Using Historical Fencing Treatises, Text & Subtext

Teaching from early fencing sources can be daunting. On the one hand, their organization, language, and lack of details can impede interpretation. There are also the challenges we face in using images, not to mention dealing with sources that lack them. On the other hand, we cannot always guess what assumptions the author had about the reader’s knowledge or even what they intended with the work. For the period in which the smallsword was popular (roughly ca. 1615 to 1800), some treatises were likely meant for public consumption, others were written in an attempt to solicit patronage, still others to challenge existing custom and/or defend a new approach. All on some level were meant to immortalize a particular author’s views and put their name on the rolls of influential masters. Some are mere tracts, others replete with a host of actions and maneuvers. Even when a source is less difficult to understand there remains how one should use it. Both deciphering challenging texts and deciding what to use from them (and how) are things we must consider when teaching from them.

As someone averse to anything remotely smacking of Bourdieu, Derrida, or Foucault, my use of the term “subtext” here is meant to convey the implications within our sources, not some hidden meaning or the imposition of some anachronistic, fashionable theme into the past. There is, plainly, what a book says, and, what it doesn’t, and we can learn a lot from both.

“Barcelona,” 1994, by Whit Stillman

Explicit vs. Implicit

When we’re lucky an author is explicit. They provide details as to the individual movements and positions that make up a stance, technique, or action. Sir William Hope, for example, is one of our chief sources for knowing that one should not insert the fingers through the annulets, those rings, descendents of a rapier’s pas d’âne, found on many smallsword hilts. In his Scots Fencing Master (1687) he wrote

You must hold your Sword after this manner; hold your Thumb upon the broad side of the Handle with your Fingers quite round it, as in the second Figure of the first Plate marked F. and not as some do, who their foremost and middle Fingers thorow to two arms of the Hilt, thinking that by doing that, they hold their Sword firmer, some use onely to put their foremost Finger through, which the Spaniards did of old, and many even to this day do it; but both ways are most ridiculous, and dangerous.

Presented in the much-used trope of master and student in discussion, the corresponding student comments that one is at risk of having one’s fingers broken should one come to grips. Details like this are critical in our interpretations as the presence of the annulets naturally suggests they are there to secure one’s grip.

The granularity of instruction, generally, is less precise than it is in more recent works. One reason for this is that the sword, being a feature of culture at the time, something carried, seen on stage, and of course discussed within treatises, meant that readers possessed better familiarity with the topic than most people today. This is, perhaps, why so many of the smallsword works appear deficient in specifics. There is still, however, much we can learn from them. For example, many suggest or list a series of lessons. De Liancour (1686/1692) and Wylde (1711), for example, both suggest lessons within their treatises, the former in a series of “games” a master might take a student through, the latter via a suggested lesson. [3]

from Sir William Hope’s _New Method_ (2nd Ed., 1714)

When we find ourselves left with less detail than we’d like, we must find a way to bridge text and subtext, that is, connect what is explicit with what is implied or assumed. There is an inherent danger in this, however, so we must apply precedent when available, analogy where applicable, established fact when known, and always the faculty of reason. An example I’ve often cited before is how to step. Whatever the word used, “step,” “pass,” “advance,” there are certain things we know (or should) about how humans walk. Given how long our species has been walking upright we can safely assume that people in the 17th and 18th century did too.

As another example, Wylde suggests that

The most absolute and truest way of thrusting Cart and Ters, is to perform your Pass as close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon as you can; for in so doing, it will in a great Measure preserve you, if he happen to Counter Tang: but if your Push fails hitting, besure to make your recovery strongly engaged upon his Weapon, or spring your self backward withal the Celerity imaginable out of his distance, in a true Line.

If one is familiar with the parts of the blade, this may sound odd. Close to the “Fort” (forte/strong) of the blade seemingly goes against what most fencers know about the respective mechanical advantages and disadvantages of strong and weak. Placing the weak of our blade near the strong of theirs provides the opponent more leverage. To attack in such a way is to hand the opponent a parry. So, what does Wylde mean?

