Welcome to spirit of the 7th Sea, an interview series with experts and enthusiasts who share a passion for early modern European history.
This month, we interviewed sword-fighter, performer, illustrator, and craftsperson Samantha Swords.
Originally from New Zealand, Samantha has traveled the world doing work in the film industry, as well as working with propmaking, armor construction, costume construction, large-scale sculpture, metalsmithing, and much, much more.
Samantha was kind enough to lend her time and expertise talking with us about historical sword fighting, pop culture myths, and favorite dueling maneuvers.
Hi Samantha! I’m thrilled to be able to talk with you about sword fighting. Thanks for lending your time and expertise!
Q: First, how did you get your start? What initially drew you to sword fighting and what attracted you to historical sword fighting over modern sport fencing?
Samantha: I have been passionate about medieval European swords since I was a child. I started training in historical fencing in 2008, but I did practice modern Olympic fencing for four years as a teenager. I don’t see much relationship between the two, as historically the art of defence was very practical and dangerous, and it’s much more interesting to me. Also the martial arts of medieval Europe are very beautiful, and the challenge of reviving them is unique and exciting!
Q: Like many people, my concept of historical sword fighting mostly comes from pop culture, and I know my knowledge is built on a lot of myths. What are the most common myths you’ve encountered?
Samantha: The first is a strange myth that medieval swords weren’t actually sharpened much, or were mostly bludgeoning tools.
We know that medieval and Renaissance swords were very sharp, partly from surviving museum examples, through forensic evidence of damage to deceased fighters, and via documentation from the period. Also, feders—the sword-like tools that historical fencing schools used to train safely—are strangely-shaped so that they can simulate the weight, balance and other characteristics of a fully-sharpened sword. Essentially, there’s no sense in carrying around a 3 foot long blade if one isn’t going to use it as a blade!
Another myth many people love to hold onto is the idea that ‘swords were extremely heavy’. They weren’t. The average weight of any actively-used sword throughout the Middle Ages was a mere 1-3 pounds. Most single-handed arming swords were around 1 pound in weight, even Viking swords! In the case of Viking swords, they were secondary weapons, mainly used for cutting at exposed areas, not used for smashing into wooden shields (that’s what other shields and axes were for..!)
The later weapon, the longsword, averaged around 2-3 pounds in weight. The rapier was heavier than most people think and was around the same weight as a longsword, but the since it was a single-handed tool the weight was distributed more close to the hilt, allowing freer movement of its long, narrow blade.
Larger two-handed swords gained popularity in war and for ceremonial use from the 16th-17th centuries, and their size varied depending on different, specialised functions. Swords used in dueling tended to be smaller than those employed to hew through large groups of enemies at a time (such as the famous montante, from the Iberian Peninsula). Two handed ‘schlachtschwert‘ (battle swords) were very large but still dynamic and well-balanced. Their great size made them well-suited for ceremonial use. Even ‘bearing’ swords, extremely large swords used only in parades to impress onlookers from great distance, were built to fighting-sword standards. Surviving examples of bearing swords are excellent examples of craftsmanship, and like battle swords, are only around 6-8 pounds. However a modern misunderstanding about the context of such weapons contribute to the myth of the oversized, overly-heavy medieval sword.
The good guide to debunking such myths is to remember that a tool is made to be useful, and in a fight, any excess weight will slow you down. Weapons and armour-makers intelligently designed their equipment to be as strong, lightweight and efficient as possible.
Q: Speaking of pop culture, let’s talk movie sword fights! I’ve always loved this fight scene from Princess Bride, between Inigo Montoya and the feared Dread Pirate Roberts. I’m ready to have my reality shattered. What do you see here that just wouldn’t fly in a real sword fight?
Samantha: I love this scene. It perfectly captures the energy and character of Inigo and The Man in Black. The fighters’ use of the environment, their gymnastic feats and clear, disciplined attacks, the wit and wordplay the two engage in, the references to historical fencing masters and their strategies—everything is great for on-screen entertainment.
As with any stage combat, the strikes that both actors make are often wide, and won’t connect if the other performer misses with their block. This style of attack is done for the safety of the performers and usually hidden through camera angles, but in a real fight if an opponent makes an attack that won’t actually connect then there is no need to move and defend against it! Knowing when to move or not involves a mastery of distance— knowing how far you and your opponent can reach when the swords are extended in a thrust or cut.
