Journal of Manly Arts
Nov 2001
by C. Phillipps-Wolley
(Originally published as chapter IV of "Broadsword and Single-stick, with Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, and Other Weapons of Self-Defence", by R.G. Allanson-Winn and C. Phillipps-Wolley; George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden and New York, 1898)

SINGLE-STICK is to the sabre what the foil is to the rapier, and while foil-play is the science of using the point only, sabre-play is the science of using a weapon, which has both point and edge, to the best advantage (EN1). In almost every treatise on fencing my subject has been treated with scant ceremony. "Fencing" is assumed to mean the use of the point only, or perhaps it would not be too much to say, the use of the foils; whereas fencing means simply (in English) the art of of-fending another and de-fending yourself with any weapons, but perhaps especially with all manner of swords.

In France or Spain, from which countries the use of the thrusting-sword was introduced into England, it would be natural enough to consider fencing as the science of using the point of the sword only, but here the thrusting-sword is a comparatively modern importation, and is still only a naturalised foreigner, whereas broad-sword and sabre are older than, and were once as popular as, boxing. On the other hand, the rapier was in old days a foreigner of particularly shady reputation on these shores, the introducer being always alluded to in the current literature of that day, with anathemas, as "that desperate traitour, Rowland Yorke." (EN2)

"L'Escrime" is, no doubt, the national sword-play of France, and, for Frenchmen, fencing may mean the use of the foil, but broad-sword and sabre play are indigenous here, and if fencing is to mean only one kind of sword-pay or sword-exercise, it should mean single-stick.

Like the swordsmen of India, our gallant fore-fathers (according to Fuller, in his "Worthies of England") accounted it unmanly to strike below the knee or with the point. (EN3) But necessity has no laws, still less has it any sense of honour, so that before long English swordsmen realised that the point was much more deadly than the edge, and that, unless they were prepared to be "spitted like cats or rabbits," it was necessary for them either to give up fighting or condescend to learn the new fashion of fence.

As in boxing, it was found that the straight hit from the shoulder came in quicker than the round-arm blow, so in fencing it was found that the thrust got home sooner than the cut, and hence it came that the more deadly style of fighting with the rapier supplanted the old broad-sword play.

Single-stick really combines both styles of fencing. In it the player is taught to use the point whenever he can do so most effectively; but he is also reminded that his sword has an edge, which may on occasion do him good service. It seems then, to me, that the single-stick is the most thoroughly practical form of fencing for use in those "tight places" where men care nothing for rules, but only want to make the most out of that weapon which the chance of the moment has put into their hands. It may further be said that the sabre is still supplied to our soldiers, though rarely used for anything more dangerous than a military salute, whereas no one except a French journalist has ever seen, what I may be allowed to call, a foil for active service (EN4), the science of single-stick has some claim to practical utility even in the nineteenth century, the only sound objection to single-stick being that the sticks used are so light as to not properly represent the sabre.

This is a grave objection to the game, when the game is regarded as representing the real business; but for all that, the lessons learnt with the stick are invaluable to the swordsman. The true way to meet the difficulty would be to supplement stick-play by a course with broad-swords, such as are in use in different London gymnasiums, with blunt edges and rounded points.

But gunpowder has taken the place of "cold steel," and arms of precision at a thousand yards have ousted the "white arm" of the chivalrous ages, so that it is really only of single-stick as a sport that men think, if they think of it at all, today. As a sport it is second to none of those which can be indulged in the gymnasium, unless it be boxing; and even boxing has its disadvantages. What the ordinary Englishman wants is a game with which he may fill up the hours during which he cannot play cricket and need not work; a game in which he may exercise those muscles with which good mother Nature meant him to earn his living, but which custom has condemned to rust, while his brain wears out; a game in which he may hurt some one else, is extremely likely to be hurt himself, and is certain to earn an appetite for dinner. If any one tells me that my views of amusement are barbaric or brutal, that no reasonable man ever wants to hurt any one else or to risk his own precious carcass, I accept the charge of brutality, merely remarking that it was the national love of hard knocks which made this little island famous, and I for one do not wish to be thought any better than the old folk of England's fighting days.

There is just enough pain in the use of the sticks to make self-control during the use of them a necessity; just enough danger to a sensitive hide to make the game thoroughly English, for no game which puts a strain upon the player's strength and agility only, and none on his nerve, endurance, and temper, should take rank with the best of our national pastimes.

Gallant Lindsey Gordon knew the people he was writing for when he wrote -

"No game was ever worth a rap,
For a rational man to play,
Into which no accident, no mishp,
Could possibly find its way."

Still, there comes a time, alas! In the lives of all of us, when, though the hand is still ready to smite, the over-worked brain resents the infliction of too many "merry cross-counters," and we cannot afford to go about with black eyes, except as the occasional indulgence. Then it is that the single-stick comes in. Boxing is the game of youth, and fencing with foils, we have been assured, improves as men fall into the sere and yellow leaf. Single-stick, then, may be looked upon as a gentle exercise, suitable for early middle age.

There is just enough sting in the ash-plant's kiss, when it catches you on the softer parts of your thigh, your funny bone, or your wrist, to keep you wide awake and remind you of the good old rule of "grin and bear it;" but the ash-plant leaves no marks which are likely to offend the eye of squeamish clients or female relations.

Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they consider themselves mere tyros in their art.

