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The Manuel d'escrime of 1877
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A Summary by

William Gaugler, Maestro di Schermo

William Gaugler bio

In 1877 the Ministry of War in France published the Manuel d'escrime. The function of this handbook was to provide a standard text for fencing instruction throughout the French army. In the opening pages we learn that fencing instruction was obligatory and free in the military, and that each casern was to have a salle d'armes where officers were to exercise daily, and to set an example for their troops (Ministerial circular of 7 May 1875). A fencing master (maître d'armes) and assistants (prévôts) were to be available at fixed hours, and public assaults were to be encouraged. This succinct, but complete, manual served as the forerunner to the well-known Reglement d'escrime of 1908.

The Manuel d'escrime is divided into two parts. Part One is devoted to the sword or fencing with the point (épée ou escrime pointe), and Part Two, to the sabre or fencing with the counterpoint (sabre ou escrime contre-pointe). Part One, Article One, states that fencing with the sword must always be taught on an individual basis. The aim of this instruction is to teach the student to use his sword in attack and defense. The procedure is to move from simple to compound (simple au composé) actions, acquainting the pupil successively with the nomenclature (nomenclature) of the sword, the manner of holding it (manièr de tenir l'épée), the preparatory movement for adopting the guard position (préparatoire à la mise en garde), the guard position (la garde), the reassemblement forward and backward (rassemblement en avant et en arrièr), the appels (appels), the extension of the arm (déploiement du bras), the lunge (fente), the return on guard (reprise de la garde), progressive lessons showing diverse ways to attack and to defend (divers moyens d'attaque ou de défense dans l'ordre des leçons de la progression), the wall (mur), the salute (salut), and finally, the assault (assaut).

The teacher is advised to correct his student's faulty hand and body positions endlessly before increasing progressively the rapidity of the movements, so that he will be led gradually to the essential qualities of fencing, that is to say, precision and speed (précision et vitesse).

...l'instructeur s'attachera donc à en faire ressortir lutilité par une démonstration pratique, saissante et rétérée, accompagnée de brèves explications, claires, nettes et précises, permattant à l' élève de se rendre compte de la corrélation entre les attaques at les défenses at de parvenir à faire, plus tard un assaut intelligent et raisonné...

Moreover, the instructor must insist on a correct guard position, and show the utility of each action by providing a practical demonstration, accompanied by a brief and clear explanation, so that his pupil will comprehend the relationship between offense and defense, which, in turn, will lead, at a later date, to an intelligent and reasoned assault.

The master must acquaint his student with the various lines (diverses lignes), and the manner of execution of the engagement (engagement), the change of engagement (changement d'engagement), the double engagement (double engagement) , finger play (doigté), the attack and its varieties (attaque et ses variétés), the straight thrust (coup droit), the disengagement (dégagement) , the cut-over (coupé), the feint (feinte), the glide (coulé), the beat (battement), the pressure (pression), the expulsion (froissement), the bind (liement), the disengagement to the low line (dérobement), the replacement (remise), the retaking or renewal of the attack (reprise), the redoublement (redoublement), the time thrust (coup de temps), the arrest (coup d'arrêt), the parry and its varieties (parade et ses variétés), the opposition (opposition), the counter (contre), the riposte (riposte), the counterriposte (contre-riposte) and the fencing phrase (phrase d'armes).

In Part One, Article Two, fencing terms are defined, and fencing positions and actions are described. For example, the parts of the blade (lame) are defined as the point (pointe) or the weak anterior part of the blade, which terminates with the button or fly (bouton ou la mouche); the heel (talon) or the strong posterior portion used for parrying; and the middle (milieu) or intermediate part, which is employed for engagements. The blade is attached to the mounting (monture) by means of the tang (soie); and this screws into the pommel (pommeau), which serves as a counter weight. The mounting comprises the handle (poignée) and the guard (garde); and the first consists of ash or beech wrapped with cord, and the second, of iron in the shape of a figure-eight.

