An interview with Ton Puey

Hi Ton, thank you for agreeing to this interview. You are respected as probably the greatest living diestro (a practitioner of destreza, a Spanish art of rapier fencing), but your true passion is for the Spanish ‘sidesword’ (a cut and thrust blade, used with one finger over the guard to create more of a ‘pistol grip’). Spain is not commonly associated with the term, it being considered an Italian invention. Could you tell us more about this and how it differs from more familiar German or Italian systems of use?

I think there has always been some confusion about which is the creation of one or the other. Many people still associate the cup hilt with Spanish swords, when we know that it was a later hilt that was adopted in other areas of Europe, although it is true that it survives more in the southern countries and is widely used in the Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, before its creation, what was used was basically the same (beyond regional stylistic variants); the swords swept hilt, and those of ring hilt later, with all its richness of variants. And as the technique influences the weapon, so the weapon influences the technique. It can change the way of holding the weapon, and therefore the range of possibilities you have when using it vary. It is probably not obvious to the naked eye, but they do vary. Talking about Italian schools is an issue that can be made difficult since contemporary schools and teachers are not the same as the creation of Verdadera Destreza by Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza and the writing of his book “De la Filosofía de las Armas y de su Destreza y la Agresión y Defensa Cristiana” (published in 1582 but written in 1569), or those that are a bit later, with authors such as Camillo Agrippa (who surely influenced the work of the Andalusian author), Lovino, Di Grassi, Saviolo, etc., or the new batch of authors after 1600, with the well-known Capoferro or Giganti, that show us a different biomechanics.

The terms ‘rapier’ and ‘sidesword’ are pretty interchangeable, but the cup hilt is probably the most distinctive feature a rapier could have. When was this developed, and did it create a change in fencing styles, or was it the change in fencing styles that brought about the development of the cup hilt?

Well, the confusion and the answer is exactly this, that the terms are interchangeable. But at the same time we cannot deny that, in a very general way, the evolution of prestigious weapons within the civil context led to the preferential use of the thrust over the cut.Therefore, beyond the preference of their owners or the schools of the moment, I think that when we take an ancient sword we can feel, at least a little, whether it is more suitable for making powerful cuts or not, or if it only makes sense for the thrust, or is it a more versatile weapon. Therefore, and although we all know that we cannot talk about absolute ideas regarding this, I think that when the leaves begin to lengthen, they gradually begin to grant more usefulness to the thrust, simply because the longer the blade the easier it will be to lose control in the cuts. I think that’s where the “stock” starts (in this urban and one-hand version, of course!), and I think we can see this from Agrippa at least, but this change in the percentages of attack (cut or lunge) will necessarily affect the morphology of hand protections. Although it was some time before we saw this type of hilt, the cup seems to be the epitome of this idea of “rapier” (taking into account, of course, that at the time we can find very wide blades mounted on hilts of shells or cup, and that in the True Dexterity there are many cuts, and that many late authors recommend good blades for thrust and cutting). Certainly this began to develop strongly in the thirties of the seventeenth century, and we saw it becoming more popular in the 40s, and of course in the second half of that century.

Obviously the relationship between the England of Elizabeth l and Spain under Phillip ll was rather strained in the 16th century. Commonly the restriction placed on the length of swords by Elizabeth l within the limits of the city of London was put down to irritation over their inconvenience in confined spaces, as people tripped over excessively long blades. But the maximum length of a sword under Phillip the ll was restricted in the same way and set at more or lessthe same measurement, around 40″-42″. In light of the increasing political developments between the two countries, could this have represented a move to keep blades closer to a length suited to a military application?

This is really a complicated issue to which I believe that we cannot give a solid answer, and where I fear that we will remain in the field of speculation for a long time, if not forever. The first thing to say is that we have data on a limitation of the length of the sheet in Portugal rather than in Castile. This, a priori, might not mean anything, but we still have doubts as to whether it is the same length or not (although we think it probably is not). Anyway, at a date as early as 1539 in Lisbon (at the time of Joao III of Portugal, a leading humanist) a law was published that prohibited the sword from having more than 5 palmos, including the tip and the handle:

Portugal [Lei, 1539-02-20]

Lixboa : em casa de Germão Galharde , 12 de Março de 1539.

