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 Writing Swordfights

 This class was originally developed for use at the Grey Tower, an online writing/roleplay site set in the world of Robert Jordan's Wheel of time. While this class is focused on swords, there is enough information on other kinds of weapons to make it a useful general reference - I hope. If you have questions or would like more information, feel free to e-mail me: michaelmock (at) mockwriting dot com.

Introduction
There are a tremendous number of very different weapons that come under the general heading of “swords,” so we’re going to start by discussing terminology. These are not hard-and-fast definitions – even historically, there is a lot of overlap between terms. (“Rapier,” for example, was originally just another word for “sword.”) However, all of these terms will be used with these definitions throughout this class.

First of all, weapon length. For the sake of this class:

  • A knife is anything with a blade length under fourteen inches.
  • A shortsword is any single-handed weapon with a blade length between fourteen and twenty-four inches. (The Japanese Wakizashi is an example of this.)
  • A singlesword is a full-length sword meant for one-handed use. Blade length is anything over 24 inches, and generally under thirty-six inches.
  • A longsword, bastard sword, or hand and a half sword is a sword designed for one- or two-handed use. Usually these are full length swords, but they can be shorter.
  • A Greatsword or two-handed sword refers to a weapon which requires two hands to use effectively.
The next set of terms deals with usage. The most basic division here is in the kind of attacks employed – what the sword is designed to do, in other words. This particular set of terms is drawn from John Clements’ book Renaissance Swordsmanship.*
  • Cutting swords are used for “traditional” swordplay – chopping attacks, where you try to hit your enemy with the edge of the blade. Examples would include the traditional knightly sword, the claymore, and the Chinese dao
  • Cut-and-thrust swords are designed for a combination of thrusts and slashing attacks. Examples include the European “sword-rapier” designs, and the Chinese jian.
  • Thrusting swords are, as the name suggests, intended almost purely for thrusting attacks. The Estoc and the smallsword both fall into this category. (Rapiers are often used this way in movies, but that's not really historical.)
Please be aware that this is more a matter of emphasis than ability. Most cutting swords had serviceable tips and could be used for thrusting if needed, just as most rapiers will do some damage with a slash or cut.

The next list is just general terms and some notes:

  • Broadsword is basically another term for a chopping sword. This is not a specific historical term, but seems to have been used by later writers to distinguish military cutting swords from the more slender civilian thrusting weapons. Since that distinction does not currently exist in the Wheel of Time, I will try to avoid using this term.
  • A saber is a curved sword, usually single-edged (though sometimes the reverse edge is partially sharpened also). The katana can be considered a hand-and-a-half saber.
  • A kris sword is one whose blade has a series of curves. Most of these fall into the cut-and-thrust category.
  • A scythesword is a Trolloc weapon, but has some real-world equivalents (the Abbysinian shotel, for example).
Swords can also be classified by the differences in guards, hilts, and pommels. These factors do not affect usage anywhere near as much, so I'll mostly be ignoring them.

There are a number of more specific terms – rapier, scimitar, schiavona, dao – but for the most part those refer to fairly specific weapons. If you are unsure of what something means, try an internet search or ask. Again, it’s worth noting that these terms are often specific to real-world historical eras and cultures. If you're writing your own fantasy world, you may want to use more general terms and/or rename them.

Choosing a weapon that fits your character is important – and I think, by now, that most of you have done that. However, it is equally important that you understand the fighting style (or styles) associated with your weapon. Your homework for this lesson is to read this article: There is no best sword. Then answer the following:

1. Describe your character’s sword, and how it fits with his or her fighting style. Your answer should be at least two paragraphs – one for the weapon, one for your fighting style. You may link to pictures of your weapon. (The html for this is <a href="the url">some text</a>.) If your character’s favored fighting style includes any other elements (a shield, a dagger, paired swords, an armored glove for the off-hand) please describe them as part of your fighting style.

and

2. What did you like or dislike about Oakeshott’s article? Are there any particular changes or additions that you would make, based on your own experience or readings?

*While not everyone agrees with his categorizations, this is still a good reference. If you can find a copy, I highly recommend giving it a read.


Half-swording
I had not originally planned to include this lesson here. This class is meant to focus on the principles involved in using a sword against other kinds of weapons, rather than specific sword techniques. However, this particular technique has applications in several of the things we’re going to look at later, so it’s important that you understand it.

