Weapon-based martial arts were originally used in warfare – hundreds of techniques have been crafted over centuries. Soldiers trained in these fight techniques, employing the effectively on the battefield.
Regions all over the world have weapon-based combat somewhere in their history. Today, many of these skillsets are taught and practised in dojos and martial arts gyms. Often, practitioners honour the traditions passed down through generations of weapon-based martial artists.
Sword martial arts are renowned for being fluid, graceful and are often performance-based. Nowadays they are practised for sport rather than for combat. Many have specific sword types and set of moves.
Today, we’ll introduce you to 5 of the best and most intriguing martial arts which use a sword. We’ll travel from Japan, through China, Korea, India, and Europe, taking a closer look at Kendo, Taijijian, Haidong Gumdo, Gatka, and HEMA.
Brief History Of Sword Fighting
The first swords were developed in the Bronze Age, mostly for hunting purposes but also for combat between people. Sword fighting may have first become a sport during Ancient Egyptian times; a temple relief dating back to around 1190 BC found on the wall of Medinet Habu.
Sword fighting, or fencing, was also used to train soldiers for battle by civilisations including the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Persians and Romans among others. But fighting using swords and blades has been a common form of of self-defense used by everyone, not just soldiers.
Once armour was created as a defense against swords in the Middle Ages, swords lost much effectivity as a primary weapon, and were pretty much wiped out with the invention of guns in the 15th century.
Fencing is perhaps the best known formalisation of sword fighting technique, and can be classed as a martial art in itself. Fencing guild became common mostly in European countries. Eventually fencing was used as a form of duelling, and then formalised in the 20th century to become an olympic sport.
Best Sword Martial Arts From Around The World
It wasn’t just European cultures which used sword fighting as a martial art. The practice has been widespread throughout the world and some sword martial arts are still practiced mostly for recreational and performance purposes. Without further ado, let’s delve into the awesome world of sword fighting martial arts and reveal some of the best out there…
Kendo, “The way of the sword”, is descended from the ancient practice of ancient Kenjutsu. Kendo was originally developed as a method of discipline, to train and build the human character through following the principles of Katana – those followed by Samurai warriors. Modern Kendo began with the era of Samurai warriors, but the origins of Kenjutsu are unknown.
Through time, Kendo gained religious and cultural elements, associated with Zen Buddhism. Sword making was well-respected and sword makers were revered.
The late 18th century saw the formalisation and regulation of Kendo, including the introduction of protective armour. At the beginning of the 20th century is was even established in the Japanese school curriculum!
Following the Second World War, Kendo was made illegal but reformed by 1952 without the militaristic aspects.
The exercises used in this martial art are called Katas, and they are numbered from 1 through to 10. Protective armour called Bogu is worn when sparring. Kendoka are very vocal – when sparring and employing Kata moves they will scream out; these screams are called Kiai.
During Kendo competitions, opponents win or lose via a scoring system. Criteria for gaining points include strike accuracy, power and concentration, as well as the avoidance of missteps.
Nowadays, the swords used by Kendo practitioners (called Kendoka or Kneshi, “swordsman”) are crafted from wood or bamboo. Swords used for sparring are made from bamboo and called Shinai. When performing Katas, Kendoka use wooden swords called Bokken.
Kendoka may also practice another kind of sword-based martial art called Iaido. This sport uses metal swords drawn from a scabbard.
Also sometimes called Taiji Jian, Taijijian is the sword-fighting form of Taijiquan, also known as Tai Chi. During the Qing dynasty, the Yang and Wu families taught sword-fighting techniques to military officers. This training was based around the sword type popularly used at the time – the Jian – which was especially effective in armed combat situations.
There are 32 Taijijian sword forms! This martial art is not usually used combatively and instead is performed as a sequence of movements. During competitions, routines are often self-choreographed. High level competitions involve a whole host of acrobatic and incredibly athletic movements.
Taijijian swords are straight and two-edged, called Jian. The blade is narrow and flexible, and intended to make noise when shaken during a Taijijian competition. Sometimes the pommel includes a tassel. This type of sword has been used in China for around 2500 years. Larger, two-handed versions are sometimes used by Taijijian practitioners for performance purposes, for higher historical accuracy. Otherwise students use a lighter version for perforances and competitions.
Korea: Haidong Gumdo
Haidong Gumdo, “Korean way of the sword” is a Korean martial art based on the use of sword-wielding techniques. It emphasises training and discipline of the mind and body through practising sword training over sparring and competition-based structures.
