10 Questions with Patrick Bratton

Patrick Bratton is the owner of Sala Della Spada in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and specializes in Italian military sabre and dueling sword, circa 1600-1900. CombativeCorner founder and fencing instructor Michael Joyce recently had the honor of bringing Patrick down to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for a workshop in dueling sabre. Directly afterwards, he agreed to answer both our students and readers questions in our popular interview series, “10 Question.”

Without further ado….

What brought you to an interest in fencing, and what brought you toward the Italian methodology in particular?

From a very young age, I was interested in swords and knights. As a young kid, I made armor out of trashcans and plastic flower pots and “fenced” with my dad. In the early 1990s, I got more serious training in a Korean karate style that had some weapons, and also Olympic fencing, the SCA shortly, and some other things. It was the early days of historical fencing and “proto-HEMA” then (when sources and interpretations were just coming out) like Terry Brown’s English Martial Arts. As the 1990s grew to a close, I went to grad school and had other priorities, so I stopped doing any fencing. However, I watched the renaissance in historical fencing from a distance in the 2000s. In 2013, as I was getting older, I was searching for something to keep me active and I thought, why not go back to historical fencing? So I approached Colin Chock, who ran an Olympic fencing club that also did some historical fencing. Colin got me back into fencing.

My main interest was to learn some sort of historical sabre, so I looked for manuals and interpretations. At first, I was dissatisfied with many of the simple military sabre manuals I read through. They were mostly military drill manuals that listed a few guards, and then cutting and parry exercises, and little else. Then I found Chris Holzman’s translation of the Del Frate/Radaelli sabre manual, The Art of the Dueling Sabre. It was a revelation: here was a complete fencing system, applied to sabre, not only a set of basic drills, which is often the case with sabre books. I reached out to Chris and asked about visiting him and training with him and he was very encouraging. Working with Chris over the years converted me over to Italian fencing, he’s been a fantastic mentor. So it was only another step to start with the Sonoma State University Fencing Masters Program and to start working with Maestro John Sullins, Maestro Frank Lurz, and others. Beyond traveling to train with Chris, in Pennsylvania I train with Andrew Bullock (who was a student of Lajos Csiszar, who was a student of Italo Santelli) and I study various historical style with Mark Donnelly (one of the founding fathers of the British historical fencing movement).


As the owner of a fencing sala/salle, what has been your biggest obstacle so far?

I created my school, Sala della Spada, very recently. Last year I concentrated on giving individual lessons, doing guest workshops, and teaching sabre at Men at Arms Martial Arts (a local HEMA club with some great people). I started regular classes only this year. So far, I’ve found two major obstacles. First is the familar one of finding space that you can rent/use while keeping fees reasonable. Thanks to Shifu Liam Cochran of Carlisle Kung Fu center, I’ve been able to start classes at his facility. Second, is how to attract a critical mass of fencers who want to learn for the long-term. This is difficult because historical and classical fencing occupies a niche market that falls between the cracks. Our methods and style will seem too old fashioned for those looking for Olympic fencing, but will also seem too structured and tradition-bound (and frankly too much like Olympic fencing) for many in the “HEMA community.” So we fall between those wanting hyper-competitive Olympic fencing with foil, sabre or epee, and hyper-competitive HEMA fencing that is longsword-focused. It is a challenge to find space between the two.


What is it about teaching that gives you the most joy?

I love teaching, period. Several things give me joy. The main thing is continuing and hopefully expanding the living tradition of Italian fencing that I’ve learned. In his foreword to Chris Holzman’s book, Maestro Sullins wrote,

Every generation we are called to rediscover the challenge and grandeur of fencing. We are the inheritors of a long living tradition and this book is worthy offering to the great men and women who have preserved the noble art and science of fencing — may it inspire you to add to its legacy.

That statement means a great deal to me. More than anything, I feel I carry a duty to continue this tradition, learn as much as I can, and pass it on to others. I also just love to see people learn and develop while having a great time.


What is your favorite technique or “go-to” a competitive bout and can you describe your process?

I love working the basics and being able to set up a particular phrase. Fencing is a combination of intensely training instinct and muscle memory, and also actively thinking about tactically defeating your opponent. Maestro Francesco Loda once explained to me in a lesson, “Fencing is the art of establishing a conversation with an opponent and then lying to them.” Through probing actions and first intention attacks you get a sense of the opponent and you try to socialize them to how you fence. Once you establish that communication and trust, you deceive them and hit. While I don’t often do this successfully, it is a goal I continue to work towards.


Many people these days take pride in doing things based on one particular person, period or style (i.e. Radaellian vs. Parise, Judo vs. Jujitsu, etc). How do you feel personally about blending or keeping things “pure”? Do you wrestle with finding the “true path?”


