Review: Rossi’s _Sword and Sabre Fencing_ (1885)

Giordano Rossi. Sword and Sabre Fencing. Translated by Sebastian Seager. Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021. 275 pp. $17.99 US as of May 2022. []

Cover, Rossi’s 1885 Scherma di Spada e Sciabola

I’ve long been a fan of Sebastian Seager’s excellent blog, “Radaellian Scholar,” since first discovering it a few years ago. His articles and posts there do much to fill out the story of the Radaellian school specifically and the Italian school generally, and are, as I see it, necessary reading for anyone serious about the study of 19th and early 20th century Italian fencing. His coverage of major figures, ideas, techniques, and sources, all gathered in one spot, is hard to beat. As a researcher myself I value his approach and shared fondness for footnotes.

Rossi is not his first translation. There are various posts that include some translated portions, but of particular notice is his edition of Del Frate’s 1868 manual on Radaellian sabre, Instuzione per maeggio e scherma della sciabola. Christopher Holzman’s translation of the 1876 edition is better known, but it is useful for any scholar of Radaellian sabre to read them both. With Rossi, Seager has added another critical work in this tradition for the English-speaking world.

Sebastian’s introduction (xi-xvii) will provide a far better and more succinct summation of Rossi and his place than I can here, but in short Rossi was a student of Radaelli’s and one of those, the first in fact, to write (1885) and issue an update to the master’s program. Rivalry between southern and northern masters, and the political clout of the former, led to a flurry of works designed to show the superiority of Radaellian (northern) sabre. Some of it makes for entertaining reading as Gelli and Masiello’s many remarks demonstrate well, but all in some ways were responses to criticism from the Neapolitans. This is one reason we see inclusion of spada, the sword (epee) as well as sabre.  

Rossi’s Sword and Sabre Fencing starts with a short history and coverage of the duel, and then general concepts. Larger sections on spada and sabre follow, each with synoptic tables outlying actions and counters. One of the reasons that Rossi is important is that within his sabre section, for example, he covers types of molinelli in more detail than Del Frate had earlier, in particular the molinelli ristretti or “restricted” molinelli (see 166ff). In addition, Rossi is the last to include the sforzi di cambiementi or as Seager lists them, “change-sforzi,” which went out of fashion not long afterward.

Seager’s translation of Rossi is clean, easy to read, and well-rendered. A list of terms at the close of the book and useful footnotes help explain both vocabulary and concepts, and will be especially helpful for those new to this period of Italian sources. Blurb, the p.o.d. company that produces the book, is fast as well. Not sure what it is about Australia and books, but in many years of collecting books no country has been as quick with the turn around as Australia. This translation is a volume that one should have in their fencing library.

Exhuming Radaelli

Anyone expecting a tale of disinterred bodies, zombies, or revenants a la the Acallam na Senórach is going to be disappointed by my use of “exhume.” Here I mean exhume as in attempting to resurrect an idea or practice. Instructors within my tradition face an interesting dilemma when it comes to looking at the past. The Italo-Hungarian school is a lineal descendant of the Radaellian school, so our emphasis in examining the earlier history of our tradition looks less to mining archives for lost sources and attempting, almost from scratch, to recreate them than it does stripping away a century of accretion from the modern sport. This is not to say, in any sense, that familiarity with classical or Olympic fencing fails us in looking at rapier, longsword, or anything else—not at all—but it is to say that where those looking at Thibault or Dobringer face extinct arts we face an altered one.

Students of mine can no doubt relate (perhaps with some impatience) at least one story of my tangential forays into sources and history during lessons. It’s not that I relish any comparison to Polonius, but that context is everything, and while not necessary to learn technique or tactics having some of that context helps. Knowing why we do something matters. In attempting to strip away modern cutting dynamics, for example, one needs to understand how the modern direct cut works and developed. If that is missing, then the chances of understanding how Radaellian molinelli work and why will be that much more difficult. This applies more to experienced fencers looking to study the earlier system than it does students completely new to sabre. Regardless, and to borrow a favorite analogy, like learning a new language sometimes we learn what we know better via something new. Even if one decides they favor the restricted molinello or direct cut, study of the larger, elbow-driven cuts will broaden their understanding.

Molinello, Molinello Ristretto, and Direct Cuts

What is a molinello? Etymologically, the term comes from Italian mulino (“mill”) as in mulino a vento (“windmill”). Like its cognate in French, moulinet, from moulin (“mill”), both look to Latin molinum. The diminutive endings suggest a “little” mill, in this case to rotating the sabre in circular fashion reminiscent of a windmill’s sails or watermill’s wheel. In a Radaellian context, molinelli refer to elbow-driven cuts. Some authors, such as Giordano Rossi (Manuale Teorico-Practico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, 1885), also refer to a molinello ristretto or “restricted molinello,” a form that makes a smaller circular rotation. The elbow is still the fulcrum, but the shoulder and upper arm have less work to do.

