There are few masters today who teach their students the seven classical hand positions of sabre fencing. Seventy years ago nearly every Italian, German, and Hungarian fencing master taught his students the hand positions. The numbering system was already in common use among Italian teachers by the beginning of the 17th century. Salvatore Fabris, for example, in his Scienza e pratica d’arme (Copenhaven: 1606), Chapter 4, observes that “the four guards result from four perspectives of the hand and sword, that is, the two cutting edges and the two flat sides.” He continues: “one could say that there are four legitimate and three bastard guards.” By “guards,” Fabris means hand positions that would be taken when the guard position was assumed. The “legitimate” guards, according to Fabris, are first, second, third, and fourth, and the “bastard” guards are first in second, second in third, and third in fourth. In modern fencing terminology we would speak of four principal and three intermediate hand positions. But in contrast to our 16th-century predecessors, we would take only one guard position in sabre--the guard in third, with the intermediate hand position of second in third.
There was evidently some disagreement among 16th-century Italian fencing masters about the intermediate hand positions, since Ridolfo Capo Ferro, in his Gran simulcro dell’arte e dell’uso della scherma (Siena: 1610), pp. 32-33, says that there are four guards, and that these are called “principal.” Then he adds that up to this point all are in agreement, implying that differences exist between masters regarding intermediate hand positions. In describing the four principal guards he uses the position of the rapier knuckle guard to indicate hand position.
It should be noted that the numbers of the hand positions are sometimes confused by non-Italian trained fencers with the numbers given to invitations, engagements, and parries. Only in the case of the hand position in first does the number of the invitation, engagement, and parry correspond. The first guard, as Fabris points out, is based on the position assumed when the rapier is gripped and drawn from its scabbard. In one motion the weapon was unsheathed and placed in a threatening position with the point directed forward. Today we would call this placement of the arm the invitation in first.
The seven hand positions derived from rapier play and still used in sabre fencing are (when assumed by a right-handed fencer): 1) first position (hand vertical with thumb pointing down, and back of the hand facing left); 2) second position (hand rotated clockwise a quarter of a turn to a horizontal position, thumb pointing to the left, and back of the hand facing up); 3) third position (hand turned clockwise from second a quarter of a turn to a vertical position, thumb pointing up, and back of the hand facing right); 4) fourth position (hand rotated clockwise from third a quarter of a turn to a horizontal position, thumb pointing right, and back of the hand facing down); 5) first in second position (hand turned clockwise from first an eighth of a turn to a diagonal position, thumb pointing down toward the left, back of the hand facing up toward the left); 6) second in third position (hand rotated clockwise from second an eighth of a turn to a diagonal position, thumb pointing up toward the left, back of the hand facing up toward the right); and 7) third in fourth position (hand turned clockwise from third an eighth of a turn to a diagonal position, thumb pointing up toward the right, back of the hand facing down toward the right). In every case the hand position represents the position of the hand before the weapon is gripped.
The two intermediate hand positions, second in third and third in fourth, were referred to by some of the older Italian masters as respectively, sixth and fifth. Luigi Barbasetti, for instance, in The Art of the Sabre and the Épée (New york: 1936), p. 21, follows this numbering system. He has only six hand positions because he omits first in second. And in his discussion of hand positions he notes that first and sixth (second in third) hand positions are used in executing parries, while second, third, fourth, and fifth (third in fourth) are employed in delivering cuts. Salvatore Pecoraro and Carlo Pessina in La scherma di sciabola (Roma: 1910), p. 16, agree with Barbasetti and identify six hand positions: first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth; while Ferdinando Masiello, in La scherma di sciabola (Firenze: 1902), p. 27, mentions only five: first, second, third, fourth and fifth.
The Italian numbering system for hand positions described above was still in use in France at the end of the 16th century. Maître Labat, the descendant of a line of fencing masters from Toulouse, in his book L’art en fait d’armes (Toulouse: 1696), p. 14, writes: “To turn the hand in fourth, it is necessary that the nails face upward and that the cutting edge of the blade is directed toward the inside.” But by the early 19th century the traditional numbering of hand positions was abandoned in France. La Boëssière in his Traité de l’art des armes (Paris: 1818), p. 27, recommends that in the guard position the hand be placed in either demi-tierce or demi-quinte. And Gomard, La théorie de l’escrime (Paris: 1845), p.96, and Camille Prevost, Théorie pratique de l’ escrime (Paris: 1886), pp. 30-31, describe the hand as being in either “supination” or “pronation.”
More recently, it has become fashionable outside Italy and Germany to employ clock numbers for the position of the thumb, so that the classical third hand position would be said to be with the thumb at twelve o’clock. Given that there are now alternate ways of describing hand positions, fencing language has lost some of its precision. It is, after all, more precise to tell a student to assume third in fourth hand position for the parry of fourth, than to ask him to grip the weapon with the hand in partial supination or with the thumb at one o’clock.
Correct hand position during execution of the parries provides maximum protection for the hand, and strong opposition to the incoming steel. Therefore, in the classical school the parry of first is executed with the hand in first position, the parry of second with the hand in first in second position, the parry of third with the hand in second in third position, the parry of fourth with the hand in third in fourth position, the parry of fifth with the hand in first position, and the parry of sixth with the hand in first position.
In offense, as well as defense, correct hand position plays an important role: it protects the hand during execution of the action, and ensures proper placement of the point or cutting edge on the target. This was, of course, critical during the early decades of this century when the sabre still served as a duelling weapon. The point or cutting edge had to arrive at the intended target area with precision and with sufficient force to inflict a wound.
In the classical sabre school the point thrust is delivered with the hand in first in second position, the cut to the flank and outside cheek with the hand in second position, the cut to the head with the hand in third position, the cut to the inside cheek with the hand in fourth position, the cut to the chest with the hand in third in fourth position, and the cut to the abdomen with the hand in fourth position.
Cuts with the cutting edge of the blade are directed to the internal arm with the hand in third in fourth position, to the external arm with the hand in first in second position, to the top of the arm with the hand in third in fourth position, and to the bottom of the arm with the hand in first in second position. Cuts with the counter-cut to the internal arm and bottom of the arm are made with the hand in second in third position.
The efficacy of feints is dependent upon proper placement of the blade, and this requires correct hand positions. If the hand position is proper the feint will provoke the exact defensive response the attacker desires. Correctly executed, the feint to the flank or outside cheek is made with the hand in second position, the feint to the head is effected with the hand in third position, the feint to the chest is accomplished with the hand in third in fourth position, and the feint to the inside cheek or abdomen is executed with the hand in fourth position.
In summary, correct hand positions are absolutely essential in developing an effective sabre technique; and a return to the classical--and once universal--numbering system for hand positions will result in clear and concise instruction.
(American Fencing, Vol. 42 no.2)