Review: Swordsmithy Sabres

Late 19th/Early 20th Century Austro-Hungarian Training Sabre 

Swordsmithy, Prague, Czechia 

http://www.swordsmithy.com/ 

 

SPECS: 
Total Length: 104.14cm/41” 

Blade Length: 86.36cm/34” 
Blade Width: 15mm/.59” 

Grip Length: 12.7cm/5” [mid-grip width 2.5cm/.98”] 

Guard Width at Widest: 9cm/3.54”; at mid-Knucklebow, 3cm/1.18” 

POB: 9.5cm/3.74” 

Weight: 663g/1.46lbs 

Materials: steel, wood, leather 

 

I had the privilege to borrow one of these excellent sabres in October 2021 at SabreSlash in Prague, Czech Republic, for several days. For handling, my portion of teaching day provided me a great opportunity to assess balance, heft, and nimbleness. Thanks to a bad leg which acted up, I was unable to bout as much as I should have liked, but did bout with one the redoubtable reenactors from Warsaw, Poland, Jaroslaw Kubacki from Kompania Czarnej Szabli (Black Sabre Company). As the photo demonstrates, he was using a larger sabre than I was, but the Swordsmithy sabre held its own well. In brief, these are fantastic sabres, well worth the cost (they’re handmade) and wait.

Handling

Despite ”HEMA’s” obsession with beefy, heavy sabres, most sabres intended for more than chopping from the saddle were lighter and more nimble than our trainers. J. Christoph Amberger provided a nice, small survey in an article in Fencer’s Quarterly Magazine that concluded that the difference between say Italian “featherweight” sabres and “other, heavier German-made broadswords” was about as much as a block of chocolate. Humor aside, his sample ranged from 1350 to 300g for the period between 1780 and 2000. Anecdotally, the historical examples I own or have held confirm that most sabres were not the clubs modern reproductions would have us think. Swordsmithy sabres, because they are handmade, vary slightly in weight, but the six in my order weighed on average 660g, which is within the typical range for sabres of this period. [1]

The balance is perfect for Radaellian/late period Italian sabre, but will work equally well for many other traditions. The model for these sabres is a Viennese sabre similar to what we see in Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee; it was a common trainer used in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [2] My class at SabreSlash focused on various uses for the molinelli, the elbow-driven cuts that are a hallmark of this system. The Swordsmithy sabres performed perfectly, whether for molinelli as exercise or as offensive or defensive maneuvers.

Sabre in Barbasetti, courtesy Ars Dimicatoria, CZ

One of the best features of these sabres are the grips. They are large enough for normal hands, a clear advantage on most options out there today, and comfortable. The slight swell mid-grip makes for good purchase on the grip, and the ribbed leather seats nicely against the glove. The steel backstrap is solid and close to if not identical to original examples. The only change I might suggest is to score the portion where the thumb rests with some manner of cross-hatching to make one’s grasp that much more secure. However, so long as one wears a glove there’s no need for cross-hatching. The Swordsmithy’s grip is my favorite of all the options available now.

Durability & Performance

There’s no criticism I can make about the way these sabres handle and hold up in use. They’re stout, well-made, and perform equally well against different sabres as well as when a matched pair. It is saying something that Michael Knazko, one of the people behind Swordsmithy Sabres, has used the same six weapons in the tournament portion of SabreSlash three years running. I challenge most other events to make such a boast. [3] 
 

The one major difference with these sabres is the hardness of the blades. Some fencers will balk at this, because most other options are made in such a way that when a sabre bends badly that’s that; we replace the blade. Swordsmithy sabres, however, are so constructed that one can beat the blade back into shape. I have seen this myself: one of the background sounds at SabreSlash is the ringing of Michael’s hammer as he beats a sabre back into shape on a lead plate (wood works too). There is an art to this, but it is easily learned and with practice easy to do. It is, however, more labor than many fencers expect or may wish to take on, though to be honest much of this depends on how they are used. Tournaments, for example, tend to be higher stress than practices, and some fencers struggle to fight with control; they hit harder and the weapons take more abuse. This matters. The fact that Michael has used the same six sabres, in such a high stress environment, speaks volumes for the design Swordsmithy has selected. 

 
The guard is stout, strong, and well-shaped. They’re ambidextrous, a real plus for those of us who fence right and left-handed, and wide enough—assuming good structure–more than ample to cover the hand when parrying. On a personal note, I really like the hammer marks barely visible on the inside of the guard. The thickness is perfect and more than sufficient to parry a hard blow. 

The blade length is just right for most systems, and the width well within historical parameters. The tip is constructed for safety, being wide enough that it’s extremely unlikely to pierce safety equipment. [4] I prefer spatulate tips, but even without this these blades—assuming normal practice–more than meet safety requirements. 

