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.

Reach for the Sky—Hand Height in the Smallsword Lunge

The cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words may be correct, but that doesn’t mean the same image doesn’t require explanation. Rather than take a screen shot of the myriad instances one can capture on Youtube and elsewhere, which might upset people, I’ve opted to go with an iconic, period image, and perhaps one reason for the madness:

de La Boëssière, 1818

There are many examples of this hand-above-the-head extension:

Olivier, 1771
McArthur, 1780

These are period images, mostly of foil play—to which I’ll return—and thus are “historical” in the sense that we normally mean it in historical fencing/martial arts. This said, there is an important distinction to be made between what we see in images like these and those from earlier works, equally historical but different in purpose. [1]

Every instructor has to make choices about what they want to include; they should be able to explain why as well. For me, lunging with one’s hand held so high is less covered than lunging with the hilt terminating at chin height as in earlier works for smallsword. If the goal is not to be hit, to reduce the chances of doubling, then a more conservative approach on the extension of the arm, the very first action made in the series of movements that comprise the lunge, makes sense.

The treatise from which I work most is P.J. F. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740), though much of my curriculum brings in ideas from Domenico Angelo’s L’École des armes/The School of Fencing (1763/1787) and de Liancour Le maître d’armes (1686), among others. I make a constant effort to read and compare the works I rely upon with others, incorporating material from some, merely noting others, and in some cases rejecting some ideas for inclusion in lessons. There are also times when I shelf a treatise for a time—with Le Perche du Coudray (L’Exercise des armes, 1750), there are sufficient reasons I’ve found to work on things and come back to it.

For example, the first lunge he covers, from quarte, depicts the hand higher than the rest of his work suggests. Is this so or an accident of the artist’s hand? The accompanying text has details, but isn’t specific as to hand height on the extension, he merely writes

Aprés sétre mes en garde et en mesure il faut dabord que ce soit la main qui parte la premiere en soutenant bien la poignet et baissant la pointe de l’Epée jusqu’a l’Estomach de l’Ennnemy, que les ongles soient tournés en En haut le bras bien etendue et bien soutenu

After being in guard and in distance, the hand must move first, supporting the wrist well and lowering the point of the sword to the enemy’s stomach, so that the nails are turned upwards, the arm well-extended and well-supported… [2]

Here is the accompanying image:

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 6

In the illustration the lunging fencer’s hand is at his hairline, the lunge long, and nothing in the description offers an explanation as to why. Did Le Perche wish the fencer to lunge this way? Maybe. Parallels with other sources don’t offer much help. His lunge in tierce and seconde recall de la Touche’s (1670) super extended poses, the attacker’s head is much farther forward, and in some cases the attacker is not looking at target. [3]

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 7

The fencers in the plates all hold foils, but is that significant? In Plate 11, for example, the fencer attacking in quarte—his arm a bit lower than the hairline this time—uses the off-hand parry/check to prevent a double. This recalls similar images in Girard and suggests at least some attention to self-preservation. [4]

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 11

In sum, I’m not sure what to make of Le Perche yet and so, I’m noting what I see and will return to it later, hopefully armed with more information to help me read it more accurately. It’s possible that Le Perche is one of those texts that captures the subtle shift from practical swordplay to academic, salle play.

The hand in the air like one just doesn’t care… approach to the extension is popular in HEMA’s smallsword circles. While one can definitely point to sources for it, thus fulfilling the “H” of the acronym, the same cannot be said for the “MA” portion. To use a word I have come to detest, this raised hilt in the lunge is less “martial” than the custom preceding it.

Art vs. Practicality

It will come as no surprise that I do not teach this hand and hilt above the head approach to the extension. Graceful it may be, artful it may be, but from the standpoint of “don’t get hit” it’s less likely to protect one. Placed in this manner the weapon is more likely to fail to close the line as well as fall prey to an easy disarm.

Girard’s instruction illustrates well the more practical approach. In describing the guard, his very first point is revealing:

Il faut présenter la pointe de l’Epée droire, vis à vis la mamelle droite de l’ennemi, & que le demi tranchant regarde la terre.

