In 1766, Guillaume Danet published the first of two volumes of L’Art des Armes. Volume I was Danet’s attempt to reassert the supremacy of the French school of fence in the wake of the Encyclopédie publishing Angelo’s plates as the sole entry for fencing the year before. In so doing, Danet advocated for an improved and unified nomenclature of thrusts and parries with a numerical system in a natural order relevant to smallsword play. It is Danet’s description of the demi-volte which we analyze here.
Given the advanced nature of the demi-volte, its use presupposes a depth of skill and experience. Likewise, this examination of Danet’s demi-volte assumes a familiarity with fencing actions and vocabulary. However, our use of terms in this article are defined here.
In smallsword, the volte is a movement that is an evasive action—that is, an esquive—that sidesteps an attack while simultaneously thrusting into the opponent. When one executes this advanced move, one is simultaneously attacking and defending at the same time. Hence, the demi-volte can be considered a counter-attack. It is fraught with risk while remaining seductively elegant as an action that represents the epitome of classical fencing.
Danet describes the volte as an action used to evade the opponent’s thrust by “almost entirely turning the back by a prompt half turn to the left, at the distance of the guard and while riposting by plunging the point [of your sword] into his body.”
Traditionally, there are two types of volte. The volte proper requires you to make a quarter turn, essentially exposing your back to the opponent. This is what Danet describes above. Timing and positioning make this at least a theoretically safe action: done at the right time, a volte allows your opponent’s point to go past your body while your point impales him. (As you’ll see below, there are ways to make the volte safer.)
There is also the demi-volte which, as its name suggests, is more or less half a volte. To safely use the demi-volte, Danet recommends inducing the opponent to attack your high-inside line.
The Demi-Volte on a Forced Thrust in Quarte sur Les Armes1
This hit can only succeed against an adversary who, while thrusting, forces through without any subtlety to his hand; for the execution would be completely impossible against a fast opponent. In which case, why use it when you invariably risk the double touch? Why not prefer the parry and riposte?
The demi-volte is no less risky when the adversary closes measure while forcing the blade from outside of the arms [i.e., forcing open your outside-high line]. Here is how to execute it.
First, engage the blade in tierce while keeping your arm bent, or shortened, so as to give me space to do a straight thrust. When I apply force by thrusting quarte sur les armes, disengage into quarte and immediately make the demi-volte by carrying the left foot behind the right, the point touching the right heel and forming a right angle. Straighten the knees, efface your body such that it is straight, the head high, arm extended and well opposing the point to the body, oppose with the left hand, and promptly place yourself back on guard.2
Let’s look at some of this in detail, using PJF Girard’s Traité des Armes and Domenico Angelo’s L’École des Armes for comparison.
First, Danet brings his rear foot to the heel of his front foot and positions them in a right angle. (Unfortunately, Danet does not offer an illustration of his demi-volte.) This is different from what is shown in Girard and Angelo. You can see in Girard’s illustration that he creates an obtuse angle and does not connect the toe to the heel. Nor does Angelo, who creates a T-shape with his spaced-apart feet.
Also, Danet’s description of the demi-volte seems to contemplate a minimally effaced target for efficiency. Danet makes no mention of turning the lead foot. Is this an oversight? Or does the omission reflect an attribute of how Paris’s royal academy of fencing masters taught the demi-volte? Notably, the Paris Academy’s critical response to Danet’s text3 did not suggest that he misstated how to perform the demi-volte.
Both Girard and Angelo—neither Parisian masters—suggested turning the lead foot on the demi-volte. Although Girard suggests turning the lead foot “a little.” The illustration in his text shows the lead foot nearly perpendicular to the line of direction.4 For his part, Angelo writes that it is impossible to do the demi-volte without turning “the point of the right foot a little inside.” Yet, the illustration in Angelo’s text also shows the lead foot perpendicular to the line of direction. We need not overstate these incongruities, but they are reason to not put too much faith in old fencing treatises’ illustrations when one can read the author’s words rather than over-relying on less-than-photo-realistic images.
