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By

Adam Adrian Crown

The sword isn't really an icon of the American culture, is it?
American kids don't grow up playing "Three Musketeers;" they grow up playing variations of "cowboys and Indians," or "cops and robbers." In European cultures such as France, Italy, Spain and even England, the sword is a more prevalent and ancient symbol. They have King Arthur, Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers.
This makes perfect sense. When those European nations were developing, the sword was the favorite weapon. When the United States was developing, the favorite weapon was the firearm.
This might explain why Americans don't seem to have a "gut level" sense of the rules of fencing. Perhaps I can use an analogy that will be helpful to those who find the rules of priority obscure—including, I regret to say, some persons who are currently highly ranked olympic officials, referees and coaches.

Here is a scene with which the average American certainly must be familiar: The Showdown. This is the obligatory moment in almost every Western movie or TV show ever made, in which The Good Guy steps into the street to shoot it out with The Bad Guy. If you can catch old re-runs of the classic TV show Gunsmoke , you'll see that this scene kicks off the show, even before the opening credits.

Let's draw some parallels between a gunfight and a swordfight and see if the former can help us understand the latter. First, and I hope obviously, it's a fight. In both cases, the participants intend to inflict injury or death on the other party without suffering the same themselves.
This is to be accomplished through the judicious use of a particular tool, in the former, a pistol, in the latter, a sword. For our purposes, let's imagine the pistol to be the single-action .44 revolver of the Wild West and the sword to be a late rapier, a civilian weapon used exclusively for thrusting, which would be akin to the foil or epee of today.

For the gunfighter, a "tie" might mean death.
It isn't enough to shoot your opponent at the same time he shoots you.
It isn't enough to shoot your opponent a fraction of a second before he shoots you.
It isn't enough to shoot your opponent even a full second before he shoots you.
It is only enough to shoot your opponent without being shot at all, yourself.

For the swordsman, too, a "tie" might mean death.
It isn't enough to stab your opponent at the same time he stabs you.
It isn't enough to stab your opponent a fraction of a second before he stabs you.
It isn't enough to stab your opponent even a full second before he stabs you.
It is only enough to stab your opponent without being stabbed at all, yourself.

As a gunfighter, in order to inflict injury or death upon your adversary with that pistola, there are six things you must do, in this order, assuming you have already loaded the weapon:

  1. You must get within range (preferably within 15 paces);
  2. you must draw the pistol from the holster;
  3. you must cock your pistol;
  4. you must aim the muzzle of the pistol at your opponent's body;
  5. you must fire the pistol, and
  6. you must hit what you aim at, i.e., you must not jerk the trigger or do anything else that will spoil your aim.

Steps 1–4 are preparations. Steps 5–6 are the offensive action. The preparations are essential—you cannot attack with a reliable chance of success unless you do them—but they cannot inflict a wound. Only steps 5–6 do that. Indeed, if your opponent (or anyone else) should happen to shoot you at any time before step 5, nothing that you have done previously represents much danger to your opponent at all.
It is vital that you do follow these steps in the given order. You cannot fire before you cock the pistol. Firing the pistol before drawing it has serious contraindications. Firing it without first aiming may be admirable optimism, but then, Boot Hill is full of optimists.

Are there no other possibilities?
There are.
You could throw your gun at your opponent at your opponent, the way the bad guys inexplicably used to do with Superman when they ran out of bullets. But even if you had a pitching arm that would be the envy of the New York Yankees, the best you could hope for is to give your opponent a nasty bruise, while your opponent remains fully capable of shooting you dead. (Especially now that you've disarmed yourself.)

Instead of aiming at your opponent, you might aim at the lamp post and hope the bullet will ricochet in the desired direction.

You could try to shoot the gun out of your opponent's hand.

Possible? Sure. Any takers?

In order to inflict injury or death upon your adversary with a rapier, here's what you must do:

  1. you must draw the sword from the scabbard
  2. You must get within range
  3. You must aim the point of your sword at your opponent's body
  4. You must propel the point of the sword toward your opponent's body
  5. You must hit what you aim at
  6. You must penetrate with the point at least several inches into your opponent's body.

Steps 1–3 are preparations; steps 4–6 are the offensive action. The preparations, once again are essential—you cannot rely on attacking successfully without doing them—but only steps 4–6 can actually inflict a wound.

Are there no other possibilities?
There are.
You could slam your opponent with the guard of the sword or slap him on the butt with the flat of the blade, like a clown-hero in a b-movie swashbuckler. But the best you could hope for here is to give your opponent a nasty bruise and while you're capering around, you haven't done anything that would prevent your adversary from stabbing you dead.
You could chuck the sword at your opponent like a spear—if you don't mind disarming yourself.
You could reverse the weapon, grasp it by the blade and swing it like a club.
Possible? Sure.

With either the pistol or the sword, a correctly executed attack will result in grave injury unless the opponent does something to prevent it. The gunfighter can only attempt to dodge the bullet. Firearms HAVE NO DEFENSIVE CAPABILITY. They have only offensive capability. In a swordfight, the attacked person has a defensive option unavailable to the pistolero—he can parry. Indeed, the swordman could choose only to parry and never strike an offensive blow.

Of the preparation steps, you may have noticed that some are more "threatening" than others.
There is a long-standing maxim that you should never aim a weapon at anyone unless you intend to use it.
First, this is to avoid tragic accidents. Second, this is to avoid the other person accidentally taking you seriously and killing you in self-defense. (As a general rule, acting in "self-defense" means that there is an immediate threat of grave physical injury or death that you cannot avoid in any other way.)
So clearly, pistol step 4 and sword step 3 would represent an immediate threat to a reasonable and prudent person. That is, your opponent has progressed along the sequence as far as he can go without actually striking. Striking is the next logical step in the sequence. You can ignore everything your opponent does up to step 4/3; once that step is taken, you can ignore him no longer.

