Even the most casual practitioner of rapier defense has heard of the four basic guards in the Italian tradition: prima, seconda, terza, and quarta. Since they were first named by Camillo Agrippa in 1553 C.E., they have been used to describe a fundamental aspect of any fencing movement: the position of the wrist in relationship to the body, and all that follows from that vital piece of information.
However, each guard is usually explained to neophytes solely by the position of the hand, ignoring the other qualities intrinsic to the positions that make their tactical applications clear. It is my hope that this paper will briefly and coherently detail the properties that each of the four guardia possesses, and to which kinds of tactical situations they apply. I do not pretend to cover all aspects of these guards fully, but hope that this is sufficient to act as a stepping stone to ease someone's direct study of the masters.
Note that for the purposes of this discussion, right-handed fencers with a single sword are assumed. Most of the core concepts work identically for a left-handed fencer, but some tactical situations may simply be reversed (e.g. outside and inside lines remain the same, but now one person may have his opponent on his outside, while his opponent would have him on her inside, or a descending cut from the left side of a left-hander would be parried with prima, rather than quarta for a right-hander, and vice versa).
Capoferro's prima guardia
Prima, defined as when your sword arm's palm is facing away
from your torso, is the guard that you would take immediately upon drawing your
sword: note how it immediately orients the tip of your sword at your opponent's
face; while prima is not a guard that you would remain in for any great length
of time, it does serve to give you some level of protection from the immediate
attack of an opponent who has drawn first, and can also be an effective
attacking position against someone who is a bit slower on the draw than you
The natural angle for prima is downward, which gives it two
important defensive characteristics: because the debile covers the body and the
hilt and forte cover the head, prima is very strong defensively against high
attacks, especially descending cuts arriving from your right side, but is very
weak against any attack targeting the torso. I mentioned earlier that prima is
not a guard in which to remain for any great length of time, and it is the
relative inability to defend the majority of the body that makes this the case.
While in prima, engaging the opponent's blade is very difficult, and will not be easily done unless they have taken a very high guard. Prima is also a fairly fatiguing position to maintain. It is challenging to keep the blade free in this position as well, both because it is comparatively more difficult to perform a disengage and because you will be at the extension of the range of motion of your shoulder, which will leave your left side exposed.
This exposure of the left side holds true while attacking in prima as well, which makes one curious as to exactly why you might ever use this guard for more than the first moment after drawing your sword. Prima has two properties that make it an indispensable, and often underutilized, part of any fencer's arsenal: it acts as a highly effective yield against an inside parry, and can force a strike through an opponent's parry on the outside.
On an attack that you initiate to the inside, the opponent's parry will be in quarta or terza; from this point, if you are able to close the line with your left hand or otherwise pass his point, moving into prima will make it very likely that your attack will pass all of his defense. This can also be effective should your opponent over commit to his parry; in either case, yielding to prima while keeping the line closed with the off hand is a good option to exercise. Similarly, gaining control of your opponent's point, in response to an attack, with your left hand or a second weapon and moving it offline will give you the same opportunity.
When an attack from the outside is met with a parry in seconda or terza, if your attack initiated in terza or seconda, moving to prima will often provide the leverage advantage necessary to force your attack through, as you will place the strongest part of your forte against their debile in the transition. If the point of intersection changes to be very close to your hilt and anywhere in your opponent's debile, he will find it nearly impossible to successfully parry your attack.
Capoferro's seconda guardia
Seconda, defined as when your sword arm's palm is facing toward the ground, is the guard that you would take in two circumstances: during your transition from prima to terza at the beginning of the bout, or when engaging your opponent's blade on the outside. You will notice that, upon taking a guard in seconda, that your inside line is fully exposed, but that any attack from the outside has quite a bit of distance and steel obstructing it.
The natural angle for seconda is inward, which means that, like prima, it is weak at defending the left side of the body, a condition obviated by the fact that if the opponent is on the outside the exposed parts of your body are the farthest out of his reach.
When engaging the opponent on the outside, doing so in seconda presents your true edge to his blade, giving you a strength advantage if he is not also in seconda. Seconda also has the quality of not disengaging or yielding well. A disengage from seconda against an opponent on the outside will lead you to the unenviable situation of just having opened their direct line of attack to your body; equally troublesome, yielding to a parry while in seconda is difficult because doing so locks your joints at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, giving you a very limited range in which to do so. It is worth noting that performing a half-disengage and attacking directly underneath your opponent's sword is a very effective possibility in seconda.
