Smallsword as Gate-way Drug

The lunge as represented in the Règlement of 1908

In the current adult “Introduction to Fencing” class I decided to proceed along more historical lines rather than stick to the form I inherited, traditional foil. Up to this session I’ve used foils (French, as I have more of them than Italian)—they’re inexpensive, light to ferry to and from the center where I teach, and as I teach it the presentation is closer to smallsword than modern foil. At the very least, so my reasoning goes, solid foil is an excellent foundation for the study of any other weapon, new or ancient. [1] The masters with whom I studied foil were “old-school” so we learned a very traditional method. I was not taught flicks, ducking to cover target, or any of the other bizarre ways to game ROW and directors. This said, traditional foil is not smallsword, but it is what I learned, and, learned first, so up to now I’ve taught foil more or less as one sees it in the Règlement of 1908 or Barbasetti [2].

Foil is comfortable, known, a place of comfort. I know I’m competent to teach it, and that confidence helps, not only with how I myself present in class, but also in terms of how students view me and respond. [3] If the teacher is unsure, the students will be too, and worst case scenario may just leave, confidence being one of those all-important traits in the United States (despite the fact confidence as such is often just faked, misplaced, or assumed without cause).

I usually teach smallsword one on one, and I fence it a fair amount. I spend and have spent countless hours studying, researching, and writing about the corpus; the more I work on smallsword the more I like it, and not only because it taxes past injuries less severely than many of the other weapons I teach. I like the mental game, the complexity, navigating all those angles. A question came up the first day of the adult class, about why one holds a French foil as one does in sixth, and sometime between explaining what “carte over the arm,” terza, and “hand in fourth” meant, I decided: next class we’re just going to do smallsword.

Rarely have I taken a chance like this and had it pay off, let alone immediately, but in four classes the four adults in this class have a clearer understanding of rule number one, “don’t get hit,” and are quickly gaining skill with the fundamentals I’ve shown them. It may be that these four are just precocious—all four are athletic—but I’ve worked with a lot of capable people, and with few exceptions have I seen a group take to what I teach them so fast.

I think it is two things. First, I am passionate about the topic and know it well; I appreciate how difficult it can be and so I ensure a lot of room to make mistakes, ask questions, and all without censure or impatience. Enthusiasm is infectious, so present a topic as fun and chances are good it will be fun. [4] Second, as complex as smallsword can be, approached from the point of view of “the point is live,” it becomes very simple.

La pointe d’une épée est une réalité qui fait disparaître bien des fantômes.

Baron César de Bazancourt, Les secrets de l’épée [153]
1862

It’s this second point that has been a revelation. What’s caught my attention is that my emphasizing “don’t get hit” first is not new—this guides every single class or lesson I teach. What’s different is how it’s working.

Critical Rule: Always be Open to Correction

This is, in some ways, a difficult realization, because it suggests strongly that some aspects of my approach have been somewhat more schizophrenic than I realized. As I examine it, as I review old lesson plans and notes, I see it. My approach to smallsword, foil, epee/spada, though not rapier interestingly, mixed elements of foil-as-sport with the sources. This wasn’t true across the board, but it was in certain places. It’s easy to fall into, because there is enough overlap that one can assume that a given maneuver is more or less the same; it likely is, but where it’s less the same, that is the thing on which to focus. A prime example is a simple one-two feint. Classically, in foil, the one-two consists of the following:

  • From sixth/third Fencer A feints inside line
  • From sixth/third Fencer B parries in fourth
  • Fencer A disengages and thrusts to the outside line

There’s nothing wrong with this, and, it can work in smallsword too. However, what is missing in the sporting formulation is the extra caution one needs in historical fencing. Feints are one of the most difficult actions for fencers to learn—they’re not just about technique, but psychology. We must “sell” a feint to make it work. We cannot, however, control what the other fencer does, and responses will vary—this is one reason that probing actions and solid footwork are so important. A feint is not always the right choice.

Girard, Traité des armes, (1740) thrust in fourth

The defender, for example, might parry fourth thereby opening the outside line, but they might also panic and just counter attack. They may just back up. Some will see it coming, parry fourth, then take a half-step back and take sixth/third and riposte. There are solutions to each of these scenarios and more (thanks Newton 😉 ), but for the attacker, some degree of commitment, even if to the false attack is vital or the feint will lack credibility. It must be made at just the right distance, not so close that one puts oneself at even greater risk, but not so far as to look ridiculous and unconvincing.

When one is fighting for points—not to touch and not be touched—some of these concerns are minor or absent. The foilist, so long as they attack with right-of-way and land the touch, will get the point, and this is irrespective of whether the defender counters. Only if that counter arrives in tempo, thus granting the defender ROW, will they score. In this case the defender countering is less concerned, if at all, about whether the initial attacker completes the attack, because they got the point. In this is the entire difference between sport and combat.

A Glizade by Any Other Name (coulé, filo, glide, graze …)

One challenge as an instructor is to instill an appropriate sense of danger, artificial as it will be, in new students. It can be difficult with experienced students too. One of the best solutions I’ve found, and one that at the same time helps develop a proper thrust, was suggested to me by a friend and virtual mentor, Chris Holzman. [5] A while back, while chatting with both Chris and Patrick Bratton about teaching the direct thrust, usually the first attack one learns in foil, Chris suggested starting students off with the glide in third [6]. It’s so obvious how this might help that I felt silly I hadn’t thought of it, but then that is why we consult more knowledgeable people.

Teaching the glide first has done wonders for my youth class, and it has been a boon in this adult class as well, not least of which because the glizade is common in smallsword works, but also because it focuses so clearly on opposition and not being hit. This benefit extends beyond this particular action as well. For example, I decided to set up their first feint as a feint-by-glide. The day we started a look at feints I reviewed the previous lesson, had them do the usual warm up, then footwork, and then had them practice the glide in third against one another. Next we added the defense against it, in this case the simplest, taking a half-step back and reasserting third. To help them set up for the subject of the day, I next had them engage in fourth, and as before, they practiced attacking and defending. [7]

After a short break, I had them complete a simple disengage drill, one in which each partner takes turns making disengages against a static line. In this case, Fencer A stands in guard, in third, and Fencer B disengages from third to fourth, making sure to maintain opposition. This is the critical part, and, a departure from modern foil. Going over just this action helps isolate where students may be struggling, and cements key aspects of the technique.

Coulé or glizade from Angelo, L’École des armes (1763)

From there, we started on the feint by glide in third to force a parry in third, followed by a disengage into fourth and thrust with opposition. Among other notable observations the students made was that they could not leave that glide until/unless the defender reacted. When they made the disengage automatically, before a response, they normally ran into the opposing steel. If they failed to take opposition in fourth, they were hit on their way to target. Finally, we discussed the defense against this attack and practiced it (defender takes a half-step back and parries in third, then follows the disengagement via a ceding parry in fourth, ripostes with opposition).

