Ben Miller

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Major Anthony Gordon, and the Development of Bayonet Fencing in the British Isles: 1740-1820

In Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Uncategorized, Weapons and Armor on November 15, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Above: Illustration of Anthony Gordon’s bayonet method, drawn ca. 1804-1805, never published. The soldier in blue represents the old established exercise, while those in red, on the right, showcase Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As far as is currently known, prior to the 1780s, the British military—like that of most of Europe—did not officially instruct its rank and file troops in a systematic method of self-defense for close-quarters combat with the bayonet (although it is possible that elite units received more advanced instruction, no known extant sources indicate what that may have consisted of). Instead, the bayonet position prescribed in the established exercise did not really guard the soldier at all, but was a direct descendant of the old “firelock” stance which had replaced that of the pike. In this exercise, attacks with the bayonet were made by first “charging” the weapon—that is, withdrawing the rear arm so that “the soldier has the butt-end behind him, and the left elbow advanced toward the middle of the barrel”—and then “pushing” the bayonet forward using the arms alone, and sometimes with a slight lean of the body:

The old “push bayonet” position, illustrated in Benjamin Cole’s 1746 Pocket Companion.

Although the British exercise was slightly revised in 1764 (to include a shift in the grip of the rear hand to the “small,” rather than bottom, of the musket butt), the old, simple “charge-push” technique remained essentially the same. In 1771, a treatise on military tactics by “Sieur B,” published in London, lamented the bayonet position “almost general through Europe,” which was “of pernicious consequence, as it is an evident obstacle to the action of a soldier.” Leading members of the British military establishment frequently dismissed such criticism, laboring under the impression that the bayonet was a rather poor and ineffective weapon—only to be used as a last resort—and therefore unworthy of further attention. As the British commander (and veteran of the failed attempt to suppress the American Revolution) Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple stated in 1782:

William Dalrymple (1736–1807)

“The Bayonet can be of little utility by way of impulsion in the field, for the reasons before assigned: From the formation of our Battalions, thin and incohesive, calculated so much for the missive weapon; the want of defensive armour; and the bayonet being placed at the end of the firelock, renders it a weapon most unwieldy, and with which it is not easy to fence: These defects in modern infantry, prove the impracticability of two Battalions, opposed to each other, being brought in the open field to close encounter: One body must give way before they get into action.” – Tacticks by Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, of the Queen’s Royal Regiment of Foot (Dublin: Printed by George Bonham, for W. and H. Whitestone, 1782), 113.

Dalrymple’s solution was simply to ignore bayonet training, and to insist that armies avoid close-quarters combat at all costs.

This dynamic would change, however, thanks to the efforts of Anthony Gordon, a native of Ulster, Ireland, who would go on to create the first known method of bayonet fencing in the British Isles, utilizing principles similar to those applied to the foil and small-sword.

Gordon’s signature, shown in government correspondence.

After attending Trinity College, Dublin, Anthony Gordon became, during the early 1780s, a prominent member of the celebrated Dublin fencing society, the Knights of Tara; notably, he was also a student of Ireland’s most renowned fencing master, Cornelius Kelly. Upon leaving Trinity, Gordon joined the British Army in Dublin as a young lieutenant, and was shocked to find that his fellow soldiers apparently received no training in any particular self-defense method for close-quarters combat with the bayonet. He later recounted:

On joining the regiment, [I] was astonished to find no Exercise for close action; no notions of making thrusts, cuts, and parades [parries]; no system of defence or offence; for the established Exercises are adapted only to the missile weapon, and to the movements in Line, Column, Square, and Echellon, &c.

Gordon thus determined to develop and propagate a new, and far more sophisticated, method of attack and defense with the bayonet. Between 1783 and 1805, Gordon authored a number of important treatises on the subject. A detailed chronicle of the development of Gordon’s method is contained in Chapter VII (pp. 289-335) of the new book Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. This chapter, which is devoted to the life, career, and writings of Major Gordon, also includes numerous extracts and images from Gordon’s earlier works which have not previously been noticed by scholars or historians.

Detail of plate (restored) from Gordon’s 1805 Treatise on the Science of Defence.

Gordon’s earliest known writing on bayonet fencing—which found its way into the hands of America’s founding father, George Washington—laid the groundwork for his later works, of which the most well-known is his Treatise on the Science of Defence: For the Sword, Bayonet, and Pike in Close Action (London: 1805). Shown below are plates from a copy of an 1806 second edition containing autograph notes by Gordon in the margins:

Between 1780 and 1820, a large number of British units trained in, and adopted, Gordon’s method. These included the 67th and 90th regiments, the Royal Marines, numerous volunteer regiments (such as Lord Hobart’s Regiment, the Loyal North Britons, and the St James Westminster Volunteer Regiment), the Light Infantry of the Foot Guards, and others. The effectiveness of Gordon’s exercise—as compared to that of the established exercise—was well-proven at the time. Contests and demonstrations between 1803 and 1818 before King George III and the British military brass gave little doubt as to its superiority. As one witness reported: “the superiority of the new exercise was such as to render it evident, that combatants on the old plan, receiving its attacks, would be destroyed on the first moment of onset.” (Irish Swordsmanship, 299-306, 329-333).

Above: Illustrations of two of the regiments who adopted Gordon’s “new method.” From the book Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland.

As to the system’s specific techniques, as stated previously, many extracts and images from Gordon’s published works and manuscript can be found in Irish Swordsmanship. However, following the publication of that book, several new color images detailing aspects of Gordon’s method have been discovered among the collection of the British Museum, and are presented in this article.

Front view, never published, of Anthony Gordon’s system of consolidated ranks. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

These original pencil and watercolor images, drawn by Richard Cook (1784-1857), were acquired by the British Museum from the artist (or his estate) in 1857. Although they are not identified by the museum as specifically illustrating Gordon’s method, a comparison between the watercolors and Gordon’s known works leaves one with no doubt that they represent the same system. It may be that these watercolors were the original images used as the basis for the illustrations in Gordon’s 1805 publication. Or, it may be that these sketches were part of a unique manuscript (now believed to be lost), authored in 1806 by Gordon’s nephew James, in which a plan was laid out to reform the army and implement the new method.

This image is similar to Plate no. 12 in Gordon’s Treatise, but with some noted differences. On the left are depicted soldiers of the established exercise, while the soldiers on the right demonstrate Gordon’s system. A soldier on the right, originally part of Gordon’s 2nd (center) rank, lunges to reach an enemy soldier in the opposing 2nd rank, while a soldier in Gordon’s 1st rank uses his bayonet to protect against the point of the enemy’s bayonet in the opposing 1st rank. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Some of the watercolor figures are identical to the line drawings which appear in Gordon’s published Treatise on the Science of Defence, but are glaringly absent from an earlier manuscript draft drawn up by Gordon in 1804—thus representing the “missing” figures in the latter, which were then subsequently re-drawn and published in the 1805 and 1806 editions.

The soldiers on the right are nearly identical to those shown in plate 14 of Gordon’s published 1805 treatise. On the left is a frontal view of squared ranks, never published. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Excitingly, the color drawings also include some additional sketches and figures which have never before been published. Among the latter include close-up sketches of the various grips to be used in Gordon’s system, as well as an overhead diagram of the positions which the feet were to be adhered to when forming ranks. These images assist in developing a fuller understanding of Gordon’s innovative method.

Detail: sketch of a grip on the small of the musket butt. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Detail: sketch of the grip on the bottom of the musket butt, used in Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Detail: sketch of a soldier on guard in Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A diagram showing the proper placement of feet in a rank formation. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Gordon’s system was revolutionary for its time, but, despite the support of numerous officials, and even the king himself, it encountered significant opposition from members of the British military establishment, many of whom held views similar to Dalrymple’s. Although the later European methods of bayonet fencing which developed in the 1820s and 1830s did not copy Gordon’s method closely, his continuing influence can be seen in a number of ways. For instance, the similarities between Gordon’s technique pitting the bayonet against cavalry (which was original when it first appeared) and others used decades later is evident below:

Bayonet versus cavalry (at the top) in Anthony Gordon’s 1805 treatise. Below his image are two plates published in subsequent decades in Germany and Britain.

Whatever the exact degree of influence his method may or may not have exerted, as far as is currently known, Anthony Gordon has the distinction of being the first individual in the British Isles—and perhaps Northern Europe—to write in any significant detail about applying fencing principles to the bayonet. Nearly a century later, in 1913, the Aberdeen Journal was not overstating the truth when it referred to Gordon as the “Modern Father” of bayonet fencing in Great-Britain.


The martial wisdom of Ireland’s swordsmen survives in Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters. The second part of this book contains the text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices. “Irish Swordsmanship” contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.

Irish Swordsmanship is available in both paperback and hardcover editions from Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon EuropeBarnes & Noble, and other national and international retailers.

You can also read extracts, view images, and read articles pertaining to the book and its subject by visiting the book’s Facebook page.


Methods of Using the Pike in Ireland: 1798-1921

In Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on October 19, 2017 at 2:50 pm

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, fought in County Wexford, in 1798, featured the use of the pike

On came the Saxons facing the farmer
But soon they reeled back from our pike Volunteers
Whose cry was loud and shrill, “Wexford and Vinegar hill
New Ross, Father Murphy and the bold Shelmaliers!”

– “Burke’s Dream,” a Ballad of 1867

Although it has received less attention than other aspects of martial arts history, the use on foot of various European staff weapons subsisted long into the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth. This includes the use of the quarterstaff by the English, Germans, and Danes, the use of the scythe by the Poles, the use of jogo do pau by the Portuguese, as well as many other examples. Even less attention, however, has been paid by authors and martial arts researchers to the specific methods and techniques of pike use which existed in Ireland during the same period. It is the purpose of this article to provide a brief overview of this weapon, as well as the historical sources outlining its method of use.


Depiction of Irish people, including a pike-bearing soldier, by Lucas d’Heere, ca. 1575.

The use of the spear can be found described in the earliest Irish annals, and is illustrated in some of the oldest extant Irish manuscripts. During the Tudor reconquest of Ireland, the Irish adopted continental “pike and shot” formations, consisting of pikemen mixed with musketeers and swordsmen. From this time onward, the pike became the common arm of the Irish infantry. During the late seventeenth century, an entire class of fighters called rapparees arose, deriving their name from the Irish ropairí, (plural of ropaire), meaning half-pike or pike-wielding person. These were Irish guerrilla fighters who operated on the side of King James during the Jacobite-Williamite war in Ireland during the 1690s. Subsequently, the name was also given to bandits and highwaymen in Ireland – many of whom were former guerrillas that had turned to crime in the decades following the war.

Illustration of rapparees

The pike was especially prevalent during the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, used with bloody effect in Dublin, Antrim, and Wexford, and famously utilized in the battles of Vinegar Hill and New Ross. At this time, the pike became firmly cemented in the popular mind as the Irish national weapon, and in subsequent decades, would be commonly referred to by militant Irish authors as the “Queen of weapons” or the “Queen of arms.” During the nineteenth century, pikes continued to see use in the Irish rebellions of 1803, 1848, and 1867. Of this last rising, local folklore in County Leitrim relates,

Sliab an Iarainn in County Leitrim was a great line of defence in many of the wars of Ireland…At the time of the Fenians a great local hero named Darcy had a small army on this mountain to join in the Fenian rebellion. About half of them had guns and the rest had pikes. No one was more disappointed at the failure of the Fenian Rising than he and at his death the people of the whole country side mourned his loss. He is buried in Oughterach near Ballinamore and his funeral was very large; a couple hundred pike men marched in procession…

At the rising sixty seven
He had bone and sinew strong
His pikes and guns were ready
Prepared to join the throng

In 1873, Irish poet John C. Colgan wrote:



Forging pikes for Emmet’s 1803 rebellion

As can be seen by the numerous surviving examples, there has never been one uniform model or design of pike in Ireland. Throughout past centuries, and even up until the first decades of the twentieth century, local village blacksmiths were largely responsible for the forging of pike heads, which took on a variety of forms. Such traditions often remained in the same families of smiths; as Diarmuid Ó Duibhir of Rossmore, County Tipperary recounted:

“My great grandfather made pikes for the United Irishmen in 1798 and his sons again forged the pikes for the men of ’67.”

Among the most common design of Irish pike was the simple “spear head,” some of which were lanceolate or leaf-shaped, with a triangular cross-section and median ridge, while others were of a thin, round, conical shape, tapering to a point. Other crude models, hammered roughly out of iron, exhibited a quadrangular cross-section. Some Irish pike-heads included a cross-bar or “toggle” at their base, which could be used to entrap the adversary’s weapon or entangle the bridle of the adversary’s horse.

Irish hand-forged steel pike head and base section, 18th century. From Whyte’s auctions

An old forge-made ”1798 Pike Head”

Irish Pike head, ca. 1798, Stamped “B. M.”, from Whyte’s Auctions

Other Irish pikes included a protruding hook, which could be used for the same purpose—this last type being especially common during the 1798 rebellion. As Patrick O’Sullivan of Banteer, County Cork recounted:

“Leather reins in British Cavalry horse until Croppy Pikes were used. Hook on Croppy Pike used to cut reins so then chains were put on bridles.”

Still other pike-heads exhibited a small, axe-like blade resembling that of a miniature halberd. In 1803, rebel leader Robert Emmet (1778-1803)—concerned by the fact that Irish soldiers could be easily spotted carrying their large pikes, thus losing the element of surprise—created an additional, special type of innovated hinged pike, which could be folded in half and concealed beneath the bearer’s coat (see The Life and Times of Robert Emmet, Esq). This “folding pike” may have been inspired by those used approximately two decades prior by American revolutionary troops, and commissioned by George Washington (see Harold Leslie Peterson’s Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526-1783).

Irish pike, ca. 1798, inscribed Kearney C. From Mealys Auctions.

In terms of the pike’s length (including the haft), a wide variety was recommended by Irish authors—that is, from as little as four feet, to as long as twenty feet. Most Irish authors are unanimous, however, in noting that the pike’s advantage over the bayonet lay in its superior length.

The following image, from the September 30, 1865 issue of the Illustrated London News, depicts various “Fenian weapons seized in a blacksmith’s shop in Cork” (more specifically, from a smith named Hegarty in Hobb’s Lane):

The caption reads: “A. Fenian Pike, having across it a horizontal barb-pointed spike for the purpose of catching the bridles of cavalry.—B. Fenian Pike.—C. Common ring bayonet in general use.—D. D. D. is inserted as a sample of the weapon of the former rebellion.” The accompanying article also noted that,

The pikes are of a quite modern pattern. The hatchet–the accompaniment of the old weapon–is entirely dispensed with, and also the hook, leaving the new instrument a long narrow blade, somewhat like a short sword. The pike is about 18 in. in length, and screws on to a socket, which makes it 2 ft. long. The barb-pointed, horizontal spike across one of the pikes is intended to catch the bridles of cavalry. They are exceedingly well-executed articles for a common smith.


A popular misconception, reinforced by English propaganda of the period (exemplified by the illustrations of George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson), was that the Irish pikemen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were essentially an untrained mob, rough and barbaric, who utilized no systematic or technical method of hand-to-hand combat. Evidence from the period, however, indicates this to be untrue. Although raw Irish recruits may have entered the conflict untrained, they did not always remain so. For instance, the rebel general Joseph Holt (1756–1826), a native of County Wicklow, relates the following in his Memoirs of Joseph Holt: General of the Irish Rebels, in 1798, Volume I (London: H. Colburn, 1838):

I considered that my plan was to keep to the mountains and difficult parts of the country, and to attack only such parties as I could get into a disadvantageous situation: to surprise small parties, and harass the enemy by sudden attacks, where they were unprepared and kept a careless look-out. To enable me to do this, I had first to train my men to obey a command, and to make them act together, each to know his own division and company; and I taught my officers to count off their men, to fire lying down, or on their knees, and to advance or retreat stooping. My pikemen were the most difficult to manage. I had to teach them to step in time, to face about, countermarch, wheel about, but particularly to disperse and form rapidly, and to march in quick or double quick time. They were generally active, able young fellows, and alert as deer, and would puzzle a horseman to catch them. I soon found the value of the pike against cavalry. (p. 43).

