“Dueling” or “Military” Sabre?

[NB: My friend Jay Maas, a student of and instructor in Insular Broadsword, suggested I make a few things more clear than I did. His advice is sound and so I have made a few changes. It was never my intention to denigrate the British/Insular school; I merely chose texts from it as an example because like the Italians they have a rich source collection, the texts vary considerably, and because I know it best after Italian. I thought it was clear from my discussion below of the House of Angelo and its fame, as well as my comments about Roworth, that I know and acknowledge that there was a fully developed system in place and taught in 18th/19th cen. Britain, but it doesn’t hurt to make that more explicit. May 16, 2019]

There’s considerable misunderstanding and a lot of misleading information out there about “dueling” and “military” sabre and how they relate. Some students ask me if what we’ll be doing is military sabre as opposed to “dueling” sabre, but this is a false dichotomy—they’re making a distinction based more on perception than fact, on specific application vs. body of technique. In large part both camps (not to mention sport fencing ultimately) draw upon the same material, the same sources, so how are they different? To what degree the same? It comes down, in part, to how we define each term. The quick answer is that there is no difference in technique, only in purpose—the duelist normally follows rules, a soldier normally operates in a theater without them.

When someone says “dueling” sabre what they mean, by and large, is “classical” sabre, that is, sabre as defined and intended for the dueling ground, and which in time led to the modern sport. Defining classical sabre, however, is as easy a task as defining classical fencing. A few examples. Columbia Classical Fencing, LLC‘s website, for example, defines classical fencing as “fencing as it was practiced in the West during roughly the late 1700s and into the 1800s.” [i]

Salle Green LLC in Virginia has a lot more to say, and suggests that classical fencing is:

fencing for sport or the duel, conducted in the manner of fencing in the years between 1880 and 1939, as reflected in the rich variety of fencing manuals in  English, Spanish, Italian, and French that survive from this period.  It is defined by the transition from a common set of weapons for civil and military use to a distinct set of weapons for primarily sporting and civil use, and ends with the development of the sports factory approach to training and the conversion to electrical scoring after World War II.  The classical period is important in the history of fencing as it makes the transition to the set of weapons we still use in modern fencing and establishes the form of footwork and blade technique that is the foundation for modern fencing skills.[ii]

These both situate classical fencing within a largely late 18th and 19th century context, though Green would push this, rightly in my opinion, into the first half of the 20th century. What’s missing in Green’s definition is what comprises “fencing manuals” in this period. Significantly, at least up until the 20th century (and indeed after 1900), many of these sources for sabre were military sources or written by military men.[iii] Often they were writing for a military audience, and in some cases, producing official government manuals on fencing. There are, of course, many exceptions, but if one looks at some of the more popular works per tradition the connection between military manuals and what tends to comprise classical fencing stands out starkly.

The supposed dichotomy between “military” and “dueling” (or “classical”) sabre is an issue more within the historical community than the classical. Many fencers within WMA/HEMA have desired to differentiate what they do from anything remotely resembling sport fencing. For them, classical fencing is too close to sport, and thus automatically suspect. Many within the classical camp use the same weapons as sport fencers, only with modified rules, and rather than address technique and purpose, which would show how much historical and classical fencers have in common, these same historical fencers reject them out of hand for using foils or S2000 sabre blades. The fact that the modern game derives from Italian and French fencing, that classical technique developed in these two lands, tends also to produce a quick reaction against things classical. This is all guilt by association and ignores the salient fact: the classical tradition derives not only from civilian, but military sources, especially for sabre.[iv]

This bias, however understandable, is misguided. Ultimately it can be limiting too. Some proponents, for example, of English broadsword/sabre, often seem at pains to distinguish what they do as somehow more “military” than sport or classical, but here as elsewhere it comes down to definitions and how one applies them. The texts of C. Roworth and Henry Angelo, for example, are no more military than those by Giordano Rossi and Ferdinando Masiello.[v] These English texts give us a window into sabre intended for the infantry between say 1800 and 1850, but while Roworth includes a comprehensive examination for sabre/broadsword, Angelo does not. Unlike Roworth or his Italian counterparts, Angelo’s sword exercise is hardly representative of the entire system he taught at his own sala. Henry Angelo, author of the Infantry Manual of 1845, was the grandson of Domenico Angelo Malevolti Tremamondo, author of the exquisite L’Ecole des Armes or The School of Fencing (1763). Very little of the sophistication the Angelo’s were famous for, and which is illustrated so wonderfully in Domenico’s book, made it into the 1845 Infantry Manual. It did not need to be there. It is almost as if some fans of Angelo and Co. find it more legitimate because the infantry manual is so bare-bones, so devoid of the sophisticated maneuvers they associate with artful, sport fencing. This is not to say it wasn’t there, that it didn’t exist, but to remind the reader that they won’t see much of it in that source.

