The recent discussion about George Silver that caused such a hullabaloo within historical fencing was, to my mind, answered in full by Stephen Hand in his paper “Will the Real George Silver Please Stand Up (available free, here: https://stephen-hand.selz.com/ ).”
In a post I shared here [“’Silver’ as Trigger Word,” 30 Dec. 2020] I mentioned that nothing I had seen by Hand suggested that he advocated the “slow hand” as described by those promoting the “alternative interpretation.” Having just purchased Mr. Hand’s English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver (2006), which I had not read at that time, I was finally able to see if Hand uses the term and if his opponents’ reading of it is correct. Yes, Hand does mention a “slow hand,” but no it doesn’t mean what that alternative camp thinks it does.
Page 11 of English Swordsmanship contains the “slow hand” discussion. Hand’s detractors have missed the point of the entire chapter. His approach to explaining this difficult concept uses hypophora, a well-known rhetorical device, in which the author asks questions and then answers them. For example, he asks “So how is it, that in an attack, the swift hand can move before the slow foot and yet both arrive together?” This is a device; it’s a way of setting up his explanation of Silver’s approach by guiding the reader to ask the right question.
The next sentence makes this even more clear, e.g. “Why isn’t it better to start moving with the slower foot and reserve the action of the swifter hand until the last possible moment?” This isn’t Hand asking the question but anticipating the sort of question that a reader without much training might ask. The last sentence in this first full paragraph ties it all together. Hand says, as a teacher might, that these are important questions, and that their answers—which he hasn’t discussed completely as yet—are “fundamental to an understanding of Silver’s true fight.” After all, this is what Hand is doing, explaining a key concept of fencing as Silver expressed it.
In truth, Hand provides the answer early in this section, but for those without a solid grasp of fencing theory they might miss it. Hand writes:
In any attack involving a foot movement, in any art, the attack should arrive at the same time as the stepping foot. This is so that the strength of the entire body can be transmitted through the arm into the weapon, to maintain correct balance and finally, because the attack should land as soon as the movement of the foot has brought the attacker (the Agent) close enough to hit. This is when the foot lands or possibly very slightly before.
That last line is critical. Silver is not talking about a lunge, but a step. In a lunge the true times apply as well—weapon/hand precedes foot and body—but the mechanics of the attack mean that the weapon, ideally, lands just before the front foot comes to rest. It often arrives at the same time. What cannot happen, however, is for that foot to start first. Why? The foot is slow and telegraphs the fact that an attack is coming, information that the defender can then use to decide whether to defend or attempt a counterattack. The weapon moving first puts the opponent in danger—they must deal with the advancing weapon or be injured.
Where a lunge is a compromise between safety and maximum extension of the weapon to target, a step or pass is shorter, the body closer to target as one closes. For example, if one is in Silver’s guard of Open Fight (similar to Ital. guardia alta), a guard where the weapon is poised above one ready to strike and intends to make a head-cut, letting the blade simply fall at the opponent won’t work. The arc is slow. If however one drops the fist down and out this projects the weapon between one and the opponent, increases the momentum, and makes it safer to step and finish the blow. When Hand refers to “slowing the hand, so that the attack arrives as the foot lands,” this is what he’s talking about. It’s a question of sequence—as he explains in the very next sentence:
Moving the hand first creates a threat (the weapon) before the target (the body) is brought into distance. In order to be safe, one must make a threat before one creates a target.
This doesn’t defy Silver’s admonition that the hand being tied to the foot is a false time, because the hand precedes the foot. It starts before the foot, it interposes the weapon before the foot moves, and that is the important part. Whether the blade lands at the same time or just before the foot is another issue, one that takes place after the attack starts. So long as the hand starts first—assuming everything else is in place—then one is observing the true times.
Should anyone think Silver is up the pole about this hand first business, a quick look at Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686) makes an illuminating comparison:
From this presupposed termination, I take note of that which I have said until now, for the precedence of the hand in the beginning of the thrust. Since it is a certain maxim in fencing, that, in finishing the thrust, all the movements of the body have to finish together and in the same tempo, being in a single tempo firm and well situated with the body in the termination. For that reason, to effect accomplishing that, the hand must necessarily move before any other part, since this, having to make a longer path, and a greater movement, it is necessary that it would advance first of all. [n.]
