Guide for the Single Sword Play of Joseph Swetnam's
Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence
Brian Kirk ©2017
The true guard for the single Rapier.
your Rapier point something sloping towards your left shoulder, and
your Rapier hand so low, as your girdle-stead, or lower, and beare out
your Rapier hand right at armes end, so farre as you can , and keepe
the point of your Rapier something leaning outwards toward your enemie,
keeping your Rapier alwaies on the out-side of your enemies Rapier,
but not ioyning with him, for you must observe a true distance at all
weapons, that is to say, three feete betwixt the pints of your weapons,
and twelve foote distance with your fore foote from your enemies fore
foote, you must bee carefull that you frame your guard right, now you
must not beare the Rapier hand-wide of the right side of your bodie,
but right forward from your girdle-stead, as before-said.
use of the single Rapier, the true guard is to hold the rapier with your
right foot forward and your hand at the height of your belt or slightly
lower. Your sword arm should be extended with your arm relatively straight.
The blade should be point forward but sloping toward your left shoulder
for it is necessary that you keep your rapier on the outside of your opponent's
blade. Always manage your distance with your opponent, keeping around
12 feet between your front foot and his, which is the farthest distance
for which you can reach on the lunge.
The Reasons of this guard.
In keeping your point something sloping or compassing your face,
your enemie cannot offend you with a wrist blow, which if you keepe
your point directly upright, you may verie easily bee hit in the face.
Begin guarded as beforesaid, if your enemie discharge a thrust at
you, carrie your Rapier hand over your bodie towards you left side,
keeping your point directly in his pace untill you have defend your
enemies assault, then presently after let fall the point of your Rapier,
turning your knuckles inwards, and discharge your thrust at your enemies
thigh, or bodie, as you see occasion.
There are likewise many other guards to be framed at single Rapier,
as that one of the short Sword is a good guard at some times, and for
some purposes, if a man be perfect in it, by skill and practice aforehand,
as heereafter you shall see the manner thereof more at large, when I
come to that weapon.
Now another fashion is, by holding your left hand upon the blade,
and so with the strength of your forefinger and thumbe of your left
hand, you may breake your enemies thrust cleere of your bodie, by turning
of your rapier point downe-ward or up-ward accordingly as your enemie
chargeth you; and then charge your enemie againe with a quicke answer.
Now another is, by standing upon the Stocke, readie to choppe in
upon your enemies assault, but must turne in your left shoulder to your
enemie nearer then the right, onelie to be as it were a baite unto him,
but when he doth thrust at you, wheele about your bodie, falling backe
with your left foote; but withall, thrust out your rapier, and so you
may hit, and defend onelie with the shift of the bodie, and you shall
find that the oppressor will come upon his won death, by proffering
at that shoulder, which you make shew to be open unto him: but you must
not offer to defend it with your rapier, but only trust unto the shift
of your bodie.
want to hold this guard because to have your rapier sloped across your
face a little prevents quick wrist cuts to your head. If your opponent
thrusts at you to the inside, parry across your body and turn your hand
into Quarta. Keep the point high until you have cleared your opponent's
point, then make a half cave and thrust low to your opponent's thigh or
There are other guards that exist for the single
rapier, such as the Hanging Guard, which is good at some times, and one
can become quite proficient at it through practice.
Another alternative guard is the half-sword guard,
wherein you hold the strong of your rapier with your left hand. In doing
so, any parries that you make will be greatly strengthened. From this
guard you basically use your rapier in the manner of a staff, as is described
later in the manual.
Lastly, you can stand in the Stocke Guard, wherein
you stand with your left side forward in order to bait your opponent into
attacking there. When he thrusts at you, quickly pivot on your right foot,
retreating with the left, and thrust home with your rapier. In this manner
you don't engage your opponent's blade and only use your quick dodging
to avoid his thrust.
False play at the single Rapier.
If your enemie doe lie in this guard, according to this Picture
then proffer or faine a thrust unto his left side, but presently plucke
backe your hand, an thrust it home unto his right arme shoulder or face,
for hee will carry his rapier over his bodie, to defend the fained thrust,
but can hardly bring him backe againe to save your second or determined
thrust, except hee be very skillful, active, or nimble: now if he doe
not beare his Rapier to defend the fained thrust when you proffer it,
then you may hit him with a plaine thrust a second time, if you put
it home without falsing it at all.
Gloss: If your
opponent stands in the true guard, then feint a thrust to his inside.
When he moves to defend this, pull back your sword and thrust it home
on the other side of the blade to his arm, shoulder, or face. If he does
not react to your first thrust then you can either continue it to his
body as a real thrust, or quickly make a second thrust to the same opening.
