British Army 1864 Pattern
Practice, or Fencing Sabre
By Matt Easton
An often-overlooked type
of antique sword is the humble practice, or fencing sabre,
sometimes known today as the gymnasium sabre.
The 1864 pattern was the
regulation British Army fencing sabre in use during most of the
second half of Queen Victoria's reign, officially until 1895,
and it was the regulation practice sword in use during the time
of the manuals by Burton, Hutton, Waite and others.
It is unfortunately,
however, hard to find surviving examples today. Nevertheless, I
have been fortunate enough to collect five regulation examples
and one non-regulation example, which are detailed here with
their masses, blade lengths and points of balances recorded for
These are the basis for my
own experiments with modern-made fencing sabres for studying
military sabre manuals and systems. It is my belief that for the
modern study of Victorian fencing methods, we should be looking
more closely at the tools which were used in the period.
In Great Britain, as indeed in most of Europe, the
singlestick, either with or without a hilt, had served as the
training weapon for centuries. Nineteenth century singlestick
hilts were made of wicker or leather, the sticks usually being
By the beginning of the 19th century, the singlestick was
still the most widespread practice implement for training people
in sabre or broadsword fencing in Europe and it remained the
predominant training tool for sabre and cutlass until the end of
the 19th century in many places (Great Britain included).
Singlesticks were still being used by the British military as
late as WW2 and after for sporting purposes (the last survivor
of the tradition seems to have been in the Royal Navy and Royal
In the 15th century, we see the first specially-designed
steel practice swords appearing (commonly and erroneously known
today as ‘federschwert’) and during the following centuries
steel practice swords continued to be developed and used
alongside wooden and other material tools.
By the 18th
century, the fencing foil had achieved almost the modern form,
as a practice weapon for the smallsword (sometimes confusingly
called the rapier in period sources). In most places, for most
of the 19th century, the foil retained a figure-8-shaped guard,
with or without a thick leather lining against the figure-8
guard, with the modern type of small dish guard becoming more
popular after 1900.
While the singlestick was considered
across most of Europe as the default practice tool for the sabre
or broadsword, by the Georgian period there were already some
experiments with blunt steel practice broadswords and sabres,
sometimes featuring padded tips to the points. These had to
fulfil the criteria of being robust, safe and affordable.
Practice swords, by their nature, were likely to sustain
prolonged periods of abuse in the way that service swords were
unlikely to. While the hand guard of a practice sabre may get
hit twenty times a week for many weeks, a service sword’s hand
guard may never receive a single hit in its entire career. Yet,
despite having to be tough enough to put up with more punishment
than a service sword, it was usually expected that a practice
weapon should be affordable and to some degree disposable.
For these reasons, practice swords are not very common
survivors to the present day. They were made to lower costs,
abused heavily, until they broke in many cases, and once they
were put out of service they were cast aside and not valued in
the way that a service sword was. Even when they have survived
to the modern day, they are often overlooked or misunderstood,
and allowed to degrade further.
We often see this
dismissive attitude to practice swords in the world of antiques
and, despite being quite rare, they usually sell quite cheaply.
Very few people are interested in collecting them, though this
is perhaps now starting to change with the rise in the
historical fencing movement.
THE BRITISH ARMY GYMNASIA
& PRACTICE SWORDS OF THE 1860s
After the Crimean War, the British Army started a period of
reform. Both the public and establishment had been shocked by
the poor performance of the British military in the Crimea and
this would have ramifications to many aspects of the military in
following years, from procurement and supply, to recruitment and
At the beginning of the
1860s the British Army had instituted a system of gymnasia, for
the physical training of soldiers, and in 1864, for the first
time, the British Army decided to adopt standard regulation
practice foils and sabres, never having had official patterns
It is very likely that the
introduction of the new regulation pattern practice foils and
sabres in 1864 was related to the rolling out of new exercise
and training programmes in the British Army happening at that
time. Regulation manuals for foil fencing were also penned by
Archibald Maclaren, borrowing from George Chapman's excellent
works (the latter being the most respected amateur foil fencer
in Britain, cited by both Hutton and Waite).
Robson in Swords of the British Army, the sabre pattern
detailed here was recorded as "Sword, Practice, Gymnasia,
Pattern 1864". It is detailed by sealed pattern 865 in the
Pattern Room, Nottingham, approved on 21 December 1864, though
as will be detailed below, there is some degree of variation
between examples (just as with all Victorian sword patterns),
even if they look approximately similar to each other at first.
Foil and sabre fencing were taught separately in the British
military and were somewhat different to the modern Olympic style
Foil fencing did not have the
‘right of way’ rule yet, but was otherwise in many ways quite
similar to modern Olympic foil. The mid-Victorian mindset was
different however, as foil fencing was seen as a basis for
mortal combat with sabres and bayonets in war, or the duelling
sword in civilian life. The sporting mindset and 'gaming' seen
in later Olympic fencing seems to have been less evident until
the 20th century.
