Book Review: The Art of the Dueling Sabre

I just posted this over on SFI, but thought I’d cross-post on my own blog, too.


My wife gave me a copy of Chris Holzman’s new book, The Art of The Dueling Sabre for Christmas. While it’s been mentioned here on SFI, I haven’t seen a real review of it here yet, so I thought I’d write one. Short version: go buy it! Long version: keep reading:

The bulk of this book is a translation of Settimo Del Frate’s 1876 textbook on Maestro Guiseppe Radaelli’s sabre and sword method, but Holzman has added a wealth of supporting materials (more on that below). It’s a hardback, with a very stylish cover. This is a gorgeous book – I particularly enjoy the 19th-century feel of the fonts used, and how the design feels “old-timey” without being annoying or inconvenient. The crowning touch is that the the oversize fold-out plates from the original are reproduced here – there are ten 21.5″-long plates at the back of the book. These are fantastic – beautiful artwork, and also quite useful for the fencer studying the material.

One of the things I liked in Holzman’s introduction was his acknowledgement of the historical fencing community, and the reality that many in this community must practice without regular access to instructors. As we shall see below, it is clear that he kept this in mind while writing the additional materials for the book. The Historical Note does a nice job of putting Del Frate’s book in it’s historical context – some biographical information about both Radaelli and Del Frate, some context of who this was written for, and even a little bit of information about Maestro Parise, the great rival to this system of fence.

Book I is Del Frate’s “Instruction for Sabre Fencing”. The translation is very clear and readable. The system taught here is clearly focused on combat applications – both the battlefield and dueling. (It’s interesting that a contemporary commenter, Maestro Masiello, stated that this book does not address the sporting uses of the sabre – supporting my view that this book is focused on combative applications.) One of the key differences from other classical Italian sabre systems is that the elbow is the point of rotation for cuts, instead of the wrist. Another difference, much more important to me personally, is that it starts with a wider stance and has a shorter lunge. Due to lower back injuries I’ve had a lot of trouble with the deep lunges used in other classical Italian systems.

Book II is Del Frate’s “Instruction for Fencing With the Sword”. This covers Radaelli’s system for sword (spada, which seems to be épée, not foil). This is a hybrid French-Italian system, and that’s all I know about it at this time. I am interested in this, but I haven’t really studied it in depth, and don’t have much to say about it. The title Holzman (or his publisher) chose for this book focuses on sabre, and all the additional materials he created are also focused on sabre. The impression I get is that not many people will be drawn to this book by the sword section, but I would like to spend some time going through this in more detail. I understand and share the interest in sabre over dueling sword, but I am glad that this section was translated and included. One of my pet peeves is when incomplete translations are all that is available for some important book. Fortunately, that is not the case here.

Book III is Holzman’s additional materials. This is what elevates this book into “important” status for me – while I would have been very happy to just have a translation of Del Frate, this section is priceless. As I mentioned above, Holzman seems to really get that many historical fencers are on their own in many ways. So he includes the following in this section:

  • Information on fencing equipment needed for this art, including protective gear.
  • Explanations and clarifications of the material in Book I, to really help a modern reader understand what Del Frate is saying.
  • Solo drills, which is brilliant – even students like me, blessed to have qualified teachers, will have more opportunities to practice solo than with teachers or training partners. I wish every WMA book included solo drills for the lone students trying to work on their art.
  • Paired drills – of course, you can only go so far with solo work. And I have several books on my shelf that present the art, but don’t equip the student with any way to practice it – they are left to create their own drills. I am glad that Holzman has included both sections of drills.
  • Information on conducting individual lessons, group lessons, and then a sample lesson that could be given.

The eight appendices continue the focus from Book III by adding materials that would enable a new student of Radaelli’s sabre to make the most of their study. These appendices include:

  • A detailed description of the hand positions used in classical Italian fencing, something Del Frate never explains in his books.
  • An explanation of cutting with the false edge, which is important to the use of the sabre, but almost never mentioned in detail in period treatises.
  • Instructions for creating training equipment.
  • Instructions for cleaning and maintaining a sabre.
  • A brief review of the 1873 Italian Cavalry sabre, the service weapon that Del Frate actually had a hand in designing.
  • A translation of a chapter entitled “Concerning the Duel” from Maestro Giordano Rossi’s 1885 treatise. This deals with the rules before, during, and after a duel – what was expected from the gentlemen involved, their seconds, and anyone else connected with the affair. This is a wonderful resource, and helps give a student of this art some perspective on the way it was used originally.
  • A sample dueling contract, quoted in full from Francis Vere Wright’s 1889 treatise.
  • There’s a graphic depiction of Holzman’s fencing lineage, back to the late 1700’s. I thought that was a nice touch.

The book also includes a glossary and a bibliography. Then there’s fifty+ pages of synoptic tables to supplement Book III, which is useful section, adding a lot of practical value to the book.

This may be the most completely self-contained fencing book I’ve ever seen. Everything from maintaining the weapon, building training equipment, an excellent translation of an important treatise, enough additional material to clarify and explain that treatise, historical materials to put it in context and help the student understand the way in which it was used…this is an important book. I think any martial artist with an interest in sabre, or in any Italian martial systems, owes it to themselves to acquire a copy as soon as they possibly can. I suspect pretty strongly that even those in the WMA community who aren’t interested in sabre, or in Italian martial arts, would still find a lot that is valuable in this volume.

Highly recommended.