Sword fighting 101

If you are under 13 you should not practice any of the drills involving a sword-like implement without adult supervision, in fact I wouldn’t recommend anyone do said exercises without the consent of their parent or guardian.

There are many methods that may be used to learn and practice swordsmanship. This is one of the first I have learned. Before I begin, I should state that I do not know all there is to swordsmanship and have only learned from experience and a very small amount of training. If you disagree with my advice or feel I am not explaining properly, I urge you to purchase a book on swordsmanship or consult a sword master.

Step 1: Unarmed Practice

Before you begin practicing with a sword-like implement (wooden poles, bamboo, boffer swords, etc.) I would suggest practicing some basics.

Drill 1: The Stance

I would recommend using a horseman’s stance. Stand with your right foot forward with your toes pointing forward (left foot if you are left handed) and your left foot back. Your left foot should be at a 90 degree angle to your right foot. Keep your feet at a comfortable distance from each other. They should be wide enough that you are stable but not so far apart that it is hard to move. Be sure to bend your knees and put your weight on your toes, not your heels. Practice this position until you are relatively comfortable with it. Remember, if you are not comfortable with your fighting stance, it will act as a distraction.

Drill 2: Movement

For this drill, begin in your horseman’s stance. First, practice moving forward and back. To do this, step forward with your forward foot and pull your back foot forward. To move backward, step back with your back foot and pull your front foot back. Always move the foot in the direction you are going first (i.e. front foot first for forward motion) and remember not to step too far and overextend yourself. Also, be sure to maintain a good stance after each movement.

Next, try moving side to side. Use the same basic principles discussed in the forward-backward motion drill, but apply it to left and right motion. Remember to step with the foot in the direction you wish to go (left foot first for leftward motion).

Once you get the hang of that, mix the movements up some. I recommend working with a partner and having one person call out the movements while the other carries them out. Or, if you prefer, you could practice with a mirror drill, where one person moves and the other follows, always staying in front of the opponent.

Always remember the basics, and be sure not to cross your feet. If you cross your feet or bring them too close to each other, you will lose balance and could even fall over. Keep your knees bent, stay relatively low, and your weight on your toes. I know it is difficult to maintain this position but with time and practice your legs will get stronger and you will be able to stay in this stance longer and more easily.

As you grow confident you can practice circling with a partner, just use the same basic steps and follow a circle pattern always facing each other.

Drill 3: Attack Speed

This is a simple yet difficult drill. What I mean is it is simple to learn but difficult to master.

First, take an ordinary piece of paper towel and wad it up into a ball. Next, hold it over your head with your dominant hand (the one you will hold the sword with) and let the ball roll off of your fingertips and fall behind you. Quickly swing your hand down like you would swing a sword and catch the ball. You may not be able to do it on the first try, but if you practice enough you will be able to do it in time. I am sorry if this is difficult to understand, it is somewhat hard to explain without being able to demonstrate.

Step 2: Armed Practice without a Partner

Now that you have practiced the basic movements it is time to apply the weapon element. I would not recommend fighting or even practicing with a partner until you are confident with your abilities with a weapon. Even though a well trained expert is dangerous in battle, an untrained novice is even more dangerous in practice.

Choose an implement that you are comfortable holding, a short wooden pole, a stick, or even a cane. It is important that you choose a weapon that is not too heavy or large otherwise it will be cumbersome and difficult to use effectively.

Drill 1: Grip

Now that you have chosen a weapon, let us explore your grip. I will explain for a one handed weapon, since it is simpler. For a two handed weapon, the basic principles are the same, but you will need to incorporate the second hand.

First, you should not grip your weapon too tightly, like a baseball bat. You should hold it securely enough so it doesn’t fly out of your hand, but not so tight that it doesn’t move in your hand. I recommend gripping with your index finger and thumb and using the remaining fingers for additional control. Explore this grip by holding the sword and moving it around in your hand. Swing it around a little, try a few basic attacks. Don’t get to wild though; you may end up hurting yourself. ;)

Drill 2: The Ready Position

Now incorporate the weapon into your stance. Begin with a good horseman’s stance. Now hold the sword in your dominant hand and hold it over your dominant shoulder. The sword should not be resting on your shoulder but should be hovering above. Your upper arm should be parallel to the ground with your elbow at shoulder level, slightly to the outside of the shoulder. Practice your movement drills with your weapon in this position until you grow confident in it.

