Listening to Nestor: Injury, Age, and Pursuing the Art

Nestor and his sons sacrifice to Poseidon; Attic red-figure calyx-krater (ca. 400–380 BCE): photo from wikicommons, © Marie-Lan Nguyen

In Book 1 of “The Iliad,” when Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a question of honor, one of the first to attempt to speak reason is the aged warrior, Nestor. Though shown some deference, neither party is keen to accept Nestor’s wisdom–one almost gets the sense that they’re humoring him as they do often later in the poem. [1] To be fair, Nestor can go on a bit, and is quick to throw his age and associated experience at his junior colleagues. The thing is, Nestor was right–had Achilles and Agamemnon listened to him the problem would have been solved. Of course we wouldn’t have the poem either. In fencing we have a wide variety of Nestors. Sometimes it is a gimpy limb clamoring via pain to remind one that it might be best to stop a drill or sit out the next bout. Sometimes it is an elder fencer or an even older master. If we’re really unlucky, Nestor may take the form of one’s physician.

Achilles chose glory and a short life over less fame and a long one, and many fencers are the same. In one’s teens, twenties, even thirties one can still do many things one maybe shouldn’t, but since recovery time is relatively fast, since one is still nimble, strong, etc. it’s easier to go for broke and relegate any worry to later. I’m a good example. As a younger person, say 17-35, I could fence for hours; I fenced several days a week; any injury was normally minor and healed quickly; and I took chances that only those without larger responsibilities take, such as fencing with 3-4lb sabres and only a brass stirrup guard to protect the hand (or fail to protect it as I found out once). [2] There is no round-trip ticket to yesterday, so hindsight is as useless as it can be painful. However, like a Nestor, meaning I realize that neither Achilles nor Agamemnon are likely to listen, I feel compelled to encourage anyone keen to fence into their dotage to be mindful of their choices and take care of themselves. Cultivating sense at a younger age is tough, but ideal–the sooner we take care of ourselves, the longer we’re likely going to be able to fence.

Conditioning, Stretching, and Rest

We’re less likely to be injured if our over-all health is decent. If we eat right, exercise regularly, and maintain decent cardio everything is easier. For those keen to lift weights, fine, but for fencing you don’t need to be a body-builder or circus strongman. It’s better to build useful, appropriate strength than attempt to be yet another six-pack clad wanna-be model. [3] There are a number of resources for diet and exercise–if all else fails ask your doctor.

Stretching before and after fencing is important. Normally we warm up a bit, then stretch. None of this needs to be strenuous, just enough to keep you limber and less likely to pull or tear anything. Here too, it’s unnecessary to do the splits–don’t push anything, even a stretch, too far.

Equally important is recovery time. Our bodies need rest after exercise, and if we push past rest we only increase the chances of injury. This could mean tearing your ACL or striking an opponent too hard. Take breaks. It’s a fencing class, not boot camp, and no instructor should push anyone beyond reason. Likewise, no instructor should ever shame anyone for taking that break, being unable to do a particular exercise, or anything else. There are usually alternatives to many stretches and a decent instructor will suggest one of those if possible.

Injury and Recovery

If you end up with an injury take care of it. Happily, injuries are normally few and far between in fencing provided one isn’t a knucklehead. Wear your protective gear, observe the safety rules of the sala, and look out for one another. Most injuries occur because people fail to heed safety precautions, or they’re mucking about, or they purposefully disdain safety protocols out of some he-man notion of toughness.

For anything beyond the occasional bruise it’s often wise to see a medical professional. A deep cut, a stab wound, a potential concussion, a broken bone, a torn or pulled muscle or ligament, anything like this could have serious consequences. See a doctor, and see a proper one, one with MD behind their name, not one of the many purveyors of pseudo-science. [4]

Give yourself time to heal. I once sprained my ankle the night before a tournament, but being 21 just wrapped it tightly and fenced anyway. That wasn’t smart. If we start training before an injury heals we run the risk of making it worse, but sometimes we also ensure that we keep that injury for the rest of our lives. Most of the joints on my right side are compromised in some degree, and some of these injuries, such as tennis-elbow, could have been alleviated by dealing with them properly at the time.

Age: It just plain SUCKS

Goals 😉

Age in some degree is relative, but as a general rule the older we get the longer it takes to heal, the more recovery time we need, and much as we might hate it we slow down. It sucks. I know because I’ve fenced for over three decades. IF we want to keep fencing until we literally cannot, then we have to be cognizant of our choices early on.

Somethings, alas, are just a younger person’s game. Longsword, for example, one “can” do as an older person, but one probably shouldn’t. It’s one thing to dabble with another old codger or take the occasional seminar, but it’s less wise to enter tourneys at a certain age. They can be rough, and tough as some old people are the simple fact is that they break more easily. No 20 or 30 something is going to take it easy on you, and if they did, you’d only be insulted.

This can be super hard to accept when we really love something. In the past year or so I’ve realized that the clock is ticking for me and using appropriately weighted historical sabres. I “can” fence with them, and still do, but not as often as I did, because much as I miss it if I continue to use them all the time I won’t be fencing any sabre down the road. When this happens we have to make some difficult choices. I teach more than I fight now, I often use lighter sabres (such as the S2000 Olympic with kids), and I focus on other weapons I enjoy.

For example, though I’ve always read up on and dabbled in smallsword, it’s increasingly becoming one of my chief studies. [5] The others are largely related to it, such as late period rapier and smallsword’s 19th century descendent, epee. They don’t have the flash and fire of sabre, and I miss that, but they share the same intellectual aspects, rely on similar strategies, and even include, epee excepted, some of the more physical options in sabre and broadsword. Weapons seizures, for example, add a bit of spice.

The Take Away

Fence, and fence hard, but be smart. To me, the best approach is a middle-way, something between Sterne’s health miser and Blake’s supposed palace of wisdom. This is to say that we don’t want to be so careful that we’re bored and learn nothing–the Art is about fighting and thus must be practiced–but nor do we want to fight like our lives depended on it each and every time. Moderation will serve most of the time.

Whatever one fences, it pays to be aware of the wear and tear on your body, because it is a pain delayed. We pay for the fun of our 20s in our 40s, and it’s all downhill after that. If you don’t plan to fence into your 90s, cool, then go nuts. If you do think you might enjoy fencing until you drop, and you’d prefer not to do it from a wheelchair or from behind a walker, then maintain your health, fence responsibly, and let that ligament heal no matter how long it takes.


[1] Cf. “The Iliad,” Book 1, ll. 318ff

[2] In the age before better gloves, a guard that turned in a sweaty grip or broke could mean a trip to the ER. Pinky nails, btw, do grow back, but it takes months.

[3] I know a lot of people keen to lift, and some may be unhappy with this statement, but I stand by it. Unless one intends to wrestle a fair amount, where size and power mean more, any weight-training for fencing shouldn’t focus on bulk.

[4] This may also offend, but chiropractors, some massage outfits, and others are not doctors. In the PNW I have found that a lot of people go to chiropractors–I’m not sure why. While I’m sure there are some who provide what is probably decent massage, the “science” behind their practice is dubious. See for example:

[5] The first work on fencing I ever bought was a facsimile copy of Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1763; 1787); I found it at a used book store in 1986.

Steel Bouquet, or, The Advantages of Multi-Weapon and Multi-Text Study

The title might make a decent band name, but no, I’m not starting a band. It’s meant to capture the common photo of an instructor grasping either their favored weapon or multiple arms. [1] Normally they’re clad in the jacket or gambeson that accompanies those tools best. Fancier shots have black backgrounds highlighting vaguely period expressions with a tinge of hipster coolness. Not knocking them, they can be nice, but it’s beyond whatever emotional depth or panache they’re meant to express which I wish to touch on here.

Many if not most fencers in the Olympic orbit become single-weapon fencers. It’s often true in historical circles too. They specialize. Historically, one started out in foil and then perhaps explored sabre or epee. The “three-weapon” fencer actually deserving of the name was, when I was starting out and even when competing, something of a special case. For context, I mean NCAA and USFA fencers between say 18 and 25. Many might dabble in the other weapons, but the fencer who could actually fence each as intended was less common. In my college club there was one fencer who was truly a three-weapon fencer, Dennis.

A close friend, and now one of my oldest, Dennis has more than once been a mentor to me. He will always be. When I was struggling with something new in sabre, for example, he would drill with me until I got it. When I destroyed my right arm in an auto accident, it was Dennis who agreed to train me as a lefty. Even now, Dennis has helped me as he could with an epee coaching class, playing the advanced student for me in video homework. A number of years ago when I was still working on competitive issues in Olympic fencing it was Dennis who ended up co-authoring a paper on difficulties in judging foil. He is versatile. He can help with all these things, and more, because of it.

Beyond the obvious perks to versatility, there is a still more important reason that it’s a goal worth pursuing: depth of understanding. It’s an analogy I’ve used a lot, but studying a different weapon or tradition is like learning a new language, one that helps you understand your own that much better. Over the past year, when most of us have been unable to meet up to fence, I’ve watched and/or advised people working in isolation. Some had partners to train with, many more did not. But what I noticed in each case was the more that these students included disciplines and weapons they didn’t normally study the better they got at their primary focus. More than that, their understanding of the universal principles underlaying all fencing increased. It was akin to watching what I imagine Dennis’ first few years fencing were like.

It can be daunting trying something new. At a certain point in training, however, it can be the catalyst one requires for growth. This raises an important question—when should one start dabbling in other weapons and forms? Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), in a short thought-piece I shared here a while back (“Alex Spreier on Universals,” 2 May 2021), summed it up well:

The first step on the road to being able to discern patterns, principles, and universal aspects of the Art is the one I expect will be the most controversial – you need to spend 3 to 5 years focusing on developing your skills within one system. This allows you to build up a “vocabulary” of how to move your body, how to respond to threats, how to create threats, and ultimately this vocabulary will enable you to start recognizing patterns. And recognizing patterns is key to uncovering principles.

The idea of dedicated, formal study of one system or weapon for years goes against common practice in “HEMA,” but it is nonetheless the best path to improvement. As Alex explains, what this focused time does is impart the necessary skills to acquire new ones later; at the same time, it builds an intellectual framework and vocabulary that assists pattern recognition and retention in learning.

On an app that serves as the virtual lounge for the “collective” of schools that work together in this part of the PNW, we have had several ongoing discussions; in depth, evidence-driven conversations about key principles, ideas, or techniques that we have less information for than we’d like. One in particular highlights the importance of cross-training and text-diving.

Ex. Mezzo Tempo & Counter-time

The example in question was put forth by one of the instructors, Andy Playmate (Northwest Armizare), who has been running the longsword pod. In looking at tempo in longsword, and what a few different interpretations/translations say, he asked about Vadi’s notion of mezzo tempo or half-tempo and how it relates to counter time, attacks in preparation, etc. A rapier fencer as well, he asked questions related to both weapons: “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” Great questions and ones which underscore how difficult it can be to unravel key concepts even armed with good training and vocabulary.

Starting with Philippo Vadi (fl. 1480), what does he say?

I do not have a copy of Vadi handy, so here I will rely on Guy Windsor’s translation available at Wiktenauer:

Chapter XIIII. Theory of the half tempo of the sword

I cannot show you in writing

The theory and way of the half tempo

Because the shortness of the tempo and its strike

Reside in the wrist. [2]

The half tempo is just one turn

Of the wrist: quick and immediately striking,

It can rarely fail

When it is done in good measure.

If you note well my text,

One who does not practice [the art] will get into trouble:[44]

Often the quick flight from one side to another

Breaks with a good edge the other’s brain.

Of all the art this is the jewel,

Because in one go it strikes and parries.

Oh what a valuable thing, To practice it according to the good principles,

It will let you carry the banner of the Art.[45] [3]

In my reading of Vadi, mezzo-tempo here suggests an action that blocks and cuts/thrusts at the same time. For once, Florio’s glossary [] may be helpful here. He defines mezzo a few ways, but while it can mean “half,” it can also mean “a mediator, or intercessor. As a space or interveall of time or place” (313). Mezzo here may mean more “middle” as an action that either splits the difference or occurs during the “middle” of an opponent’s attack; mid-tempo. I can’t say that for sure, but given what Vadi says here—and going by Windsor’s translation—that makes sense to me. One way to illustrate this is to image that Fencer A throws a cut, a mandritto fendente, and B selects the time in which that cut is still developing to intercept it with a cut of their own, likely with a step somewhat to the side (to the right assuming two right-handers) that at once blocks and stops the incoming attack and that strikes at the same time. A close out like this, something later rapier masters saw as ideal, might be defined as a type of counter-attack, but perhaps the most accurate term would be an attack into preparation or an attack into tempo, that is, where one attacks as the opponent initiates their attack. Certainly what Vadi describes here is in line with later masters. [4]

Looking at what other masters say about mezzo tempo makes sense as we try to figure out Vadi. For Italy, the next generation of masters, especially the Bolognese school, is a logical next step. The Bolognese masters also employ the term, but don’t agree amongst themselves as to definition. The Anonimo and Viggiani, to name two, both use mezzo tempo but define it slightly differently. Viggiani, for example, wrote:

Sometimes one attacks with a half blow, in mezzo tempo. It is true that the majority of attacking is in mezzo tempo, since, when there are two who are well schooled in the art, he who wishes to attack will deceive his companion in such a fashion that, when his adversary is about to perform a blow, he enters with dexterity and speed and strikes in the middle of the adversary’s blow with a half blow

In the Anonimo, mezzo tempo is an attack into preparation, and contra tempo is what we see in Vadi, an attack into tempo that closes out the opposing steel and strikes simultaneously. The author of the Anonimo uses more ink to explain that there is no such thing as a half tempo, but that since one can make a “half attack,” that is, one that stops at stretto distance and is made more quickly, that they refer to it as “half” tempo (as an aside, this is a lovely example of a fencing text differentiating tempo and speed). Again, “mid-tempo” might be a better translation. Regardless, the Anonimo offers less detail about mezzo tempo. As to counter time, we read “Contratempo happens when the enemy wishes to strike, and you interrupt his attack, rendering it useless, while you simultaneously make one that strikes him.”