The Man in Black and Inigo are fighting with rapiers, but not using them as rapiers were historically used according to the many sources that we have. Despite referencing four fencing masters, what they are doing in the scene doesn’t actually reflect the movements they are commenting on. This is unsurprising as the wonderful sword choreographer Bob Anderson was not well-versed in historical fencing so wasn’t able to bring in the complex techniques referenced as he created the fight.
The style that the two are fencing with more resembles the use of small-swords, which require a closer range to cause damage. Smallswords are also lighter than rapiers, which allow for soft, quick, flexible attacks, gymnastic behaviour like leaping and hopping, and antics like tossing the sword from hand to hand, as The Man in Black does towards the end, mid-defence. With a true rapier fight he wouldn’t be able to do this as the opponent, Inigo, would push through the centre the moment the Man in Black switched hands. As someone who ‘has studied his Agrippa’, this would be a simple matter for Inigo. Instead, the two constantly are swiping at one another with their swords, making contact and then breaking apart again.
Unlike what is often seen in movies, good historical fencing was based around being able to control the other fighter’s blade, not constantly knock it aside back and forth (most often seen with larger weapons such as longswords). The teeth of two sharp swords bite into one another and create a strong connection between both opponents. They are then ‘bound’ and able to feel the force and movements of the other, and a good fighter take can advantage of this feedback as they press one another for an opening.
It’s very realistic at the end of the fight that Inigo becomes erratic with his defence. A masterful swordsman would seek to defend with conservative motions, whilst still threatening and making their opponent move wider and wider until there is an undefended opening that the swordsman can take advantage of—just as The Man in Black does with Inigo. This kind of masterful control of a fight takes precision and patience, which is why Inigo realises that The Man in Black has bettered him, and he surrenders.
A masterful swordsman would seek to defend with conservative motions, whilst still threatening and making their opponent move wider and wider until there is an undefended opening that the swordsman can take advantage of.
Overall the duel at the Cliffs of Insanity is strictly linear in its motions, much like a modern fencing bout. One way to take such advantage would be to step offline, changing the angulation of the attack—such as using the strategies of Thibault. The linear fencing in the fight reads well on film, however, and has a beautiful flow to it that in no way detracts from the rest of the movie.
Despite the criticisms mentioned above, I feel that the style of combat in the scene was entirely appropriate. Having the two characters fight in any other way would detract from the lighthearted atmosphere of the encounter. Ultimately this is what good fight design should do—fit with the characters and story and feel like a seamless part of the world they are in. By this standard, the scene is perfect!
Q: My final pop culture question, and I hope this one doesn’t make you cringe. I love the trope of a blade so sharp it can cut another sword clear in half! I’m guessing that one’s … not very realistic. What would it take to make that happen?
Samantha: Actually, this one isn’t so far fetched as other myths! It is possible for one sword to cut through another, but only if the sword that breaks is already weak; of poor quality. Steel is made up of crystals that form and weave together during forging, and once you fracture their structure (by heating or mistreating a blade) it is completely possible the sword can snap or yield to a forceful cut.
Two good steel swords that strike one another with a lot of power are going to be damaged, but if they are made well and flexible, their core should transfer the force along the length of the tang.
Blades cut when they are moving, and have thousands of microscopic teeth that bite into something, like a saw. Just pressing them hard against an object is not enough to cause a cut. There needs to be a sliding motion, just like with a saw cutting through wood.
When it comes to the trope of a sword slicing through armour, consider that armour is made to defend against swords and other weapons. That’s the purpose of its design. If swords were able to slice right through the layers then there would be absolutely no point to wearing a hot, heavy harness that takes a fair bit of time to put on. Armour worked, but like everything, it still had vulnerabilities. Many other tools were developed solely to damage a fighter in armour. If a sword were already able to do that then there would be no need for other weapons to exist like the war hammer, mace or flail.
If you were going to attack a well-armoured opponent with your sword, it would make sense to mainly thrust and only go for the gaps and weak places. Historically, fully-armoured knights fighting a sword-wielder would be targetted in areas like the armpits, the palms, the eye-sockets, inside the elbows, behind the knees, and other areas that armour wasn’t able to cover because it needed to still hinge and allow the fighter to move their body.
Although a sharp blade is dangerous and can cut easily, being able to make smooth, clean strikes that slice right through something requires a lot of practice. It takes very little pressure to cut through skin, but if you don’t follow through then an enemy may only be in pain, and able to strike you back! In historical swordsmanship, every cut should be an offensive blow. Even if it is a parry it should still be swung to still be a threat, and keep your opponent at bay.
