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A quick post on women and epee fencing, inspired by the photograph of Frances Drake above. She was a Hollywood actress (or actor, if you prefer more modern usage) from the 1930s. The photograph dates to 1934, although I’ve been unable so far to identify the film for which this and similar publicity stills were made. I’d like to, for the the photograph is unusual in that it shows her with epees, not foils.
Until the 1980s, women were not permitted to fence epee in competition due to a patronizing chauvinism (I suppose all chauvinism is patronizing, though) that decreed that women were (1) too weak to fence epee, or saber for that matter, and (2) shouldn’t be fencing epee or saber which were originally dueling arms, therefore “man’s weapons.”
The attitude persisted well into the 1980s and even beyond with some male fencers and fencing masters. Around 1980 I had some lessons from a famous epee master, and as I walked on the strip epee-in-hand for his first epee lesson of the day, and my first with him ever, he smiled and said, “Ah, finally a man’s weapon!” In part he meant it as a compliment in that I was fencing epee, not foil, and therefore as a bit of a dig at foil as well. Still, the comment is instructive and indicative of the attitude at the time. In his defense, most fencing masters would not teach epee or saber to women at the time, even if they believed them suitable to the weapons, for there were no competitions in them available to women, certainly not at the national level.
Of course, more than three decades of women fencing epee and saber have disproved any such absurd notions that women can’t manage these weapons. Just fence my wife sometime if you don’t believe me.
Recently, I obtained a copy of Fencing Comprehensive by Félix Gravé, published in 1934. In it he makes reference to women epee fencers, in particular to how they should dress when fencing epee, clearly indicating that some women did indeed fence epee in the 1930s, and not just Ms. Drake in a Hollywood photo shoot. The fact that there were women epeeists in the 1930s pleases me inordinately.
As for the epees Ms. Drake is holding, they’re probably Castello epees. The guards appear to be aluminum with steel reinforcements. In the 1930s, epee guards were usually made either of rolled steel or of aluminum, with either flat steel reinforcements, as with hers, or angled washers made of either steel or aluminum, as in the image above. The pommels are two-piece, of aluminum and brass, again as in the same image.
Drake’s fencing jacket is quilted, a type difficult to find anymore although once common. The last I saw for sale from major vendors was in the early 1990s. The glove is decorated and might not actually be a fencing glove–epee gloves at this time had leather palms and fingers with “sailcloth” backs and cuffs.
As for women epeeists today, of the five epeeists I consider to have been the greatest in the past century, two of them are women: Timea Nagy of Hungary and Laura Flessel-Colovic of France. Frankly, I prefer women’s epee, for it balances technique with tactics, with speed and strength in support. Too many male epeeists try to reverse this, putting technique and tactics as subordinate to speed and strength. Usually they would fence better if they’d follow the practice of most women epeeists.
In sum: long live women epeeists!
Copyright Benerson Little, 2018. First published February 16, 2018. Last updated May 25, 2021.
Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer
The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.
Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.
This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.
Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.
There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.
And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:
The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…
The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.
Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.
As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.
Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.
Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.
Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.
Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.
Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.
I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.
At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.
Just for fun: Samurai underwater combat! Imagined underwater fighting, both via surface supplied air (“deep sea diving”) and free swimming descents, during the very real Battle of Yalu River in 1894. Japanese forces defeated a Chinese fleet in a very close battle during the First Sino-Japanese War. The underwater imagery is, of course, quite imaginary but also quite cool.
Wishing everyone Happy Holidays, however you celebrate them! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, Happy New Year (Western and Chinese)–all and more as you wish and please. It’s a secular Christmas here: Santa Claus, reindeer and sleigh, Douglas fir tree (except this year due to the nation-wide shortage, we cut a Virginia pine locally instead), stockings hung by the chimney with care, homemade cookies, fire in the fireplace, books read to children (and to nearby listening adults), much gift giving, plus Basil Rathbone, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, George C. Scott, Mister Magoo (aka Jim Backus of Gilligan’s Island fame), Reginald Owen, and Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, plus occasional swords and sword adventure with musketeers and pirates (and dark rum left for Santa as he makes his rounds), along with the usual excellent food, drink, family, and good cheer.
That said, this is a blog and therefore a suitable place to give praise to the four swashbucklers in the image above, from the 1952 RKO film, At Sword’s Point, also released as The Sons of the Musketeers. The movie is not considered to be the best of its genre, yet is still better than most and worth watching just to see Maureen O’Hara wield a sword–and there’s more to see than just O’Hara’s swordplay and independence, although as noted she alone makes the film worthwhile.
So, from left to right…
Alan Hale Jr. as Porthos Jr.
Alan Hale Jr., a solid more-than-character actor appeared in many films but is by far best known for his role as Jonas Grumby aka “the Skipper” in Gilligan’s Island.
Hale Jr. also starred as Porthos Sr. in a 1970s version of The Man in the Iron Mask entitled The Fifth Musketeer, a film that rounded up a variety of aging actors who had starred in swashbuckling and adventure stage, film, or television, and tossed them in with luminaries such as Rex Harrison and Olivia de Havilland, with up and comers such as Beau Bridges and Ian McShane, and with the addition of Ursula Andress and Sylvia Kristel, the latter best-known for the erotic Emmanuelle films. But not even this sterling cast could hold the film together, even coming as it did on the heels of the recent Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers films.
If Alan Hale Jr. looks familiar to fans of older films, he should, for as Porthos Jr. and Porthos Sr., Hale makes an homage to his father, Alan Hale Sr., who appeared in a fair number of swashbucklers, most famously The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood, and The Adventures of Don Juan, all starring his close friend Errol Flynn. In Robin Hood he reprised his role as Little John, having first played the character in the extravagant silent version by swashbuckling film star, producer, and director Douglas Fairbanks. He took up the role again in 1950 in Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Hale, born Rufus Edward MacKahan, co-starred in several other Flynn films as well: Dodge City, Virginia City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and several others for a total of thirteen films.
Maureen O’Hara as Claire, Daughter of Athos
I’ll doubtless devote an entire post one day to Maureen O’Hara and her swordplay in swashbucklers. Alas, as often as she wielded a sword in a swashbuckler, she did not in another. In The Spanish Main and The Black Swan, the most successful of her swashbucklers, she had no sword-in-hand (although Binnie Barnes took up the blade admirably in the former). So, until I post a full article on O’Hara, here are a few images of the strong-willed, independent, red-headed, Dublin-born and raised actress (or actor, if you prefer):
Cornel Wilde as d’Artagnan Jr.
Born to Czech-Hungarian parents in Manhattan, Cornel Wilde often traveled with his father to Europe where he picked up several languages and, reportedly, skill at fencing. An avid and outstanding fencer, Wilde turned down membership on the US saber team for the 1936 Olympic Games in order to accept a theatrical position–a decision few fencers would ever consider making. It’s one thing to give up a potential or possible eventual position on an Olympic fencing team, quite another to give up an offered one. That said, the several actors I know with fencing experience might very choose an opportunity in the form of a middling role in film or theater over fencing in the Olympic Games, although I’m sure the decision wouldn’t be an easy one.
An accomplished actor, Wilde’s looks, swordplay, and athleticism led him to starring roles in numerous swashbucklers.
Wilde furthered his fencing study in the US under famous Hungarian-born fencing master Joseph Vince who had a studio and fencing supplier company first in New York City, later in Beverly Hills. Wilde even illustrated Vince’s book on fencing.
If I have a favorite of Wilde’s films, it is almost certainly The Naked Prey. Relegated to cult film status by many today, it is best considered as an action art film, if such a category exist. In any case, it is a minor classic (Criterion has released it), notwithstanding mixed reviews. Wilde was fifty-two when he produced, directed, and starred in the film, a physically demanding starring role for anyone, not to mention that he was ill most of the time–demands that most men even half his age probably could not have handled.
Dan O’Herlihy as Aramis Jr.
An accomplished actor who should be better known today, O’Herlihy played a variety or roles during his long career, ranging from several swashbucklers to serious contemporary roles to character pieces such as “The Old Man” in the RoboCop films.
O’Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in Robinson Crusoe, directed by famous-auteur-to-be Luis Buñuel.
Ever the distinguished-voiced actor’s friend: audio books.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2018. First posted December 20, 2017, last updated January 7, 2018.
For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Excellent if mostly, if not entirely, historically inaccurate tale of Rob Roy MacGregor told through the eyes of a visiting Englishman. It has a couple of excellent descriptions of swordplay, ranging from a duel with smallswords to action with Highland broadswords.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–an understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
Most Secret by John Dickson Carr
Pure genre by the famous mystery writer, this time entirely set in the seventeenth century. Cavaliers, spies, and a damsel in distress!
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017. Last updated April 14, 2020.
“This subterfuge is termed a Night-Thrust; being a short method of deciding a skirmish in the dark.”
–Andrew Lonergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1777.
But Edward was no longer there, or at least not where Lynch expected. Completely covered by the inky darkness, Edward had lunged backward, his left hand dropping to the ground, his body bending inward, his blade shooting forward at Lynch’s belly: the Italians called this passata soto, but some of Edward’s English contemporaries called it the “night thrust” for its utility in the darkness.
Benerson Little, Fortune’s Whelp, 2015
The Classic Passata Soto or “Night Thrust”
A staple of many Western fencing texts since the Renaissance, the passata soto, or passata sotto, also known variously as the sbasso, sottobotta, cartoccio on occasion, the various dessous of the French masters of the smallsword and the passata di sotto of the modern, is usually defined as a counter-attack made by lowering the body while simultaneously thrusting, extending the rear foot in a reverse lunge, and placing the unarmed hand on the ground for support. Occasionally the technique is recommended as an attack with a true lunge, rather than a reverse, made. Andrew Lonergan provides an eighteenth century definition and exercise of the passata soto under the name of night thrust:
“On Guard in Quarte; and disengage a Quarte-over-the-arm [modern sixte]. I now batter [beat] with a Tierce; and begin to advance my left foot to form my Pass upon you in Tierce. Now when you see my left foot move, slip your left foot back, so as to pitch yourself on that knee; stoop your head so that your arm now turned into a Segonde may cover it, hold your left hand extended toward the ground, that it may sustain you, in case you should totter; thus my point will pass over your head, and I shall fall upon yours.”
And his reasoning why such “athletic” techniques should not be abandoned:
“Though these methods of Disarming, and Passing, Volting, and that of the Night Thrust, seem to be almost abolished by the refiners of these arts; I cannot conceive why a man, who is naturally strong and active, should not avail himself of such advantages, especially when improved by our athletic exercises, so engaging to an English subject, and forbidding to all others.”
In the old Italian schools, the body was usually bent at the waist. In some of the old French, the body was lowered by a very low reverse lunge. The adversary may be hit either with the extending arm or by impaling upon it, or both.
In terms of the modern French school, the “passata di sotto” is classified as an esquive, specifically une passe dessous with the back leg extended or both legs deeply bent.
With real weapons, the adversary is ideally impaled, usually in the belly which is, were the swords real, a good place to hit because are no ribs and cartilage to potentially prevent the point from entering or otherwise diminish its penetration. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that in some cases belly wounds may be more quickly incapacitating.
A very long low lunge which made going forward might slip under the adversary’s guard, as in Rafael Sabatini’s novel The Black Swan (1932), and which made in reverse might serve aid a counter-attack by lowering of the body. (An analysis of the duel in the novel may be found here: The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan.)
Long low lunges like this are often identified with, or confused with, the passata soto. Note, however, that fencing language is highly malleable and definitions vary: one master’s passata soto might include only the classic reverse lunge with a bend at the waist, while another’s may include any lowering of the body in attack or counter-attack. Most masters, however, consider it to be a counter-attack with esquive, the body lowering in place or with a reverse lunge, and not a long low lunge forward.
The passata soto is not without significant drawbacks, which is probably why Lonergan recommended its use at night and nowhere else. Foremost, it must be well-timed. Too late, and the fencer attempting it may get hit in the face, neck, or upper torso. Too soon, and the fencer attempting it throws away the advantage of the surprise mandatory to its success. Used too often, and the adversary may learn how to trigger it with a feint, and then take advantage of the poor position the classical passata soto leaves the fencer in.
And it is this poor position that is the major drawback of the passata soto, in particular with real weapons. With the unarmed hand on the ground, the torso bent sideways, and the rear leg extended well behind, the fencer is in a bad position for defense after a failed attack or, even if the swords were real, after impaling the adversary. Few wounds are immediately incapacitating, including ultimately fatal wounds: many duelists and battlefield swordsmen were wounded or killed after giving an adversary a fatal wound. Even with a mortal wound to the heart, an adversary may live as long as ten seconds. Even assuming an average of four, that’s plenty of time to even things up.
In the case of dry (non-electric) weapons, the judges and director (referee) will determine whether a hit was made, whether it was in time, and whether a hit on the fencer who ducked is valid via rules regarding replacing of target. In the case of electrical weapons, the machine will make the determination in epee, and the machine and director in foil and saber.
For the fencer armed with a rapier on poniard, placing the poniard-armed hand on the ground is giving up half of one’s offense and defense, to be replaced by almost blind trust.
From the position of the passata soto, a prime or lifted sixte/septime beat or bind, or a St. George parry or opposition (modern saber quinte) accompanied by the use of the unarmed hand to help ward off the adversary’s blade, plus an urgent recovery forward or backward, all performed near-simultaneously, is the only viable option if the passata soto has failed to hit or otherwise halt the adversary.
Such recovery, however, is invariably slow, and a loss of balance may ensue if the unarmed hand is removed from the ground too soon to assist in parrying or opposing, for example. Further, the long low position leaves the fencer vulnerable if the arrest fails, whether by missing the adversary or failing to immediately incapacitate him. In particular, the head, neck, and subclavian area are exposed. Fatal thrusting wounds can be given in any of the three areas. It’s likely that execution at night might alleviate some of these weaknesses in the technique, but it would need to be a dark night with little ambient light.
Historical Techniques Similar to Passata Soto
There are better methods, past and present. In particular, these methods, while not reducing the target quite as much, leave the fencer in a much better position should the counter-attack fail, or, with real weapons, should the adversary be hit but not be immediately incapacitated. Some masters, Sir William Hope for example, believed also that a lowered position better-protected the torso.
In general they consist of a lowering of the body to a lesser degree, often with a parry or beat first, or with a thrust in opposition. Below are a series of images depicting this in various forms over time.
The Passata Soto in Film
The passata soto is seldom shown in film, unfortunately, but here are two of the very few associated examples:
The Passato Soto in Modern Fencing
In modern competitive fencing, the technique is still occasionally seen in its classical form, in particular against a flèche, but more often is seen in the modified form of “squatting.” This is not a new technique! It was noted by Jean Joseph-Renaud more than a century ago. He correctly–as expected–notes that the latter form is easier.
In the spring of 1978 I saw it well-used by a University of Southern California epeeist–I made up the weakest third of the USC epee team, having fenced for less than a year–at a large collegiate meet at the University of California San Diego. The score was la belle (4-4), with no time limit for the final touch as I recall. (It was a nice rule that, of no time limit for the last touch! It’s long since been sadly abolished in the name of expediency…)
Suddenly both fencers stopped and pulled off their masks, but for no reason other than that they had heard the bell on the adjacent strip and, their adrenalin up for the la belle touch, mistook it for theirs. The young director… Hold on for a moment. Today the director, from directeur de combat, the person who “directs” a duel, is called a “referee,” solely because the foolish powers that be thought it would make fencing more spectator friendly… Seriously.
But back to our anecdote. The young college-age director, rather than enforcing the halt and putting the fencers back on guard, said “I didn’t call halt!”
You know what surely happened next. Without putting masks back on, immediately the opposing team’s fencer flèched while ours dropped into a beautiful passata soto. We got the touch and the bout. Neither fencer, thankfully, was hit in the unprotected face. Or at least that’s how I recall it happened.
In modern usage, although infrequently seen, is a form known as the “turning” passata soto. The description is best left to R. A. Lidstone:
In competitive use, the modern form most often takes the form of ducking or squatting, shown below. Ducking has been used for at least seventy-five years in modern fencing.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated April 13, 2021.
The content in this post is more background on than digression from the general subjects of this blog–swordplay and swashbucklers–, for what is either without fencing technique? The following fencing books are my recommendations for fencers across the spectrum, from early modern historical to “classical” to modern “Olympic” competitive. It includes sections on the modern Olympic weapons, classical fencing, rapier, smallsword, various cut & thrust, theory, Japanese texts, and more.
The list below, although quite long, is not exhaustive—there are many good fencing books not listed (and some more bad than good as well). Some are not listed simply because I have not yet read them. The history list in particular is abridged due to sheer volume, but less so than in past years, and I have not yet begun to include much in the way of mid-19th century works or of books on swords as opposed to swordplay. Fencing books can be very useful, but are no substitute for proper instruction and diligent practice. See the end of the list for suggestions on acquiring the books listed here, or for that matter, many books in general.
The first fencing book I ever read, in 1975 or 1976, was Bob Anderson’s All About Fencing, along with a beginning text by Nancy Curry or Muriel Bower, I can’t recall which, probably the former. These were followed by, once I started fencing in 1977, either Curry or Bower’s book (the latter I think, or so my faulty memory suggests), then Charles Selberg’s Foil (and when it was published, his Revised Foil), Michel Alaux’s Modern Fencing, Marvin Nelson’s Winning Fencing, and, in 1980, Imre Vass’s Epee Fencing, soon followed by Szabo’s Fencing and the Master. From that point my interest in fencing texts exploded. My earliest years of fencing education, however, were dominated by fencing lessons, verbal instruction, and oral histories, not fencing books. Notably, my epee instruction in technique was derived from Vass, and its general method of instruction was derived directly from Szabo, his master Italo Santelli, and other notable Hungarian masters such as Gyorgi Piller–yet never for four years were the works of Vass or Szabo recommended to me. They were, in essence, above my ability at the time.
As Italo Santelli put it, fencing is something you do, not something you write (and therefore read) about! Thus were my early years filled with learning to fence not by reading but by fencing, fencing, and more fencing. That said, the study of fencing texts does have an important place in learning to fence: it broadens one’s knowledge of the subject. Fencing books provide a map to the world of swordplay.
Essays on Fencing & Life
So rare are these essays that I’ve found only one to list so far, although occasionally the subject is touched upon in prefaces to fencing books. Arguably, Bazancourt’s Secrets of the Sword and Burton’s The Sentiment of the Sword occasionally connect fencing to life in general, and Gravé’s Fencing Comprehensive has a sense of this as well. All three are noted below.
L’Escrimeuse by Emma Lambotte, 1937. A delightful essay on fencing, on being a woman fencer, on fencing’s connection to and reflection of life, and on the characters of various fencing nationalities, among many other brief subjects. Mme. Lambotte was a noted Belgian poet and the muse and patron of painter James Ensor.
