How to Moulinet with the Sabre

So we’ve seen in class that in this lineage, we cut on an X pattern, targeting the base of the neck, the flank, and the inner thigh.

Cuts 1 and 2 are falling cuts. Cuts 3 and 4 are rising cuts. Odd numbered cuts are always fore-hand cuts, and even cuts are always backhand cuts. We practice lateral cuts forehand and backhand during warm-ups, but we don’t make extensive use of them in solo drills. The basic practice, then, is to begin to combine them in ways which are efficient and elegant.

Elegant: a movement is “elegant” when it produces the greatest possible motion for the least possible strain. Whether an elegant motion is restrained and delicate, or bone-crushingly powerful, it feels effortless. Strain or “muscling” is always a sign of bad technique or improper practice.

How does one elegantly cut 1,2: 1,2: 1,2 over and over? We make this happen by making Cut 1, and then inserting a “connector” movement. This connector-piece, in combination with the originating and following cut, is traditionally called a moulinet or molinello.  We will break this down into discrete parts, rather than relying on “hope” for you to magically possess enough body awareness that you do it correctly by accident, and then recognize that accidental victory as correct.

Most students get told to do many, many repetitions of their cuts and moulinets, but without being told explicitly what it is they are supposed to be repeating.  And then we, as instructors, have the gall to actually be surprised when students stop practicing because it’s harder than it needs to be and the perceived cost/benefit ratio of training goes pear-shaped for the now hopelessly-frustrated student who has just picked up a repetitive strain injury “efforting” like mad in order to try to learn.

And then we blame the student, rather than ourselves for having provided shit-quality instruction.

The Stupid, It Burns

It’s also tragic, because one of the truly glorious things about the system which we’ve inherited is that unlike other systems of fencing, every single advanced technique we use can be expressed as a variation on our basic cutting practice and moulinets. The only difference between those who develop great skill in this lineage, and those who don’t is a willingness to perform these drills while exploring what the movements are and how they can be turned into applied geometry while fencing. I have not been back to Hungary in ten years, but on my last visit I routinely out-fenced students with far greater athleticism, and I did so precisely because I paid very close attention to the basic drills of the lineage rather than cranking them out mechanically and then “looking for the sexy stuff.”  Csaba was already teaching us the sexy stuff — most of us just hadn’t realized it for lack of mindfulness when practicing.

Most students instinctively know how to cut 3,4: 3,4: 3,4. The turn of the blade required from forehand rising cut to backhand rising cut is immediately intuitive because the elbow drops at the end of the cut, and we like living in gravity where dropping our elbows isn’t actually work.

Students regularly have trouble with the “connector-piece” transitional movement of 1 and 2, however.

  1. To moulinet from cut 1 to cut 2, you do the following:
    Make Cut 1.
  2. Flip the blade over so that instead of having the cutting edge leading the motion, the blade is now reversed, and the point is furthest from the body. When this is done, you should feel the movement in your shoulder, and you should feel the muscles and skin in your arm move as the forearm bones flip over. You should not, however, feel strain in your shoulder, or feel your elbow “jump” upwards. If this happen, your shoulders and arms are too tight, and you need to pay extra attention to your limbering-up exercises.
  3. Your elbow is now in a low position, and depending on your body shape and the precise angle of the cut, it should be somewhere vaguely as high as your navel or lower stomach. Raise the elbow until it is higher than your head. As your elbow came up, your hand went along for the ride, too, and your weapon is now raised from its previously lowered position.
  4. Allow the point to fall behind the plane of your shoulder as your elbow lifts.
  5. Make Cut 2.

The process for transitioning from Cut 2 to Cut 1 is precisely the same. Some notes:

All blade movements come from the torso and shoulders, and the many large muscles surrounding the shoulders.
Remember, beginning practice requires BIG movements. Later on, you will likely not need to raise the elbow anywhere near so high while making the cut transitions — but nothing can replace having gradually molded your body so that you can do so.

  • You are holding your weapon in either your left or your right hand. Therefore, the experience of moving your weapon through the moulinet/molinello is asymmetric — you should expect this, and pay attention to this.
  • The connector-piece of the moulinet is movement.  It takes time. In fact, it takes about as much time as is required to make the cut itself. Pay attention to the timing of that — it will become very important once we actually practice cutting and moving our feet at the same time.  You cannot speed up your cuts by taking short-cuts with the quality of this transitional movement.
  • Minor creaking and cracking in the shoulder is normal, as the joint is taken through ranges of motion that ordinarily don’t get used driving a desk. PAIN in the shoulder is not, and needs to be addressed.
  • “Work through” bruising and muscle fatigue. Never work through joint pain. We are not professional soldiers or warriors who require these skills in combat and for whom a debilitating injury in the long term is an acceptable trade-off for immediate or short-term survival.
  • Practice will convert this from a very clunky, angular set of motions, into something that is fluid, elegant, and even fun to perform. It will also improve the health of your joints while providing very mild aerobic exercise.
  • The transitional movements unlock a thousand dirty tricks, many of which your opponents will never have seen before, and against which they have no real defense so long as the rest of your techniques are performed correctly.
  • If it hurts, walk away. Do something else. Come back to it a half-hour later.
  • Ten really attentive, playful, mindful repetitions done carefully over the course of a week creates greater skill than a thousand repetitions done mechanically while resenting the need to practice, with the brain off in lala-land of “I hate this can we stop soon.”

Once you have the movement fluid, you can start to really play with this and turn it into something you own. Once you actually own it, you’ll get the ability to start doing amazing and wonderful things with a blade.  ANY blade, long, short, straight, or curved.

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