“Pessoa alguũa de qualquer sorte calidade [e] condiçam que seja não traga em meus reynos [e] senhorios espada mais comprida que de cinco palmos de vara: entrando nelles ho punho [e] a maçaã.”

It may seem that it is the same law, but there are two very important details that differentiate them: the first is that Portuguese law specifies the entire sword, while the “Spanish” only speaks of the blade of the sword, from the quillons to the tip. The second and important detail is, are we talking about the same “vara”? The answer is, probably not; the vara most used in the Spanish kingdoms since 1347, in one of the attempts to unify weights and measures, was the Burgos or Castilian vara, which measures 0.835905 m (this would give us a leaf, from the quillons to the tip of 1,04488125m), while it seems that the most used in Portugal was the v craveira, divided into 5 palms of 22cm each, which gives us a value of 1.1m. clearly, it would seem to be impossible that they are the same measures, because it does not seem that we can put in those 5.6 cm that we have left over the “Spanish blade” the hilt and the pommel of the sword, so we must deduce that the Portuguese law defines a slightly shorter sword. But why this length? We don’t have data yet that give us a reason from the Portuguese side, but from the Spanish side we have at least one: that of the ideal proportions. The sword must measure two thirds of the human being (and the perfect human being for them, not even tall or very short, should measure 2 rods, which is 1.67m); a little later we have Rada, in 1705, who defines precisely all the measures of the sword. He tells us:

La espada, que desde la punta al pomo, siendo de la marca, tiene cuatro tercias, que hacen cuatro pies, que multiplicados 16 por 4 hacen 64 dedos por toda su longitud, del pomo a la punta.(…) que el brazo desde la línea racepta al ombro tiene dos pies geométricos, y la espada cuatro, estando empuñada en la mano, llega el pomo a la línea racepta, con que juntando los 64 dedos que tiene la espada de longitud, con los 32 que tiene el brazo, se hallarán que la suma de brazo y espada son 96 dedos que es lo mismo que tiene de alto la figura del hombre. La cruz de la espada tiene de longitud un pie geométrico, que hacen 16 dedos: de estos ocupa el vaso o guarnición los ocho dedos; porque su semidiámetro es la cuarta parte de un pie.

As we see, he gives the total measurements of the sword, from the tip to the pommel, but a little further back he tells us about the blade:

El cuerpo del hombre está comprehendido de un círculo, que pasa por los pies, y por la extremidad de las manos, cuando se levantan los brazos hasta ponerlas a nivel de la cabeza, y el centro de este círculo es el ombligo, el cual está distante del plano inferior la misma cantidad que se da a la espada, que son tres pies y tres cuartos, o sesenta dedos. Esta medida es igual a las cinco cuartas, que por la ley del reino se le manda dar a la longitud de la espada, desde la punta hasta el recazo o gavilanes.

(Francisco Lorenç de Rada, Nobleza de la Espada, Madrid 1705)

To explain this a little, we can see that the measures provided by the author are what was seen as the ideal: the height of a man must be 96 fingers, and therefore the sword must measure 64 (two parts of the measure of the human being). This is similar to the crossguard, which must measure a sixth of the human being (16 fingers), and the cup a twelfth part. Everything was according to perfect and universal proportions, which obviously were imposed, especially because, if we pay attention to what the author tells us (total length of the sword: 111cm, blade 104,5cm, quillons 27,2cm), it leaves us only about 7cm for the handle and the pommel, a figure that is exaggeratedly small (although still possible). The total dimension of Rada’s sword is very close to the Portuguese one (Rada 111cm, Portugal 110cm), although the proportion of the blade is the same as this:

Actually, we can see that these proportions are very close to those that Girard Thibaut d’Anvers provided us in his famous Academie de l ́espée (published in 1628, although written before the death of its author in 1627), and, taking into account that the rest of the authors of Dexterity are deeply influenced by the Renaissance scientific mentality, and in particular by the search for an ideal of harmonic measures, we find the descriptions about the perfect measure of a person’s step, double that step, the maximum length, etc., with their names (compás sencillo or pasada simple, or paso sencillo, compás doblado or pasada doble, or paso geométrico,etc.) with concrete measures that obviously do not conform to everyday reality. This was rebutted by some of the later authors (Ettenhard, in 1675 says that we cannot regulate the steps by these ideal measures, but that we will make them according to our adversary). All this makes me think that the reason why the authors, and even the laws themselves, limit the length of the swords is rather because they continue this search for harmony and perfection in nature in order to apply it to human and social development. Is there an intention to use shorter blades for military application? I would say no: the “marca”, the measure required by law, already creates swords that are too long compared to what we are used to seeing in the military, but as the principle said, I cannot give a firm answer.

English state sanctioned piracy, known as privateering, against Spanish shipping was unlikely to cause positive diplomatic relations to develop. As both nations built up their naval power, how were the Spanish masters instructed to prepare naval forces for shipboard combat?

The crowns of Aragon and Castile had an important naval war tradition; first in the Mediterranean (the hottest point in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance) because throughout its expansion since the thirteenth century it had had to face the great powers of the area. These confrontations led to the development of a very practical type of boat for the environment, as evidenced by its use since ancient times; the galley. It does not seem that the arrival of artillery substantially changed the way of fighting or of considering battle tactics. The most common tactic in the battles which were fought in the ‘small islands’ was that of ramming, followed by boarding. Therefore Spanish troops were prepared for the naval combats where boarding was concerned, since they had long experience of it. However, it is true that since the end of the 15th century they had been increasingly intruding on Royal Naval ships, which specialized in the navigation of the Atlantic, using ships such as naos, caravels and galleons.

Probably this second part of the sixteenth century of which we speak, was the time when this model began to change, as artillery played an increasingly important part. Although for a while the tactic of direct physical confrontation also extended to these types of ship, in the end distance combat triumphed.

We do not have specific instructions for combat on board in the fencing texts, but that is not surprising. However much the teachers talk in the texts about the advantages of the knowledge of weapons for the defence of the country, king, religion, and so on, these are not military manuals, but rather instructions on the civil use of a self-defence weapon. Rules such as those of the montante (a large two handed sword) for use in galleys are anecdotal, although of the few texts that exist or survive, in two of the most important, the texts of Godinho and Figueiredo, we have a specific reference for use of the montante on the central gangway of the galley for repelling boarders.

Montante (made by Joseph Dawes) from authors private collection
A Russian galley, from the 1719 campaign
A Russian galley, from the 1719 campaign

Would montante have been used to fend off English privateers?

Mmmm, the quick answer is to say that I don’t know, if you mean the use of the weapon in specifically Atlantic vessels. That does not mean that it did not happen (there is much to investigate), although at first it looks difficult because it does not seem to be the best space in which to move a huge sword with so many ropes around: However, we have pictographic examples of their use in boats, specifically those known from Cornelis de Wael ( These are from the mid-seventeenth century, and in fact they are always shown in crowded boats. Every time you see these paintings you think, “Be careful! you are going to hit more of your friends than your enemies!”

A sea battle between Spain and the Duchy of Savoy
A sea battle between Spain and the Ottoman empire

It is certain that the character of war as conducted in galleys, mentioned above, led to the use of the montante. Let us not forget that among the collections of rules that we keep for training in the use of the montante there are two specific ones relating to its use in galleys (those of Domingo Luiz Godinho and Diogo Gomes de Figueiredo); and in addition, Captain Pantero Pantera, in his L´armata Navale, published in Rome in 1614, informs us that each galley must have between two montantes (spadoni in the original).

