Swordsmanship in London - Bradford - Manchester - Est. 2001

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19th century British martial arts divide roughly into military and civilian disciplines. Military martial arts included the use of sword and lance on horseback, sword and bayonet on foot, sword versus bayonet or lance and of course the use of military firearms. Civilian disciplines included boxing, wrestling, foil and epee fencing, walking-stick self-defence and so on. In reality there were a lot of cross-overs and sports such as boxing and foil fencing were often taught to soldiers, whilst some civilians took up military sabre fencing and military firearm shooting. Singlestick was equally popular in both military and civilian circles - in the former as part of sabre training and in the latter as a fun sport in itself. In the second half of the 19th century 'Assaults of Arms' were popular and these often saw soldiers and civilians competing against each other in activities such as singlestick and even bayonet fencing. Towards the end of the 19th century there seems to have been a growing interest in self-defence martial arts and combining European unarmed fighting arts with those of Japan and elsewhere.

Great Britain's Empire stretched around the globe, at its height encapsulating one third of the World's population. As a result, the Victorian British Army and Navy increasingly found themselves fighting determined enemies who lived by the sword, spear and musket. The Sikh Wars, the Maori Wars, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Afghan Wars, the Ashanti Wars, the Zulu Wars, the Sudan Wars, the Boxer Rebellion.. All of these and many more conflicts of the era involved hand-to-hand fighting, with bayonet, cutlass, sword, spear and knife.


For most of the 19th century the British infantryman relied upon a musket or rifle with a relatively slow rate of fire, sometimes prone to misfires, blockages and vulnerable to the climate and weather. A British line might only fire a couple of volleys before the enemy were within hand-to-hand range. Scouting parties would be even more vulnerable and urban or jungle warfare often left no time to reload. Simple machineguns mounted on stands or carriages had been in use from the 1860's, but even as late as the 1880's they were relatively uncommon, difficult to move and riddled with mechanical problems. Given a large body of rapidly advancing enemy, or when not fighting in open environments, the bayonet was still a vital life-saving piece of equipment. The bayonet was the deciding factor in many Victorian engagements, especially during the Indian Mutiny. Many argue that the bayonet is still a vital piece of equipment, even in modern warfare.

The first weapon of Infantry Officers was their men. However, in this period they often led by example from the front (even though officially discouraged from doing so) and so they always carried a sword, which was a symbol of office as well as a weapon of self defence. Increasingly as the 19th century progressed officers carried pistols as well (though many did not even as late as the 1860's). Occasionally they carried longer firearms, such as carbines or shotguns. However, until the 1850's these firearms were mostly single or double-shot weapons, so the sword was still very important as a back-up, due to how long it took to reload. Even when revolvers became more common, from the 1850's onwards, they generally contained only 5 or 6 shots and were slow to reload - if they did not jam or misfire, which they often did. There are also accounts of revolvers failing to stop a determined enemy. For this reason and others we see that many officers preferred to use their swords to firearms of the time and ironically (despite improvements in firearms and ammunition) as the century went on it seems that more and more attention was paid to the quality and strength of swords. Edged weapons were still vital pieces of kit and saw extensive use, especially in colonial conflicts.


For the British Cavalry the sword and lance remained the primary weapons until WWI. Even with several machineguns in the British force, there was a large cavalry engagement with swords and lances at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 (the famous charge of the 21st Lancers, amongst whom was a young Winston Churchill). Cavalry played a critical role in many of the wars of the period, against other cavalry, artillery and infantry. The Sikh Wars, Indian Mutiny and Sudan Wars saw epic cavalry versus cavalry actions played out with sword and lance. Even cavalry acting as mounted infantry and using carbines also carried swords and used them when required. Artillery crews also carried swords, and for them and musicians (who were vital for communication of orders in an age before radio), swords were sometimes their only personal weapons of defence.

The Armed Forces involved a greater proportion of the population than today. There were also the Volunteer regiments - something like the Territorial Army of today - made up of part-timers.

