Example of a hand parry with reposte from the Angelo text

Parry of Prime (1) from the Angelo text
Parry of Seconde (2)
Parry of Tierce (3)
Parry of Quarte (4)
Parry of Sixte (6)
Parry of Septime (7)
Parry of Octave (8)

I thought I’d follow up the sabre parrys with this piece as soon as possible so the readers have a reasonable repertoire for defense positions for both cutting and thrusting weapons. After all, the basic precept of fencing is to hit without being hit.

I’ve written several pieces on the Smallsword so I don’t plan on reiterating any of those points here; it’s quite simple to go back and review them if you wish.

The primary thing to remember is that the Smallsword is a thrusting weapon. Therefore, its defensive parrys differ considerably from a weapon that must deal with cuts which generate a large amount of kinetic energy. There is only one exigency in Smallsword defense (at least when facing another Smallsword) – divert the point from its target. This means that Smallsword parrys can be closer to the body in terms of the body profile. The modern fencing foil has its nascence in the period of the Smallsword, being created as the Smallsword’s practice weapon.

You’ll notice in the photos that the wrist is turned out but the point is still in line with the center of the body. This is to facilitate a fast reposte or counter-thrust. It is a truism in fencing that making unnecessarily large movement with your weapon in defensive actions not only opens up other areas of your body for a second-intention attack, but also slows your counter-action, your weapon having more distance to move to accomplish a reposte. You will also notice that the point does not drop or elevate significantly, partly for the same reason, but also because it’s unnecessary when defending against a thrust rather than a cut.

Since Smallsword is a thrusting weapon (although point-cuts created by a fast turn of the wrist, similar to the Spanish mandoble were certainly used) offensive moves tend to be small and fast, utilizing a disengage to bring the point in line with a target, or to defeat a parry. Beats on the blade or gliding actions with pressure against a perceived weak presentation of the opposing blade are also used in offensive actions. Therefore, a counter-disengage is quite common to begin a parry, which can be accomplished with either finger or wrist action. The circular parry, coming over your opponent’s blade from either the inside or outside line, was also common. Generally speaking, a disengagement underneath your opponent’s blade would send deflect it in the upper parrys of tierce, quarte or sixte whereas coming over the blade would send the attack into the lower parrys of seconde, septime or octave. Again, the idea is to keep the motion small, the sword action being sufficient to simply divert the point past your body. This, of course, includes your sword arm. Also note the position of the hand since the difference between, say the parry of 3 and the parry of 6 is that 3 is held in pronation (knuckles up) while 6 is supinated. (knuckles down)

You will also notice that the body is not in a position where the chest is turned out to the extent we see in modern competitive fencing. One of the reasons for this is that the left hand was still being used to deflect thrusts to facilitate keeping the sword free for instant response. The Smallsword, lacking a cutting edge, was also capable of being seized by the off-hand. And, on some occasions, a small dagger or poniard was still being used in the left hand, although this was not in any way common practice. The lantern was also used in training for defending ones’ self at night.

 Some masters advocated using your cane or your scabbard, held near the middle, as a parrying implement although I’m not sure, in a spontaneous situation such as a robbery attempt, that getting the scabbard free from the belt could be accomplished in a timely fashion.

 It should also be mentioned that I have not depicted a head parry which was similar to a parry of quinte, since this is not an effective method for defending against the point. However, Smallsword schools recognized the possibility of having to defend against someone with a cutting weapon. Indeed, it is the opinion of some scholars, that the thick forte at the base of an early form of Smallsword, the Colichemarde, was to facilitate defending against a heavier weapon such as a Spadroon or sabre.

 I have also not illustrated the parry of prime, since it is essentially the same as the prime parry depicted in my sabre parry essay, and I have included a picture of it from the Angelo text. This parry can be somewhat problematic since it’s a rather broad movement and also drops the point significantly. While this wouldn’t restrict a cutting weapon’s reposte, it is a difficult position from which to re-assert the point for a thrust.

 Defense was also accomplished or augmented by body movement such as the inquartata and other voids.

