Longsword Response Time Analysis

By: Tracy Mellow – Iron Gate Swordfighting


Successful defense against a sword strike depends greatly on the reaction time of the fencer. Understanding what is physiologically involved in that process can help a fencer or instructor train to reduce their reaction time significantly.

The science behind reaction time and how a fencer can reduce the reaction time can be quite complicated and boring, but I will do my best to convey the information in a way that most people would be able to understand, and short enough as to not lose the reader as this subject is an important, and often overlooked aspect in the HEMA community.

Reaction time can be defined as the time that elapses between a person being presented with a stimulus and the person initiating a motor response to the stimulus. The processes that occur allow the brain to perceive the surroundings, identify a threat, decide an action in response to that threat, and issue a motor response to execute an action to eliminate the threat.

Once presented with a stimuli (such as a sword strike), Information travels from neurons from the eye to the brain’s visual cortex, which helps process what you see. The brain then determines what response should be initiated. The motor cortex, part of the brain that directs movement then sends signals along your spinal cord by the central nervous system and into your various muscles by the peripheral nervous system to respond to the stimuli. 

Sword strike speeds vary greatly from fencer to fencer, depending on experience level, training, physical properties, distance etc. For our purposes, let’s use one constant stimuli in all the following examples. The stimuli will be a longsword strike from a right side high position (Posta di Donna/Vom Tag) and will be at the average longsword strike speed of 230ms (.25sec.) from a static position to contact with the left side of the head of the intended target.

There are different phases of responses that the body will go through during the course of training as the brain and body go through a physiological change.


Fight or Flight reflex

A beginning student, or untrained fencer being faced with our example stimuli will commonly react with a cringe, turning the face away, and blindly putting their weapon in the path the incoming strike. This is an involuntary response due to the brain not having the resources to pull from to confidently defend against the stimuli. 

This is the “Fight or Flight” reflex. The fight or flight reflex comes from the sympathetic nervous system, that is part of the autonomic nervous system which is the nervous system that is involuntary and cannot be controlled. It is responsible for bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate etc. There are a number of things that happen to the body during the fight or flight reflex, among them are negative aspects that affect the ability to adequately defend one’s self during a sword strike; Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing), and tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision) among the common actions of cringing, and turning the face away.

Luckily, the human body and brain are amazing things. They can be trained and can be physiologically altered, permanently, to react positively to the stimuli.

In order to confidently respond to the stimuli, The fencer must change the response from a reflex to a response. 


Motor Encoding (Muscle memory learning)

Once a fencer has learned a technique that would counter the stimuli, and has retained it in their short term memory, the body goes through a physiological change. Instead of the response to the stimuli being of an involuntary nature and going through the autonomic nervous system, the brain now has information stored in the prefrontal cortex that can used to respond to the stimuli. The response now goes through the Somatic nervous system. The Somatic nervous system creates responses that the body can control voluntarily.

The motor encoding phase is a very important phase and should not be rushed through. The technique should be trained, with conscious effort, focusing on proper mechanics and should be drilled very slowly over many repetitions so the technique can be stored in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain that controls automatic response. Over time, the technique can be sped up. But only when the fencer can execute the technique perfectly over many repetitions. During the motor encoding phase, it is important to remember to focus on the proper mechanics, even if the fencer knows what to do. The brain will know when it does not need it anymore. Once it is stored in the basal ganglia, the fencer will be able to recall the technique without conscious effort. If a fencer drills too fast with improper body mechanics, the basal ganglia will store the improper technique and is very difficult to change once it is stored. That is why it is very difficult for a fencer who has had improper training to break the bad habits that have been learned.

At this point in the training, the fencer’s visual cortex sees the stimuli, the brain pulls from the short term storage in the prefrontal cortex the appropriate response, sends that information through motor cortex, then the central nervous system via the Somatic nervous system, which then sends the information to the Peripheral nervous system, that controls the muscles, and then proceeds with the appropriate response to the stimuli.

