Duellist logo
New Societies
Articles &

What is Classical Fencing/Historic Swordsmanship?

Aside from the obvious fact that classical fencing and historical swordsmanship involve the ownership and use of swords, it can be quite difficult to come up with a hard and fast definition of what these two names mean. This is mostly due to the fact that there are many branches and definitions within each.

Western swordsmanship as a whole has only recently reached that informational critical mass necessary for it to become accessible to a wide range of people. Consequently there are still precious few groups and individuals involved, and the relative isolation of the groups within that limited number has resulted in a limited commonality of interest.

Only within the last 10 years has any significant amount of 'cross pollination' taken place, members of one group finding and contacting other groups to share and discuss ideas, to practice new techniques and share resources, and only within the last 3 years has any kind of national and global organisation started to form.

But even these monumental steps are just the first stumblings of a pastime and hobby that many feel is about to explode with interest.

To return to matter at hand. For the moment it is enough to say that groups are few and interest is diverse. But as such outlining the diversity that is present within the fields of Classical fencing and Historic swordsmanship is probably one of the best ways of describing them.

The divisions within Classical fencing / Historic swordsmanship.

Broadly speaking Classical fencing and Historic swordsmanship could be said to represent the difference between civilian weaponry/combat and martial weaponry/combat. Classical fencing is the use of swords and techniques for personal offence/defence while Historical swordsmanship is the use of swords and techniques as they might be used in a military or battlefield environment. There is of course many a cross-over between the two, some weapons have been used for both military and personal combat, but on the whole the division is a fairly clear dividing line especially with regard to weapon or fighting techniques.

Taking Classical fencing and Historic swordsmanship as two broad categories, reppresenting the two fighting environments, civilian and martial, as our original division. We must now divide each again by historical period.

The boundaries of the exact periods vary a little but in general they could be classed as:

Dark Age Period pre 14th century.
Early Period 14th & 15th century.
Middle Period 16th century.
Late Period 17th & 18th century.
Classical Period 19th century.

The weapons from each of these periods are quite distinct and accordingly the techniques used are also quite distinct. Generally we could say that earlier weapons tend to be designed with a heavily armed opponent in mind, whilst later classical period weapons tend to be designed with speed and an un-armoured opponent in mind.

These periodic changes were not exact, and should be thought of more in terms of peaks in transition than clearly delineated changes. And although we can describe the general trend of particular historic period, it should be bourne in mind that even within a given period there is still a considerable array of weapon and armour types.

These various divisions between civilian and martial, and between dark age and classical weapons, gives rise to quite a considerable potential breadth of study, but in addition to the particular fighting environment, period and weapon type, there is also the practitioners avowed intention or application to take into consideration.

The intended application of classical fencing and historic swordsmanship.

In this modern day and age there is of course no need to study swordsmanship. It would be a rare and unexpected situation indeed in which any student of classical fencing or historic swordsmanship was actually required to use a sword in defence of life and liberty. As such the stated interest or intended application of a study of classical fencing and historic swordsmanship can vary considerably, and doesn't always involve an element of self defence, such stated interests include:

Martial arts:

The study of swordplay as the art of offence and defence.
The goal of these practitioners is to become as adept in a particular weapons usage as is possible, using old, new and even techniques synthesised from the Eastern traditions.

Historical martial art:

The study of swordplay as the art of offence and defence in a particular historical period.
For these practitioners the goal is not only to use period weapons but also period techniques often with the object of coming to understand not only the development of different weapons but also the changes in fighting style that that those developments engendered.


The study of swordplay for simple recreation or competition.
This is a well established and growing movement especially with students of the lighter, faster weapons in classical fencing techniques.


The study of swordplay for use on stage and screen.
This is often based on genuine technique, but usually comprises the more elaborate, crowd pleasing techniques. Carefully rehearsed to increase safety and appearance.


The study of swordplay for use in the recreation of historic battles.
Some technique is used in order to make the battles appear more authentic, but the safety restrictions involved in having large numbers of people in close combat often means that a very limited or adapted repertoire of techniques is permitted.

Living History

Swordplay is often given far less precedence within the living history community, but where appropriate within the overall framework authentic techniques is studied.

When you combine these various applications to the already diverse range of environmental and weapon techniques then you can begin to appreciate how classical fencing and historic swordsmanship is a truly multifaceted activity, and how a simple description or classification of it's many permutations isn't really possible.
I must also add that study and practice classical fencing and historic swordsmanship are not a governed activities, as such descriptions applied by individuals and groups to themselves and their interests may vary considerably. Accordingly this attempted overview is intended to describe the multitude of descriptions employed rather than an attempt to apply any kind of standard to others.

Comments and suggestions on this article welcome.