More fun with Tricky Passages

In an attempt to illustrate further how one might puzzle out difficult passages I’m including another question that Christian Olbrich (Fechten Passau) and I discussed. This is the “jump back” or salto indietro covered by so many Radaellian masters (cf. p. 169 Rossi, section 43). This is footwork somewhat larger than the standard retreat and can be confusing not only because of how some authors describe it, but also because it’s often discussed in conjunction with various types of double-measure (doppia misura) and the cross-step (passo doppio indietro).

The question we discussed was:

The jump back in the stop hit (cut) to the arm: Barbasetti describes the first movement in the jump back as “bending the body backward, throwing back the head also”. Rossi, and a few other sources describe the cut as being done with the setting back of the right foot, and any parry following with the re-setting of the left foot. But if I’m in a distance where my opponent could, with a lunge, just hit my head, then crossing the right foot backwards will effectively break measure enough to get me out of reach even to his arm, and if I don’t throw back my head but leave it where it is, I will have my weight shifted dramatically forward so that any farther backward movement is either impossible or very, very slow. I also cannot expect a lunge of my opponent to carry his arm towards me, since I would mainly try the stop hit into my opponent’s feint. Any thoughts on the correct execution here?

There is a lot to consider in this one. When do we attack the arm normally? Only when it’s exposed. So, perhaps on a feint, or, against any clumsy attack where the opponent somehow exposes their arm or starts out of distance and holds the attack long enough for us to attempt the counter. I look at this two ways: if we are in critical/lunge distance, and they attack in such a way that we can make a stop-cut, we might need to use the jump-back, but if they are in advance-lunge distance, then we may need only retreat a step or half-step. Naturally we are not going to try a stop-cut against a decent attack or closed-line. [1]

Barbasetti probably should have started with the last clause in his section 12:



[German] Diese Sprungbewegung ist unerlässlich, sobald es sich darum handelt, Hiebe gegen den Vorderarm des Gegners zu führen, während sich derselbe gerade zu einem Hiebe anschickt. [p. 39 in Das Säbelfecthen, 1899]

[English] Nevertheless, this action is very useful. It enables you to touch your opponent in the arm at the start of his attack. [p. 18 in the 1936 English edition]

The German edition explains this better to my mind—“useful” is not the same as “essential/unerlässlich.” It IS essential to use the jump-back IF they are faster than we are on the attack or have longer reach.

[English] 12. The Jump Backward

It’s not just an issue of translation, but choice of description. In writing “bending the body backward, throwing back the head also” the master confuses things. The passage in full reads:

The jump backward is executed as follows:

Bend the body backward, throwing back the head also, while passing the right foot behind the left one to a distance of about 20 inches; finally retaking the guard, crouching upon your legs.

            This exercise requires a great deal of study. In order to execute it successfully, it is necessary to repeat it until the legs are trained and the body accustomed to maintain a perfect equilibrium.

            Nevertheless, this action is very useful. It enables you to touch your opponent in the arm at the start of his attack. [18]

[German] 12. Sprung rückwärts.

Der Sprung rückwärts wird auf folgende Weise vollzogen: Der Körper wird zunächst dadurch nach rückwärts gebracht, dass der Kopf mit Energie in den Nacken geworfen wird. Zu gleicher Zeit wird der rechte Fuss mindestens 50 Centimeter hinter den linken gestellt, schliesslich mit einem Sprung die Fechtstellung mit gebeugten Knien wieder eingenommen.

Es ist nothwendig, diesen Sprung oft zu üben, um den Beinen die nöthige Kraft und Sprungfertigkeit, dem Körper aber das Vermögen zu verleihen, das Gleichgewicht zu erhalten.

Diese Sprungbewegung ist unerlässlich, sobald es sich darum handelt, Hiebe gegen den Vorderarm des Gegners zu führen, während sich derselbe gerade zu einem Hiebe anschickt. [38-39]

Here again the German reads more usefully. It reads “the body (Der Körper) is first brought backward (wird… rückwärts gebracht).” “Brought” implies movement different than English “bend.” With reference to moving the head the language is much the same—“throwing the head back” conveys much the same meaning as having the head (der Kopf) thrown back (Nacken geworfen wird) with energy (mit Energie). [2] Taken together the sense is that one is shifting the weight backward as one strikes to the arm, but in this case one makes a short jump (einem Sprung) instead of merely taking a step back. This is important to note as lifting the right leg back past the left need not be a jump; it can also be a cross-step, a variety of retreat. Jump connotes speed and urgency, both critical considerations in effecting a counter-attack made while moving backwards.

Barbasetti does not cover double-measure per se. In later sections, where he covers the stop-hit and cut to the arm, he again refers to the jump-back (cf. Sections 60-62, pp.101-109; pp. 126-131 in Das Säbelfecthen). This said, the advance-lunge and rapid advances are present—in fact, he remarks that “in sabre fencing the adversaries keep out of reach, and therefore the advance before the lunge is almost a normal condition” (p. 70; so far as I can tell, this line is an addition to the English text or perhaps from another section in Das Säbelfecthen).

