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How to Teach Feints

Recently a good friend of mine asked for some advice on how to teach feints.  Thankfully I had just spent a couple of months working on a sequence to help teach just that to one of the folks at my local practice.  Please note that this sequence is set up to teach the fundamentals of feinting the thrust with a single rapier.  There is of course always more to add on the subject.  However, if you’re in the market for a jumping off point or just want to revisit an old topic through a new lens, hopefully you’ll find this helpful.

In essence, you break it down into a decision tree where there’s only two available paths at any point. Eventually you can add more, but getting rid of that white noise early on will make the whole process easier.

The first step is to build good lunge mechanics. Feints aren’t going to work if they’re going foot, body, sword. While there are exceptions, the standard feint is going to be sword, then body, then wait to see what your opponent does, all without committing weight onto your front foot. Only then do you get to strike.

After that, if you haven’t already, you need to build strong finding and gaining mechanics.  Feints are an advanced technique and there’s a reason Giganti waits until plate 8 to start addressing them.  Just like with the lunge, you need a solid foundation before you can start adding on all the bells and whistles.  From the other side a feint should look just like any other strike coming in, otherwise people aren’t going to bite on them.  Your opponent needs to feel threatened in order to stir up a reaction.  If they don’t feel threatened, they’ll either ignore you or seize your tempo and punish you for your mistake.

The next step is to figure out which line is open. Never feint to a closed line. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve seen just throw committed attacks straight into a closed line.  Encourage your students to learn from other people making those mistakes for them.  Anyhow, have them approach the edge of measure, feint to either the inside or the outside line. whichever is already open. From there one of two things will happen. Option one: their opponent doesn’t move. Giganti points this out in every single feint and tells us to just stab the person. Option two: their opponent moves to parry. In that case the response is to disengage, use the sword to close the line on the other side, and strike. There should be the slightest of pauses to see what their opponent is going to do. If they just go through the whole series of actions without waiting for a response, they are going to run their face straight on to their opponent’s sword. Far too many folks, especially on the younger end (ask me how I know), have a tendency to be too fast for their own good.  Speed is a helpful tool to have, but it if it means they’re always jumping the gun, it’s going to star being a hindrance.  The other common mistake here is not properly closing the new line with the sword.  There is a time and a place to bring the off hand in, but that’s something you’re going to want to throw in on top of good blade mechanics, not instead of good blade mechanics.

Have them do this whole sequence on both the inside and outside lines.  Lots of folks, especially right-handed fencers, only train for how to fight on the inside line.  If your students/drill partners are comfortable on both the inside and the outside, they’re instantly going to have a huge leg up on a large amount of the competition.  Any of your left-handed students who have been around for awhile are probably already decent at this as being on the outside line is just going to naturally happen more frequently for them lining up against right-handed fencers who want the fight to be on their own inside lines.  This is also the core of the reason rapier fighters complain about fighting lefties.  Unlike with longsword, the strikes aren’t all that different as most everything is just a straight thrust.  It’s that beginning to intermediate right-right handed fencers aren’t used to having to close their outside lines.

After the student gets that down, change who’s approaching. So now instead of them coming forwards, it’s you who steps in to find their sword in wide measure. Once you’ve committed to that action, they feint.

Do this on both sides.

After that work on feint-direct vs. feint-disengage.  For reference a feint-direct is what you have already been doing where the feint is on the line you’re already on.  A feint-disengage is just feinting with a disengage.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the final strike is delivered with a disengage, just that the initial lie is given in the form of a disengage. Eventually you’ll get to adding in a second disengage or even a half disengage after the feint, but that comes later.  Also, as a note, the feint-disengage is going to pop up more frequently, but I have personally found the feint-direct is easier for students to initially approach.  This can vary student to student, though.  My recommendation is to start with whichever one is easier for that student to comprehend.  Unlike with the lunge and finding and gaining, there isn’t a hierarchy here.  All that matters is getting the material through in a way that will click with the other party.

