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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.

The Bayonet Exercise of the Irish Volunteers

In Edwardian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Weapons and Armor on October 23, 2017 at 1:03 pm

Drill Display, 1st prize winners: Irish Volunteers, A Company, 4th Battalion, Dublin Brigade, at a tournament held at St. Enda’s College’s Aeridheacht on Sept. 5, 1915. From the Irish Volunteer. Oct 9, 1915.

“Make him quick and precise in his movements…”

The following short treatise, written by F. P. Mullin, appeared in the Nationalist Revolutionary journal, the Irish Volunteer (also known by its Irish name, An tÓglách) on July 18, 1914. The method of attack and defense with the bayonet presented therein is similar to other fencing-based methods of the period, utilizing the lunge, numbered parries, beat-attacks, the “throw point,” and other techniques. This exercise gives insight into the martial methods used and propagated by Irish Republican rebels in the years leading to the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.

* * *


For bayonet exercise the squad is formed into two ranks, with arms at the “order.”

At the command: “For Bayonet Practice—Prepare.” The men of the rear rank will step back two paces. The odd numbers of the front rank will advance four paces, and the even numbers of the rear rank will retire four paces.

At the “Engage.” Keep the head and eyes directed to the front, and turn on the heels to the right, and the left toe to the front. At the same time raise the rifle, seizing it with the left hand at the lower hand and with the right hand at the small behind the guard.

This plate, from the bayonet treatise of David Fallon (a native of County Mayo), published in 1916, shows a guard position similar to that described in the 1914 exercise. Fallon spent time in both the British and Australian armies. Thanks to Jono Roe for finding this image. Credit: National Library of Australia.

Lower the rifle with the left hand until the point of the bayonet is in line with the left ear, the butt being raised above the right hip, right forearm horizontal, kept well forward and close to the body, and the left elbow slightly bent and clear of the body. At the same time draw back the right foot about eighteen inches, the body held upright and balanced equally on both feet, the knees well bent and forced apart.

In bayonet fighting the soldier has two things to consider simultaneously: attack and defence. Therefore, bayonet exercise is a repetition of points and parries which when thoroughly understood should be practiced with the utmost quickness, but at the same time with coolness and precision.

From the “Engage,” deliver the first point as high as the breast by forcing the rifle out to the ful extent of the left arm, the butt in line with the shoulder. At the same time incline the body well forward and straighten the right leg, both feet to be kept flat on the ground.

Return to the “Engage.”

“Second—Point.” Deliver the second point as high as the breast by throwing out the rifle to the full extent of the right arm, at the same time quit the rifle with the left hand, which should be cut away quickly to the side. In this movement the body and right shoulder should be forced well forward, the right leg straightened, and the foot flat on the ground.

Recover the rifle, and come to the “Engage.”

“First—Parry.” Keep the right forearm close to the side, and without any movement of the body, jerk the rifle to the right front by a swift straightening of the left arm, at the same time turning the sling towards the right. This parry wards off a thrust directed towards any part of the right side and head.

Return to the “Engage.”

“Second—Parry.” Keep the right forearm as mentioned in the first parry, and give the rifle a quick turn to the left by straightening the left arm. This parry protects the left side.

Recover smartly to the “Engage.”

“Third—Parry.” (Seldom used). With a slight circular sweep of the rifle to the left depress the muzzle sharply by turning the left arm until the point of the bayonet is opposite the right knee, at the same time allow the butt to come under the arm-pit.

Parries and Points in succession: From the first parry quickly deliver the first point, and return to the “Engage.” From the second parry deliver the first point, and return to the “Engage.” From the third parry deliver the first point, and return to the “Engage.”

From the first parry, deliver the second point, and return to the “Engage.”

Form second parry deliver second point and come to the “Engage.”

Form third parry and proceed as above.

The point should be delivered quickly after the parry; but a distinct pause should be made between the points and the “Engage.”

The above exercises are sometimes performed with the Lounge and when retiring that is: Lounging with the point and forming parries while retiring.

The Lunge: The left foot is moved forward about twelve inches, at the same time straightening the right leg. The left knee should be perpendicular over the in-step, the right foot flat on the ground, and the weight of the body thrown well forward.

Another plate from David Fallon’s treatise, illustrating the “Point with Lunge.”  Thanks to Jono Roe for finding this image. Credit: National Library of Australia.

In lounging with the second point, rise on the toe of the right foot.

Another plate from Fallon’s book, showing an attack (on the left) similar to the 1914 treatise’s “lounging with the second point.”  Thanks to Jono Roe for finding this image. Credit: National Library of Australia.

To “Advance.”: Move the left foot about eighteen inches forward, and bring the right foot up to the position of the “Engage.”

These exercises are performed to accustom the young soldier to handle his rifle with bayonet fixed, and to make him quick and precise in his movements.

For attack and defence between two ranks facing each other, spring bayonets are used. The men must wear masks, body pads, and gloves, and the point of the bayonet must be well protected. The squad formation is the same as in Physical Drill with Arms. “Full interval from the left. Right Close—March.”

The rear rank retires one pace, and the front rank turns about. Both ranks come to the “Engage.”

To “Prove Distance,” the men of the front rank will give the first point slowly and the men of the rear rank will advance or retire, as necessary, until the bayonet points of the front rank are over their left hands.

The front rank will then return to the “Engage.”

The first point is delivered by the front rank. Without drawing back the rifle, lower the point of the bayonet, passing it under the opposing weapon, and, without pause, deliver the point. The rear rank will form first parry, and return with first point.

The front rank will disengage, and deliver the first point.

The rear rank will form second parry, and return with first point.

The front rank will deliver first point at the waist.

The rear rank will form third parry, and return with first point.

The front rank will deliver second point.

The rear rank will form first parry and return with second point.

The front rank will disengage, and deliver second point.

The rear rank will form second parry, and return with second point.

The front rank will deliver second point at the waist.

The rear rank will form third parry, and return with second point.

To beat and point: With a quick, sharp blow strike the opponent’s weapon to one side, and as soon as the opening is formed deliver the point.

The front rank will beat and deliver second point.

The rear rank will form first parry and return with second point.

The front rank will beat, disengage, and deliver second point.

The rear rank will form second parry and return with second point.

To vary the exercises the rear rank will be made take the offensive and front to parry.

When recruits are efficient in the performance of above practices they are taught to execute them by attacking rank lounging, the rank acting on the defence retiring as far as necessary.

Apart from its utility in the actualities of war, bayonet fighting is a splendid training for the young solider. It generates in time a fighting spirit, a martial ardour, and is a wonderful incentive to individual effort.

Above: From the nationalist Eire newspaper, Dec. 4, 1914.


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 value of classical fencing in historical fencing interpretation

In Dueling, Martial Arts, Victorian Era on August 8, 2017 at 3:51 pm

Cote du Golfe School of Fencing

This article reflects only my own interpretations and opinions, and not necessarily those of Maestro Ramon Martinez, Maestro Jeannette-Acosta Martinez, or the Martinez Academy of Arms.

To be truly successful, attempts at reconstructing historical European systems of swordsmanship must be informed by classical fencing.

It’s an unfortunate trend today that the overwhelming majority of European swordsmanship enthusiasts, whether they classify themselves under the name HEMA, WMA, historical fencing, or any number of names, either ignore the classical weapons (at best) or scorn them (at worst).  There are of course a myriad reasons for this.  Many individuals are only interested in medieval or renaissance arms, and classical 19th century teaching just doesn’t get their blood moving.  Why bother spending time on it?  Others argue that medieval and renaissance swordsmen didn’t need training in French foil to learn to use an arming sword or a rapier (or whatever), so why should…

View original post 5,267 more words

Misconceptions about Northern Italian Sabre

In Dueling, Edwardian Era, Martial Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on November 9, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Luigi Barbasetti, the Italian fencing master who brought Northern Italian fencing to Paris and Vienna, and who trained champion fencers, gained renown in the fencing world for bringing the Northern Italian style to the international stage. As such, he stands as one of the most prominent students of Maestro Giuseppe Radaelli, who is typically given credit as the founder of the Northern Italian style of sabre fencing in the 1860’s. In t

Source: Misconceptions about Northern Italian Sabre

Gladiator Combat in 19th Century San Francisco

In Antiquity, Dress and Fashion, Martial Arts, The Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on September 28, 2016 at 3:45 pm

“Fought with almost perfect realism…”



In 1893, the city of San Francisco played host to the largest demonstration, in terms of both audience attendance and actual participation, of historical fencing reconstruction in the United States during the entire nineteenth century. Billed as a “Revival of Ancient Graeco-Roman Games,” the event comprised both entertainment and actual martial contests, and included exhibitions of swordsmanship, javelin-throwing, discus throwing, Pankration (a combination of boxing and grappling), wrestling, chariot racing, lance combat, and wrestling on horseback.

