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The Art of True Defence
XVIIth and XVIIIth French-school smallsword fencing, taught according to the principles of the foremost masters of the time, viz., Liancour, Girard, Labat, Angelo, Besnard, &c., and illustrated with engravings from the said authors.
FOREWORD: Fencing has been described as an art, and a science; is has been approached through all sorts of focuses: Carranza, in the XVIth century, developped an occult, philosophical school of fencing; Pacheco made it geometric; the Italians made it systematic; and the French made it academic. And of all these schools, the French is the one which best survived the test of time.
One must look towards the middle of the XVIIth century, more precisely, the year 1653, for a true French school to appear: This year marks the publication of Charles Besnard's treatise, Le Maistre D'arme libéral, which first describes a break from the then-predominant Italian school of rapier fencing. It introduced a new weapon, shorter than the rapier, called the smallsword; and this new tool allowed for revolutionary changes in the theory of fencing. This form of fighting evolved throughout the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, before disappearing in the XIXth, having transformed into modern foil fencing.
FOCUS: These lessons are only brief in appearance. They treat every principle of fencing in depth; every move, every attack, is a wheel in a great machine, and every single one of them must be perfectly greased. So don't just be satisfied with learning what it is: You only own a move after you've performed it a thousand times!
Also, even though conventional exercises are extremely useful, remember that fencing is all about combat: If you don't fight, you won't learn. So find a partner and fence, fence, fence!
PHILOSOPHY: Fencing, and especially, historical fencing, is above all a martial art: Common sense goes before all. When you learn to fence, don't try to "win" or "score points". In fencing, you must first learn to dominate yourself; then you shall dominate others. And winning is just part of the process. In 20 years, people won't care about what you won or what you lost: they'll care about what you can do.
1. Choosing a blade (and other sword-related questions)
2. The guard, and how to hold the smallsword; followed by different guards in use in Europe.
3. The salute: to be performed before assaults, and lessons with the master.
4. The thrust of Quarte, which is thrust on the high-inside.
5. The thrust of Tierce, which is thrust to the high-outside.
6. The feint in Tierce to thrust Quarte.
(more to come)
Choosing a blade
It is a subject so important, to know how to choose a blade, that no master could ever afford to ignore it in his treatise: For indeed, courage being of little use with a blade that snaps, one must pay the utmost attention to choosing a proper sword.
Although most of you will probably not have access to a proper smallsword-simulator, I propose that you try the following fix: An epee blade mounted on a foil guard and FRENCH grip (NOT a pistol grip) could do the trick, even though it would be a tad too long for a smallsword.
In mounting the blade, you must make sure the tang (that is, the long screw and protuberance at the end of the blade, which goes through the handle) is not filed down to fit snugly; rather, if there is a problem, you should file the inside of the handle, and fill it with fine slithers of wood in order to secure a firm grip. The tang must be well riveted to the pommel (the hefty nut at the end of the handle, which balances the sword) and the heel of the blade (that is, the point at which it is thickest, and nearest to your hand) must be well-pressed against the guard (the metal plate which protects your hand). You might want your sword to be canted: That is, slightly bent downwards at the tang, in order to have more ease in disengaging and thrusting; if it is bent towards the tip, it is known as a "bully's blade", or "lame du bretteur". You might also want to consider the knuckle-guard for your smallsword: For although it protects the hand, and may save your fingers, it may prove dangerous when your enemy tries to wrench the sword out of your hand. Personally, I like mine with a knuckle guard, mounted straight, and with a long, square handle: It is safer in the hand, and offers better control. But I'll leave this decision to one's personal fancy.
In order to verify the quality of a blade, you may simply press it against a wall: if it bends forming a perfect half-circle, then it is a good blade, unlikely to snap. If, on the other hand, it only bends towards the beginning, it is faulty. Also, if, once bent, the blade remains somewhat warped, it is faulty, as the temper is too soft: but it is less of a fault than if it refuses to bend at all, as the temper would be too hard, and the sword, likely to break.
Other methods of determining quality have been proposed by various authors, but I dismiss them as superfluous: For it might happen, that the sword thus weakened by these initial strains, could snap in the most inopportune moment.
