A toy, suited only to make pretty scars for girls to admire

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

Our Slovenian guest recently suggested that I take a look at the traditional German sword-fighting art called Mensur, which reminded me that I’ve discussed Germany’s odd fencing fraternities before, but I didn’t mention where I’d first heard of their unusual style of fencing, in Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, his not-quite-fantasy novel, where the protagonist, fresh from fighting in Southeast Asia, comes home with a scar across his nose — “little brown brother hadn’t sterilized his bolo” — and the surgeon says, “You’re going to get well, son. But you’ll be scarred like a Heidelberg student.” Our hero decides to try going to Heidelberg:

Hell, I would fight a couple of student duels and add real Heidelberg scars to back up the dandy I had. Fencing was a sport I really enjoyed (though the one that counted least toward “sweeping the gym”). Some people cannot stand knives, swords, bayonets, anything sharp; psychiatrists have a word for it: aichmophobia. Idiots who drive cars a hundred miles an hour on fifty-mile-an-hour roads will nevertheless panic at the sight of a bare blade.


I rather looked forward to trying a Heidelberg duel. They pad your body and arm and neck and put a steel guard on your eyes and nose and across your ears — this is not like encountering a pragmatic Marxist in the jungle. I once handled one of those swords they use in Heidelberg; it was a light, straight saber, sharp on the edge, sharp a few inches on the back — but a blunt point! A toy, suited only to make pretty scars for girls to admire.

That verbal description doesn’t quite paint the picture:

German Academic Fencer

The whole thing seems a bit contrived, but it has a certain logic to it:

A form of noble duel — mensur fencing — was widespread in Germany during the 16th century among young people, particularly in the student community. (The word originated from German Mensurfechten — fencing in confined space). Duelists wore protective eyepieces with metallic netting. The chest and neck were protected by a leather chest guard and a thick scarf. They wielded prototypes of the saber — “schlagers” with sharply pointed ends. Opponents faced each other and took turns at hits, aiming for the only unprotected body part — the opponent’s face. When fatigue set in or one of the opponents let down his guard, his opponent broke through his parries, leaving a cut on his face, which eventually scarred over. As we know, scars are said to give a man’s face character. As a result, both duelists left satisfied: the winner with a sense of triumph, and the loser with a sign of courage on his face.


During the first half of the 19th century and some of the 18th century, students believed the character of a person could easily be judged by watching him fight with sharp blades under strict regulations. Academic fencing was more and more seen as a kind of personality training by showing countenance and fairness even in dangerous situations. Student corporations demanded their members fight at least one duel with sharp blades during their university time. The problem was that some peaceful students had nobody to offend them. The solution was a kind of formal insult that did not actually infringe honour, but was just seen as a challenge for fencing. The standard wording wasdummer Junge (German for “young fool.”)

The Nazis suppressed the fencing clubs, which is mildly ironic, since dueling scars now evoke the image of an SS officer, like Otto Skorzeny:

Otto Skorzeny


  1. Adar says:

    Fencing to get the dueling scar is still done. Most popular among those students in a program to get a medical or legal degree. To accentuate the scar a piece of horsehair is sewn into the wound. In the classical manner the wound sewn shut without anesthetic and no yelps of pain either.

  2. Kirk says:

    Like just about everything, the progression is usually a farcical devolution from “practical custom with roots in real-world necessity” through “something we’ve formalized and which has acquired the excuse of custom” to “we’re rubbing blue mud into our navels because that’s what we’ve always done…”.

    It’s like “dress uniforms” in the military. There is absolutely zero need for the damn things in this day and age, particularly given the need for OPSEC and counterterrorism procedures, which militate against being identifiable when not in large, armed groups.

    Originally, they were meant to be “walking-out” uniforms for the troops, so as to make them a little bit better looking while out in public, and to make it that much harder for them to desert. After all, if all they’ve got is that spiffy walking-out outfit, they can’t very easily go over the fence, and ohbytheway, making all the shiny shiny and everything else spiffy, well… That took time, and if they weren’t “presentable” upon leaving the barracks, then they couldn’t go. Which was a valuable retention tool, in that it was harder to go AWOL.

    That was, in the final analysis, the really major reason we went to dress uniforms in the first place. Today, most of those reasons are obsolete as hell, and there are precisely zero guys in the barracks looking around at each other on a Friday or Saturday night and going “Hey, let’s get into our dress uniforms and go downtown and have some fun…”.

