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Thibault Rapier: An Elegant Fencing System

https://www.jamescolton.com/articles/thibault-rapier/

Introduction

Gérard Thibault d’Anvers was a Dutch swordmaster in the 1600s. After first learning swordplay in the Netherlands, he traveled to Spain where he studied the Spanish rapier system of La Verdadera Destreza. He made several modifications to that system, then returned to the Netherlands and proved the worth of his variant style in a series of demonstrations against a variety of opponents. Thibault recorded his fencing system in Academie de l’Espée, which was published posthumously in 1630, one year after his death.

La Verdadera Destreza is radically different from nearly every other European sword art, and within that system, Thibault is himself a strange outlier. Yet in spite of a few surface-level changes (e.g., the grip and the exact angle of the lead foot), the core of the system remains intact. Many of the concepts and actions Thibault describes are codified within canonical Destreza sources. For example, Thibault provides precise instructions on where to place your feet. If you map those instructions to his circle, then compare that circle to those found in mainstream Destreza treatises, you’ll find that the vast majority of Thibault’s footwork is transverse steps. Similarly, Thibault’s subjection is simply a different way of describing an atajo. Real differences do exist, however. Thibault employs a wider variety of positions and techniques that Destreza authors would consider vulgar.

This article is my attempt to distill the techniques Thibault describes into a manageable summary, based on my understanding of his text.

Preparation

The Sword

Thibault’s preferred sword is a rapier with a two-port-cross hilt. Yours should be sized according to your own body measurements:

Blade Length
From the quillons to the point, the height of your navel when you’re standing upright
Quillon Length
From one end to the other, the blade length × 0.207
Handle Length
Including the pommel, the blade length × 0.146 (one-third of that is the pommel)
Ricasso Length
The part of the blade that is enveloped by the guard, the blade length × 0.073

For me (72.75 inches tall) this results in (rounded to the nearest inch):

  • Blade: 43″
  • Quillons: 9″
  • Handle: 6″ (2″ pommel)
  • Ricasso: 3″

The blade length is particularly important, and Thibault gives several reasons for his chosen measurement:

  • It is the maximum length that you can comfortably draw from a scabbard worn at your hip
  • It is the maximum length with which you can threaten the opponent in close quarters by withdrawing your arm
  • If you place the point on the ground, it is the perfect height for resting your body by leaning your elbow on the quillons

Wearing the Sword

The sword is carried in a scabbard which is itself worn on your belt by a hanger—a straight-edged, trangular piece of leather that cradles the scabbard in its base—and a cincture—a strap that stabilizes the scabbard. Thibault specifies the dimensions of these accessories:

Hanger Length
The blade length × 0.311
Hanger Base
The blade length × 0.207
Cincture Length
The blade length × 0.414

Again, for myself:

  • Hanger Length: 13″
  • Hanger Base: 9″
  • Cincture: 18″

The hanger attaches to your belt in back, and the cinture in front. This causes the sword to hang securely toward the back of your hip, angled down behind your legs, with the hilt conveniently positioned for drawing.

Gripping the Sword

  • The quillons are horizontal
  • Your index finger wraps around the outside quillon
  • Your thumb rests on top of the inside quillon
  • Your other fingers grasp the handle
  • Your grip is relaxed, allowing the sword to cant forward in your hand
  • The pommel rests against the hollow of your wrist
  • Your palm faces inside and slightly down

If done correctly, this grip allows the blade to form a straight line with your forearm without bending your wrist, and equalizes your strength between the left and right edges. The ports of the hilt will be on the bottom.

At times you may have to alter your grip to maximize your strength toward one edge (e.g., when cutting). To do so, slip your thumb from on top of the quillon to below it, allowing the sword to rotate 90° clockwise in your hand.

If your sword has a knuckle guard, it will be on your inside when using Thibault’s standard grip. This can interfere with the cutting grip, so it is best to use a sword that doesn’t have a knuckle guard.

Drawing the Sword

  1. Grasp the mouth of the scabbard with your left hand
  2. Reach for the hilt with your right hand; your palm should face forward, with your index finger on top and your thumb on bottom
  3. Hook the quillons with your index finger (top quillon) and thumb (bottom quillon); your other fingers remain loose and relaxed
  4. Pull down and back on the scabbard while lifting the sword free
  5. Lift your right foot while drawing the sword up and a little forward
  6. Once the point clears the scabbard, tighten your other fingers to whip the point in an upward cut from left to right until it’s aligned with your forearm; this should put you in Thibault’s standard grip
  7. Allow the momentum to carry the point in a circle overhead
  8. Cut downward from left to right as you plant your right foot

Thibault prefers that you step forward when drawing, so as to intimidate your opponent, but admits that spatial limitations may sometimes necessitate stepping backward.