However, these two seemingly negative qualities are offset by what they mean together: disengaging may open your opponent's line, and you may be limited in yielding around a parry because of your physiology, but this means that, in seconda, you are ideally situated to simply force your attack through any attempt to parry. The outside line will be fully closed so you may attack safely, and the alignment of your body in this position means that the sword blade is in line with your forearm, which is in line with shoulder, which is in line with your spine, which is in line with your hips, which is in line with your leg, which is planted firmly on the ground and has put the sum total of your mass and momentum behind your sword's point. If you have engaged your opponent's sword prior to your attack, the likelihood of him parrying the attack is very small. As mentioned above, should the attack appear to be failing, shifting to prima will usually cause the parry to fail.
Capoferro's terza guardia
Terza, defined as when your sword arm's palm is facing toward your torso, is the guard that you would most often stand in while out of measure, or while approaching or entering wide measure. Terza covers the center of the body, the part least easily voided, very well and has the unique advantage of being able to transition easily between seconda and quarta. It is neither committed to the inside or outside lines.
The natural angle for terza is upward, though when approaching in guard the blade should be as straight as possible to maximize your defensive capabilities. Terza's natural angle means that it is especially useful as a rising attack, and with a more pronounced angle will be very difficult to parry, as any downward parry will slide toward the hilt rather than deflect the point too far off line, provided that you continue to move forward through the attack.
Furthermore, terza's position as residing between seconda and quarta means that should an opponent begin a successful parry, it is easy to accomplish a yield around the parry by changing to either seconda or quarta and keeping the opponent's point off line with your hand. Terza is also very easy to disengage from in either direction, so your options for defeating a parry are maximally diverse from terza. Terza can disengage, yield, and force through an attack on either the inside or the outside, though to be able to do the appropriate technique requires that much more practice because more options are available.
Terza is typically the guard to remain in until you have engaged the opponent's blade, at which point seconda or quarta will become a better option based on whether the engagement has happened on the inside or outside. Terza's strength lies in its versatility, but its weakness is that it is neither as good on the inside as quarta, nor as good on the outside as seconda, and is likely to present the flat of the blade to the opponent's sword during engagement.
Capoferro's quarta guardia
Quarta, defined as when your sword arm's palm is facing upward, is a guard with many strengths and few weaknesses. Quarta makes use of the stronger muscles of the forearm, making disengages rapid and easy; the flexibility of the wrist in this position also means that you can move your blade smoothly and precisely. It is strongest on the inside line, and is the guard used to parry cuts descending from your left side; it can also be used on the outside because, unlike seconda, which cannot cover the left side of the body, quarta can cover either the left or right side of the body. Quarta is also the position the hand must be in to perform girata1 of the right and left feet.
The natural angle of quarta is left to right, which is useful in two ways: attacking on the inside with engagement, and attacking on the outside in opposition with a yield. The former would normally be done with a lunge, the latter with a passing step to the left. Quarta is unique in this way because of human skeletal alignment, which makes quarta the only guard to be useful on the inside and outside on its own, without being the first or second link in a chain of technique, unlike seconda, for example, which requires steps beyond a single attack to be safe on the inside line.
Engagement on the inside should be done in quarta, as this is the guard that offers the most protection to the side of the body that is threatened by an inside attack, though you must be careful to protect the wrist on the outside, as there is a possible gap that can open on that side, and be wary of a disengage to the outside; though quarta is a very strong attack on the outside, it is weaker defensively because you will be parrying with the false edge and have limited mobility for defensive actions.
Quarta is second only to terza in it versatility, though it is versatile in and of itself, whereas part of terza's versatility lies in its ability to turn into quarta quickly while not making seconda impossible. While quarta is a supple, adaptable guard, it is limited in that attacks in quarta will frequently end in quarta; finishes in seconda and prima will be fairly rare under normal circumstances.
1) Girata are seen in Fabris plates 18 & 19, and called scanso della vita in Capoferro plate 19. This technique is also called an inquartata or volte by various authors.
1. Leoni, Tommaso. The Art of Dueling: 17th Century Rapier as
Taught by Salvatore Fabris Chivalry
2. Kirby, Jared. Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro Greenhill Books 2004
3. http://www.thearma.org/Manuals/NewManuals/CapoFerro/10001055.jpg Retrieved
4. http://www.thearma.org/Manuals/NewManuals/CapoFerro/10001054.jpg Retrieved
5. http://www.thearma.org/Manuals/NewManuals/CapoFerro/10001053.jpg Retrieved