Dal’Aggochie, as Mike Cherba pointed out, was probably the clearest. For him, mezzo tempo is “A half tempo, the final one,… when you attack while the enemy is throwing his blow.” [5]

Um, they don’t Agree, so… what now?

So, what is the student to do with all this? How does one reconcile these disparate definitions? Vadi, Viggiani, the Anonimo, and Dal’Aggochie all include mezzo tempo, but don’t agree. It can help to group them together and see how they differ. All include an attack that interrupts that of the opponent. Vadi and Viggiani call this mezzo tempo; the Anonimo calls the same thing contra tempo. Dal’Aggochie may refer to the same thing; his half tempo sounds much the same as the others, but being less specific as to when exactly one attacks the enemy it’s less clear. Is the attack made as they are preparing (an attack in prep), as they are mid-strike (half-tempo), or is it in response to a counter attack (contra tempo)?

This is where looking at the modern definition, one derived from this tradition, can be helpful. It may not be the same, that is always a possibility, but it’s a place to start. Counter-time, sometimes referred to as contretemps (Fr.) or contra-tempo (It.), is different from the early notion of mezzo tempo. It’s usually a technique for more advanced fencers. Not each master in the past defined it quite the same way, though most tend to suggest the definition that survives today, that is, “a planned action made against an opponent’s stop-thrust or stop-cut. First draw out the stop hit, and then parry it and hit the opponent in a lunge.” [6] Other definitions are similar.

Here is one from the wiki at Academie Duello, Vancouver, Canada: “this is the opportunity to strike during an opponent’s offensive action with a shorter attack of your own that closes the line.” [7]

Masaniello Parise (1884), discussing counter time for sabre, not surprisingly is more in line with current definitions. This action is made “with veracity, advancing a step and immediately defending with a circular or opposition parry against the opponent’s action in tempo [i.e. counter-attack], and secure in defense, and ripostes without delay.” [8]

There are, however, exceptions. On one page of an old site at the University of Northern Arizona, guessing one of William Wilson’s, the editor quotes the Pallas Armata (1639) and defines contratempo as “a thrust in the same line that your adversary thrusts in (Pallas Armata, p. 6).” [9]

With the exception of this last definition, all describe a counter-offensive action made against someone making a counter-attack. It’s not specific to weapon, only the tempo in which a weapon, any hand-to-hand weapon, might be used. The distance required by such a maneuver is critical as is the speed and accuracy with which one strikes. Tempo, distance, speed, judgment, initiative, these are all universals, the elements underpinning all fencing.

Returning to Andy’s question, “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” what can we say after reviewing some of the literature?

My answer would be that a stop thrust, if it closes the line as it lands, might be an example of mezzo tempo. Certainly that seems to fit the majority of the definitions we just examined. A stop cut might too, but these often do not close out the line—they are cuts made against an open line, but always followed by a parry and riposte in case the stop cut fails. Since it’s not usually the final blow, a stop cut doesn’t fit Dal’Aggochie’s definition well either; it’s a counter-attack followed by a defensive action. Stop-cuts, like stop-thrusts, are attacks of opportunity, but less likely performed with a close out. I’ve not touched the second question, but attacks against the forward target are reflected in more than one medieval source—for a graphic example the hands lopped off and flying in Talhoffer (ca. 1467) might serve. While the stop cut we use in sabre may derive from something native to cutting weapons, it’s not impossible that the later stop-hit/stop-thrust derived from the rapier iteration of mezzo-tempo. I’m not sure what work has been done on this if any, but it might be fun to explore.

So what?

What I’ve hoped to show with this example is two-fold. First, time spent (at the appropriate stage) working on additional weapons or systems increases our understanding. The fencers asking these questions arrived at them thanks to cross-training. They’re making connections, seeing parallels as well as key differences.

Second, the increase in awareness and understanding, in seeing yet again how the same universal principles apply, makes it that much easier to “unpack” the next new system or weapon. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, just easier. In the aggregate our knowledge and skill should grow and improve.

Importantly, one must be cautious not to misapply modern understanding, or worse—exceptions, onto the past. The more one knows of the universals across time, across masters and texts and periods, the less likely this is a danger. Many members of the historical community make the mistake of assuming anyone referencing modern works is, by definition, guilty of anachronism. That is not true, but it can look that way to someone unarmed with that knowledge and understanding. Since they cannot distinguish between excesses that help one gain points in a sport, and the universal principles that most fencers learn before they try on the silly stuff, they have trouble seeing how anything past 1500 can have any relevance. Modern discussion of the universal principles did not pop out of a cereal box on the 1 of January, 1900 or 2000; they derive from the corpus of works we read in historical fencing. Time spent with solid modern works, like time spent with another weapon, so long as approached responsibly, will help more than hinder.


[1] A quick google search using the terms “fencing instructor portrait” will bring up some decent examples.

[2] “Wrist” here makes more sense than “knot,” though polso is the modern Italian for “wrist.” Nodo, here, can mean knot, but it can mean junction, crux, etc., and my guess is that the other translators may have used Florio’s 1611 Dictionary (p. 333; cf., where he stipulates that Nódo can mean “also the joint of any cane.” By context Vadi clearly means turning the hands so that one simultaneously blocks and strikes. “Of all the art this is the jewel” certainly makes sense in light of that idea.

[3] For Vadi,  

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Rules of Fencing (1686), I.I. Ch. IV., 23 in Holzman’s translation.

[5] For Viggiani, see W. Jherek Swanger, The Fencing Method of Angelo Viggiani: Lo Schermo, 64r; p. 7 of the pdf; for The Anonimo, see Stephen Fratus, trans., With Malice and Cunning: Anonymous 16th Century Manuscript on Bolognese Swordsmanship, Lulu Press, 2020, 64 (see also p. 49); for Dal’Aggochie, see The Art of Defense: On Fencing, the Joust, and Battle Formation, trans. Jherek Swanger, Lulu Press, 2018, 29v.

[6] Rob Handelman, and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes (San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014),441.


[8] See Christopher A. Holzman, ed., The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2015, 272-273.


Disparate Places, Liminal Spaces

When we occupy any space lacking clear definition it can be both unsettling and liberating. In either case much of what feeds our experience in threshold areas comes down to external reaction to it, our earlier experiences, and our expectations. I’m not sure which is harder to manage; each in its own unique ways can play merry hell with us. Now three quarters through what is easily the best fencing course I’ve ever had the pleasure to take, I’ve had another chance to examine, closely, life-in-the-limen. This class, a twenty-one week exploration of everything one could wish to know about the techniques and teaching of epee, is fantastic, but it has reminded me powerfully that I am too “historical” for my Olympic colleagues, and too “Olympic” for my historical ones. I don’t really belong in either camp, but value both for what each offers. One of many pluses to being stuck in some ill-defined space is that for all the confusion there is clarity too—one is just distant enough to see things more objectively provided one is honest and looking. About a year ago I posted a piece, “Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps” [22-7-21], that touched on a few aspects of having one’s feet in multiple spots. This post picks up where that one stopped.

Culture & Tunnel Vision

We like to be comfortable, so we seek out and nestle into communities where we suffer less cognitive dissonance. While opinions vary in such communities there’s nonetheless a general acceptance of operating truths that allow for easy interaction, predictable outcomes, and a sense of contentment. We don’t like when someone disrupts the illusion. Sometimes we experience that as mild frustration and bewilderment, at others we become actively hostile. We don’t always pause, step back, and regard the scene with an analytical eye, though we should. This is all the harder to do when we’re used to a degree of conformity; any outlier can be dust in the eye, nothing necessarily fatal but nonetheless annoying. [1]

No one is exempt from the tunnel vision that comes with a culture, any culture, but it’s also true that one’s vision can widen. The more one struggles to see things within a different culture, the wider that perspective can become. It’s one reason that travel and exposure to other ways of life, of thinking, to different values, are so vital—not everyone emerges from those experiences more open-minded and compassionate, but many do. In a way it’s a particular form of learning how to pay attention, even knowing to, and that on its own is reason enough to try.

Too “Historical” for Olympic?

As a caveat, this particular master and I have not chatted about any of this, so what follows is nothing save my musings about a possible interpretation of what I’m seeing. I could be dead wrong. This is something I must be aware of and note: knowing my own mixed history with the competitive world I might be applying a bias where there isn’t one. With this said, there are a few things that have struck me that speak to the gulf in culture.

This class, online thanks to Covid, is taught by a well-known, talented, and excellent master. I’ve come to have a lot of respect for this man—he’s kind, a teacher’s teacher, and inclusive in outlook (e.g. he discusses the differences in teaching children, adults, and veterans [40 years +], and doesn’t just focus on male instructors). But as a long-time maestro in the competitive world he, like any of us, has assumptions when interacting with other fencers. Most of the people in this class, so far as I can tell, belong to more traditional salles, and thus have potential students working in the same way close to hand. A few of us do not. This matters, because teaching a fencer who has decent training in Olympic fencing will read differently than those of us who work with a wide variety of fencers.

A sport fencer understands, among other things, how individual lessons normally proceed. It’s part of their culture. Likewise, there are types of drills, expectations about practice, and attitudes toward new material that make it easier in a class like this to work with like-minded people. In contrast, my students come from very different backgrounds—not one, at present, has ever stepped foot in a typical Olympic salle. Some have never fenced or studied any martial art; others have studied empty-hand traditions, but nothing weapon-oriented; still others have extensive experience in other martial arts and weapons, and most of these I have met through “HEMA.” [2] Thus, when working with one of these students, in most cases they did not come up via the same individual lesson system. Their basis for authority is different, and, unlike most sport fencers they are more likely to question it. [3] One can tell not only by their kit, which is immediately recognizable in most instances from that worn for sport, but in how they move and their responses to particular actions. [4]

Even knowing (or accepting) that there are different types of fencers is not something one can take for granted. I have seen this play out many times, not only in Olympic contexts, but also in historical ones. As I’ve often remarked, on either side most people are familiar only with the excesses—to the degree that anyone is aware of historical fencing, they know it primarily through its least robust if most popular expressions, the sort of thing that makes for good t.v. (this is not a compliment). Olympic fencers see people in black (a color only masters in their world wear), whacking away at one another with little sense of tactics, poor fundamentals, and what appears to be a sad display of might makes right. HEMA players, on the other hand, mock the size of Olympic weapons, the lack of attention to fencing’s past, and that sport’s own celebration of the ridiculous (to cite an easy example the fact that any part of the sabre blade may score). Both camps are correct. Both are incorrect. However, unless one has spent sufficient time in either world that dichotomy will be hard to accept.

Too “Olympic” for Historical?
Bias belongs to all, and having talked about many such examples before I will share one that I hope I’ve not already cited: if I did, my apologies (I searched this site for key words, but it’s not the most fine-tuned search tool). In 2016, at a large event, I had a chance to bout with a well-known HEMA personality. I was struck by how poorly this individual read the room. It’s normal practice to size up other fighters—we can tell a lot from watching them fight, but so too can we glean a lot from their kit. The kit my two friends and I wore should have told him a few things.

Santelli Sabre Mask, old sabre jacket, and three “non-standard” (as an instructor once remarked to me on seeing the one bottom right) sabres

If my age wasn’t something to notice (it should have been), then an old, battered Santelli sabre mask, an even older sabre jacket held together in parts by dental floss sutures, and a mix of weapons that included old AFS parts as equally unavailable as that mask should have said something. [5] That it didn’t told me a lot—this was someone who didn’t recognize that my gear was at least 16 to 20 years old; at my age this gear was likely mine and not an older sibling’s or parent’s, so… by process of elimination I had probably been fencing at least 16-20 years (at that time I had been fencing 29 years). I was polite, because one should be, but amused that this individual then proceeded to explain to me and the others what a “sabre” is, and, that we wouldn’t be using the point as his aluminum tools didn’t flex. His gear—his choice, but that was telling too: he doesn’t fence with people who have sufficient control to work with stiffer weapons.

I was the first to bout with him, and the little bit of intel I had gathered proved reliable. We set-to a few times, and it was eye-opening. Given his popularity I assumed, incorrectly, that this guy must be at least a decent fighter—he’s not. In fairness, I assumed he was likely dealing with some manner of health issue or had recently been ill (he was rather gaunt), something that seemed all the more likely when he stopped after a few passes, out of breath, and replied to my query of whether or not he was okay with “I just didn’t think it would last this long.” One of my two friends fought him next, with similar results, and after that he wouldn’t fence anyone save the friends who came with him. With his reputation I imagine that being schooled by two unknowns was unappealing press: again, very telling. Having been advised always to seek out better fighters by my masters, eastern and western, I would have wanted to chat with my opponent after the bout, maybe see about learning more from them.

