The following are core basics in Italian rapier fencing. This is not meant to replace the manuals of the masters, but rather to have new students understand principles of fencing so that the undertaking of archaic and translated manuals might be made easier. Feel free to offer corrections, comments etc, using my contact page, but bear in mind I want to keep the length and breadth of the manual short.
My philosophy on historical fencing is different than most. Many current teachers model Asian Martial Arts and have students drill for long sessions then occasionally use sparring. I work to get people sparring as soon as possible then refine as we go. So while a prestigious school in Canada claims that no student spars until after a year of drilling three times a week, my students spar on day one. The end result is the other schools have much more refined technique while my students and I are continually refining using sparring as a medium to do so. In your own studies choose a methodology that fits you best! It's not about the teachers, or schools - it's about you and finding what makes you learn best!
The rapier is a primarily thrusting weapon that was popular as a civilian weapon during the Renaissance. In many ways the blade is ill-suited for combat. George Silver lambasted it for its ‘false’ ways, while the fields of war rarely saw its use. Despite any shortcomings the weapon was popular and I see at as analogous to a cowboy’s pistol: quick, used in a limited capacity and legal to openly carry.
A – Foible, Debole, Tip = The sharp end of the sword. The most dangerous but also the easiest to move aside due to leverage.
B – Forte, Strong = The portion of the sword nearest the guard. The least dangerous, but the strongest in parrying due to leverage.
C – Guard = It contains many parts, but its primary purpose is to protect the hand and allow safe parries with the forte.
Historically rapiers ranged in size and weight from the 1550’s throughout the 1600’s. The trend over time was for longer and lighter blades. Today, the cheaper swords tend to be a little short in length and a little light in weight. This can make performing certain techniques harder because a lighter blade can respond more quickly than a heavier. A nice historic weapon's averages would be a 40’’ blade’ and a weight of 2+ pounds while a cheap replica rapier trends at around 37’’and a weight of 2- pounds.
How to Hold the Rapier
The rapier is a precision weapon and so the thumb and index finger (the ones you use to write with) are needed to control the weapon while the other fingers support it. The thumb will rest on the ricasso (un-edged portion of the blade inside the guard) and the index finger will loop around it, so that the blade can be held with just those two fingers. The other fingers then grip to provide stability.
Next, ensure the tip and forearm are aligned. If you do not do this your wrist will be bent and the sword's guard does not cover the hand as well. Fabris discusses this in his manual.
Bend your wrist when cutting (which you won't do often), but otherwise try to keep it straight so your hand and forearm are well-covered.
When in terza however, I find that a bent wrist if the sword is held low and slightly withdrawn is a great lure to draw a person into measure. Giganti's manuals show something similar for terza.
In the end use what works!
Take one comfortable step. The heels don’t need to be perfectly aligned, but should be close.
Bend your knees so you can rock forward and put all your weight on your front foot and rock back so your front leg is straight, your back leg bent and supporting all of your weight. The Italian stances range between middle and back weighted. The body can also lean forward or back.
A variation on the typical T-stance is where the rear heel is not in line with the forward heel. This allows the rear foot to pass forward, or the front foot to pass back without having to do any lateral movement.
This position will also cause the left shoulder to be drawn forward which allows the use of the off-hand or secondary weapon. When using secondary weapons or the off-hand this wider stance will be of more use than the prior which presents a narrow target, but makes passing a bit slower and the off-hand too retracted to be of much use.
Note that just enough room to easily pass the rear foot is needed.
When moving the goal is to maintain the stance. Movement in the Italian system is dangerous in that while moving you are susceptible to attack.
Advance – Front foot lifts off the ground and moves forward, propelled by the rear. Rear foot follows. The stance is maintained and the feet do not drag because it is possible to trip.
Retreat – Rear foot lifts off the ground and moves back, propelled by the front. Front foot follows. The stance is maintained and the feet do not drag because it is possible to trip.
Traverse – Front foot moves forward and at an angle to the left or right. The rear foot follows.
Pass Forward – Rear foot moves forward and becomes front foot.
Pass Back – Front foot moves backwards and becomes rear foot.
Advance and Retreat
The Six Steps
There are six steps that can be used to make up the majority of offensive and defensive movements. Directly backwards and forwards are not safe directions to go once engaged and the six steps offer alternatives.
From a neutral stance perform each step separately.
Step 1 = Traverse left but the rear foot remains.
Step 2 = Traverse right but the rear foot remains.
Step 3 = Pass forward. The rear leg will angle slightly as it passes. This is ok.
An inquartata. The right foot will move a little as the rear passes. Feet direction doesn’t change!
This step is unique to the Italian method of rapier combat.
Rear foot movements are slower, but the inquartata has the advantage of voiding the body and getting a surprising amount of range for a thrust.
Step 5 = Volte/Void/Dodge left. Front foot moves left and faces the same way as the rear foot. This moves the body left and is fast, but doesn’t offer range. It’s not an attack as the other steps can be.
Step 6 = Volte/Void/Dodge right. Front foot moves right and faces the same way as the rear foot. This moves the body right and is fast. It works similar to an inquartata, but is quicker and offers no range.
John Voids Left With a Single Step
John Voids Right With a Single Step
Richard Performs an Inquartata - Seen From Both Sides
John Performs an Inquartata
The flung back off-hand helps reduce John's profile
The Four Guards
Prima/First = Knuckles up. A natural guard when drawing the blade. The hilt is held over the head and the tip is pointed to the opponent’s face.
Prima can be countered with a prima. Prima is a good defensive movement to ward off an attack. When a blade connects in secunda it is possible to turn the wrist into prima for an advantage.
Richard in Prima
Secunda/Second = Knuckles out. The arm can be held to the outside of the body or be centered. The tip is pointed towards the opponent.
Secunda protects the outside of the body. It can quickly transform into primo or terza, but takes longer to move to quarta.
John in Secunda
Terza/Third = Knuckles down. A very natural grip. The guard is held near the hip and centered. The tip is pointed towards the opponent’s head. There is a variation called Terza on the outside or Lazy Terza. The guard is held below and outside the hip. The guard will look like a V with your head and the tip of your blade making the ends of the V.
There are, like so many other guards, variations, including Terza held straight at the foe.
Richard in Terza
John in Terza, Leaning Forward.
John in Quarta Leaning Slightly Back. We'll look at Quarta next!
Quarta/Fourth = Knuckles in. The arm is held centered or to the inside of the body and usually slightly extended.
Quarta is secunda’s opposite and protects the inside. Quarta can quickly turn into terza or be lifted up high and behave similar to primo. The inquartata exclusively uses quarta.
Richard in Quarta
A note on guards: For every guard there are two generic variations.
Angled = When your arm is held so that it is bent. This is less stressful on the arm, can be used to lure an opponent in close, but also has a variety of weaknesses, namely the hand and that once the blade is moved off line it is harder to get it back online.
Straight = When your arm is held out directly at your opponent. This is more stressful on the arm, but creates a more effective defense completely shutting down certain lines of attack.
Practice both to build up endurance, but also to see their value in sparring.
In the above image, Richard is in an angled terza. His head/upper body and his arm are all valid targets. However, since he isn't holding the blade up he is spending less energy.
John is in a straight secunda. His head is the only target and it is a small one at that. His body is too retracted to be easily hit and his arm is protected by the guard of the sword. However, he will have to spend more energy keeping the blade held in such a position.
Cuts and Thrusts
The Italian rapier tradition relies mostly on thrusts, but cuts are possible but usually avoided due to how slow they are and their lack of power.
Cuts can be performed with the shoulder, elbow or wrist. They are stronger, but slower in that order so the wrist cuts tend to be the safest. Cuts are performed with the edge and best aimed at the head and neck region.
Thrusts are performed by extending the hand in any of the guards and leaning towards the opponent and perhaps taking a small step. The arm does not do the work, it just gets the range. The body and legs do the work of adding power to the thrust. Thrusts are aimed usually at the head or body, but the arm and leg are valid targets.
Above is a sport-fencing lunge and its mechanics. Compare it to the Italian lunge below advocated by Capo Ferro. Notice how the Italian lunge has a forward-leaning body, a slightly bent arm and a less lengthy step. The reason is that the sport-fencer needs maximum range, but not much power. They are seeking the 'touch'. Meanwhile, the Italian fighter needs his body and legs to help power the lunge 'through' the opponent and still be able to recover quickly.
After every cut, thrust or lunge it is important to recover. This means quickly get back into a guard (usually terza). Reverse the attack. Leg moves back, then body, then arm, then head. The idea is that the foot movement will get the rest of the body out of the way quickly.
Another option to a recovery back into a guard can be a pass forward so as to remain past the tip of the opponent's sword. When the opponent has a dagger more caution is needed!
A cavazione is when you move your blade from one side of the opponent’s sword to the other. A common example is a move from quarta on the outside of the opponent’s blade to inside and secunda.
A cavazione while in measure (range of attack) is followed up with a thrust otherwise why do it? To perform a cavazione quickly lower the tip of the blade and bring it back up on the appropriate side. This is faster than using the whole arm.
Beats and Feints
A beat is a wrist-cut performed against a blade to force it to move. Another method is to touch an opponent’s blade with your own then flick down to move it. Beats are slow and often telegraph. An opponent who cavazione’s your beat will force your blade to move far out of line!
A feint is an attack or a fake cavazione. Both try to get an opponent to react to something that isn’t there. A feinted attack has to have the potential to be made real or a skilled opponent will ignore it. A feinted cavazione is usually used to trick an opponent into moving their blade and thus opening up a chance to hit them.
There are several ‘lines’ in Italian fencing.
The Red Line is 'On Line'
The Red Line is 'On Line'. The blue line indicates how Richard's foot has moved off the line during his attack. (Oops! My back foot is lifted. That's a no-no in a lunge.) This was a lunge in Second on the outside that turned into a Prima to lift John's sword. Which promptly fell off and away.
John demonstrates the lines.
John's sword determines where the lines are.
Concept of Measure
Measure is the distance between fighters.
In sparring once in measure do not leave it. It is ok to go from wide to narrow and back to wide measure.
It is possible for one person to be in measure and another out due to height and length of blades. However, when a tall person strikes, even from maximum range, they’ll be closing measure (getting closer).
Out of Measure
Neither opponent can reach each other even with a pass or lunge.
Both opponents can lunge or pass and reach each other.
Both opponents can strike one another with a small step or even just a lean.
Concept of Time
The Italian system is heavily interested in time known as tempo. Tempo can be difficult to explain because a tempo is a ‘moment to attack’ and it is a ‘unit of time’.
In the Italian system the less tempo taken the better. A single-tempo action will always defeat a two-tempo action. This is called fighting in single-time and is why the Italians do not parry without a simultaneous response.
A feint and thrust takes two tempi and so can be defeated by a thrust if it isn’t deceived by the feint.
A cavazione and thrust takes two tempi and so can be defeated by a thrust if the cavazione’s direction can be predicted.
A beat and thrust takes three tempi. One to generate power, one to strike the blade and another to thrust. A beat can be defeated with a thrust (one tempo) or a cavazione under the beat and a thrust (two tempi).
An advance while in measure takes a tempo. An advance while in measure can be defeated by a thrust.
There are many more examples. The thing to remember is that simultaneous actions are necessary. New fighters will often see their opponent advance and then attack. This won’t work because the advance will be completed before the attack. To be successful a fighter must attack WHILE the opponent advances. The same goes for any other action.
Concept of In Tempo vs Out of Tempo
When attacking or countering, one hope to be 'in tempo'. This means being in a moment that is 'right' to attack. When one is 'out of tempo' they are striking at a time that is 'wrong' to attack, or at the very least risky unless certain criteria are met.
In Tempo Examples
1. When an opponent makes a move in measure.
2. When an opponent makes a move with their sword. This can be an attack or a cavazione.
3. When the opponent's blade is gained.
Out of Tempo Examples
1. When the opponent is in measure, stationary and in guard. This usually means a blade is pointing right at you! At wide measure the opponent has too much time to react if an attack out of tempo is attempted.
2. When the opponent's attack is not in some way countered either directly or through a void.
3. Opponent is in narrow measure, stationary and in guard. In this case the opponent is close enough that attacking them out of tempo is more likely to succeed because the short range means voiding the blade and striking the opponent can be done quickly.
Concept of Gaining the Blade and Mechanical Advantage
In the Italian system the key to success is often in gaining the blade and getting mechanical advantage. The general rule for this is to move in on your opponent and when you strike or counter-strike, make sure your knuckles face their blade. The closer you get your guard to their blade the better and your point should remain on line.
Richard lunges in Seconda against John who is in Quarta. Richard has complete mechancial advantage so despite being scarecrow thin, he can still keep John's blade in place and land the hit. (My rear foot shouldn't move so much in a lunge, a little is ok, nearly lifted is not, and the body should be a bit more foward to land the hit sooner.)
