Destreza part 5 – Guards

November 29, 2013

This is the fifth part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. I’m going to stop linking to all the previous parts in each post because it’s getting cumbersome; go to the home page if you want to see them (and if you’re thinking about starting here, I strongly recommend that you do!)

Many of the period styles have many guards or “wards” that their practitioners adopt under various circumstances. Historically, Destreza had exactly one guard – the so-called “right-angle guard”: arm extended straight out from the shoulder, point on the opponent’s face, edge down:

Historical right-angle guard









In my practice, there are two different guards that I use, and this post will address the advantages and disadvantages of each. The first guard that we teach to new students is the “hanging guard”:

destreza 6  destreza9

Note that this is not the same as, say, DiGrassi’s “hanging ward”, where the sword hand is actually held above the head.

The Destreza hanging guard is a primarily defensive stance; by adopting this position, the diestro has “gated” the attacker into two lines: above the blade, or below the blade. In either case, a very small movement of the diestro‘s body will close the line being attacked, making it very difficult to strike someone in this guard. For example, if the opponent attacks above the diestro‘s blade, a short lateral or transverse step to the left will close the line with opposition (moving the opponent’s sword), with no blade movement required. If the opponent attacks below the blade, a transverse step to the left with a body turn will close the line and also align the diestro‘s blade onto the diameter (ready for a counterattack).

The primary disadvantage of the hanging guard is that the point is not exactly in line. If done correctly, the point will be in a position such that it will strike the opponent in the right hip if he advances down the diameter, but a small deviation from a direct approach, or a light contact from the opponent’s blade, will cause this to miss. Also, holding the blade at an angle decreases the diestro‘s reach, potentially allowing the opponent to enter deeper into the circle before he encounters resistance.

Once the student is comfortable with the hanging guard and with basic evasions, he is introduced to our version of the right-angle guard:










This differs from the historical version in that the edge of the sword is out, rather than down. I don’t know when this change was made, but I can speak to the advantages and disadvantages of this position. The principal advantage is that it is a more relaxed and more structurally-sound position for the arm; this yields quicker, stronger movements. The principal disadvantages are that this costs you a small fraction of reach, and moves the body of the blade off the direct line between you and your opponent, making it slightly easier for him to pass the point of the blade.

The historical right-angle guard is comparable to the center-line guard in modern fencing. It shortens the distance to either the inside line or the outside line, at the expense of closing neither. The modern version of the right-angle guard closes the high-outside line, reducing the number of possible defenses among which the diestro must choose when an attack comes in.

The right-angle guard (either the historical or modern version) is more of a psychological stance than a physical one. The purpose of it is to hold the opponent at a greater distance and make him more hesitant to approach along the diameter. It is defensively weaker than the hanging guard, and offensively only slightly stronger (since snapping the blade into line from the hanging guard is a very quick action), but the effect on the opponent’s mind often makes it worthwhile.

The hanging guard “gates” the attacker into two lines, and thus greatly reduces the number of defensive options. The right-angle guard doesn’t do this – the attacker may attack on any line he chooses, though the position of the sword technically prevents an attack in the high-outside line (this doesn’t actually reduce the attacker’s options, since the guard provides minimal actual coverage).

Thus, when defending from the right-angle guard, the diestro must choose the line into which to place the attack. Usually the simplest solution is to drop the point into what amounts to the hanging guard, and react as you would if you had been using that guard in the first place. However, this leaves the question of whether to move so as to place the opponent’s blade above or below your own.

For a straight attack on the diameter, it is usually faster to place the attack into the low-outside line, meaning that a step to the left will close the line. Placing the attack into the low-inside line requires dropping your point almost straight down, and this runs the risk of miscalculating and pulling the attacker’s point into your body. That said, if the attack approaches from the left side (the defender’s inside line, assuming he’s right-handed), it may be more prudent to step to the right.

Regardless of the guard used, the fundamental principles of Destreza remain: when attacked, the diestro moves away from the line of the attack, closes that line to prevent the attack from following, and counterattacks into an open line. The question becomes only one of style – whether to prefer the psychological advantage of the right-angle guard over the mechanical advantage of the hanging guard.



  1. Many thanks for taking the time to write this clear and informative guide.

  2. You’re very welcome. At some point I’ll get around to writing some more, but my writing is very ‘bursty’. I wrote this series while I was working on a project that gave me long periods of downtime with nothing to do, but that’s the exception.

  3. One additional point I probably should have made in this article – when you’re doing what amounts to sport fencing, such as in the SCA, the right-angle guard loses a lot of its utility, because your opponent isn’t scared of the point any more. It only works because they see that point hanging in front of their eyes and their brain says “wow, it would be a really stupid idea to walk into that”, but when there’s a mask and a rubber button between the point and their eyes, it loses most of its impact.

  4. […] basic guard when using a dagger is similar to the right-angle guard discussed in part 5 of this series, except that the body is slightly more square, the point of the blade is pulled slightly off the […]

  5. Thank you for all of your info on Destraza. I am a beginner fencer in the SCA, and it has helped very much

    I have a question: from your modified hanging guard, how do you use an atajo? I’ve tried it and while the guard allows me to get in close for a draw cut, I’ve haven’t figured out how to atajo from it.

    • It’s a good question. Since I wrote this post, I’ve done more research and I believe that this comes from saber technique, meaning that they wouldn’t have been trying to do atajo; they’d have been cutting straight from the guard instead, and defending primarily cuts rather than thrusts. In terms of rapier, my personal practice has gone more towards the Pacheco than what I presented here – I’m now using primarily the nails-in guard rather than the nails-down or hanging guards, except when I have a dagger or case blade in my other hand.

      To answer your actual question, though, either you wait for the opponent to cross your guard and work from that contact, or you leave the hanging guard in order to establish the atajo. The hanging guard leaves the attacker only two lines to work with (over or under), so it greatly limits the versions of atajo you have to prepare to act from. As soon as they enter your space, you can take atajo either from above or from below (and yes, I realize that “atajo from below” is contrary to the principles espoused by the earlier writers, but later writers treat atajo less as a specific position and more as a principle of control through engagement) and work from there.

      If you want to be offensive, the hanging guard really isn’t for you; it’s a highly defensive position, even more than the rest of Destreza. In order to establish an offensive atajo, you have to leave the hanging guard and move to more of a right-angle position. If you want offense, you have to give up some defense; such is life.

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