The point of the sword must be presented straight, directed toward the right breast of the enemy, & so that the ridge of the blade is half turned to the ground [5]

Girard, two men on guard

This point forward, semi-extended position places the sharp tip as close to the opponent as possible while keeping the body as far back as possible. This compromise will be very familiar to students of Italian fencing—we see similar guard positions from Rosaroll & Grisetti to that of 20th century masters like Agesilao Greco. [6]

Taking Girard’s thrust in tierce as an example, the same conservatism is in evidence. To thrust in third, one

Coup de Tierce Haute tire Droit au dehors des Armes

Etant bien en Garde & en mesure, l’Epée engagée de tierce dehors les Armes, les ongles regardant la terre, je fais partir la main la premiere, les bras étendus en forme de croix, la main gauche également tournée de tierce, le genou gauche bien étendu, le pied à plat, & ferme & sur la terre, le genou droit plié; de forte qu’il soit vis à vis le milieu du pied droit & dans las ligne de l’ennemi, le corps soutenu, le côté droit panché au-dessus du genou droit, les deux épaules effacées, & la tête le long du bras à l’oposite de l’Epée, pour se garantir le visage. Le coup achevé dans cette Attitude se retirer en Garde, l’Epée devant soy, sans laisser baisser le poignet.

The Thrust of High Third pushed Directly Outside the Sword

Being in a good guard and in measure, the Sword engaged in Tierce outside the Sword, the nails facing the ground, I extend the hand first, arms extended in the shape of a cross, the left hand also turned in Tierce, the left knee well-extended, the foot flat and firm on the ground, the right knee bent; so that it is over the middle of the right foot & in line with the enemy, the body propped up, the right side over the right knee, shoulders profiled, & the head along the arm opposite to the Sword, to protect the face. The attack complete, in this this posture return to Guard, Sword out in front, without dropping the wrist. [7]

The image accompanying this section of text accords with it well, but the text itself is clear—hand first, so weapon first, opposition as one thrusts, and body positioned so that it is not only behind the guard, but so situated that the head is leaning away from that opposition, both for safety—as the master remarks—and so, I suspect, one can see the thrust and the opponent’s reaction better.

Girard, thrust in tierce

As a check on this, it’s worth taking a look at Girard’s first attack, the thrust in quarte. He writes

Le Coup de Quarte Haute tire’ Droit Au-dedans des Armes

Etant bien dans la Garde qu’il dit & en mesure, l’Epée engagée de quarte dans les Armes, je fais partir la main la premiere en levant le poignet, les oncles tournés dessus, regardant le Ciel, ainsi que le dedans de la main gauche; les bras étendus en croix, le corps panche du cote droit, & soutenu au-dessus du genou droit; les épaules effacées, la tête panché du côté de l’Epaule droite pour regarder le coup à l’oposite de l’Epée, de forte que le pommeau regarde l’oeil gauche, le bout du pied droit vis à vis l’ennemi, que le genou tombe perpendiculairement au dessus du milieu du pied avec le pied gauche à plat & ferme sur la terre, la jambe & la cuisse gauche élevées. Le coup achevé & tiré dans l’Attitude qu’il est dit, se retirer bien en Garde l’Epée devant soy, sans laisser baisser le poignet.

Being well in guard & in measure, the Sword engaged in quarte within the Swords, I start the hand first by raising the wrist, the nails turned up, looking at the Sky, the left hand following suit; the arms outstretched like a cross, the body leaning to the right side, & supported above the right knee; the shoulders profiled, the head titled on the side of the Right Shoulder, to see the blow against the Opposite Sword, so that the pommel is in line with the left eye, the tip of the right foot towards the enemy, the knee falls perpendicular over the middle of the foot with the left foot flat and firm upon the ground, the leg and left thigh straight. Having made the thrust in this position, as stated, return well in Guard with the Sword in front of you, without letting the wrist fall. [8]

Girard, thrust in quarte

It’s possible to regard the attacker in the image “pushing” fourth as having his hand at the hairline, but given the description that doesn’t follow. More likely, the artist, who knew their craft well, meant to show the head leaning right over the shoulder. The fact that the right hand is nearly as large as the head suggests that it’s meant to present closer to the onlooker, again helping create perspective. With the head so tilted, lining up the left eye with the pommel occurs at an angle and thus lower than the top of the head were the head upright. As a side note, while the opponent may have been hit in the chest, it’s possible he was hit in the arm—few smallsword or rapier texts for that matter spend much time on the forward target (a topic for another time), but it would be unwise to assume that any instructor would have looked down on such a strike.

