In the 1500s, a Spanish fencing master named Jerónimo de Carranza founded a style of swordplay based on geometric principles, called La Verdadera Destreza (LVD, “The True Skill”). Spanish fencers using Carranza’s system earned renown throughout Europe for their ability to win duels unscathed.
Carranza was succeeded throughout the following centuries by several other masters, the most noteworthy including:
- Luis Pacheco de Narvaéz
- Francisco Antonio de Ettenhard
- Gérard Thibault d’Anvers
- Francisco Lorenz de Rada
Although the LVD system is canonically employed with sideswords or rapiers (it is often called Spanish rapier), many of its principles could be applied to other weapons as well. However, this article will focus solely on the use of the rapier.
This article is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of La Verdadera Destreza, but rather a summary of its core points as I understand them. I have organized the material in a way that makes sense to me, starting with foundational principles, assembling those principles into several core techniques, then summarizing LVD’s guiding strategy.
Note that a right-handed fencer is assumed throughout this article. If you are left-handed, simply reverse the right/left designations.
La Verdadera Destreza is based on a set of basic concepts which can then be combined to form the core techniques.
La Verdadera Destreza is immediately recognizable by its upright, relaxed posture, which is formed thus:
- Right foot points directly toward the opponent
- Heel of the left foot is approximately 1 foot length directly behind the right foot
- Left foot points leftward 90°
- Knees are aligned with their respective toes
- Knees are straight, but relaxed
- Weight is balanced between legs
- Hips and shoulders are turned toward the left foot almost 90°
- Torso is straight
- Shoulders are relaxed, allowed to settle back and down
- Left arm hangs straight down by the side
- Head is upright, facing the opponent
- Index finger (and optionally the middle finger) is wrapped around the true-edge quillon
- Thumb may point up the flat of the blade or wrap around to rest over top of the index finger
- Other fingers are fairly relaxed
- Sword is canted forward in the hand, placing the pommel within the wrist and forming a straight line with the forearm
Wrapping the true-edge quillon relieves stress on the wrist and improves point control. It also means that LVD requires some kind of finger protection on the hilt, such as fingers rings or a cup.
Make sure the sword aligns with your forearm by canting it forward in the hand, not by over-extending the wrist! Wrist over-extension is one of the most common ways to injure yourself in rapier fencing.
The hand may be rotated to one of four positions:
- Fingernails In
- Knuckles and true edge down, quillons vertical; the default and preferred position
- Fingernails Down
- Knuckles and true edge right, quillons horizontal; not as good as fingernails in, but better than fingernails up
- Fingernails Up
- Knuckles and true edge left, quillons horizontal; not as good as fingernails down, but better than fingernails out
- Fingernails Out
- Knuckles and true edge up, quillons vertical; the least preferred position
Hand orientation affects your strength in the bind. You can exert and resist more force in the direction of your true edge, so rotating your hand allows you to respond to force from differing directions. The preferred fingernails-in orientation is a middle ground that can quickly adapt as the situation demands.
The sword may be held in one of three positions relative to the body:
- Right Angle
- Sword extends straight forward toward the opponent, forming a 90 degree angle with the rest of the body; the default and preferred angle
- Obtuse Angle
- Sword is raised to form an angle with the body greater than 90°
- Accute Angle
- Sword is lowered to form an angle with the body less than 90°
The right angle is preferred because it has the longest reach. Any rotation of the sword—be it from the shoulder, the elbow, or the wrist—reduces its reach, as shown in the following diagram:
With the basic stance, grip, hand positions, and blade angles, we can now define LVD’s one and only guard position:
- Assume the basic stance
- Grip the sword
- Position the hand fingernails in
- Hold the arm and sword in the right angle
This position is called the guard of the right angle or the posture of the straight line. It provides three important benefits:
- Maximized reach
- Minimized target
- Quick response to threats from any direction
In practice, there is room for slight variation. The key points are:
- Your point must extend toward the closest target
- Your hilt must cover the closest target
- Your feet must be free to move in any direction
The “true guard” accomplishes all of these against another LVD fencer of the same height. But against opponents of different heights or who practice different styles, your guard will have to adapt, usually by shifting your arm to either an acute or obtuse angle.
The space around a fencer is divided into regions called lines:
- High Line
- The space above the fencer’s lead shoulder
- Low Line
- The space below the fencer’s lead shoulder
- Right Line
- The space to the right of the fencer’s lead shoulder
- Left Line
- The space to the left of the fencer’s lead shoulder
- Rear Line
- The space behind the fencer’s lead shoulder
- Forward Line
- The space in front of the fencer’s lead shoulder
- Mixed Line
- The space defined by the intersection of multiple lines
Note that these lines are named relative to each fencer (e.g., your right line is on your right, but the opponent’s right line is on your left).