As I thought about it that day, and as it has increasingly appeared to me since then, it’s not that my famous opponent hadn’t done his intel, but that he drew the wrong conclusions from it. He saw old Olympic equipment, and in my case, a man slightly older than himself, and assumed easy pickings. After all, what could a former sport fencer possibly know that would be of use in “real” sword-fighting? It’s a bias I’ve run into more often than not in “HEMA” contexts. It’s as erroneous an assumption as concluding that all HEMA is bad. It’s not. Some is great. Much of the tragedy both ways is a lack of ability to separate good and bad fencing. If nothing else during quarantine my interactions with a number of HEMA and Olympic folk have proved how painfully true this is.

Sword-bridges & the Time between Times

Sir Lancelot crossing the sword-bridge; relief from Sainte-Pierre, Caen, Normandy, France, ca. 14th century

In Chrétien de Troyes’ Chevalier de la charrete (The Knight of the Cart), Sir Lancelot must cross a bridge consisting of a sharp sword. Medieval images of the poor knight traversing this pointed symbol were popular, and regardless of what one may know about armor and its effectiveness, upon first viewing what we tend to see is a person trying to get across something dangerous. [6] They’re powerful, vivid images. In like guise, poised between two worlds but belonging to neither of them, is similar in that it often feels like one is walking a knife’s edge. Disaster, in this latter case, is less a danger than discomfort, but I wouldn’t discount that discomfort. It can be surprisingly brutal and difficult to navigate. If nothing else, where is one when the only two communities seemingly the most likely to take one seriously both consider one an oddball?

One thing that makes it easier is finding other oddballs—the handful I know, and I mean “oddball” here as a compliment—are spread out across the globe. They are the only reason I still have fb messenger. Interaction with them, normally virtual, is a lifeline, and sometimes the only medicine against the feeling that maybe we’re completely insane. Another product of not buying either branches’ interpretation in toto is that the confidence that comes with such conviction—however great a mistake—is a stranger to us. No one likes being told that a cherished belief might benefit from further study or reconsideration, but objective looks at both camps quickly demonstrates that neither is perfect. [7] The only antidote to misplaced conviction is to make such questioning habit, and we’re not living at a time when rational inquiry enjoys much popularity.

The uncertainly projected at us can undermine everything we do if we let it. However, it doesn’t have to, because if mythology teaches us anything it’s that liminal spaces are where things happen. Dawn or dusk, the meeting of sea and land, doorways, and similar boundaries are all locations of significance, preserves of magic, of change, of adventure, from Pwyll on the gorsedd to Halloween night. [8] This is to say that occupying a middle ground doesn’t have to be negative; it can be transformative. Following the mythological parallel, this change is rarely comfortable, in fact it is often harrowing, but it’s anything but boring. It’s not an easy place to be; it can be extremely disorienting and lonely. People will not understand it sometimes, they will judge it and us, but there is always a cost to growth. If the goal of martial arts is ultimately personal growth, with all the attendant good that should follow from it, then discomfort is worth it.

So What?

Why does this matter? How might the experience of one obscure fencer affect you? It depends. If you’re a fellow traveller, then you have another oddball in your corner. If you’re in a similar position in re being sort of stuck between two worlds, then maybe this offers some comfort or a way toward it. Maybe it means nothing—that’s okay too. Beyond the personal, though, there are some important ramifications for examining the boundaries we operate within or set up.

There are changes, for example, coming to Olympic fencing in the United States that will likely affect many of us. The official fencing organization, the USFA (United States Fencing Association), which is tied to the Olympic team, and the USFCA, the United States Fencing Coaches Association, which has overseen the training of instructors, will come together to meet the dictates of the US Olympic Committee which mandated that “coaching education be provided by each Olympic/Paralympic sports organization in order to be certified as a governing body in 2021.” [9] It goes beyond space to cover this adequately here, but on the ground this means the creation of even more effective gate-keeping.

I’m all for ensuring qualified coaches and instructors—regardless of one’s camp—but both organizations, especially the USFA, only acknowledge one type of fencer and one type of coach, both competitive. It remains to be seen how this will affect instructors like myself who teach on the local level and who are not sport-oriented. The first question I was asked when I approached my local parks & rec organization about starting a class was about my qualifications. “Time in the saddle” was the most honest answer I could offer along with a resume of experience. Will that work in a few years? I don’t know, but one thing I do know, and am happy to prove is that I can teach your kid basic foil, epee, and sabre. [10]

Maestro Gerevich with students []

I don’t pretend to be a maestro, I don’t attempt to teach what I haven’t had sufficient training in, and I am quick to recommend other coaches as appropriate. My goal with the introduction to fencing class is exactly that, an introduction, exposure to the exciting world that is fencing in all its guises. That has value, but not all fencers see it that way, and it seems to me that allowing any hardliner to create and enforce boundaries that affect everyone is a bad idea. Reasoned arguments and rhetoric will not move anyone, but action might, so maybe the best preparation as these changes appear, as others attempt to pigeon-hole us, is to cultivate our inner Aladár Gerevichs. This fencer, at 50, was told by the Hungarian Olympic committee that he was too old to fight, so he challenged the entire team and beat the snot out of all of them. He then went on to win yet more gold medals. He didn’t let the committee define him, and we should let anyone else tell us who to be either.


[1] I will not talk current politics and society… I will not talk current politics and society…  I will not talk current politics and society… I will not talk current politics and society…

[2] Among my current students are those with no martial arts training whatsoever; a former KdF longsworder, several current students of Fiore (whose works offer an unified approach to wrestling, dagger, sword in one hand, sword in two, polearms, and mounted combat), and a mix of people with some sabre, MMA, Eastern Martial Arts, and wrestling backgrounds.

[3] Authority in Olympic is rarely questioned. One is taught, one uses what is taught, and if it’s not effective (as happens sometimes) the reaction by most is “where did I go wrong with this?” vs. “this must be bunkum.” Authority rests with the body of technique and tactics passed down over centuries and taught by the maestri and their junior instructors. It is not source-based. Most Olympic fencers have little interest in the sources, and to be fair they don’t need them to do well in competition. The early sources approached fencing as martial art, not a sport, and the requirements in each are different however much they share.

[4] Kit differences are most obvious in masks and jackets. HEMA, for some reason, adopted black as its basic color, perhaps as a middle-finger to Olympic. I don’t know. The weapons too are often different. Sabres, for example, tend to be training copies of period weight versions. Responses are different as well. For example, a friend of mine this past weekend agreed to help me with my epee class homework—the assignment was to film a short teaching lesson on parry-riposte. He’s an experienced sabre fencer (ditto Fiore, Georgian, and MMA), so he was a quick study for what we were doing (I opted to work on parry seven)—as we added complexity to the basic p/r, we ended up in infighting distance. Modern epee employs a variety of techniques for this, but not grappling… My partner’s first reaction was a weapon-seizure—very historical. It wasn’t wrong, but wasn’t right for modern epee 😉

[5] Sabre-specific gear disappeared with the demise of Santelli Fencing in 2004. This company, which had been around since 1942, was the only one still making jackets without the cuissard, the section that covers the groin, as well as masks with leather attached to the top. The sabre jacket was outlawed for competition not long after sabre went electric in NCAA competition—sorry, forget which year that was—but if I recall correctly the latter years of the 1990s. Thus, anyone of a certain age still using this sort of gear should stand out, but won’t unless one knows the difference. Zen Warrior Armory/Triplette Competition Arms, makes a “Classical” jacket sans cuissard that many of us accustomed to the older sabre jacket wear. They’re excellent.

[6] Chrétien de Troyes, the French author and major figure in producing and spreading Arthurian romance in the Middle Ages, produced some of the most beloved Arthurian stories. Most of his work was penned, probably, between the 1150s and 1190s. In some depictions the knight is bleeding from his crossing, even when clad in armor of the time (mail). This is another reminder that art is tricky to use: clad in mail, and assuming that it would be in contact with the bridge, carefully crawling one’s way would not slice through the armor. For a few examples, and my source for the image above, see:

Crossing the Sword Bridge. Sir Lancelot of the Lake in Medieval Art

[7] Hard-liners either side of the divide often believe that their way and their way alone is best. Support for these assertions is often only gathered within the bubble they occupy. For example, HEMA players are quick to dump on Olympic right-of-way/ROW rules. The fact that both fencers might be hit, but only one scores sits ill with them. I get it. Were the weapons sharp… that would be bad, but no one in Olympic fencing is fighting as if the blades were sharp. They haven’t for a very long time. Instead, they’re playing a game, a sport based on fencing with sharps. It derives from the martial art—it is not the martial art. It’s the same for kendo, competitive TKD, etc.

Olympic fencers, on the other hand, find the lack of consistency in HEMA training abhorrent. Faced with such a wide variety of texts, weapons, and interpretations, quality is all over the map. It’s hard to point to any one place as a rubric by which to measure what they see, and to be fair most of HEMA is an absolute mess. The schlock people take for insightful interpretations would be laughably bad were it not so entrenched and popular. It’s hard to blame any sport fencer who pokes fun at some chump in black stepping into distance first, being brained, and only then making an action. It’s as baffling to them as it is to me that these same fighters then defend whatever the hell it is they think they’re doing. In contrast, traditional pedagogy is venerable and well-documented; it provides an easy check (or should) when a sport fencer sees something off in the sport.

All this said, ROW makes a lot of sense IF one understands it. Likewise, the difficulty in analysing and interpreting period texts would make sport fencers less likely to crow if they tried it themselves. Traditional pedagogy is the single most effective training in unpacking those ancient works, but it’s not automatic—the sport has changed a lot in the past century, in the past twenty to thirty years, so one can’t assume automatic equivalence between even the most basic concepts. They might be the same, but it has to be tested, compared, and verified, and even then unless the master who wrote the work is explicit it remains an interpretation.

[8] The tale of Pywll, Prince of Dyfed (POO-ilk *, Prince of DUH-ved) is one of the four tales in the Mabinogi, a collection of medieval Welsh tales. The gorsedd (GOR-seth), or hill, that he sits upon one morning while hunting, is a common motif in Celtic mythology, cf. Brú na Bóinne/Newgrange, north of Dublin, Ireland, and its associated mythology to name only one example. Patrick Ford’s The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1977) is an excellent edition in English by a noted scholar. The stories were written in Middle Welsh, but there are good Modern Welsh versions too, e.g. Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi: Allan o Lyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, edited by Ifor Williams (Caerdydd, CY: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1996). [*The double “l” in Welsh is hard to render in print, especially for me as I’ve only formally studied Middle Welsh, but this link provides some help:

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, etc. was originally the Celtic new year, Samhain (SAH-win), one of four major days marking the year (the others coinciding with the other major events in the agricultural year, though they also correspond more or less to the vernal equinox and the winter and summer solstices). The others are Beltaine (BEL-tinuh), May 1st; Lugnasa (LOO-nussa) Aug. 1st; and Imbolc (IM-bol-eg; there is an epenthetic vowel between “l” and “g”), Feb. 1, though in each case these dates are reckoned by night so that the last days of April, July, and January figure into the dating as well. For those familiar with the Venerable Bede’s account of the Augustinian mission to Britain ca. 600 CE (cf. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I.23ff), and especially Pope Greogry the Great’s advice in re adapting whatever might be from native Anglo-Saxon belief, the association between “pagan” festivals and Christian holy days should come as no surprise. Though dated, Rees and Rees Celtic Heritage remains one of the best explorations via myth, folklore, and late observations of certain traditions (Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 1990).

[9] Cf. Alternative 2, The minutes of this meeting, as of 15 June 2021, are no longer accessible.

[10] One reason I am taking the class is to obtain certification that may become necessary down the road. Epee, as the most historical of the three weapons, and as the one in which I’ve received the least amount of training, seemed an ideal place to start. I’m on the fence in re foil and sabre—both have changed so much that I’m not sure the rubber stamp is worth the frustration of having to suffer through explanations for the perversities afflicting the teaching and use of either weapon.

More Fun with From Page to Practice, or, How to Use your Sources

It’s easy to point out examples where we go wrong in using historical fencing sources. It’s also important if we care about producing the best interpretations we can, but on it’s own pointing out a problem isn’t the same as providing possible solutions. From time to time I like to take a passage from a source I use and share my approach. The one caveat is this: I don’t have all the answers. I’ll be the first to admit that. What I do have, however, is extensive training in language, source analysis, and fencing theory, not only theory as it is taught now, but theory as it developed over the past 500 years. Taken together these can be valuable tools for making sense of sources.

Start with the Source

For historical fencers our primary authority is the page. This can be tricky. We are removed in time and culture, explanations vary in depth, and we often face an incomplete record. Each of these factors alone or together affect how much of that authority we can access, and thus, how much we can interpret with any surety. The more information we have for a system, the better, but this depends too on the nature of that information. We have, for example, far more detailed description for rapier across languages and time, but have far less for medieval sword and buckler.

Most people, in my experience, look to an instructor for help; the burden for doing this work is then more or less shifted to that club and its instructor. Assuming one’s instructor is doing an effective job at interpretation, then there’s arguably less to worry about. However, a good instructor will be able to explain their work, methodology, and approach. In ideal cases they share that information day one. This is one opportunity where we can assess an instructor’s ability.

