metro area, and PNW in general, boast a number of options for those interested in martial arts, and, in fencing. What I offer will not appeal to everyone, and that’s okay–happily, knowing many other instructors and coaches I can refer people to places and people that might better suit them. My close friends among other instructors do the same for me, and in fact, many if not most of my students came to me via people like Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare). We’re a small community, but we do our best to look after one another, because in the aggregate we all benefit. The more like-minded fencers we train, and the better we train them, the more people we have to enjoy the Art with, so in a sense it’s self-serving. However, the study of the Art beyond mechanics and tactics can impart so much more; it can become a way of life, a philosophical position, and like any such study is one we can pursue all our lives long. The more time I spend in the Art, as student always, as teacher often, the more I appreciate the lessons–all of them–it imparts.


[1] I’m a big proponent for the continual training in the most basic, fundamental actions and techniques. We should review them often if not in some fashion each time we train. Typically, I manage that in my lessons via drills and exercises, and, regardless of skill-level. The kendo master I studied with briefly told us about his yearly retreat with his own, elderly master. Despite all my sensei had achieved, his rank, etc., his master could still find things even in his grip on the weapon to correct. We are never finished being students.

[2] Smallsword texts, as I’ve mentioned before, can vary considerably when in comes to hand height on the attack. For my part, the advice of many masters, who suggest that the hand should be as high as the chin, seems to fulfill the requirements for covering the high-line when lunging well enough. Some later texts, likely more reflective of salle play, can have the hand super high (e.g. La Boessiere), but raised so high one is far more likely to eat a counter-thrust.

[3] I will likely never be able to thank Chris Holzman, one of my mentors for Italian fencing, enough for his suggestion to start new students off with the glide vs. a direct thrust. It has no lie revolutionized my approach. Thank you, again, Chris 🙂

[4] Girard’s guard, as you see in the image, is more or less extended. What we see there is supported by the text accompanying it as well. On page 12 of the pdf available at the BnF Gallica site, the text reads Il faut présenter la pointe de l’Epée droite, vis à vis la mamelle droite de l’ennemi, & que le demi tranchant regarde la terre and Que le bout du pommeau de l’Epée regarde entre le teton droit & l’aisselle, & tombe directement au-dessus du bout du pied droit. Here, the tip of the blade and the end of the pommel both suggest a more or less horizontal blade.

This is harder to describe than demonstrate, but Girard’s guard, because it is more extended and horizontal, makes it more difficult for an opponent to effect the glide, but more than that, to defend against such an attempt requires merely a shift of the wrist right or left to defend. A beat may not sufficiently move the line, especially if one beats to the side of the opponent’s blade opposite the thumb, but combined with a feint it is more likely to succeed.

[5] My approach to working more complex actions is progressive and determined by skill-level. Though where we stopped is a viable response, it is also an unlikely one. The simplest, most efficient response is normally best, however there are at least two reasons to explore more complex iterations. First, it is “medicine for the hand,” and in training more sophisticated actions we hone the basic ones that comprise them. Second, there is always the chance one will face an opponent where the simplest defenses and responses will not b enough, and so having additional options in one’s repertoire makes sense.

Da’Mon Stith & Jay on Sword Tips and Cutting

If you have followed any of the videos lately about sword tips and cutting [1], then this is an important video to watch. Theory is great, but testing a theory is greater. Here, SF Jay and Da’Mon explore the question of round vs. angle tip with regard to a common African cutter, the redoubtable Takouba. Here’s the video:

As you will see when Jay strikes the target, there is nothing preventing that round tip, which is not rounded-out or square…, from slicing through that cardboard. Even when hitting with the top third Jay effortlessly slices through it. Yes, Jay and Da’Mon are no slouches when it comes to cutting exercises, and that counts, but the weapon performed as it should, and that is the material point.

As to the whys which generated so much of the discussion, there are a variety of reasons swords might be round at the tip. There are examples where this appears to have been intentional, as one sees on many executioner’s swords and on many Early Modern katzbalgers, though there were exceptions with these too, and then many examples were likely ersatz repairs. Maybe grinding another angle on the tip might remove to much steel, something to consider in any place where such resources are scarce. In any event, unless the edges were flattened or rounded to make them less sharp, there is nothing in the shape itself that would debar it from damaging cloth and flesh.


[1] For Matt Easton’s video, see:; for “Skallagrim,” see

The Trouble With Tribbles – High Desert Armizare

An excellent piece by Alex Spreier, High Desert Armizare:

Alex Spreier, High Desert Armizare

“The Trouble With Tribbles” – High Desert Armizare
— Read on

Sources & the Lesson

In a recent discord discussion one participant asked a series of insightful questions about how we use sources in lessons and classes. [1] Specifically, they asked:

So as an instructor, do you prefer referencing texts right away, or introducing technique in a more generic way until your students have some foundation?

It’s one of those obvious questions that is in the background of most lesson planning, but for me at least not one I’ve asked aloud, and, it’s an important question. To what degree should we discuss the sources during class? How much should we quote from a text? Do we merely cite a source? Do we share a brief summary of how we’ve used the source before or after a lesson? Do we avoid mentioning, citing, or quoting the sources we use during lessons and classes? How much should one incorporate sources if at all in the actual business of teaching?

