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Cutthroat Island finale, Morgan Adams (Geena Davis, right) versus Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Carolco, 1995.
In advance of my forthcoming series on “The Duel on the Beach,” a fun look at the Hollywood trope of swordplay in the rigging.
We can probably blame Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the trope’s ultimate inspiration. In the novel [Spoiler Alert!], Jim Hawkins climbs aloft aboard the schooner Hispaniola to escape the murderous pirate Israel Hands, ultimately burning the salty thug’s brains with a brace of pistols. Why the hungover, perhaps even still-besotted, sea-thief didn’t simply use a musket to murder the lad is unknown. Perhaps he was too fogged by rum to think of it, or he didn’t have a musket at hand, or knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the bold lad. More likely, it’s simply a much better scene to have a murderous pirate armed with a knife slowly climb aloft while his victim waits at the extreme point of retreat.
But the primary origin of the trope, whether for Mr. Stevenson or Hollywood in general, is almost certainly the simple fact that the masts and rigging are too enticing not be used: a vast network or “jungle gym” overhead with boundless possibilities. It’s simply impossible to ignore the setting towering aloft above a vessel’s decks. It’s a nautical gymnasium begging to be used! And so it often has.
Before going further, we should quickly examine what sailors did, and still do, aloft. They set, take in, and furl sail. They hoist spars and masts aloft, and strike the same as necessary. They stand lookout. They man the tops in battle, enabling armed seamen to fire on the enemy below. They make repairs. They skylark.
Although fighting aloft was routine–men firing from above at men below–there’s no evidence of anything other than with firearms, grenades, and sometimes swivel guns occasionally fired at the enemy also aloft. No swordplay on yards, in other words. Note that in the painting below, no one aloft is wielding a sword, nor are there lines rigged from which to slide down or swing across (another popular but false Hollywood pirate trope).
Actual fighting aloft would look something like this:
But when it comes to film, The Black Pirate (Vitagraph, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks set the standard for action aloft–but not for swordplay aloft, of which it alas had none. The film included circus-like aerial stunts and a famous scene in which Fairbanks slips a sword or dagger into a sail and slides down its face, cutting the canvas as he does.
In Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935) starring Errol Flynn, the action aloft is more mundane, although it does include some brief swordplay, and includes a lesser trope: pirates sliding down on ropes during boarding actions, swinging from ship to ship, and occasionally from yard to yard, none of which actually occurred to ship to ship combat. Still, it’s fun.
In Against All Flags (Universal International, 1952) Errol Flynn as Brian Hawke climbs aloft via the lubber’s hole (for shame!) to cut down the main-yard. He’s lucky the pirates were lazy, otherwise the yard would’ve been slung with chain in time of battle and his rapier of little use in cutting through. When he sees pirates coming at him from aloft and alow, rather than fight them he escapes instead, using Douglas Fairbanks’s famous technique. The film was remade, almost scene for scene, as The King’s Pirate (Universal, 1967), but an acrobatic escape was substituted for the sword-in-sail trick. Against All Flags was one of Flynn’s last films, certainly one of his last good ones (arguably a tie among these last films with Crossed Swords, The Master of Ballantrae, and a more serious film, The Warriors). Against All Flags also starred Maureen O’Hara in her last swashbuckler. She’s as dashing as Flynn in the film, and as good if not better with a sword.
The Crimson Pirate (Warner Bros., 1952) showcased Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic skills aloft, but lacked swordplay:
Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) had plenty of action aloft, including an homage to Treasure Island:
But the real action was between Pan and Hook on the main-topsail yard:
And also in Return to Neverland (Disney, 2002):
The action is included on the Disney theme park attraction:
And even in the Disney theme parks Fantasmic! show:
But it was Cutthroat Island (Carolco, 1995) that did it’s best to include a sword fight in earnest on a yard aloft. The film was a box office bomb. Even so, Geena Davis did a creditable job, and the soundtrack is excellent.
Not to be beat, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End included swordplay between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow on a yard aloft during a storm while dueling ships were whipped around at the edge of a giant maelstrom:
The Adventures of Tintin (Columbia Pictures et al, 2011) featured animated if improbable-but-exciting swordplay aloft:
Swordplay, or at least swords, aloft has continued in recent pirate films. Below is Son Ye-jin as Captain Yeo-wol in The Pirates (Harimao Pictures, 2014), engaging in aerial swashbuckling.
The trope made its way even into the recent Thugs of Hindostan (Latina Pictures, et al, 2018), a pirate-ish, Bollywood, stick-it-to-the-English Indian film:
Action aloft also made its way onto television in the form of the final episode in season four of Black Sails, in a scene in which I as historical consultant had some input.
But the trope has found its way into more than just film. A significant but largely unstudied contribution to pirate culture is that of various collector’s cards: tobacco, bubble gun, and arcade. Typically inspired by popular illustration, film, and general cliché, the cards often include images of swordplay and other fighting aloft, invariably via contrived circumstances often involving pirates or merchant seamen attempting to escape aloft. In the 1930s card just below, failed mutineer-pirates retreat aloft to little avail.
Below, in a 1930s Holloway Pirate Treasure trading card, merchant seamen flee aloft to make their last stand, again to no avail.
Below, a Swedish/French bubble gum card dating to the 1930s. This time it’s not a merchant seaman retreating aloft, but a duel over the plunder on a night “full of stars, the air calm, the sea tranquil.” One of the pirates, Mulrooney, has hidden a brace of pistols in the rigging. He drops his cutlass and climbs aloft, followed by his armed adversary Hawkins. Mulrooney, in most dishonorable fashion–even for a pirate–arms himself with his hidden pistols and shoots Hawkins dead.
Comic books are another significant source of modern pirate culture, and like the cards above they typically reinforce existing tropes. Here the sword fight is on the bowsprit, one man armed with an anachronistic rapier (unless he’s an Iberian or perhaps an Italian under Spanish rule) with quillons in the wrong place, the other armed with an anachronistic “soup ladle” cutlass.
But just how easy would it be to fence aloft on spars? It wouldn’t be. By way of experiment I’ve attempted footwork on a balance beam, much as in the photograph below but with much less danger. At first it’s not easy to maintain balance and any “fencing” done is best done by way of slow choreographed movements. Put simply, I fell often, more even than the time a friend and I fenced with sabers at midnight in New Orleans under live oaks on a carpet of acorns (it was a mast year). Still, after a bit of practice one can move conditionally well on a flat beam–but still not sufficiently to prevent a likely fall. A rounded spar would be much more difficult to fence upon.
Aerial fencing, usually on rooftops or on beams or scaffolding attached to them, and usually as stunts or photo opportunities, is not uncommon:
Any real fencing on a beam or spar would obviously quickly result in a fall. Many years ago I saw a fencing high wire act performed at the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus: it was composed of simple choreographed movements, as expected.
In similar fashion, the modern aerial troupe Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean performs a tightrope fencing act on tour, including this past summer at the Miami Seaquarium:
But could swordplay aloft have happened in reality? Even rarely? The answer is akin to that of the myth of buried pirate treasure. Did pirates bury treasure? No, although it’s possible to find a rare instance of a couple of shipwrecked pirates burying their plundered shares to keep other pirates from stealing it. Further, it’s possible to imagine a rare similar but more significant exception, for example the shipwreck of pursued pirates who bury their plunder to prevent a pirate hunting landing party from finding it. But there’s no evidence anything like this ever happened. Similarly, there’s no evidence of swordplay aloft among pirates or anyone else at sea, as thrilling and pregnant with possibility the prospect is. Even so, it’s possible to imagine a rather contrived, but still possible, circumstance. Hollywood does it all the time.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2019. Last updated 18 December 2019.
Useful advice and commentary, by category, for swordsmen and swordswomen. I’ve collected these over almost fifty years from a variety of sources, ranging from books published over several centuries to fencing masters and even to my own observations.
Some of these quotations are repeated in my post, Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments, along with other advice and commentary. Please note that the list below is not complete, and never can be. I will, however, update it as convenient.
Except where noted, the English translations from the original French are mine.
On the Virtues of Fencing
And moreover, the exercifing of weapons putteth away aches, griefes, and difeafes, it increafeth ftrength, and fharpneth the wits, giuith a perfect iudgement, it expelleth melancholy, cholericke and euill conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, perfect health, and long life. It is vnto him that hath the perfection thereof, a moft friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, hauing but only his weapon about him, it putteth him out of all feare, & in the warres and places of moft danger it maketh him bold, hardie, and valiant.
—George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599
If you master the principles of sword-fencing, when you freely beat one man, you beat any man in the world. The spirit of defeating a man is the same as for ten million men.
—Musashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645. Musashi, Japan’s kensei or “sword saint,” fought and won more than sixty duels before retiring as a hermit to write his famous masterpiece on swordplay and strategy. Of course, what readers often miss is the implication: that you don’t have to have a brilliant understanding of the “Way” in order to fence well—Musashi himself admits that he didn’t understand the true Way until after he had fought all of his duels—but certainly it would help.
So doeth the Art of Fencing teach us to defend our Bodies, from the Assaults and Attaques of all Adversaries, whether Artists or not, who in respect of the cruel designe they have against our Bodies, may in some sense be accounted Devils, it also teacheth us not to be deceived by the fallacious Quirks and Tricks of Artists when we are engaged with the which do represent the cunning subtile Allurements of the World.
[Y]et all Gentlemen should practice it, & have an esteem for it, if it were for no other reason but this, that it is a most pleasant divertissement, and an Innocent, Healthful, and Manly Recreation and Exercise for the Body, and although a Man could reap no Advantage by it for the Defence of his Body; yet that its very keeping a Mans joynts and members nimble and cleaver [clever], and in a ready trime [trim], as it were, for any other Divertisement or Exercise, as Tenice, Dancing, Riding, &e. should make it Esteemed and Practised by all who are above the rank of Clowns.
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694
Nothing can give a greater Lusture and Enoblement to the most Excellent and Bravest Persons, than an absolute and perfect Qualification in the true Knowledge and Skill in Weapons.
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711
Indeed I am perfectly of opinion, which is corroborated by numberless persons who have experienced the utility of fencing, that for the navy it should be considered as one of the most essential branches of a nautical education, and ought to be encouraged by Captains and Commanders as much as possible. The ship’s company should, every one of them, be compelled to understand the use of the sword familiarly, previously to their going abroad, and should continue practising it at all times on board; for they have, if possible, even more occasion for fencing than the army, because, in general, they are more frequently at close quarters with the enemy than the military are.
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
Glancing fearfully about, I took up the weapon, finding it play very light in my grasp for all its size; and having wielded it, I held it that the moonbeams made a glitter on the long, broad blade. Now as I stood, watching this deadly sparkle, I trembled no longer, my side fears were forgotten, a new strength nerved me and I raised my head, teeth clenched in sudden purpose so desperate bold indeed as filled me with marvelous astonishment at myself; and all this (as I do think) by mere feel of this glittering sword.
