The Dussack – a weapon of war

The Dussack – a weapon of war

In my opinion the dussack doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves in the historical fencing community, despite the fact that it was a highly important weapon in the old fencing guilds. It is not really studied properly, probably due to many commonly believing that the wooden/leather waster is all that the dussack is, not realizing that it in reality was a complex-hilt steel sabre that became more common in the first quarter of the 1500s and was used well into the mid 1600s, after which it more and more transformed into the proper sabre.

Interestingly though, in its wooden training form, it lived on well into the last decades of the 1700s, possibly even the early 1800s, disappearing only with the last vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire. Also, there has been some speculation that the dussacke waster made out of wood and sometimes also leather has its roots in a flax preparation tool called a scutching knife. However, we still don’t really know for sure if there is such a relationship. Most early flax knives appear to have had a rather different design.

A Swedish scutching knife from 1855, a traditional gift from the fiance to the fiancee.

The 19th cent Swedish scutching knives were indeed quite similar in design to the dussack waster, but we currently don’t know how far back that specific design goes. Most of the preserved ones date to the 1800s and were given by the fiance as an engagement gift to the future bride. These are still common in many Swedish homes as they are usually highly decorated and were never intended to be used for other purposes than decorative. Still, the shape is obviously older and most certainly dates to at least the 1700s.

Norwegian Swiss-import Tessaker from the late 1580s in private collection.

What we do know for sure is that in the first quarter of the 1500s soldiers already used short complex-hilt sabres on the battlefields and that these were called dussacke. As early as in 1539 Sweden was already importing these alongside of Schlachtschwerte and in 1589 the Norwegian King Christian IV began importing at least 8,000 dussacke from Switzerland, ordering all his peasants to arm themselves by buying them from the king at self-cost. This great number combined with the fact that only about 350,000 people lived in Norway at the time, would mean that about 1 in 10 of all Norwegian men would be armed with a dusack, and in particular the peasants. (For more reading concerning this, see the article Tessak – The Farmer’s sword.)

What characterizes a dussack?

Historically there were both straight and curved messers and steel dussacken. The curve is not a characteristics that differ the two weapons. Some wooden dussacke had nagles, but not all. Looking at about 40 collected sources, about half seem to have no nagle, but some of those sources are rather crude & simplified, almost symbolical design. 10 sources are unclear and another 10 show very fine nagles on the dussacke, among them we find illustrations by prominent and skilled artists like Brun, Amman, Senger, Breu and Stimmer.

The complex hilt of a dussacke, sometimes misappropriately called Sinclair Hilts after the Scottish mercenary George Sinclair who fought in the Kalmar Wars in Sweden in 1611-1613.

More importantly, as far as I can tell, the contemporary German steel dussacken all had protection for the right side of the hand, as well as a cross and a knuckle bow. As the side baskets grew bigger a thumb ring was also required to counter the balance issues that led to.

So why a dussack and not a messer?

19th cent painting by Józef Brandt of Habsburgian and Ottoman cavalry fighting.

“With myghti knyghtly poort, eue as Seynt George,
Lepe o thi foo, loke if he dar abide ;
Wil he nat fle, wounde him ; mak woundis wide,
Hew of his honde, his legge, his thegh, his armys ;
It is the Turk : though he be sleyn, noon harm is.

With knightly might press on as Saint George
Leap to your foe; observe if he dare abide;
Will he not flee? Wound him; make wounds wide
Hew off his hand, his leg, his thighs, his arms,
It is the Turk! Though he is slain, there is no harm.”

- Quote from Poem of the Pell, ca 1458-1460).

It is my belief that the development of the dussack is a direct response to conflicts between the Austria-centred Habsburgian and the “Turkish” Ottoman Empires. The Ottoman Empire came to existance with the Conquest of Constantinople already in 1453 and the empire would reach its peak in 1590. Conflicts between the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires were fierce and the opposing tactics and fighting styles certainly affected each other. Particularly influential and cataclysmic, I believe, were the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the Siege of Vienna in 1529. It is about this time period we see a change from the messer to the dussack in both fencing treatises and illustrations related to the fencing guilds.

Furthermore, Czech Prague was important to the HRE already in 1526 when the Bohemian estates elected Ferdinand I of the House of Habsburg. One of the most important things during his reign was the wars against the Ottoman Empire. He ruled all the way up until 1564, after which he was replaced by Maximillian II. Maximillian II would then be replaced by Rudolf II in 1576 and Rudolf II made Prague the residential city of the HRE the same year.

