Weighty Matters: Italian Saber vs. Broadsword in late Victorian Britain

Despite all efforts to force the history of 19th-century saber fencing into a corset of linear descendancy, it would appear that historical reality is an uncooperative witness.

Like in the controversy if the Italian duelling saber or the good old broadsword were the prime manifestations of fencing’s practicability. Let’s weigh some historians’ views…

 

by J. Christoph Amberger

 

Baltimore, MD—Interest in historical fencing systems appears to be a cyclical occurrence, with major revivalist periods occurring roughly every 100 years.

Common to the Historical European Martial Arts movements that captured sword enthusiasts in the 1990’s and, earlier, in the 1890’s, is a tendency to disdain the current state of fencing as unrealistic, unduly refined, or plain degenerate. On occasion, the immersion in the sources may lead to retroactive and artificial perceptions that may not be any more accurate than the simplistic historicizing that we had gotten used to in the fencing books of the 20th century.

In his Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (2000), Sydney Anglo gets caught up in the Victorian debate about the optimal use of the saber. [1] He summarizes Colonel Cyril G.R. Matthey’s “powerful plea for the relevance of the Elizabethan master [George Silver] to contemporary warfare.” Matthey, “with the encouragement of Captain Alfred Hutton” [2] had reissued Silver’s 1599 Paradoxes of Defence, along with a brand-new transcript of his Bref Instructions, which were published by George Bell in London in 1889. According to Anglo, he “contended that there was little or no distinction between the requirements of the duelist and that of the soldier.”

The 20th-century historian of British fencing, J.D. Aylward, writing a half century before his countryman Anglo, comments that “Matthey was persuaded that much of practical value in actual warfare could be learned from a study of Silver’s somewhat uninhibited methods of action, but, in fact his experience in the 1914-1918 War, in which he distinguished himself, must have convinced him reluctantly that the sword, as a military weapon, has had its day.” [3]

Aylward counts Matthey among the leaders of the “unwearied propaganda crusade” launched by distinguished fencing amateurs, chief among them were Sir Richard Burton and Sir Alfred Hutton (“late Dragoon Guards”), fencing’s great bibliographer Captain Carl Thimm and Matthey [4] of the Volunteers, and civilian Egerton Castle, all of whom left monuments to fencing historiography that in many cases remain unsurpassed in scope if not entirely in accuracy.

Much is made of Matthey’s aversion to the contemporary practice of saber fencing: He “felt that fencing, as it was taught [around 1900], was bound by artificial conventions which made practice more useful on the duelling ground than on the field of battle. Many movements practicable with the Italian featherweight duelling sabre were impractical with the regulation infantry sword.” [5]

Anglo recycles this thought as “the inhibiting irrelevancies of complicated parries and moves feasible with the featherweight duelling sabre in the fencing school but utterly impossible with the regulation sword.” [6]

We’d like to save those supposedly complicated parries and considerations on the usefulness of the saber as a weapon of war at the eve of the 20th century for a later piece. Let’s spend a minute on those “featherweight duelling sabers” which supposedly were turning stalwart English soldiers into prancing fops.

It should be pointed out that military duels involving sabers were as rare as hen’s teeth in Britain, especially in the late 19th century. Even on the Continent, officers had been abandoning the saber in favor of the épée (in France) and the duelling pistol or revolver (in Germany.)

The paucity of British saber duels becomes especially noticeable when examining the contemporary literature: Despite his ability to draw on previous compilations from Steinmetz and Millingen, William Douglas, “late 10th Royal Hussars,” alludes to only four British military duels in which swords were drawn—and he lists dozens of duels in his book Duelling Days in the Army [7] (1887).

Three of those four duels were fought before the end of the 18th century. One, taking place right after the battle of Waterloo, involved swords only accidentally, after the combatants found that their pistols had not been loaded with balls and helped themselves to a pair of blades hanging from a tavern wall. All weapons used in all four duels were “rapiers,” i.e., smallswords.

