A Methodical Approach to Fencing

Summary This article covers a scaffolded method of synthesizing key fencing techniques from primitive building blocks, using a representation of the late-period Italian lunge based on the teaching of Giganti as an example.


I: Method vs Material

Where the subject of thrust-oriented rapier fencing is concerned, I am an Italian formalist with a strong personal leaning toward Giganti. For this reason, I’ve chosen to use my interpretation of Giganti’s stance and lunge as examples as I detail my methodical approach to teaching complex core fencing techniques. If you’re reading this and happen to have no interest in formalistic historical rapier fencing, then I hope you’re still able to gain insight into martial arts pedagogy.


One Method Among Many

To be clear, this is one of many approaches I use both in my own training and in the instruction I provide. It may appear extremely clinical in text, but I’ve found it easy to work the philosophy of this method into my semi-casual style of coaching.


The Constructive Approach

I recently came across the notion that period masters likely taught some complex stesso-tempo actions, such as the lunge, in multiple sections to ensure students could execute various interdependent actions clearly and in the proper sequence. Whether or not it’s true, I strongly subscribe to this method, both because I’ve seen good results from it, and also because I’ve seen terrible results from neglecting it.

Tactically, there’s another very good reason to separate some complex actions, such as the lunge, into steps. Though it’s possible to execute a lunge from a defensive stance in a single stesso-tempo action, some of the Italian masters specifically warn against the length of this tempo, providing numerous examples of techniques that clearly separate an attack into the extension of the hand and shifting of the body from the delivery of the strike, and often additional are mechanics introduced as tactical elements (e.g., the cavazione).

On a wholly mechanical level, the lunge encompasses many of the core elements of Italian fencing, as you move from your most defensive posture to your most offensive postures. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we discuss the mechanics of the lunge, we’re going to need to establish some vocabulary.




II: Definitions

At first glance, the process of breaking down techniques into their smallest mechanics may appear needlessly complex to advanced fencers and potentially perplexing to newer ones, but when you consider the reason for identifying each discrete action, the approach (while laborious) is extremely sound. While I’ll assume you have at least a passing understanding of standard fencing terms, here are some of the terms I use to describe the building blocks of the techniques I teach.

Interdependent

A descriptor for the relationship between two mechanics or actions that are dependent on one another but not fully discrete because their beginnings and/or ends are asynchronous (e.g., the first three actions of the lunge overlap to create a stesso-tempo technique). It’s crucial not to forget that the sequence of the individual actions (including composite actions) still begin in sequence, even if they end together.

Discrete

A descriptor for a mechanic or action executed in isolated steps for either tactical or conditioning purposes.

Mechanic

The smallest unit of discrete movement, typically only a single motion (e.g., a shift in posture or an extension of the hand).

Action

A composition of interdependent mechanics that can be executed discretely (e.g., extension, step, and recover). One action or two interdependent actions may be complete tactical elements of other techniques, thus requiring special attention while working toward a specific technique (e.g., extend and shift).

Technique

A composition of actions either executed interdependently or broken into two or more tempi for tactical reasons (e.g., the lunge).

Tactic

The deliberate execution of a technique in the context of the fight (mentioned for reference only, but not the focus of this article).




III: Methodology

Patience and Repetition

Assembling mechanics into techniques is fairly straight forward, yet it’s a stumbling block for many beginning fencers, particularly in a culture that undervalues repetition and overemphasizes the need for entertainment as learning tools. The reason for this is simple: unless you practice each discrete mechanic repeatedly until it becomes automatic, you won’t be able to assemble them interdependently into actions. Likewise, if you can’t practice each action discretely, then you won’t be able to assemble them interdependently into the full technique or use them to learn other techniques.


Precision vs Speed

There’s an old martial arts platitude that goes, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Over simplified as this may be, there’s a lot of truth to it. Be patient, move deliberately, and never execute any motion faster than you can control with smooth precision, and even the most “hopeless” fencer can become a rockstar. Whether you’re training or sparring, going slow is the key. Far too many beginning fencers fall into the trap of rushing in the pursuit of speed. True speed comes from a combination of proper timing and precise, fluid motion—everything else is an illusion. Put another way, if a technique were a meal, precise action is the recipe, and speed is the seasoning. A right seasoning can make a good dish amazing, but when a cook tries to cover the taste of a bad dish with too much seasoning, the only person he fools is himself.


Formulaic Representation of Descrete Phases

What follows is a formulaic representation of the progression I use when teaching the lunge.

