EPEE-DE-COMBAT, a weapon still used in France for duelling, and there and elsewhere (blunted, of course) for exercise and amusement in fencing (q.v.). It has a sharp-pointed blade, about 35 in. long, without any cutting edge, and the guard, or shell, is bowl-shaped, having its convexity towards the point. The épée is the modern representative of the small-sword, and both are distinguished from the older rapier, mainly by being several inches shorter and much lighter in weight. The small-sword (called thus in opposition to the heavy cavalry broadsword), was worn by gentlemen in full dress throughout the 18th century, and it still survives in the modern English court costume.
Fencing practice was originally carried on without the protection of any mask for the face. Wire masks were not invented till near 1780 by a famous fencing-master, La Boëssière the elder, and did not come into general use until much later. Consequently, in order to avoid dangerous accidents to the face, and especially the eyes, it was long the rigorous etiquette of the fencing-room that the point should always be kept low.
In the 17th century a Scottish nobleman, who had procured the assassination of a fencing-master in revenge for having had one of his eyes destroyed by the latter at sword-play, pleaded on his trial for murder that it was the custom to "spare the face."
Rowlandson's well-known drawing of a fencing bout, dated 1787, shows two accomplished amateurs making a foil assault without masks, while in the background a less practised one is having a wire mask tied on.
For greater safety the convention was very early arrived at that no hits should count in a fencing-bout except those landing on the breast. Thus sword-play soon became so unpractical as to lose much of its value as a training for war or the duel. For, hits with "sharps" take effect wherever they are made, and many an expert fencer of the old school has been seriously wounded, or lost his life in a duel, through forgetting that very simple fact.
Strangely enough, when masks began to be generally worn, and the fleuret (anglice, "foil," a cheap and light substitute for the real épée) was invented, fencing practice became gradually even more conventional than before. No one seems to have understood that with masks all the conventions could be safely done away with, root and branch, and sword-practice might assume all the semblance of reality. Nevertheless it should be clearly recognized that the basis of modern foil-fencing was laid with the épée or small-sword alone, in and before the days of Angelo, of Danet, and the famous chevalier de St George, who were among the first to adopt the fleuret also. All the illustrious French professors who came after them, such as La Boëssière the younger, Lafaugère, Jean Louis, Cordelois, Grisier, Bertrand and Robert, with amateurs like the baron d'Ezpeléta, were foil-players pure and simple, whose reputations were gained before the modern épée play had any recognized status. It was reserved for Jacob, a Parisian fencing-master, to establish in the last quarter of the 19th century a definite method of the épée, which differed essentially from all its forerunners. He was soon followed by Baudry, Spinnewyn, Laurent and Ayat. The methods of the four first-named, not differing much inter se, are based on the perception that in the real sword fight, where hits are effective on all parts of the person, the "classical" bent-arm guard, with the foil inclining upwards, is hopelessly bad. It offers a tempting mark in the exposed sword-arm itself, while the point requires a movement to bring it in line for the attack, which involves a fatal loss of time. The épée is really in the nature of a short lance held in one hand, and for both rapidity and precision of attack, as well as for the defence of the sword-arm and the body behind it, a position of guard with the arm almost fully extended, and épée in line with the forearm, is far the safest. Against this guard the direct lunge at the body is impossible, except at the risk of a mutual or double hit (le coup des deux veuves). No safe attack at the face or body can be made without first binding or beating, opposing or evading the adverse blade, and such an attack usually involves an initial forward movement. Beats and binds of the blade, with retreats of the body, or counter attacks with opposition, replace the old foil-parries in most instances, except at close quarters. And much of the offensive is reduced to thrusts at the wrist or forearm, intended to disable without seriously wounding the adversary. The direct lunge (coup-droit) at the body often succeeds in tournaments, but usually at the cost of a counter hit, which, though later in time, would be fatal with sharp weapons.