There were 'Assaults at Arms' in which soldiers competed in martial contests, often with large audiences, and sometimes these even pitted civilian sportsmen against professional soldiers in such sports as singlestick, foil fencing, sheep-cutting, lead-cutting, bayonet fencing, tent-pegging and rifle shooting. These were held with great pomp and circumstance, filled with the chivalric fervour aroused by the gothic revival of the time. It was one of these contests - the annual 'Assault at Arms' held by the London Athletics Club from 1868 - that ultimately grew into the 'Royal Tournament' (first called the 'Grand Military Tournament and Assault at Arms'), which was held annually from 1880 until 1999 and now revived.

In Great Britain the primary sources of study for swordsmanship on foot were the regulation 'Infantry Sword Exercises' of 1842 (revised several times) by Henry Charles Angelo and 1895 (the last British regulation sword manual that I am aware of) by Ferdinando Masiello. These two manuals represent very different styles of swordsmanship, almost at two opposite ends of the spectrum for fencing with infantry sabres. The former makes extensive use of the hanging guards (prime and seconde) with the blade at about 45 degrees and the elbow bent, whilst the latter uses very point-forwards guard positions keeping the blade almost horizontal to the ground and the arm almost straight in all guards. To some extent these differences may be indicative of the move from the 1845 curved cut and thrust blade to the 1892 straight narrow blade designed primarily to thrust. The differences are also no doubt due to the different fencing backgrounds of the two masters engaged in making the manuals.

In addition to these regulation manuals, during the reign of Queen Victoria there were a number of non-regulation sword manuals released by other British authors such as Sir Richard Francis Burton (1876), John Musgrave Waite (1880) and Sir Aflred Hutton (1882 & 1889). These show different emphases to each other and to the regulation manuals, falling roughly between the two extremes of the regulation manuals. In addition, many foreign manuals were and are available to someone wishing to study different methods - France, Italy, Spain and the USA all produced many manuals during this period. Thus, a contemporary or modern student of Victorian infantry swordsmanship may elect to follow a wide variety of different methods, or to select individual parts from different manuals.

The primary source for the study of bayonet use at this time was the Bayonet Exercise by Henry Charles Angelo, which seems to have had a major print run in 1853, with some earlier copies (late 1840's) being published in smaller quantities. Until the 1850's it seems that British infantry received variable quantity and quality of training with the bayonet, but from the 1850's onwards bayonet training seems to have become more regulated and encouraged. Sir Richard Francis Burton had attempted to sell his manual to the War Department in 1853 unsuccessfully (Angelo's manual instead remained the standard reference). Burton instead sold his manual to German army authorities amongst others. This and other alternative manuals were available to British soldiers, such as Waite's work of 1880 and Hutton's works of 1882 and 1890. Again, as with sword manuals, foreign works were available to those who wanted an alternative. In particular, there were a number of bayonet manuals written in the USA during their civil war and the French manuals were given some attention in the Illustrated London News and elsewhere.

Victorian manuals also exist for other weapons, such as naval cutlass (eg. Angelo), Police truncheon (eg. Hutton 1889) and even the anachronistic quarterstaff (eg. MacCarthy 1883).

On the home front, boxing, wrestling, fencing, rifle and pistol shooting and singlestick were, as mentioned above, popular civilian activities (though of course not as popular as growing sports like football and cricket). Singlestick, though subsequently eclipsed in popularity by modern fencing, was still popular enough to be included in the 1906 Olympics. In the later half of the 19th century various other martial arts received the attention of publishers, such as wrestling (eg. James 1878) and boxing manuals (eg. Donnelly 1879). Towards the end of the Victorian era there was a growing interest in self defence, both armed and unarmed, and contemporary manuals concerning this are also available (eg. Doran 1889). There was also an interest in foreign martial arts and combining different disciplines - this led to various self-defence methods incorporating Jujitsu with various European traditions of boxing, kick-boxing and wrestling, as well as knife fighting, fencing and other disciplines. The end result of one such amalgamation became 'Bartitsu', developed by Edward W Barton-Wright.



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