There remains then always your sword, friend Adam; with this you may win the fame, the fortune—or the grave so honourable. Ha, it is true, when all other fails, there remains always—the sword!
—Jeffery Farnol, Over the Hills, 1930
Defining Fencing & Swordplay
Fencing is neither art nor science. Fencing is fencing!
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977
Eugenio Pini, quoted in László Szabó, Fencing and the Master, 1977
The use of arms doth much differ in these times. I hear now the single rapier is altogether in use: when I was young, the rapier and dagger. And I cannot understand, seeing God hath given a man two hands, why he should not use them both for his defence.
—William Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658
That if a good and dexterous Sword-man have no other design but Defence of his own Person, and not the Destruction of his Adversary’s also, that then his Sword alone, assisted by a judicious Breaking of Measure [retreating], is…sufficient to defend him: But again, if he design to Offend [attack] as well as Defend, then there is an absolute Necessity to make use of his left Hand for his Assistance; otherwise his Adversary, continually redoubling his Thrusts irregularly and with Vigour upon him, he shall never almost have the Opportunity of Thrusting, his Sword being in a manner wholly take up with the Parade, by endeavoring to make good his own Defence…
There is a vast difference, betwixt assaulting in a School with Blunts, for a Man’s Diversion, and engaging in the Fields with Sharps, for a Man’s Life; and whatever latitude a Man may take in the one, to show his Address and Dexterity, yet he ought to go a little more warily, and securely to Work, when he is concerned in the other: For in assaulting with Fleurets [foils], a Man may venture upon many difficult and nice Lessons, wherein if he fail, he runs no great Risque, and if they take not at one time, they many succeed at another: But with Sharps, the more plain and simple his Lessons of Pursuit [attack] are, so much the more secure is his Person; whereas, by venturing upon variety of difficult Lessons, he very much exposes himself, even to the hazarding of his Life, by his Adversary’s taking of Time, and endeavouring to Contretemps [an attack into an attack or a simultaneous attack, often resulting in a double touch], which are not so easily effectuat [sic, “effectuated,” i.e., “executed”] against a plain and secure Pursuit [attack].
[T]hat it clearly appears, that what goes under the Name of Graceful Fencing, is for no other use, but only for such, as, for Divertisement, counterfit a Fight with Blunts, who only Assault in the Schools with Foils.
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method, 1714
And, though none might suspect it from his clumsy bearing, he is a noted swordsman.
—John Dickson Carr, Most Secret, 1964. Many excellent fencers appear clumsy or ungraceful, or lack classical form.
Briefly, our method could be expressed in this sentence: “The best parry is the blow.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the Épée, 1936.
The most efficacious means of fighting are offensive actions—above all attacks. In all weapons the majority of fencers score the largest amount of hits by attacks…
—Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing, 2005
However, according to many of the French and derivative schools, old and new….
…but also procures to himself the advantage of playing from the Risposte, which of all Methods of Fencing is the most commendable, and safest, but then, as I have said, it is only to such as are Masters of the Parade; which is a quality rare enough to be found, even amongst the greatest Sword-men.
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714. In other words, the method of relying foremost on the riposte is ideal—but only if you have the rare ability of mastering it. My own preference is for a patiently aggressive balance of offense and defense. See especially the quotes on patience below.
L’escrime est une science expérimentale, soumise à des lois immuables comme las physique et la chemie. Chaque movement y a son importance, sa signification, et on peut en verifier les consequences, les avantages et les inconvénients. L’escrime est une art; certaines natures, particulièrement douées, y sont parfois prepares, predestines; mais il faut s’appliquer assidûment pour atteindre à la perfection.
Fencing is an experimental science, which operates under immutable laws just as do physics and chemistry. Each movement has its importance, its significance, and one can verify the consequences, advantages, and disadvantages. Fencing is an art; certain natures, particularly gifted, are sometimes prepared, predestined, but it is necessary to apply oneself diligently to achieve perfection.
—Dr. Achille Edom, L’Escrime, le Duel & l’Épée, 1908
L’art des armes ne consiste pas, contrairement à ce qu’a dit Molière, “à donner et à ne pas recevoir”; mais à ne pas recevoir d’abord et à donner ensuite, si l’on peut.
The art of arms consists not, contrary to what Molière said, ‘to give and not to receive,’ but at the outset to not receive and to give subsequently, if one can.
Il ne doit y avoir qu’une école d’escrime, celle qui prepare le tireur aussi bien pour l’assaut public que pour le terrain. En un mot, j’estime que l’escrime doit rester un art, mais il ne faut pas qu’elle demeure sans utilité pratique.
There must not be but one school of fencing, that which prepares the swordsman as well for the public assault [sport] as for the terrain [duel]. In a word, I deem that fencing must remain as an art, but it must not remain without practical use.
— Anthime Spinnewyn, L’Escrime à l’épée, 1898
[I]l y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret et l’escrime de l’épée, l’escrime de la salle et l’escrime du terrain.
[T]here are two forms of fencing, foil fencing and epee fencing, the swordplay of the club [sport fencing] and the swordplay of the [dueling] ground.
N’est-ce pas là une indication de plus qu’il y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret, sport admirable, mais exercice de convention, et l’escrime à l’épée, méthode de combat?
Isn’t this more of an indication that there are two forms of fencing [with thrusting weapons], foil fencing, an admirable sport, but an exercise of convention, and epee fencing, a method of combat?
—Arthur Ranc in the preface to Le Jeu de l’épée by Jules Jacob, 1887
Gallant bearing, disdainful valour, all that is very well in its way, ‘but the thing, Sir, is to hit your man without being hit yourself.’ That is the wisdom of ages.
—Egerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903.
But delightful as good foil-play is, both to performers and lookers-on, it is neither the real sword-fight nor even a reasonably complete preparation for it.
—Charles Newton-Robinson in “The Revival of the Small-Sword,” 1905, in The Living Age.
“Henry Durie,” said the Master, “Two words before I begin. You are a fencer, you can hold a foil; you little know what a change it makes to hold a sword!”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae, 1889
De Meuse. — L’assaut à l’épée de combat doit être l’image la plus complete possible du duel. Or, dans un duel, on ne donne jamais qu’un seul coup d’épée.
Berger. — Quelquefois deux et trois. Après une petite blessure on ne s’arrête pas.
De Meuse. —The dueling sword bout ought to be the closest image possible of the duel. However, in a duel, there is never only a single epee thrust [wound].
Berger. — Sometimes two and three. After a small wound one does not stop.
—From the Troisième Congrès Internationale d’Escrime, 1908. The Congress was called to determine rules for fencing as sport. Unfortunately, the argument of M. De Meuse failed due to the opposition of foilists who dominated the Congress. They believed epee—the “modern school”—was largely degenerate as a separate weapon and that no special preparation was necessary. These gentlemen had already long since accepted the argument for sport fencing, based on foil fencing as an exercise in technique (much of it useless in actual combat), as something beyond combat and unnecessary to emulate it. In fact, foil had long been proved inadequate for actual combat. See the next quotation.
Renard. — Nous avons tort de nous mettre dans l’idée que l’assaut est l’image du combat. Je fais de l’escrime comme sport et non pour me batter (marques generals d’approbation) et, autant que possible, pour faire quelque chose de bien. Il ne s’agit pas seulement de toucher.
Renard. — We are wrong to put forth the idea that the assault is the image of combat. I fence for sport and not to get battered (general marks of approval [from others]) and, whenever possible, to do something to benefit myself. Fencing is not only about getting the touch.
—From the Troisième Congrès Internationale d’Escrime, 1908. M. Renard is correct that no bout or assault can be the image of actual combat; no training or practice can. However, from this point forward the idea of all fencing as entirely a sport pastime began to take root and was the death knell of sport fencing as the emulation of actual combat as opposed to sport fencing as pure sport. It’s only grown worse a century later, with foil and saber now entirely artificial. Epee too has it’s artificialities–all forms of swordplay do–but it remains far closer to actual combat than foil or saber.
The answer is easy. The great art of swordsmanship consists in laying successful snares, such as making your opponent expect the attack exactly where it is not intended. To deceive his expectations, to break up what he combines, to disappoint his plans, and to narrow his action; to dominate his movements, to paralyse his thoughts, represent the art, the science, the skill, and the power of your perfect swordsman…
—Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911. Burton was a swordsman, explorer, linguist, scholar, spy, and translator of The Arabian Nights. He was the first non-Muslim to make the Hajj to Mecca, doing so in disguise. As a swordsman he was known as a fierce fighter, with numerous combats in the field.
C’est une mine si féconde que cette lutte d’adresse, d’habileté, de science, de coup d’œil, d’énergie, de jugement, où toutes les facultés intellectuelles et physiques s’emploient à la fois et se viennent mutuellement en aide.
And after all the art of fence does furnish a most interesting fund of conversation—the art of skillful fighting at close quarters, which implies a knowledge of theory combined with a trained power of execution, which taxes eye and hand, vigour and judgment, and brings into play every faculty of mind and body, each doing its part, and each in turn supplementing and reinforcing the other.
—Baron César de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l’Épée, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.
[Early epeeists] were realists who preferred the romantic to the classic.
—R. A. Lidstone in Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, Épée, Sabre, 1952
Not so, Anthony, my faith—no! Your murdering tool is cowardly pistol or blundering musketoon whereby Brutish Ignorance may slaughter Learned Valour and from safe distance. But, as Mind is greater than mere Body so is the rapier greater than any other weapon, and its manage an exact science calling not only for the strict accordance of hand, eye and foot, but for an alertness o’ the mind also.
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940. Farnol was a fencer and his descriptions of swordplay are accurate.
MAÎTRE D’ARMES: …tous le secret des armes ne consiste qu’en deux choses: à donner et à ne point recevoir; et, comme je vous fis voir l’autre jour par raison demonstrative, il est impossible que vous receviez, si vous savez détourner l’épée de votre ennemi de la ligne de votre corps; ce qui ne dépend seulement que d’un petit mouvement de poignet, ou en dedans or dehors.
JOURDAIN: De cette façon donc, un homme, sans avoir du coeur, est sûr de tuer son homme et de n’être point tué?
MAÎTRE D’ARMES: Sans doute.
MASTER OF ARMS: …the entire secret of arms consists but in two things: to give and not to receive; and, as I demonstrated to you the other day, it is impossible that you will receive, if you have turned your enemy’s sword from the line of your body; and this depends only on a small movement of the wrist, either inside or outside.
JOURDAIN: In this fashion, then, a man, with no courage, is sure to kill his man and not be killed?
MASTER OF ARMS: Without doubt.
