Tag Archives: swords

Q&A: Swords in the Modern World

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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.


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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

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.”

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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

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.)


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

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?


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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Sword Fighting for Fic Writers: Chapter 7


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.


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 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.

Regarding your last answer, asking for confirmation… Each time we see snipers in a movie using laser pointers, it’s a bunch of crap? As ridiculous as Hollywood cars exploding when people are dropping a cigarette in the fuel leak?

Hollywood basically uses the laser pointer on the gun as sight guidelines for the audience so that they can tell where the guns are pointing. That, and it looks pretty damn cool when they fill up the room with smoke so you can actually see the beams.

The laser pointer serves as an easy means for the audience to follow along with the action.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron.

So in the story I’m writing, the main character has to fight a master swordsman, both characters using rapiers. The main character is experienced in fighting, but is less used to direct, close-range combat, and has little experience with swords. However, in this situation she only needs to distract her opponent for a certain amount of time, before running away. Is there a way for a less skilled combatant to prolong a fight they wouldn’t be able to normally win?

Okay, so there’s a problem in fiction where in order to make an enemy seem more impressive, we throw around terms like better, bestest, best. Master probably tops the list of improperly used terms because we know that a “master” of any discipline is really, really, really, really good. We want our characters to fight someone impressive and we want a term that’s easily recognizable to our audience so that they know this person is more skilled than the average person.

That makes sense.

The problem is that a master swordsman is an individual of singular skill. We’re not just talking about someone with between ten to forty years of dueling experience, but someone who is so skilled that they are generally recognized by their community to be at the top of their craft.

When you call someone a master, you’ve defined them as being one of the best fighters in your setting.

Your character with no sword experience is about to try and go up against someone who is considered to be one of the best swordsmen in her world. A status which only a handful of individuals will ever reach, who perhaps number in the single digits, and who fights with a rapier which is one of the fastest, longest, and deadliest swords for unarmored combat. This man isn’t just a skilled duelist, he’s a specialist. The rapier is made for dueling. Dueling is his forte. If he’s been a swordsman for twenty to thirty years, then it’s possible he’s been cutting down individuals in single combat longer than your protagonist has been alive.

A simple analogy would be like this: on your first day of fencing, would you like to duel an Olympian fencer? It doesn’t matter if they’re a gold medalist, they might be, but you’re going to duel someone who has proven their status as one of the best fencers in the world.

You’re asking her to fight Yoda, quite possibly on Yoda’s home turf.

Those are some impressively terrible odds, I gotta say.

They have to find a way to survive against one the best and most experienced warriors in their setting, where the master has all the advantages and they have none, and whatever clever trick they manage to come up with this guy has probably seen before because he has a lifetime of battle experience to draw from. However clever you think you’re protagonist is, you need to weigh that against all the other people who’ve come before them. From those who were just as inexperienced as your protagonist when they fought this guy and died to those who knew far more and died. The ones who tried to run. The ones who stood their ground. The ones who believed themselves the best. The ones who just wanted to live.

Stop and think about your master swordsman for a second. Consider how old he is and how long he has been fighting, what he has gone through to earn his rank, and how many duels he has survived to make it this far.

A master is not just going to be good/better/bestest, they’re also going to be experienced with a wealth of previous battles and defeated enemies to draw from, they’ve got their teaching experience to draw from, they’ve the duels they witnessed to draw from, able to adjust their style on the fly, skilled at reading body language, canny, and cunning. Their life has been a learning experience and they survived terrible odds on skill alone.

It may be hard to quantify, especially if you’ve never seen a master in action. (The likelihood is that you actually have. Turn your brain to Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and the other well-known action stars, they all qualify and none of them had to earn their master status on a pile of corpses.) If your only experience is action movies then the best of the best become commonplace.

So, what you’re asking is:

How can my character escape another character who has spent their life killing characters like them?

The answer is good luck.

When writing an action sequence, you should always be careful to set your characters against challenges against which they can succeed. They may be underdogs, but they aren’t helpless. It’s like balancing out blocks and the trick is to balance them just write so the sequence remains plausible and exciting, but also doesn’t stretch too far outside of what your protagonist is good at.

Say your protagonist is experienced with ranged combat, but they’re trapped inside a building with a master swordsman. Their plan is to escape and they have their preferred weapon, though it won’t do them much good in a close range fight. They have to avoid the swordsman that’s hunting them and get to the exit before he catches up.

You might say, “but doesn’t that put the swordsman at a disadvantage?”

The answer is actually: no, it doesn’t. The swordsman is a master, and one of the best warriors in your setting. We can assume he’ll probably have some experience with closing the gap between himself and a ranged weapon in order to slay the enemy.

You can stack the deck against your swordsman and he’ll still likely come out on top by virtue of skill and experience. This guy is a survivor. He’s beaten the odds before and he probably will again.

When you’re writing individuals who are hyper-competent, especially villains, the more obstacles your hero throws in their path and the more they vault over without significant issue will just make them more terrifying. You put these two characters into a position where your heroine feels that she has the advantage and then this guy turns the tables on her, your audience will go ‘oh shit’. They may not have known just how good a master in your setting is supposed to be until this point because without being shown it’s a meaningless term.

When done in reverse, the villain loses their teeth.