On the 20th, my men had dispersed after the 20 June, action, and I wandered down to Whelp Rock, where I found a great number of poor creatures [volunteers] assembled, without order or control of any sort. I spoke to some of them who bore the title of captains, and asked them what they proposed to do in case they were attacked, and if they had any plan, but they seemed to be completely ignorant, and without system or any notion of regularity or discipline. I set about putting them in order, and forming them into companies, and commenced exercising them in the use of the pike. I found them pretty tractable, and they soon saw the advantages which were likely to result from the system I endeavoured to establish, and immediately agreed to obey me. If taken, instant death awaited us all; it, therefore, behoved us to make the best fight we could, and not to throw away our lives as dastards or fools. (Ibid., 47-48)

United Irish general Joseph Holt

I then set about instructing [the volunteers] in military manoeuvres, by sham battles, shewing them how to use pikes against guns, and the advantage pikemen, if steady, had against cavalry, and told them to remember Ballyellis malthouse; that the pike, in a charge, was much superior to any other weapon. Thus, I instilled into them a confidence in their own strength they had never before felt. (Ibid., 98)

I marched to Knockalt, a mountain village, on the King’s River, and had my head quarters at Oliver Hoyle’s house, a good and faithful man, ready at all times to render me service. Here I drilled my men, and used them to act in bodies, forming them into divisions, marching and counter-marching, dispersing and forming again, having sham battles, &c, until I had them very expert. I found that the musket and bayonet was not to be compared in effect to a pike. If the men were steady and well disciplined, a charge of pikes would be irresistible against the musket and bayonet; so much superior are they, that after a few months practice, I should have no fears of the result, if I were to meet the best regiment in the king’s service, with an equal number of good men with pikes. (Ibid., 156)

Given the wide geographical distribution of the many rebel units which took part in the 1798 rebellion, it is impossible to state how prevalent Holt’s “system” (or others like it) may have been. However, Holt’s account makes it clear that they were implemented at least to some degree. This is all the more remarkable considering the fact that at the same time, the British military had little, if any, system of hand-to-hand combat for the bayonet in which to train its rank and file soldiers. British (and loyalist) superiority of fight lay in the organized use of firepower–and possibly in the use of the sword exercise, with which loyalist troops were said to be well-versed. Ironically, it would be an Irishman–a native of County Donegal–who, after many years of struggle during the 1780s and 1790s, created and implemented the first system of bayonet fencing in the English army (for more information on this, see Chapter VII of Irish Swordsmanship). Given this fact, the advantage held by Irish rebels trained in the systematic use of the pike, strictly in the context of hand-to-hand encounters, seems obvious. This point was agreed upon even by British military authors; two decades following the 1798 rebellion, in 1820, a treatise entitled Proposed Rules and Regulations for the Exercise and Manœuvres of the Lance…adapted to the formations, movements, and exercise of the British Cavalry, declared that:

The Irish, I aver, will always make much finer and better Lancers than the English, as they are not bred up to the sedentary trades of the latter, but are inured to fatigue, hardships, and active duties in the open field, from their youth upwards; and the Lance (or Pike, which are synonymous terms) being likewise their national arm, they delight and pride themselves in the exercise and hurly-burly of the Lance. The Birmingham, Sheffield, and Manchester artificers will never make Lancers; the mountains of Tipperary and the wilds of Conemarra are the flowery fields for those fine fellows… (p. 142)



1798 pike head at the National Museum of Ireland

Another modern misconception exists: namely, that due to a supposed lack of literacy among the Irish peasantry in past centuries, martial techniques were never written down in Ireland. In fact, this is by no means the case. During the nineteenth century, private academies were numerous in Ireland, and even the very lowest classes of Irish Catholic society had access to Hedge Schools, run by clergy or itinerant schoolteachers (to wit: this author’s own great great great grandparents, and their children–poor Galway farmers born in the early and mid-1800s–are listed as being able to read and write both English and Irish in the 1901 and 1911 censuses).

As it turn out, several forgotten period Irish treatises on the use of the sword and bayonet existed, and have been reprinted (or extracted from) in the book Irish Swordsmanship. Likewise, a number of Irish writings on the use of the pike have descended to us from posterity. These, for the most part, have not been noticed by scholars or researchers of fencing and the martial arts.

The most detailed extant source for Irish pike technique, by far, is a “manual” of guerrilla warfare, written during the 1850s by an Irish Republican author claiming direct descent from the rebels of 1798. This book, now an extreme rarity, contained one illustrated chapter treating of the use of the pike in both individual and group combat. Depicting the “folding pike” model created by Robert Emmet in 1803, the treatise clearly shows the application of basic fencing theory to the pike, utilizing the positions of tierce and quarte, as well as the lunge, parries, and the appel. This chapter on the pike (too long to be included here) has been reprinted in the appendices of the book Irish Swordsmanship.

Several other Irish sources pertaining to pike technique also exist. They include:

  • A paper by rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, written before his death in 1798.
  • A short work by Irish nationalist activist John Mitchel, published in 1848.
  • A number of writings by Irish Republican authors, written shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising.



Lord Edward FitzGerald (1763–1798) was an Irish aristocrat and leading member of the revolutionary Society of United Irishmen. He was also a veteran of the American War for Independence (on the British side) and an explorer that had been formally adopted at Detroit by the Bear clan of the Mohawk, who bestowed upon him the name “Eghnidal.” Back in Ireland, Fitzgerald became involved in the political movement for Irish independence, as well as in revolutionary activity. During the 1798 rebellion, he was betrayed by informers seeking a monetary reward for his capture; Fitzgerald died of wounds received while resisting arrest on a charge of treason.

The arrest of Lord Edward Fitzgerald

Following is an extract from a paper written by Fitzgerald on guerrilla warfare in Ireland, which was seized during his arrest:

…However well exercised standing armies are supposed to be, by frequent reviews and sham battles, they are never prepared for broken roads, or enclosed fields, in a country like ours, covered with innumerable and continued intersections of ditches and hedges, every one of which is an advantage to an irregular body, and may with advantage be disputed against an army as so many fortifications and intrenchments.

Edward Fitzgerald

The people in the city would have an advantage by being armed with pikes or such weapons. The first attack, if possible, should be made by men whose pikes were nine or ten feet long; by that means they could act in ranks deeper than the soldiery, whose arms are much shorter; then the deep files of the pike men, by being weightier, must easily break the thin order of the army.

The charge of the pike men should be made in a smart trot. On the flank or extremity of every rank there should be intrepid men placed to keep the fronts even, that, at closing, every point should tell together. They should have at the same time two or three like bodies at convenient distances in the rear, who would be brought up, if wanting, to support the front, which would give confidence to their brothers in action, as it would tend to discourage the enemy. At the same time there should be in the rear of each division some men of spirit to keep the ranks as close as possible.

The apparent strength of the army should not intimidate, as closing on it makes its powder and ball useless: all its superiority is in fighting at a distance; all its skill ceases, and all its action must be suspended, when it once is within reach of the pike.

The reason of printing and writing this is to remind the people of discussing military subjects.

– Report from the Committee of Secrecy, of the House of Lords in Ireland (London: J. Debrett and J. Wright, 1798).



John Mitchel (1815–1875) was an Irish nationalist activist, author, and political journalist. Reared in Newry, he became a leading member of both Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation. He was the most committed advocate of the revolutionary movement which culminated in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.

A group of Irish rebels under Smith O’Brien skirmish with police at Widow McCormack’s house, Boulagh Common, 1848.

The same year as the outbreak of the rebellion, Mitchel founded the journal The United Irishman, which called for resistance against British rule in Ireland. The following article on “Pike Drill” appeared in the United Irishman of April 8th, 1848:

1st. Rifle and Pike Clubs should practice themselves in marching, counter-marching, wheeling to the left and right, in slow march, quick step, and tint, in line in files, by sections, etc., whenever and wherever possible—any good old pensioner in the parish can train a squad quickly, and they communicate the craft to all their brethren. If no such mentor is available, the men must do the best they can. They may make one or two laughable attempts, but a straight eye and attention will secure eventual precision. The first lessons may be learned indoors, in a barn or a hay-loft, or a large room of any kind. Confederate Clubs should march in regular files of 3, 4 or 5 deep, to all meetings and public places, just us the Dublin Confederates now do.

2nd. Some drilling of this kind is essential to the well-being of the pike-men. “The pike,” said Emmet, “is the weapon of the brave.” We shall need it generally for these purposes:—

First. To charge, in street fighting, on columns of infantry.

Second. To charge artillery in a bog, or deep, miry fields, or rutty, broken up, or blockaded road, or where a horse or two is shot, or the drivers and gunners otherwise put out of countenance.

Third. To hold a road across against retreating or advancing columns.

Fourth. Mixed with riflemen and musketeers to defend the front of a ditch or rampart, or wood against a bayonet charge.

Fifth. To defend the open flanks of a ditch or covered way in the line of which are riflemen and musketeers.

Sixth. To meet a cavalry charge.

Seventh. To charge in lines of greater or lesser strength.

The first business, therefore, of pike-men is to learn to charge in line. This should always be done in a trot. The pike should be grasped in both hands—the right hand resting on the right hip, the hands from two to two feet six inches asunder, and the shaft quite horizontal. The files of the pike-men accustomed to act together should be nearly as possible equal height, the line in charging should be kept with the most precision, and the points all brought to bear a right line, and simultaneously. This is the perfection of a pike charge. If the line straggle, become concave or convex, or even if the points show at irregular elevations or irregular distances, or if the shafts be held at an angle upwards or downwards, or aslant to right or left, half of the effect, and all the beauty, of the charge is lest. But if the thing be rightly done, as we have explained, no column of infantry can resist for an instant.

Pikemen, unless exquisitely disciplined, should never charge in lines of great length. The necessary length of line in charging must depend upon the ground of advance, the position to carry, and the length of line of bayonets opposed to you. But it may be taken as an axiom, that the shorter the front charging, the better for pikemen incompletely disciplined. In all cases, they should never charge less than three deep. The pikes of the second rank should be passed between the men in the front rank, and the pikes of the third rank should he held in readiness, their points reaching over the heads of the front rank, and as low as possible, thus:

The ranks being thus disposed, the pike of each “b” extended between two “a” “a”; and considering that a good pike is ten feet long and that therefore, the pikes of the second ranks will extend 5 ft. or so, in front of the front rank, and so be equal to a gun and bayonet in the hands of the front rank—you offer to a line of musketeers of a length equal to your line of pikemen, double the number of their points; in other words, for every bayonet extending 5 feet or so, they can bring to bear—viz., those of their front rank—you bring two pikes—one extending between 8 and 9 ft. (viz., those of the front rank) and one extending 4 or 5 ft. in front (viz., those of the second rank)—a capital disposition. The pikes of the second rank should be held horizontally on a line with those of the front rank.

This order being observed, it is quite easy to protect the flanks of a column of pikemen charging, 3, 4, or 6 files deep. The men on the flanks hold their pikes sloped outward on a level with the points of the front rank, while their shafts slope at an angle of from 30 to 40 degrees with the line of advance, thus:

—the point of “b” protects the flank of “a,” “e” of “b,” “b” of “c,” and so on; and in the same way as with the pikes of the second front rank, the pikes of the man next but one to the flank are thrown out between flanking pikes.

With this practice, and ordinary evolution of bayoneteers, we should have a very decided and decisive “public opinion” of pike-men.

It is seldom necessary to charge in extended lines. In street fighting, or road fighting, never—in few streets, even the widest, con more than 40 bayoneteers be brought into line. To these we can oppose more than 80 pike points—these at a rush, one half 10 ft. long, the other five, and where are your bayoneteers? She is “the queen of weapons,” that pike of mine.

“Forging Pikes–A Recent Scene in Ireland.” Illustrated London News, August 5, 1848.



An unusual Irish account of a prearranged combat between two men–an Irishman wielding a pike, and an officer wielding a sword–was recounted by John Harkin, who, in 1937, was a forty-four year old resident of Church Hill, Co. Donegal. Harkin does not date this account, and it is thus difficult to know when it took place, or how truthful it may be. Possibly, his story is nothing more than pure folklore. However, given the importance of oral tradition within Irish culture, and the uniqueness of this account, we present it here in full:

“There lived in Derryveagh a man named O Donnell who was considered a great pikesman. The pike was commonly used as a weapon in those days, and it was considered a great offence for a man to own one. The officers of the law found out that O Donnell had a pike and they went to Derryveagh to arrest him. In those days men were arrested for very little. They took O Donnell with them but said they would give him a sporting chance, e. g. if he could beat an officer on horseback with his pike they could give him his freedom. Next morning they met the officer mounted on his horse and armed with a sword. O Donnell with only his pike.

“The officer made a rush at O Donnell intending to kill him with one blow of his sword but O Donnell pierced the horse’s leg with the pike and the horse fell toppling the officer. O Donnell jumped up and beat the officer until he killed him.

“The people looking on were enraged and were going to make a rush at O Donnell but an officer of high rank stopped them, saying that the bargain was that O Donnell should get his freedom if he beat the officer, so O Donnell was set free.” -National Folklore Collection, UCD.



After the turn of the twentieth century, Irish revolutionaries associated with the so-called “New Nationalism” continued to write on the subject of attack and defense with the pike. The weapon would go on to see limited use during the Easter Rising of 1916, as well as in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and Irish Civil War (1922-1923). These late writings on the use of the pike by Irish rebels are worthy of their own article, and will be included in the next installment (PART II) of this series, which shall be published shortly. In the meantime, we will end with the following traditional verses, set down in County Wexford during the early twentieth century:

O Rourke the blacksmith forged a pike
And better neir was made
‘Twas eight feet long in handle
And six inch wide in blade
Father Murphy blessed it at Ferry Carrig side
It was Brian Bán who kissed it
as a lover with his bride
O God be praised the captain said
The hour has come at last
There is no tiger in the forest
That springs more fierce or fast
Be up my boys be ready
Have those pike in grand array
And we’ll march through Enniscorthy
By the dawning of the day
And we’ll die as did our forefathers
With pike and steel in hand
And if we give one blow for them
We’ll give one for Ireland too.

Text of this article, excepting extracts reprinted herein, © 2017 by Ben Miller.



The martial wisdom of Ireland’s swordsmen survives in Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters. The second part of this book contains the text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices. “Irish Swordsmanship” contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.


“Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland”

In Colonial (American) Period, Dueling, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs, Weapons and Armor on October 16, 2017 at 2:56 pm

Announcing the release of the book, Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland, available in October 2017.

The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters, as well as that of Ireland’s most celebrated fencing society, the Knights of Tara—whose lavish fencing exhibitions won fame and glory for Ireland, and whose member’s innovative writings on bayonet fencing found their way into the hands of George Washington.

Notably, this book also includes extracts from several Irish texts on the martial arts (written or published between 1780 and 1860) which have previously not been noticed by scholars, and contains the complete text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword (1781)—an almost completely overlooked Irish fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices.

If you are interested in dueling, the small-sword, the bayonet, the pike, Irish martial history, or the eighteenth century in general, this book has much to interest you.

Following is the book’s complete online description:

Above: 1775 illustration of a fencer in front of the gates of Trinity College, Dublin. In the background, duelists exchange pistol shots.

During the eighteenth century, Ireland was Europe’s wild west, where the sword was the constant companion of every gentleman, soldier, and rogue. Here, in the dimly lit rooms of Dublin’s popular coffee and chocolate houses, among its public parks and cloistered back yards, fearsome duelists such as George Robert “Fighting” Fitzgerald, Alexander “Buck” English, and Captain David “Tyger” Roche fought for life and honor with the sword and pistol. Here, countless swordsmen—colorfully dressed in ruffled silk—stained the ground of St Stephen’s Green with blood, and celebrated their survival over glasses of cherry brandy.

This is the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s sword culture—of its renowned fencing schools, its famed swordsmen, its female gladiators, and its notorious armed gangs such as the Bucks, Cherokees, and Pinking Dindies, who terrorized the people of Dublin with the small-sword, knife, falchion, and shillelagh, and engaged in vicious battles with members of the city’s Night Watch.

Here, also, is the story of Ireland’s most celebrated fencing society, the Knights of Tara—whose grand fencing exhibitions won fame and glory for Ireland, whose writings on bayonet fencing found their way into the hands of America’s founding father, George Washington, and whose leading member would go on to have a indelible impact upon the history of fencing in the British Isles.

