Basics of Dueling
The purpose of the Basics of Dueling lesson is to teach the basics skills and procedures necessary to duel another fencer safely.
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First and foremost, we expect all our fencers to be safe. Fencing is a contact sport, but if all safety requirements are met, we are confident that fencers may engage in combat and avoid major injuries. Learn more about our safety rules below.
- Gear: All fencers must wear appropriate safety gear any time they are fighting (helmet, gorget, vest, gloves, & proper base clothing)
- Holds: We employ the word “Hold” anytime we need to pause a fight. This could be to prevent injury or avoid a dangerous situation.
- No Hacking/Slashing: Rapiers are designed to thrust and stab.
- No Body Contact: Grappling, wrestling, hitting, scratching, kicking, or any other form of body contact is not allowed.
- No Pummeling: The guard on your rapier is to protect your hand. Do not pummel your opponent with it.
- No Grabbing Blades: You may not grab your opponent’s blade during the fight. Either with a closed fist or between fingers.
- Don’t Be Stupid: Don’t do anything that is unsafe, dishonorable, or stupid.
- Don’t Feel Stupid: If you happen to make a mistake, please don’t feel stupid. None of us are perfect fencers. We make mistakes that lose battles. We occasionally throw a shot that is a little hard. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t feel stupid about them. We won’t yell at you if you make a mistake, but we may pull you aside and ask you to change something if we feel you have been unsafe. We aren’t here to make you feel stupid. We’re here to help you stay safe and become a skillful swordsman.
- You are responsible for your safety and the safety of those around you. Be aware of what you’re doing. Help others fight safely as well. Always fight in an area that is not putting others at risk of swinging blades and injuries.
- Be aware of what is around you and your opponent. Inform your opponent if they will be walking out of bounds, into a tree, or any other potentially hazardous terrain. Be on the lookout for bystanders, especially children, who may unknowingly enter your dueling area. Always be ready to pause the fight to be safe.
- In the event that your tip is trapped in your opponent’s hilt or your hilts lock together, instead of ripping whatever is trapped apart, simply call a ‘Hold.’ Pause for a moment and resolve the matter.
- Finally, we’re not really trying to kill our opponent by stabbing through them. Always be aware of how hard your shots are and calibrate them, so you’re not really hurting anyone.
When you arrive at practice, before grabbing your gear, you will check in with the Officer who is keeping attendance. They will check you in and verify you are up to date on your Gear Rental Fees. If you are, you will be able to borrow loaner gear for the day. You will need the following items:
Proper Base Clothing:
Before putting on any armor, you should come to practice already dressed properly. Proper base clothing consists of long pants, and closed toed shoes. Long sleeves are highly encouraged. These offer some protection and keep fencers safe.
We use a standard fencing mask that provides protection to the front and side of the head. To properly fit the helmet, make sure you select the correct size between Small, Medium, Large and Extra Large which is marked on the side of the helmet.
You can fit the helmet on, ensuring that you chin is rested comfortably in the chin pad. You can then gently compress the sides and back of the helmet to fit it securely to your head without adding uncomfortable pressure.
Your helmet should sit on your head snuggly and should not shift significantly when you shake your head violently. The mesh should not touch any part of your face, even when forceful pressure is applied. If you are unsure of the fit of your helmet check with an officer.
Gorget (pronounced gore-jay):
The word “gorget” comes from the French word, “gorge” which means throat. Gorgets are typically made from steel or rigid leather. The tongue or flap of the gorget should be in the front and when tightened with the leather straps on the sides, the gorget should allow your neck to move naturally without having a large gap or causing any discomfort to your neck. Again if you are unsure of the fit of your gorget check with an officer.
Fencing vests are made from thick, puncture resistant fabric that helps soften blows as well as protect from any blades that might lose a tip or break. A proper vest should consist of layers of heavy fabric like denim or could be made of welders quality leather.
Vests should fit comfortably and not inhibit your ability to move your arms. In some cases, a thick jacket may suffice. Consult with an Officer if you think you have one that may work.
Gloves are the only piece of equipment we use that are not offered by the group. Every person should bring their own pair of gloves when they begin fencing. Leather work gloves from any hardware store should work. We recommend gloves with some wrist protection. They should fit well without too much bulk and allow ample movement in your hand.
