You can follow the tag #Swords for Fics if you want to keep up without following me 🙂
1: Dumb Ways to Die 2.May Your Blade Be True! 3.On Your Guard!
4. Making the Cut 5.Stick ‘em With the Pointy End 6. It’s Like a Dance
7. The Measure of A Man 8.A Crossing of Blades 9.Like Chess, but with Knives
An Interlude About Storytelling
10.You Can Barely Lift Your Sword 11.Buckle Some Swash 12.Dual Wielding
13.Everything is a Weapon 14.Got Your Sword!
The Measure of a Man (or other person)
Distance and Reach
In sword fighting measure refers to your ability to reach your opponent, and their ability to reach you. If you can’t reach them you are out of measure. If you need to take a passing step to reach them, you’re in a long measure. And if you can hit them from where you’re standing, you’re in measure. I recommend you simplify this to descriptions of distance or reach for readers.
The more distance you have over your opponent, the more time the defender has to react. The less distance, the less time the defender has. But the roles of attacker and defender change quickly. If they have less time to react to your attack, you will have even less time to react to their counter.
All this stepping forwards and backwards is like a constant mind game where each fighter searches for control.
When retreating from an attack, the defender could retreat to a minimum safe distance, allowing them to make a smaller move to reach their opponent than their opponent had to make to reach them. Even a smaller person with a shorter sword can best someone with more reach than them, by better controlling their measure.
In the illustration bellow, X (on the right) and Y (on the left) have the same reach. X takes a full step forwards and makes a cutting attack to reach Y, and Y takes only a small step back to successfully dodge. Y now makes a cutting attack using a lunging step and X is too close to retreat in time. X’s full attack also left them unable to defend in time with their sword.
X could have tried retreating as their swing finished for more time to get their sword ready to defend, or done a partial cut, making their weapon a threat needing to be dealt with before Y could counter.
So why not always use this strategy? Why would you ever attack first when this can happen?
In the next scenario, X attacks with a lunging thrust that brings them just in range of Y, but Y takes a small step back. X doesn’t stop the attack and now takes a full step forward, keeping their sword pointing at Y’s throat. Y tries to take a full step back in response, but is out of room, and even if they weren’t their full step still would not have brought them out of reach. X’s larger first step allowed them to catch their target in the end.
Y could have defended with their sword if they knew how to win the crossing. That will be covered in “A Crossing of Blades”
There are thousands of variations of stepping backwards and forwards or where Y or X could each win even these scenarios in different ways. But I hope these two examples will help you get into the mindset of why a character may advance or retreat. Often a retreat to a long distance will be simply to reset the battle from unfavourable conditions.
If you get in too close, and don’t have control over your opponents weapon, you’ll make yourself vulnerable. You might also enter grappling range. More on that in “
Your BodyEverything is a Weapon” (chapter coming soon)
If you’re attacking and it requires more than one step, it’s often advisable to move your sword as if making an attack while you do so. If it takes two steps for you to reach your opponent, then in the time it takes for you to take one step they could take one step forward as well and be in range to strike you. Giving them an attack to deal with will make them think about defending as they enter your space instead of attacking.
And of course, most battles aren’t going to happen like a platformer video game. Circling will occur.
You might be thinking about how much it must suck to be backed up against something or someone right now. And yea. It does. Fighting back to back is not advisable in a real battle if you can afford the space. But you know what? You can pull the back-to-back trope from my cold dead hands. If it’s that difficult to do, think of how much more impressive it actually is if your characters can pull it off.
I’m not here to tell you how to make a battle practical or accurate. But to get you in the mindset of what’s dangerous or what’s smart. In the end, tell the story you want to.
Well, she’s fucked.
I know that sounds harsh and I’m about to explain to why, if taken at face value, your character would get killed. We’re going talk about weapons, how they work, generalized versus specialized, and a concept called reach.