However, was it also used in the Atlantic as a tactical weapon in the armaments of specialised vessels in that ocean? At the moment we have nothing to confirm this. Interestingly, when looking for graphic documentation for this interview, I found this picture of Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, from 1617, which depicts a battle between the Dutch and the Spanish near the coast of England. In this picture we can see, on the bridge of the central ship, someone we may assume to be the commander of the ship with a sword that seems to be two-handed. A montante?

(By following this link you can see the table in magnificent detail:,870 )

Of course, I cannot be sure about the use of the montante in an “official” way, as a weapon for the ships created for the Atlantic, because galleys also sailed and fought in the Atlantic, and we can assume that the montante was also used in them.

(Here we can clearly see the stern of a galley during the operation of the Great Navy, in the battle of the Gravelinas, 1588

In light of the aforementioned political drama unfolding, Elizabeth was known to encourage Italian customs at court over those of the Spanish. England had been traditionally known as a barbaric backwater in Europe, but was undergoing a dramatic renaissance due to wealth captured from Spanish shipping. Elizabeth’s court was a circus of mixed fashions from all over the world, which is a possible reason why even today pirates are depicted as wearing exaggerated combinations of garish clothing types. With the Spanish empire footing the bill for this leap in development for English society, and impacting on Spain’s own economies, how did these newly developing customs and fashion come across in Spain?

It seems that what really bled and exhausted the Spanish economy at that time were the enormous expenses of the wars on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries, rather than the piracy that seems to have been anecdotal in terms of the volume of losses. The system of fleets organised to cross the Atlantic originated in the time of Philip II, and of the four hundred organised only two were lost, and these losses were caused by war navies of enemy countries, not the actions of pirates and privateers. Therefore, I do not believe that this has had a great impact on the Spanish fashions of the time, since in part it was the Spanish court, the most powerful of the moment, which exported fashion. In clothing, the use of black colour, difficult to fix on fabrics, became popular in Spanish high society with the discovery of “palo Campeche”, from which a high quality dye is produced. This “Spanish fashion” would influence the rest of Europe, including the English court. If we look at this image of the Somerset House conference, which ended the Anglo-Spanish war, which ran from 1585 to 1604, the period of the Spanish Armada and the counter Armada sent against Spain, with the same unfortunate consequences (and all the others: it is amazing how easily the fleets were lost), we find it difficult to distinguish the English dignitaries from the Spaniards:

But fashion changes with the passage of time. Let’s not just think of the colour black; we already have examples of the times of Felipe III and Felipe IV of more colourful fashions:

It seems that black is a colour that will always return because of its austerity and solemnity. Here we can see, already in the eighteenth century, a young Felipe V dressed in Spanish, although this is changing since the destinations of Europe are already being marked from Versailles (as well as fashion):

But this does not happen only in clothing; if we think of music many Spanish melodies, sometimes coming from popular culture and product of miscegenation with American or even African influences end up spreading through the old continent. The most obvious would be for example the chacona. Here is an example of one of them: 

And this is what it would become over time (a little different, I’m afraid):

Although this Purconne Chaconne has some joy again !:

Or for example the zarabanda:

And again the European derivation (which is again very different):

Or the very famous folias, so versioned later in European and Portuguese, Leonese or even Valencian music:

And its European derivations as “folias de España”:

We have more examples of miscegenation, of cultural influences from other parts of the world that are reflected in Spanish culture, customs and customs. To complete the musical aspect we can see the African (and American) influences on these “negrillas”:

But we should not forget the introduction of words from other parts of the world, food products and changes in everyday customs. At the end of the 16th century and during the 17th century the Habsburg Empire became hugely powerful in the Old World. Philip IV was known as The Planet King.

Although Italian fencing was all the rage in London, Spanish customs and practices were being eschewed in England. Despite this, Spanish fencing was considered almost magical. How did it gain this mystical perception? How were English swordsmen viewed in Spain, if at all?

