Swordsmanship for Dummies, Part III: Distance! Distance! Distance!

This is number three in a continuing series where I offer insights for writing scenes involving swordplay gleaned from my ten years (off and on) of studying

An example of an engagement in Zone 2. Each fighter can easily attack the other. Neither can stay in Zone 2 without being exposed.

kendo–Japanese fencing.  My goal in these posts is to explain some of the realities of fighting with swords that most people looking in from the outside simply don’t understand.  I hope thereby provide people with the tools to craft more intelligent, mature battle scenes.

If by chance you happen to be a serious kenshi, please go here and read my disclaimer about my rank and the spirit in which I’m undertaking these posts.

One other quick disclaimer for the week:  I’ve been sick since Monday and I’m still not over it.  So, I apologize if this post isn’t as coherent as it could be.  :T

Today I would like to address another important aspect of swordsmanship that most people never think about:  Distance.  Distance (and the ability to judge it accurately) is absolutely key to any fighter who wishes to stay alive, and, in many ways, people who quickly grasp this concept can compensate for a myriad of other technical, tactical, and strategic failings.  In short, good fighters are able to judge the distance between themselves and their opponents with precision; they must know at exactly when they can hit their opponent, without getting close enough for their opponent to hit them.  That is a much surer way of staying alive than blocking.

Most Americans never give distance as much thought as they should in general.  Testimony to this can be found in the shattered glass on the side of every U.S. highway.  The same is true of our conception of swordplay.  Generally, our imaginative combatants just wander up to each other and start hacking away, and we expect that from then on it will simply be a question of technique and speed.  Eventually someone will miss a block and that person will be the loser.  This is especially true of the Star Wars movies, where the fighters spend most of their time within two feet of each other, even though their swords are three feet long.  Also take, for example, the famous “Ryan v/s Dorkman” fan video here.  They are  so close together that they’re actually having to hold their swords at a very sharp angle so as not to touch each other prematurely.

As with other points we’ve talked about, it can be visually engaging, but would also be a good way to get killed.  Just remember:  Every inch of a sword can kill, and the farther out the blade you are the more force your strike will have.


Zones of Attack and Defense in Kendo. Yes, that's a "red zone" for all you football fans.

In kendo, we learned that there are three basic zones in combat (bear in mind that this is my translation).*  Zone 1 is outside an opponent’s effective range.  You’ll notice in the illustration at left that the left-hand kenshi’s entire body is in this zone, though his sword isn’t.  Zone 2 takes in all of the right-hand kenshi’s attack range, and if the first kenshi steps inside it, he can be attacked at any time (see the image above).  Zone 3 is right on top of the right-hand swordsman, and if the left-hand kendoka can penetrate to the point where his body breaks into that zone, neither one’s weapons will be very effective.**  This usually ends in what we dumb Americans might call a “clinch,” but is properly known as tsuba zeriai.  Unlike the examples given above, where Obi Wan, Qui Gon, Darth Maul, Ryan, and Dorkman spend all of their time in Zone 2, experienced fighters live in Zones 1 and 3, entering Zone 2 only when necessary.  You’ll notice that is the case in this video.  Each fighter is ducking in and out of Zone 2, and generally spending as little time inside it as possible.

The reason for this is simple:  If you stand within range of your opponent’s blade long enough, eventually he/she is going to get in a good shot.  To stay there is, to a certain extent, to play Russian Roulette with swords.  You may get lucky and be the one to break through first.  On the other hand, you may be the one who dies.

Essentially, the only reason why a good swordsman will be in Zone 2 is to launch an attack.  If you are attacking effectively, your opponent cannot counter attack.  So, ideally, your attack motion should begin in Zone 1, pass through Zone 2 as briefly as possible, and then exit quickly into Zone 3 or back into Zone 1 one before your opponent recovers.  In kendo, this takes the form of either running past your opponent back into Zone 1 or ending up in tsuba zeriai with him/her in Zone 3.

The very best fighters will hover right on the verge between Zones 1 and 2.  They are such astute judges of distance that they know precisely where their opponents can and cannot attack.  They stay just close enough to take advantage of their enemies mistakes, but are always just out of reach.  When they must move into Zone 2, they do so with such explosive power that their opponents can only react to them, and then they pass back out of Zone 2 before there is any chance for their enemies to recover and counter attack.  In that way, they remain in control of the initiative and therefore of the fight.***

So how does this apply to writing a realistic sword fight?  Your intelligent characters will need to be intensely aware of these zones and they will act different during the fight depending on what zone they happen to find themselves in.  If you’re writing a character that doesn’t understand any of this, then he/she should either pay for that ignorance or you should come up with a believable reason why not.

  • Zone 1:  Most fighters will do whatever it takes to stay in Zone 1 unless they are actively attacking.  There are various ways of accomplishing this–backpedaling away when attacked, moving to one side of the other and allowing an opponent to pass, thrusting a sword out in front as a way of keeping their opponent back.   The basic idea is simple:  the best place for your characters to be is a place where they cannot be hit.  After all, they might always miss a block.  The key is for them to determine what their opponent’s attack range is and then stay just outside of it.
  • Zone 2:  Put simply, the only reason why your characters should be in Zone 2 is because they are actively attacking an opponent.  There’s no other reason to be there, unless perhaps they happen to like being a target.  Why not go ahead and paint a bulls-eye on their heads while you’re at it?
  • Zone 3:  This zone is a bit murky for our purposes in fantasy writing.  From the perspective of kendo, it is generally a safe zone since it is almost impossible

    An example of a Zone 3 engagement.

    to score a legal point while that close.  Fighters  have to shove their opponents away and/or jump back in order to get far enough into Zone 2 to score with good form.  Since that isn’t necessarily a consideration for your characters, here are a few points to bear in mind:

    • First, any weapons used to engage at that distance must be appropriately short to allow for proper use of force.  You generally won’t get much use out of a katana, broadsword, or saber in Zone 3 and something like a foil would be absolutely useless.  Daggers, wakisashis, pommels, fists, knees, elbows, etc. would all work fine, though.  In fact, if your characters enter Zone 3, they should already be making plans to get back out of it or be ready to abandon their long swords in favor of something more appropriate.  One of the biggest mistakes they could make would be to cling to their swords in Zone 3 when facing an enemy armed with daggers.
    • Second, any use of a sword in these close quarters should take leverage (or the lack thereof) into account.  Swords will of course still cut in Zone 3, but the huge, slicing strikes that  might take off an arm, leg, or head will be generally impossible.  A sword fight in Zone 3 would no doubt get very bloody, but it would  also be, over all, less deadly.

Anyway, those are some thoughts for the week.  Let me know what your thoughts on it are.  Have you ever even tried to take distance into account in your own writing?  What are some other bad (and good) examples you might have come across?

*For kendo’s scoring rules, this is actually denoted on the shinai (the bamboo practice sword) itself.  Only points scored with the last third of the “blade”–the space between the tip and a leather wrap–can count.

**This obviously precludes fighting with daggers, but that’s another topic.  We’re talking about swords, and–apart from a few special cuts–swords need leverage to work.  That is especially true of swords that kill primarily by thrusting.

***This also hints at another key point I may cover later:  The need for explosive legwork that let’s you project power farther than your opponent.  if your Zone 2 is bigger than your opponent’s, you can hit him before he can hit you.  This also points to the difference your equipment can make.  If your sword is longer than your opponents and you can handle it well, you have the advantage…enter some of the stories concerning Musashi Myamoto.