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Understanding Smallsword
by Tom Leoni

Welcome to the first online primer on the fundamentals of French smallsword, for those who like this weapon but have no access to pedagogical resources. Truth be told, of all the major historical weapon-types, the smallsword is the one that has spawned the least attention from instructors and group leaders, with very few exceptions.

Knowing how scanty online information on this weapon is, I have put together this basic introduction to French smallsword. Of course, this is only a primer on the absolute fundamentals of smallsword--and if you have questions about any of its parts, you can use our brand-new French Smallsword Forum to discuss them.

French Smallsword: the Weapon
What we call French smallsword is a weapon that came in vogue in Europe around the fourth quarter of the 17th Century, although its basic typology had existed already for at least 2 or 3 decades. The smallsword is instantly recognizable for its hilt—which typically features an 8-shaped plate, a single short quillon, two small arms (that get progressively smaller in the course of the 18th Century) and a knucklebow.

The smallsword blade is generally between 29 and 35 inches long, and may be of flattened diamond, oval or triangular section. The smallsword is almost essentially a thrusting weapon; although records exist of its occasionally being “sharpened as a razor” for dueling (naturally applicable only for those blades that could physically take an edge), the major French smallsword instruction treatises focus solely on the thrust.

Weight of a typical French smallsword is around 1 to 1.5lbs.

French Smallsword Weapon Simulators
Today, there are a number of armories that make fair to excellent practice smallswords. The ones with which I have had direct experience are Darkwood Armory, the Smiling Fox Forge, Popinjay’s and Arms & Armor. Almost all of them outfit their smallswords with double-wide epee blades—finished in different ways—and their own hilts. My own practice smallsword was put together by Arms & Armor, and it consists of a heavily modified double-wide epee blade mounted with an original 18th Century French smallsword hilt. Blade length should be around 33 inches as a good smallsword average.

When selecting a practice smallsword, the main things to look for are two, in my opinion. First one is weight: if a smallsword weighs more than 1.5lbs, it’s way too heavy. Second is balance. It is fairly common to see smallsword simulators that are too hilt-heavy—you should avoid these and ask your armorer to move the point of balance around an inch/inch-and-a-half from the plate.

Besides a good simulator, the only other things you will need are a pair of fencing gloves and a fencing mask. In a pinch, if you cannot find a good simulator for the weapon, or if you cannot afford one, a French foil is an acceptable substitute, at least initially.

Understanding French Smallsword Essentials
French smallsword is an extremely logical system. And by virtue of its being the fruit of a National School, it is very consistent. Although different smallsword masters sometimes describe slight variations from and additions to “the norm,” you essentially have one guard, four lines:

  • high inside
  • high outside, also called “over the arm”
  • low inside and
  • low outside

and four main parries to thwart attacks on them (see below).

The Guard

The French smallsword guard is fairly straightforward. Feet are spaced apart by two shoe-lengths, toes pointing forward (right foot) and sideways (left foot). Weight is almost completely on the left foot, which is achieved by bending the left leg and keeping the torso at a natural backward incline. Right arm is extended with no tension, with a slight bend at the elbow; sword-hand is in tierce-carte, which means nails turned not quite up but almost so, sword-point slightly higher than the hilt and pointing straight at the opponent’s face. Left arm forms a relaxed semi-circle behind the head, and hand and torso are perfectly profiled against the opponent.

Hand position in tierce is with the nails downwards—not quite as perfectly so as with an Italian seconda, but almost so. Hand position in carte is with the nails upwards—not quite as perfectly so as with an Italian quarta, but almost so. Hand position in seconde is with the nails perfectly downwards, as in the Italian seconda. Carte and tierce are used in the overwhelming majority of situations.

To advance, lift your right foot and place it a shoe-length forward, then bring your left foot forward by the same amount. To retreat, reverse order.

French smallsword lunge consists of three motions. Here’s the example of the lunge in carte:

The Extension

  1. Extend your arm, hand at head-level, sword pointing at the opponent’s chest
  2. Extension proper: straighten your left leg, shifting your weight on the front foot, incline your body slightly forward, throwing your left arm down parallel to your left leg
  3. Complete the lunge by moving your right foot forward by about one shoe-length

Then, recover in guard without disordering yourself.

In general:

High-inside attacks are performed in carte.
High-outside attacks are performed in carte or, after a parry tierce, in tierce.
Low-inside attacks are performed in carte.
Low-outside attacks are performed in carte or seconde.

French Smallsword Parries
There are a few main parries that are the backbone of the French smallsword style. Some masters list more than these, but these are arguably the absolute fundamentals. Here they are, listed by line of attack:

  • Parry carte: foils attacks to the high inside line
  • Parry tierce: foils attacks to the high outside line
  • Parry half-circle: foils attacks to the low or high inside line
  • Parry octave (sometimes called quinte): foils attacks to the low outside line, and is executed with the false edge

Naturally, all parries are performed forte-on-foible. Angelo and other masters who address the specifics of the parry state that, mechanically, they should be a dry beat against the opponent’s steel.