Half-swording is a curious and counter-intuitive technique used mostly with European longswords (though it apparently exists in Eastern Martial Arts as well). Holding the handle of your sword in your right hand, you will grip midway along the blade with your left. The knuckles should be down, so that the pressure of your fingers is against the flat of the blade rather than the edge. (Some swords will actually have a portion of the blade wrapped for exactly this purpose.)

Strange as it may seem, this can be done with or without gloves. (Anyone who owns a real-world blade should be warned that fingerprints are bad for the steel. If you try this, wipe your blade off immediately afterwards and re-oil it.) However, there are some limits to what you can do with the technique without injuring your hand. If you are not wearing gloves, you are essentially limited to thrusting and light (low impact) deflections. In other words, you can push against things, but not swing the blade into them. A strong swing against something that offers resistance will probably move your grip, and you will injure your hand if you are gripping a sharp section of the blade. This is also true for trying to block something that is swung at you with a lot of force. Leather gloves can help with this, and armored gauntlets help more, but generally you want to avoid high-impact swings or blocks when half-swording.

Now, why would you want to put your fingers against your blade in the first place? The simple answer is “leverage.” In a half-swording grip you have more control over your point, and can make powerful thrusts and deflections. It also allows you to use a longer sword at closer range, and move into grappling techniques using the sword. Take a look at the following image of Talhoffer's writings to get an idea of half-swording in a historical fighting manual.


Click for larger image
Original is here:
http://www.thearma.org/Fight-Earnestly.htm

With a single-edged blade (katana, dao, saber), a type of half-swording is also done by pressing your hand against the back of the blade. This adds leverage for close-range slices, but is not used for blocks. (Blocking is done with the side of your blade, not the edge.) Note that ‘regular’ half-swording is still used for more powerful thrusts.

Some sword types (smallsword, for example) are simply not going to make use of this technique. Others will use it very little. Certain styles of swordplay will not require it either; it’s impractical for someone who fights sword and shield, for instance. As a general rule, half-swording is best for longswords and greatswords.

For this class, write a brief account of your character practicing a half-swording grip.


Armor
Armor is an important consideration in any combat. There are many different kinds of armor, and I am not going to attempt to give more than an overview in this lesson. Armor could be a full class unto itself, but you should be able to find more than enough basic information on the Internet.

Before we begin discussing why you should use armor and how to deal with an opponent in armor, let me take a moment to dispel some misconceptions.

  1. First of all, combat armor* – even full plate – is not nearly as slow as a lot of people seem to think. It is heavy, and it does affect your movements, but it is perfectly possible to run, mount a horse, or perform a dive-roll while wearing armor.
  2. The amount of protection offered by armor – even limited forms of armor – is well worth being slightly slower. This is especially true when you’re tired, or don’t have room to dodge, or just don’t see the person who’s taking a swing at you.

With that understanding, it should be fairly obvious why you would want to wear armor into a dangerous situation. If your character is going to spend their time fighting (and if they aren’t, why are they learning the sword?) then he or she should invest in some armor. Against something like a Myrdraal, which can kill with even a scratch of its blade, it’s an even better investment.

But what if your opponent is the one wearing the armor? You’ll have to adjust your tactics to get around his protection. There are various ways to do this, and (again) I’m only going to give you an overview here. We could devote an entire class to examining specific techniques. Pay attention to the principles involved, and you should be able to come up with your own answers.

The better your opponent’s armor is, the more difficult it will be to injure him. This seems self-evident, but is often overlooked by aspiring writers.