I think all this explains the odd choice of a Czech word for a German weapon. Furthermore there is also likely a connection to the Freyfechter guild who had their residence in Prague and were founded in the very same city in 1570.

Looking at the treatises, already in the Poem of the Pell of 1458 (see above), we see the pell called a “Turk”, a tradition that has been claimed to go back to the crusades in the East. Some treatises even show us depictions of Turks, like further below in the fencing manuscript of von Gunterrodt, but also in e.g. the MS Fol.U.423.792 fencing treatise of 1595 and Sebastian Heußler’s fencing treatise “New Künstlich Fechtbuch” of 1615.

Through the dussack and these fencing treatises I think we can trace some of these influences and thereby also explain why the dussack became so important in the fencing guilds. Due to the success of the supremely trained Turkish Sipahi cavalry and their Janissary infantry forces, the Habsburg nobles and army commanders simply came to wish for a weapon that could match the Turkish Kilij. However, the common Messer was an ancient weapon much associated with the peasants and simply would not do for a proper modern burgher or noble.

Peasants feasting, most men carrying messers. Illustration from 1535 by Hans Sebald Beham.

The messer itself already had a nagle on the hilt and this appears to have evolved into the dussack alongside of other forms of complex-hilt swords in the late 1400s.

Consequently, the swordsmiths took the messer and added a modern high-tech complex-hilt to it and gave it a new name; the dussack, the Czech word for fang and claw and already used for a simple and crude knife with a curved tang quite similar to the bow on a complex hilt dussack.

A Czech-type steel dussack. This was a simple knife used by peasants as a tool rather than a weapon.

It has even been suggested that this word is related to the Norse word seax, which is a single-edged short sword. However that remains to be validated properly.

Map of Prague, from ‘Civitates Orbis Terrarum’ by Georg Braun (1541-1622) and Frans Hogenberg (1535-90), c.1572

As already described, the Czech capitol Prague was an important city in the Habsburg Empire, periodically serving as the residental city and it is in fact where the Freyfechtere less than a 100 years later would receive their charters and their priveleges from Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg in Prague. And while the Freyfechter appears to have been more progressive than the older Marxbrüder fencing guild, and thus also favoured the rappier, they also lived and worked within an empire that put strong emphasis on the manly cut over the cowardly and foreign (read Italian) thrust. Numerous legal documents of the time describe how much more serious and unmanly the thrust was considered and in many cases using a thrust even without hitting was considered more serious than actually killing a man with a cut.

The dussack in fencing treatises and artwork

The first fencing treatise to mention the dussack, and to show a wooden “sabre” is the treatise “Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey” of Andre Paurñfeyndt, first published in 1516. Paurñfeyndt was a freifechter and possibly one of the early driving forces behind the forming of the Freyfechter Guild. He was of Austrian origin and at one time he even served as a trabant, a bodyguard, to Cardinal Matthäus Lang von Wellenburg. Paurñfeyndt, tells us that the messer is the root for all one handed swords, like the Tessak (at the time, an unusual and “new” weapon) and the Schweizerhanddegen, but its roots can also be traced in the arming sword and longsword.

From Austrian Freyfechter Andres Paurñfeyndt’s “Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey” of 1516.

Paurñfeyndt, uses the terms messer and tessak more or less interchangeably for base techniques.  However, we can’t say with certainty how Paurnfeindt would have named what is depicted in his treatise. Regardless, it is interesting to note that he shows wooden messers that have an unusual hilt that foreshadows what would be commonly used by the fencing guilds just a couple of decades later. The techniques are still very much based on the teachings of Johannes Leküchner.

In 1530, we see what appears to be wooden messers in the treatise Der Altenn Fechter anfengliche kunst, published by Christian Egonolff. This treatise is largely a redaction of Paurnfeindt’s treatise, although it has significant other material too. Again, this has strong ties to the teachings of Leküchner.

Fencers using wooden messers in Der Altern Fechter, from 1531.

Dussack fencers depicted on a glass window in Coburg, from ca 1530.

Also, ca 1530 we see a beautiful glass window from Coburg depicting two fencers holding large dussacke in the stances of Eber and Bogen.

Then in 1531 we see a wonderful astrological depiction of the “Children of the Sun”, the fencers and the musicians by Hans Sebald Beham.

