A Bar Raiser

Chateau South, Atlanta, Texas

Super late last night I returned from a weekend of instruction, teaching, discussion, bouting, and all manner of swordy fun at the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms held at the beautiful Chateau South, Atlanta, Texas. The event was put on by Russ Mitchell and the excellent people at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing, and hosted by the generous owner of the Chateau, Raoul, who not only trusted us to honor the integrity and safety of this property, but also who grilled a feast for us. If you’re in eastern Texas, “Piney Texas,” and need a venue for any event–wedding, family reunion, business retreat, you name it–I can’t recommend Chateau South enough (https://www.chateau-south.com/). Raoul and the family who take care of the property and are helping to restore it, Shawn and Rebecca, put the hospitality in southern hospitality. Seriously nice and generous folk.

Learning, Camaraderie, and Cross-Fertilization

I hope that the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms will become a regular event, because it needs to be. We have tournaments, we have seminars, conferences, and in some rare instances a mix of the three, but in some cases the dates are tough to make, the cost prohibitive, or the environment/attitude less than welcoming. Russ Mitchell and the fine folk at Winged Sabre put together a fantastic event–it was friendly, open-minded, and welcoming, but more than that the classes and discussion, the chat over meals or between sessions, all were informative and thought-provoking.

In addition to my two classes, there were a class on movement and balance by Russ that has changed not only my understanding of footwork, but also how I will teach it from here on out; there were two by Francois Perrault (Montreal, CAN), first on French foil as a way to understand the second topic, contre-pointe (the French approach to sabre ca. 1800-1908); and two by Jonathan Carr (Dallas, TX), one that made more sense of Hutton’s sabre than anything I’ve read, seen, or heard until then, and then a fascinating lecture on Sir Richard Francis Burton’s 1875 sword system.

Some of the Attendees late Saturday, 22 April 2023 (photo by Annamarie Kovacs)

Discussion between classes, over meals, and especially at the end of the instruction-day, were as valuable. They were also a chance to get to know one another, share ideas, and increase understanding on the various tangents covered in the topics. For someone as introverted as I am, and who normally has to bow out to recharge, the fact I wasn’t once in need of that recharge should suggest a lot.

Tired, but still in for chatting–Aaron, Michael, and myself

Exhibition of Arms vs. Deeds of Arms

Both have their place, but what an exhibition of arms seeks to do is share a particular style or tradition’s uniqueness within the Art, that is, what makes it what it is. While I cannot say to have represented the Radaellian school particularly well in my own bouts, I will say that my compatriots did a wonderful job. Russ’ students have been studying hussar sabre, which is very different than the profiled styles that predominate; Francois’ early French approach and Jonathan’s debt to English sabre and broadsword were clear as well. The focus in our bouts was to do our best to fight within the body of techniques and tactics of our specific traditions, and, to have fun doing it.

We also had time to explore a venerable Hungarian weapon, the fokos, a shehpard’s axe that the Magyars brought with them from the Steppes in the Early Middle Ages and which was used in the trenches of the Great War. Never have I faced a more challenging weapon sabre in hand than I have that wee axe. Russ made a few converts among us, I’m sure; least, I’m looking into the more than academically now.

Russ arresting a cut with a fokos

Raising the Bar

Winged Sabre’s “St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms” raises the bar for what we can and should be doing more often in historical fencing. Each of the classes had students drilling. There, I said it, the “d-word,” drill. It’s become a dirty word in “HEMA,” and to the detriment of that community. The garbage posted so often on Youtube as championship sabre is a case in point. The hop and chop, simultaneous single-tempo cuts lauded as the end-all be-all of sabre are to Plato’s cave what shadows on the wall are to the sun outside the cave that creates them.

Drill. Hard work. Effort, time, and sweat. These are what make a decent fencer. One can spend weeks, years even, in study, but if intentional, well-designed drill is missing, there is only far someone will go in that time. Another way to say this is that much of HEMA is doing it wrong, and should seek better methods, better instructors. I’ll not go so far as to list myself among their number, but I will say that I know some people you should talk to.

St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms

[21-23 April, 2023] Next week the excellent Russ Mitchell and crew at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing, Atlanta, Texas, are hosting the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms (see link below). I have the honor to teach at this event and will cover two, related topics in Radaellian sabre.

The first is all things molinelli, that is, an exploration of the powerful, elbow-as-axis cuts fundamental to Radaelli’s approach. They were used not only for exercise and to build the muscles required for these cuts, but had offensive as well as defensive uses too.

The second class covers Masiello’s unmounted cavalry drill and exercises. Since the Radaellian method was primarily developed for cavalry it makes sense to acquaint oneself with this aspect of the tradition. Cavalry troopers not only practiced their style of combat in the saddle, but on foot as if in the saddle, what Masiello called come a cavallo, “as if on horseback.”

For more information, see:


More Marcelli!

My friend Patrick Bratton recently had Maestro Francesco Loda and Silvia Tomasetti over to teach. Loda has been studying Marcelli, among other works, for a long time and is one of the leading researchers into his system. Enjoy!

Marcelli’s Annervated Lunge Revisited

Direct thrust, sword alone, Part I, Bk. II, Ch. VI

On occasion someone will share a video or the like with me and I’m reminded just how difficult it is interpreting historical fencing treatises. In the last few days I’ve had a chance to chat with a few other instructors about a popular interpretation of Saviolo’s system as well as a new video purportedly covering Marcelli. [1] There were many threads in our discussion, but the thing that kept sticking in mind was the Marcelli video. I spend a good part of my week on that master’s text, Rules of Fencing (1686), and despite the qualifications of the instructor sharing that video I saw several things that stood out to me as features of more recent fencing versus what Marcelli taught.

As a caveat, I have a lot of respect for Maestro and Maestra Coblentz, and the student in the video, Justin, clearly has solid training, but I take a different view on Marcelli and think it’s important enough to share. Naturally, if there is something I’ve missed or concluded incorrectly, I invite them to chat and demonstrate how I’ve erred. It’s never my intention with posts like this to attack anyone personally—that sort of thing is nonsensical, unnecessary, and unhelpful. However, as someone who focuses closely on Neapolitan rapier and teaches it, I feel obligated to point out a few things in the video that don’t seem to match what Marcelli taught.

To be clear: what I am evaluating are aspects of their interpretation based on a close reading of the text, both as a fencer and someone trained to read historical texts. Anyone who shares an interpretation is opening the field to evaluation, but there is also a condition on the critic (in this case me) too—they should be fair, back up any criticism, and stay on topic. In what follows I will cover only a few things that stood out to me, because they are critical to understanding Marcelli’s system, and attempt to demonstrate these conclusions with textual support.

Lunge vs. Annervated Lunge

Some months ago I had a post on this stoccata annervata as it’s foreign to most people and difficult to adopt if one is used to the better known lunge. [2] It is not a lunge the way we normally conceive of it. This annervated lunge is used only with rapier and dagger—one doesn’t use it when fencing with rapier alone. The genius of it is that it allows one to extend the point while still maintaining defense, something the longer lunge does not do as well with the pairing of rapier and dagger. The annervated lunge is less a lunge than it is an unwinding—the weapon and arm are propelled by unwinding the torso, not by pushing off the back leg (something Maestro Coblentz makes clear in the video). This is how Chris Holzman and Patrick Bratton explained it to me too when I first started working on the Neapolitan school a few years ago.

If one has fought with rapier and dagger, and importantly with the mindset that one cannot be hit, then the value of that pairing should be not only be obvious, but also attractive. It layers defense and makes an attack all the more dangerous. It is, as my fellow rapier enthusiast Ken Jay remarks frequently, a game-changer. In order for the pair to work one cannot stand in guard as one does sword alone: a dagger, buckler, cloak, etc. does little good if it’s behind us. Thus, the body is more square to the front—we can face someone head on because the dagger is there to aid defense. To lunge out with the trunk still squared would be both short and easy to see, so the solution, a brilliant one, is to twist the body back toward profile and shoot the blade and arm out to target. One can thus reach a little farther but with minimal exposure.