Other Radaellian masters do refer specifically to double-measure. Rossi discusses the cross-step back and jump back in the same section (43 Passo doppio indietro e salto indietro).  The difference is in how the feet move and how fast. The cross-step he recommends has the right foot brought past the left at about 40 cm (compare Barbasetti’s 50cm), then left back past the right to reassume guard. The jump-back, on the other hand, follows the same pattern but has both feet leave the ground, is executed more quickly, and is used against a fast attack. Rossi explains that advance-lunge and double retreats reflect a similar measure. He writes:

La doppia misura pei colpi diretti al corpo è la misura giusta pei colpi diretti al braccio. Bisogna quindi, per la doppia misura al braccio, un altro passo indietro, come si vedrà dale linee del piano regolatore. [149-150 in Rossi’s Manuale Teorico-Pratico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola]

Double measure [his advance-lunge] for blows directed at the body is the correct measure for blows directed at the arm. For double measure to the arm, another retreat is necessary, as seen by the lines of the marked piste. [p. 161 in Seager’s translation]

This is a good rule, as it keeps one safe, but again reflects the reality of fencing when the duel was still a reality. Modern fencing, in contrast, breaks this down into two measures, a stop-cut followed by a simple retreat and a stop-cut followed by what Rossi describes.


The goal, in either case, is to create more space to act. Of note, Rossi advises that “In all the marches, make sure to deviate the body as little as possible from the guard position” (In tutte le Marcie si osservi, per regola, di scomporre il meno possible il corpo dalla posizione di guardia, 169; Seager, 179). I believe that Rossi and Barbasetti, despite appearances, agree—however described, both are referring to a controlled, rapid retreat to allow one space and time to achieve a counter-attack to the arm. Barbasetti’s description of throwing one’s head and body back I understand, but taken literally it would have one move in a very unbalanced way. The sense of it is that one reaches to cut while simultaneously preparing to move backward.


Measure, however, is only one consideration: we’re also making the stop-cut in a particular tempo. For example, with the more modern stop-cut, we often describe it as reaching out to cut as the opponent starts their attack, and then immediately taking a step back to parry and riposte. Assuming an open line to the attacker’s arm, we are making an attack into their tempo to do this and as such must regain measure to remain safe (if we hit them, great, but we must also be prepared should our counter fail or not stop the opponent).

In terms of measure with the example I just gave, we’re reaching out to hit that arm at lunging distance/critical measure, not from close or advance-lunge measure. To maintain that safe distance we stop-cut (in lunge distance) and then recover backward as they come at us to keep that same lunging distance. If we don’t, we’ll be in close measure and far less capable of acting just as you explain. Measure and time are bedmates—they’re intimately associated. As a final note, we do not normally cross the legs to do this, we just retreat.

The jump-back is a little bit larger a movement in my mind, less a step than almost a ballestra in reverse (unless one is making the jump-back by crossing the legs). It’s still made in the same tempo, that is, into the opponent’s attack, but for whatever reason requires us to take more distance on the retreat (Rossi is clearer on this point). Passing backward, so right foot passing past the left and then resetting into guard, can cover more ground securely—as I conceive of it, it’s the difference between making two retreats and one cross-step back. So much of this depends on one’s reach, timing, and the opponent’s ability to navigate distance as well as your own: at times a simple half-step might suffice, at others a jump-back is necessary.

The only time I normally use the jump-back is against opponents much faster or taller than I am. I’m around 6’/1.8m tall, but often fight people 6’4-5”/1.95-1.99m tall. Their reach is such that I can make the stop-cut well-enough, but unless I jump back I will not be able to maintain distance well enough to be safe. If I use the jump-back as described against someone who doesn’t have that reach, then I end up out of measure. Sure, I’m safe that way, but we’ve just reset. Better to attempt the counter-attack and move just enough to cover and riposte.

Most masters are quick to say that one needs to practice these maneuvers seriously. They require a lot of coordination, a keen sense of measure and timing, and can go spectacularly wrong if we get any one aspect incorrect. I know footwork is not everyone’s favorite thing to do, but it’s the foundation for everything. To develop effective use of actions like the jump back, practice it; include it in the mix of advances, retreats, advance-lunges, reverse-lunges, and cross-steps. This will give the mechanical aspects exercise, but you will need a partner to hone your stop-cut, and, perfect how to make this important counter-attack in various tempi.

NOTES:

[1] Like many rules, we follow them until we discover appropriate times not to. There are instances in which one might attack a strong position as a species of second-intention attack. This is a complicated topic and too much to go into detail here. Because there are exceptions, I wanted to say so.

[2] The German supplies in den Nacken, “in/with the Neck,” which makes sense, but which in English reads less eloquently. The sense is that one moves the head back to prompt the body backward. This may also reflect the natural void one no doubt made with certain actions to avoid being hit in the face. We see similar shifts of the head, often to the side, in works like that of Girard (1740).

References:

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.

Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epée (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936).

Giordano Rossi, Manuale Teorico-Practico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola (Milano: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885).

Giordano Rossi, Sword and Sabre Fencing, translated by Sebastian Seager (Melbourne: Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021

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: Rossi’s _Sword and Sabre Fencing_ (1885)

Giordano Rossi. Sword and Sabre Fencing. Translated by Sebastian Seager. Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021. 275 pp. $17.99 US as of May 2022. [https://www.blurb.com/b/10846545-sword-and-sabre-fencing]

Cover, Rossi’s 1885 Scherma di Spada e Sciabola

I’ve long been a fan of Sebastian Seager’s excellent blog, “Radaellian Scholar,” since first discovering it a few years ago. His articles and posts there do much to fill out the story of the Radaellian school specifically and the Italian school generally, and are, as I see it, necessary reading for anyone serious about the study of 19th and early 20th century Italian fencing. His coverage of major figures, ideas, techniques, and sources, all gathered in one spot, is hard to beat. As a researcher myself I value his approach and shared fondness for footnotes.

Rossi is not his first translation. There are various posts that include some translated portions, but of particular notice is his edition of Del Frate’s 1868 manual on Radaellian sabre, Instuzione per maeggio e scherma della sciabola. Christopher Holzman’s translation of the 1876 edition is better known, but it is useful for any scholar of Radaellian sabre to read them both. With Rossi, Seager has added another critical work in this tradition for the English-speaking world.

