Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Extended Guards - What Is Fabris Thinking?

Let's pick this blog back up again by starting with a topic that was cued by a comment at a fencing practice I was at this past weekend. Namely, what is Fabris thinking with his single rapier guards being so extended?

That's a pretty fair question, I think! Let's take a look at what he has to say about this and kick around why he espouses this idea. (In subsequent entries, we'll look at his ideas for rapier and dagger guards, and contrast them a bit.)

Fabris describes three broad ways to hold the sword. First with the sword held at an angle and the arm "not much extended," and the hand in third, over the right knee or in second just to the outside of the knee. This is, essentially, the generic fencing guard that many new people fall into out of habit. Second is with the arm "quite withdrawn" and the sword in line with the elbow.

Third though, is with the arm extended and the sword extending from the shoulder. This is what Fabris focuses on, especially with his single rapier guards (Approximately half of Fabris' single guards could be described as extended; it's a higher percentage if you discount his examples of "poorly formed" guards.) However, he does immediately note two issues that the fencer will need to be aware of. First is the fatiguing nature of the guard, and second is the fact that the sword will be easier to find when it is held - meaning the fencer will need to be much more on the ball to keep it free. At this point, Fabris really goes into why he prefers the third variation at good length.

The first points that Fabris makes about an extended guard really have to do with distance. In effect, your point will be closer to your opponent, meaning that he needs to begin dealing with it sooner than he otherwise might, if the arm were not so extended. Your openings will be small, and if he wants to gain a large degree of control over your blade (or as Fabris puts it here "places his forte to your debole and goes for the attack") you will be able do readily defend yourself. Additionally, the extension of your arm means that you will have somewhat more time to defend yourself if he tries this, because he will need to pass his point well beyond your forte before he reaches your body. Despite needing to pass so far to reach you, Fabris does again note that it is "laborious to maintain your point in line," and even a small motion in your hand could create a large enough opening for your opponent to capitalize on. Finally, he points out that you need to "restrict your step" and keep your lower body out of range, which leads to the very distinctive postures that Fabris is perhaps most well known for.

(As an aside, I just want to point out how much it amuses me that Fabris will consistently keep pointing out how difficult some of his recommendations are. The extended arm, the stances, everything. He keeps saying that they're hard and require practice and can't be kept up for long. On the other hand, he's very clear about why he recommends them, what the alternatives are, and especially in the case of stances says that if you can't do them yet you should practice but that upright stances are just fine as long as you know the pros and cons of your posture.)

Fabris then moves to noting how best to lunge with this style of guard. He is very clear that your arm should remain still and let your body and feet carry the blade to the target. In effect, as long as your sword is pointing where you want it to go, "point control" as it is usually practiced in the SCA becomes far less relevant; rather, you just point and lunge and as long as your blade and arm haven't wavered, you strike where you want. Removing the extension of the arm from the lunge and strike process does a great deal for improving targeting, provided you keep it still, but it sure does take a whole lot of effort to remain in that guard.

Finally, Fabris spends the bulk of the chapter discussing angles of the blade. He begins by noting that people who hold their sword at an angle, typically in Third or Second, above or just outside their leading knee, do "fortify their sword" but at the cost of distance and in giving larger openings. He goes on to note that angled guards in Third make for larger (and therefore slower) cavazioni. Second is better for that, but not as good a guard against people who know how to avoid your forte.

He summarizes his thoughts on angles by saying that "angles are good for the offense but poor for the defense." Angled blades can work well against other angled blades as well as straight blades, but it is more difficult for straight blades to defeat one another. If you are attacking against an angled blade, he cautions you to have the advantage of not just the sword, "but also of body and foot," otherwise the dreaded double hit is at risk.