Ayat's method, as might be expected from a first-class foil-player, is less simple. Indeed for years, too great simplicity marked the most successful épée-play, because it usually gained its most conspicuous victories over those who attempted a foil defence, and whose practice gave them no safe strokes for an attack upon the extended blade. But by degrees the épéists themselves discovered new ways of attacking with comparative safety, and at the present day a complete épée-player is master of a large variety of attractive as well as scientific movements, both of attack and defence.
It was mainly by amateurs that this development was achieved. Perhaps the most conspicuous representative of the new school is J. Joseph-Renaud, a consummate swordsman, who has also been a champion foil-player. Lucien Gaudin, Alibert and Edmond Wallace may be also mentioned as among the most skilful amateurs, Albert Ayat and L. Bouché as professors - all of Paris. Belgium, Italy and England have also produced épéists quite of the first rank.
The épée lends itself to competition far better than the foil, and the revival of the small-sword soon gave rise in France to "pools" and "tournaments" in which there was the keenest rivalry between all comers.
In considering the épée from a British point of view, it may be mentioned that it was first introduced publicly in London by C. Newton-Robinson at an important assault-at-arms held in the Steinway Hall on the 4th May 1900. Professor Spinnewyn was the principal demonstrator, with his pupil, the late Willy Sulzbacher. The next day was held at the Inns of Court R. V. School of Arms, Lincoln's Inn, the first English open épée tournament for amateurs. It was won by W. Sulzbacher, C. Newton-Robinson being second, and Paul Ettlinger, a French resident in London, third. This was immediately followed by the institution of the Epée Club of London, which, under the successive residencies of a veteran swordsman, Sir Edward Jenkinson, and of Lord Desborough, subsequently held annual open international tournaments. The winners were: in 1901, Willy Sulzbacher; 1902, Robert Montgomerie; 1903, the marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat; 1904, J.J. Renaud; 1905, R. Montgomerie. In 1906 the Amateur Fencing Association for the first time recognized the best-placed Englishman, Edgar Seligman (who was the actual winner), as the English épée champion. In 1907 R. Montgomerie was again the winner, in 1908 C.L. Daniell, in 1909 R. Montgomerie.
Among the most active of the English amateurs who were the earliest to perceive the wonderful possibilities of épée-play, it is right to mention Captain Hutton, Lord Desborough, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, Bart., Sir Charles Dilke, Bart., Lord Howard de Walden, Egerton Castle, A.S. Cope, R.A., W.H.C. Staveley, C.F. Clay, Lord Morpeth, Evan James, Paul King, J.B. Cunliffe, John Norbury, Jr., Theodore A. Cook, John Jenkinson, R. Montgomerie, S. Martineau, E.B. Milnes, H.J. Law, R. Merivale, the Marquis of Dufferin, Hugh Pollock, R.W. Doyne, A.G. Ross, the Hon. Ivor Guest and Henry Balfour.
Among foreign amateurs who did most to promote the use of the épée in England were Messrs P. Ettlinger, Anatole Paroissien, J. Joseph-Renaud, W. Sulzbacher, René Lacroix, H.G. Berger and the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat.
Epée practice became popular among Belgian and Dutch fencers about the same time as in England, and this made it possible to set on foot international team-contests for amateurs, which have done much to promote good feeling and acquaintanceship among swordsmen of several countries. In 1903 a series of international matches between teams of six was inaugurated in Paris. Up to 1909 the French team uniformly won the first place, with Belgium or England second.
