GEORGE SILVER: Professional Italiophobe

“Heh, you Italians – get off my lawn!”

George Silver definitely had some issues with the Italian schools of fence. Let’s take a look at them using Silver’s own words.

George Silver wrote his treatise “Paradoxes of Defence” in 1599. In it, he puts forward what was to him, in any case, a cogent argument against the rapier. His contention was that it was an ineffectual, indeed, effete and effeminate weapon.
“These apish toys could not free Rome from Brennius’ sack nor France from King Henry the Fifth his conquest.”

Well, true to a point. But no one in his day was about to fight with a Gladius Hispanica which probably might not have fared well against an English backsword. And it also ignores the fact that the victories of Henry V and his predecessors against the French at Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers were largely due to the employment of the longbow, not the sword. Nor had anyone ever suggested that the rapier was a weapon of war. Indeed, one of the theories of the origin of its name is that it derives from the term “espada ropera,” or a “sword of the robes,” which seems to strongly imply that it was a civilian rather than military weapon. Further, a close reading of Silver’s Italian contemporaries, Di Grassi and Saviolo, make no mention of the rapier being a weapon of war. It is also a fact that during Silver’s day, the face of battle was becoming increasingly dependent on the firearm and the pike.

There was also an implied upper-class snob appeal of the rapier. The times were changing and Silver apparently wanted no part of it. In addition to the rapier being perceived as a predominantly Italian weapon, there was also openness to adopting new ideas including the concept of what constituted honour and what it meant to be a gentleman

Cultural and societal influences notwithstanding, there’s also a great deal of commentary on Silver’s part that speaks to either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Italian swordplay.

His contention is that the cut is superior to the thrust (although he does recommend that the thrust be used) – a reasonable conclusion considering his own weapon of choice. But it ignores the medical fact that a thrust that penetrates internal organs causes massive bleeding. It is thought that more people succumbed to hemorrhage or septicemia after the duel was over than were actually killed on the spot during the fighting itself.

Another of his contentions is that were you to measure the distance of a cut and compare it to the distance of a thrust, they are one and the same with regard to distance travelled. He also contends that a cut can be delivered faster than a thrust. He uses, by way of illustration, two duelists, both with rapiers which “not be crossed of either side.” One makes a cut, the other a thrust and “the measure of the distance or course wherein the hand and hilt pass to finish the blow” shall be “in distance, all one.”

I have occasionally wondered whether or not he was referring to the distance between opponents rather than the distance traversed by the sword, but I see no real evidence to support this.

First, geometrically speaking, the distance of an arc and a straight line cannot be equal in length. Ask Pythagoras. Second, with regards to speed, a cut from presentation of the guard to completion requires, at the very least, the rotation of the wrist, whereas a thrust can be delivered by simply dropping the point and possibly by the simple extension of the arm.

As for deadliness, this is a relative thing. As the Roman historian Vegetius observed, it requires only two inches of penetration to kill. But a sufficient blow hitting an artery is equally as deadly – in fact, not considering traumatic shock which adrenaline in a heightened physical state promotes and can help to temporarily mitigate, a pranged artery often kills faster than a perforating wound where death can often occur much later due to the aforementioned septicemia. But in either case, accuracy is necessary.

Silver is also skeptical that “they never teach their scholars, nor set down in their books the perfect length of their weapons, without which no man can by nature or art against the perfect length fight safe, for being too short, their times are too long, and the spaces too wide for their defence and being too long, they will be upon every cross that shall happen to be made … the cross cannot be undone in due time.”

Well – first, there is no “perfect length” since humans don’t come in a single standardized size. And there actually are Italian texts that refer to the optimal length of a rapier blade as it relates to drawing the sword or as a proportion of the human body. The only reason sword blades – and here, we are speaking of military swords of a later period – became of a standardized length was because they were being mass-produced for the army and no consideration of any variation of length from sword to sword could possibly be accommodated.

If Silver is suggesting, (and personally, I don’t think he really is) that blades must be of a “perfect” – perhaps uniform length in order to be ‘safe” bespeaks of a rather dangerous inability to adapt to your opponent. And as for being unable to reposition a blade quickly and efficiently when swords, either accidentally or by design, cross blades, Silver seems unaware of the Cavatione, or disengage  or the Cavatione Angolata, the cut-over– moves commonly taught and practiced in his day. Or at least in Italy…

Silver also disdains the rapier on the grounds that its blade or hilt is incapable of withstanding a good downright manly blow from a heavier sword. Well, I’m here to tell you that, so long as the weapon is of good quality, yes, it can. I’ve practiced with both swept and cup-hilts against very fine replicas in design, weight and balance, of backswords and broadswords. But it also seems that George had never been exposed to the concept of the void, or simply stepping back out of distance. Many Englishmen of George’s class (which, incidentally, was not Upper) regarded any back-stepping as shameful. The Italian master Vincentio Saviolo, however, had a somewhat different take, saying “There is a difference between retiring orderly and running backwards, for to hit and retire is not discommendable.”

Silver himself has some interesting comments on the concept of measure, breaking down a lunge into several parts, one of which is “lying spent,” the time between the full delivery of the lunge (and ostensibly the hit) and the act of recovering the lunge. This seems to indicate a (hopefully) very brief period where the body is left fully exposed to retaliation. If anyone has a different interpretation of this period of tempo, I would appreciate correction.

