Romance & the Ridiculous—Historical Fencing, Realism, and the Fringe Element

Last month I set to beating a favored Bucephalus, safety. Important as I think the discussion is—safety features in blade design—I was unhappy with the way it turned out, with my mode of expression. There was too much ire and not enough constructive criticism—while rants sans useful feedback may be de rigueur in modern American social and political life, they shouldn’t be. When we err, we can try to fix it and so this post is my attempt to cover some of the same concerns, but in a more appropriate manner.

We never lack for examples when discussing safety. The issue that came to my attention this week was alarming. It didn’t concern equipment per se, but behavior and outlook. Having left fb I would never have seen it, but my friends still managing the “Military and Classical Sabre” page on fb, a page I used to help admin, were debating what to do about a problematic post. I’m still in that chat group and long story short was asked to weigh in; I had earlier written one of those “oh that sucks, yikes, good luck” messages to show support, but no longer active on fb I didn’t want to usurp anyone. Clever people, they can easily manage without my input, and my butting in would be inappropriate. But the next morning a few of them approached me about strategies for writing a response, so I did my best to help.

When I was working as an admin I spent most of my time doing two things. First, I attempted to establish and foster a culture where polite, evidence-based debate was possible, and where a truly international community could meet and discuss the wonders of the sabre family safely. Second, I handled most problems, not only dealing with whatever the issue was (and the author at times), but also in using such occasions to reenforce the expectations for behavior. It takes a lot of time and energy to do all that, and it’s often unpleasant work. I won’t lie, really relieved I’m not handling this one.

The post in question asked the 6,000 members of the page if they would be interested in seeing live bouts, with sharp swords, and whether they’d be willing to pay to view these gladiatorial tragedies.  Issues of fb policy about such questionable posts aside, this rightly raised concerns for the admins. It seems impossible that anyone would fail to see what a superbly bad idea this is, but judging by the comments the misguided poster has supporters. Maybe it was hypothetical, but the poster admitted that he would watch such a fight, lethal or not, and that he had watched people fight with sharps, though he shared no details. I don’t believe these are bad people. I want to believe, least I hope, that the majority aren’t sociopaths. Most likely they’re simply naïve and apply what they know from an agonistic context to an antagonistic one. [1] This doesn’t make this idea any less dangerous, but it might help explain why some members were all for it.

Romance & the Sword

People get involved in fencing, any fencing, for many reasons. Somewhere in that mix, usually, is a wish to live out or experience, even at a distance, what d’Artagnan, Rassendyll, Scaramouche, Zorro, and Luke Skywalker bring to life. Literature, film, t.v., comic books, most any way we enjoy story has so often involved fencing. It’s as true of Rafael Sabatini’s novels—so many of which became movies—as it is more recent tales like “Star Wars.” The sword is universal; most every culture has some example of it. Richard F. Burton, in his The Book of the Sword, remarked that “The history of the sword is the history of humanity.” [2] Much as Burton got wrong, I suspect he wasn’t too far off with this conclusion.

I have yet to meet anyone who got involved in fencing because they believe they look sexy in tight white polyester and enjoy the sound of buzzers as pretty lights flash. Similarly, no one I’ve met in historical circles joined up because of their love of thick black jackets, loud socks, and the masochistic thrill that is taking multiple Zwerchhaus to a mask not designed for that sort of battery. Okay, so I do know a few who dig the socks, but otherwise, what draws all these fencers—regardless of preference—is the romance around the sword. This is fine, of course, and for some maybe it is a way to live out some fantasy as Lancelot or Captain Blood, but no matter what every fencer should realize the difference between romance and reality.

A German student is patched up post Mensur

This said, because we no longer use swords we have little idea of what life was like when they were typical weapons. Most newsworthy events involving sword injuries are either freak accidents or crimes committed by those with severe behavioral pathologies. The few other modern examples stand out as exceptions—they’re anything but normal. There are the right-wing morons in Hamburg who slice one another up, there are religious sects like the subset among some Shia Muslims who flagellate themselves with sharp swords, a few isolated examples of fencers who thought they’d give it a try in varying degrees of seriousness, and then the one stand-out example with a venerable history regardless of how one feels about it, German fraternity duels, the Mensur.