Detail of Planetenkinder der Sonn by Hans Sebald Beham, 1531.

In 1533, in the treatise MS E.1939.65.354 by Ulm-born Gregor Erhart (later owned first by Freyfechter Lienhard Sollinger and later Paul Hektor Mair), we see a dussack among the other common weapons of the fencing guilds of the time period; fechtschwerter, staves, flails, halberds and daggers. Interestingly, these dussacken much resemble the straight ones of Paurnfeindt, but with properly closed knuckle bows. In the 2nd half, the non-illustrated part of the treatise, the weapon referred to is the messer, reportedly based on Leküchner.

From Gregor Erhart’s treatise of 1533.

Presumably a Meister des Langen Schwertes, depicted by Virgil Solis in 1535.

In 1534 we see an illustration of a fencer, by Virgil Solis, depicting the fencer holding a staff, with a fechtschwert and a dussack lying before him on the ground. These three weapons were the weapons one had to master to be allowed to call oneself a Meister des Langen Schwertes, which were the highest ranking fencing masters in the fencing guilds of the Renaissance.

Virgil Solis (1514-1562) is a particularly interesting illustrator to us Historical Fencers as he is known to have depicted both Marxbrüdere and Freyfechtere in training in numerous illustrations. He was born and worked in the city of Nürnberg, a highly important centre for the development of the Renaissance fencing arts.

Fencers, probably German Landsknechten, by Virgil Solis ca 1541.

Planetenkinder der Sol by Virgil Solis, ca 1540.

From Paul Hektor Mair’s Arte Athletica of 1542.

After this we have the group of fencing treatises by Paul Hektor Mair, with the first completed in 1542, but this treatise would have taken many years to complete as it is so large in volume and is a manuskript with a great number of lavish hand painted illustrations by Jörg Breu the Younger. It is possible, although still unconfirmed that Mair in part is of Swiss descent too. Here, the dussacke wasters have the distinct curve we all expect of a dussack and it also has a specific broad bow covering the outside of the hand. The techniques are now showing a new, distinct style, no longer as strictly tied to Leküchner.

And in 1545, we see how, like Fencing Master Joachim Meyer, Basel-born Sebastian Münster shows us the dussack when describing the Fechter von der Feder.

Sebastian Münster, describing the Art of Fencing and the Fechter von der Feder, ca 1545.

About this time we also see illustrations by Hanns Senger showing the wooden dussack in fechtschule and training.

Die Fechtschul by Hanns Senger, ca 1550.

In 1559 we see illustrations by Franz Isaac Brun, showing very large dussacke with very distinct, broad side-bows to protect the outside of the hand.

Dussack fencers by Franz Isaac Brun, ca 1559.

Then, in ca 1560, we see Swiss-born Freyfechter Joachim Meyer’s “von Solms fencing treatise” showing the dussack, and then ten years later, in 1570, in Joachim Meyer’s treatise “Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen, Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens“.

From Joachim Meyer’s Von Solm’s treatise of 1560.

By Meyer’s time, he claims that the Dussack is the root of all one handed swords and that it is the most commonly used weapon by the Germans next after the longsword. Meyer too uses guards from Leküchner but also clearly borrows from Paurñfeyndt.

From Joachim Meyer’s 1570 fencing treatise.

Meyer tells us explicitly that he uses the dussack to train all one handed swords, except for the Rappier, which partially gets a special treatment but even that weapon has strong ties to the use of the dussack. Interesting to note is that all of Meyer’s weapons were used on the battlefields of his time, possibly with the exception for the rondel dagger that is used to train dagger techniques despite the fact that it is not used anymore.
This is very interesting as this ties the fencing guilds even tighter to the actual soldiers using the steel dussacke on the battle fields. Curiously, we mostly see the German Landsknechten depicted with the Katzbalger, but keep in mind that Paurnfeindt is Austrian and Meyer Swiss and quite likely they are part of a southern influence, tied to Italy, with the storta, Switzerland, where the Reisläufer served as a role model for the German Landsknechten, Styria and the previously mentioned Austrian Habsburgers. Also, the katzbalger came in many different designs, with some having hilts identical to the dusack.

Then in 1579, Heinrich von Gunterrodt shows us a dussack when teaching us about the Dussack and Sabre right before showing Turks practicing with the Kilij. The fact that von Gunterrodt shows these weapons together is very interesting and might well confirm my belief stated above; that the dussack was developed in response to a need to match the Turkish Kilij in the conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. However, this Latin text remains to be translated.

