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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Test-cutting clay: the Cossack experience

Test-cutting clay: the Cossack experience

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Among the target mediums which are listed for used in test-cutting is, oddly enough, clay.  Various researchers have delved into European and Russian history, and found multiple accounts of the use of river clay as a cutting practice medium going back for several centuries (along with sacks of potatoes, bundles of sticks soaked in water, and animals).

In Russian test cutting practices (Matt Galas), the author has winnowed out a number of quotes from historical texts to prove the use of clay, or clay mixed with straw, as practice targets; some of these are shown below.  Most notably, these types of targets were used for sabre practice by the Cossacks.

“Figures of straw and clay were put up in every quarter, and Suwarow’s smile rewarded him whose sabre cut the deepest.” Source: P. 16 of A Sketch of Suwarow, and His Last Campaign, by Edward Nevil Macready (London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1851)


“During rotation riding we spent a lot of time learning to hack with our sabers. The regiment was famed in competition for its dashing swordsmen. Many young officers were keen on this activity and elevated it to a sport. One must say that they taught the soldiers to hack with great virtuosity. At a full gallop they could cut with their sabers a little potato hanging by a thread, plunge the saber through a narrow ring, dashingly cut off clay heads at full career; they could cut through thick straw plaits and vines while jumping over obstacles. They hacked beautifully, with style.”  Source: P. 166 of A Russian Prince in the Soviet State, Vladimmir Sergeevich Trubetskoi, translation by Susanne Fusso, (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 2006)


“…Biek took two steps backwards from the manikin, to which he seemed, as it were, to fasten himself tightly by a sharp, penetrating glance. Suddenly the sabre flashed in the air, and a fearful stroke, delivered with a rapidity that the eye could not follow, struck like lightning the clay figure, the upper part of which rolled, softly but heavily, down to the ground. The cut made by the sabre was as smooth and even as if it had been polished.”  Source: Pp. 15-18 of The Duel, Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin (Macmillan, New York, 1916)


Cossacks cutting clay - manuscript imageWhile the various quotes show the Cossacks often used head-sized clay targets, or cut the tops off “cones” (pyramidal piles) of clay, rarely does it mention them cutting through targets as thick as the human waist.   The image at right is from a period Egyptian text (in Arabic) showing Cossacks cutting clay cone targets.

In modern terms, the practical use of clay as a target medium has been heavily investigated by members of the Western or European martial arts.

Relatively inexpensive and reusable, there are several important issues surrounding the use of clay for practical cutting, which are summed up nicely from a (now removed) post by Mike Edelson in the HEMA Cutting Clay discussion thread:

  • One does not “cut” clay. It’s hard to explain with words, but it’s not cutting. It’s more like pushing through. When you cut through an animal carcass wrapped in linen and propped up on a pole (so gravity doesn’t open the wounds), you get a certain feeling, a feeling of “cutting.” You get a similar feeling with tatami. You do not get that feeling with clay.
  • Almost anything you cut will test your aim and angle control. Clay does that. Clay also adds one very important feedback item: trajectory control through a very large target (you’d need multiple tatami rolls to test that). Other than that, however, clay offers little feedback.
  • You don’t need a sharp sword to cut clay. Even crappy swords work fine, but the more flexible the sword, the harder it is.
  • Clay is easy to cut and quite forgiving, particularly when it comes to velocity. If you just drop your sword on clay, it will bite in several inches. What is challenging is cutting through large, thick chunks (like a torso sized target).
  • You can muscle through clay (you can’t muscle through either tatami or clothed bodies).
  • Clay is extremely messy.
  • Clay is very very heavy and very difficult to work with (for that reason). We used a 175lbs of clay for this test and it was a giant pain.

Several other practical points are made by other practitioners, including that fact that you will need to remove any stones or pebbles the clay contains, for obvious reasons.  It’s also noted that clay will dull a sharp sword very easily, thus the use of a dull practice sword is recommended.   This makes it very apparent that in cutting clay, one is not actually practicing cutting, but instead is working to develop stronger technique and a more effective swing.  Additionally, clay will easily expose any problems a practitioner has in maintaining their cutting angle;  any deviation will be immediately noticeable.

One final note on the use of clay in cutting comes from the following video, where test cutters make it very clear that a very heavy sword must be used on clay targets.  Any misjudgement on a cut with a light sword could easily result in a bent blade.





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