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Dubious Quick Kill - Part Five


The aortic arch branches into arteries that service the upper body, including the head. Of these, the left and right common carotid arteries are of significant interest with regard to dueling practice because these vessels supply the larger share of blood to the brain and because they extend unprotected, in the neck, on either side of the windpipe(trachea). While these arteries are not externally visible, one can understand why a stroke delivered to the neck with an edged weapon such as a sabre, or thrust with an edged smallsword or rapier, would seem to be an effective means of incapacitating an adversary. Certainly, the severing of a common carotid artery will immediately terminate a large portion of the blood supply to the brain. Nevertheless, the victim of such a wound may remain conscious for from fifteen to as many as thirty seconds; a more than ample amount of time for a dying swordsman to execute a number of cuts, thrusts and parries.

In addition to the carotid arteries, the neck also encompasses the jugular veins, which return blood from the brain, face, and neck to the heart. While the escape of blood under high pressure is a concern for wounds to the vessels of the arterial system, wounds to the jugular veins pose a different problem. By the time blood reaches these vessels, its pressure is nearly zero. In fact, during the inspiratory phase of the respiratory cycle, when contraction of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles creates a negative pressure within the thorax, pressure in the jugular veins also falls below zero. As a consequence, an opening in the jugular vein which communicates with the external environment may allow small bubbles of air to be entrained into the vessel. As the air enters, a bloody froth can be produced which, when drawn into the heart, may render the pumping action inoperative (valve lock). Whereas a severed vein is not usually considered to be as serious an injury as a severed artery, air embolism due to a cut jugular vein may cause a victim, after one or two gasps, to collapse immediately.

...clearly for the duelist hitting before being hit is not at all the same thing as hitting without being hit.

As the neck encompasses the cervical spine, carotid arteries, trachea, and jugular veins in a relatively small space, a sword-thrust to this area would seem very likely to sever or impale a vital structure and disable an adversary almost immediately. And so it was, during the reign of Louis XIII, for one Bussy D'Ambrose who was run through the throat while acting as a second for the Marquis de Beuvron. The chance of combat, however, is a fickle companion to the duelist, as Sir Hatton Cheek discovered in 1609 in his duel with Sir Thomas Dutton. Each, armed with rapier and dagger, met the other on the sands of Calais. On the first pass Cheek directed a dagger thrust to Dutton's throat, close to the trachea, and ran him through. One may imagine with what surprise Cheek found that the wound proved to be entirely ineffective. In fact, despite the seemingly serious nature of his injury, it was Dutton who concluded the combat by running Cheek through the body with his rapier, and then stabbing him in the back with his dagger. If we are surprised at Dutton's ability to continue the combat, it is with horror that we find that Cheek, after having been so grievously wounded, not only failed to drop to the ground, but continued on with the combat, gathering enough strength to rush yet again upon his adversary. The conflict continued until Dutton, noticing that Cheek began to droop on account of massive blood loss, wisely adopted a defensive strategy, keeping his distance until Cheek finally collapsed from loss of blood.


Within the abdominal cavity are found the abdominal aorta and its two major branches, the common iliac arteries; and their venous counterparts, the inferior vena cava and the common iliac veins. These vessels are large, relatively speaking, and they confine blood under end-systolic pressures similar to those found in the major thoracic arteries. All of these vessels are located in close proximity to the spinal column and lie behind the bulk of the abdominal viscera.

In the present-day United States, wounds delivered by thrusts or cuts from a sword are almost entirely unheard of; knives are by far the most common weapon involved in stabbings. Obviously, the depth to which a knife may penetrate the abdominal cavity is less that that for the blade of a sword. It is important to bear this point in mind with respect to a finding that less than half of all stab wounds do any serious injury to the abdominal viscera. Longer blades might well increase the morbidity and mortality of such injuries.

Wounds to the abdomen which do prove fatal usually involve the large blood vessels and/or the liver, which is a highly vascular organ itself. The rate of blood loss from even a grievously wounded liver is not likely to be sufficient to cause sudden cardiac collapse, however, since the vascular resistance within this organ is very high. Complete transection of the abdominal aorta could be expected to incapacitate a duelist relatively quickly, but some degree of good fortune would be required to introduce the blade in such a way as to impale this relatively narrow structure within the bulk of the abdomen, or draw the blade's edge along the artery's wall to transect it.

