The Sydney Sabre Course (with article index)

When we started Sydney Sabre there were few guides for teaching adults how to fence. The syllabi and books we found focused on children and the foil, the standard training weapon of civilian duelists for centuries. Rarely did people pick up the sword for the first time as adults; rarer still to do so for fun. The sabre, of course, was a military sword and taught to soldiers through drills — but these are minimally applicable to the modern sport.

So we developed our own guide. The Sydney Sabre Course (hereafter, “the Course”) has gone through about a dozen revisions in the last decade, occasionally snapshotted in print, but more often ephemeral in the minds of the instructors. The Coronacrisis brought the club to a sudden halt, from which we are only gradually moving again. But I am thankful that it has given me time to write up the latest edition.

The Course follows three principles.

The first is that sabre is meant to be fun. No one should be training for a swordfight, nor for college entry or Olympic glory. It is a game, like tennis or chess or Streetfighter Turbo Edition. We teach the most important parts of the game first, and those parts are how to play and referee it. We leave the full range of moves and tactics and technical details to the end, if we cover them at all. Those of you who have learned fencing before will recognise that this is the reverse of a traditional approach.

The second is that sabre is a combat sport, and both combat and sport can only be learned by doing. Underpinning but unmentioned in the notes for each class — the contents of the Course — are the many hours of bouts and mentoring that we thrust students into from their first exposure to sabre. Not for the us the old dictums that a student should only train with the master, perhaps even without a sword, for their first weeks or months or years. Only afterwards was the student permitted to bout for the first time, for fear that they would adopt bad habits from too early an exposure to combat. We don’t agree. Better to fight ugly than get thrashed prettily; we can always make an ugly fighter prettier.

The third principle is that sabre is diverse and ever changing. There are many ways to win, and new ways are developed every year. The idea that sabre somehow crystallised into a platonic ideal ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago is wrong. Sabre is combat, and combat is alive. The sabre is an equaliser: there is always a way to win, no matter how tall or strong or fast you are. You can always do something that will work for you, against this opponent, at this moment. You just have to figure it out in time. It is this quality that ensnared me in sabre all those years ago and continues to do so to this day.

Thus the purpose of the Course is not to teach a definitive way of doing sabre, or even a style of sabre, but to teach how sabre fencing works.

The Course starts with the structural elements — the mechanics of the game, some basic rules, how the phases work, and simple tactics. Then it builds out this frame with simple moves, like advances and hits, and its counter moves, like retreats and fall-short. On these foundations we extend to advanced moves, like lunges and cutovers, that drag in their corresponding counter moves, like jumps and counterattacks, gradually interweaving them into combos and tactics. As the Course nears completion, we prepare the students for their graduation by showing them how they can select, tweak and combine their moves and tactics into their own unique strategies and, ultimately, style.

For sabre can be a lifelong hobby. One does not emerge from this or any other training program a fully-fledged fencer. All we hope for is that the student learns how they can play the game. To this day, I regularly refine my own sabre repertoire, dropping moves that no longer work (for me), adding ones that cover some hitherto undetected vulnerability, or swapping movesets around to meet a new class of adversary.

Because so long as one can move, one can fence sabre, regardless of age or form. One just has to figure how to fence their way.


Series index:

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