A brief post on Hungarian Hussar swordplay on horseback, in honor of my Hungarian fencing masters: Dr. Francis Zold (1904 – 2004) and Dr. Eugene Hamori, both part of the extraordinary tradition and fame of the Hungarian fencing epoch of the past century and longer. Theirs was an era in which perhaps no more than three dozen fencers ruled saber fencing for half a century. It was a world in which swordplay and its associated honor were still entwined with world events. It was a time in which dueling was still practiced or had only recently seen its end. Many of these men were familiar with swordplay in both the duel and in sport. To learn fencing from my two masters and to hear the stories they told was like stepping into a novel by Rafael Sabatini or Alexandre Dumas.
Before I begin the discussion of hussar swordplay, here are two abridged biographies, given that this post is in honor of my fencing masters. One day I’ll post full biographies of these two fascinating men.
Dr. Zold, long a minor Hungarian celebrity and well-known fixture in Hungarian fencing, was easily recognized by the green glasses he always wore (Zold means green in Hungarian), as well as by the shout of “Hé, là! Pamela!” when a student did something well during a lesson. He was the 1948 Hungarian Olympic team captain, reportedly fought a duel (I have this from a very knowledgeable source), and was a student of the famous Italo Santelli. By the great master’s own admission, Dr. Zold was one of his four greatest students: “[Jeno] Fuchs the tactician, [Endres] Kabos the attacker, [Attila] Petschauer the jumper, and [Ferenc] Zold the fighter.” (From “Francis Zold’s Death” by Ko Andras, February 24, 2005.)
Regarding two of the Santelli’s fencers mentioned with Dr. Zold, Petschauer was an Olympian with two gold saber medals and also a high school classmate of Dr. Zold. He was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp at the instigation of a Hungarian officer who was also a former equestrian Olympian. Kabos was an Olympian with four gold saber medals, and was serving as forced labor in Budapest at the time of his death, when Margit (Margaret) Bridge (to Margit-sziget, or Margaret Island) blew up accidentally as the Nazis were rigging it with explosives to destroy in advance of the Soviet army. Dr. Zold had spoken with Kabos just moments before.
Dr. Zold also assisted Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape from Hungary after Nazi Germany annexed the country and began shipping Jews to concentration camps, and was one of the last to see Wallenberg alive outside of Soviet custody, even warning him twenty-four hours before he was taken that word was that the Soviets were after him. (Wallenberg appears to have been murdered by the Soviet secret police after being held for two years.)
I attended the party in honor of Dr. Zold’s 95th birthday (I was one of three there who did not speak Hungarian), and corresponded with him until his death, long after I had my last lesson from him in 1978. I always enjoyed his stories, as I still do Dr. Hamori’s. From Dr. Zold, for example, I learned how the Hungarian fencers were invited by swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks to his famous home, Pickfair, during the 1932 Olympic Games. This was probably on August 9 at the party thrown for two hundred officials, celebrities (including Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and Constance Bennett), and some of the participants. Fairbanks, an active supporter of the Los Angeles Games, and his entourage came to watch the saber finals on August 13, where Gyorgi Piller of Hungary won the gold. The Hungarian saber fencers were easily the best in the world, and saber in those days the flashiest, most swashbuckling of the three weapons. (Thanks to changes in saber, and to a lesser degree in epee, the latter weapon has replaced the former as the most “fencing- and swashbuckling-like” of the three.)
I studied fencing afterward under Dr. Eugene Hamori in New Orleans. He was a member of the gold medal Olympic saber team in 1956, defecting to the US soon after; the Soviet military had ruthlessly crushed the brief Hungarian uprising that occurred that summer. He studied fencing under Alfred Tusnady-Tschurl, graduate of the famous Austrio-Hungarian fencing academy at Wiener-Neustadt, under the direction of Luigi Barbasetti; László Szabó, one of Santelli’s three proteges, author of Fencing and the Master, and a very close friend of Francis Zold; Gyorgi Piller, student of Laszlo Borsodi (one of the creators of modern Hungarian saber technique), 1932 Olympic saber gold medalist, later the Hungarian head coach; Lajos Csiszar, also one of Santelli’s three proteges; and not too long ago he even had some lessons from László Szepesi, famous as the Hungarian master who led France to international saber golds. No matter how good you are at fencing or at teaching fencing, you’re never too old or too experienced to profit from fencing lessons.
