SabreSlash 2022, October 1-2

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, Partners in Fencing

This weekend our sister-school, Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, based in beautiful Prague, Czechia, will host its annual event: SabreSlash! Day one consists of classes; day two presents a cutting event, the Zabłocki Sabre Tournament, and the highlight of the day, the Moustache Challenge, easily one of the more difficult historical fencing contests.

This year Michael Kňažko of Barbasetti Military Sabre is joined by another close friend, the excellent Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA). Patrick will be exploring Radaellian actions on the blade. They are joined by several other instructors, including Maestro Leonid Křížek (CZ), and Leonardo Britto Germoglio (D). Here is the full program:

SabreSlash 2022 program:

Saturday, October 1st
– ”Actions on the blade in Radaellian sabre”, workshop led by Patrick Bratton, Sala Della Spada, Carlisle, PA, USA.

– “Akademische Fechten”, workshop led by Leonardo Britto Germoglio, Germany.

– “Molinelli in Barbasetti sabre”, workshop led by Leonid Křížek, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

– “Sciabola in Mano, controlled and conserved strength for cuts and thrusts”, workshop led by Michael Kňažko, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

Sunday, October 2nd
– “SabreSlashing with light sabres”, test-cutting workshop 😊

– “SabreSlash Moustache Challenge”. All gentlemen are encouraged to attend the event wearing a fully grown Ferdinando Masiello style moustache. The wearer of the most classical moustache will be awarded a very special prize.

– „ Zabłocki Sabre 2022“. The biggest Barbasetti sabre fencing tournament since the legendary 1895 Prague military fencing tournament organized by k.u.k lieutenant Dominik Riegel. The winner of the tournament will receive a brand new Swordsmithy practice sabre.

[cf. https://www.facebook.com/events/415973570345249/?ref=newsfeed]

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895

Curriculum Building & Teaching via the Universals

In an earlier post [9 Aug. 2022] I covered recursive cycles of instruction as one approach to curriculum building. Implicit in this schema, and hopefully in any methodology, is the central place of the universal principles, that is, those elements that underpin all hand-to-hand fighting. [1] While many works touch on these vital concepts, it can be difficult to find discussion of them in one place.

This post will attempt to sketch the salient points of one list of universals. [2] Lists vary, but most include the following:

  • measure or distance
  • tempo
  • judgment

To these I’d like to add several that Maitre Robert Handelman includes:

  • speed
  • initiative
  • tradecraft [3]

Measure or distance is the area of play, the space between two fencers. Typically this is divided into pedagogically useful segments. In Fiore’s armizare, and even in many later Italian works (Marcelli for example), the divisions may be largo and stretto, wide and close. Early modern sources down to today tend to divide the space between two fencers into three: out of measure (where neither opponent can hit one another); in measure (where one can lunge to target); and close measure (where either opponent need only extend the arm to reach target). There are variations by master, further refinements, but these three serve well.

Tempo is perhaps best defined as the time of a single simple fencing action. So, an advance, the extension of the arm, a beat, all of these equal one tempo. Simple and compound attacks, for example, are separated by the number of actions and thus the tempi in which they happen. A direct thrust on a lunge is one tempo; a feint-disengage is two tempi (feint + disengage/thrust = 2).*

Judgement, or decision, is the faculty by which we decide when to attack, from where, and how. We develop this through trial and error, over time, and improve as we grow in skill.

Speed is different than tempo, though they’re related. It’s helpful to think of speed as how fast or slow an action is or is made. We often refer to manipulating tempo, such as a compound attack that is slow-slow-fast, or, slow-fast-slow, etc. Strictly speaking, this is manipulating how fast or slow we make an action. It’s subtle, a bit hair-splitting perhaps, but to illustrate this imagine someone making a thrust on an advance, but then as soon as the opponent parries doubling the speed of the disengage and lunge to target. Speed also refers to reaction time, how fast we respond to stimulus. Like measure, we can break speed down into maximum, necessary (what speed is required to make an action), and slow.

Initiative refers to who starts an action, who moves first, and it can be defensive or offensive. In certain types of lessons we also talk about “student initiated” versus “instructor initiated” actions; this much like “Agent” and “Patient” in some historical fencing circles.

Tradecraft refers to the various ways in which we use rules, psychology, and bluster or bluff to outwit opponents, and importantly, officials. The most successful tournament fighters, whatever branch of the Art they pursue, typically “play” to the director and judges as much as anything else. This requires a good grasp of the rule-set and especially how those rules are viewed and enforced.

Historically speaking, tradecraft describes the gathering and exploitation of intelligence gleaned from interacting and/or observing an opponent. Sizing up an opponent, making probing actions to see what they do, how they react, all are part of tradecraft. It can be as simple as the early modern categories some masters used to describe types of fencers, from the reckless to the timid combatant, from the phlegmatic to the composed fencer, from the large, tall fighter to the smaller, shorter one. [4]

The many springs which flow from the font of these universals are too vast to cover, but for one, easy example the extension of the arm and weapon before the body illustrates well how general principles relate specifically to technique and tactics, even position.

  • The common guard that has the lead foot forward, body slightly forward, weapon arm leading attempts a compromise between safety (distance from the opponent) and target (reach to target).
  • The weapon and hand/arm lead the attack because this continues the compromise to the degree possible: the sharp thing races toward the opponent, something they should be thinking very hard about, while exposing as little of the attacker as one can
  • The positioning, method of extending the weapon, all make the best use of distance and tempo (tempo here, again, equally one fencing action)

Why the Universals are Important

Without meaning to court the exciting world of being “canceled,” if one is teaching or fencing without some intentional inclusion of the universals, then one is not really fencing. One might be fighting, sure, and maybe one has some success, but what makes the Art an art is not bravado, enthusiasm, physical attributes, speed, or luck. There is science involved, study, a set of principles and techniques that made this training worth one’s time back when it actually mattered, and, makes us more effective now.

Colpi di Vilano

Lest one think I’m making this up take a look at those sources from Fiore on that discuss fighting the untutored—the better masters knew this was possible if not likely and explained how to use the Art to counter the clod with a weapon. [5] I’ll be the first to admit that the attribute fighter full of confidence will collect a lot of medals, but success in a game is not the same thing as effective self-defense. We should be far more concerned with not being hit at all, and that means when we attack too.

The universals are important for a number of reasons. First, because these principles underpin any hand-to-hand combat system, they provide a vocabulary for understanding the sources and lessons which impart these systems. If your instructor stops you after an action and asks you about the measure just employed, or what action or actions one of you made; if they ask you why you chose a specific tactic over another; if they ask you to break down the action; they are discussing the universals as applied to what you’re learning. The universals, then, are behind every action and technique we tend to make, so it pays to know what they are.

Second, a solid grasp of these principles will “open up” or unpack a lot of sources. One can look at Meyer, Marcelli, Rossi; one can look at Jack Dempsey’s book on boxing; one can watch a lesson at BJJ dojo; one can watch some MMA match on television and analyze any one of them according to the universals. For the historical fencer the value of this knowledge can make all the difference in how effectively they’re using a source.

Lastly, a thorough grounding in the key concepts behind every action and tactic not only make it possible to take a student deeper into the Art, but also and as importantly help the instructor identify problem areas. How can we correct what we don’t understand? Moreover, the universals provide a nearly inexhaustible supply of lesson options.

How to Use the Universals in Lessons

There are different types of lessons, but no matter what type they are they should work from the universals. Warm up, teaching, option, and bouting lessons all work from the core principles. [6] Here I’d like to focus on option lessons, that is, having a student use material they know in different situations and set-ups. Generally, one is not introducing new concepts or techniques in an options lesson, but exploring that which the student already knows and/or does well.

The simplest way to create options for the student is to start with the universals. By varying what we do with these we help the student develop wider and more sophisticated applications of particular actions. As an example, the simple feint mentioned earlier, can be changed in myriad ways:

Ex. 1: Smallsword/Spada/Foil

Simple Feint (feint-thrust, disengage and thrust to target):

Measure:
–in measure (the student can reach target with a lunge
–out of measure (the student must advance or redouble to reach target with a lunge)
–close measure (the student can extend the arm to target)

Speed:
–attack executed at necessary speed
–attack executed with a fast feint, slow disengage/thrust
–attack execute with a slow feint, fast disengage/thrust

Initiative:
–instructor provides cue for student to begin action
–student provides cue for beginning action

Roles:
–instructor is defender, student attacker
–student is defender, instructor attacker
–both I and S can attack, a question of who sees the opportunity first

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           warm-up

direct thrusts from standing; lunging; with an advance; on the march; parry-riposte inside high and low/outside high and low

15-20 min.       OptionL:           working simple feints

Feint direct (inside/outside line)—student lands touch
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feint direct (outside/inside line)—Inst. parries; S p&r
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feints on the March
–Instr. provides cue, e.g. raising weapon from 8 to 6
–S. picks moment to attack (should look for neg. bal.)

