Tag Archives: swords

So I just played the Witcher 3 game, and I was marveling at the fighting style Geralt uses. Obviously there are so many differences between that game and realistic swordplay, but the main one I wanted to know about was where you’d store your sword when you’re not fighting. I know you’ve said storing a sword on your back isn’t very practical, but what I’m wondering is where you’d store a long sword or a hand-and-a-half sword. Would it still be at the hip? Thanks in advance for the reply!

I love the Witcher 3′s combat system, so you get no arguments from me.

The sword is called a sidearm, you may have heard that term before in reference to handguns. It’s the same, the modern handgun has replaced the sword as a weapon but serves a similar purpose both functionally in combat and culturally. You wear it buckled on your hip.

For a weapon to function, it needs to be in a place that’s easily reached and at the ready. Whether it’s a sword buckled on our back or the staff we left in our room or the pepper spray buried at the bottom of our purse. A weapon doesn’t do us a lot of good if we don’t have access to it.

When you’re trying to come up with ways your character might store or what places on their body they carry their weapons, here’s some simple rules.

1) Accessible

2) Easily drawn

3) Nowhere that hinders

4) Sensible i.e. not annoying

The action of drawing your weapon, whether it is a knife, a gun, or a sword should be one smooth motion that transitions quickly into a defensive stance. If you’re about to be attacked or in process of being attacked then time is a luxury you don’t have.

On to the Witcher:

The Sword’s Path has a great breakdown on The Witcher 3 combat vs HEMA (Historical Martial Arts) fencing. I would give it a look. He talks a lot about the fundamentals of sword combat and how you could use techniques similar to what we see in the Witcher 3 but would actually work. He also does a great job of explaining the fundamentals and logic behind it. He’s got a nice video for beginners interested in HEMA with a great breakdown of the longsword and lots of resources.

I’d also checkout sieniawskifencing, a channel run by
Sztuka Krzyżowa dedicated to the Polish fencing discipline called Cross-Cutting, Sabre Cross-Cutting, or Polish Sabre Cross-Cutting. Compare with Scholagladiatoria dueling with what will be probably be the more familiar 19th century British military sabre.

The Witcher 3 is a video game made by Polish developers. The games are loosely based on The Witcher series. The books are written by a Polish author, Andre Sapkowski and are basically the Polish Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. If you ever want to hear Sapkowski get testy about the video games, you can find it. (Read his books, you’ll understand.)

Both draw heavily on Polish history, Polish culture, Polish fairy tales/mythology, and the Polish approach to medieval/renaissance/longsword combat in their design rather than what we see from Western Europe like France, Germany, England, etc. They’re Polish. Sword combat in Western and Eastern Europe is not unified, it varies culture to culture, sometimes a lot within the same culture, and the limitation in HEMA is that its a historical reconstruction based on the sources available. The only documentation we have is from the people who bothered to write it down, and were lucky enough to have their writings survive. So, pointing to a historical text and saying “that’s how this German swordmaster did it” doesn’t help us that much when it comes to looking at Poland.

Geralt’s fighting style is obviously over the top and built on flourishes, but I remember seeing that The Witcher 3′s combat was based off a fencing style or there were fencers who consulted. I unfortunately can’t source it. However, if you look at Polish Sabre Cross-Cutting you may see some move sets that are similar even though they’re performed with a sabre instead of a longsword.

The combat in The Witcher 3 is not quite as far out of reach as you might think. It just needs a little tweaking and less spinning.

-Michi

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hey i’m creating a race of fairies and since they generally have small builds and metal such as iron cold steel are deadly to them what are some good materials to use for the fairies to craft their weapons, i considered gems but doing some research i realized substance like diamonds and crystal are utterly impractical even for the fairies.

Well, fairies are magic. If a fairy wanted to wield a diamond sword, they could and no audience would question it. Magic is the solution to a lot of problems. The weakness of a weapon forged with magic is, of course, a steel blade but that only matters if they’re encountering humans wielding steel on the regular. Fairies can do whatever they want and dance merrily on the graves of scientists the world over, so don’t let that stop you.

Blades of pure light.

Blades of diamond.

Blades from plants.

Fairies wielding magma blades or swords forged from stardust.

A sword of glass containing the beating heart and heat of the sun.

Futuristic fairies who behave like aliens in Iron Man style power armor formed from plastics/polymers wielding lightsabers and firing bolts of plasma.

