The Blade-Gain, in Modern Times

I’ve recently been thinking about how the majority of people at my practice go to great lengths to ward off any and all of my blade gain attempts, keeping their blade free from entanglement entirely. This morning, a thought occurred to me:

Most period fencing masters put emphasis on finding/gaining the blade when teaching their students, correct? If this is true, I imagine it was so because not everyone could afford to study under a fencing master. This means that, if up against someone who takes offense in the street, there may be a lower likelihood that the offender is going to be schooled in the finer points of rapier combat; meaning, they are going to be more like your generic/noob SCAdians (the kind who pick up a blade for the first time and swing wildly with zero finesse, anyway.)

Perhaps I should give the people of SCA period more credit: I’m sure they were at least a little more proficient with weapons than people in modern times. So, assuming that someone learning under a fencing master is going to have the advantage over someone who is not (but who may have some skill in fighting, in general, due to the times), gaining the blade and making that person their bitch via their skillset sounds solid.

However, we are now in modern times. Fencing manuals are much easier to come by, and some of us not only read said manuals, but are skilled enough to relay the information to others. Period technique, while still not the norm in my experiences, does tend to carry throughout the SCA. So with the fact that this knowledge is so readily available now, people can learn of it and choose whether or not to apply it. Many people are aware of the blade gain, and work to prevent it from happening, to a point that I feel it is practically useless for me to even try. Basing a lot of attacks around the blade gain seems very difficult to carry out when your opponent knows you’re going to do that, and does everything in their power to keep their blade free. So is this technique outdated* in terms of general SCAdian rapier combatants?

* I did not say inefficient. It can work beautifully, and I’ve even made it work beautifully, myself. I’m focusing on the assumption that it gave a specific advantage to the scholar of a master in period times, versus someone who was not learning from a fencing school, and how times are so very different now that everyone has a basic understanding of finding the blade, and can work easily to avoid it.

9 comments to The Blade-Gain, in Modern Times

  • Dante di Pietro

    It is a piece to a puzzle that you haven’t seen yet.

    There is no end to the chain.

    I know to find the sword.

    You know that I know this, and can either seek to keep your sword free or defeat my attempt to find the sword.

    If you seek to outfind me, cavazione, contracavazione, and ricavazione enter into play. One of us will be better at it.

    If you seek to keep your sword free, you are in obedience to my strategy by virtue of choosing a gambit and hoping that I cannot exploit its weaknesses. If your gambit fails, my knowledge of finding the sword had a hand in defeating you, but indirectly. Fencing is a *continuous* interaction.

    This past weekend I lost my balance against a larger opponent, slipped, and fell. At the time, we had both initiated forward motion and gone past each others’ points. As we were with single rapier, my best option, as I tumbled backward, was to grab my own sword blade and deliver a 30″ draw cut to his neck as I fell.

    I began the fight by finding his sword.

    Deep waters.

  • Wistric

    There are a couple of erroneous assumptions in your post-

    “So with the fact that this knowledge is so readily available now, people can learn of it and choose whether or not to apply it. Many people are aware of the blade gain,”

    Some. The vast majority who are denying you the proximal gain (Sword against or close to theirs; not going to be on the vocab test) of their sword by holding it out of presence, especially in low lines, are attempting to fight the sort of fight Italian Rapier was developed to defeat – beats and cuts, large actions that are completely about removing your threat and not about threatening you. The current weakness in your game is not, for the most part, that they know how to counter your gain; instead, your automatic reactions don’t exploit their large motions (either by lunging with the line closed when they start their beat, disengaging the beat, or retreating as they beat to deny them your blade and place you in a position to exploit any exposure in their attack). You get those reactions by rigorous partnered drilling, which is the thing that’s missing from your training environment right now.

    Also, continue working on bettering your ability to close the line and gain blades when their sword is not near yours. If your hand is in the right position, an angled attack won’t succeed, and an extension will intercept their beat with your forte.

    As Dante mentioned, if your opponent is attempting to counter your action, they are in obedience. By controlling the possible reactions available to your opponent, you start to narrow the necessary cues you need to be observing to know which counter your opponent is going for. And, since you know what your opponent will do, you protect yourself against it while attacking, and they die.

    If your opponent is reacting to you, you can see into the future and read their mind. USE THAT POWER!

    But you have to be able to execute the correct actions and exploits in the tempo of their action. So go drill. A lot.

  • Ruairc

    I was going to bring up two counterpoints, but Dante already mentioned the first, and Wistric expounded on the second. So I’ll throw in some nugatory elaboration:

    1. The find is only the first step to a deeper tactical game. If you can flip through the plates in the Italian treatises, you will note that every play begins either with a find, or a big mistake (“I’MA THROW A CUT OUT OF TEMPO! LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS!!”).
    2. Learning “find the sword, then attack” is necessary but not sufficient (see point 1). Until you’ve developed proficiency in this and moved on to other things, you may be frustrated by people who refuse to play the game you know. As you have elected to learn a system, you have two choices: depart from the system and try to win the best way you know how, or maintain discipline and build the foundational skills your system demands. The first option will bring a sharp and immediate spike in your abilities, followed by a long, bewildering taper of minimal improvement. The second initially fosters much more gradual development, but the rate of improvement increases the longer you stay on it, until you near the limit of your abilities.