Conclusion

Swordsmithy sabres are worth the cost. In the US, they go for about $390 which is expensive compared to the offerings from popular options such as Hanwei. They are, however, better made, and handmade, and this explains the price. Castille Armory’s “Italian Dueling Sabre” is, at the time of writing, $490; Darkwood’s sabres are $360. [5] Until I handled the Swordsmithy sabres the Castille was my favorite–they’re good blades and the guards, while undished, stout.  

My go-to now, however, is this Czech-made trainer. They are not inexpensive, and the temper on the blade requires more work on part of the fencer, but in terms of longevity alone these blades will last longer than most others I’ve used, and, with fewer problems. Swordsmithy sabres are worth the cost.

On a side note, shipping in and out of Czechia can be pricey, but ordering more than one at a time (two friends and I went in on an order) helps. Michael packs these weapons well and they arrived far faster than I expected.

Notes:

[1] See J. Christoph Amberger, “Inference and Imposition: Anachronism in Fencing Historiography,” in Fencer’s Quarterly Magazine/FQM (Summer 2004): 25-28. Amberger sampled 17 weapons (p. 26), the heaviest at 1350, the lightest at 300, with an average of 682g.

“The weight difference between the Radaelli and the lightest German Fechtsäbel–exported in large quantities to and used in Britain throughout the late 19th century as practice ‘broadsword,’ is only 40g. The much-vaunted 1796-model British Light Cavalry sabre weighs in at only 80g more. And the weight difference between the Italian ‘featherweight’ and other, heavier German-made broadswords and the model 1899 British Gymnasia Pattern practice sword corresponds to that of a bar of Milka chocolate.” [26]

A more recent tally, the spreadsheet maintained by Maestro Kevin Murakoshi, examines both historical examples and modern reproduction trainers, and here too we see more sabres in the 600-800g range. The examples over 1000g are all trooper sabres and thus not so much meant for “fencing” as braining retreating infantrymen.

[2] Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1936), was published earlier in German (1899) and Italian. NB: my thanks to Chris Holzman for the correction as to type.

[3] In contrast, at an open sabre tournament in 2017 multiple Hanwei and Coldsteel sabres were broken; this was also the first time I’d seen anyone obtain a concussion in sabre.  
 

[4] I say ”unlikely,” becauase it depends on how one fences. In Radaellian sabre we use the point a lot, but learn in such a way to minimize risk. Any sabre might potentially damage someone or equipment. Hanwei’s ”Hutton” sabre and Darkwood’s ”dueling” sabre blade both present a danger, the first because it’s tip is pointed, the second because the tip is too thin and is not wide enough. Twice I have had a DW blace pierce a glove while giving lessons.

[5] Prices accurate as of 3 July 2022.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cliques writ Large

“Mean Girls,” 2004

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

Cliques writ Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–can they teach effectively?

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

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

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

Certification—What is it?

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

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

A Challenge

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Discussion on Radaellian Sabre

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

https://youtu.be/7V1BZBNBs6s

The Value of Historical Fencing for the Olympic Fencer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increased Insight into the Hows and Whys of Technique

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

Del Frate, 1876

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

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

Improved Appreciation for the Role the Universals Play

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

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

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

Greater Understanding of the Origins and Development of the Sport

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

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

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

Ferdinando Masiello, 1887

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

Luigi Barbasetti, 1899/1936

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

Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

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

Joseph Vince, 1940

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

And, Lastly

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peeling back the Layers: How to Use Modern Approaches to Examine the Past

In my last post I shared some thoughts about the value of studying beyond our core interest. It can be a hard sell suggesting to an Olympic fencer that there is something to “HEMA” and vice versa, but I stand by this and the longer I investigate the history of fencing the more I’m convinced there is merit to this interdisciplinary approach. But what if someone hasn’t had exposure to one or the other? How might someone who doesn’t have time to take a coaching clinic or attend a seminar on Marozzo obtain the tools they need? This is a fit subject for a lengthy book, but were a friend to ask me “what do I need if I have to teach this tomorrow?” I’d have a few recommendations.

What follows is how a “HEMA” fencer can benefit from familiarity with Olympic and trad fencing–a look at how the competitive fencer can benefit from a study of “HEMA” will follow.

When something is unfamiliar it’s often best to start small. In this case, first, I’d have them read up on and prepare to discuss the universals. [1] Second, I’d have them take one action, technique, or idea and focus on it to illustrate the general principle. Reading both modern treatments and the historical ones they wish to cover side by side is next. In 101 level history courses we refer to this as using “compare and contrast” to discover patterns, see what pops out, and collect data. Next, they need to analyze that data and figure out what if anything is significant about the patterns they have found. There are several ways to do this, but an easy one is to write out what each author says about X and then look at them side by side. Index cards, columns on a sheet of paper, or some digital means of doing the same all work.