PART TWO of this book contains “A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword”—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. Though anonymously authored, research suggests that this mysterious text—the publication of which directly led to the formation of the Knights of Tara—may be the work of Cornelius Kelly, Ireland’s most renowned fencing master. Compiled throughout the 1770s and published in Dublin in 1781, this treatise is by no means a beginner’s manual, but is an extensive discussion and elucidation on the technique, form, philosophy, psychology, morality, and strategy of swordsmanship. Although founded upon the French school of small-sword fencing, it exhibits many peculiarities, and the author’s method of explaining fencing is unusual for the era. The text contains applications of geometrical and mathematical principles to swordsmanship, how to utilize one’s own shadow as a training device, and defenses against assassins and so-called “dirty tricks.” In the words of its author,

“Almost every Gentleman who applies himself to the Sword, [and] has had a liberal education…consequently will be pleased at an attempt at grafting this art upon the most elevated of the sciences, i.e. the mathematical; and perhaps it may be something novel, to have proved this art, in many instances, to be so closely connected with the common precepts of philosophy.”

Irish Swordsmanship contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.



PART I: History

I. Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland
II. Noted Irish Duelists
i. Captain Peter Drake
ii. Richard Buidhe Kirwan
iii. David “Tyger” Roche
iv. George Robert Fitzgerald
v. Alexander “Buck” English
vi. Richard Brinsley Sheridan
III. Irish Amazons and Stage Gladiators
IV. Eighteenth Century Dublin: Europe’s Wild West
V. Fencing Schools and Masters in Eighteenth Century Ireland
VI. The Knights of Tara
VII. Anthony Gordon, the Last Knight of Tara

PART II: The Treatise

Introduction: Essay on Authorship
Topical Guide to Contents
Note to the Reader

A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword

Glossary of Technical Terms


I. The Irish Dueling Code of 1777
II. Works on Fencing and Dueling by Irish Authors
III. First Resolutions of the Knights of Tara
IV. Second Resolutions of the Knights of Tara
V. List of the Knights of Tara
VI. Rules of the Cherokee Club
VII. The Irish Pike Exercise

About the Author


Irish Swordsmanship is available in both paperback and hardcover editions from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Europe, Barnes & Noble, and other national and international retailers.

You can also read extracts, view images, and read articles pertaining to the book and its subject by visiting the book’s Facebook page.

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense… Really?

In Antiquity, Dueling, Edwardian Era, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on March 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm
L'illustration_July_21_1888 CROP

The Floquet-Boulanger duel, L’Illustration, July 21,1888

Almost everyone has heard the expression, at one time or another, that “the best defense is a good offense.” Today, this adage has made its way into the modern consciousness, and is often quoted in books on the martial arts and “practical” self-defense, of which the following is only one recent example:

“In realistic combat situations, the best defense is a good offense.” [1]

Although the origins of this expression are uncertain, since the 1930s, the quote has mainly been attributed to the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. [2] However, the statement can be found in print as far back as the nineteenth century [3], and some authors have gone so far as to attribute the sentiment to George Washington, who wrote in 1799,

“Make them believe, that offensive operations, often times, are the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defence.” [4]

The sentiment may well seem to hold true—at least to a degree—in “combat sports” such as modern boxing, MMA, Olympic sport fencing, as well as (ostensible) martial arts tournaments involving Karate, Taekwondo, Kendo, historical Western/European martial arts, and other contests simulating a combat with glove-covered fists or blunted weapons, wherein the body is able to absorb blow after blow, and wherein the life of the participant is not in serious danger, should he or she be hit. Likewise, as George Washington suggests, aspects of the philosophy may also hold true in the context of military operations, wherein the lives of large numbers of individual soldiers may be sacrificed en masse for the sake of a winning strategy.

However, the idea of “emphasizing offense over defense” becomes extremely problematic when applied to the martial arts, or to individual armed combat. Except in the rarest of cases, the human individual, as a holistic being, does not have the luxury of sacrificing a limb or a major organ in the pursuit of victory—that is, if they wish to maintain the ability to defend themselves, and to be of full service to their family, to their nation, to humanity, and to themselves. Nor, of course, does the average martial artist or combatant have the luxury of sacrificing their own life during the course of a fight.

The truth of this fact has been proven time and again in countless instances throughout history, and, as shall be shown, has been eloquently opined on by some of the greatest martial artists who ever lived.

The aim of this article is not to disparage offensive tactics or techniques (which, indeed, are an integral component of any martial art), but rather, to put them in their proper context by illustrating the dangers that can arise when giving such tactics and techniques priority over one’s own defense and personal safety.

The Floquet-Boulanger Duel

An excellent real-life example that illustrates the perils of emphasizing offense over defense is the Floquet-Boulanger duel, in part because the episode is so well-documented.

To briefly summarize this incident, which occurred in 1888: the French General Georges Boulanger had publicly quarreled with, and insulted, Prime Minister Charles Floquet, who was ten years Boulanger’s senior. Floquet promptly challenged the General to a duel with swords. The latter accepted, and the two promptly arranged a meeting on an estate at Neuilly-sur-Seine, frequently used as a dueling ground, and only a short distance from Paris.


General Georges Boulanger and Prime Minister Charles Floquet

Contemporaries noted that General Boulanger was expected to have the advantage due to his youth, vigor, and considerable military experience. However, of the ensuing combat, a French correspondent to the New York Times reported that

“General Boulanger tried hard to kill M. Floquet, flinging himself upon him again and again. He made a lunge at M. Floquet’s left breast, but only slightly touched the mark. Gen. Boulanger then received a wound in the throat, which put an end to the encounter. The wound was a severe one…”[5]

Illustrated London News - based on a sketch drawn by an eye-witnesses in 1888

Floquet defeats Boulanger, as pictured in the Illustrated London News

A similar account in the Illustrated London News clarified:

“Boulanger, who had rushed wildly at his opponent, received a serious wound; M. Floquet had quietly raised his sword, and Boulanger, stumbling forward, got it in his throat. The seconds, by common consent, stated that General Boulanger’s wound made it impossible for him to continue to fight.” [6]


The final action of the duel, as pictured on the cover of Le Monde Illustre

A more detailed French account, appearing in L’Univers Illustré, noted that Boulanger attacked Floquet immediately at the outset of the duel with “extraordinary ardor,” and continued to do so multiple times. However, rather than impaling himself, Boulanger was defeated by a simple parry-riposte:

“M. Floquet parried, and with a quick riposte, hit his adversary in the upper anterior part of the neck. The blade penetrated several centimeters into the tissue; the result was very abundant bleeding.” [7]

Whatever the precise manner of Boulanger’s defeat, the accounts were unanimous: the General had aggressively, passionately, and repeatedly attacked Floquet, who had remained cool and on the defensive.

Further insight was provided by Colonel Thomas H. Monstery (1824-1901), a fencing master who had served under twelve flags, and had survived participation in somewhere between 53 and 61 duels [8]. Consequently, during the late nineteenth century, he became regarded by the American press as an authority on dueling. When asked about the Floquet-Boulanger duel, Monstery replied:

“Gen. Boulanger…from what I learn by the papers, brought about his defeat by his lack of coolness and consequent fury of attack. He rushed blindly on his foe, losing all sight of prudence and skill in the desire to inflict injury. For an expert swordsman to overcome such an attack is an easy matter. He has only to wait coolly for his antagonist to leave an opening and then sail in . . . Between you and me, I think Boulanger was in great luck. A man who employs the tactics he did in the presence of a skillful swordsman will be killed in nine cases out of ten.” [9]

Above: Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

Monstery’s views on mindset and tactics are by no means unique, and have been echoed numerous times by some of the greatest martial arts masters of past centuries—from both Europe and Asia. In particular, masters of the past have warned against attempting to overcome an adversary through fury, passion, and aggression. For instance, in an addendum to Johann Liechtenauer’s Recital on the Longsword, a medieval author notes that a person who fences “wittily and without all wrath” will “seldom lose.” [10] Likewise, Don Jeronimo de Carranza (1539-1600), the founder of La Verdadera Destreza (the Spanish school of swordsmanship), stated in 1569:


Jeronimo de Carranza

“The vulgate, although he professes knowledge of swordsmanship, is easy to discover when in times of anger and conflict he forgets his professed skill and commits vulgarity in his manner and actions.” [11]

Nearly two-hundred years later, Zachary Wylde, in his treatise on the use of the smallsword, broadsword, quarterstaff, and wrestling, stated in 1711:

“Let not Passion, Fury, nor Choler, which are absolute Enemies to skill, in no Case prevail, if you do, it will destroy your Judgement.” [12]

Again, in the nineteenth century, Joseph Roland, fencing master of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, wrote,

“Being in a passion, [such swordsmen] are not masters of them themselves; and if the adversary is only cautious and cool, the passionate man will inevitably fall on the other’s sword.” [13]

Authors of treatises on dueling with sharp swords continued to express such sentiments up until the early twentieth century. In 1901, the Hungarian Army Cavalry-Lieutenant Zoltán Cseresnyés Fels-Eöry wrote in his book Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel:

“If you want to survive a duel with sabres, you must first defeat your uncontrolled urges.” [14]

These statements are thrown into further light with knowledge that the very word “fencing,” used to encompass armed European martial arts for more than six-hundred years, comes from the word “defence”:

fencing (n.) mid-15c., “defending, act of protecting or keeping (something) in proper condition” (short for defencing) [15]

Likewise, throughout the vast number of fencing treatises and advertisements that existed in centuries past, instructors referred to fencing as the “noble science of defense,” the “true art of defence,” or simply “self-defense.” [16] As far as the very definition of Western swordsmanship is concerned, the emphasis has always been on defense, rather than offense.


Miyamoto Musashi, self-portrait in later years

Nor must it be thought that the sentiments expressed above were the domain of the West alone. Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), widely revered as one of the greatest Japanese swordsmen of all time, and a survivor of more than sixty duels and countless battles, noted in his Thirty-Five Instructions on Strategy:

“The mind should be neither solemn nor agitated, neither pensive nor fearful; it should be straight and ample. This is the state of mind that should be sought after…in this way you make your mind like water that reacts appropriately to shifting situations.” [17]

Likewise, in their notes on his teachings (Notes on Mind, Energy, and the Body in Strategy), Musashi’s disciples elaborated,

“It is important to place yourself in a state of calm and to work out your way of mastering your own mind and work on the manner in which your vital energy emanates from you…If you are capable of mastering your own mind by placing yourself in a state of calm, you will be able to see clearly what is happening in your opponent.” [18]

Plate from the

Plate from Art of the E’mei Spear

Martial arts masters from China—a region regarded by many as the original fount of the Eastern martial arts—also emphasized these principles, and expounded upon them in great detail. An early Qing dynasty treatise by Cheng Zhen Ru on the use of the spear devoted an entire chapter to “calmness” and another to “mind mastery,” stating:

“It is easy to use techniques, but difficult to gain control over one’s own mind…the flame in the heart must not burn. The four elements must be calm from within oneself.” [19]

Li Yiyu (1832-1892)

Li Yiyu (1832-1892)

The Bubishi, otherwise known as the 19th century “Karate Bible”, but with roots stretching back to 16th century China, stipulates that “the mind must be calm but alert,” and advises the practitioner to “remain calm when facing your opponent.” [20] In a classic Chinese treatise penned in 1881—said to contain much older techniques from centuries past—the boxing instructor Li Yiyu (1832–1892) condensed his martial principles into a “Five Word Formula,” the very first of which reads as follows:

“1. The mind is CALM. If your mind is not calm, it will not be focused, and each movement of your hands, be it forward or back, left or right, will not be in any definite direction. Therefore your mind should be calm…Over time, you will reach the point in which you can say ‘[the adversary] is under my control and I am not under his.'” [21]

Such wisdom is clearly universal, and extends to both East and West.


Boulanger’s Tactics


“Labour to parry well, rather than to hit at random, by too much ambition or heat of passion.” – A. Lonnergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1771


General Boulanger

One might well ask what was going through Boulanger’s mind when he decided to use the tactics that he did during his duel with Floquet. Fortunately for us, we do not have to wonder.

Approximately three years after the combat, the following remarkable article appeared in the pages of the London Standard, recounting Boulanger’s visit to a fencing instructor only a few hours before the duel was scheduled to take place. According to this account,

“Before the meeting, the General, who had never fenced since his cadet days at St. Cyr, was persuaded to take a lesson from a famous swordsman. The moment he stood on guard his instructor saw that he knew nothing about fencing.

‘You don’t know how to parry,’ he said to the General.

‘No,’ was the reply; ‘I charge.’

‘Then you will spit yourself.’

‘Tant pis. I have never had time to learn the simplest parade [parry], and it would be absurd for me to try to fence in the regulation manner. I shall charge as I did just now.’

He had previously run himself on to his opponent’s sword exactly as, a few hours later, he fared with M. Floquet.” [22]

Représentation du général Boulanger à cheval (extrait d'un document électoral)

Representation of Gen. Boulanger “leading the charge”

Twenty-six years earlier, the French swordsman Baron de Bazancourt (1810–1865), in his 1862 Secrets of the Sword, had recounted a similar conversation—one that the General would have done well to learn from:

“May I ask one more question?” said one of my friends. “I have often heard it said that if you don’t know much about fencing the best thing to do is, as soon as you come on guard, to make a sudden rush at the other man before he has time to collect himself.”

“Well,” I replied, “if you wish to make sure of being incurably spitted, that is the most infallible way to set about it.” [23]

Given the timing of this publication, Bazancourt may well have been thinking of the duel between Dillon and the Duc de Gramont-Caderousse, which also occurred in 1862. Dillon’s second, the more experienced Colonel de Noé, had advised him to use defensive tactics, by first commencing with a false attack, and then hitting his adversary with a counter parry-riposte. However, Noé recounted,

“Dillon followed my advice at first, but he made a flourish. The Duc had then only to thrust and poor Dillon fell a corpse.”

The Daily Telegraph observed,

“Dillon, like many other inexperienced fencers, relied on his mere physical strength and on the impetuosity of his assault, and…the Duke, hard pressed by a furious albeit clumsy foe, was forced to thrust where he could, and to thrust home.” [24]

The fact is that the consequences of such tactics could be disastrous, especially in a combat with sharp weapons.

Le duel Boulanger Floquet , a Neuilly , gravure d'aprés Destez 1888

Aftermath of the Floquet-Boulanger duel, after an engraving by Paul Destez, L’Univers Illustre, 1888

The following details of General Boulanger’s injuries were related by Dr. Labbé, the well-known surgeon who attended him immediately following the duel, and vividly illustrate the very serious consequences that could result from such tactics—even in duels with the relatively light, thin 19th century dueling sword:

“The point of the sword…[penetrated] on the right side, about the level of the hyoid bone. At this moment, the General having bent down, the point of the sword was directed downwards, wounding the anterior and superficial jugular vein, which caused profuse haemorrhage, which, however, was soon arrested, and the wound was dressed antiseptically. There was also some effusion of blood about the wound. It is probable that the phrenic nerve was also wounded, as immediately afterwards serious trouble of the respiration, accompanied with violent pains about the level of the insertion of the diaphragm, occurred. These were followed by several attacks of oppression. During the night following the day of the duel the patient suffered so intensely from pain in the chest, so agitated, that recourse was had to a subcutaneous injection of morphia, which relieved the pain and quieted him. Thirty-six hours afterwards emphysema made its appearance on the right side of the neck, which would prove that the point of the sword had penetrated into the larynx, or trachea… Till now the general reaction has been moderate, and the wound has healed up; but, fearing a lung complication, Dr. Potain was yesterday called in consultation, and this gentleman detected a slight congestion at the base of the right lung. The bulletin of this morning states that the patient is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances, but the four doctors who are in attendance are reserved as to the issue of the case, as it is impossible to foresee what complications may arise.” [25]

Following his recovery, Boulanger’s conduct during the duel was much criticized. His political career dwindled, and he later spent his life in exile in Belgium and Great Britain. As Monstery suggested, however, Boulanger was still in “great luck”–he had survived the duel. Not all swordsmen who tried the same approach fared so well.

In 1898, a duel between Signor Cavallotti and Count Macola took place near Rome, in the villa of the Comtesse Cellere, and was captured in a series of photographs. The chosen weapons were sabers. Cavallotti was on his thirty-third duel, and Macola his sixteenth. According to a journalistic account, Cavallotti

“strongly attacked his opponent, his head bent forward, and attempted to deliver cuts to the flank. M. Macola broke the attack, extending his arm. During the second engagement, the same tactics were used by both sides.”

Photograph of the duel between Cavallotti (on right) and

Photograph of the duel between Cavallotti (on right) and Macola (on left)

The duel ended when,

In the third and final engagement, during a furious charge by M. Cavallotti, M. Macola, his point always in line, stopped his opponent on the mouth. The point penetrated and immediately caused an abundant hemorrhage. The doctors attempted tracheotomy, in vain. Cavallotti died in their arms, without being able to utter a word.” [26]

The fatal outcome.