Here I’d like to share some of the salient points others made as well as my own take on this. Starting with my own view, how much I mention or include sources in class or an individual lesson depends a lot on purpose and context. We teach in different ways, so it follows that we might incorporate our sources differently depending on the audience, goals, and topic.

In a seminar where I’m introducing people to a general area of study, say Radaellian sabre, I normally begin with a brief explanation detailing critical information (who, what, when, and where) as well as its significance (why). The rest of the time we spend more or less on the “how,” that is, exploring the system in such a way that participants gain an idea of what distinguishes this sabre school from others. In the course of a seminar people may ask questions about the system or the sources for it, and that’s fine, but focus remains on actually working on the material sword in hand. Often, there is either a formal chance at the end to go into more detail, or, an informal chance afterwards to chat about things in more depth.

In a more focused seminar, say a particular aspect of a source or tradition, I may say a bit more, because I must. Radaellian molinelli, for example, require some explanation. It’s not just what they were used for, which one could wax upon at length, but also detailing and explaining the mechanics behind them. The nature of close study is normally a decent place to cite sources or passages within them directly. That’s not always the case. In a general seminar I may say that Del Frate, Masiello, and Rossi all say this about the molinelli, but in a more focused class I might just zero in on what one master says. In this case, not using what Del Frate or whomever said makes little sense: ostensibly the people attending are there because they want to know more about this author and their take on the topic. [2] There is often overlap. The last time I discussed the molinelli, for example, I drew heavily from Del Frate but brought in Barbasetti and others as appropriate. My class was one of two that day and we had ample time to spend using these circular cuts in different ways.

For a regular class, say one with 5 to 10 people that meets once or twice a week, I normally save the bulk of the source discussion for post-class review sheets. This said, there are times when in order to explain how or why we do something I do reference the texts. These snippets can be diverting and can eat up time, so I try to keep them to a minimum. It’s a judgment call in many cases—will sharing what Girard or Rossi or Marcelli said here help the student understand or introduce a speedbump to the learning process and pace of class? Sometimes I get that wrong. Few things let you know that like a student turning to look at a clock or shuffling impatiently because they’re eager to jump back into activity.

Individual lessons, by their nature, tend to mean that we spend very little time discussing source material. This too, however, can vary by student, skill level, and the length of the lesson. It also varies by age. One on one lessons are the best way to learn and an opportunity to go through material with focus. Much as I can, I try to stick to the meat of the lesson and less so everything underpinning it. Yes, it’s often relevant, but there are better ways to share all the substrata and more appropriate times.

But you Harp on about Sources all the Time? What Gives?!

True, I do, and I will continue to do so, but using sources doesn’t necessarily mean consulting the sacred tomes between each action. For historical fencing, the sources should guide and inform what we teach, but how we do that is another matter. I look at it this way:

One way to visualize text to teaching [3]

I start with the source. Maybe it’s Del Frate, maybe Girard, but regardless I read through the work or works and see what they say. Next, I consider what I know about the passage I’ve read and its context. Del Frate was writing for the cavalry and a close friend, Giuseppe Radaelli; this system went on to transform sabre most everywhere via the Radaelli’s students and their students. As someone trained within that lineage, I can compare what I was taught with earlier iterations, and then interpret what I want to do with that topic. If I plan to cover feints, I again compare what the source tradition says with what I was taught, and devise a lesson plan.

My lesson plans follow a traditional format—we start with a warm up, jump into the topic, then cool down. How much we do in the main lesson depends on the student, but I introduce the topic and then we explore it via drill, and importantly, by varying the drill. This is where pedagogical concerns come in—is the student new or experienced? What weight of weapon are they using? Where are they strong, where weak, and what balance do I strike so that they build confidence in what they find easy and improve in what challenges them? What kind of lesson is it? Is it a teaching lesson where they’re learning a new skill? An option lesson where we explore actions or tactics in different ways? A bouting lesson where one is preparing a student for a match?

Lastly, there are the nuts and bolts of delivery—how do I introduce the topic, drill, etc.; what language makes it most clear? What examples, analogies, or previous study will aid the student? In what order should we cover the material? For an experienced fencer, I can normally state things generally, such as we’ll be working feints, give them direction to feint by thrust, molinelli to the head, and we start. There will be more variation of movement, tempo, and the order of actions. For a newer student, we may just work on making that thrust convincing, or starting from the right distance. With a new student, I spend more time on basic mechanics; perhaps we just work on the extension or a convincing feint.

Macro vs. Micro

One approach, and what I’ve more or less described above, is to adjust source-inclusion according to the follow logic:

General points/summary/introduction = more source inclusion

Teaching specific movements/actions/technique = less source inclusion

The use of the comparative adjective “more” here is intentional, because so much depends on whom it is one is teaching, and what one is teaching. A seasoned, experienced fencer new to a specific tradition may need less explanation of how to make the action and more of what this particular source says about it. In contrast, a newer fencer, someone very young, generally needs far less explanation of why de Liancour advocated X or Y and way more time spent trying to do X or Y.