Reach or Distance: Distance to target i.e. how close do you have to be in order to hit the other guy. It’s very important to be able to judge distance in combat because the teeniest error in judgement can be the difference between a hit and an almost hit. While reach is a key part of hand to hand training, it’s even more vital when it comes to understanding weapon’s combat. Particularly, how different weapons play against each other. It shouldn’t shock you (though it surprises some people) that different weapons come in different lengths. The length of the weapon changes the weapon’s reach or distance it takes to hit an opponent.
This becomes more important when talking about theoretical combat between two different weapons, especially when the difference in length can be anywhere from a few inches to several feet. A few centimeters can be the difference between life and death, and there’s a rather vast difference in length between a longsword and a club.
Distance is important, because if the other guy can hit you before you can hit them then you’ve got problems. This is why the saying, “never bring a knife to a gunfight” exists. The thought process is if the guy twenty feet away has the gun and you’ve got a knife, you’re pretty thoroughly screwed.
I’m going to assume you meant a longsword when you said “broadsword” and not a Roman gladius. In this situation, the guy with the longsword can strike the girl with the club well before she reaches a range where she can hit him. He can do so safely and with far better defensive capabilities when it comes to deflecting her club, while the club on its own doesn’t provide much as a means of protection. It’s a solid offensive weapon in the right circumstances, but there’s a reason why it’s paired with the shield.
If she rushes to close the gap, she will get killed even more quickly.
Differences in Damage: This not about which weapon deals damage better, but the kind of damage they deal. The kind of damage they deal directly relates to how the weapon is designed to move, and as a result the path of movement it needs to take in order to achieve results.
The club/mace/morningstar have weighted tips just like a bat. The idea that physical (weightlifting style) strength is necessary to wield them is a misnomer, you don’t need to be in order to wield them. The weapon is weighted so that it naturally achieves greater momentum when swung, the momentum is what achieves the strength behind the blow rather than the strength in the arm itself. Speed, ultimately, is more necessary to the success of the club than physical strength. The faster you swing, the greater your momentum, and the harder you hit as a result. The strength is in the force of impact.
Neat, huh? We tend to think the Europeans of the Middle Ages as dumb brutes or assume the Barbarian tropes, but they were efficient when it came to figuring out means of killing each other and overcoming obstacles… like armor.
The problem with club is that it’s short. This is not a problem when you’re most likely facing enemies that are unarmored and aren’t carrying weapons or carrying weapons of similar size, but it becomes one when facing a longer weapon. Especially one that is as deadly as the sword, especially when that sword is in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.
In Europe, the sword was the great generalist weapon. It’s somewhat akin to the modern handgun in terms of popularity and usefulness in a wide variety of situations. They’re both sidearms, but they can both fulfill roles outside their designed function. The sword is deadly.
Fiction often downplays just how deadly the longsword sword is. But trust me, it wouldn’t come in so many different variations or be the model Europeans kept coming back to if it didn’t work. It’s such a useful weapon that it became part of our cultural consciousness, surviving down in different forms through countless ages, to become a symbol of kingship.
The sword is not the best weapon, it is a secondary weapon or sidearm. What makes it dangerous is the extraordinary ease in which it allows one person to kill another and the wide variety of varying circumstances in which it is useful.
The sword deals damage through very specific points of impact and any glancing blow it makes can end up being fatal. It also strikes on a more confined pattern than the club, making it’s attacks both faster, more difficult to see, and requiring less time for windup. You don’t need to pierce deeply into the body to reach muscles, find tendons, or to cause someone to bleed. Whether it’s punctured via the tip or caught in a glancing slice, all those wounds become debilitating. Debilitation leads to death.
“What’s he going to do? Poke me to death?”
People don’t come with specially armored skin. The sword is designed to pierce and efficiently carve up the human body, even a cut just an inch or two deep can quickly become debilitating.
Blood loss is a legit strategy.
Strategy: Strategy is a plan of action. It starts with recognizing your own capabilities and weaknesses in relation to your opponent versus their strengths and their weaknesses.
When you’re writing strategy, you should be bound by the limitations of your character. You don’t have to be, but it’s more honest to who they are. Think about the events from the character’s perspective, chucking out everything except what they know and understand about the world, their combat abilities, their opponents, and their limitations.