The guard (garde) is defined as the preliminary position, which, on the basis of experience, best enables the fencer to be ready to attack and defend. (La garde est la position préliminaire indiquée par l'expérience comme la meilleure à prendre par le tireur pour être aussi prêt à l'attaque qu' à la défense.) It is taken in seven movements.

In the preparatory motion the swordsman turns half left head up, feet at right angles, heels together, right arm extended forward detached from the body, point of the weapon about ten centimeters from the ground, and left arm hanging naturally, hand open. In the first movement the sword is raised to the height of the eyes, thumb above, arm extended, and weapon appearing to be an extension of the arm. In the second motion the sword is towered and the arm straightened, point about ten centimeters from the floor. In the third movement the sword is brought back horizontally against the body, right hand turned with the fingernails facing down, left hand against the guard, fingers extended, with the upper part of the fingers on the blade. In the fourth motion the arms are bent, and passing near the body, carried over the head, and stretched out. In the fifth movement the arms are brought near the head, left hand carried to the rear and level with the head, hand centered, thumb lightly detached from the other fingers, arms rounded; the right hand is lowered, crook of the arm flexed, thumb of the right hand above and level with the right nipple, and the elbow inside, and about fifteen centimeters in front of the body, with the point of the sword at the height of and between the two eyes. In the sixth motion the lees are flexed, knees opened, and body placed vertically between the hips. And in the seventh, and final movement, the weight of the body is kept on the left leg, and the right leg is brought forward and the foot set down flat against the ground in front of the left heel. At the completion of the advance of the right foot the right knee should be perpendicular to the middle of the foot.

After describing the execution of the advance, the retreat, and the appel, the Manuel d'escrime turns to the extension of the arm (déploiement du bras). It says that this must be accomplished without jerkiness and without shoulder motion, with the torso immobile, right hand rotated so that the fingernails face slightly upward, and the hand, and point of the sword, elevated to chin level.

The lunge (fente) is defined as the development that enables the fencer to give his thrust the greatest vigor and extension possible. (La fente est le développement par lequal le tireur imprime à l'épée l'action la prus vigoureuse et la prus étendue.) To perform the lunge, the sword arm is straightened, and the left leg is extended energetically; simultaneously, the right foot is carried forward as close as possible to the ground, and in tine with the left heel; the right foot should land flat in such a way that the knee is outside, and perpendicular to the middle of the foot; the torso remains erect, and the left arm is thrown back, and comes to rest about ten centimeters from the thigh, with the fingers of the hand extended and joined, thumb detached, head up, and eyes fixed on the point of the sword.

The salute (salut dans les armes) described in the text is relatively simple. From reassemblement: first, the sword arm is bent, elbow joining the body, hand at chin height, and fingernails turned toward the body; second, the blade is towered and the arm extended, right hand with the fingernails up, and at the side of the right thigh.

Lines (lignes) are defined as zones or portions of space (zones ou parties de l'espace) in which one moves the sword, departing from the guard position. (Les lignes sont les zones ou parties de l'espace dans lesquelles se meut l'épée en partant de la position de la garde.) The text states that there are four lines: 1) the line to the right, or third, or outside (ligne de droite, ou de tierce, ou de dehors) is the zone or portion of space to the right of the sword; 2) the line to the left, or fourth, or inside (ligne de gauche, ou de quarte, ou de dedans), is the zone or portion of space to the left of the weapon; 3) the high line or first (ligne haute ou de prime) is the zone or portion of space above the hand; and 4) the low line or second (ligne basse ou de seconde) is the zone or portion of space under the hand. The Manuel d'escrime observes that engagements can only be made in the right and left lines, while the high and low lines are used exclusively for the delivery of thrusts. The text adds further that one should not thrust to the low line without first closing the high line with a feint, beat, or pressure in order to avoid being arrested with a time thrust.

The engagement (engagement) is defined as joining the adversary's blade on the side opposite that on which one originally established contact to cover oneself. To effect an engagement, the hand, with the thumb on top, is shifted to the left or to the right in order to provide cover.

The change of engagement (changement d'engagement) is a new engagement taken on the side opposite the preceding engagement.