A sabre stroke would certainly be an effective means of severing the major abdominal arteries and veins, but because they are located against the vertebral column, the stroke would have to be made with considerable violence in order to pass the blade through the skin, the underlying abdominal muscles, and the viscera situated in front of the vessels. Were such a stroke delivered, violating the integrity of the large vessels would be a moot point in any case since the sudden loss of intra-abdominal pressure and the attendant cardiac return would induce immediate cardiac collapse. For a cutting action to do so much damage the type of sabre would be an important consideration. While a heavy cavalry sabre with a curved blade would have sufficient mass and dynamics to yield the necessary force, a cut delivered to the abdominal wall by the lighter and shorter dueling sabre with a straight rather than a curved edge would likely prove inadequate to the task and could leave the adversary still capable of posing a serious threat.


Although relatively far removed from the heart, the arteries of the arms are still of sufficiently low vascular resistance to carry blood under pressures similar to those found in the greater thoracic arteries. Of the major arteries of the arm, the brachial artery is the largest and lies along the medial surface of the bone of the upper arm (humerus). As it descends, it progressively courses anteriorly to the crook of the arm, where it is well exposed to a sword-thrust or cut. From the crook of the elbow it divides into the ulnar and radial arteries. Wounds to any of these vessels can be extremely life-threatening, especially if the vessel is only partly severed, since the muscular walls of a completely transected artery will naturally retract and impair the rate of hemorrhage. Incisions in the radial artery are a well-recognized cause of death in suicide victims. Nevertheless, because of their relatively smaller diameters, immediate incapacitation due to blood loss from the severing of these arteries cannot be expected.

The veins of the arm are far more numerous than the major arteries. They are significantly more narrow and intravenous pressures are normally less than ten millimeters of mercury. As a consequence, incisions or even complete transections of these vessels can be expected to result in no immediately serious consequences.


Much like the arms, the legs each are serviced by one large artery which divides into two major branches. The femoral artery lies in front of the hip joint and descends along the medial surface of the thigh bone, (femur). Unlike the brachial artery, however, the mid and distal portion of the femoral artery is not altogether vulnerable to the blade of the duelist. As it approximates the knee joint it spirals around the femur and passes directly behind the knee in the form of the popliteal artery, which subsequently bifurcates to become the anterior and posterior tibial arteries.

Like the arm, the leg is laced with a complex network of veins. Most of these are relatively narrow and deep and the pressure of blood confined within these vessels is low. The rate of blood flow through these vessels is relatively slow and wounds severing one or more of them cannot be expected to result in consequences of any interest to the duelist.

Cuts or thrusts to the major arteries of the legs can be serious enough to cause death. Nevertheless, an adversary seriously wounded in a femoral artery ought still to be considered an extremely dangerous adversary because blood loss is unlikely to be so rapid as to result in immediate collapse. In the last of the judicial duels fought in France in 1547 between Francois de Vivonne, Lord of Chastaigneraye and Guy de Chabot, the oldest son of the Lord of Jarnac, Chastaigneraye was wounded by cuts to the back of the knee of both legs. Hamstrung, Chastaigneraye lay helpless on the ground while a lengthy exchange of words followed between him and his adversary. Jarnac offered to spare Chastaigneraye if he would admit that his accusations, over which the trial took place, were in error, but Chastaigneraye refused to recant and Jarnac, loth to take his opponents life, pleaded with the attending monarch, Henry II, to intervene and save Chastaigneraye's life. Initially, the king refused to interfere, however. Hemorrhaging uncontrollably from at least one artery, Chastaigneraye remained upon the ground while Jarnac continued to plead back and forth with both Chastaigneraye and the king to end the combat. After Jarnac's third appeal, the king finally interceded, but Chastaigneraye's pride had been mortally wounded. Refusing to allow his wounds to be treated, he finally succumbed after "a little time" from loss of blood.

It is important to note that Chastaigneraye was considered to have been a swordsman of extraordinary skill as well as an excellent wrestler. Following the cutting stroke to his leg, the extended period during which he lay hemorrhaging to death was certainly of sufficient length to have afforded him a number of thrusts, strokes and parries. Had the slash to the backside of his right leg not crippled him, Chastaigneraye might well have been the victor in this combat, severed artery notwithstanding.