It’s one thing to tell, another to show, so here I’d like to take an action or technique and apply this process. Let’s say that someone is working on Roworth’s “battering.” In his The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre (1804), page 65, Roworth writes:

BATTERING

Is striking on your antagonist’s sword to obtain an opening, and requires the same degree of caution as bearing, lest your antagonist slip his blade from your stroke, and make a cut on the contrary side. It can seldom be attended with success against any but the outside and spadroon guards, when used to force an opening on the side at which you batter: but sometimes by inducing an adversary to resist that attack, you may disengage and cut on the contrary side.

Despite the brevity of the passage there is a lot to consider here:

  • battering requires the same caution attending bearing
  • battering can be defeated by slipping and cutting to the other side
  • battering works best against the outside and spadroon guards
  • battering sometimes works best to draw the opponent’s parry and attack in a different line

It makes sense to tackle the obvious first. What is bearing? What’s a slip? What does Roworth mean by “contrary side?” What is the outside guard? Spadroon guard?

Defining these means reading through the source. Bearing, for example, Roworth treats just before battering (64-65). He states:

BEARING

Is generally practiced by longeing forward briskly on the outside guard, opposing the fort of your blade to that of your antagonist, and from thence slipping your fort towards his feeble, by which means you may press his sword of the line; this (unless he takes to the hanging guard) leaves his head, neck, and breast exposed to your edge, and from this position a cut over and within his guard may be made, but must be executed with celerity.

Here too there is a lot of vocabulary:

  • longeing (lunging)
  • fort and feeble
  • opposing the fort
  • pressing out of line
  • hanging guard as counter
  • cut-over and within his guard

If one doesn’t know these terms, then mining the text and/or other, related works and seeing what they say is the next step. It may require a slight leap of faith, but some of these terms one will find in more modern works. The reason that more recent sources can help is that old and new are connected—terms change, rule sets change, and individual techniques sometimes change with them, but in looking at them across time it’s a lot easier to see these differences and figure out in the aggregate the nature of the action. It’s not a perfect analogy, but looking at how the definition of a “beat” changes over time generates a sort of Platonic ideal of “beat-ness,” that is, what a beat is and what’s for regardless of time period. We then have a distilled “generic” version that allows us to identify the same or similar action wherever we find it. The caveat to this is that we can’t stop with the similarity; it is crucial to note the differences too, especially looking backward.

There are many books and websites that can help [2]. Let’s use “bearing” as a quick example. The first two sites I checked don’t list it [https://www.britishfencing.com/glossary-of-terms/ and https://www.usafencing.org/glossary-of-fencing]. Another site lists a term closer to “battering,” French battement, which it defines as “beat” [https://queencityclassicalfencing.com/fencing-terms/].

I looked in Gaugler’s Fencing Terminology and Morton’s A-Z of Fencing and didn’t find anything, but Evangelista’s The Encyclopedia of the Sword does have a listing:

BATTERY AND BEATING

In his book Complete Fencing Master (1692), the celebrated swordsman Sir William Hope refers to “battery” as “striking with the edge and foible of your sword [the weak portion of the blade, closest to the point] against the edge and foible of your adversary.” “Beating,” he says, “is done with the forte of your sword [the strong portion of the blade, closest to the guard] on the foible of your adversary.”

The beat, he suggests, is more useful for taking control of an adversary’s weapon than is the battery. [49]

Significantly, the master Evangelista mentions and quotes, Hope, represents an earlier Insular text. That is potentially a decent piece of support—geographically both Hope and Roworth are from the Isles, and though separated by a century, the similarity in their use of battery is suggestive. Both describe the use of the forte against the foible.

It can pay to be thorough, so a check through a few more sources is wise. Looking at Maitre Rob Handelman and Maitre de Sabre Connie Handelman’s Fencing Sabre: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes defines “beat” as:

A type of attaque au fer made by tapping the opponent’s blade sharply on the middle or upper part [311]

[attaques au fer: these attacks are actions that are more or less violently executed against the adversary’s blade. There are three kinds of attaques au fer: beat, pressure and expulsion (froissement). Beat and pressure are the only ones performed in modern sabre fencing] 310

Gaugler’s Fencing Terminology (18) offers:

Beat 1. French. a crisp movement of the blade against the opponent’s with the object of knocking it aside or obtaining a reaction, is called a beat. 2. Italian. a blow of measured violence delivered with the strong of the blade against the medium of the adversary’s steel to dislodge it from engagement or its position in line. The line in which the attacking blade encounters the opposing steel identifies the beat: we therefore speak of beats in first, second, third, and fourth.

Looking closer to my own tradition, Holzman’s translation of Settimo Del Frate’s Instruction in Fencing with the Sabre and the Sword (1876), provides a useful entry in his glossary (232):

Beat (Battuta, It.) A percussive blow against the opponent’s blade, meant to deviate it from line. It differs from the sforzo in that it is much smaller in scope and it rebounds quickly from the opponent’s blade rather than sliding on it. Capt. Del Frate’s sword text describes it as the falso pico (q.v.), but the sabre text does not discuss it. The beat in sabre does occur in Parise, Barbasetti, et al.