Sebastian’s introduction (xi-xvii) will provide a far better and more succinct summation of Rossi and his place than I can here, but in short Rossi was a student of Radaelli’s and one of those, the first in fact, to write (1885) and issue an update to the master’s program. Rivalry between southern and northern masters, and the political clout of the former, led to a flurry of works designed to show the superiority of Radaellian (northern) sabre. Some of it makes for entertaining reading as Gelli and Masiello’s many remarks demonstrate well, but all in some ways were responses to criticism from the Neapolitans. This is one reason we see inclusion of spada, the sword (epee) as well as sabre.  

Rossi’s Sword and Sabre Fencing starts with a short history and coverage of the duel, and then general concepts. Larger sections on spada and sabre follow, each with synoptic tables outlying actions and counters. One of the reasons that Rossi is important is that within his sabre section, for example, he covers types of molinelli in more detail than Del Frate had earlier, in particular the molinelli ristretti or “restricted” molinelli (see 166ff). In addition, Rossi is the last to include the sforzi di cambiementi or as Seager lists them, “change-sforzi,” which went out of fashion not long afterward.

Seager’s translation of Rossi is clean, easy to read, and well-rendered. A list of terms at the close of the book and useful footnotes help explain both vocabulary and concepts, and will be especially helpful for those new to this period of Italian sources. Blurb, the p.o.d. company that produces the book, is fast as well. Not sure what it is about Australia and books, but in many years of collecting books no country has been as quick with the turn around as Australia. This translation is a volume that one should have in their fencing library.

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

Weapon, Heft, and Interpretation

In the last post I shared news about the Shrike Forge highland broadsword I recently received and had a chance to use. My friend Mike Cherba, who heads Northwest Armizare just up the road, filmed this bout and others and shared it a few days ago to Youtube (link is here: https://youtu.be/QJM4GvJAy2Y).

To confess the truth I am always a little uncomfortable being on camera, any camera, and by a “little uncomfortable” I mean I actively avoid it. It’s not just my natural introversion, but my instructor’s eye: I see what I did incorrectly, what I need to work on, and while that is a good thing it’s not necessarily fun.

Video can reveal our awesome bouts to be somewhat clumsy fencing sometimes (source Pixabay)

I tend to blame my college fencing coaches; there’s nothing quite like walking away from a tournament where one did well and then seeing just what one’s fencing actually looked like on video… Add the rest of the team in the mix and that sense of spotlight turned interrogator’s hot lamp is easy to understand. We all suffered like this, not just me, and for the most part it was useful. One of my chief goals is improvement, so if and when I see video of myself what stands out to me are the actions or decisions that need correction or improvement.

Mike is a good chap, so naturally he asked if I minded sharing it. My first reaction, internally, was “no! I make too many mistakes! What will people think?” but that isn’t very useful. It’s just ego. So, I checked that feeling, and then said “Absolutely!” There are three reasons I was quick to agree. First, Mike is my friend and asked. Second, that bout was an absolute blast–Josh is one of my favorite people to fight and we always have fun, but I don’t think we’ve had as much fun as we did fighting with weapons of similar style. Lastly, I’m a teacher, and just as it’s important to impart correct technique and tactics, so too is it to learn from our mistakes. So, here is a fun video where I am making some mistakes–it’s a great learning opportunity, and not just for me.

Lessons within this Video

One truism within historical fencing is that the weapon, its size, weight, balance, all of it, matters. It’s worth examining why that is, and this bout serves as an excellent example. One thing I’ve often said to students, both my own and those I’ve met in other groups, is that sabre qua sabre and broadsword qua broadsword share much in common. For example, both highland broadsword and unmounted Italian sabre include advances, retreats, lunges, and off-line footwork. All of that is true, but importantly, while both employ similar guards, lines of attack, even footwork, there are differences in the actual weapon that inform just how one uses these common features.

Swords within the same family, in this case single-handed cutting swords, are, to quote many freshman college history papers, “both similar and different.” A broadsword designed along the lines and heft of one from 1700-1750 is going to perform differently than a sabre designed for use in the saddle circa 1850-1900. They balance at different points; they’re generally different weights; one tends to be straight, the other curved; the specific combat context for each was different even beyond the basic differences of unmounted and mounted. [1]

So, it follows that the way a weapon moves will affect how one might use ostensibly similar footwork. If you watch the video linked above, you will notice quickly how differently Josh and I move. I move like a sabreur (which makes sense)–it’s all very linear. Josh, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time on works by people like Thomas Page, and it shows–he pivots more, traverses more. Why is that? Why the difference, that is, beyond training and habit? Why this difference in the sources?

One of the 18th cen. Penicuik sketches

The weapon. A three-pound sword with the balance of these two broadswords makes certain actions, certain uses of measure, not impossible but unwise. In the Radaellian tradition we use a lot of just-out-of-measure preparatory actions to make it safe to employ our skull-crushing molinelli. This is not as easy to do with a broadsword. I “can” thrust to the inside line and then disengage around and cut to the head, but the weapon isn’t optimized for this. How I do that must change in order not to suffer from too slow an execution. Josh, for example, though you see me trying it too, often makes a Cut 1 (a la the Insular enumeration or what we might call a mandritto fendente, a descending cut from the right, in Italian circles), and then a cut two (reverso fendente)–the first isn’t a feint really, though it can be. With the weight behind a broadsword one ignores a cut like that at one’s peril, and so naturally one must respond. If one doesn’t, then yay, free head cut; but if one does, a quick flip of the wrist and that beast is screaming to the outside line of the head.

