The Right Coast

April 04, 2004
By Tom Smith

I have been meaning for some time to post something on swordplay, or fighting with swords, but it's a long story. When my now 12 year old was in second grade, some Japanese musicians visited his school. Luke was enchanted by the music, and that began his obsession with everything Japanese. We went through the inevitable and insufferable Pokeman cards, but with shakuhachi (Japanese flute) music in the background. Soon Luke discovered samurai and was reading everything he could lay his hands on that admittedly fascinating subject. He attempted to teach himself Japanese, and has learned a few words and characters. When his Tae Kwon Do school, as so many do, wanted us to sign a contract roughly equivalent to a cross between a 30 year mortgage and an indentured servitude, I decided it was time to look for the Japanese martial arts training he had been begging me to find for years.

Not surprisingly, there aren't that many places that teach traditional Japanese fighting arts, beyond karate. We were fortunate, however, to find a dojo that not only taught Jujitsu, the weaponless fighting techniques of the samurai, but also swords and other weapons as well. We joined up, and for a month or two we have been faithfully attending for two hours each Monday and Wednesday, learning to throw, flip, roll, lock joints, choke, and wield bokken (wooden katana or samurai swords) and their friendly cousin, choken (foam rubber swords), all in the name of learning how to fight, in a Christian sort of way. Christian, because this is a Christian dojo, that being the way of things out here in East County. But as there were Christian samurai, I suppose that's alright. (Unfortunately, they were mostly killed in various persecutions.)

I thought perhaps many blog readers would be interested in what I have learned in just a couple of months about sword fighting, as there seems to be a lot of blogger interest is such things as Lord of the Rings, fantasy fiction and other war like genres, all of which prominently feature swords and other bladed weapons. Some things one "learns" from reading such stuff is confirmed by a more serious study, but just as much is discredited.

As I told my students, the first thing I have learned is that one should never, if remotely possible, get into a fight with somebody who has a sword. Take a katana or samurai sword. It is 30 inches or so of razor sharp steel, steel tempered to a point achievable only by highly refined traditional craft or very advanced modern technology. It weighs about 2.5 pounds, which is neither too heavy nor too light, but dangerously, creepily just right. Not only can it, but it is designed to, lop off arms, legs and heads and even in the right hands cut a person in half. One may know this abstractly, but you start to appreciate it vividly as you work with a sword, and unless you are a highly unusual person, it makes you want to stay out of their way. Movies such as Lord of the Rings with its dazzling swordplay might lead one to believe that a master swordsman (or swordself or whatever) would be able always to parry the slashes and thrusts of a less skilled person, but this is easily exaggerated. Swords, like guns, are great equalizers. Hence their great popularity through the ages. Even a klutz armed with a good sword is a dangerous man, and through luck or bravado can land a devastating blow on a much more skilled opponent, especially if he is willing to die doing it.

A lot of sword fighting in the movies is mere choreography, and not much like real fighting. For example, and a point that strikes me as pleasingly subtle, is that the fighter should avoid "weapon fixation." You see this in the movies, when the Musketeer or whoever is fighting with his sword, and then gets it stuck in a door or something, and in desperation kicks or punches his opponent. But this is all wrong. Just because you have a sword, does not mean you have to use it at every moment. You can still kick, punch, butt with your head and so on. You are not swordfighting, but fighting, while armed with a sword. An inexperienced fighter will be focused on his own weapon, and an inexperienced defender focused on that weapon as well.

Several dramatic moments in the movies turn on varieties of weapon fixation. Qui Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode One seems to forget (even after extremely sophisticated displays of mixing kicking and swordfighting) that Darth Maul's light Bo (or whatever the Sith call them) can be used as a plain staff, getting him bashed in the face and then impaled. But Liam Neeson gets it back in Rob Roy, however. In the final duel scene, he grasps the villain Cunningham's rapier as he holds it to his throat, fixing it long enough to pick up his Scottish sword and cut the wicked fellow nearly in two, or twain , as they might have said. Cunningham was fixated on all the sword like things you can do with a sword, forgetting that it is also a kind of stick, and a stick can be grabbed. Similarly, you can do things with a sword that don't seem very sword-like, such as jab with a one-edged sword, like a katana, by gripping the hilt and pushing near the point, shoving the edge into your opponent. You can slash in the same way, if you are too close to your opponent to get leverage otherwise. You can see this as a lovely kind of versatility, or as part of what makes a sword a very nasty weapon.

Perhaps the funnest thing we do is spar with "choken" or foam rubber bokken. The sparring can be very intense, in spite of admonitions not to hit your opponent too hard. The first time I sparred it was with a man older than I, but a black belt a couple of times over, and nearly a black belt in weapons as well. When fighting, he got a crazed look in his eyes that was unnerving, to say the least. He also was very fast, and hit very hard. Even with the best of wills, this can only be infuriating, and shortly you are doing your best to hit as hard as you can, preferably on the head, where it hurts the most. But perhaps I should be more Christian about it.

Interestingly, there is now an effort to recover Western sword martial arts, which have probably wrongly been thought inferior to the Japanese and Chinese. Here are two very good books on Western fighting styles, which seem to be based on solid scholarship.

UPDATE: A reader sent me a very interesting email, part of which reads "If you haven't discovered the Swordforum International then you should check it out at In addition to the community forums which are awealth of knowledge, there are some very interesting essays. Another which might interest you is ARMA at . It's geared towards european martial arts but they have an interesting essay which attempts to answer the age old question of whether the katana is superior to the rapier. It's at" I have checked out the links, and the sites are indeed very cool, very professionally done, and full of information about swords and sword arts. My son will be very inflamed by the notion that a European swordsman would have a prayer against a samurai, but he can work out his fury in the garage dojo I am building.