Likewise, you may proffer or faine a thrust two foote wide of your
enemie his right side, and presently thrust it home to his breast, for
hee will beare his rapier beyond the compasse of true defence, by reason
it will seeme unto a cunning player that your Intention is to hit him
on the out side of the rapier arme, so that when he thinketh to strike
your point from offending his arme, by that means hee will open his
bodie, although he open himselfe but a little, yet with your second
thrust you may hit him as aforesaid.
you can feint a thrust wide to his outside and then finish with a real
thrust onto his chest on the inside.
The defence of this false play.
You must be very carefull that you doe not over carry your Rapier
in the defence in anie maner of thrust, yet you must carrie him a little
against every proffer which your enemie doth make: for if a man be verie
skilfull, yet is he not certaine when his enemie doth charge his point
upon him, and proffer a thrust, whether that thrust will come home,
or no: wherefor (as I said) you must beare your Rapier against everie
thrust to defend it, but beare him but halfe a foote towards the left
side, for that will cleare the bodie from danger of his thrust, and
so quicke backe againe in his place, whereby to meete his weapon on
the other side, if he charge you with a second thrust, thinking to deceive
you as aforesaid.
Gloss: In order
to not fall victim to this feinting yourself make sure to never over carry
your rapier for your own defense. However, your must also always respect
the possibility that any thrust proffered at you may be real, so always
respond the minimum amount to all thrusts (this corresponds to about half
a foot towards your left side). If your opponent does feint against you,
after moving to address his first thrust, defend the second by meeting
it on the opposite side and drive it away.
A slippe at single Rapier.
Now if your enemy doe charge you with a blow, when as you see the
blow comming, plucke in your Rapier, and let the blow slippe, and then
answer him againe with a thrust, but bee carefull to plucke in your
rapier to that cheeke which hee chargeth you at, so that if the blow
doe reach home, you may defend him according unto the rule of the backsword.
The defence of this slippe is to forbeare striking at all, but if
you doe strike, not to over-strike your Sword, but so strike your blow
as you may recover him into his place hastily againe; for in fight if
you doe strike, you must forebeare strong blowes, for with a strong
blow, you may fall into divers hazzards; therefore strike an easie blow,
and doe it quicke, but to thrust, and not strike at all, is to thy best
Gloss: If your
opponent means to strike at your rapier to generate an opening, you may
slip his cut by pulling your blade to yourself (always to the side which
the cut is threatening), so that his cut will over shoot, and you can
thrust to the new opening. In order to avoid this happening to you, the
first rule is to not make cuts. However, if you do cut, then, as with
your defense, you must manage how much you risk over carrying your blade
during any action. For this reason you must avoid making uncontrolled
cuts. However, Swetnam's advise is to only thrust, which is your best
Put your thumbe long wayes, or forward upon the handle of your rapier
according unto the natural fashion, and your enemie lying in this guard,
ioyne your Rapier according as the Picture, and so soone as you have
ioyned, turne the heele of your hand upward, and your point downeward,
and so bring your point, compassing under your enemies right elbow;
and then with the strength of the thumb, turne it unto his breast: the
like you may doe if your enemie offer to close with you at single rapier,
for if hee come hastily upon you, you can not drawe out your point whereby
to offend him, but by turning it in as before-said, you may hit the
skilfullest man that is in his comming in: Now if hee doe defend your
point below, you may by a sodaine turning up your point, thrust it him
to his right side shoulder or face, whether you will our selfe.
play. If your opponent does make an outside bind with you and over pushes
in this bind, then put your thumb to the flat of the blade and rotate
your hand into a hanging position (point down Secunda), such that your
opponent's blade will slip past yours to the inside. In this manner, move
your hand slightly to the outside and then rotate the point upwards (counter
to the direction you just dropped it) in order to thrust your opponent
in the chest. If your opponent follows your point downwards and defends
your thrust, then by quickly rotating your blade upwards, you should be
able strike to his right shoulder or face. Use this type of slip against
fencers who wish to charge in against you and push out your blade with
The defence of this slippe.
If your enemie doe ioyne his weapon with yours, to close or to turne
in a slippe, then make your selfe readie quickely, by putting your thumbe
upon your rapier, as aforesaid, when he falleth his point towards his
left hand, to fetch the compasse of your rapier arme; then fall your
point the contrary way, I meane towards your left hand, so shall you
meete with his weapon below againe, and this will defend your selfe,
and when he raiseth his point againe, then doe you raise yours likewise
into his place againe.
Gloss: In order
to defend against your opponent doing the previous slip to you, when your
opponent drops his tip, then rotate your sword counter to his motion so
that you go around his hand with your tip and meet his sword going the
opposite direction to force a low bind. From here, thrust to any openings
perceived. If your opponent attempts to rotate back the way he came, then
you rotate back the way you came, to meet him again with an upper bind.