An accredited fencing master among his many accomplishments, Dr. Hamori remains a close friend and is my mentor in all issues regarding the teaching of swordplay. Dr. Zold gave me my classical foundation, but it was Dr. Hamori who really put everything together for me, even though even today he gives Dr. Zold the credit. We have corresponded for years and visit whenever we can. My wife Mary and I even attended a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Hamlet, suitably sub-titled (or super-titled, in that the sub-titles were above rather than below?) in Hungarian on electronic boards, on Margit Island with him a few years ago, and afterward discussed both the difficulty for even a native English speaker to grasp Shakespearean dialogue, and, as expected, the swordplay as well. (We thought the final phrase d’armes was a bit too quick and lacked enough dramatic emphasis, for what it’s worth.)
Both of my fencing masters helped encourage my sense of literacy and broad learning (whose foundations were first encouraged by my parents and, perhaps not surprisingly to those who’ve read them, later by the novels of Rafael Sabatini). Fencing is simply one part of a broad education, not to mention a means of safely engaging in the martial competition natural to humans.
At Hamlet we also ran into outstanding HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer Krisztina Nagy. Not long before, she had escorted us around the famous Semmelweis University high school fencing salle, whose current fencing master is László Szepesi. The salle’s master from 1948 TO 1955 was Dr. László Emlékére Duronelli, the third of Italo Santelli’s proteges.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from both fencing masters is that mistakes are OK, that you learn from them, and that, as a fencing teacher, or any teacher, you don’t have to know everything, and more importantly, you must never pretend to. Neither of my fencing masters ever pretended to me that he knew everything about fencing. Dr. Zold often referred to sources, both books and people, who knew more about a given subject in swordplay than he did, in spite of his vast experience. Dr. Hamori, in one of many examples, often demurs on giving me his answer to an epee question. A few years back he would instead consult his close friend, famous fencer and fencing master József Sákovics. Since Sákovics’s passing, he has given me the recommendations of Hungarian head coach Gábor Udvarhelyi.
Too many “experts” today, or so it appears to me, would almost rather die than be seen as not having all the answers, even though it is impossible to have them all in any subject. A fulsome minority of fencing teachers (and similarly of certain personalities with PhDs, I must add) include some of the worst offenders in my experience, at times inventing empty answers and even pretending to experience they don’t have. Often this is the result of the cult of personality–excessive or insecure ego, or both, seeking adulation–far too many “experts” engage in. My own fencing masters entirely avoided this. Frankly, the honest, humble practice of the pointing out the truth wherever it may lie, with the obvious benefits of doing so, is too little seen today–all the more reason I have to thank my own fencing masters, my parents, and others like them for the lessons they’ve imparted to me.
And Now, Hussar Swordplay on Horseback!
Please note that this is just a brief introduction to Hussars and their swordplay as described in a small number of English sources, Andrew Lonergan for the most part (citation below), with a few minor observations of my own. There are some historical fencing organizations, Hungarian in particular, who are working admirably to restore Hussar saber technique both mounted and afoot in detail.
When it comes to recreating historical fencing technique, success, particularly as defined by historical accuracy, varies. In the case of the smallsword, for example, it’s relatively easy to obtain a likely high degree of historical accuracy, given the large number of available texts and its fundamental similarity to “modern classical” foil and epee, both of which are ultimately descended from it. On the other hand, some historical technique is poorly documented, Highland broadsword for example, and requires greater sifting through clues and the use of intelligent practical speculation. (There’s quite a bit of unintelligent practical speculation going on, unfortunately, in historical discussions, including those on the subject of the use of arms.)