It will help to revisit Wylde’s division of the blade. He separates it into three sections, but one is more a point than a section:

The Blade, I likewise divide into Three Parts thus, From the Shell to the middle, I call the Fort or Strength of the Weapon: The middle is the equal Part betwixt the Shell and the Point: From the middle to the end, I call the Feeble or Weak. [5]

So, the “weak” here is really middle to tip, the “strong” middle to guard, and the middle merely where they meet. Armed with this notion of blade division Wylde’s admonition that one keep as close to the opponent’s forte makes more sense. The thrust isn’t tip to forte, but made so that the middle of one’s weapon is more or less along the middle of the opposing steel. He also provides reasons for this close thrust—it can help protect one from a counter-attack, and, should one’s attack fail, then it is easier and safer to retreat having already closed off the line. Wylde doesn’t remind the reader here what he means by forte and feeble; he assumes the reader knows.

Further clarification derives from Wylde’s guard position:

Stand upon a true half Body, or edge wise, which I call, lie narrow your leading or right Foot, two Foot or more distance from the left, being in a direct Line from the same, then your right and left Foot will resemble a Roman ‘I’; your Hand fast gript about the hand of your Foil or Rapier, then put your Thumb long ways or forward upon it, your Arm quite extended from the Center of your Body, the Point of the Weapon being directed in a true Line against your Opponent’s right Pap, sinking somewhat low with your Body, your right Knee bowing or bent over the Toes of your right Foot, (tho’ some Masters teaches a strait Knee,) your left Knee more bent, inclining towards the Toes of your left Foot; lying in this Order is the Posture, which I call, Stand your Line, the Medium Guard then is fixt.

This guard, sometimes called a middle guard, has the arm midline, not to the right or left depending on handedness. To thrust in Cart (quarte) or Ters (tierce) one is moving off that midline, so without attention to the opponent’s blade as one thrusts, without some opposition there is an increased chance of being hit as one strikes. We’re not dealing with right of way here, or foils, but sharp swords, and thus Wylde’s recommendation makes good sense.

Subtext & Using a Treatise

Moving from micro to macrocosm, there are times we must look to assumed or implicit knowledge to use a treatise effectively. The progression of techniques, for example, in P.J.F. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740) might seem a logical approach for introducing more complicated actions. In part this is true, however some distinction should probably be made between what we call today bread-and-butter techniques, those we use most of the time, and those that are “medicine for the hand,” those more complicated actions, especially compound actions, which are less viable in actual combat. It’s not that a double or triple-feint can’t work, but that the effective use of it assumes an opponent of considerable skill, more so than most people possess. One is likely to face a counter-attack using so many actions—the more parts to a maneuver, the more time, and thus the more opportunity for it to go wrong, for the opponent to take advantage or disrupt one’s plans.

This does not mean that one shouldn’t incorporate Girard’s excellent section on feints, but that the instructor should know, and be clear in teaching, that some of these drills we do to push skill forward, to hone it. [7] If one can make complex actions well, then one can make simple actions well. The importance of this, in a bout, is that we not only tend to find the most success with relatively simple actions, but also that in any arena in which nerves, fear, or excitement is likely our ability suffers. [8] So, the more effective and solid our technique is, the less far it is likely to fall off and hurt our chances. This is why effective teaching and constant drill are so vital.

Outside research, particularly into accounts of duels, as well as practical advice from those masters active when duels were prominent, can do much to fill in the missing context. Girard does not say that his more sophisticated actions are medicine for the hand. At a time when more people learned the sword and might use it in earnest it’s likely that a double-feint proved effective; not against every opponent, but against those well-trained it likely did. It remains an open question just how expert the average fencer in the age of the smallsword, or any age for that matter, was; our sources suggest much, but confirm little. There are enough references to fencers of “natural” skill and little training to suggest that many who carried a sword either hadn’t received instruction or at least not very much. A good analogy my friend Ken Jay has made in this regard is to the number of people in the U.S. who opt for concealed carry of firearms—many if not most have shot a pistol before, but the vast majority have little to no formal training in how to shoot in self-defense or combat scenarios. Maybe they’ve taken a class or series of classes, but here too the analogy holds up well with the Early Modern Period: for all the solid, experienced instructors teaching “tactial” handgun techniques, there are a multitude of charlatans and well-intentioned, but unskilled people offering training, just as there were when dubious sword masters set up shop and took in the credulous.

