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The Sabre's Edge
 
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by

Rogan Winter

"A sabre," said my teacher, Szabo,"is a tool for changing your opponentıs mind."

The sabre is a sword with a wide, curved blade, single-edged, but with a third of the back-edge sharpened, too. Though it can sometimes be effective for thrusting, it is designed primarily for cutting. Indeed, it is designed to remove items of your opponent's anatomy. The name, as well as the weapon, is said to derive from the scimitar which in turn derived from the Persian shamshir, the device that was used to turn many Crusaders into worm food. The sabre has been the favorite sidearm of the mounted soldier, ever since. The Russian shashka and the Indian tulwar are its kissing cousins.
A sabre weighs only a couple of pounds. The balance point is set well ahead of the guard in order to concentrate the power of the cut at the center of percussion - six or eight inches down from the point. To manage one skillfully requires an arm supple as rubber, a wrist firm as steel, and a mind without fear.
While fencing with sabres requires, in its way, as much guile as with rapiers, there is also a certain madness to it that makes it quite different from the civilian sword. There is a determined aggressiveness when on the attack. "Commitment," you might say, though Iım tempted to say "abandon." Joi du guerre is just the thing for the cavalry, I suppose. Szabo called this lunacy "the sabreıs edge," without which the weapon was about as dangerous as an old stick.

This man who taught me how to handle the sabre was not a fencing master by profession, but a physician. Trained as a surgeon in his native Hungary, he had emigrated to the United States in the early 1950's only to find that his medical degree was as worthless here as his limp left arm. An experienced fencer, he decided to give a few lessons to support himself. Though he eventually became duly licensed and certified and developed a solid medical practice, focusing principally on homeopathy, he continued to teach fencing in his converted garage/studio, at a local fencing club and occasionally at the nearby college.
You'll hear some wild stories about him.
One of them, I've heard from several different sources. It's a tiny footnote in the history of World War II, my father's war. It's about a contingent of Hungarian light cavalry that launched a counterattack against invading German troops - a numerically superior unit that was spear-headed by Panzer tanks. The Wagnerian combination of men and horses screaming, hooves pounding and sabres flashing wickedly was said to have taken the Germans quite by surprise, which I suppose should be no surprise. I can very well imagine it was about the last thing they'd expected. And we know the value of surprise in combat. The horsemen were thus able to demonstrate that a fair number of Hitler's invincible master race were in fact as mortal as Socrates.
Seven of the Hungarian company survived and were captured. Two of them later succumbed to their wounds. The other five managed to escape, led by a dashing and impetuous young lieutenant whose left arm had been shredded by a shell fragment.
That young lieutenant was Szabo.
Or so the story goes.
He never discussed the matter.

The "sabre" used in the modern sport of fencing bears only vestigial resemblance to the sword that was the cavalryman's fangs and claws. The sport version weighs less than 750 grams and is mounted with a blade that is thin and flexible, with no weight to speak of at the center of percussion. It's quite fast as a result. Too fast, I'd say. More use of fingers than wrist or arm. It's a bit like fencing with an old car antenna. Thus, any similarities that remain between sport sabre fencing and real sabre fencing are rare and, I suspect, mostly coincidental.
Sabre fencing can still be enjoyable - if you can be true to the sabre for what it is, and fence that way even with the feather-light sport "sabre." If it's done with the proper attitude: the sabres' edge.

It was the custom in taking lessons from Szabo, that you stripped to the waist - the limit of the polite target. (He gave other lessons in which the entire body was fair game for those with either more zest or less sense.) Mask, of course. And glove. But the rest bare. If your parries weren't just right, your opponent's blade would nip your flesh, leaving a nice red welt. Not terribly injurious, but not very pleasant, either. I can remember the sting and burn of those little sabre kisses. And on one occasion - when I had foolishly started thinking instead of feeling - I wore for days a long weal that ran diagonally from my shoulder to my hip. It was no accident that Szabo's students became known for their impeccable defense.

In those days, women were only allowed to fence with the foils. Not with the heavier, stiffer-bladed epee du combat. And sabre was simply out of the question.
That didn't stop Cassandra from being interested. This dark Italian beauty was an excellent foilist, but was fascinated by the sabre and often stayed to watch lessons. There was no doubt she had the mind for it - I knew she was carrying a double major in her college studies: business and law.
It was just after one of my better lessons that she approached Szabo and asked if she might sometime have a sabre lesson, too. There was a long pause - very long - during which Szabo and Cassandra engaged in something of a stare-down.
It ended in a draw.
"All right, Miss," he told her and made a gesture indicating my naked torso. "Come tomorrow. Ready for sabre."
Naturally, I assumed that would be the end of it.
I was wrong.

The next afternoon, promptly on time, Cassandra appeared, stripped to the waist as were we all, and signed in at the top of the lesson board. Without a word she took her place on the far side of the room, and Szabo, good as his word, gave her a lesson. It was a good lesson, too, as I recall.
When it was finished, she left the studio, since she certainly wasn't ready to join the rest of the sabre gang for loose practice. When she was gone, Szabo came over to give us some pointers on our practice before the next lesson. A couple of the boys were quite amused by what had just happened, and showed it, too, not clever enough to hide their big grins, or mature enough not to have them.
"Did I miss a joke?" asked Szabo. "Tell me so I can laugh, too."
At that point two of the students, whose names I shall omit, chuckled out loud and traded puerile glances.
It was the wrong thing to do.
"Shut up, you sniggering idiots," Szabo hissed sharply. "Are you so stupid you don't know what you see when you see it? This woman has determination. Courage. Her sabre's edge is very sharp already. If you're not careful, in three months time she'll whip you like a puny dog. Ah! You're making me sick. Get out."
He was actually kicking them out. I couldn't believe it.
"Go on! Get out, infants. Come back tomorrow. But only if you bring a tiny bit of brains to go with your tiny little balls."
Out they went, tails tucked tightly between their legs, not a peep.
"And you," Szabo zeroed in on me with his withering glare. "Have you anything to say?"
I shrugged and gave him my best blank look. "About what, sir?"
He favored me with, what for him, passed as a smile. It was not a comforting sight. He gave me a love swat on my butt with his blade. "Perhaps there's some hope for you yet."

From that day forward Cassandra was a member of the sabre gang. Also from that day forward, we were all required to wear T-shirts for our lessons. I should also mention that, not in three months, but in six months, Cassandra was indeed whipping most of the guys - myself included - like puny dogs.
Perhaps that's why I married her.

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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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This file was last modified Monday, Jul 10 2006, 10:00:48 EDT