There are only so many strategies I could give, but it’s better if you start to use the above to formulate your own in conjunction with what you know about these two characters, where they are, what their goals are, what they want, and what the stakes of their conflict are.
The human element in combat is never to be overlooked. A lot of the time, talking about this can feel like a more complicated game of rock, paper, scissors. The problem is it isn’t that clear cut. While knowing what a weapon can do and what it can’t do is all fine and dandy (and important to writing your fight scenes), the heart of the fight are the people who participate. Two people can be given the same arsenal and use to it to extraordinarily different results. They change the rules by deciding what they will do, what they won’t do, what they want, and what kind of people they are.
It’s not so much that the baseline rules change, but rather how people choose to work within them.
I can’t answer any of those questions. They’re your characters, you’ve got to do it yourself.
So, what I need everyone who follows us to do is take your concept of physical strength and it’s importance to combat and then chuck it out a window.
You have a character who wanders into combat, fights like a battering ram, and thrashes about until everyone is dead. This will work against people who are unarmed and have no idea what they’re doing.
She’s fighting an opponent who is better trained, better armed, and carrying a weapon with much greater reach (I am assuming when you say “broadsword”, you mean a longsword and not a Roman gladius). The longsword is actually longer than her arm. Just as importantly, the strike patterns of the club lend themselves to large openings in the defenses.
This is why when someone fights with a mace, they usually bring a shield and plate mail. If you’re going to be raising your arms above your head, you better be wearing protection.
If she bull rushes him in an attempt to knock him down, she will either end up impaled on the sword itself or he’ll let her go past him and carve the sword up her back.
She’s got to figure out how to get close enough to hit him, and he has a weapon that is 1) very quick and 2) long enough to ensure she can’t in any easy way. If she’s not wearing armor, she can’t just wade in. It’s also worth remembering that sword training includes striking soft targets like the legs and the arms before going for the center. She could get close enough, think she’s in the clear, and end up with his blade pierced through her boot.
What I am saying is that if she fights him on an even keel in an honest duel: the deck is stacked against her. More importantly, she’s stacked the deck against herself. She’s wielding an inferior weapon against an opponent with superior training and a superior weapon, one far more deft at making use of openings, greater reach, and with greater defensive capabilities.
You have to be able to reach your enemy in order to hit them.
Right now, you’re trying to treat these two characters like they’re equals. If you recognize how utterly fucked she is, you can work within her limitations and possibly pull off a victory. However, the strategy she chooses to use is a reflection of who she is as a person. Strategy itself lives within a person’s ability to recognize and operationalize their strengths and weaknesses while acknowledging the person across from them. You also need to know how to use the environment and other factors outside of just statistics.
Statistically, she’s screwed. If she’s aware enough to realize that she needs to gain a different type of advantage (an emotional or psychological one) over her opponent, then great. If she’s a dumb, brute force type character unable to register that just because someone looks inferior doesn’t mean they actually are then she’s most likely dead.
An opponent with superior training and wielding a superior weapon is a difficult challenge to overcome. An opponent with inferior training who knows just enough wield a superior weapon, even badly, is a difficult challenge to overcome.
Weapons are not just aesthetic choices. They are not created equal. Each one comes specifically designed for certain situations. A sword and a club are two very different weapons, with the sword designed for a wider range of uses. It’s a much more flexible weapon.
A shield with armor (at the very least protection for the legs, feet, arms, and hands), or trading in the club for a staff (that she knows how to use) to regain the reach advantage would help her.
The assumption made by those who understand nothing about combat is that the guy with the sword is always going to strike for center mass or the main part of the body. However, one of the key parts of combat is the concept of carving your way inward. The sword can cut and damage, even superficially, any part of your body that is unarmored. Taking out hands, legs, feet, and arms if they can’t reach the middle is all acceptable. She raises her club to swing at him and he drives the blade’s tip into her armpit. It might sound silly, but that’s a legitimate target point.