Most notable, however, was the inclusion of “gladiatorial combats,” involving more than fifty participants, which sought to demonstrate, with historical accuracy, the famous encounters of the Meridiani, Retiarii, and Murmillones of the ancient Roman Coliseum—reproducing, as the Olympic Club annals put it, “the combats of imperial Rome with scrupulous fidelity and wonderful spirit.”

This massive display of historical fencing reconstruction was the brainchild of William Greer Harrison, the president of the San Francisco Olympic Club, and was further conceived and realized under the direction of Louis Tronchet, the club’s French fencing master, with the steadfast assistance of Tronchet’s thirty-three year-old American-born protégé, Emilio Lastreto.

The Roman revival at San Francisco lasted more than a week, from April 17 to 29, 1893, and was repeated several months later at the California State Fair at Sacramento. To attempt to recount or even summarize the “Roman Fair” in its entirety would require a small book, and is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, the focus here will be to examine what is known about the approach, training, and techniques used by Tronchet and his team of gladiators. Those interested in reading about the entire event may be directed to an 1895 article written by Arthur Inkersley for Outing Magazine, entitled “Græco-Roman Games in California,” which is available at the Journal of Manly Arts.

SFC-4-18-1893 - header


The San Francisco Olympic Club, which supplied the fencers that would take part in the Games, had a long history of promoting the use of antiquated weapons in its fencing program. One of its co-founders, Colonel Thomas H. Monstery, had offered instruction in San Francisco in dagger, lance, and other “offensive and defensive arts,” and was known to have occasionally held demonstrations with a variety of other weapons, including the rapier and quarterstaff. Although Monstery had departed San Francisco for New York around 1870, the fencing club that he had helped found continued to flourish, spurred on by the enthusiasm of its members.

During the late 1880s, the club thrived under the leadership of William Greer Harrison, an Irish-born author, playwright, athlete, and physical culture enthusiast. Harrison, who became the club’s president in 1886, was deeply steeped in the history and lore of the classical world, and this knowledge heavily informed his vision for the Olympic Club, which can be seen in an excerpt from the following essay, “The Spirit of the Club,” written by Harrison and republished in the Olympian in March, 1914:

“The Greek idea of the athlete—the absolute amateur—is in its essence realized in The Olympic Club.

“Greece and Rome, the latter borrowing from the former, established athletic training schools for the young men of their respective nations. Rome adopted the Greek idea, and for a time submitted to restrictions. The Greek athlete trained for endurance and speed. No pecuniary reward influenced his purpose…The Greeks refused professionalism in every form and conserved the amateur spirit to such an extent that there was no place for professionals.

“The Greek loved his work. He found a rythmic joy in his training. He realized the daily growing force of his spirit as the controlling agency in his physical training. He became, mentally and physically, in the highest sense efficient.

“There was no sulking with the Greek athlete when defeated. He had given to the contest the very best that was in him, and this the Greek people fully understood, and honored him accordingly.

“The noblest blood in Greece entered on even terms with the peasant in all the varied forms of athletic work. The watch-word of all the athletes was “For honor.” Rome in her youth attempted to follow the Greek in art and science and in athletic sports. But as the Empire grew by leaps and bounds it developed into a military usurpation of nearly all Europe and a large portion of Africa. Athletics ceased to attract. Each year some successful commander returned from the scene of his victory, bringing into Rome prisoners of war by the thousands. These prisoners were given choice of slavery or enrollment in the gladiatorial ranks. The gladiators were brave men, hating slavery. They chose to die as gladiators whenever the depraved taste of the Romans called for an exhibition of their prowess…

“The Olympic Club has preserved the Greek ideal. Again and again efforts have been made to win the Club to other phases of athletics but unsuccessfully. So long as the Greek spirit is maintained in the Club its position in the hearts of the people where it holds sway will not change…”

1887 New York advertisement for Louis Tronchet

1887 New York advertisement for Louis Tronchet

In 1888, Harrison engaged the services of the New York-based maitre d’armes Louis Tronchet to serve as fencing master of the club’s gymnasium. Tronchet was an exponent of the French school of classical fencing, and had graduated from the military academy of Joinville-le-Pont at the head of his graduating class numbering six hundred.

According to his colleague (and occasional rival) Henri Ansot, Tronchet dismissed “wild fencing” in favor of “the more classic style of fencing,” which soon “took the supremacy, under his correct and graceful style of tuition.” This style had evidently served Tronchet well, for in 1887 he defeated the noted New York fencing master Regis Senac in a prominent contest at Cosmopolitan Hall, while adhering throughout to a “faultlessly classical position.”

Tronchet was also a known expert at French savate, and offered instruction in cane self-defense for use in the street. He was also familiar with the Italian style of fencing. Tronchet’s protege, Emilio Lastreto, described his master as a “classical swordsman” who had made a careful study of medieval and renaissance swordsmanship.


Emilio Lastreto

Lastreto himself, often described as Tronchet’s “best pupil,” would also become an important figure in the reconstruction of gladiatorial combat, assisting Tronchet in nearly every aspect of the event. According to John P. Young, Emilio Lastreto was was an American-born native of San Francisco, the son of Luigi Felix Lastreto and Charlotte (Parrain) Lastreto. The young Emilio would become a linguist, a writer, an interpreter of Shakespearean roles, and eventually engaged in more “different kinds of fencing than any other amateur in the West…In the early nineties he gave a series of exhibitions at the Olympic Club with Professor Tronchet.” Later in his career, Lastreto would be described as “a fencer of national reputation,” and would win for himself “a number of championship medals.”


Olympic Club president William Greer Harrison, in his writings, described California as “a land of romance,” with its very name “of romantic origin,” formerly connected with the chivalrous tales of the Spanish knight, Amadis of Gaul. Harrison regarded his adopted state as “another Italy,” which “exactly” fit the “Virgilian description of the old Italy.” What better place, then, for a recreation of ancient Rome?

Mechanic's Pavilion

Mechanic’s Pavilion

For the site of his revival, Harrison chose Mechanic’s Pavilion, the first major indoor arena to be built in San Francisco. Built in 1882 on Union Square, it was an impressive structure, described by a local guidebook as “one of the largest, if not the largest, wooden buildings now standing in America.” Covering two and one half acres of ground, and with a seating capacity of close to eleven thousand, the building was touted as the “Madison Square Garden of the West.” The building played host to everything from fairs, concerts, masquerade balls, political gatherings, “velocipede schools” and skating rinks. It was also the setting of prize fights involving noted pugilistic champions, including John L. Sullivan, and had hosted the famous mounted combat between the swordswoman Ella Hattan (“Jaguarina”) and Sergeant Owen Davis.


The organizers of the Circus Maximus, in refitting the Pavilion to resemble the original Coliseum, took great pains (and considerable cost) in their attention to detail, the final expenditure tallying close to twenty-thousand dollars. When interviewed about this process by the Call, Greer Harrison commented:

“The only thing that bothers me is that it is not the exact counterpart of the arena of the original Roman Coliseum. That was 300 feet long, whereas ours is only 290. If I had this to do all over again I’d have a regular Coliseum built straight from the ground and corresponding to the real one in every respect. But I guess it will do.”

The Call also noted that, “The roof of the coliseum being painted blue gives a very fair representation of an Italian sky, and when the whole 250 electric and the ten calcium lights are turned on, the spectator begins to wonder if it is not daylight after all.”

Interior of the Main Hall of the State Agricultural Pavillion, site of the Sacramento Circus Maximus

Interior of the Main Hall of the State Agricultural Pavillion, site of the Sacramento Circus Maximus



As previously stated, Louis Tronchet was given the task of reconstructing the gladiatorial combats that were to occur on foot, which would be performed by the Olympic Club fencers (combats on horseback, on the other hand, would be delegated to the expert riders of the Second United States Cavalry, Troop K, stationed at the nearby Presidio). For the Sacramento revival, gladiators would be portrayed by the fencers of the Sacramento Athletic Club. In January, a full three months before the event, the San Francisco Call noted that Tronchet was already busy training his team:

M. Tronchet, the fencing-master of the Olympic Cub, has already forty gladiators in training for the assault-at-arms…The combatants, distinguished by the color of their scarfs, will fight, to all appearances, to the death. As thrust and blow and parry are exchanged it is confidently expected that the interest of the spectator will rise with enthusiasm, particularly when victory inclines now to this side, now to that, white the ranks waver and reform and the gladiators, one after another, fall lifeless on the sand of the arena. (S.F. Call, 1/19/1893)


Maitre Tronchet and Lastreto with their San Francisco gladiators. Tronchet is kneeling on the left; Lastreto is standing behind him. Standing front and center (with shield) is Maestro Pietro Lanzilli.

