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The Golden Age of Piracy

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Fortune’s Whelp

The Sea Rover’s Practice

The Buccaneer’s Realm

Pirate Hunting

How History’s Greatest Pirates…

Piracy Defined Through the Ages

Zee Rovers 1725

Historie der Engelsche Zee-Roovers by Charles Johnson (Amsterdam: Hermanus Uytwerf, 1725).


Strangers, who are ye? Whence sail ye over the wet ways? On some trading enterprise, or at adventure do ye rove, even as sea-robbers, over the brine, for they wander at hazard of their own lives bringing bale to alien men?

—Homer, Odyssey, book III (8th century BC, earlier oral tradition: translated by S. H. Butcher and Andrew Lang)


For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands, as communication by sea became more common, were tempted to turn pirates, under the conduct of their most powerful men; their motives being to serve their own cupidity and to support the needy. The would fall upon a town unprotected by walls, and consisting of a mere collection of villages, and would plunder it; indeed, this came to be the main source of their livelihood, no disgrace yet being attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.

—Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, book 1, chapter 1 (5th century BC: translated by Richard Crawley, 1952)


[M]uch less would pirates coming to his land be let go scatheless for long, men whose care it was to lift their hands and seize the goods of others, and to weave secret webs of guile, and harry the steadings of herdsmen with ill-sounding forays.

—Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, book III (3rd century BC: translated by Robert Cooper Seaton, 1912)


For the Illyrians [the sea rovers of Queen Teuta] were not then the enemies of this people or that, but the enemies of all mankind.

—Polybius, The Histories, II:12 (2nd century BC: translated by W. R. Paton, 1922)


As if a man that lies at the mercy of common Pirates [praedonibus: of the robbers or plunderers], should promise them a certain Sum of Money for the saving of his Life: ‘Tis no deceit to recede from it, tho’ he had given his Oath for the performance: for we are not to look upon Pirates [pirata] as Open and Lawful Enemies: but as the Common Adversaries of Mankind [communis hostis omnium]. For they are a sort of men with whom we ought to have neither Faith, nor Oath in common.

—Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis 3:29.107 (44 BC: translated by R. l’Estrange, 1720)


Not contented that suddenly he was become rich, [as] of a needy [person] he practiced piracy [piraticam] against his own Country.

—Marcus Junianus Justinus, Trogi Pompeii Historiis, book XXII (2nd century AD?: translated by N. Bailey, 1732)


For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.’

—St. Augustine, The City of God (early 5th century AD, repeating a story told by Cicero in de Republica five centuries earlier.)


In the same year, the pagans [Danes, Vikings], coming from the northern regions to Britain with a naval armament, made descents in all quarters, plundering, ravaging, and slaughtering, like most cruel wolves, not only beasts of burthen, oxen and sheep, but priests and Levites as well, and multitudes of monks and nuns.

—Roger de Hoveden, Annals (post 1189?, of the year 793 AD: translated by Henry T. Riley)


Still they killed a great many people and made great depredations on the shore.

The Saga of the Jómsvíkings (12th century AD, of the 10th century: translated by Lee M. Hollander, 1955)


…who the malefactors and disturbers of our peace were, who being in two cogs of Campen wickedly and craftily committed divers robberies, depredations, discords, and slayings of many of our lieges along the coasts of the aforesaid country…

Patent Rolls, 48 Ed. III. Pt. I, m. 2 d. (1374: from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea. The term pirate does not appear to be used in the Middle Ages in reference to the practitioners of piratical acts until the 15th century.)


I mene pyratys of the Se, Which brynge folk in pouerte.

—John Lydgate, The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (1426: from the French of Guillaume de Deguileville, 1330, 1355)


…which notwithstondyng, divers and monyfold spoliations and robberies [have] been daily had, committed, an doon uppon the se unto the said subgettis of the said most high and myghty princes, his most dere cosyns, as well by their enemyes as by other pirattis and robbers…

Patent Rolls, 6 Hen. VII, m. II d. (1490: from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea.)


Because, upon the relation of some of our lieges we are informed that many spoilers, pirates, exiles, and outlaws, arrayed in warlike fashion on the sea, have there assaulted out subjects and faithful lieges, spoiled their ships, goods, and merchandise, and are daily busying themselves and intending with all their strength to assault, rob, and spoil them…

Patent Rolls, 3 Hen. VIII, pt. I, m. 7 (1511:  from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea)


Her Majestie, understanding by the grevious and sondrie complaints made by her subjects of the great spoiles by them dailie sustained at the hands of such as now of late hath so infested the narrowe seas…Wherefore her Majestie’s pleasure and commandment is that, yf you shall finde any notorious pyrates at the seas, you do apprehend them…

Landsdowne MSS. 155, f. 166 (1576: from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea)


Pirate: [the word] signifies one who goes to sea for adventure [daring enterprise or hazardous exploit]…the word was not in ancient times one of ugliness and vituperation, being piracy exercised by industry and right, a private war of the strongest against the weakest.

—Nicot, Thresor de la langue française (1606: author’s translation)


Moreover, pirates are those who range the seas without licence from their prince; who when they are met with, are punished more severely by their own lords, then when they fall into the hands of strangers.

—Sir Richard Hawkins, The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knight (1622: regarding his South Sea voyage of 1594)


And the pyrate pillaged Phillipps’ bark…And there were aboard Morgan Phillipps’ bark divers men passengers, whereof the pyrate too but one, and 12 or 14 women, all which were ravished [raped] by the pyrate’s company…

—“The examination of Hugh Baker” in The Council Book of the Corporation of Youghal (1623: published 1878)


Yea, and many times a Pirat who are commonly the best manned, but they fight only for wealth, not for honour or revenge, except they bee extremely constrained.

—John Smith, A Sea Grammar (1627)


[A]nd therefore in England, a pirat is called a rover and robber upon the sea.

[P]irata est hostis humani generis… [A pirate is an enemy of all mankind…]

—Edward Coke, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England, chapter 49 (1644)


‘Tis true, he’s a Rover of Fortune, yet a prince, aboard his little wooden world.

—Aphra Behn, The Rover (1677: the pirate or sea rover has long been a popular romantic image)


[I]n their Company sailed also a small Algierman of 14 Guns, pitifully manned wth about 40 Moors he hath been out of Algier these two yeares, and all his Slaves being escaped from him, dares not returne, so resolves to turne Pyrat, and take every Vessell…she can master.

—Thomas Baker, Journal (1679)


Then Sir T. P. [Thomas Pinfold] said it was impossible they should be Pirates, for a Pirate was hostis humani generis, but they were not Enemies to all Mankind; therefore they could not be Pirates: Upon which all smiled, and one of the Lords asked him, Whether there ever was any such thing as a Pirate, if none could be a Pirate but he that was actually in War with all Mankind? To which he did not reply, but only repeated what he had said before. Hostis humani generis, is neither a Definition, nor so much as a Description of a pirat, but a rhetorical invective to show the odiousness of that crime.

—Matthew Tindall, An Essay Concerning the Laws of Nations (1694: concerning the trial of privateers commissioned by the exiled James II.)


Pirate: a sea rover [escumeur de mer, écumeur de mer, “a skimmer or parasite” of the sea], one who sails the sea without a commission from any Prince, to steal, to pillage.

Forban: a pirate, a sea rover [escumeur de mer], who takes from all Nations without any commission.

Corsaire: a pirate, a sea rover [escumeur de mer], who roves [va en course] with a commission from a State or a sovereign Prince.

Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 1st Edition (1694: author’s translations)


They [the buccaneers in the South Sea] scare shew’d one Instance of true Courage or Conduct, tho they were accounted such fighting Fellows at home.

—Privateer, Bahamas governor, and pirate hunter Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712)


They villify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own Courage.

—attributed to pirate Samuel Bellamy by Charles Johnson in A General History of the Pirates (1726, of events of 1717: the quote is almost certainly invented by Charles Johnson, and inspired by the exchange between the pirate Dionides and Alexander the Great, as reported by St. Augustine, Cicero, and others.)


[B]ut now that war was declared against Spain, they [the pirates] would have an opportunity of enriching themselves in a legal way by going a privateering, which many of them had privately done.

—William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade (1734, in reference to events of 1719)


That pirates had no God but their money, nor Saviour but their arms.

—a pirate in Ned Low’s crew, quoted in The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts (1726: the quote dates to 1722, and might be invented)


The Pyrates, tho’ singly Fellows of Courage, yet wanting such a Tye of Order, some Director to unite that Force, were a contemptible Enemy, neither killed nor wounded us a man in taking them, and must ever, in the same Circumstances, be the Fate of such Rabble.

—John Atkins, A Voyage to Guinea, Brazil, & the West Indies (1735: of the capture of Bartholomew Roberts’s Royal Fortune and his crew in 1722. Roberts was killed in the action.)


“A Pirate is a Sea-Thief, or Hostis humani generis [Enemy of all mankind], who to enrich himself, either by surprise or open force, sets upon Merchants and others trading by Sea, ever spoiling their Lading, if by an possibility he can get the master, sometimes bereaving them of their Lives and sinking their Ships; the Actors wherin, Tully calls Enemies to all, with whom neither Faith nor Oath is to be kept.”

—Charles Molloy, De Jure Maritimo Et Navali (1722: Tully is a common period nickname for Cicero.)


Pirate, Corsaire ou Forban: A thief of the sea, a sailor who cruises the seas with a vessel armed for war, to steal the vessels of friends or enemies, without distinction. He differs from a privateer [armateur] in that the latter makes war as an honest man, attacking and stealing only the enemy’s vessels, and in that he is authorized by a commission from the admiral.

— Alexandre Savérien, Dictionnaire historique, théorique et pratique de marine (1758: here a privateer is referred to as an armateur, the term for one who fits out a privateer, and not as a corsaire. Author’s translation.)


Forban: a corsair, who practices piracy without a commission from any Prince, and who attacks both friend and enemy.

Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 4th Edition (1762: the definition of pirate is unchanged from the 1694 edition)


Lastly, the crime of piracy, or robbery and depredation upon the high seas, is an offence against the universal law of society, a pirate being, according to sir Edward Coke, hostis humani generis…The offence of piracy, by common law, consists in committing those acts of robbery and depredation on the high seas, which, if committed on land, would have amounted to felony there. But by statute, some other offenses have been made piracy also…

—William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 4 (1769)


[I]f any person, upon the high seas, or in any river, haven, or bay, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, commit murder or robbery, on board a vessel, he shall be deemed a pirate and a felon, and shall suffer death.

Act of Congress (1790)


As therefore he [the pirate] has renounced all the benefits of society and government, and has reduced himself afresh to the savage state of nature, by declaring war against all mankind, all mankind must declare war against him.

The Trial of the Twelve Spanish Pirates (1834: government quoting from Blackstone’s Commentaries in the indictment.)


Noncommissioned vessels of a belligerent nation may at all times capture hostile ships, without being deemed, by the Law of Nations, Pirates. But they have no interest in the prizes they take, and the property so seized is condemned…

—Byerley Thomson, The Laws of War, Affecting Commerce and Shipping (1854: notwithstanding this reasoning, many rovers were hanged by an enemy as “pirates” in past centuries simply because they lacked a commission.)


Privateering is nothing more than piracy organized and legal.

—Théodore Ortolan, Règles internationales et diplomatie de la mer (1864)


Piracy: depredation without authority, or transgression of authority given, by despoiling beyond its warrant. [Then repeats Blackstone’s definition.]

Pirate: a sea robber… Also an armed ship that roams the seas without any legal commission, and seizes or plunders every vessel she meets.

—W. H. Smyth, The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867)


It is because a pirate is dangerous to everybody that he bears a caput lupinum, may be seized by anybody, and punished anywhere.

—Montague Bernard, A Historical Account of the Neutrality of Great Britain During the American Civil War (1870: “caput lupinum” means “wolf’s head,” and indicates an outlaw who may be killed on sight, like a wolf)


Those only are considered as principal or real pirates who use violence, or who go below to rummage for plunder, or who take part in frightening the persons robbed.

—Ernest Alabaster, Notes and Commentaries on Chinese Criminal Law (1899)


Piracy: commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911: definition originally published between 1881 and 1906)


The submarine warfare did not mean only the sinking of ships, but it was a crime against humanity in that it sank thousands of harmless merchantmen. In the whole history of warfare between nations that had never been sanctioned. It is rank piracy, and the pirates must receive the punishment.

—Lloyd George, quoted in the New York Times (1918: legal opinion was largely against the Prime Minister’s sentiment.)


Piracy suits my master, and that is all there is to it.  His ship is his kingdom, he comes and goes as he pleases, and no man can command him. He is a law unto himself.

—Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek (1942: again the popular view of a pirate as independent free-roving operator.)


Yes I am a pirate//Two hundred years too late//The cannons don’t thunder//There’s nothing to plunder//I’m an over forty victim of fate…

—Jimmy Buffet, A1A, “A Pirate Looks at Forty” (1974)


Piracy: Those acts of robbery and depredation upon the high seas which, if committed on land, would have amounted to a felony. Brigandage committed on the sea or from the sea.

Black’s Law Dictionary, 5th Edition (1979: this definition is essentially Blackstone’s)


Piracy consists of any of the following acts: (a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed: (i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State; (b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft; (c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Article 101 (1982/1994: current international law, originally drafted in 1958 as part of the UN Convention on the High Seas)


Pirate: One who robs and plunders on the sea, navigable rivers, etc., or cruises about for that purpose; one who practices piracy; a sea robber.

Piracy: The practice of the crime of robbery and depredation on the sea or navigable rivers, etc., or by descent from the sea upon the coast, by persons not holding a commission from an established civilized state.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989)


Pirate: an adventurer who sails the seas to pillage merchant ships or the coasts.

Piracy [Piraterie]: an act of maritime brigandage conducted by pirates.

La Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (2002)


Pirate: one who commits or practices piracy.

Piracy: an act of robbery on the high seas: also: an act resembling such robbery.

Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary (2003)


Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.

—18 USC §1651  (2007, current US law: unchanged since 1909, and little changed since 1819 except for the substitution of life imprisonment for the death penalty. See UNCLOS above for current law of nations.)


Whoever, being a seaman, lays violent hands upon his commander, to hinder and prevent his fighting in defense of his vessel or the goods intrusted to him, is a pirate, and shall be imprisoned for life.

—18 USC §1655 (2007, current US law: largely unchanged since 1790.)


Whoever, upon the high seas or other waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States, by surprise or open force, maliciously attacks or sets upon any vessel belonging to another, with an intent unlawfully to plunder the same, or to despoil any owner thereof of any moneys, goods, or merchandise laden on board thereof, shall be fined under this title [Piracy and Privateering] or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

—18 USC §1659  (2007, current US law: penalty increased from that of 1909, otherwise essentially unchanged)


Whoever, being engaged in any piratical cruise or enterprise, or being of the crew of any piratical vessel, lands from such vessel and commits robbery on shore, is a pirate, and shall be imprisoned for life.

—18 USC §1661 (2007, current US law: largely unchanged since 1909, and very similar to law enacted in 1820)


So began a tense five-day standoff in which the pirates repeatedly threatened to kill the captain.

New York Times (2009: regarding the Somali pirate attack on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama and the taking of her captain, Richard Phillips, hostage.)


We can finally do it! We can leave this crappy town and live the life we’ve all dreamed of…Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you been watching the news? Pirating is back, my friends, swashbuckling adventure on the high sea, the stuff we’ve all dreamed about, and it’s all happening right here: Somalia.

—Cartman, in South Park, “Fatbeard” (2009)


Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Posted 7 June 2017.

Commands at Sea: The Boatswain’s Call, Pipe, or Whistle, with a Note or Two on Boatswain Speech as Well


Title page to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, from volume one of The Works of Shakespear edited by Alexander Pope. London: Jacob Tonson in the Strand, 1725.

Ah, the Bard! As someone once pointed out in writing, and I wish I could recall who it was (unless I’m imagining or mis-recalling this), the opening to the Tempest is one of the most evocative in its brevity in all of literature. It brings ship and storm to life immediately. In related fashion, I’m pretty sure it was George MacDonald Fraser who wrote words to the effect that “Enter Mariners wet” is one of the great stage directions of all time. Or perhaps I’m confusing his observation with the former, or even inventing the former from the latter.

But, in this brief yet related digression from swordplay and swashbuckling at sea and ashore, we’re more concerned with another line in the play: “[T]end to the master’s whistle…,” that is, listen to and obey (the “Aye, aye!” spoken or unspoken) the musical commands, shrill, some said, from the ship master’s silver whistle.

Notably, it’s not the boatswain’s whistle Shakespeare mentions, but the master’s, for in the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth the boatswain was not the only officer authorized a whistle. As Nathaniel Boteler wrote in 1634 in A Dialogicall Discourse Concerninge Marine Affaires Betwene the Highe Admirall and a Captaine att Sea, first published in 1685 and known today as the  eponymous Boteler’s Dialogues:

“ADMIRAL. How many be the officers that carry whistles in a ship of war?”

“CAPTAIN. They are three: The Master, the Boatswain, and Coxswain, for though the Captain my do the same at his pleasure, yet it is neither usual, nor necessary.”

By the late 17th century, it appears that the silver whistle or “call” was used primarily by the boatswain.


Dutch boatswain’s (or other officer’s) whistle, early 17th century, Rijksmuseum.

Before going further, and with no offense intended to anyone, I want to make sure that readers understand that boatswain is pronounced “bos’n” or “bosun.” I’ve heard “cocks-wayne” rather than the correct “cox’n” (cockswain, one who commands and helms–steers–a ship’s boat) before–including from persons well-educated but clearly un-nautical, not to mention clearly forgetting the first rule of the pronunciation of a new word: look it up!

The boatswain’s whistle, both as a badge of office for any ship’s officer as well as a functional instrument with a large variety of “calls” for ordering hands about, has been around since at least the 13th century according the USN Bluejacket’s Manual (1941 edition), in more or less similar traditional form. It also notes that, although the whistle is commonly referred to as the boatswain’s pipe in the US Navy, the term “call” in reference to it dates to “about” 1671. A writer commenting in 1679 upon the lack of religious fervor among English seamen during the English-Dutch war at sea 1672 to 1673, complains that “a Lieutenant’s Command for a Rope for the Boat, shall be sooner answered with Boatswain’s Call, than the Bell for Prayers…”

However the Reverend Henry Teonge, chaplain aboard the HMS Assistance 1676 to 1678, still referred to it as the boatswain’s whistle: “He had a neat coffin, which was covered with one of the King’s jacks, and his bo’sun’s silver whistle and chain laid on the top (to show his office) between two pistols crossed with a hanger drawn.”

The English boatswain had other badges of office as well, including a short cane or “bamboo,” its tip whipped with marline, for encouraging laggard seamen by cracking it on their backs and pates, although sometimes a simple rope’s end served as well. And there was the cat-of-nine-tails too, a dark badge of office best kept out of sight except when in use. But it was the boatswain’s whistle that was his definitive badge of office, and I’m sure that boatswains of the past were just as proud of their silver call as boatswain’s today are: “It is not so much by his fine Silver-call, as the illustrious Chain that it hangs by, that is the distinguishing Badge of his Post, and which he’s as proud of as my Lord Mayor is of his, and prouder,” wrote Ned Ward in 1707.

The whistle was an important means of directing seamen about their duties. Again, Ned Ward: “The Boatswain is a Kind of a Jack with a Box, for let him but whistle once, and you have a hundred or more Cartesian Puppets, pop up upon Deck, and run about, and streight disappear again in an Instant.”

