Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Burton’s Sword Exercise - Notes on the Development of Victorian Saber Fencing – Part III

A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry by Richard F. Burton (1821-1890)

Burton’s Sword Exercise - Printed in London in 1876 by William Clowes and Sons
The dedication page.

Burton provides an interesting perspective on the nineteenth century sword manuals intended for military training. It is often said that the character of a person can be learned in just 5 minutes of fencing with them. This may also be true of 5 minutes of reading a fencing manual. All of Burton’s fortes and foibles are on display – his knowledge, bluster, faultfinding, and sense of humor.

Sir Richard Francis Burton was an extraordinary Victorian. He was an explorer and anthropologist, who may be most famous for not finding the source of the Nile River. His many accomplishments include a journey to Mecca disguised as a native, explorations in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and learning a vast number of languages – 29 according to Burton himself. He was also a prolific author.
A portrait of Burton. Note the scar on his cheek, received in Africa when a spear pierced through his face during a battle with natives.
Burton would write about anything, but the sword was a favorite subject. Besides A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry, he wrote a treatise on bayonet fencing in 1853. The Book of the Sword (1884) is an unfinished history of the sword, and the Sentiment of the Sword: A Country House Dialogue, was published in 1911 after his death. Burton said of the sword, “The History of the sword is the history of humanity”.
He was an accredited fencing master, and his ability to compare fencing with other national systems such as German and Italian is one of the things that make this manual an interesting item. His unique contribution is the use of manchettes, a system of cuts at the arm used to disable an opponent.

Oil painting, 'Sir Richard Burton Dressed for Fencing', Albert Letchford, about 1883

In his introductory remarks, he lambasts contemporary English and French manuals. He states that there has been no advancement in the use of the sword.
“Whilst the last half century has witnessed an immense improvement in the projectile weapons of the civilized world, the theory and practice of the sabre or cutting arm have remained in statu quo ante; indeed, if there has been any change it is for the worse.”
He then goes on to criticize the current British military manuals as obsolete, and “nought but a snare and a delusion”. He notes that the only updates in the manuals are the uniforms in the picture plates.
Of the Infantry Sword Exercise he says “I am opposed to almost every page of this unhappy brochure” objecting to the shape of the target, the grip of the sword, the position of the guard and the parries.

Infantry Sword Exercise (1875) Horse Guards. War Office. Printed under the supervision of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
For example, and many of his contemporaries agree, he insists that one should “sit on guard” with the weight equally distributed on both legs. He describes the reason for the old style of keeping the bodyweight on the left leg:
“The person is not so much exposed; moreover, that the centre of gravity being thrown back adds spring and impetus to the Lunge.”
But this risks cramps in the overworked rear leg, which for Burton is enough to discard its use.
He criticizes the Guards. Of the Hanging Guard he says it is a “painful spectacle” and a “Lesson of what to avoid”. It exposes the right forearm and is fatiguing.

The inside engaging guard (carte) also endangers the forearm, and outside engaging guard (tierce) holds the hand too low and endangers the arm.

Burton calls the “loose practice” with the singlestick a mistake for learning saber. The lack of edges on the stick (which he says is simply a different weapon) lends to every blow representing a cut.

He also criticizes the simplification of terms, such as right and left for tierce and carte “as if such mysteries were too high or too deep for our national intelligence.”
Burton was not shy about criticizing the practices of the British government and military, and he developed a world view that could eschew British superiority.
He suggests that the British soldier will be equal in intelligence with the rest of Europe "When we enlist the right kind of recruit either by improving his condition and his prospects, not his pay, or better, far better, by securing a superior man through the conscription of modern Europe. We Britons are no longer physically divided from the total orb; nor can we afford to remain morally insulated and isolated. The logical effect of union with the outer world will be to make us do as the world does, and all our exceptional institutions, such as the system of volunteer recruiting, must sooner or later go by the board.”

Finished with his critical introduction, and asking that his own work be similarly scrutinized, Burton emphasizes the importance of his treatise.
“I have now finished with the ungrateful task of criticizing, and I proceed to propose a system which it is hoped will be as severely criticized by others. It is only candid to state that its pretensions are high, that it contains two distinct novelties, the Manchette System and the Reverse or Backcut; and, finally, that it aspires to be the first Treatise in which the broadsword is scientifically taken in hand.”

Burton refers to the preparatory squad drills of Balance and Extension motion training as the “goose step of the sword”. Squad drill, he notes, will not likely make a good swordsman, but economy of time renders it a necessity.

First Position in Two Motions
He goes through First Position, Second Positon (the Guard), and Third Position (from Guard to Lunge). To avoid fatigue and give additional balance to the body, Burton suggests they also practice the actions standing as a left handed fencer would do.

