SI Vault
Paul Gallico
September 20, 1954
An aficionado's brief for a once barbaric sport that challenges body, mind and spirit. The author finds it thrilling, rewarding and (left) exhausting, and expects to improve as long as he lives
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September 20, 1954

The Gentle Art Of Swordplay

An aficionado's brief for a once barbaric sport that challenges body, mind and spirit. The author finds it thrilling, rewarding and (left) exhausting, and expects to improve as long as he lives

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Personally, I find the stiff, triangular-bladed dueling rapier known as the epee the most satisfying of the three weapons, possibly because of the three sharp points affixed to the tip which achieve an actual penetration into some part of the opponent's clothing, for penetration is the swordsman's aim and satisfaction even if, in fencing's civilized adaptation, it is no more than a sixteenth of an inch. The points do catch and hang and sometimes even draw a small quantity of blood. I do not particularly enjoy bashing a man on the nose with my fist and seeing him drip gore, but to prick an opponent with my steel and see his jacket stain a little pink at wrist or elbow is, for me, a thrill.

Oddly, it is just as enjoyable to suffer a slight wound in this game and later sport the cicatrice. I once had some five inches of forearm ploughed open when the epee prongs entered a defective seam in the leather-and-canvas glove. My opponent made profuse apologies and did his best to look concerned, but found it difficult to conceal his delight, particularly when examination revealed that the cut, though long, was superficial. About this time I began to feel noble and gallant myself, the wounded warrior. Epee points always leave scars; mine proclaims that I am a sword fighter and I will exhibit it at very slight provocation.

Epee matches are the only kind which may be scored electrically and all competitive bouts are now conducted with electrified swords whose points depress a small spring that makes a connection to ring a bell and light a light when a hit is scored. The fighting of this weapon affords the deepest psychological satisfaction, for it eliminates all human error as well as human vanity. The reluctant-to-admit-a-touch fencer is at the mercy of this loaded sword that rings out its own victory and illuminates the victim. Menaced with it, you fence as carefully and tensely as though your life depended on it, straining to avoid its viper bite and the public humiliation resulting when your opponent slips beneath your guard or otherwise diddles you to light your light and ring your bell.

The rules and punctilio of fencing?the salute with the weapon, the repetition of this gesture and the handshake at the end of the match, the gentlemanly restraint, the immediate and unswerving acknowledgment of a hit when there are no arbiters present?are modern and artificial adjuncts to a game which, when conducted for business or political purposes a half a millennium ago, was completely dirty and savage, and in its technique and play bore little or no resemblance to modern bouts with foil, epee or saber.

As a matter of fact, no two ancient weapons were alike, as each bravo purchased his sword or had it made to suit his own measurements or heft?long, short, whippy, stiff-bladed, hilt-or point-heavy?and the only rule when steel was unsheathed was kill and kill quickly, if necessary by foul means, such as throwing a handful of dirt into your opponent's eyes.

The origin of the development of "seconds" in duels had a most practical basis and came about when the challenged party to a duel in the bois, foolish enough to arrive alone for the encounter, found himself set upon by friends of the challenger who held him while the challenger ran him through and then went off to take bows. Eventually the news leaked out and the boys took to showing up with friends of their own, which often led to a free-for-all on the spot and later to the punctilio of seconds, as well as the principals, crossing swords and later still to the purely representative function of the second.

You might believe that fencing calls for a certain kind of excitable foreign temperament, and one tends to think of the sport mostly in connection with fiery Europeans with moustaches. But the fact is that fencing has a temperament, a life and behavior all its own which it grafts onto Anglo-Saxons, Americans, Swedes, Englishmen, Danes or what not, for they all shout and yell on the strip and carry on like maniacs. I have seen some very cold British fish in action, including doctors, Q.C.'s, businessmen and a Sea Lord, and it moves them all alike. Only the week before writing this I was in a competition at the Lansdowne Club in London; there were ten of us, nine Englishmen and one American, and there we were shouting, hollering and running at one another, stamping our feet and bellowing "Ho!" and "Ha!" and "He la!," cursing misses, howling with anguish over errors and behaving most un-British. Temperament was all over the place.


You bellow or shout at your opponent for two reasons. One is to panic, frighten or at least disconcert him, a perfectly legitimate and permissible maneuver in what is otherwise a gentleman's game. The other reason is that, during a long mental duel which frequently precedes the physical clash?a period of lightninglike feints, probes, shiftings of feet, head, hands, changes of distance, maneuvers for range and balance?the tension becomes so unbearable that release brings explosion. Once the die is cast and the attack is launched, bringing on the fury of crashing blades, cries are torn from the contestants that they are unable to control.

Fencing, more than any other sport I know, is a game of will power and spirit. There is no quicker way to get licked than to take the strip timidly, in awe of an opponent. On the other hand, there are few games where a confident and capable performer can take such command at the outset and impose his will upon the other long before swords or bodies have clashed. I once met, fenced and beat an Olympic champion before I knew who he was. I missed the name. To me he was just another Joe with anepee in his hand and I set out to take him. Later, when I found out who he was and we fenced again, he murdered me.

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