The Sacramento

A photograph that includes some of the Sacramento gladiators

Jewish fencing instructor Arthur Kelter

Jewish fencing instructor Arthur Kelter

The Wave observed that Tronchet’s swordsmen “exhibit, already, decided cleverness and dexterity, and enter with zest into the rehearsals.” As the months passed, Tronchet would add additional members to his team, swelling the total number of gladiators to fifty-three; his meridiani alone would comprise forty-one fencers. The latter group also culled members from the nearby Italian Athletic Club on Bay Street, including one Maestro Pietro Lanzilli, a local Neapolitan fencing master, and graduate of both the Scuola Magistrale and Scuola Militare of Rome. Tronchet’s assistant, Alfred de Smet, and Jewish-American fencing professor (also gymnastic instructor at the Olympic Club, and a noted wrestler) Arthur Kelter would also eventually take part.


Above: The San Francisco gladiators

Above: The

Above: The Sacramento gladiators

Although the event was being billed as a “circus,” it was evident from the outset that the fencing would be anything but circus-like. Numerous references in journalistic accounts make it clear that historical authenticity was considered a priority in the realization of these combats. Tronchet, Lastreto, Greer, and the leadership of the Olympic Club were all learned men—some of them scholars—and the evidence suggests that they took their work very seriously, feeling that the real “magic” in these combats—and hence the attraction for the public—would be their degree of realism and authenticity. Although it was noted that Tronchet—already well-studied in medieval swordsmanship—was engaged in research to reproduce his combats as accurately as possible, accounts of the Roman revival never mention which sources he studied. However, in performing a bit of historical detective work, two particular sources seem likely.

desmetOf the three gladiator types selected by Tronchet for representation, one was the Meridianus, or Meridiani, an obscure, lesser-trained gladiator, destined to fight at noon, and similar in attire to the more well-known Samnite. The only original sources in which we have been able to find mention of the term Meridiani are the works of Seutonius, and Tertullian’s De Spectaculis, which describes many aspects of the gladiatorial games. Nineteenth century literature contains very few references to the Meridiani–with the exception of a few dictionaries, as well as Alexander Adam’s Roman Antiquities, Or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans (1872). Knowing this fact, it seems obvious that Tronchet was either indeed researching ancient sources, or was studying some of the few rare books published in his century that referenced such sources.

A number of details indicate that, at least in some respects, Tronchet’s reconstruction of gladiatorial combat may have been (though it is difficult to say with certainty) more accurate than that which would later be attempted during the early twentieth century–first, by Maitre George Dubois, and afterwards, by Hollywood fencing masters for use in motion pictures. Unlike these later attempts, Tronchet’s retiarii used a seven-foot trident wielded like a polearm (rather than as a missile weapon), and hurled their nets completely at their opponent, rather than throwing them still in hand, and then retracting. Both aspects of Tronchet’s reconstruction were closer to historical reality.

Tronchet demonstrates two-handed defense with the cane

Tronchet demonstrating two-handed defense with the cane

In March of 1893, the San Francisco Call informed the public that,

The gladiatorial affairs of the arena are not being neglected. The practice in swinging the pike, the staff and the halberd and getting around lively in fluttering togas and flat-bottomed sandal, is going on in great style. How to handle a helmet, thrust on a gauntlet glove, whack off a man’s head and smile sweetly on a vestal virgin all in one round are being learned with that rapidity with which the Olympic Club boys can master anything from polo to Circus Maximuses, while other folks sit around and grumble at the kind of world it is, getting no real enjoyment out of life. (SF Call, 3/25/1893)


And again, in April:

Yesterday afternoon was devoted to perfecting the retiarii and myrmillones in their gladiatorial duties. Concerning this part of the entertainment it is pretty generally opined that some one is going to get hurt. The savage energy with which the retiarius usually prods at his enemy in this mimic contest bodes no good to the unlucky wight who fails to catch the blow on the apparently very small shield he carries to defend himself with. Taking it all round, though, it will be a most realistic contest… (SF Call, 4/17/1893)


Caesar’s Imperial chariot, the net and trident used by the Retiarii, shields, helmets, swords, and pieces of armor used by the Meridiani and Murmillones, javelins, and the cesti used in boxing.

Indeed, a number of accounts attest to the great attention to detail shown by the organizers with respect to both techniques, clothing, and weaponry. Outing Magazine noted that, “a complete array of Roman dresses, weapons, armor and chariots had to be provided, so that seven thousand dollars was spent in the purchase of properties.” Another article in The Wave observed: “One brilliant characteristic of the spectacle was the quality of the accessories. There was nothing pinchback about it…Togas are expensive luxuries, and so are helmets, tridents, and short swords, especially when they are compounded of veritable metal.” As the Argonaut of April 24 enthused,

The originality and effectiveness which mark the entire performance is not more remarkable than the exactness and precision with which the details have been arranged. The designing of the costumes must have been a tremendous labor. Every detail of the gladiators’ armament has been studied from pictures and sculptures, that no fault in the historical accuracy of their make-up might detract from the vivid realism of the scene. Mr. Harrison and the Olympic Club may congratulate themselves on the success of the venture. It was a credit to the managers, to the club, and to the city.


A report written prior to the Sacramento revival gives some insight into the training methods used by Tronchet and his captains:

The gladiators who are to slay each other in the arena of the colliseum were raining blows upon each others’ shields and armor, making such a racket that people on the street thought a new boiler shop had been started up. Wooden swords are being used at present to prevent accidents, but when the show takes place and the men become proficient with their weapons, the regulation heavy steel short-sword will be used. The net and trident retiarii and myrmillones were also at practice under the direction of their Captain, Charles Gorman. They are becoming very clever at throwing the net, handling the “fork” and also the sword. The javelin-throwers were “plugging” at a bale of hay for exercise, the discus-throwers were also hard at work, and here and there could be seen the wrestlers, boxers, runners leapers and others all at work. (S.D.U., 8/11/1893).

In looking at numerous accounts of both the training leading up to the event, and the actual combats themselves, it is clear that the gladiators used a combination of rigorously rehearsed techniques, as well as improvisation. The Annals of the Olympic Club recounted that Tronchet and Lastreto “rehearsed a series of 240 moves for three months; yet their combat had all the thrill of an impromptu bout.” In fact, despite such careful rehearsal, a number of unexpected accidents (such as weapons breaking in the midst of combat) would require the gladiators to improvise to a great degree, and the record shows that the audience was quite impressed by the skill and techniques demonstrated in these improvisations.



As April 17th finally arrived, thousands of spectators packed Mechanic’s Pavilion, which had been transformed into a near-perfect replica of a Roman Circus Maximus. One attending journalist noted the strange contrast between some of the 19th century spectators and the participants attired in the style of ancient Rome:

A young lady in leg-o’-mutton sleeves, a revived form of poke bonnet, parted hair, small waist, white gloves scented with a cunningly compounded perfume of orris and violet, looking through a lorgnette at a gladiator, armed with a small shield and flat short-sword, whacking and jabbing at a pikeman with a trident and a net, is a sight not usually to be met with even at a century end which, for lack of novelty, has to resuscitate old fashions of dress and old forms of Roman holiday sports. But in the arena itself there was no inappropriate intrusion of the nineteenth century. Here was Rome, and Rome enough…upon the sand and the sawdust, Caesar’s loyal subjects, and thirsty henchmen, and captives, and slaves, danced, and fought, and triumphed, and died as became Romans and Romans’ captives in the brave days of old.


After a Grand March, and huge parade and display of pageantry, the various combatants gathered before Caesar:

SFCall-4-11-1893The gathering and grouping of the gladiators has been taken from Gerome’s famous picture of this awful moment, when, with swords, and pikes, and tridents uplifted, the brawny captives — men of iron muscle and superb physique — make their gruesome salutation to the emperor: “Hail Caesar, those about to die, salute thee!” …The throng of gladiators, with their round iron helmets, their strange armor, their three-pronged tridents, short broadswords, and long pikes, their upraised, muscular arms, their strong, athletic figures, are a wonderfully accurate copy of the group in Gerome’s painting. As one looked at them, the sharp ends of pikes and tridents splintering the light, the melancholy refrain, “Morituri te Salutant,” dying away in the high tones of a tenor voice, one could not but be struck by the careful realism of the scene. No tableau could have been more artistically planned, more accurately carried out. The spectator, seeing real gladiators greeting the emperor with the famous salutation, could, for the first time, realize what this scene must have been. (The Argonaut, April 24, 1893)

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1859)

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1859)

Outing Magazine noted that,

The gladiators were followed by the president of the club [William Greer Harisson], as Magister Arena, with a staff in his hand. Under his direction they grouped themselves in front of the Emperor’s box and sang the Ode of the Gladiators, written expressly for the club by Mrs. Douglas Adam. It consisted of four stanzas, entitled, Salutation, Life, Love and Fate. Each stanza ended with the pathetic words, Morituri te salutant-“those about to die salute thee!” Singers stationed at either end of the arena echoed the refrain in a very effective manner.

