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Zombies VS. Sabers: part I, Historical background

Sabre Bob October 19, 2012 User blog:Sabre Bob

Zombies VS. Sabers;

Part I: Historical Background

By

“Sabre (Saber) Bob”

Disclaimer: The following material is strictly for entertainment and educational purposes. Readers should be knowledgeable and compliant with all laws and regulations in their jurisdictions regarding the possession and use of deadly weapons, yada, yada, yada. The author and any publisher of this material are not responsible for any misuse, harm, or damage resulting from the following material—in other words; it’s your own damn responsibility.





When approaching the “lost legacy” of Western Martial Arts (WMA) the serious researcher has to be aware of several popular misconceptions. The most egregious myth being Western Civilization had no “true” martial arts of melee combat. What is asserted is the West had crude weapons, crudely wielded, and countered by crude armor, all which were swept away by the development of small arms and artillery. “Heavy swords”, which were held to be nearly edgeless iron clubs, were replaced by the nimble and deadly thrusting rapier, which in turn was replaced by the small sword, whose practice developed into the refined and purely sporting forms of Olympic Fencing.[i]

Sport fencing, aka “Tag with car antennas” also tamed (gelded) the brutish Saber (Sabre, British spelling). The saber was held to be a relic weapon, a “butcher’s blade”, an archaic survival of an era when strength counted more than skill. From the late 18th Century and into the opening years of the 20th Century, cut-emphasis sabers were derided by fencing teachers and enthusiasts because they were cutting and slashing weapons. “Thrusting superiority” was unquestioned dogma within the halls of the Fencing Salle de Arms, and cutting swords were held to be suitable only for those unenlightened blokes on horseback, especially the common-born trooper or the bloody-minded Prussian Junker.

Once the carnage of the Napoleonic era ceased, fencing theorists more and more influenced the design of cavalry sidearms. By 1850 military sabers had become significantly narrower than their predecessors and more thrust-oriented, albeit with a few hold-outs. This evolution (or degeneration) was aided by a near-century of comparative peace among the European powers and the invention of practical repeating sidearms rendered the “white arm” more and more obsolete as a significant weapon of war. Certainly in the United States by the time of the Civil War, swords were of almost no influence in military combat, except in a few isolated cases.[ii] In the last years of the 19th Century, Italian duelists developed the Schiaba de Terra, a semi-sharp and pointed weapon that is the direct ancestor of the dull and bated fencing saber. Since formal sword dueling had become a game of slightly bloody tag, the Schiaba was ideal for delivering fast shallow cuts to an opponent’s forearm—realistically, it was only lethal when thrusting with its epee-like needle point. In the 20th century, the thrust-faction seemed to win the day, with the reinvention of the “Pallash” concept; namely, the adoptions of the British “1908 Saber” and the US 1910 “Patton Saber”.

Europe’s “century of peace” imposed by the Congress of Vienna and the lack of a cavalry sword tradition in America had created a historical amnesia in understanding how devastating sword edge attacks could be against unprotected human flesh. This forgetting was nothing new; in the 1700 Battle of Killekrankie, the British were shocked by the power of the Highland “broadsword” to lop off arms, cleave skulls, split open torsos, and take off heads. This was less than 60 years after the English Civil War when very similar “backswords” produced identical wounds all over England. However, in neither instance could these injuries be recorded by the particular era’s Matthew Brady—photography, of course, had not been invented yet and painters who realistically portrayed battlefield horrors might find it a wee bit difficult to get commissions. While such things might be discussed among battle veterans, the butchery of edged weapon combat was not something often recorded in detail by the few historians of past eras, and certainly not something that passed for common knowledge.