They’re fairies. Sky’s the limit here. Except, it’s not because then we catapult ourselves out into space. Go however far your imagination takes you.

Look to myth for your solutions, especially the Celtic Sidhe. Unless you’re dealing with a modern setting (and even if you are) mythology has already developed solutions. It’s a great place to start your search.

However, here are some things I’ll point out:

Cold Iron/Cold Steel are a reference to a specific forging technique rather than a type of metal, though in folklore it can just mean steel swords. Still, this will open up your options some.

Cold Iron for fairies dates back to when iron forging was still mostly new, or less common. There’s certainly lore out there with mythological fairies fighting warriors wielding iron blades, but were unbeatable until new forging techniques were developed.

Ask yourself: is it the forging technique which makes these swords dangerous to your fairies or is it the metal itself? In which case, then you can cut out “cold” as it’s just steel.

Here’s the Wikipedia article about iron in folklore. It may help you some in your search.

If you want to write Urban Fantasy with fairies then I’d go with the forging process rather steel itself. The reason is that they couldn’t go anywhere. At least, not places like the US or Europe or anywhere there’s a high steel content in the buildings, cars, and sewer systems. Even with a shift to polymers too much of the major metropolitan centers in the developed world are built on steel bones. Science fiction fairies re-emerging in the future where all metals are polymers has more potential.

Honestly, any army from a period using steel or iron weapons could curb stomp fairies if they’re allergic to the metal. Using the forging process moves all to some and then down to almost none, making way for the future fairyocalypse of 2018.

-Michi

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Hey I’m trying to write a scene where one character is fighting using hook swords while the other is simply using a mace. I want for the fight to end in the mace user winning, however I’m having issues figuring out some weaknesses to using hook swords online and I’d rather have them win the fight in a more creative way than just brute forcing it since even though physically the mace user is stronger, they’re effectively on the same level as far as actual fighting goes. Any suggestions?

You’ve got a serious problem and that problem is mismatched weaponry.

A mace is twenty six inches long.

A hook sword is roughly thirty three and a quarter.

That’s an almost eight inch difference in length, and it’s only the first issue.

The hook swords are faster with a longer reach, lighter, and there’s two of them. The blades on the hilt and the pommel mean they can still be deadly in close range, even potentially switching into a reverse grip.

The second point is these weapons were considered difficult to master, and due to Chinese traditions with martial combat come with the experience of an entire martial art behind them. That’s one of the northern styles like Northern Shaolin. The one aspect to ground yourself with about Asian martial arts tradition is: the more advanced the weapon, the later it’s learned.

For the purposes of these traditions your basic weapons serve similarly to the basic hand to hand techniques learned when we begin training in any style, and these weapons form the foundational understanding of all weapon types. We cannot battle the sword if we do not understand it, we cannot battle the staff if it is unknown. The technique used when wielding a basic staff are the foundation for those utilized with the three-sectional and so on.

European training systems don’t really work this way and were far less formalized, though it’s much more difficult to know what their training looked like. Either way, the mace has a much lower entry level in terms of skill.

Add to that, dual wielding weapons is extremely difficult and the longer
the weapon the more difficult it becomes. Your hands and arms need to
be able to perform complex techniques simultaneously, together and
separately, with a balanced body. Your mind must track both weapons, and
utilize both tactically against your opponent or the one you’re not
using becomes a liability. A well rounded dual wield system will utilize
one weapon (or in this case both) as a means of defense, to block,
deflect, or disarm incoming strikes while the other attacks. Or, they attack together. Two weapons can blitzkrieg on a multitude of angles, strike one after the other, left and right, high and low, forcibly keeping their opponent on the defensive.

It is a very aggressive form of combat and difficult to master. When it is, (with workable weaponry designed for dual wielding) you’ve got a very dangerous fighter.

So, we have a the wielder of a complicated, unusual, difficult weapon designed for speedy, unarmored civilian combat and from a system requiring significant time investment against a guy with a mace.

Unless the one with the mace has armor and a shield, the hook swords have the advantage. They are also designed to be used in unarmored combat, and function in that role far better than a mace. The mace is a specific weapon with a very limited battlefield role as it’s meant to use blunt force to crack open tin cans.