  • Phase I: T = (M1 + M2) + (M3 + M4) + (M5 + M6) + [(M7 + M8) + M9]
  • Phase II: T = (A1 + A2) + A3 + A4
  • Phase III: T = (A1–A2 + A3) + A4
  • Conclusion: T = (A1–A3) + A4

Legend: M = mechanic, A = action, T = technique.

Parentheses

The parentheses indicate steps that must be trained together interdependently to form new steps in the following phase. A series of mechanics delineated via parentheses becomes an action in the next phase. The nested parentheses in Phase I indicate two mechanics that happen simultaneously as part of an action. I find it useful to practice these simultaneous mechanics in isolation a few times before trying to assemble the entire action. A series of actions delineated via parentheses becomes a stesso-tempo progression of interdependent actions in the following phase, which is indicated with a dash (e.g., A1—A2 in Phase III). When all parentheses have been resolved, the technique is complete.


Transitioning Between Phases

To transition through phases, you must practice blending discrete motions into interdependent ones. I recommend practicing each sequence in isolation until it becomes as effortless as a single mechanic. Once you’re there, you’re ready for the next phase, in which you string these building block into more complex sequences of interdependent motion.


Graphic Representation of Interdependence

I introduced the concept of interdependence in the definitions section, but I believe a graphic representation of the concept may be useful. While this example is based on overlapping actions, in most cases, the same flow applies to the individual mechanics as well.

Time————————————————————————>
A1—————————–>
       A2—————————–>
              A3—————————–>


Deliberate Stillness

Just as I encourage deliberate action, I also encourage deliberate stillness. That is to say, regardless of whether you’re drilling individual mechanics, discrete actions, or entire techniques, whenever you come to a rest, completely cease your motion. That means as you practice, if you make a mistake, acknowledge it and focus on correcting it next time, but do not fix your mistakes.

Fixing your mistakes teaches you to be imprecise in your movements and to rely on your ability to correct your form in a subsequent tempo. Not only does this make you look like Donald Duck about to tee off (imagery shamelessly stolen from Tom Leoni) as you wiggle into your stance, it will get you hit. Instead, place yourself into the position you’re trying to achieve with no regard to precise motion and practice recognizing your goal by feel alone.




IV: Techniques

Interpretation

I’m fully aware that it’s up to each instructor to chose which mechanics to delineate and there are disagreements between even excellent instructors about the execution of various techniques. We’re all doing the best we can, and I realize that many people who read this won’t agree with my interpretations of specific techniques. If you happen to agree with me, great! If you don’t, then that’s also okay—ignore the way I interpret the techniques and focus just on the method I use to explore them.


Pre-lunge Training

Because the core of my training method centers around the lunge, I have to establish quite a bit of background first. I tackle most of this (guards, posture, etc) via a series of explanations, examples, and simple exercises. I won’t bother detailing them here (more on that elsewhere). There is one essential technique I feel is absolutely essential to practice before moving on to the lunge itself, which is the technique of dropping into stance.


Technique I: Dropping into Stance

By “stance” I mean the neutral position from which you’re in the greatest control of your actions (a.k.a., on guard). It’s a stable platform for attacking, but it’s also ideal for maintaining a strong defense. In short, it’s a return to zero, and getting there efficiently means keeping your guard up and being ready to take advantage of openings.

Setup: Attention. This is a typical (albeit post-period) swordsman’s salute. Stand facing forward with your feet and shoulders squared, sword hand at chest height, sword point up, and off hand hanging relaxed at the side.

Phase I

T = (M1 + M2) + [(M3 + M4) + M5]

  • M1: Step back with your offhand foot, so that a line drawn through both heels would lead to the target.
  • M2: Shift your weight to your back foot, hinging your hips slightly.
  • M3: Drop your sword hand to your side, arm almost straight, just in front of and outside your front hip.
  • M4: With your hand in terza, raise the tip of your sword to armpit height.
  • M5: Raise your off hand to the base of your sternum, extended no farther than your sword hand.

Phase II

T = (A1 + A2)

  • A1: Step back, bringing your heels into alignment and shifting your weight to your back foot, hinging your hips slightly.
  • A2: Drop your sword hand to your hip in terza, raising the tip of your sword to armpit heigh and bring your off hand into guard before the base of your sternum.

Conclusion

T = A1–A2

  • T: Drop into stance.

Between Stance and Lunge

These actions strung together, with the step back preceding the motions of the hand slightly, and the motions of the hand ending with the transfer of weight to the back leg, you’re now ready to begin working on the lunge.

