The “sport fencer” sees only the superficial: the domination
of others. They live in the transient, short-term world of the purely physical,
relying on size, strength and speed. There is little need for tactical
sophistication, and strategic finesse is an alien concept.Two fencers may be playing at the same time,
but it’s not a duet. There’s no harmony. It’s just two people each trying to
play louder and faster than the other.
For the classical swordsman, the martial artist, that is
inadequate and unsatisfying. We know there is more – much more – below the
surface, and that what is unseen may profoundly influence that which is seen. We
want to know where the iceberg came from and how it came to be, and where it’s
We want to understand the currents, the effect of the winds,
the life in the surrounding sea. We want to know about the clouds, about the
rain and the snow and the sun and the moon, and about every relationship between
the iceberg and everything else that exists in creation – including ourselves.
And yet, we understand that it’s just a bunch of water.
Here’s a famous photograph of the notorious “outlaw,”
William Bonney, known as “Billy the Kid.”He carries a rifle in his right hand, and his colt revolver on his left
hip, indicating that he was left-handed.
Pretty much “everybody knows" this. It’s a cherished part of sacred wild west lore. In
1958, Paul Newman was (mis)cast to portray Bonney in the bio-pic “The
The thing is, it ain’t so.
The image is from a
tintype, one of two almost identical images taken of The Kid in 1880. The
original of one was lost. The other was discovered in 1986.
A tintype is a reverse image.
William Bonney was NOT left-handed.
Just a reminder that sometimes what "everybody knows" is dead wrong, and a cautionary word to those who religiously strive to
emulate bizarre, awkward and unlikely poses found in some centuries-old fencing
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Surviving
Your First Rapier Duel
In any given encounter, there are three possibilities:
1.If your opponent is your superior, he lives, you
2.If you are your opponent’s superior, you live,
3.If you are both equal, you both die.
you have, at best, a 33% chance of survival. As Shakespeare advised, “beware of
entrance to a quarrel.” Speak gently. Treat others with respect. And grow a
thick skin. Become one who neither gives offense, nor takes offense
easily, if at all.
that should fail:
1.Select as your seconds, from your closest
friends, those with the most experience as seconds, or lacking that, the
coolest heads. It is best to select gentlemen to whom you owe money, as they
will be the more keenly interested in your survival. Do not choose someone whose
wife, fiancée, daughter, sister, motheror other object of affection you have slept with.
2.Be certain that your seconds understand your
3.Arrange for the most distant date possible. Hot
blood tends to cool over time. By affording yourself and your adversary an
opportunity to contemplate your mortality, you may maximize your
inclinations toward reconciliation.
4.Whatever the insult or offense you gave,
5.If you gave no insult or offense, apologize,
6.If your opponent insulted or offended you,
If all earnest efforts at the above should fail:
1.Bring your own surgeon. Be sure it’s one whom
you trust with your life. That’s what you’re doing. Make sure he’s sober.
2.Do not eat or drink much within 12 hours of the
3.Be sure to completely empty bladder and bowel
before you arrive on the ground, or you will likely do so afterward.
4.Suck on a hard candy or slice of lemon or lime.
You mouth will be dry.
5.A shot of brandy may help steady your nerves.
6.Make a last attempt at reconciliation. “I’m
satisfied if you are, Sir.”
If that should fail:
1.Disregard everything you’ve seen on stage or in
2.Disregard everything you’ve ever seen (or done)
in the “sport” of fencing,historical
“re-enacting,” and/or fantasy role-playing.
3.Powder your hand. It will be sweaty.
4.Bind your weapon to your hand. Your manual
dexterity will be severely compromised.
5.Take 2-3 deep, full, slow breaths. (Repeat this whenever
there is a “break” in the event.)
6.Take your ground as far from your adversary as
7.Assume a relatively tall stance, knees slightly
bent, so that you can move backwards quickly and with ease.
8.Keep your arm well extended, not quite fully extended,
and behind the guard as much as
9.Train your point on your opponent’s centerline
at the level of his throat.
matter what your opponent does, smartly extend your arm to its fullest extent,
putting your point in line, aiming at his centerline, and step back -- as many
steps as needed to regain your distance. Don’t attack. Don’t parry. Don’t
feint. Don’t twiddle with your opponent’s blade. Stick your arm out and step back.
disposition will not only discourage your opponent from attacking, it will encourage
him to attack, if he does, your forward-most target, the wrist and forearm, where a wound is
least likely to be fatal, but sufficient to end the encounter.
you should wound your opponent, even the merest scratch, immediately withdraw,
handing your weapon to your seconds (who should by now have come between you,) and
declare to the President du Combat that you are satisfied.
you should be wounded, even the merest scratch, withdraw to your surgeon, handing
your weapon to your seconds, and declare to the President du Combat, “Thank
you, I’ve had enough.”