Direct cuts, which are pushed at the opponent, are quick and performed correctly can arrive with more force than one might think possible. Much of this is achieved by the fingers which sort of snap the cut to as it arrives to target (cf. post 11-14-20 on Leszák’s Sabre Fencing). Direct cuts are impracticable for cavalry because they rely more on the extension of the arm and use of the fingers; from the saddle reaching to either side, to the front, or more especially down one must use more of the torso. A direct cut can be delivered with more of a lean, but they are not often taught that way. Many sabre systems employ the wrist to rotate cuts; this was true of many cavalry programs as well. Radaelli’s major “revolution” was to substitute the elbow for the wrist then in vogue–battlefield experience had shown that wrist molinelli were less telling.

Looking to sources, the first to share Radaelli’s ideas was Settimo Del Frate. In his Instruction for Fencing Sabre and Sword Fencing (1868/1876) Del Frate explains that the molinello is

the circular movement the sabre makes when striking a blow… The objective of the practice molinello is to acquire flexibility and agility in sabre-handling, to learn to move it firmly and well-balanced in the hand, and to direct the blows with proper edge-alignment, as well as with force and speed… The totality of practice of the molinelli enshrines the practical application of every blow and every parry. This is because in the execution of various molinelli the sabre passes exactly through all the movements and positions pertinent to the various blows and parries.

The elbow is the main fulcrum for the arm and sabre in every molinello. The body must always aid the movement of the weapon in order to achieve the necessary flexibility, to develop a long and accurate blow, as well as to be able to s top the sabre and recover in guard with the greatest balance and effortlessness.

Per molinello s’intende in generale il movimento di rotazione che fa la Sciabola vibrando un colpo… Scopo del molinello d’esercizio, si è quello di far acquistare scioltezza ed elasticità nel maneggio della Sciabola, di fare imparare a ruotarla ben ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno e dirigerne i colpi con esatta direzione del filo con forza e velocità… Nel complesso delle esercitazioni dei molinelli si trova la pratica applicazione d’ogni colpo e d’ogni parata, perchè la sciabola nell-esecuzione dei diversi molinelli passa appunto per tutti quei movimenti e per tutte quelle posizioni che sono proprie ai diversi colpi e parate di scherma.

L’articolazione del gomito deve essere il perno principale del movimento di rotazione del braccio e della Sciabola in ogni molinello. Il corpo deve sempre assecondare il movimento del ferro per acquistare la necessaria elasticità e per imparare ad allungare, dirigere, fermare il colpo, e ritirarsi in guardia con maggior equilibrio e facilità. [1]

The key term here, in terms of a major shift in cutting mechanics for many sabre fencers, is the use of the elbow (gomito). Those trained in the mid-century school, even those trained in modern Olympic sabre, attack in many of the same lines, require the same parries, and ultimately wish to achieve the same goal, at least in part, but how each executes this varies. [2] One way to illustrate the difference is by imaging the cone of defense as becoming ever narrower from Radaelli’s time to our own. As a system originally developed for cavalry, a fact we should never forget, the sphere of action is larger. In the saddle, one reaches to target, but must do so with security, and be able to recover quickly. On the modern piste, and especially with the role that speed has taken in competition, the sphere of action is very compact and linear. The modern sabre guard position has all but left defense aside in order to ready the fencer to pounce. The two images below, the first from Del Frate, the second from the 2012 Olympics, illustrates this:

Del Frate, 1876 Guard of 2nd ; cut scene from 2012 Olympic sabre final, Korea vs. Romania

Defense, the purpose of fencing, has given way to scoring points, and thus less attention is paid to one’s own safety in attacking. Where Del Frate’s example projects a sharp point, the modern fencer faces forward, back arm limp at their side, and is all but ready to use a starting block. Olympic rules of ROW (right of way) and HEMA’s various rulesets both suffer from people too ready to jump in and strike, not enough concern about not being hit at all. The weapons might be different, but the sense of invulnerability is the same.

Radaelli’s system was aggressive. Cavalry were put to best effect in quick attacks, in over-running positions, and though it undercuts the customary romance that attends the world of Radaelli and the Comte de Lasalle, at chasing and cutting up retreating infantrymen. This said, it is harder to defend oneself in the saddle, because one must also maneuver the mount. This is why the defense is elementary when mounted, and secondary to the effective use of mounted troops in offense. Supposedly Radaelli remarked that the parry does not exist—a well-planned and executed attack means one doesn’t need to parry.

On foot, however, one must adjust. While one can retain the lean often made with the molinelli in the saddle, measure and tempo work differently, as does how we move. The men who were taught as a platoon performed drills mounted and unmounted, but they did not always train one-on-one or have provisions for such exercise. Practice varied by nation, but for Italy, cavalry training focused more on maneuvers en masse and making the most of point and edge through drill. [3]

These “Molinelli” sound Cool—how do I do them?

