Sabre, Saddle, and the Vital Importance of Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lest a Fool be Believed

A Response to “Zero women can fight with a Sword”

The ahistorical and no doubt purposefully inflammatory drivel a conservative critic leveled at women fighting in the Netflix show “The Witcher” is undeserving of quotation. I’ll not share anything the ape said save what you read in the title. Interested parties can see the notes if they have the stomach for more—I will note that Forbes.com, which addressed this issue too, did cite the excellent example of London Longsword run by Dave Rawlings who, if you know him, would be (and was) quick to correct the ignorant critic (if you happen to see this, Hi Dave!  =) [1]

The problem with poor excuses for Y chromosomes like this critic is that they have an audience. The pathetic incels who never leave their parents’ basements are one problem, but here I wish to address everyone else, general audiences with more wit, who might read that review and assume there is any veracity to it. There isn’t. I state this as both fencer and historian. A quick search online would’ve been enough to dispel Mr. Manly Man how incorrect his assessment of women using swords is, but it’s doubtful he cares. His point had nothing to do with truth or history and everything to do with pandering to his equally insecure base.  Bad press is press, right?

Ella Hattan, “La Jaguarina”

There has been, rightly, enormous outcry about this. This is a good thing. Importantly, it’s not only been female fencers and fighters who’ve been quick to share examples of women with swords, but many of their male counterparts too. Now, more than ever, it is important for men—especially middle-aged white men like me—to stand up for their female colleagues and shout down the stupid. It’s as important as defending other historically marginalized colleagues such as People of Color and our comrades who are LGBT.

I know, firsthand, how difficult it can be trying to be an ally, but it’s important. You might also have difficulty overcoming how you look (something healthy for us old white dudes to experience from time to time); you might have someone’s unfortunate experiences with bad men grafted onto you, but that is part of advocacy. Not everyone sees you as an ally and some actively resent it. Some people will be happier using you as a convenient whipping post, especially if they’re unable to go after the men at work or in their families who have mistreated them. We all filter everything through our own experience. Do the right thing anyway.

Knowing my limitations, and my bailiwick, I’m trying to do my part as best I can. I tend to see my efforts to be a part of the solution as stumbling my way towards advocacy; I don’t claim to have all the answers or even most of them. But, I know A LOT of women who fence, as many if not more in martial arts generally, and I’ve been fighting alongside women since I first started studying the Art. As a colleague of female fencers, as the coach to several, I feel a responsibility to stand by them, and for the younger women I coach to serve as a good example.

I cannot and should not attempt to speak for women. However, I can hold up examples, ancient and modern, that put the half-baked notions of third-rate conservative critics in their proper light. The focus here will be on women and swords pre-20th century.

Women and Swords in History & Early Literature

Herakles fighting the Amazons, ca. 520 BCE, MET Museum

There are a number of excellent examples in the historical record and in heroic literature. Granted, saga is not history, but it’s a repository of values, a glimpse into what a culture holds dear, how it sees itself or wishes to see itself. Greek authors—among them Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and Diodorus of Sicily all mention the “Amazons.” Of note, while many are said to have lived in central Eurasia, Diodorus cites an example from what is today Libya. In each case, by the way, we have some evidence to suggest that these were not mere tales, but based at least in part on fact. Archaeology bears this out. For example, in the last twenty years archaeologists in the Ukraine have studied the graves of over 300 female warriors. The graves are replete with weapons, some contain horse sacrifices, and there is clear evidence from the human remains that these women used these weapons. The bulk of the graves date to the 7th cen. BCE too suggesting that Homer yet again drew from actual fact in his tale of Troy.

Skull with metal head-dress pieces, from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

The Amazons mentioned in Classical stories are not isolated. Irish literature’s most celebrated warrior, Cú Chulainn, was trained by two female fight-masters, Scathach and Aoife. The most important Irish war deity, the Morrigan, one of a triad, was a goddess (as were the rest of the triad, Badb and Nemain). The Scandinavian Valkyries (possibly influenced by these Irish deities) were the female warriors of Odin who selected the valiant dead for Valhalla. The connection between female deities and war was widespread, as evidenced by the Greek Athena and Near Eastern Ishtar to name only two. Though perhaps less common than in saga (Medh jumps to mind) there are accounts of women among the Celts leading armies, most famously Boudicca (who led a revolt in Britain against Rome in the mid-first century CE). [2]

To this early evidence we can add several medieval and early modern exemplars who either fought or led troops. Here, in brief synopsis, are a few:

Sichelgaita of Salerno

The wife of the Norman leader Robert Guiscard, Sichelgaita is best known for her role in rallying the fleeing Norman soldiers at the Battle of Dyrrachium in 1081. According to the Byzantine chronicler Anna Comnena, she confronted her fellow soldiers and urged them to stop fleeing. “As they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and charged at full gallop against them. It brought them to their senses and they went back to fight.” Another chronicler adds that she was wounded by an arrow during the battle, but the Normans were able to defeat the Byzantines. A further look at her career finds that she took part in and commanded sieges and was more involved in her husband’s military activities than was previously known.

Joanna of Flanders

Joanna of Flanders, the Siege of Hennebont

Joanna was known for her defense of the town of Hennebont in Brittany, against Charles, Count of Blois. After he had captured and imprisoned Joanna’s husband, he marched against the town in 1342. Joanna led the defense of the town. The chronicler Jean le Bel writes that “the brave countess was armed and armored and rode on a large horse from street to street, rallying everyone and summoning them to join the defense. She had asked the women of the town, the nobles as well as the others, to bring stones to the walls and to throw these on the attackers, as well as pots filled with lime.” The key moment of the siege was when she led 300 men out of Hennebont and burned down the enemy camp. She gained the nickname ‘Fiery Joanna’ for this feat. Joanna was able to hold off the besiegers until English troops arrived and forced the Count of Blois to retreat.

Jeanne Hachette

Jeanne “Hatchet” Laisne earned her nick-name defending Beauvais from the soldiers of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1472. Like many women in the town, Jeanne grabbed a weapon to help defend the walls. She inspired her fellow defenders and famously fought against Charles’ standard-bearer.

