Swordsmanship for Dummies, VI: How (Not) to Die Pointlessly

Sword Practice, commissioned by "Griddles" from "Bossy Girl" on DeviantArt

This is number six in a continuing series where I offer insights for writing scenes involving swordplay gleaned from my ten years (off and on) of studying traditional 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 kendoka, please go here and read my disclaimer about my rank and the spirit in which I’m undertaking these posts.


This week’s installment was actually inspired not by my experiences with kendo, but rather by reading through the manuscript of a friend’s novel.  While scribbling my notes in the metaphorical margins, a somewhat nitpicky point stood out:  A woman had asked a professional swordsman to teach her swordplay, and both of them assumed that they would use live blades to do it.  When we stop and consider that idea, it’s not as nitpicky a complaint as it may at first seem.  The simple fact is that most cultures avoid using real swords for practice, and they have very good reasons for doing so.  If you want the training sessions in your book or story to be even remotely realistic, you need to take this into account somehow.

Hollywood is notoriously bad about having beginners hack at each other with deadly weapons.  The first example that comes to mind is Star Wars:  Episode 4 in which we see Luke using his father’s lightsaber for one of his first lessons while on the Millennium Falcon.  We can also think of Boromir teaching the hobbits how to handle a blade in Peter Jackson’s version of The Fellowship of the Ring.  If I picked people’s brains, we could probably come up with a dozen examples of this sort of thing from movies and books.  In all cases, what you see is people acting stupid.  There are a number of reasons why people don’t practice with real swords, especially when training beginners.

Reason the First–They don’t want anyone to die (prematurely, at least).  Beginners are 100% guaranteed to do serious damage to someone (most likely themselves) in the process of learning, if they are using real swords.  They haven’t developed any of the skills that they need in order to control the killing force of their blade.  In a previous post I mentioned that good fighters know where their sword is intuitively and move it like a part of their bodies.  Beginners are clueless, and most lose track of what they’re doing.  They drop their weapons, they miss their targets, they trip and fall down on top of their swords, they can hit bystanders, or even lose their grip on the handle (which sends it flying).  It isn’t their fault, per se–in fact it’s perfectly normal.  It’s just that they have to be given time to learn safely .  Generally, it’s only the posers with something to prove who say otherwise.

You're giving this guy a sword that can cut through solid steel!?!?

Beginners with real weapons are, by the way, also a danger to the instructor.  Most good swordsmen are a little predictable in that most of what they do makes sense.  Amateurs are often so wildly unpredictable that they can surprise their instructors and land a solid blow that the instructor didn’t expect, and therefore couldn’t block.  Unfortuantely, this usually isn’t the beginner’s fault either, since they rarely (if ever) do it on purpose.  It’s the instructor’s job to teach the student how to make those kinds of strikes consistently–but he or she also has to live long enough to have the chance.  Kenshin can’t teach much to Yahiko if Yahiko nicks one of Kenshin’s arteries and he bleeds out during the second lesson.

This should be common sense on all levels when learning the art of swordplay.  Whether you are a foot soldier or a prince, you generally need to survive your training if you are going to see combat.  An army that killed most of its recruits in pointless training exercises that involved unnecessary levels of risk would be a small army indeed.  In Star Wars, if we were being at all realistic, Luke would have cut his own leg off during practice, the Death Star would have blown up the rebel base, and that would be that.*

Reason the Second–Practicing with live blades develops very bad habits.  When you’re practicing, you obviously don’t really want to kill your opponent.  You probably don’t even want to seriously injure him or her (though a little pain is always fine).  So, if you are practicing with live blades, you have your characters to do something like pull up short of actually striking an opponent.  They’d swing close to full speed and then stop, just before the sword hits.  Alternatively, like many fantasy writers (including my friend), you have them twist their wrists at the last moment and strike with the flat of the blade.

