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The Art of Fencing with the Sabre
By ALFRED HUTTON
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE art of the Broadsword or Sabre has developed and improved rapidly in foreign schools during the present century, whereas in England progress has been but slight, even if we can be said to have progressed at all, as any one must allow who has perused the works of such masters of the eighteenth century, as Hope, M'Bane, James Miller, Lonnergan, and Roworth, the latter of whom, together with Mr. Angelo, seems to owe his knowledge of this weapon to John Taylor, a well-known broadsword master, who taught the Light Horse Volunteers of London and Westminster in 1798.
Quite lately, indeed, our movement has been distinctly retrograde, the efforts of our military swordsmen being so entirely confined to the simplification of their method of instruction as to preclude the introduction of anything in the shape of variety of play; and it is in the hope of arresting this retrogression that I venture to offer the following pages to the fencing public.
I base my system partly on the instruction I received in early life in the school of Messrs. Angelo, and partly on certain very lucid Italian works of the present day, combined with matter extracted from the writings of the English masters of the last century—a period in which the "backsword" was held in much esteem as a typical English weapon, its art was highly cultivated, and it was moreover largely employed in the stage prize-fights.
The arm I recommend for school-practice is a light sabre similar to those used on the Continent, which, from its slight weight, is capable of more varied treatment than the cumbersome weapons in vogue in our English schools.
As regards the helmet, the wirework of the face should be close, like that of a fencing mask, and at the same time very strong, in order to prevent any accidental penetration by the narrow sword-blade.
THE PARTS OF THE SABRE.
The sabre consists of two principal parts—the blade and the hilt.
The blade is divided into three parts:—the tang, the narrow piece of soft metal which fits into the hilt; the forte, the half of the blade nearest to the hilt, with which all cuts and points are parried; and the foible, the half nearest the point, with which all attacks are made.
We must further observe the edge, the back, and the "false" edge—that sharp part of the back which extends from the point to the place where the grooving usually begins, a distance of about eight inches—the use of which nowadays is so little understood in England even by the masters themselves, but which the Italian fencers understand so well and use so deftly.
At the period of the Renaissance, when fencing in European countries may be said to have taken its rise, the entire back of the rapier, the weapon then in vogue, was termed "falso," and was used for both parrying and cutting equally with the true edge.
The hilt consists of the shell, which protects the hand; the grip, which the hand grasps; and the pummel, the lump of steel at the extreme end, which is of sufficient size and weight to balance the sword.
HOW TO HOLD THE SABRE.
The fingers must be lightly but firmly closed round the grip, with the thumb extended along the back of it, the centre knuckles being in the same line as the edge; the thumb may, however, sometimes be shifted in order to relieve the hand, and placed round the grip, similarly to the fingers.
The guard is that position of body and sword which is the most safe for defence, and the most ready for attack; and care must be taken not to confuse the term, as has often been done, with that of the "parade" or "parry," which is a distinctly defensive movement for the purpose of stopping a cut or thrust.
* * *
Fencing masters, I think, all agree that it is highly advantageous to the beginner to study the use of the foil, before proceeding to cultivate that of the sabre, and such has most certainly been my own personal experience.
Lonnergan, one of the most reliable and complete writers of the "backsword" period, remarks in his work of 1771, 'The Fencer's Guide,' "The man well instructed first in the small sword will be so habituated to a nicety of disengaging, that he must conserve it in some measure for ever after; and thus, by this first impression, will be yet more nice in catching at the many openings proceeding from the wide disengagements of the backsword play than even his master, if ignorant of the small. If the back is first learned, the wrist will be in danger of being incapable of due command in the exercise of the small sword for ever after." I shall therefore infer that the pupil is so far proficient in the lessons of the foil, as to understand the correct positions of the guard and the lunge, as also the parries used in foil fencing, all of which I use more or less in my present system. These parries it may be as well to recapitulate; they are: quarte, tierce, septime, seconde, prime, sixte, and octave; the two latter parries enter but little into sabre practice.
IST POSITION—I. E. BEFORE COMING ON GUARD.
The sabre is to be gripped as before directed. The body and legs to be as in the similar position in foil practice.
The left hand to be closed, and to rest on the left hip; the sword arm lowered, edge to the right, the point to the front and directed diagonally towards the ground, and the nails down, that is, in the position called "pronation."