Q: While heroes get themselves into dire situations, sword fighting in 7th Sea often has a playful edge! In a real sword fight (or more casual swordplay), are there any maneuvers where you know someone is just messing with you? Like playful moves, or provoking moves?
Samantha: Definitely! You can use your distance to trick an opponent, and bait them into attacking an opening that might be just out of range. You can switch your weapon from one hand to another, to confuse them, especially if they are not used to fighting a left-hander (although good fencing masters of the time would teach to defend against just that!).
You could play with them by making contact with their blade with the tip of yours, but not enough for them to control you—moving the fastest part of your sword around theirs. This can be very frustrating to experience because your opponent refuses to commit to an action.
You can lean away from your opponent when they strike, not even moving your feet. This can be annoying if the other person has put a lot of force into the blow… Another option when duelling at close range is to perform disarms. Many people don’t expect it, and it can be an amusing way to end a fight!
Q: In 7th Sea, the continent of Théah is made up of ten nations, each with its own distinct customs and personality. Can you talk about regional differences in bladed weapons? Are these differences largely aesthetic or will you find major differences in the shape, weight, and function of bladed weapons across 17th century Europe.
Samantha: The 17th century saw dramatic changes in single handed swords, and how they were used. Following the Renaissance, several distinctive blade types developed in Europe. The iconic shape of the cruciform, double-edged medieval sword was largely replaced by blades that ranged in shape from wide and curved to straight and narrow. Civilian and military weapons were extremely diverse and developed both for fashion and for function.
As the blade styles evolved they were imitated universally, but decoration and other details varied depending on culture and region. Hand protection was added to many swords and classical-inspired styling, such as scalloped shapes and the chiselled likeness of animals were very fashionable features found on many swords. Italian and Spanish weapons tended to be elaborate and flamboyant, Germanic weapons were more simple and functional, and English and French swords fell somewhere in between.
Many sword types were effectively the same across Europe as their specialised parts would be made at certain workshops and manufacturing hubs, then shipped and assembled by local cutlers. Some of the reasons for this were to enable the best product quality and also practicality of transport. For example, sword blades packed tight and stored in a barrel are a lot easier to ship than a bundle of fully-finished swords.
Italian and Spanish weapons tended to be elaborate and flamboyant, Germanic weapons were more simple and functional, and English and French swords fell somewhere in between.
The lessening influence of the Church on nobility and increased trade with the East contributed to social acceptance of curved sabres, and also the increased skill of swordsmiths (combined with access to fine quality steel) allowed for the development of longer, finer weapons like the rapier and the smallsword.
As well as being a military weapon, the rapier became immensely popular during the 16th and 17th centuries due to its elegant appearance and lethal capabilities, and especially as it could be an ‘espada ropera’- a sword of the robes, or daily clothes. It could be worn anywhere, unlike the larger swords that were associated with the ‘work’ of war and considered provocative and inappropriate for civilian life. The rapier was discreet enough to still be worn for self defence and showed the wearer was both a swordsman and a gentleman. During the 17th century the preference changed in favour of the smallsword, and then by the end of the century, sadly the pistol replaced these as the duellist’s weapon of choice.
Other shorter bladed weapons were popular during this time too, such as the basket-hilted broadsword (with a wire cage that protected the user’s hand) and the messer, a sword-like knife worn by all classes of society. For the upper classes the rapier enjoyed the most use, and its extreme length (between 30-55 inches) was a great advantage in any duel. At the beginning of the 17th century rapier fencers would frequently use a left-handed dagger as well. This fell out of fashion in most areas, except in Italy and Spain where the weapon took on a highly-developed, specialised form.
The rapier was discreet enough to still be worn for self defence and showed the wearer was both a swordsman and a gentleman.
Some other blades were immensely successful in select regions, such as the stocky, powerful cinquedea of Italy, which was used extensively there and nowhere else. Another example is the katzbalger of the Landsknecht mercenaries, a short, brutal and effective weapon- an appropriate companion to the professional soldier.
In some cities the wearing of swords was restricted or banned outright, so other weapons were adopted, such as falchions or baselards. Like their well-utilised cousin the messer, these might pass as swords at a distance but are actually constructed as knives with single edges and a different hilt, allowing them to defy legal restrictions through sheer technicality.