If your enemie doe ioyne his rapier with yours, and doe beare him
strongly against you, thinking to over beare you by strength of arme,
the so soone as hee beginneth to charge you strongly, beare your rapier
a little against him, and then sodainely let fall your pointe so low,
as your gerdle-stead, and thrust it home withall, and so you may hit
him, for by letting his Rapier goe away sodainely, he swayeth away beyond
the compasse of defence, so that you may hit him, and fall away againe
before hee can recover his Rapier to endanger you.
way to act against a fighter who is overly strong in the outside bind
is to hold your ground and then push back in order to move your opponent's
blade a little. When your opponent pushes back to displace you, cave and
thrust to the inside.
A dazeling thrust at single Rapier or Backe-Sword.
Proffer or faine a thrust at the fairest part of your enemies bodie
which lieth most unguarded, and then more quicker then I can speake
it, thrust it in on the other side, and so changing three or foure times,
and then choppe it home sodainely, and you shall find his bodie unguarded,
by reason that he will carrie his Rapier or Sword this way or that way,
thinking to defend the false thrust, because he supposeth them to be
true thrusts: for there is no man so cunning, that kneweth if a thrust
be proffered within distance, but that I may hit him, or whether it
will be a false thrust, or no, the defender knowes not, and therefore
he must prepare his defence against every thrust, that is proffered.
a thrust at your opponent's closest opening. Then, show a thrust to the
other side when your opponent tries to defend. Repeat several times, then
actually finish the thrust.
A close at single Rapier or at Backe-sword.
First, charging your enemie with a thrust aloft with an over-hand
thrust, directly at your enemies face, and withall follow it in close,
bearing your enemies point over your head, by the carrying up of your
Rapier hand, and then may you make seisure on the hilt of your enemies
Rapier or Sword, or on his hand-wrist with your left hand, and then
having made your seizure of his weapon, you may then use what execution
you will, I mean either blow or thrust, or trip up his heeles.
in Prime over your opponent's sword (might actually be a thrust on the
inside) to his face. When he defends, force both rapiers up high and step
in with your left foot and left hand to grab his weapon or arm. Do with
him as you will.
The guard for Backe-sword.
Carrie your Sword-hilt out at the armes end, and your point leaning
or sloping towards your left shoulder, but not joyning with your enemies
weapon, as this Picture seemeth, but so long as you lie in your guard,
let there be three foote distance betwixt your weapons, but if your
enemie do charge you, either with blow or thrust, carrie your Sword
over your bodie against your enemies assault, and so crosse with him
according to the Picture, beare also your point steadie over your bodie,
something sloping towards your left shoulder; I meane the point must
goe so farre as the hilt, but not turning your point the contrarie waie,
but carrie both together.
I will make it plainer by and by, because I would have thee to understand
it wisely, for having with a true defence defended by your enemies blow
or thrust by crossing with him, or by bearing your weapon against his
assault (as beforesaid) the danger being past, then presently at the
same instant, and with one motion turne downe the point of your Sword,
turning your knuckles inward, and so thrusting it home to your enemies
thigh, but with all, steppe forth with your foote and hand together.
But there is a great observation to be had in your practice concerning
the true carriage of your Sword, true, then it is hard to defend either
blowe or thrust; for if you carrie the hilt of your Sworde against either
blow or thrust, and doe not carrie the point withall levell, even as
you lay in your guard according to the Picture; then your hand and face
is endangered, but bearing the hilt and the point about a foot over
your bodie towards your left side; and likewise to beare your Sword
stiffe out at the armes end, without bowing or your elbows joynt: provided
alwaies, that your Sword being in your right hand, you must look with
both you eies on the in-side of your Sword, for then you have but one
kinde of defence, so that the point of your Sword be sloping towards
the left shoulder: but otherwise, if you keepe the point of your Sword
upright, then your enemie hath three waies to endanger you, especiallie,
if you carrie your Sword right before the middest of your bellie, with
the point upright, as I have knowne some hold an opinion of that waie
to be good, but I say, hee that trusteth to that guard, may be hit in
the head with a sodaine wrist-blow, if his practice were never so good:
and likewise both his armes are unguarded, and to bee dangered, either
with blow or thrust; but if guard your selfe after my direction, then
your enemie hath but onelie the left side of your head, and your legges
open, and they are easie to be defended; the legge, by plucking him
up, the which you must doe upon everie blow, which your enemie chargeth
you withall, and with the same defend the head and bodie, carrying your
Sword over your bodie towards your left side, the point and hilt both
steadie, as I have before said.
Now although I heere speake altogether of a Backe-Sword, it is not
so meant, but the guard is so called: and therefore, whether you are
weaponed with a two-edged Sword, or with a Rapier, yet frame your guarde
in this manner and forme, as before said.
first guard of the Backsword is as follows: Hold your sword in a similar
way as described for the single rapier. Your hand goes in front of your
right thigh, your point is forward, but sloping towards your left shoulder,
but high enough that you are looking at your opponent under your blade,
such that you are more open on your inside, than your outside.