Caterina Sforza

The Countess of Forli once said “if I must lose because I am a woman, I want to lose like a man.” A bold Italian noblewoman, Caterina was heavily involved in the papal politics of the late 15th century. Although her defense against a Venetian attack earned her the nickname ‘The Tiger of Forli’, in 1499 Pope Alexander VI sent his son Cesare Borgia to conquer her lands. Although she led a stout defense of Forli, she was eventually captured and taken back to Rome as a trophy.

Julie d’Aubigny

Julie d’Aubigny, Illus. attrib. to Henri Bonnart

Julie d’Aubigny was a 17th cen. singer, actress, and swordswoman. Her father was a secretary to the Comte d’Armagnac, King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, and an expert fencer who trained court pages at the Grande Écurie. He trained his daughter alongside the boys. Her career as a fencer is fascinating. At one point, after having run away from her lover (as well as a husband conveniently posted to the provinces), she worked with a fencing master and in men’s clothing assisted him with public demonstrations. When questioned about her sex, she removed her top to a stunned crowd. Perhaps her most famous encounter was a duel with three men at one time—once again in men’s clothing, she kissed a woman on the dance floor and was challenged. She beat all three.

Ella Hattan, “La Jaguarina”

Ella Hattan was born in 1859 in Ohio. She was a professional actress, but a trained fencer as well. She was a student of Colonel Thomas Monstery, a famous mercenary fencing master, and pugilist. Ever the actress, Hattan created “La Jaguarina,” a modern Amazon, and sought out men to fight in different fencing engagements. In 1888 she fought a mounted sabre duel with a Captain Weidermann, and dominated the entire bout. [3]

Women in Early Fight Texts

Walpurgis MS I.33, 32 recto

To the compelling evidence of women known to have fought we can add the evidence from extant fight manuals. Walpurgis, the female fighter in the earliest known western text about swordplay, Ms I 33, the Walpurgis Fechtbuch, heads the list. This collection of instructions for fighting with sword and buckler hails from early 14th century Germany and now resides in the archives of the Royal Armouries at Leeds. Significantly, Walpurgis, like the two other figures illustrated in the manuscript (the monk and scholar), is depicted fighting. She is not a spectator. She’s not serving refreshing mugs of beer or cheering them on. She is one of them, a fighter. [4]

MS Thott. 290.2º, 82 recto

If you think she is an isolated case consider other well-known fight-books from Germany, perhaps most famously Talhoffer’s 1459 Fechtbuch (MS Thott.290.2º) which was produced in 1459. The images from 80 recto to 84 recto depict a woman engaged in a judicial duel with a man. With little explanation provided (the accompanying descriptions are terse) it can be difficult to appreciate what one sees here. Let’s start with the fact that women could fight judicial duels. Then consider that in these images we see her using not only a type of flail, but wrestling. In 82r she breaks his neck using the flail; in 82v he wins. However one look at this it’s clear that the female fighter is not completely out of her element. The man may start the fight in a small pit, but as we see their duel progress this woman clearly understands what she is doing, advantage or no. [5]

Women Fighting with Swords Today

Just as they have for centuries, many women in the modern world learn how to use swords (among other weapons), and, are damn good at it. Pick any field of fencing—Olympic, Classical/Historical, SCA, armored combat—and you will find women not only fighting, but teaching. There are organizations like Esfinges, a group dedicated to promoting and supporting women in historical fencing, and even events for women only. Women can and do fight with swords.

As fencers, as members of a small population often working in isolation, it’s on us to help dispel the misinformation so often associated with the Art, even when, as in this case, it’s obvious that the author’s comments were rhetoric intended for his own specious causes.

It may take different forms, we may pursue it differently, but the Art is for everyone.

NOTES:

[1] See among myriad recent responses https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2020/01/07/zero-women-can-fight-with-a-sword-claims-the-witcher-critic/#462c21751d8e. London Longsword, https://www.londonlongsword.com/

[2] For references in these authors, see for example Homer, “The Iliad,” 3.189, 6.186; Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound,” §707 in Aeschylus, Translated by Herbert Weir Smyth, Loeb Classical Library Volumes 145 & 146, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1926; Herodotus, The Histories, IV: 110-117. For Cú Chulainn’s training and relationship with the goddess(es) of war see especially, Cecile O’ Rahilly, Táin Bó Cúailnge, Recension 1, Dublin, IR: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976; see also the excellent entries on the Morrigan et al in James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998. For Boudicca’s revolt, key sources are Tacitus, The Annals, XIV, and Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXII: 1-2.

For a recent discussion of the “Amazons,” see https://www.npr.org/2020/01/12/795661047/remains-of-ancient-female-fighters-discovered. See also V.I. Guliaev, Amazons in the Scythia: New Finds at the Middle Don, Southern Russia,” in World Archaeology 35 (2003): 1, 112-125; Lyn Webster Wilde, On the Trail of the Woman Warriors: The Amazons in Myth and History, New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 1999.

For the Libyan example, see Diodorus Siculus, World History, 3.52-53; see also W.F.G. Lacroix, Africa in Antiquity: A Linguistic and Toponymic Analysis of Ptolemy’s Map of Africa, Saarbrücken: Verlag für Entwicklungspolitik, 1998.

[3] https://www.medievalists.net/2014/07/ten-medieval-warrior-women/. See especially the list of works consulted to produce this article (scroll down and you’ll find them).

For Julie d’Aubigny, a great resource in English is Kelly Gardiner’s website. She wrote a novel about d’Aubigny, Goddess, but did extensive research on her subject first. Cf. https://kellygardiner.com/fiction/books/goddess/the-real-life-of-julie-daubigny/

For La Jaguarina, see https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/la-jaguarina/; https://www.northatlanticbooks.com/blog/womens-history-spotlight-jaguarina-and-colonel-monstery/; Ken Mondschein, in Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017, 171ff, discusses Hattan as well.

