Modern warfare is packed with high-tech weaponry, but until the end of the 19th century close combat on foot was still the order of the day. To win a sword fight, you had to be able to pull off a range of moves designed to distract, maim and ultimately defeat the enemy — whether that was within the sacrosanct rules of a duel or the chaos of a battlefield. There were many variations of sword fighting around the world, but despite their stylistic differences they all relied on a few essential techniques to win, as we reveal here…

01 Choose your weapon

When it comes to selecting your sword, be sure to choose a weapon that gives you the maximum reach as well as a sharp cutting edge and stabbing point — this greatly increases your attack capability. Size isn’t everything though -make sure that it’s light enough for you to wield effectively, so that you can move around without tiring too quickly.

02 Ground control

In a formal duel both combatants would agree on a neutral area that doesn’t give either of them an advantage, but when you’re on the battlefield anything goes. Always take the higher ground and press your enemy downhill; they have to work harder to lift and wield their sword, while you can rain down blows from above.

03 Don’t hold back

From the word go, you need to attack fast and unpredictably to put the enemy at an immediate disadvantage. Distract your opponent by making sudden noises or manoeuvring them so that sunlight is shining in their eyes — this will lessen their offensive ability and, at the same time, give you more openings to strike.

04 First blood

With the enemy off-balance, your first serious move needs to damage or disable their sword arm, knee or heel — all injuries that will impair their ability to fight and so give you the advantage. In a duelling scenario the first blood is generally a cut to the enemy’s upper arm, but this gentlemanly tactic is useless on a ruthless battlefield.

05 It’s just a flesh wound…

A duel might end here or go on to the death — in which case the same tactics as the battlefield are needed. Follow up your strike by pressing your enemy backwards. Stay agile and out of your opponent’s reach, and aim for areas like the arteries in the thighs and armpits to weaken and disorient them through blood loss.

06 Finish the job

With the enemy now weakened it’s time to go for a killing blow. If they are wearing armour then the joins at the shoulders, armpits, neck and thighs are generally the best places to target. Aim to hit an artery, stab the lower chest or stomach to cause a serious wound, or go for a slice to the neck to take your opponent down.

How not to win a sword fight

In 19th-century Paris, a colonel called Barbier-Dufai and a young guards captain called Raoul de Vere got into a fight. The young officer forced the colonel to a duel, but was at a disadvantage: he wasn’t a trained swordsman. Barbier-Dufai beat him at fencing, but De Vere pushed to continue, so the colonel called for another weapon to be chosen. He decided to stop a passing horse-drawn cab and continue the fight inside. It gets even stranger: the combatants were tied together with only their right arms free. Each had a poignard — a long dagger with a thin, tapering blade and sharp point. With the coach doors locked shut, they were then driven twice around the Place du Carrousel. When the coach was stopped and the doors opened, they found De Vere dead and Barbier-Dufai horribly wounded. De Vere had stabbed him four times and even bitten him. As he was helped away, Barbier-Dufai is reported to have said, “At least, gentlemen, you will do me the justice to declare that I killed him fairly.»




A single-handed weapon with a double-edged, leaf-shaped blade that could reach up to 60 centimetres (24 inches) long. It served as a backup to the spear.



A thin, double-edged, two-handed sword with a cross-haped hilt and pointed blade used for penetrating thick medieval plate armour.



A single-handed sword with a double-edged, pointed blade. Also known as a basket-hilted sword due to its protective grip.



A two-handed, single-edged blade with a slight curve, used by samurai warriors for both its strength and cutting ability.



A slender but sharp sword used in the 16th and 17th centuries in duels. Its light weight and small size made it ideal for practising sword skills and rarely deadly.

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