Surprisingly enough, George does like the Spanish system of rapier play, the Destreza, although he believes it is a system “wherein a man with small practice in a very short time may become perfect.” Although its fundamentals might be considered to be “simple,” anyone with any real knowledge of the Spanish system must surely understand that it’s anything but.

I could continue, but Paradoxes of Defence is widely available, including on the Internet. Read it yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Now – does all this mean that Silver was just an ornery old crank whose methodology was without merit?

No, not in the slightest. First, Silver was a very credible practitioner who was more concerned with the sword as a weapon of war or a tool for serious self-defense, not a dueling weapon. Indeed, it was his contention that not only the introduction of the rapier but the Italianate ideas accompanying it were leading to frivolous and oft fatal dueling. And when it comes to “traditional” English weapons, George offers sound advice.

Silver admonished Englishmen to “cast off these Italianted, weak, fantastical and most devilish and imperfect fights” and return to “their own ancient weapons.” In other words, he wished the old ways preserved, regardless of whether or not they had any current validity in the society that was evolving at the time. And, of course, he was also trying to state a patriotic case for the validity of his own teachings against what he saw as dangerous competition.

For better or worse, George and his contemporaries ultimately lost. In 1624 the Monopolies Act struck down the warrant granted to the English Masters of Defence and within about ten years, many of them were out of business for refusing to adapt to the changing times.

Now for those who might think this article is about fomenting against George Silver and his Italiophobia, there is a greater issue here with regards to validating historical sources, including from contemporary documents. Were you to have read Silver without also reading Bonetti, Saviolo, etc, you would be presented with a very slanted (and in some instances, utterly unfounded) impression of the Italian methods of fence of the day. You might even be tempted to disregard studying Italian swordplay altogether, and this would do you a great disservice. Silver is, after all, just one man and his opinions are tempered with his own agenda. Similarly, Johann Joachim Hynitzsch, writing in the late 1600’s, accuses Nicoletto Giganti of not only publishing Fabris’ second book under his own name in 1622, but also contends that Giganti is ignorant of the art of fence. However, since he gives no examples of this alleged ignorance, his accusation lacks credibility. As for Silver’s criticisms of the Italian school, some of them evince a false historical perspective while some others are simply demonstrably wrong.

As always, when reading critiques of other masters and systems by their contemporaries, you should always ask “is there an alterior motive for this criticism,” or at the very least, “is there physical validity to the criticism?”



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From the Fiore text.

Blocking a Murder Strike.
Match these positions with the descriptions in the text.
From Talhoffer: Note the hooking action into the inside elbow.
A thrust from Upper Snake

I’ve often seen fight scenes in movies depicting two knights, fully clad in articulated plate armour, slamming the mortal hell out of each other with swords. This, needless to say, is about as effective as flogging a rhino with a broom handle. Swords are designed to concentrate kinetic energy into a tapered edge and they do this very well. Unless, of course, your target is a metal surface that includes a lot of curved surfaces designed to slip blows away. There are faster, more effective ways to dull your edge: might I suggest a rock…

Armour, however, does have weak points, some of which are the result of the suits’ need to articulate to allow a full range of movement. These areas are generally not practical to attack with the edge. But the point is another matter.

 Half-swording is the technique of using a longsword (and also applicable to the single-handed sword) where the right hand retains its position on the grip while the left hand moves up to grasp the blade. Where it grasps the blade is determined by the technique you have decided to employ. The upper hand positions can be in the middle area of the blade, (which is good for powerful thrusting) the lower third (also good for thrusting with the pommel braced against the body, or to defend against thrusts) or the upper third of the blade. (which is good for the precise placement of the point at close range)

The hand can be pronated (knuckles facing up) or supinated, (knuckles facing down) again, depending on the position of the sword and the technique to be employed.

 The targets for fully armoured combat are the visor, the armpit (which, because the opening in the cuirass needs to be sufficient to accommodate the arm’s full rotation from the shoulder, and is often protected with chain mail sewn onto the gambeson – the padded jacket worn under armour) the inside of the elbow joint, the throat, (if protected by a chain mail aventail or camail) the groin area. (which is also often protected by a curtain of mail, and which target includes the high inside thigh at the top of the cuisse)

 Let’s take a look at a few positions found in the FLOS DUELLATORUM written by Fiore Dei Liberi in 1409, arguably the most extensive treatise on combat of the period, containing techniques on longsword, single sword, horse combat, wrestling, etc. There are three versions of this text: the Novati/Pissani-Dossi, the Getty and the Morgan. Let us examine his five main half-sword guard positions.

 THE SHORT GUARD (sometimes call The Snake)

 Here, the sword is held at the level of the lower abdomen with the pommel just above the right hip. The right hand is grasping the blade in the forte, supinated, about eight to ten inches from the quillon. (cross-hilt) This provides for a powerful thrust backed by the entire body. The pommel could conceivable be braced against the abdomen. Fiore’s text notes: “I have a sharp point to penetrate harnesses.” Here, I would suggest that the “harness” in question is a hauberk of mail or a brigandine, which is leather sleeveless vest inside which are fastened small metal plates. A thrust against a steel breastplate would not be effective. The left foot is the forward foot.