The swords we use are called Rapiers, and they were primarily used during the Renaissance period all across Europe. They are elegant weapons designed to thrust and stab, not hack and slash like a broad sword or sabre. Light and quick, they were the weapon of choice for personal defense for Nobles and unranked individuals alike.
Your stance is how you stand during a fight. Having a good stance will be a huge help to developing your skills as a fencer. The following is the instructions for a basic stance. When in doubt, always fall back to this basic fighting stance.
- *Stand with your right foot in front of you and your left foot behind you, your feet about shoulder width apart.
- Place your feet at a 45-degree angle, with your right toe pointing forward and your left toe pointing to your left.
- Bend your knees slightly and balance your weight evenly between both feet. Keep your back fairly straight, but loose. Tuck your tail bone under your spine and keep your stomach from hanging out too much. You want to be balance in all four directions. Do not extend your knee over your foot.
- Hold your sword in your right hand and the hilt at hip level with the sword pointing forward. Bring the hilt forward about 12 inches and then move it in front of your body about 6 inches. Angle the tip of your sword, so it is level with your opponent’s neck.
- Lift your “off hand” (non-dominant hand) into a guard position, roughly shoulder height and 6 inches in front of your body.
*Note: For lefties, follow the directions above, but insert “left” for “right.”
Fencing isn’t a static sport. There will be a lot of action and moving around. Proper footwork or how you move your feet, is an often overlooked skill. It is important to practice moving and stepping properly often and to be aware of your own footwork during a fight.
To move forward, take a comfortable step forward with your front foot only. Then follow with your back foot, so that you are once again in your basic fighting stance.
To retreat, take a step back with your back foot only. Then follow it with the front foot. You should once again be in your basic fighting stance.
Sidestep (Left or Right)
To sidestep, step with the same foot as the direction you want to go. Example: To side step right, take a step with your right foot and follow it with your left and vice versa. Do not cross your legs while sidestepping. This makes you unbalanced and can lead you to falling over.
To lunge, launch your front foot forward and land with your knee at 90 degrees, directly above your ankle. DO NOT overextend past your foot as this can lead to injury.
8 Basic Blocks
When it comes to sword fighting, it is more important to defend yourself and stay alive than to kill your opponent. The longer you stay alive the more opportunities you’ll have to win. To form this foundation of defense, it is important to master the use of our 8 Basic Blocks.
Drop the tip of your sword towards the ground, straight down. The back of your hand should face your opponent. While keeping the blade straight up and down, move the hilt of the blade to the left across your body. This defends your legs on your left side.
Drop the tip of your sword towards the ground, straight down. The back of your hand should face your opponent. While keeping the blade straight up and down, move the hilt of the blade to the right across your body. This defends your legs on your right side.
Move your hilt across your body to the left, your right elbow stopping slightly in front of your abdomen. Your forearm angled at 45 degrees in front of you. Your hand should be rolled over with your palm facing up. The tip of your blade should still be pointed at your opponent’s neck. This defends your body on your left side.
Move your hilt across your body to the right, your right elbow extending out and away from your abdomen. Your forearm angled at 45 degrees beside you. Your hand should be rolled over with your palm facing down. The tip of your blade should still be pointed at your opponent’s neck. This defends your body on your right side.
Lift your right arm up, with your elbow at shoulder level or slightly higher. The tip of the blade pointing over your opponent’s shoulder, with the edge facing up. Your hand even with your eyes, but above and to the right. The palm of your hand facing your opponent. This defends your head from above.
This block revolves around your quillons or cross guards. While using Block 4, allow their blade to slide past your hilt. As it goes over your guard, twist your wrist to the right. The palm of the your hand will be facing up and your quillons will have flipped over your opponent’s blade, trapping it to your right. This block traps and defends your body on your right side.
Drop the top of your blade towards the ground in a sweeping motion towards your left. Your palm facing upwards and the tip of your blade pointing down and to the left. This defends your legs.
Drop the top of your blade towards the ground in a sweeping motion towards your right. Your palm facing downwards and the tip of your blade pointing down and to the right. This defends your legs.
Note: For Lefties, all directions should be reversed.
The goal of each attack is to tag your opponent with enough positive pressure for them to feel it through their armor without hurting them.
Everywhere on your opponent is a valid target except for your opponent’s back. You should never attack your opponent from behind until you’ve been trained on proper Death from Behind (DFB). We are also not trying to hurt our opponents and should only attack with enough force to tag them with positive pressure.