As should be evident, this places a considerable burden on the instructor to know, understand, and be able to use the sources. It goes beyond that: it also means the instructor must be able to assess audience, experience, and attentiveness in various contexts, and with luck, be able to adjust on the fly. Much of this depends on an instructor’s goals and what the club is there to do. [4] In some degree, however, if the school is “historical” in focus than there should be some attention to the sources regardless of what one does with it.

Incorporating Sources into Lessons

Specific examples never hurt, so below I’d like to provide a screen shot of one of the ways in which I do this. This selection is a portion of some post-class notes from a smallsword class. As one can see, I provide a scan of the original text, and in this case a transliteration as these students are less used to 18th cen. English orthography and typesetting. Within the transliteration I provide a few explanations and definitions. A few notes follow.

Of note, these explanations follow a lesson in which I mention but do not spend much time on the text—with only an hour in class I focus on technique and its application. This often consists of something like “Today we will cover the glide from third. In the sources this is often called a ‘glizade,’ and in modern works there are more terms still.” That’s it. If someone asks me which text I tell them, but again the focus is to learn how to make and use the action, not a history lesson. Most of my time is taken up setting them up to learn the drill, reviewing the weak and strong portions of the blade, what an engagement means, what opposition entails, and how measure and timing play into this action. That’s a lot of information, and, a lot to do.

D. Angelo, _The School of Fencing_, p. 50, on the glizade

[50] Of the Motions made on the Blade Standing Still, called Glizades, and the Glizade from Carter over the Arm, to Thrust Carte.

If you are engaged in carte [4th], and are in distance, you must have a flexible arm, your body singled [profiled], and entirely on the left hip:* in this position you must make a beat** on the adversary’s blade, with an intent to stir his wrist [get them to parry]; if he should come to the sword [parry], you must disengage lightly carte over the arm [in third, but nails up], with your wrist high, and your point in line to his face; and, the moment he closes the blade [parries], disengage in carte, and thrust directly straight. If, after this, he should not return [riposte], but only force your blade [stay in the parry], you may reiterate a second thrust***, by turning your wrist in tierce, on the blade, without leaving it, and recover to his sword in carte.

*in the day, most masters recommended keeping the weight on the rear leg while in guard

**we have not covered this yet, but will; it’s a quick, powerful wrap against the opposing blade with your own to open the line

***this is called a remise; it’s to make the attack a second time, in the same line, often by redoubling or double-lunging

There are other ways I use texts, but this is a common one and useful for introducing the “what” and “why” behind what I teach. It’s sort of bite-sized, and for people more keen to use swords than read about them, this is a decent happy-medium. I cite my sources so to speak and provide them information that might help them should they wish to practice on their own, but the choice is theirs–they can read or ignore these sheets as they wish.

On the course and lesson-planning side, having the word and pdf copies of these notes does much to help me revise or correct material as I continue. Each class, each student is a different, so I tend to recycle the historical portions but update and tailor the explanations and comments. I’ve also found it useful to compare my interpretations against the sources from time to time, because colleagues provide insights that change things, as do students. One of the best things about teaching historical fencing is that it can be collaborative—students will question why we do X or Y and each time there is the chance that they may see something I’ve missed. It happens more often than one might think, particularly if the students have a martial arts and/or fencing background. As a last point, for instructors who aren’t quite sure how to engage the sources, this is one way—pick a topic, say the glide, and sit with what a source or two says about it. Work it out in real time, sword in hand, and devise drills if they’re not provided. With practice, it gets easier to do and increases not only the usefulness of these texts, but also our enjoyment of them.


[1] the conversation took place within the local historical fencing Discord 12 Dec. 2022 run by Northwest Armizare’s Mike Cherba.

[2] Usually seminar and class titles are announced ahead of events, so my own operating assumption is that if someone is in that seminar they have at least a nominal interest.

[3] The sources codify, preserve, and help create a tradition, school, or style. There are often particular features in technique that distinguish one style from another, such as footwork, guard, the axis of rotation for cuts, etc. Teaching a particular tradition combines the body of technique with that tradition’s approach to delivery as well as the specific concerns that come with teaching, both individually and in groups. All of that informs how we deliver this material, how we share it, teach, and transmit the tradition.

[4] One issue inherent in this, and a bit of a bugbear in “HEMA,” is the place of the sources and by extension what we mean by “historical.” As the same participant noted in Discord, in re sources and faithfulness to them

What’s tricky though is that even the “H” in HEMA is still a bit vague … Someone might interpret the “Historical” as having an implied “accuracy” associated with it, whereas someone else might interpret “Historical” as just broadly drawing from a past time period…And even if the latter doesn’t mix in any modern technique, a combination of historical techniques is still technically historical to some people.

Maybe the least divisive way to handle this is for each instructor and group to determine what it is they want to do, that is, what “historical” is going to mean to them. It will seem passively relative to say this, but I stand by it—I can hold one definition of “historical” and seek to abide it while at the same time recognizing that not everyone will agree.

Francois Perreault & Ecole Normale de Gymnastique et d’Escrime, Joinville

In yet another wonderful discussion, Russ Mitchell and friends discuss the role that the École de Joinville-le-Pont near Vincennes, France, played in European and later world sabre. As Russ remarks the program at Joinville was as influential as that of the Radaellians or those in the tradition of Kreussler.