There is no guarantee that this plan will succeed. It is,
however, better than any other plan, and much better than no plan at all.
If you should survive:
1.Have your seconds immediately approach your
adversary’s party with several bottles of the best brandy you can afford as a
gesture of reconciliation. Any intelligent gentleman, given a choice, would
rather imbibe than fight.
2.Go for a short, casual walk by yourself. This
will allow you to vomit discreetly.
3.You can expect to be extremely thirsty, soon
ravenously hungry, and afterward incredibly libidinous.
4.When you finally succumb to sleep, you can
expect to sleep through the next 12-24 hours, possibly longer. You will have nightmares.
5.The next day or so, you may experience an
adrenaline flash-back: you heart will race, you will perspire, feel
off-balance, mouth suddenly dry, stomach queasy. Breathe deeply. It will pass.
6.Have your closest friend over for coffee and
implore him/her give you a good, swift kick in the ass for having been such a
fool, and firmly resolve never to do anything that stupid ever again.
Scientia potens est, quoth the sage: "Knowledge is power."
It’s a good thing for me that it is.
If size were power, or strength were power,
I’d be long since sunk.
I wasn’t big.
And I wasn’t strong.
I was a fat, wheezy child.
But I wasn’t stupid.
“Martial arts” attracted me because it
wasn’t all about brute force.
Rather it was about the judicious application of
science: leverage, geometry, physics. The universal mathematical rules that
glue the whole world together were evident in every strike, every lock, every
This is the science that every fighter
knows, whether he knows he knows it or not. But knowing that you know it makes
it easier to apply what you’ve learned in the salle, and in the dojo to events
outside of those confines.
For every action, there is an equal an
If A strikes B at X mph, the force acting
against A will be the same as the force acting against B. It really doesn’t
matter if A hits B or B hits A – the forces created will be the same and will go
in both directions.
While the forces created are the same, the resistance to that force, i.e., the ability to withstand that force, depends on
the nature (hardness or softness) of the body acted upon, relative to the body
acting upon it.
I learned about this principle the hard way
– by punching someone in the head with my fist.
Imagine a tub of solidified jello.
Imagine a 35 lb block of concrete.
You drop the concrete block onto the jello
from a height of 10 feet.
What happens to the jello?
What happens to the concrete?
Now take a tub of solidified concrete.
Drop a 35 pound ball of solidified jello
onto the concrete from a height of 10 feet.
What happens to the jello?
What happens to the concrete?
Throw a bottle at a concrete wall, and the
bottle shatters, not the wall, because glass is less able to withstand the equal
and opposite forces created than the wall is.(We could call that the Molotov Cocktail Principle.)But throw a same-size chunk of concrete at a
window, and the window shatters, not the chunk of concrete, because glass is
less able to withstand those forces than the chunk of concrete is. Throw the
same bottle against a featherbed and the result is quite different.
When a cartoon character, like Wile E.
Coyote runs through a brick wall leaving behind a perfect cookie-cutter shape
of himself, that’s funny only because we know it’s impossible. We know the wall is actually better able to
withstand the equal and opposite forces created than the cartoon character’s
body would be.
When bullets bounce off Superman’s chest,
we are impressed because we know it’s impossible. Flesh is less able to resist
the equal and opposite forces created than bullets are.
The practical application is simple:Always direct a relatively harder weapon at a
relatively softer target. Never use a softer weapon against a harder
target.You don’t strike your opponent’s
forehead with your nose; you strike the opponent’s nose with your forehead.
You can strike your opponent’s throat with
that web between your thumb and forefinger to great effect because his throat
is less able to withstand the equal and opposite forces created than your
“fishbelly” is. By the same token, you don’t use that strike against your
opponent’s shin because his shinbone is better able to withstand the equal and
opposite forces created than your hand is.
You can effectively apply a kick to your
opponent’s groin, because your foot is better able to withstand the equal and
opposite forces created than your opponent’s testicles are.And you don’t try to block his kick with your
Some guy in a bar comes at you with the
jagged end of a broken beer bottle, that’s cause for concern. If he’s coming at
you with the jagged end of a broken milk carton, not so much.
See how easy this is, once you get the hang
I’ll bet you can come up with a dozen
examples of your own without even breaking a sweat.
I love science.
It’s how I know that you don’t block your
opponent’s elbow strike with your nose.
It’s also how I know that aluminum
airplanes do NOT fly through buildings made of concrete and steel.
Yesterday, I showed some of my students a little card magic
I learned in the waybackwhen, the summer I worked in a carnival. I’ll tell you
that story sometime.
One reason I did this is simple: magic is exactly like
Allow me to elucidate.
