as the Art of Fencing consists in attacking and defending with the Sword, it is necessary that every Motion and Situation tend to these two principal Points, viz. In offending to be defended, and in defending to be in an immediate Condition to offend … there is no Guard but has it’s [sic] Thrust, and no Thrust without it’s [sic] Parade, no Parade without it’s [sic] Feint, no Feint without it’s [sic] opposite Time or Motion, no opposite Time or Motion but has it’s [sic] Counter, and there is even a Counter to that Counter.
Mahon was reminding his readers that fencing with a smallsword was based on well-established principals. Fundamental to these were posture and balance. Without being upright with the feet comfortably spaced apart and the knees bent, no attacking or defensive action could flow according to the demands of the situation. A well-schooled fencer was able to respond to any attack and to attack into any opening presented by an opponent. Indeed, some commentators have said that fencing with a smallsword was a perfect system with the perfect weapon.
There were eight smallsword guards but only two of practical use. These were third and fourth; or as expressed in the language of fencing (French), tierce and quarte. Tierce protected the high line on the righthand side, quarte the high line on the left. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, a sort of ‘middle’ guard was still taught, a relic of rapier play. The swordhand was held in the centre of the body so that no line was closed. The theory was that any defence could be mounted from it because the weapon was equidistant from the inside and outside lines. Unfortunately, it tended to be the worst of all worlds as it meant the defender could never be sure about which side of the blade an attack might come, whereas closing a line with a guard prevented a straight thrust in that line. By the early part of the eighteenth century, this middle guard had been abandoned.
Tierce provided the best protection of any guard because it allowed the hand to be orientated in its strongest position (pronated) with the blade on the same side of the body as the swordarm. Defence and attack could be executed by simple movements from tierce, whereas quarte required the arm to be held across the body so that the blade was on the opposite side. However, in quarte the arm protected the body to some degree. Prime (pronounced ‘preem’), the first guard, was supposed to be the position of the hand and blade when the sword was first unsheathed; thus, the hand was above head height with the blade pointing downwards across the front of the body. All the other guards followed from this one; seconde was achieved by lowering the arm; tierce was achieved by raising the point in the same line towards the opponent’s chest, quarte by moving the arm across the body, quinte by leaving the point in the same position and moving hand back to approximately the tierce position; sixte was like tierce but with the hand supinated; septime was achieved by lowering the point and octave was achieved by moving the arm across to the quarte position but with the point directed downwards.
Each guard had its equivalent parry. Thus, the parry of prime could be made from tierce or quarte but was also feasible from seconde or septime. However, it was not so easy to parry prime from quarte or octave. The parry of quarte was the most used. To parry quarte from tierce or sixte, the blade was moved laterally across the body. Similarly, from quarte, the parry of sixte or tierce could be made by moving the blade laterally across the body. To parry in the low lines with seconde, septime and octave, the point had to be lowered towards the ground, either in a semicircular movement or diagonally downwards. The low-line parries protected the lower part of the trunk and the legs, as well as attacks made with the hand low.
These so-called simple parries were executed forte to foible and the blade was moved no more than necessary to close the line of the attack while ensuring the point continued to threaten the attacker. If the point of the defending blade strayed off to the side, not only was the parry weak and easy to push round or avoid, but a riposte was next to impossible. Thus, movements had to be precise.
Labat told his readers there were two sorts of parry, the so-called binding parade and ‘the other a dry beat’.
The binding Parade is to be used when you are to rispost in Quart … in Tierce … in Seconde under, in Flanconnade [see below], and in all Feints: And the Beat, giving a favourable Opportunity of risposting, is to be used when you rispost to a Thrust in Seconde; or when after having parryed a Thrust in Quart … you see an Opening under the Wrist. To these two Thrusts, you must rispost almost as soon as the adversary pushes [lunges], quitting his Blade for that Purpose, which is to be done only by a smart Motion, joining again immediately, in order to be in Defence if the Adversary should thrust … you are to parry all Thrusts with the inmost Edge [of a double-edged blade], except in yeilding [sic] Parades, which are made with the Flat … your Fort be to the Middle, and your Middle to the Feeble of the Adversary’s Sword.
