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Capoferro’s Rapier: Italian Rapier Combat

Introduction

Ridolfo Capoferro was an Italian fencing master during the 1600s. This article will focus on his system for the single rapier. This article is not an exhaustive description of Capoferro’s system, but rather an overview of what I see as the most important aspects, based on my own study.

Note that a right-handed fencer is assumed throughout this article. If you are left-handed, simiply reverse the right/left designations.

Stance

The basic stance is as follows:

  • Right foot points directly toward the opponent
  • Heel of the left foot is approximately 2 foot lengths directly behind the right foot
  • Left foot points outward 90°
  • Knees are aligned with their respective toes
  • Right knee is somewhat bent
  • Left knee is bent enough to almost eliminate the angle between the right thigh and torso
  • Weight is carried on the left leg
  • Hips and shoulders are turned toward the left foot almost 90°
  • Torso is leaned back slightly, so the right shoulder is placed halfway between the feet, and the left shoulder is directly above the left foot
  • The head is held back toward the left shoulder, and faces straight forward

Grip

  • Index 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, forming an obtuse angle with the forearm

Guards

The default position for all guards (except prima) is with the upper right arm extended toward the opponent at a downward angle, such that your elbow is roughly level with the bottom of your ribcage and directly over your right knee. The elbow is bent so that the forearm extends parallel to the ground, straight toward the opponent.

The guards describe only the orientation of the hand. The hand’s exact location in space can vary substantially depending on the need, although your arm should always remain extended as described above to maximise both reach and defense.

Prima
Knuckles face upward, palm to your right
Seconda
Knuckles face your right, palm downward
Terza
Knuckles face downward, palm to your left; Capoferro considers this the only “true guard” in which you should wait
Quarta
Knuckles face your left, palm upward

Measure

Measure is the distance between the point of your sword and the body of your opponent. When you are close enough that you can strike your opponent (with or without the aid of footwork), you are in measure. Otherwise, you are out of measure.

Capoferro defines three measures:

Wide Measure
You can reach the opponent by stepping forward with your right foot
Narrow Measure
You can reach the opponent by leaning forward without stepping
Narrowest Measure
You can reach the opponent even if you step backward

If you are out of measure, you should not attempt to strike the opponent; doing so would be fruitless, and provide the opponent with information. Similarly, if the opponent is out of measure and attempts to strike you, you should not respond; you are not in any danger, and you don’t want to feed the opponent any information about how you might respond to a real attack.

Note that two combatants may have different measures. A fencer with a long reach may be in measure while their opponent is still out of measure.

Tempo

The concept of tempo has several differing, but related, meanings. First, it can describe how long an attack takes:

Primo Tempo
Striking the opponent in a single action
Dui Tempi
Striking the opponent as the second of two actions (e.g., a parry and a counterattack)

It may also describe when you attack:

Mezzo Tempo
Striking the opponent’s advanced limbs from wide measure
Contra Tempo
Striking the opponent when they try to strike you

Finally, there are a handful of “tempi of opportunity”, moments in which it is safe to attack:

  • As the opponent moves their forward foot
  • As the opponent changes guards
  • As the opponent raises their hand to strike
  • After you have parried an attack
  • After you have dodged an attack

Line

A line is an imaginary path along which the combatants or their attacks may travel.

Straight Line
The line that directly connects both combatants
Oblique Line
Any line that originates from one combatant, but passes by the other
Inside Line
The line from your opponent to your body on the left of your sword
Outside Line
The line from your opponent to your body on the right of your sword

Footwork

Rapier footwork travels almost exclusively along the straight line between combatants. Additionally, the right foot almost always stays in front. When actually performing a step, first move the foot corresponding to the direction you want to go, followed by the other, such that you end in your original stance. This prevents your legs from crossing, which preserves your balance.

Moving only the front foot, while keeping the back foot planted, results in the footwork for a lunge.

Gathering steps (in which one foot draws near the other) are used to prepare for a larger step, but aren’t terribly common.

Passing steps (in which one foot draws near and passes the other) are even rarer, although they do occur when necessary for certain techniques.