Finally, I would strongly advise a fencing mask when practicing these techniques (which should also be practiced slowly) especially since any thrusting weapon is particularly dangerous where the face, throat and eyes are concerned. Play sensibly.

Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment

THE FULLER – Myth and Reality

I realize that the main purpose of this site is to examine and share methods of using Western European bladed weapons, but sometimes it’s necessary to also dispel myths. This is one that I recently came across – again – for Lord knows how many times, so perhaps, since it’s so pervasive, we should take our own look.

The “fuller.” If you look at many sword blades, from Viking swords to medieval swords to rapiers to sabres, you will often notice a groove (sometimes multiple grooves) in the centre or in many single-edged weapons, along the spine. This is called the fuller. It’s also often referred to as the “blood groove.” The problem with that last piece of nomenclature is that it’s – oh, what’s the technical term – bollocks.

The apocryphal explanation is that this groove is to let blood out of a wound, or alternately, air in, so that “suction” can be broken and allow the weapon to be withdrawn with greater ease. And this, of course, is nonsense.

The origin of this term comes from the Old English “fuliere,” which refers to one who “fulls” or folds or pleats fabric. The French term for this is “goutiere “or “canneleure,” meaning a gutter or a channel respectively.

This forging technique has been around for quite a while, although the word “fuller” isn’t used to refer to it until the mid-19th century. In fact, the King of the Ostrogoths, Theoderic, records favourable mention of “grooves” in the blades of swords gifted him by Thrasamund, King of the Vandals.

I myself admit to espousing the codswallop about blood and suction and the like several decades ago, essentially parroting received wisdom without the advantage of critical thinking. But when I began doing cutting and thrusting tests against pig carcasses using sharp swords, it became obvious that there was no factual basis for this claim. First, although, a carcass lacks significant blood and hydrostatic pressure, skin and muscle tissue will tend to close around a wound inflicted by a thrust, creating resistance to withdrawing the blade, especially if the thrust (or cut) were significantly deep. However, with even a marginally sharp edge on the weapon, if you have the strength to inflict a thrust, you certainly have the strength to withdraw it, especially considering that the initial thrust may have had to penetrate protective clothing or even armour such as chain-mail, whose rings can be sprung by a powerful thrust. And, if the weapon is withdrawn at a slight angle from the line of thrust, you are now employing the edge to slice, thus creating a somewhat larger wound and facilitating the withdrawal.  

Even a cursory examination of many blades would reveal that fullers don’t always go all the way to the point. (they often did in early Viking weapons where swords lacked a pronounced point but these were predominantly slashing weapons) In many European medieval swords, especially those with tapered points, the fuller ends significantly before the point. And Roman gladii, which were almost exclusively thrusting weapons, have no fuller at all. Similarly, fullers also appear on many rapiers, also ending often a foot or more before the point. And it is also a fact that many European medieval and Renaissance swords lack a fuller entirely, their blades being a flattened diamond in cross-section.

 So what was the purpose of this feature? Obviously it must have had a function – it’s certainly not cosmetic.

 Blades need to have flexibility as well as strength. Creating these grooves on both sides of the blade removes not only weight from the blade; it also serves to reduce stress in what you might term the “neutral axis” of the blade, resulting in greater strength and flexibility. This principle is true not only for double-edged blades, but also single-edged swords such as the saber,(or the katana) where the fuller is closest to the blade’s spine.

 So apart from dispelling a myth, I hope this also demonstrates the need to maintain the capacity for critical thinking, even when something might superficially sound reasonable. Does an explanation or claim stand up to the test of reality?

Remember this when next you listen to a politician giving a speech…






Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment

The Sabre Parrys

In several articles, I have alluded to number systems for the sabre, so I felt it time to actually post them in pictures as a future reference. Here, you have both side and frontal views of the eight parrys associated with the sabre. First, before I make any comments, you should realize that modern competitive sabre fencing rarely uses anything but 3, 4 and 5, owing to the fact that the target area is restricted to above the waist. Some of these parrys are archaic – octave, for instance, was primarily used by cavalry, as I described in a past article.

