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Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern. This explains two out of three of my blogs. The third is a more personal one focusing on fibromyalgia. What I write in these blogs, I hope will be of use to people.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Of the Use of the Off-Hand: Part I


This entry is the first part of the lesson on the use of the off-hand in particular in the use of the rapier. It should be noted that much of the information will relate more closely to those of the recreational bend and in particular more toward those within the SCA. However, I hope that the information presented here and in the following entries will be of interest.




V. I will tell you, this weapon must bee used with a glove, and if a man should be without a glove, it were better to hazard a little hurt of the hand, thereby to become maister of his enemies Swoorde, than to breake with the swoord, and so give his enemy the advantage of him.” (Saviolo, 1595)

            The following lesson could be seen as an introductory to Saviolo however the parry with the off-hand is not restricted to Saviolo. Other masters described and used the off-hand to parry with. Fabris argues against the use of the off-hand to parry, but includes techniques on how it should be used in four different instances. Capo Ferro demonstrates and describes techniques using the off-hand to parry or grasp with on four different plates. Thus the use of the off-hand is actually more widespread than most would give credit.
            In the standard modes of rapier training the off-hand is often neglected or brushed over in favour of the sword parry. Indeed the techniques involved with the use of the hand parry are often simplified almost to the point of ignorance of their use. However it is a useful technique and gives the user an additional defence when used. The use of the off-hand for parrying can also be beneficial to use of off-hand equipment later on as the hand is already active.
            The use of the off-hand is even presented in most of the guards presented in rapier combat as they present the off-hand in front of the body ready for use, rather than behind the body. Even if it is static the off-hand can provide a defence if it is accidentally hit rather than the body, however it is a much more active use which will be the focus here.
            Saviolo is the most active user and advertiser of the use of the off-hand. Indeed he even prefers the use of the use of the off-hand parry to the use of the sword for the same action. His principle use is based upon the idea that it is better to use the hand and keep the sword free and point on-line and thus threatening the opponent easy for use. However even in this he does not give much instruction as to the specifics of the use of the off-hand, merely describing the particular situation and its use. This lesson is designed to introduce such specifics and present the off-hand as a useful, if often forgotten, option for the fencer to use.

Off-Hand Definition and General Use

            Before the details of the use of the off-hand can be discussed some important definitions and principles need to be addressed. The first part of this is to define exactly what is meant by the off-hand. The off-hand is that part of the body which extends from the points of the fingers to the wrist bone, in most instances. However, should a parry be missed with the hand and caught with the forearm and still successfully made, then it can also include this.
            In the use of the off-hand against the opponent’s blade, the palm of the hand is the optimum contact surface. This is due to the padding which is present on the palm of the hand and also the increased control in using the palm of the hand. Firstly, if the back of the hand is used, the knuckles can come into contact with the opponent’s weapon and this will sting. Secondly, the back of the hand gives no option to grasp the opponent’s weapon and gives less control.
            While the parry with the hand is a technique which can be used and effective in and of itself, it is even more effective when combined with another technique. In defence the off-hand parry can be enhanced by the use of a void, for example. This is a technique which needs to be added and used with other techniques; use the hand, sword and other techniques together and it will be substantially more effective.
            When the hand parry is considered one subject which always eventuates is the subject of the parrying gauntlet. This is a subject, which is best discussed and defined early in the lesson. The parrying gauntlet is not required for the off-hand to be effective, but can be used as an adjunct to enhance its use.

Parrying Gauntlet

            There are several different types of gauntlet that can be used on the off-hand in order to enhance the techniques which will be discussed here. The most common type of gauntlet recognised is made of mail however there is also the gauntlet of plates of steel, of leather, and even combinations of the above. Each has its own advantage and disadvantage.
            The gauntlet of plate is rigid and is protected from thrusts and cuts on the outside where it is plated, however where it is not protected is on the inside, here the user may be cut. The gauntlet of mail covers the entire hand and protects it well from cuts however it is vulnerable to thrusts. Hutton mentions in The Sword and the Centuries of a glove of “stout leather” used to protect the hand when it is in use. However this could be mistaken for a normal leather glove so is often overlooked. The combination of a plate gauntlet with a mail palm would seem to be the ultimate choice in this situation, however there is a weight consideration to take into account. What also needs to be considered are the conventions which may be used with the item.
            In normal SCA rapier combat the parrying gauntlet is considered to be a glove of mail worn to protect the hand up to and including the wrist bones. This gauntlet protects the wearer’s hand from cuts and can allow the combatant to grasp the opponent’s weapon. The important thing to realise here is that the grasping of the opponent’s blade is a convention that must be agreed to before the bout starts, as are any other conventions, such as plate being protective against thrusts which may be agreed to by both combatants. If there is no agreement then the convention is not used.
The use of the gauntlet will be mentioned in those instances where it is specific to it however all of the techniques can be used with the parrying gauntlet. The parrying gauntlet should not be considered to be required for the use of the off-hand more as a supplementary item to enhance the ability of the off-hand. Always practice the hand parry with and without a parrying gauntlet. Further, do not rely on the grasping ability of the gauntlet, as will be described, be able to use the parries as normal as well, this can only be an advantage.