In the 17th and 18th centuries an English boatswain’s duties included the custody, keeping, repair, and management of all rigging, anchors and cables, and sails; the hoisting in and out of cargo, stores, and boats; the management of all of the ship’s colors; the calling up, via his whistle, of gangs, watches, &c. for, as Boteler put it, “exertions of the their works and spells (as they call them), and to see that they do them thoroughly; and to keep them in peace in in order with one another.” This last duty was that of what on land was handled by the Provost Marshal. At sea, it was the boatswain who punished seamen for their shortcomings. This included everything from flogging wrongdoers to placing them in the bilboes to ducking them at the main yardarm. In the Dutch navy, the boatswain’s duties  include keelhauling as well (see “Keelhauling, in Living Color”).

In battle the boatswain and his mates, along with some of the other crew if the occasion warranted, were tasked not only with repairs to the rigging, but often with managing the sails. Shortened sail was typically used in battle in order to reduce the number of crewmen required to manage it, leaving the majority to handle the guns great and small, and the small arms as well.


At sea aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73) Sep. 9, 2002: Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Bethany McDonald. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Jessica Davis.)

In the modern US Navy, the boatswain–thankfully, after a brief period of insanity in which ratings were abolished, they’re now restored–has similar duties, in particular in regard to the various rigging aboard modern ships, the hoisting of boats and stores, and so on. The boatswain’s pipe remains ever present, and modern US Navy boatswain’s calls, performed by the US Navy band, can be found here.

The most common call I remember was “Piping the Side,” that is, the piping of a captain, admiral, or on occasion, some dignitary over the side during a formal ceremony shipboard or ashore. I remember various other calls shipboard as well, on both surface ships and submarines, but for the life of me I can’t remember them in detail except that “All Hands” was common, or perhaps it was “Pass the Word,” and, like everything else, the calls came over the 1MC (the general PA aboard a US Navy ship or shore command) except in the case of the piping the side ceremony, for we were always present for them.

But boatswains then and now had other means to motivate seamen: language, particularly when spiced with “cursing and swearing.” Sailors in general have long been known for their use of foul language, and boatswains in particular had, and have, a reputation for creativity, eloquence, wide vocabulary, and, as often as not, lyricism in their swearing. Ned Ward noted that:

“He must certainly believe there can be no such Thing as Hell-fire under Salt-water, else he would never be giving himself so oft as he does to the Devil; but how frequently soever he damns himself, he is sure to damn others much oftener. In short, he’s a Fellow that will throw away ten times more Oaths and Strokes in hoisting out a Barge, than in boarding an Enemy.”

The boatswain’s excuse for his language is a simple one: “But, Zounds, he’ll cry, what would have me do? A man without Noise, is a Thing without a Soul, and fit for nothing but a Pissing-Post.”

As for my own experience, I never knew a real US Navy boatswain, at least not a Chief Boatswain’s Mate, who couldn’t out-swear anyone except another boatswain. A boatswain’s work–dealing with fouled lines, for example–naturally inspires foul language, which in turns lubricates the work at hand and helps get it done. At times I’d swear it has motivated not only crew but rigging or equipment itself.

My favorite example of a boatswain’s cursing, however, or perhaps my second favorite (I’ll save a particular modern description for a later post), may be that of Ned Ward’s Royal Navy boatswain, whose elegant oxymoron is straight to the point:

“Get up, all Hands to Prayers, and be damned.”


REFERENCES (Not Cited in Detail Above)

Anon. Observations on the Last Dutch Wars, in the Years 1672 and 1673. London: 1679.

Nathaniel Boteler. Boteler’s Dialogues. Edited by W. G. Perrin. London: Navy Records Society, 1929.

Benerson Little. Chapter 14, “Tarpaulin Cant and Spanish Lingua,” in The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007.

Henry Teonge. The Diary of Henry Teonge. Edited by G. E. Manwaring. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.  (Teonge’s original manuscript was first published in 1825.)

United States Navy. Bluejacket’s Manual. 1941.

Ned [Edward] Ward [By the Author of the London Spy]. The Wooden World Dissected in the Character of a Ship of War, 7th ed. London: Booksellers of London and Westminster, 1760. Originally published in 1707.


Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated May 3, 2017.

Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen

Fencing Books

The content below is more background on than digression from the general subjects of this blog–swordplay and swashbucklers–, for what is either without fencing technique? The following fencing books are my recommendations for fencers across the spectrum, from early modern historical to “classical” to modern “Olympic” competitive. Just revised, it also resides on the Huntsville Fencing Club website. It includes sections on the modern Olympic weapons, classical fencing, rapier, smallsword, various cut & thrust, theory, Japanese texts, and more.

The list below is not exhaustive—there are many good fencing books not listed below (and some more bad than good as well). Some are not listed simply because I have not yet read them. The history list in particular is abridged due to sheer volume, but less so than in past years, and I have not yet begun to include much in the way of mid-19th century works or of books on swords as opposed to swordplay. Fencing books can be very useful, but are no substitute for proper instruction and diligent practice. See the end of the list for suggestions on acquiring the books listed here, or for that matter, many books in general.


Modern Epee

Why Modern Epee—that is, epee as fenced from the 1930s to the present in its various forms—first? Because it’s the best starting point for most budding fencers today, even if their ultimate goal is classical or historical fencing. It is by far the most popular modern competitive weapon (it looks like swordplay, its judging is simple, it much more resembles sword-fighting with sharps than either modern foil or saber, it is very “democratic” in that the weaker fencer always stands a chance, as some have put it), and—if taught appropriately via a classical foundation as it should be—is an excellent foundation for historical and classical fencing. Modern competitive foil and saber have become largely useless for this, both as fenced and as taught.

It should be noted that some modern epeeists consider not only classical epee technique (point d’arrêt technique, especially non-electrical, and true dueling technique), but “modern classical” (electrical pre-Harmenberg, so to speak) technique to be obsolete. This narrow view has no basis in fact except to some degree in the case of elite (world class, that is) epeeists. Purely classical and modern classical epeeists can, and often do, fence as far as a solid A, or national, level, and classical technique is the foundation of elite epee technique. In fact, elite women’s epee retains a significant amount of so-called classical technique, and the compiler of this list is well-acquainted with a Greek-American epeeist some 70 years old whose classical, very old school straight arm technique can still give even young elite epeeists fits.

Note, however, that the definition of classical fencing has changed over time and continues to change today. Even so, one need only read Achille Edom’s 1910 book on epee fencing (see below) to realize that much of what is considered new in epee is in fact more than a century old. In other words, epeeists should not consider older epee texts, nor any epee style of the past century or more, as unworthy of practical study.

Fencing with the Epee by Roger Crosnier, 1958. A thorough description of modern classical epee technique, still very useful today. Prof. Crosnier’s book on foil fencing (see the Foil section) should be read hand-in-hand with his epee text.

Epee Fencing: A Complete System by Imre Vass, 1965 in Hungarian, 1976 1st English edition, revised English editions 1998, 2011. The most thorough epee text ever written. That said, highly recommended for epee coaches at all levels, but recommended only with extreme caution for intermediate to advanced fencers (at least three to five years or more significant experience)—but not for beginners. There is much useful, often profound, material, but some sections can be skipped entirely and others require sufficient epee fencing experience in order to profit from them. The revised editions were edited by fencer and publisher Stephan Khinoy, and amplify and supplement the original text in places.

The latest edition suggests the need for such classical training today, in spite of the so-called “new paradigm” (see Harmenberg below, his book is also published by Khinoy). I agree; in fact, my fencing master’s thesis (soon finished I hope) is based on the same premise. Even for those relatively few fencers (as compared to the entire body of epeeists) who wish to and are able to emulate Harmenberg’s sport methods, a solid base of “modern classical” epee training is still necessary. For most epeeists, even superior amateurs, modern classical technique is all they’ll ever need.

Again, caution is advised when studying the book; it’s best to have a solid understanding of epee technique and theory before reading it. Vass trained international medalists József Sákovics and Béla Rerrich, both of whom went on to become leading epee masters and national coaches, the former in Hungary, the latter in Sweden, with numerous international champions to their credit. The revered József Sákovics, considered by many to be the first “modern” epee fencer, died in 2009. The revered Béla Rerrich died in 2005.

La Spada

La Spada: Metodo del Maestro Caposcuola Giuseppe Mangiarotti by Edoardo Mangiarotti, the Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano, Scuola Centrale Dello Sport, and Federazione Italiana Scherma, 1971. Epee as taught by the famous Guiseppe Mangiarotti: a thorough exposition of his method. Beginner-friendly, too, at least if you read Italian or have a working knowledge of fencing technique and language along with a background in Romance languages other than Italian. Includes excellent illustrations of blade positions, better perhaps than in any other epee text. (Side note: the book even includes illustrations from the works of Vass and Szabo. Kingston and Cheris in this section also have excellent illustrations of blade positions.)

Prof. Mangiarotti, who studied under Italo Santelli as well as under other masters Italian and French, was an Olympic fencer, seventeen-time Italian national epee champion, father of famous champion Edoardo Mangiarotti as well as of noted fencers Dario and Mario Mangiarotti, and founder of a famous epee school in Milan, still in existence, that blended the French and Italian schools and produced champions for decades. Edoardo won 13 Olympic medals and 26 World Championship medals, and was known for his fluid, very Italian footwork as well as for his strategy of attacking hard and fast early on to get touches, then playing a defensive game. Highly recommended. See also Mangiarotti and Cerchiari in the “Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts” below. For the French school, see Alaux and Cléry in the same section.

Epee Combat Manual by Terence Kingston, 2001, 2004. Highly recommended beginning to intermediate text. Should be required reading for new epeeists. Pair with How to Fence Epee by Schrepfer (below).

Fencing: Steps to Success by Elaine Cheris, 2002. Actually an epee and foil text, but the epee stands out more to me, and is very useful to both recreational and competitive fencers. Includes training drills as well as excellent illustrations of technique, including from the fencer’s point of view. The book is a good companion to Kingston’s book above. Cheris is one of the great US fencers in both epee and foil.

Epee 2.0: The Birth of the New Paradigm by Johan Harmenberg, 2007. For advanced epeeists and coaches only. Some material is controversial and not all masters agree with the described training regimen. Further, Harmenberg at times appears to take more credit than he deserves, albeit innocently, given that other epeeists were also “knocking at the door” of the “new style,” and had been for some time. Harmenberg, however, was the first truly elite epeeist to succeed with it at the Olympic and World Championship levels.

Additionally, some of his criticisms of the modern classical technique are not entirely valid. For example his objection to epeeists who use, and their masters who teach, attacks with a fully extended arm prior to the lunge is misplaced: although some fencers and masters did adhere to the technique (and some, unbelievably, still do), both the lunge initiated with the point and not the full extension, as well as the progressive attack (compound attacks made on the lunge, with the point extending during the feint(s) and final), were commonplace three or more centuries prior, and were also well-in-use—“rediscovered,” so to speak, after a century of abasement by classical foil—by many competitors and masters at least several decades prior to Harmenberg’s era.

The argument remains as to whether the described techniques and tactics are truly revolutionary, or merely one of the final steps in the evolution of sport epee, in that the “paradigm” takes complete advantage of the 20th to 25th of a second tempo provided by the electrical apparatus, and entirely disregards any consideration of classical tempo. Importantly, the book is suited, in Harmenberg’s own words, only to truly advanced fencers, although this has not stopped many insufficiently experienced epeeists from foolishly assuming they can emulate its technique and tactics—and in doing so, impale themselves by repeatedly running onto their adversary’s point from distance much too close. (This was often quite funny to watch, most especially in the case of exceptionally tall epeeists who threw away their height advantage.)

As bad, the practice often turns epee bouts into a “game of chicken” (Harmenberg’s words) in which epeeists bounce about at close range and attempt to hit their adversary’s torso in a machine “out-stripping” single tempo which requires exceptional speed even correctly timed and opposed. In fact, the “modern” method of teaching epeeists to fence much closer than in the past and to emphasize touches to the body is detrimental to the development of all epeeists, no matter their aspirations. The book is based on the Swedish epeeist’s experiences leading up to his 1977 world championship and 1980 Olympic gold. In other words, however profound the book may be to sport fencing, its author’s ideas were not new in 2007—only their publication was.

Epee Fencing by Steve Paul et al, published by Leon Paul, 2011. A very useful text for the modern competitor. Positive criticisms: thorough and well-illustrated. Negative criticisms: 100% emphasis on epee as pure sport (as opposed to epee as dueling swordplay or martial art modified for sport) and a magazine-style layout (or in imitation of a badly-designed webpage?), including a thin cover that will not hold up to much wear.

How to Fence Epee: The Fantastic 4 Method by Clément Schrepfer, 2015. Translated from the original French edition, Faire de l’épée: La méthode des 4 fantastiques, by Brendan Robertson. Not a manual of technique per se, but suggestions on how to use it. A very useful book, with only little to find disagreement with, and mostly in terms of style or tradition and not practicality. Highly recommended, especially for beginning to intermediate epeeists. An excellent companion volume to the Epee Combat Manual by Kingston (above).

See also the “Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts” section, especially Alaux, Barth/Beck, Cléry, de Beaumont, Deladrier, Lidstone, Lukovich, Mangiarotti/Cerchiari, and Vince, as well as the “Epee de Combat” section in general, and Castello in the “Classical Fencing” section.


The Epee de Combat or Dueling Sword:
Epee for Actual Combat, In Other Words

All of these works are of use to the modern epeeist, and all demonstrate that there is, overall, little new in modern epee fencing. Even the pistol grip was growing in popularity in France by 1908, although its use in dueling was prohibited and it would be the Italians who found in it the perfect replacement for their rapier grip. Only the tactics and techniques of “out-stripping” (of trying to hit a 25th to a 20th of a second before one gets hit), and of the unrealistic abomination of flicking (and arguably, of foot touches), are new. The latter two techniques are too dangerous to attempt with an epee de combat: they would cause little damage while leaving the user vulnerable to more damaging, even fatal, thrusts. On the other hand, double touches have long been the bane of the salle or sport fencer, even long before the advent of electrical scoring and its too short timing.

Le jeu de l’épée by Jules Jacob, as reported by Émile André, 1887. Lessons of the fencing master who essentially created modern epee in the 1870s. By the third quarter of the19th century the foil had become a “weapon” of pure sport, although it had been heading in this direction since the late 17th century. M. Jacob adapted smallsword technique to create a form of swordplay suitable to surviving a duel with the 19th century épée de combat, or mere epee, as its modern descendant is called. The technique emphasized longer distance and hits to the arm—and thereby also reduced convictions for manslaughter and murder.

The book outraged many foil purists, who subsequently went into sophistic denial when his epee technique proved far superior to foil technique in a duel: Jacob’s less technically proficient epeeists were deadly against even highly skilled foilists, who maintained that the only difference between the technique of the salle and of the duel was the accompanying mental attitude. (If true, attitude was clearly deficient among the fleurettistes who fought duels with Jacob’s épéistes.) The book plainly points out the difference between the jeu de salle (sport fencing) and the jeu de terrain (swordplay of the duel), and reminds us that many of the best duelists were usually not “forts tireurs”—good sport fencers,  that is. The same would doubtless be true today. Highly recommended.

L’Épée by Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Felizet], illustrated by Marius Roy, 1884, reprinted 1898 or 1899; also The Dueling Sword, an English translation edited and translated by Brian House, 2010. Very thorough, and in its translation the only early French epee and epee dueling manual available in English. Real swordplay, in other words, and useful even to epeeists today. To a degree the book is a somewhat foil-based response to the purely epee-based technique of M. Jacob (see above). M. La Marche differs from M. Jacob on some points, particularly on the value of attacks to the body, of which M. La Marche is in favor, as were smallswords-men (and smallswords-women).

The modern trend in epee, at least at the elite levels, and among instructors who train less skilled fencers as if they were elite fencers, emphasizes attacks to the body. Where to emphasize attacks—arm or body—has been an ongoing re-argument ever since the flat electric tip was introduced to replace the much superior “pineapple” tip in the early 1960s, rendering arm shots more difficult. The epee fencing argument over arm versus body derives from late nineteenth century dueling practice—arms hits could easily settle honor in the modern age in which killing a man in a duel would surely send the perpetrator to prison, and the longer distance that facilitated them was simply safer. For reasons that would take up too much space here in discussion, the body was also the primary target in the smallsword era—but the dangers of this distance were mitigated by the use of the unarmed hand to parry and oppose as necessary, and by the extensive use of opposition and prises de fer. Similar varying perspectives are seen in sport epee today. A highly recommended book, and useful even to modern competitive epee fencers.

Italian Grips 1885

Italian grips and how to hold them, Rossi 1885.

Manuale Teorico-Pratico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola by Giordano Rossi, 1885. A manual of the Italian dueling sword and dueling saber, very practical, very classically Italian although it does include some “modern” usages, including a choice of Italian spada with a curved grip, akin to a later French grip, with a significant set to the blade, although it doesn’t seem that this style of Italian grip won many fencers over–but did it perhaps influence the French to increase the curve of their grip? I haven’t seen any French foils or epees circa the 1880s with such a severe curve. The book demonstrates a technique quite useful to epee, and in fact the influence of the Italian school would become a significant part of modern epee.

L’Art du Duel by Adolphe Eugene Tavernier, 1885. Advice on dueling. Suggests tactics and techniques for the epee duel, including how to deal with the inexperienced adversary, the average one and, of course, the expert swordsman. Of interest to the student of fencing history and the duelist, and one of the few books to deal with the subject of tactics against fencers of various levels of competence.

L’Escrime a l’épée by Anthime Spinnewyn and Paul Manoury, 1898. Excellent work on the epee de combat, with much practical advice on epee fencing, training, and teaching applicable even today. Among the many worthwhile admonitions is that the recovery from the lunge is just as important as the lunge itself–both must be as fast as possible, especially if the epees are pointed.

Les secrets de l’épée by Baron César de Bazancourt, 1862, published in English as Secrets of the Sword in 1900, reprint 1998. Practical advice on hitting and not getting hit from the mid-19th century. Much of the advice sounds quite modern. Likewise highly recommended.

L’escrime, le duel & l’épée by Achille Edom, 1908. A remarkably prescient and practical work, and one that demonstrates plainly that there is little new in epee fencing today. In particular, M. Edom, a Frenchman, recommends the more physical Italian style over the French, prefers the Greco offset guard and the pistol grip, and bemoans the rise of sport technique such as wide angulations to the wrist—thrusts that with dueling epees (with sharp points, that is) would not stop a fully developed attack to the body, leaving the attacked with a wound to the wrist, and the attacker with a possibly fatal wound to the chest, neck, or head.

The origin of these angulations was due much in part to the single point type of point d’arrét used by many at the time: a small ring was soldered to a real pointed blade a centimeter or so from the tip, then wrapped with heavy thread to act as a barrier to full penetration. Unfortunately, this heavy wrapping prevented hits at the shallow angles a real point was capable of, thus a new emphasis on unrealistic wide angulations. The three point “dry” and four point electrical, and later “pineapple” electrical points d’arrét greatly corrected this, but the subsequent modern flat point (brought into use in the early 1960s in order to quit tearing up the new nylon jackets perhaps?) inspired the popularity of severe angulations once more. In fact, almost any stop thrust to the arm would not arrest a fully developed attack, although you might have the satisfaction, as your adversary’s attacking blade penetrates your chest, of pinning his (or her) arm to his (or her) chest as he (or she) runs up your blade. Highly recommended.

