The Circles of the Sword

The sword is an inanimate object. It would be wrong to say that it “wants” to move in certain ways. But it does. It totally does.


If you remember your high school physics, you will recall Newton’s First Law: An object in motion will not change its velocity unless acted upon by an outside force. In real terms this means that when you swing a sword, you need to expend energy in order to make it deviate from its course.

Swords move in circles. Because a sword is anchored at one end – the hilt – it will tend to describe an arc when it moves. Changing that arc requires effort. Therefore for the most energy-efficient use of the sword, you will want to make use of these arcs as much as possible.

Why is it important to be energy efficient? That’s a topic for another post.

For now, consider this:

figure eight

This is one of the most basic circles, and I call it the Figure Eight. This is one of the first things a student will do when they pick up a sword: two slashes – one from right to left, and one from left to right. The hard part is flowing from one to the other without breaking the sword’s momentum. I say hard, but it’s not really all that difficult. It does, however, require a certain flexibility of the wrist.

When practicing the Figure Eight, it is often best to not worry about edge discipline at first. Just pretend it’s a broomstick. Or practice with an actual broomstick. The orientation of the broomstick when it strikes its hypothetical target doesn’t matter. When your wrist is comfortable with this movement, think about edge discipline – think about striking with the edge of the sword. This involves resisting the natural tendency to turn the wrist until the hypothetical strike has been completed.

The next step, of course, is to do this in the other direction. Instead of two diagonal down-strikes, make it two diagonal up-strikes. The movement is essentially the same, though of course backwards. Turn the wrist to make your hypothetical strikes with the sword’s true edge.

Here’s another useful circle:

around the head

Here, the downwards strike from right to left moves naturally into a block to intercept blows coming at the left shoulder. Having blocked this blow, the sword moves naturally to repeat the strike.

Notice here that the sword as it moves is more or less describing a plane. This is the natural movement of a sword – the arm and shoulder follow it.

Here’s the same thing on the other side:


I say this is “the same thing”, but the motion is actually somewhat different – notice the sword shoulder is held back, for example. This gives a slight impression of leaning backward rather than into the blow. Ideally, of course, your shoulders should stay more or less directly above your hips.

Regardless, this is “the same thing” because it consists of the repeating diagonal strike, and the inclined plane that is described by the sword’s motion.

One last example:


An interesting variation, this, because it actually breaks some of the guidelines I’ve suggested above. Not really, but it seems to. Here, the sword is moving in a figure eight pattern like the first example, but instead of crossing the body, the sword does a small loop and moves into the thrusting position. Note particularly how the leg has to be drawn back slightly in order to make room.

To summarise:

  • Swords naturally move in circles
  • Deviating from these circles requires energy
  • Expending too much energy in a fight is bad
  • Following the sword’s circles when you fight is good.

Starting a strike, then arresting and reversing its motion so that you can strike elsewhere is inefficient in terms of energy and in terms of the time it takes to complete the movement. By the time you have arrested the motion of your sword and redirected it elsewhere, you have given your opponent time to react. You can achieve a similar effect by using circles, with less energy expended and in a shorter time.

Practice with your sword. Take it out whenever you’ve got time and room to move, and swing it. Don’t just do one movement at a time. Put some energy into it, move your feet, and let your sword move into the circles that feel the most comfortable. Familiarity with the way your weapon moves will help you in combat.

Axes, Hammers, Maces

GoblinsI’m going to say something which may be fairly controversial: Axes, hammers and maces are basically the same thing.

Why would I say such a thing? Well, it’s because of the weight. Specifically, it’s because of the weight distribution and balance. A sword’s centre of balance is usually close to the hand. Sword techniques take advantage of this fact, and include a lot of fast redirections. Axes, hammers and maces all have a large mass at the end of a stick. This changes its weight and the way it handles. From here on I will refer to axes, hammers and maces as “mass weapons”.

It is true that there are some kinds of mass weapons on the market which aren’t too different from swords. Most sword technique works pretty well with them. This is directed at the other kind – those with significantly different weight characteristics.

Fast redirections are much more difficult with this kind of mass weapon than they are with the sword. Where a blow with the sword might start aimed at your opponent’s shoulder and end striking your opponent’s leg, a mass weapon generally goes where it is pointed, and won’t deviate without some effort.

Mass weapons are usually best with a shield, especially a big one, as the shield takes care of defence for you. You can bide your time, blocking everything with your shield, then lash out quickly when you see an opening. The disadvantage here is that the mass weapon has more inertia than a sword, and can be slower to get moving. Learning to anticipate your opponent’s moves is harder than it sounds, but still generally necessary.

Using a mass weapon without a shield is harder. Choose a weapon for your other hand that is good for blocking. If your mass weapon is short, use it off-handed with a sword in your other hand. Use your sword for parrying incoming blows and again, look for openings with your off-hand. If your mass weapon is long, you’re still usually better off using it for blocking. You will need to be agile in either case, using voids and parries to avoid being hit.

I will mention hooking here. With an axe, people will always raise the idea of hooking your opponent’s shield or weapon. I do not recommend this for several reasons, outlined below:

  1. Getting the hook in is more difficult than simply making a hit. If you can get your axe behind your opponent’s shield, just hit them. You’re behind their shield!
  2. Once you have hooked the shield, you need to exert force on it to move it, and the shield user usually has better leverage than you.
  3. Foam and latex weapons aren’t designed with this kind of force in mind. Hooking exerts pressure on areas of the weapon that really shouldn’t be taking it, and reduces the useful life of your weapon.
  4. Now that you have hooked and moved the shield, what are you going to do next? If you have a shield, you can’t do anything, since your only weapon is currently hooking. You need to rely on an ally to exploit the opening, and allies usually aren’t quick enough.
  5. If you have the hook and you’ve made an opening, you can try attacking with your own secondary weapon, but be wary, because you’ve only hooked their shield – their weapon is still in play, and your attacking arm is vulnerable.
  6. I do not recommend hooking your opponent’s weapon at all – you tie up your own weapon as well as theirs, and this usually results in a tug-of-war, which can become dangerous. If you accidentally hook their weapon, call a halt and untangle yourself before proceeding.

Mass weapons are fun and extremely satisfying to use. Just remember that they carry a fair amount of kinetic potential, and can hit harder than you expect. Slow down, look for openings, and pull your blows and you will have a grand old time.

Do you regularly use mass weapons? Share your experience in the comments below!