It stands to reason that broadsword and saber practice in Britain at the time of Matthey’s writing didn’t consider the acquisition of dueling skills as a primary mandate. Military instruction focused both sword skills for mounted soldiers, as well as thrust and broadsword fencing for soldiers on foot.

As we shall see in a later article, the repertoire of the mounted sabreur was comparatively limited. It focused on defensive positions, executed during group practice on the command of the instructor. These shifting position s were supposed to cover both rider and horse and a small armory of simple, sweeping cuts executed with shoulder and elbow, rather than the wrist—forceful enough to seriously injure a fleeing foot soldier, knock out the bayonet-endowed rifle barrel of his more determined comrade, or the lance of an Uhlan. Whatever these drills may have been, calling it fencing would be a stretch!

"Fencing" on horseback required a different set of skills

Pedestrian cutting skills, still propagated throughout the British army by the Angelo clan, had changed very little from those of the late 1700’s and were taught using blunt broadswords (with straight or curved blades) or wooden singlesticks with leather hilts.

So what about the featherweight Italian sabers?

We decided to conduct an informal study of a number of weapons that would have been available for Matthey and his contemporaries, and compare them to the Italian Radaelli saber, with its characteristic double quillon: 

Popular 19th-ct. saber models vs. the Radaelli

A   An Austrian cavalry saber from around 1840, whose innovative blade and grip structure allowed the establishment of somewhat of a “pistol” grip designed to increase the acceleration of the clipped point during the full cut.

B   The famous 1796 Light Calvary saber, the quintessential weapon of the mounted soldier during the 19th century.

C    The War of 1812 American version of the 1796 model, with its machete-like enlargement of the foible, which makes it one of the nastiest weapons in the history of modern edged weapons combat.

D    A late 18th-ct. smallsword with a blade suitable for both cut and thrust.

E    A Runkel-outfitted British spadroon from the 1790’s—the same weapon depicted in the broadsword treatise wrongly ascribed to “C. Roworth.”

F An 1899 British Gymnasia-pattern practice sword.

The Radaelli-style saber weighed in at 540g—which correspond exactly with the weight of the British spadroon, whose configuration is at the core of most straight-blades fencing cut fencing systems of the 19th century. Predictably, it was heavier than the relatively short-bladed cut-and-thrust sword, and only 70g lighter than the 1796 model saber. Both the Austrian and the American weapons provided more heft at 650g and 800g, respectively, whereas the 1899 Gymnasia-pattern sword—introduced 10 years after Metthey’s writing—was only 180g heavier than the Radaelli.

Considering a modern sport saber with an S2000 weighs around 380g, the Italian sciabola di terreno certainly doesn’t really qualify as “featherweight” when compared to the metal practice broadsword used everywhere in the world. Especially when one takes into consideration that cut fencing in military British fencing establishments was taught using wooden singlesticks, which dry come in at a mere 270g.

U.S. wooden saber

So what sword do the historians have in mind when they talk about the “featherweight” duelling weapon? Are they looking at the later sports saber, which indeed is considerably lighter, as its purpose is no longer to simulate a debilitating cut via incision and percussion, but merely to score a touch with priority?

Leonardo Terrone [8] had quit London in 1901, finding the English “lacking in proper respect and appreciation” when it came to Italian saberplay. Bertrand narrated an exhibition match between the Italian master Guiseppe Magrini and a British amateur sabreur fencing according to the old school of elbow-generated cuts, who entered the contest “clad in heavy canvas, shin guards and cage-like mask, clutching a heavy blunted cavalry sword.” [9]

French cavalry during sword drills

Since Magrini died in 1911 and Bertrand left the city in 1901, we can assume that the match took place close to the year 1900. But if Magrini’s “light, fragile-looking silver-plated sabre” constituted somewhat of a novelty item, is Anglo right to assume that Matthey’s 1880’s wrath was indeed directed against the weight and popularity of the Radaelli saber?

What did they use for saber practice in late 19th-century London?

