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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.

Bayonet, Pike, Dagger and Sword: Martial Arts, Nationalism, and the Gaelic Revival in Early Twentieth Century Ireland

In Edwardian Era, Military, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on October 25, 2017 at 1:42 pm

“Superiority in fighting is extremely valuable in view of the large proportion of recent battles where the issue has been decided with cold steel. There is no reason why this superiority should not be at once gained by the Irish Volunteers…”                       —Séamas Ó hAodha, 1914


Two major surges of interest in the martial arts—both inspired and informed by a romantic interest in the past—can be observed during the last three centuries of Irish history.

The first occurred during the 1780s, and was spearheaded by the Knights of Tara, a celebrated group of fencers and duelists which formed as a result of a “call to arms” issued in an Irish treatise on swordsmanship, entitled A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword (1781). This first wave of interest–mostly led by members of the Protestant ascendancy–coincided with the establishment of the militant Irish Volunteers, as well as with a resurgence of interest in ancient Gaelic Ireland (exemplified by the founding of the Royal Irish Academy in 1786). It also resulted in the publication of a number of treatises on the art and science of fencing with the sword and bayonet, written between 1783 and 1805, and, in many ways, peaked with the failed United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798.

The second martial revival occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century, and continued into the early twentieth. Just as in the case of the first wave, the second coincided with a resurgence of militant sentiment (which arose in Ireland during the 1890s), as well as with a renewed interest in traditional and ancient Irish Gaelic culture (referred to today as “the Gaelic Revival”)—all of which combined to manifest in new forms of cultural nationalism, such as the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, the Fianna Éireann, and the birth of more militant organizations such as Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

The first surge has already been written about at length in the newly published book, Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. It is the second wave, about which little has been written to date, that this article is concerned with.


During the 1890s, a few noted individuals became instrumental in confluence of the Gaelic Revival and the militant New Nationalism. Among the most prominent of these were Sir Roger Casement, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, Countess Markievicz, and Eoin MacNeill. The Gaelic revival may be briefly defined as the late-nineteenth-century national revival of interest in the Irish language and in old Irish Gaelic culture–which included folklore, sports, music, literature, and other arts. Pearse and MacNeill were especially noted leaders of both the Gaelic revival and militant revolutionary organizations.

Members of the Gaelic Revival: pipers from county Cork. An Claidheamh Soluis, April 18, 1914.

Indeed, the attempt to re-popularize the Irish language was considered to be related to the martial arts, as can be seen in the following passage, which appeared in the pages of the nationalist journal An Claidheamh Soluis on February 4, 1915:

Our duty is to guard the great gift [the Irish language] and preserve it. When a man is fighting for his life he must use the best weapon at his command. If he have not a machine gun or rifle or automatic pistol, then a blunderbuss is good. If he possess no firearms, a sword or pike is useful, and a bata or stone may disable the enemy and help to gain breathing space…The Irish language army is reduced, if not to the bata and the stone, to the conditions of guerilla warfare.

Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916) was at the forefront of the Irish militant circles which brought about the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1911, the Dublin-born Casement was made a knight for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Amazonian Indians. Such exploits gained him the notice and admiration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who based the character of Lord John Roxton in The Lost World on Casement, and who defended him till the very end. Casement would eventually be stripped of his knighthood due to his Irish revolutionary activity, and hanged. Prior to that, however, he was instrumental in the publication of the first handbook of the Fianna Éireann, an Irish nationalist youth organization founded in 1909. For this handbook, Casement wrote an essay on “Chivalry” which referenced ancient Irish history and mythology, and which compared Irish martial culture to that of the Japanese:

Fianna Éireann badge, with pike on sunburst. Source: National Museum of Ireland.

Na Fianna Eireann, long before Christianity came to our island revealed in their conduct the very virtues that Christian chivalry, in later ages, inculcated as essential to the order of knighthood. So, too, “Bushido” inspired in the Japanese a spirit of sacrifice, of daring and of unselfish devotion to chief and clan that in our day has made the armies of the Mikado more powerful than the mighty hosts of imperial Russia…a nation can only retain its chivalry by retaining its nationality; and it destroys this when it assails the national life of another people. It is because Ireland is guiltless in this, above all other lands, that we may hope to revive in her, as national life revives, the guiding impulse of her earlier years. (p. 76)

The Fianna Handbook also included an article by Patrick Pearse, and a series of illustrated bayonet exercises. Although, being targeted at youth, these exercises did not delve into the nuances of hand-to-hand combat, they nevertheless are indicative of an interest in the subject of martial education.

A specimen of Fianna weaponry resides in the National Museum of Ireland. This dagger was made to the design of Liam Mellows (1892-1922), a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, who would go on to participate in the Easter Rising and War of Independence. The dagger was made by James Lynam, a Fenian blacksmith of Athlone. The intent was that it could be carried in the stocking of the Fianna Éireann uniform, and used in the manner of a sgian dubh. It is not currently known how prevalent such daggers may have been.

Fianna Éireann dagger made by James Lynam. Source: National Museum of Ireland.

A number of photographs taken during this period show members of the Fianna Éireann posing with bayonets, sheathed at the hip in the manner of daggers:



The Irish Volunteers (in Irish, Óglaigh na hÉireann), also known as the Irish Volunteer Army, was a military organization established in 1913 by Irish nationalists. The Volunteers included members of the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin, and, secretly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was the forerunner of what would become the Irish Republican Army.

Noted leaders among the Volunteers included Roger Casement, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Eoin MacNeill (1867-1945)—a professor of early and medieval history at University College Dublin, and a secret member of the I.R.B.. In 1914, MacNeill was put in charge as editor of the the Volunteers’ official organ, An tÓglách, or, The Irish Volunteer, which aimed to provide guidance and to further develop the movement. Within the pages of this rare publication are to be found some of the most interesting and detailed methods of hand-to-hand combat propounded by early twentieth century Irish revolutionaries.

The methods of bayonet use presented in An tÓglách have their foundation and inspiration from mainland European techniques, as well as from British Army experience, which many Irish soldiers-turned-revolutionaries had obtained. And yet, there are many peculiarities in these methods well worth examining. Moreover, the approach taken by the writers of An tÓglách is one that is distinctly “Irish”—that is, modified to suit the particular landscapes and conditions of Ireland. This can be most clearly seen in the focus on “Hedge Fighting,” found throughout such martial writings, and which often mentioned the use of the pike:

Irish Volunteer, Jan 15, 1916.

It is also clear, in perusing these passages, that Irish revolutionaries were interested in looking back at the past—both for romantic and practical reasons. As one writer explained,

“The best available weapon may be the magazine rifle with bayonet, a rifle without a bayonet, a bayonet without a rifle, an automatic pistol, a common revolver, an old ’98 pike, and anything from that down to a pointed stick or a catapult, provided it can be handled so as to put the man on the other side out of action. While you are waiting for a present of a machine gun with ammunition for a whole campaign, get the thing you can get now, and exercise yourself with it till you feel sure that you can make the other man afraid of you.” – The Irish Volunteer, Vol. 2, No. 27.