[4] See for example Folio 32r, https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Walpurgis_Fechtbuch_(MS_I.33)#/media/File:MS_I.33_32r.jpg. See also Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: Royal Armouries MS I.33, Union City, CA: The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003; Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand, Medieval Sword and Shield: The Combat System of Royal Armouries MS I.33, Union City, CA: The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2010.

[5] See for example https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Talhoffer_Fechtbuch_(MS_Thott.290.2%C2%BA). See also Hans Talhoffer, Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat, Translated and Edited by Mark Rector, London, UK: Greenhill Books, 1998.

Sabre with Rules, and, Without

Fencing Master (as Morgan Sheppard) 2
Morgan Sheppard, sword-master in “The Duellists”

There is this excellent scene in “The Duellists” (Ridley Scott, 1977) where the sword master, played by Morgan Sheppard, rushes upon the unprepared d’Hubert (played by Keith Carradine) during practice and says “On the watch, sir! Always on the watch… they don’t all fight like fine gentlemen.” A sword master like William Hobbs, who advised and choreographed the various duels in the film, no doubt knew well the reality of the duel—even with rules some people cheat. I’ve always loved this bit scene, because it reveals the reality behind what it takes to fight well (training), and, because it contains so much wisdom. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also packed with historical practice, e.g. duelists working out pre-duel with a master, an officer taking private instruction, a regimental master from the ranks as expert. The truth is that in fencing one must always be on the watch, can trust nothing, and assume nothing. We’re always safer assuming we face a superior opponent whether they prove so or not.

The traditional approach to teaching fencing, be it foil, spada, or sabre, assumes the duel, a battle between two people, on fixed ground, fought within the confines of rules. Even most longsword is taught this way at least as far as normally it’s approached one on one. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to remember, because off the dueling ground the experience could be quite different. In studying historical sabre, a weapon that draws greatly from military sources, we see a lot of overlap, but behind the fundamentals of footwork, attacks, parries, and drills is a context much different from that in most dueling codes. Sometimes we’re lucky and see glimpses of this in sources—Henry Angelo mentions several “grips” in the 1845 Infantry Sword Exercise; Rosaroll and Grisetti in the Science of Fencing (1803) list a number of similar maneuvers and their counters; Hutton too in his book The Swordsman explores those that Angelo must have read and that so far as I know go back at least as far as George Silver’s Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defense (1599).[i] A fencing instructor can teach technique; they can impart tactical reasoning and advice; but one thing they cannot do well is create the context of a fight outside of the duel.

Gladitoria MS_Germ.Quart.16_09v
Gladitoria, MS_Germ. Quart.16 09v

This is important. In historical circles more often than not fencers view the duel as somehow less worthy than a fight on a battlefield, despite the fact that most people actually train as if for a duel. In fairness, this bias really only affects the traditional three weapons and of those only sabre—no one says of Fiore, the Gladitoria, or works on rapier that the lists and Renaissance duels were less important. Why is that? Largely it’s bias against modern fencing—anything too “sporty” is immediately suspect. This is unfortunate, not only because so much of historical fencing pedagogy is borrowed from an Olympic context, but also because as far as competition is concerned, both “HEMA” and “Sport” fencing have more in common than either side is comfortable admitting. There is a lot of throwing out babies with bath-water when it comes to fencing tribalism.

Another, major factor is how difficult it is to create a battlefield scenario. Even small-squad tactics, fun as they are to play around with, often lack the surprises, set-backs, terrain, and chaos that so often attend such engagements historically. Being an agonistic vs. antagonistic endeavor we also lack fear. So, while we can train techniques, learn plays, and study tactics, we do so at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to how all these might have played out in the field. Many of the current venues that attempt this miss the mark—bohurt, for example, is plenty dangerous, but so far as I know no one is really trying to kill anyone or take and hold a position. I don’t wish to upset anyone, but as strong as these fighters are one sees less art than might.

I’ve argued elsewhere that one reason I think that the Italian military sources contain as much as they do was in a part because of the very real possibility that those reading it might be involved in a duel.[ii] Thus, officers needed to know more than what they’d likely need in actual combat. These manuals, however, had to work for rank and file, trooper as well as lieutenant, and so much of what we read there must have had practical applications on the battlefield too. While a solider might not find himself lunging a thrust or cut as he did in the sala or parade ground, what he acquired in learning to lunge were principles he could adapt to differences in terrain and situation. We do have some hints that regimental sword masters provided additional instruction too, often from their own practical experience.[iii] The surviving infantry manuals we have don’t often show one solider pitted against many, but we know they sometimes did; for example, Giuseppe Bolognini touches on this in his Sul Maneggio della Sciabola (1850).

Examining what is more appropriate for the dueling ground or battlefield within these manuals also begs the question—what isn’t gentlemanly? What is more appropriate or acceptable in war? Without rules one isn’t restricted, so pretty much anything you can imagine, like punching or shoving, as well as all the dirty tricks you can think of, from using terrain wisely to throwing dirt in their eyes, were possible. The grips, weapon-seizures, pommel strikes, punches with the bell-guard, and kicks while anathema in most duels were likely not only perfectly acceptable but preferable in war. This being the case, if we wish to train with these options how do we do so safely? Can we?

I believe we can, but with the caveat that safety must come first. By definition we are thus incompletely using the historical repertoire, but that’s okay. It’s important to appreciate this side of sabre, but being combat, life and death maneuvers, it makes sense we hold back. Students of Fiore dei Liberi, for example, are similarly hobbled—to use all that Fiore suggests we use in a fight would leave us without partners and very likely jail time. Even gaining minimal understanding of the options soldiers had will increase our appreciation for the weapon and its use.

The key to practicing these actions is to mix safety and control. Safety means an awareness that what we’re doing is dangerous and could hurt someone. Control means proceeding in such a way that we limit as much as possible the chance of injury. Not everyone has the control required to do this. If you’re sharing this with the inexperienced, I recommend moving at a snail’s pace. When I teach weapon seizures or the grips we start at slow speed, just going through the motions; there are only a few I typically teach and these have proved safe enough to do provided everyone behaves (and I work hard to ensure that). We speed the drill up as we go to instill a flavor of how these might have worked.