The double engagement (double engagement) is an immediate succession of two engagements. The text notes that the double engagement can be performed from immobility or with an advance. In the latter case the step forward must be completed with the execution of the second engagement.

Finger play (doigté) is a momentary displacement of the sword point accomplished primarily with the thumb and the first two fingers. This gives the fencer precision in his blade motions when he feints, directs the point of his weapon in the attack, or parries the incoming steel.

The attack (attaque) is defined as the action the fencer uses to strike his opponent with a simple (simple) or compound (composé) thrust. (Le coup simple comporte trois variétes: le coup droit, le dégagement et le coupé.) The thrust is simple if it consists of only one movement, and it is compound if it requires more than one motion (two, three, or four). There are three simple thrusts: the straight thrust, the disengagement, and the cut-over.

The straight thrust (coup droit) strikes the antagonist directly, and results from an extension of the arm or feint. The disengagement (dégagement) is a lateral change of line followed by a straight thrust. The feint (feinte) is a simulated thrust which provokes a parry. And the cut-over (coupé) is a disengagement over the point.

The text continues with definitions and descriptions of compound actions. It states that the glide (coulé) is a feint by straight thrust along the hostile blade. The beat (battement) is a more or less light blow with the point against the point to rattle the opposing weapon and facilitate the thrust. The pressure (pression) is a more or less light push of the point against the point to shake the hostile sword and clear the way for the thrust. The expulsion (froissement) is a sudden, prolonged gliding pressure. The disengagement to the low line (d'erobement) is an attack effected by passing the point to the low line after feinting, beating, or pressing. The bind (liement) is an action in which the hostile blade is carried, with one's own strong against the opposing weak, from a high to a low line, or the reverse.

The replacement (remise) is an attack executed from the lunge on the absence or abandonment of the sword after the parry, and is performed as a straight thrust by placing the point in line. Used correctly, the replacement is to the riposte what the time thrust is to the attack. The retaking or renewal of attack (reprise) is also effected from the lunge, and is employed in opposition to an adversary who parries but does not riposte. The redoublement (redoublement) is an immediate succession of two attacks accomplished without recovering, and used against an opponent who parries but fails to riposte.

The time thrust (coup de temps) is an attack that surprises the antagonist during his preparation for an attack. It is executed in opposition to absence of blade, a wide feint, an attack aimed at the low line, or an attack in which foot movement precedes arm extension. The arrest (coup d'arrêt) is an attack performed against an attack with an advance accompanied by multiple feints.

The parry (parade) is an action that deviates the thrust from the body. It is always effected with the strong against the weak, and serves to drive the incoming steel from its line of entry. The counter (contre) parry catches the hostile blade in its line of entry and carries it to an opposite line. It is a circular parry.

The parry proper (parade proprement dite), according to the text, sharply deflects the adverse blade from the body, without accompanying it, to facilitate the riposte; and it is accomplished by means of a dry beat made with the aid of the fingers.

The opposition (opposition) is a special parry that deviates and accompanies the incoming steel, that is to say, it turns the hostile blade from the body solely through hand action, and without a shock.

Under varieties of the parry (variétiés de la parade) the text lists eight, of which each has its counter. They are: first (prime), second (seconde), third (tierce), fourth (quarte), fifth (quinte), sixth (sixte), half-circle (demi-cercle) or seventh (septime), and eighth (octave)

The parries of second and eighth are executed to the right in the low line; the parries of third and sixth, to the right in the high line; the parries of fourth and first, to the left in the high line; and the parries of fifth and half-circle or seventh, to the left in the low line.

The Manuel d'escrime defines the riposte (riposte) as the attack that follows the parry, either immediately, or after an instant determined by the adversary's movements. If the riposte is immediate, it is termed a riposte du tac au tac, that is to say, a riposte in which the touch of the sword is succeeded promptly by the touch to the chest. And the counter-riposte (contre-riposte) is defined as the attack that follows the parry and the riposte. In other words, after the attack has been parried, the attacker defends himself against the defender's riposte with a parry and riposte. This is the counter-riposte.

The fencing phrase (phrase d'armes) is a succession of several thrusts delivered without interruption.

