There are few sources on Napoleonic sabre, and even less so from France. Even though the fencers of the French Empire were quite celebrated in their time, they did not appear to have left much in terms of technical instructions. Most of what we find was either written by foreigners who served in Napoleon’s Grand Army, or by fencing masters who served outside of France, such as St. Martin who published his manual on sabre while teaching fencing in Austria, or Alexandre Valville in Moscow.
Alexandre Valville is a name that was well known in the fencing circles of the 19th century. Valville arrived in Russia by the end of the 18th century when he was 30 years old. The young Valville had by then amassed a considerable amount of martial culture, having studied fencing of course in France but also in the Scottish Highlands, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and even quite unusual for his time, learned a form of African fighting with two sticks.
Valville started by giving fencing lessons in Saint Petersburg and acting as the fight choreographer for the Alexandryiski Theater. In 1812, right into the height of Franco-Russian hostilities, Valville was given the position of fencing master of the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo, where he taught twice a week until 1824. One of his best students was none other than the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. In 1818 the Russian military created the position of General Fencing Master of the Guard, which was given to Valville. Valville reformed Russian military fencing, and his method left an enduring mark in the country. He retired in 1840 and went back to France.
In 1817 he published this treatise which took him 22 years to write, was printed in only 200 copies, dedicated to Alexander I, and was meant to be used by the Imperial Guard. For a printable version, follow this link to the PDF created by Jean-Philippe Wojas.
I also invite you to read Augustin Grisier’s criticism and notes on Valville’s treatise which was included in his own manual of 1847 Les armes et le duel. Grisier spent quite some time in Russia in his younger days, and apparently did not appreciate Valville, whom he was never able to fence against. It’s possible that Grisier desired the position that was awarded to Valville, and so chose to criticize his work, strangely enough after Valville had retired. Grisier is an entertaining read, if only for his extremely colourful and vitriolic language. He violently criticizes Valville, but does so with everyone else in his manual. In a way, he also brings some clues to better understand Valville’s method. For a translation of the chapter concerning the contre-pointe, Damien Olivier graciously shared it with us right here.
What is a “contre-pointe”?
The French system of fencing of the time is separated in a very different fashion than many others. The three principal weapons were the point, the contre-pointe and the espadon. The point refers of course to smallsword fencing, but then what is the difference between contre-pointe and espadon? Are they separate types of weapons? Not necessarily.
It would be simple to consider the contre-pointe as a spadroon – a type of straight and slim cut and thrust sword, a mix between the smallsword and the broadsword – and the espadon as a sabre, but when we examine other sources, the distinction is really not that clear.
A certificate of contre-pointe, showing something very different from a spadroon.
Girard calls both of these weapons an espadon. First, a straight broadsword, then a curved sabre.
St. Martin wrote a complete method on the use of the espadon again here with a curved sabre.
To add even further confusion, this is also considered an espadon…
Now that we know that the shape of the sword does not seem to indicate if it is an espadon, point, or contre-pointe let us consider one thing: that these three names do not refer to a specific type of sword, but a specific type of fencing. Indeed if we consider that the pointe is the way of using the sword as a thrust-centric weapon, the espadon as a cut-centric weapon and the contre-pointe as a cut and thrust weapon. This would fit St Martin, who’s method is entirely cut based and Girard who mentions that only some espadonneurs thrust.
And so what Valville describes in his method of contre-pointe is not a way to use the spadroon, but a way to use a sword which is both able to cut and thrust.
This is also confirmed by an earlier author, the famous Domenico Angelo in 1763 who says in his chapter on fighting the espadon:
“there are some espadonneurs who mix in their play some thrusts, this is what we call doing the contre-pointe”
He then describes the demi-espadon (half-espadon), which is also sometimes described in dictionaries of the time, which is according to him basically a spadroon.
