Difference in the Details

IMG_0008Why does rapier play have to be different from foil play? I know the common answers, but I’m left to wonder sometimes if they aren’t just taken at face value with no real thought as to what the science might be. Leaving aside the fantasy role play that a rapier is a “real” weapon, we are left with the doctrine assumed by the community: The practice rapier is heavier, longer, balanced differently, has edges and is notably slower. Those are the only real differences.

You could add that we use the off-hand in rapier, we move off-line, we grapple, pommel strike, cut, etc. Those aren’t physical limitations of the foil, but rules…conventions of play. The mechanics of motion and efficiency are what I’m interested in. To be clear, I’ve handled a foil for all of about a minute total in my life. Four or five occasions of picking one up, poking it at things and shaking my head. Very clearly not my thing. The foil play I’m considering now is more of what I’ve seen in real life…Classical foil play or smallsword work. My main written reference is Aldo Nadi’s book on fencing.

Mostly what I’m questioning is my own assumptions. The little tidbits of wisdom that I spout out when teaching, tidbits passed on to me from the people who taught me. The profile of the body, the use of the off-hand, the steps offline, the primacy of the attack or counter-attack over the parry…these things were all explained to me as being a requirement when using a weapon so heavy. I was taught to use the off-hand, preferably with a dagger in it, aggressively. To do so meant not profiling the body as much as is seen today. Parries left you open for counters via disengage, so you pressed home a hard attack designed to displace the opponents sword, or side-stepped to counter-attack.

Some of this is supported by the historical manuals, the rest is known to the historical authors and clearly spoken against as bad technique. My own practice tends to follow a more profiled approach. I am, however, a victim of my early training. My early rapier lessons demonstrated a clear lineage of what was apocryphally pre-Soviet Hungarian Sabre, which showed in our stances and the nine parries we were taught. In an off day, or when tired or injured, I still tend to adopt a tip-up guard and parry strongly with the forte. And of course the students pick up on that and I start to see it showing up around the sparring floor. Arg.

I know what correct fencing is supposed to be. I can read Capo Ferro, Marozzo, Thibault, Viggiani, Di Grassi and even Lovino if I want. They tell me things that mostly jive, but I’m not content with that. What’s clear as day one day is less so when new developments shine a brighter light. What was the most logical and best for movement and defense may have been absolutely true in 1605, and may have also had the strength of Darwinian testing in duel after duel. Evolution, however, is mostly a process of mutation and elimination not logic. New things arise which cannot be predicted. The boxing of the time was built on the same logic and presented a wonderful, complete system of hand-to-hand combat. It does not hold up against what we know today. It still has value and is a worthwhile martial art, but it’s not even remotely difficult to see how it can benefit from what we know today, particularly in regards to footwork and body mechanics.

Foil or any of the modern sport weapons lack a non-sport arm to help inform us as to what we could be adding to historical swordplay, and it would take someone with better knowledge than me to separate out what might be useful from what is rules-only optimized. The martial arts of other cultures lack a significant sparring presence and are also unable to provide us with a future glimpse. So I’m left to experiment. I understand, have been taught and read, that parries are an inferior response for rapier use. I am still not convinced, though. It nags.

Rapier to rapier is a point of parity as much as foil to foil. The rapier is slow, but so is the opposing rapier. The blade is less nimble than that of a modern sport tool, but again this is a point of parity. The mechanics of the rapier make it superior for displacement on the attack, forte pressing in to drive the opposing blade offline, but this can be countered the way it is taught historically, with control of measure and re-engagement. If enough emphasis is placed on this with the addition of superior footwork in the form of angulation, can we not be taking advantage of more modern concepts of compound engagement when the opportunity presents itself?

Obviously we can’t if our aim is historical recreation. Fortunately for me I am no kind of scholar, and make no claims to teaching any kind of accurate historical art. I study them intensely, but passing them on is a job for others. I’m more interested in a living tradition of swordplay that can carry forward, both as sport and art. So I can make my experiments in good conscience, and see if I’m right or wrong…but preferably I’ll just find more questions to ask.


  1. Great post. I tackled mnay of these same issues coming to SCA rapier from modern fencing. I think what probably tickled your interest about Nadi’s book was his account of the duel he fought with a “modern” epee. While I agree that modern fencing has little outlet for historical examination, there is some.

    Certain schools, two specifically in the Vancouver area, practice modern fencing using “classic” form. Classic in this sense dates largely to the early 20th century, Nadi’s era. Most sport fencing schools shun many of the stylized techniques employed, but much of Nadi’s material is still key for even the most modern of modern fencers. When I read “On Fencing” I was looking for more knowledge and time tested techniques, and I found a great deal. Some components of Nadi’s era, the Italian grip for example, which was lashed to the wrist with a leather strip, are not used anymore, but the french grip used by Nadi’s french rivals is still in wide use, and many of his technical observations are as fresh now as they were then.

    As a final note; though some things have changed since Nadi’s time, what he was doing 100 years ago is largely the same as modern fencing is now. Electronic scoring has been added, which in Nadi’s time entailed 2-5 judges watching the action. That said, Nadi talks about exploiting the viewing angles and prejudices of the judges, which is no different than modern fencing, excepting that it is now more difficult to do with electronic scoring.

    Some day I’d like to introduce you to an electronic scoring system. I think you might like it.

    • We’ve been working on committing the blasphemy of incorporating Nadi’s suggestions for foil work into rapier class…footwork and stance to start, and soon adding some of the parries and combinations. There are obvious differences due to the absolute limit on ability that is capped by the weight and length differences of the weapons, but when those are understood and accounted for there is tremendous value to be taken.

      I’d be happy to try out the electronic system. I will never put the honour system in second place, but I do understand that perception can sometimes falter and need a guiding hand, if that makes sense.

  2. It does make sense. That said, having experienced both in significant amounts, I found in the end that I preferred a firm scoring system.

    The honour system frequently made for a more robust and decisive bout, if both fighters were playing the same game. That said, there were a whole bunch of types of fighters that actively made the system problematic (SCA being my only reference point). The ones who were mysteriously harder to hit in tourneys. The ones who were mysteriously harder to hit when facing “inferior” opponents. The ones who were mysteriously harder to hit when they didn’t like their opponent…and the list goes on.

    While electronic scoring does lead to some “gaming” of the system, it’s been around so long that everyone actively participating is aware of what can and can’t be done under the system, and there’s simply no opportunity to gain an advantage through under-handed activities. I cannot say the same for SCA rapier.

    Best of luck working through Nadi’s suggestions, he really was quite amazing.

    • Reeeeeallly can’t disagree with you there. My preference in no way indicates a belief that the system is without flaws. Or rather, people are flawed and tournaments allow them an opportunity to behave badly. The honour system is great amongst non-gamers, but doesn’t hold up when someone wants to take advantage of it.

      The only issue I see with the electronic system is the implication of connection to the ruleset, but that’s not really so, is it? Hmm.

      No reason not to combine electronic scoring with judges and the honour system. Call your hits, or decline your hits only as a display of courtesy, but a necessary display if only for flavour. The electrics are the arbiter of touch or no touch. The judges serve to make calls of priority of lethality. A double touch, thigh against head, would be a point for the fighter who scored the head shot as an example. I need to think about that.

      And maybe grab some scoring equipment…

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