Core Italian Rapier Drills: Drills of the Week #1

The popularity of historic martial arts has exploded over the last few years, but learning how to fence from historical fencing treatises can be difficult.

One of the most common errors I’ve seen people make is to fail to become proficient with the core actions and drills of a historic fencing system before plowing ahead into more complicated actions. I have plans to start posting a listing of the drills that I’m running at my local practice each week, but in order to make use of what we’re working through, you’ll need a solid grounding in the basics of the Italian Rapier system.

For our purposes, let us divide these basics into “actions” and “drills.” Actions involve key motions that a fencer needs to be able to perform correctly, smoothly, and automatically, but are things that can ultimately be practiced without a partner. In contrast, drills string together combinations of these actions and need to be performed with a partner. The core drills are fairly simple, but as we progress through our weekly practices, they will increase in complexity, incorporate new combinations of actions, and incorporate context.

 

Core Actions:

There are 4 key “actions” that a fencer needs to be able to perform proficiently, automatically, and efficiently in order to be successful with the Italian rapier system. These are as follows:

  1. Form the guard, grip the sword correctly
  2. Be able to perform footwork without disrupting your stance
  3. Perform an Italian rapier lunge
  4. Perform a cavazione

My goal isn’t to explain how to perform each of these actions here, as many others have devoted substantial time in explaining these actions. I recommend first reading the introduction sections of Giganti and Capoferro’s fencing manuals, reading Dante’s descriptions of these actions on his website,  watching the rapier videos on Guy Windsor’s YouTube page, and also that you acquire and read Guy Windsor and and Dante’s books on learning how to fence using the Italian rapier system.

At my practice, we use an exercise called “Pyramids” as a warm-up and cool-down in order to work on forming the guard, footwork, and lunges. It could also be modified to incorporate cavazione without much difficulty. However, for the most part, learning these actions will require that fencers practice on their own outside of organized fencing practices. Careful performance of standing in guard, performing footwork, lunging, etc can all be done alone at home and you will find that successful fencers, even those who are already very skilled, are practicing these basic actions at home for several hours each week.

Pyramids:

  1. Fighters start with their weapon “sheathed” and “draw” it according to Capoferro plate 1. If they are standing with their sword foot forward, they will “draw” the weapon to prima while stepping back with their sword foot. They will then step back with their other foot and settle into guard in prima. If the non-sword foot is forward, they will draw the weapon to prima, then take a step back with their non-sword foot and settle into guard.
  2. From prima, the fighter will perform the following sequence of actions
    1. Lunge
    2. One advance, lunge, one retreat, lunge
    3. Two passing steps forward, lunge, two passing steps back, lunge
    4. Three advances, lunge, three retreats, lunge
    5. Two passing steps forward, lunge, two passing steps back, lunge
    6. One advance, lunge, one retreat, lunge
  3. Repeat the sequence of actions in step number 2 for each other guard; seconda, terza, and quarta
  4. (Optional) Cavazione could be incorporated by performing one against an imaginary opponent prior to each lunge.The key to this drill is for each fighter to perform the actions slowly and deliberately with control. Ideally, you will be able to perform this sequence while keeping your muscles relaxed despite the fact that this is a fairly tiring exercise. Because this drill requires somewhat substantial endurance, it is acceptable to start with a truncated form of the drill and increase the number of steps as your arm endurance improves. It is also possible to increase the length of this drill by adding, for example, a step with four passing steps forward, a lunge, four passing steps back, and another lunge, for example or by adding a timed period where you hold your position in a guard when you form it (for say, 30 seconds).

 

Core Drills:

Once a fencer is able to reasonably perform the actions above (they don’t need to be proficient to start drilling, but they do need to be able to perform the actions), it is important to start using those actions in the context of a drill. This will help to expose errors and ineffciencies in the actions and will help to make the actions smoother and more automatic. One of the key characteristics of the drills presented in the Italian rapier manuals is that they are, for the most part, iterative. This means that they build from each other, so if you can’t perform a more basic drill, you certainly won’t be able to perform the more complicated ones. In my opinion, most of the Italian rapier system relies on a solid foundation in the drills listed below.

It is also important to note a few things. First, you should always wear the appropriate protective equipment for these drills. At a minimum this will include a fencing mask and gorget. Second, I will use the term “Agente” to refer to the person who acts first and the term “Patiente” for the person who responds throughout my explanations of these drills. Third, drills should be performed slowly and with control. You should take care to ensure that you are performing the actions smoothly and efficiently. Fourth, do not treat drills as a competition. If you or your partner are trying to “win” a drill, you’re both losing. Perform the actions as describe and avoid setting each other up for failure. “If you do X, I would just do Y instead,” is a common refrain, but if Y isn’t what the drill specifies, then doing Y won’t help you learn. It should be understood that for all of the drills and plays in the Italian rapier system that the fact that someone is struck means that they committed an error, so performing the drills requires that someone perform that error so that the other person can learn how to capitalize on it.  Fifth, becoming proficient at these will take several months of practice. While it may be possible to get pretty good at performing these actions in a single session, that doesn’t mean that you have truly learned how to perform the action on demand – which is our ultimate goal. Finally, it is useful to have a benchmark for knowing when you are proficient. I use the following: You should be able to perform the drill correctly 20 consecutive times in less than 25 total attempts for 3 weeks in a row.

