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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In fencing, there are periods where two opponents are in contact with another through the medium of two thin shafts of steel. These are very like antennae down whose length messages of strength, weakness, anticipation, nerves, tensions, plan and counterplan are broadcast. Each pressure on the blade, each beat, each probing for the weak and strong of the weapon has its separate meaning to both fencers. It is as though, while the intellect is occupied moving feet and bodies for advantageous positions, the swords were holding an independent conversation, most of which is wool-over-the-eyes, shameless deceit, a blind and a tissue of lies. For the only time a fencer does the expected is when he has managed to make it wholly unexpected to do so. The element of surprise is vital and a crafty fighter will spend minutes building up premises of false security in his opponent's mind, deluding, seducing and lulling him.

Again, a wary opponent will suddenly realize that his nervous and quivering blade is telling too much and not only giving him away but affording his opponent the opportunity to take command of it. Then he will disengage himself and his steel from all contact. With communication broken, the men become like two wary fighting cocks, for now it has become a pure guessing game but one which can instantaneously explode into violent action as each attempts to lead the other into mistakes.

It is a creative game, since one is constantly improvising. Yet there is little in fencing for the spectator and in particular the layman, for this is an affair of feeling as well as participating or seeing. It is a highly emotional sport, but the emotion is shared only by the contestants, leaving the observers usually high and dry, with only an occasional visibly pretty hit to applaud.


And now, should you find yourself interested in joining our company of the romantically bemused, here is a quick rundown on what is needed. Since all fencing begins with lessons in the classic fleuret or foil, acquire a pair of these, costing four or five dollars apiece, a mask, glove and jacket. Slacks and ordinary sneakers will do for the beginner. The whole outfit won't cost more than fifty dollars and will last for years.

You can find a fencing master and take private lessons but it is better to join a fencing club and become steeped in the curious and appealing atmosphere of fencers and fencing. The club professional will give you lessons and the older members and club hot-shots will give you tips and fence with you occasionally and keep you from forming bad habits before your good ones are set. The first year or so it is also a good idea to put up a target in your room at home and lunge at it every day. Makes for accuracy and teaches you to aim and keep your point in line. It is a good idea to start kids when they are 14 or 15, but you can begin at any age and become a good performer if you are not in too much of a hurry.

One thing I can promise you: you'll thank me someday if I have managed to get you started. You can take the word of one who has had a crack at most games played by two or more people. For sheer fun and excitement, fencing beats them all.

* In the 15th century, an Italian master, Achilles Gazaio, came to Paris and grew wealthy teaching the bravos one trick?passing the blade of the sword through the legs of the opponent, then drawing it back quickly and cutting the tendon back of the knee. Once brought to earth, the victim could be finished off at leisure.

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