A Collection of Tips For Rapier Play

by Don Doré



This offering will continue to grow as, from time to time, I will be adding items to it. Keep checking back.

Last update: July 4, 2000

Advice For Drills

There is no such thing as "good enough" in drills. Go as slow as necessary to perform your drills perfectly. If you practice incorrect moves, you will use incorrect moves in combat. As one Doña puts it, "Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect."

When practicing parrying with the off hand, avoid drills that use a 1 - 2 timing, such as a drill where your partner throws a shot, you parry, then you throw a shot which he parries, then he throws a shot which you parry, etc. Instead, have your partner throw a shot; you should parry with the off hand while SIMULTANEOUSLY throwing a return shot with your sword. Your shot should hit and deliver a minimum killing blow to your opponent. This kind of drill can be done with any off-hand accessories. It teaches you to act in ONE time rather than two, giving you a distinct advantage in combat.

Anytime you do drills where you attack (including point control) always hit with a killing blow. You should not hit hard, just enough to get the kill. In this way you can practice hitting with the right amount of force while doing your other drills. If you hit too hard or don't actually hit your opponent in drills, you will find you are hitting too hard or not actually hitting your opponent in combat.

When doing any drills, be sure to come back to your normal engarde position after each repetition of the exercise. If you learn your drills from a starting position you will not normally be in during combat, you are only learning to do them wrong. Also, this helps you to remember to return to a guarded position between actions in combat. This is even true of point control, where you should come back to an engaurde position after each strike.

Point Control

The most important part of point control is hitting the target. That seems obvious, but most people go too fast, miss a lot and assume they will improve over time. Slow down. Hit the target. You may have to move very, very slowly at first; speed will come later. If you are not hitting at least 4 out of 5 shots, your training is doing no good or is actually training you to miss!

Point control involves more than just striking from one position. For instance, a repost shot after an inside parry is very different from a shot from engaurde, so the point control must be leaned all over again. This is true for every position. Start engaurde, move into the new position, then throw the shot. Return to engaurde. Do this with each parry and any other position you intend to use in combat.

Don't use a ball on a string for point control drills. After your first strike a ball will be swinging back and forth. Once the ball is swinging, all your strikes will happen when the ball is coming toward you. That only teaches you to hit opponents who are coming toward you. Your strikes will tend to fall short when attacking opponents who are retreating or who are standing still. What's more, that ball does not give you good feedback on how hard you hit. Instead, make a wall target from foam with a small mark (no more than 2" or 5 cm) in the center. Set up the wall so you can hang the target at knee level, chest level and head level, then practice each.

Another type of point control can be done with a live target. The target stands engaurde and calls out targets. You must hit that target. Deliver a killing blow, but not too hard or your partner will not want to work with you for long!

Bucklers

Bucklers that are held to the side with the hand exposed don't provide much protection. We are not trying to protect against strikes coming in from the side as are the armored fighters, but from point attacks coming from the front. To stop those attacks your buckler needs to be out front between you and your opponent.

Do not tilt your buckler back. Rather, hold it flat or tilt it slightly forward (i.e. So the top is slightly further away from you than the bottom). This will prevent opponents from using your buckler to deflect shots up into your face.

Don't cover your face with the buckler. Use your sword to parry all head shots. Blocking your vision with a large piece of wood gives your opponent the opportunity to hit you while you are not looking. One exception to this rule is when you and your opponent are attacking simultaneously. If he throws a head shot and your sword is already busy, you must parry that head shot with your shield. In those cases, flip your buckler out parallel to your forearm. Treat your parry as if it were an open hand parry and your buckler as a really big hand. This should minimize the amount that it obscures your vision.

Equipment Care

Our local materials expert, Doña Gwenneth, tells us that when blades break, they break where the blade is nicked. The bigger the nick, the easier it is to break the blade. That means it is a really good idea to sand out any nicks from your blades. This is true of schlagers and Del Tin blades, as well as epees, foils and flexidaggers.

Sweat is the most corrosive substance your blades are likely to encounter. Don't put your sweaty fencing clothes on your blades (or steel armor if you use any). If you use a bag for your gear, sew in a cloth divider lengthways and put your blades on one side and your clothes on the other side. Better yet, buy a heavy duty plastic clothes hanger and hang your wet fencing gear until it dries. If you let your gear air out this way it will not mildew in the bag, will not require as many washings and will last much longer.