Why have I placed Modern Epee—that is, epee as fenced from the 1930s to the present in its various forms—first among books on technique? Because it’s the best starting point for most budding fencers today, even if their ultimate goal is classical or historical fencing. It is by far the most popular modern competitive weapon (it looks like swordplay, its judging is simple, it much more resembles sword-fighting with sharps than either modern foil or saber, it is very “democratic” in that the weaker fencer always stands a chance, as some have put it), and—if taught appropriately via a classical foundation as it should be—is an excellent foundation for historical and classical fencing. Modern competitive foil and saber have become largely useless for this, both as fenced and as taught, for they’ve given up the classical notion derived from combat that attacks in invitation–with the point non-threatening and the arm not extended or extending–would be suicidal with real weapons.
It should be noted that some modern epeeists consider not only classical epee technique (point d’arrêt technique, especially non-electrical, and true dueling technique), but also “modern classical” (electrical pre-Harmenberg, so to speak) technique to be obsolete. This narrow view has no basis in fact except to some degree in the case of some elite (world class, that is) epeeists. Purely classical and modern classical epeeists can, and often do, fence as far as a solid A, or national, level, and classical technique is the foundation of elite epee technique. In fact, elite women’s epee retains a significant amount of so-called classical technique, and the compiler of this list is well-acquainted with a Greek-American epeeist some 70-plus years old whose classical, very old school straight arm dueling technique can still give even young elite epeeists fits.
Note, however, that the definition of classical fencing has changed over time and continues to change today. Even so, one need only read Achille Edom’s 1910 book on epee fencing (see below) to realize that much of what is considered new in epee is in fact more than a century old. In other words, epeeists should not consider older epee texts, nor any epee style of the past century or more, as unworthy of practical study.
Fencing with the Epee by Roger Crosnier, 1958. A thorough description of modern classical epee technique, still very useful today. Prof. Crosnier’s book on foil fencing (see the Foil section) should be read hand-in-hand with his epee text.
Epee Fencing: A Complete System by Imre Vass, 1965 in Hungarian, 1976 1st English edition, revised English editions 1998, 2011. The most thorough epee text ever written. That said, highly recommended for epee coaches at all levels, recommended only with caution for intermediate to advanced fencers (at least three to five years or more significant experience)—but not for beginners. There is much useful, often profound, material, but some sections can be skipped entirely by fencers and others require sufficient epee fencing experience in order to profit from them. The revised editions were edited by fencer and publisher Stephan Khinoy, and amplify and supplement the original text in places.
The latest edition suggests the need for such classical training today, in spite of the so-called “new paradigm” (see Harmenberg below, his book is also published by Khinoy). I agree; in fact, my fencing master’s thesis (soon finished I hope, albeit delayed by fiction and non-fiction projects, and overwhelmingly by a pre-kindergartner and his younger sister) is based on the same premise. Even for those relatively few fencers (as compared to the entire body of epeeists) who wish to and are able to emulate Harmenberg’s sport methods, a solid base of “modern classical” epee training is still necessary. For most epeeists, even superior amateurs, modern classical technique is all they’ll ever need.
Again, caution is advised when studying the book; it’s best to have a solid understanding of fundamental epee technique and theory before reading it. Vass trained international medalists József Sákovics and Béla Rerrich, both of whom went on to become leading epee masters and national coaches, the former in Hungary, the latter in Sweden, with numerous international champions to their credit. He also trained four-time Olympic gold medalist in epee Győző Kulcsár, who later as a fencing master trained two-time Olympic gold medalist in epee Timea Nagy. József Sákovics, considered by many to be the first “modern” epee fencer, died in 2009, Béla Rerrich in 2005, and Győző Kulcsár in 2018.
La Spada: Metodo del Maestro Caposcuola Giuseppe Mangiarotti by Edoardo Mangiarotti, the Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano, Scuola Centrale Dello Sport, and Federazione Italiana Scherma, 1971. Epee as taught by the famous Guiseppe Mangiarotti: a thorough exposition of his method. Beginner-friendly, too, at least if you read Italian or have a working knowledge of fencing technique and language along with a background in Romance languages other than Italian. Includes excellent illustrations of blade positions, better perhaps than in any other epee text. (Side note: the book even includes illustrations from the works of Vass and Szabo. Kingston and Cheris in this section also have excellent illustrations of blade positions.)
Prof. Mangiarotti, who studied under Italo Santelli as well as under other masters Italian and French, was an Olympic fencer, seventeen-time Italian national epee champion, father of famous champion Edoardo Mangiarotti as well as of noted fencers Dario and Mario Mangiarotti, and founder of a famous epee school in Milan, still in existence, that blended the French and Italian schools and produced champions for decades. Edoardo won 13 Olympic medals and 26 World Championship medals, and was known for his fluid, very Italian footwork as well as for his strategy of attacking hard and fast early on to get touches, then playing a defensive game. Highly recommended. See also Mangiarotti and Cerchiari in the “Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts” below. For the French school, see Alaux and Cléry in the same section.
Epee Combat Manual by Terence Kingston, 2001, 2004. Highly recommended beginning to intermediate text. Should be required reading for new epeeists. Pair with How to Fence Epee by Schrepfer (below). Unfortunately, Kingston’s book is unavailable in the US anymore, and his web store ships only to the UK and EU (or I suppose he still ships to the EU after Brexit–a lot of small businesses are having issues doing so).
Fencing: Steps to Success by Elaine Cheris, 2002. Actually an epee and foil text, but the epee stands out more to me, and is very useful to both recreational and competitive fencers. Includes training drills as well as excellent illustrations of technique, including from the fencer’s point of view. The book is a good companion to Kingston’s book above. Cheris is one of the great US fencers in both epee and foil.
Epee 2.0: The Birth of the New Paradigm by Johan Harmenberg, 2007. For advanced epeeists and coaches only. There is a second edition–Epee 2.5 I think–that I have not yet read, therefore some or all of the criticisms below might be valid for the new edition. Importantly, the book is suited, in Harmenberg’s own words, only to truly advanced fencers, although this has not stopped many insufficiently experienced epeeists, and even their coaches, from foolishly assuming they can emulate its technique and tactics—and in doing so, impale themselves by repeatedly running onto their adversary’s point from distance much too close. This is often quite funny to watch, especially in the case of exceptionally tall epeeists, with their naturally slower tempo, who throw away their height advantage.
Although there is very useful material in the book, some of Harmenberg’s recommendations are controversial and not all masters agree with the described training regimen, except, again, perhaps in the case of elite epeeists. Further, Harmenberg at times appears to take more credit than he deserves, albeit innocently, given that other epeeists were also knocking at the door of his new style, and had been for some time. Harmenberg, however, was arguably the first elite epeeist to succeed with it at the Olympic and World Championship levels. That is, the first to use “outstripping” attacks—beating the double touch timing by a hair—to the body as a primary technique and tactic, although others, the Soviets notably, had already been using the fleche in renewed attacks to great effect in an outstripping rather than conventional tempo. (Vass calls these sorts of touches “combat” techniques.) It was also common to see some epeeists below the international level in the 60s and early 70s use technique similar to Harmenberg’s, but they were unable to succeed with it against elite modern classical, aka conventional, epeeists.
Additionally, some of his criticisms, even though thoroughly honest, of the modern classical technique are not entirely valid. For example, his objection to epeeists who use, and their masters who teach, attacks with a fully extended arm prior to the lunge is somewhat misplaced: although some fencers and masters did adhere to the technique (and some, unbelievably, still do), the lunge with near-simultaneous extension (likewise, “progressive attacks”) was commonplace three or more centuries prior, and also in use again by many masters and fencers beginning a few decades prior to Harmenberg’s era, and some lineages of masters had never taught otherwise. (“Historical” fencers, please don’t bother to argue with me on this smallsword history, simply open up and read the first two dozen period smallsword manuals you lay your hands on.)
Even so, many early epee masters did teach that the attack via lunge, almost always to the arm, must be made with the arm fully extended first, although others argued correctly that simultaneous or near-simultaneous extension and lunge was faster, as Harmenberg likewise deduced (as did masters in past centuries). Indeed, if you intend to hit the body with an attack, you’d better not extend first then lunge! If you do, you’ll lose a tempo, warn your adversary, and probably get successfully parried or counter-attacked. Early epee masters generally avoided recommending attacks to the body due to the increased risk of double touches—and the increased risk of jail time for murder or manslaughter. (Roughly seventy percent of modern epee touches are made to the body thanks to the flat tip of the epee which is less effective to the arm when compared to the old jacket-tearing points d’arret which were highly analogous to the sharp point of a dueling epee.)
The argument remains as to whether Harmenberg’s described techniques and tactics are truly revolutionary, or merely one of the final steps in the evolution of sport epee, in that the “paradigm” takes complete advantage of the 20th to 25th of a second tempo provided by the electrical apparatus, and entirely disregards any consideration of classical tempo. Put plainly, the book is Harmenberg’s exposition of how HE fences. Tellingly, whenever I ask elite European fencers and masters about the book, they shrug their shoulders. If they do happen to know who Harmenberg is, their answer is something on the order of, “Well, if it worked for him, good, but there are many other ways to fence epee…” That said, far too many epee teachers in the US have adopted his theory, all too often too early for their students and quite imperfectly, although lately I see this fad–and there are many fads in fencing–fading.
The book is based on the Swedish epeeist’s experiences leading up to his 1977 world championship and 1980 Olympic gold. In other words, however profound the book may be to sport fencing, its author’s ideas were not new in 2007—only their publication was.
Epee Fencing by Steve Paul et al, published by Leon Paul, 2011. A very useful text for the modern competitor. Positive criticisms: thorough and well-illustrated. Negative criticisms: 100% emphasis on epee as pure sport (as opposed to epee as dueling swordplay or martial art modified for sport) and a magazine-style layout (or in imitation of a badly-designed webpage?), including a thin magazine-like cover that will not hold up to much wear.
How to Fence Epee: The Fantastic 4 Method by Clément Schrepfer, 2015. Translated from the original French edition, Faire de l’épée: La méthode des 4 fantastiques, by Brendan Robertson. Not a manual of technique per se, but suggestions on how to use it. A very useful book, with only little to find disagreement with, and mostly in terms of style or tradition and not practicality. Highly recommended, especially for beginning to intermediate epeeists. An excellent companion volume to the Epee Combat Manual by Kingston (above).
See also the “Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts” section, especially Alaux, Barth/Beck, Cléry, de Beaumont, Deladrier, Lidstone, Lukovich, Mangiarotti/Cerchiari, and Vince, as well as the “Epee de Combat” section in general, and Castello and Gravé in the “Classical Fencing” section.
The Epee de Combat or Dueling Sword:
Epee for Actual Combat, In Other Words
All of these works are of use to the modern epeeist, and all demonstrate that there is, overall, little new in modern epee fencing. Even the pistol grip was growing in popularity in France by 1908, although its use in dueling was prohibited and it would be the Italians who found in it the perfect replacement for their rapier grip. Only the tactics and techniques of “out-stripping” (of trying to hit a 25th to a 20th of a second before one gets hit), and of the unrealistic abomination of flicking (and arguably, of foot touches), are new. (Strictly speaking, the flick is only new to epee: it was used by a fair number of foilists in the 19th century.) Flicks and foot touches are too dangerous to attempt with an epee de combat: they would cause little damage while leaving the user vulnerable to more damaging, even fatal, thrusts, not to mention that the blade of a real dueling epee is too stiff to permit the flick. On the other hand, double touches have long been the bane of the salle or sport fencer, even long before the advent of electrical scoring and its too short timing–there have always been fencers trying only to get the first hit, however they may, as if playing tag.
Le jeu de l’épée by Jules Jacob, as reported by Émile André, 1887. Lessons of the fencing master who essentially created modern epee in the 1870s. By the third quarter of the19th century the foil had become a “weapon” of pure sport, although it had been heading in this direction since the late 17th century. M. Jacob adapted smallsword technique to create a form of swordplay suitable to surviving a duel with the 19th century épée de combat, or mere epee, as its modern descendant is called. The technique emphasized longer distance and hits to the arm—and thereby also reduced convictions for manslaughter and murder.
The book outraged many foil purists, who subsequently went into sophistic denial when his epee technique proved far superior to foil technique in a duel: Jacob’s less technically proficient epeeists were deadly against even highly skilled foilists, who maintained that the only difference between the technique of the salle and of the duel was the accompanying mental attitude. (If true, attitude was clearly deficient among the fleurettistes who fought duels with Jacob’s épéistes.) The book plainly points out the difference between the jeu de salle (sport fencing) and the jeu de terrain (swordplay of the duel), and reminds us that many of the best duelists were usually not “forts tireurs”—good sport fencers, that is. The same would doubtless be true today. Highly recommended. There is, I believe, an English translation now available.
L’Épée by Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Felizet], illustrated by Marius Roy, 1884, reprinted 1898 or 1899; also The Dueling Sword, an English translation edited and translated by Brian House, 2010. Very thorough, and in its translation was for a long time the only early French epee and epee dueling manual available in English. Real swordplay, in other words, and useful even to epeeists today. To a degree the book is a somewhat foil-based response to the purely epee-based technique of M. Jacob (see above). M. La Marche differs from M. Jacob on some points, particularly on the value of attacks to the body, of which M. La Marche is in favor, as were smallswords-men (and smallswords-women).
The modern trend in epee, at least at the elite levels, and among instructors who train less skilled fencers as if they were elite fencers, emphasizes attacks to the body. Where to emphasize attacks—arm or body—has been an ongoing re-argument ever since the flat electric tip was introduced to replace the much superior “pineapple” tip in the early 1960s, rendering arm shots more difficult. The epee fencing argument over arm versus body derives from late nineteenth century dueling practice—arms hits could easily settle honor in the modern age in which killing a man in a duel would surely send the perpetrator to prison, and the longer distance that facilitated them was simply safer. For reasons that would take up too much space here in discussion, the body was also the primary target in the smallsword era—but the dangers of this distance were mitigated by the use of the unarmed hand to parry and oppose as necessary, and by the extensive use of opposition and prises de fer. Similar varying perspectives are seen in sport epee today. Notably, and often forgotten by some fencing teachers, roughly thirty percent of epee touches today are to the arm, not the body, even with the emphasis on the body as the better target for the flat modern epee point. A highly recommended book, and useful even to modern competitive epee fencers.
Manuale Teorico-Pratico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola by Giordano Rossi, 1885. A manual of the Italian dueling sword and dueling saber, very practical, very classically Italian although it does include some “modern” usages, including a choice of Italian spada with a curved grip, akin to a later French grip, with a significant set to the blade, although it doesn’t seem that this style of Italian grip won many fencers over–but did it perhaps influence the French to increase the curve of their grip? I haven’t seen any French foils or epees circa the 1880s with such a severe curve. The book demonstrates a technique quite useful to epee, and in fact the influence of the Italian school would become a significant part of modern epee.
L’Art du Duel by Adolphe Eugene Tavernier, 1885. Advice on dueling. Suggests tactics and techniques for the epee duel, including how to deal with the inexperienced adversary, the average one and, of course, the expert swordsman. Of interest to the student of fencing history and the duelist, and one of the few books to deal with the subject of tactics against fencers of various levels of competence.
L’Escrime a l’épée by Anthime Spinnewyn and Paul Manoury, 1898. Excellent work on the epee de combat, with much practical advice on epee fencing, training, and teaching applicable even today. Among the many worthwhile admonitions is that the recovery from the lunge is just as important as the lunge itself–both must be as fast as possible, especially if the epees are pointed.
Les secrets de l’épée by Baron César de Bazancourt, 1862, published in English as Secrets of the Sword in 1900, reprint 1998. Practical advice on hitting and not getting hit from the mid-19th century. Much of the advice sounds quite modern. Likewise highly recommended.
L’escrime, le duel & l’épée by Achille Edom, 1908. A remarkably prescient and practical work, one of my favorites, and one that demonstrates plainly that there is little new in epee fencing today. In particular, M. Edom, a Frenchman, recommends the more physical Italian style over the French, prefers the Greco offset guard and the pistol grip, and bemoans the rise of sport technique such as wide angulations to the wrist—thrusts that with dueling epees (with sharp points, that is) would not stop a fully developed attack to the body, leaving the attacker with a wound to the wrist, and the attacked with a possibly fatal wound to the chest, neck, or head.
The origin of these angulations was due much in part to the single point type of point d’arrét used by many at the time: a small ring was soldered to a real pointed blade a centimeter or so from the tip, then wrapped with heavy thread to act as a barrier to full penetration. Unfortunately, this heavy wrapping prevented hits at the shallow angles a real point was capable of, thus a new emphasis on unrealistic wide angulations. The three point “dry” and four point electrical, and later “pineapple” electrical points d’arrét greatly corrected this, but the subsequent modern flat point (brought into use in the early 1960s in order to quit tearing up the new nylon jackets perhaps?) inspired the popularity of severe angulations once more. In fact, almost any stop thrust to the arm would not arrest a fully developed attack, although you might have the satisfaction, as your adversary’s attacking blade penetrates your chest, of pinning his (or her) arm to his (or her) chest as he (or she) runs up your blade. Highly recommended.
L’Escrime by J. Joseph-Renaud, 1911. One of the best of a number of outstanding epee books published during the Golden Age of epee and books on the subject, by far. The author does a by far superior job explaining the faults in French foil for dueling, comparing French foil to Italian (thus explaining why Italians successfully trained with their foil for the duel with the spada or epee de combat but the same could not be said of the French), and explaining a wide variety of epee technique, both that which is correct and that which is faulty but commonly seen. Thoroughly illustrated with photographs, the volume is of great use to the modern epeeist, historical or classical epeeist, and fencing historian and theorist. Joseph-Renaud is a member of the community of epee masters for whom the lunge must always be preceeded by a fully extended arm, and he does not recommend attacks to the body. Much of the reasoning for this is to protect the duelist from a potentially mortal wound in himself or in his adversary, the latter of which would result in criminal prosecution and the former of which, well… In fact, as smallswords-men of past centuries, and even the author himself, knew, the lunge with the arm extending near simultaneously (just a hair ahead, that is) is the fastest attack by lunge, and mandatory if one is attacking the body, not the arm.
Tratto Pratico e Teorico Sulla Scherma di Spada, by Eugenio Pini, 1904. Excellent and thorough practical treatise on swordplay with the Italian spada or dueling sword by the Italian master who epitomized a form of swordplay that emphasized physical strength and speed–no, this emphasis isn’t new to fencing, nothing really is, in fact. At the time the book was written, the school of the Italian dueling sword was based on the fioretta or foil, which was used for training instead of the spada itself. Pini points out correctly that at the time the French schools had separated foil from epee, and epeeists were now taught with the epee rather than the foil, although this would soon change as French foilists, unhappy at being usurped by the “modern school” of epee and its epeeists, would attempt to reassert their dominance via a foil-based school of epee. For a long time the Hungarian school, via the Italian, kept up this tradition of training epeeists first as good foilists. In fact, it’s how I was trained more than forty years ago. However, the modern divergence between foil and epee has made this almost impossible.
