Progressive Drills & Building Comfort with the Phrase

from _Istruzioni per la sciabola di sciabola_ [_ (Instructions for Sabre Fencing_], by Arnoldo Ranzatto, first published in 1885, Venice; this is from the third edition, 1889.

Like most of my posts nothing I’m writing in this one is earth-shattering or new. Any reader familiar with individual lessons will recognize quickly what I’m talking about and why. Readers on the historical side, however, who often have little experience with this or who less often have a chance for individual lessons, may find this helpful. Regardless, discussing methods for increasing a student’s comfort and improving their ability to see actions and make decisions in real-time is valuable.

Generally, traditional individual lessons employ the same basic structure. A coach’s focus, personality, time-constraints, and student ages and experience weigh into this too, but normally it’s more a question of altering or augmenting the basic structure rather than adopting a completely different approach.

warm-up –> drill or new material –> cool down

Using sabre as an example, we usually start with a warm-up, such as a series of thrusts to the inside line from standing, then via the lunge; or a simple parry-riposte drill up and down the strip; or the “wood-chop” drill or similar. [1] This may be followed by drilling fundamentals—thrust and lunge, add disengage, or cuts to major targets, stop-cut drills, beats, feints—or by the introduction of a new technique or maneuver. To close there is usually a cool-down, often much like the warm-up (parry-riposte exercises, stop-cut drills, wood-chop drill, etc.).

In a sala where students are in class several days a week it’s possible to use the lesson to introduce new material and then have them drill with more advanced students. Assuming an appropriate degree of dedication this can be an effective strategy. If, however, one sees a student once a week, and especially if that student lacks others with whom to practice, it’s more difficult. Instructors are normally the first “foe” one faces, but improvement in fencing comes via meeting and overcoming new challenges, new challengers, not via habit and the familiar movements and tactics of one opponent.

Ideally, that lone student finds a way, either with you or another club, to find opponents and partners with whom to drill. This is always to be preferred, but until that happens what can one do to help them along, especially in terms of increasing their comfort with movement and the phrase? How can we speed them along, in a sense, when they have fewer opportunities to use what they’re learning? How can we get them to move beyond the one-two nature of so many drills?

Beyond the Play

MS Ludwig XV 13, 25 r2 (“The Getty”)

One of the challenges in historical fencing is deriving a useful curriculum from the sources. It’s especially difficult with older sources where more is assumed, the method of expression unusual, and where details we’d expect today are lacking. In Fiore’s corpus, for example, there are illustrations and descriptions, but a lot left unsaid too. Students working on the first master of the longsword wide plays, for example, have an illustration of the master and student crossed at punta spada (the top third of the sword or foible), another of the second option from this crossing, and an explanation:

 Here begins the Gioco Largo (Wide Plays) of the sword in two hands. This Master who is crossed at the point of his sword with this player says: “When  I am crossed at the points, I quickly switch my sword to the other side, and strike him from that side with a downward blow to his head or his arms. Alternatively, I can place a thrust into his face, as the next picture will show.”

Fiore dei Liberi, 1409

After the second image the Master continues:

 “I have placed a thrust into his face, as the previous Master said. Also, I could have done what he told you, that is, when my sword was crossed on the right I could have quickly switched sides to the left, striking his head or arms with a downward blow.” [2]

MS Ludwig XV 13, 25 r3 (“The Getty”)

There’s a lot here to work with, and the images help considerably, but it’s clear that Fiore assumes substantial knowledge on the part of the reader. Notice what is not there: there is no mention of how one gets to this crossing; we’re not told how the scholar might defend himself; while we know this is “wide play” there are no details about ideal distance or tempo; we’re not provided any indication as to which option to choose when, just that there are two. We have, thus, little context for this play, and not surprisingly when many of us learn it we do so as a set-drill. There are more and less effective ways to do this, but one hurtle many students must overcome is how to recognize that they’re in this situation within a bout, and, be prepared for what can happen after one of these options has been exercised. [3]

A similar conundrum faces students working on more recent material. One of my sabre students, for example, asked me how he might improve beyond the initial actions of a particular attack. In this case, he had no trouble making a feint-cut to right cheek, cavazione/disengage with a thrust from second, but if the attack was parried he found he tended to stop. He added that he often felt that way—there was the initial set-to, then he wasn’t sure what to do.