Let's suppose your opponent "got the drop on you." That is, he has taken you unawares ten feet away, has drawn, cocked and aimed his pistol at you, having now only to pull the trigger to shoot you.
What do you do?
Do you vault behind the nearest solid object gambling on your opponent's 1/4 second "lag time?" Or if no solid obstacle is available, do you at least try to remove yourself from the line of fire, knowing that a moving target is more difficult to hit than a stationary one? Or do you disregard the threat to you and go for your gun anyway, hoping that you are so phenomenally fast that you can somehow clear leather, cock, aim and fire all in less time than it takes for your adversary to squeeze that last fraction of an ounce on the trigger and drop the hammer on you?
If you would prefer the last option you must be either a)phenomenally fast b) very, very brave or c)very, very stupid. You can probably get pretty good odds as to which one.

In a sword fight, the analogous situation we call a "point-in-line."
You opponent has "got the drop on you." He has drawn his sword, is withing distance to strike (by lunge or pass) has his arm stretched out fully, aiming the point of his weapon at your heart. He has only to actually launch himself forward now.
What do you do?
Do you remove yourself from the "line of fire" by stepping back out of range? Do you wait for your opponent to launch his attack, counting on your judgement, time and distance in execute a parry?
Do you strike your opponent's blade aside and in the short gap of time during it's absence launch an attack?
Or do you ignore the point aimed at your heart and hurl yourself forward onto your opponent's blade, hoping that your own offensive action will prove effective and that impaling yourself will not prove fatal?
If you would prefer the last of these options, once again, you're either very, very brave or—well, you know the alternative.

Let's consider another scenario.
Suppose you opponent draws his gun, but instead of cocking it and aiming it at you, he goes into an impressive array of spins and twirls with it, forward and backward, tossing it from one hand to another, between his legs, over one shoulder and so on, juggling with the aplomb of a Homecoming Baton Champion.
What do you do?
Do you duck or dodge, or leap behind the water trough?
Or, while your opponent is so occupied, long before he ever gets around to cocking and aiming his pistol at you, do you draw your own weapon, cock it, aim and fire? You may object to the morality of shooting someone who is engaging in a display of posturing prior to establishing an imminent threat. But you cannot fault its tactical utility.

In swordfighting the analogous situation is called "attack on the preparation."
Your opponent draws his sword, but aims it at the sky or waves it around willy-nilly while making a series of hops, skips, jumps and body feints.
What do you do?
Do you withdraw as if these actions could hurt you?
Do you attempt to follow every twitch, just in case?
Or do you simply attack while your opponent is posturing?
Unless and until your opponent aims his weapon at you (point in line) there is nothing to prevent you from attacking him and he certainly canšt be attacking you.

Let's consider one final situation.
Suppose the pistoleros face off and, in Gunsmoke fashion, the Bad Guy makes his move. But the Good Guy (who is, yes, phenomenally fast) is too fast for him. The hero plugs the hapless black hat before the desperado can skin leather. Next stop: Boot Hill.
This example demonstrates what should be obvious: it doesn't matter who STARTS to draw first; what matters is who FINISHES drawing first.
If you go for your gun, and just as you wrap your sweaty little hand around the grip you see that your opponent has already drawn, cocked and aimed in your direction, what do you do?
Here's a hint: refer to the section covering "got the drop on you."

From these examples we can logically conclude several things.
First, an attack cannot begin before the would-be attacker has extended his arm as fully as possible aiming at his opponent's body, establishing a "point-in-line." (It's "ready, aim, FIRE!" not "Ready, fire, AIM!") An attack is NOT begun by moving your body closer to your opponent's point, only by moving your point closer to the opponent's body.
Second, unless and until the fencer establishes a point in line, he is vulnerable to his opponent's attack or his opponent establishing his own point in line. All that comes before is preparation. The notion that a fencer is &ldquot;attacking&rdquot; by advancing, fleching, leaping, lurching or lunging forward WITHOUT having the point of his weapon aiming at the opponent is completely false.
Third, if your opponent has his point in line, don't impale yourself on it. Suicide, despite what the MASH theme advises, is NOT painless.
Fourth, it doesn't matter who first STARTS extending his arm to establish a point in line; it matters who first FINISHES extending his arm to establish a point in line.

Faced with these clear analogies, there are some people—let's not call them "fencers"—who will reply, "So what? Fencing isn't supposed to be like a real sword fight."
Well, with all due respect, yes, it is.
It has always said so in the rules, right at the outset: "to simulate a courteous and frank encounter." That means to make it as much as possible as an actual duel, or swordfight, if you please. That's what it's all based on, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not.
To claim otherwise is a foolish—and transparent—attempt to justify as legitimate whatever the latest fashion in cheating happens to be.

Now if some folks want to go off on some odd technophile tangent and invent some game of "tag you're it" with whippy steel rods, that's fine with me. Do so, and go in peace. Make the rules whatever you want. Base them on whimsey. Change them weekly. I don't care.
But don't call your little game "fencing."
You can't reasonably and honestly call it "fencing" and then say it's not about swords any more than you can call it "equitation" and say it's not about horses. (Indeed, this specious, so-called "fencing" is no closer to actual fencing than it is to equitation.)
Fencing is about swordplay.
Period.
If you can't get into it, get out of it.

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Saddle, Lance and Stirrup: The Irish/Roman Connection
The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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