Or, as another wrote,

“If it is contended that the rifle is better than the sword in a bayonet-charge, there is no reason why officers should not carry a half-pike or partisan, as they did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries…When the enemy is close at hand his revolver and pike should be a sufficient defence, if he knows how to use them.” – Irish Volunteer, March 25, 1916.

The Irish Volunteers were thereby ordered to immerse themselves in “physical culture” and to train in a variety of close-quarter combat methods; we find, for instance, the following prescribed in early 1916:

“If you can get a hall or house of sufficient size you should meet for indoor work once night every week, and for outdoor work every second Sunday…In addition to drill, Bayonet and pike fighting…if desired you can have physical drill, gymnastics, boxing, singlesticks, and so on.” Irish Volunteer, February 5, 1916.

A mounted leaflet in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, entitled Equipment – Fianna Fail – The Irish Volunteers, Leaflet A-1, outlined the prescribed kit for Volunteers and Officers in 1914. Regarding weapons, the Volunteers were to be armed with the following:


As to arms: rifle, with sling and cleaning outift; 100 rounds of ammunition, with bandolier or ammunition pouches to hold same; bayonet, with scabbard, frog and belt; strong knife or slasher.

Indeed, so keen was the interest in the martial methods utilized by Irish revolutionaries of the past, that–most impressively–several obscure treatises from previous centuries, evidently gleaned from old library shelves, were printed among the pages of the Irish Volunteer for the benefit of its readers. Such treatises included the Plan of Review for the Volunteer Corps which are to Assemble at Belfast in July 1782 (see Irish Volunteer, Vol. 1, No. 19 and 20), and the 1848 United Irishman “Pike Drill” by John Mitchel (see Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Feb. 27, 1915).

Irish Volunteer bayonet drill – 1st prize winners: Part of A Company, 4th Battalion, Dublin Brigade, at a tournament held at St. Enda’s College on September 5, 1915.



Bayonet drill was a common feature of Irish Volunteer exercise. Various essays and articles in An tÓglách advocate its use in both the conventional sense, as well as in the manner of a club or (detached) dagger. An official and fully detailed method of bayonet combat, by F.P. Mullin, was published in the journal, intended for all recruits. This method can be read in full by clicking on this link.

In addition to the foregoing, numerous “hints” on the use of the bayonet, such as the following, were also published in the pages of An tÓglách:

“There are very few countries in the world in which bayonet fighting would play so large a part in warfare as in Ireland, and consequently instruction in the use of the bayonet should be a prominent aspect of the training of the Irish Volunteers. This will naturally include instruction in the actual bayonet exercises and in bayonet fencing, which must be taught by an instructor; but there are also a great number of useful hints to be picked up without actual practical demonstration.

“Thus it is easy to explain the easiest way to carry the rifle with the bayonet fixed when running forward in a change. It should be held with both hands in front of the body—left just inside the sling, right at the small of the stock—in the position of Port Arms. The weight feels least in this position, and from it one can easily assume the attack. If you try running with the rifle in this position you will at once see how easily it comes.

Irish Volunteer, Dec. 11, 1915.

“When arriving opposite the hostile line choose your opponent and attack him vigorously in whatever way seems to give the best opening. If you miss your attack and he is not in a position to counter-attack close and grapple with him if you are a bigger man; if not, resume the attack with your bayonet at the first chance.

“As a rule thrust low at the body; the face is a smaller mark and the chest is protected by the bones. If you disable your own antagonist look round to see if you cannot help one of your comrades. They should also come to your aid if you are hard pressed.

“If fighting a mounted man keep on his left or near side. He must then use his sword across his bridle arm, where his reach is much shorter and his parries much weaker. If he tries to ride you down, thrust at his horse and then attack him if the horse gets out of hand, as will probably be the case.

Rifle drill in Irish. From the Irish Volunteer, Dec. 25, 1915.

“When awaiting an enemy at night the best way is to kneel with your weapon in readiness. Then when the opponent’s figure is outlined against the background and he is near enough, spring up and lunge hard at the middle of the body.

“Always disentangle your bayonet at once—you will probably be attacked by a second man after you have disabled the first. Set your left foot on the body and pull: then you are ready to get on guard at once.

“Always attack whenever possible and attack fiercely. Bayonet fighting is not a game: it is brutal business, to be finished as soon as possible. But see to it that it finishes with your side on top.” – Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Dec 26, 1914.

“Always attack: should an attack fail, follow it up with a second before your opponent can attack: keep him on the defensive. If you have to defend for a time, always be on the look-out for a chance to resume the offensive.

“Always cast a hasty glance round with a view to secure the best footing.

“In personal combat watch your opponent’s eyes if you can see them plainly. If you can’t, watch the movements of his weapon or body: this will mostly be the case in night attacks.

“Keep the body well covered and attack vigorously. Keep your point as nearly as possible in the line of attack. The less the piece if moved up, down, or to either side, the readier you are for attack or defence.

Members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, armed with bayonets, inside the General Post Office, Dublin, 1916.

“Always watch for a chance to attack your opponent’s left hand: it is the nearest to you.

“The butt is used for close, sudden attacks.

“Against a man on foot armed with a sword, be careful he doesn’t grasp the muzzle of your piece. He will try his hardest to get past the bayonet. Attack him with short, stabbing thrusts, and keep him beyond striking distance of his weapon.

“Against odds a small party of men can fight to best advantage by grouping themselves so as to prevent their being attacked from behind.” – Irish Volunteer, Sept 4, 1915.


“At close quarters the rifle—even without the bayonet fixed—is a formidable weapon in the hands of a soldier who knows how to use it. A shot-gun is practically as good a weapon as the rifle in the same conditions.

“There are two ways in which the butt of the rifle or shot-gun can be used. In the first the weapon is held as if for bayonet combat, the right hand at the small of the stock, the left just inside the sling of the rifle or mid-way on the barrel in the case of a shot-gun. A terrific blow can be delivered by holding the left hand in front of the junction of the neck and left shoulder and smashing up the butt by straightening the right arm; the muzzle of the piece then points back over the left shoulder, and the butt crashes into the opponent’s face. The same blow may be delivered at the pit of the stomach: a single glance will show which of the two points of attack promises best.

“The second form of attack is by swinging the piece like a club. Grasp the barrel firmly with both hands—hands together—about six inches from the muzzle: swing it up over the right shoulder so that the butt is a little behind the line of the shoulder. Don’t bring it back very far or you’ll lose control and the weapon will put a dead weight on your wrists. The arms should not be fully straightened. Smash the rifle down on your opponent’s head. In this case the head is the point of attack because if your rifle drops too far you lose control.

“There is just a single case where you could select another point of attack. If your opponent is on a slight height over you—for instance, a man on a blank thrusting at you—you will probably be able to break his leg by a smashing blow near the knee. The solider who knows these few points is a formidable enemy even after his ammunition is all fired away, and even if he has no bayonet at all.” – Irish Volunteer, December 12, 1914.