There are also other parrys that I do not depict here. You can find them in the works of Alfred Hutton, an early 20th century practitioner. One of them, for instance, drops the head parry of quinte (5) straight down to about knee level to protect against a rising reverse cut to the groin or inside leg. His system is definitely combat-related where, surprisingly enough, the concept of “off-target” doesn’t really apply.

Just a few notes on the pictures: first, they are presented in both dorsal and frontal view so you can plainly see the position of the sword in relation to the body. When dealing with a heavier cutting weapon such as the military sabre depicted in the photos, it’s necessary to not only present your defense above or to the outside of the threatened target but also to keep in in front of the body. This is to maintain a safety distance between you and the incoming weapon in case of a cut that either draws through or slips off the parry. Were your weapon to be closer to your body, there is a distinct possibility that you could still be hit by the tip as it glides off your parry.

You should also note that the parrys are held in a position that is generally 90 degrees to the incoming blade. In this fashion, you preempt your opponent’s blade from unintentionally sliding either towards your point (where it will gain leverage advantage against you) or towards your hilt which could result in an unintentional temporary entrapment of both swords which will slow your response time. Mind you, both these conditions can be intentional if they are predicated on strategy – just not good to have them occur if they are not.

Also note that the weapon’s point angles forward towards your opponent. If the point drifts outward, it opens up[ a venue for attack, bearing in mind that a blows’ direction can be altered during its delivery.

Also note the position of the forward and rear foot. The distance between them should not be wider than shoulder width, nor should the front and back heels “stack;” there should be a small displacement between them.

Finally, note that the sword is positioned to take the incoming cut on the bottom third (forte) of the blade, where you have the leverage advantage, and that in the head parrys, the knuckle blow rotates very slightly towards your opponent to give maximal protection to the hand.

As you proceed through these parrys, also consider what cuts or thrusts may be made from any given position that would provide an instant riposte to your opponent.

Proceed slowly and carefully and always, when practicing, wear head protection. For further safety, until you feel how the musculature and skeletal structure supports and strengthens the parry, blows should not be delivered at full speed or with any excessive power, and should be capable of being stopped before the target area is actually reached.

Play nice.

Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment

Sabre Parrys, Side and Front Views

Octave (8)

Parry of Octave (8)
Septime (7)
Parry of Septime (7)
Sixte (6)
Parry of Sixte (6)
Quinte (5)
Parry of Quinte (5)
Quarte (4)
Parry of Quarte (4)
Tierce (3)
Parry of Tierce (3)
Seconde (2)
Parry of Seconde (2)
Prime (1)
Parry of Prime (1)
Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment



This is the beginning of a new, and I hope, interesting series of essays on the evolution of swordplay. Up until now, we have been looking at individual technique, with attributing references to specific masters. Now, we will look at the individual masters and try to discover their particular contributions to the evolution of personal combat.

We’ll be starting (more or less arbitrarily) with the rapier masters, beginning with Marozzo, not because he was the first to pen a treatise on the subject, (Antonio Manciolino published his treatise, also titled the Opera Nova, at least four years before Marozzo) but because – in my opinion, at least – he was the first to put forth an all-inclusive and coherent system of personal combat. Later, we will examine the medieval masters, but for now, let us start with:


Marozzo, (1484 – 1553) we believe, was born in Bologna and published his work, the Opera Nova, in Modena in 1536. Its full title is “Opera Nova dell’Arte delle Armi,” or “The New Text on the Art of Arms,” dedicating it to Count Ragnoli. His work is quite comprehensive and includes commentary on:

The sword and buckler, (including both the small and “broad” buckler)

Sword and targa, (a shield carried with an arm strap and hand grip)

Sword and dagger,

Sword and cape, single sword and two-sword, (case)

Sword and rotella, (a larger shield carried in the manner of a targa)

The two-handed sword,

Polearms, (the lance, ronca – sometimes termed a ranseur, which had a straight, long narrow central blade with two smaller, usually upturned blades at its base – the spetum, which for my money, is a ronca with a different name and the partisan – a weapon similar to the previous ronca and spetum except that it has a much broader blade and its lower secondary blades are considerably less pronounced,

Unarmed and dagger combat, plus a separate treatise on the judicial duel. He also addresses defence against a person on horseback. He also gives very specific instruction on how best t deal with a left-handed fencer.

