Category Archives: Practice

Gloves And Hilts

Notes Towards Choosing Sidesword Gloves

Gloves come up fairly regularly in every HEMA Facebook group I pay attention to. It’s especially bad for those of us doing sidesword, because we need nearly as much protection as the longsword folks, and have to put them in a hilt nearly as complex as the rapier folks. Well, I’m not going to tell you what gloves to get for sidesword (I don’t really have this entirely solved myself), but just think that these facts should at least be relevant to your decision-making process on gloves.

  1. If you are cutting with proper body mechanics, your sidesword can hit almost as hard as a longsword.
  2. Hands are remarkably delicate, with many small bones.
  3. People’s tolerance for injury varies considerably – one person may think a few broken bones now and then are fine, another may find this unacceptable.
  4. The impact a broken finger has on your life may vary considerably (one of my training partners, after two surgeries, a pin in his pinkie, and two years of recovery, still can’t fully grip a sidesword; other people get a minor fracture and are mostly recovered in a 3 – 4 weeks).
  5. Plain leather gloves do very very little to protect against high-intensity shots from a sidesword.
  6. Your hand is the easiest target for your opponent, and many historical masters direct their students to attack the hand.
  7. Some people say “if you can’t defend your hands you should be drilling, not doing freeplay”, but there is nothing magical about freeplay – high intensity drilling, that includes teaching you to protect your hands, will include moments where you get hit in the hands, and those hits count too.
  8. No one can drill to the point where they guarantee no hits to their hands – the only way to accomplish that is to make sure you never fence anyone better than yourself.
  9. Fencing people who are better than yourself is one of the keys to growing as a martial artist.
  10. In general, the more protective a glove is, the more it interferes with technique.
  11. Wrist cuts (tramazzone in the Bolognese systems) are fundamental to most sidesword use, and often very hard or impossible to do with heavy gloves on.
  12. A video of a glove showing high mobility may mean nothing. The guy in the video is wearing that glove with just a t-shirt and the wrist mobility is great, but when you wear it with forearm protectors your wrist can’t move; the glove fits in the guard great for the guy in the video, but you can’t get it into your guard at all. Videos and testimony are fine, but not a guarantee that you will have the same results.
  13. Every glove is a compromise between protection and mobility.
  14. You can use lighter gloves with higher intensity by having the hilt do more of the protective work – using a schiavona with light gloves allows for higher intensity than using an arming sword with light gloves, for example. However, this is still a compromise – the additional weight and size in the hilt makes the sword handle differently than a simpler hilt. (HT to the excellent Richard Cullinan for this point.)
  15. There is no right answer on the compromise – you have to decide, for your context, what makes sense.
  16. Don’t expect the wrong results from your compromise – if you favor protection, understand that your technique will suffer; if you favor mobility, you accept higher risk of injury.
  17. It’s perfectly legitimate to have different gloves for different purposes. Just remember which gloves you’re wearing and operate according to the compromise that they represent.
  18. Going slow and/or limiting shots to the hands is a compromise in technique just as much as wearing super-protective gloves that prevent certain techniques.
  19. Gloves are only one part of keeping your hands safe – the control of your partner is another component. Control and gloves are not interchangeable – neither one protects you from what the other one does. You can go without gloves with low intensity and extremely high control; there is no level of glove that will keep you safe without control, however.
  20. Everyone offering advice is doing it from the compromises they are willing to accept, based on their values. The most helpful advice acknowledges what is given up if you follow their recommendation; the worst advice pretends like their solution doesn’t make you compromise anything.
  21. Good luck.

Notes Towards an Intro Class Strategy

A friend of mine is starting a Bolognese study group and thinking about lessons. I’ve been interested in starting my own Bolognese group for a while, but life has conspired to make that not work out yet. (But hopefully not too far in the future…) I’ve put a bit of thought into my introductory class strategy, and I thought I’d post it here. This has not been tested, so I expect that it will change quite a bit once I get things up and running. Use at your own risk (but tell me how it works out and what you needed to change, please!).


  • The class I’m leading will be focused on Dall’Agocchie’s single sword
  • The class will meet for two hours, once a week
  • While you often get a mix of experience, I’m assuming that the class is mostly (or entirely) made up of people with no HEMA experience, and probably little to no fencing or other martial arts experience


  • Everyone leaves the class healthier than they came in (HT to Guy Windsor)
  • The students understand the different parts of the sword (true and false edge, strong and weak of blade, blade is both a lever and a ramp, etc.)
  • The students can go through Dall’Agocchie’s Stepping in the Guards
  • The students have begun learning the Duel in One Month section
  • The students have begun learning to be good training partners

Basic Outline of Class:

  • Salute In
  • Warmups
  • Theory
  • Footwork drills (empty hand)
  • Stepping in the Guards
  • Drills from Duel in One Month
  • Freeplay
  • Salute Out

