The Roman Legions were arguably the most formidable and successful military force of the ancient world. In this article, we’ll examine the legionnaire’s weapons and training from the Late Empire period and see how they reflect on the legion’s legendary reputation.

Much of this article is drawn from the late 4th century “Epitoma Rei Militaris” of Vegetius, although a few qualifying remarks must be made.

First, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus was not known as an historian. Nor was he ever a soldier. In fact, apart from Dei Rei Militaris, his only other surviving work is a treatise on veterinary medicine, “Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae.” However, his book on the training, tactics and organization of the Roman army is one of the only such treatises to survive and is by far the most comprehensive. Furthermore, archeological evidence and surviving descriptions of battles lend his work credibility.

First, some brief comment on the Legion of the day. A legion was a military formation containing roughly 5500 men divided into 10 cohorts, the first containing about 800 men, with the rest numbering 500, plus a small 120 person cavalry company used as dispatch riders and scouts. By 68 AD there were a total of 68 legions ranging from Lincoln, England to Alexandria, Egypt. A legion was commanded by a Legatus and a host of other officers such as the Praefectus Castrorum, Tribunus Laticlavius and Augusticlavii, Primus Pilus, Aquilifer, Centurions, etc, whose rank and function could and has filled books but not this article.

First, the armour. During this period, chain mail had been abandoned in favour of articulated plate known as Lorica Segmentata. This consisted of around 32 individual pieces fitting over and under one another and held together by strap and buckle but mainly metal hook and eye. Most of our knowledge of this style comes from two complete suits excavated in Corbridge, England on Hadrian’s Wall in 1964. These suits are also plainly depicted on Trajan’s Column. The helmet evolved from a simple “jockey’s cap” to a style known as the Monteforino which featured a small brim to prevent slide-downs into the face, an extended protection for the back of the neck eventually terminating in a fan-like plate and full cheek-pieces to which were attached the chin strap.

There was also a curtain-like series of leather straps, 4 to 8 in number, studded with small metal plates, which hung from the centre of a belt to depend to just below the groin. Since these didn’t protect the thighs and could easily admit a thrust, some scholars believe this accoutrement to have been solely decorative. For my own part, I see almost no protective value inherent in it.

The shield or “scutum” was originally oval shaped but during the late Empire had evolved to become rectangular with a slightly more pronounced curve.  Only one has ever been found – a 3rd century example from the Dura Europos dig in Syria. Its construction appears to have been three layers of thin wood, each about 2 millimeters thick, glued together with grains opposing as in plywood. The back was strengthened with a wooden frame and the whole encased in leather. The edges were further reinforced with rawhide strips or, on occasion, bronze and the front covered with linen which was painted. A central hole covered with a metal boss provided protection for a central grip. The scutum was held with the knuckles facing down.

Now, the weapons: The Gladius’ name is thought to be derived from the Celtic “Kladimos” which simply means “sword.” It evolved through four forms. The first was the Gladius Hispaniensis or Hispanicus whose design is believed to have originated in the La Tene and Hallstatt cultures of 8 – 6 BC. This model had the longest blade which was leaf-shaped, and was also the heaviest.

Next, we have the Mainz whose blade featured a tapered waist, followed by the Fulham which had a narrower blade than its predecessor and introduced a distinctly triangular tip, and finally the Pomeianus. Personally, I can see no substantive design difference in this last model to its predecessor so I am going to make the unsubstantiated assumption that someone renamed it to suck up to the emperor.

The gladius varied in both weight and length. Weights ranged from 1.5 to 2.2 pounds, the overall length ranging from 24 to 33 inches with a blade length of between 1.48 to 2.23 feet and averaging 2 to 2.8 inches in width.

Since the gladius was worn on a cross-strap on your right hip, it was drawn by grasping it with your thumb facing down, applying downward pressure to keep the scabbard stationary and pulling downwards and forward.

As for its use, let’s refer to Vegetius:

“They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword.”

Does this imply that the gladius was never used to cut? Not at all. Vegetius documents the fact that cutting with the sword was integral to a legionnaire’s training. And slashing is vividly described in Livy’s account of the Macedonian Wars. (collectively, 4 wars from 214 to 148 BC)

So knowing this, let’s extrapolate technique based on the physical realities we know and can reproduce. The Romans fought in a shield wall where your shield overlapped the shield of the man on your right and, of course, your shield was overlapped by the man on your left. You would be carrying the scutum closely so that it could easily be braced by your upper arm and shoulder. From this position it would be fairly easy to execute quick, powerful thrusts over the top of the shield. Speed would be necessary if only for self-protection since the legionnaire wore no arm armour and the forearm contains two rather important arteries.

To cut to your opponent’s head or neck from this position would require you to reach over your shield, cutting in pronation to your foe’s right side or flipping the hand into supination to cut to his left, probably not allowing your pommel to travel substantially past the left side of your face. Needless to say, your opponent would have had to be virtually shield to shield with you in order not to significantly expose your arm. It would also not do to make broad moves to execute a cut since you could quite possibly hit your right or left shield-mates. This would imply that these cuts were delivered predominately from the elbow and wrist.

These cuts and thrusts could be delivered without moving your shield. However, to thrust to the center of the body (presuming the enemy was shield-less) would require that you rotate your shield forward and outward slightly, making a quick thrust and returning your shield to overlapping contact with the man on your right – similarly if you were to make a cut at your opponent’s forward leg if he’d allowed it to drift ahead of the lower edge of his shield.

There was another design of sword, the Spatha.  This was most likely introduced by foreign troopers and in the 1st century slowly began to replace the gladius where its superior reach was favoured, especially amongst the front ranks. It was also used by cavalry since, not surprisingly, a longer blade was necessary to reach a foot soldier, even bearing in mind that the horses were not as tall as our modern breeds.

The legionnaire also often carried a dagger known as the Pugio which was shaped essentially like a gladius, and was from 9.5 to 11 inches in length. However, by the 1st century, it appears to have fallen out of favour. Not one is to be found on Trajan’s Column.

Now for the spear or Pilum. We have several surviving examples of pila, the best from the Oberraden dig in northern Germany which actually included part of the wooden shaft. It was between 6 to 7 feet in overall length with a soft iron shaft of around 24 inches, terminating in a triangular point. These latter features had several advantages. First, its point made it capable of penetrating a shield. Secondly, the long iron shaft made it impossible to cut the weapon free of your shield since the possibility of the spear getting stuck in your shield was very high. Soft iron was used purposely so that the shaft would bend on impact, thus rendering it useless to retrieve and throw back. An enemy soldier’s movement would definitely be impeded by having to drag a 7-foot spear around on your shield, especially since stepping on the pilum’s end would pull your shield down, exposing your head and upper torso. Very inconvenient indeed.

The pilum had become lighter over the centuries and in the 1st century, a heavier version was introduced which possessed a substantial lead ball weight at the base of the shank where it joined the wooden shaft. Unfortunately we only infer this design from images such as is found on the Cancelleria relief.

Certain legionnaires also carried missile weapons. Again, let’s hear Vegetius’ description:

“The exercise of the loaded javelins, called martiobarbul, must not be omitted. We formerly had two legions legions in Illyricum consisting of six thousand men each, which from their extraordinary dexterity and skill in the use of these weapons were distinguished by the same appellation. … Every soldier carries five of these javelins in the hollow of his shield. And thus the legionary soldiers seem to supply the p[lace of archers, for they wound both the men and horses of the enemy before they come within reach of the common missile weapons.”

These weapons were referred to as Plumbata and resembled nothing so much as lawn darts for those with anger-management issues.

