What does a real sword fight look like?

Hollywood movies are filled with sword fights that look both hilariously fake and also extremely cool. But are they realistic? Most of us would assume the answer is no… but, having never seen an actual sword fight, it’s kind of hard to know. I decided it might be interesting to find out.

Sword Fight

A refereed saber duel… It’s all fun and games ’til somebody loses an eye.

Of course, probably the best answer to this question would be a YouTube video showing an actual to-the-death fight between trained swordsmen. (Do we have to call them swords-people now?) But there are a number of problems with this. First, swords kind of went out of vogue long before video cameras were a thing. Second, even though there are still people that study and practice sword fighting, most of them don’t engage in fights to the death with them. And, finally, most of us don’t want to watch a guy get killed with a sword on YouTube. So, recognizing these limitations, what do we have?

Well, thanks to some recent antics in an Indian temple, we do know what it looks like when untrained people start attacking each other with swords (this video isn’t graphic, I promise):

But that’s not really what we’re interested in. We want to know what an honest-to-goodness sword fight between skilled warriors would have looked like long ago. But how could we ever know that? John Clements, a guy who just happens to be into that sort of thing, explains:

Fortunately, during the Medieval and Renaissance eras there were produced hundreds of detailed instructional manuals by expert Masters of Defense. These knights and professional instructors in arms wrote and illustrated immense technical treatises and books on their “science of self-defense.”  Intended to preserve their secrets or instruct their students and patrons, these little-known works, some in excess of six hundred pages, represent time-capsules of the actual fighting systems and proven combative disciplines used at the time. Focused mostly on swordsmanship, these handbooks and study guides reveal highly sophisticated combat teachings. Further, their content and presentation is unmatched by any martial arts literature from anywhere in the world… And we have dozens of them.

With thousands of people all over the world interested in studying this type of history, and thousands more interested in role-playing as ancient Renaissance warriors, it’s not too hard to find somebody willing to teach these sword fighting techniques… or somebody willing to put those teachings on YouTube. The video below comes from a “Swordfight in Armour” workshop held in Vienna, and is the first in a series of six highly-informational videos on realistic tactics from past centuries. If you want to get a feel for what a sword fight might have looked like in the days of knights and squires, this might be a good start. I learned a lot.

Of course, most of you are used to watching Hollywood sword fights, so you want something dramatic. Though I’ll admit I haven’t watched everything on YouTube yet, I wasn’t able to find anything terribly jaw-dropping. But I did find this little gem, which at least purports to be both realistic and is at least mildly dramatic. Enjoy!

So, what would a real sword fight have looked like? Well, we’ll probably never know exactly what it looked like to see thousands of warriors going at it in the heat of a pitched battle. But the information above gives us at least a little bit of an idea of how much of what we see in the movies is real… and how much is just silly dramatization.

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