This process is rather slow in terms of fencing time. During this phase, the average response time can be from 200ms to 300ms. Recall that the example stimuli here is a longsword strike coming in at 230ms. That is not much time to respond and the fencer is susceptible to being struck.


Motor Skill Retention (Muscle Memory)

Once the fencer has trained the technique with enough repetitions to have it stored permanently in the basal ganglia, the response to the stimuli has become automatic. The fencer no longer needs to consciously assess the threat and determine what course of action to take.

 This phase has a much faster response time than the previous phase. At this phase, the visual cortex sees the stimuli, sends the information to the basal ganglia, that already knows what to do, sends the info through the motor cortex, then to the peripheral nervous system that then automatically responds with the appropriate response.

The average response time for a fencer with motor skill retention is approximately 140ms to 190ms. The stimuli in our example once again is at 230ms. Plenty of time to perform the defense.


Peripheral Vision

Response time can be further decreased by using peripheral vision. There are two types of vision; Central and Peripheral. Central vision is made up of many cone shaped cells in the retina that help focus on an object and is sensitive to light. Peripheral vision is made up of many rod shaped cells that have no focus abilities, but perceive movement much faster than central vision. The fact that peripheral vision perceives stimuli much faster than central is beneficial to historical fencers.

In my research, it is noted that the response time to a stimuli perceived from peripheral vision can be as low as 80ms. That is much faster than focusing on the stimuli.

Usage of peripheral vision is simple, but must be trained to do automatically, same as any other technique. The goal is to not focus on any object at all. The best technique to use is to look through and behind the opponent’s center, just below the chest. By attempting to look beyond and through the opponent’s center, the Peripheral vision can pick up the opponent’s legs, arms, shoulders, hands, and weapon. All the things a fencer needs to be cognizant of while fencing.

If a fencer is focused on the opponent’s chest instead of through it, the fencer runs the risk of getting tunnel vision, which is the loss of peripheral vision. Since focusing on a specific object slows the response time, focusing on the opponent’s weapon or hands is not the best option either if the fencer wants to decrease their response time.



Being able to analyze the position the fencer’s opponent is in, and having enough knowledge in lines of attack, and the most probable attacks or defenses the opponent may attempt will also go a long way in decreasing response time if the fencer chooses a response based on various possible options the fencer’s opponent has at that time. Pre-choosing possible responses will only help the brain determine the best response and automatically respond then the stimuli is perceived.



Speed of the fencer’s weapon will also go a long way to decrease response time. The key here is to remain as relaxed as possible, only using the muscle tension needed to remain in guard and hold the weapon. Then once the stimuli has been perceived, using explosive speed by activating the type II (Fast twitch) muscles in a short burst, almost as if the fencer had received a hard electrical shock, will speed the weapon up significantly. This also needs to be trained and become a motor skill, since the fencer does not want to have to concentrate on generating power while responding to a threat.

In conclusion, nothing will decrease response time without proper training and time. As noted above, there are a few ways even advanced fencers can decrease response times, they just have to be trained and stored as motor skill.

Pulsativa, Instabile, and Stabile. Those words are only labeled with the Longsword Poste (Positions/Guards) in MS XV 13 (Getty) manuscript. They are not labeled in any other manuscript, and Fiore is mostly silent on their meaning or uses. There are two other places in the Getty in which they are mentioned; 36 Recto in the Poleaxe section he mentions that Posta di Fenestra Senestra (Left Window Position) does not have stability, making it an Instabile position. The last one is on 37 Verso in the caustic powder axe section, he talks about if he misses his opponent with the powder, he can defend himself with the Pulsativa positions of the sword.