Feints with Change of Tempo
–S. uses feet
–S. uses varies weapon’s movement

5-10 min.         Cool Down

Instr. attacks with open line, S makes arrest
–top of arm
–inside of arm
–outside of arm
–under the arm/wrist

This is just a quick sketch of one way to do this. The student and instructor could switch roles; they could each be confined to responses in a particular tempo; the Instr. or S., depending on skill level of the S, might introduce random actions in the midst of the topic. So long as these choices are made with the universal principles in mind, it is hard to go too far wrong.

Ex. 2: Fiore, Sword in Two Hands, from Punta Spada [7]

First Master of Longsword

Measure:
largo [wide]
stretto [close]
–passing steps into measure
–using accrescimenti to advance into measure

Tempo: 
–one tempo [thrust to face]
–two tempi [cut over to head or arms]

Speed:
–necessary speed
–slow-fast [slow step into measure; quick strike]
–fast-slow [quick step into measure; cut-over]

Initiative:        
–Instructor provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords
–Student provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           Warm Up

7 Strikes of Segno; Meyer Square
–solo, in air or against pell
–with partner who adopts opposing posta
–from standing; with passing step

15-20 min.       OptionsL:          Working from the Bind in Longsword

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st master L gioco largo)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S thrusts to face
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st scholar 1st Mstr)
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with cut over to head or arms
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada (2nd master of L g.l.)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S drops sword to cuts hands (1st sch 2nd mstr)
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with thrust to the chest
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S steps in, grabs point and cuts to the face (2nd sch 2nd mstr) [8]        

To make this more dynamic, one can have the student initiate the action; the student could add a defensive response; at close of lesson, the student must select the appropriate action based on sword placement, measure, and pressure on the blade, all of which the instructor changes at random.

Nuts & Bolts

The examples above hopefully illustrate the basic method. Armed with a grasp of the universals, and assuming decent familiarity with the subject, the instructor can select an action, class of actions, or actions and responses to create lessons that explore whatever the topic is beyond its simplest expression. One can scale up or down using the universals to create different permutations, all of which incorporate the basic action, be it a feint, working from a bind, or using the head and tail of a pole-axe. [9] Changing measure, tempo, speed, or initiative allow what is too often a limited action to became far more useful. Because such lessons build up from solid fundamentals, they not only help a student drill those elementary, foundational actions, but also teach them how to expand what is possible with them.

None of this, however, is easy, especially if one wasn’t taught this way. Like anything, though, it’s a question of putting in the time, taking lessons from someone who can impart these concepts, and then going through the sometimes clumsy process of making it all work in class. Each student is different, so flexibility is important too.

Curriculum Considerations & the Universals

Devising a curriculum requires sufficient subject knowledge, teaching skill, and experience enough to know where the progression of lessons should lead. Historical fencing, because it is (ostensibly) source-based and not just learned on-the-job, adds an additional layer of challenge. Often what clubs do is start on page one and proceed through a source start to finish. That can work, and some of our texts are set up to do that, but some are not organized the way we normally organize things now. Mnemonic verse, interleaving actions and options through masters, scholars, and remedy masters as Fiore does; incomplete works, notes, or outlines; difficult language, poor preservation, and obscure analogies or references all work against us. I’ve stated before that modern fencing vocabulary, while dangerous to apply one-to-one to many ancient works, nonetheless gives us a way to talk about these things. For example, I’ve described the action that  Fiore’s first scholar of the first longsword master makes as a cut-over; it is not made the same way one is in smallsword, sabre, or rapier, but if one knows what a cut-over is—moving from one side of the blade or engagement on that blade to the other by bringing the sword over the opposing steel—then it helps one figure out what to do. The differences are crucial—from punta spada I should not make that cut-over if the opponent is not pressing against my blade: I should thrust through and thus maintain opposition reducing the chance I get hit as I attack. In smallsword there are similar considerations, but I’m not worried about a cut, so the mechanics, the angles of a cut-over are different.

From Amazon (not making this shit up)

If new to the universals in a formal way, start small, start slow. Take a simple action or basic play and analyze the ways measure, tempo, or speed play into it. Even changing one thing will add to your student’s toolbox. From experience I know that it gets easier to devise lessons along these lines with practice, and to be candid, with failure. We have to give ourselves room to screw up or we will never advance. I’m not a fan (at. all.) of trite maxims, the sort best left to decorate the walls of some Trimalchian pilates trophy spouse’s home studio—life is hard, often cruel, a constant attempt not to drown in disappointment: the only way through it is to do what we do in a bout, to fight on regardless of the outcome. So, if using the universals doesn’t go well at first, break down what happened, adapt, and try again. It will deepen not only appreciation for the intricacies and beautiful variety within the Art, but also make us better instructors.

NOTES:

[1] With a grand statement like this one might easily take issue, but there is some consensus in the martial arts community’s research side that there are universal principles to hand to hand combat. Humans can only move so many ways, weapons can only be used in so many ways, and given these limitations and the typical contexts in which people fight hand to hand they tend to arrive at similar conclusions. See for example, Wojciech J. Cynarski, Martial Arts & Combat Sports: Towards the General Theory of Fighting Arts, The Lykeion Library Series, Vol. 25, Gdansk, PL: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Katedra, 2019.

[2] Many early modern and modern works on fencing discuss theory, variously defined, as well as technique. Where the universal principles are not mentioned, however, they are normally implied. One difficulty is that the community’s understanding and expression of theory has changed over time. The best interpretation of Fiore’s cutting mechanics for longsword I’ve yet seen seeks to project the weapon out quickly, efficiently, and with force—at its simplest, to make a mandritto fendente (downward blow from the right) from posta di donna, one drops the hands to chest height and out to target. Fiore doesn’t explain why—he assumes the reader knows. For a more explicit example, George Silver’s “true times” clearly list the chief considerations around measure, tempo, speed, and initiative and judgment.

[3] See Robert Handelman and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Patinando Press, 2014

[4] For a prime example, seeFrancesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019, 63-79.

[5] Fiore, in the 4th scholar of the Second Master of Longsword, Wide Plays (Getty MS), discusses the Colpi di Villano, “Peasant’s Strike.” Cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/getty_th_longsword2.html

[6] This division of lessons types is modern, and not all concern each branch of fencing the same way, but the divisions remain useful for teaching.

[7-8] Unfortunately the most recent editions of Fiore’s surviving copies, published by Freelance Press, are expensive. Eric Miller, whom I met at Mike Cherba’s club (Northwest Armizare), put together a very handy app for Fiore. See http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html [9] I’ve only dabbled in pole-axe, chiefly via Fiore’s corpus and the late 15th century Burgundian work, Le Jeu de la Hache. For the latter, see Olivier Dupuis and Vincent Deluz, “Le Jeu de la Hache,” A Critical edition and dating discussion,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5: 1 (2017): 3-62. In fact, the very first portion the author of the this work lays out an option lesson for the tour de bras, folio 3r, Rubric 2, Section 4, 2.1 ff.

One Method for Curriculum Building in Fencing

Among the many challenges we face as instructors is how to organize lessons and classes, what to emphasize when and how best to accomplish that. What follows here is not new, nor is it any invention of mine; this is just how I conceive of a well-known process and one possible way we can use this approach to teach historical fencing. I refer to it as the “recursive model,” because each lesson incorporates key elements of the one preceding it. [1]

Rotae/Wheels

I’m intensely visual as a learner and so tend to chart a lot on a white board and paper. I like to be able to see ahead and see how things interconnect; it can be especially useful when managing both the micro- and macro-views of a topic, say something as finite as an individual technique and each part which comprises it as well as something as large as a series of classes which explore that technique in different ways. One method to capture this visually is with intersecting circles.

As I’ve worked with these I referred to them as “circles,” “rounds,” or rotae, but whatever the terminology the idea is that each circle represents say a new lesson that also returns to core material from the previous lesson. [2] This reinforces what students learn by repeating core actions and ideas, but at the same time increases the awareness of how everything works together. It’s also a great way to build or plan ready-made drills. All of it is scalable—it works for a technique or action, say the lunge, as well as a system, such as Girard’s approach to smallsword. One lesson rolls naturally into the other, and builds off what one has covered previously, so we increase complexity as we proceed. In a glance we have a model in which we can shift elements of a lesson, examine the interval between those examinations, and isolate individual themes actions, plays, or techniques to cover.

In my last post I discussed smallsword as a “gate-way drug” for historical fencing—that class is an experiment in using this approach in a formal way. For example, here are my initial notes for this class for the first three sessions, each an hour long:

First Three Lessons example*

In the first, we cover moving from first position into the en garde position; the extension of the weapon from guard, the guards/parries of tierce and carte; we then cover the advance, retreat, lunge and recovery out of the lunge (backward initially). Offensively I start with the glide in tierce. Each of these we can depict in the round as well, most especially those maneuvers like stepping into guard or the lunge which involve multiple steps:

Use of Rota to Breakdown the Lunge**

If one looks at the second circle (in green), one will notice that some of the first lesson (in black) starts that session off; it’s followed by the logical steps that proceed from that first lesson. Thus, in green ink, we see the “glizade” or glide in 3rd and the glide in 4th; moving from the outside to the inside engagement means covering the disengage. Students drill these attacks with special focus on the point landing before the front foot; the lesson portion concludes with teaching the basic defense against these glides (stepping back and taking tierce or carte) and reemphasizing the importance of closing the line.

