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Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern. This explains two out of three of my blogs. The third is a more personal one focusing on fibromyalgia. What I write in these blogs, I hope will be of use to people.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Case of Rapiers: A Bluffer's Guide


            The case of rapiers is a challenging weapon form to learn and one which is quite difficult to master. Indeed the authors of the reference material to be used in this lesson advise the reader that this weapon form should only be used by a practitioner who is sufficiently trained and experienced in their use, to quote di Grassi “he which is not much practised and exercised therein, ought not to make profession of this Arte: for he shall find himself to be utterly deceived.” (di Grassi, 1594).
The case of rapiers is essentially the use of two rapiers at the same time however it is not always as simple as this. These weapons are often matched in length, but not necessarily. The weapon form is sometimes called “Florentine” by some, describing the use of two swords simultaneously. In some ways this combination is similar to rapier and cane as there are two long items, but different in that both are weapons and can be used offensively. In a way it is also similar to the rapier and dagger combination in that there are two offensive items to use, but it is also different in that both weapons are long.
            This is a weapon form which has been discussed by several theorists and masters of the Renaissance period. For the purposes of the following investigation the focus of the research will be on one of these, Giacomo di Grassi. The single source was chosen as it supplies a relatively simple approach to the use of the case of rapiers, and provides a solid foundation for the theoretical elements found in its use. This lesson will also take into account my own experiences in the use of the case of rapiers, which has been noted to be somewhat different to most.
            The focus of this lesson is the investigation of the use of the weapon form in a practical manner. In order to find a foundation it will be based upon having opponents with matched weapons in the active descriptions of the form on the basis that the manuals describe this. This is most useful as it describes not only how to attack but also to defend against the same combination. Before this is possible it is important that a more general approach is taken to the form, thus the operation of the weapons alone, before coming to a place where contact with another opponent is possible.

Bibliographic Issues

            In the study of the case of rapiers there are some bibliographical issues that need to be taken into account before any real study can be achieved. One of the first things is with regard to the weapon, the second with the device in the other hand, and lastly there is a language issue that needs to be taken into account. These need to be addressed in some fashion before a real study can take place.
            First of all is the language. The True Art of Defence by di Grassi was originally written in Italian and published in 1570. The 1595 version of the manual which is being used for this investigation is an English translation of this manual. This is important as it means that however skilled the translator of the language there will be some interference between the different versions of the manual. Indeed there are even issues as the 1595 version was written in Elizabethan English which is different to the modern language. This issue does form a barrier to the research, but not one which is insurmountable.  
            Further to this language issue, and directly related is the names of the device being used, the sword. Often “spada” in Renaissance manuals is translated as “rapier” where in actual fact it simply means “sword”. This is the case for the translation from the 1570 Italian to the 1595 English. While it would be more accurate to refer to this description as a case of swords lesson, the rapier is the focus and while cutting actions are primarily the purview of the sword, the cutting actions can be performed with a rapier. Aside from this, the fact that it is referred to as a rapier in the 1595 version makes the discussion of the weapon valid.


            The case of rapiers would seem to be one of the most complex systems devised, and in some ways it is, however what should be noted about this is that as with any system it is based on principles and for the most part these principles are relatively simple. While the principles do not explain the entire system they are advantageous in gaining an understanding of the foundations of the system.
            The simple thing is that the case of rapiers places a sword in each hand this is clear and evident to all. Regardless of the length of the weapons and whether they be matched or not it is two swords. These weapons have the ability to both strike and defend the wielder. It is important that both hands can be used to attack and defend for maximum effect, “a man ought to accuftome his bodie, armes and handes afwell to ftrike as defend.” (di Grassi, 1594).
            The case of rapiers is two weapons, as stated, two weapons which can both attack and defend. What needs to be realised here on a conscious level is that the weapons are one in each hand and each can be used independently and in combination in order to achieve the end of the combatant.

