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Two Takes on the Lunge

In rapier, lunging is THE foundational movement.  Sometimes we do a little less, such as throwing a half cut or performing a firm-footed lunge, and other times we do a bit more by following it up with a remise or a passing step.  The basic unit of measurement, however, remains the same.  So with that, how much disagreement can there really be?  That, dear reader, is what we shall explore today.

Let us begin by largely limiting the scope of today’s discussion in order to better illustrate a few fundamental differences in how the lunge might be performed.  To start, we are primarily going to be looking at two texts.  The first is Nicoletto Giganti’s 1606 rapier fencing treatise, published in Venice.  In contrast will stand Ridolfo Capoferro’s 1610 treatise, published in Siena.  We see the lunge (“accresciemento” in Italian) being described is texts as far back as Fiore dei Liberi’s circa 1400 text, Fior di Battaglia (the flower of battle, the title being a play on his own name).[1]  Giganti and Capoferro are the first two to really do such from such a profiled, back weighted guard stylized in order to favor a thrust-centric system.  Salvator Fabris shows us a similar technique in his 1606 manual, but starts from a forward-leaning posture.

To further narrow it down, I am just going to be looking at how the two authors lunge with just the single sword into quarta (fourth) and seconda (second).  The first is due to the fact that lunging with a sword and secondary (dagger, cloak, rotella, etc.) is explicitly informed by how you lunge with just the single sword.  While some earlier authors start off their texts instructing us in how to use the sword and buckler together, both Giganti and Capoferro stress the importance of learning how to use the sword alone before adding anything else in.[2][3]  Next, I picked the two guards of quarta seconda as these are the primary ones used for attacking, whereas prima and terza are depicted as significantly less frequently employed options.  Also, I acknowledge that the naming schema used for these guards, as first written down by Camillo Agrippa in his 1553 treatise, isn’t used by Giganti in his writings.  That said, it’s evident that Giganti and Capoferro are pulling from a shared vocabulary of northern Italian late 16th/early 17th century rapier pedagogy.  Also, it’s just plain going to be easier to discuss things if I use the same terms for both.

Now, back to the heart of the matter, how are we supposed to lunge?  The basics of it, at least going forwards, are agreed upon by both authors.  They want us to begin by extending our sword arm, then leaning our upper body forwards such that our face is behind our hilt, and then finally ending with a step of the front foot.  The order of operations is incredibly important as it allows us to minimize the risk of bring our body any closer to our opponent’s sword while still allowing us to deliver our thrust.  If we are close enough to strike just by extending the arm, then we don’t have to move ourselves any further into our opponent’s reach.  The same goes for if we can strike them with just an extension of the arm and the upper body.  Finally, if we are at a measure where a full lunge would be advised, this approach allows us to change course in the case that our opponent doesn’t choose to oblige and let us just blow right through their guard.  Once our foot leaves the ground, it has to come down.  Our hand and upper body, though, move across much more of a gradient and thus are easier to pilot in case of failure.

Practitioners of unarmed martial arts might find the order of operations here strange as it explicitly will not hit with the same level of force as firing everything at once.  This is indeed true and were we trying to punch through someone, or strike them with the mass of an object such as a stick or a mace, that advice would be prudent.  However, rapiers were very pointy and they were generally used against people who weren’t wearing any armor.  This means that the amount of force needed to go through our opponent’s wool doublet and out the other side was incredibly low.  So what matters more than the force at which we hit, is the speed we can deliver it and closing as many lines as possible.[4]

Alright, so if we get the same basic instructions, how do the two authors differ?  Well, that’s where the fun begins.  First, let us begin with the feet.  Capoferro gives us a nice breakdown of the geometry of his lunge having us start in an oblique stance with the back foot turned out and then turning it to form a right angle as part of his lunge.

Capoferro, plate 5

It’s a little hard to see, but if you look closely you’ll see that C, where he tells us to put the sole of our foot while in guard, is behind L where it turns to.  We also see him consistently depict standing guard before lunging with the back foot turned out.

Capoferro, plate 15
Capoferro, plate 6

In all of his successful lunges throughout the book we see his characters continuing to end with their back foot turned out to ninety degrees.

Capoferro, plate 14
Capoferro, plate 16

Giganti doesn’t write out any instructions on turning the foot in regards to the lunge, so we’re forced to rely solely on the pictures he provides.  In these we see both setting up in guard as well as lunging into positions where are feet either make an oblique angle or are at ninety degrees.  Thus we can surmise that he wasn’t especially picky on the matter.

Giganti, plate 2
Giganti, plate 4

As a note, the only times we see either of them turn the back foot in to make an acute angle and survive is with the right foot during a passing step.

Giganti, plate 10
Capoferro, plate 20
Capoferro, plate 17, not surviving.