The gladiators’ “ode,” written “expressly for the occasion” by Mrs. Douglas Adam, was set to music by opera director W. H. Kinross. The lyrics were printed in their entirety in the August 14, 1893 issue of the Sacramento Record Union, and are shown below:



The forty-one Meridiani were the first to fight. Outing described the combatants thus:

The Meridiani were a kind of light-armed gladiators who fought in the Roman arena at midday, after the conclusion of the combats with wild beasts. They wore simple tunics and no body armor, carrying only a round buckler, a helmet with a visor and a short sword.


Painting of the 1893 Circus Maximus for Outing Magazine

The combat between the Meridiani was a massive spectacle, a full-scale battle pitting twenty gladiators versus another twenty. It was described by the Call as a “general slaughter,” and by Outing as “a clash of sword on buckler.” As the gladiators paired off, one was slain after the other, until only two remained:

C. A. Strobel

The single combat between the captains of the two bodies of meridiani was one of the grandest spectacles ever witnessed. C A. Strobel and I. F. Morris were the performers. They fought as though their lives were really at stake, and the killing was enacted in such a manner as to simply stagger the spectators. They battled desperately until both had lost their helmets and shields, and then one broke the other’s sword by a vicious blow. This left the disarmed fighter at his opponent’s mercy and the latter was not slow to take advantage of it, for he plunged his sword into the other’s breast cruelly. (SDU, 9/18/1893)

Detail of Meridiani, from Outing Magazine

Detail of Meridiani, from Outing Magazine


Outing Magazine explained:

This agreeable interlude was succeeded by boxers using the cestus, a terrible weapon, consisting of a series of thongs bound round the wrist and hands, and rendered heavy and dangerous by the addition of bosses of metal.

The Call noted, however, that “the ‘cestus’ instead of being of any hard material will merely be of rubber.”

On alternate evenings the Pancratium, or Greek contest of boxing and wrestling combined, was exhibited. This was a most deadly combat, in which every kind of violence, except biting and kicking, was permissible.

The Argonaut included the best description of the mounted combat:

SFCall-4-27-1893Six horses from the Presidio, mounted by six gallant soldier boys, rouse a storm of applause by a gladiatorial combat. Three go to one end of the arena, three to the other. The herald blows a clear, long blast on his trumpet, and away, like a tempest, scattering the dust and sand, go the horsemen, to meet in mid-arena with a clash of sword striking on shield. The fight is fast and furious, the unsaddled horses, plunging and rearing, unseat their riders, and the brave barbarians from the Danube’s reedy shores bite the dust. The short-swords flash in the light that pours in slantwise over the edge of the awning, and all Rome gives forth a joyous cry to see the red blood flow.

Such combats were not without their dangers, as the Chronicle noted that on the night of the 19th, a horseman “did a backfall” landing in the arena hard enough “to split open his sheet-iron vest.”

On the 21st, the Chronicle also reported that, “Before the grand climax, two of the gladiators removed their helmets and fought with clubs wielded in both hands. Just what the combat is styled is not on the programme…” 



Outing recounted this combat as follows:

Glad_Retarius_2-19-1893_SFChronAfter the mounted contests came the combat between the Retiarii and the Mirmillones. This combat was exceedingly popular among the spectators at the Circus or Amphitheater of Imperial Rome. The Retiarius wore a helmet, but no body-armor; he carried in his right hand a trident, and in his left the rete, or net, from which he took his name. His object was to entangle his adversary in the folds of his net, and, before he could extricate himself, to pierce him with the prongs of his trident. The Mirmillo, who was commonly opposed to the Retiarius, wore greaves, a breastplate, a helmet provided with a visor, and a metal or leathern sheath upon his right arm.

In his hand he carried a short sword. If the Retiarius made a bad or unsuccessful cast with the net, he ran off pursued round the arena by the Mirmillo (who was also called a Secutor, or pursuer), and tried to gather up his net for a fresh cast. I do not know what the result of the combats between Retiarii and Mirmillones usually was in the Roman amphitheater, but at the Olympic reproduction, the Retiarius almost invariably succeeded in keeping off his adversary, whom he finally enmeshed and dispatched.

The Mirmillones wore a Gallic helmet, with the figure of a fish as a crest, and are supposed to have been originally Gauls.

The Call further described the tactics used by the opposing sides:

Tronchet's "Myrmillone" pictured in the S.F. Chronicle

Tronchet’s “Myrmillone” pictured in the S.F. Chronicle

The retiarius, armed with net and helmet, endeavors to entrap his adversary with the former, either by flinging it over his head or wrapping it round his legs, the while he jabs at him with the trident. The smaller and supposedly more active myrmillon has all his work cut out to spring and duck out of the way of the net, his object being to seize a favorable moment to run in and stab his opponent, the trident being an awkward weapon to guard with. Soon all lay dead save two, and these engaged in desperate conflict, so realistic was the scene that when the vanquished felt the fatal thrust and uttered a choking gurgle as he fell, one lady in the large audience fainted. She soon recovered, happily. Meanwhile the victor, placing his foot upon his prostrate foe, looked up at the Emperor’s box. In an instant all the women thrust their hinds out, thumbs downward. Pollice verso! So the victim was given the coup de grace and sent to his long home. Vae victis!  (S.F. Call, 4/18/1893)

Another account mentions the occurrence of an accident between two fencers that gave rise to a dramatic and successful improvisation:

Charles Gorman

Charles F. Gorman

The gladiatorial contests were given in a most realistic manner—one in particular between a net and trident man against a myrmillone. In this case the retiari’s trident was cut in twain by his opponent, but he continued to fight desperately with the stump of his weapon until he was finally exhausted and then slain. These characters were enacted by Charles Gorman and John Berger. (Sacramento Daily Union, 9/14/1893)




Tronchet, as a Murmillone

The gladiatorial portion of the event was concluded with a single combat between the two leaders of the Murmillones, Tronchet and Lastreto–the very combat for which they had rehearsed “a series of 240 moves” over a period of three months. Somewhat shockingly, several reports indicate that the men were using sharp blades. The San Francisco Chronicle recounted:

They fought with the sharpest of swords, and had they not been extremely quick and scientific in their guarding and attacks, one or the other might have been seriously injured at any time. It was by far the most realistic performance in the great show.

While the use of sharps may seem shocking or foolhardy to a modern reader, the evidence indicates that Tronchet and Lastreto had done as much before, holding fencing demonstrations before large audiences, while each wielding a sharp épée de combat. One particular reason for their use of sharps in the Circus Maximus may have been for the execution of a theatrical effect used to conclude the combat: hidden on one of the men was a specially concealed bladder filled with fake blood, that would burst upon being pierced.

The most detailed account of this combat was committed to print that September, when Tronchet and Lastreto reprised their combat for the opening of the Sacramento Circus Maximus:

Emilio Lastreto (on left)

Tronchet and Lastreto repeated their single short-sword combat, and worked the audience up to a high pitch of excitement. This is one of the most interesting and realistic performances ever witnessed in Sacramento, and gives the audience something of an idea of what the ancients considered sport. The men appear to fight desperately, and it seems as if only the dextrous parrying with shield and sword saves their lives dozens of times. But presently one is seen to tire. His blows become weaker, while those of his opponent come thicker and faster, staggering him. The doomed man defends himself feebly, but finally drops his hands, the other gladiator instantly stabs him in the breast. Blood begins to flow down the man’s body, and those of the audience who had been wearing smiles (so sure were they that only a show was going on) began to look serious. Another cruel cut over the heart and the gladiator falls, while the victor places his foot upon the prostrate form and salutes the Emperor. (SDU – 9/9/1893)

At one San Francisco performance, the fight between Tronchet and Lastreto–and its “bloody” effects–were so vivid that a journalist noted:

“In the last gladiatorial fight to a finish, it was so realistic that when the warrior fell and theatrical blood was seen on his body a woman screamed, and Mr. Harrison had to make him get up and bow to show that he was not dead.” (S. F. Call, April 19, 1893)

"Caesar, Livia, and Page." From the Sacramento Programme.

“Caesar, Livia, and Page.” From the Sacramento Programme.