A dussack from Heinrich von Gunterrodt’s treatise of 1579.

Turks fencing with Kilij from Heinrich von Gunterrodt’s fencing treatise of 1579

 

Turks from MS Fol.U.423.792 of 1595.

From Freyfechter Sebastian Heußler’s fencing treatise New Künstlich Fechtbuch of 1615.

The dussack waster was one of the most important weapons in the fencing guilds for more than 250 years and as the 167h/17th cent battlefield dussack came to evolve into the proper sabre it could actually be thought of as living on even into our modern age. The dussack is basically the father of the sabre fencing and as such I sincerely believe it deserves our deepest respect, at least as much respect as the longsword is currently given.

*

Here follows a collection of assorted images depicting dussack fencers.

Dussack fencers by Jost Amman, ca 1578.

Fechtschule im Schlosshof Düsseldorf, am 19 juni 1585

Detail from the Weckherlin Stammbuch of 1586.

Dussack fencers by Conrad Coltzius, ca 1590.

Simon Händl in 1590, from the Händl Stammbuch.

From Cod.Guelf.83.4 Aug.8º of 1591

Martin Pleginck, 1594.

From Jakob Sutor’s New Kunstliches Fechtbuch of 1612.

Roemer Visscher’s “Sinnepoppen” of 1614.

Ludolph van Ceulen, mathematician and fencing teacher at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, 1616.

Detail of the fencing hall at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, 1610.

Frontispice from an unidentified French book dated to 1618.

Ferdinand Fugger, from one of the 10 richest families in the world throughout history, depicted with symbols of his education. Among them, a dussack and a fechtschwert. 1618

Duke of Wurttemberg’s “New college of study”, exercises at Tubingen, 1626

Freyfechter Unterhauptmann Leonhard Schwab in 1671.

From the Meyer-derived fencing treatise Der Kunstliche Fechter by Theodori Verolini, 1679

Die wohlabgerichteten Federfechter und Marxbruder, 1689

Detail from an illustration depicting a fechtschule in ca 1720, from the Amberger Collection.

“Die Fechtschul”, from ca 1726-1750.

Roger Norling
Roger Norling is an instructor on Joachim Meÿer's Halben Stangen (Quarterstaff) with Gothenburg Historical Fencing School.

His main focus in his research is the "Kunst des Fechtens" and primarily the longsword, dussack and polearms. He has been focusing on the works of Joachim Meÿer since 2009. In this he has enjoyed collaborating with the Meyer Frei Fechter Guild and in May 2013 he became a Fechter of the MFFG. Recently, he has begun researching Meyer's dagger quite systematically using the same method he applied to his staff teachings.

Currently, he is writing on a series of books which will explore the teachings of Joachim Meyer, in collaboration with researcher friends in the HEMA community.

The upcoming two years he will be teaching Meÿer quarterstaff, dusack and longsword at various HEMA events in Europe and the USA. For more about this, read his instructor's profile.

34 Comments

  1. Cool article, very informative!

    One quick question though: we assume that the all the training weapons for the other weapons (longsword, rapier, etc) are steel, right? And they look pretty much like regular longswords and rapiers, so why then did they decide to use a wooden dussack waster instead of making a steel dussack blunt? Also, on the wooden dussacks – what happened to any semblance of a hand cup/complex hilt?

    • Thank you! I am glad you liked it!

      What they actually thought is of course hard to tell, but I can speculate. It seems as if the dussack was the beginner’s weapon, something the youths started with. Having it made out of wood and leather made it quite a bit safer than steel. In fact there are reports about tournaments where noone is able to cause their opponent to bleed and since that is how you won and got awarded the fighting had to be halted as everyone got completely bruised up in their faces.

      A wooden and leather dussack can be made to behave quite similarly to sharp dussack if it is well made. Here more work still needs to be done today I think. I recently had the chance to try an excellent long, rigid and quick dussack waster that I believe will improve our dussack fencing a lot. Looking at some of the images I think there even were dussack wasters that were hollow ground, covered with a layer of leather to make the wood more durable.

      However, creating a wooden longsword waster like this would be difficult as it likely wouldn’t be durable enough. Possibly, it is also a matter of tradition. Training longsword with fechtschwerte with flared schildts goes back to the early 1400s and such traditions are not necessarily easy to change.