Key to this is the front leg: it remains straight. Unlike the lunge most people know, where the knee is over the heel, calf perpendicular to the ground upon completion, the annervated lunge makes a short step and lands leg straight. Proper use of measure is what determines when to make the lunge, and it is a different measure than when lunging in profile. It’s not an annervated lunge if one is landing as one does today.

In the video, the offhand and dagger are swung dramatically back as the Maestro Coblentz and his student, Julian, lunge. On the surface this appears very much like the image in Bk I, Part II, Ch. V, p. 15, figure 4:

However, what Marcelli explains about this image reveals important information for the feet:

All the movements that I have proposed to be made in performing the thrust are seen marked with the numbers in the present illustration. The number 1 signifies that the aforesaid Cavaliere has started the sword hand first. The number 2, marked near the left knee, denotes that after having brought the hand forward he has violently extended that knee, which was bent. The number 3 that stands at the right foot indicates that it was the third movement of the body, and that after having advanced the hand and extended the knee he has advanced the foot, which is the last movement, because it has to do the least travel of all.

Tutti i moti, che hò proposto da farsi nel tirar la Stoccata, si veggono segnati co’i numeri nella presente figura; dove il nu. 1 significa, che il sopradetto Caval. hà partito prima la mano della spada. Il num. 2., segnato vicino il ginocchio sinistro, dinota, che doppo haver anticipate la mano, hà disteso con violenza quel ginocchio, che stave piegato. Il num. 3., che stà nel pie destro, signitica, che quello e stato il terzo moto del corpo; e doppo haver caminato la mano, & annervato il ginocchio, ha caminato il piede, il quale e l’ultimo moto, perche hà da far camino meno di tutti. [3]

Note that number 3 in the image does not pertain to the dagger, but to the right leg:

number 3 that stands at the right foot indicates that it was the third movement of the body, and that after having advanced the hand and extended the knee he has advanced the foot, which is the last movement, because it has to do the least travel of all.

How does one reconcile this information with the image? One option, and presumably what Maestro Coblentz has concluded, is that since the dagger is shown to the rear in the image, one should do the same upon the lunge. For reasons I have shared ad nauseum on this site I am cautious with images—they can be helpful, but must always be read against the text. Nothing in this passage suggests one should remove the dagger to a position where it can do little good, and if one lunges along more modern lines that is what happens—the dagger is too far back to be of any real use. In the annervated version, however, because it’s shorter, the dagger is easier to bring back into play should it be needed. [4] As shown in the video, the dagger arm is doing the right thing, but the feet are not.

Mezzaluna & Dagger Placement

In similar vein, Marcelli was clear on his expectations for the dagger while on guard. He writes

In all these methods of standing on guard it must be advised to keep the dagger strongly closed in the hand…the dagger arm must stand strong, extended, and annervated, because it must use force and not lightness in defending from all blows that are violently performed by the opponent.

In tutti cotesti Modi di stare in Guardia si deve avvertire à tenere fortemente stretto il pugnale in mano…mà il braccio del pugnale deve start forte, disteso, & annervato, perche deve usar forza, e non leggierezza, nel difendersi da tutti i colpi, che violentemente li sono tirarti dal nemico. [5]

We see this with all four guards, but especially the one I believe they are trying to use in the video, mezzaluna.

Marcelli says that the guard of mezzaluna (fig. 1 in the image below) has one

Extending the foot forward along the straight line meeting the rear foot, and bending the left knee, with the torso counterweighted on this foot, keeping the right knee extended, the right foot metting the opponent, and the rear foot oblique… the sword arm is withdrawn to the rear, with the hand near the pocket. He carries his dagger forward covering all the upper parts in such a way that the opponent only sees the chest below the dagger as target to strike. He cannot wound him in another part than this, and therefore it is called the guard below the weapons.

cioè, stendendo il piede avanti per linea retta incontro al piè di dietro, e piegando il ginocchio sinistro con la vita contrapesata sù questo piede, mantiene il ginocchio destroy disteso, il piè dritto incontro al nemico, e’l pie di dietro per traverso; e ritirando il braccio della Spada a dietro, con la mano vicino la saccoccia, hà portato il Pugnale avanti, coprendosi tutte le parti superiori, di modo che il nemico vedesolo per bersaglio da colpire il petto per le parti do sotto il Pugnale, nè può ferire in altra parte che in questa, e percio si chima Guardia sotto l’armi. [6]

Here, as with the image before, we have a discrepancy between the image and what Marcelli says of it:

Fig 1 is in First Guard/Mezzaluna

In the image, Figure 1 has a clear gap between the weapons in direct contradiction of what Marcelli describes in the passage explaining it. Recall that

He carries his dagger forward covering all the upper parts in such a way that the opponent only sees the chest below the dagger as target to strike. He cannot wound him in another part than this.

Marcelli makes it clear that there is no middle passage to the chest. One can only attack in the low line.

For corroborating evidence we have the testimony of another Neapolitan master, Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, who in True Neapolitan Fencing (1725) claims that this guard is called “half moon” because the tips of the weapons form that shape, that is, are in contact. [7] If both masters are adamant that one can only attack below it, then there cannot be a gap between the sword and dagger. That would open a line in addition to the low line.

Closing the Line: Lesson and Reality

In one portion of the lesson (1:32), Maestro Coblentz has Justin hit him, again with a normal lunge, and then extends to hit him indicating that the student had left the line open. As set up, it’s true that Justin is open because he’s still in the lunge, however nothing, so far I can tell, cued Justin to know that an after-blow was likely. So far as I can tell the master has instructed the student to strike without the expectation that the instructor will parry or counter.

It’s important to note that there are many times, most even, when the instructor allows the student to hit them; in most ways the instructor is a willing target. But throwing a counter or after-blow into the mix is not normally something one does without some cue that it could happen. Ostensibly the maestro is reminding the student to close the line, but in this instance the student is slightly out of measure—they’re not wearing masks—and was told to lunge to target. It’s an occasion for potential confusion—is the student working an aspect of the lunge, doing so but with additional attention to the line, or both? This is to say that when teaching a student a new action, especially something as unusual as the annervated lunge, we tend to break it down into parts to make it easier to learn. Justin’s lunge (though not annervated) was solid and he struck target with his arm in the right place, so punishing him for that again can confuse things.

The solution they devise is to have the student drop the hand upon extending. Not only does this slow the thrust, but it opens the student up to a counter-attack to the arm. This addition would also be unnecessary if the lunge was properly annervated. Focus in most rapier and smallsword texts is on the torso as target, but the arm is a perfectly good target, often easier to hit, and a true liability if disabled. Lowering his arm in this fashion is dangerous. Again, this solution only works if one is using the modern lunge—annervated, one is not in as deep, and with the dagger more easily brought into play (since this lunge is shorter), it’s there to intercept any counter to the inside line by recovery into guard, the rapier there to defend the outside line.

To be fair the audio is not great in the video—it’s hard to hear Maestro Coblentz and there is at least one additional pair talking. It is entirely possible I missed something that would explain this. If the master didn’t provide some cue, then it makes little sense to punish the student when in fact they’ve performed the task they were asked to do correctly. If the student extends first, and their arm is in the right place, their measure good, then more than likely they have control of the line; adding an after blow introduces another layer of complexity that this drill didn’t seem to require.

We spend considerable time on the direct lunge. Marcelli himself says that there is no more important, or difficult, attack that the stoccata dritta. Moreover, he says

I certainly know that the parries are none other than direct thrusts performed either in the same tempo that it is parried, or ripostes to the opponent with it after having parried the blow. [8]

In other words, if the student knows how to attack properly, then they are already working on closing the line. Sure, they must defend against an after-blow, but this is a separate issue. Assuming the student made a good attack, from good measure, then they should be able to recover in such a way to avoid an after-blow. This is all the more true, and easier to do, with rapier and dagger. Regardless, it’s critical to set expectations and then stick within the parameters of them.