If you don’t have access to an instructor, if you like to read on your own, or if your instructor is giving you homework, then it helps to have some help. Let’s say you are one of my students and I’ve given you this passage from a key Radaellian sabre manual, Settimo Del Frate’s Instructions for Fencing with the Sabe and Sword:

56. Molinelli Alternating with Parries

When the student has learned the execution of the various molinelli and parries, he must become competent in their execution by repeating the same molinillo many more times, alternating between the various molinelli, and alternating and mixing them with various parries. He will also do this exercise while moving. This practice must be performed with proper progression to be worthwhile, giving the student nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre, which he can easily put into use. He will also learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm. The exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction.

            This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount. When the various molinelli are executed at the same time, the commands are given for the execution of the molinelli and parries, only having to modify the preparatory command to the exercises that the students are to execute.

            For example:

            Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—

            Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—

            A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.

            The exercise is easily varied, and it will be necessary for you to adhere to a reasoned and complete progression, in order to obtain from this important practice the greatest possible benefit.

[Christopher A. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Ca. 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, 39-40]


L’allievo che ha appreso l’esecuzione dei diversi mo linelli e parate, è esercitato nella loro esecuzione, sia ripetendo più volte lo stesso molinello, sia alternando i diversi molinelli tra loro, sia alternandoli frapponendovi le diverse parate ed anche le diverse marcie. Quest’esercitazione fatta a dovere e con giusta pro gressione varrà a dare all’allievo quella scioltezza e faci lità nel maneggio della sciabola per cui potrà mettere in pratica più facilmente e sentire i vantaggi di muovere e ruotare la sciabola ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno per movimento d’avambraccio, e varrà inoltre a chiarire nella sua mente la ragionata progressione dell’insegna mento ed i suoi vantaggi. Per questa lezione di molinelli alternati e misti con parate, si avrà solo da insegnare, come cosa nuova, il modo ed il tempo di girare il filo con giusta gradazione, quando si devono eseguire più molinelli dalla stessa parte; per il rimanente valgono le norme date per l’ese cuzione dei molinelli e parate, fatti separatamente, avendo solo l’avvertenza di modificare il comando ana logamente agli esercizi che si fanno eseguire.

Per esempio:

Due molinelli di testa, il primo da sinistra il secondo da destra –parata di 5a e molinelto di figura da destra – oppure:

Due molinelli di figura da destra –parata di 6a, e molinello di montante da sinistra – oppure:

Un molinello di figura da sinistra –parata di 1a, mo linello di testa da sinistra — cavazione (o coupé) e guardia di terza, ecc., ecc.

Gli esercizi come si vede facilmente, ponno essere mol tissimi e svariati, e sarà necessario l’attenersi ad una progressione ragionata e completa, onde ottenere da questa importante esercitazione il maggior frutto possibile.

[S. Del Frate, Istruzione per la Scherma di Sciabola e di Spada, Milano: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 49-50.]

If you have some Italian and a copy of the original work, then it’s a good idea to place it side by side your translation. In this case, Chris Holzman is one of the best translators working on the Italian corpus: he has a number of native speakers—who are also experienced fencers or maestri—read over his work. This is a vital process in any translator’s work. It’s due diligence. Even with an excellent translation it is helpful to look at the original provided you possess some ability with the language. Reading them side by side will reveal a translator’s choices, but it will also reveal nuances that translation sometimes has trouble capturing.

Now, what do you do with this passage? First, read it more than once, and as you do so isolate key ideas. Right away one knows from the subheading that the number “56” suggests that this is deep within the text. The author, Del Frate, was adamant about the logical progression of lessons, so if anything here is unfamiliar then rereading earlier sections will help. If for example you don’t remember the difference between a molinillo to the head from the left and one to the face, go back and read that first. Or maybe you don’t recall exactly which parries are which. Go back and review. Once you feel more certain with these, then reread the passage again. Then read again and take it line by line.

The first line informs us that this exercise builds on previous lessons, so review can be useful. It also tells us that what this section provides is a way of mixing the molinelli with parries. In review you recall that Del Frate introduces the concept of the molinelli first (§8, 10 Holzman; §8, 16-17 Del Frate), then covers each molinelli in turn through Chapters VIII -X (§42-55, 339, Holzman; 39-49 Del Frate), and finally he offers a few different exercises with the molinelli, such as the one covered here, as well as with a lunge (§57, 41, Holzman; 50-51 Del Frate) and against attempts at engagement (§58, 41-42; 51 Del Frate). If the idea of mixing molinelli and parries is odd at first, then be sure to read each of these sections in succession first.

Del Frate’s method, Radaelli’s, is progressive. We first learn the molinelli as an exercise and way to foster strength, flexibility, and edge alignment. As we improve, we see that each of the molinelli not only cover the major lines of attack, but travel through each of the parries as well. From standing we add movement, first with a bit of lean, then with the feet, the lunge, and then all of it together. So, since this mix of parries and molinelli is near the close of the section for sabre and just before the synoptic tables, it figures that the author assumed some facility first. In the cavalry this was, of course, a lot easier to establish as the troopers had regular drill under military sword masters.

The next few sentences establish additional reasons for the drill:

  • it will impart “nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre”
  • the student will “learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm” [1]
  • and “the exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction”

These are handy to keep in mind as you work through the drill—they’re the reasons we bother doing it. We also learn that this exercise teaches us one new thing:

This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount.

Now, assuming you’ve had experience with molinelli and can perform them pretty well, how do you incorporate this section of the text?

Important to note, Del Frate is addressing an instructor here, thus the reminder that in giving commands the only change is what commands the instructor gives. To explain this Del Frate provides three examples. These are a fantastic place to start.

  • Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—
  • Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—
  • A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.

Each of these can be performed solo or with a partner. If you’re mining this section for pell-work, then start with these three and when you’re comfortable mix and match with other parries and molinelli. If you have a partner, it will help to write out just how this will work, and then when you meet go through it a few times slowly, e.g.

Del Frate, “Mixing Parries and Molinelli” [cf. Holzman, 39-40; DF 49-50]

1. Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—

Drill as Is:

Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 2nd

Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left to the right; B receives touch

Fencer A makes molinillo to the right to left; B receives touch

Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek

Drill as Partner Drill*

Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 3rd

Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left; B parries 5th, cuts head

Fencer A parries 5th, makes molinillo to the right; B parries prima, ripostes to head

Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek

*This adds an additional parry for A, and more realistic responses from B. Everything we do should have real application, especially in partner drills. An instructor can take the part of B in the first instance, because part of an instructor’s job is to provide a target. We can assess what a student is doing well in this way and make corrections. As we add complexity, the instructor’s role takes on more realistic behavior.

Starting with a drill as written is best. This can be surprisingly difficult at times. In Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee, for example, his description of the rising cut from the right is dense.[2] It’s not impossible to figure out, but it’s not the clearest description either. So, take your time, and if needed take one portion, one move of a drill at a time.

As an instructor I use this differently than I do as one of a pair of fencers just working out. If neither you or your partner is the instructor, then the second option above is going to do more for you, because it more closely mimics what we actually do in a bout. While we might make two cuts in succession, more often than not our opponent will react to the first one, so mixing in more for Fencer B makes sense. It’s still important to go slow before going fast, and to keep it simple at first. Even if that is just for warm-up, it will help. It’s practice seeing the lines, gauging the time to respond, all of that. Doing the drill as-is is fine too.

For the instructor sharing a drill like Del Frate’s molinelli with parries, focus on proper technique, placement, and flow with newer students. It’s a good place to start with multiple action drills. It will take time to perfect, but early encouragement and praise of what they are doing well is vital. As they become more familiar with the drill the instructor can shape the clay as it were more directly; students tend to be more accepting of criticism when they have a better grasp of the task and when they don’t hear a litany of complaints the entire lesson. This stuff is difficult, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed—an instructor should never forget that.

If an instructor is working with more advanced students not only can one mix and match molinelli and parries, but also the tempo. The second drill, for example, where there are two cuts made to the face from the right, then a parry of 6th, and a molinillo from that parry to the flank, one can have the student start out making each portion in regular succession, then change it up so that say the second cut arrives faster, or the parry-riposte is made faster (so slow, fast, slow, slow; slow slow, fast-fast).

Adding movement to this is another option. Traditionally this is how fencing lessons often go—it’s how I learned and it’s what masters are still teaching instructors. Have the students start out standing in close measure; each will go through the exercise 5-10 times. Next, have them move one step out and advance/step in to target. Then, have them take a little more distance so that they’re in critical distance or about tip to tip/top third of the blades; from here have them perform the drill with a lunge.[3] Lastly, have them advance in and lunge. With the advance lunge it’s possible to play with tempo via the feet too.

If in doubt or if you want more perspective, reach out to other fencers working in the same tradition. If you don’t know them well, then it pays to start your message or email politely. That should be obvious. You may find not only help, but new ideas to share with your students or group. There is no reason to go it alone, not when there are people who have been working on the same material for a long time.[4]


[1] If one only looks at the image and description of the grip where the the thumb is placed on the backstrap, etc., then it is easy to miss that in use the hand’s position changes fairly often. One thing the molinelli teach us well is how this works, and, how to make those minor adjustments with control.

[2] Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1899/1936), 24:

20. Molinello to the Abdomen

This molinillo is composed of two movements:

1. Starting from the final position of the molinillo to the head (Fig. 10), describe backwards with the point half a circle, until your forearm is in a horizontal position (Fig. 13).

2. Continue this movement, hollowing the small of your back, raising the elbow as much as possible, in order to describe forward with your blade another half a circle and deliver a horizontal cut to the abdomen of your opponent (Figs. 8 and 14).

And for comparison, the 1899 text in German (46-47):

20. Schwingung auf den Bauch.

Sie wird auch in zwei Theilbewegungen zerlegt:

1. Man gehe von der Schlussstellung der Schwingung auf den Kopf aus (Fig. 10), führe die Klingenspitze mittelst eines lothrechten Halbkreises in der Richtung des Klingenrückens so nach rückwärts, dass der Vorderarm mit dem etwas erhobenen Ellbogen wagrecht liegt (Fig. 13).

2. Nun setze man die Bewegung durch Kreuz hohl unterstützt, halte den Ellbogen so hoch als möglich und führe die Spitze, einen Halbkreis beschreibend, direct nach vorne, so dass die Klinge den Bauch des Gegners durch einen nach links ansteigenden Querschnitt träfe (Fig. 14).

Of note, in step 2, there are some differences in language that are significant. The word Kreuz, for example, here means “small of the back,” not “cross,” the primary definition. As a native speaker of English (American), this definition works better for me than “hollow,” which is perfectly correct, but less specific. Conversely, Querschnitt, “cross-section,” doesn’t explain the action as well as “horizontal” does. However, ansteigenden, from ansteigen, “rise,” would be helpful in English. Classically, the rising cut from the right is less horizontal than it is diagonal, and it is, for me at least, the least easy to perform.

[3] Critical distance is where a fencer can lunge to target. This is relative given height, reach, etc., but a good place to start is where the blades would cross at the top third or tip. If too close or too far, one can adjust. I often refer to this concept merely as being “in distance.” Most of our attacks in sabre are delivered via lunge, so figuring this out is important not only in lessons, but in partner drills, and in a bout.

[4] In the “links” on this site, near the bottom, I’ve listed a few resources for those working in the late Italian tradition.

Of Parries, Precipitation, and Poultry

Photo by Kalisa Veer,

We can do most anything when it’s important to us. In the sodden pinelands of the Pacific Northwest the pursuit of most everything entails acceptance of weather if not outright preparation for it. Whatever it is, hiking, sailing, running anyone devoted to these activities does them irrespective of weather. Fencing is normally more or less immune to the elements because usually it’s indoors. Here, because of the damp, we may buy and apply more 3-in-1 oil than others, but fencers everywhere must combat the rust that mixing damp kit and steel fosters. The combination of PNW weather and a pandemic, however, means facing unique challenges. Most fencers at this point have either participated in or know people who have attended online classes, posted footage of drills, or who have even worked out together via zoom or google-meet. Because we can’t congregate inside or in large groups, we’ve had to be creative. Many of us studying the Art have to train; it’s not just the exercise, but that it’s part of who we are, our way of understanding the world, even acting in that world, and so we can’t not, if that makes sense.

The group classes I was teaching either collapsed thanks to Covid or have been put off until it’s once again safe to train indoors. The more fencers with whom I speak the more I hear similar tales of woe. Most of us, if we have a space, pull in just enough to pay rent; moreover, the most affordable insurance demands that we operate as non-profits, so it’s very week by week, skin of the teeth staying open. I wasn’t the only one to lose a space and the people who used it. While easy to take that to heart—and one does at least in part—the truth is that most martial arts studios, of any kind, probably have a shorter half-life than new restaurants. My other classes, conducted through a local parks and recreation organization, will (hopefully) return when we’re in a better place with Covid, but otherwise I imagine what I am doing now will continue.

One of several excellent covered spots in the region

Most of this year I have taught a handful of people, individually, once a week, outside, and masked. Living where I do this means navigating months and months of rain. I’ve found a few places, such as public parks, with sufficient covering to keeps us from being soaked, but at various times these have been closed during quarantine.  So, we’ve used porches, garages, one portion of a barn, my backyard, an empty street, and a local basketball court. Focused on the students, and what they need, as well as how best to supply that, it’s easy to ignore the cold or wet (less so the heat for me). It also strikes me, each practice, how dedicated these fencers are. They meet with me every week, and like ancient Persia’s messengers, “are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” [1] Their zeal in turn keeps me going too; I work harder, prepare more, and do all I can to help them improve. I owe them my best.

