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The Singlestick: a different form of classical fencing

The single stick is a fencing weapon exclusive to the period of classical fencing and fencing in the United Kingdom and the United States. It is also unusual in that three very different forms of individual club play evolved to meet the needs of three very different groups of fencers.

The single stick itself consisted of a stick about three feet long, usually ash, about 1 inch in diameter. The player’s hand was protected by a strong guard, either like a woven or leather basket. The resulting weapon approximated the weight of an infantry sword or naval cutlass and was capable of delivering a substantial blow.

The oldest form of Singlestick game that survived into the 1900s was the English village version of the game, which used a hanging shield with the players positioned approximately the length of the blade. The contestants did not wear protective clothing. Depending on county practice, the unarmed arm was allowed to be raised while holding a belt, either around the waist or across the legs, to protect one side of the body. The basic tactical premise was to hit the opponent’s torso and arms until pain and fatigue forced him to lower his guard. So a blow to the front of the scalp could cause a “broken head,” a one-inch measure of blood flowing from a victory-defining laceration. In many ways this form of swordplay appears to have been very similar to the German scholar’s (student) duel in the mensur with the schlaeger.

A second form of simple game was its use by navies as a training tool for the cutlass, which is still considered a viable weapon to repel inmates until the beginning of World War II. This can begin in the early 19th century and continue well into the 20th century. In this use, the simple stick was a piercing weapon, a safer alternative to using sharp cutlasses for training. There is ample photographic evidence of this use.

A third form evolved with the development of sports fencing as a saber form, with the whole body as a target and the blow was awarded to the fencer who landed first. Probably the best known rule sets for this were the Calpe, Military Tournament, and German Gymnasium rules. Traditional fencing blade and footwork were used, with the exception that toe thrust was not allowed for safety. The protective gear used was varied, but included a fencing mask-like mask, a sturdy leather jacket, a leather apron, and a front leg guard on the order of a cricket platform. Since the saber of the day was prone to lustful striking with a lighter weapon, singlestick was not for the faint of heart.

Sport singlestick made only one appearance at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics and was locked in the Military Tournament for several years. However, as fencing became a faster sport that demanded a lighter hand, the singlestick did not transition and faded from the competitive scene. The village’s unique punishment may have continued until the start of WWII. Today some enthusiasts continue to play singlesticks, but the possibility of injury and liability concerns relegate sticks to a subject of study for classical fencers, rather than a competitive sport.

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