A rapier is a single-handed sword primarily used for thrusting, but with the ability to cut as well. It typically has a complex guard consisting of a knuckle guard, a crossbar, and several rings to protect the hand. The guard extends past the crossbar and up the blade for several inches. This portion of the guard, between the crossbar and the end of the guard, is called the ricasso. The appropriate length of a rapier is proportional to your body. The entire length of the weapon, from pommel to tip should be about twice the length of your arm.
A rapier blade has two edges, a true and a false edge. The true edge is on the same side of the weapon as the knuckle guard. When you hold the rapier, the true edge will be in line with your knuckles. Most parries should be done with the true edge.
The length of the blade is divided into three parts. The part closest to the tip is called the weak, the next is called the middle, and the part closest to the guard is called the strong. The strong and medium are primarily used for parrying or engaging the opponent’s weapon. Cuts should be made with the weak of the blade, thrusts are delivered with the point of the blade.
To properly hold the rapier, place your index finger between the ricasso and the left arm of the crossbar. Set your thumb on the false edge of the ricasso and curl your middle, ring, and little fingers lightly around the grip. The pommel should rest at about the center of the wrist.
There are four primary hand positions in Italian rapier fencing and three secondary hand positions. The primary hand positions are first, second, third, and fourth.
The secondary hand positions are called first-and-second, second-and-third, and third-and-fourth.
First position is the position that you stand in before and after a lesson or a bout, or during periods of rest. Stand straight up, with both feet together and your head turned towards your opponent. Your feet should be at right angles with the heels together, the right foot should be pointing forward and your left foot should point directly to your left. Place your sword at your left side pointed downwards as though it were in a scabbard. Curl your left hand into a fist and rest it on your left hip.
A salute is done before and after a lesson or a bout to show respect to your opponent, and anyone who may be observing. A full salute can be performed the following way:
Starting from first position, raise your sword, as if pulling it from a scabbard and extend your arm so that your sword is pointed directly at your opponent with your hand in second position. Now bend your arm back until the sword is pointed straight upwards with the guard of the weapon just below your chin, then extend it back towards your opponent, this time with your hand in fourth postion.
Salute any opponents on your left by partially extending your arm to the left with your hand in third-and-fourth position, then bring it back until it is vertical again.
Finally, salute any opponents on your right by partially extending your arm to the right with your hand in second-and-third position, then return the weapon to your side and stand in first position.
A less formal salute can be done by saluting only the person in front of you.
The guard is the position that you stand in when fencing in order to be able to quickly attack, parry, or counterattack. Starting from first position, assume the guard position in two movements.
Raise your weapon and extend is straight forwards with your hand in second position like you did for the salute.
Now all at the same time, step forwards with your right foot about two shoe lengths. Bend your knees a bit while relaxing your right arm slightly and turning your hand to third position. Raise your left arm so that it is in front of your chest.
When you are finished, your feet should be at right angles with the heels in line and about two shoe lengths apart. Your weight should be centered a little more over your left foot than your right foot. Your left leg should be bent and your right leg should be nearly straight with only a slight bend. Your torso should be profiled and inclined slightly backwards so that your left shoulder is directly above your left leg. Your weapon arm should be somewhat, but not all of the way, extended with the hand in third position and in line with your right flank. Your weapon should be pointed forwards and be parallel to the ground. Your left hand should be in front of your chest, relaxed and with the palm pointed downward, and with the left elbow kept back.
There are four lines in Italian rapier, which are determined by where your sword arm is. Anything above your arm is your high line, anything below it is your low line. Anything to the left of your arm is your inside line and anything to the right is your outside line. If you were to move your sword arm to your inside, then an attack to your chest arriving over your arm would be in the outside high line.
There are three different positions that your weapon can be in, invitation, engagement, and neutral.
For an invitation, your weapon and arm are moved so that you deliberately expose a specific portion of target to your opponent. In general, when you make an invitation, you should also protect another portion of your target so that you limit your opponent’s options for attacking you.
While an invitation deliberately exposes target to your opponent, an engagement works by closing moving your arm and weapon so to protect a portion of your target so that your opponent can no longer make a direct attack in that line (this line of attack is now considered to be closed to your opponent). Any time you cover one section of target, you are simultaneously exposing another. You could also think of an engagement as simply being a type of invitation where you are forcing your opponent to attack you with a line change (disengagement) rather than with a direct attack. Depending on the situation, and where your opponent’s blade is, you can make an engagement with or without blade contact. In an engagement with contact, the strong or medium of your blade should be placed over the weak of your opponent’s blade, so it is dominated and pushed to the side. An engagement without contact is very similar except the blade is placed just over the weapon and the line is closed without touching the blade.