—Molière [Jean Baptiste Poquelin], Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, 1673. One of France’s most famous playwrights, Molière is poking fun at both the bourgeois and at anyone gullible enough to believe that swordplay is a simple matter.
…because whoever will be but at the Trouble to visit the Fencing-schools, shall scarcely see one Assault of ten, made either be Artists against Artists, or Artists against Ignorants, but what is so Composed and made up of Contre-temps [double touches resulting from an attack into an attack, or from simultaneous attacks], that one would think the greatest Art they learn, and aime at, is to strive who shall Contre-temps oftnest…
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694. True then, true later, true today in all forms of swordplay. Notwithstanding modern idealistic classical and historical fencers who believe, via an imagined nostalgia, that the swordplay of past eras was more correct and useful for the encounters with real blades, Hope, not to mention close study, dashes this notion. Double hits are the bane of swordplay, and it is difficult to eradicate them in both play and competition. And, given the large number of accounts of duels in which both antagonists were wounded in contre-temps or “exchanged thrusts,” it was clearly a problem in actual combat as well.
It is a prejudice to think that swordsmanship is meant solely to slash an opponent. It is meant not to slash an opponent, but to kill evil. It is a way of allowing ten thousand men to live by killing a single evil man.
—From the Heiho Kaden Sho (Family-Transmitted Book on Swordsmanship), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.
The accomplished man does not kill people by using his sword; he lets them live by using his sword.
—From Taia Ki (On the T’ai-a), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.
Far more courtesies and expectations of behavior than are given below may be found here: Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments.
The salute is an usage established in all the fencing schools, in order to preserve the politeness that we owe to one another.
—J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized /L’Art des Armes Simplifié, 1771. Note the phrase in all the fencing schools; the salute was generally not used in a duel or rencontre, at least not among the French and their disciples.
It is a polite custom to salute your opponent with your blade before the bout, and to offer him your hand at the end.
Once the fencer has taken the guard position, he must be considerate of his opponent. Neither fencer must talk during the bout. Fencing requires the greatest possible attention, and this may not be diverted in any way or for any reason except by fencing tactics.
In fencing against an opponent who acknowledges your superiority, sportsmanship demands that you do not make the most of your advantages; rather should you assist his swordplay as much as possible, and avoid placing him in a painful or ridiculous position by over-emphasizing your superiority.
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil, 1932
Don’t show any sign of bad temper if you are the loser.
Don’t get conceited, or be haughty, if you are the winner.
Don’t forget always to be modest and courteous.
If your adversary should prove far superior to you, do not show discontent or bad temper; do not be disheartened, keep up your style and do your best, no matter how badly you may be beaten. Take your defeat in the right spirit, it will help to improve you; take it as a lesson you needed. Remain always the “correct gentleman.”
Not shaking hands with an adversary after a match or a rencontre is a great lack of courtesy, and should be reprimanded. Saluting an adversary previously to the beginning of a bout should be done before placing the mask on the head.
—Félix Gravé, Fencing Comprehensive, 1934
Une simple observation pour terminer: à l’épée comme au fleuret, le silence est de rigueur. La parole est aux armes, dit-on; c’est-à-dire que, seules, la tête el la main doivent agir.
A simple observation to end with: at epee as at foil, silence is mandatory. One lets the weapons speak; that is to say, the head and hand must act alone.
—Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Félizet], Traité de l’épée, 1884.
No Scholar nor Spectator without a licence from the Master, should offer to direct or give advice to any of the Scholars, who are either taking a Lesson or Assaulting…First, because without permission they take upon them to play the Master; And secondly, because they reprove oft-times their Commerads for the same very fault they themselves are most guilty of, although perhaps not sensible of, which when By-standers perceive, they smile at them (and with just reason) as being both ignorant and impertinent; therefore it would be a great deal more commendable in them, to be more careful in rectifying their own faults, and less strict in censuring others.
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
On Becoming a Fencer
The way is in training.
The essence of this book is that you must train day and night in order to make quick decisions. In strategy it is necessary to treat training as a part of normal life with your spirit unchanging.
—Musashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645.
For Fencing is an Art which depends mainly upon Practice, and who ever thinks to acquire it any other way, is I assure him mightily mistaken, and the more a man practice and with the more different humors, so much the better for him…
[S]o that let the greatest Artist in the World forbear but the Practice of it [fencing] for a twelve month, although I confess he can never loss [lose] the Judgement he hath acquired, yet he will certainly when he cometh to practice again, find his Body and Limbs stiffer, and his Hand and motions both for Defence and Offence, neither so exact, nor by far so swift, as if he had been in a continual Practice, I mean at least once a Week or Fortnight…
[T]here is as much difference betwixt taking a Lesson, or playing upon a Masters breast, and Assaulting or performing the same Lessons upon your Commerads, as there is betwixt the repeating of an eloquent Discourse already penned, and the composing of one.
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
Finally, Practice is the Marrow and Quintessence of the Art, for without that, a Papist may soon forget his Pater-noster; but by frequent Practice, a Man gains much experience daily, and is continually improving his Skill. This being the last Observation, and one of the chief, no Opportunities of Practising ought to be neglected.
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711
This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness; for nothing requires a man to exert himself more than sword-defence, and it is as difficult to attain such an air of intrepidity without much practice, as it is difficult to become perfectly expert in the art.
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809.
Si vous voulez devenir un véritable tireur, certainement il vous faudra de longues années de travaux, de méditations sévères, d’exercices incessants.
If you would be an accomplished swordsman, you will certainly require years of hard work, close application, and incessant practice.
—César de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l’Épée, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.
It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practiced skill.
—Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood, 1922
…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.
—Rafael Sabatini, The Black Swan, 1932
[A] man can never be called a compleat Sword Man, untill he can Defend himself with all kindes of Swords, against all sorts his Adversary can choose against him.
–Sir William Hope, The Compleat Fencing-Master, 1710.
L’escrime est une maîtresse capricious et frivole; elle résiste longtemps à ses adorateurs, mais, à ceux qui ont su la posséder, elle reserve des joies incomparables.
Fencing is a capricious and frivolous mistress; she long resists her suitors, but, to those are able to possess her, she reserves incomparable joys.
—Dr. Achille Edom, L’Escrime, le Duel & l’Épée, 1908
Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as at five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my fencing friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they still consider themselves mere tyros in their art.
—R. G. Allanson-Winn, Broadsword and Singlestick, 1911
Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.
—Merlin speaking to Wart, in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, 1958
The more you understand fencing, the more you will enjoy it. This particularly applies to the novice for, like all highly skilled games, it is easy to be put off by the chore of having to begin right at the beginning.
—Bob Anderson, All About Fencing, 1963. Mr. 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. He died in January, 2012, and was inexplicably and inexcusably left out of the In Memoriam tributes at the 2012 and 2013 Oscars.
[G]enerally speaking, few persons, except those of liberal education, ever think of, much less learn, the Art of Fencing, and they, of course, are understood to be familiar with the French language.
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
To be in possession of what you know, you must be in possession of yourself.
—le sieur Labat, L’art en fait d’armes, 1696, from Mahon’s translation entitled The Art of Fencing, 1734
For, Anthony, he that would be a true sword-master must first be master of himself, then of his blade, so shall he be master of his adversary. You follow me, I hope?
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940
Well, a man is as he is trained.
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
Fencing, like other sciences, cannot be degraded to a mechanical art, that may be infallibly practiced by a receipt; nor can it be thoroughly and completely acquired by only reading a book on the subject.
At the same time, I earnestly caution the intelligent young amateur, before he adopts any of these new methods of executing the different movements, &c. in Fencing, to submit them to the test of the strictest examination, and to determine, if possible, how far they appear to be consistent with reason and practicability.
[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.
They are shown both methods, and after a proper demonstration of their respective merits, I always leave it to their own judgment, to practise that which they find by experience to succeed best. It is on this principle alone I wish all my observations to be weighed. I detest the maxim of acting upon mere authority, without any convincing proof.
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
This is what made him a great coach: he taught strategy and tactics, not just attacks and parries. He taught you how to analyze your opponents, get inside their heads, figure out what they would do, what were their strengths and weaknesses. He taught you to have confidence in yourself, to work hard, to settle for nothing less than the best you could do. He knew how to coax, insult, and inspire his students to achieve ever greater heights of success.
—Roger Jones, describing Lajos Csiszar in an article, 2000. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés, and coached Dr. Eugene Hamori after he defected to the US during the 1956 Olympic Games (and after the Hungarian saber team won gold). From an article by Roger Jones, 2000. Jones was one of Csiszar’s US students as well as a member of the 1955 and 1957 US epee teams, an alternate to the 1956 Olympic team, a longtime AFLA/USFA official, a strong opponent of gamesmanship and cheating, and, of course, like many male students of Santelli, Szabo, Csiszar, Zold, and Hamori, a gentleman and a swordsman.
While training, the pupil should naturally practice and experiment ignoring for the time being the question of his powers of hitting, so that he can constantly enrich his knowledge and skills.
Fencing lessons built up systematically, practice under bout-like conditions, exercises “au-mur”, conventional exercises, exercises designed to parry attacks, bouts, systematic free fencing, unlimited bouts, bouts fenced until 5 or 10 hits [and today, 15] and competitive fencing constitute the framework within which the fencer can grow to the stature of a competitor.
—Imre Vass, Párbajtörvívás, 1965, from the first English translation, Epee Fencing, 1976
American fencers and coaches should understand and build their program on the fact that the coach’s role is only 10 percent of the total effort. Fencers must rely on themselves in training and in competition. Coaches should not try to ‘sell’ themselves to the students. Students must become independent.
[Smaller competitions are] “practice competitions,” where the fencer does not necessarily have to win, rather, he should use a wide variety of his moves while checking and following his progress. On major competitions, the fencer should always try to win, and go all out to win, “even if he only has one move…”
—Kaj Czarnecki, American Fencing, Jan/Feb 1980. Mr. Czarnecki is a Finnish Olympic epee fencer and fifteen time Finnish and Scandinavian champion, winning in all three weapons. He was a leading coach in Sweden, helped train Johan Harmenberg, and eventually became one of the epee coaches at the US Modern Pentathlon Training Center at Fort Sam Houston. I heard him make similar remarks during an epee clinic at the Mardi Gras Fencing Tournament in New Orleans that spring. Too few coaches take these views today, with the result that many fencers are anything but independent on the strip or elsewhere.
Always combine footwork with techniques being practiced.
Footwork and more footwork. Speed and more speed.
Develop these qualities
1. Smoothness 2. Ease 3. Accuracy
To find stillness in movement, not stillness in stillness.
—Bruce Lee, from his notes on “Incorporating fencing principles,” quoted from Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way, compiled and edited by John Little, 1997. Bruce Lee studied both Western boxing and Western fencing, and incorporated some of their principles in Jeet Kune Do.