In later years, the Olympic Club Annals noted that the Circus Maximus was “the most notable event in which the fencers of the club ever participated.” Despite this fact, and the event’s immense popularity, the Circus was ultimately a financial failure–owing, no doubt, to the incredible expense incurred by its production. As a result, in the months following the event, club President William Greer Harrison resigned his position. However, the respect he commanded among club members continued to endure, and in 1899, bowing to popular demand, he ran and was once again elected as President of the Olympic Club.  Also, despite its financial failure, the Roman revival would long live revered in the memory of San Franciscans. More than thirty years later, one former spectator reminisced:

“Do you remember the Circus Maximus? Say, that was one of the greatest sports events ever staged, bar none. Some day, you want to look up old-time records and newspapers and read how a week-long carnival of sports was held in San Francisco. Every sport, boxing, wrestling, running, field athletics and others was represented. The event was a wow! Too bad we have nothing like it now.” (The Olympian, September 1925)


Gladiatorial reconstruction in Italy. From “La Scherma Attraverso i Secoli,” Milan, 1905.

In the subsequent decades, other individuals such as Maitre George Dubois, Milan fencing masters, and Hollywood fight choreographers would attempt to reconstruct ancient gladiatorial combat as well–though none, perhaps, in such a grandiose manner as executed by Tronchet and the Olympic Club fencers. Later in life, Emilio Lastreto himself fondly summarized his memories of the grand event:

Lastreto, in later years

Emilio Lastreto, in later years

More picturesque than [all other events], was the occasion of the reproduction of the Circus Maximus, under the direction of Mr. William Greer Harrison, as president of the Olympic Club, when the combats between the short-sword and buckler fighters, and also “the net and trident men,” or “retiarii” were fought with almost perfect realism.

And thereby was it demonstrated that these athletes who had made a careful study of the foils had thereby become able swordsmen of the ponderous muscle-requiring styles of Rome and of the lighter and more dexterous schools of the Middle Ages, and these fencers won more glory for the Olympic Club in those two memorable weeks in April, 1893, in the old Mechanics’ Pavilion, than did the crack athletes of any of the other branches of sports. And thus will it ever be, for, in all the realms of athletics, swordsmanship is the nonpareil.



Theodore F. Bonnet, Annals of the Olympic Club, San Francisco (San Francisco: Printed by the F.H. Abbott Co., 1914).

William Greer Harrison, “The Spirit of the Club” in The Olympian, March, 1914.

Emilio Lastreto, “Fencing,” in The Making of a Man (San Francisco: H.S. Crocker, 1915).

Official Programme. The Olympic Club Fair and Circus Maximus; revival of ancient Graeco-Roman games, Caesar’s Court, a Roman holiday, to be produced and the fair held in the new Olympic Club building, on Post Street, from Monday, April seventeenth to Saturday, April twenty-second, MDCCCXCIII [San Francisco, 1893].

Official Programme. The circus maximus of Caesar Augustus, reproduced by the Sacramento Athletic Club at the California State Fair, Sept. 4th to Sept. 16th, 1893 [Sacramento, Calif., 1893].

H. Ansot, “The Metamorphosis of Fencing” in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Volume 24, Issue 144, December 1894.

Arthur Inkersley, “Græco-Roman Games in California,” in Outing Magazine, February, 1895, 409-416.

John P. Young, Journalism in California (San Francisco: Chronicle Publishing Co., 1915).

San Francisco Daily Call.

San Francisco Chronicle.

Sacramento Daily Union.

The Argonaut.

The Olympian.

The Wave.

Ben Miller, “Classical Fencing Defeats “Wild and Irregular” Fencing: The Tronchet-Senac Contest of 1887,”, May 31, 2016.

Ben Miller, “A History of Cane Self-Defense in America: 1798-1930,”, August 16, 2016.


A History of Cane Self-Defense in America: 1798-1930

In Colonial (American) Period, Dueling, Edwardian Era, Federalist Period, Martial Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on August 18, 2016 at 12:24 pm

During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, America could be a dangerous place, and knowledge of self-defense was often necessary for use in both urban and rural environments. To those ends, fencing masters and instructors often modified and applied fencing techniques to the cane or walking stick, creating their own systems of self-defense. This article proposes to look at various methods of cane defense, taught by fencing masters and instructors, that were specifically intended for practical use in self-defense encounters in the everyday world…

Martial Arts New York


A History of Cane Self-Defense in America:


During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, America could be a dangerous place, and knowledge of self-defense was often necessary for use in both urban and rural environments. To those ends, fencing masters and instructors often modified and applied fencing techniques to the cane or walking stick, creating their own systems of self-defense. This article proposes to look at various methods of cane defense, taught by fencing masters and instructors, that were specifically intended for practical use in self-defense encounters in the everyday world.

The individuals who taught such techniques hailed from a variety of backgrounds—from England, France, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany—and specifically discussed the cane’s efficacy in defending against other potentially deadly weapons such as the sword, sword-cane, stick, dirk, Spanish knife, Bowie knife, bayonet-rifle, boarding pike, and revolver. These fencing methods were applied to…

View original post 8,906 more words

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.

The Monstery-Senac Fencing Contest of 1876

In Dueling, Martial Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on May 19, 2015 at 3:27 pm
Above: Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery.

Above: Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery.

In April of 1876, New York City played host to one of the most public and controversial American fencing contests of the nineteenth century. The disagreements over judging decisions and methods of scoring were so great that “inflamed” arguments erupted between the referee and the combatants’ seconds. At times, angry audience members rushed the stage and had to be removed from the premises by police. Before the day was over, one of the combatants walked off the stage in the middle of the contest, and the entire event broke up in disorder. Eventually, the two contestants would come to personal blows. In the weeks following, conflicting accounts of the contest appeared in various New York City newspapers, and witnesses from the day published impassioned letters about what they saw, attempting to set the record straight.

Now, even more than 130 years later, it is not exactly clear what transpired at this event. The dispute over the contest, however, highlights issues that are relevant today—just as they were then—for practitioners of traditional, classical, and historical fencing, as well as other martial arts.


The event had arisen from a “Challenge to Swordsmen” issued one month prior by Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery, a veteran duelist and noted New York City fencing master. Writing in the New York Herald on March 7, 1876, Monstery proposed a “tournament at arms” for the championship of the United States and Spanish America, and a purse of $500 dollars, on the following conditions:

“That the money and title of championship belong to him who makes the first fifty-one points, with the weapons mentioned, the points to be distributed as follows: —

  • Foil ……………………………. 12 points
  • Sabre ………………………….. 9 points
  • Rapier (cut and thrust) …. 12 points
  • Bayonet (thrust) …………… 9 points
  • Knife (cut and thrust) ……. 9 points

Each principal to employ two seconds; the referee to be a mutual selection.”

If Monstery had intended for the contest to take on national (or international) proportions, he was at least partly successful. The challenge was picked up and reprinted in newspapers across the country, from New York to Chicago to Louisiana. The New Orleans Times, on March 13, announced:


One week after Monstery’s initial announcement, on March 14, the challenge was accepted by Maitre d’Armes Regis Senac. A native of France, Senac had arrived in New York City in 1872, and had set up a fencing school on University Place in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The Frenchman had reportedly fought three duels in France and had emerged victorious from all. Monstery, on the other hand, was a far more experienced duelist, having taken part in, according to various accounts, somewhere between fifty-two and sixty-one personal combats; he had also fought under twelve flags on three separate continents in numerous revolutions and battles. Both men were former soldiers who had been educated in the military academies of their respective countries—Senac at Joinville-le-Pont in France, Monstery at the Royal Military Institute of Copenhagen, Denmark.

The following rules are extracted from the “Articles of Agreement” entered into by Monstery and Senac, and published in the March 24th issue of Turf, Field, and Farm:

  1. The foil to be 34 inches long, have a flat blade and be unattached to the hand or wrist by cord or string to prevent being disarmed.
  2. A free thrust must be followed by a pause, if the thrust has been successful.
  3. No cuts from the sides or from above to count, nor those delivered on the neck, mask, arm, hip or leg.
  4. After each attack the fencer to return on guard, or give proper time for his opponent to return before he makes another thrust, therefore, reprisals or double thrusts are not allowed.
  5. Time or stopping thrusts delivered without the lunge, count only in favor of the giver if not hit himself; if both are hit, the count belongs to the party who lunges. If both are hit simultaneously while making the lunge, it is of no count.
  6. A disarm to count one point, but if the foil is lost while making the attack and hitting the opponent it counts one point.
  7. It is forbidden to parry with or take your opponent’s foil with the left hand.
  8. If one of the opponents retires before the end of a play, he loses this play.
  9. No cuirass allowed under the vest while fencing with the foils.

Regarding the other weapons, it was merely noted that with the sabre, “cuts with the edge of the blade upon any protected part of the body above the hips to count”; with the rapier, “all cuts and thrusts above the hip to count; no cuts with the flat of the blade allowed”; with the bayonet, “thrusts only count, and these when delivered straight on the cuirass protecting the trunk of the body”; and with the knife, “cuts and thrusts to count when delivered on the cuirass and right arm.”