Before we move on, I want to go over how to build up the proper weight distribution in stance.The ideal weight distribution in stance is somewhere between 80–90% of your weight on your back foot—enough so that you can lift your front foot without a noticeable shift in weight. If you try to achieve this from day one, you’re either extremely zealous or totally mad. Either way, you’re in for a disappointment, as your body fails to support your ambition.

I’d suggest beginning by shifting a bit more than half of your weight back. Over a few weeks, you can continue to build up the amount of weight you shift to your rear leg by bending your knee more, being careful not to distort your posture in the process via hip hinging—a procedure of maintaining your center of balance by bending at the waist to compensate for the bend in your back knee (like sticking your butt out and leaning forward slightly) to keep your carriage erect. The more you bend your knee, the more you need to hinge your hips. Once you’re able to comfortably hold a proper stance, practice dropping into it from a variety of extreme positions—you should be able to snap into stance regardless of the circumstances.


Technique II: The Lunge

Setup: Stance. I typically don’t wait for students to be able to simply drop into stance in one fluid motion before I get to the lunge itself. For one thing, it’s boring, and for another thing, it’s totally unnecessary. Instead, I look for

Phase I

T = (M1 + M2) + (M3 + M4) + (M5 + M6) + [(M7 + M8) + M9]

  • M1: Turn your sword hand into either terza-quarta or seconda-terza, bringing the point over the opponent’s sword, covering the inside or outside line.
  • M2: Extend your sword hand forward, keeping your elbow down and maintaining a bend in your elbow, covering your opponent’s blade.
  • M3: Increase the hinging of your hips, bringing your shoulders forward to further and extending the sword.
  • M4: Turn your hips and shoulders slightly (profiled for the inside line; squared for the outside line) to gain the blade and gain your opponent’s blade (placing your forte in position over your opponent’s debole).
  • M5: Finish the turn of your hand into quarta (for the inside line) or seconda (for the outside line)
  • M6: Step forward, completing the turn of your hips and shoulders and delivering the strike with your foot (arresting your forward motion as your foot lands).
  • M7: Bend your back leg, shifting weight to your back foot.
  • M8: Pull your shoulders back, recovering your posture back to stance with your blade extended.
  • M9: Recover your blade back to stance.

Side Note: While this exercise calls for a recovery into stance, you should be able to recover to any point in the lunge before M

Phase II

T = (A1 + A2) + A3 + A4

  • A1: Extend and cover your opponent’s blade.
  • A2: Shift your weight while increasing the hinging of your hips to gain your opponent’s blade.
  • A3: Deliver the lunge, turning your hips.
  • A4: Recover into stance, covering your escape.

Side Note: Once you’re proficient at the transition between Phase II and Phase III (i.e., the discrete steps of Phase III), you have the technical platform for many other essential techniques (e.g., feint and attack by cavazione).

Phase III

T = (A1–A2 + A3) + A4

  • A1–A2: Extend and cover (A1) as you shift your body and gain (A2).
  • A3: Deliver the lunge, turning your hips.
  • A4: Recover into stance, covering your escape.

Conclusion

T = A1–A3 + A4

  • T: Lunge and recover.



V: Application

If you’re looking for a training a method for yourself, then you probably know best how to manage the complexity of your training. However, if you’re looking for a way to apply these methods to training new fencers (without running them off, that is), then you may want to measure out the details judiciously, lest you either bore them to death or make them drink from the fire hose.

Honestly, this is part of a much larger subject, which merits several articles itself, but I’ll try to put this in just enough context to make sense. As much as I’d like to start new fencers off with a meticulous breakdown of technique to keep them from developing bad habits, you need to keep them engaged. While circumstances vary and you need to be agile to keep up with the needs of your group, my basic formula for running a practice in a non-formal club (e.g., SCA fencing practice) is:

  1. Footwork drills (5 minutes)
  2. Technical training (10 minutes)
  3. Partner exercises (10–30 minutes)
  4. Free sparring (Indefinite)

The material covered in this article relates to the technical training portion of practice. Admittedly, ten minutes isn’t much time to focus on mechanical training, but it’s enough when you consider two things. First, you’re not going to cover much at once, and given your limited time, you won’t be tempted to. Second, this the homework. Your job is to provide some coaching and feedback that your students can take with them when they practice on their own.

