First Giganti Redux 6: The Lunge

After teaching guards and counter-guards and the basics of theory, the first action Giganti moves to instructing is the lunge.  There’s a good reason for this: If your entire plan is to take a single tempo and strike, the lunge is the best option.  It covers the most distance with the fewest moving parts.  Since your measure is defined by your lunge, any other footwork in measure is necessarily going to not cover the same distance, requiring more tempi to get to your opponent, thereby wasting tempi.

Many fencers in the SCA are familiar with the foil/epee lunge or some variant of it.  Much of our fencing pedigree is rooted in modern sport fencing and the selection pressures that have guided change to the Society’s norms are for the most part slow and gradual (the most notable exceptions being the introduction and eventual dominance of schlager blades fifteen(??) years ago and the increasing availability in the past decade of period manuals on rapier combat).  The fencer who was fast and agile with a foil or epee could, for the better part of twenty years, completely transfer those skills to the rapier list field.  Even after the introduction of schlager blades, not much changed.  As a result, thirty years after the start of rapier, most people are still taught to stand with their weight evenly distributed to enable them to move in any direction.  They are taught to extend their hand and spring off their back foot.  The result, which actually has to begin by pushing the weight off the front foot (meaning backwards onto your rear foot), is interchangeable with the modern fencing lunge and based on physicality, not efficiency.

This is not the lunge of Italian rapier.  Giganti, after all, is efficient, or lazy, depending on how you wish to look at

 

The Italian Lunge

In Italian rapier, the lunge also begins by extending the hand.  If you have formed counterguard (and a proper cavazione ends in a counterguard) your sword crosses your opponent’s in their debole.  Your extension should be towards this crossing point.  This moves your point closer to your target and the strong of your blade to the weak of theirs.  Since this action occurs first, you’ve gained solid control of your opponent’s blade before they have an opportunity to parry.  In some cases you will find extending through the crossing point moves your point off-line. This is resolved by angling your wrist at the end of your extension to bring your point back on-line (and well away from your opponent’s guard).

When the hand does not extend first before the rest of your lunge, your debole will end up on their forte.  This makes extending the hand generally a good idea before doing anything (advancing, retreating, passing steps, breathing, sitting down, scratching an itch, etc).

With your sword extended, your forte and guard are your entire defense.  Getting your target area behind them is therefore a good idea.  Rotating the shoulders so they fall in line behind your guard, placing your body in profile, then bowing at the waist towards your opponent, to minimize your cross-section, accomplishes this and extends your blade even further.  Tensing your lower left back muscles (your latissimus dorsi) will further extend your sword.

At this point there is some disagreement between Capoferro and Giganti.  Capoferro has the head bowed down to get behind the guard as well.  Giganti says the head should move last.  Capoferro’s technique defends the head with the guard while Giganti’s defends it with distance.  Since this is discussion of Giganti’s teachings of the Italian rapier system, we’ll follow his instructions as we work through the process.

As discussed in the guard chapter, holding your weight mostly on your back leg allows you to move the front leg freely.  Even though you have bent your torso forward, the weight should still be held over your back foot.  This is the difference between the Italian technique and the bad form of leaning forward demonstrated by many fencers – leaning forward is usually accompanied by putting more weight on the front foot, thereby preventing or slowing a lunge.  With the weight held back, no energy or time is needed to move weight off the front leg before it can go forward.  This is what Giganti calls “a stance that can be extended.”  As simply as that, one of the largest tells of the modern lunge is removed, replaced with a simple movement of the foot away from the ground (either by lifting the knee at the hip or lifting the foot up and forward from the knee).

Once the lead foot is off the ground, gravity does all the work for you.  The Earth pulls you down and forward (since your center of mass is forward) and you fall onto your front foot, now having extended your step into a lunge.  This does not need to be the massive lunging step of sport fencing; a step of a foot-length will do.  Explosivity is gained by straightening your back knee.  This is different from springing off your back foot, which is the more common practice.  Instead imagine standing with your heels flat on the ground and your knees bent, and then just standing straight up.  This is also known as a “squat” in exercise circles.  Now imagine doing that with just your back leg (a “pistol squat”, which is  an impressive feat of strength and balance I cannot yet perform).   It not only pushes your body forward, it also drives more force into your heel, firmly planting your rear foot in place.