There’s the additional point that dual wielding effectively in battle also requires a fairly high level of training, as there’s much higher risk of the blades catching on each other. Also, given one weapon is European (assuming we’re discussing the European variants of the mace) and the other is Chinese (including the information that the hook sword was a fairly rare weapon to see in use) the idea that they’re on the same level so far as training is unlikely.

Two people from two different styles are unlikely to ever be “equally matched” due to stylistic differences and training approaches. This is part of why two different people trained in two different styles are so exciting when they’re fighting because “equally matched” is thrown out the window into the unknown. And anything so far as versus with these two is merely supposition anyway as the two cultures were at very different technological points when they encountered each other.

In fairness, the hook swords would be similarly mismatched against the rapier due to its length and might be cut to pieces about as quickly. What advantages the hook swords have versus, say, a spear, are out against longer bladed weapons.

Chinese weaponry like the hook swords tend to favor circular motion, the whole weapon is bladed, and falls towards cutting as opposed to striking with the tip. The dual hooks allows them to hook weapons for a disarm, or stop them midstrike. It can also hook arms, legs, or around the back of the neck, with blades on the pommel and handguard meant to keep it’s use in range transitions.

The mace is a weapon that also moves in circles because of how it gains force, the problem is it’s slower. The heavier head on the mace is means by which it generates force, creating greater momentum as it swings. It’s not a matter of strength, but physics and not entirely dissimilar in concept to a baseball bat. However, the heavy head means it will be slower compared to a light blade like a rapier or an epee which are closer in type to the jian and also designed around the idea of unarmored combat.

The one with the mace needs a shield. They needs some way to get close enough to their opponent to bring their weapon into play, otherwise they’re just sitting there with their thumb up their ass as they’re being carved to pieces.

The big issue with weapons is if the other guy can hit you before you can hit him then you’re in serious trouble. I’d worry less about brute force. If you want the wielder with the mace to win, they need a way to get close enough to hit before any other consideration comes up. Then there’s the hook swords’ and their ability to create an escrima stick like defense with blades. Blades whose design intent is to be wielded together.

There’s nothing equal about it, the character with the mace is at a serious disadvantage. One which will get him killed in a straight fight.This isn’t the kind of disadvantage which can be brute forced through, your hero is going to need to be clever. That cleverness begins with utilizing his environment in order to limit the hook swords utility and ability to move.

The answer to dealing with the katana in a modern environment is a tight hallway, preferentially with furniture. Best case, they unsheath it and it ends up in a wall. Worst case, they’re stuck with thrusts. The katana doesn’t thrust that well compared to other swords.

Figuring out potential ways to defeat a weapon in combat begins with understanding how the weapon moves and what you plan to bring against it. It’s not statistics. It’s not physical strength. It’s not equal levels of training. Or anything outside what’s happening in the moment. You have the person and you have the weapon, and it starts by figuring out how both work together (and separately).

Any “here are two cultures who never encountered each other, who had better weapons?” question invites fanboy infighting that usually benefits no one. Besides that, while there’s more available information on Eastern martial cultures than there used to be, the Chinese martial traditions are still insular. To really understand the weapon you’d need to have a conversation with those who practice with them, preferable the masters. Cross-referencing history for when the hook swords were in use and what kind of combat they saw would also be helpful. Fortunately, Chinese cinema and Hong Kong action films will provide you with lots of choreography to chew through.

The Chinese did have a mace variant called the
Chuí, which eventually lost it’s head and moved on to beating people with two metal shafts.

I have no idea if any of this helps, but hopefully it gives you some grounding to work from.

-Michi

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Okay 1. I love your blog. 2. I have a character who’s very strong and she is constantly fighting for her life. I planned on giving her a katana as a weapon but after I read your post about how katanas suck I was like “Okay, so I won’t give her a katana.” But what sword would someone be able to use in the modern world pretty effectively while actually using it to defend themselves?

There’s a real reason why we don’t use swords anymore.

Beyond the problems posed by guns (and knives for that matter), the sword is simply inconvenient in a modern environment. You could still carry one (depending on country/state restrictions on weapons… maybe not, especially not without a permit), but people will look at you funny. And, maybe, be a little worried about your mental health if you walked into the local MiniMart with a real, sharpened, honest to god longsword belted to your hip.

It’s basically the equivalent of walking into a store or getting into a taxicab with an AR15 strapped to your chest. Except, weirder.

