Reach for the Sky—Hand Height in the Smallsword Lunge

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

de La Boëssière, 1818

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

Olivier, 1771
McArthur, 1780

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the accompanying image:

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 6

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

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 7

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

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 11

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

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

Art vs. Practicality

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

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

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

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

Girard, two men on guard

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

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

Coup de Tierce Haute tire Droit au dehors des Armes

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

The Thrust of High Third pushed Directly Outside the Sword

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

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

Girard, thrust in tierce

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

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

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

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

Girard, thrust in quarte

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

Text, Awareness, & Choice

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

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

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


[1] Images are from:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Girard, Traité des armes, p. 16.

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

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

[10] See for example,

Revisiting One’s Roots—Fencing according to the _Règlement d’Escrime_

On ne change pas une équipe qui gagne. [1]

View from the “sala” this morning

As the latest mutation of Covid-19, “Omicron,” ravages the area (thanks unvaccinated, unmasked amadáin), everything is affected. Between outbreaks at various schools and the allergy symptoms I woke up with this morning attendance was sparse today at class. While I’m sure that my congestion and itchy nose are thanks to taking down holiday decorations inside and out, and fencing in super warm weather yesterday, I can’t be too careful and so alerted students and gave them the option to opt out. It’s the right thing to do. I met with one student, outside and masked of course, and as a new and younger student we’re starting with foil. Though I had to scrape ice off my windows before driving to meet up, by the time the lesson was over the temperature was again unseasonably warm. It was a good day to fence out of doors. Post lesson, as I sat waiting to make sure no one else was going to show, I went back over the lesson I had given.

My focus at Sala delle Tre Spade is mostly Italian, but there are exceptions. The smallsword I teach relies mostly on French sources; the bayonet I teach does as well; and foil, while I can teach Italian, I’m more comfortable with French. It’s what I learned first. At present, I only have one dedicated foil student, this young chap, and the method I teach is taken directly from the Regalement d’escrime (1908). Since it was designed for the military, it’s straight-forward, and yet imparts all the universals and fundamental actions. Foil is an ideal introduction to fencing. One can learn these in other ways, true, but the advantage with foil is that it presents the core of the Art while also developing skills essential for any fencing—strength and dexterity in the fingers and point-control. The latter might seem limited, but it’s not. Good point-control carries over to other crucial aspects of control. A foilist turned sabreur, for example, is less likely to be a hard-hitter, and, has the advantage over sabre fencers who lack a point-game.

The first fencing lessons I took were in foil. The first master I worked with (a few years later) taught the usual program of foil, epee, and sabre common in the States, one largely French-derived. Sabre, however, which I studied with him was more mid-century and thus not so much French as it was Italo-Hungarian. The last master with whom I worked consistently, Delmar Calvert, was French-trained, and, trained according to the Règlement d’escrime of 1908. As a man who went on to coach at colleges and for the Pan-American team, naturally there were adaptations he made in teaching that were more suitable for the requirements of the sport, but the foundation for his approach was what he learned in North Africa with the Foreign Legion. [2] The difference between the sabre he taught and that I had learned under Maestros Hurst and Couturier was minimal. However, any time I did something less in keeping with French preferences, he’d scold me. This was often amusing, but (seeking to be an obedient student and wishing to be respectful) I did my best not to use sesta or make most cuts with the elbow. Despite his dislike of my “Italianisms,” Calvert’s approach, his mix of English and French in lessons, all of it was familiar, comfortable. Like walking into a dojo or do-jang now, it feels a bit like home when I focus on anything French.

I had a good notion of what to cover this morning, but I reread the relevant section in the Règlement to make sure. My student had one lesson at an excellent Olympic school before coming to me, and we have only met twice, so we are still working on introductory material. He is a quick study, and even over the break had clearly been working on his lunge. Day one material is vital, absolutely critical to get down well-enough before moving onto anything else. I was surprised when my student asked me in our first lesson about compound attacks—having only had one lesson before that I would not assume they had covered anything beyond simple attacks. It’s not impossible, but it is uncommon to work on compound attacks as they require a firm grasp of elementary actions.