  • Cloth armorss provide very limited protection, but it still takes a solid blow to get through them.
  • While there is some debate about the effectiveness of leather armors (hardened or soft) it’s safe to conclude that they were better protection than cloth… but again, it is possible to cut through them, and soft leather won’t help much against blunt impacts.
  • Chain mail is often used in conjunction with other kinds of armor (and almost always with some padding underneath). By itself, it serves mostly to spread out the force of a blow. While this is considerably better than being cut by a blade, it can still leave some impressive bruises (even with the padding underneath).
  • Semi-rigid armors also offer limited protection (generally for the torso and sometimes arms), and so were often used in conjunction with chain and padding. Even alone, they offered good protection against chopping and slicing attacks.
  • Partial and Full Plate is difficult to get through indeed, as they are essentially invulnerable to chopping or slashing attacks – especially those made with a one-handed blade. Part of this was the material, but part was also design – the armor and helmet were generally shaped so that anything but a direct hit would glance off. Thrusts against the main body of the armor were equally ineffective, and for much the same reasons.
Adjust your tactics to get through your opponent’s armor. Again, this may seem self-evident, but it is often overlooked. An opponent who wears a coat of plates over a mail shirt offers very different target areas from an unarmed opponent, and an opponent in full plate offers very few targets indeed. Continuing with the lists:
  • Cloth Armor doesn’t require much adjustment of your fighting style, but you’ll want to focus on making solid attacks (either cuts or thrusts) as the cloth will absorb some of the impact.
  • Leather armor is like cloth armor, but more so. Hardened leather may actually be able to turn glancing blows, but you can still do damage with a solid hit. Opponents in cloth or leather armor may or may not be wearing helmets; if they are not, then the head and neck make excellent targets.
  • Chain mail was often made in the form of a shirt, leaving the legs (and possibly the forearms) vulnerable. Again, if your opponent is not wearing a helmet, you can attack the head or neck. Essentially, you want to attack around the mail; if you strike the mail itself, it’s best to do it with a solid thrust.
  • Semi-rigid armors generally protect much the same areas as chain mail (torso and arms), and leave the same areas open. If you cannot attack a vulnerable limb (which is probably easier) it may be possible to get between the plates/scales with a thrust.
  • Plate armor is all but impossible to penetrate with a sword – it’s honestly better to attack it with a weapon designed for the job, like a polearm or warhammer. If you do have to attack someone in full plate with a sword, there are two basic approaches: either pound him into insensibility (if your sword allows for that sort of attack), or put a thrust through the visor or one of the joints. Thrusting attacks of this sort were often made with a dagger (in both European and Japanese styles) and often after moving into a grappling position, so don’t neglect your skills in these areas. Thrusting with a sword was often done while half-swording to allow for more powerful thrusts (and perhaps better aim with the tip).
Your assignment for this class is to write a fight scene in which your character faces off against an opponent in armor. It needn’t be insanely long – a couple of paragraphs will do – but it should demonstrate some understanding of the things you’ve just read.

*as opposed to jousting/tournament armor.


Opponents on Horseback
This is one of the trickier situations in which you might find yourself: your opponent is mounted, while you are not. (There are also adjustments which need to be made if both you and your opponent are mounted, but that is - again - a topic for another class.) Never underestimate the dangers of a horse in combat; even an untrained mount can kick with devastating force (or just run over you).

An opponent on horseback has a notable advantage against someone on foot, and this advantage increases if the horse is trained for war, if the opponent is armored, and if the opponent is using a long weapon such as a lance.

The core of the problem here is getting close enough to attack. Approaching the front or rear of the horse is a good way to get kicked (and a horse kicks with a lot of force). Approaching from the side gives your opponent the opportunity to bring his weapon down on top of your head. An opponent with a lance or spear and enough room to move can put the weight of both himself and his horse behind an attack, and if you do manage to get out of the way then you probably won’t be able to counter-attack before he goes past.

Having (I hope) given you some idea of the difficulties involved in this situation, here are some approaches to fighting someone on horseback when you’re using a sword on foot:

  • Switch to a different weapon. A sword is really not the best thing to be using here, so if you have a spear or polearm available and the skill to use it, drop the sword and use something that’s designed for use against mounted opponents.

  • Attack the horse. Some of the longer-bladed swords (such as the Chinese zhanmadao) were specifically designed for this sort of use, but even mid-sized swords can be used to attack a horse’s legs. For shorter or light-weight swords, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage this without getting stepped on (or struck by the rider).
     
  • Get the rider off the horse. There are several approaches to doing this. Longer weapons (polearm, staff) can be used to try to push or pull a rider down. Environmental factors (low-hanging tree limbs, ravine) might be used to knock someone off his horse, or to get you up to the same height as the rider. There are also some other tricks for use against specific weapons; for example, it is theoretically possible to dismount someone by pushing the point of his lance into the ground while he’s charging.

  • Use guerilla tactics. As in any case where your enemy has the advantage, surprise and trickery can be used to even up the odds. Ambush may allow you to move close enough to attack before your opponent can ready a weapon. A rope across the trail at the level of rider’s chest can pull him off the horse. There are also devices such as caltrops which can be used to injure the feet of a horse (or a man on foot, for that matter).

Your assignment for this class is to explain (IC or OOC) how your character would take on a horseman.