The footwork accompanying this is normally a step to one side, then the other. [2] This is a safer way to make this one-two attack combination. Attempted with the more linear footwork of sabre, it’s far more difficult to pull off, because one is farther away when making that Cut 1. If one delivers this specific combination with a lunge, one must hold the extended blade potentially longer to await the opponent’s response–lunging distance is a bit more farther out than stepping distance, so not only must one move the blade once they’ve responded (if they have), but recover forwards or redouble in order to disengage and cut to the other side. Stepping as Josh does is more efficient, faster, and helps conserve energy. In short, “critical distance” varies not only by height and reach, but also by weapon type. There are important ramifications for this I will share shortly.

In brief, Newton’s second and third laws of motion, to whit…

  • The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
  • Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first. [3]

… explain that there is a relationship between a sword’s acceleration, its mass, and how much force propels it. [4] If that sword is then yanked back, if it must decelerate rapidly and change directly, it will require energy enough to accomplish this; if it meets resistance, say a parry, it will transfer energy to that other sword. Distance affects this too. It is easier to change the direction of that weapon if one is closer, and thus, stepping vs. lunging that initial cut makes good sense. One can lunge it sure, but it will be slower, easier to parry or to launch a counter attack.

This is not to say one can’t lunge or that one doesn’t, because one can and does–if I wish to force the blade (a species of press, coulé, filo, glissade, glisé, etc.) I can absolutely lunge this attack, and arguably should as it helps close the line. The extant sources for broadsword, though perhaps more “regimental” than “highland” or “early” to use popular categories, make it clear that the lunge was a standard method for delivering attack. As ever, context, especially situational context, should dictate whether we step or lunge.

A Few Ramifications that Follow

Confiteor Sancto Gregorio… quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Jokes aside (and apologies to Father Tavares) I have often chided or raised the judgmental eyebrow at footage of broadsword and sabre. It comes with the territory. In my defense, there is usually justification for the mental red pen we apply to the mistakes we see in video, but at the same time it’s easy to slip into an unwarranted sense of superiority or elitism.

“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” 1985

The best check against this tendency is time spent with the tools and sources underpinning the fencing one is viewing. It will change how we view it. As a final example, one of the complaints many of us in the more classical Italian and/or French side of historical fencing make is about the HEMA tendency to fight in measure. It’s like “Thunderdome” only without using the whole dome–two people enter the ring, clash, repeat. There is little use of measure, little suckering people in and exploiting when they fall short, little use of any footwork save the advance. That isn’t good.

If a 3lb Scottish broadsword and if our interpretations of its use are at all close, then we have reason to recall that use of measure is different for different weapons, for different contexts. Like most observations I make here this is obvious, I know, but it’s also easy to forget when we view most things through our own experience and bias. We all do that sometimes. In order to foster the openness to see how other, even related systems use measure, tempo, and footwork, we must first acquaint ourselves with their sources and tools.

Doing so is not just a window into something new, but a way of gaining a different perspective on our main focus within historical fencing. Exploration can also be a lot of fun, which is reason enough to try out that baskethilt, longsword, or rapier that perhaps we’ve sometimes found easy targets to criticize.

NOTES:

[1] It’s too large a topic to explore properly here, but warfare among the Irish and Scots favored ambush, quick strikes, not long engagements of massed troops in meadows. Armor and weapons, well into the early modern period, appeared archaic to many, but had long served well in the bogs and heavily forested areas either side of the Irish Sea. Roman and Greek sources made much of Gallic horsemanship, but in many parts of the Isles foot combat made more sense. Cavalry played a role, but it was not as great in medieval or Early Modern Ireland or Scotland as it was in say France or Spain.

[2] Thomas Page’s work (cf. https://linacreschoolofdefence.org/Library/Page/Page.html) remains controversial, but is worth reading in conjunction with other works on Insular broadsword. Questions of accuracy in re Highland fighting aside, much of what he describes is useful. His section on traversing can be a little dizzying to read at first, but taken slowly and then drilled it does work.

[3] Cf. https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/beginners-guide-to-aeronautics/newtons-laws-of-motion/

[4] With so hefty a weapon one needs little force to propel it forward. Good mechanics, that is technique that allows the weapon to do the work, used with proper measure and timing not only is more efficient and less exhausting, but also less likely to expose one to counter-attacks. Newton’s laws hold here too–if one swings too hard and wide, it’s that much harder to recover and one is that much more prone to being hit.

Review: Shrike’s Forge Broadsword

[26 April 2022]

Mid-18th Century Style Highland Broadsword
Smith: Mark H0wland, Shrike’s Forge, Medford, Oregon, USA
https://www.shrikesforge.com/
+15418215857

SPECS:
Total Length: 41.5″/1.05m
Blade Length: 36″/91.44cm
Blade Width: 1.75″/44.45mm
Grip Length: 4.5″/11.43cm
POB: 3.5″/8.89cm
Weight: 2.91lb/1.32kg

Materials: steel; grip is wood covered with leather

Shrike’s Forge Broadsword

There are times when the challenge of writing a review consists of fighting the urge to gush with praise about the object of that review. Too effusive and the reader may suspect one of collaboration with author or creator. However, the pure joy in wielding and using this beautiful weapon makes it impossible for me to hold back praise. This is easily the finest sword I have ever used in a bout, and by finest I mean in every way: balance, sturdiness, performance, and design. The closest analogues I have to using this broadsword by smith Mark Howland are the legendary weapons made by Gus Trim. The latter are sharp, and thus only used for cutting practices, but in terms of quality, handling, and artistry Mark’s weapons are the blunt equivalent. If you know Gus’ work then you will know that is extremely high praise.

