A look at the European Martial Art of the Sword by Peter Lockhart

In this article, I want to draw attention to Western or European swordsmanship and discuss how rich, highly evolved and devastatingly effective it actually is. In this way, I hope to refute the common misconception of some people, that the only men who know how to use the sword come from the Orient.

When discussing the history of the European sword, it is not possible to do so without first mentioning archery. This is because it was the phenomenal skill of the European archers, specifically the Welsh bowmen, that brought about the change to the European sword and swordsmanship forever.

It was Edward I (Longshanks) that so effectively used Welsh bowmen as the primary weapon to defeat the Scots led by William Wallace at Falkirk. It was the later battles of Crecy, led by Longshank's grandson, Edward III and again at Agincourt, led by Henry V, where on both occasions, a mere handful of Welsh bowmen defeated vastly superior numbers of mounted French Chivalry and, in doing so, brought about the end of the era of men in armour.

These Welsh bowmen could put five arrows into the air at one time and would launch with speed and accuracy, ten, or sometimes, twelve arrows per minute at their foes. As longbowmen, they stood sideways and that meant more of them could be packed together in a tight unit when compared with their counterparts with crossbows.

The crossbow had a superior range and could fire a bolt or arrow one hundred yards further than a longbow, but at a rate of only two bolts or arrows per minute. The men with the crossbows also stood face on to their targets and consequently less of them could be deployed at any one place and time.

It was because of these particular archers at these particular battles, that European warfare, the European sword and European swordsmanship, took a different developmental and evolutionary turn from their Oriental counterparts. These Welsh bowmen were not Knights, but commoners and the days of warfare being fought exclusively by a warrior class, finally came to an end in Europe at Agincourt.

Also at the battle of Crecy, canon was used for the very first time in European warfare. The French persisted with the idea of using Knights to fight battles instead of ordinary citizens, right up to the time of Joan of Arc. It was only with her leadership and initiative of using commoners to fight, that the French won battles against the English for the first time in hundreds of years, thereby taking back all the French land won and occupied by the English for centuries.

Because European warfare in the old days, was at one time conducted almost exclusively by men in heavy armour, heavy swords and heavy sword strokes, capable of getting through the armour to the flesh and bone beneath were needed. These heavy swords were wielded by two hands and the heavy cutting action can easily be seen in Mel Gibson's movie "Braveheart". That "tin-opening" two handed style of swordsmanship of the Middle ages, was the same as the Japanese used to cut through the armour of other Samurai and get to the flesh and bone inside.

With armour piercing arrows and the advent of gunpowder and muskets, heavy armour in Europe was instantly obsolete and so too, were the two handed heavy swords. Those that persisted in their use, quite simply did not survive to tell the tale. Not everyone in those days could afford the high cost of armour however.

These poor fellows had to make do the best they could in battle without any armour. As a result, they were forced to use various skills they had acquired, which included skills with the sword, as well as punching, kicking, tumbling and tripping. These men with "defense" skills, were at one time looked down upon by others who had expensive armour and, their skills were previously regarded as "dirty tricks".

Instantly, these particular men, found themselves in great demand to teach these skills to everyone else, who were suddenly forced by new technology, to shed their now obsolete armour. This became known as "fencing" from the word defense. These men, were the first European fencing masters. One of their techniques against a heavily armored opponent was to use a long thin sword called a Rapier, to thrust in the chinks of the armour, thereby rapidly killing the man inside.

The Rapier, was suddenly very popular, because it was light, maneuverable and easily carried on the hip, this was not the case when lugging around a heavy tin-opener type sword. Thrusting skills to use the Rapier well, were also rapidly developed. The skills to use a sword was becoming less and less important for warfare, however the sword skills were still vital, both for self defense and to maintain one's honour with dueling.

Different skills from various countries were constantly being tried out, as Frenchman dueled with Spaniard or Italian or vice versa . As a result, the European sword became just that, European. Skills with a sword became a highly sought after Martial art with which to become accustomed.

The influence and cross fertilization of techniques and ideas from all the different schools of the sword, French, Italian and Spanish, were constantly at work evolving and refining technique, strategy and tactics. This was usually done in a very bellicose and realistic way however, as each school thought it was superior to the others. Students dueled with others of different schools to prove superiority.

Many students died in these duels and as a result, the three main schools, French, Italian and Spanish, became more and more like each other as they each, discarded things that did not work and, adopted and retained things that did.