From the late 16th Century onward, personal weapons in the West became progressively “neater” in their deadliness. The rapier, the small sword, and of course firearms produced comparatively small puncture wounds. In warfare, artillery fire and massed-musket volley fire (aided by the socket bayonet) meant there was less and less opportunity for saber or backsword wielding cavalry to close in and cut. Additionally, cavalry tactics stressed the sword being used as a short lance (following the example of the Polish Hussar’s “Pallash”) in the massed charge against the enemy; trooper leaning forward, arm extended strait, sword point in the lead. So much emphasis was given on the point-tipped charge by Western European military theorists that the issue of post-charge melee combat was neglected.[iii]

Much of the “thrust superiority” bias was an aristocratic bias. Throughout Western Europe, from 1600 onward, cut-emphasis weapons, such as backswords and cutlasses were seen as the weapons of common-born civilians. The thrusting rapier or small sword was identified strongly as the sidearm of the gentry.[iv] An aristocrat would usually carry a heavier blade while on campaign, but for civilian affairs of honor and self defense the thrusting-sword was de riguer. By 1740 the French method of small sword dueling dominated every upper-class fencing Salle throughout Europe

During the same period of increasing thrusting sword ascendency, the curved cutting saber was introduced into the West. In the 17th Century, European militaries west of the Danube had been impressed by the Hussar Light Cavalries of Eastern Europe—namely those of Hungary, Croatia, and Finland, all which had formed mercenary units serving for the various factions of the 30 Years War. The reputation these agile yet hard-hitting forces earned (“harass” derived from “hussar”) inspired all the Western powers to adopt Hussar units of their own, copying their tactics, uniforms, and especially the Hussar’s primary weapon, the curved cutting saber—indeed the Hussar Saber was known in the English speaking world well into the 19th Century as the “Hungarian Broadsword”.

The Hussar Saber’s origins are obscure—some hopologists trace the weapon all the way back to the Hun invasions of Europe during the 5th Century AD. However, the most reliable dates for the introduction of the horseman’s curved sword are from Eastern Europe being smashed by the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century. The Mongols themselves seemed to have adopted the weapon from Turkic-speaking tribes they conquered— the sword may have been common among Central Eurasian Horse nomads up to a millennium before the Mongol Empire. The Mongol Saber in turn was re-interpreted by those they defeated: the Polish Szalba and Karabela, the Cossack Shasqua, the Turkish and Arabian Shamishir (Scimitar)[v] and via the Mughal conquests, the Indian Tulwar.

The saber was an effective weapon to use from horseback against mostly unarmored targets. Its (mainly) single edge curved profile and one-hand use leant itself well to the “whirl and swirl” of cavalry melee combat. The design was faster in recovery in defensive and offensive motions than somewhat heavier, chop-emphasis strait-bladed swords, but the same curved blade which was so effective in slash-cutting organic targets (cloth, leather, flesh, even bone) was ineffective against the lighter-gauge mail armor of the Middle East, let alone the heavier metal armor of Europe. For this reason strait-bladed backswords were maintained as the sidearm of heavy cavalry units. Backswords, like their double-edged chivalric predecessors, were somewhat better at chopping (and especially thrusting) through mail than sabers and were easier than curved blades to thrust into gaps of plate harness

From the mid to late 17th Century, metal body armor ceased to be an issue for European combat, abandoned almost entirely with the exception of heavy cavalry Cuirassiers. After the development of the flintlock ignition system (circa 1640) and the bayonet (circa 1700) infantry “squares”, without long-pike reinforcement, could hold off and destroy cavalry charges as long as their ammo and discipline held out. Not only could musket fire consistently punch through plate (within 120 yards) every additional pound of unnecessary weight slowed down the charge and kept the trooper and his horse longer in the kill zone—and at the end of it were all those very pointy bayonets which your horse would (quite sensibly) refuse to charge into which meant you were at near point blank range while volley after volley continued to fire at you. No wonder all cavalry loathed and feared infantry and dreamed of the chance when they could surprise infantry who were out of formation and on level killing ground.