MS_Ludwig_XV_13_10r-b
MS Ludwig XV 13 10r-b (a.k.a. The Getty)

For those familiar with grappling from older works, especially medieval fight manuals, wrestling was the foundation for most everything. It makes sense—even disarmed one needs to be able to fight. My friends and colleagues locally who train Armizare and KdF are good examples for how to approach these potentially dangerous actions. The ligadure (It. “binds”) of Fiore, for example, could easily lead to a broken arm, elbow, or dislocated shoulder, so instructors like Mike Cherba and Alex Spreier take students through these moves slowly; even at “speed” the students slow down once the blades have made contact. Focus is on technique and timing. Because this is a partner drill the person turned into a pretzel is compliant; certainly this makes it easier but proficiency is gained through repetition, attention to detail, and making the maneuver, in time, as naturally as possible, not from fully performing the action as written. We do not have the “on the job training” that Fiore and his students did—in their case, this stuff either worked or they were hurt or killed. A lifetime of successful combat, especially against opponents less well-trained no doubt made skilled fighters formidable.

As an example for sabre, I’ll cover the “first grip” as shared by George Silver, Henry Angelo, and Alfred Hutton. Of note, this same maneuver is recommended in a number of bayonet texts. In this action, the attacker makes an attack at the left side of the opponent. Parrying in prima, the defender reaches under their own weapon and seizes the guard or wrist of the attacker and pulls them down and to the left—from here one can deliver a pommel strike, punch, and then cut or stab them after that.[iv] It’s a difficult maneuver to perform at speed, and from experience the seizure can become more of a check to the hand, but so long as one is quick with the follow-up blow it works pretty well.

Blengini, Trattato teorico-pratico di spada e sciabola e varie parate di quest’ultima contro la baionetta e la lancia

The first step I have them do is to practice oblique cuts at the left side of the head while the other parries in prima. Then they switch. Next, they take this move one step further—they parry the blow, step forward with the left-leg, passing the right as they reach under the parry to grab the guard or wrist. When they’re comfortable, I then have them deliver a tap to the mask as pommel strike (some stop short of the tap, which is fine). Lastly, they add a cut or thrust, e.g. a cut down the body from the attacker’s right shoulder to the left hip, and with the back edge of the sabre tip cut the back of the knee on the way back from that initial cut. Another option, if you have mats, is to take them to the floor after the pommel strike. We then go through the defense and grip for the right side (two versions), and follow up with the “Turkish disarm” or similar.

While no one is really punching, kicking, pommeling, or throwing dirt in anyone’s eyes, just moving through the grips can provide students a sense of sabre’s more rough and tumble side. This is usually material wholly unfamiliar to many students, and, it’s fun to learn! A further advantage to these exercises is that some, like that first grip, show up in a number of ways, not only for sword but as defense against bayonet. For students of “military” sabre some experience with the uglier side of the weapon can impart a deeper appreciation for the role the weapon played, for its use in the thick of things, but also for the ways in which traditional technique and combat intersected. Lacking as we do ideal sources for just how these formal techniques were adapted for war, such as a regimental sword master’s diary, we have to work with what we have, and, extrapolate the rest.[v] Any such experiment of course can, at best, reach what was possible, not necessarily what was actually done. This is unfortunate, but even in exploring what was possible we learn, sometimes ruling things out, but sometimes gaining insights we didn’t have before and so it’s worth it. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun research to do either!


[i] See Henry Angelo, Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), 36ff; Rosaroll & Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Milano: 1803, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2018, pages 219-236; Alfred Hutton, The Swordsman: A Manual of Fence and the Defense against an Uncivilized Enemy (1898), reprint by The Naval and Military Press in Association with the Royal Armouries, Leeds, 2009, 127ff; George Silver, Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Ch. 6, “The mannr of Certaine gryps & Closes to be used at yr single short sword fight Etc,” in James L. Jackson, Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, New York: Scholar’s Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972, 601ff.

[ii] See on this site, “‘Dueling’ or ‘Military’ Sabre?” May 16, 2019.

[iii] By the late 19th cen. sword combat outside colonial contexts was increasingly restricted to cavalry engagements. By its nature mounted sabre is more rudimentary; protecting one’s mount, delivering most attacks to right or left or just to either side of the horse’s head, and simple parries that might work best against sabre, lance, or bayonet require ample practice but much less technical know-how than the more complicated actions one might need on foot. It is also telling that regimental sword masters, some of whom must have been seasoned veterans, were responsible for teaching soldiers and troopers any additional “tricks” and skills they might need. See for just two examples Henry Angelo, Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), page 37, last paragraph; see also the Italian Ministry of War’s 1873 Regulations of Exercises and Evolutions for the Cavalry, Book I, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, 2018,  70; 100.

[iv] See for example Cesare Alberto Blengini, Trattato della Modenra Scherma Italiana, Bolonga: Tipi Fava e Garagnani al Progresso, 1864, 78ff. Against rifle and bayonet this is a slightly easier grip to achieve.

[v] There are some anecdotal accounts that help inform us too. For one valuable collection of these J. Christoph Amberger’s The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts, 1998, contains several such recollections, cf. “Battle Scenes from Balaclava” (p. 21) and “The Seduction of Art: Cut vs. Thrust in Military Swordplay” (33) contains several anecdotal snippets. This book can now be found online here [https://fencingclassics.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/the-secret-history-of-the-sword.pdf].

Fencing Drills and Artificiality

deB3

One question I’m asked about drills is to what degree they’re artificial, how they might set up ideal or unlikely scenarios. A related question concerns whether or not there’s a danger in having partners take turns making actions poorly, say in a stop-cut drill. Taking this last question first the answer is “no” if an instructor is on their game. Students, especially in their early training, shouldn’t be drilling poor actions. Conventional wisdom and practice demonstrate that the instructor should be the one exposing their arm for stop-cuts, holding a poor guard, or making any other action defectively. The question about artificiality, however, requires a longer answer.

