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!