The Sentiment of the Sword: A Country-house Dialogue by explorer, adventurer, linguist, scholar, writer, and swordsman Sir Richard Burton, 1911. As with Bazancourt, not strictly an epee manual, but still useful for understanding swordplay in the sense of the need to hit and not get hit, as opposed to hitting according to conventions which deny touches not in accordance with said conventions, but which in a duel would be quite real, and in many cases fatal. (Thus the practical and, if in a duel, fatal flaw in foil fencing.) Burton’s book also has some quite modern advice on learning to fence. Burton had used the sword many times in combat, and was known as an extraordinarily fierce fighter. Highly recommended.

 Épée, par J.-Joseph Renaud, 1913, in L’Escrime: fleuret, par Kirchoffer; épée, par J. Joseph Renaud; sabre, par Léon Lécuyer. Excellent advice on training, competition, and dueling, including a technical argument and diagram describing when to use sixte and its counter, and when to use quarte. This latter matter is more important than it seems, for most fencing instructors teach the usual parries and imply that any of the two classical French parries can be used in their appropriate quadrants in any circumstances (true in theory but not in practice) and should be varied in order to keep the adversary guessing (true in both theory and practice, but often difficult given that most fencers under stress have a preferred parry).

There are instances in which only one parry—even in epee and smallsword, in which low line parries may be used in the high line as well, often providing several possibilities in each quadrant—may work. For example, against a wide, high, powerful, angulated thrust to the body in the high outside line (same handed epeeists), in particular when delivered with a flèche, a circle-sixte or even a circle-tierce will likely be forced even if timed well. Neither a prime nor high sixte/septime will defeat the angulation, and a common septime must be taken too far out of line, exposing the arm to a simple disengage over the top. Octave and seconde cannot be taken effectively, for they too are likely to be forced. Only quarte, or possibly a quinte (really just a low quarte) taken high, with a riposte to the head or possibly the neck or shoulder, is viable.

The book includes a discussion of the Italian school. Although M. Renaud grudgingly admits that Italian foilists are equal to their French counterparts, he disparages Italian epee and by implication its rapier origins, stating categorically that the French invented epee fencing and the Italians were no match for French epeeists. In fact, the Italian epee school would soon rise to equal prominence with the French, with Edoardo Mangiarotti becoming one of the three great epeeists of the 20th century. (The other two were Frenchman Lucien Gaudin of the early 20th century and Hungarian József Sákovics of the mid-century.

Were I to speculate on possible twenty-first century epee greats, I’d suggest Timea Nagy and Géza Imre of Hungary, and Laura Flessel-Colovic of France. Naturally, M. Renaud avoids any discussion of what might happen were French epeeists to trade their epees for Italian dueling spadas. Compare his comments on the Italian school to those of Achille Edom above. Side bar: he notes that most French epee schools of the era had outside gardens for practice, in addition to the indoor salle. Pity we don’t have these today…

See also the “Classical Fencing” section below.


Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts

The Art of Fencing by R. A. Lidstone, 1930 and Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, Épée, Sabre by R. A. Lidstone, 1952. The second significantly revised book is more thorough, with a very useful, clearly written epee section with plenty of exercises for master and pupil. Discusses tactics, unusual epee en gardes, and, in the foil section, unusual displacements, most of them Italian. It even describes Professor Guissepe Mangiarotti’s “jump back”—an epee counter-attack made while leaping back and landing on the front foot. The second edition is an excellent practical work drawing from both the French and Italian, highly recommended. In fact, along with Szabo’s work, one of the most useful books on fencing on this entire page. For fencing historians, a comparison of the first edition to the second edition shows how much, and how quickly, modern fencing changed during the first half of the twentieth century.

Fencing by Joseph Vince, 1937, 1940, revised edition 1962. Illustrated by US saber champion and swashbuckling actor Cornel Wilde. Vince was a US national coach and national saber champion who kept a salle in Beverly Hills for decades, and, until 1968 when he sold it to Torao Mori, owned Joseph Vince Company, a fencing equipment supplier that provided, among its complete line, classically dashing fencing jackets of a fit and style unfortunately no longer seen. In fact, my first fencing jacket was a “Joseph Vince, Beverly Hills” made of a heavy, high threat count cotton with silver-colored buttons. The left, that is, unarmed, sleeve was lighter and cuffed. An elegant style truly to be found no more.

Woman Fencer 1

Lunging in women’s fencing dress–quite literally–in Lawson’s book.

Fencing for All by Victor E. Lawson, 1946. The front cover gives the title as How to Fence. A very short basic text, only slightly more than a pamphlet, notable only to the fencing historian, particularly him or her interested in the history of women’s fencing. Lawson’s book actively promotes women fencers, although most appear to be aspiring actresses and models, and the caption of one photograph strongly suggests that Lawson’s goal is to promote his fencing salle in NYC as a means of attaining poise &c for actresses (I use the now generally discarded feminine of “actor” here because “female actor” sounds a bit stilted, and in Lawson’s day he appears to have been recruiting women primarily, not men). Notwithstanding his purpose, Lawson’s little book does actively promote women fencers, and has several useful photographs of women in fencing attire of the 1940s, quite different from today. It also has a good summary of fencing rules at the time Other titles in the series include Police Jiu Jutsu, Scientific Boxing, and How to Be a Detective, everything to to prepare the reader to be the dark sword of a film noir.

Modern Fencing: A Comprehensive Manual for The Foil—The Epee—The Sabre by Clovis Deladrier, 1948, reprint 2005. Strong epee section. Includes exercises, lesson plans, and excellent practical advice. Readers should not be put off by some terms and practices that seem dated, for example Deladrier’s use of the classic older terms low quarte for septime and low sixte for octave, and his preference for the center-mount epee guard. The epee section is worth serious study. The teaching advice and lesson plans for advanced epeeists called upon to teach at times is also a useful review for experienced epee coaches.

 Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport by C-L de Beaumont, 1960, 1970, revised edition 1978. Solid “classical” text on electric foil and epee, and dry saber by a noted British master and Olympic fencer. Excellent, perhaps best anywhere, description of the character and characteristics of epee fencing (de Beaumont was an epeeist). Good chapters on tactics and training.

Escrime by Raoul Cléry, 1965. A thorough, practical text, absolutely one of the best, by one of the great French masters. Highly recommended. The epitome of the French school in foil and epee, but the saber is Hungarian.

La Vera Scherma by Edoardo Mangiarotti and Aldo Cerchiari, 1966. A very useful book for all three weapons, although I’m naturally more disposed to its epee section, particularly given Mangiarotti’s fame in the spada. Exceptionally well-illustrated. In Italian, and the modern classical Italian school, of course. An excellent beginning to intermediate text on all three weapons. One of the virtues of this book are photographs of technique in action, showing what fencing actions actually look like as performed by elite fencers. Most fencing books use posed photographs or otherwise idealistic illustrations, providing elevated expectations of the often unattainable except at slow speed with a conforming partner. There is nothing wrong with illustrating the ideal, providing it is pointed out that it is exactly that, an ideal, seldom to be seen in practice even by elite fencers. The book also includes line drawings of ideal technique.

Modern Fencing: Foil, Epee, and Saber by Michel Alaux, 1975. A thorough introduction to all three weapons by one of the great French masters who taught in the US. Short but good sections on bouting tactics, lessons, and conditioning. Excellent beginning text for the novice fencer. The French school, of course.

Fencing: The Modern International Style by Istvan Lukovich, 1975, 1986. By the author of the noted Electric Foil Fencing. Excellent if brief epee section, very useful to both epeeists and their teachers in that it covers and explains most of what most epeeists will ever need to know. The Hungarian school. Highly recommended for all three weapons.

Fencing: Techniques of Foil, Epee and Sabre by Brian Pitman, 1988. Solid beginning to intermediate text.

Fencing by Bac H. Tau, 1994[?]. Includes thorough sections on training, tactics, and weapon repair. Excellent section on physical training for fencing. Deserves more attention than it has received. Highly recommended.

Foil, Saber, and Épée Fencing by Maxwell R. Garret, Emmanuil G. Kaidanov, and Gil A. Pezza, 1994. A very useful beginning to intermediate text.

Fencing: What a Sportsman Should Know About Technique and Tactics by David  A. Tyshler and Gennady D. Tyshler, 1995. Good information but a very poor, almost unintelligible at times, translation from Russian. Supplement with the Tyshler DVDs (available from many fencing equipment suppliers), or better yet, simply refer to the DVDs. David Tyshler is a Russian master and Olympic and world championship medalist; Gennady Tyshler is a leading Russian master.

The Complete Guide to Fencing, edited by Berndt Barth and Emil Beck, 2007. The German school. A thorough, up-to-date text. Good sections on theory, performance, and athletic training (with a useful emphasis on high rep exercises). Good epee section, much derived from the highly successful Tauberbischofsheim school of epee founded by the largely self-taught Emil Beck.


Modern Foil

The technique described in the books in this section is based on the 20th century rule that a foil attack consists either of a fully extended arm with point threatening—aimed at, that is—the valid target, or the later rule which permitted an extending arm with point threatening relaxed, and correctly so, in order to accommodate the highly useful and historically proven progressive attack. These rules—even the original requirement of an extended arm before the lunge, which is not ideal in combat— were rooted in dueling practice and therefore made more sense than the modern interpretation of an attack which is, frankly, often indecipherable and which under the original conventions of attack, not to mention in engagements with “sharps,” would be easily invalidated by a counter-attack. In other words, an attack should not consist of a bent, non-extending arm at any point, especially one with the point aimed at something other than the valid target. And most especially were the swords pointed, for then the modern attack would be simply suicidal. Or, put more simply, fence epee until foil is fixed—if ever it is.

Fencing with the Foil by Roger Crosnier, 1955. One of the best expositions of modern classical foil of the French school ever written in English. Excellent explanations of practical theory, including on tempo and the progressive attack. Frankly, excellent throughout. Epeeists should read it together with Crosnier’s epee text, foilists together with Lukovich’s foil text.

 Foil Fencing by Muriel Bower [Muriel Taitt], 1966 et al. Numerous editions, prefer the latest (1996, Muriel Taitt). Solid beginning foil text, used over the four decades by thousands of beginning fencers, including in 1977 by the compiler of this list of books in a beginning class taught by Dr. Francis Zold.

All About Fencing: An Introduction to the Foil by Bob Anderson, 1970, 2nd printing 1973. The book is unique in that the reader can, by flipping pages, see properly executed technique, and in a manner superior even to much of the modern fencing video available. There is a hint of two of sexism common to the era—Anderson states that only men can cope with the epee and sabre, for example, which is nonsense—, but few fencing books of the first seven or eight decades of the 20th century do not take such a view. Some might disagree with some of his brief fencing history as well, but the history in many fencing books is open for debate, based as it often is on common understanding as opposed to rigorous analysis.

Anderson was a British Olympic fencer and Olympic coach who became Hollywood’s leading swordplay choreographer, following in the footsteps of Fred Cavens and Ralph Faulkner. The fencing in Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and Alatriste are but three of his many film works. (His book is also one of the first two books on fencing the compiler of this list ever read. In fact, the book was in the Mount Miguel HS library—seldom anymore will you find fencing books in high school libraries.) Mr. Anderson died on January 1, 2012, and was inexplicably and inexcusably snubbed by both the 2012 and 2013 Oscars during the In Memoriam segment.

Electric Foil Fencing by Istvan Lukovich, 1971, 1998. Perhaps the most thorough electrical foil text, with excellent sections on fencing theory and requirements. Valuable even today, in spite of being written and published is prior to the modern debasement of right-of-way conventions.

Foil and The Revised Foil by Charles Selberg, 1975 and 1993 respectively. Thorough and very useful, with a good section on tactics. Highly recommended, but prefer the 1993 Revised Foil. Selberg also produced an extensive selection of instructional videos. Now on DVD, they are available from Selberg Fencing at http://www.selbergfencing.com/.

Basic Foil Fencing by Charles Simonian, 2005. A solid introductory text.


“Modern” Saber

 Modern Sabre Methodology by Zoltán Beke and József Polgár, 1963. Translated from the Hungarian. Not “modern” in the sense of the most recent form of saber fencing, but “modern” in the sense of twentieth century Hungarian saber before saber’s debasement via the electrical scoring system and the degeneration of the interpretation of right-of-way. Worth acquiring if you can find an affordable copy, but if you do it will likely be by accident, unfortunately. (Mine was.) A very thorough exposition of every technique in the Hungarian saber repertoire. Not for beginners! One of my favorite passages is its excellent, simple definition of tempo, along with the very useful discussion following, all suitable to all three weapons—or to all swords in all places in all eras, in fact. It is also, from a historical perspective, easy to see how Hungarian saber influenced Hungarian epee, and therefore modern epee.

 Modern Saber Fencing by Zbigniew Borysiuk, 2009. Only if the modern “weapon” known as electric saber appeals to you. Still, a very good book, and the only one in print in English. Unintelligible conventions plus attacks with the unextending arm held low leaving the body nakedly exposed plus awkwardly cramped footwork plus hitting with the flat of the blade do not saber fencing make. The flat merely chastises: it’s the edge that cuts. The rest is simply too tiresome to debate.

The Cléry and Lukovich titles in the “Epee, Foil, and Saber” section have excellent instruction on Hungarian saber. Cléry also includes some detailed history of the origin of the Hungarian school. The Beck/Barth text includes excellent information on modern post-Hungarian saber. The famous Hungarian saber technique was destroyed principally by the electrification of saber, said by knowledgeable sources to have been a compound decision based on the likelihood that the obvious flaws in electric saber would permit a less strict technique, particularly when aided by a debasement of right-of-way, and would thereby open international saber medals to more than the handful countries with the critical mass of elite saber coaches and sabreurs able to master in-depth the technical repertoire of the Hungarian weapon.

 For half a century Hungary reigned over twentieth century saber, and maintained a strong grip on it even after a number of sabreurs defected during the Melbourne Olympic Games in response to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. Recent US gains in modern electrical saber were based in part on the early willingness of US coaches to embrace the new “weapon,” while some of their European counterparts, who had previously excelled in saber, attempted to continue the use of traditional Hungarian technique.


Theory, Tactics, Teaching, and Training

Fencing and the Master by László Szabó, 1977, 1997. Forward by Dr. Eugene Hamori, a student of Szabó’s (and my second fencing master), in the 1997 edition. The best book ever written on the subject of teaching fencing: the fencing coach’s vade-mecum. Highly recommended. Excellent material on theory and other aspects of fencing, besides the practical. Intermediate to advanced fencers will also find it useful, in particular for its sections on tactics, preparation, drilling, and stealing distance. Szabó, who trained a number of Hungarian champions, was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés and a close friend of Dr. Francis Zold, my first fencing master.

László Duronelli and Lajos Csiszar were the other two Santelli protégés. Csiszar was master for many years at the University of Pennsylvania after emigrating to the US. Among his students were Dr. Eugene Hamori and Roger Jones, the latter of whom one day contacted me about writing a review of one of my books; during our conversation we realized we had the same ultimate fencing roots and identical views, understandably, on honor in fencing. Duronelli was master for many years at the fencing salle at Semmelweis High School, run by Semmelweis University, in Budapest. This delightfully old school salle, which has produced many champions, is still in existence, with László Szepesi, who helped bring saber gold to France, as its current master. Eugene Hamori along with Krisztina Nagy (a very talented fencer in both HEMA longsword and modern Olympic saber) escorted my wife and me on a visit to the salle not too long ago.

A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology by William M. Gaugler, 1997. A well-researched fencing dictionary.

Escrime: Enseignement et entraînement by Daniel Popelin, 2002. In French. The theory and practice of teaching fencing and training fencers. Rather than use the typical pyramidal view of fencing from its base to its competitive elite at the point, M. Popelin suggests a truncated pyramid, whose range is from beginner to national level, to indicate the majority of fencers, and a cylinder on top of this to indicate international and aspiring-to-international fencers. He astutely notes that the majority of fencers do not seriously train to become elite fencers, for many reasons, and thus fencers should be trained differently according to their needs. In other words, the training of the “club” fencer, no matter how talented, should be different from that of the elite competitor. Or put another way, simply because a technique, classical or otherwise, is not used at the elite level is no reason for non-elite competitors to abandon it or, worse, never learn it.

Understanding Fencing by Zbigniew Czajkowski, 2005. Highly recommended for fencers and coaches interested in practical theory. Czajkowski is a leading Polish master whose students in all three weapons have earned gold at the Olympics and world championships.

One Touch at a Time by Aladar Kogler, 2005. The psychology and tactics of competitive fencing, by an Olympic fencing coach and noted sports psychologist.

Theory, Methods and Exercises in Fencing by Ziemowit Wojciechowski, 1986(?). By a world-class fencer and master. Foil-based, but still an excellent book for fencers and coaches of all three weapons. Good information on evaluating and dealing with an opponent’s tactical style, especially in foil, although, again, still useful in epee and saber.

See also Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, in the “Historical Fencing” section below.


Classical Fencing”
(Modern Non- Electrical Technique)

Some of the books below (Barbasetti, Gaugler) use one of the several classical Italian parrying systems and numberings, as opposed to the French or modified French systems and numbering preferred by most teachers today. (There are several French-based numbering systems, each differing in the naming of a parry or two, or in the use of a parry, for what it’s worth.) All of the books below are useful to the modern electrical game, epee particularly, and to foil and saber at their fundamental level. At some point foil and saber may return to a more classical standing, rather than their present sport-dominated extreme artificiality, notwithstanding that foil has always been artificial. See also the texts listed in the “Epee de Combat” section.

The Book of Fencing by Eleanor Baldwin Cass, 1930. The book is particularly noteworthy as it was, and remains, one of only a handful of fencing texts written by a woman. Ms. Cass was an American, and the book was, not surprisingly, published in Boston, birthplace both of conservative American Puritanism as well as liberal progressive thought. The epee section is sparse, as is often the case with many three-weapon texts, but the foil section is classically thorough. The book is also a great source on much of the fencing history of the day, and thus quite useful to the fencing historian.

The Art of the Foil by Luigi Barbasetti, 1932. The Italian foil. Includes a succinct but thorough history of fencing, a good section on tactics, and a glossary of fencing terms in English, French, Italian, and German. A useful book for epeeists as well. Barbasetti was one of several Italian fencing masters who carried Italian technique to Hungary and Austria, including to the Austro-Hungarian Normal Military Fencing School of Wiener-Neustadt in 1895 where he re-organized it. (Alfred Tusnady-Tschurl, one of my “fencing grandfathers”—the fencing masters of my own fencing masters—was a graduate and had studied under Barbasetti.) Italo Santelli was the most notable of these Italian immigrant masters. Santelli famously said that fencing is something you do, not something you write about—thus there is no book by Santelli in this list.

The Theory and Practice of Fencing by Julio Martinez Castelló, 1933. The early 20th century Spanish school, incorporating the best of the French and Italian. (The Neapolitan Italians were the first to do this formally and on any scale, followed by the Spanish and, via the Italians, the Hungarians.) Good description of the two most classical epee styles: “straight arm” and “bent arm.” (See Lidstone’s later edition above for others.)

