One of my many hobbies is HEMA, or historical European martial arts, wherein folks study various fighting manuals from the medieval and renaissance periods and attempt to recreate these martial disciplines as accurately as possible. Once you swing a sword the way it’s meant to be swung and then do a little historical research, you quickly find popular media presents combat with swords, axes, maces, and other crushy, stabby, pointy things . . . well, uh, incorrectly would the nicest way to put it.
So, from the author’s perspective, if you wanted to portray your melee combat more realistically, how would you go about doing it? Well, research is always the best answer, and it couldn’t hurt to at least watch some HEMA sparring to get an idea of what certain types of sword fighting probably looked like (or even take a few classes yourself). That said, I think the five “myths” I’m going to debunk below are a good place to start. At least, they’re things that jump out at me when I’m watching movies or TV that feature sword-fighting and such.
Let me preface this list by saying I am by no means an expert in this subject, but I’m not entirely clueless either. I’ve done some form of full-contact fighting (SCA, HEMA, etc) off and on for the better part of 20 years, so I’m reasonably well acquainted with the mechanics of hitting people and trying not to get hit in return. Also, please note, I have probably violated every one of these “rules” in my writing for various reasons (“cuz its cool” being at the top of the list), so, please, don’t take this as me laying down the gospel. The idea here is not to remove the fun from fight scenes but to identify a few easy fixes if you wanted to present melee in a slightly more realistic fashion. If that’s not your thing, you’re not wrong by any means. There’re a lot of ways to write good action scenes in fiction, and ultra-realistic is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Okay, here we go.
1) Swords don’t go SCHWING! when drawn.
Go get a butter a knife, wrap it in the sleeve of your leather jacket, and then pull it free. What noise did it make? None, right? Yep, unless the sword is pulled from a metal scabbard, that cool SCHWING! sound you hear in every single movie doesn’t happen. Most scabbards are made of wood and leather, and even with a metal throat they don’t produce much noise at all. Swords also don’t sound like angry tuning forks, buzzing and hissing every time the hero flicks his wrist.
The fix: Easy; let your swords be silent, and let your hero’s deeds do the talking.
2) Back scabbards are impractical for big swords.
It’s a simple matter of physics, really. If you stick a big sword in a scabbard across your back, say a longsword with a 36-inch blade, your arm simply isn’t long enough to pull the sword up and out of the scabbard. You’ll get about halfway and then have to do some weird bodily contortions to get the sword all the way out. Even with a shorter blade, it’s going to take you a lot longer to draw the sword from your back than it would if it was on your hip. Not to mention, returning the sword to the scabbard is going to be a real bitch if you can’t, you know, see the scabbard. I see many unfortunate heroes dying from self-inflicted stab wounds to the top of their heads.
The fix: Honestly, including back scabbards in fantasy fiction is a pretty minor sin, all things considered. They do look pretty damn cool. But if you want to be more realistic, there’s some evidence that big two-handed swords were carried on the back to transport them from place to place, but they were probably discarded before battle began. So, if you use back scabbards like that, you’re within the bounds of reasonable historical use.
3) Armor works.
Oh, man, this is a big one for me. Yes, armor works, and it works really, really well. So well, in fact, that most swords are useless against good armor unless used in very specific ways (half-swording, for example). Blades just don’t cut through metal (generally), and that means a guy or gal in chain mail or plate armor was pretty well protected from sword blows. Armor became so good that a bunch of specialized weapons developed to defeat it, mostly polearms that put a lot of pressure on a very small area, puncturing or crushing rather than cutting.
There are tons of videos on YouTube demonstrating the resilience of metal armor (and even padded armor) against sword blows, but here’s a couple of great videos on the subject from Falchion Archaeology to get you started:
Cluny Falchion vs Maille – This an excellent cutting test with a falchion, a sword known for its fearsome cutting power, against padded armor and chain mail. He doesn’t test the falchion on plate because it’s kind of a foregone conclusion.
Polearm Test 1 – Want to see what types of weapons could actually defeat plate armor? Here are some great examples.
The fix: This is a tough one because sometimes you need the hero to cut through a bunch of mooks without describing every little detail. I’d say it would be enough to show armor working from time to time for both heroes and bad guys. You might also show the hero using half-swording and other techniques designed to defeat armor (and maybe stating that’s what they’re doing). Or, hell, dispense with the every-hero-must-have-a-sword trope and give you’re protagonist a poleaxe because they know they’re going to be fighting dudes in armor.
4) Shields are also really, really good.
You rarely see a hero with a shield. Why is that? Trust me, the ability to places a small, mobile wall between you and a guy trying to hit you is awfully handy. There’s a reason the shield is so ubiquitous throughout history—it works. That said, the personal shield was largely abandoned once plate armor became the norm because it was kind of redundant at that point, and you had a better chance of defeating the other guy’s armor with a two-handed weapon, like a poleaxe (see point three).
The fix: Use them where appropriate, and like armor, show them being effective once in a while. Shields were used offensively too, so there’s a lot of cool opportunities to let the hero use her shield to knock bad guys off their feet or smash their faces in.
5) Fewer instant kills.
In movies, you often see the bad guy take a single cut from the hero’s sword (slicing through armor like it was made of tissue paper) and then fall down stone dead. The truth is that most deaths on a medieval battlefields were probably from blood loss and infection rather than instantly fatal wounds. Humans are actually kind of hard to kill, and unless you inflict a really catastrophic wound, like behead someone or crush their skull, instant death is unlikely. That means even a mortal blow leaves the bad guy quite a bit of time to do some damage. It’s why historical European martial arts teach continued defensive measures AFTER a telling blow is struck. Basically, you want to stick your opponent and then get out of the way while he bleeds to death.
If you’d like to read a very thorough and engaging article on this subject, “The Dubious Quick Kill” by Frank Lurz is about as good as it gets.
The fix: Another tough one because you don’t want every bad guy lingering around after the hero has effectively defeated him. Your hero is special, and she should be able to kill the bad guys in a single blow now and then. That said, it’s pretty simple to get the idea across by dropping it in occasionally. Have your hero strike a mortal blow and then continue to defend himself as the bad guy slowly bleeds out. Show the aftermath of a battle where some men have died from blood loss and infection rather than skulls cloven to the teeth and such (not that that didn’t happen every once in a while). Also, it never hurts to do a little research on wound trauma for this kind of thing; the more you know how the body works (and what stops it from working), the more realistic you can make your fight scenes and any resulting wounds.
Of course, there are lots more melee myths out there, and I may explore some in future posts, but these five are a good place to start. If you have any experience in this area and want to share some of your own melee myths (or point out something I’ve missed), please do so in the comments.