There are times, though, when just how weird all this is hits me. Probably my favorite example, so far, was having to stop practice to chase a chicken back into its coop. One of my students lives on a small farm just outside of town, and we often meet in a space next to his barn. We had a good laugh about it once that blasted wee dinosaur was back in its cage, but never did I think managing fowl was something I needed to be prepared for. Ridiculous moments like that help make the difficulties in working out of doors easier. Slipping on mud, wet planks or concrete; walking to practice with a giant garbage bag over my fencing gear (not looking at all suspicious, I’m sure); the strange head-bobbing machinations we make to ensure that face-masks don’t become headbands inside our fencing masks; and competing for covered space with any other group who normally trains indoors (high school dance and cheer teams, kids at play, adults meeting to chat so many feet apart) it’s all become part of the equation. In addition to the sad contributions we make to slapstick comedy, there are other benefits.

This farm I visit once a week, for example, has a little concrete, but is mostly gravel where we practice, and so footwork drills in particular are affected. Working without a decent floor creates a number of hurdles. Concrete is nice and flat, but hard; it can also be slick. Gravel is pure rubbish to fence on, but sometimes the only option, especially as what isn’t mud is more than likely a fen in hiding. Grass is slick, but also hides those covert fens until one steps into them and loses a shoe (NB: shoes fill surprisingly fast with mud. It’s worse than chickens). Wood, such as decking or the planks at certain parks (sitting areas, bridges, etc.) are better, but the latter are normally full of benches, picnic tables, or railing. Somehow, wherever we end up each week, we “make it work” (the excellent Tim Gunn, a fencer by the way, would be proud). One unlooked for benefit from all these odd places is that trying to fence on them helps put some of the observations in the sources about terrain into higher relief. For one example, Monsieur L’Abbat, who wrote about smallsword, not only recommends that the lead foot be lifted slightly and set down “flat and firm,” but also that the rear foot, depending on the ground, not turn over too much onto the edge. [2] It also, I believe, helps us learn to adjust footwork to fit the ground—the importance of proper technique with footwork is all the clearer too: if we don’t do it right there is the very real chance that we’ll twist a knee or ankle or end up cap-a-pie in mud. Terrain also affects measure which can affect tempo, and while certainly not an ideal way to work those all-important universals, what we’re learning would be difficult to do otherwise.

In a similar way, attempting to fence in winter clothing can be illuminating. It’s rarely truly cold here, but the damp makes it feel much colder, and balancing layers with exercise is tricky. Like normal outdoor activities we often start with more on and discard layers as we warm up. No one, however, wants a nice winter coat slashed or poked, and so this often means various layers underneath fencing jackets. Mobility can be affected either way. The days where we conduct lessons without rain and roof mean situating ourselves as best we can to avoid the sun (it can refract nicely on the mesh of the mask); if it starts to drizzle we normally keep going, but rain makes it hard to hear and see, never mind the potential danger in slipping. That’s really not ideal even with practice weapons in hand. While additional clothing, because it’s modern, doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of how fighting in a great coat, justeaucorps, or pelisse was, it nonetheless makes us aware of how clothing can affect technique, and, of what we need to do to ensure we maintain good form.

In recent weeks some of this has been harder to juggle. An ice storm last weekend made homework for the epee course tricky; my other responsibilities and various jobs, vehicle failures, changes in school schedules, everything it seems makes coordinating lessons a little more difficult. But I do it. We do it. Because we can’t not. More than anything else this is the fact that comes up for me most when I stand back at look at the past year.

Salute, from Girard, P. J. F. Traité des armes. France: La Haye, 1740.

It’s an honor to meet these students each week. With all that is going on in the world, in their own lives, with all the shared challenges humanity faces, they make time for fencing. Rain, snow, or shine, they make it. Their level of dedication, depth of passion for the Art, and the discipline it takes to do that each week is truly impressive. As their instructor I’m humbled by that, especially given the loss of a school and students, of major plans that had to be postponed, of all the disappointments, because these woes are out front, visible, and quick to clamor for attention. It would be easy to dwell on what I lost.

When the Art is our life, when what we learn in studying it is the lens through which we understand so much of what we experience, when it is for lack of a better expression a way of life, a creed, then these seemingly small victories appear less small. My students are fencers in a long, difficult bout, and they’re not giving up. Covid, online school, sick friends and relatives, job issues, isolation, all that may have points on them, but they’re not forfeiting; they’re still in the fight. That sort of resilience is perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning each week. It’s proof of fudoshin (Japanese “immovable mind”) and its benefits, of the ability to focus despite calamity, poor weather, or chickens. [3] Sharing this time with my students, handing down the tradition handed to me, and seeing them improve, all while things collapse around us… there’s beauty in all that and I’m grateful to be a part of it.


[1] Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 8.98. See for example Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 4 vols., translated by A.D. Godley, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-1925, available online at

[2] Andrew Mahon, who translated L’Abbat’s book into English, makes a piquant observation about the rear foot and the ways in which it might turn onto the edge:

“Monsieur L’Abbat recommends the turning on the Edge of the Left-foot in a Lunge, as may be seen by the Attitudes. This Method indeed was formerly practised by all Masters, and would be very good, if their Scholars had not naturally run into an Error, by turning the Foot so much as to bring the Ancle to the Ground, whereby the Foot became so weak as to make the Recovery difficult… Therefore I would not advise the turning on the Edge of the Foot to any but such as, by long Practice on the Flat, are able to judge of the Strength of their Situation, and consequently, will not turn the Foot more than is consistent therewith.

It may sometimes be necessary to turn on the Edge, on such Ground whereon the Flat would slip, and the Edge would not, if it were properly turned; but even in this Case, by turning it too much it would have no Hold of the Terrace, and therefore would be as dangerous as keeping it on the Flat.

The chief Reason for turning on the Edge, is that the Length of the Lunge is greater by about three Inches, which a Man who is a Judge of Measure need never have recourse to, because he will not push but when he knows he is within Reach.

Monsieur L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, or the Use of the Small Sword, 1734, ed. Andrew Mahon (Dublin, IRE: James Hort,

For the lead foot, of note is this passage:

The Foot should fall firm without lifting it too high, that the Soal of the Sandal, or Pump, may give a smart Sound, which not only looks better and animates more, but also makes the Foot firm, and in a Condition to answer the Swiftness of the Wrist.

Care must be taken not to carry the Point of the Foot inward or outward, because the Knee bending accordingly, as part of the Thigh, goes out of the Line of the Sword, and consequently, of the Line of Defence, besides ‘tis very disagreeable to the Sight.

The Feet sometimes slip in the Lunge, the Right Foot sliding forward, or the Left backward; the first is occasioned by carrying out the Foot before the Knee is bent, whereas when the Knee brings it forward, it must fall flat and firm; the other proceeds from the Want of a sufficient Support on the Left Foot.

Il est bon que le pied frape ferme sans l’élever, que la sandale claque avec éclat, ce qui non seulement paroît & anime advantage, mais encore bonifie le peid & le met en état de suivre la Vitesse du poignet; il faut éviter de porter la pointe en dedans ou en dehors, parce que le genoüil ployant sure cette ligne se fort, & une partie de la cuisse de la ligne de l’epée, & par ce moyen de la défense, outre que cela choque extremement la veüe. Les pieds peuvent encore manquer dans l’alongement le droit glissant en avant & le gauche en arriere; le premier vient de ce qu’on porte le pied avant de ployer le genoüil, au lieu que quand le genoüil le deviance il ne peut se porter qu’à plomb, & par consequent avec fermeté, & l’autre se fait par le manque d’apuy sur la partie gauche.

Jean-Francois le Sieur Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes ou de L’Epee Seule, 1696 (Toulouse, FR: Chez J. Boude, La Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens), Ch. 3, p. 18-19.

[3] 不動心(fudōshin) is a concept in various schools of Japanese swordsmanship. My exposure to this concept, for fencing, was via kendo. There are various resources for those interested in this idea. See for example, Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 1982); Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 1979); Michael Maliszewski, Ph.D., Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1996); Hiroaki Sato, ed., The Sword & The Mind (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1986).

_Semper Anticus_: The Importance of Continuing Education

Resilience and creativity may not be the most lauded skills in fencing, but they probably deserve to be included among the virtues traditionally associated with it. Despite Covid-19, storms, fires, political upheaval, and much more, fencers have still found ways to study and train. The pandemic has forced everyone to find new ways to pursue the Art, from sharing solo drill footage to various online meetings. In a sense it’s an ideal time to work on self-improvement because most of us can’t congregate yet. We have time to expand our knowledge, increase our skill-base, and hone ability. It can help to have goals with this–this past week I started an extended course via the USFCA (the United States Fencing Coaches’ Association), online, and though we’ve only met once it’s clear to me just how valuable this class is going to be.

One thing I have always told students, be it in college courses or during fencing lessons, is that we never stop learning (we shouldn’t anyway). A teacher is first a student and if they’re smart they remain one. I have probably expressed this different ways, ad nauseum, in most settings, but it’s because I believe it’s true. Even if we have something down well and have taught it umpteenth times someone else may know a way to improve our approach. There’s always more to learn or new ways to do what we already do well. Every instructor should take time to continue their education–it’s important.

Interacting with new people, and especially a new maestro, can be difficult for many people, but for those of us farther along the introvert spectrum it can be down-right daunting. Luckily, a good friend alerted me to this course and is taking it himself–it turns out that two other people I know are as well, one a local coach, the other a master in California. I was nervous going into the class, partly because of the social interaction (something quarantine has done little to help), partly because despite using a lot of technology I tend to struggle with these online meeting platforms, and partly because as someone who has focused on historical fencing, who has had a challenging relationship with competitive fencing, it’s easy to feel out of place. Turns out there’s a lot that can tag along with that last one.

One Art, Many Paths

Like many people, I started teaching fencing when assigned the task by a maestro. The last two masters I studied with, both of whom I spent a fair amount of time with, asked me to help newer students or assist their more advanced fencers prep for an event. Dutiful and honored I did my best. I enjoy teaching and the chance to do so was fun, but teaching is also critical in improving our own ability and knowledge. Having to teach something goes beyond being able to do it–we have to understand it. I didn’t want to disappoint my maestri or steer my fellow students the wrong way. They trusted me to do a good job or they wouldn’t have asked me, but that doesn’t mean I felt up to the task every time.

My approach to teaching is, more or less, what I saw my own teachers do. This goes for everything: the sections of a lesson, the types of drills, the various cues–verbal and physical–we use, everything. In time, we develop our own style, we tweak this or that perhaps, but this method is by definition often informal, organic, and implicit rather than explicit. Feedback from those same masters helped, as does time in the saddle, but just how different this is from formal instruction in how to teach hit me hard last week.

This course is the first “how to teach” course in fencing I’ve taken. The maitre d’armes teaching it, a highly-respected, published, and extremely well-trained instructor, hit the ground running day one. He put names to things, gave explanations, and explained a lot of what we do as fencing instructors, things I have done but never really thought about. If that class had been the only one in the series it would still would have been extremely valuable, but to know that I have weeks and weeks of similar instruction coming is exciting. It’s also intimidating.

The course in question is on epee/spada, the weapon of the modern three I’ve had the least training in, but which I have fought quite a lot. I’ve read a lot about it, both in terms of its development as a distinct weapon and with regard to modern tactics. In addition to improving my teaching I hope to gain further insight into the weapon. Often tackling the hardest aspect of a challenge first makes sense, so epee being the least familiar to me, it’s a good place to start.

Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8

The cosmos, if we’re paying attention, has a funny way of ensuring that we stay humble. Of the various gaffs in the universe’s comedic toolbox one of the most painful (if sometimes amusing) has to be self-sabotage. We can be our own worst enemies, and moreover, in different ways. In my case, the first homework assignment for the epee course put the spotlight on a prime example of this, and for spice, on multiple levels.

It may seem odd to share this, but to date I have found that sharing tales of failure as well as success isn’t just honest, but sometimes helpful. How, for example, is a student going to know it’s okay to make a mistake if we can’t admit our own? Maybe they will learn to harness failure or missteps without our help, but it sure might save them some pain if they have a model for how one might do that. As teachers we don’t expect or look for perfection, just improvement. Part of our role, I think, is making it okay to mess up, to fail, or as common parlance has it, “to suck.” We need to be able to be bad at something first if we wish to get better at it. I don’t think this is a one time deal either, but a reoccurring process we experience at various plateau moments in learning. I am not one to boast and it makes me uncomfortable when others do it–the culture I grew up in considered such behavior ugly–but I will say that I’ve been fencing a long time, teaching a long time, and I make mistakes too. I will make more. It’s part of learning. So, while the following story may read as more humiliating than illuminating, that’s okay–if it makes it even slightly less painful for anyone else to mess up, then great. Sharing this example also sticks it to my own ego, the root of the problem, and that is healthy as well.

In my own most recent example, I was intrigued but puzzled by the maestro’s homework assignment. I understood it, I thought, and it struck me as odd, but I assumed I more or less knew what he wanted so didn’t follow up with him. I should have. I always tell students to ask questions, and, that no question is stupid in class. Better to ask than not.

He had asked us to make a video where we coaches devise two responses against the student as the student recovers from the lunge. It will likely be immediately obvious to many reading this that after having shared these two options one would have the student demonstrate counters to them. I mean, that is what we do each time we teach, right?, we take them from this action to the next, sometimes building complexity, or changes of tempo, or working distance and the student eventually makes the touch. [1] Even with Covid I teach three times a week and never make this mistake. Well… I took the instructions rather literally.