Attacking, Advancing and Retiring
The attack Burton refers to is a beat on the ground with the right foot. He apparently is describing the appel.

Explanation and use of the target
One of Burton’s criticisms is the depiction of the target in most saber manuals. With his typical caustic humor he notes: “to the shape of the target—I never yet saw a man absolutely circular;” This is a reference to most cutting targets depicted in saber manuals that are circular in shape, showing the directions of the cuts along the radius.
Burton’s target is oblong and the figure is five foot 8 inches tall. Showing the lines of the 12 cuts and the angle of the saber. He notes that the target “directs the recruit on how to make the cuts, but not exactly where; this must depend upon how the opponent acts during the attack and the defense.”

The Moulinet
Burton requires that this rotation movement should be learnt before the recruit proceeds to the Cut.
This section is a good example of Burton's urge to include detailed background on his subject matter. Before he gets in to the action of the moulinets, a lengthy footnote describes it as being a favorite movement of French sabrers. Most of the footnote is written in French. Burton often added quotes in Latin, French, Italian and other languages without translation. Readers had complained about his use of untranslated quotes, to which he responded that he could not help if they were not smart enough to read his books.
As for the moulinet, he says "There is nothing better for " breaking," as the French say, the recruit's wrist than this sweep of the sword; and the style of a swordsman may always be known by his Moulinet."
He divides it in three kinds: Horizontal, diagonal and vertical.

The Cuts
Of making cuts, Burton says that "The Cuts must, as a rule, be delivered within eight inches of the point and at the "centre of percussion," so that the sword may clear itself and the arm escape a "jar."
There are twelve cuts. 1 & 2 are at the head, 3 & 4 are horizontal face cuts, 5 & 6 are slanting shoulder cuts, 7 & 8 are horizontal breast cuts, 9 & 10 are horizontal stomach cuts, and 11 & 12 are slanting groin or thigh cuts, going from downwards upwards, as in the reverse of the shoulder cuts.
He adds that "The two virtues of the Cut are its trueness and its velocity."
Burton describes the various ways of making cuts, demonstrating his experience with foreign styles. His preference is what he calls the “whip cut”, which is made mostly from the wrist.

The following are the five principal ways of cutting according to Burton:—
1. The Chopping or Downright Cut, from the shoulder and fore-arm. This appears to be the instinctive method preserved by Europe; most men who take up a sword for the first time use it in this way.
2. The Sliding Cut, common throughout the East. In this movement the elbow and wrist are held stiff and the blow is given from the strong muscles of the back and shoulder, nearly ten times larger than the muscles of the arm, while the whole force and weight of the body are thrown in. Hence the people of India use small hilts with mere crutch-guards, which confine the hand and prevent the play of the wrist; the larger grip required for the Chopping Cut only lessens the cutting force. The terrible effect of these cuts is well known.
3. The Thrust Cut, with the curved (" Damascus ") blade; a combination of point and edge, the latter being obliquely thrust forward and along the body aimed at. This movement is a favourite on horseback, when speed supplies the necessary forms, which can hardly be applied on foot. It must be carried like a Point.
4. The Whip Cut; in which the arm and elbow are kept almost motionless, and the blow is delivered from the wrist. This is the principal Cut allowed in my system; it is capable of sufficient effect upon the opponent whilst it does not uncover the swordsman who uses it.
5. The Drawing or Reverse Cut, which will be explained in the following pages; it is the reverse of the "Thrust Cut."

The Engaging Guards, or Engagements.
The next section details the Engaging Guards, which Burton explains "As the 'Infantry Sword Exercise' has a deficiency of Cuts, so it has a superfluity of "Engaging Guards."
Burton reduces the Engaging to Tierce and Quarte.

He says that "When engaging in guard (joining weapons), the swords should meet each other about eight inches from the points. If the distance is diminished the opponents are "out of measure" (or distance); if increased, they are "within measure." The recruit must be taught slightly to press upon the opponent's blade, but not to rest upon it; by this "opposition" his hand and wrist will be more ready to follow the weapon during the attack."
He recommends that the right-handed recruit be taught the engaging guard of tierce, with the opponent's blade in the outer line. The reverse position leaves the fore-arm unguarded, and tierce facilitates the defense of the low lines.

The Guards or Parries.
The 'Infantry Sword Exercise' proposes Seven Guards, but Burton says that in practice the advanced swordsman will confine himself to Tierce and Carte with their natural modifications.
Of guarding the head he suggests High Tierce or High Carte (rather than Prime). To guard the legs he prefers Low Tierce or the rassemblement (withdrawing the leg) to using seconde.
The Guards or Parries will be practised like the Cuts, first in the "Second Position" (Guard), and afterwards in the "Third Position" (Lunge).