Remember that one of the key points of repeated practice is to build up instincts and muscle memory so that in combat you will do what you were trained to do in an instant–act without thinking.  Therefore, what you do in practice will tend to be what you do in real life.  In swordplay you do not want to train yourself to hold back.  You go all-out, and cut through your opponent with power.  Training yourself to stop short, then, is a really bad idea.**

Reason the Third–Good swords aren’t cheap.  In Hollywood, they have this wonderful, mystical land called the “Props Department” and in that department they have all sorts of copies of just about everything.  So, I have no doubt that when they were making a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that there were probably plenty of “Green Destiny” swords around.  If Li Mu Bai broke one or he banged it up to the point that it would have taken significant work to fix, he could just call for a prop man to bring him another.

It doesn’t work that way in real life.  When you strike one bladed weapon against another, you do damage to both.  You leave nicks and gouges, the edge is dulled, and in some cases, the sword itself can be shattered or broken.  A good quality weapon costs money, and it may even be a family heirloom, so most people won’t take the risk of practicing with it, blade against blade, when there are other ways of doing things.

Incidentally, there are times when more advanced practitioners may use live blades.  I practiced the kendo katas (click here to watch an example) with my instructor using real swords with real edges for several public demonstrations, but we knew that doing so was very dangerous.  One slip could mean multiple stitches at the very least.  You generally only see this sort of thing in situations where every move of both parties is carefully choreographed (like the katas) and therefore each person knows exactly what the other is going to do.  There’s nothing quite like having to stand perfectly still while the person in front of you stops his razor sharp blade less than an inch from your face!  At the very least, it shows trust and a high opinion of each other’s skills.

An antique kendo bokken

Thankfully, there are ways of practicing safely, and most of them are quite simple.  For centuries, a basic stave, cut down to size and perhaps carved into a replica of a sword (a bokken), served Japanese warriors and others.  Sticks are simple, easily available, and can be even be weighted to be pretty good approximations of the real thing.  Of course, they can also bruise, break bones, and kill; they just do so less often than the real thing.  So, if your character’s civilization is more advanced, you might consider upgrades.  In Japan, the shinai (four bamboo slats held together with leather) was invented for this reason.  The shinai itself absorbs most of a blow, and can be used, full speed, with minimum damage (they do hurt badly and leave massive bruises).  The Japanese went further over time and created the pieces of the kendo armor (bogu) that people know today.  The result?  Kenshi can practice at without holding back, and without seriously injuring each other.  Western fencing of course took its own way towards safety (blunt rubber tips for thrusting weapons, heavy clothing, swords with dull edges forged for practice, and the famous fencing mask).  If the people group you’re writing for has high technology, then you’re limited only by your imagination.  For instance, George Lucas could have gotten Luke out of his quandary by simply noting that he was using a training saber that perhaps stings, but doesn’t burn or cut.  Maybe the power level of Anakin’s old saber could be adjusted.

At any rate, the problem of how to safely practice swordplay is real, and failing to show your characters doing so intelligently is one mark of an amateur.  The fixes are easy, so let’s try to make things a bit more realistic.  🙂


*Why do I see a YouTube video in this somewhere?

**For what this might  be worth, in kendo, since our swords and armor allow for us to attack each other at full speed with a reasonable expectation that we won’t harm each other, we never develop the “hold back” tendency.  I’ve sparred some of the SCA rapier guys on occasion and I usually win not because I’m necessarily that much better in terms of technique, but because they’re worried about hurting each other and so they hold back–I don’t.  (SCA heavy weapons is different thanks to their heavy armor.)

2 thoughts on “Swordsmanship for Dummies, VI: How (Not) to Die Pointlessly

  1. You are so right about Luke Skywalker. In addition, neither he nor any other Jedi is very careful about where the crazy thing is pointed when they turn it on. If you watch any of the light saber scenes carefully in slow motion, you will spot all kinds of appendages that ought to be lying on the floor, but aren’t.

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