If your opponent thrusts at you, regardless of
side, carry your sword across your body to that side, for its defense.
Once achieved, riposte with a low thrust to their advanced thigh, or stomach,
which will be the closest part of your opponent. Execute this riposte
with an advancing step of your lead foot (= right foot).
Make sure that as you defend, you move both the
point and your hand as one unit. Defending by rotating (compassing) the
point, or by moving the hand (while keeping the point still) is weaker
and will prevent you from parrying appropriately.
An other very sure and dangerous guard at the Backesword,
called the Unicorne guard, or the fore-hand guard.
Before the Sword hilt so high as your face, keeping him out at the
armes end, without bowing if your elbow ioynt, and alwaies keepe your
point directly upon your enemies face, and your knuckles of your Sword
hand upward; but if your enemie doe charge you with a blow to the right
side of your head, then turne but your Sword hilt, and your knuckles
outward, still keeping your Sword arme stiffe in his place, turning
but onelie your wrist and your hand: this is a very dangerous guard
to your enemie, being carried with a strong arme, for by reason that
you keepe him out at the points end, being so directly in his face,
that hee cannot come neare you without great danger, either of blow
or thrust, but indeed if your sword be not carried out with a strong
arme, the your enemie may endanger your head by striking of two blowes
together, the one being strooke at the point of your sword to strick
him down and the other to your head but they must bee strooke both together
verie sodainelie, or else there is small danger in them, now if you
are warie in watching when hee makes his first blow, sodainely plucke
in the point of your sword to you, and so by the slippe his first stroake
hee will over carrie him, so that if you turne an over-hand blow to
his head, you may hit him before hee can recover his sword to strike
his second blow, or defend himslefe lying in this long guard, you may
slippe every blow that is strooke, plucke in your sword even as you
see your enemie stricke and turne it over to the right side of his head.
guard with the Backsword is the Unicorn guard. Put the hilt in front of
your face with extended arm, such that your point goes in front of your
opponent's face. Turn you hand into Quarta. If your opponent attacks you
with a cut to your outside, then turn your hand into Seconda. If your
opponent attempts to strike at your blade, to get it out of his face,
slip his blow and strike him in the head with a cut.
A Close at back-sword.
Lying in thy guard according unto the picture at single Rapier,
and when you meane to close, lift up the hilt of thy word so high as
thy cheeke, and charge thy enemie with a thrust directlie at his face,
and with the same motion steppe in with thy hindmost foote, turning
the knuckles of thy Sword-hand inward, and so bearing thy enemies point
over thy head, and then catch hold on they enemies Sword-hilt, or his
hand-wrist, with thy left hand, but on his hilt is the surest to hold,
and then you may either trip up his heeles, or cut, or thrust him with
your weapon, and in this manner you maie close with a Rapier also, if
you can make your partie good at the gripe or close, for your enemie
in bearing over his Sword over his bodie to defend his face from your
thrust, he there by carieth awaie his point, so that hee cannot endanger
you if you follow it in close and quicke.
is the same as the previous description of the close at the single Rapier
or Backsword (Play #2). However, it does add the detail that, in order
to lift your opponent's sword up, you turn your sword hand into Quarta,
after previously being in Prime, which suggests that, perhaps, both of
these plays are supposed to be on the inside, instead of the outside.
This doesn't actually affect the dynamics of the play very much.
False play with the Back-sword.
Your enemie being in his guard, and lying at watch for advantage,
you maie faine a blow a the right-side of his head, and presently with
the turning of your hand-wrist, strike it home to his left-side, which
being done quicke you may hit a reasonable good plaier, for he will
beare his sword against the fained blow, and by that meanes unguard
his left-side but at no hand must not let the fained blow touch your
enemies sword, but give your sword a sodaine checke and so strike it
to the contrarie-side, for if your feined blow do ioine with your enemies
sword, it will staie his sword within the compasse of true defence,
so that hee will be readie to defend your false blow, but otherwise
if you touch not his sword hee will carrie him beyond the true compasse
of defence, of the seconde blow, which you determine to hit him withall
so likewise you may faine your blow at the left-side of your enemies
head, but presentlie strike it home to the right-side of his head, in
a Riverso to your opponent's head in order to land a Mandritto to the
left part of his head. Don't let your sword touch his during the feint,
as that will prevent him from over shooting his defense and allow him
to recover sufficiently to defend the second cut.
Another false play.