Among Castello’s students was Joseph Velarde, the fencing master whose stand against racial discrimination in fencing opened US collegiate competition to black fencers. By coincidence I once worked with Velarde’s son, a former US Marine Corps officer, many years ago. A few years before that I had fenced occasionally with the founders of the old MARS Fencing Club at the Marshall Space Flight Center. One of these veritable musketeers, Joe Dabbs, who has since passed away, had trained under Velarde. I have remained friends with all of these old MARS fencers over the years, and most were active fencers until recently. John Jordan, Elias Katsaros, and Donny Philips—the remaining members of the Four Musketeers—continue on.

The Art of the Sabre and the Epee by Luigi Barbasetti, 1936. By one of the great early twentieth century masters. The epee section is quite sparse, and refers the student to the foil for much technique, a quite common practice in many of the Italian schools. Castello’s book (see above) has a far more thorough epee section.

On Fencing by Aldo Nadi, 1943, reprint 1994. A famous Italian fencer’s thoughts, pompous and otherwise, on technique and competition. Nadi, held up as a god by many modern “classical fencers,” despised the French grip as much as many of the same “classical fencers” today despise the pistol grip and advocate the Italian and [Nadi-despised] French grips.

The Science of Fencing by William M. Gaugler, 1997. A thorough modern description of classical Italian foil, epee, and saber technique. Pedagogical, as one would expect, and almost old school military in its technical presentation. Professor Gaugler, a student of Aldo Nadi and other great classical Italian masters, passed away in 2011.


Historical Fencing
That Is, To Hit and Not Get Hit (At Least in Theory)

Rapier & “Transitional” Rapier

Don Pablo El Buscon ontmoet een schermmeester, Caspar Luyken, Jan Claesz ten Hoorn, 1699

Dutch illustration by Caspar Luyken, 1699, for El Buscon by Quevedo of the scene lampooing la verdadera destreza.

Libro de Jeronimo de Carranza, que trata de la filosfia de las armas y de su destreza, y de la aggression y defension Christiana by Jeronimo de Carranza, 1582. Add to this the works of his student, don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez. The book is the exposition of la verdadera destreza, or true art, and as such is necessary for understanding one of the major schools of Spanish rapier. The style is based much on complex geometric forms derived from the simple theory that discovering the shortest safest path in attack or defense is the basis of speed (in fact, it is but one component). From this proposition the school became wrapped in unnecessary esoterica including elements of mathematics and philosophy that have little if any practical bearing on practical swordplay. Yet it was this esoterica that made it surely lucrative for fencing masters whose students were, as many are today, eager for “secret knowledge.” The system was scathingly and brilliantly lampooned by famous poet, swordsman, and Spanish national treasure Francisco de Quevedo in El Buscón. Quevedo once humiliated Narvaez in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat. In fairness, it can be argued that the verdadera destreza was an early effort at scientific or rational fencing theory that, albeit with different emphasis, would come to dominate the smallsword in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Don Pedro Texedo Sicilia de Tervel

Escuela de Principiantes y Promptuario de Questiones en la Philosophia de la Berdadera Destreça de las Armas by Don Pedro Texedo Sicilia de Tervel, 1678. As with the Destreza Indiana below, the author’s name alone is quite evocative. Add to this the author’s image in the front papers, evoking the aloof, Roman-nosed Spanish don (not quite a myth by any means), and we have a book right out of a Hollywood swashbuckler. It has everything for the fencer enraptured by the destreza verdadera, including excellent illustrations of swashbuckling swordsmen—Spaniards, we assume, although their Spanish dress includes baldrics rather than the narrow sword-belts worn by Spaniards at the time except when in military dress, which was basically French—holding classic cup-hilt rapiers and standing on “magic” geometric circles. Discusses rapier and dagger, single rapier, and rapier and target.

The author’s image page includes references to theologia, obtica, practica, astrologia, speculativa, arismetica, matematica, musica, and philosophia, which is quite an education: only by reading the book is the question answered as to whether some or all apply to the destreza verdadera. “All,” I imagine Texedo would say. Further, I am unsure who the audience was: the book was published in Naples, under Spanish rule at the time; the clothing and baldric are a bit curious (perhaps of Spaniards in Naples? Or in Sicily? Or of Italians in Spanish dress?); and the dedication is to His Majesty the King of Spain, of course.

The book’s purpose is clear, though, according to Texedo’s motto: Omnia Contra Tela is shorthand for “unum omnia contra tela Latinorum” from Virgil’s Aeneid, book VIII. The complete phrase translates as “alone sufficient against all the weapons of the Latins” (Benjamin Apthorp Gould, 1826; Latin translation should always be left to serious scholars). Given that destreza is written beneath the motto, it’s pretty certain that Texedo held his practice of philosophical swordplay in high regard.

I imagine Don Pedro Texedo, whom I rank among my favorite Spanish swordsmen, as equal to “John de Nardes of Seville in Spain, who with the dagger alone, would encounter the single rapier and worst him.” (William Higford, 1658. “Juan de Nardes” of Seville is probably Juan Domínguez, noted by F. Moreno in Esgrima Española, 1904.)

Las Tretas de la Vulgar y Comun Esgrima, de Espadas Sola, y Con Armas Dobles by Manuel Cruzado y Peralta, 1702. The “common” school of fence, that is, practical swordplay of rapier and dagger and single rapier probably used by most Spaniards in the 17th and 18th centuries, as opposed to the verdadera destreza described above.

Ilustracion de la destreza indiana1 LR

Illustracion de la Destreza Indiana by Don Francisco Santos de la Paz and Capitan Deigo Rodriguez de Guzman: Lima, 1712. Noteworthy primarily because it was the first fencing book, to my knowledge, published in the Americas. The authors’ names alone conjure assignations and affrays fought with rapier and poniard, or capa y espada, at night, not to mention the myth of duels on deck between noble pirate captains and treacherous Spaniards, although to be accurate we should drop the “noble” from pirate captains all of the time unless fictional (for example, Captains Peter Blood and Charles de Bernis), and “treacherous” from Spaniards most of the time. Trust me on this, I write books on the subject. See also Edward Blackwell in the “Smallsword” section below.

Gran Simulacro by Ridolfo Capo Ferro, 1610, 1629. A beautiful 2004 hardcover edition, Italian Rapier Combat: Capo Ferro’s ‘Gran Simulacro,’ edited by Jared Kirby, is available, as is a 2012 softcover reprint.

Alfieri (2)

In modern terms, an opposition thrust in quarte. From Alfieri.

L’Arte di Ben Maneggiare la Spada by Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, 1653. Beautifully and graphically illustrated treatise of the Italian spada, both of single sword and sword and dagger. Highly recommended.

Holding Rapier Marcelli

How to hold a rapier according to Marcelli. Compare with Rossi above. In fact, either one or two fingers can be placed within the arm of the hilt. In general, I’ve found that a single figer works best for me with a rapier, and two with a 19th-20th century Italian foil.

Regole Della Scherma by Francesco Antonio Marcelli, 1686. Detailed, practical study of the Italian spada, including single sword, sword and dagger, and sword versus other arms and vice versa, for example the saber or scimitar versus rapier. A very practical book with sound, practical advice useful in rapier, smallsword, and epee. Dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden, who had abdicated her throne and now resided in Rome. Greta Garbo starred as Queen Christina in an excellent film of the same name.


The “high octave” (a nineteenth century term) as illustrated in Bruchius.

Grondige Beschryvinge Van de Edele ende Ridderlijcke Scherm-ofte Wapen-konste by Joannes Georgius Bruchius, 1671. A Dutch text presaging the persistent influence of the rapier into the age of the smallsword in Northern European schools—the Dutch, the various German, and others. Notably, in spite of the date and obvious transitioning to a lighter weapon, the book still uses much Italian rapier terminology. Solid technique for the duelist, soldier, and brawler, much of it looking remarkably similar to modern epee. The author references various illustrations throughout the book, in order that the reader may put them together in different described sequences. Clever, but unfortunately cumbersome too, as one might expect.

The book illustrates one of the most practical uses of what Alfred Hutton, in saber, would refer to as “high octave”—used, that is, as a yielding parry from quarte to exclude the adversary’s blade after running him through. Immediately closing the distance and commanding the adversary’s blade was vital. An adversary is seldom dead or disabled immediately, after all, and this technique would prevent him (or, rarely, her) from making a killing thrust in revenge, assuming a perfect world of course. Not everything goes according to plan, or so Fortune is said to say and without doubt often proves. Some nineteenth century saber masters recommended its use to counter-parry a quarte riposte made in opposition, suggesting that it was the only parry that could be made quick enough, which at the distance of direct riposte may be true. Hollywood is occasionally enamored of the technique, but it’s usually cringeworthy to watch the lovefest, so stilted, weak, and inappropriate in execution—unbelievable, in other words—it usually is.

See George Silver in the “Broadswords…” section below for a passionate argument against the rapier.




Seconde parry against a thrust in seconde from de la Touche. The lunge is over long and the rear foot has been rolled onto its inner edge probably for extra reach, not security. Note the typical crowned guard of the French foil and the fencing shoes worn over a thick pair of extra socks.

Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670. The establishment of the modern French school of the smallsword, whose principals went largely unchanged for more than three centuries, and remain much in place today. Fencing for the French court. Although the technique is practical as described, or at least what would soon be considered conventional, and later classical, the illustrations show a lunge absurdly long, one that could hardly be recovered from in good time or in good defense. Perhaps it was too please Louis XVII and his tastes in elegance and dance.

French Fencing 1685

Plate from de Liancour illustrating on the left the discovery that the adversary elevates the hand when parrying with the forte, and on the right the method of opposing this with a feint to the head and a disengage in seconde. Elevating the hand when parrying sixte to cover the outside line is common in epee, and is vulnerable exactly as illustrated above.

Le Maître d’Armes ou L’Exercice de l’Epée Seule dans sa Perfection by Andre Wernesson, Sieur de Liancour, 1692. An excellent study of the smallsword, albeit in some ways more suited to gentilshommes of the French court than to adventurers in the field. Julie d’Aubigny, aka Mademoiselle la Maupin, the opera singer and duelist, among other occupations and pastimes, may well have studied under Wernesson, maître en fait d’armes to the Petit Ecurie, given her swashbuckling father’s position at court as the secretary to the comte d’Armagnac. (She might also have studied under Jean or François Rousseau, maîtres en fait d’armes to the Grande Ecurie.)

La Maupin, among her many adventures, was convicted and subsequently sentenced in absentia to be burned to death by the Parlement d’Aix for seducing a novice and burning a corpse in the associated convent. The verdict, however, was delivered against the sieur d’Aubigny; La Maupin’s masculine disguise apparently fooling, or perhaps pretending to fool, the right people. The criminal seductress’s former protector, the comte d’Armagnac, petitioned Louis XIV to overturn the decision, which he did, doubtless given his strong inclination toward attractive talented women. Clearly, independent women were hard to come by—and apparently hard to spot when dressed as a man fleeing a convent and prosecution.

L’art des armes by le sieur Labat, 1696. English translation, The Art of Fencing by Andrew Mahon, 1734. Another excellent study of the smallsword, although Labat, like de Liancour, was not quite as practical-minded regarding the smallsword in sudden rencontres, street fights, and the battlefield as some authors, McBane for example, were. From his work, as well as Hope’s below, it is easy to see the origins of sport fencing, aka foil fencing. In fact, I suspect that most fencers of this era far preferred “school play” to the possibility of injury or death in a real rencontre.


From Sir Wm. Hope, a French en garde on the left, and his early-recommended guard, although he would change his recommendation twice, once to a more conventional guard, then last to the “Falloon” or hanging guard common the Walloons, Dutch, and Germans.

The Compleat Fencing-Master by Sir William Hope, 1692, 1710. Largely a reprint of Hope’s earlier work, the Scots Fencing Master, or Compleat Small-Swordman, 1687. An excellent work, highly recommended. Hope was an astute amateur, and his observations on fencing concepts are valuable to both the historical and modern fencer. Additionally, he has much practical advice for fighting with “sharps.”

The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum by Sir William Hope, 1691, 1694, 1705. Excellent advice for surviving a fight with “sharps.” That is, practical considerations for dueling and “rancounters” (rencontres) or street fights.

The Fencing-Master’s Advice to His Scholar by Sir William Hope, 1692. Rules and advice, including technique, for “school play”—that is, for sport fencing. Ever wonder where foil conventions and rules come from? In spite of most historical texts noting that conventions originally derived for reasons of safety, it is clear that sport, convenience, and appearance also played a major role, perhaps even the greater one, starting in the late 17th century, if not much earlier.


Laroon’s “A Cart in Tierce over the Arme”–the hand turned in quarte in the tierce position. Here, in the form of an angulation in sixte with the unarmed hand opposing, against a tierce.

The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700. Illustrations and single line descriptions only, very useful to the historian not only of fencing but of period dress. (I’ve relied heavily on these images for Fortune’s Whelp, for example.) Figures are in a variety of fencing positions, most with smallswords, some with buttoned foils. Worthy of much study. A number of images are suggestive of, or even imitated from, 17th century rapier and “transitional rapier” illustrations, making it at quite possible, or even probable, that the French school was not yet entirely in full force even in the English smallsword, or that the Dutch immigrant illustrator Laroon, who bore a facial scar from an affray with swords, was showing his Dutch influence. (See Bruchius in the “Rapier & Transitional” Rapier section, for example.)

Blackwell 2

Illustration from Henry Blackwell of a parry-riposte made in a single tempo against a flanconade–an imbrocatta, in other words.

The English Fencing-Master: or, the Compleat Tuterour of the Small Sword by Henry Blackwell, 1702. A short text thereby suggesting that “Compleat Tuterour” is hyperbole, with decent illustrations showing wounds with spurting blood for emphasis. Includes more proof that the modern sixte thrust aka “carte over the arm” was well in use much earlier than some fencing historians suggest. Charming spelling of seconde: “Sagoone.” But the spelling of carte, tierce, and prime are conventional. Blackwell includes a good but brief discussion of flanconade, one of my favorite thrusts in its several varieties: it secures the adversary’s blade, is perfectly placed for additional opposition with the unarmed hand (were this still legal), and, thrust low, avoids the ribs and their cartilage which might impede the thrust (assuming the adversaries are fencing with “sharps” of course). Blackwell’s recommended en garde is with the arm mostly extended, as is the case with many smallsword texts—it’s simply a safer guard with a real thrusting sword than the common foil guard of the past two centuries. See also Edward Blackwell below!


Opposition with the unarmed hand while thrusting. Note the buttoned German foils with shallow round shells and crossbars. The en gardes are derived from rapier-play. From Schillern.

Der Geöffnete Fecht-Boden by B. Schillern, 1706. German text showing the influence of the rapier even with the smallsword into the 18th century. Compare with Doyle’s French-influenced German text below and with Bruchius’s Dutch text in the “Rapier” section above.

Advertisement, Especially to Fencing Masters by Sir William Hope, probably 1707. An advertisement with argument for Hope’s new book detailing his new method of fencing using the hanging guard. Excellent, if brief and not entirely complete, discussion as to why swordplay on the battlefield is different from that of the duel. (He doesn’t provide reasons why cutting weapons, or cut and thrust, are preferred: cuts may not kill but often disable more quickly that thrusts, it is easier to change direction and defend while doing so with a cutting weapon, thrusts may stick in the adversary and thereby be problematic for mounted troops–many have been dismounted by a thrust stuck in an enemy.) Hope is less convincing when it comes to his argument that his method is new, and not merely a restatement of one of the Walloon or German styles.

Miller Gauntlet

Illustration of backsword and great gauntlet from Miller (see “Broadswords” below). Hope recommended the use of the great gauntlet on the battlefield.

New Method of Fencing by Sir William Hope, 1707, 1714, et al. Hope’s exposition of his conversion to the hanging guard, known by many as the “falloon” (from Walloon) guard, as opposed to the more common guards in quarte and tierce, for the smallsword, sheering sword, and backsword. The book has been reprinted in Highland Swordsmanship, edited by Mark Rector, 2001. Among his excellent advice for swordplay on the battlefield, Hope recommends a stout gauntlet on the unarmed hand for parrying.

The English Master of Defence: or, the Gentleman’s Al-a-Mode Accomplishment by Zackary Wylde, 1711. A difficult read at times, especially for those without a strong base in classical fencing, smallsword, and backsword/broadsword technique, not to mention in English syntax and phrases circa 1700, but the language is colorful, the writer charmingly self-confident, and his descriptions—once deciphered—proof that there is little new in “modern” fencing. Covers smallsword, broadsword, quarterstaff, and wrestling.

Doyle Parry and Cave

Quarte parry with opposition of the hand, with riposte in tierce cavé (angulation), from Doyle.

Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst by Alexander Doyle, 1715. An Irishman introduces Germans to the French school, with plenty of parries and oppositions with the unarmed hand, plus disarmings, grapplings, and trips/throws to satisfy advocates of the native German schools. Almost as well-illustrated as Girard below, and in some ways I almost prefer Doyle’s illustrations. An excellent reference for the practical-minded swordsman.

Expert Sword-Man’s Companion by Donald McBane, 1728. McBane was a Scottish soldier, swordsman, fencing master, duelist, prize fighter, and collateral pimp whose deeds and escapades began in the late 17th century and continued into the 18th. Highly recommended, almost certainly the best text on practical swordplay for the duel, affray, rencontre, street fight, &c, based as it is on his own extensive experience wetting his blade with the blood of adversaries, and occasionally wetting theirs with his own. Literary connection: in The Princess Bride the author refers to McBane as “McBone.” The book has been reprinted at least three times in recent years: a 2015 edition edited by Keith Farrell in Scotland, a 2017 edition edited by Jared Kirby, and a 2001 edition edited by Mark Rector in Highland Swordsmanship (readers of this last edition may choose to disregard the photographs of McBane’s technique and refer instead to McBane’s descriptions and original illustrations which are unfortunately not reproduced in this edition).

A Compleat System of Fencing: or, the Art of Defence, In the Use of the Small-Sword by Edward Blackwell, 1734, in Williamsburg, Virginia. The first fencing text published in North America and the first in English in the Americas as well, sub-titled Wherein The most necessary Parts thereof are plainly laid down; chiefly for Gentlemen, Promoters and Lovers of that SCIENCE in North America. Given the last names plus the similarity of titles and technique, Edward Blackwell is surely related to Henry Blackwell, most likely as father and son. The book includes a good introduction as to why one should fence—Americans, take note! It’s apparently long been a problem promoting swordplay in British-derived North America!—as well as solid descriptions of swordplay, including how to deal with a low guard, in “Master and Scholar” format (Sir Wm. Hope has used this format too).

As with Henry, the book has a good description of the flanconade, and the likely son has corrected the likely father’s spelling of “Seconde.” Good discussion of time and counter-time, along with a reminder that foilists have long been inclined to impale themselves by attacking into an attack (so have many epeeists, too, but foilists tend to regard double hits as imaginary). Like his likely father, the son prefers a more extended guard, and not the scandalously “crooked Arm” so popular with foilists since the 19th century—but at least most of them extended from beginning to end during their attacks until recently—and also with aggressive “ignorants” of the smallsword era who did not extend during their attacks. Yes, attacks with a bent arm are those of the fencing illiterate, thus one might argue that both modern foil and saber fencers are quite unlettered (and some epeeists are too). See also Henry Blackwell above.

Girard A

Riposte in prime with opposition of the hand in Girard. The thrust is referred to as tierce in cart by some authors. Girard’s book is the best illustrated of akk smallsword texts.

