Deceits, Feints, and False Play
Swetnam’s preference for feints is integral to his fencing style, and grows directly from his fundamental principles. Attacks are only made when the opponent’s weapon is under control. Against another rapier, the stringering used by the Italian masters or the related atajo approach of the Spanish masters used to gain control of the opponent’s weapon is effective. Against a polearm, two-handed longsword, or any one of the many styles of weapons that coexisted with the rapier, a different tactic is needed.
Instead, Swetnam uses a more general approach. If the rapier fencer begins the combat by creating a threat, the opponent is forced to respond regardless of what weapon or combat system they’re using. Their response should take their weapon offline, creating a safe space for the rapier fencer to step in and launch a safe attack.
In general, Swetnam’s feints are of the simple “feint high, hit low” or “feint left, hit right” variety.
High to low
“You must proffer, or faine a thrust a foote above your enemie head, but presently plucke backe your hand againe, and put home your thrust which you meane to hurt your enemie withall under his Dagger arme, either unto his body or thigh…”
Low to high
“…againe if you proffer or faine a thrust to your enemies knee, I meane moire quicke then I can speake it, thrust it into his Dagger shoulder, or to his face whether you lift, for you shall finde them both unguarded, for when hee putteth downe his Dagger to defend the fained thrust, hee cannot lit him up againe before you have hit him…”
Left to right
“The best way to make a false thrust, is to strike it downe by the out-side of your enemies Rapier hand, but not to thrust it home, and so presently bring up the point of your Rapier, and thrust it home to his left shoulder…”
(Note the lack of a “feint right, hit left” technique. This is because such a feint would be directed towards the defender’s dagger and would therefore not draw their rapier out of position.)
If a single feint is insufficient, multiple feints are used until the opponent’s weapon is out of position:
“Proffer or faine a thrust at the fairest part of your enemies bodie which lieth most unguarded, and then more quicker then I can speake it, thrust it in on the other side, and so changing three or foure times, and then choppe it home sodainely, and you shall find his bodie unguarded…”
Swetnam advises us not to step in on a feint. This means that even if the opponent does not respond to the feint, it will be impractical to continue the first thrust and strike home. If the opponent fails to respond to the feint, then the same thrust should be tried again in earnest. This is distinct from other fencing styles where all feints are carried through as if they were real attack if no parry is forthcoming.
“…step not forth with your foote when you faine a thrust, but with the second thrust which you meane to speed your enemie withal…”
“…now if he doe not beare his Rapier to defend the fained thrust when you proffer it, then you may hit him with a plaine thrust a second time, if you put it home without falsing it at all.”
Against an opponent using a buckler, Swetnam relies on two simple and basic feints. First, one can feint high, causing the opponent to raise their buckler and block their own line of sight. Secondly, one can feint low, forcing the opponent to drop their buckler, knowing that the force of gravity will make it difficult for the opponent to raise their buckler back into position in time.
“…the false play to deceive the Buckler, is by offering a fained thrust at the face of him that hath the Buckler, and then presently put it home to his knee or thigh, as you see occasion; for he will put up his Buckler to save his face, but can not put him downe againe before you have hit him, as aforesaid.”
“Likewise you may proffer or faine a thrust to the knee of the Buckler man, and put it home to his buckler shoulder, or face, for if hee let fall his Buckler to save below, hee can not put him up time enough to defend the upper parts of his body with his Buckler…”
Similar feints against a buckler are found in other contemporary rapier sources such as Capo Ferro.