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We are proud to feature this guest article by Moniteur Chris Holzman, Esq., an instructor at the Wichita Fencing Club in Wichita, Kansas. Moniteur Holzman received his certification in 1997 for Foil, Epee and Sabre, and is a student of the Radaellian tradition through the Santelli lineage.

Affect and Effect: The Sabre Cut of the 20th Century.
by Chris Holzman, Esq.

Introduction

During the mid to late 19th century, the two heads of the prevailing Italian sabre traditions, Maestri Radaelli and Parise, were in Milano and in Roma, respectively. By the closing years of the century however, two of the most respected Italian saber teachers, Maestri Italo Santelli and Luigi Barbasetti, were in Budapest and Vienna, respectively. They were students of Maestri Pecoraro and Pessina, at Scuola Magistrale in Roma, which was under the direction of Maestro Parise. Maestri Pecoraro and Pessina were, however, originally students of Maestro Radaelli, and were hired to ensure the continuation of Radaelli's vigorous sabre system within the Italian army.

In my essay on the Radaellian molinello, I noted that the premise of the Radaellian sabre system was that each cut must have sufficient power to remove the opponent from combat, and that in order to achieve that purpose, cuts should be made with the molinello, or chambered1 in the form of a cut by cavazione or coupé. I would further suggest reading that essay again, before proceeding here, but it is not strictly necessary. The intent of the Radaellian cuts as stated here should provide the reader with enough information to understand the analysis to follow.

The Cut

Some months back, I was asked when and how the transition to the light modern cuts in sabre occurred, and where it originated. My understanding led to answering that the transition had occurred in the 1960’s in the Italo-Hungarian tradition. This is partly true, but as shall be illustrated, the answer is not nearly that clear.

Generally speaking, in Italian sabre the cuts to the inside line, i.e., the internal head, internal face, chest and abdomen are made with the hand in supination2 and the cuts to the outside target, i.e., the external head, face, and flank are made in pronation.3 We can further generalize and say that the supinated cuts are made as pull cuts, and that the pronated cuts are made with a push.4 This is certainly the conventional wisdom, though it is painting the issue with a rather broad, vague brush. The intent of the cut needs to be taken into consideration as well, both from the combative perspective regarding the physical effect the cut is meant to have, the defense it must avoid, and also the purpose of training in a particular cutting technique (tournament or preparation for use in earnest). It would be a mistake to say that there is a linear progression in resolving these issues except in the most general sense.

Concerning the intent of the cut, let's recall what Capt. Del Frate says in his book5 on Maestro Radaelli’s sabre system: that each cut should have sufficient force to remove the opponent from combat. As a result, Del Frate favors chambered cuts or molinelli, with the only direct cuts being those made from the parries, and then with the molinello still being used when possible. With the favored guard being that of 2nd with the arm almost fully extended, the parries are all contracted toward the body, which provides the chambering action of the cut. In contrast, Maestro Castello says in his book5 that the cuts are considered “wounding actions.” This represents a marked change from Maestro Radaelli’s cuts which are meant to be disabling or killing blows. Maestro Castello is also fully supportive of using pure push cuts from a fairly retracted guard of 3rd, more or less in the manner of Maestro Parise. Maestro Barbasetti,7 on the other hand, still favors the molinello or a chambered direct cut in which the elbow is flexed, the arm bent and the sabre chambered in preparation for delivering the cut.

Also important are the issues of apparent materiality of the cut, as well as other collateral factors that effect how the cut is perceived in a school, and what is prized as a proper cut. For example, Maestro Joseph Vince’s book8 states that the supinated cuts should be made by reaching past the target, lightly tapping it, and drawing the blade along the target while recovering in guard. Maestro Vince does not claim to be a pure Italian school fencer, but seems primarily influenced by it. He also notes the dominance of the Italo-Hungarian school in competitions of the time, and notes that at that time the Hungarians were managing the sabre more with the forearm than the wrist. He further said that “small, accurate movements, light cuts…are the outstanding characteristic features of the play of a great sabre fencer.” According to Vince, the cuts were not meant to be “…painful blows, but should be executed in the form of light slicing cuts. Hard hitting is an admission of lack of control of the sabre” and that it presents the appearance of “…crude and primitive fencing.” Here, we certainly see the clear change in mentality from the vigorous intent of the Radaellian cuts. Still, Maestro Vince at least intends the center of percussion9 be used in the cuts, stating that they are to be made with the first eight inches of the blade.

Maestro Castello did not discuss how the slicing action is to be executed, but did say that it should be present, and opined that the slicing cut would cut better than a mere hit, noting “how much more effective a sliding cut with a razor blade is than a straight chop, and dueling sabres are supposed to be just as sharp as a razor blade. But taken also as movements in fencing for sport, they make the play nicer and more skillful and delicate; for when the cut is made this way, the blow loses its undesirable effect of hard and painful hitting.” Maestro Castello also holds that the sabre is managed by the forearm. The problem with these assertions about the cut is that they point to a cut intended to wound, not to one that is intended to disable. Further, the alteration of the cutting technique is justified by saying that the blow is made less painful, more delicate, etc. This is fine, so long as the proponents are honest about the reduced combative effectiveness of the cut, and the reasons for which the modifications have been made.

The chambered, powerful cuts of Radaelli would doubtless be looked upon poorly by Vince and Castello. The chambered sabre cut, delivered with the center of percussion, yields a much more powerful cut especially if the cut is executed so as to strike the opponent before the sabre has passed the apex of the cut. When the cut strikes the target prior to reaching its apex, there will be an inch or so of arm extension still remaining. This remaining extension is made into the target, ensuring the transfer of energy into the target. This final bit of extension in addition to the progressive tightening of the fingers on the sabre’s grip just before impact provides the “bite” of the cut. By striking the opponent before the fencer’s front foot lands during the advance or the lunge, the fencer’s body weight is also transferred into the cut. Any pulling action occurring during the cut will be the result of the sabre reaching the apex of the ellipse and beginning its natural follow-through, carrying the sabre around the arc and out of the target. This is an entirely different ideal than the light tap and pull, or the direct push cut which is very often allowed to bounce off of the target rather than forcing the energy of the blow into the target.