The sword belongs to the past, and the past can have deep connections to fantasy. This is why it’s perhaps easier for people to ascribe what they’ve read or seen in novels and movies to what was, in truth, a bloody business. In a similar way many fencers view what they’re learning with more wishful thinking than honest assessment. The reality behind “swordfighting” is anything but pretty. Anyone who has experienced accidents from a kitchen or craft knife will understand this. Somehow, though, there can be a disconnection between any such injury and what swords can do. The gulf is widened even farther by the fact that modern safety equipment, most of the time, does keep people safe, even at full speed. Fencers are thus conditioned to fight with a false sense of security all the time.

One outcome of this for some fencers is too great a confidence in their skill set. This is a hard fact to demonstrate, especially to those who believe themselves so dangerous, because the few avenues they have to “test” those skills are false positives. The worst cases are often found among some who win gold medals, but fail to appreciate the contextual differences between mock and actual combat. They are not the same. The weapons may be similar; that trainer may be as real as can be save for an edge, but at the end of the day there is one fact that is inescapable: our psychology pre-match and our psychology pre-dangerous fight are not the same. There is similarity, but only on the surface. Many competitors experience jitters before a match, but what do they worry about? They worry about doing well, about advancing; of disappointing themselves, their instructor, or teammates; they worry they will be embarrassed if they score too few hits or mess up or lose; but what they’re not worried about so much is the very real chance they may be seriously injured, disfigured, crippled, or killed.

To demonstrate the difference, look up most any fencing bout on Youtube. Take your pick of Olympic or historical footage. Note how quickly and from the off one or both fencers rush at the other. Notice how little caution they display. Now, check out the various footage of late period duels, most between 1900-1920, that schlager7 has shared on Youtube:

Duel between Jean Gung and Georges Tinet, 1911–still image from

This was early 20th cen. film, so the speed will be a little quick and the action somewhat staccato, but notice the difference in how most duelists move. Notice the hesitancy, even as each makes small false attacks in hopes of finding an open line. Their hands move fast, but their feet do not, and it isn’t until the feet move that one of the duelists has decided they have a shot. In these duels—most with epee/spada—the concern not to be hit is obvious. One can laugh all one likes at the size of an epee blade, but the damage one can do to a body is anything but laughable, particularly when the person wielding it means to and wants to do harm. Like its ancestor the smallsword, that 30-35 inch spike rushing toward one is powered by the weight, ire, fear, and power of the opponent, and is hardly something to laugh at.

The Ridiculous

This fb post, even if hypothetical, was a bad idea if for no other reason that it will fuel the fires of fools. [3] The well-known maxim “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” enjoys too many manifestations in historical fencing. A few standout examples of the silly include the toe-first lunge (a result of misreading text and image and of misapplying semi-related works, chiefly from dance); the baseball grip for longsword as the one and true way to hold the weapon (despite a legion of period images arguing for a wide variety), the idea that “military” and “dueling” sabre are different (both look to military sources and the difference, such as it is, is one of context), and the idea that all feints are bad (contrary to a plethora of sources where masters cover them and mention the potential dangers). There is a lot of ridiculousness in HEMA. A lot. The interpretative examples just mentioned can be set side by side with similar gems from the tourney world (too much concern about afterblows, not enough about initial strikes), some of the books produced on various topics (from poor translations that are popular to expensive photo-rich works that blind the unwary to how little of substance lies within), and in the unfortunate turn that cutting contests have taken (the goal is to cut through the matts, not to cut within the mechanics of a given text or system). The idea of bloody prize-fights, of what amount to snuff-films, is a step beyond foolish: it is irresponsible, unhealthy, and potentially criminal. No one with any sense should want anything to do with it; those who do need help.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Ship of Fools” (ca. 1490-1500)