All actions of the sword are composed of the following simple movements:
- Upward movement
- Downward movement
- Offline Lateral
- Horizontal movement away from the center
- Aligning Lateral
- Horizontal movement toward the center
- Backward movement
- Forward movement
- Diagonal movement resulting from a combination of multiple movements
- Movement away from the center, or that lacks the potential to wound; generally includes violent, offline lateral, and backward movements
- Movement toward the center, or with the potential to wound; generally includes natural, aligning lateral, and forward movements
Note that it is possible for a violent motion to be executive, and a natural one to be dispositive (e.g., preparing and executing an ascending cut).
Certain movements counter others:
- Forward movements counter dispositive movements by interrupting them
- Natural movements counter executive movements by blocking or redirecting them
A key principle in LVD is that natural movement is superior to violent movement. That is, when the two oppose each other, all else being equal, the natural movement possesses greater force and can subjugate the violent movement.
La Verdadera Destreza uses the basic blade movements to measure time. The more movements an action requires, the longer it takes. As a rule, shorter actions counter longer ones.
Distance plays a role as well; given two actions composed of the same number of basic movements, the one that has to travel the farthest will take longer.
This analysis of time based on movement yields three moments in which you can act:
- You act before the opponent has moved; you create your own opportunity
- You act during the opponent’s movement; the opponent gives you an opportunity
- You act after the opponent’s movement; you steal the opponent’s opportunity
The easiest way to illustrate these opportunities is with attacks. A propio attack is when you are the first to launch an attack. An apropiado attack is launched as the opponent moves to prepare their own attack (i.e., during their dispositive movement). A transferido attack is launched after negating the opponent’s attack (e.g., parry and counterattack).
However, these moments are not limited to attacks; you can apply them to any type of action, including changes in degree of strength and footwork.
There are two key distances in LVD, with confusingly similar names:
- Measure of Proportion
- Defensive distance; as close as you can get while still having time to detect and respond to the opponent’s actions; as a general rule, this is the distance at which the opponent’s point reaches your hilt; a fencer with a longer reach can maintain their own measure of proportion while violating that of their opponent; your measure of proportion may shrink as your reaction time improves
- Proportionate Measure
- Offensive distance; as far away as you can be while still being able to strike the opponent; longer weapons have a superior proportionate measure over shorter ones, and thrusts have a superior proportionate measure over cuts
Degrees of Strength
A sword is basically just a sharp lever. Like all levers, it is easier to move the farther you are from its fulcrum (i.e., the hilt). Most sword traditions recognize this, and divide the blade into at least a strong and weak portion. The strong is the part closest to the hilt, and the weak is the part closest to the point. La Verdadera Destreza goes as far as to divide the blade into nine segments, numbered from one at the point to nine at the hilt. These numbers are the degrees of strength.
When two swords meet in a bind, look at where they cross each other. The sword with the higher degree of strength at that point is stronger, and can control the weaker. This is a vital concept that allows for solid defenses and safe attacks.
The weaker sword can reverse this advantage in one of two ways:
- Increase its own degree of strength by thrusting forward
- Decrease the opponent’s degree of strength by sliding toward the opponent’s point
Increasing a sword’s degree of strength is called graduation. Decreasing it is called degraduation.
All techniques in LVD are built from the foundational principles.
Footwork in LVD is renowned for its use of offline steps illustrated by circular diagrams, such as the one shown below:
Every line in the diagram is named for easy reference:
- The straight line that connects the two fencers
- Major Circle
- The circle defined by the diameter
- Minor Circles
- The small circles at either end of the diameter, defined by the positions of the fencers’ feet
- Any line that passes through the circle, but not through its center; most notable are those that form the inscribed square shown above
- Lines of Infinity
- The lines that run perpendicular to the diameter at either end of the circle
The exact size of the diagram varies based on the individual fencer and their weapon. The key measurement is that of the diameter, which should be equal to the fencer’s measure of proportion.
Steps should not be too wide. When performing offline steps (e.g., curved, transverse, lateral), the feet should turn so that they end in the correct position for the basic stance relative to the opponent. It is a general rule that you lead with the foot closest to the direction you are moving, although there are exceptions.
- Forward Step
- Move your right foot forward along the diameter, followed by the left foot to reset your stance.
- Curved Step Right
- Move your right foot counterclockwise along the circumference of the major circle, followed by the left foot to reset your stance. Curved steps close the distance gradually, and are often used defensively to prepare for a counterattack.
- Curved Step Left
- Move your left foot clockwise along the circumference of the major circle, followed by the right foot to reset your stance. Curved steps close the distance gradually, and are often used defensively to prepare for a counterattack.
