Sabre: Remedial Cutting and Moulinets

Students with any kind of athletic background will find performing the basic cuts to be easy.  The problem for them is not that the cuts are difficult, but that they will be perceived as too boring to practice.  These students will believe that they have mastered basic cutting when they have not.

An alternate problem happens when a student has no athleticism upon which to draw.  Some students will not have engaged in “watch a movement mimic a movement” behavior since they learned to mimic their parents’ gaits as small children.  It is very important that these students not be left behind while other students are being held back until they can actually perform the cuts that they think they are performing.

This challenge should not be under-estimated: many individuals go through life not actually knowing where their bodies are in space.  If introduced to the joy of elegant movement, these students will often turn out to enjoy practice immensely, and to practice more diligently than their supposedly more-gifted peers.

Here is an alternate method for teaching the basic cuts and moulinets.

  1. The fencer holds the sabre forward, with the point high and to the right. The student then makes Cut 1. The instructor takes care to make sure that the cut is perfectly linear and does not wobble.
  2. Once the blade reaches the end of the cut, the blade should be pointing down and to the left. The student flips the blade over, and makes Cut 4, bringing it back to the original position. The instructor coaches the student to keep the cut purely linear, retracing the line of Cut 1.

The process is inverted for Cuts 2 and 3.

Though the classic targets of Cut 3 and Cut 4 are to the inner thigh, in this case, the student is made to perform the cuts at a higher angle so that he learns how to recognize the location of his limbs in space, and how to regulate his movements.  Usually the student will need to look at a target, thinking of bringing Cut 1 down into the joint of the neck and shoulder, and out of the ribs under the armpit, and vice versa for Cut 4.

Once the student has a reasonably-firm grasp of how to regulate his arm’s movement in space, keeping his cuts on the proper angle, you can introduce moulinets.  At this point the student is very likely to be frustrated because this cutting method fights the weight of the sabre, rather than using it to advantage. This is especially a problem for students who have never been graceful or physically powerful who are likely to wear out quickly.

We teach remedial moulinets as follows:

  1. Have the student start with the sabre forward, and make Cut 1. The student then proceeds to make Cut 2, repositioning the blade in order to be certain the angle is right.
  2. The instructor has the student make Cut 1 again.
  3. The instructor, standing closely behind the student, then physically assists the student in making a moulinet from Cut 1 to Cut 1, taking care to help the student feel the power generated by the moulinet.
  4. The instructor helps the student moulinet Cut 1 and Cut 2 while another student parries, making sure that the student can feel the cuts change from somewhat-awkward “line movement” to feeling more like hammer blows.

The moulinet is introduced to this student not as a way of transitioning between angles of attack, but as a way of gaining power in order to make an attack. This will allow even the smallest, weakest, and clumsiest of students to throw powerful cuts within a session or two.  The instructor physically assists the student in making these cuts so that the student can get a “body memory” of what the correct motion feels like.

Once the student has reached the stage where the basics of the cut can be performed, he or she can join the other students in practicing cut angles and blade alignment.

Common recurring problems and simple solutions: it is helpful to have raw materials for same handy.

Problem: Solution:
Student cannot distinguish edge from flat Provide student with wide cardboard sword/sabre to improve tactile awareness of edge alignment.
Student cuts a low horizontal and then up rather than making a rising diagonal cut Student has allowed cutting-hand hip to drift forward out of a correct On Guard position, affecting motion of lead shoulder.
Student shortens the cut, tightening the bicep Tie fabric gently around the elbow, providing the student tactile feedback.

Sabre: Counter-cutting

Once your opponent has come to close quarters and both of you are attempting to gain advantage over the other, it is very common for beginning fencers to lapse into a pattern of “take an action, return to guard, take an action, return to guard.”  This “act then reset then act” pattern is unavoidable when one is first learning how to put the various pieces of fencing together, but it’s hugely counterproductive when actually fencing. We want to take an action, and then continue taking action until we win the encounter.

A solution to this is counter-cutting, using attack as offense. We counter-cut specifically because many times our opponent will launch an attack when we are not on guard, and our blade is positioned somewhere else.    The point to counter-cutting isn’t simply not to get hit – we do not counter-cut simply to ward off the opponent’s blade!  Instead, just like our basic parries, our counter-cuts are intended help us achieve a point of advantage.

Counter-cutting achieves one of two things:

  1. Stopping the attack by striking the opponent
  2. Redirecting the opponent’s attack so that the attacker is left vulnerable

Here are various examples of ways which we can counter-cut:

Opponent: Fencer:
Cuts 1 Cuts 1 at opponent’s hand
Cuts 2 Cuts 2 at opponent’s forearm
Cuts 3 Cuts 2 at opponent’s wrist
Cuts 4 Cuts 4 at opponent’s wrist
Cuts 1 Cuts 2 and thrusts
Cuts 2 Cuts 1 and thrusts
Cuts 3 Cuts 4 and thrusts
Cuts 4 Cuts 3 and thrusts

And so on.  This is by no means exhaustive – for a fully-developed list of examples, see the synoptic tables at the end of the manual.

