“Tactical” Swordsmanship
Scenario-Based Training for the Sword

J. Mark Bertrandmbbio.jpg (3297 bytes)
ARMA Senior Scholar


My first taste of what I have come to think of as “tactical” swordsmanship came on a blistering afternoon in the spring of 1998. At the conclusion of a daylong seminar taught by John Clements, which had covered a wide variety of weapon systems—from sword and buckler to pole weapons—a final treat was announced. We had already divided into two teams and given group combat a try; now, John invited everyone in the group to be on one side while he alone comprised the other. Such opportunities present themselves rarely. In the controlled environment of the classroom, the instructor always has the advantage, but against a dozen highly motivated (albeit novice) swordsmen, there would be no mercy. As they say, John would have to put up, or shut up.

            I played this one smart. While a good number of students rushed forward to attack John immediately, I fell back into the second wave hoping that once he was engaged with the others, I could take him on the flank. The only problem with my approach was that John didn’t “engage” with anyone. The moment the combat began, he was running. At first he seemed to be beating a retreat—sensible move, under the circumstances—but once a sufficient gap opened in our ranks, he suddenly reversed course, passing through the gap like a needle through fabric, cutting and thrusting as he ran. On the first pass, he struck one or two students without stopping. Those who slowed down and assumed a “guard” position he simply bypassed, often cutting them on the back of the leg for their trouble. He never stopped to cross swords with anyone.

            If I could have witnessed the whole thing from above, a pattern would have emerged. Although we were twelve men against one, the individual was controlling the group. When we closed on him, he circled and ran around our flank. When we stopped to catch a breath, he was suddenly upon us. More than once I had to desperately fend off his seemingly random blows as he buzzed past me. On the next pass, with half our number already wounded and out of the game, I put everything I had into a diagonal cut at John’s passing form—only to strike empty space and receive an incapacitating slice on the back of my knee in return. I was out of the fight.

            There was something more than prowess at work here. Part of John’s advantage was his experience, and part was his warrior mindset—what for many of us was a game of tag was for him deadly serious. I was reminded of Sir Richard Greenville who, in 1591, sailed his ship Revenge into a fleet of fifty Spanish vessels off the Azores. To subdue the Revenge, the Spanish had to fight desperately for fifteen hours, had two of their ships sunk and two more sinking—and this was at odds of 50 to 1. To be sure, John had a bit of Greenville’s tenacity that day, but tenacity alone could not account for his results. As the author of Ecclesiastes, no stranger to the sword, reminds us: “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, … but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Swift and strong he may have been, but there was something more to the way John Clements suspended time and chance that afternoon. And once he had dispatched us all, we gathered around him and he began to explain … tactics.


Untitled-8.JPG (32207 bytes)Modern combat instructors know that the best way to equip recruits for battle is to arm them with a handful of simple techniques grounded in tactical reality. Today, traditional fencing is taught in just the opposite way. Instruction is strong on technique and weak on tactics. Perhaps this imbalance reflects how far removed swordsmanship has become from the reality of combat; technique remains relevant in the sport of fencing, but with the martial application gone there is little point in teaching tactics. Fights like the one I described above, with one man taking on twelve, are the thing of swashbuckling fantasy, not the reality of modern competition—or of nineteenth century dueling, for that matter.

            Of course, the form of dueling from which modern fencing is derived was as far removed from sword combat as pistol dueling was from the Wild West shootout. The environment and circumstances were strictly controlled, so that a combatant could limit himself exclusively to the realm of technique without mishap. The legacy of this control is with us today. Even in the best schools, the encounter with swords is a regulated, one-on-one bout between adversaries armed more or less equally. It takes place on flat, featureless ground where neither man has the advantage. The variables are quite narrow: the length of a man’s arm, the fact that he uses the right or left hand. Time and chance are given little room to work their folly.

            If our purpose is to train for the duel, learning technique without tactics is sufficient. In fact, I would say it is ideal, because the greater one ventures into the realm of tactics, the less demanding technique tends to be—the temptation is to compensate for rough technique by seizing the tactical advantage. And that would hardly be sporting, would it?

            If, however, our interest is in Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship, the elimination of tactical considerations imposes an intolerable limit on our training. My own reading suggests that polite dueling was the exception at this time, not the rule, and that the man at arms had to be prepared to face danger in many shapes. As Rocco Bonetti would have attested, one possibly was as likely to be assaulted with oars as with rapiers! (And if one had never given the oar vs. rapier fight much thought, one would probably lose, as Rocco did.)Untitled-9.JPG (30918 bytes)

            To be honest, the need for tactical swordsmanship did not occur to me until I began to re-read Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography. I recalled that the Italian sculptor had described a number of melees and I wanted to draw on his first-hand accounts for a paper that I was researching. Much to my surprise, duels are quite rare in this quarrelsome narrative. In fact, the one duel I managed to locate never came to fruition, as Benvenuto’s opponent failed to show up—no doubt cowed by Cellini’s reputation as a brawler! Instead, the combats in the Autobiography are down and dirty fighting, often initiated with the dagger and resembling nothing so much as assassinations. The fights are frequently lopsided, with Cellini facing a number of men on his own, or a handful of his friends standing up to fifty men of the city watch. With the advent of firearms, we are accustomed to fights ending in a matter of seconds, but in the days of hand-to-hand, they could go on and on, and a small group of determined swordsmen could hold their own against a much greater number. And well-dressed gentlemen of Cellini’s day, like narcotics agents of our own time, never left home without their body armor—in this case, a discreet mail shirt worn under the doublet.