Traité des Armes by P. J. F. Girard, 1737, 1740, et al. Possibly the best book on the smallsword ever written. Not only beautifully illustrated, the book describes smallsword technique in detail, including its use on the battlefield against other weapons. It emphasizes practical swordplay for the duel as well as for the affray or rencontre, even against foreign fencing styles, and for battle. Girard was a naval officer. Highly recommended.


Illustration to accompany Danet’s advice on how to separate two dueling combatants. Unfortunately, the image is sometimes incorrectly captioned as illustrating how to fight two adversarys at the same time.

L’Art des Armes by Guillaume Danet, 1766. Excellent work on the smallsword, with practical exposition of the theory and practice, along with useful associated exotica, including how to break up a duel (grasp the shell of one adversary’s sword and direct your point at the other). However, the Internet being what it is—as useful to the lazy in their laziness, fools in their folly, and idiots in their idiocy, as it is to those largely unafflicted with these defects of behavior and intellect—the illustration is unfortunately reproduced on occasion to demonstrate, quite incorrectly, how to fight two adversaries simultaneously.

Among much useful commentary, Danet demonstrates his functional knowledge of fencing history and texts; decries commanding the blade (seizing the adversary’s sword) and disarmaments, but discusses them anyway because the fencer should know how to defend against them; discusses and decries volts and the passata soto (under another name); and wishes that parries with the unarmed hand had never been invented, although he distinguishes between parries with the hand and opposition of the hand, the latter of which he approves.

Danet provides the modern definition of fencing time: the time it takes to perform any single action of hand or foot. On the other hand, his renaming of parries is confusing to modern fencers, and was to his contemporaries as well. La Boëssière père, via his son (see below) was highly critical of Danet in general (not unusual in itself for fencing masters to criticize each other, often pompously), although it is easy to see from both that the “practical” swordplay of the smallsword was in danger of descending into near-complete artificiality, which in the next century it did.

In spite of its many virtues, my fondness for the book is actually based much on Rafael Sabatini’s affection for it, on which he founded much of his description of French swordplay, particularly in Scaramouche. Danet’s style of fencing is very much in keeping with the style of Sabatini’s logical intellect, and therefore of Sabatini’s swashbuckling heroes, although Sabatini, being half Italian, did not shrink from occasional cunning, nor did he object to his swordsmen partaking occasionally from the Italian school. From Danet is the inspiration for Andre-Louis Moreau’s new theory of swordplay, although in reality it would be nullified by an arrest, not to mention difficult to execute even with a cooperative adversary. But don’t let this spoil the excellent novel, which among its many virtues great and small is an evocative description of a fencing lesson that stirs me to this day. And in many ways Sabatini’s theory was correct at its core: the fencer should force his or her adversary into a pre-selected avenue of no escape.

Sabatini also used the historical person of Danet in the short story, “The Open Door” in Turbulent Tales (1946). For more details on Sabatini and Danet, not to mention, and far more importantly, on Sabatini’s works in general, I highly recommend Romantic Prince: Reading Rafael by Ruth Heredia, 2015. I am honored to have assisted Ruth on the subject of swordplay in Sabatini’s works.

The Fencer’s Guide by Andrew Lonnergan, 1771. Practical smallsword-play described with some occasionally uncommon fencing language: the practices of whirling, wrenching, and lurching, for example, which are synonyms for three conventional techniques. A more scholarly and readable update on Wylde is one way of looking at the book. Lonnergan also includes a very useful discussion of the backsword and spadroon, as well as some very practical advice for and against the cavalry, dragoons, and Hussars or light horse—whether the adversary wears breastplate and helmet determines to a great degree the swordplay used. He has brief useful advice for the fencer armed with a walking stick (it must be wielding a bit differently, having no edge or point), and sees no reason that an athletic fencer cannot use the various volts, night thrust (passata soto), grapplings, &c, which by now many masters had lost favor with. However, see Danet above.

McArthur Octave.jpg

Direct riposte from octave parry in McArthur. As with Angelo’s illustrations, the figures are much too posed, in postures not likely to be seen in reality except at relatively slow speed with a conforming partner. The figures do reflect the purported “scientific elegance” of the era.

The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion; or a New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing by John McArthur, 1784. Solid exposition of the smallsword, with conventional language—McArthur doesn’t use Lonnergan’s romantically descriptive flourishes when naming some techniques. Again, here is yet another book proving that there is really nothing new in modern fencing. As with many fencing books, it includes some useful and some not so useful tidbits, for example, the deflecting of a pistol with a smallsword, something I suggest should not have been tried except in extremis and was probably most successful when used with a strong cutting sword—a broadsword, backsword, saber, or cutlass—that, rather than deflect the pistol, severed some of the fingers or the hand holding it instead. Very much worth reading, as for that matter are all the smallsword texts listed here, in order to expand one’s perspective on the theory and practice of Western thrusting swords.

The School of Fencing by Domenico Angelo, 1787. Several modern reprints available. The height of the 18th century French school, though by now the smallsword was mostly an accoutrement of dress, occasional dueling arm, and for some military officers, a badge of office. Fencing for the gentleman. The book is not my favorite, even though it was also published under “Escrime” in Diderot’s famous encyclopedia. Perhaps it’s the illustrations: I cannot image any serious swordsman or swordswoman posing so delicately. For the latter part of the 18th century I much prefer Danet, Lonnergan especially, and even McArthur (whose illustrations are likewise a bit too delicate to represent the soldier and fighting seaman in my opinion).

The Amateur of Fencing by Joseph Roland, 1809. Highly recommended for all fencers. Although the technical material is quite useful to the smallsword fencer and worth reading by the modern fencer. In particular, Roland, first quoting McArthur above, recommended the study of fencing to navy men, for “they are more frequently at close quarters with the enemy than the military are.” But the book’s real value lies in his philosophy of teaching fencing and learning to fence. Specifically, he attempts to go beyond the mere mechanical practices of teaching fencing and of fencing itself, practices still far too common even today. In fact, such mechanical description is the entire content, or nearly so, of most books on fencing, then and now. Roland wished to go beyond this and develop a sense of tempo, tactics, awareness, and independence in the student.

Most valuable are several of his admonitions, for example, “[T]he pupil, who I wish at all times to make use, but not too hastily, and without partiality, of his own judgement, and not upon every occasion to take for certain evidence any proposition upon the authority alone of a master, merely because he is a master, or that the same may be found in print.” Although there are masters who have embraced this philosophy today (including mine), the majority do not appear to have done so and remain instead “mechanical.” Of these, too many reign at the center of a cult of personality, with the result that their students are anything but independent on the piste or, unfortunately, in life.

Traité de l’Art des Armes by La Boëssière fils, 1818. An explication by the son of the school of the father (a contemporary of Angelo and Danet, among others). Highly recommended, especially for the student of the smallsword or of fencing history and theory in general. A superb text, with useful observations (practiced too little today, both in the making and the study of) for teaching students, including the young, the old, and women too, along with practical tidbits, for example an early discussion of the use of the fencing mask (masque de fil-fer, that is, iron wire), instructions on how to mount and button a fleuret d’assaut, and a criticism of the quality of the “new” foil blades, something common throughout the history of fencing it seems: I’m old enough, for example, to have used the superbly-balanced, light, long-lasting non-maraging  Prieur foil and epee blades forged in the 1970s (there were no maraging blades back then).

Traité de l’ Art de faire des Armes by Louis-Justin Lafaugère, 1820. Perhaps, along with the only secondarily-described method of Jean-Louis (see below), the last of the great treatises of the smallsword. After this date, and until the development of the épée de combat, we find mostly foil fencing in the form of what was once known as “school play”—sport fencing, or worse, le jeu de salon, in a form unsuitable for combat with sharps. Lafaugère, a redoubtable fencer and swordsman (there is a difference), wrote in detail of the many variations of feints and their many combinations, making the book, to some, overly complex. The only modern text comparable in similar complexity is Imre Vass’s grand epee book (see the “Modern Epee” section above) in which he details feint attacks in similar fashion.

jean louis


Un Maître d’armes Sous la Restauration : Petit Essai Historique by Arsène Vigeant. Strictly speaking, a biography of one history’s most swashbuckling and talented swordsmen and fencing masters, Jean-Louis. Like Alexandre Dumas who gave us some of the greatest swashbuckling and historical novels ever written, Jean-Louis was of mixed black and white French Caribbean descent. The book is listed here because Vigeant includes a detailed description of Jean-Louis’s teaching method, along with many of his drills, quite modern and still useful today. In any case, Jean-Louis’s story alone is a magnificent read. His daughter, if I recall correctly, was a quite talented fencer, too. For those of you who don’t read French, Michel Alaux includes a detailed biography of Jean-Louis (see the “Combined Modern” section above). Jean-Louis’s salle survived into the 20th century, and Alaux was its master for some years.


Backsword, Broadsword, Saber, &c.

 Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver, 1599, reprint 1968 et al. A vigorous defense of English cut-and-thrust swordplay for dueling or battle, and excoriation of the rapier and rapier play. Contains perhaps the best description ever put to paper of the virtues of fencing, as well as the best examination for qualification as a fencing master or expert. Yes, if you want to be an expert swordsman or swordswoman, you must be able to routinely defeat unskilled fencers and not be thrown by their irregular technique and tactics! If you can’t, you’re merely a common fencer best suited to engaging others of your ilk. The fencing may not be pretty when you engage the unskilled, the hack, the ferrailleur, or the extremely unconventional, but you must be able to defeat any inferior fencer, not just those with conventional technique and tactics. Further, you must be able to hold your own against your equals, no matter their style, and force superior fencers to work hard for their victories—and occasionally, defeat them by doing so.


The hanging guard according to Miller. To be used when “press’d very hard, or have more than one to contend with.” This is the guard that Sir Wm. Hope came to favor so much.

A Treatise on Backsword, Sword, Buckler, Sword and Dagger, Sword and Great Gauntlet, Falchon, [&] Quarterstaff by Capt. James Miller, 1738. Plates with a column of descriptive notes on the front page. Half a dozen or more of the fifteen plates apply to the basket-hilt backsword, and two to the falchion, and therefore to the cutlass. Excellent illustrations of positions poorly illustrated or described in other cutting sword texts of the period. Sir Wm. Hope was a fan of the “great gauntlet,” particularly on the battlefield. Miller was a soldier, later a stage gladiator.

The Use of the Broad Sword by Thomas Page. Norwich, England: M. Chase, 1746. 18th century broadsword technique, including that of the Scottish Highlanders, applicable also to the backsword and cutlass.

Highland Broadsword, edited by Paul Wagner and Mark Rector, 2004 (1790 – 1805). Five late 18th and early 19th century broadsword manuals (Anti-Pugilism by “a Highland Officer,” 1790; MacGregor’s Lecture on the Art of Defence, 1791; On the Use of the Broadsword by Henry Angelo, 1817; The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Saber, by R. K. Porter, 1804; and Fencing Familiarized, by Thomas Mathewson, 1805). Practical cut-and-thrust swordplay.

The Broad Swordsman’s Pocket Companion, “Designed by Capt. Wroughton,” ca. 1830. One of the last real English broadsword manuals of the era of Empire—actually, a book of plates only—before cut and thrust began to be absorbed by the rise in popularity of saber, not that there was actually much difference. Short, well-illustrated with colored prints of military fencers wearing fencing masks and armed with singlesticks. The book is exactly what it says.

The Art of the Dueling Sabre by Settimo del Frate explaining Guiseppe Radaelli’s saber method, translated and explained by Christopher Holzman, 2011. Del Frate’s original works were published in 1868 and 1872. Indispensable, along with the Wright/Masiello/Ciullini work below, for understanding Radaelli’s method of saber. It changed Italian saber fencing forever, and is the root of the Hungarian school.

Lessons in Sabre, Singlestick, Sabre & Bayonet, and Sword Feats; or, How to Use a Cut-And-Thrust Sword by J. M. Waite, 1880. Superb text on practical swordplay, highly recommended.

The Broadsword: as Taught by the Celebrated Italian Masters, Signors Masiello and Ciullini, of Florence, by Francis Vere Wright, Ferdinando Masiello, and [first name unknown] Ciullini, 1889. An English text on the Italian school of the light or dueling saber established by Guiseppe Radaelli in the 1870s. Maestro Masiello was a student of Radaelli; Ciullini probably was as well. Soon this Radaellian school would be transformed by Italo Santelli (a student of Carlo Pessina, who was a student of both Radaelli and Masaniello Parise) and László Borsody into the Hungarian saber school that would lead to Hungary’s half century reign in international sport saber competition. For those interested in the debunking of fencing myths, the book clearly states why the modern saber target is restricted to the area above the waist (and no, it has nothing to do with sabers once having been used on horseback): it was considered “unchivalrous” to hit below the belt. That is, the Italians wanted to keep their manhood undivided.

Cold Steel by Alfred Hutton, 1889, modern reprints available. Practical swordplay for the light saber (sorry, Star Wars fans, it’s not what you think) or even backsword, and also the “great sword” and stick. Highly recommended.

Broadsword and Singlestick by R. C. Allanson-Winn, 1890, reprints 2006, 2009. Excellent work on practical cut-and-thrust swordplay, most highly recommended. Quite English in its pragmatism.

See also Lonnergan, McBane, and Wylde in the Smallsword section.



In spite of the popular—and correct—association of the cutlass with piracy, privateering, and naval boarding actions of the 17th through early 19th centuries, there are for all practical purposes no cutlass texts prior to the late 18th. Even Roland (see the Smallsword section above), who recommended fencing in particular for naval officers and crews because they had the most need of it given the prevalence of boarding actions, and Girard and McArthur who were naval officers, do not really describe it—Girard not at all, McArthur only briefly by identifying its guards and cuts as those of broadsword, and Roland by quoting McArthur.

Cutlass play, at least as described in cutlass manuals, of the later era was based almost entirely on the broadsword and saber technique of the time. However, given the cutlass’s useful abilities at close distances (those of riposte and of grappling), there were doubtless techniques used in earlier periods but not noted later, for example grazing parry-ripostes made in a near-single tempo, short powerful cleaving cuts, plus a variety of techniques suitable when grappling, not the least of which would have been pummeling. F. C. Grove in the introduction to Fencing (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893) wrote: “One of us once saw a sailor of extraordinary strength seize a cutlass close to the hilt, where the edge is blunt, and break it short off.” Quite unconventional even by 17th century standards, yet for the seaman armed with a cutlass in action, not all surprising. Marcelli (see the “Rapier” section above) notes something I’ve not seen elsewhere but becomes quite obvious when practicing cuts with a cutlass: the weapon is capable of fatal strokes at grappling distance.

Besides the study of backsword, broadsword, and saber texts, I recommend those of the dusack as well. Practice with a knowledgeable partner is also required, as is cutting practice in order to get a good feel for the weapon. The very few texts below are merely representative of saber technique of the later period: it is by no means a complete list. I have described late 17th century cutlass technique, or at least what we know of it, in The Sea Rover’s Practice, The Buccaneer’s Realm, and The Golden Age of Piracy, especially in the last book. Additionally, those interested may want to review my blog post, Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know. Marcelli and Girard have some discussion of opposing a saber against a rapier or smallsword, and Marcelli also vice versa, much of which is applicable to the cutlass. Likewise Captain Miller in the “Backsword” section has two plates showing falchion or hanger guards (inside and outside) applicable to the cutlass.

Naval Cutlass Exercise by Henry Angelo, 1814. A detailed illustration of footwork, cuts, and “words of command.” Based entirely on the broadsword, it might as well be broadsword, so why bother—except that Angelo was paid for it by the Royal Navy. In his defense, McArthur (see the “Smallsword” section above) agrees that cutlass and hanger guards and cuts are the same as those of the broadsword. Nonetheless, there are techniques one can use with a cutlass at the distance of “handy-grips” that cannot be used with a broadsword or other longer cutting sword.

Naval Cutlass Exercise “For the Use of Her Majesty’s Ships,” 1859. Includes a good general illustration of cuts and guards, as well as well-regulated military-style (naturally) drills for cuts, guards (equivalent to parries), and points (thrusts, that is). The brief “Concluding Observations” include a vital one for combat: “…but he must ever be “on guard” to meet the impromtu [sic] hit of such as cannot help returning [riposting], whether hit or not.”

The Ship and Gun Drills of the U. S. Navy, by the Naval Department, Division of Militia Affairs, 1914. Seaman’s manual with brief instruction on the USN “Sword Exercise.” The attacks and parries are simple and functional, and the illustrations useful.

British Naval Swords and Swordsmanship by John McGrath & Mark Burton, 2013. Includes a couple of good chapters on British naval swordsmanship, but as can be expected given the source material, the discussion is by and large of the late 18th century and afterward. Includes a description of British naval fencers as well. Required background reading for the student of cutlass swordplay and required technical reading for the collector of British naval swords.



Vigeant 3 book 2

The intersection of study and practice in fencing. From Vigeant, not his bibliography but his biography of famous fencing master Jean-Louis (see the “Smallsword” section above).

La Bibliographie de l’Escrime Ancienne et Moderne by Arsène Vigeant, 1882. Not as complete as the bibliography below, but highly usefuly nonetheless. M. Vigeant had a thorough understanding of both swordplay itself and its history.

A Complete Bibliography of Fencing & Duelling by Carl A. Thimm, 1896. A very useful, largely complete bibliography through the late 19th century. Reprints from 1968 and 1999 are available, though often pricey. Look instead for the free pdf on Google books unless you find that fortune generally favors you or you have plenty of money to spend, the latter, of course, being one way or another proof that fortune has favored you at least once.


The History of Fencing & Swordplay

Schools and Masters of Fence by Egerton Castle, 1885, reprints 1968, 2003. European fencing to the late 19th century. Highly recommended.

Old Sword Play by Alfred Hutton, 1892, reprint 2001. A brief description of European fencing technique over the ages by a noted English fencing master.

The Sword and the Centuries by Alfred Hutton, 1901, reprint 1995. A history of European fencing and swords.

IIIe Congrès International d’Escrime, Brussels, 1905. For those interested in the arguments and squabbles that created modern sport fencing rules—and how sport interests came to dominate in epee competition, rather than having epee competition emulate dueling or the jeu de terrain as closely as possible.

Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York by Jeffrey Richards, 1977. The history of swordsmen and swordswomen in film to 1977. Swashbuckling actors and the fencing masters who doubled for them. Worth the read if you’re into film swashbucklers.

Martini A-Z of Fencing by E.D. Morton, 1988. Not a book on fencing history per se, but a compendium that includes much fencing history, as well as fencing terms, concepts, and trivia.

En garde: Du duel à l’escrime by Pierre Lacaze, 1991. Well-illustrated popular history of mostly French fencing and swordplay.

The History of Fencing by William M. Gaugler, 1998. A detailed history and analysis of the Italian schools into the first half of the 20th century, with a fair, if quite limited, discussion of French schools. The modern schools, including the revolutionary Hungarian (or Hungarian-Italian) saber school, are unfortunately not described.

Escrime by Gerard Six, photography by Vincent Lyky, 1998. “Coffee table” fencing book covering everything from history to technique, albeit briefly, and mostly French. Well-photographed.

The Secret History of the Sword by Christoph Amberger, 1999. By a veteran of the Mensur, also known as fighting for scars—which is by most definitions the purpose of macho male one-ups-man-ship. Most of us, just like Tom Sawyer, are proud of our scars. Highly recommended—the book that is, but we can include scars as well, as proof of a life well-lived and of a fortunate one also, in that we’re still alive to show our scars.

