How To Win A Swordfight

Let's say a gentleman scandalizes your lady at a bar. Rude, right? Let's say he poisons your father to get closer to your mother. Ruder, I'd say. But what're you gonna do about it? Today, such matters are usually resolved via graceless brawls involving a combination of wrestling and hair-pulling. Alcohol is inevitably involved. Instead of monologues, we have smack-talk; instead of thrown gauntlets or hearty glove-smacks, we attempt to out-bro each other with clumsy headlocks. At worst, these altercations involve guns, the worst sort of cop-out: tactless access to abrupt death. Our state of conflict is tasteless. We need to restore our honor when it comes to defending our honor. So I propose we bring back the sword-fighting duel, and the skill and poise that (usually) come with it. To first blood, of course.


Some background: For me, it started with grass. As a little kid, my mother would find me outside, ignoring the other children and bonking two pieces of grass together, whispering to myself. Clink clink clink. I'd take plastic lightsaber fights far too seriously, sending my little friends back to their houses in tears and effectively rescinding my invitations to their birthday parties. By the time I was 13, I had acquired five or six replica swords—including one of Andúril (Aragorn's sword in The Lord of the Rings), plus a katana and a couple rapiers, all of which my father recently donated to a theater company—and was well on my way to becoming a psychopath. Instead, I took up fencing at the local JCC from a USSR native with all sorts of confusing Old Country aphorisms about sacks of potatoes. By the twilight of my undergrad years at NYU, I was captain of the varsity fencing team. Not only did a dozen years in the sport warp my body into a Quasimodo-like right and left side, it changed my life. Because now, in a duel with swords, I will most likely fuck you up.

Now, I wouldn't say I'm an exceptionally skilled swordsman—just a passable one. I never made the Olympics. I've never drawn (a lot of) blood from an opponent. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people better suited to teach sword fighting to you, but you've got me. And first off, it's important to note that the strict rules of competitive fencing—one of the oldest Olympic sports—don't necessarily translate into a real-world duel. There are three disciplines in the figurative big leagues: foil, epee, and saber, all with their own rules and regulations. I was a saber fencer, the most violent of the three, a hack-and-slash discipline that rewards speed and reflexes over patience and technique, and therefore the style probably most analogous to a real-world sword fight. So let's try to imagine what one of those might look like.

For the sake of simplicity, let's assume a scenario where you are fighting with and against a single-handed blade with an edge—i.e., a saber that can hack, slash, and cut you, but also has a pointed tip that could pierce your body. Which brings us to the first step in any successful duel: threat assessment. If your rival fights with a 40-pound broadsword, it will snap your weapon in half if you attempt to parry his first attack. Forget it. Likewise, if your opponent carries a gun, well, you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know the consequences.

But all things aren't equal, even if you both have the same weapon. Your skill levels will be different, for one, but that's hard to discern at first glance. What you can observe is his body and posture. Height makes a colossal difference in a duel: If he's taller than you, his arm and stride length are going to be big factors for you to overcome. On the other hand, if he's short and stocky, he's likely much quicker than you'd expect. Saith Sun Tzu: "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win." True story. These observations could save your life when you have some idea of what to expect and game-plan accordingly.

Which brings us to our next point: Lower your expectations. If you think this duel will last longer than 30 seconds, you've seen too many movies. It's just like the first time you have sex: You likely have no idea what you're doing, you think you're better than you actually are, you'll more than likely be sad that it didn't last longer, and you might be left questioning your life choices. Most people imagine a duel with swords to be an epic clash, an elegant metaphor for something, but that's just not the case.

In competitive fencing, a point is basically when you touch the other person with your weapon. (Basically.) In real life, this would draw blood or leave your opponent mortally wounded. These actions last, in any discipline, a minute at most. In saber fencing, you're lucky to get 10 or 15 seconds of action. Quick, dirty, efficient. If we're dueling, then you have a few seconds to decide what're you going to do, and another few seconds in which to do it.


Now, know your stance. Live your stance. The proper stance puts your body at about a 45-degree angle towards your rival, with your dominant foot forward and your non-dominant behind, in the shape of an L. Bend your knees, slightly. This creates bodily balance, so you can move backwards and forwards more efficiently. Your weapon should be raised at your side, slightly tilted toward the enemy.

A quick point here. If your opponent has no idea about sword fighting, this is what will happen: He'll declare, En garde! and then thwack his weapon against yours. Over and over and over again. He's seen too many movies, too. Hollywood knows how to build excitement! Exhibit A: Errol Flynn.

