Swordsman & Geek

A Midsummer Night’s Blog

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A Medio between Incompetence and Perfection


There is no point in dreams

There is no point in dreams if they lack some measure of audacity.

It was January of 2000 and the world had survived the millennium bug.  The place was Breckenridge, Colorado and a member of my wife’s family had a cabin near the ski resorts.  There at the top of the mountain I got my first bit of instruction in the ancient art of skiing.


The first and last thing I heard was, “Lean forward,” and so I did.  I began to slide down the mountain gaining speed. I had no way to steer and no idea what I should be doing.  I found myself completely out of control and was headed towards the trees at increasing velocity.  Before I painfully crashed I orchestrated a controlled wipe-out into the snow with poles, skis, and limbs all flying in different directions.  The remainder of the day was a repeat of the same series of leanings forward with various wipe-outs.  I got better instruction and learned how to stop by “snow-plowing”.  By the end of the day I had learned how to turn and stop with the skis parallel.


Sometime ago I became interested in the study of incompetence and how incompetent people generally behave.  Specifically I was interested in the meta-cognition of incompetence as studied by Justin Kruger and David Dunning who found that incompetent people were unable effectively to evaluate their own competence.  This lack of ability to understand personal competence has been called the Dunning–Kruger effect and restated basically it means that incompetent people tend to overestimate their own level of skill.


Link to the study:


(For an academic study, this is riveting material to read especially as a researcher, teacher, or student of martial arts.)


Compare that to Carranza’s statement, “He who knows most doubts most.”  Carranza adds the perfect corollary to the DK effect and uniting the two ideas has given me a basis for moving forward during difficult tasks.  (As an example, when a prairie-born Okie is rolling down a mountain with skis tied to his feet.)


The point isn’t to belittle or slander incompetence; we’re all incompetent in some subjects.  Instead, my goal was to develop strategies to understand and mitigate my own incompetence by reserving a healthy dose of doubt about my own ability and creating a series of tests to validate my own performance.


I am going to add my own rule which I learned in Breckenridge, “Lean forward.”  We can paraphrase Voltaire to arrive at a similar statement, “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  If I had become paralyzed with the fear of the many stumbles, spectacular wipe-outs, and public laughter at my misbegotten antics I might never have learned to ski that day.


We might best understand this as a Medio (or a virtuous mean or balance point as Aristotle and the Destreza authors might describe it).  There is absolute perfection at one extreme.  At the other extreme is complete incompetence.  Between the two extremes is the good work we might do if we just lean forward and accept our imperfection.


We need to teach and practice La Verdadera Destreza to build our skill and to foster a community.  But, we also know not all the work has been translated which should be a warning to us to preserve our doubts.  Previous attempts have stumbled and fallen quite publicly.  Worse, our mistakes may be mocked and picked apart and ridiculed by our peers.


1. Know that your ability to self-evaluate is shaky while you are learning.

2. Preserve a healthy doubt and create meaningful checks to ensure your work is good.

3. Lean forward and be ambitious unto audacity.  Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from producing work.

Fencing Criticism and Feedback for Dummies…

Fencers?  Cocky?  Never!

William provides Italian sabre feedback at WMAW 2009

I recently witnessed an Internet discussion on fencing that rapidly degenerated into bad blood.  Using my best sarcastic voice, I hereby state, “It may surprise the world to learn that fencers are notoriously cocky and prone to confrontation.

Any fencing teacher can watch a fencing match and provide valid criticism and feedback. Regardless of the quality of the fencing in question, how your criticism is delivered tells the world what kind of person you are.  More specifically, they get a window into how you might treat your own student.

If your goal is to humiliate and punish the student you are certainly welcome to say whatever you like, but I have a three-point system for delivering feedback based on my experiences training for the fencing master’s program.