Next, let us look at the lunge in quarta (with the hand supinated and the true edge turned to the inside line).  Here are two authors are in complete agreement for everything except one minor detail, the off-hand.

Giganti, plate 1
Giganti, plate 5

While he doesn’t write it out for us, it is clear by looking at the pictures that Giganti’s preference is to keep the elbow of the off-hand bent.  As we will see in just a little bit, Giganti tends to make more use of his off-hand than Capoferro does, so it makes sense that while profiling in order to lengthen his strike, he wouldn’t want his off-hand too far from the crux of the fight.

Capoferro, plate 5, again.
Capoferro, plate 16

Capoferro, on the other hand, explicitly tells us to throw our off-hand all the way back.  He writes, “While striking, the left arm should be extended as to form a straight line with the right arm,”[5]  This positioning does three things for us.  First, it essentially eliminates any threat to our off hand.  The metacarpals are small, delicate bones that don’t take lightly to getting hit by a sharp piece of steel.  There’s a reason earlier texts, such as the early 16th century Anonimo Bolognese, describe so many hits to the hand when fighting without overly complex hilts.  Hits to exposed hands work terrifyingly well even with very little force.  Second, pulling the arm back helps to profile the upper body, which limits the target area and extends how far we can reach.  Third, and this is something we will come back to in a little bit, throwing the arm back helps it to serve as a counterweight that aids us in recovering from the lunge.

How about the outside line?  How are we supposed to lunge in seconda?  Capoferro has us do essentially the same thing on both sides.  Extend the off-hand all the way back, profile the body, and aim for maximum reach.  You might lean slightly more to one side or the other, but otherwise things stay about the same.[6]  Giganti gives us a different suggestion.

Giganti, plate 6

When lunging on the outside line he shortens his reach a bit.  What he gets in return, though, is more lateral stability.  So if his opponent tries to push through his guard, he’ll be a little better set up than Capferro will be to resist.  This is consistent with how he performs a passing step as I noted here [link to article].  As well, this makes it easier for him to bring in the off-hand.

Finally, let’s look at how each master instructs us to recover from the lunge.  This part comes down more to a differing level of detail than difference in explicit instruction.  Now, the way I most commonly see this taught by instructors nowadays is saying that you should essentially reverse the order of the lunge; foot, body, arm.  Looking at the original texts, no one explicitly says to do this.  Capoferro just tells us to recover the foot before the arm but makes no explicit mention of the upper body.[7]  Giganti, on the other hand, gives us crystal clear instructions by telling us to recover by, “moving the head back first, then the body and lastly the foot.”[8]  The later authors, specifically Gorio and di Mazio essentially just tell us to get out of there as quickly as possible.  The only time we really get explicit instructions on starting the recovery from the foot are from the late 17th and 18th century authors, such as Terracusa, who are all using the “enervated” lunge that doesn’t involve leaning the torso forwards.  The exception to this is Marcelli, who in 1686 explicitly agrees with Giganti by telling us to pull back with the head-first, despite not having leaned into his lunge.[9]

What does this tell us about how to faithfully recreate this art?  Well, there are two to look at it.  The first is to say that when one author gives us explicit instructions and the other doesn’t, we should just default to the more specific one and thus should all be recovering head-first even if we are just trying to replicate Capoferro.  The other side to this is you could argue that Capoferro is sufficiently vague to the point that either a foot or a head-first recovery could be considered a valid interpretation and just because Giganti did it one way, doesn’t mean that Capoferro inherently followed suit.

We often take the fundamentals for granted and ignore them to focus on flashier techniques.  As the name suggests, though, they are the very foundation upon which all of our other techniques lay.  Hopefully this little exploration will help to further your understanding of the core mechanic of our art.


[1] Some people say that strictly speaking, it isn’t exactly accurate to lunge when doing longsword.  Those people are incorrect.  Fiore uses the same word “accresciemento” as is used in the later rapier manuals.  Specifically he uses it in the Getty manuscript when discussing what footwork options are available to us from posta dente al cinghara as a way of telling us to take a step forwards with the foot that is already in front.

[2] Giganti, page 5.

[3] Capoferro, page 21.

[4] Remember, we aren’t dealing with ballistic force here as our muscles are being engaged the entire time and we ideally aren’t letting go of our sword.

[5] Capoferro, page 14.

[6] Capoferro, page 13.

[7] Capoferro, page 23.

[8] Giganti, page 4.

[9] Marcelli, page 192.

Works Cited

Venetian Rapier, by Nicoletto Giganti, translated by Tom Leoni.

The Art and Practice of Fencing, by Ridolfo Capoferro, translated by Tom Leoni.

Rules of Fencing, by Francesco Antonio Marcelli, translated by Christopher A. Holzman.

Published by Arik Mendelevitz

A martial artist since the age of 8, I picked up a rapier for the first time in March of 2008 and have never looked back since.

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