Friday, July 12, 2013

Improving upon Burton's saber method

I previously critiqued Sir Richard Francis Burton's A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry. In that posting you can find links to his book, free online and in print for money. There is much that I do not like about Burton's system, but some parts of it stand out as meriting further attention and the honest form of flattery, imitation. I here offer what I think are improvements to the method Burton published back in 1876.

Burton wanted to scrap the old and well-proven method of teaching soldiers to use their sabers, in favor of something quite different. The sturdy old system of five parries (or a few more) did everything that was asked of it, for as long as men wore sabers, cutlasses and hanger swords. It is still in use in today's sport of saber fencing. This fine old method, which Burton sought to replace, is good because it is defensively oriented. The parries are the main things; it is then a matter of discovering practical ripostes from these very secure parries. The emphasis is on not getting cut or stabbed, which is a sensible focus for one's studies. The parries, ideally, meet the opposing blade in steep inclination, near right angles, making them secure defenses. That is the real strength of the old system.

Burton's system is more offense-oriented. Three parries are gone (the ones called 1, 2 and 5 in modern saber fencing parlance) and the two that remain (3 and 4) must pull extra duty to make up for their absence. The compensating virtue is that your parry never puts your blade in a position that makes it difficult for you to counterattack. Here Burton's idea is to attack using rapid whiplike snap cuts. The key innovation is linking the cuts and parries together in a system of "semi-moulinets." If handling a real saber of full weight, not the Olympic "fairy wand saber," the use of this linking is clear. You can quickly reverse course without undue exposure to counterattack, and after you make a cut you can swiftly follow it up with another cut or with a parry.

I became impressed with this idea while clearing some ground by the use of a machete. Burton's clever roll of the wrist, with a slight elevation of the point, made it easy to send the blade whizzing back and forth among my foes, the weeds. I could have at any moment made a parry, had they been inclined to fight back like honest foes, rather than by craven, ungentlemanly use of their thorns.

Burton's basic idea is a good one, making excellent use of the arm's musculature and hinges to allow rapid maneuvering of the blade. The parries are not as numerous as in the classic method and the emphasis is no longer on defense. In the old method, offense is like an afterthought to the very sound defense. In Burton's method, it is the parries that are the afterthoughts.

How I would change Burton's method

1. Eliminate the reverse cuts. They are mainly an affectation. There are few situations in a military context, as distinct from sport fencing, in which they would be timely and effective substitutes for using the true edge. Their presence in Burton's system needlessly introduces an inconsistency of method. Burton observes that few people use or even sharpen the false edge, and he objects, but seems to neglect the possibility that people considered it and decided it was not worth the trouble.

2. Permit low parries. Burton's system is incomplete for the lack of them. So as to maintain consistency with the scheme Burton has established, I would make the low parries as much as possible like the tierce and carte parries already in his system. The difference is that these downward-sloping parries that I propose are formed with the point of the sword below the level of the hand. Thus I would add downward tierce (a quasi-seconde without overpronation of the hand, and with the arm well extended) and downward carte, not calling it "septime" for the sake of avoiding confusion. (These positions appear, fleetingly, in performing cuts 11 and 12 of Burton's system.) They are not the best low parries I can think of; that honor must go to the saber parries called 1 and 2 in modern parlance, but the parries I propose are consistent with Burton's semi-moulinet technique, while 1 and 2 are not.

3. Lastly I would add a thrust to the system, just one, the opposition thrust in tierce. It is the safest of point attacks to make. That disposes of Burton's objection to the thrust as something that needs to be learned in the fencing school rather than the drill ground. The key concept is that you thrust in such a way that the opposing sword is blocked so that it cannot move into a position to hurt you until after you have delivered your thrust. What is most needed to pull that off in tierce is well-developed intuition about when you can get away with the maneuver. That can be gained though partner practice.

Beyond these few technical changes, I would alter the emphasis in training. The idea should be to give the swordsman an intuitive sense of what cuts and parries he can make immediately, beginning from whatever position his sword is in at the moment, and which are a tempo away. It could be that this sixth sense understanding is conveyed adequately by osmosis to anyone who practices Burton's method for a while, but I would make it the central emphasis, to make sure that no one fails to gain it.

I would also do something about Burton's explanation of the manchette methods. I find it none too clear as it stands. As this has nothing to do with the technical basis of the fencing system itself, that is, the cuts and parries themselves, but instead is a matter of applications of the system, perhaps I can be excused if I leave the matter for another day.

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