Gain, Advance, Lunge Drill:

This drill serves as the basis for nearly every other drll that will follow. It is a simplification of the fact that a fight will start from a position where the combatants are too far away to strike each other (out of measure) and at some point, one person will need to step close enough to strike the other. The drill is performed as follows:

Starting from one step out of measure (i.e. lunge distance + one advance step), Agente will:

  1. Gain their opponent’s weapon by angling the tip of their weapon over Patiente’s sword with the true edge pointed towards their sword. This prevents Patiente from striking Agente with a single action. Importantly, Agente’s hand will stay roughly outside their knee while the tip of the sword (not the guard) crosses over their opponent’s weapon. Movement of the hand from side-to-side will result in a failure to correctly gain the sword.
  2. Perform one advance step. This brings Agente into wide measure (as defined by Capoferro) where they can strike Patiente with a lunge.
  3. Lunge while keeping their weapon angled over their opponent’s sword. If this comes up short or lands too hard, ensure that you are starting the exercise from the appropriate distance. Don’t over-extend the lunge in order to land the blow, simply correct the measure on the next one.
  4. Recover from the lunge while keeping their weapon angled over their opponent’s sword.
  5. Retreat
  6. Reset by returning their sword to terza parallel to Patiente’s sword.

Throughout this drills, Patiente stands still and doesn’t do anything.

 

Counter-Attack Drill: 

This drill provides the core defensive action of the Italian rapier system. Essentially the idea is that Patiente can simultaneously parry and strike Agente by extending their weapon over Agente’s in the tempo of Agente’s lunge (specifically after Agente picks up his front foot). This drill is described by Giganti starting from both the inside and outside line in plates 2 and 3 respectively.

Agente performs the same actions as the “Gain, Advance, Lunge” drill above.

Instead of standing still, Patiente waits until Agente picks up his foot during his lunge (step 3 above). Patiente will then:

  1. Extend their weapon over Agente’s sword, turning their hand such that their true edge is pointed towards Agente’s sword.
  2. Lean from the hips so that their body is placed behind their sword guard

This drill can be tricky to do “right.” The biggest error I see in my students is a tendency for Patiente to push their sword hand towards Agente’s sword. Instead, patiente should be careful to keep their hand positioned slightly to the outside of their front knee so that the sword can form an angle over Agente’s sword. This angle should be formed from the elbow and the sword should be aligned with the forearm. Training this with a dowel rod held firmly to the forearm can help to visualize these angles. The tip of Patiente’s sword will appear like it is not pointed at Agente, but if the hand (focus on the hand, not the sword tip) is extended towards Agente , then the rest of the sword will follow and strike Agente. The heart of this drill is that Patiente needs to learn to trust their guard, not chase after Agente’s sword. This can be very counter-intuitive, so work through this drill carefully.

 

Attack into the tempo of the Cavazione Drill:

This drill is interesting because it starts to demonstrate some of the distinctions in how the Italian rapier system approaches the relationship between tempo and measure. Obviously, this drill will require the fencers to be able to perform a reasonable cavazione. This drill should be performed slowly and carefully at first so that the apparent time pressure doesn’t cause you to disrupt your form. This drill is described on the inside and outside in Giganti’s plates 4 and 5 respectively.

This drill starts one step out of measure, just like the Gain, Advance, Lunge Drill. As before, Agente will:

  1. Gain their opponent’s weapon by angling the tip of their weapon over Patiente’s sword with the true edge pointed towards their sword. This action constrains Patiente such that they cannot strike Agente with a single action
  2. Perform one advance step.

In response to this advance step, Patiente will perform a cavazione.

Agente’s advance step will end before Patiente finishes their cavazione. Agente should turn their hand such that they pre-emptively gain control over the position that Patiente’s sword will end up in when they finish their cavazione and should immediately perform a lunge.

 

Defense by Cavazione:

This drill is essentially identical to the Counter-attack drill except that Patiente performs a cavazione and gains control of Agente’s sword on the other side rather than gaining Agente’s sword by extending over it on the same side. Likewise, it is what would happen if, during the Attack into the tempo of the Cavazione Drill, Patiente waited until Agente performed a lunge.

As before, this drill starts one step out of measure and Agente will:

  1. Gain their opponent’s weapon by angling the tip of their weapon over Patiente’s sword with the true edge pointed towards their sword.
  2. Perform one advance step.
  3. Lunge

In response to Agente’s lunge (when Agente lifts their front foot), Patiente will perform a cavazione  and extend their weapon over top of Agente’s sword. This will occur on the opposite side from where the drill started, so if, for instance, Agente gained Patiente’s sword on the inside line, Patiente will be gaining Agente’s sword on the outside line (and vice versa). In order for this to work, the starting distance must be correct, Patiente must be able to perform a smooth cavazione followed by an extension. This will result in Patiente having control over the line and Agente’s lunge will carry them into Patiente’s sword, just as it did in the counter-attack drill.

As noted above, there are a number of sources that describe and show these actions in more detail.

Edit: It occurred to me that I should also add a comment about how long you should expect to work on these core drills. I’ve found that a group that actively practices these things 1/week for ~2 hours takes about 18 months to become proficient. A group that practiced 3/week would probably be able to become proficient much more quickly (3-6 months), depending to a certain extent on their skills, strength, endurance, etc when they start. It’s also worth noting that groups that are attempting to self-guide may ultimately make some mistakes in their training that will require them to unlearn and relearn some stuff, which will affect how long learning these things will take.

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