Melee

My melee tactics are aggressive, brutal and generally effective. In a mass action, I believe the point is to get the job done while taking as few losses as possible. The melee fighter has a responsibility to his team not to put himself at unnecessary risk and not to allow an enemy to be more of a threat than is necessary. Thus he does not have the luxury of stopping for a stint of 1 on 1 combat or of allowing an enemy to re-arm with a better weapon. Indeed, if your rules allow you to strike an unarmed enemy, you should not allow one to re-arm at all, but force him to yield or die at once. This in no way sanctions ignoring blows, hitting too hard, grappling, or any other sort of illegal strikes or rules violations. In a melee, play to win but always play fair.

Melee tactics and strategy are all about time. Consider that if your team has 4 fighters and the enemy team has 4 fighters, the ideal situation for you is if you can manage to engage the enemy 1 at a time at 4 to 1 odds. For that to happen, the other 3 enemies would have to be wasting their time while you eliminate their teammate. While gaining such great odds is seldom possible, any effective strategy will force some the enemy to waste time while your people are all fully engaged. If any members of your team find they are just standing there waiting during a melee that means the enemy has managed to concentrate their forces somewhere. That fighter (or his commander) should figure out where those forces are concentrated and send that fighter to break up the enemy concentration ASAP.

If your opponent survives a 2 on 1 attack, you did not do it right. I am not saying that enemy is better than you, I am saying you screwed up. The most common mistake is to allow your opponent to take you and your teammate out one at a time. Squaring off with your opponent while your teammate throws in an occasional shot from the side will not get the job done. When you have 2 on 1, you and your teammate must press a continuous, aggressive, all-out attack simultaneously. Throw as many shots as you can and do not pause, back off or let up until you or your opponent is dead. One of you may bite it too, or you both may fall, but your opponent is certainly done for and more often than not you and your teammate will both survive. The more you practice this, the better your odds. If you and/or your teammate survive, get to where you can help the rest of your team ASAP.

If you take an enemy's leg, leave him. If one of his team mates stays by his side, leave them both and consider it a bonus. Go after the guys who can still walk and who are not wasting time standing next to the legged man. Try to get 2 to 1 odds (or better) on them, while the legged guy and his buddy wait. After you have wiped out all except the legged fighters, offer them a chance to yield and, if they refuse, kill them from a distance with missile weapons, pole weapons or long rapiers.

Unless you are the last man standing on your side, ignore your own legged fighters. Pair up with standing teammates and look for solitary enemies you can engage at 2 to 1 or better odds. If it is down to you and the legged guy, go stand by him; he can at least draw some of the enemy's attention away from you.

If you are legged, try to get the enemy to engage you. If you manage that, try to stay alive as long as possible. Take a hand, leg or foot if you can do it safely. Make him waste as much time as possible on you. If you can get a squad of 5 enemies to agree to fight you one at a time, that means 4 are standing around doing nothing while the first guy works on you. Draw it out. Talk to them. Make pretty speeches or practice your period insults. Ask for a better off hand weapon. Sue for terms of surrender and then try to negotiate those terms while your teammates fight on.

Period Timing

One of the big differences between period style and modern style is the timing. In modern fencing many combinations require 2 beats, such as the parry/repost and attack/disengage combinations. In period the preferred moves used timing that only took one beat. For example, instead of parrying an incoming attack and then counterattacking, parry with the off hand while simultaneously counterattacking with your sword. As your opponent tends to be more open when attacking, this allows you to take advantage of those openings.

If you are initiating the attack, look for lines of attack that also bar your opponent's ability to counterattack you. This is generally done by throwing your shot in such a way that your sword blocks or deflects his sword. You can also use your off hand (or off-hand weapons) to block his shot while simultaneously throwing your attack. You can use a preparatory bind or beat to deflect his sword as well, but realize that the extra beat(s) will mean you are back to the slower 1-2 timing.

Strategy

Generally, if you have learned that a particular move or position leaves you vulnerable to attack, that same move or position will leave your opponent open to attack. For example, if you have learned that leaning forward leaves you vulnerable to attacks to the face, then if your opponent leans forward you should consider trying a head shot. Examine your opponent and consider how he holds his weapon, where his legs are, whether his weight is forward, back or balanced and any other factors you can think of. If you see a hole in his defence, try to exploit it.