In classical and historical fencing our concern is to fence as if the blades are sharp, to hit and not be hit, and so when a drill brings in maneuvers or plays that seem to defy this ethos it’s only natural to wonder about their value. Students often have assumptions about the nature of drill that informs this perspective, and some of those assumptions are incorrect.

There are different kinds of drills. Some we do solo, such as footwork drills or cutting against a pell, mask, or fencing Oscar.[i] Some we do with a partner. Others we do with an entire class. While “don’t be hit” and “hit and don’t be hit” are our guiding principles, applying these notions to every sort of drill, and each aspect of it, is reductionist and can blind students to the value of a drill. All study, drill included, should result in a style and method of fighting that illustrates this guiding principle. However, not every drill or part of a drill need conform to this absolutely all the time.

For a quick example from sabre, let’s examine two maneuvers, the first being a common compound attack, feint-cut head, draw the opponent’s parry of 5th, and cut flank or chest; the second being the riposte to the flank from 5th. Looking at the feint attack first, for it to work each partner has to act a certain way. The attacker must simultaneously work a key offensive action, the feint-cut, with a ton of technical movements designed to make that same attack effectively. The instructor or partner on the receiving end, the defender, must do the same; they must recognize and defeat the feint, and parry.[ii]

In the case of the instructor, and you often see this in their posture, they’re not necessarily mirroring exactly what an opponent would do, but performing those parts that will help the attacker succeed in the drill. If the feint is unconvincing, for instance, the instructor won’t parry and might counter depending on what they’re working and how advanced the student is. Judging a student’s readiness to go beyond a simple drill to a more complex version is one of the more difficult tasks an instructor faces—so much depends upon correct assessment.[iii]

In comparison to the instructor, the case of the partner is more complex. On the one hand, they need to help the attacker, just as the attacker will help them when they switch roles, but on the other they shouldn’t be fencing in such a way that the result is poor technique or tactically dubious choices.

Ideally, each partner is doing their best to make their half, offense or defense, work. The defending partner should use this opportunity to work on parries, specifically reacting to the cut to the head. For the basic set-up, this might be the goal in addition to gauging measure, working the feet, and maintaining the correct posture and hand/arm positions. One step deeper, however, the defender might have other options—they might for example, attempt to parry the actual cut after defeating the feint and then riposte. Drills usually start simply and develop into these more complex, multiple action versions as students advance in skill.

So far none of this is “artificial,” but one thing students have asked me about is the danger inherent in making that flank cut after the feint. Having drawn the defender’s arm up into 5th, the defender’s arm is then poised over the attacker making it possible to cut down onto the head. Isn’t that dangerous, they ask. In a word, no, because the defender should be worried about the fact that they’re about to be cut in the flank. Many fencers, because there is no actual danger decide to attempt a counter as, or just after, they’ve been hit rather than parry. This brings up an important aspect of fencing too deep to go into here, namely the priority of the touch, but for our purposes here is making this kind of attack artificial? Is it safe to assume that the defender will just accept the touch and not counter?

If one is fencing as if they’re sharp, then one should never assume anything, but at all times attempt to cover oneself. One solution is to add a side-step with the cut to the flank. Assuming a right-hander, the attacker can extend the arm to make the final cut and lunge a bit to the left by extending the back leg out and to the left after or as the front foot lands. This does two things: first, it removes one’s head from being just under the opponent’s weapon, and two, it gives one just enough measure to cover in 5th or 1st after the cut in case of counter-attack. This makes more sense after making the feint to head first, because from 5th the defender may still be able to retreat and make a molinello to the head.

On the other hand, for the fencer riposting from 5th to the head, our second example, things change a little—the riposte, having been parried, has lost its momentum, so the fencer riposting to the flank has less to fear from the blade over them. The fencer whose head cut failed now has a choice before them—they can drop the blade on their opponent’s head, which remember has no momentum, or, they can consider that fully developed cut speeding its way to their flank. This is a simple choice if we apply the “fence as if they’re sharp” rubric—the partner with the unsuccessful cut to the head should be considering how they are going to parry that incoming cut. Whatever damage dropping the blade on the attacker’s head might do, it’s likely going to be much less than a fully developed cut to the flank.

The greatest danger of artificiality here is not in failing to account for that blade poised above one’s head, but in forgetting to behave as if both blades are sharp. When we forget that, we too often make actions we would never make (one hopes) were we fighting in earnest. But, if we cultivate the notion that the blades are “sharp,” then we’re more likely to make better decisions; in the example above, as the defender we’re more likely to worry about not getting hit and thus parry rather than go for a counter that will only mean both fencers are hit.

Ideally, the only “artificial” aspect of drill should be our cultivated sense of danger. No drill is worth the name which trains poor technique or tactics. This is especially true with partner drills. There is an inherent argument here, namely that instructors ought to be the only ones to present examples of poor technique. However, this is no less dangerous for them, so it behooves every instructor to continue to take lessons, to remain a student, so that they may not include pedagogical tools like an open line or exposed arm in their own assaults.


[i] This is what we called them, but there are probably other names—an “Oscar” is a mock opponent, often set up on a wooden frame, covered with jacket or similar material, a mask, and often with an adjustable arm to shift a blade to different positions.

[ii] This will vary with the level of the fencer. An instructor or senior student might not defend as effectively if focusing on a newer student learning this attack.

[iii] In his Fencing Illustrated (1670), Ch. XIV, Giuseppe Morsicato Pallavicini discusses this very issue. The first bout a student has should be with the instructor. Even when assigning a new student to work with a more experienced one Pallavicini tells us that the instructor must supervise them. See Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018, 91-98.