Now armed with definitions from 1692 to 2010, all of them pertaining to violent strikes against an opponent’s blade, we can better assess what Roworth describes as “battering.” No one definition may match exactly, but they are close enough that using comparison as well as paying close attention to the words Roworth uses we can get super close, and thus, derive a decent interpretation of this action.

Text & Weapon

With a grasp of each term one can then work it out text in one hand, sword in the other. For “battering,” one needs something to batter, so set up another weapon or dowel or similar as target. Returning to the text, Roworth tells us  

BATTERING

Is striking on your antagonist’s sword to obtain an opening, and requires the same degree of caution as bearing, lest your antagonist slip his blade from your stroke, and make a cut on the contrary side. It can seldom be attended with success against any but the outside and spadroon guards, when used to force an opening on the side at which you batter: but sometimes by inducing an adversary to resist that attack, you may disengage and cut on the contrary side.

Start small. Set up the target-sword (if you don’t have a partner) so that it approximates Roworth’s “outside guard.” This corresponds to modern third.

Roworth; Barbasetti; de Beaumont*

Now, strike the opposing steel to deviate it and cut. If you have a partner, do the same, and then try what the author suggests—have your partner react and attempt to parry, then coupé/make a cut-over to the other line (this is sometimes called an indirect cut today).

Mixing Modern and Historical Approaches

Where modern training can help is in the details. For example, traditional and modern fencing teach us to strike immediately after making the beat to avoid the chance of an attack into tempo. Likewise, we make the beat with the fingers and without the hand deviating from the plane of 2nd/3rd—to bring the arm across to beat opens the line and exposes us to a counter-attack.

Modern pedagogy can also help us hone our ability with this action. Start from standing, in distance, and perform the action several times. Then, take a half-step to a step back and perform it with a lunge. This will change things—does one beat first, on the extension, and then lunge, making this a two tempi action, or, does one make the beat as they extend and then flow into the cut in one tempo? Try both. Two tempi beats will be easier to start with and help isolate each action: start of extension, beat, finalization of extension and touch. Now try the same action from just out of distance so that one must advance or cross-step first before lunging. Lastly, try it moving, going back and forth, and then selecting the right moment. This can be practiced offensively (make the beat as your partner retreats) or defensively (make the beat as you retreat).

Depending on weapon weight some of this will need alteration. Weight affects tempo, and thus measure, so it pays to calibrate if one is switching from a weapon under 500g to one of more historical weight between 650-800g. [3]. The good news is that it’s fun experimenting, and in the process of changing weight of weapon, the measure, and varying the tempo will make a single entry, a single action in Roworth far, far more valuable and useful.

Of note, using contemporary progression with footwork or employing similar cautions in performing the action, doesn’t undercut the interpretation or mean one is being automatically anachronistic. These are tactics we use to understand our sources. The footwork Roworth advocates may be different in certain ways, but a knowledge of how we advance and retreat today will only help one in looking at the way the author treats these as well as in what he advocates for the traverse steps, the slip, etc. There is remarkable, demonstrable continuity of theme if not execution in using the sword in one hand. The similarities help us understand the differences that we find so exciting.

NOTES:

[1] The universals, as termed, vary, but the list always includes measure or distance, tempo (rate of an action, its rhythm, the time of a single fencing action), and judgment. Speed, timing(the favorable time to make an action), and initiative (the first person to start an action) are often listed as well. These are concepts, but there are more practical expressions too, e.g. the concept of lines or quadrants of target (inside, outside line; high line vs. low line; inside high, outside low, etc.), the necessity of the weapon and hand moving before the foot and body, the role of evasion, deflect, block, and others.

[2] I’ve listed a few of these above, websites and books, but there are many more. The key thing is to locate credible resources. This is especially true with the web; not everything is equally worthy of your time. Books, at least those vetted by an editorial team and in some cases outside reviewers, are a safer bet than those published by an enthusiast. Historical fencing is an amateur pursuit, and I’ll be the last to knock that, but we have people in the community who are better researchers, writers, and teachers than others and it pays to take the time to consider what you are reading. I rely heavily on the translations by Chris Holzman, but Chris was well-trained, holds certification in fencing, and has his translations read not only by native speakers, but native speakers who are recognized fencing experts. It matters.

Often an experienced, capable researcher can assist us too, but as with the web and books, do your homework. For Insular broadsword my first stop is Jay Maas, but Nick Thomas is another good resource. There is a LOT of broadsword video out there, much of it poor, so consider the poster’s qualifications, how they’re viewed by experts and the more experienced, knowledgeable amateurs.

[3] One “can” beat with sabres over 800g, I have myself, but this comes down to balance and purpose. A basket-hilt or khmali meant for foot combat, because the pob is closer to the guard, can make a lovely beat, but a trooper weight sabre, because the pob is farther out, is less ideal. It’s one reason we see so many single-tempo attacks in competitive HEMA sabre—the weapons they’re using are too heavy to do anything but simple actions (which makes sense if one is in the saddle, but next to no sense on foot).