Part One, Article Three, concerns the progression of instruction (progression de l'enseignement), and provides the teacher with a series of model lessons. These begin as follows:

Lesson One

  1. Nomenclature of the sword. Holding the sword. Preparatory movements. The guard position. The salute.
  2. Exercises with direct attacks. Parries on disengagement, and direct ripostes.
  3. Exercises with direct attacks. Parries on two disengagements, and direct ripostes.

Lesson Two

  1. Exercises with diverse attacks (beats, pressures, expulsions). Parries on three disengagements, and direct ripostes.
  2. Exercises with diverse attacks (cut-over, glide). Parries on four disengagements, and direct riposte.
  3. Exercises with diverse attacks in the low line (glide, beat, pressure). Parries on one, two, three disengagements, and direct riposte.

Lesson Three

  1. Exercises with changes of engagement, and on compound ripostes.
  2. Exercises with double engagements, and on compound ripostes.
  3. Exercises with an advance (attack, parry, and direct riposte).

Lesson Four

  1. Exercises with an advance and change of engagement, and various simple ripostes.
  2. Exercises with an advance and double engagement, and various simple ripostes. . . .

Part One, Article Four, provides general rules that the teacher must observe (règles générales à observer) in his lessons. These include executing each action slowly at first; performing thrusts first in the left, and then in the right line; and preceding each exercise with the command "Engage the sword!"

In Part One, Article Five, the lessons are developed in detail (détail des leçons). For instance, in Lesson One the lunge is shown as:

  1. Extend the arm.
  2. Lunge.
  3. On guard.

Part One, Article Six, concerns the wall (mur) and the assault (assaut). The wall is defined as the prelude to the assault, and consists of disengagements and parries executed, following certain traditional conventions, to prepare the fencer's hand and legs. And it is accompanied with a salute that is directed to the spectators and to the adversary. In the assault the reader is advised to go on guard out of distance in order to avoid being surprised by his adversary; and he is counseled always to cross swords. The advance, he is told, should be made with small steps, and a readiness to parry. And the retreat should serve to maintain distance, or to prompt the opponent to advance so that an attack can be launched on his step forward. Moreover, one should, whenever possible, attack with straight thrusts, or straight thrusts preceded by a beat or pressure.

Part Two of the Manuel d'escrime, as indicated earlier, is devoted to sabre fencing (escrime au sabre ou contre-pointe). Part Two, Article One, of the text states that the instructional method for sabre fencing is the same as for sword fencing. Part Two, Article Two, begins with a description of the parts of the sabre (nomenclature du sabre). It is divided into two parts, the blade (lame) and the mounting (monture). The blade consists of the point (pointe), the back (dos), the cut (tranchant), the heel (talon), and the tang (soie). The mounting is composed of the handle (poignée) and the guard (garde).

The handle of the sabre is gripped with the fingernails underneath, and the thumb extended on the back, almost touching the guard, while the four other fingers are united below, grasping the handle lightly. The cut is to the right, and the heel outside, and on the side of the hand.

In the preparatory movements (mouvements préparatoires) the fencer stands erect, heels together at right angles, right arm detached from the body and extended forward, point of the sabre about ten centimeters from the ground, and left arm bent behind, hand resting against the hip, and palm facing away from the body.

From the initial position the fencer goes on guard (garde) in three motions: in the first movement he raises the sabre, with the right arm extended, so that the hand is elevated to eye level; in the second motion he bends the right arm at the elbow and lowers the hand to the height of the right breast, fingernails below, elbow outside to the right and a little detached from the body, and point of the sabre level with the eyes; and in the third movement he flexes his legs, advancing the right foot as in the sword guard. But before the fencer performs the second movement of the guard, the text states that he must make two circular cuts (moulinets), beginning on the left.

The advance (marche), appels (appels), and reassemblement (rassemblement) are effected as in sword fencing. And the lunge (fente), according to the Manuel d'escrime, is always preceded by extension of the arm made with the aid of a circular cut.