Now here’s something most people probably don’t know. The legionnaire was also trained with the sling.

“Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling… Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armour, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without the loss of blood. … There is a greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any encumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.”

The legionnaire was also trained to swim and to march in perfect rank using two different lengths of step: the “common” military step which allowed the legion to march up to 24 miles in 5 hours, and the “full” military step which added a mile to the former in the same period. Incidentally, our word for “mile” comes from the Latin “miles” (mee-lays) which means one thousand – a mile being a thousand paces of the legionnaire.

The legionnaire was also drilled in the “evolutions” – marching in single file, then creating a double rank, then a rank four deep, and also to form a triangular wedge and the testudo. This latter formation, meaning “tortoise,” was a square of soldiers with shields interlocked on all four sides and those behind the front ranks presenting their shields overlapping above their heads, thus creating a five-sided box. It was recorded that small testudo formations (presumably with the men kneeling) were actually capable of being run over by a chariot.

All this marching was to a purpose. Roman battle formations absolutely depended on each man keeping precise rank with his fellows on either side, front and back. There were also drills to allow a person to leave the front rank and be replaced by the man behind in a manner that didn’t create a temporary gap in the shield wall. It was common practice (circumstances permitting) that a soldier have 20 minutes in the rear rank for every 15 minutes in the front rank. Thus, the enemy constantly faced fresh opponents.

Soldiers also performed route marches with 60 pound packs and learned to vault onto a horse from either side in full battle gear.

And when not fighting or maintaining the Pax Romana, they built roads – almost 250,000 miles’ worth throughout the empire, some of which are still useable today.

And so ends a short insight into the smallest but most indispensable link in the military machine that created and sustained one of the greatest empires in civilization.



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The German Dueling Societies


Two men stand opposite each other, both wearing metal glasses, thick swaths of padding around their neck, encasing their right arm and a thick leather apron worn over their shoulders and torso, depending over the thighs. A command is barked.

“Hoch, bitte!” The two basket-hilted swords snap up, crossed at about mid-blade.

“Legen-sie aus?” (a rhetorical question at best…)

“LOS!” And the flogging begins.

This is the beginning of a highly formalized surrogate duel. It is not “about” anything – no insults or slights, at least none serious – have promulgated it, nor is it a competition as such since scores are not kept and there will be no declared winner or loser. It is – because it still goes on today – part of an old German university tradition and arguably one of the most arcane sociological phenomenon still practiced in this enlightened age – the Mensur.

“Mensur,” derived from the Latin “mensura,” to measure, is a form of swordsmanship unique and restricted to German and some other European universities. It is often referred to as Academic Fencing (Akademische Fechten) and its adherents are members of student corporations. (Studentenverbindungen) It was, in its heyday, practiced in the Germanies, Austria, Switzerland and a few other nations such as Poland, and, as I alluded, is undergoing resurgence. It is often said to be illegal although, strictly speaking, since it involves mutually consensual participation, and mensur clubs make no attempt to conceal their existence, this is not really the case. Let’s describe it as being an officially tolerated activity.

The origins of the mensur, which is usually exclusively associated with Germany, especially during the Wilhelmine period, actually had its origins in French and Italian universities during the late Middle Ages where fencing was part of the overall curriculum. German students brought it back with them where it was enthusiastically taken up in various universities. “Duels” were fought publicly and the weapon of choice was the rapier (stossdegen) which, due to its nature, had the capacity to inflict deadly wounds, most commonly in this case, the punctured lung.

After the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) Fredrich the Great banned the carrying of rapiers by university students which put an end to street dueling but not the institution. Duels were now held with seconds and conducted under specific rules. These included the number of rounds to be fought, the distance between opponents, the extent of allowable movement (sometimes demarked by a drawn circle which was considered shameful to step out of) and also the use of protective clothing. The latter included some form of fabric binding that protected the lower abdomen and groin, also silk bindings around the neck for the protection of arteries and a wired cap to protect the eyes.

Eventually, rapier dueling fatalities prompted the banning of the stossdegen, and by the late 1840s it was supplanted by the Schlager. This was a straight-edged sword whose point has been cut off flat, and nowadays is sharpened about 8 inches on the true edge and 5 inches on the false edge. There were generally two forms of the mensurschlager – the basket-hilted Korb Schlager and the Glockenschlager which featured a bell-like guard.

A word about the societies themselves before we proceed: The Mensur was, by the late 1800’s, known as the Bestimmungsmensur. (mensur by agreement) There evolved (if that’s the right word) three principle dueling societies: the Landsmannschaften, (with roots among the proletarian class) the Burschenschaften (which was considered the more “liberal of the three and consisted largely of the middle class) and the elite Corpsstudenten. (derived largely from the upper professional classes and the nobility) Within these associations were “corporations,” which were university-sponsored.

Jews were not officially banned but “discouraged” from membership so they formed their own societies which, by World War I, had established a rather formidable reputation. Duels between members of Jewish and Christian society members were not uncommon. Indeed, one of the reasons Hitler formally disbanded the Mensur was that the mainstream societies by and large refused to cease collaboration with the Jewish societies, I suppose, in no small part owing to the fact that if you dueled with a man, your participation inferred your recognition of your opponent as a man possessing of honour and, (at least in this regard) your social equal.

Duels, at this point, were no longer the result of facetious insults, but arranged by leaving one’s calling card with a rival corporation or by pub evenings (since excessive drinking which has always been a feature of university life found no exception with the mensuren) where members of the various societies acquired opponents.

So how was the fashionable Paukanten attired for consensual flogging? By the late 1800’s a padded leather vest that reached the knee protected the front, shoulders and flanks, the neck was protected by a gorget, the sword arm either wrapped thickly in silk or encased in a padded sleeve with a leather gauntlet with the wrist often protected by a ring of chain mail and iron-framed spectacles with wire mesh to protect the eyes and nose. For the adherents’ first year, a padded cap was worn and a face mask was used for practice sessions. Years before, an iron cap protected the top of the head, but was later discarded to ensure the landing of cuts.

Ironically, while the early rapier play had an element of finesse, mensur “play” became increasingly cruder in its application as more rules and traditions were applied to it.

First, in the early period of Schlager fencing, the rear foot was posted and lunging was allowed. But eventually, duelists stood rooted to the spot, feet firmly planted, chests facing their opponent flat-on. The sole target was the head and the only part of the body allowed to move was the sword-arm. To exhibit the slightest degree of body movement was considered shameful and brought the duel to an immediate end. Indeed, the “seconds’” primary job was to watch for such movement.

There were several ways of determining the distance between duelists but one of the most common was to assume your “stand-and-deliver” stance and extend your sword and sword arm diagonally from right to left and lay your foible across your opponent’s right shoulder. On the command, the swords were raised up so the blades crossed at roughly mid-point of the blade with the hilt in line with your right shoulder and the blade angled so that the point (or non-existent point) was directed roughly at your opponent’s right hip. Alternately, the swords might be crossed in the upper forte or even almost hilt-to-hilt, with the point angled over your opponent’s right shoulder. The arm was straight at the elbow and the sword arm held so close to the head that the right bicep should actually be in contact with your right ear. This position – or contortion, if you prefer – was known as Verhangte Auslagung, the hanging guard. This was the ideal position for practicing the fencing art of Gedektes Heibfechten, or “covered-cut fencing.” Parrying with the sword was often forsaken since the incoming cut could be taken with impunity on the arm.