Approaching the Duel

You should be well out of distance when you draw your sword. Once that is done, approach the opponent in a relaxed, natural fashion, with your sword resting comfortably in whatever way you prefer. But govern your movements so that you come on guard the instant you enter into distance.

The Posture of the Straight Line

Come on guard thus:

  • Stand perfectly straight with your body completely profiled to the opponent
  • Your heels are about 1 foot apart
  • Your right foot points 45° to your left
  • Your right foot points 90° to your left
  • Your right arm extends straight out toward the opponent at shoulder level
  • Your left arm hangs down by your side
  • Your shoulders, right arm, and sword all lie on a single straight line pointed directly at the opponent
  • Your head is turned to face the opponent

It is important to note that the posture of the straight line, as defined above, is optimized against an opponent of the same height who also stands in the posture of the straight line. To adapt to shorter or taller opponents, or opponents who use different guard positions, you must understand what the posture of the straight line is meant to accomplish:

  • Protect the part of your body nearest the opponent’s point by interposing your hilt
  • Threaten the closest part of the opponent’s body with your own point

These guidelines will often place your sword roughly parallel to the opponent’s. If the opponent attempts to attack you directly, your hilt will deflect their point, and they will impale themselves on your blade as they advance. This forces them to either keep their distance or commit to a bind, which plays right into Thibault’s strategy.

The posture of the straight line is not meant to be held for long as a static guard position. Rather, it is a safe and convenient starting point for your operations. By assuming this guard at the very beginning of a duel, you force the opponent to take a more indirect route to close the distance, giving you time to observe the situation and respond appropriately.

Fundamental Rules

Thibault’s style is built upon a handful of basic principles:

  • Optimize your movements for natural body mechanics
  • Observe the opponent and respond intelligently
  • Exercise moderation rather than rushing to commit
  • Control the opponent’s actions rather than relying on guesswork
  • Prioritize your own safety above all else

Every other technique and tactic in the system is simply an application of the above rules.

Space

The concept of space encompasses principles and techniques for distance management and positioning.

The Circle

Thibault’s circle is a teaching aid placed on the training floor, sized according the the individual fencer, that provides checkpoints for many of the actions within the system.

A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Thibault’s Circle

The circle’s radius (from point C to the center) should be equal to your height from the soles of your feet to your navel. As such, the size of the above diagram will be slightly different for each fencer. In my case (72.75″ tall), the circle’s diameter (the line CX) is a little over 7 feet.

At the start of a duel, opponents stand on opposite corners. By convention, you are placed in corner A, and your opponent is placed in corner Z.

Distance

Thibault divides the space between fencers into three distances, which he calls instances. The definitions below assume you are facing an opponent of equal height and reach who stands at point X. Both of you are in the posture of the straight line.

First Instance
This is the distance at which the opponent’s point reaches your quillons. The opponent cannot hit you without stepping and leaning forward. This makes it a defensive distance that gives you enough time to recognize and react to threats. You enter this instance by stepping to point C.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Second Instance
This is the distance at which your point reaches the opponent’s elbow. You can hit the opponent by leaning forward. Importantly, you are just outside the opponent’s range (as long as they don’t lean forward). The purpose of this instance is to act as a transition point; after closing with the opponent, you decide to commit to your current attack, switch to a different attack, or retreat. You enter this instance by stepping to one of the points E or G.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Third Instance
This is the distance at which you can hit the opponent by simply extending your arm. It is here that you end a fight by either striking or disarming the opponent. You enter this instance by stepping to one of the points H or N.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z

Note that each instance closes the distance between you and the opponent by about half an arm’s length, which also happens to be the length of a natural step.

A fight is essentially nothing more than how you move through these instances.

Positioning

There are three safe positions:

  • Outside the First Instance: the opponent has to advance in order to hit you
  • Inside the Third Instance: the opponent has to retreat in order to hit you
  • Off the opponent’s straight line: the opponent has to turn in order to hit you

Footwork

Footwork is how you move your body through space.