The distinction is often very confusing because of the many uses of the word espadon. As an antiquated term, it was used to describe a two-handed sword, and in the popular language -often written down as espadron– it came to describe any type of large bladed sword from a broadsword to a briquet. It does not help that fencing masters refer to it as an “arme” or weapon. But the word seems to have a different meaning for them when we consider that they also called the pointe a weapon, something that is mentioned by Girard and many others, yet we know of no sword called a pointe. It then seems like espadon had a third meaning in fencing circles, that of a method of fencing based mainly on the cut. This becomes so confusing, that it is no surprise that even period writers mixed them up. This becomes the subject of humor in a comedic play by Oury in 1812, “A day at the Garrison”, where a regimental fencing master proposes classes to a new recruit who can hardly make head or tail of all those different expressions.
Bataille: You must now choose a weapon you wish to learn.
Moutonnet: A weapon?
Bataille: Yes, is it the pointe or the espadon. The sword or the briquet.
Moutonnet: The briquet?..
Bataille: Yes, the sabre.
After the Napoleonic Wars, the espadon will slowly vanish, replaced by the contre-pointe/sabre. Alexandre Müller will mention in his own 1816 treatise that the school of the espadon disappeared after the Revolution, as its students were mowed down during the Republican and Imperial campaigns. It is not quite so clear tough, as mentions of espadon masters are still found well into the 1840s. But by the mid 19th century, only the contre-pointe remains, itself an expression which slowly starts to fade away well in favor of simply the word “sabre”.
An espadon master diploma from 1832
African double sticks
Valville makes a surprising remark in his treatise, that he not only studied European fencing at large, but also “The double stick of the Negro” (of course the reader should put this in its 1817 context), but we are left in the blind as to which tradition this could refer to.
It could be one of the Nguni stick traditions:
Or of the Masai:
Whatever the tradition that Valville had the opportunity to study, it is interesting to see once more that masters of the past never ceased to be students and demonstrated openness and pride in learning from different martial arts.
Treatise on the contre-pointe
Translated by Maxime Chouinard
Thank you to Phil Crawley for the proofreading
Sire, Your Imperial Majesty allow him who he has honored by his choice for training fencing masters in the Guards cavalry, to present him this overview of the contre-pointe, and of the different guards of Europe’s people. We have many treatises on the triangular sword and the espadon, but there exists none on the contre-pointe. I shall be too happy, sire if twenty-two years of work and observations allowed me to present one to your Majesty on this weapon, which is at this moment the sword of the Russian officer; and if he deigns to take a look with kindness, all my wishes would be fulfilled.
Of the guards
The guard of the contre-pointe is more or less that of the sword. The only difference is in the right hand which is turned to tierce and held at the height of and in line with the right shoulder, the point of the sword in line with the eye of the adversary, the left arm behind the back and the back of the hand resting on the kidneys. We walk, we retreat or we lunge as in sword. But what is not in sword is to double the “détente”, that is after having lunged to bring the left foot against the right and do a second détente by lunging once more. It is also to walk back by bringing -while being firstly in guard- the right foot back, the left foot one step to the back, and by coming back into guard to bring back the left foot behind.
There are four guards of the espadon (without counting that of the Scottish Highlander, who still holds the old Roman guard) to which I refer you to the engravings herewith.
Low guard of the espadon
High guard of the espadon
High guard of the Hungarian
Guard of the Scottish Highlander
After many trials, I always found that contre-pointe is the best way to attack, by coming with speed on your opponent and by putting yourself at a long distance in order to “break”. I will only say one word of “the guard of the determined”, called this for the reason that he who takes it is determined to kill or be killed by his opponent. In this position he is fully lunged; body weight to the right, arm folded on his left shoulder, he waits for his adversary’s cut, and finds himself, having had it thrown at him, either with head split open, with body hacked in two or cut from bottom to the top. The great step that the determined fellow does as he steps back, upon his opponent’s attack, gives him the opportunity to nullify his cut and to cut, either perpendicularly, transversely or bottom to the top, but all of this is null if his opponent waits for him.