Marozzo himself says he was schooled under Guido Antonio de Luca and we suspect, although do not have definitive proof, that the later masters, Viggiani and Dall’Agocchie may have studied under him. Before we proceed to the details, I think it important to understand that Marozzo, like Manciolino, was an active practitioner and taught that which he knew worked.

The sword of Marozzo’s time, the Spada da Filo or “edge sword,” was still somewhat medieval in its design: a reasonably wide-bladed, double-edged weapon with a functional, but not pronounced thrusting point. The cross-guard (or quillon) is depicted as mostly straight, occasionally with a lateral “S” curve. The lower portion of the blade (the ricasso) was squared off owing to the fact that the grip put the forefinger over the quillon. For added protection to the now-exposed digit, the weapon had two half-rings coming off the cross-bar, curving upwards to almost touch the ricasso. The sword is also depicted as sometimes also having a simple, perfunctory half-ring connected to the pas-d’ane rings coming from the quillon on the knuckle-side, ostensibly to help protect the hand from a down-sliding blade, although this feature is not illustrated as universal. The left-handed dagger is also similarly depicted with a grip identical to that of the sword.


Marozzo’s system uses both edges of the sword – the so-called “true” or leading edge and the “false” or back edge. Cuts delivered from the right to your opponent’s left are termed “Mandritti,” and cuts from your left, “Roversi.” Other cuts delivered horizontally, vertically upwards or downwards, or obliquely were styled “Tondo,” “Montante,” “Fendente,” and “Squalembrato,” each capable of being delivered with either edge of the sword. These last four cuts are appended by ‘mandritti” or “roversi” indicating the direction of the cut. Cuts struck with the false edge are specified as “falso dritto” and “falso manco.”

 Marozzo also uses a circular motion called a Molinello, in which the sword travels up to 360 degrees, the purpose being to add strength to the cut. There is also mention of half-cuts; in ch 57, Marozzo refers to a half-roverso. These are technically uncompleted cuts but can be delivered faster. Cuts are delivered from the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist, the largest moves being the most powerful, but slower, with increasing speed but diminishing force for the other two.


Marozzo’s text sparsely mentions the use of the point, although the accompanying illustrations clearly depict such usage. Indeed, this is typical of swordplay of the period.

There are four types of thrusts: the punta dritta or just punta, executed with the hand in pronation; the punta roversa, with the hand in supination; the imbroccata or overhand thrust, and the stoccata or underhand thrust.


Defensively, Marozzo’s system teaches to void a cut by moving the body backwards or to the side, meeting the attack with the buckler or the cloak or meeting the attack with a direct counter-attack to your opponent’s weapon the moment he launches his attack, thus deflecting the incoming blade away, and then continuing the move forwards to create continuous counter-attack. This blow was most often aimed at the face.

During this period, there was no systematized methodology for parrying with the sword – ie: a series of specific positions such as exist in sabre, epee or foil. Sword defense involved both edges of the blade (and a note here for the “always parry with the flat” crowd, Marozzo specifically instructs to parry with “the true edge”) and when reading the text, you need to understand that the terms “falso manco” and “falso dritto” refer to both cuts and defensive blade actions, depending on context.

Movement could start with either foot forward depending on the weapon/s involve and the initial body position. Regardless of what foot was advanced, it’s important to note that weight, while not entirely evenly distributed, must still allow for either foot to be lifted and change position without compromising balance.

Here’s an important point regarding the study of the illustrations in historical texts such as the Opera Nova. Morozzo’s illustrations (and other treatises besides) show the combatant on a grid, the size of each square being capable of extrapolation by comparing it to the size of the swordsman’s foot. This, plus the number of squares from the forward to rear foot, the number of squares between the displacement sideways of the forward and rear foot and the shadows so depicted (which in the Opera Nova are not particularly strongly featured) also serve to show the proportion of the stance.

One of the principles which Marozzo is adamant is that you must never defend without attacking or attack without defending. Attacks can also have a “second intention,” which infers that the first movement is not the primary attack, but a feint to open the desired target. He also admonishes that you must never withdraw from an attack without covering yourself in a Guard.