As we drill so we fight

In order to help him, we did the following:

Stage 1: from the engagement of second, cut right cheek (10x)

Stage 2: from the engagement of second, feint right cheek, cavazione/disengage and thrust to the chest (10X) [4]

Stage 3: from the engagement of second, feint right cheek, cavazione/disengage and thrust to the chest, BUT this time I parry the thrust and riposte

The first two stages are set-drills. Stage 1, which focuses on the attack the feint will simulate, is intended to prime the fencer to make as realistic a feint as possible. In Stage 2 they make the same action, this time as a feint, and finish the maneuver with a thrust. So far, the student is the “agent” as older English sources would term it, the instructor the “patient” or receiver. As is, these stages exercise the techniques which comprise this compound attack, but apart from working distance (potentially), they don’t situate the actions within the context of a bout. It’s a set-play focused on technique, distance, and tempo, but all on its own, isolated.

In Stage 3, we add just a little context. The instructor reacts rather than just receive the touch. When I employ this method I make sure that the first few parry/ripostes are consistent and the same, e.g. a half-step back, retake second, thrust, or I take fourth and riposte to the right cheek. After a few rounds of this, I then tell the student that I will vary the target on the riposte. This does a few important things. First, it alerts and prepares them to watch what I’m doing; they can’t just anticipate the same response. Second, it mimics what they’ll have to do in bouts when their opponent doesn’t call their shots. Lastly, they’re primed to continue fencing and not just stop after their attack, a common problem many fencers face starting out. Depending upon their skill level we may take it further with additional actions, especially if focusing on not stopping after the first three stages.

In the next exercise, we turn it around—I make the same attack (the one we’ve been drilling) and they practice the defense. Here too we start small and progressively add more actions. Depending on the student they can vary their defense too.

Approached well this takes a drill into what is, more or less, a bout in miniature. It situates a specific action or drill in context. It adds more movement. Because it’s a drill there is slightly less pressure for some students than a bout. Put another way, rather than face the giant question mark that is all the possibilities they might face in a bout, they face the smaller question mark of what to do following something they know, that they’ve been drilling the whole time. In the example just above, watching to see if I parry second and or fourth is much easier because it’s explicit, it’s limited to one of two responses, but it still trains the eye to watch the response and not anticipate or react blindly. This introduces a level of psychological comfort necessary for learning at the same time that it’s helping them grow accustomed to incorporating new actions into real time and honing observation skills.

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

There are other benefits to this approach. Placing the drill within a more combative context can serve as a pressure-cooker for testing more than how well they’re picking up a technique. If for example the student hesitates after the first few ripostes, encouraging them not to let up is important—if they have the advantage they should never stop before the halt. This said if they persist in the attack when it has failed, and up to that point neither person has been hit, encouraging them to take distance and reset is an acceptable goal. [5] Building confidence with a set of actions makes it that much easier for a student to incorporate them into their repertoire when they’re in the assault.

Progressive Drills in a Group Setting

Progressive drills can work in a group setting too. When I use this approach within a class setting I am careful to explain it at each stage, and check each pair of fencers frequently. This style of drill works best, however, with intermediate and advanced students. These students can help newer ones, but should have sufficient background to be able to notice basic trouble spots. Depending on the size of the class some amount of self-policing is necessary, another reason that it works better with more experienced fencers.

My more advanced students are quick to ask whenever they’re unsure about anything, and these discussions become opportunities to trouble-shoot, explain finer details, and explore variations on that particular drill. Time is often at a premium for many of us—we have barely two hours Sundays—but time taken to explain why we do something is important and isn’t wasted.

For beginners, I only use the progressive approach one on one, because the level of detail and attention required by both student and instructor is so much greater. One can make fewer assumptions, and sometimes we have to dial-back the complexity, something far easier to spot and correct one on one than in a group setting.