How to Attack:
Start out in your basic stance, your sword pointing toward your opponent’s neck. When you decide to strike, start by reaching out with your arm until your arm is fully extended. Your arm and sword should be pointed towards your target. In the event that you still have a few inches left before landing your shot, use your feet to move in instead of reaching. You want to extend quickly, but with control. You can also twist your wrist to increase accuracy.
Taking Shots & Kill Zones
Any time you take a shot to any of the following areas or “Kill Zones”, you are “dead”, and you lose the fight:
When “dead” it is best to acknowledge it vocally and loudly by declaring yourself “Dead!”.
We’re not actually trying to kill anyone and no one wants to get hurt. That’s why a shot only has to give positive pressure to be valid. Positive Pressure, in other words, is enough pressure that you can feel it through your clothes without hurting. If you feel anything that could have been a valid shot, even if you’re unsure, call yourself dead and let your opponent tell you otherwise.
If you receive a shot that you believe to be good — take it as a kill. If you aren’t sure, ask your opponent and allow them to make the call. If they call the shot good, take it. If you think they are wrong, take the kill anyway and discuss it after the fight is done.
Be honorable about giving shots. Do not allow an opponent to take a shot you know to be invalid. If they call “dead” and you know you haven’t killed them, tell them and continue the fight.
If you are killed, call out “Dead!” loudly and clearly. Otherwise, your opponent will not know they won and to stop fighting.
Hand Shots and Arm Shots/Staples
It is possible to get wounded but still continue fighting. If you’re stabbed anywhere below the wrist, you lose the use of that hand. If you’re stabbed anywhere between your wrist and your shoulder, you lose the use of that arm. If you lose an arm or a hand, you may continue to fight, but must remember the following:
- If you lose a hand, you may still use your arm to block shots, but you must ball your fingers into a fist and may not use your hand or fingers. If you lose a hand and then are stabbed again in the same hand, you lose your arm.
- If you lose an arm, you must place the arm behind you back and cannot use it during the rest of the fight.
- It is completely possible to lose both of your arms and be left completely defenseless. At this point, it is up to you to yield the fight to your opponent or take a “kill.”
- If your hand or arm blocks a “point-in” shot that would ordinarily have skewered your body, this is called a Staple — your opponent’s sword has stapled your limb to your body, and simultaneously killed you.
If you take a shot to the legs, you are not dead. You must either sit or go down on your knees or call yourself dead immediately. When taking or losing legs, there are a few things to remember:
- If you take your opponent’s legs, allow them to kneel or sit, and ask them if they are comfortable. Allow them to answer and get situated before you proceed with the fight.
- If you are “legged”, you cannot move from the spot where you have fallen or rise up to a standing knee position. You are allowed to rotate in the same spot, though.
- For safety and realism, if you lose one leg, you cannot hop. Realistically, the pain would be too excruciating. From a safety perspective, you’d be unbalanced and out of control, plus your footwork would be non-existent.
How to Duel
In most duels, two opponents will start by saluting each other. This gesture can be a simple sword salute, a basic bow, or a nod of the head. This salute is the way to acknowledge your opponent and declare you’re ready to begin. After the salutes have been given by both fighters, the fight may begin. Duels can end very quickly, or they may take quite a while. A duel only ends when a successful strike has landed and been called good or one opponent yields the match to the other. Whoever landed the strike and defeated their opponent is the victor.
It is possible to end up with a double kill. This happens when both opponents land successful strikes simultaneously. In this situation, you can either call off the duel or fight again. It’s up to you.
As mentioned early, we use the word “Hold” to declare that a fight needs to stop immediately. We declare a hold to prevent injury, or to remedy a dangerous situation. In a duel, a hold can be called between the two dueling parties. If one of the duelist recognizes that something is wrong or there is danger nearby, they can call a “Hold”. The two fighters should immediately stop, address the issue, and then resume fighting when both parties are ready. Other fighters nearby may continue fighting if the “Hold” is declared softly between the two involved.
The Honor System
We rely on the Honor System for taking and landing all shots. It’s the only way this sport works. That means you need to take your shots and acknowledge them loudly to your opponent. It is up to you and your opponent to call successfully landed attacks. If you have been stabbed with enough pressure to be considered a kill, you must declare it. It is not your responsibility to tell your opponent when you successfully hit them because you may not know what really happened.