      The construction of the dussack wasters at least in half the instances I have seen have a distinct cup covering the side. The bow is naturally there. The only things missing are the cross and the thumb ring. I assume they weren’t deemed necessary as working with the bind with these is less common and the bow still protects your hand.

      • I would also add that fabricating a wooden or wood-and-leather dussack would be a lot cheaper than fabricating a metal one, which again would tend to make them more attractive as a training tool.

  2. Hello Roger

    Okay, so it seems you want to vidicate that ugly-ass thing – hah! Evidently the real thing was more than just a leather/whalebone clown-weapon. The real steely battlefield weapon honestly seem the same to me as what we would call in Engligh a “cutlass”.

    Anyway, thanks!

    Jeffrey

    • Aye, a cutlass it is, my boy. :)

      And eventually this evolved into a proper sabre. In fact these were actually sometimes called sabres too, it seems. Gunterrodt even teaches it and I have Swedish legal documents from 1560 talking about a sabre.

      • I have an old cutlass replica – picked up about 30 years ago. At the time, it was sold to me as a “sabre d’abordage”, or ‘boarding sabre’

        • Yep, the Navy carried shorter sabres, cutlasses well into the 1900s. The same for prisons.

  3. I see you have been putting the dark northern winter nights to good use Roger! Great article. We’ve been working with the dussack quite a lot over the past year – it’s a real pleasure to see the weapon brought to life like this.

    You mention that the dussack evolved into the modern sabre – yet if feels much shorter and stubbier in the hand. What are your thoughts on the relative shortness of the dussack compared with other weapons?

    Adrian

    • Thank you Adrian! Glad you liked it!

      The thing is that not all dussacke wasters were so short. Meyer’s are about the length of an arm, even if he has a few different types. Mair’s are even longer. And looking at the steel dussacke they are often even longer. The biggest difference to a sabre is the complex hilt and the thumb ring and if I remember correctly even sabres sometimes had a thumb ring. And the techniques and stances of course changed with time to. I just sparred with a friend who is a sabre fencer and it is quite a challenge. He is so good at control. Binding him and pressing onwards close for a Nehmen with the left hand is the only thing I could figure out that worked… :)

  4. Very interesting article and it’s nice to see the Dussack getting some attention. I think a good follow up article could be: “Dussack has been well known and understood for years so how come people still dismiss it and what does that say about HEMA?”

    • Well there is a sort of SCA-attitude towards the dussacke. People use it more like a toy and do not really study it. We see this quite clearly in the tournaments where most people don’t even know the basic guards and yet they compete with this weapon. This we even see in some of the finals and that to me is a bit sad. It is not what I personally think HEMA should stand for.

      It is not just about fighting. It is about studying the historical sources and attempting to recreate the lost fencing arts. I see this as a goal a couple of decades in the future and we have a lot of hard work to do. We need to keep our focus and not get too impatient so we lose sight of the goals we originally set out to achieve.

      • It’s curious the negative attitude given it’s obvious continuities in technique from Messer and given how many modern groups train with wooden weapons without thinking any less of themselves.

        The fact the people can get to the finals of Dussack tournaments without any Dussack training shows mostly how poorly deisgned the competitions are and to a lesser extent how poor our interpretations are.

        Just a passing thought: Is the SCA such a catch all example of bad practice? I’m not and never have been in the SCA, but I’ve seen some good work done by some SCA groups and I suspect it’s lazy to tar them all with the same brush.

        • I agree to an extent about the SCA. More and more people there are studying the treatises too, and some fighters come from a tradition that involve quite fierce stick fighting. However, in HEMA we often try to separate ourselves from the approach of the SCA in that we take pride in studying the treatises in an attempt at recreating proper historical fencing. Sometimes I fear that more and more people in HEMA are dropping that ambition, instead focusing on just having fun fighting with different weapons. Some have even said it outright to me.

          • Actually I take that as a encouraging sign. The thing is technicial ability is just the icing on the cake. There are many foundational blocks that have to sit underneith technique before it becomes truely effective.

            Two such basics would be: a high level of fitness and a good mental control of the fight/flight response that allows you to be creative in a stressful situation.

            The reason why people with good knowledge of technique get defeated so often byignorant people is not mainly the fault of tournament structure or such like, it is that those “ignorant” people possess more key foundamental abilities.