We all of us apply what we know to help us make sense of things we do not know. Knowledge and experience of the modern lunge aids us in understanding different versions, even older versions of the same action, but we must be cautious and pay careful attention to the differences. We must approach illustrations with the same diligence—taken alone they mislead us. It is often safer to go with what a master said over what the artist depicted (unless they were one in the same person). The artist may not have been a fencer, may not have been particularly skilled (just inexpensive), or may have been lazy, tired, or distracted. In the examples above, what Marcelli says and what his plates show do not match up 100%, so we have to make our best guess. That guess is going to be far better when we step back and compare what we know against what a text is actually saying.

Context is everything. Marcelli’s environment was very different from our own. We never fence in earnest, and so we are not conditioned to think the way one must when fighting with sharp swords. Even in a program as venerable as that which Sonoma represents, there is a mindset more akin to the sport than the dueling field. The longer, modern lunge puts one in far more danger against rapier and dagger than does the annervated version; this is why Marcelli advocated it. One can lunge as one normally does with rapier alone, but this too makes sense—we have no offhand weapon; we’re more in profile, and lunging this way keeps more of us behind the point and guard.

As a fan of the Neapolitan school, a tradition less popular than the earlier masters like Capo Ferro or those popular in “HEMA” and the SCA, such as Giganti, I’m thrilled to see others working on Marcelli. To have well-trained maestri working on it is a plus too–the Masters Coblentz, Maestro Francesco Loda, not to mention other well-respected researchers, help us bring what we read to life. We may not always agree on how to interpret something, but all of us are best guided by the text, however odd it may seem to us, and opportunities like the video discussed here help us push our collective understanding and with luck to better interpretations. [9]


[1] I’ve not seen the book, but a friend has a copy and we discussed the nomenclature, source, and other influences in the 1595 curriculum.

For the Marcelli video, see Maestro David Coblentz’ post https://youtu.be/jHZ3ynCAwVQ. The maestros Coblentz, David and Dori, are well-respected graduates of the Sonoma program and part of the team behind RASP (Rapier and Sabre Pedagogy), held in Georgia, USA.

[2] Cf. https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/11/09/a-note-on-francesco-marcellis-_stoccata-annervata_/

[3] Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019); for this passage, Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk I, Ch. V, p. 15, fig. 4; Holzman, 288. See also Francesco Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2019).

[4] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk. I, Ch. V, 14; Holzman, 287:

The body, turned well in profile, must keep the dagger arm to the rear and the sword, advanced with lightness, must be squeezed in termination, and stopped in the right angle in the opponent’s chest.

Il corpo, voltato bene in profile, deve mantenere il braccio del pugnale à dietro; e la spada, caminata con leggierezza, si deve stringer nella termination fermata in angolo retto in petto al bersaglio.

[5] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk. I, Ch. IV, 10; Holzman, 281.

[6] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk I, Ch. III, p. 4, fig a.; Holzman, 273.

[7] Ibid, n. 113. See also Nicola Terracuse e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, 1725, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017, 70.

[8] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part I, Bk II, Ch. VI, p. 75; Holzman, 104.

[9] The annervated lunge is weird. It’s taken me a long time to warm up to it, and, only after a lot of awkward drilling. To someone well-versed in the modern lunge, that odd step onto the straight front leg seems like it will be jarring and unsteady. It was for me, initially, until wiser heads reminded me that the movement is driven by the torso, by unwinding, and that the step is short.

Russ & CO.–Interview with Chris Holzman on all things Radaelli!

This video is so good. SO. GOOD. Chris is a friend and a mentor, so I know I am partisan and possess some bias, but for those who listen and find themselves uncomfortable, I challenge you to listen to what he says. Some of it will be hard, but it’s important. Few people like being called out for the inconsistencies and nonsensical things we do, but wee bruised egos aside it’s healthy for us to do so.

This is also a wonderful introduction to Radaellian sabre, a thorough examination of how this system influenced so many others, of the development of the sport, and a personal bugbear, another nail in the coffin in the silly dichotomy people insist exists between so-called “military” sabre and “dueling” or “sport” sabre.

Rosaroll-Scorza’s _Spadancia_ trans. by Christopher A. Holzman

Chris has a new translation out:

This is an interesting work to say the least. Fans of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata/Jerusalem Delivered (1581) will drool (this guy really really really liked Tasso…), but so too will those interesting in some late period cut-and-thrust fencing from southern Italy. Few versions of this weapon remain–similar to a late cup-hilt or bilbao style rapier, this weapon shared much with the spada and smarra long in use in Naples and Sicily, but had a blade meant for cutting and sported other, notable features, such as the fact the quillons were sharpened.

Who’s on First? Francesco Marcelli’s Guard of _Prima_

Agrippa, “Prima,” 1553

A comparative look at Italian rapier texts will reveal how Francesco Marcelli’s prima differs from the guard of first advocated by most other masters. First is an iconic guard/parry, and dramatic in most depictions. We see it, amongst many works, in:

  • Camillo Agrippa, ca. 1553 (born Milan, active in Rome)
  • Fabris, 1606 (Padua, Denmark)
  • Giganti, 1606 (born Fossombrone, central Italy, active in Venice)
  • Capo Ferro, 1610 (born Cagli, central Italy; active in Seina, Tuscanny)
  • Alfieri 1640, (Padua, under Venetian power)
  • Pallavicini (1670, Sicily)
Alfieri, “Prima,” 1640 (figure 2)

I asked Christopher Holzman, who translated Marcelli into English, why Marcelli’s prima is effected so differently, and he suggested that the master’s choice of “prima” as the term for his preferred guard likely reflects its importance. That’s certainly plausible. It stands out against the choice of other Neapolitan masters, especially Pallavicini. This master, who was not one to miss a chance to take shot at his rivals, complains about modern masters breaking tradition. Though he appears to have respected the elder Marcelli, he didn’t think much of some of his later students. He seems especially to have had it in for Francisco Antonio Mattei (author of Della Scherma Napoletana, 1669). Mattei, like Giuseppe Villardita (1670), was a student of Mattei’s older brother, Giovanni, who was taught by the elder Marcelli, Giovanni Battista. [1] Set side by side, the works by both Mattei and Villardita pale in comparison to those by Pallavicini and Marcelli—they’re not particularly eloquent, well-organized, or as comprehensive. It’s possible that Francesco Marcelli’s guard of first he learned from his father, but at the time of this post I’ve not yet discovered whether that is so or not.

Parry of Prime

Setting aside the questions of origin and development, for the instructor teaching Neapolitan rapier there are some considerations to manage prior to the lesson. Prima, as Marcelli presents it, reads and functions much differently than the prima/prime of more recent schools. Anyone trained in foil in the late 20th century, for example, likely learned either the French or Italian parries for first. The French school’s parry, in the United States, is probably better known, but the Italian is as venerable. Neither of these assists one in understanding, using, or teaching Marcelli’s version. [2] If the instructor is familiar with smallsword treatises, then they may know the two key versions found within that corpus, the earlier false-edge parry of prime and the later, true-edge parry that gave birth to the guard of the same name of the modern French school. [3]

Compared to any of these iterations the low, almost-flat third or oddball second of Marcelli’s prima seems strange. Preconceptions about what first is must thus be abandoned and The Rules of Fencing’s advice taken instead. The hand and blade are held lower than third, and too low for more recent versions of second. Marcelli provides us an illustration, but as always one must consider any image against what the author says. Of prima Marcelli writes:

Marcelli, _Rule of Fencing_, Bk 2, Ch. 2, p. 64

La Prima Guardia, la dimostra il Cavalier I. nella presente figura; & ella si fà, quando (situato sù la pianta accennata,) si porta avanti il braccio della Spada, tenendo la mano di mezza quarta; e la punta di essa, fermata in angolo retto, starà equalmente alta del pugno, che la sostiene; e tenendola così bassa, si porta sempre per sotto la lama del nemico.

