The Poet as Swordsman

“We are three to three,” said the lesser Highlander, glancing his eyes at our party: “if ye be pretty men, draw!” and unsheathing his broadsword,
he advanced on me. I put myself in a posture of defence, and aware of the superiority of my weapon, a rapier or small-sword, was little afraid of
the issue of the contest.”

I’ve just read Sir Walter Scott’s “Rob Roy” and, as usual with a Scott novel, found it a religious experience.  A humble gentleman sallies forth on a quest of divine charity, plying his dexterity and manhood against the insatiable intellect of a villain, all for the cause of charity – the only cause worthy (in the end) of Christian violence.   Walter Scott didn’t harp on Scottish nationalism or bother with petty political points; instead, and as is typical, his heroes fight for an honor borne out of Christian hearts and a desire to protect widows, orphans (or an occasional fair maiden).

The above citation caught my interest especially, though for the more mundane reason of swordsmanship.  Is the rapier more deadly than the Scottish claymore?  And what are the differences between sabers, rapiers, cutlasses, and foils?  And what was the sword Zorro used? (The final duel between Zorro and Captain Esteban Pasquale was, in my mind, the greatest sword fight I’ve seen in the movies).

After examining these differences and realizing that Walter Scott’s character was right about the superiority of the rapier, it struck me that, as a would-be gentleman, it might be beneficial to take up sword fighting.  After all, the technology of personal combat in Zorro’s day hasn’t changed that much.  If a man has Shane-like precision with a pistol and Zorro’s acumen with a sword, he’d be best situated to deal with most any violent situation (barring some military operation).  Imagine another Baltimore riot, only this time, one’s loved ones are in the path of marauding negros.  In that case, a few pistol shots may (or may not) be desirable, and even if they were,  a man would have to reserve his bullets.  Being handy with a sword would do well to stave off the ball-bats, knives, or other blunt objects favored by the mob.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I learned:


The claymore (its name derived from the Gaelic word for “broad two-handed sword”) was the desired weapon in the middle ages, useful for broad, powerful, hewing strokes, aimed at cutting through armor.  But as technology progressed, it became less a practical weapon and more a nostalgic symbol of old Scottish fighting spirit (hence, the Highlander in Rob Roy using it against the main character’s rapier).


The rapier was a more dignified weapon, very long, and usually composed of the same amount of metal as a medieval broadsword, only elongated and designed for thrusting (although, owing to its edges, was still liable to slice).  The average rapier is so long (forty inches or more) it drags the ground as the average man walks with it sheathed.  As technology progressed (guns and munitions) armor became impractical as were the hacking methods of the broad sword.

The rapier, however, was cumbersome and soon the so-called “short-sword” evolved from it – a shorter version designed for the civilian gentleman.  It was a short sword the main character in Rob Roy was using against his Highland opponent.


Again, owing to advances in technology, the cavalryman became strategically important and hacking at enemies from horseback became necessary – thus the saber was developed.  This became the weapon of most officers (cavalry or otherwise) and if used against a saber-wielding foe, requires similar “fencing” techniques as those used when fighting with rapiers.  In “The Man from Monterey” John Wayne plays a US cavalry officer who goes to Mexico and helps a land baron save his daughter (and land) from ruffians.  The final fight scene features the sort of saber-fighting-as-fencing I’m talking about.


The cutlass evolved from the saber.  It’s shorter and heavier and was used mostly by Naval men who often had to fight in close quarters.  Also, it was the favorite of pirates and is recognized today as a “pirate sword” by most millennials.  I mention it here only to distinguish it as a unique sword type from sabers.


Eventually, munitions took the field entirely and swordsmanship was reserved for gentlemen of means who wished to retain the old ideals of honor and dueling, but without the real danger of dying in the duel.  The art of fencing emerged and duels usually went to “first blood” and rarely resulted in death.  There are different types of fencing swords, foils, epees, and the like, but we need not get into that.  I don’t know, but I’d guess Zorro (in his fantastic sword duels) was using some sort of epee.


It’s interesting to me how these weapons developed over time and, as I said above, becoming proficient in the use of these weapons, particularly the short-sword-rapier or the saber, (both being physically manageable, able to cut as well as stab, and fairly easy to obtain), might be beneficial for the would-be gentleman, trapped in the modern world.

But more important than all of these, I think, is the pen, which, if wielded properly, has the power to change hearts (rather than run them through).

So while I do hope to practice with my saber, I’ll also try to sharpen my metaphorical pen.  I’ve mentioned before how terrible I am at fiction but I’ve decided it’s not from lack of intelligence or ability, rather, it’s a lack of patience and practice.  I can manage the patience and as for the practice, well, I’ve created a new blog.  I hope to post all my fiction, poetry, and songs there, and will try to post, if not daily, at least weekly.  (I’ve heard of some Russian novelist who used to build his stories by writings separate paragraphs on note cards.  Paragraph by paragraph his story would come together – I might try something similar with my blog).

I’m ashamed of my skills at this point so I wont let any of you all know where the blog is being published for now, but hopefully, in the future, after I’ve gotten some practice, I’ll link to it and let you all (if you want – which you probably wont) read what I’ve got there.

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3 Responses to The Poet as Swordsman

  1. Alan J. Perrick says:

    The best kind of sword would be one that works like a base-ball bat which means it cuts as well as wallops.


  2. Capt. John A. Snyder says:

    One of my Brothers has a well sharpened epee by his nightstand as part of his home defense response tools. Yes, he has gunpowder powered tools also. But imagine being in a dimly lit home at night and trying to fend off that thing thrusting and slashing ( sharpened edges ) at you.
    Thanx for the article.
    God Bless,
    Capt. John


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