In Japan however, the Samurai continued to wear armour and firearms were in fact, banned from battle. Warfare was only conducted according to strict rules and innovations especially from the Europeans were not to be used. As a result, the two handed Japanese swords remained unchanged and in use right up to the present day. The techniques used were observances of rules and traditions, rather than the results of competition, evolution and development.

Warfare in Japan also continued to be fought mostly by a warrior class, the Samurai. The peasant class of Japan was not trusted with weapons, consequently, for self defense, the peasants adapted common farm implements as weapons. These are the traditional Martial arts weapons now taught with modern Karate.

The Japanese swordsmanship, simply stopped evolving because, under the Shogunates of Tokugawa and Ieyasu, Japan was a closed society for two centuries. As a result, there was no evolution of their Martial arts through foreign conflicts or influences. Unlike the many countries of Europe which were constantly in a state of war with one of it's neighboring countries (once England and France were at war with each other for over a century).

This meant in Europe, new things were tried all the time, with nothing hindering progress by the way of "rules" other than winning at all cost. Therefore, there were many influences and innovations from the multitude of conflicts which were constantly being adopted in Europe.

The European sword, no longer needed to be a combination "can opener" and weapon and a cutting weapon in reality, rarely killed anyone, though it could cause terrible wounds. A sword used in one hand, was, is and always will be, faster and more maneuverable than one wielded by two hands. A two handed strike with a sword has speed and power of course, but at the cost of maneuverability.

My argument is; that in a real fight - a fight to the death, no matter what the weapon, it is all about maneuverability. At the battle of Salamis, for instance, the Athenian galleys called "Triremes" were both faster and more maneuverable than the Persian ships so, the Greeks won the Persian War. Another example from World War II, the Hurricane, was more maneuverable than the faster Messershcmitt so, the British defeated the Germans in the Battle of Britain.

Another example from our era, the Harrier was more maneuverable than the faster and better armed French Mirage so, the British defeated the Argentines in the Falklands War. (Previous to that conflict, the Harrier was thought by many nations to be something of a joke - which is now no longer the case).

The swords in Europe, therefore evolved into a primarily thrusting weapon, as the thrust was discovered to be much deadlier than the cut. In his article "The Sabre" a young Lt. George S. Patton Jr, later to become General Patton of World War II renown said:

"In the Peninsular War, the English nearly always used the sword for cutting. The French dragoons, to the contrary, used only the point which almost always caused a fatal wound. This made the English say, "The French don't fight fair." Marshal Saxe wished to arm the French cavalry with a blade of a triangular cross section so as to make the use of the point obligatory. At Wagram, when the cavalry of the guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them, "Don't cut! The point! The point!"

The point is vastly more deadly than the edge. While it might be possible to inflict a crippling blow with the edge (where the swing unrestricted by the pressing ranks of the charge or by the guard of attack) the size and power of the blow is so reduced there is grave doubt it would have sufficient power to do any damage to an opponents body, protected by clothing and equipment. And even should the blade reach the opponent, it's power to unhorse is dubious."

Patton became known as, "Sabre George", because of his enthusiasm for the sword and he designed the US Cavalry sabre Model 1913, while he was "Master of the Sword" at the Mounted Service School at Fort Riley Kansas. He went on to win a silver medal for the Pentathlon in the Olympic games. Needless to say, the Patton Sabre is primarily a thrusting weapon, however, it can also be used for cutting.

(Dear old Sabre George, ever the romantic, tried in the Mexican Punative Expedition of 1916, to organise a mounted charge using sabres. To Patton, a charge was incomplete without sword in hand. The sabre he had in mind was of course, his M 1913. General Pershing, found out about it and put a stop to it. Pershing was happy charging using pistols, as he had done so successfully many times, during the American Civil war)

In actual combat, the European sword was found to be the most effective if it could both, thrust while at a distance and cut for close quarter fighting. Cutting is very effective in battle and the "cut versus thrust" argument raged for years with much vigor, right up to the time when the sword became obsolete as a weapon of war. Cutting caused terrible wounds, so much so, that at one stage, the French actually complained to Wellington about the English "barbaric cutting sword" (I hate to contradict General Patton because I admire him very much).