 In this guard, the sword is held overhead, just above the helmet, both elbows bent, the left hand grasping the blade immediately below the weak (the upper third) in a pronated grip and the point angled down about 45 degrees. This position provides protection against cuts to the head and upper body and also, as Fiore put it, “levels out great thrusts,” where a thrust to the body can be deflected with the upper blade. The left foot is forward.


 Here, the hilt is held at or just slightly below hip level with the elbow lightly bent. The right hand is holding the blade supinated at the middle of the blade, close to the chest (the left hand being about level with the solar plexus) and the point angled up about 45 degrees. From this position, powerful thrusts can be made and the body defended by warding off thrusts with the upper portion of the blade. The left foot is the forward foot.


 The body is turned away from your opponent so your chest is facing to your left with your right foot forward. The sword is held across the front of the body with the hilt being held low, just below the level of the right hip, and the left hand grasping the blade in a supinated grip just below the upper third and held slightly below or level with the left breast, the point angled 45 degrees upwards. This position invites thrusts which can then be turned aside by pivoting from left to right, then dropping the point onto a target and increasing your thrusting power by passing forward on your left foot.


 The right foot is forward, with the sword’s hilt being held at roughly hip level just above the right thigh. The left hand holds the blade in the lower portion of the upper third in a pronated grip. The blade crosses the lower abdomen. The hilt is higher than the point, which angles down so that the point is just above the level of the left knee. This position is good for defending against thrusts or cuts, a strong position from which to close for grappling, and can easily be raised to Upper Snake or Arrow to present the point for thrusting by passing forward onto the left foot while the sword is in motion.


 It goes without saying that the German school of longsword employed half-swording or Halb Schwert technique. Such methods were taught by the great German master Liechtenauer, and turn up in the treatises of Ringeck, Talhoffer, etc. Naturally, many of the guard positions and applications are the same as found in Fiore, albeit with German names. Therefore, Upper Snake becomes Ochs, (the Ox, since the presentation of the point resembles the animal’s horns) The Arrow resembles Pflug, (the Plow) the Bastard Cross is similar to a modified Alber, (the Fool)except unlike the Alber position where both hands are retained on the grip, the Halb Schwert position has you more or less facing your opponent chest-forward, with the left foot leading and the sword held across the body at groin level with the hilt just off the right hip and higher than the point, and the Short Guard is a modified Vom Tag (From the Roof) where the sword is held, left foot forward, with the right elbow pointing straight back, the hilt held at a level just in front of the right armpit, and the upper hand gripping the blade in the middle with a pronated grip and the point angled slightly up.

As with the rest of the German school, the concepts of the Vor (Before) Indes (the Inbetween) the Nach, (After) techniques of winding, binding and “travelling after” all apply.

The German technique also includes Schlachenden Ort, (the Battering Point) which describes the use of the pommel in … well… pummeling your opponent. That is, after all, where the phrase comes from.

Ringeck, in his KUNST DES FECHTENS,  in the section dealing with Versetzen (deflections) documents a method for employing the grip and pommel in an interesting fashion. Holding the sword in half-sword grip, after your opponent has deflected your thrust, you can drop your point, setting his blade aside to your left, and, stepping in, deliver a pommel-strike to the left side of his head which can then be followed up by hooking the  lower portion of your sword’s grip around the back of his head (hooking from your left to right) and pulling down with your grip hand, elevating the point high with your left (essentially creating a lever action) and, using your forward leg as a fulcrum, pull him off balance, possibly even throwing him.


 Before we close this essay, here’s an exercise you can do with a partner.

Start with your left foot forward and the sword already gripped in half-sword position, angled across the front of the body as in the above description of Alber. (this position makes the exercise simpler)

Your opponent cuts straight down on your head, the German Zornhau or Cut of Wrath. Bring your sword up straight in front of you to parry the blow in the middle of the blade, well away from your upper hand.

Now, you will notice that the cross-hilt of your sword (the quillons) is presented so that turning the wrist slightly will bring the quillons into a position where the arms point straight up and down.

From this position, stepping forward on your right foot, and maintaining the height of your defensive guard, (ie: above and in front of your head) turn from the hips to knock your partner’s blade to your left with the quillion, stopping your action so that your pommel points directly at his face, and with the sword’s hilt inside the line with your left shoulder and with the cross-hilt vertical.

Now, with a fast punching action (if you were doing it for real – I would hope it goes without saying that you will do this slowly and totally without contact) drive the pommel into his forehead. In real life, you would not follow his head as it rocks back – the nature of the blow would be more akin to a jab than a punch.

As his head snaps back, exposing his neck, turning the body from the hips from left to right while simultaneously stepping back with your right foot to your original left-foot-forward position, guiding the upper portion of the blade with your left hand, slash the false edge and point across the right side of the neck (taking the carotid artery) and throat. (again, no contact!)

From this position, if you haven’t over-rotated to the right, it would be further possible to follow up the slash with a thrust through the throat.

Any practice of technique, especially if done without an instructor present, must be done wearing the minimum of a fencing helmet with a throat gorget. Gloves would also be advisable provided they do not fit loosely. Practice must be done slowly and precisely. The safety of your partner is in your hands and must never be compromised.

 So – Half-Swording – in a very brief essay. Needless to say, this barely scratches the surface of this useful technique. But the purpose of this and other essays is to create an introduction and basic understanding that will hopefully encourage further personal research.

 So… go forth and play nice.







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Additions to Spanish Rapier

Spanish rapier, Thibault school.

