Saturday, July 6, 2013

Simplified swordsmanship: Burton's "New Exercise"

Sir Richard Burton (not the actor, the other one) was hardly the first man to discover something clever and mistake it for something profound, and surely not the last.  So then we need not blame him very much, but would be better and more charitably advised to learn from his mistakes. When closely analyzed, his "semi-moulinet" technique, which forms the heart of his saber system, consists of a clever flip of the wrist, allowing whiplike snap cuts to be made promptly from any parry, and a parry to be made at once, following any cut. There are some advantages that are worth knowing about in this scheme, but the method brings along with it some difficulties and disadvantages that Burton does not fully acknowledge.

Burton's cuts.
Cuts 1 and 2 are the same as 3 through 10, except for their height.
The  New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry,* published in 1876, radically simplifies the foundation of saber fencing, reducing it to just two guards and what amounts to, essentially, a system of carte and tierce cuts, continuously linked as per the diagram. To make this work out, Burton must eliminate the hanging guards, guards 1 and 2 in modern saber parlance. Since they cannot be made to fit in they must be disparaged; he condemns them pretty thoroughly. Stepping back is the means Burton recommends for defending against attacks upon the leg.

The clever part is that now all cuts can be linked seamlessly to either a followup cut or a speedy parry, since each cut terminates with a roll of the wrist. Your blade describes half a tight moulinet and now faces the opposite orientation. If that is not what you wanted your roll your wrist again, and the moulinet becomes a complete one, or three quarters--whatever you like. Now this is, I admit, very clever, and it allows for several fine possibilities, including the development of one's ability to make short, whiplike snap cuts,  a possibility Burton exploits. He endorses whipping attacks upon the opponent's forearm and goes into considerable detail about how to make such cuts. His advice on the matter is somewhat complicated. He admits as much, to his credit. The forearm attacks are a very valuable application of his system; while the mechanics of the system itself are commendably simple, this use of them is not so simple, a matter I shall visit in a moment.

Burton's cuts (diagonally downward and diagonally upward, from the left and from the right) can be flexibly applied, when necessary becoming horizontal cuts or nearly vertical ones. He endorses making snap cuts with the false edge, when that is more convenient and quicker than rolling the blade over to strike. Likewise the two parries, tierce and carte (3 and 4), are used flexibly, high or low. They can be be inclined to protect from attacks overhead, in a high tierce parry that serves the purpose of parry 5, and a mirror image of the same on the carte side. There is thus a good deal of versatility left in the trimmed-down body of techniques the system contains. Burton endorses the thrust but points out that it is best learned in a fencing academy, not from a military drill set down in a book. If you do thrusts by rote, it is easy to run yourself onto the other fellow's point.

Burton achieved something quite interesting by linking all his movements together by "semi-moulinets," but there is a pitfall. The tendency when fencing Burton's way is to move the blade side to side in a predictable manner, rather like someone painting a house with a paintbrush. One needs to think a bit to figure out how to be varied and deceptive. Because movements conclude with wrist and sword rolled through a "semi-moulinet," and this is ingrained as habit, it is easy to overlook further possibilities, such as a full moulinet that redoubles the attack in the same line. The mechanics of the system are simple enough that you have to remember, and remind yourself, to be clever with them.

The system specializes in attacks of short trajectory and seeks to avoid using big looping attacks that make long wind-ups before delivering. That is fine if you can generate enough power in a short movement, but some people, in some situations, may need a different approach. If the swordsman is tired and his sword is dull, or if his foe is wearing an overcoat, he may need to take a big swing. There is, of course, the problem of exposing the body when raising the sword. Concern over that problem explains Burton's emphasis on making short arcs with the blade. Burton says, "[The whip cut] is the principal Cut allowed in my system; it is capable of sufficient effect upon the opponent whilst it does not uncover the swordsman who uses it."

These swift but comparatively weak whiplike attacks need vulnerable targets. They are ideal for attacking the opponent's forearm or wrist. Such attacks are challenging to learn. Burton's system does not give its user full value unless the forearm attacks are mastered, however. Inasmuch as these subtle attacks are difficult to teach in squad drills, the method does not quite supply what a military organization needs, effective training that is at the same time straightforward to teach and to learn.

