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.

Masks within Masks

Attempting to reenter the world—safely—during a pandemic is nerve-wracking. Unlikespanish_flu_seattle many former plagues, Covid-19 is stealthy: symptoms may appear anywhere in 5 to 14 days; it can appear like allergies or a more run-of-the-mill cold; and it can even hide, like the Danaans in their wooden horse, in people who never develop symptoms but spread it far and wide. Against an enemy so difficult to track it pays to be cautious. For those of us teaching fencing or anything else that requires close proximity, be it dance or BJJ, we must make every effort to keep our students and ourselves safe.

Few things are harder to give up than something we desperately want and which brings us joy. Sometimes, however, we must if only for a time. The jury is still out as to whether we should begin classes as we did pre-pandemic. I’m inclined to think this is a bad idea, at least here in the States, but individual lessons, of a type, are perhaps something we can do under certain provisions. To date, there are several steps we can take generally that will reduce the chance of catching and/or spreading the virus:

  • we work outside
  • we wear masks
  • we keep an appropriate distance
  • we reduce the length of lesson time

I have given two lessons this way so far, and it’s interesting what works, what doesn’t work so well, and what effects these changes in approach can have on the body. 

What Went Well

Hand PositionsParallel drilling works well and easily abides the social-distancing protocols. Yesterday after stretching we started with molinelli. I had this student add a few additional molinelli to the three I started with him (I normally have students begin with a) a fendente from the left to the head from point in line, hand in second, moving through prima; b) with hand in fourth, point in line, an ascending cut to the flank moving through sesta; and c) from point in line, hand back in second, a cut to the left cheek moving through quinta). I also introduced him to the scarto, that is, to shifting the trunk back and forth as one parries/chambers a cut and attacks. It allows one to fine-tune and play with distance, can provide a few more inches of defensive space, and it can feed the cutting dynamic with a little extra oomph.

Next, we ran through a few footwork drills. We started in parallel, just advancing, retreating, and lunging. Then, together, I pushed him back and forth from just out of distance; his job was to maintain that distance. While out of measure, this still works distance and one’s sensitivity to it. Ideal? No, but useful, yes.

The rest of the lesson focused on progressively more complex actions to the forward target. This prevented us from getting too close while still allowing us to work on something of worth. The first was a simple stop-cut drill, e.g. I advance, expose the inside, outside, top, or bottom of the wrist, student strikes to that line and returns to guard. Next, on occasion I would cut after he made the touch to encourage him to cover himself after the cut. Third, I would parry some of the stop-cuts or arrests, riposte, he would parry, then riposte in turn.

What Didn’t go so Well

For more experienced students the footwork we normally warm up with is not enough to push them or have them hone that footwork for tactical situations. Advance, retreat, lunge, passing steps, etc. are important to drill, but on their own only do so much. I may be able to bring a pell out, but this will require working at my home, a choice perhaps less ideal during the pandemic (my pell, such as it is, is an old Wavemaster with additional padding on top and an old, heavy canvas jacket around it). One useful alternative is a softball trainer, the sort of long wand with a ball on the end, but this is a much more restricted target. It is, however, far more portable.

Molinelli too, while a great exercise and one we should all do, suffers withoutMasiello Unmounted XIX application. I include them in warm-up to prime us for more activity, but without the ability to get into distance we lose the opportunity to drill these offensively and defensively. My student today is at a stage where he would benefit from this, but it will have to wait.

Without closer proximity much of what we normally cover is just off the menu for now.

Effects of the Changes

Apart from being hobbled in what we can drill and cover in lessons, the single greatest change has been arm fatigue. Both instructor and student have the arm a bit more extended for longer periods of time working the forward target. Even in terza/third this can be tiring (the Italian third is taken with the arm farther forward). With Olympic weight sabres this is less onerous, but with period weight blades it begins to tell much more quickly.