[I]n the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
—Shunryu Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970. That is, keep your mind open and don’t fall victim to your knowledge or success.
Bonus homo semper tiro.
A good person is always a novice.
—Derived from Martial XII.li.2. See Suzuki above.
The En Garde: Three Not Incompatible Opinions
The bravest gentlemen of arms, which I have seen, were Sir Charles Candis, and the now Marquis of Newcastle, his son, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir Lewis Dives, whom I have seen compose their whole bodies in such a posture, that they seemed to be a fort impregnable. They were the scholars of John de Nardes of Seville in Spain, who with the dagger alone, would encounter the single rapier and worst him. This exercise is most necessary for you, and also excellent for your health.
—William Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658
This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness…
In whatever attitude you may think it necessary to present yourself facing your adversary, if your mind is prepared to attack and defend, you will be, properly speaking, “on guard.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
In your en garde you must lean forward slightly and thereby appear to be always in motion, as if you are always attacking. When your opponent looks at you, he or she must believe you are constantly attacking no matter what you are doing.
— Dr. Eugene Hamori, as best I recall, to me forty years ago, to my wife within the past five.
On Patience as a Fencing Virtue: Epeeists, Take Heed!
’Prevail by patience,’ is the motto of my house, and I have taken it for the guiding maxim of my life.
—de Bernis, in Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan, 1932. The novel builds to a duel at the climax.
(Patience conquers, to conquer or prevail via patience.)
—Old motto and the likely Latin version of the motto of Charles de Bernis, Sabatini’s hero in The Black Swan. Used by the Huntsville Fencing Club until replaced with the motto below.
Patientia ferox vincit.
(To conquer or prevail via a fierce or warlike patience.)
—Modification of patientia vincit based on my experience fencing and teaching fencing, for the Huntsville Fencing Club and Salle de Bernis, 2012
Patience need not be passive!
—To my fencing students, circa 2005 to the present.
L’assaut en un coup demande de la prudence, mais non de l’inactivité.
An assault for one touch demands prudence, but not inactivity.
—J. Joseph Renaud in L’Escrime: fleuret, par Kirchoffer; épée, par J. Joseph Renaud; sabre, par Léon Lécuyer, 1913. Compare with Patientia Ferox Vincit and “Patience need not be passive!” above. I discovered this quote in April 2013, proving, yet again, that there is little original in fencing, and none of us are as original as we think we might be.
Errors of distance, overeagerness, foolhardiness and impatience, are faults for which every épéeist of experience is on the look-out in his opponent’s game. More, they are faults which the épéeist will try to bring about in the unwary swordsman.
—Roger Crosnier, Fencing with the Epee, 1958. As or more important, in my opinion, than watching for or inducing these errors in the opponent, is preventing them in oneself.
Patience is the first virtue of an épée fencer.
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the Épée, 1936
A l’épée, il faut savoir attendre.
In epee, one must know how to wait.
—Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Félizet], Traité de l’épée, 1884. The translation is by Brian House from his excellent English version, The Dueling Sword, 2009
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication during a lesson, 1978
Fencing Qualities, Techniques, & Tactics
La fortune aidait souvent la valeur un peu téméraire.
Fortune often aids valor that is a bit reckless.
—Capt. René Duguay-Trouin, Mémoires, 1741. Duguay-Trouin was a famous late 17th and early 18th century French privateer and naval officer who once captured a ship by boarding it, then engaging the enemy captain single-handedly, sword-in-hand, forcing him to surrender in the style of the great Hollywood swashbucklers. He was a duelist (bretteur) when young, and later brought at least one fencing teacher (a master’s assistant) aboard his ship in order to improve his crews’ fighting ability. He later had a rencontre in the street with the fencing teacher, a fight that was anything but academic. The quotation may derive from audentis fortuna iuvat, later written by Virgil as audaces Fortuna iuvat (Fortune aids the bold). Similar is the SAS motto, “Who Dares Wins.”
Dans le noble exercice des armes, ce n’est pas aux audacieux que sourit la fortune, mais aux persévérants.
In the noble exercise of arms, it is not the audacious that Fortune smiles upon, but on those who persevere.
—Anthime Spinnewyn, L’Escrime à l’épée, 1898. My translation. Compare with Duguay-Trouin above, and with the admonitions of Francis Zold and Nobuo Hayashi below.
Joignez dans le combat, la valeur à la prudence, la peau du Lion à celle du Renard.
In battle let valour and prudence go together, the lyon’s courage with the fox’s craft.
—le sieur Labat, L’art des armes, 1696. The English is from Andrew Mahon’s translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734.
The man in the periwig, whose every movement was as swift and light-footed as a cat’s, lowered the sword point.
John Dickson Carr, The Devil in Velvet, 1951
Fencing without Judgement, is just like a Watch without a Spring, a Neat piece of Work with a great many fine Wheels, but without any Motion, the want of which maketh her useless.
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694
[T]he true Art of Sword-defence depends, in great measure, on judgement in deceiving the adversary’s motions, and in not being deceived by his.
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
For what are all strategems, ambuscades, and outfalls but lying upon a large scale?
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that the fencer’s skill in tactics is displayed to a large degree by the ability to mislead an opponent, to recognise the opponent’s intentions and to discern any attempts to be mislead.
—Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Fencing Actions—Terminology, Their Classification and Application in Competition,” n.d.
A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honor, or even when reduced in its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.
—Joseph Conrad, The Duel, 1908. Conrad’s story was based on the actual tale of a long-running series of duels between two Napoleonic officers. It was later made into an excellent film, The Duellists, 1977.
Be simple, be smart. Don’t move your weapon until you are ready to use it… then SHOOT! Let the younger fencers become eager and make mistakes. Against the older ones, use your speed and strength. Remember, mano de ferro, braccio di gomma—have a hand of iron and an arm of rubber.
—Italo Santelli, quoted by Lajos Csiszar quoted by Roger Jones, [1950s] 2000.
Ratón que se sábe mas de un horádo, présto le cagé el gáto.
The cat soon catches the rat that knows but one hole. [More literally: the mouse who knows more than one hole soon escapes the cat.]
—proverb quoted in John Stevens, A New Spanish Grammar, 1725
Rouse me not.
—The Conisby family motto, from Jeffery Farnol’s swashbuckler Martin Conisby’s Vengeance, 1921. Some fencers, myself included, fence well when “roused” or angered, at least for a while, although historical the usual advice has been to keep one’s anger and temper reined in. If one is to fence angry or in fury, let it be cold-blooded rather than hot-blooded. See also Dr. Eugene Hamori’s advice to me below.
One last bit of advice for the strip: Get MAD at your opponents, at the director, at the world, etc., when you fence and quit apologizing for yourself.
But if it works for you, then do it.
—Dr. Eugene Hamori, personal correspondence, 1995
And, remember, there is nothing bad in fencing, provided that it succeeds.
—Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911 See also Eugene Hamori above. It should be noted that Burton is, in the case of salle fencing and dueling, speaking only of honorable fencing, certainly not the gamesmanship and “cheating within the rules” far too many fencers, albeit a minority thankfully, consider fair play.
[The epee or duelling sword] is a democratic weapon in that the less skillful fencer always has a chance to win; but it is an exacting task for a fencer consistently to achieve distinction in duelling sword unless he combines a fundamentally sound technique with the instinct of strategy.
—Julio Martinez Castello, The Theory and Practice of Fencing, 1933
Épée fencing requires a special technique, courage, opportunism and concentration of effort in the highest degree. It is the highest expression of the art of fencing, because it alone is based on the conception of hitting the opponent without oneself being hit… Litheness, agility and speed, which are the essentials for the successful épéeist, are largely based on his footwork… Épée fencing is par excellence a game of timing, tactics and bluff… Subtlety, bluff and courage are salient features of this game… While caution is essential with the duelling weapon, the best devised moves will come to naught unless the épéeist possesses courage to risk everything when the right opportunity presents itself.
—C-L de Beaumont, OBE, in Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport, 1960
There is in steel a subtle magnetism which is the index of one’s antagonist.
—Rafael Sabatini, The Suitors of Yvonne, 1902
Here was a man whom much and constant practice had given extraordinary speed and a technique that was almost perfect. In addition, he enjoyed over André-Louis physical advantages of strength and length of reach, which rendered him altogether formidable. And he was cool, too; cool and self-contained; fearless and purposeful. Would anything shake that calm, wondered André-Louis.
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
NOVEL: Pshaw! Talking is like Fencing, the quicker the better; run ‘em down, run ‘em down; no matter for parrying; push on still, sa, sa, sa: no matter whether you argue in form, push in guard, or no.
MANLY: Or hit, or no; I think thou alwayes talk’st without thinking, Novel.
—William Wycherley, The Plain-Dealer, 1674. The lines are satire. Captain Manly is an honest plain-speaking fighting seaman who serves “out of Honour, not Interest,” while Novel is “a pert railing Coxcomb,” or in other words, an ass, and clearly no swordsman either.
Be not over elated at the thrusts you hit with, nor despise those by which you are hit.
Never set any value upon any thrust you give, before you examine whether it was well given, without any danger attending it.
Study the danger and advantage of every thrust you make.
—Andrew Lonnergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1771.
This last fault of drawing back the hand on the attack, or in plain terms, stabbing, deserves a word by itself. It is perfectly fatal to good fencing…Before delivering his point, the stabber checks the onward movement of the blade by drawing back the hand, and therefore loses all the space and time wasted in first withdrawing the hand from the starting-point and then returning to it. While this process is going on, all the opponent has to do is to straighten, which is clearly quicker, as it is all on the way. No sane man would dream of laying himself open in such a way if he were engaged in fighting for his life…
— Henry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899. Unfortunately, this technique of “stabbing” (i.e. “bent arm attacks”) and the dangers it holds to the user were swords real, is now considered an acceptable form of attack—in fact, it is the most common—in modern foil and saber fencing, to the point [pun half-intended] that neither weapon much resembles actual combat anymore, but are more akin to a game of tag with steel rods, all governed by a set of esoteric rules pandering to an imaginary audience.
Never give up!
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977-1978. This was one of his admonitions to all of his students.
A man never gives up! A man dies first!
—Nobuo Hayashi, my judo and jiujutsu teacher, 1979. Sensei Hayashi was brought up before and during WWII in the old jiujutsu, had trained to become a Kamikaze pilot, and won the Japanese university judo championship in the late 1950s. He made this comment after a student, attempting to escape him on the mat, gave up. He also, as I recall, ordered the student to leave the dojo/gym.
Ne tirez l’épée que pour servir le Prince , conserver vôtre honneur ou défendre vôtre vie.
Draw not your sword, but to serve your king, preserve your honor, or defend your life.
—le sieur Labat, L’art des armes, 1696, from Andrew Mahon’s translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734
Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!
—Lajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, 2000. The quote dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier.