Progressive Drills & Curriculum Building

There is potential for this style of drill with our earlier works on the Art too. Returning to Fiore’s first master of the sword in two hands, wide play, the two options the master suggests could be Stage 1. Each partner would take turns attacking to work the two options. Stage 2 could introduce a defensive response—for the thrust, perhaps the defender counters with posta breve or frontale and cuts in turn or with the scambiar de punta (“The Exchange of the Thrust”). For the cut to the left side, one response might be posta fenestra followed by a thrust or a cut-around (or through) of the defender’s own. Stage 3, then, would allow the original attacker a chance to parry riposte, or, perhaps employ a move from the gioco stretto or close plays.

In the case of Fiore, whose exquisitely brutal system seems to have been intended to end a fight in two or three moves, there’s probably less need for long, extended plays (naturally proper safety gear is a must). This said there is value is situating his plays and exploring effective responses to them. Instructors in modern fencing will put students through drills with multiple actions within a lesson—something we rarely if ever need in an assault—because learning to work those multiple actions makes simple actions better. 

For instructors struggling to get their students beyond drill and into effective use of what they’re learning, to move them beyond set plays, progressive drills offer one potentially rich source. For students working without an instructor, say in a study group, this can also be an effective method of practice. It might be especially helpful for those small historical fencing study groups looking for ways to expand their practice and build curriculum.


[1] Wood-chop or Around the Horn Drill: this drill primarily works target placement and the fingers. With a mask as target, either hanging up or on a partner, the fencer makes a cut to the right cheek with a double tap of the fingers, then to the top of the mask, then a single bandolier cut to the bib, and either repeats the sequence or goes through various parry/ripostes before continuing the sequence.

[2]    Cf.

This example is taken from the Getty, but a quick look at the three other known mss. adds little additional information. The Morgan is almost verbatim what the Getty offers and the Paris/Florius and Pisani-Dossi contain much less explanation.

[3]  Drilling First Master: researchers approach it differently, but one of the most sound I’ve seen is that employed by Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare, Sherwood, OR) and Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), both of whom first studied with Maestro Sean Hayes (Northwest Fencing Academy, Eugene, OR). Mike, for example, will have students start at punta spada, or start of out measure and meet there; if there is pressure against the agent’s sword, they cut around; if there’s not, they thrust through. Though first master of gioco largo doesn’t necessarily require pressure to work, the advantage here is that it provides one possible framework for the play and trains the student’s sentiment du fer.

[4] A look at most 19th cen. and many early 20th cen. Italian works on sabre will demonstrate the importance of having the hand about chin high on     the thrust. With the hand in second position (thumb to the left, knuckles up) or in first in second position a la Barbasetti, the top of the arm is covered by the guard, the hand high enough to prevent an unexpected shot to the face, and the arm is poised to make the parries of first, second, or fifth quickly.

[5]  If defense is the goal, if the goal is not to be hit, it’s better to break off than risk a counter attack or attack into tempo. The longer a phrase continues the more likely one might be hit.

Trust & Partner Drills

Badminton 1893Drill is a mainstay of fencing. We do footwork. We practice point control. We make molinelli in the air and at a target. We (should) be doing a lot of drill. In historical fencing we sometimes devise or find ourselves doing drills that are new, concocted out of our source material, and it’s a fair question to ask what might be signs that a drill isn’t up to par or might even be dangerous? What does it take for a drill to be “safe” when we’re talking about hitting people with weapons? Different types of partner drills require different levels of complexity, intensity, and safety-gear. The instructor has primary responsibility for introducing safe drills and monitoring how fighters are managing safety, but there’s an equally heavy burden on fencers performing the drill. They need to exhibit proper control and courtesy or they’ll injure their comrades and injured comrades mean fewer people to fence with.

