I have about half a decade of late medieval martial arts practice under my belt. (Yes, it’s a thing.) Has that been enough to become an expert? Haha, no. Has it been enough to spoil all the fight scenes in the very movies and TV shows that got me interested in sword fighting in the first place? You’d better believe it.
Lord of the Rings. The King. Kingdom of Heaven. Braveheart. Game of Thrones. Rob Roy. All feature some of the best fight choreography Hollywood can muster. Which is to say they have good industry folks blocking out fights and doing the stunts. And, most of the time, they don’t look like real sword fights.
I get why (stage fighting drives sword fight choreography, and historical fencing is still pretty niche), but that doesn’t mean I can’t complain. I can always complain. Now, take my hand, gentle reader, as I complain eight whole times about why most on-screen sword fights are mediocre. And, to be clear: I’m talking about medieval European-style sword fighting because that’s what I’m familiar with.
Holding the Sword Wrong
Look, I do my best to ignore my own critical voice when watching movie sword fights, especially when I’m watching fantasy. All I ask is one thing: Don’t hold the sword wrong. A caveat: there are a few different ways to hold, say, a hand-and-a-half sword (a longsword like the ones they used in Game of Thrones).
You can half-sword it, which means you hold the blade with your off-hand to effectively shorten the blade in armored fighting. This makes it way easier to use the sword as a wrestling lever and to get the point into gaps. You can also hold it totally upside down, with both hands on the blade. This lets you swing the hilt at people, which is handy if they’re wearing armor and you want to concuss them with an improvised war hammer (the hilt).
What I’m talking about is holding the sword in a reverse ice-pick style grip. The new Witcher series has Henry Cavill doing this like crazy, presumably to show how his character fights differently from non-mutants. The problem is that it drastically reduces your reach with the weapon, destroys your ability to deliver an effective cut, and takes the crossguard on the sword out of play, leaving the hands super vulnerable. The sword suddenly becomes far less capable of doing any damage to the opponent, which is good for actors but bad for trying to not die in a real-life sword fight. I equate the ice-pick sword grip to modern action movies where the guy holds the pistol upside down and pulls the trigger with his pinky. Could it work? Yeah, I guess. But there’s a reason why that’s not the normal way to hold a gun. This video does a great job of demonstrating why it’s a stupid idea.
Do we sometimes see the ice pick grip used with swords in period artwork? Well, yeah. But it’s usually depicted as someone delivering a deathblow from above to a victim lying prostrate on the ground. There are niche uses for a lot of weird stuff. By and large, though, you don’t choose to start a fight holding the sword wrong.
Also, Arya Stark holds her sword, Needle, the wrong way in nearly every scene in Game of Thrones. The protective side ring on the hilt ought to be protecting her knuckles, not her thumb.
The Draw from the Back Move
Drawing a big ‘ol two-handed sword from a back-mounted scabbard is an especially popular trope. Aesthetically, I’ve got no problem with it. Is it possible to wear a big sword on your back? Well, sure. Are there advantages? Totally! Having a sizable sword hanging off your hip is kind of a pain in the ass if you’re, say, trying to walk around indoors, trying to run, etc. Putting it on your back might be far more comfortable if you need to climb or move quickly.
Here’s the problem, though: you can’t draw a long blade from your back. Human arms just aren’t long enough to pull the hilt up high enough to clear the blade from any kind of traditional scabbard mounted on the back. Now, on the screen, it looks good, because it puts the hero’s big hilt in frame during a tight shot of their upper body. But you’ll notice that there’s always a jump cut between the actor reaching for their sword, and actually wielding it. That’s when the wardrobe person comes over and pulls it out for them (or switches out a dummy hilt/scabbard rig for the prop sword).
