Understanding Gaining the Sword
by Tommaso Leoni
For some reason that I find hard to fathom, the technique of gaining the opponent’s
sword in Italian rapier is still a mystery for a lot of fencers—and even researchers.
Some assign it an aura of Da Vinci Code inscrutability, others fancy that the many
synonyms under which it appears in the 17th Century texts mean slightly different
things, making things unnecessarily complicated for themselves and their students,
while others yet understand it mechanically but fail to grasp its tactical
With this short article—companion to my
Understanding Tempo and
Steve’s Understanding Measure,
I hope to shed some light on gaining the sword in a manner that can be easily
referenced by Italian rapier students.
Gaining the sword (Italian guadagnare la spada) appears in 17th Century
texts under the following synonyms:
- Gaining the sword (guadagnare la spada, acquistare la spada or
impadronirsi della spada).
- Finding the sword (trovare la spada).
- Occupy the sword (occupare la spada).
- Commanding the sword (signoreggiare la spada).
- Attaching swords (attacco di spada).
These examples are not even exhaustive, but they illustrate that in the 17th
Century, gaining the opponent’s sword was not yet a technique that had one
standardized name. I have chosen gaining the sword because it is a fairly
accurate translation of more than one Italian expression, and it also ties in
with the execution of the action.
So what is gaining the sword or stringere? For those who know fencing theory,
it is the same exact action as the engagement or legamento according to
19th Century terminology. You place a stronger section of your sword against
the weaker section of the opponent’s steel, forming an angle with your sword
somewhat similar to that of the inside parry (if you are inside) or the
outside parry (if you are outside). In that manner, the opponent cannot
perform a straight thrust on the same line, because you have “pre-parried”
his attack, as it were.
In general, earlier authors like Fabris and Capoferro prefer that this action
involve no actual contact between the blades. Later in the 17th Century, blade
contact was advocated. In spite of this slight difference, the mechanical and
tactical aspects of the action are exactly the same.
While it is important to know how to gain the opponent’s sword in all lines—as
Capoferro says—let’s keep things simple. In the greatest majority of cases, all
you need to do is learn to gain his sword to the inside and outside, and
understand the tactical implications.
The Mechanics of Gaining the Sword
When you gain the opponent’s sword to the inside, your hand is more or less in
terza-quarta, your sword crosses over the opponent’s (strong on weak) and your
sword-point is directed just above the opponent’s right shoulder. When you gain
the opponent’s sword to the outside, your hand is more or less in seconda-terza,
your sword crosses over the opponent’s (strong on weak) and your sword-point is
directed just above the opponent’s left shoulder.
On whichever side you gain the opponent’s sword, you are satisfying these three
- The point of intersection of the blades is closer to your hilt than to his
(=strong on weak).
- Your blade is above his.
- Your sword crosses over his and remains pointed in the vicinity of his
silhouette (=point in or near presence).
The Tactics of Gaining the Sword
As I said, the main tactical benefit of gaining the opponent’s sword in Italian
rapier is that he cannot push a straight thrust on the same line. Your forte is
already positioned to parry the thrust. If you follow earlier Masters and have
not made blade contact, a slight motion of mere millimeters will be sufficient
to transition from having gained the opponent’s sword to parrying his thrust.
If you follow later Masters, your parry is de facto performed the moment you
gain the opponent’s sword.
So, gaining the opponent’s sword gives you the benefit of knowing that the
opponent cannot perform an attack without first executing a cavazione to another
line. This is why if you want to gain the measure safely, it is important that
you gain your opponent’s steel first: in this manner, you can be sure that were
the opponent to perform a sudden thrust, his tempo would have to be longer by
virtue of the cavazione he needs to perform—which in turn gives you a better
opportunity to parry or perform an action in contratempo.
Once you have gained the opponent’s sword, you can perform a straight line
thrust with opposition—what the Masters called an attack through the opponent’s
debole—or a straight-line feint. You can also perform a beat on the opponent’s
steel and follow it with a straight thrust or a feint.