Fencing with the foil was
seen as both a gymnastic exercise and also a useful basis for
military swordsmanship with the regulation sword.
fencing in 1860s Britain was very different to the modern
Olympic weapon or rules, then featuring a weapon of around twice
the mass (around 800g, being almost the same mass as an infantry
officer's sword, instead of the 400g seen with modern Olympic
fencing sabres), having a broad blade with correspondingly much
greater inertia at the tip, allowing full body targeting
(including the legs), permitting traversing and occasionally
allowing corps-a-corps such as grabs and disarms.
manuals for sabre use were aimed at both sporting and military
endeavour (there being no real separation of weapon or method in
Britain until around 1890, when we start to see a divergence in
sport and military) and considered additional factors such as
fighting against people on horseback or against infantrymen with
bayonets on muskets/rifles.
It is important to point out
that even after the 1864 pattern gymnasium or practice sabre was
introduced, it seems that singlesticks remained more popular
practice tools. This was probably due to a range of reasons,
General disinterest in swordsmanship skill in many regiments,
meaning change was not embraced
Singlesticks were already widely available and much cheaper than
steel practice swords
Tradition/resistance to change
Less protective clothing being required for singlestick, as they
were less likely to cause serious injury
Lighter weapon, so could be wielded for longer
Singlesticks were less likely to injure horses in mounted
Despite the virtues of the
singlestick, fencing authors of the day, such as Captain Alfred
Hutton, highlighted the overall preference for and advantages of
the practice sabre of steel. These advantages were:
practice weapon of closer weight and shape to the actual service
sword, building up strength and accustoming soldiers to service
More precision in training, particularly in the application of
edge and point (a common complaint against singlesticks was the
lack of edge-alignment in giving hits)
- Durability: Singlesticks
frequently broke in use (as did foils incidentally)
THE 1864 DESIGN
The 1864 pattern practice
sword was made by various British sword makers including
Wilkinson, Mole, Pillin and Garden.
We do not know who
designed the pattern, but we do know that various designs of
steel practice sabre were in use before 1864 and this pattern
was presumably a culmination of experiment and economy. It seems
very likely that similar fencing sabres were in use before 1864
and a page in the Wilkinson records shows that the special type
of practice blade design was already being offered by them
earlier in the 1860s (there is a record of a version with a
light cavalry style hilt being sold).
Contrary to what some have
written, there does not seem to have been a direct relation to
the 1864 pattern cavalry troopers' sword and these practice
sabres have the weight and proportions of the infantry officer's
sword, even if their guards do look a little like the cavalry
sword guard superficially. It is possible that cavalry-sized
versions exist, but I have never seen one.
The aim of the practice
sword in this period was to create a tool which was similar in
weight and feel to the real service sword (primarily the
infantry officer's sword), but which was also comparatively safe
to use, when combined with the appropriate safety clothing.
TThis clothing comprised a
padded jacket, usually faced with leather, a 'helmet' with steel
mesh front and padded top and sides, groin protection of various
types (often a leather apron), at least one leg guard (often a
cricket pad or similar) and a padded glove (usually stuffed with
horsehair and having a stiff leather cuff).
The design of the 1864
pattern practice sword is relatively simple and consists of a
blade, a guard, a grip and a pommel nut.
The 1864 pattern has one
important design element which is overlooked by many practice
sword manufacturers – the deep central fuller or hollow with two
broad, flat edges.
This blade cross-section
is sometimes described as ‘dumbbell’ section and it has the
great advantage of giving stiffness and lightness corresponding
to a real sword, but with the thickest striking edges possible
for safety. Instead of simply producing a blunt version of a
traditional wedge-section blade, the designers created a proper
practice blade from the bottom up. Not only does this produce a
safer edge, spreading impact force over a larger surface, but it
is also very much more durable to damage in regular practice.
WWaite, in his manual em>
Lessons in Sabre, of 1880, states that a practice sabre
should have a 'quill edge', which is presumably exactly as we
see on the 1864 pattern shown here.
The hand guard is large and symmetrical, allowing for right
or left-handed use equally, made of steel around 2mm thick and
with a slot for the tang of the blade, a hole for the bottom end
of the threaded tang to pass through, and a third hole which
mirrors the sword knot slot on British service swords.
A design flaw of this
guard is that there is no reinforcement where the tang passes
through and the blade shoulder sits – this 2mm mild steel slot
is often ‘eaten’ through by the hard steel blade shoulders,
which subject a lot of force on the guard at this point through
use and subsequent re-tightening. Sword 'C' below exhibits this
flaw and I have had modern-made sabres which had the exact same
break after months of use.
The guard seems usually to have been painted black,
much like naval cutlass hilts, presumably to reduce maintenance
and prevent rust. On this example remains of the black paint can
be seen on the outside and inside of the guard:
The grips are made of
wood, carved with a spiral groove to improve grip. They are
covered with thin leather and then twisted brass wire in the
groove, as with an officer's sword. This wire is retained at the
top and bottom of the wooden grip by little wooden or metal pegs
into little holes and the wire serves the purpose of helping to
keep the grip and covering leather together under compression.
Finally, the square pommel
nut secures and tightens the whole hilt assembly, by screwing
onto the end of the tang, which is itself threaded to receive
the nut. In the case of sword 'E' shown below, the end of the
tang has additionally been peened, presumably to prevent the nut
coming loose in use.
