Would actual sword fights end with a lot of cuts on both combatants or is it more of a “you get tagged first and your out” kind of deal?
This one can really go either way, depending on injuries sustained. So, let’s parse this out a bit, because I might not have been really clear about this in the past.
Shallow nicks won’t do much. You’ll lose blood, but not at an appreciable rate. You’ve almost certainly sustained a few of these in your life. From a writing perspective these are basically cosmetic. From a medical perspective they’re not much more. A sword or knife can absolutely inflict these.
There are rare circumstances where these immediately relevant. Cuts to the forehead can cause blood to get in the victim’s eyes. In combat, this is a debilitating situation. Blood that gets onto the palm can make it more difficult to grasp objects or weapons. (Fresh blood is quite slick. As it dries it will become sticky, so the effect is reversed at that point.)
When you’re talking about lots of cuts, then you’re probably talking about this kind of injury. Individually these aren’t dangerous, but if they start stacking up, blood loss is cumulative, so they can potentially become life threatening, but that’s not a likely outcome for a duel.
Incidentally, if you’re writing a scene where characters are dueling to first blood, then these cuts qualify. In fact, that’s what the duelists will aim for. It’s the easiest kind of injury to sustain, and if the participants don’t want to kill one another, this is the safest route to victory.
When I’ve been talking about injuries that create a decisive advantage, I’m talking about deeper cuts; ones that open up veins or debilitate limbs. Injuries where bloodloss will lead to impairment and death.
In a duel, these will kill you. When I say things like, “with first blood, the clock is ticking, and your character will die if they don’t find a way to turn the fight around,” I’m talking about these deeper injuries. A person can survive a few shallow cuts without much ill effect, and in most cases can survive quite a few without aid. Deep cuts are immediately dangerous.
Here’s the problem with this: I’m talking about these like they’re two separate kinds of wounds; they’re really not. They’re both cuts. If we’re being technical, the deeper variety are “lacerations.” But, that makes it sound like there’s a clean delineation between these injuries which simply doesn’t exist.
So, I’m going to step back and put this in abstract terms, as they apply to characters for a moment.
Characters can suffer “cosmetic injuries.” These will result in bleeding. As I mentioned earlier, blood After the fight is over, they’ll hurt. Unless your character is getting covered in these things, they’ll never kill them. These can be sustained anywhere, but when you’re talking about strikes to the forearm (except along the inner arm) or to the face, bone will usually stop the strike before it gets to deep.
Characters can suffer “wounds.” These will result in a lot of bleeding, way too much bleeding. These, “start the clock.” Without medical attention, even just self inflicted first aid, these will kill your character. Usually these are sustained to limbs or the torso. Places where you can get fairly deep without striking bone.
In the real world, blood loss will impair the fighter, slowing them down, confusing them, making combat more difficult. This means their defense (if they have one) will suffer, and it will be far easier for their opponent to get through it with a kill strike. A blade through the throat or chest, for instance. This isn’t always true in fiction, but it’s a function of how the human body works that’s worth remembering.
If you’re asking, “is it plausible for a character to win a swordfight with lots of tiny cuts?” Yes. If you’re asking, “is it plausible for a character die in a swordfight with one or two deep, lethal wounds, and to be otherwise untouched?” Again, yes. It really depends on the circumstances of the fight.
I hope that clears things up some, and am genuinely sorry if I’ve confused any of you by glazing over this. That one’s my mistake.