Classical Fencing: Thinking About Distances

Distance, also termed measure, plays a critical role in fencing. Defined as the physical distance between two fencers or the distance that one fencer’s blade must travel to hit the other fencer, how it is measured provides a window into the tactical and technical doctrine of the various schools of fencing. As expected in the period before development of the modern international style, there are multiple approaches, including the following German, Italian, and French examples.

Roux (1849, Treichel’s translation) in his manual of Kreusslerian Thrust Fencing (a style persisting in Germany into the classical period) describes distance in terms of the sword. The sword blade was divided into four parts from the guard forward to the point: (1) complete strength, (2) half strength, (3) half weak, (4) total weak. The relative position of the sword established three distances, recognized by the fencer based on pressure on the opponent’s blade:

  • Wide Distance – the fencer’s total weak can reach the opponent’s half weak. This position is for defense or for reconnaissance.
  • Middle Distance, also known as Normal or Proper Measure – the fencer’s total weak can reach the opponent’s half strength.
  • Close Distance – the fencer’s half weak is on the opponent’s complete strength. This is a dangerous position because he opponent’s attacks will penetrate through a parry by the fencer.

Although there are differences in exactly how these distances are described, this German approach to the use of the blade to measure distance remains largely consistent into the early years of the classical period (see Steflik’s translations of Eiselen 1818, Seidler 1843, and Schneider 1887).

In contrast, the Italian approach to distance is based on the footwork required for delivery of the attack. Parise (1884, Holzman’s translation) defines three measures:

  • Advancing Measure – an advance is used with the lunge to hit the opponent.
  • Lunge Measure – the opponent can be hit with a lunge.
  • Narrow Measure – the opponent can be hit without the use of footwork.

Van Humbeek (1905, Van Noort’s translation), an Italian trained Belgian Fencing Master, divides distance into:

  • Long Measure – the fencers are further apart than in correct distance.
  • Correct Measure -the fencer must use an advance to reach the distance at which the opponent can be hit with a lunge.
  • Normal Measure – the fencer can hit the opponent with a lunge.
  • Short Measure – footwork is not required to hit the opponent.

Barbasetti (1932) uses different terminology, but with the same basic intent:

  • Close or Closed Distance – when the opponent is touched by a simple extension.
  • Right Distance – when the opponent can be hit by a lunge.
  • Normal Distance – called normal because it is taken when taking the guard position to defeat a sudden attack, it requires an advance and lunge to hit.
  • Position Outside of Distance – when the distance is greater than Normal Distance.

French description of measure is different. Mentions of distance in earlier texts are generally minimal or absent. The 1877 Ministry of War Fencing Manual (Slee translation) does not discuss measure. The English language translation of the 1908 Ministry of War manual describes the fencer is either being in the measure or outside of it, with the term measure being defined as the greatest distance at which a fencer can hit an opponent with a lunge. This definition is echoed as late as 1967 by Crosnier. Deladrier (1948) specifies that the proper distance to be maintained at all times is the distance at which the opponent can be hit by a lunge. Castello differentiates between in distance, the distance at which the opponent can hit with a lunge, and out of distance, the distance at which the opponent must use an advance lunge. Neither Rondelle (1892), Senac (1904), Manrique(1920), nor Grave (1934) discuss measure in any detail.

At the end of the period we find other detailed considerations of measure, based on the reach needed for the attack. At this point it is difficult to attribute these categories to a specific school, and they may represent the evolving international style. Vince (1937) identifies three measures:

  • Short Distance – the opponent is hit by an arm extension.
  • Middle Distance – a lunge is required to hit.
  • Long Distance – an advance and lunge is required to hit.

Lidstone (1951) describes four distances:

  • Out of distance – distance at which the opponent cannot be hit by a lunge.
  • In distance – the distance at which the opponent can be hit by a lunge.
  • Half-Distance – the distance at which a half-lunge can hit.
  • Short Distance – distance at which the hit can be made without lunging.

In summary, we see distance described in two significant ways, in terms of the position of the blades and by the footwork required to execute the attack at a distance that will result in a touch. In the classical period Italian theory provides the most developed approach to measure by footwork, and appears to form the basis in the developing international style of fencing at the end of the period.

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