A Brief Discourse on the Topic of Guards and Counter-Guards as Described by Giganti
v1.0, by Donovan Shinnock, OGR
Giganti's "The School, or Salle" is an astoundingly straightforward fencing manual. Originally published in 1606 (with a number of later reprints through 1628, including translations into French and German), it is short, concise, clear in language, and exceedingly practical. The manual, Giganti's first (possibly only) publication, focuses on the use of a single rapier as well as rapier and dagger, though he promises a later volume describing the use of the rapier with a number of other secondary weapons, including a second rapier. Giganti's manual is structured very neatly as a syllabus for students to progress through, with no rambling on about unrelated topics. These virtues allow us to quickly discover and discuss some of Giganti's most interesting concepts. In this case, I will be presenting Giganti's writings on Guards and Counter-Guards.
Similar to Giganti, this paper assumes that you have a good basic grasp of Italian rapier theory. By this I mean how to stand, basic hand positions, and gaining the blade. In his introduction to Giganti's manual, Tom Leoni provides a brief and clear summary of these things, but it is too lengthy to reproduce here. Under "Further Reading" below, I have listed websites for a glossary of Italian rapier terms and a short overview of Italian rapier concepts.
First, let us define some terms. A “guard” is a position taken to defend against an opponent. By itself, a guard is generally formed in a vacuum, without taking into account the position and action of your opponent. A counter-guard, however, is a guard that you take specifically to oppose the position that your opponent has already taken. In doing so, you are able to close the line that your opponent threatens, as well as constrain your opponent's blade, limiting their actions and moving to gain your opponent's blade yourself.
Giganti shared a number of concepts with his contemporaries. In his introduction to Giganti's manual, Tom Leoni notes, "There is nothing in Giganti's text that points to any substantial idiosyncrasies in the actions he presents or the mechanics he uses. What he describes is a distillation of the actions and the mechanics of the actions that can also be found in Fabris, Capoferro, Alfieri, and other authors of his time" (xiv). Leoni goes so far as to point out that while Giganti does not describe the standard four Italian hand positions, it is clear that they are in use based on illustrations throughout the manual. Neither does Giganti describe how to stand or step, while Fabris and Capoferro are well known for spending time on posture and movement. I do not know why Giganti omits this information, and neither does Leoni put forth a theory. Given how straightforward Giganti's writing is, it could well be that he didn't consider it worth the time to write down what anyone who had begun to train with a rapier would already know. The fact that the mechanics in Giganti's manual are all based firmly in the Italian tradition says to me that nearly anyone who had the basics could train with his curriculum and do well. Of special note though, is the fact that the manual presents no specific guards, a fairly key difference between Giganti and his contemporaries.
It is this last point I will address here. Rather than presenting a description of specific guards, Giganti describes bi makes up a good guard, and turns us loose from there. He describes seven necessary "points to observe" for a good guard in his section “The Guards and Counter-guards.” In brief, a fencer must:
Giganti goes on in his section “Guards, or Postures” by summarizing a good deal of Italian rapier theory. He describes how you must quickly and from out of measure gain your opponent's blade by placing yours on top of theirs, such that they need a two tempo action to strike, and this is how you should proceed against all guards, high or low. He emphasizes that even if your opponent is in a high or low guard, you must "assure yourself of their blade" lest you open yourself up to double-hits or being placed in obedience.
Giganti sums up his thoughts on guards by noting that "...every motion of the sword is a guard to the knowledgeable fencer, and all guards are useful to the experienced man; conversely, no motion is a guard to the ignorant, and no guard is effective for someone who does not know how to use it."
When applied, these concepts bring forth something which is quite different from his contemporaries, and possibly ahead of its time. Giganti's thoughts on guards are much more fluid and dynamic than those of other period masters. Rather than specific, prescribed guards, this school of thought allows for a wide variance in how the combatant stands, as long as the stance fits the requirements and as long as the combatant is aware of the benefits and disadvantages inherent in the stance compared to that of the opponent’s. All guards are useful if you are experienced and know how to apply them — just because a guard is useful, does not mean that it is appropriate to use at any given time. By applying Giganti's concepts as well as the underpinnings of Italian rapier, you should be able to place yourself in a position well-suited to deal with whatever your opponent throws at you.
Keeping the opponent in mind is an important part of Giganti's theory. You should not form a guard in a vacuum, but rather specifically to counter however your opponent is standing and whatever your opponent is attempting to do to you. In fact, "if you have any notion of this discipline, you will never set yourself in guard, but you will always attempt to be in a counter-guard" (2). Giganti instructs that you should form your guard based on how your opponent is standing, and in doing so, gain their blade. He goes on to note that this will either cause your opponent to perform a cavazione as a two tempo action (in which case you strike as a single tempo action), or change guards, in which case you follow and maintain the advantage of the blade.
This practice has a number of advantages. By not immediately presenting yourself in a specific guard, you don't give yourself away. You base your movements off of your opponent, and move directly to counter them and close their line. In taking a reactionary stance, you force your opponent into action and, by acting, he will give you tempi in which to strike. If your opponent does not choose to react to your counter-guard, you simply gain your opponent's blade and immediately capitalize on that. Additionally, it allows you to think ahead and guide your opponent into obedience; as you form a counter-guard, you can leave an opening as an invitation for your opponent. As mentioned previously, this allows you to respond in a single tempo action, either with your sword alone (retaining control of your opponent's blade with it) or relying on your dagger to parry and striking with your sword.
It is possible for a skilled fighter to take advantage of you if you attempt to form a good counter-guard. If they are able to get their measure and act before you are able to form a good counter-guard, you're sunk before you even get started; you need to be able to observe what they're doing and move to take a counter-guard as they're doing it, and hopefully long before you're in measure. If your opponent can mislead you as to where they're threatening, you may not close the correct line or otherwise leave an opening; forming a counter-guard relies on being able to understand where you are being threatened and countering it appropriately. Finally, your opponent could form a strange guard, one that you just can't figure out, or refuse their blade entirely. In this case, you need to rely on your understanding of body mechanics and remember that you can constrain and even gain a blade without any blade contact. In this way, you can still remove options from your opponent and threaten them as well.
This is certainly an advanced skill in application, if not in concept. You need to be able to read your opponent quickly and effectively, know how to place yourself in a counter-guard to deal with them before you reach measure, and be able to effectively capitalize on it once you get there. Once you can do this, internalizing Giganti's theory on counter-guards will go a long way to improving your general fencing ability, as well as give you the satisfaction of doing something that is both effective and period.
Italian Rapier Glossary, by Tom Leoni: http://www.salvatorfabris.org/RapierGlossary.shtml
Call to Arms: The Italian Rapier, by Bill Grandy: http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_arms_rapier.php
Capo Ferro, Ridolfo. Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing. Trans. Jerek Swanger, Willian E. Wilson. Web. 23 November 2012. <http://mac9.ucc.nau.edu/manuscripts/CapoFerro-GRAUF.pdf>.
Fabris, Salvatore. Art of Dueling: Salvatore Fabris' Rapier Fencing Treatise of 1606. Trans. Tom Leoni. Highland Village, TX: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005. Print.
Giganti, Nicoletto. Venetian Rapier - The School, or Salle. Trans. Tom Leoni. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2010. Print.