Assuming Danet’s omission is deliberate, his demi-volte will be comparatively shallower—and thus riskier—than those who recommend turning the lead foot. Planting that front foot will limit how far back you can turn the rear shoulder and, thus, efface to avoid the incoming blade. But this makes sense if, as Danet suggests, you need your off hand to oppose the opponent’s blade, which would compensate for a minimally voided target. In fact, a limited range of motion would also make your demi-volte quicker. Plus, right angling the feet as Danet suggests does naturally bring that rear shoulder back.
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that Danet thought that turning the lead foot in a volte was a given. As noted above, Danet’s general description of the volte does not refer to turning the foot and there is no picture of it in his first volume. But in his second volume there is a drawing of “Volte Entiere, or Pirouette of the Old Masters.” In that illustration, the lead foot is turned 180 degrees. Indeed, it is hard to see how you could do a full volte without some turning of that front foot or the flexibility of a ballet dancer.
Danet’s opposition with the left hand in the demi-volte is consistent with Girard but not Angelo (see above). But, returning to the questionability of illustrations, it is hard to see the utility of Girard’s opposition in the illustration: neither fencer seems to be in measure to hit (the attacker is already over-lunging). Turning the lead foot in Girard has allowed the defender a greater off-line range of motion, which would help void his target. But he seems to have limited that by bringing his left shoulder forward to facilitate the opposition.
Contrasting Danet’s and Girard’s use of the off-hand, Angelo’s lack of off-hand opposition is undoubtably made possible by his choice of rear-foot placement. Although both Angelo and Danet place the rear foot at 90 degrees to the lead foot, Angelo’s spacing of the feet apart from one another provides a greater degree of effacement due to the separation between the rear foot and lead foot. Angelo’s increased removal of the target, when execute in time, renders opposition with the off-hand superfluous. Furthermore, Angelo advocated the practice of fencing for one’s health and to cultivate the grace expected of nobility (salle play), as opposed to purely martial defense. Undoubtedly, Angelo’s depiction of the demi-volte engenders that culminating grace of the era.
Finally, Danet’s description makes clear that you should attempt the demi-volte only as a premeditated response to an attack you have induced. The other authors mentioned above do not stipulate this but, at the same time, don’t prohibit it either. Danet, on the other hand, recommends baiting your opponent into your outside-high line with a forced straight thrust. Notably, forcing open your outside-high line will necessarily open his inside-high line. This is what crafty Danet wants to happen, so that you can then derobe your opponent’s attack and slip your blade into the opening created by his overly aggressive attack.
1 Quarte sur les armes, literally “fourth over the weapons,” is a smallsword term. It is essentially the guard of sixte in French foil: hand supinated (as in smallsword’s quarte), but with the opponent’s blade to your right. Note that this description is from a right-handed fencer’s perspective.
2 This is Morgan’s translation of Danet’s text. You can find an online translation of Danet’s text by Philip T. Crawley here.
3 The Academy condemned Danet. In his text, Danet attempted to create a new numbering system for the smallsword thrusts and guards, different from what had been taught in Paris fencing academies for years. However, this didn’t go over well with the Paris Royal Academy, the established set of fencing masters licensed by the king to teach fencing publicly in Paris. In the same year Danet published his treatise, one of the other Parisian masters—Nicolas Texier de la Boëssière, the inventor of fencing’s wire-mesh mask—wrote Observations sur le Traité de l’Art des Armes. The entire (short) book was a refutation of Danet’s numbering system, saying it violated the natural order of things.
4 For this translation of Girard, I relied on the book by the prolific Mr. Crawley. You can find it on Amazon here.
For a contextual examination of smallswords, their study, use, and impact on classical fencing, see Scott Wright’s SmallswordProject.com.