M1871 sword bayonet as used by members of the Irish Volunteers.

“A Military Causerie.

“When the soldier jumps down into a trench full of enemies—as he must do when charging unless he remains above to be shot—he is no longer able to use rifle or bayonet to advantage. He is like a man in a close crowd, who cannot draw back his weapon so as to make it effective. Accordingly we read of men taking off the bayonet to use it by hand, and also of men resorting to their fists. Everything points to the advisability of a short knife or dirk being at instant command when the jump into the trench is made. And this is not for thrusting forward, as in striking a blow, but for back-handed action, the arm being swung with the blade projecting—a dagger action, in fact, which is much the quickest and most effective way of dealing with an enemy who is close up to you. The mode of use would be to have it out just before jumping into the trench, and to swing it into the face of the nearest man, and as rapidly as possible into the faces of as many men as can be reached—no stabbing at the body. The purpose should be to “flabbergast” your man more than merely to wound. A jab in the face is the best way of getting in first, which is everything in a hand-to-hand struggle, and a most disconcerting injury.—Well, boys, why not get a few knives?” – Irish Volunteer, February 26, 1916.

Another article published in the Volunteer considered similar advice from an Australian report:

“Another recommendation was that the pike-head should be detachable so as to be capable of being used as a dagger upon occasion…For more than a year past Headquarters have pointed out a general similarity between modern trench warfare and fighting in an intersected country like Ireland.” – Irish Volunteer, Jan 15, 1916.



Irish Volunteer, Oct. 24, 1914.

Perhaps no weapon has been more associated with Irish military history than the pike. The arm 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. 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.

British soldier with Irish pikes captured during the Easter Rising. The Great War Newspaper, 1916.

Later, too, the weapon would continue to see limited use during the Easter Rising of 1916, as well as in the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War. According to an article by Lar Joye,

Pikes used in 1916, National Museum of Ireland.

“On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, a small group of Irish Citizen Army soldiers under Captain Seán Connolly…attacked the centre of British administration in Ireland—Dublin Castle…The insurgents, despite being few and poorly armed, succeeded in taking the guardroom but failed to take control of the castle, leaving this pike behind when they retreated….This pike represents the reality for nationalists throughout the period from 1912 to 1922—the lack of modern weapons. During the nineteenth century the pike had become the definitive symbol of Irish revolt, especially after the 1798 Rebellion, and it was recommended in 1914 that Irish Volunteers who could not afford to buy or procure a rifle should use a pike as a substitute.” (History Ireland)

Pike use during the Irish War of Independence was also recounted by IRA veteran James J. Comerford in the exceedingly rare My Kilkenny I.R.A. Days: 1916-22 (Dinan Pub. Co., 1980). In the pages of his memoir, Comerford recounted that the volunteers of Muckalee parish “made pikes–patterned after the ’98 Wexford pikes.” He further related:

“Handles for the pikes were scarce. Expected to be six or seven feet in length, they were difficult to obtain in places outside of timber saw mills in towns. Shovel handles, sprong and fork handles could be had easily, but these were too short for Pikes. In actual combat, where lives would be at stake, a six foot pike handle gave the Irish Volunteer a chance in hand to hand fighting to outreach the English Soldier with his Rifle and Bayonet on close combat conditions. It gave the Irish volunteer some time to see the whites of the English Soldier’s eyes when he was parrying with him while waiting for an opportunity to thrust his pike into the Soldier’s body. Killing or wounding was the name of the game in Bayonet and Pike fighting.” (p. 102)

Comerford continues to recount specific instances of pike use in several other sections of his book (see pages 100-104, 187, 215, 772-775).

Kilmurry Volunteers carry pikes through the streets of Cork with hundreds of others in the city’s 1916 St Patrick’s Day parade. Source: Niall Murray’s blog.

Following is a selection of instructions and “hints” on pike use which appeared in the Irish Volunteer. The author of the first piece is none other than Séamas Ó hAodha (James J. Hughes)–a noted member of the Gaelic League, the secretary of Cumann na nGael, and an intelligence officer under Michael Collins.

“The suggestion that the pike should be revived in our day as an arm for the Volunteers has had a mixed reception. The most frequent objection is that it is not a modern weapon, and that it is no substitute for the magazine rifle and bayonet. On the other hand, it is fairly well agreed by all that, for man-to-man fighting, the pike would be superior on the grounds of lightness, handiness and length to its shorter, heavier, and clumsier rival. Many who admit this advantage are afraid of the ridicule its appearance in the 20th century would surely elicit from the adorers of modernism. The only substantial objection seems to be that pikemen as such could be easily slaughtered from a distance by an enemy armed with the rifle, it being impossible for a man to use a modern rifle and a pike at the same time.

“Superiority in fighting is extremely valuable in view of the large proportion of recent battles where the issue has been decided with cold steel. There is no reason why this superiority should not be at once gained by the Irish Volunteers without any corresponding disadvantage when in the Mauser automatic pistol we have a first class weapon of fire, sighted to 1,000 yards, with which our pikemen could be equipped and thereby rendered equally formidable at a distance….One hundred pikemen armed with Mauser auto pistols could be attached to every battalion and would be the most modern and efficient arm in Europe when properly trained.

“These two weapons are eminently suited to the Irish temperament and the topography of the country. The thousands of trained hurlers through the country would be magnificent material for pikemen, trained in a body, foot and eye, for their work. The broken nature of the surface in Ireland would make a range of more than 1,000 yards rare for engagements. We would thus have combined in the pike corps all that is most efficient in steel and bullet. A point or two not to be forgotten may be mentioned. Pikes can be made at once locally and for a few shillings…The fact that 100 men in a battalion carried pikes would not prevent the remaining 900 from carrying bayonets; in other words, the pike would not replace the bayonet; it would supplement it. Let those light-brained people who believe that to conform sheepishly in everything to the accepted notions of the day is to be most progressive and efficient enjoy their laugh to their heart’s content at the expense of the pikemen. If ten or twenty thousand Volunteers can be armed in a few weeks with the most perfect in-fighting weapon known, their strength as an army will be immensely increased (pending a fuller supply of rifles.) If in addition these men carry the most deadly of modern firearms, we will then be in the very vanguard of military progress.


– Irish Volunteer, August 8, 1914

Eire, November 6, 1914.


“Our Volunteers are possibly not fully informed about the numerous occasions on which battles have been won by hand-to-hand fighting. It is a matter of history that not once nor twice but many times disciplined forces armed with modern rifles have been wiped out by a rush of spearmen. It is a great mistake to suppose that these cases were accidental, as is often heard. They were not. Like any other military manoeuvre, the rush of spearmen succeeded when the conditions favoured it, and failed when the conditions were against it. [Continues to cite anecdotes from history of British failures in Eygpt and Sudan.]

“The lessons of these fierce encounters in the Sudan are well worth pondering. It should be borne in mind, too, that the bodies of spearmen concerned were very large and consequently difficult to handle. The task of a small body fighting a corresponding body of regular troops would be much simpler.