So, yeah. When you stow a sword of a certain blade length on your back, that’s exactly what it is: stowed. And, when that sword is long enough, you can’t even really draw it from the hip, either. A human-sized great sword, for instance, was either carried in the hand or packed in a wagon with other big weapons. Not all swords were wearable. Even the wearable swords were often carried in the hand (in the scabbard), because having something bumping against your love handles all day sucks.
And, if you can’t unsheathe a sword that you’re wearing without taking the whole rig off first, then there isn’t much point wearing the sword in the first place (assuming you could stow it on a horse or wagon, instead, as a war party would).
Sword blades, unlike knives, are essentially long straight springs. They can bend and have vibrational nodes, and a nice blade with a solid hilt construction will make a nice harmonic “ping” sound that can reverberate a bit if you rap the blade with something hard. So, they can indeed make a sound similar to the one they make when drawn from their scabbards in the movies. It’s a nice satisfying metal-on-metal sound that rings like a little bell announcing a fight scene.
The only problem here is that scabbards, with the exception of some of the scabbards used during the Industrial Age, weren’t lined with steel, but rather wood and/or leather, or perhaps some other softer material like fur. There’s a good reason for this: that “schwing” is the sound of a sword blade dulling itself as it slides across another piece of steel. You don’t want that. You want your sword nice and sharp.
Even a wood scabbard will dull the blade a little bit each time the sword is drawn or sheathed—just not as much as a steel scabbard would. Plus, there’s another problem: None of this steel was stainless steel, which is too brittle for a functional sword, isn’t actually rust-proof, and wasn’t discovered until 1913.
That’s bad news on a campaign where things get wet, as the rust essentially glues the blade to the inside of the scabbard.
Swords as Primary Weapons
Setting aside big two-handed swords that are big enough to be a primary weapon, swords are sidearms. You know, like a pistol. They make perfect sense as a go-to civilian weapon for a street fight or a duel, but they’re not the thing you start a battle with unless it’s part of a weapon set (see: Romans pairing the gladius hispaniensis with the scutum shield).
Putting weapon sets aside, for now, an infantry soldier wouldn’t choose to start a battle with their pistol—they’d use a rifle (or whatever other specialized kit they’re expected to use). The pistol is there in case you run out of ammo or drop your rifle. Similarly, the sword is there for after you’ve expended your projectiles, lost your primary weapon, or because your primary was designed for hitting other dudes from far away, but now they’re very close and that primary weapon isn’t so effective anymore.
If, however, you pair a sword with a shield or a horse, or, later on, plate harness (armor), the sword starts to be more viable as a primary weapon. Long story short, if you see a battlefield scene on the screen and the fighters are using swords as their starting weapons, then they should typically be paired with a shield or held by a fella with armor heavy enough to deflect arrows and bolts. Otherwise, they’d be defenseless enough to eat it from an unseen projectile lobbed from somebody out of frame, and outranged by anybody holding, like, a stick that’s longer than a sword.
Basically, don’t do what Jon Snow does and charge into a frontline with padded clothing, no helmet, and nothing but a longsword.
Dropping the Shield
Shields don’t get enough love on the screen, considering how crucial they were for much of human history. We mostly see them in Roman and Viking-era representations, because they’re just too crucial for those aesthetics. Outside of that, though, productions don’t seem to like shields very much. I get it—they block a lot of the action (that’s what they’re made for), so it’s more engaging to have major characters lose them early on or just eschew them entirely.
Whatever, that’s fine. But when they are used, a lot of choreography has the actor block, then pull the shield entirely to the side for an attack, rinse, repeat. Again, I get why—so as not to obscure the action. But you can totally attack while also using your shield at the same time. I can’t tell you specifically how, from a historical perspective—we don’t have a ton of source material on using early medieval shields, at least not before the late medieval period (you know, the Renaissance). Regardless, I can say with some degree of confidence that the shield doesn’t work if you move it behind you every time you swing your weapon with the other hand.
Dual wielding is not ahistorical—some period fighting manuals show it as a feat of skill. But, in most scenarios, you’d be way better served by having a different thing in your offhand. There are a few problems that come up when trying to use two swords at once.