The exercise, start to finish, was fruitful, not only for what it imparted about offense, defense, footwork, and tactics, but sentiment du fer and a keen sense of the point. Discussion turned to other options, techniques we’ve not yet covered but will, and more than once the students, just via the logic of this play deduced either possible next steps or alternative actions to those we had just covered.

Smallsword as Gate-Way Drug

My nod to 1980’s Nancy Reagan “just say no” propaganda aside, smallsword can prove an excellent introduction to the universals we navigate and employ in all fencing. Foil, traditionally, was meant to do this, and still can depending on instructor, but the advantage of smallsword over foil in this respect comes down to clarity. In the 1860s de Bazancourt was one of those voices lamenting that foil training could prove a liability in duels; foil, for some time, had become more academic, what we often call today “salle fencing.” This was, as I’ve pointed out before, something at least one French official noted about the Italian approach—they learn one system, and the difference between sport and duel comes down not to technique, but the blade. One has a button, the other is sharp. [8] The rise of epee, in many respects, was the French attempt to return foil to the seriousness of smallsword—what they created was different, but the ethos was the same. Don’t be hit.

Alexander Doyle, Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst, 1715 [Courtesy of SUB Göttingen, Universität Göttingen, Deutschland]

If one knows foil well, reading a smallsword text is relatively easy—vocabulary is often different, orthography too, but the relationship stands out starkly. This said, the differences (as so often happens) are more important: if we ignore them we risk misinterpretation. We will treat smallsword as foil and they’re not the same. We see foils—the weapon—in many early works, from de la Touche (1670) to Angelo (1763/1787), but the similarity in tool then and now can obscure the intent behind it. The ruleset for foil, much of modern pedagogy, will not work for smallsword, not if we wish to approach it historically, as a weapon.

The grip in tierce is easy for beginners, and no bar to learning how to hold the hand in fourth, something they will learn in due course. There are many extant texts for smallsword, and while one needs to read them carefully and select those more geared to combat, having to read them closely to parse out what is academic and what suitable for on the ground only imparts a better understanding and appreciation for the corpus. [9]

The sense of realism, moreover, adds significantly to a class. It’s a form of time-travel, in a way, because students are wrestling with the concerns those two-hundred years ago had to consider too. At its best, historical fencing not only creates a redoubtable fencer, but also one who appreciates the richness and variety of the Art. The fact it’s possible to work so hard and have so much fun is another lesson worth one’s time.

Notes:

[1] Until recently, most every fencer started study with foil because it encapsulates the whole of the Art, from how to move to lines of attack, from the primacy of the sharp point to the interconnection between distance and tempo. Armed with a knowledge of foil, epee and sabre are easier to learn, but so too bayonet and spear.

[2] This is a note I’ve shared more than once, but I have no idea who may read this or if they’ve read anything on this site previously, and for completeness I like to cite anything I should or what people may wish to know, have questions about, etc. I initially was trained in French foil, and the first master with whom I studied sabre, Buzz Hurst, had been a student at the Naval Academy under the Deladriers, so when making comparisons in sabre lessons to foil it was the French system he referenced. More recently, I studied with the late Maitre Delmar Calvert, again in sabre, but who also referenced foil. He learned to fence in the French army according to the Réglement of 1908. My initial work in Italian foil looked to Barbasetti as outlined in his The Art of the Foil (1932).

[3] Teaching is intimate. Building and maintaining trust depends on a number of factors—I have found that honesty, transparency, and openness account for a lot. No one teacher has all the answers, and the best acknowledge that. If I don’t know, I say so, and then do what I can to find out. This may be off-putting to some, but I think it’s the right course. Students learn best when they can focus, when they don’t have to worry about other issues, and so much as I can I try to make a safe space—they know they will be heard, that they matter, and that no one is going to mock or judge them.

[4] Related to n. 3, people learn better when the topic is less work than it is play, children and adults. None of us are going to be fighting duels; we do this for fun, so, make it fun!

[5] I have had the good fortune to get to know Chris Holzman via the internet. He is a mentor in so many ways, a repository of knowledge, and a skilled fencer, teacher, and translator. One of these days I will make it out to Kansas for lessons, and whatever it is we cover I’ll come back the richer.

[6] The direct thrust is elemental, but it is also difficult. Before students understand that the extension is the key to it, that their posture and position guide the point, they attempt to aim the point. It’s far simpler than that—it’s all in the set-up, but acquiring that skill takes time and considerable effort. Marcelli, in his Rules of Fencing, Book II, Part I, Chapter Vi, remarked that the direct thrust underpins everything. Ripostes, feints, beats, all employ it. See Holzman’s translation, page 105.

[7] One of the major errors I see in “HEMA” is the lack of movement. Fencers enter into measure and duke it out, making very little use of the piste or ring. Varying movement in drills is vital. Using the example above of the 1-2 (feint to the inside line, disengage, thrust to the outside line), this can be performed from lunging distance or from advanced lunge distance. We often start in measure as it’s easier—depending on the action—but as much as possible vary the distance.

In this case, I had them start out in measure and work slowly to get the mechanics down, then we sped it up a bit to test it, and, show how tempo plays into the attack. Next, I had them advance the feint, then lunge the attack. In time, they’ll start out of distance and need to decide when to make the attack; initially I will give them a cue, say raising my blade to guard from a low guard, but as they increase in skill I will hold tierce and they have to pick the time.

[8] There is a lot of work to be done on the difference and nuances between “academic” versus “dueling” with smallsword and foil works. This is one of my current research projects.

[9] A good analogy for all this is the college history course. In some, one is made to memorize all manner of minutiae, then take some type of multiple choice test. It’s as boring as it is pointless. In others classes, one might listen to lectures germane to the topic; with luck these are engaging and explore the themes via something that makes the topic relatable, that touches the experience of being human that transcends time. One usually reads some period sources, some secondary literature about those sources and their context, and is then asked to write analytical essays, both as papers and in essay exams. The second method is far more demanding; some students absolutely hate it. Of the two, however, this is history, this is closer to how we conduct research.

Modern fencing makes next to no use, if any, of source material, books, etc. It’s impossible to study historical fencing without sources—even if one oneself isn’t reading and studying them, the person teaching them ostensibly is (they should be…). One advantage of having a rich source tradition is that it provides additional teaching tools. We have images and illustrations, key passages, anecdotal references to how people were trained and fought, all of which add much to how we teach. It can be a far richer meal.