Fencers who learned direct cuts within the late Italo-Hungarian tradition or within the modern game sometimes find the adjustment to the larger cuts unsettling. They seem so large, so prone to counters, and that is true. They are larger, and must be used in such a way that one is as safe as one can be when attacking. Any attack puts one at risk. However, were they as risky as these fencers think then they would not have been taught for sabre for foot as well. While some of Radaelli’s students, such as Ferdinando Masiello, continued to teach mounted combat, others like Luigi Barbasetti and Italo Santelli, taught this same cutting dynamic to men who never spent time (or very little of it) in the saddle. Of note, it was Radaelli’s students who, with colleagues in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fused Italian and Hungarian principles to create the grandfather of the modern sabre game. Like it or not, chances are good if one has made any formal study of sabre that one has worked in a milieu influenced if not created by the Radaellian tradition.

Exploring an Example: Molinello to the Head from the Left

One of the least difficult molinelli for most people is the molinello to the head from the left as described by Settimo Del Frate.

Head cuts are easily the most common attack in sabre. Modern preference for the guard of third more easily facilitates a direct cut to the head—it’s more, well, direct, linear, and thus fast.

The Radaellian school and the generation which succeeded it preferred second as a guard position. There are solid reasons for this. First, second provides the fencer a greater degree of safety because the blade is extended closer to the opponent. It presents a clear threat; one is less likely to rush forward with a sharp blade pointed at them. Second, from the guard of second it’s short work to parry first, which covers the inside line, and fifth, which covers the head. Lastly, it provides a safer starting place to start larger cuts. Where third will expose the arm, and all with minimal protection as one does so, second keeps the opponent farther away and allows one to start the rotation (provided one does so at the right time and in the right situation) more safely. The opponent must move in to hit one as that arc begins—they must decide between a chancy arrest against the far more definite giant cut speeding their way. Take away the competitive mind-set and this choice becomes no choice.

Del Frate lays out this molinello in three movements:

42. Molinello to the Head from the Left in Three Movements

Molinello to the head from the left, from point in line, one the commands:

One!—turn the fist from right to left by rotating the forearm, so that the edge of the sabre is turned up without raising the first (N. 15).

Two!—bend the arm, lowering the blade top toward the ground, and carry the sabre along the left flank with the edge turned to the left. The grip is to the left of and at head height approximately eight inches in front of the head; the body is balanced as in the guard position (N. 16).

Three!—with power from the arm and body movement, the sabre describes three-quarters of a circle from high to low, starting above and behind the head, bringing the sabre and the extended arm to a horizontal position in front of the body at head height with the edge turned toward the ground (N. 17).

42. Molinello di Testa da Sinistra in Tre Movimenti

Pel molinello di testa da sinistra dalla posizione di finta puntata al commando:

            Uno—con un giro di pugno da sinistra a destra eseguito per rotazione d’avambraccio, si volge il filo della Sciabola in alto senza alzare il pugno (fig. 15).

            Due—piegando il braccio si abbassa la lama colla punta verso terra, e si porta la Sciabola lungo il fianco sinistro, il filo rivolto a sinistra, l’impugnatura a sinistra ed all’altezza della testa e 20 centimentri circa più avanti; l’avambraccio all’altezza e in direzione della fronte; il corpo equilibrato come nella postura di guardia (fig. 16).

            Tre—con slancio del braccio dall’avanti indietro, alzando il pugno e assecondando col corpo il movimento del ferro, si fa descrivere all Sciabola ¾ di circolo dall’indietro in avanti e dall’alto in basso, riportandola col braccio disteso in posizione orizzontale davanti al corpo ed all’altezza della testa col filo verso terra (fig. 17). [4]

The plates provide a stop-motion illustration of these three steps.

Figures 14-17, steps of the Molinello to the head from the Left

This descending molinello from the left is here described as both exercise and as offensive action, however it moves through the parry of first as well. The second step, as Del Frate points out in section 45, is the same as the parry of first. [5]. For the classical or modern sabreur most of this should be familiar—point in line, rotating the arm to move the blade to new lines, even the position taken in step two which recalls the parry of first.

What will seem new is the use of the elbow. Cutting to the head from first in contemporary sabre is tighter. From the parry, one starts the cut by rotating the wrist so that the blade begins its arc, then one drops the first to interpose some opposition as one pushes a cut to the head. [6] It’s a very linear vs. circular cut. The arm, as the cut finishes, returns to the plane of third and from there back to guard. So, for the fencer used to this dynamic, the first step is often just getting comfortable with the use of the elbow.

Getting Comfortable with Using the Elbow

Gross Motor Skills Drill

Drilling the gross motor actions of the molinelli will help. It can be easiest to start from first position (so, standing) and begin from a point in line. All one does is make rotations at the elbow, doing their best to keep the upper arm and shoulder relaxed and as motionless as possible. The goal is to isolate the elbow and forearm. Start in the air and when comfortable make the same strike against a mask or pell. It’s important to know how the cut lands, because the change in force, even before one adds the use of the body, will be different. Depending on the sabre one is using, one can still employ the fingers to finish the cut—one with a grip intended for a thumb along the back will do this easily; one requiring a racquet or hammer grip will not.