* The image from Roworth is from The Art of Defence on Foot edited by Nick Thomas, available here: http://swordfight.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/ART-OF-DEFENCE-ON-FOOT-1824-Fourth-Edition.pdf . Barbasetti in third, is from the 1899/1936 The Art of the Sabre and Epee; the last image is from de Beaumont’s Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport (1978).

On Covering, Part II: Teaching Students about Covering

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

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

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

Start with the Weapon 

1873 Cavalry Sabre, Italy

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

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

Reenforcing the Idea of Defense First 

Del Frate, 1868

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

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

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

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

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

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

[*assuming two right-handers

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

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

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

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

Two Dead Samurai 

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

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

The Logic of Sharp Things 

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

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

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

Why this Matters 

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

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

NOTES: 

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

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

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

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

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

Mastery, Revisited

Mastery. It’s a word that conjures a variety of emotions and images. In fencing the word means different things depending on context. For most Olympic fencers the word refers primarily to a teaching position, that of “master,” and second, in a more abstract sense, to a high degree of skill. Often these are considered to go hand in hand. Outside the Olympic fencing world, however, it’s more difficult to define. On the one hand, because there are certified masters who dabble or contribute considerably to historical fencing and martial arts, we do have some masters in our midst, but on the other there is no single governing body within the historical community itself with the power to confer the title. [1] I’ve discussed this before (cf. post “Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery” May 24, 2019), and will try not to rehash the points I made there, but instead will focus on the topic from a different angle, one that comes up frequently. What is “mastery” in historical fencing? Does it even make sense to discuss “mastery” in historical fencing? Is it possible to have “masters” in our corner of the fencing world? [2] 

Master Ken

Though the topic of mastery can be a red herring, there are important lessons to be learned from examining the notion sans dreams of grandeur or aggressive McDojo-style marketing. It can help to unpack what “master” and “mastery” mean, because we use these words in different ways and they can mislead us if we aren’t careful.

“Master” as Occupational Title 

There are ample resources that discuss master-as-instructor, so I’ll only briefly state here what that means in terms of a maestro di scherma or maître d’armes. [3] Fencing masters, with some variance by accrediting body, generally have demonstrated to other masters that they possess a thorough understanding of theory, a command of both fundamentals and advanced skills, ample grounding in tactics, and some degree of skill in execution: at the very least they must be able to impart their knowledge and skill to students correctly. They must demonstrate not only knowledge and skill, but an ability to teach, and much of their training from moniteur to master consists of OJT. This means something. It doesn’t mean everything, but variance by person notwithstanding that training has worked for close to two-hundred years if not longer. Masters are first and foremost teachers, concerned with fencing education. In most ways this is not new. For all the famous masters named in the history of dueling or competition there were ten times the number of them quietly working in the background. 

Maestro Barbasetti

Some masters (extremely few) may know more history, but for the most part their focus has been the competitive sport and running a business. Historically, maestri were of humble station—a marquis or colonel might employ them, but they were not social equals. It wasn’t really until the modern Olympics and the birth of national competition that much of that changed. [4] Outside of world, national, and collegiate competition many maestri struggle to stay afloat. It is not an easy career path, and it’s not uncommon for fencing masters to hold down other jobs. [5] 

What separates a certified master from others is the fact they have undergone and succeeded in a program managed by those who did so before them. In truth, anyone who puts in the time, and has good teachers, might learn as much and develop the necessary skill level, but without the approval of certified peers they will never be a master, not in terms of professional title anyway. In a recent lecture by Dr. John Sullins online at Sala della Spada, the maestro explained that there are people who are masters in all but name; the example he cited was a fellow student he knew in the Italian program whose knowledge, ability, and teaching were excellent, but who never took his master’s certs. In this case, that student was recognized by his peers as equivalent to a master, but he isn’t in terms of accreditation. This doesn’t mean that the title is meaningless or that anyone can do the same thing, but to say that from time to time there are people out there who can and sometimes do the same job as a maestro. Hopefully they have the decency to avoid the title not having earned it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t learn from them. 

Historical Fencing & the Master 

Maestro Alfieri (fl. 1640)

For the most part the term “master” within historical fencing refers to an ancient title and job description. We speak of Master Fiore, the Bolognese Masters, Master Girard, Master Santelli, etc. Ideally, we recognize that while all these fencers may have shared this title that the title itself, the responsibilities that went with it, varied over time and by context. It’s a convenient term for “past experts.” Outside of modern, accredited masters working within historical fencing the idea of master as expert from the past is the safest, least problematic use of the title. This is true even when we use the term for experts who didn’t hold a certification as we normally think of it. 

