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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > December, 2004 - How to Use a Sword
by "The Mirror"

How to Use a Sword by The Mirror

This column was written by Katherine Derbyshire, Shobu Aikido of Boston

Second of two parts

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Disclaimer: Swords, even wooden practice weapons, are dangerous. Do not attempt anything discussed here without qualified, in-person instruction.

The first part of this article, "How to make a sword," looked at pre-modern metallurgy and sword making. This article considers what to do with a sword once you have one, covering etiquette, sword care, and basic principles of swordsmanship. Just as modern gun safety courses teach how to handle and care for a gun before issuing live ammunition, the young swordsman would have learned basic sword care early, perhaps as a squire or valet before he was old enough to have a sword of his own.

Iron rusts, especially when immersed in salty liquids like blood. Most ancient steels were simple iron and carbon alloys, and as such would rust almost instantly on exposure to air. Nickel alloys, for instance from meteorite iron, would have been much more rust resistant and would have been especially valuable for that reason. (Such alloys might have been considered magical, too.) For the most part, though, swords rusted. To prevent rust, a swordsman would want to clean the blade as soon as possible after use, touch up the edge with a whetstone, and store the blade with a light film of oil. Any oil would do, including those used for the care of leather or wooden furniture. Routine sword care would also include inspecting the fittings holding the hilt onto the blade. A katana is held to the tsuka, or hilt, by wooden pegs that go through the hilt and the blade. If these fittings break, the sword could come apart in the owner's hand, with unpleasant consequences.

(http://anime.jyu.fi/~saren/Docs/Sword.html#PARTS has a brief glossary of the parts of a katana.)

After sword care, the next most important element of basic swordsmanship was etiquette and safety. One of the most important principles of both etiquette and safety is to always respect the lethal potential of another person's blade, much as you should always assume that a gun is loaded. For example, you should always handle a sword in its sheath if possible, or else with the cutting edge in a neutral direction. Just as you would hand a gun to someone by the barrel or with the barrel pointed downward or skyward, you would hand a sword to someone in a way that allowed them to grab it safely.

In most cultures, it was a grave insult to strike the sheath of the sword while it was being carried, or to step over a sword resting beside its seated owner. Both of these are insulting because they ignore the danger of the sword and intrude on the owner's personal space. Correct behavior would leave the swordsman room to draw -- which usually means avoiding an arc to his front and right -- and would avoid intruding into his dead area -- usually behind and to his left.

Similarly, when handling your own sword, it's polite to do so in a way that makes your peaceful intentions -- if they are peaceful -- clear. Most swords are designed to kill or maim with a single cut. You should never point a gun at something that you're not prepared to shoot. Similarly, threatening someone with a sword, or even threatening to draw your sword, was generally considered a lethal threat, allowing the other person to use lethal force in self-defense. The practical consequences of this rule depended on the culture. In Japan, for instance, it was correct to place your sword to your right while sitting (on the floor), a position from which it would be very difficult to draw the blade. Most lords, in all cultures, allowed only their most trusted subordinates to carry swords in their presence.

Once schooled in these basics, the young swordsman would be ready to start learning the basic components of his style. Most of my examples are drawn from Kashima Shin Ryu, discussed in Karl Friday's book, Legacies of the Sword.

First, you have to hold the sword properly. The correct grip places the left hand at the end of the hilt -- precisely where depends on the style -- and the right hand slightly below the tsuba, or hand guard. Hold the sword with the hilt roughly level with your obi knot, the point aimed at the eyes or throat of an imaginary opponent. Step forward with the right foot. This is the seigan stance. The ideal is a relaxed but strong stance, from which the sword naturally returns to the centerline if knocked aside. With an opponent standing in the same stance and both blades touching at their tips, both combatants are safe. That is, either must take a step forward to strike the opponent's body. From this stance, neither party is vulnerable, and neither can attack effectively. There are stories of sword masters standing in this position for hours, both waiting for the other to let his guard slip and create an opening.

Videos at http://www.stenudd.com/aikibatto/video.htm show a variety of sword stances and cuts, including the correct way to draw or sheath a katana.

For a slightly more aggressive stance, step back with the right foot, simultaneously raising the sword to your right shoulder. The left hand should be roughly level with the shoulder, and the blade vertical, perpendicular to the ground. From here, you can raise the sword above your head, then step forward with the right foot while simultaneously cutting straight down. This is shomenuchi: forehead cut. Alternatively, you can step forward while slicing diagonally across your opponent's chest from shoulder to waist, kesa giri.

If your opponent hasn't moved from his initial stance, you don't want to do either of those things, because he isn't open. Instead you might lower your sword behind you, until your left hand is at your waist, your right hand just behind you, and your sword is hidden by your body. From here, you can bring the sword around in one continuous motion so that it comes up underneath your opponent's guard. Lunge forward with the right foot and you have tsuki, a skewer in the belly.

Your opponent has choices as well. As you raise your sword, you are vulnerable. Your opponent could attempt to drive his sword up under your chin -- which is a vulnerable spot even in armor -- or he could attempt to cut your wrist (kote) as you raise the sword over your head. In all of these cuts, the driving force comes from the legs, not the arms. The leg muscles are stronger and can generate more power. They're also faster, in that it is faster to move the whole body as a unit than to attempt to control the weight of the sword with just the arms.