Francois Perreault provides a fantastic introduction to this tradition.

Kat from Winged Sabre Historical Fencing

Kat, one of the fencers at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing (Texas, USA), discusses how she got into fencing, and, how challenging it felt at first. It really can be daunting starting in a new group–everyone seems so knowledgeable, skilled, and of course they know one another. Just getting in the door has often been the hardest part for me–naturally introverted it takes a LOT for me to interact with people, but for the most part I’ve found that Sword-People, if I may call them that, tend to be decent folk and welcoming.

Here’s Kat:

NB: while not a huge fan of George R.R. Martin or his Game of Thrones series, I’ve read a bit and watched most of the series. One of my favorite characters, however, superbly brought to life by Miltos Yerolemou, is Syrio Forel. In one scene (in the series anyway), his young student Arya corrects him when he calls her “boy” for the second time. His answer struck a chord with me; he replied “Boy, girl… you are a sword.” If one spends a long time in marital arts one realizes how true this is–sex, gender, none of that ultimately matters. Skill can overcome physical attributes and advantages, and so my approach is that however one identifies one is a fencer when they meet me for lessons or enter the classroom.

Each person is different, and so maybe we make adjustments for mobility, age, size, gait, etc., but these are adjustments we all make in some fashion and in no way are attached to judgment or censure. My goal is to teach people what I can and for them to enjoy it as much as possible, and apart from out-right bigotry, mistreatment of others, or inability or unwillingness to play nicely and safely, there is very little if anything that should keep anyone from trying all this fun stuff out.

Russ & CO.–Interview with Chris Holzman on all things Radaelli!

This video is so good. SO. GOOD. Chris is a friend and a mentor, so I know I am partisan and possess some bias, but for those who listen and find themselves uncomfortable, I challenge you to listen to what he says. Some of it will be hard, but it’s important. Few people like being called out for the inconsistencies and nonsensical things we do, but wee bruised egos aside it’s healthy for us to do so.

This is also a wonderful introduction to Radaellian sabre, a thorough examination of how this system influenced so many others, of the development of the sport, and a personal bugbear, another nail in the coffin in the silly dichotomy people insist exists between so-called “military” sabre and “dueling” or “sport” sabre.

The Problem with Bouting

Bouting is easily one of the most enjoyable aspects of fencing, but it can also prove to be a troublesome problem. The fact that it’s so fun only helps mask the issue. In this case I do not mean those clubs who focus on little else but “sparring,” a different misfortune, but the misuse of bouting, specifically focusing so much on winning that the value of bouting as a pedagogical tool is all but lost.

“HEMA,” because it lacks a robust coaching pool, is all over the map when it comes to teaching.[1] Some groups do their best to work fundamental actions, but many do not. Too many put a weapon in a new person’s hand, give them five minutes of instruction, and push them into the ring. People with busy lives and for whom swords are recreation often want to get fighting as soon as they can; it’s understandable, but lamentable. Instructors cater to this desire because they don’t want to lose people. That too is understandable, but again, lamentable. Given the audience for this site, and the unpopularity of my position on this, I don’t expect to sway many to adopt the approach I have embraced, but it would be remiss of me not to try, because I’m convinced after decades of watching what happens when people bout too early that there’s a better way to build solid skill.

Why Bouting Too Early is Unwise

There are several reasons why new students shouldn’t bout from the off, but spend time acquiring and drilling good technique, building a keen appreciation for measure, and an equally keen sense of timing. 

Safety: First, fighting even with blunted weapons is dangerous. New fencers hit hard because they lack control and the fine motor skill required to modulate their attacks. Thrown into the stress and excitement of a bout in real time, these fencers are unlikely to learn finer motion because they’re too keen to strike and to a lesser extent defend. Their actions tend to be larger and harder, neither of which are hallmarks of skill.

Stunted Growth: Traditionally there’s a reason why new fencers weren’t thrown into the assault too early. Without solid fundamentals fighting before one is ready is a prime way to cement bad habits, none of which are easy to correct once they become ingrained. One of the reasons that “HEMA” suffers so badly from shoddy fencing is because many fencers are, ironically, rewarded for crappy fencing. It’s not hard to “git gud” in one’s local group, jump into a local tourney, and intimidate and/or hurt one’s opponents on the path to a medals and glory. I’ve judged a lot of tournaments and have seen this over and over again. Worse, these same fencers take their good luck for skill and start teaching, thus creating another generation of hard-hitting louts convinced of their own genius.

Wasted Opportunity: Bouting, approached correctly, is a pedagogical tool, at least that’s what it is supposed to be. It’s a chance for both fencers to test out what they’re learning in real time. Ideally the first bouts a fencer has is with their coach–these teaching bouts, as they’re often called, require a lot from the instructor. They must possess the skill to alter how they present an action, change tempo, play with distance, all of these things in order to provide the student with realistic scenarios.