Each new lesson incorporates review of the critical actions necessary to take on new material. However, if a class is struggling, then it’s easy to stop, work the same material from the previous lesson, and try the new material again in the next class. Thus, if in the third lesson (red) students are struggling to make the feint by glide in third, one can have them drill the glide in third minus the feint. Perhaps have them work on tight disengages, then the glide; time permitting, I have them advance lunge the glide. This will help them hone the necessary skills to start working on the feint.

How this Works

There are a few important considerations in using this method. First, the instructor must have a decent command of the material or they cannot delineate what is fundamental, what composite. If new to the material, then sitting down with the source and organizing it is the first step; this recursive rota approach can help one do that. Perhaps in reading the source one notices that the author covers movement first, then defense, then offense in increasing complexity. If one outlines each of those areas, what are the first things the author covers in each section? What cross-over is there between them? One will notice, for example, that the first attack likely starts from a position of defense covered in the second theme and uses movement from the first. Taking the initial steps in each section—movement, defense, and offense—is not a bad way to start a first lesson; at the very least it’s a decent goal to set for it as it will mean covering fundamental actions and thinking required for that system.

Second, the instructor must have at least an approximate sense of how difficult each new element typically is for new students, that is, how easily or not they can acquire a given skill. The advance and retreat, for example, are generally something students get quickly; there will be refinements to make to them, but the basic concept of stepping forward and backward one foot following the other shouldn’t be a major hurdle, but the feint-1-2 might be a lot harder as it will require coordinating hand, feet, and eye. The sequence within each circle should proceed from simple to more complex—this is not only easier to teach and to learn, but helps students see more effectively what each technique, action, or concept involves.

Third, and related to the second point, the instructor must know how to assess problem areas and be willing to stop a lesson and focus on those When necessary. This can be done without haranguing a class or student; it can be as simple as noticing they’re really struggling to extend first and deciding to make that the focus for the day. Depending on the class, one can ask them directly if they’re struggling as well—this tends to be safer with adults than with children. For example, the advance is simple, but there are common problems one must be on the lookout for and correct, such as not pointing the front foot towards the front. Critical as it is to point the foot, correcting it doesn’t require shutting down all footwork until they point their feet—students should continue to work on footwork, drill, but the instructor will make corrections as they do so. It doesn’t have to be perfect to start—it just needs to work effectively enough. As students grow in comfort and stability,  the instructor can make adjustments as necessary. If on the other hand no one is extending the arm before they lunge, then it is critical to correct that before moving to the glide or they’ll develop a dangerous habit that will affect their entire game.

Rotae and Recursive Learning as Continuing Program

Depending on one’s source material one may run through the circles in short time. It’s important to note too that going through some of the same material more than once is not only an option, but recommended. Using Girard as an example, one might get through most of his program in a few months (assuming say a few lessons a week and students who are dedicated). Fencing, any fencing, is about practice, drill, using the system; it’s not go through it once and done.

After an initial run through Girard’s system one might return to specific elements, say his section on beats. The choice comes down to a number of considerations. After one run through the circles, the instructor may notice areas the students are weak or where they struggled—that might be an ideal place to start for the second run through the circles. Once the students have acquired some familiarity and enough skill, it’s possible to mix up some of the circles, use them out of order, so that things stay “fresh.”

Girard, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1740)

With some manuals, going through them the same way again and again will get old fast; boredom is the bane of learning (and teaching), so mixing things up, throwing in something different, can help. Returning to Girard, maybe peppering the lessons with attention to his sections on weapon-seizures or facing different weapons or national/ethnic guards will add a little “pop” and interest. For more advanced students, comparative analysis of Girard’s advice for facing a broadsword fencer or odd farm weapons with that of another master can be both fun and an effective way to widen and deepen their understanding of smallsword.

D. Angelo, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1763/1787)

Multae Viae

There are many ways to learn, and instructors should use what works best for them and for their students. The recursive model is simply one method and one I find works well for teaching fencing. Most of us, I suspect, use a variety of methods; we adapt for different types of students, different contexts. Our goal as instructors is to share a body of knowledge and technique, to pass it on, and whatever helps us achieve that has merit.

NOTES:

[1] Online searching comes down to the terms we use, and I have to guess that I’m just not using the correct ones as I can’t find a formal name for the process I describe in this post. “Recursive learning,” “education,” and “model” all bring up a lot on machine languages and programming; I had much the same problem with the terms “reinforcement learning,” “rota learning method,” and similar iterations. A wider search for “curriculum design” or “styles” was likewise unhelpful. SO, if someone reading this knows what this approach is called, please let me know.

[2] Traditional fencing lessons work this way, at least they should. Students acquire new skills over time, but much of the lesson will incorporate or drill what they already know.

* My chicken-scratch is infamous, so here is a transliteration:
–1. Black Circle: starting with 1st position, en garde, extension, guards/parries 3 and 4; movement: the advance, retreat, lunge, recovery out of the lunge; concept of opposition; glide in 3rd and defense
–2. Green Circle: starting with review of 1st position and the en garde, guards 3 and 4, and opposition from first lesson; then the glide in 3rd, in 4th, and the disengage; importance of weapon-arm-foot; importance of recovering behind the point
–3. Red Circle: review of 1st. pos. and en garde, guards 3,4, glides in 3/4; feint by glide in 3rd and 4th; flanconade; parry 2; drills building off of Fencer A makes feint by glide to outside line; Fencer B parries 3; Fencer A disengages, thrusts in 4th with opposition–> Fencer B receives the touch; then, same set-up, but Fencer B parries 4th and ripostes by flanconade [this sets up a future lesson were Fencer A will parry in 2nd]

**Key Components of the Lunge viewed as Depicted via Rota:
–starting from 1st position; front foot extends out about two shoe lengths or so (Fr. deux semelles); position of arms; bending the knees; weight on back leg traditionally, but today often equi-weighted; balance and stability the goal so that en garde facilitates an explosive lunge; head position; importance of relaxing the shoulders; where to point the weapon; guard of tierce/3rd

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: 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

Who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?

She ordered Charles to have the horses put to. Holst understood this, which was said in French, and begged her for the love of God not to set out; he had orders not to let her depart. “You,” said she, in a somewhat haughty tone, “who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?” He said he had no written order, but by word of mouth, and that his governor would soon arrive…

From Memoirs of Leonora Christina, Daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, Written during her Imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen, 1663-1685, translated by F. E. Bunnett, London, UK: Henry S. King & Co., 1872) [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38128/38128.txt]

Last week I had a chance to discuss the Radaellian school of sabre with a distant colleague in Germany, Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani, on his channel Razmafzar TV. There is one topic we didn’t discuss in detail, and which in part I dreaded despite its importance, but which I shall try to address more fully here. This is the place of Italian sabre in “HEMA” and one of the major challenges within it. [1] Late period Italian “HEMA” is an archipelago of tiny islands scattered so widely that they are a related island chain in theory only.

There are several reasons for this. On the surface, and understandable, is the fact of geography. When pockets of interest are separated by miles, countries, and oceans naturally it’s hard for the inhabitants of these islands to visit one another. Beyond that, however, there is a less obvious reasons for division. There is an unfortunate cliquishness born of both a lack of familiarity with other, related groups, and some variance in concepts of authority.

When possible I prefer to build rather than burn bridges, and because I’ve met few of the people in the field in person, I can’t know how they will react. How one appears online is not a sure guide. The internet is notorious for skewing intent and meaning. It is not my wish to call anyone out or set fire to yet another bridge, but only to call out the elephant in the room. My sense, knowing what I do know about the inhabitants of some of these islands, is that they may take umbrage with someone they consider an unknown, an upstart daring to discuss topics which they believe belong only to them. If any do, then they do, and I can only hope they reach out to me to discuss it.

Cliques writ Large

“Mean Girls,” 2004

People, being social (least most of them—we introverts unite, separately, in our homes…), tend to congregate around those they identify with, who share their interests, and in some degree who provide some measure of external validation. These benefits of association are intensified when the group in question, for whatever reason, is actively under siege or feels as if they are. How one responds to attack, or the perception of one, varies. Some seek to adapt in hopes of crossing whatever barrier exists between themselves and the clique. Others seek to undermine that clique, to besiege the besiegers as it were. Still others solidify their own position and contend with their rivals as best they can. Some leave the contest all together.

Cliques writ Small

For my part, I lament the reality of the cliques I see within the conglomeration of Italian schools. We’re few enough as it is. No one in HEMA balks at mention of Fiore, Marozzo, or Giganti—to name only three popular Italian masters studied in historical fencing—but bring up Radaelli, Masiello, or Pecoraro and Pessina and suddenly one is categorized as “other.” The kinder sort relegate one to “classical” fencing (never well-defined); the nastier sort lump one in with the modern sport, HEMA’s favorite bugbear. I recognize, thanks to age and experience, the ways in which some of this is natural, but as a life-long student what I notice most acutely is that all of us lose more than we gain in maintaining these boundaries. Sad as it is to be the red-headed step-child in the larger community, it’s sadder that those who should be natural allies, our fellow late-Italian enthusiasts, should follow suit and treat their family members as poorly.