Croiser le Fer: Violence et Culture de L’épée dans la France Modern (XVIe-XVIIIe Siècle) by Pascal Brioist, Hervé Drévillon, and Pierre Serna, 2002. Excellent scholarly study of swordplay and dueling in France from the 16th to 18th centuries. Highly recommended.

By the Sword by Richard Cohen, 2002. A history of fencing, including the modern schools, by a British Olympic fencer. Highly recommended.

Reclaiming the Blade by Galatia Films, DVD, 2009. A mostly well-intentioned attempt to “reclaim” authentic Western swordplay and historical fencing, but unfortunately marred by the heavy-handed, ideological manner in which it attacks sport fencing and some other forms of swordplay, not to mention by its egregious overuse of Hollywood references and interviews—Hollywood depictions of swordplay are usually divorced entirely from reality, thereby undercutting the argument. At its best, the documentary extols Western swordplay. At its worst, it further divides rather than unites the several major fencing communities.

To pick a bone with—or perhaps cross swords with?—the film’s makers, although many modern competitive fencers often do not practice the ideal of “hitting and not getting hit,” there are plenty, epeeists especially, who do understand the concept well, can execute it exceptionally well when necessary, and are happy to argue the point, weapon in hand, with any fencer of any sort. In fact, some of us trained entirely under masters who fenced when dueling was still practiced and the saber was still a military arm—and who understood that it was entirely acceptable to practice both forms of swordplay, that is, sport or recreational, and practical training for combat with real weapons. To promote the so-called reality of historical and classical fencing is double-edged and often cuts hypocritically: excessive “contre-temps” or double-touches have been the bane of fencing for centuries, and modern “historical” and “classical” fencers are no more immune to them than were the fencers of the past whom they seek to emulate.


Useful Japanese Texts

Tengu Geijutsuron (The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) by Issai Chozanshi [Niwa Jurozaemon Tadaaki], translated by William Scott Wilson, 2006. Includes the famous story illustrating the psychology of swordplay, Neko no Myojutsu (The Mysterious Technique of the Cat). Originally written in the early 18th century.

Heihō Kaden Sho (The Sword and the Mind) by Kamiizumi Hidetsuna, Yagyū Muneyoshi, and Yagyū Munenori, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985. Originally compiled in the 17th century.

Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi, translated by Victor Harris, 1974. Completed in 1645, shortly before the author’s death. Numerous editions available, including an excellent translation by William Scott Wilson. A classic on swordplay, strategy, and tactics.

The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Sōhō, translated by William Scott Wilson, 1986. Three essays on swordsmanship (Fudōchishinmyōroku, Reirōshū, and Taiaki) by a Zen master and contemporary of Musashi. Written in the early 17th century.


Suggestions on Acquiring the Books Above

Several of the listed titles (Borysiuk, Czajkowski, Harmenberg, Holzman, Kogler, Lukovich, Szabo, and Vass) are available directly from the publisher, Swordplay Books Online (http://www.swordplaybooks.com/), and delivery may be quicker than in going through a third party vendor who orders the title from the publisher. Other titles may be ordered from various online retailers, and occasionally may be found in bookstores. Most of the titles listed are out of print. Some of the older titles are in the public domain and are available as .pdf files on Google Books, archive.org (an excellent site), and other electronic book sites.

Some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century titles in English are published as fairly inexpensive reprints by Gale ECCO and EEBO (Early English Books Online), along with similar cheap—in the sense of cheaply reproduced from mediocre quality digital scans or old microfiches—facsimile reprint publishers, and are available via Amazon and other online bookstores. However, please note that most of these versions DO NOT INCLUDE FOLDOUT PLATES thanks to Google and other publisher’s “get them copied as fast as possible” practice, so if you’re looking for the illustrations you’ll usually have to look elsewhere. Some of these and other old fencing texts may be found in various national digital libraries, often of much better quality.

Bookfinder.com compares prices of books in and out of print among online retailers, including independent booksellers; Fetchbook.info compares prices among online retailers and some of the major independent bookstores; and Abebooks.com and Alibris.com permit title searches through the stock of thousands of independent booksellers. Search these sites to get an idea of price range before searching on eBay—although some books on eBay are good, even great, deals, some are grossly overpriced or over-bid. My general preference is for Abebooks.com. Those of you who never had to rely twenty-five or more years ago on book vendors for online searches won’t quite appreciate how useful and cost-effective Abebooks &c. are: book vendors typically used to mark up the price of a book found at anther vendor by one hundred percent—plus shipping.

Many fencing suppliers carry fencing books in stock, although the number of titles may be limited. Some libraries carry fencing books, but the selection is usually slim. Most of the books listed above are dated in regard to modern competitive rules, practices, and uniform and equipment requirements. Always refer to the current USFA rule book and USFA operations manual, or other appropriate national fencing regulations, for competition rules and regulations. Both are available for download at http://www.usfencing.org/.

Copyright 2008-2017 Benerson Little. Last revised May 8, 2017.

Keelhauling, in Living Color


The Keelhauling of the Ship’s Surgeon of Admiral Jan van Nes. Lieve Pietersz Verschuier. 1660 – 1686. Note the enormous crowd gathered for the punishment. (Rijksmuseum.)

As is the case with much pirate history, a great deal of it is wrong, often either anachronistic or culturally mis-associated, or not specifically associated with piracy per se, but with the maritime in general. And so it is with keelhauling, a Dutch practice at first, to which the French later added their mark. It had little to do with piracy, though, although this hasn’t stopped it from being including in discussions about pirates and piracy, nor included in pirate fiction and film, most notably and recently in the fourth season of Black Sails. (Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails for all four seasons.)

The original Dutch practice, as described in “A Relation of Two Several Voyages Made into the East-Indies” by Christopher Frick and Christopher Schewitzer, 1700:

“He that strikes an Officer, or Master of the Ship, is without hopes of pardon to be thrown into the Sea fasten’d by a Rope, with which he is thrown in on one side of the Ship, and drawn up again on the other, and so three times together he is drawn round the Keel of the Ship, in the doing of which, if they should chance not to allow Rope enough to let him sink below the Keel, the Malefactor might have his brains knockt out. This Punishment is called Keel-halen, which may be call’d in English “Keel-drawing.” But the Provost hath this Priviledge more than the other, that if any one strikes him on Shoar, he forfeits his hand, if on Board, then he is certainly Keel-draw’d.”

There are several notations of keelhauling and other punishments in the journal of Dutch Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp in 1639. Typically the keelhauled seaman was drawn three times beneath the ship, apparently not too tightly for he was usually whipped on his “wet bum” with a rope’s end afterwards. For lesser offenses, ducking from the yardarm was employed. In some cases, a seaman convicted of serious offenses might be ducked, keelhauled, whipped, lose his wages, and be discharged. In the case of infirmity due to age or illness, the physical punishments might be stayed, and the seaman discharged instead.


Detail of the victim, from the painting above. The keelhauling line has been rove through a block at the end of the mainyard, and would be similarly rigged on the opposite side. (Rijksmuseum.)


From An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, edited by Nathan Bailey, 1765.

A mid-1850s century French version, described by a former midshipman in the British navy and published in Onward magazine, November 1869, was conducted slightly differently:


The writer continues with a description of what he witnessed:


Terrible indeed!


Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated May 3, 2017.

Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women

Classic romanticized buccaneers! The pirate captain and his woman ashore on a Caribbean island or an isolated part of the Main, perhaps to share plunder or while careening, or simply to celebrate the holiday. We can always count on Howard Pyle to make the romantic appeal to our imaginations. And indeed, buccaneers did celebrate Christmas (and probably smoked cigars on occasion too), as I discuss below.


“How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas,” Howard Pyle, Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899, a special two-page image.



We do have multiple brief accounts of one buccaneer Christmas. Buccaneers, like other Europeans and European-derived Christian peoples, did observe the holiday, far more often with raucous, inebriated celebration than with religious devotion.

William Dampier noted that the captains of salt ships at Saltudos, or Salt Tortuga–where the very real Dr. Henry Pitman, inspiration for Sabatini’s novel Captain Blood, His Odyssey, was marooned–were always well-supplied with rum, sugar, and lime juice for visiting “privateers,” the euphemism for buccaneers, as opposed to the term “pirates.” Piracy after all was a crime.

“I have seen above 20 Sail at a time in this Road come to lade Salt; and these Ships coming from some of the Caribbe Islands, are always well stored with Rum, Sugar and Lime-juice to make Punch, to hearten their Men when they are at work, getting and bringing aboard the Salt, and they commonly provide the more, in hopes to meet with Privateers, who resort hither in the aforesaid Months, purposely to keep a Christmas, as they call it; being sure to meet with Liquor enough to be merry with, and are very liberal to those that treat them.”

Clearly, a buccaneer Christmas at any time of the year was a drunk-fest.

Our most famous description of an actual buccaneer Christmas dates to 1681, during the final days of the South Sea voyage of Captain Bartholomew Sharp and his companions in arms, in plunder (often as wishful as real), and in debauchery.

Sharp, already having been deposed once as captain once during the voyage during a stay at Juan Fernandez Island, a stay which coincidentally began on Christmas Day. Now, at the end of the voyage and almost home, with numbers depleted by buccaneer desertions, accidents, and deaths in battle, with the remaining crew on short allowance, Sharp remained a divisive leader, not for the least reason that by gambling with his fellow buccaneers he had increased his profit by leaps and bounds, leaving some of his comrades with little profit during the course of a long bloody voyage–not the best way to show leadership by any means.

On December 7th, according to buccaneer surgeon Basil Ringrose (I almost wrote Rathbone!), “This day our worthy Commander, Captain Sharp, had very certain intelligence given him that on Christmas Day, which was now at hand, the company or at least a great part thereof, had a design to shoot him; he having appointed that day some time since to be merry. Hereupon he made us share the wine amongst us, being persuaded they would scarce attempt any such thing in their sobriety. The wine we shared fell out to three jars to each mess.”

Mess size varied, as did Spanish jar size. Five to seven to a mess was common, but could even have been as small as four men. Spanish wine jars often, but not always, held a Spanish arroba, roughly four and a quarter gallons. At 750 milliliters to a modern wine bottle, we do some simple math and find that each mess received the rough equivalent of slightly more than sixty-four modern bottles of wine per mess, to last eighteen days: or, three and a half bottles of wine per day per mess. This wine may have been stronger than what we’re familiar with. It might have been very similar to Peruvian wine fortified with modern Pisco, the latter of which is usually 80 proof when sold in the US, but I’m speculating here based on a description of some of the wine found by buccaneers on the Peruvian coast. (And no, I won’t touch the “Who first came up with Pisco–Peru or Chile?” argument. We’ll leave the swords and poniards sheathed for now.)

Buccaneer surgeon Basil Ringrose provided the details: “This day being Christmas day, for celebration of that great festival we killed yesterday in the evening a sow. This sow we had brought from the Gulf of Nicoya, being then a sucking-pig of three weeks old, more or less, but now weighted about fourscore-and-ten pounds. With this hog’s flesh we made our Christmas dinner, being the only flesh we had eaten ever since we turned away our prizes under the equinoctial and left the island of Plata. We had this day several flaws of wind and some rain…” The holiday was celebrated roughly in the latitude of Rio de Janeiro.


An Ossabaw Island pig long-descended from Spanish and Canary Island stock, perhaps quite similar to the buccaneers’ Christmas pig. (The Livestock Conservancy.)

Sharp himself is a bit more direct: “When to Solemnize that Festival as well as we could, we eat the only Hog we had left, drank some Jars of Wine, and made our selves as merry as we were able, which I did the rather that my Men might not Mutiny.”

How they seasoned the pig is not noted. Given that their only way at sea of cooking was in a copper kettle, they would have boiled the flesh rather than roasting it over coals and seasoning it with a pimentade of lime juice, salt, hot peppers (pimento, or chili peppers as we know it), probably allspice, and perhaps a black or similar common pepper, as was common. The seasoning would have been similar in the copper pot, assuming they had the ingredients. The buccaneers would have served it with coarse boiled cornmeal (imagine a coarse polenta or coarse yellow grits, the latter are hard to find anymore) seasoned with salt and manteca (pig lard), which had been their only fare since departing the isle of Plata.

However, diarist John Taylor who visited Jamaica in 1687 wrote that Sharp’s buccaneers also served dog for Christmas dinner:

“Soe that they killed one hog, which was all they had left, and a spanell dog which they bought of one of their quartermaster for 40 dollars, on Christmas Day for their dinner.”

Alas poor beast, alas man’s best friend! But Taylor was no eyewitness, he was just repeating what he had heard from local sources. There was in fact a dog, a little curly shaggy-coated canine, like that of a poodle. And, according to one buccaneer, John Cox, who was there, they did in fact eat him:

“When we took the two Barks at Nicoya, we had a little sucking Pigg in one of them, which we kept on Board ever since for our Christmas days Dinner, which now was grown to be a large Hogg; so we killed it for Dinner, but thinking it not enough for us all, we bought a Spaniel-Dogg of the Quarter-Master for forty pieces of eight, and killed him; so with the Hogg and the Dogg, we made a Feast, and we had some Wine left, which made us merry: This being the only think we had eaten that had blood in it since our departure from the Duke of York‘s Island.”

But no one’s memory is perfect. Did they in fact eat dog for Christmas dinner? Was Cox inspired to exaggerate based solely on the rhyme of Hogg and Dogg? Do we see the interfering hand of an editor trying to “sex up” the manuscript? Again Basil Ringrose comes to the rescue, writing of a day in late January, well after Christmas, just prior to making landfall in the Leeward Islands:

“On that day [January 26, 1682], therefore, a little Spanish shock-dog, which we had found in our last wine-prize taken under the equinoctial and had kept alive till now, was sold at the mast by public cry for 40 pieces-of-eight, his owner saying that ll he could get for him should be spent upon the company at a public merriment. Our Commander, Captain Sharp, bought the dog, with intention to eat him, in case we did not see land very soon.”

The money raised was added to one hundred more pieces-of-eight that were left over from a previous sharing of plunder, in which the boatswain, carpenter, and quartermaster had refused to accept shares owing to some disagreement “with the sharers.” The coins were laid up, to be spent ashore in celebration of their return to the Caribbean from the South Sea.

Two days later the buccaneers sighted Barbados, but were scared off by the barge belonging to the English man-of-war Richmond lying at anchor Bridgetown harbor. Two days later the buccaneers sent a canoe ashore at Antigua, or Antigo as they called it, and from here they went their separate ways.

So it was not a Christmas dog after all! Or was it? We hope it was part of no Christmas dinner except to have gnawed any scraps ravenous buccaneers may have cast his way. “Perros Ingleses!” we have heard Spaniards call the buccaneers, or at least buccaneer surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin said they did on one occasion, and surely in fact on many. But dog don’t eat dog, or so they say, and we hope, more from Ringrose and the buccaneer arrival at Antigua and not necessarily from common proverb, that Cox was wrong and that Sharp may have been mostly joking about eating the dog.




So, would buccaneers have celebrated Christmas as in Pyle’s image above? With a willing woman in a hammock, smoking a cigar? It’s a common image in fiction, that of a romance between a pirate and a lady on the seashore. We almost imagine this as the setting in the aftermath of The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, but when we recall the noble manner in which the romance unfolded, his gentlemanly behavior, her lady-like sensibilities, we can’t imagine Priscilla Harradine smoking a cigar. On the other hand, we recall her attraction to men of adventure and her propensity for slipping off to swim nude, and we think perhaps she might after all.


From the cover of a Buenos Aires edition of The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini.

For the sake of romantic notions, combined with the fact of romantic relations between buccaneers and some women, I will forego a discussion of the often profoundly disturbing treatment of women by pirates at times, a fact often ignored or only hinted at it film. You may find these sordid details in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, and in other works as well.

Some, probably many, buccaneers were married but they did not take their wives, or their women in general for that matter, to sea with them, the one known exception being John Beare who took his woman, the daughter of a rum punch woman in Port Royal, to sea at least once dressed as a man. Accused of piracy by the English–and yes, he was in fact a pirate–he fled to Havana where he married his true love and began serving as a Spanish privateer, or, as the English would have it, a Spanish pirate. Perhaps Beare did celebrate a Christmas ashore while careening, his inamorata waiting languidly in a hammock.

We also have the example of Dutchman Jacobus (James) Marquess, or “Copas” [Cobus] for short, a buccaneer “lingusiter”–also known as a “truchman” or interpreter–in the South Sea with Bartholomew Sharp. Copas fell in love, or perhaps merely deeply in lust, with a “Mustees” Spanish woman at the island of El Cavallo while the buccaneers were ashore taking in water over the course of four days and three nights. Many of his companions worried that he was a turncoat who intended to betray them to the Spanish. A Native American boy also ran away while at the island, perhaps with Copas.

“[T]he woman lieing on borde one or two nights, was very familiar with one Copas a dutch a man, who formerly had saild with the Spaniards…but was mainly Inamoured with thiss women, makeing her severall presents of some Vallew,” wrote a buccaneer who is best identified as Edward Povey.

Copas pretended to go hunting but deserted to her instead, leaving all but two hundred pieces-of-eight of his plunder behind–some 2,200 pieces of eight, plus jewels and other goods. He must truly have been in love, indeed! Or perhaps he thought he could sell his knowledge of the buccaneers to their enemies. Alas, this instance of buccaneer love did not occur over Christmas, but late in May, 1681.

Raveneau de Lussan, buccaneer author, wrote that during the occupation of Guayaquil by French flibustiers in 1687, he was almost seduced away by the “widow of the local treasurer,” who suggested they hide in the woods until the pirates were gone, and then they could marry and he would have “her husband’s office in addition to her own extensive holdings.” Quite an offer! But de Lussan turned it down, and again, this flibustier love did not occur over Christmas, but in April. Spring is the time for love, so it is said. Or perhaps just for mating.

If any buccaneers did take their wives or inamoratas with them to sea, I imagine it may have been some of the early flibustiers and boucaniers who did so with their “Amazon wives who could shoot and hunt well,” as one chronicler noted of them, supporting the expeditions and perhaps even participating in the assaults themselves.



But IF a buccaneer did have his woman with him at Christmas (and I speak of buccaneers solely as men only because, although there may have been one or more women in disguise among them as actual crew members, to date we know of none), might she have smoked a cigar?

To find an answer we must first know if people smoked cigars in the 17th century Caribbean or anywhere else for that matter. We turn to Jean-Baptist Labat, priest and also chronicler of the late 17th and early 18th century Caribbean for the answer:

“We do not use pipes in the Americas; the Spanish, Portuguese, many English and French, nearly all blacks, and all our Caribs smoke bouts [“ends”], or as the Spanish say, cigars… It is rare to find a Spaniard without his provision of cigars.”

(Notably, Labat mis-heard cigaro and wrote it as cigale, or cicada in French. His description of cigars is quite modern: six to seven pouces long, and five to six lignes in diameter, roughly six and a half to seven and a half inches long, and around half an inch in diameter.)


Detail from a Dutch print by Crispijn van de Passe, 1641, showing an imaginary English merchant’s wife with wine and tobacco. (Rijksmuseum.)