Againe, you may ioine your sword within you enemies sword according
unto the picture, but presentlie so soone as you have ioyned, strike
it downe to his legge, but nimblie recover your sword in his place againe
falling a little awaie withall, for so soone as you have discharged
your blow, you may verie easilie before hee can endanger you recover
your guard and distance: likewise you maie give a back-blow unto the
right side of his head, and presentlie withall, fall downe againe with
another blow unto the inside of his legge, stepping home with our second
blow, for when you have made your first blow as aforesaid, it may bee
your enemie will winke, and so you may hit his legge before his eies
open againe, so that you do it quick, but if he does not winke, yet
a good plaier will think that when hee hath defended your first blow
a loft, he will not expect a blow so sodainelie as this ought to be
strooke, and therefore may be hit with a second blow, yea although hee
looke well to himself, and the rather that manie doth not alow in there
teaching a back-sword blow to be stroken at the legge, but I say a man
may give a square, or fore-hand blow to the inside of his enemies legge,
and verie well recover up your sword again before your enemie can endanger
your opponent's sword on the inside. Strike from there down to his lead
leg, and then recover to your defense. Additionally, you might feint a
Riverso to his head, in order to land a Mandrito to his lead leg. Even
though many don't teach to make leg blows with the Backsword, this cut
shown here will work with the feint.
Standing in your guard, and your enemie charging you with a blow,
pluck in your sword sodainelie, and let his blow slippe, and so soone
as his blow is past, answere him againe, either with a blow or thrust
whether you will, but if it bee at blunt with a blow, put it right with
a thrust, or by plucking in your sword, and alwaies have a care you
plucke him in unto that side of the head which hee chargeth you at,
for in so doing, if his weapons point do reach home, yet you are at
a guard of defence, but with this skill and a little withdrawing your
bodie with all, his weapon will passe clear, for the force of his blow
will overswaie his weapon, and he will so over carrie his bodie, that
in a manner his backe wilbe towards you, so that with a quick answere
you may but him at your pleasure or close with him if you thinke you
can make your partie good at the gripe; likewise you may loose upon
the crosse, by ioyning weapon to weapon, but when you have made your
cloose in your first encounter, take hold on your enemies hand-wrist,
or else on the hilt of your enemies weapon, for then hee cannot well
offend you being but single weaponed. But to trie your man-hood, at
the length of your weapon, I hold it the best fight and lesse danger
to both, for there is no certaine defence in a close, then is a passage,
for thy are both verie dangerous.
Gloss: If your
opponent cuts to your sword arm, slip it in the direction from which the
cut originated and the respond with a thrust, or cut, to his opening.
You always slip in the direction towards which your opponent's cut is
originating so that if he is closer to you then you realize, you will
still catch his blade with yours before it reaches your head (or body).
However, if you slip with your body in addition to your arm, you will
have less need of this precaution. Additionally, instead of thrusting
to hit, you may use the tempo of your opponent' missed cut to bind and
close, if you think this to your advantage, elsewise stick with thrusting
Your enemie lying in guard, you may strike a backe blow unto his
right eare, although it light upon his sword, that is all one, for in
striking it above, it may cause him to wink, or he will thinke you have
don, but so soone as you have delivered your blow above, then presentlie,
I meane more quicker then I can speake it, strike it, strike it downe
into the inside of his right-legge, or if you doe but touch his sword
in ioyning him close as the picture standeth, and so soone as you have
but touched his Back-sword on the out-side, strike it done unto the
in-side of the legge presentlie, yet alwaies have a care to recover
your sword into his place againe for your owne defence, the which you
may easilie doe, yea although you encounter with a verie skilfull man,
but if you strike a plaine blow at the legge without profering it above
first, as is beforesaid, then you endanger your owne head, but in presenting
it above, you busie him to defend the first fained blow, so that he
cannot be readie prepared to charge you with anie blow of danger before
you have recovered your guard, the which you may well doe, although
he answere you never so quicke.
a Riverso. As soon as it touches his sword, cut a Mandritto to his lead
leg. Make sure to recover after the Mandritto to make defense against
his response. If you attempt this leg cut without the Riverso, it will
result in you endangering your own head.
An other verie cunning deceipt with the Back-sword.
Strike a blow to the in-side of the right leg, or foot of thy enemie,
but draw it to thee, striking it it something short, and then presently
strike it home againe to the left eare of a right handed man, but it
must be done quicker then I can speake it, and thou shalt finde his
left eare unguarded, for he will looke for it at the right side, and
it were not amisse to strike it once or twice from the leg to the right
eare first, for then he will looke for the same blow againe, but yet
I would no have you make all your play at the legge, but sometimes to
offer a blow at the one side of the head, and then to the other, so
by making often change of your blow, is the best waie to deceive thy
a Mandritto to the leg of your opponent, but not by pulling it. Instead,
cut short in order to loop the cut back high to make a Mandritto to the
head. This deceit will work especially well if you show your opponent
the leg cut, followed by a Riverso before hand, so that he will expect
that. However, caution is in order here not to make too many leg attacks
as they do endanger your head. Feinting while using head cuts from one
side to the other is also a good tactic.
