Weapons: The Subtlety of the Modern Sports Sabers
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Collectors of modern sports weapons face a bit of a dilemma. It’s almost impossible to tell a piece of recent scrap metal found in the back of the club armory from a weapon with at least budding historical value.
Luckily, some old fencing equipment catalogs provide a clue at dating and contextual placement. Like the 1938 catalog of Vince Fencing Equipment, Inc., which provides some clues to early sports sabers…
Baltimore, MD—If you thought it’s difficult to date an old foil to within half a decade of its manufacturing date, try sabers.
The modern sports saber—minus its current electrical accoutrements—has been around for 80-100 years by now, give or take a few. In that period, there were some major changes that provide clues to dating a particular weapon. Early weapons had steel guards before the switch was made to aluminum in the late 1930′s. Manufacturers and outfitters kindly left the occasional mark on a blade that narrows down the date of sale if not actual usage. And there are variations in the most popular shapes of guards, with and without rolled edges.
Now, sport sabers are a bit of the red-headed step child of the fencing world: With the elimination of the broadsword or gymnasia/practice saber training in the Western armies after World War I, the natural flow of fencing education channelled fencers from the large pool of the foil to the smaller puddle of the épée, to—maybe—the tiny spillage of the saber, a men-only weapon at least in top-level competition until the end of the 20th century. Naturally, the number of historical weapons reflects the numerical disparity of the historical fencers pool: It is quite difficult to run across actual old, complete sports sabers.
And even then, you can rarely tell if a blade was made in 1935, 1965, 1995.
The collector of old fencing weapons has to rely heavily on printed ephemera to place a particular weapon in a timeline. There is no reference literature, no price guides, no handbook of sports weapons. That gap has to be filled by more or less random access to the surviving catalogs of fencing gear vendors.
At the Vince School of Fencing (a.k.a. Salle d’Armes Vince), US national coach Joseph Vince not only coached the top New York and national fencers for decades. He also wrote two cornerstones of American fencing literaturer (Fencing and Fundamentals of Foil Fencing). And he ran Vince Fencing Equipment, Inc., located on 767 Broadway in New York City, whose weapons these days make up about 25% of old sports weapons sold in the States, right alongside those marked by the Castellos.
Vince was a graduate of the Royal Polytechnic Institute of Budapest, Hungary, and an officer in the k.u.k. Austro-Hungarian Army. He emigrated to the States in 1924. A design engineer for a public utility by trade, he won several national championships before making fencing his career.
(Law students may remember him for a famous tort case, Garcia v. Joseph Vince Co. (1978) 84 Cal.App.3d 868.)
Vince’s 1938 catalog is of special interest to the collector of sports weapons. America being an eclectic market, it represents weapons of Italian and French, but also of custom American manufacture—in surprisingly numerous varieties. Vince was one of the driving forces in creating a Made in USA supply network, manufacturing blades and gear using American manufacturers rather than restricting himself to imports.
Variety is the Spice of Life
In his 1938 catalog, Vince hints at the various influences that shape the inclusion of weapons patterns in his catalog:
“The recent great interest in the demand for Italian foils is undoubtedly due to the spectacular success of the Italian fencers at the 1936 Olympic Games and in the 1938 World Championships.”
As usual, click on the image for a larger image.
As today, we find blades with Y- and T-shaped cross sections. (Standard Y blades are lighter and came in 5 and 6mm widths measured at the guard.) The guards themselves show greater variety than the modern weapons, as do handles and, to a lesser degree, pommels.
Total Length: 41″ Total Weight: 329g or 11 1/8 oz
Blade: Y-Shape 5mm, “ITALY”
Hilt to Tip Length: 33 3/4″; Width: 1/4″ (hilt), 3/16″ (tip); 3 groves, length of ungroved flat: 13″
Guard: Possibly copper, partially gilded, with felt pad
Handle: Wood, 1/2″ wide
Pommel: Spherical, non-ferrous
Total Length: 41″ Total Weight: 375 g or 13 1/4 oz
Blade: Y-Shape 5mm, “5, POLOTTI SCHERMA Lumislan… (?)”
Hilt to Tip Length: 34″; Width: 1/4″ (hilt), 3/16″ (tip); 3 groves, length of ungroved flat: 12″
Guard: steel, possibly Vince’s Italian Olympia Model (1938 Cat. Item # 80)
Handle: Carved wood (diamond pattern), 1/2″ wide, split, with old tape repair, possibly Vince’s 1938 Cat. Item # 97,
Pommel: nickel-plated standard saber pommel with two flat sides, 1 1/8 oz or 31 g, possibly Vince’s 1938 Cat. Item # 106
Total Length: 41″ Total Weight: 385 g or 13 1/4 oz
Blade: T-Shape 6mm, set at angle, “VINCE NEW YORK / Made in Italy”
Hilt to Tip Length: 34″; Width: 1/4″ (hilt), 3/16″ (tip); length of ungroved flat: 13 1/4″
Guard: steel, Vince’s Italian Olympia Model (1938 Cat. Item # 80)
Handle: cord-wrapped wood, 1/2″ wide
Pommel: standard saber pommel with two flat sides
We’re frequently asked what a particular sports weapon is worth. Lacking a wide market for old sports weapons, this tends to be difficult to answer. While old foils and especially épées tend to have a larger collector base and more historical and qualitative depth, older sports sabers are just one step above junk status. A decent weapon with dateable features might be priced between $35 an $80.