In conclusion, fencing tempo is a vital element of swordsmanship, but clearly for the duelist hitting before being hit is not at all the same thing as hitting without being hit. Exsanguination is the principal mechanism of death caused by stabbing and incising wounds and death by this means is seldom instantaneous. Although stab wounds to the heart are generally imagined to be instantly incapacitating, numerous modern medical case histories indicate that while victims of such wounds may immediately collapse upon being wounded, rapid disability from this type of wound is by no means certain. Many present-day victims of penetrating wounds involving the lungs and the great vessels of the thorax have also demonstrated a remarkable ability to remain physically active minutes to hours after their wounds were inflicted. These cases are consistent with reports of duelists who, subsequent to having been grievously or even mortally wounded through the chest, neck, or abdomen, nevertheless remained actively engaged upon the terrain and fully able to continue long enough to dispatch those who had wounded them.


Dubious Quick Kill - Part Three

How do we reconcile fencing theory with the anecdotes passed down through history? Can we trust what was reported by seconds and the principals who survived? How credible is the "evidence?" Take for example the case of the duel fought in 1613 between the Earl of Dorset and Lord Edward Bruce. According to the Earl's account, he received a rapier-thrust in the right nipple which passed "level through my body, and almost to my back." Seemingly unaffected, the Earl remained engaged in the combat for some time. The duel continued with Dorset going on to lose a finger while attempting to disarm his adversary manually. Locked in close quarters, the two struggling combatants ultimately ran out of breath. According to Dorset's account, they paused briefly to recover, and while catching their wind, considered proposals to release each other's blades. Failing to reach an agreement on exactly how this might be done, the seriously wounded Dorset finally managed to free his blade from his opponent's grasp and ultimately ran Lord Bruce through with two separate thrusts. Although Dorset had received what appears to have been a grievous wound that, in those days, ought to have been mortal, he not only remained active long enough to dispatch his adversary, but without the aid of antibiotics and emergency surgery, also managed to live another thirty-nine years. Never happen in a thousand years? Maybe. After all, Dorset himself told the story.

where and how might one strike to take the adversary immediately out of the combat?


In his treatise entitled Paradoxes of Defence, George Silver cautions that one should not expect the instant incapacitation of one's adversary from a rapier thrust. In fact, he claims to have known of a duel in which a combatant who was wounded some nine or ten times by thrusts through the body and the limbs, nevertheless managed to remain in the combat long enough to kill his adversary. Silver, of course, had no love for the rapier and the new style of swordplay which was soon to supersede the dying 'old school' of broadsword-play of which Silver and his colleagues were the last members. Many of his objections to rapier-play, including his proof that the cut is swifter than the thrust, do not withstand the test of logic, so one may be inclined to give him less credit than that to which he might otherwise be due. Numerous examples taken from other accounts, however, lend much support to Silver's concern for the danger posed by the wounded adversary.

During the reign of the French king, Henry the IV, two experienced duelists, Lagarde and Bazanez, fought a duel in which the later received an unspecified number of thrusts which "entered" the body. Despite having lost a good deal of blood, Bazanez nevertheless managed to wrestle his adversary to the ground, whereupon he proceeded to inflict some fourteen stab wounds with his dagger to an area extending from his opponent's neck to his navel. Lagarde meanwhile, entertained himself by biting off a portion of his adversary's chin. Using the pommel of his weapon, ended the affair by fracturing Bazanez's skull. History concludes, saying that neither combatant managed to inflict any "serious" injury, and that both recovered from the ordeal. One could hardly be criticized for believing this story to be anything more than a fiction.

