Masiello’s sword exercise and the medical profession

In 1895, the British army released a new sword exercise for the use of its officers, which had been in development since 1893. The system was created by the famous Italian fencing master Ferdinando Masiello, and was put forward along with a new type of blade (1892), and later a new type of hilt (1895/97). The system received praise, but also a lot of criticism, and remains to this day a contentious work. The debate about its value not only inflamed fencing halls, but also, quite remarkably, medical journals.The Lancet published a series of articles by some British medical professionals, and I thought it would be interesting to republish here the main arguments made for and against this method, which showed the increasing influence of the medical crowd in various activities at the close of the 19th century and some of the prevalent opinions on fencing.

The first part of this video demonstrates the Masiello system in action


(The Lancet, July 27th 1895)

To the Editors of THE LANCET. SIRS,-This handbook of instructions in the use of the sword has just been issued by the War Office. As the ’document is official and imposes on the British soldier certain methods of attack and defence, it is not out of place -to inquire into the soundness of the principles involved in the teaching, both from physiological and practical points of view.

The system here ordered for adoption is that of the Italian school, as modified by Cavaliere Masiello of Florence. The Italian system has been weighed in the balances of experience and found wanting; it is now almost universally superseded by the French school. We fail, therefore, to understand why our authorities should have revived a faulty and more or less ,exploded, method. The position of the body and limbs now recommended (we should say ordered) are essentially faulty. – entailing, as they do, unnecessary outlay of muscular power, and leading by their unnatural conditions to rapid nerve exhaustion.

The ” guard ” itself, with the feet widely separated, “with both shoulders and sword parallel to the directing line,” and the attacking arm prone and fully extended, involves an attitude quickly inducing fatigue and unsteadiness, and this without any adequate compensation. The brachial and deltoid muscles get easily tired, the more so as the elbow-joint is fixed as completely as if it were ankylosed, and the suggestion in the handbook that it should “serve as a pivot ” is an anatomical impossibility. From such a position it is evident that rapid recovery after the lunge is most difficult, and thus the fencer is exposed to great risk if engaged with an active opponent skilled in the French method.

We write as representing the feelings and judgment of many members of the medical profession who are interested in fencing as an amusement and exercise, as well as a discipline for the officers and soldiers of the British Army. That a method so faulty and unsound should be now presented to the British soldier for his instruction and guidance appears to us a measure distinctly retrograde and dangerous.

—We are, Sirs, yours faithfully, —

July 23rd, 1895. I. D. CHEPMELL, M.D., G. H. SAVAGE, M.D., F.R.C.P

Note on authors:
Dr. Isaac Dobrée Chepmell was a German born physician working in Paris and London for many years, having among his patients the Empress Eugénie and Robert Louis Stevenson. He traveled extensively to France and Italy, becoming fluent in both of their languages, and was also recognized as a fervent fencer.

I am fairly certain that the second author is Dr. George Savage, a pioneering psychiatrist in London and a celebrated amateur sportsman in angling, mountaineering and fencing.

Dr. Savage in 1912



(The Lancet, Nov 30th, 1895)

To the Editors of THE LANCET. SIRS,-The letter from Dr. Chepmell and Dr. Savage, which appeared in your issue of July 27th, 1895, has excited a good ’deal of comment, and it is evident that the Italian system of sword exercise, now officially introduced, is not wanting in defenders. It may be well, therefore, to urge again, and with greater precision, the objections to the system, based on anatomical and physiological grounds.

The chief of these are that the muscles mainly concerned in bringing ’about the offensive and defensive movements are unduly exerted, and made to act at an unnecessary mechanical disadvantage ; rapidity and delicacy, and, in a great degree, range of movement, are sacrificed to an endeavour to obtain increased power in certain directions.

If the position of ” on guard” is considered it will be seen that some of these statements are at once justified. Here the feet are more widely separated than in the French position. The weight of the body, which is maintained upright, tending to act directly downwards, more exertion is obviously required to keep the knees properly bent than when the feet – are brought nearer together, as in the French attitude of “on guard.” The extensors of the legs on the thigh are ’concerned in preserving the prescribed Italian attitude, aided by the muscles which pass from the pelvis to the upper part of the thigh, principally the gluteals.

The French attitude selects a position adapted to give the widest possible range of movement while departing as little as possible from the natural equilibrium of the body in the upright position. The “advance” and retire,” it is evident on anatomical grounds, can be made more rapidly in the French and with less expenditure of energy than in the Italian attitude; so, too, can recovery to the first position with the heels aligned, or the extension forward as in the lunge. Place two men of equal physique side by side, one in the Italian and the other in the French ” on guard ” position, and it will be found that fatigue ensues earlier in the former. The differences in the rapidity of movement between the two are, no doubt, extremely slight, but in sword play every minute fractions of a second have to be taken into account.

