Rapier Play Versus Modern Fencing

Last night was the year’s last training session for the Australian College of Arms. Instead of regular training, some members of the Black Knights Fencing, a modern fence club, came for a visit and we mixed it up with them and had a great time. We played for a while with their weapons (epee and sabre) then they played with ours (rapier and side sword with an off-hand weapons for defense). It may come as a surprise to many that I’ve never actually done modern fence before. Wow! It’s fast. Very, very fast. 

The big surprise weilding their weapons was just how much those light and whippy things are controlled by such small movements. For example, you hold the hilt of the weapon between  your thumb and the second joint of your index finger. Move your thumb forward half a centimetre to drop the tip of the weapon, back half a centimetre to raise the tip of the weapon. Lateral movement is just as light. As a result, all movement, attacks, parries, etc are blindingly fast and I was became a pin-cushion for the amusement of all. With that sort of speed, it’s no wonder that proper footwork and technique becomes the key differentiator before the good and the great proponents of the art. I was getting the hang of it after half an hour or so and was starting to feel comfortable with adapting the technique I’ve learned to the unfamiliar weapons.

Swapping their weapons for ours wasn’t actually much better. It was a different kind of bout but ultimately their speed was our greatest difficulty. I think that we made things difficult for them by stepping off-line. Modern fence is very straight line – up and down a narrow track or piste. Historical fencing is more about moving around your opponent and playing with blade angulation to achieve a favourable tactical position from which to strike. The heavier weapons (I’m still amazed at how light a modern fence sword is) slowed  them down but their concentration on keeping the weapon’s point on-line made scoring against them hard. Our cuts and off-hand weapons confused them for a while.

The source of the differences between modern fence and historical rapier became obvious to me for the first time. The weight (or lack thereof) of the weapon is a major contributor. The modern fence sword is so light that economy of movement is vital. Any event slightly wayward stroke becomes impossible to recover from in time to beat or even match the opponent’s attack and, conversely, the openings in the opponent’s guard that one must find and penetrate are so incredibly slight that only the speed allowed by the light weapon can be effective. Rapier techniques such as cavere (or cavazioni) is the equivalent of much modern technique and is only possible with the heavier historical weapons. With a rapier such fine movements of the thumb produce no discernable change to the angle of the blade — inertia sees to that. However, rotating the wrist from second position to fourth position makes for a very fast method of gaining the opponent’s blade and changing the nature of the attack. Both sports rely on keeping the point between you and your opponents and modern fence can easily be seen as the successor of the Italian “point on-line” idea which appeared in their longsword tradition sometime around the fifteenth century.