- Transverse Step Right
- Move your right foot forward and to the right along a chord of the major circle, followed by the left foot to reset your stance. Transverse steps close the distance quickly, and are often used offensively to launch an attack.
- Transverse Step Left
- Move your right foot forward and to the left along a chord of the major circle, followed by the left foot to reset your stance. Note that in transverse steps, the right foot always leads, no matter which direction you are moving. Transverse steps close the distance quickly, and are often used offensively to launch an attack.
- Backward Step
- Move your left foot backward along the diameter, followed by the right foot to reset your stance.
- Lateral Step Right
- Move your right foot right along your line of infinity, followed by the left foot to reset your stance.
- Lateral Step Left
- Move your left foot left along your line of infinity, followed by the right foot to reset your stance.
- Backward-Lateral Step Right
- Move your left foot backward and to the right, followed by the right foot to reset your stance. Note that backward-lateral steps always lead with the left foot, regardless of whether they’re moving right or left.
- Backward-Lateral Step Left
- Move your left foot backward and to the left, followed by the right foot to reset your stance.
- Curved-Transverse Step
- Perform a transverse step to the right with the right foot only, followed by a curved step of the left foot that ends on the opponent’s line of infinity, pointing at the opponent. Then bring the right foot behind the left foot, forming a right angle and ending in a mirrored version of the basic stance. This step often accompanies a movement of conclusion.
- Gaining Step
- Bring your left foot forward along the diameter, ending just in front of the right foot. This step is used to prepare another, longer step, such as a curved-transverse step.
Offline steps serve two important functions:
- They remove you from the opponent’s diameter, which is the line along which they can attack you
- They bring the opponent out of their profiled stance relative to you, offering you a wider target to strike; achieving this advantage is called gaining the degrees of the profile
Performing an offline step also moves you to a new circle, essentially resetting your position.
When the opponent attempts to gain an advantage through footwork, you can counter that advantage with your own footwork:
- Backward steps are countered by forward steps
- Foward steps are countered by offline steps (curved, transverse, lateral, backward-lateral, curved-transverse)
- Offline steps are countered by offline steps
There are five basic attacks defined by the basic blade movements:
- Circular Cut
- 2 dispositive movements followed by an executive movement from the right; 3 movements total
- Circular Reverse
- 2 dispositive movements followed by an executive movement from the left; 3 movements total
- Half Cut
- 1 dispositive movement to the right followed by an opposite executive movement; 2 movements total
- Half Reverse
- 1 dispositive movement to the left followed by an opposite executive movement; 2 movements total
- 1 forward movement; 1 movement total
The cuts and reverses each have three variants based on the angle of the attack:
Each attack can be strengthened by adding two extra movements just prior to the final executive movement: a dispositive backward movement into the rear line, followed by an executive movement returning to the forward line. However, this comes at the cost of time; in the case of the thrust, it triples the duration of the attack!
Thrusts are preferred because they have the superior proportionate measure, require the fewest movements, and can be performed without completely lowering your defenses. Cuts are generally reserved for when your blade has already been brought offline for one reason or another.
Atajo is one of the most important techniques in LVD. In terms of foundational principles, it is performed by applying natural movement with a greater degree of strength to the opponent’s sword.
In terms of the basic movements, atajo is formed thus:
- A violent movement to position your blade higher than the opponent’s
- An offline-lateral movement to form the cross
- A natural movement to subjugate the opponent’s blade
In other words, place your sword over top of the opponent’s, with your point angled off center, such that the blades cross closer to the opponent’s point than to yours.
The combination of natural movement, a greater degree of strength, and the angle of your blade essentially traps the opponent’s weapon. If they try to push back against you, the angle of the bind guides their blade into your hilt, amplifying your leverage advantage. If they try to disengage and move to the other side of your blade, that requires more movements and gives you a chance to strike. Therefore, achieving an atajo allows you to control the opposing blade, thereby defending yourself while also clearing the way for an attack.
The exact angle of the crossing is important. Your point should always be directed toward the opponent’s weapon, not their body. The closer the resulting angle is to ninety degrees, the more defensive the atajo; it pushes the opposing blade farther offline, but makes it harder to launch a followup attack. The closer the angle is to zero, the more offensive the atajo; it exerts less offsetting force to the opposing blade, but allows for easy followup attacks. The ideal atajo uses an angle somewhere in between these extremes, one that is wide enough for you to step into without getting stabbed.
This ability to safely step into the atajo’s angle is vital in performing a movement of conclusion.