The articles of agreement concluded with signatures from both combatants, as well as those of their seconds: for Monstery, Louis Friedrich of the New York Turnverein and Prof. William Miller of Australia; for Senac, A. Aubry and Danesi.

Notably, the articles contained no mention of a judge or referee having been selected, and it is not certain how–or at what point in time–John Mortimer Murphy, an Irishman, was chosen for the position. Murphy’s greatest accomplishments seem to have been his writings on “sporting matters” and Western fauna; there is, however, no evidence that he had any prior experience in fencing—either as judge or practitioner. It is safe to assume that both Senac and Monstery must have agreed on the choice of Murphy; as to why remains a mystery. In an interview given several years later, Monstery hinted that a desire for impartiality may have taken precedence over a need for competency:

“Where shall we get competent judges excepting among Frenchmen who are unbiased by acquaintance with either of us, and who would serve upon such an occasion? Seven out of eight men who understand fencing [in New York City] are Frenchmen, and with them it is an article of faith that nobody but a Frenchman can fence, just as Englishmen imagine that nobody but an Englishman can really box.” (New York Sun, Jan. 6, 1880)

Throughout his career, Monstery often espoused an anti-French sentiment, and in that light this comment may come as little surprise. Yet Monstery was correct in his assessment of the number of New York-based fencing experts; during the 1870s, the only notable masters that we have been able to find mention of in the local press, besides Senac and Monstery, were Jean De Turck, Captain Juillard of Woods’ Gymnasium, Hyppolite Nicolas, and Louis Friedrich of the New York Turnverein. All were French except for Friedrich, and the latter, who served as Monstery’s second in the Tammany contest, and had also held joint fencing events with the Colonel, was likely considered too biased to serve as a judge. Monstery was also correct in that nationalism was often a strong influence in fencing contests of the period, especially when they involved French or Italian contestants.

As April came around, the publicity and anticipation for the event continued to mount. The date of the event, it was announced, was to be April 10th, and the setting, Tammany Hall, as noted by the Herald:


Above: The old Tammany Hall, on 14th Street. Source: Wikipedia

The old Tammany Hall, on 14th Street. Source: Wikipedia

Notice of the contest even made the French-language Courrier des Etats Unis, which announced on April 5th:



THE TOURNAMENT – April 10th, 1876

Above: Maitre d'Armes Augustin Grisier

Maitre d’Armes Augustin Grisier

The day of the contest finally arrived. It was noted by one reporter that “both contestants were attired in fencing uniforms, and Senac wore the gold medal of Grisier’s Academy of Arms, in Paris.” Interestingly, a biography of Monstery published during the same period noted that during a visit to Paris in the 1840s, Monstery had beaten and twice disarmed the fencing master Augustin Grisier in a public assault; one wonders if this fact somehow contributed to an increased sense of rivalry between himself and Senac. As to the fencing contest itself, to relay a simple, straightforward account of the event would be impossible, as shall be seen.

The morning after the contest, on April 11th, the New York Herald published its own report:

“The contestants fenced with foils, sabre and rapier, and in the use of each weapon Senac manifestly excelled. The referee, John Mortimer Murphy, erred several times by awarding points to Monstery that belonged to Senac. In the rapier fencing when Senac had scored 6 points and Monstery 5, the latter retired from the stage, evidently having enough of it. The lights near the platform were then put out, and the crowd gathered around it and demanded the referee’s decision. It was a long time before he could be got to speak. He declared at last that, as the match was “play or pay,” and Monstery’s physicians had advised him not to renew the contest, Senac was the winner.”

In another brief account, published on the same day, the New York Times concurred that Senac was the superior fencer, that he “had the advantage over his antagonist both in agility and skill,” and that “his attack was quicker and better sustained.” The Times also agreed that the referee had been unfairly partial to Monstery—despite the fact that Monstery had been officially declared the loser in two out of the three bouts.


A few details in the Times’ account also pointed to the chaos and confusion of the day. The audience had proved an unruly one; according to the Times, “among the other incidents a young Frenchman…on behalf of Senac, protested against a decision of the referee, [and] was, at the request of that personage, removed from the stage by Capt. Garland, who with a strong force of Police was present.” The Times went on to note that during the rapier contest, “there was nothing but argument and quarreling between the seconds and the referee.” It also noted that the referee, John Mortimer Murphy, “proved wholly incompetent to perform the important duties allied to such a position.”

Both reports in the Herald and the Times paint a decidedly unflattering portrait of Monstery—one of a man who had been soundly and definitively defeated by a superior swordsman; one who, unable to accept the outcome, used the cover of sickness as an excuse to end an otherwise fairly conducted contest.

In the coming days, however, that version of events would be called into question by a number of other accounts published in the New York City press.

On April 14, the following article appeared in Turf, Field, and Farm:


Regis Senac in 1890

“The tournament of arms at Tammany Hall, on Monday night, which was to decide the sword championship of the United States and Spanish America, decided nothing. True, the money was awarded to Senac, but it was not proved to the satisfaction of all that the lithe and active Frenchman was the most scientific and expert in the use of weapons of steel…Instead of deciding disputed questions, [the referee] argued with the inflamed seconds and appealed to the audience. Senac never failed to claim a hit, and his seconds were ever prompt to support his claim. As the wing Frenchman was the favorite in betting circles, the shouts were loudest for him in the audience. The referee perspired, shrugged his shoulders, and looked the picture of irresolution…It was the opinion of keen-eyed judges in the audience who had no money on the match that Monstery did not receive credit for all the points he made…If another match is made between these two famous swordsmen, it is to be hoped that a referee will be selected who can tell what a palpable hit is when he sees it, who will listen to, but not argue with, the seconds, and who will have nerve enough not to be overawed by the partisan sentiment of the house.”

The author’s name did not accompany the article, although it is safe to assume that they were either a staff writer or contributor for Turf, Field, and Farm. In the end, it is difficult to know whether the writer was a friend or partisan of Monstery’s, or merely an impartial observer with a well-trained eye.

Colonel Monstery "In Extension"

Colonel Monstery “In Extension”

The next day, on April 15, a lengthy journalistic account of the contest was published in the United States Army and Navy Journal. This report proved to be the most detailed of any, and evinced the same sentiment as the account in Turf, Field, and Farm:

“At about half-past eight the two fencers made their appearance with their seconds and the referee. It was at once announced that the number of points were to be reduced to thirty-nine, in favor of Colonel Monstery, who had but just recovered from severe sickness. The appearance of the two champions was very different, and the disparity in age was, we are informed, nearly twenty years… Monstery is now a tall, gaunt, wiry man, with a manner of great dignity and repose, reminding one very strongly of the gallant old knight of La Mancha  in his personal apparance. Senac is shorter and stouter built, with a dark but handsome face, small hands and feet, and a peculiar catlike grace and activity that reminds the beholder of a tiger. The contrast could therefore hardly be greater than between the two. It was quickly evident in the foil contest that the elder man was past his prime, or else had not recovered from his sickness. It was also evident that as far as the science of defence went he was superior to the Frenchman, while the latter, from his youth, strength, and quickness had the advantage in the attack. Senac was at first too eager and rash. He made two fierce attacks, and was twice disarmed, the elder man keeping cool and forcing the sword out of his hand as he thrust in octave. It was very difficult at the beginning of the match to see what was going on, as the seconds of Senac would insist on getting in front and hiding their man. Monstery’s seconds were much better and cooler. One of them was the great Graeco-Roman wrestler [William] Miller, himself a fine fencer.

Above: Monstery's second, the Graeco Roman wrestling champion, Prof. William Miller of Australia

Monstery’s second, the Graeco Roman wrestling champion, Prof. William Miller of Australia

The referee turned out to be ludicrously incompetent for his position, as became visible when the contest waxed warm. After Monstery had gained four points, Senac suddenly changed his tactics, and this time completely puzzled his antagonist. He abandoned the defence entirely, did not attempt to parry a single thrust, but trusted entirely to what is known as the “coup d’arret” in French, “stop thrust” or “time thrust” in English…Of this thrust Senac is a master, and by its use he quickly counted nine points. Some of them were very fine ones, as when he actually bent his foil into a curve before an assault, so as to get in a point on Monstery‘s arm, which he could not have done with a straight foil. His last point was the perfection of the “stop thrust.” He sprung back to the end of the stage and crouched almost on one knee. Monstery rushed in; and like a flash the Frenchman was up, and the foil bent into a semicircle on his enemy‘s breast, while Monstery‘s point was past him. The score then stood: Senac, 9; Monstery, 4; and the champions rested for fifteen minutes.