In the present illustration, Cavaliere 1 shows the First Guard; it is made when (situated in the indicated stance) the sword arm is brought forward, keeping the hand in half-fourth, and the point is in the right angle, equally as high as the hand that holds it. Keeping it so low, it is always carried below the opponent’s blade. [4]

Charles Blair remarked that “Marcelli [Giovanni Battista] was known for a lightning-fast lunge: before one realized what was happening, one was hit; therefore, one could not craft a defence.” [5] Hyperbole aside, though seemingly open this guard is effective and difficult to confront, and it’s possible to launch a quick attack from it. This should not, to any student of modern epee, be all that surprising. This is essentially the guard often used in that weapon.

While knowledge of modern epee might help, rapier is different enough in weight, length, and context to change a few things. This is not to say that one can’t use modern epee technique in rapier—the SCA’s “Black Tigers” do a bang-up job of using modern fencing in this way, complete with an assumed ROW if the lack of concern about being hit is any guide. However, if one is working from the textual evidence in rapier works, it makes sense to note the parallels with today’s epee and then set them aside.

Warm-Up Drills from Prima
I often start rapier lessons with stop-thrust/arrest drills. It’s a nice way to loosen up the arm, work some point-control, and practice closing the line simultaneously. Typically, I have the student in prima (or whichever guard we’re working on) and make the arrest to my arm as I make purposefully poor attacks. [6] I start these from various guards and attack in different lines. We start slow, but the purpose is to increase the pace so that we end up in situations the student might face in a bout at speed. They will encounter fencers who attack poorly as well as those who attack properly, and must be prepared for both.

A second warm-up drill is simple parry-riposte. In this case, however, I leave out the purposeful mistakes and increase the difficulty as we proceed. For example, student is in prima; I’m in terza or third. First, I may make a direct thrust to the inside line; the student, from prima, parries in quarta or fourth and ripostes with opposition. Depending on the student, this takes two forms; with my advanced students, for example, they work this as both a one-tempo action and as a two-tempi action, meaning that in the first instance the parry and riposte are simultaneous, in the second the parry and riposte are distinct, sequential actions.

Lessons with Prima

Marcelli, like many masters of his time, breaks some maneuvers into those made with a firm-foot and those made advancing. I use this distinction as well to organize the lesson. For example, firm-footed, I may have the student work on gaining the blade from a specific starting position. Marcelli, in Ch. VII of Part One, Book II, cautions us wisely on the dangers of seeking to gain the blade—if done poorly the opponent will see it and disengage to strike in tempo. Working this action from different distances helps a student learn to make taking the blade effectively and with less danger to themselves as they do so—were we only to practice this in measure the student would have less success outside that specific distance (which is, after all, somewhat relative to the opponent).

From prima, which is below the opponent’s blade, engagements or gaining the blade take, initially at least, specific forms. It is a fantastic guard to adopt against an opponent interested in gaining the blade too—the arm is withdrawn so the point is less easy to defy and secure. Offensively, however, it is fantastic. I usually have the student keep the blade still part of the time, then shift it from guard, constantly shifting aim both to increase the difficulty it taking their blade and to keep the opponent (in this case me) guessing. It is not difficult to effect engagements, beats, or feints from prima. As Marcelli commented, one is well situated:

La Prima Guardia è più secura dell’altre due; e si rende padrona della propria spada più di quello, che sà la Seconda, e la Terza. Poiche in essa, tenendosi il braccio dritto dolce, e curuato, si mantinene anco ritirata la punta, che non stia molto soggetta alla discrettione del nemico. E da questa situatione ancora nascono molto veloci le stoccate, per lo spirito, che naturalemente si prende da quella incuruatura del braccio, il quale, à guise d’un arco, scocca con violenza nel partire.

The First Guard is more secure than the other two, and makes him master of the his sword more than that which the Second and Third do. Since in it, keeping the right arm soft and bent, it also keeps the point withdrawn so that it would not be very subjected to the opponent’s discretion. The thrusts also occur very quickly from this situation, due to the spirit that is naturally taken from the curvature of the arm, which like a bow, lets fly with violence in the beginning. [7]

Prima is also useful for helping students ensure that they are moving everything in the proper sequence. For example, if making the finta scorsa, the advancing feint, the student must be careful to minimize the danger to themselves. Marcelli, unlike some of his contemporaries, remarks that one should feint a thrust to thrust, a cut to cut, versus a cut to thrust or thrust to cut. The actions are larger and more prone to counters.

In essence, the student is making an advance-lunge and performing a half-thrust on the advance in coordination with the front foot. The disengage (cavazione) is made as the rear foot moves, and the action finishes with the completion of the extension as one lunges. Importantly, the student must then break measure, moving the head and body first and staying secure behind the weapon, which retracts last. To increase the difficulty, I will sometimes defend, sometimes not, so the student must stay on their game and be vigilant. Normally we change roles as well so that the student can practice the counter to the finta scorsa.

Sample Lesson Plan:

Warm up:
S, from prima: arrests to arm as I. (Instructor) attacks from various lines/guards
Parry riposte: simultaneous, two tempi

●Direct thrust from prima
●Direct thrust from prima parried by I., counter parry-riposte from S.

●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

*I. alters guard, S. feints to a different line
**switch roles

Cool Down:
●Three point bout (I. sets up situations for S. to work, in real-time, the material of the day)
●Arrest drill or Parry-riposte to close

Prima, Seconda, Terza, Quarta

While keen to share some thoughts on Marcelli’s prima, the process described will work for any of his guards, and indeed, those he advocates when rapier is paired with dagger. The more a student works the actions found within the text, and faces them from various positions, the more robust their game will prove. We are fortunate that the Rules of Fencing is as well-written and clear as it is—I have found it to be a thorough and exciting font of knowledge, as full of technical brilliance as tactical sense. Moreover, spending so much time on this text has made the others in the Neapolitan orbit clearer. Next to Marcelli I like Pallavicini’s work best, but I have found it more opaque in sections; similarities with Marcelli do not necessarily explain those sections in Pallavicini, but they can provide a more solid starting place to attempt to unravel them.


[1] See Charles Blair, “The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” in Acta Periodica Duellatorum 2: 1 (2015): 9-26 [published online 2015 and available at ADP, https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/issue/view/1082]; see especially pages 9-10. See also the brief history by Chris Holzman in his translation of Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing, xi-xiv (similar coverage can be found in his translations of both Pallavicini and Terracusa e Ventura). Blair’s article provides a solid overview, but for guards he focuses on rapier and dagger versus those used for sword alone.

[2] The images explain it better than I probably can, but French prime sweeps from outside to inside, hand about temple height; Italian prima in Del Frate is much the same, but we see a different parry in some works, mezzocerchio, which is sort of quarta with the blade tip dropped, somewhat akin to French septime.

Parise, mezzocerchio, 1904

[3] As smallsword transformed into foil play, a game all its own, the necessity for the false edge parry of first, which helped keep one farther away from the incoming steel and which set up the offhand parry well, gave way to the faster prime with the true edge. The latter is an all or nothing parry, one that should it fail to sweep the line leaves one horribly open.

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 64; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 88. In his note for that passage Chris explains that in “half-fourth, or 3rd in 4th position, the true edge is turned diagonally downward to the inside. What Marcelli calls First Guard, we would probably call a guard of 4th today.” I would add that later smallsword texts that have one hold the blade in fourth, but framed on the right, somewhat like modern French sixte, get close to this, the key difference being the height of the hand and direction of the point.

[5] Blair, ““The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” 9.

