I believe that the correct
approach, as followed by modern Renaissance martial arts
revivalists, should be to take all aspect of rapier
the physical sword and the swordsmanship style
As with all post factum definitions, we should
not be too strict in our demarcation of the parameters of
what, in this case, makes a rapier a rapier.
There were many types
of sword and many different ways of using the same type.
Perhaps my most satisfactory answer to this dilemma is this. A rapier is like the old definition of obscenity you
know it when you see it.
For now, I will confine my discussion (and my terminology)
to the authors that are recognized as the primary classical
Italian rapier authors: Giganti, Capoferro, Alfieri and, above all, Fabris.
Sword And Its Parts
of the sword is the first half of fencing: it teaches
us to become familiar with the sword in order to handle
(Capoferro, Chapter III).
rapier masters insisted that the knowledge of the sword
is an essential element of successful fencing.
Hence the need to name and classify its many components.
This is the half of the blade closer to the swordsmans
hand. It is the defensive part of the
sword with which virtually all successful parries are executed. The forte has no offensive role in traditional Italian rapier
theory, so much so that Capoferro states that it would not
matter whether it sported an edge at all.
Debole (Foible). This is the half of the blade
incorporating the tip.
It is the offensive part of the sword with which
all attacks are executed.
According to traditional Italian rapier theory, this
section of the blade should almost never be employed defensively,
especially against cuts.
The one exception is noted below under terza.
This word is employed by Alfieri to describe
the middle section of the blade.
Filo dritto (True edge). The edge of the sword on the same
side as ones knuckles.
This is the part of the blade with which most parries
and cutting attacks are performed, according to virtually
all classical Italian rapier masters.
Filo falso (False edge). The edge of the sword opposite
the true edge. The role of this part of the blade
is somewhat more limited than that of the true edge.
However, there are some cuts that are delivered with
this edge, primarily ascending diagonal cuts (falsi, see section below on cuts).
As far as defensive play, Capoferro concedes that in rare
cases, the false edge may be used in parries.
The side of the sword, i.e. the
flat part of the blade on either side, between the two edges.
This part of the sword has no active role in traditional
Italian rapier play, as no offensive or defensive action
involve it directly.
Finimento, fornimento, (The
guard of the hilt). This is the part of the hilt consisting
of differently-shaped bars and branches or (later) of the
cup. Its role
extends beyond the obvious one the protection of
the hand. Fabris makes a very successful
use of the guards mass and width to literally shut
the opponents blade out of line in the course of an
The sections of the blade
(using Fabris four quarters).
Prima (First). In the division of the blade, this is the quarter closest
to the swordsmans hand.
It is the strongest part of the blade and, for this
reason, it is the preferred part of the sword with which
to execute parries.
The prima and the seconda have no offensive role
in traditional Italian rapier play.
Seconda (Second). In the division of the blade, this is the quarter that goes
from the end of the first part to mid-sword.
This section of the sword, like the previous
one, is exclusively used for defense, although it is not
as strong as the prima.
The reason for this is both structural and mechanical.
Structurally, any well-made blade tapers progressively
from the hilt to the tip, thus becoming increasingly flexible;
mechanically, the greater the distance between any point
along the blade and the swordsmans hand, the less
the leverage when meeting another blade. The prima and the seconda together
constitute the swords forte
(see definition above).
Terza (Third). In the division of the blade, this is the quarter that goes
from mid-blade to half-way to the tip.
It is almost entirely useless for parries (especially
against cuts), although it can be successfully opposed to
the fourth part of the opponents blade when parrying
a thrust. Its primary role is an offensive
one: when used together with the fourth
part in adding a slicing motion to the percussive
action of a cut, it can make such a blow very effective,
as Fabris reminds us in chapter 3.
Quarta (Fourth). In the division of the blade, this is the fourth incorporating
the swords tip.
Its role is essentially offensive, as it is the part
responsible for delivering both thrusts and cuts (see above).
The terza and quarta together constitute the swords
debole (see definition
Why divide the blade in
so many parts?