Review: Swordsmithy Sabres

Late 19th/Early 20th Century Austro-Hungarian Training Sabre 

Swordsmithy, Prague, Czechia 

http://www.swordsmithy.com/ 

 

SPECS: 
Total Length: 104.14cm/41” 

Blade Length: 86.36cm/34” 
Blade Width: 15mm/.59” 

Grip Length: 12.7cm/5” [mid-grip width 2.5cm/.98”] 

Guard Width at Widest: 9cm/3.54”; at mid-Knucklebow, 3cm/1.18” 

POB: 9.5cm/3.74” 

Weight: 663g/1.46lbs 

Materials: steel, wood, leather 

 

I had the privilege to borrow one of these excellent sabres in October 2021 at SabreSlash in Prague, Czech Republic, for several days. For handling, my portion of teaching day provided me a great opportunity to assess balance, heft, and nimbleness. Thanks to a bad leg which acted up, I was unable to bout as much as I should have liked, but did bout with one the redoubtable reenactors from Warsaw, Poland, Jaroslaw Kubacki from Kompania Czarnej Szabli (Black Sabre Company). As the photo demonstrates, he was using a larger sabre than I was, but the Swordsmithy sabre held its own well. In brief, these are fantastic sabres, well worth the cost (they’re handmade) and wait.

Handling

Despite ”HEMA’s” obsession with beefy, heavy sabres, most sabres intended for more than chopping from the saddle were lighter and more nimble than our trainers. J. Christoph Amberger provided a nice, small survey in an article in Fencer’s Quarterly Magazine that concluded that the difference between say Italian “featherweight” sabres and “other, heavier German-made broadswords” was about as much as a block of chocolate. Humor aside, his sample ranged from 1350 to 300g for the period between 1780 and 2000. Anecdotally, the historical examples I own or have held confirm that most sabres were not the clubs modern reproductions would have us think. Swordsmithy sabres, because they are handmade, vary slightly in weight, but the six in my order weighed on average 660g, which is within the typical range for sabres of this period. [1]

The balance is perfect for Radaellian/late period Italian sabre, but will work equally well for many other traditions. The model for these sabres is a Viennese sabre similar to what we see in Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee; it was a common trainer used in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [2] My class at SabreSlash focused on various uses for the molinelli, the elbow-driven cuts that are a hallmark of this system. The Swordsmithy sabres performed perfectly, whether for molinelli as exercise or as offensive or defensive maneuvers.

Sabre in Barbasetti, courtesy Ars Dimicatoria, CZ

One of the best features of these sabres are the grips. They are large enough for normal hands, a clear advantage on most options out there today, and comfortable. The slight swell mid-grip makes for good purchase on the grip, and the ribbed leather seats nicely against the glove. The steel backstrap is solid and close to if not identical to original examples. The only change I might suggest is to score the portion where the thumb rests with some manner of cross-hatching to make one’s grasp that much more secure. However, so long as one wears a glove there’s no need for cross-hatching. The Swordsmithy’s grip is my favorite of all the options available now.

Durability & Performance

There’s no criticism I can make about the way these sabres handle and hold up in use. They’re stout, well-made, and perform equally well against different sabres as well as when a matched pair. It is saying something that Michael Knazko, one of the people behind Swordsmithy Sabres, has used the same six weapons in the tournament portion of SabreSlash three years running. I challenge most other events to make such a boast. [3] 
 

The one major difference with these sabres is the hardness of the blades. Some fencers will balk at this, because most other options are made in such a way that when a sabre bends badly that’s that; we replace the blade. Swordsmithy sabres, however, are so constructed that one can beat the blade back into shape. I have seen this myself: one of the background sounds at SabreSlash is the ringing of Michael’s hammer as he beats a sabre back into shape on a lead plate (wood works too). There is an art to this, but it is easily learned and with practice easy to do. It is, however, more labor than many fencers expect or may wish to take on, though to be honest much of this depends on how they are used. Tournaments, for example, tend to be higher stress than practices, and some fencers struggle to fight with control; they hit harder and the weapons take more abuse. This matters. The fact that Michael has used the same six sabres, in such a high stress environment, speaks volumes for the design Swordsmithy has selected. 

 
The guard is stout, strong, and well-shaped. They’re ambidextrous, a real plus for those of us who fence right and left-handed, and wide enough—assuming good structure–more than ample to cover the hand when parrying. On a personal note, I really like the hammer marks barely visible on the inside of the guard. The thickness is perfect and more than sufficient to parry a hard blow. 

The blade length is just right for most systems, and the width well within historical parameters. The tip is constructed for safety, being wide enough that it’s extremely unlikely to pierce safety equipment. [4] I prefer spatulate tips, but even without this these blades—assuming normal practice–more than meet safety requirements. 

Conclusion

Swordsmithy sabres are worth the cost. In the US, they go for about $390 which is expensive compared to the offerings from popular options such as Hanwei. They are, however, better made, and handmade, and this explains the price. Castille Armory’s “Italian Dueling Sabre” is, at the time of writing, $490; Darkwood’s sabres are $360. [5] Until I handled the Swordsmithy sabres the Castille was my favorite–they’re good blades and the guards, while undished, stout.  

My go-to now, however, is this Czech-made trainer. They are not inexpensive, and the temper on the blade requires more work on part of the fencer, but in terms of longevity alone these blades will last longer than most others I’ve used, and, with fewer problems. Swordsmithy sabres are worth the cost.

On a side note, shipping in and out of Czechia can be pricey, but ordering more than one at a time (two friends and I went in on an order) helps. Michael packs these weapons well and they arrived far faster than I expected.

Notes:

[1] See J. Christoph Amberger, “Inference and Imposition: Anachronism in Fencing Historiography,” in Fencer’s Quarterly Magazine/FQM (Summer 2004): 25-28. Amberger sampled 17 weapons (p. 26), the heaviest at 1350, the lightest at 300, with an average of 682g.

“The weight difference between the Radaelli and the lightest German Fechtsäbel–exported in large quantities to and used in Britain throughout the late 19th century as practice ‘broadsword,’ is only 40g. The much-vaunted 1796-model British Light Cavalry sabre weighs in at only 80g more. And the weight difference between the Italian ‘featherweight’ and other, heavier German-made broadswords and the model 1899 British Gymnasia Pattern practice sword corresponds to that of a bar of Milka chocolate.” [26]

A more recent tally, the spreadsheet maintained by Maestro Kevin Murakoshi, examines both historical examples and modern reproduction trainers, and here too we see more sabres in the 600-800g range. The examples over 1000g are all trooper sabres and thus not so much meant for “fencing” as braining retreating infantrymen.

[2] Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1936), was published earlier in German (1899) and Italian. NB: my thanks to Chris Holzman for the correction as to type.

[3] In contrast, at an open sabre tournament in 2017 multiple Hanwei and Coldsteel sabres were broken; this was also the first time I’d seen anyone obtain a concussion in sabre.  
 

[4] I say ”unlikely,” becauase it depends on how one fences. In Radaellian sabre we use the point a lot, but learn in such a way to minimize risk. Any sabre might potentially damage someone or equipment. Hanwei’s ”Hutton” sabre and Darkwood’s ”dueling” sabre blade both present a danger, the first because it’s tip is pointed, the second because the tip is too thin and is not wide enough. Twice I have had a DW blace pierce a glove while giving lessons.