“For feeing they are two weapons, & yet of one felffame kind, they ought equally and indifferently to be handled, the one performing that which the other doth, & euery of thẽ being apt afwel to strik as defend.” (di Grassi, 1594)

            This means that the weapons can be used alone against the opponent doing what needs to be done or they can also be used in combination. The used in combination is the more effective choice but the independent option should not be forgotten. In combination, the actions of one weapon should be supported by the actions of the other weapon. Thus where one is used to defend so the other should strike, and where a weapon is used to strike, so should the other defend. This allows for the maximum benefit possible from using two weapons.
            As with any weapon form in the arts of the Renaissance period, circular and sloping footwork is the best approach to the opponent. In the case of two weapons of length this is vital. To approach directly upon the opponent is substantially less effective than to use circular or sloping footwork to change the facing and thus gain an advantage over the opponent.
            The case of rapiers is a complex weapon form, but the basics should never be forgotten, they still apply. The simple actions which work at single rapier work just as well with the case of rapiers. In all instances the single weapon can dominate and beat the double weapons so long as the one using the single does not forget the foundation elements. This is the same with ward choice, using one which confirms to the basic principles and works for you is best, remember to move through them rather than remaining static.
            These are the base principles which will form the foundation of the information which follows. The principles will be found in the various elements and elucidated upon in order that their real meaning can be completely understood. Without the principles which have been presented this system works substantially less well.


            In the case of the wards for the case of rapiers, they are wards in the truest sense; they are positions from which a defence or offence is launched not positions of safety. Giacomo di Grassi uses his wards as positions from which the action is started. These are foundation positions which enable the weapons to be used against the opponent. Regardless of the ward chosen there are some important factors which need to be taken into account.
            The first factor has already been iterated in that they are positions from which an action is made, not guards and thus positions of safety. The combatant should always remain alert and aware of the actions of the opponent regardless of the position he is in. Further to this the combatant needs to be aware of the position of his weapons.
The weapons need to be held in such a way that they are not easy to tangle. This issue of tangling must be taken into account whether it is an active action of the opponent in order to immobilise the weapons or an inadvertent action of the combatant making an action of his own. In this they need to be kept separate in some fashion, in order that one weapon does not foul the action of the other or by its action become entangled in the other.
In the discussion of the sword there is always the consideration of lines. These are important for defensive and offensive purposes. In the typical situation the lines are based on the position of the primary weapon. In the case of using two swords, both are essentially the primary weapon thus resulting in a complication. In essence due to the doubling of weapons the lines are doubled; one for each weapon.
The place where this is of most importance is the inside and outside lines. This is not to say that there is less significance for the high and low lines. Each weapon has an inside and outside line. What needs to be noticed here is that the inside lines will occupy the same space as they cover the same area. It is possible to make all four parries with each weapon, thus two parries could be used to cover a single line. More of this will be discussed later on.
In his manual, di Grassi discusses three wards, as he does through the entire manual. These wards are the High, Broad and Low wards. In all cases it is the rear weapon which is the focus of this description. The forward weapon, regardless of the hand, will adopt a Low ward, which is slightly more extended in the double Low ward. The rear weapon accompanies the rear foot. The only ward which is actually depicted in his manual is the High ward. The following is the depiction from the 1570 manual.

            The High ward as presented has the left foot forward with the left sword in a Low ward, while the right sword is in the High ward position. The rear arm is high above the head in the position of first while the other is in the usual position of the Low ward. This footwork position remains the same for all of the wards as does the rear foot accompanying the “descriptor” weapon at the rear.
            The Broad ward as described has the same footwork position as above and the same position for the left-hand sword in the Low ward. The rear arm is extended from the body to the right in a position of second with the point aimed at the opponent. The arm needs to be extended in this position for the ward to be formed properly.
            The Low ward, and di Grassi’s preference for ward, is slightly different from the others but the same principles apply. Once again the footwork position is the same with the left to the front and the right to the rear. In this case the weapons are both in the Low ward position and the forward weapon should be pressed forward a little from the front leg for clearance. This ward is clearly demonstrated as the preferred ward as it is used to oppose the other two wards using contra-postura, and also di Grassi spends more time discussing the Low ward than any other ward.
            There are other wards which can be used indeed Marozzo describes a ward for each hand alluding to the use of two weapons independently in the process. Other wards which may be adopted are ones such as the open ward in which one weapon is placed to the front aligning with the foot on that side and one is placed to the rear in a “long tail” position. As a combatant you should experiment with many different wards to see which ones work the best for you. Remember to move through the wards to a position which is most advantageous to you.


