In my opinion the dussack doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves in the historical fencing community, despite the fact that it was a highly important weapon in the old fencing guilds. It is not really studied properly, probably due to many commonly believing that the wooden/leather waster is all that the dussack is, not realizing that it in reality was a complex-hilt steel sabre that became more common in the first quarter of the 1500s and was used well into the mid 1600s, after which it more and more transformed into the proper sabre.
Interestingly though, in its wooden training form, it lived on well into the last decades of the 1700s, possibly even the early 1800s, disappearing only with the last vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire. Also, there has been some speculation that the dussacke waster made out of wood and sometimes also leather has its roots in a flax preparation tool called a scutching knife. However, we still don’t really know for sure if there is such a relationship. Most early flax knives appear to have had a rather different design.
The 19th cent Swedish scutching knives were indeed quite similar in design to the dussack waster, but we currently don’t know how far back that specific design goes. Most of the preserved ones date to the 1800s and were given by the fiance as an engagement gift to the future bride. These are still common in many Swedish homes as they are usually highly decorated and were never intended to be used for other purposes than decorative. Still, the shape is obviously older and most certainly dates to at least the 1700s.
What we do know for sure is that in the first quarter of the 1500s soldiers already used short complex-hilt sabres on the battlefields and that these were called dussacke. As early as in 1539 Sweden was already importing these alongside of Schlachtschwerte and in 1589 the Norwegian King Christian IV began importing at least 8,000 dussacke from Switzerland, ordering all his peasants to arm themselves by buying them from the king at self-cost. This great number combined with the fact that only about 350,000 people lived in Norway at the time, would mean that about 1 in 10 of all Norwegian men would be armed with a dusack, and in particular the peasants. (For more reading concerning this, see the article Tessak – The Farmer’s sword.)
What characterizes a dussack?
Historically there were both straight and curved messers and steel dussacken. The curve is not a characteristics that differ the two weapons. Some wooden dussacke had nagles, but not all. Looking at about 40 collected sources, about half seem to have no nagle, but some of those sources are rather crude & simplified, almost symbolical design. 10 sources are unclear and another 10 show very fine nagles on the dussacke, among them we find illustrations by prominent and skilled artists like Brun, Amman, Senger, Breu and Stimmer.
More importantly, as far as I can tell, the contemporary German steel dussacken all had protection for the right side of the hand, as well as a cross and a knuckle bow. As the side baskets grew bigger a thumb ring was also required to counter the balance issues that led to.
So why a dussack and not a messer?
“With myghti knyghtly poort, eue as Seynt George,
Lepe o thi foo, loke if he dar abide ;
Wil he nat fle, wounde him ; mak woundis wide,
Hew of his honde, his legge, his thegh, his armys ;
It is the Turk : though he be sleyn, noon harm is.
With knightly might press on as Saint George
Leap to your foe; observe if he dare abide;
Will he not flee? Wound him; make wounds wide
Hew off his hand, his leg, his thighs, his arms,
It is the Turk! Though he is slain, there is no harm.”
– Quote from Poem of the Pell, ca 1458-1460).
It is my belief that the development of the dussack is a direct response to conflicts between the Austria-centred Habsburgian and the “Turkish” Ottoman Empires. The Ottoman Empire came to existance with the Conquest of Constantinople already in 1453 and the empire would reach its peak in 1590. Conflicts between the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires were fierce and the opposing tactics and fighting styles certainly affected each other. Particularly influential and cataclysmic, I believe, were the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the Siege of Vienna in 1529. It is about this time period we see a change from the messer to the dussack in both fencing treatises and illustrations related to the fencing guilds.
Furthermore, Czech Prague was important to the HRE already in 1526 when the Bohemian estates elected Ferdinand I of the House of Habsburg. One of the most important things during his reign was the wars against the Ottoman Empire. He ruled all the way up until 1564, after which he was replaced by Maximillian II. Maximillian II would then be replaced by Rudolf II in 1576 and Rudolf II made Prague the residential city of the HRE the same year.
