This is part of an ongoing project to summarize and provide SCA focused commentary on The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence by Joseph Swetnam, published in 1617.

For links to the other sections of the Swetnam Project please go here.

I am using this facsimile: for the project.

We just finished covering stance/guard and a few basic parries.  Now we move on to the next part of this section.  I’m not sure why this section of chapter 12 is so long.

Three mannor of waies for the holding of a Rapier.

Three mannor of waies for the holding of a RapierSwetnam tells us that there are three ways to hold a rapier.

  1. With the thumb upon the rapier blade (he calls this the natural fashion)
  2. With the whole hand in the pummell, I believe he means on the grip of the rapier, with the thumb locking on the forefinger.
  3. Gripping the pommel (button of the pummell) with your fingers and palm while your index and thumb are on the grip.

A note on the word Pummell: this means a number of things from end to cap to grip to handle.  In context I believe that it means the grip of the sword.

Swetnam advocates the last two ways of holding the sword, as they are the strongest ways.  With practice you should be able to use all of them.  Each way of holding the sword is useful for something, and each has it’s drawbacks.  Learn what they are.  For example by using the third method you can thrust further than the other two.

Now something to note is that in none of these does he advocate placing the index finger over the quillion.  As the man behind, Bradley, notes nothing says he doesn’t either, but he also doesnt “think that figering the crosspiece is necessary to fulfil Swetnam’s grip instructions” .  I’m of the opinion that if something isn’t mentioned that we shouldn’t assume he forgot.  I’ve found this in recreating medieval recipes, and I don’t see why I should behave differently here.  Also, I’ll direct you to this little quote:

Yet the Italian teachers will say, that an Englishman cannot thrust straight with a sword, because the hilt will not suffer him to put the forefinger over the crosse, nor to put the thumbe upon the blade, nor to hold the pummell in the hand, whereby we are of necessitie to hold faste the handle in the hand: by reason whereof we are driven to thrust both compasse and short, whereas with the rapier they can thrust both straight and much further then we can with the sword, because of the hilt; and these be the reasons they make against the sword.

George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defence (1599), as printed in The Antiquarian repertory 1784

I read by this that Englishmen were not accustomed to placing the index finger over the quillion/cross guard.  Again, if something isn’t mentioned we shouldn’t assume.

So here they are again:

  1. palm on the grip, knuckles down, fingers wrapped around grip, thumb up onto the ricasso
  2. palm on the grip, knuckles down, fingers wrapped around grip, thumb on index finger
  3. palm on pommel, knuckles down, thumb and index on grip, other fingers wrapped around pommel

And a note that if you wish to wrap your index finger around the quillion/cross guard that is up to you, but I have found no proof that Swetnam used that.

In the first hand position you may “turn in a slip” (supinated thrust?) or make an overhand thrust, and it is also very strong for cuts from the wrist.  The wrist blow from this hand position may be a little weak, but it is very fast, and is stronger than a wrist blow from the other positions.  Swetnam advises that the other two hand positions are not very good for those three attacks.  By placing the thumb along the blade you allow the rapier to move in line with your arm more (similarly to having the index finger over the quillion).

Because of this you need to be able to change your hand position and guard quickly according to what is the best at that time.  For example, he recommends the second two guards for fighting against a less experienced opponent. (I believe this is because the second position gives you the strongest grip – not letting your opponent disarm you – and the third position gives you the longest lunge – keeping your opponent at bay)

Swetnam advises you to keep the points of your weapons high enough to see your enemy below your tip.  This will let you quickly defend a blow against your head with both dagger and rapier and then pass off to your dagger and make a supinated lunge to your opponent’s torso.  Remember to recover back into your guard regardless of whether or not you hit or miss.

A note on Swetnam’s lunge: although many people have said that Swetnam did not advocate the lunge this is the third or fourth time that he’s recommended “steppe forth with foote and hand together”.  There is no way I can read that without it looking like a lunge, especially from his earlier instruction not to move your back foot.  Also unless he had an eight foot rapier it’s impossible to do his twelve foot attack without lunging.

Swetnam then goes on to say that although you should keep your rapier’s point high you need to remember to drop your point if your enemy comes in too close, either to make him back up, or to thrust into him.  He recommends that if your enemy closes that you drop your tip and lunge while you defend yourself with your dagger.  So the guard is for general defense, but when it comes to it you need to not be too static in your guard.

Swetnam admonishes us that the most cunning man to ever live if he were to fight a skillful man cannot claim ahead of time that he will definitely win.  There is no absolute certainty in combat.

Similarly you cannot decide where to hit your opponent before the fight because you won’t know where he is open until you see his guard.  And remember that you need to know your own guard in order to understand when your opponent’s guard is open.

If your enemy comes within distance then make your attack in the instant that he moves, be it body, weapon, or both moving, put out your tip, but don’t extend too far, as you need to be able to defend if you need to.  You need to be ready to answer your opponent’s lunge quickly.  Also, your opponent’s movement may be a feint, so you need to be ready to defend.  Start with a short thrust, and if your enemy moves to parry it you may drop your blade under or between his and thrust at him in the torso or face (disengage – gotta love it).  Or if his fore leg is too far forward you can hit him in the knee or leg with a thrust or cut (called a blow by Swetnam) and thus disable him without killing him.

Returning to his previous comments about being able to see your opponent below the tips of your weapons Swetnam continues by saying that if your tips fall below that you may be hit in the head by your opponent before you can get a weapon up to defend yourself.  He reminds us that Englishmen tend to prefer to use thrusts and cuts to the head, and so you should always be ready for that.  Be ready to use both of your weapons to defend your head.  If you try to defend with just your dagger, regardless of how good you are, your opponent may go right through your defense and hit your head.  The dagger is not strong enough alone to defend against a strong cut (blow).

When lunging make sure that your lunge is straight.  And remember that every half foot of space away from your opponent is a half foot of range you’re giving up.  If you give up too much of your range then you lose the advantage.  When practicing make sure that your front foot is always close to within the line of your back foot.  You don’t want to lose your reach by angling.  And remember when lunging to keep your left foot steady on the ground.  Swetnam calls it the anchor that pulls home the ship.  The left foot is what guides your body, keeping yourself turned towards your opponent, with your shoulders square.  He notes here that the reason for standing square to your opponent is to have the strongest positioning so you can respond with strength.

Swetnam seems very opposed to the offline lunge.  I suspect this is because he wants you to hit your opponent at maximum range so as to protect yourself.  He also wants you to stay square to your opponent – which is odd because you lose an inch or two that way – but he seems concerned about the strength of your guard.  I suspect that it was because so many Englishmen preferred the backsword or other heavier swords and even if they used a rapier they had been trained to use strong cuts to attack rather than thrusts.

This section continues in the next post which will deal with Passages.

1 Comment

» Thoughts on Reading Swetnam Tomas de Courcy · July 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm

[…] Now next followeth the skill of weapons, and first the true gard of rapier and dagger for the defenc… […]

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