Puck’s 3 Rules for Corrective Feedback

  • Precise – Feedback should not be vague.  “Fix your arm” is not an acceptable correction from a fencing teacher.  That could mean anything.  You do not want the student trying to guess what they should correct. “Extend your weapon arm first during the lunge;” “In the guard create a straight line from elbow to weapon tip;” “Close the line when striking.”  These are all specific corrections tightly focused on the problem.
  • Concise – Nothing breaks up the tempo of a fencing lesson like veering off into an extended discussion of tangential theory.  There is a place for extended discussion, but on the floor a short and precise explanation preserves the flow of the lesson.  Don’t let your fencer’s legs cool off while you wax poetic about the joys of striking in countertime.  Importantly, don’t lecture while the student is on guard.  If you are going to provide anything more than short feedback, put them into a resting posture like first position.  Don’t spend sweat and energy having your student hold a guard as you prattle when you could spend that energy on fencing actions.
  • Nice – This seems obvious, but it bears repeating.  Don’t be a jerk when you deliver your correction.  As a fencing teacher, you are engaged in the process of creating a skilled fencer.  Like any person responsible for creation there will be challenges in the process.  It is a poor artist that wrecks his own canvas.  There is often a natural and friendly antagonism between the fencing master and the student, but the goal of the teacher should always be to build the student and not to destroy them.

Both fencing and teaching are very rewarding.  Nothing worth doing is easy all the time, but if we can take a bit of time to treat each other with respect and focus on building better fencers we will all benefit.


Italian Rapier Flowchart


After WMAW 2007 I prepared this Italian rapier flowchart to explain some of the possible actions when executing tactical drills with a student.

Italian Rapier Flowchart

Italian Rapier Flowchart (Click for High Resolution)

There are things I would change about this chart today.  This flowchart does not include actions like attacks to the leg, the use of the off hand, and it doesn’t get into detail about execution, but as a basic learning aid I still like it provided the instructor does not limit the instruction solely to this decision tree.


Swetnam’s Postulate


Image from Swetnams Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (1617)

Image from Swetnam

“…yet regard chiefly the words rather than the Picture.” ~ Joseph Swetnam

First, a postulate is to maintain or assert that something is self-evident.  It is part of the fundamental element or basic principle of a logical argument.

Second, a primary source is an original text (like a fencing manual) or an object (like a sword).  We will use a primary source to draw conclusions about a topic.  A fencer might study the book of Salvator Fabris to understand Italian rapier.  Darkwood Armory might study a rapier from the original time period to understand how to create a training weapon for fencers today.

In our case, a primary source is important in identifying the origin of the information we want to interpret.  Primary sources are given greater value than secondary sources.  A secondary source is information or discussion of the primary source that is not originated from the primary source.  For example, you could argue that our recreation of Destreza based on an English translation is a tertiary source because it is based on a secondary source (the English translation).

This becomes tricky in a fencing manual when we consider the images.  For example, Ridolfo Capoferro’s work has been subjected to some intense scrutiny in this regard and I have been involved in some heated discussions about the position of the feet, the nature of offline steps, and the gaining of the weapon.  While the plates in the text are very important we need to remember Joseph Swetnam’s advice.

…yet regard chiefly the words rather than the Picture.

I call this Swetnam’s Postulate.  Unless the fencing master himself is listed as the artist, the images are not a primary source of information but rather a secondary source.

Interpreting a Text

When interpreting a fencing text, I use a hierarchy of sources in which item 1 is given the highest priority and item 7 the lowest.

  1. The text in the original language is a primary source.
  2. Swetnam’s Postulate – Unless we can prove the master created the images, the artwork is a secondary source.
  3. The translated text is a secondary source.
  4. Masters in the same tradition, weapon, and time period can provide insight to technique.
  5. Masters in the same tradition, weapon, and a different time period, can also provide insight.
  6. Masters in the same tradition with similar weapons (for example classical Italian fencing) can provide insight.
  7. My own experience or experimentation.

For example… If Capoferro indicates that I should travel directly forward on the line of direction, I should obey the text even when it contradicts (or seems to contradict) the images rather than reinterpret the author’s instructions based on my understanding of pictures created by an artist.  If other sources within the tradition also seem to confirm Capoferro’s text, rather than a picture that could arguably be on the line or off it, this provides us additional incentive to trust the author’s voice.

Likewise, as an interpreter, I need to be aware of my fencing biases and try to avoid item 7 as much as possible.  When I change ‘canonical‘ technique or add technique of my own this needs to be clearly stated in my interpretation.  (In this sense, I use the term ‘canonical‘ to indicate a deviation from the original text or texts.)

