Sharp Pointy Things 2: The Re-sharpening

So . . . I’m back. And I’ve brought more swords. To be honest, it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to talk about for this post. Of course I wanted to talk about swords, but what about swords? Originally, I thought about a blog post on the history of female swordsmen (or swordswomen, whichever you like; I say “swordsmen” because I prefer the term for myself and since I’m the one writing this article, you’re stuck with me) but I rethought the idea considering that it touches too closely upon my thesis. And I do not want to trod upon my thesis.

Yes, yes it is possible. Just in case you were wondering.

Which meant I still have to pick a topic. So I decided that I’ll talk about my absolute favorite type of swords: sabers! Don’t get me wrong, I love the arming sword and I have fun with the cut-and-thrust and the schlager. But the saber is what got me into historical fencing. I worked and studied for years before I demonstrated the proper restraint and technique to be allowed to use a saber at my academy (and I’ll brag a little and say that my dedication and hard work paid off as I was permitted to pick up the saber sooner than many other students).

No, actually it still is. And it’s classless. But the only class I’ve got is Paladin, and they’re insufferable, anyhow. And dang! did that get nerdy fast.

Eventually, I undertook a project in which I studied a fencing manual and, over the course of quite a while (I know, that’s specific), was able to demonstrate that style of saber fighting while articulating the techniques in a way that I could instruct others in learning those skills. In short, I studied a book and had to prove that I could use and explain those skills. That book was The Sword Exercise: Arranged for Military Instruction by Bvt. Major Henry C. Wayne who had held the post of Director of Sword Exercise at the U.S. Military Academy during the antebellum period, and it was there that he taught the saber to many cadets who would go on to be officers in the Civil War. His manual covered a variety of weapons, but I focused on learning the saber. I think it speaks to Major Wayne’s talent as an instructor that a person over 150 years later could use his writings as a self-teaching tool.

What does that all mean? It means that I have nerdy hobbies. It also means that when I’m talking about the saber, I’m talking about the military saber from the pre-Civil War US Army. I specify this because there are many types of sabers (actually, even in the antebellum army, there were different styles of sabers, so I’m possibly overcomplicating by oversimplifying) and various different fighting styles.

Here are some sabers. Notice how the blade is moderately thin and curved? That’s pretty indicative of the saber.

The saber was originally intended as a sword for cavalry, and it’s effective in fighting from horseback, but it can be used very nicely as a dueling or combat blade while on foot. The saber is considered a backsword because only one edge is generally sharpened past the tip, although sometimes it would be sharpened along both edges for the length of the blade.

So what’s the allure of the saber? Why is Melion so obsessed? Probably because, somewhere, my psychology is all messed up. But more specifically, a saber fight is a weird blend of grace and death. It’s fast, it’s brutal and it’s just impressive. The shape of the blade allows the sword to be used for cutting and for thrusting, but it also permits the sword to be agile–the cuts and parries of the saber are generally circular in nature which means it seems as though the swordsman is everywhere at once.

I wish I had a video of me demonstrating this, but I don’t because I don’t technology very well. So I’ll direct you to a YouTube video of two master fencers. Yeah, there’s some ham happening there, but those two swordsmen have legit skill and are well worth watching. While the fighters in that video are using Polish swords, many of the techniques are going to be similar.

In fact, one of the cool aspects of the saber is how versatile it is. I’ve employed it with different sword styles and found that, with some modifications, the saber can be adapted to schlager fighting, to cut-and-thrust, to Renaissance styles–fighting in Capoferro’s style as a saber against a rapier is a trip, and not something I’d do in a real duel because I’d like to minimize my chances of dying (which is probably why I don’t get involved in duels to begin with–that and they’re illegal, but if they were legal, I’m pretty sure I know how I’d end up dead. But I digress), but as an exercise, it’s fun. First your opponent laughs. Then they die. It’s good family fun.

Along with the adaptability of the saber comes the ability to incorporate using a buckler. This is not a technique taught in Henry Wayne’s manual since people weren’t fighting with shields any more, but it’s still practical.

In case you think irony is lost on me . . . it isn’t.

For those wondering what a buckler is, it’s the small, round shield this gladiator is using:

Hey, do you know how hard it is to find a picture of a buckler that’s free-to-use? So let’s ignore the fact that I found a gladiator that should be a neon sign on a 1980’s brothel.

Using the techniques taught in the Royal Armouries I.33 manual which employ an arming sword with a buckler, the saber really complements the small shield and allows for a very intense and fast-paced fighting style.

Yes, that is a woman on the left. A woman in a medieval fighting manual. Yes, I’d like to talk about that more. No, I can’t because it’s my thesis and even I have the good sense to not shoot myself in the foot. Oh, and they’re using bucklers.

Why am I bringing all this up? Well, because I’ve been given a blog post to use as I see fit, so I’m gonna, darn it! And because it’s important to the world I write in. One of my characters comes from 19th century America and crosses over into a world with medieval-level technology (and magic. You knew there’d also be magic) and brings with him his saber. The sword, once imbued with magic, becomes a family heirloom and a mark of the champion for their house. More than one person has commented that a saber couldn’t work in that world. I say, “Balderdash!” A saber could work just fine. It can work with a shield (even one larger than a buckler, with some adaptation to the method) and it can cut and thrust. It can be used on foot or on horseback. It can deal a punishing hit, and it is slender enough to get through vulnerable points in armor.

But the question is, would it break if struck against armor? I haven’t tried it, but I am guessing that, yes, an antebellum era military saber would break against armor much more quickly than a sword designed to be used against armor. There, I said it. But the saber descends from medieval swords that were used against armored fighters. Consequently, in my world, the blade ends up being broken, but is then reforged using magic which fortifies the blade and binds it to the souls of those who rightfully wield it. Once the blade composition is altered, that addresses the real weakness of the weapon. Considering the other aspects of the saber, it would serve well in my fantasy world.

However (because there’s always a “however”), the Polish Hussars reportedly carried a saber at the same time they wore heavy armor and against opponents who also wore armor. So I don’t know. I could be wrong. Or it could just be that the Polish Hussar’s were so bad*** that they infused their swords with pure bad***ery which could only be broken by the gods. Here’s Aleksander Orłowski’s rendition of a 16th century Polish Hussar:

Granted, the painting is from the early 19th century, so several centuries after the subject depicted, but I think it’s interesting the hussar still has a saber.

Now, that said, the swords used in my world are not long swords. They are not as long or as heavy (although, if you recall from my last post, even long swords were not particularly “heavy,” it’s just the average saber is relatively light) and are of a comparable length to the saber. As a consequence, sabers work in my world because of the style of the other swords. If that were not so, my characters would find it impractical, indeed suicidal, to use a saber.

Well, there we have my blog post on the saber. It’s a weapon that doesn’t get enough love. Sure, sure, we have these:

Which I cannot name or we shall be sued.

But they’re not true sabers. At all. They sure as heck look fun, though. But sabers? No. So I thought it was time that real sabers get some attention. They deserve more attention, but this is what I have the space for.

Want to talk sabers? Talk to me! I love learning about sabers (and all swords). Do you know whether or not a saber would hold up against leather and chain mail armor? I don’t think it would, but I’m happy to hear educated thoughts on the matter.

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  1. Pingback: Blog Series on Swords Part II – delusionsofsanityblog

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