However expressed, the concept can be difficult to grasp let alone perform. Hand does a fantastic job setting up this discussion and clearly took his time to do so because he knows full well how subtle a point this is: it may be a concept foreign to non-fencers or new martial artists and thus needs careful explanation. Despite the effective use of rhetorical devices to guide the reader, some will still trip up, especially if they don’t understand the principle of weapon-first. As Hand says, this is universal to martial arts. For a quick example, if I step into distance before launching a punch I may be punched first; if I kick from out of distance an opponent may trap my leg. Each of these examples distills the complex relationship between measure, tempo, and judgment, that is, knowing one is in the right place to attack.
It is exceedingly difficult to capture the complexities of movement in words. This said, Hand makes it very clear what he means by “slow hand:”
So, leading with the hand creates a threat before creating a target and allows for far greater tactical flexibility. The hand must be slowed, but does not have to remain slow. This natural by-product of attacking in the third or fourth true times can be used as an instrument of great tactical subtlety. I sometimes refer to this as attacking with the slow hand but perhaps a more useful term is broken time. A single time, by definition a single action, can be broken into two or more parts. These parts are not actions in their own right, but are distinct parts of a single complex action.
Anyone with a background in fencing should understand what this means. It’s a very old idea and one common to all fencing. For example, a direct lunge in foil is one tempo; an attack with a disengage is one tempo. However, if I feint or beat, that is two tempi. One might assume that a disengage is two tempi because the blade moves from one side to the other, but this motion happens—to quote Hand—as “distinct parts of a single complex action.” If a reader doesn’t understand this, however, then they are going to find Silver’s true times, especially in Silver’s English, challenging or nonsensical.
“Broken time” is more complex still. I tend to use similar language when I explain this to students. In fencing we often talk about breaking tempo. It is an advanced tactic that experienced fencers often use. The reason is that performing any action in single tempo is difficult enough. It takes time to do it well. As one improves one adds compound attacks and actions of multiple tempi, and then when these are well understood one learns how to break tempo.
This can be done a variety of ways. One can break tempo by changing the speed of one’s footwork, and, by changing the speed of one’s hand. In each instance, however, this only works if the elements of fencing are present, that is, if one is abiding the universal principles which govern it. For example, if I wish to change the tempo of a riposte, I might set up an opponent the first few exchanges to expect an immediate riposte. Then, the next time, I might a) hold the riposte for a second then make the return (an indirect riposte) or b) feint to the same line, but then cut to another (a compound parry-riposte). In that first instance, the indirect riposte, I’m playing with the tempo, I’m slowing my response so that my opponent will parry to the same place they did previously so that I can attack in a new line. That is using a “slow hand.” Of note, my hand still starts first—I do not advance and then strike (having just attacked me it is far more likely that I took a half step back to parry). If I hold an indirect or the first feint of a compound parry/riposte too long I increase the chance of my opponent making a remise (the renewal of an attack after its been parried by attacking to the same line as the original action). All of this, moreover, takes places in nanoseconds, so “slow” is extremely relative.
Most of the confusion should be resolved if one distinguishes between when the weapon/hand starts (it should be first) and when the weapon/hand lands. Manipulating tempo like that, breaking it, is not easy to do well and it can go wrong quickly. It is also a difficult skill to acquire if one hasn’t put in the time to master fundamental actions first. Generally, if a student is still learning the basic rules, if they are still working to grasp the order of operations for an attack, then they’re not ready to work on breaking tempo.
[n] Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 1686, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2019, 111. The original Italian reads: Da questa presupposta termination, prendo ragione di quell che sin’hora hò detto, per l’anticipatione della mano nella partenza della Stoccata. Poiche è Massima certa nella Scherma, che nel terminare la botta, si hanno da terminare unitamente, & in un’istesso tempo tutti I moti del corpo, restando in un tempo solo fermo, e ben situate con la vita nella termination. Perloche, ad effetto di conseguire ciò, necessariamente si deue movere la mano prima d’ogn’altro mēbro; se questa, dovendo fare camino piu longo, e motto più grande; accio si trovi à tēpo nel terminare insieme con gl’altri, è necessario, che camini prima di tutti. [Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, Libro Secondo, Ch. 6, 80, available via Google Books]. NB: “ē” here is an old abbreviation for “em,” thus mēbro is membro, tēpo tempo.