It is true that Spanish fencing has had since that time the reputation of being “magical”, which has also resulted in a certain impairment in more modern times, because today it sounds a bit ridiculous. I am sure that its creators did not intend anything magical, rather the opposite, but it is also true that we are in an era in which the basis of scientific knowledge was created; and that previously the transmission of this knowledge sometimes occurred in a hidden way when bringing the uninitiated into an understanding of the symbols that explained such knowledge. We must not forget that the guilds and the masters wanted to protect the secrets of their “art” (we are all aware of the usual “bottes secrètes” in the world of fencing at the time, for example). It may be normal for the uninitiated to interpret the symbology surrounding the structure of this knowledge as something hidden and mysterious: Let us not forget that Girard Thibault’s work is full of symbolic images, just as the entire structure of the first texts is full of mathematical and geometric references placed in relation to the ideal proportions of the human being, the universe, etc.

One of the authors on the subject best known to us today, Luis Díaz de Viedma, tells us in the first part of his book that the teachers (of other styles, not of the Verdadera Destreza) of the area where he lives have a book of Verdadera Destreza but they don´t understand it.

Actually in the books of the Verdadera Destreza school there is a high level of scholarship, references to ancient and modern authors, mathematicians, cosmologists, etc., and constant theoretical references to the world of ideas. Perhaps from all this comes the idea of the “magic circle” when with the passage of time everything becomes popular and simplified and access to knowledge moves away from these very cumbersome formulas.

Petrus Apianus, one of the authors mentioned by Luis Pacheco de Narváez in Grandezas de la Espada (Madrid, 1600) and in more texts by the same author

The division of spheres:

(A link to the book, “Liber Cosmographicus”, penned in 1524 (although this link is to a Spanish translation of 1548) can be found here:

With respect to other fencers, in the treaties of Verdadera Destreza only Italian fencers are mentioned in the early works, and later also to the French school (in addition to some famous teachers of other nationalities in Pacheco’s texts, such as Meyer).

HEMA is developing rapidly today, as public interest grows and older generations bring more experience to teaching these rediscovered arts. Based on your extensive experience, if you were to advise these evolving HEMA instructors, what would you consider essential in progressing students over a long term training program?

I believe that knowledge of the sources is indispensable to be able to develop and transmit the art. Some of these instructors will reach a level where they are able to teach from the learning that more experienced practitioners can transmit to them. Others, however, will still have to start the practice on their own.

The first case is, in my opinion, the ideal. In the community there are already people with great experience both at the theoretical level and at the applied level. Students will be able to train up to a high level and continue with both theoretical and biomechanical and even tactical study, and draw their own conclusions over time, which I think is the path of any martial artist or student of any form of knowledge.

The second case is slower, but in both the deep knowledge of the sources helps us understand the context, the techniques and the possible gaps in the transmission of these techniques, the use of them in their context, etc.

I speak, of course, of the path of knowledge and practice in the different styles, informed (as far as possible, of course) by what the treaties describe of the practice of the martial art. In its sports version the knowledge of the sources will never be too deep, because it is not so important: the adaptation to the rules of the competition blurs the styles and creates new techniques and tactics, different from the one described historically and more adjusted to what is necessary to win in a competition.

Although more and more people are willing to travel to train or compete in other countries, Spain and England seem to host relatively few of one anothers athletes. What causes this, and how could it be improved?

This is a complicated question, since we must first specify the topic we are talking about: if the word “athletes” means “competitors”, then the statement of the question is correct, at least in the case of Spain. As you say, this is changing and is part of a natural drift of which we already have experience in the case of Olympic fencing, and it is the transformation and evolution of a discipline towards its sports expression in its competitive part. Little by little, more and more groups and people interested in the competitive aspect of HEMA are emerging, but at least for now, I think that in Spain there are less people interested in that, and more focused on studying the discipline itself, without the need for the incentive of regulated competition.

Of course, this is not a problem for me and I don’t see the need to improve it; I understand the reasons for a regulated competition, and I believe that we must provide it with rules consistent with the reality of weapons as much as possible, but that is not the path that I have chosen.