Also, you can’t conceal it. You’re going to get arrested. You’re gonna get tased. No, I’m not kidding that really happened to a man carrying a katana on his back in SoCal.

This is not the only example. There are a lot of people who carry swords… and a lot people who get tased for their trouble.

The other human beings around you will see that sword as an active potential threat to their safety, and swords don’t have a gun lobby lobbying for the right to carry them wherever. The cops will arrest you. It is no longer culturally acceptable to openly carry these weapons as a matter of practice.

Society has moved on.

Now, in a fictional context we can fudge the rules a bit. Still, you should be aware of the realities especially if you’re writing toward modern fiction. The modern world is one you’re readers will be intimately familiar with, so if you’re working outside the set norms it’d behoove you to explain yourself.

Swords make sense in Urban Fantasy settings or cultures where guns have (inexplicably in many cases) ceased to work. (And if you’ve got any technology with a combustion engine, you’re going to have guns. Or explosives. The theory behind the gun is simply you use an explosion to propel an object at high velocities in the direction you want. What we have now is just a refinement of that thought process. If you have fireworks, someone will inevitably hit on the idea that you can shoot fireworks at your enemies then work to improve the process. We call this science.)

What a character does on their own property is their business, but it’s a different story when they’re out in public.

If you’re serious about your character carrying a sword, then these are issues that should be addressed or, at least, considered.

-Michi

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So in movies I’ve seen sword clashes where they will just try and use brute force to take out the other person until one succeeds or backs out. Is there a reliable other way to get out of that clash or is that actually how it happens?

So, Matt Easton over on his Scholagladitoria channel talked about how this was stupid in one of his videos, and we linked it in one of our asks, but I can’t find it now. The answer is when you’re looking at sword duels, those movie sword clashes are dumb. They’re an excuse for these protracted monologues which should end before they begin with someone being socked in the jaw.

See, that’s the thing. You can use other parts of your body. You disengage, they come forward, and you hit them with your fist.

Swords aren’t brute force weapons, and it’s actually fairly difficult to lock them together. This situation wouldn’t be occurring if both actors weren’t choosing to participate in this specific way. It doesn’t work like this because one of the key factors in basic hand to hand combat also applies to swords. This is that if you have two people shoving at each other, both applying equal force in an attempt to push the other back, one can simply let go. With no force to push against, the other person becomes unbalanced and they fall.

Strength isn’t the only way to win. In fact, it’s a fairly bad one to bet all your chips on. With movies, these scenes are supposed to be a symbolic expression of strength and combat ability. The winner shows his dominance over the loser. It’s the sort of stupid Alpha dog shit that will get you killed in real life because strength, at least the way most people think of it, means a lot less than it seems to. Combat and defense aren’t built on physical resistance all the time, they’re mutable, and shifting. Sometimes, you just let go and end up in a better position than the one you started in.

Say someone has you by the arm and their pulling you, but you don’t want to go with them. You can resist by planting your feet and drawing back in the opposite direction which is what they expect or you can go with them. By go with them, I mean physically throw yourself at them. They give you a nice hard yank and you use that as a launch pad, use it against them, and hit them so you both topple to the ground.

The logic of combat is conservation of energy. You only have so much to work with and are constantly expending it, so you want to win as fast as possible. Endurance training will expand your pool, martial training gives you more resources to work with, but the pool itself is always finite.

Pushing against another human who is applying equal force to you takes more energy than letting go. You use up that finite pool faster, wear out your muscles with constant tensing. It’s a bad position, one you don’t want to be in. With a sword, when you lose out you get stabbed. Unless you’re specifically of the mindset where you’re chasing death, you want to win.

The Hollywood version of the sword clash is there to give the actors a breather and spout their dialogue, which is the kind of talking you usually can’t get off in a tense fight anyway. You need that air to breathe so the oxygen goes back into your blood, and your attention on keeping the other person from killing you. Witticism is for when things aren’t serious.

-Michi

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You’ve talked before about how katana’s weren’t that great due to the low quality of the metal used way back when. But what if someone made one today? If you primarily used titanium instead of low-quality steel, plus modern forging techniques, could you develop a much better sword that a real person could use in a fight?

The poor quality iron that Japanese smiths had access to is
part of the problem, but it’s not the only issue. The design was (in part) a
result of that limitation. You can work around those, using high quality steel
forged directly from a billet, with a grip you can actually use in a variety of
situations, but you wouldn’t have a katana, you’d have a saber.

