Single-handed Sword: Basics

Single Sword: Basics

Using the usual target areas and hit rules for Wychwood-style single-handed sword.

There are 8 attacks and 8 defences.
Two attacks are not used in free fighting – the head and the thrust.
The aim is to make the blow connect on target with minimum force.
Off target blows are not counted as hits.


When using a sword, the way you stand, move and hold your weapon is vital in determining how much control you have, how fast you can move and how soon you will tire. You should stand with feet shoulder width apart, leading foot (same as hand holding sword or shield if you have one) slightly forward, i.e. almost square on to your opponent. You should be relaxed and 'springy,' on the balls of your feet with knees slightly bent. Think of a cowboy swagger and you shouldn't go far wrong. This position is easy to hold and keeps your centre of gravity low and central, which will in turn keep you balanced when moving and/or wearing heavy armour.

Weapon control

Holding the sword is not like holding a practice stick in training - the aim is not to keep a vice-like grip on the sword hilt. This leads to messy movements and will tire you out. Grip is principally with the thumb and first two fingers. Your remaining fingers should be curled loosely around the hilt. Historically, Viking era sword hilts were very short - so that the cross and pommel aid with the grip, but there is no way to approximate this with re-enactment hilt length. Standing as described above, hold your sword slightly out in a shoulder parry or 'on guard' position (see below). Your wrist should be relaxed and in line with your forearm. Adjust the angle of your arm and joints until you feel the weight of the weapon being taken by your shoulder and possibly tricep. These are big muscles that will keep working for a long time before tiring.

Now cut down/forward with the sword. Do not wave your arm and move the entire blade. Use a small movement from the elbow or shoulder to move the centre of gravity of the sword (just before the blade meets the hilt). The sword will move in a nice, straight line. To stop the sword, snap your third and fourth fingers onto the grip. You will notice that your elbow will reflexively lock as you do this, making a very effective brake. In real fighting, the swordsman would from this position use the full strength of his arm to drive the blade into his target, but we stop here! Stopping the sword moving as it hits your opponent is called 'pulling' the blow and prevents them getting hurt. Pulling a blow is an important element of re-enactment combat. It should be possible to swing in fast, and pull the blow sufficiently that it will not hurt an unarmoured target. The pulling process can be assisted by good footwork - the leading foot should hit the ground just before or as the blow is landed. This ensures the weight of your body is not behind the blow. Pulling blows is also a safety device for when things go wrong, for example the target moving.

Also remember that a single-handed sword is just that. It is not designed to be used with two hands. This will only cut down your reach without giving you the advantage of a secure two-handed grip.


there are a number of guards.
on guard is the usual starting position for training freshers – the sword is held out in front of the swordsman, tip pointing upwards, guarding the shoulder of your sword arm. It is easy to return to this guard from defences, and to make any of the defences from this guard. Later you will start to use other guards, such as true guard, high guard, unicorn guard etc.



The attack diagram shows all 8 attacks. In general, you should aim to make contact with your opponent on an area that is nicely padded with muscle.
The head attack is vertically downwards on the head. This blow stops at least a foot from the head!
The shoulder attacks come in from above at an angle of about 45 degrees. The downwards strike makes it less likely that these blows will bounce or be deflected upwards into the face. It's preferable to aim for upper arm, rather than collarbone, for this attack.
The gut attacks can be angled down or horizontal
The leg attacks can be angled down or horizontal, but will usually be angled down
The thrust should be angled across the target's body. The aim it to strike not the the point but with the edge of the blade near the tip. A thrust with the point has considerable penetrating power even with a blunt tip.



The defences diagram shows the 7 defensive positions, assuming you are using the right shoulder parry as your guard position.
The head is blocked by holding the sword horizontal above and in front of the swordsman’s head
The shoulders are block with the sword tip up. Blocking them upside down i.e. like a gut or leg defence, will be dangerous to the swordsman’s fingers and to anyone next to them in a line fight.
The guts and legs are blocked with the sword point down. For the gut it is necessary to keep the hand slightly higher to avoid being hit in the fingers by an on-target attack.
the thrust-attack cannot be "blocked". Instead it is swept aside to the defender's right. The best way to achieve this is to return to on guard, then turn the sword point down, and use the blade to push the attacker's sword away from the defender's body.

Foot work

You may notice that some of the stickmen in the defence diagram are left foot forward and some are right foot forward.
The standard footwork for single sword is to withdraw the foot on the side that is attacked, unless that foot is already withdrawn. So attacks to the left will be defended right foot forward, and attacks on the right will be defended left foot forward.
This is particularly important for good leg blocks


Useful training patterns for single sword are:
“Round the Clock”

Single Sword: Ripostes


Ripostes are one way of switching from defending to attacking. The riposte attempts to make an attack immediately following a defence. To learn ripostes it is first necessary to be good at the normal defences.
The number of possible ripostes is too large to list and show them all here, but as a generalisation, from each defence there three potential ripostes, and the grapple.

The ripostes are:
Over the attacker’s arm (dark red arrow)
Under the attacker’s arm (dark green arrow)
Against the other side of the attacker’s body (blue arrows)

Not all of them will be available for every defence – the opponent’s blade or crossguard may make it impossible to get your blade over or under his. It is best to experiment in fixed patterns finding all the possible ripostes. It is also a useful training exercise.

When making a riposte it ought to be to one of the normal target areas in a normal manner – ripostes over the blade have to be downward cuts to the shoulder/ upper arm area and so on.

Single Sword: Grappling

One of the greatest advantages of the single sword is the ability to grapple with the offhand. The grapple is used like a riposte: the attacker makes his attack, which the defender blocks. At this time the attacker’s sword hand may be in danger of being grappled. The grapple if generally where the defender encloses the attacker’s sword hand in theirs, and pushes (first purple arrow) – up from a high attack, down from a lower attack, exposing a target area for the defender to attack (second purple arrow).
The grapple is usually made from a defence on the right side, where the attacker’s sword arm is best exposed, and will get in the way of a counter grapple.

Grappling is not generally possible in a line fight, and should not be attempted because the push of the sword arm may push the sword into another combatant

Single Sword: Resisting ripostes & grapples

The best counter to a riposte is a quick defence. For some of the ripostes a quick retreat can take the target out of reach.
Avoiding a grapple can also be done by retreating, but it is better to withdraw from an attack as soon as the defence – this makes it hard for the defender to reach the sword hand.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.