The most powerful cut was also the simplest. Upon the command to commence, the wrist rotates to the right so the thumb, if extended, would point straight up combined with the simultaneous dropping of the arm to the level where the wrist would be almost level with the solar plexus, thus delivering an extremely powerful blow to the centre of the head at the level of the hairline. This could be recovered into a sloping guard of either five or six. (the sabre guard of six, not the parry associated with epee or foil) If the sword is recovered straight up with the hilt on your right side, this could be combined with an attack to the right side of your opponent’s head, targeting the jaw-line, cheek or temple.

Another cut could be accomplished from the hanging guard by snapping the sword arm across the front of your face so your wrist is now level with your left temple, the wrist rotating to full supination and the point angled slightly down to direct a True Edge cut to your opponent’s left temple or cheek.

Yet another assault is known as “turning the key.” In this stratagem, the sword appears to be executing the direct center-of-line head cut described two paragraphs back, but when your sword hilt is directly in front of the center of your own face, the sword is quickly snapped back upwards along the same line as its descent so that it’s end position (bearing in mind that the sword must be in constant movement, else the match is halted) is above your own head. As the sword rises, bearing in mind that the end of your blade is still above your opponent’s head, the wrist is sharply snapped so that were your thumb to be extended, it would point down. If this is done at the right time and elevation, the rebated point twists into your opponent’s scalp, often removing a plug of hair that one can only equate to taking a divot in golf using a very small club.

There evolved two different methods of exchanging blows – one where a round (which was defined as five cuts) was first delivered by one duelist while the other defended, then the positions reversed, or, more commonly, when both fencers whaled away at each other exploiting any target of opportunity. It was matches such as these where the definition of “schlager” became plain: “to beat or flog.”

In modern mensur, bouts last thirty rounds with a nominal breather at the half-way mark, during the Wilhelmine period, bouts of sixty to eighty rounds were the norm and although unusual, there are records of some bouts being pushed to one hundred and twenty to one hundred and sixty rounds. At the one-sixty mark, we’re talking about each duelist delivering (and presumably receiving) eight hundred blows within a time-frame of twenty five minutes. In some matches, putative “rounds” were dispensed with and the action went on for twenty five minutes with breaks being excluded from the count.

Even though the mensur sword is not a particularly heavy weapon, I leave it to the reader’s imagination the stamina and strength, at least in the sword arm, to deliver the three hundred blows that constituted the “standard” requirement of a bout during the Wilhelmine period. Also bear in mind that the sword and sword arm are in constant motion – a veritable whirlwind of cuts delivered not simply with great speed, but also with not inconsiderable force. Finally, try to imagine that in between hammering your opponent, you are also trying, at least some of the time, to defend yourself – either with sword or padded arm – against your opponent’s best attempt to turn your head and face into human coleslaw. And all while wearing heavy leather and padded fabric. It’s little wonder that some mensuren, adrenaline pumping like water through a fire hose, are often oblivious to the fact that they’ve been hit.

Well … some hits, at least. A mensur duel usually ran its course, but occasionally a blow of such severity would be struck that the duel would be stopped out of the necessity for immediate medical attention.

Whereas the bulk of cuts are taken in the scalp, it was not uncommon to have an appendage partially or completely removed. The Schmiss (a dueling scar, often referred to as the Renomminerschmiss or “bragging scar”) was considered a status symbol and apparently regarded with high favour among the ladies of the day. However, not so much when it came to the not inconsiderable number unencumbered by a nose, ear, or in some cases, an entire cheek or piece of the jaw-bone.

Such was the social cache of the dueling scar that some of the unincorporated who lacked the gumption or desire to undergo the rigors of consensual mutilation would sometimes resort to creating a scar on their own or finding an unscrupulous doctor who would accommodate them for a small fee. Often, in order to give the schmiss the necessary verisimilitude, the wound would be pulled apart periodically to inhibit normal healing or lay a horse-tail hair into the incision to promote the proper visual scarring.

Naturally, one might ask what could possibly prompt an ostensibly intelligent young man to join a society whose entire purpose was dedicated to ritualistic combat that degenerated to the very antithesis of true swordsmanship, and which promised, almost guaranteed, scarring to the possible point of deformity.

What indeed…

First, I think it’s significant that the Mensur of the Wilhelmine period was an historical phenomenon that flourished between 1871 – the end of the unification wars of Bismarck – and the beginning of WW I. While British, French, Belgian and Russian armies were carving out international empires with ample chances to prove yourself in battle, Germany was at peace. If, as Von Clausewitz once stated that war is simply a duel on a larger scale, then the duel, using this rationale, was war in microcosm – a surrogate until the real thing mercifully came along. And it spoke a lot of an officer’s character if he had a visible schmiss. Here was a man who could be relied on to stand dispassionately in the face of physical danger. And it was a function of the social order. In the Die Gebrauche beim Zweikampf (the dueling code of the officer corps) it proclaims “The unusually high and respected position that the officer occupies in our Fatherland demands that, next to his competence and devotion to duty, his most solemn obligation be the ‘painstaking preservation of his caste-honour.’” The Von einem Praktiker of 1893 further states “The duel is for the sake of the individual only insofar as he is a member of an entire case, his honour being identified with cast honour.” To be a member of a university Mensur proclaims you to be, at least by association and deed, a member of a specific caste – the societal elite.

It would also be entirely true that to be a member of any of the Mensur corporations was a form of networking not dissimilar to the modern fraternity, where one made social contacts that later translated into a smoother transition to the military, corporation or government.

But more than anything, the duel as interpreted by the Mensur was an essentially atavistic endeavor – an attempt to perpetuate the mythology of the ancient knightly virtues. It became an overwhelming part of the concept of Selbstvervollkommnung – “self-perfection”- insofar as it forced upon the participant, albeit voluntarily, steely self-control that included an indifference to danger and a heightened sense of personal honour.

One might wonder of Lohengrin would have been proud…







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President Obama prepares to negotiate with Republicans…



Today, I was going through the blog administration and was appalled to find how many comments I had not approved. Please understand that this has nothing to do with the nature of the comments. It has to do with the fact that I let things fall behind.

Over the last little while, I’ve been somewhat distracted. There has been work, attempting to finish a new book (which has nothing to do with sword work) and, more personally, the consecutive deaths of my mother, nephew and step-father. Enough said about that.

So if your comment hasn’t made it up, or been replied to, please don’t take it personally and accept my apology. In the future I promise I will be more diligent in such matters. I have only run one blog before – a political humour blog – and then, only for a year. I need to make administration of this site a weekly routine.

There have also been some who have asked about the platform – WordPress – and other things such as making it more mobile-accessible, etc. To these I reply – I haven’t the slightest idea. My partner provides the tech savy. Myself, I have the computer skills of a gerbil. I provide content and that’s pretty much it.

So I hope you will forgive past lapses. I will endeavour not to make such an apology necessary in the future.


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The STRAIGHT GUARD or Flat Sword

By L’Abbat

L’Abbat was a French master connected with the Academy of Toulouse. His work, L’Art on Fait D’Armes, (1696) was considered by many to be the definitive work on the subject for many years.
Perusing his book, I found something that might be of interest – the Straight Guard or Flat Sword, which I now share with you.

In L’Abbat’s own words, “In order to be well in Guard it is absolutely necessary that the Feet , as the Foundation that conduces chiefly to communicate Freedom and Strengh to the other Pars, be placed at such a Distance from each other, and in such a lineal Manner as me be advantageous. The Distance must be about two Foot from on Heel to the other, for if it were greater, the Adversary, tho’ of the same Stature, and with the Sword of equal Length, would be within Measure when you would not, which would be a very considerable Fault, Measure being one of the principle Parts of Fencing, and if the Feet were nearer together, you would want Strength, which is also a great Fault, because the feeble Situation cannot produce a vigorous action.”