“The Volunteers as a whole do not seem to realize the great importance of hand-to-hand fighting. There is no reason for this, because Headquarters has urged the need for training in this particular branch of the soldier’s business often enough, both in orders and in the official organ. It cannot be too forcibly impressed upon our men that there is no more important point than this, for many reasons.

“The temperament of the Irishman causes him to excel in close fighting. He is essentially an attacker, and is active in body and quick in mind. His ready presence of mind enables him to defend his life in the quick, sudden exchanges that occur constantly in the bayonet combat. There is no need to lay any additional stress on this point: the present European war has furnished numerous incidents proving that the same aptitude exists now in as great a degree as it ever did.

“Again, it should be borne in mind that the ground in Ireland is very suitable for this style of fighting. “Close country—close fighting:” this is an invariable rule. Just as on the veldt in South Africa long-range shooting was customary, so in Ireland a main reliance would always be the bayonet.” – Irish Volunteer, July 3, 1915.

“Certain of the Volunteer officers favour the adoption of the pike as the best arm for the officers and sergeants, and a very strong case can be made out for it. First of all it is desirable that, if possible, the officer should have a distinctive weapon: it is a badge of authority on parade, and on service points him out as the man to look to for guidance. The objection that in battle it draws the hostile fire upon him is not so strong in Ireland, where good cover is everywhere obtainable, as elsewhere.

“In particular there is the objection to uniform armament among the Volunteers. The officer armed with a rifle—especially if better than an average shot, as many Volunteer officers are—is sorely tempted to devote his attention to picking off some of the enemy. Instead his aim should he to direct the fire of his own men. It is poor fire-control for one picked shot to ‘snipe’ half-a-dozen while the 30 odd men under him fire into the ground twenty yards to their front.

“This would not be a new departure, either. In the English Army up to and during the Peninsular War all leaders of sections carried a pike, or halbert, as it was called. The idea was precisely the same—increased facilities of fire-direction; and that the custom was not detrimental to military efficiency is evident from the success of the English Army at that time, when it was better than ever before or since. The new custom could be introduced by the officers carrying pikes when route marching.” – Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Feb. 27, 1915.

“DISPOSITION or a Small Force on the Defensive.”


Advertisement for pikes in Eire, Nov. 7, 1914.

“There remains to be considered the question of supports. It may happen that the fire of the firing-line is not by itself sufficent to repel the attack, and that a counter-attack may prove necessary. For this, the dependence must be upon the supports, who should be held in a distinct body. Experience in Flanders has proved that the best method of action by the support is as follows:—

“They are posted as near the firing-line as circumstances allow, and when advancing do not fire at all, but rely on the bayonet.

“This again is a point of special interest to the Volunteers. From the nature of the case it has been found advisable to arm a certain proportion of the men with pikes; and these, evidently, are the men to form the supports. They are posted within easy rushing distance—say 50 yards or less: they are fresh, and have the advantage of surprise in their attack. In such a case their action should be instantly and speedily effective. All that is needed is proper foresight in deciding on the direction of the attack. It should always be delivered against a flank if possible.

“This will often be decided by the following circumstance. Frequently in a combat of this nature the assailant will expose a flank: in fact, for every separate field he advances across he exposes two flanks—and he is powerless to avoid this. Hedges and fences running parallel to the direction of the advance and perpendicular to the line of the defender’s position inevitably split up his front into fragments. Consequently it will often be possible to select the point of counter-attack well ahead and take suitable measures for the disposal of the supports accordingly.

“It will form a very instructive exercise for the commanders of Volunteer corps to carry out a defence on lines like those indicated—the attacking force being imaginary. Half the corps with rifles form the firing-line, and the other half with pikes the supports. The point is that if proper use is made of the enclosed nature of the country a force half armed with pikes can be considered as fully armed. At all events, that is the experience of the French and German armies.”

– Irish Volunteer, August 7, 1915.


“It might easily happen that pikemen would be required to hold some point such as a bridge, barricade, or the like against a body of horsemen, and naturally in such a case their success would depend entirely upon their individual readiness and skill-at-arms.

Irish Volunteer, Oct. 24, 1914.

“In such encounters it would often happen that the charging horsemen would be to some extent protected by their horses from a direct attack, and in this case the proper method is to attack the horse first and then the rider when he loses control.

“The most obvious point of attack and the nearest to hand is the chest, but this is not at all the best way. First of all, if the horse is so hard stricken as to be brought down, he falls forward on to the weapon and forces it from the pikeman’s grasp; and at the same time the rider—if any sort of a horseman—can slide easily out of the saddle, and while doing so whip out his carbine and do considerable damage. On the other hand, if the horse is only slightly wounded and not brought down he plunges madly forward and throws the opposing ranks into confusion, in which case the pikemen are speedily ridden over by succeeding troopers.

“But suppose the pikeman on the contrary thrusts at the head or neck—preferably the nose. In that case the horse rears at once and the rider is hard set to keep in his seat. In this case the pike is disengaged and the pikeman is very well places for a thrust at the horseman before the latter can recover control. In addition the horse swerving round now disorganizes his own ranks and not those of the pikemen. Accordingly, the invariable rule is: When attacking a horse thrust at the head. Naturally this applies in the case of a man armed with rifle and bayonet with the same force, except that his weapon being shorter is a trifle easier to disengage.” – Irish Volunteer, July 3, 1915.



Cutting exercises shown in Manual of the Sword.

The sword received less attention in Volunteer literature than the pike or bayonet. However, a few references can be found. We know that militant Irish publications advocated training in the use of the “singlestick” (Irish Volunteer, Feb. 5, 1916), which was the training weapon for the saber or broadsword. Likewise, the sword was a prescribed sidearm for Volunteer Officers.  A 1914 leaflet, entitled Fianna Fail – The Irish Volunteers, now in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, declared,

The following are the articles prescribed by Headquarters for the personal equipment of Vounteers on field service…


As to arms: automatic pistol, or revolver, with ammunition for same, in lieu of rifle; sword, sword bayonet, or short lance.

An Irish Volunteer’s equipment, ca. 1913-1921. Source: Whyte’s Auctions.

Volunteer Officers were frequently photographed wearing their swords. The photograph below, courtesy of collector Conchúir O’Duilacháin, shows several Irish Volunteers with their swords. On the left is Edward Daly, the commandant of Dublin’s 1st Battalion during the Easter Rising of 1916, for his role in which he was later executed.

Photograph courtesy of collector Conchúir O’Duilacháin,

Following are images of an antique Irish Volunteer sword, courtesy of collector Derek Jones:

Irish Volunteer Officer’s sword. Photograph courtesy of collector Derek Jones.

Detail of hilt of Irish Volunteer Officer’s sword. Photograph courtesy of collector Derek Jones.