Despite the obsolescence of plate harness, heavy cavalry still kept their strait backswords into the late 19th Century. The very reason for heavy cavalry’s existence was the mass-formation “boot to boot” charge and if you are using your sword as a substitute lance, a strait blade held and aligned with your forearm is a lot less likely to injure your hand and arm upon point-to-target impact than a significantly curved saber—hence, the curved US 1840 Heavy Cavalry Saber being nicknamed “Old Wristbreaker”.[vi]

By the mid-18th Century, the military mindset was of the firm conviction that heavy cavalry was reserved for battlefield charges (whenever they infrequently occurred) and light cavalry was for all the other duties of cavalry—scouting, raiding, foraging, and piquet duty. Light cavalry was used on the battlefield for quick flanking and counter-flanking maneuvers and only as a last resort in the charge. For these duties the “lights” kept their hussar sabers.

This mindset had to change in the last years of the 18th Century as the French Revolution became a World War, especially under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte. As battles raged throughout Europe, the “last resort role” of Light Cavalry became commonplace and experience proved the Light Cavalry was the equal in effectiveness to Heavy Cavalry in the charge, as long as the former kept momentum and unit cohesion. The type of sword used in the charge proved to be a minor or even an inconsequential factor in the charge’s result—the unified moving wave of horses and men rushing against artillery-shattered infantry formations was far more significant than the issue of point vs. edge. It was only after the charge concluded and the cavalry was in the more individual conflict of melee combat did the type of sword prove critical.

One man who learned this lesson early and who was in a unique position to implement it was Lord John Gaspard Le Marchant. A younger son of English aristocracy, the military was essentially Le Marchant’s pre-ordained career, but like so-many of his class, he proved surprisingly competent and the “patronage system” of purchasing commissions meant he (like Arthur Wellsley, the Duke of Wellington) was able to rise to high rank at a fairly early age. It also helped that Le Marchant had the highest possible personal patron; His Royal Majesty George III, whom then Lieutenant Le Marchant had met during escort duty for the then young King.

Even with these advantages, it was still a long tooth-and-nail pulling process for Le Marchant to reform the tradition-bound conservatism of the British Cavalry. While Le Marchant’s career was mostly spent on improving the discipline and tactics of Light Cavalry, he was also determined to improve the weapons and weapon skills of both Light and Heavy Cavalry. Prior to Le Marchant’s reforms in the 1790s, British cavalry swords were inconsistent in both style as well as quality, being mostly the choice of any particular commanding officer who might very well pocketing the difference of purchasing decent quality weapons and the proverbial “heavy edgeless iron clubs”. Additionally, British “Saber drill” as it existed was the source of derision by Continental cavalry officers—“more suitable for hewing firewood” than a valid combat method.

From both their inadequate training and too-heavy and ill-balanced swords, British troopers were prone to exposing their torsos to deadly counter-thrusts when they bent their arms at the elbow attempting to deliver a cutting stroke like one would innately hit with a stick. From facing such pathetically equipped and trained troopers, French Cavalry gained a reputation for being superior swordsman in the melee for “always being victorious by always using the thrust”. Likewise, French swords emphasized the thrust; their sabers were fairly narrow and moderately curved and the Cuirassier backsword was also more slender than other contemporary backswords, once again invoking the Pallash concept of “sword as substitute lance”.

Le Marchant saw that it was how edge blows were being delivered that made troopers vulnerable to thrusts and not the supposed innate superiority of thrusting attacks. Indeed, thrusting in melee cavalry combat was actually a rather problematic technique in that it was impossible on horseback to employ the footwork (such as lunges) which made thrusts a defensively-efficient attack on the ground. While mounted, a trooper who employed the thrust was essentially limited to a simple and predictable in-and-out motion of his arm.

Le Marchant tackled this problem with a two-pronged approach; first, he got “Whitehall” (British Army command) to adopt the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre and the 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword as the respective service sidearms and second, Le Marchant was able to institute a service-wide sword drill which concentrated on cutting and slashing attacks which did not leave the user vulnerable to counter-thrusts.

Essentially, Le Marchant’s sword method had the trooper extend his sabre or sword in engagement, forcing the opponent’s sword point “off line” with a beat or glissade blade-attack and then follow up with a slash or cut against any open targets. These cutting attacks were delivered from the wrist (with shoulder assistance) and not from the elbow which meant the British trooper was still “covered” by his blade and guard and could immediately respond to any attempted counters or ripostes.