Spiraling is a circular blade movement, chaining together several basic movements to describe a circle that passes through the forward lines. A spiral can be clockwise or counterclockwise. It can also be full, passing through all four forward lines to end at the same line in which it started; half, ending in the line opposite to the one in which it started; or quarter, ending in a line adjacent to the one in which it started. In total, there are six possible spirals:
- Full clockwise
- Full counterclockwise
- Half clockwise
- Half counterclockwise
- Quarter clockwise
- Quarter counterclockwise
Spiraling is used to move the opponent’s sword (usually preceded by an atajo) or escape the opponent’s atajo.
The circular thrusts combine spirals and thrusts to escape and counter the opponent’s atajo. They work by releasing the pressure built up in the atajo, throwing the opponent’s blade out of position and preventing them from striking while you act.
There are three types of circular thrusts, each of which can be performed clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on which side the atajo is performed:
- A full spiral, returning to the original line (likely placing a counter-atajo on the opponent), followed by a thrust; the safest option, but also the slowest
- A half spiral to the opposite line, followed by a thrust
- A quarter spiral to an adjacent line, followed by a thrust; the fastest option, but also the most dangerous
The general techniques (or simply “generals”) are four variations on the following template:
- Form atajo on the opponent’s sword
- Use a spiral to move the opponent’s sword to a more convenient position
- Use footwork to deliver a thrust
The four generals are as follows:
- Line in Cross
- Form atajo on your right line, make a full spiral clockwise to carry the opponent’s sword into your high right line, then step to your right while thrusting over top of the opponent’s blade, maintaining blade contact
- Form atajo on your left line, make a half spiral counterclockwise to carry the opponent’s sword into your low right line, then step to your right while thrusting underneath the opponent’s blade, maintaining blade contact
- Weak under Strong
- Form atajo on your right line, make a half spiral clockwise to carry the opponent’s sword into your low left line, then step to your right while thrusting underneath the opponent’s blade, breaking blade contact
- Weak over Strong
- Form atajo on your left line, make a full spiral counterclockwise to carry the opponent’s sword into your high left line, then step to your right while thrusting over top of the opponent’s blade, breaking blade contact
With proper management of the degrees of strength, the generals can also be used to escape and counter the opponent’s atajo. Since a spiral in this case would drag the opponent’s point across your own body, it must be accompanied by a backward or backward-lateral step (which will also accommodate the degraduation of the opponent’s blade).
Note that the spiral in all of the generals may be skipped if you find yourself already in the correct position to deliver the thrust.
Countering Atajos with Circular Cuts
Circular cuts and reverses can be used to counter atajos. Much like circular thrusts, this technique operates on the principle of releasing pressure. Using a cut instead of a thrust makes for a longer action, but it compensates for this by parrying the opponent’s blade during the dispositive movements.
If the atajo was on your inside line, you will use a cut. If the atajo was on your outside line, you will use a reverse. The technique is performed thus:
- Escape the atajo with dispositive movements
- Turn your hand toward the opponent’s sword until it reaches the fignernails-out position
- Lift your hilt and drop your point
- Begin an offline step away from the opponent’s sword
- Maintain blade contact
- Counter the atajo with executive movement
- Optionally, perform a movement of conclusion
- Complete the strike to the opponent’s head, ending in the guard of the right angle
- The strike should land as you finish the offline step begun in the previous step
Movement of Conclusion
Conclusion is a grappling technique meant to disarm the opponent and force their surrender, thereby avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. It is performed according to the following template:
Defense is at the heart of LVD’s strategy. A spanish fencer’s defense comes in several layers, and they will only attack if they are protected by at least one (but preferably more) of these defenses:
- Distance: Maintain your measure of proportion except to attack; if you have a longer proportionate measure than your opponent, you can attack safely
- Time: Counter the opponent’s long actions with short actions of your own; while your opponent performs a dispositive movement, you can attack safely
- Control: Subjugate the opponent’s weapon with an atajo or a movement of conclusion; while their sword is locked down, you can attack safely
- Angle: Step offline instead of directly forward; if you are off of your opponent’s diameter, you can attack safely
An LVD fencer also prefers to force a surrender rather than execute their opponent.
Therefore, the basic battle plan in LVD looks like this:
- Enter your defensive distance and keep the opponent at bay with the guard of the right angle
- Gain as many of the aforementioned advantages as you can (distance, time, control, angle)
- Enter your offensive distance
- Perform a movement of conclusion if feasible, execute a strike otherwise
- Retreat out of distance, covering yourself with the guard of the right angle
- Compendium of the Foundations of the True Art and Philosophy of Arms by Francisco Antonio de Ettenhard, translated by Mary Dill Curtis
- Nobleza de la Espada by Francisco Lorenz de Rada
- Academy of the Sword by Gérard Thibault d’Anvers, translated by John Michael Greer
- From the Page to the Practice: Fundamentals of Spanish Swordplay by Puck Curtis and Mary Dill Curtis
- A Midsummer Night’s Blog