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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 reference.

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.

BACKGROUND

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 ash.

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 Marines).



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 training.

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 before.

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).

According to 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 fencing disciplines.

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.

Sabre 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.

The 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, including:

- 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 combats

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:

- A practice weapon of closer weight and shape to the actual service sword, building up strength and accustoming soldiers to service swords

- 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 this problem.

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 time).

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 service:


 
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 cross-section:

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.



A: Blade length 83.0cm, balance 11.5cm from guard, mass 820g (made by Mole)

B: Blade length 82.5cm, balance 12.2cm from guard, mass 800g (made by Mole)

C: Blade length 82.0cm, balance 12cm from guard, mass 785g (sold by Garden)

D: Blade length 82.3cm, balance 12.5cm from guard, mass 800g

E: Blade length 82.6cm, balance 11.0cm from guard, mass 800g

F: Blade length 85.9cm, balance 10.0cm from guard, mass 680g (made by Wilkinson)

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 it.

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 - August 2018