The fatal outcome of the Cavallotti-Macola duel.

Three years later, Fels-Eöry would appropriately write in his Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel:

“There is no more dangerous manner of attack than when one charges, full tilt, at his adversary, to which we can truly say, that only his enemy’s sword will be capable of arresting him, onto which he will fall.” [27]

The Cavallotti-Macola duel is yet another vivid example of the disastrous consequences that can befall a martial artist when offense is given greater priority over defense during an actual combative encounter with sharp weapons.


Problems in Training


“The same Awe ought to be paid to the Foil, as to the Sword, whose Representative it surely is. Nothing ought to be attempted with the one, that would be feared with the other…” – Captain John Godfrey, 1747

To return, briefly, to the Floquet-Boulanger duel: this particular combat raises another issue that is relevant to all martial artists: namely, the disparity between the conditions of training and that of actual combat.

As noted in the Standard’s account, during his duel, Boulanger had resorted to the same aggressive tactics that had actually failed him during training:

“[Boulanger] had previously run himself on to his [fencing instructor’s] sword exactly as, a few hours later, he fared with M. Floquet.” [28]

As recounted previously, Boulanger charged his fencing master, was promptly hit with a blunt training weapon, but, ignoring the ramifications and feedback received, decided that he would continue to use those same tactics in actual combat. Essentially he neglected to treat his training weapon seriously (failing to envision what the same outcome would be with a sharp weapon), and neglected to modify his tactics accordingly.  The history of fencing is filled with similar accounts, wherein aspiring swordsmen resorted to strategies, previously used with foils or blunted swords, which became fatal to themselves when used with sharp weapons.

MonsteryEngravingDuring the 1870s, Colonel Monstery, himself a veteran of dozens of duels, observed such a trend in the American fencing world, in which contestants emphasized offense over defense in the attempt to “score a hit.” Monstery derisively referred to such contests as “poker games”—that is to say, “jabbing with the blade” formed the chief method of attack, while the defense was ignored. [29] Such tactics often resulted in double or simultaneous hits to the two combatants. Monstery publicly warned that if such practices were to persist, “it is only a matter of time for [fencers] to become proficient in this sort of cheating, and to ruin the art of fencing in the United States for ever.” He explained,

“There is only one safe practice to follow in foil fencing. This is to imitate as closely as possible the contest with the naked point. No one but a maniac would take thrust for thrust from an adversary with sharp points, unless, indeed, he were a very inferior swordsman, who wished to take some sort of revenge by piercing his enemy’s shoulder, at the price of a mortal wound through his own lungs…The consequences of simultaneous blows with sabres cannot fail to be disastrous to both parties. In an actual sabre duel, their delivery would require two maniacs instead of one.” [30]

More than three hundred years earlier, the German fencer Joachim Meÿer had expressed exactly the same sentiment in his treatise on the longsword:

“It is no use to be overly aggressive with striking, or to cut in at the same time against [the adversary’s] strokes recklessly as if with closed eyes, for this resembles not combat but rather a mindless peasants’ brawl.” [31]

Plate from manuscript edition of Meyer's treatise

Plate from manuscript edition of Joachim Meyer’s fencing treatise

During the late medieval era, around 1409, the fencing master Fiore de’i Liberi (1340s-1420s) noted the disparities between contesting with blunt weapons and engaging in actual combat with sharps, and described how contestants modified their tactics accordingly:

“Also I, Fiore, told my students who had to fight in the barriers that fighting in the barriers is much and much less dangerous than fighting with cut and thrust swords in zuparello darmare (arming jacket) because to the one who plays with sharp swords, failing just one cover gives him death. While the one who fights in the barriers and is well armoured, can be given a lot of hits, but still he can win the battle. Also there is another fact: that rarely someone dies because he gets hit. Thus I can say that I would rather fight three times in the barriers than just once with sharp swords, as I said above.” [32]

Fiore’s comments certainly echo Monstery’s, and prove that this issue is indeed an old one.


Martial Art or Martial Game?


In 1691, fencing master William Hope (1660-1724) observed similar mistakes among swordsmen training with blunted weapons. Although Hope was somewhat coy about his own combat experience with sharps [33], his books on the art of fencing give great insight into the techniques and approaches of his era, and echo many of the martial points of other masters which we will examine. In his writings, Hope speaks of the “assault,” later defined as “the exercise with blunt weapons, representing in every respect a combat with sharps, in which we execute at will all the maneuvers of the fencing lessons.” However, in his observations, Hope makes it clear that not all participants were wont to treat the assault as a “combat with sharps”:

“When People Assault, it is commonly with Blunts, and when an Ignorant, who undervalueth the Art of the Sword, and trusteth all to his own Forewardness is desired by an Artist to shew his Natural Play, he very well considering that he can receive no prejudice by his being hit with a blunt fleuret [foil], Rusheth and Rambleth still forewards (let him receive never so many Thrusts) until he either hitteth the Artist with one of his Rambling Thrusts, or otherwise cometh so close, that the Artist must inclose with him, and he thinketh, if he hath given the Artist but one Thrust (although he himself should receive three or four in the time they are playing) that he hath carried the Day, and quite run down the Art of Fencing, whereas if they were either to play with Real Sharps, or with Fleurets having a quarter of an Inch of a point beyond the button, I make not the least doubt, but their rambling would be a little slower…” [34]


Such gamesters were variously referred to as “blunderers,” “ignorants,” “irregulars,” and “ferrailleurs.” Joseph Roland, who preferred the latter term, was unsparing in his criticism:

“Indeed, a man must be an idiot to call this fencing;——since, in a serious affair, he would, by such conduct, rush headlong on his own destruction.” [35]

Hope wastes no time in prescribing a solution for how to deal with such “ignorant” fencers:

“To prevent this inconveniency, if I were to play with an Ignorant for a Wager, I would play alwayes with pointed [sharp] Fleurets, and then in GOD’s Name let him Ramble his Belly full; For in that case I would know a way to come at him, which might perhaps cause him repent his Forewardness.” [36]

This sentiment of Hope’s would find further realization during the nineteenth century, when fencers practicing with the épée de combat (the dueling sword) adopted the point d’arrêt (“stopping point”), a one to three pronged point with small protruding spikes, which would typically cause pain to the fencer being hit, thus encouraging a more defensive mindset, and better preparing the fencer for actual combat. Although, during the twentieth century, the point d’arrêt was discarded by modern Olympic sport fencers along with the advent of electronic scoring apparatus, the point d’arrêt remains in use today among certain circles of classical fencing traditionalists. [37]

Point d'arrets, from an old catalogue. Source: Benjamin Arms

Various point d’arrets, 19th century. Source:

Despite such training methodologies, as well as numerous warnings, it is clear that many combatants (Boulanger being an obvious example) went on to use suicidal tactics in actual combat—either out of ignorance, lack of control, so-called “nerves,” or the fact that they had become used to pursuing such tactics while engaging safely with blunts. Thus, some authors and fencing masters wrote of the need to be prepared for such tactics applied to actual sharps, and to know how to fence accordingly. Fels-Eöry, in his Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel, includes a section on “Advice For Utilizing Mental & Physical Powers,” in which he explains:

“…Every good and capable fencer should watch out for simultaneous cuts (doubles), which consistently result in the ugliest of cuts.

While fencing in assaults, we experience a lot of double-touches. These result either from real attacks occurring simultaneously, or from poorly utilized ripostes while defending.

But these double-touches occur even more frequently in dueling.

Not overcoming obsession, anger, and hatred: these manifest in forsaking all defense, and attacking one’s opponent wildly.

How easy it is, with calm parries and mindful demeanor, to disarm such opponents.” [38]

The Art of Manual Defence, 1799

The Art of Manual Defence, 1799

These same issues can be observed in the historical development–and subsequent devolution–of Western boxing. Originally, in previous centuries, boxing had been practiced in Europe and America as a bare-knuckle martial art intended both for self-defense and the settling of disputes. It included a variety of techniques such as striking, grappling, and tripping, as well as defenses against head butting and eye gouging. The following passage, from Thomas Fewtrell’s Science of Manual Defence (1790), explicates the eighteenth century martial approach to boxing:

JackRandall_ART BY T. JONES - ENGRAVER UNKNOWN“I wish it to be universally understood, that I recommend the practice of Sparring, as if in real action. No manoeuvres, no attitudes ought to be adopted, unless experimentally, but what would be introduced in an actual fight.” [39]

The following technique, attributed to the celebrated fighter Daniel Mendoza, gives an idea of how eighteenth century bare-knuckle techniques differed from those that would later be used in modern boxing:

“A blow on the bridge of the nose with one of the large knuckles, if given either by striking straight, or striking the chopper, slits the nose from top to bottom.” [40]

Such techniques were not to last. By the late nineteenth century, the focus and objective of boxing had largely shifted to winning at gloved competition—even though the “art” was still often taught under the pretext of “self-defense.” The new sport of boxing gave rise to many changes—including a less conservative guard position (which relied on the use of large, padded gloves to shield the body and head), the use of a horizontal (rather than vertical) fist when striking, and a whole new host of techniques that were only effective when executed while wearing gloves. Colonel Monstery, in one of the last American treatises devoted to pure bare-knuckle boxing, describes (with derision) many such techniques—which he forbade at his academy, due to the fact that they would be useless or ineffective in an actual self-defense situation. Monstery catalogued these techniques as:

“1. Whipping; 2. Cutting; 3. Palming; 4. Round blows…” [41]

Monstery elaborates on the technique of “cutting”:

“Cutting is the common way of striking used by natural and unscientific boxers. If tried in a fight with the bare hands, it does not hurt like a true blow in the line of power, and it exposes the knuckles to injury in giving it. In glove sparring it is a malicious way of striking, as it forces aside the padding of the glove, and the blow comes with the edge of the hand, made harder by one fold of leather… Nevertheless, cutting is the most popular of all sorts of hitting in public sparring matches. A cut is a smart slap, and makes a loud noise, wherefore uninstructed audiences generally applaud a loud cut. A true blow, however heavy, makes no noise with the gloves, and is only noticed by its effects.” [42]

The "Right Hand Counter" in How to Box, 1882

The “Right Hand Counter” in How to Box, 1882

Such techniques would go on to dominate the ever-evolving sport of modern boxing—derisively referred to as “sandbagging,” by one ageing veteran named William Madden. In 1885, another author explained that modern boxing had become

“the mere shadow and semblance of what it was formerly. Fifty years ago sparring with the gloves was regarded chiefly as a means to an end. The teacher of it instructed his pupil, not with a view of enabling him to use the glove prettily, but how to use his fist with most effect…Tthe far greater part of those who now take lessons do so purely with the desire of excelling in competitions with the gloves. Half the men who win the most honours and prizes in these competitions have never struck a blow with the bare fist since they were at school, and are little likely to do so till the day of their death. Accordingly, the spectators at an assault of arms, which is now the favourite occasion for a display of pugilistic science, no longer try to imagine what each blow would be like if the glove was off when it was delivered. They count the hits, not for what they represent, but for what they are; and thus often a loud-sounding slap with the half-open glove is applauded as a most telling stroke, while the neat ‘upper cut,’ which would tell ten times more heavily in a real battle, passes comparatively unnoticed and possibly unseen except by a few.”  [43]

The preceding passages and examples make clear that when any martial art shifts its intent and focus from the reality of combat to the requirements of success in a game, it becomes watered down to become only a shadow of its former self; indeed, the notion that success in competition can be equated to success in an actual armed encounter, is, at best, delusional.

The Survivor of One Hundred Duels


“Now being Sixty-three Years of Age, [I] resolve never to Fight any more, but to Repent for my former Wickedness.” Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728

Portrait of Donald McBane

Portrait of Donald McBane

Another authority worth consulting on this issue is Donald McBane (1664-1730s), a highland Scot who took part in, by my estimation, close to one hundred duels. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, McBane also served throughout much of Europe, participating in sixteen battles and fifty-two sieges. At age fifty he commenced fighting as a gladiator at the Bear Gardens (see this previous post for a description), where he fought thirty-seven prizes. At age sixty-three, McBane fought his last combat against a tough young Irishman named O’Bryan. McBane wounded his adversary seven times and broke his arm with a falchion. Thereafter McBane retired, and proceeded to write a memoir of his life, along with a detailed fencing treatise containing sections on the broadsword, smallsword, rapier, dagger, quarterstaff, spear, shield, double-handed ax, and knife. Surely, considering his immense experience, it is worth knowing what McBane had to say on the subject of offensive versus defensive mindset. In the pages of his treatise, McBane notes:

“Commonly those People who are unskill’d do thus, they think (and indeed with Reason) that they must not let you Attack, because they do not know how to Defend as they ought, for the Defencive part is the most difficult, therefore they drive on you with great Fury, (whils’t they have Strength) to put you out of your Play, but once that is over they are at your Mercy.”

McBane thus brings up an excellent point: a good defense is only possible with training and experience. It is for that very reason that unskilled swordsmen (referred to heretofore as “peasants” or “ignorants”) often resort to rash and overly aggressive tactics. Because they are lacking in defensive skill, choosing to constantly attack the adversary may seem like the only viable option.

Plate from McBane's Expert Swordman's Companion

Plate from McBane’s Expert Swordman’s Companion

McBane also indicates that inexperienced swordsmen were apt to use these tactics in actual combat with sharps, even at the risk of eventual suicide:

“Some men care not (at least don’t think of it, being only intent upon hitting their Adversary) if they receive a thrust, if it be not immediately mortal, so that they can but give one, but this may properly be called Rashness, or Fool Hardiness.”

Following is an account one of McBane’s many duels, in which he describes how he dealt with such wild aggressiveness. In the combat described below, McBane used a smallsword, while his adversary used a heavier broadsword:

“We drew, and after two or three turns, he making a great stroak at my leg, I slipped him, and Thrust him through the Body before he could recover himself; finding he was Wounded he struck furiously, and [I] giving way he fell forward; I seeing that, [thrust] him in the Leg, lest he should Run after me as before. I then commanded him to give me his Sword, which he did…”


Plate from McBane’s treatise, showing the spear versus the sword and targe

In the pages of his treatise, McBane offers the following pertinent advice to the aspiring swordsman:

“Command your Temper and you will do much better, than if you give way to your Passion; and if you do Command it, and are Engaged with a Person who can not, you will have very much the Advantage of him, for his Passion will make him Play wild and wide, and consequently exposes himself to be Hit very often, wheras your thoughts not being in Hurry and Confusion, you may Defend your self with ease and judgement, and take an Advantage readily when ever you have a mind, you are the more capable of doing this, because your Strength, Mind and Spirit are not Spent or Exhausted.” [44]


A Samurai’s Perspective

An Eastern opinion on these issues may be found in the writings of Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), a celebrated samurai of the Bakumatsu period. Initially a leader of ronin (masterless samurai), Tesshu would go on to join the personal guard of the Shogun, and would later help to negotiate a peace that would lead to the Meiji Restoration. During his youth he participated in thousands upon thousands of contests with some of the best swordsmen in Japan; at age twenty-four, he engaged in more than 1400 matches within a single week. In his letters, Tesshu addresses many points regarding the offensive and defensive mindsets, such as the following, written on Jan. 5, 1882, wherein he discusses notions of “True and False Swordsmanship”:

Yamaoka Tesshu

“When [swordsmen of other schools] confront an opponent, they immediately get agitated and attempt to defeat the other swordsman through a hot-blooded frontal attack. This is a grave mistake…when they can no longer depend on physical power due to age or ill-health, their inadequately formed techniques will fail them—it is as if they had not studied swordsmanship at all, a needless waste of effort. This is false swordsmanship. Students of the Way must awaken to this principle while training harder and harder.” [45]

In his book Lives of Master Swordsmen, author Makoto Sugawara noted that “Swordsmanship with bamboo swords…produced various techniques far removed from those required in fights with real swords.” [46] In another letter, penned in November of 1884, Tesshu describes, how, historically, such tactics became popularized:

“In the past the practice of swordsmanship in all schools was understood as practice with a wooden sword and no protective armor. However, about one hundred years ago most schools began to use helmets, gloves, and chest protectors. The reason for this change is that protective gear enables trainees to act with less inhibition and allows them to apply the techniques with full force—this is the sole advantage.”

1867-69. National Library of New Zealand.