English fencers who were members of these international teams were Lord Desborough, Theodore A. Cook, Bowden, Cecil Haig, J. Norbury, Jr., R. Montgomerie, John Jenkinson, F. Townsend, W.H.C. Staveley, S. Martineau, C.L. Daniell, W. Godden, Captain Haig, M.D.V. Holt, Edgar Seligman, C. Newton-Robinson, A.V. Buckland, P.M. Davson, E.M. Amphlett and L.V. Fildes. In 1906 a British épée team of four, consisting of Lord Desborough, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, Bart., Edgar Seligman and C. Newton-Robinson, with Lord Howard de Walden and Theodore Cook as reserves (the latter acting as captain of the team), went to Athens to compete in the international match at the Olympic games. After defeating the Germans rather easily, the team opposed and worsted the Belgians. It thus found itself matched against the French in the final, the Greek team having been beaten by the French and the Dutch eliminated by the Belgians. After a very close fight the result was officially declared a tie. This was the first occasion upon which an English fencing team had encountered a French one of the first rank upon even terms. In fighting off the tie, however, the French were awarded the first prize and the Englishmen the second.
In the Olympic games of London, 1908, the Epée International Individual Tournament was won by Alibert (France), but Montgomerie, Haig and Holt (England) took the 4th, 5th, and 8th places in the final pool. The result of the International Team competition was also very creditable to the English representatives, Daniell, Haig, Holt, Montgomerie and Amphlett, who by defeating the Dutch, Germans, Danes and Belgians took second place to the French. Egerton Castle was captain of the English team.
In open International Tournaments on the Continent, English épéists have also been coming to the front. None had won such a competition up to 1909 outright, but the following had reached the final pool: C. Newton-Robinson, Brussels, 1901 (10th), Etretat, 1904 (6th); E. Seligman, Copenhagen, 1907 (2nd), and Paris, 1909 (12th); R. Montgomerie, Paris, 1909 (5th); and E.M. Amphlett, Paris, 1909 (10th).
The method of ascertaining the victor in épée "tournaments" is by dividing the competitors into "pools," usually of six or eight fencers. Each of these fights an assault for first hit only, with every other member of the same pool, and he who is least often hit, or not at all, is returned the winner. If the competitors are numerous, fresh pools are formed out of the first two, three or four in each pool of the preliminary round, and so on, until a small number are left in for a final pool, the winner of which is the victor of the tournament.
Epée fencing can be, and often is, conducted indoors, but one of its attractions consists in its fitness for open-air practice in pleasant gardens.
In the use of the épée the most essential points are (1) the position of the sword-arm, which, whether fully extended or not, should always be so placed as to ensure the protection of the wrist, forearm and elbow from direct thrusts, by the intervention of the guard or shell; (2) readiness of the legs for instant advance or retreat; and (3) the way in which the weapon is held, the best position (though hard to acquire and maintain) being that adopted by J.J. Renaud with the fingers over the grip, so that a downward beat does not easily disarm.
The play of individuals is determined by their respective temperaments and physical powers. But every fencer should be always ready to deliver a well-aimed, swift, direct thrust at any exposed part of the antagonist's arm, his mask or thigh. Very tall men, who are usually not particularly quick on their legs, should not as a rule attack, otherwise than by direct thrusts, when matched against shorter men. For if they merely extend their sword-arm in response to a simple attack, their longer reach will ward it off with a stop or counter-thrust. Short men can only attack them safely by beating, binding, grazing, pressing or evading the blade, and the taller fencers must be prepared with all the well-known parries and counters to such offensive movements, as well as with the stop-thrust to be made either with advancing opposition or with a retreat. Fencers of small stature must be exceedingly quick on their feet, unless they possess the art of parrying to perfection, and even then, if slow to shift ground, they will continually be in danger. With plenty of room, the quick mover can always choose the moment when he will be within distance, for an attack which his slower opponent will be always fearing and unable to prevent or anticipate.
It is desirable to put on record the modern form of the weapon. An average épée weighs, complete, about a pound and a half, while a foil weighs approximately one-third less. The épée blade is exactly like that of the old small-sword after the abandonment of the "colichemarde" form, in which the "forte" of the blade was greatly thickened. In length from guard or shell to point it measures about 35 in., and in width at the shell about 13/16ths of an inch. From this it gradually and regularly tapers to the point. There is no cutting edge. The side of the épée which is usually held uppermost is slightly concave, the other is strengthened with a midrib, nearly equal in thickness and similar in shape to either half of the true blade. The material is tempered steel. There is a haft or tang about 8 in. long, which is pushed through a circular guard or shell ("coquille") of convex form, the diameter of which is normally 5 in. and the convexity 1 in. The shell is of steel or aluminium, and if of the latter metal, sometimes fortified at the centre with a disk of steel the size of a crown piece. The insertion of the haft or tang through the shell may be either central or excentric to the extent of about 1 in., for the better protection of the outside of the forearm.