Horizontalmoulinet








Verticalmoulinet






[The above illustrations are from (Sir) Richard Francis Burton’s 1876 New Sword Exercise booklet and shows horizontal and vertical moulinet cuts delivered from the wrist and not the forearm, very much as Le Marchant advocated.]

The method had to be matched to a suitable weapon, one that was light enough to be wielded by wrist action yet capable of delivering a decisive edge strike. Le Marchant found it in an Austrian Hussar’s Saber, a wide-bladed, stirrup-hilted sword with an upswept “hatchet point” to emphasize cutting along the final 6 inches of blade. Le Marchant had skilled English swordsmiths adapt the blade to his specifications; further lightening the weight and improving the cutting and slashing capability. He also implemented a standardized “proof test” of blade flexibility and shock resistance to make sure each sabre was truly “battle ready”.

1796 LCS Sabre

British 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre (reproduction)



[British 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre, Cold Steel Knives reproduction]

Le Marchant intended the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre to be the issue sidearm for both Light and Heavy Cavalry units, but Whitehall’s traditionalists balked. Heavy Cavalry had always had strait-bladed backswords and they demanded that practice continue. In response, Le Marchant adapted another Austrian blade, to create the 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword, and like the Hussar’s saber, it too had an upswept “hatchet point” to emphasize long range cutting.[vii] While heavier to whip around in the cut than the Sabre, Le Marchant counted on the big men on big horses being able to cope with the heftier weapon.

ImagesCATNWVBS



[British 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword]

Cope they did and then some. Both the sabre and backsword proved themselves in actual combat numerous times, especially in the long Peninsular Campaign. This record inspired the Prussians, under General Blucher, to adopt the 1796 Sabre as their light Cavalry sidearm (which was used by some German units until WWI). Most famously at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Le Marchant’s weapons and method dominated the cavalry melees, the actual number of casualties (killed or grievously wounded) weighted decisively against the French.[viii] While some detractors try to minimize the French injuries as “superficial” on the basis of a few examples, the amputations, split-open skulls, and even a few outright combat decapitations demonstrated the body-cleaving power of both blades. Even a “superficial” injury from a glancing strike could result in splitting open a face to the bone, rendering a enemy hours de combat. All these wounds were horrific enough for the French to officially protest such “barbaric weapons”.

Even during the Napoleonic era, Le Marchant’s weapons were often derided as “butcher’s blades” by those “forced” to use them, as incapable of being used “scientifically”. These criticisms almost entirely came from the aristocratic British officer class, who being prior-indoctrinated with the rationale of small-sword fencing, found Le Marchant’s weapons and method at odds to their prior salle experience. However, the common-born troopers, who had little or no experience with formal fencing instruction prior to their cavalry service, in the main had positive opinions of their training and issued sidearms. Le Marchant’s sword drill manual was actually reprinted in several editions (or outright plagiarized) on both sides of the Atlantic, and young English boys and teens could be seen whaling away at each other with wicker-basket-hilted ash sticks (“Backswording”) well into the 1850s, inspired by Le Marchant’s instructions[ix].

Regardless of proven effectiveness of cutting swords on the battlefield and popularity among the common troopers, fencing instructors had a bias in favor of thrusting. These instructors passed on this bias to their aristocratic students who in turn made the decisions on what sidearms would be adopted for the next generation of cavalry. In the “de-militarization” following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, subsequent European Cavalry swords, curved or straight, became narrower. The “pro-thrust” advocates would seize upon any perceived failure of cutting swords to cut. A common example brought up by these partisans was when Cavalry units were used to break up riots the injuries inflicted by sword edges were shallow, bloody, but mostly non-lethal. What was left unsaid by the thrusting advocates is that the units were not trying to inflict mass numbers of deaths; in fact, their sabers were deliberately dull to act as nasty steel nightsticks.[x]