            The more I read of Cellini’s exploits, the more I realized that despite my study of the sixteenth century fencing treatises, I was completely unprepared for a humid Roman night at the tavern. There was a whole level of combat reality that had passed me by: the realm of tactics.


Pic00013d1.jpg (236026 bytes)Are you thinking tactically about swordsmanship? Here’s a simple diagnostic. Ask yourself, “Who would have the advantage, the man armed with a sword, or the man with a dagger?” If you automatically side with the swordsman—if you envision the two of them squared off at the swordsman’s preferred distance, with the poor fellow armed with the dagger nervously backing away from danger, then you aren’t thinking tactically at all! Let me phrase the question differently. Who has the advantage, the swordsman or the man with the dagger, if they are both seated on the same tavern bench? Now do you see the point I’m making? The poor swordsman will be perforated time and again before he can even bring his weapon to bear on the problem. (Although the dagger at close quarters can backfire—just ask Christopher Marlowe.) The “advantage” in any situation will depend on a number of factors, a number of tactical considerations.

            At close quarters, the dagger is a more effective weapon than the sword. Have you ever wondered why swordsmen wore their daggers at the small of their backs, with the hilt facing to the right? If the dagger was intended for the left hand, why not turn the hilt so it could be grasped behind the back, rather than forcing the left hand to reach across the body to grab it? The answer is simple. If a man is standing six feet in front of you with a dagger in his hand, you cannot draw your sword. If you try, he will check your forearm and prevent the draw, or ignore you entirely and start stabbing. But if you fall back a pace and fend with your left hand, your right can easily grab the dagger hilt (which is located behind the hip, the preferred location of handguns today) and draw it with the standard “icepick” grip of the day. Now it goes without saying that if a man is coming at you with his dagger drawn, there is no question of a polite duel settling things!

            Pic00006d2.jpg (94939 bytes)Not long ago, John Clements and I had an interesting conversation. We were looking at galleys from Dr. Sydney Anglo’s book The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, and John pointed out that Dr. Anglo had remarked upon something he had long wondered about: why the Renaissance treatises don’t spend much time on drawing the sword. After all, when I studied the pistol, the first thing I was taught was a quick way to bring the weapon into action from its holster. Presumably the Renaissance masters developed similar techniques to aid their students in the fight, but few of them—the thorough, if idiosyncratic, Thibault being one—actually teach a “fast draw” technique. In Japanese swordsmanship, of course, the draw is so important that the art of iaito deals with almost nothing else. So why are the Western masters largely silent? Perhaps because they were operating with the assumptions of the duel in mind, or perhaps because in a situation that called for the “fast draw” they advised their students to reach for the dagger….

            For the most part, the tactical advice offered by the masters is limited to considerations about whether the left-handed swordsman has the advantage, or whether one should proceed to the dueling field unaccompanied. Their mindset was more technical than tactical, perhaps because the reality of tactics was much more apparent to their students than to those of us studying the art at a distance of five hundred years. Still, to develop the kind of skills that would serve us well in one of Cellini’s battle royals, we can benefit by introducing some tactical exercises into our training.


Generally speaking, an introduction to “tactical” swordsmanship should require the student to a) face multiple opponents, b) fight against dissimilar weapons, c) overcome challenges posed by the environment, and d) perform while impaired by injury. These are all hallmarks of modern tactical training –and standard practice in our own Training Program. Anyone who has been trained in the use of firearms will be familiar with shooting multiple targets (while avoiding hostages), training with a variety of weapons, using cover and concealment to advantage and firing with the weak hand, simulating a strong hand injury. The idea is to assume, quite rightly, that you will start every fight at a disadvantage, and then to train to overcome them. A student who has trained this way will have no difficulty facing one whose thinking has been limited by the confines of the duel if honor. At the same time, he will be much better able to react and adapt to realistic scenarios.

            Pic00042d3.jpg (26160 bytes)What follows are some drills and observations designed to help you incorporate tactical considerations into your own swordsmanship training. This is by no means a comprehensive list; rather, it is a starting point. The advice assumes that participants will observe proper safety. My hope is that students will take these training ideas and use them to develop effective ones for your own use.


First, arm a swordsman with sword and dagger—both of which are ‘sheathed.’ If you’re using wooden wasters then metal or leather rings can be used; if using padded weapon simulators, you will have to approximate the sheathing. The point is to force the student to draw his weapons before he can use them. You can naturally substitute a buckler for the dagger, but I think it is best to start with the dagger since it can be used more effectively as a close quarters offensive weapon. Now that your swordsman is armed, you will run him through a number of tactical scenarios designed to do the following:

       Make him choose which weapon(s) to employ

As I mentioned previously, this is an essential consideration. If your opponent is seated across a table from you, drawing your sword doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, if he is some distance away, or already in the process of drawing his own weapon, not drawing your own sword is foolish. Tactical scenarios should first present the student with a decision to make about the nature of his response—in other words, the situation must be assessed.