Though practically any position that you make could potentially be used as an engagement or an invitation, the most commonly used positions in Italian rapier are the guards of third and fourth. Each guard is performed the same way whether it is used for an invitation or an engagement.
Starting from the on guard position, the guard in third is assumed by moving your forearm and weapon to the right of the flank and rotating your hand to second-and-third position. Your forearm and weapon should form a straight line and your tip should be pointed at your opponent’s left shoulder. An invitation in third exposes your inside (high and low) line, and an engagement in third closes your outside high line.
The guard of fourth is made by moving your forearm and weapon to your inside while rotating your hand to third-and-fourth hand position. Your forearm and weapon should form a straight line and your tip should be pointed at, or just to the right of, your opponent’s right shoulder. An invitation in fourth exposes your outside high line and an engagement in fourth closes your inside high line.
When you move to form a guard, your forearm and weapon should move together as one unit. If the wrist is broken, or the tip of the weapon is left pointing at the opponent’s center, the guard will not adequately protect the line that it is intended to protect.
If your weapon is halfway between the guards of third and fourth so that the tip points directly at your opponent, you are said to be in a neutral position. From this position, no line is protected or exposed more than any other. The on guard positions described earlier is an example of a neutral position. Another is when your arm is fully extended and pointed directly at your opponent’s target, in this position, your weapon is considered to be “in line.” In general, if your opponent wishes to attack you while you are in either of these two positions, the attacker will be forced to either deviate your blade from its position in line or remove his or her body from your line while making an attack or risk being hit as well.
Offense is the act of attacking your opponent. An attack can be either simple or compound based on the number of movements it requires. An attack made in one movement is a simple attack, and attacks consisting of two or movements are compound attacks. Different footwork can be used for an attack – for instance, a simple attack could be performed while stationary, with a lunge, with a passing lunge, or with a running attack.
A feint is a simulated attack intended to provoke a response from your opponent (typically a parry). As the opponent moves to parry your attack, you can change the direction of your attack to end in the line exposed by the parry. A feint typically consists of two (or at most three) movements.
Defensive actions are actions that prevent your opponent’s attack from hitting you. This can be done either by moving your body out of the way of the attack, or using your weapon or off hand to parry (deflect or block) the attack. The attack made immediately following a parry is called a riposte.
In fencing, measure refers to distance that you must travel in order to reach your opponent’s torso with your sword. At its simplest, you are in close measure if you can hit your opponent’s chest simply by extending your arm. Wide measure if when you can reach the opponent’s chest with a lunge, and you are out of measure if you would have to take a step in order to reach your opponent’s chest.
Understanding measure becomes slightly more complicated if you taken into account your opponent’s arm. From out of measure, you might be able to hit the arm with a lunge. From wide measure, you could hit the arm simply by extending, and the body with a lunge, and from close measure, both the arm and the body could be hit without a lunge.
One of the keys to success in fencing is being able to enter measure in such a way that you have an advantage over your opponent. There are three ways that you can seek measure. You can advance forward while your opponent remains still. Your opponent can advance while you remain still, or measure can be reached while both of your are moving.
It is important to realize that measure is not equal for everyone. If your opponent is taller or has a longer lunge than you, wide measure for them is going to be substantially longer than it is for you. It is important to be able to instantly assess whether you or your opponent is in measure.
In fencing, tempo refers to the best moment at which to attack your opponent or begin an action of your own. Any movement that you make, especially in measure, is a potential tempo in which you can be attacked. A single, continuous movement is said to be one tempo, regardless of the speed of the movement. For instance, a slow lunge and a fast lunge, are one tempo, but a parry and a riposte is two tempi.
An attack is said to be “in time” if it is made during the tempo of your opponent’s movement. For instance, if your opponent attempts to engage your blade, and you attack with a disengagement in the middle of his movement, your attack is called a disengagement in time. In general, you should try to attack your opponent “in time” as they tend to be most vulnerable when they are in the middle of doing something else. For example, you could initiate an attack in time as your opponent tries to advance into measure, engage your blade, recover from a failed or parried attack, attack you.
A counterattack is a specific type of action in time in which the tempo that you use to attack is your opponent’s attack. For this to be successful, the amount of time required to execute your counterattack should be less than the time required for your opponent to complete their attack. By the time the opponent has finished their attack, they should be hit. A counterattack has both an offensive and a defensive element: hitting the opponent and not getting hit. Hitting the opponent can be done with either a thrust or a cut. Not getting hit can be accomplished by: using your weapon to deflect the attack, moving your body out of the way of the incoming attack, or using your unarmed left hand to deflect the attack.
Sometimes the tempo that your opponent makes is a trap. Deliberately making a movement in order to provoke your draw your opponent’s attack in time which you are already prepared to defeat is called countertime. For example, you could attempt to engage your opponent’s blade in fourth so that they try to attack you with a disengagement in time. As they make their attack, you could either parry in third and riposte, or counterattack with a time thrust or a passata sotto. Another example of countertime would be to make a feint, and as your opponent attempts to counterattack with an arrest you could again either defeat the arrest with a parry and riposte or another counterattack.
