A safety critique of Steampunk umbrella fencing/dueling (or, “It’s all fun until someone loses an eye”)

Umbrella fencing, also known as umbrella dueling, is a sport or game that has been played at some steampunk gatherings in the UK and USA. The purpose of this article is to encourage umbrella fencers to enjoy this activity safely, in the light of many years of experience in martial arts, fencing and related areas.

Quoting the authors of a 1990 report on umbrella injuries, “We hope the fact that umbrella tips can easily become life-threatening objects will come to the attention of the general public so that similar cases may be avoided.”

A little history

The concept of umbrella fencing as a sport was first proposed in 1897 by satirist J.F. Sullivan, in his tongue-in-cheek article The Umbrella: A Misunderstood Weapon. The actual teaching of umbrella fencing as self-defence, however, has a pedigree extending back to the earliest years of the Victorian era, reaching a pinnacle in the first decade of the 20th century.

Ominously, 19th and 20th century newspaper archives contain numerous reports of serious injuries and even deaths reported as the result of umbrella thrusts, delivered both accidentally and deliberately.

Parasol dueling: no contact, no problem

For the sake of clarity, it’s necessary to distinguish umbrella fencing/dueling from parasol dueling. The latter, which also features at steampunk gatherings, is a strictly non-contact game, similar to “rock, paper, scissors”, in which players compete by performing various poses and flourishes with their parasols. Because it’s played without contact, parasol dueling is essentially safe.

Making contact

In umbrella fencing/dueling, on the other hand, players attempt to score points by making contact with their opponents. As such, it’s directly comparable to foil fencing, Bartitsu stick fighting and similar combat sports. Unfortunately, the fact that umbrella fencing is played in the fun, friendly context of a steampunk gathering doesn’t lessen the potential danger of thrusting a rigid, pointed object at another person.

There are currently two distinct steampunk umbrella fencing styles or rule-sets, alternately described as “umbrella fencing” and “umbrella dueling”.

It’s OK, I have a sieve

In the first variant, players must stand at a prescribed distance from each other, as delineated by markings on the floor or ground. They are equipped with small umbrellas and with sieves, which are held up in front of the players’ faces in the manner of fencing masks. Two small balls are balanced on the sieves, attached with short cords, and the object is for each player to attempt to knock the balls off his/her opponent’s sieve, while avoiding their attempts to do the same thing. Contact is made with the opponent’s umbrella, the sieve, or the balls themselves.

Even though deliberate contact with the opponent’s face and head is not allowed, accidental contact could still be extremely dangerous. A stray or redirected thrust could easily bypass the sieve, or an inexperienced player could inadvertently lower his/her sieve at exactly the wrong moment, as happens at 0.31 in the video above. Essentially, as fun, silly and ironic as it is, a hand-held sieve is not adequate protection for a game that involves thrusting and striking towards someone else’s head and face with a rigid, pointed object.  Whereas a light downward blow to the crown of the head would probably be harmless, a thrust accidentally entering the eye socket could cause horrific injuries.

The best way to keep the spirit of this game intact while ensuring safety will be to have the players wear fencing masks and reposition the balls so that they are balanced on the mask. A similar game is played at Renaissance Faires and is safe enough for young children to take part:

Even a sieve is better than nothing

The second variant (most commonly referred to as “umbrella dueling”) is played with full-size umbrellas. It involves no prescribed fighting distance and may include no protection at all, apart from a rule that any contact with the opponent’s head or face will be grounds for disqualification. Some players also wear steampunk goggles, whose actual protective value against umbrella thrusts is questionable. In any case, the object is to score a thrust with the tip of the umbrella against the opponent’s body.

This variant is essentially limited-target thrust fencing using umbrellas – which are actually heavier and more rigid than fencing foils, and are just as apt to cause serious and even life-threatening injuries if accidentally thrust into an opponent’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth or throat. The hands, unprotected by either padded gloves or guards on the umbrellas, are also extremely vulnerable.

Click here if you wish to view GRAPHIC pictures of eye and nose injuries caused by impalement on umbrella points.

Again, accepting that players genuinely don’t intend to risk their opponent’s safety, this is still a very dangerous game. It’s hard for a novice fencer to accurately judge and control their own speed, power or aim.  The issue of aim is especially difficult in facing the unpredictable movements of an active opponent who may suddenly duck, trip or slip, lunge forward, etc., lowering his/her face into the space that was occupied by their torso an instant before.