Drill, good as it is, often consists of snapshots of actions made in an actual assault. The feint to the inside line, disengage to the outside line, for example, is something two fencers can practice and within a short time get down because they establish a rhythm. Fighting isn’t like that. The metronome effect that can occur in drills creates a fencer who can only make that action if the same, exact conditions are present. [2]

Free-bouting, as opposed to a teaching-bout, ideally takes the conditions a coach changes on purpose and randomizes them. This is to say that a coach usually tells a student what it is they’re working on, what they will set up, and what the student must try to do, at least at first. As a student advances, a coach can say less about the specifics. With a fellow fencer, however, the student normally does not get any advanced warning. They just jump in and either seize the initiative or react to that of their opponent. This can be a super effective learning tool IF both fencers take advantage of it, if both realize that the bout is way to test, break, and improve their tool sets.

One Upsmanship: No one is immune from ego issues. Competition is one place where we often see these normally hidden issues emerge. Whatever self-worth concern drives a person can easily take over a bout, because “winning” makes people feel good and serves as a species of external validation. When the goal is winning, in feeling good about one’s skill and self, then learning normally takes a back seat. One becomes more concerned with getting the touch than in how one makes the touch, and that how matters. It’s easy to hit an opponent, but not easy to hit them and not be hit oneself–that requires far more attention and presence of mind, far more calm and mental fortitude, and none of that is fostered well when the concern is ego-driven.

Moreover, too much concern with winning can make things ugly; it can break down what should be a partnership in learning into a battle of egos. If one person crows about landing a touch, the other may not take it well. Resentment may fuel hard-hitting in both directions, shots after the halt, and ill-will. Learning and improvement, the purpose of a class or lesson, suffers when behavior like this enters the picture. People tend to struggle to learn in a place where they don’t feel safe. Class should challenge students, but because it should push them it must be a place where other stressors are removed or at least reduced. Behavior which introduces needless distraction, which engages emotions unhelpful in the acquisition of skill, have no place in the sala.

Bouts as Learning Tools

The bout within the context of a class is not the place for the same energy, ethos, or goals as one has in competition. A fencing class is a cooperative learning lab, not the piste, not the ring. Everyone will get far more use and enjoyment from bouts when they bring the right mind-set to it. Use these bouts as a way to practice, to learn, to see what works and what doesn’t. Use them to play with measure and tempo, to test them out with different techniques and tactics.

Inevitably instructors will encounter students who struggle to embrace this notion of bouting as really just more or less unplanned drills in real time. My advice, if this goes against one’s plans, is to quash it immediately. I have a sort of “Defcon Levels” approach to managing this problem in my classes:

Level 1–Student is no longer allowed to bout
Level 2–Less gentle reminders and a review of my approach to bouting
Level 3–Gentle reminders that we’re partners in learning, opponents not adversaries
Level 4–Cultivating and reemphasizing expectations about bouting
Level 5–Establishing clear expectations about bouting

First, I make sure that my rules and expectations for bouting are explicit, not only when someone joins a class, but before each portion of class that includes bouting. 


  • Safety equipment–mask, jacket, glove, etc.–are mandatory
  • Be respectful: your opponent is your partner in learning
  • Be gracious: acknowledge a hit and refuse to accept a touch you know you didn’t make
  • Be humble: we’re here to learn. Save all the fire and drive for competitions
  • Be gentle: hard-hitting is the mark of a poor fencer, of an untutored brute
  • Be curious: ask questions if you have them; observe and analyze the action
  • Have fun!

Second, I actively cultivate the proper approach and do my best to model the behavior I want to see, from congratulating my partner on a good touch to keeping the mood light. When a student breaks protocol, if they crow about a point, get too aggressive, or start talking about who won/lost I remind them that we are here to learn, we are working together toward that goal, and that it’s not about win or lose, but improvement. If the gentle reminder fails, and it does sometimes, I stop class, have everyone remove their masks, and I lecture them: I reiterate the rules and expectations, and inform them that future infractions will mean no bouting for that person. If after a more stern warning a student persists, I stop the class and remove them from bouting. It’s not happened (yet…) but should a student persist in such behavior, I will ask them to leave until they’re ready to act responsibly.

What we do is dangerous. Part of my job as an instructor is to help students hone a dangerous skill set safely, to learn to use it responsibly, and in the spirit of camaraderie that should unite us all as comrades-in-arms. One of my goals is to instill in my students the truth of the school motto, vis enim vincitur arte, “for force is conquered by art.” Strength, power, all of these have their place in fighting, but our tools in fencing–applied correctly–replace and mitigate force. That’s why we use them. [3] 

Each club or school will have its own approach and protocols for bouting. I have found, having visited so many schools, having fought so many people from different club cultures, that treating the bout as a tool produces better results. The assault engaged in as a learning exercise can still be fun, it can still be a fight, but with the focus on improvement over net performance, students are better prepared for competitions, they’re more likely to help others improve, and generally they’re a lot more fun to fight because they’re there to learn and have fun instead of beating people down. There is a time and place for the aggressive, go-get-’em approach, but generally it’s untoward and unhelpful within a class setting.


[1] There are many good instructors out there. However, there are also a lot of horrificly poor ones.