At this point Giganti would have you bring your head forward.  In my experience this compresses everything downward, pushing it more forward for another couple of inches of extension.

 

The Recovery

Just as the the head is the last thing to go forward in Giganti’s lunge, it’s the first thing to go back in the recovery.  He is a fan of not getting stabbed in the face.

As the head comes back past the rear shoulder, and the shoulder therefore follows, the center of mass moves passed the rear hip.  At this point, letting the back knee break will allow you to essentially fall backwards onto your back hip.  Just like in the step of the lunge, where gravity did the bulk of the work, so gravity does the work for the recovery.  Also as the back leg could accelerate the lunge, in the recovery contracting the back leg’s muscles will help to pull you backward.  A very little push off of the front foot (peeling the toes back and pushing through the heel) can be helpful, but not necessary.  As the torso comes back upright and into guard, the hand remains extended, with your sword above your opponent’s blade.  It should remain that way until you have withdrawn completely out of measure.

 

10 comments to First Giganti Redux 6: The Lunge

  • David Twynham

    I thought when Giganti talked about having a stance that could be extended he was referring to how wide your narrow you were in guard rather than the distribution of the weight? What does he have to say about weight distribution, leaning your body forward and tensing your back muscles?

    • Wistric

      Throughout Giganti’s first book (and somewhat in his second, though I haven’t spent as much time with it) single instruction accomplishes multiple goals. An example is forming a counterguard by “resting your sword just above theirs” places your true edge towards their blade, gains the strong angle, gains the advantage of gravity, gains biomechanical advantage, and (since you’re not quite resting it on their blade) deprives them of any tactile information. So, too, does his “a step that can be extended” achieve multiple desirable ends. I addressed the length of the stance when discussing stance, here I address the ability to extend into a lunge.

      His text is generally silent on weight distribution. When the text is silent, I next turn to the art, which clearly shows the weight held back. The art also shows the forward lean and the tensed back muscles (necessary for maintaining the straight back during the lean). The illustration used in the previous write-up on Tempo shows an excellent example of the forward bend with a straight back.

      If you’re specifically wondering about the inferred tensing of the latissimus dorsi, it’s an idea I first picked up from Randy Packer and have included in my study. It seems not only supported by testing my interpretations of Giganti in practice, but also again by the art. Looking back to that illustration from Tempo, you can see that the fighter’s left hand is well out of position to defend himself, yet not so far back as to provide the counter-weight usually offered as an explanation for the sport fencing lunge. However, it is symptomatic of a tensed lat, which pulls the shoulder towards the spine, therefore bringing the off-hand back (I attempt to counter this by rotating my left shoulder to keep my arm parallel to my chest while tensing my lat, which has the effect of bringing the left hand closer in to my right pectoral. Though, as you know from practice, that doesn’t always happen 🙂 ).

  • David Twynham

    “Single instruction accomplishes multiple goals” sounds like an easy way to extrapolate reasons for statements which may or may not have been the author’s intent.

    I don’t disagree that the plates in Giganti show a rear weighted stance (though they also show a wide stance when Giganti specifically recommends a narrow stance), or that other authors also show rear weighted stances. What I don’t think I agree with is that the difference in weight distribution in modern fencing (which isn’t uniform and can range from being forward, centered, or back depending on the teacher or the context) requires an extra tempo while you lift your front foot. If that’s something that you see a lot of in the SCA, then I don’t think it’s a problem with modern fencing influencing the SCA so much as it is just a symptom of bad training.
    For reference – here’s an example of something I would consider a good lunge: http://youtu.be/c9-TD2jgtz8?t=55s

    • Wistric

      You’re arguing against physics. If you keep weight on the front foot, you have to overcome friction for it to move forward, or get the weight off the front foot.