While the previous tale seems amazing enough, hardly anyone can tell a story more incredible than that witnessed by R. Deerhurst. Two duelists, identified only as "His Grace, the Duke of B " and "Lord B ", after an exchange of exceptionally cordial letters of challenge met in the early morning to conduct their affair with pistols and swords. The combat began with a pistol ball inflicting a slight wound to the Duke's thumb. A second firing was exchanged in which Lord B was then wounded slightly. Each then immediately drew his sword and rushed upon the other with reckless ferocity. After an exchange of only one or two thrusts, the two became locked corps a corps. Struggling to free themselves by "repeated wrenches," they finally separated enough to allow the Duke to deliver a thrust which entered the inside of Lord B 's sword arm and exited the outside of the arm at the elbow. Incredible as it may seem, his Lordship was still able to manage his sword and eventually drove home a thrust just above Duke B 's right nipple. Transfixed on his Lordship's blade, the Duke nevertheless continued, attempting repeatedly to direct a thrust at his Lordship's throat. With his weapon fixed in His Grace's chest, Lord B now had no means of defense other than his free arm and hand. Attempting to grasp the hostile blade, he lost two fingers and mutilated the remainder. Finally, the mortally wounded Duke penetrated the bloody parries of Lord B's hand with a thrust just below Lord B 's heart.

In the Hollywood swashbucklers this scene might well have have ended at this point, if not long before, but real life often seems to have a more incredible, and certainly in this case, more romantic outcome. Locked together at close quarters and unable to withdraw their weapons from each other's bodies for another thrust, the two stood embracing each other in a death grip. At this point the seconds, attempting to intercede, begged the pair to stop. Neither combatant would agree, however, and there they both remained, each transfixed upon the blade of the other until, due to extensive blood loss, his Lordship finally collapsed. In doing so, he withdrew his sword from the Duke's body and, staggering briefly, fell upon his weapon, breaking the blade in two. A moment later, the "victorious" Duke deliberately snapped his own blade and, with a sigh, fell dead upon the corpse of his adversary.

Numerous similar accounts begin to make a case the prudent swordsman cannot afford to ignore. It would appear that delivering a thrust or cut to an opponent, without falling prey to his own blade in turn, may not be so very simple and easy a thing. If one is skillful (or fortunate) enough to accomplish this feat, how long after inflicting a wound with a rapier, sabre, or smallsword can one's adversary continue to pose a threat? Does the type of wound have any meaningful effect on the length of time during which a stricken foe may continue to deliver a killing cut or thrust? To prevent the opponent from executing a counterattack, delivering a riposte or renewing an attack, where and how might one strike to take the adversary immediately out of the combat?


Death from stabbing and incising ("cutting" or "slashing") wounds is mainly brought about through five mechanisms: massive hemorrhage (exsanguination), air in the bloodstream (air embolism), suffocation (asphyxia), air in the chest cavity (pneumothorax), and infection. Of these, exsanguination is the most common, with hemorrhaging confined principally to the body cavity because stabbing wounds tend to close after the weapon is withdrawn. The amount of blood loss necessary to disable totally an individual varies widely and may range from as little as one-half to as much as three liters.

To reach a vital area it is first necessary to pass the blade through the body's external covering and whatever else lies between, and with regard to techniques in swordsmanship, an important consideration is the degree of force required to pass through intervening structures in order to reach vital structures with a sword-thrust or cut. In France, in 1892, this issue was raised during a trial conducted as a consequence of a duel fought between the Marquis de Mores and a Captain Meyer. The question arose on account of an accusation that the weapons used in the duel were "too heavy." While two physicians, Drs. Faure and Paquelin, testified that it did not require great strength to inflict a wound similar to that which took Captain Meyer's life, there was some difference of opinion expressed by a number of fencing masters called to testify on the matter of acceptable weights of weapons, and the force required to employ them in the delivery of a fatal thrust.

Even today, prosecutors trying homicide cases involving death by stabbing will sometimes attempt to convince juries that a deeply penetrating stab wound serves as an indicator of murderous intent by virtue of the great force required to inflict such wounds. It is generally accepted today among experts of forensic medicine, however, that the force requisite to inflict even a deeply penetrating stab wound is minimal. This opinion would seem to be supported by the experience of a stage actor who inadvertently stabbed a colleague to death during a stage performance of Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet. The unlucky young man delivered a thrust at the very moment his vision was inadvertently obscured by a member of the cast. Although he claimed to have felt no resistance, a post mortem examination revealed that he had penetrated the chest of the victim to a depth of eighteen centimeters.

Except for bone or cartilage which has become ossified, it is the skin that offers the greatest resistance to the point of a blade. In fact, once the skin is penetrated, a blade may pass, even through costal cartilage, with disquieting ease. Generally, of the factors governing the ease of entry, the two most important are the sharpness of the tip of the blade and the velocity with which it contacts the skin. While the mass of the weapon is a factor in penetration, the velocity of the blade at the moment of contact is of greater importance, since the force at impact is directly proportional to the square of the velocity of the thrust.