[5] Prices accurate as of 3 July 2022.

More fun with Tricky Passages

In an attempt to illustrate further how one might puzzle out difficult passages I’m including another question that Christian Olbrich (Fechten Passau) and I discussed. This is the “jump back” or salto indietro covered by so many Radaellian masters (cf. p. 169 Rossi, section 43). This is footwork somewhat larger than the standard retreat and can be confusing not only because of how some authors describe it, but also because it’s often discussed in conjunction with various types of double-measure (doppia misura) and the cross-step (passo doppio indietro).

The question we discussed was:

The jump back in the stop hit (cut) to the arm: Barbasetti describes the first movement in the jump back as “bending the body backward, throwing back the head also”. Rossi, and a few other sources describe the cut as being done with the setting back of the right foot, and any parry following with the re-setting of the left foot. But if I’m in a distance where my opponent could, with a lunge, just hit my head, then crossing the right foot backwards will effectively break measure enough to get me out of reach even to his arm, and if I don’t throw back my head but leave it where it is, I will have my weight shifted dramatically forward so that any farther backward movement is either impossible or very, very slow. I also cannot expect a lunge of my opponent to carry his arm towards me, since I would mainly try the stop hit into my opponent’s feint. Any thoughts on the correct execution here?

There is a lot to consider in this one. When do we attack the arm normally? Only when it’s exposed. So, perhaps on a feint, or, against any clumsy attack where the opponent somehow exposes their arm or starts out of distance and holds the attack long enough for us to attempt the counter. I look at this two ways: if we are in critical/lunge distance, and they attack in such a way that we can make a stop-cut, we might need to use the jump-back, but if they are in advance-lunge distance, then we may need only retreat a step or half-step. Naturally we are not going to try a stop-cut against a decent attack or closed-line. [1]

Barbasetti probably should have started with the last clause in his section 12:



[German] Diese Sprungbewegung ist unerlässlich, sobald es sich darum handelt, Hiebe gegen den Vorderarm des Gegners zu führen, während sich derselbe gerade zu einem Hiebe anschickt. [p. 39 in Das Säbelfecthen, 1899]

[English] Nevertheless, this action is very useful. It enables you to touch your opponent in the arm at the start of his attack. [p. 18 in the 1936 English edition]

The German edition explains this better to my mind—“useful” is not the same as “essential/unerlässlich.” It IS essential to use the jump-back IF they are faster than we are on the attack or have longer reach.

[English] 12. The Jump Backward

It’s not just an issue of translation, but choice of description. In writing “bending the body backward, throwing back the head also” the master confuses things. The passage in full reads:

The jump backward is executed as follows:

Bend the body backward, throwing back the head also, while passing the right foot behind the left one to a distance of about 20 inches; finally retaking the guard, crouching upon your legs.

            This exercise requires a great deal of study. In order to execute it successfully, it is necessary to repeat it until the legs are trained and the body accustomed to maintain a perfect equilibrium.

            Nevertheless, this action is very useful. It enables you to touch your opponent in the arm at the start of his attack. [18]

[German] 12. Sprung rückwärts.

Der Sprung rückwärts wird auf folgende Weise vollzogen: Der Körper wird zunächst dadurch nach rückwärts gebracht, dass der Kopf mit Energie in den Nacken geworfen wird. Zu gleicher Zeit wird der rechte Fuss mindestens 50 Centimeter hinter den linken gestellt, schliesslich mit einem Sprung die Fechtstellung mit gebeugten Knien wieder eingenommen.

Es ist nothwendig, diesen Sprung oft zu üben, um den Beinen die nöthige Kraft und Sprungfertigkeit, dem Körper aber das Vermögen zu verleihen, das Gleichgewicht zu erhalten.

Diese Sprungbewegung ist unerlässlich, sobald es sich darum handelt, Hiebe gegen den Vorderarm des Gegners zu führen, während sich derselbe gerade zu einem Hiebe anschickt. [38-39]

Here again the German reads more usefully. It reads “the body (Der Körper) is first brought backward (wird… rückwärts gebracht).” “Brought” implies movement different than English “bend.” With reference to moving the head the language is much the same—“throwing the head back” conveys much the same meaning as having the head (der Kopf) thrown back (Nacken geworfen wird) with energy (mit Energie). [2] Taken together the sense is that one is shifting the weight backward as one strikes to the arm, but in this case one makes a short jump (einem Sprung) instead of merely taking a step back. This is important to note as lifting the right leg back past the left need not be a jump; it can also be a cross-step, a variety of retreat. Jump connotes speed and urgency, both critical considerations in effecting a counter-attack made while moving backwards.

Barbasetti does not cover double-measure per se. In later sections, where he covers the stop-hit and cut to the arm, he again refers to the jump-back (cf. Sections 60-62, pp.101-109; pp. 126-131 in Das Säbelfecthen). This said, the advance-lunge and rapid advances are present—in fact, he remarks that “in sabre fencing the adversaries keep out of reach, and therefore the advance before the lunge is almost a normal condition” (p. 70; so far as I can tell, this line is an addition to the English text or perhaps from another section in Das Säbelfecthen).

Other Radaellian masters do refer specifically to double-measure. Rossi discusses the cross-step back and jump back in the same section (43 Passo doppio indietro e salto indietro).  The difference is in how the feet move and how fast. The cross-step he recommends has the right foot brought past the left at about 40 cm (compare Barbasetti’s 50cm), then left back past the right to reassume guard. The jump-back, on the other hand, follows the same pattern but has both feet leave the ground, is executed more quickly, and is used against a fast attack. Rossi explains that advance-lunge and double retreats reflect a similar measure. He writes:

La doppia misura pei colpi diretti al corpo è la misura giusta pei colpi diretti al braccio. Bisogna quindi, per la doppia misura al braccio, un altro passo indietro, come si vedrà dale linee del piano regolatore. [149-150 in Rossi’s Manuale Teorico-Pratico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola]

Double measure [his advance-lunge] for blows directed at the body is the correct measure for blows directed at the arm. For double measure to the arm, another retreat is necessary, as seen by the lines of the marked piste. [p. 161 in Seager’s translation]

This is a good rule, as it keeps one safe, but again reflects the reality of fencing when the duel was still a reality. Modern fencing, in contrast, breaks this down into two measures, a stop-cut followed by a simple retreat and a stop-cut followed by what Rossi describes.


The goal, in either case, is to create more space to act. Of note, Rossi advises that “In all the marches, make sure to deviate the body as little as possible from the guard position” (In tutte le Marcie si osservi, per regola, di scomporre il meno possible il corpo dalla posizione di guardia, 169; Seager, 179). I believe that Rossi and Barbasetti, despite appearances, agree—however described, both are referring to a controlled, rapid retreat to allow one space and time to achieve a counter-attack to the arm. Barbasetti’s description of throwing one’s head and body back I understand, but taken literally it would have one move in a very unbalanced way. The sense of it is that one reaches to cut while simultaneously preparing to move backward.