Parry carte and tierce have the point elevated; parry half-circle and octave have the point lower than the hilt. Opposition for the four parries is as follows:

Carte and half-circle: inside
Tierce and octave: outside

Parries and ripostes in French smallsword are distinctly two-tempi actions in the greatest majority of situations. Actions in tempo (or contratempo) do exist, but are either considered very advanced or too dangerous (e.g. by Olivier). So, for practical purposes, you may think of French smallsword as a two-tempi style.

Parry Half-Circle against Attack of Seconde
Note that this parry is to the inside.

The French Smallsword Engagement
This is accomplished by lightly placing your forte against the opponent’s foible either in carte (when you are to the inside) or in tierce (when you are to the outside). This prevents the opponent from using that line for his attack, and forces him to disengage if he wishes to initiate an offensive action.

Essential French Smallsword Actions
Most French smallsword actions begin with either a feint or an engagement.

The most common feints are called feints one-two and feints one-two-three.

The smallsword feint one-two is performed in this manner: when your opponent engages your sword, you disengage with lightness and speed and perform a feint to the opposite side, then foil his parry with an additional disengage to the same side where you started and push your thrust home.

The smallsword feint one-two-three is performed in the same manner as the feint one-two, but has one additional disengage aimed at foiling the opponent’s second parry.

Example of a smallsword feint one-two:

  • Opponent engages you to the inside
  • You disengage and feint to the outside
  • The opponent attempts to parry with a parry tierce
  • You foil his parry with a disengage to the inside and push carte to his chest

Example of a smallsword feint one-two-three:

  • Opponent engages you to the inside
  • You disengage and feint to the outside
  • The opponent attempts to parry tierce
  • You disengage and feint to the inside
  • The opponent attempts to parry carte
  • You foil his parry with an additional disengage to the outside and push carte to his chest

There are also feints low-to-high involving the seconde. Example:

  • You have parried in tierce
  • Feint a low riposte in seconde to his flank (i.e. under his hilt)
  • The opponent attempts a parry octave
  • You lift your point in carte and strike him to the outside

Parry Octave against Attack of Low Carte
Note that this parry is to the outside.

The Parries of Contre-Carte and Contre-Tierce
These are more advanced parries in French smallsword, and they involve a disengage that precedes the parry, so as to foil a possible feint. Example from an engagement carte:

  • The opponent disengages and feints carte to the outside
  • Instead of using a simple parry tierce, you follow his motion with your own disengage and parry him carte to the inside

The parry contre-tierce was considered more dangerous by some authors like Olivier.

The French Smallsword Flanconnade
After a parry carte or after you have engaged your opponent to the inside, you can quickly lower your point over and across his steel and push a thrust to his flank. This is called flanconnade. If you wish, you can perform it while lightly leaning the palm of your left hand against his foible.

The flanconnade is a very elegant action and is described by most French authors from Liancour (1686) forward.

The Coupe’ or Cutover
When the opponent keeps his hilt low and you feel that a disengage under his blade is not feasible, you may lift your point and disengage tightly from above his smallsword, forming your extension when you bring your point back in line on the other side. This is the coupe’ or cutover, and is one of the distinguishing elements of the French style. Example from an engagement in carte:

  • Your opponent resists your engagement, lowering his hilt
  • Quickly lift your point over his and form your extension in carte on the other side
  • If the opponent attempts to parry tierce, disengage to the inside and push your thrust carte home

Actions on the Blade in French Smallsword
Besides the flanconnade, the most common actions on the blade in French smallsword are the beats and the glizade or coulee.

The beat is executed with the foible against the opponent’s foible, to disrupt the opponent’s guard and remove his point from the line. You can beat and then push a direct attack; or beat and feint, then push your thrust to the other side.

The glizade is essentially a gliding attack in which you do not lose your light contact with the opponent’s blade as you perform your extension. The main two glizades are to the inside and to the outside, and are preceded by an engagement. If the opponent attempts to parry your glizade, make it a feint, disengage to the other side and push your thrust home. Example from an engagement carte:

  • Form your extension carte to the inside without losing contact with the opponent’s blade; if he does not react, finish your thrust
  • Upon feeling your initiated attack, he may attempt to parry carte
  • If he does, disengage and push carte to the outside

& & & &

Again, this is a very simple and basic primer that summarizes French smallsword fundamentals in just over 5 pages of a Word document. But I am quite confident it will give you a fairly good idea of the French smallsword system.

The French smallsword treatises from which I have taken the above information are:

  • Liancour, 1686
  • Girard, 1740
  • Angelo, 1763
  • Olivier, 1771

For further reading, I heartily recommend a recent annotated reprint of Angelo’s important 18th Century treatise The School of Fencing, published by Greenhill. This is by far the best printed resource on the French smallsword available today.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11