Although Italian masters
disagree as to the exact number of parts into which to divide
the blade (e.g. Capoferro = 2; Fabris =
they all place an enormous emphasis on the need for the
swordsman to know that each section has its own peculiar
role. In other
words, these masters viewed the sword as a highly sophisticated
tool possessing many parts, each one of which, in turn,
possessed its specific function.
For instance, Fabris, who divides the blade into
four sections, assigns to each a specific degree of usefulness
as far as defense or offense; had he only distinguished
between debole and forte, many of the subtleties
inherent in his style would not be possible. Even Capoferro, who, in his usual
pragmatic style states that it is enough to divide the blade
between forte and debole (two sections) though
later in the book finds the need to further sub-divide the
debole. Alfieri, who divides the
blade in five parts, de
facto utilizes the sword in a similar manner to Fabris,
even finding it necessary to explain how Salvator Gran Maestro divided the
In 1553, the Milanese
Camillo Agrippa did away with the myriad of fancy-named
guards of spada da
lato and codified four guards that were to remain the
mainstay of fencing for at least another two centuries.
For this and many other reasons, Agrippa may be considered
one of the true pioneers of the rapier style.
Guardie (Guards). Postures of the feet, body, arm(s) and sword possessing the
desired characteristics to fulfill various tactical purposes
of defense and offense.
Italian rapier guards derive their properties from
the position of the sword-hand (prospettiva, or perspective).
Prima (First). Any guard featuring the thumb-down position in the sword hand. The reason why it is called first
is because it is the first natural position the hand assumes
after pulling the sword from the sheath and pointing it
towards the opponent.
The prima is an inherently high guard, so it tends
to defend the upper body and the head rather well, although
it leaves the legs exposed.
For this reason, Fabris prefers the prima in sword
and dagger rather than sword alone. Defensively, this guard is particularly
effective against cuts.
Offensively, the prima is very formidable, since
the thrusting attacks launched from this position proceed
naturally downward, thus possessing great momentum.
The primas main drawback is the fact that it
tends to tire the arm.
Seconda (Second). Any guard featuring the palm-down
position in the sword hand.
Since the blades true edge naturally faces
to the outside, this guard is particularly effective to
shut the opponent out of line to that side.
Although not as high as the prima, the seconda provides
excellent defense to the upper body without tiring the arm
as much as the previous guard.
Offensively, many good attacks can be performed from
this guard, since it lends itself to flexibility as far
as forming angles and, therefore, can take advantage of
even the most unusual openings the opponent may offer.
As an interesting asides, Capoferro, in Chapter X
of his Gran Simulacro, vilifies the prima and the seconda
to the point that Alfieri finds himself compelled to refute
him rather harshly 30 years later.
Terza (Third). Any guard featuring the knuckles-down position in the sword hand. This is probably the preferred
position in classical Italian rapier, with Capoferro going
as far as to state that the terza is the only guard (until the last
chapter of his book, which has the strong flavor of an afterthought).
Although virtually no parries are executed
in terza (as the true edge faces downwards), it is a very
flexible guard since the hand is half-way between the seconda
and the quarta and can therefore quickly turn to either
side to fulfill most defensive requirements.
Ditto for attacks, few of which are actually carried
out with the hand in third. Another of the many advantages
of this guard is that it is the least tiring for the sword
Quarta (Fourth). Any guard featuring the palm-up position in the sword hand.
Fabris states to prefer the fourth over all other
guards, although in virtually all his examples of attacks,
the fencers start out in terza.
The main advantage of this guard is that it covers
the inside line splendidly. Once the arm gets used to this
position, the quarta is indeed an excellent guard.
Offensively, it is the most used hand-position in
classical Italian rapier, with the austere Capoferro stating
that the hand should always
be in quarta when performing a typical lunge.
Indeed, attacks in fourth are suitable for both the
inside and the outside, thanks to the ease with which angles
can be formed with the hand thus situated.
guard in which the hand and the arm are situated in between
two (adjacent) of the above four positions. The most important mixed guard
in Italian rapier is the one introduced by Alfieri, which
shares of the third and the fourth.