The old masters taught four engaging guards as a general rule, though one or two others are also mentioned in their works, viz. Inside, Outside, Medium, and the Hanging Guard. The feet, when on guard, must be in a similar position to that of "guard" in Foil fencing.
The Inside Guard is in the form of Quarte.
The Outside Guard is in the form of Tierce.
The Medium is neither Quarte nor Tierce, but, as its name suggests, is immediately between the two, the edge being inclined downwards, and the point opposite to the opponent's face.
The Hanging Guard is to a certain extent a "Prime." It is formed by dropping the point to a level with the opponent's right hip, raising the hand as high as the head, the edge to be uppermost—and looking at the opponent under the shell of the sword. This guard is useful mainly as a shelter to retreat under in recovering after having made an attack; and it should be always so used, whether the attack has been successful or not; as there are some swordsmen who, either from nervousness or from evil disposition, invariably strike again instead of acknowledging after they have received a palpable and fair hit.
Of these the Tierce, and especially the Medium, which is nothing more than the "Guardia Mista" of Alfieri (1640), are the best for the combined purposes of defence and attack, because in these positions the arm is least likely to become fatigued, and it is on this Medium Guard that I shall, following the advice of practical old Alfieri, base all my ensuing lessons.
The High Seconde, or, as some call it, the "low hanging guard," is very much in vogue at present, especially in the military gymnasia. It is not a recent invention, as I find it in the Fechtkunst' of Johann Andrea Schmidt (1713), also in Girard's work (1736), and Angelo (1763). These authors show the small sword working successfully against it, and as the works of these writers were dedicated to that weapon principally, they naturally showed the unfortunate "espadonneur" in the worst position they could place him in; it was evidently not used by the backswordmen. It has the same disadvantage as the "Hanging Guard" in causing unnecessary fatigue to the arm, which is raised about as high as the shoulder, thereby keeping the deltoid muscle, which is by no means a strong one, in a state of constant tension.
There is yet another Guard, in the form of Sixte. The point being carried a little above the horizontal line, and sometimes a little depressed below it, the sword is carried well to the right, so as to cover the outside; and from it cuts outside the leg, at the right side or right cheek, may be parried with the back of the sword in Sixte orOctave. I find this guard very useful against the High Seconde, as it is a position to which the high seconde player is quite unused. It is recommended by Lonnergan, and also by Captain Godfrey in his interesting work, which appeared in 1747, in which he describes it as having been much used by a celebrated old "gladiator" of the early part of that century, named Perkins, who, as he states, although an old man, and stiff from age, was wont to puzzle with it even so great a man as Figg, "the Atlas of the sword," himself.
THE RESTING MEDIUM.
Lower the sword hand until the pummel rests on the thigh about six or eight inches above the knee.
This position is useful during a long encounter, when the opponent is out of reach—the arm being in repose will be the more ready for vigorous action when required.
THE " MOULINET."
A VERY old exercise is this, for the purpose of gaining strength and flexibility in the wrist, the point whence all the cuts should in the main proceed; it has been recommended, in forms more or less complete, by most good masters, from the days of Giacomo di Grassi, A.D. 1570.
It consists of six cuts, the first, a diagonal cut downward from right to left; the second, diagonal downward from left to right; the third, diagonal upward from right to left; the fourth, diagonal upward from left to right; the fifth, horizontal from right to left; and the sixth, horizontal from left to right.
To assist the beginner, a target, either oval or circular, and about 14 inches in diameter, should be fixed on the wall, about as high as a man's shoulder, having drawn on it two diagonal lines, and one horizontal line passing through its centre; these lines indicate the course which the six cuts are to take. The pattern which I think the most preferable is that given by Roworth.
The swordsman should stand on guard (medium) a few feet from the target.
1. Motion—Extend the sword arm completely, the hand to be in quarte, and the point a little raised, the hilt of the sword being about the height of the chin, and the edge directed obliquely downwards to the left.
2. Motion—Drop the point diagonally downwards from right to left, taking care that the edge leads during the passage of the blade along the line on the target; then allow the wrist to revolve so as to bring the thumb downwards, and the back of the hand and the flat of the blade opposite your left side, and cause the sword to describe a complete circle, thereby bringing it again to the position described in the first motion.
This moulinet, as likewise all the others, must be performed at first quite slowly in order to ensure precision of movement; and afterwards the speed must be increased, and the circle repeated continuously ten or twelve times.
Excerpted from COLD STEEL by ALFRED HUTTON. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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