The action of holding the sword is one of the most fundamental of fencing, and yet it is one which seems to be passed over in preference for other subjects such as how the rest of the body should be placed. It would seem that holding the sword, or the grip would be a simple action, but there are mistakes that can easily be made which will affect how the sword is used.
Gripping the sword seems simple enough but there are often mistakes made. The sword is sometimes held too tightly or too loosely. The sword is sometimes held by the wrong fingers, or with the pressure of the wrong fingers. Each one of these elements can impact how the sword is used by the fencer. Of course it also depends on which sword is being spoken about, so some specificity is necessary before proceeding any further.
WeaponThe reason that the sword needs to be spoken about is that the hilt shape and construction will be important to how the sword will be correctly held. Holding a foil with a French grip will be different to holding a sabre, which will be different to holding a rapier. Due to it being the weapon which I have most familiarity with, the rapier will be the focus of the discussion. To this, the weapon will be taken to have a straight handle, quillons, and a ricasso as the essential elements which will be required.
Sword MethodologyWith the weapon and hilt discussed, the gripping of the weapon can be returned to. The rapier may be gripped in several different ways, depending on what the fencer intends to do with the weapon, and how the fencer wishes to fence with it or what style they wish to use. Again, some specificity is required because often the grip will change to suit the the methodology of using the sword. For the purposes of this discussion the fencer will be assumed to be using an Italian or Elizabethan methodology, thus using both cut and thrust, but primarily thrust.
EffectsA sword which is held too tightly is difficult to move because the muscles are already constrained. It is also difficult to practice fine movements because of the constraint on the muscles. Further, feeling through the blade (senso di ferro or sentiment du fer) is more difficult to access if the weapon is held too tightly. If the weapon is used to cut, the weapon will more likely smack into the target and bounce off rather than slicing into the target. Finally, holding the sword tightly uses energy which will tire the hand quickly which means the fencer will tire quickly.
A sword which is held too loosely is difficult to control, and is thus difficult to practice accurate fine movements due to the lack of control. The weapon is more easily controlled by the opponent. The weapon will be easily beaten and the fencer is more likely to be disarmed. If the weapon is held too loosely it will not be able to apply the pressure that is required to transmit a proper cut, and the looseness of the blade will likely make it bounce off rather than slicing the target.
The rapier should be held by the index and the thumb primarily, assisted by the other fingers. If it is held by the middle, ring and little finger, there will be less control over the point. There will also be a higher likelihood of the fencer being disarmed due to the lack of pressure around the ricasso. Pressure from the lower fingers should only be used to move the point about, these are manipulators.
The GripsIn every method, the sword should be gripped as if holding a small bird. Firm enough so that it will not fly away, but not so tightly that you will crush it. Another way to think of this is how you would hold the hand of your significant other, tight enough to let them know that you are there, but not so tight that you will crack their knuckles. The grip should be firm not tight.
The second method of gripping the rapier is the two-finger grip in which the index and middle fingers are wrapped about the ricasso. They are both placed about the true edge side of the ricasso. The thumb is then placed against the index finger or against the false edge of the ricasso. The ring finger and little finger are then wrapped about the handle.
Other methods of gripping the sword are modifications of one of these two methods. The only method which I strongly discourage is one in which the index finger is wrapped around the quillon on the false edge side of the ricasso and the middle finger is wrapped around the quillon on the true edge side of the ricasso. This method results in a "punch-grip" on the sword, which often results in a lack of control and also striking much harder than is required for this weapon.
Which Method?Which method should you use? The one which is most comfortable for you. So long as you follow the guidelines which have been presented here, and then find the method which is most comfortable for you and provides you with the easiest method of movement of the sword, then you should be fine.
If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask. Ask your trainer, ask your class-mates, everyone will (or should) have an idea of the reason why they hold the sword in the way that they do. Different ideas about how to hold the sword can only be of benefit.
The correct method of holding the sword is essential for using the sword properly. Actions can only be performed accurately and properly if the sword is held properly. Often the root-cause of a fencer's issue with a particular technique is that they are simply holding the sword incorrectly, or at least with some issues. The most fundamental elements have the greatest effect on your fencing, the way that you grip your sword is one of these.