To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, “the things that will destroy American fencing are victories at any price, prestige at any price, expenses first instead of honor first, and love of subsidies and the state-supported athlete theory of ‘amateur sports.’”
—Roger Jones, “Poor Technique?” in American Fencing, March 1966
It is happily true that in England we no longer curb the indiscreet utterance of undisciplined lips with cold steel, nor adopt the crude method of letting in light upon the mind through a hole in the body.
—Henry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899
So in their own sense Duelling cannot properly vindicat[e] any opprobrious epithet, but that of a Coward.
—Wm. Anstruther, Essays, Moral and Divine, 1701
I mention these to caution you on all occasions to be on your Guard, and not to trust any man whatever who is your adversary. For many have been deceived by not taking care of themselves in these cases, tho’ their adversaries have been men of strict honour, as they thought, and that they would not be so base and villainous as to be guilty of any thing below the character of Brave Men and Gentlemen. Experientiæ Docet.
—Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728. McBane, a Scot, was a veteran soldier wounded several times in action, as well as a swordsman, duelist, fencing master, occasional pimp, and prize fighter. He is also the man for whom “Soldier’s Leap” is named in Scotland. Good advice not only for a duel, but for life in general.
The honor of some adversaries can never be relied on safely. In a selfish or revengeful spirit, many persons might be disposed to commit assassination, for which reason, friends and time are always indispensable.
No boast, threat, trick, or stratagem, which may wound the feelings, or lessen the equality of the combatants, should ever enter into the contemplation of a gentleman.
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829. The first quotation is in the vein of McBane, above. Many have honor in the mundane, when there is little risk to life, limb, property, money, or reputation; far fewer have honor where there is much risk or peril.
Eh bien! les duellistes poitevins qui ont laissé à bon titre le renom d’adversaires dangereux, Bourbeau (un cousin de l’ancien ministre), Lemaire, le fameux de Pindray — jen passe — n’étaient pas classés parmi les forts tireurs. Je le tiens de mon vieux professeur, le père Nerrière, un maître de l’école de Lafaugère que M. Legouvé a peut-être connu et qui m’a répété plus d’une fois que de Pindray, redoutable, terrible sur le terrain, n’avait travaillé sérieusèment à la salle qu’après ses duels les plus retentissants.
Well! The duelists of Poitou who have left good title to being renowned as dangerous adversaries, Bourbeau (a cousin of the former minister), Lemaire, the famous de Pindray—I pass over others—were not classified among the strongest fencers. I learned from my old professor, Nerrière the father, a master of the school of Lafaugère that Mr. Legouvé has perhaps known and who told me more than once that de Pindray, deadly, terrible on the field of honor, trained seriously in the salle only after he had fought his most sensational duels.
—Arthur Ranc, in the preface to Jules Jacob’s Le jeu de l’épée, revised by Émile André, 1887.
I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field.
—Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling, 1868.
To avoid those Desperate Combats, my Advice is for all Gentlemen, to take a hearty Cup, and to Drink Friends to avoid Trouble.
—Donald McBane, The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728. Again, good advice in general.
More From the Latin
Forwarned is forearmed.
—quoted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Recognize an opportunity.
Seek the truth.
Make haste slowly.
Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.
Either I shall find a way or I shall make one.
Pen & Sword
Pour un oui, pour un non, se battre, —ou faire un vers!
For a yes, for a no, to fight, —or write a verse!
—Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897.
Tomando ora la espada, ora la pluma.
Now taking up the sword, now the pen.
—Garcilaso de la Vega, Égloga III (v.40), early 16th century. Garcilaso was a 16th century Spanish soldier-poet and true Renaissance man. He died in 1536 of wounds suffered in battle at Le Muy, France. Armas y lettras—arms and letters—is a common theme in 16th and 17th century Spanish literature.
Nunca la lanza embotó la pluma ni la pluma la lanza.
The lance never blunted the pen nor the pen the lance.
—Sancho Panza in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I’ll make thee glorious by my pen,
and famous by my sword;
—James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “I’ll never love Thee more,” 1642 or 1643. Sir Walter Scott reversed glorious and famous, apparently not appreciating the attachment of glory to the pen. Montrose, a Scottish hero, led a guerrilla campaign through the Highlands against Cromwell’s forces. In the end he was hanged, instead of being beheaded as was due given his rank. His body was decapitated after his death, and his head was piked at the Tollbooth in Edinburgh.
[H]ow much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.
—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621
Pen and sword in accord.
—Japanese, 17th century or earlier.
—Literally, “Hey there!” Often shouted during a vigorous exchange ending in a successful touch, or at least it once was until recently. More embarrassingly, it is sometimes shouted in expectation of a touch that ultimately fails. In Cyrano de Bergerac is the shout “Hé! Là donc!”—that is, “Hey! There thus!” Many old French masters and fencers believed in absolute silence during swordplay, while many Italians permitted some expressions. An occasional Hé là! is acceptable in my opinion; anything else is boorish.
Hé là, Pamela!
—Dr. Francis Zold, in lessons he gave throughout his life. I once asked Chaba Pallaghy, an elite Hungarian and US fencer and international official who knew Dr. Zold well, what it meant, he said it was simply something that the gentleman, scholar, and swordsman said. So many times I heard him say this in my lessons when I did something well. It is as imprinted upon my fencing soul in the same manner as, “One more, one more, yes, very nice,” as spoken by Dr. Eugene Hamori in his lessons to me.
Mardieu, depuis le temps je me serois mis en garde, j’aurois gagné la mesure, je l’aurois rompue, j’aurois surpris le fort, j’aurois pris le temps, j’aurois coupé sous le bras, j’aurois marqué tous les batemens, j’aurois tiré la flanconade, j’aurois porté le coup de dessous, je me serois allongé de tierce sur les armes, j’aurois quarté du pied gauche, j’aurois marqué feinte à la pointe et dedans et dehors, j’aurois estramaçoné, ébranlé, empiété, engagé, volté, porté, paré, riposté, carté, passé, désarmé et tué vingt hommes.
God’s Death, in the time it would take to put myself on guard, I would gain the measure, retreat a step, surprise the forte, take the tempo, make a coupé beneath the arm, make all the beats, make a flanconnade, make a thrust below, lunge in tierce in opposition, make an inquartata, feint with the point inside and outside, make a cut, concuss my enemy, invade, engage, volt, thrust, parry, riposte, chase, pass, disarm, and kill twenty men.
—Chasteauforte, in Cyrano de Bergerac’s Le Pedant Joué, 1654, written in 1645. Chasteauforte takes a beating while he talks about his prowess as a swordsman. The character probably derives from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, the boastful cowardly soldier, and from experience as well. As the Spanish might put it, He who boasts of it did not do it. If you want to be taken seriously, prove yourself with deeds, not words.
Mardieu is an exclamation deriving from mordieu or mort de Dieu = God’s death. Surpris le fort is to be found nowhere else in the literature of sword; it may be intended to indicate grasping the adversary’s blade at the forte with one’s hand, a common technique when grappling. It may also indicate a prise de fer or even simply a proper thrust, fort against foible. Or, it may be satire, suggesting that Chasteauforte is so foolish a fencer as to attempt with his own blade to seize the fort of his adversary’s, rather than the foible.
The real Cyrano de Bergerac was a redoubtable swordsman who fought literally dozens of duels and affrays, and reportedly once singlehandedly routed a mob of a hundred or more. He also had a large nose, and was a famous French writer whose work includes the story of a trip to the moon, arguably the first science fiction and fantasy novel. Rostand’s Cyrano is a Gascon, based on his name, de Bergerac. However, the real Cyrano was a Parisian.
Enter Petro drest like a French Fencing Master.
Pet. Signior Barberacho has sent me to teach you de Art of Fencing.
Sir Signall Buffoon. Illustrissimo Signior Monsieur, I am the person who am to learn.
Tickletext. Stay Sir stay,—let me ask him some few questions first, for Sir I have play’d at Back-Sword and cou’d have handled ye a weapon as well as any man of my time in the University.
Sir Sig. Say you so Mr. Tickletext, and I‘faith you shall have about with him
[Tick. Gravely goes to Petro.
Tick. Hum—hum—Mr. Monsieur—pray what are the Guards that you like best?
Pet. Monsieur, eder de Quart or de Terse, dey be both French and Itallian; den for your Parades, degaements, your advancements, your Eloynements, and Retierments: dey be de same;
Tick. Cart and Horse, what new found inventions and words have we here,—Sir I wou’d know, whether you like St. Georges Guard or not.
Pet. Alon—Monsieur, Mette vous en Guard! take de Flurette.
Sir Sig. nay faith and troth Governor thou that have a Rubbers with him.
[Tick. Smiling refuses.
Tick. Nay certo Sir Signal,—and yet you shall prevail;—well Sir, come your ways?
[Takes the Fluret.
Pet. Set your right foot forward, turn up your hand so—dat be de Quart—now turn it dus—and that be de Terse.
Tick. Hocus Pocus, Hicksius Doxius—here be de Cart, and here be de Horse—why, what’s all this for, hah, Sir—and where’s your Guard all this while?
Sir Sig. Ay, Sir, where’s your Guard, Sir, as my Governour says, Sir, hah?
Tick. Come, come, Sir, I must instruct you, I see; Come your ways, Sir.—
Pet. Attende, attende une peu—trust de right hand and de right leg forward together.—
Tick. I marry Sir, that’s a good one indeed: What shall become of my Head then, Sir? what Guard have I left for that, good Mr. Monsieur, hah?
Pet. Ah, Morbleu, is not dis for everyting?
Tick. No, marry is not it, Sir; St. George’s Guard is best for the Head whilst you live—as thus, Sir.
Pet. Dat, Sir, ha, ha—dat be de Guard for de Back-Sword.
Tick. Back-sword, Sir, yes, Back-sword, what shou’d it be else?
Pet. And dis be de Single Rapier.
Tick. Single-Rapier with a Vengeance, there’s a weapon for a Gentleman indeed; is all this stir about Single-Rapier?
Pet. Single-Rapier! What wou’d you have for de Gentleman, de Cudgel for de Gentleman?
Tick. No, Sir, but I wou’d have it for de Rascally Frenchman, who comes to abuse Persons of Quality with paltry single Rapier.—Single Rapier! Come, Sir, come—put your self in your Cart and your Horse as you call it, and I’ll shew you the difference.
—Aphra Behn, The Feign’d Curtizans; or, a Night’s Intrigue, 1679. Satire on a fencing lesson and fencing language, in other words, with sallies against French masters and backsword versus smallsword or, as it is called here, single rapier. Aphra Behn was the first professional woman writer in the UK. She was also briefly a spy.