A verie dangerous blow at Back-sword.
Thy enemie lying in this guard, soddenly plucke in the pummell of
thy sword to thy breast, and with all turne thy knuckles inward, and
the presentlie proffer a thrust towards thy enemies breast, but turne
it over with a blow to his right eare, with the which blow thou maist
hit a god plaier, if he bee not aware of it before hand, for hee must
beare his sword against the thrust for the defence thereof, now if he
do over carrie him never so little further then he ought to doe for
his true defence, then hee cannot bring him back time enough to defend
the blow before you have hit him, as beforesaid.
a strong thrust in Quarta to your opponent's chest. As he defends himself
turn a Riverso to his head.
This blow is also good for a Left-handed man, or
against a Left-handed man.
If you would hit a Left-handed man with this blow, then present
your thrust full at his face by a sodaine lifting up the hilt of your
sword so high as your head, and withall you must now turne your knuckles
outward, and so soone as you have presented your thrust, presently strike
it home unto the let side his head.
a left handed man, the previous tactic may also be used, but here, thrust
to his chest in Seconda, and turn a Mandritto to his head when he defends
A false play to be used in fight at Back-sword.
Proffer your thrust tow or three foot wide of thy enemies left eare,
and withall let fall thy point so low as thy enemies girdle-stead of
lower, and then presently with the same motion, raise thy point on the
other side of thy enemies sword, and shop it home unto his right arme,
shoulder or face whether you will your selfe, for in bearing his sword
over his bodie to defend the fained thrust, hee cannot well recover
him backe againe to defend you second thrust before you have hit him,
as beforesaid, except hee hath by much practice beene used to that false
thrust before hand.
a thrust to the left side of your opponent's head, then cave in order
to thrust to the other side to whichever target appears most open.
An other dangerous blow.
Thy enemie lying in his guard, strike a blow to the in-side of his
right leg,, and presentlie with as much speed as possible thou canst
strike it home unto his left cheeke, for he will beare over his sword
to defend the first proffer, and so with-draw himselfe into his guard,
so that he will be unprovided for the defence of his left side, if he
struck in with a quicke hand. All manner of false blowes, flips and
thrusts at what weapon soever, are to avoided and defended with the
true carriage of thy weapon, as at rapier and Dagger, if a false thrust
be made below, and the Rapier above. And if either blow or thrust be
falsified at the Back-sword, or at Sword and Dagger, thou must beare
thy Sword against every proffer. But be sure thou doe not over-carrie
him, but that thou maist be quick backe againe, to meete his second
blow on the other side, as bringing thy weapon into his place by practice,
thou shalt finde thy selfe surely guarded as in some places in this
booke thou shalt fine the defence.
After the false play at everie weapon, although I have not set downe
the defence of everie slip, nor of everie fault, which had been verie
necessarie: for as everie lesson on a fiddle hath a severall kinde of
Offence, and Defence, but heere thou shalt finde the Defence that belongeth
unto manie of them, and the rest I left out of leasure to write them,
but they sahll follow in the next Impression.
a low Mandritto to his lead leg. If he lowers his sword at all, then lift
your arm and go from that feint into a Mandritto to his head. For every
attempt at a thrust or cut made against you, you must react to it as if
it is a real action. However, while doing so, you must not over carry
your sword, as that will open you up to feinted attacks. In order to achieve
this, one must practice.
Swetnam has not laid down every possible action
either offensive or defensive here, but has included the ones he felt
most important. He has included enough here to allow the audience to get
a flavor for the types of actions going on.
Analysis of Swetnam's historical significance.
Swetnam's use of the sword in one hand (shown above) represents one of
only four sources for single handed swordsmanship that we have documenting
the 1600s in England. The question though, is does his system represent
good instruction? Is it novel, or directly influenced by other traditions?
Finally, was his system influential to others?
First, to access Swetnam, we have to look at how his system is organized.
His guard structure, with such focus on starting off with an outside approach
has elements that are very similar to Di Grassi. Both men favor a "low
guard" for its defensive and offensive characteristics, and both
men favor that outside sword angle. Both men also strongly emphasize the
thrusts with the rapier while acknowledging that you can still make cuts
if you really want to. This would be in contrast to another possible influence
source, George Silver, who was very much pro cut. However, Di Grassi presents
a very specific diagonally left footwork that is absent in Swetnam. For
this reason, one cannot help but think that Swetnam and Di Grassi would
be superficially similar at the approach, but would not be said to be
fighting the same way.
Additionally, one cannot help but notice that the method for which Swetnam
describes his defenses take on much more similarity with how parries are
described, and not how counter-thrusting is described. To this end, I
think I have to describe Swetnam's system as a parry-riposte system. Another
clue that this might be true is that his very first riposte in the rapier
system is not a thrust in opposition. Obviously, thrusting in opposition
to your opponent's blade is kind of foundational to counter-thrusting
behavior, so to avoid it in the very first example seems to speak to the
fact that sword opposition is not something Swetnam particularly seems
to care about. In this manner, Swetnam really sets himself apart from
his contemporaries, particularly the Spanish and Italian rapier traditions.
It is impossible to say whether this indicates that Swetnam was on the
vanguard of the types of changes to fencing theory which would take place
in France, and lead directly to parry-riposte smallsword fencing, or if
he is actually a hold out from an older English parry-riposte tradition
that was actually getting overwritten by the Italian system, until the
French "brought it back".
Additionally, Swetnam lacks the other main component of the Italian and
Spanish rapier systems, the Stringere. This is the act of using leverage
to your advantage to land your thrusts. While Swetnam mentions leverage
in the broad sense, he does not include any elements that can even superficially
be described as Stringeren. The possible reasons for this are interesting.
On the one hand, he could legitimately not like binding and using leverage,
although that seems like poor fencing to me, or it could be that his rapier
system is just not his primary focus. Stringeren is definitely much more
relevant to the single rapier than any of the other weapons in the manual.
Considering this, perhaps Swetnam was just not as versed in the best uses
in the single rapier as he was with rapier and dagger, where one can avoid
the need for stringeren through judicious use of the dagger. As evidence
supporting this assertion, Swetnam specifically states that the real training
purposes for his manual lie in Rapier and Dagger and Staff, so that a
man may safely defend himself about town (Rapier and Dagger) or in the
However, Swetnam does feature many other recognizable elements of good
rapier play. He demonstrates enough caving plays, feints, and slips, to
suggest that he would present a nice lively blade to his opponent. In
this style of play, one doesn't really seek to bind with his opponent,
but instead constantly seeks openings as they present themselves with
a free blade. He also mentions a fairly wide measure of engagement, and
while he does include closing and grappling, it doesn't seem really his
primary attack strategy either. Taken together, to my mind, Swetnam actually
fits the description of a modern epeeist fairly well. Both keep to the
wide measure, try to keep their blades free, and make great use of feints,
while maintaining a mostly linear relationship. There is nothing in Swetnam
which suggests that he would disapprove of this strategy, although he
would take strong issue with the modern epee guard, with its blade low
and parallel to the ground.
As a sort of miscellaneous collection of other observations, it is also
interesting that Swetnam includes a note on half-swording the rapier.
We actually see this quite a bit in other period literature. Both the
Italians Gigante and Capo Ferro mention it, as does the Frenchman Liancourt
several years later. We even get a brief mention of this by the German
L'Ange. Clearly, this was a practice which was common, if not particularly
Considering the Backsword, Swetnam treats it almost identically to the
single rapier, but now allows cuts. With this system, we see that the
feints are Swetnam's primary means of generating hits. Looking at how
this system is presented, there is some evidence that Swetnam's Backsword
system is connected to the larger English Backsword tradition. In addition
to his True guard, Swetnam presents a Unicorn guard as well. This Unicorn
guard is described as being extended to the opponent's face with the hand
in either Quarta or Seconda, as required. We can look to one of the next
English authors to include the Backsword, Zachery Wylde (1711), and we
also find him including the use of the Medium guard, described as:
"The Medium Unicorn or Center Guard, is made thus, Extend your
Arm strait out at length, and your Sword placed betwixt your Opposer's
Eyes, lying true half Body, your Sword - Hilt as high as your Chin,
keeping it out at the Arms end stiff; then if he charge you with a Blow
or Strike either to the in or outside, cross his Sword, which makes
a perfect Guard: This Guard keeps your Opposer from encroaching upon
you, if he does, he endangers him-Self."*
We see that these two guards are described in essentially the same manner.
Wylde's description of the Outside guard also rings quite familiar:
"I'll begin with the Outside or Dexter, thus demonstrated,
Stand upon a true half Body, and extend your Sword - Hilt out at the
Arms end stiff, without bowing the Elbow - joint, your Point leaning
or sloping towards your left Shoulder, or your Opposer's right Eye,
lying as hollow as you can with your Body; then you may see your Opposer
the inside your Sword, so long as you keep this Guard."
From this we can conclude that Wylde, while adding many elements from
French Smallsword theory, is also continuing a system built around many
of the same elements as Swetnam, showing that English Backsword maintained
a fair level of transmission, from generation to generation. Wylde also
maintains other terminology from Swetnam including "slipping"
and "falsifying", showing that, while French terminology was
quickly taking over and it was replacing preexisting English terms.