Japanese soldiers fencing, ca. 1867-69 (National Library of New Zealand)

Tesshu provides further instruction that is relevant to any martial artist using arms:

“Contests conducted with a wooden sword and no armor are quite different from modern matches. In such contests, there is much more reserve because of the fear of injury; even a skilled swordsman is in danger of being struck.

In the case of contests conducted with a wooden sword and no armor, that condition alone necessitates a proper frame of mind. If one is not careful, it is very dangerous…hot-blooded swordsmen who rely on physical strength and attack as if they are still wearing protective gear will quickly be injured in a contest with wooden swords. Reflect upon this deeply and there will be no need to worry about injury.” [47]

Such disparities in combat conditions, and the confusion that could arise in matches conducted in protective armor, were thrown into sharp relief during the following episode from Tesshu’s career, involving a demonstration before the emperor. As the fencing was “rather subtle,” the emperor missed Tesshu’s decisive hit, prompting the following exchange:

“If we use live blades,” Tesshu said with perhaps a certain amount of sarcasm, “Your Majesty will be able to see when a point is scored.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“No,” Tesshu assured him. “A slight cut will draw blood and Your Eminence will get a clear view of the action.”

The emperor declined. [48]

Tesshu3Tesshu would go on to found the renowned Itto Shoden Muto Ryu school of swordsmanship –which he regarded not so much as a new creation, but rather as a “restoration” of old martial principles. His system was informed by fudo-shin, the “imperturbable mind” developed in the course of Zen training. In a letter about the martial arts, written in 1883, Tesshu elucidates on the profound concept of “substance,” which he defines as “the inner quiet of mind, free from individual failings.” Tesshu advises,

“Recklessly striking and thrusting will not prevail over an opponent’s mind. The lack of calm in one’s own heart causes agitation to arise from all quarters, thus preventing mastery of the opponent. Know that this occurs for no other reason but one’s lack of substance. Depending on chance and lucky breaks to win never results in true victory. True attainment must be accomplished within the quiet of one’s mind.” [49]


The Art and Science of Defense


“It takes great courage and skill to take out an adversary with a calm mind. True masters establish a balance between their lives and their art to a degree that their lives become as much a product of the art as is the art a product of their lives…Diligent training cultivates an inner calm that enhances one’s instinctive ability to counter any offensive.”Bubishi, 19th Century

We are already well-versed in examples of disastrous combats in which the participants neglected their defense in favor of a purely offensive strategy.

Now let us ask the reverse question: what happens when true defensive tactics are used by highly skilled combatants who have mastered their art and science?

One such example from history can be found in the career of Jean Louis Michel (1785 – 1865), widely considered to be among the greatest swordsmen of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all time. As one author of the period described him,

“The founder of the modern French school of swordsmanship, and the greatest swordsman of his century, was a mulatto of San Domingo, that famous Jean Louis, who in one terrible succession of duels, occupying only forty minutes, killed or disabled thirteen master-fencers of that Italian army pressed into service by Napoleon for his Peninsular campaign.” [50]


Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D’Erape. From L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

As referenced above, Jean Louis Michel’s most famous exploit as a swordsman was his participation in a “mass” regimental duel that took place near Madrid, Spain, in 1814. The incident began when French soldiers from the 32nd Regiment and Italian soldiers from the 1st Regiment quarreled, and a regimental duel was arranged. Within forty minutes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen Italian fencing masters in succession.

Examining the accounts of this combat, one is struck by the defensive, rather than offensive, tactics employed by Jean Louis. His first combat was fought with Giacomo Ferrari, a celebrated Florentine swordsman and fencing master of the First Regiment, and is described in the following passage:

“[Maestro Giacomo] Ferrari took the offensive, but Jean-Louis followed all [Ferrari’s] flourishes with a calm but intense attention; every time Ferrari tried to strike, his sword met steel. With a loud cry Ferrari jumped to the side and attempted an attack from below, but Jean-Louis parried the thrust and with a lightning riposte wounded Ferrari in the shoulder…”

Illustration of Jean Louis's regimental duel, published in Le Pelerin, March 24, 1895

Illustration of Jean Louis’s regimental duel, published in Le Pelerin, March 24, 1895

Following is a sample of passages describing Jean Louis’s subsequent encounters with additional fencing masters:

“Another adversary came at him. After a brief clash, Jean-Louis lunged and, while recovering, left his point in line. Rushing at him, his opponent was impaled. A second corpse lay at the French master’s feet.

“His third opponent, a taller man, attacked fiercely, with jumps and feints, but Jean-Louis’ point disappeared into his chest, and he fell unconscious.” [51]


Jean Louis Michel, in later years

Although this event is an excellent illustration of the successful employment of defensive tactics, it must be admitted that Jean-Louis’ opponents, though fencing masters, were nevertheless clearly outclassed by their adversary.

One may, then, well ask the question: what happens when two masters, equally matched, both employ such defensive tactics? We can find no better example than the Pini-Malato duel.

Athos de San Malato, 1901

Baron Athos de San Malato, 1901

This “remarkable duel,” which lasted more than two and a half hours, took place in 1904, and was fought by Cavaliere Eugenio Pini and Baron Athos de San Malato. Both were among the most celebrated Italian fencing masters of their generation. Pini, a “phenomenon among fencers,” was a luminary of the Livornese school of fencing, while San Malato, according to fencing scholar Egerton Castle, had fought forty duels and was “one of the finest fencers in the world.” [52]

Journalists noted that the duel between the two, which was well-attended by more than sixty people, was one of the longest that had taken place in France, and was declared a “wonderful exhibition of science,” and an “exhibition of remarkable swordsmanship.” San Malato, according to one account, “made his attacks with the rapidity of lightning,” while Pini moved with “the spring of a panther.” Pini was wounded twice, about 1.5 hours into the duel, in the arm and on the nose, yet due to the minor nature of these wounds Pini insisted on continuing. More than one hour later, the combat was terminated when San Malato could no longer continue, due to his hand being excessively blistered by the hilt of his sword, thus rendering him at an unfair disadvantage. [53]


Maestro Eugenio Pini

Maestro di Scherma Eugenio Pini

Though it may seem incredible to the average person that a duel with deadly weapons, fought in earnest, could last for a duration of several hours, the fact is that the Pini-Malato duel was not unique in this regard. Examples of other such combats are uncommon, but do exist. For instance, the renowned Italian fencing master Agesilao Greco fought a duel in Naples that lasted three hours [54]; in 1900, the Comte Albert de Dion and M. Saint-Alary fought a duel lasting more than an hour and a quarter [55], as did Benito Mussolini and Francisco Ciccotti in 1921 [56], as well as San Malato and M. Pons in 1881 [57]; in 1873, two French swordsmen fought a “skillful” duel in Pennsylvania that lasted more than one hour [58]; and in 1891, Count Bertazzoli and Signor Calderoni reportedly fought a rencontre with daggers in Lugo, Italy, that lasted forty-five minutes. [59] In his saber dueling treatise, Fels-Eöry explains the reasons for the disparity in lengths of duels:

“‘Two bad fencers’ clumsy and foolhardy cooperation always results in both getting gravely injured in a short amount of time.’ In this case it’s safe to say that the [outcome of the] duel is entrusted to luck… An abrupt end to a sabre-duel usually bespeaks two vehement parties who can’t fence; because a contest between two good fencers is generally arduously long…

A good fencer, against a bad one, will exert the greatest of care, which takes time. The weaker fencer will act in this knowledge, if he’s acting strategically and soundly, knowing that he will not get suddenly injured, and, knowing that, he will not suddenly injure.” [60]

The Pini-Malato duel was, of course, not your average combat, considering both the experience and extremely high skill of its two participants. Yet it serves as a model and example of what can be achieved at the higher levels of swordsmanship. Both Pini and Malato accomplished something remarkable—not by killing or seriously maiming the other, but by preserving their own lives; by both surviving a sword combat that lasted continuously for two and three-quarters of an hour.

Jack Dempsey’s Final Word

As much of the preceding article has been devoted to the subject of armed combat with potentially deadly weapons, let us now turn back to the subject of unarmed combat.

As stated previously, since the 1930s, modern texts have mainly attributed the quote “the best defense is a good offense” to the boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.  It is, then, perhaps worth looking at what Dempsey himself actually had to say on the subject.

Jack Dempsey

Jack Dempsey, circa 1935

In 1950, Dempsey published a treatise on his method of fighting, entitled Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching & Aggressive Defense. In Chapter 18, Dempsey addresses the issue at hand, and, in point of fact, does not say that the best defense is “a good offense.” Instead he states:

“The best defense in fighting is an aggressive defense.”

Clearly aware of the quote that had been falsely attributed to him, Dempsey proceeds to elucidate:

“Each defensive move must be accompanied by a counter-punch or be followed immediately by a counterpunch. And you cannot counter properly if you do not know how to punch. That does not mean that ‘a strong offense is the best defense.’ That overworked quotation may apply to other activities; but it does not apply to fighting. It does not apply when you’re pitted against an experienced opponent. You may have the best attack in the world; but if you’re an open target—if you’re a ‘clay pigeon’—you’ll likely get licked by the first experienced scrapper you tackle. YOU MUST HAVE A GOOD DEFENSE TO BE A WELL-ROUNDED FIGHTER. AND THE BEST DEFENSE IS AN AGGRESSIVE DEFENSE.” [61]



In perusing these many passages, some readers may be tempted to presume that the aim of this article is to suggest that offensive techniques and tactics have no place in the martial arts at all, or that when engaging in combat, one should simply do nothing but defend, and wait for the adversary to attack. However, that is absolutely not the case.

Combative situations can vary greatly. The tactical considerations, for instance, between a one-on-one combat scenario (such as a duel) and a battlefield, or a street encounter involving multiple opponents, may differ. Against an attacker with bare hands, one may also be willing to take greater offensive risks than one would in an encounter with an adversary wielding a knife or a potentially lethal weapon, wherein a single mistake can result in death or serious injury.

It should also be noted that all of the classic martial arts treatises quoted throughout this article contain offensive techniques as well as defensive. A prime example is Miyamoto Musashi, who frequently emphasizes the goal of ending the combat as quickly as possible—by striking first or attacking on the adversary’s preparation. Another example is Joseph Roland, fencing master of the Royal Military Academy, who warned, “To parry well is of great service, but it is nothing when you can do no more.” [62] We may also look again to Colonel Thomas Monstery, quoted heretofore several times. Monstery, in his treatise on both armed and unarmed methods of self-defense, writes of numerous offensive techniques—such as methods of attack, how to seize the initiative, how to take advantage of the adversary’s mistakes, and pressing the attack. For instance, in Chapter 10, in his “Advice on Street Encounters,” Monstery states:

“Always try to get in the first blow in a chance encounter. Parley with your enemy, and watch him till you see that you will be assaulted. Then give the first half-arm left-hand blow at his nerve system, and follow it with a full-arm right-hander at same place. I have generally found that I could finish such a battle in the one round.” [63]

Above: Image from Colonel Monstery's treatise on bare-knuckle boxing, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies.

Image from Monstery’s treatise.

How, then, are we to reconcile such advice with a mindset that emphasizes defense? The answer is, that even when attacking, one’s defense is still the primary consideration. Self-preservation, according to these authors, must always be kept in mind—even when executing offensive techniques or tactics. One can find many specific examples illustrating this throughout Monstery’s text. For instance, in his section on unarmed self-defense (bare-knuckle boxing), Monstery instructs:

“The left hand is the only one used in feinting. The feint with the right is too dangerous, as it takes away the guarding hand.” [64]

Likewise, in his section on armed self-defense with a stick or cane, Monstery instructs the pupil to


Cane defense in Monstery’s treatise.

“keep his hand high in striking, and to end his blow with the point lower than the hand in all high cuts. This is important, for two reasons: 1st. It makes a perfect blow, and compels the enemy to come to a perfect parry. 2nd. It leaves the hand in a position to guard against the return blow. If the hand is low, the return blow is sure to catch you, as the upper body and head are open. This makes the danger of striking at an enemy’s legs, as the hand must be low to strike at them.” [65]

Here, as in many other examples throughout his text, we can see that even when instructing in offensive techniques, Monstery is still giving great importance and consideration to one’s defense. Regarding offensive techniques applied to the sword, we can find similar admonitions in the treatise of Donald McBane, such as:

“Never over Lunge yourself, because one or other of your Feet may slip, and you can’t recover yourself to a Guard so soon as you should, and may be Hit in that time…” [66]

In their excellent article “The Medical Reality of Historical Wounds,” Dr. Richard Swinney and Scott Crawford examine numerous historical records of wounds resulting from combats with sharp weapons. One of the most obvious conclusions to be drawn from this article is the absolute unpredictability of how wounds can affect the victim. Included are recorded cases of combatants surviving (and remaining active following) halberd-chops to the head, sword-thrusts through the torso, severed jugular veins, and half-severed limbs. Swinney also notes, in his own experience as an ER physician, that

“I have met and treated countless individuals who remained capable of fighting or fleeing for minutes to hours after sustaining significant neck and chest injuries…I have met a number of patients with penetrating trauma to or through the heart who remained active and conscious for a minute or more after the injury, have made it to the emergency room alive, and with the benefit of modern surgery, have survived…it is clear that with adequate resolve, a person so wounded in a swordfight might attempt one or more desperate attacks in the moments immediately after sustaining such an ultimately fatal injury.”

The lesson to be drawn from these examples is clear: one cannot abandon the defense in the pursuit of dealing out a perceived “mortal” blow to the adversary, because there is very little guarantee that such a blow will actually be incapacitating, no matter how devastating it may at first appear. Swinney and Crawford thus conclude,

“The belief that a particular blow or thrust will instantly incapacitate an opponent is, more often than not, inaccurate or even silly. [Modern] historical fencing practices based on these erroneous assumptions weaken the art. Were swords still in earnest use, several common modern training practices might cost the swordsman limb or even life.” [67]

Conversely, there are many recorded examples in modern times in which combatants quickly became incapacitated (and even died) as a result of comparatively minor wounds to the arm or leg, in which the major veins and arteries reside. Thus, from this fact, one can draw a second lesson—that in an encounter with potentially lethal weapons, the defense can never be abandoned, because even apparently minor wounds to extremities can unpredictably result in incapacitation or death.

In conclusion, it is important to note that since time immemorial, martial artists have used the arena of contest to hone and test their abilities. Likewise, martial artists of both east and west have utilized various training methods to prepare themselves for live encounters with fully (or nearly fully) resisting adversaries. These include the concepts of sparring (as in the case of boxing and grappling), of the assault (as in the case of traditional fencing), and of gekken (as in the case of Japanese swordsmanship). To ensure that such practices remained safe, it was also necessary to develop protective equipment and specialized training weapons. These are all good, and indeed necessary, aspects to the healthy and effective practice of martial arts.

However, it has been shown that when such training methodologies, and contests, become the ends rather than the means—that is, when practitioners shift their intention from studying the martial arts systems of the past (whether Western or Eastern), to concentrate on success in tournaments or games, these arts lose their martial applicability and effectiveness. This as just as true today as it was in past centuries. It is of special significance that even in the context of a warlike culture such as the samurai of Japan, this phenomenon has still occurred.

We can do better than to end this article with the words of the Virginia fencing master Edward Blackwell, who wrote in 1734:

“The nicest Part of Fencing consists in the Defensive, and particularly against the Bold Ignorant…No Person ought ever to make any other Use of his Skill in Fencing, than in his own Defence; and then in such a cool and temperate Manner, as neither to be exasperated by Passion, or afraid to exert his judgment; then a Gentleman will reap the benefit of his instruction.” [68]

Or, in the words of Colonel Monstery,

“Above all things, never lose your presence of mind.” [69]


Special thanks to Levente Barckzy for his translations from the original Hungarian to English of Fels-Eöry’s “Safe Outcome of the Sabre-Duel” for this article.

[1] J. Barnes, Speed Training for Combat, Boxing, Martial Arts, and MMA, 2005. For other examples, see C. R. Jahn, Hardcore Self-Defense, 2002, Page 72; Mike Young, Martial Arts Techniques for Law Enforcement, 2014, Page 95; Kevin J. Robinson, S.M.A.R.T. Self-defense, 2003.