Guard of the determined
Of the manchette cuts
This term is borrowed from the espadon because we haven’t worn cuffs (manchettes) for a long time, it designates the cuts with which you can wound the opponent’s right arm and, in consequence, disarm him, as there aren’t other disarms in sabre. There are three in contre-pointe: the first one, which we call “outside manchette” cut, because it cuts to both sides of the body, that is to say, the side of the chest, which is like the thrust inside the arms, and the side of the back to the outside. It is the same with the arm.
The manchette cut is formed outside, being engaged in quarte and, making a circle above the opponent’s point, comes to cut the right side of his forearm by bending ever so subtly the body on the right leg without lunging.
Manchette cut to the outside and parry
The manchette cut is formed inside, being engaged in tierce with the opponent, following along his blade by cutting back his arm perpendicularly, if not his wrist.
Manchette cut to the inside and parry
What we call the “reverse manchette cut”, is done thus; the hand reverses as it’s giving it, by making a complete circle with the sabre, and cutting all the length of the underside of the forearm of the opponent. The three cuts have the same advantage of being made without lunging, and consequently, without engaging under the enemy’s sword.
Reverse manchette cut and parry
Of the flank cuts, bandoleer, and thigh cuts
The flank cuts which cut the body in two transversely are formed by evading or passing over the adversary’s blade, lunging energetically and cutting his body diagonally, either inside or outside.
Flank cut inside and parry
The bandoleer cut is named this way by the soldiers because it describes the same line as the leather belt which retains the pouch. It is formed by being in tierce guard, finely disengaging, following the opponent’s blade and landing the cut from the left shoulder to the right hip. Reverse bandoleer cuts are formed by making a circle with the blade of your sabre starting from the top, lunging with speed, and cutting bottom-up from the right hip to the left shoulder, or from the left hip to the right shoulder. These three cuts must be launched with much vivacity and finesse; otherwise, they are dangerous as stop cuts can be used if they are large or slow.
Thigh cuts are only good for a riposte, or as a feint; they are formed by following along the opponent’s sabre and cutting his thigh from top to bottom, as the wound must be deep to put the enemy out of combat.
Outside thigh cut and parry
Inside thigh cut and parry
Of the head cuts, point, attack
The perpendicular head cut can only be taken by forming a moulinet in front of you, which ends by lunging. The moulinet is formed by making an ascending circle with the sabre’s point with the handle being the axis, the arm well outstretched, and the hand allied with the chest. There are many different moulinets. I refer back to the article in which I discuss them for a better explanation. As with the other head cuts, which cut it either diagonally or transversely, they are not employed alone but with other cuts and with feints. I refer back to the articles which will discuss these different parts.
Head cut and parry
The attacking thrusts are ordinarily good only when they are joined to other cuts, or it takes a great vivacity to use them.
The thrust in quarte is formed, as with the smallsword, by disengaging from tierce to quarte, nails up, and by sending it to the opponent’s chest. The tierce thrust is the opposite.
The third thrust, which is the one taken by evading underneath the opponent’s wrist, the hand entirely turned, the sword’s branch on top, is the one called second to the point.
First double hit of point
You have engaged in quarte, you disengage finely in tierce, by lunging, the nails underneath. The adversary, on this attack, backs out while parrying; then you double the détente turn the hand a little, pointing underneath the wrist of your adversary, and sending your second thrust in seconde.
Second double hit
You lunge and thrust in seconde. Your adversary parries with the point down, you rotate the wrist, nails up and send quarte over the weapons by doubling the détente.
Third double hit
You send in quarte, by lunging inside the weapons, your adversary parries low, by retreating, you disengage rapidly, with turning the hand, by doubling the détente and you send quarte over the weapons.
Fourth double hit with feint
You deliver in seconde, under the wrist: your opponent parries, you thrust to the face, by putting the left foot next to the right, the hand and nails in the air, you return rapidly the nails underneath, by doubling the détente and you resend the second hit to the flank of your opponent.
Fifth double hit
You lunge, by sending a quarte thrust under the weapons, you make a feint in seconde, without lowering the hand, turning it only underneath, putting the left foot against the right, you rotate rapidly in quarte, you double the détente, by sending your thrust to the chest of the adversary.