For example, in covering the lunge today we explored a few universals. Most of what we covered built up from the basic lunge. For reference, here is the development of the lunge as outlined in Article III, “Développement:”

13. La développement du bras, suivi de la fente, constitue le développement.

Étant dans la position de le garde, pour se déveloper:

Déployer le bras droit, vivement, sans raideur, le corps restant immobile, la main, les ongles en dessus, à hauteur du menton. Porter ensuite le pied droit en avant, le pied rasant le sol, et tendre vivement le jarret gauche. Laisser, en même temps, tomber le bras gauche et le maintenir dans une position sensiblement parallèle à la jambe gauche, la main ouverte, les doigts allongés et joints, le pouce en-dessus. Poser le pied droit à plat, le genou droit sur la vertical passant par le milieu du pied, le corps légèrement penché en avant, la main droite à hauteur des yeux (fig. 7). [Rd’E, 16-17]

13. The development of the arm, followed by the lunge (fente), constitutes the development.

From the position of guard, to develop:

Extend the right arm swiftly, without stiffness, the body remaining motionless, the hand, the nails up, at chin height. Then bring the right foot forward, the food skimming the ground, and quickly extend/stretch the left leg. At the same time, let the left arm drop and keep it in a position approximately parallel to the left leg, the hand open, the finger extended and joined, the thumb on top. Place the right foot flat, the right knee positioned vertically over the middle of the foot, the body leaning slightly forward, the right hand at eye level. [3]

Several things struck me about this passage. First, how much information it contains in such a short passage. Second, how similar this description of the lunge is to that found in sources from two centuries before. There are differences—many texts want the lead knee over the heel and not the middle of the foot—but for the most part the salient parts remain the same: weapon moves first, right foot skims forward, left leg straightens, hand is high to protect the face and high-line.

This sequence is universal. In offense, weapon and hand move first, legs and body after. I’ve seen it in every western source, from every period I’ve examined. I was taught the same thing in kendo and gumdo. It applies to bayonet. It applies to many strikes in empty-hand combat, and those that seem to defy the rule, like a hay-maker, tend to be preceded by a jab or cross to put one less at risk (the jab here being the initial extension).

Moreover, spending time with sources outside our main focus offers not only greater breadth in one’s coverage of a single weapon, but also provides a different point of view on that weapon as we normally approach it. This is to say that by looking at the differences between French and Italian foil we can understand each one better, and ultimately, foil itself better. For historical fencers the value of this can be far greater than they realize. If foil was the training weapon for the épée de combat, itself developed in part to return to the spirit of smallsword as foil became academic, then study of traditional foil and epee will only improve our chances of understanding earlier works, be they on smallsword or rapier. [4] Deep study will increase the worth of this hard work too. Once grasped, an understanding of the universals will open up most any hand-to-hand weapons system far easier than it is without it, and, with less room for error in interpretation.

As a final note, it’s important to start on and stay with the basics until one understands and can perform them well. This is the fencing equivalent of crawling before walking. Give yourself permission to be a beginner when starting something new, and allow yourself the time to master basics. The road ahead, if you stay on it, will be far easier and pleasurable if you do.


[1] “One does not change a winning team,” i.e. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in colloquial American.

[2] I’ve been unable, so far, to discover much about my first maestro’s training. What little I know is that Edwin “Buzz” Hurst competed on the team at the Naval Academy. Clovis Deladrier, before emigrating, was the Fencing Master of the First Infantry Regiment and 12th Artillery Regiment of the Belgian army. He was the head fencing master at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1927 until 1947. His son, André, took over in 1948. André was head coach there until 1989, and so was coaching when Hurst as at the Academy. See Clovis Deladrier, Modern Fencing: A Comprehensive Manual for the Foil, Épée, & Sabre (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1948); cf. “The Rigors of Fencing Foil Navy’s Coach,” in The Washington Post, 9 March 1989,

For more about Maitre Calvert, see;; and an earlier post here, “Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps,” 22 July 2019, ; an excellent source for his military experience is Bernard Coliat, Vercors 1944: Des Gi dans le Maquis (Bourg-Les-Valence, FR: l’Imprimerie Jalin, 2003).

For the Règlement, see Ministère de la Guerre, Règlement d’escrime (Fleuret—Epee—Sabre), Paris, FR: Imprimerie Nationale, 1908, available online at BNF Gallica,

[3] Règlement d’escrime, 16-17. My translation is loose, but maintains the sense of the original. Native speakers of French my apologies if my version offends.

