Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Umbrella from Hunter/Victim : Umbrella Fighting Part 1a

            As promised in the previous blog, an excerpt from Robert Sheckley’s entertaining novel “Hunter/Victim”. In this scene Blackwell is being trained as an assassin before being sent to liquidate a drug dealer.

            “For close-in work, you’ll use a hand-gun, or one of those lethal toys out Development Section is always coming up with. But to my way of thinking, a walking-stick is better than any hand-gun made, and an umbrella is better yet.”
            McNab was an expert in umbrella fighting.
            “I’m not talking about a sword-umbrella, mind. Too risky if you get caught. Too specialized. What I’m discussing here is a plain umbrella with a wood or bamboo shaft, though we have a model made of surgical steel that’s the best of the lot. You can sharpen the point. And if the handle is rounded and weighted with lead, you’ve got a murder weapon at either end.”
            McNab demonstrated the basic moves: the feint in which you pretend to open the umbrella, the lunge for the target, the first riposte, the second riposte, the follow-up with the weighted handle. Blackwell practised faithfully several times a day. He became proficient, though never got as good as McNab, who had spent a lifetime in rainy climates practising his trade.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Fencing Parries : Umbrella Fighting Part 1

            Many years ago someone tried to mug a friend of mine. My friend stabbed at the mugger’s throat with his umbrella and with his other hand attempted to “drive his nose up into his brain”. Those of you with some knowledge of anatomy or martial arts, such as those who have read my book will know that you cannot drive the nose into the brain. It is, however, a very good defensive strike and my friend’s spirit and tenacity was correct even if he did learn his fighting moves from novels.
            The umbrella can be a viable weapon. In Robert Sheckley’s  “Hunter/Victim” there is a diverting passage where the protagonist is trained to use an umbrella. I don’t have an electronic version so I will have to find time to type that in for a later blog. Two ways immediately suggest themselves to use an umbrella defensively. One is to use it two-handed like a swagger stick as described by Fairbairn and also in my book. The other is to use it like a fencing sword.
            An umbrella and a fencing sword have several things in common. Both primarily use the point and both are of little use for swung strikes. The umbrella is padded and the foil or epee us unsharpened. Even “sharp” fencing swords such as the rapier and smallsword were only sharp enough to deter the blade being grabbed and lacked the weight and bevel to produce a deep cut. With a cane or umbrella your opponent will be more aware that the weapon may be grabbed. The umbrella lacks a guard, so your hand is more vulnerable.It may be more prudent to make your opening moves with the umbrella not presented forwards. Shown below are a rear-guard and a hanging guard position used with a walking cane.

            When looking at fencing swords as an inspiration for real word defensive moves a few caveats must be kept in mind. The first is that rapiers, smallswords and their derived fencing weapons were used a little differently to other swords. For most swords a parry is taken on the flat or sometimes the back of the blade. With the rapier and smallsword the parry is more commonly taken on the main edge or the outside of the blade. Modern fencing is a sport, and the weapons used are much lighter than their real weapon equivalents. Moves that can be executed with finger and wrist movements will be slower and require more strength with heavier or bulkier weapons. Sport fencing involves limited target areas. For the foil hits can only be made on the torso. For the sabre only above the waist. The defensive moves taught for these weapons concentrate on defending these targets. Epee uses the whole body as a legitimate target but the fencer will have little experience against heavier or longer weapons.
            Fencing is, of course, a broad topic so today’s blog will just consider some of the parries possible with a fencing sword or an object such as an umbrella. In my book I describe how defensive techniques can be considered to involve four quadrants:- High Outside, Low Outside, High Inside and Low Inside. This can be seen to hold true for fencing. The characteristic feature is that since the fencing weapon (or brolly!) attacks with the point all of these defensive moves are made “in-line”, with the point directed towards the attacker for a quick counter attack.
            The different parries are numbered in French and at first glance this seems to have no logic or order. The four most useful parries are

Sixte/Tierce : High Outside

Quarte/ Carte : High Inside

Septime : Low Inside

Octave : Low Outside

            Just to confuse things further, the positions are in some instances different for Foil/Epee and Sabre, depending on the target areas to be defended and the differing characteristics of the weapons.

            The numbering system becomes a little more logical if you consider the whole sequence in order.

            The first parry is Prime (below) and it is sometimes described as the parry you would be most likely to adopt if in the act of drawing your sword. Prime can defend the head on the inside line and uses the hand in pronation (palm down, knuckles up). It is sometimes called “looking at your watch” parry which is helpful in remembering it.