Text, Awareness, & Choice

As with most things in HEMAland one can adopt whichever hand-height one wishes. However, I will maintain that knowing why we do what we do and where it comes from makes sense. It’s historical fencing, and part of any historical examination is understanding the context for things; it’s all the more important when the waters are muddy. The overlap between smallsword and foil play is significant, and thus, it’s a lot easier to treat them as one in the same. Did many smallsword fencers, who sought to learn to use a sword in earnest, learn via foils? Absolutely. But… they didn’t show up to Stephen’s Green or The Dueling Oak armed with one, and if they attempted to use moves better suited to impressing their fellow salle mates with their grace and poise than keeping them safe, they were likely to leave the Green or the Oak on their backs.

The hand held high versus at chin height reflects a change in culture. It coincides with the decline of dueling in some areas on the one hand, but with the increasing importance of fencing as elite accomplishment on the other. Both are historical, but reflect different contexts, different attitudes. The later our “smallsword” texts are in time, generally the more we see this reach for the sky business. De St. Martin, for example, whose L’art de faire des armes came out in 1804, has it, and while perhaps not in each plate, it’s there. In discussing the parry and riposte from third, de St. Martin specifies that “la main bien élevée au dessus de la tête,” that is, that one should have the “hand well raised above the head.” [9] We see the concern for grace, poise, and elegant execution of technique not only increase in the treatises, but in other areas as well. Many 18th century advertisements, even in the American colonies, often paired fencing and dancing as two pursuits for the genteel portions of society or those who wished to join their ranks. [10]

People pursue historical fencing for their own reasons and enjoy different aspects of it. That’s really pretty awesome. For those keen for smallsword or the study of early foil as a distinct track, some attention to these distinctions will only help one’s study. An awareness of the differences between foil as art form and foil as safer training weapon for smallsword is especially important for anyone purporting to study the MA aspects of HEMA. Few people will notice or care which one chooses, but it’s logical to know what we’re doing, where it comes from, and why it was done that way.


[1] Images are from:

Antonine Texier La Boëssière, Traité de l’art des armes, Paris: de l’Imprimerie de Didot, 1818, plate 1.

Mr. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized, or, A New Treatise on the Art of Sword Play, London: John Bell, 1771

John McArthur, The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion, or, A New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing, London: James Laver, 1780, plate 6.

[2] Le Perche du Coudray, L’Exercise des armes, Paris: 1750, from the pdf made available from the Biblioteca de la Univeridad Polltécnica Madrid, España, plate 6 and text, 29 and 31 in the pdf.

[3] Le Perche, L’Exercise des armes, plate 7, p. 33 of the pdf. Cf. plates 8 (37) and 9 (41).

[4] Le Perche, L’Exercise des armes, plate 11, p. 49.

[5] Girard, Traité des armes, La Haye: Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740, 5-6. In note IV of the same section he specifies that the hand and hilt are turned to half-quarte (Avoir le bras droit, & le poignet flexible & tourné demi quarte…de forte que le demi tranchant de la main droite regarde le Ciel…) so I have translated note I’s last clause, que le demi trenchant regarde la terre, as “half turned” to reflect this, demi tranchant meaning “half edge.” [Pagination is that of the BnF pdf]

[6] See Giuseppe Rosaroll & Pietro Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Milan, 1803, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, 99-101; table 2, figure 2.

Of note, in the Italian edition, § 66. Descrizione della stessa [guardia], explains this about the weapon and arm:

Il braccio destro disteso verso il nemico rappresenta la linea di offesa colla spada, la punta della quale dee essere diretta all’occhio del nemico, parlando di spade nuda, ed al centro del petto nelle accademie; il gomito del detto braccio dee essere volto alla terra, e propriamente sulla direttrice. [p.45 in the pdf]

The arm, much like Girard advocates, is more or less straight out, only pointing at the eye for serious encounters (diretta all’occhio del nemico) versus the chest.

Agesilao Greco, on the right as one looks, some timebefore 1900–not the arm:

[7] Girard, Traité des armes, p. 16.

[8] Girard, Traité des armes, p. 14-15.

[9] M. J. de St. Martin, L’art de faire des armes, Vienne: de l’Imprimerie de Janne Schrämble, 1804, p. 30. NB: this is not an isolated mention. When de St. Martin first mentions the direct thrust (le coup droit), he mentions that the wrist should be “well elevated” (le poignet bien élevé), p. 29. It’s always dangerous to take illustrations at face value, but overall most of his depictions of the lunge show the hand higher than Girard and other, earlier masters advise.

[10] See for example,