The text indicates that cuts to the advanced leg or thigh are not parried with the sabre; instead, the right leg is drawn back quickly about thirty-five centimeters, with the foot flat, in an escaping action (en échappant), And cuts to the head are parried in the same manner, and are accompanied by an arrest to the antagonist's forearm with a circular cut from the right followed, for purposes of security, by a head parry.

Next, the Manuel d'escrime describes exercises with circular cuts, which are intended to help develop suppleness in the arm and hand. With the right arm extended forward, hand at shoulder height, and fingernails down, the sabre is swung in a circular motion over the head from left to right, or from right to left, with the fingers opening slightly, and the hand assisting the movement, fingernails up or down, and cutting edge of the sabre facing left or right.

Engagement (engagement) must be made with the cutting edge against the cutting edge, hand to the right or left, and fingernails down or up.

Attacks (attaques) may be executed with a simple thrust or cut, or by a compound action which does not exceed three movements. Simple attacks can be performed with a circular cut to the head and chest; a circular cut to the right and left cheeks; a direct cut to the flank, abdomen, or cuff (manchette), or with a point thrust. And compound attacks can be effected with a feint, which resembles a cut or point thrust, but is accomplished without a lunge.

The cut to the head (coup de tête) is executed with a circular cut to the left rear, extending the arm, and arresting the sabre at the summit of the head, with the cutting edge directed forward.

The cut to the chest (coup de banderole) is performed with a circular cut to the left rear, straightening the arm, and arresting the sabre at the level of the shoulder, with the cutting edge aimed forward in such a way that the cut is directed diagonally from right to left.

The cut to the right cheek (coup de figure à droite) is effected with a circular cut from right to left, extending the arm, and arresting the sabre at the height of the cheek, with the cutting edge to the right, and the hand and fingernails down.

The cut to the left cheek (coup de figure à gauche) is accomplished with a circular cut from left to right, straightening the arm, and arresting the sabre at the level of the cheek, with the cutting edge to the left, and the hand and fingernails up.

The cut to the flank (coup de flanc) is executed extending the arm, and arresting the sabre at the height of the flank, with the cutting edge up, and the hand and thumb slightly to the left.

The cut to the abdomen (coup de ventre) is performed straightening the arm, and arresting the sabre at the level of the abdomen, with the cutting edge up, and the hand and thumb slightly to the right.

The cut to the cuff (coup de manchette) is effected with the cutting edge under, and the thumb slightly to the right, so that the head cut, during its execution, is countered with an arrest to the cuff.

The point thrust (coup de pointe) is accomplished by lowering the point of the sabre to the level of the chest, extending the arm, and rotating the hand so that the thumb is under, and the cutting edge of the blade is up.

The parry (parade) is always made by opposing the cutting edge to the cutting edge, and driving the incoming steel away from the body without accompanying it. The head parry protects the top of the head and the cheeks; and the body parry shields the chest, flank, and abdomen.

The head parry (parade de tête) is executed by elevating the right arm, turning the hand and fingernails forward, and placing the sabre horizontally a little forward and at the height of the summit of the head, cutting edge up. The illustration shows a parry resembling modern French and Hungarian fifth.

The right or left cheek parry (parade de figure à droite ou à gauche) is performed by shifting the hand to the right or left, opposite and ten centimeters away from the breast, so that the blade of the sabre is inclined slightly forward, with the cutting edge directed to the right or to the left. The illustrations show these parry positions with the hand higher than in the modern French and Hungarian parries of third and fourth, and with greater forward inclination of the blade.

The chest or abdomen parry (parade de banderole ou de ventre) is effected by lifting the right arm, elbow outside, and bent at the crook of the arm, forearm placed horizontally in front of the body at the height of the shoulder, hand and fingernails forward and opposite the middle of the body, point of the sabre down, and blade about ten centimeters from the body, with the cutting edge facing left.

The flank parry (parade de flanc) is accomplished by shifting the hand outside and to the right, flexing the arm slightly, elbow and hand at shoulder height, and point of the sabre down, blade approximately thirty-three centimeters from the body, with the cutting edge facing right. The illustration shows a parry similar to the modern French and Hungarian parry of first, with the blade in a vertical position, point down, except that the hand and weapon are to the right, rather than to the left.