There’s an artery there, striking it means fast bleedout and ruins your opponent’s ability to use their arm. He’ll have been trained to aim for it by his swordmasters because it’s also one of the openings left in plate. The same is true for the knees, or the inside of the thigh. He’ll naturally aim for the joints because those are the openings left due to the need for articulation.
Hands and arms are major targets in sword duels. The understanding is that if they can’t fight then they can’t stop you from killing them.
Untrained fighters tend to offer up those targets more regularly and frequently because they don’t realize that they need to protect them. Stabbing someone in the foot is not glamorous, but it works.
So, she needs a way to counter that sword, it’s speed, and it’s reach. It could be as simple as adding a parrying dagger or a shield if she can one hand the club. The strategy begins with finding a way to nullify the sword, protect herself so she can get close enough (without taking debilitating damage) and end the fight.
As she is now, she’s pretty doomed. Running at him won’t work. Rushing him will not work. The usual bullish skills she relies on are naturally countered by the length of his weapon and his training. She’s basically in a position of “bringing a knife to a gun fight”. If she cannot strike him down before the sword comes out then she is in some serious trouble.
It’s not impossible, but don’t treat them like equals. Treat her like she’s fighting at a severe disadvantage. (No, not because she’s a girl. It’s because she’s ill equipped and has no combat understanding other than learned experience.) Knowing that and working within it is the necessary understanding that’s key to victory.
I’ll be honest, one of the biggest issues with “super skilled” or “naturally gifted” fighters is that, unless they’ve learned otherwise, they tend to be shit teachers. Teaching is, in large part, the ability to take your own experiences and struggles then apply them to aiding your student to learn the same. The best teachers are often the ones who struggled hardest to understand their subject matter, who spent a lot of time on it. This can be someone gifted, but it’s not the natural conclusion. Someone who naturally grasps the concepts and grasps the basics quickly enough that they’ve never needed to really think about it will have trouble explaining those same basics to someone else. This can lead to many frustrations for both parties, especially if this is the teacher’s first outing.
It’s important to start with recognizing that being good at fighting and being able to teach someone how to fight are actually two separate skill sets.
Being a teacher requires that you think about what you’re doing, how it works, how it functions, and then how accurately show someone else how to do it. It actually takes a fair amount of introspection and understanding. It, ironically compared to cultural perceptions, often makes you better at what discipline you practice. This is why at the higher stages of martial arts training, for example, students take on more responsibility and begin assisting their teachers then eventually teaching themselves. Having to sit down and actually explain it to someone else, to think about what you’re doing, and how you did it in a way that they can understand is important to improving yourself.
In helping others, we help ourselves.
This is just a lead in to me saying that just because this prince is good at fighting, it doesn’t mean he can teach or teach her well. There are many different kinds of combat, and his training may not be suited to what she’s looking to learn or needs to know. This is even more true if he’s physically gifted and she isn’t. For the genius, a technique that may be extremely complicated is exceedingly simple, they natively grasp the concept and their bodies can quickly adapt it into their repertoire. They may have also learned at an accelerated rate. Their learning experience being vastly different from someone on a more even keel. Even if he’s not gifted or he is and she is, they may not learn the same way and that requires him having to entirely restructure everything about his teaching methods to get the techniques across.
He’ll also be far more educated than she is which will make it more difficult to relate concepts to her if she doesn’t understand what the concept is. They come from very different beginning positions. He’ll have been primed for combat his entire life even before he began learning, while this may be a concept that’s just occurring to her. Someone raised in the lap of luxury has a different perspective than someone who grew up on the streets. More than that, unless he’s ornamental, a prince’s life is filled with responsibility, study, duties both political and governmental, with huge constraints on his time even if he’s just the second or third son.
Ruling is a job and the child of a ruler is one groomed from birth to take over that role. A prince that’s really good at combat but not likely to inherit the throne, for example, may be one being groomed to be their older brother’s general or Grand Marshal. The one who takes the reins in terms of military matters and national security, both internal and external.
Or if he’s got a lot of older brothers and no prospects, then he could be raised to be the family’s duelist or Champion. The one who fights in place of the King when another noble challenges a decision, royal decree, or personal slight.