    But, a huge chunk of everyone’s pay and so forth goes into maintaining these vestigial things from ye olden dayes, just ‘cos the brass and senior enlisted think they’re a must-have thing, and “that’s what we’ve always done…”.

    ‘Effing idiocy, and about the only reason I can actually see it still being a “thing” is that there are an awful lot of man-children in uniform that just luuuurve them some live-action dress-up LARP, as though they were precocious little girls who love telling all their friends what to do and how to play “just right”.

    The irony of it all just escapes them. Note, for example, the way that “dress uniforms” lag combat dress by a war or two–Current US Army dress uniform is a demented rehash of the WWII officer’s “pinks and greens”, which were universally loathed because of how hard they were to maintain, not to mention the difficulty in keeping those light-colored trousers looking uniform. It didn’t look too bad when it was just the officers, and there were only ever “one eaches” out in front of things, but put everyone in those things, and the shade variations are going to look like shit across an entire formation of junior enlisted. I predict an awful lot of dissatisfaction with that spiffy new uniform, and another tranche of wasted money.

    Whole thing is a waste of time and effort. Nobody wins a war based on their dress uniforms, and military organizations that focus on that crap wind up being crushed by the ones that focus on the important essentials, like skill-at-arms and marksmanship.

    So–Do note the progression. Need-tradition-farce. You have to be able to discern which is which, and when the transition from “cool tradition that enhances morale/recruiting” to “complete waste of time that detracts from real-world necessities”.

    US military is particularly bad at this crap, mostly because the people that run it have no fucking idea how it all really works out. Witness the cack-handed way they manage personnel and unit cohesion–It’s almost like they’ve deliberately designed for anomie and social isolation, rather than cohesion and unit strength.

  3. Paul from Canada says:

    Agreed Kirk,

    Now talk about the idiocies over berets…..

  4. Kirk says:


    Oh, now you’re just goading me…

    I could do a ten-page rant on that issue, alone. Not to mention the magical thinking going on behind it, and how utterly barren of understanding that Shinseki and his staff weenies were and still are.

    None of these morons understand the first ‘effing thing about “kewl uniform” realities. Firstly, the root thing is that it’s not the silly hat, it’s the men wearing them. I guarantee you that if you were to costume the Marines and Rangers in pretty pink over-panties (w/lace, one each), within a generation, every major military in the world would be wearing them as “distinctive uniform items”. Presuming, of course, that you could maintain the same elite standards and spent the money on all the training.

    Men make the uniform, not the other way ’round.

  5. Handle says:

    Finally we know the real answer to, “Do you wanna know how I got these scars?”

  6. Paul from Canada says:


    You used the right words. “magical thinking”.

    The USAF did similarly stupid stuff. The idea that giving pilots a leather flight jacket would somehow increase retention and improve morale, much like giving the regular army a beret….

    We did a bunch of equally stupid things up here. We got rid of the green uniforms everyone wore after “integration” (long story/rant), and went back to what were called DEUs (Distinct Environmental Uniform), i.e. going back to grey-blue for the air force and whites/blacks for the navy. So far so good, but then they added a “Garrison/working dress uniform to the mix.

    The air force one was good, easy care blend pants in air force grey-blue, light blue shirt and nylon jacket and/or air force blue-grey “wooly-pulley”. The navy one was decent, same as the air force, except trousers in black, and dark blue shirt and black “wooly-pulley” or nylon jacket. Practical and comfortable for day to day wear, easy care, didn’t show dirt too much. Smart and “uniform” looking enough to keep the SgtMaj. happy, and cheaper than “combats”(BDUs) for everyone.

    The Army, on the other hand…They adopted a “jump boot” style boot, more expensive than combat boots, not meant to be worn except as “garrison dress”, primarily meant to be a combat style boot that could be polished. The pièce de résistance was a camouflage jacket. This jacket was not for combat, was not a practical camouflage pattern (we were still using the OG combat clothing, no CADPAT yet), and worn solely in “garrison”, when not in the field. It was derisively know and the “duck hunter” jacket.

    All this cost a bomb, for no really good purpose.

    I much prefer the Israeli/Apartheid era South African idea. You have a citizen army, so just issue combat clothing to everyone. Officers can have a dress uniform (which you can make them pay for). Everyone else just gets “combats”/BDUs. If they need to go on parade, just give them white gloves and gaiters and a white belt when required, problem solved!

