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Basic Swordsmanship for Fantasy Writers
I don’t think too many people can dismiss the drama that a sword fight adds to a story. Swords have been a weapon of war since mankind learned to forge metal. Nobility of virtually every culture have carried swords as a sign of their wealth, status or fighting skill. Swordsmen could easily devote their entire lives to the mastery of their weapon, so this association between the sword and a lifetime of disciplined training and honorable combat naturally led to the popularity of swordsmanship in fiction.
Unfortunately, a poorly-done sword duel can come across as campy even in the most epic of fantasy stories. When I say “poorly-written,” I’m speaking to you from a technical and martial perspective to help you portray plausible swordplay in your work. Readers need to get the sense that the fight you describe could actually happen and that these characters have some idea of what they’re doing (or not) and that they are actively trying to injure/maim/kill one another. Keep this in mind.
I should note that I’m not touching on the “writing” aspect of a sword fight scene. How you choose sentence structure, how you use verbs, all the technical nitty-gritty of writing is outside the scope of this piece. Maybe in future I’ll go that route. I will, however, say this: a fight scene in a book can’t play out like it can in a movie or a roleplaying session. Doesn’t work. Make of that what you will.
Further note: for the context of this article, I’m writing about normal humans using garden-variety weapons.
Swords are Fallible
Let’s start with common misconceptions about the swords themselves. Strip away all the romantic trappings and aura of invincibility, and you’ll see that swords are basically sharp, pointy pieces of metal and as such are subject to bends, breaks, nicks, dulled edges, you name it. Swords need regular cleaning, sharpening and occasionally straightening. They are designed to cut through flesh, not wood, not armor and certainly not the edge of another sword. We’ll talk more about that last later. Your master swordsman doesn’t need to be slicing through everything nonchalantly. This might look cool in animé , but astute readers will likely throw your book at the nearest wall.
Sword Design 101
This article isn’t meant to go deeply into physics, but you need to understand a few of the basic properties of swords: sharpness, hardness, and weight/balance. All of these factors will determine how the sword works.
The sharpness and hardness of a sword blade are inextricably linked. Even the keenest edge will do your swordsman no good if the sword can’t stand up to the stress of combat. Sharp edges don’t stay that way for long when the sword is placed under serious stress whether the edge is hard or soft. Hard edges are very brittle; they chip easily, especially when engaged with hard targets such as armor. Softer edges, meanwhile, flatten and roll at the point of contact.
Swords aren’t nearly as heavy as some writers would have you believe. Even the zweihänder, one of the largest sword types created, only weighed 6.6 lbs (3 kg) at most. Swords that seem heavy are often just poorly balanced, meaning that their center of weight is too close to the tip. Granted, there are some swords with their weight intentionally concentrated toward the tip, such as the kilij or khopesh. These swords were intended to deal chopping blows like an axe.
Now, let’s talk about the fighting itself, starting with addressing a couple of general errors before getting into technique.
Swordplay is Not Pattycake: Are They Really Attacking Each Other?
Two swordsmen cross blades, attack high, attack low, attack high again as the blades clash against one another and one combatant presses the other back. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You’ve likely seen it a million times in film. In literature it isn’t as obvious because you can’t actually see the fight, but the effect is the same - sword duels take an absurdly long time because no blows strike home even though they logically should. In a real sword fight, you aren’t going to see a lot of direct blade contact – or at least you shouldn’t.
Regarding length, the fight’s going to be over in a matter of seconds because someone is bound to land a lucky blow, regardless of respective skill levels. Even without that factor, swinging a sword is tiring work, so unless your characters have been established as having a lot of muscle endurance or are using light swords, their effectiveness is going to decrease as the fight progresses, leaving the victor decided by who tires out first. Consider the terrain and environment; if you want to extend a sword fight in your novel, write the combatants constantly moving around, retreating, seeking a more advantageous position and only exchanging sword blows intermittently rather than standing toe-to-toe engaging in sword pattycake.
Swordplay is Not Arm Wrestling: Avoiding the Blade Lock
Two swordsmen attack simultaneously. Their swords meet in the middle and the duel devolves into a shoving match as they push against each other, complete with gritted teeth and bulging muscles. This seems like an impressive display of strength to outsiders and ramps up the drama, but remember what I said about swordplay being tiring. Keeping swords locked together in a contest of strength would only fatigue the fighters and keep their weapons pointlessly committed. If a sword fight comes to that sort of close-quarters struggle, ask yourself what’s stopping one of them from pulling a dagger with his off-hand and gutting his enemy, or tripping, or using any number of empty-hand techniques?
Methods of Defense
Defensive sword tactics fall into one of three categories: voiding, binding or countering. More efficient swordsmen employ more than one of these with any given movement.
Voiding - When the blade comes, the defending swordsman moves out of its arc. Stepping backward out of the sword’s range mid-swing uses the least energy. It’s best to use this move when the sword would make contact near the tip such as with the katana and the various chopping swords I mentioned earlier. The swordsman can enter the attack – that is, step inside the blade path to go close-quarters. However, it’s dangerous if the attacker has a dagger and can get to it. Lateral or diagonal movements work best for evading vertical attacks and thrusts, rather than moving straight forward and backward. Of course, a skilled fighter would watch for follow-up attacks from this position and move away. A character who wears light armor facing a more heavily-armored opponent should void his opponent’s attacks and wear him down before going for the kill; if you’ve read A Game of Thrones , Bronn defeated Ser Vardis Egen this way.
