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Old Sword Play: Techniques of the Great Masters

Old Sword Play: Techniques of the Great Masters

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by Alfred Hutton

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Anyone interested in historical weapons or the art of fencing will want to own this classic study of swordsmanship in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Written in the late nineteenth century by a British officer, antiquarian, and noted scholar of the sword, the work was intended to provide military men with essential training in the art and science


Anyone interested in historical weapons or the art of fencing will want to own this classic study of swordsmanship in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Written in the late nineteenth century by a British officer, antiquarian, and noted scholar of the sword, the work was intended to provide military men with essential training in the art and science of fencing.
Drawing upon the methods used by master swordsmen over three centuries, Hutton presented the tactics of the ancient masters in a form comprehensible to swordsmen of his own day. His extensive, detailed instructions cover the use of the two-hand sword, rapier and dagger, broadsword and buckler, rapier and cloak, and dagger and cloak.
Complemented by nearly 60 illustrations, including instructive diagrams and rare woodcuts of classic fencing positions, this excellent introduction and its valuable information will be welcomed by scholars, theatrical directors, and sword-play enthusiasts alike. The book will also appeal to general audiences and anyone interested in an ancient form of self-defense still regarded by many as an art form and recreational pursuit.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor
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Old Sword-Play

Techniques of the Great Masters


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14089-6



THE Art of Fencing, in Europe, has seen four distinct periods, during which it has been influenced partly by the forms of the weapons, and partly, for the arms themselves were so influenced, by the changing fashions in dress. We find first the Shakespearian or Tudor era—that of the sixteenth century—when owing to the prevailing style of costume, and to the fact that the swords were long and unwieldy, they were almost always accompanied by an arm either purely defensive, like the buckler or the cloak, or by one, such as the dagger, of a character at once defensive and offensive ; these auxiliary arms were carried in the left hand, and their movements were extremely simple.

The second period, and perhaps the most interesting of them all, that of the Stuarts, was a period of transition; the dagger had passed out of fashion as an article of dress, and in Western Europe the long, handsome rapier had by degrees given place to the short walking sword, which, however, did not assume a settled form until the century following; but the Italians, who were the original teachers of our art, adhered to the earlier form. This change of pattern in the sword necessitated a change in the method of using it, and hence arose the two great and only "schools" of fence, the Italian and the French.

From this point we deal with the French system alone, and we find that as the short, light swords improved in their form, the art of wielding them advanced in precision and grace, which latter quality may be said to have attained its perfection about the middle of the eighteenth century, at the time, in fact, when the first of the Angelos brought out his famous folio. In the works of this period there is a very noticeable feature in the numerous tricks which the masters taught their pupils for depriving an enemy of his sword. In this our modern time disarming is not usually allowed, and it is always considered very rough play; but in the days of which we speak the sword was an integral part of every gentleman's dress, and a facility in disarming no doubt saved many a life in the sudden quarrels in street or tavern which were then matters of every-day occurrence.

About the middle of the last century wire fencing masks were introduced, but there was a feeling against them on the part of the masters, and it was some considerable time before they came into general use ; previous to their adoption a fencing bout bore a somewhat stately and academic aspect—the movements were slow, and it was a matter of etiquette not to riposte until after the adversary had recovered from his lunge, for fear of injuring his face. All this, however, was altered about the beginning of this century, when the attitude of the masters towards the mask was changed by a serious accident which happened to one of them, and under the auspices of such men as Jean Louis, Gomard, Cordelois, and others, not to mention many famous teachers of the present day, the art of point-fencing has attained its climax.



THIS weapon, sometimes known as the old English "long sword," as a fighting arm stands by itself; it was the favourite weapon of our King Henry VIII. in his athletic days, and he proposed its use in the tournaments at the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," but Francis I. objected to it on the ground that there were no gauntlets then made sufficiently strong to guarantee the hands against its powerful strokes.

The following lessons have been compiled from the works of Marozzo (1536), Di Grassi (1570), Joachim Meyer (1570), Jacob Sutor (1612), and Alfieri (1653). The method of handling the weapon is very similar to the exercises of the "Great Stick," introduced in 1889 in "Cold Steel," and adapted from Italian sources ; in fact, these latter are a distinct survival of the two-hand sword-play of the sixteenth century. The best manner of carrying the two-hander is taken from Alfieri (Plate 1). It is borne point upwards in the left hand, which grasps the grip about the centre, with the flat of the blade resting against the shoulder; it must be remembered that this sword is double edged.


1. Pass the right hand across the body and seize the grip close to the quillons.

2. Bring the sword perpendicularly in front of the body with the quillons in line with the mouth.

3. Carry the sword over to the right side, and lower the point to the front about four inches from the ground, and draw back the right foot about six inches.