At sea, shorter weapons were also favoured due to their heft and manoeuvrability in close quarters. Firearms were becoming more efficient in the 17th century but were still limited with their reloading capacity and overall reliability, so many seamen opted to always fall back on wielding an axe, or a trusty blade.
Q: I’ve heard people refer to the katana as a superior bladed weapon. Do you think there’s a historic sword that’s a cut above the rest, or does it really come down to the skill of the bladesmith and the intended purpose of the sword?
Samantha: Whilst the katana was produced by an extraordinary feat of engineering, it was still only suitable within the context that it was used—defeating other warriors in single combat. Different weapons develop for different purposes, and there are some exceptional weapons (especially from ancient Asian and Scandinavian cultures) so it is very difficult to decide on one ‘best sword of all’.
However, since the majority of medieval and Renaissance swords were designed to follow harmonic principles of geometry, the original objects are beautiful and extremely well-balanced, symmetrical tools. For me, this makes them superior to most other weapons. I’m also biased towards medieval swords!
Q: How customized is footwork when it comes to using different swords? For example, if you spent your life training with a rapier then picked up a longsword for the first time, would you really trip yourself up?
Samantha: For later styles such as rapier or smallsword, footwork is very specialised, because the fencing style is based largely on thrusting and takes advantage of the minute differences in blade angles.
A rapier fighter could employ their footwork to wield a longsword and may still fight well, but there are major differences on how best to use your body to work with either weapon. A longsword requires both sides of the body to move together more wholistically, and to adjust your body structure for the powerful momentum of longsword cuts. The fencer would need to learn to wrestle as well, since the optimal sparring distance for longsword is much closer than rapier—just outside of grappling range—and the martial arts of the longsword largely incorporate switching between the two.
Q: Can you talk about little details a player or GM might add to their 7th Sea games to make dueling scenes or sword fights feel more realistic? Something that would take the scene from “awesome but impossible” to “awesome and plausible?”
Samantha: I’ve thrown in some clues in my other answers, which I hope will help players build more realism into their game. The essence of creating believable combat in a role-play story is to understand the purpose of the fight, and the motivations of the people in it. Do they want to get away? Do they want vengeance? Are they impressing their peers, or surviving a brutal confrontation? Are they in or out of their comfort zone? How desperate are they? Are they tired? How far away is their backup?
I think of combat as falling into three different goals: for show (like a duel of honour or test of sportsmanship), for self defence (such as being ambushed and fighting to get away), or for survival (such as enduring a battle or a situation that you can’t just walk away from). Once you understand where a character falls into these important categories, you can then look at other smaller details and build them in.
The essence of creating believable combat in a role-play story is to understand the purpose of the fight, and the motivations of the people in it.
As well as understanding this breakdown of fighting goals, my best advice is to learn as much as you can about historical arms, armour and their limitations and advantages so you can exploit the details in your narrative. This will make it feel real and engaging to the other people involved in your story.
Q: Let’s talk scrappy fighting! In 7th Sea you’ll find trained nobles and naval officers with swords, but you’ll also find pirates. What are some of the notable differences you’d see in a fight between a trained swordswoman and a rough n’ tumble fighter? What bladed weapons might a wealthy person have access to that a pirate wouldn’t?
Samantha: Did I hear you say, “Let’s talk about pirates”…?! Yarrr…!
‘Hit and run’ was the essential signature of a pirate attack. Historically, pirates worked through intimidation, relying on their reputation and superior strength to demoralise their victims, and the expectation was immediate surrender lest the hapless ship suffer fatal consequences. The majority of ships targeted by pirates were trade vessels that had never seen battle, so in most cases the terrified crew would comply after the pirates made a show of force and demanded a surrender. Many seamen could not swim, so even just the threat of fire and exploding devices such as early grenades thrown onto an oily wooden ship could be enough for a ship’s crew to be conquered without a drop of blood being spilled. On land, pirates would also employ raid techniques, sometimes banding together with other pirate crews so that their numbers overwhelmed the small towns they stormed.
Although pirates were thought of by their contemporaries as wild, cruel individuals that killed without hesitation, a great many were former merchant seamen; young men in their 20s who had willingly—or not—joined a pirate crew. Some would have been thugs and criminals, but the greatest fighting strengths that pirates possessed were their willingness to engage in violence, the firepower of their ship, and the reputation that preceded them.
Individually I can only speculate on how a pirate might fight. Brawling was common amongst both working men and academics in the 17th century, but a pirate’s intimacy with everyday violence would give them more comfort during a fight than a person living within the law might feel.
