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An analysis of the 1914 manual for Saber Exercise


Richard P. Alvarez

Richard Alvarezbio

In 1914, the office of the Chief of Staff for the U.S. War Department published a small, pocket-sized book entitled Saber Exercise, written by Second Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr., Master of the Sword at the Mounted Service School, Fifteenth Cavalry.

This slim volume, only 40 pages long, is significant in that it marks a transitional period of warfare. It is an effort to instruct 20th-century troops in the practical application of the Armes Blanche on the 20th-century battlefield. The fact that it is written by a young 2d Lieutenant who will go on to distinguish himself as a great General of modern "armored cavalry" is of no coincidence.

The history of mounted combat and armored cavalry stretches back at least as far as the ancient Assyrians and includes the legacy of the Eastern horse cultures such as the Magyars, Parthians, Avars, and the "Mongol Hordes". Horse were used by these cultures for reconnaissance and harrying tactics as well as mobile "mounted artillery" in the form of mounted archers. Spears tended to be light enough to wield with one hand, and were either thrown as javelins or used with a thrusting motion.

Shock tactics with the lance and the advent of heavier troops awaited the development of rigid saddles to keep the rider in place during impact. The Romans used a saddle with four "horns" that gripped the rider and made heavier impact more practical. Attila the Hun used a wooden tree in AD 350. The addition of the stirrup, thought to have evolved in the east, provided two advantages to the mounted warrior. It allowed the rider to "stand" and so isolate his body motion through his legs to gain greater accuracy in shooting his bow. It also provided greater lateral stability for continued fighting with the sword in the melee, after the initial shock of charge had broken the line.

It is evident from examining Patton's saber manual that he envisioned the role of mounted troops at the turn of the century as shock units, much like the heavier mounted knights of Medieval Europe.

In a charge, the trooper is merely a projectile, the saber its point.

p. 16

In a world where most people still saw horse-drawn vehicles in the streets, cavalry duels from the Civil War could still be discussed with a few old vets. Patton understood that the nature of modern warfare and its weapons would preclude the noble exchange of the Phrase-des-armes that characterized earlier periods.

The saber is solely a weapon of offense and is used in conjunction with the other offensive weapon, the horse. In all training, the idea of speed must be conserved. No direct parries are taught, because at the completion of a parry the enemy is already beyond the reach of attack. The surest parry is a disabled opponent.

p. 5

To those of us experienced at fencing, especially saber, it may come as a surprise that Patton would essentially delete an entire area of training with the sword. One must keep in mind, however, that a horse charging at 25mph toward another horse, also charging at 25mph, provides a target that passes by the trooper at a nominal 50 miles per hour.

He is a unit in a line rushing on the enemy with the one idea of riding him down and transfixing him with his rigid saber, held at the position of charge saber.

p. 16

If the approach sounds medieval, it is not surprising. The idea is to use the saber more as a lance than a sword. The long, heavy, curved blade of the Civil War (dubbed "Old Wrist-Breaker") was not particularly suited to Patton's philosophy.

As the charge is the chief feature of combat...

p. 34

Patton helped design a new issue weapon, not unlike the British 1908 model. It had a yard-long (91.44cm) straight blade with a sharp point. "All the front edge, and half the back edge, is sharp so that it may be more easily withdrawn from a body, and also, on rare occasions, to cut." (p. 5). Its large, solid guard protected the sword arm and shoulder, and the grip was slightly canted to bring the point comfortably "in line" at the position of charge to saber.

This "Hell for leather" philosophy of the young lieutenant who would later be known as "Old Blood and Guts" was instilled in the trooper through a series of carefully graduated, repetitive drills. The instruction begins dismounted, so as not to "embarrass the trooper with a horse." The trooper uses a practice saber. In 1914, this was heavier than a modern competitive saber, but lighter than the service weapon.

The position of "Charge Saber" is the same as "Lunge to the Front" but delivered under a canter.

