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Old November 23, 2005, 08:34 PM   #1
Doug.38PR
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Question on Saber tactics

This question may be outdated for modern tactics and training, but it is still a tactical question of interest nevertheless.
I was told once that cavalry troopers in the 18th and 19th centuries (and indeed most of the armies of the entire history of the West with some exceptions) did not sharpen their sabers and instead used them with a dull edge. The idea being that a sharp blade would cut into a man and get stuck like an axe on green wood. With a dull blade, according to this theory, the sword would kill or cripple a man by breaking bones and flesh rather than slicing flesh.
Yet I hear in songs, stories and writings throughout the American War For Independence and the War Between the States of sabers that were always sharp and cut deep into enemy soldiers, etc. (CSA Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest always kept his saber razor sharp.)

Any thoughts on this from either view for those of you who are tactical historians?
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Old November 23, 2005, 09:45 PM   #2
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There are many advances in tactics and weapons. The types of edged weapons varies greatly. The early iron and later steel weapons were used for many tasks. Early Leathermans if you will. Common uses were foraging/hunting, farm and fieldwork, domestic tasks/cooking/chores and self defense. These were usually simple and sturdy. If they were sharpened, it was for a tool, not as a advantage in force. The Romans used soft copper swords that were not up to the task against the Celts secret weapon-forged steel. The edged weapon was forming into different things for differing regions by the time period you are interested in. Swords were often kept dull unless a war was on. Keeping your sword sharp was actually an offense in some areas against the ruler. Until blood gutters were deemed as sensible, edged weapons did become rather messy and rusted implements. The swords varied in size, length and use. Artillery swords in the US CW were made to block attacks and to repel infantry. They weren't made for thrusting or quick mobility and swordfighting. The rapier was rather a dashing and popular means of selfdefense but, it wasn't a full battle dress sword. The normal sword was kept dull until a war was on. One side was usually sharpened. The unsharpened side was used for blocking/parrying while the sharp side was used for slashing/cutting deeply. The point was usually added/maintained during combat for quick jabs rather than deep stabbing. The sword could get stuck in an opponent and effectively disarm the wielder. Twisting became a need to accomplish a in, twist free and pull out attack. The fact that twisting creates greater tissue damage was not lost on wielders either. The point is not the main force with swords. The weight, angle and forward momentum are. Bringing the side of the blade down on opponents was the commn usage. Broken bones, great gashes, need for aid to be removed from the field of battle and terror were the order of the sword. Sword use varies as often as their designs. Osprey has several Mam At Arms series that cover this. If you are interested in display swords- www.knightsedge.com www.mwart.com The A&E/History Channel videos are a good reference also.
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Old November 24, 2005, 12:08 AM   #3
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That's an awful lot of generalization. . . .
  1. I'd be interested to see the source of the claim that swords were deliberately kept dull during the 18th and 19th centuries. I'm not buying it. A dull sword to show loyalty to the ruler sounds believable, I just haven't heard it before. Deliberately dull during war? I need more evidence to swallow that one.
  2. Soldiers DID strike with the flat of the blade when they didn't want to cut deeply. It's said that some of the bonus marchers were injured that way.
  3. Some styles of sword were designed for parrying with the spine; others were not. The Japanese katana was used that way. European cut-and-thrust swords were not, as a rule; parrying was done with the flats.
  4. To my knowledge, the existence of "blood gutters" or "blood grooves" is a myth. Fullers are used to increase the rigidity of a blade without adding weight, NOT to channel blood. Even if they did channel blood, they wouldn't prevent rust.
  5. Your point about the point is only partly right. During the period the original poster is asking about, for instance, the French at various times taught their cavalry riders to thrust with the point and allow the full momentum of the horse to carry the point through the opponent with great force. The British at that time were preaching the slash and the draw cut with sabers. Read Cohen's By the Sword for firsthand accounts of battles between the two schools of thought (and I mean literal battles as in cavalry units making war upon one another with sabers.)
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Old November 24, 2005, 01:02 AM   #4
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No argument. I did overgeneralize. There isn't an easy and short answer. I suggested sources and gave generic answers. I forgot www.dixiegunworks.com as a source of swords too. I am glad to know there are others interested in swords. There are many good books on swords at www.EdwardRHamilton.com too. www.ima-usa.com
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Old November 24, 2005, 12:52 PM   #5
Doug.38PR
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Oh I love the art of the sword about as much as shooting the gun.
Over the past year I have taken up fencing. Been doing mostly foil (which consists of jabbing rather than slicing) but I would like to especially learn the saber technique (I'm told foil is the best place for a beginner to start). Haven't been able to go to practice for months as I work out of town where I live so much now. Need to get back to it asap before I forget what I've learned.