After passing through the shell, the haft of the blade is inserted in a grip or handle ("poignet"), averaging 7 in. in length and of quadrangular section, which is made of tough wood covered with leather, india-rubber, wound cord or other strong material with a rough surface. The grip is somewhat wider than its vertical thickness when held in the usual way, and it diminishes gradually from shell to pommel for convenience of holding. It should have a slight lateral curvature, so that in executing circular movements the pommel is kept clear of the wrist. The pommel, usually of steel, is roughly spherical or eight-sided, and serves as a counterbalance. The end of the haft is riveted through it, except in the case of "épées démontables," which are the most convenient, as a blade may be changed by simply unscrewing or unlocking the pommel.
An épée is well balanced and light in hand when, on poising the blade across the forefinger, about 1 in. in advance of the shell, it is in equilibrium.
For practice, the point is blunted to resemble the flat head of a nail, and is made still more incapable of penetration by winding around it a small ball of waxed thread, such as cobblers use. This is called the "button." In competitions various forms of "boutons marqueurs," all of which are unsatisfactory, are occasionally used. The "pointe d'arrêt," like a small tin-tack placed head downwards on the flattened point of the épée, and fastened on by means of the waxed thread, is, on the contrary, most useful, by fixing in the clothes, to show where and when a good hit has been made. The point need only protrude about 1/16th of an inch from the button. There are several kinds of pointes d'arrêt. The best is called, after its inventor, the "Léon Sazie," and has three blunt points of hardened steel each slightly excentric. The single point is sometimes prevented by the thickness of the button from scoring a good hit.
A mask of wire netting is used to protect the face, and a stout glove on the sword hand. It is necessary to wear strong clothes and to pad the jacket and trousers at the most exposed parts, in case the blade should break unnoticed. A vulnerable spot, which ought to be specially padded, is just under the sword-arm.
Bibliography. - Among the older works on the history and practice of the small-sword, or épée, are the following: - The Scots Fencing-Master, or Compleat Small-swordsman, by W.H. Gent (Sir William Hope, afterwards baronet) (Edinburgh, 1687), and several other works by the same author, of later date, for which see Schools and Masters of Fence, by Egerton Castle; Nouveau traité de la perfection sur le fait des armes, by P.G.F. Girard (Paris, 1736); L'Ecole des armes, by M. Angelo (London, 1763); L'Art des armes, by M. Danet (2 vols., Paris, 1766-1767); Nouveau traité de l'art des armes, by Nicolas Demeuse (Liège, 1778).
More modern are: Traité de l'art des armes, by la Böessière, Jr. (Paris, 1818); Les Armes et le duel, by A. Grisier (2nd ed., Paris, 1847); Les Secrets de l'épée, by the baron de Bazancourt (Paris, 1862); Schools and Masters of Fence, by Egerton Castle (London, 1885); Le Jeu de l'épée, by J. Jacob and Emil André (Paris, 1887); L'Escrime pratique au XIXe siècle, by Ambroise Baudry (Paris); L'Escrime a l'épée, by A. Spinnewyn and Paul Manonry (Paris, 1898); The Sword and the Centuries, by Captain Hutton (London,1901); "The Revival of the Small-sword," by C. Newton-Robinson, in the Nineteenth Century and After (London, January 1905); Nouveau Traité de l'épée, by Dr Edom, privately published (Paris, 1908); and, most important of all, Méthode d'escrime à l'épée, by J. Joseph-Renaud, privately published (Paris, 1909).
(C. E. N. R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)