            Seconde is a low outside parry with the hand in pronation. The point is directed downwards, relative to the guard but still points towards your foe. If you imagine that the act of drawing your sword was continued you can imagine that your sword that passed through Prime might end up down and to your outside.
            If you raise your point, you move into Tierce and can defend your high outside. Your hand is still in Pronation. Tierce is one of the primary sabre parries and is used for all weapons that parry with the flat of the blade. It is the recommended high outside parry for umbrellas since it is strong and the hand in pronation with the weight of the handle pushing up on it is less fatiguing.
            If you bring your sword from Tierce across your body to parry on the high inside you will have moved into Quarte. This is the first of the parries that uses the hand supinated. (palm up, knuckles down).
            Now you must imagine your foe tries to strike at your head on the outside and you raise your sword up to parry and defend your head. This is the St.George’s parry or Quinte. Strictly speaking the point is a little higher than the guard. If slightly lower it becomes a hanging guard parry. Ideally the point should still be directed towards your foe when parrying. This parry is so called because St.George is so often shown in paintings with his sword raised above his head. The actual parry of Quinte varies considerably between foil/epee and sabre. For our purposes its variation as a head defence is most useful to us.
            Sixte resembles Tierce but has the hand in supination. Like Tierce it is a high outside defence. Sixte was one of the last fencing parries to be formally named and it reflects that a different part of the blade is used to parry with a rapier/smallsword/foil/epee than with other swords. Switching from Sixte to Quarte or the reverse is probably a fraction quicker since the hand does not change position.
            Septine is the low inside parry and can be thought of as Quarte with the point dropped. The hand is in supination.
            Move your hand across from Septine to the low outside and you have the parry of Octave. This is a supinated version of Seconde.
            There is also a parry of Neuvieme, which resembles a high Septine. Neuvieme also gets described as a variant of Octive with the blade behind the back. Other fencers describe the “ninth parry” as distance, which is a useful reminder that evasion and avoidance are often the best defence.
            While the above list seems extensive it is worth remembering that in his proposed manual for the battlefield use of the broadsword Sir Richard Burton concentrated on just the Tierce and Quarte (“Carte”) parries for this weapon. Low attacks were met by a low Tierce or Quarte, attacks to the head by a high version of Tierce or Quarte. If practicing to defend yourself with an umbrella I would build your technique around these two parries first.
             With a sword, umbrella or any similar one-handed weapon it should be remembered that the section nearest the hand is the strongest and this is where attacks should be parried with.
            Unlike sport fencing, the free hand should be positioned over the chest to defend it. This can be seen being done by Harvey Keitel (the moustached cavalryman) in the clip below.

The Books

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Christmas Creep- Enough is Enough!

            It is called “Christmas Creep”. This is not a character in a film by Tim Burton. It is an unwelcome phenomenon that has become even more apparent this year from last year.

            At the start of October I went for a walk and ended up shopping in a supermarket I do not usually use. As I am approaching the check-out I notice signs for mulled wine and a few other traditional Christmas foodstuffs. I have no problem with this. Stocking up early is just prudent, and some years I have got most of my Christmas present shopping done in January. The reason this day sticks in mind is that when I returned home I noticed a Christmas film in the TV listings.
A few days later things gather momentum. Certain TV channels are proudly announcing that they are now showing Christmas movies 24 hours a day. Decorations are going up. Christmas Carols are being played in stores. I don’t listen to the radio often these days but I suspect that certain of them have already switched to their Christmas playlists. Constant adverts for supermarkets urge me to buy food for a meal that is still two months away! It is only October my brain protests! We had not even had Halloween yet.

            Acquaintances on facebook make posts about Christmas. “It is only October/November” I protest. I get accused of being a Scrooge or a Humbug! Complaining about Christmas in December is being a Humbug. Not celebrating it in October and November is not being a little corporate bitch-puppet.

            Looking at my blog from last year I did note that Christmas was beginning to be promoted in October but things seem way worse this year. Having Christmas items in the shops early is one thing, but trying to start Christmas three months in advance is not. It is not just the stores, but also the TV channels who switched to their Christmas programming in October. One supermarket chain apparently opened their Santa’s Grotto in August!

            Christmas does not become more fun if you start it early. Actually one of the best Christmases I ever had was just one day, but that is another story. It is too late this year, but next year let’s keep Christmas in December. If anyone even mentions Christmas before December 1st firmly tell them “It is only October/November” –although I suspect next year I will be saying this in September!
            Next year I will also adopt a policy of whenever possible boycotting companies that try to promote Christmas before December. I suggest you do the same.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Hair, Phones and Attention.

            Usually I walk my girlfriend to the station, even though it is only a block or so. For various reasons the other night this was not possible. As she was leaving she mentioned that she had to text her sister.
            “Don’t use your phone on the street” I lectured. “I mean it. Wait until you are somewhere safe.”

            The next day a friend of mine coincidentally posted this link up on his page.

       The technique shown is an extension of that given against hair grabs in my book. Using both hands so the elbows shield the face is a good modification, as is ducking under the arm to twist it. It probably doesn’t matter if you go outside-in or inside-out initially so long as the arm ends up twisted and you on the outside gate.

            What is glossed over in this article is that a woman is easier to attack if she is not aware. Yes, that means that you should not be focusing all your attention on your phone. Just because you want to do something does not mean that you should or that it is safe to do so. The big, bad universe cares little for personal desires!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Supercavitating Machine-gun Bullets.