That single-stick is a national game of very considerable antiquity, and at one time in great repute on our country greens, no one is likely to deny, nor have I time to argue with them even if I would in this little brochure. Those who are interested in spadroon, back-sword, and broad-sword will find the subjects very exhaustively treated in such admirable works as Mr. Egerton Castle's "Schools and Masters of Fence." (EN5) These pages are merely intended for the tyro - they are at best a compilation of those notes written during the last ten years in black and white upon my epidermis by the ash-plants of Serjeants Waite and Ottaway, and Corporal-Major Blackburn. Two of them, unfortunately, will never handle a stick again, but the last-named is still left, and to him, especially, I am indebted for anything which may prove worth remembering in these pages. A book may teach you the rudiments of any game, but it is only face to face with a better player than yourself that you will ever make any real advance in any of the sciences of self-defence.

And here, then, is my first hint, taught by years of experience: If you want to learn to play quickly, if you want to get the most out of your lessons, whether in boxing or stick-play, never encourage your teacher to spare you too much. If you get a stinging cross-counter early in your career as a boxer, which lays you out senseless for thirty seconds, you will find that future antagonists have the greatest possible difficulty in getting home on that spot again. It is the same in single-stick. If you are not spared too much, and are not too securely padded, you will, once the ash-plant has curled once or twice round your thighs, acquire a guard so instinctively accurate, so marvellously quick, that you will yourself be delighted at your cheaply-bought dexterity. The old English players used no pads and no masks, but, instead, took off their coats, and put up their elbows to shield one side of their heads (EN6).

There are today in England several distinct schools of single-stick, the English Navy having, I believe, a school of its own (EN7); but all these different schools are separated from one another merely by sets of rules, directing, for the most part, where you may and where you may not hit your adversary.

The best school appears to be that in which all hits are allowed, such as might be given by a rough in a street row, or by a Soudanese running a-muck. The old trial for teachers of fencing was not a bad test of real excellence in the mastery of their weapons - a fight with three skilled masters of fence (one at a time, of course), then three bouts with valiant unskilled men, then three bouts against three half-drunken men. (EN8) A man who could pass this test was a man whose sword could be relied upon to keep his head, and that is what is wanted. All rules, then, which provide artificial protection, as it were - protection other than that afforded by the swordsman's guard - to any part of the body are wrong, and should be avoided.

Let me illustrate my position. I remember well, at Waite's rooms, in Brewer Street, seeing a big Belgian engaged with a gentleman who at that time occupied the honourable position of chopping-block to the rooms. The Belgian had come over to take part in some competition, and was an incomparably better player than the Englishman, but then the Belgian wished to play according to the rules of his own school. It was arranged at last that each should do his worst in his own way, and it was hoped that Providence would take care of the better man.

Unfortunately the worse man of the two had been very much in the habit of taking care of himself when subjected to the attacks of such punishing players as Ottaway and Mr. Jack Angle.

The Belgian's legs had been protected by a rule of fence, which made it illegal to hit below the waist, or some such point, and now naturally they fell an easy prey to the Englishman's ash-plant. The result was, of course, that in a very short time the Belgian's thigh was so wealed that at every feint in that direction he was ready to be drawn, and to uncover head or arm or any well-padded spot, not already sore, to the other man's attack.

Let me touch lightly on one or two little points before plunging in in medias res. In spite of what I have said about hard hitting, please remember that I have recommended my pupil only to suffer it gladly for his own sake. It will improve his temper and his play. On the other hand, hard, indiscriminate hitting is to be discountenanced for many reasons, and principally because, as a rule, a hard hit means a slow one. Always remember that the time taken to draw your hand back for a blow is time given to the enemy to get his point in, and that a blow delivered from wrist and arm (bent only as much as it should be when you "engage") would suffice to disable your adversary if the sticks were what they pretend to be, "sharp swords." Again, in ordinary loose play, remember that you are playing, or are supposed to be playing, with the weapons of gentlemen, and should show the fine old-fashioned courtesy to one another which is due to a foeman worthy of your steel. If there is a question as to a hit, acknowledge it as against yourself, as in the cut below, by springing up to attention and bringing the hilt up to the level of the mouth, blade upright, and knuckles turned to your front.

FIG. 1
Figure 1 - The Outfit, also the position of acknowledgement

Again, should you get an awkward cut, do all you can not to return savagely. If you make any difference at all, play more lightly for the next five minutes, otherwise you may drift into a clumsy slogging match, ending in bad blood. Finally, if you do get hold of a vicious opponent, do not, whatever you do, show that you mind his blows. If he sees that a cut at a particular place makes you flinch, he will keep on feinting at it until he hits you wherever he pleases; but if, on the contrary, you take no notice of punishment, you are apt to dishearten the adversary, who feels that your blows hurt him, and is uncertain whether his tell upon you in like manner. I may as well say here that throughout this paper, I have, as far as possible, used English words to explain my meaning, abstaining from the French terms of the fencing school, as being likely to confuse a beginner, who may not want to learn French as an introduction to fencing.


The accessories necessary for single-stick are much more numerous now than in the old days on the village green. Then two stout ash-plants and the old North Country prayer (beautifully terse) "God, spare our eyes!" were considered all that was necessary. Now a complete equipment costs rather more than a five-pound note.