The Hewing Blow in Historical Fencing

Talhoffer Fechtbuch (MS Thott.290.2º) 1459 CE, 123 recto

The historical fencing community is increasingly fascinated with and implementing cutting exercises. This is a good thing. Cutting is a common adjunct to the study of the sword, but increasingly it’s used by some as a method of measuring readiness for fighting with steel in tournaments. There are problems with this, and in fact there are problems generally with the understanding, approach, and use of cutting, but these less often come up in discussion. First, the assumption behind test-cutting as proof of one’s ability to wield steel safely and with sufficient control in tourneys is flawed.[i] Second, the notion that a hewing blow was or is the ideal attack doesn’t hold up well in light of the sources or historical accounts. Hewing blows are there, yes, but among other options and hardly chief among them. Lastly, a lot of fencers are only concerned with cutting through the mat, not in doing so according to recorded, historical mechanics; many claiming to study “western” fencing are in fact using Japanese mechanics in making their cuts. If cutting is intended to be a part of historical fencing practice, then it should be in line with the techniques and mechanics of whatever specific branch of fencing one is doing, be it KdF or 19th cen. sabre.

Begging the Question

Cutting as a test for tourney-readiness with steel is akin to judging a car mechanic’s ability to change a transmission by how well they use a screwdriver. They’re both important skills, both relate to making the car work, but there’s a lot more that goes into replacing the transmission. It’s the same with tournaments. The ability to cut a tatami or similar target well might demonstrate a fencer’s edge-alignment, but it’s a poor measure for many other critical aspects that make up a good, safe tourney fighter.

Control, for one, is different against a moving target than a static one—tatami not only doesn’t hit back, it doesn’t move. An opponent does. The nerves and excitement that are often present in fighters are generally different than they are when cutting a target. Tournaments also require one to operate within a defined space and according to a host of rules, there’s noise, there are time constraints, and there is stress and exhaustion, never mind two people trying to hit one another.

Lastly, one is not making the same sort of cut against an opponent that one does against a cutting-target: no one in the ring is trying to cut through anyone (hopefully), and so power-generation is by definition restricted. Newer fencers might hit hard, macho a-holes do too, but where the former is excusable because they’re still developing control, the latter has no excuse. For all the blather about “martial” blows few people who recite that mantra have really considered what it means, or, how and whether it should apply in a tournament setting.

Extant Sources and the Hewing Blow

Surviving sources rarely encourage the fencer to deliver hewing blows with each strike. If one thinks about it, it would be silly to do so, because it requires more energy to do and thus is more taxing; it means the possibility of over-extension and thus exposure to counters; and lastly it isn’t necessary—the human body is pretty easily cut by less of a blow than one uses trying to fell a tree or that a headsman uses at the block.

For brevity, here are two examples, one medieval the other Victorian, in other words, one from each pole as it were of the span of extant historical fencing sources. First, the fendente or downward strike of Fiore dei Liberi is instructive. He was active ca. 1409 CE and was an experienced solider, policeman, mercenary, and fencing master. The four known texts detailing his Armizare or “art of arms” reveal a system that is uncompromising and brutal. The intention is to maim or kill, precisely the skills that his audience, professional fighting men, required in the field and in the lists. In the Getty (Ms. Ludwig XV 13), Fiore says:

We are the cuts named fendenti (cleaving blows). In this art, our trade is to part the opponent’s teeth and to reach all the way down to his knee. We can easily transition from a guard to another, through a low guard. We also craftily break the opponent’s guards, while our strikes leave a trail of blood. We fendenti are not slow to strike, and recover in guard with each step.[ii]

Now, did Fiore mean that each time one made this cut that one was trying to cut a person in half, or, did he mean that this is the angle one should make in performing that cut? Which is more likely? Such a cut, against a static target, might divide a person from the jaw to the opposite knee, but it’s hard to imagine any fighter attempting a cut that powerful each time they swing. Fiore also says “our strikes leave a trail of blood.” The line reading either “trail of blood” or “sign of blood” (it varies by translation) looks to the same two words, sangue segno. Sangue, or “blood” is cognate with our “sanguine” and “sanguinary” and is pretty clear, but segno… that is trickier. If you look up the Italian today segno can mean “a sign; a mark; a scratch; a sign or indication;” it can also meaning “shooting target.” The word it comes from, Latin signum, means much the same (e.g. sign), but took on some more abstract meanings during the Middle Ages, such as “miracle,” “statue,” and even a specific type of medieval bell-tower. Yet, several of these translations used “trail” for segno. Trails suggests more of a slicing wound, a deep cut, not the severing of a thorax.

In context—context is everything—Fiore is saying the fendenti are downward strikes made at a sharp angle, roughly jaw to opposite knee, and depending upon how hard and at what distance one hits it might cut deep or leave a really nasty slice. The images accompanying this show two men out of armor. To cut through linen, cotton, or wool one doesn’t need to hew the same way one does straw or wood. Significantly, in the armored portions of his work Fiore discusses the longsword in its guise as short pole-arm, something for thrusting, not cutting. Fiore, thus, advocates a blow that is likely to hit something given the angle, that can cut deep or tear someone up nicely, but taken together is not meant to hew limbs each time.

A second, much later example comes from the Radaellian sabre tradition. Giuseppe Radaelli’s major innovation was to implement the elbow rather than the wrist as the axis of rotation for cuts. Another Radaellian fencer, Maestro Ferdinando Masiello, related in a letter to Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini that Radaelli, having seen how ineffective wrist-generated blows were from the saddle, decided to substitute the elbow as axis. This produces a more powerful cut, but one still under control.[iii] Looking at the corpus of works on Radaellian sabre, from Del Frate (1868/1873) to Pecoraro and Pessina (1912), nowhere does anyone advocate trying to cut anyone in half; nowhere does one master suggest that a hewing blow is the goal.[iv] An argument from silence isn’t worth much, but additional evidence supplies information that does much to fill in the picture.