Quinta, Sesta (Fifth, Sixth). Guards found in Capoferros
illustrations (marked by the letters E and F, page 44),
otherwise not further described or identified by him or
any of the classical Italian rapier masters.
terms pertaining to guards and posture:
Dentro (Inside). The area to the left of the sword when in guard (assuming fencer
Thus when two fencers face each other to the
inside, it means that each will see the opponents
sword to the left of his own.
Fencing to the inside is the more used method in
classical Italian rapier.
Fuori (Outside). The opposite of inside, i.e. the area to the right of the sword
when in guard (assuming fencer is right-handed).
the right (or left) foot. Any guard, unless specified, is
formed with the right foot forward (over the right
foot). According to classical Italian rapier theory, placing oneself
in guard over the left foot (especially without a companion
weapon) is counterproductive for two reasons:
1) it places the left leg in danger, since the forte
of the sword is not nearby to protect it and 2) it leads to slow attacks because
the right foot has to travel a greater distance as it passes
states that guards over the left foot are safest in sword
and cloak, as the latter hangs low to protect the whole
like chess, is not a static game, and one must adapt his
play to the moves of the opponent in order to maximize effectiveness
and minimize danger.
Therefore, depending on what posture and strategy
the opponent adopts, one should tailor his own to suit every
Hence the need of counterguards, or counterpostures
(literally: postures to counter
the opponents guards).
Fabris devotes two whole
chapters to the counterguard as one of the mainstays of
his style (chapter 4 on sword alone and chapter [3-deest]
of sword and dagger).
According to Fabris, a counterguard (or counterposture)
is a subtle adjustment of any of the main guards made to
ensure that the line
between the opponents tip and ones body is completely
covered by the forte of the sword. Counterpostures are to be
formed outside the measure in order to ensure good defense
once the danger zone is entered.
Nicoletto Giganti, in
his Chapter 1, plainly states that while inexperienced fencers
stand in guard, good ones stand in counterguard.
Some Masters idea
of a counterguard (e.g. Cavalcabo) is a guard itself rather
than its adjustment. For example, he advocates using
the fourth guard against a first, a second against a second,
etc. By contrast,
Fabris and Alfieri can tailor most guards to oppose any
posture by the opponent by means of slight adjustments of
the sword-arm and the angle of the wrist.
Regrettably, the concept
of counterguards is one of the most overlooked in
Larga (Wide, large). The distance where, by lunging forward with the right foot,
the opponent can be reached with the tip of the sword.
Stretta (Narrow). The distance where, by bending the body forward, the opponent
can be reached with the tip of the sword (without moving
the feet). Both the larga and the stretta
are widely used in Italian rapier, with the first being
a safer distance (albeit conducive to slower
attacks) and the second possessing the opposite benefits
Fuori misura (Out of measure). The distance between two opponents
where neither can reach the other in a single tempo.
Strettissima (Extra-narrow). Identified by Capoferro as the
distance where, while in the misura larga, one can wound
the opponent in the sword or dagger-hand (see also mezzo
Perfetta (Perfect). Identified by Alfieri as a sub-species of the misura larga
where the necessary lunge to reach the opponent is not so
long as to disrupt ones form and balance.
Rompere di misura (Breaking
the measure). The act of retreating from one
of the measures to out of measure.
Guadagnare la misura, entrare in misura
(Gaining the measure).
The act of proceeding from out of measure to the
misura larga, or from the misura larga to the misura stretta
It is important to understand
that the concept of measure is not absolute;
rather, it is relative to ones size and ability. It oftentimes happens that two fencers of different height
and skill face each other at a given distance and one is
in measure, the other is not.
This is because the first can reach the second by
lunging with the right foot (by virtue of his longer limbs
and/or his more developed ability) while the other is too
small or unskilled to do so from the same distance.
Needless to say, the first enjoys a tremendous advantage. So, say all the Italian Masters, practicing long and accurate
lunges is a vital part of the swordsmans exercises
in order to shorten the measure for oneself.
