Week 0: Intro to Sabre

Instructor:

Make no mistake – this is the most difficult class to teach.

You have 45 minutes to take a diverse mix of people, with likely no experience, and turn them into amateur sabreurs who can fight and referee a 5-point bout in electrics.

This means you must be clear, concise, and ruthless in stripping out the cruft and fluff of sabre fencing. Leave only the core components of the game. Then make it fun.


Holding the Sabre

First thing: Fencing is a game played with swords. The aim of the game is to hit the other person, first, and ideally not get hit. All else is detail.

So give the students swords.

Show them how to hold a sabre: wrap the middle finger around the bend in the middle of the grip. Place the thumb on the flat top. Make a fist. This gets them into roughly the correct position.

Then refinement: suggest that they hold the sabre as if it were a conductor’s baton or giant paintbrush. (For children I suggest they imagine the sabre as a giant velociraptor claw). Or use something from their experience to guide their movements now; learn about them and be creative to find that something.

Ask them to write their names in the air, in cursive, with the tip of the sabre. Whatever their fingers do at the end of this exercise is the way they should hold the sabre.

Ignore all other advice they may have heard or hear about putting this finger here, or cutting by “squeezing” like firing a staple gun, “holding it in the fingers”, or imagining that the grip is a softball or a baby bird or an egg or any other analogous object/creature/foodstuff.

A sabre is a sabre. Hold it like a sabre, not like something else.


While they are getting to grips with their sabre, you can optionally provide contextual comments:

  • The sabre used for modern fencing is either Hungarian or Italian by design — my coaches had differing and strident opinions — and largely unchanged from its lethal origins.
  • It is a light sabre, developed from lightweight (and usually ceremonial) sabres worn by officers as a sidearm rather than the heavy sabres wielded by rank-and-file troops.
  • Fencing sabres keep the guard and grip and most of the other attachments unchanged from the combat versions, only crafted from modern materials instead of forged steel.
  • Sabres only have six components: blade, guard, grip, pommel, socket, and guard pad.
  • The Blade is made of carbon steel or maraging steel. They come in a few different designs, all of the same length, but differing in profile, weight and stiffness.
    • The blade has a front edge, a back edge and two flat sides. It tapers from a thick forte section near the guard to a thin foible that ends in a rounded tip.
    • The fencing sabre blade is much the same as an actual sabre blade, other than being a little thinner, a little bendier, and a lot blunter,
  • The Guard has one of two standard “shell” designs, with a wider lip on the outside edge and a narrower one on the inside edge. This determines whether the guard is right or left handed.
    • Most guards are made of steel and heavy.
    • Some fencers favour a lightweight guard of aluminium or more exotic titanium; others favour a heavier guard than normal with thicker flanges. Personal preference.
  • The Grip is usually made of plastic or metal, and covered with rubber or leather, though some old wooden ones still exist.
    • Most follow a single design: a rectangular column with smoothed edges, bent in the middle, with a flat surface on top for the thumb and a rounded tail end for the fingers to grip around.
  • The other parts hold the weapon together.
    • The Socket clamps onto the guard next to the grip, and connects the weapon to the scorebox.
    • The Guard Pad lines the inside of the guard to cushion the thumb during guard clashes.
    • The Pommel screws onto the blade tang and binds everything together under a lot of tension, so sabres occasionally explode in a clattering shower of bits during bouts when a blade breaks.

Some people hold the sabre up the top near the guard, with their knuckles against the guard pad. Others “pommel” by holding their sabres down the tail end of the grip for extra range.

Do whichever feels more comfortable. The sabre feels lighter and more responsive if held near the guard. It feels weightier and more accurate when held near the pommel.


Footwork and Stance

Once they can hold a sabre they can learn how to move. People often note how fast sabreurs move.

This is because the sabre is optimised for the attack. Sabres thrust, and cut and hack and slash. You can hit with the front edge, the back edge, either flat sides, and with any part of the blade from tip to guard. The hits are hard, made more so by the rule of priority (explain this as “hitting first”) which encourages sabreurs to kamikaze. Sabres are hard to defend against and hard to defend with.

A good sabreur thus relies more on stance and footwork to hit and avoid being hit than on bladework.

While it takes years of practice to move like a top sabreur, it only takes a few minutes to learn how to move enough to fence sabre well. The main thing is to move naturally.

