Rapier and dagger fights are so cool.
First, they look cool. One of my favorite film fights with rapier and dagger is Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan, the final fight on the stairs. At the end he throws his sword to the side and says, “The sword is too good for you. You die by the knife!” Then he leaps down onto him. This is a little talked about fight because it comes from a movie that is late in Flynn’s career but if you get the chance to see it you won’t regret it. It’s very tongue in cheek and quite the spectacle. There’s also a fight in a tavern that is wonderful as it’s in an enclosed space. Flynn does all his own work in this film. You can tell because all the shots of him fighting you can see his face rather than shots from behind – when a double is usually in place. As an added bonus see if you can find the clip of the film that comes from Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. They plucked the scene right out of it and integrated it into this one! Hah.
Second is that the fight with a main gauche moves very fast. The reason for this is that when you parry with your dagger you can, at the same time attack with your sword. This cuts into the time of your opponents attack. Instead of a beat of tick tack tick tack you get ticktackticktack. It can look just ferocious. When choreographed it is much more complicated and stage combatants have to really be aware of where the blades are and what each hand is doing – for the more experienced combatants only. You can also attack with the main gauche as an added bonus in case you close the distance or want to get someone away from you who is too close.
Third and finally, there is something about a dagger, of any sort that just seems dangerous. A knife expert told me once that if anyone ever pulled a knife on him he would get the hell away as fast as he could. Why? Because in knife fights fatalities are common. You’re just too close to miss. So good advice. As they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Run away!
Colpira senza essere colpito. Hit but don’t get hit. This is from an Italian Master of fencing from the 16th century.
What’s the difference between competitive fencing, a duel, and staged choreography? There is a conceptual difference that is important for writer’s to understand and incorporate into their work. It all centers around what it means to be hit.
Stage combat is choreographed (if someone ever says to you, “Let’s just go at it and see what happens. It’ll be more spontaneous that way.” Run. Run as fast as you can.). It is like a dance made just for the characters involved, tailored to each of their personalities. A fight that could be used by any character without signature is a generic fight that doesn’t add to the story. It is a fight for a fight’s sake. Hollywood does this all the time. That’s why so many fights look the same and even though the action is kinetic it is ultimately un-engaging and leaves us feeling used – as if we weren’t considered smart enough by the director to handle the “smart fight.” Don’t get me started.
Competitive fencing with épée (the closest to a dueling weapon) allows double touches and scores a hit for one and not the other if you hit a fraction of a second before your opponent. You don’t worry about the second hit because it’s later and doesn’t count. We’re not hitting to kill or draw blood. It is a sport. Hits are called touches. The weapons are dangerous (why else wear masks and canvas to protect ourselves?) but safety is emphasized in the rules and play stops after every touch.
What about a duel? The mind-set changes. If it’s to first blood it can be blood anywhere so hits to the wrist and arm may be sufficient. But fights to the death are another story. What follows is from Aldo’s Nadi’s book On Fencing chapter in which he describes a duel he was involved in 1910. Remember, this is a man who was considered the greatest fencer of his time. No one could beat him. Then he challenges a forty-year old fencing critic who has fought 4 previous duels before while he, at 24, although he has just won the championship in three weapons has never fought in one. This chapter is worth reading. Here’s an excerpt in Nadi’s words.
“…You have heard shouts under the mask before, and you have never paid the slightest attention to them. why even without mask, this man is like any other. He is armed with a weapon quite familiar to you, and there is no reason why he should beat you–none whatever. When these few seconds of uncertainty and uncontrollable fear and doubt are over, you counterattack, and touch, precisely where you wanted to touch–at the wrist, well through the glove and white silk. but during the violent action of your adversary, his blade snaps into yours, and its point whips into your forearm. you hardly feel anything–no pain anyway; but you know that after having touched him, you have been touched too. “Halt!” shrieks the director.
Caring not for your own wound, you immediately look at your opponent’s wrist, and then up at his face. Why on earth does he look so pleased? Haven’t you touched him first? Yes, but this is no mere competition. He has indeed every reason to be satisfied for having wounded you–supposedly a champion–even if he nicked you after you touched him.
