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.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: