Call to Arms: The Italian Rapier
An article by Bill Grandy
Most of us in the modern world would recognize the word "rapier". Terms like "rapier wit" or "rapier tongue" imply quick and sharp responses, alluding to this Renaissance weapon of the dueling gentleman. There are many who have been enraptured by the romantic tales of The Three Musketeers or seen the sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic swordplay in Shakespeare, and many such people seek out sport fencing clubs or stage combat classes to learn its use. However, while both are noteworthy recreations, neither are truly rapier combat as it was meant to be used in the Renaissance duel. This article is aimed at the complete novice, and will provide a basic groundwork on techniques of the Italian style of rapier, as well as to give advice on how to find partners and what equipment is needed. It is not by any stretch a comprehensive study, but rather as a means to demystify how this sword was used for those who have never seen proper rapier play, and to give a basic idea of how this sword is used.
The word "rapier" is a difficult one to truly define in modern terms. For the sake of this particular article, we will assume a rapier is a long, slender blade intended primarily for the thrust, and generally with some degree of hand protection, and seen primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries. But that is by no means a definite answer. For example, two Italian masters, Giacomo DiGrassi and Vincentio Saviolo, both used the term "rapier" in their English fencing treatises from the last decade of the 16th century. The original Italian text for DiGrassi, however, used the term "spada", literally meaning "sword". The weapons used in those manuals appear to be shorter, broader bladed swords designed for the cut as well as thrust. In fact, the word "rapier" was never used by Italian masters at all, it would seem, despite the fact that it is a style that appears to have been borne out of Italy. Regardless of the exact terminology, this article will focus on the long thrusting weapons seen illustrated by fencing treatises such as Ridolpho Capo Ferro's Gran Simulacro, Salvator Fabris's Scienza d'Arme, or Francesco Alfieri's L'Arte Di Ben Manegiarre La Spada.
The Italian rapier
The rapier was in use all over Europe as a weapon for settling duels. It appears to have originated in Italy, and the Italian masters were probably the most famous for their skill with the weapon. Other nations developed sophisticated and effective systems of fencing with the rapier as well, but for the sake of simplicity, this article will only focus on a generalization of the Italian style.
Parts of the Sword
While there are terms to describe essentially all of the minor details of the rapier, there are really only a few parts that are necessary to know. The main two parts are the blade and the hilt. The hilt is comprised of the grip, the hand guard (often times an elaborate cage-like piece, or sometimes completely covering the hand with a plate, and commonly decorated), and the pommel to counterweight the blade and balance out the entire sword.
In addition to the strong and weak of the blade, the sword has two edges. If you gripped the sword and held it point upwards so that your knuckles faced away from you, the edge on the side of the knuckles is the true edge, and the edge facing you is the false edge.
Different masters will say different things about footwork, but there are certain things that are common. For the beginner, though, the following general stance will do: The feet should be roughly shoulder width apart. The foot on the same side as the sword hand should be in front, pointed forward, and the other foot should be at a right angle, with the heel in a straight line as the front foot. About three quarters of your weight should rest on the back leg, removing your torso from being easily struck. Some masters, such as Alfieri, depict a posture that leans back most of the time, others, such as Salvator Fabris, show one that tends to lean a bit more forward. For now, do what is the most comfortable. You will also keep the back shoulder turned away from harm, though do not over profile, or movement will be rigid and uncomfortable. The hand not holding the sword should be relaxed and held up by your eyebrow, out of the way, but able to be used defensively if necessary.
To move forward, simply lift the front toe, followed by the heel, make a small step, and bring your back foot back into your stance. To move backwards requires moving the back foot first. You should be able to move steadily forward and backwards without bobbing up and down. An easy exercise is to balance something, such as your fencing glove, on top of your head as you practice this to maintain balance and smoothness of motion.
The next important piece of footwork is what Capo Ferro calls the passo straordinario, or more commonly known modernly as the lunge. The lunge is a fast, powerful attack to reach your opponent from a distance. The lunge always begins with an extension of the arm: If you lead with your body, your opponent has no reason not to attack you. If, on the other hand, your sword is extended before you launch yourself forward, your opponent cannot attack without first having to deal with the oncoming threat. Once your arm is extended, lift your front foot slightly off of the ground and kick it forward into the air, using your back foot to propel you forward. The back foot should remain firm and planted in place. When the front foot lands the front knee should be bent with the back leg extended and completely straight.
The final type of footwork, for now, will be the passata, or passing step. A passing step is simply bringing your back foot forward, very much in the same way as walking. To practice this, start from your guard. Pass the back foot forward so that it remains in a ninety-degree angle to the other foot, just as it normally is. Then take the other foot and bring it forward so that you are once again in your normal stance. Passing steps are used for multiple reasons, particularly if your weight has shifted onto the front foot. For instance, if you have performed a feint (a false attack) to one side of your opponent's body, and have shifted your weight forward, you would be unable to lift the front foot to lunge. Thus, your back foot would have to move instead.
Holding the Sword
There are multiple correct ways to grip a rapier, but to keep things simple, one of the most common is to hold onto the grip and pass the index finger over the quillon around the ricasso (the base of the blade where it meets the guard) so that it wraps around and touches the thumb on the other side. By wrapping the finger around in this manner you will have greater tip control.
There are four basic hand positions shown in the majority of fencing treatises. The Italians referred to these as prima (first), seconda (second), terza (third) and quarta (fourth). While there are other positions, for simplicity, these will be the only ones we use.
Your primary position will be the third guard position. Capo Ferro states, "You know that in my book of the art, there is one good guard that is a low guard called third, with the sword in a plane in the straight line." In third, the sword is held as if shaking hands with someone, palm towards the off hand side with the thumb up. This is the most natural guard, and will be the most generally used position when not making an action.
We have already discussed the lunge, which is going to be your primary method of attack. There are a number of types of specific thrusts and cuts in the Italian system, but for now we will only use thrusts, and assume that all of the thrusts are straight for the chest, the largest target area.
There are four important terms to understand when dealing with attacking and defending: Inside, outside, high and low. Each of these is a division of where the sword can hit, and is designated by the placement of the sword hand. The high line is everywhere above the hand, the low line everywhere below it. The inside line is everywhere from the hand towards the off-hand side, and the outside is everywhere from the hand towards the back. The four targets, therefore, are high inside, high outside, low inside and low outside.
To defend against an oncoming sword, we will first talk about basic parries to the inside and outside. From the third guard, if your opponent attacks to the high inside line, you will rotate your forearm so that you are now in the fourth guard, and your true edge will be facing the opposing blade. The tip of your sword should be slightly raised in order to cross against the opponent's blade. Moving the forearm from the elbow only, you will gently press the incoming blade out of the way by using the strong part of your sword against the weak part of theirs. When you parry, you should have your blade just barely angling so that the tip points over the opponent's blade, but not so much that it is no longer pointing within the silhouette of your opponent. The reason for this is so that your opponent's blade will slide towards the strong part of your blade, giving you more leverage and control.
It is important to understand that you do not need to swing the rapier to parry, but to just barely push the oncoming blade aside. Be certain that you are pushing only to the side, and not down, else they will strike you on the low line. Your arm should be mostly extended most of the time you are in guard, and if your arm is too close to your body when parrying, you will have to move it more to deflect the attack.
Should your opponent attack you to the high outside, you will need to move your blade into the second position instead of fourth, but otherwise follow the same guidelines.
It should be noted that Italian rapier relies much more on single time parries, meaning that one would attack at the same time of the parry. Because of its length and weight, the rapier is best suited for this type of defense, and done correctly, this is more efficient of the two-time action involved in the previously described "parry first, attack second" defense. In order to do this, one must gain the advantage of the opponent's blade, known as finding the sword (Capo Ferro uses the term guadagnare to define this concept, though the literal term used here, "finding the sword", or trovar di spada, comes from Fabris). Finding the sword involves placing your blade in a position so that, without touching your opponent's blade, your hilt is closer to your opponent's blade than your opponent's hilt is to yours. In order to maintain the advantage, your sword blade must angle over your opponent's blade in such a way that if your opponent pressed his blade against yours, it would slide further along the forte towards your hilt, giving you even more control. (Capo Ferro says that if your sword is on the inside to point your sword over the blade towards the opponent's right shoulder, and vice versa if your blade is on the outside. This is, of course, assuming your opponent is right handed.) In general terms: Finding the sword is having your sword set up in such a way that you have the advantage of leverage and angle over your opponent's blade. Once this occurs, your opponent's thrust will easily be intercepted with your parry at the same time that you thrust, not giving your opponent a chance to even realize what has happened. Before you can practice adequately finding the sword, you must already have a solid grasp on the parries, so the finer details of this concept are outside of the scope of this article.
Defeating a parry
Fencing of any type is never about randomly attacking until you manage to land a lucky shot. It should be about precise actions, chosen because they give you a logical advantage, and used in proper distance and time. When you are fencing, it is vital that you plot ahead. Think about what you are doing, and how your opponent will react to you. One of the obvious examples is how your opponent will react to your thrust. Most likely they will parry you.
Think about that. You know that your opponent will parry you if you attack. It seems so obvious, and yet it is an important element: You have predicted the future. You know what your opponent will do before anything has happened. Use that knowledge to your advantage.
A well-known technique in boxing is the feint. A feint is a false attack, designed to provoke a reaction. Feints are not random jabs, which would leave you open to attack, but calculated actions to get your opponent to do exactly what you are telling them to do.
If you want to feint at your partner, you will first extend your arm to the area of the body in which you want their sword to move to. A mistake that many inexperienced fencers do after this is to retract the arm, then attack on the other side, and this can completely ruin your plans. The act of retracting the arm creates a moment of time (a moment of time is referred to as a tempo). In that moment of time, your opponent has seen what you have done, and will react, quite possibly by attacking while your arm moves back.
In order to prevent this, you cannot retract your arm. Rather, you must keep it extended and move the tip of your sword underneath the opponent's blade and continue forward with the real attack. The act of changing to the other side of the blade is called a cavazione, or often referred to by modern practitioners as a disengage. To perform this, draw the letter "V" with the tip of your sword so that you go underneath the incoming parry. Use only your wrist to do this, as you want this motion to be small. You can practice this technique by going back and forth onto either side of a partner's sword.
Using the off hand to parry
The off hand was often times employed to parry a sword. Sometimes it was empty, and usually gloved, and sometimes an off hand weapon, such as a dagger, was employed. Beginners should learn the basics of the sword alone, without the use of another weapon, first. Once you have trained and know how to use the single sword, then adding an off hand weapon is not difficult.
The empty off hand is generally not used, and with good reason. There are many modern practitioners who will claim that rapier fencing is about using the off hand to parry, and the sword to attack, but as Salvator Fabris said, "those who parry with the hand are easier to kill than those who defend with the sword." This is because the off hand is very easy to avoid with a simple disengage, such as described above. So if the hand is so easy to parry, then why use it?
One reason that can't be ignored is desperation: You have completely botched up, there's a sword coming at your face, and it would take too long to otherwise move your own sword to parry. So your hand is there. To lower the chance of receiving a serious hand injury, a glove would have been worn for this. According to Saviolo, "this weapon must bee used with a glove, and if a man should be without a glove, it were better to hazard a little hurt of the hand, thereby to become maister of his enemies Swoorde, then to breake with the swoord, and so give his enemy the advantage."
But the off hand could be used quite effectively to your advantage if you understand the correct time to use it. A simple example would be to aid in the feint that we discussed above. Take the following example:
Fencer A performs a feint to the high outside of Fencer B. Fencer B attempts to parry in response in the second guard. Fencer A, planning ahead, disengages underneath the sword to attack to the high inside. But what Fencer A did not count on was that Fencer B charged straight in and attacked, with no regard for his own life, and thus both fencers are wounded.
Fencer A could have prevented this with the use of the off hand. To use the off hand, you do not want to swat or swish the arm around. You want to firmly press the oncoming blade away, and you want to do this at the same time you are closing in for your attack. If you use the hand first, your opponent can simply move around and attack someplace else. Let's look at the scenario again:
Fencer A feints to the high outside. Fencer B parries in the second guard. Fencer A disengages underneath the sword to attack the high inside, but at the same time takes the off hand and presses against the middle of Fencer B's blade, making it impossible for Fencer B to attack simultaneously. By the time Fencer B has removed the sword from the Fencer A's hand, it is too late.
To effectively learn any martial art, having a partner is essential. One can only go so far with solo drills alone. An ideal situation is to find a teacher, and if you have the option of taking lessons, do not bother trying to practice without instruction.
Finding a partner, however, may be necessary for you to do on your own, and can be as simple as recruiting an interested friend, though sometimes this is easier said than done. You should search your area to find if there are any practice groups or classes, which will make your job much easier. Check local recreation centers, search on the Internet, and ask in sword-related online forums.
Training and Safety Gear
Today's practitioner can find a huge array of choices on what sword to choose. You will have to ask yourself a few things: What is your price range? What will your partner be using? How will the swords be used? You can technically learn the basics of rapier with a long stick, but the more accurate you want your techniques to be, the more accurate a sword you will need to train with.
If price is an issue, you can find a standard sport fencing epee cheaply. It should be noted that this is not an accurate tool for replicating rapier techniques, as it is both too short and too light. However, it is a very cheap option for getting started, with a flexible and sturdy blade that makes it suitable for safe training with a partner.
Going up from there are various makers of rapier simulators and replicas. Different blades are made to different specifications. To accurately practice rapier, you should have a blade that accurately reflects a real rapier's handling characteristics. It ideally should not be too whippy, but keep in mind that if you are doing drills or fencing with a partner, they will probably not appreciate being struck hard by a rigid steel pole. Del Tin Armi Antiche of Italy makes two versions of rapier blades that can be used for fencing, and cutlers such as Scott Wilson at Darkwood Armory can mount a variety of hilt styles to the blade. You will need to do your research to decide what type of sword best fits you and your partner.
Once you have a sword, you will need safety gear. It has often been stated that the most important piece of safety gear is self-control, and that is no exception here. Different groups have different safety regulations, because different groups have different focuses and goals. Most, however, will agree that the second most important piece of safety gear will be your head protection. A standard, 3-weapon fencing mask will be more than adequate to protect you. Many people prefer certain types over others, and like your sword, you will have to research what serves you best.
Most groups also have requirements on what to use to cover your body. Generally a standard fencing jacket and a pair of gloves will be good enough. If desired, padded fencing jackets can be acquired, and there are also other options that are acceptable in many groups. Examples include a padded tunic-styled fencing jacket sold by Triplette Competition Arms and a fencing doublet sold by CAS Iberia / Hanwei. In addition, most fencing suppliers sell hard plastic chest protectors to wear underneath the jacket, and some groups require this for women. For men, it is strongly suggested that an athletic cup should be worn, as a hard hit to the groin could potentially cause testicular torsion, something that could result in amputation in a worst case scenario. Some groups require the use of a gorget (a rigid piece of armor worn around the collar to protect the neck), and some require the use of elbow and knee pads. You will also want clothing and footwear that allows you to move freely and easily.
As stated earlier, different rapier groups have different focuses and goals and not everyone trains the same way. While some may find the lack of standardization frustrating, it is overall a good thing, because this is how the art can truly grow. With all of the different approaches out there, it also means that there are many options for people who are pursuing different things. Therefore, in your studies, you will need to ask yourself what you are training for. Is it a recreational hobby, just for a little bit of fun on the weekends? Is it the pursuit of a lost historical art? Is it for fitness? Is it to augment a related hobby (such as live action role playing or stage combat)? Is it a combination of the above? Is it none of the above? Knowing the answer to this will help you define what exact equipment and gear is necessary.
As a martial art, it is safe to say that the study of the rapier has little application on the modern streets. It is highly unlikely that you will ever be faced with the situation where your rapier is the only thing standing between you and death.
But that does not stop thousands of practitioners from pursuing it anyway. Perhaps it is the romanticism that draws us in. Perhaps it is the realization that, in its context, the rapier was a formidable weapon of defense. Perhaps it is the feeling of a connection to a past that is long gone, but preserved in the historical fencing treatises. Regardless of your inspiration, it is a weapon of elegance and deadly beauty, and one that requires dedication and grace to effectively master. It will be a long road, but one that ultimately will train the body to work in harmony with the mind. So with that, good luck in your studies.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.
Special thanks to Tom Leoni, who's intense scholarship and friendship have helped me lift my understanding of rapier into a new light.
Sources and Bibliography
Capo Ferro translation from William Wilson, president of the Tattershall School of Defense
Fabris translation from Tom Leoni, Head Instructor of The Order of the Seven Hearts
Saviolo taken from Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2001