From Guard

Next, one can start the molinelli from guard. It’s easiest to start it from a point in line at first, but in truth the molinelli can be made from guard, on the march, as parries, or as part of a compound attack. [7] I normally have students use a point in line until they’re comfortable, then have them start from en garde and in second. This is an easy shift. As before, one executes the molinelli trying to isolate the elbow and forearm, only now one is shifting from a guard to do so rather than straight from a point in line.

With an Attack

One practical way to set this up as an attack is to take turns with a partner or instruct the student to begin with a feint thrust to the chest (inside line) from second. Made well, this feint should draw the opponent’s parry of fourth. [8] Rather than disengage with the point to the outside line and thrust, the attacker disengages under the guard only enough to then start the rotation along the left side of the body to complete the attack, the molinello from the left to the head.

Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, 1891, fig. III–this image depicts the scarto to the left, unmounted drill

When sufficiently comfortable, I then have them try the same attack, on its own or with a feint, using the body to assist the cut. This action employs the scarto, an evasive action where one draws the trunk back and chambers the sabre. Performed correctly the opponent’s attack falls short, and then using the potential energy gained in the scarto, one begins the return. The blade still moves first, the body still follows. In the example we’re examining, from second, the student shifts their weight and trunk backwards and as they do so they start the rotation along the left side of their body. At the furthest point back the blade is nearly perpendicular to the ground. The blade arcs overhead and the body follows—it can help to think of it as being pulled by the sabre forward. The trunk leans into the cut helping drive it to target. All of this can be done from guard, just shifting the trunk back and forth; it can be a very useful drill.

Adding the Lunge

Del Frate, 1868: while rendered rather extended, as the red lines I’ve drawn indicate the trunk should be no farther than the angle of the rear leg.

Next, I mix the lunge and scarto. There are several critical observations about the combination of lunge and lean to make. First, as always, the weapon leads the way, so one does not begin the lunge until the arm is all but extended. The lean follows the lunge. In terms of steps, it helps to break this down into two portions. First, from second, begin the rotation, extend, lunge, and finally lean into the cut, but no farther than the angle the of rear leg. Beyond that it is difficult to recover out of the lunge, forward or backward.

Next, practice this with the rest of the scarto. One way to do this is to have one fencer attack and force the other to parry first, and as they do so shift their torso toward the rear. Then execute the molinello as before.  

Great, but when and how should I use these molinelli?

I’ve touched on several ways already. The molinelli constitute a drill on their own, but are also a good way to warm up—they incorporate more of the upper body than the woodchop drill does, for instance. They’re an ideal daily exercise.

One can use them to attack. This is most often, and certainly most safely done, after a preparatory action that clears the line. The example above employed a feint, but one can use beats and other actions on the blade to set them up too.

Defensively, each of the molinelli move through the principal parries, so they are an option for the riposte. [9] Moreover, with practice, one can use molinelli more defensively as a sort of active-parry, that is, performing them against the incoming attack. This is, more or less, the Italian version of “cross-cutting;” it’s a way of intercepting versus blocking an attack that uses the force of that blow to drive the return.

Molinelli or Direct Cuts?

This question, for me anyway, is in the same category that seeks to compare every sword against the Japanese katana: pointless. Context, damn it, context. Is a hammer better than a screwdriver? It is for pounding nails, less so for turning screws. In short, there are times where one might use molinelli and times when either molinelli ristretti or direct cuts are a wiser choice. [10] We limit ourselves if the only thing in our toolbox is a wrench, so why restrict ourselves to one style of cut?

It makes more sense to learn as many effective methods as possible if for no other reason than to know how to counter whatever one might face. Sun Tzu remarked that “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” [11] The analogy of water is old, more recently made famous by Bruce Lee, and it’s an apt one–where water must shift around or over rocks, logs, and navigate ever-shifting banks, so we fencers must cultivate a similar flexibility. In addition to honing our own technique, we must understand more than its sum; we must be ready to deal with the unexpected, the unforeseen, and that is far more easily done if we have some idea of what all we might face. This doesn’t mean we can’t have favorites—I’ve come to prefer the molinelli to direct cuts—only that learning all three versions has its merits.

So, molinelli or direct cuts? In answer the word that first come to me are the words of two other sages, Tulio and Miguel, who together said “Both? Both? Both. Both. Both is good.” [12]

“Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks, 2000


[1] The English translation here is from Chris Holzman’s The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Cav. Settimo Del Frate’s Award-Winning Textbook on Giuseppe Radaelli’s Sabre Method for the Fencing Masters School of Milano, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 10-11.

The Italian is from the Google Books pdf of Del Frate’s 1876 edition—the one Chris translated—Istruzione per la scherma di Sciabola e di spada del professore Giuseppe Radaelli Scritta d’ordine del ministero della Guerra, Milano, IT: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 16-17.

[2] The goal of making the touch is the same, but understanding, appreciation, and attention to execution in making that touch without being hit differs. Right of way (ROW) is meant to capture the spirit of hit and don’t be hit, but functionally is scored and taught as hitting legitimately with priority.

[3] See for example Ministry of War, Regulations of Exercises and Evolutions for the Cavalry, Book I, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, (Rome: Carlo Voghera, Printer Publisher of the Military Journal, 1873; Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018).