For at Broad-Sword, all the Blows, Chops, Strokes, Pitches, Thro’s, Flirts and Slips, are perform’d over the Point of the Sword, unless you fall to the Leg: But at Small-Sword, all Thrusts, Passes, Pushes, Assaults, Essays and Passages, are commonly made under the Shell, (unless it be Cart or Ters over Arm,) close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon, with a Longe, or you cannot reach to do Execution.
The next thing I shall proceed to, is to the Terms of Art and Variety of Assaults, Pushes, Thrusts, Essays, Passes and Passages, all which are lodged under the Notion of True and False Play. True Play is a clean made Pass, Push, Assault or Thrust, directly perform’d, without change or alteration of the Point of your Weapon at any part or place of your Opponent you discover lies most open, or in answering your Opponent from his Assault. False Play or Falsifying, I call Quibles, Dazzels, Feints, Fallacies, Shams, Decoi’s and Enganuo’s, all which I shall explain in their Order.
Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711. Much of Mr. Wylde’s charming fencing vocabulary is his, and his alone.
From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. “Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte…Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce…Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes…O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
Revenge with a Sword
Honor and revenge have no alliance; therefore, reparation for offence or injury, is all that can be fairly sought for, or conceded.
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829. In other words, a duel must be fought for the sake of honor alone. A combat for the sake of revenge is a mere single combat, yet should, paradoxically, still be fought with honor, at least until the villain, Hollywood style, betrays his honor, which is probably why the rencontre is being fought in the first place.
Oui, s’écria-t-il, voici la fille de Nevers!….Viens donc la chercher derrière mon épée, assassin! toi qui as commandé le meurtre, toi qui l’as achevé lâchement par derrière!… Qui que tu sois, ta main gardera ma marque. Je te reconnaîtrai. Et, quand il sera temps, si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!
Yes, cried he, here is the daughter of Nevers!….Come therefore and search for her behind my sword, assassin! You who have commanded murder, you who have achieved it by backstabbing cowardice! Whoever you are, your hand has my mark. I will recognize you. And when the time comes, if you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!
—Lagardère, in Paul Feval’s Le Bossu, 1857. Feval, along with Dumas (who probably inspired him) et al, helped establish the swashbuckling genre in literature. He also wrote a series each of vampire and crime detection novels. The phrase, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” became proverbial in France.
In both men the same grim determination prevailed. The opponent must be killed; there could be no half-measures here.
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
The next morning, Inigo began the track-down. He had it all carefully planned in his mind. He would find the six-fingered man. He would go up to him. He would say simply, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” and then, oh then, the duel.
—William Goldman, The Princess Bride, 1973
I shall write villain upon him with my rapier’s point.
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
Then I’ll take her when you’re dead.
—Peter Blood, in Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, 1922. Captain Blood engages Captain Levasseur in a rencontre on the beach of Virgin Magra, Sabatini’s joke on the name of Virgin Gorda. In the novel the duel is but briefly described, but is one of the highlights of the 1935 film version with Errol Flynn. The film duel appropriates for its finale the trick of fence described in Sabatini’s The Black Swan. The duel was filmed at Three Arch Bay, just south of Laguna Beach. Naturally, the duel, only briefly described, is over a woman’s honor on the one hand, and over her possession on the other.
He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
—Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.
MERCUTIO O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away.
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
TYBALT What wouldst thou have with me?
MERCUTIO Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine
lives; that I mean to make bold withal, and as you
shall use me hereafter, drybeat the rest of the
eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pitcher
by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your
ears ere it be out.
TYBALT I am for you.
ROMEO Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.
MERCUTIO Come, sir, your passado.
MERCUTIO Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
—Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1. The “book of arithmetic” reference is to forms of rapier play emphasizing geometry, the extreme form of which was the Spanish verdadera destreza mocked by poet and playwright Francisco de Quevedo.
HAMLET This likes me well. These foils have all a length?
OSRIC A hit, a very palpable hit.
LAERTES A touch, a touch, I do confess ‘t.
HAMLET Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
More from Swashbuckling Literature & Film
Villain, unhand the Lady, and defend thy self. [Draws
Have at thee—St. George for England.
—Lovewell in Love and a Bottle by George Farquhar, 1698
Un pour tous! Tous pour un!
One for all! All for one!
—Alexandre Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844. The lines are often misquoted or poorly translated as “All for one and one for all!”
Les coquilles tintent, ding-don.
* * *
Prince, demande á Dieu pardon!
Je quarte du pied, j’escarmouche,
Je coupe, je feinte…
Hé! Là donc!
(Le vicomte chancelle; Cyrano salue.)
A la fin de l’envoi, je touche.
The coquilles ring, ding dong.
* * *
Prince, ask God for pardon!
I thrust in fourth, I skirmish,
I cutover, I feint…
Hey! There thus!
The viscount staggers; Cyrano salutes.
At the end of the refrain, I touch.
—Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897. My translation. The phrase “Je quarte du pied” is not found in fencing language, at least I haven’t so far. Translated directly, it might mean “I put the foot more in fourth position” which is meaningless, or “I parry [or thrust] in quarte standing still” (du pied [ferme]), which makes much more sense. A reasonable translation might also be that of making a quarter turn, or inquartata. The verb quarter is only found in French in late 19th century fencing language as far as I can tell, meaning to place the arm or sword more in the fourth position.
He heard them, wheeled about, flung off his coat, and disengaged his sword, all with the speed of lightning and the address of the man who for ten years had walked amid perils, and learned to depend on his blade.
“You fence skillfully,” said he, sneering, “too skillfully for an honest man. Will you now tell me without any more of this, precisely what the Princess Sophia was doing here with you?”
—Rafael Sabatini, “The Tragedy of Herrenhausen” in The Historical Nights Entertainment, 1917. The story concerns the Swedish Count of Konigsmark and his affair, physical or otherwise, with the Princess Sophia Dorothea, wife of the unfaithful and crude yet intellectually enlightened Georg Ludwig, ruler of Hanover in Germany and the future George I of Great Britain. Most historians believe the Count was murdered on the order of Georg Ludwig. His brother is credited with inventing the colichemarde blade although the form was around before him. If the brother had any part in its more modern invention and use, the inspiration may have come from some of the by light, well-balanced Spanish rapier blades thick at the forte, or even from some of the rapier-style colichemarde blades found in some Dutch or German transitional swords.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
“Oh, you are surely mad! M. de La Tour d’Azyr is reputed the most dangerous sword in France.”
“Have you never noticed that most reputations are undeserved?”
The slender, wickedly delicate blades clashed together, and after a momentary glizade were whirling, swift and bright as lightnings, and almost as impossible to follow with the eye.
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921. The gift of laughter quote was added to a Yale dormitory during construction in the 1930s, then ordered covered over with ivy when it was discovered by Yale dons that the quote was from a “mere” popular novelist. It has since been restored.
The light of guttering candles fell upon the two small-swords where they lay, the one glittering brightly, the other its murderous steel horribly bent and dimmed…
—Jeffery Farnol, Sir John Dering, 1923
Clash and ring of vicious steel that flickered in close and deadly action; stamp of feet and hiss of quick-drawn breath; skill and scorn of death against murderous craft and imperious will. To and fro, up and down, back and forth, they fought with no stay or respite now, changing their ground with nimble volts and dexterous passes, while slowly yet surely, Adam compelled his enemy in the one direction.
“Sir,” he sighed, “as one swordsman and maître d’armes academique to another, I do here acknowledge a palpable hit and cry: ‘Touché!’ Indeed, you have tongue nimble and unexpected as your sword. Sir, I can appreciate wit, I can admire swordcraft, but though you possess both, I regret to say you prove yourself so extreme detestable that I propose to rid myself of you once and for all.”
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940
Inigo Montoya: You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
Man in Black: I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
Inigo Montoya: Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capo Ferro?
Man in Black: Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro. Don’t you?
Inigo Montoya: Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have!
* * *
Inigo Montoya: You are wonderful.
Man in Black: Thank you; I’ve worked hard to become so.
Inigo Montoya: I admit it, you are better than I am.
Man in Black: Then why are you smiling?
Inigo Montoya: Because I know something you don’t know.
Man in Black: And what is that?
Inigo Montoya: I… am not left-handed.
Man in Black: You are amazing.
Inigo Montoya: I ought to be, after 20 years.
Man in Black: Oh, there’s something I ought to tell you.
Inigo Montoya: Tell me.
Man in Black: I’m not left-handed either.
—Dialogue from the film The Princess Bride, 1987. The fencing masters named are real, but the associated tactics are mere Hollywood, likely intended as homage or just mere color. The duel was choreographed by Bob Anderson. In the novel, this dialogue does not exist. Instead, the masters and tactics are part of the narrative description. Author and screenwriter William Goldman also mentions “McBone,” a likely deliberate alteration of, or error for, Scottish swordsman Donald McBane.
Truly ambidextrous fencers are rare. In more than forty years I’ve met only one, Professor Ted Cotton, although my wife Mary Crouch could likely become one if she so chose, one of the founders of fencing in Huntsville, John Jordan, could also fence left-handed, two of our current members routinely switch hands, and I myself can fence tolerably well with my offhand and have begun to use it regularly. Professor Cotton would wear a back-zip jacket and had a body cord down each arm, and would fence his opponents left or right as he thought best. Italian epee great Edoardo Mangiarotti, a right-hander, was taught to fence left-handed by his father in order to give him a competitive advantage, but it is said that he could fence just as well right-handed.
Copyright Benerson Little, 1977-2020. First posted December 19, 2018. Last updated January 26, 2020.
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.
“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, the passata soto 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 at 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. Long low lunges like this are often identified with, or confused with, the passata soto.
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 modified.
In the sprint 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.
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, 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 July 24, 2017.
The content below 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. Just revised, it also resides on the Huntsville Fencing Club website. It includes sections on the modern Olympic weapons, classical fencing, rapier, smallsword, various cut & thrust, theory, Japanese texts, and more.
The list below is not exhaustive—there are many good fencing books not listed below (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.
Why Modern Epee—that is, epee as fenced from the 1930s to the present in its various forms—first? 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.
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 “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 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 years old whose classical, very old school straight arm 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, but recommended only with extreme 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 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 now three-year-old, not to mention a four-month-old) 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 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. The revered József Sákovics, considered by many to be the first “modern” epee fencer, died in 2009. The revered Béla Rerrich died in 2005.
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 other EU countries.
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. Some material is controversial and not all masters agree with the described training regimen. 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 truly elite epeeist to succeed with it at the Olympic and World Championship levels. That is, the first to use “outstripping” attacks to the body as a primary technique and tactic.