[2] “Dempsey believed the best defense was a murderous offense. For that reason he never bothered about protecting himself.” “The Othello of Boxing Faces His Inexorable Destiny With the Dignity of the Noble Moore,” by Frank Scullt in Esquire, Volume 4, 1935. p. 34. A simple search using “Google Books” reveals additional attributions to Dempsey throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

[3] The Christian Science Journal, 1883, Volume 88. p. 535 “It has been said that the best defense is a good offense…”

[4] George Washington to John Trumbull, June 25, 1799.

[5] New York Times, July 14, 1888.

[6] Illustrated London News, July 28, 1888.

[7] L’Univers Illustré, July 21, 1888.

[8] Thomas H. Monstery, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015), 10.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Thomas Stoeppler (translator), Nuremberg Hausbuch (MS 3227a), ca. 1389.

[11] Don Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza, Of the Philosophy of the arms, of its art and the Christian offense and defense, 1569.

[12] Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, or, the Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish (York: John White, 1711).

[13] Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing; or a treatise on the Art of Sword-Defence, theoretically and experimentally explained upon new principles; designed chiefly for persons who have only acquired a superficial knowledge of the subject (London: Printed for the author by W. Wilson, and sold at Egerton’s Military Library, 1809), 211.

[14] Zoltán Cseresnyés Fels-Eöry, A Kardpárbaj Veszélytelen Kimenetele És Annak Eshetségei [Safe Outcome of the Sabre-Duel], Budapest: 1901, 48. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy. Earlier (2015) English translation by Krisztina Nagy accessible at


[16] Ben Miller, Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic: 1620 – 1800 (Estafilade, 2009).

[17] Kenji Tokitsu, Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004), 203.

[18] Ibid., 229.

[19] 程眞如 (Cheng Zhen Ru), Art of E’mei Spear (Translated and edited by Jack Chen), 13.

[20] Patrick McCarthy, The Bible of Karate: Bubishi (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1995),  65.

[21]  Li Yiyu, For Hao Weizhen to Cherish: 王宗岳太極拳論 後附小序並五字訣 “Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Boxing Treatise” Appended with my Preface & “Five-Word Formula,” [A treatise handwritten by Li Yiyu, presented to his student, Hao He (Weizhen), 1881] Translation by Paul Brennan, 2013.

[22] The Standard, October 1, 1891.

[23] Baron Cesar de Bazancourt, Secrets of the Sword (London: George Bell & Son, 1900), 219. [Translation of 1862 French original].

[24] Paul Kirchner, Dueling with the Sword and Pistol (Boulder: Paladin Press, 2004), 146-151.

[25] The Lancet, July 21, 1888.

[26] L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899. p. 213.

[27] Fels-Eöry, 86. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[28] The Standard, October 1, 1891.

[29] Monstery’s comments were recounted in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, April 2, 1904, p. 5.

[30] Monstery, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies, 180.

[31] Joachim Meyer, Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Page?


[33] Duels between gentlemen were private affairs, and were rarely spoken of (swordsmen-authors who were not gentlemen, such as Donald McBane, had no such qualms). In his A Vindication Of the True Art of Self-Defence, Hope explains:  “[some might wonder] …how I come to give such positive directions for fighting, when it is not well known if I ever drew a sword in good earnest all my life? And if not, how I can know, so exactly as I pretend, the true rules so strictly to be made use of, when engaged for the life? To which I answer, that whether I have ever been engaged in good earnest or not, is none of the querists busines to know; neither will I let them at present into that matter: For I never much approved of being vain-glorious, especially where the victory is obtained, for the most part, at the expence, less or more, of the vanquisher: but if I have ever been engaged, when I might have prevented it, I am now very sensible that I ought not to have done it, according to the principles of true honour laid down in the fore-going Vindication; nothing but being attacked, and necessary self-defence, being what can vindicate any man’s running the hazard, as well as the sin, of taking away another man’s life. And if I have never fought, yet I have had the practice of near 50 years with foils…” William Hope, A Vindication Of the True Art of Self-Defence. London, 1729.

[34] William Hope, The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1691).

[35] Roland, 198.

[36] William Hope, The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1691).

[37] Examples of schools wherein the traditional use of the point d’arret can still be seen today include the Martinez Academy of Arms (New York City), the Salle Saint-George (Seattle, Washington), Palm Beach Classical Fencing (West Palm Beach, Florida), and the Destreza Pacifica School of Arms (Arcata, Calif.).

[38] Fels-Eöry, 87. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[39] Thomas Fewtrell, Boxing reviewed: Or, the science of manual defence, displayed on rational principles. Comprehending a complete description of the principal pugilists, from the earliest period of Broughton’s time, to the present day (London: Printed for Scatcherd and Whitaker, Ave-Maria-Lane: 1790), 15-16.

[40] The Modern art of boxing: as practised by Mendoza, Humphreys, Ryan, Ward, Watson, Johnson, and other eminent puglists: to which are added the six lessons of Mendoza, as published by him, for the use of his scholars: and a full account of his last battle with Humphreys ([London]: Printed for the author, 1789), 18.

[41] Monstery, 177.

[42] Ibid., 118.

[43] Ibid., 38-39.

[44] Donald McBane, The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion: Or the True Art of Self-Defence. With an Account of the Authors Life, and his Transactions during the Wars with France. To which is Annexed, the Art of GunnerieGlasgow: 1728.

[45] John Stevens, The Sword of No Sword (Boston: Shambhala, 1984), 128.

[46] Makoto Sugawara, Lives of Master Swordsmen (Tokyo: East Publications, 1985), 203.

[47] Stevens, 143-144.

[48] Ibid., 37.

[49] Ibid., 137.

[50] Lafcadio Hearn, Miscellanies, Volume 2, William Heinemann, ltd.: 1924.

[51] Ben Miller, “The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History.”

[52] “Egerton Castle: Reminiscences of Baron de San Malato’s Life” in the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1909.

[53] Kirchner, Dueling with the Sword and Pistol, 178-184.

[54] Steven C. Hughes, Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007), 93, 145n.

[55] Le Figaro, April 8, 1900. This account noted that, “Until [the tenth round], these two gentlemen had struck only at the chest, but as those blows were marvelously parried on both sides, it was no longer necessary to worry that the combat would end in a mortal wound…The fifteenth bout was the most lively: the Count de Dion and M. de Saint-Alary attacked by turns, and during the most interesting piece of swordplay, the Count de Dion parried in sixte, riposted above and thrust M. de Saint-Alary in the right arm, on the upper side of the elbow. The wound was five or six centimeters deep. The duel was halted. The time was quarter to one. Finally! … one will be able to go to lunch with a good appetite and good spirits…”

[56] “Il Duce’s Deulist Dies in Argentina,” Spartanburg Herald, September 15, 1937.

[57] New York Herald, April 21, 1889. “Here is a translation of the proces verbal signed by the seconds:—’They—the seconds—met Monday evening and decided that the duel should take place at Vesinet, in front of the left stand of the Champ do Course, on Wednesday, the 4th day of May, 1881, at two P. M., with the weapon chosen by the tribunal of arbitration, and consented to by both parties. ‘The weapon designated for M. Pons was the triangular French duelling sword, and for M. San Malato the flat bladed Italian duelling sword. ‘The meeting took place yesterday. Wednesday, May 4, at three P. M., at the place indicated above , and out of respect for M. Paul de Cassagnac, who had been chosen as arbitrator, the four seconds thought it best to give him entire direction of the combat, without, however, neglecting the interests of their principals or their own responsibility. The duel lasted one hour and a quarter, and was renewed five times…At the fifth, M. de San Malato being touched by a hit above the right wrist made by a counter disengagement after parry of prime, the two surgeons and the four seconds declared M. San Malato hors de combat. “For M. Pons, MICHEL, CAIN; For M. San Malato, PAUL RUZE, BRUN BUISSON.'”

[58] New York Times, July 28, 1873.

[59] Le Petit Parisien, Oct. 30, 1891; United Service Magazine, January, 1898, p. 432. Pall Mall Gazette, Oct. 30, 1891. Unlike the other lengthy combats mentioned here, this one was excessively bloody: “They agreed to fight, without seconds, a duel to the death. The weapons chosen were daggers. They met in the wood without witnesses, and were fighting for three-quarters of an hour. Both were stabbed in many places, but neither could kill or disable the other. With blood flowing from many wounds, they continued to combat till neither was able to stand, and, when found by servants, both were lying helpless. They were hurried at once to the hospital and treated, but their condition is critical.”

[60] Fels-Eöry, 52. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[61] Jack Dempsey, Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching & Aggressive Defense. N. Kaye: 1950.

[62] Roland, 220.

[63] Monstery, 122.

[64] Ibid., 90.

[65] Ibid., 154-155.

[66] McBane, 15.

[67] Richard Swinney and Scott Crawford, “The Medical Reality of Historical Wounds,” SPADA 2 (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006).

[68] Miller, Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic: 1620 – 1800, 6.

[69] Monstery, 134.

Colonel Thomas H. Monstery and the Use of the Quarterstaff

In Customs and Traditions, Dueling, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Renaissance, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on April 29, 2015 at 9:51 pm

Martial Arts New York

“It has struck me that a few words on the use of this two-handed staff may not be uninteresting at the present day…”      –Thomas H. Monstery, 1878

Above: Colonel Thomas H. Monstery Above: Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

New York City is typically not the first place that comes to mind when one mentions the word “quarterstaff.” For the average individual, unfamiliar with the history of western martial arts, the term is far more likely to conjure up images from “Robin Hood,” or of the medieval European peasantry. Yet, during the late nineteenth century, it was a Manhattan-based fencing master, Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery, who produced one of the few treatises on self-defense technique with the quarterstaff—the first such treatise to be published during the nineteenth century, and the only one to be published in America prior to the twentieth century. (1)

Before proceeding to Monstery’s treatise, however, it is worth taking a short look…

View original post 4,027 more words

The Survival of Archaic English in the American Dialect

In Colonial (American) Period, Customs and Traditions, Everyday Life, Federalist Period, Georgian Era, Renaissance, Victorian Era on March 31, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Many people hold the common belief that modern English, as it is spoken today by the English themselves, is the “purest,” most uncorrupted form of the language. In other words, if one were to get in a time machine and travel back to 16th or 17th century England, the language one would hear would most closely resemble modern British English, as opposed to say, American English.

This is not, however, strictly true. For instance, when an American uses the slang term “bub” (a word long extinct in England), he or she is actually using a term that has its roots in Renaissance England. Numerous “archaic” words and phrases harking back several centuries survived in American English, only to become extinct in the British Isles. One reason for this is that American culture was mostly forged in the initial wave of immigrants that came between 1620 and 1640. H.L. Mencken explains:

Most of the colonists who lived along the American seaboard in 1750 were the descendants of immigrants who had come in fully a century before; after the first settlements there had been much less fresh immigration than many latter-day writers have assumed. According to Prescott F. Hall, “the population of New England … at the date of the Revolutionary War … was produced out of an immigration of about 20,000 persons who arrived before 1640,” and we have Franklin’s authority for the statement that the total population of the colonies in 1751, then about 1,000,000, had been produced from an original immigration of less than 80,000. Even at that early day, indeed, the colonists had begun to feel that they were distinctly separated, in culture and customs, from the mother-country…The result of this isolation, on the one hand, was that proliferation of the colonial speech which I have briefly reviewed, and on the other hand, the preservation of many words and phrases that gradually became obsolete in England.

Just what phrases survived in America, only to die out in England? Mencken provides a list:

A very large number of words and phrases, many of them now exclusively American, are similar survivals from the English of the seventeenth century, long since obsolete or merely provincial in England. Among nouns Thornton notes fox-fire, flap-jack, jeans, molasses, beef (to designate the live animal), chinch, cordwood, home-spun, ice-cream, julep and swingle-tree; Halliwell adds andiron, bay-window, cesspool, clodhopper, cross-purposes, greenhorn, loop-hole, ragamuffin and trash; and other authorities cite stock (for cattle), fall (for autumn), offal, din, underpinning and adze. Bub, used in addressing a boy, is very old English, but survives only in American. Flapjack goes back to Piers Plowman, but has been obsolete in England for two centuries. Muss, in the sense of a row, is also obsolete over there, but it is to be found in “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Char, as a noun, disappeared from English a long time ago, save in the compound, charwoman, but it survives in America as chore. Among the verbs similarly preserved are to whittle, to wilt and to approbate. To guess, in the American sense of to suppose, is to be found in “Henry VI”:

Not all together; better far, I guess,
That we do make our entrance several ways.

In “Measure for Measure” Escalus says “I guess not” to Angelo. The New English Dictionary offers examples much older—from Chaucer, Wycliffe and Gower. To interview is in Dekker. To loan, in the American sense of to lend, is in and Henry VIII, but it dropped out of use in England early in the eighteenth century, and all the leading dictionaries, both in English and American, now call it an Americanism. To fellowship, once in good American use but now reduced to a provincialism, is in Chaucer. Even to hustle, it appears, is ancient. Among adjectives, homely, which means only homelike or unadorned in England, was used in its American sense of plain-featured by both Shakespeare and Milton. Other such survivors are burly, catty-cornered, likely, deft, copious, scant and ornate. Perhaps clever also belongs to this category, that is, in the American sense of amiable.

Mencken concludes:

“Our ancestors,” said James Russell Lowell, “unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare’s.” Shakespeare died in 1616; the Pilgrims landed four years later; Jamestown was founded in 1607. As we have seen, the colonists, saving a few superior leaders, were men of small sensitiveness to the refinements of life and speech: soldiers of fortune, amateur theologians, younger sons, neighbouhood “advanced thinkers,” bankrupts, jobless workmen, decayed gentry, and other such fugitives from culture…There were no grammarians in that day; there were no purists that anyone listened to; it was a case of saying your say in the easiest and most satisfying way. In remote parts of the United States there are still direct and almost pure-blooded descendants of those seventeenth century colonists. Go among them, and you will hear more words from the Shakespearean vocabulary, still alive and in common service, than anywhere else in the world, and more of the loose and brilliant syntax of that time, and more of its gipsy phrases.


Mencken, H.L. (Henry Louis), 1880–1956. The American language: An inquiry into the development of English in the United States, by H.L. Mencken. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1921.

Top Must-Read Autobiographies Part III

In Crime, Justice and Punishment, Federalist Period, Georgian Era, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on March 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Continued from PART II.

Captain Lightfoot: The Last of the New England Highwaymen (1821)

Captain Lightfoot

Among the early annals of the American republic exists a curious pamphlet, published at Boston in 1821, entitled The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. What this little volume contains is nothing less than an account of the life of the last highwayman in New England, as dictated by the criminal himself to reporter Frederick W. Waldo of the Columbian Centinal, during the days leading up to his execution.

A highwayman (for those unfamiliar with the term) was a highway robber–a breed of criminal common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that was often known to adopt a polite, gentlemanly tone while accosting his victims. For this reason, highwaymen sometimes attained the status of folk heroes, especially in countries subjugated by the British (such as Ireland and Scotland), where the wealthy class and agents of the law were assumed to be in league with the colonizing powers. Martin’s account is filled with adventure, intrigue, secret societies, daring escapes, and desperate shootouts, as seen through the eyes of a character who has all the tragic failings of a man who has wasted his life in a world of crime. It is, in many ways, an early nineteenth century version of the movie Goodfellas.

Martin’s tale begins thus:

I have in the course of my short life, assumed many fictitious names. My true name is John Martin.

Martin was born in Ireland, in the parish of Connehy, near the city of Kilkenny, in 1795, to Roman Catholic parents. He was provided well for, sent to church and school, but relates that “as early as I can remember, I was more fond of diversion and play, than of learning. My temper was violent, and I chose rather to be subject to the government of my own passions, than to parental authority.” At age fourteen, Martin was apprenticed to his Uncle, a brewer, but according to Martin, his own “bad habits and vicious propensities” did little to ingratiate him with his benefactor. Eventually his Uncle punished him for some crime, and Martin returned home. According to his account,

At this time, my evil habits were partially fixed; and I began to indulge in those propensities which have eventuated in my ruin…I violated all my promises; often neglected my school, and fell into bad company.

From here it was all downhill. Martin began associating with dishonest people, adopting a debauched lifestyle–which, to maintain, he resorted to stealing from his own family. At age sixteen he was initiated into the United Irishmen, or Ribbon Men, a secret society whose object was to free Ireland from British rule. Martin relates that

The meetings were generally appointed at different places each night—sometimes near my father’s, and frequently many miles off. I would, when necessary, take one of my father’s horses from his barn, and return before day light to my chamber, by the rope. The association to which I belonged, had secret signs and secret places of meeting, which were changed every night. The time was principally employed in discussing our grievances, in drilling the use of the pike, rifle and musket; and when those of higher rank had gone, the others would carouse till next morning. Some of those who remained, would talk over the feats of villainy which they had done, or intended to commit. The perpetration of small crimes was directly contrary to the intention of the founders of the association, and in their presence nothing like robbery was ever mentioned. But many others who were desperate in their fortunes, were continually devising schemes to benefit themselves individually, and not for the common good. From such members it was, that I derived my first disposition to mischief and propensity for taking from others what I had no right to demand.