In this staged image Richard has complete mechanical advantage over John. Richard is in Seconda on the inside, while John is in Terza, giving Richard a stronger position. Richard's forte is directly on John's sword giving him an even better position. John not only lacks strength, he can't quickly cavzione because of how far away his debole is from Richard's sword. Before John can make any motion Richard will thrust him.
Opposition vs the Void
Opposition is when your blade interposes itself between yourself and your opponent. When attacking I reccomend the use of opposition so that the opponent cannot strike after or during your attack. An example would be a thrust directed at a cut. The thrust must be performed with mechanical advantage and with the sword's guard used to help diffuse any force from the incoming blow.
A void is the movement of the body without opposition. In reality the void was a great manuever. When sparring it's a little less useful because opponents once struck may continue to seek a hit of their own. Additionally, since your blade will not pass through an opponent during a sparring session some of the void techniques won't work as well. This is a good example of how the reality of fencing and the act of sparring do not always work hand in hand. An example would be a passing attack in which the movement of the rear foot to the fore voids an incoming attack. However, since your blade won't go through an opponent it may not work, or it will require the use of the offhand.
The ultimate combination in terms of sparring is when a void can be performed with the sword held in such a way as to ensure opposition as well. An inquartata for example voids the body, but the sword also remains in a good position to strike and cover.
1. Can you identify the guards of the two combatants below? Both were sparring at the time of the photo!
Matt on the left is in Quarta. See how the knuckles are turned away. The tip of his sword is fixed on Greg's head.
Greg on the right in in Terza. His knuckles are down. He keeps his blade low in a variation of Terza in which the blade is extended and manuevered under the opponent's sword.
2. Can you tell what solutions Lucas (right) has against Greg (left)? Note both are fighting left-handed.
A. Lucas can thrust in quarta towards the highline. This will intercept Greg's cut on the guard while simultaneously striking him. At this point, Greg's cut will be one tempo as it descends and Lucas' movement will be one tempo matching it. Lucas' tempo interupts Greg's.
B. Lucas can move into primo and perform a passata soto, a manuever in which his back leg kicks out, his front leg does not move, and his body bends low and to the right so his right hand touches the ground. His blade extends on the inside of Greg's. Greg's cut is already primed so its strike is one tempo, as is Lucas' passata soto.
C. Lucas can retreat while performing a cavazione to the outside of Greg's sword. As Greg's initial cut misses it becomes a 'fallen sword' and Lucas can thrust from the secunda position.
3. The opponent tries to thrust you on the inside what can you do?
A. Use a voiding step to the right while turning the hand to quarta. This option voids the body and is fast because it uses the lead leg, but has no range.
B. Use an inquartata while turning the hand to quarta. This option is slower, but it voids the body and has great range.
C. Pass forward and turn the hand to a high quarta aiming the point at the opponent's flank. This option is slow and does not void the body.
4. The opponent tries to thrust you on the outside what can you do?
A. Use a voiding step to the left while turning the hand to secunda. This option voids the body and is fast because it uses the lead leg, but has no range.
B. Pass forward and turn the hand to primo aiming the point at the opponent's flank. This option is slow and does not void the body.
5. The opponent makes contact with your blade and tries to use a flicking motion against it, what is your response?
A. This is a form of beat and takes two tempo. The moment the opponent seems about to flick perform a deep lunge in the appropriate guard (Whichever one has your knuckles facing their blade) to defeat the opponent in contratempo.
B. This is a form of beat and takes two tempo. The moment the opponent flicks and begins to move your sword perform a cavazione to nullify it. The enemy blade will become a 'fallen blade'. Immediatly thrust in the appropriate guard. (Whichever one has your knuckles facing their blade).
C. This is a form of beat and takes two tempo. If the opponent makes contact and flicks your sword down perform an inquartata and cavazione into quarta. The objective is to void the body from the inevitable attack after the beat and cavazione into mechanical advantage of quarta.
6. John is in Secunda. His openings are as follows:
A. Above the right hand and the right arm and shoulder.
B. His upper body on the inside and his head.
C. His left hand.
D. His right leg.
What should John do if attacked in these openings?
A. Lift the hand into Prima for mechanical advantage and thrust.
B. Inquartata or void right with a single step in quarta.
D. Pass the leg back and thrust. Known as 'slipping the leg'.