First, then, there is the helmet, constructed more solidly than that used for foil-play, although the wire mesh of which it is made is generally a good deal wider than the mesh of a fencing mask. The best helmet is made out of stout wire, with a top of buffalo hide, completely covering the head, with padded ear-pieces to take off the effect of a slashing cut. These are better than those made of cane, which are apt to give way before a stout thrust and let in the enemy's point to the detriment of eyes and complexion. Be careful, in choosing your helmet, to see that it fits you exactly, for a nodding helm may, in a close thing, so interfere with your sight as to give your adversary a very considerable advantage. The jacket generally used for this play is made like a pea-jacket, with two sleeves, and should be of stout leather. If this is loose fitting, it will afford ample protection, and is not so hot as the padded coat sometimes seen. Besides being too hot, the handsome white-kid padded jackets soon get holes made in them by the ash-plant, whereas the brown leather is seldom torn.

In addition to the jacket, an apron of leather, extending from the waist almost to the knee, should be worn, covering both thighs, and saving the wearer from dangerously low hits.

Some men wear a cricket pad on the right leg. This, I think, makes a man slow on his feet, and is besides un-necessary. The calf of any one in condition should be able to despise ash-plants; and, as I said before,

a bare leg makes you wonderfully quick with your low guard (EN9).

Stick play is a fine test of a man's condition. At first every hit leaves an ugly mark, but as soon as the player gets really "fit," it takes a very heavy blow indeed to bruise him. The sticks themselves should be ash-plants, about forty inches in length and as thick as a man's thumb, without knots and unpeeled.

If you want them to last any time it is as well to keep a trough of water in your gymnasium, and leave your ash-plants to soak in it until they are wanted. If you omit to do this, two eager players, in half an hour's loose play, will destroy half a dozen sticks, which adds considerably to the cost of the amusement.

The old English sword hilt was a mere cross-piece; but in play it has always been customary to protect the fingers with a basket. This may be either if wicker or buffalo-hide. The latter is infinitely the best, as wearing much longer, affording a better protection to the fingers, and not scraping the skin off the knuckles as the wicker baskets too often do. The basket has a hole on either side; one close to the rim, and the other about a couple of inches from the edge. In putting your basket on, put your stick through the former first, as otherwise you will not be able to get a grip of your stick or any room for the play of your wrist.

There is only one other thing necessary, and then you may consider yourself as safe as a schoolboy with the seat of his trousers full of dormitory towels: and that is either a stout elastic ring round your wrist - a ring as thick as your thumb - or a good long gauntlet. I rather recommend the ring as interfering less with the freedom of your hand, and as protecting more effectually that weak spot in your wrist where the big veins are. If a blow catches you squarely across this spot, when it is unprotected, you may expect your right hand to lose its cunning for a good many minutes. By the way, it is as well to see that the collar of your jacket is sufficiently high and well-supplied with buttons, otherwise there is apt to be a dangerous gap between the shoulder and the bottom of the helmet.

One last word: if you see that the point of your stick is broken, don't go on playing; stop at once. A split ash-plant is as dangerous as a buttonless foil, and just as likely to go through the meshes of a mask, and blind where you only meant to score. As the chief fault of single-stick as training for the use of the sabre is that the stick does not properly represent the weight of the weapon which it simulates, it is not a bad thing to accustom yourself to using the heaviest sticks in the gymnasium. This will strengthen your wrist, and when in a competition you get hold of a light ash-plant, you will be all the quicker for your practice with the heavier stick.

Figure 1 by Mr. Graham Simpson represents the way to acknowledge a hit, and this cut by the same artist (Fig. 2) illustrates, as far as we know it, the less careful method of our forefathers.

FIG. 2
Figure 2 - A guard-stance from an earlier form of single-stick fighting

The use of the elbow to shield the head, though common in contests on the village greens, was in its way no doubt more foolish than our pads; for though a sturdy yokel might take a severe blow from a cudgel on his bare arm, without wincing, the toughest arm in England would have no chance against a sabre.


Having now secured the necessary implements, let us begin to learn how to use them. First, as to the stick, which, you will remember, represents for the present a sabre, and consequently a weapon of which one edge only is sharpened. In order that every blow dealt with the stick should be dealt with what represents the sharp or "true" edge of the sword, it is only necessary to see that you get a proper grip of your weapon in the first instance. To do this shut your fingers round the hilt, and straighten your thumb along the back of the hilt, thus bringing your middle knuckles (or second joints of your fingers) and the true edge into the same line. If you keep this grip you may be assured that every blow you deal will be with the edge.

And now as to position - the first position from which every attack, feint, or guard, begins. Ned Donnelly, the great boxer, used to tell his pupils that if a man knew how to use his feet, his hands would take care of themselves.

FIG. 3
Figure 3 - The engaging (hanging) guard

And what is undoubtedly true in boxing is equally true in fencing. "Look that your foundations are sure" should be every fighting man's motto. Take trouble, then, about the position of the feet from the first. To come on to the engaging guard, as shown in Fig. 3, stand upright, your heels together, your feet at right angles to one another, your right foot pointing to your front, your left foot to your left, your stick in your right hand, loosely grasped and sloped over your right shoulder, your right elbow against your side, and your right hand about on a level with it, your left hand behind your back, out of harm's way.