Why? I’m not sure, but I’ve had a few days to think about it and I think I’ve figured it out. First, in the past when a maestro has given me an instruction I have carried it out, and, normally without question. If they said “okay, now do x, but in this tempo…” I did it; if they said “Help Sarah with transports,” I did it. In silent lessons they wouldn’t say anything and I had to figure it out from physical cues, precedent, or deduction based on principles. This may sound rather military in obedience or thoughtless, but it isn’t really. Two of the masters I worked with were retired military officers, and having grown up in that culture it’s comfortable if not natural to me, but one reason I didn’t join the military was because I actually don’t take orders well. [2] It’s also part of traditional fencing culture–there is a time and place to ask the maestro about something, but normally one doesn’t when the sala is full, the maestro busy, and there is work to do. If the master pauses a lesson and calls to us, we answer, especially when they are asking for us to help.

The other issue, the critical one, was over-thinking. On the one hand, I tend to feel like I wear a scarlet “H” on my jacket when I’m around many Olympic fencers. If you’ve read any of the previous posts here that will make sense, but if you haven’t in summary leaving the competitive world for the historical doesn’t earn one a joyous send-off at the pub, but the finger and all too often a loss of respect. The three other people I know in the class, all with experience in a variety of branches of fencing, also have more formal training in teaching fencing. [3] When we feel like the odd one out our brains can go crazy places–in this case, I focused too much on what the assignment said and not what we were supposed to get out of it. I was more worried about what the instructor would think of me, that I might earn a larger letter “H,” than just demonstrating via that homework what I’d do in that instance. That rabbit hole leads to crazy town and interior monologues such as “Maybe it’s a test of sorts to see what we know or how we think? If so, then it’s okay to focus on that alone… or is it…” repeat. It’s a horrible place to be. The solution was simple, but I was too worried to think of it: it’s a class on teaching, so, if I gave a student A and B, what might they do with them?

More wisdom from “Blackadder II” BBC

Coming up with two options as the student recovered was not the problem, but in worrying more about getting it right I neglected the most important aspect–why do it at all, so what, why does this matter? The most important question was to consider why the maestro assigned this, what it was meant to impart. Even in the midst of feeling bad about it that irony wasn’t lost on me.

Part of the assignment was to take video of these actions. My eldest son, a wiz at all this technology stuff, helped me, as did my spouse, and I put together option one and option two. This is where another layer popped up–trusting our gut. It felt like a really weird place to stop: if it’s just me showing the option, then the student is hit, and well, that’s not really what we do. We set things up for the student to make the touch properly. I was afraid to trust myself, reassured myself that this is what he asked for, and submitted it. But, the rest of the afternoon I just kept thinking about it. It bothered me.

Later, in chatting with a friend in the class, he showed me what he and his student had done. It was all there. He shared his two options, and significantly, what his student might do to counter them. I knew it! Panic set in. Every scenario blitzed through my head, and in each one I was hounded out of class, the look of polite disgust of my fellow students blatant in their zoom boxes, the maestro shaking his head slowly, the mean jailor from “Games of Thrones” pointing at me and saying slowly “shame…. shame….”

What could I do? Maybe nothing this time, but I needed to do something to change my mindset. I asked my son if he’d be willing to add an additional move; he was; so, we made another short video and I explained in it that I’d left out the most important part, where the student defeats those two options. The maestro saw it, and in discussion about it was kind, generous, and full of helpful feedback.

Teacher, Teach Thyself and Be Taught

I’d broken my own rule, the one by which I do most everything now, which was to leave ego out of it. I was so worried that I’d put it a poor showing, that I would mess up, that I would look stupid, etc., that I fulfilled the fear or at least felt that I did. Anyone who has weathered disappointment or failure ideally is better able to handle them the next time, and while it took a while to shake off the feeling of embarrassment, of letting myself down, and all the rest, when I could finally see it objectively I was glad it had happened. Having screwed up, what could I learn from it?

Too much concern over how we’ll be received or viewed, of what others will think, not only can taint an experience, but also prevent an experience from happening. Fear of censure or failure, worry about making a mistake or looking stupid, all of that can prevent us from doing the things we need to do, things we like to do, things we should do. Not the karmic burden I would have picked, but it’s hardly unique to me. Many if not all of us suffer this at one time or another.

We need to give ourselves, and sometimes be reminded…, that it’s okay to be new to something, to mess up, to be vulnerable. If we stumble, we get back up; if we fall again, we get back up. Ever forward.

If there is one thing more I learned it’s that being in this class, learning new things, and well… re-learning some of these same lessons again…, is precisely where I’m probably supposed to be. I’ve already learned a lot, and I’ll learn more, and really, that’s the point.


[1] The exception to allowing the touch is when a student performs the action incorrectly; in this case the attack may fail or we ensure that it does, and then examine why. All of that is geared toward helping them perform the correct action the right way and gain the touch.

[2] It’s a long story and not particularly interesting, but I had all but completed the initial ROTC courses at my first college and the commander met with me to figure out the next step. When I told him my major, he paused then said “Huh… well… um… let’s put down ‘undecided’ for now” and I realized then and there I was going to be a poor fit.

[3] These are three people I respect a great deal and whose friendship I value. The master in California is equally at home in Olympic, HEMA, and the SCA, and a super cool chap on top of it all; the local instructor, an old friend I’ve fenced with off and on for over a decade, and I were going to start on our certs together, but things happen and he started last year; and last, a good friend of mine and fellow devotee of Italian fencing is the one who told me about this class–he has taken a variety of courses, at Sonoma, in the USFCA, and in Europe.

Romance & the Ridiculous—Historical Fencing, Realism, and the Fringe Element

Last month I set to beating a favored Bucephalus, safety. Important as I think the discussion is—safety features in blade design—I was unhappy with the way it turned out, with my mode of expression. There was too much ire and not enough constructive criticism—while rants sans useful feedback may be de rigueur in modern American social and political life, they shouldn’t be. When we err, we can try to fix it and so this post is my attempt to cover some of the same concerns, but in a more appropriate manner.

We never lack for examples when discussing safety. The issue that came to my attention this week was alarming. It didn’t concern equipment per se, but behavior and outlook. Having left fb I would never have seen it, but my friends still managing the “Military and Classical Sabre” page on fb, a page I used to help admin, were debating what to do about a problematic post. I’m still in that chat group and long story short was asked to weigh in; I had earlier written one of those “oh that sucks, yikes, good luck” messages to show support, but no longer active on fb I didn’t want to usurp anyone. Clever people, they can easily manage without my input, and my butting in would be inappropriate. But the next morning a few of them approached me about strategies for writing a response, so I did my best to help.

When I was working as an admin I spent most of my time doing two things. First, I attempted to establish and foster a culture where polite, evidence-based debate was possible, and where a truly international community could meet and discuss the wonders of the sabre family safely. Second, I handled most problems, not only dealing with whatever the issue was (and the author at times), but also in using such occasions to reenforce the expectations for behavior. It takes a lot of time and energy to do all that, and it’s often unpleasant work. I won’t lie, really relieved I’m not handling this one.

The post in question asked the 6,000 members of the page if they would be interested in seeing live bouts, with sharp swords, and whether they’d be willing to pay to view these gladiatorial tragedies.  Issues of fb policy about such questionable posts aside, this rightly raised concerns for the admins. It seems impossible that anyone would fail to see what a superbly bad idea this is, but judging by the comments the misguided poster has supporters. Maybe it was hypothetical, but the poster admitted that he would watch such a fight, lethal or not, and that he had watched people fight with sharps, though he shared no details. I don’t believe these are bad people. I want to believe, least I hope, that the majority aren’t sociopaths. Most likely they’re simply naïve and apply what they know from an agonistic context to an antagonistic one. [1] This doesn’t make this idea any less dangerous, but it might help explain why some members were all for it.

Romance & the Sword

People get involved in fencing, any fencing, for many reasons. Somewhere in that mix, usually, is a wish to live out or experience, even at a distance, what d’Artagnan, Rassendyll, Scaramouche, Zorro, and Luke Skywalker bring to life. Literature, film, t.v., comic books, most any way we enjoy story has so often involved fencing. It’s as true of Rafael Sabatini’s novels—so many of which became movies—as it is more recent tales like “Star Wars.” The sword is universal; most every culture has some example of it. Richard F. Burton, in his The Book of the Sword, remarked that “The history of the sword is the history of humanity.” [2] Much as Burton got wrong, I suspect he wasn’t too far off with this conclusion.

I have yet to meet anyone who got involved in fencing because they believe they look sexy in tight white polyester and enjoy the sound of buzzers as pretty lights flash. Similarly, no one I’ve met in historical circles joined up because of their love of thick black jackets, loud socks, and the masochistic thrill that is taking multiple Zwerchhaus to a mask not designed for that sort of battery. Okay, so I do know a few who dig the socks, but otherwise, what draws all these fencers—regardless of preference—is the romance around the sword. This is fine, of course, and for some maybe it is a way to live out some fantasy as Lancelot or Captain Blood, but no matter what every fencer should realize the difference between romance and reality.

A German student is patched up post Mensur

This said, because we no longer use swords we have little idea of what life was like when they were typical weapons. Most newsworthy events involving sword injuries are either freak accidents or crimes committed by those with severe behavioral pathologies. The few other modern examples stand out as exceptions—they’re anything but normal. There are the right-wing morons in Hamburg who slice one another up, there are religious sects like the subset among some Shia Muslims who flagellate themselves with sharp swords, a few isolated examples of fencers who thought they’d give it a try in varying degrees of seriousness, and then the one stand-out example with a venerable history regardless of how one feels about it, German fraternity duels, the Mensur.

The sword belongs to the past, and the past can have deep connections to fantasy. This is why it’s perhaps easier for people to ascribe what they’ve read or seen in novels and movies to what was, in truth, a bloody business. In a similar way many fencers view what they’re learning with more wishful thinking than honest assessment. The reality behind “swordfighting” is anything but pretty. Anyone who has experienced accidents from a kitchen or craft knife will understand this. Somehow, though, there can be a disconnection between any such injury and what swords can do. The gulf is widened even farther by the fact that modern safety equipment, most of the time, does keep people safe, even at full speed. Fencers are thus conditioned to fight with a false sense of security all the time.

One outcome of this for some fencers is too great a confidence in their skill set. This is a hard fact to demonstrate, especially to those who believe themselves so dangerous, because the few avenues they have to “test” those skills are false positives. The worst cases are often found among some who win gold medals, but fail to appreciate the contextual differences between mock and actual combat. They are not the same. The weapons may be similar; that trainer may be as real as can be save for an edge, but at the end of the day there is one fact that is inescapable: our psychology pre-match and our psychology pre-dangerous fight are not the same. There is similarity, but only on the surface. Many competitors experience jitters before a match, but what do they worry about? They worry about doing well, about advancing; of disappointing themselves, their instructor, or teammates; they worry they will be embarrassed if they score too few hits or mess up or lose; but what they’re not worried about so much is the very real chance they may be seriously injured, disfigured, crippled, or killed.

To demonstrate the difference, look up most any fencing bout on Youtube. Take your pick of Olympic or historical footage. Note how quickly and from the off one or both fencers rush at the other. Notice how little caution they display. Now, check out the various footage of late period duels, most between 1900-1920, that schlager7 has shared on Youtube:

Duel between Jean Gung and Georges Tinet, 1911–still image from

This was early 20th cen. film, so the speed will be a little quick and the action somewhat staccato, but notice the difference in how most duelists move. Notice the hesitancy, even as each makes small false attacks in hopes of finding an open line. Their hands move fast, but their feet do not, and it isn’t until the feet move that one of the duelists has decided they have a shot. In these duels—most with epee/spada—the concern not to be hit is obvious. One can laugh all one likes at the size of an epee blade, but the damage one can do to a body is anything but laughable, particularly when the person wielding it means to and wants to do harm. Like its ancestor the smallsword, that 30-35 inch spike rushing toward one is powered by the weight, ire, fear, and power of the opponent, and is hardly something to laugh at.

The Ridiculous

This fb post, even if hypothetical, was a bad idea if for no other reason that it will fuel the fires of fools. [3] The well-known maxim “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” enjoys too many manifestations in historical fencing. A few standout examples of the silly include the toe-first lunge (a result of misreading text and image and of misapplying semi-related works, chiefly from dance); the baseball grip for longsword as the one and true way to hold the weapon (despite a legion of period images arguing for a wide variety), the idea that “military” and “dueling” sabre are different (both look to military sources and the difference, such as it is, is one of context), and the idea that all feints are bad (contrary to a plethora of sources where masters cover them and mention the potential dangers). There is a lot of ridiculousness in HEMA. A lot. The interpretative examples just mentioned can be set side by side with similar gems from the tourney world (too much concern about afterblows, not enough about initial strikes), some of the books produced on various topics (from poor translations that are popular to expensive photo-rich works that blind the unwary to how little of substance lies within), and in the unfortunate turn that cutting contests have taken (the goal is to cut through the matts, not to cut within the mechanics of a given text or system). The idea of bloody prize-fights, of what amount to snuff-films, is a step beyond foolish: it is irresponsible, unhealthy, and potentially criminal. No one with any sense should want anything to do with it; those who do need help.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Ship of Fools” (ca. 1490-1500)

As a wise student of mine reminds me often, we all have staterooms on the ship of fools, no exceptions. I will be the last to deny it—if anything I feel my stateroom expands a little too much too often. The saving grace is perhaps realizing our propensity for the foolish and doing what we can to mitigate it. This can be challenging, especially given the degree to which the Dunning-Kruger effect is in play when it comes to martial arts. One aspect of this effect are assorted types of over-confidence. Among these classifications the one most germane here is overestimation,

the discrepancy between someone’s skills and their perception of those skills. People who overestimate themselves frequently engage in wishful thinking with harmful consequences. If someone overestimates their capabilities, they may take dangerous risks and overextend themselves beyond their limits, like an athlete pushing themselves to the point of injury. [4]

Fencers perhaps suffer from this more often than we might think, especially because of the pervasive values in the culture. Among these perhaps the most pernicious is the sense that tournament victories reveal the superior fighter. Winning a match can reveal true skill, but it is not automatic, a fact long recognized before tournaments existed.