Outside geography and isolation, the hard lines seem to fall along the fault-lines of notions of authority and recognition. For example, those who have worked hard to obtain certifications sometimes believe that anyone who has not is, by definition, unqualified or certainly less qualified than they are to expound upon that subject. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it needs adjustment: in “HEMA” certifications within modern traditions, while valuable, do not grant automatic authority for past systems, not even to those extinct branches which created one’s own.

While definitions of authority are often shared between cliques, there are often operating differences that work to demarcate one group from another. Credibility is important, but it doesn’t belong exclusively to the provosts and masters. This is an especially important fact for anyone believing that they themselves are an authority, because one of the unwritten rules of expertise is responsibility to manage it appropriately, and, to recognize just what “authority” entails. What is it, specifically, that grants authority? Is it the organization that grants it? The piece of paper declaring it? Is it the internal ability and knowledge? Some combination?

Just as important, however, and far, far more difficult for many established or certified individuals, is recognizing expertise or skill outside such certification. It takes more than memorizing rules, definitions, and regurgitating them to recognize and honor other capable folks. There are people within the Italian orbit who have done significant, important work, and yet don’t warrant an invite to major conferences, teaching seminars, or invitational tournaments (no, I do not mean me). Why is this? It’s not lack of skill, because in print, video, and in person they have demonstrated not only their grasp of the pedagogical tradition, but also proven their ability to teach it and fight it. Professional jealousy and fear, both outgrowths of ego, likely explain this “ghosting.” If one has worked hard to obtain a certification, but has done so without the proper sense of humility such a course should entail, it’s easy to fear the person outside that system that might show one up.

To be fair, comparatively speaking there are many masters and provosts in the Italian branch of “HEMA,” both from and in Italy as well as outside it, who are keen to work with lots of people, not just other masters. There are, however, some notable exceptions in North America who appear not to want to work with others save on their own terms. However much they believe they are guarding their sacred, occult tradition, the inability or unwillingness to provide more than that when it is readily available is a sure-fire way to sink a program. It leads to stagnation, cultic adherence to received learning as one learned it, and unless students of that program can hold their own against others, as fencers, teachers, or scholars, that program is going to atrophy. Certification programs should include the necessarily flexibility to adapt and adopt new ideas and approaches when those novel ideas might improve the course.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” 1938–in this scene Little John beats Robin and worries that the famous outlaw will be upset. Robin replies “On the contrary, I love a man who can best me.”

True confidence, true ability, recognizes that students can benefit from such experts, even if they are not card-carrying maestri. Not to enlist the aid of such people when the goal is learning and improvement is horribly short-sighted and limits one’s own program. It’s narrow-minded, the worst sort of conceit. It takes a degree of mental toughness to acknowledge an expert, let alone invite one in, but if one’s goal is learning, then this is the way it should be done. My model for this is the old-school model I learned as a graduate student in history: one doesn’t go to a school because it’s a “name school,” but instead applies to a person, to the people most qualified to guide one in one’s study. If they’re worth their repute, they will encourage one to see other experts too. That person might be at Turnpike Tech, not necessarily Oxford or the Sorbonne.

In an arena as varied and complex as historical martial arts it’s perhaps best to conceive of authority in the plural, as authorities, and recognize that while a master’s cert indicates significant training, that it’s not the only path. Patrick Bratton, in one of our chats, provided a few rubrics by which we might measure authority or credibility:

–can they teach effectively?

–are they a competent fencer in the system they are teaching?

–do they know the history/context and theory, AND can they effectively convey it to others?

Within these three broad categories are subsets of questions important to ask. In terms of teaching effectiveness, are they able to explain each technique, idea, or tactic in its most elemental specificity, from the position of the hand to the pressure exerted by control fingers, from the placement of the arm to the timing with which the technique is made in relation to the feet? Can they then incorporate that level of detail and build up? If they can, do they? There is a LOT of video out there, and so much of it is shared without any hint as to why. Teaching vids are some of the worst offenders in this regard. If one is sharing a teaching video, at least include what it is one is doing and why. With regard to fencing competency in the system in which they were certified, how adept are they? How often do they exercise and test this skill? Do they do so only with friends, or, do they venture out? When it comes to history and theory, how well do they know it, and, do they avail themselves of available resources?

Certification—What is it?

What the modern schools are supposed to teach is the current body of knowledge as handed down, and depending on rank, how to teach it. [2] This is as true of the USFCA as it is the Sonoma program. Masters emerging from either program should be able to teach anyone, at any level, and most importantly help train new teachers. What history they study, if they do, is generally minimal and/or tailored to the specific needs of their program. The USFCA, for example, is focused on the sport, not its development; the Sonoma program, which does cover some history, does so only within the confines of the work of their founder, Maestro William Gaugler. [3] What either program should provide is first an understanding of the universal principles in fencing, what Matire Robert Handelman refers to as “the elements of fencing.” [4] Second, they should impart technique and tactics, the first in fine-grained specificity, the second following logically from what it is possible to do with those techniques oneself, and, what one does when they’re used against one. Needless to say that all of the above must reflect the elements or universal principles. For the maestri, provosts, etc. who do study past systems, what gives them an edge is the fact that they are armed with a solid foundation in the application of the universals, technique, and tactics. It’s a lot easier to look at historical versions of this if one has a firm grasp on today’s systems.

Nothing in the purpose of modern fencing certification equates to expertise in historical fight systems. In fact, possession of the lanista’s rudis is not the only way, and in fact, might not be the best way. It depends on the person. There are other paths by which one may accrue both knowledge and skill. I will argue whenever I have the chance that everyone should take at least a year of foil or sabre, preferably in as traditional/classical as one can, before diving into HEMA, but beyond that I think it’s important to separate what one learns in becoming a provost or master today from what some certified teachers purport or suggest their sheepskin means.

A Challenge

For my colleagues within the late Italian sphere of fencing, especially those with the certifications of master or provost, I challenge you to reach beyond your clique; I challenge you to embrace discomfort and seek out those individuals who can best aid your students. Why pass up a good chance to improve your program? I challenge you to look beyond your certs and at what these individuals have to offer, humbly, without recourse to ego, fear, or envy. Put those aside, put what is best for your students first. It will be good for you too.

As a student myself, I seek out the best teachers I can, because I want to improve. My skill is never good enough for me; sure, it may be fair enough to impart basics to someone new, but for me myself the climb is eternal, the journey the point; it’s what I learn along the way more than it is any trophy, award, gift, or certification. The benchmarks we reach, such as certifications, signify key moments in study and growth, but are not destinations in and of themselves, least they ought not to be. [5] These honor my effort, and I appreciate them deeply, but I want to work with those who can best help me grow, certification or not.

NOTES:

[1] This is a topic I covered briefly in an earlier post, 22 March, 2021 “Italian Sabre & HEMA” https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/22/italian-sabre-hema/

[2] Ideally, any certification program, moniteur to master, is teaching one how to teach. This goes beyond watching and emulating, but down to actual discussion, instruction, and on-the-job training.

[3] Maestro Gaugler established a military masters’ program in San Jose, California, under the auspices of Italian programs like the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples and The Fencing Masters’ Preparatory Course at the National Institute of Physical Education, Rome. His works, A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology (1997), The History of Fencing (1998), and The Science of Fencing (1997), perhaps with the addition of his articles, comprise the course reading at the program’s new home at Sonoma State University. Gaugler’s books are important additions, late ones, to a venerable corpus, but no replacement for the original sources or classics like Szabo’s Fencing and the Master.

[4] See for example Maitre Rob Handleman and Maitre Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014, 308-312; see also Fencing Sabre: A Practical Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, 2010. The epee course I took in 2021, which is available in full via Fencing Metrics, takes the place of his book on epee. I’ve had the honor to take two courses with Maitre Handelman and he emphasizes over and over that everything we do, anything we teach, must emerge from the elements. The old masters would agree.

[5] My eldest son, when he completed his black belt, did so at a do jang with the right attitude. There is a poster hanging in the school that sums up what the students are meant to learn in acquiring that well-known symbol: a black belt means that they are now ready to start learning. I would suggest that our fencing certifications might be best viewed in a similar light.

