Taking Your Rapier Fencing to the Next Level
by Tom Leoni
If you are reading this, you are probably dissatisfied with your current level of rapier fencing and are wanting to improve. Welcome to the club. As I have seen, embarking upon a more serious pursuit is something that most rapierists want at some point. However, different rapier groups pursue this goal in different ways, so what I present here is only my suggestion. I am by no means presuming to tell you that this is the only or the best way--it is what has worked for me and for the Order of the Seven Hearts.
Also, if you have access to a good rapier instructor or a certified Classical fencing instructor, stop reading this, pick up the phone and call him instead. There is nothing like live instruction by someone who has proven experience or credentials.
If you don't have this luxury and are looking for a few pieces of advice on how to take your rapier fencing to the next level, here's some of my recommendations.
Recognize your rapier-fencing limitations
These are often consistent among beginning rapier fencers: for instance, form tends to fall apart as soon as the opponent begins an action; there are lots of double hits; there is not a clear vision of how to initiate an action safely and effectively. It is only by acknowledging you have problems such as these that you can eventually cure them.
Believe that your rapier fencing doesn't have to remain mediocre
Just like you can have the fortitude to begin a diet program by believing that you can lose weight, you should know that your rapier fencing can get better if you are prepared to inject some discipline and sacrifice in your training.
Establish a realistic long-term rapier training goal along with a date by which you wish to satisfy it
Please note the emphasis on long-term and on realistic. If now you can't consistently stand in guard, maintain your form and avoid double-hits, it is very unlikely that you will fence like Salvator Fabris in two years.
A realistic rapier training goal may be something like:
- I would like to be able to recognize and perform the four hand-parries and the four voids in countertime safely and consistently in front of a non-cooperative drilling partner by a year from now.
Or something like this:
- I would like to be able to parry any attack delivered from a non-cooperative drilling partner after he has found my sword, and deliver a riposte safely, effectively and consistently by two years from now.
Please note that each of these in turn depends on the achievement of some more specific elements such as understanding measure and tempo, having a feel for your sword's forte and debole, etc.
Stop bouting immediately
In my experience, basing one's training on bouting is highly detrimental to the acquisition of sound rapier techniques. Sure, you will learn to rely on a few tricks that have some rate of success--but you'll plateau there. Save for a few exceptions, I can't point to any rapier fencers who face their opponents with deliberate consistency, effectiveness and exactness--save for those who drill a lot more than they free-fence.
In time, you will have to reintroduce bouting, but only gradually and judiciously, applying the skills you are acquiring--and each time follow it by drilling to again polish anything that may have become sloppy during free-play.
Or, if you permit me this analogy, free-fencing is like having a party at your house. You have to prepare for it, have it and than clean up--no matter how experienced a host you are. If all you do is party without the other two steps, your house will have an infestation problem before you know it--even if you're Martha Stewart. And once the pest of bad habits is firmly nested in your fencing, good luck getting rid of it.
Learn rapier-fencing theory
Here's another analogy: rapier fencing is like music improvisation to a "chord pattern" played by the opponent. If you don't know what you are doing, you will sound like a five-year-old going bonk, bonk on a piano keyboard. And no, there's no consolation in thinking that rapier play was not structured because "it was all about staying alive." It is *precisely because* it was about defending your life that our ancestors (who were no suicidal fools) would make this as scientific an art as possible--so that it could be learned and practiced with enough structure to make the results repeatable. Medicine too is all about staying alive--and look at the theory you have to go through there before you stick a knife into someone.
In any case, for every move and every stimulus, there is a finite number of right responses--and you need to know them in order to learn them. If you don't, you won't even know what to practice.
Have a clear idea of what to drill
Once you have identified the problems you want to cure, you should come up with an effective list of drills that will do the job. And here's where most rapierists become utterly lost.
If there is an uber-misconception in the rapier-fencing community it is that about drilling. Depending on who you ask, drilling is seen as a variation on the theme of a mindless repetition of the same move until an action can be performed as pretty as classical ballet. Far from it. If you are not familiar with good fencing drills, you may want to buy a book on Classical fencing such as Maestro William Gaugler's The Science of Fencing, which is a cornucopia of sound and proven exercises that will make you a much more effective rapier fencer. And please don't fall for the faulty syllogism Classical fencing resembles modern sport-fencing--I hate sport-fencing--I therefore should hate Classical fencing. Far from being similar to sport-fencing, Italian Classical fencing theory is directly related to 16th-Century rapier, and it will be easy for you to adapt a lot of the drills for the heavier weapon.
When you reintroduce bouting, fence your betters, not the beginners or the "thugs"
Sure, eventually fencing effectively means being able to defend yourself even against a fire-breathing suicidal maniac, but this is the 4000-level stuff. First, you should get used to fencing someone who plays clean and conservative, so that you get to test your newly-acquired techniques under a moderate amount of non-cooperative pressure. Remember that our rapier-fencing ancestors would first free-fence their master for several weeks, then perhaps a senior student and only after demonstrating proficiency under these conditions would they free-fence everybody in their school. There's no reason why we should do the exact opposite and expect good results.
As I said before, improving in rapier is a long-term goal, and if you get impatient and return to your old habits after six months, you will regain your bad habits as quickly as one regains weight after going on a short-term diet. I've seen it happen many times, and it never fails.