Practical Capo Ferro

by William E. Wilson, Dean TSD
Translation provided by William Jherek Swanger, Rector TSD and William E. Wilson, Dean TSD

Copyright -- This work is covered by US copyright law. Under no circumstances may derivative works be created from this work and no profit may be made from the use of this work. I do not give any authorization to use these materials or the Capo Ferro translation provided by myself and Jherek Swanger for anything other than personal use.



One problem that I see in historical fencing is that it is very easy to mis-interpret the original texts by simply taking the plates (illustrations) and trying to work with them.  Even now that I can read Italian it is sometimes easy for me to mis-interpret some of the small nuances of the text.  I may change an initial interpretation after further study.  Working through the historical texts is a long process and requires a lot of discussion.  So, I am providing this document as a place to begin discussion.  Also, this is a work in progress and I will be adding or amending this document as I further my reaserch on Capo Ferro's style of combat.

I split Capo Ferro's treatise into three major sections.  The first section is on the Art of fencing and is comprised of the finer and more theoretical aspects of rapier fencing.  The second section is called "the use."  It is in this section where Capo Ferro describes the differences between the "art" and how fencing is actually done.  The final section is the practical section where Capo Ferro shows a number of plays at single sword, sword and dagger, sword and cape and sword and rotella.  This is basically a blow by blow guide that illustrates the various aspects of the art.

The following is a brief discussion of a number of points that are crucial to understand for Capo Ferro's style of combat.  These points are taken directly out of the text and are loose translations from the Italian with my embellishment.

Theory of Fencing

Capo Ferro lays out the foundation of his theory of fencing in the first section of his treatise.  This section is divided into thirteen chapters:

1) First chapter, of fencing in general.
2) In the second chapter is contained the definition of fencing and its explanation.
3) In the third is embraced the division of fencing, and is treated of its first part, which is posed in the
    knowledge of the sword.
4) In the fourth is treated of the second part of fencing, and of measure.
5) In the fifth is discussed tempo.
6) In the sixth is treated of the posture of the body, and chiefly of the head.
7) In the seventh is treated of the body.
8) In the eighth, of the arms.
9) In the ninth, is treated of the thighs, legs, feet, and of the pace.
10) In the tenth, is discussed of defense, and of the guard.
11) In the eleventh is treated of seeking the narrow measure.
12) In the twelfth is treated of striking.
13) In the thirteenth, of the dagger.

From these chapters I will give you a distillation of the following: the on guard position, a definition of distance, and the meaning of tempo.

The Secure Guard

Capo Ferro stated "You know that in my book of the art, there is one good guard that is a low guard called third, with the sword in a plane in the straight line.  The point separates the right flank at the middle and looks always to the middle of the adversary's body."  Capo Ferro advocated using the third guard as much as possible.  This guard is the same as laid down by Camillo Agrippa some 50 plus years earlier.  Capo Ferro also uses the other guards of Agrippa but advocates using the third guard as the base guard.

In order to understand the system fully, I will give you what Capo Ferro provided in his book on page 44:  DECLARATION OF THE GUARDS. "As one cannot make some composition of beautiful and judicious writings without employing the letters of the alphabet, so does it occur in this our art of fencing, that without the following guards, and some voids and slips of the body which come to be the foundation of this exercise, one could not in any way show this use of ours; therefore the following six figures are designated alphabetically.  “A” demonstrates the first to you, and the second is presented to you as “B”, and the third as “C”.  The fourth is named as “D”, the fifth as “E”, and the sixth as “F”."

 Capo Ferro simply assigns a letter to each guard so you may understand the plates showing the guard positions.  In total Capo Ferro shows six different guards.  The primary four as used by Agrippa and Fabris and two additional that are used primarily with sword and dagger.  The following is a list of the guards:

A -- Prima -- This guard is similar to that shown by Agrippa and Fabris.  The hand is in first position with the arm extended, blade parallel to the ground and hand above head height.  Unlike Fabris the feet are separated.  The weight appears to be centered between the feet.
B -- Seconda -- The hand is lowered to shoulder height with the hand in second position.  Unlike Fabris the feet are separated.  The weight seems to be centered between the feet.
C -- Terza -- The hand is in third position and at the middle of the body.  The hand should not be held low but at about waist height.  The guard is similar to that of Fabris and Agrippa.  The weight is more on the back foot.
D -- Quarta -- The hand is in fourth position with the arm extended, hand below shoulder level.  The blade is held parallel to the ground.  Weight is shifted slightly forward.
E -- Qinta -- This guard is similar to third.  The point of the sword dips slightly below the hand and the weight is on the back foot.
F -- Sesta -- This guard is also similar to third.  The blade is held with the blade parallel to the ground and the weight is on the forward foot.  With a dagger in the left hand the dagger arm is extended at shoulder height and the left shoulder forward.

