Dealing with the Pointy End(s)

Sabre vs. Bayonet & Sabre vs. Smallsword

 

Bayonet En GaurdeWith the disadvantages we face during the pandemic it helps to think outside the piste. Drill is rote even in the best of the times, but lessons often afford us that sense of time moving, of progression. As students we work on something, then next lesson may work on something new as well. Improvement may be slow sometimes, but it still feels more like progress than the same set of exercises month after month with no variation.

When it’s less safe to do much of the usual work, especially that which puts us well within six feet of one another, lessons can become repetitive and dull. In truth, doing the same thing over and over again in attempt to do it better is just part of fencing, but even with that acknowledgement there are only so many ways, for example, to attack and defend the extended target.

I have a few students right now who are at a stage where some attention to tangential material is possible. By tangential I mean aspects of sabre that have disappeared in the modern game. These were, however, once a necessary part of one’s training. It was only last century that competitive bayonet fencing died out; smallsword died out nearly a century before that in most places, but a number of works treat dealing with different types of swords. [1] Sabre vs. bayonet was a key aspect of most military training programs, whether for infantry or cavalry, and still has application today.

Sabre vs. Bayonet

Last weekend I introduced one student to the rudiments of defense against bayonet. Some of the maneuvers one can employ, for reasons of safety, I left out, such as parry, seize rifle, pommel strike with follow-up attack. Everything we did started with the student in seconda/2nd while I adopted one of the basic guard positions with bayonet, in this case what the English called “High Port:”

Bayonet Training for British Forces
“High Port” from Bayonet Training Manual, 1917

As you see here, the left hand grips the rifle and is level more or less with the left shoulder; the right hand is centered above the fork and just in front of the solar plexus; left foot forward. The student might assume the guard of terza/3rd just as easily, but seconda is the preferred guard for several reasons. First, it places one squarely and safely behind the steel, the point threatening the opponent. Second, from 2nd, the shift to quinta/5th or prima/1st is quick. Both of these parries are quick, sweep the line, and set up powerfull molinelli.

My initial attack was to the student’s inside line with the “long thrust,” that is, a thrust Long Thrust Bayonetmade from about 4-5ft away–as with the sword, bayonet and rifle move first. The student takes a half-step back, parries in prima, then steps slightly to their right and delivers a cut to the arm or down the barrel to the attacker’s hands (this second riposte must be made carefully, one reason that this is not a drill I run with beginners). There are other options, such as a cut to the head via molinello, but we were doing our best to maintain the requisite distance in light of Covid.

The next drill started the same way, but as soon as I saw the student shift to prima, I made a cut-over the parry to the outside line. The student then had to take a second half-step and sweep back to seconda or terza. From there they stepped slightly to the left and delivered a cut to the forward hand on the rifle., before detaching and delivering a thrust with cover.

It was a valuable exercise for a number of reasons. First, because we were on grass, it mean having to be careful with footwork. Given the length of the bayonet trainer the student had to move–to plant and attempt to defend would mean a best we both got hit. Best of all, seeing the versatility of the first triangle parries–1st, 2nd, and 5th–cemented why we focus on them so much. Lastly, it was fun, and that is important.

Sabre vs. Smallsword

Yesterday, in a another lesson, I had a different student defend against smallsword.

angelo smallsword vs sabre
D. Angelo, School of Fencing, 1765

This particular student has considerable experience, and at this stage of his training it’s possible to incorporate more and more of the more advanced, less standard material. Among the traditions he has studied is long experience with KdF (Kunst des Fechtens), which means that dealing with a variety of weapons is not new to him, and, that use of the weapon for defense as well as strategies for coming to the grapple are second-nature. He is far more comfortable with grappling/stretto play than I am, but I am learning a lot from him in the process (what little I’ve studied comes down to a few years studying Fiore’s armizare and weapon-seizures in sabre and smallsword or spada).