In the first examples, we are not simply standing still while attempting to cut the opponent. We are moving our body so that we redefine the geometry of the engagement (just like we do with basic parries), while cutting in such a way that even if we do not stop the blow outright, we deflect it onto an angle where it will not hurt us.

In the second four examples, we use the curve of the sabre to our advantage by cutting into the side of the opponent’s blade and pushing it past us.  To finish the action by thrusting into the opponent, all we need to do is return to On Guard, and the fighting geometry places the thrust for us.

What our system will never do is to assume that a counter-cut will stop the opponent.  For instance, our method explicitly defends the legs, whereas most systems either ignore the legs, or treat it as an invitation, “refusing the leg” by stepping backwards while striking at the opponent’s head.  This is fine for a sporting bout where the action is stopped on a hit. But what if the blow does not stop the opponent?  What if it misses, or the blow simply lands flat out of sheer bad luck?  What if fighting has dulled our blade, or his hat stops the blow?  Numerous historical cases exist where an opponent was struck several times in the head without being stopped.  In this case, nothing stops the opponent from simply continuing his attack with a thrust into our torso.  By actively protecting the leg, we ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Sabre: Basic Defenses against Attack

Nota Bene: experienced fencers will see many holes in what is presented here. This is unavoidable – the following blog post is for the benefit of neophyte students at Great Plains Sword and BBQ who are still learning what a cut is (that is not a joke) and how to perform a basic block correctly.

Cuts are always numbered from the point of view of the person making the cut, not the point of view of the defender.

For the most basic exercise, we consider attacks like this:

  1. Descending forehand cut (to upper-body target)
  2. Descending backhand cut (to upper-body target)
  3. Rising forehand cut (to lower-body target)
  4. Rising backhand cut (to lower-body target)

The system considers “horizontal” cuts ( those which are neither rising nor falling) to be crude attacks which are easily defended against, and will be treated as a forehand or backhand blow more or less depending on the height at which the blow is thrown.  Thus, a high horizontal forehand cut will be considered semantically equal to a Cut 1.  (Note that this assumes similar “handedness.” A right-hander fencing a left-hander must treat forehand as backhand, and vice versa)

The system not having its origins in English, it does not distinguish between “blocks” and “parries,” though for convenience I will usually refer to a “block” collectively as defenses which stops the blade, whereas the word “parry” will not carry connotations of either “hardness” or “softness.” The word in this context is simply synonymous with “defense.”

Basic Defenses

Attack Defense
Cut 1 Parry 1
Cut 2 Parry 2
Cut 3 Parry 3
Cut 4 Parry 4

There are numerous subtleties to making the blocks which need to be explained:

  1. The body turns, typically no more than a maximum of thirty degrees from the centerline, in order to get the blade lined up with the angle of the attack.
  2. The hand turns the blade to create a 90 degree angle between the incoming blade and the parrying blade, while the arm rises or falls as needed to create contact. (Against a horizontal cut, the defender will not bother to ensure a 90-degree cut, because the attack angle does not require it – in this case the defender will simply ensure that the defense locks the incoming cut to the outside where it cannot be readily converted into either a thrust or a continued cut on a different angle).
  3. The blade is held in the center of the body, and the arm never drifts left or right of the defender’s center line in order to block or parry. For parries 1 and 2 the point is up, for parries 3 and 4 the point is down. In parries 1 and 2 the forward point of the blade forms a ramp which deflects incoming blades.
  4. The shock of the incoming blow is received on the blade and absorbed by the weight of the body, rather than using grip or shoulder strength to keep the parrying blade stable on impact.

Parries such as this are used in order to help the defender dictate a fighting geometry where the location of the opponent’s weapon is known. By doing this, the defender does two very important things:

  1. Removes the “guessing-game”
  2. Establishes superior positioning so that a riposte is always successful

The basic riposte will usually be whatever cut, thrust, or other action is required in order to return to guard, with the fighting geometry altered so that doing so puts the weapon through the opponent. There are edge cases.  What if the blow is thrown at the midsection?  In this case, we parry depending on the origin and angle of the cut.  For the “Basic Model” here, most rising cuts will still be met with parries 3 and 4, and most descending cuts will still be met with parries 1 and 2.

This is the first, base level that a student of the sabre should master.  This is not sophisticated fencing. That said, if the student is able ONLY to reliably parry incoming blows while setting up favorable fight geometry, mastering this basic skill will make the fencer a credible opponent who can hold his or her own against a more experienced opponent — and have a decided advantage over a peer-level opponent who has wasted time building castles of elaborate parries and athleticism on a foundation of sand.