            The use of the off-hand in fencing is based upon elements of fencing theory as are all sound techniques. It is the application of these theoretical elements which is important. Time and distance are as applicable to the use of the off-hand as they are to the use of any other element of fencing technique. Further to this the use of the off-hand can be related in to the use of the sword.
            The first relationship between the off-hand and the sword is that there is the availability of an option for a beat parry or parry with opposition with both. This means that both can be used to beat or control the opponent’s weapon. There is also the simple fact that the hand can be seen as a pure forte, in much the same way that a dagger is. However, just as control is tenuous at the debole of the dagger so too is it tenuous at the tips of the fingers. What this also means is that there is a great deal of leverage possible on the opponent’s weapon with the off-hand, just as with the dagger.
            Just as with the parry with the sword, the fencer needs to wait for the opponent’s weapon to arrive before making his parry. In this it is just as much a mistake to reach with the hand in a parry as it is with the sword. Thus all the principles of timing and distance apply just as much to the use of the off-hand as they do to the sword.
            In the use of the hand, a person may consider that the hand might be hurt in the process however, it is better than the opponent’s weapon striking something more vital. This is one of the primary principles in the use of the off-hand. This principle is supplemented with the idea that two hands can be used, one for attack and one for defence. The off-hand parries leaving the weapon free for attack; this is the principle which Saviolo points to the opening quote, and performed in the same tempo this can be extremely effective.
            There are some simple principles which need to be followed to use the off-hand effectively in combat.

1.    Contact the flat not the edge – this is regardless whether a parrying gauntlet is worn or not. It is safer and reduces potential damage to the hand. 
2.    Move from the elbow as the primary method of use – the shoulder is slower and less efficient.
3.    Move the opponent’s attack away from the body not across – use the shortest route possible.
4.    In defence wait for the opponent’s attack to arrive – don’t reach for the opponent’s weapon.
5.    Always remember that there are two options, beat and control – choose depending on the situation and know how to use both.

There are other elements which are important which will be noted in the following but these are the essential principles. For example, it is best that you do not parry your own sword with your hand, however you may find a situation where parrying the opponent’s weapon into yours gains you more control. Always consider the particular situation that you are in.


Entanglement is something which some fencers fear, however entanglement is something which can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the control and the situation. In close combat situations, which are sometimes the result of using the off-hand, are situations in which control over the opponent’s weapon, your own, and the situation is vital. If one element is missing then trouble is usually the result. Accidental entanglements are those which cause the most problems, deliberate entanglement on the part of one fencer is different. Consider what the entanglement will gain you before engaging. 
In the use of the off-hand you must consider how you will get around the opponent’s weapon and of course your own. This often results in questions of whether it is better to move the hand first or the weapon and which one should be in front. This is dependent on the particular situation that you find yourself in. In general if the offhand is used first then the sword must go below the arm, if the sword is first then the sword will usually go above. This is dependent on the situation, of course. The most important thing is not to put yourself in a situation where your resulting attack will contact you. The weapon must be given a clear line to the target, or one that can be cleared without compromising the defence.
In the close, the prime location you should attempt to place the opponent’s weapon against their body. Obviously you will be attempting to do the same with your own in order to complete your own attack. If you can control the opponent’s weapon enough to place it against the opponent’s body, not only will you have gained control over their weapon, but you will also have the potential for damaging them with their own weapon.
Some will state that it is best to move the opponent’s weapon away from your own. This is dependent on the situation. There are times when the extra leverage provided by your sword against the opponent’s sword can result in a great advantage. This situation can also result in the chance for an opportunity to change control items to or from the off-hand in order to change the situation. In all instances you should consider what advantage, or disadvantage occurs from your movements, and also those of the opponent.