Monday, September 6, 2010

Sword Fighting Techniques Through the Ages -- Part 2

Last week I blogged on the demo on sword fighting I saw at the RWNZ conference. There was a heap of info, so I focused on what I learned about watching fighters using techniques from the Saxon and Viking periods (700-1100 AD.) Today’s topic is the next hunk of sword fighting history – the age of plate armor.

Plate armor appeared in the late 13th century. Nic Harrison, who’s one of NZ’s guru’s on authentic sword fighting (among other things he was the technical advisor for Lord of the Rings), said that plate armor was developed as a response to guns. I’ve heard elsewhere it was developed to protect knights from crossbows.  Nic showed us the tiny dent in a breastplate and explained it was the armorer's "proof of quality".  To test the strength of a piece of armor, the armorer would set it up and fire a bullet at it.  If the bullet went through, the armor got melted down and the metal reused.

I’m wondering, though, considering the power of the swords at the time, whether the move to plate armor might just be a better way to protect yourself from your opponent’s sword. Remember I said in my last blog that the blade of a sword of that period was designed to cut. It couldn’t do that through chain mail, but the power of the blow could crush and create internal injuries. Well, as Nic showed us, a powerful blow to plate armor generally just bounces off. There’s no bruising, as the plate spreads the force of the blow. At this point, knights stopped using shields, as the plate was the shield.

There area a few vulnerable places, though. One of them is the plate of armor designed to protect the knee. A sideways whack to that could create a dent that would immobilize the knee mechanism, so your opponent’s knee wouldn’t bend. There were also various “cracks” in the armor – places where one plate joined another. These remained vulnerable.

King Ludwig III wearing prominent poleyns -- knee armor.  A
blow to the side of the knee would lock the knee.
With two knights plated up like that, the encounter could last longer. But plate armor is a lot heavier than chain mail, so its weight would have tired you out.

To damage a person, you had to get in close and “command his sword”. You could do this by hooking it with your sword, your arm or your elbow. The idea was to immobilize it while you got in with your sword.

Using a sword to block a blow.

Blows got more sophisticated, too. One of the things that surprised me was how a knight would actually place his hands on his own blade to direct it. For example, one of the vulnerable spots is at the base of the neck, at the top of the chest plate. A knight might get in close to his opponent, hold his sword by one or two hands on the blade, (rather than both hands on the hilt), and use the lower hand to direct the tip of his blade into the crack between the top of the chest plate and his opponents neck. The upper hand would add strength to the blow, driving the sword down into the enemy’s lungs.

Another effective blow was what the Germans called the “murder stroke”. In this the knight held the sword by the blade. The left hand held the tip, the right was positioned half way up the blade. The hilt was in the air, with no hands on it at all. This effectively turned the half of the blade near the hilt into a club, and that’s exactly how it was used. The fighter would push the hilt forward in an arc towards his opponent’s head and bring it down through the middle of his skull or use it to hook him.

The knight on the right is moving in for a murder stroke.

Here his opponent uses the middle of his longsword to block the blow.

Italians were known for a type of stroke that used the pommel (end of the hilt) of the sword. The knight held his sword with both hands – one on the hilt, the other towards the tip. As his opponent slashed at him, his blocked his opponent’s blow by catching it with the middle of his sword. He then heaved his opponent’s sword aside and at the same time stepped to the left, “inside” his opponent’s reach. As he stepped to the left, he brought the pommel of his sword up into the fragile area under the opponent’s chin.

A smaller opponent would try to go for his opponent’s legs, especially the knee. Tall fighters learned to “defend low”.

I’ve been talking a lot about fighters holding their blades in their hands. Yes, they still didn’t wear gloves. And, yes, the things could cut your fingers off. Nic said the trick was how you held your sword. You never gripped it hard. Instead, according to the treatises on sword fighting from that period, you “hold your sword as if it were a bird.” Blows are “thrown”, not chopped.

Also, when you held your sword, you never wrapped your hand around it the way you would an ice cream cone. If you did, a yank from your opponent would cut your fingers off. Instead, you held it with your fingers curled over one edge of the blade, and your thumb stretched along the side of the other edge. With this kind of grip, an opponent cannot pull the sword from you hand.

When it came to the actual encounter, there was still a lot of posturing and moving around to get into position. Eighty percent of the fight is footwork. The two knights were trying to get each other to expose a vulnerable spot. Once one of those was exposed, they moved fast, attempting to take command of the enemy’s weapon, thrust it out of the way and thrust their own blade into a “keyhole” in the opponent’s armor.

By the fifteen century the long sword appeared. The long sword was the first weapon that could both defend and attack. The concept of “garde” was everything. It meant the potential to attack and defend, and basically was built around footwork and balance. You wanted to keep your weight centered. A lot of the blows were aimed at the face.

Thanks to the laws of physics, long swords had a lot of power behind them. So you didn’t try to block a blow from a long sword. But the power came from the arc of the blow and the distance the sword covered through air, which would build its force. Not it’s weight.

People talk about long swords being heavy. Except for ceremonial swords that were never used in battle, they were not. According to Nic, a good weight for a long sword was under 3.5 pounds (about a kilo and a half.) To use the long sword, you had to be fairly acrobatic and needed to be fit.

So what did you watch when you were in a fight and wanted to anticipate your opponent’s move? Nic said, never look at the sword. A good place to look is your opponent’s eyes, as they often give away where their next blow will be aimed. Feet and hands can also signal what an opponent is going to do next.

Next week: Swashbucklers, rapiers and maybe the saber. (Depending on how chatty I get.)


  1. All cool stuff, Vicki. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mercy! I never realized how complicated and intricate sword-fighting actually was. Thanks for breaking it down. Especially, the special "holds" & "lunges". Now I've got a better mental picture and I'm sure it'll help the next time I need to write a sword scene.

  3. Thanks, Miriam and Maeve!

    If you really want detailed info on the types of moves and blows, try the ARMA website listed in the bonus blog post "Sword Fighting References" just before this one.

  4. Great stuff again, Vicky. I wonder if the whole footwork thang is why people still believe you could have these super long Hollywood fights. Aside from the fact that the length builds up tension, of course. ;D

  5. What I saw followed this pattern, no matter what time period:

    -a lot of posturing and repositioning as the two opponents try to sus out each other and find each other's weak points. Could take 10-20 seconds
    -a VERY fast attack, consisting of a blow, defense, and possibly a counter-blow and defense. As soon as someone was hit, they'd back off. Less than 10 seconds. Usually closer to 5.
    -If it was a "killing blow", that was it, game over. If the blow was just a wounding type, or merely a hit, they'd continue, following this pattern. But it seldom went beyond a second attack before someone got "killed".