The yielding parry was used to counter an attempt to take the blade with a bind. A bind was the constant application of pressure, forte to foible, while sweeping the opposing blade from a high to a low line, the attacker pushed his blade forwards. The effectiveness of a bind depended on the defender having a straight sword arm and resisting the binding action. The more force the defender applied against the bind, the more effectively his blade was trapped and forced out of the way. The best defence against a bind was to give in to it, ie to yield, but at the same time the sword arm had to be withdrawn towards the body into quarte. However, the defender had to be wary of the feint of a bind in which a bind was initiated but then disengaged as he yielded.
Unlike modern sport fencing in which the arm is usually withdrawn on each parry to ensure the parry is forte to foible, smallsword parries were often executed with the arm partially extended. Some masters taught their pupils to step back on the parry while others taught that a defender should stand his ground. Donald McBane, an expert fighter, advocated always giving ground when parrying because it was far safer.
Parries which failed to close the line of attack and prevent the attacking blade from striking were as bad as not parrying at all. In 1763, Angelo wrote
A GOOD parade is as necessary and useful when well executed, as it is dangerous and fatal if done without judgement, and made wide and rambling. To parry well, will prevent your being hit; therefore you should observe, when you are defending the place in which you are attacked, that you do not give an opening on the contrary side, which would give more ease to your adversary to throw in a thrust; for which reason you should not flutter, or show the least concern, by any motion he may make, either with the body, his foot, or the point of his sword.
A parry that was ‘wide and rambling’ exposed more than it protected. Such ill-controlled parries were typical among novices and nervous and wild fencers who all tended to wave their blades about in the hope of meeting the incoming blade. However, such undisciplined fencing did not necessarily make the perpetrator an easy target for a better fencer. On the contrary, such people were often harder to hit and could easily land chance hits. Thus, caution and patience were essential when facing them. They soon tired themselves out while the more skilled opponent conserved his energy awaiting an appropriate moment to attack. This, of course, came under the heading of tactics. Fencing has been described as high-speed chess because tactics play such an important role.
A fencer was supposed to keep his knees bent. This allowed him to move easily forwards or backwards and prevented him from overbalancing. The correct stance was achieved by placing the feet about shoulder width apart and turning the leading foot (right foot in the case of a right-handed fencer) to point towards the opponent, then lowering the body by bending the knees as though sitting. This posture required practice as the thighs became tired very quickly because the muscles were unused to the effort. Moreover, in moving forwards or backwards, the torso was supposed to float on the hips and not bob up and down. This, too, required practice. To advance or retire, termed demarches, required short steps with the fencer finishing up with his feet in the same relative positions as when he started. These demarches were executed along the imaginary fencing line while the length of a step could be varied according to the situation but it was never so great that he unbalanced himself in the process. None of these stances or movements were natural to any man and had to be learned, then practised. Indeed, no movement in fencing was instinctive. The muscles had to learn new movements and acquire new strengths.
The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century lunge differed from that used in modern sport fencing in that the swordhand was used to protect the face of the attacker when lunging from tierce; this meant that the hand was raised more than in modern fencing. The swordarm performed a similar function when pushing quarte. The terms ‘pushing quarte’ and ‘pushing tierce’ were contemporaneous expressions for lunge from those guards. When pushing quarte the arm was across the body as the blade went along the line of quarte.
By the 1680s, an extended lunge became part of the fencer’s repertoire although it was discouraged by many masters, Mahon among them (although Labat taught it), because they considered it bad practice. In the extended lunge, the back foot was allowed to roll over so that the ankle was in contact with the ground. Advocates of this practice argued that it allowed an extra 13 centimetres of reach to be achieved on the lunge. If the attack struck the opponent, then the question of recovering from such a lunge was of no great significance but if the opponent parried the attack and riposted or simply retired to avoid the attack, the attacker was at a severe disadvantage because he could not easily recover from it. Moreover, by turning the foot over suddenly, as such a lunge required, the fencer risked injuring his leg muscles, ligaments and tendons. He could even break the ankle. Most serious encounters between protagonists with sharps took place outdoors on uneven ground which might be wet from rain or dew which heightened the risk of injury.