On the instructor side, it’s often a balance between imparting what a particular skill or play requires and safety. Teaching longsword and sabre, for example, requires modulating what safety means. If one is teaching Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare, a combat system designed to main and murder people, either in the lists or in the field, then one must be more vigilant in some ways than when teaching sabre. Most if not all of Fiore’s techniques must be modified to make them safe and some of them one can never do at full speed save perhaps in armor (and sometimes not even then). Teaching a sabre class, in comparison, makes for an easier balance of technique and safety. The relative weight, flex, and delivery of the thrust in sabre, though deadly with sharps and in earnest, is likely to do little more than bruise someone, especially if they’re wearing proper protective gear. With a stout jacket, one is rarely marked at all. This is often not the case when thrusting with a longsword—there is more power generation, more mass, and more surface area to the weapon. One thrust against the mask with either weapon will demonstrate the difference. Each weapon was meant to do harm in different ways, in different contexts. Assuming the exact same safety requirements is dangerous–fencing masks, good as they are, were not designed for longsword.

An instructor must understand the dangers inherent in a drill and modify it when and as necessary. This is the first step. The second is monitoring a class to make sure that fencers aren’t doing anything to nullify that modification. There’s no room for leniency with this—if any fencer is acting in an unsafe way they either fix it or one pulls them out of the drill. In some cases the drill itself needs further refining. Safety gear, good as it is, is only a fail-safe, an additional layer after one’s technique fails. No mask, jacket, glove, or pad will make you invincible and it’s stupid to proceed as if they will.

The same heavy burden for safety is shared by the fencers executing the drill. Drills can be complicated and applying sufficient oomph to the play with the control required to ensure no one is hurt is a tough skill to learn. Not everyone, in fact, learns it. I’ve seen experienced fencers fail to exercise control in drills; I’ve seen them fail to pull a blow that had clearly gone wrong. No one should have to “Fence for Two”—it’s the responsibility of both drill partners to proceed in such a way that both fencers are as safe as they can be.

There are several attitudes and skills one needs to cultivate to be the sort of person people want to drill with:

Courtesy: It’s important to be a courteous partner, not just in the sense of polite salutes, hand-shakes, or the blade-smack to the butt or thigh a la American football, but most importantly in the sense of the Golden Rule. Do you want to be injured? Do you want to be fearful of working with someone? Of course not, no one does. Work to be a safe partner and you help everyone, yourself included.

Control: Control is the marriage of skill and awareness. It takes a long time to develop. It means having a full understanding of each move, its direction, intensity, and target, as well as the ability to modulate any of the three at will. It’s a hard-won but crucial skill that requires hours, weeks, months, and years of hard work, drill, and patience to develop. Never stop working to achieve it. Control is not fool-proof, however, as everyone can and will misjudge from time to time. However, once you have it, people will want to drill with you because they know you’re safe and can help them learn whatever technique it is you’re all working on. You will learn more too because you’re both comfortable.

Competence: A certain degree of skill, of the ability to use the weapon, is always to be desired. For beginners naturally this is not necessarily there, but it will develop over time and provided one puts in the time. Within historical fencing there is, unfortunately, this general sense that one can just “dive in” and become proficient. This is not true. Being aggressive and suicidal doesn’t make one a good fighter—have the patience and smarts to do it right first, to put in the time, to learn enough to make actual bouts worth your time. The truth is that those who just jump in do so because it’s fun, and it is, there is no arguing with that, but too often the goal is simply to win, not to learn, and bouts—like drills—are another learning opportunity. As ever, if your ego is driving you, if you’re relying on speed, strength, brutality, etc. alone, you’re never going to get very far, and moreover a lot of good people, better fencers who could help you improve, will avoid you. At my age, I don’t have time for macho b.s. and have no qualms refusing to fight people who don’t have the requisite skill or control. I have old injuries enough to deal with and I don’t care for more.

Consistency: Emerson’s ideas of a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds holds in fencing as elsewhere, so it’s important to be consistent in the right ways. First, developing the ability to perform the same action correctly and pretty much the same way each time is important. Likewise, the capacity to perform the same action in the same tempo or from a standard distance is helpful. Much of this comes down to practice, but a lot comes down to focus and awareness too. Staying zeroed in on the drill, its purpose, what you need to do to do it successfully seems obvious, but a lot of people sort of go through the motions, especially if it’s a drill they’ve done multiple times. Even the oldest, most basic drill remains useful if approached correctly.

