1994, 2000

Richard J. Orli   -  Credits

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Di Grasse - His true Art of Defense

Basics Review:

Movement, Measure, the Thrust, and the Cut.

















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diGrasse illustrations show a rather non-athletic 'stand-up' stance.

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Kendo on-guard

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Sprinter's 'Set' (from Marco Steybe)


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A pass as fleche from Jakob Sutor

(all Sutor images are copyright Peter Valentine) 












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'Magic Circle' footwork pattern, after Girard Thibault










Quatre = Demi Volte





Exercise: Practice these moves as unarmed evasions, against an armed adversary doing a simple straight pass.


Note: Footwork should be practiced every day without fail.






























Exercise: Practice a distance 'key drill'. Have your partner measure out a long attack on the pass, and you stand right where the point ends. Then as he advances or retreats, or moves to the side, you keep the same relative position, retreating, advancing and traversing as required, keeping in good balance and practicing the most effective movement technique. Then take a position at a diagonal, and keep that relative position. This is great exercise, especially if you are not the 'key'!








Exercise: thrust (extend your arm), pause a second, lunge ('increase pace').




Scramacioni = flicking cut to the face








Rick's true confession.

As a fencing instructor with a lot of experience finding fault, I watch these clips and say to myself, "man, you stink."  Most of the clips are, of course, deliberately slow and the moves large so that the average reader can see what is going on, and I'm not talking about that.  Nor am I referring to the fact that I look like a potato, since the 1620 fashion is supposed to make the wearer look like a man of substance (e.g, a potato). The main thing bad about my form is my bad posture, and the way my shoulders are tight and my neck is hunched down.  If I were coaching myself from the sidelines I would not have put up with that for a second.  That's a bad habit I had when I was a young competitive fencer that I eventually overcame, but I guess it crept back in.  The second thing is that the balance point in the stance is often not the ideal for rapier.  I would like to see the torso leaning a bit forward.  I could go on.  My point is, there is always something one can improve.




The period manuals describe a wide range of rapier stances.  The figure illustrates this extreme range, and I can point to examples of each, even what I call the 'tennis stance,' in the period literature. The average seems to be similar to the 'rapier stance', with early period rapier tending to the 'boxing stance', and later period (including di Grasse's recommendation ca.1590) more to the 'foil stance'.

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The following two stances show ways in which one might 'steal a pace.'  The Kendo-like stance is on the ball of the left foot.  The third way, like that taught to epee fencers today, is like the foil stance above, but feet close together.

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The di Grasse illustration shows a 'stand-up' form, whereas Robert and I are much lower, with knees more bent. This is a tricky point. A few years ago, I thought that the di Grasse woodblock prints were just artistically wooden, and did not show the athleticism of the form accurately. However I believe now that the diGrasse illustrations are accurate, although they clearly do not show the necessary athleticism.

When it comes to the question of what is more effective, I tended toward the 'modern' convention -that bent knees mean that there is potential energy available to drive you forward, and that straight legs means the lack of potential energy. My Kendo master, however, begs to differ. According to him, bent knees mean that the lunge will be more vertical than horizontal,
and that there is more immediate power in only slightly bent legs. Look at a 100 meter sprinter's 'set' starting stance, he says, and see that the left leg is almost straight.

In my experience a properly executed lunge from a 'very bent knee' position is not at all 'vertical'. I also researched the sprinter analogy, because it is surely the one athletic stance designed for maximum forward acceleration. The modern sprinter's practice is, according to Marco Steybe: "In a set position, the arms should be perpendicular to the track, shoulders
directly above the hands, and the front and rear leg angles 90 and 120 degrees, respectively". (Close to the 110-130 degrees recommended leg angle for modern foil, also about what is shown in the Jakob Suter illustrations, while the rear leg angle in Kendo is about 155-165 degrees.) There may be something in the claim that there is more immediate power in an only slightly bent leg, and perhaps it is sometimes more important to travel 8 inches very fast than 18 inches fast.

A year ago I wrote: "Although I am not sure if I believe my Kendo master's assertion that this is the 'best' form, for now I accept that claim at face value, at least when I practice Kendo. I'll reassess this point as I gain more experience using a 'stand-up' stance. It is nevertheless now easier for me to accept that diGrasse's illustrator showed what diGrasse would have considered to be correct rapier form, and I will work on adopting a slightly more 'stand-up' stance in my rapier practice."

After a year and a lot of practice, I understand the Kendo-style footwork better, and where it is getting its energy from.  It is only partially from the big leg muscles that connect from the knee - it uses the calf muscles much more, but more importantly it uses the hip. The hip movement lifts the lead knee while driving the groin down, so that the extending leg and flexing calf drive the body forward rather than up.  It has the equivalent speed and range - maybe even slightly longer range - of a modern lunge.  It does not usually stop like a lunge, but rather, like a pass or fleche, tends to result in closing with or running past the opponent; this might be a disadvantage, but the Kendo folks don't think so. At any rate, it can be executed such that it stops cold.  I also think it has an advantage over the modern footwork style in conditions of uneven or slippery footing.  I am now convinced that diGrasse practiced footwork of this type. I will try to replace the illustrations with better representations of deGrasse's footwork.


Advance, of three types

  - Pass - pace such that back foot crosses in front of the lead foot, like walking. When fast, equal to 'fleche', modern fencing running attack. Time the hit to land exactly when the foot strikes the floor.  (Some modern interperters say the pass should stop cold, like a modern lunge; my reading is that that is sometimes the intent, but more often the pass is intended to continue to close with or slip by the opponent)

  - Increase of pace (Lunge) - driving body and lead foot forward by straightening the rear leg.

  - Half pace - rear foot moving forward, such as from rapier stance to tennis stance, or, fencing step (like modern advance, front foot leads followed by back foot in a crab-like step.)

         Figure after Frederico Ghisliero, notice modern-fencing style foot alignmentghis.jpg (4412 bytes) and the lunge (Increase of Pace).



Retreat - movement backward, pass or half-pace.


Slip - diagonal movement back, pass or half step.


Encroach or Thwart - diagonal movement forward


Traverse - movement to side


Demi Volte - movement to side or diagonal, spinning the body away while driving back with the lead foot




Volte - Continuation of spinning motion to 180 degrees, usually as an attack developing from a defense, or a surprise attack from what might have initially appeared to be a Demi Volte.



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                    Figure from Jacob Sutor

                    Perhaps, a Volte





When approaching your opponent, but just outside of measure, stride firmly with an athletic posture, gut in, back straight, head up, with the knees at least slightly bent.

With few exceptions, all movement within distance must be crisp and forcible. To walk, one uses just enough muscle power to move to the balance point, and then gravity takes over. In contrast, a fencing lunge or fencing step uses vigorous muscle power to move the entire distance - consider how in a modern fencing lunge the muscles straighten the driving leg to propel the body forward. To execute a slip to evade your opponent’s thrust you must drive your body to the side with the same speed and energy, using the same movement principle.

Consider closely that the purpose is to first move your target area (torso/head) to safety, not your leading foot. I emphasize this because in repetitive practice it is tempting to rhythmically use smooth dance-like movements like: "first the lead foot goes, plant it, then follow-up by moving the body." That is not the point! When you do a slip to avoid a mortal attack, you do so abruptly, instantly, and with no warning to your opponent of the direction in which you are moving. However, that does not mean that fencing footwork is coarse or jerky; with practice, correct movements are done so smoothly that they seem light and dance-like to an observer.


Measure (or "Distance")

'In distance' is the point where your opponent can strike you in a single move. In Rapier, the range of a pass is 2.5-3 meters (9-12 feet), and with a step-pass about 4-5 meters. When you are within distance of a single pass, you must immediately either strike or withdraw - standing in place gives a great advantage to your opponent, so is unacceptable.

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The figure illustrates the relative danger zones.

Measure is a fluid concept, as it depends on your opponent’s athletic abilities and reach, as well as her current stance and the ground conditions. Consider that men who were the Joe Montanas or Michael Jordans of the 17th Century, seeking a physical outlet for their talents, could have found more fame and fortune as fencers than in most any other pursuit. A great athlete can strike in a blink from an amazing distance - like from the far side of a large room.

The red zone is easy range for an increase of pace, yellow is range for a pass, and white is range for a step-pass. The boundary of yellow to white is 'in distance' in rapier, although any inattention in the white zone can spell instant disaster. The figure shows the danger areas typical of facing only an average-height club-level fencer. Add 1/2 meter to the red, 1 meter to the yellow, and 1 1/2 meters to the white when facing a tall superb athlete.

Notice that when closing with your opponent, you pass from the most dangerous area to safer areas. Any closer than a few feet and a punch from your opponent's rapier guard or pommel becomes a more dangerous threat than his rapier point. The area adjacent to the back shoulder is a 'safe' area, for that instant, from any blow except from the elbow. The point of many encroachment moves is to move into 'safe(er)' areas to your opponent’s back or side, from which you may be psychologically more ready to strike than your opponent. Some pass attacks should not stop if failed (which is at a point of maximum danger) but continue in an accelerating run close past your opponent's shoulder like the modern fleche. Alternatively, fall off from your opponent's flank with a sort of a slip to the side (changing the axis of the engagement 90o).  Alternatively, crash into your opponent (especially if your opponent's left hand does not contain a dagger).

Unfortunately, a taller opponent has a comfort zone where you are in his distance, while he is outside of your range. This zone must be studiously avoided while taking your opponent's measure, and on your attack must be crossed with aclarity.


Thrust or Stocatta

Extend the arm fully when making a thrust, but keep you shoulder and biceps relaxed, and grip firmly but not tightly.

Generally, and as a beginner ALWAYS, thrust (extend your arm) first in an attack, driving the point home with your footwork. This is essential to correct form, as by establishing the fact of attack it reduces the chance of a double kill.

Thrust (extend your arm), pause a second, pass.

After a few weeks or months of disciplined practice, reduce the length of the pause so that it eventually ceases to exist, and your attack is smooth and fast yet always starts with the extending arm.

Cut or Edgeblow

The cut is unlike the modern sport saber cut, which is executed by extending the arm and cutting using the fingers. Or rather, I should specify that that sort of cut was ok as a flicking cut to the face. However, a proper cut has to have the force of a baseball bat to cut any target other than the face. (That is a challenge, since the lightweight rapier, especially mid-17th C. rapiers, did not have sufficient mass to readily provide the necessary momentum.)  To properly execute a cut, the arms, shoulder, and feet have to combine in one mighty movement not unlike a baseball bat swing (which maximizes momentum; or alternatively, like cracking a whip, which maximizes blade speed). The second choice is a 'moulanet' (windmill) where the arm extends straight, but using the wrist the point drops down and swings around in an arc to give the blow momentum.

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As diGrasse states, the rapier is simply not a cutting weapon, and he and all period writers discussing rapier discourage the use of the edgeblow except in moments of special opportunity.


Proper Set-up for Cut, From Jacob Suter


Blocks or Wards

DiGrasse's section on Wards covers the starting 'on guard' positions.  The photos illustrate the basic 'blocks' (parry) positions.  Rapier blocks are somewhat wider or 'bigger' than foil parries, and are exaggerated here. A fast, economical defense should make an attack miss by an inch or two, not a foot.

prime.gif (11302 bytes) Inside high line (Modern Parry Prime)
7.gif (9012 bytes) Inside lowline (Seven)
four.gif (10096 bytes) Inside High Line (Four)
three.gif (11648 bytes) Outside High Line (Three)
RapierDaggLeftS.avi (90986 bytes) Drop the point for Outside Low Line (Two)  shown as a circular parry with traverse to left.
five.gif (12893 bytes) Head Block (Five) from right to left, may also be from left to right.











WARNING:  Swordplay can be dangerous if improperly practiced.  Routines should be practiced only under the qualified supervision of a fencing instructor or by an American Society of Fight Directors instructor.  The video clips show staged (carefully choreographed) and well-practiced moves, done by experts.  Any sort of 'free' fencing or play demands the use of modern sport fencing equipment, including facemasks and flexible/lightwieght swords (such as foils or epees). 





















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Pass + Pass

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Increase of Pace

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Encroach Left

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Encroach Left

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Danger zones - the range from which the fencer in the lower left can strike.































Full Cut

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Moulanie Cut

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WARNING:  Swordplay can be dangerous if improperly practiced.  Routines should be practiced only under the qualified supervision of a fencing instructor or by an American Society of Fight Directors instructor.  The video clips show staged (carefully choreographed) and well-practiced moves, done by experts.  Any sort of 'free' fencing or play demands the use of modern sport fencing equipment, including facemasks and flexible/lightwieght swords (such as foils or epees).