Of the stop hits
If your adversary raises his arm, or uncovers his breast, either in tierce or in quarte, he can be stopped immediately, either he gives the head strike or any other strike from above where the adversary does not employ the moulinet and where he lifts the arm above his head, to hit you, take the time where he uncovers his breast, go rapidly straight, nails up, the hand at head level, well covered in quarte, you stop him in his development, you plunge your sword into his breast, and by the position of your hand, you parry his strike, whatever it may be; if he wants to cut your right side, as his movement is large, you see him, you turn the hand in tierce, your point in seconde, covering yourself well on your right; if on the contrary, it is inside the weapons that he wishes to cut transversely, you thrust, hand at chest level, as spread on the left as possible, the nails in quarte. These strikes must be dealt with great speed and a great certitude of their success, and especially, that your opponent cannot guess in advance as if he does, they are fatal, for he who takes them having no more parries or resources if he misses them. They are excellent against any man who throws himself or runs after you, and that is why they are called “stop hits”.
Stop hit taken from a head cut
Stop hit taken from the inside flank cut
Stop hit taken from the outside flank cut
The feint is employed to fool the adversary, to rob him of the possibility to parry, and to strike more safely. It is done standing firm and by walking. Example; Thigh feint, head cut, is formed by presenting the point of your blade to your opponent’s thigh without lowering the hand, as if you wanted to strike it, and come back rapidly in a moulinet on a head cut; Flank feint inside, flank strike outside, is formed while engaged in tierce by turning just a little the hand in quarte, elevating your blade about two inches above that of your adversary, as if wanting to cut his left flank, and you come back rapidly by lunging on the right flank. It is the same process for the opposite. Reverse manchette feint and bandoleer strike is formed as if you would strike with the moulinet the reverse manchette strike and coming back promptly to the opposite moulinet, and lunging on the bandoleer strike. Every feint must be done with all the speed, and all the finesse possible, without that your opponent can take you on the stop hit, or the time hit and render your feint useless, and even hurt yourself.
Of thrusting feints
These are formed by walking toward the adversary, by forming the feint, in place that others can be made firm-footed or by walking.
(Example) Thrusting feint, head cut, is formed by being engaged in tierce disengaging finely in quarte, presenting the point of the sword to the adversary, the branch of the sword below, hand in tierce, not quarte, walking rapidly one step forward, as if you wanted to strike your opponent face with your point, and as he forms his parry, rapidly elevate your sword’s blade perpendicularly, point up, by passing over that of your adversary, lunge, and send a head cut. Thrusting feint, thigh cut is formed as the preceding one, except that instead of elevating the blade let it fall perpendicularly on your adversary’s thigh at the moment he is forming his parry. Thrusting feint, wrist cut, is formed by finely disengaging from tierce to quarte, extend the arm, presenting again the point to the eyes, but without moving and in the moment the adversary forms his parry, pass your blade over his, walk one step forward and cut rapidly his outside forearm. The hits are really of contre-pointe and succeed when they are made with finesse and vivacity.
Of beating the steel
Beating the steel is good when you fear a stop hit or any other point hit. (Example) Beating the steel, face cut, is formed by, being engaged in tierce with your adversary, disengaging, without turning the hand, hitting with force, and rapidly with the back of your blade the edge of your adversary, walking one step forward and finding yourself by this move of your sword engaged between his blade and his head: lunge rapidly, and throw a face cut. The same beat can be employed for a thigh cut and when you want to employ it for the outside, by beating the steel, you pass over his sword; then you can throw a wrist cut from outside, and flank cut. These hits are good when your adversary gives you some steel, by presenting the point to the eyes, or if he wants to stop you.
Of double hits
Double hits are employed when your adversary retreats from your attack. Then, as he is too far to riposte, yourself having lunged on your first attack, you send your left foot against the right, you lunge again, by sending another hit. (Example) The double head cut is formed after having done the first one in a moulinet while lunging, double the détente, continue your moulinet which is ending in a second head cut, being careful not to lower the hand. Double outside flank cut and inside is formed, by lunging and sending the flank cut outside, the adversary retreats, by parrying, double the détente, and rapidly send the inside flank cut. It is the same for the opposing side.