Magic relies on capturing your audience’s mind. You lead it
where you want it to go, by using a combination of suggestion, distraction,
diversion, subterfuge, subtle deception, and outrageous lies. You baffle and bewilder them by making them
think that they “see” things that they are not really seeing. And because they
“see with their own eyes,” you make them believe – even if just for a moment --
things that are not true, cannot be true, things they know are impossible
Combat relies on capturing your opponent’s mind, too. You
trap your opponent’s mind using a combination of suggestion, distraction,
diversion, subterfuge, subtle deception, and outrageous lies. You baffle and
bewilder them by making them think that they “see” things that they are not
really seeing. And because they “see with their own eyes,” you make them
believe – even if just for a moment -- things that are not true.
And a moment is all you need.
A lot can happen in a moment.
Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Another reason that the study of magic is valuable to the
student of the sword is that it stimulates your critical thinking juices.Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes
once said, “Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable,
must be the truth.”
The importance of this principle cannot possibly be
We know that playing cards do not change, do not move around
on their own. It’s IMPOSSIBLE. Therefore, you can trace the illusion back, step
by step. When did it APPEAR that the cards changed? When and where did you last
actually see the card? What happened after that?Clearly, what you thought you saw was really
something else. Step by step. Question each one. Verify what you think you know
and HOW you know it. Verify what you think you saw – did you actually SEE“X”, or did you conclude that you saw “X”
because of some assumption, or suggestion?
In both magic and combat, you use your opponent’s
assumptions, beliefs, habits, and responses against him. Because you know that
your mark responds to “A” with “B,” you can anticipate “B” and be ready to do
This brings me to the second master principle I want to
mention, one that you should probably get tattooed on your forehead: “If you
don’t have a Plan B, then you don’t have a plan at all
Let’s put it in fencing terms.
Let’s say “A” is the attack, the initial offensive
action.If you understand the nature of
your opponent’s attack, you can counter-attack, make an offensive action DURING
the attack. An opponent who is committed to an attack is in a very poor
position to defend and so a properly chosen and executed counter-attack has a
very high probability of success. Counter-attacks are good. I love them.
It’s foolish to put all your eggs in the attack basket. It’s
a habit of beginners and very poor “fencers.”They try to attack harder, faster, and deeper so that their opponent
doesn’t have a chance to do the counterattack, or that the counter-attack will
miss, or be a hair too late, and in the artificial context of a fencing
contest, the “rules” will save the attacker’s life. But there are no such rules
in a fight. The attacker must save himself.
People are good at what they like and like what they’re good
at, and tend to do it whenever they can.If I can determine that my opponent is so inclined to counter-attack, I
won’t try to keep him from doing it. I’ll let him do what he wants to do. Hell,
I’ll ENCOURAGE him to do what he wants to do. I’ll create the appearance of an
opportunity to do it that he can’t resist, because he thinks I’m making a
mistake. And then I’ll use it against him.
For example, I “attack” with my swordarm bent and my high
outside line slightly open. This invites my opponent to counterattack with
opposition to that line. I telegraph my intention, and contrive the speed of my
attack to enable him to “pick me off” with a fast thrust. As he makes that
thrust, I parry, and then continue my forward movement with a riposte with
opposition to guard against a remise of his counterattack (getting inside his
point if I can).
We use the term contre-temps or “counter-time” is used to
describe every action made by the attacker against the defender’s counterattack.
If my opponent is skillful, he will not walk into the same
ambush again. If he is skillful, he will understand the nature of my contre-temps
and will either deceive my parry, or parry my riposte and make a
We use the term fenta di tempo, or feint in time, to
describe every action made by the defender against the attacker’s contre-temp.
Let me break it down for you another way.
Suppose we’re having a fencing contest.
My plan A is to hit you with my attack
If you try to parry my attack, one of two things will
happen: either you will find my blade, or you will not find my blade. If you do
not find my blade, it’s because I have deceived your parry.Deceiving your parry is my Plan B.
But suppose I try to deceive your parry, and I fail. You
find my blade. One of two things will happen: either you will make a riposte,
or you will not make a riposte. If you do not make a riposte, I will make a
remise and hit you. That remise is my Plan C.
If you DO make a riposte, I will parry and
counter-riposte.One of two things will
happen: either I find you blade with my parry, or I don’t. If I find the blade,
I will execute my counter-riposte. That simple parry and counter-riposte is my
If I do NOT find your blade with my parry, it’s because you
have deceived my parry. If I do not find your blade with my parry, I will give
a little ground (if necessary) and execute a second parry and find your blade
with that one, and counter-riposte.That
compound parry and counter-riposte is my Plan E.
Are you beginning to see a pattern?
Anytime you make a plan, you have to ask yourself, “What
could go wrong?” at each step of the plan, and have a back-up plan for each
I don’t even put my pants on without a Plan B.
Resources for Further Study
Just for fun, here are some films I strongly recommend.