Measure, however, is only one consideration: we’re also making the stop-cut in a particular tempo. For example, with the more modern stop-cut, we often describe it as reaching out to cut as the opponent starts their attack, and then immediately taking a step back to parry and riposte. Assuming an open line to the attacker’s arm, we are making an attack into their tempo to do this and as such must regain measure to remain safe (if we hit them, great, but we must also be prepared should our counter fail or not stop the opponent).

In terms of measure with the example I just gave, we’re reaching out to hit that arm at lunging distance/critical measure, not from close or advance-lunge measure. To maintain that safe distance we stop-cut (in lunge distance) and then recover backward as they come at us to keep that same lunging distance. If we don’t, we’ll be in close measure and far less capable of acting just as you explain. Measure and time are bedmates—they’re intimately associated. As a final note, we do not normally cross the legs to do this, we just retreat.

The jump-back is a little bit larger a movement in my mind, less a step than almost a ballestra in reverse (unless one is making the jump-back by crossing the legs). It’s still made in the same tempo, that is, into the opponent’s attack, but for whatever reason requires us to take more distance on the retreat (Rossi is clearer on this point). Passing backward, so right foot passing past the left and then resetting into guard, can cover more ground securely—as I conceive of it, it’s the difference between making two retreats and one cross-step back. So much of this depends on one’s reach, timing, and the opponent’s ability to navigate distance as well as your own: at times a simple half-step might suffice, at others a jump-back is necessary.

The only time I normally use the jump-back is against opponents much faster or taller than I am. I’m around 6’/1.8m tall, but often fight people 6’4-5”/1.95-1.99m tall. Their reach is such that I can make the stop-cut well-enough, but unless I jump back I will not be able to maintain distance well enough to be safe. If I use the jump-back as described against someone who doesn’t have that reach, then I end up out of measure. Sure, I’m safe that way, but we’ve just reset. Better to attempt the counter-attack and move just enough to cover and riposte.

Most masters are quick to say that one needs to practice these maneuvers seriously. They require a lot of coordination, a keen sense of measure and timing, and can go spectacularly wrong if we get any one aspect incorrect. I know footwork is not everyone’s favorite thing to do, but it’s the foundation for everything. To develop effective use of actions like the jump back, practice it; include it in the mix of advances, retreats, advance-lunges, reverse-lunges, and cross-steps. This will give the mechanical aspects exercise, but you will need a partner to hone your stop-cut, and, perfect how to make this important counter-attack in various tempi.

NOTES:

[1] Like many rules, we follow them until we discover appropriate times not to. There are instances in which one might attack a strong position as a species of second-intention attack. This is a complicated topic and too much to go into detail here. Because there are exceptions, I wanted to say so.

[2] The German supplies in den Nacken, “in/with the Neck,” which makes sense, but which in English reads less eloquently. The sense is that one moves the head back to prompt the body backward. This may also reflect the natural void one no doubt made with certain actions to avoid being hit in the face. We see similar shifts of the head, often to the side, in works like that of Girard (1740).

References:

Cav. Luigi Barbasetti, Das Säbefechten, übersetzt von K.u.K. Linienschiffs-Lieutenant Rudolf Brosch und Oberlieutenant Heinrich Tenner (Wien: Verlag der “Allegemeinen Sport-Zeitung,” 1899.

Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epée (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936).

Giordano Rossi, Manuale Teorico-Practico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola (Milano: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885).

Giordano Rossi, Sword and Sabre Fencing, translated by Sebastian Seager (Melbourne: Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021

Borislav Krustev on Expertise

Having rid myself of the pernicious world of social media (save for messaging platforms and this website which I suppose counts) I’ve not been privy to the spark for this video response for Borislav, but I like what he has to say about “expertise.” It’s a topic I’ve covered here a few times, and for historical fencing it’s a difficult status to calculate. The value of the rubrics Borislav shares, however, are solid and worth consideration.

Roland Warzecha/Dimicator has done a lot for the community over the years. I’ve taken issue with some of his interpretations myself, but I honor the good work he has done and that he plays nicely with people (this I have heard from mutual associates who have met and fenced with him). Though I’ve spent time on the Walpurgis Ms/ I.33, I have no stake in this discussion and will, appropriately, stay out of it. I share this video for what Borislav says about expertise, about calcifying in one’s research, and because it’s important for each and every one of us to ponder.

Confronting Difficult Textual Passages

Read enough and inevitably one will encounter one of those passages that for one reason or another seem tailor made to confuse us. Sometimes we’re just tired and need to take a break, sometimes translation or transcription issues are behind such problems. However, there are also instances when a passage, in any language, remains cryptic. The sentences are grammatical, the topic is in a logical place within the source, but somehow despite our best efforts we can’t unravel what it is the author meant.

Recently, a colleague in Passau, Germany, Christian Olbrich (Fechten Passau)* and I discussed one of the latter examples in a source we both value greatly, Maestro Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1936), itself a translation of the 1899 German edition Das Säbelfechten. [1] My friend asked me for my two cents on several passages in Barbasetti that even on second glance tend to make us scratch our heads. The first question, and my example here, concerns the molinello from an engagement in third. Here is the passage in question, both in English and in German:


English:

After Your Own Engagement

In Tierce—(a) With the aid of a horizontal molinello from the left to the right side, you can perform inward to the face, chest, or abdomen’

(b) If your adversary does not respond to your engagement by pressing your blade, you can, with the aide of the coupe, pass your blade to the inner opening and touch his head. [32-33]

Deutsch:

Aus der gegnerischen Bindung

In Terz, a) Mittelst einer wagrecht geführten Schwingung gelangt man von rechts auf die innere

Seite des gegnerischen Gesichtes, auf die Brust oder auf den Bauch.

b) Auf den Gegendruck der feindlichen Klinge rechnend, kann man mittelst Coupé – Bewegung auf die Innenseite übergehen, um mit einem Kopfhiebe zu enden. [57-58]

This particular action, a horizontal molinello from one’s own engagement in third (Terz, tierce), has popped up as a source of consternation several times. Some years ago, the sabre group at Indes WMA (now Indes Ferox Gladio, see links) brought this action up, and more recently Christian and I explored it via email. If one isn’t sure why this action seems odd, it may help to illustrate it.

Engagement in 3rd–a little exaggerated and at too extreme an angle, but both “fencers” here have their opponent’s blade to the right/outside, and are in third

By “my engagement” we mean that I have sought my opponent’s blade and made contact with it, in this case, “in tierce” or on the outside line, “outside” here meaning to the right of a right-hander. To perform a molinello, that is a circular cut using the elbow as axis, I must detach the weapon from my opponent’s to cut. Easy, right? Yes, but, there is an important question this raises: if one has control over the line by taking the engagement, and then leaves it to make a cut, what happens to the other blade? It is still out there, pointing at us, and threatening. From the sound of it, Maestro Barbasetti seems to be suggesting that we leave a place of security to attack without first removing the threat, a threat that we ostensibly had control over at the start. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially given how well-trained the maestro was and how well put-together his books are.