How much time you spend on each section of this would vary, and as the students learn more, a few things will naturally evolve from this:

  • The Theory section (always short and to the point to begin with) will shrink, and this will drop from class – the students should be able to read the text for themselves, and conversations will happen outside of classtime as needed. Less talk, more rock.
  • Start adding variations on the Stepping in the Guards, not just doing it strictly by the book (I’ll write a post on some of variations I use soon).
  • Add decisions to the Duel in One Month drills (so the student is initially learning to defend against a single attack in any given drill, but eventually has two or three or more possible attacks they might need to defend against in the drill).
  • Work on Duel in One Month drills starting with left foot forward – same defenses, but alter footwork appropriately (leverage things they already know as they starting learning to use the left-foot forward guards).

Given that the Duel in One Month has defenses against every incoming attack from two different guards, it will take a while to get students to the point that they are fully competent using this at speed. Dall’Agocchie’s own assessment is that he could teach this to someone in one month, but he thought they still probably wouldn’t be successful using it in a point of honor – it’s just not enough time to really get good at timing. I believe that he is also assuming daily, not weekly, lessons. But using this as a foundation means that the students will be able to have something they can use in bouts fairly quickly – and I believe that this would give them a fantastic foundation for learning the rest of Dall’Agocchie’s system, or any of the other related Bolognese systems.

Hope I get to try this out soon.

Dall’Agocchie’s other solo form

One of the things that Giovanni Dall’Agocchie’s Dell’Arte di Scrimia is best known for among today’s martial artists is his unaccompanied sword form. (This starts on 11recto – page 12 of William Jherek Swanger’s translation.)

What I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere is Dall’Agocchie’s sword and dagger (or sword and cloak) form. That’s probably because he doesn’t explicitly describe such a form. But I believe that it is strongly implied in the text.  To prove that, we need to look at the order in which he talks about guards.

There are two main orderings of guards he uses, which I am going to call the “pedagogical order” and the “form order”.  The pedagogical order is used throughout the book whenever Dall’Agocchie is walking through a list of actions.  This includes discussions of defenses, provocations, and counters to provocations. All of these are described depending on your starting guard. First you get the defenses from coda lunga stretta, then the defenses from coda lunga alta, and so on.

The order in which the guards are worked through is always identical. When using this for unaccompanied sword, ignore the dagger position, and do not use the final guard (it is only used when you have an accompanying weapon):

  • sword in coda lunga stretta, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro
  • sword in coda lunga alta, dagger in porta di ferro alta
  • sword in porta di ferro stretta, dagger in coda lunga alta
  • sword in cinghiale porta di ferro, dagger in guardia di testa
  • guardia d’alicorno with the right foot forward, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro
  • guardia d’alicorno with the left foot forward, dagger in porta di ferro alta

The “form order” only appears twice in the book. When telling us “how to step in the guards” the order we get is:

  • Advancing:
    • coda lunga stretta
    • cinghiale porta di ferro
    • porta di ferro stretta
    • coda lunga alta
    • guardia d’alicorno
  • Retreating:
    • porta di ferro stretta
    • coda lunga alta
    • porta di ferro stretta
    • cinghiale porta di ferro
    • coda lunga stretta

Note that the retreating section is basically “unwinding” the forward section.

On 35recto (page 40 of Swanger’s translation) Dall’Agocchie tells us how to “step in guards” when we use the sword and dagger:

  • sword in coda lunga stretta, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro alta
  • sword in cinghiale porta di ferro, dagger in guardia di testa
  • sword in porta di ferro (stretta implied), dagger in coda lunga alta
  • sword in coda lunga alta, dagger in porta di ferro alta
  • sword in guardia d’alicorno, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro

Please note:

  1. While Dall’Agocchie does not give us explicit directions about what cuts and thrusts we are using here (as he does in the unaccompanied form), he does make it clear that the sword is moving from guard to guard in this section (for example, “But when your sword falls into porta di ferro…”).
  2. He uses the same phrase as used to describe the unaccompanied form – this is “stepping in guards”.
  3. He mentions the guards in the same order as the Advancing half of the unaccompanied solo form.
  4. He ends by pointing out that this applies whether stepping forward or back.
  5. This is the only time other than the unaccompanied solo form when guards are presented in this order.
  6. This is the only time when accompanying arms are discussed and guardia d’alicorno is not discussed as two separate guards (one right foot forward, one left foot forward).

All of this adds up to my belief that Dall’Agocchie intended this as an accompanied solo form, to match the unaccompanied solo form presented earlier. I’ve never seen this mentioned in any of the Bolognese discussions online, but are any of you already practicing this form?