I have known Maestros Ramon and Jeanette Martinez for some time now and solicited their comments and corrections my essay on the Destreza. I have studied Spanish rapier play for some time now, but don’t consider myself an expert. Ramon and Jeanette are; indeed, they are internationally recognized as such. Here are some corrections and clarifications they gave me, for which I am vey grateful and which I now share with you. These are all direct quotes from Jeanette’s letter:

“The so-called term “Magic Circle” never existed in any of the Spanish writings on Destreza. However, the term “Mysterious Circle” only exists in Thibault’s magnum opus.”

“The term “esgrima vulgar” is not referring to “common fencing”.  The common school of fencing was termed “Destreza Comun”.  “Destreza Comun” refers to the common methods of swordsmanship that were followed in Spain prior to the foundation of “La Verdadera Destreza” of Carranza.”

“As you cite Pedro de la Torre, Jaime Pons and Francisco Roman, we cannot know exactly what they practiced or taught as none of their written works have come to light. Therefore, we cannot make commentaries on what they practiced.”

“Esgrima Vulgar” is known mainly through the writings of Narvaez in where he catalogues some thirty or so vulgar techniques.  “Esgrima Vulgar” were the methods/techniques/tricks  that were mainly utilized by the ruffians, bravos and street hoods of the period. Practitioners of both “esgrima vulgar” and “destreza comun” were none-the-less very dangerous adversaries.”

“In regard to Thibault; he was not part of the main stream of the Spanish school as he had his own take on swordsmanship. Narvaez for instance did not at all appreciate the work of Thibault and in his last work (published posthumously) called him the “Dutch author” and said that “he was putting out a mal-digested form of destreza and that his book should be submitted to the sepulcher of neglect”.  Therefore, when discussing La Vedadera Destreza Thibault should not be considered as having a prominent place.”

“You are citing Alvaro Guerra de la Vega. Unfortunately, your translation is not quiet accurate. For instance you use the translated term “short-cut” for what I recall is the Spanish term “atajo”. The term “Atajo” is a loaded term (with many levels of meaning and comprehension) that at present times has been vastly misinterpreted with the resulting inaccuracies followed by misapprehension.”

This is what I want this site to be – a discussion – an exchange of informed opinion. One of the things I wanted to do was to expose readers from the novice to the seasoned practitioner to a large venue of historical weapons technique. I’ve been studying the use of historical bladed weapons for 43 years now, but I really only consider myself to be well studied in a few – German Longsword and Italian rapier, for instance. As a professional fight choreographer, it’s necessary for me to be a generalist with as much specific knowledge on a wide range of weapons as possible. This, of course, also includes non-European weapons which have only a limited place in this site by way of comparisons. The Martinez are specialists, exponentially more knowledgeable in the Spanish system than myself, including the fact that my command of Spanish could be only charitably described as sketchy. Jeanette’s contribution to this essay is greatly welcomed and has increased my own knowledge of this wonderful art for which, again, I thank her.

I don’t know it all, ladies and gentlemen, and that’s not false humility – no one does. To declare that you know everything there is about even one art is to declare yourself either delusional or a fool. If a week goes by without my learning something new, I consider it a wasted week. I sincerely appreciate the complimentary comments this site has received but I would genuinely also appreciate input – new information – corrections, etc. This is how we all learn.

I would encourage you all to visit their school site: and also



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Example of a hand parry with reposte from the Angelo text

Parry of Prime (1) from the Angelo text
Parry of Seconde (2)
Parry of Tierce (3)
Parry of Quarte (4)
Parry of Sixte (6)
Parry of Septime (7)
Parry of Octave (8)

I thought I’d follow up the sabre parrys with this piece as soon as possible so the readers have a reasonable repertoire for defense positions for both cutting and thrusting weapons. After all, the basic precept of fencing is to hit without being hit.

I’ve written several pieces on the Smallsword so I don’t plan on reiterating any of those points here; it’s quite simple to go back and review them if you wish.

The primary thing to remember is that the Smallsword is a thrusting weapon. Therefore, its defensive parrys differ considerably from a weapon that must deal with cuts which generate a large amount of kinetic energy. There is only one exigency in Smallsword defense (at least when facing another Smallsword) – divert the point from its target. This means that Smallsword parrys can be closer to the body in terms of the body profile. The modern fencing foil has its nascence in the period of the Smallsword, being created as the Smallsword’s practice weapon.

You’ll notice in the photos that the wrist is turned out but the point is still in line with the center of the body. This is to facilitate a fast reposte or counter-thrust. It is a truism in fencing that making unnecessarily large movement with your weapon in defensive actions not only opens up other areas of your body for a second-intention attack, but also slows your counter-action, your weapon having more distance to move to accomplish a reposte. You will also notice that the point does not drop or elevate significantly, partly for the same reason, but also because it’s unnecessary when defending against a thrust rather than a cut.