Advocates of this extreme lunge seemed to ignore the fact that fencing was, and remains, a dynamic and energetic activity which requires agility and quick reactions. While it is apparent that some fencers did not mind receiving hits in the practice salle during friendly bouts with foils, such a mindset was a distinct disadvantage in the circumstances of a real fight with sharps. A single puncture wound could prove fatal, if not at the scene certainly afterwards, due to septicaemia.
The lunge under the arm (top) and its defence (bottom) according to Labat in 1690
Avoidances as taught by Labat (1690) and Mahon (1734).
Here, the man on the right has attacked with a pass. The man on the left as stepped back, parried and grabbed his opponent's weapon at the hilt.
In this illustration the man on the left has attacked with a pass and the man on the right has volted and stop-hit his opponent.
Simple attacks could be very effective, especially against a timid or rash opponent. The simplest were the straight lunge and the step, lunge. Both could include a beat (ie a sharp tap on the opposing blade to knock it aside). More complicated actions, called compound attacks, involving more than one movement of the attacker’s sword were also possible. Simplest of these was a change of engagement from an outside to an inside line as in the so-called one-two (a modern term not found in the manuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries); a one-two-three involved two changes of engagement; and these could, again, include beat. Any attack involving a change of engagement was a feint. To be effective, the feint had to have the appearance of a real attack so that the defender felt compelled to respond to it by parrying. It was as he attempted to parry that the attacker changed engagement to pass his blade beneath the parrying blade to execute the real attack. For the feint to have the appearance of a straight thrust, the sword arm had to be fully extended and, indeed, the lunge started. These movements had to be small and precise. If the arm windmilled, the effect was lost and the target would be missed.
Like modern fencers, fighters of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fought with what is termed absence of blade. That is to say, they avoided making contact with their opponent’s blade unless executing a specific action that required contact. The reason for this was simple. By maintaining contact with an opponent’s blade, you ran a very real risk of losing control of your weapon if he attempted to bind your blade, applied continuous pressure to your blade (called opposition) and lunged, or undertook any one of many other prises de fer (attacks on the blade) to force an opening.
As part of an attacking movement or the threat of one, the attacker could slap his front foot down either on the spot or slightly forwards without actually advancing on his opponent. This was called an appel. Its purpose was to unnerve the opponent and to make him react. The appel could be part of an attack or merely a scare tactic to force the opponent into making mistakes, thereby, rendering him vulnerable.
The beat was a quick, light movement. It had to be a sharp tap. It was not a hard whack because you had to be able to immediately bring your point to bear on the target. Neither could the action be signalled by first withdrawing the blade. The object of the beat was to knock the opponent’s blade out of the line in which you intended to thrust. If the opponent’s instinctive reaction was to parry the extending blade following the beat, you could disengage for a one-two. Indeed, if the attacker knew the defender would respond in this way, the one-two was a good way to attack. If, on the other hand, the defender eluded the beat by disengaging, the attempted beat had to be converted into a counter-disengagement to prevent a counter-thrust striking the attacker.
After successfully parrying an attack, the defender then had to riposte, otherwise the attacker could redouble his attack (also called a reprise), that is to say, continue his attack by, for example, thrusting again in the same line without moving the feet or, if the opponent retired on parrying, by bringing up his back foot towards the front one to regain an en garde position closer to the defender and immediately lunge again.
In order to riposte well, you must observe the Adversary’s Time and Recovery in Guard. The Time is to be taken in the Thrusts of opposition when he is recovering, and the other as soon as you have parryed. There are three ways of riposting on the Adversary’s Recovery in Guard: when he does not come enough to the Sword, or not at all: the second, when he comes too much, and the third, when his Recovery and Parade are just. To the first, you must riposte strait; to the second by disengaging, or cutting over or under, according as you see light; and to the last, by making a strait Feint or Half-thrust, to oblige the Adversary to come to the Parade, and then pushing where there is an opening, which is called baulking the parade.