The simplest footwork drills

I learned this drill from my teacher, Maestro Eric Myers:

  • Start with a right foot forward guard.
  • Take two advances
  • Take one retreat
  • Repeat until you run out of space
  • Take two retreats
  • Take one advance
  • Repeat until you’re back where you started from
  • Switch to left foot forward guard. Do it again.

Not so fast! These things make this worthwhile:

  • Change of direction is the crucial part. It’s not how fast you can do the two advances, it’s how fast you can transition from advances to retreats. (Without cheating on the second advance – finish it before you start the retreat.) If you don’t make change of direction the focus, then I don’t think there’s much value in this exercise.
  • Don’t cheat on the change of direction: the second forward step must be complete before you begin the retreat. (This was worth repeating.)
  • Keep your shoulders completely level throughout – they should not bob up and down at all.
  • Keep good foot position throughout – at the end of every step, your feet should be exactly the same distance apart.  Your feet should be in a correct guard position.
  • The first foot to move on each step should be very even speed (as fast as you can do it right), the second foot should move like lightening to return from the step to proper distance.
  • Stay focused while doing this – emphasize martial crispness.

Having done this a fair bit in the past, I can say that it really improved my coordination between my feet, and made my whole movement smoother.  I’m starting to add this back to my daily practice, and I’ve started adding a new variation on this:

  • Start with a right foot forward guard.
  • Take two gathering steps forward
  • Take one gathering step backwards
  • Repeat until you run out of space
  • Take two gathering step backwards
  • Take one gathering steps forward
  • Repeat until you’re back where you started from
  • Switch to left foot forward guard. Do it again.

For me, right now, the gathering steps are really hard! I find it incredibly difficult to not transition to advances and retreats at the change of direction. Which means I need to practice this more.

Have you done these drills? What other super-simple footwork exercises do you do to work on basics?

Word Cloud based on Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Book One

So, I used Tagxedo to create a Dall’Agocchie word cloud. I put Swanger’s translation of Book One in and got the following picture (click on it for a larger image):

Word cloud

Word cloud of Book One

This was mostly for the fun of it, but the thing that strikes me is that “Foot” is nearly as large as “Sword”. This makes sense, though, and makes me want to work even more on footwork drills.

Stepping in the guards: how it is done

Giovanni Dall’Agocchie’s Dell’Arte di Scrimia describes a short and lovely solo form when concluding the section on guards. In the marginalia he names this “Stepping in the guards: how it is done”.

My first brush with Dall’Agocchie came through this solo form. Years ago I was working through the Order of the Seven HeartsBolognese Introduction‘. This document included the solo form, so I went through it a few times, had it figured out, then moved on.

But I kept coming back to it. The more I learned about swordsmanship – reading original treatises and modern interpretations, taking classical fencing lessons, practicing on my own, studying Destreza, what-have-you – the more I realized that I hadn’t ever gone through Dall’Agocchie’s solo form quite right. There was always some new angle I could apply to it.  I now understand that I will work on this for the rest of my life, and will always find something to improve.

I have a series of posts coming about this deceptively simple form. But before I say anything else, let’s end this introductory post with the master’s own words. (This starts on 11recto – page 12 of William Jherek Swanger’s translation):

{Stepping in the guards: how it is done.}
Gio. One steps with reason and art, and goes in all the guards to find the adversary. This can be done by beginning with either foot, on the diagonal or having one foot drive the other forward, according to the time and the need. Nonetheless, stepping with a pace neither large nor small is of greater utility, because thereby you can both advance forward and retire back without bodily discomfort, always accompanying the hand with the foot.
But you must be advised that the forward leg must be a bit bent at the knee, and its foot must point straight toward the enemy; and the rear leg will be a bit curved and with its foot somewhat on the diagonal, in such a manner that every movement will be full of grace. And so much for the fourth heading.

Lep. I would dearly appreciate it if you were to present to me better the way that one must follow in stepping in the said guards with the sword in hand, which I haven’t heard enough of.

Gio. Suppose you have your sword at your left side, in the act of laying hand upon it, and the heel of your right foot near your left one. Both your knees will be straight and not bowed, arranging yourself with as much grace as possible. Having done this, you’ll put your right foot forward toward your right side, and in that tempo you’ll extend your arm and do a falso, and a riverso sgualimbro; or do two riversi, the first tondo and the second likewise sgualimbro; thereby going with your sword into coda lunga stretta. And from here you’ll step forward with your left foot toward your left side, doing a falso and mandritto sgualimbro in that instant, and the sword will fall into cinghiale porta di ferro. And then you’ll go forward one pace with your right foot, and in that tempo you’ll turn a dritto tramazzone, which will end in porta di ferro stretta. Then you’ll advance with your left foot, doing a falso, and a riverso sgualimbro, and the sword will go into coda lunga alta. Then you’ll step forward with your right foot and in the same tempo you’ll throw a riverso ridoppio, stopping the sword in guardia d’alicorno. And being fixed in the said guard you’ll drive an imbroccata without any taking any step, and the sword will stop in porta di ferro stretta.
From here you’ll withdraw your right foot a pace, and all in one tempo you’ll execute a falso and a riverso sgualimbro, and the sword will return to coda lunga alta. Then you’ll draw your left foot back, and next turn a mandritto tramazzone, which will end in porta di ferro stretta. Then you’ll return your right foot back a pace, turning a dritto tramazzone in that tempo, with which you’ll fall [12recto] into cinghiale porta di ferro. And from here, you’ll draw the left foot back, doing a falso and riverso sgualimbro in that instant, and the sword will return to coda lunga stretta, and thus you’ll be returned to the same place with the same guards.

