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Swordsmanship refers to the skills of a swordsman, a person versed in the art of the sword. The term is modern, and as such was mainly used to refer to smallsword fencing, but by extension it can also be applied to any martial art involving the use of a sword. The formation of the English word "swordsman" is parallel to the Latin word gladiator,[1] a term for the professional fighters who fought against each other and a variety of other foes for the entertainment of spectators in the Roman Empire. The word gladiator itself comes from the Latin word gladius, meaning "sword".[1]



Roman Gladius

Rome provides the foundation for the widespread use of the sword as a weapon in its own right in the West. The Roman legionaries and other forces of the Roman military used the gladius as a short thrusting sword effectively with the scutum, a type of shield, in battle. Gladiators used a shorter gladius than the military. The spatha was a longer double-edged sword initially used only by Roman Cavalry units; however by the 2nd century A.D. the spatha was used throughout much of the Roman Empire. The Empire's legionary soldiers were heavily trained and prided themselves on their disciplinary skills. This probably carried over to their training with weaponry, but we have no Roman manuals of swordsmanship. One translation of Juvenal's poetry by Barten Holyday in 1661 makes note that the Roman trainees learned to fight with the wooden wasters before moving on to the use of sharpened steel. In fact, it is also found that Roman gladiators trained with a wooden sword, which was weighted with lead, against a straw man or a wooden pole known as a palus (an early relative of the later wooden pell).[2] This training would have provided the Roman soldier with a good training in swordsmanship, to be improved upon from practical experience or further advanced training.


Little is known about early medieval fencing techniques save for what may be concluded from archaeological evidence and artistic depiction (see Viking Age arms and armour). What little has been found, however, shows the use of the sword was limited during the Viking age, especially among the Vikings themselves and other northern Germanic tribes. Here, the spear, axe and shield were prominent weapons, with only wealthy individuals owning swords. These weapons, based on the Roman spatha, were made very well. The technique of pattern welding of composite metals provided some of these northern weapons superior properties in strength and resilience to the iron gladius of early Rome.

The MS I.33 manuscript, dated to ca. 1290, shows fencing with the arming sword and the buckler.

As time passed, the spatha evolved into the arming sword, a weapon with a notable cruciform hilt common among knights in the Medieval Age. Some time after this evolution, the earliest known treatises (Fechtbücher) were written, dealing primarily with arming sword and buckler combat. Among these examples is the I.33, the earliest known Fechtbuch. The German school of swordsmanship can trace itself most closely to Johannes Liechtenauer and his students, who later became the German masters of the 15th century, including Sigmund Ringeck, Hans Talhoffer, Peter von Danzig and Paulus Kal. It is possible that the Italian fencing treatise Flos Duellatorum, written by the Italian swordmaster Fiore dei Liberi around 1410, has ties to the German school.[citation needed] During this period of time, the longsword grew out of the arming sword, eventually resulting in a blade comfortably wielded in both hands at once. Armour technology also evolved, leading to the advent of plate armour, and thus swordsmanship was further pressed to meet the demands of killing a very well protected enemy.

For much of the early medieval period, the sword continued to remain a symbol of status. During later years, production techniques became more efficient, and so, while the sword remained a privilege, it was not so heavily confined to only the richest individuals, but rather to the richest classes.


Sabre duel of German students, around 1900, painting by Georg Mühlberg (1863–1925)

The German school of swordsmanship, in general, faced a decline during the Renaissance as the Italian and Spanish schools, which tilted more toward the rapier and civilian dueling, took the forefront. The compendium compiled by Paulus Hector Mair in the 1540s looks back to the preceding century of work and attempts to reconstruct and preserve a failing art. The treatise by Joachim Meyer, dating to the 1570s and notable for its scientific and complete approach to the style (it is suggested that Meyer's students came to him with less military knowledge and therefore required more basic instruction), is the last major account of the German school, and its context is now almost entirely sportive.