The Sentiment of the Sword: A Country-house Dialogue by explorer, adventurer, linguist, scholar, writer, and swordsman Sir Richard Burton, 1911. As with Bazancourt’s book which inspired this Anglo version, not strictly an epee manual, but still useful for understanding swordplay in the sense of the need to hit and not get hit, as opposed to hitting according to conventions which deny touches not made in accordance with said conventions, but which in a duel would be quite real, and in many cases fatal. (Thus the practical and, if in a duel, fatal flaw in foil fencing.) Burton’s book also has some quite modern advice on learning to fence. Burton had used a real sword many times in bloody combat, and was known as an extraordinarily fierce warrior. Highly recommended.
Épée, par J.-Joseph Renaud, 1913, in L’Escrime: fleuret, par Kirchoffer; épée, par J. Joseph Renaud; sabre, par Léon Lécuyer. Excellent advice on training, competition, and dueling, including a technical argument and diagram describing when to use sixte and its counter, and when to use quarte. This latter matter is more important than it seems, for most fencing instructors teach the usual parries and imply that any of the two classical French parries can be used in their appropriate quadrants in any circumstances (true in theory but not in practice) and should be varied in order to keep the adversary guessing (true in both theory and practice, but often difficult given that most fencers under stress have a preferred parry).
There are instances in which only a single parry—even in epee and smallsword, in which low line parries may be used in the high line as well, often providing several possibilities in each quadrant—is viable. For example, quinte (low quarte) against a powerful wide-angled attack, especially if directed toward the abdomen. Any other parry will often be forced or will fail to defeat the angulation. In fact, this is why the parry was introduced. Or, against a wide, high, powerful, angulated thrust to the body in the high outside line (same handed epeeists), in particular when delivered via flèche by a tall strong fencer, a circle-sixte or even a circle-tierce will likely be forced even if timed well. A true prime will not defeat the angulation, and a common septime (Italian prime, mezocierco) must be taken too far out of line, exposing the arm to a simple disengage over the top. Octave and seconde cannot be taken effectively, for they too are likely to be forced. Only quarte or quinte (really just a low quarte) taken high with the point out of line, with a riposte to the head or possibly the neck or shoulder, is viable in most cases. A modified prime (high sixte/septime) can work but can be difficult to execute if the attacker is tall and strong. Best to stop such attacks on their preparation.
The book includes a discussion of the Italian school. Although M. Renaud grudgingly admits that Italian foilists are equal to their French counterparts, he disparages Italian epee and by implication its rapier origins, stating categorically that the French invented epee fencing and the Italians were no match for French epeeists. In fact, the Italian epee school would soon rise to equal prominence with the French, with Edoardo Mangiarotti becoming one of the great epeeists of the 20th century. (These include Frenchman Lucien Gaudin of the early 20th century, Hungarians József Sákovics and Győző Kulcsár of the mid- and late century. Johan Harmenberg (1976 – 1980) should probably make the list as well. Were I to include possible twenty-first century epee greats as well, I’d suggest Timea Nagy and Géza Imre of Hungary, and Laura Flessel-Colovic of France. Doubtless other epeeists could join this list.)
Naturally, M. Renaud avoids any discussion of what might happen were French epeeists to trade their epees for Italian dueling spadas. Compare his comments on the Italian school to those of Achille Edom above. Side bar: he notes that most French epee schools of the era had outside gardens for practice, in addition to the indoor salle. Pity we don’t have these today…
“Technique du Duel en Une Leçon Suivi des Règles usuelles du Combat à l’épée” by Georges Dubois, published in La Culture Physique, 1908. Excellent work based on the author’s experience preparing would-be duelists for the duel, including those who have never held a weapon before. Disposes with many myths regarding dueling, including that most duelists weren’t fencers, and that the epee was designed to help keep both combatants alive and thereby avoid the charge of manslaughter or murder. Never was a weapon so well designed to keep adversaries from killing each other, the author notes.
See also the “Classical Fencing” section below.
Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts
The Art of Fencing by R. A. Lidstone, 1930 and Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, Épée, Sabre by R. A. Lidstone, 1952. The second significantly revised book is more thorough, with a very useful, clearly written epee section with plenty of exercises for master and pupil. Discusses tactics, unusual epee en gardes, and, in the foil section, unusual displacements, most of them Italian. It even describes Professor Guissepe Mangiarotti’s “jump back”—an epee counter-attack made while leaping back and landing on the front foot. The second edition is an excellent practical work drawing from both the French and Italian, highly recommended. In fact, along with Szabo’s work, one of the most useful books on fencing on this entire page. For fencing historians, a comparison of the first edition to the second edition shows how much, and how quickly, modern fencing changed during the first half of the twentieth century.
Fencing by Joseph Vince, 1937, 1940, revised edition 1962. Illustrated by US saber champion, designated Olympic team member (until he suddenly abandoned competitive fencing for the stage), and swashbuckling actor Cornel Wilde. Vince was a US national coach and national saber champion who kept a salle in Beverly Hills for decades, and, until 1968 when he sold it to Torao Mori, owned Joseph Vince Company, a fencing equipment supplier that provided, among its complete line, classically dashing fencing jackets of a fit and style unfortunately no longer seen. In fact, my first fencing jacket was a “Joseph Vince, Beverly Hills” made of a heavy, high thread count cotton with silver-colored buttons. The left, that is, unarmed, sleeve was lighter and cuffed. An elegant style truly to be found no more.
Fencing for All by Victor E. Lawson, 1946. The front cover gives the title as How to Fence. A very short basic text, only slightly more than a pamphlet, notable only to the fencing historian, particularly him or her interested in the history of women’s fencing. Lawson’s book actively promotes women fencers, although most appear to be aspiring actresses and models, and the caption of one photograph strongly suggests that Lawson’s goal is to promote his fencing salle in NYC as a means of attaining poise &c for actresses (I use the now generally discarded feminine of “actor” here because “female actor” sounds a bit stilted, and in Lawson’s day he appears to have been recruiting women primarily, not men). Notwithstanding his purpose, Lawson’s little book does actively promote women fencers, and has several useful photographs of women in fencing attire of the 1940s, quite different from today. It also has a good summary of fencing rules at the time. Other titles in the series include Police Jiu Jutsu, Scientific Boxing, and How to Be a Detective–everything to to prepare the reader to be the dark sword of a film noir.
Modern Fencing: A Comprehensive Manual for The Foil—The Epee—The Sabre by Clovis Deladrier, 1948, reprint 2005. Strong epee section. Includes exercises, lesson plans, and excellent practical advice. Readers should not be put off by some terms and practices that seem dated, for example Deladrier’s use of the classic older terms low quarte for septime and low sixte for octave, and his preference for the center-mount epee guard. The epee section is worth serious study. The teaching advice and lesson plans for advanced epeeists called upon to teach at times is also a useful review for experienced epee coaches. Deladrier was the fencing master at the US Naval Academy.
Fencing Technique in Pictures, 1955, edited by C-L. de Beaumont, assisted by Roger Crosnier, with contributors Léon Bertrand, Bela Balogh, and Raymond Paul. Basic foil, epee, and saber instruction by a who’s who of UK fencing masters of the past century, in line drawings and photographs, the former of which look a bit like the robots in the old comic book, Magnus, Robot Killer. Useful information, still applicable today. The book is one of three on this page attempting to show action in sequence in more than two or three steps using photographs or illustrations, the other two being Bertrand and Anderson. I suspect the format of the images and size and color of the book may have influenced Bac Tau’s excellent edition (see below) which in some ways might be an homage. “Dedicated by permission to The Rt. Hon. Sir WINSTON CHURCHILL K. G., O. M., C. H., M. P. First Honorary President of The Amateur Fencing Association.”
Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport by C-L de Beaumont, 1960, 1970, revised edition 1978. Solid “classical” text on electric foil and epee, and dry saber by a noted British master and Olympic fencer. Excellent, perhaps best anywhere, description of the character and characteristics of epee fencing (de Beaumont was an epeeist). Good chapters on tactics and training.
Escrime by Raoul Cléry, 1965. A thorough, practical text, absolutely one of the best, by one of the great French masters. Highly recommended. The epitome of the French school in foil and epee, but the saber is Hungarian.
La Vera Scherma by Edoardo Mangiarotti and Aldo Cerchiari, 1966. A very useful book for all three weapons, although I’m naturally more disposed to its epee section, particularly given Mangiarotti’s fame in the spada. Exceptionally well-illustrated. In Italian, and the modern classical Italian school, of course. An excellent beginning to intermediate text on all three weapons. One of the virtues of this book are photographs of technique in action, showing what fencing actions actually look like as performed by elite fencers. Most fencing books use posed photographs or otherwise idealistic illustrations, providing elevated expectations of the often unattainable except at slow speed with a conforming partner. There is nothing wrong with illustrating the ideal, providing it is pointed out that it is exactly that, an ideal, seldom to be seen in practice even by elite fencers. The book also includes line drawings of ideal technique.
Modern Fencing: Foil, Epee, and Saber by Michel Alaux, 1975. A thorough introduction to all three weapons by one of the great French masters who taught in the US. Short but good sections on bouting tactics, lessons, and conditioning. Excellent beginning text for the novice fencer. The French school, of course.
Fencing: The Modern International Style by Istvan Lukovich, 1975, 1986. By the author of the noted Electric Foil Fencing. Excellent if brief epee section, very useful to both epeeists and their teachers in that it covers and explains most of what most epeeists will ever need to know. The Hungarian school. Highly recommended for all three weapons.
L’Escrime by Jacques Donnadieu, Christian Noël, and Jean-Marie Safra, 1978. Solid introductory to intermediate text, quite well-illustrated with many photographs of fencing technique, including of technique in competitive action. I’m also somewhat partial to the book given that its images, taken as they were at the time I began fencing, are nostalgic.
Fencing: Techniques of Foil, Epee and Sabre by Brian Pitman, 1988. Solid beginning to intermediate text.
Fencing by Bac H. Tau, 1994[?]. Includes thorough sections on training, tactics, and weapon repair. Excellent section on physical training for fencing. Deserves more attention than it has received. Highly recommended. The book size, cover color, design, and illustrations may have been influenced by–in homage to?–Fencing Technique in Pictures, edited by C – L. de Beaumont, 1955.
Foil, Saber, and Épée Fencing by Maxwell R. Garret, Emmanuil G. Kaidanov, and Gil A. Pezza, 1994. A very useful beginning to intermediate text.
Fencing: What a Sportsman Should Know About Technique and Tactics by David A. Tyshler and Gennady D. Tyshler, 1995. Good information but a very poor, almost unintelligible at times, translation from Russian. Supplement with the Tyshler DVDs (available from many fencing equipment suppliers), or better yet, simply refer to the DVDs. David Tyshler is a Russian master and Olympic and world championship medalist; Gennady Tyshler is a leading Russian master.
The Complete Guide to Fencing, edited by Berndt Barth and Emil Beck, 2007. The German school. A thorough, up-to-date text. Good sections on theory, performance, and athletic training (with a useful emphasis on high rep exercises). Good epee section, much derived from the highly successful Tauberbischofsheim school of epee founded by the largely self-taught Emil Beck.
The technique described in the books in this section is based on the 20th century rule that a foil attack consists either of a fully extended arm with point threatening—aimed at, that is—the valid target, or the later rule which permitted an extending arm with point threatening relaxed, and correctly so, in order to accommodate the highly useful and historically proven progressive attack. These rules—even the original requirement of an extended arm before the lunge, which is not ideal in combat— were rooted in dueling practice and therefore made more sense than the modern interpretation of an attack which is, frankly, often indecipherable and which under the original conventions of attack, not to mention in engagements with “sharps,” would be easily invalidated by a counter-attack. In other words, an attack should not consist of a bent, non-extending arm at any point, especially one with the point aimed at something other than the valid target. Attacks in invitation or otherwise with a bent non-extending arm are quite simply not in the spirit of staying alive. In other words, were the swords pointed, the modern attack would be simply suicidal. Or, put even more simply, fence epee until foil is fixed—if ever it is. The same for modern saber too.
Fencing with the Foil by Roger Crosnier, 1955. One of the best expositions of modern classical foil of the French school ever written in English. Excellent explanations of practical theory, including on tempo and the progressive attack. Frankly, excellent throughout. Epeeists should read it together with Crosnier’s epee text, foilists together with Lukovich’s foil text.
Foil Fencing by Muriel Bower [Muriel Taitt], 1966 et al. Numerous editions, prefer the latest (1996, Muriel Taitt). Solid beginning foil text, used over the four decades by thousands of beginning fencers, including in 1977 by the compiler of this list of books in a beginning class taught by Dr. Francis Zold. Or at least I think it was this text. Perhaps it was Curry’s instead? The second editon of Bower’s version includes as co-author Torao Mori–a noted competitive fencer and fencing master–who took over the Joseph Vince Co. fencing supplier on Crenshaw Blvd (and where I purchased my first fencing mask, jacket, and glove in 1977).
Fencing by Nancy L. Curry, 1969. Solid beginning foil text although dated in terms of “modern” foil technique and rules. Even so, a good text on core technique. The book is clearly intended to accompany a college-level beginning fencing class and here it succeeds, describing in basic terms the fundamentals that can be covered in a single semester. As with a few other texts, it has useful images of fencing technique taken from above in order to show correct relationships. Nit-picking here: in the acknowledgements, a reference to the famous Castello fencing supplier is written as Costello, a typo and surely not a hat tip to Abbott and Lou…
All About Fencing: An Introduction to the Foil by Bob Anderson, 1970, 2nd printing 1973. The book is unique in that the reader can, by flipping pages, see properly executed technique, and in a manner superior even to much of the modern fencing video available. There is a hint of two of sexism common to the era—Anderson states that only men can cope with the epee and sabre, for example, which is nonsense—, but few fencing books of the first seven or eight decades of the 20th century do not take such a view. Some might disagree with some of his brief fencing history as well, but the history in many fencing books is open for debate, based as it often is on common understanding as opposed to rigorous analysis.
Anderson was a British Olympic fencer and Olympic coach who became Hollywood’s leading swordplay choreographer, following in the footsteps of Fred Cavens and Ralph Faulkner. The fencing in Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and Alatriste are but three of his many film works. (His book is also one of the first two books on fencing the compiler of this list ever read. In fact, the book was in the Mount Miguel HS library—seldom anymore will you find fencing books in high school libraries.) Mr. Anderson died on January 1, 2012, and was inexplicably and inexcusably snubbed by both the 2012 and 2013 Oscars during the In Memoriam segment.
Electric Foil Fencing by Istvan Lukovich, 1971, 1998. Perhaps the most thorough electrical foil text, with excellent sections on fencing theory and requirements. Valuable even today, in spite of being written and published prior to the modern debasement of right-of-way conventions (i.e. attacks in invitation or “bent arm” attacks legitimized), although foil and saber were already inclining in this direction when Lukovich wrote his book.
Foil and The Revised Foil by Charles Selberg, 1975 and 1993 respectively. Thorough and very useful, with a good section on tactics. Highly recommended, but prefer the 1993 Revised Foil. Selberg also produced an extensive selection of instructional videos. Now on DVD, they are available from Selberg Fencing at http://www.selbergfencing.com/.
Basic Foil Fencing by Charles Simonian, 2005. A solid introductory text.
Foil Lessons With Victor by David A. Littell, 1994. A twenty-three page foil monograph far more useful than its brevity might suggest. It’s based on the author’s lessons from fencing master Victor Bukov. Useful in all three weapons, it presents a variety of tactical methods of attack, heavily distance-based. Readers familiar with Hungarian theory and practice (and thereby Russian and general East European) will recognize the descriptions.
Modern Sabre Methodology by Zoltán Beke and József Polgár, 1963. Translated from the Hungarian. Not “modern” in the sense of the most recent form of saber fencing, but “modern” in the sense of twentieth century Hungarian saber before saber’s debasement via the electrical scoring system and the degeneration of the interpretation of right-of-way. Worth acquiring if you can find an affordable copy, but if you do it will likely be by accident, unfortunately. Mine was. A very thorough exposition of every technique in the Hungarian saber repertoire. Not for beginners! One of my favorite passages is its excellent, simple definition of tempo, along with the very useful discussion following, all suitable to all three weapons—or to all swords in all places in all eras, in fact. It is also, from a historical perspective, easy to see how Hungarian saber influenced Hungarian epee, and therefore modern epee.
Fencing With the Saber by Roger Crosnier, 1965. Excellent, thorough work on “Hungarian” saber, second only to that of Beke and Polgár above. A suitable companion to Prof. Crosnier’s works on foil and epee. Note, however, that the terminology and categorization of technique is of the classical French school, not the Hungarian. The fundamentals are still useful today. Naturally, Prof. Crosnier does not permit the attack with the arm in invitation or otherwise bent…
Modern Saber Fencing by Zbigniew Borysiuk, 2009. Only if the modern “weapon” known as electric saber appeals to you. Still, a very good book, and the only thorough one on the subject in print in English. Unintelligible conventions plus attacks with the unextending arm held low in invitation while leaving the body nakedly exposed plus awkwardly cramped footwork plus hitting with the flat of the blade do not saber fencing make. The flat merely chastises: it’s the edge that cuts. The rest is simply too tiresome to debate.
The Cléry and Lukovich titles in the “Epee, Foil, and Saber” section have excellent instruction on Hungarian saber. Cléry also includes some detailed history of the origin of the Hungarian school. The Beck/Barth text includes excellent information on modern post-Hungarian saber. The famous Hungarian saber technique was destroyed principally by the electrification of saber, said by knowledgeable world class fencers and FIE sources to have been a compound decision based on the likelihood that the obvious flaws in electric saber would permit a less strict technique, particularly when aided by a debasement of right-of-way, and would thereby open international saber medals to more than the handful countries with the critical mass of elite saber coaches and sabreurs able to master in-depth the clear, clean technical repertoire of the Hungarian weapon; such technique was mandatory for correct judging.
For half a century Hungary reigned over twentieth century saber, and maintained a strong grip on it even after a number of sabreurs defected during the Melbourne Olympic Games in response to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. Recent US gains in modern electrical saber were based in part on the early willingness of US coaches to embrace the new “weapon,” while some of their European counterparts, who had previously excelled in saber, attempted to continue the use of traditional Hungarian technique.