On the other hand, if you are the fencer whose sword has been gained, you should
know the options at your disposal. While the line in which you have been gained
is closed, the opposite one is open. You can execute a simple cavazione and find
his sword on the other side; you can also perform an attack preceded by a
cavazione or, much better, a feint by cavazione. Or if you wish, you can simply
lower your sword, pulling your body back and essentially performing an invitation
to the high line—or you may simply retreat out of measure and start again.
So, if your sword has been gained, you still have the opportunity to put the
opponent into obedience by performing one of these techniques. No need to stand
there like a deer in the headlights, like I see many fencers do when their sword
has been gained.
- When you have gained the opponent’s sword you can:
- Perform a straight thrust with opposition.
- Perform a straight-line feint (i.e. a feint on the same line).
- Perform a beat.
When the opponent has gained your sword you can:
- Perform a cavazione and gain his sword on the other side.
- Perform an attack by cavazione (cavazione di ubbidienza).
- Perform a feint by cavazione.
- Lower your sword and perform an invitation to the high line.
- Break measure.
Sicilian Master Giuseppe Morsicato Pallavicini (1670) also gives examples of
actions similar to the forced glide, but in this article I want to keep things
So who has the advantage? In many ways, the fencer who has gained the opponent’s
sword, because he knows that the opponent cannot perform an attack without
lengthening his tempo with a cavazione. However, like everything in fencing,
the advantage is not absolute, since the opponent too has plenty of tactically
correct options in his arsenal.
Rapier Measure and Gaining the Sword
In Italian rapier, you can start gaining the opponent’s sword while still out
of lunging measure. The mechanics of the actions don’t change. The only thing
changing is that you place a smaller portion of your blade against a smaller
portion of the opponent’s--with or without contact, depending on what Master
For instance, let’s assume that your blade is divided into four sections like
Fabris instructs—the first being closest to the hilt. So first and second make
up the forte, while third and fourth constitute the debole or foible. If you are
two advancing steps out of lunging measure, gaining the opponent’s sword means
placing your third against the opponent’s fourth. Advance one step into the misura
lontana (measure with advance, or one advancing step out of lunging measure) and
now it will be your second intersecting the opponent’s debole. Advance one more
step and your first will be now placed against his debole.
The tactical implications of gaining the opponent’s sword from out of measure are
similar to those when you do so in measure. Only, instead of enabling you to
execute a straight-line attack, gaining the opponent’s sword from out of measure
makes it possible for you to perform the next step forward on the same line with
a smaller chance of losing your advantage—if the opponent wants to gain an advantage
over you he has to first perform a cavazione, which lengthens his tempo.
Lastly, when you are one step out of lunging measure (misura lontana or misura di passo scorso), these are
some simple tactical implications of gaining the sword or having been gained by
- If you are in misura lontana and have gained the opponent’s sword, you can:
- Advance into lunging measure without losing your advantage.
- Perform a straight-line finta scorsa or feint with advance on the same
- Perform a beat, then a straight-line finta scorsa.
If you are in misura lontana and your sword has been gained by the opponent,
- Perform a simple cavazione and gain the opponent’s sword on the other side.
- Perform a feint by cavazione with advance.
- Retreat farther our of measure.
Last Remarks (Important)
After having taught Italian rapier for many years (and on three continents) and
having met a myriad of students more or less advanced, here’s my parting shot about
the technique of gaining the sword or stringere.
Instead of wasting mental energy and practice time in figuring out whether by
staring at Capoferro like a hologram for long enough, that difference between
guadagnare and stringere that you’ve being wishing for all
these years will finally materialize, together with all the lost-ark-like
amuletic powers associated with each, memorize this instead:
- When you have gained the opponent’s sword, think everything straight
line—i.e. same line or linea retta as the Masters say.
- When your opponent has gained your sword, think everything cavazione.
So that’s it? Too simplistic? Anticlimactic? It should be. Fencing theory is
not neuroscience, although mastering these simple rules and habituating your
body to perform all actions flawlessly is extremely difficult and time-consuming.
So focus on what’s important, don’t try to reinvent the wheel and practice hard.