Ultimately, the kind of teacher he is matters. The breath of his experience matters. Teachers aren’t all equal and teaching is a learning experience, just as much as the student’s training. If he’s never taught anyone before, if he expects everyone to come to it with the same background he did i.e. lots of personal tutors, if he doesn’t understand the difference between starting with nothing and starting with something, then she could be in for a very rough time.
Mentor/Student is very much a give and take. It’s setting boundaries. It’s building trust. There are a lot of ways to do that.
Even though you’re not writing from the Prince’s perspective, these are important questions to suss through and figure out. Your main character’s entire learning experience will be decided by what he does and what he knows. So it may be important to figure out what that is.
As for the first person learning perspective from the student’s POV.
You’re in for an easier road when the student knows nothing and writing from their point of view means that their teacher informs their entire learning experience.
Start slow and build your base.
One spends an entire lesson on stances, learning to stand, breathe, and balance their weight before they’re ever allowed to hold a sword. Then, they practice holding the sword, practicing their strikes. Single strikes, rather than combinations, with stances. Then, they practice their footwork separately. Single strikes are practiced together in conjunction with the footwork. Then, we move on to combinations putting footwork/strikes together into a flurry of movement with attack and defense. Practice alone, becoming used to no resistance. Then, practice with a partner. Then, practice with multiple partners to build experience.
Intersperse cardio. Stretches both before and after practice to keep the limbs loose. The character thinks about their training during the day, as they do their chores. Practicing their stances, locking their wrists, adjusting their fingers.
Depending on teaching style it could be confusing and “mysterious” with the teacher refusing to explain what’s going on. Or, they could explain the purpose.
The character will practice the same repetitious movements over and over again. It won’t be very exciting. They’ll leave training bruised and probably a little beaten. The teacher needs to balance the realities with hope for improvement. She will get better slowly, though due to a vast difference in both experience and expectations she may never be his equal.
Attack and defense are both necessary.
Every sword strike can lead to death.
The teacher will destroy preconceived notions.
Try not to make it so that they’re awesome at everything right away. Even the ones who can physically get it, it takes them time to really understand it. Also, a character who goes “oh! that’s easy!” will immediately be bumped into harder challenges.
They will be dumb in the beginning. All students are dumb in the beginning unless they’re not really beginners. That’s okay. Being slow, confused, and frustrated is part of being human.
Don’t forget the cardio. Training extends outside of class time. She must practice and consistently or else she’ll forget, she’ll have to learn all over again in the next class.
Some good training sequences:
Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small are very good to use for reference. Particularly Kel’s relationship with her maid Lalasa in the second novel Page, with Lalasa’s training being geared for female self-defense. Lalasa’s solutions such as practicing her stances during the day while she stands in line are excellent examples of a character consistently trying to learn.
Game of Thrones: Arya Stark training under Syrio Forel. Cat catching included. Why cat catching, you ask? It trains the reflexes and hand to eye coordination, also helps the trainee hone their stalker instincts. Plus, it doubles successfully as the teacher trolling.
The Mask of Zorro: I’ve mentioned Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins before, but the Mask of Zorro has one of my all time favorite training sequences. It combines humor and no small amount of sadism with some genuinely good advice while being highly entertaining at the same time.
Check out Matt Easton’s (Scholagladitoria) Channel
If you can, honestly, look up your local HEMA chapters and fencing clubs. The only ones who can teach you how to teach sword combat are teachers who teach sword combat. It’s okay if you know nothing, most martial artists are more than happy to share knowledge with beginners. Take a class if you’ve the resources. It’ll help you a lot.
This is what medieval sword fighting probably looked like- two fighters being defensive and testing each other with sharp blades. This video comes from the wonderful swordsfolk at DIMICATOR , based in Germany.
This martial arts school reconstructs the practice of historical European swordsmanship. They focus on unarmoured fighting with sword and buckler, as described in late medieval German manuscripts.