            Therefore I would encourage people to abandon treatise study if it means thay are not focusing on the more important factors of getting fit or improving their ability to think creatively in a stressful situation.

            • Actually Ben, I would say quite the contrary: The technical ability is not the icing on the cake, it is at the core of all fighting. The physical fitness is only what allows us to perform them the best.

              All of us use technical skills, HEMA fencers, Reenactors, SCA Heavy Fighters and just regular street brawlers. Some are more advanced than others.
              The most relevant question for us is if the core of the techniques we use are “historical” or not. In my opinion they have to be. The real icing on the cake is our personal innovations , just like how the earlier masters added their own special tricks, like Ringeck’s particular Streichen from below. This is where you can let your own personal style develop, but only after having studied the treatises hard for a long time.

              Although many seem to perceive such a thing, there is really no opposition between techniques and dynamic fighting. In fact, I would say that they are the one and same. Knowing and understanding the principles that the techniques “embody” is what makes you a dynamic fighter and there are plenty of those in HEMA nowadays.

              I do agree, however, that good techniques won’t necessarily save you against a much more fit opponent. Especially not in our modern settings with friendly and safe fighting. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t important though. And they can certainly give you an advantage against much more fit but less technical fighters. I know this from personal experience.

              We have set out to recreate not just swordsmanship but the European Martial Arts from our history. That requires quite a lot more than just being able to defeat opponents in sparring and tournaments.

              There simply is no cause to abandon treatise study and focus more on getting fit instead. We need to do both as they are both equally required for us to be able to succeed in what we have set out to achieve.

              Unfortunately, this is not a good place to continue this debate as the site’s comment structure quickly gets messy. If you wish to continue debating this topic, then I suggest you start a thread on a HEMA -related forum.

              • I wonder how squashed the comments will get?

                • Squashed like a bug… But, I just updated the code a bit and removed the avatars from the comments, so there is more space for comments. :)

                  Oh, and I probably sounded a bit more aggressive than I intended to in my last comment. :)

                  • Definite improvement, and now more room for discussion without having to resort to the noise of the forums! Excellent.

                    Don’t worry, no offense taken.

                    I think, to give two specific examples of what I’m talking about:

                    That if you cannot hold the correct guard position, at the correct high, for the duration of a bout that you are not actually doing historically technique. I don’t think I have ever seen a case where training in HEMA alone has improved physical ability to the extent that is required for what is an athletic activity. I would therefore argue that people would be much better to put their study of technique on hold until then are physically capable of doing it correctly.

                    Another example would be that if you struggle to think creatively because you are overwhelmed in the stress of fight/flight response, then I would suggest you deal with that as a priority before technique. If that involves resorting to using “hack and slash” swordmanship, then so be it. Again, to my mind, you cannot approach proper HEMA without being able to think creatively during a bout.

                    Once physically and mentally capable, then I think you are capable of approaching technique and preforming it as it was intended.

                    I think this is proven by those people who do win tournaments. Generally they combine high fitness, good mental attitude and good technique. However the good technique is the icing on the cake as demonstrated by the fact that the 2rd, 3rd and 4th place will be filled by fit and/or mentally acute people often with bad technique while all those with the best “understanding” of technique fill up the mid to bottom of the table.

                    • Well I am not disputing that you need to be fit. Look at the guys shown in Meyer. I used to think they were idealized, similarly to the Roman architecture, but I no longer do. You need to be that fit to be able to use those stances and movement patterns. So yes, strength and fitness are absolutely required to be able to do the techniques properly.

                      But still, I would claim that the techniques are still at the core, not the icing. Being just a bit more fit doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage. It seems as if you need to be very much more fit and not even that is an insurance in any way. Experience and knowledge however does, and you can often see this with older, weaker, fatter and slower fencers still giving much younger and more fit but less experienced fighters a tough fight.

                      Again, we all use techniques. If you don’t study the historical ones, then you will create your own. With luck you end up near the historical styles, but you might also create something which works best in the context of friendly sparring and tournament fighting. This might lead to difficulties in switching to the historical fencing which evolved from a very different context, and perhaps even to changing the whole process of HEMA recreation.

                      Thinking creatively also comes from learning to become dynamic, which I think the whole Art is all about. It makes you more dynamic and flexible, being able to respond well in any thinkable situation. The fact that we have problems with this is more due to our training methods and how we do things I think.