The answer in both lessons was more frequent breaks. These afford a chance to discuss what we’re covering in more depth, so more breaks aren’t necessarily bad, but it’s not ideal either. As we acclimate to the weight we’ll be able to manage longer exchanges, but day one was proof that we’re rusty and our muscles used to quarantine idleness. So far, we have not taken most exchanges beyond three or four actions. While perhaps closer to how we actually bout, longer phrases are medicine for the hand. We drill in more complexity, strive to improve so that in the simpler actions in a bout we are cleaner, our eye sharper, responses crisper. One positive aspect to this extended target, however, is that focus on the advanced target is more in keeping with the conservatism that should be present in any bout. As I often point out, in surviving footage of duels most opponents seem particularly keen to stay just out of measure. [1]

Looking Ahead

The most common complaint about drill is that it’s boring. If that is all we have, then I agree. We drill as a means to an end, so when it feels like the goal, like it’s all we do, it’s a lot easier for boredom to creep in. It’s boring for me too. Varying lessons while maintaining appropriate distance for health is difficult, but there are ways to jazz it up.

Bayonet En GaurdeI have some less standard material I plan to employ to help. I’m still brainstorming these, but as one example bayonet drill may afford some diversion. As a pole-arm, rifle and bayonet keep us a little further away. Even if I am the only one with the bayonet and the student is defending with a sabre, the distance will remain a little farther out. This means that some of the more fun, crowd-pleasing options are out, for now, but that is not wasted training. While the bayonet may be less often employed in today’s military, it’s extremely useful technique to have in one’s toolbox. [2]

Safety First 

Safety is, and always should be, our top priority. It’s inherent in the very term “fencing,” which derives of course from “defence,” so an added layer of protocol, while annoying, is not so great a step. Face masks under the mask are annoying, but no more so than a pair of glasses (my poor student today has to wear glasses and a face mask, and he does fine). Whinging to the contrary, one can breathe in a face-mask well enough too.

My town, obscure as it is, has had a rise in cases this week, so it is difficult if not impossible to determine how things will look in a week let alone in a month. We cannot fence on a respirator or if dead, so… hard as it may be, financial blow though it be, put your health and that of your students’ first. If you’re potentially ill, if a student is, cancel and postpone. At some point we will be able to fence again, but only if we ensure that we make it through Covid-19, so, be smart, stay healthy.

 

NOTES:

[1] Youtube has a number of early 20th century duels, mostly epee/spada, as well as the performance piece from the 1967 between Serge Lifar and the Marquis de Cuevas, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e68nuAcSuWQ. Other, more instructive examples, may be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7_ia1UodkI&list=PLMMzUA30gYjhm2faYLiI8w1ViqSv3FLmC

 

[2] The nature of modern warfare has no doubt reduced the need and use for a bayonet, but a number of militaries still teach the rudiments of this important skill. One does, after all, run out of ammunition or find oneself in situations where striking with the rifle butt or stabbing with a bayonet may be necessary. I can’t speak to this myself, but my father and his father related to me how important they found it in combat. Even in Vietnam, my father’s war, he had recourse to it. For civilians, bayonet drill is perhaps the simplest staff/pole-arm to learn and though we don’t walk about with rifles, one never knows when that mop handle, cane, umbrella, or broom may be the only thing between one and an assailant.

 

PHOTOS: to the best of my knowledge these are free to use.

First Image: “Stewart and Holmes Wholesale Drug Co. employees on 3rd Avenue during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic” (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, SOC0394) via https://crosscut.com/2020/03/coronavirus-how-seattle-handled-spanish-flu

Second Image: this image of the primary hand positions (as opposed to invitations/parries with the blade) is widely used, including within published works, but I’m uncertain as yet of its first appearance.

Third Image: this is plate XIX from Cav. Ferdinando Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, Firenze, G. Civelli Establishment, Editor, 1891, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2015, p. 52.

Fourth Image: this is Fig. 9, page 34, “Position de la garde et engagement,” from Jean Jules Gaston, Manuel d’escrime à la Baïonnette, Berger-Levrault & Cie, 1910. A pdf may be found here: https://www.ffamhe.fr/collectionpalas/Jean_Jules_Gaston.pdf