Step
Move one foot away from the other in the direction you want to move. The other foot then follows to reset your stance. Your legs should not cross.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Pass
Move one foot past the other in the direction you want to move, allowing your body to turn and mirroring your stance.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Demi-Fleurette
Move one foot close to the other, then immediately move the other away in the direction you want to move.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Pivot
Turn your body by rotating on your feet while keeping them planted on the ground.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Volte
Pass one foot behind the other such that you pivot your body around the stationary foot.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Spin
Any combination of footwork (usually including a volte) that turns your body 360°.
Entering the Angle
Any footwork (usually a pass) that puts you inside the Third Instance and off the opponent’s straight line, such that your body is between your own blade and the opponent’s.

Rules of Space

  • Never have both feet planted on the ground at once; always be moving
  • Walk with straight (but not locked) knees
  • Prefer moderate steps (about half an arm’s length, or the distance between each Instance)
  • Never walk straight forward or backward; always incorporate some lateral movement:
    • Toward the opponent’s sword if you control it via the bind
    • Away from the opponent’s sword otherwise
  • Do not advance beyond the First Instance without controlling the opponent’s sword
  • If the opponent advances to the Second Instance, you can steal their movement to advance to the Third Instance
  • Try to claim the ideal position: off the opponent’s straight line and inside the Third Instance
  • Spinning is appropriate when it’s the easiest and fastest way to bring your point back online

Time

The concept of time provides a framework for deciding when you should act.

Duration

All actions are composed of one or more smaller movements. An action composed of more movements takes longer than one composed of less.

Each individual movement can cover a greater or lesser amount of space. The greater the space, the longer the movement.

As a rule, shorter actions and movements counter longer ones.

Commitment

Each individual movement can be further divided into three moments, based on the level of commitment (i.e., how hard it is to cancel and do something different):

  1. Before the action begins/after the action ends (no commitment)
  2. As the action begins (some commitment)
  3. As the action ends (full commitment)

Opportunities

Your opponent is most vulnerable once they have fully committed to a movement, since that is when it is most difficult for them to respond to your actions. This creates opportunities for you to act; for example:

  • As the opponent falls into their step
  • As the opponent commits to a change in sentiment
  • As the opponent accelerates their point offline
  • As the opponent throws all their strength into an attack

Pauses

You can defend your own vulnerable moments by inserting a brief pause just before you commit. Doing so may draw out the opponent’s response while you are still able to change course.

Rules of Time

  • Prefer short movements over long movements
  • Pause before committing to each of your own movements to assess the situation
  • Act against the opponent’s movements just as they commit so they can’t alter course

Control

Thibault provides the following tools with which to control the opponent’s actions. These tools allow you to move safely through the instances so you can end the fight.

Sentiment

Sentiment is the amount of force a fencer actively exerts on the bind. Your ability to feel and identify how much force the opponent is using allows you to know their intentions sooner than if you relied on sight alone.

There are nine degrees of sentiment, defined by how far the sword will leap if resistance is suddenly removed. In the following definitions, it is assumed that the swords are crossed over one of the points M on the circle:

Dead
The opposing blade offers no resistance, and does not react when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Sentiment
The opposing sword jumps to the nearest point L when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Alive
The opposing sword jumps to the diameter when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Lively
The opposing sword jumps almost to the farthest point L when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Livelier
The opposing sword jumps to halfway between the farthest points L and M when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Liveliest
The opposing sword jumps to just past the farthest point M when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Strong
The opposing sword jumps to just past halfway between the farthest points M and N when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Stronger
The opposing sword jumps to just shy of the farthest point N when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Strongest
The opposing sword jumps to the farthest point N when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z

In practice, these nine levels can be simplified to just five:

  1. Dead
  2. Sentiment
  3. Alive
  4. Lively–Liveliest
  5. Strong–Strongest

Sentiment will guide most of your decision-making. It is the central concept and key to mastery in Thibault’s system. You should practice identifying sentiment until you can accurately predict how the opponent’s sword will respond.

Degrees of the Sword

Thibault divides the sword blade into twelve spans called the degrees of the sword. These segments are numbered from one at the point to twelve at the hilt.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Degrees of the Sword

When two swords cross, the blade with the higher number at the point of contact has a leverage advantage over the other. This advantage can be changed by sliding the blades relative to each other:

Graduation
Increasing a sword’s mechanical advantage by sliding the point of contact closer to its hilt
Degraduation
Decreasing a sword’s mechanical advantage by sliding the point of contact closer to its point

Claiming the advantage of the degrees of the sword allows you to control the opponent’s blade without increasing your sentiment.

Bracing

Bracing is when you withdraw your sword by tucking your elbow against your side. Doing so augments your strength in the bind without increasing your sentiment, and allows you to thrust in close quarters.