The sabre followed. Here the tables were turned. The old champion looked to better advantage in his white armor suit, and proved the French professor’s master. In this play Senac tried the same tactics which had proved so successful with the foils, but with very different results. Cuts above the hips were only allowed to count, and of these he hardly got in a single one, while Monstery struck him fairly again and again. He then tried a very peculiar game. Thrusting (prohibited), he would pass Monstery’s body, receive a cut on the helmet, and laying his own edge on Monstery’s shoulder would claim it as “a cut.” It was here that the referee showed his incompetency. Not one of these was a fair cut, and during the whole bout Senac never parried once, but trusted that this sort of sawing motion would be called a cut. The referee allowed it on several occasions, till the score stood—Monstery, 6; Senac, 5, when it should have been, Monstery, 11; Senac, 1 (this was at the beginning, a fair cut). To make matters worse the referee actually appealed to the audience on disputed points, and every passage of arms was followed by a wrangle of all the seconds for several minutes. Finally Monstery was declared victor with the sabre, 6 to 5.

Above: The interior of Tammany Hall, decorated for the 1868 National Convention

The interior of Tammany Hall, decorated for the 1868 National Convention. Source: Wikipedia

At last came the rapier…Again Senac tried the same old tactics, but the straight sword and bent foil were different things. He received several severe cuts on the head and body and one on the arm, but each time cut or thrust back at the same moment, and always claimed the point. Also he began to cut savagely at Monstery’s leg, which was only lightly protected, regardless of the fact that under the rule the point did not count. The referee kept giving his decisions at  random, first to one and then the other, while the audience began to shout and roar at each new count, which seemed to be decided on the principle of chance. At last, when the count stood five to five, on the deciding bout, both claimed the count as usual. Monstery had given a fair cut in carte on the left shoulder of the other, and Senac claimed a similar one, which really fell below the belt or too late, it was impossible to tell which. Monstery then said that as the referee would not give him points he had earned, he would continue the contest no longer, and very unwisely retired from the stage, while the whole affair broke up in disorder. Senac was subsequently declared the victor.

Taken as a whole, we were much disappointed with the management of the affair. The feeling between the champions was evidently very intense, and Senac especially fought very wickedly. At the same time it is doubtful whether Monstery will ever again be a match for a young athlete like Senac. The chief lesson to be learned of the victor is that of the use of the “stop thrust” of which he is a master. In the sabre contest, he would have been ruled off the stage in England, Germany, or France over and over again, and with sharp swords Monstery would even now probably prove the best man.”

But that was not the end of it. Six days later, on April 21, a letter sympathetic to Monstery appeared in Turf, Field, and Farm. This time, the author (writing under the nom de guerre, “Swordsman”) criticized the fencing strategies and techniques used by Senac and the manner in which such techniques were scored:

“It may seem rather late in the day to say anything concerning the fencing match that came off on the 10th of this month, between Prof. Senac and Col. Monstery; but as a lover of fair play, I think that something ought to be said for the benefit of your readers who are not themselves swordsmen. I take the liberty of sending this to you, because your paper (with one exception) is the only one whose reporter seemed to know anything about the use of the sword.

In the foil assault, which came first, Monstery quickly got in the first two hits. In the third attack, he disarmed Senac (as he did twice subsequently) and soon got in another hit. After this fencing ceased. Senac–either because he could not, or for some other reason–never attempted to parry a thrust, but lunged when Monstery did, or made use of the “time thrust.”

Now, let me say a word about the “time thrust.” In the first place, one of the rules said: “The ‘time thrust’ shall count in favor of the giver only when not hit himself, and if both are hit, the count shall be given to the party who made the attack.”

Now, if this rule had been followed, Monstery would have soon run his score up to the required nine, because in only one or two of the “time thrusts” did Senac escape a hit. The design of rules in fencing is to make the assault as much like a mortal combat as possible, and only thus far of they of use. Now, who would think of making use of the “time thrust” in a duel? For he would be simply taking a thrust through his bowels for the sake of scratching his opponent’s shoulder, or at most wounding him in the neck. In a duel, when one makes an attack, the other will parry it if he can. In fact, when a person begins to make use of the “time thrust,” he virtually acknowledges that he is not able to parry; and in Europe, if a man persisted in using it, he would be hissed off the stage.

In the assault with the sabre, Senac scored the first point by a clever cut on his opponent’s head; and this was the only point in this assault that really belonged to him, for he then fell back on his old tactics of refusing to parry, and when Monstery would cut, Senac would thrust past him, and laying his sword upon Monstery’s shoulder would commence a sawing motion which he claimed as a cut. The rapier contest was but a repetition of that with the sabre. In the sabre contest, as a paper of this city has truly said, “Senac would be ruled off the stage in England, Germany or France over and over again.” We cannot understand how so noted a swordsman as Prof. Senac could consent himself to use such a means to win a match as he did in this.”

In scrutinizing some of the points made in this letter, it is immediately clear that it could not have been written by Monstery himself, nor by any of his serious disciples. Monstery was never averse to the use of the time-thrust—in actual duels, or in contests with blunt weapons. In an 1863 duel “a la morte”, Monstery had defeated an expert fencer named Victor La Lieux by using the time-thrust. In the rules for his contest with Senac, Monstery had made provisions for scoring proper time-thrusts. And in his own writings, Monstery praised the “legitimate” time-thrust and stop-thrust, which, he asserted “are marks of the highest skill in fencing if the giver not be hit while delivering them.”

So what phenomenon, exactly, was the author of the last letter attempting to describe?

Following is a description of the time-thrust from Fencing (1890) by Camille Prevost, Maitre d’Armes:

“The time-thrust is an attack made with opposition on a complicated attack, and intended to intercept the line where such an attack is meant to finish. The time-thrust is a thing of the most accurate judgment and readiness; you must, to execute it, gauge both the attack and the quickness of your adversary. Well done, it is one of the best things, ill done, one of the worst things, in the possibilities of fencing.”

During the nineteenth century, many fencing masters warned of the dangers resulting from improperly executed time-thrusts (i.e., incurring simultaneous hits). For instance, Joseph Roland, in 1809, stated,

“Observe, that no time thrust is good if you are hit at the same time, and to avoid which you should generally take the time when the adversary thrusts over the arm, observing to oppose your blade to that side an which he might have hit you with his thrust, and by this opposition his foil will necessarily pass by the side of your body.”

Or, as T. Griffiths stated in The Modern Fencer (1868),

“Never take the Time Thrust unless you are pretty certain that you will not get hit at the same time.”

The present question then remains: during the 1876 Tammany contest, was Senac utilizing the legitimate time-thrust, or was he merely attacking into Monstery’s attacks, and incurring double hits, which were then mostly scored in his favor? If he was attempting to utilize genuine stop-thrusts, was he failing to execute them properly (incurring double-hits), and then getting rewarded for them?

Above: Regis Senac in later years, from "The Art of Fencing," 1904.

Regis Senac in later years, from “The Art of Fencing,” 1904.

One might look to the fencers themselves for answers. Several years after the contest, in a letter to the New York Sun, Senac recounted:

“The match…was not satisfactorily ended owing to my adversary’s willful retreat. The referee decided that I was entitled to the title of champion of America and his decision was ratified, I am proud to say, by the unanimous applause of the public. That title has been honestly won and I can add, honorably borne by me ever since.” (New York Sun, Jan. 5, 1880)

In separate interviews given in the next day’s issue of the Sun, both men related their accounts and feelings about the day. Senac stated,

“There [in Tammany Hall], as the reports show, I defeated [Monstery] easily, and he became enraged and went away before the match was ended. Instead of saluting when I touched him, as he should have done, he contented himself with abusing me.”

Monstery was quoted in the same article as saying:

“I struck him five times out of six, and every time they marked a score to him. At last I lost my temper at such apparent cheating, threw down my weapon, and came away.”

Unfortunately, either Monstery neglected to elaborate on what such “cheating” consisted of—or the Sun neglected to print it. Such accounts by the men themselves shed little light on what actually occurred.



The bitterness between Monstery and Senac continued to endure. Their feud finally came to a head on New Year’s Eve, 1879, when Senac entered Schilling’s Saloon on Sixth Avenue, and encountered Monstery at the bar. Senac reportedly greeted Monstery in French, then followed it with an epithet, also in French. Rather than replying to Senac directly, Monstery turned to Schilling, and remarked, “What’s that he says?” Senac reportedly interpreted this as an insult, and a hostile back-and-forth between the two men ensued, involving, among several things, “charges of unfairness in exhibition matches”:

“At length Senac gave Monstery a push in the chest. A left-hander in the cheek from the latter bowled his adversary over. Senac hastily arose and clinched, and Monstery went over in his turn. On rising he got a rap on Senac’s chin, which sent him staggering. Then they wrestled. Both men were skilled and very powerful, but were illy matched in age. Monstery is a sturdy veteran of 59, though he looks younger, and Senac is under 40. Monstery seized him by the seat of the trousers and lifted him. Senac caught Monstery by a leg, sent him over, and rolled on him. Both regained their feet and took their coats off for a climactic set-to, when a policeman who had been called entered and spoiled the match.”