A rare manuscript on the use of the sword, simply entitled Manual of the Sword, was written between 1923 and 1925, and can be found in the former Papers of Colonel Padraig O’Connor (now in private hands). This treatise is only about ten pages long, and it has not been the good fortune of this author to have access to it. However, this text may have been the basis for the much longer Manual of the Sword, published by the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) in the years to come, and shown here. Although mostly treating of the ceremonial use of the sword, this booklet presumes a basic knowledge of fencing (for instance, the use of tierce and quarte) and includes “wrist exercises” utilizing circular cuts similar to the moulinets of classical fencing.

Irish Free State officer’s sword, ca. 1930. Source: Whyte’s Auctions.

“Sword drill under supervision of Capt Flanagan and Capt Nolan at McKee Barracks Dublin,” March 12, 1927.



During the initial outbreak of the revolution in 1916, the bayonet and pike saw use in various battles and skirmishes, including those which took place in Dublin on Easter Monday, April 24. The bayonet was also pivotal to the Volunteer’s victory at the battle of Ashbourne, which took place four days later on April 28, 1916:

“Following a five hour long gun battle it was a bayonet charge led by Richard Mulcahy which finally broke the moral of the RIC. However the bayonet was employed by the forces under Thomas Ashe’s command from the very start, earlier on the morning of the battle…” – Battle Of Ashbourne 1916, Commeration 2016

Despite their vast training in pike, bayonet, and hand-to-hand combat methods, however, the prime focus of the Irish Volunteers was always on marksmanship and firepower. In the years following the Easter Rising of 1916, the tactics of the Volunteers were thoroughly revised by Michael Collins, the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army. Determined to avoid the large-scale engagements which had resulted in massive military and civilian losses, Collins devised new guerrilla tactics relying almost exclusively on firearms, and embodied by ambush and hit-and-run tactics utilized by the I.R.A.’s “flying columns.”

Thus, in the end, hand-to-hand combat techniques did not play a pivotal or prominent role in the Irish War of Independence or Civil War, although such weapons and techniques were used to some degree (see, for instance, the anecdotes recounted in Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days In Ireland, and in Comerford’s My Kilkenny I.R.A. Days: 1916-22). Nevertheless, the prolific interest in these methods shown by the Volunteers provides interesting insight into the role of the martial arts in Irish history and culture.

In the years following the end of the Irish Civil War, the Irish Free State’s Department of Defence published a number of texts, often in both English and Irish, concerning the use of the bayonet, which possibly represent a continuity of the techniques utilized by Volunteers:

Bilingual Irish-English Free State text: Drill Arm le Muscaeid. Rialachain Forsai Cosanta (Baile Atha Cliath: Oifig an tSolathair).

Today, the Irish Defence Forces still include bayonet training among their curricula–though, by all appearances, these modern, extremely simplified techniques bear little resemblance to the more sophisticated, fencing-based methods used in Ireland during the early twentieth century.

The author would like to thank collectors Conchúir O’Duilacháin and Derek Jones for generously sharing their photographs of Irish militaria for inclusion in this article.

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 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.

Colonel Thomas H. Monstery and the Use of the Quarterstaff

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

Martial Arts New York

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

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

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

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

View original post 4,027 more words

The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History

In Bizarre and Unusual, Customs and Traditions, Edwardian Era, Middle Ages, Military, Renaissance on March 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm

By Ben Miller

When asked to recall a great martial artist of African descent born in the Americas, the average person is likely to mention a twentieth-century boxer such as Joe Louis, or a more recent exponent of the Asian martial arts, such as Jim Kelly. Or, those of the younger generation might name the modern mixed martial arts competitor Anderson Silva, regarded by some as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time.

What many do not know is that in centuries past, some of the greatest practitioners of European martial arts were of African descent.

Although Africans brought a number of their own indigenous techniques with them to Europe and the Americas (as can be read about here), they also sometimes trained in, adopted, and excelled at European swordsmanship—also known as classical and historical fencing.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was even possible (albeit difficult) for a person of African descent to achieve renown to such a point that they would be revered, and even sought for instruction, by whites—and the historical record shows that such was the case for multiple individuals.

This is not to in any way minimize the oppression and ordeals that African Americans and African Europeans endured in the past. Rather, it is a testament to the extraordinary skill, ability, dedication, and perseverance of these individuals, which allowed them to triumph–at least as much as was possible–over the prejudices of their time, and ascend to the highest ranks of martial achievement.

An early instance of one such person can be found as early as 1733, when the following advertisement appeared in a southern Colonial newspaper, informing the public about a runaway slave or indentured servant:

“Run away, from Mr. Alex. Vanderdussen’s Plantation at Goose-Creek, a Negro Man named Thomas Butler, the famous Pushing and Dancing Master.” – South-Carolina Gazette (Whitmarsh), May 19 to May 26, 1733.

In eighteenth century terminology, to “Push” was to launch an attack with the smallsword, a fact which confirms that Thomas Butler was a fencing master—and one who had achieved some degree of fame, at least on a local scale. Butler was apparently so esteemed that in July of 1734, his former master was impelled to post the following additional notice:

“Whereas Thomas Butler, Fencing Master, has been runaway these two years since, and has been entertained by several gentlemen about Ferry who pretend not to know that he had a master, this is therefore desired that they would not do the like in the future…” – South-Carolina Gazette, July 20, 1734

These passages are all the more remarkable when one considers that they are the earliest known reference to a fencing master in the American South—the next being Edward Blackwell, who in 1734 posthumously published his treatise on the art of fencing. Although not much else is known about Thomas Butler, the above passages prove that as early as the 1730s, it was not impossible to achieve fame and esteem as a black martial artist (and instructor) in white society. This article will profile three of the greatest such individuals—the Chevalier de Saint Georges, Jean Louis-Michel, and Basile Croquere.


Historical Background


As far back as the age of antiquity, there is evidence of martial artists of African descent testing their abilities in Europe. In ancient Rome, numerous African gladiators, mainly from Ethiopia, fought in the arenas made famous at Pompeii and the Coliseum. Most were, of course, brought to Rome as slaves; however, some gladiators were able to win their freedom due to their celebrated fighting ability, and even continued to fight in the arenas. Although a period image of African gladiators wielding swords could not be found for this article, on the right is a mosaic depicting an Ethiopian retiarius, or net-and-trident-wielding gladiator, currently housed at the Musée Granet, Aix en Provence, France. Likewise, below is a photograph of two ancient roman terracotta statues, probably from the 2nd or 1st century BC, depicting two African pugilists appearing to wield the cestus, a fighting glove sometimes used in pankration. Made of leather strips, cesti were sometimes filled with iron plates or fitted with blades or spikes, and could be devastating weapons.

As early as the late middle ages, people of African descent began appearing in European treatises on swordsmanship and the martial arts, such as the book of Hans Talhoffer (1467), plates of which are featured below:


Above: Plates from the work of Hans Tallhoffer (thanks to Michael Chidester for locating these images)

Above: Plates from the work of Hans Tallhoffer (thanks to Michael Chidester for locating these images)

About seventy-five years later, combatants of African descent were also illustrated in the martial arts treatise of Paulus Hector Mair (1542).