It is not a bad plan to put the fingers of the left hand through the belt at the back of the waist. If this is done, it counteracts, to a certain extent, that tendency to bring the left hand in front, which a good many beginners display, and for which they get punished by many an unpleasant rap on the knuckles.

Now take a short pace to the front with the right foot, and, in the words of the instructor, "sit down," i.e. bend both legs at the knee, so that the calves are almost at right angles to the thighs. This position will be found a severe strain upon the muscles at first, but they will soon get used to it. The object of the position is twofold. First, the muscles are thus coiled, as it were, ready for a spring at the shortest notice; and in the second place, the surface which your stick has to guard is thus considerably reduced. Be careful to keep the right heel in a line with the left heel, a space equal to about twice the length of your own foot intervening between them, and see that your right toe points squarely to the front and your left toe to the left. If your right toe is turned in, you will never advance straight to the front; and if your left toe is turned in, you contact the base upon which your body rests, and very soon will begin to roll and lose your balance altogether. As far as the legs and feet are concerned you are now in your proper position, which you will only leave when you lunge, or when you straighten yourself to acknowledge a hit, and to which you will invariably return as soon as you engage.

If you wish to advance, advance the right foot a short pace, bringing the left after it at once, so that the two resume their relative positions to one another, half a pace nearer your enemy. If you wish to retire, reverse this movement, retiring with the left foot and following it with the right. In both cases keep your eyes to the front, your feet at right angles, and your knees bent.

Now as to the stick. There are two forms of guard in common use among players, the hanging and the upright guard, of which both illustrations will be found in these pages. In Rowland Yorke's time men sought for what I think they called "the universal parry" almost as they did for the alchemist's stone which should turn all things to gold. Of course such a thing has never been found, but either of these guards, if truly taken and kept, will stop the attacks of most men so long as you keep them at their proper distance.

In passing, let me say that if a man will try to overwhelm you with rushes, the best thing you can do is to straighten your stick, thrust, and don't let the stick run through the basket. This has a wonderfully soothing effect upon an excitable player.

In Fig. 4 the upright guard (or high tierce) is shown, in which the right elbow should be close in to the side, the forearm at right angles to the body, wrist bent, so as to turn the knuckles outwards, and the stick pointed upwards, at an angle of about 45 degrees. In Fig. 3, the hanging guard, the point of the stick should be inclined slightly downwards, the knuckles turned upwards, the forearm should be slightly bent, the hilt a little outside the right knee, the point of the stick a little low and in the direction of the left front.

Figure 4 - Upright guard, or high tierce

If the point of the stick be kept up, the adversary finds a way in by cutting upwards under the point; if the hilt is not outside the right knee, the back of the sword arm will be unprotected; and if the sword-arm itself is not kept slightly bent, no effective blow can be delivered by it without first drawing back the hand.

This, of course, is a fatal fault. The moment your adversary sees your hand go back, he will come out. As you retire for the spring, he will spring. Time is the very essence of single-stick, and the chief object of every player should be to make his attack in the fewest possible motions. For this reason a slightly bent arm is necessary when on guard. Of course if the arm is unduly bent the elbow will be exposed, but a little practice will soon enable any moderately supple man to so hold his arm as to be ready to cut direct from his guard and yet keep his elbow out of peril. And this brings me to a question often discussed amongst players, viz. which is the better guard, the upright or the hanging guard, for general purposes.

Although I have been taught to use the hanging guard myself ever since I began to play, I unhesitatingly say that the upright guard is the better one, as enabling a player to save time in the attack. In the hanging guard the knuckles (i.e. the edge) are up and away from the enemy; the wrist must be turned before the edge can be brought into contact with his body, and this takes time, however little. In the upright guard the knuckles (i.e. the edge) are towards your opponent, the arm is ready flexed, everything is in readiness for the blow. If, then, as I believe, the advantages of the two guards, as guards, are equal, the advantage of the upright guard as a position of attack seems to me undeniable.

In all guards remember that it is not sufficient to oppose some part of your weapon to your adversary's. You must meet him, if possible, with what the old masters called the "forte" of your blade, that is, the part from the hilt to the middle of the sword, with which you have naturally more power of resistance than with the lower half of the blade. Of course all guards must be made with the edge of the sword outwards, and make sure that you really feel your enemy's blade (i.e. make a good clean guard) before attempting to return his attack.

There is another matter to which many teachers pay too little attention, but which is as important as any point in the fencer's art. It is obvious that the player should try, if possible, to hit without being hit. To do this effectively it is necessary to maintain in attacking what fencers call a good "opposition", that is to say, to so carry your stick in cutting or thrusting at him as to protect yourself in the line in which you are attacking.

This is easier to explain in practice than on paper, but it may perhaps be sufficiently explained by examples. If, for instance, you are cutting at the left side of your opponent's head, you must, to stop a possible counter from him, keep your hilt almost as high as the top of your own head and carry your hand well across to your own left. If you do this correctly you will, in case he should cut at your left cheek as you cut at his, stop his cut with the upper part of your stick.

Again, in thrusting at him, if you keep your hand as high as your shoulder, and in a line with your right shoulder, you will protect the upper half of your own body from a counter, so that, even if your thrust fails and does not get home, the upper part of your blade will stop his cut.

It is necessary to study so to attack your opponent that, in the very act of delivering a cut of thrust, you may stop him in as many lines or directions of attack as possible.