Guard Plates

You should practice the various guards but you should be most comfortable with the third guard.  It is imperative that you form this guard correctly.  First and foremost you must position your feet correctly.  The front foot is point directly ahead.  The back foot will be pointed 90 degrees to the side.  While the front leg is held mostly straight the rear leg is bent.  The body is upright with the right shoulder forward and placed midway between the front and back feet.  The left shoulder lines up with the left foot.  Your off-hand (non weapon hand) should be held loosely in front of your body with the hand at mid to upper chest height and the elbow dropping down near your hip.  The sword arm is bent with the forearm parallel or just slightly above parallel to the gound.  The sword is held in the hand in such a manner that a straight line may be drawn between the elbow and the point of the sword.

A Definition of Distance.

Distance is also known as measure.  Measure is the physical distance between you and your opponent.  Distance may be deemed oneof the following:

There are two parts to offense: seeking the measure and the attack.  With this there are three modes of seeking the measure: I move and the adversary is steady, I am steady and the adversary moves, or both move.  It is important to be patient.  Move in slowly to arrive at the misura larga (wide measure).  Your normal combat will take place at wide measure.  It is from here that you may work in to narrow measure or attack from wide measure with the lunge.

On page 48 Capo Ferro gives a description of the lunge.  He termed the lunge l'incredibile accrescimento della botta lunga (The incredible increase of the long attack) and in his text like Fabris used the term piede fermo (firm foot) when describing the lunge.  Piede fermo refers to keeping one foot firm on the ground while the other moves as in the modern lunge.


The lunge is the normal movement used in the attack.  You will need to practice the lunge so that it becomes second nature.

Along with knowledge of distance is the concept of movement. Capo Ferro noted that a number of different kinds of steps (movement) could be used in rapier play.  These include stepping forward, back, to the side, traversing with a crossing of the legs or not, equal movement of one leg or both, moving of the leg to make a whole step or diminished or to change the place to escape or shift the body.  In particular Capo Ferro detailed the ordinary step (passo ordinario) and the extraordinary step (passo straordinario).  The ordinary step is used in remaining on guard and moving into wide and narrow measure.  The extraordinary step is the lunge.  Although he mentioned movement to the side, etc, Capo Ferro is adamant that all movement should be along the straight line.  Sideways movements are not recommended.


The concept of time (tempo) is very important in Italian rapier fencing.  Tempo can mean, length of time it takes to perform an action or series of actions.  Or, it may refer to timing itself.  Capo Ferro was fairly explicit in his detailing of offensive and defensive tempo. 

In offensive actions tempo is measured in the amount of time it takes to perform certain action.  A single tempo (unit of time; note that this is not a finite measurable unit.  It is the actual amount of time that any specific individual may take to perform a specified action) is the amount of time that it takes to simply extend the arm to strike the opponent in the body if at narrow measure.  To make a lunge takes a tempo and a half.  To strike the opponent in an advanced target like the arm or hand takes half a tempo.  Actions that take two tempi should be avoided.  Examples of this are a step forward and then a n attack in narrow measure. 

Defensively the term tempo is also used and it relates to the amount of time actions take as in offensive actions.  Stesso tempo (single time) defense is where you defend and counter at the same time.  Dui tempi (two time) defense is like the parry riposte in classical fencing where your parry and riposte are two actions where the riposte follows the parry.  Mezzo tempo (half time) is where you are able to strike your opponent during the start of their attack to some advanced target like their arm.  Along with this is the notion of counter-time.  Counter-time is the meat of the Capo Ferro system.  Counter-time is basically where you strike your opponent when they should have struck you.  In classical fencing this may be loosely compared to a stop-hit.  As Capo Ferro succinctly states that fencing is the art of  defending oneself well with the sword, defense should always be the primary concern.  This being the case, counter-time actions are the mainstay of Capo Ferro's system of combat.


His Practice

Jherek Swanger and I have completed a working translation of Capo Ferro.  Click on the link above to access it.  You will need the Italian version from off my site for the actual woodcuts when reading the translation of Capo Ferro. Or you may look at just the plates by themselves.  Note: many of the descriptions start with a counter to an attack and then a brief description of what the initial attacker should have done to be successful.  Also, the letter of each figure indicates the starting guard.

Roger Kay provided a copy of a version he produced that is a amalgation of the Swanger/Wilson translation with plates fomr the Italian text. Click here for the pdf of the file.

Practical Instruction

I will be adding video of various techniques over the next number of months. The clips are best viewed with Mozilla, Netscape 7, or Internet Explorer.   The video and description will be tied to the plates.