That’s a good question. In one sense the answer is easy, the Northern Italian system of Radaelli is pretty clear. It’s one of the most documented fencing styles with many detailed books written by a number of Masters. Moreover, there is a living tradition of the style I’ve learned from students of the Santelli lineage (Chris and Andrew). So it’s easy to be “pure” in a sense. However, this tradition didn’t just spring like Athena from Zeus’s head. It has a long developmental path that you can see in Italian sources going back to 15th century. So I enjoy looking at older material to see the similarities and differences between what they taught in the 1500s or 1680s to that of the 19th or 20th centuries. I’ve been doing some training in Bolognese material and also the Roman-Neapolitan rapier of Marcelli. Even beyond the Italian tradition, there was cross-over development with French fencing in Northern Italy, and Spanish fencing in Southern Italy. So some study of these traditions is useful even if its not my main focus, I do read and interact with the French smallsword and foil community, and also I’ve been doing some work with the Iberian montante to get insights into how the spadone (the Italian great sword) was used.

In your opinion, what are your top 3 fencing films and why?


Fencing films. That is a tough one. It’s popular in the historical fencing community to make fun of fencing in films because it’s “not realistic.” I try to take a middle road approach and enjoy good fencing in films for what it is. The Duelistsis perhaps the best film for dueling, debates about honor, the fight chorography of William Hobbs, and general atmosphere. While it’s not a great film, the middle sequence in the film Sunshine about the Hungarian fencer working his way up to compete in the Olympics is quite good (though I’m biased because this is part of my own Italo-Hungarian fencing lineage). Lastly, the final duel in Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone is my favorite scene. It’s nice clean, sabre fencing, without the Hollywood hijinks of hanging from chandeliers. Also, Basil Rathbone could actually fence.

As someone who loves the art of the sword (sabre especially), what do you think about Olympic or modern fencing and the techniques of modern sabre in particular)?

This is a tough question. I have a great deal of respect for modern Olympic fencing, even though I don’t like where right of way has gone in the past 20 years. HEMA has a long way to go in and much to learn from Olympic fencing in terms of (1) level of instructor preparation and pedagogy; (2) level of intensity of training; and (3) the large talent pool you can fence and compete with. However, I find that the excessive focus on athletic and tactical training detracts from an inclusive method of teaching fencing. It focuses almost exclusively on getting young athletes ready for competition. I’d rather focus on teaching solid fundamentals to people of all ages and ability levels. Anyone can enjoy fencing and anyone can become a competent fencer. I want to help people do this.


It is hard to juggle work, personal life, social life and making time to fit in time to train for yourself. How do you go about making time and what does your personal training entail?

Balance is hard. I got back into fencing in my mid-30s because as I got older, it was harder and harder to motivate myself to exercise. The challenge of fencing and getting better at it is a powerful motivator for me to exercise, so that helps me find that balance. My own training week is normally a balance of (1) classes or lessons where I am a student 2-4 hours a week; (2) classes or lessons where I am the instructor 3-5/hours a week; (3) kung-fu cross training 2-3 hours a week; (4) general conditioning/strength training (I’m a fan of TRX bands and Indian clubs) 2-3 hours/week; and (5) solo fencing practice 2-3 hours/week.


In your opinion how long and what qualities are needed to become a “master” of a particular weapon in fencing?

I have a traditional fencing/martial arts concept of “master” that originates in the 19th century military masters schools. I do not think of masters as “mystical legendary swordsmen” from fantasy novels or martial arts films. A Master is a person who is fully versed in a particular system of fencing, with good experience in both fencing and teaching fencing, trained in how to teach successfully, and who ideally passed a certification board of other masters in the same tradition. A master needs to be a competent fencer, but not necessary a top tournament competitor. In fact, many top competitive fencers do not make good teachers.


Apart from training, teaching and running as school, what does Patrick Bratton like to do in his spare time?



Fencing is a big part of life so that occupies much of my spare time. As with most people interested in historical or classical fencing, I love studying history, particularly the early modern to modern period from 1500-1960 or so. I also have an interest in the history of men’s style, particularly from the 1930s. I enjoy old films from that same period, and I love to travel.

 

Bonus Question:


If you could meet and train with any fencer or martial artist in history (past or present), who would you choose and why?

There are many masters I would love to study with. The top two would be either Radaelli for sabre or Marcelli for rapier. However, working with either of the Santellis or Barbasetti would have been great. I dabble a bit with Bolognese so I would also have enjoyed working with Marozzo, in particular to fill in all those puzzling gaps we have in that tradition.

FIN.

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For more information on Patrick Bratton and Sala Della Spada, be sure you visit their website Sala Della Spada, or find them onFacebook.

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