If you find your man will counter in spite of all that you can do, take advantage of this habit of his by feinting a cut to draw his counter, stop this, and return.

This will have the effect of making him do all the leading, which will be all in your favour.


For the purposes of instruction and description, the principal hits in single-stick have been numbered and described according to the parts of the body at which they are aimed.

There are four principal hits: (1) a cut at your opponent's left cheek; (2) a cut at his right cheek; (3) a cut at his left ribs; (4) a cut at his right ribs. Cuts 5 and 6 are mere repetitions of 3 and 4 at a lower level, being aimed at the inside and outside of the right leg instead of at the ribs.

In the accompanying figures numbered 5, 6, 7 and 8 the four principal attacks and the stops for them have been illustrated, and with their help and a long looking-glass in front of him the young player ought to be able to put himself into a fairly good position.

In addition to the cuts there is the point, which, as our forefathers discovered, is far more deadly than the edge. Of this more later on.

Almost every cut is executed upon the lunge. As you and your adversary engage, you are practically outside each other's range unless you lunge.

Standing in the first position the heels are two feet apart. On the lunge, I have seen Corporal-Major Blackburn, a man, it is true, over six feet in height, measure, from his left heel to a point on the floor level with his sword point, a distance of nearly ten feet. This gives some idea of what is expected from a man who can lunge properly. To do this, throw out the right foot as far as it will go to the front, keeping the heels still in line and the right foot straight.

Keep the outside edge of the left foot firmly down upon the floor, and keep it still at right angles to the right foot. If your left foot begins to leave the ground you have over-reached yourself; you will find it impossible to get back, and you will be at you opponent's mercy. See that your right knee is exactly over your right ankle, your left leg straight, your chest square to the front, and your head well up. If you can get yourself into this position, you will have no difficulty in recovering yourself if your lunge fails, and you will gain nothing by bending your body forward from the waist. On the contrary, you will spoil your balance.

This lunge will do for every cut and every point.

To recover after a lunge, throw your weight well back upon your left leg, and use the muscles of the right thigh and calf to shoot yourself back into position. If the knee of the right leg has been kept exactly over the ankle, the impetus necessary to regain your original position will be easily obtained. If, however, the right foot has been protruded too far, and the caution as to the knee and ankle disregarded, you will find yourself unable to return quickly from the lunging position, and will consequently be at your opponent's mercy. It is in the operation of returning from the lunge that the player realises to the full the advantage of keeping the shoulders well back and the head erect.

The illustrations should speak for themselves, but perhaps I had better explain them.

FIG. 5
Figure 5: Cut 1 and defence with the hanging guard

(To perform cut 1 as shown in Fig. 5,) lunge out and cut at the left cheek of your opponent, straightening the arm and turning the knuckles down.

To stop this cut, raise the engaging guard (hanging guard, Fig. 4) slightly, and bring the hand somewhat nearer the head, as shown in the illustration, or stop it with the upright guard, with the elbow kept well in and the right hand about on a level with the left shoulder.

FIG. 6
Figure 6: Cut 2 and defence with high upright guard

(To perform cut 2 as shown in Fig. 6,) lunge out and cut at your opponent's right cheek, with your arm straight and knuckles up. The natural guard for this is the high upright guard, with the elbow well in to the right side, the arm bent and turned slightly outwards, and wrist and knuckles turned well to the right.

FIG. 7
Figure 7: Cut 3 and defence with low inside hanging guard

(To perform cut 3 as shown in Fig. 7,) make free use of the wrist, bringing your blade round in the smallest space possible, and come in on your man's ribs with your arm straight and knuckles turned downwards.

To stop this cut you may either use a low hanging guard, brought across to the left side, the right hand level with the left shoulder, or a low upright guard, with the hilt just outside the left thigh.

The hanging guard is the safer one of these two, as it is difficult in practice to get low enough with the hilt in the upright guard to stop a low cut of this kind.

FIG. 8
Figure 8: Cut 4, and defence with low outside hanging guard

(To perform cut 4, as shown in Fig. 8,) cut at your adversary's right ribs, and keep your knuckles up, and when he attacks you on this line, stop him with the hanging guard held low on your right side, or with the upright guard, with the arm, wrist and knuckles turned outwards.

Cuts 5 and 6 are made with like cuts 3 and 4 respectively, and must be met in all cases by a low hanging guard. It is well to practise these low hanging guards continually, as a man's legs are perhaps the most exposed part of his body.

The point when used is given by a simple straightening of the arm on the lunge, the knuckles being kept upwards, and, in ordinary play, the grip on the stick loosened, in order that it may run freely through the hilt, and thus save your opponent from an ugly bruise, a torn jacket, or possibly a broken rib.

FIG. 9
Figure 9: the point

When the knuckles are kept up in giving the point, the sword hand should be opposite the right shoulder. But the point may also be delivered with the knuckles down, in which case the hand should be opposite the left shoulder.

The point may be parried with any of the guards previously described.

It is well to remember that one of the most effective returns which can be made from any guard is a point, and that a point can be made certainly from every hanging guard merely by straightening the arm from the guard, lunging, and coming in under your opponent's weapon. But perhaps this is a thing to be learned rather from experience than from a book.

Now, it is obvious that if any of the foregoing guards are as good as they have been described, it is necessary to induce your adversary to abandon them if you are ever going to score a point.