Poor Rob Childs will, I’m sure, be sad to discover that he didn’t invent the invincible thrust (exploitation of his “critical angle,” i.e. selecting an open spot and hitting it from the right distance and at the right time…). But, hey, he still has his jump-lunge (oops, no…, that’s a balestra), and his “vertical” and “horizontal” (dang, no, those words first appear in English in the 16th century). Well… he still has is hand-puppet distractor… no, dang again, Joseph Fiennes did that best in “Shakespeare in Love” (Miramax 1998)…

Joseph Fiennes, “Shakespeare in Love,” 1998–fight scene with Wessex. Notice the fool’s marotte in the off-hand.

Good-natured teasing aside, for those interested in HEMA’s competitive side time spent with Rob’s videos will help—though he might footnote some of what he shares, the fact is that he provides the “historical” fencer with solid modern technique and ways to exploit the rule-set.

[6] Purposeful mistakes are not something I have students make with one another. That burden is on me. I don’t advocate having students working on anything that requires one of them to fence poorly on purpose. As the instructor, and as someone whose competitive days are behind him, I have less to worry about. Those actively competing or fighting should learn how to exploit mistakes, but not make them.

[7] Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 66; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 89.

Pants before Shoes: Skill Progression in Fencing

from the genius of Gary Larson and his “Far Side”

In fencing some skills are difficult by nature, some because we make them so. For the former, one must put in the time, sweat, and sometime frustration—there is no other way. For the latter, however, there is much we can do to limit the ways in which we make skill acquisition harder. As much as this applies to any student, it applies all the more to the instructor, for they plan the lessons and set the pace. It’s their responsibility to present material in a logical, progressive way so that shoes are not donned before pants, so that equines are not placed before carts. We do this in most things, and fencing is no different.

Culture & Approaches to Learning

So much of what we study is exciting and people can’t wait to dive in—deep—but the fact is that fencing, any fencing, requires considerable coordination, skill, and experience to do well. For the clubs (especially here in the U.S.), which are various takes on Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, often newcomers are handed a weapon day-one and ten minutes later are bouting. It should be obvious why that’s a bad idea, but given how widespread the practice is, it’s not.

Often those running such clubs probably don’t realize how short-sighted this is; it might be the way they themselves got involved, so it seems normal. In addition, most clubs struggle to stay afloat, and the tired adage of “give the customer what they want so that they come back” may underpin this get-them-playing-right-away practice. It’s a tough spot for any club—we want people to stay, but the fact of the matter is that most people are there to play. It’s recreation. By and large “HEMA” consists of people in their late teens to those in their thirties, so college students, adults with jobs, people with time and just enough money to pursue this expensive hobby. It makes sense that many if not most folks don’t want to spend the little free time they have doing thirty minutes of footwork drills, working on point control, or exploring this play or that from technical aspects.

A caveat: I am not dogging play-time; however, I think it’s important to ask the question, to be mindful of what it is we offer, and why. If a club wishes to be the “HEMA” equivalent of fight-club meets theme-park, fine, but admit it; have the integrity to own that what you’re doing is less “martial” than it is playtime with a few historical “tricks” thrown in. There is room for this, and in my experience, that in fact is what most people actually want. This is to say that the numbers are telling. Those groups who focus more on technique, on building depth within the Art, not only tend to be far smaller than others, but also get people bouting at full tilt slowly. Between the length of time to learn enough skill to bout effectively and the fact that there is a lot of work up-front, few people stick. To reiterate: this is perfectly understandable. That doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.

The Difference between “Do this” and “Here is how to do this”

For those interested in comprehensive technical skill acquisition the old way is still the best way. Ideally students do this one-on-one with an instructor, but it also works in a group setting if slightly less well. In short, this approach takes “do this” and expands it to “this is how you do this.” For example, one could demonstrate how one stands in posta di donna in Armizare, ask the student to copy it, and when it looks right enough, say well done and continue. Alternatively, one could start there and then make the micro-adjustments that will save the student problems later. The instructor could speak to how far apart the feet out to be, what direction they’re pointing, and where one’s weight should be—between the feet? Front-weighted? Back-weighted? There is also more than one way to adopt posta di donna—one can adopt this stance with the sword over the right shoulder, over the left; one can stand in posta di donna pulsativa, which is more back-weighted, and, in the same way but with the sword on the left (posta di donna la senestra pulsativa). [1] The student might be wielding a longsword, a longsword as pole-arm, a spear, or a pole-axe, and while the stance is more or less the same the length and heft of the weapon change critical aspects, such as measure and tempo. Each one of these positions is useful for some instances, less so for others, and so it’s not enough to say “stand like this;” we also have to explain when and why to stand this specific way. If the student is shown one version of this posta they’re getting short shrift, and, it’s not going to work well for them.

An Argument for Slow & Steady

What’s the risk in not learning how to fence via a method which introduces complexity one step at a time? There are a few things. First, if their level of understanding is shallow, the student’s ability to add to their repertoire is affected. Lacking basic comprehension makes learning permutations for that skill or related ones harder. This is all the more true with fundamental actions. For example, if the student learns to lunge without ensuring that the front foot is pointed at their opponent/along the line of direction, there are cascading consequences. They increase the risk of injury to knee or ankle. They inhibit their ability to advance quickly or perform maneuvers which employ the same foot orientation, such as the advance lunge, jump lunge, or redoublement. In the worst cases the misdirected foot misdirects the body and thus the weapon.

Second, hard is it may be, the acquisition of skill in a logical, progressive sense builds confidence. Having mastered how to lunge, for example, the student is more inclined to use it, and often, more amendable to learning other methods of moving that employ it. Confidence—sensible confidence—is everything in fighting. Without it one is immobile, potentially at the mercy of a more confident opponent. Proper education instills proper confidence, because it is built on more than luck or the myopic reality of having something work in specific situations like tournaments where most people are at the same skill level. If one has learned to lunge well, and with it, when to lunge and from what distance, there is science in play—it’s adaptable, not tied to the conditions of any one situation. This is important, and, not only for the more source-driven, history-minded folks, but tournament folks too—fight long enough, in tournaments of different types, and one learns quickly whether their toolbox is as replete with tools as one thinks.

This brings us to a third reason the slow and steady approach to learning is important: resilience. When the tournament fighter reaches the day where their bag o’ tricks lets them down, the countdown to their quitting starts. They have nothing to fall back on; the more passionate among them seek out new tricks, but since these “tricks” are misapplied or misunderstood fundamental actions or composites of such actions, they are ultimately a dead end. This fighter doesn’t know how to recombine them. This is one reason, judging by local numbers, people jump into “HEMA” for two to three years, then leave. For the fighter, however, who possesses skill and understanding in the fundamentals, there is a built-in approach to analyze and problem-solve what went wrong in that bout or this tournament. So armed the student is less likely to hang up their mask and feder, but examine what went wrong and why, because they have the tools and technical vocabulary to do so.

Related to resilience, but perhaps more germane to the let us say the “mature” fencer…, a solid grounding in technique, not just in its use but in understanding, will allow them to keep fencing when they can no longer, or should no longer…, engage in some branches or fight with certain weapons. Call it adaptability. I work or have worked with fencers older even than I am, and the ones who are still fencing have been able to continue because their understanding isn’t shallow. Even moving say from KdF to smallsword wasn’t the speedbump some might think because they were well-trained in KdF. Their instructor at that club—one I knew and have a lot of respect for—taught them correctly. I didn’t have to teach them how to move, just adapt what they had been doing; I didn’t have to teach them to attack with the weapon first, because they already understood that; I didn’t have to introduce them to tempo because they’d learned this as well. All I have done is help them adapt the lessons they learned studying Liechtenauer, Dobringer, and the rest to new tools. With other fencers, in contrast, who have not received decent instruction, who, poor souls, were just thrown in the pool and told to swim, two things generally happen: they struggle in the first lesson where we go over basics, then in frustration they leave and I don’t see them again.