Because the cut is driven by the legs, it is difficult to block. It has all of the attacker's strength behind it, so an attempt to stop it by strength alone is likely to be futile. Instead, defenses focus on parrying, guiding the blade so that it just misses, and on avoidance. For example, one response to the basic shomenuchi cut is the shomen block. As your attacker strikes, so do you, attempting to meet his blade as it comes down, deflecting it off the center line, and gaining control of the centerline yourself. A second alternative is to step to the side -- left is easier for right-handed people -- raising your own sword parallel to your body with the blade pointing down. The stroke will, you hope, slide off your blade, allowing you to bring your sword behind your head and strike at his head or neck from the left side.

These don't always work. There's a visual pun in which the characters for life and death are written on opposite sides of a sheet of rice paper, the idea being that the line between life and death is as thin as the paper. Parry or move too soon, and your attacker can alter his attack to compensate. Move too late and, well, you're too late.

Because the margin for error was so small, quite often both the attacker and the defender could land killing blows simultaneously. The acceptance of death for which the samurai were famous was a necessity given the slim one in three chance of surviving any given fight.

A fight between two Japanese swordsmen consists of a series of strikes, parries, counterstrikes and counter parries, in too many possible combinations to detail here. Still, each individual step strikes at a precise target, followed by the minimum necessary parry or body movement, followed by another strike at a precise target. Blindly flailing away, as most beginners (and many actors) do, is a good way to get killed. In training, a swordsman would repeat the same cut or pattern of cuts and parries many times, with and without a partner, until the movements became natural.

Though cuts and blocks are the basic "particles" of swordsmanship, realistic situations require an appreciation for two key principles as well: control of space and control of time. These apply to some extent in any form of hand-to-hand combat, and even extrapolate to war-fighting strategies that are still in use today.

Control of space is perhaps the more important of the two. If the attacker and defender are too far apart, neither can reach the other. If they are too close together, a sword becomes a danger and a hindrance to its owner. In modern warfare, a nation with airplanes enjoys a huge advantage over a nation without them. In medieval combat, a fortified position in a castle is much stronger than an unfortified position outside the walls. In hand-to-hand combat, the side with the longer reach enjoys an advantage.

Yet there are exceptions to every rule. Airplanes are most effective against fixed targets like buildings, much less effective against highly mobile small units. A fortified castle can become a trap if the enemy is able to poison the water supply or throw plague-ridden bodies over the walls.

For swords, long reach and lack of mobility usually go together. A sword has substantial inertia. If an attacker is able to get inside the reach of a longer weapon, the defender may be nearly helpless. Consider how difficult it would be to use a sword against someone close enough to stab you with a stiletto.

Still, getting inside a long reach is usually easier said than done. There are many historical cases where small units have held mountain passes and castle gates against far superior numbers. In 1569, at the Battle of Mimasetoge, 10,000 troops under Takeda Shingen defeated 20,000 attackers at Mimase Pass (southwest of what is now Tokyo). At the far more famous (at least in the West) Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, less than 7000 Greek spearmen fought several hundred thousand Persians to a standstill in a narrow pass. The Greeks were defeated only after the Persians were shown a mountain path allowing them to attack the pass from both sides.

In such situations, both attacker and defender strive to reduce the amount of space available to the opponent, while increasing their own maneuvering room. For a lone swordsman, the ideal defensive position would be at the top of a flight of stairs, with walls close in-but not too close-on both sides and a long hallway behind him.

As the number of defenders increases, so does the amount of space needed. To be effective, each swordsman needs a half circle in front of him with a radius roughly equal to the length of the weapon plus his arm length. The space required becomes more oval with skewering weapons, since they must strike more or less perpendicular to the target to be effective. Especially for one-handed weapons, the effective arc will be slightly off center, favoring the side of the dominant hand. (This is the most important difference when dealing with a left-handed swordsman. A left-handed swordsman's strong side is his right-handed opponent's weak side, and vice versa.)

The amount of space needed behind the swordsman varies depending on the degree of backswing required by the particular weapon. It could be as small as zero, or as large as several feet. Two swordsmen can fight effectively back-to-back as long as there is sufficient distance between them. Numbers greater than two can fight back-to-back in a circle whose radius depends on the backswing distance.

These are ideal distances. As the available space shrinks, cuts and blocks are likely to become more abbreviated, and therefore less effective. Cuts will have less power behind them; blocks will allow less space between blade and target. At extremely small distances, say less than 3/4 the length of the blade, a sword is likely to just be in the way. If the attacker and defender can touch their fingertips together if both extend their arms in front of them, the distance is more appropriate for knives or fists than for swords.

If the first principle is control of space, the second is control of time, also known as the initiative. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. For both armies and individuals, the side which chooses the time and place of the attack has an advantage over the side that must defend everything. A good defensive emplacement might include a deliberate weakness, in order to lure the attacker to a specific spot.

In swordsmanship, control of time often manifests itself in movements which have both offensive and defensive components. A parry creates space to step in for the next attack, for example. The difference in initiative can be as small as the first step towards a strike, or as large as the advantage the attacker gains if the defender falls down or breaks his sword. The larger the difference, the more dangerous it the situation is for the defender.

To get lost initiative back, it helps to distract the opponent somehow. A swordsman who has fallen might throw a rock or a handful of sand to gain an instant to roll out of the way. A disarmed swordsman might try to close the distance in order to bring his secondary weapon, such as knife or shield, into range. Many Japanese martial arts evolved with precisely this scenario in mind: what to do if deprived of your sword.

Aikido in particular remains very aware of its roots in sword techniques. Some teachers have said that sword teaches the precision essential to empty-handed technique, while empty-handed technique teaches the softness essential to sword. Even those who rarely teach sword techniques as such often use a bokken to demonstrate correct movement or to show the futility of resistance. I hope this necessarily superficial introduction to the sword has piqued your curiosity and leads to further study.

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