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. The importance of parrying in saber work was well explained by Louis Rondelle in 1892: "It is incontestably true that in the case of the sabre a good parrier always wins. Strong in parries, he never fears the adverse attack. He waits for it and even provokes it that he may have the advantage of a Time Thrust or a good Riposte, which, made within distance, will invariably count."

Burton's system is more offense-oriented, and weaker in parries. Three principal parries are gone (the ones called 1, 2 and 5 in modern saber fencing parlance). The two parries that remain (3 and 4) must pull extra duty to make up for the absence of the others. 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 counterattack 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 usefulness 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 the 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.

The genius in Burton's method is in arranging the parries so that the semi-moulinet is always readily available with a roll of the wrist, and if you need it, a tight-arc full moulinet is quickly accomplished by a second roll of the wrist. It all flows very consistently from limiting the parries to variations on tierce and carte.

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 effective substitutes for using the true edge, because it is difficult to get much force behind such cuts. Their presence in Burton's system furthermore introduces an inconsistency of method, where both thinking and movement must reverse to proceed in a new way. Burton observed that few soldiers used the false edge, and he objected to their failure to do so, but he seemingly neglected the possibility that they had considered it and decided it was not worth the trouble.

2. Permit low parries. Burton's system is incomplete for the lack of them. He radically eliminated the hanging guards because they would not work with his system--very well. 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, a parry of septime, but I would call it downward carte for the sake of avoiding confusion. (These point-downward 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 will work with Burton's semi-moulinet technique, while 1 and 2 will 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 characterization of the thrust as something that needs to be learned in the fencing school because it can't be taught properly on the drill ground. The key concept in opposition work 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 through partner practice, no fencing master required.

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.


Update: See for my remarks on the manchette method.

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