They’re good films and I think you’ll enjoy them. But they aren’t “just
entertainment.”Each of these films is
about illusions, distractions, ambushes, understanding the nature of the
opponent’s probable response, plans and back-up plans.
1.The Sting. Dir. George Roy Hill (1973)
2.The Spanish Prisoner. Dir. David Mamet (1997)
3.House of Games. Dir. David Mamet1987
4.Heist. Dir. David Mamet (2001)
5.Harry in Your Pocket. Dir. Bruce Geller (1973)
6.Inside Man.Dir. Spike Lee (2006)
7.The Thomas Crown Affair. Dir. Norman Jewison
The sword, used alone, as Capo Ferro said, is the queen of
weapons. There’s not much point in trying to use TWO weapons, if you’re not
capable of using ONE.
That said, I have two hands. Would I use only ONE of them in
When it’s a fight, and not an “athletic contest,” there are
no rules, and you use whatever you have available. That includes both hands and
both feet.And it doesn’t hurt to use
your head a little, either.
Back in the day, most everyone carried a dagger as an
all-purpose tool, and of course, some were made en suite with rapiers.Whether it’s a dagger, a cloak, your
scabbard, a wine bottle, or chair leg in your left hand, or just your empty
hand,it pays to think past the solo
As our exemplar of the left hand, let’s use the dagger as
our left-hand weapon because so many fancy themselves “rapier and dagger”
fighters, and so few are correct.
The dagger has several functions.
1.Preparations. The dagger can be used to engage,
beat, press or trap your opponent’s blade in order to facilitate your attack
with the sword.
2.Parries. The dagger can be used to deflect,
divert or obstruct the opponent’s attack
3.Opposition. The dagger can be used to apply
opposition to your opponent’s blade.
4.Offensive actions. The dagger can be used to cut
or to thrust
Opposition may be the most critical of all these uses.
Having parried your opponent’s attack, you oppose his weapon with your dagger
while you make your riposte. I’m a great believer in controlling the opponent’s
weapon at all times, keeping it where I want it, not where my opponent wants
Parries are the second best use of the dagger. This allows
you to execute your parry and riposte simultaneously rather than consecutively.Indeed, you could say that you’re now executing
a counter-attack with opposition rather than a riposte. Because the
counter-attack happens during the opponent’s attack, and because it’s very
difficult for your opponent to go forward and backward at the same time, your
counter-attack is extremely difficult to defend against – unless, of course the
attack itself was a ruse to draw your counter-attack, in the hope of a
While the dagger can be used alone to parry, it can also be
combined with the rapier to effect a “double” parry or “crossed” parry. In this
use, you surrender the simultaneity of the parry and the riposte, but you gain
opposition with the dagger, freeing the rapier to do its work.
Preparations.Never make a frontal assault against a fortified position unless you
have already neutralized your opponent’s offensive capability.That’s the job of the preparation. The dagger
occupies your opponent’s sword so that you may attack. Often, the preparation
is combined with opposition.
Offensive actions. While seizing your opponent’s sword
with your own sword, you can close the distance and strike with the dagger.
Against a same-handed opponent, you close and move to your dagger side, that
is, to his (now) unprotected rapier side. This use doesn’t work as well against
an opposite-handed fighter.
The dagger is only useful for offense when at close
quarters, as we’ve seen so many celluloid villains try to prove. Another good
reason to control distance, and keep your opponent on the end of your point.
It’s possible to throw your dagger, but unless you’ve
developed that skill in particular, forget about it. It might as well be a
crescent wrench.Even folks who throw a
knife pretty well, generally don’t throw it well with their non-dominant hand. Then
too, if your opponent didn’t have a dagger of his own, you may just have provided
him with one.
You can use your empty left hand in much the same way, even for
offensive actions – though personally, I’d use my elbow to strike with and not
my hand. Some people balk at using the
naked hand for fear of getting it cut, to which I reply with the very first
rule of fighting which states: You’re going to get hurt.A cut to the hand, or a thrust to your
heart?I leave the choice to you.
A bottle, preferably broken, or any blunt instrument can be
A cloak, coat, or blanket is good, too. Wrap it around your
left hand and forearm to provide some protection.Some people have said that you should hold it
loosely, and flail it around like a matador, but I personally find that more
awkward than helpful, though, lord knows, there’s nothing like a good
A good veronica.
A bad Veronica
Of course it’s possible that
you could throw it over your opponent’s head, but unless you’re starring in a
Tom & Jerry cartoon, I consider that one of those things to be “imagined,
rather than practiced.”
As always, it’s important to know the difference between a
“fencing match” (an athletic contest with specific rules) and a fight, and to
know which one it is that you’re doing at the moment.
When you’re in a contest with a weapon, you use the weapon.