The two then went home, “only slightly damaged.” A few days later, on January 5, 1880, the account of their brawl appeared in the pages of the New York Sun, under the headline: “SWORDSMEN USING THEIR FISTS. Monstery and Senac, the Fencing Masters, have a Quarrel and a Fight.”



A final question remains, which may indeed give us some insight into what happened in Tammany Hall in April of 1876. Namely: are there any other precedents for similar incidents in Monstery’s or Senac’s careers?

In Monstery’s case, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Monstery faced a variety of opponents in numerous public contests, and won virtually all of them. Two, however, he did lose—both during the twilight of his life. In November of 1893, Monstery faced Eugenio Pini, one of the greatest Italian fencers of his generation, in a public contest. Although Monstery lost to Pini this time (having defeated Pini once before), the Daily Inter Ocean of Nov. 11 noted,

“both men displayed the fact that courtesy is as much a part of fencing as the thrust and parry. The audience received the last bout with great enthusiasm, and called loudly for speeches, which, however, were not made.”

Above: Richard Malchien, 1896, in the Daily Inter Ocean

Richard Malchien, 1896, in the Daily Inter Ocean

The other contest that Monstery lost occurred in 1896, when he was 72 years of age; his opponent was a young prodigy named Richard Malchien. Before a large audience, Monstery conceded the match to Malchien after falling behind by a single point, with a final score of three to two. It was noted:

“Over a glass of wine half an hour later, the victor and vanquished having shaken hands, Alan H. Sanson, acting on the advice of his principal, called the match off and returned the Colonel’s stake money. The latter, loath to accept this as a gift, bought that much worth of wine, and all shook hands and parted the best of friends.”

These contests prove that, at the very least, Monstery was more than capable of losing gracefully in high-profile fencing tournaments.

In contrast to Monstery, Senac continued to attract controversy, as well as bitter feelings from his opponents, throughout his career.

The old New York Tunverein, on East Fourth Street. Source:

The old New York Tunverein, on East Fourth Street. Source:

In 1877, a  year and a half after the Tammany tournament, the Frenchman engaged in a public contest with Louis Friedrich of the New York Turnverein, at Turn Hall on East Fourth Street. A reporter who witnessed the event recounted:

“Senac is one of the most active, graceful, and catlike fencers we ever saw, but it seems to be constitutionally impossible for him to fence fairly…[Friedrich] made seven points to Senac’s six, and five of the Frenchman’s were made unfairly, by remaining extended after his lunge failed, and stabbing with shortened blade, unmindful of the adversary’s fair hit. If Senac would only drop this style of fencing, together with his monkey tricks, he might become a very popular fencer, for his agility and handsome face are very pleasing to an audience; but as it is, he is decidedly degenerating.” (New York Spirit of the Times, Nov. 3, 1877)

Nor was Monstery the last fencer to walk out in the middle of a contest with Senac.

Eugenio Pini

In 1894, when the Frenchman faced Eugenio Pini in a contest before the French Benevolent Society of New York City,

“Pini became angered…and finally drew off his mask, and, casting his foil on the stage, retired in a huff.” (Philadelphia Record, Jan. 4, 1894)

The incident escalated into a threatened duel, when Prof. Frank G. Scannapieco, a witness to the contest, sided with Senac, in an editorial printed in his Italian language journal Il Vesuvio. Pini replied through the columns of another Italian paper in New York, stating that “the editor of Il Vesuvio was a fool, and knew nothing about fencing.” When Scannapieco published another reply criticizing Pini’s fencing, the latter “forwarded a telegram from Havana, where he had gone in the meantime, calling Professor Scannapieco some vile epithets and demanding satisfaction at the point of the pistol.” Scannapieco entertained, but did not accept, Pini’s challenge.



Cartel signed by Pini’s second, published in the Sunday Inter Ocean, January 14, 1894.

Although it is unclear if Senac was actually at fault in the incident with Pini, the fact stands that in two separate cases, fencers walked out in the middle of a public contest with Senac. Actually, a third such incident occurred in another Tammany contest with fencer Albert Vaughn, who walked off the stage after alleging that Senac “was not disposed to act in a fair and gentlemanly manner” (New York Clipper, April 12, 1884). However, in the last case, Senac had disabled Vaughn’s sword arm with a vicious cut, and it is unclear whether Vaughn took umbrage with that fact, or for other reasons. Whether the grievances of Senac’s opponents had any merit at all, or whether they were, instead, the ungracious complaints of men that could not bear defeat at the hands of a superior swordsman, is, of course, a matter of speculation.



In the decades following the Monstery-Senac contest, Monstery increasingly spoke out against gamemanship in fencing, and wrote about maintaining the martial aspect of the art and science. Little more than a year before the contest, he had stated,

“An assault of arms should be conducted with the same precaution as if life itself was at stake.” (Turf, Field, and Farm, January 29, 1875)

His concern was also palpable in December of 1878, when the New York Athletic Club published its “Laws of Athletics,” which included the following provision for fencing with the foil:

“Time or stopping thrusts, delivered without the lunge, count only in favor of the giver if not hit himself; if both are hit simultaneously, the count belongs to the competitor who has hit his opponent in the higher part of the body; if hit in the same line, the point is of no count.”

Monstery published a lengthy critique of these laws in the New York Spirit of the Times, explaining,

“The rest of the rule, providing that the count in simultaneous thrusts should belong to the party striking the upper part of the body is not only unwise, but directly calculated to encourage and protect the meanest sort of trickery and cheating. It is true that, at present, our amateur fencers, as a rule, fence fairly; but if this rule be persisted in, it is only a matter of time for them to become proficient in this sort of cheating, and to ruin the art of fencing in the United States for ever. 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. By striking off this vicious provision, ample room will be left for the legitimate time-thrust and stopping-thrust, which are marks of the highest skill in fencing if the giver not be hit while delivering them.”


A proper time-thrust, or "coup de temps," with opposition in sixth, shown in Gomard's Théorie de L'Escrime, 1845.

A proper time-thrust, or “coup de temps,” with opposition in sixth, shown in Gomard’s Théorie de L’Escrime, 1845.

A double hit, illustrated in Baron de Bazancourt's Secrets of the Sword.

A double or simultaneous hit. In an actual combat with sharps, both fencers would be injured or possibly killed. From Baron de Bazancourt’s Secrets of the Sword, 1900.

Monstery criticized a similar rule for sabre put forth by the Club, explaining:

“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.”

In presiding over fencing contests as a judge, the available evidence suggests that Monstery was as good as his word, attempting to ensure that the sword was treated as a serious weapon. In an 1893 contest, it was noted that

“To an outsider it looked very much as if every time one man would hit the other, the struck one would cross-counter in a splendid style, returning the blow with interest. This, however, was decided by those who were up in the sport to be against the tenets of swordsmanship. ‘For,’ argued Colonel Monstery, ‘If the weapons were sharp the first blow struck would cut off the head of him who received it, and how could a man with his head cut off return a stroke?’” (Daily Inter Ocean, Nov. 3, 1893)

In his 1878 critique of the New York Athletic Club’s laws, Monstery emphasized the importance of distinguishing a “clean thrust” from a “glance,” and expressed dismay at the possibility of “a great deal of cheating” in fencing—cheating which, according to Monstery, was “sure to ensue if tournament-at-arms become popular in the United States.” He added:

“At present this cheating is confined to the lowest class of European professionals. Let us not, through ignorance, admit it into the society of American gentlemen amateurs.


Thomas H. Monstery”

As for Senac, he was not quite done with Monstery. Although the Frenchman had been officially adjudged the winner in their 1876 contest, Senac himself seemed to acknowledge its inconclusiveness, when on January 5, 1880, in the New York Times, he challenged Monstery to yet again “fight a match with him…for the championship of America.”

This time, Monstery ignored the challenge.


Further Reading:


monsterybookcoverColonel Thomas H. Monstery‘s martial wisdom survives in his treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff, which was recently published by North Atlantic Books in book form for the first time. This volume contains a new, detailed biography of Monstery, and includes additional writings by the Colonel.

More information about Monstery can also be gleaned from these articles:

A Grand Assault-of-Arms in Old New York, directed by Col. Monstery

Monstery and the Training of Jaguarina, America’s Champion Swordswoman

A Bare-Knuckle Fight at Colonel Monstery’s

Colonel Thomas H. Monstery and the Use of the Quarterstaff

As well as this article, written by Monstery’s great great granddaughter, Diane Hayes.


Text of this article © 2015 by Ben Miller.