To be fair, These labels are not the only subject touched on in the manuscript that Fiore is silent about. On page 22 Recto in the Getty to refers to the three turns of the sword:

“I say the the sword has three movements, which are Volta Stabile, Mezza Volta, and Tutta Volta”

He touches on that directly after describing the three turns of the body but gives us few clues how they are performed. There are a couple places in the manuscript in which he mentions a turn of the sword, but is silent on how the movement works. But just as the turns of the sword are important to understand, so are these Poste classification.

Even though Fiore is mostly silent on the matter, he felt they were important enough to put to the longsword Poste. Perhaps it was a subject he told to his students in person, or perhaps those classifications were part of the “common fencing” terminology during his time and were already expected to understand the terms, as Fiore only taught well trained swordsmen, that we know of. Fiore’s manuscript is the oldest known manuscript that deals with the longsword, So we do not have examples of the common fencing terminology of his time. We really have no way to know for sure, so we have to hypothesize as to their meaning. Many followers of Fiore have their hypothesis as to their meaning, and some don’t bother with the labels at all because Fiore is silent on the matter and believe they are not important.

I believe they are important in understanding the qualities of the Longsword poste, as well as the Poleaxe. So here is my current school of thought on Pulsativa, Instabile, and Stabile:



Pulsativa is a tricky word to try and understand when it comes to the meaning in Fiore’s work and also has the most interpretations. I believe it is derived from Latin, possibly “Pulsa” meaning to “Beat” or “Strike”. I take this not as striking in the offensive sense, but rather defensive. Looking back at page 37 Verso, Fiore implies that if the caustic powder does no good, or misses, he can defend himself with the Pulsativa positions of the Longsword. That leads me to believe they are intended for defensive purposes. In addition, I am taking account of the other two classifications; Instabile, and Stabile. Looking at the Poste assigned to them, they appear to be labeled as per their defensive qualities. Taking all three under consideration as a whole, it appears to me that all three classifications are intended to be qualities of defense.

Lets look at Pulsativa (Strongly covers/beats all blows)

There are three Pulsativa positions:

Tutta Porta di Ferro (Full Iron Gate)










Posta di Donna Destraza (Right Woman’s Position)











Posta di Donna Senestra (Left Woman’s Position)











Here’s what Fiore says about these positions;

Tutta Porta di Ferro – Pulsativa

“Which stays in great strength and she is good at waiting for every handheld weapon, long and short and if she has a good sword that is not too long. She passes with a cover and goes to close (Stretto). She exchanges the thrust and puts hers in. Also, it strikes back the point to the ground, and always goes on with a pass, and to every strike she makes a cover. And who in this one gives great defense does it without tiring.”

Nowhere in that passage does Fiore talk about attacking from Porta di Ferro other than a thrust after exchanging, which you are no longer in Porta di Ferro, but either Longa or Breve. So we can eliminate Pulsativa as meaning “Strongly strikes all seven blows” as is commonly represented. Fiore explicitly states that Porta di Ferro is a very strong defensive posture, and can defend against all strikes.


Posta di Donna Destraza – Pulsativa
“Which can do all seven blows of the sword. And of all the blows she can cover. And break the other guards, for the great blows she can do. And for exchanging the thrust she is always ready.”
There, Fiore does talk about Posta di Donna as an offensive position, but also can cover all blows. That’s where I believe it is Pulsativa, because it can defend against all blows.


Posta di Donna Senestra – Pulsativa
“Which of covering and of injuring she is always ready. She makes great blows and breaks the thrust and beats them to the ground. And she enters Zogho Stretto (Close Plays) thanks to the knowledge of how to cross. This guard knows how to these plays well.”
Again, the only common denominator amongst all three “Pulsativa” positions are their ability to cover all blows. Therefore, I define Pulsativa as a “Position in which can strongly cover/beat all blows of the sword.”