Shields
Shields have been around almost as long as swords; they are a good defense that is easy to make and relatively simple to use. The reasons for using a shield are much the same as the reasons for wearing armor, and in an emergency you can pick up a shield and use it much more quickly than you can put on armor.

Over at the Grey Tower, shield use is covered by the system of Advantages, specifically the Shield Use advantage. For the sake of simplicity, Shield Use divides shields into three basic categories: Bucklers, Shields, and Tower Shields. Learning to use each type is a separate Advantage.

Historically, however, shields come in almost as many varieties as swords, and doing a little extra research on them can add a lot of flavor to your writing. Bucklers, for instance, can be circular or square. Their surfaces can be flat, or rounded so that the edges are angled forward, or it may have an S-shaped cross-section. Spikes could be added to the front of the buckler, allowing you to make attacks with it. For a history of sword and buckler with pictures of various types, try this article (not required reading for this class).

Shields come in an equal number of varieties, including round shields and the more familiar ‘kite’ shields; there are square or rectangular versions as well. They are generally made of wood, and the edges may be reinforced with metal or left plain so that an enemy’s sword will stick in them. (Not permanently, but even a second or two can be critical in combat.)

There are two basic grips which can be used for either shield or buckler. Either you have a handle (usually near the center) which you grip in one hand, or the shield is actually strapped to your arm.

Note: I have heard the term ‘buckler’ used to refer to anything which is gripped in the hand, as opposed to ‘shields’ which are strapped to the arm. For the purposes of this class, the difference between a shield and a buckler is a matter of size and usage, and not of which kind of grip the piece has. A buckler is a small shield, which offers protection primarily to the hand and forearm. They are usually under two feet across. A shield is larger, and offers protection for the body.

A tower shield (the third basic variety) is taller than it is wide, and larger (also heavier) than a standard shield. These can be a bit heavy for single combat – particularly the larger examples – but when used in formation they provide an extremely effective defense. There are also some some varieties which are classified as ‘tower shields’ in the Grey Tower because of their size, but which may not be classified that way in historical terms.

Each type of shield requires slightly different tactics to defeat it:

  • Bucklers: There are two basic approaches to using a buckler. The first one keeps the buckler close to the weapon hand until it is needed elsewhere. The second puts the buckler forward, and keeps the weapon back until it is needed. (Most styles will make use of both approaches as needed. Please consult this article on Liechtenauer for more information on buckler use.)

    Bucklers are fast and mobile, and can be used with grappling techniques. However, they don’t cover a great deal of area, so it is possible to get around them using feints or other issues of timing. With an inexperienced opponent, a feint at the head or face may provoke them into moving the buckler to a position which blocks their own vision. Also, because the buckler is extremely helpful in defending the torso, you may find an opponent’s legs becoming more appealing targets.

  • Mid-sized shields: These cover a larger area, which makes it harder to get around them (particularly with thrusting blades). However, the shield itself is slower to move, and with most weapons the shieldman will have to reach past the shield to take a swing at you, leaving him vulnerable to a countercut. Depending on the design of the shield, the legs may or may not be a good target.

    Trying to move around the shield (step to a position where the shield isn’t in the way) is usually futile, as the shieldman can turn at least as fast as you can move. Trying to batter your way through the shield is generally also a mistake, as it’s liable to wear you out first and it gives your opponent a chance to attack you while you’re busy. Feints, timing, and leverage can all be used to get past a shield.

  • Tower Shields: These cover even more area and are even harder to get around; they do a good job of protecting the legs and feet, too. However, the shieldman will still need to reach past the shield to attack, so countercuts remain a good approach to defeating them. Because they are actually heavy enough to slow the shieldman, it may be possible to get around them in one-on-one combat, if your own footwork is fast enough. Be cautious, however, as both tower shields and regular shields can be used to hide what someone is doing with his weapon hand.

Your assignment for this class is to write a description of your character fighting someone armed with a shield. You may choose which type of shield they are using, and what weapon they are using with it. Your response should be at least two paragraphs.


Long Weapons
Staff, spear, and polearms are often grouped together under the general heading of “long weapons.” There is a great deal of overlap in the techniques for these three weapons, though it’s important to understand that there are differences in their techniques as well. However, the principles are similar enough that we will look at them together.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, there are two basic ways of using long weapons. The first is to grip the weapon near the end, which gives you the most reach. The second is to grip the weapon near the middle, putting the hands at about 1/3 and 2/3 of the way along the haft. This allows the weapon to be used at shorter distances, and also allows you to make use of both ends of the weapon.

