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The following are the basics of Di Grassi rapier. The information provided is not a replacement for historical texts, but rather my interpretation of it and my attempt to make it accessible to people. Please feel free to offer comments using my contact link to the left.
Di Grassi's rapier is different than the ideas put forth by later masters such as Capo Ferro, Giganti and Fabris. Di Grassi left his native Italy and moved to England where he taught the upper classes the art of fencing with the rapier, much to the chagrin of the military minded English masters such as George Silver. Di Grassi's manual on fencing, His True Art of Defense, was published in 1570 and again (in English) in 1594 by Savolio and used a heavier rapier. This heavier and shorter weapon required a more withdrawn guard than seen in the more extended guards of Fabris.
The Elizabethan Rapier
The rapier is a primarily thrusting weapon. During Di Grassi's time the weapon was shorter and heavier than later examples, but as for 'exact' lengths and weight, you'll have to do research on your own. I had difficulty pinning down rapiers from before 1600! Di Grassi's provided images however do give some sense of size and weight and the blades look shorter and bulkier than found in Capo Ferro, Di Grassi or Giganti.
Di Grassi divided the rapier up into sections. However, for simplicity you only need to know three.
A – Foible, Debole, Tip = The sharp end of the sword. The most dangerous but also the easiest to move aside due to leverage.
B – Forte, Strong = The portion of the sword nearest the guard. The least dangerous, but the strongest in parrying due to leverage.
C – Guard = It contains many parts, but its primary purpose is to protect the hand and allow safe parries with the forte.
How to Hold the Rapier
The rapier is a precision weapon and so the thumb and index finger (the ones you use to write with) are needed to control the weapon while the other fingers support it. The thumb will rest on the ricasso (unedged portion of the blade inside the guard) and the index finger will loop around it, so that the blade can be held with just those two fingers. The other fingers then grip to provide stability.
When holding the rapier the arm will be slightly bent in Di Grassi's wards. In all cases however, the tip is pointed at the enemy.
Stand upright. If you must lean, it is better to lean back and out of danger than to lean forward, even on the attack. This is different than later masters, such as Fabris, recommended. This also means the stance is very middle weighted, allowing the ease of movement with either the right or left foot.
In single rapier, stand so your right shoulder is presented to the enemy and not your chest.
Unlike later masters, Di Grassi's stance had both toes pointed toward the opponent, similar to what is found in more medieval styles of combat.
Note the spacing between the feet. The stance is not very narrow . The front heel is roughly in line with the rear toe.
Di Grassi's footwork is based on keeping one foot still, the lead or rear, while the other moves. The style is one in which one or two steps tend to lead to the end of an engagement once an opponent is within measure (range). In all movements it is a good idea to try and keep your toes pointed at the opponent. This means you may need to rotate on the balls of your feet after you have taken a step.
Increase of the Foot - In single rapier the front moves a comfortable distance forward so that the body remains balanced. This step is used in offense, namely the thrust.
Decrease of the Foot = In single rapier the front foot moves a comfortable distance back so that the body remains balanced. This step is used in defense.
Whole Pace (Forward or Back) = The rear foot moves to become the lead. The lead foot is stationary. The lead foot moves to become the rear. The rear foot is stationary. The same as a pass forward or pass back.
Half Pace (Forward or Back, Left and Right) = Either foot moves half the distance of a whole pace. So from the standard stance a half pace forward would bring the left foot parallel with the right. Half paces can be taken with the lead or rear foot.
Straight = When any of the above movements are taken on the line. Example: A straight whole pace would be direct pass forward. A straight increase of the foot would be a small step forward on the line with the lead foot.
Crooked = When any of the above movements are taken at an angle. Example: A crooked whole pace would have the rear foot pass forward at an angle. A crooked half-pace from an even-footed position could result in either foot moving at an angle right or left as well as forward or backwards.
Compass = The rear foot moves behind and around the lead and becomes in line with the right hand and sword and places you in an even-footed stance. This is similar to an inquartata or girata of the later masters. To recover the rear foot (formerly lead) takes a crooked half pace forward to return you to the standard stance. Used most often to thrust.
Half Compass = The rear foot moves behind the lead in line with the right hand and sword, This is similar to a half-inquartata. Used as a void and usually followed up with a cut.
These are examples of likely movements. Black lines indicate straight movement and red indicate crooked movement. They are as follows: An increase and decrease of the foot, a whole pace forward and a whole pace backwards.