Next, as to the position of the hands and arms in the Italian ” sword in line ” or on guard ” positions. Here the arm is extended to a right angle with the vertical line of the trunk, so that the point of the sword, the hand and the shoulders are all in the same straight line. In this attitude of the arm the deltoid is exerting itself to the utmost. Any further raising of the arm would be accomplished mainly by the trapezius acting as the continuation of the deltoid. The triceps is acting to the utmost, the forearm being fully extended. The pronators are again acting to the utmost, for the hand is fully pronated. No further movement of pronation or extension of the forearm is, therefore, possible, and any advantage in sword play to be gained by these movements is therefore thrown away at the outset. Rapidity of movement is also sacrificed. The greatest possible speed and delicacy of movement is obtained when two such opposing muscles, or groups of muscles, are both acting and nearly balance each other. Thus with the hand completely pronated the initial act of supination must be slow. A fully-stretched muscle is not able to act quickly or advantageously. When the hand is midway between pronation and supination not only is a greater range of movement in either direction secured, but the greatest initial rapidity of action is rendered possible. The same applies to the extreme extension of the arm. Before the biceps and brachialis anticus can act with the best mechanical efficiency as flexors there must be relaxation of the triceps and slight flexion of the arm. That the deltoid is acting at the greatest possible mechanical disadvantage is obvious enough. Again, the French position of ” on guard ” fully recognises all these points, and the most restful possible position is coupled with infinite possibilities in the way of rapid movement. Again, let two men stand side by side, one in the Italian and one in the French attitude, and the arm of the former will tire much more rapidly than the latter, with the effect that the point of his sword will either drop or be raised.

Next as to the lunge.” The essential difference between the Italian and the French systems is that the body is thrown forward out of the vertical in the former and is maintained upright in the latter. There can be no question that greater power of thrust is obtained by the Italian lunge. Speaking, however, from the medical point of view, it appears to be a matter of little consequence whether a sword thrust goes many inches through the body or only a few. The anatomical disadvantages, however, of the Italian lunge are chiefly shown by the difficulty of recovery. In the Broad Arrow of Oct. 5th, 1895, a letter appeared over the signature of “On Guard” ” defending the Italian system, but employing arguments with which no anatomist could for a moment agree. In condemnation of the French lunge, as compared with the Italian, the writer states that there are two forward movements, that of the foot and that of the body ; in the Italian system only one, that of the foot. Surely, the writer forgets the extension of the arm that takes place in the French lunge.

With regard to the recovery, “On Guard” urges that the recovery must be quicker in the Italian system, for there is a double movement in recovering, ” the direct backward swing of the body assisting enormously the muscles of the leg in executing the movement, not only by relieving the leg (the left) of some of its work, but also by increasing the rapidity of the movement.” This view appears to be based on an anatomical misconception. In recovery from the Italian lunge, the centre of gravity being thrown far forward, the trunk has first of all to be straightened on the legs-that is, brought to a more or less vertical position. This has to be effected by the gluteal muscles, which, again, owing to the attitude, act at great mechanical disadvantage, and therefore act only slowly. The “backward swing” of the body, indeed, so far from assisting the rapidity of recovery, must inevitably retard it. Once the body has begun to swing back it may facilitate recovery to ” on guard,” but the initial movement, regarded from the purely mechanical point of view, must be slow and involve very powerful contraction of a single muscle in order to take place at all. Any attempt to recover merely by bending the left leg in the Italian lunge would cause the lunger to fall forward.

The French system fully recognizes that the most rapid possible action and the greatest delicacy of movement is insured when opposing groups of muscles are simultaneously in action and the part on which they act, hand, arm, trunk, or leg, is midway between the positions that can be brought about by their extreme contraction. Further-and this seems a point of the greatest importance-this mid-position is one of comparative rest. The same considerations, though in a minor degree, apply also to the exaggerated ’’ feather-edge ” attitude prescribed in the Italian system. If in sword exercise rapidity and delicacy of movement, combined with good balance and adequate power of cut or thrust, are desirable, it is to be regretted that a system based on sound scientific principles should be replaced by one that possesses no such advantages.

I am, Sirs, yours faithfully

I Nov. 27th, 1895. C. T. DENT.

Note on the author:
The author of this article was most likely Mr. Clinton Thomas Dent, a prominent surgeon in London and mountaineer. Dent famously published on the wounded of the Transvaal War where he acted as a correspondent to the British Medical Journal.

Mr. Clinton Thomas Dent



(The Lancet, June 27th, 1896)

As we have already announced, during the progress of the Military Tournament some members of the profession in London interested in fencing visited the Agricultural Hall, Islington, at the invitation of Colonel Malcolm Fox, Inspector of Gymnastics, for the purpose of examining into the practice and theory of the new infantry sword exercise (1895).

This exercise is that of Il Cavaliere Ferdinando Masiello, the Florentine maitre d’armes, and the system was first introduced into this country in 1893. Since that period its followers claim to have carried all before them in the various tournaments held throughout the country. Colonel Fox explained the main points of this system to those present and illustrated his remarks practically upon Sergeant-Major Palmer, Army Gymnastic Staff. This warrant officer afterwards gave a series of lessons, both simple and advanced, to various non-commissioned officers who had been victorious in this year’s tournament.