Footwork allows you to properly seek measure with your opponent and to successfully attack when you have reached it. Proper footwork is vital to success as a fencer. In practice, emphasis should be placed on proper form, making small, precise steps, and explosive lunges. Your movements should be smooth so that you don’t bob up and down as you move. As you develop proficiency, you should constantly push yourself so that your footwork is tighter and faster and your lunges are longer and faster. As with any activity, you get out of it what you put in. If you are lazy when practicing footwork, it will become apparent in the rest of your fencing.
The most common method of moving towards your opponent is the advance. To make an advance, lift your right foot, move it forward about one shoe length and set it down heel first. Then, bring your left foot forward so that you end in the same position that you started in.
In all of these actions, your feet should be kept close to the ground. Lifting your foot too high will make your movements look clunky and slow. Don’t drag your feet on the ground though, that will ultimately slow you down as well.
To retreat, lift your left foot first and move it straight backwards are far as necessary (typically about one shoe length), then lift your front foot, toe first and bring it back so that you end in the same position you started in.
A cross step is another method of stepping forward. To do a cross step, carry your left foot forwards until it is about a shoe length in front of your right foot. Your foot should remain pointing to the left as it is brought forward and set on the ground. Next, your right foot comes forward and is set down so that you end back in the guard position. Make sure that your upper body and shoulders do not rotate as you make the cross step backwards.
The cross step back is simply the reverse of the cross step forward. Carry your right foot behind your left and then bring your left back as well so that you end in your original guard position.
A jump back is nearly the same as the cross step back except that both feet end up leaving the ground at the same time.
The lunge is the most common means of delivering an attack in Italian rapier fencing. From the guard position: Begin by extending your arm and raising it to shoulder height. As the arm reaches extension, start torso should start to lean progressively forward. Then, lift your right foot, toe first and start to step forward. Next, straighten your left leg so that it pushes your body explosively and violently forward. As your left leg is straightened, snap your left arm backwards so that it is fully extended behind you. Finally, your right foot should land toe first just as, or just before your weapon reaches its target.
In the lunge position, your arm should be fully extended and about shoulder height. Your body should be profiled and leaning forwards so that there is a straight line down your back to your left foot. Your right knee should be even with the middle of your right foot, your left leg should be completely straight and your left foot flat on the floor.
To recover from the lunge, bend your left leg and push off of your front foot so that you return to guard. As you are returning to guard, relax your sword arm back to its guard position and bring your left hand back in front of your chest.
From close distance, you can make an attack almost identical to the lunge, but without moving your front foot. Begin by extending your arm, and then shifting your upper body forwards so that your weight rests over your right leg. The end result should look very similar to a lunge, but with your feet a little closer together. Remember to start with your feet about two shoe lengths apart when you are in guard. If they are too close together the fixed foot lunge will feel awkward and throw you off-balance.
Another way to recover from the lunge is to return to guard by bringing your left foot forward.
A reprise is a second attack initiated from the lunge. To do a reprise, recover forward and then lunge again. As you recover forward keep your knees bent, your body low, and your sword arm fully extended throughout the action.
An advance lunge is a method for closing distance with an attack. To do an advance lunge, make an advance while extending your sword arm. As soon as you finish the advance, immediately lunge. The entire sequence should be performed smoothly and without pause so that you accelerate forwards during the action.
Gaining on the lunge is another method for closing distance with an attack. To gain on the lunge, bring your left foot forward so that it is just behind your right foot, and then lunge. This can cover as much or more distance as an advance lunge.
This could also be combined with an advance lunge: as you make the advance, bring your left foot all of the way up to your right foot and then lunge.
The end result of a passing lunge looks very similar to a lunge except that your left foot is in front instead of your right. To make a passing lunge, extend your arm and start shifting your weight forwards so that it is over your right leg. As you reach full extension, push off of your right leg and carry your left leg forwards so that you end in a lunge position. In a passing lunge, your left hand is typically brought forward instead of flung backwards. It can either be used to protect you from an opponent’s counterattack or riposte, or to grab their weapon or arm.
To recover, you can either recover forward as you would from a normal lunge and then make half of a cross step back so that you end in guard, or you can bring the left foot back to it’s position with the recovery.
A running attack is very similar to a passing attack, but with more forward momentum. When you push off of your right foot it should leave the ground, so that both feet our momentarily in the air. Your attack should land just before or as your left foot hits the ground. To recover, continue forward with cross steps until you are past your opponent and out of distance. This type of attack should be made at an angle to your opponent in order to avoid a collision.