Here is a good site on the art of the sword and other such weapons of Western Civilization. It's more of an art than most modern movies portray. In modern movies all the art of sword play is with eastern ninjas and samuri. Take a look at this, the sword kane, saber and tomahawk and boxing are more art than we think: http://ahfaa.org/civilian.htm

I'd like to get this real saber one day and practice with it (not on real people of course *yikes*) Cold Steel I think has swords that are forged for real combat and not just display http://www.coldsteel.com/88ns.html

Have a nice sword cane as well with a rapier blade. (too bad you can't carry those anymore...punks with switchblades would back down quickly! *smile*)

Here are a couple of pictures of a replica saber and dress scabbard carried by General Joseph Shelby C.S.A. He was a cavalry commander in the Missouri arena of the War who, unlike other cavalry troopers, carried an infantry saber (with the straighter blade). (look at the 1851 .36 Navy right below it.) None of these are originals, but I like having historical weapons.



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Old November 26, 2005, 04:04 AM   #6
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>Over the past year I have taken up fencing. Been doing mostly foil (which consists of jabbing rather than slicing) but I would like to especially learn the saber technique (I'm told foil is the best place for a beginner to start).<

Go to the SCA website, and look for a group in your area. What you want to get into is light weapons. While fencing is a fun sport, it really isn't fighting. What the SCA light weapons types try to do is recreate the average Three Muskateers bar fight...
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Old November 26, 2005, 08:03 AM   #7
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Sir William, the Romans were in the iron age which came after the bronze age.Many confuse iron swords with modern steel. Actually bronze and iron swords were very close in performance. Neither could be heat treated but instead they hammered [work hardened] the edges.So the romans and celts had the same iron weapons.Weapon style and tactics differed. We have discussions about these things on www.swordforum.com
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Old November 26, 2005, 09:11 AM   #8
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Don Gwinn wrote:
Quote:
Some styles of sword were designed for parrying with the spine; others were not. The Japanese katana was used that way. European cut-and-thrust swords were not, as a rule; parrying was done with the flats.
The Europeans did not typically use the flats of the blade for parrying. Blocking with the flat is biomechanically unsound. When holding a sword correctly, you have the most amount of leverage with the edges and the least amount with the flat. Also, to block with the flat, all offensive actions must cease, thus allowing your opponent to continue with a second intention attack.

Almost all of the surviving Medieval/Early Medieval fencing manuals promote counterattacking with the point or edge into an oncoming attack. This presents an offensive action to the opponent while setting aside their incoming attack.

And yes, the Romans used iron weapons, same as their opponents. They kept their weapons short, or at least one of the reasons, was that longer weapons tended to bend due to the poor stability that unalloyed iron provided. Tactitus provides anecdotes about the Germanic wars in which the German warriors had to periodically bend their swords back to straight to continue fighting.

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Old November 26, 2005, 09:45 AM   #9
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Throughtout history, there has been a lot of going back and forth about using the edge (cutting) or using the point (stabbing). If at a particular time the point was being emphisised, then I can see the edges being left blunt. The advantage might have been, you'd be less likely to cut the horse that way.
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Old November 26, 2005, 10:08 AM   #10
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For excellent reading on the subject of swordplay in Europe and America read the following:

The Secret History of the Sword
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/189...=UTF8&v=glance

By the Sword : A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/037...=UTF8&v=glance

The SCA, while well meaning, is sadly misled in how they represent period fencing. The methods they use, draw cuts with the epee for God's sake, lead to a fantasy style that never existed. The "cutting" weapons of the periods they are concerned with were far heavier than the epee, therefore the moves they use in the SCA would be impossible with a real rapier. THat and sadly the average SCA fencer tends to be 40-80 pounds overweight and often lives in a parent's basement... I have fenced with some of them and their rules astound me. My gear is all FIE (internationally rated for Olympic competition) Kevlar and I fence people far faster and more powerfull than in the SCA yet they want me to wear a left hand glove when I am NEVER going to use that hand and require me to cover the BACK of my head, though I have no idea how they would ever reach it...