[4] One way to think of it is that smallsword was a demi-rapier, much the same as its longer predecessor, but because of its shorter blade and lightness made certain things possible that were harder or impossible to do as well with the longer, heavier weapon. Side by side comparison of rapier and early smallsword texts reveal far more common ground than we typically assign them. As the duel waned in Europe, foil qua foil became a game all its own, one increasingly complex and divorced from its original purpose. Writers like de Bazancourt (fl. 1860s), who embraced a less artful style, did so because on the ground salon fencing could get one killed.

They Call it “Macaroni”

The Much-Maligned Smallsword and Foil and why it Matters

from Brown University Digital Repository []

One of my favorite weapons to fence and teach is smallsword. I started fencing foil—a descendant of smallsword—in the 1980s, and though obviously adapted for safer training and the sport of fencing the fundamental elements of foil impart more than most people in “HEMA” believe. Moreover, my initial training was French, and the smallsword being perhaps the early modern French weapon par excellence there is something familiar and nostalgic (if that is the right word) about it. One benefit of subsequent training in a related, but distinct tradition (in my case Italian with Hungarian elements) is that one gains another view of that previous study, just as studying another language can illuminate one’s native grammar. While modern foil and smallsword are different, it is context more than anything else which separates them. The rebated weapons of two centuries ago, while similar to the tool of today, were used to mimic actual combat safely, not used purely as a game, and in this one key difference everything rests. Because so few people within historical fencing understand or accept this, however, one of the most deadly, sophisticated swords ever devised, and its descendant, is often the object of amusement and mockery. Sad as that is, what is worse is that in discounting smallsword and foil they lose the single greatest method by which to explore the extinct sword arts that do interest them.

Wigs, Lace, and Lorgnettes

“The Macaroni: A Real Character at the Late Masquerade,” (1773), Philip Dawe

The derision that smallsword suffers in “HEMA” reflects several failures within the community. Arguably it reveals a latent and wide-spread species of bigotry. The abuse aimed at this “dainty” or “tiny” or [insert equally facile insult here] weapon highlights the thinly veiled prejudice in HEMA’s macho culture, far too much of which poisons the community and retards its progress. Aside from compensatory attention devoted to big weapons, go hard or go home, and “I gots brusies bruh!” there is the bigoted notion where sophisticated = weak/effeminate/gay, the idiocy and ignorance of which speaks volumes. Second, dismissal of smallsword, just as with its descendants, indicates a complete failure to grasp the depth and importance of the primary means by which one learns the universals of fencing. This is not merely my opinion, but demonstrable on a number of levels, from the wide array of works on fencing published over the past five hundred years to the gulf in quality one sees in the historical community, not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of translation and teaching.

While fascinating, the parallels between modern disdain for smallsword and 18th century censure of the young people of fashion called “Macaroni” and “Macaronesses” goes beyond the confines of this piece. There are better places to go for the exploration of prejudice in the 18th century as well as the on-going discussion of the battle for equality and civil rights today. My stance on all that, for what it matters, should be obvious from previous posts, but I cannot speak to either issue as appropriately as I can to the second failure, that is, the mistake that most of HEMA makes with regard to anything they define—however poorly or inaccurately—as “sporty” versus what they deem “martial.” [1]

I dtir na Ndall [“In the Land of the Blind…”] [2]

As the old saying goes, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and if any one maxim summarizes HEMA it’s this one. Examining the usual allegations against smallsword and foil one sees how poorly they are glimpsed without full vision. First, the chief bias appears to be that smallsword (a weapon), because it is related to foil (a training device), is less a weapon than say broadsword. If foil is for sport, then anything like it must be too. Second, for those who see it as a weapon its size, complex method of use, and “late” appearance make it suspect. The logic here, such as it is, suggests that the older a system is, the more legitimate it is; that lighter weapons must be less “martial;” and that anything related to the duel—save rapier—are again less serious than the “heavier” and more manly longsword, axe, etc. The ridiculousness of each of these assertions is underserving of attention, so to be brief:

  • a foil is a practice weapon, be it the modern foil, a feder, or wooden wasters—that Messer you use? Yep, it’s a foil. Ditto your Albion, Regenyi, or Ensifer
  • puncture wounds, made by triangular bayonets or the often triangular smallsword blades, leave really nasty injuries; before the innovations of 20th cen. medicine there was little one could do to repair these wounds or deal with the infections that often resulted (cf. sepsis)
  • fighting in judicial combats with a pole-axe, sword, or anything else was just as formal and bound by convention as late period duels were by the restriction of ground and etiquette

These are all well-established by histories old and new. In truth the bias really has nothing to do with history at all, but with a strong desire to differentiate oneself from “sport.” Anything that is remotely connected to sport, then, is suspect in the eyes of HEMA-Bro. Late 19th century sabres of 650-800g? Too close to the modern sport sabres. Smallsword? Too much like modern foil. That’s it. That’s really all it comes down to, and such short-sightedness cripples not only their research, if they do any, but their own practice and pursuit of the Art.

Why Later Period Systems and Modern Fencing Matter

Misplaced bias against both later period historical systems and modern fencing means, in most cases, that these fencers lack a firm foundation in fencing universals and pedagogy. This lack is what tends to undermine their study most. For example, because they have no idea what actual fencing fundamentals are, they mistake aberrations for norms. When they see the problems that are easy to spot, such as the whip-like strikes from electric foils behind competitors’ heads or the floor-dragging sabre slap to a guard, they assume that what they see is the system. Wrong. Even now, decades into the worst offenses in foil, students are normally taught that extending the weapon proceeds movement of the foot and the body. This is universal and is reflected in literally centuries of treatises and hundreds of modern schools. Thus, when viewing anything in the Olympics, the World Cup, or the local NAC, one must differentiate between how a fencer performs that extension as well as how a director views and calls that same action, and examine it against what is taught. They’re often different. Competition, like it or not, comes down to successful exploitation of a rule-set. One doesn’t have to be the Chevalier de Saint-Georges or the Chevalier d’Éon to win; determination and skillful use of attributes win more fights than most fencers wish to admit.

“A macaroni dressing room,” (26 June 1772) by I.W.

Not only do they fail to distinguish between what is taught and how it is used, but HEMAland also rejects traditional and sport pedagogy. They lose far more than they gain from this. Open most any decent work on fencing published in our own time and one will see first, that most do not include the ridiculous point-eating techniques, and those that do often with qualification—that is an admission, by the way, that the authors recognize that the technique is not part of the received tradition. [3] A fencing treatise is more than a collection of “moves;” it is an organized program that orders techniques, drill, and lessons in a meaningful way. It also instructs one in a vocabulary shaped by centuries of development, one benefit of which is that it provides a more effective means to discuss one’s study. Most of all, a year of foil—and this is reflected in the better modern works—imparts fundamentals that transcend foil. Knowing, for example, how the chief universals—time, measure, judgment/method—operate, and how one manipulates and achieves those universals effectively through movement, is crucial in examining any other system of martial arts, but especially those from which the modern version derives. [4] That may not seem important, but for the historical fencer it ought to be, because it is far easier to understand the unknown through the known than to come at the former with nothing or some half-conceived theory of one’s own.

In my last post (Sept. 20, 2020) I mentioned the infamous example of the misreading of Capoferro where the untutored surmised outlandish theories about his lunge. Had they had proper training in the modern lunge, done a bit more digging in the sources between now and Capoferro’s time, then the great mystery of Capoferro’s lunge would not be a mystery to them. Armed with even a nodding acquaintance with modern theory and practice would’ve helped those fencers avoid a grave mistake. Put bluntly, throwing out all that modern fencing has to teach, a system built—again literally—on centuries of work, is stupid and self-defeating. Modern fencing no more exists in a vacuum than did early modern or medieval fencing.

The Problem

For the same reason they poo poo later period weapons and modern fencing, HEMA-Bruhs refuse to listen to those who’ve studied them. Only people with the benefit of that training, or who take the trouble to learn about it, can see how all of this is actually a problem and not just sour-grapes or envy. The HEMA equivalent of anti-vaxers are convinced they have it right, refuse even to entertain that there might be something to learn from late period systems (though they’re ready enough to apply Japanese cutting mechanics and poorly understood kinesiology…), and so dismiss it out of hand. This is not a problem limited to the States either, though it’s perhaps particularly entrenched in American HEMA. We see it in the posers who ape the scholars they denigrate, in the sad attacks on established researchers by people who either deliberately misrepresent their position or are too stupid to understand it, in the idea that a few seminars make one an instructor, and in the odd notion that a 12 page pamphlet contains the same depth and sophistication as the works of Rosaroll & Gristetti or Prevost.