Brian Robson enlightened sword aficionados about British military sword practice in 1996, four years before the publication of Anglo’s work:

“In 1856 a special practice sword was introduced for the cavalry. This consisted of a Heavy Cavalry Pattern 1821 hilt fitted with an unfullered blade, double edged, with a round tip, 34 1/4” long. In 1869, matters were taken a stage further when cavalry regiments were ordered to provide themselves with practice swords by casting—that is to say condemning—30 of the worst of the troopers’ swords in the regiment; presumably these then had their edges blunted and the points rounded by the regimental armourer.”

Later cavalry practice swords were all adaptations of standard-issue combat patterns, and as such perfectly suited to the foreshortened repertoire of the mounted sabreur. How about practice on foot?

“A practice sword for dismounted troops was introduced in 1891. It was in fact the Sword, Staff-Seargeant’s Pattern 1889, for dismounted troops, with a gilt or iron Gothic hilt, but with the point rounded off, reducing the blade length to 31 3/4 inches. (…) In parallel with these practice swords, which all approximated to the actual fighting patterns, a parallel series of swords were introduced for the use in the gymnasium. These were akin to the traditional fencing sabre. The first of this series was the Sword, Practice, Gymnasia Pattern 1864, which had a plain black, japonned bowl guard, similar to the Cavalry Pattern 1864 guard, but without the ‘Maltese Cross’. The blade was slightly curved, with a single fuller and rounded point, 34 3/4 inches long but only 7/8 inch wide.” [10]

That traditional fencing sabre mentioned by Robson, of course, is nothing the but the German-style Fechtsäbel, marketed internationally as “broadsword”—whose later versions come with pre-drilled holes in the guard that allow for easy conversion into Radaelli-style guards, simply by adding two quillons.

Suddenly, it appears that Cyril’s Lament—at least its interpretations provided by Aylward and Anglo—is taken somewhat out of its historical context. The much-maligned Italian-style saber didn’t really catch on in Britain until the early 1900’s, and even then it didn’t differ materially from the “light” saber specifications as issued by Matthey’s friend Hutton.

So what about the “irrelevant intricacies of parries?”

More on that in a later article.

Footnotes:

1 Anglo, Sydney   The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000

2 Anglo; p. 280

3 Aylward, J.D.   The English Master of Arms from the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1956; p. 68.

4 Matthey was a Volunteer in the London Rifle Brigade, a militia unit whose pre-World War I exposure to actual warfare was restricted to sending five officers and 145 NCOs and men to South Africa during the Boer War. Matthey participated in this expedition as a captain of the Mounted Infantry Section of the C.I.V.

5 Aylward; p. 68

6 Anglo; p. 280

7 Douglas, William   Duelling Days in the Army, London: Ward and Downey, 1887.

8 Terrone, Leonardo F.   Right and Left Hand Fencing, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1959; p. 5

9 Bertrand, Leon   Cut and Thrust: The Subtlety of the Saber, London: Athletic Publications Ltd., 1927; p. 74f.

10 Robson, Brian   Swords of the British Army; The Regulation Patterns, 1788 to 1918. The Revised edition, London: National Army Museum, 1996; p. 264ff

3 responses to “Weighty Matters: Italian Saber vs. Broadsword in late Victorian Britain

  1. “F- An 1899 British Gymnasia-pattern practice sword”. It is very intersting remark. Does it mean that in British gymnasium by the end of 19th was used to train with typical italian saber like Radaelly and Picoraro tupe sabers? What about with captain Hutton who was developing of his own saber type which was more close to british light cavalry saber? His “Swordplay” have been written on 1889. But it was based also on his invention. How it could be explained? Thank you in advance! Igor A.

  2. Regardless of weight, I’m curious where the point of balance lay on the Italian Radaelli Sword in comparison to the curved Military Saber examples. – LF

  3. As a late followup, in his 1869 textbook for Maestro Radaelli’s school, Cav. Settimo Del Frate writes that 750g is the ideal weight for the Radaelli fencing sabre, and that it’s a roughly 88cm blade in length, and that the blade should weigh 350g. By comparison, in his 1885 book, Maestro Masiello recommends a 220g blade. Masiello recommends a total weapon weight of 620g.

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