Next, have them deliver a feint disengage going from inside to outside as well as outside to inside.

With that done, now cross apply the previous part as to who is approaching and who is receiving. Once you’ve done that with the feint-disengage, you essentially build a matrix of feint-direct/feint-disengage, approaching/receiving, inside/outside.

With that done, start adding more and more actions on to the front end. It’s important to remember that the plays in the books shouldn’t be read as purely opening actions. Often-times they’re showing us a clip having started partway through the video. So, feel free to take any of the plays from plates 1-7 and then tack on a feint to the end. By burying the lead and having them throw the feint in as a later part of a sequence, it will create a safe environment to stress test their technique and force their brain to recall the technique in the midst of a mildly stressful situation as opposed to in during the quiet tranquility of feinting from stillness.  Doing this will help to bridge that gap between tightly prescribed drills of one to two actions and the chaos that is the fight itself.  I have seen too many schools only drill short, scripted sequences and then when their students go out into the larger world, they wonder why it is they’re getting smoked by people who seemingly have worse mechanics than they do.

It’s this last part of the progression, adding things in before the feint itself, that tends to trip people up.  Often-times folks will try and feint from stillness during a fight, because that’s what they were taught to do during drills, and then get frustrated that none of their feints are working (the other reason is bad mechanics, but we already covered that).  Approaching any technique in a vacuum is a helpful way of refining the mechanics needed, but it’s important to remember that mechanics alone are not the whole picture.  A feint, unlike finding and gaining, is at its core a psychological trick.  The dumber we can make our opponent be, the easier it becomes to pull the wool over their eyes.  The way we do this isn’t by putting something in their drink, but is instead by overloading their brain.  The further down the decision tree we get, the more fatigued our minds become.  The more fatigued our minds become, the less intelligent they become.  So that means that the best time to throw a feint isn’t at the outset when your opponent is standing there at full capacity.  Instead, it’s a couple moves in when folks are ready to jump at anything that moves.

The important themes here are: 1) Proper lunge order/mechanics. 2) Having to pick from only two options at any time, which are dictated by what our opponent does/doesn’t do. 3) Understanding that people get dumber the further down the decision tree they get and using that to our advantage.

It all boils down to, “Did they not move? Stab them right there.” “Did they move? Stab them somewhere else.” There’s a reason Giganti puts that warning on each and every feint.

Bonus lesson!

Did you both make it through that whole progression and are hungry for more?  Wonderful, I now have a justification for all the sword books I keep getting for Hannukah.

The short version is that now you’re going to start tacking things on to the end instead of the beginning.  So, if you open with a feint-direct, have the other side move to parry both the initial feint as well as the strike coming off the disengage on the new line.  Then, as they go to parry your second motion, just disengage back and strike them on the original line.  On this one, as well as on the standard feint-disengage[1], it will help to make that first disengage a bit wide with your tip pointing outside of their silhouette.  Especially if they’re already relying on their lizard brain to react at this point, going wide will cause them to parry wider than normal, leaving a nice open window for you to enter through.  The only reason this works is because you’re getting them to make a mistake in a way in which you can predict from the get-go.  If you just start throwing attacks wide, they’re not going to work.

If your opponent is especially fast, though, and you can’t seem to find the time to get through the entirety of that second disengage, there is another option.  After your first disengage, instead of drawing a half circle on the way back, just draw a quarter circle and slip your blade underneath your partner’s hilt.[2]  Unless you feel like dropping your body really far down into a passata sotto, my suggestion would be to bring in off hand and place it on either their hilt or their forte.  This one also tends to work better with a pass than with a lunge.

For furthering reading, here’s the link to the free online translation of Giganti’s text.  A book that, in my opinion, is the most easily approachable of all the period fencing texts.  As well, everything I that I covered today can be found in the first ten plates of his work.

If you prefer to hold the book in your hands, you can order a printed translation here:

[1] Giganti, plate 8.

[2] Giganti, plate 9.

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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