Sword fights are common elements in literature and drama. Everyone wants to include them because they rouse the audience to mountainous heights of tension. What if you have no idea how sword fighting works, though? Even worse, what if you deceive yourself into thinking that you do? Come on, you’ve seen The Princess Bride. Isn’t that what sword fighting looks like? Not even close.
I am not a “master of defense” by any means, but I do know enough to speak with authority on this issue. I was a fencer for about 2 ½ years; I have read books on traditional swordsmanship focusing on medieval and renaissance eras, and have had some practice in them; I even did a thesis paper on what it would have been like to see a sword fight on an Elizabethan stage, including a live demonstration.
If you are considering including a sword fight in your novel but are worried about accuracy, have no fear. I have written this article to give you the basic foundation you need to write such scenes with confidence.
Coming to grasps with the basics
If we think of swords like we do animals, there are tens of thousands of species, numerous families, but only three kingdoms. To begin writing sword fights, it is only necessary to have a firm understanding of the three kingdoms and a basic idea of the sword family you will be writing about. The three kingdoms are: (to use my own terminology) hack and slash, thrust and slice, and transitional or multipurpose.
Hack and slash swords are the ones you normally think of, and include cavalry swords, two handed swords like the claymore or renaissance two hander, cutlasses, and numerous others. They are used according to their name. All or almost all strikes are made with the blade as opposed to the point. These swords are swung in an arc, rarely shot forward in a straight line.
Thrust and slice swords are comprised of a smaller group. To my knowledge, the only swords in this category are rapiers and small swords. These swords are thinner than hack and slash swords, but often just as long. These swords are held with one hand only, and are held out in front of the swordsman instead of to the side. Most attacks with thrust and slice swords are made with the point by stabbing the opponent. Often though, swordsmen would slice their opponent by drawing the blade across the opponent’s skin. Thrust and slice swords are the best swords for duels, self-defense, or even a small skirmish, but are not suitable for battles.
Transitional or multipurpose swords are basically a compromise between the other two types. They can be used to hack or stab but are not specialized for either. These swords were often just early attempts to create a thrust and slice sword.
Suppose you really like the rapier and you are writing a fight scene in ancient Israel. Could you fit the two together? No; rapiers did not exist until about the 16th century. Here is a brief timeline of sword development to help you pick era-appropriate sword types.
- The fall: The first sword is mentioned.
- Ancient times – middle ages: Slashing swords were the most common. Some swords were designed to deliver a deadly thrust, but none were fine tuned for thrusting.
- 1500s: Thrusting weapons began to receive special attention and fine tuning, but were still in the early stages of development. Transitional swords were common.
- 1600s – 1800s: The use of hack and slash swords declined as thrusting and multipurpose swords took their place.
Secret moves and silver bullets:
To summarize it, they do not exist. You may have read in some book about a swordsman having a secret move which only him and a few other select men knew how to do. This is merely fictitious. There are certainly tricky moves which may be rarely used or assemblies of common moves which are especially cherished by certain swordsmen, but there is no such thing as a secret move that only a small group knows about.
If an author claims his character had a secret move, which cannot be defended against and is sure to kill the opponent every time it is used, it can sound convincing, but there are only a limited number of basic moves you can do with a sword, and they are well known. The reality is, there are no silver bullets to sword fighting. It is like a game of chess. You win through strategy, not simple 1-2-3-and-you-win processes.
In movies or plays, there is often a point in a sword fight where the two combatants have their swords crossed and are grabbing each other’s wrists while exchanging angry glares. This lasts about two seconds, and then the combatants withdraw and continue fighting. In real life, this never happens. When two swordsmen find themselves almost touching, they will either bring in a fist, or a dagger, or start wielding their sword differently to accommodate for the tight space. There are no pauses. Things keep up at the same lightning speed. Often, a combatant will have the opportunity to withdraw safely, but generally, the one who retreats first gets hit.