Well … no stranger to the run-on sentence, but all his points are quite valid. He continues:

“The Line must be taken from the hindmost Part of the Right Heel to the Left Heel near the Ankle. The Point of the Right Foot must be opposite to the Adversary’s turning out the Point of the Left Foot and bending the Left Knee over the point of the same Foot, keeping the Right Knee a little bent, that there is Freedom of Motion.”
“The Body must be Upright, which gives it better Air, greater Strength, and more Liberty to advance and retire, being supported almost equally by the two Feet. Some Masters teach to keep the body back in Favour of Measure, which cannot be broke by the Body when ‘tis already drawn back, tho’ it is often necessary, not only to avoid Surprize, but also to deceive a Man of Superior Swiftness who pushes a just Length: Therefore ‘tis much better to have the Liberty of retiring to avoid the Thrusts of the Adversary, or of extricating yourself by advancing twords him and pushing than to keep the body in one Situation at a Distance, which being fixed, cannot deceive a Person who knows any thing of Measure; moreover, such a Retention of the Body does not only hinder the breaking Measure with the Body, but also the Left Leg is so oppressed with its whole Weight, that it would find it difficult to retire upon Occasion.”
In other words, keep your weight evenly distributed so that movement forward and back can be accomplished instantly without shifting weight or by committing too much weight to the back leg and leaning backwards in a false notion that this makes you harder to hit. It actually makes you more susceptible to a rush since it restricts your ability to retreat quickly and with good balance.
“The Elbows must be almost on a Line, and of an equal Height, that one Shoulder may not be higher than the other and that they may be both turn’d alike; the Left Hand must be over against the Top of the Ear, the Hilt of the Sword a little above the Hip, turning towards Half Quart, the thumb extended, pressing the Middle of the Eye of the Hilt, keeping the Fingers pretty close to the Handle, especially the little one, in order to feel the Sword firmer and freer in the Hand.”
“Be feeling the Sword, is meant commanding the Fort and Feeble equally with the Hand, in order to communicate to the more distant Part of the Blade as well as to that which is nearer, the Motion and Action that is requisite.”
“The Hilt should be situated in the Center, that is to say, between the upper and lower Parts, and the Inside and Outside of the Body in order to be in a better Condition to defend whatever Part may be attacked. The Arm must not be strait nor too much bent, to preserve its Liberty and be cover’d. The Parts being thus placed, the Wrist and the Point of the Right Foot will be on a perpendicular line.”
“The Point of the Sword out to be about the Height of, and on a Line with the Adversary’s Shoulder, that is, it must be more or less raised, according as he is taller or shorter: Some Masters raise it to a fixed Height, which would be very well if all men were of the same Stature; but if we consider the difference in Height of Persons, we shall find it evidently bad. ‘Tis to be observed, that according to the Length or Shortness of the Blade, the Line from the Shell to the Point is higher or lower, when the Height of the Point is fixed.”

IE: such a presentation negates the concept of a “straight” or “flat guard.

“The Shoulder, the Bend of the Arm, the Hilt, the Point of the Sword, the Hip, the Right Knee and the Point of the Right Foot must be on a Line.”

This is a very interesting guard position not unlike those found in the Spanish Destreza. The advantages are plain. First, although it may appear that you are presenting your sword to be taken by a bind, croise or other form of prise-de-fer, in actuality, the blades’ horizontal profile makes it more difficult to achieve a viable purchase. Moreover, your blade can execute counter moves to a disengage, bind, etc, with greater efficiency owing to the fact that your blade has less distance to move, such actions being capable of being executed entirely by finger or wrist movement. Also, should your opponent execute any second-intention actions, or change of line, your response can be quicker owing to the fact that your sword has less distance to travel from response-to-deception to warding the intended attack.
This position has another advantage: should your opponent lunge or advance on his attack and you deflect it while holding your ground, you are now in a position of maximum strength against his blade, your forte directly opposing him – a position that he himself accomplished by his forward movement. At this stage, if you have maintained the straight guard, there should be very little distance between your point and his body which should be able to be covered by a single advance step, a pass step or a very short lunge.

Just one thing before we go. It should be noted that L’Abbat’s sword is not really what we would qualify as a Small Sword, even though its usage is exclusively point-only. As you can see from the picture, the blade length is considerably greater that what we would associate with a Small Sword. It is a transitional piece between the rapier and Small Sword.

If you peruse his book, you will also note that in many instances, the point of the sword is bent down. There is mention of this in the first section of the book:
“Some Men chuse strait Blades, others will have them bending a little upwards or downwards, some like them to bend a little in the Forts, and others in the Feeble, which is commonly called le Tour de Breteur, or the Bullie’s Blade.”
Personally, I would think that a bend in a fairly stiff blade would make drawing from the scabbard a bit difficult. That, coupled with the fact that the blades in his book are all depicted with balls or blunts on their tip, is it possible that this is a treatise on the art of fencing as much as for dueling or self-defense?

What do you think?

Braun McAsh

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What Can A Weapon Tell You If You Open Your Eyes And Mind?

Many years ago, when I was choreographing the Henry VI trilogy at the Stratford Shakespeare  Festival in Ontario, I needed to design some weapons that were both functional and matched the genre of the costume design which was highly stylized and somewhat science-fictiony. As I was playing around with various designs, a thought came to me: what if you were on the battlefield and someone came at you with a weapon completely outside your experience – a weapon you had never seen before, including in use? How could you extrapolate from its design information to get some inkling of its fighting methodology before first contact? (after which it might well be too late)

Let’s look at swords of various designs and see what their visual presentation – the shape and design of the blade, the configuration of the hilt – can tell us with regard to their method of usage.

First, the medieval European sword consisting of two edges, (generally – the falchion being an exception) a quillon and a pommel. The first obvious thing is that since it is double-edged, a back-cut with the false edge is possible without having to turn the wrist to present the true edge. The power of such a cut is somewhat diminished until you increase the length of the grip to accommodate two hands such as in the Long Sword, at which time the ability to push with the lower hand and pull with the upper imparts tremendous power into a back-edge cut. And although I have no physical evidence for this, I would imagine that if the true edge were to have gotten significantly nicked, a simple quick turn of the sword would essentially make the former false edge the new true edge, giving you back a more efficient cutting surface.

The quillon can not only protect the hand from slide-downs, but also be forcefully employed to redirect your opponent’s blade which presents the possibility of a swift back-slash or utilizing the pommel to … well – pommel the face or skull.  This is a particularly important attribute in Long Sword combat where half-swording – wielding the sword with only one hand on the grip while the other hand grasps the blade about two-thirds of the way up its length, was prominent. Half-swording in full armour was a good way to insinuate the point in between the joints of the armour with considerable precision. The face, exposed by a raised visor or the armpit between the breastplate and palderon were two particularly tempting targets.

Just a short excursus on the quillon: There are those who contend that it wasn’t there primarily for hand protection since you supposedly never parried with the edge, which would create nicks sufficient to compromise the edge. I would agree that it was a superior technique to attack edge into flat into your opponent’s cut but in the heat of combat if you had to take a parry with the edge, you most certainly would have done so and swords I have examined in museums show just such evidence. Ideally, you would take the blow on the bottom third of the blade which would provide the greatest amount of leverage in your favour. And in point of fact, several masters have admonished that it was unnecessary to even bother sharpening that portion of the blade (the forte or stark) since you never cut with it. One person even believed that the quillon was there to protect the sword hand from hitting your opponent’s shield. Since the Viking swords usually have very short, even perfunctory quillons and the shield was a main tool of defense, I would imagine the Vikings would have developed considerable knuckle callous were this to be true.