Another issue that must be addressed is the meme in the modern sport fencing community, which is also implied in Castello and Vince, that lighter cuts are faster cuts. To simply say that hard cuts are slow, light cuts are fast, and that pure speed is the only dispositive issue, is to massively over simplify of a very complicated concept. We must look at and understand the effectiveness of the cut desired, and the effect that has upon sabre tempo. The length of a tempo for the chambered cuts or molinelli is going to be longer in absolute terms than that of a push cut. A light, fast cut may cut, however, but it may not provide certainty in stopping the opponent from returning the favor. In this, the length of the tempi must be weighed against the effectiveness of the cut. We need not discuss the length of tempi in point play, as they are the same in both early and late classical sabre. The methods of dealing with stop thrusts, however, are germane to this discussion. Dealing with the stop thrust in early sabre is an issue of understanding the measure between the fencers, and either chambering the sabre when out of distance, or using a tempo provided by the opponent to chamber the sabre.

The necessity of combat, according to Capt. Del Frate, is to make certain that the opponent is not allowed to be in a position to make a cut, after he has received a cut. In this mindset, fencers cannot rely upon a director stopping a bout after a touch, instead, they must stop the opponent. So, if we look at Castello or Vince, we see affectation introduced by sporting intent. The cut is now a wounding action, made lightly and quickly. This begs the question of where the power has gone. If the fencer is still making fast cuts, power is generally being bled off during the cut by slowing the sabre prior to impact, by exaggerating the pulling action to change the angle of impact, lessening the reach of the cut and increasing the percentage of missed cuts, or allowing the blade to bounce off the target, doing away with follow through, all of which would reduce penetration, limiting the effectiveness of the cut. The upside of this is that it does make for a picturesque-looking slicing cut, easily seen by the referee and not so physically hard on the opponent or training partner. On the other hand, if we look at Radaelli as our guide, the actual follow through with the sabre will be less visible, because in these cuts the fencing jacket stops the blunt sabre blade from entering the target and completing the arc of the cut. This means that we’re imparting all the power from the blow into the target. If we complete the arc, it’s because we’ve flexed the blade, moved the opponent, altered our follow-through, or some combination thereof. It’s far less pretty, but the effect is that making a cut that would shear into the target during the last part of the arm extension and slice out of the target as the arc is completed. Barbasetti seems to follow much the same ideal as Radaelli, standing in contrast to both the earlier and later thoughts of Castello and Vince. In my training I was often told that I must never cut the surface of the target, but rather cut a point a few inches behind my opponent, and simply let my opponent get in the way of the cut, thus ensuring full energy transfer.

Conclusion

To briefly recap, the early 20th century saber masters were in less than complete agreement on how the cuts should be performed. Some Maestri in the written record, like Barbasetti, preferred to make cuts through the opponent,10 others preferred to affect a slicing action but spend less absolute time making the cut, while sacrificing penetration and power. While Radaellian cuts are certainly fast, precisely aimed, and are meant to be executed only in the correct tempo, they lack anything that could be called effete delicacy.11 They are intended, first and foremost, to disable or kill the opponent if the sabres were sharp, and this cannot be achieved by lightly slicing along the surface of the target. The affectation of gentleness and delicacy in making light cuts might have a feel-good quality about it, but it stands in contrast to the principles that carried the day first at Radaelli’s school in Milano, and later through Radaelli’s students at Parise’s school in Roma.


1That is to say, the cut is made not direct, despite Barbasetti’s labeling his chambered cut as “direct”, but rather, the cut is composed of two parts, raising the sabre, and lowering it. To raise the sabre (from guard of 2nd) the arm is bent at the elbow, and the sabre is carried to the height of and in line with the temple. This takes the forearm out of reach of a simple extension at lunge distance. The cut (or feint) is then made from this raised position to any open line.
23rd in 4th or 4th position depending on the particular school.
3Hand in 1st in 2nd, 2nd in 3rd, or 2nd position depending on the cut and the particular school.
4With regard to push cuts or pull cuts, I mean a direct cut made from the guard of 3rd, in which the sabre is pushed vigorously forward, but without raising the hand to an overhead position as one would do as directed by Capt. Del Frate’s book.
5Capt. Settimo Del Frate, Instruction for the Fencing of the Sabre and Sword of Prof. Giuseppe Radaelli, 1876.
6Julio M. Castello, Theory and Practice of Fencing, 1931.
7Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the Epee, 1936.
8Joseph Vince, Fencing, 1940.
9The center of percussion is a harmonic node in the debole of a sword blade, which is generally found between 5 and 7 inches from the point of a dueling sabre. To find the center of percussion, hold a sabre by the guard, and smack the side of the forte with your hand. Observe the oscillations in the blade. There should be a point in the debole of the blade that seems not to oscillate. This is the center of percussion, and is, according to Capt. Del Frate, the correct place upon the blade with which to make the cut. On modern S2000 sabre blades, the COP tends to be a bit farther back, usually close to the termination of the Y-section.
10After all, why else specify a chambering of the cut, unless the cut is intended to stop the opponent from continuing? There must be a benefit to chambering a cut, to offset its taking more time to execute than the direct push cut.
11Please see my essay on the Radaellian molinelli for further analysis of this issue. This isn’t an invitation to engage in out of tempo brute force baby-seal-bashing.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11