One must, however, also keep in mind what separates Swetnam from Wylde,
towards the future, and Silver, towards the past. Swetnam does not discuss
the Hanging guard with respect to the Backsword. This seems worth mentioning,
specifically, because Swetnam does state that one can use the Hanging
guard with the Short Sword, Rapier, and Staff. This makes its omission
in the Backsword section stand out, because it is so prominently displayed
as a feature in both Silver and Wylde's manual. Additionally, William
Hope in the late 1600s, when discussing the Hanging guard's implementation
with respect to the smallsword, refers to its use and application among
Backsword fencers several times. Consequently, one cannot say that Swetnam's
system is perfectly reflective of all broader English Backsword development.
One might think that Swetnam might have some relationship with George
Silver as both men printed their books in London less than 20 years apart.
However, a close reading of both manuals reveals their relationship to
be more complicated than one might guess, at least with regard to these
weapons. First, the similarities, both men essentially list the same key
Elements to fencing in the same fencing terms, showing that these were
well established within the fencing community in London at that period,
these being Distance, Place, and Time. Additionally, Silver's description
of the Stoccata guard would seem to me to be the same guard taken by Swetnam
in Rapier and Dagger (and is roughly the same sword position as his single
weapon guards). Additionally, the guard that Silver calls Mountanta appears
to be the same action as the thrust which Swetnam calls Mountanto (but
this again, is found in Swetnam's Rapier and Dagger section). Finally,
I believe there is a fairly strong argument that the two men's Staff systems
are using the same principles.
However, all of the above being said, when we look specifically at Swetnam's
single sword principles, there is less agreement. Swetnam is very specific
that he believes that his hand low, point up, True guard is best, while
Silver advocates his True Guardant guard (Hanging guard variant) as his
preferred guard. Additionally, Silver puts much more emphasis in binding,
and the forming of a true crossing of the swords to facilitate the rest
of his offense and defense. Swetnam would seem to advocate a much less
constrained blade, to better feint and provoke. There is also the somewhat
obvious fact that Swetnam is teaching for a weapon, a long rapier (Swetnam
lists his rapier at 4 feet, although it is hard to tell whether this is
total length, or blade length) which Silver just plain doesn't like. For
the Backsword, though, a sword which is much closer to what Silver would
like, Silver would seem to be more familiar with the type of play that
Swetnam is teaching, than Swetnam with Silver. By this, I mean that Silver
discusses many actions and counters to his Stoccata guard, while Swetnam
doesn't mention what to do if encountering a Hanging guard.
As an aside, after doing all of this research, and seeing how prevalent
the Hanging guard is to his staff, and even Short Sword and Dagger, systems,
it really boggles my mind that Swetnam doesn't at least mention it in
his Backsword section. I almost wonder if this was just simple oversight,
like he knew everyone also often uses a Hanging guard with the Backsword,
but just thought he had mentioned it, forgetting that it was his single
rapier section where he had done that.
Broadly speaking, Swetnam and Silver are very similar to each other,
and I think that if we watched them fence, it would be hard to tell each
other apart from their actions alone. That being said, I think that their
difference in guard preference is real, and the things that they chose
to focus on in their respective manuals are mostly the same elements of
fencing, but the points of emphasis are not the same.
Taken together, we see that Swetnam presents a viable, if somewhat simplistic,
method of fighting with the single sword, which would seem to broadly
reflect English fencing fairly well, as far as I can tell. This is not
a system which has really developed theory like the Spanish or Italian
methods from the same period. For this reason, perhaps we can better understand
why it seems like England was the site of several waves of fencing adaptation
to Continental trends which were able to bring the more theoretical aspects
* It is at least possible that Wylde's Medium guard could
alternatively be the same as Godfrey's and Miller's Medium guard from
1747 and 1735, respectively. The difference is in the tip height and sword
angle. Wylde says place "the sword betwixt your opponent's eyes,"
but does this mean edge or tip? Godfrey's guard has the point up, Swetnam's
has the tip forward. Wylde, of course, uses both "Unicorn" and
"Medium" to describe his guard, while sitting temporally between
Swetnam and Godfrey. I do think that Wylde's "this guard keeps your
opponent from encroaching upon you" is at least suggestive of the
point extended position, as I feel having the tip in one's face is more
intimidating than just showing a middle cutting position. Later in the
manual it says: "dropping your Point, and bring it by your left Ear,
then place it betwixt your Opposer's Eyes". Here, presumably the
subject of the sentence is "point" so that is what would go
"betwixt" your opponent's eyes.
Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence
(Modernized transcription by David Kite)
Swetnam - Biographical Sketch
and Ethics in Joseph Swetnam's Schoole of Defence
Guide for the Staffe Play of Joseph Swetnam's Schoole of the Noble
and Worthy Science of Defence