Oblique references, for example, indicate a wider knowledge of fencing, at least among those sections of society eligible to wear a sword, but also suggest that not all were particularly good students. We see extremes in the literature. Máire Anna MacNeill begins her doctoral dissertation with the example of cavaliers in England attending a performance of William Davenant’s “The Unfortunate Lovers” in 1660. The play included two dramatic sword fights in acts four and five which these same attendees, post show, mocked at a local tavern. They also drew their swords to show how the choreography failed. [9]

Satirical Print, 1814, The English Fencing Master and his Student, courtesy of the British Musuem,

Against this example we have, again for England, references to the curious fashion of wearing a sword but it being rude to use one save in extreme situations. Aylward cites the example of a character in Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) grabbing his sword hilt—he remarks that this was “an unseemly gesture pardonable only in an excitable foreigner.” These two examples are separated by a century, but it’s important to note that works closer in time to that of Davenant echo similar sentiments. Aylward also cites Andrew Mahon’ 1734 translation of L’Abbat’s L’art en fait d’arms (1696), where Mahon remarks one should only draw a sword in service to the crown, for one’s honor, or in self-defense. [10] Between the poles of sword-as-fashion-accessory and sword as sidearm there is a vast middle ground. Likely, most people had some modicum of training, but like today’s concealed-carry types, extremely little chance of having to use that weapon.

For the instructor, examining a treatise in light of not only what it says, but when it was written and what prevailing views of the time suggest will improve their interpretation and teaching. Some works seem clearly more self-defense oriented—Hope, L’Abbat, de Liancour, McBane, and Wylde read very differently from de la Touche, Domenico Anglo, Olivier, and de St. Martin. The former are more clearly concerned with optimizing a guard for most situations (Hope and Wylde especially perhaps), one to two tempo attacks, and the importance of opposition. The latter cover much of the same material, but add some techniques more salle than on the ground friendly. We can learn a lot from both types of sources, and we should read and use both, but always with a keen appreciation for what they reflect. By the mid­-18th century, the foil play originally intended to create a slightly safer style of practice (key in a time before masks were standard) became a game in its own right. Domenico Angelo, writing in 1763, in some ways spans both worlds—he wanted all touches targeted to the chest, a fact that speaks on the one hand to his eschewing masks and on the other to an interest in fencing as an elegant exercise and ideal way to cultivate grace becoming the status of his many elite students. [11] His inclusion of smallsword versus various other weapons, “ethnic” guards, and weapon-seizures recall earlier works, like Girard’s, but the mix of smallsword and foil in his School of Fencing, not to mention the success of his London salle as the premiere academy, we must note too.

In terms of lesson-planning, one approach is to compare how several masters treat a specific action, say the thrust from tierce or quarte. What is different? What the same? Given the instructor’s own perspective, what does it make sense to emphasize? For those more concerned about smallsword as weapon, a more conservative approach makes sense; for those whose interest is tournaments, a mix of solid self-defense and salle fencing is appropriate. Of course, one can teach both as well. The point (no pun intended) is to be mindful about what we are teaching, how we teach it, and to keep the textual basis, explicit and implicit, before us as we plan, devise lessons, and teach them.


[1] Clip from “Barcelona” (1994), by Whit Stillman

[2] Sir William Hope, Scots Fencing Master, 1687, pp. 11-12. See also J. D. Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, its History, its Forms, its Makers, and its Masters, London, UK: Hutchinson & Son, LTD, 1960, 134-135. As an argument for reading the sources, one work from 1982, concerned only with the tool, makes the mistake of listing fingers through annulets as correct. Doubtless some fencers did. See Anthony North, European Swords, London, UK: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1982, 19.

[3] See de Liancour, Le Maistre d’armes (1686/1692), p. 69/78; 119/128 in the BnF 1686 pdf); see Wylde, English Fencing Master, 15 in the pdf,

[4] Wylde, p. 13 of the pdf.

[5] Wylde, p. 5 of the pdf.

[6] Wylde, p. 6 of the pdf.

[7] See for example P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes, 1740, pp. 47-51 (p. 80-86 in the BnF pdf).

[8] For a more recent historical example of this within the context of a duel, Aldo Nadi’s account of his duel in 1924 against Contronei in Milan is instructive. The few photographs of the engagement reveal the typically plate-perfect technique of Maestro Nadi drastically changed when confronted by a sharp spada. The goal—don’t get hit—changes everything. See Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994 (originally published 1943), 24-35.

[9] See Máire Anna MacNeill, “The Sword as Didactic Tool on the London Comic Stage, 1660-1740,” PhD Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2016, pp. 9ff.

[10] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 20; cf. Fanny Burney, Evelina, 1778, Letter 23, . Aylward on Mahon and L’Abbat, 20; cf. L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, Dublin, 1734, p. 72 in the edition by Lector House (2020).

