Monday, September 15, 2014

Smallsword simplified

"Fencing made easy" is an impossibility, but in earlier times there were some attempts made to at least simplify it a bit.

The smallsword developed as a shorter, lighter rapier, very fast to maneuver. In its ultimate development it lost its cutting edges, the blade being formed as a hollow-ground spike of triangular cross section, very light, and very stiff for its weight. Thus all other qualities were sacrificed for speed, and attacks were perforce made with the point.

This is the weapon that gave us the intricate maneuvers of foil and épée fencing. As anyone knows who has tried it, such fencing involves a complex apparatus of defensive techniques--parries and deceptive moves and attempts to push the other fellow's blade around. Use of the smallsword is, though, simple in one respect. All attacks work alike. You extend your arm, pointing your blade to the target, and then you lunge. The reason for the many and complicated defenses is that it is very easy for both swordsmen to be impaled when they use that style of attack. If you stab your opponent, but run yourself upon his sword while you do it, it cannot sensibly be regarded as a tie.

So simplicity in one area bred complexity in another. You can learn to attack in five minutes of instruction, and perfect the action in a week, but getting the defensive aspect down properly can take years, for defense is a bit of an arcane art. As a result, incidents in which both combatants were run through were frequent, in the days when gentlemen wore smallswords and settled their quarrels with them.

Attempts to simplify the defensive part led to some eccentric fencing methods that tried to offer adequate defenses while being easier to understand and use than the arcana of the fencing schools. I find these alternative fencing methods fascinating. The idea behind them is not to be a picture perfect fencer, but to defend well enough survive a deadly attack on the street, or a duel.

The best of these simplified methods, in my opinion, are two by Sir William Hope and another developed by Baron César de Bazancourt. There are some others, but the ones I suggest were composed by men who thoroughly acquainted themselves with the school methods first, and then looked to simplify them. Some of the other reinterpretations of fencing were the work of blowhards or dandies. The methods of Hope and Bazancourt are available free online. If this aspect of the smallsword's use interests you, you will find plenty to enjoy at these links:

Hope's first attempt, published in 1692:

Hope's controversial second attempt, 1707:

Bazancourt, 1862:  (in English)

Bazancourt in the original Klingon:

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