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair's De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source:

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source:


Above: A fencer of African descent, wielding an early rapier (or “sidesword”) pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source:

Later, in 1657, a highly detailed account of Africans practicing European swordsmanship was sent down by Richard Ligon:

Some of [the African servants], who have been bred up amongst the Portugals, have some extraordinary qualities, which the others have not; as singing and fencing. I have seen some of these Portugal Negres, at Colonel James Draxes, play at Rapier and Dagger very skillfully, with their Stookados [Stoccatos], their Imbrocados, and their Passes: And at single Rapier too, after the manner of Charanza [Carranza], with such comeliness; as, if the skill had been wanting, the motions would have pleased you; but they were skilful too, which I perceived by their binding with their points, and nimble and subtle avoidings with their bodies, and the advantages the strongest man had in the close , which the other avoided by the nimbleness and skillfulness of his motion. For, in this Science, I had bin so well vers’d in my youth, as I was now able to be a competent Judge. Upon their first appearance upon the Stage, they march towards one another, with a slow majestick pace, and a bold commanding look, as if they meant both to conquer and coming neer together, they shake hands, and embrace one another, with a cheerful look. But their retreat is much quicker then their advance, and, being at first distance, change their countenance, and put themselves into their postures and so after a pass or two, retire, and then to’t again: And when they have done their play, they embrace, shake hands, and putting on their smoother countenances, give their respect to their Master, and so go off.

– Richard Ligon, A true & exact history of the island of Barbados, 1657.

Ligon’s account provides evidence that despite their low social status, people of African descent living in the American colonies were sometimes allowed—even encouraged—to train with various weapons, including the rapier and dagger, and became skilled at multiple styles—including Italian rapier fencing, as well as the profound system of Spanish swordsmanship (La Verdadera Destreza) founded by Jerónimo de Carranza.

Portrait of a Moor by Jan Mostaert, early 16th century

Colonists of African descent also undoubtedly learned from less savory channels such as piracy; an estimated one-third of pirates during this period were black, and in such company, knowledge of swordsmanship was paramount. The following passage, culled from Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pirates (1728), gives rise to the possibility that black members had access to sword instruction:

“[Pirate Captain] Misson took upon him the Command of 100 Negroes, who were well disciplin’d, (for every Morning they had been used to perform their Exercise, which was taught them by a French Serjeant, one of their Company, who belong’d to the [ship] Victoire)…”

During the early 1700s, a number of swordsmen of African descent also fought as gladiators in the British colonies. Although these highly ritualized combats took place in locations as remote as Jamaica, Barbados, and rural Ireland, during the seventeenth century the most popular setting for such fights was undoubtedly the infamous “Bear Garden” in Southwark, London. In 1672, a Frenchman named Josevin de Rocheford visited the Bear Garden and observed:

“We went to the ‘Bergiardin’, where combats are fought by all sorts of animals, and sometimes men, as we once saw. Commonly, when any fencing-masters are desirous of showing their courage and great skill, they issue mutual challenges, and before they engage parade the town with drums and trumpets sounding, to inform the public there is a challenge between two brave masters of the science of defence, and that the battle will be fought on such a day.”

What followed these processions was violent and often gruesome. On the appointed day, to the sound of trumpets and beating drums, the two combatants would ascend the stage, strip to their chests, and, on a signal from the drum, draw their weapons and commence fighting. The combat would continue until one man conceded, or was unable to continue. In de Rocheford’s account, the combatants continue fighting while enduring horrific wounds, including severed ears, sliced-off scalps and half-severed wrists. Bouts occurred with different types of weapons, including longsword, backsword, cudgel, foil, single rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and gauntlet, falchion, flail, pike, halberd, and quarterstaff. Although such fights were not intended to end in death, the wounds received were often serious enough to incur it.

At least a small number of these gladiators are recorded as being of African descent. One of the earliest known instances was in May of 1701, when “George Nervil Turner, a Black, Master of the Small Sword,” who had “fought several Prizes,” and “William Tompson, a Black…Master of the Science of Defence,” appeared at the Bear Garden in London, challenging several other gladiators to a contest with sharp weapons. It was announced that “all four do intend to fight a double Prize, James Harris and William Page against the two Blacks…by reason each man doth intend to exercise the six usual Weapons.”

Another such example was “Thomas Phillips, the Black from Jamaica, Master of the Noble Science of Defence,” who fought in at least several public contests between 1724 and 1725. Many of these public challenges were racially charged (a common feature of the period), as can be seen in the following specimen, published on September 14, 1724, and fought between Phillips and a white Englishman named Robert Carter:

During the early 18th century, an English fencing treatise entitled “The Art of Defence,” printed and sold by one “John King”, was published containing several plates in which black fencers demonstrated various fencing techniques:

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart.”

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart.”

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand.

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand.

Although such illustrations were the exception rather than the rule, they provide further evidence that blacks could be regarded as potentially serious fencers. In fact, one such fencer—Julius Soubise (1754-1798), a freed Afro-Caribbean slave, was hired to be the personal fencing instructor to Catherine Hyde, the Duchess of Queensbury, and was sent to train under Domenico Angelo, one the most renowned European fencing masters.

Also at this time emerged one of one the greatest fencers of all time, who just happened to be of African descent.


The Chevalier de Saint-Georges


Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799) was born in Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and an African slave named Nanon. Although his father also had many white children, he took a special liking to Joseph, and in 1753 took his son, age seven, to France, where he began his education in a variety of arts including fencing.

According to the son of the fencing master La Boëssière, “At 15 his [Saint-Georges’] progress was so rapid, that he was already beating the best swordsmen, and at 17 he developed the greatest speed imaginable.”

He was still a student when he publicly defeated Alexandre Picard, a renowned fencing-master in Rouen who had foolishly referred to Saint-Georges as “Boëssière’s mulatto.” Heny Angelo, son of the famous Domenico (and a highly reputed fencing master in his own right) often went to fence with Saint-Georges while in Paris, and wrote about him in his memoirs:

“No man ever united so much suppleness with so much strength. He excelled in all the bodily exercises in which he engaged…He was a skillful horseman and remarkable shot; he rarely missed his aim when his pistol was once before the mark…but the art in which he surpassed all his contemporaries and predecessors was fencing. No professor or amateur ever showed so much accuracy and quickness. His attacks were a perpetual series of hits; his [parry] was so close that it was in vain to attempt to touch him; in short, he was all nerve.”

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D'Eon

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D’Eon. Source: Wikipedia

Angelo also related some details about Saint-Georges in the following anecdote, regarding an episode wherein the two crossed blades:

“It may not be unworthy of remark that from his being much taller, and, consequently, possessing a greater length of lunge, I found that I could not depend upon my attacks unless I closed with him. The consequence was, upon my adopting that measure, the hit I gave him was so ‘palpable’ that it threw open his waistcoat, which so enraged him that, in his fury, I received a blow from the pommel of his foil on my chin, the mark of which I still retain. It may be remarked of that celebrated man that, although he might be considered as a lion with a foil in his hand, the contest over he was as docile as a lamb, for soon after the above engagement, when seated to rest himself, he said to me: ‘Mon cher ami, donnez-moi votre main; nous tirons tous les jours ensemble.’”