It is amusing to read the opprobrium Burton heaps upon the hanging guard.
The "Hanging guard"... is the worst that can be imagined -- a painful spectacle, a lesson of "what to avoid." The head ignobly cowers, and the eyes look up, in a forced and wearying position, when the former should be held upright, and the glance should be naturally fixed upon the opponent's eye and blade-point; the body is bent so as to lose our national advantage of height and strength, and the right fore-arm in such a position is, and ever must be, clean uncovered. Let the recruit, however strong may be his haunches, stand a few minutes in this "Hanging guard," and he will soon feel by his fatigue how strange, awkward, and strained it is.
And again:
I have already expressed my opinion concerning the Guard...popularly called the "hanging Guard." Even with the best position, the head erect and the eyes looking straight and not upwards; it is utterly faulty; it displaces the arm and the sword, and as no serious attack can be made directly from it, it necessitates a movement entailing a considerable amount of exposure. It is now chiefly confined to students' duels with the German Schläeger, wherein slitting the opposing nose, which can be done with a mere jerk upwards, is the swordsman's highest aim and ambition.
Similarly, he says this about about using hanging parries to defend the forward leg:
This limb requires no assistance of the kind: an able swordsman never exposes his head and shoulders by cutting so low, and if he does, the leg can be smartly withdrawn (parade retrograde, or en échappant), rendering the attack not only useless but dangerous to the assailant. Even in fencing, "low thrusts," that is, at the body below the wrist, are never made, for fear of the "Time" being taken, until the upper line has been closed by a feint. In our Single-stick practice the first thought seems to be to attack the advanced leg -- which may be well enough for Single-stick.

I have my doubts that pulling in the leg is always an adequate defense of the leg. If your foe were standing in a hole or behind a parapet, you would be glad to know parries that protect the lowest of low lines, likewise if you were to find yourself standing atop something and your enemy standing at ground level, or if you were above him, and he below you, on a flight of stairs.

Burton, moreover, never gives due credit to the hanging guard's virtues. It is a strong and versatile parry that protects against a wide variety of attacks, high or low. From what I can glean, many years after the fact, the hanging guard was very widely used by the soldiery, for it offers a good and simple defense. It is fatiguing and the ripostes possible from it are few and slow. These drawbacks notwithstanding, the troops liked it because it worked and was easy to get right.

The classic saber method that included hanging and upright guards, together with the overhead guard (5, or St. George), and included big swings as well as small ones, continued in use despite Burton's attempt at reforming the status quo. It was more than just the inertia of military institutions that caused this, strong as that inertia is, in any country. There is something that is questionable, at least, about giving up some of your weapon's potential for the sake of making it simpler to use. By concentrating on a specific subset of the possible techniques, Burton's method did just that. On the other hand, if you do not use your sword well because your method is unwieldy or too complex, that is not a good thing either. It is the second part of the problem that Burton tried to address. His answer was to devise a method that was simple, consistent and had an advantage, of a kind, offensively.

Burton could claim, with good justification, that his method was superior in one way to the status quo method he wished to replace with his own. His method was swifter on the counterattack. His forearm attacks, in particular, are nasty and efficient. His method also has evident drawbacks; he blustered his way past them.

Impressed or even over-impressed by its advantages, Burton took a single idea, the semi-moulinet, as far as it would go. A fully consistent, seamlessly linked system of cuts and parries, all done with minimal exposure, is impossible in the old system he sought to replace with his own; he achieved it in his. But he achieved consistency by jettisoning useful techniques. Battle experience showed the old method to be a good one. It continued to serve, in one rendition or another, for so long as fighting men still wore sabers, or cutlasses, or hangers. Across Europe, and in America, military practice had settled on essentially the same method, and that method was the very thing Burton wanted to reform and replace. Burton's manual was circulated, read and quietly shelved.

Update: If you have read this far, you might enjoy my thoughts about "Improving upon Burton's saber method."

Another update: I look at Burton's manchette tactics in "Saber attacks: Burton's manchette tactics examined."

* Where to obtain the manual, "A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry" by Richard F. Burton, discussed in this critique or review:

Real book (a reprint)
New System of Sword Exercise on Amazon

 Page images, PDF format

HTML transcription w/ plates

Multiple formats from                                                                                  

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