Monday, 6 January 2014

Swashbuckling Duels - a look at the realism of sword fighting in Historical Fiction

"Säbelmensur" - painting by Georg Mühlberg (1863-1925)
Picture this: two characters – hero and antagonist – finally meet on the beach. Both are accomplished sword fighters. A duel ensues. Swords strike, they chase each other up and down, steel clangs, sweat pours… you get the idea. For a moment it seems the antagonist will win until the hero punches the antagonist in the teeth. Sound plausible? Well it isn’t… not at all. If the hero had managed to get that close two things would have happened before he landed that punch. One: the antagonist would skewer him. Two: he’d skewer the antagonist – or possibly they’d skewer each other.

This punch to the teeth was a scene I recently read in some half-decent Historical Fiction set around the same time as my own project covering the subject of pirates, and if the double death had occurred it would have stopped the sequel being published by one of the major publishing houses…

Being a writer of Historical Fiction takes a lot meticulous research, and I have great respect for all my fellow authors in the genre. Getting it right is not just a case of knowing dates and the more common anachronisms – it’s ensuring every tiny detail is correct from type of confectionary to common insults to clothing and musical tastes of the period. Most authors do amazingly manage to get this right. We spend hours reading around our subject, poring over sources, visiting the sites of the battles we describe; yet when it comes down to the actual physical confrontations (an inevitability in Historical Fiction) some sorely miss the mark… and there’s no excuse, if someone can research the authentic colour of carrots in the 16th century (purple, yellow and white by the way), how can they get something as basic as the core of their action incorrect?


Okay. Take a look at these two illustrations. The one above shows the man on the left parrying and moving out of range of his opponent. Note the distance here please, between each of their front feet. There is no way these fellows could punch each other.

This second is from Capo Ferro’s rapier and dagger treatise – he’s arguably the father of fighting with a pointy stick. Out of context it’s difficult to tell who is attacking and who is defending, but they are within range of each other, the fellow on the right has been stabbed – Oh! And look! They STILL haven’t closed enough room to punch each other!

The original point (har har) of fencing is to be successful at sticking the point of your sword into someone’s flesh whilst stopping your opponent from doing the same to you.

If you have never fenced or performed in any sort of martial art before, I want you to imagine yourself to have a metre length pointy stick in your hand and that you are going to poke someone with it. Hold it at arm’s length. That’s quite a reach you have. The problem is the person you want to poke has a pointy stick too, and they are also holding it at arm’s length. The distance between you is now vast – too far for any such capers as a punch.

If you step forward your opponent’s stick will poke you – likewise if they step towards you. If they step forward, you must either step back too, or move their pointy stick aside to poke them with your own. Knowing when to move back and when to stay put and riposte is the very core of fencing. This basic footwork is crucial for understanding any sort of martial art, and something Bruce Lee took very seriously – in fact, he even used the European fencing footwork in his own martial art Jeet Kune Do.

I am a Karate-ka, I have studied the style of Anshin-Ryu since I was a child and I was taught all about these different spacings in a very similar way to modern fencing. But in Karate it’s not just about being in or out of range of the pointy stick. When you move towards an opponent, the first range you have is legs. It’s the greatest reach of your body. Once you have moved past the legs, you are in fist and low-kicks to the shins and knee range. Beyond that and you are close enough to lock, grapple, bite (frowned upon), head butt (also frowned upon), elbow (acceptable!) and roll around the floor (acceptable depending upon your relationship status).


When martial artists spar empty-handed they are constantly moving through these three circles of distance – all with the use of footwork, shifting back and forward – long steps, short steps. But when you are holding a pointy stick you have more than doubled your reach. Your opponent will want to stay beyond your pointy stick and will have no opportunity for such craziness as a punch.

So where did this come from? Why do scores of swordfights and duels in Historical Fiction utilise inappropriate spins, punches, kicks – even head butts? You probably know the answer already – Hollywood. Why let the truth get in the way of a good film?

There are plenty of unrealistic sword fights in Hollywood, and I’m sure you can find thousands of posts about them elsewhere, but there are also some cracking authentic ones too. Off the top of my head look for the musketeer films of the 1970s with Oliver Reed. The same choreographer was used for Rob Roy – another great sword fight.

I am fortunate enough with my experience to know good and realistic fight scenes in books from the fantastical and inaccurate. I have to ask myself if I can forgive my fellow authors for not having the same knowledge that I possess, and sometimes I struggle. I find this nothing but laziness from people who are on the whole, wonderful researchers. Why should sword combat be any different?

A shameless advertisement now, but if swashbuckling duels are your thing you could do far worse than checking out my debut novel ROGUES’ NEST (paperback & kindle).

This post is dedicated to the Bernard Cornwell’s of the world – those meticulous academics that win by telling a cracking story and for their authenticity when it comes to cold steel and bloodshed...