Unlike injuries inflicted with pointed weapons, the depth of cutting wounds, produced by the edges of weapons like the sabre or rapier, is governed by a somewhat different set of dynamics which include the radial velocity of the blade at impact, its mass, the proficiency with which the blade is drawn across the body upon contact, and the distance over which the force of the cut is distributed. The greatest depth of penetration in many of these wounds is found at the site where, with maximum force, the blade first makes contact. As the edge is pushed or drawn, the force of the cut dissipates and the blade tends to rise out of the wound as it traverses the body. In the case of cutting wounds directed to the chest, the total force required to reach the interior of the chest is greater than that for a point thrust, not only because the force of the stroke is distributed across the length of the cut, but also because of the likelihood that the blade will encounter greater resistance afforded by the underlying ribs and the breastbone (sternum).

next time, Wounds to the Heart... 

Dubious Quick Kill - Part Two


Like the rapier itself, the actual practice of dueling underwent an evolutionary process. Initially, duels were impromptu, deadly affairs resulting in considerable loss of life. As time passed, however, changes in the conduct of the duel improved one's chances for survival. The rencountre Dueling with the rapier was already commonplace during the 16th century. In France alone, between 1589 and 1610 some eight thousand souls had lost their lives while engaged in "affairs of honor." Despite its widespread practice and acceptance among the aristocracy, dueling was nevertheless illegal for most of its long history and, consequently, principals frequently met alone and in secret to avoid being discovered. In this way combatants could transact their business uninterrupted and the victors could claim that in their "chance encounters," it was the deceased who had been responsible for provoking the violence and that, therefore, the death of the adversary had been nothing more than an act of self-defense. It soon became apparent, however, that the rencountre could offer more perils than those for which a duelist might be prepared to bargain. 

As the duel evolved, however, it began to take on a distinct air of respectability.

A case in point is that of the duel between a young man by the name of Chateauneuf and Lachesnaye, the young man's eighty year-old guardian. The two Frenchmen met alone to cross blades on the Isle Louviers. Within moments of having begun, Lachesnaye discovered that Chateauneuf had concealed a cuirass beneath his clothing. At a terrible disadvantage, the older gentleman was left with nothing to do but direct his attacks against his opponent's face and neck; unhappily, Lachesnaye's efforts were in vain, and the young ward finally concluded their relationship by running his guardian through. 

An even more shocking display of treachery can be found in the example of the duel fought between the nephew of Marshal St. Andre and an older man by the name of Matas. After having exchanged words, the two sought out a secluded place in a wood to settle their differences in private. No sooner had the young man come on guard when Matas disarmed him, sending his sword flying. The generous victor spared the young man's life and, as he prepared to leave the ground, suggested that the youth learn how to hold on to his sword. With a final caution to the youngster to refrain from crossing blades with skilled swordsmen such as himself, Matas prepared to mount his horse. The moment his back was turned, the humiliated youngster picked up his weapon and stabbed his generous adversary in the back. 