Occasionally through the 19th Century, historical amnesia and Salle orthodoxy would be broken by reality. In both the first and the second Sikh Wars in the 1840s, British cavalry troopers in the Punjab were literally being cut to pieces by “native sabers”. One documented casualty was when a British trooper was cut down by a backwards passing slash from a Sikh; the trooper’s spine was completely severed after the “native saber” had first cut through a thick leather cartridge belt, cartridges, and heavy wool uniform jacket. A British military commission investigated these “superior weapons” and they were embarrassed to learn the native weapons in question were none-other than surplus 1796 Light Cavalry Sabres sold to the Sikhs by the East India Company (the Sikhs would usually re-hilt the swords native style and replace the blade-dulling issue steel scabbards with leather-covered wood ones). Many Sikhs were adamant the 1796 Sabres were “the finest swords in the world”. When asked by a British officer if there was any distinct technique for the revived 1796s, his Sikh informant replied “Strike HARD Sir, Strike hard! A sharp sword like this will cut well in anyone’s hands.”

Even as biased a thrusting-advocate as the explorer and linguist Richard Francis Burton could recognize the value of the well-honed and well swung sabre[xi]. His 1876 manual while maintaining the tactical superiority of the thrust-on-foot still concentrates its instructions on practical edge-attacks. Burton himself had (self reportedly) almost split a North African bandit completely in half with a single downward stroke of his saber.

In the main, the fencing clique refused to consider battlefield reports. In the 19th Century’s attempts to create the perfect compromise saber which could be equally good at thrusting as it was at cutting, cutting power was the thing usually compromised. As it was, the military (largely European) debates of “thrust vs. cut”, “lance vs. sword”, “strait sword vs. curved sword” became more and more divorced from what war and battle were actually becoming. As small arms and artillery grew more reliable, powerful, and faster to reload, the sword became more and more a “battlefield pointer” or just an emblem of rank or unit; it’s actual performance largely forgotten. In the United States, such truly badly designed sabers as the 1861 Light Cavalry Saber were almost never used. That sword in particular (poorly copied by the Ames Manufacturing Company from a French model) helped cement the impression (at least in the USA) that sabers were only military fashion accessories; being laughably dull, ineffective, constantly rattling, and almost always threatening to trip one’s self and others

While the Western cutting sword waned, Western society was being exposed to a culture that had “given up the gun” and maintained a cutting sword technology that was undeniably effective. In 1853, a US Navy task force under the command of Commodore Perry steamed into Yokohama harbor. Over two centuries of Japan’s self-imposed isolation ended under the implied threat of modern industrial warfare. In between the Perry expedition and the founding of the Mejji restoration in 1879 there were some violent incidents by rather annoyed Samurai against some of the first Western visitors (merchants, missionaries, and outright tourists). The bloody killings of these unlucky Westerners created a sensation in the West; photographs of the split-apart corpses were published. While sudden, even violent death was not an unexpected fact of life in certain parts of the Western world (more so in the “Five Corners” section of New York City than say, Tombstone), the near horizontal bisection of some of these corpses was something new and exotic. Hence, by photography, the reputation of the Katana, the Samurai Sword, was established in the Western mind as the cutting sword par excellence.

The popular held contrast between Western sabers (dull, ineffective) and Japanese katanas (next best thing to a Star Wars© “lightsaber”) exists to the present. Part of this reputation was born from the Pacific theater of the Second World War, where Allied military (especially POWs) witnessed and were impressed by the cutting power of the two-handed katanas (largely mass-produced “guntos”)[xii]. This contrast was further exacerbated because Western Officer’s swords had degenerated into slim, chrome plated formal-dress accessories and Western swordsmanship had “evolved” into the total sport form of Olympic Fencing. After the war, returning GIs came back with trophy “samurai swords” and many soldiers, sailors, and marines who participated in the post-war occupation of Japan were able to undergo various degrees of training in Japanese martial arts—and even if they only trained in the unarmed arts of Judo or Karate, they were still immersed in a cultural milieu that revered the katana. This appetite for Japanese sword arts was intensified over the next four decades, with films such as Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, and You Only Live Twice inculcating into Western viewers the idea that Japanese swords and swordsmanship represented an apogee of melee combat. The “ninja craze” of the 1980s furthered “katana snobbery” in the West, a syndrome most intense among the science fiction and fantasy fan communities; an attitude all but endemic after the movie Highlander was released in 1986.[xiii]