Subjection

Subjection is the ideal and most direct way to control the opponent’s sword. It is performed thus:

  1. Cross your blade over top of theirs with a higher degree of the sword
  2. Turn your quillons to trap and press their blade
  3. Apply pressure by stepping in the direction your sword is pointing

Subjection closes off the most direct line of attack, forcing the subjected blade to take a longer, circular path, which in turn provides a safe opportunity for you to strike.

Obligation

Obligation is similar to subjection, but is performed from underneath instead of above. It is used to counter the opponent’s subjection without leaving the bind. The pressure you apply should be toward their face, so that they’ll be hit if they remove their blade.

Transportation

Transportation is an arcing transition from a position of obligation on one side of your body to a position of subjection on the other side.

Expulsion

Expulsion is a safe way to break engagement when the opponent uses weak sentiment. It is a rapid, forceful degraduation of the opponent’s sword that flings it out of position, leaving your own weapon free to act.

Followups to an expulsion usually conserve the momentum of your blade, resulting in either a cut or a spin into a thrust.

Disengagement

Disengagement is when you leave the bind by dropping your point and bringing it back up on the other side of the opponent’s blade. This can be done in two ways:

Point-Forward
Lower your point just enough to pass it underneath the opponent’s blade, then raise it again on the other side. This is usually followed by an estocade.
Point-Back
Raise your hilt slightly while lowering your point toward your rear, then raise it back up in a circular motion. This is usually followed by an estramason or reverse.

Disengagement releases the potential energy in the bind and causes the opponent’s sword to leap out of position, creating a safe opening for you to attack.

You should not disengage if the opponent’s sentiment is too low, since they will remain in control of their sword and be able to attack you while your point is offline. But disengaging is preferable to augmenting your own sentiment to near violent levels, since doing so opens you up to a disengagement from the enemy.

Rules of Control

  • Prefer control via the bind (i.e., subjection or obligation)
  • Bind in such a way as to guide the opposing blade to your hilt
  • Always be aware of sentiment
  • Use as much sentiment as you need, but no more
  • If the opponent’s sentiment is:
    1. Dead, take the center and estocade to their face
    2. Sentiment, expel their blade
    3. Alive, subject or oblige their blade
    4. Lively–Liveliest, either graduate your blade and resubject them, or allow them to push your sword aside as you pass forward and imbrocade around their blade
    5. Strong–Strongest, disengage and strike

Execution

Once you have gained the Third Instance, there are five techniques for ending a fight. All of them may be:

Arrested with courtesy
Halt the attack in front of the target, forcing a surrender
Executed with rigor
Drive the attack into the target with the intent to kill

Estocade

An estocade is a thrust performed with a straight arm, such that the line of attack can be traced back to your body. It is Thibault’s preferred strike, providing several advantages over the others:

  • The straight arm lengthens your reach
  • The direct straight-line path is shorter than any curved path
  • Your hilt remains between you and the opponent’s blade, providing simultaneous defense
  • As a thrust, it penetrates deeper into the target, making it more lethal

Imbrocade

An imbrocade is a thrust performed with a curved arm, such that the line of attack cannot be traced back to your body. While it is just as lethal as an estocade by virtue of being a thrust, it is inferior in almost every other way:

  • The bent arm shortens your reach
  • The curved path requires more time to hit
  • Your hilt does not protect you

But imbrocades possess one key advantage: their curved nature makes them harder to parry by allowing them to strike behind the opponent’s sword.

Estramason

An estramason is a cut thrown from your sword-hand side. Cuts with a rapier are generally inferior to thrusts:

  • They have a shorter reach
  • They take longer to execute
  • They leave you open to the opponent’s attacks
  • They aren’t as lethal

But in spite of these disadvantages, estramasons have their place if you are careful to observe the opponent’s sentiment.

When performing an estramason, it is necessary to alter your grip in order to achieve the proper edge alignment. Simply slip your thumb from on top of the quillon to underneath it, allowing your sword to roll 90° clockwise in your hand.

Due to their decreased lethality, it may require several estramasons to subdue an opponent.

Reverse

A reverse is identical to an estramason in every way, except that it is thrown from your offhand side.

Seizure

A seizure is when you grab the opponent’s hilt with your offhand while threatening them with your blade. Most often, this is accomplished by passing forward with your left foot to bring your offhand side forward.

