Sabre, Saddle, and the Vital Importance of Context

Unable to train with others during quarantine we make do. Solo drill is one avenue, but so too are discussions that allow us to dive deep into the Art. I had the pleasure this morning to chat a few moments with my friend Patrick Bratton, instructor at Sala della Spada in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA, [1] about a crucial fact we forget to our peril in studying Italian sabre: our tradition was born in the saddle. Radaelli and many of his students were cavalrymen, and if we forget this, then there are aspects of our practice that may have us scratching our heads.

This is a well-established and well-known fact, and one we pay lip-service to frequently, much as one mentions smallsword in the context of foil or that ROW (right-of-way) is meant to mimic the conditions of a duel, but the fact that we began as a cavalry method is something we need to dwell on from time to time. Why? In brief, ruminating on the cavalry elements within our technique and tactics not only informs our understanding of the history and development of Italian sabre, but also helps explain how the shift from saddle to foot occurred, and, what differentiates each method. Moreover, awareness of the differences can aid us in making the best use of both mounted and unmounted aspects of the weapon.

For example, the molinelli as presented in Del Frate and other key Radaellian texts are meant to do two things. First, the molinelli are exercise meant to build the muscles and responses needed to use the weapon effectively. In addition to edge-alignment, we work power-generation, timing, measure, and hand-eye coordination. Second, the molinelli teach us about parries. We talk about them as powerful cuts, and they are, but as Patrick mentioned today they are defensive in nature. Our mentor for all things Radaellian, Chris Holzman, sees it this way—here I quote Patrick from our earlier discussion: Ours is both a conditioning exercise and made to teach parry ripostes, the other systems are conditioning, but teach attacks not parry-ripostes. So as Chris stresses we don’t attack first intention with them, we use the point or an action on the blade. Naturally there are offensive applications for the molinelli too—our texts make this clear from Del Frate to Barbasetti—but if we ignore the fact that these fundamental exercises were meant for defense too, then we miss something important.

[addendum: counter-offensively, the molinelli can be used much like the cavazioni, that is to change lines; using them this way is a species of action on the blade. For example, from second one might make a molinello moving through prima as the opponent’s blade thrusts to the inside line, and cut a fendente/descending cut to the head. Thank you Chris =) ]

There are two points I’d like to follow up with in Chris’ summation. The first, is the defensive aspect, the second the importance of preparatory actions. In the saddle a fencer’s range of motion is different; timing is different too since the speed and size of the mount affect movement. The molinelli, because they sweep through each parry, also assume that parry in their arc; this means that they can be used as “active parries,” something valuable when range of motion and even sight are limited. They can be used this way on foot as well.

The second point, the importance of preparatory actions, is critical for anyone using these chambered cuts. They are larger cuts, so potentially open to counters, especially as those made from certain guards, such as third, mean a momentary exposure of the wrist. As such, we don’t normally use molinelli in direct attacks; instead, we set them up using a feint with the point, a beat, or some similar action to increase our safety. The goal here is to get the opponent to move (by feinting) or to move their steel for them (actions on the blade), both of which then clear the way for the chambered cut. [2]

For those of us who came up through a much later iteration of the tradition, like I did, this subtle difference can hit like a shock when it finally does.[3] However, it’s liberating too. One of the best questions I’ve had from students is how to make molinelli “work,” that is, how can we use these effectively and without opening ourselves up. This question has been at the heart of my own journey with earlier Italian sabre, and it’s revealing to me just how much my own understanding has changed, and, how that has informed my approach in class.

Early on, I used the molinelli primary as warm up, partly because they’re great for that, and partly because I didn’t feel completely comfortable incorporating them yet save as ripostes from certain parries (e.g. from prima or fifth). These days I will have students work the molinelli to warm-up, but we cover them tactically too. We’ll even cover them as direct attacks, but this latter exercise is more technical than tactical. It’s sort of a baby-steps approach toward making them a normal part of their game. Accustoming oneself to using the elbow as the axis of rotation takes time and practice; there is technique involved, from the way our fingers shift on the grip to the way we lean in and out slightly when cutting and defending. Likewise, I will have them play with measure to see from what distance they can safely chamber and still make the touch. It’s not easy. It’s also not immediately obvious to all what the value of this is.

Because these drills are not always obvious to students, I do my best to explain why we are drilling say a chambered cut from 3rd when we don’t normally attack with it. Normally I use a progressive approach, explaining at each step how it will lead into the next, e.g.