      To point out the obvious, your example of modern is 90 years old. However, taking the lunge at 0:58 as an example and slowing it down to quarter speed, there’s a noticeable hitch: he’s sinking onto his front foot, and then stops to push upward, breaking friction, before his foot can begin to move forward.

      This instructional video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yY0LwH47n6Y) solves the problem by two methods. The first is peeling the front toe up, which they demonstrate in the slow speed demo. One of Uncle Walter’s rules is to stab your opponent when their toe is in the air because of this practice. In the full speed lunge the toe-peel is negligible if at all present (hard to tell – foot comes off the ground very close to parallel), and instead the friction problem is overcome by adding an upward element to the back leg spring (which is energy and distance wasted fighting gravity).

      In both videos, these are people fairly close to the top of the game so the actions have been trained to be as minute as possible. That’s the advantage of professional fencing. And yet they’re still there and detectable.

      Of course, these are lunges demonstrated in isolation. Far more often during modern fencing the fencers maintain constant bouncing on their feet so that they have a 50/50 chance of having their weight off the front foot when the opportunity to lunge comes.

      • Dante di Pietro

        We’re all in agreement that any motion creates a tempo that could be *potentially* exploited by someone able to take it, right? If so, it seems to me irrefutable that any unnecessary movements are sub-optimal, even if the likelihood of a very small tempo being taken is likewise very small (for the record, I can see someone’s muscles flex if they have to take weight off it). Of course, the modern stuff is optimized for those rules and those weapons, so if that extra fraction of a second were a real problem in context, they would be doing something else by now.

        Since Giganti’s context had an actual sword and a decided lack of buzzers or even consistent wound results, there’s a good chance that he optimized for that situation.

        In any case, Giganti, Capoferro, Fabris, etc., are clearly doing a back-weighted stance, so if someone is trying to do historical fencing they should not be taking their mechanics from 20th century sport fencers and the whole discussion becomes pointless if accuracy is paramount.

        • Ruairc

          This does not, however, provide a particularly satisfying answer to the question of “why, then?” And I think attempting to answer this question is a worthwhile pursuit, if we are trying to gain a deeper understanding of the art.

          I’ve put this question (“why the modern stance/lunge in a modern context? Why the historic stance/lunge in a historic context?”) to SCA fencers who straddle the line between historic and modern. I’ve gotten a lot of interesting justifications, but little consistency.

          • Dante di Pietro

            That’s a separate discussion, though, as “why” and “what” are not the same thing at all. My point was simply that while it is useful to know “why,” diluting the “what” with things that don’t belong is contrary to the goal of historical research. Using Fabris as your frog DNA to fill in blanks on Giganti is one thing, but using 20th century sport fencing is quite another.

            I would hazard to guess that the modern stance is optimal for light weapons, first-touch points, right of way, lack of edge/alignment, and so forth. Boxers stand as they do because kicks and throws are not a factor, and wrestlers stand as they do because strikes are off the table.

            I would also say that the Italian back-weighted stance is probably best for duels, and not for a less formal self-defense scenario where running away might be a good solution. Context is king.

            As far as line-straddlers, seeing how it took me a good six months to be able to handle the stance well enough, I’m going to go with “laziness,” academic or physical, as the most likely truth! 😀

          • David Twynham

            Dante, the primary characteristics of the modern/classical stance where present when there were duels, no right of way, edge alignment, heavier weapons (to an extent, it varied), etc…

            As far as I can tell, the shift to a center-weighted stance happened in Italian fencing around the early 19th century, I’ll have to do more research to see why, it’s kind of interesting.

            Also – I’m wondering if we have different ideas about what a modern fencing guard is?

          • Dante di Pietro

            Domenico Angelo is the master often credited with the transition of fencing from a martial art to a sport with an emphasis on enhancing one’s health and agility rather than defending one’s honor. His manual was published in 1763 and later translated in 2005 by Jared Kirby. It still shows quite a lot of back-weighted stances, if you have a copy (I do).

            http://www.donaldheald.com/pictures/medium/09959.jpg
            http://www.donaldheald.com/pictures/medium/12293-1.jpg

            So, one way or another, either through the changing weapons, the advent of rules, or the general change toward sport, the loss of the back-weighted stance has likely little to do with some inherent superiority in the even-weighted stance when using a rapier.