Obviously, the proliferation of ever more numerous tournaments encourages the sporting aspect with more and more participants who adapt to try to succeed in the competitive world, and I think this is where the answer to your question is to be found: it happens and it will happen naturally.

However, I consider it important to emphasise that the “traditional” practice, which many of us have been following for years, is also a sign of good health in the field of historical martial arts: we have grown in this way and we have many people in those fields, with great international events in which to share fights!

One additional question: It is interesting that rotella (a round shield, strapped to the arm) is generally considered purely Italian, despite the Spanish rodeliero (sword and shield man) having made this one of the most effective battlefield combinations as part of the tercio (a large, square formation of troops, consisting of rodelieros, pikemen and musketeers). How does its use differ from the better known Italian methodology?

A contemporary historian, Gonzalo Fernández de Ovido, tells us that rodelas did not exist in Spain before 1498, although shortly after they became a very common weapon.

They are not part of the battle order of the tercios themselves, although they had been previously in the Italian wars under Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, “the Great Captain”, which is the origin of the organisation of the tercios. However, it seems that they are highly valued defensive weapons for assaults on enemy fortresses, reconnaissance missions, etc.

They were also widely used by officers, usually carried until needed by the “pajes de rodela”, teenagers who began in the militia as servants of the officers. Many of these rodelas were made to stop arquebus balls, and they could be very heavy.

(On the use of the rodela in tercios the following excellent article is recommend reading, and also the origin of these illustrations)

It is curious because the statement of Domingo Luis Godinho in his “Arte de Esgrima”, written in Lisbon in 1599, he recalls that the usual weapons in (what we assume was) his childhood or youth were the sword and the rodela, and not the sword and the dagger or the sword and the buckler, although we really have a century dividing these periods, enough time for fashions to change.

In any case the use of the sword and rodela, according to the instructions given by Godinho, does not differ from the instructions provided by some of his Italian contemporaries *. A separate case is the instruction on its use according to the Verdadera Destreza, a school somewhat obsessed with giving prominence to the sword alone, and in which the rodella is always held covering the chest, with the swordhand and its corresponding foot always in front, taking care of the defence of the head and of the legs (an unimportant target, but in the case of the use of a rodela or large buckler, sometimes the only realistic one) with the sword. The use of the two weapons in combination is indeed taken into consideration: I tend to control the opponents weapon with my sword, then transition that control to the rodela, leaving my sword free to attack.

However, we must always remember that the confrontations described are one on one, which, again, does not reflect what occurs in a battle.

  • * We must remember in this case that at the time of the writing of “Arte de Esgrima” the crown of Portugal was run by Felipe II of Portugal, the same Felipe III of Spain, and that exchanges between the courts of Madrid and Lisbon were common. In Godinho we can find the same techniques described by the writers of the Verdadera Destreza as “vulgar tricks”, since this teacher is the author of the only written work that we have from before the 18th century that describes a different school from that of the Verdadera Destreza (except a few short texts or fragments).

Away from the battlefield, the rodeliero was also one of the more popular types of soldier taken to the new world during the Spanish colonial expansion. Why was this?

This case is easy to understand: We must remember that the most important colonial expansion into the Americas occurs at a very early date, since the two great organised empires of the region fall in the 20s (the Mexica) and in the 30s (the Inca).

On the one hand, the image of the “conquistador” should resemble more the Spanish soldiers of the end of the 15th century and the first years of the 16th than the popular but inaccurate idea of “tercios” (morrions, rapiers, etc.). On the other hand the armament used by the Spanish soldiers was adapted to the type of war that they are going to sustain with the indigenous troops and their weapons, for which the use of shields were ideal, both of the rodelas and the famous adargas.

So much so, that the rodela will continue to be used for a long time, since wars will continue for a long time, especially in peripheral areas: The war against the Araucanians (Mapuches) in Chile would never be won, these only being conquered by the Chilean state along with the Argentine once the two were independent; or confrontations along the northern borders, in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona or Alta California against the warlike tribes of the area during the 18th and early 19th centuries. They are the famous “dragones o soldados de cuera.”

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