On the Use of the Square or "Italian" Target

In SCA Rapier Combat in the Middle Kingdom

By Lord Kevin O’Shaughnessy

The Square or Italian Target was a recognized type of Rapier defensive equipment in period. Almost every fencing manual that discusses Bucklers also discusses a larger, squarish shield called a Target, Square Target or Italian Target. This shield was about 16 to 24 inches high by about the same wide, with a center grip. Period materials would be layers of thin plywood and/or metal. Period illustrations from period Fencing Manuals are available.

In Lovinno, the Target is pictured as follows in Fig. 1:

Figure 1 – Two men with Rapiers and Targets

In DiGrassi, the Target is pictured as follows in Fig. 2:

Figure 2 – Man holding Target and Rapier (in Low Ward)

Note the double curve of the Target

The proportions of the Targets in the period illustrations give me a rough indication of how big they were. Their size was in excess of what is list legal for a period shield in the Middle Kingdom. Making a true Square Target of sufficient size to be proportionally correct makes a diagonal corner-to-corner dimension of about 22 inches or more, which is longer than the 20 inch maximum allowable. Making a modified version of the Square Target list legal is possible (I did it) but does compromise the integrity of the original design somewhat. (See Figure 5)

I made my first Targets (2 of them) out of .09" thick Aluminum, 17 inches across the top, 17 inches tall, and 16 inches across the bottom with the corners carefully rounded (about a ˝" radius). The double-curve in it is about 2 inches deep. I put a large center-grip handle in each one. Each one is heavier than many SCA rapier bucklers I have handled, though lighter by far than their period equivalents. In our home group Rapier practice we worked with the Targets and learned several things about them and their uses.

The two things that make this shield a significant improvement over a round buckler (or the larger round shield) are 1) The fact that it has corners; and 2) the double-curved cross-sectional shape.

Any heavy weapons fighter who has trained with a heater shield will tell you that corners are wonderful. The leading corner of a heater shield takes more abuse than the rest of the shield put together. And this is an active defense, not a passive one. Slight movements of the corner can greatly increase the protective coverage of the shield. The same held true when we used the Square Target. DiGrassi recommends peering over the corner of the Target as you hold it diagonally (See Fig. 3). This allows for quick rotations of the Target to deflect thrusts close to its edge. The corner comes along and smacks your opponent’s rapier away.

Figure 3 – Man peering over corner of Target

The factor unique to the Square Target is the double-curve it is bent into. (See Fig. 4). This curve creates deflection channels where you can guide your opponent’s sword tip. In fact, if your opponent continues to provide forward pressure, you will take control of his tip until it either slips off the Target or your opponent backs off.

Figure 4 – Top View of Target showing Rapier Tips engaged in the Channels.

This is not trapping your opponent’s weapon, because the weapon can be freed at any time. But to free the weapon your opponent has to move it away from you. The advantage is yours at that point. . A Square Target that is flat, without the double-curve would not be nearly as effective an active defense.

I took one of the two Square Targets that I had made and modified it to be list legal in the Middle Kingdom by cutting off the corners until I got a longest dimension under 20 inches. The result is laid out in Figure 5. I lost some weight and area coverage, but kept some working corners. I carefully rounded the corners with a file and sanded all the edges smooth and round. I then used it in the Rapier Tourney at the Festival of Maidens in the Barony of Wurm Wald.

Figure 5 – My Modified List-Legal Target (shown Flat)

In some warm-up practicing with the Target (it wasn’t "Square" anymore so I can’t call it that) I learned that I needed to move it more to make up for the loss of the original corners. I learned that taking a beginning stance holding the Target straight out in front of me and slightly rotated so the left corner was rotated upward provided my opponents with the disconcerting effect of completely losing sight of my torso. I also learned that, once combat began, I usually had to hold the Target a little lower, but still at the same angle, in order to maintain sight of my opponent’s sword arm when the low ward was used.

When the Double-Elimination tourney began I noticed something else about Target. Thrusts from my opponents that struck the Target squarely just stopped dead without skipping off of it. Glancing thrusts had a greater tendency to slide off in the direction of the channels, usually down and to my left. Not once did a glancing thrust pop up towards my head or down towards my belly. I have seen both those things happen to people using flat bucklers.

Blind luck helped me execute a couple of "skin-of-my-teeth" trap blocks, where I caught their sword blade between my blade and the edge of my Target. (I call it luck because I was sweeping my Target right to try and block the sword at the same time as I swept my blade left to try and parry the sword. The result was to sandwich my opponent’s blade in between. I wish I were good enough to do every time I wanted to.) This is part of an offensive maneuver taught in DiGrassi that would be very difficult to do without the flat edge provided by the Target.