Additionally, some of his criticisms 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 misplaced: although some fencers and masters did adhere to the technique (and some, unbelievably, still do), both the lunge initiated with the point and not the full extension, as well as the progressive attack (compound attacks made on the lunge, with the point extending during the feint(s) and final), were commonplace three or more centuries prior, and were also well-in-use—“rediscovered,” so to speak, after a century of abasement by classical foil—by many competitors and masters at least several decades prior to Harmenberg’s era. The “modern” extension-lunge in which both are near-simultaneous, with the point moving a mere small fraction of a second ahead of the lunge is in fact old news: it was routine during the smallsword era. (“Historical” fencers, please don’t bother to argue with me on this, simply open up and read the first two dozen period smallsword manuals you lay your hands on.) The technique of extend and only then lunge was, at least until the late 18th to early 19th centuries, a training technique for beginners. And it still is among many teachers.
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. His technique is inappropriate to most fencers, even advanced and elite fencers. Tellingly, whenever I ask 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 works 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.
Importantly, the book is suited, in Harmenberg’s own words, only to truly advanced fencers, although this has not stopped many insufficiently experienced epeeists 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 was often quite funny to watch, most especially in the case of exceptionally tall epeeists who threw away their height advantage.)
As bad, the practice often turns epee bouts into a “game of chicken” (Harmenberg’s words) in which epeeists bounce about at close range and attempt to hit their adversary’s torso in a machine “out-stripping” single tempo which requires exceptional speed even correctly timed and opposed. In fact, the “modern” method of teaching epeeists to fence much closer than in the past and to emphasize touches to the body is detrimental to the development of all epeeists, no matter their aspirations. 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 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. 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 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. 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, 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 attacked with a wound to the wrist, and the attacker 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.
The Sentiment of the Sword: A Country-house Dialogue by explorer, adventurer, linguist, scholar, writer, and swordsman Sir Richard Burton, 1911. As with Bazancourt, 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 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 the sword many times in combat, and was known as an extraordinarily fierce fighter. 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 one 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—may work. For example, 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. Neither a prime nor high sixte/septime will defeat the angulation, and a common septime 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 possibly a quinte (really just a low quarte) taken high, with a riposte to the head or possibly the neck or shoulder, is viable.
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 three great epeeists of the 20th century. (The other two were Frenchman Lucien Gaudin of the early 20th century and Hungarian József Sákovics of the mid-century. 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.)
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 preparing would-be duellists for the duel, including those who have never held a weapon before. Disposes with many myths regarding dueling, noting that most duelists weren’t fencers, and that the epee was designed to help keep both combatants alive.
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 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 threat 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: 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.
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.
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. And most especially were the swords pointed, for then the modern attack would be simply suicidal. Or, put more simply, fence epee until foil is fixed—if ever it is.
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.
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 is prior to the modern debasement of right-of-way conventions.
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.
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.
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 one in print in English. Unintelligible conventions plus attacks with the unextending arm held low 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 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 technical repertoire of the Hungarian weapon.
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 several French-based numbering systems, each differing 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 artificial. See also the texts listed in the “Epee de Combat” section.
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. 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. The early 20th century Spanish school, incorporating the best of the French and Italian. (The Neapolitan Italians were the first to do this formally and on any scale, followed by the Spanish and, via the Italians, the Hungarians.) Good description of the two most classical epee styles: “straight arm” and “bent arm.” (See Lidstone’s later edition above for others.)
Among Castello’s students was Joseph Velarde, the fencing master whose stand against racial discrimination in fencing opened US collegiate competition to black fencers. By coincidence I once worked with Velarde’s son, a former US Marine Corps officer, many years ago. A few years before that I had fenced occasionally with the founders of the old MARS Fencing Club at the Marshall Space Flight Center. One of these veritable musketeers, Joe Dabbs, who has since passed away, had trained under Velarde. I have remained friends with all of these old MARS fencers over the years, and most were active fencers until recently. John Jordan, Elias Katsaros, and Donny Philips—the remaining members of the Four Musketeers—continue on.
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 fencing 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 and otherwise, on technique and competition. Nadi, held up as a god by many modern “classical fencers,” 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.
The Science of Fencing by William M. Gaugler, 1997. A thorough modern description of 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. 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.
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 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. 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 usefuly 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.
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.
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 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, 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), and other electronic book sites.
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 publisher’s “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.
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; and 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. 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: book vendors typically used to mark up the price of a book found at anther vendor by one hundred percent—plus shipping.
Many fencing suppliers carry fencing books in stock, although the number of titles may be limited. Some libraries carry fencing books, but the selection is usually slim. Most of the books listed above are dated in regard to modern competitive rules, practices, and uniform and equipment requirements. Always refer to the current USFA rule book and USFA operations manual, or other appropriate national fencing regulations, for competition rules and regulations. Both are available for download at http://www.usfencing.org/.
Copyright 2008-2018 Benerson Little. Last updated July 3, 2018.
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 Dutch and German shells are 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 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 in “absence of blade” and emphasizes tempo actions). 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.
That said, I will add a note to dueling here. 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 using 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 December 20, 2019.
The dashing image in the banner above–in which Peter Blood’s posed-for-the-camera attack has been parried by the equally posed Captain Levasseur, and Blood needs to recover quickly before he finds a blade in his eye or his belly–is taken from an original publicity still for Captain Blood, 1935, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. The film duel between Flynn and Rathbone, of clashing swords on California sand, is without doubt the most iconic of Hollywood sword fights, and although it has often been imitated, the results have almost never been quite as satisfactory. Certainly no other film “duel on the beach” is so evocative.
Therefore, in view of the foregoing, not to mention my long admiration for both the novel by Rafael Sabatini and its film version directed by Michael Curtiz, and as much for fun and nostalgia as for education, I’ll spend my first dozen or more blog posts working my way through authentic, literary, and film swordplay among pirates, with occasional associated digressions.
However, before we draw swords and explore the myth and reality of fencing with “sharps” among pirates and others, we’ll consider what the seafaring thieves of the 1680s Caribbean actually looked like, and how they were armed. Was this anything like Sabatini or Curtiz represented them? Was it anything like illustrators and Hollywood artists—Howard Pyle and Douglas Fairbanks, for example, whose works have come to define the image of the buccaneer—dressed them up and showed them off?
To begin, we require a few definitions. With a few exceptions, most of the Caribbean sea rovers from 1655, when England piratically seized Jamaica from Spain, to 1688, when Europe went to all out open war, existed in a gray area between legitimate privateering and outright piracy. At times these sea rovers had legitimate commissions, at times a mere “wink and a nod” from local authority, and at times no commissions at all, or forged ones, or falsely extended ones. In all cases these rovers eschewed the term pirate for two reasons: first, piracy was a hanging offense, and second, they considered themselves as something better than common pirates. After all, they not only attacked well-armed Spanish ships at sea, but they also, in military order, sacked Spanish towns.
Their preferred terms were, among the English-associated rovers, privateer and buccaneer. The former proclaimed their legitimacy, the latter their unique place. The term buccaneer derives from boucanier, the term for the French cattle and swine hunter of Hispaniola, which derives from boucan, a Tupi word meaning grill or grate for cooking and smoking meat and fish. (Similarly, barbecue derives from the Spanish barbacoa, which derives from the Taino word for the grill or grate.) The French-associated rovers, on the other hand, used the term flibustier, which, as far as we can tell, originated with the Dutch vryjbuiter, which was anglicized via a pretty much direct translation as freebooter, which the French adopted as fribustier and flibustier, which was later anglicized as filibuster. Occasionally the French used the term aventurier, or adventurer, which accurately reflected the men drawn from all walks of life to the trade.
From a number of eyewitness written descriptions we have a pretty good idea what these buccaneers and filibusters looked like, or at least enough of an idea to make some reasonable conjectures. Unfortunately, lacking archaeological evidence, we are likely to make some mistakes.We cannot even rely on period illustrations in first-hand accounts about buccaneers, for it is almost certain that the illustrators never saw their subjects. The only exception may be the illustrations of Henry Morgan, who is likely, given his fame, to have sat for a portrait in London while there after sacking Panama.
Worse, fiction, popular illustration, and film have corrupted our idea of what these gentlemen of semi-legitimate fortune may have looked like, as in the case of Howard Pyle’s romantic image above. Therefore, rather than provide several written descriptions first and speculate from them, we’ll cut to the chase and see with our own eyes exactly what Captain Peter Blood’s buccaneers and filibusters really would have looked like.
It turns out that in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) and the French Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (ANOM), are a couple dozen charts of French Caribbean ports, primarily those of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola, made during the 1680s by French engineers. In other words, these are charts rendered by eyewitnesses. And in the cartouches of a fair number are detailed eyewitness drawings of filibusters and boucaniers, as well as of the occasional common worker, probably an engagé (indentured servant), and the occasional slave.
I discovered these by accident a few years ago. I wasn’t the first to do so, but I was, as far as I know, the first to analyze some of them in detail and publish the results (Mariner’s Mirror, August 2012). Their significance had been almost entirely overlooked. For me, the discovery made me feel as if I had briefly traveled back in time—and left me disappointed I could not remain at least for a while.
And here’s why! In this first image, we see a pair of buccaneers or flibustiers at Petit Goave on Saint-Domingue, the western half of Hispaniola claimed by the French. By the 1680s Petit Goave had replaced Tortuga as the sea roving port on Saint-Domingue, and was populated by a large number of flibustiers of several nationalities, colors, and ethnicities.
The buccaneer on the left is armed with long-barreled fusil boucanier, or “buccaneer gun” in English, the common weapon of the Caribbean sea rover. He wears a large cartouche box at his left front, and a cutlass at the side behind it. We can assume from his scabbard that his cutlass is, like his companion’s, made with a clip point, a common style during the era. His hat is small-brimmed, turned up on the left side, and appears to have a small plume. He wears a stylish cravat. His coat is fairly long, and short-sleeved with large cuffs. He may be wearing a sash over it. His stockings are conventional and worn over the knee as was the practice at the time, and his shoes are conventional with short tongues.
His swashbuckling companion is armed with a cutlass whose hilt, given its style, is probably of brass. He likewise wears a large cartouche box at the left front. His hat is broad-brimmed with a large plume, and is turned up at the front. He appears to wear a cravat. His jacket is shorter, with two rows of buttons, short sleeves with cuffs (or rolled up sleeves), and he has a sash tied around his waist, almost certainly with a belt over it to hold cartouche box and cutlass. He wears seaman’s breeches, possibly un-gathered, with stockings that appear to be worn over the knee. His shoes are conventional. It’s impossible to know if they are buckled or tied.
Next we have a couple of flibustiers or buccaneers drawn at Île-à-Vache, a common rendezvous off the southwest coast of Hispaniola. Our buccaneer on the right is armed with a fusil boucanier, as most were. The musket is correctly depicted at half-cock, and the deep notch at the neck is the sort later known as “female.” His large cartouche box is worn at the left front over a sash and certainly on a belt. His jacket is short, with large cuffs. His wide, probably open breeches are those of a seaman. His shoes common, his hat broad-brimmed and with a plume. He may have a mustache, and, notably, his hair is shoulder-length and loose. Many seamen–and buccaneers were a combination seaman and soldier–wore their hair tied back or in a queue so that it would not get in their faces or get drawn into a block. But at least among the buccaneers and flibustiers, this rule did not always apply.
