Some Scattered Thoughts on the Subject of Swordplay

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Braak
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Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett have launched a new Steampunk webcomic that looks pretty rad.  I am pretty excited for it, but I don’t know if I have the patience to read just two pages a week; this was kind of the same problem that I suffered with Freakangels.  If all goes well, probably what will happen is that I’ll just check in every couple of months or so and then read a whole bunch of pages at once.  Which, just as well.

Anyway, something like 80% of the pages so far are swordfights, and I love the HELL out of swordfights.  And there are some particulars about sword-fighting — especially this Western European-style fencing — that I am interested in and that I don’t think quite jive, and so I’m just going to write about them for a while.

Just to be clear, this isn’t meant with any mean-spiritedness.  I don’t know if Rick Burchett knows a lot about fencing, but why the hell would he?  There’s a lot of things that are important to know in life, and by the time Greg Rucka comes around and tells you you have to draw a bunch of swordfights, it’s probably too late, you’ve already learned something else that was undoubtedly more important.  And MOREOVER, this is the sort of thing that bugs me, but hardly bugs anyone else, because also who cares?  As long as we understand what’s happening in the story, the actual details of the fight aren’t especially important.  (This happens to me in a surprising number of media, actually; that episode of Firefly with the duel in it drove me NUTS.)

Anyway, let’s have a look at Page 8, which is the page on which I left my comment (HILARIOUSLY suggesting that Lady Sabre had disengaged to quatre when I clearly meant tierce, for fuck’s sake, am I some kind of idiot?).  I’m going to use this is a basic example just because it’s illustrated, it’s right here, and it actually provides the framework for a couple of interesting points.  (Interesting to me, obviously; maybe you don’t find it interesting, but that’s probably because you’re a boring person.)

1. The Weapons

Lady Sabre has some kind of collapsible sword, which is fine — this is a magic-science world, you can have any kind of sword you want, let’s not worry about blade integrity or anything like that.  It is clearly a sword in the model of a smallsword — narrow blade, small shield guard, knuckleguard, rear quillion, &c. — a weapon used almost exclusively by the gentry for the purpose of dueling. The thing about a smallsword is that it is very light and very fast, but historically didn’t have much of an edge.  There ARE weapons that are edged — the definitions of “sabers” and “smallswords” has historically been a pretty muddy one.  You can see examples of this in Pirates of the Caribbean — a straight saber, somewhere between the later smallsword and the earlier rapier.  But the thing about even those straight sabers is that, while the edge could reasonably give someone a decent enough cut, especially if you gouged them with the very end of it or something, you couldn’t chop a person with it.  Well, you could, but good luck doing any damage.

By contrast, Hans has a traditional-looking cavalry saber.  This is heavy, curved, and very specifically designed to chop guys.  You swing it around while on horseback, and you don’t have a lot of opportunity for fine point control.  You don’t need it, though; between the saber’s weight, its curve, your leverage, and the momentum that the horse is giving you, you’re going to do a fine job of chopping the peasantry, DON’T WORRY.

I think this is an interesting combination of weapons, because they both require very specifically different styles.  Now, if you scroll down a little on that page 8, the scripting suggests that it’s mostly Hans who is attacking and Sabre who’s evading or parrying — but the artist has actually drawn something that looks like the other way around:  Sabre appears to be the aggressor.

Personally, I think Burchett is closer to right on this score.  In general the whole style of fighting with these two weapons is completely different; the smallsword wants distance (since it doesn’t cut, and you don’t need to thrust more than a few inches), while the saber wants to be a little closer (to take advantage of its chopping power).  The smallsword is all point, the saber relies heavily on edge.  And, importantly, the saber is a much heavier, stronger weapon and very difficult to parry with a small sword.

It’s not impossible, of course; it involves a lot of binds and deflections.  But it is very difficult and you run the serious risk of, when trying to pick up the saber with a parry, having your opponent just plow right through.  This is actually a serious risk even when both duellists are using sabers.  It’d be even worse with a smallsword.

However, the smallsword does have an advantage over the saber, and that’s speed.  The most sensible course of action for Lady Saber, considering her and her opponent’s armaments, is not a defensive game at all, but instead an extremely aggressive one.  It takes minimal effort to reposition the point of a smallsword, while maximum effort to reposition the saber to parry it.  (This is just mechanically, by the way; the saber is going to be slower; the issue of balance, and the fact that the weight of the saber will rapidly exhaust the sabreur, is a whole other story.)

I think this idea holds up pretty well in terms of story, too:  if Sabre is waiting for something (I’m assuming she leaps off of that space zeppelin and onto her own ship), then keeping Hans off-balance and at bay and not giving him much time to think is going to be her best strategy.