  • from in guardia, chamber and cut from 3rd to head or chamber from 2nd and cut right cheek
  • same drill, only with a lunge against a partner, working on what each person’s safe distance is to make this attack (NB switching partners is vital here as that measure changes)
  • finally, we add a preparatory action and mix the molinello into it, e.g. feint with thrust from 2nd to draw their third, then cut over with a molinello from third

Before quarantine, I was including more and more work with molinelli both in class and in individual lessons. They’re an important part of our heritage as fencers of Italian sabre, but more than that they allow for a more powerful cut, something ostensibly important in historical sabre where our focus is nuanced–after all, presumably we’re not after points alone, but may be cutting bamboo or, more typically, explaining to new students why we see these larger cuts in the texts. For students from other traditions, and especially from the Olympic world, the shift from direct to chambered cuts can be off-putting. Direct cuts are faster, travel more efficiently, and made well tend to close off the line (the fist/guard often remains in the plane of third when cutting to any line, at least for many cuts, and can effectively block or set one up well to parry).

The molinelli, however, were a fundamental part of Italian sabre on foot after Radaelli’s reforms, and it is telling that his students retained them for so long, and more than that, that other nations saw the merit in this approach, most famously England (the 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise is largely based on Masiello’s work, though there are some errors of transmission that confuse a few things, the molinelli in particular). These cuts were more effective, because they’re more powerful and–importantly–made in a way to maximize defense so long as one has decent footwork and timing (thus the importance of drill). This does not mean hitting hard or with maximum force, but developing a controlled, powerful blow for when it is important to use one.

Herein is a major quandary for many within historical fencing. There is a cult around the word “martial” that seems to hold that only a hard, game-ending blow is legitimate. Hard-hitting was and remains a sign of poor training and/or attitude. Anyone can hit hard if they want, but hitting effectively with the force actually required in that instance, having that demonstrable control is the hallmark of a skilled fighter. The fact is that these more powerful cuts can be made safely—it just takes training and practice. Each drill, solo or paired, that we do with molinelli is ostensibly building this skill.

One of the exercises Patrick takes students through is the unmounted drill from works such as Masiello’s Sabre Fencing on Horseback and the 1873 Cavalry Regulations. This is such a fantastic idea, and one I am working on implementing on occasion myself. On the one hand students see, as they’re doing the very drill, how this might work in the saddle, but on the other they are afforded an opportunity to ponder how they might make use of this drill for fighting on foot. Thinking about and trying to make all this work in real time helps us develop skill, and with it, control. For fencers like me, who learned some molinelli, but spent more time on direct cuts initially, this sort of training makes all the difference. The ability to make both cuts is, I firmly believe, important, for even if one chooses one style over the other one must be able to counter whatever is thrown at them.

For me, this is in keeping with the spirit if not letter of the law. After all, many of these works were intended to assist a soldier not only in the field or saddle, but to prepare officers unfortunate enough to find themselves facing a duel. In this way, many of these works were not just cavalry drill, but sword drill meant to cover all the bases. It is, arguably, one of the facts that make Italian sabre so dynamic and flexible, and why it came to define sabre at its apogee as military practice was transformed into sport.

[1] For a little more about Patrick and Sala della Spada, see https://www.saladellaspada.com/. He also maintains a facebook page.

[2] One can use molinelli as direct attacks, but it’s more difficult and dangerous. One way is to cut in such a way as to close the line. For example, from the guard in 2nd, one can chamber a cut in third, then cut to the chest, but more across the chest closing the line. Rather than cutting through and rolling back to guard in the same plane, one would cut in such a way that one ends up more or less in fourth.

[3] Understanding something doesn’t equal confidence in it. Having learned a few molinelli from Al Couturier and his assistant coaches, and having used them for a long time, made it easier to pick up the others, but using them as Del Frate and others recommend took me longer to feel confident about. In some ways, my experience with historical sabre has been a long, slow process of stripping away layer upon layer of habit and outlook acquired from decades in mid-century sabre. Tactical reasoning in particular is so tied to ROW that it can be difficult to get around the short-comings in it, and for a while I was trying to use Radaellian maneuvers as substitutes for the mid-century ones I originally learned, but that is not always a one-to-one correspondence. More of it is than not, but even so, some actions, like the sforzi di cambiamenti went out of favor after Rossi (1885), and so these were not actions we drilled. To me, to be a teacher means one is always a student, and happily research into Radaelli’s system means I have a lot to look forward to, a lot yet to learn.

IMAGES: these images are from Cav. Ferdinando Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, trans. Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2015 (orig. published 1891).

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