At the left is another buccaneer and his fusil boucanier, again correctly at half-cock, along with his typical large cartouche box–commonly holding thirty-six cartridges–at the left front. He has a cutlass, although all that’s visible is the scabbard on his right side, making him left-handed. Again, the cutlass is clip-pointed. His hat is turned up at the right side, with a plume on the left, although it’s possible the hat is actually a boucanier’s cropped hat (see next blog post). Like the previous buccaneer, his jacket is short, but with smaller cuffs. His shirt has a bit of lace at the cuffs, and he wears a cravat. His stockings are secured at the knee, and his shoes common, apparently with short tongues.
In the image below, made by “Partenay” aboard the small French man-of-war Le Marin in 1688, we can compare illustrators for accuracy. It depicts two aventuriers, the one on the left possibly a boucanier, given the wild pig at his feet, although he may in fact be a flibustier (boucaniers often accompanied flibustiers, and some men went back and forth between the trades), and the one on the right probably a flibustier. Both men wear fairly broad-brimmed hats turned up at the front, and both wear what are probably wide seaman’s breeches, but similar garments–caleçons of linen or canvas, often open at the knee–were common to boucaniers, indentured servants, and others. Both men have loose shoulder length hair. The hunter or flibustier on the left wears a common shirt, large and loose, and appears to have a cravat or kerchief at the neck and tucked into the shirt. The fusil boucanier is of the “club butt” style which, at least in the eighteenth century, came to be the most common. Note the short clay pipe smoked by the flibustier on the right.
In the image below, again by Cornuau, we see a flibustier with two captured Spaniards in chains. He is armed with cutlass with a small shell or shells, and a strongly curved blade with a clip-point. His scabbard hangs from a sword belt common to the period, that is, with two straps, with loops at the end, hanging from the belt. His large, obviously thirty round, cartouche box is on his right side, perhaps an illustrator error, perhaps personal preference. He wears a short, perhaps crude jacket, probably of osnabrig canvas or sackcloth. He also wears wide seaman’s breeches, as many of his associated do. His head covering is a boucanier cropped hat, and his footwear is a pair of crude boucanier shoes made of raw pigskin cut from pig hocks. This footwear seems common among flibustiers, and may be what Father Avila meant when referring to pigskin shoes among the flibustiers. (See also The Authentic Image of the Boucanier for more details on these shoes.)
These buccaneers or filibusters are probably dressed as they commonly were, particularly ashore in their own ports. The arms they bear in the images above are also largely what they would use during attacks at sea, even during boarding actions against ships whose crews had retreated to closed quarters: even here the musket had its uses. It was less useful, of course, in hand-to-hand action on open decks. Common arms used during attacks on ships were the musket to suppress enemy fire and pick him off, as well as to engage enemy loopholes in closed quarters; the cutlass and pistol for close combat; the boarding ax, often along with a hand-crow, for chopping into decks and bulkheads in order to breach closed quarters (and it from this purpose that the boarding ax gets its name); the cartridge box for reloading musket and pistol; and the grenade, fire-pot, or stink-pot for destroying men in the open on deck, and particularly for tossing into breaches made in closed quarters, in order to flush the enemy out or otherwise force him to surrender.
What we do not yet see are these sea rovers fully dressed and armed for an attack on a Spanish town–but Caruana, the creator of most of the charts that interest us, does not disappoint. He provides us with an iconic image of a buccaneer or flibustier fully equipped for an attack ashore! Beginning with his clothing, he wears a broad-brimmed hat. His hair is either short, or more likely, tied at the back. His jacket is moderately long, his belt narrow (as are all those in these images, not the wide Hollywood belts for these flibustiers), his breeches conventional, not of the sort commonly worn by seamen. He may or may not be wearing stockings: if his shoes are those worn by boucaniers (see next blog post), then he wears no stockings.
But it is his armament we are most interested in. He has a fusil boucanier over his shoulder, again at half cock. In his left hand is a paper cartridge which would hold both ball and powder, and sometimes seven or eight swan shot on top of a single ball, and power. The cartridge had been early adopted by boucaniers and flibustiers, and they learned early the lesson that conventional armies would learn after them: that the flintlock with cartridge was the most efficient weapon for campaigning, and, eventually, for conventional warfare.
At his waist is a cutlass, this one with an obvious brass hilt given its shape, and without a clip point as can be discerned by the shape of the scabbard and its chape. He has a cartouche box on his belt, again on the left front, and on his right front is a single pistol. Notably, its lock is against his body (this would help protect the lock), with the butt to his left for an easy draw. I’ve tested this way of carrying a pistol: it works well with small to medium pistols, although large pistols (12″ and longer barrels) are easier to carry putting the belt-hook on the inside, with the pistol hanging on the outside, although the pistol is less secure this way. With two pistols, one would be carried on the left side, the other left-front, assuming a right-handed shooter.
This setup is well-balanced: cutlass and cartouche box on one side, pistol (often a pair) on the other. At Veracruz flibustiers were noted as carrying two cartouche boxes: the second was probably worn at the back, and carried additional cartridges, most of which were almost certainly for use with the musket, the buccaneer’s primary weapon according to buccaneer and surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin. In our flibustier’s right front pocket is a small powder horn, almost certainly for re-priming the pan as necessary. Buccaneers primed from the cartridge as they loaded, but would require a horn to re-prime if, for example, the powder in the pan got damp.
Two more details deserve attention. First, above his belt is a thin cloth that serves as a mosquito netting. Such netting is described in at least three eyewitness sources. It was usually worn around the waist or over the shoulder like a bandoleer. Second, around his neck is a detail almost never seen: a musket tool used variously, depending on the tool, for clearing the vent, chipping a dull flint to get another shot or two before it must be changed out, tightening the cock, as well as other tasks associated with cleaning and maintaining a musket.
There exist substantial written evidence to support these images. Father Jean-Baptiste Labat has described the flamboyant dress of flibustiers, especially after pillaging a ship’s cargo (a scene that may well have inspired a similar scene in Frenchman’s Creek, 1944). The arms of the flibustiers–fusil boucanier, cartouche box, one or two pistols, a cutlass–are described several times by eyewitnesses. What we have not had is this eyewitness corroboration in the form of images.
We also have an eyewitness account by one of the victims of a buccaneer attack, in this case the brutal rape and pillaging of Veracruz in 1683, of which I will speak more of in a later blog. The account adds details we have hitherto lacked. According to Fray Juan de Avila, the flibustiers wore “sailcloth jackets, shoes of cowhide but more wore those of pigskin [possibly cheaper shoes, or even those the boucaniers commonly wore, or both], and others wore jackets of blue sackcloth [possibly dyed with indigo from Saint-Domingue]” and were armed with “a cutlass, a large (or long) flintlock musket [clearly a buccaneer gun], two pistols, and hanging from a waist belt two cartridge boxes with paper cartridges inside…”
In sum, these buccaneers or flibustiers are much as we imagined them: picturesque and picaresque, a combination of Hollywood and reality long before Hollywood ever existed. But note what we do not see: no peg legs (extremely rare in reality, for they make buccaneering difficult), no eye patches except due to injury (absolute myth created by literature and illustration and unfortunately further spread by Mythbusters, &c.), few obvious tattoos (some men and women, not just seamen, had a few but not to the degree we like to believe), no insignia of skull and bones (although some may have worn mortuary rings with such symbolism, as did people from all walks of life), no earrings (although foppish pirates may have worn them on occasion, and Dutch seamen, along with many Dutch in general, did wear them), and no parrots–although some pirates did in fact keep parrots, although more often than not probably as plunder. Also, please note that none wear boots. Fishermen wore boots at times, seamen in arctic waters did too, but otherwise, seamen, including sea rovers, did not. Worse, the boots we see pirates in film, television, and illustration wear are riding boots–and one doesn’t ride horses aboard ship.
I will get to discussing swordplay soon enough, but the next blog post will describe in similar detail the dress and arms of the boucanier, of the cow and pig hunters who often accompanied flibustiers on their attacks at sea and ashore.
Avila, Juan de. “Pillage de la ville de Veracruz par les pirates le 18 mai 1683 (Expedition de Lorencillo).” Amoxcalli manuscript no. 266, http://amoxcalli.org.mx/paleografia.php?id=266.
Captain Blood. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1935.
Cornuau, Paul. “Carte particulière de la rivière de la Plata.” Probably 1684. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan des passes et du bourg du levé et dessigné par ordre de Mr. De Cussy, Gouverneur pour le Roy de l’isle de la Tortue et coste St. Domingue.” 1685. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan du Cap et de son entrée,” 1684. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan Ignographique du Fon et de l’Isle à Vache,” 1686. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan ignographique du Fon et de l’Isle à Vache,” 1686 (second chart bearing this title). Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
——. “Plan du Petit Goave et de l’Acul, avec le Figuré du Fort du Petit Goave tel qu’il a été Reformé, avec Deux Autres Plans de ce Même Fort.” Circa 1688. Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer.
Exquemelin, A. O. [Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin]. De Americaensche zee-roovers. Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn, 1678.
——. Bucaniers of America. London: William Crooke, 1684.
—— [Alexander Olivier O’Exquemelin]. Histoire des avanturiers qui se sont signalez dans les Indes. 2 vols. Paris: Jacques Le Febure,1688.
——. Historie der Boecaniers, of Vrybuyters van America. Amsterdam: Nicolaas ten Hoorn, 1700.
——. The History of the Bucaniers. London: T. Malthus, 1684.
——. Piratas de la America, y luz à la defensa de las costas de Indias Occidentales. Translated from the Dutch by Alonso de Buena-Maison. Cologne: Lorenza Struickman, 1681.
Labat, Jean Baptiste. Nouveau Voyage aux Isles d’Amerique. 6 vols. Paris: Guillaume Cavelier, 1722.
Little, Benerson. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674–1688. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007.
——. “Eyewitness Images of Buccaneers and Their Vessels.” The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 98, no. 3 (2012), 312–326.
——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing ,2016.
——. “El Mito Pirata.” Desperta Ferro, no. 17 (August 2015), 52-55.
——. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques 1630–1730. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.
——. “Las Tácticas de los Piratas del Caribe.” Desperta Ferro, no. 17 (August 2015), 27-32.
Partenay. “Ainsy se fait voir le Petit Gouave au Sud-est et nord oist éloignée . . . ,” 1688. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Pyle, Howard. The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow. In “The Fate of a Treasure-Town” by Howard Pyle. Harper’s Monthly Magazine (December 1905).
Sabatini, Rafael. Captain Blood, His Odyssey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.