This weapon, a gift presented to me by the broadsword group at Northwest Armizare, was a deep honor to receive. How does one thank people for such an exquisite gift? I did my best to express my gratitude when the broadsword was handed to me, but this is the sort of thing that goes beyond words–it means a lifetime of trying to do right by the givers. [1] Each time I pick up this weapon I am reminded of my debt to them and encouraged to give them all I can as friend, peer, and instructor.

Close up, Portrait of Jas. Carnegie and Family, ca. 1809, Cork, Ireland

Background: This broadsword, the first of a batch Mark is making for the broadsword pod, is based on one my great-great-grandfather carried. [2] The blade, least as far as I can make out from the painting my cousin has, is a later design: it is thinner, more like the later 19th century regimental blades than something from the time of the ’45. The sword is lost, so far as the family knows, as is any idea of provenance or history. I opted for an earlier blade profile and heft as I have suitable trainers for later broadsword, but not for the earlier period, and, it changes things.

Overview: This is a stout blade, but nimble. Mark can speak better to the science behind this than I can, but from a user’s perspective one wants a robust blade that still has enough flex to manage the shock received in striking and parrying. This blade easily flexes several inches and returns to true–a good indication of quality.

7x7mm spatulate tip

The spatulate tip, now standard I think on many of Mark’s training weapons, is my preferred tip. It’s ample in size, but not so globulous that it’s comic. That’s a tough balance to strike. The blade’s edge is nicely rounded too, so between the two cuts and thrusts can be delivered–assuming appropriate use–safely. [3] Even with the control that my opponent, Josh Campbell, and I possess, these are heavy blades and can land with significant force. Any such danger is increased if the weapon in question lacks attention to the vital details that make a training blade a training blade. Mark put a lot of consideration into the width, flex, and tip, and for the size and heft of this broadsword one would be hard put to find a better, safer version.

Basket, right side, Carnegie family crest badge slightly visible on the plate

The guard is tough. In it’s inaugural bout, “Morag” fared well against a similar broadsword that is about a half-pound heavier, and the guard took no damage. [4] This is critical as a sword of this heft can break fingers more easily than a lighter one. The grip is lovely–the leather is turned suede-out which really sticks to the glove well, and the shape is perfect. These weapons are held with more of a hammer/racquet grip, and even without measuring my hand Mark managed to produce a grip that fits perfectly in my palm. Many on the market are too wide or too thin.

Handling & Performance: We often refer to swords in anthropomorphic ways. For example, we might say one should “listen” to the sword, or remark that “it wants to move” in such and such a fashion, and all are shorthand expressions for describing a complicated combination of weight, balance, and movement. This broadsword, for example, just as it should be has the point of balance (POB) father back than my usual sabres. It’s a weapon optimized for foot combat, and heavy, so having the balance closer to the hand reduces fatigue and allows the fencer to use more of the wrist in making cuts. In contrast, with Radaellian sabre, the POB is farther out as it would be for most mounted combat. So weighted, however, the elbow is a better axis for rotation.

Josh is a strong man, much stronger than I am, and, much younger, so the fact that I could bout with him and hold my own speaks volumes about how well-made Mark’s tools are. I let the sword move as it was intended to, which comes down in part to knowledge and training, but also and importantly to the right tool. This sword was constructed to move as broadswords did—not all broadsword trainers are balanced properly or perform like Mark’s. This one makes it far easier to appreciate what one reads in Thomas Page, for example, and that is important for anyone keen to understand how the tradition may have changed over time. While this broadsword has definite presence, it does not feel or function like it a ponderous club–it is nimble, quick, and seems almost to float.

If you’re in the market for a truly outstanding broadsword trainer, contact Mark. I have handled several of his weapons, from the khamlis he has made for Mike Cherba to several swords he’s made for Josh Campbell. They are impressive to behold and use. Wait time can be a while, but these are hand-made, and worth the wait.

NOTES:

[1] This is the second time I have been honored with a superior sword. It is extremely humbling. The first, a gorgeous Gus Trim early Hungarian sabre, was presented to me at Swordsquatch in 2017 for helping promote historical sabre in the PNW. Honored as I am, I also feel the responsibility that comes with such gifts, and strive to be worthy of them.

ATrim, early Hungarian sabre

[2] My father’s great-grandfather, James Carnegie, joined the Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, the 72nd Foot (later the Seaforth Highlanders) and saw action in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When he demobbed he didn’t return to St. Vigeans, in Angus, Scotland, but settled in Cork, Ireland. The portrait close-up comes from a family portrait my cousin Rosanna displays in her home in the UK. We also have some photos taken of James, then a very elderly man, in Highland dress with what appears to be the same sword. These too helped Mark design the basket for mine. [For students of Scottish history and highland dress, yes, this is a hodgepodge of kit. Best we can tell James missed home and put together various items to honor it. Tartan experts, so far, believe it was some general plaid vs. anything related to the Carnegie pattern (itself modeled on the MacDonald)]

[3] Proper fencing is the best insurance for safety. Weight can add to any force multiplication, so optimizing a weapon for safety is all the more important.

[4] The minor surface scratches are normal, ditto tiny dings in the blade, both of which one removes with light Emory paper on a regular basis. This not only helps preserve the blade’s life (they are consumables after all), but also one’s opponent’s clothing.