First, swinging around two lengthy objects is tough. Two swords can work against one another if the user isn’t well experienced with dual-wielding (hence the feat of skill). So, right off the bat, you need lots of practice and a degree of ambidexterity.
Next, that scissor cut thing that Russell Crowe does in Gladiator? Doesn’t work. Your own torso gets in the way of your arms, and you’re no longer able to generate power by turning your entire posture into a single cut. And, if your shoulders and feet are squared up to use both swords at once, you actually limit your maximum reach.
So, the best thing to do if you’ve got two swords going at once is to favor the one in your dominant hand as the “sword” sword, and use the one in your offhand mostly for defensive actions and tricky followups, like a parrying dagger. You know what makes an even better parrying dagger than a sword? A parrying dagger. Or a buckler. Or a cape. Or a tankard. Or a stick. Or your scabbard. You’re more likely to already be wearing one of these things or holding it than you would be a second sword, and you’re less likely to get in your own way with smaller offhand objects. And, of course, what a luxury a shield would be to have, which passively blocks entire lines of attack even if you suck.
But, what about if you’re fighting multiple opponents on either side of you and doing crowd control, like the Tower of Joy fight in Game of Thrones? Well, sir, that’s what big two-handed greatswords are for—which is what Arthur Dayne uses for that fight in the books. The folks choreographing presumably decided that dual-wielding is way cooler looking than using a greatsword. They are wrong.
Tinfoil Protective Gear
Judging from Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, along with most medieval-styled action set pieces where lots of extras get killed by main characters, the most effective kind of armor is plot armor. This is why extras can take one slash to a steel bevor and die immediately.
The reality is this: Armor worked. If someone is wearing steel plate, you cannot cut them through it. Instead, you’ve got to find gaps or bash them with something blunt. As I think we all know by now, helmets don’t prevent concussions.
While those are some pretty obvious points, there are grayer areas when it comes to less obvious armor. Let’s take things a step down to mail (chain mail, to use a neologism). Chain mail is extremely cut-resistant, like plate, but you can burst the rings if you stab at them with something pointy enough. Plus, without enough padding underneath the mail, you can drive the mail itself into a person with an acute strike or break bones. That’s why you’ve gotta wear padding under mail. (Also, you’d have to be a masochist to try and wear mail directly on the skin.).
That padding was often worn without mail, too. The most common form of armor was thickly layered linen. Layers of clothing are hard to cut through with a sword. We can look to (relatively) recent accounts from the nineteenth century of Russian greatcoats deflecting blows from British cavalry sabers. Under the right conditions, a padded jacket may even stop an arrow.
As for leather armor, it seems to be overrepresented in entertainment for whatever reason, but it did exist. The trick is, you’ve gotta boil it so it becomes a hard shell-like material. Supple leather won’t do much for you in a fight (unless you’re fighting a stretch of pavement).
This has been done to death on the internet, but: Don’t spin around in a sword fight. As with the reverse grip, there are potentially some very specific scenarios where you can pull a 360. If you followed that link to the montante (Portuguese greatsword) demonstration under complaint number six, you may have noticed some spinning. That dude can do that because his montante has a clear reach advantage, and you’ve gotta keep those big swords moving constantly when you’re outnumbered.
Generally speaking, though, don’t put your back to the person trying to stab you. You don’t really generate any extra power with a spin, it takes your eyes off the prize, and it presents your most vulnerable side (your back) to the opponent. If they don’t stab you in the back while you’re spinning, well … they really should have. But hey, I get it. I’m getting slower and older every day.
Just remember that, at the end of the day, there’s only one objective in swordfighting—don’t get hit.
Oh, and just so nobody ever says I’m always negative, here’s an example of what choreography looks like when it’s inspired by real techniques.
HBO, Netflix, Prime: Hire these dudes to do your medieval stunts.