The use of the longsword continued to decline throughout the Renaissance period, marked by the increased effectiveness of the arquebus (a firearm) and the use of pike squares as a powerful implement of battle. During this time, civilian swords evolved to side-swords, also known as "cut and thrust" swords, and progressed towards the thicker, tapering sword that eventually became the 17th century rapier. This new weapon was popular for both protection on the street and as a tool in the duel, but found little success on the battlefield. The Italian, French, and Spanish schools embraced this change in civilian armament and developed systems of rapier fencing. The German school, however, provides little on this weapon and ceases its prevalence thereafter.


After the demise of the longsword, the backsword became the last prominent battlefield sword. The backsword was not a new invention, but managed to outlast other forms of war swords, and was last used primarily by cavalry units and officers. The power, accuracy, and reliability of firearms continued to improve, however, and soon swords had little place on the battlefield aside from ceremonial purposes. The preferred civilian dueling weapon shifted from the rapier to the faster but shorter smallsword, and eventually shifted totally away from swords to the pistol, following developments in firearm technology. The civilian affair of dueling was banned in most areas, but persisted to some degree regardless of law until well into the 19th century.

Sport fencing

The need to train swordsmen for combat in a nonlethal manner led fencing and swordsmanship to include a sport aspect from its beginnings, from before the medieval tournament right up to the modern age.[3] In the mid-18th century, Domenico Angelo's fencing academy in England established the essential rules of posture and footwork that still govern modern sport fencing, although his attacking and parrying methods were still much different from current practice. Angelo intended to prepare his students for real combat, and did not use masks, but he was the most prominent fencing master yet to emphasize the health and sporting benefits of fencing more than its use as a killing art, particularly in his influential book The School of Fencing. As fencing progressed, the combat aspect slowly faded until only the rules of the sport remained. While the fencing taught in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was intended to serve both for competition and the duel (while understanding the differences between the two situations), the type of fencing taught in a modern sport fencing salle is intended only to train the student to compete in the most effective manner within the rules of the sport. As this evolution has continued, the training and techniques have become increasingly further removed from their martial roots. One driving force behind this evolution is sport fencing's award of a point to the fencer who scores the first touch with right of way; this encourages the competitors to use scoring techniques that result in a first touch in a sporting encounter but would leave them defenseless against a counterthrust, even from a mortally wounded opponent, in a duel with lethal weapons. The development of the first touch rule itself was, in turn, driven by the increasing tendency of duels to be fought to first blood rather than the death, with the result that training for a first touch could result in victory in a duel as well as a sporting encounter, even without killing or disabling the opponent.

Historical fencing

As early as 1880, attempts were made to recreate the older German, Italian, and Spanish schools of swordsmanship. The lineage of Masters trained to teach the arts had been left to dwindle, however. The historical European martial arts community, interested in studying and reviving the old methods of armed combat through the examination of original European manuscripts, finds its beginnings during this time period. These individuals focus their efforts on the martial systems of combat and dueling developed for these earlier weapons and attempt to practice as accurately as possible, preferring replica or antique blades to modern sport fencing weapons. While interest dwindled in the middle 20th century, it revived in the early 21st century

Classical fencing

Practitioners of modern fencing who were unsatisfied with the exclusive sports emphasis that modern fencing had took steps to preserve the principles of dueling and fencing as practiced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Classical fencing uses the foil, épée, and sabre according to these older practices.



Chinese dao or broadsword (prop version for demonstrations)

Chinese-speakers make a clear distinction between a "sword" (double-edged) and a "knife" (single-edged). In Chinese culture the double-edged sword or jian is considered a master's weapon or gentlemen's weapon, both from the considerable skill required to fight with this weapon and from the fact that commanders of armies favored the jian in order to move easily amongst the troops. It has been described in Chinese as the "delicate lady" of weapons, and is traditionally considered the weapon most suitable for women. The single-edge broadsword is referred to as a dao, literally meaning knife, regardless of the weapon's size. The sword and broadsword are among the four main weapons taught in the Chinese martial arts, the others being the staff and spear. The order in which these weapons is taught may vary between schools and styles, but the jian is generally taught last among the four.