Fabris takes the time to say that "it is profitable to utilize all of these techniques as the occasion requires; he who is familiar with all of them has the benefit of knowing their nature and the effects that can derive from each." No technique is universally effective, and you should have a broad understanding of as many as possible. Sometimes you need a withdrawn blade, or a very angled one, despite the fact that in general, Fabris feels that a more extended guard is better. General rules are a sound guideline, but specific situations trump general rules all the time.

Fabris wraps all of this thinking up up by saying, "In order to be safest of all, you should hold your sword arm not quite extended, but more extended than not, with the sword directed straight toward the opponent or just out of line as the opponent's posture calls for." The forte of your sword can protect your body, and require small motions at most to do so. It's less fatiguing than being completely extended, but you can still derive most of the benefits from it as though it were. Finally, it's a bit harder for your opponent to "sneak an attack under your sword" because you'll be more mobile with your blade.

The chapter closes with Fabris reiterating that all stances have shortcomings, and that you need to be able to adapt to the opponent and the situation as necessary.

There we have it! Fabris presents his opinions very well, and I think it's difficult to argue with them. Granted, I do agree that "this is a very tiring stance" isn't entirely a bad reason to not work with a more extended guard, but conditioning is part of fighting and solo work is a fantastic time to work on strengthening stances and guards.

I find though, that using an extended guard really does require you to be very on the ball in almost every way - and in ways that you can get away without doing if you're in a more withdrawn and angled guard. The very moment that your opponent gets their blade on your debole, you must deal with it. Granted, you can deal with it using a very small motion, but you cannot hesitate. Similarly, the moment you do this, or see an opening in general, you need to pounce. While you can withdraw your blade while stepping off-line somewhat to counter your opponent if they decide to quickly close past the point of your blade, frankly, it's better to just not give them that option in the first place. Parrying from an extended position is difficult, and Fabris isn't a fan of parrying in any case. Rather than engaging in prolonged back and forth exchanges, this will tend to make you want to move in and execute your opponent cleanly. While that's simply better overall, I think it's telling that the body mechanics itself support that far better than anything else.

Next, we'll take a look at Fabris' dagger guard concepts! He has a trend, I think, of having the dagger far more extended than not, and the sword held somewhat back. Once we go through those concepts, we can throw them up against the extended single guard, and see what's what.


  1. I've been transitioning from a Capo Ferro/Giganti style guard to the Fabris style extended guard (as much as my knees and back allow) because I find this guard better makes up for my deficiencies.

    Capo Ferro gives you a longer lunge, thus allowing you more reach, but at the coast of speed - it takes time to cover all that space. Since I'm slow but tall and long-armed, I find I need an advantage of speed more than an advantage of reach. The Fabris guard gives me that, since it's effectively half-way into a Capo Ferro lunge already...

  2. You have the right of it mostly. Bear in mind that Fabris's withdrawn guards are still mostly point in line and not refused guards so beloved of many SCA fencers. Fabris uses the extended guard to fully exploit the strength of the straight line over an angle. And yes, an extended guard is open to being found - in a way the extended guard is both a threat and an invitation - the opponent must remove that threat to continue and you know this so you should be prepared to act on the tempo they create in trying to remove it. It also starts you down the path that moving the body behind the sword instead of moving the sword in front of the body is a stronger technique. Also remember that in the extended guards, the elbow remains relaxed and not locked even at the full extension. Once I fully adopted Fabris 13 some odd years ago, my elbow problems went away.

    1. Yeah, I'm going through his dagger guards for a similar post, and I'm noticing that even with the sword refused positions there that point in line is an overarching theme. I'm looking forward to starting to compare his reasoning for different guards against one another; I'm not sure if any great revelations will fall out of that, but it'll be a great learning exercise regardless.

      I like the way you describe the technique though - body behind the sword rather than the sword in front of the body. That encapsulates it in a way that clicks with me.

      The tactics, explanations, and theory of Fabris aside, I have to say that I'm a fan of anything that reduces my elbow problems. Being able to continue doing this injury-free is a growing priority for me as the calendar inches forward.