[11] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 108-112.

One Method for Curriculum Building in Fencing

Among the many challenges we face as instructors is how to organize lessons and classes, what to emphasize when and how best to accomplish that. What follows here is not new, nor is it any invention of mine; this is just how I conceive of a well-known process and one possible way we can use this approach to teach historical fencing. I refer to it as the “recursive model,” because each lesson incorporates key elements of the one preceding it. [1]


I’m intensely visual as a learner and so tend to chart a lot on a white board and paper. I like to be able to see ahead and see how things interconnect; it can be especially useful when managing both the micro- and macro-views of a topic, say something as finite as an individual technique and each part which comprises it as well as something as large as a series of classes which explore that technique in different ways. One method to capture this visually is with intersecting circles.

As I’ve worked with these I referred to them as “circles,” “rounds,” or rotae, but whatever the terminology the idea is that each circle represents say a new lesson that also returns to core material from the previous lesson. [2] This reinforces what students learn by repeating core actions and ideas, but at the same time increases the awareness of how everything works together. It’s also a great way to build or plan ready-made drills. All of it is scalable—it works for a technique or action, say the lunge, as well as a system, such as Girard’s approach to smallsword. One lesson rolls naturally into the other, and builds off what one has covered previously, so we increase complexity as we proceed. In a glance we have a model in which we can shift elements of a lesson, examine the interval between those examinations, and isolate individual themes actions, plays, or techniques to cover.

In my last post I discussed smallsword as a “gate-way drug” for historical fencing—that class is an experiment in using this approach in a formal way. For example, here are my initial notes for this class for the first three sessions, each an hour long:

First Three Lessons example*

In the first, we cover moving from first position into the en garde position; the extension of the weapon from guard, the guards/parries of tierce and carte; we then cover the advance, retreat, lunge and recovery out of the lunge (backward initially). Offensively I start with the glide in tierce. Each of these we can depict in the round as well, most especially those maneuvers like stepping into guard or the lunge which involve multiple steps:

Use of Rota to Breakdown the Lunge**

If one looks at the second circle (in green), one will notice that some of the first lesson (in black) starts that session off; it’s followed by the logical steps that proceed from that first lesson. Thus, in green ink, we see the “glizade” or glide in 3rd and the glide in 4th; moving from the outside to the inside engagement means covering the disengage. Students drill these attacks with special focus on the point landing before the front foot; the lesson portion concludes with teaching the basic defense against these glides (stepping back and taking tierce or carte) and reemphasizing the importance of closing the line.

Each new lesson incorporates review of the critical actions necessary to take on new material. However, if a class is struggling, then it’s easy to stop, work the same material from the previous lesson, and try the new material again in the next class. Thus, if in the third lesson (red) students are struggling to make the feint by glide in third, one can have them drill the glide in third minus the feint. Perhaps have them work on tight disengages, then the glide; time permitting, I have them advance lunge the glide. This will help them hone the necessary skills to start working on the feint.

How this Works

There are a few important considerations in using this method. First, the instructor must have a decent command of the material or they cannot delineate what is fundamental, what composite. If new to the material, then sitting down with the source and organizing it is the first step; this recursive rota approach can help one do that. Perhaps in reading the source one notices that the author covers movement first, then defense, then offense in increasing complexity. If one outlines each of those areas, what are the first things the author covers in each section? What cross-over is there between them? One will notice, for example, that the first attack likely starts from a position of defense covered in the second theme and uses movement from the first. Taking the initial steps in each section—movement, defense, and offense—is not a bad way to start a first lesson; at the very least it’s a decent goal to set for it as it will mean covering fundamental actions and thinking required for that system.

Second, the instructor must have at least an approximate sense of how difficult each new element typically is for new students, that is, how easily or not they can acquire a given skill. The advance and retreat, for example, are generally something students get quickly; there will be refinements to make to them, but the basic concept of stepping forward and backward one foot following the other shouldn’t be a major hurdle, but the feint-1-2 might be a lot harder as it will require coordinating hand, feet, and eye. The sequence within each circle should proceed from simple to more complex—this is not only easier to teach and to learn, but helps students see more effectively what each technique, action, or concept involves.