Here too we were keen to maintain “social distance,” so as per current custom attacks were mostly to the forward target. My initial guard was Girard’s high tierce/3rd, his was his choice of 2nd or 3rd. As with the bayonet drill, I focused first on attacks to the inside line, mostly toward the wrist; he countered with 1st or 4th depending on where he was as my lunge completed. Ripostes were generally to the arm, or, with a diagonal forward step right, to the head. Next, I performed a simple disengage/cavazione moving from the inside to the outside line. He countered with 2nd or 3rd, again, depending on where our relative distance was and how time affected the choice.

Finally, I adopted Girard’s guard of high quarte/4th, and attempted a variety of thrusts

Girard feint from quarte
Girard, Traité des armes, 1740

with opposition or via a feint. My student countered these as before, either attempting a stop-cut or arrest with a parry-riposte, or, when unsure of the tempo just parry/riposte.

I was surprised, but thrilled he enjoyed this exercise as much as he did.

 

The quickness of the smallsword and the fact that the point was always on him meant that he had to be conservative. Any attack, as he put it, had to deal with that preeminent fact. A little over a century after Girard another Frenchman, Baron César de Bazancourt, remarked in his Secrets of the Sword that

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

“The sharp point of a sword is a reality which quickly makes illusions disappear.” My translation is a bit free, and less eloquent than de Bazancourt’s translator, C. F. Clay, but I think illustrates the lesson well. [2]

In the attack, this same point had to be dealt with safely before anything else. A decent sforzo or expulsion was effective, but had to be measured well since the lightness of the smallsword makes recovery to line a little easier. Since his weapon is heavier–he was using Castille Armory’s 16mm blade in a Radaellian guard–feint via cut was less safe than a feint followed by a thrust. This is yet another reason that the guard of 2nd is so excellent.

He did well in both offense and defense; his key concern was not to be hit, and so, if there was the slightest chance of mishap, he regrouped or attempted to provoke me to attack. I am really happy with how well he has taken to sabre, how skillfully he adapts to different and often difficult scenarios, and how much he enjoys it.

What’s Next?

I plan to continue the inclusion of both bayonet and smallsword on occasion. It’s fun, diverting, and forces the student to apply what they know to a new situation. As my student and I discussed yesterday, exercises like this force one to look at their toolbox and figure out how to make a hammer perform like a screwdriver, or, vice versa. Against the advantage in reach offered by a bayonet, one must adapt to handle that; against the lighter, faster, and more nimble smallsword larger actions and those to deeper target are dangerous, and so to achieve either option one must plan well or be hit.

I do not yet have a smarra, but I have an Italian epee that will perform the job until I do, and I may pair that with an off-hand dagger. I have not explored off-hand options with these students yet, and we have a lot to choose from, from cape (one of my favorites since a jacket, towel, or blanket remain similarly useful today) to buckler to dagger. In each case, it’s important to note, much of what we are doing is examining how we use the fundamental science within sabre to tackle non-standard scenarios. It’s a good mental exercise, forces the student to consider those fundamentals from a different perspective, and it’s a ton of fun.

 

NOTES:

[1] The one I had in mind as I typed this up was Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing, first published in 1765. In the edition I have he treats the use of the smallsword against various nationalities of fencer, Spanish, German, and Italian, and against a variety of weapons and off-hand accessories, dagger, dark lantern, cloak. A few other works of note that deal with multiple weapons include Pierre Girard’s Traité des armes (1740), which likewise pits his student against various European foes and their “favorite” guards; Charles Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot, 2nd ed. 1798, includes directions for sabre or broadsword against smallsword, spadroon, and musket and bayonet; and Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), which includes defense against sword and dagger, buckler, rotella, and cape (an excellent English translation of this was made by Christopher A. Holzman in 2017 (available via LuLu Press).

[2] The English translation of C. F. Clay, originally published in 1900, was reprinted by Laureate Press in 1998. It was first published, in French, in 1862, and then again in 1875.

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