    • Ruairc

      As to the idea that the find gave a scholar an advantage against an untrained fighter, this may well not be the case. Several period masters state that the bulk of their instruction is of use primarily against another learned fighter; against a “buffel” or brutish man, other, often simpler, techniques will suffice.

      Cuts, in Italian rapier, are a good example. You will rarely have an opportunity to cut against a skilled fencer, but cuts are excellent responses to the beats, large parries, and blind charging that might be expected from unskilled but valiant men. I have had opportunity to validate this to the extent that safe simulation allows. It’s hilarious.

  • L’Ange’s progression fits quite well here.

    1. Learn how to constrain (weak and strong)
    2. Learn how to thrust
    3. Learn how to parry
    4. Learn how to parry such that you don’t encourage your opponent to disengage
    5. Learn how to constrain such that you don’t encourage your opponent to disengage
    6. Learn how to disengage when someone constrains you
    7. Learn how to double-disengage (I haven’t read that chapter yet, but I assume we’re talking about counter-disengages)

    While he teaches German rapier (different way of holding the sword), you could use this same progression to teach Italian rapier.


    Also, if someone takes a low guard (coda lunga stretta/gunslinger), assume a high prima (Italian grip) or high secunda (German grip) and threaten the face. You’ll be able to over-reach him and the distance will be too great for him to parry.

    I don’t know about your area, but around here nobody in the SCA or Adrian Empire knows how to fight against someone who can use the high guards. Before I dropped out of the SCA, I found myself chasing down white scarves whose only reaction was to back away until my arm got tired.

    • Wistric

      😀 I actually banned Toki from the prima counter to low attacks for the time being.

      She’s shorter than the average fighter (How tall are you, Toki?). Her particular kingdom in the SCA is a “lightsaber” kingdom (push cuts, draw cuts, and pull cuts are all valid blows with no minimum length), so even contact as the opponent flung themself on the shot and reached for her that could not have delivered a good thrust was resulting in a double kill, or if her technique was off, a loss for her.

      Also, she was resorting to it in sparring rather than focusing on those first, second, and sixth items on L’Ange’s list, which was/is her assigned focus.

  • Terasu

    I will openly admit, I am a horrible fencer. I cannot speak well about many of the styles used in SCA rapier, but I am good at martial arts and am becoming proficient at Thibault, so I will talk about what I have learned from his book.

    I like to talk to people who are trying to become better at fencing mostly about three things. Measure, lines, and gaining/finding the blade. Tempo can be a bit more complicated for a novice, but those three things are important to me. Measure: to establish the ability to reach my opponent. Lines: maintaining a defense so my opponent cannot strike me without moving my guard. GAINING THE BLADE: establishing control of my opponents blade so he cannot strike me. Lines and gaining the blade are my main focus. It is important for me to have lines closed so I can move into measure. If my opponent throws an attack with my lines closed, there is a high chance that there will be blade contact that can give me an opportunity to gain their blade.

    Thibault talks about having a high guard that removes lines from my opponent while gaining leverage over their blade. I do not move my blade, which forces them to take a line of my choosing or make blade contact with me. I gain their blade by moving my feet or leaning my body to place more of my forte into their foible. By adding “sentiment”, pressure against their blade, I gain the line or force them to want to “cut under the blade”, or disengage. While they disengage, I have the tempo to strike. I used this against you during our pick-ups at WoW to force you to go where I wanted you to. I called it “bullying”. I even did what I call my “serial killer stalk” where I just walk towards my opponent with my guard up and force you to deal with my blade or get stabbed in the face. I use this at practice to make our students understand how much power an opponent has once they gain your blade, how to avoid it, and how to use it.

    As you gain in technique and experience, you will start to recognize when your lines are closed. People will try to power through your guard with speed, which will allow you to gain their blade by just parrying them. This will give you the control you desire. Nothing throws off a “gunslinger” more than a closed guard.

  • Aaron Miedema

    OK, I have noticed the unwillingness of people sparring to avoid all attempts at blade contact. What I have discovered is that they may rationally understand the concept of the bind and the tactics of blade contact, but they don’t know this instinctively. As measure reduces time speeds up, and peoples “rational” minds turn off in order to keep up with the pace of the action. In which case it is beat the sword away and don’t get tied up by my opponent’s sword. The more training you have the longer you can keep the rational brain on. The only way around this is lots of repetitive pair drilling the individual plays of whatever manual you are studying.

    The type of weapon being used may also be a factor. Most of my students tend to move to using heavier blades (from practice to baited Rapiers) because they are simply better equipped for performing the historical actions. I have also noticed that the balance of schlagers also makes binding more difficult because of the weight distribution at the extreme ends of the weapon.

    As a final point to consider about historical context, it seems that there was an immense transmission of martial arts knowledge conveyed by means other than books and formal lesson. If memory serves, Castiglione suggests that one learns to fight from not just anyone in the market. Marozzo and Capoferro’s comments also suggest this. As well the silences of the manuals seems to assume a certain basic martial knowledge, like how to hold a sword, how to step in guard, etc…

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