So Spaniards and others smoked cigars. But did buccaneers? Most buccaneers were English, French, and Dutch, although there were many other peoples, nationalities, and ethnicities among them, including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other European origins, plus African, Native American, even Asian via Mexico via the Manila galleon, plus a variety of mixed races. They were, in other words, a variety of white, black, and brown of many origins. Among the English, French, and Dutch they chewed tobacco or more commonly smoked it in pipes, small to medium bowl size among the English and French, large among the Dutch. White clay pipes were the most expensive and typically from England and the Netherlands; terracotta pipes were cheaper and often made locally; and wooden pipes were the cheapest (and doubtless the worst to smoke).

However, Spanish buccaneers among them would likely have smoked cigars (or seegars as they became known among the English by the early 18th century), and some English, French, and Dutch may have preferred them at sea as they did ashore. Certainly some African slaves and former slaves among the buccaneers smoked cigars, and it’s probable that some English, French, and Dutch buccaneers smoked captured cigars, if only by cutting them up and smoking the tobacco in their pipes. There is no question that cigars were smoked at sea: the 18th century Spanish Álbum de Construcción Naval of the Marqués de la Victoria shows the cigar along with the pipe among the forms of tobacco used by Spanish seamen. Having smoked both pipe and cigar, I can say that a cigar is no more dangerous aboard a wooden ship than is a pipe: both can be hazardous if appropriate measures are not taken.

Ah, but did women smoke cigars? Well, we know that among the English, French, and Dutch many women smoked pipes, along with many African women in the Caribbean. And there were Native American women who smoked cigars. So why not Spanish women of any ethnicity? And why not cigars, given that they were the predominant means on the Spanish Main of taking tobacco? In fact, we know that in the 18th century there were  Spanish creole women who smoked cigars, thus it’s almost certain they did in the 17th century as well.


Detail from Pyle’s painting, “How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas.”

John Cockburn, writing of the year 1735 in which he was captured by a Spanish guarda costa, or as the English would probably have it, a Spanish pirate, noted the following of three Spanish friars who had just crossed some mountains in Nicaragua:

“The gentlemen gave us some seegars to smoke, which they supposed would be very acceptable. These are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner, that they serve both for a pipe and tobacco itself. These the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoaking; but indeed, they know no other way here, for there is no such thing as a tobacco-pipe throughout New Spain, but poor awkward tools used by the negroes and Indians.”

And who’s to say the woman in Pyle’s painting is Spanish in any case, although it is a romantic notion.

Of course, Pyle’s use of a woman smoking a cigar is even more provocative than merely putting her recumbent and languid in a hammock. Since the late seventeenth century, smoking in women has often been seen as a sign of promiscuity rather than as a notion of budding equality. But Pyle’s image is not merely a sexual provocation: it is an image of aggressive independence. This woman is no wallflower, she is no quiet being who fully accepts the purely feminine role imposed upon her. Rather, she is a suitable companion adventurer: a modern progressive woman even by the standards of Pyle’s day. I wouldn’t usually consider Howard Pyle as a feminist per se, but in this case I think he has already proved the argument.



Cockburn, John. The Unfortunate Englishmen: or, a Faithful Narrative of the Distresses and Adventures of John Cockburn. “New edition.” London: Hamilton and Co. Shakespeare Library, 1794 (63-64).

[Cox, John]. The Voyages and Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp, and Others, in the South Sea. London: P. A. Esq. [Philip Ayers], 1684.

de Lussan, Raveneau. Journal du Voyage Fait a la Mer de Sud, avec les les Flibustiers de l’Amerique en 1684. et Annés Suivantes. Paris: Jean Baptiste Coignard, 1690.

——. Journal of a Voyage into the South Seas in 1684 and the Following Years with the Filibusters. 1689. Reprint, translated and edited by Marguerite Eyer Wilbur. Cleveland: Arthur C. Clark Company, 1930.

——. Journal of a Voyage Made by the Freebooters into the South Sea, 1684, and in the Following Years. 1699. In The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexandre Exquemelin [Joseph Exquemelin]. Reprint, Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1856.

——. Les Flibustiers de la Mer du Sud. 1695. Reprint, edited by Patrick Villiers. Paris: Éditions France-Empire, 1992.

[Dick, William]. “A Brief Account of Captain Sharp . . .” In The Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [John Esquemeling], 257–83. 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset, 1987.

Labat, Jean-Baptiste. Nouveau Voyage aux Isles de l’Amerique. The Hague: P. Husson et al, 1724.

Lepers, Jean Baptiste. La Tragique Histoire des Flibustiers: Histoire de Saint-Domingue et de l’Ile de la Tortue, Repaires des Flibustiers, Écrite vers 1715 par le Rév. P. Lepers. Edited by Pierre-Bernard Berthelot. Paris: G. Crés, 1922.

Little, Benerson. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674–1688. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007.

——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.

——. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630–1730. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.

Navarro de Viana y Búfalo, Juan José. Álbum de Construcción Naval del Marqués de la Victoria. Museo Naval de Madrid.

[Povey, Edward?]. “The Buccaneers on the Isthmus and in the South Sea. 1680–1682.” In Jameson, Privateering and Piracy.

Pyle, Howard. How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas. An illustration in Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899.

Ringrose, Basil. “The Buccaneers of America: The Second Volume.” In Exquemelin, Buccaneers of America (Crooke, 1684).

——. Buccaneer Atlas: Basil Ringrose’s South Sea Waggoner. Edited by Derek Howse and Norman J. W. Thrower. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

——. “Captains Sharp, Coxon, Sawkins, and Others . . .” In The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [Joseph Esquemeling], 180–313. 1699. Reprint, Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1856.

Sabatini, Rafael. The Black Swan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Sharp, Bartholomew. Captain Sharp’s Journal of His Expedition. In A Collection of Original Voyages by William Hacke. 1699. Facsimile reprint, edited by Glyndwr Williams. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1993.

Taylor, John. Jamaica in 1687: The Taylor Manuscript at the National Library of Jamaica. Edited by David Buisseret. Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2008.

Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know

The cane


Flibustier with captured Spaniards in chains. From the French chart Carte particulière de la rivière de la Plata by Paul Cornuau, probably 1684 based on a nearly identical chart he drew of the River Plate dated 1684. (French National Library.)


Although the fusil boucanier–the long-barreled “buccaneer gun” of which more blog posts are forthcoming–was the primary weapon of the buccaneer and flibustier, the cutlass was an invariable part of their armament, which also included one or two pistols and a cartouche box (sometimes two) that often held as many as thirty cartridges each. Grenades, firepots, and boarding axes were additional specialty weapons.

Yet in spite of all the romance of buccaneers and their swords–cutlasses usually in reality, but often rapiers in cinema–we don’t know as much about the swords themselves as we would like. Much of what we think we know is based on conjecture, and this conjecture is based on what little we know about cutlasses and hangers of the late 17th century. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence is for all practical purposes non-existent in regard to demonstrable buccaneer swords 1655 to 1688.

Cinema, the source of much of the popular image of the pirate cutlass, almost always gets these swords wrong. Typically they are anachronistic, often imitations of nineteenth century “soup bowl” hilts (and occasionally authentic 19th century cutlasses) drawn from prop stocks. Money is always a concern in film-making, and it is much cheaper to use existing swords than to make historically accurate ones in large quantities, or, too often, even in small quantities. Good historical consulting and the willingness to follow it is, of course, mandatory, but some filmmakers take the view of “Who cares? Hardly anyone will notice, what matters is that the swords look cool or ‘Rock and Roll’ or otherwise meet audience expectations, and anyway, we don’t have the budget for accurate ones, the actors and computer graphics have consumed it all.” On occasion, though, we do see fairly accurate swords in cinema–just not very often.


Rock the Brazilian aka Roc or (in Jamaica) Rocky aka (probably) Gerrit Gerritsen, from Alexandre Exquemelin’s De Americaensche Zee-rovers. Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn, 1678. (Library of Congress.)

Our typical idea of a “true” pirate cutlass is taken from the illustrations, such as that above, in Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America. First published in Amsterdam in 1678 in Dutch, the illustrations have been copied to other editions, typically with little or no alteration. Herman Padtbrugge, draftsman and engraver, may have been the illustrator according to the British museum. It is unknown how much influence Exquemelin had on him, or on whomever was the illustrator. In other words, it is unknown how accurate the physical representations the buccaneers are, nor how accurate their arms and accoutrements. The cutlasses depicted in Exquemelin may simply reflect the illustrator’s Dutch nationality and familiarity with Dutch arms.

The cutlasses, however, are accurate representations of classical late seventeenth century Dutch or German weapons with large iron shell-hilts, manufactured well into the mid-18th century with basically no design changes, although such shell hilts were also manufactured by other European nations, if generally smaller. The Dutch and German shells are large and often scalloped, the pommels often heavy for balance, the blades mildly to strongly curved, often with clip points. Typically these shell hilts may have had a single shell on the outside, with or without a thumb ring on the inside, although usually with one; or a large outside shell and smaller inside shell, both most commonly facing toward the pommel. A thumb ring may be present or absent in the case of two shells. These heavy-hilted cutlasses may have two short quillons with no knuckle bow, or a conventional short or medium upper quillon along with a lower quillon converted to a knuckle bow as in the image below. Pommel style and grip style and material–wood, bone, occasionally antler, shagreen (“fish skin,” ray skin), wire, or even iron–vary widely. Blade balance varies just as widely, with some heavy-bladed cutlasses balanced more like cleavers than fencing swords. This is not a criticism: cleaving strokes with a cutlass are quite effective at close range.

The cutlass wielded by Rock the Brazilian above appears, on close examination, to have a single outside scalloped shell, two quillons (although it’s possible the lower quillon might actually be a knuckle bow, but I doubt it is), a heavy pommel, and a thumb ring.


Late 17th century iron shell-hilt cutlass in the collection of the Royal Museums Greenwich, maker and national origin unknown. The slightly curved blade does not have a clip point but it has either a sharpened or false back edge for a short distance. The cutlass is listed as a “hanger.” See discussion below on the term hanger versus cutlass.


“Francisco Lolonois”–Jean David Nau aka L’Ollonois or L’Ollonais–depicted in the first Spanish edition of Exquemelin work: Piratas de la America, translated by Alonso de Buena-Maison. Cologne: Lorenzo Struickman, 1681. (Library of Congress.)

L’Ollonois above holds a typical Dutch or German scalloped shell-hilt cutlass of the late 17th century. Its shell is medium to large, the quillons small and curved, the pommel round and heavy, the blade moderately curved and with a clip point useful for thrusting. It appears it may have a thumb ring or an inner shell, probably the former.


Late 17th century scalloped shell hilt cutlass with no thumb ring or shell on the inside. The blade form would make for powerful cleaving cuts. From George G. Neuman’s Swords & Blades of the American Revolution. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1973, page 181.


Dutch shell hilt cutlass with un-scalloped shell, 3rd to 4th quarter 18th century, virtually identical to some 17th century examples. There is a thumb ring but no shell on the inside. Neuman, page 181.


What we do not know is how common these swords were among buccaneers and flibustiers. Doubtless there at some among them, given how common these cutlasses were. However, the most direct evidence we have of the sort of cutlasses used by these adventurers comes from several drawings of flibustiers in the 1680s by Paul Cornuau, a cartographer sent to survey French Caribbean ports, in particular those of Saint-Domingue (French Hispaniola, modern Haiti). Typically he included local figures flanking his cartouches, and most of these figures are flibustiers and boucaniers. Notably, these are eyewitness illustrations! (See also the The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini (Updated) and The Authentic Image of the Boucanier pages for other eyewitness images.)

In the image at the very top of the page, the flibustier holds a cutlass with a small hilt of indeterminate shape, without a knuckle bow, and with a strongly curved clip point blade. There is no baldric: he wears a sword belt of the sort common at the time, with a pair of hangers with loops (one of them is not shown) hanging from the belt itself. None of these period images of flibustiers show baldrics, although they were a common way of carrying a smallsword into the 1680s for civilian use, and prior to this by infantry and other military branches. However, most infantry began abandoning them in this decade, if not earlier, and they remained in use afterward primarily by mounted troops and Scottish Highlanders.

Flibustiers 1688 Petit Goave Cornuau

A pair of flibustiers or buccaneers at Petit Goave, 1688, from a chart by P. Cornuau. (Archives Nationale d’Outre-Mer.)

In the image above, we can tell little of the cutlass belonging to the flibustier on the left except that it has a clip point and that it may be of brass, based on its probably monster, beast, dog, or bird pommel, although some iron pommels have a similar profile. It appears to lack a knuckle bow. Its scabbard is worn from the belt. The flibustier on the right holds a cutlass with a moderately curved blade and clip point. Its hilt has two shells, both small and scalloped. Its pommel may also be of some sort of beast or bird, although we cannot be certain, and there is no knuckle bow. Again, the scabbard is worn from the belt. A similar illustration of a flibustier (on the Authentic Image post, of a flibustier at Île-à-Vache, 1686, from a chart by P. Cornuau) shows only a scabbard with an obvious clip point. It, too, is worn from the belt.


Flibustier dressed and armed for a campaign ashore, from a chart of Le Cap Francois on Saint-Domingue, 1686, by P. Cornuau.

In the image above we have more detail of the hilt. It is clearly of the monster, beast, dog, or bird pommel type, almost always brass. There is a bit of shell showing, but what sort we can’t tell other than that it is scalloped, although if brass we know it is comparatively small. Again, there is no knuckle bow. Notably, the scabbard, which also has a chape (metal protection for the tip of the scabbard), does not necessarily reveal the blade form: it may be with or without a clip point.

So, what would these cutlasses depicted by Cornuau actually have looked like? And what is their origin? For the latter answer, the cutlasses could be of Dutch, English, or possibly French origin. There are numerous English cutlasses and hangers of this form still extant, and of the Dutch as well; the Dutch are often credited as the likely creators of this form. There is less information, though, and few examples, of French cutlasses from this period, although the French may have produced similar arms. There are numerous examples from English and Dutch naval portraits. Most of these swords appear be gilded brass hilts. Although some flibustiers and buccaneers may have carried cutlasses with gilded hilts, most were probably simple brass.




Brass-hilt cutlasses or hangers, probably gilded, worn by English admirals, from the Royal Museums, Greenwich, dating to the 1660s. From left to right, Penn, Lawson, Berkeley, Harman, Monck, & Sandwich. Notably, Admiral Penn commanded the fleet at the capture of Jamaica in 1655.

Starting with brass-hilt cutlasses similar to most of those in the Cornuau illustrations. We see a variety of shells and pommels above, although most grips appear to brass, or possibly wire, twisted in a sharply ascending manner. Pommels include a bird of prey, lions, and one or two indeterminate forms similar to that shown in the illustration above of the flibustier armed and equipped to march against a town or city.


De Ruyter’s cutlass hilt, from a painting in the Rijksmuseum. The pommel is perhaps a dolphin?

If we consider that this form of cutlass is likely Dutch in origin, it behooves us to look closely at one. The image above is of the hilt of the cutlass of famous Dutch admiral Michel de Ruyter. Note that it too lacks a knuckle bow.

Below are several hilts with a variety of knuckle bows. The 4th from the left looks somewhat like a transitional rapier or smallsword hilt, but it appears it may lack the usual arms of the hilt, plus the sword hangs low from the belt and at a steep angle, making it possible that it is a hanger or cutlass. The last image has a knuckle bow of chain,  as if a hunting hanger, which it might well be. Again, we see dog or monster pommels, and also lion pommels.


Brass-hilt cutlasses or hangers with naval provenance, from the Royal Museums, Greenwich, dating from the 1660s to the very early 18th century. From left to right, Admirals Byng, Fairborne, Balchin, Montague, & Allin.


Hilt artifacts from the 1690 wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary, a small New England vessel wrecked after the Phips attack on Quebec. (Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History: The 1690 Siege of Quebec: The Story of a Sunken Ship.)

The hilt shown above may be that of a hanger or cutlass, or other cutting or cut-and-thrust sword such as a broadsword or backsword. The shells, while identical to those of a period smallsword, are, with the form of the knuckle bow, very similar to those found on some late 17th century brass-hilted English naval cutlasses. However, it is impossible to know what sort of blade was mounted in the hilt. The Elizabeth and Mary was ferrying New England militia, who were armed with a variety of non-standard arms.


The sword of Sir Christopher Myngs, who led many of the early raids on the Spanish Main soon after the capture of Jamaica in 1655. (Royal Museums Greenwich.)

Note the similarity of the sword of Sir Christopher Myngs–possibly a transitional sword with a “rapier” style blade, or a light cut-and-thrust broadsword–to that of the shipwreck hilt.


A cavalry broadsword hilt circa 1640s, of a form common throughout most of the 17th century. (Harvey J. Withers: The Sword in Britain.)

Thankfully, there remain a fair number of extant examples of hangers and cutlasses other than the few shipwreck artifacts, although maritime or naval provenance is often difficult to prove. A few examples are shown below. Note that two of them have iron shells and/or knuckle guards, with brass pommels. Some buccaneer cutlasses could have been of this form.


Brass, and brass & iron, cutlass and hanger hilts, dating the late 17th and early 18th centuries, from a variety of online antique arms dealers, including Harvey JS Withers and Thomas Delmar.

In addition to online sources, several good illustrations of brass-hilt cutlasses can be found in William Gilkerson’s Boarders Away, With Steel (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray, 1991). Images of cutlasses from Harvey JS Withers’s collection for sale and sold can not only be found online, but in his book, The Sword in Britain, volume one. There are other available sources as well, including several additional reference in this blog.

Below is a detail from an illustration of the famous Jean Bart–a Flemish corsaire in French service–showing him with a cutlass. (Several other period images show him armed with a smallsword, but at least in the image below he is on the deck of a ship.) The cutlass has what appears to be a bird pommel, a small outside un-scalloped shell (or possibly a disk shell), an upper quillon, and a clip point. The hilt is probably brass, and, given its owner, might be gilded.


Detail from a circa 1701-1702 image of famed corsaire Jean Bart, by Nicolas Arnoult. (French National Library.)

The illustration of Bart’s cutlass may represent a common cutlass carried by French naval and privateer officers, or it may represent Bart’s Flemish nationality. It appears to be a fairly accurate representation of a Dutch or English cutlass or hanger as discussed previously, although, if we look at the pistol in the belt, we may draw some reservations about its accuracy. The pistol, carried as many were, tucked behind the sash or belt on the right side to protect the lock and make for an easy left-handed (non-sword hand) draw, has errors: both the belt-hook and lock are shown on the left side of the weapon, for example, and the lock is inaccurately drawn. (The lock should be on the right side, and the cock and battery are unrealistic. It is possible, but highly unlikely, that the pistol represents a double-barreled pistol with double locks.)



Other forms were doubtless used, including the Dutch/German discussed above, as well as the very common smaller iron shell-hilt cutlasses as in the example below. Both William Gilkerson in Boarders Away, With Steel (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray, 1991) and Michel Petard in Le Sabre d’Abordage (Nantes: Editions du Canonnier, 2006) include a fair number of illustrations of common iron-hilted 17th and early 18th century cutlasses. These cutlasses range from a simple outside shell with no thumb ring, to inside and outside shells (the inside typically smaller) with or without thumb rings. On occasion the inside shell faces forward, especially if small. Invariably either an upper and lower quillon exist, or an upper quillon and knuckle bow. Grip material varies as with the Dutch cutlass first described, although wood and bone are the most common materials.


Simple shell hilt cutlass of the first quarter of the 18th century, virtually identical to 17th century examples. There is no thumb ring or shell on the inside. From Neuman, page 182.