Spinning around in a circle before delivering your stroke lends extra strength to your blow and is a good idea:
While I have never conducted a scientific test on it, I personally believe that spinning around in a circle before delivering a blow actually reduces its power. Maximum power is obtained by stepping, lunging, or running forward while delivering the blow. Spinning around is also a bad idea since even a novice swordsman could easily stab you in the back before you had time to fully turn around.
Editor’s Note: Light-saber-wielding cats are also widely considered to be a myth, though the jury is still out.
- Sword fighting defies the standard learning curve. The untrained novice who picks up a sword actually has a better chance than someone who has been practicing for a couple of months, since his actions are almost always wild and unpredictable. When a student receives training, their chances will actually decline over the next few months, because they will be trying to operate by the rules, but will be very bad at it. You can never master the art of swordsmanship but it will only take about two years, maybe even less, for a natural to become dexterous at it if he has a good teacher. A complete novice could even become dangerously skilled in only a few months if he received some very condensed training, but even so, that is pushing it.
- A warrior can sustain many wounds without dying. One knight in the battle of Crécy sustained about 100 wounds and still survived. Most fatal wounds are cuts or stabs to organs that contain large amounts of blood, such as the heart or spleen. Wounds to the lungs are fatal because the lungs can fill with blood, drowning the wounded man. Any wound can become fatal if it gets infected. Stabs are harder to heal than cuts.
- A faint is a false attack intended to elicit a response from the opponent which will create an opening for the real attack.
- A parry is where a swordsman uses his blade to deflect his opponent’s blade out of the way when he is being struck or thrust at.
Getting inside the mind of a swordsman
There are four factors that govern a sword fight: timing, distance, reaction time, and reaction ability. Reaction ability is what most people like to focus on. It is the “moves”: doing such and such with your sword. This is only one part of the fight though.
Timing is crucial. If you start your attack after your opponent has started his, you will probably get hit. You may also find an opening in your opponent’s defense, but wait long enough before attacking him that he can recover his defense. You also might try an attack on your opponent that would never work if anyone else did it, but will work for you because you can do it extra fast.
Distance is just as important. You may see your opponent’s blade coming and move to block it in record time, but still get hit just because you were too close. Keeping a safe distance allows you to test your opponent’s reactions without putting yourself in too much danger. For instance, I may stay at a distance from which I can just tap the end of my opponent’s sword with mine. If he reacts suddenly when I tap it, I may move in and try it again, only this time, when he swings his sword to deflect mine, I will drop it under his and attack from the other side. His blade will be too far away to respond in time.
Even if you have good timing and distance, your attack may fail if your opponent has quick reflexes. You may have to move faster, or confuse him, so he doesn’t react properly.
The final element is reaction ability. This is being able to respond to your opponents attacks or mistakes properly. This is where you do your “moves”.
Generally, a swordsman will spend the first half of a fight trying to learn his opponent’s style, and the second half trying to hit him. Some of what I have described here may be a little different if the scene is a large battle, since then you have to act in unison with everyone else in your division, and you probably have limited space.
I hope this will help anyone who is writing a sword fight scene to be able to proceed with confidence. If you find that you are still uncomfortable writing a sword fight, there are many guides to traditional sword fighting you may consult, though be warned: many contain gory sketches. I recommend Medieval Swordsmanship and Renaissance Swordsmanship, both by John Clements, as two excellent guides.
As you write your sword scene, remember to ask yourself what it’s purpose is for the overarching story. Is it for character development? Does it resolve a major dilemma in your character’s life? Is it to set the scene for a later event? If you find that your fight scene is just thrown in there and adds nothing to your story except excitement, you may want to consider throwing it out. You should also be cautious not to glorify violence or indulge in gore. If there is violence, it should lead to peace and victory. If there is death, it should lead to reflection. You should never write a fight scene just for the excitement of it.
So, what young swashbuckler will inhabit your story next?