There are a few ways to make sense of this passage. A first and crucial step is to reread the passage, and, those which inform it. For example, I have defined “molinello” as a circular-cut employing the elbow as its axis of rotation, but earlier on page 29, where the master discusses cuts generally, he says

If you execute a circular movement ending with a final touch, the blow is called “cut by molinello.” The object of this preparatory circular movement is to disengage your blade from that of the opponent.

You must perform all cuts at the moment you detect an opening, retaking the position of guard immediately after. [29]

The German text says much the same, but is more specific:

Geschwungene Hiebe werden angewendet, wenn sich die Notwendigkeit ergibt, der Klinge des Gegners auszuweichen oder die eigene mittelst einer Schwingung von der gegnerischen Bindung zu befreien.

Hiebe sind zu führen, sobald der Gegner eine Blosse und die Zeit bietet, sie zu benützen; sodann muss die Waffe wieder in die Auslage zurückgeführt werden. [52-53]

My German is not great, but as I read this the 1899 edition explains that one uses these circular blows (Geschwungene Hiebe) either to elude (auszuweichen) or to separate (befreien) one’s blade from that of the opponent. [2] In either tongue, however, we are told that the “molinello” for Barbasetti involves disengaging one’s blade from that of the opponent. This is a subtle point, but an important one, because this is only one use of the molinelli. They are used as the maestro suggests, but also alone as exercises, as offensive actions, and—significant in this instance—as defensive actions.

We read “from our engagement” in a section on cuts and often assume we are on the offensive, but this can just as easily mean we are on defense. A parry, after all, involves engagements too; cuts include riposte options. Making a horizontal molinello from third makes the most sense to me as a riposte, which is to say that having parried in third one can reply with a horizontal molinello toward the right.[3] There are, however, not many instances in which I would choose this cut as a riposte from that parry—as a drill, however, as a way to practice this molinello, there is some merit, but as a riposte I would couple it with offline movement to the right and forward. The sketches I add here suggest rather than demonstrate, but hopefully provide some visual sense of what I mean:

Shifting right and diagonally forward with the riposte
Same idea, different view–here the idea of shifting the line of direction a few degrees is a little more clear

Read, reread, make sure of each term, and ask for help. There is no shame, ever, in asking other qualified people for their thoughts. When the people at Indes WMA asked me, we worked on it, but once home I sent a message to Chris Holzman to get his take as well. As Christian and I explored it this past week I once again checked in with Chris and Patrick Bratton. I wanted to be sure my own thinking wasn’t too far out before replying to Christian. Due diligence is important, and with something as odd as this one little passage, it pays to be cautious.

In the end, how we use the action and what the maestro intended may differ. In part this is down to context. Barbasetti, like many others of the Radaellian school, put his approach to paper, but as a working instructor he knew, as we do, that a book can inform but cannot teach. Fencing was and is, primarily, something one does. We learn it in person, individual to individual and/or group, and IF reading is involved it’s supplementary. Generally, a fencing book collects information, explains it, and serves as reminder and reference. [4] While Barbasetti offers his book as a pedagogical tool, he also assumes one has some knowledge of fencing. In the sala, when a question like this pops up, it’s far easier to manage because one can physically explore it with guidance. It’s far harder on one’s own. [5]

In classical and historical fencing not everyone has the same amount of experience, so seeking help is a logical step. This said, it is worth our time pondering these more challenging passages; the effort is not wasted, we learn something in the process, and our understanding deepens. It especially behooves an instructor to wrestle with the text—it forces close-reading, helps us avoid being cavalier with information that is actually rather complex, and better prepares us and students to tackle the material.

NOTES:

*For Christian’s club, see https://www.fechten-passau.de/ They do a lot–sport, classical, and theatrical–be sure to check out the photos and videos for the latter!

[1] The German language text is Cav. Luigi Barbasetti, Das Säbefechten, übersetzt von K.u.K. Linienschiffs-Lieutenant Rudolf Brosch und Oberlieutenant Heinrich Tenner (Wien: Verlag der “Allegemeinen Sport-Zeitung,” 1899. The English text is Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epée (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936).

[2] NB: what follows stems from the German I learned in graduate school for reading—the class was tailored per field, and one of several I had to learn but which I am in no way expert.

For auszuweichen (infintive), I looked to ausweichen, v., the primary meaning of which in my basic Langenscheidt Standard German Dictionary, rev. 1993, is “to make way for (with the dative),” “get out of the way of,” “dodge,” but which may have a meaning specific to fencing my little dictionary does not contain. Jeffrey Forgeng, in his glossary of German terms in historical fencing, cites the use of this verb in Meyer (1570, 2.18v, 86v), and supplies “evading” [cf. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fechtkunst_Glossary_(Jeffrey_Forgeng)#Glossary]. Befreien, however, is a little more straight-forward. This verb typically means to “free, liberate; release.”

As for Geschwungene Hiebe, the term here for “molinelli,” initial denotations are not much help. Geschwungen is an adjective meaning “curved,” but also the past participle of schwingen, ‘to swing, wave, brandish.” Hieb (m), means a “stroke, blow, punch.” To render this as “curved blow” seems clumsy, and I’m not much happier with “swinging blow,” though that perhaps gets closer. 

German readers are encouraged to assist this thick-tongued Yank if they would be so kind (Danke an alle!)

[3] I am not alone in seeing this as really only viable as a riposte; Chris Holzman does as well. The logic here is that if one has stopped an attack, parried it, one has robbed it of its force, and while it’s true the point remains there (and must be considered), the opponent’s first thought should be their own defense, NOT a remise or counter-attack. This is the difference between the more sportive idea of ROW and approaching the weapons sans rules.

[4] Fencing books have served many purposes. Some were attempts to impress a patron and gain preferment or a job, others were vehicles to lambast opponents and explain the “true” way, and still others were meant to share a particular school’s view on the Art. Most modern works, and by modern I mean 19th and 20th century texts, assume some degree of familiarity on the part of the reader. True, some do not, but most maestri writing these books write them to help students and share their take on things, not as substitutes for lessons with themselves.

[5] Historical and classical fencers, unlike their cousins in the sport, rely far more on sources. How much differs widely, but reliance upon the source tradition and fencing’s early purpose is what tends to define these two branches. On the one hand, books are the primary way by which we know anything at all about pole-arms, sword in two hands, and rapier. On the other, later books help us peel back the layers accrued over the 20th century. It is still interpretive more often than not, but without books, without the sources, it would just be make-believe.