Another common enough form with a pair of bows, one for the knuckles, the other for the back of the hand, is shown below. This form is occasionally seen combined with small shells on brass hilts as well, as in an example above.


A fairly common form of cutlass, with a bow, rather than a shell, protecting the outside of the hand. There are no shells. Circa 1660 to 1690. A lighter-bladed cutlass would be more suited for convention cut and thrust swordplay. From Neuman, page 181.

Of the late seventeenth century cutlass identified as French, Michel Petard in his excellent Le Sabre d’Abordage describes only one form, shown below. It is iron-hilted and has a single simple outside shell, a small quillon, a knuckle bow carried to an un-ornamented pommel. Almost certainly there were brass-hilted versions of this sword; the French grenadier sword of roughly the same date is identical, except in brass. It’s quite possible, even likely, that some flibustiers carried swords like these, both iron- and brass-hilt versions, but they do not appear to match those in Cornuau’s illustrations.


French cutlasses–sabres de borde–of estimated 1670 to 1680 origin, of the “Louvois” type. From Le Sabre d’Abordage by Michel Petard. Nantes: Editions du Canonnier, 2006, page 41. In general, when boarding cutlasses are mentioned in 17th century French maritime documents, the term is often “sabre,” which at the time generally referred to any single-handed European (Eastern or Western) cutting sword, although coutelas is also used, notably in the French editions of Exquemelin.

French paintings of admirals and other officers are typically of no help in identifying French cutlasses or hangers. Most of these portraits are highly stylized and show officers in full armor. When swords are shown at all they are typically smallswords (epees de rencontre).


Allegorical image by Paul Cornuau from his chart, Plan du cartier du Portepaix, levé l’année, 1684. (French National Library.)

In Cornuau’s allegorical image above, perhaps of France as Neptune or Mars, the swordsman wields a cutlass of indeterminate shell construction (possibly a simple flat disk, as in the case of some 17th and 18th century hangers and cutlasses, see image below, or a crudely drawn double shell hilt), a cap pommel, and mildly curved blade with a sharp, non-clip point and a single fuller along the back of the blade. Again, it is unknown whether this cutlass is intended to portray a flibustier weapon. Similar examples from the 17th and 18th centuries are known, including a Spanish cutlass. In general, these cutlasses consist of a simple roundish shell with a small upper quillon and a knuckle bow, or of a simple roundish shell with a small upper and lower quillon forged from the same piece of iron.


Detail from image above.


Cutting swords–hangers and cutlasses–with simple shell hilts from Harold Peterson’s Arms and Armor in Colonial America 1526-1783, page 81.


Cutlass examples from the wreck of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet, quite possibly of Spanish origin. From Noel Wells, Small Arms of the Spanish Treasure Fleets. Dallas: Rock Bottom Publications, 2006, page 66.


Allegorical image by Paul Cornuau from his chart, Plan de la Petite-Rivière de Léogane, 1685. (French National Library.)

The allegorical image above by Cornuau, shows a man–again perhaps France depicted as Neptune or Mars–wielding a falchion or falchion-like cutlass with a simple hilt, round pommel, and curved blade with clip point.At the man’s feet lies a corpse cut in half through the torso. It is unknown whether this cutlass is intended to portray a flibustier weapon. That said, there were similar mid- to late 17th century cutlasses and hangers, the one below for example.

Opnamedatum: 2012-02-10

The naval sword of Dutch Admiral Cornelis Maartenszoon Tromp, mid- to late 17th century. The heavily-curved blade would make cutting, not thrusting, its primary purpose. Heavily-curved blades are difficult to thrust with (see below). (Rijksmuseum.)


Detail from Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of Cornelis Tromp. Note the similarity of the pommel and hilt to that above; it may be the same sword. (Royal Museums Greenwich.)



A few notes on the design and use of the cutlass are in order. Note that a thumb ring serves a very useful purpose in a sword with an unbalanced hilt, that is, one in which the outside shell is significantly larger than the inner, or in which the inside shell is entirely absent: it permits a stronger grip, preventing the blade from turning as a cut is made. If one’s grip is not firm when cutting with an unbalanced hilt, the blade may turn slightly and cut poorly or not at all. In cutlasses with a single large outside shell, any looseness in the grip will cause the cutlass to turn in the hand toward the heavier side.

Ideally, for a cutting blade to cut properly, a “draw” or drawing action must be made if the blade is straight or mostly straight. Some backsword and broadsword texts make obvious note of this, that the blade must be drawn toward its wielder in order to cut. (It may also be pushed away, in the 18th century this was known as a “sawing” cut.) However, the diagonal cuts from high outside to low inside, and high inside to low outside, have a natural “drawing” motion as the arm is brought toward the body. To make a powerful drawing cut is fairly easy: simply draw the elbow toward the body as the cut is made. A lightly laid on cut with a straight edge, one made with small arm movement, will require a deliberate drawing motion.

Sweeping cuts are the most common sort of drawing cuts, but they are dangerous in practice unless one is mounted (and moving quickly) on a horse, or has a shield, targe, or other defense in the unarmed hand. Sweeping cuts are easily “slipped”–avoided–and as such leave the attacker vulnerable to a counter stroke in tempo. They are also subject to counter-attacks in opposition. Tighter cuts may also be made with a natural draw, and this sort of cutting action is generally preferable when fighting without a shield or targe, as is the case in boarding actions. Note that wide sweeping cuts are more likely to injure one’s companions in a boarding action, and to get caught up in rigging and fittings.

In particular, a straight-bladed cutlass or other sword requires a drawing action in order to cut well. A curved blade has a natural cutting action, and the more curve there is the less drawing action must be added–the severe curve suffices. However, the greater the curve the less suitable for thrusting a sword is. A direct thrust made with such a sword (see Tromp’s sword, for example) will result not in the tip penetrating the adversary, but with the first inch or two of the edge hitting. It is very difficult to push the edge of a sword deeply into tissue, and most wounds caused this way are superficial. Note that the clip point found on many cutlasses is designed to make a curved blade more effective at cutting.

I am going to devote only a few words to the popular misconception that a heavily-curved sword, such as a scimitar, can be used to thrust effectively. Its thrusts must be hooked, and the typical example one finds in discussions by self-appointed “experts” is that of a hooked (aka angular) thrust made after one’s adversary has parried quart (four, inside). In theory, the attacker can roll his hand into tierce (pronated), and slip around the parry with a hook thrust. This will only work if the attacker also has a shield or targe in his (or her) unarmed hand: otherwise there is nothing to prevent the adversary’s riposte. In other words, try this with a curved cutlass, and while you may be able to make a thrust (which may or may not penetrate ribs) as an arrest or stop hit against a riposte, you will almost certainly also be on the receiving end of a powerful cut. In other words, try this at your peril in the 17th century.

A powerful drawing cut can also be made, vertically high to low, the hand drawn down and backwards, from close quarters distance, and even when grappling if the blade is free. It is a highly effective cut: I have cut through twelve inches of brisket with it.

All this said, cleaving–non-drawing–blows can cut through skin and muscle, and even break bones. One need only to test this with a common kitchen cleaver to see the efficacy of such blows, although they are generally inferior to those made with a natural drawing action. Also, a cleaving blow, even with a dull blade, can still break bones. Getting hit on the head with a heavy cutlass would be akin to getting hit with a steel rod.

Cutlass balance determines how well the cutlass may be wielded in terms of traditional fencing actions, and which forms of cuts work best. A heavily-balanced cutlass, with much of its weight forward around the point of percussion (that is, near the end of the blade), makes for very effective cleaving and close cutting actions, and will cut well with even crude swings. However, it is less effective for skilled fencing. A well-balanced cutlass–less point or tip heavy–is a more effective fencing sword, in that it permits quicker actions such as cut-overs, but requires a bit more training or finesse to cut well. In other words, give a cleaver to an unskilled seaman, but a better-balanced cutlass to one with reasonable skill at swordplay. All this said, a skilled “complete” swordsman or swordswoman can fence pretty damn well with anything.

Switching to a discussion of how the cutlass is held, the cutlass grip, like that of period broadswords and backswords, is a “globular” one–the thumb is not placed on the back of the grip or handle. Placing the thumb on the back of the handle, assuming there is even room (typically there is not), given the weight a cutlass and its impact against its target, may result in a sprained thumb, possibly a broken one, and at the very least the thumb being knocked from the grip, thus losing control of the weapon. The “thumb on the back of the handle” grip is suitable for lighter weapons only.

Shells are quite useful–mandatory, in my opinion–to protect the hand. A single outside shell, especially in conjunction with an upper quillon and a knuckle bow, provides merely adequate protection to the hand. The inside hand and forearm remain vulnerable to an attack or counter-attack (best made in opposition). The addition of an inner shell, typically smaller, goes far to maintain adequate protection to the hand. As already noted, inner shells were usually smaller, given that the inner part of the hand (the fingers, basically) is smaller than the outer, typically 1/3 to 2/5’s of the entire fist. Again, though, differently sized shells, especially if the difference is significant, will unbalance the weapon, making a thumb ring useful for gripping well and preventing the edge from turning and thereby not cutting.

But perhaps the cutlass’s greatest virtue, and what would have made some of its technique unique as compared to the broadsword and saber (from which late 18th through early 20th century cutlass technique was drawn), was its utility at “handy-grips.” I’ve covered this subject elsewhere, but besides the close cleaving or drawing cut described above, pommeling would have been common, and “commanding” (seizing the adversary’s hilt or blade) and grappling would have been common. F. C. Grove in the introduction to Fencing (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893) wrote: “One of us once saw a sailor of extraordinary strength seize a cutlass close to the hilt, where the edge is blunt, and break it short off.” An extraordinary example of a surely commonplace tactic.

There are unfortunately no cutlass texts dating to the age of the buccaneer, and few fencing texts discuss even related weapons until the 18th century. The only 17th century exception I can think of offhand is Francesco Antonio Marcelli’s treatise on the rapier (Regole Della Scherma, 1686), in which he devotes a few pages to saber versus rapier, noting quite correctly that the saber, and therefore also falchion, cutlass, &c., is a killing weapon even a very close range. See below. In The Golden Age of Piracy I discuss to a fair degree what we know from period accounts about how the cutlass may have been used.

Marcelli Saber 1

Saber Marcelli

I’ve discussed training in the cutlass elsewhere, including a few notes in my Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen post. In Sea Rover’s Practice I note that there was clearly some instruction at sea, although it may have often been ad hoc as was often the case ashore. French privateer captain Duguay-Trouin hired a fencing provost (assistant fencing master) to help school his crew in swordplay (and later found himself in a rencontre, swords drawn, with the man in the street), and English privateer captain “Commodore” Walker had training sessions aboard his ship, the officers practicing with foils, the seamen with singlesticks. The only pirate captain said to have held swordplay practice aboard ship is John Taylor in the Indian Ocean in the early 18th century, according to prisoner Jacob de Bucquoy (Zestien Jaarige Reize Naa de Indiën, Gedaan Door Jacob de Bucquoy, 1757, page 69). Taylor’s pirate crew reportedly held practices, as Commodore Walker would later do, with foils and singlesticks. I am a bit leery of this report, however. Although it certainly may be true, it is tied to a criticism of Dutch East Indiamen captains and crews, with de Bucquoy suggesting that the pirates were more disciplined and trained in a manner that the East Indiaman crews were not. Most historical accounts show a great deal of indiscipline among pirate crews.

Outside Cutlass

Miller’s outside guard with a falchion, hanger, or cutlass (1738).

Inside Cutlass

Miller’s inside guard with a falchion, hanger, cutlass (1738).



In regard to the myth that ‘hanger’ was the sole term used to refer to the common cutting sword at sea–to the cutlass, in other words–in the 17th century, and that ‘cutlass’ was only an eighteenth century term, I’ve excerpted the following from a Mariner’s Mirror article I wrote a few years ago (“Eyewitness Images of Buccaneers and Their Vessels,” vol. 98, no. 3, August 2012). I added it to the original draft after a pre-publication editorial reader for the journal suggested I may have used the term cutlass in error. Even the author of British Naval Swords & Swordsmanship, an excellent work, falls into this error of assuming that only the term hanger was used–and it often was the sole term, other than ‘sword,’ in the Royal Navy.

From my article: “Still debated today are the issues of whether hanger or cutlass is the more appropriate English name for the short cutting sword or swords used by late seventeenth century mariners, and whether the words refer to the same or different weapons. Hanger and cutlass (also cutlash, cutlace) are each found in English language texts of the late seventeenth century. In some cases there appears to be a subtle distinction made between them; in others they are used interchangeably.

“The English 1684 Malthus edition of Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America refers only to ‘cutlace’ or, more generically, sword as the buccaneer’s arme blanche. There is also at least one reference in the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, dating to the 1680s, associating the term cutlass with Caribbean pirates.[1] The 1684 Crooke and 1699 Newborough editions of Exquemelin refer to both hanger and cutlass, and use the terms interchangeably in reference to the sword of the notorious buccaneer Jean David Nau, better known as l’Ollonais. (Hanger once, cutlass twice, as well as a note that his men were armed with cutlasses.)

“It is possible that the description of l’Ollonais’s use of his sword to mutilate and murder prisoners may have given first rise to the reputation of the cutlass as the arm of the romanticized ‘cutthroat pirate’, a reputation enhanced by Charles Johnson’s pirate history forty years later, and then by Robert Louis Stevenson and other nineteenth century novelists. Even so, the cutlass already had a sanguine reputation, doubtless inspired in part by its descriptive, alliterative name: ‘by the bloudy cut-throat cuttleaxe of swaggering Mars’ wrote Thomas Coryate in 1611. By the eighteenth century, cutlass was the predominant English term for the seaman’s short-bladed cutting sword.”[2]

The earliest Caribbean reference to cutlasses I’ve found to date is in “The Voyages of Captain William Jackson (1642-1645),” a first-hand account describing Jackson’s most famous plundering voyage from one end of the Caribbean to the other: “The Armes delivered out to each company were, Muskitts, Carbines, Fire-locks, Halfe-pikes, Swords, Cutlases, & ye like offentius weapons…” Notably the term “hangers” is not used. Given that English naval inventories of the 17th century tend to list “hangers” and “swords” as the two sorts of swords carried aboard, it is unlikely that the “swords” category mentioned in Jackson includes hangers. [The journal was published in Camden Miscellany vol. 13, 3rd series vol. 34, 1924; the quote refers roughly to September-October 1642.]

It is possible that the distinction between cutlass and hanger was determined by the blades: a broad bladed weapon with a short blade used by soldiers and seamen was originally defined as a “curtle-axe” (Shakespeare even uses the word) or cutlass, while one with a narrower blade was a hanger. I’m speculating, of course, but the cutlass may have found preference at sea due to its greater ability at close quarters. Clearly, swords by both names were used, but the name cutlass stuck perhaps due to its greater efficacy.

In any case, I leave you with a quote from a witness to de Ruyter’s raid on Barbados in 1665: “I did see him [de Ruyter] on the poope, with a cane in one hand, and a cuttle axe in the other, and as he stayed [tacked] I did see most part of his quarter carried away.” [From “A True Relacion of the Fight at the Barbados Between the Fort and Shipping There…,” in Colonising Expeditions to the West Indies and Guiana, 1623–1667,” edited by V. T Harlow (London: Hakluty Society, 1925). The “cane” was almost certainly de Ruyter’s long admiral’s baton.]



For more information on the use of the cutlass at sea and ashore 1655 to 1725, in particular on its effectiveness as well as on its use in dueling, see The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths, chapter 8. (My publisher won’t appreciate my repeating the information here; by agreement I am not supposed to.) Both The Sea Rover’s Practice and The Buccaneer’s Realm also include information on the cutlass and other swords; the latter has an entire chapter devoted to associated late 17th century swords and swordplay. Unfortunately, there are no existing cutlass swordplay texts from the seventeenth century. It is likely that none were ever written.



[1] CSPC, 1685-1688, no. 1509. January 19, 1684. “A Relation of the capture of Providence by the Spaniards. On Saturday, 19th January, about 3 o’clock, Juan de Larco with two hundred and fifty Spaniards came down the harbour and landed at Captain Clarke’s, half a mile to east of Charlestown. Captain Clarke being out of doors near the waterside, some men in ambush shot him through the thigh and cut his arms with a cutlass, and then they marched away with all haste to the town, firing into some houses as they went…”

Another instance described in CSPC, 1677-1680, no. 1624. December 30, 1680, deposition of Robert Oxe.”The Spaniards killed two men and cruelly treated the deponent, hanging him up at the fore braces several times, beating him with their cutlasses, and striking him in the face after an inhuman cruel manner.” The Spanish pirate hunters were commanded by Captain Don Felipe de la Barrera y Villegas. Under his command were Juan Corso and Pedro de Castro, two captains noted for their reprisal cruelty against English and French seamen.

[2] Thomas Coryate, ‘Laugh and be Fat’ in Coryat’s Crudities (reprint London, 1776), vol. 3:n.p. Regarding foreign terms for cutlass, the original Dutch edition of Exquemelin’s work (1678) uses sabel (saber), as does David van der Sterre’s 1691 biography of Caribbean sea rover Jan Erasmus Reyning, but a 1675 English-Dutch dictionary notes kort geweer as the Dutch term for cutlass. Exquemelin’s Spanish edition (1681) uses ‘alfange’ (alfanje), whose root is the Andalusian Arabic alẖánǧar or alẖánǧal, from the Arabic ẖanǧar, a dagger or short sword, which some scholars have suggested is the origin of the English word hanger. The OED (2nd ed.) doubts this and derives it instead from the Dutch hangher. Although the Spanish connection to the Low Countries, and thus a connection to the Dutch term, appears suggestive, the English use of hanger predates Spanish rule. Alfanje is typically translated as cutlass, hanger, or scimitar. Exquemelin’s French editions (1686, 1688, 1699) refer to both coutelas and sabre. Most etymologists consider cutlass to be derived from coutelas. Saber, sabre, and the Dutch sabel derive from the German sabel, with authorities noting the term’s Slavic origin.


Copyright Benerson Little 2107. Last updated May 8, 2017.

Walking the Plank: An Associated Image


“Kapitein Lambert Hendrikszoon laat 125 zeerovers ophangen aan de ra’s van zijn schepen of in zee gooien voor de haven van Algiers, ca. 1619, Jan Luyken, 1682 – 1684.” (Rijksmuseum.)

In The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, I’ve devoted an entire chapter to this myth of walking the plank. The image above is of a Dutch flotilla commanded by Captain Lambert Hendrikszoon in the early 1680s harshly negotiating a peace treaty with Algiers, notorious for its “Barbary corsairs.” Note that a corsair was a privateer, not a pirate, although often the Barbary corsairs were referred to as pirates–after all, they were not “Christians.” Even so, they were lawfully commissioned and were pirates only if they went to sea without a commission to hunt prey. A major part of Barbary corsair plunder consisted of prisoners–Christians, often–taken as slaves. This was naturally an objectionable, heinous, barbaric (note the origin of the word) practice. Yet Europeans often hypocritically failed to note the irony that Barbary corsairs were enslaving people who themselves engaged in the slave trade of Africans, Native Americans, mixed races, and sometimes even of Asians–and, at least to the early 18th century, North Africans.


Detail. (Rijksmuseum.)

In the detail below, Algerine prisoners are being murdered in reprisal, in this case  via “walking the plank”–but clearly no plank was necessary.