The context for these various texts is on its own instructive. If, for example, you compare the works of Settimo Del Frate and Henry Angelo, the former contains a lot more instruction. Angelo’s goal was to provide a minimum of basic instruction, not a complete program. By and large the key Italian works present much of the state of the knowledge at the time, not just the fundamentals. One reason for this is that in the newly formed Republic of Italy, military fencing masters were vying for preference and position, so their works intended for the army were not just drill manuals, but books intended in part to reveal the author’s expertise over that of his fellows.[vi] Taken together, the corpus for Italian sabre is thus more exhaustive and sophisticated. This reflects a difference in context, in purpose for many of these treatises, and as students we need to keep that in mind.

The difference in context explains a lot, everything from why say Del Frate or Masiello’s works are longer and full of details, even lesson plans, and, why Angelo’s pamphlet on infantry sabre is so rudimentary. The rank and file did not need a complete course in swordsmanship. [vii] After the volley their next step was the bayonet. If the fighting came down to sabres, something had likely gone very, very wrong. They needed enough to be effective in the context of war, not thoroughly tutored in all the options required for combat mano a mano. The requirements of an infantry private are different from those of the duelist. That private, because of his rank, will not be fighting duels, and thus has little need for more than basic instruction, good as it might be. The duelist, on the other hand, only benefits from possessing a larger selection of options even if, and this is critical, he never uses them. He must be able to recognize them, and, undermine them. In short, a duelist needs more than an infantry soldier.

The duel is a critical consideration in understanding why some sources are more detailed than others. While it had all but disappeared in England, dueling culture was still alive and well in Italy at the time these works were written. Though illegal, as it was in England, provisions were made within the military and several military men, most notably Achille Angelini and Giordano Rossi, wrote dueling codes.[viii] Many within historical circles thus equate “classical” and “dueling,” and this isn’t wrong, but they misspeak in saying that these are somehow separate from “military” sabre. They are one in the same, just presented in different ways for different audiences, for different purposes. Because the officer ranks were the only ones allowed to duel, in so much as anyone was, it is little wonder that the officers writing these manuals included more within their work, that is, included those maneuvers that any one of them might have occasion to call upon should he find himself called out. It should be noted that British officers, like their brothers most everywhere else in Europe, typically contracted a master for more complete, advanced training.

For students interested in military sabre, some notion of this historical context must be taken into consideration. This should go without saying, but for all the discussion of the “H” in HEMA, too often it is ignored. Many new fencers learn about military sabre from Youtube videos or social media, and if they see that one school of sabre uses the term “military” more often than others then perhaps it’s more understandable that they fail to see how other national texts on sabre were also largely codifications of military systems. It is also one reason they think that dueling and military sabre are different animals—few people ever talk about the connection between them.

Students of sabre should pay some attention to the corpus. Regardless of the tradition they favor, even a basic acquaintance with other national military programs, not to mention different applications for the same body of technique, can only benefit them. This is true for those interesting in “dueling” and those interested in “military” sabre—these are just different applications of the same material. At the very least it may prevent them from grossly misunderstanding what it is they are study.


[i] See https://columbiaclassicalfencing.com/fencing-terms/#c. Accessed 3-5-18.

[ii] See https://www.sallegreen.com/programs/classical-fencing/. Accessed 3-5-18.

[iii] A master I worked with in Portland, Oregon, the late Maitre Delmar Calvert, was trained in the French army (he was a Foreign Legionnaire) at a time when they were still using the revised Règlement d’escrime issued to the French army in 1908. For more on Calvert’s early training and military career, see Bernard Coliat, Vercors 1944 des GI dans le Maquis, Imprimerie Jalin à Bourg-Les-Valence, 2003. See also http://usfencinghalloffame.com/wp/calvert-delmar/

[iv] As a quick example, Italian works from ca. 1850 on were largely produced by military men for a military audience, from Del Frate in 1868 to Pecoraro and Pessina in 1912. The French Reglement (1877), likewise, codified fencing for the French military. This is not to say that works dedicated to sport were not beginning to appear, but that even these, ultimately, looked back to these military sources.