Strikes

Thrusts

A thrust is an extension from a point-forward position. There are three variants:

Imbroccata
Thrust from prima
Stoccata
Thrust from terza
Punta Riversa
Thrust from quarta

The thrust is the primary rapier strike, and this is most often delivered via a lunge. The lunge is performed thus:

  1. Extend your sword arm directly toward the target
  2. Once the arm is fully extended, lean your torso toward the target
  3. When you can’t lean any farther, straighten the back leg and bend the forward knee
  4. Just before you lose your balance, step forward with your lead foot about one foot length
  5. Pivot the back foot on its ball so that the toes point outward 135°
  6. Bend the lead knee so that it is just past the toes of the lead foot
  7. Your left hand may be thrown behind you to align your shoulders and extend your reach, or held in front of your face for defense

Some important things to note as you perform the lunge:

  • Your lead foot must always point along the line of the lunge
  • Your knees must always point in the same direction as their respective toes
  • Your shoulders should remain aligned along the direction of the lunge
  • The ball of your back foot must remain planted on the ground; the foot must not drag or roll
  • Don’t step too far with the lead foot

To recover from a lunge, simply reverse the steps to return to your original stance:

  1. Straighten the lead knee
  2. Pivot the back foot so it points 90° to your left
  3. Step backward about one foot length with your front foot
  4. Bend the back knee
  5. Lean torso backward
  6. Retract your arm

Note that your arm, and therefore your sword, is the first to strike and the last to recover. This ensures that your sword is always protecting you.

Cuts

Cuts are rarely used since they take longer and cannot provide simultaneous defense. Thrusts should be preferred, falling back to cuts if necessary.

Mandritto
Descending diagonal cut from your right
Mandritto Fendente
Nearly vertical mandritto
Mandritto Tondo
Horizontal mandritto
Mandritto Montante
Rising diagonal mandritto
Mandritto Stramazzone
Any mandritto preceded by an inward twirl of the wrist
Riverso
Descending diagonal cut from your left
Riverso Fendente
Nearly vertical riverso
Riverso Tondo
Horizontal riverso
Riverso Montante
Rising diagonal riverso
Riverso Stramazzone
Any riverso preceded by an outward twirl of the wrist
Falso Dritto
False-edge mandritto montante
Falso Manco
False-edge riverso montante

Stringering

One of the key techniques in Italian rapier is that of stringering the opponent’s sword. This is when you control or restrict the opponent’s actions by aligning the forte of your blade with the foible of theirs. If the opponent attempts to strike, the leverage advantage provided by this alignment will prevent their attack from landing. If you attempt to strike the opponent, the leverage advantage will push their sword out of the way, clearing a safe path for your attack. You can further augment this advantage by aligning your blade’s true edge with the opponent’s false edge.

It may be helpful to visualize a cone between you and your opponent. The cone’s base is centered on your shoulder, its point centered on your target. Your hilt describes the radius of the cone’s base, and your blade describes the cone’s surface. As the opponent’s blade slides toward you along this cone, from the point to the base, it must necessarily move away from the center. The greater the cone’s radius, as defined by the offset of your hilt, the greater the displacement.

Capoferro stresses that, when stringering the opponent, you should avoid touching their blade until the moment of striking. This is because touching blades gives the opponent tactile information; they can “feel” your intentions and predict your next move. By avoiding contact until the last possible moment, you deny them that information, and they may not even realize they’ve been stringered until it is too late.

Generally, you should never strike an opponent without stringering them first, since that would leave your opponent free to perform a simultaneous strike.

There are two possible counters to being stringered. One is to reverse the leverage advantage by shifting your forte toward the opponent’s foible. The other is to perform a disengage: pass your point underneath the opponent’s blade and bring it back up on the other side while simultaneously changing guards so that your true edge aligns with their false edge.

References

  • Italian Rapier Combat by Ridolfo Capoferro, translated by Jared Kirby
  • The Duellist’s Companion by Guy Windsor
  • Introduction to Rapier by Nick Thomas