Last Days of the Sword: The 19th Century Fencing Revival

Arms of the Past

The most ancient and storied symbol of war, the sword. Today relegated to ceremony and sport, saw a brief resurgence before obsolescence prior to the First World War. New designs were adopted, and prominent officers and writers promoted its study by all upstanding gentlemen, and its use by the military.

In this article we'll explore the evolution of swordplay, from the academies and swordsman's guilds of the 17th century, through the decline of military swordsmanship in the 19th century and its subsequent revival prior to World War I, along with the branching offs that led to modern sport fencing. We will also look at the resultant ties between serious and deadly swordplay with the sport fencing disciplines of foil, epee, and saber. In addition, we'll take a look at the evolution of the bayonet and its use, so romanticized in the early 19th century and the US Civil War; the late 19th century fencing revival also led to an evolution and elevation of bayonet technique.

The Smallsword

The Smallsword

As unassuming and humble as it may appear, the most deadly sword in history was the smallsword. Comparatively short, light, possessing no cutting edge whatsoever, the smallsword was an essential part of the wardrobe of any man who aspired to be anything of note, from the late 17th century through the Napoleonic wars. In the Renaissance distinct schools of swordsmanship, and organized networks of teachers, had spread all across Europe. Italian, Spanish, German, and English masters taught distinct and evolved forms of fencing with the rapier, the short cutlass, and the two-handed sword, but as the rapier transformed into the smallsword, the French school came to dominate fashions.

Now, it should be mentioned that the smallsword, perhaps surprisingly, is not a military weapons at all, but a civilian weapon. In the 17th and 18th centuries, warfare initially was a matter of pike hedges and massed musket fire, and when the bayonet arrived, the pike went away. Swords were certainly used on the battlefield: short cutlasses called hangers were widely carried as sidearms, and cavalry used broadswords and backswords (single edged, straight bladed swords), but the smallsword was a weapon of the street and the noble court. The smallsword was often quite ornate, but it was a serious fighting weapon, used for self defense on the crime-ridden streets and roadways of early modern Europe, as well as a weapon for settling points of honor, which is where it got its deadly reputation.

The smallsword is purely a thrusting and stabbing weapon, and coming along when it did in the early days of the printing press, the schools of the smallsword preserved their teachings in manuals, with both descriptions of the action and detailed illustrations.

The Foil

Italian Foils

With all forms of weaponry, non-lethal dummy versions are created for practice and training. In the 18th century, a formalized version of smallsword fencing, using non-lethal dummy swords, became a popular pastime and an important training tool for many upstanding Frenchmen, and it spread throughout Europe. These dummy swords were called Foils, for the “foiled” tip, and the formalized system of Foil fencing remains popular to this day.

Labat Fencing

A good example of the smallsword and foil fencing of the 1700's come from Monsieur Labat, and his book The Art of Fencing, or The Use of the Small Sword. Labat focuses on the interplay of guards, parries, and ripostes, on identifying and applying the correct counter to the opponents moves, and the correct attack to launch when the opponent leaves and opening.

“As the Art of Fencing consists in attacking and defending with the Sword, it is necessary that every Motion and Situation tend to these two principal Points. viz. In offending to be defended, and in defending to be in an immediate Condition to offend. There is no Guard without its Thrust, and no Thrust without its Parade, no Parade without its Feint, no Feint without its opposite Time or Motion, no opposite Time or Motion but has its Counter, and there is even a Counter to that Counter.”

The book, then, is composed of a catalog of guards, thrusts, parades, feints, moves, and counters.

A Duel with Swords

The deadly reputation of the smallsword came from its widespread use in dueling, which was the established method of resolving disputes of honor among gentlemen in those days, and many duels were to the death. By the 19th century, government and society were tired of the death toll from duels, and laws were passed to prohibit such things, although the popularity of dueling remained. In addition, as fashions changed, it became less acceptable for upstanding gentlemen to openly wear arms in public, so the smallsword fell out of style as a fashion accessory. Instead, in France, sword dueling remained popular, but only to first blood, and the swords became matched pairs of ornate, evolved, smallswords. As the duels were now only to first blood, a preferred target was the opponents sword hand (as that was the closest target within measure, so the least risk when attacking), and so the swords changed to use a cup hilt without the ricasso and rings of the smallsword. Over time, the sharp point of the dueling sword was covered with a button, and became the modern sport fencing Epee.

Domenico Angelo

Swordplay in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century, the importance of the sword in war, in the Western world, was declining. Swords were certainly still issued, to officers and to the cavalry, but the officer's swords were mostly ceremonial, and used for signaling and directing the men. The cavalry fought mostly with pistols and carbines, swords and lances only occasionally employed. Sword and bayonet training and employment became simplified, and declined…and as this was universal, no one was noticeably disadvantaged by it.