    If you really want, give the Navy dark blue BDUs, the Airforce light blue/grey BDUs and have done with it. Anyone who actually goes into the field regardless of service gets whatever camouflage pattern the Army is using. The Navy “camouflage” pattern is just stupid…

    At least up here in Canada we are sensible about berets. They are nothing special, just a practical, smart looking military headgear that can be stuffed in a pocket when they need to be. Certain traditions are kept, the armor branch wears black, but so does the Navy. The MPs get red (“redcaps”), Airborne gets maroon, but otherwise nobody GAF. We in the air force even got them, in an appropriate colour. We also know to rip the lining out and wet mold them properly so they don’t look as oversized and stupid as most of the US Army now looks…

    As you said, the man makes the uniform. The whole thing over the current going back to “pinks and greens” is just stupid, and a waste of money. Most of the younger members don’t know or care about the history anyway.

    Up here we have gone back to the old style rank (pips and crowns, red “staff” tabs and so on for army, rings, but different styles for the Navy and Airforce). I like this personally, but I doubt anyone currently serving know or cares about the history. Again, pointless waste of money.

  7. Paul from Canada says:


    It is rumored that some people are too squeamish to get the scars in actual duels and get them surgically put on by plastic surgeons….

    As Kirk pointed out, symbolism over substance….

  8. Jim says:

    A fancy uniform is isomorphic with a peacock’s tail.

    Bean-counting is the concern of slaves.

  9. Terry says:

    “Current US Army dress uniform is a demented rehash of the WWII officer’s ‘pinks and greens’”

    Apparently you do not know the difference between a dress uniform and a service uniform.

  10. Kirk says:

    Oh, I know the difference–Thing is, the “service uniform” these days is not what you think it is. 90% of the military wears a garrison version of the combat uniform as its service uniform. The role they’re squeezing the “pinks and greens” into is the same one filled by the Class “A”/Dress Blue uniforms of yore.

    It’s patently ridiculous, when you look at it from the outside. What point is there to dressing soldiers up in the combat uniforms of bygone days, for dress-up purposes? And, that’s exactly what it is–The vestigial pockets that exist only as flaps? The over-priced obsolete accoutrements? It’s all BS, and far overdue for abandonment. They only put the damn things on for the sort of ceremonial duties that tuxedo rental shops fill for civilians, and they could just as well set up rental shops for the dress uniforms for those few who need them only for rare ceremonial duties.

    The amount of time, money, and mindspace wasted on this ephemeral bullshit are what galls me. You could easily re-apportion the funds spent on things that actually matter, like getting everyone in decent boots and body armor, but… No, they’d rather LARP as Captain America or Wonder Woman’s boyfriend from the 1940s.

    Guarantee you that if they hadn’t gotten that particularly stupid idea from Hollywood, we’d have forgotten all about that dumbass uniform, which was universally loathed by all commissioned officers who ever had to maintain the damn things. I further wager that when they encounter the slapstick appearance that will accrue due to the differential fading and dye lot numbers of those stupid-ass light-colored pants, every single Sergeant Major is going to lose their shit seeing the kaleidoscopic color effects on their massed formations. What looked good and stood out on single officers in front of a mass of olive drab or Army green will look like utter shiite in seventy different shades of white-tan-pink.

    Utter waste of money and resources entrusted to the feckless morons running our forces. There was no damn reason whatsoever to go away from the old Army green uniforms–Nobody outside the Pentagon ever wore that crap often enough to ever get any “enhanced morale” effect out of it whatsoever.

    The new uniform is just the latest and greatest black beret stupidity, and they’ll probably be replaced or utterly irrelevant within even less time than the all-blue shitfest that replaced the old Class “A”.

    That shade thing with the pants is going to be the first thing to go. I’ll lay you long, long odds that the “pinks” are gonna go bye-bye for the enlisted within five years, especially once they see what they look like on a company mass formation marching by.

  11. Johnny Mac says:

    You can find an interesting firsthand account of the German university dueling corps in Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men on a Bummel” (1898) (aka “Three Men on Wheels”) his story of a bicycle tour of Germany. It is in Chapter 13. Jerome was not impressed. As he saw it these duels did not require actual skill with a sword nor real courage since the duelists were completely protected against any injury other than the cuts to the face that produced the prized scars.

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