Rules of Execution

  • Do not attempt execution outside of the Third Instance
  • Do not attempt execution without control
  • Use your entire body to power your strikes
    • Thrusts are driven by stepping toward the opponent, bending your knee, and leaning your body
    • Cuts are driven by stepping around the opponent and turning your body
  • Prefer estocades
  • Use imbrocades to circumvent moderate-sentiment parries and to counter the opponent’s imbrocades
  • Use cuts when your point has been forced too far offline for a thrust

Defenses

Parrying Estocades

The most straightforward method of defending against the opponent’s estocades is to subject their weapon. Once you’ve done that, you can counterattack from the bind in whatever manner is most convenient—usually an estocade at their face or body. This should be done while maintaining pressure on their blade and advancing to the Third Instance. This combination of pressure and forward movement will force their weapon out of the way. You should end with your hilt crashing against their blade, forcing their sword into a nearly vertical position from which it is impossible for them to attack you.

Parrying Imbrocades

Imbrocades can be a little tricker to parry than estocades. Subjection can work, but imbrocades are often delivered from a higher angle, which makes subjection more difficult. Also, a clever opponent can use the curved nature of the imbrocade to thrust around your subjection.

Thibault provides the following template for dealing with imbrocades:

  1. Parry with a counter-imbrocade while pivoting your body out of the way and stabbing them
  2. If a simple pivot isn’t enough to keep you safe, volte your body out of the way
  3. If your counter-imbrocade doesn’t hit the opponent, expel their blade as you spin, bringing your point around into a braced estocade from the other side

Parrying Cuts

Thibault has a unique method for defending against cuts. Rather than stop the cut in its tracks, Thibault catches and redirects the momentum, ending in a superior position that allows the fencer to control the opponent’s sword.

  1. As the cut begins, before it has gained momentum, place your blade’s 2 over top of the opponent’s 12
  2. As the cut descends, graduate your blade while simultaneously degraduating the opponent’s, shifting both weapons to your left or right as appropriate
  3. End with blades crossed near waist level in a position of subjection, with the opponent’s sword trapped underneath your hilt; alternatively, continue the motion with an expulsion
  4. From there, counterattack in the most convenient manner

Defending against Low Attacks

One of the main advantages of the posture of the straight line is that it maximizes your reach. If the opponent lowers their arm in order to attack your belly or legs, they reduce their reach; the farther down they aim, the shorter it gets.

You can exploit this to counter their attack by:

  1. Withdrawing your lead foot until it is even with your back foot
  2. Pulling your hips back while leaning your upper body forward
  3. Using the downward motion of your upper body to press your hilt against the opponent’s blade
  4. Directing your point into the opponent’s shoulder

Defending against Feints

Thibault classifies four types of feints, each with their own counter:

Type 1 Feint
The opponent’s point doesn’t pass your quillons; ignore it.
Type 2 Feint
The opponent’s point advances as far as your wrist; prepare to subject it.
Type 3 Feint
The opponent’s point advances as far as the middle of your forearm; start to subject it.
Type 4 Feint
The opponent’s point advances as far as your elbow; subject it and perform a counter-estocade.

These feints and their responses represent a continuum; the more the opponent commits to the feint, the more you commit to countering it.

Although your opponent might use feints, you should not, since they rely on guesswork rather than control.

Attacks

Attacks of Second Intention

A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Second-Intention Attack: Subjection Followed by Execution

Thibault’s preferred mode of attack is to do so in two distinct phases:

  1. Subject the opponent’s sword as you advance offline to the Second Instance
  2. Deliver an estocade to the opponent’s face as you advance offline to the Third Instance

This method provides the most secure defense, at the expense of giving the opponent greater opportunity to defend themselves. If the opponent attempts to parry during either phase of the attack, refer to the rules of control for how to respond.

Attacks of First Intention

A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
First-Intention Attack: Subjection and Execution at the Same Time

Although Thibault prefers second-intention attacks, he also provides a safe method for attacking in a single action (presented in two steps below for clarity):

  1. At the First Instance, slightly cross the opponent’s sword with your blade on top and your quillon underneath
  2. Take a large step, mostly forward and slightly to the side toward the opposing sword, while graduating blades and directing an estocade to the face

Again, the opponent may attempt to parry; refer to the rules of control for how to respond.

When making an attack of first intention, pay close attention to the opponent’s posture. If they are not standing in perfect profile to you, they will be weaker on the side they are turned away from:

  • If they are turned toward your outside, engage them on your outside
  • If they are turned toward your inside, engage them on your inside

Attacking the correct side will make it easier for you to control their blade.

Exercises

Thibault details hundreds of drills for practicing the mechanics of his system. I have selected a handful of what I believe represent Thibault’s core techniques, which can be found here.

Resources