As the trooper extends his arm and body to the utmost, he should rotate his hand to the left so that when fully extended the edge of the saber will be up and the finger nails to the right. The blade should be at the height of the eye, the line of sight parallel to the direction of the blade. The body should be bent forward so as to be nearly horizontal, the trooper making every effort to reach as far to the front as possible.

p. 14

While under the charge, Patton warns:

It is a serious error to seek the blade of the adversary instead of disregarding it and seeking a touch, brushing the blade aside as a secondary consideration should it interfere. There is a strong tendency toward this seeking of the blade among men who have fenced under the old rules. It is prohibited. On foot, at the walk, it is quite possible to make this sort of a parry and still have time to touch, but mounted, at a gallop, a man who seeks the blade of his foe and parries it may escape uninjured but so will the other man. The speed of the horses is such that the enemy will be out of reach before the trooper can make an effective lunge at him, whereas if he disregards the other's saber and lunges at his body, he will in so doing force his adversary's saber aside and transfix him. Moreover the very idea of seeking the saber so as to parry it is taking the defensive frame of mind and is contrary to the offensive cavalry spirit.

p. 19-20 [Emphasis added.]

A rather sang-froid approach, to say the least. Fencers will recognize the action of closing the line with a parry while simultaneously delivering a touch as a "time thrust". Patton calls it the "Thrust at the right moment" (p. 17). Lest we think the rider goes about with his arm extended in a perpetual lunge, we should consider that under the General Plan for Dismounted Combat, there are four guards, and five points or thrusts taught and practiced by the trooper.

Under the General Plan, the normal guard, or guard to the right front, is assumed as follows:

At the command GUARD, carry the right foot about 24 inches to the right and bend the knees to simulate the position mounted. Incline the body to the front from the waist (not the hips). Let the blade fall to the front near the horizontal, elbow well away from the body, forearm and saber forming one straight line, edge of the blade to the right, point at the adversary's breast, at the same time placing the left hand, closed, 6 inches in front of the belt buckle to simulate the position of the bridle hand.

p. 6

The manual goes on to instruct the other four guard positions with advice to avoid startling the horse.

In all movements of the saber from one side to the other raise the saber slightly when passing over the horse's head so as not to scare him. This movement should be insisted on dismounted so as to form the habit.

p. 7

One might wonder why, if Patton feels the trooper is only a projectile, he bothers to teach various guards. These guards are merely neutral positions, from which the thrusts and the charge may be delivered.

In the charge and the melee, the trooper must remember that on the speed of his horse in the attack, and on his own offensive spirit, rest nine-tenths of his chances for success.

p. 5

Patton sees the melee following a charge, then, as simply another series of smaller charges.

In the melee, the trooper still goes at speed, riding down his opponent, but here ranks are broken, and he and his opponent have more room. ...he takes the position of guard toward his nearest enemy, crouching slightly in the saddle and alive to all possible attacks.

p. 17

In the melee, Patton concedes that a trooper may face an opponent horse to horse, without a charge. For this reason, he teaches the lunge, as a counterattack, from the various guards towards opponents on either flank. After guards and points are mastered at rest in a mounted posture, body for the trooper to touch. He is taught to "lunge" to the right and left front and even to the rear. These actions are practice first at rest, then with the instructor moving and the trooper stationary and finally with both trooper and instructor moving along parallel lines. The idea is to teach the trooper to extend his arm with sufficient "punch" at the moment the instructor is approximately six inches from the extended point.

If the trooper does this accurately his enemy will have no time to parry and the speed of the approach of the two horses will instantly transfix him. This is called the thrust at the right moment.

p. 17

Throughout the manual, Patton stresses the use of the point over the edge. He gives advice for the instructor:

The instructor who attacks with the cut must carefully avoid hitting the trooper after he himself has been touched. With the exercise saber the touch with the point is hardly perceptible and would not weaken the instructor's cut. In combat however, the difference in time between a touch with the point and a cut with the adverse edge will usually be sufficient for the spasmodic contraction caused by the entrance of the point to render the cut ineffective.

p. 20

One has to wonder if the young Lieutenant is speaking from personal experience. He also gives good advice concerning withdrawing the point from the target.