Lep. Why do you want me to step forward, and then return backwards?

Gio. Because you get good practice in changing guards as much forward as back, which is necessary in the art, and of very great utility; and so that you understand, this stepping is one of the chief things that you must practice if you want to have grace with weapons in hand.

quite enough material for a lifetime

Steven Reich:

The amount of material in Dall’Agocchie is comparable to that in traditional Japanese weapon art systems. Those take a lifetime to master, so I think that Dall’Agocchie provides quite enough material for a lifetime (and it’s not like he includes a “where to go from here” section at the end of his treatise).

How many guards are there in Dall’Agocchie?

“Coming to the guards now, I’ll tell you that there are a lot of them…” Giovanni Dall’Agocchie, Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre, 9 Recto, translated by Wm. Jherek Swanger

How many guards are there in Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre? Nineteen. (Or twenty, depending on how you count.) But that answer isn’t really helpful – not all guards are created equal. Let’s look at the guards and how to classify them in more detail.

In the passage cited above, Dall’Agocchie goes on to tell us that there are “eight that are the most important, four high and four low.” But he doesn’t treat or use all those guards in the same way. Let’s look at a few ways to categorize the guards.

Most Important:

  • coda lunga stretta
  • coda lunga alta
  • porta di ferro stretta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro stretta
  • guardia d’alicorno
  • guardia di testa
  • guardia di faccia
  • guardia d’entrare

Please note that Dall’Agocchie does not distinguish between right-foot or left-foot forward guardia d’alicorno when he describes the guards, but he does distinguish between them when going through the various actions in the system.

Other High Guards:

  • guardia alta
  • unnamed underarm guard
  • unnamed overarm guard

Variations on Low Guards

  • porta di ferro larga
  • porta di ferro alta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro larga
  • cinghiale porta di ferro alta
  • coda lunga larga – right foot lead
  • coda lunga distesa – right foot lead
  • coda lunga larga – left foot lead
  • coda lunga distesa – left foot lead

That is everything named in the book, in sort of the groups Dall’Agocchie uses – 19 total guards (well, 20 if you count guardia d’alicorno right-foot-forward and left-foot-forward as separate guards).

I think that there’s another way of grouping these guards, based on how he implements them in Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre.

Dall’Agocchie only uses five guards as starting and ending points in his defenses and provocations with the unaccompanied sword.

Unaccompanied Starting Guards:

  • coda lunga stretta
  • coda lunga alta
  • porta di ferro stretta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro stretta
  • guardia d’alicorno (right foot forward)

He uses six starting guards when the sword is accompanied by either dagger or cloak in the left hand.

Accompanied Starting Guards:

  • coda lunga stretta
  • coda lunga alta
  • porta di ferro stretta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro stretta
  • guardia d’alicorno (right foot forward)
  • guardia d’alicorno (left foot forward)

Three of the guards are only used as transitions – the martial artist never starts or ends in these guards; they merely describe positions that the artist moves through during certain actions.

Transitional Guards:

  • guardia di testa
  • guardia di faccia
  • guardia d’entrare

Dall’Agocchie describes but does not use three guards – he mentions them at the tail end of the section on guards, but never uses them in any action. I suspect that these are holdovers from older systems, especially from masters (like Manciolino or Marozzo) that feature sword and buckler. Dall’Agocchie makes it clear that he sides with “the ancients” (see his comments in 11 recto), so I suspect that he includes these guards as a nod to the overall tradition. Amusingly, regarding the second and third of these guards, he tells us that they have the same name, but forgets to tell us what that name is. I’ve added a name used in older systems in parenthesis.

Note that this list is the same as the “Other High Guards” list above.

Traditional Guards:

  • guardia alta
  • unnamed underarm guard (guardia sotto il braccio)
  • unnamed overarm guard (guardia sopra il braccio)

I’ve put together a table with all the guards, with these various categories applied. Unfortunately, I need to sort out and install some WordPress plugins to make it work the way I want it to, so that will be a future post.

In the meantime, have I missed anything? Do you have a different way of thinking about the guards in Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre?