mrz012.jpg (43127 bytes)The Sword & Buckler
Tradition - Part 4

Conceptions and Misconceptions


The method of fighting with sword and buckler remained consistent over time.  It was not significantly different in the 1500s than it was in the late 1200s.  There are no major differences between the wards, strikes, or actions found in sword and buckler fencing literature of these eras.  There are of course distinctions between using a lighter tapering blade of the 1500s compared to the earlier wider swords designed more for cutting blows.  A narrow cut-and-thrust blade allows for greater use of agile thrusting and quick slices against unarmored opponents. While a Medieval shearing sword, typically encountering more armors and heavier weapons, generally needed to deliver more powerful edge strikes.  Still, the techniques of 16th century sword and buckler fencing were not original, but dated back to the Middle Ages.   

CastleS&B1891.jpg (45723 bytes)Yet, a myth of fencing history that has developed is that the sword and buckler (particularly the English system) was by the mid 1500s an antiquated and obsolete style of defence. This view became more entrenched in the recent century.  A common prejudice that can be found within modern fencing, which often views 18th & 19th century methods as “superior” rather than as a separate development of civilian dueling and urban self-defence, is that sword buckler fighting was crude and simplistic. 




ch1.jpg (18780 bytes)This prejudice is most evident in comments such as that by the famous Victorian scholar of fencing, Egerton Castle, who referred to “relatively barbarous sword and buckler” (Castle, p. 20 & 22). Castle also stated: “Rapier play, coarse as it might seem to modern fencers, was such an improvement over the older-fashioned sword and buckler fighting, and so much better suited to the requirements of a gentleman...” (Castle, p. 88). Alfred Hutton in his 1892 book, Old Swordplay, also declared the old sword and buckler tradition in the age of the rapier “speedily vanished”. (p. 29).  Even fencing historian J. D. Aylward in 1956 wrote, “Repugnant as all foreign ideas were to the true born Englishman, Italian conceptions were bound, in the end, to render his traditional [buckler] sword-play obsolete.” (Aylward, p. 39). 

It could also be noted that in 1575 a royal entertainment at Kenilworth for the Queen consisted of jousting tournament and also sword and buckler combat using weapons without edges or points and no lunging allowed. (Brailsford, p. 27). But examining the totality of 16th century fencing, we find a much more complex picture. It was not the rapier’s development that “did away” with the sword and buckler (in England or elsewhere) but the changing nature of Renaissance war that reduced its utility. As opposed to the anything goes of the battlefield where the essentially Medieval sword and buckler was well-suited, under urban conditions, it was also easy to control and allowed for men to make displays of bravado. Combatants could make wide slashes and smacking hits and a young man might exert himself in strikes and blows yet not mortally endanger his foe.   This is kind of “play” was no doubt part of the method’s historical popularity. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras of 1663 for example makes reference to how, “As in sword and buckler fight, all blows do on the target light.” (Craig, p. 19).

LOVINOsnb.JPG (75409 bytes)The Italian master Giacomo Di Grassi himself in his 1570 text offered a section on sword and buckler, stating, “the Buckler is a weapon very commodious and much used”.  In 1573, the French master Sainct Didier included the buckler and target in his work on "the Single Sword, Mother of All Arms", calling them "very useful and profitable for the gentleman to learn, and for the followers of war" (i.e., common soldiers). Giovanni Antonio Lovino’s text on the rapier and other weapons from 1580, Traite d Escrime, also included material on the classic buckler used with the narrow rapier. Lovino also referred to the sword and buckler as means of common means of judicial duelling (Lauro attore et Aquilo reo, con spada et brocchiero).  The use of sword and buckler was in fact still being practiced even in Spain during the late 1500s.  For example, in the late 1580s Juan de Morales was tested in Madrid for his skill with weapons including sword with assorted bucklers. (Anglo, Martial Arts, p. 27).  A series of images of “sword-dancers” from Arbeau dated to 1589 shows them with small bucklers and short broad blades.   Even a 1599 fencing manuscript, Arte de Esgrima, written in Spanish by the Portuguese, Domingo Luis Godinho included material on the sword and buckler.  Yet, much has been made of the Italianate Englishman, John Florio, who as early as 1578 in his, First Fruites, was already saying of the buckler, “What weapon is that buckler? A clownish dastardly weapon”.  (Aylward, p. 35). 

Another part of the belief that the sword and buckler was “antiquated” and “obsolete” may be due in part to misunderstanding of George Silver’s stern complaints against “Italianated” masters of fence and his evident envy of the prestige they were being giving.  Yet, the root of Silver’s essential grievance was that the rapier did not prepare men for warfare and national defense, but only for murder and duelling. He in essence argued further that the rapier was really nothing that different and could be beaten by man with a short sword who properly used the core principles of fighting.  Somehow over time understanding of Silver was changed to consideration of him as simply being “behind the times”.  

mrz059.jpg (133655 bytes)The Epistle to the 1594 edition of Giacomo Di Grassi’s, True Arte of Defense, remarked: “The Sworde and Buckler fight was long while allowed in England (and yet practise in all sortes of weapons is praisworthie,) but now being layd downe, the sworde but with Serving men is not much regarded, and the Rapier fight generally allowed, as a wepon because most perilous, therefore most feared, and thereupon private quarrels and common frayes soonest shunned.”  The meaning of this passage is that, while traditional sword and buckler was still good for soldiers, the rapier was thought best for single encounters however was so dangerous in them that private fights and duels were more often being avoided.  This corresponds to what we know of the rapier’s use by common English fighters in London as early as the 1560s –considerably before it was supposedly first brought to England. 

In Henry Porter’s 1599 play, The Two Angry Women of Abingdon, we find the line: “Sword and buckler fight begins to grow out of use...this poking fight of rapier and dagger will come up,  ...a good sword and buckler man will be spotted like a cat or a rabbit.” (Castle, p. 20).  Writing of English swashbucklers before the advent of rapier fighting, John Stow in 1631 described how the popular manner of sword brawling was common until the uncertain and seemingly risky rapier and dagger came about.  Stow described that the “blades” of London would gather in West Smith-field where they swashed and swinged their bucklers with much show of fury.[1]  He tells us this areas “was for many years called ‘Ruffians Hall’, by reason that it was the usual place of frayes, and common fighting during the time that sword and bucklers were in use…This manner of Fight, was frequent with all men, untill the fight of Rapier and Dagger tooke place…But in the ensuing deadly fight of Rapier and Dagger suddenly suppressed the fighting with Sword and Buckler.”  

In act II, scene iii, of Sir Thomas Middleton's play, The Phoenix (first printed in 1630 but written as early as 1603) in justice Tangle's legal metaphor laced duel with the lawyer, Falso, he included the following exchange:

Tangle: "Oh, that's out of use now! Sword and buckler was call'd a good conscience, but that weapon's left long ago; that was too manly a fight, too sound a weapon for these our days. 'Slid, we are scarce able to lift up a buckler now, our arms are so bound to the pox; one good bang upon a buckler would make most of our gentlemen fly i' pieces; 'tis not for these linty times. Our lawyers are good rapier and dagger men; they'll quickly dispatch your money."
Falso: "Indeed, since sword and buckler time, I have observ'd there has been nothing so much fighting; where be all our gallant swaggerers? There are no good frays o' late."
Tangle: "Oh, sir, the property's altered; you shall see less fighting every day than other, for every one gets him a mistress, and she gives him wounds enow; and, you know, the surgeons cannot be here and there, too: if there were red wounds too, what would become of the Rheinish wounds?"

Mrz77.jpg (49599 bytes)According to Stow then, it was the common serving man who changed his street fighting habits as a result of the introduction of the rapier.  Stow also stated “it was usuall to have Frayues, Fights, and Quarrells, upon the Sundayes and Hollidayes, sometimes twenty, thirty, and forty Swords and Bucklers, halfe against halfe, as well as quarells of appointment as by chance…” These sword and buckler brawls were frequently fought only to “dry blows” or hits with the flat of the blade drawing no blood. (Craig, p. 8).  Stowe went on to reveal that “in the Winter season, all the high steetes, were much annoyed and troubled with hourely frayes, of sword and buckler men, who tooke pleasure in that bragging fight; and…they made great shew of much furie, and fought often.” (Stow, p. 1024). 

More than 40 years before Stow wrote about the rapier supplanting the traditional English sword and buckler tradition, the traveler Fynes Moryson described it in his itinerary in the 1590s, writing that: "Of olde, when they were senced with Bucklers…nothing was more common with them then to fight about taking the right or left hand, or the wall, or upon any unpleasing countenance. Clashing of swords was then daily musike in every streete, and they did notionely fight combats (Moryson, p. 28).