This may be done in a variety of ways, when you have assured yourself that he is invulnerable to direct attack, not to be flurried by a fierce onslaught, or slow enough to let you score a "remise" - that is, a second hit - the first having been parried, but not returned.

The first ruse to adopt, of course, is a feint - a feint being a false attack, or rather a move as if to attack in a line which you threaten, but in which you do not intend to attack. All feints should be strongly pronounced or clearly shown. A half-hearted feint is worse than useless; it is dangerous. If you have a foeman worthy of your steel facing you, he will detect the fraud at once, and use the time wasted by you over a feeble feint to put in a time thrust.

The ordinary feint is made by an extension of the arm as if to cut without moving the foot to lunge, the lunge being made the moment you have drawn off your enemy's guard and laid bare the real object of your attack.

Sometimes, however, if you cannot succeed otherwise, a half or short lunge for your feint, to be turned into a full lunge as you see your opening, may be found a very useful variation of the ordinary feint. If you find feints useless, you may try to compass your adversary's downfall by "a draw." All the time that you are playing you should try to be using your head, to be thinking out your plans and trying to discover his. In nine cases out of ten he has some favourite form of attack. If you discover what it is, and know how to stop it, indulge him, and invite him even to make it, having previously formed some little scheme of your own upon this opening. Let me illustrate my meaning by examples. If you notice a hungry eye fixed yearningly on your tender calf, let your calf stray ever so little from under the protection of the hanging guard. If this bait takes your friend in, and he comes with a reckless lunge at it, throwing all his heart into the cut, spring up to your full height, heels together, and leg well out of danger, and gently let your avenging rod fall along his spine. This, by the way, is the only occasion, except when you are acknowledging a hit, on which you may be allowed to desert the first position for legs and feet.

FIG. 10
Figure 10: A ruse

But this is a very old ruse, and most players know it: a much better one may be founded upon it. If, for instance, you think you detect any coquettish symptoms in the right leg of your adversary, you may know at once what he is meditating. Oblige him at once. Lunge freely out at his leg, which will of course be at once withdrawn. This, however, you were expecting, and as his leg goes back your hand goes up to the high hanging guard, covering your head from his cut. This cut stopped, he is at your mercy, and you may cut him in halves or crimp his thigh at your leisure. This position is illustrated in Fig. 10.

Once again; some men set their whole hearts on your sleeve, and you may, if yours is the hanging guard, lure them to their destruction through this lust of theirs. Gradually, as the play goes on, your arm tires, your hand sinks, your arm at last is bare, and the enemy comes in with a cut that would almost lay open the gauntlet, were it not that at that moment you come in with a low upright guard and return at his left cheek.

These are what is known as draws, and their number is unlimited.

Another thing sometimes heard of in single-stick play is "a gain." This is a ruse for deceiving your opponent as to distance, and is achieved by bringing your left heel up to the right, in the course of play, without abandoning the normal crouching position. This, of course, makes your lunge two feet longer than your victim has any reason for believing it to be.

A false beat is another very common form of attack, consisting of a cut aimed at the hilt or at the forte of your stick, the object being to make you raise your point, if possible, so that the attacker may come in under with cut 3.

This is very well met by a thrust, the arm being merely straightened from the guard, and the lunge delivered directly the "beat" is made.

A pretty feint having the same effect as the "beat," as opening up cut 3, is a long feint with the point at the chest, cut 3 being given as the sword rises to parry the point.

But probably I have transgressed the limits of my paper. What remains to be taught, and I know full well that it is everything except the merest rudiments, must be learned stick in hand. I can only wish the beginner luck, and envy him every hour which he is able to devote to acquiring a knowledge of sword-play.


Although the salute is a mere piece of sword drill, of no use for practical purposes, it is still worth learning, as being the preliminary flourish common at all assaults-of-arms, and valuable in itself as reminding the players that they are engaged in a knightly game, and one which insists on the display of the greatest courtesy by one opponent to the other. Even if you are playing with bare steel, it is expected of you that you should kill your enemy like a knight, not like a butcher; much more then, when you are only playing a friendly bout with him, should you show him all possible politeness. On entering the ring you should have all your harness on except your mask; this you should carry in your left hand until you are face to face with your antagonist. When in the ring, lay your helmet down on your left hand (side) and come to slope swords - your blade upon your right shoulder, your elbow against your side and your hilt in a line with your elbow, your knuckles outwards. Your body should be erect, your head up, your heels together, your right foot pointing straight to your front, your left foot at right angles to it pointing to the left.

Both men acting together now come to the engaging guard, and beat twice, stick against stick; then they come back to the "recover" by bringing the right foot back to the left, and bringing the stick into an upright position

in front of the face, basket outwards, and thumb on a level with the mouth.

After a slight pause, salute to the left in quarte, i.e. extend the stick to the left front across the body, keeping the elbow fairly close to the side and the finger-nails upwards; then pause for a second and salute to the right in tierce (the back of the hand up); pause again, and salute to the front, by extending the arm in that direction, the point of the stick towards your left front. Now step forwards about two feet and come to the engaging guard, beat twice, draw the left foot up to the right, draw yourself up to your full height, and come again to the recover, drop your stick to the second guard (i.e. low hanging guard for the outside of the leg), making a slight inclination of the body at the same time (probably this is meant for a bow ceremonious), and then you may consider yourself at liberty to put on your mask and begin.