Most of the time, they're just whacking at each other's swords; even if they were actually trying to kill each other, nobody can block that many attacks. Please don't be that guy. I used to teach fencing to kids and adults; both think the opponent's weapon is the enemy, and modern cinema only informs their ludicrous misconceptions.

I've never seen anything like that in reality. James Bond makes it seem like sword fighting is an infinite loop of parries and blocks until someone makes a fatal mistake; truth is, you (or your adversary!) will make that fatal mistake within, like, seconds. Your adrenaline is pumping. You're angry. You can't think straight. It's the difference between pornography and reality. Once you can appreciate that, you'll have a huge leg up on any opponent.


Start with this mantra: Your enemy is the enemy, not his weapon. Every time you purposefully smack your sword into his, your chances of winning decrease dramatically. Finish your fight in one or two actions. If he knows what he's doing, he'll attack the body; this should be your objective as well. Don't watch this.

I couldn't keep track of how many times both guys have the chance to riposte (i.e., counterattack). Just fuck his face up! Keep it quick and dirty. Remember to keep your blade raised at all times. Do not lower it. And then, make your choice: attack or defend.


This is where your threat assessment can help. Is he eager for a fight, pissing beer, if not blood? Or is he coy, sweaty, and clammy, like he wants to dance around a little? Or, worst of all, is he a knight-errant in his Renaissance-fair community? In the first two cases, you've got him. In the third, it's a little tricky. So let's break those scenarios down:

A) He's a little excited.

If you've gotten on his nerves, he's begging you to take him apart. They say the best defense is a strong offense, which, okay, but I think the best defense is really just a really good defense. If he's itching to attack you, and you're as calm as you should be, a solid defensive action could trip him up and win your lady's honor back. Here's a helpful visual, courtesy of 18th-century Poland.


In addition to arc welding, certain anti-tank rifles, and vodka, the Poles helped invent modern saber fencing. Originally used on horseback to cut down enemy cavalry, the saber was adopted into dueling a couple hundred years ago. The top-left image there is your north star: That parry is called quatre, or four, and according to a few of the coaches I've known, it makes up about 70 percent of the blocks you'll make in your (likely short) dueling career. It's the body parry, protecting the non-dominant side of your body, and can counter almost any attack (so long as it's not to your dominant side). So if he's itching for a fight and plans on bursting out of the cage, metaphorical guns blazing, in all likelihood, he'll go for your non-dominant side. This is, of course, a gamble. But 70 percent isn't too bad. Hit that parry as his weapon comes at you, and when your weapon connects with his, it'll hopefully knock him off-balance. Now's your chance to hit him back and draw first blood. (Side note: Wear pants when you duel. Trust me.)

B) He's a little nervous.

In this case, be a wolf, not a sheep. Nothing spooks a nervous dweeb like confidence. If he's shuffling about and wondering where to start, he's not worth your time. Stab him right in the face. He'll try to dodge; he won't do it in time. For a proper attack, remember that any direct thrust or cut is rigid. As in boxing, use your shoulder, not your elbow. A swift cut or thrust is one, fluid motion, straight and true. This minimizes the time you expend on your attack while multiplying the force.


C) He knows what he's doing.

So here you have a problem. Though it's rare, it may be an experienced sword-fighter who has affronted you—perhaps an Olympic fencer or orc chieftain—and your only preparation has been to read a 1,500-word blog post. You probably should've taken this into account before challenging him to a duel. But you didn't. So now you're truly fucked.


But. Let me tell you that from limited experience, nothing is more frightening than going up against a newbie. They're unpredictable, unpracticed, and will probably try to kick you or stab you in the balls. If you're fighting an experienced bladesman, the rulebook must be thrown out. Your honor—perhaps your life—is on the line, so disregard honor entirely. It's time to go off-book. Scream in broken Chinese and attack. Take a pre-duel dump right in front of him. Or, fine, go pantsless. Whatever it is, you've forfeited your safety by challenging someone who has a good amount of experience. More practically, then, here's my advice: Feint (or pretend-to-attack) the non-dominant side. You know, an attack requiring a quatre parry. Then, when he presumably takes said parry, flick your weapon to the dominant side, which should be exposed like a babe in the sun. Take a cut. Hopefully he's slow enough on the uptake and you can draw first blood.

Finally, assuming you're still alive, win with honor. Don't showboat, brag, or otherwise come off like an asshole. You've just beaten the asshole. Shake the broken man's hand and say, "Good game." Burn. However, if you killed him, you should probably get a lawyer. Killing someone with a sword is still not cool. Well, not really.


Ben Radding is an editor at Men's Fitness and tweets from @raddingbot.

Image by Jim Cooke.

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