The manchette is cutting at the hand, wrist and forearm with the inner edge of the blade. This is Burton's distinct addition to saber exercises of the time. Burton says that "A swordsman thoroughly trained in this section does not allow the opponent to deliver a cut."
The manchette allows a swordsman to disable his opponent, rather than being forced to deliver a lethal blow. It also is a safer method of delivering a cut for the swordsman.
Burton explains "The natural man cuts as if he were using a stick or a club, and the preliminary movement lays open the whole of his body; indeed, exposure, I have said, is the main danger of every attack with the sabre, however closely and skilfully conducted. A cut through the muscles of the fore-arm, either inside or outside, causes the sword instantly to be relaxed and dropped; the man in fact is hamstrung in the upper works."
And he adds "Finally I meditated upon the comparative humanity of ‘Manchette’, of disabling the opponent by an arm-cut, rather than laying open his flank or his head. During single rencontres in the field, especially at the end of Indian battles, it is so often necessary to put hors de combat some unfortunate, whose pluck or sense of honour induces him to prolong the hopeless attack."
Burton lists his system of manchette as the Direct Cuts, The Parries and Feints, the Reverse or Back Cuts, and the Time Cuts.
The Time Cut (a cut delivered during an opponent's attack, disabling the opponent before he can finish) is the flower of the Manchette system, as the Manchette is of the broadsword; and it is, perhaps, the part least capable of being taught in books.

Burton then gives what he refers to as a synoptical table of Manchette or Forearm play, showing the Cuts, the Guards (Parries) for the Cuts, and the Ripostes or replies that should follow each Parade.

In conclusion of the manchette play, Burton says “I will end this system of Manchette with the words of old Achille Marozzo, written some three centuries and a half ago: ‘I would that ye swear upon your sword-hilts never to use this knowledge against me, your master.’ But, in lieu of insisting that my readers never teach it without obtaining formal permission, I only hope that they will favour me by spreading it far and wide.”

An Appendix to the Sword Exercises alludes to an improved form of sabre handle. Burton recommends a modified grip made by the Italian Captain Settimo del Frate. This is illustrated in the following diagrams.
The Italian Del Frate’s grip design for the saber.
 Burton suggests “I would further modify his Fig. 1, so as to give more fulcrum to the hand. The thumb-plate should be made weighty and the guard light, otherwise the blade will be over-balanced, that is, heavier on one side than on the other. It need hardly be said that the grip before going into battle should be whipped round with thin whipcord, or better still, with web-cloth.”

Burton’s modification to the grip, because he has to fiddle with everything…

Burton never managed to have his treatise adopted by the British military. They remained with Angelo for most of the nineteenth century. But Burton did manage to publish a manual with a unique perspective and interesting insights.


  1. Good post! Burton is a curious figure. Interestingly, he put this book out like a year after the new Infantry Saber regulation came out, so it kind of missed its shot.

    I was always curious to see what others in his period thought about his system. I have not found anything, yet. I know Matt Easton doesn't care much for it. I personally found it a little offputting, since the whole 12 cuts thing seems to completely miss the point Angelo (or just about anyone else) was trying to make in his treaties.

    The back-edge cuts were a good section, though, and coming from messer, conspicuously absent in all other systems in that era I can find. Probably because the false edge comes and goes.

    I wish he'd lived long enough to see the 1895 regulation come out; it would have been interesting to hear his opinion on it. At least we got Hutton's word.


    1. Thanks for the comments! I am a fan of Burton, but even I'll admit that "curious" is perhaps one of the more polite descriptions many have used for him. And I agree, I think Burton gets too analytical for his manual to be the most practical of sword exercises. Though I have found his use of the manchette useful.

    2. He strikes me as the guy who's "always right". That said, strange system's a memorable one, and when my group transitions from smallsword only to including sabre, I do intend to drop by his writings again. I'm curious if he ever wrote anything on the foil / smallsword of his era. Maybe in Sentiment of the Sword, but I've not read it (the only scan I remember finding was rather messy).

    3. True, I’m sure his know-it-all attitude irritated many people, and probably contributed to his lack of promotion with the British Government. He at least supported his views with a copious amount of facts, even if he ended up being wrong in the end, such as his Nile adventure with Speke. I’m planning on writing an article some time that will encompass Burton’s writings on fencing and the sword, including the Sentiment.

  2. Even Burton's claim to have introduced the coup de manchette is probably rather exaggerated. It's a pretty conventional part of French methods and I find it very difficult to imagine that there weren't a fair number of fencing instructors and military officers who had brought it back to English salles after living/serving abroad well before Burton published his manual.

  3. Quite true - I suspect it was also common among the Italians, for Hutton made a note of it in Cold Steel “I think with the Italians that it is better to propound a special set of lessons for the attack and defence of the arm, that being the most prominent part, and therefor the most easily wounded.” Burton was never shy about taking credit.