Intro to Swordplay: 17th Century Italian Fencing

This course introduces you to the theoretical framework of 17th century Italian fencing, as well as basic technical skills. Early in the 17th century, a number of books were printed that described a coherent system of thrust-oriented swordplay. This course is a general introduction to that fencing system. For cost reasons, students will use foils instead of rapier simulators. If students have an interest beyond the scope of the class, additional equipment will be necessary.

You will learn to:

Take a correct guard stance

Use the 4 hand positions

Advance and retreat


Invite your opponent to attack

Parry an attack

Engage your opponent's blade

Disengage from your opponent's engagement

Safely attack your opponent

Use one tempo, two tempi, and countertempo actions

Use a feint to create an opportunity

Parry with your hand

Complete pair drills with a partner

  1. Physical Basics

    • Discuss the sword and grip
      • rapier
      • foil
    • Demonstrate the guard.
      • Heels in line
      • Distance between feet
      • Weight distribution
      • Front leg straight (not locked)
      • Shoulders not squared
      • Sword arm extended
      • Position of sword hand
    • Discuss the 4 hand positions
    • Basic footwork (advance and retreat)
      • No disruption of guard
      • Distance between feet
      • No galloping (steady head and vita)
    • Lunge
      • Extend, lean, step
      • Appx. 1 shoe length
      • Hand in II or IV
      • Left leg locked
      • Recovery: break left leg

    Practice getting into your guard position. Have your partner check your guard for foot position, hand position, and weight distribution.

    Advance and retreat. Again, the partner checks to make sure there is no disruption of guard.

    Now have your partner call out advance or retreat (4-8 times). Check for disruption of guard at the end, but also watch for the head bobbing up and down, or other unnatural-looking or awkward motion.

    Perform a lunge. Break it down into the steps, and make sure your hand is in II (or IV, if you like).

    Lunge smoothly, with no space between the steps -- be sure to keep everything in the right order, though!

    Record yourselves, if at all possible, and send me the video. This will increase the speed of your learning drastically.

  2. Conceptual Basics

    • Lines and Angles
      • Line of direction
      • Line of offense
      • Offensive/defensive angles
    • Engagement
      • Defensive angle
      • Inside: IV
      • Outside: II
      • Your goal is to pre-parry their blade
    • Invitation
      • Same as engagement, but out of range
    • Parry
      • Defensive angle (like engagement)

    Briefly review everything from lesson one.

    Put eye protection on, and practice engagement on both sides (using 4th and 2nd hand position)

    This should “pre-parry” their blade. If they move their blade in the direction it is pointing, it should not hit you (or a tiny movement from you should complete the parry).

    Have your opponent lunge when you have engaged their blade. Without moving more than an inch, their blade should miss you.

    Be sure you understand the lines, angles, and engagement.

    Record yourselves and send me the video.

  3. Drills and Tempo

    • Engagement and glide (no footwork)
      • Engage (defensive angle)
      • Glide (offensive angle)
      • maintain blade contact throughout (hissing sound)
    • Engagement and glide (with lunge)
    • Explanation of tempo (two tempo, one tempo, and countertempo)
      • we will do most things in 2 tempi
    • Tempo drill:

    A: Invitation

    P: Lunge

    A: Parry

    P: Recover

    A: Riposte in tempo of recovery (countertempo)

    Briefly review everything from lessons one and two.

    Put eye protection on, and practice glides.

    • Practice with no footwork first, then with a lunge.
    • Remember to switch from a defensive to an offensive angle.
    • Practice starting on the inside and the outside (4 and 2).

    Try the tempo drill above.

    • “A” is agent (the person who acts) and “P” is patient (the person who responds).
    • These drills will require some significant time to work through. Have patience.

  4. Deception

    Disengagement (in obedience, aka 2 tempi)
        Starts from engagement (you are engaged)
        ends with engagement (you engage your opponent)
            Clear opponent’s blade
            Gain their blade (defensive angle II or IV)
            Extend and change angle (offensive angle)
            Hit with opposition (blade contact)
    Feint (from an opponent’s invitation)

    A: Invitation

    P: Feint (extend arm in correct hand position)

    A: Parry

    P: Disengage, Lunge (ideally single tempo)

    Briefly review everything from lessons one to three.
    Put eye protection on, and practice disengaging to a glide.
        Remember to switch from a defensive to an offensive angle.
        Practice beginning with invitations in both 2 and 4.
    Try the feint drill above.
        “A” is agent (the person who acts) and “P” is patient (the person who responds).
    These drills may require some significant time to work through. Have patience.

  5. Bringing it all together

    Hand parries (ideally one tempo)

    • Blade in IV against inside attack
      • hand scoops to the outside
    • Blade in III against an attack to the head
      • hand pushes across body
    • Blade in I against an attack to the outside flank
      • hand pushes across body

    Final drill

    A: Invitation (in II)

    P: Feint (in IV)

    A: Parry (IV)

    P: Disengage (to II), Lunge (2 tempo)

    A: Disengage (to IV) and hand parry (no lunge necessary, hit them in the torso)

    Briefly review everything from lessons one to four.
    Put eye protection on, and practice hand parries.
    • First in two tempi (parry and then riposte)
    • Then one tempo (parry and riposte in the same time)

      Try the final drill.

    • “A” is agent (the person who acts) and “P” is patient (the person who responds).

    • Work through the pieces very slowly, then complete the entire drill very slowly. Only then should you try the full drill at speed.


Each student must have a local partner they can meet up with at least once a week (2-4 times would be preferable).

Each partner must have, or purchase, a standard fencing foil.

Each partner must have, or purchase, a fencing mask or other adequate eye protection. When in doubt, run it by me.

An ability to take video of your drills is not required, but it will help a lot. Allowing me to see what you're doing can speed up learning considerably.

Additional information
Teacher qualifications

I've been fencing for about 8 years now, and have done rapier instruction on-and-off for about 4. Unfortunately, there are a relatively small number of people who are true experts, so we'll just have to make do with my largely self-taught self. I have worked pretty hard to learn what I know, including attending regional and national workshops/conferences, publishing an undergraduate honors thesis on English fencing of the same period, and coordinating with other interested folks worldwide. I'm currently in the process of starting a history masters program, with the eventual goal of earning a PhD with a focus on masculinity and condoned violence in early modern Europe.

If you're lucky enough to be in the right parts of the world, there are some very good instructors who can teach you in person -- talk to me and I can probably point you toward them. You're welcome to skip straight to a local instructor; I'm putting together this course for all those people who didn't luck out geographically.

Latest Update
Intro to Swordplay, lesson 4 (of 5) (2012-02-10 15:09:28)

"Here we finish up with disengagement, and learn a feint. This lesson should give you 2 drills to work through. Completing the feint drill involves using the invitation, disengagement, and glide, and doing this smoothly in 2 tempi (pay attention to your hand positions).

Lesson 4 video


Intro (google doc)"