Start with the on-guard stance.

The stance is designed to put the sabreur in the best position to sprint forwards off the start line while retaining enough balance to change direction and defend. It is different for each person.

First ask them to walk forwards and backwards. Then jog forwards and backwards in place. Note their ankles flexing and extending, their weight on the balls of their feet, their heels lifting up from the ground first and landing back down last. Some people don’t put down their heels at all. This is fine.

Turn their bodies so their sword arm side faces forwards with the front knee pointing forwards. The back knee should be directly behind and pointing somewhere off the side, usually at about 45 degrees. A line drawn from back ankle to front ankle should point straight forwards along the piste.

That’s it. They are now in on-guard stance.


Many textbooks and coaches teach the stance by depicting their version and shaping the student into an similar form. Don’t do this. Different people move in different ways, with different joint angles and body dimensions, and thus different stances.

The only hard rule is to ban the students from standing with their back knee at exactly right angles (90 degrees) from their front knee. This is a good way for them to dislocate their back knee the first time they jump back and land incorrectly.

Some textbooks and coaches insist on turning the back leg outwards to exactly 90 degrees from the front foot. These textbooks/coaches may also insist on putting the heels (rather than ankles) in a straight line, to lift the toes up first when you step, land lunges into a perfectly grounded pose, bend knees low, and generally move like a clockwork crab.

They are wrong. Don’t.


Stance in ‘Tierce’

Strictly speaking, when a person (e.g. the referee) instructs a sabreur to “go into on-guard stance”, the the stance is in the tierce, or ‘3’, guard parry position. This is one of the eight or so standard guard positions. Guard 3 puts the blade upright on the sword arm side, shielding the arm, flank and cheek. For right-handed people this is to their right; left-handers hold it on their left.

The exact position varies from person to person. The purpose in every variation is to protect as much of the body as possible from hits to the flank, and to make it easy to move the sabre to protect elsewhere.

I suggest:

  1. Start in stance.
  2. Allow arms to drop towards ground on each side of body. Rest sabre tip to ground.
  3. Bend sword arm elbow to raise sabre to form a ‘wall’ on that side.

This will get them close enough to the correct position. Optional refinements:

  • Ask them to imagine a triangle in front of their body.
  • The triangle’s apex is above their head, one corner next to their hip on your sword arm side, the other corner reflected on the other side of their body.
  • Make the triangle big enough to cover every part of their body above the waist.
  • Put the sabre guard at the corner next to your hip,
  • Point the towards the apex.

Once in position, tuck the sword arm elbow inwards from the sabre guard. Otherwise they look like they are in a ‘chicken pose’ and the opponent can hit them on the elbow around their sabre.

The sabre guard, thumb, and forearm should also be in a straight line. This braces the sabre against any incoming hits. Do not bend the wrist to make your sabre turn outward; rotate from the shoulder.

Test whether alignment by doing a one-handed pushup on your sabre guard: this is possible if everything is in correct position, and impossible if not.


Hitting

Hitting is easy with a sabre. It is designed to hit.

Hitting with a sabre is the same as with any sword: the pointy end goes that way. Don’t hack or slash – that just invites counterattacks or worse.

Imagine an arc from the tip to the target on the opponent. Trace that arc with the sabre, fast. Move the tip of the sabre, first.

The closest target is usually the sword arm shoulder. It is possible to hit the wrist or forearm, which are closer, but those targets are also partially obstructed by your opponent’s sabre and easy them to yank out of the way. The latter is also true for the head. More distant targets are the ‘flank’ on the sword arm side, and the ‘belly’ or ‘chest’ on the off side.

We call a hit to the shoulder from guard 3 a ‘direct hit’ because it take the most direct route. A hit from the guard 3 to the flank or belly is an ‘indirect hit’, along one of two paths: a ‘short arc’, and a ‘long arc’. Short arcs hit sooner but are easier to block, or ‘parry’; long arcs hit later but leave more time for counterattacks. These details will probably be too much for your students now, but will be useful for them to hear and reflect on later in their training.

They should lean forwards when they hit. This gives them more power from body momentum and more range from body displacement. Hit through the target and leave the sabre in position afterwards — allowing for recoil — before returning to guard 3.

This is a good habit to cultivate now so they hit well soon and so they can later learn techniques like opposition, extension, and counter-parries.