       Make him control distance

If, under stress, the student fails to control distance, he must pay for it. The tactical scenario should be designed so that only proper control of distance will allow success (this where learning to close and fight inside also comes into play). For example, if the student turns to find a man rushing forward unarmed or with a dagger in hand (as in the situation I described earlier), then it is not enough for the student to draw his own weapon in response. He must simultaneously step back—controlling the distance—to insure his safety. In fact, no action is more important in the tactical scenario than control of distance.

       Make him act decisively and quickly

The dueling scenario allows students to act defensively and gives them time to think. The tactical scenario should be designed so that immediate action is required to solve it. The student must act before thinking. Rather than waiting for openings, the student must create them or face the consequences. This kind of training is essential for people like me, who prefer to ‘counter punch,’ playing a defensive game until the other guy makes a mistake. In a tactical scenario, as in a fight, there will be plenty of mistakes to go around, and not enough time to wait for them.

       Make him subordinate technique to tactics

In a fight, fencing’s complex attacks and counterattacks are abandoned in favor of simple action. Under stress, simple actions are the easiest to perform. The goal of a tactical scenario is to produce the stress necessary to reduce the student to simple, effective actions. Of course, there is no actual opposition between technique and tactics—ultimately, technique is nothing more than tactics codified, but for the student it is important to understand that the perfection of technique is irrelevant to the outcome of the fight.


If you want to see the way tactics are codified into technique, let’s look at a very simple scenario. We place our swordsman facing a corner of the training room, his back to the opponent, who grasps a dagger in “icepick” fashion. At the signal, the opponent will rush forward with the intention of stabbing the swordsman. The swordsman’s response, as we have seen, will be to step back, ward with his left hand, and draw his own dagger with the right hand. There are variations on this, of course, but the response should follow these lines. We place the swordsman in the corner so that he can only move back so much—he controls the distance, but he is forced to act decisively to solve the problem.

            Now, if you run this scenario with a number of students, they will observe one another and in time develop a ‘correct’ response to the scenario. “When faced with an opponent rushing forward with his dagger held aloft, I will step back, check his right arm with my left, and bring my own dagger out to stab him.” And what’s that? A technique. In fact, when you interpret a technique from the historical treatises, you can often work backward to glimpse the tactical reality from which it arose (…which is makes up much of the HACA view).


Place the same swordsman in the same corner, put the same dagger-wielding bad guy ready to pounce twenty feet behind him, and another man armed with a sword twenty feet behind the guy with the knife. Now you have a scenario with multiple opponents and dissimilar weapons. The corner also represents an environmental challenge. Your swordsman turns, executes the technique we just saw codified in the simple scenario, and then faces a swordsman armed only with his dagger. He evades the first blow, aided by the dagger, and draws his own sword. Now he is armed with sword and dagger against a man who only has a sword. If he has trouble dispatching the first opponent, the second will be on top of him before he can prepare himself. If he attempts to draw his sword at the wrong time or in the wrong way, he will be wounded. But if he keeps his head and responds immediately to each threat, he can successfully solve the problem.  The scenario can be repeated with bucklers or spears.

            The goal of a scenario like this is different from the goal of playing loose (i.e. sparring). When we spar, we are testing our skills against one another. When we train using tactical scenarios, the “opponents” are facilitating the student’s learning process—they act like sensible adversaries, but their goal is to get in there and kill, not to ‘fence.’ Instead of bobbing around, aiming for each other’s extremities, everyone in the scenario should be going for the jugular. Yes, this will create openings for the student to take advantage of—that’s what training is all about. But the scenario frees students to commit to action in a way that they never will in sparring. It is a good supplemental tool to develop an instinct for decisive action.


          As swordsman, we have the advantage over our colleagues who train with modern weapons like the firearm. Yes, their weapon is imminently more practical, but our training can be considerably more precise. They have to rely on cardboard targets that do not shoot back. We can train with intelligent opponents whose goal is to thwart our every move and rain down crippling blows on our heads. So, in theory at least, it should be possible to produce a comparatively sophisticated fighter. That is, assuming we pay attention to tactics!

            To the extent that swordsmen confuse techniques with tactics and settle for simple, one-on-one dueling constructs instead of tactically rich training scenarios, we squander this advantage. It isn’t enough to face off, sword in hand, and see who finds an opening first. That surrenders too much to time and chance. Instead, we should begin most all mock combats at a distinct disadvantage and train in such a way that we consistently overcome it. We should learn how (and when!) to draw our swords, how to control the distance, and when to abandon the complex and polished technique of the salle in favor of the real world’s rough and tumble. We should not scoff at odds of twelve to one; instead, we should seek them out. As swordsmen, we enjoy an ironic edge when it comes to training—ironic in the sense that our training can never truly ‘pay off’ in everyday life, an edge in the sense that we can create realistic scenarios and fight against intelligent, skilled opponents. These advantages are meaningless if we settle for mere technique. 

So go tactical.




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