In a fight, she’s going to die. The only way to get past his sword is to kill him preemptively. Once the sword is out, she’s dead. More than that, she has no way to close the distance to even injure him. Quite literally, she will not even slow him down. This isn’t a background question, or a gender question, it’s just a weapons issue.
He’s swinging a 5 – 6 foot long blade that weighs about as much as your laptop (4 – 7 lbs). We can talk about it being slow (for a sword) or heavy (for a sword) but it’s very important to understand, she cannot get within six feet of him and live. It’s still a very agile, lethal, and fast weapon.
It’s also important to remember he’s not a video game character. He’s not going to make some big overly telegraphed attack and then end up with the sword buried in the masonry long enough for her to run up and shank him a couple times. Doesn’t happen.
If she never fights him. She just comes up behind him in a crowd, buries her dagger in his kidneys, and leaves him to bleed to death, she can come out on top. But a quick assassination strike is her only option. Really, that’s the combat role of a dagger, outside of some very situational stuff.
So you have a character that’s geared for heavy infantry combat vs. a character who is effectively unarmed. That’s never a good situation.
Also? She should know that. When you’re talking about someone who’s effectively an opportunist, she would know she has no chance in a stand up fight with a soldier/ex-soldier/merc. If presented with this guy, her options are to either shank him, or run. If he’s ready for a fight, then she needs to be someplace else, now. Someplace he can’t follow her. If that’s through a black market he can’t enter, through a church, into somewhere neither of them want to be (like the tavern they’ve both been thrown out of for completely different reasons) but that will raise less of a fuss over an “unarmed” woman racing in, than a main armed with a greatsword. Because, honestly, a big guy with a greatsword barreling into anywhere is rarely a welcome sight.
It’s important to understand, running isn’t cowardice. A character choosing not to commit suicide against an armed opponent in a back alley brawl is just being smart.
On a writing level, I’m going to leave you with a question: If it doesn’t matter for the plot, then why is it there at all?
Whenever you’re working on a scene, it needs to be in the story for a reason. It needs to move the plot forward, or provide more character development. Something. It needs to do something.
Killing off a character because, “eh, might as well,” is usually a bad idea. There are legitimate reasons to do so, but they get into some really tricky territory. Killing characters to promote the idea that, “no one is safe,” can easily backfire, leaving you with readers that no longer care. Even in the best circumstances, the more characters you kill, the less their deaths matter.
Simply snuffing peripheral characters because you can, doesn’t really get you anything. If neither of these characters are important enough to affect the course of the plot, why are you spending time looking at them fighting? It becomes a weird kind of filler that can just as easily be cut.
There isn’t one. With knives you can “safely” take a couple strikes to some areas of the forearm, but, that doesn’t hold up for a sword. So the safest place to take a sword strike is anywhere you’re not standing. Failing that, taking a blow to the shield, or to heavy armor, or parrying with your own weapon is about as good as it gets. Taking a sword strike to exposed tissue is almost always going to run the risk of a crippling, or lethal injury. You can get lucky, and suffer a superficial injury nearly anywhere, but it will never be “safe.”
Running away. Getting stabbed and bleeding to death is also a valid option. I’m being a bit of a smart ass here, but this is not a good situation to be in.
In competent hands, a sword can keep your character from getting close enough to actually harm their foe. Even in incompetent hands, it can easily debilitate your character.
For an unarmed character, they need to be able to stay out of the sword’s reach, or get too close to use the sword effectively. Without weapons, even improvised ones, once the character with the sword is ready, this just isn’t possible.
So, your character needs to close the distance before the other character draws their weapon, or run.
All of those martial artists blocking, parrying, and catching swords with their bare hands? Those are exhibition techniques. They look really cool, but trying to use them in a fight will only result in death and dismemberment.
In the past we’ve said there’s no unarmed technique for dealing with a sword, but this is an exception. If your character is wearing plate gauntlets, with articulated, metal grips, (or, better yet, full heavy armor), there is an option to grab an opponent’s blade. So, your character in full plate might be able to deal with someone armed with a sword.
So, yeah, run away or get creative.