Those design flaws are intrinsically what defines the katana.
Folding the blade is extremely fetishized in defining the quality of a katana.
It’s not just a defining characteristic, you will see people using the number
of folds as an indicator of how skilled the sword smith was. This is probably a large part of why they continued using the technique, while other cultures, like the Vikings, abandoned folded blades once they had access to better smelting technologies.

In fact, a lot of modern, “katanas,” you can buy, aren’t.
They’re not produced with the proper metal, and they’re using machine forged
blades. They’re just sabers. Ironically, even the junk ones are superior weapons
to traditional katanas. (For one thing, you can actually parry with the blade.)

Using titanium as your base material for a sword isn’t a
good option. It’s light weight, strong, and won’t hold an edge without becoming
incredibly brittle. Heat treating it is either functionally impossible or prohibitively
expensive (maybe a little of both). It’s a fantastic option for a lot of
applications, but combat blades don’t make that list.

I don’t really have a lot to say on the subject of titanium,
because I don’t do metalworking directly, but (nearly) everything I’ve read on
the subject says, “don’t.”

There
are titanium alloys you use, but the metal, in general, just doesn’t have the
characteristics you’d want in a sword (or machete).

It is an
excellent choice for items that need to survive excessive thermal shock and
constant wear, which is probably why you will find aftermarket titanium parts
for firearms, it just doesn’t work well for swords.

If you’re really dead set on getting a titanium blade, you
can buy titanium kitchen knives. Though, holding an edge while slicing carrots
and slabs of meat isn’t quite the same as doing so while slicing through
screaming slabs of meat who are trying to return the favor.

You can make excellent blades from high quality steel. No
folding required. Actually, please, don’t fold high quality steel. The entire
folding process was originally an act of necessity, to get functional steel out
of the iron the Japanese had access to.

You’d also probably want to add a functional hand guard to
the thing, and contour the hilt. These aren’t mandatory, but
they would help. The thing is, none of this is really necessary.

Real people did use actual katanas forged from tamahagane
(pig iron), and killed each other in the real world. Humans are very inventive
about making sure they have a way to kill each other, and the katana is an
excellent example of this.

Limited by their available resources, Japanese swordsmiths
found a way to turn the iron they had into something they could use in weapons.
Japanese swordsmen developed and refined techniques that allowed them to take
the resulting blades into combat while working around their inherent fragility,
and they used the things for centuries. They turned the blade into a symbol of
their identity.

To be honest, I don’t even hold this against the Japanese, the
katana is a symbol of their ingenuity. It’s not a particularly good sword, but
that’s kind of missing the point. It is, their
sword. It is a symbol. Hell, it is literally a holy icon.

What you can’t do is take a katana out of its natural
environment and expect it to flourish. Weapons are designed and adapted to deal
with the environment they’re used in. On the global scale, the katana was about
four centuries obsolete when it was first developed. Which, really doesn’t
matter, because the Japanese weren’t using them against anyone who had a
decisive technological advantage.

The problem is, a lot of people, look at how the katana
functioned in its native environment, and how the people from that culture
regarded it, and then assume that a civilization which had never engaged in
long range exploration and had no frame of reference, were able to accurately
assess that they had created, “the best swords,” in the world.

It’s a sword. You can make vastly superior ones by changing
the design, at which point it’s still a sword, but it’s not the same sword. The
katana was an excellent weapon for Feudal Japan, not because it was somehow the
best blade design ever envisioned, or because it had some superlative quality,
but because it was a symbol of who they were as a people.

Take it out of that environment, drop it into a world that
has moved beyond swords entirely, and you’re left with an object that can still
have cultural meaning, and personal importance, but trying to cling to it is to
deny the changing world.

Icons like that are still important to point to and say, “this
is where we came from; this is a part of who we are,” but, that’s not the same
as saying, “progress is irrelevant, this will always be the best solution.” And, yes, that second part is an element when discussing the katana. Folded steel was not, strictly, a Japanese invention, other civilizations did use that method to produce early steel weapons. They faced the same issues with fragile blades, and continued searching for better smelting methods and higher quality materials. The Japanese didn’t, and instead fetishized the blades. Make of that what you will.