As a wise student of mine reminds me often, we all have staterooms on the ship of fools, no exceptions. I will be the last to deny it—if anything I feel my stateroom expands a little too much too often. The saving grace is perhaps realizing our propensity for the foolish and doing what we can to mitigate it. This can be challenging, especially given the degree to which the Dunning-Kruger effect is in play when it comes to martial arts. One aspect of this effect are assorted types of over-confidence. Among these classifications the one most germane here is overestimation,

the discrepancy between someone’s skills and their perception of those skills. People who overestimate themselves frequently engage in wishful thinking with harmful consequences. If someone overestimates their capabilities, they may take dangerous risks and overextend themselves beyond their limits, like an athlete pushing themselves to the point of injury. [4]

Fencers perhaps suffer from this more often than we might think, especially because of the pervasive values in the culture. Among these perhaps the most pernicious is the sense that tournament victories reveal the superior fighter. Winning a match can reveal true skill, but it is not automatic, a fact long recognized before tournaments existed.

For example, Andrew Steinmetz in The Romance of Duelling (1868) wrote “I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field (61).” The duel in question was between a young officer, known for his skill with the foil, who fell to a “hardy, active, thickset youth, with the eye of a hawk and the nerve of a lion.” The kid had no training, but had nerve. [5] Mark Twain, who wrote about the duel on several occasions, also commented on this fact with his usual humor:

But, don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. [6]

Even a seasoned duelist who survived multiple, even numerous duels could fall prey to some duffer scared out of their wits. To name one such example Felice Cavallotti, an Italian politician who had fought some thirty duels, died when he failed to be cautious. Aldo Nadi relates the duel in On Fencing, and though short, the description is gripping:

They met. After the usual instructions, the duel began. Seized by the fire of battle, Cavallotti jumped forward, shouting and swinging his sabre. Overwhelmed by this outburst, Macola froze. Instinctively, he stiffened his arm. Cavallotti’s weapon found no target. Macola’s blade passed through Cavallotti’s open mouth and out of the back of his neck. Cavallotti died on the spot. Macola wrote a beautiful obituary. [7]

The advantage the experienced duelist has is more a species of nerve than superior skill. Steinmetz, in referring to the young veterans in France post-Waterloo who sought out young, visiting Englishmen to exterminate, reminds the reader that these men had been “accustomed from their earliest years to face danger in every form, they had the advantage, even when their antagonists were equally skilled in handling the weapon.” (66) He adds that

Few sensations are more delightful than those we enjoy upon finding ourselves secure after our lives have been placed in imminent peril, and men who have once known the pleasure of escaping danger often seek it, or are, at least, careless about exposing their persons, hoping again to experience similar gratification. (66)   

I have known a number of modern veterans who have struggled with this very phenomenon. They got to enjoy combat, the challenge, the risk, the excitement of facing a foe and living another day. Nice as gold medals and trophies are, whatever we feel upon having an award handed to us is nothing like what those exposed to life and death combat experience upon surviving, particularly those who come to enjoy it. [8]


I have spent most of my life at this point, in some respect, fencing. Teaching fencing and researching its history is currently my daily work, well, one of several jobs, and from experience, research, and observation I am concerned about people who wish to play warrior or duelist when they are grossly unprepared for what that means. It doesn’t matter if one is fencing Olympic or historical—the truth is that neither trains one for actual fighting the way say Krav Maga or boot camp do. In historical fencing, ostensibly, we are trying to be as accurate to fencing-as-a-combat-system as possible, but by the definition we can only do this to a point. [9] We must take safety precautions for reasons of good sense if not potential legal trouble, and mostly so that we don’t kill off the people interested in learning about it or they us. Historical fencing is a past-time. The corners we cut, which we must, do not prepare us for the reality of a naked blade in hand and another pointing at us. It’s a question of mindset, and while we can, and arguably should do all we can to cultivate an artificial awareness of how serious all this would be, by no stretch of the imagination should we train or proceed in such a way that people increase the chances of being hurt.