A Short Discussion on Radaellian Sabre

Yesterday I once again had the pleasure to chat with Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani on Razmafzar TV. This time we discussed the sabre system of Giuseppe Radaelli (d. 1882) and its legacy. I was lucky to have Mike Cherba from Northwest Armizare present to help demonstrate some of the key features of the system. In part 1 of the interview we discuss Radaelli, the works on his system, and his period. Part 2, coming soon, will share the demonstration portion.

https://youtu.be/7V1BZBNBs6s

The Value of Historical Fencing for the Olympic Fencer

Two posts ago [31 Ja. 2022 “Further Tales in Continuing Education”] I outlined a few ways the historical fencer might benefit from Olympic fencing’s pedagogy, terminology, and their well-established use of the universals in most aspects of their approach. Here, I’d like to do the same for the Olympic fencer and suggest a few ways they might take advantage of the historical approach. [1]

This post will read differently from the previous one. It’s not that there’s nothing the Olympic fencer can learn from historical fencing, but that what they might learn is more theoretical than practical or tied to specific applications useful in their game. This isn’t to say that time spent on (the better) historical interpretations won’t improve an Olympic fencer’s understanding of technique, even their fencing, but to say that where modern understanding can help “unpack” the sources, the knowledge and practice that emerge from the sources will not help one earn ratings or trophies. The contexts are too different: the rules that govern the sport, while still tied in some ways to the logic of the sharp point, are divorced enough from the original purpose that between the rules and electrical scoring apparatus fighting “historically” will only lose one points. This is something I’ve covered often, too often probably, so for brevity this time I leave that discussion in a note. [2]

Historical Fencing’s Value for the Sport: The Short Answer

More than anything else the modern fencer spending time in historical fencing should gain increased appreciation for the sport. I say “should” because if the Olympic fencer spends time on “bad HEMA,” then they’ll likely experience the same revulsion they normally do. So, assuming they find decent interpretations sans tin-foil hat thinking they should return to the piste with more awareness of their own game. It’s genealogy in a way. It’s time spent looking through a family tree, seeing connections, and ultimately how one’s own story fits into the larger one.

Few modern fencers need be told how complex and sophisticated the Art is, how difficult to acquire and how much more difficult to use effectively (never mind gracefully). On the other hand, most may not fully appreciate how much more to fencing there has been historically, how varied the tools were, or how nimbly people developed weapons and systems for unique contexts. They may also learn how the three modern weapons happened to be the three that “survived” to form the modern sport. It’s easy to assume no other outcome was possible, but even within more recent history there are examples that remind us of this rich past and that modern foil, epee, and sabre might have included other, now extinct branches. [3]

There are also, under the umbrella of appreciation, more specific benefits the modern fencer might acquire as well.

Increased Insight into the Hows and Whys of Technique

Olympic fencers, more so than their cousins in historical, pay careful attention to technique, to the proper use of and positioning that makes an attack or parry succeed. From the first day of instruction this awareness is inculcated; it’s a key aspect of teaching one how to fence. A day-one fencer learns why the sword and hand move first, why the lead foot points straight ahead, and how far the blade needs to move to defend against attacks in various lines. Everything, from the distance the elbow should be from the body on guard to where the knee should be over the foot, is taught as a matter of course. Depending on the club, an instructor may not have much time to explain each aspect in depth, but they rarely teach without this high degree of specificity. Typically students receive instruction, work on it with the maestro or instructor, and then drill it with other students. The average fencer doesn’t need to know how a technique developed, only how to perform and use it effectively. That is the goal, after all, movement streamlined to achieve a specific goal. It’s really only if those students get into teaching that some sense of the development of technique is important, but even here the goal is not history but effective transmission of what students need now.

Del Frate, 1876

To illustrate this one can look at a modern method of taking parry five, the head parry, in sabre. Few students are taught sixth, seventh, or first as alternatives, only fifth. Of note, the blade is turned out toward the opponent, not up, the reason being that so turned one’s parry is more easily taken farther out and has a better chance of defeating whip-over. [4] The mid-century method I learned was closer to what it was at 1900, that is, the thumbnail faces down, the blade is angled up, and then turned slightly forward and out. Earlier Italian practice was farther out even than this.

The Olympic fencer doesn’t need to know why they take 5th the way they do, but if they take the time to examine how the head parry has developed over time they will come away with greater insight, not only into what they are learning, but also into the changes demanded by different weights and balances of weapons and how rulesets affect technique. As I often remind students, there is no Platonic ideal of a parry—we have a starting place, but exactly where we take that parry in a given bout can vary in actual practice. [5]

Improved Appreciation for the Role the Universals Play

ROW (“right of way”) revolves around universal principles of fight. As I’ve mentioned before, ROW assumes the same logic we apply in historical fencing, which is to say that the attack takes precedence. If a sharp blade is racing toward us we had best defend. The application across schools, styles, and forms of hand-to-hand fighting may vary, but this principle is always in play. The difference in Olympic is that so long as one has ROW nothing else matters (save in epee where there is no ROW). This means that being hit at nearly the same time or just after, or off-target in foil and sabre, doesn’t mean much. It’s not that the rules don’t govern these incidents too, because they do, but that one is not concerned about being hit, only that one hits with priority.

What historical fencing offers the Olympic fencer is a stricter view of this principle. Our rule is “don’t get hit.” Ever. Whether defending or, importantly in this instance, on the attack, the goal is not to be struck. It’s not enough to hit first or start first; one must land the attack and not get hit while doing so. This doctrinaire approach to universal principles is useful. The reason the weapon and arm move first, also necessary for establishing ROW, is that when the swords were sharp this was primary: we are safest behind that sharp point and threaten best when it moves first. This way the dangerous bits reach target faster and are more likely to get a reaction from the opponent. It’s efficient motion—none of it is superfluous. One benefit of weapon-first is reducing the degree we telegraph an action. Add nerves in the mix and efficiency becomes all the more important; it’s one reason why we drill simple actions over and over again.

The historical approach, because it doesn’t have ROW or off-target, means that it’s unforgiving. A hit is a hit unless passé or flat. Like it or not, much of competitive fencing is performance; sure skill and tactics are vital, but the most successful competitors also know how to play to the director, judges, and audience. It’s as true in “HEMA.” If an Olympic fencer applied the same logic we do in historical, imagine how much more strongly that drama might read. [6] Few things send a clear message to director and opponent like stop-cutting the opposition and then parrying and striking them a second time. Whipover aside it reads a certain way—it implies control, calm, confidence. If anything, given the horrific issue of whipover even to achieve such a close-out once is significant and worthy of note.

Greater Understanding of the Origins and Development of the Sport

Returning to the genealogy of fencing, the Olympic fencer spending time in the average HEMA group will likely feel incredibly grateful for all that the sport has to offer. I don’t wish to rail against the historical community, but it’s a patchwork of clubs, groups, and schools of varying quality, and only a handful of which are able to offer much in terms of solid teaching. Most Olympic fencers will find the “fight club” nature of HEMA off-putting, the lack of drill foreign, the misuse of sources bizarre, and the inconsistency in pedagogy rightly concerning. Most ills in HEMA derive from these problems.

The Olympic fencer seeing the positive aspects of historical fencing will view their own training with new appreciation and awareness. It’s that learning a second language vantage point. With luck—and I confess this is a selfish wish—that fencer may also come to see their ruleset with new eyes. There are logical inconsistencies that make zero sense, which might be solved easily, and which vested interest and inertia ignore. My favorite example is the fact one can score with the flat of the sabre—the Olympic fencer, concerned with ROW, seeks to get the steel on target with little thought to which part of the blade. Needless to say with a live blade striking flat isn’t going to do much and certainly isn’t going to render one’s opponent hors de combat. We have blades now that could easily solve this problem, something a few of us were advocating twenty years ago but lacked decent tools for, and the investment would be worth it. Castille’s 16mm, Darkwood’s sabre blade (provided Scott increases the width and thickness of the tip), and a few others are all light enough that they don’t require a body-builder to wield, are flexible enough to be safe in the thrust provided the usual safety equipment and control, and still allow for complex actions. The net gain is worth the risk or trying something new that is, actually, old 😉 [7]

Case Study: Circa 1900 sabre at 755g vs. Olympic Sabre at 325g

Ferdinando Masiello, 1887

For a specific example of this awareness, a modern sabreur who picks up a sabre with the weight and balance of period originals will find it heavy. Of the three surviving weapons sabre, oddly enough, is the lightest of the three. [8] If they attempt to play the game they do today with yesterday’s weapon they will quickly appreciate how much has changed.

Luigi Barbasetti, 1899/1936

Direct cuts are made much the same with either weight of weapon, but some of the ripostes will initially feel slow, large, and dangerous. The molinello we make from the head parries of 5th or 6th, to name one example, requires more elbow. Weight affects distance too. The feint thrust to the inside line, disengage and thrust or cut to the other line, is slightly slower with a heavier blade, so where one starts that feint must be correct; moving the weapon faster in a pinch won’t work like it does with the s2000. Weight and balance affect speed. A beat made from third, for instance, may displace the point from the line, but it might be easier for the opponent to replace that line too—this defeats the purpose of the beat and can make this maneuver dangerous. This is rarely an issue with the s2000.

Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

The nature of the blade changes things too. The fact one must hit with a cutting or stabbing portion of the blade with each blow will likely make an Olympic sabre fencer pause when trying to make a banderole cut the current way (flat). As nonsensical as it is with the s2000, seeing the wider flat of a 16 or 20mm sabre on target highlights how silly an idea it is. This same fencer will find the curve on copies of period sabres foreign too—modern sabre blades are all straight. This affects how one makes a point in line, how one targets a thrust, and how one makes certain actions on the blade.