[4] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 31-32; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 40.

[5] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 33; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 42.

[6] Fascination with coverage can get silly. I’ve seen some interpretations have fencers gyrate in crazy directions all to cover their ripostes. In this instance to drop the wrist and push forward would stop the arc mid-way and rob of it power.

[7] Cf. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 101.

[8] When the defender parries in first it changes things. Disengaging under is less sure as one is likely to run into the opposing steel, so making a disengage over, or cut-over, makes more sense, but this will mean making a molinelli to a different line. One option is to make the same feint, but when the defender parries first cut-over, and moving through sixth parry make a molinello to the outside cheek.

[9] Main molinelli vs. more advanced. Some of the molinelli are difficult. Barbasetti, for example, does a wonderful job describing the ascending cut from the right, but even his explanation makes it clear that how one contracts the back to make this cut is a lot harder than the example above.

[10] It may make my stricter Radaellian colleagues uncomfortable, but I think direct cuts have their place. In certain contexts they are appropriate. They’re just not Radaellian. For a long time I was more on the fence about this, but cutting practice using both styles of cutting has demonstrated for me that both can be pretty nasty. There is no question that elbow-driven cuts are more powerful. Using a 20mm blade I have no trouble sinking the blade a quarter to half-way through a pumpkin with a direct cut; a full molinello, however, easily severed the gourd and unless I was careful sunk into the wood beneath as well. This is to say that a direct cut, while it arrives with less force, would not be something someone would wish to receive in a duel.

[11] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Lionel Giles (London: Luzac & C0.,1910); The Internet Classics Archive, , VI. 31.

[12] “The Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks Animation, 2000. What? Sometimes “both” is a solid answer 😉

“I Only Read it for the Pictures”—Images & Interpretation in Historical Fencing

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article that treats an issue I seem to return to again and again—the challenge of using images in interpreting historical fencing sources. If this amounts to the proverbial flogging of deceased equines, then in my defense this particular horse is a zombie. It just won’t die. The deeper into this current project I dive, the more I see the ways that we can go wrong in interpretation. It’s tricky work. It’s one reason that professional scholars and researchers spend so many years acquiring the skills, contextual knowledge, and tools required to do this sort of work.

No one is immune or safe from a poor interpretation. It’s not an accident that scholars worthy of the name also learn to remain open to new evidence and interpretations better than their own. No one enjoys discovering that their conclusions have turned out to be incorrect or missing something important, but sometimes it happens and the best response is to meet the news with a becoming grace. Thank them for their insight and for alerting you to it, then revise and cite their contribution.

For those of us working with and from treatises with images we must always be careful. Modern life is awash in imagery and most of it we see without noticing it, from billboards to commercials on tele. We apply, again without conscious thought much of the time, an impressive array of reading skills as we encounter ads, instructions, news articles, and street signs. We are good at this. However, our relationship to images is often different from the ways people approached them in the past. We have to be aware of our assumptions and how we assign meaning to what we read.

IKEA’s wee question man

To approach a period treatise on fencing the way we do furniture instructions from IKEA is often unwise. With the exception of the abstract figure with the speech bubble and question mark, the instructions for assembling your new cabinet are intended to be as simple and realistic as possible. No matter what language one speaks or reads those images should make sense. They need to 99% of the time if that product is going to be successful. In contrast, while it is possible that the author (or artist they hired to illustrate a fencing manual) desired a one-to-one relationship between image and reality, we shouldn’t assume that.

Capo Ferro’s lunge, p. 49 in _Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing_ (1610)

As a case in point the famous image of the lunge in Capo Ferro’s Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing (1610), Plate 4, page 49, has been subject to debate as to how one lands on the front foot.

Looking at this image alone, what do we see? Is the figure in motion? Is this a snapshot of one action? How do we answer that?

From the image alone it’s not clear. This is a two-dimensional figure. The use of perspective is lovely, but while it informs us the figure is in the foreground, it doesn’t helps us much as to whether we are seeing a moment within a series of movements or a static pose. Is this a guard? The conclusion of an attack? To a fencer this looks to be a lunge, specifically, the conclusion of a lunge (to modern eyes the placement of the front knee would inspire a grumble). Taken alone we have little to go on, so, since we have text for this image it’s best to turn to that next.

Capo Ferro supplies capital letters in this image to help us “unpack” it.

A The left shoulder while in guard
B The left knee while in guard
C The sole of the left foot while in guard
D The regular stance while in guard
E The sole of the right foot while in guard
F The thigh and sloping leg while in guard
G The right hand while in guard
H The extension of the arm (equal to its length)
I The extension of the right knee (almost equal to your stance)
K The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length)
L The extension of the left foot and the turn it makes
M The extension of the left knee (equal to half your stance) [1]

Two things emerge from the list even before we look to see the placement of these letters in the image. First, A-G denote various positions of the limbs and body while in guard, H-M the various positions of the limbs and body after one has lunged. Second, we know that this image captures both a static moment (the conclusion of the lunge) and serves as a short hand to express movement from guard, through space, and into the lunge.