                      And I don’t agree that those with the best understanding of technique fill up the mid to bottom of the table. I would argue that they actually normally win the tournaments, with some exceptions. However, remember that we are always only measuring ourselves against ourselves. So the results depends on the rules and how used we are to them, who is taking part of the tournaments, who we meet, our current understanding of the Art (which constantly evolves) and a lot of other factors. Not knowing the techniques and only relying on fitness is getting harder and harder in the tournaments.

  5. I finally took the time to read your very interesting article! As always: great work and beautiful collection of pictures!
    It is interesting to see on all these images that there was not a real standard in the size of the Dussack, sometimes very long and sometimes very short. In von Gunterrodt the Dussack is described as the first weapon because it is so close to wrestling and fighting with the fists if I remember it well… It’s a pity that in most Dussack fights we see in the HEMA community no wrestling is involved and – with all respect to the people who are good at fighting with the Dussack – no neat techniques are seen… But that’s another discussion!
    On one of the pictures (Duke of Wurttemberg’s New college of study,1626) one weapon is described as sica, which in my opinion clearly refers to the Dussack. Sica is a latin word usually used for curved weapons.

    • Thank you Bert!

      True, there is no standard for the length of dussacke, although the early ones more commonly seem to be of arm length at least. Later, the get very short.

      Interesting about von Gunterrodt’s comment about dussack and wrestling. I seem to recall something similar from Meyer, warning against just that.

  6. Great article Roger. I have just 2 points. I don’t believe the Dussack would have its roots in the Scutching Knife. If anything, its the other way around! There is absolutely no reason for a Scutching Knife to have a knucklebow or a clipped point. These are obviously hold-overs from the Dussack. I have never understood how Paul MacDonald reached the conclusion that he did. Second….the British Saber of the 19th century is clearly directly linked to the Backsword of the 18th century. They both share a guard structure similar to what was found with the Smallsword. The Backsword almost always had a straight blade. I can’t speak to the other Saber methods of the 19th century. But the Dussack doesn’t seem to have the same guard structure as the British Backsword/Saber methods. So a link between them and the Dussack may be a bit hard to establish. Things were likely developing along similar lines in various parts of Europe without necessarily having a direct relationship. But again…great article! :-)

    Keith

    • Thank you Keith! I am glad you liked the article!
      The scutching knife theory is tempting but the pre-1700s scutching knives seem to have had a different design. Regarding the need for a knucklebow; keep in mind that the early dussack wasters appear to not have had closed knucklebows.

      As for the sabre, not necessarily the British, I actually believe that there is a line coming all the way from the messer, through the dussack and the cutlass to the modern sabre, in some instances with influences from Turkey, Hungary and India and their Kilij, Szabla and Tulwar, respectively. The guards changed of course, for many reasons, as did the hilt construction. Hard to establish probably, but I do think there is a direct relationship, even if sometimes distant. Remember how Meyer compares the fencing with the sidesword (Rappier) to dussack fencing? :)

      It is also possible to see a development in hilt construction with 18th cent sabres being the missing link between the 16th cent dussack and the 19th cent sabre.

      Compare to these:

      Pallasch m/1734, kavalleri, Danmark-Norge

      Sabel m/1742, lätt kavalleri, Sachsen.

      Sabel m/1759 för jägartrupper

      Sabel m/1770, officer, dragonregemente

      Sabel m/1775, Savolax lätta infanteriregemente

      Sabel m/1778, underofficer, kavalleri.

  7. Hi Roger!
    As to the Dussack/Scutching Knife connection, my logic goes like this:
    1. Examples of the wooden Dussack in the historical manuals date from the 16th & 17th century.
    2. Examples of wooden Scutching Knives that resemble the Dussack date from the 19th & 20th century.
    3. Most examples of Scutching Knives look like paddles. Only a select few resemble Dussacks.
    4. Scutching Knives would have no need for a knucklebow or clipped point for working flax.
    5. Logical conclusion: Some Scutching knives were modeled after wooden Dussacks.
    We need to stop repeating Paul MacDonald’s flawed conclusion. Kudo’s to him for noting this connection, but his conclusion was questionable.

    Thanks for the photo links! But one could say that the large handguards are scaled down from the full baskethilt found on backswords. Of course, I have no idea whether the backsword had any influence on saber designs outside of Britian. And I was thinking more of methods of use than weapon design, which of course could be two entirely separate things!