Bruce Lee, “Enter the Dragon,” 1973

All fencers—instructors, students, whoever—have a responsibility to one another as comrades in arms, as fellow people, to keep one another safe and demonstrate the virtues that the Art can bring out in us. If one works with children this is all the more important. We are not gladiators, and we should never be assassins—if we have learned well then we should know that the best martial artists do what they can to avoid a fight. They find ways to resolve an issue peacefully, and only call upon their skill when this fails. We should all endeavor to be ideal seconds, not duelists, and as such condemn needless danger. This particular danger, if realized, would do more than alarm authorities unlikely to sit idly by as people square off with sharp swords, but very likley damage or end lives. Horrible as this to contemplate for anyone, the damage collectively is worth considering too. Most authorities would condemn any such notion, and so should we.


[1] J. Christoph Amberger, a well-known researcher of fencing history, was the first I read to use this helpful distinction between antagonistic combat, where the potential for hurt is present and one purpose, and agonistic combat, or sport fighting, fencing as a pastime. There is a spectrum between these two poles, however, and I suspect that Amberger, who fenced Mensur in college, might list fencing with sharp schlagers as sort of a mix. The context for the Mensur is different than this pay-per view bloodsport—traditionally the university students who belong to the dueling fraternities observe strict rules and safety precautions. It’s a form of ritual combat, and while injuries are part of it, the target is limited and the action stopped after a hit by the seconds.

[2] Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword, London: Chatto and Windus, 1884. Reprint, New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1987, xv.

[3] This quotation has been ascribed to a number of people. For a fun discussion about it see

[4] “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” Psychology Today,, 12-19-2020. See also Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J., “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 3 (2003): 83-87; “Studies in Swollen Heads: What Causes Overconfidence?” March 19, 2018, APS: Association for Psychological Science, The seminal article by Dunning and Kruger came out in 1999, J. Kruger and D. Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 6 (1999): 1121-1134.

[5] Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1868), 61.

[6] Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 344 [New York: Harper Brothers, 1917; Google Books]. In A Tramp Abroad Twain wrote much about German student dueling. Chapter VIII, “The Recent Great French Duel,” is a tour-de-force of humor if unfair to the valor of the French. The first line sets the tone well: “Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold.”

[7] Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994, 21. Originally published 1943. The New York Times covered the story March 7, 1898, see

[8] Out of respect for these warriors, young and old, who struggle with simultaneously enjoying combat and living in a culture that, supposedly, decries violence, I will mention no names. My heart goes out to them as I’ve seen how this emotional Janus tears them apart. My first encounter with this phenomenon outside my own family was with a young retired marine who was taking my ancient history class. Comments I had made about the motivations of characters like Achilles caught his attention and he stayed after class to ask me about it. I didn’t know he had served, but he shared with me how much it meant to have someone speak about the joy these characters took in fighting, something he had come to like too and really struggled with. His plans were to work for the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, USA) on storm ships, chasing hurricanes, etc. because he missed the risk and danger. I’m not alone in finding this theme in works like “The Iliad” where we see the eagerness of Achilles and the hesitation of Hector. See Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York, NY: Scribner, 1994.

[9] Were those who study Armizare, for example, to approach Fiore’s delights more realistically the number of broken elbows and smashed teeth alone would quickly send people packing. Those of us teaching later period systems would run considerable risks were we using sharps. It just doesn’t make any sense. There are those, like Roland Warzecha/Dimicator, who use sharps to train at slow speed and within strict boundaries, but he too is an exception. Most people aren’t Roland and moreover have not trained in environments that prepare them for using sharp weapons.

What to Look for (and Avoid) in HEMA Instructors

early hema

In the world of sword-arts, HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) occupies a unique place as it is, by and large, an amateur pursuit. “Amateur” here is not a put-down, just the appropriate word to use, because apart from the few accredited fencing maestri out there who represent living traditions and work on the older stuff, most everyone else comes to HEMA as an interested enthusiast. Many if not most of us started in sport or classical fencing or other martial arts (e.g. Asian martial arts), but unless you’re young and a more recent student of historical fencing, chances are good that you learned from someone who has just been working on something longer than you have. That is okay, it’s just how it is, but not all instructors are equal and it pays to do your homework.