Double hits, cuts and thrusts
Send the head cut; the adversary parries by elevating the arm and necessarily uncovers his chest; your sword having passed his stop the rotation of yours, the point at the height of the adversary’s chest, double the détente, and send the hit. Both flanks cuts are done the same way.
Double hits of thrusts and cuts
The thrust must in these strikes be sent in seconde, that is to say, the nails below. Example: thrusts and cuts formed, by lunging, throwing the thrust in seconde, the adversary parries by retreating and lowering his hand, doubles the détente rapidly and goes back in moulinet in the head cut. It is as well for the thrusts and bandoleer cuts, of the thrusts and flank cuts inside and outside.
Thrust, feint, and cut
Thrust in seconde, by lunging, inside flank feint, by doubling the détente and finishing it by a flank cut outside; thrust in seconde head feint and thigh cut outside, done in the same manner.
The moulinet gets its name from its shape, which describes a whole circle with the sword, the wrist being the pivot. There are 4 simple moulinets, the one which is done inside, by lowering the point of your sword and bringing it back from above to cut high to low. The second is made outside in the same direction. The third is formed, being on guard, or elevating the point of the sword and by doing so coming back from high to low. The double moulinets are done from one side or the other: they are good in a crowd, to create a passage.
The time cut is called thus for the reason that it is taken on the development time of an adversary’s sabre cut. There are many.
The first is made on the head cut, at the moment when the adversary sends you this cut and that his arm is in the air. Step back and at the same time give him an inside wrist cut; be sure to make it much higher for the reason that the adversary’s arm is above his head, so you must elevate your cut by cutting his arm when he develops it while you are stepping back. This way his arm is now too short and cannot touch you.
Time cut on the outside flank cut is done on the development of the adversary’s cut, stepping back once and making the outside wrist cut and lowering you sword perpendicularly from top to bottom. On the inside flank cut, it is the opposite. On the thigh cut, in the moment that the adversary lunges, you remove the right foot and put it one step behind the left all the while striking your opponent’s head which is, because of his position, underneath your sword. It is the same for the opposite side. These are excellent techniques against someone who attacks a lot.
Time cut to the head
Crushing the steel
These hits come from the espadon and are better for this weapon than in contre-pointe, for the reason that to make them you have to uncover a lot. Crushing the steel and reverse bandoleer cut is taken when you notice that your adversary wishes to give you a thrust, being both in the guard of tierce, you press your blade solidly against his while taking one step forward, and hitting the ground inside his right foot, toppling his blade, and removing it entirely from your body line, turning back your hand rapidly, nails up, you lunge rapidly and throw him the reverse bandoleer cut, from the left hip to the right shoulder.
Crushing the steel face cut is formed the same way as previously, except that instead of passing your sabre under that of your adversary, you keep it above, and rise it at the height of his face, that you cut transversely.
Crushing the steel outside flank cut is done in the same way, except that after crushing you pass your blade to the right of the adversary and throw him a flank cut from the outside. These hits are good when your adversary is giving you some steel or wants to thrust at you; but they are dangerous if he expects them: as he can disengage on time, and stop you.
All there is left to talk about is the Voltes
They are a kind of voiding that we do to the left or to the right when it is impossible to retreat or to go back and that you are facing an enemy which is jumping on you.
Of the Volte to the right
It is formed the moment your adversary walks at you, by throwing yourself to the right, the right foot first, turning a quarter of a turn, and facing in parallel his right shoulder, at the same time you must throw the reverse bandoleer cut left to right inside. If he parries your cut (which is very hard) you must continue the rotation of your sword, lunge rapidly, and throw a head cut which is nearly impossible to parry, being out of the guard, offline; because of having done a quarter of a turn on his right, he is obliged to turn to defend himself, and in the case where you wouldn’t touch him, you will find some space behind you to retreat.