            The footwork position for the wards described actually forms the foundation for the footwork which di Grassi describes in his manual. The weapon in the offensive position is the one to the rear, and the most advantageous way to bring this weapon into play is through the use of a passing step with the rear foot. This simple fact results in most of the footwork found in di Grassi being passing steps. He does also use more direct steps but usually to set up for the use of the passing step.
            The description in his manual discusses the use of one foot moving, this is for timing purposes and when the position of the feet is found, it means that the passing step is the clear choice in most instances. He does use slope paces and circular movements both with the forward and rear feet, however in order to place the primary weapon, the rear one, into the attack a passing step is made in some form or another.
            For the combatant using case of rapier, the most important thing to see is that circular and sloping footwork is secret to gaining the advantage over the opponent. Going straight at the opponent is like two warships standing within gun range and using broadsides at one another, while one side may win this is not going to be without casualties on both sides. To be effective you need to shift yourself into a position of advantage, simply put this is where you can gain dominance with one of your weapons over the pair of the opponent’s or where both of your weapons are in a position to attack where only one of the opponent’s is. For the most part this involves gaining the inside with at least one of the weapons. The best way to achieve this is through the use of circular and sloping footwork. Defensively footwork is also an important part of the defensive apparatus available.


            Considering defensive options, the first point that must be reiterated is that the lines are doubled due to the use of two swords. The result of this is that the parries are doubled meaning that there are two parries for each line one using each sword; this results in an increase in the defensive options available, however you need to be careful as this can also result in entanglement of the weapons. The same can be said of any combination. It is best to practice the parries with the weapons first alone and then with the other present.
            In the case of di Grassi, he uses several different defensive techniques. First of all is the beat against an incoming attack. This is much like the beat attack and beat parry; in fact it is a combination of these concepts. The utility of this particular technique is that it clears not only the opponent’s weapon but yours as well allowing for a hole in which an action with the other weapon may be performed. In effect this action is both offensive and defensive in nature.
            While the parry with opposition is not named specifically this technique is used in an active way rather than a passive way. This technique is much like that of stringere in that it forces the opponent’s weapon off-line however this is more of a defensive action in this case. Clearly this action requires timing in order to perform properly.
            The final defensive action which is useful to you is the combination of voids and footwork. This is designed to displace the body while placing it in a position of advantage. Either footwork or a void alone can be used to defend against an opponent’s attack but the combination of the two is more effective.
Each defensive option should be practiced both alone and with a partner to test it out against an attack being made. This practice should start slowly and then increase. In these actions the defensive partner should also be considering their own final position and where they can move from there in order to make a counter.


            Just as defense is doubled so too is offense, being that there are two weapons both with edges and points this results in there being offensive actions present for both weapons. What should be noted here is that while the edge can be used, it is the point which is the primary used. The thrust is easier to perform with case of rapier as it uses less room and thus is less likely to entangle.
            In his manual di Grassi indicates that there are cuts which can be used at the case of rapiers but he does not present a single example of a cut being actually used in his description of the weapon form. This clearly demonstrates the dominance of the thrust over the cut in the use of the case of rapier. Likewise he indicates that a person with the practice and skill can execute two attacks simultaneously, however he also does state that this requires practice.
            As with any other weapon form the position of the weapons needs to be taken into account, both the opponents and the combatant’s. Obviously it is useless to make an attack against a line which is closed, but you must also consider what you are exposing in the process of making the attack. Clearly the attack should only be made after some sort of defensive action is made in order to make you safe, as di Grassi states, “for first a man must endeavour to defend himself, and then to strike others.” (di Grassi, 1594). In order to make the best choice for attacking the opponent, practice with a partner in both defending and attacking should be made.

Time and Engagement

            So, this section is called “time and engagement”, however it will be covering quite a bit more than that. This will also deal with how the weapons are used as a system and some of the general points of note about the combination which either do not exactly fall into one of the previous categories or needs further explanation with a wider focus. This will also be about putting the previous information together in a more usable format.
            The often case, especially with newer combatants is that the weapons are used for a single purpose only. One is used for attack and the other is used for defence. The only change to this will be a changing of hands and thus roles. This is a very basic use of the combination and while the weapons are both being used much improvement can be made.
            The first thing in the use of the case of rapiers than needs to be acknowledged consciously is that the sword is simultaneously offensive and defensive. In this it means that both hands can operate offensively and defensively. For the most part, until this is acknowledged in a conscious manner, the actions available will be limited.
            To be effective with case of rapiers you need to work with both hands offensively and defensively for maximum effect. This means that both hands need to be used offensively and both need to be used defensively. In this the weapons need to be used combined and separately, this opens a lot more options for you. For the most part to use the combination, the actions of one weapon need to be supported by the actions of the other weapon. It is through this that it is possible that the opponent can be put into a position by one weapon and then struck with the other.
            However, singly each weapon can be used to great effect. Thus the weapons can be used on their own for great effect both offensively and defensively. In this you must realise that even a person who is armed with a single sword can defeat one who is armed with two. It is about the application of the weapon to the situation. Keeping these points in mind will allow you access to a lot more option that applying any sort of artificial limitations on their use.