After my experiences with the modified Target in the Rapier Tourney (I won) I decided to go further with my research and development of the Italian Target. I redesigned it to cover more area vertically (see Figure 6) and found different types of manufactured handles to mount on the back. I then commissioned a pilot run of several shield blanks from a commercial establishment and started making Targets to sell.

The modified Italian Targets proved popular, and soon I was able to start learning from other people’s experiences with them. The fencers using the targets found them to be effective and fun. I received reports of them facing opponents who "did not have a clue" about how to fight against the Italian Target. I did notice though, in the people I fought with and against who used the Target, that there wasn’t much development of forms and styles that were based on using the Target. That was something I wanted to change.

Figure 6 – The new blank for the Modified Italian Target

At the Middle Kingdom Academy of Defense III I had the opportunity to discuss the use and design of the Italian Target with William Wilson, known in the SCA as Baron Master Gwyllam ap Owain. He shared his research on handle construction with me that led me to re-design the Italian Targets that I use and sell. He also taught some classes that gave me a better idea how to properly use the Italian Target in combat.

The changes I made to my previous design were simple but effective. Firstly, I deepened the bends in the shield. What was a 2-inch deep bend is now almost 4 inches. The handle is a wooden dowel mounted vertically between two wide horizontal metal strips. When you grip the handle, you put your thumb on the metal strip. This prevents the target from turning in towards your body and gives vastly improved control.

The classes that Baron Gwyllam taught illustrated to me what seemed to be a better way to use a Target. Simply put, the Italian Target is an active defense. You don’t just try to interpose it between your opponent’s sword and yourself; you actively seek out your opponent’s sword with it. As long as the Target and Sword are in contact, you know where the sword is. And as long as you know where the sword is you can defeat the person using the sword. The Target becomes a weapon to use to neutralize your opponent’s weapon, without damaging or trapping it, and without contacting your opponent with it.

The difference in control you get from going to the traditional grip from the modern "door-handle" center grip is phenomenal. I am right-handed, and so hold the Target in my left hand. With the old style handle (door-handle) the Target could rotate in towards my body if it received a hard push on its right side from my opponent’s sword. That doesn’t happen with the traditional grip. I have observed surprise and consternation in my opponent’s eyes when they poked me there and my shield did not move. At all. Period.

The deep channels formed by the bends in the Target not only guide the tip where you want it to go, but also can control the blade if you lay the channel over the length of the blade. As long as your opponent maintains pressure and contact by not withdrawing away from you then you can steer the sword blade wherever you want. Having had it done to me I can tell you it is most disconcerting. It is however an excellent offensive move.

As in all weapons forms there are downsides to the use of the Target in combat. Being a larger shield it can block more of your view of your opponent, which is a bad thing. I also, in the heat of combat, smacked my rapier and my right forearm with the edge of the Target more than once and have observed others do that as well. Also, though my Target is wonderfully light (being aluminum), it quickly gets tiring to hold it straight out in front of me for an extended time. Finally, because you have to keep moving the Target you get a real aerobic workout. Using it as a passive, static defense will guarantee your defeat.

My research shows that the Square Target was a popular defensive tool in period, it’s use being taught in most of the major schools of the time. DiGrassi spoke rather favorably of it. Marozzo showed its use, as did Lovinno. It is a simple, yet subtle tool of defense. In the SCA rapier lists it would have an advantage over most bucklers that are in use. It also just looks "Period", like something right out of an old manual. A flat buckler just doesn’t project the same image. Using a Square Target in the SCA rapier lists is both effective and a lot of fun.



DiGrassi, Giacomo. His True Art of Defense: Original Printing in London, 1584. Web version used from http://www.musketeer.org/online.html, which is part of Don Danulf’s Academy of Defense .

Lovino, Giovanni. Antonio. Traite d’ Escrime ("Fencing Treatise") Original printing in Italy, 1580. Translation provided by William E. Wilson via World Wide Web. Copywrited by William E. Wilson, 1997.

Marozzo, Achille, Arte Dell' Armi Original printing in Italy, 1568. Web document available in Adobe Acrobat format from http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~wew/fencing/manuals.html (Look for Marozzo.pdf)

Data taken from the Rules of Fence for the Middle Kingdom

Data taken from Rapier practices and tourneys

Handle design assistance provided by William Wilson.