Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 6

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Truth vs Fiction

There are a lot of things that we see on TV or read in books that is just there because we think it should be. TV and movie sword fights especially have this problem because the visual nature of the media sticks in our minds. We think, "Well, they're two actual people with more-or-less actual swords, so that must be what it really looks like when two people with swords go at it." Well, we're wrong. TV and movie swordfights are all choreography, they're just as prone to the myths of sword play as book writers, and they play to what they think will look good, even when that's not what would or should happen.

Actual sword fights are much quicker and sleeker than what we see in television. Far too often, soldiers on TV are hitting their opponent's sword, and the opponent is hitting their sword in return. This makes no sense because the point is to hit the opponent. Blocking a blow is one thing, but when a strike is clearly intended for an opponent sword, it gives the sword wielder nothing. They've wasted movement and momentum on a strike that will mostly likely be pointless. Now, I can think of a few instances where it might be worth it to strike an opponent's blade, but most of them are more suited to a training session, or a soldier facing a weaker opponent that they don't want to hurt, but want to dissuade from attacking. The point is that, in a TV sword fight, striking for the opponent's blade is less likely to get the actors hurt, but in a real sword fight, someone getting hurt is generally the goal.

Also in TV sword fights we often see two soldiers locked in combat, pressing into one another as if they can't move any other way but forward. However, swords pivot around one another, slide against one another, and there's no reason to stay in a clench like that when you have a range of movement.

This can be a difficult point to visualize (I actually broke out the mop and broom and had the fiancé help me figure out the physics of the position), but imagine the scene for a moment. Two soldiers (A and B), pressing together in that clench. Soldier A will be the one taking action here, but in reality either Soldier A or B could do these things, further complicating the dynamics of the sword fight.

Soldier A's blade meets Soldier B's at one small point of contact, but there is still a lot of blade that is not in contact. Why simply push forward when Soldier A could turn their blade along Soldier B's, bringing it right into Soldier B's face? Not only that, but when Soldier A turns their sword, Soldier B's forward momentum carries them forward without Soldier A. This could put Soldier B off balance, but even if it doesn't Soldier A now has an opening to strike at Soldier B's side or back. Or, if their blades remain in contact when Soldier A turns, pushing from the side could throw Soldier B to the ground. In addition, Soldier B's legs are open to kicking/tripping because they can't defend the blow (too close quarters, sword and momentum engaged). Soldier A could also move backward, retreating to reset or to engage again from a different angle, or spin back and to the side, creating moment for a blow to Soldier B's back.

If an opponent is pushing their weight forward, their momentum carries them forward once the obstacle moves. So, a soldier is more likely to move to either side or backward than commit to a clench that offers them no advantage.

In TV and movies, you also see a lot of edge on edge contact. While such contact isn't always avoidable it's nonetheless a bad thing. It can nick and dull a sword's edge and swords are more likely to break if the edge is used to parry a blow. The flat of the blade is generally the best bet when it comes to blocking because it distributes the force of the blow, allowing it to dissipate along the length of the blade. Edges are such a small area of contact, that damage is more likely and the blow's force is more focused, allowing it to do more damage.

In closing, remember that, when writing swordplay, you usually don't want or need a blow by blow description. There may be times--particularly tense and/or important battle scenes--where you approach that, but it's the important moments that matter most in the writing. The moments when Soldier A almost goes down, or Soldier B gets in a strike, or when the momentum of the battle changes in one direction or the other. So, while it's important to have an understanding of the actual physics involved, you don't have to understand or describe every single moment of a given combat sequence. Just pay attention to the moments you do describe so that you can make them the best that they can be.


Bravo! This has been a hobby horse of mine for ages. One of my characters is a legendary fighter, but in reality he never gives any opponent the chance to strike and if he finds himself up against a competent (trained) swordsman, he cheats!
I remember seeing a master swordsman giving a demonstration. He encouraged his opponent to make the first strike, then simply caught the sword with his chainmail gauntlet, and lunged with his sword - game over in 3 seconds!
If this is part 6, I must go seek out parts 1 to 5!
Thanks for sharing
Bridget Bowers said…
Awesome. I just read post part 6 and I went through some research for writing sword fights for my book. It is not easy to write something realistic. I'm going now to read the first 5 parts. Thanks for posting this!
Marion Sipe said…
@Dominic - Wow! That's definitely the kind of demonstration that sticks with you! I'm glad it's a help!

@Bridget - It can be really hard to visualize the way a sword fight moves, and then trying to describe that and get the details right can be overwhelming! Good luck and I'm glad this was a help!

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