Review: Rossi’s _Sword and Sabre Fencing_ (1885)

Giordano Rossi. Sword and Sabre Fencing. Translated by Sebastian Seager. Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021. 275 pp. $17.99 US as of May 2022. [https://www.blurb.com/b/10846545-sword-and-sabre-fencing]

Cover, Rossi’s 1885 Scherma di Spada e Sciabola

I’ve long been a fan of Sebastian Seager’s excellent blog, “Radaellian Scholar,” since first discovering it a few years ago. His articles and posts there do much to fill out the story of the Radaellian school specifically and the Italian school generally, and are, as I see it, necessary reading for anyone serious about the study of 19th and early 20th century Italian fencing. His coverage of major figures, ideas, techniques, and sources, all gathered in one spot, is hard to beat. As a researcher myself I value his approach and shared fondness for footnotes.

Rossi is not his first translation. There are various posts that include some translated portions, but of particular notice is his edition of Del Frate’s 1868 manual on Radaellian sabre, Instuzione per maeggio e scherma della sciabola. Christopher Holzman’s translation of the 1876 edition is better known, but it is useful for any scholar of Radaellian sabre to read them both. With Rossi, Seager has added another critical work in this tradition for the English-speaking world.

Sebastian’s introduction (xi-xvii) will provide a far better and more succinct summation of Rossi and his place than I can here, but in short Rossi was a student of Radaelli’s and one of those, the first in fact, to write (1885) and issue an update to the master’s program. Rivalry between southern and northern masters, and the political clout of the former, led to a flurry of works designed to show the superiority of Radaellian (northern) sabre. Some of it makes for entertaining reading as Gelli and Masiello’s many remarks demonstrate well, but all in some ways were responses to criticism from the Neapolitans. This is one reason we see inclusion of spada, the sword (epee) as well as sabre.  

Rossi’s Sword and Sabre Fencing starts with a short history and coverage of the duel, and then general concepts. Larger sections on spada and sabre follow, each with synoptic tables outlying actions and counters. One of the reasons that Rossi is important is that within his sabre section, for example, he covers types of molinelli in more detail than Del Frate had earlier, in particular the molinelli ristretti or “restricted” molinelli (see 166ff). In addition, Rossi is the last to include the sforzi di cambiementi or as Seager lists them, “change-sforzi,” which went out of fashion not long afterward.

Seager’s translation of Rossi is clean, easy to read, and well-rendered. A list of terms at the close of the book and useful footnotes help explain both vocabulary and concepts, and will be especially helpful for those new to this period of Italian sources. Blurb, the p.o.d. company that produces the book, is fast as well. Not sure what it is about Australia and books, but in many years of collecting books no country has been as quick with the turn around as Australia. This translation is a volume that one should have in their fencing library.

Review: Arlow’s _Sabre Fencing_ (1902)

Sir Gustáv Arlow. Sabre Fencing. Austro-Hungarian Military Sabre Series Vol. 3. Edited by Russ Mitchell. Translated by Annamária Kovacs. Irving, TX: Happycrow Publishing, 2022. 243pp. $25 US as of 11 May 2022.

While there is much to say about Sir Gustáv Arlow’s Sabre Fencing, the most important thing I can say is that it’s excellent and you need a copy. If you valued Russ Mitchell’s edition of Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (orig. publ. 1906; see review here 13 Nov. 2020 https://saladellatrespade.com/2020/11/14/leszak-_sabre-fencing_-1906/), then chances are exceedingly strong that you will absolutely love his edition of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing. Russ and his translator, Annamaria Kovacs, have provided the fencing community with perhaps the most important work out of Hungary on the fusion of Italian and Hungarian fencing traditions. Where Leszák reveals some of the synthesis, Arlow specifically addresses it. In this volume the reader sees an Hungarian master specifically addressing his take on the blend of traditions, and importantly, what he has decided to adopt that is Italian, retain that is Hungarian.

Having come up in this tradition myself I’ve long wanted access to the small Hungarian corpus that promised some answers–thanks to Russ all of us can realize that promise. The value of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing goes beyond history, though it is a must-read for any student of Radaellian, Austro-Hungarian, or Italo-Hungarian fencing; this text is one of the best works on sabre I’ve had the pleasure to read, and I have read many, taught with the help of many (mostly Radaellian). The level of description, the well-thought out organization, the breadth, and the description of technique (Hungarian and Italian) are impressive. For one example, Arlow’s breakdowns of the types of cuts, and his notes about type and origin, nomenclature in Italian, Hungarian, or German, all do much to help both student and instructor in understanding.

Each section provides clear exercises in much the same way synoptic tables do minus the table. There are additional gems as well, from some novel advice in fighting lefties to how to deflect specific types of feints. Of particular interest for the historical fencer is his section on bouts with sharps (i.e. duels). This is a difference Arlow more than once highlights; after all, the duel was still a reality in Hungary, which is one reason for discussion of sharps, but also Arlow clearly saw little point in fencing as a mere game. For him

great care must be taken to ensure that the cuts fall either with the true or false edge, but never flat. Flat cutting is worthless in both duels and sport fencing. A well-trained fencer will never intentionally cut with the flat. He who contends on his over-flexible blade to whip around the opponent’s blade does not deserve to be called a fencer. (61)

I’ve looked forward to and enjoyed each work in Russ Mitchell’s series, but none so much as this. It’s a must-have for every sabreur.

Cf: https://www.amazon.com/Guszt%C3%A1v-Arlows-Sabre-Fencing-Austro-Hungarian/dp/B09X3NZ2P5?asin=B09X3NZ2P5&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Weapon, Heft, and Interpretation

In the last post I shared news about the Shrike Forge highland broadsword I recently received and had a chance to use. My friend Mike Cherba, who heads Northwest Armizare just up the road, filmed this bout and others and shared it a few days ago to Youtube (link is here: https://youtu.be/QJM4GvJAy2Y).

To confess the truth I am always a little uncomfortable being on camera, any camera, and by a “little uncomfortable” I mean I actively avoid it. It’s not just my natural introversion, but my instructor’s eye: I see what I did incorrectly, what I need to work on, and while that is a good thing it’s not necessarily fun.

Video can reveal our awesome bouts to be somewhat clumsy fencing sometimes (source Pixabay)

I tend to blame my college fencing coaches; there’s nothing quite like walking away from a tournament where one did well and then seeing just what one’s fencing actually looked like on video… Add the rest of the team in the mix and that sense of spotlight turned interrogator’s hot lamp is easy to understand. We all suffered like this, not just me, and for the most part it was useful. One of my chief goals is improvement, so if and when I see video of myself what stands out to me are the actions or decisions that need correction or improvement.

Mike is a good chap, so naturally he asked if I minded sharing it. My first reaction, internally, was “no! I make too many mistakes! What will people think?” but that isn’t very useful. It’s just ego. So, I checked that feeling, and then said “Absolutely!” There are three reasons I was quick to agree. First, Mike is my friend and asked. Second, that bout was an absolute blast–Josh is one of my favorite people to fight and we always have fun, but I don’t think we’ve had as much fun as we did fighting with weapons of similar style. Lastly, I’m a teacher, and just as it’s important to impart correct technique and tactics, so too is it to learn from our mistakes. So, here is a fun video where I am making some mistakes–it’s a great learning opportunity, and not just for me.