Volte to the left
It is formed as with the previous one, except that you rush on the left of your opponent, facing his chest, throwing the bandoleer cut on the opposite side, that is, from the right hip up to the left shoulder, if your adversary parries, as the point of your sword is now facing his chest, throw him a thrust by lunging rapidly.
Of the Half-Volte
There is only one, it is employed only when you have no other resource, that is when you can’t retreat, volte to the left or right, as right when there is no distance between you and your adversary there are no other means to parry; consequently you exchange blow for blow, and you mutually chop each other. To avoid this end, if you are in a path too narrow to volte, or in the angle of a wall, or in any other position which stops you from retreating, or to rush, either to the left or right; in the moment that your enemy jumps on you, the sabre raised, determined to do blow for blow, lunge on your left on all your length, your left hand going to the ground to sustain your body, your right foot parallel to the point of your left foot, your body thrown on your left hand, and sending at the same time a flank cut inside, which is terrible because of the force and the rapidity with which you are throwing yourself to the opposite side. You must be careful to not miss your cut as if this happens to you, you are lost, finding yourself completely overturned and unfit to parry your adversaries strikes. I repeat: this hit must be done only when there are no other solutions.
Here I finish my overview of the contre-pointe, product of a long work. For 30 years I have been practising weapons, and for 22 years, I have been master. I traveled a lot, from this I know the double stick of the negro to the cudgel of the Scottish Highlander, from the low Neapolitan guard to the high guard of the Hungarian, from the superb ancient guard of the Slavonians as is represented here, and as I demonstrated it in my grim fight of Fingal, to the modern contre-pointe, weapon that the great Frederick gave to his troops, and at this moment is the weapon that the Russian officer wears. It is the most terrible bladed weapon after the bayonet, as it unites the point of the sword with the edge of the sabre.
Ancient guard of the Slavonians
Plan of fencing salles of the Cavalry Regiments of the Imperial Guard
The fencing salles must be vast, and form a long square such as those of an armoury; the windows must be on both sides so that the light can be equal everywhere; there must be a gallery separating the masters from the fencers so that he can give his lesson without being interrupted: this gallery must be facing the entrance door, beyond the salle five feet from the wall and must be three feet tall. Like this, the master while giving his lesson can see all that is happening in his salle and those who enter. Each day a squadron must be trained by all fencing masters and provost of the regiment, either in the morning or the evening; that each first day of the month, or any other day, the fencers of each squadron be gathered and that the General of the regiment, with his general staff, be present for the assault; that there must be an inspector chosen among the best fencing masters of the city with the title of First Fencing Master of the Imperial Guard, to designate to the General those who must be rewarded with a premium. He must visit four times a month the fencing salle of the different regiments of the Guard’s cavalry, to verify if the fencing masters under his orders are doing their duty correctly. The regiments generals must second him and punish those who he would designate as lazy and not be executing his orders. Each fencing master of the regiment must have the rank of Sergeant Major, have a plaque, or medal on his left side chest, on it being two sabres in a cross, and the number of his rank in the regiment, if he is first, second, third or fourth fencing master. Each year the different fencers of each regiment that distinguished themselves the most must be publicly gathered so that we may choose those judged the most capable of being fencing masters, and that their names be put underneath the eyes of his majesty.
Like this, the soldier hoping to become a fencing master will work hard; in a short time there will be many good fencers in the guard, and in a couple of years we will even be able to equip fencing masters in every cavalry division of the army.
The Russian soldier is able to learn all that we wish to show him, I have just proven that as in less than three months I have accustomed men to parry every hit I could throw at them, they who were ignorant that you could use a sabre or a pallasch for anything other than to hit with.
I wrote this book only to serve as a guide to the general officers of the cavalry who would wish to instruct the art of fencing to their divisions, as well as any amateur who would already have learned the art of the triangular sword, or for any student guided by good masters. It is perfectly useless for anyone, who would ignore the first principles, as in such a short and precise treatise, it is impossible to detail each new technique, and their signification; consequently it is unintelligible for someone who would read it without knowing the art. The reception it received from its Majesty is the best recommendation.