            As with any combination time is an important factor. With regard to this there are some points which are useful in application to the use of the case of rapiers. With regard to the hand and foot, di Grassi uses them accompanied, right hand with right foot and vice versa. This allows for the full extension of the weapon in its movement. This also allows for better timing in both attack and defence. There are instances where this is not the case and these should also be noted in practice.
            For di Grassi the actions of the weapons are usually double time, one weapon defends and the other follows through with the attack once the defence has been made. There are instances of counter-time and single time present however it is double-time which dominates. Of course, with practice the other times can be effective and come to be used.


            With regard to engagement, this is considering any time that the weapons come into contact with one another. There is very little evidence of absence of blade in di Grassi; he prefers solid contact between the weapons in order to know where they are. The first element of note with regard to this is the use of the beat action, be this a parry or an attack, it is one which appears regularly often as the primary defensive action with the weapon. He does use other actions such as presses and elements of stringere but these are not named as such. The important element for di Grassi is, as stated, solid contact with the opponent’s weapons.
            The idea of the doubled lines has been noted previously in both the defensive discussion and also under the wards. This particular element leads to how to gain advantage over an opponent who is using the same combination. This requires the use of sloping or circular footwork in order to change the facing and thus be able to gain the best line on the opponent. This line is the inside line and the forward weapon should always be moved to a position where it can gain this position.
            The final element which is of important note and one that defeats experienced and inexperienced combatants is that the weapons need to be kept separate in some fashion in order that they are not entangled. This entanglement can be due to the action of the opponent or the action of the combatant. This primarily happens due to a lack of consciousness of the position of the other weapon when an action is made, or when an action is completed. It is for this reason that the Low ward starts with one weapons slightly extended and the other more withdrawn.


            The case of rapiers is an interesting and exciting weapon form. It is also one of the more complex ones available. The information presented here is designed to introduce you to the use of the case of rapiers rather than claiming to be everything possible. The best way to learn about how the case of rapiers works for you is to use them against an opponent, however it is important to remember the essential points.
            The basic elements are the key to the useful and effective functioning of the case of rapiers. There are two weapons and two hands therefore there are always two options, one for each weapon. The weapons can be used both separately and also together, in this there are offensive and defensive options for each weapon. It is this multitude of options which makes the form so complex and so challenging. The problem being that an incorrect choice can lead to real problems.
            The base ward that you choose needs to be comfortable and the weapons need to be in a good position in order to prevent entanglement. More to the point the wards need to be moved through and each stop needs to be a firm position from which an effective offensive or defensive move can be made. The ward must allow you to move effectively in offensive and defensive actions.
            As in all cases it is footwork which is the key to being effective. It is through this that you are able to position yourself effectively. In the case of this weapon form the use of circular and sloping footwork which is the most effective and will gain the most positive results. Moving directly against the opponent, especially armed with the same weapon combination will gain you little.
            In defense it is most effective, as with any other form to use all forms of defense. Thus parries and voids are effective, but so can the use of footwork and body position. These need to be taken into account in order for you to be effective, as with any other form the rounded defense is the most effective. In case consideration of defense, not blocking avenues of offense also needs to be considered along with ensuring that there is no entanglement in the process.
            In offense the blade is used either with the point or the edge. In the case of rapiers the point is more effective due to the nature of the form and the positions of the weapons. Cuts are less useful due to time and position. As was indicated in defense above, the action of offense needs to be considered in order that it does not hinder you in the process or after-effect.
            In the case of time, all forms are used and can be used effectively. What is of most note with regard to the case of rapiers is that the hand and foot move together, right with right and left with left. This gains you length and dominance in the process. The extension using same foot and hand is also more effective due to the momentum of the blade. Further this leads to engagement, in which the position is important for both offensive and defensive actions. The weapons can be used in many ways and thus many forms of beat and control should be used in order for the weapons to be effectively used. Once again, as with all elements of this form, the position of the other weapon is of great importance.
            Practice is required for the case of rapiers to be used effectively indeed di Grassi expresses this particular fact as indicated in the introduction. Both weapons need to be used effectively along with the body in order to be effective. The tactical side of the case of rapiers needs consideration and much practice is required in order to find how the form is most effectively used.


di Grassi, G. (1595) His True Arte of Defence, translated by I. G., Signe of the Hand and Starre, London