Lessons within this Video

One truism within historical fencing is that the weapon, its size, weight, balance, all of it, matters. It’s worth examining why that is, and this bout serves as an excellent example. One thing I’ve often said to students, both my own and those I’ve met in other groups, is that sabre qua sabre and broadsword qua broadsword share much in common. For example, both highland broadsword and unmounted Italian sabre include advances, retreats, lunges, and off-line footwork. All of that is true, but importantly, while both employ similar guards, lines of attack, even footwork, there are differences in the actual weapon that inform just how one uses these common features.

Swords within the same family, in this case single-handed cutting swords, are, to quote many freshman college history papers, “both similar and different.” A broadsword designed along the lines and heft of one from 1700-1750 is going to perform differently than a sabre designed for use in the saddle circa 1850-1900. They balance at different points; they’re generally different weights; one tends to be straight, the other curved; the specific combat context for each was different even beyond the basic differences of unmounted and mounted. [1]

So, it follows that the way a weapon moves will affect how one might use ostensibly similar footwork. If you watch the video linked above, you will notice quickly how differently Josh and I move. I move like a sabreur (which makes sense)–it’s all very linear. Josh, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time on works by people like Thomas Page, and it shows–he pivots more, traverses more. Why is that? Why the difference, that is, beyond training and habit? Why this difference in the sources?

One of the 18th cen. Penicuik sketches

The weapon. A three-pound sword with the balance of these two broadswords makes certain actions, certain uses of measure, not impossible but unwise. In the Radaellian tradition we use a lot of just-out-of-measure preparatory actions to make it safe to employ our skull-crushing molinelli. This is not as easy to do with a broadsword. I “can” thrust to the inside line and then disengage around and cut to the head, but the weapon isn’t optimized for this. How I do that must change in order not to suffer from too slow an execution. Josh, for example, though you see me trying it too, often makes a Cut 1 (a la the Insular enumeration or what we might call a mandritto fendente, a descending cut from the right, in Italian circles), and then a cut two (reverso fendente)–the first isn’t a feint really, though it can be. With the weight behind a broadsword one ignores a cut like that at one’s peril, and so naturally one must respond. If one doesn’t, then yay, free head cut; but if one does, a quick flip of the wrist and that beast is screaming to the outside line of the head.

The footwork accompanying this is normally a step to one side, then the other. [2] This is a safer way to make this one-two attack combination. Attempted with the more linear footwork of sabre, it’s far more difficult to pull off, because one is farther away when making that Cut 1. If one delivers this specific combination with a lunge, one must hold the extended blade potentially longer to await the opponent’s response–lunging distance is a bit more farther out than stepping distance, so not only must one move the blade once they’ve responded (if they have), but recover forwards or redouble in order to disengage and cut to the other side. Stepping as Josh does is more efficient, faster, and helps conserve energy. In short, “critical distance” varies not only by height and reach, but also by weapon type. There are important ramifications for this I will share shortly.

In brief, Newton’s second and third laws of motion, to whit…

  • The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
  • Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first. [3]

… explain that there is a relationship between a sword’s acceleration, its mass, and how much force propels it. [4] If that sword is then yanked back, if it must decelerate rapidly and change directly, it will require energy enough to accomplish this; if it meets resistance, say a parry, it will transfer energy to that other sword. Distance affects this too. It is easier to change the direction of that weapon if one is closer, and thus, stepping vs. lunging that initial cut makes good sense. One can lunge it sure, but it will be slower, easier to parry or to launch a counter attack.

This is not to say one can’t lunge or that one doesn’t, because one can and does–if I wish to force the blade (a species of press, coulé, filo, glissade, glisé, etc.) I can absolutely lunge this attack, and arguably should as it helps close the line. The extant sources for broadsword, though perhaps more “regimental” than “highland” or “early” to use popular categories, make it clear that the lunge was a standard method for delivering attack. As ever, context, especially situational context, should dictate whether we step or lunge.

A Few Ramifications that Follow

Confiteor Sancto Gregorio… quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Jokes aside (and apologies to Father Tavares) I have often chided or raised the judgmental eyebrow at footage of broadsword and sabre. It comes with the territory. In my defense, there is usually justification for the mental red pen we apply to the mistakes we see in video, but at the same time it’s easy to slip into an unwarranted sense of superiority or elitism.

“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” 1985

The best check against this tendency is time spent with the tools and sources underpinning the fencing one is viewing. It will change how we view it. As a final example, one of the complaints many of us in the more classical Italian and/or French side of historical fencing make is about the HEMA tendency to fight in measure. It’s like “Thunderdome” only without using the whole dome–two people enter the ring, clash, repeat. There is little use of measure, little suckering people in and exploiting when they fall short, little use of any footwork save the advance. That isn’t good.

If a 3lb Scottish broadsword and if our interpretations of its use are at all close, then we have reason to recall that use of measure is different for different weapons, for different contexts. Like most observations I make here this is obvious, I know, but it’s also easy to forget when we view most things through our own experience and bias. We all do that sometimes. In order to foster the openness to see how other, even related systems use measure, tempo, and footwork, we must first acquaint ourselves with their sources and tools.

Doing so is not just a window into something new, but a way of gaining a different perspective on our main focus within historical fencing. Exploration can also be a lot of fun, which is reason enough to try out that baskethilt, longsword, or rapier that perhaps we’ve sometimes found easy targets to criticize.

NOTES:

[1] It’s too large a topic to explore properly here, but warfare among the Irish and Scots favored ambush, quick strikes, not long engagements of massed troops in meadows. Armor and weapons, well into the early modern period, appeared archaic to many, but had long served well in the bogs and heavily forested areas either side of the Irish Sea. Roman and Greek sources made much of Gallic horsemanship, but in many parts of the Isles foot combat made more sense. Cavalry played a role, but it was not as great in medieval or Early Modern Ireland or Scotland as it was in say France or Spain.

[2] Thomas Page’s work (cf. https://linacreschoolofdefence.org/Library/Page/Page.html) remains controversial, but is worth reading in conjunction with other works on Insular broadsword. Questions of accuracy in re Highland fighting aside, much of what he describes is useful. His section on traversing can be a little dizzying to read at first, but taken slowly and then drilled it does work.

[3] Cf. https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/beginners-guide-to-aeronautics/newtons-laws-of-motion/

[4] With so hefty a weapon one needs little force to propel it forward. Good mechanics, that is technique that allows the weapon to do the work, used with proper measure and timing not only is more efficient and less exhausting, but also less likely to expose one to counter-attacks. Newton’s laws hold here too–if one swings too hard and wide, it’s that much harder to recover and one is that much more prone to being hit.