Further Examples

Specific examples help, so here I’d like to explore two. The first is from rapier, the second smallsword. I’ve not chosen these at random either—I see these very problems all the time. Seeing what sorts of issues these examples cause fencers has served to bolster my position on taking the time to learn to do things properly. The first example, from rapier, concerns adding too much too soon. The second, from smallsword, focuses on a complicated action as if it were simple.

Rapier and Dagger

One of the most popular combinations in historical fencing is rapier and dagger. Not going to lie, I love it too, and in fact it’s now difficult for me using any thrust-oriented weapon held in one hand not to want a dagger in the other. That defense-in-depth is a game-changer. Happily, we have a large number of rapier treatises that cover using an off-hand dagger, among other options, which means that we have comparatively less guess work than we do in so many areas.

If one examines a random selection of rapier works, it is worth noting when the source covers dagger, that is, where it is within the book. For example, I pulled these four from my shelves:

  • Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di Scientia d’Arme, 1553
  • Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice, 1595
  • Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma, 1640
  • Francesco Marcelli, Regole di Scherma, 1686

Agrippa is one of the oldest rapier texts, Marcelli arguably one of the latest, and so though brief this gives us some notion of changes over time. I also considered different translators as a sort of double-blind or check that I wasn’t favoring one (I have my favorites like anyone else).

from Agrippa’s _Trattato di Scientia d’Arme_

Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms features the pairing of sword and dagger from the off, and, in most sections. It is safe to assume, then, that working these in combination as one starts study of Agrippa makes some sense. In contrast, Saviolo covers sword alone first, then sword and dagger, then returns to sword alone. Likewise, Alfieri turns to sword and dagger later, in the twentieth chapter, in On Fencing. Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing covers the span of a bible before getting to sword and dagger—he begins coverage of it in part two, book one, chapter 1. [2]

Going by these four, and granted this is a tiny sample, starting with sword alone makes sense. There is another reason to study sword alone first—it’s hard enough studying one weapon without adding an additional set of positions and actions, never mind coordinating them both. Proper control of a single weapon is difficult, especially at first, so unless there is good reason to do so, why double that difficulty? [3] Put blunty, if the student can’t make a decent direct thrust or perform the most basic parries yet, then the addition of a second weapon isn’t going to help them: they’ll just have two tools with which they must struggle. Moreover, pairing sword and dagger changes one’s position—from a slightly profiled guard positon one adopts one that is more square, because the offhand weapon now provides some measure of security. To remain profiled limits if it doesn’t prevent one from using that offhand weapon. Thus, if a student’s footwork for sword alone isn’t decent, the addition of variations will only complicate things.


Turning to smallsword, a number of works discuss the demi-thrust, sometimes in English called a “half-thrust.” The term is deceptive—taken literally it might be mistaken for a thrust made half-way or perhaps some manner of in-fighting action, but it’s actually a species of false attack made by the defender. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740) illustrates this action well.

Demi-Botte de Quarte

Au dedans des armes pour tirer tierce, ou quarte dessus les armes

Ayant paré un coup de quarte au dedans des Armes, au lieu de riposte droit de quarte sans dégager, je fais level la main & la pointe plus basse, en frapant du pied droit, comme pour achiever le coup au dedans; & lorsque l’ennemi vient à la parade pour fraper l’Epée, dans le même-temps je fais dégager subtilement & tirer ferme au dehors, soit de tierce ou de quarte dessus les Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, puis redouble de second sous la ligne du bras, ensuite faire retraite l’Epee devant soy. [4]

The defender, having parried in quarte, feigns a riposte in the same line (fourth), but as the opponent moves to parry in quarte, the defender makes an appel and disengages and thrusts in tierce with opposition. Seems simple, right? It is, if one has already a good command of the key actions that make up the demi-botte.

Girard covers this later in the text, well after discussion of the thrusts in tierce and quarte, the parries of the same number, how to move, and importantly, after explanations of feints, beats, and compound attacks in various tempi. Organized as it is, The Treatise on Arms proceeds from less to greater difficulty, so, if the demi-thrust is covered after these other complex actions, there is likely a good reason. There is complexity there.

An indication beyond placement within the treatise, Girard does not explain how to perform the specific actions that make up the demi-thrust; he just describes the action. He assumes that the reader, hopefully possessing at least a modicum of instruction, will supply the required skills and ideas. As it’s laid out, the demi-thrust reads like yet another technique employing a disengage, but it’s more than that. It recalls the section on feints, though it isn’t one, but it also assumes excellent timing and a keen sense of measure. [5] All of these must work in concert to make this defensive option viable.

Girard 1740, _Traité des armes_, plate 39

An instructor must know what each action within the text entails, and, plan what to cover (and in what depth) according to a student’s level. Following this example, if one wishes to cover the demi-botte, then the student needs at least to have a solid grasp on movement, the key lines of tierce and quarte, and the ability to use these techniques in more than one tempo.

Thanks Capt. Obvious

Often, most often really, I feel like my posts state the obvious, things people already know. I have my biases too, my blind spots, and that cuts both ways—I may assume people know something, or, I may assume they don’t. Apart from the handful of people who read this that I know, and who chat with me about things, I have no idea to what extent any of this is helpful, but the goal with these posts is to provide anyone who might need it some help. It’s offered in my role as a fellow-traveler, someone who’s been studying all of this for decades, and without any expectation or need for thanks, recognition, or anything else. Importantly, I’ll be the first to say I don’t know everything, and the longer I spend on the Art the more I realize how much greater what I will never know truly is (too large to measure).

Teaching is difficult, despite the sad maxim popular among my own people, and I’ve been fortunate to receive a LOT of training as a teacher, not only in fencing, but in higher education. [6] Lately, as I’ve been nursing injuries, teaching more than I’m bouting, I’ve been thinking it might be useful to share some of these things. Hopefully, it’s helpful, but if not, and you’ve read this far, thanks for reading it anyway.


[1] Online, cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html

[2] See Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di Scientia d’Arme, see Ken Mondschein, ed., Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise (New York, NY: Italica Press, 2009); Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice, see James L. Jackson, Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1972), 197-247, 247-298, 298-310; Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma, translated by Tom Leoni (Lulu Press, 2018); for Marcelli, see Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), cf. p. 267.

[3] There are exceptions. Agrippa assumes a dagger in much the same way that Georgian Laskhroba assumes a buckler (pari) when using a sword (khmali). In the latter tradition, sword and buckler work together, and at least as I have learned it while one can separate the hands, and in some cases absolutely should, but that is a lot easier to do if one has learned how to keep the together first.

[4] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes, La Haye, Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740; the BnF pdf features this action on page 109. Finishing the action in tierce is one option; one can also complete this with quarte over the arm, that is in the line of tierce but hand supinated/in fourth position. Moreover, one can redouble and strike in seconde as well, before retreating behind the point.

[5] Arguably one could call this a compound parry-riposte, a return that employs a feint to draw a counter-parry and then which changes lines. Regardless, like the demi-botte in Girard, the compound parry-riposte is normally taught after a student has good command of the basics of single tempo parry-riposte.

[6] The quip in question is “those who can’t, teach,” easily one of the stupidest phrases yet uttered, and a deep window into the anti-intellectual culture gaining prominence in the United States. If this seems like the bitter thing a former academic might say, well, consider how our movies and television programs, many popular world-wide, portray professors, scientists, and scholars—almost universally they’re villains or clowns. Mine is the only nation I’ve visited, so far, where more than one person has referred to a PhD as “post-hole digger,” a remark that shows at once the disdain for higher education, the glorification of manual labor (which is perfectly fine and necessary), and the fact that with a glut of PhDs and MAs running around many are in service jobs.

