The Weapon Arts
The primary system of sword and shield at Academie Duello derives from the fencing masters of Northern Italy and employs the sidesword, a single-handed renaissance cutting sword with a complex hilt to protect the hand, combined with a small metal shield known as a buckler. The modern term sidesword is a translation of the Italian spada da lato.
The techniques of single-handed sword and shield blend the cut and thrust, as well as control with both the sword and buckler to form an intricate and ambidextrous form. The student of the single-handed sword and shield will explore how to control a fight where an opponent keeps their weapon withdrawn, and how to use provocations, deceptions, circular movement and combinations of attack and defence.
The Anatomy of the Sidesword
The sidesword is the sword typically used at Academie Duello for general sword and shield practice. However, we also employ use of the arming sword, the medieval predecessor of the sidesword. Both sideswords and arming swords typically reach from 35″ to 40″ in total length with blade lengths varying from 30″ to 38″. They are broad bladed, capable of both thrusts and cuts. They typically weigh between 2 and 4 lbs.
The arming swords of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance are simple cruciform (or cross-shaped) swords. In contrast, the sidesword is sometimes called a cut-and-thrust rapier because it has a thinner blade than the arming sword and a similar hilt design to late-renaissance rapiers called a swept hilt, (bands of metal stemming from the crossguard, ‘sweeping’ around the grip). There are other kinds of straight-bladed single-handed swords of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries like the Scottish broadsword that have broad blades like arming swords as well as basket hilts that cover the entire wielding hand.
The Nature of the Sidesword
The sidesword is a single-handed weapon suited to both battle situations with multiple opponents as well as one-on-one duels.
Sidesword fighters meet a special challenge. Like advanced rapier students, they usually employ a ‘secondary’ in their other hand. While in rapier fighting it will most often be a dagger, with the sidesword it will be a shield. This requires the ability to use a small shield and move with the sidesword to protect the vulnerable hand and forearm behind it.
What the sidesword loses in length it makes up in versatility. Close proximity in combat restricts the use of the longsword and rapier, but not so the sidesword, which can strike much closer than its longer cousins and from nearly every direction. Cuts are diversified, like the longsword, to come from the shoulder, elbow or wrist.
The History of the Sidesword
The Western single-handed sword is an ancient weapon, tracing its history from Bronze-Age Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt, and through the Classical Periods of Greece and Rome. Although sometimes used to slash, it was very often used for thrusting. While the medieval single-handed sword that eventually gave rise to the arming sword is related to these ancient swords, it evolved primarily from the longer swords of the Celtic and Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, which were used mainly for slashing. By the Early Middle Ages, the single-handed sword had acquired a broad blade about 29″ long, and in time, the sword also acquired a crossguard to better protect the wielder’s hand, and developed into a cross-shaped (or cruciform) weapon. It became the choice sword of the knight’s arsenal by the High Middle Ages, usually accompanied by a large shield in the other hand.
During the thirteenth century, the longsword began to emerge from the single-handed sword as a larger, two-handed weapon that could more easily overcome new developments in armour. Nevertheless, the arming sword did not vanish from use, as fighting men recognized the usefulness of a lighter and smaller weapon in melees, accompanied by a shield or a second weapon in the other hand. The shape of the arming sword’s blade, too, developed in the same way that the longsword did, tapering to a sharp point, making it effective against armoured opponents.
Arming-sword combat is extensively depicted in the first extant Western combat manual, Royal Armouries Manuscript (MS) l.33, dated to c. 1300. It is also found in the works of Italian masters Fiore dei Liberi (1409) and Filippo Vadi (1482-3). While the arming sword lent itself well to the battlefield, it also grew in popularity amongst civilians for personal protection in the rapidly growing cities of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The weapon was in turn given treatment in combat manuals designed for civilian use, such as Achille Marozzo’s The New Work on the Art of Arms (Italian: Nova Opera dell’ Arte delle Armi, 1536).
The sidesword evolved out of the arming sword during the course of the sixteenth century. Since it was not always convenient to wear armour outside of battle, new protective features appeared on the hilt: sweeping bands of metal designed to protect the wielding hand from harm when in danger of an opponent’s attack. Some sideswords steadily acquired a thinner blade to facilitate a more effective thrust. By the latter half of the sixteenth century, these sideswords would evolve into a weapon purely designed for duelling: the rapier. However, the sidesword itself was not displaced by this new weapon, remaining in popular use into the early seventeenth century.
Military use of single-handed swords continued throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth in some areas, such as the Scottish Highlands, were the broadsword enjoyed widespread use. These swords acquired similar protective features to the hilt as the sidesword with the decline of armour in the seventeenth century. Still, the martial techniques associated with them largely hearkened back to the medieval arming sword.