Since Smallsword is a thrusting weapon (although point-cuts created by a fast turn of the wrist, similar to the Spanish mandoble were certainly used) offensive moves tend to be small and fast, utilizing a disengage to bring the point in line with a target, or to defeat a parry. Beats on the blade or gliding actions with pressure against a perceived weak presentation of the opposing blade are also used in offensive actions. Therefore, a counter-disengage is quite common to begin a parry, which can be accomplished with either finger or wrist action. The circular parry, coming over your opponent’s blade from either the inside or outside line, was also common. Generally speaking, a disengagement underneath your opponent’s blade would send deflect it in the upper parrys of tierce, quarte or sixte whereas coming over the blade would send the attack into the lower parrys of seconde, septime or octave. Again, the idea is to keep the motion small, the sword action being sufficient to simply divert the point past your body. This, of course, includes your sword arm. Also note the position of the hand since the difference between, say the parry of 3 and the parry of 6 is that 3 is held in pronation (knuckles up) while 6 is supinated. (knuckles down)

You will also notice that the body is not in a position where the chest is turned out to the extent we see in modern competitive fencing. One of the reasons for this is that the left hand was still being used to deflect thrusts to facilitate keeping the sword free for instant response. The Smallsword, lacking a cutting edge, was also capable of being seized by the off-hand. And, on some occasions, a small dagger or poniard was still being used in the left hand, although this was not in any way common practice. The lantern was also used in training for defending ones’ self at night.

 Some masters advocated using your cane or your scabbard, held near the middle, as a parrying implement although I’m not sure, in a spontaneous situation such as a robbery attempt, that getting the scabbard free from the belt could be accomplished in a timely fashion.

 It should also be mentioned that I have not depicted a head parry which was similar to a parry of quinte, since this is not an effective method for defending against the point. However, Smallsword schools recognized the possibility of having to defend against someone with a cutting weapon. Indeed, it is the opinion of some scholars, that the thick forte at the base of an early form of Smallsword, the Colichemarde, was to facilitate defending against a heavier weapon such as a Spadroon or sabre.

 I have also not illustrated the parry of prime, since it is essentially the same as the prime parry depicted in my sabre parry essay, and I have included a picture of it from the Angelo text. This parry can be somewhat problematic since it’s a rather broad movement and also drops the point significantly. While this wouldn’t restrict a cutting weapon’s reposte, it is a difficult position from which to re-assert the point for a thrust.

 Defense was also accomplished or augmented by body movement such as the inquartata and other voids.

Finally, I would strongly advise a fencing mask when practicing these techniques (which should also be practiced slowly) especially since any thrusting weapon is particularly dangerous where the face, throat and eyes are concerned. Play sensibly.

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THE FULLER – Myth and Reality

I realize that the main purpose of this site is to examine and share methods of using Western European bladed weapons, but sometimes it’s necessary to also dispel myths. This is one that I recently came across – again – for Lord knows how many times, so perhaps, since it’s so pervasive, we should take our own look.

The “fuller.” If you look at many sword blades, from Viking swords to medieval swords to rapiers to sabres, you will often notice a groove (sometimes multiple grooves) in the centre or in many single-edged weapons, along the spine. This is called the fuller. It’s also often referred to as the “blood groove.” The problem with that last piece of nomenclature is that it’s – oh, what’s the technical term – bollocks.

The apocryphal explanation is that this groove is to let blood out of a wound, or alternately, air in, so that “suction” can be broken and allow the weapon to be withdrawn with greater ease. And this, of course, is nonsense.

The origin of this term comes from the Old English “fuliere,” which refers to one who “fulls” or folds or pleats fabric. The French term for this is “goutiere “or “canneleure,” meaning a gutter or a channel respectively.

This forging technique has been around for quite a while, although the word “fuller” isn’t used to refer to it until the mid-19th century. In fact, the King of the Ostrogoths, Theoderic, records favourable mention of “grooves” in the blades of swords gifted him by Thrasamund, King of the Vandals.

I myself admit to espousing the codswallop about blood and suction and the like several decades ago, essentially parroting received wisdom without the advantage of critical thinking. But when I began doing cutting and thrusting tests against pig carcasses using sharp swords, it became obvious that there was no factual basis for this claim. First, although, a carcass lacks significant blood and hydrostatic pressure, skin and muscle tissue will tend to close around a wound inflicted by a thrust, creating resistance to withdrawing the blade, especially if the thrust (or cut) were significantly deep. However, with even a marginally sharp edge on the weapon, if you have the strength to inflict a thrust, you certainly have the strength to withdraw it, especially considering that the initial thrust may have had to penetrate protective clothing or even armour such as chain-mail, whose rings can be sprung by a powerful thrust. And, if the weapon is withdrawn at a slight angle from the line of thrust, you are now employing the edge to slice, thus creating a somewhat larger wound and facilitating the withdrawal.  

Even a cursory examination of many blades would reveal that fullers don’t always go all the way to the point. (they often did in early Viking weapons where swords lacked a pronounced point but these were predominantly slashing weapons) In many European medieval swords, especially those with tapered points, the fuller ends significantly before the point. And Roman gladii, which were almost exclusively thrusting weapons, have no fuller at all. Similarly, fullers also appear on many rapiers, also ending often a foot or more before the point. And it is also a fact that many European medieval and Renaissance swords lack a fuller entirely, their blades being a flattened diamond in cross-section.

 So what was the purpose of this feature? Obviously it must have had a function – it’s certainly not cosmetic.

 Blades need to have flexibility as well as strength. Creating these grooves on both sides of the blade removes not only weight from the blade; it also serves to reduce stress in what you might term the “neutral axis” of the blade, resulting in greater strength and flexibility. This principle is true not only for double-edged blades, but also single-edged swords such as the saber,(or the katana) where the fuller is closest to the blade’s spine.

