It’s not often these days that you’ll see me practicing Italian Rapier. Lately, though, I find myself drawn to it and feeling the need to study my Capoferro once again. A big part of that is that I have been giving much thought to the ideal sword to first pick up. I often consider what sword style is the best to teach someone who has no previous training and for a multitude of reasons I keep turning to Capoferro’s Rapier. I have no doubt that there as many opinions on this subject as there are instructors, but I thought I would lay out my reasons for starting new students on this particular brand of swordplay.
Reason 1: A Complete Manual
This reason can’t be overstated. Many historical fight books are cryptic by design. In many instances they function as advertising for a specific Master. A sort of, “come see what you can learn with me,” idea. In others they serve as a short handed reminder of specific technique rather than a full on learning tool. In any case Capoferro goes in to extraordinary detail in every aspect of his system. He both tells and shows exactly how to stand and how to move. While there are many experts and teachers who are masters in systems without such explicit detail, I feel it absolutely invaluable to a new student to be able to have access to an original text that spells things out as carefully as Capoferro does.
Reason 2: Governors of Combat
George Silver talks about four Universal Governors of combat. Four core concepts that apply no matter what weapon you pick up. These are Judgement, Distance, Time and Place. Other masters have a few more that they throw into the mix, but I find these four to be a solid foundation. Anyway, no matter the sword style you must be able to Judge and gauge openings in your opponent’s fighting style, close Distance safely in order to strike, Time your actions so as to defend yourself properly, and be in such a Place that you can threaten your opponent without them being able to threaten you in return. These governors hold true in longsword as they do in rapier, but the nature of rapier combat allows a student to see how they apply much more clearly than in any other system of swordplay I know.
Reason 3: A Stance of Compromise
There are two extremes of the fencing world. An initially uncomfortable contortion and a relaxed and easy pose. Even looking at the stances found in different rapier masters we can see this. In the Spanish Destreza, a fencer stands upright with feet close together in a way that requires little effort. We can contrast this to Fabris’ rapier where he advocates having the legs apart and body leaned forward in something of a strenuous position. Capoferro’s stances are, I feel, a good compromise. His Terza Guardia puts enough strain on the body to build strength and agility, but not so much as to be unpleasant for beginners.
Reason 4: Movement and Guard
Fiore makes use of about twelve guards. Highland Broadsword has seven. Capoferro felt four was enough to begin with. For students starting out this is certainly to their advantage. Movement as well starts simple with linear steps and lunges. The style gradually builds complexity in footwork, unlike, say Destreza, where complex footwork is the first step. I’m of the opinion that footwork is one of the most important parts of martial training, but that’s no excuse in my mind to start complicated enough to be considered needlessly opaque.
Reason 5: Preeminence of the Thrust
I view even the simplest of cuts as an advanced technique. Italian Rapier is built around the idea of using the point to threaten and attack. Using a thrust builds fine tip control and necessitates subtle movements. I feel learning to cut as your primary technique makes using the tip later much more challenging.
Reason 7: Everyone Does Rapier
Okay, not everyone, but close. One of the best things a student can do is train with people outside their school. The rapier is ubiquitous in the Western Martial Arts world and thus provides the greatest pool of people to train with. This is so important that even if I didn’t have the rest of the list, this one fact might be enough to convince me that the rapier was the way to start.