Now lets discuss “Instabile” (Unstable)

There are four Instabile positions:


Posta di Fenestra (Window Position)











Posta Longa (Long Position)








Posta di Bichorno (Two Horn Position)










Posta Frontale (Front Position)











If you look at each of these positions, you will notice a couple of things they have in common. They each have their hands away from their core, and their blade is offered for engagement. If your hands are away from your core, and your blade is offered for engagement, you are not in a stable position, hence, Instabile. And because they are not stable, you have to keep them moving. So I believe they are positions in which you move through to perform a defense. That is not to say that you cannot wait in these positions. Fiore tells us on page 36 Recto that he can wait in Posta Fenestra on the left making the opponent believe he is going to strike on the left, but enters on the right. So you certainly can wait in an Instabile position, but you will have to change positions to cover the blow or to strike because by themselves, they are not stable enough to withstand a blow unless it is moved into, or through.



Now lets discuss “Stabile” (Stable)

There are five Stabile positions:


Porta di Ferro Mezana (Middle Iron Gate)











Dente di Cinghairo (Boar’s Tooth)











Posta di Choda Longa (Position of the Long Tail)











Dente di Cinghairo Mezana (Middle Boar’s Tooth)











Posta Breve (Short Position)










Looking at these positions, they also have some things in common. Their hands are near their core and their blades are not offered for engagement, with the exception of Posta Breve, which we will look into last. This makes them stable positions in which you can wait in to defend, or even offend. Each of these positions have their limitations and cannot cover every blow, but are intended to be superior against certain kinds of blows, and do them well. Another thing they have in common is they are positions in which you can be relaxed standing in, saving energy for when the time is right to defend very quickly. If you are relaxed in a position, your muscles are not activated, and only activate when you want to move your weapon to defend, or offend as quickly as possible.
Posta Breve is an exception. If you look at Posta Breve, you will see the hands are near the core, but the blade is offered for engagement, making it a hybrid Stabile/Instabile position. Here is what Fiore says;

“This is Pota Breve, which wants a long sword and is a malicious guard which does not have stability. Furthermore, it always moves and sees if it can enter with a thrust or with a pass against a companion. And this guard is more appropriate in armor than without.”

So, even Fiore felt the classifications were important enough to mention that Posta Breve is also an Instabile position as well as Stabile.

In closing, I believe understanding the classifications of the Poste are very important to understanding the qualities of each position and what you can/cannot do from those positions as it pertains to defenses. If you understand the quality of a position, then you can come up with defenses from these positions that are not explicitly stated in the manuscript. I believe the manuscript is an abbreviated cataloging of the art, and cannot give you every defense possible. Understanding the qualities of the positions will help you come up with your own tool box of techniques to use.












Virtues of a Swordsman

By Tracy Mellow – Iron Gate Swordfighting

“This Master with these swords signifies the seven blows of the sword. And the four animals signify four virtues, that is prudence, celerity, fortitude, and audacity. And whoever wants to be good in this art should have part in these virtues.”

Fiore’s Segno. That famous page that has an image of a man, presumably a depiction of Fiore dei Liberi himself, with seven swords representing the strikes and thrusts. But it also contains four animals with symbols that represent the virtues one must have in order to fully understand the art, and to survive a sword fight. Here, we will explore the meanings behind the animals and symbols.

The virtues; Fortitude, Audacity, Celerity, and Prudence. You must have all four in order to be successful. One does not work without the other. All four must be instilled in a fencer if they want to pursue the art and survive.

Each animal represents a certain virtue, and the accompanying symbols add an additional information to help you fully understand that virtue.


Fortitude: Elephant with Castle

“I am the Elephant and I carry a castle in my care, and I neither fall to my knees nor lose my footing.”


Fortitude is defined as; Mental Strength and courage that allows one to face danger, pain, or adversity. This tells us that in order to be a good swordsman, you must have the mental strength to stand against a person who wants to harm you. It definitely takes fortitude to be able to perform deadly techniques with a weapon against another person who could possibly kill you.

The elephant represents strength, power, and stability. The Elephant in Fiore’s sources has no knees which represents that one “does not kneel” which means does not give up. It may also mean if you were to fall, you most likely will not get back up.