Joseph Vince, 1940

Moreover, weapons built along historical lines can immediately explain some of the vestigial artifacts that survived into 20th century if not modern sabre. One reason we turn the hand out slightly in parrying third, which is still taught, is that it puts the edge out to receive the incoming steel. We have the elbow about a fist away from the body in Hungarian third/Italian terza bassa (low third) too. Why? The blade is best supported with one’s thumb behind it, and the forte on sabres wasn’t sharp—it was meant to block. So positioned, if the parry collapses, and depending on the weapon one is facing it can, then the arm is pushed directly into the body, but in a straight line and one that still, if all goes right, keeps one safe and keeps the edge aligned to riposte. A panic-parry made close to the body is possible with an historical blade; with the s2000 chances are high there will be whipover and one will receive a touch.

And, Lastly

Using copies of the weapons which originally informed the system one fences is fun. That’s reason enough to try it out and see how they play. Paired with a decent historical source—I list some on the site in both the “About Us” and “FAQ” pages—makes it all the more rewarding. It’s can be a slippery slope, though, so be warned. You might find you like it, and some of the best fencers I know have a one foot in Olympic, one in historical. It just means more fencing and when is that ever bad?

NOTES:

[1] As quick reminder, I use the term “Olympic” and less often “sport” as short-hand; I do not mean them pejoratively. These are descriptive terms and serve only to delineate their branch of the tree from historical. I’ve long been on record for the issues I have with the FIE’s handling of certain problems, and I stand by those complaints, but it’s important to clarify that one can take issue with rules and their interpretation and yet still value the culture those rules govern.

[2] The chief difference between Olympic and historical fencing is purpose. Though intimately related, the former seeks to score points, the latter not to be hit. Both, odd as it may seem, prioritize the initial offensive action, but they do so in different ways. In the sport, right of way (ROW for short), dictates that the first fencer to start an offensive action has “priority,” that is, will score unless the opponent successfully defends and ripostes or successfully attacks in tempo. If anyone is hit after that exchange, indeed if one is hit at nearly the same time, it doesn’t matter—the point goes to the person with ROW. This is meant to reflect the reality of the duel, and does in that one respect, but the lack of concern over near simultaneous strikes and “off-target” touches undercuts this reality significantly. Only in epee does a simultaneous attack automatically penalize both fencers.

In historical fencing, the priority of the attack is supposed to reflect the reality of a sharp point: if the point or edge is thrusting or arcing toward one, then prudence dictates one defend oneself lest one be (metaphorically) wounded or killed. Ideally, one makes that attack and is not hit on the way in, or, hit immediately afterward. There is no “off-target” in historical fencing.

On the face of it this understanding should have obvious appeal to the Olympic fencer, but however much it should help them the nature of their equipment is such that it doesn’t translate. For one example, the s2000 blade too easily wraps around defense to score, and while “one-light” touches happen, more often than not who struck first is determined by the box. It’s common for both fencers to be struck, and more likely in sabre since any portion of the blade, even the flat, may score.

[3] Victorian “HEMA,” such as the longsword and rapier work Alfred Hutton experimented with, is one such example (cf. his Old Swordplay: Techniques of the Great Masters, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001; see also Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Fencing: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century, Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003). The man behind the revival of the Olympic Games, first held in 1896, was a fencer and had written a book on mounted fencing (cf. Baron Pierre de Coubertin et Louis Pascaud, Traite d’escrime equestre, Auxerre, FR: 1906) The 1904 Olympics had single-stick and in 1908 there was “three-cornered sabre,” see Richard Cohen, By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 213). There were also oddities, such as the like longsword games constructed along the lines of Meyer, practiced by some of the Hitler Youth in World War II (see J. Christoph Amberger’s discussion, page 235ff, in The Secret History of the Sword, Burbank, CA: Unique Publications, 1998).

[4] Two posts ago I alluded to some differences in culture between historical and Olympic fencing that came up during a coaching clinic. One such example was the parry of 5th. During an exam, Maestra Connie Handelman asked me to demonstrate and explain 5th, which I did, and this started an interesting conversation about changes in the culture. I do things the old way, partly as an artifact of my own training (which was pre-electric) and partly because of the amount of time I’ve spent in classical/historical fencing with heavier sabres. She explained that the change in 5th had proved better defense against the nature of whipover.

[5] As a newer fencer, I had this mistaken idea that there were Platonic ideals of each parry, that is, a sort of ultimate, perfect example of each. Issues with Plato’s metaphysics aside, the parries as we learn them are a starting place, that spot where we need them most often, but they can and do shift. We see this in the literature, e.g. fourth and low-fourth, but in practice we see it too. We use a low version of prima to protect the inside line of the leg, a higher version to protect the upper body or cheek.

[6] In the 1990s when sabre was electrified in NCAA tournaments one of my coping mechanisms was to obtain the first two points. I didn’t care what happened after that. One of my go-tos was this combination of stop-cut/parry riposte; another was to strike, then cover and strike again. I could not beat the box, however, as the director officially cannot overrule the box, but I felt better for doing something I knew had merit.

[7] A look at earlier sabres used for competition will demonstrate that we have not always used the slight blades we do now.

[8] The official rules for the FIE/USFA (according to the Aug. 2020 version, https://cdn2.sportngin.com/attachments/document/f840-2248253/2020-08_USA_Fencing_Rules.pdf#_ga=2.35042337.1612075356.1646537642-1943816898.1646537641) list weapon weight and length limits:

foil: total weight must be under 500g; maximum total length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

épée: total weight must be less than 770g; total maximum length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

sabre: total weight must be less than 500g; total maximum length is 105cm; maximum length of blade is 88cm

Since smallswords were, on average, between 350-450g, and sabres 680-800g, it’s significant that the modern versions must both be less than 500 and are usually much, much lighter than that. The Olympic sabre I use most often for lessons with kids weights 340g.

Revisiting One’s Roots—Fencing according to the _Règlement d’Escrime_

On ne change pas une équipe qui gagne. [1]

View from the “sala” this morning

As the latest mutation of Covid-19, “Omicron,” ravages the area (thanks unvaccinated, unmasked amadáin), everything is affected. Between outbreaks at various schools and the allergy symptoms I woke up with this morning attendance was sparse today at class. While I’m sure that my congestion and itchy nose are thanks to taking down holiday decorations inside and out, and fencing in super warm weather yesterday, I can’t be too careful and so alerted students and gave them the option to opt out. It’s the right thing to do. I met with one student, outside and masked of course, and as a new and younger student we’re starting with foil. Though I had to scrape ice off my windows before driving to meet up, by the time the lesson was over the temperature was again unseasonably warm. It was a good day to fence out of doors. Post lesson, as I sat waiting to make sure no one else was going to show, I went back over the lesson I had given.

My focus at Sala delle Tre Spade is mostly Italian, but there are exceptions. The smallsword I teach relies mostly on French sources; the bayonet I teach does as well; and foil, while I can teach Italian, I’m more comfortable with French. It’s what I learned first. At present, I only have one dedicated foil student, this young chap, and the method I teach is taken directly from the Regalement d’escrime (1908). Since it was designed for the military, it’s straight-forward, and yet imparts all the universals and fundamental actions. Foil is an ideal introduction to fencing. One can learn these in other ways, true, but the advantage with foil is that it presents the core of the Art while also developing skills essential for any fencing—strength and dexterity in the fingers and point-control. The latter might seem limited, but it’s not. Good point-control carries over to other crucial aspects of control. A foilist turned sabreur, for example, is less likely to be a hard-hitter, and, has the advantage over sabre fencers who lack a point-game.

The first fencing lessons I took were in foil. The first master I worked with (a few years later) taught the usual program of foil, epee, and sabre common in the States, one largely French-derived. Sabre, however, which I studied with him was more mid-century and thus not so much French as it was Italo-Hungarian. The last master with whom I worked consistently, Delmar Calvert, was French-trained, and, trained according to the Règlement d’escrime of 1908. As a man who went on to coach at colleges and for the Pan-American team, naturally there were adaptations he made in teaching that were more suitable for the requirements of the sport, but the foundation for his approach was what he learned in North Africa with the Foreign Legion. [2] The difference between the sabre he taught and that I had learned under Maestros Hurst and Couturier was minimal. However, any time I did something less in keeping with French preferences, he’d scold me. This was often amusing, but (seeking to be an obedient student and wishing to be respectful) I did my best not to use sesta or make most cuts with the elbow. Despite his dislike of my “Italianisms,” Calvert’s approach, his mix of English and French in lessons, all of it was familiar, comfortable. Like walking into a dojo or do-jang now, it feels a bit like home when I focus on anything French.