I’ll still say, actual katanas are beautiful pieces of art. It’s
the entelechy of how a civilization viewed conflict. They’re an example of
serious ingenuity and craftsmanship. If you take it out of context, it’s not a
particularly good weapon, but that’s missing the point.

-Starke

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Speaking of sexist fighting advice! There’s this really great fiction writing advice blog I read years ago, written by a lady, shut down ages ago. But it claimed a few times that there was no way a woman could physically handle a zweihander or the like. I’ve always had a feeling that’s nonsense, but confirmation from a good source such as yourself would be great.

Consider this: the zweihander weighs seven pounds. The display version is ten pounds. If you can lift a backpack crammed with textbooks, you can lift a zweihander. House cats weigh more than a sword.

The issue with the zweihander is length, not weight. It is not a heavy sword. No swords are actually all that heavy, because weight defeats the purpose of the weapon. The heavier it is, then the faster your arms wear out and grow tired. This is a terrible, terrible thing.

Combat is highly frenetic. An easy comparison is sprinting, and it’s not just a regular sprint but wind sprints. You gotta go, go, go. You need to be able to move. So, a heavy weapon is detrimental to the goal of being able to fight as long as possible. Especially when that weapon is designed to give you an edge in reach, and counter pole arms. You want to be able to swing the weapon around for long periods of time because if you wear out first, you’re dead.

Endurance, not strength, is the great necessity for any warrior. So, everything your PE teacher punished you with is what you’re looking for (except dialed to eleven). Once you understand fighting is about going for as long as possible between energetic bursts, combat starts to make more sense. This is also why most action movies feature the pressure cooker, the slow grind down of the protagonist by giving them little to no rest between fights as they accumulate more injuries.

So, when people say strength in regards to combat, they don’t usually mean physical strength in what you can lift. They mean how long you can go, what you can endure before finally keeling over. This gets misinterpreted, mixed in with the confusion by historians about parade swords (which were incredibly heavy and often the only surviving weapons) and we get the beefcake barbarian.

Like all swords, and even shields, the zweihander is awkward to use if you don’t know how to wield it or have never held one before. This has to do with its balance point. Swords feel heavier than they actually are when we hold them because the balance is midway up the blade and that strains the wrist, which strains the arm, and causes the whole thing to tilt forward. Sometimes, the sword even gets dropped. You’ve got to learn how to account for it.

When you’re looking at actual combat considerations on weight, that’s in the armor. Armor is comparatively heavy, the warrior has to get used to carrying around fifteen to twenty or so pounds, or more depending on what gear they’re lugging with them between battles. So, if you’ve got a character going into battle without plate then they’re not going to have those weight considerations. Even if they are, the point of training is to build your body up to be able to handle it.

At the end of the day, its important to remember that, historically, large scale combat has been about being able to get the most bodies on the field as possible. You ran the gamut between trained warriors and farmers yanked off their fields with a hastily cludged together pole arm thrust into their hands. There are plenty of people who went into battle with no freakin’ clue what they were doing. The concept of a military as we know it today is a mostly modern invention.

The mystique of the knight and others like them came with their training, which is… they had some. Whatever they’d have liked us to think, there was nothing different about them compared to the farmers except the money, the (sometime) power, the time, and the “luck” of their birth. In the end, it’s less about what humans can or can’t do but what society corrals them from learning. It’s easier to control your population when only the powerful have access to weapons, educations, and castles.

So, yeah, a woman can use a zweihander if she trains on the zweihander. It also won’t be her only weapon, mostly because one never knows when they’ll have to fight indoors. (That’s a joke, HEMA peeps. I know half-holds are a thing, and it’s not a katana so it can strike straight.)

-Michi

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Some swordsmen I guess ‘wear’ their swords on their waist or strapped them to their backs. Most of the time people put them on their waist because it seems practical and rarely for the backs. Is there any pros and cons to the position of their swords? Or this is just merely aesthetic purposes?

“Wear” is the correct term.

Carrying a blade on your belt, (usually on opposite side from your dominant hand) is an entirely practical consideration. It’s not really possible to draw from the back in combat. You can do it, but it involves either some juggling of the blade, or unslinging the scabbard, pulling the blade, and then returning or discarding the scabbard.

Alternately, you can simply reach across your waist and draw a sword. Faster, simpler, easier to do in combat. It’s also going to be out of your way most of the time, while one on your back could become an issue. Finally, while drawing it, you’re putting the blade between yourself and your opponent almost instantly, which can have sometimes have applications in defensive situations.

