Like many people who started 10 to 20 years ago, I learned something that I’ll call “Generic Standard Rapier”. This isn’t a historic style, but rather an early amalgamation of various, partially translated fencing manuals cobbled together into a coherent system made to work with the 35 and 40” schlager style blades that were popular during that time period.
I don’t want to besmirch those who studied and taught generic standard rapier. Given the what we knew at the time, and the inferior equipment most of us had access to, one really couldn’t have expected much more. But since we now have access to much better research and equipment, I think this would be a really good time to revisit Fabris. Long out of print, this translation by Tom Leoni is available again for only 25 USD.
Crossing the Feet
For this comparison, lets start at the beginning by looking at the feet:
Scans made available by Guy Windsor and Petteri Kihlberg.
The first two illustrations show the common version of Prima, the first guard. The next two shows Prima when properly formed.
In generic standard rapier, one of the first rules regarding footwork is that you never cross you feet. There is sound reasoning for this, as one doesn’t want to risk tripping over the front foot when passing the rear forward, nor does one want to make a wide, circular step.
Here we can clearly see that Fabris prefers to cross the feet while in Prima. In some illustrations the heel is lined up with the opposite heel, in others the front heel is at or slightly past the toes. I included both the correct and incorrect version of Prima to show that he is rather consistent with this.
Gripping the Sword
In generic standard rapier one is taught to place one, if not two, fingers over the quillon (i.e. cross guard). Fabris doesn’t talk about this point, but thanks to the high quality images posted by Guy Windsor we can see that Fabris keeps his fingers behind the quillon.
In this illustration of Quarta (fourth), we also see that the thumb is on the flat of the blade or at least the flat of the quillon. This corresponds well with L’Ange, who is said to have based his material on Fabris.
But wait, what’s going on in plate 23?
Here you can clearly see a raised index finger and what appears to be a separation between it and the second finger. These are signs that indicate the finger is over the quillon.
What do we make of this? For the time being I’m of the opinion that the way you hold the sword is a combination of personal preference and hilt construction.
Use of the Off Hand
In generic standard rapier, the off hand is kept well extended. With cuts being rare, if not disallowed entirely, the hand only had to deal with easily deflected thrusts. Varying by time and location, the technique was either popular or distained as an unrealistic gimmick.
As it so happens, Fabris actually discusses the parry with the hand in the very first plate. Here we see the outstretched hands ready to defend the chest and face.
As I mentioned above, Fabris shows a common or inferior version of each guard before his preferred version. According to Fabris, the sword is so high that it cannot be used for parrying, thus the hand is essential.
Now lets look at the extended Prima.
In this version the hand is held close to the face, more as a failsafe than a tool for parrying thrusts. In the text, Fabris doesn’t mention it. Instead he extols the virtues of the guard, as the opponent’s sword will always be closer to your forte than your body.
The Cone of Defense
A key feature of generic standard rapier is the concept of a “cone of defense”. This says that you keep your point aimed at your opponent’s face or chest and your hilt pointed outside the silhouette of your body. As your opponent mutates his posture, your true edge tracks his sword.
The theory behind this is that no matter what guard you are in, your sword always directs your opponent’s blade away from you.
Fabris would disagree. While there are exceptions, generally speaking he considers the true edge to be the weak side of the sword. In Prima, he warns you about not letting your opponent get above your sword. In Seconda (second), he says that “since the hand has turned, the weak side of the guard has also changed from above the sword to the outside.” Likewise for Quarta (fourth) he considers the outside to be stronger and the inside (true edge) to be weaker. (See plate 16 for an exception.)
Aiming the Sword
In generic standard rapier we are taught to look through the tip of the sword at our target, that being the face or chest as seen in the illustration below. The arm is held at an angle, away from body, though not necessarily quite so far.
Fabris doesn’t like this posture. He complains that it offers too many openings, is too slow to parry high attacks, and needs too big a movement for the disengage. The only reason it can be used is that some fencers don’t know all of its strengths and weaknesses.
His preferred alternative is something generic standard rapier would scorn. A straight arm accompanying a straight blade.
He considers this version of Terza (third) to be much stronger and safer than the previous version, with the inside completely protected and the outside with a very small opening. Furthermore, you can find (i.e. constrain/dominate) your opponent’s sword just by moving the point and you can mutate into second or fourth with just a rotation of the wrist.
Looking at Fabris with New Eyes
I don’t want to say “everything you know is wrong” or that you must “unlearn” hard won skills from the past. But I do think you should try to put everything in a box and stick it on a shelf. Fabris does things differently; so to understand him you need to temporarily forget what you know about the rapier and look at his text with new eyes.