Keep it simple. For instance, when I start to teach dropping into stance (after we go over things like guards, mechanical strength, and other essentials), I start by walking students through all of Phase I several times. I don’t expect them to retain it, but I do expect them to get the idea. Next time, I’ll walk them through it all again, but then we’ll work through just the step and weight transfer until that action is complete. Next week, I’ll introduce the three mechanics of the hand, starting with combining M3 and M4, then M3 and M5, and then M3—M5. Baby steps. Likewise, I recommend teaching one action of the lunge at a time, often focusing on even a mechanic or two.


Adaptation

If you’re teaching a style of fencing wholly removed from late-period Italian rapier, you can still apply this same method of deconstructing complex techniques down to discrete actions and establish a set of formulas for assembling them in phases. I’d recommend focusing on the simplest core techniques first (e.g., entering the bind, placing the atajo, etc) and limiting the scope of your technique to the mechanics of a single tempo. The hard part is identifying individual mechanics. A good way to go about this is to go through the technique you want to dissect and describing every motion you make, while a friend writes everything down as a list. After that, you can go over the list, break up any complex mechanics and make sure the order is right.

However you put this theory and the methods I’ve outline here to work, I hope I’ve been able to offer some useful insights into technique structure. While my approach may appear overly methodical, I’ve found it to be extremely successful, allowing even fencers who’ve given up hope at true proficiency to construct complex sequences of interdependent actions that previously eluded them out of easy-to-grasp discrete motions.





Postscript

While I mentioned before that I didn’t write this article with the purpose of exploring tactics or tactical elements, I’d be remiss not to mention the cavazione. This postscript section includes a breakdown of the cavazione in the context lunge. I chose to place the cavazione after the extension (A1) because I feel this emphasizes the need to perform the action in the middle of gaining the blade (A1–A2), though it often concludes as the hips assume the proper orientation for the lunge. I did this to remain consistent with the stesso-tempo approach that I used for the previous techniques. Were you to use the cavazione in a dui-tempo tactic, it would fall between the shift (A2) and the step (A3).

In short, I consider the attack by cavazione (not the lunge) to be the basic unit of attack in Italian fencing, as any competent fencer will naturally close the most vulnerable line, and attacking on a closed line is suicidally stupid. However, I’ve discovered a disturbing number of fencers are terrible at performing the cavazione and fail to recognize this tactical necessity, so I’m including it in this afterward.


Technique IIc: The Attack by Cavazione

Setup: This is an augmentation of the lunge that assumes mastery of Phase I of the lunge. This stage can be represented as follows.

T = A1 + A2 + A3 + A4

  • A1: Extend and cover your opponent’s blade.
  • A2: Shift your weight while increasing the hinging of your hips to gain your oppenent’s blade.
  • A3: Deliver the lunge, completing the turn of your hips and hand.
  • A4: Recover into stance, covering your escape.

As the cavazione is inserted into this sequence, necessitating a composition of three additional phases.

Phase Ic

T = A1 + (M1c + M2c + M3c) + A2 + A3 + A4

  • A1: Extend and cover.
  • M1c: Relax your fingers, dropping your point below your opponent’s blade.
  • M2c: Rotate your hand, shifting from terza-quarta to seconda-terza or vice versa.
  • M3c: Tighten your finger, bringing the point up above the opponent’s blade on the opposite line.
  • A2: Shift your body and gain.
  • A3: Deliver the lunge, turning your hips (completing the turn to quarta or seconda).
  • A4: Recover into stance, covering your escape.

DO NOT continue on to Phase IIc until you can execute the complete cavazione effortlessly as a single sequence. Failure to do this will make it impossible to perform the cavazione during other actions, resulting in an extra tempo that will render this technique useless.

Phase IIc

T = (A1 + Ac + A2) + A3 + A4

  • A1: Extend and cover.
  • Ac: Perform the complete cavazione in isolation.
  • A2: Shift your body and gain.
  • A3: Deliver the lunge, completing the turn of the hips and hand.
  • A4: Recover into stance, covering your escape.

Phase IIIc

T = (A1–A2 + A3) + A4

  • A1–Ac: Extend and cover (A1) as you shift your body and gain (A2) and perform the cavazione (Ac).
  • A3: Deliver the lunge, completing the turn of the hips and hand.
  • A4: Recover into stance, covering your escape.

Conclusion

T = (A1–A3) + A4

  • T: Attack by cavazione and recover.

I’m not going to go into details here, but in order to pull off a proper attack by cavazione, you’ll need to condition the muscles in your forearm that operate your fingers. Simply spending some time every day with your rapier in hand, manipulating the point with your fingers alone is a good start.

Written by Philipp

The proprietor of The Edge of the World historical fencing academy.

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