From Page to Practice

L’armee Française–Cavalerie Lègère–Trompettes de Chasseurs

If the last few posts were a clarion call against what not to do, then this one, in order to restore a little balance, is more a small bugle announcing more of a what to do. Those who know the oeuvre of Peter Sellers may recall the opening scene of “The Party” (1968) where his character, an actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, plays a Gunga Din who refuses to die even after volley after volley by both the Thugee cultists and the colonial English army. Tone-deaf and prejudicial issues around cultural appropriation and stereotypes aside, that scene is perhaps an apt analogy for the amount of binary ink I spill about the proper and improper use of our sources. It comes up a lot, but then it’s a major problem within historical fencing and thus a fitting topic to treat. Again, and again.

Of the students that I’ve been able to meet with during the pandemic one is an experienced fencer with whom, until recently, I have worked sabre. In our discussions about it, however, we’ve occasionally discussed parallels with other weapons, chief of which—for my tradition—is foil and by extension, smallsword. The north Italian fencing tradition, because of French influence during the Napoleonic era, was different than the southern Italian tradition as exemplified by masters like Terracusa e Ventura (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti (1803), and Parise (1882). A good friend and fellow student of fencing both Italian and French, Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA), can speak to this better than I can as he has been studying the source tradition for specific elements of that influence, but in short there are some parallels in north Italian sabre and foil.

I was surprised, if thrilled, that my friend and student wanted to take a look at smallsword. With the pandemic the need for variety and diversion is perhaps stronger than usual, and so switching over to smallsword for the last few weeks has been a nice break. This has been, parallels notwithstanding, new material for him, and just enough different that it’s been important to go slow so that we build the fundamentals correctly.

Converting Text to Technique

To illustrate this process, and by extension how one can use sources, I’m going to take a look at one of the more complicated actions that we’ve looked at in his lessons to date. It’s important to note a few things. First, this is a quick look at one source, not an exhaustive look at how various works at the time cover the same action. Second, “complicated” is a relative term. For many Olympic fencers this attack, while compound, is relatively simple in the sense of easy (not in the technical sense of simple attacks). However, here one must remember that the art of defense, by definition, is conservative. The more actions one makes, the more tempi, and this means that one’s opponent has more opportunities to disrupt one’s plans and strike.

“Figure of two men in the guard as explained”–Girard (1740)

After having worked fundamental actions, in this case direct thrusts in tierce and quarte both firm-footed with a lean and with an advance-lunge, always with opposition, as well as simple feints, we took at look at double feints. For this drill I looked to P.J.F. Girard and his Traité des armes (1740), Second Part, “Double Feint Quarte:”

To Thrust Quarte

This thrust is done firm footed, advancing & retreating, with or without appels, as is generally the case with all fencing attacks, as has been said before.

Double Feint Quarte

Sword engaged in tierce, I feint quarte while stamping the right foot, hand at shoulder-height, with the nails turned upward & the point near the enemy’s hilt, body back, then feint tierce outside the sword; & when he returns to parry, thrust subtly in quarte inside the sword, the hand leading, to be ready for a parry in case of a riposte, & to riposte as you see fit. [1]

The original French reads thus:

Double Feinte de Quarte

Pour Tirer Quarte

Cette botte se fait de pied ferme, en marchant & en reculant, avec des appels du pied & sans appels; ainsi que généralement tous le coups d’Armes, comme il est déja dit.