I will finally teach you how to distinguish the forte and foible of a blade, which is, in fact, a very trivial matter. There is only one forte and one foible in a blade, although one could determine as many degrees of strength as he likes, and speak, like some others, of half-forte, half-foible, &c. Forte means the strong part of the blade: viz., the first half which is nearest to your hand. This is the part used for parrying (blocking). The foible is the weak part, viz., the second half of the blade, which goes all the way to the tip. I will often repeat this distinction throughout my courses, as it is crucial to a correct execution of fencing technique: and indeed, there is nothing more vital, in parrying than to oppose strong to weak.
The guard is your standard stance; it is from where surge your moves, your attack, and your defence. I shall explain my guard in twelve points, in order to make things clearer, and accompany them with an illustration.
1) You must present the tip of your sword straight, and towards the enemy's right pap, with the flat of the blade looking downwards.
2) May the tip of your sword's pommel be facing between your right armpit and your right pap, and directly above the tip of your right foot.
3) You must grip the handle with the small finger near the pommel, and the next two holding it tight against the hand; the index finger should be supporting the handle underneath, forming a half-circle, and the thumb should be holding the handle above, where the cross meets the handle. Thus it will be easy for you to disengage and thrust.
4) Your right arm must be straight, and your wrist flexible and turned half-quarte: therefore, the tips of your fingernails should be pointing upwards, with the fingernails looking towards the inside (your left) and the thumb nail should be on top, pointing forward.
5) Your left arm must be raised and turned in a half-circle, with your elbow towards the outside and your hand at eye level, the thumb looking downwards, and the palm of your hand looking to the outside. This is important for making oppositions and blocking thrusts with the left hand.
6) Your head must be somewhat drawn backwards, and turned towards the right shoulder, so that you may look straight at your enemy.
7) Your shoulders should be well aligned, and your entire body supported upon your left side.
8) Your left hip should be somewhat hidden by your right, but not twisted so as to cause any sort of discomfort.
9) Your right knee should be flexible, and a little bent.
10) The tip of your right foot should be pointed straight towards the enemy, and the heel should point straight to the left foot, which must be held perpendicular to the right, and at a distance of about two feet (according to what feels most comfortable for you).
11) The left knee must stick out more to the outside than to the inside, in order to ensure ease of motion.
12) Finally, the left foot must be firm and flat on the ground, presenting its side to the right foot.
ENGRAVING from Girard:
Other guards in use in Europe, some of which we shall learn how to fight later on:
1) The guard with the point high, and the wrist low
2)The guard with the point as high as the wrist, the hips quite horizontal, and the arm flexible
3) The guard with the wrist high, and the point low, towards the belly
4)The guard holding the sword with both hands at waist height, and the point high
5)The guard with the wrist high and the point quite low, near the ground, with the arm straight
6)The guard with the arms extended before the body, holding the sword horizontally, and holding the point with the left hand
7)The guard with the sword held low, towards the thigh, and held straight, parrying only with the left hand and thrusting back
8)The guard with the sword and dagger, with the right arm straight, the left at waist height, parrying blows with the dagger, a cane, or the left hand
9)The Italian guard, with both legs quite bent, the body in between them, and presenting the point towards the stomach, with a bent arm
10)The German guard, with the hand in prime and above the head, presenting the point towards the knees, and parrying with the left hand
11)The Spanish guard, being straight on their legs, with the sword straight and presented towards the enemy's head, and dodging blows to riposte with a thrust to the eyes or a cut to the head
12)The guard with the wrist high and turned half-quarte, with the tierce side quite hidden.
EXERCISES: You may perform these simple exercises whether you have a sword or not (you may use a stick) to give you a bit of flexibility and ease to go "en garde". Here is the first:
Being in a natural state, you must bring your two legs quite close together, with your left and right feet perpendicular, with the right heel against the left calf, forming a sort of half-cross. The rest of your body must be upright, with your arms hanging by your side. You must then raise your arms above your head, and turn the wrists towards the inside: and, lowering your arms, rest the right hand on your sword, the point of which will be near the tip of your right foot, and the left arm next to it. You must then raise your sword, and pass it over your head like a stramçon parade (that is, horizontal and above your head, as if to parry a downward cut), and then place your sword before you, with your hand turned in half-quarte, as explained, and, moving your left foot backwards about two feet, thus bending your left leg, and keeping your right quite straight, and raising your left arm as instructed: This will be your ordinary guard. You should repeat these motions a few times.