The pupil taking the lesson was, in the majority of cases, stripped, so that the muscular actions involved were easily demonstrated. The main differences between this and other systems were shown to consist in :

1. The grip of the sword, in which the whole hand is used as a claw, thus securing the maximum degree of prehensile force. The thumb is placed along the back of the handle and serves to accurately direct the point. If a penknife be taken in the hand to cut a point to a pencil the fingers and thumb instinctively take the Masiello swordgrip.

2. Circling cuts, which are a series of exercises in “cutting” that tend to develop in the highest degree power over the weapon ; and enormous force can be put into these cuts, since the hinge-joint of the elbow is the centre of a circle of which the distance from the elbow to the point of the sword is the radius, for in this system the wrist-joint is never allowed to move except in the action of adduction-at the finish of the delivery of a cut. The wrist, being a universal joint, is capable of any form of error in making a cut; whereas the elbow-joint, having one motion only, cannot possibly deflect the edge from its objective. Consequently a cut made in accordance with Masiello’s system cannot be delivered otherwise than with the edge leading.

3. Parries. These are all, except the fourth, made with the arm straight on the completion of the formation of the parry, and with the point on, or almost on, the adversary’s body. In many cases the formation of a parry is at the same time a ” riposte,” and the value of this will be obvious to any practical swordsman. In passing from one parry to another the arm is very slightly bent, thereby gaining a forward motion when meeting the adversary’s blade that greatly adds to the power of the defence. Nor can the shock of the adversary’s attack be ever met at a right angle as in the old method, consequently the blow loses five-fifths of its force, since it runs along the blade down to the hilt instead of being received on one single point of the blade.

4. The position of on guard.” This is wider than of old, the distance between the heels being about two and a half soles’ length, according to the length of a man’s thigh, instead of two soles’ length as hitherto. This increased distance gives a much firmer base with a greatly increased facility for rapidly advancing towards or retiring from an opponent. .

5. The lunge. In this system the body is inclined as far forward as possible when lunging; thus a gain of about twelve inches in actual reach is obtained, and the recovery to the position of “on guard” is rendered much easier than in the old method, where the body was kept upright for obvious anatomical reasons that have already been explained in THE LANCET.

6. The jump. This is an action somewhat difficult to explain but very easy to perform. It is a rapid means of getting to the rear out of reach of an opponent. It is an action peculiar to this system, and consists in pressing strongly off the right foot, carrying it to the rear, and at the same time carrying the left foot an equal distance to the rear, so that when the feet are again on the ground the correct position of ” on guard” is assumed. The above were the chief points touched upon, and then an interesting series of lessons with sword and foil were gone through. In conclusion Colonel Fox drew attention to THE LANCET, June 13th, 1896. THE LANCET, Nov. 30th, 1895, March 28th and April 11th, 1896.

Masiello’s series of corrective exercises with the sword, exercises designed to prevent any tendency to spinal curvature that might be induced by constant lunging. He also drew attention to the fact that a military system of swordsmanship must have for its object the defence of a man’s life and his power to disable his adversary. He claimed for Masiello’s system that it fulfilled these conditions. Some staff-sergeants of the gymnastic staff were then shown and were seen to be men of admirable physical development. Sandow’s system of ” Light Dumb-bell Exercises” was demonstrated, also a few exercises without apparatus.

At the conclusion of the display Sir William MacCormac – cordially thanked Colonel Fox for the opportunity he had afforded him and his colleagues of examining into the new system of swordsmanship-a system that appeared to be thoroughly sound, both practically and theoretically. Among those present were the following members of the i medical profession :-Mr. W. H. Bennett, Dr. Champneys, Mr. Clinton Dent, Dr. J. H. Drysdale. Mr. Muirhead Little, Sir William MacCormac, Mr. Howard Marsh, Mr. J. H. I Morgan, Mr. W. H. Staveley, Dr. Frederick Taylor, Mr. J. H. Waring, and Dr. Dawson Williams.

Note on authors:

It isn’t quite clear who the author of this report was, but it was presented by Colonel George Malcolm Fox, inspector of Gymnasia and the main figure behind the introduction of the new sword system. Fox had served in the Black Watch, and was a veteran of the battle of Tel el Kebir (he is even included in the Neuville painting of the battle) where he used his sword to behead one enemy, impale another, before being stopped by a bullet to the leg. It is clear that the colonel had a first hand understanding of swordplay.

It is interesting to note that Clinton Dent, one of the previous authors, observed the presentation. It isn’t clear if this was enough to change his mind.

Colonel George Malcom Fox

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Nick Thomas for sharing the cover image to this article, and to Matt Easton for his research into the 1895 sword pattern and exercise. If you want to learn more about this system and the fascinating history of one of the last official British swordfighting system be sure to check Matt’s upcoming book.

To learn more about the Italian school of sabre fencing, do check Christopher Holzman’s publications.


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