Sunday, June 13, 2021

Gripping the Sword


For starters, don't grip the sword hold the sword. The subject of how to hold a sword is a subject that I am back at AGAIN. It would seem that most people when they approach the subject, give little consideration to its importance, and then wonder why they are having difficulties with the more precise actions of fencing later on, or in some cases find themselves with injuries. Yes, at least one injury, or strain, can be traced back to holding the sword in an incorrect manner, as will be described below.

Hold the Sword

Let me say this again, DON'T grip the sword, hold the sword. The weapon should be placed in your hand and you should hold the sword in natural fashion. The weapon needs to become a natural extension of your body, not something that you are gripping on to for dear life. 

Hold the sword firmly so you can feel it against your fingers and hand. It is described as like holding a small bird, firmly enough that it will not escape, but not so hard that you will crush it.

The previous article was quite short, and went over some of the basic details about how to hold a sword. It indicated that it was dependent much on the weapon that was being used at the time, and this is very true. You don't hold a foil the same way that you hold a longsword, or a sabre. Each has a slightly different hilt construction which will affect the way that you wrap your fingers around the hilt.

The previous article indicated that the sword should not be held too tightly not gripped but held. It indicated that a sword that was gripped too tightly would reduce the amount of control the fencer had on it rather than increasing the amount of control the fencer had on it. Clearly if it was gripped too loosely there would be little control over the weapon. The weapon needs to be held properly, with the correct amount of pressure from the fingers on the handle of the weapon. 

The article then went to discuss holding the sword by the index finger and the thumb primarily, and then the different types of grip that could be used and some discussion of which method may be more beneficial to a fencer and for which reason. Here, there will be a little more discussion about the physical characteristics of the sword, which will affect the method of holding the weapon, more specifically the handle.

The Handle

There are many options for buying a weapon for the practice of Historical European Martial Arts, many more than I had options for when I started. There are all the options available from simply buying an "off the shelf" model all the way up to a fully-customized weapon of the fencer's choice. The fencer can often choose hilt, blade, and pommel shape. Of little concern quite often is the handle. Most often the options available are whether it is covered in leather, wire bound, plain wood (and what type of wood) or what combination of these. The handle usually comes in a standard shape, only the length is of concern. The shape of the handle is of concern, as is the size of the handle, all of these things affect how effectively the individual is able to hold the weapon.

The shape of the handle does have an effect on how effectively the fencer is able to hold the weapon. If the handle is too thick, then the individual may not be able to wrap their fingers all the way around the handle, this will result in them gripping the handle, and often too tightly. This is often for fear of losing the weapon, the result of this hard grip is discomfort and potential further issues as will be described. If the handle is too thin, the individual's fingers will overlap, resulting in discomfort similar to that of the thick handle. The correct size should enable the tips of the fingers to touch the palm comfortably. This will enable the handle to be held properly.

Further, the handle can be shaped to fit the hand of the fencer making the handle even more comfortable for them. Thinning out certain parts to add more grip, adding hatching for more grip, or simple removal of certain areas so the handle simply sits in the hand, all add to the ease of holding the handle of the weapon. 

Likewise the length of the handle should place the pommel of a single-handed weapon just below, or at, the grove at the bottom of the hand. A shorter handle can be uncomfortable, placing the pommel in the hand. Likewise longer handles can get in the way of performing actions. These physical characteristics of the handle are often forgotten, but can make a comfortable sword into an excellent sword.


Did you choose your method of holding your sword, or were you told that this was the way to do it, and just followed? Have you considered why you hold your sword in this particular manner? Have you considered the effects of this method, as compared to other methods? These are questions that we should always be asking ourselves about how we hold our swords. A change in method may open new opportunities.

At the beginning of our fencing careers, we are often told how to hold the sword, and usually just follow what is said without question, because we do not know any better, and that is expected. If that method does not work for the fencer it should be expected that the individual will change their method. This is the reason that the teacher should offer options for how to hold the sword. In my previous article on the subject two options were discussed, and also some considerations of their effects. You need to consider why you are holding your sword in this manner.