    Keith

    • I do understand your logic. I just think it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions in either direction. I don’t approve of MacDonald’s theory though. :)

      Britain might be different, but remember that even the Scottish mercenary George Sinclair used the German/Swiss dussacke during e.g. the Kalmar War. It was even named after him afterwards. And this has been expressely claimed to have influenced the basket-hilt claymores.

  8. Wonderful article. I fully agree with so many conclusions in it. The sentiment of giving the dussack more respect, and treating it as more than simply a toy, is particularly important. While I’ve had some ugly fights, I’ve always tried to treat it as the weapon it really was.

  9. I don’t know whether you’re interested in more examples of the type of weapon at the very top of this page, but the arsenal in Graz, Austria, the Steierische Landeszeughaus, has a number of them in its collection. They also still sell a book, AFAIK discounted to 1 euro, that illustrates a wide variety of swords and spears in their collection, including some of that dussack/cutlass/heavy infantry saber configuration.

    • Thanks Scott! That is certainly very interesting! I will check it out.

  10. Well put together. That cleared some things up for me. I remember hearing about dussack’s strong ties to saber back at IG ’09, but this illuminated those ties. I never knew that dussack was so neglected at large! I’ve studied it here and there through the years and found that it paid off well. Studying one weapon often improves my ability in others, and the dussack/messer is indeed my preferred one-hander.

    Interesting discussion above. It’s neat to see people’s different thoughts, approaches, and goals.

    • True. This is the Wappen of the Messerschmidt, the cuttlers. Meyer, and possibly his father too, was a cuttler for part of his life. It is how he became a burgher of Straßburg. The Messerschmidt Wappen can be seen in many places in the background of his 1570 treatise, if you look carefully.

      Many Freifechter von der Feder were also cuttlers.

  11. Dear Sir,

    I am sorry to trouble you but I would be most grateful for advise regarding the possible use of the Dussack by Ruperts Lifegard during the English civil wars.

    I am a 17thC cavalry rein-actor in the U.K. and I am in need of a stronger blade to withstand the blows delivered by some of the the over enthusiastic ironsides, who are unnecessarily attempting to break my German Rapier with their lumps of rusty iron.

    Kindest Regards

    Barti
    (Stereotypical Brit from the Kings Oxford Garrison)

    • Hi Barti!

      Well what kind of advise are you looking for? I have to admit I know rather little about how the British armies were armed, but the dussack is often called a Sinclair Hilt today, after the famous George Sinclair. They are also often called Basket-hilts although that today often refers to a quite specific hilt type. Lots of experimentation and variation with sword types in this time period. Mortuary swords is another modern term and basically all of these are proto-sabres, even if the term sabre was used as early as in the 1500s.

      Buying a dussack replica it is a bit tricky. I believe Pavel Marek has made a nice one. DelTin makes a sharp. However, there are quite a few good swordsmiths out there that I am sure would be willing to make one. Talk to Pavel Moc, Peter Regenyei, Jan Chodkiewicz, Miran Kristic or Marco Danelli.

      As for how to handle a dussack I would suggest you study Joachim Meyer or his derivative Jakob Sutor. Meyer’s books were printed, reprinted and copied all through the 15-1600s. It is my own main focus and you can see a little bit of how you fight with these here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzeDzmEOCIg

  12. Hi Roger, thanks for taking the time to reply. I believe the period involved was before the British army existed, the military still being raised, financed and equipped from the nobility when necessary.

    For my part, in order to use a Dussack as a member of Prince Rupert’s Cavalry, whose troopers were presumably raised in and around Bavaria, for use in reenactments of the English Civil wars 1642- 1651, I need to ensure that it is a likely weapon for them to have used.

    Having followed your George Sinclair link, which with hindsight I should have done on my own initiative, it seems to me that it is entirely reasonable that the nobles accompanying Prince Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine and Duke of Bavaria, etc. to assist his uncle, Charles I in 1642, could have used a Dussack.

    The reason for wanting to use one for reenactment is that due to the danger of serious fencing whilst aboard a half witted stable hack amidst cannon fire and colour waving, we are only able to tap our blades in an attempt to recreate some sort of effect for the audience, however, some of the opposition who are equipped with rusty, heavy excuses for cavalry swords (Very basic Mortuaries), seem determine to wreck our more elegant weapons. When necessary, the Dussack. short and broad with a fat back edge, seems to me to be the perfect blade biter.
    Yours for the cause
    Huzzah!

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