Don't forget, when you cross sticks, to step out of distance again at once. This salute, of course, is only usual at assaults-at-arms, which are modern tournaments arranged for the display of men's skill and the entertainment of their friends. At the assault-at-arms, as we understand it generally, there is no element of competition, there are no prizes to be played for, and therefore, so long as a good display is made, every one is satisfied, and nobody cares who gets the most points in any particular bout.

In competitions this is not so, and time is an object; so that as soon as the men can be got into the ring they are told to put their masks on and begin.

In assaults and in general play you cannot be too careful to acknowledge your adversary's hits. In a competition do nothing of the kind. The judges will see that every point made is scored, and you may safely relieve your mind from any anxiety on that ground. But in general play it is different, and you cannot be too liberal in scoring your adversary's points, or be too liberal in allowing them, even if some of them are a little bit questionable.


The ordinary form of acknowledgement (and a very graceful one it is) is accomplished as follows: - On being hit, spring to attention, with your heels together and body erect, at the same time bringing your sword to recover, i.e. sword upright in front of your face, thumb in a line with your mouth, and knuckles outwards.

The acknowledgement should only be a matter of seconds, and when made the player should come back to the engaging guard and continue the bout.

FIG. 1
Fig. 1: The acknowledgement


Of course there are occasions on which the best player cannot help dealing a foul hit. When this happens there is nothing to be done except to apologise; but most of these hits may be avoided by a little care and command of temper. By a foul hit is meant a blow dealt to your opponent on receiving a blow from him - a hit given, not as an attempt to "time," but instead of a guard and, as a matter of fact, very often on the "blow for blow" principle.

This, of course, is great nonsense, if you assume, as you should, that the weapons are sharp, when such exchanges would be a little more severe than even the veriest glutton for punishment would care for.

If you only want to see who can stand most hammering with an ash-plant, then your pads are a mistake and a waste of time. Ten minutes without them will do more to settle that question than an hour with them on.

There ought to be some way of penalising the player who, after receiving a palpable hit himself, fails to acknowledge it, and seizes the opportunity to strike the hardest blow he is able to at the unprotected shoulder or arm of his adversary.

One more word and we shall have done with the courtesies of sword-play.

Don't make any remarks either in a competition (this, of course, is worst of all) or in an ordinary bout. Don't argue, except with the sticks. Remember that the beau-ideal swordsman is one who fights hard, "with silent lips and striking hand."


Once a man has mastered the rudiments of any game and acquired some considerably amount of dexterity in "loose play," he begins to long to be pitted against some one else in order to measure his strength. Before long the limits of his own gymnasium grow too small for his ambition, and then it is that we may expect to find him looking round for a chance to earn substantial laurels in public competitions. Unfortunately the stick-player will not find many opportunities of displaying his skill in public. As far as the present writer knows, there are only two prizes offered annually in London for single-stick, and neither of these attract much attention. One of them is given at the Military Tournament at Islington, in June (EN10), and one at the German Gymnasium, in December (EN11).

The former of these prizes is only open to soldiers, militia-men, or volunteers, the latter to any member of a respectable athletic club, who is prepared to pay 2s. 6d. for his entrance fee. The attendance of spectators at both shows is very poor, which is to be regretted, as the interest of the public in any game generally goes a long way towards insuring improvement in the play.

It is just as well, before entering either of these competitions, to know something about the conditions under which they take place, and the rules which govern them. The bouts are generally played in a fourteen foot ring, at least that is the statement in the notice to players, and it is as well to be prepared to confine your movements to such a limited area. As a matter of fact, no objection ever seems to be raised to a competitor who transgresses this rule, and we remember to have seen a nimble player skipping about like an electrified eel outside the magic circle, until stopped by a barrier of chairs at the edge of the big arena.

At the Military Tournament the play is to the best out of three hits, i.e. the man who scores the first two points wins. At the German Gymnasium the competitor who first scores five wins the bout. This is better than at the Tournament, although it will seem to some that even this is hardly a sufficient test of the merits of each player. The bouts seem too short, but probably this is unavoidable; that which is to be regretted and might be remedied, being that no points are given for "form:" the result is that, in many cases, the anxiety to score the necessary points as soon as possible results in very ugly and unscientific rushes, in which no guards are attempted and form which the most reckless and rapid hitter comes out the winner. This, of course, is the same for every one, and therefore perfectly fair, but it does not tend to elevate the style of play.

But the great difficulty at these competitions appears to be the difficulty of judging. And here let me say once that it is as far to find fault with any individual judge as it possibly can be. Being English, I believe them to be above suspicion; being sometimes a competitor myself, it would not be for me to impugn their honesty if they were not. Whatever he does, I would advise the athlete to preserve his faith in the judges and a stoical silence when he does not quite agree with them.

All I would suggest for the benefit of the judges and judged alike in these trials of skill which test the eyesight and quickness of the umpires as much as the eyesight and quickness of the competitors, is that some definite code of scoring should be established and recognised amongst the different schools-of-arms in England.

In order to facilitate the scoring they have a very good plan at the Military Tournament of chalking the competitor's sticks. This precaution ensures a mark upon the jacket every time the ash-plant hits it; but even this is not always sufficient, for it is quite possible for a true guard to be opposed to a hard cut with a pliant stick, with the result that the attacker's stick whips over and leaves a mark which ought not to be scored, for had the weapons been of steel this could not have happened.