It’s also far too easy for a thrust that is accurately aimed at the opponent’s body to be accidentally redirected into their face by the opponent’s own parry or bind (a defensive action in which one weapon pushes or presses the other).

A hidden danger

The type(s) of umbrellas used should also be considered from the safety point of view. Umbrellas with hollow steel, wooden, bamboo or hollow fiberglass shafts can all crack unexpectedly, leaving a jagged, dagger-like splinter projecting from the handle.

The same thing can (and does) happen even with actual fencing foils, which is why fencers wear jackets made of puncture-resistant fabric. The most dangerous scenario in this vein is when a weapon breaks on contact with the opponent’s weapon or body and then continues thrusting forward, allowing no time for anyone involved to realise the sudden danger, as in the tragic death of fencer Vladimir Smirnov in 1982.

According to this article, umbrella duelists at the Steampunk Symposium event in Cincinnati, Ohio used Unbreakable Umbrellas in their duels. Designed and manufactured for real self-defence, the Unbreakable Umbrella features a solid fiberglass shaft. It will not break, but its weight and rigidity are far greater than those of ordinary umbrellas, presenting an additional set of safety concerns. On the bright side, the article notes that future umbrella fencing competitors at this event will be required to wear protective vests and proper fencing masks.

Another useful safety feature will be to secure to the tip of the umbrella a strong rubber blunt, similar to those use on the ends of walking canes, enclosing a solid steel disc such as a suitably-sized coin.  By forming an impenetrable barrier between the pointed tip and the opponent’s body, this has the potential to mitigate stabbings into mere bruises; though again, fencing masks are also crucial.

In conclusion

Despite the signing of waivers and the issuing of safety warnings, it’s irresponsible for event organisers to allow umbrella fencing matches without proper protection. The playful, anarchic steampunk ethos should not extend into ignoring or laughing off serious safety concerns. Aside from the immediate physical dangers, a successful lawsuit could easily bring about the permanent end of an otherwise positive conference.

With a very small investment into basic safety equipment, however, umbrella fencing has the potential to continue as an enjoyably silly steampunk sport.

THE UMBRELLA: A MISUNDERSTOOD WEAPON

This article, written and illustrated by J.F. Sullivan, originally appeared in “The Ludgate Monthly” of 1897,  just a few years before E.W. Barton-Wright introduced Bartitsu to London.

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No weapon is so little understood as the umbrella. This—the true arm of the citizen — has simply been brought into sheer contempt and ridicule by no fault of its own, but simply by the ignorance and want of skill of its wearer. In the case of every other weapon which has been adopted, at various periods of the world’s history, by man, the user has considered a thorough knowledge of its capabilities and limits a fundamental necessity in its effective employment; and has invariably fitted himself, by long and constant practise, for that employment.  What prehistoric man would have thought of using his flint spear as a gun? What Roman legionary would have dreamed of applying a fuse to the hilt of his sword ? Would any sane Knight of the Middle Ages have been caught employing his lance in the capacity of a single-stick ? Very well then !

It fills me with an inexpressible shame to have to declare—to inform presumably intelligent citizens—that the umbrella is not a broadsword!

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The umbrella is distinctly a form of rapier; the husband-beater is a hand-and-a-half estoc (to be used in the saddle, if required); and the sunshade and parasol are short swords, or long daggers: and one and all are designed for thrusting— not cutting.

Yet how does the citizen use his characteristic weapon ? Why, as a broadsword—nearly always!

How does Jones, Brown, or Robinson —fully armed with his umbrella—behave when attacked by bravos, infuriated females, mad dogs, or infuriated cabmen?

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MISTAKEN UMBRELLIST AND MAD DOG

He simply hits them on the hat—with the exception of the mad dog, of course —with his gingham: and they simply smile, and reduce him to a pulp. We read of cases every day in the newspaper.

Linger for awhile in any wild district into which the arm of the law has not yet penetrated, and where the citizen holds his life in his hands: the districts round about Bow Street Police Station, for example. Wait until you perceive some pedestrian attacked by a gang of footpads, descending from the mountain fastnesses of Betterton Street and Somebody’s Rents. You need not, as a rule, wait more than five minutes.

Now watch : how does that pedestrian employ his umbrella ? Why, almost invariably as a broadsword.

With his swashing blow he endeavours to cleave a rough to the chine, and behead him.

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MISUSED AS A BROADSWORD

The effort fails in its purpose—and why ? Why, simply because no umbrella, even of the finest temper, will bear an edge sufficiently keen to sever the head from the body at a single blow.

