Joseph Swetnam: The Principal Rules of True Defense

Before beginning his discourse on fighting, Swetnam takes the time to lay down “seven principal rules where on true defense is grounded”. These seven principles cover such cornerstones as distance, time, and place as well as several other precepts that make up the foundation of almost every martial art.

The first principal is that a fighter must learn and be able to maintain a good guard for the entire length of time that he is in danger of being attacked by his opponent.  It is not simply enough for a fighter to have academic knowledge of the guard, that is not enough to provide protection against an opponent. Only being able to properly frame a guard that provides a good ward against an opponent will protect a fighter. It is also imperative that the fighter be able to maintain his guard for the duration of the fight. The guard is only able to provide protection as long as it is in use. If a fighter ceases to maintain his guard during the fight he makes himself vulnerable to attack from his opponent.

Secondly, a fighter must have a good understanding of distance. A fighter must be able to stand so that he is outside of his opponent’s range but close enough that he can still reach him with a step forward and an attack. When he does attack his forward foot and hand must move together. He should also take care to keep his rear foot firm on the ground so that he may more easily regain an en-guard position once he has finished his attack.  The best way to gain a true understanding of distance is by practicing with other fighters. However, if that is not possible, a fighter may gain a good knowledge of distance by practicing alone and using a wall to represent one’s opponent. When using a wall for practice a fighter should be standing with his rear foot approximately 12 feet from the wall and should be practicing with a rapier approximately 4 feet long.  Distance is a fundamental concept of fighting. It is important that a fighter understand and be able to determine not only their body’s distance from their opponent, but also the distance covered by his and his opponent’s range of attack. It is vital that a fighter have an understanding not only his own range, but also the range of his opponent. Once he understands these ranges he will be able to determine not only when he is within range to attack his opponent but also when he is within their range and in danger of being attacked himself. Once a fighter has obtained an understanding of range and distance he can then manipulate them to his advantage.

The Third Principal Rule that a fighter must keep in mind is that he must have a good understanding of place. There are several “places” that a fighter must understand: the place of the weapons, the place of defense, and the place of offence. However, Swetnam is chiefly concerned with the place of offence, meaning the place on a fighter’s opponent which is most vulnerable to attack; the place the fighter is most able to hurt his opponent without overly endangering himself.  A fighter needs to have a good understanding of how to spot or create openings in his opponent’s defense. Otherwise he runs the risk of creating openings in his own defense while executing ineffective attacks on his opponent. If a fighter wants to be effective at endangering his opponent it is imperative that he understand is opponent’s vulnerable areas and be able to attack them and manipulate them to his advantage.

To take the time”, the fourth rule, dictates that a fighter should take care to strike his opponent the moment his is given an opportunity to do so. He must take care to both defend himself and attack his enemy in the same time. He also must take care to attack quickly and not allow his opponent to regain his guard or else he will lose his advantage.  If a fighter does not take care to defend himself when he attacks his opponent then he runs the risk of leaving himself vulnerable to a counter attack and places himself at a disadvantage to his opponent. Similarly, if he does not take care to attack and defend in the same time but takes multiple times to complete these movements he also leaves himself open to a counter attack by his opponent.

Swetnam’s Fifth Principal Rule concerns “keeping the space”. The space can refer to two things. The first is the space between a fighter and his opponent which is covered in the rule concerning distance. The second concerns the space between attacks, which is what Swetnam discusses in his fifth rule. Swetnam cautions that a fighter must take care to mind the space between his attacks, meaning that when a fighter charges his opponent with a blow or a thrust he must take care that after his attack he takes time to regain his guard and defense before attacking again. He cautions that a fighter must attack with discretion, mindful of what he is doing, and that he should not charge forward needlessly or rashly. If a man does not attack mindfully and allows his emotions to control his actions during the fight then he makes himself vulnerable, no matter how skilled he may be otherwise.

It is also imperative that a fighter posses patience, the subject of the sixth rule. A fighter must have patience in order to govern his own emotions, an ability that is vital to a fighter’s success.  If he can not govern himself he leaves himself vulnerable to his opponent and allows his opponent an undue advantage.

Finally, a fighter must practice and practice often. Not only is practicing good exercise for maintaining health but it also helps a fighter firmly entrench the skills that he has learned of the Arte of Defense. If a fighter finds himself in need of the skills he has learned they will be readily available to him if he has taken the time to practice.

The Seven Principal Rules that Swetnam discusses may seem like common sense but they are the same basic principals that help to make up the foundations of all the martial practices that make up the Arte of Defense. If a fighter does not understand the purpose of a proper guard and can not form one to protect himself then he is open to attack from every angle. Similarly all fighters have to be able to understand distance in order to know where they are in relation to their opponent and at what point they or their opponent is within range of attack. He also has to be able to understand when he or his opponent is vulnerable to attack so that he is able to both protect himself and assault his opponent. The rules are basic but that is because they help make up the very basics of the fighting art and are necessary to both attack and defend.

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