Third, and related to the second point, the instructor must know how to assess problem areas and be willing to stop a lesson and focus on those When necessary. This can be done without haranguing a class or student; it can be as simple as noticing they’re really struggling to extend first and deciding to make that the focus for the day. Depending on the class, one can ask them directly if they’re struggling as well—this tends to be safer with adults than with children. For example, the advance is simple, but there are common problems one must be on the lookout for and correct, such as not pointing the front foot towards the front. Critical as it is to point the foot, correcting it doesn’t require shutting down all footwork until they point their feet—students should continue to work on footwork, drill, but the instructor will make corrections as they do so. It doesn’t have to be perfect to start—it just needs to work effectively enough. As students grow in comfort and stability,  the instructor can make adjustments as necessary. If on the other hand no one is extending the arm before they lunge, then it is critical to correct that before moving to the glide or they’ll develop a dangerous habit that will affect their entire game.

Rotae and Recursive Learning as Continuing Program

Depending on one’s source material one may run through the circles in short time. It’s important to note too that going through some of the same material more than once is not only an option, but recommended. Using Girard as an example, one might get through most of his program in a few months (assuming say a few lessons a week and students who are dedicated). Fencing, any fencing, is about practice, drill, using the system; it’s not go through it once and done.

After an initial run through Girard’s system one might return to specific elements, say his section on beats. The choice comes down to a number of considerations. After one run through the circles, the instructor may notice areas the students are weak or where they struggled—that might be an ideal place to start for the second run through the circles. Once the students have acquired some familiarity and enough skill, it’s possible to mix up some of the circles, use them out of order, so that things stay “fresh.”

Girard, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1740)

With some manuals, going through them the same way again and again will get old fast; boredom is the bane of learning (and teaching), so mixing things up, throwing in something different, can help. Returning to Girard, maybe peppering the lessons with attention to his sections on weapon-seizures or facing different weapons or national/ethnic guards will add a little “pop” and interest. For more advanced students, comparative analysis of Girard’s advice for facing a broadsword fencer or odd farm weapons with that of another master can be both fun and an effective way to widen and deepen their understanding of smallsword.

D. Angelo, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1763/1787)

Multae Viae

There are many ways to learn, and instructors should use what works best for them and for their students. The recursive model is simply one method and one I find works well for teaching fencing. Most of us, I suspect, use a variety of methods; we adapt for different types of students, different contexts. Our goal as instructors is to share a body of knowledge and technique, to pass it on, and whatever helps us achieve that has merit.


[1] Online searching comes down to the terms we use, and I have to guess that I’m just not using the correct ones as I can’t find a formal name for the process I describe in this post. “Recursive learning,” “education,” and “model” all bring up a lot on machine languages and programming; I had much the same problem with the terms “reinforcement learning,” “rota learning method,” and similar iterations. A wider search for “curriculum design” or “styles” was likewise unhelpful. SO, if someone reading this knows what this approach is called, please let me know.

[2] Traditional fencing lessons work this way, at least they should. Students acquire new skills over time, but much of the lesson will incorporate or drill what they already know.

* My chicken-scratch is infamous, so here is a transliteration:
–1. Black Circle: starting with 1st position, en garde, extension, guards/parries 3 and 4; movement: the advance, retreat, lunge, recovery out of the lunge; concept of opposition; glide in 3rd and defense
–2. Green Circle: starting with review of 1st position and the en garde, guards 3 and 4, and opposition from first lesson; then the glide in 3rd, in 4th, and the disengage; importance of weapon-arm-foot; importance of recovering behind the point
–3. Red Circle: review of 1st. pos. and en garde, guards 3,4, glides in 3/4; feint by glide in 3rd and 4th; flanconade; parry 2; drills building off of Fencer A makes feint by glide to outside line; Fencer B parries 3; Fencer A disengages, thrusts in 4th with opposition–> Fencer B receives the touch; then, same set-up, but Fencer B parries 4th and ripostes by flanconade [this sets up a future lesson were Fencer A will parry in 2nd]

**Key Components of the Lunge viewed as Depicted via Rota:
–starting from 1st position; front foot extends out about two shoe lengths or so (Fr. deux semelles); position of arms; bending the knees; weight on back leg traditionally, but today often equi-weighted; balance and stability the goal so that en garde facilitates an explosive lunge; head position; importance of relaxing the shoulders; where to point the weapon; guard of tierce/3rd

Smallsword as Gate-way Drug

The lunge as represented in the Règlement of 1908

In the current adult “Introduction to Fencing” class I decided to proceed along more historical lines rather than stick to the form I inherited, traditional foil. Up to this session I’ve used foils (French, as I have more of them than Italian)—they’re inexpensive, light to ferry to and from the center where I teach, and as I teach it the presentation is closer to smallsword than modern foil. At the very least, so my reasoning goes, solid foil is an excellent foundation for the study of any other weapon, new or ancient. [1] The masters with whom I studied foil were “old-school” so we learned a very traditional method. I was not taught flicks, ducking to cover target, or any of the other bizarre ways to game ROW and directors. This said, traditional foil is not smallsword, but it is what I learned, and, learned first, so up to now I’ve taught foil more or less as one sees it in the Règlement of 1908 or Barbasetti [2].