I’m not in the habit of naming swords, but Josh in his eagerness to see how mine would do remarked that his broadsword, “Bessy,” was keen to play with her little sister. I figured it was only fitting to come up with a suitable name 😉

Additional Images:

Basket, interior and grip
Basket, left side

Knucklebow–some slight scratches and paint from Mike’s rotella
Flex!!!!

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

Attempting to Realize “Realism”

In historical fencing we place significant weight on the concept of “realism,” here defined as fencing as accurately as we can both in the sense of treating the blade as if sharp and in attempting to fight as closely as one can to the dictates of the system we study. However, outside the lunatic fringe, we also fence as safely as possible. One of the frequent observations I’ve shared here is that our sense of safety affects how effectively we accomplish this. Without fear we are prone to make actions we might not were we fighting in earnest. Short of expensive medical bills, law suits, and jail time, however, there is only so much we can do about it. It’s daft not to wear gear—as I tell kids “eyes don’t grow back”—so we are left with cultivating a strong sense of awareness. It’s not an ideal solution, but the effort isn’t wasted. The proper mindset, and awareness of how our study is hobbled, only improves our understanding and hopefully our interpretations. This subject popped up again for me recently during a rapier lesson and got me thinking about all this in more detail.

To date, I’ve covered this in a general way, mentioning the problem and suggesting that we would do well to keep it in mind. However, a natural question is how; how is one to cultivate this sense and where? Do we think this way all the time, just with certain maneuvers, or only in certain contexts?

‘Tis but a Scratch!

King Arthur and the “Invincible” Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” 1975

Arguably one of the more serious failures we make in historical fencing is downplaying the effect, physical and psychological, even a non-lethal wound has on a person. More than once I’ve mentioned the kitchen or craft-knife accident, but a shot to the face by a hard ball, the lacrosse stick that misses pads and jabs an arm, the toe that meets a furniture corner, and the car-door that smashes a finger all ought to remind us that even “minor” injuries can ruin our day. I’m not the only person who believes we need to remember this—just his past week Matt Easton of Schola Gladitoria posted a video that discusses a number of examples of how non-lethal wounds can affect us. [1]

Somehow, however, once we don a mask we can forget this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say “oh that was just my arm” or “meh, you only stabbed my hand,” and yet were we to have a finger smashed or an arm broken or cut-deeply I doubt we’d brush it off so casually. Having broken most of my fingers at some point, having had a near-compound fracture in my dominant arm, and having had stitches for deep wounds I know myself that sometimes one can keep going, and, sometimes one is rendered hors d’combat. I’ve fought on, twice, after having a finger smashed so badly it was bleeding, but only because I didn’t realize how bad it was. Once I did realize it I stopped fighting. I’ve also been bruised hard enough to stop a fight: I literally couldn’t hold the weapon after that hit. The context is important.

We cannot know, in many cases, how we would react in these situations, but even so we need to be mindful of the fact that even a so-called minor wound might stop a fight, incapacitate us, or freak us out enough that the fight would effectively be over. We forget this to our peril if we’re truly trying to fence as realistically as we can. While “HEMA” talks a lot about the after-blow, a shot made after one’s own that lands, we ought to be just as concerned about the incontro, the double, about being hit as we make our attack.

The Role of Teaching

Everything we teach should be in accordance with the source tradition we work in, but it also must abide the reality principle. If we are teaching anything without a concomitant concern for self-preservation, then we’re doing it the wrong way. It’s not just about making the touch, but doing so in such a way that one is not hit in the process. This will feel and present very differently than much of what we see today in historical fencing. It requires us to be more conservative, less aggressive from the off, and far more cautious.

To illustrate this I want to take a look at a few common aspects of most fencing: for offense, feints and beats; for defense the parry/riposte and attacks in tempo. Some of these I’ve mentioned before, but not in one place nor in this specific context. Regardless of consideration of technique or its application, however, we need to revisit what “don’t be hit” means as a guiding principle when making these common actions. How we teach them is everything.

Offense: Feints

Feints are what we often call “fake-outs” in colloquial American English. They are actions we make to force an opponent to move their blade out of the way so we can strike them in a specific line. They are not easy to do. On the one hand there is the technical aspect, the individual motions the fingers, hand, and arm make, the changing of lines, the false strike and real one, but on the other are the critical issues of measure and timing. When we teach feints we focus first on finding the right measure from which to start the feint—in brief, it needs to be made close enough to get the opponent to react, but just far enough out that one can change the line. Depending on the instructor the fine-tuning with this can be extremely specific. For a feint to work it must be convincing, but our sense of safety with a mask and trainer versus no mask and a sharp begs the question of whether we’d react even to a poor feint if it was close enough.


In examining two of Marcelli’s guards, mezzaluna and porto di ferro, last week, my friend Ken Jay and I realized something that might temper the specificity we normally apply to feints. [2] These guards, hallmarks of the Neapolitan School according to Terracusa e Ventura (ca. 1725), are stout positions. [3] Mezzaluna forces an opponent to the low line; porto di ferro, on the other hand, forces them to the high line. Rapier and dagger, deservedly, represent some of the best expressions of western swordplay, and these two guards, in our experience anyway, force one to pay close attention not only to distance and timing, but also to the nature of the attack: a simple attack will rarely succeed, and a compound one, while more likely to meet with success, can likewise be defeated thanks to the defense-in-depth provided by the dagger.

Ken observed, after I made a feint from slightly out of distance, that were my weapon sharp he might still have attempted to parry. This statement really got me thinking. In jackets, with masks, and armed with rebated rapiers neither of us is trying to be hit, but we’re not worried about what happens if we are either. We are not afraid.