This is an important consideration as there are increasingly more people setting themselves up as instructors and without a viable certification program how is one to know if they’re worth visiting? While in time some qualification process might be in place, and as nice as a certification program might be, it would still be wise to have some guidelines for judging potential teachers as even some qualified instructors, no matter the field of study, can be stinkers. [1] One needs to have some measure by which to evaluate them as well as a handy list of red-flags.

The following check-list is a place to start—you may have individual concerns to add to the basic list. However, if a person or school fails most of this list, I’d recommend you keep looking:

School/Group Culture: The general feel of a place can tell you a lot about the person or people running a school. How open and friendly are they? When you call, email, or visit them, how quick are they to respond and how openly? How inclusive is the school—are there women there, younger students, older students, people in different states of fitness? What is the school’s focus? Does it tend toward the scholarly (source-driven, play oriented); is it purely tourney centered, is it a mix?

A lot comes down to what you want. If your interest is to fight in tourneys, then you should look for a school that does that and an instructor who has that as one goal for their program. There’s no wrong answer in terms of what you want—some people just want to fight, some people want to build a more complete skill set and understanding regardless of tourneys, and still others want the SCA without all the rules. Find the culture that appeals to you. This said, any version of these schools is probably going to be a better fit if they’re friendly and open to a diversity of students.

Personality: Tied to culture, the instructor’s personality has a lot to do with a school’s culture—people gravitate to people they relate to. Whatever an instructor’s focus within HEMA there are some things to look for and not surprisingly they’re tied pretty closely to the same openness, friendliness, and sense of community mentioned above. Is the instructor arrogant? Do they build students up or tear them down? Do they praise and encourage when making corrections or embarrass students? How do they respond to questions? You’re spending time and money, and unless being abused is your thing it’s probably best to keep looking.

Forgeng I 33

Experience/Qualifications: This is one of the hardest things to assess and because of the diversity of sources, not to mention instructor experience, it will vary. A lot. This said, there are again some general guidelines. Some instructors may know a lot, but be poor teachers; others may be good fighters, but know little of the source material; still others might be a decent mix of both. Many think they know a lot or have a lot of skill, but are really little more than attribute fencers with deep ego needs. If you can find a healthy balance of knowledge and skill, great, but you may need to compromise and that is okay. It may take a few visits to see what sort of person you’re working with too.

If you have no previous background in fencing or related arts, it can be extremely difficult to judge an instructor’s knowledge and skill. But there are some tells—any instructor who has spent serious time studying martial arts will have a degree of humility and will acknowledge the skill of his or her peers. Generally, they are cautious and tentative in presenting new material—all HEMA is interpretation and some interpretations are better than others.  Anyone telling you “no, this is how they did it” without decent evidence is someone to avoid.[2] Likewise avoid anyone pretending to have learned something in secret–more often than not this is going to be pure bull-shido.

If you find someone who is at constant pains to brag while putting down their peers, that’s not a good sign. A good instructor will be able to explain where something comes from, say a particular move, why we do it, and how. They’re open to questions and different points of view. They should be able to point to the sources they use too. A good instructor will also admit when they don’t know something; even better instructors will then help you find an answer. A good instructor will push you to improve, but will be supportive and encouraging in doing so. This stuff is hard enough without some jerk making you feel bad about it.

Akademia Szermierz still
Some of the crew from Akademia Szermierz, Poland–they clearly approach Fiore dei Liberi’s _armizare_ as a martial art. See

Approach: Since we’re talking HEMA, there should be a fairly large emphasis on the H and the MA side of the acronym. Ostensibly any instructor in HEMA is looking at the sources—if not, I’m not really sure what they’re doing.

We know the little we know and we build our interpretations of past combat arts from surviving sources.

The martial arts aspect is important too—the goal should be “don’t get hit” followed by “hit and don’t be hit.” If either of these is missing, you’re in the wrong place.

Remuneration: Different schools and instructors have different rates. Comparative shopping is important. Most schools struggle to stay open, so what you pay generally goes to rent and gear. Few people make a living teaching historical fencing.

Look at their pay structure against what they teach. Do they have options for payment? HEMA is expensive, make no mistake, and many instructors will work with you to find a way to make dues less onerous. Floor fees are common, but many schools will also give you a first visit or two free. That can be a good indication of what to expect. If someone offers individual lessons, ask them how they run their lessons, what they generally teach, and how much they ask.