Although there are too many anecdotes about Saint-George’s prowess to recount here, one of the best comes from Alfred Hutton, and occurred in Dunkirk.

Saint-Georges was attending a party with a large number of ladies, when a Captain of the Hussars began boasting of his own skill in fencing—oblivious to the identity of Saint Georges. The latter calmly asked the captain, “That is interesting…but did you ever happen to meet with the celebrated Saint-Georges?” The Captain responded: “”Saint Georges? Oh yes; I have fenced with him many a time. But he is no good; I can touch him just when I please.” Whereupon Saint-Georges challenged the Captain to a bout at foils on the spot. Hutton’s account continues:

“The Captain, seeing that he is opposed to a man much older than himself, is inclined to treat him with contempt, when the veteran fencer calmly turns to the ladies and asks them to name the particular buttons on the gentleman’s coat which they would like him to touch. They select half a dozen or so.

The pair engage. The famous swordsman plays with his man for a few minutes for the benefit of his audience, and then proceeds to hit each of the named buttons in rapid succession, and finishes by sending the foil of his vainglorious enemy flying out of his hand, to the great delight of the ladies, and the discomfited Captain is so enraged that he wants to make the affair a serious one [a duel] there and then. His victorious opponent corrects him with: “Young gentlemen, such an encounter could have but one ending. Be advised; reserve your forces for the service of your country. Go, and you may at last tell your friends with truth that you have crossed foils with me. My name is Saint Georges.”

Saint-Georges also became a respected music composer, and became the instructor of Queen Marie Antoinette. In her diary, the Queen referred to Saint-Georges as her “favorite American.”

Sketch entitled "St. Georges and the Dragon," depicting Saint-Georges boxing

Sketch entitled “St. Georges and the Dragon,” depicting Saint-Georges boxing. Source:

Not one to forget his African roots, Saint-Georges was also an ardent and active abolitionist, stating in public, “The slave trade is a barbarous practice and must be eliminated.” Saint-Georges’s activism drew the ire from many in the slave trade, who attempted to silence him with violence—attempts which were thwarted by the Chevalier’s considerable martial prowess:

“Early in July [1789], walking home from Greenwich, a man armed with a pistol demanded his purse. The Chevalier disarmed the man… but when four more rogues hidden until then attacked him, he put them all out of commission. M. de Saint Georges received only some contusions which did not keep him from going on that night to play music in the company of friends.”

The Journal General de France, on February 23, 1790, also reported that: “the Chevalier was peacefully walking to Greenwich one night where he was going to make music in a house where he was awaited when he was suddenly attacked by four men armed with pistols. Nevertheless he managed to drive them off with the help of his stick.”

Saint-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L'arche Marion

Saint-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L’arche Marion. Source: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saint Georges also commanded, as colonel, the first all-black military regiment in Europe, a unit that came to be known as St. Georges’s Légion. Among its officers was a lieutenant colonel named Thomas Alexandre Dumas. The father of the famous novelist, Dumas would go on to become a general in Revolutionary France, and the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army.

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:

Saint Georges was evidently looked upon by the French with great veneration, for a number of drawings and paintings of fencing salles show his famous portrait displayed upon the wall with considerable prominence:

Angelo's famous Salle d'Armes, displaying Saint-George's portrait

Angelo’s famous Salle d’Armes, displaying Saint-George’s portrait

Although Saint Georges passed away in 1799, his name and image is venerated among classical and historical fencers throughout the world.


Jean-Louis Michel


“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.” – Lafcadio Hearn, 1886

Jean-Louis was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) in 1785, the son of a French fencing master. Later, he served as a soldier in Napoleon’s army.

His most famous exploit as a duelist was a regimental “mass” duel that took place near Madrid, Spain, in 1814. French soldiers from the 32nd Regiment and Italian soldiers from the 1st Regiment quarreled. Within 40 minutes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen Italian fencing masters in succession:

The regiments were assembled in a hollow square on a plain outside Madrid. At its center was a natural elevation forming a platform where, two at a time, 30 champions would duel for the honor of 10,000 men. As the premier fencing master of the 32d Regiment, Jean-Louis was the first up. His opponent was Giacomo Ferrari, a celebrated Florentine swordsman and fencing master of the First Regiment.

Drums rolled. The troops were ordered to parade rest, and as they slammed down the butts of their muskets in unison, the earth shook. Jean-Louis and Giacomo Ferrari stepped onto the fencing strip, each stripped to the waist to show that they wore nothing that would turn a thrust. An expectant silence filled the air as every eye was fixed on the two masters…

The fencing masters crossed swords and the bout began. Ferrari took the offensive, but Jean-Louis followed all his 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. “It is nothing, start the fight again!” cried Ferrari, getting back to his feet. Jean-Louis’ next thrust struck home, and Ferrari fell dead.

Jean-Louis wiped the blood from his blade, resumed his first position, and waited. His battle had only begun. The victor in each bout was to continue until he was injured or killed, and Jean-Louis still faced 14 swordsmen of the 1st Regiment, all of them eager to avenge their comrade.

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.

The next man approached. The regiments watched in fascinated silence. They were accustomed to the wholesale music of slaughter: the booming of artillery, the bursting of shells, the rattle of musketry, the clash of sabers. All are impressive, but none so keenly painful as the thin whisk of steel against steel as men engage in single combat. As one contemporary observer wrote, “it goes clean through the mind and makes the blood of the brain run cold.”

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

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

After 40 minutes only two Italian provosts were left awaiting their turn, pale but resolved. A truce was called, and the colonel of the 32d approached Jean-Louis.

“Maitre,” he said, “you have valiantly defended the regiment’s honor, and in the name of your comrades, and my name, I thank you sincerely. However, 13 consecutive duels have taken too much of your body stamina. Retire now, and if the provosts decide to finish the combat with their opponents, they will be free to do so.”

“No, no!” exploded Jean-Louis, “I shall not leave the post which has been assigned me by the confidence of the 32d Regiment. Here I shall remain, and here I shall fight as long as I can hold my weapon.” As he finished his statement he made a flourish with his sword, which cut one of his friends on the leg. “Ah,” cried Jean-Louis, distraught, “there has only been one man of the 32d wounded today, and it had to be by me.”

Seizing upon the incident, the colonel said, “This is a warning; there has been enough blood. All have fought bravely and reparation has been made. Do you trust my judgment in the matter of honor?” After Jean-Louis said he did, the colonel said there was nothing more to do but extend a hand to the 1st Regiment. Pointing to the two provosts who still waited, he said to Jean-Louis, “They cannot come to you!”

Jean-Louis dropped his sword, approached the two Italians, and clasped them by the hands. His regiment cheered, “Vive Jean-Louis! Vive the 32d Regiment!”

Jean-Louis added, “Vive the First! We are but one family! Vive l’armee!”

– Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis served as the President de Combat, and can be seen at center, behind the fencers' blades.

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis presided as “President de Combat,” and can be seen at center.