The point parry (parade de pointe) is executed from the guard position by inclining the point slightly downward, hand opposite and in the middle of the body. The illustration shows a parry similar to the French foil parry of fifth.

The riposte (riposte) is made with the same actions as the attack. The head parry is succeeded by a riposte to the abdomen or flank; the right cheek parry, by a riposte to the left cheek or flank; the left cheek parry, by a riposte to the right cheek or abdomen; the chest or abdomen parry, by a riposte to the head or chest; the flank parry, by a riposte to the head, right cheek, or abdomen; and the point parry, by a riposte to the head or right cheek. The same actions can also be used in the counter-riposte.

In Part Two, Article Three, the text provides sample sabre lessons. These follow the pattern of progressive instruction (progression de l'enseignement) encountered earlier in the sword lessons.

Lesson One

  1. Preparatory movement and guard position.
  2. Circular cuts from immobility.
  3. Circular cuts with a lunge.

Lesson Two

  1. Attacks with simple thrusts and cuts.
  2. Parries after a simple attack.
  3. Uniting the attack and the simple parry.

Lesson Three

  1. Compound attacks.
  2. Parries after a simple attack, and simple ripostes.
  3. Parries after a simple attack, and compound ripostes. . . . . .

In Part Two, Article Four, the Manuel d'escrime states that the same general rules must be observed in sabre fencing as in sword fencing; and in Part Two, Article Five, the lessons are developed in detail (détail des leçons).

Part Two, Article Six, concerns the salute and the assault (salut et assaut). The salute is performed in twelve steps: 1) a cut to the right cheek is effected with a lunge; 2) a recovery is made to the first movement of the guard; 3) the guard position is taken; 4) a reassemblement forward is made, and sabres are crossed; 5) two changes of guard follow; 6) an escape to the rear is accomplished; 7) two appels are made; 8) a salute to the right and to the left is executed; 9) the guard position is taken again; 10) An attack is invited with the words: "I give you the honor!" and a hit is received; a cut to the flank or point thrust is delivered, followed by a recovery on guard; 11) a salute is given to the right, succeeded by a rassemblement backward; and 12) a salute is given in front.

The text states that in the assault the sabre movements should be kept near the body, so that the hand is as close as possible to the line. Cuts must be delivered with a light touch, drawing the cutting edge of the blade back quickly in a sawlike motion.

And the work concludes with a list of obligations for the fencing masters and provosts or assistants (devoirs des maîtres et des prévôts). The Manuel d'escrime observes that the salle d'armes must always be maintained in the best state of cleanliness. It should be decorated with an array of arms and inscribed wooden shields which recall the glorious exploits of the regiment, battalion, or squad to which the salle d'armes belongs, as well as devices with statements such as Honor and Country, Glory to God, Respect for the Masters, Honor to the Arms, and Long Live France (Honneur et Patrie, Gloire à Dieu, Respect aux Maîtres, Honneur aux Armes, Vive la France).

Moreover, order and courtesy must always be preserved in the salles d'armes. Smoking must be prohibited. Quarrels should end with reconciliation in the name of military confraternity. Fencers must never be allowed to engage in the assault except in the presence of the master and his assistants, and with their authorization. Fencing encounters should be followed carefully so that after the final touch (la belle) and salute recommendations for corrections can be made.

Finally, the text notes that the master and his assistants must set an example for their students. Their speech should be calm and measured. They must be loyal and irreproachable in their conduct. And they must maintain a dignity and pride that brings respect to the uniform, and earns them the esteem and consideration of their pupils.

The Manuel d'escrime embodied, in many respects, the quintessential elements of nineteenth-century French fencing theory and practice. Ultimately, it provided the foundation for its twentieth-century successor, the Règlement d'escrime of 1908, which became the Bible of modern French fencing. Seven years after its publication the Manuel d'escrime of 1877 was followed by its Italian counterpart, Masanietto Parise's monumental work, Trattato teorico-pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola.

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Saddle, Lance and Stirrup: The Irish/Roman Connection
The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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