So, who were the Hungarian Hussars? They were some of the best irregular light cavalry in the world, known for their flamboyant courage in battle and their use of the saber, a curved sword descended ultimately from the cutting swords of the Mongol invaders. The hussars were extreme swashbucklers, in other words. (My own Little ancestors were Border reivers from the Scottish West March, another famous group of light cavalry, not to mention cattle thieves.)
To give you a better idea of who the hussars were, I’ll quote from The Sea Rover’s Practice, itself quoting from the journal of naval officer Pattee Byng: “Sicilian partisans in 1719 sniped at German and Hungarian soldiers, and Hungarian Hussars ‘with their usual custom and dexterity, struck off their heads with their sabers.'” (Pattee Byng’s Journal, edited by J. L. Cranmer-Byng. Greenwich: Navy Records Society, 1950. Italics mine.)
The illustration above is sufficient corroboration.
In 1693 a regiment of Hungarian hussars was incorporated into the French army, although Hungarian cavalry had served Louis XIV prior to this. In the eighteenth century there were French-manned units modeled on them in place, and also other natively-manned units in other European armies as well. Hungarian hussars were in service past World War One.
According to a seventeenth century English dictionary, the word hussar was said to derive from the Hungarian light horsemen’s battle cry of “Husa!” However, both Dr. Hamori and a now former honorary Hungarian consul in New Orleans told me that this is not what they were taught in school in Hungary. Further, some modern etymologies, Merriam-Webster for example, suggest the word has its origins in the Serbian and Croatian word for pirate. The Hungarian word is huszár. (For a period definition and etymology, see New World of English Words, 2nd ed., edited by E. Phillips [London: E. Tyler for Nath. Brooke, 1662], s.v. “Husares.”)
Andrew Lonnergan’s practical book on swordplay, short-titled The Fencer’s Guide (London: for the Author, 1771) is one of those rare fencing texts discussion practical swordplay beyond the salle and the duel: for the battlefield, in other words.
Section VIII of his book, “Is a Lesson for and against a Party of Hussars, or Light Horse.”
He refers to Hussars as “scampering troops, who like not to attack in a body, nor to attack a body [a troop, company, or other ‘body’ of horse].”
Importantly regarding technique, he notes that they “may annoy you, in wheeling together, either by fire or sword, though even if ou were a grand division, wheeling upon its center; for they endeavour to attack all other troops behind, or sideways, as they run by them, with a Sawing-cut, and then turn to the rest of them again, that they may repeat this cut with their swords so arched, that when but an inch of the edge, near the point, catches a man’s neck, the middle, or belly of the blade, will sever a joint, and often leave the head hanging by a sinew, or a piece of skin.”
The ‘sawing-cut’ is a cut pushed or carried forward, as opposed to the more common ‘drawing-cut’ pulled or drawn backwards toward the swordsman’s body. The strong curve of the Hussar saber makes thrusting with the point difficult (it must be hooked). But as described by Lonnergan, the thrust is effective because it is made with the first inch or so with the edge which cuts through soft tissue. This is probably best effected on horseback at speed. I have tested this cut afoot via simple extension as well as via a powerful lunge, and found that it does not appear to be as effective as Lonnergan describes. (I used a Cold Steel scimitar on a variety of test subject materials, ranging from a large beef brisket to bound straw to large banana trees being cut back for the winter.) However, the kinetic energy of a rider attacking at the hand-gallop would almost certainly make the sawing cut as effective as Lonnergan describes, cutting through clothing and flesh.
This is different from what Hollywood and swashbuckling novels have accustomed us to see: that is, large sweeping head- and limb-lopping cuts. A sawing cut, if less flashy, was probably more effective and, importantly, more difficult to recognize and defeat.