[v] In fairness, Roworth’s 1804 treatise is a thorough work, providing more than Angelo’s later infantry manual. He entitled it a “complete” system for broadsword for a reason, and one examination will demonstrate why. Not only did Roworth lay out his approach to the use of the weapon, but he also covered defense against smallsword, spadroon, and bayonet.

[vi] For a good discussion of the competition between military masters in the newly unified Italy, see William M. Gaugler, The History of Fencing: Foundations of Modern European Swordplay, Bangor, ME: Laureate Press, 1998, 166-167; 216-217. A more recent, complete examination, and some of the key documents, can be found in several of the translations of Chris Holzman. See especially his The Art of the Dueling Sabre, xxv-xxxii; in The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing, Holzman includes some discussion of the Northern and Southern Italian rivalry (xxi-xxii) as well as the report of the Hon. Paulo Fambri to the commission dedicated to choosing which manual, and thus which region North or South, would define the official military program (xxxiii, ff.); for some sense of the vehement opposition to Parise and the Southern school by Radaellian devotees much can be gleaned from the observations about Masiello’s strong feelings in Holzman’s translation of Sabre Fencing on Horseback (1891), ix-xiv.

[vii] Masiello’s manual for cavalry, for example, is not a complete work on sabre, just sabre as applicable for fighting from the saddle.

[viii] See Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini, Italian Chivalric Code, Firezne: 1883, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2016; Giordano Rossi, “Concerning the Duel,” In Capt. Settimo Del Frate, Instruction in Fencing with the Sabre and the Sword, 1873, translated by Christopher A. Holzman (2011), 222-230 [this is a chapter from Rossi’s Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, Manuale Teorico-Pratico con Cenni Storici Sulle Armi e Sulla Scherma e Principale Norme pel Duello, Milano: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885]. See also Masaniello Parise, “Fencing on the Ground (1904),” In The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Maestro di Scherma, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2015, 295-319 [revised in Carlo Pessina and Salvatore Pecoraro’s “Spada Fencing: Play on the Ground (1910),” In Sabre Fencing, 1912, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2016, 175-197.] It is inportant to note that McBane, who wrote works on smallsword and broadsword, was not only a fencing master and soldier, but a duellist.

2 thoughts on ““Dueling” or “Military” Sabre?

  1. Thank you for the citation of my work. For me the key element in defining the classical period is in its nature as a transition in which the military use and the dueling use of the sword wane and effectively disappear, leaving sport as the end product. By 1880 (a very squishy first date) the sword was effectively obsolete as a military weapon – yes in World War II Savoia executed a charge in Russia with swords and hand grenades, but this is one of those exceptions that prove the rule. The American Civil War had fairly well demonstrated that the massed cavalry charge against infantry armed with modern rifles was a difficult proposition, and the famous death of the German cavalry in battle in the Franco-Prussian War made it obvious that cavalry could still charge (a British dragoon regiment captured a German train in World War I for example) but usually at terrible cost. It is worth noting that, although US cavalry training still included the sword up to World War II, the last charge of the US Cavalry by the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) was executed with pistols. Yes, absolutely at the start of the period fencing manuals were largely military, but in terms of the trend of development the technique of civil and military individual fencing was essentially the same. And as the period progresses the military component becomes smaller and smaller. And the technique of the military manuals was essentially adopted as the technique for the sport foil and sabre. I run the Classical Academy of Arms (http://classicalacademyofarms.org), a training and credentialing school, and our approach is that we teach teaching in a way applicable to any classical period system that can be documented by period texts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response Maestro Green! I am familiar with your work and school, and value both greatly. If I read this correctly we’re more or less on the same page. I focused here more on the relationship between later period military manuals than the demise of cavalry in combat, because I so often encounter fencers who think that “military” sabre is some species of its own, completely divorced from civilian and sport sabre. As you pointed out this is a false dichotomy, and, one dealing more with context than technique, movement, or tactics. In re the demise of cavalry, my paternal grandfather was a cavalryman, one who served in the Mexican Campaing in 1916, then France, and between the wars and into the early years of WWII was training horsemen for the army. Of note, all the photos I have of cavalry exercises from the inter-war period show _no_ sabres. As he told it (to my father who told me) they relied on firearms at that point. Moreover, my grandfather was not a fan of the 1913 issue “Patton” sabre, so for him a rifle and pistols made a lot more sense. Even in WW1 his unit was seconded to the artillery pretty–this made him very unhappy, but as he told my father it was clear in 1917 that there was limited use for horse cavalry. Thank you again for your comment and insights!

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