Double Feinte de Quarte

L’Epée engagée de tierce, je fais faire une feinte de quarte en frapant du pied droit, la main à la hauteur de l’épaule, tournée les ongles en dessus & la pointe à côté de la Garde ennemie, le corps en arriere, puis la feinte de tierce dehors les Armes; & lorsqui’il revient à la parade, tirer subtilement de quarte au dedans des Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, pour ȇtre en état de parer en cas de riposte, & de riposte à propos. [2]

There is a lot here and much of it requires familiarity with earlier material Girard covers in Part 1, in particular expressions such as “firm footed” (pied ferme), “sword engaged in tierce” (L’Epée engagée de tierce), or thrusting in “quarte inside the sword” (tirer… de quarte au dedans des Armes). These may or may not be obvious to the reader. Some expressions, such as “firm footed” are not part of modern fencing’s vocabulary, so, a first step is to go back and read the relevant sections in the work that explains these concepts. The master first mentions the idea in his twelve points for the en garde position, point 12 (Crawley, 38; BnF Girard, 7):

12. Finally the left foot is flat & firm upon the ground, presenting the inside of the foot to the right heel.

XII. Ensin le pied gauche à plat & ferme sur la terre, présentant le dedans du pied au talon droit.

Girard begins Part 1 with an examination of actions “against those who always remain firm footed” (Crawley, 48; BnF Girard, 14ff). [3] In simplest terms, he breaks down the assault into two major types, firm-footed (i.e. where they do not get in and out of measure, but remain in it) and those were at least one of the opponents is moving, either advancing or retreating.

I used the same break down to build a drill—initially we would approach this double feint firm-footed, and later employ more movement, in this instance where the student would begin out of measure and advance to engage.

What is Stated, and, What is Not

The concepts of “inside” and “outside” the sword refer to the same concepts today, that is, what we normally term the inside and outside lines. The outside is, assuming a right-hander, to the right of the weapon as one stands on guard; the inside line all that space on the left. To have the sword engaged in tierce, the fencer making the feint assumes the guard of tierce (modern Italian terza or French sixte), and makes contact with or engages the opposing steel so that the opponent’s blade is to the right. In this drill, we initially had both of us in tierce. [4] The feint is made in quarte, so, to the inside line. It is not stated here, but in order to do this one must disengage under the opposing steel, so, moving from tierce to quarte or from the outside to the inside line. Girard’s detail about the hand and place of the sword tip are crucial—this disengage must be tight and performed in such a way that one continues to block the threat of the opponent’s weapon.

Here too, Girard is not specific, but after the feint the assumption is that the opponent will move to parry in quarte thus safeguarding their inside line. As they do so, one feints in tierce or to the outside line—again via disengage—in order to draw the opponent once again into a parry of tierce. When they do, one then disengages a third time and thrusts along the inside line to target, but maintaining opposition in quarte. A student of modern foil with a few months of experience can likely puzzle this out, but even then some of the language is different, not to mention the emphasis placed on closing out the opposing steel.

It may be helpful for some fencers to render Girard’s instructions into modern fencing parlance:

  • From an engagement in third/sixth, disengage and feint to the inside line
  • As they parry fourth, disengage and feint to the outside line
  • As they reassume third/sixth, disengage and thrust in fourth to the inside line
  • *in each case, both feints and the final thrust, are made with opposition, that is, closing out the line so one is not hit
  • Start with both fencers in measure, blades engaged; later, have the student enter into distance and take the engagement

There is no reason one must retain the original wording, but it can help reinforce what one is reading sometimes. If the older expressions trip one up, then convert them to the modern versions if you know them—this exercise alone will force us to make sure that we really understand what it is we’re reading.


While a short passage, and seemingly clear, there is a lot that Girard assumes the reader will supply. He does not tell us to disengage; he assumes that we understand that we must because we are changing lines from outside to in, from inside to outside, and again from outside to inside. These are the little things that can make parsing historical fencing treatises difficult.

