What sabre system should you study?

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Singlestick play at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

If you have been intrigued by the idea of starting to fence with the sabre, then a common question is what sabre system to study? There are so many different systems that have been written about, so what sabre system is good for a beginner?

Different methods and traditions

Personally, I practise British sabre and broadsword systems and also some Polish sabre, and have some rough idea of what some of the Italian, French, German and Swedish systems looked like. However, it would be worth speaking to people who practise the different styles of sabre, there are different “flavours” within the methods of even a single country.

In British sabre history, for example (a non-exhaustive list!), the Napoleonic methods (Sinclair, Roworth, Angelo II, etc) evolved out of earlier broadsword/backsword methods (such as Page, Godfrey, Wylde, and the like), and the later Victorian military methods (such as Angelo III, Waite) were a further evolution. At the same time as these later Victorian military methods, other non-military treatises were being produced (Walker, Allanson-Winn, etc). There were even treatises that the author wrote in an attempt to become military regulation practice, but failed (such as Burton), and of course there are well-known systems at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that were written by military men but where the systems themselves were not regulation military practice (such as Hutton).

My usual recommendation

Generally speaking, I think any given military sabre treatise tends to be a fairly good self-contained manual that can take you from being a complete beginner through to a stage of reasonably advanced competency, so there’s not a lot to differentiate the different systems in terms of “usefulness for beginners”.

I always recommend that people start with Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot, because it is the most beginner-friendly treatise that I have worked with personally, and I can always answer any questions and point out important details to work on. There are many other good options for beginners, but I don’t know them well enough to answer any follow-up questions.

Considering the shape of the sabre

Probably what differentiates sabre methods most concretely is the type of sabre in question. Do you want a light weapon or a heavy weapon? Straight or curved? For duelling or battlefield? More hand protection or less hand protection? Then, depending on how you answered these questions, there is probably a treatise or system that will be better for you.

For example, if you want to learn to use a curved sabre of the kind used on the Napoleonic battlefield, then it would be sensible to look at Roworth or the early Angelo material, while it would make little sense to look at Hutton or Burton as they wrote about the use of quite a different type and shape of sword. On the other hand, if the idea of light, classy, salle-play with a long, slim, light sword is what excites you, then you might want to look at more of the Italian duelling sabre material.

Alternatively, if you know exactly what tradition you want to study, there will probably be one treatise within that tradition that provides the best introduction to the system.

Making your decision

So the decision tree of questions would look like this:

1) do you know exactly what you want to study? If so, go study that!

2) if not, then do you know which nationality and era of sabre tradition is of most interest? If yes, go find out which source is best for studying that.

3) if not, then what kind of sabre captures your interest? Light or heavy? Straight or curved? Cutting or thrusting, or both? Lots of hand protection, or none? Picture the shape of sabre that interests you the most, then look at images of antique swords to find out what patterns look most like what you are interested in. Then, with that information, you can work out what method would have been practised by the people who used that kind of sabre, and therefore which treatise to use.

4) if all you know is that you just want to do sabre, because sabres are cool, then pick up any sabre book and just read that. I advise Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot, because the system and the instructions are reasonably simple and also quite a lot of fun!

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.