This is a point worth long consideration—how perfect does a feint have to be if the weapon is sharp, the person wielding it keen to do us harm, and our own natural aversion to pain in play? Certainly training helps, but more so would experience. By the latter I mean having faced similar situations and having emerged from them unscathed. To do so would, with good reason, build confidence in one’s ability as well as a sense of how far out one can make a feint. However sure of oneself, a sharp point is a sharp point and so unless completely sure the prudent thing to do would be to react, in this case perhaps to take a half step back or off-line and parry, knowing that what looks like an attack might in fact be a feint or vice-versa. Would we take the chance and guess or play it safe? This is where experience and drill can make all the difference.

Beats

If one has spent time in Olympic fencing then one has likely learned a few different ways to effect beats. A beat is a sharp knock to the opposing steel using one’s weapon to deviate it from the line. Where a feint forces the opponent to open the line themselves, a beat is a way for us to force them to shift lines. In Olympic fencing, however, the concern is less over removing the steel from a specific line than it is in establishing right of way (ROW). This is a major difference, and for those of us who came up initially in the sport, it means a shift in view when using beats with period weapons. In the sport, making the beat regardless of shifting the weapon is sufficient to establish ROW—it’s symbolic.

Returning to Marcelli and rapier, facing an opponent in mezzaluna one can beat the rapier, but it’s not enough to make contact and strike. We may or may not have removed the steel: the opponent might replace it quickly after the beat; and of course they have the dagger waiting to intercept too. A beat from the retracted terza/third used in mezzaluna, against the inside line of a similarly held weapon, may move the weapon, but chances are high that one’s opponent will replace the line easily and quickly and thus negate the effort. Significantly, Marcelli touches on this issue in Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Rules of Fencing.

I have not found a better occasion for making the beats than that, which is encountered in the Fourth Guard, in which the opponent’s point is found convenient for making this action. Although it can be practiced against all the other guards, nevertheless it is made more securely against this, or against any other that keeps the point of the sword forward. So then, he is always found ready to beat the opposing sword, with it standing forward, it stands separated from the defense of the dagger and stands more apt for this action. This cannot be done with such ease in the other, narrower and more united, guards because in those the opposing sword’s point is found defended by the dagger, and going to beat it, the opponent can easily be given the opportunity to take the Cavaliere’s sword with the dagger and would him with the time thrust.

[Occasione migliore per far le Toccate, Io non trovo di quella, che s’incontra nella Quarta Guardia, nella quale si trova commode la punta del nemico per farli questa attione; e benche contro tutte le alter Guardie si possa pratticare, con tuttociò più sicuramente si fà contro di questa, o contro di qual sivoglia altra, che tenga la pūta della spade avanti. Posciache all’hora si trova la spada nemica sempre pronta à toccarla, mentre con lo stare avanti, stà disunita dalla disesa del pugnale, e stà piu adattata per questa attione. Lo che non può farsi con tanta facilatà nelle alter Guardie più ristrettte., e piu unite, per che in quelle la punta della spada nemica so trova disesa dal pugnale, e con l’andare a toccaria, si potrebbe facilmente dar occasione al sopradetto di precarli la sua Spada co’l pugnale, e di offenderlo con li suoi Tempi.] [4]

Marcelli’s Fourth Guard (fig. 2, left) and First Guard or Mezzaluna (fig. 1, right); 274, Holzman, 204 in the pdf

Time spent working this sword (and dagger) in hand proves the wisdom in Marcelli’s caution. His Fourth guard, being more extended, is a safer bet for a beat than either mezzaluna or porto di ferro—with those, the beat may be a decent preparatory action, but on its own it’s not likely to succeed, not without one also being hit.


Marcelli goes on to explain that just as with feints, the strike must follow immediately after the beat is made. There is the danger that the opponent’s dagger will intercept, so any delay only increases the chances the beat-attack will fail. The beat may disorient, but that is not enough—it must clear the line sufficiently or one risks getting spiked making the attack. The most successful beats we have found were against the sword, but then delivered to the dagger hand with a shift to the side, or, followed by a feint. With the layered defense provided by rapier and dagger compound attacks are crucial. It’s not that simple attacks can’t work, but that against a skilled opponent they are harder to achieve. We have also found that beats from the outside line which drive an opponent’s rapier toward the inside line tend to work better—not only does it open the line more securely (there is no dagger), but also it’s easier to make the thrust and close-out the opposing weapon. Conversely, those beat-attacks we made on the inside to the inside were far more likely to be parried or earn us a spike as we closed the attack.

Defense: Parry/Ripostes

In teaching people to parry, we are attempting to impart to them an action which has a lot of moving pieces, all of which must work in concert, and which not only must begin at the right distance, but start at the correct time. The concept is simple—“stop the other sword”—but the execution is complex. A parry by itself might preserve one, but on its own does nothing to offend the opponent, and so we generally make a riposte afterwards. There is, in short, a lot that can go terribly wrong before one ever sets foot on the piste or in the ring.

Of all the ways to parry, simultaneous parry-ripostes, which block and strike at the same time—what Marcelli calls the “parries in tempo” (Parate in Tempo; 267pdf)—represent a sort of Platonic ideal of a parry for thrust-oriented systems. Marcelli writes:


The parries in tempo are none other than direct thrusts performed in the tempo that the opponent performs his; therefore, the method of making those must be learned well in order to then have more ease in the execution of these. In performing them, it must be advised that the parries in tempo can be made in all the guards, as much as in the guard below the weapons, as outside the weapons, inside the weapons, and in that of the sword forward.