Does the method give you better control of the sword? Does the method give you better strength in engagement? Does the method give you a balance of these attributes? Is the method that you are using actually comfortable? Frankly, if it the answer to the last one is not a resounding "Yes," then you need to think about seeking another option for holding your sword.

We will examine two typical methods of holding the rapier, and one extreme method. Each will be examined for its advantages and what it gives the fencer. This will describe the effect holding the sword in this manner applies to the sword in a functional sense, which is the most important, rather than any other consideration. Each will be examined to see what the fencer is given by using these methods.

Single Finger

In the single finger method, the index finger is placed about the forward quillon, or ricasso. The thumb is then placed on the back of the ricasso, or placed on top of the tip of the index finger by preference. There is a different effect from both of these positions, the latter gives more strength to the edge when making parries and actions, but has the thumb activated all of the time. The former has the thumb relaxed and can be used as a counter-lever to the index finger to control the weapon.

The advantage of the single finger method is that it allows the lower fingers freedom for use to manipulate the weapon, and leaves the wrist freedom of movement for manipulation of movement of the weapon. This allows the weapon to move freely as the fencer desires. This is a very basic form of grip where the sword is essentially held between the index finger and the thumb, with the other fingers and the hand assisting in the movement of the sword, and nothing more. They can, should it be required, be used for strength actions, but most of the time, they should not. There is a lot of freedom of action in this method.

Two Finger

In this method, the index and middle fingers are placed about the ricasso. The thumb touches the tip of the middle finger. More of the handle is placed in the hand for this method, and the more of the hand is used to hold the weapon. This means that the hand is used to manipulate the weapon.

The advantage of this method is that the sword is held firmly which means it is useful especially for longer weapons. The fingers lock the handle against the hand and the hand is moved rather than the fingers to manipulate the weapon. This means that it is primarily up to the wrist and forearm to move the weapon about. This method gives the weapon strength in its engagement with others and results in no change depending on whether strength or fine actions are required. This method is more common to the later period treatises.


 "Pommeling" is an extreme form of holding a sword more common to sport fencing than it is to the rapier, but worthy of mention in this discussion. In this method, the pommel is placed in the palm of the hand and the index finger is extended so it is either just over the quillon, or just below as in a normal grip. The other fingers are placed around the grip as they are usually.

The greatest advantage of this method is that it gives the fencer the extra reach of the handle usually taken up by the hand. There are some claims that this method also gives superior leverage in the sword due to its extended position, but this is disputed. It is recommended that this method is only used by more experienced fencers as it is quite easy to lose the weapon through disarming. There is also some control lost of the weapon due to its extended position, unless the fencer has a particularly strong hand and fingers.

Different Methods

There are lots of different methods for holding a sword, and only three have been discussed as they are the most commonly used with the rapier. The first two are the most commonly taught, with the last being an extreme example given to show an extreme approach to gaining a little more advantage of reach over an opponent. Serious consideration should be given as to what method a person uses and what advantages the method gives. 

The question of comfort should not be ignored when using a particular method of holding a sword. Find something that is comfortable for you, because holding the sword is the thing that you are going to be doing the most while you are engaged in swordplay. Talk with your teacher if you are finding your current method uncomfortable. Examine each aspect of the method and see if there are any aspects that can be changed to make it more comfortable for you. The importance of a correct method of holding the weapon cannot be denied.

Importance of Correct Method of Holding

Only a correct method of holding the sword will allow you to perform actions correctly when you are engaged with an opponent, or even in drills. The feedback that you will receive through the sword is important as this will allow you to respond correctly to the stimulus that your opponent gives with their sword. Holding the sword correctly will give you the correct feeling through the sword (senso di ferro) which will allow you to anticipate the actions of the opponent.

Correct blade engagement actions, especially when engaged with an opponent relies on senso di ferro which relies on holding the sword properly. If you are gripping the sword tightly you will not be able to feel these sensations through the sword. Likewise, if you are not holding the sword tightly enough, you will not feel the sensations through the sword and you will miss your opportunity to respond to the actions of your opponent. Further the Actions on the Blade, both the Attacks on the Blade and the Takings of the Blade also require you to have such sensations and to be holding the sword properly so you can manipulate it properly so you can perform these actions correctly. So much of fencing comes down to how you hold the sword.