Of The Sword
a fencer has the advantage of the sword when
his blade is situated in such a way as to enjoy the mechanical
advantage of the lever when intersecting the opponents.
Key: when the two blades intersect,
the one that is met closer to the hilt has the advantage.
Example: if fencer A places the second
part of his blade against Bs third part, A enjoys
the advantage of the sword.
The advantage of the sword
is extremely important in classical Italian rapier, and
all the attacks, defenses, guards and counterguards depend
on this subtle hinge-point.
Trovar di spada (Finding the
sword). The art of placing ones
blade against the opponents (without actual contact!)
so as to enjoy the advantage of the sword. He who has more of his sword
into the opponents (no matter by how little) will
have the advantage of the sword (Fabris, Chapter 9).
Between two experienced fencers, the one who manages
to find the opponents sword usually enjoys an enormous
defensive and offensive advantage.
trovar di spada, occupare la spada, guadagnare
la spada, acquistare, coprire, etc.
Free sword, keeping the sword free
Preventing the opponent from finding ones
sword. This can be accomplished by attempting
to gain the advantage oneself, by keeping the sword away
from the opponents (especially feasible when fencing
with a companion weapon) or by breaking the measure. Keeping the sword free is essential
towards succeeding in a bout, according to Fabris.
Perder la spada (Losing of
the sword). If A finds Bs sword, B has
lost the sword.
Not a situation to find oneself in, according to
classical Italian rapier theory.
Pie fermo (Firm-foot). This term applies to all offensive
footwork where at least one foot
remains static (exception: the girata).
The typical lunge with the right foot
falls within this category, as the left foot remains in
A series of resolute steps towards the opponent
(usually starting with the left foot) in the course of an
of the advantages of the passata is that the first step
reduces the distance from the opponent considerably; another
is that its momentum oftentimes unsettles the opponent. All Italian rapier Masters consider
the passata an extremely important technique to have in
ones repertoire, although Fabris tells us that the
lunge a pie fermo was the more commonly
used in anger.
Passo grande, passo piccolo
(Wide, small step). The distance between feet while
in guard. Fabris is an advocate of the small
step, since it is conducive to a longer, more explosive
lunge and keeps the right leg more protected. Capoferros guards, on the
other hand, feature a much wider step, with Alfieri being
somewhere in the middle.
Passo straordinario (Extraordinary
step). The distance between feet while
performing a typical lunge i.e. bringing ones
feet more than a wide step apart. The theory on steps and their
measures is explained in great detail by Agrippa.
Girata. The act of turning ones body out of
line while stepping forward in the course of an attack. Most commonly, a girata is performed by either stepping to
the left with the right foot or by crossing the left foot
behind the right one.
The main drawback of these types of footwork is that
the sword loses the support of the feet and
body and can therefore be more easily pushed aside.
A motion of the opponent within the measures
that creates a momentary opportunity to attack. The concept of tempo incorporates elements of both time and
motion. A tempo
(Italian = time) is finite and must therefore be longer
in duration than the time required for the attack.
2) The act of performing a single movement (e.g. 1-tempo parry-counterattack
= the act of parrying and delivering a counterattacking
blow in the same movement.
Also called un tempo, stesso tempo).
The art of beating the opponent as he tries
to take advantage of a tempo you created.
make a movement within the measures (= you make a
tempo); he attacks (= attack of tempo),
but, by doing so he himself makes a tempo; you are able to strike at him
(with or without parrying) and save yourself.
Mezzo tempo (Half-tempo). Identified by Capoferro as the
situation when one can make a quick strike at the opponents
sword hand. (See
Ferita (Wound). Any action resulting in harming the opponent.
This includes all cuts, thrusts, lunges or
defensive counteractions (such as the stop-thrust,
an action described as early as Agrippa).
Distesa (lunge). A type of ferita a pie
fermo (see definitions) consisting of performing an
extraordinary step with the right foot.
Different Maestri call it by different names, although
there is little or no technical difference between them. Capoferros botta lunga, for instance, establishes
some rather fixed canons as far as the length
of the step, the placing of the limbs and the position of
the hand. Fabris
distesa, instead is tailored to
the specific situation as far as distance, placement of
the body and position of the hand.