Six months later, Martin’s father discovered his involvement with the Ribbon Men. He confronted his son, beat him, and disowned him. After stealing some more money from his family, Martin traveled to Dublin, where he took up cheating at cards, and began spending time with swindlers and prostitutes. He briefly landed another job at a distillery, but was fired for bad behavior.

One night, while staying at a country inn, Martin fell into conversation with a supposed “clergyman” who would change his life forever. Seeing that Martin was short of cash, the man generously offered to pay for his food and drink for the whole evening. Martin described him as follows:

The name of this man, was John Doherty. ln the course of this conversation, I thought there was something rather mysterious in his manner, although he appeared to me quite undisguised. But he asked me many questions about my family, myself, and my manner of life, which I thought it impossible for a stranger to be acquainted with…

Doherty was very earnest, in all his inquiries, and was continually plying me with liquor. He asked me at first, if my name was not Martin—If I was the young man just returned from Dublin, and who had been obliged to run away from there. You are a wild fellow, said he, are you not? I answered, yes. You are very fond of spending money? Yes, when I can get it. You don’t much care how you come by it? No, if it doesn’t cost me much trouble. He said it was a shame that such a smart young fellow as I was, should be at any time destitute of money. He at length wormed himself into my confidence, and I told him all the history of my past life. After pumping me for some time, and finding out what sort of a disposition I had; and after we had got pretty warm with liquor, he threw off his disguise of a clergyman, but did not then tell me who he was. He talked about robberies and religion, alternately: and I was confused throughout the evening, not being able to find out what was the real character of the man…

Doherty offered to travel with Martin the next day, and continued to interview him about his life story and talents. He invited Martin to race him to test his running ability, saddled him on his horse to see how he could ride, and leap ditches and fences. Satisfied with Martin’s skills, Doherty invited him to a private dinner. After fastening all the windows and doors, he revealed to Martin his true character and profession:

He said he was a highwayman, and that he was Captain Thunderbolt. I was astonished and alarmed at this information—I had for many years heard of the daring exploits of that man; and his name had for a long time been a terror to that part of the country. He had been often advertised; and but a few days before, I had seen an advertisement offering a reward of 500 pounds for his head. I then felt a little dread at being left alone with a man of whom I had heard so many outrageous crimes, and was anxious to get out of the room. He took out two large pistols and laid them on the table, after cocking one of them, and said, “Martin you must stay with me, I cannot part from so clever a fellow as you are.” I then sat down again, and he urged me to drink more. He then recounted many of his feats; some of which were so amusing, and apparently so innocent, that I listened with great delight to him. He touched my quality exactly…I remained till near midnight, hearing him recount his adventures, and he persuading me to embark with him.

Captain Thunderbolt

The interview was interrupted by the arrival of several British dragoons hunting Doherty. The two men arranged to reunite, however, the next day, where Doherty arrived with “a fine pair of double barrelled brass pistols, a dirk, and in his portmanteau, a large blunderbuss.” And thus it was that Doherty invited Martin to become his apprentice. Doherty justified his criminal profession by claiming to be a sort of Robin Hood, professing a doctrine akin to communism:

He said, it was his principle, to make property equal in this world. That he would get as much as he could from the rich, but would never molest the poor—He would take money from those who had more than they knew how to use, but would never take life, if he could avoid it. If there was any danger of detection, or any strong opposition, he thought himself justified in taking life.

Martin, of course, eventually broke down and agreed to partner with Doherty. In July of 1816, at twenty-one years of age, Martin became a highwayman. He described his initiation as follows:

[Doherty] initiated me into the order, by first throwing a glass of brandy in my face, and calling me Captain Lightfoot. He then presented me a double barrel brass pistol—after having drawn the charge, and loaded it again with slugs, he told me to put it in my bosom, and while I kept with him, and observed his instructions, I should never be taken or die. I obeyed most willingly, for my whole soul was with this man, and I thought he would stand a pretty good tug with old Satan himself.

From here the narrative becomes a litany of burglaries, hold-ups and shoot-outs as Martin learns the various intricacies of his new trade. Clearly the robbers took delight in stealing from the well-to-do; when a trembling servant offered up his valuables, Doherty told him, “we are not in the habit of troubling any but gentlemen.” Likewise, while robbing a lavish estate, he used comforting language to soothe the female inhabitants of the house, while terrifying them at the same time:

He told them his trade; that he wished to do nothing to them but what was gentlemanly, and would not take from them a farthing of property; but he had understood that there was valuable treasure in that house, and they must shell out. He laid his pistols on the table—asked for a glass of brandy: They gave it to him in great fright, and he used every means to prevent them from being alarmed. After some time, they went up stairs, and brought down a gold watch, a pocket book, containing bank notes, and a purse, with a quantity of specie in it. Doherty said that this was not all the treasure; he must have more. They went again, and returned with watches and jewels of their own. He said that he would rather be burnt to death, than take any thing from a woman. He told me to lock the door. We took each of us a part of the spoil, kissed the ladies, and bid them good bye. After we had mounted our horses, I threw down the key of the room where the servants were confined; and we took our course across the country, avoiding the public roads. The amount we lifted at this house was about 160 guineas.

Title Page
Often the two desperadoes were forced to disguise themselves to avoid detection, and barely remained one step ahead of the “redcoats,” and other authorities. At one point, Doherty is wounded in the calf while being chased by soldiers through a field. After running more than 10 miles on foot, the two hide themselves in a wood, where Doherty collapses:

he fell down on the ground, and as I thought, was a dying man. He had sense enough after a few minutes rest, to tell me that there was a small bottle in his pocket, which he directed me to give him. He smelt of it, swallowed a few drops from it, and nibbed his head with it. He was soon revived, and directed me to take out the ball from his leg, with my penknife. “Cut as near the lead,” said he, “as you can; I can afford to lose a little blood.” It was the first time that I had ever officiated as a surgeon; but I saw he was so resolute upon the subject, that I cut it out without any fear. He bound up the wound himself, and said we must remain in that wood for some time. I cut down a quantity of bushes to make a bed for the Captain, and we remained in this situation for about twenty four hours, without meat or drink. The medicine that he carried with him, saved his life; for he had bled profusely. The next night, I left him, to go in pursuit of food…I ate very ravenously; but he abstained, although he said, he was quite hungry. “If he was at the most splendid banquet in the world,” he said ” he would neither eat nor drink. This abstinence was the shortest way of curing his wound.”

After robbing a score of others, Doherty was ambushed while sleeping by a company of dragoons, and taken captive. Bound hand and foot, he was set under a careful watch. Martin waited until the moment was right, then daringly attempted to free his comerade:

I concealed myself in the rear of the stable until midnight; and then, by the assistance of my pistol, struck a light, and set fire to the stable. I then cried fire, as stoutly as I could bawl…most of the people who were guarding the Captain, came out to assist in extinguishing the flames. I watched the opportunity, and found out in what room he was confined. I went in, and there were only three soldiers left to guard him. I found them sitting quietly along side of him, their muskets placed in the corner of the room. I drew both my pistols, and swore that I would kill the first man that started. They seemed terrified, and offered no resistance. I took out my knife and cut the cords with which the Captain was bound, and gave him one of my pistols. When he was getting up, one of the soldiers got up and grasped a musket; but before he had time to cock it and present, I fired my pistol and shot him in the leg…He fell, the rest were still more alarmed, and we pushed off on foot, leaving them to mend their legs, and put out their fires, in the best manner they could.

At one point, the two become wealthy enough to set themselves up in style in Dublin. They develop an elaborate scheme to pose as gentleman and marry a wealthy widow named Lady MacBriar. The plot is almost successful, but is foiled when the frauds have a chance encounter with someone from Martin’s home town who recognizes him. Constantly on the run, the men flee to Belfast, the highlands of Scotland, and eventually Glasgow, where they “went to a house of ill-fame, where we remained four or five days, drinking and spending a great deal of money.” For a while the men masquerade as doctors, selling people fake cures and quack medicines. The two make so much money at this, that Martin considered giving up highway robbery:

I said one day, to the Captain, that I had rather go on in this way, and would never take to the highway again. He laughed at me, and said, “to be sure we can get a living in this business; but money is not worth much to us if we can’t spend it. I want to lay up enough, so that I can get into some other country, and spend it like a gentleman—Besides, I like the fun of frightening the loons, and taking from them what is of no use to them.”

After this the two hijacked a ship and returned to Ireland, where they continued to rob. Martin describes another scene in which he accosts a prominent member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy:

The Lord Lieutenant had a large gold headed cane in his hand; and in a few minutes he sat down on a bench, on the margin of the pond…I then came out of my hiding place, went boldly up to the master, presented my large double-barrelled pistol, and demanded all the money he had about him. He looked at me for a few moments,and then said, “Did you speak to me ?” “Yes, please your honor.” “What do you want, you impudent rascal,” said he, “get out of my presence, or I will have your skin taken off.” “Please your honor,” said I, ” I must first skin your pockets; and if you offer to call for assistance, and do not give over immediately, I shall take your life.”

At one point they become so notorious, and are pursued by so many sheriffs and king’s men, that Martin and Doherty determine to set sail for America. Before they can do so, however, the two friends are split up by circumstance, and are separated for good. Martin relates:

I never saw John Doherty from this time—Since I have been in America, I received a letter from him, informing me, that he had found out my departure from Ireland for New-York, the day after the vessel sailed; that he had scoured the country for some weeks after; and being pressed very close, he had gathered up his treasures, and pushed off to one of the West India Islands, where he was comfortably settled; and under a fictitious name, transacting much business, in an honest manner. He directed to me in the name that I had agreed to take, in case of separation. It was sent to the care of the British Consul, who, advertised the letter, and I sent for it. This man had a great many good qualities; and although he was the cause of much trouble to me, yet I feel a strong affection for him; and trust that he will die a repentant and honest man.

During his trip across the Atlantic, Martin engages in a mutiny when it is discovered the Captain was planning a detour to Canada, and so the course is set for Salem, Massachusetts. In America, Martin takes up his old trade and for some time becomes the terror of New England.

Robbing Major Bray

Unlike in Ireland, however, Martin finds no sympathy or sanctuary among the pious American populace, and is forced to constantly change identities to avoid capture. Soon the inevitable occurs. After robbing a Major Bray, Martin is sighted by authorities in Medford, Massachusetts, who immediately begin pursuit. During the chase, Martin falls off his horse, dislocates his shoulder, and escapes through a marsh. He recounts

I got into a small cluster of woods, and did not see that any one was in pursuit. I then dropped down from fatigue and the pain in my shoulder. After resting a few minutes, I took off my suspenders and cravat, tied them together, fastened one end to a tree, and the other to my wrist, and so pulled the shoulder back to its place. Still it was very painful—I rubbed it with my stocking.

Martin is finally arrested in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he is ambushed while sleeping. He is committed to the jail at Lechmere Point, Cambridge, for the robbery of Major Bray. And it is here that Martin’s account of his life ends.

The Condemned Prisoner
Above: The Condemned Prisoner

As related by Waldo, Martin is put on trial and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he makes a daring escape attempt after sawing through his chains with a hidden tool. The commotion began when, on the morning of December 8th, a turnkey named Mr. Cooledge brought Martin breakfast:

Martin was then standing up, with the great coat over his shoulders, trembling very much, and rattling his chains. Cooledge sat down his breakfast on a small table near him, and was about leaving the cell, when Martin slyly pulled down a paper of tobacco, which was on the table, and then said, in a feeble voice, “Mr. Cooledge, will you please to pick up that paper of tobacco, I am so weak that I can’t stoop.” The other very kindly stooped for the purpose, and Martin at the same moment raised the chain by which his hand was confined. and struck Cooledge a most violent blow over the head, which brought him to the ground—He remained insensible for some minutes. Martin then threw off his coat, put on his hat, and pushed out of the jail. He ran with great violence against a gate, which was about ten yards from the outer door of the jail. This gate was made of thick double boards, placed transversely, and strongly nailed. It was fastened on the inside, with a large padlock, attached to a very stout clasp, and staple. Martin threw the whole force of his body against it four successive times, without success, running some distance back every time. When he came out of the jail, there was a young man in the jailyard, who immediately gave an alarm in the house.

Martin was pursued and recaptured in a cornfield near the jail. After that, a close watch was set upon him. On Thursday, December 20th, Martin was executed at Lechmere Point, Massachusetts. That morning, hours before he was to be executed, Waldo described the prisoner’s attitude and activities:

Before the hour arrived, he asked for a looking glass, and examined his face two or three times, and adjusted his clothes, and hair, as well as his pinions would permit, With perfect composure. I then asked him if the relation of his life, which he had made to me, was correct and true—He answered, most solemnly, that it was. He was led out, about twelve o’clock, and met his fate with most perfect composure and fortitude; not unmixed with a consciousness that he had met a just doom; and with a humble reliance on the mercy of God, for remission and forgiveness.

The Columbian Centinal related that, on the occasion, Martin

appeared to assist in fixing the fatal noose to his neck, so as to occasion his death without suffering. He then took a handkerchief, and after the cap was placed over his face, and the sheriff and his deputy had descended to the stage, inquired with a firm voice, “When shall I drop the handkerchief?” The sheriff answered, ” When you please.” Martin slowly raised his hands thrice to his breast, as in prayer, and then threw down the handkerchief, and was instantly launched into eternity.

Execution at Lechmere Point

And here the story of Captain Lightfoot ends.

It is not, however, the end of the whole story. In 1847, a resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, revealed that a recently deceased doctor named John Wilson was in fact John Doherty, otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt. It seems that Doherty had come to America in 1818, determined to start a new life, and began working in the slate industry. Eventually he accumulated enough capital to commence a medical practice, and married a Miss Chamberlain. The marriage was an unhappy one, however, and Doherty does not seem to have led a happy life. When he died, it was noted that among his effects were two double-barrelled guns, two or three duelling pistols, a number of swords, powder horns, shot bags, and a walking cane with a hidden ramrod “which, by pointing the cane towards anyone, and giving it a slight jerk, would make a noise similar to the cocking of a gun.”

Although, at the time of publication, several sources doubted Dr. Wilson and Captain Thunderbolt to be the same person, most modern authorities now accept that they were.

Captain Thunderbolt
Sources and further reading:

The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. Boston: Russell & Gardner, 1821.

Confession of Michael Martin, or Captain Lightfoot, who was hung at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the year 1821, for the robbery of Maj. Bray. Also, an account of Dr. John Wilson, who recently died at Brattleboro, Vt., believed by many to be the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Brattleboro, Vt.: J. B. Miner, 1847.

Captain Lightfoot, the last of the New England highwaymen : a narrative of his life and adventures, with some account of the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Topsfield, Mass. : Wayside Press, 1926.

END OF PART III. Stay tuned for Part IV, when we continue to cover more books on the list.

Top Must-Read Autobiographies Part II

In Dueling, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on February 25, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Continued from PART I.

Expert Sword-man’s Companion by Donald McBane (1728)


Donald McBane was a highland Scot born in Inverness during the late seventeenth century. In 1687 he ran away from home, enlisting in the British army under the Duke of Marlborough. He served abroad throughout much of Europe, where he took part in sixteen battles, fifteen skirmishes, and by my own estimation, more than one hundred duels. He was twenty-seven times wounded (not counting the time when he was blown up by his own hand grenade). In his spare time, he also set himself up as a fencing master, gamester, and worked as a pimp. His extraordinary book, the Expert Sword-man’s Companion, was published in 1728 and recounts it all. McBane’s life reads like a strange, drunken dream–a whirlwind of blood, wine, warfare, and women–at turns both intense, shocking, horrifying, humorous, and never for a moment boring. Read, for instance, McBane’s account of one of his first battles, a disastrous confrontation with an army of fellow Highlanders:

At length, our enemy made their appearance on the top of a hill. We then gave a shout, daring them, as it were, to advance, which they quickly did to our great loss. When they advanced, we played our cannon for an hour upon them; the sun going down caused the Highlanders to advance on us like madmen, without shoe or stocking, covering themselves from our fire with their targes [shields]; at last they cast away their muskets, drew their broadswords, and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots apiece, broke us, and obliged us to retreat. Some fled to the water, and some another way (we were for the most part new men). I fled to the baggage, and took a horse, in order to ride the water; there follows me a Highlandman, with sword and targe, in order to take the horse and kill myself. You’d laught to see how he and I scampered about. I kept always the horse betwixt him and me; at length he drew his pistol, and I fled; he fired after me. I went above the Pass, where I met with another water very deep; it was about eighteen foot over betwixt two rocks. I resolved to jump it, so I laid down my gun and hat and jumped, and lost one of my shoes in the jump. Many of our men were lost in that water, and at the Pass.

