Tools of the Trade: Styrian Dussack

“Tools of the Trade” is an ongoing series highlighting antique weapons/equipment pertaining to Western swordsmanship. It will feature hi-res photography and statistics, but also will address the tools from a martial artist’s point of view. Click on each image for the full resolution.

Dussack
Styrian (Austria), last quarter of the 16th Century
by Bill Grandy

Location: The Finnegan Collection (Private)
Overall length:  37 inches (94 cm)
Blade length:  32.4 inches (82.25 cm)
False edge:  11.4 inches (29 cm)
Blade width: 1.25 inches at guard (3.18 cm)
Point of Balance: 4.5 inches (11.5 cm) from guard
Grip length: 3.9 inches (10 cm)
Guard width: 8.7 inches (22 cm)
Weight:  2 lbs 2 oz (0.963 Kilograms)

The term Dussack is commonly known to HEMA fencers as the wooden training sword seen in 16th century German fencing treatises. Many are unaware that the wooden tool is named for the actual weapon, a complex-hilted cutlass seen throughout the Holy Roman Empire from around the mid-1500s and well past the 1600s. Also known as a Dussage, the name likely comes from the Czech word Tessak for “fang” or “claw”. This type of weapon was heavily used in the Ottoman Wars in Austria.

From a martial arts perspective, 16th century dussack training is related to the use of 15th century messer, particularly in use of terminology. Joachim Meyer’s treatise uses guard names and actions that either come directly from Hans Leck üchner’s messer treatise, or at least from a closely related tradition. That said, the two weapons have distinct differences, arguably influenced by the dussack’s more complete hand protection.

This particular weapon is most likely from Styria, Austria based on the combination of basket hilt and pommel. It has the engravings “IO IO IO I” on the blade. It is unclear what this means, though one possibility is that it stands for the Latin “Iesu Omnipotentis”, a religious Christian phrase referencing the omnipotent power of Christ. It may also be a contraction of the religious inscription “Ideo”, as in “Ideo, gloria in excelsis Deo”, or “Therefore, glory to God in the highest.” The hilt is a variant of the AVB Norman Hilt 77, with the pommel being a type 83, both common to Austria and Southern German in the last half of the 16th century.

It is an incredibly light and agile sword. The weapon flows very nicely, and has just enough blade presence to aid in cutting. It is difficult to put into words just how much of a joy this weapon is to swing, but everyone who has handled it has instantly commented on how nice it feels to use with cutting actions with either edge. Dussack and messer fencers should note just how long the sharpened “false” or “short” edge is along the back. Many fencers wrongly state that these weapons are only sharp along the few inches of the clipped point, but this blade (along with many other surviving blades) clearly was sharpened far enough along the spine that any short edge techniques, such as the wecker (an angled, off-line strike with the short edge) would be very easy to use.

Although there is a finger ring, the blade is sharpened all the way to the guard, which is common in this style of weapon, making it uncomfortable to wrap the forefinger around. In fact, many dussacks have a plate that prevents the user from fingering the ricasso (such as the erroneously named “Sinclair Saber”), and it is theorized that the ring serves to give structural support to the outer bar of the guard rather than to protect the finger. Regardless, this weapon feels incredibly lively without wrapping the finger around.

The guard has a thumb ring, a popular feature to allow the user to use the thumb to help control the actions of the blade. An interesting thing to note about this particular thumb ring is that it appears to have been offset at some point after it was originally forged. Perhaps this is merely accidental damage, and perhaps it even happened well after the sword was retired from use, but in it’s current state it provides a bonus feature: In addition to being able to use the thumb ring normally, the user can turn the grip in hand to place the thumb flat on the blade. Placing the thumb on the flat is a very common grip used in the Liechtenauer tradition of swordsmanship, and typically a thumb ring prevents this type of grip. Whether this alteration was done on purpose or not is purely up to speculation, but it is quite possible that owner chose to customize the guard to optimize fighting in the Liechtenauer style, or a style similar to it.

The grip is wood covered in leather.

About the author: Bill Grandy is the Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, where he has taught professionally since 2001. His HEMA studies began in 1998 (back before anyone called it “HEMA”), though he practiced modern sport fencing since the late 1980’s, and spent most of the 1990’s practicing Aikido before eventually giving up both when he found his true passion with the historical western fighting styles. His specialties are the German Liechtenauer tradition of swordsmanship as well as the Renaissance Italian rapier, though he tries to find time to work with numerous other weapon arts whenever he can. Bill has traveled extensively to study both period fencing treatises as well as antique arms and armor, and he is also invited regularly to teach at major HEMA events.

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