The Elephant also signifies footwork. The text accompanying the Elephant states “nor lose my footing” which tells us one must have a solid foundation and proper footwork.

The Elephant carries a castle for his load. This signifies that strength and stability is needed. The castle may also signify fortification; You must fortify yourself with proper guards and defenses by using the most solid positions and strongest defenses against an attack.

The Elephant stands on a stone platform. That signifies that strength, stability, and footwork are the foundation of the art.



Audacity: Lion with Heart

“No one has a more courageous heart than I, the Lion, for I welcome all to meet me in battle.”


Audacity is defined as; Willingness to take bold risks. Confidence. Basically, having the courage to fight, and to have the confidence in your abilities that you can pull off techniques in stressful situations. I would like to add that it could in addition, mean having the audacity to step into the opponent’s attack, which is against human nature, but in reality robs the attack of power and/or beats the opponent’s weapon to the centerline, thus diverting their weapon offline.

The lion represents courage, bravery, ferocity, and boldness. Ferocity is interesting, you must be ferocious in your attack while remaining true to the other virtues. Not easy for most people. Must be unforgiving and unhesitant in committing your attack.

The heart represents the heart of a lion, which reminds you that you must be audacious. It also represents nerve, resolve, spirit and enthusiasm.



Celerity: Tiger with an Arrow

“I am the Tiger,and I am so quick to run and turn, that even the thunderbolt from heaven cannot catch me.


Celerity is defined as; Rapidity of motion or action; swiftness, and speed. Being swift and quick allows you to strike your opponent before he can strike you, or allows you to defend yourself before you can be struck. Along with many other facets of fencing.

The tiger signifies fast, graceful and smooth strikes, defenses, and footwork. When the tiger moves, he moves in a graceful manner. His movements are swift but smooth, and moves with confidence.

The arrow represents speed and efficiency. Also, the arrow flies in a path that is the fastest way between two points; a straight line. It represents that your strikes and defenses should also move in the straightest line possible, since a straight line reduces tempo as compared to circular motions or arching.

It is interesting to note that the word “arrow” derives from the ancient Persian word meaning “Tigris” as in the Tigris river, which was known to be the swiftest river.


Prudence: Lynx with Compass

“No creature sees better than I the Lynx,and I proceed always with careful calculation.”


Prudence is defined as careful, good Judgement, to avoid danger, ability to reason, resourceful, and cautious. Prudence is one of the most important virtues. You can be strong, swift, and courageous, but if you lack good judgement you don’t stand a chance against even the most mediocre swordsman.

The lynx signifies foresight. The ability to understand the thoughts and intentions of your opponent. It also represents cautiousness; you don’t want to be so audacious that you rush into a technique without observing the position your opponent has taken and the most logical actions they would most likely take from that position. In order to have a good dose of prudence, one needs to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of the art, it’s techniques, and has trained enough to understand the mechanics behind the techniques and an understanding the science behind the fundamentals. The lynx also represents the understanding of timing, which we call tempo. You need to understand the timing of your strikes, defenses and footwork, and that takes prudence.

The compass signifies measurement and geometry. Understanding measure is a cornerstone of fencing. Everything you do will depend on measure and tempo; from the approach to the withdrawal. Tempo and measure correspond directly to the geometry of the sword fight; Having your sword ready to strike from your shoulder has a wider measure and longer tempo than being in a position where your sword is held low and on the center line. Another example of the use of geometry is when you are in a bind, and you move your left foot offline to the left while keeping your hilt on the center of your body as you move but keeping your point directed at your opponent, you will see that their point will be offline and cannot harm you while your point is in perfect position to thrust up the middle. Geometry allows you to use the smallest moves necessary to gain the advantage by understanding positioning with imaginary lines.

Understanding and applying these virtues should be a major part of your training. Having all four virtues, you can achieve a great understanding of what it takes to be a swordsman.