The Wolf Lord of Blades

Capo Ferro sounds so much better when you make him all “Game of Thrones,” doesn’t he? Sounds a lot more badass. Would you rather learn the sword art of some guy named “Lichtenauer” or learn the style taught by the Wolf Lord of Blades? I think I need to make up some new business cards. Or at least some new t-shirts. Translation is so much more fun when you throw accuracy away and focus on romanticism…or even orientalism.

Building up on the rapier portion of class for the next few months, I’ve got a series of progressive exercises to work through. I know what I want from students at the end of the process, and I know what steps they should need to get there. Some might need more steps, some might need less. I have to be prepared for all those eventualities. I’m preparing the way I always do, by cracking open the old books. Lately it’s been all Destreza work, with a smidge of the German’s thrown in to keep my perspective, but the last few days I’ve been digging into my old master, Capoferro.

Plate Seven has to be the most popular piece of all of his work, and after teaching it over and over again, I believe I started to just ignore it. It completely sublimated into me…but that was years ago. Now it’s new again. With a world more experience, it’s a much more interesting read and yields a number of valuable exercises for a variety of weapons.

The image itself, for those of you unfamiliar with the Lord of Blades (Iron Head? Boss of Steel? Can I make a worse translation?) contains a simple key. We see the final position. One guy has a sword going all the way through his head, the other doesn’t. Looking a little more closely, we see that the winner has his sword outside the other guys sword, and his hand appears to be palm down. The little letters underneath each fencer are important, as they tell us what happened just before the happy ending. The winner was in Quarta, palm up, and the loser in Terza, palm in the handshake position. This implies that the winner started on the inside and moved to the outside.

But let’s roll back just a little and start from the beginning position. I’m on the inside line, my point threatens my opponent, and my hand is palm up. The quillons of my sword are parallel to the ground. This is a good place to be, and it’s worth developing this line. If my movement is good, and my timing precise, and my opponent unaware, I can win easily and somewhat safely. All I have to do is claim the end of his sword, the weak part, with the strong of my blade. I want to ghost my quillons under his tip, and once I have that control I do not want to relinquish it. That would suck. Once I have that control, I can kill my opponent with a lunge or careful steps and angulation.

Learning to “cup” and control the opponent’s tip that way is a difficult art. It takes real development to pull it off, mostly because it’s such an obvious entry. With practice you can make it very subtle and dominating, but it’s always going to imply a risk because even a remotely wary opponent will disengage before allowing you that control. The average opponent will try to take the outside line on you, since your palm up position makes that an arguably more open line.

Which takes us to Capoferro’s first technique. We are still going to use our quillons and the strong of our blade. We are still going for the same domination and control we sought in the beginning. We relinquish nothing, once we have decided to control. Cupping that space, we follow the disengage, rolling our hand over to a palm down position. This rolling action allows our quillons to follow the path of the opponents tip, only now we come parallel but under our opponents weak. We can now drive in and complete the kill in an even safer position than the first attack, due to our opponent helping us out.

Ideally, our opponent had no choice but to help us out. Having entered with the dominant position on the inside, our opponent has to try for a new line or be killed…or back off, and we try again. This is one of the first problems that people have with learning the Wolf Lord’s method. They don’t have the ability to actually kill or threaten the opponent with the initial line. They instead seem to think that the opponent will magically understand that they have to fulfill their part of the dance, and get confused when it doesn’t happen. Master the first kill in order to force the second.

So here we have a good practice, a solid technique for students to work on in sparring. Try to attain the inside line on your opponent, and kill them with an attack in quarta. If this is difficult, take some Destreza lessons until it clicks. Once you can kill people with that attack, look for them to start figuring out the obvious counter…which you are now prepared for. This is the basic jab/hook to the body from boxing, carried into sword work. It works for all weapons, but it’s far easier with elaborate quillons.

Of course, nothing is foolproof. A wary opponent will let you feel your own mastery, will let you take the dominating line. The counter-master lets you feel like you are taking the lead in the dance, but ensures you follow only his steps. In this case, the counter-master will respond correctly to your control by choosing to take the inside line…but unlike the less experienced fencer, he won’t simply change lines and attack, hoping for a desperate win and usually only getting a double kill. The counter-master changes lines, but holds back.

He doesn’t attack, merely moves his hand only enough to let you feel confident and chose to commit to your follow up. And only when you commit does he reveal that he has strength and speed in reserve thanks to his position. In the language of the Wolf Lord, the opponent has done a demi-cavare, a partial disengage. In the language of Marozzo, the counter-master has shifted to a new guard, which allows him to expulse your attack to the outside. Parry, says the Wolf Lord. Either way, in doing so the result is the same. Your carefully planned attack, with a committed follow-up, has just netted you a cut to the face, or a sword through the chest. Classic Marozzo. That guy, really. Gets you every time. The Iron Door, going from open to closed, shuts out the Wolf Lord of Blades.

Who says the Asian styles get all the cool phrases, eh?

 PS. If you want to read Capo Ferro for yourself, he’s available online here.

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