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La Verdadera Destreza: Spanish Rapier Combat

Introduction

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
  • Girard 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.

Foundational Principles

La Verdadera Destreza is based on a set of basic concepts which can then be combined to form the core techniques.

Stance

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

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, 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.

Hand Positions

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.

Blade Angles

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:

Advantage of the Right Angle

Guard

With the basic stance, grip, hand positions, and blade angles, we can now define LVD’s one and only guard position:

  1. Assume the basic stance
  2. Grip the sword
  3. Position the hand fingernails in
  4. 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.

Lines

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).

Blade Movements

All actions of the sword are composed of the following simple movements:

Violent
Upward movement
Natural
Downward movement
Offline Lateral
Horizontal movement away from the center
Aligning Lateral
Horizontal movement toward the center
Backward
Backward movement
Forward
Forward movement
Mixed
Diagonal movement resulting from a combination of multiple movements
Dispositive
Movement away from the opponent, or that lacks the potential to wound; generally includes violent, offline lateral, and backward movements
Executive
Movement toward the opponent, 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.

Time

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 beat 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:

Propio
You act before the opponent has moved; you create your own opportunity
Apropiado
You act during the opponent’s movement; the opponent gives you an opportunity
Transferido
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.

Distance

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
Proportionate Measure
Offensive distance; the distance at which you can 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.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
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.

Techniques

All techniques in LVD are built from the foundational principles.

Footwork

Footwork in LVD is renowned for its use of offline steps illustrated by circular diagrams, such as the one shown below:

Footwork Diagram

Every line in the diagram is named for easy reference:

Diameter
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
Chords
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, the feet should turn so that they end in the correct position for the basic stance relative to the opponent.

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 Step Left
Move your left foot clockwise along the circumference of the major circle, followed by the right foot to reset your stance.
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 Step Left
Move your left foot forward and to the left along a chord of the major circle, followed by the right foot to reset your stance.
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.
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

Attacks

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
Thrust
1 forward movement; 1 movement total

The cuts and reverses each have three variants based on the angle of the attack:

  • Vertical
  • Diagonal
  • Horizontal

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

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:

  1. A violent movement to position your blade higher than the opponent’s
  2. An offline-lateral movement to form the cross
  3. 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 an the atajo’s angle is vital in performing a movement of conclusion.

Spirals

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, or half, ending in the line opposite to the one in which it started. In total, there are four possible spirals:

  • Full clockwise
  • Full counterclockwise
  • Half clockwise
  • Half counterclockwise

Spiraling is used to move the opponent’s sword, and is usually preceded by an atajo.

General Techniques

The general techniques (or simply “generals”) are four variations on the following template:

  1. Form atajo on the opponent’s sword
  2. Use a spiral to move the opponent’s sword
  3. 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
Narrowing
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

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.

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:

  1. Form atajo on the opponent’s sword
  2. Use footwork to close the distance and bring your left side forward
  3. Seize the opponent’s hilt with your left hand
  4. Threaten the opponent with your blade

Strategy

Defense is at the heart of LVD’s strategy. A spanish fencer’s defense comes in three layers:

  • Distance: Maintain your measure of proportion except to attack
  • Control: Subjugate the opponent’s weapon with an atajo or a movement of conclusion
  • Angles: Step offline instead of directly forward

An LVD fencer also prefers to force a surrender rather than execute their opponent.

Therefore, the basic battle plan in LVD looks like this:

  1. Enter your defensive distance and keep the opponent at bay with the guard of the right angle
  2. Subjugate the opponent’s weapon
  3. Step offline and into offensive distance
  4. Perform a movement of conclusion if feasible, execute a strike otherwise
  5. Retreat out of distance

Resources

  • 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 Girard 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