The other sequence you should do is that, being in the natural state previously described, with your feet perpendicular and your arms hanging by your side, you must quickly raise your arms, turning them in quarte as much as you can, and then turning them towards the inside, lowering them, and resting your right hand on your sword, and your left on your hip. You must then join these two wrists at the height of your gorget, turning them in quarte, and then separate them, turning them in tierce. Then you must let them fall in quinte, by the side of your body, raise once more both your arms, describing a great circle above your head with your sword: And then once more go in guard by moving back your left foot, bending the left leg and raising your left arm. This will also be your guard.
The salute is to be performed in Salles D'Armes before the assault, or loose play; the said salute must also be performed before and after receiving a lesson from the fencing master.
There are six positions for the salute:
being on guard as explained above, presenting the sword to your adversary, you must stomp with your right foot (this is known as an appel), with your body supported upon the left, and raising the left hand, bringing it to your hat, to take it off.
taking your hat off your head, you must extend the left arm, which is holding it at shoulder-height, passing in the same time the right foot behind the left the distance of the length of your foot, with the legs quite straight, the body and head upright, lowering the tip of the sword, the arms straight, the right wrist at the height of your mouth, turned in quarte.
having passed your left foot behind your righ, with both legs straight, the body, the head, and the arms well sustained, at the same time as you go back on guard with your sword before you, you must put on your hat, giving an appel with your right foot.
in order to regain your initial ground, pass your left foot before your right, in the same attitude as before, raising your wrist in quarte, and lowering the point.
you must then pass your right foot before your left, in the same attitude as before, with your wrist still raised in quarte, and the point of the sword low.
having regained your ground, and being back in guard, you will make sure you are out of measure, viz., out of reach of the enemy, and to hold the point of your sword well towards the foe, watching his moves to prevent him from surprising you, and you will strike appels with your right foot, in order to persuade him to strike first.
EXERCISES: Repeat these motions as explained.
The thrust in Quarte
Which is thrust straight into the high inside.
Being well on guard as said and in measure (viz., in range), the sword engaged in quart within the arms, one must bring forward his hand, raising his wrist, the nails turned upwards facing the sky, as well as the inside of the left hand; the arms extended as in a cross, the body leaning upon the right side, and sustained by the right knee; the shoulders quite straight, and the head leaning on the side of the right shoulder as to watch the thrust from the other side of the sword, so that the pommel is before the left eye, the tip of the foot straight towards the enemy, and may the knee be perpendicularly above the middle of the foot, with the left foot flat and firm against the ground, the left leg being quite raised. The thrust delivered and done as said, one must retire on guard with his sword before him, without lowering the wrist.
As a note upon lunging, the right foot must be raised only very slightly above the ground, and most of all, you must not "step". Rather, you should just raise the foot a small bit, and violently straighten your left leg, thus propelling yourself forward. Remember the lunge is performed only once the arm is extended.
See the different parades for this blow, when we come to discuss parades.
EXERCISES: You may thrust quarte against a plastroon, or against an opponent; for now, you should perform the thrust quite simply, without displacements, adding footwork as we reach those lessons.
The thrust in Tierce
I shall now instruct you upon the thrust in Tierce; this, along with the thrust in Quarte, will be the main thrust in your fight, the others being of less use. As the thrust in Quarte goes to the high-inside, that is, the opponent's chest, Tierce is thrust to the high-outside, that is, over the oponent's arm, and from the outside of his blade.
Being on guard and in measure, the blade engaged in Tierce without ("without" means "outside", "within" means "inside"), with the nails turned downwards and toward the ground, you must extend your arm, with your arms as a cross, the left hand equally turned in Tierce, the left leg quite extended, with the foot flat and firm against the floor, the right knee bent, so that it is quite directly above the right foot and in line with the enemy, the body firm, with the right side stooping over the right knee, both shoulders aligned, and with your head low along your arm in order to protect yourself from being hit in the face. Once you have delivered your thrust in this fashion you must retire on guard, with your sword before you, without lowering the wrist.
EXERCISES: The same as with Quarte, only, obviously, with Tierce. Note that, if your blade bends upwards with Quarte, it should bend downwards with Tierce.
Back to Fencing and Martial Studies or the Elftown Academy
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