 So apart from dispelling a myth, I hope this also demonstrates the need to maintain the capacity for critical thinking, even when something might superficially sound reasonable. Does an explanation or claim stand up to the test of reality?

Remember this when next you listen to a politician giving a speech…






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The Sabre Parrys

In several articles, I have alluded to number systems for the sabre, so I felt it time to actually post them in pictures as a future reference. Here, you have both side and frontal views of the eight parrys associated with the sabre. First, before I make any comments, you should realize that modern competitive sabre fencing rarely uses anything but 3, 4 and 5, owing to the fact that the target area is restricted to above the waist. Some of these parrys are archaic – octave, for instance, was primarily used by cavalry, as I described in a past article.

There are also other parrys that I do not depict here. You can find them in the works of Alfred Hutton, an early 20th century practitioner. One of them, for instance, drops the head parry of quinte (5) straight down to about knee level to protect against a rising reverse cut to the groin or inside leg. His system is definitely combat-related where, surprisingly enough, the concept of “off-target” doesn’t really apply.

Just a few notes on the pictures: first, they are presented in both dorsal and frontal view so you can plainly see the position of the sword in relation to the body. When dealing with a heavier cutting weapon such as the military sabre depicted in the photos, it’s necessary to not only present your defense above or to the outside of the threatened target but also to keep in in front of the body. This is to maintain a safety distance between you and the incoming weapon in case of a cut that either draws through or slips off the parry. Were your weapon to be closer to your body, there is a distinct possibility that you could still be hit by the tip as it glides off your parry.

You should also note that the parrys are held in a position that is generally 90 degrees to the incoming blade. In this fashion, you preempt your opponent’s blade from unintentionally sliding either towards your point (where it will gain leverage advantage against you) or towards your hilt which could result in an unintentional temporary entrapment of both swords which will slow your response time. Mind you, both these conditions can be intentional if they are predicated on strategy – just not good to have them occur if they are not.

Also note that the weapon’s point angles forward towards your opponent. If the point drifts outward, it opens up[ a venue for attack, bearing in mind that a blows’ direction can be altered during its delivery.

Also note the position of the forward and rear foot. The distance between them should not be wider than shoulder width, nor should the front and back heels “stack;” there should be a small displacement between them.

Finally, note that the sword is positioned to take the incoming cut on the bottom third (forte) of the blade, where you have the leverage advantage, and that in the head parrys, the knuckle blow rotates very slightly towards your opponent to give maximal protection to the hand.

As you proceed through these parrys, also consider what cuts or thrusts may be made from any given position that would provide an instant riposte to your opponent.

Proceed slowly and carefully and always, when practicing, wear head protection. For further safety, until you feel how the musculature and skeletal structure supports and strengthens the parry, blows should not be delivered at full speed or with any excessive power, and should be capable of being stopped before the target area is actually reached.

Play nice.

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Sabre Parrys, Side and Front Views

Octave (8)

Parry of Octave (8)
Septime (7)
Parry of Septime (7)
Sixte (6)
Parry of Sixte (6)
Quinte (5)
Parry of Quinte (5)
Quarte (4)
Parry of Quarte (4)
Tierce (3)
Parry of Tierce (3)
Seconde (2)
Parry of Seconde (2)
Prime (1)
Parry of Prime (1)
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This is the beginning of a new, and I hope, interesting series of essays on the evolution of swordplay. Up until now, we have been looking at individual technique, with attributing references to specific masters. Now, we will look at the individual masters and try to discover their particular contributions to the evolution of personal combat.

We’ll be starting (more or less arbitrarily) with the rapier masters, beginning with Marozzo, not because he was the first to pen a treatise on the subject, (Antonio Manciolino published his treatise, also titled the Opera Nova, at least four years before Marozzo) but because – in my opinion, at least – he was the first to put forth an all-inclusive and coherent system of personal combat. Later, we will examine the medieval masters, but for now, let us start with:


Marozzo, (1484 – 1553) we believe, was born in Bologna and published his work, the Opera Nova, in Modena in 1536. Its full title is “Opera Nova dell’Arte delle Armi,” or “The New Text on the Art of Arms,” dedicating it to Count Ragnoli. His work is quite comprehensive and includes commentary on:

The sword and buckler, (including both the small and “broad” buckler)

Sword and targa, (a shield carried with an arm strap and hand grip)

Sword and dagger,

Sword and cape, single sword and two-sword, (case)

Sword and rotella, (a larger shield carried in the manner of a targa)

The two-handed sword,

Polearms, (the lance, ronca – sometimes termed a ranseur, which had a straight, long narrow central blade with two smaller, usually upturned blades at its base – the spetum, which for my money, is a ronca with a different name and the partisan – a weapon similar to the previous ronca and spetum except that it has a much broader blade and its lower secondary blades are considerably less pronounced,

Unarmed and dagger combat, plus a separate treatise on the judicial duel. He also addresses defence against a person on horseback. He also gives very specific instruction on how best t deal with a left-handed fencer.

Marozzo himself says he was schooled under Guido Antonio de Luca and we suspect, although do not have definitive proof, that the later masters, Viggiani and Dall’Agocchie may have studied under him. Before we proceed to the details, I think it important to understand that Marozzo, like Manciolino, was an active practitioner and taught that which he knew worked.