However, 1986 was also the year that some knowledgeable voices started to dissent from the idea that Japanese swords and swordsmanship were, per se, the ultimate weapon and weapon art. In his seminal essay, There is No “Best Sword”, Atlanta Cutlery co-founder Hank Reinhardt raised some extremely pertinent points which challenged the superiority assumptions of the katana-philes. By the late 1990s, Reinhardt and others, including John Clement, Christoph Amberger, and Anthony De Longis, had all been influential in reexamining the Western sword-art traditions. These and other men and women like them have in great part resurrected (or re-constructed) the extinct martial weapon arts of pre 1700 Western Civilization.[xiv]

The combative use of the Cavalry Saber has not been ignored in this revival, though it can be argued it never truly went extinct like medieval longsword and sword and shield methods did. The few remaining (largely ceremonial) traditional Cavalry units, such as the Coldstream Guard, have maintained a continuity of training with their swords, though it has been many a decade since it was actually put to use. What has truly revived is an understanding and appreciation of how versatile and how devastatingly effective the Western cutting saber can truly be.

Suggested Bibliography:

Read, Martin; Cavalry Combat and the Sword: Sword Design, Provision and Use in the British Cavalry of the Napoleonic Era”; Sword Forum International; July 2003Amberger, Christoph J.; (The) Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts; 1999

Thompson, Lynn (with Anthony De Longis); Fighting with the Saber & Cutlass (2 DVD Set); Cold Steel Cutlery

Burton, Richard Francis;(A) New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry; 1876;

http://www.ejmas.com/jnc/jncart_burtonnewsword_0200.htm for Infantry

Wojciech Zablocki's; Polish Saber Fencing from the XVI to the XVIII Centuries; http://www.kismeta.com/diGrasse/zablocki_SabreFencing.htm

MacYoung, Marc “Animal; Pool Cues, Beer Bottles, and Baseball Bats: Animal’s Guide to Improvised Weapons for Self Defense and Survival; Paladin Press; 1990

Mark Rector, editor; Highland Broadsword; Five Manuals of Scottish Regimental Swordsmanship; 2004

Reinhardt, Hank; There is No “Best Sword”;

http://www.thearma.org/essays/nobest.htm

_____________; Hype… as Ancient an Art as Sword Making; http://www.thearma.org/essays/hype.htm

_____________; The Book of Swords; 2009

McLemore, Dwight; (The) Fighting Sword: Illustrated Techniques and Concepts; Paladin Press; 2008


[i] This is of course a hyperbolic synopsis of many old exaggerations and misconceptions but it is amazing how it is still held in general and promoted in the age of the Internet.

[ii] CSA General Nathan Bedford Forrest used his saber to stab and cut his way out of being surrounded by Union cavalry —surviving to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Yuck[iii] The “Winged Hussars” of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth used the Pallash as a back-up lance, slung from the left-side of the saddle and used it for secondary charges when the long lance was broken or lost. When cavalry melee combat commenced, the Hussar would abandon the Pallash (often in the body of an enemy) and draw his curved saber.

[iv] Ironic, considering almost all Rapier and small sword instructors came from non-aristocratic origins and fencing schools were almost always located in the worst parts of town.

[v] Before the 13th Century’s Mongol invasions smashed the Bagdad Caliphate, almost all swords used by Islamic cultures were strait-bladed, double edged, and cross-hilted—many of them imported from Europe. The popular image of 7th- through 12th Century scimitar wielding Arabs is highly anachronistic.