This is a modern martial art which was officially listed in 1983. The first World Championships were held in 2002, and it is one of the fastest growing martial arts in the world nowadays.
However, it orginated between 37 BC and 668 AD in Koguryo, an ancient region of Korea. Master Sul Bong is believed to be the first practitioner of Haidong Gumdo. He established a dojang and trained pupils to a high standard. Haidong Gumdo practitioners protected the Koguryo kings and people of the region for around 700 years.
It can be compared to Kendo and Iaido but it is not based on sparring like these arts. Usually Haidong Gumdo is practiced solo, mainly focusing on sword movements called Gumbup (or Gumdo). These focus on power generation, balance, concentration, and spinning movements.
Target cutting practice is also involved with paper, bamboo poles, Jipdan (straw stacks) or moving targets, using real swords.
Meditation and breathing (Dan Jun) is an important element for calming and controlling the mind and body.
Sparring techniques (Gyukgum) are practised to help develop Gumbup in real fight situations. These may be choreographed and are primarily used in practice.
For this martial art, wooden swords called Mokgum, or sometimes plastic or rubber swords are used for practice. Real swords called Jingum are used in competitions and performances. These are traditional Korean long swords, similar to Samurai swords but with a shorted handle.
HEMA (Historial European Martial Arts) encompasses a range of sword techniques used in Europe between the 1300s and 1800s. It can sometimes be called historical fencing to differentiate it from modern fencing, or historical European swordsmanship (HES). In the USA is is also called Western Martial Arts (WMA).
The group of martial arts is derived from, for example, Ancient Greece and Rome, folk wrestling and stick fighting. The history varies greatly depending on the region of Europe and style of fighting.
While this also includes the use of other weapons like staffs, pole-weapons and daggers, many styles practise with swords. The main focus is on the recreation of historical combat techniques and classical weapons and this is where is differs from fencing which has become modernised and regulated – a separate sport in itself.
There is a great range of moves, techniques and historical bases involved in HEMA but in general, dueling, self-defence and combat skills used for warfare are covered.
While there are not formailsed HEMA competitions, there are often demonstrations, recreations and events where fighters will compete in duels, large-scale battles, and performances.
Long swords are the most widely used sword in HEMA, particularly in Germany. Long swords are some of the oldest and most traditional swords used in ancient Europe.
Rapiers are also used and can be employed in combination with a shield, cloak or dagger in the free hand. These swords are most widely used in England, France and Italy.
Shields are often used in combination with a sword. Bucklers, small shields which are simply held by a grip rather than strapped to your arm like typical shields, are also used depending on the style of swordfighting being performed.
Sabres are perhaps the youngest type of sword to be used in HEMA, and there are a great many to choose from depending on the style of swordfighting you want to learn and from which region of the world. Polish sabres, British Military sabres, and Swedish Cavalry sabres are just a few examples.
Gatka originated in the Punjabi region of India in the 15th century. Originally it was called Shastar Vidyaa. Current practitioners call it the “mother of all martial arts”. It is a weapon-based martial art which primarily uses swords and sticks to fight. Gatka was used militarily in Sikh battles through centuries.
This martial art was banned in the mid 19th century when the British occupied India. Sikh soldiers assisted the British army during a rebellion in 1857 – consequently fighting rules were relaxed and Gatka was allowed again. However, real swords were replaced with wooden sticks called Gatka which gave the martial art its modern name. It was employed by the British Indian Army in training. Nowadays, it is practiced as a national sport in India and Pakistan.
The technique and discipline of Gatka has been kept alive through a long line of masters (Ustāds). The principles behind Gatka are broadly called Miri Piri – the unification of your body and your mind. It is also based on the defence of righteousness (Dharam).
The forms of Gatka practiced are mostly Europeanised versions of the original Shastar Vidyaa. Often it is performed in sword dances or practiced as a sport.
Often it involves two or more fighters wielding wooden sticks and sometimes shields. The basic technique practiced is called “stop and attack”; one fighter will attack while the other defends and then counter-attacks their opponent.
It has been successfully revived as a widely accessible, inexpensive method of self-discipline, combat and self-defense.
There are 3 different swords associated with Gatka: the Talwar, Tegh, and Khanda. However, a wooden stick is mostly used to simulate a sword, usually with a leather handle and traditional colorful Punjabi threads. Other weapons including claws and spears are also used. A round, leather shield called a Phari (or Fari) may be used alongside a weapon. It is stuffed with cotton or dry vegetation to protect the fighter’s hand.