Foil is comfortable, known, a place of comfort. I know I’m competent to teach it, and that confidence helps, not only with how I myself present in class, but also in terms of how students view me and respond. [3] If the teacher is unsure, the students will be too, and worst case scenario may just leave, confidence being one of those all-important traits in the United States (despite the fact confidence as such is often just faked, misplaced, or assumed without cause).

I usually teach smallsword one on one, and I fence it a fair amount. I spend and have spent countless hours studying, researching, and writing about the corpus; the more I work on smallsword the more I like it, and not only because it taxes past injuries less severely than many of the other weapons I teach. I like the mental game, the complexity, navigating all those angles. A question came up the first day of the adult class, about why one holds a French foil as one does in sixth, and sometime between explaining what “carte over the arm,” terza, and “hand in fourth” meant, I decided: next class we’re just going to do smallsword.

Rarely have I taken a chance like this and had it pay off, let alone immediately, but in four classes the four adults in this class have a clearer understanding of rule number one, “don’t get hit,” and are quickly gaining skill with the fundamentals I’ve shown them. It may be that these four are just precocious—all four are athletic—but I’ve worked with a lot of capable people, and with few exceptions have I seen a group take to what I teach them so fast.

I think it is two things. First, I am passionate about the topic and know it well; I appreciate how difficult it can be and so I ensure a lot of room to make mistakes, ask questions, and all without censure or impatience. Enthusiasm is infectious, so present a topic as fun and chances are good it will be fun. [4] Second, as complex as smallsword can be, approached from the point of view of “the point is live,” it becomes very simple.

La pointe d’une épée est une réalité qui fait disparaître bien des fantômes.

Baron César de Bazancourt, Les secrets de l’épée [153]

It’s this second point that has been a revelation. What’s caught my attention is that my emphasizing “don’t get hit” first is not new—this guides every single class or lesson I teach. What’s different is how it’s working.

Critical Rule: Always be Open to Correction

This is, in some ways, a difficult realization, because it suggests strongly that some aspects of my approach have been somewhat more schizophrenic than I realized. As I examine it, as I review old lesson plans and notes, I see it. My approach to smallsword, foil, epee/spada, though not rapier interestingly, mixed elements of foil-as-sport with the sources. This wasn’t true across the board, but it was in certain places. It’s easy to fall into, because there is enough overlap that one can assume that a given maneuver is more or less the same; it likely is, but where it’s less the same, that is the thing on which to focus. A prime example is a simple one-two feint. Classically, in foil, the one-two consists of the following:

  • From sixth/third Fencer A feints inside line
  • From sixth/third Fencer B parries in fourth
  • Fencer A disengages and thrusts to the outside line

There’s nothing wrong with this, and, it can work in smallsword too. However, what is missing in the sporting formulation is the extra caution one needs in historical fencing. Feints are one of the most difficult actions for fencers to learn—they’re not just about technique, but psychology. We must “sell” a feint to make it work. We cannot, however, control what the other fencer does, and responses will vary—this is one reason that probing actions and solid footwork are so important. A feint is not always the right choice.

Girard, Traité des armes, (1740) thrust in fourth

The defender, for example, might parry fourth thereby opening the outside line, but they might also panic and just counter attack. They may just back up. Some will see it coming, parry fourth, then take a half-step back and take sixth/third and riposte. There are solutions to each of these scenarios and more (thanks Newton 😉 ), but for the attacker, some degree of commitment, even if to the false attack is vital or the feint will lack credibility. It must be made at just the right distance, not so close that one puts oneself at even greater risk, but not so far as to look ridiculous and unconvincing.