I think all this explains the odd choice of a Czech word for a German weapon. Furthermore there is also likely a connection to the Freyfechter guild who had their residence in Prague and were founded in the very same city in 1570.
Looking at the treatises, already in the Poem of the Pell of 1458 (see above), we see the pell called a “Turk”, a tradition that has been claimed to go back to the crusades in the East. Some treatises even show us depictions of Turks, like further below in the fencing manuscript of von Gunterrodt, but also in e.g. the MS Fol.U.423.792 fencing treatise of 1595 and Sebastian Heußler’s fencing treatise “New Künstlich Fechtbuch” of 1615.
Through the dussack and these fencing treatises I think we can trace some of these influences and thereby also explain why the dussack became so important in the fencing guilds. Due to the success of the supremely trained Turkish Sipahi cavalry and their Janissary infantry forces, the Habsburg nobles and army commanders simply came to wish for a weapon that could match the Turkish Kilij. However, the common Messer was an ancient weapon much associated with the peasants and simply would not do for a proper modern burgher or noble.
The messer itself already had a nagle on the hilt and this appears to have evolved into the dussack alongside of other forms of complex-hilt swords in the late 1400s.
Consequently, the swordsmiths took the messer and added a modern high-tech complex-hilt to it and gave it a new name; the dussack, the Czech word for fang and claw and already used for a simple and crude knife with a curved tang quite similar to the bow on a complex hilt dussack.
It has even been suggested that this word is related to the Norse word seax, which is a single-edged short sword. However that remains to be validated properly.
As already described, the Czech capitol Prague was an important city in the Habsburg Empire, periodically serving as the residental city and it is in fact where the Freyfechtere less than a 100 years later would receive their charters and their priveleges from Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg in Prague. And while the Freyfechter appears to have been more progressive than the older Marxbrüder fencing guild, and thus also favoured the rappier, they also lived and worked within an empire that put strong emphasis on the manly cut over the cowardly and foreign (read Italian) thrust. Numerous legal documents of the time describe how much more serious and unmanly the thrust was considered and in many cases using a thrust even without hitting was considered more serious than actually killing a man with a cut.
The dussack in fencing treatises and artwork
The first fencing treatise to mention the dussack, and to show a wooden “sabre” is the treatise “Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey” of Andre Paurñfeyndt, first published in 1516. Paurñfeyndt was a freifechter and possibly one of the early driving forces behind the forming of the Freyfechter Guild. He was of Austrian origin and at one time he even served as a trabant, a bodyguard, to Cardinal Matthäus Lang von Wellenburg. Paurñfeyndt, tells us that the messer is the root for all one handed swords, like the Tessak (at the time, an unusual and “new” weapon) and the Schweizerhanddegen, but its roots can also be traced in the arming sword and longsword.
Paurñfeyndt, uses the terms messer and tessak more or less interchangeably for base techniques. However, we can’t say with certainty how Paurnfeindt would have named what is depicted in his treatise. Regardless, it is interesting to note that he shows wooden messers that have an unusual hilt that foreshadows what would be commonly used by the fencing guilds just a couple of decades later. The techniques are still very much based on the teachings of Johannes Leküchner.
In 1530, we see what appears to be wooden messers in the treatise Der Altenn Fechter anfengliche kunst, published by Christian Egonolff. This treatise is largely a redaction of Paurnfeindt’s treatise, although it has significant other material too. Again, this has strong ties to the teachings of Leküchner.
Also, ca 1530 we see a beautiful glass window from Coburg depicting two fencers holding large dussacke in the stances of Eber and Bogen.
Then in 1531 we see a wonderful astrological depiction of the “Children of the Sun”, the fencers and the musicians by Hans Sebald Beham.