How about the point? Is it pronounced? Some medieval one-handed swords had a pronounced point combined with a very wide forte at the quillon.

Let’s skip ahead in history to the rapier. Originally, when used in coordination with the buckler, there was not much difference between its design and that of a military sword. However, over time, blades began to narrow and become longer and eventually, the bars of the hilt acquire a significant addition – shell guards. Why? The answer is that rapier play was evolving to favour the thrust. (although cuts and slicing or drawing cuts were still used) The problem with the previous bars is that they allowed a point through. Being hit on the sword hand inside your own hilt would be embarrassing to say the least.  Would this be a realistic possibility? I’ve accomplished it many times in bouting – albeit not a life-and-death situation, but it demonstrates that it’s quite accomplishable.  (Hint: I can manage it…)

Eventually, the cup-hilt appears, which protects the entire hand inside a bowl, and, at least in Spanish rapiers, a pronounced wide quillon. What does this design tell us about the fighting style? Well, it might indicate that thrusting is the predominate method of attack requiring maximum protection for the hand. The quillons might also be indicative of a highly evolved defensive action. Consider the presentation of the sword in the Spanish Destreza. The weapon is held in pronation, supination or the quillons vertical. In all these positions, long quillons can be used to turn away a thrust simply by a quarter or half-rotation of the wrist where your opponent’s sword also be lifted or taken down by a simple raising or lowering of the wrist or arm. But it also allows for an instantaneous counter-thrust done in safety since your opponent’s sword point is safely deflected and his blade may even be trapped between the wide quillon and the forte of your blade.

On to the Small Sword – a logical development from the rapier. Observe it’s blade – an equilateral triangle, hollow-ground, (which would lighten the blade and make the weapon capable of great speed) with no cutting edge and a needle-sharp point. A stiff sword with great penetrative power, but also one you could obviously grasp by the blade with the bare hand. However, there was a precursor to this sword – the Colichemarde, typified by a wide forte suddenly narrowing to a slim point starting from the forte. To use a modern colloquial, “Whuffo?” One theory is that the greatly widened forte strengthened the blade. However, since the metallurgy of the day was quite highly developed, I personally don’t find this particularly plausible. Could it be that the widened forte was designed to resist heavier weapons, particularly those that cut? After all, ruffians and foot-pads were often ex-military and may well have retained their former weapons to pursue their current illegal career. This feature gives plausible clues to its defensive capabilities.

Now let’s look at military sabres and their variants.

There is a certain lack of consistency to cavalry sabres from the 1700’s to World War One. European sabres most usually have a slightly curved blade with a point that is double-edged for several inches near the point to facilitate thrusting. However, there are certain Dragoon sabres where near the point the blade increases in width. This most definitely creates a weapon with a weight bias in the tip. Even in some cavalry sabres with the normal taper to the point, the blade is often longer than that of a foot sabre and noticeably point-heavy in varying degrees.

I believe the answer for this rather simple, having done sabre work off horseback. You are usually engaging at a gallop, only slowing or stopping altogether if the crush of opposing horse demands it. If you were going to metaphorically “pull up” opposite your opponent and duke it out on stationary mounts, you might as well be fighting on foot.

At this speed, you don’t have much time to inflict damage. You either cut or thrust first, parry the counter-cut and maybe have time for a back-cut in passing. This also holds true for engaging soldiers on the ground. Whatever blows you land need to count. The tip-heavy weight bias helps facilitate this.

Of course, one addition to a sabre – the sword knot which slips over your wrist and tightens – is another giveaway that the weapon is designed primarily for cavalry. Lose a sword while on horseback, and it’s gone. Not a particularly good situation in the middle of a fray.

Towards the end of their usage, British and American cavalry sabres became straight-bladed. This too, suggests certain strategies. A slash is relatively easy to recover. Not so much when it comes to a thrust where penetration into a passing target can wrench the weapon from your grasp. Since power and leverage demand that you present the weapon in pronation, you would be foolish to allow the blade to withdraw itself by the expedient of your opponent simply riding past you. This could conceivably pull your shoulder out of its socket. More logical if, once seating the point in your enemy, you twist the weapon into supination and elevate the hilt to the position of octave, which would not only create a larger wound, but protect your entire right side from a passing cut. This also would position your sword for a back-slash to the back or the back of the neck.

If engaging an enemy on your left with a thrust, it would be logical to elevate the sword to a position of a sloping quinte, thus protecting your left flank, although a passing cut would be problematic.

Let’s briefly look at a couple of non-European swords in order to apply our visual analysis. First, the Shamshir. This weapon comes with both straight and curved blades. However, some models’ blades have curvature in the extreme. What does this suggest about the fighting style?

An extremely curved blade would suggest combat at very close range – obvious, since such a design lacks reach. And extreme curvature discourages thrusting. However, at in-your-face proximity, the radical curvature of the blade, especially on upward and downward diagonal cuts, keeps the maximum amount of edge on target throughout the greatest length of draw. This, with a sufficiently sharp edge, creates long and deep wounds. Your best defense would be to not allow your opponent to close.

Then, there’s the Turkish Kilij. This is a relatively wide blade that makes an oft-radical curve roughly half-way up its length, widening out in the process, with a defined point and the spine sharpened almost to the base of where it began to curve.

This weapon has massive close-range striking power. But if you experiment – carefully – you will find that the seemingly arbitrary oblique curvature combined with a distinct weight bias in the point, allows you to throw back-cuts in supination that can not only wrap around parries (especially when combined with proper footwork) but even power through a ward and deliver either a back-edge cut or point attack. In a somewhat similar vein, the long sharpened back edge plus the curve creates a marvelous hooking action against the back of the knee from either inside or outside the leg or the triceps.

Take a look at the photos accompanying this article with the above observations in mind. Can you see any other design features that might influence the fighting style? What are the strengths and weaknesses inherent in each design?

Finally, what can a sword tell us if we pick it up, and by this I don’t simply mean the obvious attributes of weight and balance?

Create an ample 360 degree safety zone around yourself. Now, close your eyes. Very slowly, begin to move the sword through space. Execute broad and tight circles, downward and diagonal cuts, both ascending and descending, horizontal cuts and moulinetes. Thrust both supinated and pronated. Still moving at slow speed, change the direction of the sword at the termination of a cut. Using the entire body, go through sweeping parries. Stop the sword in the middle of a movement. Execute moves from the shoulder, elbow and wrist, etc.

Feel the swords’ weight, momentum and inertia. As you move the sword through space, if you are sensitized to its motion, it will tell you the way its design prefers to be moved. Later, as you absorb this information and are able to gradually speed up the swords’ movement, it will tell you more.

A sword can tell you much regarding its usage by observing the various elements of its design with a skillful and informed eye. It will tell you the rest when you move with it.

The sword will never lie to you.