Why does that citizen fail to go home to tea; and why are his widow and orphans left desolate ?

Because he never studied the true use of the umbrella.

But see—here approaches another pedestrian whose wary eye indicates that he knows what’s what. He proceeds along Endell Street, his light overcoat twisted around his left arm; his stern right hand gripping a tightly-rolled umbrella. As he arrives at the scattered chips of the former pedestrian, with a blood-curdling war-cry whose echo may even startle the slumbering policemen in the adjacent station, and cause the magistrate to shudder in his chair, out rush the wild hordes of the alley.

Calmly the new pedestrian places his back to the workhouse wall; then, in a moment, his flashing umbrella has passed, to the very hilt, through his foremost assailant. It is out again, and its keen ferrule passes down the throat of a second foeman.

A third falls, the wind whistling shrilly through three distinct perforations which pierce him from back to front. The rest flee in confusion. It is a rout. That citizen stands erect amid a ring of the silent slain. He has learned the use of the umbrella—that is all. He goes home to tea, while the police arrive and gather up the slain.5

It is a national disgrace that there exists no School of Umbrella-Fence. In this very London are many schools and clubs for the culture of the rapier and single-stick; yet there is not one where umbrella play may be studied.

Still, even in the absence of schools, the science may be studied at home, with the aid of one’s wife.

It is as well not to allow the wife to be armed in this game, as ladies are proverbially clumsy with weapons, and might damage one seriously.

Let the wife be merely on the defensive, and armed with a shield. A dish- cover with a string inside will serve admirably as a shield; or a sofa cushion will do. By a little practise, according to the following rules, the umbrellist may quickly become proficient in the use of one of the handiest and prettiest weapons yet invented by man.

First Position.—Stand with the feet some sixteen inches apart; the right foot in advance ; the right shoulder turned towards the adversary; the point of the umbrella lowered; the left arm raised as a balance.

The Lunge.—Raise the umbrella to a horizontal position, and thrust it suddenly out until the arm is fully extended; the right foot simultaneously taking a step forward. With a little practise a hit is almost certain, unless your wife has a very quick eye. Hit anywhere, as every hit counts.

If your wife tires of the game, tear up her hat and twist the cat’s neck. Return to first position, and smile.

After a time, when the umbrellist has become to some extent expert, an orange may be placed upon the wife’s head, to lunge at; and when the lunger can succeed in transfixing the fruit with the ferrule, some amount of dexterity has been attained. It is as well for the wife to be provided with sticking-plaster, and a few false eyes; but, as we said before, never allow her to use an umbrella, as serious accidents to the male umbrellist may result.

Where no wife is at hand, any person unable to retaliate will answer the purpose. If you possess a very fat friend, you will find excellent practise in lunging at his waistcoat buttons. Should you injure any vital part, apologise at once: for the strict etiquette of the game should never be omitted.

We will now suppose that the umbrellist has qualified himself for serious combat; and append a few hints as to the proper methods of procedure in some of the many occasions in which the umbrella, as a lethal weapon, may come in useful.

The Duel To The Death With A BURGLAR.—On being disturbed at night by sounds indicative of the presence of a burglar in the house, the umbrellist should arise, select his favourite umbrella, and, proceeding to the grindstone, give a keen point to the ferrule.

He then descends the stairs, and challenges the burglar to single-combat; when the following rules of the duel must be strictly observed :

The burglar, first laying aside any dangerous weapon, such as a revolver or jemmy, with which he may be armed, assumes an upright position, with his hands clasped behind him. The umbrellist now advances, and bows to his adversary, who returns the salute. Play now commences.

It consists of the endeavour of the umbrellist to transfix the burglar with the umbrella. The burglar should not move, as movement is calculated to baulk the aim of his opponent. In this play no hits count unless the ferrule appears on the further edge of the burglar’s periphery.

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At each thrust which penetrates, yet fails to go right through, the burglar is at liberty to call “half-through,” and scores one. Seven perforations through vital parts secure victory to the umbrellist. Should there be several burglars, only one should join in the duel at a time; the other or others standing aside and somewhat behind the one engaged, in order to check the effective thrusts. These may be marked on the drawing-room wall-paper, or scratched on the piano with a nail.

For the adjustment of affairs of honour, the umbrella might be made invaluable. In fine, the misuse of the umbrella by a nation priding itself upon its military instincts—a nation upon whose flag the sun never sets—is a standing disgrace only to be wiped out by speedy and thorough-going reform.