This, however, is a point which would generally be detected by one of the three judges in the ring.

What gives rise to a question in the players' minds is not any small point like this, so much as the question of timing and countering.

To take the last first: If A and B lunge together, both making direct attacks, and if both get home simultaneously, it is generally admitted that the result is a counter, and nothing is to be scored to any one.

But if A makes a direct attack, and B, ignoring it, stands fast and counters, this is a wilful omission to protect himself on his part; and even if his cut should get home as soon as A's it should not count, nor, I think, should it be allowed to cancel A's point, for A led, as the movement of his foot in lunging showed, and B's plain duty was to stop A's attack before returning it. This he should have done naturally enough if he had had the fear of a sharp weapon before his eyes.

I even doubt whether a time-thrust or cut should ever be allowed to score, unless the result of it be that it would have rendered the direct attack ineffectual in real fighting. Should not the rule be, either that the point scores to the person making the direct attack, as shown by the action of his foot in lunging (unless, indeed, the attacked person has guarded and returned, when, of course, the point is his), or, to make the rule a harder one, but equally fair for every one, to say no hits shall count except those made clean without a counter, i.e. to score a point the player must hit his adversary without being hit himself?

Of course bouts would take longer to finish if this were the rule, but such a rule would greatly simplify matters.

The really expert swordsman is surely he who inflicts injuries without receiving any, not he who is content to get rather the best of an exchange of cuts, the least of which would with sharp steel put any man hors de combat.

In connection with public competitions, I may as well warn the tyro against what is called "a surprise." On entering the ring the men face each other, come on the engaging guard, and begin at the judge's word of command. The sticks must have been fairly crossed before hits may be counted. But it is as well the moment your stick has crossed your opponent's to step out of distance again, by taking a short pace to the rear with your left foot and bringing the right foot after it. You can always come in again at short notice; but if you do not keep a sharp look out, a very alert opponent may cross swords with you and tap you on the arm in almost the same movement. If he does you may think it rather sharp practice, but you will find that it scores one to him nevertheless. As no word of practical advice founded on experience should be valueless, let me add one here to would-be competitors. Do not rely upon other people for masks, aprons, or other necessaries of the game. You cannot expect a gymnasium to which you do not belong to furnish such things for you, and even if they were provided they probably would not fit you. Bring all you want for yourself; and if you value your own comfort or personal appearance when you leave the scene of the competition, let your bag, on arriving, contain towels, brushes, and other such simple toilet necessaries as you are likely to require.


(EN1) -For military fencing manuals online, please see the U.S. Army Sword Exercise Arranged for Military Instruction (1850), Manual De Esgrima (1878), Tratado Completo De La Esgrima Del Sable Española (1862), the U.S. Navy Cutlass Manual (1896), and the Provisional Regulations for Sabre Fencing, U.S. Army, 1907

(EN2) - William Camden in his Annales for the year 1587 tells how the traitor Rowland Yorke introduced into England the art of fencing with the rapier. The implication of the poem's conclusion is that good old-fashioned British ways are better than newfangled foreign innovations.

(EN3) - Thomas Fuller (1608-61) was an English clergyman and author. He is best known for his posthumously published Worthies of England (1662), an invaluable store of antiquarian information. The reference to a prohibition against point attacks and strikes below the knee may be derived from George Silver's Paradoxes of Defence (1599). According to Stephen Hand, an authority on Silver's works:

"In Paradox 10 Silver writes (playing Devil's advocate, or as he puts it ('saith the Italian, or false teacher') 'when blowes were used, men were so simple in their fight, that they thought him to be a coward, that wold make a thrust or strike a blow beneath the girdle.' "

(EN4) - By 1898, duels with sharp swords were both illegal and unfashionable throughout Europe.

(EN5) - Castle, Egerton, 1858-1920. Schools and Masters of Fence: from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century; 1st ed. George Bell, London, 1884: 3rd ed. London, Arms & Armour P., 1969.

(EN6) - An earlier style of single-stick play is described and illustrated in Donald Walker's manual, published in 1840.

(EN7) - The Naval system, representing the use of the cutlass, was based on that devised by the Georgian fencing master, Henry Angelo.

(EN8) - These (possibly apocryphal) tests are described in George Silver's Paradoxes of Defence. Stephen Hand writes:

"Silver suggests them as his preferred test for Italian 'teachers of offence'. He ends by saying that those who fail the test are false teachers and should be punished, 'yet no worse punishment unto them I wish, then such as in their triall they shall find.'"

(EN9) - The illustration in Fig. 1 shows a cricket pad worn on the right leg. Although a single-stick cut to the calf muscle may be of little lasting effect, a blow to the shin or knee-cap could easily result in a fracture.

(EN10) - For a history of the Islington Tournament and similar events, please see "A Grand Assault-at-Arms:" Tournaments and Combative Exhibitions in Victorian England.

(EN11) The German Gymnasium at 26 St. Pancras Road, London, was one of the most prominent athletic clubs and Schools of Arms in Victorian England. Constructed between 1864 and 1865 for use by the German Gymnastic Society, it thrived until 1914, when it became a railwaymen's club. The building was damaged by air raids during the Second World War, and then partially demolished during the construction of the Channel Tunnel in 1986. However, it still stands today, and is in use as a warehouse.

Nov 2001