First let me give an apology to all of my classical and sport fencing readers as this blog will not apply to you. The following blog is about fighting against different forms. While the initial focus will be on fighting single sword against others, there will be a further discussion later on based on more general combat conditions.
The first thing that I would like to point out in this blog is that we have spent more time using a single sword, be it with a parrying gauntlet or without than any other form in rapier combat. In our training mode we start with the single sword as it teaches principles which will apply to all of the other following forms. This means that it is the form which we have had the most practice, not to mention that while our opponent may have had a great deal of practice with whatever form they are using, still also their main form for practice will also have been the single rapier. So no matter what your opponent brings out against you remember that proportionally, if not in actual fact, you have had more practice with your single than they have had with their other form.
Some of the newer fencers will be intimidated by an opponent taking an offhand device when they only have a single sword. Part of the point of this blog is to reassure these individuals that there is nothing to be truly worried about only to be aware of the other item that they have in their hand. The most important thing to remember in all situations is that in both cases there are only two hands even if their is more than one weapon/device being used. This means that when the opponent has two weapons the offhand becomes more significant, as does the use of the weapon that you have. The most important thing to look at in this situation is what are the advantages and disadvantages of the combination that the opponent has chosen.
When examining what the opponent has chosen to take it is important to take in what advantages the form has and what disadvantages the form has. For example, in a defensive combination such as sword and buckler, the buckler cannot be used to strike and therefore should have less regard paid to it. This doesn't mean that it should be ignored, just that the weapon is really the main threat in that situation. Once you have ascertained these advantages and disadvantages you should play toward the opponent's disadvantages and attempt to minimise the advantages. This particular situation is the same in all accounts with all opponents in all weapon forms. We need to maximise our own advantages while minimising those of the opponent.
In order to realise the advantages and disadvantages of each form it is important to examine them in a little detail. This is best done as a general look and then given some more detail in order to realise the specific characteristics of each one. In this way we are able to see the characteristics from both a generalised point of view and also a more specific point of view. The best way to do this really well is to have a go at the forms yourself and figure out what these characteristics are.
First we will look at defensive combinations as they are often the first that a fencer will come across. What is most significant about the defensive combinations is that there is one weapon and one defensive item being used. The most important fact here is that the defensive item is defensive, and not an immediate threat in the same way that a weapon is. So in many ways this places you on the same field as the offhand is a defensive tool in the same way that a buckler or a cane or a cloak is. So in this way aside from the extended reach, or slightly improved physical protection the defensive options against an open hand are pretty much neutral. The real threat from these combinations is when they come into contact with the weapon and are used to control it. Obviously the way to avoid this is to avoid the item being used to control your weapon. More detail will be given to these forms later on.
Offensive combinations are where people have the most problems, it is usually the thought of two weapons that is the issue, but even this can be dealt with intelligently if you know what to look for. The main thing with offensive combinations is that there is two weapons to your one. This means that there is double the amount of threat from your opponent. As has been stated you can counter one with your weapon and one with your offhand when it is required, or the other way around if you prefer. In most instances combatants will attack with one and then the other but not at the same time, this means that you actually have the time to counter both weapons with one item if you are practiced enough and quick enough. This of course comes down to your level of practice. The trick in this situation is making your defence effective and succinct in order that you are not over-extending yourself. If you move too far you will leave yourself exposed. This combined with the avoidance of control as explained under the defensive items will allow you to deal with these forms as well.
It is important to look at each form in some detail in order to understand the specific advantages of each of the forms. These will be summarised a little in order that this doesn't go on for ages. The characteristics of the weapon in the offhand itself actually gives a great deal away as to where its advantages and disadvantages lie. Cane and case of rapier are similar in that they have reach. Dagger and buckler are better at closer ranges, and cloak has the advantage of volume and a little reach. Of course, now that we can see the advantages it is easier to see the disadvantages.
Case of rapier especially, and not so much with cane have an issue with closer range due to being so long. At closer range they can tangle themselves up and this is something that can be used against the opponent. In this with case it is a matter of avoiding the double threat and forcing the opponent on to the back foot. In the case of cane it is a matter of avoiding all contact with the cane and forcing the opponent to cross over themselves in order to limit the use of the sword by the opponent. In this way with both items the solution is very similar, the main thing to be aware of in this is the threat of the two weapons in case of rapier.
The dagger can only be used as an offensive weapon at closer range than the sword, otherwise its use is limited to being used as something similar to a short cane or the buckler. In this way if you stay out of range of the dagger you will not be struck by it. In this you should move more toward the sword-side of the opponent in order to limit their use of the dagger by forcing them to cross over in order to use it. The buckler is awesome for blocking and controlling. You need to avoid these aspects of the buckler and this can be achieved in a similar manner to that applied to the previous forms, and especially the dagger by staying on the sword-side of the opponent. You can also use the buckler against the opponent by blocking his vision with it and also blocking his weapon with it.
The cloak is a unique device in that it is flexible and has the greatest volume of all of the devices. It can also have the advantage of reach. The cloak can be used to entangle a weapon, cover the opponent's weapon and thus intention, can be used to weigh down a weapon, and even block the vision of its opponent. For all these advantages the cloak can be slow in motion and also difficult for the opponent to control. If you notice either of these things you have an advantage. Avoidance should also be used, keeping your weapon away from the cloak, but still being aware of where the opponent's weapon is at the same time. As with case you can convince your opponent to tangle themselves with it. In this way cloak has a great amount of advantages but also has disadvantages that can be taken advantage of.
The important thing here is that you need to realise these advantages and disadvantages be aware of them and utilise the situation to your own advantage. This is the same with all forms of fencing. In all cases you need to be aware of the situation and manipulate it to your own advantage in order to maximise your ability to succeed in the encounter. In the most simple terms the best weapon or combination is the one you can win with or the one you are most comfortable with. This is one of the true keys to success in fencing.