Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saber attacks: Burton's manchette tactics examined

This is the third time I have taken up the matter of Burton's New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry. Here is my first article about it, a book review, not altogether favorable.

Second I examined some good aspects of his system and modified them slightly, to better suit my own tastes.

Now I am going to consider Burton's method of attacking the opponent's sword hand, wrist and forearm. It is the flower of his system. Indeed, the whole system makes little sense without manchette attacks as its focus and best purpose. Continuing what I started in my second article, I am going to propose some changes that I take to be improvements.

I think Burton's manchette method as he wrote it down is hampered by certain technical inconsistencies within it and by the terse and in places opaque explanations he gave. But I wish to give credit where it is due. It may be that the method would seem much better if we could in person experience him using it, rather than reading his explanation generations later. It may be that the extraneous or inconsistent aspects in his system actually got little use in practice, but were included in the treatise for completeness. It is certain that seeing a demonstration would be more useful than reading the explanations as we have them.

I will quote Burton directly for what is the only absolutely clear statement he makes about manchette tactics: "A golden rule which cannot be repeated too often is that all the Manchette-Cuts in Tierce (outside), either from above or from below, must be as nearly vertical as possible, whilst all the Cuts in Carte (inside) should be as horizontal as they can be made. The reason is simply that these positions cover the arm and render the attack less dangerous." Let us bear that principle in mind in perusing what follows.

A very good online edition of Burton's manual can be found here:  . You may wish to refer to it from time to time as I discuss some or other aspect of the system. 

Burton divides the techniques in his manchette method into five headings, as follows:
  • Direct Cuts
  • Reverse Cuts
  • Time Cuts
  • Feints of Coupé in Manchette
  • Feints of Seconde in Manchette
The highlighted portion below is cut-and-pasted from Burton. It is his summation of the method, given in a form common in fencing manuals of the day. The first column names an attack, the second the proper or likely defense, and the third gives a counter-attack.


The following is a synoptical tape of Manchette or Fore-arm play, showing the Cuts, the Guards (Parries) for the Cuts, and the Ripostes or replies that should follow each Parade. The Instructor will remember that instead of Prime we use High Tierce or High Carte, and for Seconde Low Tierce or withdrawing the leg.

Direct Cuts.
1. Carte de ManchetteIV. (Carte)II. (Seconde).
2. Ditto and cut Tierce.IV. and III. (Tierce)III.
3. Double Carte de Manchette and cut Carte.IV., III., and IV.II.
4. Double Carte de Manchette and cut Tierce.Parade Retrograde by withdrawing arm.III. or IV.


Reverse Cuts.
1. Half-feint.II. or III.III. or IV.
2. Feint Seconde and cut upwards.II.Cut with false edge upwards.
3. Feint Tierce and cut upwards.III. and II.II.
4. One-two-three, and cut upwards.Parade Retrograde.III. or IV.
5. The Pass.II. and I. (Prime).III.


Time Cuts.
1. On all Cuts in Carte.Parry with time in IV. Carte de Manchette.IV.
2. On feints in Carte ending with Cuts in TierceParade RetrogradeIII. or IV.
3. On Cuts in TierceReverse Cut upwards.III.
4. On Reverse Cut upwards.II. and III.IV.
5. On Cuts in Seconde.The Time Pass. III


Feints of Coupé in Manchette
1. Single Coupé.III. or IV.II.
2. One-two.IV. and III.III.
3. One-two-three.II., III. and II.III. or IV.
4. One-two-three-four.Parade Retrograde.III


Feints of Seconde in Manchette.
1. Simple Seconde.II.III.
2. Feint Seconde and cut Tierce.II. and III.III. or IV.
3. Feint Seconde, feint Tierce, and cut Carte.II., III., and II.III. or IV.
4. Feint Seconde, feint Tierce, and cut Seconde.Parade Retrograde.III. or IV.

If you are at all like me in the way you read such things, you have been waving your hand or a pencil in the air while reading, or perhaps a fencing saber if you happen to keep one handy. But as you familiarize yourself with the sequences of attack, parry and riposte, it's good to do so with a critical eye on the proceedings. 