Foot movement isn’t specifically defined by Marozzo, but can be inferred by references and illustrations of his various techniques.

The Passo or stepping move is executed much as a modern forward step advance where the forward foot leads the action with the rear foot immediately recovering to place the feet in their original position.

The Reddoppio, or “redoubling” is done by moving the rear foot forward to the back of the forward foot which immediately moves forward to bring you back to your original position.

The Fente or Gran Passo (big step) is essentially a lunge where the forward foot executes a large measure forward while the rear foot remains stationary, then, the blow having been made, the forward foot immediately recovers its original position.

The Passata is a step by the rear foot that passes the front foot to become the new forward foot. This is used to change from a right guard position to a left guard position or to close to attempt grappling. A “gran passata” is this move using a longer stride.


First, it’s very important to understand that a “guard” position in Marozzo (and many subsequent treaties) doesn’t really “guard” anything per ce, but is a position from which to launch attacks and to assume a defence. The guardia can also be used as an invitation to your opponent to attack open targets. From CH 138 to 143 Marozzo illustrates fifteen guard positions although he doesn’t go into a lot of depth explaining them. To better extrapolate his system, we can compare it to the existing texts of Manciolino and Dall’Aggochie. Also please note that the numbers listed below are mine and do not reflect the numbers in Marozzo’s text.

1 – The Coda Longa (long tail): The sword is held away from the body with the hilt at hip level, hand in supination, and the point directed towards your opponent. The buckler is advanced forward with the arm almost straight. With the right leg forward, this guard is termed Longa e Stretta, with the left leg forward, Longa e Alta. When the sword’s point is allowed to lower to point to the ground at a 45 degree angle similar to a modern seconde parry, this is called Longa e Larga. When the sword is held back so the hilt is behind the hip and the blade is angled to the ground as in Larga, this is termed Longa e Distesa.

2 – Porta de Ferro (the iron door): With the right foot forward, the buckler is held at upper chest level and close to the body (but never touching the chest) and the sword is held low with the hilt just above the right knee with the point angled forward. With the left foot forward and the right shoulder facing the enemy, this is known as Cinghira. (the wild boar) The sword is now held with the forearm across the body and the hilt below the hip, point angled forward. This is also termed Cinghira stretta. (narrow guard) If the sword is moved to the right side with the hilt slightly below the knee and the point opened to the right, this is termed “larga,” or “large.” This is also the term for the Porta de Ferro (right foot forward) if the sword is shifted to the right side. In both cases, the term refers to the fact that you are opening up your target areas, perhaps to invite a predictable attack.

If, in these above positions, the sword is raised to just below the shoulder, the arm advanced and the point forward, the new position is called Alta, as in Porta de Ferro Alta.

3 – Guardia de Testa (head guard): Here, the right leg is forward, the buckler is held over the left breast with the sword above the head, hilt outside the line of the right shoulder and the point slightly elevated and advanced forward, very similar to a modern sabre guard of 5.

4 – Guardia de Faccia (face guard): The body and buckler position is the same but the sword is held at shoulder level, arm fully extended and the hand in supination, true edge facing to your left.

5 – Guardia d’Intrare (entering guard): Same as the above, but the sword hand is turned to pronation with the true edge facing the right. It is postulated that the name comes from the idea that this is a strong position with which to “enter” your opponent’s guard.

6 – Becca Cesa and Possa: The meaning of the term “becca” is unclear since the term, in ancient Italian, can mean several things. From the Latin “caesa” it could mean “to be defeated.” Also, since the sword’s blade crosses the upper body obliquely, it could also refer to another meaning, “baldric,” an over-the-shoulder sword belt. Similarly, the term “possa” and “cesa” can mean “strong” and “weak,” perhaps referring to the position of the feet. However, I recently learned an alternate translation – “horned.” This term is used in Dall’Aggochie’s text where the guard is called Guardia de Alicornio, the guard of the unicorn. This sort of harkens back to the German longsword guard of Der Ochs, which ostensibly resembles the presented horns of the ox.