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The Verdadera Destreza

This, dear readers, is going to be a long one. Even so, it will still barely cover the subject comprehensively. I can only hope to explain the basic principles.
The Verdadera Destreza may be translated to mean “the true knowledge or art.” Prior to this form, the “esgrima vulgar” or “common fencing” was the predominant art. Early teachers included Pedro de la Torre, Jaume Pons (both writing in 1474) and Fransico Roman. (1532.
Then along came a gentlemen named Heronimo de Caranca who wrote two treaties, the first in 1569 and the second, more famous “De La Philosofia de las Armas” in 1600, and who basically redefined the Spanish art of the sword. His student, Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez (Libro de las Gradezas del la Espada – 1625) claims Caranca was originally inspired by the works of Agrippa. While this may or may not be true, there are similarities with regard to utilizing geometry.
One of the most striking originalities of the Spanish system was training on diagrams drawn on the floor. Although Caranca used many simple diagrams, we will look at the more famous drawing of Thibault of Antwerp. Here, the dimensions of the circle relate to the blade-length of the rapier which was intended for this purpose to be equal to the height of a man from the feet to the quillons held level with the navel. (there are other definitions of what a proper blade length should be but we’ll stay with this one for now) The arm should then be extended until the point touches the ground and a circle inscribed around you from this length. A square is then drawn around the circle so it touches the circle in the centre the straight line. (it should be noted that in Narvaez, the square is inside the circle with its corners touching the interior) Lines, known as “chord” lines are now inscribed across the various diameters. In my translation of Thibault’s “Academy of the Sword” (1628) the first 37 pages of the first book are the mathematical instructions for drawing the circles, defining them variously as circumference, diameter, perpendicular diameter, oblique diameters, inner and outer collaterals, inner and outer traverses, circumscribed square, , etc, all which relate to the human figure depicted within.
The figure must be mentally visualized as standing since the chord lines all relate offensively and defensively to critical areas on both you and your opponent’s body.
The Stance
The body is held erect with the right foot on the circle line and the rear foot off it. The body is usually oriented so that the right shoulder is angled towards your opponent with the chest and hips presented sideways, thus reducing the target potential. The feet are usually depicted in a narrow stance, less than 12 inches apart.
Fencers travel around the edge of the circle while seeking to gain advantage or tempt their opponent into attacking. Movement can be made both forward and back. Classified as “Los Compases,” foot movement is defined as the Pasada, a short step, the Pasada Simple, a longer step, and the Pasada Doble, two steps using alternating feet. There is no lunge as an Italian practitioner would understand it.
The Guard
The sword is held with the arm straight from the shoulder, its point directed towards your opponent. The orientation of the hilt is with quillons parallel to the ground, either in pronation, (knuckles up) supination, (knuckles down) or in-between with the quillons vertical and the knuckles facing your right.
Narvaez considered that there were two methods for gaining advantage to attack. The first was Angle which is determined by the meeting of the blades. Angles formed in the middle of the blades, he considered being favourable for defense while obtuse and acute angles were regarded as better for defense combined with offense. Another one of his concepts was “ganado los grados al perfil,” or gaining the degrees of profile. This concept implies that you acquired your targets by successive steps around your opponent. Sound simple? It’s not.
Another movement was known as Closing the Straight Line, achieved by taking a position where your sword threatens your opponent so he cannot enter or attack without first dealing with your blade or simply being hit.
These were referred to as the Instances. Thibault qualifies them as follows:
The First Instance: In this, extended points reach to the hilt.
The Second Instance: Extended points reach to the combatant’s elbows.
The Third Instance: Combatants are position so that their points reach each other’s shoulders.
Strokes are defined as Tajo (cut) or Medio Tajo, (half-cut) Reves (reverse cut) and Medio Reves (reverse half-cut. Tajos are performed in pronation while Reves and done in supination and accomplished by movement from the elbow. There was also a cut done from the shoulder, styled an Arrebater and tip-cuts accomplished by a turn of the wrist, known as Mandoble. There was also a cut known as an Estramason which was a fast cut to the face using the sword’s tip, possibly accomplished as a mandible.
Cuts were defined by where they originate, not their target.
Narvaez speaks of the “Rectitudines,” defining the nature of a cut or sword movement in general, they being : Violenta, Natural, Remisso, de Reduccion, Extrano and o Accidental. (Violent, natural, forgiving, decreasing, rare and accidental) Natural movement, for example, would be a down-cut, Violent, a upper-cut or rising cut, Remisso being the removal backwards of the sword, etc.
Known as Estocada, thrusts were delivered by stepping to your opponent’s right or left, or stepping forward along an imaginary chord line that corresponds with the line of attack. (remember that the chord lines show the direct lines of attack to critical areas of your opponent’s body from foot to top of the head. Narvaez calculated that there were 83 angles of attack formed between two opposing bodies)
Thrusts were made over the arm, travelling down, usually pronated and from the right, (which Italians would classify as imbrocatta) or under the arm from the lower right side. (stocatta)
Known collectively as Desvio, most sword work involved a combination of small movements with the weapon combined with movement of the body. The Spanish system develops the methodology of combination defensive-movement-becomes-reposte to a very high degree.
If, for instance, I assume a position where my sword is held at my shoulder level, this (intentionally) invites an attack to my mid or lower torso. If my opponent chooses to attack my lower torso, I could then bring my sword into the position of septime (7) while simultaneously stepping back with my left (rear) foot in the manner of an inquartata, and direct my point at a 45 degree angle downwards, allowing his forward motion to help impale him the stomach. Or, if I have tempted by opponent to hit while I am in motion, say, stepping to my left with my left foot, I might drop my sword so that his blade is deflected downwards using my outside quillon, angle my point upwards, and stepping forward on my right foot, impale him in the throat. Or if the attack is a stocatta to my right armpit, I could rotate my sword from pronation with a half-twist, re-directing his blade with my inside quillon and sending it to my right, while at the same time, stepping forward on my left foot and stabbing him in the shoulder or throat.
No end to the fun you can have…
Here’s a commentary from a period master, Alvaro Guerra de la Vega from his commentaries on important matters from 1681:

Every stance you master, must be good to ‘short cut’ your opponent’s.
Every stab inflicted without a ‘short cut’ is false (not the best).
Every stance can be ‘short cut’.
The right angle is good to avoid incoming attacks.
The obtuse angle is useful to stop our foe’s sword.
Three planes of reference are to be considered.
First plane: from head to shoulders.
Second plane: from shoulders to waist.
Third plane: from waist to feet.
Ther first plane is to be defended with the guard.
The second one with the force of the sword.
The third one with the frailty, including your enemy’s sword.
High guard, low point.
Low guard, high point.
If our foe is showing us his profile, we must look for the ‘medio proporcional’.
If he is squared, we must always attack him from the ‘medio proporcional’.
The ‘medio proporcional’ has to be considered by the positioning of the opponent’s sword.
No matter the side you choose for the ‘medio proporcional’, you must always be front towards your enemy.
When attacking, be very careful, never show your body to your enemy’s weapon.
Never attack if you are not sure it will be a perfect movement.
Never stand on both feet at the same time; one of them must be ready, touching just slightly the floor.
You sword will always be on movement.
Here is a short excerpt from Angelo (1787) on his observations of the Spanish style:
“The Spaniards have in fencing a different method to all other nations… their guard is almost straight, their lunge very small. Their ordinary guard is with their wrist in tierce and point in line with the face. When they come into distance they bend the right knee and straighten the left and carry the body forward. When they retire they bend the left knee and straighten the right – they throw the body back well in a straight line with that of the antagonist, and parry with the left hand or slip the right foot behind the left.
Their swords are near five foot long from the hilt to point and cut with both sides. The shell is very large and the quillons extend two inches on each side. They make use of this to wrench the sword out of the adversary’s hand by binding or crossing his blade with it.”
And this from George Silver (Paradoxes of Defense, 1599)
“…they stand as brave as they can with their bodies straight upright, narrow-spaced, with their feet continually moving as they were in a dance, holding forth their arms and rapiers very straight against the face or bodies of their enemies. … als long as any man shall lie in that manner with his arme … it shall be impossible to hurt him because in that straight holding forth of his arms, which way soever the blow shall be made against him, by reason that his rapier hilt lyeth so far before him, he hath but a very little way to move to make his ward perfect.”
One of the things the Destreza does is teach distance in absolute terms. Its elegant subtlety gives the appearance of simplicity yet it is anything but. One of its principles is to constantly move your sword and body in a way that closes off certain venues of attack while opening up others. In this way, you subconsciously guide your opponent into a series of predictable attacks which can be dealt with quickly with minimal movement, and combined with a counter-attack that your enemy often aids and abets by his commitment to your invitation. This is one of the reasons the rest of the world referred to this system as “the Magic Circle,” since it gave the uncomfortable appearance that your opponent was reading your mind.
As I said at the beginning, this is a rather simplistic and entirely incomplete picture of this system. This is an essay, not a book. I hope, however, that I have given you a good basis for understanding the physical, dynamic principles behind this elegant and deadly art.
Never stop learning.