You set up a character who is established to be one of the best warriors in their setting but the heroine with no experience wielding a sword can face them and hold out long enough to find their escape. Unless he’s making an executive decision to offer up a half-assed fight and lets her go on purpose, that’s a bad guy failing to live up to expectations.

He becomes less scary as a result.

This is why over-stacking the odds can be a huge problem among novices and experienced writers alike. A good fight sequence acts as a supportive character developing moment for our heroes and our villains. We show who they are and what they can do. For the most part, your audience will know what the hero knows. They experience what the hero does.

Never be afraid to throw your protagonist a bone so your villain can steal it from them later.

The higher they get before the rug gets ripped out from underneath them is what makes the fall so awesome. Especially when the villain has overcome, perhaps effortlessly, what we know the hero is good at.

If the hero is good at archery, it tells us nothing about a villain if the hero loses to them at hand to hand. Both the audience and the heroine can say, ‘oh, but it would be different if she had her bow. Next time, she’ll have a chance.’

However, suppose the heroine has the advantage but cannot manage to hit her enemy, who outwits her, proceeds to close distance, and finally defeats her in hand to hand before forcing her to retreat. Suddenly, our perspective shifts. The stakes have changed. The hero has just been forcibly punted toward necessary character development, which she must have in order to survive the next encounter.

It’s okay for your hero to lose. In fact, it’s necessary and it’s better for the loss to happen when they’re trying their best at what they’re best at. Losing when they’re at the top and in the safety zone establishes more about the challenges they’ll need to overcome.

Get over thinking about fights from the perspective of who has the most advantages in terms of weapons. Weapons are only one part of the equation. The other is the individual themselves, their experience, their skills, and their ability.

If your character is hyper-competent give them challenges which prove that competency.

One of my favorite moments from Erroll Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is the Archery Tournament. Up until this point in the movie, Robin Hood has made a mockery of Prince John, Guy of Gisborne, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. He wins at the beginning of the movie against incredible odds, swaggering his way alone into Prince John’s castle, a illegally slain deer across his shoulders which he tosses nonchalantly on the table as he sits down to dinner and casually explains his motives to protect England from John. Then proceeds to make an outrageous (and treasonous) declaration of war in a castle full of John’s loyal retainers, two of whom happen to be sitting next to him. He fights his way to freedom, using his wits, swordsmanship, and archery skills to escape before running off into the woods.

We see his campaign against John and Gisborne begin in the first half of the movie, success after success, culminating in stealing the taxes Gisborne collected while he travels through Sherwood, and taking the entire party (including Marian) captive. In the end, out the magnanimity of his heart, he humiliates the knights and sends them home in rags.

Up until this point, the Sheriff has been treated as a bumbling buffoon secondary to the more talented Gisborne. However, he is the one who comes up with the idea for an archery tournament and using Marian as the bait. Showing us, that the minor characters overlooked and played for laughs by the stronger characters have a dangerous edge. Using Robin’s flamboyancy and overconfidence against him, they lay a trap. Robin bites, as we knew he would, and is captured.

Thus our secondary characters, the Merry Men, are left searching for a way to free him. They find it, but only because Marian decides to help. It is her plan that saves his life. But the act of Robin losing shows us how precarious his position truly was while also giving Marian the push she needs for character development, showing us that she’s not just his romantic partner. She’s clever in her own right and she knows a great deal about the inner workings of John’s court, which makes her a much needed ally.

You may be wondering what this has to do with your question. The answer is The Adventures of Robin Hood balances its fight scenes to perfection, they all serve as a means to both push the plot forward and establish the characters. From major to minor, every sequence and character interaction is important. They set up all major plot threads, skills, deficits, and character flaws, which culminate in consequences later on.

Think about what you want to establish with these characters. What is the point of this scene where an unskilled character tries to fight a hyper-competent one within his own wheelhouse? What are you trying to set up in this scene? What are you attempting to establish?

Tension isn’t created just by having one character be an underdog. It’s crafted by wants and desires, by goals and plans, and the characters who make them. Set up by the story they’re in and the plot in play.

Hyper-competency in combat is useful when you want to upset the status quo. The best of the best isn’t useful or scary because they’re the best. It’s because they can overcome a great deal more than we expect. They have a lot of useful skills and the ability to adapt into different circumstances. You don’t really know how skilled a character is until they’re put into a situation where they don’t have an advantage, but you also need to be careful of what that situation is and ensure they have the tools (personal, character, cleverness, or what have you) to get themselves back out.

Use this sequence to establish something about these characters and who they are.

Don’t cheapen the moment.

Don’t fuck around with Masters.

They’ve seen it before.

They will see through your bullshit.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron.

References and Resources

#swords – Our swords tag.

Wikitenaur – this isn’t precisely for beginners, but there are a lot of free and translated manuscripts here from HEMA enthusiasts written by the masters of their style. You want to know how a master swordsman thinks, you can find their descriptions of combat and technical manuals here. Written in their own words.

Scholargladitoria – Matt Easton has fantastic breakdowns on swordsmanship, combat, and Historical European Martial Arts which make him an excellent entry point for beginning your research.

Skallagrim –  Skallagrim is just fun. Okay?

Samantha Swords – Just good general advice from a HEMA practitioner, and a female perspective.