Even armed with this information we need more information. Capo Ferro, unlike most modern authors, explains movement in various places within his treatise. In the caption to this plate he says “Figure that shows the guard, as shown in our art, & the incredible increase of the long blow, compared to the limbs, which all move to wound.” [2]

The botta longa, often translated merely as “lunge,” here requires us to read more than the image and its accompanying legend. For example, in Chapter 13, section 11, Capo Ferro discusses walking. He says one must keep the right shoulder forward, and that one should step naturally, but that moving left or right (compassing) to move the left foot first, and in a straight line that one foot should follow the other. In discussing Plate 14 (p. 67) the master tells us that Fencer D, having gained the inside line, faces a disengage (cavando, i.e. cavazione) from C to his (D’s face). So, D drops the body and steps forward with the right leg wounding C in contratempo without parrying.

Plate 14, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’uso

Here as before we see a static image, but one that serves to illustrate movement–none of that comes across without reading the accompanying text.

Reading period manuals can be difficult. Even an experienced modern fencer will struggle because the vocabulary is often unfamiliar or used in a way different than they are accustomed to. To illustrate just how powerful this can be there are fencers within the historical community who refuse to call an obvious lunge a “lunge” simply because the word they expect, that defines the motion for them, is absent. It doesn’t matter that the treatise explains the exact same action, though it should. To expect each author, in different lands, at different times, to use a single term assumes a unity of fencing practice that did not exist until the 20th century. It also ignores what the author explicitly states. That’s a problem.

Our interpretations of these manuals mean little if we ignore what they say, what they describe and advise. It is worth the time and often painful effort to figure out what a master is saying. We may get it wrong, but that’s okay. We try again. We ask people who have sat with the text longer. We keep at it. Just as we should not assume people of the 17th century or any other had the exact same understanding of visual media we do, so too should we not assume that these texts are simple or easy to understand. Most often they’re not. The authors make assumptions about their readers then that do not hold for us now. So, we are translating more than just words and images, but a world-view too.

Returning to Plate 5, the lunge, and how the front foot lands, we have to go to the text. The foot is flat in the image. If Capo Ferro, who describes stepping “naturally” is to be taken at his word–a reasonable approach given that he is the author…–then the safest conclusion is that he wanted us to step as we normally do. From this figure that step is small, the distance between E and K (or if it helps think of this as KE = D or The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length) – The sole of the right foot while in guard = The regular stance while in guard). There is no reason to conclude that one must step in any other way. Next, we try it out–can we make a short lunge with the heel first, barely lifting it? Yep. Can we be 110% sure that Capo Ferro, for some reason, desired us to tippy-toe? No, but it is far from likely too, and given that he is specific about so much but felt no need to describe what a “natural” step is, we’re on firmer ground (pardon the pun) if we don’t second-guess him.

Post Script: I’ve delivered a few lectures on this topic, i.e. historical fencing and how we use images, the transcripts of which can be found here:


[1] Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, Siena, IT: 1610, p. 48-19 [cf. ]; translation of A-M, Tom Leoni, Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s The Art and Practice of Fencing, Wheaton, IL: Freelance Press, 2011, page 32.

[2] Text, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, 48. This is my loose translation, but I checked it against Tom Leoni’s and while less eloquent it captures the sense.

The Art above All Else—Collaboration and Fencing Instruction

Fencing books

It’s taken me years to learn this, but with fencing I’m at my best, at my most pure when my focus is the Art–the sources, the body of technique, history, movement, theory, and, in sharing all that with other people. I started out as most people do. The masters with whom I studied took a traditional approach—I worked one on one with them, sometimes with their assistants, then drilled with more advanced students and my peers. I was encouraged always to seek out better fencers and bout with them. To most, this approach seems very top-down, that is, information comes from master to student, from senior fencer to junior, and that’s not wrong, but… it is also, by its nature, collaborative. The instructor works with a student, not just at them. In working with senior students, with better fencers, one is also collaborating. So, for me, fencing is not a one way exchange, but a dialogue. This seems obvious to me, and maybe it is to you too, but that said it isn’t to everyone.

When something’s near and dear to us, when it’s a part of us, we often fail to see how it’s not obvious to others. We go about our way, acting on the assumption others are in line with us when they’re not. Sometimes this can be taken for a lack of concern, or worse, as something threatening. To others we may simply seem naïve. For my part, I try to act in a way that makes my position clear, but intentions and results don’t always match up, and when it comes to collaborative approaches to an historically individual endeavor like fencing instruction what I’ve learned is that actions on their own aren’t enough. One must be explicit, verbal, and reassuring. One must expect the raised eyebrow from some, the head shake of disbelief from another, and even the sly smile of the ambitious who think they sense a sucker. This said, I still think it’s worthwhile to try to find ways to work together.