Don’t let them keep their torsos upright when they hit, or snatch the blade back afterwards. It hurts, looks bad, and it’s embarrassing when they miss.


Moving

Opponents rarely stay still long enough, or close enough, for a sabreur to hit them from a standing start.

Sabreurs must move.

Start by jogging up and down in place, then forwards and backwards, without crossing feet.

Each time they jog forwards — front foot steps forwards, back foot follows — that’s an ‘advance’.

Each time they jog backwards — back foot steps back, front foot follows — that’s a ‘retreat’.

Link them together: one advance, one retreat; two advances, two retreats; three advances, three retreats. Advances and retreats can be as large or small needed to reach the opponent or move away.

Advance and retreat like a tiger, only with two legs instead of four: little padding steps when approaching the opponent, then pounce to hit.

Tell them they can move backwards with retreats and by simply walking or running, crossing their feet. This is often the best thing to do when trying to pull away from an opponent.

Also tell them they are not allowed to cross your feet forwards. There is no physical reason for this rule. it was introduced by the international fencing federation (the ‘FIE’, or Fédération Internationale d’Escrime) after 1988 to stop a German innovation. Or so the rumour goes.


Hitting while Moving

Once they can move, they can hit when moving. Have them advance into range and hit at the same time they make a forwards ‘step’.

A step is not the same as an advance; it is made with just the front foot, whereas an advance is a front step followed by a back step.

The hit should land at the same time as the step.

The further the opponent, the bigger the step, and the more their body will parabolically rise during their flight through the air. It is just like throwing a spear or a ball: the further the target, the closer to 45 degrees up from horizontal they should aim.

The ideal hit range, or hit distance, is one in which the student:

  • Launches to hit with a big but comfortable step.
  • Hits on landing.
  • Hits with the sabre foible, near the tip, with enough extra range to go through the target (in case the opponent moves backwards.

The ideal distance from the opponent for a sabreur to launch an attack is where they can comfortably hit without being counterattacked or have their blade ‘beat’ away. This distance is about 2 metres away for most people.

Your students may not be able to reach opponents who are fast or have long arms, with their normal step. They can step further by adding a fast advance beforehand, to gain momentum, and launch another 0.5-1m.

If they make a huge step and stay in an extended pose after landing, this is a ‘lunge’. Add a preceding advance and it is an ‘advance-lunge’: the most common attack technique in fencing.


Three Rules of the Sabre Game

Sabre fencing is not a “real sword fight”. They are games, for a combat sport derived from a martial art that was once training for sidearm use.

Like all games, sabre fencing has rules to make it fun and safe.

A game of sabre fencing is called a ’bout’. Two sabreurs face each other on a long and narrow ‘piste’, awaiting ‘on-guard’ at their ‘start lines’, 4 metres apart, for the referee to start each ‘exchange’.

The aim is to hit the opponent to score a point. Each exchange (or assault, in French), can result in either a single point awarded, or a draw in which neither fencer scores.

The bout is over when one sabreur accumulates the number of points that they need to win, typically 5.

There are three ways to score in sabre:

  1. Hit and not get hit. Modern sabre fencing uses electronic scoring equipment to detect hits anywhere above the waist and along their arms to their wrist. The detection mechanism is basic: the moment a sabre touches the metal jacket (the lamé) of the opponent, an electric circuit closes, and the scoreboard lights up.
    We have a precise definition of what it means to hit and not get hit: from the moment the scorebox detects the first hit, it measures the elapsed time; after a set period, it prevents a second hit from being detected. These days this period, or ‘cut-off time’, is 180 milliseconds — about the same as a trained athlete’s reaction time.
  2. Run them off the back. If your opponent retreats over their end of the piste — the ‘back line’ — with both feet, you score a point.
  3. Hit with ‘priority’ (or ‘right-of-way’). If both sabreurs hit within the cut-off time, the referee awards the point to the ‘attacker’. The attacker is initially the first person to attack in an exchange. If they miss or the attack is blocked — ‘parried’ — their opponent becomes the attacker. If the opponent’s attack subsequently misses or gets parried, the first person regains priority to become the attacker again. And so forth, until one of the fencers lands a hit.

This is usually 1 hour into the class. You should demonstrate some sabre fencing and suit the students into electrics to fence some 5 point bouts.


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