‘Time’ had four elements. Firstly, the timing of the attack, riposte or parry in relation to the actions being taken by an opponent; secondly, the speed at which a movement was executed; thirdly, what is termed ‘broken time’ when a compound action (ie two or more actions) was unexpectedly paused or left incomplete to draw an instinctive response from the defender and thereby create an opening for the attacker; and counter-time in which a counterattack in the form of a stop hit was drawn from an opponent with the intention of parrying it and hitting him with a riposte (nowadays referred to as ‘second intention’ because the object is not to hit with the first action but with the second). Broken time and counter-time were very difficult for novices to grasp. The term counter-time or contretemps was used by seventeenth/eighteenth-century Scottish master Sir William Hope to mean a simultaneous attack in which the defender failed to see the incoming attack and launched his own a fraction of a second later, resulting in a double hit. From this, came the English expression of contretemps meaning a violent disagreement.
In any compound action, the speed and timing of the movements did not have to be the same throughout the action. Thus, in the simple attack of a step forward combined with a beat, followed by a lunge, the three parts of the attack could be executed with different timings and speeds. The step and beat could be taken relatively slowly, for example, before lunging explosively. There is also the psychological element of repeating simple actions at a slow speed. It tended to lull the opponent into thinking that was their natural speed. Then, when they were suddenly executed very quickly, he was taken unawares. It was all part of the tactics of fencing.
The cut-over (now termed coupé but not in the eighteenth century) and the cut-under mentioned by Mahon in the extract above were alternatives to the disengagement; the latter was executed in the high lines going under the opposing blade from quarte to tierce or vice versa, and in the low lines going over the opposing blade from seconde or octave to septime or vice versa. The cut-over and cut-under required more skill for their proper execution than the disengagement which was the simplest and quickest of the three actions. Neither ‘cut’ was, in fact, a cut at all but merely resembled a cutting action executed principally with the forefinger and thumb with some movement of the wrist in the case of the cut-over and with the forearm in the case of the cut-under. The cut-under involved suddenly pulling back the point, passing it beneath the opponent’s blade and extending it to the target, all in one rapid continuous movement. It could also be combined with a beat so that the opponent’s blade was struck aside as the attacking blade was drawn back. The cut-under worked best against an opponent who was fond of keeping his hand high when en garde but it could also be used in the low lines but it was employed infrequently.
The cut-over was very distinctive of French smallsword play from the seventeenth century onwards. It was especially effective against fencers who kept their hand low and their point high when en garde. However, it was a riskier move than the disengagement because it took longer to execute (the point had further to travel) and could be countered easily if the attacker signalled his intention. Later eighteenth century masters, such as Danet, discouraged both the cut-over and the cut-under. Yet, he, like all the other masters, taught disarms, voltes and passes, all them very risky against a well-schooled fencer.
Because the smallsword was shorter and lighter than its predecessor, the rapier, it could be manipulated at greater speed and with more precision which allowed the use of actions which had been impractical with a heavier, longer weapon. This manifested itself in an increased use of feints to deceive an opponent as part of a compound attack. The one-two, a compound attack involving a feint in a high line to draw a simple parry of quarte or tierce, was the most straightforward. But with the increasing use of counter-parries, complex actions to deceive them became feasible. One such action was described by Angelo in 1763:
IF the adversary should offer to parry with a counter disengage … you should, without seeking his blade, double your disengage with spirit, and shunning his blade, thrust with a straight point at his body, and recover to the sword by the circle parade.
Feints could be executed with a step forward or an appel but they could be executed with a step backwards if the opponent was trying to close the distance without otherwise making an attack. Equally, the opponent could stop hit with or without opposition. Such actions by the defender would have been in counter-time. Feints could be combined to make a double feint but masters discouraged overly complicated play because of the danger of a stop-hit.