(Other interesting note:  the traditional pirate sword — the cutlass — is a shorter, thicker version of the cavalry saber.  The general consensus is that this weapon sacrifices length, which isn’t necessary when you aren’t on horseback, for the sake of the ability to chop a rope, which I guess is handy on a boat.  “Cutlass” = “cut loose”.)

2.  Duelling vs. Fighting

This is a big argument that comes up in swordplay circles, and it’s usually along the lines of someone being contemptuous of a particular dueling style on the grounds that in a fight, “I would just punch him,” or something like that, and I don’t think it’s very fair.  Mostly, I think this is because people tend to think of a duel as a sort of watered-down fight — because there are rules, it sort of doesn’t “count” as something “real.”  Which, well, I think it’s a little silly, but it might be better to think of a duel as a bloodied up game.  Sure, these Frenchmen COULD solve their problems with a coin toss, or a friendly game of ninepins.  But instead they’re going to roll up their sleeves and try to fucking stab each other.

The other thing is that it really exacerbates the “Well, I would just…” game that martial artists always get into, which is stupid.  I saw this when I went to the the Swordplay Symposium Internationale while I was in college, and Ramon Martinez was there talking about Destreza — a very formal Spanish dueling style.  And inevitably the conversation came around to what would happen if such a Spaniard fenced with an Italian bravo, who had a similar weapon but was basically just a streetfighting thug.  And of course the Italian would just smack the sword out of the way and tackle the guy, because that’s what you DO in a streetfight.

Yeah, sure, you would do that.  And if you did it in a duel, when the Spaniard wasn’t expecting it, it would work really well.  If you were in a fight with him, I’m not sure it would work because, duh, he’d be expecting you to try some shit like that.  You’d go to hit the sword and he would disengage and stab you, because even though he hasn’t spent any time practicing how to tackle a guy, he’s spent hours and hours every day practicing how to not get his sword knocked out of the way.

Duellists, like Hans for instance, are dangerous.  The lack of experience in a fight hurts them, but technique can make up for a lot.  (I’m assuming that Hans primarily uses that sword for duels, just because a setting with floating islands and space zeppelins doesn’t seem like it sees a lot of cavalry action, so when else is going to use it?)  It does lead to a different mindset, though; in the backmatter, Rucka suggests that the duels that Hans has fought haven’t always been to the death, which means they’re sometimes to the first blood:  that is, you just have to cut the guy, anywhere, in order for the matter to be settled.  The thing about that is that once you’re used to not aiming for the kill, it can be hard to get yourself out of the habit.  I had this problem (well, the opposite problem) when I switched from sport foil, which only acknowledges the the torso as valid target area, to other forms of fencing that acknowledge the legs and arms — I had a hard time fighting mock duels to the blood, because my brain just wouldn’t accept that I could hit someone in the leg, so I kept going for the kill.


The point is — and this isn’t really something that has come up in the story so far — is that it’s probably not right to dismiss someone as a competent swordsman because they’re a duelist and therefore just won’t understand dirty fighting.  But it is valid to point out that the mindset of a duelist is sometimes very different, and this can prolong or complicate a fight as they’re instinctively trying to satisfy certain particular conditions.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that both of them are duelists.  If you look back at that fight, one of the things that you notice is, with the exception of Lady Sabre’s dirty pool retractable derringer, neither she nor Hans uses her off-hand.  The empty hand, in a fight, can easily be used to pin someone’s arm, often to grab the opponent’s blade, and at the very least to just punch a guy.  But both combatants keep that hand out of the way, which is something that you only do if you’ve learned to duel, rather than fight.  (Alternately:  Lady Sabre doesn’t want to kill Hans, really, and is just trying to buy time; though if that’s the case, I don’t see why a punch in the nose wouldn’t buy her even more time.)

(There’s a lot of debate about how effectively a swordsman can grab an opponent’s blade.  It’s obviously easy with a smallsword, since there’s hardly any edge, but would probably be more difficult with a saber.  The key is that, in addition to grabbing the weapon, you need to bend it between your thumb and the ball of your hand, thus stopping your opponent from jerking it out, and minimizing the damage that even a razor-sharp edge will do to your hand.  The problem is that the saber is less flexible, and so harder to control; on the other hand, if you caught it on the forte (the bottom third of the weapon), it probably wouldn’t be very sharp there, either.)

I guess I will do this in three parts.  Here is part two.

  1. […] may remember this comic, from when it inspired me to write nearly ten thousand words on the subject of fictional swordplay.  I am very much in favor of it, generally, and I very much […]

  2. […] I am going to do right now.  If you DIDN’T know, then you might like to start over at the beginning of this series of articles.  Otherwise, let’s just get right to it.  I am going to start […]

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