Blow of high quarte inside the swords–Girard 1740

I supplied the original French here for several reasons. First, we rely on translations—especially in the States—for most of our work. This means that we are attempting to recreate, as best we can, systems used in the past and conceived of and understood in a different language. Translation is as much science as art, and it takes considerable skill and training to do well; if you have French or Italian or whatever language your area of study was originally in, then it behooves you to ensure that your translations are solid. Check your English version against the original. If you don’t have French etc., but know someone who does, ask them to give it a once over. Second, because translations mean that the translator is making choices as to definitions, sentence structure, etc., it is useful to take a closer look at those choices. Sometimes, it makes little difference—pied ferme, for example, is pretty clear, “foot firm,” or as we would say in English, “firm foot.” But, if we look at tirer, for example, this is less clear. In modern French tirer can mean: “to pull, to pull to/to close; to draw (as in to draw curtains); to fire or shoot; to print; to take.” Not one of these definitions really works well here. The closest we get is the fifth meaning (according to my Collins French-English Dictionary), “to shoot or fire,” but we would not say that one “shoots a thrust” or “fires a thrust.” Philip T. Crawley renders tirer in Girard as “thrust,” and in context that makes good sense. Further examination into the use of this word in other works on fencing from the time would confirm that this is a good choice of definition. One might even note that the Italian cognate (tirare) was used the same way. [5]

Using Word & Image Together

Feint of quarte, to thrust tierce outside the sword–Girard 1740

Girard included illustrations which aid the reader, but as static images they capture at best a moment in time, a snapshot of action. We can easily see what a guard might look like, or the moment that one fencer is about to act or has completed an action, but we cannot see a disengage. We cannot see the intensity and attitude needed to sell a feint. Here, in Girard’s 8th plate (8 planche), we see the fencer on the right lift his foot to make an appel, and he is clearly in preparation, but unless one can read the French or has a decent translation, it would be easy to conclude–as one example–that he is mid-extension and about to lunge. We cannot see what a lunge looks like as it happens, but we might see one prepare for it. We need to read the caption to realize the difference. We can and should make use of the images if we have them, but always with the caveat that we cannot assume that they are completely faithful to what the author intended and what the fencer should do. Some images supply added material, such as dotted lines meant to capture the movement of a weapon or a limb, but even here these are representational; they’re symbols, shorthand for complex ideas and motion.

Exploring what Girard, or any other master, advocates for a fencer requires that we pay close attention, that we read carefully, compare any illustrations against what we read, and that we remain open to correction as our study continues. Were we only to use Girard’s plates we would not get very far—there is too much he doesn’t depict, too much he couldn’t depict. As the example of the double feint in quarte hopefully demonstrates, even the text which explains an action leaves out key information. It may be covered elsewhere in the work, but it might not, and so taking the time to read closely, to compare the translation in our language against the original, to work via analogy as and when appropriate, and to set word and text side by side is vital if we are to have any hope of successfully recreating the systems of combat that these sources preserve.


[1] This translation is via Philip Crawley’s edition of Girard; P.J.F. Girard, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, trans. by Philip T. Crawley (Wyvern Media, UK: 2014), 95.

[2] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes (La Haye: Chez Pieree de Hondt, 1740); available as a pdf or online at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, 48, . Hereafter, BnF Girard. I cannot express how much I value the hard work and generosity of libraries like the BnF for sharing so much online.

NB: Languages change over time and in the 1740 publication, either because Girard rendered it this way or because the printer decided to, the initial “e” in l’épée is capitalized and lacking an accent aigu where one might expect one in modern French.

[3] Contre ceux qui demeurent toujours de pied ferme. Bnf Girard, 14.

[4] Of note, tierce in smallsword is held nails-down or pronated, thumb at about 8 or 9 o’clock; modern Italian third, hand in fourth position (suppinated, thumb at about 3 o’clock) is more typical of the invitation in third; French sixth, likewise, has the hand suppinated. All three are meant to cover the outside line or defend it, and create invitations to attack the inside line, but it’s important to note that they do this somewhat differently.

[5] I am currently reading through every source for rapier and smallsword I can obtain (and read) looking at some specific elements, and the similarity in language between some of the Italian and French works are striking if not unsurprising. Originally I had intended to produce an article out of this study, but it has grown too large for that and so it will likely live here in some guise.

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