Filipino soldiers armed with bolos

Swords in the Philippines come in a variety of forms but are traditionally consistent with the straight-bladed type used by the tribes of neighbouring Borneo and Taiwan. This is preserved in the design of the kampilan and the dahong palay, though other types also existed. They were typically paired with a rectangular shield called the kalasag. During the Battle of Mactan, Lapu-Lapu's tribe used native swords and spears to defeat Ferdinand Magellan's troops who were armed with guns and cannons. The arrival of European colonists brought the influence of western swords, as can be seen in the hand-guard and sabre-like blade of the pinuti. When the Philippines was colonized by the Spaniards, the use of traditional swords and weapons was immediately banned. Because of this, the Filipinos were forced to use their own farm tools to fight in rebellions. And in the following insurgencies against other foreign colonists like America and Japan, they were again forced to use these improvised weapons. During the Japanese occupation, because of scarce ammunition to fight the Japanese, the Filipinos used guerilla attacks with their melee weapons and swords in raiding Japanese camps. Filipino swordplay relies heavily on speed, and even today Filipino marines train in a form of eskrima using a curved single-edge sword.


Sri Lankan angampora exponents with swords and bucklers

South Asian swordsmanship must be taken as a whole, including not only India but also the modern nations of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The sword in its various forms were the primary bladed weapon of the region. Straight double-edge swords like the khanda appear to have been dominant among the ancient northern military. Inward-curving falchions have been used since at least the Buddhist period. Curved swords of the scimitar variety became the most common type after the Muslim invasions, and have remained so ever since. Indian swordplay is highly athletic, taking advantage of the weapon's light weight. Attacks are fast and make extensive use of circular movements, often circling the weapon around the swordsman's head. Defensively, dodging is relied on more heavily than blocking. Sword training in Pakistan and northern India is done through an exercise called gatka, in which the practitioners spar with wooden sticks to simulate swords.


Kendo at an agricultural school in Japan around 1920

The sword has long held a significance in Japanese culture from the reverence and care that the samurai placed in their weapons. Kenjutsu is the term used for sword arts in Japan.[citation needed]

Kendo, a combat sport based on swordsmanship,[citation needed] and iaido, the way of drawing the sword and simultaneously cutting with it, are of note here.[citation needed] Many schools also focus almost exclusively on swordsmanship which grew from the noble families' patronage of certain teachers. Some koryu, or ancient, schools still exist along with some more modern schools.


An excerpt from Muyedobotongji: mounted double-sword (마상쌍검; 馬上雙劍)

Joseon's centralised government and the need to fend off frequent foreign invasions were conducive to the development of swordsmanship as a standardised military discipline. Along with other martial systems, forms of swordsmanship were formalised in the military manual Muyejebo (1610) based on Qi Jiguang's Ji Xiao Xin Shu, and in the revisions, Muyesinbo (1759) and Muyedobotongji (1790). The Muyedobotongji also describes standard lengths and weights of the swords used; while not exclusive to swordsmanship, 8 of the 23 chapters are devoted to it, reflecting the needs the era when the guns have not yet matured enough for short-range combat.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Etymology Online
  2. L. Friedlander-Drexel. Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms per Michael Grant. Gladiators page 40. Barnes and Noble, 1967. Mention from Clements, John. Get thee a waster!
  3. Antonio Manciolino, in the beginning of his 1531 manual, gives point values for the various body parts. Masaniello Parise supplemented his 1884 fencing manual with a small work, Spada da Terreno in which he gave the reader some general advice for the duel as well as covering which techniques most appropriate to use.

Further reading

Western swordsmanship

Amberger, J. Christoph. The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts (1999).

Meyer, Joachim. Untitled Fechtbuch (1570).

Angelo, Domenico. The School of Fencing (1763).

Angelo, Henry. Hungarian & Highland Broadsword (1799).

Alfred Hutton. Cold Steel: A Practical Treatise on the Sabre (1889). Old Sword-play: The System of Fence(1892).

Burton, Sir Richard Francis. The Sentiment of the Sword: A Country-House Dialogue(1911). A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry (1923).

Asian swordsmanship

De Lange, William. Famous Japanese Swordsmen part 1-3. Floating World Editions (2008).

Miyamoto Musashi. The Book of Five Rings (1645).

Yagyu Munenori. Heiho Kaden Sho (1632).

Yi Deok-mu, Pak Je-ga. Muyedobotongji (1790).

External links

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