And so it would have persisted, except this was the age of Empire, and the scramble to colonize Africa and Asia…

The British in India

The British had been in India since the 17th century, but they did not accede to formal control and ownership of the subcontinent until 1858. In and around India, the British army and the army of the British East India company engaged in settling local disputes and putting down rebellions. Armed and trained to European standards, they fought with discipline and were armed to modern standard (which isn't quite so much more advanced than they liked to believe), enjoying significant advantage on the battlefield.

The Afghan War

In the 1840's, and again in the 1870's, the British invaded Afghanistan. With their discipline and training, British soldiers could easily defeat Pashtun tribesmen in open battle, but this was still the age of single-shot rifles; even the Martini-Henry rifles used during the second Anglo-Afghan War are single shot. In close quarters, British soldier may only get 1 shot before engaging in hand-to-hand…and that is when the British recognized a deficiency in their training. At least in the perception of British officers and military analysts, the average Pashtun tribesman with his Tulwar was better trained and more experienced with the sword than a British officer or cavalryman. They had similar experiences in Sudan during the Mahdist uprising and the Siege of Khartoum.

Alfred Hutton and the Revival

Alfred Hutton

Alfred Hutton was born in 1839, a soldier from a soldiering family. He served in various units of the British army, including the King's Dragoon Guards, but as he was raised in a military family, his father had sent him to a formal fencing academy before he ever took up a commission. With this background in the use of the sword, Hutton outshone his peers in swordsmanship and in turn took over training his fellow soldiers in the correct use of the sword.

With his experiences in India, and the nations experience in Afghanistan, after his retirement from the Army, Hutton turned to documenting a system of martial training in the foil, saber, and bayonet, combining contemporary foil or smallsword technique with remnants recovered from much older systems of fencing. His saber techniques, in fact, borrow heavily from the system of saber dueling that was popular in Italy at the time, so his system is effectively an Anglicization of Italian saber fencing, and a direct ancestor to modern sport saber fencing.

Hutton's system begins with Foil, as the basis for all later. His system of Foil is based on the four guards with the hand in supination (fingers up): quarte, sixte, septime, octave. Matching the opponents position when in measure engages; a small movement to knock the opponents sword aside parries, while a harder movement to create and opening is a Beat. From within measure, an attack can be made with a simple thrust, but safer is to lunge from out of measure.

Saber uses the same core positions, but makes greater use of the hand in Pronation, to provide greater support when attacking with the edge. Attacks are made up of the principal cuts, as well as lunges and thrusts with the point, like with foil.

Prior to Hutton, in the English world, bayonet was a relatively simple, although glorified, system. The rifle was essentially shouldered with the bayonet fixed and then leaned forward toward the enemy. Hutton elevated bayonet fencing with a system of guards, thrusts and parries derived from foil, but using either the point or the butt, depending on whether the fighters are in measure.


Hutton also included notes on the use of the sword bayonet (increasingly common in the late 19th century), and its use unmounted as a dagger, assembling notes from older, renaissance works on dagger play as a basis.

George S. Patton in America

On the other side of the Atlantic, prior to World War I, a young cavalry officer and Olympic fencer, George S. Patton, also sought to resuscitate swordplay with the army. Patton designed a new sword (the last combat sword of the US Army), and literally wrote the book on cavalry swordplay. His system, and his sword, put all emphasis on the point.

As his training is specifically for Cavalry, there is no emphasis on footwork, and even parrying is significantly downplayed: in a cavalry sword engagement, a fighter will get one chance to attack or parry in a pass, and if he parries he gives up his attack.

Patton of course would become much more famous for other things, later.


All this resurgent interest in swordplay and military swordsmanship was in for a rude awakening come the first world war, just a few short years later. Hutton died in 1910, so he never saw it himself, but Patton was in the middle of it.

While swords were still somewhat useful in colonial expeditions into the developing world, where locals still relied on the sword, and firearms were still single shot, in the trenches and against machine guns, cavalry became nearly useless on the attack, and close combat was so close that there was no room for fencing guards and footwork: knives, bayonets, clubs and shovels dominated.

With World War I it was clear to everyone that the age of the sword as a weapon of war was over. But, the revival of classical fencing during the preceding decades had one lasting impact: the foil, the dueling sword, and the saber were preserved in a formalized and non-lethal form. Modern sport fencing grew out of the revival of swordsmanship in the late 19th century, and was included as a contemporary military art in the revived Olympic games. In fact, Alfred Hutton’s colleague Egerton Castle led the British fencing team in the 1908 Olympics, and George S. Patton had competed in Pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics (which includes fencing as an event).

So, why should fencing be of interest to a student of warfare today, in the 21st century? The study and practice of fencing sharpens the mind, and conditions the body. It improves aim and control, and provides great exercise. It also maintains a bridge to the past, helping us to understand the fighters and warriors that came before.

Also, ammunition can run low. Bullets can run out, but a sword will not…

The Legacy of Past Wars


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