An experienced swordsman would have certainly studied rapier, military sabre or sidesword as a duelling weapon, as well as other ‘gentlemanly’ weapons such as dagger, cape and open hand/wrestling techniques. They would have been influenced by a calculated and mathematical approach to the defensive arts that grew during the Renaissance and was popularised by the writings of masters such as Capo Ferro, Thibault and Fabris. With a better concept of physics and more conservative motions, the swordsman would have the upper hand in a civilised fight. However pirates worked outside the law, so ‘anything goes’ was probably the best approach to winning a one-on-one fight with such a person.
Public duels amongst 17th century swordsmen were often bloody affairs, though rarely lethal. Thus an experienced fencer could have won many duels, yet might struggle to keep their head during a scrap with a disreputable, ‘rough and tumble’ type. In this case I think having general military experience would serve a person much better in such a fight than having only studied 17th century martial arts.
A wealthy person had a great variety of weapons available to them. As well as pistols, rifles and muskets (which were very much in everyday use during the 17th century) bladed weapons that a person of means might carry include rapiers, broadswords, any type of long knife, basket-hilted swords, sabres, or in some cases pikes, warhammers and short spears.
Fighting seamen such as pirates would have fought with more simple weapons such as pistols, naval axes and hangers—thick, curved, single-edged swords. Essentially the same as messers, hangers were in use for hundreds of years as popular weapons but found special favour during the Age of Sail, where they evolved into the weapons known as cutlasses (derived from an Italian word for a ‘long knife’). The cutlass was the ideal close-combat weapon for ship use, but was not in widespread use until the very end of the naval era, despite being the most well-remembered weapon in our mythology and stories about that time. The earlier hanger and other broad-bladed swords were most often used by the military and were very useful in naval combat due to their short length, sturdy construction and terrific cutting power, which combined to make them excellent weapons within the tight quarters of a densely-rigged ship deck.
Q: Finally, if someone wanted to learn historical sword fighting today, where should they look? What do you recommend for beginners who can’t wait to jump in?
First I recommend watching ‘Back to the Source‘, an excellent documentary that was made recently about the historical European martial arts community. It covers a lot of what we do, is free to watch online and is very encouraging for folks just getting started!
There are many online resources, such as the Wiktenauer (a gigantic online library of historical European martial arts books) and terrific YouTube channels such as Schola Gladiatoria, which will give you an abundance of historical martial arts knowledge.
You can also check out the HEMA Alliance Club Finder to search for local groups practicing near you.
Failing all that, should you wish to do library or internet research yourself, you can look for ‘Western Martial Arts’, ‘Historical European Martial Arts’, ‘Historical Swordsmanship’ or ‘Historical Fencing’.
I’d recommend buying some kind of starter sword (which can be made of wood or synthetic) and practice hitting a target. Don’t buy a steel sword until you know if it will suit regular training. HEMA-oriented websites should help you find good, trustworthy brands of starter swords.
If you are training with a friend wear sturdy gloves and head protection at the very least! Many people buy fencing masks, which are good if you start sparring. If you do want to spar I’d also recommend wearing a mouthguard, some kind of joint, neck and torso protection, and groin protection for guys. Developing control is more important than having equipment, but safety gear needs to help keep you safe and confident while you learn. Personally, when I pick up a sword for practice I also put on safety glasses, which cost only a few dollars and are very good if your sword breaks or your friend slips and donks you in the eye!
HEMA is a growing movement and with the rich resources of the internet, it’s very possible to start a club if there are none in your area. There are a great variety other medieval combat groups as well. For people who are less interested in historical martial arts and perhaps want to do armoured combat, there are many sports groups that specialise in this which aren’t associated with HEMA, but are also a lot of fun.
There’s also the SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism) who also train with medieval armour and host impressive, huge battles, and some SCA groups offer really good rapier training. If you’re not ready to get hit with steel or even wooden swords you might want to get some experience using foam swords with LARPing groups. There are many fighters from the groups above who cross-train in the relaxed, fun environment that LARPing offers, and I know HEMA groups that use foam to build up confidence and awareness with beginners, especially youth. It’s fine to use lots of training tools so long as you remember what they are simulating- a sharp steel sword used in the art of self-defence.
Whatever path you choose, if you get a sword, find someone to teach you, make time to practice, and keep at it, you will be well on the way to becoming a competent swordsperson!
This was fantastic, Samantha! Thank you again for sharing your time and enthusiasm in the name of 7th Sea.
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