Above: The site of McBane’s “leap”

After losing his first duel in the army, McBane promptly began lessons with a fencing master, challenged his adversary again, and beat him. Later he challenged his own Corporal to a duel after the latter punished him for being absent from duty. McBane describes the fight:

when he came he asked if I was for Death or Life, I told him I was for anything that happened, we drew on each other, after some turns he received a Thrust on the Breast-bone, he falling backward cryed you Rogue run, for I am Killed, I said I wished it were otherways, I took him by the Hand desiring him to rise, but he could not, he threw away his Sword, then I returned mine, I said to him, are you Dead really? he answered, I am in very deed, he opened his Breast and shewed me the Blood, he again desired me to run away, for if I was catch’d I would be hanged; I desired him to give me what money he had, in a very trembling manner he put his Hand in his Pocket, and gave me Three Shillings to carry me off, saying it was all he had, he took me by the Hand and said he forgave me, crying make your Escape…

Plate from McBane’s Expert Swordman’s Companion

McBane fled and joined a different regiment in Glasgow. The army eventually set sail for Ireland, and many months later, Holland, where, in a tavern, McBane encountered the formal Corporal he had supposedly killed:

I asked him if ever he was a Corporal in Perth? He said he was; I said was not you once killed at Perth as you said yourself? He said almost but not altogether, by a Roguish Fellow called Daniel Bane, and I believe you are the Man; I took him by the Hand, so we went and took a Bottle. He served as a Sergeant all the wars of Queen Anne; now he keeps a public house [tavern] at Gravesend.

This was not the last time McBane ended up becoming friends with someone he dueled; when his regiment was serving abroad in Limerick, Ireland, a feud erupted between himself and a fellow student. McBane recounts:

my Fellow Scholar and I fell out, he said I was not able to do with the Sword what he could do with the Foil, we went to Oxmentoun-Green and drew on each other, I Wounded him in three places, then we went and took a Pot, and was good Friends.

During his time abroad in Holland, McBane set himself up as a fencing master, gambler and pimp, and soon received the ire of the local competition. According to McBane, “they took all Methods and ways to do me Mischief, which obliged me to be constantly on my Guard, and to fight Twenty-four Times before they would be perswaded that I was Master of my Business.” He further recounts:

I continued keeping my School. A short Time after I came to know that there was Four good Swords men in the Town that kept Women and Gaming, the Wheel of Fortune and Ledgerdemain by which they got vast Money. I resolved to have a share of that Gain, at least to have a fair Tryall for it. I Fought all the Four, one by one; the last of them was Lefthanded; he and I went to the Rampart where we searched one another for Fire Arms. Finding none, we drew and had two or three clean Turns: at last he put up his Hand and took a Pistol from the Cock of his Hat; he cocked it against his shoulder and presented it to me, upon which I asked Quarters, but he refused, calling me an “English Bouger”, and Fired at me and run for it. One of the balls went through my Cravat, I thinking I was shot did not Run as I was wont to do, but Run as I could after him crying for the Guard, the Guard being half a Mile distant I was not heard; at last I overtook him over against the Guard and gave him a Thrust in the Buttocks; then I fled to the Fleshmarket; nobody could take me out there, it being a Priviledged Place. I tarried there till Night, then went Home to my Quarters and called for his Commerads that same Night, who agreed to give me a Brace of Whoors and Two Petty Couns a week. With this and my School I lived very well for that Winter.


To recount all his duels here would be impossible; suffice to say his book is filled with a vast number of such skirmishes, including “regimental duels” in which McBane had to fight a dozen men, one after the other, back to back. McBane killed or wounded them all. He also depicts the grim brutality of eighteenth century warfare. After being left for dead during the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, McBane was stripped of his clothes and plundered by the Dutch. Freezing and starving of thirst, McBane says

I drank several handfuls of the dead men’s blood that I lay beside; the more I drank the worse I was.

Portrait of Donald McBane

Of the Battle of Malplaquet, in 1709, he relates the following incident of how he had to carry his three-year old son through the thick of battle:

I had two children at this time. Our wives were far in the rear. My wife gave my little boy to a commerad’s wife who had a horse. The woman, hearing her husband was dead, rode until she saw me in the front of the line; then she threw the boy at me. I was obliged to put him in my habersack: He was about three years of age. As we were inclining to the right, the boy got a shot in the arm. I then got a surgeon and dressed it. I had neither bread nor drink to give him. I got a dram to him from an officer and a leg of a foul; then he held his peace and was very quiet all night ; in the morning his mother took him from me.

At the siege of Liège, McBane vividly describes how the last hold-outs were taken by his army:

In ten day’s time we were in readiness, then we began to play our cannon and morter pieces. Before we cut out our trenches we were within ten yards of their pallasades. Our cannon beat down their walls in three day’s time, our morters burnt down their houses. The Governour beat a parley and promised to deliver the citydale to His Grace against ten a clock next morning. That night the Governour sent to the other fort desiring assistance from it.

The Governour desired him to hold it out another day and he would send to his relief. Next morning about nine a clock the Governour hanged his coffine over the wall and fired upon our trenches. Then we fired all our guns and morters, we destroyed a great many of them.

About three a clock afternoon the Duke of Marlborough came to the Grand battery, he commanded twenty Granadiers of each company through the whole army and ten battalions of the first troops to storm the fort sword in hand. Our Orders was to give no quarters to none within the fort. We made all ready for the attack, every Granadier had three grannads. Our word was ‘God be foremost’, when we came we came with a loud huzza and fired our granads amongst them and small shot without number. We continued thus for an hour and a half, then we jumped over the palasados we then made use of our swords and bayonets and made a sore slaughter upon the French, which obliged them to cry for quarters. Although it was against orders we had mercy upon our fellow creatures and turned them all behind us. Then the Dutch used them as they pleased. They hung out their flag, in several places crying for quarters but none was given. This caused them to take courage and beat us two time from the bridge. Then our morters began to play anew. I was one that made the attack at the sallieport. An officer at the head of his platoon kneeled down and asked quarters. I gave it him and took his sword being mounted with silver. After we took the sallieport the officer took me to a cellar under the wall where was ten or twelve trunks full of gold and money. He gave me eleven bags of it for saving his life, what I got was all pistole pieces. I made all speed I could to my company where they were tumbling over the wall all the carcassus that were loaden with hand granades. I took up one of them with design to throw it amongst the enemy but it prevented me and broke in my hands and killed several about me and blew me over the pallasades, burnt my cloaths about me so that the skin came off me. I and my gold fell among Murray’s company of granadeers, I was stead like an old dead horse from head to foot, they cast me into water to put out the fire about me. The fort was taken and plundered; our army got the money that was to pay the French army.

McBane served in the Regiment until the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1712. He finally retired from the service at age forty-nine, with two musket balls in his thigh and a silver plate in his skull. At age fifty he commenced fighting as a gladiator at the Bear Gardens (see this previous post for a description), where he fought thirty-seven prizes. At age sixty-three, McBane fought his last combat against a tough young Irishman named O’Bryan. McBane wounded his adversary seven times and broke his arm with a falchion (short sword). After winning the fight, McBane decided to fight no more, “but to repent for my former wickedness”. He proceeded to write the story of his life, including an elaborate fencing treatise that contained sections on how to fight with the backsword, smallsword, quarterstaff, shield, and knife.

James Miller
Above: Eighteenth-century backsword fencers, after James Miller

The Expert Sword-man’s Companion is an incredible book and should be read by any serious student of dueling, fencing, or eighteenth century history. In 2017, a new edition was released, which includes a foreword verifying many of the historical details related by McBane in his memoir. It can be purchased by following this link, or by clicking on the image below:


END OF PART II. Stay tuned for Part III, when we continue to cover more books on the list.

A Former Cure for the Hiccups—Narcotics!

In Colonial (American) Period, Everyday Life, Georgian Era on February 18, 2010 at 10:44 pm


The following is from The London Practice of Physic, published in 1779:

Of the HICCUP.

The hiccup is a convulsive spasm of the œsophagus, the muscles serving for deglutition, and the stomach; the diaphragm was by some thought to be in fault, but without any foundation.

Hippocrates observes, that it may proceed either from too much emptiness or fullness, particularly of the brain; sometimes it is local in the stomach. Much depends on its being a symptomatic or a primary disease.

The musk julep has proves serviceable in this disorder, when symptomatic, and attended with flatus; also the following;

R Spirit. volat. fœtid.
Tinctur, succini, aa 3ij. furnat gutt. L. fabine e cochl. ij. julep. e Moscho

Add some drops of laudanum, as you think proper, to the medicines above.
Sternutatories frequently give relief; and emetics, when it arises from the stomach.

Laudanum was a potent narcotic—a tincture composed of opium and morphine. It was an ancient remedy, in existence since Roman times, and during the eighteenth century it was used to treat a variety of maladies and wounds. When Alexander Hamilton was shot in his duel with Aaron Burr, he was quickly administered laudanum. The substance is still used today (albeit in a more regulated form) to treat diarrhea and in easing withdrawal symptoms in addicts.

The 1811 edition of The London Practice of Physic smartly added the following:

Retaining the breath for a considerable time; any sudden surprise or fright; swallowing water, or what is preferable, a tea-spoonful of vinegar very slowly, holding the breath at the same time as long as possible, often puts a stop to it, when it arises from an accidental cause.

Old Valentine’s Day Customs and Lost Romantic Rituals

In Customs and Traditions, Everyday Life, Georgian Era, Love and Courtship, Victorian Era on February 16, 2010 at 2:23 am

Valentines- Punch

Although the roots of Valentine’s Day stretch back to A.D 496 (when it was established by Pope Gelasius I to commemorate the life of a Christian martyr), most scholars agree that the holiday did not become associated with any romantic notions until the late middle ages. By the early 18th century the custom of “drawing names” had become popular, as noted by Bourne, in his Antiquitates Vulgares (1725):

It is a ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine-day. The names of a select number of one sex, are by an equal number of the other put into some vessel; and after that, every one draws a name, which…is called their Valentine, and is also looked upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.

These name-drawing rituals could become quite elaborate, to the point of resembling European folk-magic. Consider the following example, described in a 1755 letter by an anonymous girl dubbed “Arabella Whimsey”:

Last Friday, Mr. Town, was Valentine’s Day, and I’ll tell you what I did the night before. I got five bay-leaves and pinned them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth one to the middle; and then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it up with salt: and when I went to bed, eat it shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it, and this was to have the same effect with the bay-leaves. We also wrote our lovers names upon bits of paper; and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water; and the first that rose up, was to be our Valentine. Would you think it? Mr. Blossom was my man: and I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning, till he came to our house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.


During the eighteenth century, if a man was particularly smitten with a woman, he might declare it to the world by pinning to his sleeve a heart-shaped piece of paper with the name of his beloved written on it. It was this custom which led to the expression “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” A woman might achieve the same goal with respect to the man she admired by wearing a charm called a love-bagge near her heart, as recorded in Pepys’s diary entry of March 3, 1662:

And here Mrs. T. shewed me my name upon her breast as her valentine, which will cost me twenty shillings.


During the Victorian era, sending Valentine cards became popular in England, and, in 1847, a Massachusetts woman named Esther Howland capitalized on the tradition by developing a successful business producing hand-made Valentine cards. Thus began the practice in America. In 1872, Punch Magazine offered an update of the tradition:

The belief is universal…that if you are single, the first unmarried person you meet outside the house on St. Valentine’s Day will exercise an important influence over your future destiny. Fortunately there is a simple way of evading the hand of Fate, open to those who desire a greater freedom in their choice of a partner in wedlock – at least, if they are willing to remain indoors till the expiration of the spell at twelve p.m. It is amazing how much faith they put into this sort of thing.

This same superstition was mentioned in Ms. Whimsey’s 1755 letter, when she stated that she would lay in bed all morning with her eyes shut, until Mr. Blossom “came to our house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.”


Another interesting ancient tradition not connected to Valentine’s Day (but romantic nonetheless, and thus deserving of mention) was that of heaving, practiced in England and Wales since time immemorial. On the day after “Old Eastertide,” groups of men were allowed to physically lift women off the ground in a chair specially adorned with ribbons and flowers for that purpose.

Sometimes a kiss was required as a condition of release; or rather, a kiss (or money) was bestowed as a “reward” upon the heaving party. In some places, the mothers of the girls gave presents of food or milk, so as to bribe the boys to go away quietly. The next day the women would exact their revenge by performing the same ritual on the men. The following extract is from the Public Advertiser for Friday, April 13th, 1787:

Old as the custom has been, the counties of Shropshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire boast one of equal antiquity, which they call Heaving, and perform with the following ceremonies, on the Monday and Tuesday in the Easter week. On the first day, a party of men go with a chair into every house to which they get admission, force every female to be seated in their vehicle, and lift them up three times, with loud huzzas. For this they claim the reward of a chaste salute, which those who are too coy to submit to may get exempted from by a fine of one shilling, and receive a written testimony, which secures them from a repetition of the ceremony for that day. On the Tuesday the women claim the same privilege, and pursue their business in the same manner, with this addition–that they guard every avenue to the town, and stop every passenger, pedestrian, equestrian or vehicular.

In a letter dated May 7, 1799, one Englishman described the startling experience of being forced to submit to the custom by several aggressive females :

I was sitting alone last Easter Tuesday at breakfast at the Talbot in Shrewsbury, when I was surprised by the entrance of all the female servants of the house handing in an arm chair, lined with white, and decorated with ribbons and favours of different colours. I asked them what they wanted? Their answer was, they came to heave me. It was the custom of the place on that morning; and they hoped I would take a seat in their chair. It was impossible not to comply with a request very modestly made, and to a set of nymphs in their best apparel, and several of them under twenty. I wished to see all the ceremony, and seated myself accordingly. The group then lifted me from the ground, turned the chair about, and I had the felicity of a salute from each. I told them I supposed there was a fee due upon the occasion, and was answered in the affirmative; and, having satisfied the damsels in this respect, they withdrew to heave others.

Heaving, or Lifting, from an old drawing.

Heaving, or Lifting, from an old drawing.

According to a 1902 British folklore journal, heaving was was originally meant “to represent the Crucifixion of Our Saviour—the dressing (in gay ribbons) being intended to set forth the clothing of our Lord with the purple robe; the lifting, the nailing on the Cross; the kiss, the betrayal; the reward, the thirty pieces of silver.” Although the roots of the custom are obscure, it appears to date back to at least the rule of Edward I “Longshanks,” when it was recorded that:

Seven of Queen Eleanora’s (of Castile) ladies, on the Easter Monday of 1290, unceremoniously invaded the chamber of King Edward (the First), and seizing their majestic master, proceeded to ‘ heave him’ in his chair till he was glad to pay a fine of fourteen pounds to enjoy ‘ his own peace,’ and be set at liberty.

Heaving appears to have eventually fallen out of favor at some point during the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. It seems to have been looked upon with disapproval by members of respectable society, judging by the stern observation of a gentleman from Manchester writing in 1784:

It is a rude, indecent, and dangerous diversion, practised chiefly by the lower class of people. Our magistrates constantly prohibit it by the bellman, but it subsists at the end of the town; and the women have of late years converted it into a money job.


Bourne, Henry. Antiquitates Vulgares, pub. 1725.

Bye-gones, relating to Wales and the Border Counties. Volume III, New Series. Printed at the Caxton workd., 1894

A Quarterly Review, or, Myth, Tradition, Institution, & Custom, being the Transactions of the Folk-lore Society, and incorporating The Archaeological Review and The Folk-lore Journal, Vol. XIII. London: David Nutt, 1902.

Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem, A Dictionary of Superstitions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Kacirk, Jeffrey. Forgotten English, New York: William Morrow, 1997.