Swetnam Chapter 6

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: http://tysonwright.com/sword/SwetnamSchooleOfDefence.pdf for the project.

This chapter is about how to use Joseph Swetnam’s manual.  However, there are the usual digressions.  It’s a good chapter.  I’m finding the slow transition from philosophy of combat into theory of combat interesting.


Chap. VI. Diverse reasons or introductions to bring thee the better unto the knowledge of thy weapon

Swetnam begins this chapter by telling us that if you want to get anything out of his book you have to read the whole thing, not just look at the pictures.

The instructions around each picture are more helpful than the pictures themselves, as you will need to move to the points he tells you to.  Even if you’re off by an inch you could be doing it completely wrong.

On Styles

Swetnam uses the example of a scrivener for several pages, but here are the basic ideas he’s trying to get across.

This manual is not a comprehensive overview of combat – that isn’t necessary.  Instead it is one style.  Swetnam recommends that you study only one style until you have learned it perfectly, and then you can branch out; otherwise you are too likely to be just ok at a number of styles and master of none.

Practice is the key to success.  You must exercise and practice often.  Without this there is no success.  At the same time you must practice with the direction of someone who is skillful.  You can not just start swinging a sword around and learn how to fight.

Once you’ve learned how to fight well then you can learn a number of different styles you will figure out which one you like best.

Do not mix styles until you have become a master.  You need to focus on one coherent system or you will become confused and sloppy in your fighting.

You need to learn the whole of a system though – if you do not you will believe that a single guard can protect you from everything when it can not.

The Importance of Practice

The most important parts of combat are Distance and Guard, both of which will require you to practice frequently.

As you practice you will find that your hands will become faster and you will become more skillful in your defense

Similarly your stance, movement, and attacks will be improved by practice.

You need to have someone who is skillful help you with your practice or your fighting will simply become one “foolish trick or other”.  Worse is that if this happens it is very hard to untrain the tricks.  If you work with someone who is skillful they will be able to help you untrain these.  Remember that the use of force does not come automatically, but must be trained.

Many young men must be almost forced to practice even though it will be very helpful to them.  They are willing to start and to try it for a few days but they quickly tire of it and go to try the next interesting thing.  He lists several follies of young men, but most of them come down to being too easily distracted or bored.  Swetnam encourages his readers to examine themselves and their lives to see if they fall pray to the same foolishness, and by identifying it avoid it.

General Commentary

Swetnam agrees that those who use “foolish tricks” without realizing that they are tricks can win.  He compares this to the man who runs without looking where he is going.  He has the ability to get where he is going faster than the man who pays attention, but he will eventually fall.  Thus the man who focuses on the true art will ensure that his guard is steady, and that his feet and hands are in the right place.  A trick may fool someone who has never seen it before, but it becomes useless against someone who knows it.

When learning fencing you do not need to force yourself into the habits of the past.  Swetnam says that you do not need to mimic the stances or positions of the masters from the past, nor do you need to learn first the sword and then the rapier.  He says instead you should focus on the rapier because it is more useful for the thrust, and the thrust is the best attack.  The sword does have the advantage in cutting, but Swetnam says that when you cut you give the advantage away to your opponent, who will thrust into you before you can connect.  he also promises that he will later explain how you can defend against a cut easily regardless of your strength.  The rapier allows you to defend against the sword while at the same time attacking.  The sword however does not have this advantage.  He reminds us that it is best to defend and attack in the same motion.

Swetnam also cautions all those who carry large sums of money to carry a staff at all times.  This is because a man with a little training in the staff can easily counter a man with a sword and dagger.

He here breaks off and reminds us that you should not mock or scoff at those who are just learning, as everyone was once a beginner.  It is better to encourage all, as it is better to have started learning late than to never start at all.

Though some people brag about how many men they can fight at a time, Swetnam says that it is very difficult to defend yourself even against two men, if they are both willing to kill.  However, if you can be in a narrow place where they can not get behind you then you can defend against several men.

Left handed fighters have an advantage over right handed fighters.  This is because the left handed fighter regularly practices against right handed fighters, but the right handed fighter rarely works with a left handed fighter.  The other reason is that a left handed fighter will have a different angle of attack, and so a minor opening against a right handed fighter suddenly becomes a major opening.  Swetnam then recommends using “back-sword” guard against a left handed man, and to ensure that you have a very solid guard.  He finishes off by letting us know that he will talk more about that later.

SCA Take:

You can’t skim this manual.  The pictures are only a small part of the whole.  If you’re going to read it, you need to read it… hmmm, good thing that’s what I am doing with it.

No, really, RTFM.  The words around the pictures will explain what’s happening, how you get there.


This manual is only one style.  Use it, learn it well, and then once you’ve learned all you can from it try another style.  Don’t mix styles as you learn or you will not learn any of them correctly.  Don’t take a guard from here and a thrust from there.

That’s an interesting way of putting it, especially as it is quite standard in the SCA to create an amalgam of styles.  Though Tir Righ standard is the basic style here with other things added on.


Practice and you will get better, faster, and more solid.  But don’t just practice by yourself.  Have someone help you so that you don’t practice incorrectly – as that is hard to untrain.

General Comentary:

Yes you can win with tricks.  But you can’t always win with tricks and if you focus on them then you won’t know what to do against good fighters.

You don’t need to mimic the stances of the past if they don’t work for you.  So although some of the manuals have people leaning at odd angles or utilizing guards that do not work against a rapier that doesn’t mean you have to.  This is an interesting thing to look at, especially as I’m reading a 400 year old manual, but I think what Swetnam is getting at is that you don’t need to learn Marazzo or other longsword/sidesword techniques in order to learn rapier.  You should learn rapier to learn rapier.

Don’t make fun of the newbie.  Ever.  You were there once too.

Fighting multiples is difficult.  It has more to do with the terrain than with your skill.

Left handed fighters are dangerous, both because it’s difficult for those who don’t fight against lefties often, but also because they will be attacking from a slightly different angle, which means that you need to adjust your guard appropriately.

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