Friday, July 5, 2013

Writing a Believable Sword Fight Scene (Part II)

Quite a long time ago I wrote a post here on writing a believable sword fight scene. It continues to be popular, and I've had numerous requests to post more on the topic. I do think there is more to be said.

Importantly, I want to clear up one important point. Fencing and medieval sword fighting are not the same thing. In fact, they have very little in common. Fencing and the use of thrusting weapons such as the rapier first came into vogue in the 16th and 17th centuries. Before then, it is a mistake to represent a rapier being used. The fencing terms that are still used today were invented in the late 1500s and should not be used in any sword fight before that time. So if you are writing about medieval rather than Renaissance sword fights, you can't take a fencing lesson or watch fencers to find out what it looked like; however there are organizations such as the Society of Creative Anachronism that have groups and lessons in using medieval weapons.

Now I would like to go more into how fighting was usually done in the middle ages.

You need to be aware of a number of misconceptions about medieval sword fighting, which was done almost entirely by the knight classes. Swords were not heavy. Wielding one was was tiring, but the weapons themselves were surprisingly light. A typical longsword or hand-and-a-half sword weighed about two and a half pounds. A typical two-handed sword such as the supposed Wallace sword on display at the Wallace Monument weighed about six to eight pounds. (Parts of the "Wallace Sword" might in fact date early enough to have been used by Wallace although the entire sword definitely does not) However, a sword or sword and shield was not a knight's preferred weapon. Given a choice, a knight would fight with a lance and would never voluntarily give up being mounted. So most knightly combat was done on horseback, beginning with a lance.

Of course, if the fight began on foot then that was not a choice, but it would be the normal beginning of any duel. The assumption that the largest weapon and person always won, an assumption made by even excellent writers such as G. R. R. Martin for example, is simply wrong. I could cite (but won't for brevity) a number of cases where agility, experience, and maneuverability were the deciding factors.

And unless it was a duel of honor, which did happen on occasion, there was no shame in a friend bashing your opponent over the head or stabbing them through the back. Throw sand in their face? Of course. Bash them up the side of the head with your shield? Given the chance because a shield was also a weapon, one most knights chose to use. Two-handed swords tend to be over rated since they provided little in the way of defense. Of course, what is often referred to as a longsword or hand-and-a-half sword could be used either with a shield or as a two-handed weapon which is one reason they were so popular.

One of the other important factors is that knights with few exceptions spent their entire lives from an early age studying and practicing fighting. Of course, like any activity the ability would vary and you might write about a knight who had little innate ability, but if your character is good at sword fighting, just as with any physical activity, they don't have to think about the details while doing it. Does professional basketball player think about exact hand and foot placement in the midst of a game? Of course not. This is something that is second nature by the time they're playing at that level. The same would be true of a sword fighter. Watching for openings, judging their opponent, and seeing how to take advantage of the environment are much more likely to be what they think of. They certainly won't stop in the middle to describe who is watching or philosophize about why they're fighting.

For all hand-to-hand combat, I observe a fairly simple rule: always keep within a close point of view. What would your protagonist see and think? That is all I want in a sword fight scene. One thing for sure is that they aren't going to try to be the fanciest possible with an opponent swinging a very sharp sword at their gut. A sword fight is short, brutal, and generally has only one object which is to kill your opponent.

12 comments:

Conan the Librarian™ said...

Hi Jeanne, long time no comment ;¬)

Two handed swords came into prominence in the later middle ages as an answer to pikes.
The 'forlorn hope' or 'lost troop' in Dutch, were either a band of death or glory volunteers or convicted criminals.
Two handed swords had the best chance of lopping pikes apart that were common in any army, although the English used billhooks to much the same effect, notably at Flodden.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Hey, Conan. Great to hear from you. That is an interesting point.

Jan Hurst-Nicholson said...

As part of my search about left-handers someone pointed out this interesting sword fight info.

Spiral staircases were a clever defence in medieval castles. They were almost always built with the spiral in the same direction (clockwise, when looking up from the bottom) so that the defending swordsman, who would either be coming down the stairs or backing up in reverse, could freely swing his sword. Conversely, the attacking swordsman (ascending the stairs) would have his swing blocked by the wall.
This, of course, assumed that both attacker and defender were right-handed, which most were.
Left-handed swordsman, though rare, had the advantage of surprise when attacking out-in-the-open – they had fought (and trained against) more right-handed opponents than their adversary had fought left-handed opponents. Their attack when
ascending standard spiral staircases was also not blocked by the wall.

The Kerrs of Ferniehirst Castle were believed to be mostly left-handed and built staircases going in the opposite direction

I am the Curator at Ferniehirst, yes its true, Dand Kerr 1480 – 1545 was a great warrior, he was left handed and recognised the advantage of left handedness in battle and of course as you have described in defence of a corkscrew staircase. Also bear in mind that the Kerrs were a great riding clan and often fought as mercaneries in Ireland and on the continent. Dand Kerr taught his servants, fighting men and indeed his sons to fight left handed, the price for a left handed warrior was more than twice that of his right handed counterpart. The Kerr family installed left handed staircases in all their towers and fortified houses, the left handed staircase at Ferniehirst was rediscovered in 1851. The modern stair ascending the tower today is Georgian and not a spiral until the second floor is reached.

J. R. Tomlin said...

That's fascinating, Jan. Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...


Hi J.R. Tomlin.

Is a hand and a half sword the same as a bastard sword?

What do you think of sabers, cutlasses, and curved blades?
The ancient Romans had a saying "The slash wounds, but the thrust kills" and is shown by their gladius sword design and their fondness for spears.

What about armor versus sword quaility? In the movie The Thirteenth warrior, a Viking was able to cut through his opponent's shields.

What do you think about the Ulfberht? It is a very high quality sword used by the Vikings.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Don't judge anything in history by movies, including The Thirteen Warrior. Moviemakes (and mostly movie fans) simply care nothing about historical accuracy while the readers of historical fiction very much do. No, there weren't swords that would cleave a good shield in one stroke.

Thrust weapons were used in the middle ages but not as a sword. Pikes and lances were thrust weapons. Schiltroms (pike squares) were extremely effective in battle before the extensive use of the longbow, but don't have anything to do with sword fighting. As I mentioned, a knight's preferred weapon was a lance, not a sword.

The sabre didn't come into use in Europe until the 17th century and is used in fencing. I really have no thoughts on it since I am more interested in medieval fighting. The falchion was also curved and was occasionally used in the middle ages, however. There is a common misconception that falchions were peasant weapons which isn't true. They were at times used by the nobility and there are extremely well-crafted examples still in existence. They don't seem to have made any great difference in a sword fight and were not widely popular although they existed.

The Roman gladius and pike were used by Roman foot soldiers as was the medieval pike in the schiltrom. In those situations, yes, thrusting was very effective in a schiltrom or phalanx. However, I'm not going into what worked in battle which is a pretty large topic.

The Ulfberht was a single-hand sword and a design that was actually used across much of Europe in the early middle ages, not just by the Vikings. The Viking swords varied widely in quality, including some of the best.

I don't use the term bastard sword because the meaning of that varies so widely. It is sometimes used to mean a sword that is midway in length between a shortsword and a longsword and sometimes to mean a sword that can be used either with one or two hands. In fact, the terminology of sword classification tends to be pretty vague and varies a lot.


bruceblake said...

Hi JR,
In fantasy, one of my favourite authors of fight scenes is Joe Abercrombie. Not sure if you've read any, but he often has on-lookers getting hit by back swings and follow-throughs, or the fighters themselves accidentally bashing themselves. It seems to me, especially when in a battle scenario, fighting would have been quite chaotic and his depictions come off as quite realistic.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I'm not acquainted with his work. I rather doubt that bystanders regularly got hit. Swinging wildly would be a good way to lose a fight, but it could happen if someone got in the way.

I'll check out his work though.It's always interesting to find a new author.

Tina said...

This is cool!

Anonymous said...

I actually am studying two-handed (long sword) fighting and will add in fencing next month and highly recommend it for an in-depth look at body mechanics (and for a great workout).

To expand on someone's earlier comment on "swinging wildly", this video illustrates this concept the best: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBTtq2Gzm6w.
It's in polish, but you don't really need to know the words to view how the fighting mechanics come into play. You can definitely tell the swordsman (the guy in gray) can go toe-to-toe with taller guy (in white). One is more controlled as he was most likely schooled in fencing (with the except of the stupid twirly bit) and the other who prefers the Wild Flailing school of fighting. ;p

J. R. Tomlin said...

More often than not, longswords were not used two-handed. They were mostly used with a shield. A longsword (or hand-and-a-half sword as they were sometimes called) could be used either way.

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. If someone were swinging a sword at you with the intent of killing you, not as a game, would you want to have to depend on dodging and parrying or would you want a shield? Knights didn't carry shields merely for show. :)

Anonymous said...


Hi,

What do you think about "half-swording" which is a technique where the weilder holds the swords hilt with one hand and then holds the middle part of the blade with the other (this would supposedly make it easier for the wielder to push a sword into the gaps of an opponents armor)?

Also, what do you think about the technique of actually reversing the sword and holding the blade with both hands (like a baseball bat) and using the pommel or hilt to strike with as a bludgeoning weapon to strike against an armored knights helm?

Some people think these techniques were actually used because they can be found in ancient fighting manuals, but I think that in practice the techniques weren't practical, and just because they were in the manual doesn't mean they were actually used. There are things in modern manuals that people disregard. And I haven't seen ancient paintings, murals, tapestries, etc., that depict these fighting techniques.

Some people might say that the techniques could have been done because the blades weren't sharp, and some people might say that the techniques could be done even with sharp blades if they were held properly.

But I think holding the hilt and using the blade as a bashing tool against armor is still more sensible than holding the blade and using the hilt & pommel as a bashing tool, because I could hold the hilt as tight as I can and swing the blade as fast and as hard as I can. But if I hold the blade and swing the hilt, I wouldn't be able to hold the blade as tightly as I could hold the hilt and therefore I wouldn't be able to swing as fast or as hard as I could.

What do you think? :)