In drawing back the hand, rotate the wrist to the right until the finger nails are up; when the guard is reached, turn the finger nails down and resume guard as prescribed. The object of this rotation is to give a more secure hold in withdrawing the saber from a body. It must be insisted upon at all times in points and lunges to the right from and in charge saber.

pp. 9-10

There is a diagram for the construction of a mounted saber target, and he advises against using suspended targets, as they swing up and away, contrary to the action of a falling body. Once again, Patton's vision of the cavalry as a line of shock troops is set forth in the dummy drill:

It must be remembered that in all attacks against the dummy from charge saber, the trooper is supposed to be in the front rank of a line charging in close order. His horse is jammed in the press of horses and can only move to the front.

p. 24

Patton shows a marked insight into training horse and rider as he cautions against harsh movements with the bridle hand that would cause a horse to shy. He also advises putting nervous horses at the rear of the column in dummy drills. The book contains practical advice for introducing horses to the sights and sounds of combat. He also advocates mounted combat drill for the experienced mounted combatant, with the warning not to practice too hard or too often for fear of souring the horses.

As to souring men, he offers this warning to instructors who strike the student with the edge, after receiving the student's touch:

If the instructor disregards this fact, he will get the trooper to parrying, and spoil him as an offensive swordsman. The same is true if the instructor, taking advantage of his superior skill, continually touches the trooper with the point; he will ruin his confidence. These exercises are to instruct the man, not glorify the instructor.

p. 20 [Emphasis added.]

Curiously, perhaps anticipating a conflict with Eastern European cavalry forces, his manual also contains advice in facing a charge against lancers:

In attacking a lancer, rapid approach is even more important than against a swordsman. The only moment of danger is when the point of the lance comes within the first reach of the fully extended saber. If at that moment, the swordsman lunges, forcing the lance to the outside, he is safe and the lancer is at his mercy.

p. 23

This author's experience with the lance casts doubt on this advice. Such super-human control and timing seems unlikely to be acquired under schooling conditions, and Patton advises:

Exercises with the lance should be taught only by graduate instructors trained in its use.

p. 23

He does not say how or where those instructors are to acquire such training.

He does include lessons and exercises in pursuit after the charge, including a game where one rider ties a ribbon to his left shoulder, and the other rider must retrieve it. This teaches the rider to exploit and avoid the Cavalryman's "weak spot", his left ear.

Patton's manual was written at the end of the Mounted Cavalry era of modern warfare. His vision of a massed body of charging sabers was reminiscent of a heavy charge of medieval cavalry. His philosophy was not relevant to wars fought earlier with different weapons and armor, or even those wars when the hand gun became the common and preferred weapon of choice for the mounted trooper.

What was Patton's vision of the cavalry charge good for? Perhaps he saw the charge as useful against what we would call poorly-armed "third world" powers. Perhaps he foresaw the type of charge practiced at Beersheba by the Australian Light Horse, where they relied on the speed of their horses to carry them quickly "under the guns" and into contact with the enemy (albeit with drawn bayonets rather than sabers!).

The weapons and tactics of W.W.I were frightening in their wholesale slaughter of both men and horses. The future of armored cavalry was being debated even as this book was being written. The U.S. Army continued to train the horse cavalry for active combat right up through June of 1941, in anticipation of an attack across the Mexican border.

Re-enactors and devotees of the sword will be disappointed at the lack of fencing instruction found in this manual, but this is a work that is a product of its time. It replaced the earlier, 1907 manual that does contain modified parry-riposte drills. The sword had very little practical use on the 20th-century battlefield, and this manual confines itself to those actions which Patton deemed most appropriate. As a study in a transitional period of the mounted cavalry it is insightful. As an illumination into the mindset of one of the pre-eminent military minds of our century, it is invaluable.

Patton was a historian and something of a traditionalist. Perhaps he was devising a philosophy that would keep the horse and sword on the battlefield. This manual, much like the saber designed by the same man, was an effort to bring the 500-year-old tradition into the 20th century with relevance, élan, and as he so often described it, that "Offensive Cavalry Spirit".

[Editor's Note: The Patton Society has graciously put many of the Patton's writings on-line. His saber manual is, unfortunately, not yet available, but several of his shorter articles pertaining to cavalry and the saber are, most notably The Form and Use of the Saber, Mounted Swordsmanship, and The Cavalryman.]

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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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