I had a good notion of what to cover this morning, but I reread the relevant section in the Règlement to make sure. My student had one lesson at an excellent Olympic school before coming to me, and we have only met twice, so we are still working on introductory material. He is a quick study, and even over the break had clearly been working on his lunge. Day one material is vital, absolutely critical to get down well-enough before moving onto anything else. I was surprised when my student asked me in our first lesson about compound attacks—having only had one lesson before that I would not assume they had covered anything beyond simple attacks. It’s not impossible, but it is uncommon to work on compound attacks as they require a firm grasp of elementary actions.

For example, in covering the lunge today we explored a few universals. Most of what we covered built up from the basic lunge. For reference, here is the development of the lunge as outlined in Article III, “Développement:”

13. La développement du bras, suivi de la fente, constitue le développement.

Étant dans la position de le garde, pour se déveloper:

Déployer le bras droit, vivement, sans raideur, le corps restant immobile, la main, les ongles en dessus, à hauteur du menton. Porter ensuite le pied droit en avant, le pied rasant le sol, et tendre vivement le jarret gauche. Laisser, en même temps, tomber le bras gauche et le maintenir dans une position sensiblement parallèle à la jambe gauche, la main ouverte, les doigts allongés et joints, le pouce en-dessus. Poser le pied droit à plat, le genou droit sur la vertical passant par le milieu du pied, le corps légèrement penché en avant, la main droite à hauteur des yeux (fig. 7). [Rd’E, 16-17]

13. The development of the arm, followed by the lunge (fente), constitutes the development.

From the position of guard, to develop:

Extend the right arm swiftly, without stiffness, the body remaining motionless, the hand, the nails up, at chin height. Then bring the right foot forward, the food skimming the ground, and quickly extend/stretch the left leg. At the same time, let the left arm drop and keep it in a position approximately parallel to the left leg, the hand open, the finger extended and joined, the thumb on top. Place the right foot flat, the right knee positioned vertically over the middle of the foot, the body leaning slightly forward, the right hand at eye level. [3]

Several things struck me about this passage. First, how much information it contains in such a short passage. Second, how similar this description of the lunge is to that found in sources from two centuries before. There are differences—many texts want the lead knee over the heel and not the middle of the foot—but for the most part the salient parts remain the same: weapon moves first, right foot skims forward, left leg straightens, hand is high to protect the face and high-line.

This sequence is universal. In offense, weapon and hand move first, legs and body after. I’ve seen it in every western source, from every period I’ve examined. I was taught the same thing in kendo and gumdo. It applies to bayonet. It applies to many strikes in empty-hand combat, and those that seem to defy the rule, like a hay-maker, tend to be preceded by a jab or cross to put one less at risk (the jab here being the initial extension).

Moreover, spending time with sources outside our main focus offers not only greater breadth in one’s coverage of a single weapon, but also provides a different point of view on that weapon as we normally approach it. This is to say that by looking at the differences between French and Italian foil we can understand each one better, and ultimately, foil itself better. For historical fencers the value of this can be far greater than they realize. If foil was the training weapon for the épée de combat, itself developed in part to return to the spirit of smallsword as foil became academic, then study of traditional foil and epee will only improve our chances of understanding earlier works, be they on smallsword or rapier. [4] Deep study will increase the worth of this hard work too. Once grasped, an understanding of the universals will open up most any hand-to-hand weapons system far easier than it is without it, and, with less room for error in interpretation.

As a final note, it’s important to start on and stay with the basics until one understands and can perform them well. This is the fencing equivalent of crawling before walking. Give yourself permission to be a beginner when starting something new, and allow yourself the time to master basics. The road ahead, if you stay on it, will be far easier and pleasurable if you do.

NOTES:

[1] “One does not change a winning team,” i.e. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in colloquial American.

[2] I’ve been unable, so far, to discover much about my first maestro’s training. What little I know is that Edwin “Buzz” Hurst competed on the team at the Naval Academy. Clovis Deladrier, before emigrating, was the Fencing Master of the First Infantry Regiment and 12th Artillery Regiment of the Belgian army. He was the head fencing master at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1927 until 1947. His son, André, took over in 1948. André was head coach there until 1989, and so was coaching when Hurst as at the Academy. See Clovis Deladrier, Modern Fencing: A Comprehensive Manual for the Foil, Épée, & Sabre (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1948); cf. “The Rigors of Fencing Foil Navy’s Coach,” in The Washington Post, 9 March 1989, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1989/03/09/rigors-of-fencing-foil-navys-coach/304f232b-c17a-4014-b45e-07addd6b1b8b/

For more about Maitre Calvert, see https://museumofamericanfencing.com/wp/calvert-delmar/; https://www.westcoastfencingarchive.com/2019/07/29/say-goodbye-say-hello/; and an earlier post here, “Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps,” 22 July 2019, https://wordpress.com/post/saladellatrespade.com/321 ; an excellent source for his military experience is Bernard Coliat, Vercors 1944: Des Gi dans le Maquis (Bourg-Les-Valence, FR: l’Imprimerie Jalin, 2003).

For the Règlement, see Ministère de la Guerre, Règlement d’escrime (Fleuret—Epee—Sabre), Paris, FR: Imprimerie Nationale, 1908, available online at BNF Gallica, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k65577093.texteImage

[3] Règlement d’escrime, 16-17. My translation is loose, but maintains the sense of the original. Native speakers of French my apologies if my version offends.

[4] One way to think of it is that smallsword was a demi-rapier, much the same as its longer predecessor, but because of its shorter blade and lightness made certain things possible that were harder or impossible to do as well with the longer, heavier weapon. Side by side comparison of rapier and early smallsword texts reveal far more common ground than we typically assign them. As the duel waned in Europe, foil qua foil became a game all its own, one increasingly complex and divorced from its original purpose. Writers like de Bazancourt (fl. 1860s), who embraced a less artful style, did so because on the ground salon fencing could get one killed.

On Covering, Part II: Teaching Students about Covering

[Part I, 2 June 2020, “On Covering, or, The Difficulty in Hitting and not Being Hit,” covered much of the background and context for the problem—I don’t wish to rehash that here, but reading it first will help: https://saladellatrespade.com/2020/06/02/on-covering-or-the-difficulty-in-hitting-and-not-being-hit/

One of the aspects of working with new people I most value is their fresh perspective—it’s all new to them, so they ask the questions we should all keep in mind but tend to forget. Fencers take a lot for granted. It’s one reason that even the most expert fencers should continue to drill basic, fundamental actions and study. While most everything is challenging at first, among one of the more difficult conceptual hurdles for many fencers—new and old—is how to keep oneself covered, not only in defense but also and more critically in offense. The artificial nature of what we do combined with cultural influences tend to cloud our reasoning about this. There have been a number of attempts to manage this problem, most famously perhaps the idea of “right of way” (ROW) in Olympic fencing, but no rule-set or explanation will do the job on its own. We need to cultivate an acutely conscious if artificial sense that the blunted weapons we use are sharp. If we do not, then we run the risk of failing to teach our students how not to be hit. 

What follows is a quick break-down of how I’m tackling this. Cultivating a sense of realism in practice is a topic I mention often, I know, but it’s because it’s something I struggle with like many instructors and it’s a problem I see at play in most clubs. I don’t have all the answers, but can share what I’ve found to work, and especially, the holistic approach I’m trying to implement. 

Start with the Weapon 

1873 Cavalry Sabre, Italy

From the outset I try to instill a sense of weapon-as-live in class. Normally, especially with kids, I have a period piece (unsharpened) on the first day to compare it to the modern versions. For sabre or foil, for example, seeing the blade profile of a period sabre, smallsword, or epee d’combat, and feeling the weight of each can do a lot to increase their appreciation of the difference in the tools we use versus what people used in the day. With adults or older children using historically inspired trainers this is easier because they are using weapons that better approximate those early tools. In both cases, however, I explain the parts of the blade that are sharp. For those that have held heavy blades, say the cheap overly ponderous facsimiles out of India or the HEMA-Bruh weight of a trooper sabre, the easy heft of a 650-800g sabre can seem unimpressive. Depending on audience I relate either contemporary, analogous examples or cite one of the recorded battles in which one of these “light” weapons proved just as nasty as anything twice its weight. 

The kitchen or hobby knife mishap is a suitable modern analogy for children. IF they ask about how dangerous this sabre or smallsword/foil was, I ask them if they’ve ever had a bad cut from some accident in the kitchen or in making crafts. Most have had some manner of accident or witnessed one. This makes the danger a little more immediate. For that one kid in Toughskins who plays it off as no big deal, I remind them that the slice we give ourselves in the kitchen or the toothpick that pokes into our hand as we make some craft, are accidents—with swords, the person threatening another with it intended to hurt that person. It makes a difference. I add that we of course do not want to hurt anyone, but that we need to remember that this is what swords were for, because if we forget then we take chances we shouldn’t. 