Braun McAsh

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The SmallSword

The SmallSword

The smallsword was the last bladed weapon carried by a civilian for personal self-defence and for dueling, succeeding the transition rapier in the beginning of the 18th century.

The smallsword has all the main parts of the former rapier, except that they are shrunk down to their most perfunctory size. They are also named differently. Aylwards “The Small Sword in England,” documents them thusly:

Amande – the centre of the knuckle-bow.
Branche a bouton – a single quillon with an end-knob.
Branc a croissant – the rings on either side of the ricasso.
Brance a demi-ellipse – the lower portion of the knuckle- bow.
Crochet – the part of the knuckle-bow that enters the pommel.

The “bell” of the hilt is often referred to as the coquille, as it often resembles an open shell. Later, practice weapons for the smallsword evolved a “lunette” or figure-eight shaped open guard. This weapon was dubbed the “foil,” being a corruption of the French word “refouler,” meaning to turn back, thus describing the defensive nature of the weapon.

The feature that really differentiated the small sword from the rapier was its relatively short blade. Some blades were only 24 inches, the average being between 30 to 33, with 35 inches being considered a “long” blade.
The blade itself was solely for thrusting, having only a small amount of edge near the tip sharpened. This was to facilitate penetration although some scholars believe it might also have been to discourage hand parrying. The blade itself was triangular in cross-section, usually hollowed out in a manner you can see today in epee blades. This removed unnecessary weight from the blade, with the result that this sword was capable of lightening speed. However, on earlier blades, rhombic and “spindle” cross-sections are evident, probably as a carry-over from the previous period.

During this time of transition, another form of smallsword also existed briefly – the Colichimarde. This sword’s primary difference was that its blade was considerably wider in the lower forte near the hilt than in the upper two-thirds. (both sections were still hollow-ground to reduce weight) It is thought that since, during a transitional period, everyone didn’t suddenly chuck their rapiers into the back of the closet and go out and buy a smallsword. The reinforced forte would have been very functional in parrying a heavier blade. We believe this design to be attributed to Count Johann Charles von Konigsmark, and the name of the sword a corruption of his own.

The nature of the weapon’s defense, as we have previously alluded, was to deflect or turn back the incoming point. The parries would be utterly familiar to the modern foil practitioner, being, for the most part, identical to the positions of tierce, quarte, septime and octave. Smallsword practitioners also used the parries of prime, seconde and a modified quinte. (the presence of these parry positions in texts should be a reminder that wearing the smallsword for self-defense didn’t guarantee that you would be facing another smallsword. Indeed, the Angelo school gave instruction on how to face a Spaniard with his rapier) Blade technique included the disengage, double, pris-de-fer and the inquartata.

Additional defense was accomplished by the use of the off-hand, also the cloak and sometimes a small poignard-style dagger with short quillons.

Naturally, many schools flourished, some notable masters being L’Abbat, Liancour, Oliver and Angelo.

Dominico Angelo Malevolti Tremamondo founded his school in Carlisle Street, London, in 1763. He eventually handed over the salle to his son Harry and continued to teach as the resident master at Eton. Harry eventually transferred the salle to Opera House in the Haymarket until it burned down in 1789, whereupon he moved to Bond Street. He also developed a system for the curved cavalry sword originally associated with the Hungarian Hussa, which was officially adopted by the British Army. Harry handed over the salle to his son Henry who subsequently bequeathed the salle (now in St. Jame’s Street) to his son, Henry Charles. On his death, the salle was run by Willaim McTurk until at the very end of Victoria’s reign, the salle ended its long and famous history over, of all things, disagreement over the lease.

Smallswords were used by military officers primarily as a symbol of rank since the short, thin blade would not have been very conducive for use against the heavier-bladed military swords of the day. They are still used today as part of formal military and diplomatic uniforms, being styled “court swords.”