Safety: Better instructors will have a culture of safety and enforce it; they will seek to prevent injury, not encourage it. There’s a fair amount of macho, HEMA-bro-culture out there, sadly, so if you’re into that nonsense, go for it. It won’t be hard to find. It seems silly to have to list this, but given the general machismo when it comes to safety it needs to be said: find someplace safe. Does your instructor require the basic safety equipment? Do you see people fencing without it? How well do they take care of the masks, gloves, jackets, etc.? How courteous are fencers with one another? How courteous is the instructor?  Are they using insufficient equipment for the weapons they train, and if so, do they have protocols for how to do that safely? [3] Do they have insurance? Have you signed a waiver?

Everyone wants to get fighting as quickly as possible, but jumping in, full bore, on the first day is not wise. Learning how to fight with swords takes time, drill, patience, and dedication—you don’t make progress over night, but over years. Be wary of any program ready to throw you into the mix with no to very little training. The truth is that any fencing school must consider the lowest common denominator when it comes to safety, not the best case scenario.

In summary, here are the basic red-flags. If you see any of these, walk. Your time, money, and safety are worth more.

Common Red-flags:

  • arrogance
  • poor ability to take criticism or correction
  • narrow-minded, bigoted, or predatory
  • lack of qualifications (this includes appeals to secret knowledge or training or connections to dubious “experts”)
  • incapable of or unwilling to work with others
  • incapable of or unwilling to appreciate student ability/gifts/credentials/questions
  • problem child in larger community
  • dangerous and unconcerned with safety
  • discomfort with students visiting other schools or instructors; cultish possessiveness

To be honest, sometimes you can’t see all the red flags right away, especially if you’re an occasional visitor and/or if the problem instructor is good at hiding it, but it will out. The community, wherever you are, generally has a decent notion of where not to go.

All of this assumes you want to learn swordplay in earnest and well. It’s a long, difficult path to proficiency, and you have to be willing to put in the time. Find an instructor who can not only impart technique and passion for this complex field of study, but also one who will be there to help you and keep you going when you’re ready to quit. Any such instructor is, by definition, not going to have a lot of these foibles.


[1] The HEMA Alliance has such a program, but not everyone in HEMA is part of the alliance and their program is not universally accepted. See

[update 10-4-19: There are some organizations I forgot about and share here. One is AIMA (Associazione Italiana Maestri d’Arme) and the other is one branch of the sport org AIMS (Associazione Italiana Maestri di Scherma), which has certified a number of Maesti di Scherma Storica (historical fencing).

[2] There’s a difference between “this is how we interpret this passage” and “because I say so.” Context is everything, and some sources are much more difficult to work with, and thus, force us to be more tentative.

[3] Most clubs use normal fencing masks. They’re the most available, most affordable option, but they’re not designed for anything heavier than epee most of the time. So, if your interest is longsword, overly heavy sabre (i.e. trooper weight meant for use in the saddle), pole-arms, etc., be sure to ask how the school mixes these weapons with fencing masks. It can be done more safely, but any mask can fail. One of my favorite examples of just how easily a fencing mask can be crunched is here:

Safety Basics

This can be a thorny topic. We talk a lot about safety, it sort of comes with the territory, but ask any gathering of historical fencers what safe-practice means to them and you’ll likely get more than one answer. People come to historical fencing from different backgrounds, with different gear, safety protocols, and expectations. This is an important point to keep in mind. It might be a window into your instructor’s approach, but also it may explain why your training partners have different attitudes toward safety in class.

In some respects, safety is a relative term. For example, I have friends and colleagues who generally wear only an unpadded canvas jacket. This is what they wore at the sala where they started out. The maestro who runs that school is classically trained and his program for Armizare, just as in his traditional fencing classes, inculcates an increasing amount of skill and control over time. Because his fencers have this control, and because they gradually build toward more intense drill, they can wear light jackets in relative safety. Not everyone starts this way—I see people from many backgrounds, classical, Olympic, MMA, Asian martial arts, and SCA. Each typically brings with them the safety protocols they are most familiar with, but naturally they don’t always meet up. Some are far more conservative, some downright dangerous. Combined with varying levels of skill differing ideas about safety can create a potential landmine.