The sword of Marozzo’s time, the Spada da Filo or “edge sword,” was still somewhat medieval in its design: a reasonably wide-bladed, double-edged weapon with a functional, but not pronounced thrusting point. The cross-guard (or quillon) is depicted as mostly straight, occasionally with a lateral “S” curve. The lower portion of the blade (the ricasso) was squared off owing to the fact that the grip put the forefinger over the quillon. For added protection to the now-exposed digit, the weapon had two half-rings coming off the cross-bar, curving upwards to almost touch the ricasso. The sword is also depicted as sometimes also having a simple, perfunctory half-ring connected to the pas-d’ane rings coming from the quillon on the knuckle-side, ostensibly to help protect the hand from a down-sliding blade, although this feature is not illustrated as universal. The left-handed dagger is also similarly depicted with a grip identical to that of the sword.


Marozzo’s system uses both edges of the sword – the so-called “true” or leading edge and the “false” or back edge. Cuts delivered from the right to your opponent’s left are termed “Mandritti,” and cuts from your left, “Roversi.” Other cuts delivered horizontally, vertically upwards or downwards, or obliquely were styled “Tondo,” “Montante,” “Fendente,” and “Squalembrato,” each capable of being delivered with either edge of the sword. These last four cuts are appended by ‘mandritti” or “roversi” indicating the direction of the cut. Cuts struck with the false edge are specified as “falso dritto” and “falso manco.”

 Marozzo also uses a circular motion called a Molinello, in which the sword travels up to 360 degrees, the purpose being to add strength to the cut. There is also mention of half-cuts; in ch 57, Marozzo refers to a half-roverso. These are technically uncompleted cuts but can be delivered faster. Cuts are delivered from the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist, the largest moves being the most powerful, but slower, with increasing speed but diminishing force for the other two.


Marozzo’s text sparsely mentions the use of the point, although the accompanying illustrations clearly depict such usage. Indeed, this is typical of swordplay of the period.

There are four types of thrusts: the punta dritta or just punta, executed with the hand in pronation; the punta roversa, with the hand in supination; the imbroccata or overhand thrust, and the stoccata or underhand thrust.


Defensively, Marozzo’s system teaches to void a cut by moving the body backwards or to the side, meeting the attack with the buckler or the cloak or meeting the attack with a direct counter-attack to your opponent’s weapon the moment he launches his attack, thus deflecting the incoming blade away, and then continuing the move forwards to create continuous counter-attack. This blow was most often aimed at the face.

During this period, there was no systematized methodology for parrying with the sword – ie: a series of specific positions such as exist in sabre, epee or foil. Sword defense involved both edges of the blade (and a note here for the “always parry with the flat” crowd, Marozzo specifically instructs to parry with “the true edge”) and when reading the text, you need to understand that the terms “falso manco” and “falso dritto” refer to both cuts and defensive blade actions, depending on context.

Movement could start with either foot forward depending on the weapon/s involve and the initial body position. Regardless of what foot was advanced, it’s important to note that weight, while not entirely evenly distributed, must still allow for either foot to be lifted and change position without compromising balance.

Here’s an important point regarding the study of the illustrations in historical texts such as the Opera Nova. Morozzo’s illustrations (and other treatises besides) show the combatant on a grid, the size of each square being capable of extrapolation by comparing it to the size of the swordsman’s foot. This, plus the number of squares from the forward to rear foot, the number of squares between the displacement sideways of the forward and rear foot and the shadows so depicted (which in the Opera Nova are not particularly strongly featured) also serve to show the proportion of the stance.

One of the principles which Marozzo is adamant is that you must never defend without attacking or attack without defending. Attacks can also have a “second intention,” which infers that the first movement is not the primary attack, but a feint to open the desired target. He also admonishes that you must never withdraw from an attack without covering yourself in a Guard.

Foot movement isn’t specifically defined by Marozzo, but can be inferred by references and illustrations of his various techniques.

The Passo or stepping move is executed much as a modern forward step advance where the forward foot leads the action with the rear foot immediately recovering to place the feet in their original position.

The Reddoppio, or “redoubling” is done by moving the rear foot forward to the back of the forward foot which immediately moves forward to bring you back to your original position.

The Fente or Gran Passo (big step) is essentially a lunge where the forward foot executes a large measure forward while the rear foot remains stationary, then, the blow having been made, the forward foot immediately recovers its original position.

The Passata is a step by the rear foot that passes the front foot to become the new forward foot. This is used to change from a right guard position to a left guard position or to close to attempt grappling. A “gran passata” is this move using a longer stride.


First, it’s very important to understand that a “guard” position in Marozzo (and many subsequent treaties) doesn’t really “guard” anything per ce, but is a position from which to launch attacks and to assume a defence. The guardia can also be used as an invitation to your opponent to attack open targets. From CH 138 to 143 Marozzo illustrates fifteen guard positions although he doesn’t go into a lot of depth explaining them. To better extrapolate his system, we can compare it to the existing texts of Manciolino and Dall’Aggochie. Also please note that the numbers listed below are mine and do not reflect the numbers in Marozzo’s text.

1 – The Coda Longa (long tail): The sword is held away from the body with the hilt at hip level, hand in supination, and the point directed towards your opponent. The buckler is advanced forward with the arm almost straight. With the right leg forward, this guard is termed Longa e Stretta, with the left leg forward, Longa e Alta. When the sword’s point is allowed to lower to point to the ground at a 45 degree angle similar to a modern seconde parry, this is called Longa e Larga. When the sword is held back so the hilt is behind the hip and the blade is angled to the ground as in Larga, this is termed Longa e Distesa.