When one is fighting for points—not to touch and not be touched—some of these concerns are minor or absent. The foilist, so long as they attack with right-of-way and land the touch, will get the point, and this is irrespective of whether the defender counters. Only if that counter arrives in tempo, thus granting the defender ROW, will they score. In this case the defender countering is less concerned, if at all, about whether the initial attacker completes the attack, because they got the point. In this is the entire difference between sport and combat.

A Glizade by Any Other Name (coulé, filo, glide, graze …)

One challenge as an instructor is to instill an appropriate sense of danger, artificial as it will be, in new students. It can be difficult with experienced students too. One of the best solutions I’ve found, and one that at the same time helps develop a proper thrust, was suggested to me by a friend and virtual mentor, Chris Holzman. [5] A while back, while chatting with both Chris and Patrick Bratton about teaching the direct thrust, usually the first attack one learns in foil, Chris suggested starting students off with the glide in third [6]. It’s so obvious how this might help that I felt silly I hadn’t thought of it, but then that is why we consult more knowledgeable people.

Teaching the glide first has done wonders for my youth class, and it has been a boon in this adult class as well, not least of which because the glizade is common in smallsword works, but also because it focuses so clearly on opposition and not being hit. This benefit extends beyond this particular action as well. For example, I decided to set up their first feint as a feint-by-glide. The day we started a look at feints I reviewed the previous lesson, had them do the usual warm up, then footwork, and then had them practice the glide in third against one another. Next we added the defense against it, in this case the simplest, taking a half-step back and reasserting third. To help them set up for the subject of the day, I next had them engage in fourth, and as before, they practiced attacking and defending. [7]

After a short break, I had them complete a simple disengage drill, one in which each partner takes turns making disengages against a static line. In this case, Fencer A stands in guard, in third, and Fencer B disengages from third to fourth, making sure to maintain opposition. This is the critical part, and, a departure from modern foil. Going over just this action helps isolate where students may be struggling, and cements key aspects of the technique.

Coulé or glizade from Angelo, L’École des armes (1763)

From there, we started on the feint by glide in third to force a parry in third, followed by a disengage into fourth and thrust with opposition. Among other notable observations the students made was that they could not leave that glide until/unless the defender reacted. When they made the disengage automatically, before a response, they normally ran into the opposing steel. If they failed to take opposition in fourth, they were hit on their way to target. Finally, we discussed the defense against this attack and practiced it (defender takes a half-step back and parries in third, then follows the disengagement via a ceding parry in fourth, ripostes with opposition).

The exercise, start to finish, was fruitful, not only for what it imparted about offense, defense, footwork, and tactics, but sentiment du fer and a keen sense of the point. Discussion turned to other options, techniques we’ve not yet covered but will, and more than once the students, just via the logic of this play deduced either possible next steps or alternative actions to those we had just covered.

Smallsword as Gate-Way Drug

My nod to 1980’s Nancy Reagan “just say no” propaganda aside, smallsword can prove an excellent introduction to the universals we navigate and employ in all fencing. Foil, traditionally, was meant to do this, and still can depending on instructor, but the advantage of smallsword over foil in this respect comes down to clarity. In the 1860s de Bazancourt was one of those voices lamenting that foil training could prove a liability in duels; foil, for some time, had become more academic, what we often call today “salle fencing.” This was, as I’ve pointed out before, something at least one French official noted about the Italian approach—they learn one system, and the difference between sport and duel comes down not to technique, but the blade. One has a button, the other is sharp. [8] The rise of epee, in many respects, was the French attempt to return foil to the seriousness of smallsword—what they created was different, but the ethos was the same. Don’t be hit.

Alexander Doyle, Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst, 1715 [Courtesy of SUB Göttingen, Universität Göttingen, Deutschland]

If one knows foil well, reading a smallsword text is relatively easy—vocabulary is often different, orthography too, but the relationship stands out starkly. This said, the differences (as so often happens) are more important: if we ignore them we risk misinterpretation. We will treat smallsword as foil and they’re not the same. We see foils—the weapon—in many early works, from de la Touche (1670) to Angelo (1763/1787), but the similarity in tool then and now can obscure the intent behind it. The ruleset for foil, much of modern pedagogy, will not work for smallsword, not if we wish to approach it historically, as a weapon.

