Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ten Facts about Swords and Sword Fighting that Writers Get Wrong

Let’s face it, sometimes popular entertainment stretches things for the sake of our enjoyment.

Hollywood blockbusters, adrenaline-laced anime, and button-bashing video games have all given us a skewed, oftentimes downright wrong, impression of what a sword is and how it’s supposed to be used.

As a writer, adherence to reality—even in a fantasy setting—is important. Oftentimes, writers draw inspiration from the media they consume and use it as a basis for writing some pretty unrealistic stuff (almost always without the intention of deliberately doing so). Today, let’s look at ten facts about one of the most popular tools in fictional combat—swords—and uncover the truth about these beautiful blades and their use.

Fact #1: Swords must be cleaned directly after use
Ironically, blood is the sword’s greatest enemy. The iron within blood literally eats away at the blade and causes it to rust. Swords must be cleaned as soon as possible in order to prevent this from happening. Fingerprints can also cause a blade to rust; a person should never directly touch the blade of their sword.

Fact #2: “Blood grooves” do not make an opponent bleed faster and are not for “channeling” blood
Most blades have a hollow, known as a “fuller,” running through their centers. Myth claims that these hollow grooves cause an opponent to bleed faster and kills them more effectively (thus the nickname “blood channel” or “blood groove). In reality, these hollows are meant to make the blade lighter by decreasing its overall mass, and has no direct effect on making an opponent “bleed faster.”

Fact #3: Opponents do not “lock” their swords in battle
Popular media often shows two mortal enemies “lock” blades at some point during their duel, accompanied with much teeth gritting, muscle bulging, and vocal straining. Realistically, sword locks do not happen. Should one occur, one combatant would use their free hand to grab the other’s sword arm and thrust it out of the way in order to create a fatal opening. Otherwise, one opponent could use the lock as a lever to push the blades to one side and cut across their opponent’s neck. “Locked” blades are trapped blades—a death sentence for one opponent or the other—and not a practical or realistic technique mid-battle.
Fact #4: Use the side—not the edge—of the blade to block attacks
Again, in movies, games, anime, etc. opponents are often shown blocking each other’s swings with the edge of their swords. Realistically, this is not practical, as it would create dings in the blade’s edges and wear them down. Instead, the side of the sword should be used to block attacks, or blade swings should be dodged completely without direct contact.

Fact #5: Aim for the body… not the blade
This one is quite obvious if we stop and ponder it logically. Swords are meant to kill. That is their sole purpose. They are not meant to clash off of other fighters’ blades just for the sake of it. However, movies and other media often portray two fighters standing a blade’s length apart exchanging blows to each other’s swords. This is both harmful to the blade (see the previous point) and pointless overall. A swing at an opponent’s sword actually leaves the attacker open to a direct strike to the torso. The aim of the warrior is to strike his or her opponent’s torso or head. Arms and legs are incredibly difficult to strike (or lop off, if you prefer), and directly focusing on an opponent’s blade instead of his/her torso is folly at its finest.

Fact #6: Chopping another sword in half is highly unlikely
Any sword can break if struck at the wrong angle, but literally slicing one in half (as movies such as Count of Monte Cristo portray) is nigh impossible mid-combat, even for swords of fabled power (like the katana).

Fact #7: Swords aren’t immortal and require repair
In the duration of the hero’s journey, it’s often easy to forget that swords are just as fallible and mortal as their wielders. Swords require regular cleaning (see the first point) as well as routine sharpening and straightening. The myth of the indestructible sword that lasts for centuries, or even several battles, without cleaning or repair is absurd.

Fact #8: Tremendous flexibility is a weakness, not a strength
This is a slightly outdated myth that none-the-less continues to be portrayed in media and practiced by some real-world sword owners. “Flex testing” is the process of slowly bending the blade by hand and holding the bend in place in order to demonstrate how flexible the sword is. Myth claims that a flexible sword is a resilient and superior sword; however, the opposite is actually true. Flexing a blade by hand actually misaligns it and weakens its steel over time. Whereas sturdiness and resilience are a strength in a blade, a “bendable” quality is a weakness.

Fact #9: Swords made of gold are impractical
Fantasy often portrays a magical “golden sword,” or a blade otherwise crafted from priceless gold. Realistically, however, gold is an incredibly weak, malleable, and heavy metal that would make it both unwieldy and unreliable in the heat of battle. The edges of the blade would also chip with ease, even more-so than the edge of a steel blade.

Fact #10: Swords can’t slice through wood, armor, and anything else they please, whenever they please
Yes, certain types of swords are able to slice into (maybe even through) certain materials, but it’s important to remember that swords were meant to slice through one thing and one thing alone—flesh. Primarily human flesh. While cloth and other such trappings can easily be torn and sliced by a blade, materials such as plated armor and thick wood are a very different story and would not be a practical focal point in battle. Weak joints in the armor—yes. A plated breastplate? No. That’s an easy way to dull your sword and leave you open to counterattack.

When detailing your character’s sword-wielding antics, just be sure your character isn’t slicing through a menagerie of whatever happens to be in their way simply because they can. This is both inexperienced and impractical. Unless you’re trying to showcase your character’s incompetence and inexperience with a sword, make sure they focus on flesh and not metal or other materials.

For additional reading, be sure to check out these links:

Writing Advice: 4 Tips for Effectively Naming Characters 
Creative Writing: Tips for Naming Fictional Races
Character Development: Actors VS Reactors


  1. Really great post! Some of these I knew and some I didn't. I will definitely keep these in mind. I do have to note about the fuller that it's also used as a groove for the blood to run down off the sword like a little draining canal.

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. Thanks for reading ^^

      I've consulted several professional sources and I'm told that the fuller serves no function aside from stiffening and lightening the blade itself. It has nothing to do with bleeding an enemy or draining blood from the sword; for a long time, this was an accepted fact, and it's only recently that studies have begun to disprove the "blood groove" as a gimmick used for blood.

    2. Really? Not even for cleaning? I'm not talking about combat, but just the natural flow of the blood down the sword afterward.

  2. As a sword-collector and beginning fencer I knew just about all of these precepts and it was great to see them written about, since I see them continually broken over and over in movies and books and it's quite irksome.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read, Leah. It's good to know that my research is supported by someone with personal, hands-on experience. I also collect swords and own a few of them, but I have never wielded one for serious fencing or dueling purposes.

      It was during a photoshoot with one of my swords that I discovered blocking with the edge was a no-no. My blade came away dinged, and I was completely baffled. When I read that the "edge-block" was just a Hollywood myth, everything became very clear very fast.