For people seriously interested in "classical" fencing check out Adam Adrian Crown's salle. "Capt. Crown" as he is called by many in the sport fencing arena is the Pat Robertson of the fencing world, ultra conservative and possibly slightly off his rocker. He is though completely accurate in what he teaches of the true martial art of fencing at http://www.classicalfencing.com/index.shtml

I myself have been fencing for almost 8 years. I am a late starter having picked up the weapon in 1997 at the age of 27. It is a sport you can take up at any time in your life and I have fenced one gentleman who was in his 70s and a member of the 1960s Olympic team, he beat me. My weapon of choice is Epee, which is closest to what the final refinement of the dueling sword became before disappearing from the field of honor. Saber is far too much gamesmanship for me, and the electrical equipment is expensive! Foil is not derived from any actual weapon but is and always has been a teaching tool. The point of foil is to teach you "right of way," meaning if your opponent is attacking you you must DEFEND yourself before attacking. The goal of this was to prevent two people running each other through at the same time. The first goal of learning fencing was to DEFEND yourself, attacking came after learing how NOT to get hit. Foil is excellent for the basics but it is a weapon dominated by small and lightly built speed demons. The epee is more to my liking. I fenced with a classical Italian grip for years but have moved on to an Italian Visconte pistol grip.

The perfect mix of fun, history, exercise, and sport I believe can be achieved through going to on e of the USFA affiliated clubs near you, find them through www.usfencing.org while at the same time reading the above books I mentioned. The SCA puts no emphasis on fitness and seems to interested in throwing cloaks around and pretending to be the three musketeers and Capt. Crown has always seemed a little too full of himself and partially off his rocker for my tastes (though he knows what he does).
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Old November 26, 2005, 10:16 AM   #11
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The ultimate refinement of the thrusting sword can be seen here:

http://www.coldsteel.com/88sms.html

By this time the weapon was often not even sharp on the edges as it was a thrusting only weapon. In one on one types of fights the point is far more effective. If you are on a battlefield though, with odd confinements, horses and crowds of men having an edge is a big plus, hence the survival of the saber.

The Roman focus on the gladius, a short stabbing weapon, revolved around their tactics. You will not see a better example of this than the first episode of HBO's outstanding series ROME. Romans would use a shield wall to hold off the rampaging hord of Gauls, Celts or other flavor of the day, stabbing through the shield wall with their gladius. An edge was still needed if things broke through the wall but the point was where the emphasis was. THis only worked due to the outstanding discipline of the Roman army.
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Old November 26, 2005, 11:02 AM   #12
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To keep it gun related:

http://www.ruble-enterprises.com/PFsword.htm

I don't know anything about swords, just that mainly just the officers had them in our moden calvary (1800's+). Enlisted men just mainly had their guns. The officers had them so the rest of the force could see it raise and then fall then they knew it was time to spur the horses for the attack.

IIRC

Wayne
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Old November 26, 2005, 02:52 PM   #13
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There is an art that was taught at West point where you could flip your empty Colt revolver over and use it as a club. Be a good support weapon in your left hand with yoru saber in your right. I think the tactical trainer in the middle 1800s at the time was one George Crosby who taught all kind of Occidental martial arts in hand to hand, sabers and improvising with an empty gun. It was dicussed a little off and on in a good book I just got through reading called _Jeff Davis' Own: Cavalry, Commanches and the battle for the Texas Frontier_ by James Crosby.
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Old November 26, 2005, 03:20 PM   #14
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Ok... remember, my knowledge of the SCA is quite a bit old: haven't done ANYTHING with 'em in close on a decade. When I was in, the light weapons people were actually some of the fitter people I knew. Unfortunately, you're still talking about a sport with rules, which is NOT how I was taught...
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Old November 26, 2005, 03:44 PM   #15
Don Gwinn
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JDLittle

Quote:
Almost all of the surviving Medieval/Early Medieval fencing manuals promote counterattacking with the point or edge into an oncoming attack. This presents an offensive action to the opponent while setting aside their incoming attack.
I almost went back and edited to say ". . . and 'parry" in this case means almost incidental contact that redirects the opponent's blade, the sort of exaggerated 'blocking' movement you see in Highlander."

But I didn't, and you got me fair and square.
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Old November 26, 2005, 03:59 PM   #16
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thrust vs. cut

I claim NO expertise in this subject, but it reminded me of something in Richard F. Burton's The Book of the Sword, in which it was an accepted view that a thrust (stabbing motion) was better in combat than a cut. I believe the logic is that, until recently (last century or so), cuts could be cleaned and repaired MUCH more easily than puncture wounds. The idea was that a puncture was more prone to infection and less easily treated. This would put the enemy out for good (as opposed to being one-armed or whatever from a cut).