For example, Andrew Steinmetz in The Romance of Duelling (1868) wrote “I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field (61).” The duel in question was between a young officer, known for his skill with the foil, who fell to a “hardy, active, thickset youth, with the eye of a hawk and the nerve of a lion.” The kid had no training, but had nerve. [5] Mark Twain, who wrote about the duel on several occasions, also commented on this fact with his usual humor:

But, don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. [6]

Even a seasoned duelist who survived multiple, even numerous duels could fall prey to some duffer scared out of their wits. To name one such example Felice Cavallotti, an Italian politician who had fought some thirty duels, died when he failed to be cautious. Aldo Nadi relates the duel in On Fencing, and though short, the description is gripping:

They met. After the usual instructions, the duel began. Seized by the fire of battle, Cavallotti jumped forward, shouting and swinging his sabre. Overwhelmed by this outburst, Macola froze. Instinctively, he stiffened his arm. Cavallotti’s weapon found no target. Macola’s blade passed through Cavallotti’s open mouth and out of the back of his neck. Cavallotti died on the spot. Macola wrote a beautiful obituary. [7]

The advantage the experienced duelist has is more a species of nerve than superior skill. Steinmetz, in referring to the young veterans in France post-Waterloo who sought out young, visiting Englishmen to exterminate, reminds the reader that these men had been “accustomed from their earliest years to face danger in every form, they had the advantage, even when their antagonists were equally skilled in handling the weapon.” (66) He adds that

Few sensations are more delightful than those we enjoy upon finding ourselves secure after our lives have been placed in imminent peril, and men who have once known the pleasure of escaping danger often seek it, or are, at least, careless about exposing their persons, hoping again to experience similar gratification. (66)   

I have known a number of modern veterans who have struggled with this very phenomenon. They got to enjoy combat, the challenge, the risk, the excitement of facing a foe and living another day. Nice as gold medals and trophies are, whatever we feel upon having an award handed to us is nothing like what those exposed to life and death combat experience upon surviving, particularly those who come to enjoy it. [8]


I have spent most of my life at this point, in some respect, fencing. Teaching fencing and researching its history is currently my daily work, well, one of several jobs, and from experience, research, and observation I am concerned about people who wish to play warrior or duelist when they are grossly unprepared for what that means. It doesn’t matter if one is fencing Olympic or historical—the truth is that neither trains one for actual fighting the way say Krav Maga or boot camp do. In historical fencing, ostensibly, we are trying to be as accurate to fencing-as-a-combat-system as possible, but by the definition we can only do this to a point. [9] We must take safety precautions for reasons of good sense if not potential legal trouble, and mostly so that we don’t kill off the people interested in learning about it or they us. Historical fencing is a past-time. The corners we cut, which we must, do not prepare us for the reality of a naked blade in hand and another pointing at us. It’s a question of mindset, and while we can, and arguably should do all we can to cultivate an artificial awareness of how serious all this would be, by no stretch of the imagination should we train or proceed in such a way that people increase the chances of being hurt.

Bruce Lee, “Enter the Dragon,” 1973

All fencers—instructors, students, whoever—have a responsibility to one another as comrades in arms, as fellow people, to keep one another safe and demonstrate the virtues that the Art can bring out in us. If one works with children this is all the more important. We are not gladiators, and we should never be assassins—if we have learned well then we should know that the best martial artists do what they can to avoid a fight. They find ways to resolve an issue peacefully, and only call upon their skill when this fails. We should all endeavor to be ideal seconds, not duelists, and as such condemn needless danger. This particular danger, if realized, would do more than alarm authorities unlikely to sit idly by as people square off with sharp swords, but very likley damage or end lives. Horrible as this to contemplate for anyone, the damage collectively is worth considering too. Most authorities would condemn any such notion, and so should we.


[1] J. Christoph Amberger, a well-known researcher of fencing history, was the first I read to use this helpful distinction between antagonistic combat, where the potential for hurt is present and one purpose, and agonistic combat, or sport fighting, fencing as a pastime. There is a spectrum between these two poles, however, and I suspect that Amberger, who fenced Mensur in college, might list fencing with sharp schlagers as sort of a mix. The context for the Mensur is different than this pay-per view bloodsport—traditionally the university students who belong to the dueling fraternities observe strict rules and safety precautions. It’s a form of ritual combat, and while injuries are part of it, the target is limited and the action stopped after a hit by the seconds.

[2] Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword, London: Chatto and Windus, 1884. Reprint, New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1987, xv.

[3] This quotation has been ascribed to a number of people. For a fun discussion about it see

[4] “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” Psychology Today,, 12-19-2020. See also Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J., “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 3 (2003): 83-87; “Studies in Swollen Heads: What Causes Overconfidence?” March 19, 2018, APS: Association for Psychological Science, The seminal article by Dunning and Kruger came out in 1999, J. Kruger and D. Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 6 (1999): 1121-1134.

[5] Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1868), 61.

[6] Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 344 [New York: Harper Brothers, 1917; Google Books]. In A Tramp Abroad Twain wrote much about German student dueling. Chapter VIII, “The Recent Great French Duel,” is a tour-de-force of humor if unfair to the valor of the French. The first line sets the tone well: “Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold.”

[7] Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994, 21. Originally published 1943. The New York Times covered the story March 7, 1898, see

[8] Out of respect for these warriors, young and old, who struggle with simultaneously enjoying combat and living in a culture that, supposedly, decries violence, I will mention no names. My heart goes out to them as I’ve seen how this emotional Janus tears them apart. My first encounter with this phenomenon outside my own family was with a young retired marine who was taking my ancient history class. Comments I had made about the motivations of characters like Achilles caught his attention and he stayed after class to ask me about it. I didn’t know he had served, but he shared with me how much it meant to have someone speak about the joy these characters took in fighting, something he had come to like too and really struggled with. His plans were to work for the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, USA) on storm ships, chasing hurricanes, etc. because he missed the risk and danger. I’m not alone in finding this theme in works like “The Iliad” where we see the eagerness of Achilles and the hesitation of Hector. See Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York, NY: Scribner, 1994.

[9] Were those who study Armizare, for example, to approach Fiore’s delights more realistically the number of broken elbows and smashed teeth alone would quickly send people packing. Those of us teaching later period systems would run considerable risks were we using sharps. It just doesn’t make any sense. There are those, like Roland Warzecha/Dimicator, who use sharps to train at slow speed and within strict boundaries, but he too is an exception. Most people aren’t Roland and moreover have not trained in environments that prepare them for using sharp weapons.

From Page to Practice

L’armee Française–Cavalerie Lègère–Trompettes de Chasseurs

If the last few posts were a clarion call against what not to do, then this one, in order to restore a little balance, is more a small bugle announcing more of a what to do. Those who know the oeuvre of Peter Sellers may recall the opening scene of “The Party” (1968) where his character, an actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, plays a Gunga Din who refuses to die even after volley after volley by both the Thugee cultists and the colonial English army. Tone-deaf and prejudicial issues around cultural appropriation and stereotypes aside, that scene is perhaps an apt analogy for the amount of binary ink I spill about the proper and improper use of our sources. It comes up a lot, but then it’s a major problem within historical fencing and thus a fitting topic to treat. Again, and again.

Of the students that I’ve been able to meet with during the pandemic one is an experienced fencer with whom, until recently, I have worked sabre. In our discussions about it, however, we’ve occasionally discussed parallels with other weapons, chief of which—for my tradition—is foil and by extension, smallsword. The north Italian fencing tradition, because of French influence during the Napoleonic era, was different than the southern Italian tradition as exemplified by masters like Terracusa e Ventura (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti (1803), and Parise (1882). A good friend and fellow student of fencing both Italian and French, Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA), can speak to this better than I can as he has been studying the source tradition for specific elements of that influence, but in short there are some parallels in north Italian sabre and foil.

I was surprised, if thrilled, that my friend and student wanted to take a look at smallsword. With the pandemic the need for variety and diversion is perhaps stronger than usual, and so switching over to smallsword for the last few weeks has been a nice break. This has been, parallels notwithstanding, new material for him, and just enough different that it’s been important to go slow so that we build the fundamentals correctly.

Converting Text to Technique

To illustrate this process, and by extension how one can use sources, I’m going to take a look at one of the more complicated actions that we’ve looked at in his lessons to date. It’s important to note a few things. First, this is a quick look at one source, not an exhaustive look at how various works at the time cover the same action. Second, “complicated” is a relative term. For many Olympic fencers this attack, while compound, is relatively simple in the sense of easy (not in the technical sense of simple attacks). However, here one must remember that the art of defense, by definition, is conservative. The more actions one makes, the more tempi, and this means that one’s opponent has more opportunities to disrupt one’s plans and strike.

“Figure of two men in the guard as explained”–Girard (1740)

After having worked fundamental actions, in this case direct thrusts in tierce and quarte both firm-footed with a lean and with an advance-lunge, always with opposition, as well as simple feints, we took at look at double feints. For this drill I looked to P.J.F. Girard and his Traité des armes (1740), Second Part, “Double Feint Quarte:”

To Thrust Quarte

This thrust is done firm footed, advancing & retreating, with or without appels, as is generally the case with all fencing attacks, as has been said before.

Double Feint Quarte

Sword engaged in tierce, I feint quarte while stamping the right foot, hand at shoulder-height, with the nails turned upward & the point near the enemy’s hilt, body back, then feint tierce outside the sword; & when he returns to parry, thrust subtly in quarte inside the sword, the hand leading, to be ready for a parry in case of a riposte, & to riposte as you see fit. [1]

The original French reads thus:

Double Feinte de Quarte

Pour Tirer Quarte

Cette botte se fait de pied ferme, en marchant & en reculant, avec des appels du pied & sans appels; ainsi que généralement tous le coups d’Armes, comme il est déja dit.

Double Feinte de Quarte

L’Epée engagée de tierce, je fais faire une feinte de quarte en frapant du pied droit, la main à la hauteur de l’épaule, tournée les ongles en dessus & la pointe à côté de la Garde ennemie, le corps en arriere, puis la feinte de tierce dehors les Armes; & lorsqui’il revient à la parade, tirer subtilement de quarte au dedans des Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, pour ȇtre en état de parer en cas de riposte, & de riposte à propos. [2]

There is a lot here and much of it requires familiarity with earlier material Girard covers in Part 1, in particular expressions such as “firm footed” (pied ferme), “sword engaged in tierce” (L’Epée engagée de tierce), or thrusting in “quarte inside the sword” (tirer… de quarte au dedans des Armes). These may or may not be obvious to the reader. Some expressions, such as “firm footed” are not part of modern fencing’s vocabulary, so, a first step is to go back and read the relevant sections in the work that explains these concepts. The master first mentions the idea in his twelve points for the en garde position, point 12 (Crawley, 38; BnF Girard, 7):

12. Finally the left foot is flat & firm upon the ground, presenting the inside of the foot to the right heel.

XII. Ensin le pied gauche à plat & ferme sur la terre, présentant le dedans du pied au talon droit.

Girard begins Part 1 with an examination of actions “against those who always remain firm footed” (Crawley, 48; BnF Girard, 14ff). [3] In simplest terms, he breaks down the assault into two major types, firm-footed (i.e. where they do not get in and out of measure, but remain in it) and those were at least one of the opponents is moving, either advancing or retreating.

I used the same break down to build a drill—initially we would approach this double feint firm-footed, and later employ more movement, in this instance where the student would begin out of measure and advance to engage.

What is Stated, and, What is Not

The concepts of “inside” and “outside” the sword refer to the same concepts today, that is, what we normally term the inside and outside lines. The outside is, assuming a right-hander, to the right of the weapon as one stands on guard; the inside line all that space on the left. To have the sword engaged in tierce, the fencer making the feint assumes the guard of tierce (modern Italian terza or French sixte), and makes contact with or engages the opposing steel so that the opponent’s blade is to the right. In this drill, we initially had both of us in tierce. [4] The feint is made in quarte, so, to the inside line. It is not stated here, but in order to do this one must disengage under the opposing steel, so, moving from tierce to quarte or from the outside to the inside line. Girard’s detail about the hand and place of the sword tip are crucial—this disengage must be tight and performed in such a way that one continues to block the threat of the opponent’s weapon.

Here too, Girard is not specific, but after the feint the assumption is that the opponent will move to parry in quarte thus safeguarding their inside line. As they do so, one feints in tierce or to the outside line—again via disengage—in order to draw the opponent once again into a parry of tierce. When they do, one then disengages a third time and thrusts along the inside line to target, but maintaining opposition in quarte. A student of modern foil with a few months of experience can likely puzzle this out, but even then some of the language is different, not to mention the emphasis placed on closing out the opposing steel.

