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Sport Epee Humor–in 1914! And a Bit on Tactics as Well…

Humorous epee images by famous French poster artist and illustrator René Prejelan. 1914.

As can be seen from the illustration, not much has changed!

But a little history first before I translate the captions. Modern sport epee is the direct descendant of a form of dueling swordplay created largely by Jules Jacob in the 1870s. Jacob, recognizing that foil as it was practiced at the time had become largely useless for actual combat, took what was essentially smallsword technique, along with what useful dueling practice that could be derived from classical foil fencing, itself descended from smallsword practice in both of its forms (for the duel and for “school play”), and created a dueling technique focused on longer distance and attacks and counter-attacks to the arm. Thus the epee de combat or dueling sword, as it was usually termed, was born. Or, as some described it, there were now both the modern school (epee) and the classical (foil).

By focusing on longer distance and attacks to the arm, this new technique had the quite useful advantage of minimizing the likelihood of killing one’s adversary. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which law and society might look the other way if someone were killed in a duel, were long past. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, dueling was not only unlawful but a duelist who killed his adversary (duelists were nearly always male, thus the masculine pronoun) was almost certain to be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, military officers sometimes excepted thanks to the rather insular world of military law and command. In fact, one early epee master noted that no sword was better designed to avoid killing one’s adversary!

Within a decade or two, though, a sport version of dueling swordplay was introduced and soon rivalled the foil, at least in France and Great Britain. This new fencing weapon, based as it was on the duel as devised for gentlemen, was paradoxically democratic. Only pools in which all fencers fenced each other to determine the winner–the potentially best duelist–would suffice! We can thank early epeeists for the pool system that was, sadly, largely done away with a couple decades ago except for early seeding rounds, replaced by our direct elimination system that in the early twentieth century was denounced as anathema. “A lottery!” detractors cried.

Athleticism in the form of leaps and bounds–a common criticism of modern epee by “classical” fencers–was present in epee fencing even in 1901. Detail from an illustration of the “First Annual Epee Tournament of L’Epee Club in Gray’s Inn Garden,” London, 1901. Author’s collection.

And indeed [digression warning!] the direct elimination system is a lottery, or at least a half-lottery in which the two best fencers in a tournament often meet before the final, leaving the gold medal bout often rather dull. The excuse for the elimination of the pool system was cheating, and in fact there often were fencers who threw bouts for countrymen or even for money once they had won enough bouts to ascend to the next round. The real reason, though, was the IOC’s desire to have a competition that would lead to a final of two rather than six or eight. This is more dramatic, or so goes the reasoning. But, as I warned, I digress!

Early sport epeeists attempted to emulate the duel as much as possible. Unfortunately, with sport epee came the advent of the “poolist”–the fencer for whom technique unsuitable to the duel, gamesmanship in other words, was all that mattered. With stiff blades that would stop an adversary’s advancing arm, coupled with an emphasis on counter-attacks, angular ones in particular, the poolist used technique that in a duel would be suicidal. The French governing body, composed largely of foilists with a disdain for practitioners of the dueling sword, quickly sided with the sport fencers against epeeists promoting a purely dueling form of swordplay.

“Pig sticking” at close quarters at an epee tournament in 1901! The director of combat (today, the “referee”) is correctly calling a halt… Detail from an illustration of the “First Annual Epee Tournament of L’Epee Club in Gray’s Inn Garden,” London, 1901. Author’s collection.

The reality is that counter-attacks to the body are unlikely to stop a fully developed attack: the blade will usually pass into and even through the body rather than arrest it, making a double touch, possibly fatal, likely, unless the counter-attack has been coupled with stout opposition or a displacement. Worse, angular counter-attacks to the arm will almost never stop a fully developed attack with a real sword: here again there is the near certainty of a double touch, except in this case the attacker receives a wound to the arm while the counter-attacker receives a possibly mortal thrust to the body.

Notably, most of the best duelists with the epee were not the best sport fencers. Dueling required a sang-froid which sport fencing did not and does not.

So, on to the translations! Reading left to right from the top:

The power and the grace. These are typical forms seen even today. Grace on the left was a common style based on counter-attacking with a straight arm. Seldom seen anymore, its finest practitioners were always very difficult to deal with. My old friend Elias Katsaros, who’s also an artist and recently retired Greek iconographer who took 2nd at the Greek nationals in the early 1960s, is easily the best I’ve ever seen in this style. He used to give nationally-ranked epeeists fits long after he had abandoned serious competition. We still fence occasionally, French grips only (with fine Prieur leather-palmed and -fingered gloves), and he’s as difficult a swordsman to defeat today as he was when I first fenced him in 1979.

The [punny] parry of “cocsyxte.” “Pouce!” here means “Truce!”

The flèche. Yes, the flying or “Polish” flèche has been around for a long time, probably centuries. I have references to two forms of flèche from the late 17th to early 18th century, in fact.

M. Brandanloeil, Judge: “If you’ve passed your opponent, Monsieur, don’t fart!”

The offensive and the defensive. Again, two types still seen today.

The offensive caricature is of the “croucher” who primarily uses angular attacks and counter-attacks to the arm, usually as the opponent attacks or upon the opponent’s preparation. The technique would be foolish with real swords for it would not typically halt the attack. The croucher is still around, although he (I’ve rarely, perhaps never, seen women using the technique, although I’ve seen some use low angular attacks as part of a broader technical range) is less common than when I first learned to fence forty-three years ago. It is most often a style of epeeists without much formal training or those who lack the focus to be taught formally. Second intention via a false attack to draw the angular attack or counter-attack, followed by a parry-riposte or bind thrust in octave, or a powerful beat in seconde followed by a high thrust with fleche, have usually worked well for me against crouchers, as has a fleche in tempo, often made as a second intention action, to the body as the croucher withdraws his arm after a failed attack or counter-attack. I’ve had less success with counter-time (a counter-attack against a counter-attack) due to the severe angulation crouchers use, and their extensive experience against counter-time.

Fencers tend to forget that the common counters to a technique often don’t work against fencers who are expert in the technique. Many times, for example, I’ve heard fencers claim that so and so has a strong quarte, therefore a feint to quarte and disengage to sixte is the solution, only to find themselves hit anyway–because the adversary is quite familiar from experience with this solution. Similarly, attempts in epee to use compound binds made in opposite directions against an expert straight-arm counter-attacker often don’t work because, again, the adversary is quite familiar with these obvious tactics from experience. In many cases, it’s what they want you to do!

The defensive form depicted is commonly adopted by very tall fencers who generally counter-attack with body displacements and long retreats. This technique is a bit more suitable to dueling as well, provided the fencer immediately follows his or her counter-attack with a quick retreat and a parry. Unfortunately, many practitioners of this style simply remise rather than parry, which would, again, often lead to a double-touch in the case of real swords.

More fencing history and technique posts to follow… 🙂

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First posted December 21, 2020. Last updated December 30, 2020.