This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”, check out this article by writer Morgan Morrow on Sword Fighting.
by Morgan Morrow
A love of Swords
I’ve always loved stories featuring heroes wielding swords. That love eventually resulted in my finding and joining a dojo that teaches a school of kenjutsu dating back to the warring states period in Japan.
My years of practice have given me an insight into sword fighting that I think is fairly uncommon in this day and age. My experience is limited to the katana, but I feel like much of it could apply to other swords and other fighting styles as well.
Using a sword
Firstly, swords are generally expensive weapons and they are not indestructible. Trying to cut through someone’s sword is unrealistic, but hitting it broadside and shattering the blade is not.
Throwing a sword would be a last resort only for the most desperate of situations, because not only would you lose your weapon the blade may well shatter or bend upon impact.
The blade is not the only part of a sword that can be used to attack. The hilt can be used for offense; to hit the enemy in the face, solar plexus, or groin. It can also be used to defend against an attack that is coming too quickly to get the blade in front of.
For added realism, it’s important to remember that most swords, if not secured in the sheath, can slide out when the wearer leans forward.
Keeping one hand on the hilt and sheath to secure the blade is oftentimes necessary. It is not unheard of for someone to lean forward, have their sword begin to slide out, and then grasp the blade to stop it. This is not a good idea and will usually result in stitches.
Moving on to the importance of experience levels. Having been a beginner standing in front of advanced students, I can say with certainty that a novice will not be able to defeat an expert.
It’s not just a matter of speed and technique, the years of experience that go into that expertise allow a person to see and sense openings that a beginner has absolutely no awareness of.
Most people who are unused to fighting will walk right into a weapon aimed at them. I know, because I’ve done it.
I’ve actually been on both sides of that move, more than once. If your story requires a beginner to defeat an expert, the expert needs to be very careless or the beginner needs help.
I mentioned openings, learning how to detect openings in your enemy’s defense – and knowing when you are open to attacks – is quite possibly the most important part of learning to use a sword.
It takes years of practice to develop, although people learning in an environment where hitting is permissible do tend to pick it up faster. Remembered pain definitely makes one more aware of when they’re going to get hit. Another lesson I’ve learned first hand.
Openings tie into range, or maai; the distance at which one is able to effectively attack their opponent.
If you are too far away you cannot reach them and everything you do is meaningless.
If you are too close you can’t bring your weapon to bear and therefore are unable to attack effectively.
The ideal range shifts depending on a person’s reach, the length of their weapon, and how they are holding their body. Simply shifting one’s weight from the back foot to the front foot is sometimes enough to move into of range.
Another important thing to learn is that every time you attack you will leave yourself open to a counter attack.
When you attack you need to be aware of the vulnerabilities you are creating in your own defense. Every offensive move should be usable for defense, and every defensive move should be able to turn into an attack.
The other thing an expert needs to develop is the ability to remain calm. Emotion and extraneous thoughts can be crippling in a duel. Fear will kill you and anger will make you careless.
Retreating allows your opponent to walk all over you, but being too aggressive leaves you open to attack. Staying centered and not allowing your opponent to push you off balance in any way is vitally important.
One of the most striking things I’ve discovered in my years of training is how subtle fighting with a sword really is. There is no need to cut off limbs or heads, a relatively small cut to a tendon or artery is enough to end the fight.
The smallest push can tell your opponent what you’re going to do and give them the advantage they need to win.
Blinking or stepping on something unexpected at the wrong time can mean death. The smallest mistake can result in defeat.
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About Morgan Morrow
Morgan Morrow is a writer with a lifelong love for swords and martial arts, as well as history, folklore, and fantasy of all kinds.
I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions for Morgan, drop them in the comments below.
Do you have knowledge of a skill or occupation you could write about?
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