That's the gist of it. I haven't read that book in a couple of years (I'm still trying to wrap my brain around his unedited Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night)
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Old November 28, 2005, 12:38 PM   #17
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Yes, Union Army sabers in the wild west era were dull.
There are numerous military contracts still left that comment upon that. ....
Any good civil war historian can comment on that.....

It wasmore of a safety thing than a 'sharp blade gets stuck in bone" thing, however. Remember, the Revolver was replacing the sword as a cavalry weapon.....
The Union army bought horses in bulk and many of them were poorly trained. Do you want to hold a three foot peice of razor sharp steel in your hand when riding the back of a bucking bronco?
I know I don't....
Thats also why the Single Action revolver was popular with horsemen well in to the 1940s according to Keith and Askins.....

What you have to remember about a dull sword is that you can still cut with them. I routinely trim brush and hedges around my home with a MRL viking sword that never was sharpened. Swing it straight on and it will sheer right through a tree limb as thick as a big man's wrist. I have no doubt you could shatter a skull with one. Or a rib cage....
Years ago when I took WMA (western martial arts) seriously I did a lot of test cutting on items from tree limbs to carcasses with a lot of different blades. What I found is that a sharp sword was good at cutting light targets that would bounce off of a dull blade, but a heavy target could get cut impressively with a dull blade.

Fullers (called blood gutters by pulp writers) do indeed make a blade stiffer by creating a channel in the previously flat surface, but their primary purpose was to lighten a blade. They start popping up on Migration Era Celtic and Germanic swords. Prior to that, most double edge swords either had a flat cross section or a diamond cross section. You can acutaly watch as swords evolve from the Gladius (roman-hispano style short sword) to the Spatha (Romano-Celtic long sword) to the Migration era peices (pre-Viking age) to the Viking age swords with the wide blades and deep fullers. These in turn evolved into the hand and a half and two hand swords later in the 1300s.
However, the idea of sword ringing on sword comes about mostly from movies and pulp era books. You had Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power fighting with broadswords but using foil techniques. In real life swordsmen avoided parrying or blocking and depended upon a shield or armor to deflect an opponents blade.
Oh, and Iron can be heat treated by the way. its how you make mild steel.....
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Old November 28, 2005, 12:54 PM   #18
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unfortunately you display an ignorance of the sca fencing community as it currently exists musketeer. most fencers are not overweight, and most of the ones i know are mundanely professionals of some kind or another. my circle of colleagues includes 5 or 6 teachers, 3 lawyers, a metallurgist, a reference librarian, a private investigator [me], a tech writer, and a couple of truck drivers.


That said, the sca's inclusive nature allows many people with many different agenda's to compete together, these agenda's and styles are often not really compatable, and this serves to annoy those of that study period swordsmanship. as for the sca rules, not to mention each regional group's [kingdom in sca speak] rules, they can be unrealistic, but that is usually because they are trying to include a very wide historical cross section of techniques. i personally practice elizabethan period technique with heavy rapier styles, not epee's, which are very poor simulaters of anything but smallswords, and even those are still significantly different. as for the cuts, that is usually taken to simulate cut and thrust styles, as well as thrust only techniques.

as for the off hand and the back of your head, these are legitimate targets and will get hit on occaision, if you think otherwise you may get a surprise.
thank you , mpi
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Old November 28, 2005, 12:58 PM   #19
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Quote:
However, the idea of sword ringing on sword comes about mostly from movies and pulp era books. You had Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power fighting with broadswords but using foil techniques. In real life swordsmen avoided parrying or blocking and depended upon a shield or armor to deflect an opponents blade.
Oh, and Iron can be heat treated by the way. its how you make mild steel.....
What made Robin Hood so great (you mentioned Errol Flynn) to me as opposed to modern movies like First Knight (with Richard Gere) where they were using all these phony hollywood ninja moves with their swords was that they Flynn and Rathbone (Basil Rathbone was a real life champion fencer who taught Flynn) were using real sword fighting techniques of fencing (which had it's official origins I think in the 16th century...but had to come from somewhere).

