Ever wonder why a fencing technique you know should have worked didn’t? Chances are, you violated one or more at the core principles of mechanical advantage. This is fairly common, since many fencers never break these principles down into simple rules. In fact, it’s entirely fair to say that a large part of any given fencing system (regardless of the type of sword involved) is how it arrives at the same conclusions.
Handy as that realization may be, period sources are lousy at explaining mechanical concepts is simple terms, particularly if you study medieval and renaissance sources that predate the study of physics. I’ll leave the tactics and philosophy to those who fought and died to establish them, but here’s a handy checklist of mechanical principles and corresponding rules you can use to diagnose the problem when an otherwise successful technique goes wrong:
- Proximity (Gain Relative Strength)
- Edge (Apply the Front Edge)
- Angle (Observe the Precedence of the Point)
- Gravity (Dominate from Above)
- Momentum (Speed Multiplies Your Effect)
- Form (Increase Strength via Concordant Posture)
Practice your techniques with these principles in mind, and eventually, you’ll be able to consider them all constantly at an instinctual level. When you no longer have to think about the underlying principles, you’ll not only have more mental space to focus on tactics and strategy, you’re certain to be far more successful in their application.
Principle 1: Proximity
As you progress into the renaissance, many fencing systems break the blade down into three or more sections to indicate the relative strength of the weapon in the hand, defining its behavior in opposition as that of a simple lever. This makes sense, as the lever was one of the six simple machines identified and obsessed over by renaissance natural philosophers.
Period masters reasoned correctly that the leverage applied to fencing had little to do with the weapon itself and far more to do with the distance blade contact occurs relative to the fulcrum created by either fencer’s wrist (or core, in the case of two-handed weapons). Just as the historical fencing masters did with words like forte and debole, we often discuss leverage in terms of strength (e.g., a point close to the sword hand is “strong”, whereas a point close to the tip is “weak”).
Rule 1: Gain Relative Strength
What matters more than the absolute strength of any point on the blade is the relative strength of each blade when the meet. Simply put, never place a weaker part of your blade on a stronger part of your opponent’s blade. This guideline holds true most of the time, but you’ll still need to compensate for the relative strengths of the fencers if you wish to gain a dominant position.
The other important thing you need to bear in mind is that it’s the distance from the hand that determines relative strength, not the distance from the tip. This can make it hard to tell at a glance who has relative strength when two people fence with swords of unequal length. This is one of the many reasons not to look at your or your opponent’s sword when you fence and to feel through your sword instead.
Principle 2: Edge
Edge strength has far less to with the blade itself as it does with the way the joints in your arm and the muscles of your back function. For starters, it’s important to consider that a blade is a relatively thin plane of metal designed for rigidity along the edge and minimize resistance when passing through its target. As a result, blades tend to flex on the flat, which is a desirable quality when cutting through flesh and bone, and even those that don’t present greater surface area on that axis.
In any event, the blade itself is the most stable on its edges, and even techniques that begin with a deliberate flat-on-edge orientation typically end with an application of one of the edges.
Rule 2: Apply the Front Edge
It’s true that your back (false) edge is stronger than either flat, but when you consider how your wrist and arm work, the greater strength of the front (true) edge becomes abundantly apparent. The front edge is the one on the same side as your knuckle bow, if you have one.
Put another way, if your sword were a hammer, you’d swing the front edge side down to pound in a nail. If it were a chef’s knife, then the front edge is the one you’d use to chop vegetables. Even as you orient your hand around to meet a threatening blade on any given line, if you align your true edge to meet it, you’ll gain an extra measure of strength.
One caveat to this particular rule comes in the form of the punto reverso or stech in bogen/schutzen, where your opponent deliberately thrusts with the back edge facing your blade. If you attempt to meet the blade with your front edge, your opponent can simply curve around the resistance and land the blow anyway.
This doesn’t actually violate the rule of the front edge, because the contest isn’t about leverage, because the opponent is avoiding extensive contact with your blade. There are several ways to deal with these rare forms of attack (e.g., a mezzo-spada parry with the back edge), but we won’t go into them here, as they are specific to the circumstances in which they occur.
Principle 3: Angle
In order for one blade to affect another, there must be some degree of angle between them. The greater the relative angle of the blades (the more perpendicular they are), the more they can effect one another. There are several ways you can apply this principle, both on the horizontal and on the vertical axis. For example, you can lower your hand and raise your tip to create an angle on the vertical plane that you can apply to ward off a flat thrust.
Put another way, a flat thrust delivered without securing the safe offensive position created by applying an angle (what we fencing snobs call a potshot) will do absolutely nothing to protect you, resulting all too often in the kind of double hit that causes your deity of choice to sacrifice some cute and innocent creature in a fit of pique. But this is all esoteric—let’s talk about application.
Rule 3: Observe the Precedence of the Point
Technically, you can force a more perpendicular angle by moving either end of your sword: the pommel end, or the tip. Whichever you move will create a natural ramp to the other end. As a result, moving your hand will almost certainly result in loss of mechanical advantage, whereas moving your point will bolster your control. Another way of putting this is that the sword is strongest in the direction it points, and we call this The Precedence of the Point.