Regarding defense in Hussar swordplay, Lonnergan writes that, “If you strike at them as you meet them, they will avoid your blow, by stooping forward, leaning backward, or even by throwing themselves to the opposite sides of their horses, and will recover their saddles again.” Mounted esquive!
Lonnergan recommends cutting at Hussar sword arms because “it is naturally in a St. George [modern saber quinte, more or less]to save their heads.
To thrust at a Hussar, he recommends “a Segonde [seconde] darted forwarsds, for so the height of your horses, superior to theirs, will have it, and afford you greater power over them in a close attack, which they must avoid as much as possible.”
When fencing on horseback Hussar-to-Hussar, Lonnergan notes that “their best method is to parry any cut made at them with a Quarte, Tierce, or Prime, and repost with a Sawing-Cut, and thrust, and recover with a Drawing-cut.”
Most notably, he writes that the “bent [curve] of their swords will afford them an unavoidable Quarte-over-the-arm, or a Cavè [sic: the accent grave is used incorrectly on cavé in the original text].”
In other words, the Hussar saber with its curved blade has a natural cavé or angulation against quart, tierce, or prime parries (or any other parries, in fact). I’ve heard some historical fencers note that this is an advantage the curved saber has, but I must note here that Lonnergan is referring to actions on horseback with horses moving at speed! The rider, executing the natural angulation with the saber, can escape the riposte as he rides by, while simultaneously cutting or thrusting with cavé (the thrust described is actually a cut). This is not the case afoot: fencer A attacks with an inside cut, fencer B parries quarte and ripostes covered, fencer A makes a cavé around the quarte riposte–and receives his adversary’s riposte cut, having failed to protect himself against it. In other words, use this cavé afoot at your own peril. Fencing, after all, is supposed to be about hitting and not getting hit.
A cut not mentioned by Lonergan, and in fact one in which I’ve only ever seen in Hollywood films, is the low sweeping cut forward on horseback. Often in movies you see knights and so forth lopping off heads this way. However, we probably don’t see it in fencing texts or descriptions of mounted combat for a reason: it would be easily parried by an enemy on foot if were armed with sword, pike, halberd, or musket, and the parry might even dismount the attacking rider.
It would be similarly dangerous against a mounted adversary, leaving the attacker exposed in the high lines unless protected by head and body armor of some sort. Further, the cut might easily be stopped by the enemy’s mount, again with the possibility of disarmament. Hollywood typically does things for show, for drama, not necessarily for historical authenticity.
The closest I’ve seen in reality to this Hollywood low cut is a low thrust made with a straight sword (broad or back) against a mounted adversary, the hand held at the level of the rider’s hip and the point aimed at the enemy’s lower abdomen. The mounted attacker typically has breast and back, and probably a skull cap under his hat, and the thrust is intended for the lower abdomen just under the enemy’s armor.
Lonnergan’s advice for light horsemen being pursued by larger numbers of horsemen is swashbuckling at its best: “Otherwise you may, like the Prussian or Hungarian Hussars, fire under your arm backward, or over our shoulder, and kill at random when flying and closely pursued.”
Firing pistols over one’s shoulder or under one’s arm while fleeing at the gallop? Swashbucking indeed! And it’s clearly a technique clearly used long before the Hollywood cowboys I grew up watching did so on television and in film, inspired perhaps by a famous Frederic Remington painting.
Although this has been an incomplete description of Hussar swordplay, hopefully it has dashed a few Hollywood myths, and also demonstrated that the study of swordplay–inevitably lifelong if you really intend to grasp it–is as fascinating as any other subject, if not more so.
Coming soon: knife-fighting Dutch seamen, the fusil boucanier, rules of fencing etiquette (or at least what they should be), model ships and towns from Hollywood swashbucklers, a technical post on the arm extension in the fencing lunge past and present, and more. And eventually: a series on the duel on the beach!
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published April 13, 2018. Last updated March 19, 2021.