4. Raise the sword to a perpendicular position at the right side.

5. Carry the sword over to the left side, and resume the marching position.


The favourite engaging guard of Marozzo was his guardia di testa, as seen in the illustration (Plate 2). Alfieri also makes use of one very similar. The guards in quarte—porta di ferro alta—(Plate 3), and tierce—coda lunga e stretta— (Plate 4), may also be used.


There are six principal cuts : two oblique downwards at the sides of the head or the shoulders, two oblique upwards, and two horizontal cuts, made usually at the flank. Those delivered at the left side of the enemy were called mandritti, and those at his right side riversi; the former were given with the right foot, and the latter with the left foot in advance.


The six moulinets are absolutely necessary for the acquirement of dexterity in wielding the two-hander ; and in practising them great care must be taken to keep the hands well advanced, in order to avoid the accident of entangling the arms with the long quillons of the sword. They are as follows: —


Motion 1.—Extend the arms with the sword pointing to the front a little above the diagonal line I on the target, the right hand holding it close to the quillons and the left hand close to the pummel.

Motion 2.—Bring the sword down, true edge leading, with a circular sweep from right to left along the line, causing it to pass close to the left side, and completing the circle bring it again to the front.


Motion 1.-Extend the arms as before, the point of the sword being just above diagonal line 2.

Motion 2.—Describe a similar circle, the point traversing the diagonal line from left to right, and passing close to the right side.


Motion 1.—Extend the arms and sword with the point directed just below line 3.

Motion 2.—Make the cut diagonally upwards, and, after the sword has passed through the target, complete the circle close to the right side.


This must be performed as the last, save that the sword describes its circle close to the left side and passes diagonally upwards from left to right.


Motion 1.-Extend the arms and sword with the point just outside line 5.

Motion 2.—Describe the circle horizontally, the sword traversing the line from right to left, and in the rearward half of the circle just clearing the top of the head.


This must be executed similarly to the last, the sword describing the circle from left to right.

N.B.—The rotatory movement of the sword is much assisted by a pulling motion with one hand and a pushing one with the other.


For practical purposes it is better to substitute modern names for the obsolete and inconvenient terms used by the old writers, as—

Quarte for "Porta di ferro alta." (Plate 3.)

" "Coda lunga e stretta." (Plate 4.)

" "Porta di ferro larga." (Plate 5.)

" "Becha cesa." (Plate 6.)

" "Becha possa." (Plate 7,)

High Octave " Intrare in largo passo." (Plate 8.)

In the two latter the hands should be raised higher and the point dropped lower than in the woodcuts in Marozzo's work.


Quarte—parries cut I at the left cheek or shoulder.

Low Quarte—parries cut 5 at the left side.

High Quarte—parries a "stramazzone" or vertical cut at the left part of the head.

Septime—parries a cut at the legs on the left side.


Tierce—parries cut 2 at the right cheek, etc.

Low Tierce—parries cut 6 at the right side.

High Tierce—parries the "stramazzone" at the right part of the head.

Seconde—parries a cut at the legs on the right side.

Prime and High Octave are auxiliary parries for ripostes given over the sword, at the left and right sides of the head respectively.


As soon as a knowledge of the parries and facility in performing the moulinets has been acquired, the following combinations should be carefully practised ; they will be found useful as a form of "set play" in stage combats or assaults of arms, and, indeed, the weapons are so dangerously heavy that on such occasions "set" is more to be recommended than "loose" play.


M. commences, advancing pass by pass, and making the six cuts at P., who retires pass by pass, and forming the six parries.

Reverse the practice.



Cut I. Parry Quarte, cut 2 over.

High Octave.

Reverse the practice.


Cut 2. Tierce, cut I over.


Reverse the practice.


Cut I.
Quarte, cut 2 over.
High Octave, cut 6. Low Tierce, cut I over.


Reverse the practice.


Cut I.
Quarte, cut 4 under.
High Octave, cut 2. Tierce, cut 5.

Low Quarte.

Reverse the practice.


Cut 2.
Tierce, cut I rover.
Prime, cut 5. Low Quarte, cut 2 over.

High Octave.

Reverse the practice.


Cut 3.
Septime, cut I.
Quarte, cut 6. Low Tierce, cut I over.


Reverse the practice.


Cut 4.
Seconde, cut 2.
Tierce, cut 5 under. Low Quarte, cut 2 over.

High Octave.

Reverse the practice.



THE Fence of the Rapier and Dagger takes, with regard to other arms of the period, a place similar to that occupied at the present time by that of the foil, being the most complete development of the various systems in which an auxiliary weapon was carried in the left hand; and undoubtedly a man fairly well skilled in it can master, with but little difficulty, the somewhat earlier exercises of "Sword and Buckler," "Sword (or dagger) and Cloak," and even the more puzzling "Case of Rapiers," in which a pair of swords, much of the type of those used in buckler-play, were carried, one in each hand.