One such example comes from the same Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini mentioned above. In his work on dueling, the Italian Chivalric Code, published in 1883, he states that if something was important enough to fight about, then the duel over it should result in a serious wound or death. Anything less was a mockery. Angelini states:

In the duel with the sabre neither the thrust, nor the cut to the head may be excluded. Duels with such exclusions, other than being ridiculous, are harmful, since the number of duels instead of decreasing would increase when a dandy could play the braggart with only the risk of getting a scratch of little consequence.[v]

Of note here, the choice of potentially less lethal targets, such as the arm, are not bad choices, but ones less likely to keep to the serious tone Angelini advocates. A cut to the arm would not necessarily end the fight. Significantly, the arm doesn’t need to be severed to make it useless; a nasty cut across the right ligaments, or which lacerates an artery, or that hits bone, can render that fencer hors de combat. Even a good bruise can. The arm was thus often wrapped to prevent this from prematurely ending the fight. The arm was and is a primary target in sabre and with good reason: take out the arm and the opponent can no longer fight.

The take away lesson here is that in the context of the duel in late 19th century Italy, a context in which truly nasty wounds were positively encouraged!, no one advocated a hewing blow. Even with powerful molinelli from the elbow the emphasis wasn’t lopping off limbs or cutting people in half—it would have been too dangerous for any duelist to so commit and expose himself.

The last concern is the goal in cutting—what is it exactly? Is it merely to sever the mat, or, to sever it according to the sources of one’s preferred tradition? This is an important question. There are many ways to cut a mat, but if one is performing this exercise as part of studying a specific sword system, then ideally one is doing all one can to use the mechanics advocated within that system to the best of their ability. Anything else is, well, sort of pointless. Call it fun, call it cutting, but if divorced from the techniques of one’s tradition, then it isn’t really informing that practice. Used correctly, cutting can actually be a good measure of what is possible within a tradition if not exactly what say Fiore or even Radaelli would have done. One young fencer I know, her first time cutting, easily sliced a tatami using the mechanic she had learned from her instructor, one she had used in drill and in bouts for years. Is her success proof of exactly what Fiore intended? No, but it suggests that the interpretation of the cutting mechanic at that school is a valid one given both the evidence from Fiore’s works and her success with that cut. It’s valuable feedback.

There is a lot of video out there of cutting, and if you’re just watching for the mat to slide off its base after the cut, it’s easy to miss red flags like fencers leading off with the legs, with elbows, or pushing their hands out before the blade. There is also heavy influence from Japanese practice, some better than others, and it shows in stance, in execution, even in the number, sequence, and direction of cuts. Will this cut a mat? Sure, and there are people making their reputations on this, medaling, etc., but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re in line with the traditions they claim to represent. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it might if you are trying to cut according to the rhymes of the “Zettel” or Liechtenauer glosses and you’re using the wrong techniques. If you’re going to include cutting in your practice, do so honestly, do so in accordance with the dictates of your tradition as best you can. It’s a lot of fun to do, and it can be good practice, but it should be about more than just whether you cut the mat or bamboo. It should be about how you do so.


[i] In origin the tameshigiri from Japanese swordsmanship—where this practice in HEMA originated—was not intended to test so much the swordsman as the sword. It is arguably better for that than as a test for one’s ability to use steel, though many Japanese schools have competitions for test-cutting in their own right which are about cutting ability, not the sword, so the carry-over into HEMA is understandable. For more on tameshigiri, see for example Victor Harris, “Japanese Swords,” in Swords and Hilt Weapons, ed. Michael D. Coe, et al., New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, 148-171, see especially 168; Kazuhiro Sakaue, “A Case Report of Human Skeletal Remains Performed ‘Tameshi-giri (test cutting with a Japanese Sword),” in Bulletin of the National Museum of Nature and Science, Series D, 36 (Dec. 2010): 27-36; John M. Yumoto, The Samurai Sword: A Handbook, Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1978, 74, 81-82.

[ii] Fiore de’ Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, Fiore’s 1409 Martial Arts Treatise from the Getty Manuscript, rev. 4, Trans. Tom Leoni [Ludwig XV 13]. For the manuscripts, their history, and relation, Tom Leoni’s translation of Fiore de’ Liberi, Fior di Battaglia, 2nd Ed., Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2012, is a standard work; it can be had, minus illustrations, via Lulu Press. Work continues on a new examination by Tom Leoni and Ken Mondshein, Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi, A Master of Arms and at the Turn of the Fifteenth Century, 4 Vols., Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, two of which have been published. Vol. 1 covers the Getty, Vol. 3 The Florius or “Paris.” Some translations and transcriptions are available online at Wiktnenauer, http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fiore_de%27i_Liberi , though caution is required with this site. A far more useful and reliable digital resource is “Pocket Armizare” available for Android. See also Robert N. Charrette, Fiore Dei Liberi’s Armizare: The Chivalric Martial Arts System of Il Fior di Battaglia, Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2011; Ken Mondschein, The Knightly Art of Battle, Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011; Guy Windsor, The Medieval Longsword, Mastering the Art of Arms Vol. 2, The School of European Swordsmanship, 2014.

[iii] See Christopher A. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, xxvi.

[iv] In addition to Del Frate (n. iii), see for example Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee, New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936 [an English translation of his original 1899 edition in German]; Lieut. J. Betts, The Sword and How to Use It, London: Gale & Polden, LTD, 1908; Ferdinando Masiello, La Scherma Italiana di Spada e di Sicabola, Firenze, IT: Stabilimento Tipografico G. Civelli, 1887; Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, Firenze: G. Civelli Establishment, 1891, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2015; Salvatore Pecoraro, and Carlo Pessina, Sabre Fencing: Includes Spada Fencing: Play on the Ground, 1910, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2016; Giordano Rossi, Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, Manuale Teorico-Pratico, Milano, IT: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885.

[v] Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini, “Of the Duel with the Sword or Sabre,” Italian Chivalric Code, XI: 2; trans. Holzman, 2016.

Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery

With our tourney coming up—an invitational sabre match—I’m always conscious of how difficult these things are to do. I’ve either fenced in or judged a lot of tournaments, both Olympic and HEMA, and with each new historical tourney I’m struck by a disturbing fact—pound for pound, a tournament in HEMA and one in Olympic circles are not so very different. In both, too many fighters are playing the system, and worse, too many have zero regard for being hit. In both tournament worlds there is also a tendency to take medaling as the litmus test for excellence. Placing well can correlate with skill, but it’s not a sure thing. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

Everyone likes to win. Emerging the victor in a bout, or better still a tournament, is a nice feeling. It’s validating. It is important, however, to put any such victory in context and remember that however well one does, victory on its own does not mean mastery. There are several reasons for this and if you’re serious about your development as a fencer you need to know this. You ignore it at your peril, at the risk of further improvement, and it can easily lead to a false sense of ability with all the ego problems that creates.