See definition above.
One of the many terms for thrust
Taglio, also coltellata. Cut (see sub-species below).
Stoccata (Generic for thrust). This term is applied rather loosely
to mean a thrust or even a lunge.
Fabris utilizes this term (although not exclusively)
to describe all thrusts, qualifying it with the position
of the hand; e.g. stoccata di quarta = thrust with the hand in fourth position.
Another common synonym is punta. Some Masters (e.g. Capoferro),
restrict the meaning of stoccata to a thrust
delivered with the hand in third.
Imbroccata (Thrust from the
first guard or position).
This term is generally used to describe a thrust
executed from the prima.
Other terms (punta dritta,
riversa). Some Masters mention these other
thrusts as sub-species proceeding, respectively, from the
second and the fourth guards.
are blows of the edge as opposed to stabs with the point.
Depending on the circumstance and blade used, they may or
may not be intended as wounding actions.
Classification according to general direction:
Mandritto (Fore-hand). Any cut proceeding right-to-left (assuming the fencer is right
Riverso (Back-hand). Any cut proceeding left-to-right (assuming the fencer is right
cut is very dear to Alfieri, who employs it as an alternative
tactic on most of his attacks.
to specific direction.
A cut proceeding on a perfectly horizontal plane.
It can land at 3 oclock of the target (mandritto
tondo) or at 9 oclock (riverso tondo).
descending diagonal cut.
It can land at 1-2 oclock of the target (mandritto
squalembrato) or at 10-11 oclock (riverso squalembrato).
A descending vertical cut landing at circa
12 oclock of the target. Depending on whether it proceeds
slightly from the right or from the left, it can be mandritto
fendente or riverso fendente.
Sottomano (Underhand). This is an ascending cut landing just right of 6 oclock
of the target. It
is mentioned by Fabris and Alfieri.
Montante (Ascending). This is the common name assigned to a vertical ascending cut.
Fabris and Alfieri, who also mention the sottomano,
classify the montante as a cut landing just left of 6 oclock
of the target.
Ridoppio (literally = redoubled). In a strictly rapier context,
this cut is mentioned by Capoferro as being a rapid succession
of two generic mandritti: the first one to the opponents
sword (to get it out of the way), the second to his body.
This is an ascending diagonal cut delivered with
the false edge of the sword. It was used extensively by the
16th-Century Bolognese masters of Spada da filo such as Marozzo and Manciolino, but it makes an appearance
on classical Rapier manuals. Falso dritto is the one landing
at 5 oclock of the target; falso manco the one landing
at 7 oclock.
Classification according to delivery method:
Dalla spalla (From the shoulder). This method of delivering any
of the above cuts can be further sub-divided into two categories:
Letting the shoulder swing
the whole arm as it delivers the cut (similar to a tennis
gives the cut great momentum, but has the serious drawback
of leaving the body open for a rather long time.
For this reason, Fabris considers it the worst kind
of cutting technique in rapier play.
Keeping the arm and the
wrist locked forward as the cut is delivered from the shoulder;
in this manner, the motion of the arm (and the sword) is
more controlled, although it does not give the cut quite
the same impetus as the previous one.
But the fact that such a cut never brings the sword
completely out of line makes this delivery method one of
the preferred one by Fabris and Alfieri.
Also, the narrower motion is compensated
by the fact that the whole weight of the arm contributes
to the momentum of this cut.
Dal gomito (From the elbow). Any of the cuts can be delivered
by keeping the shoulder (and the arm) locked and by just
swinging the forearm and the wrist. This type of cut, although not
making as wide an arc as the first one delivered from the
shoulder, still brings the sword quite far out of line.
For this reason, Fabris advises against it.
Dal polso, dal nodo della mano
(From the wrist).
This cut is delivered by keeping the whole arm locked
forward (shoulder and wrist) and by swinging the sword in
a small arc from the wrist.
This type of cut is quick and does not open up the
line too much; it is therefore one of Fabris preferred
methods of delivering cuts.