Young man, you must never be touched. Otherwise, the blood now coming out of your arm may instead be spurting from your chest…” – Aldo Nadi
Fencing measure is a stage combat term than means the distance you are at from your opponent that is safe to do your choreography from. You are out of distance of each other’s blades so you can’t be hit but close enough to give the illusion that you can be hit. It’s all smoke and mirrors I know but that’s film and theatre. It’s entertainment and safety is key. But we can learn from this.
You measure this distance by, from your on guard position, extending your arm fully and touching your opponents bell guard with your point. Tip to guard. Then you are just out of distance.
Distance is an interesting thing in fencing and in a fight. Depending on the person and how threatening they seem to you and whether their weapon is drawn or not, the distance at which you might be attacked or feel threatened is very different.
In stage combat class most actors get into each other’s faces for violence and forget they have a sword at their side. They’re used to fists. They were not born with a blade in their hand or in the hand of others around them. They have not been training with a sword since childhood and seen death come to their town, city, castle, family, from the razor edge or the point of steel.
So notice that distance to attack can be as close as an extended arm plus three feet of steel. It can be two to three feet longer for a lunge distance and another two to three feet for an advance and lunge, or even further if your opponent runs at you.
Look at how distance is used in the first duel in Ridley Scott’s movie The Duelists. Notice how far they are to start. Almost tip to tip. Watch how scared one combatant is to close the distance and how quickly he leaves the killing space. Notice how Harvey Keitel (with the long hair) understands the distance so well that he plays with it.
Think of this. The edge on a sword should be as sharp as a razor. The point is like a pin.
I can tell you having seen a real machete (a slightly curved weapon that has one sharp edge used for farming and self-defense) fight in a very remote community in Honduras somewhere near the Nicaraguan border that thirty feet away was not far enough. When the combatants ran at each other and their blades hit sparks flew and people dove for cover – me included. I saw the wounds of one man up close after the fight and after applying some basic first aid – pressure to stop the heavy blood flow – helped to carry him to a hospital a few hours away on foot. I got to see his wounds up close. One wound across his chest took 34 stitches and a cut that scored his forehead near his hairline left a flap of skin that fell forward across his face. These wounds were enough to give me great respect for and want to keep a great distance from – a blade.
Distance is everything. You can’t hit someone if you can’t get close enough. And if you can hit them, they most likely can also hit you.
What do you do with this thing?
You stick him with the pointy part.
Different types of blades were used in different ways. Let’s look at a typical one-handed medieval sword. It’s main weapon was its edge, not it’s point. The point wasn’t really used a lot during the middle ages. Armor stopped it. Big heavy swords were used more for smashing and hacking. Still for swordplay know that there are two ends of a sword one with a pommel (heavy enough to counter balance the blade and to smash into things like people’s faces) and the other with our famous point. The cross guard is nice for stopping opposing blades from sliding down and cutting your fingers off but also wonderful for punching into the face. You’ll notice a theme here. Pommel to dross-guard is the hilt. The blade has two parts a forte (or strong) bottom third closest to your cross-guard that is used to parry or block your opponents strikes and a foible (or weak) upper third for cutting your opponents in half. The sharp edge can be on both sides (two true edges) or one in which case the blunt side is called a false edge.
All swords in one way or another have these parts even if they look different and are different sizes. Some things to remember about sword fights whether they are with medieval swords, renaissance rapiers, small-sword from the 17th century or the American Civil War. You can fight clean or you can fight dirty. If you fight dirty because it’s an ambush on a city street or you’re a soldier in the middle of a large battle, you will use any and or all the parts of your sword to get rid of your opponent(s). If you are fighting a duel you will probably use the blade only but that depends on the upbringing of the combatants (royalty, upper class, training, personality). And different blades are used to do different things – the use of the edge versus the use of the point. To see visually how two very different blades and upbringing can influence how a fight happens see the following two films:
Rob Roy – the final duel between Rob Roy and the English antagonist is a duels between the past (a large two-handed claymore – which is a heavy hacking edged weapon) and the present (a long, thin, pointy small sword that uses the point to do damage). This is choreographed by famous English fight choreographer William Hobbs. These two characters fight the way their personalities tell them to. The fighting is not generic, it is character-based. A good lesson for all writer’s to learn.
Watch any of the fights in Game of Thrones and then watch the scenes of Arya training with Syrio. Two-handed medieval broadswords are weapons of strength while Arya’s Needle is more point than edge (swords from two very different time periods but hey, it’s a fantasy novel so you can do whatever you want!).