Swords and sword fights appear in many books and movies. It is also a subject that many writers work with, especially if you write lots of fantasy. Now, if you are anything like me, you may have seen sword fights in movies like Prince Caspian or The Princess Bride and base your own fights off common and seemingly ‘standard’ warrior moves and tactics.
But as I read more about swords, I realized a fact I already knew but didn’t think too much about. The swordmanship in most movies and books is for show only. Real sword fights were much different.
First there are a number of misconceptions about swords, some of which I was surprised to learn myself.
For starters, swords do not weigh 10 to 12 pounds. They were really not very heavy, averaging around 2.5 pounds apiece. Even the large, two-handed blades weren’t normally heavier than 4 pounds. (Now of course in a fantasy world your swords might be heavy. The swords I’ll be talking about in this article are Medieval type swords.)
Also, swords didn’t have blunt edges. Well, actually this depends on what the sword is meant for. If is is a thrusting weapon, then it might just have a well defined tip. But otherwise the swords edges could be sharp and many Medieval swords have been found with edges still sharp. One note…however sharp they were, swords were not meant to cut through armor. That was the whole point of armor, to protect the wearer from the sword. Even thrusting swords were designed to stab through the joints of the armor, not through the armor itself. (Now of course, you might have a super-strong warrior or an armor-cutting sword or something like that, but as a general rule…)
Now about the fights themselves. In most sword fights you see and read about, the blades constantly clash against each other, normally edge against edge. A more realistic scenario is one fighter parring the blade of another with the flat of his sword to avoid damaging to the edge of the blade. But there are other moves to a fight than just metal-bashing, including (at times) simply moving the sword aside so the opponents sword cuts nothing but empty air. Real sword-fighters were less animated and more cautious than many actors performing their choreographed moves. And sword fights general did not take long.
Now let me say right here that the information for this latter part of the article comes from a book I bought and read awhile back. It’s the best resource I’ve found for learning about realistic sword fighting enough to write about it (without learning how to sword fight myself. It’s called Medieval Swordsmanshipby John Clements.)
Anyway, the credits for the list of things notto do in a sword fight (below) comes from the book I just mentioned, though I have reworded it a bit. These are notorious and common cliches of choreographed fighting which would (probably) never happen on a battlefield.
- Long, dramatic pauses as two foes lock swords and deliver terse short (and, admittedly at times, cool) lines. Swords, when they lock, only pause the fight for the fraction of a second. And, when a person is fighting for their life, they don’t stop to for cute insults and comebacks.
- Punching and kicking when there’s an opening instead of just cutting or stabbing.
- Closing in to hit the enemy with the hilt or pommel of the sword instead of the blade (there might be a time when a soldier does use his hilt, but if the fighter can use his sword, then he’ll use his sword).
- Finishing off the enemy with a simple stab after minutes of nothing but trying to hack at him throughout the fight.
- Spinning and twirling the sword in one hand during the middle of a battle (or the warrior spinning himself) might look cool but will probably be the last dramatic act the spinner will ever make.
- Swinging at a disarmed opponent yet still missing him over and over. I mean, the person might be quick, but in a logical situation, he’ll probably be hurt or killed pretty quickly.
- Missing a strike so that the inertia of the blow spins the attacker around.
- Having the hero lose his sword and recover it. Sure, it could happen…maybe. It’s cool in books and movies. But for real life, if a soldier loses his sword he’ll probably be killed before he recovers it.
And really…how come the hero can spend ten minutes in a duel with the villain just before or after cutting down ten of minions in one minute? It’s just what happens in a book or movie, but that doesn’t make it realistic. (Not to say I am innocent of this myself, but it is something to keep in mind.)
Anyway, those are a few myths corrected and a few tips on what is not a realistic way to fight. For more information on how a sword fight should progress, I highly recommend the book I linked above.
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