Let Sykes-Picot Die

I hear a lot of rhetoric from the political right looking at the Middle East saying “Iran is the problem.”

That’s horrifyingly shallow thinking.

You can’t simply say “Iran is the problem” and posit that as an argument. It’s facile and unproductive. If “Iran is the problem,” what’s the solution? Erasing Iran from the map? That’s a non-starter and should especially be a non-starter for people who are supposedly looking at the region through a lens of human rights.

(Nota Bene, political left: you guys still support the mustachio-twirling, truly evil thugs known as Hamas, so don’t start strutting too hard. Your shit stinks, too.)

Iraq and Syria survive on paper, but in everyday practical life they are both dead and gone. The Sykes-Picot treaty needs to be allowed to die formally so that the Sunni tribes currently under ISIS’ thumb have some alternative which can support their needs and interests. Currently they have none.

Let’s look at some of the facts on the ground:


  • S1. An Alawite rump state is probably guaranteed no matter what happens, due to Russian and Iranian support and the desire to avoid the unpleasant spectacle which will occur if said rump state is forced into minority status in a larger Syria without having lots of guns (i.e., lots of Sunni extremists murdering lots of moderate Alawites).
  • S2. Given the opportunity, Al Nusra will behave very badly. If ISIS’ Evil Quotient is roughly one Mega-Nazi, then Al Nusra is definitely in the 600-700 kilonazi range. They probably won’t shoot little children in the head for needing to eat during Ramadan, like ISIS does… probably.
  • S3. The Druze don’t want to be run by sunni tribes, but they’ll back the strong horse, because that’s how they survive. They may or may not be a somewhat-competent buffer state for Israel (a Saudi ally) to feel secure.
  • S4. The Syrian moderates who were legitimate pro-democracy protestors are dead and gone as viable actors. We had our chance to give these people meaningful support.  We blew it, nobody credible considers them resurrectable, let alone a player.


  • I1. The Kurds don’t want to be run by anybody but themselves, but they’re going slowly so as not to get Turkey and Iran both upset. With their long border, they potentially make an admirable buffer-state for Iran. Diplomatic exchanges are happening, albeit slowly and painfully.
  • I2. The Sunni tribes are under ISIS’ thumb, aided and abetted by Erdogan’s hilariously brazen support for ISIS. Turkey can’t create a Sunni secession movement because of their fear of the Kurds…currently. They could in theory go along with supporting something which allowed S-P to go away so long as it guaranteed Turkish territorial integrity. Currently, said Sunni tribes have nobody to go to and nobody to support them.
  • I3. The Saudis aren’t our friends any more than the IRGC is (c.f. S2 above), and engage in just as much anti-Shia murder as the Iranians do in reverse. (Arguably the Saudis are actually America’s biggest geopolitical foe, more dangerous than Russia, Iran, and China combined, but that’s an argument for another post).  They will, however, back the formation of a Novo Syria so long as they had some ability to shape affairs, and would likely agree to arm them as well.
  • I4. The Iraqi Shia have well-established and entirely legitimate reasons both to fear Saudi influence and oppose any return of the Sunnis to political power, and it is entirely legitimate for them to perceive themselves in the victim role to consider Iran by far the lesser of the various evils with which they have to deal. Some of the militias are extremist sectarian groups, but they came into existence for very good reason.
  • I5. South-Central Iraq is still fundamentally a tribal society in which power will go to clan and sectarian interests rather than be distributed based on anything recognizable as a classical liberal state in Western terms.  This is also true in Kurdistan, but to a lesser extent.
  • I6. It is very expensive for the IRGC to continue fighting ISIS, and lots of Iranians are fed up with money being spent to support foreign-policy ventures when the economy at home is in pretty dire straits (some but by no means all of which can be attributed to international sanctions).  Iranians are, however, deeply upset about Sunni terrorists constantly blowing up Shia mosques and bombing Shia civilians — and they are right to be. American conservatives who lash out at Iran for supporting terrorism while turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s support for sectarian mass-murder are on the wrong side of history and behaving like world-class hypocrites.

Given this, the only humane solution which makes any sense is to let Sykes-Picot go away, and to create a state which gives the various Sunni tribes in present-day Syria and Iraq some option other than getting run over and slowly tortured to death by ISIS.  Convincing Iran that it is in their best interests to allow this, and convincing the Saudis to stop aiding and abetting the mass-murder of Shia, is thorny and difficult. There are questions that would have to be considered carefully by all the local political actors in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran.

But peace without some state to create security and local representation is impossible.  It’s the Thirty Years’ War all over again, ending only when all sides are so exhausted that even the Russians no longer have any Dagestani salafists to sling into the fight.

With a new state, security and peace, no matter how difficult, is possible.

Now if only we had some actual diplomats skilled in “the art of the possible.”

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