Drill 3: Attacking

First let’s look at the basic attack. Begin in your ready position with a good stance. Now, simply extend your arm, keeping your upper arm parallel to the ground (as in your ready position). Once you arm is extended, bend your wrist to bring the sword down onto what would be your opponents head if you were facing an opponent. When doing this, tighten your grip so that you provide a firm hit. Remember to keep your grip relatively loose until you start bending your wrist. This motion should be quick and as soon as you complete this motion bring your arm back to the ready position. The overall motion should be quick like a cobra strike. To add a little more power, turn your torso some, but not too much, during this motion.

Other attacks should follow the same basic principles. Extend the arm, bend the wrist, and tighten your grip as you strike. Of course, you should not follow this pattern too rigidly, allow your movements to flow, and if one attack is blocked use the rebound of your weapon to gain momentum for another attack from a different angle.

Practice these attacks and others against the air, until you feel confident.

Drill 4: Accuracy

For this exercise, you will need an object to practice against. I recommend a wooden pole or tree. Be sure, if you choose a tree, not to be using an implement that will harm it, trees have feelings too. Choose a point on your target, I recommend a spot that is about at the level of your opponent’s head. Now, practice striking that spot using various attacks. Remember to incorporate stabs, slashes and chops into this from varying angles. Continue until you can hit the point consistently and then try other points lower on the target (or higher if you were initially aiming low).

Drill 5: Feint Attacks

One important tool a swordsman employs is deception. It is useful to mislead your opponent to think you are attacking when you really aren’t. Practice this without a partner to start. Begin from your ready position. Now, swing around where you opponent would be and aim at the legs. Do NOT hit the legs, but follow through, continuing your circular motion and strike where the opponents head would be. This technique, when done properly, will draw the opponent’s guard downward and leave their head vulnerable.

Step 3: Armed Practice with a Partner

Now let’s try a few drills with a partner.

CAUTION: This is a very dangerous practice; DO NOT practice with a partner unless you are both equipped with the proper safety measures. Wear helmets and armor. If you are using boffer weapons, a hockey helmet, elbow and knee pads, gloves and a cup should be sufficient, though I would strongly recommend neck protection. If you are using rattan, bamboo or any type of wood or metal, I strongly recommend using steel armor. I would NOT recommend using metal weapons AT ALL at this stage. I don’t even use wood weapons yet and if you are taking lessons from me, you have no business with a steel or aluminum sword. But if you ignore that warning, please, wear helmets, a breastplate, elbow and knee cops, heavy gloves or gauntlets, and a gorget or coif. PLEASE, if you cannot protect yourself and your partner sufficiently, DO NOT continue. Safety is the most important part of swordplay.

Drill 1: Attack-Defend

This drill is mainly to work on defense. Begin by facing each other in good ready positions. Designate which of you is the attacker and which is the defender. The attacker will attack in a pattern. For example: attack to the head from the right, attack the torso from the left, attack the torso from the right, and attack the head from the left. The attacker will attack in this pattern or one of your choosing, and the defender will defend him/herself. After the attacker finishes one round of the pattern (i.e. all for strikes described above) you should change roles, the attacker becomes the defender and vice versa.

Take this drill slow at first, and as you gain confidence speed it up some. It is ok to take your time; no one becomes a sword master in a day. When you gain enough confidence, try adding some motion to it, either forward-backward or circling.

Drill 2: Dodging

Sometimes it is better to not touch your opponent’s weapon at all. If you dodge his/her attack, your opponent may become unbalanced, giving you an advantage and an opportunity to strike.

To practice dodging, only one of the combatants needs a weapon. The attacker simply makes strikes at the dodger and the dodger avoids being hit. To dodge attacks from above, side stepping works best. Simply step to the side opposite of the side the strike favors. Blows to the head from the side can be avoided by ducking and other blows to the side may be avoided by simply stepping back. Simple right? Start out slow and speed up as you gain confidence.