Periodically the question of creating modern masters of historical fencing pops up, normally within the confines of social media, YouTube, and like ilk. There is something of the how many angels to a pinhead about this question—it’s decent navel-gazing, philosophical fodder, but functionally tends more to distract than inform. Our time would be better spent doing footwork drills. Where “master” as ancient title causes few issues, the discussion of creating modern masters of dead arts is a minefield. Opinion varies a lot as to the answer; here are my two cents. 

Master of a Dead Art vs. Master of Historical Fencing 

First, I’d make a distinction between master of a past art, say the Liechtenauer tradition or the Dardi School, and a master as it were of historical fencing. It may disappoint some of my associates, but I believe creating a master along the lines of the first definition is impossible. These are dead arts; the line was broken and in most cases a long, long time ago. Not only do we lack critical information about these past systems, but also our context is entirely removed from those of 15th century Germany or 16th century Bologna. It’s hubris to think we can do anything more than create a version of those arts, and, a version extremely modern and lacking much of what underpinned these ancient systems in their heyday. To name one example, the International Armizare Society (IAS) might create a neo-Armizare, but they cannot revive Armizare as Fiore taught it. Thus, they cannot create masters of Armizare per se, only masters of a modern take on Fiore’s teachings. [6] 

A master of historical fencing, theoretically, might be possible to create, but this title or position would be akin to earning a master’s degree in the history of medicine versus earning the MD and becoming a practicing physician. The requirements would demand command of the universal principles underlying all hand-to-hand combat, at least a working knowledge of several areas of historical fencing, demonstrated skill across those areas, and sufficient understanding of fencing pedagogy to teach effectively. The board reviewing this would consist of those fencing masters who work on historical topics, historians or similar experts who work on the regions and periods under question, and a few carefully selected people from the historical fencing community whose ability and insight would temper both the perspective of maestri created in modern programs and historians who more than likely have never held a sword. I have often thought about what such a panel might look like, even down to course of study and whom I would pick for the committee, but in truth the wide divisions within the community, communities really, suggest that if such a program were to arrive it won’t be any time soon. 

For now, I would suggest that the closest one can get to being a master of historical fencing is either to study formally the period in question and obtain training as a fencing instructor, or, become a fencing master and focus on the source tradition. This would mean attending an accredited program with ample attention paid to traditional technique.  There are already maestri doing this. [7] Some of these masters may be associated with “HEMA,” but in the US this is less often the case—here the hoi polloi in “HEMA” shun sport or traditional fencing. The few masters I know who work on things historical by and large work in small cohorts independent from mainstream HEMA. The scarlet “M.d.S/E.” applied to their plastrons isn’t lost on them; it makes little sense to waste time on a community where one is unwelcome.  

This is less a problem in Europe—fencing is venerable there where it has remained novel and exceptional State-side. To name only two examples, Maestro Francesco Loda, who also holds two PhDs in history, can navigate between historical and Olympic fencing easily. There is less of a stigma attached to the latter in Italy. Likewise, in Prague, Czechia, the Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895 school actively works with maestri from Club Riegel. Prevot Michael Kňažko, who runs this program, has a classical focus intimately connected to the Radaellian tradition as expressed by Luigi Barbasetti, but works with fencers from a variety of backgrounds too, everything from historical to Olympic to actors working their way through The Academy of Performing Arts (HAMU) in Prague. Leonid Křížek and Michael Šolc, maestri at Riegel, also work with Barbasetti Military Sabre and I’ve seen how effective the combination of traditional pedagogy and attention to the sources is firsthand. [8]

HEMA & the Masters of the MiniVerse 

“I said no grappling HEMA-man!”

As often as the topic comes up, and as badly as some obviously wish to be considered masters, the chance of a viable accreditation program in “HEMA” worth anything is slim. At present the likely outcome of any such effort would be a self-promoting society of vanity-degree holders. Even collectively, from every branch of the community, there is likely neither enough aggregate ability or agreement as to what this would look like or how to evaluate candidates. There is generally a poor understanding of theory where it’s not outright rejected, a shallow level of source knowledge except sometimes in the case of one’s particular focus, and by and large the average level of skill is mediocre.[9] Most importantly of all, there is no dedicated work toward improving teaching, and worse, even less interest in enlisting the help of people best situated to help correct, trained fencing maestri. 

There are other issues around creating “masters” in HEMA. Outside the community would this certification mean much? Would traditional maestri consider them as well-trained as themselves? I don’t have an answer, but I think it would be a hard sell if the only actual teachers in the field weren’t involved in some respect. We can ruminate as to what qualifications such a “master” ought to have, but while perhaps a fun exercise no amount of boxes checked would likely make Person X a master in the eyes of most people. 