[2] This is one reason altering drills, even simple ones, via the universals is so important. In the example used here, changing the measure and footwork, changing the tempo the feint and thrust/cut are made in, changing the set up, all work to make this one action far more useful when the fencer needs to use it in a bout.

[3] We talk a lot in historical fencing about attribute fencers, about this person’s speed, that person’s strength, and we tend to downplay them because the milieu in which we work is focused on skill, not the application of natural abilities. In an actual fight, however, and depending on the context, something like strength does matter. It might not in a duel between two people with smallswords, but it almost definitely would in armored combat in the lists.

Trust but Verify—the Perils of Translation

This week’s smallsword class presented a piquant reminder of the caution required in using translations, even good translations. In this instance the translator and author were the same person, Domenico Angelo. One can usually assume that anyone wearing both hats has a firm idea of what they want to express—how well, consistently, or accurately they convey that in another tongue, however, is another matter. We can be too close to a topic, it can be too familiar, and since it makes sense in our heads we may unwittingly proceed as if all we have to do is put pen to paper (or hands to keys). This is just as true for the reader nowadays.

I often harp on the importance of reading the text and not just relying on images in our interpretations, and without meaning to sing the same old tired song, the topic here concerns one nuance of this theme. As my own example will show, what we’ve read can bias us in viewing images too, and so, as ever, we need to be cautious and read closely even if we “think” we know what a passage or illustration means.

Half Circle, Circle, Circular…
Angelo uses the terms “half circle” and “circle” in several ways and there is some potential confusion possible in his English version. I don’t know and thus am hesitant to suggest what Angelo was thinking as he wrestled with the French and English in producing the respective copies of his The School of Fencing, but as someone who mines his work today if I had to guess, I’d imagine that it was oversight on part of the author/translator, or, a printer’s error.

On the face of it, some of these issues with language are self-explanatory, but syntax, punctuation, and translation can complicate some of these terms, and deserve a closer read. Call it due diligence. We lose nothing in checking our reading, and in some cases, as I discovered comparing Girard and Angelo, we not only might correct errors we’ve made in interpretation, but also gain new insights into the sources.

Similarities in Girard, in this case, likely skewed my reading of Angelo. I fix these things as I find them (or as they are pointed out to me), but this is a good example because I do my best to do things as accurately as I can and still screw up sometimes. It can happen to any of us (and will on occasion).

In what follows, I’ll present the French from the 1763 edition and the English from the 1787 as these are the two copies I have on hand. The story of the evolution of L’Ecole des Armes/The School of Fencing has been well-covered by others, so those interested in the editorial history of the text should refer to the works in the notes, at least as a place to start. [1] While variations in edition are important, I’m working with the versions to which I have access and focusing on a single, practical concern: navigating some issues of translation in making use of the work.

Examples: Demi-cercle
Angelo first covers this parry for plate 19, or, page 97 in the pdf provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica. [2] He writes:

De la Parade du Demi-cercle sur le Coup de Quarte basse
Voïez la Dixneuvieme Planche

La parade du demi-cercle doit être formée au dedans des armes par un coup ferme sur le foible de la lame de l’advesaire, avec le trenchant du dedans & du fort de l’epée. Il faut tourner les ongles en dessus, tender bien le bras, tenir le poignet a la hauteur du menton, & la pointe de l’epée basse & soutenuë du fort au foible.

The English reads thus:

Of the Half Circle Parade, or the Parry Against the Inside Thrust under the Wrist, called the Low Carte
Plate XIX

This parry of the half circle should be made within the sword, by a smart beat on the feeble of the adversary’s blade with your inside edge; your nails must be upward, your arm strait, your wrist raised to the height of your chin, and the point low, but well opposed from fort to feeble. [3]

The accompanying plate accords well with the explanation provided here. Much like the modern parry of 7th in French foil, the fencer on the right has the hand in fourth/supinated, the arm is straight, and opposes the adversary’s thrust with the inside edge (one can just make out the knuckle-bow). This parry is made higher than modern 7th, but covers more or less the same line only more conservatively since the arm is extended to parry farther from oneself. [4]

De la parade du demi-cercle sur le coup de quarte basse

The second mention of the term “demi-cercle” is used not to describe this parry, but the arc of the yielding parry made against a flanconade. The second paragraph of the section relating to the 20th plate reads

Le liement d’epée se fait aussi dans le tems qu’il tire le coup de flanconnade. Il faut ceder la pointe sans quitter sa lame, en forte que la pointe forme un demi-cercle en passant par dessous son poignet; & lorsque la parade sera formée, les deux poignets & lames se trouveront dans la position de quarte, comme on êtoit avant que le coup fut tiré, avec cette difference, que le poignet se trouvera plus bas que dans la garde ordinaire.

The English:

The second parade mentioned, called the binding of the blade, is made at the time the adversary attempts to thrust his flaconade. In order to [do] this, you must yield your point, and suffer your feeble to be taken, so as to let your point pas under his wrist, without quitting his blade in the least, that your sword may form a demi-circle; and, gathering his blade in carte, you will find that the two swords, and wrists, are in the same position as when the attack began, with only this difference, that the wrists will be a little lower than in the ordinary guard. [5]

In this instance, Angelo clearly means this descriptively, and so while the same term the context helps prevent confusion.