These are examples of likely movements. They are as follows: A half pace to an even-footed stance. From the even-footed stance a half pace forward and back with the right foot, and from the even-footed stance a half pace forward and back with the left foot.
These are examples of likely movements. They are as follows: From the even-footed stance crooked steps forward and back with the right foot, and from the even-footed stance crooked steps forward and back with the left foot.
This is an example of a compass step from start to recovery. It is used most often in a thrust because it gains maximum range and voids the body. 1. The stance. 2. An increase of the right foot. 3. A half compass of the left foot. 4. A half pace forward with the left foot. 5. A crooked half pace forward with the right foot. 3 and 4 make up the compass step and is done in one motion.
Wards are the manner in which the body and sword are positioned. In single rapier Di Grassi has three wards and all the wards are right leg forward.
High Ward = Knuckles up and the wrist is not bent. The sword is held above the head with the arm slightly bent and the guard of the sword positioned roughly parallel with the right ear. The tip of the sword should be pointed at the head or upper chest of the enemy so they can't attack under it, but not so low that the enemy can beat the blade down without danger.
The left hand can be held low, but extended past the body with the palm facing the opponent for ease of batting and grabbing the opponent's sword. The left hand can also be held as if reaching out for a handshake.
The easiest strike from the High Ward is to move the rear foot close to the front, then to take a step with the front for a straight thrust aimed above the opponent's hand. The hand never leads the blade, however.
This ward is used for when drawing the weapon.
Broad Ward = Knuckles out and the wrist is not bent. The sword is held far to the right of the body in line with the shoulder. The arm is bent so that the tip of the blade is pointed at the left side of the opponent even though the guard is far off-line.
The left hand can be held low, but extended past the body with the palm facing the opponent for ease of batting and grabbing the opponent's sword. The left hand can also be held as if reaching out for a handshake. The hand never leads the blade, however.
Low Ward = Knuckles down and the wrist is not bent. The sword is held low and away from the leg with the arm slightly bent so the tip is pointed towards the left side of the enemy and slightly up. The guard should be parallel with the knee, neither behind nor past it. This is an important issue. If the guard of the blade is held in front of the knee it is faster, but weak in Di Grassi's opinion, if it is held behind the knee it takes too much time to strike.
The left hand is held as if reaching out for a handshake. The hand never leads the blade, however.
Di Grassi enjoyed this ward because it is versatile. It also doesn't strain the arm as much as the other two wards.
Di Grassi said to imagine cuts in the form of a circle, with the hilt of the sword being the center and the point the circumference. The center (hilt) moves the slowest and all the energy is to be found at the circumference (point). This means that all cuts should strike near the tip of the sword.
Cuts can be delivered with the wrist, elbow and shoulder.
Wrist = The fastest of the cuts because the center of the wheel doesn't move far. The weakest in power, but more than enough to cause damage.
Elbow = Slower than a wrist cut because the center of the wheel has farther to go. Average in power.
Shoulder = The slowest cut because the center of the wheel has a long distance to travel. While powerful, the attack is so slow it is easily countered and highly recommended against.
Cuts are best used when they are quicker than thrusts. This will happen if the opponent bats your sword aside, or if you parry and your point is no longer on line.
Wrist Cut = Quicker, but least power.
Elbow Cut = Average speed and power.
Shoulder Cut = Lots of power, but too slow to be effective.
Di Grassi preferred the thrust over the cut because it is more straight and thus takes less time than a circular cut. Unlike later masters, Di Grassi did not explain the lunge in detail. Because Di Grassi's wards hold the sword in a withdrawn position, he likened the thrust to a circle. As the arm straightens and moves it follows along the circumference of a circle. However, for the point to land on target the wrist must move in the opposite direction.
A thrust from the low ward would move the arm up, but the wrist down.
A thrust from the high ward would move the arm down, but the wrist up.
Otherwise the tip of the blade would be pointed directly up or directly down. Common sense!
Randy starts in the low ward facing Richard who is in the same ward.
Randy takes only a slight increase of his front foot to thrust. To land the thrust his arm raises to bring the toward Richard while his wrist lowers to keep the point on line with Richard's body.
Randy starts in the high ward and faces Richard who is in the low ward.
Randy takes only a slight increase of his front foot to thrust. To land the thrust his arm lowers to bring the sword toward Richard while his wrist raises to keep the point on line with Richard's body.