It may be helpful for some fencers to render Girard’s instructions into modern fencing parlance:

  • From an engagement in third/sixth, disengage and feint to the inside line
  • As they parry fourth, disengage and feint to the outside line
  • As they reassume third/sixth, disengage and thrust in fourth to the inside line
  • *in each case, both feints and the final thrust, are made with opposition, that is, closing out the line so one is not hit
  • Start with both fencers in measure, blades engaged; later, have the student enter into distance and take the engagement

There is no reason one must retain the original wording, but it can help reinforce what one is reading sometimes. If the older expressions trip one up, then convert them to the modern versions if you know them—this exercise alone will force us to make sure that we really understand what it is we’re reading.


While a short passage, and seemingly clear, there is a lot that Girard assumes the reader will supply. He does not tell us to disengage; he assumes that we understand that we must because we are changing lines from outside to in, from inside to outside, and again from outside to inside. These are the little things that can make parsing historical fencing treatises difficult.

Blow of high quarte inside the swords–Girard 1740

I supplied the original French here for several reasons. First, we rely on translations—especially in the States—for most of our work. This means that we are attempting to recreate, as best we can, systems used in the past and conceived of and understood in a different language. Translation is as much science as art, and it takes considerable skill and training to do well; if you have French or Italian or whatever language your area of study was originally in, then it behooves you to ensure that your translations are solid. Check your English version against the original. If you don’t have French etc., but know someone who does, ask them to give it a once over. Second, because translations mean that the translator is making choices as to definitions, sentence structure, etc., it is useful to take a closer look at those choices. Sometimes, it makes little difference—pied ferme, for example, is pretty clear, “foot firm,” or as we would say in English, “firm foot.” But, if we look at tirer, for example, this is less clear. In modern French tirer can mean: “to pull, to pull to/to close; to draw (as in to draw curtains); to fire or shoot; to print; to take.” Not one of these definitions really works well here. The closest we get is the fifth meaning (according to my Collins French-English Dictionary), “to shoot or fire,” but we would not say that one “shoots a thrust” or “fires a thrust.” Philip T. Crawley renders tirer in Girard as “thrust,” and in context that makes good sense. Further examination into the use of this word in other works on fencing from the time would confirm that this is a good choice of definition. One might even note that the Italian cognate (tirare) was used the same way. [5]

Using Word & Image Together

Feint of quarte, to thrust tierce outside the sword–Girard 1740

Girard included illustrations which aid the reader, but as static images they capture at best a moment in time, a snapshot of action. We can easily see what a guard might look like, or the moment that one fencer is about to act or has completed an action, but we cannot see a disengage. We cannot see the intensity and attitude needed to sell a feint. Here, in Girard’s 8th plate (8 planche), we see the fencer on the right lift his foot to make an appel, and he is clearly in preparation, but unless one can read the French or has a decent translation, it would be easy to conclude–as one example–that he is mid-extension and about to lunge. We cannot see what a lunge looks like as it happens, but we might see one prepare for it. We need to read the caption to realize the difference. We can and should make use of the images if we have them, but always with the caveat that we cannot assume that they are completely faithful to what the author intended and what the fencer should do. Some images supply added material, such as dotted lines meant to capture the movement of a weapon or a limb, but even here these are representational; they’re symbols, shorthand for complex ideas and motion.

Exploring what Girard, or any other master, advocates for a fencer requires that we pay close attention, that we read carefully, compare any illustrations against what we read, and that we remain open to correction as our study continues. Were we only to use Girard’s plates we would not get very far—there is too much he doesn’t depict, too much he couldn’t depict. As the example of the double feint in quarte hopefully demonstrates, even the text which explains an action leaves out key information. It may be covered elsewhere in the work, but it might not, and so taking the time to read closely, to compare the translation in our language against the original, to work via analogy as and when appropriate, and to set word and text side by side is vital if we are to have any hope of successfully recreating the systems of combat that these sources preserve.


[1] This translation is via Philip Crawley’s edition of Girard; P.J.F. Girard, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, trans. by Philip T. Crawley (Wyvern Media, UK: 2014), 95.

[2] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes (La Haye: Chez Pieree de Hondt, 1740); available as a pdf or online at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, 48, . Hereafter, BnF Girard. I cannot express how much I value the hard work and generosity of libraries like the BnF for sharing so much online.

NB: Languages change over time and in the 1740 publication, either because Girard rendered it this way or because the printer decided to, the initial “e” in l’épée is capitalized and lacking an accent aigu where one might expect one in modern French.

[3] Contre ceux qui demeurent toujours de pied ferme. Bnf Girard, 14.

[4] Of note, tierce in smallsword is held nails-down or pronated, thumb at about 8 or 9 o’clock; modern Italian third, hand in fourth position (suppinated, thumb at about 3 o’clock) is more typical of the invitation in third; French sixth, likewise, has the hand suppinated. All three are meant to cover the outside line or defend it, and create invitations to attack the inside line, but it’s important to note that they do this somewhat differently.

[5] I am currently reading through every source for rapier and smallsword I can obtain (and read) looking at some specific elements, and the similarity in language between some of the Italian and French works are striking if not unsurprising. Originally I had intended to produce an article out of this study, but it has grown too large for that and so it will likely live here in some guise.

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.

If you make a Molinello in the Woods…

Masiello, molinello to the head from the left

The question asked of sound and trees falling in the woods works for many situations. It’s especially apt as so many of us work alone thanks to the pandemic, but even in the best of times fencing is—be it conducted within a club, school, or team—a solitary pursuit. Our training partners and opponents are instrumental in our growth, and we cannot progress far without them, but the hours of footwork, conditioning, and drill honing technique is a responsibility on the individual fencer. All the flash and fire, all the joy experienced in flow during a bout, little to none of that does one enjoy advancing, retreating, and lunging, doing point-control drills, or performing molinelli against a pell. At its best it can be meditative, but normally, about as good as it gets is merely the awareness that the dull work matters, that one has successfully executed the necessary discipline, and that it’s all important. Unlike bouting, it is not “fun,” though absolutely crucial in our development.

Solo Drill & Isolation

On a another level, however, there is or can be a loneliness in fencing. In most ways it’s a journey we take alone, so that makes sense, but in the deeper waters of the Art and in trying to find other explorers at that depth the isolation, if we’re not aware of it and careful, can be detrimental to our study. With the pandemic, when most of what we can do safely is solo drill, it’s hard enough to find motivation to do the grunt work let alone fight that added sense of isolation if it assails us. Thanks to the internet this is a problem we can alleviate in some degree—few days pass where I don’t chat with the few people I know who are as keen to plumb the Art’s depths, explore texts, and learn as I am. After all, few people in our community, never mind people outside of it, enjoy the deep dive and can discuss the Art for hours on end. I know I’m not the only one who has watched a hapless friend’s eyes glaze over with the unmistakable look of a person that realizes they should never have asked us about fencing. The ability to chat with people far distant is a lifeline we’ve not always had and we should be grateful for it.

“The IT Crowd,” BBC, on sports

On a public level too fencing can be lonely. Like any more or less obscure pursuits fencing is not one of the typical dinner-party topics or likely to come up at a rave, farmer’s market, or appropriately distanced line at a grocery checkout (the six feet rule protects us not only from the virus, but small talk 😉 ). [1] American football, however, or the other sports-ball games, the latest shows on television, etc. are far more likely as topics of conversation. In short, most fencers have no one else to discuss the Art with apart from other fencers, not all of whom devote the same amount of time to it.

Moreover, with all that is going on in the world, with the dire challenges of climate change, Covid-19, social and political turmoil, and every person’s own trials, devoting time to a complicated, obsolete martial art probably seems silly or irresponsible to many people. Even assuming the fears of the conspiracy-minded sorts out there panned out, it would be a long, long time before anyone needed to use a sword again in earnest–in the US alone it will take centuries to run out of bullets–so in terms of the “practical” side to fencing it’s a hard sell. Not impossible–a cane, umbrella, or stick in the hands of a decent fencer is not something anyone should want to experience. So, maybe studying a dead martial art ranks low among the wines and spirits, but the Art can also be a healthy diversion, decent exercise, and intellectual entertainment, which are reasons enough to pursue it. It can be more than that too. The combination of physical and mental stimulation and exertion can be great stress relief.

Of the various perspectives perhaps one of the hardest is the lack of interest or even censure from other fencers. It’s hard enough to feel isolated generally, but when it comes from seemingly like-minded people it is that much harder. Typically this is something, when I’ve experienced it myself, that comes from either Olympic fencers or from similarly narrow-minded sections within “HEMA.” Truth is that everyone filters things through their own experience; reason, evidence, all that has little to do with it.

For example, in the 1990s when some of us defected from Olympic fencing to explore ways to make fencing about swordplay again, there was little support from our comrades. Impassioned appeals were usually met with laughter or hostility. I know my own disappointment and frustration with the poor decisions the FIE was making were made worse by the near complete lack of sympathy from teammates. Our vocal complaints about the system, especially with newer fencers in the mix, were not conducive to group cohesion, but we wanted those newer fencers to know there was a difference between defense-minded approaches and the slap-happy b.s. then in vogue. This is something that typically hits harder as one has more perspective. As it turns out, those of us upset about some of these changes were correct, and this is maybe one reason that to this day some former teammates haven’t forgiven us. [2]

Scene from “Gaslight,” 1944

It is extremely easy to feel gas-lighted in situations like this. I tend to hate terms like “gas-light,” but having had too much experience with it, even in fencing, it’s appropriate. Like many things, there is a spectrum for gas-lighting, but one of the most difficult to manage and overcome is the particular species wherein people believe that you believe something, but do not believe you’re correct and actively do things, wittingly or unwittingly, that make one feel like they’re losing their mind. [3] They offer what seems like positive reinforcement but which really only confuses everything–one comes away under the false assumption that they agree, when they don’t. We discover that the face they present to us is not the one they share with everyone else, the result of which breeds further confusion when in company with shared associates and it becomes clear there is a difference in what they’ve heard.

For fencing, an illuminating example is where people stand with regard to a silly rule that to this day affects Olympic sabre, t. 70 1 & 2, which states:


  1. The sabre is a weapon for thrusting and cutting with the cutting edge, the flat and the
    back of the blade.
  2. All touches made with the cutting edge, the flat or the back of the blade are counted as
    good (cuts and back-cuts).

It should be obvious why this is a problem. The decision to allow the flat of the blade to score was the FIE/USFA’s “solution” to the problem of whip-over in sabre. The logic was apparently that an attack made with right-of-way, even if it hit the guard, was valid if the light went off. Since the director cannot overrule the light (see for example t. 73.1), the only arbiter of the validity of a touch is the box, so despite the idiocy of attacking literally the strongest area of defense, one can–and people do–score by slapping the bell-guard. Because competition reflects responses to a rule-set, the nature of fencing and in time instruction (in some areas) changed.

Those of us unhappy about this were ignored, ridiculed, or told to shut up. Of these the response easiest to manage was ridicule–at least that was honest. We mined older works on fencing and photographs and illustrations of sabres with wider blade profiles. At one point, I collaborated with a close friend and fellow sabreur, an engineer, and we rigged up electric sabre kit with the closest thing we could find to period blades, schlager blades, and demonstrated that fixing the problem was as simple as returning to an earlier blade style. Whip-over disappeared. We even had one of our master’s assistant coaches try it, and while he agreed that it was better, he shrugged it off. It didn’t affect him at his level of competition–where training reflected a pre-electric mindset–so he didn’t see the issue. In his mind, the problem with whip-over wasn’t anything other than the fact that most people experiencing it were just “bad fencers.” To those of us trained as he was, but having to fence people increasingly taught to exploit this rule, it was maddening. One either adapted and did the same or quit.

The facts, evidence, the goal of helping the community fix an error meant nothing. A lot of us, myself included, felt abandoned, and it was easy to feel like it was all in one’s head. Rationally we knew the evidence supported us, but it didn’t matter to anyone else. What does one do when that happens? Our solution was to press on, and apparently a lot of other people did too, because now there are multiple companies making blades along earlier lines. There is also the classical/historical community that mushroomed in the wake of the exodus from Olympic competition.

So What?

The take away lesson is this: pursue the Art for you, for the reasons that make sense to you, and close your ears to those who mock, attack, or play Janus with you. If Olympic is your thing, do that; if classical/historical is, do that; if it’s bohurt, LARP, SCA, or anything else, go for it. So long as you’re honest in your study, with yourself, and with everyone else it’s hard to go wrong. Not everyone will see it that way, but the right people will and they are the ones who matter. They are your community even if they live half way around the world. As the pandemic continues, as we are forced to train more or less in isolation, we may as well do that the best way possible, and use this time to examine our study more closely, more honestly, and separate wheat from chaff, not only in terms of the Art, but of those who help or hinder us in our pursuit of it.


[1] Yes, I know, no one is going to raves or anything, but still.

[2] One of the hardest parts about owning one’s own share of the responsibility in a bad situation is that other parties will take advantage of it even so far as to use your admission against you. In this instance, both my close friend and I apologized for “souring” younger sabre fencers, but it did no good. It doesn’t matter that we were correct, it doesn’t matter that we did the right thing in owning our share of things, it changed nothing. It neither fixed that relationship or any other, and arguably it made some worse. This said, it was still the right thing to do.


[4] See Fencing Rules (June 2018), USA Fencing, p. 42, section t. 71: 1 & 2,