Polish or military saber?

When someone wants to start historical saber fencing, a very basic, and yet extremely difficult question arises: which style I want to practice? Others might be surprised now, and ask themselves: Why, are there different styles? Yes, there are! Here I want to shed some light on this topic and provide a very basic and very sketchy description. This is such a huge and someway controversial topic, that this can be only a personal insight, but I do my best to give a short and more or less clear picture.

Military saber fencing

The modern Olympic saber fencing is a far descendant of the earlier military tradition. While this statement is basically true, we need to point out: there are many military traditions! There were different schools, fencing masters, and they had impact on each other in various ways: wars, duels, competitions etc. Almost every country, or empire in Europe had its own traditions, and quite often these were working parallelly. Moreover, there were different schools in one country at the same time.

It’s clear we cannot speak about one method or one way of military saber fencing!

On the other hand, there are certain features, which are rather generic (obviously there are exceptions as always). Such features:

  • The actions happen mostly on a linear line, which has a basic impact on the footwork.
  • The frequent usage of the so called “lunge”.
  • The weapons have rather elaborate hand protection: at least a knuckle-bow, often extended with two or more bars, but most of the time a shell. That makes possible to use different guards (the arm is more extended in front of the body).
  • In the later traditions attacking is possible only above the hip level.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY: There are written sources in the form of treatises. You can read and you can try what is written there, sometimes there are even pictures.

The written sources also limits how far we can go back in time, i.e. since when people started to record their saber fencing methods. Based on this, we can speak about military saber more or less since the last quarter of the 18th century, and we have a big number of treatises from the 19th century. In the first third of the 20th century we can see how the latter military traditions evolve into modern sport fencing (on which the Italo-Hungarian fencing tradition had a huge impact as I understand).

If you want to practice military saber, it worth choosing a specific line of tradition, 1 or 2 treatises, which can be a fundamental guideline for you. (For eg. the grandfather of my grandfather fought during the WW I, he was a hussar, and I am Hungarian. Therefore in my case a logical choice is to pick up K.u.K. treatises from the last third of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th century written in Hungarian.)

Polish saber fencing

Have you ever seen the armour of a winged hussar? If yes, there is big chance there isn’t any hope for you and the only way to fulfill your destiny is to start Polish saber fencing! Unfortunately we don’t have any treatise form the 16-17th century that could help to reconstruct how the Poles fought during those glorious times. We need to add: fencing styles were constantly changing. We can be sure there were differences between the fencing style of a warrior from the battle of Orsha and the one from the time of the “deluge”. We have only few written sources, for eg. the diary of Pasek, the treatises of Ivanowski(1834), Aigner (1794), and Starzewski (mid 19th century).

Therefore we have to focus on the equipment, the type of warfare, the historical examples of sabers and the trial and error method. Obviously it’s not possible to lay out the method of “one true Polish fencing”, yet I believe we can have few assumptions which can differentiate the “Polish style” from the military saber.

  • There isn’t shell, the protection’s level of the hand is smaller, hence the fencer cannot extend the arm that far from the body without risking a direct blow to the hand.
  • The hand-to-hand combat, in our case the fencing with a sword had a more significant impact on the battlefield compared to the fights of the 19th century. Therefore it was riskier to execute a lunge, and for that reason lunges are not that important (In other words: During the 19th century the usage of cold weapons on the battlefield become more and more marginal, and the fencing was taught mostly for officers in halls, where the ground is even. The simple cavalry troopers for eg. learned just the very basics. ).
  • The actions aren’t connected that strictly to a straight line, so the footwork needs to be adopted for movements to the sides or to a circular manner.
  • Although we cannot be sure until somebody makes a proper study, yet we can assume the point of balance in the case of earlier Polish sabers is closer to the tip. This property leads to wider movements, more powerful cuts, less thrusts, but more situations when the body is more opened and less protected by the weapon.

In my opinion these distinctions are more generic, so we could use them not only for the Polish sabers, but also for Hungarian, Croatian, Ukrainian etc. examples from the given period. On the other hand we can be sure there were subtle differences among them, and it is a really fascinating work to try to figure out: what were these? For instance the Poles used more often thumb-rings, than the Hungarians or Croats.

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