In any case, the guard, with left foot forward (cesa) and the right foot forward (possa) both have the buckler covering the left breast held about a foot away from the chest and the sword elevated on the right so that the hilt is held slightly above and to the outside of the right side of the head, with the point angled to your opponent’s center line.

6 – Guardia Alta (high guard): The buckler is held towards your opponent with a straight arm and the sword held as high as possible, also with a straight arm, on the right side with the point angled slightly back and the weapon  at a 45 degree angle to the body. The position is the same whether the right or left foot is forward. This position is also found in Longsword and, in the text of Filipo Vadi in De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi as the Guardia di Falcone.

(Just a little cross-cultural side-bar here: A similar guard is found in the German school of longsword which in itself is almost identical to the Japanese Iaido positions known as Jodan. Since the guard is a rather blatant invitation to get a heavy trip laid on your head, many Japanese consider it insulting to take such a guard against a master. Just sayin’…)

7 – Guardia di Sopra il Braccio and Guardia di Sotta il Braccio (the overarm guard and the underarm guard): In Sopra position, the buckler is held forward against the enemy and low, being positioned just outside the line of the body in mid to lower torso area just above the right hip. The sword arm crosses the torso to position itself above the edge of the buckler with the pommel facing forward and the blade just off the top of the left shoulder.

In Sotta position, the buckler position is high and to the outside of the body, covering just the tip of the right shoulder and the upper edge parallel to the eyes. The sword arm still crosses the chest, but the sword is held below the edge of the buckler with the pommel forward and the blade passing just under and beside the left armpit.

Both these positions are done with the left foot forward.

8 – Guardia de Fianco (flank guard): Mentioned only once by Marozzo, and then, describing it in the use of case or two-sword, the guard, similar to the sabre guard of septime, has the sword arm cross the body, hand in supination, point slightly forward, to defend with the outer edge.

Just one more reminder that you should not equate the term “guard” with “parry;” the first is a position, the second is an action. However, a guard can obviously also be used defensively, in which case it becomes an action. Also remember that the above descriptions are not inclusive of ALL Marozzo’s guardia regarding rapier or rapier and buckler, or any of several other weapons since I’d prefer an essay not to turn into a book. What I am attempting is to impart some basic principles so you can refer to the text and illustrations with some foreknowledge that will help you interpret them.

In conclusion, Marozzo’s OPERA NOVA is an extremely detailed and inclusive treatise on the use of bladed weapons as well as a highly effective system of unarmed combat that was typical of the Bolognese systems of the day. It’s also necessary to stress that this had nothing to do with sport but was a very realistic and in some cases, brutal, system of defense in situations of life and death. The concepts of “win” or “lose” should more properly be termed “live” or “die.”

Also remember that this essay has barely scratched the surface of the content of the OPERA NOVA; locate a good translation and read it for yourself.

Our next master in this series will be Camillo Agrippa who began the simplification of the Marozzo system and added his own contributions to the continuing evolution of rapier combat.




Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment



Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment

Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment

A Corpse Once Won an Olympic Event

Here’s a little combat-related historical tidbit for you. It’s not related to bladed weapons but it definitely falls within the purview of historical combat.

I’m sure everyone recognizes the term, if not the art of Pankration. It was introduced into the Olympic games in 648 BC. The name loosely translates into “all might.”

Back in 564 BC, there was a pankration match between Arrhichion of Phigalia and an opponent whose name has been lost in the mists of time. Arrhichaion was desperately trying to get out of a choke hold and managed to escape by breaking his opponent’s toe or ankle, depending on the source.

His opponent conceded and Arrhichion was declared the winner. Unfortunately, he didn’t rise to receive the adulation of the crowd. It was then that the officials learned that his indifference to the applause was due to the fact that he was dead.

However, by this time, due to his opponent’s concession, he had already been declared the victor, and the officials upheld their decision. His body was borne away in, one might hope, respectfully subdued triumph.

So Arrhichion of Phigalia became the one and only corpse to ever win an Olympic event.

Posted in The "Street Defense" series | Leave a comment


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.



Posted in The "Street Defense" series | 2 Comments


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…







Posted in The "Street Defense" series | 1 Comment