The cutting action of a sword requires two movements - cocking and striking, i.e.; bringing the sword up, then bringing it down again on the body of the opponent. The thrusting action, on the other hand, is like a punch, it has one action that can be delivered very rapidly, the natural forward movement of straightening the arm. The thrust is a lightening fast single movement. (The Romans reached this conclusion thousands of years ago as their short sword is a primarily a thrusting weapon with cutting ability for close quarters).

However, for personal self defense and dueling, it is all thrust and parry and no cutting at all. Duels, were all about killing rapidly for the satisfaction of one's honour. Wounding the opponent was not even a consideration and the lighter the sword, the more maneuverable it was and the faster it could be used.

The thrust and parry techniques of the European Martial art of fencing are extremely fast, highly evolved and extremely deadly. It is not necessary to lop a man's head off for him to die, a lightening fast thrust through the head or torso will do the job very effectively, in precisely the same way as an arrow or a bullet. A quick thrust to the leg, foot or forearm of the opponent would wound quite well if needs be as well.

One famous duelist of the late 1600's, was called Donald McBane. He invented the "boars thrust" which is still used in fencing today. This thrust is executed where the hand is suddenly dropped to knee level and thrust upwards. As McBane himself casually explained, he only used it "when he had a mind to kill".

The most significant thrusting innovation only found in European swordsmanship however is the "Lunge". This is the maneuver where the swordsman steps forward deeply from "en Guarde" with his sword side leg and straightens his back leg while thrusting into the head or torso of his opponent. This one movement was a great leap forward to swordsmen and had a great effect on dueling from then on.

Previous to the lunge was the "Pass", where the swordsman stepped forward with the opposite leg than his sword leg. The lunge greatly increased maneuverability with the ability to rapidly attack and to rapidly recover to the "en guarde" position.

The amount of pressure actually needed to penetrate the body of an opponent with a thrust is a mere 500 grams for a foil and a paltry 750 grams for an epee. This is not a lot of pressure to say the least, so the actual power needed to defeat and kill someone is minimal. Therefore, European swordsmanship is all about technique, skill, speed, maneuverability and the thrust.

As a matter of interest, there are instances where European swordsmanship has greatly influenced Oriental Martial arts where they have met in conflict. An example of this, is seen when the Spanish colonized the Philippines. The Spaniards that went there were masters of rapier and dagger with the Spanish school of fencing "Escrima". The Portuguese and Italian mercenaries who also went to the Philippines to help the Spanish put down the natives there, were also highly skilled at dueling with the sword and dagger.

The rapier and dagger - "espada y daga" was adopted by the Philippinos under the old axiom "if you cant beat `em, join `em". Some Philippino art of the sword was in existence before the Spaniards arrived of course and it was a Philippino Prince Lapulapu who killed Magellan in a sword fight when he first arrived there.

The Philippino fighting arts were however heavily influenced by and evolved specifically from, the many subsequent clashes with European swordsmanship over the next four hundred years or so. The word "Arnis" is derived from a Spanish word for shield and the Spanish word for fencing is "Escrima". In fact, one school there is even called "Etaliano" or Italian style after the rapier and dagger dueling prowess of the Italian mercenaries.

The closest thing to dueling in modern fencing is the Epee, where there are no conventions and a hit is a hit, unlike Foil and Sabre where conventions of right of way apply. Epee is the modern day dueling weapon and descendant of the Rapier. Foil and Sabre are learning tools rather than weapons, to teach the techniques of parry and thrust. Epee on the other hand, is all about "kill or be killed".

If you watch an Epee bout, you are watching a real sword fight. The entire body is the target and the bouts are very fast indeed. It does not take a long time for points to be scored which means, someone is hit. The first to reach five hits is the winner. In the recent past, it was the first to score one hit won the match, that was keeping with the tradition of dueling where the first one to score a hit won the fight and remained alive.

Today around the world however, people are going back to the old dueling techniques of rapier and dagger, cloak and dagger and cloak and rapier. These people are exploring, reviving and relearning the old European martial skills and arts, that once only applied in duels, which have long since been abandoned by modern fencing.

An indication of the effectiveness of these techniques, can be seen from the death rate from dueling back before duels were banned in France. Some 40,000 noblemen, the cream of French Aristocracy, were killed in duels in the 17th and 18th centuries, all with neat little holes poked in them by rapiers and or daggers.

That was just France and just Noblemen - there were duels everywhere in Europe. The authorities could easily see that there would be no French aristocracy left at that rate of mass extinction. Consequently, appropriate laws were enacted and dueling was then confined to