These attitudes and skills work best where there is sufficient trust. When it comes to safety and a successful drill trust is at the very heart of it. Some time ago, in an Armizare practice, I saw a student, one with considerable skill for someone her age, break a drill out of fear. She knew how to do the drill; she knew what the instructor wanted her and her partner to do; but she didn’t trust her partner. In this drill, when she made a mandritto fendente as the initial attack, the defender was to counter by striking into it with bicornu—done right bicornu effectively takes the center-line and breaks the attack.Pisani-Dossi MS 19b-b

What she did was modulate her attack—if her opponent was likely to break her cut, she pulled and beat instead so as not to get spiked in the face. I spoke with her afterward during a break and it was clear she felt awful; in her mind she had messed up. I told her that, actually, she had demonstrated considerable skill in reading her opponent and adjusting things to keep herself safe. These are not bad things. She was just fencing for two because she didn’t want to get hurt. However, it also meant that the drill had failed. There are multiple sadnesses there: first, this dedicated, hard-working student learned less than she might have, as did her partner; second, this drill was a good one, but like anything it required trust to succeed; and lastly, a capable, skilled student left that drill feeling she had failed, when in fact, she had not. Trust is everything. Without it, nothing works or at least it won’t work as well.

Actively cultivating courtesy, control, competence, and consistency will do a lot to dispel fear, because on the one hand it helps train one to do things more effectively, but on the other it also alerts one’s classmates that one is a team-player, that they have your best interest at heart. It helps build trust, and when you’re playing with swords, even blunt ones, you need that. Students who don’t feel safe, who in fact aren’t safe, aren’t going to stay long, and that is a net loss for all of us.

First image, “Parry in Seconde,” from The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes,  Walter H. Pollock, E. B. Michell, and Walter Armstrong,  London: 1893.

Second image, sword in two hands, zogho largo/wide play, play of the first master, Pisani-Dossi MS 19b-b.

Fencing Drills and Artificiality


One question I’m asked about drills is to what degree they’re artificial, how they might set up ideal or unlikely scenarios. A related question concerns whether or not there’s a danger in having partners take turns making actions poorly, say in a stop-cut drill. Taking this last question first the answer is “no” if an instructor is on their game. Students, especially in their early training, shouldn’t be drilling poor actions. Conventional wisdom and practice demonstrate that the instructor should be the one exposing their arm for stop-cuts, holding a poor guard, or making any other action defectively. The question about artificiality, however, requires a longer answer.

In classical and historical fencing our concern is to fence as if the blades are sharp, to hit and not be hit, and so when a drill brings in maneuvers or plays that seem to defy this ethos it’s only natural to wonder about their value. Students often have assumptions about the nature of drill that informs this perspective, and some of those assumptions are incorrect.

There are different kinds of drills. Some we do solo, such as footwork drills or cutting against a pell, mask, or fencing Oscar.[i] Some we do with a partner. Others we do with an entire class. While “don’t be hit” and “hit and don’t be hit” are our guiding principles, applying these notions to every sort of drill, and each aspect of it, is reductionist and can blind students to the value of a drill. All study, drill included, should result in a style and method of fighting that illustrates this guiding principle. However, not every drill or part of a drill need conform to this absolutely all the time.

For a quick example from sabre, let’s examine two maneuvers, the first being a common compound attack, feint-cut head, draw the opponent’s parry of 5th, and cut flank or chest; the second being the riposte to the flank from 5th. Looking at the feint attack first, for it to work each partner has to act a certain way. The attacker must simultaneously work a key offensive action, the feint-cut, with a ton of technical movements designed to make that same attack effectively. The instructor or partner on the receiving end, the defender, must do the same; they must recognize and defeat the feint, and parry.[ii]

In the case of the instructor, and you often see this in their posture, they’re not necessarily mirroring exactly what an opponent would do, but performing those parts that will help the attacker succeed in the drill. If the feint is unconvincing, for instance, the instructor won’t parry and might counter depending on what they’re working and how advanced the student is. Judging a student’s readiness to go beyond a simple drill to a more complex version is one of the more difficult tasks an instructor faces—so much depends upon correct assessment.[iii]

In comparison to the instructor, the case of the partner is more complex. On the one hand, they need to help the attacker, just as the attacker will help them when they switch roles, but on the other they shouldn’t be fencing in such a way that the result is poor technique or tactically dubious choices.

