From time to time I come across people speculating that the purpose of first ward is to have a ward that can draw from the scabbard to attack. This argument seems to stem from first ward being similar to a sword position used in Japanese sword systems. This hypothesis would indicate that first ward could support techniques like the Iaijutsu, a quick-draw attack intended to strike an opponent when the sword starts in a scabbard or sheath.
However, there are a number of features lacking in the first ward that makes the attempt to quick-draw like the Iaijutsu difficult, if not impossible. This blog post will explore my rationale on why I do not believe first ward is intended for fighting when the sword starts in the scabbard. Rather, first ward is its own guard and practical within the I.33 system and intended for use when the sword is already drawn.
Before we begin with this analysis, I would like to give a huge shout out to Charles Turner of East Texas Historical Fencing who discussed this topic with me at Gesellen Fechten 2022. He highlighted a number of points about drawing a sword from a scabbard that supported my argument presented today. His comments, specifically on Fiore and the assistance of the off-hand to draw a sword, are presented in this blog post.
Understanding the Iaijutsu
To begin, we must first aim to understand the Iaijutsu. The Iaijutsu is a quick-draw attack designed to strike with the sword when the sword begins in a sheath or scabbard. Examples of this technique can be found in the following video:
While performing the Iaijutsu, the sword is drawn forward. Upon analysis of this technique, the practicality of it becomes evident. The ability to attack when the sword begins stored would be an effective defensive (or offensive) action when in a sword fight. If I.33 could include a technique like this, it would be a useful technique indeed.
Unfortunately, there are a number of features that prevent first ward from being the desired ward for this quick attack. There is further evidence to support that first ward is intended to be like any other ward in I.33 where the sword is free and ready to attack.
Analyzing First Ward in I.33
The first problem first ward encounters when trying to be used for drawing the sword in combat is the positioning of the hands. First ward is holding the sword hilt close to the armpit which is much higher than a scabbard would be worn for a medieval sword. However, assuming the sword were in a scabbard in this position, the buckler hand presents the next biggest challenge.
The buckler is shown in two different positions in I.33; one where the buckler covers the right side and the other where the buckler covers the left side. While the buckler hand may be holding a scabbard when facing the left side, it would become a hindrance to the draw when facing the right side because the buckler arm crosses over the sword arm. Both of these positions of I.33 are used to show the same technique, falling under the sword, where the sword is extended forward to bind against the opponent’s blade. It seems more likely that the sword is already free from a scabbard and the fencer has taken the position of first ward to bind safely against the opponent’s blade.
Furthermore, the fencer in I.33 is advised to place their blade against the opponent when falling under the sword. The motion required for this bind would not support the forward drawing motion of the Iaijutsu.
Drawing a Sword from a Scabbard in Fiore
Just like with the Iaijutsu, the Fiore manuscript shows the use of the off-hand supporting a sword draw from a scabbard. In this manuscript, a play exists that shows how to use a sword in a scabbard to defend against an aggressor with a dagger. At the start of this play, Fiore is resting his longsword on his shoulder with the scabbard covering the blade.
While the opponent is holding the dagger high, Fiore grabs his scabbard and extends it forward to block the opponent’s arm from being able to deliver the plunging thrust with the dagger. Again, similar to the Iaijutsu, the scabbard is held while the blade is removed.
Drawing a sword from a scabbard when under threat
In 2021, a quick thought experiment was conducted at VBHF involving drawing a sword from a scabbard while under threat of an opponent. The scabbard was belted to me while my buckler was hung onto the hilt of my sword with a simple rope loop. The exchanges for this experiment can be found in the following video:
In some cases, I was able to draw my sword without the assistance of my off-hand. However, to achieve this, the sword had to be drawn high and up towards my right shoulder to clear the scabbard. I was able to delay the exchange by defending with the buckler while I drew the sword from the scabbard.
In other cases, the scabbard was either held with the buckler hand or pinned against my body using my buckler arm. These actions appeared to be the fastest ways to draw the sword and engage the opponent.
Interestingly, instead of engaged the sword quickly, I preferred to defend with the buckler. Further experimentation would need to be conducted on whether defending with the buckler was the safer action, or if holding the scabbard and drawing the sword similarly to the Iaijutsu attack would have been a better option. For the Iaijutsu attack to have been feasible, the buckler would need to be secured some other way to the person as opposed to hanging off the sword hilt.
There is no question to me regarding the value of being able to attack with a sword while drawing from the scabbard. Unfortunately, based on the evidence presented, it does not appear that first ward is designed to support this action. While first ward is an effective ward in I.33, it would be dramatically limited if the sword were still in its scabbard. Instead, first ward and the techniques presented in I.33 appear to assume that the sword is already drawn and ready to engage the opponent.