Theory, Tactics, Teaching, and Training
Fencing and the Master by László Szabó, 1977, 1997. Forward by Dr. Eugene Hamori, a student of Szabó’s (and my second fencing master), in the 1997 edition. The best book ever written on the subject of teaching fencing: the fencing coach’s vade-mecum. Highly recommended. Excellent material on theory and other aspects of fencing, besides the practical. Intermediate to advanced fencers will also find it useful, in particular for its sections on tactics, preparation, drilling, and stealing distance. Szabó, who trained a number of Hungarian champions, was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés and a close friend of Dr. Francis Zold, my first fencing master.
László Duronelli and Lajos Csiszar were the other two Santelli protégés. Csiszar was master for many years at the University of Pennsylvania after emigrating to the US. Among his students were Dr. Eugene Hamori and Roger Jones, the latter of whom one day contacted me about writing a review of one of my books; during our conversation we realized we had the same ultimate fencing roots and identical views, understandably, on honor in fencing. Duronelli was master for many years at the fencing salle at Semmelweis High School, run by Semmelweis University, in Budapest. This delightfully old school salle, which has produced many champions, is still in existence, with László Szepesi, who helped bring saber gold to France, as its current master. Eugene Hamori along with Krisztina Nagy (a very talented fencer in both HEMA longsword and modern Olympic saber) escorted my wife and me on a visit to the salle not too long ago.
A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology by William M. Gaugler, 1997. A well-researched fencing dictionary.
Escrime: Enseignement et entraînement by Daniel Popelin, 2002. In French. The theory and practice of teaching fencing and training fencers. Rather than use the typical pyramidal view of fencing from its base to its competitive elite at the point, M. Popelin suggests a truncated pyramid, whose range is from beginner to national level, to indicate the majority of fencers, and a cylinder on top of this to indicate international and aspiring-to-international fencers. He astutely notes that the majority of fencers do not seriously train to become elite fencers, for many reasons, and thus fencers should be trained differently according to their needs. In other words, the training of the “club” fencer, no matter how talented, should be different from that of the elite competitor. Or put another way, simply because a technique, classical or otherwise, is not used at the elite level is no reason for non-elite competitors to abandon it or, worse, never learn it.
Understanding Fencing by Zbigniew Czajkowski, 2005. Highly recommended for fencers and coaches interested in practical theory. Czajkowski is a leading Polish master whose students in all three weapons have earned gold at the Olympics and world championships.
One Touch at a Time by Aladar Kogler, 2005. The psychology and tactics of competitive fencing, by an Olympic fencing coach and noted sports psychologist.
Theory, Methods and Exercises in Fencing by Ziemowit Wojciechowski, 1986(?). By a world-class fencer and master. Foil-based, but still an excellent book for fencers and coaches of all three weapons. Good information on evaluating and dealing with an opponent’s tactical style, especially in foil, although, again, still useful in epee and saber.
See also Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, in the “Historical Fencing” section below.
(Modern Non- Electrical Technique)
Some of the books below (Barbasetti, Gaugler) use one of the several classical Italian parrying systems and numberings, as opposed to the French or modified French systems and numbering preferred by most teachers today. (There are also several French-based numbering systems, each differing slightly in the naming of a parry or two, or in the use of a parry, for what it’s worth.) All of the books below are useful to the modern electrical game, epee particularly, and to foil and saber at their fundamental level. At some point foil and saber may return to a more classical standing, rather than their present sport-dominated extreme artificiality, notwithstanding that foil has always been highly artificial, at least for the past 150 to 200 years, and moderately artificial prior to that. See also the texts listed in the “Epee de Combat” section.
Réglement d’Escrime by the Ministère de la Guerre, France, 1909 and other editions. A short treatise on foil fencing for the French military that provides a detailed look at the classical French school. Useful for classical fencers and historians, and, frankly, any fencers interested in French technique given that it remains sound today, at least as a foundation. Oddly, one would have expected the French military to have adopted the new epee technique rather than foil at this time, and even more so, would have emphasised the saber instead of either, given that it was still in use as a practical military arm at the time.
The Fencer’s Companion by Léon Bertrand, 1934 to 1958 and possibly later. A delightful little book, hardcover but pocket-sized, with enough information on all three weapons to substantially educate fencers from novice to intermediate-advanced, with fundamental lessons required at all levels of fencing. The book also includes useful advice on teaching fencing. Prof. Bertrand, son and grandson of famous British fencing masters of French descent, was one of the most influential masters in the history of modern fencing in the UK.
Among Prof. Bertrand’s useful advice is to learn to fence from the beginning with both hands, starting with the weak hand first for balance. It’s advice unlikely to be followed often but it has excellent virtues, and will likely be the subject of a blog post one of these days. Twenty-five years ago I began learning to fence left-handed in order to give left-handed lessons as well as right. Two years ago I seriously incorporated left-handed footwork, drills, and fencing into my regimen, equal those of my right-handed, with quite useful results. Prof. Bertrand also has advice for fencing against classical Italian fencers, in which the counter-quarte and Italian prime (a high septime) dominate. (Note for readers of Imre Vass: his “destructing parries” in quarte and septime correspond to–are equivalent to–these two classical Italian parries that in combination “cut the line” or “destroy” feint attacks in the high line and will parry high-low and low-high feint attacks in the inside line.)
I’d not be surprised to find that The Fencer’s Companion influenced All About Fencing: An Introduction to the Foil by Bob Anderson, in particular the images of technique in action. Whereas Prof. Bertrand includes a series of photos depicting various actions as shown above, Anderson took this a step further so that by flipping pages the reader can see the technique in action, similar to a primitive film. See also Bob Anderson’s book on this page.
The Book of Fencing by Eleanor Baldwin Cass, 1930. The book is particularly noteworthy as it was, and remains, one of only a handful of fencing texts written by a woman, even including modern texts. Ms. Cass was an American, and the book was, not surprisingly, published in Boston, birthplace both of conservative American Puritanism as well as liberal progressive thought. The epee section is sparse, as is often the case with many three-weapon texts, but the foil section is classically thorough. The book is also a great source on much of the fencing history of the day, and thus quite useful to the fencing historian.
The Art of the Foil by Luigi Barbasetti, 1932. The Italian foil. Includes a succinct but thorough history of fencing, a good section on tactics, and a glossary of fencing terms in English, French, Italian, and German. A useful book for epeeists as well. Barbasetti was one of several Italian fencing masters who carried Italian technique to Hungary and Austria, including to the Austro-Hungarian Normal Military Fencing School of Wiener-Neustadt in 1895 where he re-organized it. (Alfred Tusnady-Tschurl, one of my “fencing grandfathers”—the fencing masters of my own fencing masters—was a graduate and had studied under Barbasetti.) Italo Santelli was the most notable of these Italian immigrant masters. Santelli famously said that fencing is something you do, not something you write about—thus there is no book by Santelli in this list.
The Theory and Practice of Fencing by Julio Martinez Castelló, 1933, & Theory of Fencing, 1931. One of my favorite dozen or so fencing books. The author was trained in the early 20th century Spanish school, which was based on the best of the French and Italian, including a modified modified French grip that gave it the (theoretical) point control of the French grip with the strength of the Italian grip. (This grip is illegal in modern competition, although a pistol grip variation without an external weighted pommel exists that is legal, if you can find it.) The Neapolitan Italians were the first to formally attempt to combine the French and Italian schools on any scale, followed by the Spanish and, via the Italians, the Hungarians, although fencing “schools” have always adopted technique from each other and adapted it to their own methods. However, in both editions the author notes that the book, which he wrote to help “young men and women in the many schools and colleges” in the US, including those without a teacher, is not based entirely on any particular system, although he says the foil is mostly French, the saber Italian, and the duelling sword (epee) from his own experience.
The author notes that at the time he wrote his book the French school predominated in the US, and this remained largely true at least until the 1970s, in foil and epee especially, in spite of an influx of elite Hungarians in the 50s and 60s. (I was often told in the late 70s and early 80s that I fenced epee like a pentathlete, rather than conventionally, French, that is: in fact, I fenced like a Hungarian, although notably my lessons from two Hungarian masters and one French master–the famous Michel Sebastiani, French-Corsican, and a former pentathlete–were seamless and very similar.) Saber in the US was by the 70s largely Hungarian, at least among the best sabreurs. Castelló also writes that the predominant saber school circa 1930 was Italian, but in fact by then the Hungarian school, based on the Italian but modified to suit Hungarian attributes, was dominant. But this is a quibble, yet I’ll add one more: Castelló repeats the canard about the saber target being limited from the waist up because it was a cavalry weapon, i.e. one didn’t hit the horse. This is arrant nonsense, still repeated today. The target in saber is based on an old Italian rule that limited the target to the area above the waist in order to protect a duelist’s manhood. This is noted in numerous late 19th century Italian texts.
Castelló had also self-published a smaller volume, Theory of Fencing, in 1931. Copies could be ordered from the author himself for $2. The more detailed 1933 version was released by noted publishing house Charles Scribner’s & Sons. Both books–the later book is simply an expansion of the first in both text and illustration–are excellent sources of fundamental fencing theory and technique, knowledge often far too lacking in many fencers today. Castelló included an excellent description of the two most classical epee styles–“straight arm” and “bent arm”–and associated technique and tactics. (See Lidstone’s later edition above for others.)
Among Castelló’s students was Joseph Velarde, the West Point Military Academy fencing master whose stand against racial discrimination opened US collegiate fencing competition to black fencers. By coincidence I once worked with Velarde’s son, a former US Marine Corps officer, many years ago. A decade before that I had fenced with and competed against the founders of the old M.A.R.S. Fencing Club at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, most of whom were among the Apollo engineers who put humankind on the Moon. (The fourth was and is a brilliant Byzantine iconographer.) One of these veritable musketeers, Joe Dabbs, who has since passed away, had trained for years under Velarde. I have remained friends with all of these old M.A.R.S. fencers for almost forty-five years, and most were active fencers until recently as age and old injuries restrained them, although I still fence with one of them regularly (Elias Katsaros, with French grips and true “hit and not get hit” dueling practice only!). John Jordan and Donny Philips—the other two members of the Four Musketeers—are also still with us.
The Art of the Sabre and the Epee by Luigi Barbasetti, 1936. By one of the great early twentieth century masters. The epee section is quite sparse, and refers the student to the foil for much technique, a quite common practice in many of the Italian schools. Castello’s book (see above) has a far more thorough epee section.
Fencing Comprehensive by Félix Gravé, 1934. A delightful and, too my mind, too short fencing treatise covering foil and epee, filled with pithy fencing wisdom that has never been out-of-date. The author’s general observations are also noteworthy. For example, the truly classical fencer in form and technique is born, not made. (Not to worry, those of you in the majority who weren’t born to fit into the classical mold–even in the days of “classical fencing” such fencers were rare, and one need not fit this mold in order to be a great fencer. Anyone who tells you otherwise is ignorant and probably, to quote The Princess Bride, selling something.) Gravé has good advice for teaching, on dealing with some of the more common types of fencer, on tactics in general, and for conducting a duel. For the fencing historian, he has several drawings of period fencing grips, the French interchangeable epee system (l’épée démontable), various guards (coquilles), pommels, points d’arrêts, the development of the fencing mask, &c. Interestingly, he mentions women epeeists, and has an illustration of the clothing they should wear (“men’s,” basically) long before epee was permitted to women in competition, a fact that pleases me immensely.
On Fencing by Aldo Nadi, 1943, reprint 1994. A famous Italian fencer’s thoughts, pompous, patronizing, and otherwise, on technique and competition. For Nadi, there was only one correct way to fence: his. Held up as a god by many modern “classical fencers,” Nadi despised the French grip as much as many of the same “classical fencers” today despise the pistol grip and advocate the Italian and [Nadi-despised] French grips. Let no one claim that blind self-irony and hypocrisy, often humorous, even hilarious, never reigns among pseudo-experts, or for that matter, among quite a few true experts.
The Science of Fencing by William M. Gaugler, 1997. A thorough modern description of purely classical Italian foil, epee, and saber technique. Pedagogical, as one would expect, and almost old school military in its technical presentation. Professor Gaugler, a student of Aldo Nadi and other great classical Italian masters, passed away in 2011.
That Is, To Hit and Not Get Hit (At Least in Theory)
Rapier & “Transitional” Rapier
Libro de Jeronimo de Carranza, que trata de la filosfia de las armas y de su destreza, y de la aggression y defension Christiana by Jeronimo de Carranza, 1582. Add to this the works of his student, don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez. The book is the exposition of la verdadera destreza, or true art, and as such is necessary for understanding one of the major schools of Spanish rapier. The style is based much on complex geometric forms derived from the simple theory that discovering the shortest safest path in attack or defense is the basis of speed (in fact, it is but one component). From this proposition the school became wrapped in unnecessary esoterica including elements of mathematics and philosophy that have little if any practical bearing on practical swordplay. Yet it was this esoterica that made it surely lucrative for fencing masters whose students were, as many are today, eager for “secret knowledge.” The system was scathingly and brilliantly lampooned by famous poet, swordsman, and Spanish national treasure Francisco de Quevedo in El Buscón. Quevedo once humiliated Narvaez in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat. In fairness, it can be argued that the verdadera destreza was an early effort at scientific or rational fencing theory that, albeit with different emphasis, would come to dominate the smallsword in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Part of my bias against attaching philosophy, metaphysics, “secret knowledge,” and other such “floral appendages” to fencing is that the allure is primarily to make fencing lucrative to some fencing teachers’ bank accounts and all too often to enrich the teachers’ egos as well as their wallets. I’ve seen a number of modern teachers practice this in Olympic, classical, and historical fencing. It is a pompous, pretentious, and, often to many students, ultimately disappointing practice. Fencing has more than enough fascinating allure, and its lessons easily applied to life: it need not be wrapped up mysteriously and excessively in mathematics, philosophy, and, to be plain, alchemy. Or, more generally, in esoteric bullsh*t.
That said, one of the best ways to look at the destreza verdadera form may be to consider it as the truly Spanish Baroque style of swordplay, caught up in all that was good and bad in the excesses of the Spanish Baroque period.
Escuela de Principiantes y Promptuario de Questiones en la Philosophia de la Berdadera Destreça de las Armas by Don Pedro Texedo Sicilia de Tervel, 1678. As with the Destreza Indiana below, the author’s name alone is quite evocative. Add to this the author’s image in the front papers, evoking the aloof, Roman-nosed Spanish don (not quite a myth by any means), and we have a book right out of a Hollywood swashbuckler. It has everything for the fencer enraptured by the destreza verdadera, including excellent illustrations of swashbuckling swordsmen—Spaniards, we assume, although their Spanish dress includes baldrics rather than the narrow sword-belts worn by Spaniards at the time except when in military dress, which was basically French—holding classic cup-hilt rapiers and standing on “magic” geometric circles. Discusses rapier and dagger, single rapier, and rapier and target.
The author’s image page includes references to theologia, obtica, practica, astrologia, speculativa, arismetica, matematica, musica, and philosophia, which is quite an education: only by reading the book is the question answered as to whether some or all apply to the destreza verdadera. “All,” I imagine Texedo would say. Further, I am unsure who the audience was: the book was published in Naples, under Spanish rule at the time; the clothing and baldric are a bit curious (perhaps of Spaniards in Naples? Or in Sicily? Or of Italians in Spanish dress?); and the dedication is to His Majesty the King of Spain, of course.
The book’s purpose is clear, though, according to Texedo’s motto: Omnia Contra Tela is shorthand for “unum omnia contra tela Latinorum” from Virgil’s Aeneid, book VIII. The complete phrase translates as “alone sufficient against all the weapons of the Latins” (Benjamin Apthorp Gould, 1826; Latin translation should always be left to serious scholars). Given that destreza is written beneath the motto, it’s pretty certain that Texedo held his practice of philosophical swordplay in high regard.
I imagine Don Pedro Texedo, whom I rank among my favorite Spanish swordsmen, as equal to “John de Nardes of Seville in Spain, who with the dagger alone, would encounter the single rapier and worst him.” (William Higford, 1658. “Juan de Nardes” of Seville is probably Juan Domínguez, noted by F. Moreno in Esgrima Española, 1904.)
Las Tretas de la Vulgar y Comun Esgrima, de Espadas Sola, y Con Armas Dobles by Manuel Cruzado y Peralta, 1702. My many thanks to Pradana who corrected my description of this book. When I reviewed it ten to fifteen years ago, I simply read the title and scanned the text for examples of “common” Spanish rapier, and so I assumed it was a book on the comun technique. Pradana pointed out that the text is in fact a criticism of the common bad. Mea culpa! Thankfully I do a more detailed review and re-review of sources prior to formal publication. In regard to “comun” texts, Pradana recommends Domingo Luis Godinho. Although I’m aware of this author I haven’t yet reviewed the book, but will post a summary when I do.
Illustracion de la Destreza Indiana by Don Francisco Santos de la Paz and Capitan Deigo Rodriguez de Guzman: Lima, 1712. Noteworthy primarily because it was the first fencing book, to my knowledge, published in the Americas. The authors’ names alone conjure assignations and affrays fought with rapier and poniard, or capa y espada, at night, not to mention the myth of duels on deck between noble pirate captains and treacherous Spaniards, although to be accurate we should drop the “noble” from pirate captains all of the time unless fictional (for example, Captains Peter Blood and Charles de Bernis), and “treacherous” from Spaniards most of the time. Trust me on this, I write books on the subject. See also Edward Blackwell in the “Smallsword” section below.
Gran Simulacro by Ridolfo Capo Ferro, 1610, 1629. A beautiful 2004 hardcover edition, Italian Rapier Combat: Capo Ferro’s ‘Gran Simulacro,’ edited by Jared Kirby, is available, as is a 2012 softcover reprint.
L’Arte di Ben Maneggiare la Spada by Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, 1653. Beautifully and graphically illustrated treatise of the Italian spada, both of single sword and sword and dagger. Highly recommended.
Regole Della Scherma by Francesco Antonio Marcelli, 1686. Detailed, practical study of the Italian spada, including single sword, sword and dagger, and sword versus other arms and vice versa, for example the saber or scimitar versus rapier. A very practical book with sound, practical advice useful in rapier, smallsword, and epee. Dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden, who had abdicated her throne and now resided in Rome. Greta Garbo starred as Queen Christina in an excellent film of the same name.
Grondige Beschryvinge Van de Edele ende Ridderlijcke Scherm-ofte Wapen-konste by Joannes Georgius Bruchius, 1671. A Dutch text presaging the persistent influence of the rapier into the age of the smallsword in Northern European schools—the Dutch, the various German, and others. Notably, in spite of the date and obvious transitioning to a lighter weapon, the book still uses much Italian rapier terminology. Solid technique for the duelist, soldier, and brawler, much of it looking remarkably similar to modern epee. The author references various illustrations throughout the book, in order that the reader may put them together in different described sequences. Clever, but unfortunately cumbersome too, as one might expect.