For example, at WMAW 2009 I applied principles from Ettenhard’s book in order to create new techniques appropriate for left-handed fencers.  When I demonstrated these variations to the class, I made certain to explain that these were my variations and not Ettenhard’s original work.

By expressing some dissatisfaction with the images in his book and asking the reader to give his words precedence over the plates, Swetnam reminds us that the author’s voice is the first and primary source of information an interpreter should consider.

Spanish Fencing Notation Part 2 – Footwork and the Circle



In the Italian tradition there is an imaginary Line of Direction that describes the shortest path to the adversary.

The Spanish tradition uses this line and expands on the concept to create a 2D planar map of possible footwork laid out in a circle.  The Spanish Circle is one of the defining elements of the science and various authors have presented it differently while preserving the core concept.

Carranza’s Circle

Carranza's Circle (Click for High Resolution)

Carranza's Circle from his text in 1569.

Here is the same image with labels to provide us a reference.

Carranza's Circle with Labels

Carranza's Circle with Labels

The Diameter – The imaginary line separating the two fencers is called the Diameter.  It represents the shortest path to the target.  The Diameter starts at the lead toe of the fencer (bottom of the red line) to the the lead toe of the adversary (top of the red line).  The correct length of the Diameter should be the distance at which the fencer can observe the adversary’s offensive actions and still respond in time.

The Major Circle (Greater Circle) – The central circle shown between the two fencers is called the Major Circle or sometimes just the Circle.  By rotating the Diameter about its center, we can create an imaginary circle which functions as a one piece of a footwork map.

The Lines of Infinity- The two parallel lines shown in green are called the Lines of Infinity or Infinite Lines.  In the same manner as the Diameter, the distance between these lines is defined by your ability to observe and react to the adversary’s offense.  Crossing the Line of Infinity means closing distance into the adversary’s offensive measure.

The Minor Circle – The smaller circles on either side of the Major circle are called the Minor Circles.  The fencer and the adversary each stand in the center of a Minor Circle which is defined by the positions of the feet.

The Circle represents a moment of fencing time – The circle is not fixed in location, but instead describes the distance and possible steps within a specific fencing action.  Just as the Italian Line of Direction changes when the adversaries move, so to does a new circle occur when the fencers change position.  If an adversary has broken your defense and closed measure, the text may advise you to step onto a new circle and this represents the need to reestablish correct distance.

Pacheco’s Circle

Later Carranza’s student Pacheco describes this circle.  Note that the origin point for the fencer is at one end of the diameter (bottom of the circle) while the adversary stands on the opposite side (top of the circle).

Pacheco's Circle

Pacheco's Circle as shown in his book in 1600.

The primary addition to the Circle is the Square which like the angular lines above in Carranza’s Circle provide us with another indicator for footwork.

We can also map a series of vectors onto this planar diagram which allows us to precisely describe footwork.  Remember that a vector is a line with direction and magnitude.

A vector that indicates motion to the right of the reader.  (This vector has an undetermined magnitude.)

A vector that indicates motion to the right of the reader. (This vector has an undetermined magnitude.)

General Notes

The Spanish treat a step as a motion that starts in stance and ends in stance which requires a motion of each foot.  When the fencer moves only one foot, this is specified in the description of the footwork.

To compare this to Italian fencing, we know that an advance starts in the guard and requires a movement from the lead foot followed by the rear foot returning to the guard.  Likewise a retreat starts in the guard and requires a movement from the rear foot followed by the lead foot returning to the guard.

By contrast, when an Italian fencer executes a lunge, the fencer starts in the guard and moves only the lead foot.   The final position of the lunge is not the guard.

Forward Step

(En español – Compas Accidental )

The fencer advances along the line of the Diameter.

Forward Compass (advance)

Forward Step (advance)

Backward Step

(En español – Compas Extraño )

The fencer retreats in line with the Diameter.

Backward Compass (retreat)

Backward Step (retreat)

Lateral Step

(En español – Compas de Trepidacion)

The fencer steps along the Line of Infinity either to the left or right.  When stepping towards a direction, unless directed otherwise, the fencer will avoid crossing the feet.  For example, when stepping to the right, the fencer will lead with the right foot.  When stepping to the left, the fencer will lead with the left foot.