[vi] Using a sword as a lance is highly likely to result in sword being jammed into the body of the opponent (especially if one penetrates into the shoulder-blade) when one considers the forward momentum of the horse (see endnote iii). Troopers were trained to let the passing momentum of their charge wrench the blade out of the enemy’s body but if not done exactly right, this would result in a trooper losing his sidearm or, if had had used a “saber knot” lanyard to secure his sword to his wrist, being yanked out of his own saddle.

[vii] Since so much of Heavy Cavalry’s training emphasized the charge with the extended thrust, many surviving 1796 Heavy Cavalry Swords have points reground in a variety of ways to make them more efficient thrusting weapons. This was apparently done on either a unit or even an individual level, since many other surviving examples have unaltered points.

[viii] The sole exception was when British Heavy Cavalry found themselves slaughtered by French Lancers. As the Texas Rangers discovered in the 1840s, there is only one cavalry close-combat weapon tactically superior to a lance—the practical repeating handgun (e.g. Colt revolver).

[ix] “Backswording” with ash sticks became in the 19th Century a fairly popular, slightly bloody sport in its own right, as well as being practice for cavalry swords and stick fighting. President Theodore Roosevelt held backsword bouts quite often in the White House. Fictionally, it shows up in Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Sherlock Holmes also practiced it.

[x] The myth of the “dull cavalry saber” has several variations, including the totally unsupported claim that it was a “war crime” to sharpen one’s sword. The basis for the myth of the “dull saber” is that sabers were dull the majority of the time because troopers were not expecting action most of the time. Prior to battle or patrols in hostile territory, troopers and officers would line up before the unit armorer’s treadle-powered whetstone so he could grind a fresh edge on each weapon—and each trooper or officer would then tip the armorer according to his means. Sabers and backswords would go dull mostly from the edge-dulling all-steel scabbards that became standard issue from the 1760s onwards—a cavalryman doing drill and practice would be constantly drawing and re-sheathing his sidearm and the metal against metal friction quickly rendered a weapon as dull as a butter knife. Also, in a pre-antibiotic era (especially in a cavalry compound with endemic horse manure), the constant handling of a sharp weapon would have been an invitation for accidental injury and systemic infection.[xi]In his Book of the Sword, Burton spent pages devoted to “scientifically” proving why curved sabres and scimitars were more efficient cutters that strait swords (Scottish “Broadswords” in particular). Burton never produced any test-cutting proof of his claim; it was all based on his ingenious but utterly false-to-fact “logic” (see Sword Motions and Impacts: An Investigation and Analysis at http://www.thearma.org/spotlight/GTA/motions_and_impacts.htm )

[xii] Allied personal tended not to be in a position to see the cutting prowess of another Pacific blade culture—the Philippines. Many a katana wielding Japanese officer or NCO (sometimes using a family heirloom blade rather than an issued gunto) was cut down by a Pilipino insurgent wielding a barong sword-knife; the insurgent’s weapon often crudely forged out of a truck leaf spring. “Steel is steel” as the late Hank Reinhardt used to say.

[xiii] This is humorous to anyone acquainted with science fiction and fantasy fandom; a demographic that tends to be unacquainted with the actual hard physical training of any martial art, let alone the fairly hard to find ones like swordsmanship, Japanese or otherwise. Fandom has a distressing tendency to seize upon a single source of information, like the movie Highlander with its historical and factual “howlers”, and quote from it as established fact.

[xiv] There is no proof that any pre-1600 Western sword art has been passed down, unbroken, through any line of fencing schools or teachers, despite the adamant claims of certain practitioners who assert membership in some “secret heritage” (AKA “dead grandfather school”). All these claimants have sprung up after reconstruction attempts (using period “fight books” and constant experimentation) started in earnest and became publicized in the 1980s. Pre 1600 Western sword arts became extinct because gunpowder technology rendered their practice irrelevant, not because there was any social or legal pressure to drive these arts underground. See At the Edge of Accepted Knowledge in Western Martial Arts http://www.thearma.org/essays/Unbelief.htm

Copyright 2012 by Robert “Saber Bob” Lehnert. Permission to quote, copy, and republish all or parts of this publication granted as long as proper credit is given.

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