The Art of the Broadsword

The invention of the basket-hilted Broadsword led to the development of a new style of swordsmanship, made possible because the basket-hilt protected the otherwise vulnerable sword hand.

The style of swordsmanship that came to be recognised as distinctively British had a long tradition, with late Victorian swordsmen fighting “in a style differing not much from that in vogue in the days of Good Queen Beth.”[1] The English Backsword, the Highland Broadsword or “Claymore,” and the Singlestick used as a training weapon, were practiced from one end of Britain to the other in a more-or-less consistent style for centuries.

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There are a large number of British fencing manuals dealing with the backsword, military broadsword, spadroon and sabre, which share a great deal of common ground. Within what could be called the “British Broadsword tradition” there are really four main streams.

The first is the medieval-style art as described by the Elizabethan gentleman George Silver, which is ideal for understanding fundumental principles of swordsmanship, and the English (more correctly British) approach to combat.

The second is the post-Renaissance 18th century collection of “English Backsword” manuals, which describe quite a different method of using the same weapon, making full use of the technological innovation of the Basket Hilt.

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Thirdly, there are a collection of manuals on the “Highland Broadsword”, which by and largely describe the same system as traditional English backsword, though with subtle variations and an insistence on the existance of a “Highland method.” In particular the Highland system has a distinct emphasis on mechanical principles for power generation in attack and defence.

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Lastly, there are the Victorian texts, which evolved from the Napoleonic “Highland Broadsword” system, but saw some changes driven by changes in military technology; swords began to be used less and less on foot, with the rifle and bayonet becoming the standard infantry weapon, but were used more and more on horseback.

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Although the sword was largely obsolete by the end of the 19th century as a primary military weapon, British Broadsword survived as the sport of Singlestick well into the 20th century, and British and Australian sailors continued to be drilled in the use of the Cutlass into WWII, which was used in anger as late as 1940!

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[1] Aylward, J.D., The English Master of Arms, 1956.

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