Swords For The Modern Writer

The thing to know when you go to choose a sword is which miscreants you’ll be using it on. No. No, wait. The first thing to consider when looking for an appropriate sidearm is what you’re going to wear- Stop. No, the very first thing to consider is whether your locality will even allow you to wear a sword in the firs- Strike that.

While I’d enjoy wearing a sword in public, most places you try that in modern society will at the very least get you some mighty curious looks. At worst, you’ll have to explain to the nice law enforcement official why you’re wearing an archaic weapon at the grocery store. That doesn’t sound particularly fun to me. But! There is hope (I mean, not for wearing a sword. Most places outside of conventions won’t allow it, at all. Even cons are usually going to require you peace bond your blade, and what’s even the point (aside from the one on your blade, I mean)) for understanding swords better for us as writers.

I like swords, me. Next to dragons, swords were my biggest reason to start reading fantasy. (Also wizards.) But mostly swords. And do we use a lot of them in fantasy. Big swords, little swords, long swords, short swords, small swords (though less of the technical version), magic swords, laser swords, plasma swords (there’s some argument, there) and silly swords. Heroes bear swords with minds of their own, with purposes at odds with the hero’s, cursed swords, swords of unearthly and eldritch materials, and plain ol’ steel swords. Some are straight, some are curved, and some are downright outlandish. (I mean, have you watched anime? Crazycakes.)

Regardless of how our heroes use their swords, however, it behooves us to understand how they were used in an historical context. Now, for a goodly while, the best we could do was look to sport fencing. A “sword” that weighs twelve ounces is not, strictly speaking, the best example to look at when describing a fight between iron-thewed barbarians (hi, Tom!). I have, however, seen it used well. Or at least, believably. I recall reading one book many years ago where the pivotal fight of the book relied upon a character engaged in a duel to the death who had only ever fenced with a foil. Now, normally, you wouldn’t put up a foil fencer against a skilled martial fencer, but that was actually the point. (I recall enjoying it, though I’d like to read again with the experience of the years since. If I could remember the title. Or the author. As it goes.)

Similarly, in the first of Robert Asprin’s Phule books, Phule’s Company, a pivotal scene involves a set of fencing contests. In the narrative, he gives a brief explanation of right-of-way, and of what targets are allowed when fencing with which weapon. This is quite useful, and I highly suggest reading the book. It’s also quite fun. My point, however, is that fencing, while a fascinating sport derived from genuine combat movements, is *not* an accurate portrayal of true combat swordsmanship. It’s a sport, and should be understood as such. At the risk of offending readers who participate in SCA, neither (quite) is SCA combat, though it’s closer. (I’d love to hear arguments about why I’m wrong, there, from those with experience of such.)

Now, as to resources. Scholarship on what’s called HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) is currently bourgeoning. A couple decades back, there was barely anything. Now? Well, I’m not sure I can list everything. Though I’ll be going into more as I find it. Looks like this one is going to turn into a series. I’m not sorry. Your first stop should be YouTube. I’ve come to appreciate Shadiversity, Skallagrim, Schola Gladiatoria, and Blood & Iron HEMA as excellent resources for the current understanding of western martial traditions. Between them, they have great videos on German and Italian longsword, rapier fencing, sabers, and more.

But those are subjects for future installments. For now, it’s worth knowing that a – at least historically – a bastard sword, a longsword, and a hand-and-a-half sword were all names for one general kind of sword. It was big enough to be wielded with two hands, but light enough for one-handed techniques, and was considered a side-arm, rather than a battle weapon. More than that, I need to save for later, as I’m running out of room. Happy swording!


  1. The story you’re thinking about may be “The Fire Duke” by Joel Rosenberg.

    I need to re-read that book as well. 😀

      1. Just re-read that scene.

        The foil fencer won because he had the guts to take a cut to his belly because he knew that he’d stab his opponent in the heart first. (Yes I see the pun.)

  2. Hey no talking about swords without mentioning Fred Saberhagen and the Book of Swords and the Lost Sword series. Who doesn’t like a sword where when you hold and think of the enemy you most want dead. then spin and throw it will unerringly find it’s target. It’s all fun and games with Farslayer.

    1. Of course, the problem with Farslayer is that it generally is a one-use weapon.

      But then, there’s the problem that if your enemy has friends/allies, they could use it against you.

      Two feuding families found that out the hard way.

      The first family used it against a member of the second family but members of the second family used it against a member of the first family and so forth.

      It ended when a member of one of the families grabbed Farslayer and ran off with it. 😈

      1. Remember though that the Gods had the swords made for a Great Game, then found out that they were part of the Game when IIRC Farslayer was used to kill one of them.

      2. IIRC, in Gourry Gabriev’s backstory, this is what he did with the Sword of Light. Ran off with it because infighting was destroying his family.*

        (from the light novel/manga/anime series The Slayers, whose POV was from Lina Inverse…)

        1. I keep meaning to watch Slayers but keep getting distracted by new books and animes, speaking of which the next episode of A Certain Magical Index is out tomorrow and they got a lot of really interesting swords popping up in that series.

    2. There’s an easy counter to Farslayer’s drawbacks. Shirou Emiya. Broken Phantasm spam.

      Why yes, the fanfic I’ve written lacks a lot of important story qualities. Why do you ask?

  3. SCA swords (heavily-armed combat, not rapier): I don’t fight, this is from observation & discussion:
    – Similar in mass & length to medieval weapons, so the bio-mechanics are more similar to period than some other sports.
    – No edges, which affects your blows and aim points (a side-blow from the marked “edge” of your weapon is counted when your opponent feels the impact; seems to be less differentiation by target, e.g. arm vs. helm, and the blows are definitely not as heavy as they would be if you were trying to sever an opponent’s arm.)
    – Safety-first attitude means lots of non-targets – kidneys, lower legs, hands, etc. that would be early targets of opportunity in period. Also means full-windup heavy blows and offensive use of shield edges are forbidden. (“you can kill your friends all day, but you’ve got to be able to drink with them that night”)
    A time trip would require a fair amount of retraining for an SCA fighter to be successful against the average period mercenary, although a lot of it would be “stop fighting like a sissy”.

    1. Rick Cook had a SCA fighter visiting a world where he fought out that “he was fighting like a sissy” by that world’s standards. 😈

  4. the channels you recommend are good, just don’t recommend Lindybeige ‘attacks from the back don’t happen’ (yeah, stopped watching him after that)

    1. Wannna bet? He never saw the battle scene in _Henry V_ as done by Kenneth Branaugh (who took part of his choreography from John Keegan’s _The Face of Battle_.) Sword in the back, knife in the back, totally fair when commoners were fighting. Knight vs. knight? Hmm, depended on a lot of conditions.

      1. i was already taking him with a grain of salt because of some outright stupid things he’d said about firearms that made it readily apparently that he’d never fired one and hasn’t spent much time talking to people who had… i.e. his familiarity with firearms handling was only book knowledge, and the books wheren’t books on firearms training.

  5. I might be totally making this up but I remember reading about the last recorded example of judicial battle (or whatever it’s called when the winner is declared the one God intended because they are righteous and the other is guilty)… the poor kid defending his mother’s honor hamstrung and then killed the professional “champion” of the fellow who called his mother a whore.

    The moral of the story was… hamstringing wasn’t considered “bad sport” because the whole business wasn’t considered a sport.

    1. Trial by combat. I’ve been using it as a threat in my world. Any beef between the human Empress of the Machine Empire and an AI gets settled one of three ways: Summary Judgement of Second Eldest (she’s like the Field Marshal and grandmother of the Empire), voluntary exile where the complainant leaves and doesn’t come back, or trial by combat in the ancient Human style, in Human bodies using ancient Human weapons.

      This decision was considered so scary that nobody has questioned the Empress on anything. In return, she’s graciously declined to issue any decrees other than that one.

      Trial by combat replaces the previous decree, wherein Second Eldest takes the first AI that brings the Empress a problem and shoots them in the ass.

    2. Last where? I’ve heard that the last trial by combat was actually between a man and a dog.

    1. I’ll actually be linking to a buddy’s blog in future installments, and he and I are more or less on the same page, but coming from different angles. Byspearandaxe.com is his site.

    2. I had to go back and read the title after this comment… I had it wrong too.

  6. I bought a longsword at an SCA event because I thought it would make for good (and fun) shoulder workouts. Then I killed all the trees in my backyard by using them as pells. It’s been hanging next to my bed, since. I should probably oil it before it starts rusting – it’s been there a LONG time, now.

  7. “At the risk of offending readers who participate in SCA, neither (quite) is SCA combat, though it’s closer. (I’d love to hear arguments about why I’m wrong, there, from those with experience of such.)”

    I took a class in bo-staff technique one time. Long story short, I discovered that Japanese hard styles were -wildly- different from what I was used to with Tai Chi and Aikido.

    One guy taking the course was a self-described “knight” in SCA. I sparred with him a little, according to his rules he scored on me three times just by rolling the end of his naginata and touching my foot. SCA rules departed Reality just as badly as Olympic fencing, where a toe hit is a legit point.

    I didn’t feel to bad about it, as his naginata toe hits would not have prevented me from spearing him in the forehead. Also I had a laminated ash staff where he had a bamboo wand with a little ball on the end.

    I did learn one really nice piece of dirty-fighting though. Run your staff down his and get him on the knuckles every time he’s in range. >:D

    1. The bo is a lovely stick. We don’t do the knuckle rapping, but we are aware, in a pleasant sort of way, that it can be done.

    2. Kendo has a similar problem, where tournament play encourages you to make strikes to the surface of the opponent’s armor rather than follow through as you would if you were trying to cut through it. Because scoring depends on the judge seeing and hearing the hit, a good “bong!” is worth a thousand slices.


      1. I love that video. The second cut is impossible unless you get the first one just right, so her happy dance is justified. I like to imagine the much-smaller girl in this video goes into the happy dance as soon as the camera’s off.

        (ignore the descriptions on pretty much any tameshigiri video; no, they’re not cutting bamboo, it’s a rolled up, damp tatami cover)


        1. Yeah, that’s why I shared it XD She looks so serious and deadly one moment then “Waiiiiii~~’ the next.

          I remember reading somewhere how hard it is to get the second cut, and quite a few people usually send the tatami flying on the first strike.

          1. Yup. If the alignment of the blade doesn’t precisely match the angle of your swing, you’re adding a push to the slice, knocking the target aside (sometimes spectacularly; never cut toward the audience…). This is the primary reason not to cut bamboo until you’re very experienced. With tatami omote, bad technique knocks over the target; with bamboo, it bends or breaks the blade.


      2. Nice dancing at the end there. ~:D

        I have never tried this cutting practice myself. Like most things, it looks pretty easy when you see somebody else do it. But that’s two up-cuts, the top one after the lower one. The dancing means they didn’t show us the 200 times she missed the second cut.

        I’d fail the first cut. No doubt. For quite a while

        I expect old graybeard sensei will leave the second cut standing there as well, as a lesson in the difference between using the sword and -being- the sword.

    3. Point of clarification. A toe hit is a valid point in Olympic Epee. It’s off target and not a point in foil and saber. And while a rapier driven into your foot isn’t likely to be a killing blow, it WILL slow down your opponent long enough to give you a much better chance to deal him one.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t know the rules, I only recall being offended that striking the toe counted. ~:D

        Indeed, in an actual fight any hit is a good one. If nothing else you can peck him to death.

        1. Which is pretty much what modern Olympic style fencers do. Well, except me this past weekend with one of my opponents. He’d beaten me in the preliminary seeding pool 5-4. I devastated the poor guy in the elimination match 10-1 by being more patient, and lunging through every parry he tried with either presses, binds, or the last one which was a complete avoidance of his blade (he chased it bringing his point out of line and I did a beautiful lunge ‘dead’ center.) 4 arm hits (1 wrist, 3 upper arm), and 6 direct torso hits.

          Also, you can kill with all three of the Olympic fencing blades. Hit an unprotected person in the eye or throat, even with the blunt point, and you can get good penetration. The big ones that stick in my mind was the one incident back in the mid-seventies where a guy broke the tip of his blade (don’t remember if it was epee or foil), punched through his opponent’ mask, through the orbit of his eye in into his brain (he died); and another where a saber fencer did a whipping hit to a guy’s arm, punched through his sleeve and through the arm from the wrist area until it exited just below the elbow (he lived, but lost the use of that arm from massive nerve damage when the judge pulled the blade back out – saber’s points curve over so they aren’t sharp, so it acted like a hook knife when it got yanked out-should have taken him to the hospital and had them cut the tip off first.)

          I’ve come away with all kinds of black and blue hits with blunt points. And you can get some bad attacks that run up under the mask bib and past the jacket collar to hit the throat; usually from inexperienced fencers who don’t have their blades angled properly.

          Unless you’re a quick draw artist, if you are within 15 feet of an experienced fencer with their blade out, and don’t have your gun drawn and pointed at them already, it’s good odds the fencer can hit the you before you can draw and fire.

          1. Unless you’re a quick draw artist, if you are within 15 feet of an experienced fencer with their blade out, and don’t have your gun drawn and pointed at them already, it’s good odds the fencer can hit the you before you can draw and fire.

            TV talk show (one of the obnoxious ones with half a dozen liberal ditzes chattering) day before yesterday– some idiot tried to hold up four college boys at a gas station.
            He started about ten feet away, then closed on them…and got his *** whupped so bad that someone came in and tried to break up the attack on the idiot robber.
            At which point one of the college boys grabbed the gun and showed brains, if no muzzle discipline, by backing up out of immediate melee range with the ranged weapon.

            1. Incidentally, that was in the hotel lounge. Nobody was staying there more than the bare minimum it took to finish their meal. No talking, nobody even making eye contact.

              Next day, we were there early while the hotel ladies cleaned our room, and Elf asked if he could change the channel. Put it on something doing a marathon of Guy Fieri (no relation) and his grocery store themed cooking show.

              Was still on hours later when everybody was there for dinner.

              And people were hanging out, watching the show, chatting, generally just being a lot more social.

              It was delightful.

            2. When the assassin tried to kill Andrew Jackson, it was fortunate for him that Jackson had two aides with him. They restrained the president, or there would have been murder done.

    4. *tries to picture it* He did a hilt-sweep– not even a hilt-slam– with a naginata and thought it would even slow someone down?

      Now a hilt slam, yeah, THAT would take out anybody not on a battle high, although they might be able to take you out first. But I’ve had cows step on my foot and not noticed it hurt until later, because of a lack of force.

      1. I’ve managed to avoid being stepped on by cattle. And it only took one learning experience when I was 10 or 11 to understand that horses are REALLY HEAVY, and getting your foot stepped on hurts like the devil and bruises for at least 2 weeks if you’re lucky to not have something broken.

      2. Positions: I was with my staff in a loose on-guard, right hand at the middle and extended, left hand waist high by my hip. Right foot forward, weight back on the left foot, ready for a half-step and spear the opponent.

        He extended his naginata, right hand on the very end of it, slid it forward resting on the curving bamboo part, and rotated it so the tip touched my foot.

        That was a point. With him standing there, wide open for my spear shot to the forehead. I couldn’t miss. The heavy brass-shod staff would have punched a hole in his frontal bone and killed him deader than a mackerel.

        He didn’t feel he was in any danger, because he’d “won” the pass. And he wasn’t, of course, because friendly sparring.

        This is why I do not consider SCA Bashing as weapons training. Its tag with padded sticks. So is fencing, and Kendo. To be fair, so is target shooting. After all, the target does not shoot back. ~:D

        1. Whenever you have turn-based, or right-of-way attacks; you are not engaging in real weapons training. And even though the “sticks” are padded, two Marines going at each other with them ARE engaged in weapons training. As for target shooting, depends. Shooting prone or around barricades is combat training; as is timed shooting standing or kneeling. Doesn’t matter if the “target” is shooting back or not, you have to take the shot and then keep moving to the next position. Although your average cops and military would prefer cover, concealment, and more time for better shooting, real life doesn’t usually work that way.

  8. You want to write swords, you have to learn swords. And I don’t mean from Hollywood. One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no shortage of people willing to share their knowledge if you’re willing to listen.

  9. Ioffer a bit of meta discussion. There does not appear to be another place to put it.

    The above is an interesting article, which by and by will be lost in the mists of prehistory, say by next week.. The issue is that Mad Genius Club does not have an index, and discussions of how to index faded quickly.

    However, there is another writing group, the distinguished 20BooksTo50k(R). As an author with 23 books, I can assure you all that they are just a tad optimistic about income vs book count. They have a large catalog of articles at


    It has an index. It might not be perfect for the needs here, but it might be a good start. Well, a start, anyhow.

    1. Ah yes, 20BooksTo50k currently involved in a ShirtStorm with the CHORFS for daring to SLAAaaaATE!!!! their works onto the Nebula nominations. Otherwise known as making a list and posting it on your blog for your members to support if they feel like it.

      Lela Buis has helpfully reviewed all the nominations this year, and a sorry lot they are, slated or not. Heavy SJW themeage throughout, with at most one or two exceptions. Kind of like Love, Death and Robots, a collection of fail compiled by objectionable jackasses.

      Proving that even the SJW-themed works of genuine SFWA members will be ShirtStormed if they do not come from Approved authors. The odor of impropriety is as blatant as a summer fish market in Libya.

      And please, lets not have anybody come on here and laboriously explain “slate” again, shall we? Any list is a “slate” unless a CHORF makes it, or it comes from Tor Books. MGC members know that better than anybody.

      By the way, for y’all banned trolls reading this, these are my two middle fingers. .|.. ..|. Enjoy.

  10. Talking medieval/HEMA combat, has anyone here ever seen something called ‘Battle of the Nations’? It’s a full-contact sport done in Europe which is, well, modern melee combat with medieval weapons and in full plate armor. It gets pretty brutal sometimes; it’s quite normal for several members of one team to gang up on another. But it does show what it might have been like when you had small ‘battles’ involving one or two dozen fighters per side.

    It also gets nasty when the Russian team fights it out with the Polish or Ukrainian ones.

    1. Because of course it does.
      If there were a match involving any two of the following: Serbs, Croats, or Bosnians, I would probably make sure it was the only one going on so I could assign all the referees there.

  11. In A Taste For Death by Peter O’Donnell, one in his series of Modesty Blaise adventure novels, a key point in the story hinges on a fight to the death between Modesty and a highly skilled competition swordsman. He was the better fencer, but that proved to be his downfall. To him the sword was a part of his sport and his art, to her it was just a pointy cutty stabby killing tool.

    1. Sounds like the sword fight at the end of Flag in Exile, between Honor Harrington and the bad-guy-of-the-moment. He’s a master swordsman in the fencing salle. She’s a warrior who knows something about swordplay. Not hard to guess who wins, and Weber does a decent job of making it seem plausible, not a simple case of plot armor for the protagonist.

      “The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.” — Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”

  12. Swords in Anime are Perfectly Normal (TM).

    In all seriousness, yeah, I’ve read and watched far too much manga and anime, and have little interest in the reality of swords. But of the Japanese sword fanatics, there are some who are interested in the realistic side, and a few have written manga built around ‘as it actually’ works, rather than the superstitious or psychological side. Can’t remember the name of the one title I remember, which may have simply empathized psychological experiences over mysticism, and I’m far from being very well read.

    1. The mysticism is the part where -something crazy happens- and you don’t know what it was. Generally after many years of practice. They describe it as the sword cutting by itself.

      Like leaving both pieces of tatami standing after a double cut. Its “mystical” because nobody but Old Sensei can do it, and he can’t explain what happened. His mind wasn’t present, only the sword.

      I’ve seen/experienced this in shooting occasionally, where the shooter disappears and only comes back after the shot is taken. Carlos Hathcock described it in this book.

      Chandler, Roy F. (1997). White Feather: Carlos Hathcock USMC scout sniper: an authorized biographical memoir. Iron Brigade Armory Publishing. ISBN 978-1-885633-09-5.

      It isn’t “magic” in the commonly meant sense of the word, but it is a state that is very unusual.

      1. Also Telephone. Knowledge transmission is lossy. Institutional knowledge isn’t just as good as the folks with first hand knowledge doing the teaching. There is an average level of instructor knowledge that may in fact be several generations from first hand knowledge. First hand knowledge doesn’t automatically make someone a good teacher with the vocabulary for accurate transmission.

        Lot of the esoteric magical bits and pieces in various cultures seem to be the result of this process on the psychological experiences of past practicing mystics.

      2. I believe the proper term is flow-state. Sometimes described as “being in the zone.” Wikipedia actually has a fairly accurate description of the phenomenon.
        And yes, it does feel kind of mystical.

      3. If I’m reading the sense of that right, I’ve had that happen when cooking– and it sounds like the “I just took the shot” that some basketball folks mention.

        You don’t think it, it’s like you just see “oh, I do this– and then the rest just HAPPENS.”

        It’s as obvious as pushing a single domino and the rest fall over, and you don’t remember setting up the dominoes.

        1. It isn’t that rare, most people have experienced it. The moment of clarity when the job and you both go away, and all that’s left is consciousness. Then your brain turns back on, and you say “Wow, what was that?”

          Used to happen to me in traffic on my motorcycle, when everything was flowing. I went where the spots opened up, no thought involved. Sometimes with painting too. I’d start painting, and then the room would be finished without further inside conversation. The little voice in your head shuts up, and your body moves.

          That’s the goal in Zen pursuits like swordsmanship, archery, flower arranging, the Tea Ceremony. You don’t do it. It does itself. With practice that begins to happen at odd moments. Mastery is when it happens every time.

          This is a Human thing, not just a Zen thing. Everybody knows it when they see it.

            1. You too, eh? ~:D People like us are called White-Lighters, one little zap and we go along happily for months. Always on the lookout for my next zing of White Light.

          1. esr talks a lot about it also showing up when programming. I’m not aware enough of the insides of my head to tell if and when it has showed up for me when I’ve been writing or analyzing things.

            1. If you’ve ever sat down to code, and then looked up and hours have gone by while you were in the zone, that was it.

    2. What? You don’t find 8-foot long, 2-feet wide at the hilt, 150 pound swords being dual wielded by a 90 pound teenage girl with pink and purple checkerboard hair, dressed in a fringed bikini to be believable? Would you believe she also flies, chews gum, blows bubbles, and engages in witty repartee` while fighting? Or that she runs an H&R Block tax office in her civilian identity?

  13. Readers of a certain age may remember the Hyborean fanzine Amra where this topic was discussed to death (pun intended) in article and letter column. The ‘zines themselves may be hard to find nowadays. De Camp edited a couple of ‘best of’ books, but they may be almost as hard to find.

    1. I remember the two collections, Blade of Conan and Spell of Conan. They’re both available on Amazon at reasonable prices. Great, great collections of essays.

      I especially loved what they said about pre-Howard heroic fantasy.

  14. “For now, it’s worth knowing that a – at least historically – a bastard sword, a longsword, and a hand-and-a-half sword were all names for one general kind of sword. It was big enough to be wielded with two hands, but light enough for one-handed techniques, and was considered a side-arm, rather than a battle weapon.”

    Fascinating. Sword terminology has clearly changed since the last time I looked at it; I always identified “longsword” with the classic knight’s sword, quite usable with one hand.

    I am surprised to see a bastard sword described as a “sidearm,” since a typical one was a good four feet long, too long and clumsy to hang from the waist even if it was at a slant.

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