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Different Sword Fighting Styles Around the World

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: August 10, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

For centuries, the sword was the weapon of choice in settling personal disputes, dueling, and war. Today only a few martial artists and modern fencers are familiar with the lethally effective fighting arts practiced since antiquity. The medieval and Renaissance sword fighting styles were violent and deadly and have little resemblance to the modern-era fencing styles we know today.

Let’s explore the different types of sword fighting, from the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) to the modern Olympic fencing, Japanese swordsmanship, and the swords martial artists use.

Types of Sword Fighting

There are many different types of martial arts that teach how one can fight with a sword. The HEMA, Japanese martial arts, and Olympic Fencing are all forms of sword fighting. Different traditions also focus on different sword types.

Historical European Martial Arts or HEMA

The HEMA recreates the fighting styles of swordsmen based on treatises from the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and the early modern period. The martial artists use weapons like sword-and-buckler, longsword, rapier, British military sabers, and others.

Sword and Buckler Fighting

Sword and Buckler Fight
Sword and Buckler Fight – Credits: chiron3636, Flickr

During the early Middle Ages, foot soldiers used single-handed swords with a small buckler shield buckled to their arms and shoulders. The sword-and-buckler fighting dates to the time when arming swords or knightly swords were most popular.

HEMA Sword and Shield
HEMA Sword and Buckler – Credits: Cleveland Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art

So-called because the men-at-arms wore them, the arming swords had a straight, double-edged blade and a sharp point, making them a cut-and-thrust weapon. The foot soldiers used the arming sword for cutting and thrusting and the buckler for parrying. 

Longsword Fighting

Longsword fighting
Longsword fighting – Credits: chiron3636, Flickr

In the late medieval period, the knights used the longsword for armored fighting, but it eventually became a dueling weapon. Unlike the arming swords, the longswords featured long grip that allowed the use of two hands, though they were lightweight enough to wield with one hand. Several books introduce sets of longsword techniques, including fighting unarmored and on horseback.

practice logsword
German longsword, ca. 1575 – Credits: Met Museum

Today, the longsword is the most popular weapon among HEMA practitioners. There are different styles of medieval longsword fighting: the Italian and the German. The former is closer to the sword fighting style the medieval knights would use, while the latter is more associated with the techniques used by a fencing guild in the 15th century.

Rapier Sword Fighting

Rapier Fighting
Rapier Fighting – Credits: Hans Splinter, Flickr

In the 16th century, the rapier served as a self-defense weapon for civilians, but it became more associated with dueling and fashion. As opposed to the thrusting and cutting style of swordplay, the rapier functioned as a thrusting sword, characterized by a slender, sharply-pointed blade. Designed for unarmored civilian combat, it became popular among rival gangs and urban militias.

Rapier, ca. 1600–1620, German
Rapier, ca. 1600–1620, German – Credits: Met Museum

The rapier originated in Spain and Italy and became popular throughout Western Europe. However, there are several rapier treatises describing different fighting styles. The most popular is the Italian tradition, but there is also the Spanish tradition, commonly referred to as the Destreza tradition. The thrusting sword also became popular among the Germans and French, though the latter is uncommon in the HEMA community.

Smallsword Fighting

Smallsword fighting
Smallsword used for fighting – Credits: Cleveland Museum of Art

By the late 17th century, the smallsword evolved from the longer and heavier rapier and became the preferred civilian weapon. Shorter than the other, it was less cumbersome to wear. It also served as a dueling weapon though it later was used in a distinct fighting style. Smallsword fencing also became a social pastime among European aristocrats. Surprisingly, the smallsword is one of the less popular weapons within the HEMA community.

Broadsword Fighting

18th-century Scottish broadsword
18th-century Scottish broadsword – Credits: Otago Museum

Cavalrymen during the 16th and 17th centuries used several types of broadsword, characterized by their broad, double-edged blades. Some broadswords, such as the Venetian schiavona, mortuary sword, and the Scottish broadsword, featured basket guards that offered good protection to the swordsmen. Some martial artists focus on the broadsword fencing, Highland swordsmanship, and techniques of the Scottish sword masters.