Compass Thrust = Di Grassi stated that the best way to thrust was in combination with a compass step after the initial thrust had struck.
An example of the thrust with a compass step. 1. The start of the engagement. 2. An increase of the lead foot is taken with the sword moving ahead of the lead leg to strike the opponent. 3-4. The compass step is taken as one movement for maximum range and avoidance of a counter-thrust. A recovery would be the right foot taking a crooked half pace right.
Randy starts in the low ward.
Randy takes a slight increase of the rear foot. Di Grassi described this as a 'small movement'.
Randy takes an increase of the front foot and his arm raises. This is an optimal place to strike an opponent.
Randy begins a full compass step. First, his rear leg moves to be in line with his right and and sword. In this case Randy's foot should be a little farther off line. My fault! I had put him in a near balancing position! This would be a half-compass step.
Randy complete a full compass step and his feet are even and his body has moved off the line while his thrust has extra range.
Randy takes a crooked half-pace with his right foot and ends up back in the low ward, or continues to pursue his opponent.
The other thrust Di Grassi referenced was more linear and consisted of (1) the rear foot moving a little closer to the lead, (2) the arm raising while a half pace or increase of the lead foot is taken to deliver the thrust.
Within and Without
Within = Anything left of the sword. Known as inside by later masters.
Without = Anything right of the sword. Known as outside by later masters.
The line connects your front foot to your opponent's. Moving directly on the line brings you closer to your opponent, but leaves you at risk of being attacked. Therefore, it is better to move towards your opponent off the line.
Everything left of the vertical line is 'without', everything to the right of it is 'within'. The red line connecting the toes is 'on line' and everything to either side of it is 'off the line'.
Di Grassi discussed three ways to defend in general.
Opposition With a Withdrawal = This is when the blade is used to prevent an enemy's thrust or cut while any number of steps are taken backwards. Di Grassi disliked this form of defending because;
A. By retreating you will be using the tip of your blade rather than the forte to parry. This will not suffice and often be battered through, or defeated due to mechanical advantage.
B. By retreating you do not have an easy way to counter-attack without moving forward. In the time it takes you to return to your original position the opportunity for a counter-attack has passed.
This form of defense brings the body away from the attack, but also leaves the point as the chief means of defense. An opponent can move forward faster than you can backwards and so this defense is not recommended. Di Grassi stood behind his students with a rapier and small tack attached to it to discourage this movement.
Opposition With an Advance = This is when the blade is used to prevent an enemy's thrust or cut while moving forward with a crooked whole pace and striking him at the same instant. If however, the opponent changes their attack and tries to withdraw, then after the crooked whole pace of the left foot a follow-up whole pace of the right foot should be sufficient to catch them. Di Grassi favored this form of defense the most.
The opposition with an advance can also be used to parry an enemy strike and leave you in a good position to cut and/or seize the opponent's right wrist.
Opposition With a Void = This is when the blade is used to prevent an enemy's thrust or cut while a movement is taken to void the attack to the left or right. A compass or half compass step can be used because it takes the body off line to the right, while bringing the blade to bear for a threat. From an even-footed stance a crooked half pace with the right foot in either direction can also void the body while bringing the blade to bear for a threat depending on where the opponent is striking from.
A half compass can be used to void an attack and a follow up crooked half pace to the right can gain extra range in case the counter-strike did not hit.
Di Grassi had two specific defenses against a high cut or thrust.
Hanging Ward = Intercept the enemy's high attack by lifting your arm up and out, catching the attack on the guard. Your blade will be pointed low so as to protect the body. The next best thing to do is to take an increase of the foot (a forward step without switching feet) and thrust the opponent.
If your blade's tip is too low or wide to make a thrust without moving the tip back on line the best solution is to take a whole pace forward (a pass so the left leg becomes the lead) and seize the opponent's wrist/guard/sword and twist to the left. To seize in this fashion extend your left arm under your sword, have your palm out and thumb down. Once you grasp the opponent's wrist/guard/sword turn your hand to the left from thumb down and palm out to thumb up and palm in. This will give you sufficient torque to prevent the opponent from using their weapon and by moving your hand under your own sword, you can now use it freely.
If you fall prey to a hanging ward it means you will probably have taken a half pace increase of the right foot during your failed attack. To escape, your left foot will move to the right and you will perform a half compass step. This will swing the whole body right and away from the opponent's thrust. Rotate your feet to point at your opponent and cut at their legs. You should be back in a standard stance, but at a new angle.
