The Grip

The Grip


Swetnam describes three ways of gripping the rapier, each with advantages and disadvantages:


  • Natural Fashion: Three fingers about the hilt, forefinger over the quillion, thumb on the ricasso of the blade.


  • Strong Fashion: Three fingers about the hilt, forefinger over the quillion, thumb locked against the forefinger.


  • Stokata Fashion: The pommel of the sword is held with three fingers, while the forefinger and thumb wrap around the hilt itself.


Swetnam prefers the strong fashion, but says that all three may be used when the situation requires.  His preference for the strong grip is most likely a product of his military background and the influence of the backsword on his style.  As a rule, he recommends the Natural grip when making wrist blows, overhand thrusts, and quick circular movements.


The Stokata fashion provides a small amount of additional reach at the cost of some of the wielder’s leverage. It is particularly interesting in that it has been reinvented independently by modern reenactors, and is sometimes called the modified pistol grip.  While the Stokata grip is mentioned in his discussion of how to grip the weapon, Swetnam never explicitly recommends using it.  In experimenting with this grip, it is more useful when doing angulated attacks around a dagger parry, such as a right stock (described later).


There is no particular description of how to hold the dagger, but the illustrations show it held in a simple fist.  It is not possible to tell from the images whether the thumb of the dagger hand is placed on the base of the blade or tucked against the forefinger.  Given Swetnam’s preference for the Strong grip on the rapier, the thumb is probably locked against the forefinger in the dagger grip as well.


Swetnam does not use the four numerical terms for hand positions (Prima, Seconda, Terza, Quarta) established by Agrippa[1] and used in almost all subsequent rapier manuals.  Instead, he describes the position of the knuckles, such that “knuckles out” refers to the Seconde position.  This nomenclature is very much in keeping with the rest of Swetnam’s writing style and even his fencing philosophy.  Agrippa’s terminology is numerical, analytical, and very Renaissance.  Labeling the positions “one” through “four” makes a strong statement about Agrippa’s philosophy of fencing.  He is ordering the world, creating a pure logical structure.  The term “terza”/“three” doesn’t tell a new fencer anything about how to hold their rapier or what the purpose of the guard is.  It’s about the where the position fits into the larger structure and serves as a useful shorthand.  Swetnam’s terminology, on the other hand, is bluntly functional.  He’s referring to the knuckles, a very practical portion of the body, and not bothering to create a larger structure.  The orientation of the knuckles determines the orientation of the true edge of the blade, the mechanically stronger edge used for both parrying and throwing most cuts.  There’s no structure beyond “up”, “down”, “inward”, and “outward”.  This is not to say that one terminology is better than the other, just that the terminology of each system reflects the larger philosophy of the system.


As further evidence of the progressive assimilation of the rapier into English swordplay, later English manuals such as Pallas Armata[2] do use the numerical terms for hand position.

[1] Camillo Agrippa, Trattato Di Scientia d’ Arme, con un Dialogo di Filosofia, 1553

[2] G.A., Pallas Armata, The Gentleman’s Armorie,1639