            It is also around this time that thrust-only fencing swords became prominent.

            http://i.imgur.com/b9qI1uY.jpg

            That image is from the duel that Aldo Nadi fought three years after he won Olympic gold in epee, foil, and sabre. He was obviously a superior fencer to, well, everyone I know, but the pressure of the situation made him make the exact same error that we see all the time with people who put too much weight forward and try to lunge.

            In his own words: http://www.calpoly.edu/~dkgrant/fencing/nadi.htm Noteworthy is that he has a moment where he realizes that hitting *first* is not the best plan.

            Pictured: a lunge that can get you a silver medal at the Olympics, but would be a terrible idea with a rapier.
            http://i.ytimg.com/vi/9YejsUc4hKM/0.jpg

            Those fencers would beat me 99.99% of the time on any individual pass, and 100% of any 15 point series. 100%. But, the historical masters would chastise them heavily for such a lunge, since if your opponent wasn’t incapacitated by the strike you could reasonably expect a cut to the head to ruin your day and possibly lead to a subsequent fatal wound. There’s just not a way to be academically honest and say that a thing done in modern fencing is OK for historical fencing if it wasn’t present in historical fencing to begin with. It might be perfectly valid for SCA rules and contexts, but that is not the same thing either. If a person is going to both claim to be doing historical rapier and an even-weighted stance, then the master they are studying needs to be doing that even-weighted stance. I certainly couldn’t claim to be following after Capoferro, Giganti, or Fabris without the back-weighted stance as a primary choice.

            In any case, extra tempo or not, the even-weighted stance doesn’t really exist for the Italian masters Wistric studies and shouldn’t be employed by anyone purporting to follow them. Whether or not it’s actually a detriment, it’s simply wrong for those systems.

  • David Twynham

    Hmm, let me back up for a sec. What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t think that there’s really all that significant of a different between a (good) modern lunge and a historical, Italian rapier lunge. The principles of a modern lunge are rooted in the mechanics of earlier fencing, not something that was created specifically for light weapons and sport. The mechanics of a modern lunge, just like the mechanics of a historical lunge are rooted in efficiency. From seeing you fence Owen, I don’t think that we really disagree on the mechanics of a lunge all that much. Part of my concern is that too much of an attempt to differentiate a modern lunge from a historical lunge can easily lead to reinventing the wheel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcWN1FE-CXA

    This is not to say that everything is identical – it isn’t. I’m also not arguing that a rear-weighted stance isn’t appropriate for rapier and taught by the majority of fencing masters. (What I think I’m trying to say is that sometimes the explanation that a back weighted stance accounts for a particular mechanic isn’t always the case – Alfieri happens to teach guards of first and second with the body over the front leg – I don’t think that necessarily makes his lunges slower)

    A lunge requires several primary movements – the extension of the arm, the extension of the back knee, and the forward movement of the front foot (I like Marcelli’s description a lot: http://marcelli-translated.wikispaces.com/Chapter+VI+-+About+the+straight+lunge%2C+and+how+to+do+it+well ). After that, I think a lot of the stuff about the lunge comes down to either context or personal preference – how far you step, how far you lean, what you do with your back arm, etc…

    Everybody teaches a lunges slightly differently – teachers in the same generation (Capoferro, Giganti, Fabris, etc..), teachers a generation apart (Capoferro vs Marcelli, etc..), teachers in different traditions (Paschen vs de la Touche), and the same is true of modern fencing today. For instance, if I go take an epee lesson from Gene at the Atlanta fencers club and lunge the way the fencer did in that video, he’ll tell me not to raise my foot so high, and to land more softly on my front foot. He has his reasons for teaching it this way, just like the fencer in the video has for doing it his way. I think I know some of his reasoning, but I don’t know for certain, and I may be on shaky ground if I try to assume to much.

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