Randy uses the hanging guard against a cut from Richard.
Randy uses a thrust from the hanging ward.
(Photo of Hanging Ward Counter Still Needed)
Beats and Falsing
A beat is when you use your sword or hand to knock an enemy blade aside. Using the sword is not advantageous because it requires too much time and takes the tip (even if for a moment) off line. A beat with the hand is safer, but only if performed with an attack of the sword at the same time.
Falsing is to use something other than a direct means of attack. There are several varieties.
False Cut = To pretend to cut (feint) from the right to the left aimed at an opponent's head, then at as they move to parry drop your wrist so the cut comes from left to right at the opponent's head or mid-section.
Backwards Point = From the low and broad ward move your right hand to your left side and aim the point of your blade directly away from your opponent. From here you can perform cuts and false cuts. Di Grassi did not like false thrusts from this position. The easiest way to use this deceptive technique is to void an attack with a half compass and respond with a cut our false cut.
Left Leg Lead = You can lead with your left, rather than your right leg to try and get your opponent into a disadvantageous position. In single rapier this will mean a whole, or half pace back with the left leg, or a compass or half compass with the left leg.
False Thrust = To thrust without and move to within, or to thrust from within and move to without.
Respond to a Beat = When an enemy beats your blade go with the motion and deliver a wrist cut. The enemy's beat cancels out one another's movement, the force of his beat will make your cut land quicker than his next response.
The Hurts and Their Counters
Di Grassi discussed several specific ways to attack and counter an opponent with single rapier.
Hurts of the High Ward
From the high ward have the left foot move closer to the right without entering the even-footed stance of a half pace. Then increase the front foot (take a comfortable step) and deliver a straight thrust over the enemy's sword. Move into the low ward as soon as possible, or continue the attack.
Cuts from the high ward lack power and take too much time and should be used in the following case.
If a thrust from the high ward misses take a half compass step (left foot moves right) and perform a cut. This is identical to the behavior of what to do when countering a hanging guard.
Counters of the High Ward
To counter the high ward thrust start in the low ward. When the enemy thrusts on the outside perform an opposition with an advance, attempting to parry (with the hand if needs be), move off the line and counter-thrust your opponent in one action. If your counter-thrust doesn't hit because the opponent backs up then taking a full pace of the right foot will reach them.
To counter the high ward cut start in any ward. When the enemy cuts, parry with the edge of your sword and perform an opposition with a void in the form of a compass step. This will void your body to the right and give it great range for a counter-thrust.
Randy, who is in the high ward, thrusts Richard who is in the low ward.
(Photo of both High Ward Counters)
Hurts of the Broad Ward
From the broad ward have the left foot move closer to the right without entering the even-footed stance of a half pace. Then increase the front foot (take a comfortable step) and deliver a straight thrust under the enemy's sword. Move into the low ward soon as possible or continue the attack.
Cuts from the broad ward will be from right to left and delivered with the wrist.
Counters of the Broad Ward
To counter the broad ward thrust or cut, start in the low ward and intercept with your edge (your knuckles facing their blade) and perform a counter-thrust. Your parry and simultaneous counter will strike because your sword has less distance to travel.
If you are instead forced to simply intercept a cut or thrust on your edge, immediately perform a wrist cut over the enemy blade and hit them from left to right while taking a crooked increase of the right foot to the right and thus have an opposition with a void. If the opponent manages to parry that then their sword will be held high, take a whole pace of the left foot (passing step) and grab the enemy's wrist/arm/sword as mentioned in the defense of the hanging guard.
Richard, from the broad ward, thrusts Randy who is in the low ward.
Randy, starting from the low ward, parries Richard's thrust from the broad ward.
Randy takes a crooked increase with his lead foot, replaces his opposing sword with his hand and readies a quick cut to Richard.
If Richard had backed up and attempted a hanging parry, Randy could have taken a full pace foward with his left leg and used his hand to sieze Richard's wrist.
Randy can then stab Richard. He's a beast like that.
(Photo of Broad Ward Counter- Thrust still needed.)
Hurts of the Low Ward
The low ward only has the thrust as an attack and it can come from within or without. From the low ward extend the arm, but do not move the feet, for a thrust to the inside or out. If the enemy is struck, good! If the enemy deflects the blade to either side, especially with an opposition with a withdrawal , simply take an increase of the front foot and lengthen the thrust over their sword aiming between their body and arm. In this manner after your initial thrust fails, you step in and deliver a second thrust. This increase of the foot and thrust is best performed on the outside because it is harder for the opponent to defend without moving their body.