If I am reading Burton aright, he abhors seconde as a guard or parry, but countenances it as a feint or cut. I think that, when he reminds us that we are to use tierce instead of seconde, he means only that we are not to use seconde as a parry. I think that is what he means because his descriptions speak of seconde feints and cuts in ways that make best sense if taken literally as seconde, not seconde as code for low tierce. In trying to understand why he might think the seconde feint is all right, it occurred to me that holding the sword in seconde can serve the same functions as coupé, or cut-over, but do so inverted, that is, below the opponent's sword not above it. Burton mistrusts the usual inversion of coupé, which is the degage (disengagement). He writes, "If the opponent attempt to "degage," that is to pass his point under your blade from Tierce to Carte, or vice versâ, retire by withdrawing the right heel to the left, and cut at the arm which his movement has exposed." Seconde, though, can get you under the opponent's sword while affording you the protection of keeping your blade inclined with respect to the opponent's: the hanging guard he so despised in the earlier part of his treatise is implicitly an advantage here.

From Burton's New Sword Exercise
What I think happened is that Burton understood the degage in fencing-school terms, that is, as being necessarily like the foil maneuver in which the blade disengages nearly parallel to the ground, thus offering no protection from a cut. Let us re-examine that assumption. It is possible to adapt the degage to saber use, leaving the blade inclined with respect to the opposing blade. It's accomplished using Burton's low tierce/low carte and a hint of "parade retrograde" if needed. Your point passes near below the opposing blade but your hand is far below, and your blade retains enough inclination to parry. If we do that we can dispense with seconde even as a feint.  Notice that it takes only a very small rotation of your point to the left or right to place your blade on the other side of your opponent's sword when you again raise your hand. 

If we cannot make this modified degage work reliably, then perhaps we can simply do without switching sides beneath the opposing sword, relying, instead, upon hopping over it with coup
és. An opponent of very short stature would, I admit, make the modified degage impractical. 

The advantage of doing away with seconde is that including it mars the consistent nature and smooth flow of Burton's system of linked tierces and cartes, linked together as they are by his innovation of semi-moulinets. The system is smoother and cleaner without seconde. Burton's illustration of his guards shows, but does not name, seconde formed high and low, a ghostly un-named presence in the system.

Of course, whatever you think of seconde, other people may elect to use it, so it makes sense to account for it in the system, at least so far as understanding how to answer it. But the improvement in flow when one removes it from one's own movements bears out the theory that logical consistency is beneficial even in real-world pursuits.

In a previous installment, I gave my doubts about the real usefulness of reverse cuts. They are well and good in fencing bouts because they count as hits, according to the rule book. In a military setting they may lack sufficient force to be effective. Whether I am right about that or not, using them introduces another inconsistent element into the flowing system of semi-moulinets. The movements are more harmonious and smoother without the reverses. Burton's system is more self-consistent without them, but he plainly likes them, and so here they are. He mentions a couple of instances in which the cut with the true edge can be used instead, but with a loss of time. I would have said instead that the false edge could be used there, but with a loss of power.

I notice that of the several real (not fencing) sabers I have around the house, not one of them is equipped with a false edge. Their designers did not find that refinement important. I would perforce do without the reverse cuts if somehow I found myself in a war involving sabers. 
Not all sabers had back edges historically, but in Burton's era the feature was common--and he criticized that it generally went unused. I, though, surmise that it went unused because it was not very useful.

This video from a modern fencing master shows that a good bit of what Burton was driving at anticipated later theory. The video mentions manchette stop cuts and shows the importance of remaining covered while you attack, and how reverse cuts can help you to keep covered. I think Burton would have seen in it much to commend. 

My own view of the matter is that three of the five divisions of Burton's manchette technique are simply splendid. Alter one element out of the five, the almost hypocritical uses of seconde, and delete another, the questionably efficacious reverse cuts, and the method's virtues emerge more clearly. It becomes a smoothly flowing and indeed brilliant display of fast swordsmanship. The underlying brilliance of it has been obscured, for more than a century, by Burton's presentation, which induces undue complexities, creates points of unclarity, explains things so as to minimize the method's problems rather than address them squarely, and is marred by an overall tone of bluster. 

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