It’s hypothetically possible to design some kind of scabbard that would hold a blade on the back for easy access. For instance, a sci-fi setting where they use strong electromagnets. It would also be possible to store a collapsing sword on the shoulder, or across the small of the back.

In the real world, slinging a sword (or other weapon) across your back usually meant you intended to ready it before combat, rather than during the melee. Remember, historically, swords were actually a sidearm, and almost never used as a primary weapon. So a soldier would need their sword someplace they could get to it quickly, should their primary weapon (usually a polearm or ranged weapon) fail.

If your character carried a sword as their primary weapon, for example a Zweihander or claymore, then it’s entirely possible they’d carry that across their back, with a sidesword on their waist while traveling. Before a battle, they’d unsling their primary, prepare it for use, and then put their scabbard with their kit. If they were ambushed on the road, it’s far more likely, they’d simply use their sidesword, rather than trying to get at a weapon on their back.

-Starke

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What challenges would a character with extensive training in modern fencing face in switching to *real* blades and using them for the first time in a life or death swordfight?

Dying.

Modern fencing and historical fencing are different beasts. The sword weight is different. The sword length is different. The weapon class is different. Everything is different, including the vectors of attack and the possibility of death. Now, to be fair, someone who went from historical (HEMA) fencing into a sudden life or death duel with a historical personage would also be screwed. They’d be slightly less screwed, but still screwed. The same is pretty much true when you put most sports martial artists up against cops or professional soldiers. They’re not trained for it.

Modern fencing has moved in the direction that is beneficial to itself as a sport rather than as a form of combat. There are a great many techniques performed by fencers that are excellent in competition but would get you killed (or at least a double suicide) in a live bout with live weapons.

This is true of any type of sport martial art. When you remove death from the equation, people have the opportunity to be more reckless and, in some ways, more creative than they would be if there was a chance of actual impalement on an enemy’s blade.

The real problem for this character though is going to be the blade weight. Even if they’re just shifting to a historical epee from a modern one, they’re going to pick up a few pounds. Given no time to adjust, that additional weight will hamper everything from speed to accuracy to their endurance. The time they waste adjusting to blade weight is time their enemy has to break their defenses and stab them. They will face similar difficult with the historical sabre. That’s if they’re lucky enough to hit a historical period with a blade they recognize. They won’t know what to do with the rapier, or any of the other swords.

There are also three types of modern fencing blades that each have their own associated rule set. This could be a problem for them.

Fencing Rules for the Novice Parent has a good breakdown, but I’ll list the basics here.

The Foil – thrusting only, hits only count when struck with the tip of the blade. Striking is limited to the torso, but covers the groin, neck, and back.

The Epee – the epee like the historical epee is a dueling sword, strikes include the whole body. Thrusting weapon, scored only with the tip.

The Sabre – the traditional sabre is a military/cavalry weapon, it is curved. It’s a cutting and thrusting weapon, and the entire upper body is an available target. So, this includes the arms.

It’s worth noting that “cut” and “thrust” with modern fencing weapons mean which part of the blade touches the opponent’s body. It is possible to be hurt with a modern fencing blade when not wearing protective gear, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the historical swords.

You don’t have to take my word for the differences though. Here’s Matt Easton talking about the differences between sport fencing and historical fencing. He refers to it as a game of “electrified tag”. Modern fencing isn’t about swordsmanship in a classic sense, it’s about scoring points and getting around the (rather restrictive) rules.

This doesn’t mean the sport doesn’t have value, it does. It’s an incredible form of exercise, show of athleticism, developing incredible reaction speed and timing. It’s great for your brain. It isn’t combat. It doesn’t prepare you for combat.

However, assuming they survive, those ancillary skills they mastered in sport fencing can be re-applied to a study of historical fencing. They go into this story athletic, quick thinking, strategic, creative, and with reaction times that are well above average. Sport fencers are fast on their feet.

There’s some good maneuvering that can be done with this character on a story level, but their skill set isn’t on a 1 to 1 parity with a practiced swordsman straight out of history.

-Michi

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Sword Fighting for Fic Writers: Chapter 7

clockadile:

You can follow the tag #Swords for Fics if you want to keep up without following me 🙂

Available Chapters:
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.

image

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

image

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 Body Everything 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.