In 1533, in the treatise MS E.1939.65.354 by Ulm-born Gregor Erhart (later owned first by Freyfechter Lienhard Sollinger and later Paul Hektor Mair), we see a dussack among the other common weapons of the fencing guilds of the time period; fechtschwerter, staves, flails, halberds and daggers. Interestingly, these dussacken much resemble the straight ones of Paurnfeindt, but with properly closed knuckle bows. In the 2nd half, the non-illustrated part of the treatise, the weapon referred to is the messer, reportedly based on Leküchner.
In 1534 we see an illustration of a fencer, by Virgil Solis, depicting the fencer holding a staff, with a fechtschwert and a dussack lying before him on the ground. These three weapons were the weapons one had to master to be allowed to call oneself a Meister des Langen Schwertes, which were the highest ranking fencing masters in the fencing guilds of the Renaissance.
Virgil Solis (1514-1562) is a particularly interesting illustrator to us Historical Fencers as he is known to have depicted both Marxbrüdere and Freyfechtere in training in numerous illustrations. He was born and worked in the city of Nürnberg, a highly important centre for the development of the Renaissance fencing arts.
After this we have the group of fencing treatises by Paul Hektor Mair, with the first completed in 1542, but this treatise would have taken many years to complete as it is so large in volume and is a manuskript with a great number of lavish hand painted illustrations by Jörg Breu the Younger. It is possible, although still unconfirmed that Mair in part is of Swiss descent too. Here, the dussacke wasters have the distinct curve we all expect of a dussack and it also has a specific broad bow covering the outside of the hand. The techniques are now showing a new, distinct style, no longer as strictly tied to Leküchner.
And in 1545, we see how, like Fencing Master Joachim Meyer, Basel-born Sebastian Münster shows us the dussack when describing the Fechter von der Feder.
About this time we also see illustrations by Hanns Senger showing the wooden dussack in fechtschule and training.
In 1559 we see illustrations by Franz Isaac Brun, showing very large dussacke with very distinct, broad side-bows to protect the outside of the hand.
Then, in ca 1560, we see Swiss-born Freyfechter Joachim Meyer’s “von Solms fencing treatise” showing the dussack, and then ten years later, in 1570, in Joachim Meyer’s treatise “Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen, Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens“.
By Meyer’s time, he claims that the Dussack is the root of all one handed swords and that it is the most commonly used weapon by the Germans next after the longsword. Meyer too uses guards from Leküchner but also clearly borrows from Paurñfeyndt.
Meyer tells us explicitly that he uses the dussack to train all one handed swords, except for the Rappier, which partially gets a special treatment but even that weapon has strong ties to the use of the dussack. Interesting to note is that all of Meyer’s weapons were used on the battlefields of his time, possibly with the exception for the rondel dagger that is used to train dagger techniques despite the fact that it is not used anymore.
This is very interesting as this ties the fencing guilds even tighter to the actual soldiers using the steel dussacke on the battle fields. Curiously, we mostly see the German Landsknechten depicted with the Katzbalger, but keep in mind that Paurnfeindt is Austrian and Meyer Swiss and quite likely they are part of a southern influence, tied to Italy, with the storta, Switzerland, where the Reisläufer served as a role model for the German Landsknechten, Styria and the previously mentioned Austrian Habsburgers. Also, the katzbalger came in many different designs, with some having hilts identical to the dusack.
Then in 1579, Heinrich von Gunterrodt shows us a dussack when teaching us about the Dussack and Sabre right before showing Turks practicing with the Kilij. The fact that von Gunterrodt shows these weapons together is very interesting and might well confirm my belief stated above; that the dussack was developed in response to a need to match the Turkish Kilij in the conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. However, this Latin text remains to be translated.
The dussack waster was one of the most important weapons in the fencing guilds for more than 250 years and as the 167h/17th cent battlefield dussack came to evolve into the proper sabre it could actually be thought of as living on even into our modern age. The dussack is basically the father of the sabre fencing and as such I sincerely believe it deserves our deepest respect, at least as much respect as the longsword is currently given.
Here follows a collection of assorted images depicting dussack fencers.