With the text for Plate 24, however, there is a potential problem. The French reads:

De la Risposte en Tierce sur le Coup de Tierce
Voïez la Vingt-quatriéme Planche

Dans le tems qu’on pare la tierece, en tendant le bras & baissant la pointe de l’épée au corps de l’adversaire, il faut lui risposter le coup de tierce le main tournée en tierce & le poignet cavé, faire en forte que la main parte le premiere en soutenant son épée dépuis le fort jusqu’à la pointe, puis se remettre en garde en prime, ou en demi-cercle. On peut aussi risposter en seconde et se remettre en garde en seconde, en tierce, ou en demi-cercle.

De la risposte en tierce de pied ferme sur le coup de tierce.

And the English:

Of the Return in Tierce, after the Tierce Thrust
Plate XXIV

At the time that you parry the tierce with a strait arm, and your point a little lowered to the adversary’s body, you must return the same thrust, only your wrist a little inclined to the outside. Take great care that the hand moves first, and oppose his blade well, from feeble to fort; to recover your guard in prime, or demi-circle parade.

You may also, after your tierce parry, return the thrust in seconde, and recover in seconde, demi-circle, or in tierce. [6]

Significantly, the punctuation is the same in the relevant section; both read “puis se remettre en garde en prime, ou en demi-cercle/to recover your guard in prime, or demi-circle parade.” Early on I had mistaken these clauses as appositive, but closer reading and practice have illustrated that this was an error. Angelo is referring to two, distinct parries.

Part of what threw me was Girard—I have spent more time with that text, and his “circular parry,” parries rather, are redolent of Angelo’s half circle parry, and, prime visually. Plate 19 in Girard looks like Angelo’s “half circle” but there is called “circle.” Plate 19 illustrates a circular parry with the hand in fourth or “nails upward; Girard has ensured that the off-hand check is depicted as well.

Plates 21 and 22 in Girard might be taken as if they represent one parry from different angles, but these are two, different parries. The images may appear similar, but each parry is made a little differently. Prime, generally, is made from tierce sweeping left (assuming a right-hander); circle, on the other hand, is achieved via a clockwise circle to gather up the incoming steel.

The parry in plate 22 could be the same “nails down” parry as 21, just seen from the other side and with the addition of the off-hand check, but 22 is Girard’s “prime,” 21 another version of “circle.” They’re not the same.

Parade of Circle with nails on top

Girard writes:

Parade du Cercle,

La main tournée de quarte, les ongles en dessus, le poignet haut & la pointe basse. Avec cette parade on pare la quarte haute, la quarte coupée, la seconde, & la flanconnade.

Pour parer lesdits coups, je fais lever le poignet à la hauteur de la bouche & tourné de quarte les ongles en dessus, le bras droit tendu, la pointe de l’Epée basse parant du cercle, en frapant d’un coup ferme sur le foible de sa lame avec le fort du trenchant pour jetter le coup au dehors des Armes, en opposant la main gauche à son Epée, crainte qu’elle ne vous offense: Et le coup paré, lorsqu’il a le pied levé pour se retirer en Garde, lui riposte de quarte droite dans les Armes; ayant toûjours la main gauche opposée à sa lame, & sans la quitter redouble la main bien soutenuë, puis se retirer dans la Garde ordinaire.

Voyez pour l’opposition de la main gauche, page 39.

Voïez la Figure de la parade du cercle les ongles en dessus [35]

Philip Crawley’s translation for this passage makes the action clear. He renders it thus:

Circular Parry

The hand turned to quarte, nails upward, wrist high & the point low. With this parade one parries high quarte, quarte coupe, seconde & the flanconnade.

To parry the above said attacks, I raise my wrist to mouth height & turned to quarte, the nails above, the right arm outstretched, the sword point low parrying in a circle, firmly hitting the weak of the sword with the strong edge of the blade to push out the attack, opposing with the left hand on the sword, for fear that they will hit me: And having parried the attack, when he raises his foot to return to guard, riposte him with a straight quarte inside the sword; always opposing his blade with your left hand &, without quitting, redouble using a well-supported hand, then return to the ordinary guard.

See the opposition of the left hand [, page 39]

See the figure on the circular parry the nails upward

The image in plate 21, as I read it, captures the moment that the defender (on the left) has described the circle and met the incoming steel. Note that his hand is in tierce/nails down–a key difference from plate 19. If one took the image without the text, always a danger in historical fencing, this might be taken for seconde.

Parade of Circle with nails underneath
Parade of prime, with opposition of the left hand

Read sans the filter of Girard, with whom I’m more familiar, Angelo’s passage in either language is much clearer: one can recover into guard and use a number of sweeping parries as one does so to ensure safety.

Example: Cercle or Half Circle?!
Lastly, there is section entitled “De la Parade du Cercle” [134] in the French text, and, what Angelo renders “Of the Half Circle Parry” [42]. It may be an error on either Angelo’s or his typesetter’s part, but regardless the English wording is, on the face of it, confusing. The description, however, makes it clear that this parry is not the same as the half circle parry covered earlier on page 29.