[Le Parate in Tempo non sono altro, che Stoccate dritte tirate nel Tempo, che l’nimico tira la sua; perciò si deve imparar bene il Modo di far Quelle, per havere poi più facilità nell’esecutone di Queste. In opra delle quali si deve avertire, che in tutte le guardie si possono fare le Parate in Tempo, così neall Guardia sotto l’armi, come in quella di for a l’armi, in quella di dentro l’armi, & in quella di spade avanti.] [5]

Parries in tempo or what we might call simultaneous parry-ripostes take considerable time to learn to use effectively. The precision, sense of timing, and fortitude required demand consistent, dedicated training, and time to perfect.

Outside of thrust-oriented systems, however, we usually think of a parry as a block, an action which stops an attack by adopting a static opposing position. Weapon weight, measure, timing, and skill all affect how successful either version will be.

One of the worst mistakes we can make in teaching students how to parry and riposte is to fail to cement in their minds what a parry means. A successful parry is a sign that an attack has failed. This doesn’t mean that the defender is out of danger, but it does mean that the attacker should have one thought in their head: defense. The entire logic behind Olympic “right of way” rests on this principle. [6] Both fencers, early on, can misread this situation. The defender, having parried, may strike with zero regard for the fact the other person is still armed; the attacker, their first attempt stopped, may continue to target with no regard for the riposte screaming towards them. Both children and adults have commented to me in drill “but I hit them,” which is true, but only half-true. Yes, you hit them after or as they riposted, but was that the wisest, safest choice? No. You got hit too.

Marcelli’s Third Guard or Fianconata (left) and Porta di Ferro (right); 277 in Holzman, 208 of the pdf

The defender must do more than parry and strike—they must do so with the awareness that there is still a sharp point out there. The riposte must follow quickly lest the opponent use the extra tempo to remise, and ideally the defender will riposte as much as possible in such a way that a smart attacker will not try to take tempo, but parry in turn. The attacker, on the other hand, having been parried, should realize the attack failed and immediately go on defense. Sure, there are times the defender’s response is slow and a remise an option, but here too one must do what one can to renew that attack safely and cover.

Attacks in Tempo/Counter-Attacks

As mentioned just above, attacks made in tempo against an attack, versus a defensive response, are often an option, but they are dangerous to make. Fencers with an excellent sense of timing—which can be improved dramatically via drill—can avail themselves of this option with more success, but what holds for the less skilled holds for them too: they must consider their own safety in making such an attack.

The standard stop-cut drill in sabre is a good model for this. Ditto arrest drills in epee. In sabre, the instructor attacks poorly, usually in three main ways: cutting to the inside exposing the inside forearm; cutting the outside exposing the outside forearm; cutting to the head with a bent arm exposing the bottom of the forearm. The student makes a counter attack in tempo, either making a cut or an arrest to each of the exposed targets, as they step back, then parries the blow as it terminates in that line, and ripostes. Here, the student employs counter-offense, a blow in tempo, but also covers in case the attempt fails.

Cultivating Caution

None of what I’ve shared here means much unless one’s goals are to fence as “realistically” as possible. Any set of competition rules, by definition, has to make allowances for deviation from realism if for no other reason that the challenge of effective judging, and it’s competition, a game, so that is okay. One should be forthright about it, own that fact, but assuming one realizes the limitations, fine. In teaching, however, in drill, in all we do as learners we need to cultivate a proper sense of caution and do what we can within a given system to avoid being hit. To own the truth, being hit is historical too—sword combat crippled a lot of people and put a lot of people in the ground—but unless one is keen to emulate that, it’s probably wise to consider how our training, in every sense, supports or undermines the guiding principle of “don’t be hit.”

NOTES:

[1] Cf. Matt Easton, “How do you incapacitate someone with a sword?!” 18 March 2022, https://youtu.be/zqADQyPBZmw]

[2] NB: while beats can be made against these guards, they are far less susceptible to beats than say when facing sword alone or against Marcelli’s Fourth Guard with rapier and dagger.

[3] See Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, 1725, trans. Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017), 70. Google Books, p 66 of La vera scherma napolitana rinovata dal signor Nicola Terracusa, e Ventura, Parte II, Ch. III, “Del modo di tirare le stoccate, e delle tre guardie,” or page 68 in the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=PYcpqbY0e2sC&pg=PA63#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 1686, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), 313; the pdf available on Google Books is p. 29 of Parte Seconda, Libro Primo Cap. XII online, but p. 231 of the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=yOVEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

[5] Part II, Book 2, Ch. 2, “Method of Making the Parries in Tempo,” Rules of Fencing, trans. Holzman, 369; Google Books p. 65 of Libro Secondo Cap. II, or p. 267 in the pdf after download.

Of note, Marcelli explains earlier in his work that he does not advocate moving anything other than the weapon and arm that wields it to parry. The fencer should stand firm, in guard, and use timing, a solid guard position, and just enough movement to block or deviate the incoming attack. [Part I, Book I, CH. XIII, p. 53ff in Holzman]. In many systems, including among many Italian masters later, the feet are often the first to move, even if a short half-step back. Given a weapon of the weight and length used in Marcelli’s period, however, there is less necessity for using the feet as one does in modern foil or late period sabre.

[6] My go-to example of this is the riposte to the flank delivered by lunge after parrying 5th in sabre. Students young and old have shared concern over the Damoclesian sword poised above them as they riposte. It’s an excellent observation. This said, while one can side step to the inside line if they so choose as they deliver the riposte, the initial attacker should be more worried about that riposte than in dropping their blade to bonk the opponent on the head. The blow was stopped, its energy is spent, so an extended arm grasping a sabre that can do nothing but drop is a poor trade for that fully developed riposte heading for their ribs.

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.