The book illustrates one of the most practical uses of what Alfred Hutton, in saber, would refer to as “high octave”—used, that is, as a yielding parry from quarte to exclude the adversary’s blade after running him through. Immediately closing the distance and commanding the adversary’s blade was vital. An adversary is seldom dead or disabled immediately, after all, and this technique would prevent him (or, rarely, her) from making a killing thrust in revenge, assuming a perfect world of course. Not everything goes according to plan, or so Fortune is said to say and without doubt often proves. Some nineteenth century saber masters recommended its use to counter-parry a quarte riposte made in opposition, suggesting that it was the only parry that could be made quick enough, which at the distance of direct riposte may be true. Hollywood is occasionally enamored of the technique, but it’s usually cringeworthy to watch the lovefest, so stilted, weak, and inappropriate in execution—unbelievable, in other words—it usually is.
See George Silver in the “Broadswords…” section below for a passionate argument against the rapier.
Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670. The establishment of the modern French school of the smallsword, whose principals went largely unchanged for more than three centuries, and remain much in place today. Fencing for the French court. Although the technique is practical as described, or at least what would soon be considered conventional, and later classical, the illustrations show a lunge absurdly long, one that could hardly be recovered from in good time or in good defense. Perhaps it was to please Louis XIV and his tastes in elegance and dance.
Le Maître d’Armes ou L’Exercice de l’Epée Seule dans sa Perfection by Andre Wernesson, Sieur de Liancour, 1692. An excellent study of the smallsword, albeit in some ways more suited to gentilshommes of the French court than to adventurers in the field. Julie d’Aubigny, aka Mademoiselle la Maupin, the opera singer and duelist, among other occupations and pastimes, may well have studied under Wernesson, maître en fait d’armes to the Petit Ecurie, given her swashbuckling father’s position at court as the secretary to the comte d’Armagnac. (She might also have studied under Jean or François Rousseau, maîtres en fait d’armes to the Grande Ecurie.)
La Maupin, among her many adventures, was convicted and subsequently sentenced in absentia to be burned to death by the Parlement d’Aix for seducing a novice and burning a corpse in the associated convent. The verdict, however, was delivered against the sieur d’Aubigny; La Maupin’s masculine disguise apparently fooling, or perhaps pretending to fool, the right people. The criminal seductress’s former protector, the comte d’Armagnac, petitioned Louis XIV to overturn the decision, which he did, doubtless given his strong inclination toward attractive talented women. Clearly, independent women were hard to come by—and apparently hard to spot when dressed as a man fleeing a convent and prosecution.
L’art des armes by le sieur Labat, 1696. English translation, The Art of Fencing by Andrew Mahon, 1734. Another excellent study of the smallsword, although Labat, like de Liancour, was not quite as practical-minded regarding the smallsword in sudden rencontres, street fights, and the battlefield as some authors, McBane for example, were. From his work, as well as Hope’s below, it is easy to see the origins of sport fencing, aka foil fencing. In fact, I suspect that most fencers of this era far preferred “school play” to the possibility of injury or death in a real rencontre.
The Compleat Fencing-Master by Sir William Hope, 1692, 1710. Largely a reprint of Hope’s earlier work, the Scots Fencing Master, or Compleat Small-Swordman, 1687. An excellent work, highly recommended. Hope was an astute amateur, and his observations on fencing concepts are valuable to both the historical and modern fencer. Additionally, he has much practical advice for fighting with “sharps.”
The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum by Sir William Hope, 1691, 1694, 1705. Excellent advice for surviving a fight with “sharps.” That is, practical considerations for dueling and “rancounters” (rencontres) or street fights.
The Fencing-Master’s Advice to His Scholar by Sir William Hope, 1692. Rules and advice, including technique, for “school play”—that is, for sport fencing. Ever wonder where foil conventions and rules come from? In spite of most historical texts noting that conventions originally derived for reasons of safety, it is clear that sport, convenience, and appearance also played a major role, perhaps even the greater one, starting in the late 17th century, if not much earlier.
The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700. Illustrations and single line descriptions only, very useful to the historian not only of fencing but of period dress. (I’ve relied heavily on these images for Fortune’s Whelp, for example.) Figures are in a variety of fencing positions, most with smallswords, some with buttoned foils. Worthy of much study. A number of images are suggestive of, or even imitated from, 17th century rapier and “transitional rapier” illustrations, making it at quite possible, or even probable, that the French school was not yet entirely in full force even in the English smallsword, or that the Dutch immigrant illustrator Laroon, who bore a facial scar from an affray with swords, was showing his Dutch influence. (See Bruchius in the “Rapier & Transitional” Rapier section, for example.)
The English Fencing-Master: or, the Compleat Tuterour of the Small Sword by Henry Blackwell, 1702. A short text thereby suggesting that “Compleat Tuterour” is hyperbole, with decent illustrations showing wounds with spurting blood for emphasis. Includes more proof that the modern sixte thrust aka “carte over the arm” was well in use much earlier than some fencing historians suggest. Charming spelling of seconde: “Sagoone.” But the spelling of carte, tierce, and prime are conventional. Blackwell includes a good but brief discussion of flanconnade, one of my favorite thrusts in its several varieties: it secures the adversary’s blade, is perfectly placed for additional opposition with the unarmed hand (were this still legal), and, thrust low, avoids the ribs and their cartilage which might impede the thrust (assuming the adversaries are fencing with “sharps” of course). Blackwell’s recommended en garde is with the arm mostly extended, as is the case with many smallsword texts—it’s simply a safer guard with a real thrusting sword than the common foil guard of the past two centuries. See also Edward Blackwell below!
Der Geöffnete Fecht-Boden by B. Schillern, 1706. German text showing the influence of the rapier even with the smallsword into the 18th century. Compare with Doyle’s French-influenced German text below and with Bruchius’s Dutch text in the “Rapier” section above.
Advertisement, Especially to Fencing Masters by Sir William Hope, probably 1707. An advertisement with argument for Hope’s new book detailing his new method of fencing using the hanging guard. Excellent, if brief and not entirely complete, discussion as to why swordplay on the battlefield is different from that of the duel. (He doesn’t provide reasons why cutting weapons, or cut and thrust, are preferred: cuts may not kill but often disable more quickly that thrusts, it is easier to change direction and defend while doing so with a cutting weapon, thrusts may stick in the adversary and thereby be problematic for mounted troops–many have been dismounted by a thrust stuck in an enemy.) Hope is less convincing when it comes to his argument that his method is new, and not merely a restatement of one of the Walloon or German styles.
New Method of Fencing by Sir William Hope, 1707, 1714, et al. Hope’s exposition of his conversion to the hanging guard, known by many as the “falloon” (from Walloon) guard, as opposed to the more common guards in quarte and tierce, for the smallsword, sheering sword, and backsword. The book has been reprinted in Highland Swordsmanship, edited by Mark Rector, 2001. Among his excellent advice for swordplay on the battlefield, Hope recommends a stout gauntlet on the unarmed hand for parrying.
The English Master of Defence: or, the Gentleman’s Al-a-Mode Accomplishment by Zackary Wylde, 1711. A difficult read at times, especially for those without a strong base in classical fencing, smallsword, and backsword/broadsword technique, not to mention in English syntax and phrases circa 1700, but the language is colorful, the writer charmingly self-confident, and his descriptions—once deciphered—proof that there is little new in “modern” fencing. Covers smallsword, broadsword, quarterstaff, and wrestling.
Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst by Alexander Doyle, 1715. An Irishman introduces Germans to the French school, with plenty of parries and oppositions with the unarmed hand, plus disarmings, grapplings, and trips/throws to satisfy advocates of the native German schools. Almost as well-illustrated as Girard below, and in some ways I almost prefer Doyle’s illustrations. An excellent reference for the practical-minded swordsman.
Expert Sword-Man’s Companion by Donald McBane, 1728. McBane was a Scottish soldier, swordsman, fencing master, duelist, prize fighter, and collateral pimp whose deeds and escapades began in the late 17th century and continued into the 18th. Highly recommended, almost certainly the best text on practical swordplay for the duel, affray, rencontre, street fight, &c, based as it is on his own extensive experience wetting his blade with the blood of adversaries, and occasionally wetting theirs with his own. Literary connection: in The Princess Bride the author refers to McBane as “McBone.” The book has been reprinted at least three times in recent years: a 2015 edition edited by Keith Farrell in Scotland, a 2017 edition edited by Jared Kirby, and a 2001 edition edited by Mark Rector in Highland Swordsmanship (readers of this last edition may choose to disregard the photographs of McBane’s technique and refer instead to McBane’s descriptions and original illustrations which are unfortunately not reproduced in this edition).
A Compleat System of Fencing: or, the Art of Defence, In the Use of the Small-Sword by Edward Blackwell, 1734, in Williamsburg, Virginia. The first fencing text published in North America and the first in English in the Americas as well, sub-titled Wherein The most necessary Parts thereof are plainly laid down; chiefly for Gentlemen, Promoters and Lovers of that SCIENCE in North America. Given the last names plus the similarity of titles and technique, Edward Blackwell is surely related to Henry Blackwell, most likely as father and son. The book includes a good introduction as to why one should fence—Americans, take note! It’s apparently long been a problem promoting swordplay in British-derived North America!—as well as solid descriptions of swordplay, including how to deal with a low guard, in “Master and Scholar” format (Sir Wm. Hope has used this format too).
As with Henry, the book has a good description of the flanconnade, and the likely son has corrected the likely father’s spelling of “Seconde.” Good discussion of time and counter-time, along with a reminder that foilists have long been inclined to impale themselves by attacking into an attack (so have many epeeists, too, but foilists tend to regard double hits as imaginary). Like his likely father, the son prefers a more extended guard, and not the scandalously “crooked Arm” so popular with foilists since the 19th century—but at least most of them extended from beginning to end during their attacks until recently—and also with aggressive “ignorants” of the smallsword era who did not extend during their attacks. Yes, attacks with a bent arm are those of the fencing illiterate, thus one might argue that both modern foil and saber fencers are quite unlettered (and some epeeists are too). See also Henry Blackwell above.
Traité des Armes by P. J. F. Girard, 1737, 1740, et al. Possibly the best book on the smallsword ever written. Not only beautifully illustrated, the book describes smallsword technique in detail, including its use on the battlefield against other weapons. It emphasizes practical swordplay for the duel as well as for the affray or rencontre, even against foreign fencing styles, and for battle. Girard was a naval officer. Highly recommended.
A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence, Connecting the Small and Back-Sword, and Shewing the Affinity Between Them by Capt. John Godfrey, 1747. Practical book on smallsword and backsword, including a very useful analysis of backsword prizefighters, and some notes on boxing as well.
L’Art des Armes by Guillaume Danet, 1766. Excellent work on the smallsword, with practical exposition of the theory and practice, along with useful associated exotica, including how to break up a duel (grasp the shell of one adversary’s sword and direct your point at the other). However, the Internet being what it is—as useful to the lazy in their laziness, fools in their folly, and idiots in their idiocy, as it is to those largely unafflicted with these defects of behavior and intellect—the illustration is unfortunately reproduced on occasion to demonstrate, quite incorrectly, how to fight two adversaries simultaneously.
Among much useful commentary, Danet demonstrates his functional knowledge of fencing history and texts; decries commanding the blade (seizing the adversary’s sword) and disarmaments, but discusses them anyway because the fencer should know how to defend against them; discusses and decries volts and the passata soto (under another name); and wishes that parries with the unarmed hand had never been invented, although he distinguishes between parries with the hand and opposition of the hand, the latter of which he approves.
Danet provides the modern definition of fencing time: the time it takes to perform any single action of hand or foot. On the other hand, his renaming of parries is confusing to modern fencers, and was to his contemporaries as well. La Boëssière père, via his son (see below) was highly critical of Danet in general (not unusual in itself for fencing masters to criticize each other, often pompously), although it is easy to see from both that the “practical” swordplay of the smallsword was in danger of descending into near-complete artificiality, which in the next century it did.
In spite of its many virtues, my fondness for the book is actually based much on Rafael Sabatini’s affection for it, on which he founded much of his description of French swordplay, particularly in Scaramouche. Danet’s style of fencing is very much in keeping with the style of Sabatini’s logical intellect, and therefore of Sabatini’s swashbuckling heroes, although Sabatini, being half Italian, did not shrink from occasional cunning, nor did he object to his swordsmen partaking occasionally from the Italian school. From Danet is the inspiration for Andre-Louis Moreau’s new theory of swordplay, although in reality it would be nullified by an arrest, not to mention difficult to execute even with a cooperative adversary. But don’t let this spoil the excellent novel, which among its many virtues great and small is an evocative description of a fencing lesson that stirs me to this day. And in many ways Sabatini’s theory was correct at its core: the fencer should force his or her adversary into a pre-selected avenue of no escape.
Sabatini also used the historical person of Danet in the short story, “The Open Door” in Turbulent Tales (1946). For more details on Sabatini and Danet, not to mention, and far more importantly, on Sabatini’s works in general, I highly recommend Romantic Prince: Reading Rafael by Ruth Heredia, 2015. I am honored to have assisted Ruth on the subject of swordplay in Sabatini’s works.
The Fencer’s Guide by Andrew Lonnergan, 1771. Practical smallsword-play described with some occasionally uncommon fencing language: the practices of whirling, wrenching, and lurching, for example, which are synonyms for three conventional techniques. A more scholarly and readable update on Wylde is one way of looking at the book. Lonnergan also includes a very useful discussion of the backsword and spadroon, as well as some very practical advice for and against the cavalry, dragoons, and Hussars or light horse—whether the adversary wears breastplate and helmet determines to a great degree the swordplay used. He has brief useful advice for the fencer armed with a walking stick (it must be wielding a bit differently, having no edge or point), and sees no reason that an athletic fencer cannot use the various volts, night thrust (passata soto), grapplings, &c, which by now many masters had lost favor with. However, see Danet above.
The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion; or a New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing by John McArthur, 1784. Solid exposition of the smallsword, with conventional language—McArthur doesn’t use Lonnergan’s romantically descriptive flourishes when naming some techniques. Again, here is yet another book proving that there is really nothing new in modern fencing. As with many fencing books, it includes some useful and some not so useful tidbits, for example, the deflecting of a pistol with a smallsword, something I suggest should not have been tried except in extremis and was probably most successful when used with a strong cutting sword—a broadsword, backsword, saber, or cutlass—that, rather than deflect the pistol, severed some of the fingers or the hand holding it instead. Very much worth reading, as for that matter are all the smallsword texts listed here, in order to expand one’s perspective on the theory and practice of Western thrusting swords.
The School of Fencing by Domenico Angelo, 1787. Several modern reprints available. The height of the 18th century French school, though by now the smallsword was mostly an accoutrement of dress, occasional dueling arm, and for some military officers, a badge of office. Fencing for the gentleman. The book is not my favorite, even though it was also published under “Escrime” in Diderot’s famous encyclopedia. Perhaps it’s the illustrations: I cannot image any serious swordsman or swordswoman posing so delicately. For the latter part of the 18th century I much prefer Danet, Lonnergan especially, and even McArthur (whose illustrations are likewise a bit too delicate to represent the soldier and fighting seaman in my opinion).
The Amateur of Fencing by Joseph Roland, 1809. Highly recommended for all fencers. Although the technical material is quite useful to the smallsword fencer and worth reading by the modern fencer. In particular, Roland, first quoting McArthur above, recommended the study of fencing to navy men, for “they are more frequently at close quarters with the enemy than the military are.” But the book’s real value lies in his philosophy of teaching fencing and learning to fence. Specifically, he attempts to go beyond the mere mechanical practices of teaching fencing and of fencing itself, practices still far too common even today. In fact, such mechanical description is the entire content, or nearly so, of most books on fencing, then and now. Roland wished to go beyond this and develop a sense of tempo, tactics, awareness, and independence in the student.
Most valuable are several of his admonitions, for example, “[T]he pupil, who I wish at all times to make use, but not too hastily, and without partiality, of his own judgement, and not upon every occasion to take for certain evidence any proposition upon the authority alone of a master, merely because he is a master, or that the same may be found in print.” Although there are masters who have embraced this philosophy today (including mine), the majority do not appear to have done so and remain instead “mechanical.” Of these, too many reign at the center of a cult of personality, with the result that their students are anything but independent on the piste or, unfortunately, in life.
Traité de l’Art des Armes by La Boëssière fils, 1818. An explication by the son of the school of the father (a contemporary of Angelo and Danet, among others). Highly recommended, especially for the student of the smallsword or of fencing history and theory in general. A superb text, with useful observations (practiced too little today, both in the making and the study of) for teaching students, including the young, the old, and women too, along with practical tidbits, for example an early discussion of the use of the fencing mask (masque de fil-fer, that is, iron wire), instructions on how to mount and button a fleuret d’assaut, and a criticism of the quality of the “new” foil blades, something common throughout the history of fencing it seems: I’m old enough, for example, to have used the superbly-balanced, light, long-lasting non-maraging Prieur foil and epee blades forged in the 1970s (there were no maraging blades back then).
Traité de l’ Art de faire des Armes by Louis-Justin Lafaugère, 1820. Perhaps, along with the only secondarily-described method of Jean-Louis (see below), the last of the great treatises of the smallsword. After this date, and until the development of the épée de combat, we find mostly foil fencing in the form of what was once known as “school play”—sport fencing, or worse, le jeu de salon, in a form unsuitable for combat with sharps. Lafaugère, a redoubtable fencer and swordsman (there is a difference), wrote in detail of the many variations of feints and their many combinations, making the book, to some, overly complex. The only modern text comparable in similar complexity is Imre Vass’s grand epee book (see the “Modern Epee” section above) in which he details feint attacks in similar fashion.
Un Maître d’armes Sous la Restauration : Petit Essai Historique by Arsène Vigeant, 1883. Strictly speaking, a biography of one history’s most swashbuckling and talented swordsmen and fencing masters, Jean-Louis. Like Alexandre Dumas who gave us some of the greatest swashbuckling and historical novels ever written, Jean-Louis was of mixed black and white French Caribbean descent. The book is listed here because Vigeant includes a detailed description of Jean-Louis’s teaching method, along with many of his drills, quite modern and still useful today. In any case, Jean-Louis’s story alone is a magnificent read. His daughter, if I recall correctly, was a quite talented fencer, too. For those of you who don’t read French, Michel Alaux includes a detailed biography of Jean-Louis (see the “Combined Modern” section above). Jean-Louis’s salle survived into the 20th century, and Alaux was its master for some years.
Backsword, Broadsword, Saber, &c.
Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver, 1599, reprint 1968 et al. A vigorous defense of English cut-and-thrust swordplay for dueling or battle, and excoriation of the rapier and rapier play. Contains perhaps the best description ever put to paper of the virtues of fencing, as well as the best examination for qualification as a fencing master or expert. Yes, if you want to be an expert swordsman or swordswoman, you must be able to routinely defeat unskilled fencers and not be thrown by their irregular technique and tactics! If you can’t, you’re merely a common fencer best suited to engaging others of your ilk. The fencing may not be pretty when you engage the unskilled, the hack, the ferrailleur, or the extremely unconventional, but you must be able to defeat any inferior fencer, not just those with conventional technique and tactics. Further, you must be able to hold your own against your equals, no matter their style, and force superior fencers to work hard for their victories—and occasionally, defeat them by doing so.
A Treatise on Backsword, Sword, Buckler, Sword and Dagger, Sword and Great Gauntlet, Falchon, [&] Quarterstaff by Capt. James Miller, 1738. Plates with a column of descriptive notes on the front page. Half a dozen or more of the fifteen plates apply to the basket-hilt backsword, and two to the falchion, and therefore to the cutlass. Excellent illustrations of positions poorly illustrated or described in other cutting sword texts of the period. Sir Wm. Hope was a fan of the “great gauntlet,” particularly on the battlefield. Miller was a soldier, later a stage gladiator.
The Use of the Broad Sword by Thomas Page. Norwich, England: M. Chase, 1746. 18th century broadsword technique, including that of the Scottish Highlanders, applicable also to the backsword and cutlass.
Highland Broadsword, edited by Paul Wagner and Mark Rector, 2004 (1790 – 1805). Five late 18th and early 19th century broadsword manuals (Anti-Pugilism by “a Highland Officer,” 1790; MacGregor’s Lecture on the Art of Defence, 1791; On the Use of the Broadsword by Henry Angelo, 1817; The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Saber, by R. K. Porter, 1804; and Fencing Familiarized, by Thomas Mathewson, 1805). Practical cut-and-thrust swordplay.
The Broad Swordsman’s Pocket Companion, “Designed by Capt. Wroughton,” ca. 1830. One of the last real English broadsword manuals of the era of Empire—actually, a book of plates only—before cut and thrust began to be absorbed by the rise in popularity of saber, not that there was actually much difference. Short, well-illustrated with colored prints of military fencers wearing fencing masks and armed with singlesticks. The book is exactly what it says.
The Art of the Dueling Sabre by Settimo del Frate explaining Guiseppe Radaelli’s saber method, translated and explained by Christopher Holzman, 2011. Del Frate’s original works were published in 1868 and 1872. Indispensable, along with the Wright/Masiello/Ciullini work below, for understanding Radaelli’s method of saber. It changed Italian saber fencing forever, and is the root of the Hungarian school.
Lessons in Sabre, Singlestick, Sabre & Bayonet, and Sword Feats; or, How to Use a Cut-And-Thrust Sword by J. M. Waite, 1880. Superb text on practical swordplay, highly recommended.
The Broadsword: as Taught by the Celebrated Italian Masters, Signors Masiello and Ciullini, of Florence, by Francis Vere Wright, Ferdinando Masiello, and [first name unknown] Ciullini, 1889. An English text on the Italian school of the light or dueling saber established by Guiseppe Radaelli in the 1870s. Maestro Masiello was a student of Radaelli; Ciullini probably was as well. Soon this Radaellian school would be transformed by Italo Santelli (a student of Carlo Pessina, who was a student of both Radaelli and Masaniello Parise) and László Borsody into the Hungarian saber school that would lead to Hungary’s half century reign in international sport saber competition. For those interested in the debunking of fencing myths, the book clearly states why the modern saber target is restricted to the area above the waist (and no, it has nothing to do with sabers once having been used on horseback): it was considered “unchivalrous” to hit below the belt. That is, the Italians wanted to keep their manhood undivided.
Cold Steel by Alfred Hutton, 1889, modern reprints available. Practical swordplay for the light saber (sorry, Star Wars fans, it’s not what you think) or even backsword, and also the “great sword” and stick. Highly recommended.
Broadsword and Singlestick by R. C. Allanson-Winn, 1890, reprints 2006, 2009. Excellent work on practical cut-and-thrust swordplay, most highly recommended. Quite English in its pragmatism.
See also Wylde, McBane, Godfrey, and Lonnergan in the Smallsword section above.
In spite of the popular—and correct—association of the cutlass with piracy, privateering, and naval boarding actions of the 17th through early 19th centuries, there are for all practical purposes no cutlass texts prior to the late 18th. Even Roland (see the Smallsword section above), who recommended fencing in particular for naval officers and crews because they had the most need of it given the prevalence of boarding actions, and Girard and McArthur who were naval officers, do not really describe it—Girard not at all, McArthur only briefly by identifying its guards and cuts as those of broadsword, and Roland largely by quoting McArthur.
Cutlass play, at least as described in cutlass manuals, of the later era was based almost entirely on the broadsword and saber technique of the time. However, given the cutlass’s useful abilities at close distances (those of riposte and of grappling), there were doubtless techniques used in earlier periods but not noted later, for example grazing parry-ripostes made in a near-single tempo, short powerful cleaving cuts, plus a variety of techniques suitable when grappling, not the least of which would have been pummeling. F. C. Grove in the introduction to Fencing (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893) wrote: “One of us once saw a sailor of extraordinary strength seize a cutlass close to the hilt, where the edge is blunt, and break it short off.” Quite unconventional even by 17th century standards, yet for the seaman armed with a cutlass in action, not at all surprising. Marcelli (see the “Rapier” section above) notes something I’ve not seen elsewhere but becomes quite obvious when practicing cuts with a cutlass: the weapon is capable of fatal strokes at grappling distance.
Besides the study of backsword, broadsword, and saber texts, I recommend those of the dusack as well. Practice with a knowledgeable partner is also required, as is cutting practice in order to get a good feel for the weapon. The very few texts below are merely representative of saber technique of the later period: it is by no means a complete list. I have described late 17th century cutlass technique, or at least what we know of it, in The Sea Rover’s Practice, The Buccaneer’s Realm, and The Golden Age of Piracy, especially in the last book. Additionally, those interested may want to review my blog post, Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know, as it includes some information on technique. Marcelli and Girard have some discussion of opposing a saber against a rapier or smallsword, and Marcelli also vice versa, much of which is applicable to the cutlass. Likewise Captain Miller in the “Backsword” section has two plates showing falchion or hanger guards (inside and outside) applicable to the cutlass.
Naval Cutlass Exercise by Henry Angelo, 1813. A detailed illustration of footwork, cuts, and “words of command.” Based entirely on the broadsword, it might as well be broadsword, so why bother—except that Angelo was paid for it by the Royal Navy. In his defense, McArthur (see the “Smallsword” section above) agrees that cutlass and hanger guards and cuts are the same as those of the broadsword. Nonetheless, there are techniques one can use with a cutlass at the distance of “handy-grips” that cannot be used with a broadsword or other longer cutting sword.
Naval Cutlass Exercise “For the Use of Her Majesty’s Ships,” 1859. Includes a good general illustration of cuts and guards, as well as well-regulated military-style (naturally) drills for cuts, guards (equivalent to parries), and points (thrusts, that is). The brief “Concluding Observations” include a vital one for combat: “…but he must ever be “on guard” to meet the impromtu [sic] hit of such as cannot help returning [riposting], whether hit or not.”
The Ship and Gun Drills of the U. S. Navy, by the Naval Department, Division of Militia Affairs, 1914. Seaman’s manual with brief instruction on the USN “Sword Exercise.” The attacks and parries are simple and functional, and the illustrations useful.
British Naval Swords and Swordsmanship by John McGrath & Mark Burton, 2013. Includes a couple of good chapters on British naval swordsmanship, but as can be expected given the source material, the discussion is by and large of the late 18th century and afterward. Includes a description of British naval fencers as well. Required background reading for the student of cutlass swordplay and required technical reading for the collector of British naval swords.
La Bibliographie de l’Escrime Ancienne et Moderne by Arsène Vigeant, 1882. Not as complete as the bibliography below, but highly useful nonetheless. M. Vigeant had a thorough understanding of both swordplay itself and its history.
A Complete Bibliography of Fencing & Duelling by Carl A. Thimm, 1896. A very useful, largely complete bibliography through the late 19th century. Reprints from 1968 and 1999 are available, though often pricey. Look instead for the free pdf on Google books unless you find that fortune generally favors you or you have plenty of money to spend, the latter, of course, being one way or another proof that fortune has favored you at least once.
The History of Fencing & Swordplay
Schools and Masters of Fence by Egerton Castle, 1885, reprints 1968, 2003. European fencing to the late 19th century. Highly recommended.
Old Sword Play by Alfred Hutton, 1892, reprint 2001. A brief description of European fencing technique over the ages by a noted English fencing master.
The Sword and the Centuries by Alfred Hutton, 1901, reprint 1995. A history of European fencing and swords.
IIIe Congrès International d’Escrime, Brussels, 1905. For those interested in the arguments and squabbles that created modern sport fencing rules—and how sport interests came to dominate in epee competition, rather than having epee competition emulate dueling or the jeu de terrain as closely as possible.
The English Master of Arms: From the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century by J. D. Aylward, 1956. Excellent work covering not only English fencing masters, but necessarily the development of fencing in the British Isles as well. One of my favorites. Aylward’s book on the smallsword in England is also highly recommended for anyone with an interest in smallswords or late seventeenth and eighteenth century fencing or dueling.
Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York by Jeffrey Richards, 1977. The history of swordsmen and swordswomen in film to 1977. Swashbuckling actors and the fencing masters who doubled for them. Worth the read if you’re into film swashbucklers.
Martini A-Z of Fencing by E.D. Morton, 1988. Not a book on fencing history per se, but a compendium that includes much fencing history, as well as fencing terms, concepts, and trivia. One of Mr. Morton’s entries is Rafael Sabatini. I disagree with most of Mr. Morton’s criticisms of Sabatini, including his claim that much of what he wrote about ships &c is in error. Sabatini did make errors, but they’re not nearly so egregious as Mr. Morton claims, with the exception of presenting a ship’s stern to cannon-fire in order to minimize damage (in fact, this would, as Mr. Morton notes, be more dangerous). Vanity aside, I hesitate to note that I am in fact an expert in this area, and can easily point out where Mr. Morton is incorrect. Notwithstanding that the majority of Mr. Morton’s entries are valid, readers must take the Sabatini entry with a grain of salt.
En garde: Du duel à l’escrime by Pierre Lacaze, 1991. Well-illustrated popular history of mostly French fencing and swordplay.
The History of Fencing by William M. Gaugler, 1998. A detailed history and analysis of the Italian schools into the first half of the 20th century, with a fair, if quite limited, discussion of French schools. The modern schools, including the revolutionary Hungarian (or Hungarian-Italian) saber school, are unfortunately not described.
Escrime by Gerard Six, photography by Vincent Lyky, 1998. “Coffee table” fencing book covering everything from history to technique, albeit briefly, and mostly French. Well-photographed.
The Secret History of the Sword by Christoph Amberger, 1999. By a veteran of the Mensur, also known as fighting for scars—which is by most definitions the purpose of macho male one-ups-man-ship. Most of us, just like Tom Sawyer, are proud of our scars. Highly recommended—the book that is, but we can include scars as well, as proof of a life well-lived and of a fortunate one also, in that we’re still alive to show off our scars.
Croiser le Fer: Violence et Culture de L’épée dans la France Modern (XVIe-XVIIIe Siècle) by Pascal Brioist, Hervé Drévillon, and Pierre Serna, 2002. Excellent scholarly study of swordplay and dueling in France from the 16th to 18th centuries. Highly recommended.
By the Sword by Richard Cohen, 2002. A history of fencing, including the modern schools, by a British Olympic fencer. Highly recommended.
Reclaiming the Blade by Galatia Films, DVD, 2009. A mostly well-intentioned attempt to “reclaim” authentic Western swordplay and historical fencing, but unfortunately marred by the heavy-handed, ideological manner in which it attacks sport fencing and some other forms of swordplay, not to mention by its egregious overuse of Hollywood references and interviews—Hollywood depictions of swordplay are usually divorced entirely from reality, thereby undercutting the argument. At its best, the documentary extols Western swordplay. At its worst, it further divides rather than unites the several major fencing communities.
To pick a bone with—or perhaps cross swords with?—the film’s makers, although many modern competitive fencers often do not practice the ideal of “hitting and not getting hit,” there are plenty, epeeists especially, or at least veteran epeeists, who do understand the concept well, can execute it exceptionally well when necessary, and are happy to argue the point, weapon in hand, with any fencer of any sort. In fact, some of us trained entirely under masters who fenced when dueling was still practiced and the saber was still a military arm—and who understood that it was entirely acceptable to practice both forms of swordplay, that is, sport or recreational, and practical training for combat with real weapons. To promote the so-called reality of historical and classical fencing is double-edged and often cuts hypocritically: excessive “contre-temps” or double-touches have been the bane of fencing for centuries, and modern “historical” and “classical” fencers are no more immune to them than were the fencers of the past whom they seek to emulate.
Useful Japanese Texts
Tengu Geijutsuron (The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) by Issai Chozanshi [Niwa Jurozaemon Tadaaki], translated by William Scott Wilson, 2006. Includes the famous story illustrating the psychology of swordplay, Neko no Myojutsu (The Mysterious Technique of the Cat). Originally written in the early 18th century.
Heihō Kaden Sho (The Sword and the Mind) by Kamiizumi Hidetsuna, Yagyū Muneyoshi, and Yagyū Munenori, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985. Originally compiled in the 17th century.
Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi, translated by Victor Harris, 1974. Completed in 1645, shortly before the author’s death. Numerous editions available, including an excellent translation by William Scott Wilson. A classic on swordplay, strategy, and tactics.
The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Sōhō, translated by William Scott Wilson, 1986. Three essays on swordsmanship (Fudōchishinmyōroku, Reirōshū, and Taiaki) by a Zen master and contemporary of Musashi. Written in the early 17th century.
Suggestions on Acquiring the Books Above
Several of the listed titles (Borysiuk, Czajkowski, Harmenberg, Holzman, Kogler, Lukovich, Szabo, and Vass) are available directly from the publisher, Swordplay Books Online (http://www.swordplaybooks.com/), and delivery may be quicker than in going through a third party vendor who orders the title from the publisher. Other titles may be ordered from various online retailers, and occasionally may be found in bookstores. Most of the titles listed are out of print. Some of the older titles are in the public domain and are available as .pdf files on Google Books, archive.org (an excellent site but for its practice of making some books still under copyright available), and other electronic book sites. College students may be able to access some titles digitally or in traditional print via their university libraries.
Some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century titles in English are published as fairly inexpensive reprints by Gale ECCO and EEBO (Early English Books Online), along with similar cheap—in the sense of cheaply reproduced from mediocre quality digital scans or old microfiches—facsimile reprint publishers, and are available via Amazon and other online bookstores. However, please note that most of these versions DO NOT INCLUDE FOLDOUT PLATES thanks to Google and other publishers’ “get them copied as fast as possible” practice, so if you’re looking for the illustrations you’ll usually have to look elsewhere. Some of these and other old fencing texts may be found in various national digital libraries, often of much better quality, and with complete foldout plates.
A reader of this post, Pradana (see Cruzado y Peralta in the rapier section above), recommends Freelance Academy Press https://www.freelanceacademypress.com/, Fallen Rook Publishing http://www.fallenrookpublishing.co.uk/publications/, and AGEA Editora http://ageaeditora.com/en/ as sources for modern reprints.
Bookfinder.com compares prices of books in and out of print among online retailers, including independent booksellers. Fetchbook.info compares prices among online retailers and some of the major independent bookstores, but appears to be down at the moment, permanently perhaps. Abebooks.com and Alibris.com permit title searches through the stock of thousands of independent booksellers. Search these sites to get an idea of price range before searching on eBay: although some books on eBay are good, even great, deals, some are grossly overpriced or over-bid. My general preference is for Abebooks.com if you don’t have a local independent brick-and-mortar store carrying fencing books (unlikely). Those of you who never had to rely twenty-five or more years ago on book vendors for online searches won’t quite appreciate how useful and cost-effective Abebooks &c. are: “back in the day,” booksellers doing searches for customers would typically mark up the price of a book found at another vendor by one hundred percent—plus shipping. Naturally, they didn’t inform you of this practice.
Some fencing books can be found on Amazon.com, but ALWAYS price compare first, especially with used or antiquarian editions. Many Amazon book vendors have a bad–if not entirely unethical–practice of listing out of print volumes at ridiculously high prices. I’ve seen a used copy of one of my books listed for about $300 by an Amazon vendor, when it could be found on other sites for as little as $25 in the same condition. Similarly with fencing books…
Many fencing suppliers carry fencing books in stock, although the number of titles may be limited. Some libraries carry fencing books, but the selection these days is usually slim. Compare to my high school library which had three or four books on fencing, and we didn’t have, and never had, a fencing team.
Most of the sport fencing books listed above are dated in regard to modern competitive rules, practices, and uniform and equipment requirements. Always refer to the current USA Fencing rule book and USA Fencing operations manual, or other appropriate national fencing regulations for HEMA, historical, classical, and other organizations, for competition rules and regulations. USA Fencing rules, such as they now are, are available for download at USA Fencing’s website.
Copyright 2008-2021 Benerson Little. Last updated June 4, 2021.
Flibustier with captured Spaniards in chains. From the French chart Carte particulière de la rivière de la Plata by Paul Cornuau, probably 1684 based on a nearly identical chart he drew of the River Plate dated 1684. (French National Library.)
EXQUEMELIN’S HEROES & THEIR CUTLASSES
Although the fusil boucanier–the long-barreled “buccaneer gun” of which more blog posts are forthcoming–was the primary weapon of the buccaneer and flibustier, the cutlass was an invariable part of their armament, which also included one or two pistols and a cartouche box (sometimes two) that often held as many as thirty cartridges each. Grenades, firepots, and boarding axes were additional specialty weapons.
Yet in spite of all the romance of buccaneers and their swords–cutlasses usually in reality, but often rapiers in cinema–we don’t know as much about the swords themselves as we would like. Much of what we think we know is based on conjecture, and this conjecture is based on what little we know about cutlasses and hangers of the late 17th century. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence is for all practical purposes non-existent in regard to demonstrable buccaneer swords 1655 to 1688.
Cinema, the source of much of the popular image of the pirate cutlass, almost always gets these swords wrong. Typically they are anachronistic, often imitations of nineteenth century “soup bowl” hilts (and occasionally authentic 19th century cutlasses) drawn from prop stocks. Money is always a concern in film-making, and it is much cheaper to use existing swords than to make historically accurate ones in large quantities, or, too often, even in small quantities. Good historical consulting and the willingness to follow it is, of course, mandatory, but some filmmakers take the view of “Who cares? Hardly anyone will notice, what matters is that the swords look cool or ‘Rock and Roll’ or otherwise meet audience expectations, and anyway, we don’t have the budget for accurate ones, the actors and computer graphics have consumed it all.” On occasion, though, we do see fairly accurate swords in cinema–just not very often.