Binding - The defending swordsman engages his enemy’s sword with his own to redirect or check the blow. A bind is the moment of blade contact. Although voiding is the better defensive option in most scenarios, binding has its uses; for example, your characters are fighting in a confined space without much room to move around. Two types of bind responses exist in swordplay: hard binds and soft binds. Deciding which to use is determined by the combatants feeling for the instant of blade pressure during the blade contact, called fuhlen in the Liechtenauer German longsword tradition.
A hard bind utilizes raw force to overpower the enemy’s defense and is often an attack in itself. It works best against a soft or non-committed attack. The “Fire and Stones Cut” from Miyamoto Musashi’s Go Rin No Sho is an example of a hard bind response.
A soft bind allows the attacker’s sword to power through its path, with the defending weapon providing just enough deflection to keep the attack from striking home. The kenjutsu counter uke-nagashi , “to block and let flow away,” exemplifies a typical soft bind technique. In this maneuver, the swordsman positions his weapon at an angle so the other sword slides off it like water flowing off a roof. The transferred momentum shifts the defender’s sword to a high stance from which he can deliver his own cut.
On the subject of binding, it’s usually better to take the blow on the flat or at an angle between flat and edge rather than the edge itself, though some European schools called for use of the edge. Brittle swords like the katana use the flat, or shinogi, to parry. Obviously, in the middle of combat, your character will be more concerned with survival and killing his enemy than keeping his sword from getting scratched, so you can afford leeway here.
Countering – The defending swordsman launches his own attack at the same time as his enemy and hopes it lands first. Thrusts work well for this purpose because of simple geometry: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line rather than the arc of a cut. Unless your character is confident of his speed or skill, this is a risky and honestly stupid tactic; after all, the goal is to survive and that requires some form of defense. No points for dying here, people. Remember that kinetic energy doesn’t magically dissipate; a dead and falling body can still keep a sword moving enough to cause injury. Even if your character wins by a hair, you could still have him injured this way for dramatic effect.
Methods of Attack
Swords are capable of cutting and thrusting to varying effect. Most schools of thought employ eight common lines of attack, or angles along which to cut: two vertical, two horizontal and two on each diagonal. The angles of the diagonals vary depending on the target area.
Vertical and downward diagonal cuts have a lot of power; they employ the sword’s cutting edge along with the force of gravity. They also work best when there are obstructions to either side. With a larger sword, it’s easy to over-commit to the cut, which plays right into the hands of a fighter who specializes in soft binds. Typical targets for these cuts include the shoulders, neck and head.
Horizontal cuts to left and right rely on hip rotation and strength rather than gravity to do their work. In close-quarters combat, a horizontal draw cut is one of the most effective attacks. Horizontal cuts are good for attacking the torso or, in the case of quick-draw cuts, the throat. Some techniques in iaijutsu employ the horizontal cut to dispatch multiple opponents simultaneously.
Rising cuts from below and the two lower diagonals, meanwhile, are some of the hardest to use because the swordsman works against gravity. Weaker characters will have a hard time making upward cuts with heavier weapons. Certainly, fighters historically used rising cuts on occasion, but more as a surprise attack, a counter, or a return stroke from a downward cut. Rising cuts often target the hips, torso, inner thighs or undersides of the arms. Cuts going straight up are very rare; they’re inefficient and awkward. In fact, happo-giri, the battoujutsu eight-cut exercise, substitutes a throat-level horizontal cut for an upward cut.
Thrusts are a little trickier; they can move at unpredictable angles, hook around the adversary’s sword and do more damage. They are usually – not always – more effective than cuts because all the momentum is concentrated in the small area of the sword point. The main problem with the thrust is that for blade-heavy weapons it is hard to control. Half-swording is a technique in which the swordsman grips the hilt with his off hand and grips halfway up the blade with the other hand, allowing the sword to function as a short spear, making the thrust easier to aim.
Beyond the Blade
Swords have more than just the blade to use for attack. The arming sword, for example, has a heavy pommel and crossguard, both of which can function as a makeshift bludgeon.
This leads into another fact: sword fights could get downright dirty. A fighter could knee his adversary in the groin, punch him in the face, or trip and stab him as he tried to get up. Dirt throwing, eye gouges, hidden weapons, you name it, it happened. There was, and is, no such thing as a fair fight.
Also consider the context of the fight: a one-on-one duel isn't going to play out the same as a one-on-multiple or multiple-on-multiple fight. On that subject, if you're going to have one fighter go against multiple ones, he or she had better be previously established as able to do so. Ideally, this is where you would have your character running, using the environment, funneling attackers into narrow corridors and the like. Similarly, a fighter with allies nearby will have to watch where his sword is going. Tight, controlled attacks are the order of the day here to prevent friendly fire mishaps.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to swordplay. Explaining individual techniques, different sword matchups, the effects of wounding, etc., would take a whole book, but I hope that this has given you some insight into the basics of swordplay so you can visualize it more easily and have a knowledge base from which to start.
Good luck in your own writing.