19thC Russian Backsword (Palash)

palash

Brief Summary

Russian Backsword, called Palash, is a cutting/thrusting weapon, featuring a long straight blade (up to 1 m in length) and a complex hilt. Early models were sharp from both sides, however all of the later weapons have a single cutting edge. The hilt of the later varieties is sometimes reminiscent of Mortuary hilts.

It is a weapon of the similar class to the Regimental Broadsword, used mostly by the heavy cavalry, though Russian Dragoons had it at some point too. Similar weapons were used by the heavy cavalries of other European countries at that time.

Despite the similarities between weapons, there were different stylistic preferences among the different armies. For example, we know that Swedes in the XVIII century would prefer thrusting attacks while charging, while Russian cavalry favoured cutting attacks. The Swedes argued that by cutting Russians would break their ranks and thus weaken the charge, however Peter the Great stood firmly for maintaining the cutting tradition.

The importance of Palash can be further emphasised by the fact that Peter’s guidelines to the cavalry were to use sword as a primary weapon, and only shoot if the enemy retreats. Thus the Russians had to be extremely effective with their swords to still be a serious force. In contrast, the Swedes would shoot first, before charging with melee weapons.

Unfortunately, there is little possibility to accurately reconstruct what knowledge of backsword fencing an average Russian soldier would have. The military statutes for the main cavalry and even infantry regiments of various editions seem to only cover how to draw the weapons in the fancy fashion, even though written at the time, when those weapons would be actively used in battle. The only exception seem to be Cossack troops, statutes for which describe the actual use of their Shashkas, but it is a whole different story.

There is at least one manual on duelling, though. The 1843 "Outlining the Rules of the Art of Fencing" by Sokolov tells us how to properly use backsword for one-on-one bouts (as well as various other disciplines). From it we can clearly see that Russians favoured moulinet cuts, and that the system was not geometrical (i.e. no cuts 1–8 going around the circle), but rather focused on the opponents body—the features of the system that are often hinted from many side sources that mention Russian fencing preferences. The system has many other interesting peculiarities, like slipping with each parry and single passive "on-guard" position, with the wide variety of deflects, but no other "guards".

We can incorporate this knowledge into teaching swordfighting as a modern martial art, which we practice with our safety and historical accurateness in mind. It provides a different angle at the more usual Broadsword fencing, valuable for those exploring their own fighting preferences. It also gives students an opportunity to reflect on fencing as a broader European phenomena, speculating on its development over time, intercultural trends and fashions that shaped the disciplines into what they came to be.


Main Sources

- Sokolov. Outlining the Rules of the Art of Fencing (as a guide for the military in the Distinguished Guardian Corps as well as Militaristic Educational Institutions), 1843.


Equipment

To begin practicing this discipline in the Academy of Historical Arts, you will need the following items:

- synthetic broadsword
- fencing mask
- thin gloves

The links will take you to the appropriate pages on the Corsair's Wares website, where you may purchase the necessary equipment. Buying through Corsair's Wares puts money back into the Academy of Historical Arts so that we can further our educational activities.


Protective Gear Minimum Requirements

According to the AHA Health and Safety Policy, these are the current minimum requirements to engage in activities safely for this discipline. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are mandatory, items marked in italics are recommended. Most of these items are available through Corsair's Wares; buying through Corsair's Wares puts money back into the Academy of Historical Arts so that we can further our educational activities.

- drilling with wooden/synthetic swords
* Head: CEN level 1 mask
Head: CEN level 2 mask (recommended)
Head: padded mask overlay (recommended)
Head: back of head protection (recommended)
Neck: rigid throat protector (recommended)
Torso: rigid chest protector (recommended)
Torso: padded jacket or gambeson (recommended)
Torso: groin guard (recommended)
Arms: forearm & elbow protection (recommended)
Hands: thin or preferably well padded gloves (recommended)
Legs: knee & shin guards (recommended)

- sparring with wooden/synthetic swords
* Head: CEN level 1 mask
* Hands: well padded gloves
Head: CEN level 2 mask (recommended)
Head: padded mask overlay (recommended)
Head: back of head protection (recommended)
Neck: rigid throat protector (recommended)
Torso: rigid chest protector (recommended)
Torso: padded jacket or gambeson (recommended)
Torso: groin guard (recommended)
Arms: forearm & elbow protection (recommended)
Legs: knee & shin guards (recommended)

- drilling with steel swords
* Head: CEN level 1 mask
Head: CEN level 2 mask (recommended)
Head: padded mask overlay (recommended)
Head: back of head protection (recommended)
Neck: rigid throat protector (recommended)
Torso: rigid chest protector (recommended)
Torso: padded jacket or gambeson (recommended)
Torso: 350N or preferably 800N rated underplastron (recommended)
Torso: groin guard (recommended)
Arms: forearm & elbow protection (recommended)
Hands: thin or preferably well padded gloves (recommended)
Legs: knee & shin guards (recommended)

- sparring with steel swords
* Head: CEN level 1 mask
* Head: back of head protection
* Torso: padded jacket or gambeson
* Hands: well padded gloves
* Legs: knee & shin guards
Head: CEN level 2 mask (recommended)
Head: padded mask overlay (recommended)
Neck: rigid throat protector (recommended)
Torso: rigid chest protector (recommended)
Torso: 350N or preferably 800N rated underplastron (recommended)
Torso: groin guard (recommended)
Arms: forearm & elbow protection (recommended)


We have gone to great lengths to ensure that we do not mandate and price people out of the activity. It should always be possible to participate in training, even if only to a lesser degree of intensity. Obviously the more intense and less safe the activity becomes, the more protective gear is necessary to mitigate the risk of harm. You are always welcome to wear more protective gear than the minimum requirements, we will never tell you to remove protective gear (unless it poses a risk to yourself or other participants, for whatever reason).


Useful Resources

For a comprehensive list of treatises, transcriptions and translations, there is no better resource than the Wiktenauer: http://www.wiktenauer.com/