You cannot always exploit a hole in your opponent's defence by the most obvious method. As one example, holding a sword palm up weakens the head' s defence. Still, if your opponent is fighting palm up, he is probably use to it and has found a way to compensate for that weak head defence; thus an outside head shot is unlikely to succeed in spite of the weak defence. However, to compensate for that weak defence he must exaggerate the parry he uses to protect his head and THAT does leave a hole you can exploit. Fake to the head and, when he throws that overblown head parry, hit him low. This type of attack is called a second intention. Look for weaknesses your opponent covers with an exaggerated defence, figure out where that defence leaves him open and use a second intention attack to score the hit.

If you are facing a skilled opponent and he is leaving a very obvious hole in his defence, you should suspect it is a trick. For example, One Don will come engaurde with his blade held off to the side, leaving him open and his point off line. If you try a simple attack to the arm or the chest -- which both look open -- he will hit you with a swinging shot that knocks your blade aside as it kills you. Instead, try to choose attacks that take advantage of his position without putting you in danger. A shot to his hand is safe, and a snap shot to the head has a good chance of succeeding because his blade is so far off line. Analyze your opponent in a similar fashion and you may find his "patented move" actually leaves him vulnerable to the right attack.

In general, a point attack is faster, harder to block and more effective. However, if your parry or other actions take your point off line, follow up with a cut. The reason is that when the point is off line it takes 2 motions to make a point attack (bring the point back on line, then thrust) but only one motion to cut.

Technique

One method for responding to a head shot is to perform a parry 1 (prime, high ward) followed by a half circle over the top, to the outside and down into a parry 3 (an outside parry with palm down) . Performed at speed this will fling an opponent's point aside and leave you in a position to finish with a thrust to your opponent's head. This takes a bit of practice but it can be worth it as few opponents expect this sort of move.

When you perform a disengage, the goal is to trick your opponent into giving you an opening -- preferably the largest opening possible. If your opponent does not "fall for it" and you continue to attempt the disengage, you are left in a vulnerable position. Here are some hints:

A good game for learning to use the disengage has one attacker and one defender. The fighters start within range of one another and cannot move their back foot during the game. The attacker throws his shot, the defender either parries or waits and, in response, the attacker either finishes his thrust or disengages. If the parry succeeds, the defender should repost, landing a killing blow on the attacker. The one who hits, gets the point. Sound simple? The catch is, the defender only gets to use ONE parry, so he cannot start to parry inside and then suddenly parry outside. If the defender's blade touches the attacker's blade, any hit by the attacker does not count. The attacker is not allowed to parry any repost that comes at him. The defender may not repost unless and until his parry succeeds in touching his opponent's blade. Any blow that is not a killing blow does not count. Once the attacker successfully lands 3 good blows (remember, they must land without the defender touching the attacker's blade), attacker and defender switch rolls. Scoring is: one point for each good blow. Yes, either attacker or defender can score the point or, if no good blow lands, no point is scored. After 3 turns each as attacker and defender the winner is the fighter with the most points.

Strength

While much of our game is finess, strength is a big help too. Strength does not mean hitting too hard. It does mean you can hold the blade more steady, you are more likely to stay on target, your shots will be difficult to parry and your parries difficult to "blow through". Being strong also means you can fight longer before fatigue begins to deteriorate your fine control of the blade.

While it is very desirable to build up your arm strength -- especialy if you use Del Tins or schlagers -- many of the exercises touted for this are very repetative and can lead to injuries, especialy for those who also type a lot or use their hands a lot in their work. I have found a light weight training program that seems to work well for building and mantaining strength while avoiding injuries.

I wrote up the program as a parody of an info-mercial to add a little humor. To read it, click here: Doré's Strength Builder

Theory

Our rapier play is an attempt to re-create the rapier fighting of the 16th and 17th centuries as accurately as possible, within the limits of safety and practicality. Originally, the only weapons we had to use were modern foils and epees. Because those weapons are so very different from the rapiers we were trying to re-create, we had to think about what a real blade would do -- not just what the foil or epee actually did. The plastic points and flexible blade of an epee will skip and slide while a stiff, sharp pointed rapier will stab, dig and rip. Del Tin blades act much more like real rapiers than do foils and epees, but they still skip in many situations where a rapier would stick and dig. Whatever your weapon, always think about what a real rapier would do, not just what the blade in your hand actually did.

There are a lot of very good fencing schools and leagues out there, allowing people to compete at any level that suits them. Many of these organizations are a lot of fun and are operated by good people. They have a lot of support, easily available equipment and clear training techniques. With all that in place, anything we can do they can do better...except re-create period rapier play. If you are more interested in a modern sport than a period re-creation, find a good fencing school. What we do is different. If it weren't, we would all be better served by joining a good fencing league.