Lateral Compass (sidestep)

Lateral Step (sidestep)

Curved Step

(En español – Compas Curvo)

The fencer steps along the Circle either to the left or right.  When stepping towards a direction, unless directed otherwise, the fencer will avoid crossing the feet.  For example, when taking a Curved Step to the right, the fencer will lead with the right foot.  When taking a Curved Step to the left, the fencer will lead with the left foot.  At the completion of the Curved Step, the fencer should be in profile facing the adversary.

Curved Compass

Curved Step

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is a misconception that stepping along the circle does not close distance.  This is demonstrably incorrect as shown with this simple triangle in green, purple and blue overlaid on the circle.

The blue line of the triangle demonstrates the curved compass has gained measure.

The blue line of the triangle demonstrates the Curved Step has gained measure. The blue line is clearly shorter than the Diameter.

If you step along the circle you should be aware that you have entered the adversary’s range.  Walking along the circle without reason provides your adversary with one unit of fencing time with each step and I don’t recommend it.

A Curved Step along the circle is a common method of gaining ground gradually and is often used in response to an offensive action from the adversary.

For example, if the adversary executes a cut, we may intercept the attack with the blade and then step forward along the circle to deliver a riposte.  Because the adversary has moved forward already, our step moves only slightly forward and takes us off the line.  After we have delivered a riposte, we might back away safely past the Line of Infinity.

Transverse Step

(En español – Compas Transversal)

The Transverse Step is a type of angular advance either to the left or right along the square shown inside the circle.  The Transverse starts with the lead foot and is followed by the rear foot.  At the completion of the Transverse Step, the fencer should be in profile facing the adversary.  When there is an exception to this, it is stated in the description of the step and may be called a Mixed Step (See below).

Transverse Compass (angular advance)

Transverse Step (angular advance)

The Transverse Step closes distance more aggressively than the Curved Step shown above and is typical of offensive actions or attacks into the adversary’s preparation.

Mixed Step

(En español – Compas Mixto)

A Mixed Step is a combination of two other types and are often angular retreats either to the left or right away from the circle.

Two common examples of Mixed Steps are Mixed Backwards and Lateral to the left or Mixed Backwards and Lateral to the right.  In this case, the Mixed Step starts with the rear foot and is followed by the lead foot.  At the completion of the Mixed Step, the fencer should be in profile facing the adversary.

Mixed Compass backward and Lateral (angular retreat)

Mixed Step Backward and Lateral (angular retreat)

Another common Mixed Step is the Transverse Step to the Left using the right foot, followed by a Curved Step with the left foot.

Mixed Compass Transverse Left and and Curved Left (angular advance with passing step)

Mixed Step Transverse Left and and Curved Left (angular advance with passing step)

This image is my copy of a Circle from Ettenhard’s book in 1675 which describes the footwork.

1. The lead foot takes a Transverse step along the square pre-turning the lead foot to point back to the adversary.  (The weight rests on the ball of the lead foot.)

2. Pivoting on the ball of the front foot, the rear foot moves in an arc landing on the adversary’s Line of Infinity.

3. The lead foot passes behind the left executing another pivot and placing the fencer in profile with respect to the adversary on his Line of Infinity.

Other Footwork

Other footwork is explicitly described in the text.

For example:

The Italian gaining step would be described as “bringing the rear foot forward close to the heel of the right foot.”

The Italian lunge would be described as “an extreme forward step of the lead foot while keeping the rear foot fixed.”

Opposition of Footwork

According to Ettenhard,

  • The Forward Step is superior to the Backward Step
  • The Forward Step is defeated by the Transverse, Curved, Lateral, and Mixed Backward and Lateral Steps.  (Stepping off the Line of Direction will defeat an advancing opponent.)
  • The Transverse and Curved Steps can be defeated with the Transverse and Curved Steps.   (When an adversary circles toward you, either moving into them or circling away can defeat their action.)

Application to other Traditions

Again this material can be tradition agnostic.  Using the Spanish Circle as a footwork map provides us with a useful guide for describing to a student how fast we want them to close measure.  We can also advise the student to step inside the square or outside of it provide more nuance.

In addition, the Spanish codify angular and circular footwork which has been largely excluded from modern fencing traditions.  As Ettenhard states, countering a circular step with a circular step is a good solution and we see this understanding in Destreza, Aikido, and many other martial arts.