Regardless of what sort of fencing one teaches—Olympic, Classical, or Historical—more often than not one does so solo. A master may have a provost or two or some other assistant, but a master working with another master, any instructor working with another, is less common. There are some good reasons for this. As I mentioned in my last entry, the individual, one-on-one lesson is the norm. An instructor teaches a student. Historically, even in the days when one had more reason to learn to fence, instructors vied for students; they were in competition with one another. Today, when fencing is normally a pastime, students fewer in number compared to football/soccer or similar sports, competition can be fierce. Fewer resources and a low profit margin can make anything pretty cut-throat, and fencing is no exception.

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It may run counter to established practice, tradition, even reason, but off the piste I do not care for competition. I understand it, but I don’t like it. In part I think some of this is a carry-over from teaching college classes. In the trenches adjuncts like me occupied working together could mean job security. At my last teaching job, for example, I was—by default—the “pre-modern” professor, so I was teaching not only things I spent years studying in order to teach, but courses in different if congruent areas of history. There are a lot of ways to do this, but my way, being scared to do it poorly, was to contact the people in those fields I know and get help. They’d send me their syllabi, textbook recommendations, articles, thematic breakdowns, everything I needed to produce a decent (not perfect) survey course in classes outside my area. All I had to do was read, interpret, and admit when I didn’t know something. Then, I would either work with students to figure it out, or, tell them that I’d look into it and get back to them. In short, I looked to my peers, and in turn, they looked to me for help teaching courses where I could help them. I’ve taken this same approach to fencing history and instruction—there are people out there, many of them, smarter, more experienced, and knowledgeable than I am, so why not politely ask for their help? I’ve made some good friends out of this too, an added bonus.

In step with the “habit” of working with others, I also realize that with something as vast as the Art, the art of defense, especially within an historical fencing context, there is simply too much to know. This is part of its appeal, and, something we have to keep in mind because we are, each of us, limited by its totality. This is humbling in the best sense—faced with such a mountain of information we have the privilege of being eternal students, forced to engage the material again and again, and with hard work hopefully grow. By extension, knowing that others have more information, or different information or perspectives, it makes sense to work with them. I learn, true, but so too do my students, and as an instructor that is my purpose—teaching. No one ever said we had to do that 100% on our own. Maybe we often do, but even then… someone, normally several someones taught us, and so really we are all the products of shared learning, of a collaborative system, whether we like to think so or not.

From a business perspective it’s easy to see flaws with this. If I send people to a colleague; if I promote another instructor’s seminar; if I do anything to advance them am I not hurting myself? Am I not potentially sending students that might be mine to them? Yes. I am potentially doing that, but it’s a question of values, of goals, and, a recognition that I’m not the only student of the Art, not the only instructor. If I truly believe—and I do—that most students benefit from learning with multiple teachers, in having problems to work out presented in different ways, then I put it to you how can I not involve my colleagues? Do I not do my students a disservice by trying to hoard their time and energy? That’s self-serving in the worst sense, and can undermine the very goals I purport to have. If my goal is sharing the Art, in igniting a fire to study it in all its variety, depth, and beauty, then other concerns are secondary–not unimportant (I have to pay rent)–but secondary.


It’s not naiveté, a lack of business sense, or even a secret plot to undermine colleagues that I promote their classes, seminars, ideas, or anything else. I do so intentionally, and yes, in full awareness that it could (and often does) affect the number of people attending my classes, and even more so individual lessons. I also recognize, in truth with some sadness, that not all will return the favor. I persist though, I continue to do so because the Art comes before all else; it comes before me, before profit. To the degree that I have any business teaching, then I must do so in accordance with what I value, in what I think the Art has to teach us, and for all the mayhem and murder one learns in the study of arms, one learns far, far more than that—one can learn civility, generosity, largesse, respect, and humility. The best friends I’ve made I’ve made fencing; much of what I learned in competition or in lessons or the assault has had parallels in my life outside the sala; some of the most severe crises in my life have occurred either within this context or were partially mitigated via fencing; I even met my wife fencing. The Art has given me so much, introduced me to so much, and continues to do so whether my own classes are a success or not. Moreover, the Art doesn’t belong to me, but to us all, and it is best shared.

I believe that working together is better. I believe fair play, honest exchange, and mutual promotion ultimately helps us all and furthers the Art. You don’t have to agree, of course, but I’ll say this—if I promote your class, your seminar, anything you’re doing, then it means I recognize in you a fellow student, a fellow disciple of the Art; you’re someone I like, respect, and want the best for; you are someone I know I can learn with and from; you’re the sort of people I like to know and talk to; I recognize you as one of my tribe. I don’t care what ethnicity you are, what sex or gender you are, if you’re young or old, if you’ve got two legs or one, if you’re gay or straight, what religion you follow or don’t follow—only that we share a love of the Art (this said, note well: I do discriminate against bigots, fascists, and others who seek to harm others in thought, word, or deed. If such lowlifes read this and say “but I’m a student of the Art too,” my reply is no you’re not—if you were you wouldn’t be as ignorant as you are).


In some respects it comes down to how we define success, in what our goals are. Sure, like anyone I want my school to thrive, to stay open to introduce people to this wonderful Art, but it’s not the only way to teach. Even if all I do is act as one stepping-stone on a much longer path, that stepping-stone is important too, and the path is long and winding. So, whatever happens business-wise, or with the other irons I have in the fire; however crippled I may become; however busy; I will, so long as I can, continue to study, train, and learn about the Art we love, in all its colorful expressions, and, I will continue to support you as you do so too.