In this clip, for example, my friend Mike Cherba, head instructor at Northwest Armizare, demonstrates that even a normal blow from a feder can wreck the typical fencing mask: I know Mike well, and trust me, this is not his hardest cut—strong as he is, Mike’s level of control is equal to it and he’s one of the few people I feel I could fence with in longsword with a normal mask. If you’ve followed any HEMA tourney footage then you’ve seen people hit way, way harder. What constitutes a “hard blow” is relative too.

What can we do to mitigate that? First, we need to be aware of these differences. It isn’t necessarily something people think about it, but they need to. Not just the instructor, everyone. Expectations within any group or school should be explicit. This ensures that anyone new to that school knows what the culture is, what gear requirements are, and armed with that information can decide whether or not it’s the school for them.

Second, people need to have a minimum of protective gear—just because they shouldn’t need it doesn’t mean they won’t. You have to plan for the lowest common denominator with chance of injury, not the best case scenario. A mask is a must, ditto a jacket, solid hand protection, and guards for groin and neck. Chest protectors are not a bad idea for both sexes as well. It will only take one broken rib to convince most people, but better they never get the broken rib. I was never a big fan of the gorget, but I also recently heard about two near-misses that convinced me that they’re a good idea (so that is me overcoming my own background and bias).

Third, the instructor must cultivate, and enforce, a culture of safety. Despite some excellent recent articles about the idiocy and dangers of the “go hard or go home” mentality, there is still a disproportionately large number of people who embrace the idea that only pain teaches. This is macho bullshit at its worst. If that’s your thing, fine, find a club that caters to the fight-club ethos, but it’s on you. If you’re young, just remember this—whatever fun you have now, whatever injuries you incur, they come back to haunt you later and will affect the quality of your life. I was never given to macho b.s. much, but in my twenties I was certainly less cautious and had no mind for the possible long-term effects of injury. Now, comfortably into my forties… I have joint issues all along my right side—knee, hip, elbow, and shoulder—thanks to over-training, fighting while injured, and a few unrelated accidents that compounded these existing problems; I have scar tissue from a stab wound and broken fingers that also compromise my ability to train and enjoy something I love. Be smarter than I was.

In designing curriculum, the instructor needs to assess the potential risk in each drill. This might mean working with another instructor or one of the more advanced students to test it out prior to class. Consulting with other, knowledgeable instructors can help too; there is no reason to go it alone. Stand on the shoulders of giants if you need to.

Lastly, each fencer must take responsibility for safety. They need to wear the right gear, ensure that their friends do, keep an eye out of hazards, help maintain weapons, and if they feel unsafe speak up. There’s no shame in that and it might save someone a trip to the ER.

Most of all, each fencer must work hard to become proficient enough that they have a basic level of control. This does several things. It develops one’s ability to handle the weapon, but in that process one also learns to read situations better; one realizes faster if one’s own attack is going wrong as well as if one’s partner’s is. Collectively this makes for a safer drilling and bouting environment. Every fencer’s first defense is the Art, is good technique well-applied—your gear is there, again, for when this fails.

Some basic guidelines everyone should follow:

  • Keep floors clean and gear out of the way
  • Wear your mask
  • When not engaged in a drill or bout, keep sword/weapon tips down, pointed at the floor
  • Maintain your weapons and safety gear; replace things when they wear out*
  • Refuse to play with anyone not as concerned about safety as you are—it’s not worth your eye
  • Don’t fence when too tired, angry, or otherwise distracted
  • Look out for your mates
  • Follow the rules, those of the sala and those provided with any drill or within a bout

*Romantic notions of the sword-as-heirloom aside, yes, even swords must be replaced in time

“Dueling” or “Military” Sabre?

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

[See also 23 March 2021, “Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] See Accessed 3-5-18.

[ii] See Accessed 3-5-18.

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

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

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

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

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

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