The French reads:

De la Parade du Cercle

Cette parade, qui est la principale des armes, pare non seulement tous les coups, mais aussi dérange toutes les feintes qu’un adversaire peut faire. Pour bien éxécuter cette parade, il faut bien tender le bras, tenir le poignet sur la ligne de l’epaule les ongles tournés in dessus, & par un movement ferré & vif du poignet la pointe de l’épée doit former de la droite a la gauche un cercle assez grand pour être a couvert depuis le tête jusqu’au genou. De cette maniere, en doublant le cercle jusqu’a ce qu’on ait arresté la lame de son adversaire, la parade sera formée.

Pour arrester cette parade du cercle, quand même il la doubleroit avec la plus grande vivacité, il faut arrester tout court sa lame en soutenant le poignet à la hauteur de l’épaule & tenant la pointe basse, comme dans la parade de quinte, & revenir promptement â l’épée en quarte.

Il faut s’exercer, autant qu’on peut, le poignet aux parades du cercle, au contre-dégagement, & du contre-dégagement au cercle. On peut prendre cette leçon tout seul, soit avec un fleuret, soit avec une épée. Cette exercise fortisie le poignet, le rend souple & le délie, & procure insensiblement le plus grande aisance & adresse pour se défendre dans le besoin.

The English:

Of the Half Circle Parade

This parade, which is the chief defensive parade of the sword, parries not only all the thrusts, but also obstructs all the feints that can be made; and, to execute it well, you should straiten your arm, keep your wrist in a line with your shoulder, your nails upward, and, by a close and quick motion of the wrist, the point should form a circle from the right to the left, large enough to be under cover from the head to the knee; in this manner, by doubling your circle till you have found the adversary’s blade, your parade will be formed.

And now, in order to stop this circle parade, notwithstanding its being redoubled with great vivacity, you may stop his blade short, by keeping your wrist the height of your shoulder, and lowering your point, as in the quinte parry; and, recovering, bind and gather his blade in carte.

You should exercise and practice these circle parades, from the counter disengages to the circle, and from the circle to the counter disengage. You may practice this lesson yourself, either with sword or foil: this will strengthen and supple your wrist, and will insensibly procure great ease and readiness to defend yourself upon all occasions. [8]

Of note, both Girard and Angelo’s parries of circle include a circular motion, something difficult to capture in the plates. We catch the action upon completion, at its start, or somewhere in between. Angelo’s “half circle,” on the other hand, does not include a circular motion, and thus, here, as ever, reliance on the plates alone will confuse one unless one is careful.

The Take-Away

This short examination of one term, whatever the reason for the discrepancy, hopefully serves as an example for why caution, even in a well-translated work, is sound. If, like me, you read a lot of different, contemporary sources, then this caution is all the more critical. It’s a truism of fencing old and less ancient that different authors, different masters will sometimes use the same terms to mean different things. Due appreciation for these nuances only aides us in our interpretations.


[1] See especially Ashley L. Cohen, “Fencing and the Market in Aristocratic Masculinity,” in Sporting Cultures, 1650-1850, Daniel O’Quinn and Alexis Tadie, eds., Toronto, CN: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 66-90, especially 69-72. See also Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century and Champion of the Sport of Fencing,” in Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism 17: 4 (2010): 323-334, esp. 327-328 for the circle parry and other content of the work; 329 for a quick look at publication; Jeannette Acosta-Martinez, “Domenico Angelo in History,” in The Fight Master 28:2 (Fall/Winter 2005): 12-15, esp. 13-14.

[2] The French edition I’m using is: Mr. Angelo, L’Ecole des armes, London, GB: Chez r. & J. Dodsley, 1763, found at the wonderful site provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica site, cf.;2

[3] This is page 29 in this edition, The School of Fencing, London: 1787. I have a facsimile, in print, from Land’s End Press, New York, 1971, but also use the pdf available at The Smallsword Project, found here  

[4] Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century,” 328, suggests the modern septime/7th was a result of “’diminishing’ quinte and circular parries,” but I’m less convinced that this is so. Angelo’s “half circle” is, extended arm notwithstanding, clearly meant to do the same job, and, in the same plane. The difference, as I read it, is that Angelo’s fencer may have had to do this to preserve their life, not just their placement in the pools. The extended arm parry, the rear-weighted stance, and attention to measure all imply a conservative game, one meant to maintain the uneasy compromise between one’s safety and still being able to reach target. In similar vein, though not called “sixth,” smallsword’s “carte over the arm” is the clear antecedent to the chief guard in the modern French school. We have ample evidence from our texts not only of thrusts made carte-over-the-arm, but of fencers adopting a guard that is more or less sixth, that is, arm on the tierce side, but supinated/hand in fourth.

[5] French, 101 in the pdf; English, 29-31.

[6] French, 117; English, 38 .

[7] See P.J.F. Girard, Traité des Armes, La Haye: Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740; the French text is, again, from the pdf made available by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica site, page 35 in the text/page 62 of the pdf, cf.;2

The English I borrowed from the translation of the smallsword portion of Girard, Philip T. Crawley, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, Wyvern Media, UK, 2014, p.77.

[8] French, 134; English, 42-43.