One of the most obvious and frequent uses of the Honor System is with non-valid shots. A non-valid shot is any shot that has the following criteria: the attack hit cloth only, the attack hit with the side or flat of the tip or blade, or did not give positive pressure.
If an attack only hit cloth but did not hit the body, the attack doesn’t count. The attack may have felt valid, due to resistance from the fabric, but we need to trust our opponent to let us know if a shot was valid.
If an attack hit with only the side or flat of the tipor the blade, the attack doesn’t count. Rapiers are designed for thrusting and stabbing. Not hacking and slashing. We use the terms “point-in” or “flat” as indicators of what happened. A point-in attack will have landed with the tip of the sword pressing into the opponent. An attack that was flat will be any attack that pressed with the side of the tip or blade.
If an attack touched but did not give positive pressure, the attack doesn’t count. For a shot to be valid, it needs to give some noticeable positive pressure on our opponent. That way they’ll be able to feel it through their armor. If attack was too light, it would just be considered a scratch and would not count.
One Ask, One Tell
Sometimes we’re not quite sure what happened in a fight. Our gear limits our visibility and our ability to accurately feel what happens. If you are unsure and you feel it necessary to ask your opponent what happened or if a shot was valid, you should. Your opponent is now responsible to make the call. They now decide what happened and tell you once with something simple like a “Yes, it was good” or “No, it wasn’t.” Whatever the response is, it’s on your honor to take it without argument.
How To Teach Basics of Dueling Principles
Explain the following pieces of gear that we use and why we use them. Include how to treat them well and what to do with them when they are finished with practice.
- Proper Base Clothing
As you explain each topic, demonstrate how to find the right size equipment and how to wear each piece. Explain each part of the equipment, especially the parts of the sword and how to grip it properly.
After demonstrating how to wear each piece, walk through the gearing up process with the Newcomer(s) and allow them to get fully geared up. Help those who are struggling and in the event there is not enough gear, ask around for additional gear or wait for them to share.
At this stage, each Newcomer should be completely geared up. This would be a good time to discuss the gear, how feels, and if there is any need to swap out gear. Check to make sure that everything is being worn correctly as you discuss.
Example Discussion Questions:
- What are the different pieces of gear we wear when fencing?
- What are the different parts of the sword?
- How do you feel wearing all the gear?
Explain what a basic stance is and why we use a basic stance instead of walking around normally. Include why it is a fundamental principle to learning how to fence.
Demonstrate what a basic stance is and how to fall into a basic stance. Explain each step and part of a basic stance as you demonstrate.
Guide the Newcomer(s) through the steps you demonstrated, ensuring that they find a good solid stance and help them maintain their stance throughout the remainder of the lesson.
At this stage, each Newcomer should be in a good solid stance. Run through the following drill or challenge before moving on.
Basic Stance Drill
As a group, start standing up straight and then walk through the process of falling into a basic stance. Once all students have fallen into a basic stance, maintain the stance for a few moments before standing up straight again. Repeat. Slowly get faster as the students become more familiar with the process.
Basic Stance Challenge (How Low Can You Go?)
As a group, fall into a basic stance and maintain that position. Once all students are comfortable in their stance, slowly lower their stances. Ensure that no one is over extending their knees and begin counting. Have the students hold a low basic stance for as long as they can before dropping out. Last man standing is the winner.
Explain the following steps to each Newcomer in an open area.
Demonstrate each of the steps and how to perform them while maintain a basic stance.
Guide the students through each step, ensuring they are able to perform the steps properly before moving. Watch for the following things and help correct any bad habits that may form.
- Taking steps that are too big
- Not maintaining equal distance between their feet
- Not keeping their knees slightly bent
- Head bobs up and down after each step
At this stage, each student should be able to move around in a basic stance. Run through the following drill or challenge before moving on.
Basic Footwork Drill
In an open area, each student should stand at an arm’s length apart in a basic stance. Call out the following steps one by one, which the students should then perform, then repeat:
Advance, Advance, Retreat, Left, Advance, Right. Retreat, Retreat.
Basic Footwork Challenge (Footwork Simon Says)
In the same setup as the Drill, call out steps randomly, and any students who perform the incorrect step will be out for the round. Repeat until last man standing.
Explain the importance of Defense and Blocking, as you explain and demonstrate each of the following 8 Basic Blocks.