SabreSlash 2022, October 1-2

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, Partners in Fencing

This weekend our sister-school, Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, based in beautiful Prague, Czechia, will host its annual event: SabreSlash! Day one consists of classes; day two presents a cutting event, the Zabłocki Sabre Tournament, and the highlight of the day, the Moustache Challenge, easily one of the more difficult historical fencing contests.

This year Michael Kňažko of Barbasetti Military Sabre is joined by another close friend, the excellent Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA). Patrick will be exploring Radaellian actions on the blade. They are joined by several other instructors, including Maestro Leonid Křížek (CZ), and Leonardo Britto Germoglio (D). Here is the full program:

SabreSlash 2022 program:

Saturday, October 1st
– ”Actions on the blade in Radaellian sabre”, workshop led by Patrick Bratton, Sala Della Spada, Carlisle, PA, USA.

– “Akademische Fechten”, workshop led by Leonardo Britto Germoglio, Germany.

– “Molinelli in Barbasetti sabre”, workshop led by Leonid Křížek, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

– “Sciabola in Mano, controlled and conserved strength for cuts and thrusts”, workshop led by Michael Kňažko, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

Sunday, October 2nd
– “SabreSlashing with light sabres”, test-cutting workshop 😊

– “SabreSlash Moustache Challenge”. All gentlemen are encouraged to attend the event wearing a fully grown Ferdinando Masiello style moustache. The wearer of the most classical moustache will be awarded a very special prize.

– „ Zabłocki Sabre 2022“. The biggest Barbasetti sabre fencing tournament since the legendary 1895 Prague military fencing tournament organized by k.u.k lieutenant Dominik Riegel. The winner of the tournament will receive a brand new Swordsmithy practice sabre.

[cf. https://www.facebook.com/events/415973570345249/?ref=newsfeed]

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895

Curriculum Building & Teaching via the Universals

In an earlier post [9 Aug. 2022] I covered recursive cycles of instruction as one approach to curriculum building. Implicit in this schema, and hopefully in any methodology, is the central place of the universal principles, that is, those elements that underpin all hand-to-hand fighting. [1] While many works touch on these vital concepts, it can be difficult to find discussion of them in one place.

This post will attempt to sketch the salient points of one list of universals. [2] Lists vary, but most include the following:

  • measure or distance
  • tempo
  • judgment

To these I’d like to add several that Maitre Robert Handelman includes:

  • speed
  • initiative
  • tradecraft [3]

Measure or distance is the area of play, the space between two fencers. Typically this is divided into pedagogically useful segments. In Fiore’s armizare, and even in many later Italian works (Marcelli for example), the divisions may be largo and stretto, wide and close. Early modern sources down to today tend to divide the space between two fencers into three: out of measure (where neither opponent can hit one another); in measure (where one can lunge to target); and close measure (where either opponent need only extend the arm to reach target). There are variations by master, further refinements, but these three serve well.

Tempo is perhaps best defined as the time of a single simple fencing action. So, an advance, the extension of the arm, a beat, all of these equal one tempo. Simple and compound attacks, for example, are separated by the number of actions and thus the tempi in which they happen. A direct thrust on a lunge is one tempo; a feint-disengage is two tempi (feint + disengage/thrust = 2).*

Judgement, or decision, is the faculty by which we decide when to attack, from where, and how. We develop this through trial and error, over time, and improve as we grow in skill.

Speed is different than tempo, though they’re related. It’s helpful to think of speed as how fast or slow an action is or is made. We often refer to manipulating tempo, such as a compound attack that is slow-slow-fast, or, slow-fast-slow, etc. Strictly speaking, this is manipulating how fast or slow we make an action. It’s subtle, a bit hair-splitting perhaps, but to illustrate this imagine someone making a thrust on an advance, but then as soon as the opponent parries doubling the speed of the disengage and lunge to target. Speed also refers to reaction time, how fast we respond to stimulus. Like measure, we can break speed down into maximum, necessary (what speed is required to make an action), and slow.

Initiative refers to who starts an action, who moves first, and it can be defensive or offensive. In certain types of lessons we also talk about “student initiated” versus “instructor initiated” actions; this much like “Agent” and “Patient” in some historical fencing circles.

Tradecraft refers to the various ways in which we use rules, psychology, and bluster or bluff to outwit opponents, and importantly, officials. The most successful tournament fighters, whatever branch of the Art they pursue, typically “play” to the director and judges as much as anything else. This requires a good grasp of the rule-set and especially how those rules are viewed and enforced.

Historically speaking, tradecraft describes the gathering and exploitation of intelligence gleaned from interacting and/or observing an opponent. Sizing up an opponent, making probing actions to see what they do, how they react, all are part of tradecraft. It can be as simple as the early modern categories some masters used to describe types of fencers, from the reckless to the timid combatant, from the phlegmatic to the composed fencer, from the large, tall fighter to the smaller, shorter one. [4]

The many springs which flow from the font of these universals are too vast to cover, but for one, easy example the extension of the arm and weapon before the body illustrates well how general principles relate specifically to technique and tactics, even position.

  • The common guard that has the lead foot forward, body slightly forward, weapon arm leading attempts a compromise between safety (distance from the opponent) and target (reach to target).
  • The weapon and hand/arm lead the attack because this continues the compromise to the degree possible: the sharp thing races toward the opponent, something they should be thinking very hard about, while exposing as little of the attacker as one can
  • The positioning, method of extending the weapon, all make the best use of distance and tempo (tempo here, again, equally one fencing action)

Why the Universals are Important

Without meaning to court the exciting world of being “canceled,” if one is teaching or fencing without some intentional inclusion of the universals, then one is not really fencing. One might be fighting, sure, and maybe one has some success, but what makes the Art an art is not bravado, enthusiasm, physical attributes, speed, or luck. There is science involved, study, a set of principles and techniques that made this training worth one’s time back when it actually mattered, and, makes us more effective now.

Colpi di Vilano

Lest one think I’m making this up take a look at those sources from Fiore on that discuss fighting the untutored—the better masters knew this was possible if not likely and explained how to use the Art to counter the clod with a weapon. [5] I’ll be the first to admit that the attribute fighter full of confidence will collect a lot of medals, but success in a game is not the same thing as effective self-defense. We should be far more concerned with not being hit at all, and that means when we attack too.

The universals are important for a number of reasons. First, because these principles underpin any hand-to-hand combat system, they provide a vocabulary for understanding the sources and lessons which impart these systems. If your instructor stops you after an action and asks you about the measure just employed, or what action or actions one of you made; if they ask you why you chose a specific tactic over another; if they ask you to break down the action; they are discussing the universals as applied to what you’re learning. The universals, then, are behind every action and technique we tend to make, so it pays to know what they are.

Second, a solid grasp of these principles will “open up” or unpack a lot of sources. One can look at Meyer, Marcelli, Rossi; one can look at Jack Dempsey’s book on boxing; one can watch a lesson at BJJ dojo; one can watch some MMA match on television and analyze any one of them according to the universals. For the historical fencer the value of this knowledge can make all the difference in how effectively they’re using a source.

Lastly, a thorough grounding in the key concepts behind every action and tactic not only make it possible to take a student deeper into the Art, but also and as importantly help the instructor identify problem areas. How can we correct what we don’t understand? Moreover, the universals provide a nearly inexhaustible supply of lesson options.

How to Use the Universals in Lessons

There are different types of lessons, but no matter what type they are they should work from the universals. Warm up, teaching, option, and bouting lessons all work from the core principles. [6] Here I’d like to focus on option lessons, that is, having a student use material they know in different situations and set-ups. Generally, one is not introducing new concepts or techniques in an options lesson, but exploring that which the student already knows and/or does well.