Masters by Popular Acclaim 
Another possibility, one rife with issues, is the potential to become a master by acclaim. How this wouldn’t descend into trouble is hard to imagine: there would be the big fish in small ponds who are the best in their pond, but unremarkable outside it; there would be those desperate to be seen as masters and angle for it, but who aren’t remotely qualified or interested in the actual job; there are also people of sense who, if named, would wisely say thanks but no thanks. Off the top of my head I can think of two people right now, both less connected to HEMA but involved in historical fencing, who to me embody the best aspects of mastery—they’re truly skilled, but they’re also dynamite teachers. Neither I think would be comfortable with the title, honored though they might be, and it’s hard not to blame them. [No, I’m not one of the two—one lives in Kansas, the other in Texas, and that’s as much as I’m willing to say 😉] 

Mastery—Goal or Approach? 

Master Pai Mei, “Kill Bill” Vol. 2 (2004)

Leaving aside the traditional notion of a person capable of passing on a body of knowledge effectively, especially to other instructors, what about the concept of “mastery” itself? Most people mistakenly supply the idea of a superior fighter to the label. A master in this sense is more akin to the white-haired, long-bearded kung fu master in B movies, wise somehow and utterly capable of humiliating any foe. It’s a lovely fantasy. The reality is that some masters died fighting, others never had to fight—it was not their job. They were primarily teachers. 

We’re conditioned to view a master through the lens of fiction and cinema. The scenes of challenge in films like Bruce Lee’s “The Chinese Connection/Fists of Fury” (1972) or its updated version “Fist of Legend” with Jet Li, where school rivalries lead to murder and additional challenges in vengeance, we unwittingly apply not only to Asian martial arts but others too. It’s present in the western canon of film as well—Prince Humperdink, remember, as he surveys the ground where Inigo and the Man in Black fought, concludes that they were both “masters.” I’ve yet to meet a master, of any kind, who has had to live or had any wish to live the life of Mister Miyagi; and while I’ve met more than one John Kreese of Cobra Kai, they stand out and in time bully themselves out of a job. “The Karate Kid” (1984; 2010) is not reality; it’s just a good story. 

It is true that many western masters, from Fiore to Pini, fought duels. Many more did not. Many also lost. One examination of Talhoffer, for example, suggests that he lost to another fighter. [10] This was likely more common than we think. The context of these duels is important too, especially since we have nothing remotely related to them today. Competition between masters has often been more about attracting students and staying in business than beating rivals; how they do that today is just different. Where Fiore had to fight, sometimes without armor no less, because he might lose his following otherwise, today’s masters fight it out with sale memberships, ad campaigns, and hopefully offering the best program they can. For masters in Italy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, professional rivalries might spill out onto the dueling ground, but not all the duels these masters fought were over teaching turf. 

Masteries 

Ron Burgundy, “Anchorman,” (2004)—I’ve seen too much of this attitude in “HEMA”

We define “mastery” different ways in fencing because in truth there are different aspects of it one can attempt to chase. Some fencers, probably most, look at mastery as a goal, as something they can attain by being the “best” fighter out there. Others, might focus on the most accurate knowledge and demonstration of technique. Still others might aim to possess near bardic knowledge of the sources. Then, there are the fencers who wish to possess all three. There are pros and cons to each of these, but the focus on “mastery” as a goal, as something we can work to achieve often leads us to the wrong places if not bad ones.  
 
This is not to say that one shouldn’t strive to do one’s best. Nor is it to say that one shouldn’t try to win bouts, develop gorgeous technique, or an impressive knowledge of the sources, but it is to say that mastery is perhaps best used as a carrot. After all, “best” is a relative concept—the “best” fencer in Bigcity USA may lose to the “best” fighter in Pigsty Village. This is another area I’ve said far too much about, but it’s true. One adage to keep in mind in re the question of superiority is the anecdotal remark that the finest fencer in France doesn’t fear the second best, they fear the worst. The second will, as soon as they take guard, reveal the fact that they’ve been trained if the fact wasn’t widely known; the worst fencer, however, is unpredictable and therefore in many ways far more dangerous. 

Tae Kwon Douglas, “Disjointed” (2017-2018)

Excellence, one’s best, is a good goal to work towards, but we do that work best when we realize that the concept of mastery itself is relative at best, chimerical at worst. Mastery, in many ways, is perhaps better viewed as more of a journey, an approach, than a destination or attainable goal. We can strive to improve, grow, and become better fencers and fighters, and with luck, better people. This focus does much to help rid of us the usual suspects that affect our growth and improvement. If our fiercest competition is ourselves; if the person we most want to beat is ourselves yesterday, then we’re more likely to see our fellow fencers as fellow travelers on the same journey. We will be more likely to view them as our partners, as our fellow guides. While we strive to beat them in bouts, we do so recognizing that ultimately they are helping us overcome ourselves and grow as fighters and people. [11] 

Take Aways 

I believe historical fencing would benefit from having something akin to a master of historical fencing program, but it’s hard to see that working out to the satisfaction of the majority. Perhaps one day we might see such a thing materialize. Until then, it behooves us to give credit to what today’s masters have to teach us. In like vein, I’d urge the masters, and especially the accreditation programs, to include more of the source material that informs today’s fencing than they do. Even the Italian program State-side doesn’t avail itself of the rich corpus that created it. [12] 

For us as individual fencers, if we focus on mastery as something to reach for, but which we can never attain we’re more likely to focus on what we should and improve. The line between the urge to grow and the ambition to be seen a certain way can be a slippery slope; it’s far easier to seek public acclaim because our culture idolizes fame, even fame where a handful of people comprise the audience. The Art is difficult, it is demanding, and distractions that pander to our egos rather than support our practice we should avoid. 