An action typical of smallsword fencing which often employed opposition was the flanconnade, so-called because the attack was to the opponent’s flank under his blade. The form it took varied from master to master as there was no universally accepted method for its execution. Indeed, the term was applied rather flexibly to a variety of actions. The flanconnade described by Labat and Mahon was executed
only in engaging or risposting when the Adversary carries his Wrist too far inward, or drops the Feeble of his Sword, then you must press a little within, and with your Feeble on his, in order to lower it, and by that means get an Opening in his Flank.
Yet, in the mid-eighteenth century, Angelo described the flanconnade quite differently. The opponent’s sword was
engaged in carte, the point fixed in the flank of the adversary, and, binding his blade, carried behind his wrist, under his elbow. In this operation you must gain his feeble, and, without quitting his blade, plunge your point under his elbow to his flank, your wrist turned nails upward, forming an angle from the wrist to the point. In the execution of your thrust, observe also, that the left hand should drop under the right, and that too, form an angle, from the left elbow to the wrist, with your hand open, to prevent being hit on the parade of this thrust, by the adversary's turning his wrist in tierce, and by thus reversing his edge he would throw the point on you.
By ‘engaged in carte’, Angelo meant that the attacking blade was moved laterally from the guard of tierce to touch the opposing blade as though parrying quarte. The bind was a semicircular sweep downwards. No eighteenth-century fencing master advocated use of the left hand for parrying yet they insisted it was used with the flanconnade to help keep the opposing point off target in case of a chance hit on the attacker. While the attack could be successfully executed without recourse to the left hand, provided the timing was right and the bind good, the chance of a double hit was quite high. Indeed, the chance of double hits when binding was always high if the bind was badly timed and poorly executed.
Stop-hits remained an alternative to the parry and riposte but timing was crucial as was awareness of the abilities of the opponent if the double hit was to be avoided. Although a stop-hit with opposition reduced the likelihood of the double opposition did not eliminate the risk. The stop-hit had to land before the attacker completed his own attack. Thus, the stop-hit required more skill than the parry and riposte which was a more certain way of dealing with an attack. The riposte was executed as the attacker recovered to an en garde position and preferably while he is still withdrawing his front foot. An alternative way of executing the riposte was described by Angelo:
you must be firm on your legs, and, after having parried with the forte of your sword, in a dry and abrupt manner, you must straiten your arm, and bring your body a little forward on the right leg, remarking, attentively, that your wrist direct your point to the adversary’s body;
In other words, having parried quarte, the fencer left his sword hand in the quarte position but turned his wrist so that the point was directed at the chest of the opponent. It had to be executed precisely and at considerable speed. Both sorts of riposte were supposed to be made without moving forwards. However, in practice, a riposte was likely to be executed with a movement forwards, especially if on parrying the defender had retired somewhat, which could have the effect of making the point go past the target because the fencers had got too close.
On receiving a flanconnade, the defender had several options open to him. He could
parry, by raising and turning [his] wrist in tierce, without leaving [the attacking] blade, forming an angle from wrist to point, steadily directed to [the attacker’s] body … The angle which is formed in turning the wrist is quite sufficient to keep off and return the thrust;
At the same time, the back leg was pushed backwards to lower the body to avoid the attacking blade, keeping the front knee bent so that the final posture resembled that at the completion of a lunge. The defender then had to recover to the guard of prime or septime (referred to in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as half-circle because the movement of the blade from the high to the low line was semicircular). The alternative was to use a counter-parry and bind the attacking blade from which a thrust in quarte was the favoured riposte.
Smallsword play was more subtle than rapier play. It was faster and more tactical. The shortness and lightness of the weapon allowed its manipulation by forefinger and thumb alone. This not only meant that small movements could be made but that they could be executed very quickly. But to do so with precision and accuracy required many hours of training and practice so that the actions became second nature and did not have to be consciously considered before their execution. The masters encouraged anyone who was serious about learning the art of fencing not only to practice regularly but to exercise the legs to strengthen the muscles. Very few men had the diligence or aptitude to practice and become good fencers. Most were not and, when the fashion for wearing swords in public waned, the level of skill diminished because the imperative to learn the art was absent.