Even the performance of offensive actions in the correct manner result from the correct manner of holding the sword. A thrust made with a hand that is gripping the sword tightly will likely strike hard each time, almost regardless if the opponent is even at correct Distance. A thrust made with a hand that is holding the sword correctly will likely strike the opponent with just enough force that they will feel it sufficiently, especially if they are at correct Distance. If they are too close, for some reason, there is flexibility in the hand to compensate for some of this.

A cut made correctly with a rapier should impact and then slide along the target allowing the edge of the weapon to do the intended damage. The cut should not strike and bounce off. Test-cutting experiments that I have performed have demonstrated that a cut which is delivered where the edge is driven into the target, will simply bounce off, doing little damage. While a cut which is performed so the edge strikes and then the edge is drawn through the target does damage to the target, quite a bit in fact. The difference often lies not only in the method, but in how the sword is held.

A cut which is made where the sword is gripped in the hand hard, is likely to result in the cut bouncing off the target with little effect. A cut which is made where the sword is held properly with a more firm, but relaxed hand will impact and then slice through the target with great effect. A lot of cutting correctly with the rapier comes down to how the sword is held. Further, holding the sword tightly while cutting can result in damage to the fencer.

Injury from Cutting

A fencer who persistently cuts with a had grip on their sword can eventually damage themselves if they are not particularly careful. If the fencer is not careful when they are careful the stress from the impact of cutting can be transferred through the hand, through the wrist, to the elbow, resulting in damage to the elbow. This damage also results from the full extension of the arm in both cutting and thrusting.

The damage that can result from cutting with a stiff grip is damage to the tendons of the elbow, this is known as Tennis Elbow or Golfer's Elbow, depending on which tendon it damages. The damage results because the hand is locked and the impact has to go somewhere, often it travels through the hand to the wrist, this may take some of the impact out. Often it travels further to the elbow resulting in the two conditions mentioned. This is especially the case where the arm is fully extended. The same can result where the arm is fully extended in a thrust. A way to stop some of this damage is to not fully extend the arm in either the thrust or the cut, however a proper method of holding the sword is also effective. It is best if both of these methods are used.

Hold the Sword

Holding the sword is one of the beginner lessons that is taught at the beginning of most swordsmanship courses. A method is often told by the teacher how the sword will be held and the student follows the instructions, in the worst case, the lesson is skipped, or is absent and the student is left to figure it out for themselves. It is often the case that the lesson is never revisited by the teacher or the student.

The lesson should be revisited, especially if the student is having trouble with their lessons. It could be as simple as the student is having trouble with holding the sword, or they might have a handle which is the wrong shape, or too big. In this case a simple solution can change the fencer's ability to progress. The student should be aware from the beginning of their lessons that if something is not comfortable, their grip included, that they should check in with their teacher about the issue.

The effect of the method of holding the sword should not be underestimated as it does effect senso di ferro and as a result if effects all the skills that rely upon this important aspect of swordsmanship. If the student's hand or arm is tiring quickly during lessons, the sword may not be too heavy, it may simply be that they are gripping the sword, rather than holding it. There is a difference between these two, it is subtle, but there is a difference. 

If you grip the sword and cut, especially with your arm fully extended, you are likely not going to make an effective cut. Further you are headed down a road toward damage of your elbow and a lifetime of issues with that joint. Simple correction at the early stages can prevent this issue. Holding the sword and cutting with an arm which is not completely extended will result in a much more effective cut, and also reduce the damage to the elbow. The same applies to the thrust. This is something that both students and teachers should pay attention to all the way through the fencing career.

Remember to hold the sword correctly, and revisit your method of holding the sword, especially if you begin to feel it to be uncomfortable, or you feel actions to be more difficult than they should be. The method of holding the sword is simple, but essential do not just push it aside and forget it.