If you observe this rule, then you’ll both attack and defend yourself by manipulating your point in an outward cone of control. This flies in the face of generations of fencers who’ve been taught (and, in turn teach) the maddeningly foolish notion that one should never to take one’s point off of one’s target. In reality, you’re far better off bringing your point over your opponent’s sword (aiming for a spot just over their shoulder or past their frame) to gain the blade and then reorient the tip in for a strike once you’ve established clear dominance.
Principle 4: Gravity
Just as renaissance fencing masters were eager to appropriate the lever in their discourse of fencing as a means of justifying fencing as a science, they recorded their observations about gravity with equal vigor—even if they couched the as-yet undefined principle in Aristotelian nomenclature. Nonetheless, the role of gravity in swordplay is immutable, as any novice can observe that whichever blade is on top will have an easier time controlling the blade below.
In addition to the force of gravity allowing you to use the weight of your blade to your advantage, the position above allows you to apply the muscles of your back (e.g., the latissimus dorsi) to control your blade.
Rule 4: Dominate from Above
All other factors being equal, the blade on top will win a contest of leverage, so it is generally the position you’ll wish to achieve. There are a few hazards to be cautious about when pursuing domination from above beyond the mere physical strength of your opponent. For one thing, gravity can work against you, and an opponent who can exploit an over-zealous attempt to gain the blade can quickly put you in a precarious position.
Also, gravity gives you an advantage, but not an overwhelming one. A savvy opponent of modest stature may be able to slip a closer (stronger) part of their blade below yours and strike you with an imbrocata or similar low-line attack.
Principle 5: Momentum
While Newton didn’t pen his Laws of Motion until the second half of the 17th century, long before classical mechanics was an established discipline, swordsmen such as Giacomo di Grassi were putting these foundational principles to the test. One established fact was that an object in motion tends to stay in motion (inertia), and the greater its motion, the more likely it is to stay in motion (momentum). Thus the application of momentum to the contest of leverage in fencing is an established method of seeking advantage and increasing the effectiveness of sound mechanics.
Rule 5: Speed Multiplies Your Effect
Notice that at no point are we suggesting that speed makes your technique better. Whether it’s playing music or making love, if you are doing it right, doing it faster won’t make it better. Instead, the rule is that the faster you move your blade, the more momentum it has, and more likely it is to stay in motion.
If that motion happens to effectively gain mechanical advantage, then the payoff is likely to be greater. However, if that motion is going to fail, then your failure will be all the more spectacular—an effect savvy fencers tend to exploit. For this reason, it’s likely that those who lived and died by the sword demonstrated a degree of caution far greater than those of us pursuing historical fencing as a sport do today. At any rate, you’re probably better off focusing on doing things right than doing things quickly.
Principle 6: Form
Nothing short of time, repetition, and feedback can reinforce proper muscular-skeletal alignment, and the specific posture you assume at any given moment while fencing is dictated by the style of fencing you practice and a stream of constantly changing variables. Nonetheless, form is a sum of many parts (e.g., keeping a straight spine, bent knees, and a stable center with your shoulders over your hips) from which you apply all other principles. Maintaining balance and correct muscular tension is also critical.
If you find yourself struggling with other aspects of blade mechanics, then try relaxing a bit. Excessive tension (e.g., keeping a death grip on your sword) can ruin otherwise correctly executed actions. The fact of the matter is that you can appear to do everything else right, but if you fail to apply force correctly because your form is off, your technique may still be ineffective.
Rule 6: Increase Strength via Concordant Posture
One way you can apply good form to your fencing is through the observation that the lever most visible at the sword end is balanced on the other side of the fulcrum by the rest of your musculoskeletal structure. The organization of your hips and shoulders has a dramatic effect on the stability of your arm and shoulders. When your core is arranged to support your sword arm, you’re in a concordant posture, whereas when your core isn’t arranged to support your sword arm, you’re in a discordant posture.
This kinesthetic subject is literally complex enough that multiple books have been written on the subject, but there are a couple of easy rules to observe that will help you achieve the best possible structure behind your sword. When manipulating your opponent’s sword on your inside line, profile your hips and shoulders (sand sideways in relation to your opponent). When manipulating their sword on the outside line, square your hips and shoulders (like you’re about to tackle them). This second arrangement is aided further by stepping forward with your offhand foot.
But What About…?
As with any simplification of complex principles, there are always exceptions (or cases that appear to be exceptions) to these rules. For example, a longsword may feel like it doesn’t obey the principle of proximity because of the added leverage you gain from a two-handed grip, but while that may hold up if you’re facing someone with a single-handed sword, the extra leverage isn’t as much of an advantage if you’re facing another longsword.
There are also plenty of techniques that don’t observe all of these principles but are still incredibly effective. Often, that’s because you don’t need the strongest position to win; you need a position that’s stronger than that of your opponent.
Lastly, when all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. In other words, this article specifically deals with gaining mechanical advantage, but there are plenty of times you can do better by getting your opponent to pursue mechanical advantage, using misdirection to capitalize on their misapplied commitment to strike safely on an undefended line. It would behoove any student of fencing to develop a firm understanding of these techniques as well.