If those with respectable experience in Olympic and traditional fencing are ignored, then the only way to realize the value of later period arts or modern fencing is for the SPES-clad fencer to take that painful step and look at it more closely. Few do, and the results to an informed perspective are disappointing—half-baked theories, ill-conceived approaches, flawed interpretations, and a near complete lack of awareness of the importance of drilling fundamentals. [5] Our interpretations of past combat systems are only as good as the effective use of our research tools—studying extinct sword arts without some knowledge of fencing is akin to entering a bout without a weapon. Together, these flaws mean that much of HEMA is getting it wrong, and for a community supposedly interested in producing as accurate an interpretation of these extinct arts as possible, that makes little sense.


[1] I’m male, middle-aged, white, and hetero, and thus should not and will not speak to the experience of women or LGBT people. Friends and family who fall into either category, however, have shared a LOT with me about their own experience with bigotry so concluding that it juuuuust might bother them doesn’t seem too crazy to me. Just saying.

For related 18th cen. views, interested parties may wish to read some of the literature about notions of “masculine,” “feminine,” and the connections to contemporary ideas about sexuality in the Baroque and Georgian eras:

[2] For the person interested in the full Irish version: I dtir na ndall is rí fear na leathshúile.

[3] Compare for example Maxwell R. Garret, et al., Foil, Sabre, and Épée Fencing: Skills, Safety, Operations, and Responsibilities, University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, p. 134 on the “Flick (Cutover)” and Henry de Silva, Fencing: The Skills of the Game, Ramsbury, UK: The Crowood Press, 1997, p. 23, “The Cut-over or French Coupé.” Maxwell presents the flick as a cut-over, a reflection of how it was treated in competition in the mid-90s, where de Silva, writing a few years later, treats only the cut-over sans “flick.” It’s a subtle distinction, but for those of us competing at the time that remember the controversy over the flick and ROW, this reads a certain way.

[4] The universals always include tempo and measure, but the third term varies. Marcelli in The Rule of Fencing (1686) supplies “method” to the first two terms; Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), speaks of velocity, tempo, and measure; de Bazancourt in Secrets of the Sword (1862) refers to judgment, control, and speed; Castello in The Theory and Practice of Fencing (1933) prefers distance, timing, calculation. To understand how these relate, why different masters chose different terms, requires reading them, not only for why they say what they do, but for how these terms relate to one another. Without a handle on the universals one’s ability to make sense of most works on fencing is hobbled—Girard (though see Traite des armes, Part III, “Advice for Good Composure when Fencing,” XI), Angelo, and many others assume the reader understands these or explains them within particular sections, so while not spelled out these concepts underlie all that they discuss.

[5] An informed perspective includes but is not limited to professionally trained fencing instructors, experienced fencers, or credible researchers. These is wiggle-room within these terms and I mean for there to be. There are veteran fencers, for example, who know more than many masters and teach as well or better; amateur researchers (vs. university trained researchers) who help us push the boundaries of what we know responsibly; and there are masters and professional scholars who raise the bar higher for our study of historical fencing. However, there are a lot of people who are teaching and shouldn’t be; there are a lot of people playing scholar who haven’t the least idea how to conduct research; and there are professional academics and maestri who don’t play well with others.

It is telling to me, for example, that while details may be in dispute among the maestri, scholars, and veteran fencers I know, none subscribe to the ridiculous theories that plague historical fencing, such as the silly theory of the lunge where the toe/balls of the feet land first. They are, generally, more open to new interpretations when those interpretations are better; less ready to make firm conclusions, especially for the medieval works; and understand the differences in the types of texts, how illustrations can work, and that the less a source contains, the more careful we must be. Most of all, they possess more sophisticated reading skills and realize that what they read or say must be analyzed, not just taken at face value. As a close friend has remarked, the “plates and plays” approach to HEMA is flawed; it fails to take into account all that is not right there in the image.