The simplest way to create options for the student is to start with the universals. By varying what we do with these we help the student develop wider and more sophisticated applications of particular actions. As an example, the simple feint mentioned earlier, can be changed in myriad ways:

Ex. 1: Smallsword/Spada/Foil

Simple Feint (feint-thrust, disengage and thrust to target):

–in measure (the student can reach target with a lunge
–out of measure (the student must advance or redouble to reach target with a lunge)
–close measure (the student can extend the arm to target)

–attack executed at necessary speed
–attack executed with a fast feint, slow disengage/thrust
–attack execute with a slow feint, fast disengage/thrust

–instructor provides cue for student to begin action
–student provides cue for beginning action

–instructor is defender, student attacker
–student is defender, instructor attacker
–both I and S can attack, a question of who sees the opportunity first

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           warm-up

direct thrusts from standing; lunging; with an advance; on the march; parry-riposte inside high and low/outside high and low

15-20 min.       OptionL:           working simple feints

Feint direct (inside/outside line)—student lands touch
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feint direct (outside/inside line)—Inst. parries; S p&r
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feints on the March
–Instr. provides cue, e.g. raising weapon from 8 to 6
–S. picks moment to attack (should look for neg. bal.)

Feints with Change of Tempo
–S. uses feet
–S. uses varies weapon’s movement

5-10 min.         Cool Down

Instr. attacks with open line, S makes arrest
–top of arm
–inside of arm
–outside of arm
–under the arm/wrist

This is just a quick sketch of one way to do this. The student and instructor could switch roles; they could each be confined to responses in a particular tempo; the Instr. or S., depending on skill level of the S, might introduce random actions in the midst of the topic. So long as these choices are made with the universal principles in mind, it is hard to go too far wrong.

Ex. 2: Fiore, Sword in Two Hands, from Punta Spada [7]

First Master of Longsword

largo [wide]
stretto [close]
–passing steps into measure
–using accrescimenti to advance into measure

–one tempo [thrust to face]
–two tempi [cut over to head or arms]

–necessary speed
–slow-fast [slow step into measure; quick strike]
–fast-slow [quick step into measure; cut-over]

–Instructor provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords
–Student provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           Warm Up

7 Strikes of Segno; Meyer Square
–solo, in air or against pell
–with partner who adopts opposing posta
–from standing; with passing step

15-20 min.       OptionsL:          Working from the Bind in Longsword

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st master L gioco largo)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S thrusts to face
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st scholar 1st Mstr)
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with cut over to head or arms
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada (2nd master of L g.l.)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S drops sword to cuts hands (1st sch 2nd mstr)
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with thrust to the chest
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S steps in, grabs point and cuts to the face (2nd sch 2nd mstr) [8]        

To make this more dynamic, one can have the student initiate the action; the student could add a defensive response; at close of lesson, the student must select the appropriate action based on sword placement, measure, and pressure on the blade, all of which the instructor changes at random.

Nuts & Bolts

The examples above hopefully illustrate the basic method. Armed with a grasp of the universals, and assuming decent familiarity with the subject, the instructor can select an action, class of actions, or actions and responses to create lessons that explore whatever the topic is beyond its simplest expression. One can scale up or down using the universals to create different permutations, all of which incorporate the basic action, be it a feint, working from a bind, or using the head and tail of a pole-axe. [9] Changing measure, tempo, speed, or initiative allow what is too often a limited action to became far more useful. Because such lessons build up from solid fundamentals, they not only help a student drill those elementary, foundational actions, but also teach them how to expand what is possible with them.

None of this, however, is easy, especially if one wasn’t taught this way. Like anything, though, it’s a question of putting in the time, taking lessons from someone who can impart these concepts, and then going through the sometimes clumsy process of making it all work in class. Each student is different, so flexibility is important too.

Curriculum Considerations & the Universals

Devising a curriculum requires sufficient subject knowledge, teaching skill, and experience enough to know where the progression of lessons should lead. Historical fencing, because it is (ostensibly) source-based and not just learned on-the-job, adds an additional layer of challenge. Often what clubs do is start on page one and proceed through a source start to finish. That can work, and some of our texts are set up to do that, but some are not organized the way we normally organize things now. Mnemonic verse, interleaving actions and options through masters, scholars, and remedy masters as Fiore does; incomplete works, notes, or outlines; difficult language, poor preservation, and obscure analogies or references all work against us. I’ve stated before that modern fencing vocabulary, while dangerous to apply one-to-one to many ancient works, nonetheless gives us a way to talk about these things. For example, I’ve described the action that  Fiore’s first scholar of the first longsword master makes as a cut-over; it is not made the same way one is in smallsword, sabre, or rapier, but if one knows what a cut-over is—moving from one side of the blade or engagement on that blade to the other by bringing the sword over the opposing steel—then it helps one figure out what to do. The differences are crucial—from punta spada I should not make that cut-over if the opponent is not pressing against my blade: I should thrust through and thus maintain opposition reducing the chance I get hit as I attack. In smallsword there are similar considerations, but I’m not worried about a cut, so the mechanics, the angles of a cut-over are different.

From Amazon (not making this shit up)

If new to the universals in a formal way, start small, start slow. Take a simple action or basic play and analyze the ways measure, tempo, or speed play into it. Even changing one thing will add to your student’s toolbox. From experience I know that it gets easier to devise lessons along these lines with practice, and to be candid, with failure. We have to give ourselves room to screw up or we will never advance. I’m not a fan (at. all.) of trite maxims, the sort best left to decorate the walls of some Trimalchian pilates trophy spouse’s home studio—life is hard, often cruel, a constant attempt not to drown in disappointment: the only way through it is to do what we do in a bout, to fight on regardless of the outcome. So, if using the universals doesn’t go well at first, break down what happened, adapt, and try again. It will deepen not only appreciation for the intricacies and beautiful variety within the Art, but also make us better instructors.


[1] With a grand statement like this one might easily take issue, but there is some consensus in the martial arts community’s research side that there are universal principles to hand to hand combat. Humans can only move so many ways, weapons can only be used in so many ways, and given these limitations and the typical contexts in which people fight hand to hand they tend to arrive at similar conclusions. See for example, Wojciech J. Cynarski, Martial Arts & Combat Sports: Towards the General Theory of Fighting Arts, The Lykeion Library Series, Vol. 25, Gdansk, PL: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Katedra, 2019.

[2] Many early modern and modern works on fencing discuss theory, variously defined, as well as technique. Where the universal principles are not mentioned, however, they are normally implied. One difficulty is that the community’s understanding and expression of theory has changed over time. The best interpretation of Fiore’s cutting mechanics for longsword I’ve yet seen seeks to project the weapon out quickly, efficiently, and with force—at its simplest, to make a mandritto fendente (downward blow from the right) from posta di donna, one drops the hands to chest height and out to target. Fiore doesn’t explain why—he assumes the reader knows. For a more explicit example, George Silver’s “true times” clearly list the chief considerations around measure, tempo, speed, and initiative and judgment.

[3] See Robert Handelman and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Patinando Press, 2014

[4] For a prime example, see Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019, 63-79.

[5] Fiore, in the 4th scholar of the Second Master of Longsword, Wide Plays (Getty MS), discusses the Colpi di Villano, “Peasant’s Strike.” Cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/getty_th_longsword2.html

[6] This division of lessons types is modern, and not all concern each branch of fencing the same way, but the divisions remain useful for teaching.

[7-8] Unfortunately the most recent editions of Fiore’s surviving copies, published by Freelance Press, are expensive. Eric Miller, whom I met at Mike Cherba’s club (Northwest Armizare), put together a very handy app for Fiore. See http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html

[9] I’ve only dabbled in pole-axe, chiefly via Fiore’s corpus and the late 15th century Burgundian work, Le Jeu de la Hache. For the latter, see Olivier Dupuis and Vincent Deluz, “Le Jeu de la Hache,” A Critical edition and dating discussion,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5: 1 (2017): 3-62. In fact, the very first portion the author of the this work lays out an option lesson for the tour de bras, folio 3r, Rubric 2, Section 4, 2.1 ff.