William Kemp’s ballad of 1600, Nine Daies Wonder, also lamented the decline of sword and buckler fencing in the path of the new foining fence: “Yet all my Hoast remembers not. Ketsfield and Muselborough fray, Were batlles fought but yesterday. O’ twas a goodly matter then, To see your sword and buckler men; They would meete them every where: And now a man is but a pricke, A boy arm’d with a poating sticke, Will dare to challenge Cutting Dicke. O’ t’is a world the world to see, But twill not mend for thee nor mee.”[2]  Alluding to the rise of rapier fencing in his 1620, Abortive of an Idle Houre, Thomas Wroth wrote of a time "When Sword and Buckler was in estimation…then a man might have some play; But since this noble fight grew out of fashion, A boy might kill a man in any fraye." (p. 39.)

Despite several statements to the contrary, the rapier was actually in use among common fencers in England as early as the 1560s.  For example, in 1568 the London Company of Masters had already begun to include the rapier in their training and Prize contests. (Berry, p. 109 & 47).  So, the transition from sword and buckler to rapier (at least in England) was hardly sudden. It appears more than a generation passed between its introduction in the 1560s to the nostalgic reflection of the 1590s.

Thomas Fuller in his 1662, The History of the Worthies of England (Everyman Edition) described “swashblucker” as coming from the action of “swashing and making a noise on the buckler.” Apparently they would strike on their own bucklers with their swords during fighting. Similarly, Baret’s Alvearie of 1573 mentioned “to swash or to make a noise with swordes against tergats” while Ben Johnson in his early 17th century play, Staple of News, included the line, “I do confess a swashing blow”. (Craig, p. 10). Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet also has the Capulet serving man Gregory make his “swashing blow” (i.e., a wide cut).  John Florio also mentions, “A bravo, a swashbuckler, one that for money and good cheere will follow any man to defend him; but if any danger come, he runs away the first, and leaves him in the lurch.”  And yet, in 1602 William Bass wrote a religious study that metaphorically referred faith to the confidence found in the “Sword & Buckler” as “The Serving Man’s Defence.”

So while the sword and buckler was losing its value in the late 1500s, its legacy was still surviving with the use of rapier and buckler.  Salvatore Fabris for example included material on rapier and buckler in his 1606 fencing text and even Camillo Pallavicini volume two of his 1673, Scherma Illustrata, was still including material on facing the rapier and buckler.

A Re-evaluation

Given the strong connections between Medieval and Renaissance fencing methods, there does not seem to have been much more that was added to the sword and buckler method during the 16th century.  Eventually, the sword and buckler method, increasingly irrelevant in European warfare seeing more and more firearms, became less convenient for urban wear as well.  The quick-thrusting farther-reaching rapiers could often outmaneuver them in single combat and duel.  The result was that the sword and buckler survived past the 17th century only in the old English schools of defence and then among the early 18th century “gladiator” prize shows.  

mrz046.jpg (30973 bytes)Yet, as the images here suggest, unquestionably this tradition was a deep part of Western fencing for centuries within a variety of conditions.  In fact, given the range of evidence we have for the sword and buckler, in literature and art, as an established way of fighting in the Middle Ages, there is every reason to believe it was actually more common than was fighting with a sword and shield.  The general historical impression is that variously shaped shields (i.e., defensive implements worn on the arm as opposed to carried in the hand) were by far more common among foot soldiers.  While this may have been true before the 14th century, it appears not to be the case from after that period.  The widespread use of the sword and buckler is evidence of its utility and effectiveness. With straight or curved blades such a system of fighting was popular around the world since ancient times and in some areas survived into the 20th century.   Whether with a tapering cut-and-thrust blade or a wider cutting one, the sword and buckler represents an effective fighting method capable of dealing with larger shields or longer swords as well as staff weapons. With the current revival of study of Renaissance martial arts the versatile art of sword and buckler fencing is being appreciated once more.


The preceding material was excerpted a forthcoming book on Historical Fencing.  Copyright 2002 by John Clements.

Footnotes for Part 4

[1] Shakespeare in his Henry IV, refers to these  “swinge-bucklers” –meaning a “roisterer’ or “rake”.

[2] William Kemp. Kemp’s Nine Daies Wonder, Printed by E.A. for Nicholas Ling, London, 1600.


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