NOTES

[1] There is an option in the USFCA for focus in historical fencing, but I’m not sure if this is a dead letter. Some unfortunate political ugliness entered the picture and so far as I know no additional fencers have been so certified. 

[2] Facebook has been one platform of discussion, see especially Jay Mass, post Dec. 19, 2018; and Da’Mon Stith, post/video, July 10th, 2020. 

[3] In short, masters are custodians of the tradition, not only as instructors in their own right, but as those who certify new instructors. Provosts/Prévôts do much the same work as masters, but focus more on training fencers vs. other teachers. Moniteurs are able to teach all the fundamental actions and techniques and some tactics. Among treatments of the occupation, see Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); J. D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms: From the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956); though dated and requiring caution, Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Defense (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003), originally published in 1885, remains useful; Richard Cohen, By the Sword (New York, NY: Random House, 2002); Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century and Champion of the Sport of Fencing,” in Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism 17: 4 (2010): 323-334; William H. Gaugler, The History of Fencing (Bangor, ME: Laureate Press, 1998); Jacopo Gelli, Bibliografia Generale della Scherma con note Critiche, Biografiche, e Storiche, Testo Italiano e Francese (Firenze: Tipografia Editrice di L. Niccolai, 1890);  Michael Julian Kirby, “From Piste to Podium—A Qualitative Exploration of the Development of Fencing Coaching in Britain,” MPhil, Universty of Birmingham, UK, 2014. 

[4] The social position of maestri historically was relatively low. In the Middle Ages fight-masters might be men of some degree of rank or an experienced commoner. Depending on where one was and when, some military training for young aristocrats might be obtained from extended family, friends of the family, or in some cases acquired living abroad. Local masters might be hired as well. Patronage was important and remained so into the 19th century. As the aristocracy increasingly transformed into the officer class, and as their time opened up for other pursuits, fencing started to become a “class” pursuit as well as important training. In time, fencing, like dancing, equitation, and good manners were considered proper elements of education, and this helped elevate those teaching these young people. Some, like Domenico Angelo, became minor celebrities, but for each Angelo there were just as many masters whom we only know by name or who had to rely on other avenues to stay afloat. James Figg, for example, a well-known instructor in early 18th century England is best remembered as a prize-fighter. 

[5] Many of the masters I know or have worked with hold a “day job” in addition to teaching fencing. We used to joke that as formidable as Maestro Couturier was as a fencer and coach, the fact that he worked for the IRS made him twice as scary. 

[6] As of this date the section on certification is under construction, but cf. https://armizare.org/  

[7] There are a number of certified maestri working in historical fencing—to name only a few there are David and Dori Coblentz, Adam Crown, Puck Curtis, Sean Hayes, Leonid Křížek, Francesco Loda, Kevin Murakoshi, and Giovanni Rapisardi. 

[8] The quality of teaching at Barbasetti Military Sabre is extremely high. There is a direct correlation between the fact that the instructors are all well-trained in fencing as well as in other branches of martial arts. They recently lost a dear friend and maestro, Jan Kostka—though he has passed on I didn’t want to mention the instructors at the school without mentioning his important place and contribution to their program. 

[9] Experience is a relative concept and has to be viewed against several other important considerations. One might spend a lifetime fencing and have little to show for it; one might spend a few years and become a paragon of technique and application. However, these tend to be exceptions, poles of the spectrum, and most people fall somewhere in the middle. So, the HEMA player with five years’ experience in say KdF may know a bit about “The Zettel” and even more about Meyer, but will have little reason to weigh in on things Olympic and vice versa unless they’ve spent suitable time on them. 

[10] See for example: https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/1444-two-fencing-masters-in-rothenburg/ 

[11] For the cinematically inclined, the discussion about tea/martial arts in “Fearless” 2006) provides a nice example of the idea that “through the competition we can discover and get to know one’s true self” https://youtu.be/ZVkI0vbHcz4 

[12] I have great respect for the Fencing Master’s Certificate program at Sonoma State University, California, but at last check they were using only the works penned by Maestro William Gaugler. It was Gaugler who brought the program to the US and established it in San Jose. Given the talent there, I’m unsure why they would limit themselves to Gaugler’s works when there are so many more, and many better, than those of the late maestro. Since the focus of the program, as I have understood it anyway, is both traditional and focused on pedagogy, it’s puzzling that they don’t rely on László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master or avail themselves of the translations made by Chris Holzman.