Semi-Modern Reading: Cold Steel: The Art of Fencing with the Sabre (1889)

Cold Steel: The Art of Fencing with the Sabre (Dover Books on History, Political and Social Science)Cold Steel: The Art of Fencing with the Sabre by Alfred Hutton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cold Steel is a book that aims to introduce basic fencer into a wider world. Written in 1889, it explains how to develop competency in sabre fencing for a world where the possibility of a duel or the use of a sabre in military fighting still exists. Still, that is only half the fun, because the book goes beyond sabre fencing to cover fighting with sticks, daggers, and even unarmed defenses against a dagger.

In terms of useful technique, Cold Steel would be frowned upon by many modern sport fencing coaches. That shouldn’t stop modern sport fencers from reading the book for three reasons. One, the book may spark an idea for a drill or training that could be relevant. Two, it is fun to see how the sport evolved and connect your fencing to that of people who came before you. Three, sometimes it is fun to do something extra-curricular to pure sport fencing.

Some friends and I practiced the unarmed defenses against a dagger. While I am not sure how well we would fare “in an encounter of such unequal sort” to borrow Hutton’s words, we did have a good time spending a couple of minutes at the end of a few fencing sessions working on a skill that was once a part of a larger fencing curriculum.. It also gave us another way to think about and practice skills such as timing, distance, and angles.

This is what I mean by taking basic fencers into a larger world. Hutton takes the approach that his readers already have a basic knowledge of fencing and likely will take a sabre in hand primarily for sport fencing. Nevertheless, he believes that there are other things worth knowing beyond just fencing in a salle or gymnasium. He writes brief chapters on fencing with a sabre against a bayonet and a short sword and talks about how to fight with a large stick, a constable’s truncheon or billy club, and how to fight with daggers. It is a rather complete collection of fighting skills.

For that reason, this book would be of interest to martial artists as well as sport fencers. It goes without saying that those interest in historical fencing also will find this a good addition to their libraries if they do not already have it. (It is worth noting that Hutton taught classes at the Bartitsu Club in London for a time. Bartitsu was a martial art that combined jujistu, boxing, savate, and stick fighting and was mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story.) The book also references a number of other works that could give people interested in historical manuals a starting point for further research.

A couple of notes of caution are in order. First is that practicing any kind of contact skill, whether it be sports, martial arts, or anything else requires the proper equipment, training, and mindset to be done safely. Hutton himself goes into the equipment necessary. Modern equipment has given us more options, and it should be used.

Second, Hutton’s terminology is antiquated and some is even terms he has self-defined. So, if you do try to practice any of this, read everything carefully and do not assume that modern terminology applies.

I would recommend this book to people with an interest in fencing, martial arts, and the history of those subjects.

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