            In 1957 a British Government White Paper proposed cutting funding to manned interceptor projects in favour of developing surface to air missile systems. As should have been obvious, but evidently was not, this was a very foolish decision. If in a total war footing it may be possible to destroy any aircraft entering your airspace with missiles. In most other situations it is prudent to intercept and confirm that a target is in fact hostile. Much of the cold war was spent with fighters intercepting intruding aircraft and driving them off, with never a shot fired. Such actions are of course impossible for a missile.
            A similar situation occurs with naval operations. A modern warship or submarine can destroy a target at hundreds of miles range, but more commonly a target needs to be visually verified. It may need to be boarded and searched to confirm it is what it seems. If it is hostile a captured vessel will yield more useful intelligence than one that is sunk. If shots need to be exchanged, it will often be a warning shot or a burst to disable the engines. Large calibre shells and missiles are not suited to such tasks. For these reasons the machine gun is an important but often overlooked weapon for naval operations, be it mounted on boat, helicopter or warship.

            Last night, while researching some information on supercavitating torpedoes I came across some references to supercavitating bullets. I came across the idea of applying supercavitation to rifle calibre bullets a few years ago in the context of deep penetration rounds for big game hunting. When supercavitation features are applied to bullets they also have an extended range when fired into the water. For example, the 30mm cannon round being developed has a through-water range against mines of at least 75 feet.

            Supercavitating rounds of smaller calibres have also been developed and have an obvious application for naval machine guns. With a longer underwater range machineguns can be used for the destruction of underwater mines and have a better capability against enemy frogmen. There has been some suggestions that such weapons can be used against torpedoes. By the time a torpedo gets into machine gun range things will be pretty desperate so there is nothing lost in trying this by then I suppose. In larger (cannon) calibres supercavitating rounds may have a more practical application against torpedoes if a ship’s CIWS system can be programmed to also engage underwater targets.

            There are a couple of things I wonder about supercavitating machine gun ammo. Would the rounds have an acceptable performance through air at likely engagement ranges? Many of the targets likely to be engaged by naval machine guns will be of wooden planking or sheet metal, so does the round have adequate penetration against these? If the answers to these questions of performance are positive these rounds is we may see small calibre supercavitating rounds adopted more widely for naval service.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Boarding Pikes

            The Boarding Pike has a very long history. Spears and Javelins have probably been used on board ships at the very start of naval warfare. In the Royal Navy Boarding Pikes remained in service on board ships until 1926.

            When we imagine shipboard combat the cutlass is the weapon that springs to mind. Many fighters throughout the ages and across the world appreciate that a competently used quarter staff is generally superior to a sword. The boarding pike is essentially a staff with a metal point added. Not only can it defend its user, but also parry attacks against nearby comrades.

            The boarding pike was to evolve over the ages, and in its final form it had a number of interesting design features.

            Length of boarding pike varied. Some were as long as 10 or 12 feet but typically they were between 7 and 9 feet. (Note that examples in museums have sometimes been cut down for display)  Regular readers will know this is the size recommended by many western and eastern martial traditions as being the optimum length for a long fighting staff, or a spear capable of being wielded in one hand.

            Early boarding pikes had broader leaf-shaped blade and this design persisted longer in US Navy service than among the European sea powers. Spear heads are seldom used as cutting weapons. To cut effectively a blade must strike edge on and not be canted either in delivery or upon impact. Most weapons intended for cutting have an oval or polygonal section grip to facilitate this. Spears, on the other hand, usually have simple round section shafts. Many designs of boarding pike accordingly had triangular, square or diamond section spike like blades.

            One of the reasons for the popularity of the spike was doubtless that it was simple to mass-produce, but it also had other advantages. The spike head was quite light, making the weapon faster and more agile. The spike penetrated efficiently and was also easy to withdraw, being less likely than a broader blade to jam in areas such as the ribs. As many readers will have heard, a triangular section blade is supposed to create a self-supporting wound that remains open and bleeds more freely rather than closing. This may also be true of a sufficiently sized square or diamond section blade.

            Most boarding pike heads incorporated langets, which are metal straps or reinforcements that extend down the shaft, a useful feature for a weapon that might have to deal with blows from cutlasses or boarding axes.

           Another notable design feature on many boarding pikes was that the head was narrower than the shaft, a feature that theoretically was supposed to limit penetration. One might wonder here why some form of arresting device such as a crossbar was not incorporated, as is seen on many hunting and military polearms used on the land. The answer is that the boarding pike was intended to be used in an environment where rigging and netting that might catch on a projection was commonly encountered. While I have seen a few illustrations of boarding pikes fitted with a backward facing hook the majority are designed to be free of projections.

            Another interesting design feature is found at the other end of the boarding pike shaft. Around 1800 the Royal Navy was issued with a standardized design of pike. Having been designed by experienced Soldiers it featured a metal spike on the butt. On board ship it was soon found this spike damaged the deck and would become embedded in the wood when the pike was grounded. Boarding Pikes generally have a wooden butt. Some have a metal collar or fitting near the butt through which a wooden section of butt projects, and blunt brass fittings are sometimes found too.