Ideally, each partner is doing their best to make their half, offense or defense, work. The defending partner should use this opportunity to work on parries, specifically reacting to the cut to the head. For the basic set-up, this might be the goal in addition to gauging measure, working the feet, and maintaining the correct posture and hand/arm positions. One step deeper, however, the defender might have other options—they might for example, attempt to parry the actual cut after defeating the feint and then riposte. Drills usually start simply and develop into these more complex, multiple action versions as students advance in skill.

So far none of this is “artificial,” but one thing students have asked me about is the danger inherent in making that flank cut after the feint. Having drawn the defender’s arm up into 5th, the defender’s arm is then poised over the attacker making it possible to cut down onto the head. Isn’t that dangerous, they ask. In a word, no, because the defender should be worried about the fact that they’re about to be cut in the flank. Many fencers, because there is no actual danger decide to attempt a counter as, or just after, they’ve been hit rather than parry. This brings up an important aspect of fencing too deep to go into here, namely the priority of the touch, but for our purposes here is making this kind of attack artificial? Is it safe to assume that the defender will just accept the touch and not counter?

If one is fencing as if they’re sharp, then one should never assume anything, but at all times attempt to cover oneself. One solution is to add a side-step with the cut to the flank. Assuming a right-hander, the attacker can extend the arm to make the final cut and lunge a bit to the left by extending the back leg out and to the left after or as the front foot lands. This does two things: first, it removes one’s head from being just under the opponent’s weapon, and two, it gives one just enough measure to cover in 5th or 1st after the cut in case of counter-attack. This makes more sense after making the feint to head first, because from 5th the defender may still be able to retreat and make a molinello to the head.

On the other hand, for the fencer riposting from 5th to the head, our second example, things change a little—the riposte, having been parried, has lost its momentum, so the fencer riposting to the flank has less to fear from the blade over them. The fencer whose head cut failed now has a choice before them—they can drop the blade on their opponent’s head, which remember has no momentum, or, they can consider that fully developed cut speeding its way to their flank. This is a simple choice if we apply the “fence as if they’re sharp” rubric—the partner with the unsuccessful cut to the head should be considering how they are going to parry that incoming cut. Whatever damage dropping the blade on the attacker’s head might do, it’s likely going to be much less than a fully developed cut to the flank.

The greatest danger of artificiality here is not in failing to account for that blade poised above one’s head, but in forgetting to behave as if both blades are sharp. When we forget that, we too often make actions we would never make (one hopes) were we fighting in earnest. But, if we cultivate the notion that the blades are “sharp,” then we’re more likely to make better decisions; in the example above, as the defender we’re more likely to worry about not getting hit and thus parry rather than go for a counter that will only mean both fencers are hit.

Ideally, the only “artificial” aspect of drill should be our cultivated sense of danger. No drill is worth the name which trains poor technique or tactics. This is especially true with partner drills. There is an inherent argument here, namely that instructors ought to be the only ones to present examples of poor technique. However, this is no less dangerous for them, so it behooves every instructor to continue to take lessons, to remain a student, so that they may not include pedagogical tools like an open line or exposed arm in their own assaults.

[i] This is what we called them, but there are probably other names—an “Oscar” is a mock opponent, often set up on a wooden frame, covered with jacket or similar material, a mask, and often with an adjustable arm to shift a blade to different positions.

[ii] This will vary with the level of the fencer. An instructor or senior student might not defend as effectively if focusing on a newer student learning this attack.

[iii] In his Fencing Illustrated (1670), Ch. XIV, Giuseppe Morsicato Pallavicini discusses this very issue. The first bout a student has should be with the instructor. Even when assigning a new student to work with a more experienced one Pallavicini tells us that the instructor must supervise them. See Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018, 91-98.