There is always someone out there better than you are. This is just true. Theoretically, out there somewhere, there is one fencer who truly is better than everyone else, but see point two 😉  A prime example of this is a close friend of mine—we’ll call him “Dennis.” He’s a beautiful fencer, tactically brilliant, graceful, powerful, the kind of fighter who makes you look even better than you are when you fight him and he’s destroying you. Yes, that good. In the early 00’s, he entered an epee event open only to fencers ranked B or higher; most everyone there was an A-rated fencer. As this was epee, that ranking actually meant something too–epee is the only weapon of the three to have retained much of its martial ethos. No one there knew Dennis, and they expected to clean the floor with him. He beat every single one of them, badly, and they were really ticked when they realized that this was just something he did for fun, that he wasn’t a “normal” tournament guy; he fenced enough to keep his rating, but otherwise he’d just as soon be working on other hobbies. Dennis is a good example of the unknown ego-check, of the truly gifted fencer out there who is, quite literally, better than you or me.

Great fencers have bad days; poor fencers good days. No matter how good someone might be, even the best fencers have an off day. If this day happens to be on a tournament day, chances are good they may not clear the pools. In like guise, the poorest noob may end up taking the day. It just depends. Maybe they just had more fire and the better fencers either underestimated them or misapplied their skill. Maybe the directing was crap. Maybe it was a combination. One can’t take anything for granted.

Tournament victory is only as good as the quality of the pools. Not all gold medals are the same. Medaling in a minor tournament with twenty fencers of basic skill is not the same as medaling in a tournament where half or more of the fifty competitors are truly skilled. Herein is one major problem for WMA—what defines skill? Many people equate tournament victory with it, but that’s a false equivalency, one only embraced by people who don’t know better or who benefit from the fallacy. This is hard to combat because the same egos that benefit from this, who derive their value from it, are quick to say any naysayer is suffering sour grapes. Sort of makes discussing and fixing that, demonstrating the problem, difficult.

Skill vs. Attribute Fencing One of the elephants in the ring is the issue of attribute fencing versus a more comprehensive skill-set well-applied. To be fair, most attribute-fencers have skill, but often this is a specific set of skills that exploit their reach, speed, etc. to the exclusion of a more comprehensive game. The thing is it works. If you’re fast, if you have reach, if you hit harder and intimidate people, it will take you pretty far. People medal and win tournaments all the time armed only with a few tricks that they have optimized. The confidence that comes with that cannot be underestimated. The test though, for those fencers, is what happens when they run into someone whose skill-set is broader, whose experience is deeper, and who knows how to nullify the advantages their opponent’s attributes offer. If attribute fencers are lucky, they’ll meet that opponent; if they’re smart, they’ll learn something from it.

Gaming the Tourney is another major issue. This isn’t new and it’s not confined to WMA, but a major problem for Olympic fencing as well other sports. There are advantages to winning, and so, some people are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. For just a few examples, be wary of anyone hosting a tournament that only enlists directors and/or judges from their school or who stack staffing in their favor.[i]

Related tactics include attempting to intimidate officials and other competitors, arguing for rule changes that favor one’s approach and fencers, and hard-hitting. These kids don’t play with others, and worse, can give a tournament, even a region, a bad rep. You don’t want that.

I’m not saying don’t fence in tourneys—you should if you want, they’re fun, but, you should go into them with your eyes open and for the right reasons. Not to wax too Miyagi, but primarily a tourney is a place to test, in real-time, your skills and tactics; it’s a lesson, a chance to learn, an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. It should also be fun. The illusion of mastery, and especially of tourney gold as evidence of it, is a problem for any fencer who truly wishes to improve. Mastery is less a destination than it is a goal which pushes our training, which keeps us honest, which keeps us striving.[ii]

This doesn’t mean don’t do your best, that you’re not trying to win—you can’t test what you know if you’re going through the motions. The pressure, the chance to think on your feet, to adapt, and all within seconds is a fantastic way to see how well we apply what we’ve learned. If it all works, and you grab that trophy, great! It is healthy, maybe after celebratory beers, to reflect on the nature of the competition, to weight that against the heft of the medal around your neck. That awareness shouldn’t detract from victory, but merely inform it, and, better prepare you for the next one.


[i] This isn’t universally true of course. In small tournaments, especially where there is no one else to staff, one has little choice but to use who is on hand. Whenever possible, SdTS tries to enlist friends from other salas to help direct–our judges are pulled from the competitors.

[ii] A black belt in TKD, for example, has demonstrated that they are now ready to begin to study in earnest; a fencing master, in a slightly different way, isn’t necessary the best fighter, but a teacher, someone who has command of a particular pedagogical approach and is capable of teaching other teachers.

“Dueling” or “Military” Sabre?

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

[See also 23 March 2021, “Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited” https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/23/military-vs-dueling-sabre-revisited/]

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

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

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

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

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

The supposed dichotomy between “military” and “dueling” (or “classical”) sabre is an issue more within the historical community than the classical. Many fencers within WMA/HEMA have desired to differentiate what they do from anything remotely resembling sport fencing. For them, classical fencing is too close to sport, and thus automatically suspect. Many within the classical camp use the same weapons as sport fencers, only with modified rules, and rather than address technique and purpose, which would show how much historical and classical fencers have in common, these same historical fencers reject them out of hand for using foils or S2000 sabre blades. The fact that the modern game derives from Italian and French fencing, that classical technique developed in these two lands, tends also to produce a quick reaction against things classical, especially given the popularity of English infantry manuals in HEMA. This is all guilt by association and ignores the salient fact: the classical tradition, especially for sabre, derives more from military than from civilian sources.[iv]

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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