Jean Louis’s fencing style would become a major influence on the French school of fencing, and he is credited with the saying—now famous among fencers—“A foil should be held as one holds a little bird; not so tightly as to crush it, but just enough to prevent it escaping from the hand.” He became sought out by members of the nobility for fencing instruction.

Jean-Louis retired from the army in 1849, at age sixty-five, and began teaching fencing permanently at his school in Montpellier. Later he came to denounce dueling. He instructed his daughter in the art of fencing, and she would go on to become one of his most accomplished disciples.


Arsene Vigeant, a famous writer on fencing, remarked of him “Jean-Louis’ face which appeared hard at first meeting, hid a soul of great goodness and generosity.”


Basile Croquère


During the nineteenth century, New Orleans came to be regarded by many as the dueling capitol of the western world. There, duels were fought more frequently than in any other American city. As to exact statistics, one nineteenth-century visitor noted that “in 1834 there were no less than 365 [duels], or one for every day in the year; 15 having been fought on one Sunday morning. In 1835 there were 102 duels fought in that city, betwixt the 1st of January and end of April.” In 1839, another resident noted “Thirteen Duels have been fought in and near the city during the week; five more were to take place this morning.” Most of these duels were said to have been fought by those of French Creole descent, however, in 1833 William Ladd noted that blacks “are taking it up [dueling]” in the city.

In fact, African Americans fought a large number of duels in Louisiana, which were reported throughout newspapers of the era. One example, published in April 1872 by the New York Times, noted that:

“Two young colored men fought a duel with small swords in New Orleans, on Tuesday, and one was slightly wounded in the breast. One is a son of an internal revenue assessor, and the other a son of a Custom-house official. The quarrel grew out of testimony given before the Congressional Investigating Committee.”

Photograph, likely posed, of African American men preparing for a pistol duel, ca. 1895

Due in part to this prolific dueling culture, the tradition of classical and historic fencing flourished in old New Orleans. From about 1830 until the Civil War, at least fifty maitre d’armes (masters of arms) operated fencing academies in Exchange Alley, from Canal to Conti between Royal and Bourbon Streets. Of these, the author has personally come across six New Orleans fencing masters of African ancestry. Among the most notable of these were “Black” Austin, a free black man, and Robert Severin, also of African ancestry—who fought at least one duel in the city, and served as a second in at least another.

The most renowned of these masters, however, was Basile Croquère.

Croquère, according to Lafcadio Hearn, was “the most remarkable colored swordsman of Louisiana.” For much of the last century, Croquère’s life has been shrouded in mystery, and what is known about him consists mostly of scraps of anecdotal information set down in local histories. What is certain is that he was born in New Orleans around 1800 to a white father and a mother of mixed African-European ancestry.

At a young age, Croquère took part in the War of 1812, and likely participated in the famous Battle of New Orleans (1815)—in which the Americans soundly expelled the British and effectively won the war. In 1879, Croquère was listed as a member of L’Association des Vétérans de 1814-15.

Like the famous St. Georges, Croquère was sent by his white father to be educated in Paris, where he obtained a degree in mathematics, and probably received some, if not most, of his fencing instruction. After completing his studies in France, Croquère returned to New Orleans, where he set up shop as both a fencing master and a staircase builder, in which profession he applied his mathematical knowledge to construct the “soaring, multidimensional staircases” which became the staple of antebellum southern mansions.

By all accounts, Croquère was one of the best masters-of-arms in New Orleans. As one author of the period recounted:

“Though the population could count a considerable number of these fencing experts and duelists, Basile Croquère was proclaimed their superior in all things…He employed his talent to train the youth, to give them the benefit of his skill and his knowledge in arms.”

In a city known as the fencing and dueling Mecca of North America, where men literally lived and died by the sword on a daily basis, this was high praise.

“Mr. Basile was an educated and respectable man; he knew how to estimate and consider by his character, his behavior and his distinguished manners.

It was not therefore strange that a man having these recommendable qualities should enjoy a certain credit among people of high society, in whom he cultivated an elite clientele…

As to his profession of arms, it is told that he could touch his opponent almost as though composing a ballad…He often said that his chest was a holy place: it was filled with air because, we are told, no adversary’s foil was ever able to touch it…”

John Augustin (1838-1888), a New Orleans poet, editor, and Confederate veteran, recounted that Croquère “was such a fine blade that many of the best Creole gentlemen did not hesitate, notwithstanding the strong prejudice against color, to frequent his salle d’armes, and even cross swords with him in private assaults.”

Although little is known about this extraordinary master, his legend continues to endure among New Orleans guidebooks and books about dueling. Although it would be presumptuous to declare him the greatest of African American martial artists, he was, by all accounts, an extraordinary person and a swordsman of the highest caliber.

Above: A duel under the famous "Dueling Oaks" in New Orleans' City Park.

Above: A duel under the famous “Dueling Oaks” in New Orleans’ City Park.

Further reading:


Alain Guédé, Monsieur de Saint-George: Virtuoso, Swordsman, Revolutionary: A Legendary Life Rediscovered

Alfred Hutton, Sword & the Centuries

Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men

T. J. Desch Obi, Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art in the Atlantic World (Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World)

African American Knife-Fighters of Old New York

African American Soldiers fight off 24 Germans with Bolo Knives during World War I

Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic

Benjamin Truman, The Field of Honor


This article © 2015 by Ben Miller. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One Tough Soldier

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on September 4, 2010 at 1:13 am

“Caleb Kilton was born in Scituate, on the 6th of October, 1781. His parents were John Jenckes and Sarah (Brayton) Kilton. His father was one of those who opened the great drama of the American Revolution, by the destruction of the Gaspee, in 1772. During the war that followed, in common with his fellow-citizens, he was frequently in active service in the field. He was in Sullivan’s expedition to the island of Rhode Island, in 1778,–and in the battle which followed the retreat of the Americans, the barrel of his gun was heated, by repeated discharges, to such a degree as to compel him to desist from reloading it. He used to relate, that a soldier near him on that occasion, was struck by a spent musket ball on his front teeth with such force as to displace four of them. Nothing dismayed, added the ball and the four teeth to the next charge in his gun, with the wish, expressed in terms more forcible than pious, that the redcoats might derive some advantage from them.”

– Transactions of The Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry in the Year 1861. Providence: Knowles, Anthony & Co. 1862. p147-148

A Loyalist Boasts of Scalping During the American Revolution

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on March 4, 2010 at 1:29 am

“I am a King’s man, who dare say anything against it; I have killed so many Yankies at Fort St. John’s with this sword of my Father, they are no soldiers at all. I kill’d and scalp’d, and kicked their arses, and the damned Committee here have gone too far already, I will shew them better, and will cut some of their heads off by and by.”

– William Johnson, Jr., half Mohawk son of Sir William Johnson, September, 1775

Top Must-Read Autobiographies Part II

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

Continued from PART I.

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


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

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

Above: The site of McBane’s “leap”

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

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

Plate from McBane’s Expert Swordman’s Companion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Portrait of Donald McBane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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