–Fencing Books

–Seminar on Maghreb Sabre with Da’Mon Stith, July 2018 at Northwest Armizare [Da’Mon Stith is one of the finest martial artists and teachers I’ve ever had the honor meet]

–Mike Cherba’s Introduction to Lashkroba class, Swordsquatch 2016 [I was Mike’s pell/cut dummy 😉 ]

–Introduction to Italian Sabre, class presented at Grit City HEMA, Tacoma, WA, August 2016 [Will Richmond and I taught this class together]

Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps

fencer-delmar-calvert from west coast fencing archive
Maitre Delmar Calvert, 1924-2019; photo from Westcoast Fencing Archive

This past weekend I attended the memorial for one of my instructors, Matire Delmar Calvert, and among the many thoughts that assailed me while there was a realization that despite the fact I was surrounded by mostly Olympic fencers I was with “family.” I didn’t expect that. These are all people I like, but I’ll be honest, I often have felt like I don’t belong with them.

More often than not I’ve felt like an outsider in fencing. When I stopped competing, many of my fellow fencers thought I was over-reacting or was just full of sour grapes, and when I started doing research into fencing, technique, etc. the kindest thing I was called was “nerd.” When I started trying to find and use more historically appropriate blades a fair number of people thought I was crazy (the historical community as we know it didn’t exist then). Working from books was bad enough. It didn’t get better.

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Jon Tarantino and I doing a photo-shoot, Oaks Park, Santa Barbara, for a friend in 1997–aside from schlager blades, these crappy Indian-made repro cavalry blades were all we had, and yes, they were rubbish.

I left the competitive world in 1996—I was disgusted with the band-aid vs. cure approach of the FIE/USFA to the issues in electric sabre. It just wasn’t fun anymore, not for me, and so I left. I began pursuing “Classical” or “Traditional” fencing, but understand that in saying that I don’t mean the artful dance variety—I wanted to return to sabre pre-electric, and that led me further and further back, ultimately to the core texts that created what I knew as sabre. Labeled “too sporty” and failing to pay homage to what has become the established “Classical” community, there was no welcome there either. It’s just as cliquish as the Olympic world, maybe more so for being smaller, though I’m happy to say that in more recent months I’ve had the pleasure to get to know more people within that community and hope it’s a sign that we’ll communicate more.

Time in historical fencing has proved just as difficult, if in different ways. The first historical club I attended, off and on, I entered at a difficult time for me and my family. I needed an out, something that wasn’t standing uselessly next to a pregnant spouse undergoing treatment for cancer and trying to keep a four-year old’s world as normal as possible. I should’ve done more research. I knew of Maestro Hayes’ school in Eugene, but with my schedule at the time I couldn’t make that drive. I did what anyone might do instead—I saw the need at the club I was in and decided I’d try to help. It was an utter and complete failure—fragile egos too often see help as a threat. This proved the case at this school.

abject failure of a seminar
Alex Spreier of High Desert Armizare, vs. Velah Gilbert (Military and Classical Sabre page, FB), with Christopher Bigelow (Northwest Fencing Academy) in green and Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare) in blue, both in the background, 2015, at the ill-fated seminar on Angelo’s sabre and broadsword I put together

My last event there, one I put together to help them, but which ended up being micromanaged by the guy in charge of sabre there (first by planting his student in the seminar to keep an eye on me, and then, at the last minute, by showing up himself and taking over the seminar), was the last straw. After sharing my thoughts about it with him, I left and never looked back, though happily and ironically, became the best of friends with his student, and, met two people better connected with the larger historical community. I visited one of their schools, one super close to my house as it turns out, and was there for several years.

Swordsquatch 2017, class I co-taught with a friend, covering Parise’s “On the Ground”

Having spent time in each camp’s turf, having fought side by side with each gang, hearing what they have to say about one another, themselves, all that, is illuminating. More than ever I think that despite the differences there’s more that we have in common that we think. This is a hard sell—group identity, misunderstanding, envy, ignorance, all work together to prevent more interaction. We are all the sorrier for it.

Fencing at- Dickels Academy, by Frederic-Remington

One of my goals with Sala delle Tre Spade is, to the degree possible, to bridge these divides. ALL fencers, whatever gang affiliation, are welcome—our turf is their turf. We are all united by study of the sword, and, we might learn a lot from one another. It makes me happy to know that in our tiny group we have historical, classical, and Olympic fencers; some have been or are in the SCA; some pursue several “styles” of fencing at different times in the week. We’re a small school, and so have very little influence in the larger fencing world, any of those worlds, but it’s a worthy goal trying to get people together to share what they know, because it builds ties and expands the parameters for what we might learn. We’re the richer for it, and while it’s anyone’s guess how long we’ll last, I know in a way that I know few things that it will have been worth it. We’ll all keep fencing regardless.