Our typical idea of a “true” pirate cutlass is taken from the illustrations, such as that above, in Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America. First published in Amsterdam in 1678 in Dutch, the illustrations have been copied to other editions, typically with little or no alteration. Herman Padtbrugge, draftsman and engraver, may have been the illustrator according to the British Museum. It is unknown how much influence Exquemelin had on him, or on whomever was the illustrator. In other words, it is unknown how accurate the physical representations the buccaneers are, nor how accurate their arms and accoutrements. The cutlasses depicted in Exquemelin may simply reflect the illustrator’s Dutch nationality and familiarity with Dutch arms.
The cutlasses, however, are accurate representations of classical late seventeenth century Dutch or German weapons with large iron shell-hilts, manufactured well into the mid-18th century with basically no design changes, although such shell hilts were also manufactured by other European nations, if generally smaller. The English, for example, produced some cutlasses or hangers with moderately large similar shells during the 1660s. The Dutch and German shells are usually quite large and often scalloped, the pommels often heavy for balance, the blades mildly to strongly curved, often with clip points. Typically these shell-hilts may have had a single shell on the outside, with or without a thumb ring on the inside, although usually with one; or a large outside shell and smaller inside shell, both most commonly facing toward the pommel. A thumb ring may be present or absent in the case of two shells. These heavy-hilted cutlasses may have two short quillons with no knuckle bow, or a conventional short or medium upper quillon along with a lower quillon converted to a knuckle bow as in the image below. Pommel style and grip style and material–wood, bone, antler, brass, shagreen (“fish skin,” ray skin), wire over wood, or even iron–vary widely. Blade balance varies just as widely, with some heavy-bladed cutlasses balanced more like cleavers than fencing swords. This is not a criticism: cleaving strokes with a cutlass are quite effective at close range.
The cutlass wielded by Rock the Brazilian above appears, on close examination, to have a single outside scalloped shell, two quillons (although it’s possible the lower quillon might actually be a knuckle bow, but I doubt it is), a heavy pommel, and a thumb ring.
L’Ollonois above holds a typical Dutch or German scalloped shell-hilt cutlass of the late 17th century. Its shell is medium to large, the quillons small and curved, the pommel round and heavy, the blade moderately curved and with a clip point useful for thrusting. It appears it may have a thumb ring or an inner shell, probably the former.
EYEWITNESS IMAGES OF BUCCANEER & FLIBUSTIER CUTLASSES
What we do not know is how common these swords were among buccaneers and flibustiers. Doubtless there at some among them, given how common these cutlasses were. However, the most direct evidence we have of the sort of cutlasses used by these adventurers comes from several drawings of flibustiers in the 1680s by Paul Cornuau, a cartographer sent to survey French Caribbean ports, in particular those of Saint-Domingue (French Hispaniola, modern Haiti). Typically he included local figures flanking his cartouches, and most of these figures are flibustiers and boucaniers. Notably, these are eyewitness illustrations! (See also the The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini (Updated) and The Authentic Image of the Boucanier pages for other eyewitness images.)
In the image at the very top of the page, the flibustier holds a cutlass with a small hilt of indeterminate shape, without a knuckle bow, and with a strongly curved clip point blade. There is no baldric: he wears a sword belt of the sort common at the time, with a pair of hangers with loops (one of them is not shown) hanging from the belt itself. None of these period images of flibustiers show baldrics, although they were a common way of carrying a smallsword into the 1680s for civilian use, and prior to this by infantry and other military branches. However, most infantry began abandoning them in this decade, if not earlier, and they remained in use afterward primarily by mounted troops and Scottish Highlanders.
In the image above, we can tell little of the cutlass belonging to the flibustier on the left except that it has a clip point and that it may be of brass, based on its probably monster, beast, dog, or bird pommel, although some iron pommels have a similar profile. It appears to lack a knuckle bow. Its scabbard is worn from the belt. The flibustier on the right holds a cutlass with a moderately curved blade and clip point. Its hilt has two shells, both small and scalloped. Its pommel may also be of some sort of beast or bird, although we cannot be certain, and there is no knuckle bow. Again, the scabbard is worn from the belt. A similar illustration of a flibustier (on the Authentic Image post, of a flibustier at Île-à-Vache, 1686, from a chart by P. Cornuau) shows only a scabbard with an obvious clip point. It, too, is worn from the belt.
In the image above we have more detail of the hilt. It is clearly of the monster, beast, dog, or bird pommel type, almost always brass. There is a bit of shell showing, but what sort we can’t tell other than that it is scalloped, although if brass we know it is comparatively small. Again, there is no knuckle bow. Notably, the scabbard, which also has a chape (metal protection for the tip of the scabbard), does not necessarily reveal the blade form: it may be with or without a clip point.
So, what would these cutlasses depicted by Cornuau actually have looked like? And what is their origin? For the latter answer, the cutlasses could be of Dutch, English, or possibly French origin. There are numerous English cutlasses and hangers of this form still extant, and of the Dutch as well; the Dutch are often credited as the likely creators of this form. There is less information, though, and few examples, of French cutlasses from this period, although the French may have produced similar arms. There are numerous examples from English and Dutch naval portraits. Most of these swords appear be gilded brass hilts. Although some flibustiers and buccaneers may have carried cutlasses with gilded hilts, most were probably simple brass or iron.
Starting with brass-hilt cutlasses similar to most of those in the Cornuau illustrations. We see a variety of shells and pommels above, although most grips appear to brass, or possibly wire, twisted in a sharply ascending manner. Pommels include a bird of prey, lions, and one or two indeterminate forms similar to that shown in the illustration above of the flibustier armed and equipped to march against a town or city.
If we consider that this form of cutlass is likely Dutch in origin, it behooves us to look closely at one. The image above is of the hilt of the cutlass of famous Dutch admiral Michel de Ruyter. Note that it too lacks a knuckle bow.
Below are several hilts with a variety of knuckle bows. The 4th from the left looks somewhat like a transitional rapier or smallsword hilt, but it appears it may lack the usual arms of the hilt, plus the sword hangs low from the belt and at a steep angle, making it possible that it is a hanger or cutlass. The last image has a knuckle bow of chain, as if a hunting hanger, which it might well be. Again, we see dog or monster pommels, and also lion pommels.
The hilt shown above may be that of a hanger or cutlass, or other cutting or cut-and-thrust sword such as a broadsword or backsword. The shells, while identical to those of a period smallsword, are, with the form of the knuckle bow, very similar to those found on some late 17th century brass-hilted English naval cutlasses. However, it is impossible to know what sort of blade was mounted in the hilt. The Elizabeth and Mary was ferrying New England militia, who were armed with a variety of non-standard arms.
Note the similarity of the sword of Sir Christopher Myngs–possibly a transitional sword with a “rapier” style blade, or a light cut-and-thrust broadsword–to that of the shipwreck hilt.
Thankfully, there remain a fair number of extant examples of hangers and cutlasses other than the few shipwreck artifacts, although maritime or naval provenance is often difficult to prove. A few examples are shown below. Note that two of them have iron shells and/or knuckle guards, with brass pommels. Some buccaneer cutlasses could have been of this form.
In addition to online sources, several good illustrations of brass-hilt cutlasses, which were typically more ornate than iron-hilted, can be found in William Gilkerson’s Boarders Away, With Steel (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray, 1991). Images of cutlasses from Harvey JS Withers’s collection for sale and sold can not only be found online, but in his book, The Sword in Britain, volume one. There are other available sources as well, including several additional reference in this blog.
Below is a detail from an illustration of the famous Jean Bart–a Flemish corsaire in French service–showing him with a cutlass. (Several other period images show him armed with a smallsword, but at least in the image below he is on the deck of a ship.) The cutlass has what appears to be a bird pommel, a small outside un-scalloped shell (or possibly a disk shell), an upper quillon, and a clip point. The hilt is probably brass, and, given its owner, might be gilded.
The illustration of Bart’s cutlass may represent a common cutlass carried by French naval and privateer officers, or it may represent Bart’s Flemish nationality. It appears to be a fairly accurate representation of a Dutch or English cutlass or hanger as discussed previously, although, if we look at the pistol in the belt, we may draw some reservations about its accuracy. The pistol, carried as many were, tucked behind the sash or belt on the right side to protect the lock and make for an easy left-handed (non-sword hand) draw, has errors: both the belt-hook and lock are shown on the left side of the weapon, for example, and the lock is inaccurately drawn. The lock should be on the right side, and the cock and battery are unrealistic. It is possible, but highly unlikely, that the pistol represents a double-barreled pistol with double locks.
OTHER CUTLASS HILT FORMS & SOURCES
Other forms were doubtless used, including the Dutch/German discussed above, as well as the very common smaller iron shell-hilt cutlasses as in the example below. Both William Gilkerson in Boarders Away, With Steel (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray, 1991) and Michel Petard in Le Sabre d’Abordage (Nantes: Editions du Canonnier, 2006) include a fair number of illustrations of common iron-hilted 17th and early 18th century cutlasses. These cutlasses range from a simple outside shell with no thumb ring, to inside and outside shells (the inside typically smaller) with or without thumb rings. On occasion the inside shell faces forward, especially if small. Invariably either an upper and lower quillon exist, or an upper quillon and knuckle bow. Grip material varies as with the Dutch cutlass first described, although wood and bone are the most common materials.
Another common enough form with a pair of bows, one for the knuckles, the other for the back of the hand, is shown below. This form is occasionally seen combined with small shells on brass hilts as well, as in an example above.
Of the late seventeenth century cutlass identified as French, Michel Petard in his excellent Le Sabre d’Abordage describes only one form, shown below. It is iron-hilted and has a single simple outside shell, a small quillon, a knuckle bow carried to an un-ornamented pommel. Almost certainly there were brass-hilted versions of this sword; the French grenadier sword of roughly the same date is identical, except in brass. It’s quite possible, even likely, that some flibustiers carried swords like these, both iron- and brass-hilt versions, but they do not appear to match those in Cornuau’s illustrations.
French paintings of admirals and other officers are typically of no help in identifying French cutlasses or hangers. Most of these portraits are highly stylized and show officers in full armor. When swords are shown at all they are typically smallswords (epees de rencontre).
In Cornuau’s allegorical image above, perhaps of France as Neptune or Mars, the swordsman wields a cutlass of indeterminate shell construction (possibly a simple flat disk, as in the case of some 17th and 18th century hangers and cutlasses, see image below, or a crudely drawn double shell hilt), a cap pommel, and mildly curved blade with a sharp, non-clip point and a single fuller along the back of the blade. Again, it is unknown whether this cutlass is intended to portray a flibustier weapon. Similar examples from the 17th and 18th centuries are known, including a Spanish cutlass. In general, these cutlasses consist of a simple roundish shell with a small upper quillon and a knuckle bow, or of a simple roundish shell with a small upper and lower quillon forged from the same piece of iron.
The sword above is identified by the Mariner’s Museum as a 17th century Spanish naval hanger (cutlass, that is). The shell, quillon, and knuckle guard are iron, as are the plates on either side of the handle. The hilt is without doubt that of an espada ancha (wide or common sword) of New Spain from the 17th or 18th century, commonly used by rancheros and mounted troops as both a weapon and tool similar to a machete. Although most had straight blades, the curved blade of this one does not necessarily mark is as maritime, although surely some of these swords were found aboard Spanish vessels in the Caribbean, particularly those sailing from Mexican ports such as Veracruz. A lack of blade markings is common. Chamberlain and Brinkerhoff in Spanish Military Weapons in Colonial America, 1700-1821 note that swords like this are commonly seen from the late 18th to early 19th centuries.
Another reportedly (by an auction house) 17th century Spanish cutlass above. Iron-hilted, 22″ blade. The design is similar to the previous: knuckle guard, small upper quillion, small shell or outer guard. It too appears to be an espada ancha; I’d like to know how the auction house dated it.
From the first quarter of the 18th century, the Spanish cutlass hilts above were authorized in 1717. The French influence is obvious.
The allegorical image above by Cornuau, shows a man–again perhaps France depicted as Neptune or Mars–wielding a falchion or falchion-like cutlass with a simple hilt, round pommel, and curved blade with clip point. At the man’s feet lies a corpse cloven in half through the torso. It is unknown whether this cutlass is intended to portray a flibustier weapon. That said, there were similar mid- to late 17th century cutlasses and hangers, the one below for example.
Another form that may have been seen among buccaneers is that of the Eastern European short scimitar or saber, as depicted below worn by a Native American.
CUTLASS DESIGN AND USE
A few notes on the design and use of the cutlass are in order. Note that a thumb ring serves a very useful purpose in a sword with an unbalanced hilt, that is, one in which the outside shell is significantly larger than the inner, or in which the inside shell is entirely absent: it permits a stronger grip, preventing the blade from turning as a cut is made. If one’s grip is not firm when cutting with an unbalanced hilt, the blade may turn slightly and cut poorly or not at all. In cutlasses with a single large outside shell, any looseness in the grip will cause the cutlass to turn in the hand toward the heavier side.
Ideally, for a cutting blade to cut properly, a “draw” or drawing action must be made if the blade is straight or mostly straight. Some backsword and broadsword texts make obvious note of this, that the blade must be drawn toward its wielder in order to cut. (It may also be pushed away, in the 18th century this was known as a “sawing” cut.) However, the diagonal cuts from high outside to low inside, and high inside to low outside, have a natural “drawing” motion as the arm is brought toward the body. To make a powerful drawing cut is fairly easy: simply draw the elbow toward the body as the cut is made. A lightly laid on cut with a straight edge, one made with small arm movement, will require a deliberate drawing motion.
Sweeping cuts are the most common sort of drawing cuts, but they are dangerous in practice unless one is mounted (and moving quickly) on a horse, or has a shield, targe, or other defense in the unarmed hand. Sweeping cuts are easily “slipped”–avoided–and as such leave the attacker vulnerable to a counter stroke in tempo. They are also subject to counter-attacks in opposition. Tighter cuts may also be made with a natural draw, and this sort of cutting action is generally preferable when fighting without a shield or targe, as is the case in boarding actions. Note that wide sweeping cuts are more likely to injure one’s companions in a boarding action, and to get caught up in rigging and fittings.
In particular, a straight-bladed cutlass or other sword requires a drawing action in order to cut well. A curved blade has a natural cutting action, and the more curve there is the less drawing action must be added–the severe curve suffices. However, the greater the curve the less suitable for thrusting a sword is. A direct thrust made with such a sword (see Tromp’s sword, for example) will result not in the tip penetrating the adversary, but with the first inch or two of the edge hitting. It is very difficult to push the edge of a sword deeply into tissue, and most wounds caused this way are superficial. Note that the clip point found on many cutlasses is designed to make a curved blade more effective at thrusting.
I am going to devote only a few words to the popular misconception that a heavily-curved sword, such as a scimitar, can be used to thrust effectively. Its true thrusts must be hooked, and the typical example one finds in discussions by self-appointed “experts” is that of a hooked (aka angular) thrust made after one’s adversary has parried quart (four, inside). In theory, the attacker can roll his hand into tierce (pronated), and slip around the parry with a hook thrust. This will only work if the attacker also has a shield or targe in his (or her) unarmed hand, or is wearing a breastplate: otherwise there is nothing to prevent the adversary’s riposte. In other words, try this with a curved cutlass, and while you may be able to make a thrust (which may or may not penetrate ribs) as an arrest or stop hit against a riposte, you will almost certainly also be on the receiving end of a powerful cut. In other words, try this at your peril in the 17th century.
I can think of only one exception to this advice: Andrew Lonergan (The Fencer’s Guide, 1777) notes that 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). Notably, he’s referring to action on horseback with horses typically 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, which at speed will push not the point but the edge through neck or arm. This is much more difficult to do with a simple thrust or thrust with lunge, and, as noted lacks the protection of riding past. “The bent of their swords will afford them an unavoidable Quarte-over-the-arm, or a Cavè [sic: the wrong accent is used on cavé in the original text].” N.B. a thrust, or rather, a thrusting cut can be made with the edge at the tip, but requires great force (i.e. from horseback at a canter or gallop) and is, as Lonnergan notes, primarily effective against the soft tissue and joints of the arms and neck.
One of the most effective cuts with the cutlass is a powerful drawing cut, vertically high to low, the hand drawn down and backwards, from close quarters distance, or even when grappling if the blade is free. It is a highly effective cut: I have cut through twelve inches of brisket with it.
All this said, cleaving–non-drawing–blows can cut through skin and muscle, and even break bones. One need only to test this with a common kitchen cleaver to see the efficacy of such blows, although they are generally inferior to those made with a natural drawing action. Also, a cleaving blow, even with a dull blade, can still break bones. Getting hit on the head with a heavy cutlass would be akin to getting hit with a steel rod.
The grossly exaggerated Thomas Malthus edition of Alexandre Exquemelin’s The History of the Bucaniers (1684) notes the following of the cutlass in buccaneer hands:
“Never did the Spaniards feel better carvers of Mans-flesh; they would take off a Mans Arm at the shoulders, as ye cut off the Wing of a Capon; split a Spanish Mazard [head or skull] as exactly as a Butcher cleaves a Calf’s Head, and dissect the Thorax with more dexterity than a Hangman when he goes to take out the Heart of a Traitor.”
But this may not be much of an exaggeration. Of an English seamen put in irons aboard a Portuguese carrack circa 1669 out of fear he might help lead a mutiny, passenger Father Denis de Carli wrote:
“He was so strong, that they said he had cleft a man with his cutlass, and therefore it was feared he might do some mischief in the ship, being in that condition [drunk for three days on two bottles of brandy].”
Cutlass balance determines how well the cutlass may be wielded in terms of traditional fencing actions, and which forms of cuts work best. A heavily-balanced cutlass, with much of its weight forward around the point of percussion (that is, near the end of the blade), makes for very effective cleaving and close cutting actions, and will cut well with even crude swings. However, it is less effective for skilled fencing. A well-balanced cutlass–less point or tip heavy–is a more effective fencing sword, in that it permits quicker actions such as cut-overs, but requires a bit more training or finesse to cut well. In other words, give a cleaver to an unskilled seaman, but a better-balanced cutlass to one with reasonable skill at swordplay. All this said, a skilled “complete” swordsman or swordswoman can fence pretty damn well with anything.
Switching to a discussion of how the cutlass is held, the cutlass grip, like that of period broadswords and backswords, is a “globular” one–the thumb is not placed on the back of the grip or handle. Placing the thumb on the back of the handle, assuming there is even room (typically there is not), given the weight a cutlass and its impact against its target, may result in a sprained thumb, possibly a broken one, and at the very least the thumb being knocked from the grip, thus losing control of the weapon. The “thumb on the back of the handle” grip is suitable for lighter weapons only.