2 – Porta de Ferro (the iron door): With the right foot forward, the buckler is held at upper chest level and close to the body (but never touching the chest) and the sword is held low with the hilt just above the right knee with the point angled forward. With the left foot forward and the right shoulder facing the enemy, this is known as Cinghira. (the wild boar) The sword is now held with the forearm across the body and the hilt below the hip, point angled forward. This is also termed Cinghira stretta. (narrow guard) If the sword is moved to the right side with the hilt slightly below the knee and the point opened to the right, this is termed “larga,” or “large.” This is also the term for the Porta de Ferro (right foot forward) if the sword is shifted to the right side. In both cases, the term refers to the fact that you are opening up your target areas, perhaps to invite a predictable attack.

If, in these above positions, the sword is raised to just below the shoulder, the arm advanced and the point forward, the new position is called Alta, as in Porta de Ferro Alta.

3 – Guardia de Testa (head guard): Here, the right leg is forward, the buckler is held over the left breast with the sword above the head, hilt outside the line of the right shoulder and the point slightly elevated and advanced forward, very similar to a modern sabre guard of 5.

4 – Guardia de Faccia (face guard): The body and buckler position is the same but the sword is held at shoulder level, arm fully extended and the hand in supination, true edge facing to your left.

5 – Guardia d’Intrare (entering guard): Same as the above, but the sword hand is turned to pronation with the true edge facing the right. It is postulated that the name comes from the idea that this is a strong position with which to “enter” your opponent’s guard.

6 – Becca Cesa and Possa: The meaning of the term “becca” is unclear since the term, in ancient Italian, can mean several things. From the Latin “caesa” it could mean “to be defeated.” Also, since the sword’s blade crosses the upper body obliquely, it could also refer to another meaning, “baldric,” an over-the-shoulder sword belt. Similarly, the term “possa” and “cesa” can mean “strong” and “weak,” perhaps referring to the position of the feet. However, I recently learned an alternate translation – “horned.” This term is used in Dall’Aggochie’s text where the guard is called Guardia de Alicornio, the guard of the unicorn. This sort of harkens back to the German longsword guard of Der Ochs, which ostensibly resembles the presented horns of the ox.

In any case, the guard, with left foot forward (cesa) and the right foot forward (possa) both have the buckler covering the left breast held about a foot away from the chest and the sword elevated on the right so that the hilt is held slightly above and to the outside of the right side of the head, with the point angled to your opponent’s center line.

6 – Guardia Alta (high guard): The buckler is held towards your opponent with a straight arm and the sword held as high as possible, also with a straight arm, on the right side with the point angled slightly back and the weapon  at a 45 degree angle to the body. The position is the same whether the right or left foot is forward. This position is also found in Longsword and, in the text of Filipo Vadi in De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi as the Guardia di Falcone.

(Just a little cross-cultural side-bar here: A similar guard is found in the German school of longsword which in itself is almost identical to the Japanese Iaido positions known as Jodan. Since the guard is a rather blatant invitation to get a heavy trip laid on your head, many Japanese consider it insulting to take such a guard against a master. Just sayin’…)

7 – Guardia di Sopra il Braccio and Guardia di Sotta il Braccio (the overarm guard and the underarm guard): In Sopra position, the buckler is held forward against the enemy and low, being positioned just outside the line of the body in mid to lower torso area just above the right hip. The sword arm crosses the torso to position itself above the edge of the buckler with the pommel facing forward and the blade just off the top of the left shoulder.

In Sotta position, the buckler position is high and to the outside of the body, covering just the tip of the right shoulder and the upper edge parallel to the eyes. The sword arm still crosses the chest, but the sword is held below the edge of the buckler with the pommel forward and the blade passing just under and beside the left armpit.

Both these positions are done with the left foot forward.

8 – Guardia de Fianco (flank guard): Mentioned only once by Marozzo, and then, describing it in the use of case or two-sword, the guard, similar to the sabre guard of septime, has the sword arm cross the body, hand in supination, point slightly forward, to defend with the outer edge.

Just one more reminder that you should not equate the term “guard” with “parry;” the first is a position, the second is an action. However, a guard can obviously also be used defensively, in which case it becomes an action. Also remember that the above descriptions are not inclusive of ALL Marozzo’s guardia regarding rapier or rapier and buckler, or any of several other weapons since I’d prefer an essay not to turn into a book. What I am attempting is to impart some basic principles so you can refer to the text and illustrations with some foreknowledge that will help you interpret them.

In conclusion, Marozzo’s OPERA NOVA is an extremely detailed and inclusive treatise on the use of bladed weapons as well as a highly effective system of unarmed combat that was typical of the Bolognese systems of the day. It’s also necessary to stress that this had nothing to do with sport but was a very realistic and in some cases, brutal, system of defense in situations of life and death. The concepts of “win” or “lose” should more properly be termed “live” or “die.”

Also remember that this essay has barely scratched the surface of the content of the OPERA NOVA; locate a good translation and read it for yourself.

Our next master in this series will be Camillo Agrippa who began the simplification of the Marozzo system and added his own contributions to the continuing evolution of rapier combat.




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