Long weapons offer several challenges for the sword:

  • Reach: An opponent armed with staff, spear, or polearm can hit you from a lot further away than you can hit him. Even a greatsword has less reach than any of the long weapons at full extension. In order to make contact with your opponent, you’re going to have to advance faster than he can retreat, without getting hit yourself… and even once you’re in sword-striking range, your opponent can still use his weapon by shifting to a middle grip. Alternatively, he may draw a shortsword or other backup weapon (which were commonly carried for exactly that situation).

  • Leverage: Because they can make wider swings, both staves and polearms can deliver some devastatingly powerful blows – generally too strong to block directly. (Spears can do this too, but they generally won’t. They focus on thrusts instead.) The leverage provided by the length of the pole also gives the long weapon an advantage in trying to push a sword aside.

  • Design: Many polearms (and some spears, depending on where you draw the line between the two categories) are equipped with hooks, side-bars, or multiple points, any of which can be used to bind up a sword. Polearms come in an unbelievable variety of types; more or less anything that could be mounted on a staff, has been at some point in history. Again, research is your friend.
And now, some specific considerations:
  • Staff: This is the most versatile of the three categories discussed here. It can be swung, or used to thrust, and there is no need to worry about lining up an edge to hit with. The entire surface of the thing can be used to attack; that same surface can also be used to grip. Its major disadvantage is that it lacks any sort of cutting edge, and so will have a hard time getting through the tougher armors (this is partly countered by the amount of force that can be put into a swing, though). For the same reason, if you have an empty hand (or can let go of your blade with one hand) you may be able to grab the staff long enough to close in and attack. A staff lacks any sort of guard, so the fingers and hands become very good targets (unless the staff wielder is wearing armor too – but if he is, he probably isn’t using a staff). As with any long weapon, you’ll have to get close in order to hit him. Armor and/or a shield or buckler can be a big help to the swordsman in this situation. Half-swording can also be helpful if he is thrusting at you, but be careful about using that technique against his swings.

  • Spear: Since the focus of this weapon is primarily on thrusting, your basic approach will be to sweep the thrust aside and move in past it, until you’re close enough to return a strike. Range is extremely important here. Attacking the spearman’s hands is also a possibility, though less effective if he is armored. (Also remember that if he’s heavily armored, you will have to step in and thrust at a weak point – a swing may not be sufficient.) Grabbing the weapon can also be done, but it requires practice to avoid getting handful of speartip. If you do so, the spearman may pull his weapon back to try to get it loose – in which case you can rush forward and push it up, which gives you a good opening to attack with your blade.

  • Polearms: While there are an amazing variety of weapon designs that fall into this category, the basic problems and approaches are similar to what a swordsman will encounter with spear and staff. Because of the amount of force in a polearm’s swing, it’s generally best to stay out of range until you have a chance to move in (preferably right after a swing has gone past). If you must block, don’t try to block directly – even with a two-handed grip on your weapon, a polearm is likely to push your own blade back into you. Use a sliding block and immediately advance. The final consideration here is that polearms require a certain amount of room to move, so anything you can do which restricts that will work to your advantage: retreat into the trees, maneuver around the furniture, or step into a doorway if you can. Again, armor and a shield are advisable: they will give you a serious advantage in defending against polearm attacks.

Your assignment for this lesson is (you guessed it) to write a fight scene in which your character faces off against someone with a polearm.


Fighting an Aiel (or, Mobility)

(The Aiel are unique to the Wheel of Time setting, created by author Robert Jordan. They are a desert people, and generally fight with a short spear and a buckler; they are also known for their ability to fight unarmed, a skill which doesn't seem to get much emphasis in the rest of that world.)

While the Aiel have other weapons – knives and bows – and a highly developed system of unarmed combat, they are best known for their use of spear and buckler. Their style of combat appears to be based on Zulu and other desert tribes (possibly with some Native American elements mixed in), except that they absolutely refuse, under any circumstances, to use a sword of any kind. They also do not use armor – probably not because they find it ineffective, but because in the desert of the Threefold Land they find it too hot to wear or carry around.

Instead, the Aiel have developed a highly mobile way of fighting. Their movements are direct and deceptively simple; their spears can be thrown, but are mostly used for thrusting or stabbing. Because the spear offers essentially no defense, they use a buckler in the off hand.

As a result, when fighting an Aiel you will use techniques similar to those you would use against a rapier-and-buckler combination. Because their thrusts will be following a straight line towards their target (you), they will be very fast – but because they are thrusts, they can be turned aside with a relatively small motion, and the return from that motion can be used to feed into a countercut. Similarly, if you have a two-handed grip on your weapon you may be able to force both spear and buckler out of the way, and follow through with a cut. Timing is essential here – most Aiel will not stay still while you swing at them, so you’ll have to follow them in, and that means that you’ll have to know when to commit yourself. Be ready to move, too – Aiel will move around as much as they can, and come in from unexpected directions, and if you don’t keep moving (and more importantly, turn so that you keep facing them) they will stab you.

The other thing to watch out for when fighting Aiel is that they are not at all afraid of throwing unarmed techniques into armed combat. Be ready for kicks, trips, throws, shoves, and other surprises. There are counters to these techniques – most notably, any time someone throws a kick, you can try a countercut at their leg – but they depend on timing and readiness. A solid knowledge of unarmed combat works to your advantage here.

Because Aiel do not use armor, and because the spear does not offer the hand-protection that a rapier does, the arms and fingers become a very good target. The Aiel are aware of this, and will either use their bucklers to cover their spear hand or use a rolling motion of the spear to deflect attacks away from their fingers. As with any combat technique, this is not 100% effective: vulnerable areas remain vulnerable areas.

Have a look at this article, and then write a description of your character fighting an Aiel. This can be either in combat, or a spar in the Warder Yards. (If you prefer, you can find one of the Tower’s Aiel members, and challenge him to a spar. If you choose to do that, simply include the URL and a brief explanation in your reply to this post.)


Mass Weapons
For this lesson, “mass weapons” are those weapons that are designed to focus their weight out near the end of the weapon. These include weapons such as axes, maces, and war hammers. (Flexible weapons like flails will be covered in the next lesson.)

For the most part, these weapons are armor-breakers. They are designed to dent, tear, or pierce armor, and they do this in two ways. First, most of their weight is in the ‘head’ of the weapon, which means that it is out near the end when you swing it. (Another way to look at this is to try balancing a hammer horizontally on your finger. To make the hammer balance, your finger will have to be very close to the hammer’s head. To balance a knife – or a sword – the same way, your finger will have to be fairly close to the guard. This difference in balance affects the way the weapon behaves when you swing it.) Second, these weapons usually focus the force of their impact into a fairly small area – the curved edge of an axe, the back-spike of a warhammer, or the spikes of a mace. This is not universal – some maces were rounded rather than spiked, and some warhammers had fairly ‘flat’ surfaces on their heads – but even in the exceptions you will have a lot of weight impacting in a fairly small area.

Single-handed mass weapons are swung much like a cutting sword (in fact, some varieties of sword – such as the falchion – could be considered a type of mass weapon in their own right…). You will not see a dramatic difference in footwork, body positioning, or swings between someone using a war hammer, and someone using a tip-heavy sword. While some of these weapons have spikes or spear-points at the tip, they will generally not be used for thrusting. Most of the counters you know from your sword work will apply here. Because of the way mass weapons are balanced, you will want to avoid blocking them directly, and instead concentrate on sliding them past you… but that is good advice for sword-on-sword combat, too.

These weapons are commonly used by cavalry; being on horseback allows you to combine a heavy swing with the force of gravity for a really devastating blow. When used on foot, they are often accompanied by a shield, or used as a backup to some sort of spear or polearm. Likewise, because they were used to penetrate armor, they are likely to be used by someone wearing armor. Thus, depending on the situation, you may wish to review the lessons on fighting against mounted opponents, armor, shields, and long weapons as well.

The two-handed versions of these weapons – great mace, battle axe, and maul – provide greater reach and an even more powerful swing. (At the longer, heavier end of the spectrum, weapons like the bardiche and the bec de corbin cross the line into polearms.) Against these weapons, you generally don’t want to block at all – though it may be possible if you are using one of the longer, heavier varieties of sword. However, the same combination of weight and balance that allows for such powerful swings also makes it almost impossible for your opponent to change the direction of his weapon quickly. Your basic strategy here is to get out of the way when your opponent swings, and then move in after their attack has passed. If you can’t get close enough to strike at the body, then the arms and hands are a good target (and two-handed mass weapons do nothing to protect them). If your opponent is wearing armor, then use a half-sword grip to deliver a powerful thrust when you move in. Two-handed mass weapons will almost never be used from horseback, and the two-handed grip prevents the use of most sorts of shield.