After 20 years of practicing swordsmanship, in my view there
are two main changes that I believe would make the 1864 pattern
a better practice weapon:
1) The rounded tip of the
blade is rather brutal and could be made safer with the addition
of a thickened end, nail or rolled-tip, as found on various
other practice swords, including Italian practice sabres.
2) The guards on so many
of these 1864 patterns have been ‘eaten’ through at the blade
shoulder through friction: the addition of a simple hardened
steel washer between the blade shoulder and guard would prevent
Generally though, these 1864 patterns handle
wonderfully and the blades are a superb design. The hilts are
simple, but effective.
Aside from the 1864
regulation design, we know that British sabre fencers were also
getting their own designs made. Alfred Hutton shows a type of
practice sabre in his manuals which looks rather like some
Italian, German, Austrian and Hungarian examples which survive,
and appear in period art and photography. It is likely that his
sabre was based upon that of the Italian fencing master Parise,
who partially inspired his manual Cold Steel of 1889,
which was a departure from his normal military manuals and
looking at a slightly more sporty application of the lighter
sabre. In later works he contrasts the lighter fencing sabre
with the military regulation model which we know as the 1864
pattern, detailed here.
Hutton, in his military
works, recommended both Wilkinson and Pillin as makers (they
were two of the highest quality British sword makers of his
From surviving example we
can see that some 1864 patterns were proved and purchased for
the military, while some were private purchases. These two
examples below, by Mole of Birmingham (the biggest contractor
for British Army swords in the late-19th century, aside from the
government factory at Enfield), seem to indicate government
purchase, having the crown inspection stamps:
The two different styles of marking Mole's name on
these blades probably helps with approximate dating - the lower
form of MOLE BIRMM seems to have come into use only in the 1880s
or 1890s, the upper example being earlier.
This example by Garden, etched with 'Practice Sword'
on one side and Garden's name and address on the other (very
difficult to show up in photos!) seems certain to have been a
private purchase. Garden were suppliers of top quality swords
and equipment, particularly for officers destined for Indian
The example shown at the top of the photo below, by
Wilkinson and etched as 'Practice Blade', features a regulation
1864 pattern hilt, but an unusual blade. It is longer, more
curved and lighter. As this is the only example like this that I
have ever seen or heard of, I don't currently know whether this
was a standard option offered 'off the shelf' by Wilkinson, or
whether this was a special one-off order for an individual. It
is clearly based on the 1864 pattern though, with the same hilt
design (though with a lighter pommel nut) and blade
Finally, as I have the pleasure to now have a number
of these in my collection, I thought that it may be interesting
and useful to make a few comparative measurements for students
of historical fencing and weapons.
I have included the non-regulation example F for fun,
though really it is examples A-E which are the most important in
looking at what was considered standard at this period, between
around 1860 and 1890.
Blade length 83.0cm, balance 11.5cm from guard, mass 820g (made
Blade length 82.5cm, balance 12.2cm from guard, mass 800g (made
Blade length 82.0cm, balance 12cm from guard, mass 785g (sold by
Blade length 82.3cm, balance 12.5cm from guard, mass 800g
Blade length 82.6cm, balance 11.0cm from guard, mass 800g
Blade length 85.9cm, balance 10.0cm from guard, mass 680g (made
There are a few things which should be obvious from
these stats. The mass of the standard models is surprisingly
consistent and it seems that 800g was probably being aimed for.
Blade length was probably supposed to be 82.5cm by regulation,
which matched the regulation infantry officer's blade length of
32.5 inches (not 34 3/4 inches as stated in Robson - I have
never seen an example that long).
The 1864 pattern was replaced, ultimately, by the
1895 pattern (shown below, bottom), which itself ushered in a
new Infantry Sword Exercise, to match the new 1892 pattern blade
and subsequent 1895 and 1897 pattern hilts.
The new practice sword was modelled closely on that
of Florentine fencing master Ferdinand Masiello and he was the
originator of the 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise.
For interest, I also measured this single 1895
pattern. It has a blade length of 86.5cm, a balance only 6cm
from the guard and a total mass of 830g.
The irony should be noted that this is actually
heavier than any of the 1864 pattern sabres I measured, yet this
1895 model of sword, and the variations of it, has the
reputation of being 'lighter' than the sabres that went before
Holding the sword in hand and going through some
exercises with it explains this clearly though - while the 1895
is heavier in literal terms, it feels lighter due to the mass
distribution, with a heavy hilt and a light tip. Having more
mass towards the hand means that it moves more deftly in the
hand and hits the target with less force.
Indeed, mass alone is a poor way to predict the
qualities of a sword in the hand and mass distribution is very
much more relevant to how a sword will move and feel.
The 1864 pattern practice sabre may not be perfect,
but it has many good features, particularly the blade
cross-section, and was a realistic analogue for fencers to
simulate the use of the real service sword used by infantry
officers in the second half of the 19th century. If you find
one, give it a good home - they deserve more recognition than
they have so far received. Moreover, they are an important part
of British sword and fencing history.
Copyright Matt Easton -