- Block 1
- Block 2
- Block 3
- Block 4
- Block 5
- Block 6
- Block 7
- Block 8
As you explain each block, demonstrate the blocks slowly and clearly point out the steps to do so. Include when you would use the block and what it defends.
Guide the students through each block, having them repeat the block multiple times before moving on to the next one.
At this stage, each Newcomer should be able perform each block, although they may not remember which block number goes to which block. Run through the following drill or challenge before moving on.
Basic Blocks Drill
Working alone, each student can progress through each block and after completing a block return to a basic stance. This Drill should be done regularly outside of practice to build strength and muscle memory.
Basic Blocks Challenge (Block the Attack Progression)
Working with the instructor or a more experienced fencer, the student should receive a variety of shots to work on recognition of when and how to use each block. Attackers should start slow and speed up as the student becomes more efficient. You can also go in order to begin with and then add random attacks.
Explain the following points and safety rules as each learns to attack. A glossary of topics has been included at the end of this lesson for review.
- How to Attack
- We’re Not Trying to Hurt Each Other
- Positive Pressure
- Point Control
- No Hacking/Slashing
- No Body Contact
- No Pummeling
- No Grabbing Blades
As you explain each topic, demonstrate what each looks like and how to avoid breaking any of the safety rules. Include why we have them or examples from your own experience. Have each student experience what Positive Pressure is.
Guide the students through a basic attack and what it should feel like when landing a shot with positive pressure. Help correct their form and aim as they attack another student or instructor
At this stage, each student should be able to perform a basic attack. Run through the following drill or challenge before moving on.
Basic Attack Drill
Working in pairs, assign one student to be the Attacker and the other to be the Defender. The Attacker will slowly attack the following areas while the Defender stands as the Target. Switch roles when complete.
Head, Chest, Stomach, Right Arm, Left Arm, Front Leg, Front Foot, Right Hand, Left Hand.
Basic Attack Challenge (Calling the Shots)
Working with the instructor or a more experienced fencer, the student should face their opponent in a basic stance. Their partner will then call out a target which the student will then attempt to attack with positive pressure. For added challenge, decrease the amount of time the student has to find and attempt the attack.
Explain the following kill zones and what it means to be take shot on various areas of the body.
- Upper/Lower Torso
- Calling “Dead!”
As you explain each kill zone, indicate what they include and where the transition line is between them. Demonstrate what happens when you receive a shot on various areas of the body.
Guide them through each kill zone and what to do when hit. Have them demonstrate and practice what to do for each area.
At this stage, each student should be able to identify each of the kill zones and what do when hit. This would be a good time for you as an Instructor to step back and allow another fencer to continue working with them as a buddy. Find ways that a Newcomer could participate in the practice scenarios or trainings, without needing to fight.
Taking Shots & Kill Zones Drill
Working in pairs, assign one student to be the Attacker and the other to be the Defender. The Attacker should attack various parts of their opponent, who should then respond appropriately with each hit. After 5 hits, switch roles.
Taking Shots & Kill Zones Challenge
Working with the instructor or a more experienced fencer, the student should face their opponent in a basic stance. Their partner will then call out a desired result which the student will need to achieve by their attacking their partner in the appropriate area. Examples would include: Kill shot, Legged, Lose a Hand, Dead!, etc…
Explain the following topics and safety rules to help each student understand the process of a duel and what is involved.
- Dueling Salute
- The Honor System
- Valid vs. Non-Valid Shots
- Quick Calls on Shots
- One Ask, One Tell
- Dueling Hold
- Be Aware of Surroundings
- Responsible for each other’s safety
As you explain each topic and rule, demonstrate each one and what they mean. Give examples and stories from your own experience to help illustrate the principles.
Guide each student through a basic duel, working with each other or a more experienced fencer. Point out each principle and rule as they happen.
At this stage, each student should be able to participate in a basic duel with other fencers. Run through the following drill or challenge before finishing.
How to Duel Drill
Run a simple Bear Pit with only the students and allow them to experience the process of a duel with each other several times before moving on to other fencers.
How to Duel Challenge
Have each student challenge a more experienced available fencer to a duel. Allow each student to challenge and fight one at time, so the other students can watch from the sidelines.
Ready to move on?
You’ve completed your second lesson! Now you can go out and start dueling! When you're done with some duels, let’s move on to the third lesson.