During this drill you have no defense but your own reflexes, so I cannot stress enough the importance of armor. PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT WITHOUT THE PROPER PROTECTION.

Drill 3: Black Knight Battle

This drill is a tribute to Monty Python, really. The object of this drill is to dismember your opponent (NOT LITERALLY). To remove a limb, simply strike the limb with your weapon with the striking edge (I recommend using a strip of red duct tape to designate the edge of your choice of weapon). The combatant who removes the arms and legs of his foe first wins.

For this drill, there are different sets of rules you can use. I prefer it if the black knight can use the limbs that have already been cut off, simply for the sake of competition. However, if you really want to stay accurate, you can rule that the black knight is not allowed to use the limbs he/she has lost.

Even though, the head is not a target in this drill, WEAR A HELMET! I have seen to many accidents where people thought they could pull off this drill without a helm and almost lost an eye in the process.

Final Thoughts

Safety: Again, I cannot stress enough; this is an art meant to KILL people. Even if you are not practicing with live steel you can still cause serious injury and in extreme cases death. If you don’t respect it enough to wear the appropriate armor, do not participate.

Weapon choice: If you have no prior sword fighting experience, I would recommend using a boffer sword, which is essentially PVC pipe covered in padding. I have produced instructions on how to construct one, please see How to make a safe sword for fighting in the Blacksmithing section.

Good ways to lose a battle: There are a lot of things we see in movies that look really cool on film but almost never work in battle. Case in point is the popular spin move. My advice is to never turn your back on the opponent. As soon as you do, odds are they will kill you. I am certainly not good enough to accomplish this, and if you are taking advice from me, odds are you aren’t either.

Armor: If you are using wooden or metal weapons (again NOT recommended) I strongly recommend steel armor, preferably 16 gauge or thicker. I recommend wearing full armor to minimize any damage that may occur. Some of you may be thinking “But Thal in movies they go without armor all the time.” True, but those are movies, the actors are trained not to hit each other, they are being supervised by a professional sword master and medical personnel, and most of the time they are fighting they are far enough apart that they can’t hit each other. Besides, they are depicting wartime fighting where the speed gained by using less armor could provide a crucial advantage. But you are not practicing wartime fighting and should be more concerned with protecting yourself and your partner than running them through.

Injury: This is a rough sport, bumps and bruises are bound to occur, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore safety. Wear as much safety gear as is needed and more, but don’t be surprised if you get a bunch of bruises and sore joints. Also, even using boffur weapons, you could injure yourself badly if you get a good hit to a joint. Protect your joints. If you have a history of bad knees, wear a brace as well as knee protection. Protect your hands, odds are, this is where you will get the most injuries.

When to spar: In driver’s education, they teach you not to drive angry. The same is true for sword fighting. When you are angry your judgment is impaired and you may end up doing something you regret. This is not a form of anger management. Also, don’t fight under the influence of alcohol.

Where to spar: Spar in a place with lots of room for motion and plenty of room above your head. Don’t fight in your living room or someplace where there are a lot of breakables. If you have a spacious back yard that would be a good place. A park or a gymnasium would also work. Just be sure you are not breaking any rules by sparing there and make sure you are in an area with few people.

Supervision: If you are under 18, I recommend adult supervision when practicing with a partner, and even if you are over 18, it is still a good idea to have a referee of sorts to keep an eye on you and make sure you don’t harm yourself, your partner, or people around you. When fighting you can become so focused that you may not notice the 4 year old walking up behind you, or the park bench you are about to trip over.

Safety: Again, I cannot stress enough; this is an art meant to KILL people. Even if you are not practicing with live steel you can still cause serious injury and in extreme cases death. If you don’t respect it enough to wear the appropriate armor, do not participate. (I know this is a repeat, but I am not kidding) I have been involved in several situations where people nearly experienced serious injury because they either forgot to put on their armor or they didn’t have proper protection.

Thank you for reading and please, use common sense when practicing. We don’t want anyone to get seriously hurt. Sword fighting can be a lot of fun when practiced responsibly.

Enjoy! ;)

Written by Thalianost