Counters of the Low Ward
Cuts from the low ward are handled by performing nearly any variation of an opposition with an advance. Cuts from the low ward take too much time and lack power to worry much about as an initial strike. They are easily 'jammed' by a counter-thrust.
Thrusts from the low ward are handled in two ways.
Thrusts from within are dealt with an opposition with a void by blocking with the edge (knuckles facing opponent's blade) and moving the right hand far to the left side while performing a half compass step with the left foot to the right. This allows the opponent's thrust to be deflected to the left and the body voided to the right. Soon as the thrust is deflected, cut the opponent's head from left to right over the opponent's sword.
Thrusts from without are deflected with an opposition with an advance by blocking with the edge and forcing the blade further without while the rear foot takes a crooked pace to become the lead. This simultaneously moves the enemy blade to the right and voids the body to the left. Soon as the thrust is deflected a full pace of the right foot (a pass) will deliver a quick counter-thrust.
Richard and Randy are both in the low ward. Randy thrusts. Note the slight increase of the front foot. It doesn't take much!
Richard attempts a thrust, from the low ward, within Randy's blade. Randy's response is to parry and thrust while making a half compass step to help void the body. Randy should have moved his rear foot a little more for stability. From here he can take a crooked increase with the lead leg to end up in one of the wards, or thrust.
Richard attempts a thrust, from the low ward, to the without. Randy takes a crooked whole pace and parries so as to keep Richard's blade without. Randy is set up for his own counter-thrust by taking another crooked whole pace.
Generic Defenses and Attacks
1. When attacked without (outside) use opposition with an advance. This allows you to parry, void and close the distance for a counter attack. Afterwards, take a whole pace to strike and return to a right leg forward stance.
2. When attacked within (inside) use opposition with a void. This allows you to parry, void and close the distance for a counter attack.
3. The low ward is a good defensive ward. It can deflect cuts and thrusts from all three wards.
4. The broad ward is a good offensive ward. It has the cut, thrust and several falsing techniques available.
5. The high ward is best used only when drawing the sword.
6. The sword is not a light-saber. Once opposition is used to halt an enemy blade only its tip is a serious threat. This means you can remove your opposing blade and seek a cut. The edge of the opponent's blade is not a threat unless there is power behind it for a cut. Even a draw-cut is difficult to perform and more so while being counter-attacked. However, to be extra safe replace your sword with your off-hand after a parry.
7. Backwards point is a technique from Marozzo's style of cut and thrust and was usually performed with a a buckler. In single rapier the technique might be tricky to use since your sword has a long and initially predictable way to move.
8. Left leg leading techniques from later masters were performed with an accompanying weapon, such as a dagger. In single rapier it has the same issues as backwards point. Your sword can only be brought into play with a whole pace of the right foot, this is a long and predictable movement.
Concept of Measure
Di Grassi did not break up the measurement of distance to quite the extent as later masters did. Instead, Di Grassi had simple rules.
1. Once in range going backwards is rarely an advantageous option.
2. If an opponent backs up you can move forward faster.
3. A whole pace into an oncoming opponent is close enough for a left hand seizure.
4. An increse of the front foot, followed by a whole pace is close enough for a left hand seizure against a stationary opponent.
Concept of Time
Di Grassi did not break up the measurement of time to quite the extent as later masters did. Instead, Di Grassi had simple rules that involved time.
1. Faster movements defeat slower movements.
2. Cuts, Beats, Feints and Footwork without an attack take two or more movements.
3. Thrusts alone, or in conjunction with footwork take a single movement.
4. An Opposition with an Advance uses one movement to nullify another, then performs a quick thrust/cut during the next movement.
5. When your attack is beat by an opponent's blade both movements are nullified. Using the energy of the beat for a cut will be quicker than anything the opponent does.
Concept of Gaining the Blade and Mechanical Advantage
Di Grassi used his division of the sword to explains gaining the blade and mechanical advantage. He often uses the term oppose with the edge. When using the edge this means your knuckles will face the opponent's blade. This gives you more strength and mechanical advantage. The next component is to place more sword over (or occasionally under) the opponent's sword.
In short, have your knuckles face your opponent's sword when opposing and bring your forte to their debole whenever possible. This leverage will ensure thrusts slide home.