Book Review: The Art of the Dueling Sabre

Christopher Holzman Art of the Dueling SabreWe’re reprehensibly behind in our reading—and in the writing of reviews. And we apologize for the unhappy circumstance that Christopher Holzman’s recent Art of the Dueling Sabre may have eluded your Christmas list due to our negligence.

That’s why we hasten to make amends…

For a good many years, SKA Swordplay Books has been at the leading edge of publishing fencing books. Not the simple, basic “How-to” stuff that dominated the few titles that came out from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. But useful brain food, aimed at making the thought and experiences of top-level fencers and coaches to the fencing community.

With Christopher Holzman’s Art of the Dueling Sabre, Swordplay Books is broadening its range of high-quality fencing literature from modern competitive fencing to include what has become known as “Classical Fencing,” in this case the 19th-century method of the Scuola Magistrale.

Few modern competitors realize that it was the Italian school—or better, the two competing methods of Radaelli and Parise—that turned saber fencing from a firm-footed combative pastime of military men into the modern, fast-paced Olympic sport. This knowledge may not turn a middling sabreur into a Mariel Zagunis or a Keith Smart. But if you apply Aladar Kogler’s motto of “One Hit at A Time” to your fencing, the philosophy and methodology of the Old School yield insights that may make you a better fencer.

Holzman selected the Italian original of Cav. Settimo del Frate as his starting point. First published in 1872 and reprinted in 1876 and 1885, it was written for use as a text book in Radaelli’s Milanese fencing master school. Now, the easy way out would’ve been to provide the reader with an accurate translation, throw in a few footnotes and call it a day. But Holzman not only provides an accurate translation of del Frate’s texts on the saber and the dueling sword (the Italian version of the modern épée), including the lesson schedules. He also puts the material into its proper historical and developmental context of the two big Italian schools of Radaelli (Northern Italian, Milanese) and Parise (Southern Italian, Neapolitan). He supplements the information with details on the morphology of the military-issued weapons that these methods were developed for.

This in itself would’ve been worth the ride. But the best part of the book is Holzman’s own, practical notation of the Radaellian method as it was transmitted to him by the late Maestro Ted Hootman, himself a student of Giorgio Santelli and as such a link in the student-to-teacher transmission chain that goes back to Parise and Radaelli over the duration of 150 years. The explanations are concise and easily understandable by the modern fencer. He addresses issues caused by modern blades and gear. And the Supplementary Synoptic Tables provide a detailed guideline for lessons ranging from the beginning student to far advanced masters.

Having lost two of the great American proponents of the Italian School this year—William Gaugler and Ted Hootman—we take solace in the fact that Chris Holzman’s debut as a brilliant chronicler of the Italian tradition will carry the living tradition through the next decades.

The book gets the unconditional FencingClassics Stamp of Approval. And wouldn’t you know it, Chris has put up a FaceBook page, complete with errata, additional images and discussions. Check it out!

Holzman, Christopher A.   The Art of the Dueling Sabre, Staten Island, NY, 2011; ISBN 978-0-9789022-6-1; hardcover, 317 pp; 5 fold-out plates

You can purchase the book directly from SKA Swordplay Books.

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