The rapier, a long double-edged weapon, with ample "quillons" and "counterguards," which latter afterwards assumed the form of a cup, was held in the right hand with the forefinger crossed over the "quillon." In early times the edges were undoubtedly used, but they were by degrees abandoned in favour of the swifter and more deadly point. In our revival of this practice, therefore, we shall adhere to pure point-play, and we shall reserve that of the edge for the sword and buckler, in which it plays the most important part.

The dagger was held in the left hand, point upwards, with the thumb extended and resting in the spoon-shaped cavity in the forte of the blade. The dagger was used for parrying the thrusts of the sword, and was but sparingly employed in attack.


The guards were four in number; they were simply positions of the sword from which attacks were made, and they were formed with either the right or the left foot advanced.

Prime—is the first position which the hand naturally assumes immediately after drawing the sword, the hilt being held above the head, the edge upwards, and the point towards the enemy (Plate 9).

Seconde—the hand is in pronation at the level of the shoulder, the arm being a good deal extended and the point level (Plate 9).

Tierce—the hand is about as high as the waist, in pronation, with the point in line with the opponent's face, and the edge directed obliquely downwards towards the right (Plate 10).

Quarte—the hand is at the height of the waist, in supination, the point in line with the opponent's face (Plate 10).

Alfieri introduced a medium guard, Guardia Mista, which assumed a middle position between Tierce and Quarte (Plate 11).


The thrusts were—

Imbroccata—given from the Prime position above the enemy's dagger.

Stoccata—under the dagger.

Punta riversa—an exaggerated form of Quarte thrust, given either outside the enemy's sword or between his weapons.

These attacks were delivered either without moving the feet at all, or with the pass, or else with the "botta lunga" or lunge, as occasion might require.


The feints were very few in number, because with the dagger only the simplest form of parry could be used; they were "under and over" (Plate 16), and "over and disengage" (Plate 12), striking in the middle, between the weapons.


The parries with the dagger were Tierce (Plate 16) for the high outside, Seconde for the low outside, High Quarte for the high inside, and Low Quarte (Plate 14) for the low inside.

The dagger is also used for "commanding" the enemy's sword in any of the four positions.

In a "corps à corps" it is sometimes useful to suddenly drop the rapier, and with the right hand to seize the left hand of the opponent, striking him instantly with the dagger.


M. P.


Thrust over the dagger. Seconde. Parry Tierce, thrust under.


Thrust between the weapons. Tierce. Low Quarte, thrust in Prime over.


Thrust under. Parry Seconde, thrust under.

Seconde. Pass, and give the dagger.


Thrust high between the weapons. Parry High Quarte, thrust low.

Seconde. Pass, and give the dagger.



THIS exercise is considerably older than that of the long rapier and dagger, before which weapons it speedily vanished.

The Sword was a somewhat short one, and double edged. Cuts were given with either true or false edge, but the point was rarely used ; it was held, like the rapier, with the forefinger over the cross-guard.

The Buckler, a small round shield, at the most some fourteen inches in diameter, was held in the left fist, and was not allowed in any way to rest on the arm; and when it was furnished with a spike, the spike was used for stabbing at close quarters.


The combatants engaged with the left foot forward and the buckler held in front of the body, with the arm extended, but not stiff, while the sword hand must be kept closer to the body, and somewhat under the shelter of the buckler (Plate 17.)

Marozzo gives twelve guards or positions of the sword for attack, which, when assumed consecutively, are known as "progressions." These movements are extremely picturesque, and should be performed at an "Assault of Arms" previously to commencing the combat. When there are four combatants, A, B, C, and D, they should take their places at the four corners of the stage, A and B occupying those nearest to the audience. At a signal from A, from whom they will take their time, they will step forth with the right foot, and advance towards the centre, A meeting D, and B meeting C.

At each step a guard is to be formed as laid down below; and when the four meet in the centre they will salute each one his opposite, by raising the sword-hilt in line with the mouth, and then extending the sword very high to the front, with the arm quite straight, so that all the points shall cross in the centre. After this they will lower their points, step back one pace, and at the same time give two beats on the buckler with the back of the sword, when A will engage B near the audience, and C will engage D farther back; and when this time is up the Marshal, or M.C., will stop C and D first, and will proceed, accompanied by them, to stop A and B, on which all four will retire together.


Excerpted from Old Sword-Play by ALFRED HUTTON. Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Old Sword-Play 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
BenX More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting book because it offered some history about fencing and sword fighting and because it made me think about the different ways that people combined various weapons. Much of the book was taken up with full page illustrations of various positions. It took some thinking to work out how some of the moves were actually done, though I wish I had my fencing buddies around to try out some of these techniques. That said, this book covers techniques, not systems of sword fighting. So, there is not a description of a complete method of using your sword. That said, it would make an excellent jumping off point for understanding some of the systems that were once used. As for the books limitation, it was originally written in 1892, so there were limitations on book printing and publishng. My guess is that this accounts for the limited illustrations and short length of the work. Still, I would recommend this to fencers who have some sense of the romance of the sport and to people who have an interest in the ways that sword fighting has changed through the centuries.