Your assignment for this class is to write yet another fight scene. This time, you will be facing off against someone with a mass weapon (axe, mace, or hammer). As usual, the details of armor, shields, etc. are yours to decide.


Flexible Weapons
This lesson will concern the use of the sword against weapons like the flail and the chain whip. There is a considerable degree of variety here, since a surprising number of weapons bend at one point or another, but the basic problems and solutions remain the same.

Parrying is the main difficulty when fighting against one of these weapons with a sword. Because of their flexibility, flails and other ‘soft’ weapons can strike around a block, and may be used to entangle blades. Some of the longer ones can entangle feet as well.

To successfully block a soft weapon with just a sword, you will want to catch the weapon in such a way that it doesn’t ‘snap’ around your blade. With a heavier weapon (like a flail) this means catching it out near the tip; with a lighter weapon like the chain whip, it probably means drawing your blade along the length of the chain towards the tip. You will also want to angle your blade so that its length is close to the same angle as the soft weapon. This makes it harder to block, but it also makes it less likely that your blade will be tangled. Dodging is generally your best defense against these sorts of weapons.

Like the mass weapons discussed in the previous lesson, flexible weapons are generally better at attacking than defending, so your best bet is to stay out of their way until you see an opening to attack. If you can take the offensive without being injured in the process, the advantage will be yours. A shield can be a big help against them, but be cautious: if the weapon wraps around the edge, it can still strike your arm, possibly crushing it against the inside of the shield. Armor is generally helpful as well, but be warned that some of the heavier flails were designed to be used against armor. (On the other hand, a chain whip would be all but useless against full plate, or even a decent suit of chain mail.)

For this lesson, tell me how your character would approach fighting someone armed with a flail or other flexible weapon.


Unarmed, knives, and daggers
The sword (whether used alone, or in conjunction with shield or another off-hand weapon) has a tremendous advantage in reach against close combat weapons… as long as you keep control of the range. A knife or dagger – even one designed for combat – will have a hard time blocking a cutting or slashing stroke, though they are somewhat better against thrusts. However, at extremely close range most swords become less effective, giving knives, daggers, and unarmed techniques the advantage. This is less true for short swords, and more true for longer swords, especially thrusting swords – but any time you’re fighting someone with a weapon shorter than yours, you want to keep them at a distance and kill them there.

Sometimes, however, that simply isn’t possible. The fight starts when they’re right beside you, or in a room crowded with chairs or people, or in a narrow hallway. There are several ways to deal with a dagger or a man fighting unarmed if you have a sword, even at close range.

  • Drop the sword: This may seem obvious, but often the best response is to move to dagger or unarmed combat yourself.

  • Unfolding the fan: For fights that start close, many of the attacks made while drawing the sword can be used to clear yourself some room. Not all of these are made with the blade; there are several good pommel-strikes that can be made from a drawing position. For more information on this, I suggest researching Iaido.

  • Half-swording: A reverse grip on the handle with the other hand gripping the blade allows you to make powerful thrusts at short range. There are also some grappling moves that can be done using the sword in this sort of grip; see the section on half-swording for more details.

    For those of you using a katana or something similar, the wooden sheath can be drawn with the sword, allowing you to use the whole thing as a short stick or club. This grip is similar to half-swording, except that you don’t have to worry about cutting your hands on the blade.

  • Off-hand weapons Many of the swords that have trouble with close range will make use of a dagger in the off-hand. Thus, if an opponent gets in past your sword, you still have something usable. Similarly, a buckler can be used to hold off a knife attack long enough for you to pull your own blade back into a stabbing position.

Your assignment for this class is to pair up and try attacking each other. One partner should use a knife or dagger; the other should use a sword. I want you to see how hard it is to get close to swordsman when you have a dagger, and how important it is for the swordsman to keep the daggerman at a distance. Depending on your style of sword, you may wish to try any or all of the techniques suggested in this lesson.


As you can see, we have barely scratched the surface of this topic. I hope this class has given you a better idea of how to use your sword against the different kinds of weapons that you might encounter. Also, I hope that you will now feel more confident about writing enemies who use weapons other than swords.