Shells are quite useful–mandatory, in my opinion–to protect the hand. A single outside shell, especially in conjunction with an upper quillon and a knuckle bow, provides merely adequate protection to the hand. The inside hand and forearm remain vulnerable to an attack or counter-attack (best made in opposition). The addition of an inner shell, typically smaller, goes far to maintain adequate protection to the hand. As already noted, inner shells were usually smaller, given that the inner part of the hand (the fingers, basically) is smaller than the outer, typically 1/3 to 2/5’s of the entire fist. Again, though, differently sized shells, especially if the difference is significant, will unbalance the weapon, making a thumb ring useful for gripping well and preventing the edge from turning and thereby not cutting.
But perhaps the cutlass’s greatest virtue, and what would have made some of its technique unique as compared to the broadsword and saber (from which late 18th through early 20th century cutlass technique was drawn), was its utility at “handy-grips.” I’ve covered this subject elsewhere, but besides the close cleaving or drawing cut described above, pommeling would have been common, and “commanding” (seizing the adversary’s hilt or blade) and grappling would have been common as well. F. C. Grove in the introduction to Fencing (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893) wrote: “One of us once saw a sailor of extraordinary strength seize a cutlass close to the hilt, where the edge is blunt, and break it short off.” This was an extraordinary example of a surely commonplace tactic.
There are few descriptions of the cutlass in action, but of those that exist, they are quite illustrative. Of a fight between English slavers and Africans on the Guinea Coast in 1726, William Smith wrote:
“[F]or they press’d so upon us that we were Knee deep in the Water, and one of them full of Revenge, and regardless of his Life, got out into the Water behind me, resolving to cleave my Skull with a Turkish Scimitar, which Ridley perceiving, leap’d out of the Canoe, and just came time enough to give him a BackStroke, which took the Fellow’s Wrist as Was coining down upon my Head, and cut his Hand off almost. Ridley with the violent Force of the Blow at once snap’d his Cutlass and disarm’d the Negroe, whose Scimitar falling into the Water, Ridley laid hold’of, and us’d instead of his Cutlass.”
There are unfortunately no cutlass texts dating to the age of the buccaneer, and few fencing texts discuss even related weapons until the 18th century. The only 17th century exception I can think of offhand is Francesco Antonio Marcelli’s treatise on the rapier (Regole Della Scherma, 1686), in which he devotes a few pages to saber versus rapier, noting quite correctly that the saber, and therefore also falchion, cutlass, &c., is a killing weapon even at very close range. See below. In The Golden Age of Piracy I discuss to a fair degree what we know from period accounts about how the cutlass may have been used.
I’ve discussed training in the cutlass elsewhere, including a few notes in my Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen post. In Sea Rover’s Practice I note that there was clearly some instruction at sea, although it may have often been ad hoc as was often the case ashore. Late seventeenth century French privateer captain Duguay-Trouin hired a fencing prévôt (assistant to a fencing master) to help school his crew in swordplay (and later found himself in a rencontre, swords drawn, with the man in the street), and mid-eighteenth century English privateer captain “Commodore” Walker had training sessions aboard his ship, the officers practicing with foils, the seamen with singlesticks.
The only pirate captain we know of who was said to have held swordplay practice aboard ship is John Taylor in the Indian Ocean in the early 18th century, according to prisoner Jacob de Bucquoy (Zestien Jaarige Reize Naa de Indiën, Gedaan Door Jacob de Bucquoy, 1757, page 69). Taylor’s pirate crew reportedly held practices, as Commodore Walker would later do, with foils and single-sticks. I am a bit leery of this report, however. Although it certainly may be true, it is tied to a criticism of Dutch East Indiamen captains and crews, with de Bucquoy suggesting that the pirates were more disciplined and trained in a manner that the East Indiaman crews were not. Most historical accounts show a great deal of indiscipline among pirate crews.
However, it is impossible to maintain proficiency in arms without practice, thus it is likely that pirates practiced swordplay. The question is to what degree, and whether the practice was formal or informal. Further, there is the question of whether or not pirate captains deliberately outfitted their vessels with foils and single-sticks or “cudgels” as they were commonly known. Doubtless Duguay-Trouin and Commodore Walker did, but, assuming the Taylor account is correct, Taylor’s were probably from captured stocks. That said, singlesticks are easily crafted (but not so foils). Please note that real weapons were not used for fencing practice! This would soon enough destroy their tips and edges, not to mention that it would be very dangerous even with protection. Fiction and film have, for ease of plot not to mention laziness or ignorance, given many the false idea that swordplay was practiced with real swords. A single-stick or cudgel, by the way, differs from a real sword “only that the Cudgel is nothing but a Stick; and that a little Wicker Basket, which covers the Handle of the Stick, like the Guard of a Spanish Sword, serves the Combatant, instead of defensive Arms.” (Misson’s Memoirs and Observations in His Travels Over England, 1719.)
Possibly one of the more practical texts, and even then incomplete, is that of Lieutenant Pringle Green in manuscript in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. He discusses boarding actions and associated combat, with some ideas of his own. Although more than a century later than our period, there is likely a fair similarity between the two eras. See the images below.
Lieutenant Pringle’s text makes a few important notes. First, the seaman armed with a cutlass must know more than just protect left (inside, quarte), protect right (outside, tierce), protect head (St. George, modern saber quinte), and cut & thrust. High seconde and prime–“falloon” or hanging guards–are useful for parrying, and are mandatory to parry a musket, as he illustrates, as also half-pikes (Girard illustrated this with the smallsword in the mid-eighteenth century). The low seconde and prime parries are just as important. Second, the pistol can be used to parry when reversed along the forearm. In fact, even when holding the pistol by the grip a parry can be made, and also a forehand blow with the barrel.
I’ll also point out here a rather irksome issue on occasion, that some students of historical swordplay still attempt to argue that parries with cutting swords were made with the flat rather than the edge. This is nonsense. There are some forms of swordplay, Filipino escrima and some machete practice for example, that parry with the flat. Notably, these weapons do not have guards, and if parries are not used sparingly, and made carefully, fingers will be lost (which is almost certainly why serious sparring and actual combat with these weapons is often either in “absence of blade” and emphasizes tempo actions, or involves grappling and other manipulations in order to control the adversary’s blade). However, the forms of cutting swordplay with Western battlefield weapons–saber, broadsword, backsword, hanger, cutlass–all show the use the of the edge for parrying in texts, illustrations, and other accounts. The objection is that a parry will damage the cutting edge. And so it will. But typically the fort is used for parrying, which is seldom sharp, and even if it is, is seldom used for cutting. Moreover, those who argue for the flat rather than the edge, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, forget one thing: each time the adversary parries your blade, it will be nicked. A blade is going to get damaged in combat. In fact, there are plenty of historical accounts of swordsmen proudly noting their “saw-toothed” blades as proof of just how desperate the combat was. It is also much easier to control a heavier weapon in the parry when parrying with the edge, and more powerful parries may be made this way.
THE TERMS HANGER VERSUS CUTLASS
In regard to the myth that ‘hanger’ was the sole term used to refer to the common cutting sword at sea–to the cutlass, in other words–in the 17th century, and that ‘cutlass’ was only an eighteenth century term, I’ve excerpted the following from a Mariner’s Mirror article I wrote a few years ago (“Eyewitness Images of Buccaneers and Their Vessels,” vol. 98, no. 3, August 2012). I added it to the original draft after a pre-publication editorial reader for the journal suggested I may have used the term cutlass in error.
From my article: “Still debated today are the issues of whether hanger or cutlass is the more appropriate English name for the short cutting sword or swords used by late seventeenth century mariners, and whether the words refer to the same or different weapons. Hanger and cutlass (also cutlash, cutlace) are each found in English language maritime texts of the mid to late seventeenth century. In some cases there appears to be a subtle distinction made between them; in others they are used interchangeably.
“The English 1684 Malthus edition of Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America refers only to ‘cutlace’ or, more generically, sword as the buccaneer’s arme blanche. There is also at least one reference in the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, dating to the 1680s, associating the term cutlass with Caribbean pirates. The 1684 Crooke and 1699 Newborough editions of Exquemelin refer to both hanger and cutlass, and use the terms interchangeably in reference to the sword of the notorious buccaneer Jean David Nau, better known as l’Ollonais. (Hanger once, cutlass twice, as well as a note that his men were armed with cutlasses.)
“It is possible that the description of l’Ollonais’s use of his sword to mutilate and murder prisoners may have given first rise to the reputation of the cutlass as the arm of the romanticized ‘cutthroat pirate’, a reputation enhanced by Charles Johnson’s pirate history forty years later, and then by Robert Louis Stevenson and other nineteenth century novelists. Even so, the cutlass already had a sanguine reputation, doubtless inspired in part by its descriptive, alliterative name: ‘by the bloudy cut-throat cuttleaxe of swaggering Mars’ wrote Thomas Coryate in 1611. By the eighteenth century, cutlass was the predominant English term for the seaman’s short-bladed cutting sword.”
In the British colonies in America, the term cutlass was often used rather than hanger in lists of militia and trade arms as well: Caribs “well armed with new French fuzees, waistbelts and cutlasses” (August 3, 1689); “100 cutlasses” (Maryland, February 4, 1706); “100 cutlaces with broad deep blades” (Maryland, June 23, 1708); “2,000 cutlasses” (South Carolina, July 8, 1715). That said, some colonies used the term hanger instead in the same period. (All citations from the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, America and West Indies.)
The earliest Caribbean reference to cutlasses I’ve found to date is in “The Voyages of Captain William Jackson (1642-1645),” a first-hand account describing Jackson’s most famous plundering voyage from one end of the Caribbean to the other: “The Armes delivered out to each company were, Muskitts, Carbines, Fire-locks, Halfe-pikes, Swords, Cutlases, & ye like offentius weapons…” Notably the term “hangers” is not used. English naval inventories of the 17th century tend to list “hangers” and “swords” as the two sorts of swords carried aboard, sometimes listing both, sometimes only one, confusing the issue. (And no, for the occasional “expert” who wants to argue, the term hanger in naval inventories at this time refers to short cutting swords, not sword hangers.) Worse, I’ve seen “swords and cutlasses” listed among the arms of various merchantmen. Almost certainly swords other than cutlasses and, among some officers, smallswords, were commonly carried aboard ship. Certainly they were aboard Spanish men-of-war, which had a large proportion of soldiers aboard: perhaps the earliest “Bilbao hilt” cutting sword, popular in the 18th century, dates to the 1660s and was found aboard a Spanish wreck. [See Sydney B. Brinckerhoff, Spanish Military Weapons in Colonial America, 1700-1821, regarding the Bilbao hilt. Jackson’s journal was published in Camden Miscellany vol. 13, 3rd series vol. 34, 1924; the quote refers roughly to September-October 1642.]
There are plenty of other seventeenth century references to the cutlass as the predominant maritime sword or term for maritime cutting sword, as opposed to the hanger: a July 1667 report of a Dutch descent on the English coast describes the attackers carrying muskets and with cutlasses drawn; there are at least two references in the papers of Charles II to Biscayners and Dunkirkers (privateers) assaulting English merchant captains with cutlasses; the 1682 inventory of the English merchantman St. Christopher of South Carolina included “ten swords & Cutlases;” mariner Robert Everard noted a cutlass among the arms of a dying French pirate who had boarded his ship, the Bauden, in 1686 (another witness referred to it as a scimitar, a generic term for a sword with a curved blade); the 1690s broadside ballad “A Satyr on the Sea-Officers” included the line, “With Monmouth cap, and cutlace by my side…,” clearly denoting its naval use; and witnesses to the fight between the Dorrill and the pirate ship Mocha in 1697 noted that the pirates were armed with “cutlashes”; and an authority-abusing Scottish captain, part of the Scottish expedition to Darien, was described thusly: “Capt. Drummond sent his men with drawn cutlasses on board a ship, Adventure, John Howell, master, and bade deponent, who was piloting her, to anchor her under the guns of his ship.” In the Deposition of William Fletcher, May 2, 1700, the said ship master described being his beating by pirates “with the flat of the Curtle-axes.” See also the endnotes below for other seventeenth century cutlass references associated with pirates and sea rovers.
It is quite possible that the distinction between cutlass and hanger was originally determined by the blades: a broad bladed weapon with a short blade length used by soldiers and seamen was originally defined as a “curtle-axe” (Shakespeare even uses the word) or cutlass, while one with a narrower blade was a hanger. Cutting blades heavy “at the tip” are excellent for cleaving cuts even at close distance: anyone who’s used a cutlass with such a blade for cutting practice will recognize this immediately, as will anyone who’s used a Filipino bolo knife. I’m speculating, of course, but the cutlass may have found preference at sea due to its greater ability at close quarters. Clearly, swords by both names were used, but the name cutlass stuck perhaps due to its greater efficacy.
This theory of cutlass versus hanger is supported by the French definition of coutelas from the 1694 edition of Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française: “Coutelas. s. m. Sorte d’ espée courte & large, qui ne tranche que d’ un costé. Coutelas bien tranchant. coutelas de Damas. un coup de coutelas. il luy a fendu la teste de son coutelas, avec son coutelas.” That is, a kind of sword with a short wide blade, which cuts only one side. A 1708 Maryland arms list notes “100 cutlaces with broad deep blades” (cited above), suggesting that the term had become associated more broadly with short cutting swords in general.
An associated trivium is in order: the French term hassegaye (from Old French azagaie, Arabic az-zaġāyah, etc.) derives from an old word meaning “short spear,” and in the nineteenth century meant a short boarding pike. However, in the late seventeenth century it’s described as the word for the cutlass a ship’s captain wielded in action by holding it aloft, usually to inspire the crew as well as to intimidate the enemy. By waving it, the captain was demanding surrender, that is, ordering enemy colors and topsails “amain”–lowered, that is. “C’est un coutelas que le Capitaine tient en la main au bras retroussé pendent le combat.”
In any case, I leave you with a quote from a witness to de Ruyter’s raid on Barbados in 1665: “I did see him [de Ruyter] on the poope, with a cane in one hand, and a cuttle axe in the other, and as he stayed [tacked] I did see most part of his quarter carried away.” The cutlass may even have been the one whose hilt is depicted above. [From “A True Relacion of the Fight at the Barbados Between the Fort and Shipping There…,” in Colonising Expeditions to the West Indies and Guiana, 1623–1667,” edited by V. T Harlow (London: Hakluty Society, 1925). The “cane” was almost certainly de Ruyter’s long admiral’s baton.]
For more information on the use of the cutlass at sea and ashore 1655 to 1725, in particular on its effectiveness as well as on its use in dueling, see The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths, chapter 8. (My publisher won’t appreciate my repeating the information here; by agreement I am not supposed to.) Both The Sea Rover’s Practice and The Buccaneer’s Realm also include information on the cutlass and other swords; the latter has an entire chapter devoted to associated late 17th century swords and swordplay. In sum, there’s a bit more information. For example, Bras de Fer missing his Spanish adversary and cutting through his hat instead, then tripping over a root as he attempted to renew his attack; the possibility of techniques similar to those used with the dusack (e.g. grazing and yielding actions in a single tempo); &c.
That said, I will add a note to dueling here even though far more information is in The Golden Age of Piracy (including the only confirmed description of a duel fought between buccaneer captains). Although it’s unlikely that duels were regularly, or even occasionally, fought aboard ships, for reasons and evidence discussed in The Golden Age of Piracy, it doesn’t mean there weren’t occasional affrays with swords aboard ship. Peter Drake, an Irish officer, one of the so-called “Wild Geese” who left Ireland after the defeat of James II, describes how in 1701, as he joined a Dutch regiment in Dublin and waited aboard a Dutch ship to sail to the Netherlands, “Among the recruits we had two prize-fighters, who, getting drunk, fell to quarrelling; the company declaring, each for the one whose cause he espoused, an uproar ensued, and several strokes were exchanged.” But this was a brawl more than anything else, and among soldiers, not seamen. Note that prize-fighters fought primarily with swords, as well as with quarterstaff, and occasionally with fists. (Peter Drake, The Memoirs of Peter Drake [Dublin: S. Powell for the Author, 1755]. Stanford University reprinted the memoirs in 1960, edited by Paul Jordan-Smith.)
 CSPC, 1681-1685, no. 1509. January 19, 1684. “A Relation of the capture of Providence by the Spaniards. On Saturday, 19th January, about 3 o’clock, Juan de Larco with two hundred and fifty Spaniards came down the harbour and landed at Captain Clarke’s, half a mile to east of Charlestown. Captain Clarke being out of doors near the waterside, some men in ambush shot him through the thigh and cut his arms with a cutlass, and then they marched away with all haste to the town, firing into some houses as they went…”
Another instance described in CSPC, 1677-1680, no. 1624. December 30, 1680, deposition of Robert Oxe.”The Spaniards killed two men and cruelly treated the deponent, hanging him up at the fore braces several times, beating him with their cutlasses, and striking him in the face after an inhuman cruel manner.” The Spanish pirate hunters were commanded by Captain Don Felipe de la Barrera y Villegas. Under his command were Juan Corso and Pedro de Castro, two captains noted for their reprisal cruelty against English and French seamen.
 Thomas Coryate, ‘Laugh and be Fat’ in Coryat’s Crudities (reprint London, 1776), vol. 3:n.p. Regarding foreign terms for cutlass, the original Dutch edition of Exquemelin’s work (1678) uses sabel (saber), as does David van der Sterre’s 1691 biography of Caribbean sea rover Jan Erasmus Reyning, but a 1675 English-Dutch dictionary notes kort geweer as the Dutch term for cutlass. Exquemelin’s Spanish edition (1681) uses ‘alfange’ (alfanje), whose root is the Andalusian Arabic alẖánǧar or alẖánǧal, from the Arabic ẖanǧar, a dagger or short sword, which some scholars have suggested is the origin of the English word hanger. The OED (2nd ed.) doubts this and derives it instead from the Dutch hangher. Although the Spanish connection to the Low Countries, and thus a connection to the Dutch term, appears suggestive, the English use of hanger predates Spanish rule. Alfanje is typically translated as cutlass, hanger, or scimitar. Exquemelin’s French editions (1686, 1688, 1699) refer to both coutelas and sabre, noting that flibustiers were armed in one instance with a good coutelas, in another a coutelas or sabre. Labat, describing the early flibustiers, notes each having a well-tempered coutelas among their arms. Most etymologists consider cutlass to be derived from coutelas. Saber, sabre, and the Dutch sabel derive from the German sabel, with authorities noting the term’s Slavic origin.
Regarding the various spellings of cutlass in the mid-seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries: cutlass, cutlace, cutlash, curtlass, curtelass, courtlass, courtelass, and curtle-axe are all common.
Copyright Benerson Little 2016-2018. Originally published December 31, 2016, last updated July 2, 2021.