The grip in tierce is easy for beginners, and no bar to learning how to hold the hand in fourth, something they will learn in due course. There are many extant texts for smallsword, and while one needs to read them carefully and select those more geared to combat, having to read them closely to parse out what is academic and what suitable for on the ground only imparts a better understanding and appreciation for the corpus. [9]

The sense of realism, moreover, adds significantly to a class. It’s a form of time-travel, in a way, because students are wrestling with the concerns those two-hundred years ago had to consider too. At its best, historical fencing not only creates a redoubtable fencer, but also one who appreciates the richness and variety of the Art. The fact it’s possible to work so hard and have so much fun is another lesson worth one’s time.


[1] Until recently, most every fencer started study with foil because it encapsulates the whole of the Art, from how to move to lines of attack, from the primacy of the sharp point to the interconnection between distance and tempo. Armed with a knowledge of foil, epee and sabre are easier to learn, but so too bayonet and spear.

[2] This is a note I’ve shared more than once, but I have no idea who may read this or if they’ve read anything on this site previously, and for completeness I like to cite anything I should or what people may wish to know, have questions about, etc. I initially was trained in French foil, and the first master with whom I studied sabre, Buzz Hurst, had been a student at the Naval Academy under the Deladriers, so when making comparisons in sabre lessons to foil it was the French system he referenced. More recently, I studied with the late Maitre Delmar Calvert, again in sabre, but who also referenced foil. He learned to fence in the French army according to the Réglement of 1908. My initial work in Italian foil looked to Barbasetti as outlined in his The Art of the Foil (1932).

[3] Teaching is intimate. Building and maintaining trust depends on a number of factors—I have found that honesty, transparency, and openness account for a lot. No one teacher has all the answers, and the best acknowledge that. If I don’t know, I say so, and then do what I can to find out. This may be off-putting to some, but I think it’s the right course. Students learn best when they can focus, when they don’t have to worry about other issues, and so much as I can I try to make a safe space—they know they will be heard, that they matter, and that no one is going to mock or judge them.

[4] Related to n. 3, people learn better when the topic is less work than it is play, children and adults. None of us are going to be fighting duels; we do this for fun, so, make it fun!

[5] I have had the good fortune to get to know Chris Holzman via the internet. He is a mentor in so many ways, a repository of knowledge, and a skilled fencer, teacher, and translator. One of these days I will make it out to Kansas for lessons, and whatever it is we cover I’ll come back the richer.

[6] The direct thrust is elemental, but it is also difficult. Before students understand that the extension is the key to it, that their posture and position guide the point, they attempt to aim the point. It’s far simpler than that—it’s all in the set-up, but acquiring that skill takes time and considerable effort. Marcelli, in his Rules of Fencing, Book II, Part I, Chapter Vi, remarked that the direct thrust underpins everything. Ripostes, feints, beats, all employ it. See Holzman’s translation, page 105.

[7] One of the major errors I see in “HEMA” is the lack of movement. Fencers enter into measure and duke it out, making very little use of the piste or ring. Varying movement in drills is vital. Using the example above of the 1-2 (feint to the inside line, disengage, thrust to the outside line), this can be performed from lunging distance or from advanced lunge distance. We often start in measure as it’s easier—depending on the action—but as much as possible vary the distance.

In this case, I had them start out in measure and work slowly to get the mechanics down, then we sped it up a bit to test it, and, show how tempo plays into the attack. Next, I had them advance the feint, then lunge the attack. In time, they’ll start out of distance and need to decide when to make the attack; initially I will give them a cue, say raising my blade to guard from a low guard, but as they increase in skill I will hold tierce and they have to pick the time.

[8] There is a lot of work to be done on the difference and nuances between “academic” versus “dueling” with smallsword and foil works. This is one of my current research projects.

[9] A good analogy for all this is the college history course. In some, one is made to memorize all manner of minutiae, then take some type of multiple choice test. It’s as boring as it is pointless. In others classes, one might listen to lectures germane to the topic; with luck these are engaging and explore the themes via something that makes the topic relatable, that touches the experience of being human that transcends time. One usually reads some period sources, some secondary literature about those sources and their context, and is then asked to write analytical essays, both as papers and in essay exams. The second method is far more demanding; some students absolutely hate it. Of the two, however, this is history, this is closer to how we conduct research.

Modern fencing makes next to no use, if any, of source material, books, etc. It’s impossible to study historical fencing without sources—even if one oneself isn’t reading and studying them, the person teaching them ostensibly is (they should be…). One advantage of having a rich source tradition is that it provides additional teaching tools. We have images and illustrations, key passages, anecdotal references to how people were trained and fought, all of which add much to how we teach. It can be a far richer meal.