Braun McAsh

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The Ring of Steel is not only a school of historical European combat but also teaches theatrical fighting skills. Therefore, I suppose it’s time to actually give this venue some ink.
What is a “fight” in a dramatic sense?
Theatre, film and stage are entertainment mediums. They, like the actor, affect a selective reality which occurs within the narrative of a script. Therefore, a fight scene is a dramatic device intended to further or alter the overall storyline of the script. This would imply that the first question a fight choreographer must ask is “what is the story of the fight” and its purpose in the overall narrative?
One good way to determine this is to remove the fight from the script and see what, if any, effect this has on the final outcome of the storyline. Imagine, for instance, if the fight between Romeo and Tybalt didn’t exist. Romeo would never be banished, and since his banishment led Juliet to feign her death which led to Romeo returning, killing Paris, poisoning himself on the false impression that Juliet was dead, which results in Juliet actually committing suicide, that fight in particular is crucial to the outcome of the play.
Not understanding the reason or purpose of the fight will make it look like an afterthought, tacked on by a disinterested third party, having no bearing on the overall narrative. If, however, there is no change in the storyline by removing the fight, you might question its necessity since it appears to serve no dramatic purpose, and hence, is essentially a waste of rehearsal time.
Now you need to analyze the characters in the fight. To do this, you must approach the script as an actor. Who is the character? By that, I mean, what is his or her background? What does the character want and how far are they willing to go to achieve that need or desire? Why do they want it – ie: what’s their motivation? Are they the aggressor or defender? What do other characters say about them. Look at Mercutio’s speech describing Tybalt – he clearly defines for us the quality of Tybalt’s training, his motivations for fighting, even specific moves he uses.
You must also understand that as the choreographer, you aren’t the one playing the role. You must discuss with the actor what their take on motivation is. You must also ascertain, as early as possible, the actor’s physical capabilities – right or left-handed, injuries or disabilities that impinge on movement, etc.
Next, you must understand the physical environment in which the fight takes place. On stage, this is obviously the set, as it often is in TV and film. Being a designed and constructed environment, it’s often possible to build certain features into it specifically to facilitate the fight scene/s. Sometimes this means reinforcing certain areas to take weight such as if a person is to be hurled into a wall. Other times it might mean load-bearing items such as the proverbial chandelier, areas of the set that must be climbed, railings on stair cases, etc. This also includes furniture which is intended to be practical – the archetypal feast table upon which the hero invariably leaps. This can also mean breakaway furniture used as weapons or breakaway props that weapons might impinge upon. During one fight on film, I cut through a bookshelf, a TV, (which then had to spark) and an indoor potted tree.
The set also includes set decoration that might not be used in the fight, but must be secured in order not to create a hazard – fixing a lamp to a table to prevent an accidental bump from sending it to the floor, taping down the centre and leading edges of rugs to prevent their moving underfoot, etc.
When the environment is a rented location, there are often elements of it that cannot be touched, that is, unless your production budget includes money for repainting or papering walls. If you don’t own it, don’t touch it. And, of course, outdoor locations must be thoroughly walked to identify useable ground. The actors shouldn’t have to fight for stability. Uneven ground can often result in a twisted ankle, or cause a loss of balance that affects a move to the point where control, and hence safety, is lost. The quality of the surface – sand, for instance, or inclines – will very often dictate the footwork and movement patterns of a fight. Even tall grass can restrict foot movement, especially when it’s wet.
Naturally, the costume will impinge on movement. In the days when a man habitually wore a sword, clothing was designed to allow maximal movement. Many costume designers, or coordinators who rent rather than construct, often don’t appreciate the practical features of men’s clothing design – the tied-on slashed sleeves, long cuffs, etc. And if any costume bits such as a cape are to be worn or used in the fight, it is essential that the performers have them or a simulation with which to rehearse, most especially footwear which is crucial for balance. Armour should be worn as soon as possible and it too, must be properly designed and constructed. Any restriction of movement caused by costumes and armour must be known as soon as possible and if necessary, the choreography must be created to compensate. Ideally, a fight director should also have an in-depth knowledge of costume and armour design so he or she can act as a consultant to the appropriate departments.
Lighting also impinges on the performer. Going from areas of high light to low light and back to high light makes the pupils of the eye dilate in response and affects depth perception. The choreography must take this into account. Even certain colours of light affect the eye’s ability to gauge distance.
You must also understand your medium. In film and television, the camera lens is the audience and shots can be constructed that allow the audience to see only what we wish them to. This often allows a blow a much wider safety margin than on stage where “catching air” can be fudged by the camera angle, but clearly seen by a large portion of the audience in theatre. On stage, the sight lines are fixed and immutable. The fight director must walk the entire stage to understand what certain areas of the audience are seeing – the extreme stage right and left, the balcony – so that these angles can be compensated for by the placement of the action.
The period in which the script is set (or sometimes the country) will dictate the choice of weapons. Bear in mind that due to specific hilt designs, not all weapons are ambidextrous. And a right-hander against a left hander poses specific choreography challenges. If designing fantasy and sci-fi weapons, please bear in mind that the human race has been designing weapons for many thousands of years, so if you think you’ve come up with an incredibly creative design that appears never to have previously existed, there’s probably a reason for that.
To make a long story short, virtually everything that affects physical action must be recognized, understood and dealt with in the choreography. Theatrical combat is the visual simulation of violence. No one must ever be put in danger.
Then there’s the director whose job it is to pull all the disparate disciplines together to realize the overall production. Whether for stage or film, he will dictate the “blocking” of the fight – ie: where does it begin, where does it move and where does it end. He may have very specific ideas as to what sort of action he wants to see. Your job is to facilitate him. However, you have been hired as an expert, providing skills that no other member of the production team has. The director might want something that can’t be done for any number of reasons: inadequate rehearsal time, inadequate budget, no reasonable way of making it safe, etc. It is then your job to tell him no. That being said, you must then give him alternatives. “No” may be an honest answer but it doesn’t give him much to work with.
Finally, understand the timeframe available to you. The length of a fight might be dictated by what is necessary to tell the story of the fight adequately – to further explore or define characterization, change the direction of the story-line, etc, but very often, it is dictated by how much rehearsal time is available. You can’t have a six phrase fight up to performance speed in two one-hour rehearsals. Better a short, well-performed fight than a dramatically meaningless and inherently dangerous long fight that looks under-rehearsed and lame. Your job is to keep the actors safe while making them look as good as possible. So remember the PRODUCTION TRIANGLE. It has three points, each bearing a word: Faster, Cheaper, Better – pick any one at the expense of the other two.
Only after all the above things have been considered and planned for can you even begin choreography.
Aha! Not as simple as it looks, is it?
In a future article, we’ll consider the function, value and limitations of historical authenticity in sword-play. Until then, play nice…
Braun McAsh

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In a previous piece, I alluded to the concept of tempo. Since it’s one of the most important concepts in the use of the sword, let’s examine this concept in terms of practical usage. First, let’s define the term.
TEMPO is a measure of action in time and space as it relates to your opponent. This can also mean non-action on your part since it can also imply stillness in the face of your opponent’s movement. (this last statement further implies that your opponent’s movement be forward movement since tempo is only germane, in a practical sense, to offensive and defensive actions) This also means that tempo is directly linked to foot movement as well as movement of the sword. Tempo has also been defined as a measure of motion between two periods of stillness.
Capo Ferro, who defines tempo as “not other than the measure of the stillness and of the motion,” classifies temp as Primo Tempo, Dui Tempi, Mezzo Tempo and Contratempo. Tempo is described as the length of the motion, due tempi is the result of two actions such as a parry followed by a riposte. Mezzo tempo is a half-action such as the simple extension of the arm. Contratempo he describes as when your opponent attacks, you hit him with a shorter action. This definition is not unlike the modern concept of a stop-hit.
Naturally, there are variances in definitions between masters. Viggiani, for example, considers a full tempo to be a full cut, ie: one that completely traverses the target.
“Thus a full tempo is a full perfect blow, because that would be a perfect motion and tempo…”
He considers a mezzo tempo to be a blow that arrests half-way through its “natural” motion, such as a downward cut that stops with the point facing forward.
Salvator Fabris, on the subject of tempo, states:
“A tempo is a movement that the opponent makes within the measure … tempo also implies an occasion to wound or at least to take some advantage over the opponent.”
He also makes note of the fact that an opponent can use the concept against you in order to invite an attack.
Capo Ferro defines in considerable detail the five occasions where your opponent might present the opportunity for you to apply tempo.
“The first is when the enemy is fixed in guard, and he lifts or moves his foot that he has forward. That is one tempo in which to accost him: another is when you have parried a blow, then there is a tempo; the third, as he moves himself without judgment from one guard in order to go into another, before he has fixed himself in it, it is the tempo to offend him; another moreover it is tempo when he raises his sword, as he raises his hand, that is a tempo to strike him; and the last is that, when a blow will have travelled past your body, that is a tempo to follow it with a response.”
Stesso tempo is another term used to define a single action. This can be voiding a blow or thrust by body movement, which has considerable inherent risk or by making a single action that incorporates both defensive and offensive movement. Example: If my opponent makes a thrust at my abdomen, I can make a defensive parry angled down and to my right, intercepting the upper portion of his blade (the “weak” or debole) with the lower third (forte) of my own. Angling my hilt to the right sufficiently to allow his point to pass my body, and while maintaining contact with his blade, I may now extend my arm, controlling his blade in the process, to make a thrust into his lower body.
Naturally, the concept of tempo also implies that you be in “measure,” that is, within a distance from your opponent that he can be reached either by extension of the weapon or movement of his or your body. It also implies speed, since any action done tardily or at your opponent’s speed, is easier to defend against. It also implies rhythm, whether this is detecting a rhythm in your opponent’s actions or to impose or re-define that rhythm in your opponent by an action of your own, either to induce this change obviously or surreptitiously.
Finally, Tempo is about the understanding of distance and inducing your opponent to work within a timeframe that is advantageous to you, either by deceiving him or forcing him. It is directly linked to the concept of stringering and is also an integral part of the understanding of distance.
Everything is connected.

Braun McAsh

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Look, in the near future, for an article on TEMPO and also an introduction to SMALL SWORD, which we also teach. German Longsword workshops are coming up, plus more articles on the art of historical bladed weapons.

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