I was watching the History Channel a while back while they were doing a special on the Sword and Axe. Demonstrated various techniques used in the middle ages with the sword. Many knights and swordsmen that didn't use shields would use the entire sword as their attack and defend weapon. Not using foil techniques, but more like...well the Klingon Batleth you see in Star Trek The Next Generation. The hilt, blade and all were used. Almost like the modern infantry uses the rifle with a bayonet (only with more skill and moves)
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Old November 29, 2005, 12:58 PM   #20
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My opinion of this forum goes up daily, what with threads like this.

Just like with guns, there was controversy over swords and how they were used down to the end, which we might say was around 1945. That was about the last time any horse soldier went to war with a sword, though not with only a sword. Aside from the expected controversies of slashing sword versus a thrusting sword and so on, there were continual complaints of the quality of swords as issued to the army. At least in British service, swords were only sharpened on mobilization, though how well may be another story. There were incidents of cavalry forces armed with slashing swords meeting another cavalry force armed with thrusting swords. One person who lived through described how terrible the wounds were produced by their own sabers but admitted they didn't look so good themselves.

Later, they were suprised to learn that some very good swordsmen (on the other side) usually armed themselves, if they could, with blades that the British had rejected. It would be well to remember the explanantion when the question came up about how those good swordsmen were trained. The answer was none: a sharp sword cuts for anyone.

There was a murder around here (Northern Virginia) sometime in the last couple of years in which the murderer used a sword. But then, this is that same place where someone was killed with a single shot pistol not much earlier!
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Old November 29, 2005, 04:35 PM   #21
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Dull cavalry swords make sense. An ultra sharp blade would be hazardous to the cavalryman and the horse. It would also be more to "stick" in a body, tree, or some other object during a slash. Most US and European Calvary swords from the 1700's and 1800's were curved so it was easier to pull out of a body during a stabbing thrust while moving. Basically it was bludgeoning and stabbing weapon. Great weapon when your on horseback, probably not the best on foot compared to a samurai sword or some medieval swords.
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Old November 29, 2005, 04:43 PM   #22
Doug.38PR
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Quote:
Great weapon when your on horseback, probably not the best on foot compared to a samurai sword or some medieval swords.
Saber fencing is a common technique on foot and it involves mostly slashing.
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Old November 29, 2005, 05:13 PM   #23
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Dull sword

By the way I think a dull sword is almost as bad as a broken arrow? (nuke troops will know what I mean) I just got a Japanese cavalry troopers sword at a flea market and it is not sharpened. Have two CW swords, and they are maybe sharp on the tips. Family heirloom CW cav. sabre is not very sharp but has known combat history. My old Westpoint type dress sabre is definitely not sharp. Recently bought and sold a Jap. NCO traditional style capture sword and it was not really sharp edged. Only swords I have that are really sharp are replicas, and they scare me. Fraid I will get sloppy and hurt myself! Evil gnomes stay out of my swinging range!
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Old November 30, 2005, 09:58 AM   #24
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>>>I was watching the History Channel a while back while they were doing a special on the Sword and Axe. Demonstrated various techniques used in the middle ages with the sword.<<<

That featured John Clements of ARMA (which used to be HACA the Historical Armed Combat Assciation) and he was doing demos of attacks and blocks with a Del Tin longsword.

"Broadsword" and saber techniques are greatly different than fencing foil techniques. Most old movies used fencing foil techniques which is even goofier than having Arnold whip around a broadsword in Kendo moves.
You can look at reprints of old fighting manuals like Silver and see that some of the basic broadsword stances are very similar to kendo stances as they were cutting moves.


The sword lasted as long as it did in the US Army primarily because of George Patton who was technically the last Master of the Sword so merited by the US Military.
However, in other parts of the world it did go on longer, in part due to the fact that they had cultural associations (Arabia and Japan) that our culture had lost.
Also notice that a good quality handgun was not as easy to come across in those areas till after WWII. The handgun ultimately takes the tactical place of the sword. Its a sidearm and it was the cavalryman's tool.

Also notice that in recent years the sword has made a comeback. Dawson Knives sold quite a few tactical Wakisashi short swords during the first gulf war as many a trooper realized that it made a good close quarters combat weapon.
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Old November 30, 2005, 05:27 PM   #25
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>Also notice that in recent years the sword has made a comeback. Dawson Knives sold quite a few tactical Wakisashi short swords during the first gulf war as many a trooper realized that it made a good close quarters combat weapon.<

IIRC, the way I heard it was "We're expecting close combat. I don't want a lil' knife, I wanna be able to take the (deleted explitve)'s head off!"
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