Saber Fighting

Mortuary Cutlass sword
Mortuary Cutlass sword – Credits: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The saber is a sword with a single-edged, curved blade, often associated with the cavalry of the early modern period. It became popular in Western Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. However, HEMA practitioners use different types of sabers, including cutlass of naval warfare, cavalry saber of the 19th-century Western militaries, and others.

Olympic Fencing

Korea women fencing epee team won the sivler medal of 2012 London Olympic Games
Korea women fencing epee team won the silver medal of 2012 London Olympic Games – Credits: Republic of Korea

Olympic fencing is a modern sport that descends from the smallsword and military saber traditions. Modern fencers use weapon simulators like épée, foil, or saber, each with different rules of competition. In every match, fencers score points by hitting the target areas on the opponent’s body without being hit by the opponent’s blade.

smallsword 17th Century Foil
Foils, 17th Century – Credits: Riley Kaminer, Flickr

However, each weapon has a different target area. While épée fencing targets the entire body, foil fencing only targets the torso. On the other hand, the saber fencing target areas consist of the upper body above the hip line, including the arms and head. In the Olympic Games, fencing also relies heavily on footwork for the attack and defense.

Japanese Martial Arts

Katana's Saya or scabbard
Katana’s Saya – Credits: Met Museum

Japanese swords, especially the katana, are among the weapons used in traditional Japanese martial arts, each with a different training focus and techniques. 

Kenjutsu

Kenjutsu Fighting
Kenjutsu Fighting – Credits: HandsLive, Flickr

The kenjutsu or art of sword fighting focuses on sword techniques, but it is a non-competitive art with a prearranged set of movements between dueling opponents. Kenjutsu practitioners utilize a wooden sword or bokken that replicates the size and weight of the real katana sword.

Kendo

kendo bokken
Kendo Bokken – Credits: Universidad de Navarra, Flickr

Kendo or the way of the sword, is the modern equivalent of kenjutsu and focuses on speed, balance, and fluidity in sword techniques. Kendo practitioners utilize a bamboo training sword or shinai in training.

Facts About Sword Fighting

Since ancient times, people have used swords for self-defense, in duels, and wars. Eventually, sword fighting evolved to become more of a fencing sport with rules.

Here are the things you need to know about sword fighting:

Medieval nobles engaged in sword fights when they felt slighted.

The judicial duel or trial by combat was the earliest form of dueling for settling disputes, especially when a crime was punishable by death. Many duelists fought with swords, though others preferred spears and axes. Medieval nobles also engaged in honor duels because one person insulted the other. Dueling thrived until the late 19th century in Europe, where rapiers and smallswords functioned as dueling swords.

There are several historical figures renowned for their sword fighting skills.

Japan’s legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi had perfected the two-blade fighting technique and survived 60 duels. The Italian knight Fiore dei Liberi was also a fencing master in the 14th century and his students included some of the most ferocious fighting men of the time. Achille Marozzo, on the other hand, is considered the Renaissance sword master.

Early fencers used a dagger in tandem with a sword.

Parrying Dagger with Scabbard
Parrying Dagger with Scabbard – Credits: Met Museum

While some warriors used a buckler with a sword, other fencers utilized a parrying dagger with a rapier. The maingauche or left-handed daggers were common in Spain and southern Italy, as they assisted in defense by parrying enemy thrusts while the right hand wielded a rapier. In the medieval period, the difference between a short sword and a long dagger was unclear. Shorter than a sword, the dagger usually has a blade length of less than 30 centimeters.

Historical sword fighting also involved kicks and grappling techniques.

Historical sword fighting book
Historical sword fighting book – Credits: Wiki Media

In the medieval period, swordsmen used their feet for combat and grappled their enemy’s weapon during a sword fight. It is evident in martial arts treatises like The Flower of Battle by fencing master Fiore dei Liberi. In the German fencing school, the Johannes Liechtenauer tradition also depicts the usage of kicks during longsword combat.

Sword fighting remains a popular theme in films and television series.

Television series like the Vikings, Game of Thrones, and The Witcher feature several sword-fighting scenes which sparked interest in historical swordsmanship. Classic actors like Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn are renowned for their wildly intense sword fights. In the Star Wars film series, the Jedi warriors use a special sword called a lightsaber in combat. Some video games like Dungeons and Dragons also get people interested in the idea of swords.

What Makes a Sword Fight Historically Accurate?

Television and films often misrepresent the reality of sword fighting. Most depictions do not portray how historical warriors fought and how they used their swords in specific periods.

Here are some of the things a skilled warrior would do in a sword fight:

Swordsmen Would Move Fluidly and Maintain Proper Distance

Unlike modern fencers that move in a straight line, historical swordsmen tended to move around to create opportunity to attack. When sparring, skilled fighters strike from a distance that is not too far from their targets. In some sword fighting scenes in films, many lean forward for extra reach, indicating that they are fighting too far from their opponents.

Historical Sword Fights Between Skilled Warriors Were not Flashy

Theatrical fencers and stage combatants are not required to present things accurately, so they tend to create an illusion of flashy sword fighting for entertainment. However, sword fights between historical fighters are not necessarily exciting to watch. They intended to end combat as quickly as possible. So, their movements were often subtle, short, and intense, to the point that one may have difficulty following the motion of each strike.

Skilled Swordsmen Do Not Spin During Sword Fights

According to experts, spinning does not add extra power to a sword strike, not to mention that it would also leave one’s back as a vulnerable target. When two skilled swordsmen engage in combat, one of them will quickly take advantage of opening or counter an attack. Hence, spinning will only give an opponent a chance to defeat you.

Swordsmen Attack Their Opponents Rather Than Their Opponent’s Sword

Historical swordsmen were often unpredictable in delivering an attack. Their attacks are usually followed by another strike to end the fight. On the other hand, inexperienced fighters usually use their swords to defend themselves, holding them in their front or using them for edge-on-edge blocking if their opponent suddenly strikes them.

In The Middle Ages, Warriors Did not Use Edge-On-Edge Blocking

For medieval slashing swords, blocking the attack through the sharpened edge damages the weapon. Medieval and Renaissance fighting manuals teach swordsmen to defend by receiving the blows on the flat portion of the sword blade. Some would also counterstrike or displace the upcoming weapon.

HEMA vs. Olympic Fencing

HEMA focuses on reconstructing historical techniques rather than simply scoring points. It also recreates many combat conditions swordsmen would likely experience on the battlefield. Some HEMA practitioners also focus on the fighting methods of the Roman gladiators, infantry, and mounted combat.

On the other hand, Olympic fencing does not include the historical techniques the swordsmen used in fighting life-or-death battles. Modern fencers use weapon simulators like foil, épée, or saber that are less historically accurate than the swords used in HEMA. Also, the rules in the competition are not designed to replicate real sword fights.

In Olympic fencing, fencers fight on the piste, a rectangular platform. In HEMA tournaments, fighters can circle one another during a match, creating a more realistic environment. Hence, Olympic fencing has little resemblance to the original traditions it descends from.

HEMA vs. Stage Fencing

Stage fencing is developed for theater plays, television series, and movies. In stage combat, sword fighting is rehearsed and coordinated to entertain people. Unlike HEMA which focuses on historical practices, stage fencing is often visually impressive and flashy. Also, HEMA is not part of historical reenactment and live-action role-playing games or LARP, though martial artists may also engage in the said activities.

Conclusion

Today, martial artists practice different types of sword fighting around the world. In HEMA, they use medieval and Renaissance swords, while in Olympic fencing, modern fencers utilize the epee, foil, and saber. The samurai sword katana remains significant in Japanese martial arts, especially in kenjutsu and kendo.

Sources Cited

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