Stramazzone. This cut, very dear to the pre-eminent 16th-Century
Bolognese Maestri, is delivered from the wrist, and it makes
the sword describe a whole circle not dissimilar to that
described in a modern moulinee. Although Fabris does not use the term, he would include the
stramazzone in the repertoire of cuts delivered from the
wrist (and therefore advisable).
In order to specifically
classify a cut, Maestri tended to use all three identifying
criteria: general direction, specific direction and delivery
method (not unlikely biologys Family, Genus and Species). For example, a wide swinging cut
landing horizontally on the opponents right side should
be classified as a riverso tondo from the shoulder.
Cavazione (Trade). The act of trading sides with the opponents
sword, i.e. bringing the sword from the inside to the outside
or vice-versa. This
can be done both under and over the opponents sword.
It is similar (but not analogous) to the modern disengage.
One of the main differences is that the classical
Fabris trade is almost always executed in the course of
a forward thrust; the motion, therefore, ends up being corkscrew-shaped,
since it combines a forward motion and a semi-circular one.
One of the most serious
modern misconceptions about the trade or cavazione
is that of equating it with a circular parry.
This idea originated in the 19th Century,
when the first fencing historians such as Castle researched
old martial arts texts in order to find the supposed family
tree of contemporary fencing techniques.
The classical Italian rapier cavazione is not
a parry, although it can incorporate one if the tactical
situation calls for it.
Controcavazione (Countertrade). The act of nullifying the effect
of an opponents trade by performing one of your own,
thereby ending on the same side of his sword as before the
whole operation started.
Ricavazione (Re-trade). The act of nullifying the effect of an opponents countertrade
by performing one additional trade, thereby ending on the
same side as after the first trade.
Mezza cavazione (Half-trade). The act of interrupting a trade
in the middle, ending in most cases with the sword underneath
Commettere di spada (Commitment
of the sword). The act of performing a trade,
then returning the sword on its original side.
Attaccare di spada (Attaching
swords). The act of pushing forcefully
against each others blade in order to eventually
shove the opponents sword out of the way.
This, according to Fabris, is a very poor technique
that can make a sword bout degenerate into a wrestling match. For this (and many other
reasons), Fabris advocates never to make contact with the
opponents blade unless forced to parry.
Cedere di spada (Yielding of
the sword). The act of ceding to the pressure
of the opponents blade while attaching swords (see
above), in order to let the opponents sword fall out
of line while your own goes to the attack. Fabris advocates this technique
as the best one to adopt in the event of an attachment of
Schivar di vita (Voiding). The act of voiding the opponents
sword by bringing ones body out of line (e.g. with
a side-step). Knowing how to void is one of
the most essential aspects of 16th-17th-Century
Italian swordsmanship (not just rapier).
Finta (Feint). The act of giving the opponent the impression of attacking
a part of his body in order to cause him to create an opening
as he goes for the parry. A feint generally involves a fake
target (where one initially pretends to strike) and a real
one (where the attack eventually lands).
Fabris, who perhaps has the best section on feints,
admonishes us that the fake target should nonetheless
be a realistic one, in case the opponent does not fall for
the feint and fails to move for the parry.
Chiamata, invito (Invite). The act of deliberately making
a tempo or offering an opening to the opponent in order
to lure him to attack and then beat him with a contratempo
Be careful not to make too wide an opening as you
perform an invite, says Fabris; otherwise, the likelihood of a
double is very real.
Mutazione (Mutation). A movement or change of posture
performed outside the measures.
The same thing performed within the measures becomes
a tempo (see definition).
In this glossary, I have
listed most components of classical Italian rapier play.
For the sake of brevity, I have omitted their specific
tactical raison detre as well as the
description of their proper technical execution.
For a deeper insight on any of these terms and their
tactical/technical context, please refer to the following
Fabris, Lo schermo,
overo Scienza darmi, Copenhagen, 1606
Alfieri, La scherma,
Capoferro, Gran simulacro
dellarte e delluso della scherma, Siena,
di scienza darmi, Roma, 1553