Reenforcing the Idea of Defense First 

Del Frate, 1868

Teaching affords us many opportunities to remind students about the nature of the weapon they are studying. Repetition of an idea as they repeat actions helps cement both thought and action in their minds. For example, when I teach them the guard position in sabre I have them in 2nd. This was typical of the Radaellian approach, but I also explain why it was the preferred guard. It directs the sharp point at target, and since the arm is somewhat extended this puts us a little farther behind the guard— as a compromise between presenting a threat and staying away from one ourselves it’s thus an ideal place from which to start. [1] When they make a direct thrust from 2nd, I explain that the dangerous bits, the point and edge, must move first and for the same reasons: it ensures that we are threatening the opponent and staying as far away as possible at the same time. If we fail to threaten them, they may counter attack. 

One of the places this is most difficult for students is in learning to parry and riposte. For example, in the last two classes I took them through this simple phrase

1. Fencer A: from 2nd, thrusts to inside line 

2. Fencer B: parries in first, then ripostes via molinello to the head 

3. Fencer A: parries 5th, makes molinello to left cheek 

4. Fencer B: parries in 6th, makes a molinello to the right cheek 

[*assuming two right-handers

This is a progressive drill, one we work up to over the course of the class, and instructive on several levels [2]. That third step, however, tends to go awry, because Fencer B in step 3 or 4 will sometimes remise rather than parry. [3] 

Parry of 5th against a cut to the head, Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

I stop them at this point and ask them to explain the action. When they get to step four, I ask who got hit and who got the touch. They should see that they were both hit… It can be a subtle point, because if A holds that parry too long or takes too long to riposte there is sometimes a tempo in which B might remise. However, once an attack has been parried the very first thought we should have is “my attack failed and my opponent is likely to riposte, so, I need to think defense first.”  

It’s not an accident that traditionally we don’t teach the remise week one. It’s a maneuver that requires the fencer to have sufficient understanding and an adequate sense of timing and measure to pull it off successfully. New students struggle to see where the blade is going in a direct thrust or cut, so it’s best to hold off teaching them attacks into tempo until they have a decent command of elementary attacks. Even explaining what went wrong in step 3/4, many students will scratch their heads and doubt. 

Two Dead Samurai 

What tends to hang students up in step 3-4 is that they know they “hit.” B, for example, will often counter “but I hit them.” This is another instance in which I remind them that if the blades were sharp then they would be both be hit, and that since the goal is not to be hit, that the better decision is to parry and riposte. In class with the kiddos I usually refer to this as “two dead samurai”—mixing metaphors here but the words of Anthony Hopkins as Don Diego de la Vega in “Mark of Zorro” (1998) spring to mind, “Oh, yes, my friend, you would have fought very bravely, and died very quickly.” Because they’re masked, wearing jackets, and using blunt swords they feel safe; because the class they’re taking is voluntary and for fun they are excited instead of afraid; and, movies, books, and tv have cemented an impression of sword-fights that are great for stage but not necessarily accurate. Thus, it’s sometimes an uphill battle to keep the past-reality around the current one. If our goal is to mimic as best we can swordplay as it was/would be, then we must keep that earlier reality in mind. 

The entire question of who got the real hit explains why ROW, HEMA’s fetish for the after-blow, and other peculiarities within rule-sets have developed. We’re always trying to find a way to highlight, as accurately as we can, just who won an exchange. ROW emphasizes the priority of the attack where HEMA’s after-blow rules are meant to encourage one to cover. Both punish obvious mistakes; they just focus on different problems [4]. Neither, however, is perfect and interpretation not only over what the judges see, but also what a rule actually means are issues which can further complicate officiating. The inclusion of “off-target” in Olympic scoring and the lack of concern over who starts an attack in HEMA (it does matter) are good examples of where our various rule-sets fail us. 

The Logic of Sharp Things 

In simplest terms, and the way I explain this to younger fencers, is that we want to stay away from an opponent’s sharp point while at the same time threatening them with ours. If both opponents do this, then at least they start at a stand-off, each relatively safe, each facing the question of how to get to target without being hit themselves. We are safest behind the point, steel in front of us, and the moment we change that, even to attack, we increase the risk of being hit. 

Imagining the danger can be difficult, so depending on the age I change the threat. For example, with the current crop of intro students, all of whom are 11 or younger, I tell them that the point of the foil and the point/cutting edge of the sabre contain “Great Stink” and if they’re hit then they’re “skunked.” They laugh, but for this age group especially the threat of smelling bad is more approachable. It can also add to the fun. 

The goal with this is to help students learn to react and plan appropriately. With younger students, so many of whom are ready to wield a foil in two hands like a lightsaber, jumping into a fencing class is play, a chance to pretend, and even when we structure classes well and keep them busy with games and drills, they will still find ways to act out the famous battles they know from movies. As one example, in my last p&r class I had them repeat the same drill above, and when it opened up after those three initial actions one pair set-to blade banging against blade with no thought to making the touch. It’s an age group that requires constant corralling, and each time is an opportunity to ask them “would you do this if the other blade could hurt/skunk you? How open are you using that foil in two hands? You’re gunsta stink Hoss…” 

Why this Matters 

I’m all for fun and do my best to make classes enjoyable for the younger set, but at the same time I want them to learn to fence properly. All this early focus on the reality of the sharp point is critical—without this all we’re doing is playing tag. Ensuring that students learn this helps them understand why we do what we do, why technique developed as it did, and if we’re lucky serves as another connection point in retention of new information. At the same time, the sooner we set them on this path the less likely we may need to correct some of the common faults we see as they progress.  

Much of what and how we teach comes down to goals. It’s not my intention to disparage any one rule-set or fencing culture; people pursue what appeals to them and that’s fine. If tag is your thing, go for it. What I will say, however, is that for those of us ostensibly teaching historical fencing, a major goal is approaching everything as best we can as if the weapons were sharp, so we must pay some attention to inculcating an awareness of danger however artificial. It’s sort of, well, the point (pardon the pun) of what we’re doing. [5] 

NOTES: 

[1] The modern preference, and indeed historical preference in some sabre systems, is for what the Italians refer to as terza bassa, but which most people think of as third in Olympic. This version of third (outside guard for fans of English broadsword) derives from Hungarian practice. Both work, but they set up different expectations. A guard in second is at once defensive and offensive; Hungarian third is defensive: the guard and blade are held closer to the body, so parries are made closer to the body and set up speedy direct cuts well. Second, on the other hand, presents a sharp point from the outset to discourage someone from rushing in; parries are taken a little farther out and the hand moves less far in transitioning between second, first, and fifth, the first triangle of parries. 

[2] There are many types of drills and ways to structure them. Progressive builds like this one take an action and build upon it. For beginners I lay out each step—this makes it easier as they don’t have to read and decide what to do the same way as when unscripted, and yet still gives them good practice in watching and reacting with one set of appropriate responses. They develop confidence and feel like they are fencing, which given how complex coordinating all these movements is helps them continue working. Adding additional movements within the phrase, changing the actions, adding different footwork, and either limiting responses or adding unscripted portions are all ways to add complexity. With this particular drill, we’ve not moved beyond being in guard and lunging back and forth. Next, they will do this with movement back and forth, advancing and retreating; then I have them start from farther out, out of measure, and work the distance to complete the drill. 

[3] The remise is the renewal of an action/attack after it has been parried or while the defender is preparing to riposte. Some refer to this as a reprise, but this normally includes a return to guard (forward or backward) before repeating the action/attack. 

[4] Doubling, or the incontro, is one of the most common faults we make, and often it’s because we have a plan and follow it through without considering how facts change in the moment. Rule-sets can support this. Outside of epee, where a double penalizes both fencers, one need only make sure they land with priority, with ROW, to score—if they’re hit, it doesn’t matter, because they had right of way. In HEMA, which generally doesn’t consider who started an attack only who was hit, doubles are particularly thorny. Was it a double or an after-blow? This is cart before the horse. The first consideration should be who presented a credible threat first and how did the other fighter respond? If the defender chose to double or just reacted, they goofed up. Sure, the attacker should do all they can to cover, but that second fencer didn’t observe the don’t-get-hit rule, the primary rule, and shouldn’t be rewarded for it. 

[5] In HEMA competitions, for example, a lot of exchanges are deemed doubles that highlight this problem. In fairness to the fencers, the director has significant responsibility for seeing and interpreting what they’re doing, and the quality of directing varies considerably. To illustrate these reasons, we can examine—for the first—something as simple as how we extend the blade, and for the second the gulf we sometimes see between what we think we are doing in a bout and what we have actually done. In terms of technique, we see the reality of the sharp point in how we make a direct thrust: from 2nd in sabre or from tierce in smallsword, the hand is shoulder high and slightly outside the shoulder, because this helps close the line. Held directly in front, stiff-armed—which many students adopt at first—the arm is likely vulnerable. When I correct this, I remind them why we hold the hand the way we do, where we do. Regarding the second idea, that plan/execution don’t always match up, many fencers in bouts, be they practice or in competition, assume they’ve made the touch when in fact they haven’t or have doubled. It can be hard to see this—after all, they had a plan, they executed the plan, and thus are confident that they did what they were supposed to do. However, for anyone who has felt this way and then seen video footage of themselves… well, it becomes easier to see how intent and execution don’t always align perfectly or do but at the wrong time.