Certainly, an example of consummate deceit may be found in the duel fought in 1664 at Ostuni, Italy, between the Count of Conversano and the Duke of Martina. The quarrel had arisen out of years of hatred between the Count and his neighbor, the Prince of Francavilla, whom the Count had decided to challenge to a sword fight. Because of his advanced age, the Prince offered to fight with pistols instead, but expecting to make full use of the advantage afforded by the disparity in their ages, the Count refused to agree. To provoke the Prince into accepting the challenge on his own terms, the Count siezed an opportunity to strike the older man with the flat of his sword in public. Humiliated, the Prince was enraged, but knowing that he had no chance against his younger antagonist, suggested that he be championed by his young nephew, the Duke of Martina. The Count agreed, and after some time, the two finally met, weapons in hand. The combat began and lasted a considerable length of time, but ironically, the original stratagem of the Count was now reversed. Because of his youth, the Duke's superior endurance enabled him to fight a cautious, defensive game. When the Count's strength finally began to fail, the young Duke went on the offensive, and after wounding his antagonist suggested that, if the Count was satisfied, the affair be concluded. Furious at his unexpected turn of fortune, the Count adamantly refused the offer and continued the combat until he received a second wound which took his life. Fully expecting to win the duel, the Count had been confident enough to have prepared a banquet to share with friends in celebration of his triumph. Unbeknownst to the Duke, however, the count had nevertheless taken the precaution to hire a band of scoundrels to ambush and murder the young Duke on his way home, in the event that he had become the victor.  To provide witnesses to testify against accusations of foul play, and to avoid falling victim to trickery or ambush by an unprincipled opponent, it eventually became common for the duelist to arrive on the ground accompanied by one or more friends, or "seconds." Initially, however, orderly conduct of the duel was difficult to maintain as seconds, eager to enjoy the thrill of the moment, frequently joined in the fray, sometimes with as many as four or more fighting on each side. A notable example, in that it is said to be the occasion which introduced this practice, is that of the duel des mignons, fought in France in 1517 between two favorites of Henry III. Each principal was accompanied by two seconds who also participated in the combat. Two of the men were killed on the ground and two more died of their wounds a short time later. Ironically, although the purpose of the seconds was to insure a fair fight, once an adversary had fallen, it was not at all uncommon for an idle second to seek new employment against an opponent already busily engaged. 

As the duel evolved, however, it began to take on a distinct air of respectability. Strict codes were instituted which governed the conduct of affairs of honor in minute detail. Through these codes the rash, ugly, and spontaneous nature of the duel was refined to one of polite civility, and the meticulous observance of each point of the code gave an affair, right up to the killing thrust, a solemn and stately character consistent with that of a religious service. Eventually, only the principals were involved in the combat and the seconds took on the role of counselors, witnesses, and directors. Their responsibility was to guarantee fair play by agreeing with each other regarding the details of the encounter, seeing to it that the rules governing the conduct of the duel were observed, and after becoming familiar with the details involving the cause of the affair, working toward settling the matter peaceably. Interestingly, the dueling code perpetuated the practice of dueling through certain of its provisions which minimized the probability of a fatality, thereby calming the anxieties of an increasingly intolerant public. Among these were rules which allowed seconds to stop a combat as soon as one of the principals was wounded. While such provisions afforded an opportunity for seconds to come to the assistance of a wounded duelist, it will become evident that the as yet-unharmed adversary might have had much to benefit from them as well. 


In America, it is mainly through motion pictures that the public at large has been exposed to swordplay. The gulf of time separating us from the times of the duel and the ignorance of film producers and directors, however, have given most Americans an inaccurate view of swordplay as it really was during the time when swordsmen crossed blades in earnest. A relatively early film, "The Adventures of Don Juan", is typical of such motion pictures, and provides excellent examples of mistaken notions concerning Swordplay. In the closing scenes of the film one finds some thirty to forty swordsmen curiously engaged in a virtual whirlwind of cut, thrust and parry. Armed with what appear to be cup-hilted rapiers, the actors wield their weapons with a speed and dexterity made possible only by the substitution of authentic rapier blades with much lighter and shorter epee blades of the kind used by sport fencers of today. Though historically inaccurate, these stage props enabled the characters of the film to execute complex, exciting, fast-moving fencing actions, including rapid circular thrusts and carries, otherwise impossible with the long, heavy blades of the authentic weapons. Curiously, while these lighter stage props enabled the actors to move their blades more dexterously, the final combat features daggers used in concert with the larger weapons. The use of the dagger in conjunction with the rapier is historically accurate, of course. Because rapiers of authentic construction were somewhat slow and clumsy, daggers were often employed in parrying away thrusts from the adversary's longer weapon. Because of the speed and facility with which the actors were able to wield their lighter stage props, however, the use of the dagger in these scenes, although flashy, was altogether unnecessary. 

In conjunction with the highly romantic albeit inaccurate depiction of swordplay, the film also portrays the wounding of the combatants in a manner that one may be inclined to question. Without exception each defeated swordsman, as he receives a thrust from his adversary, quickly and most obligingly crumples to the floor, leaving the victor entirely unscathed and ready to take on yet another opponent. Only as the film approaches the denouement do we find a single swordsman unprepared to accept his conventional cue to cease hostilities. 

While in the act of attacking his adversary's outside high line, one of the film's sinister characters lunges into a very neatly executed intagliata and, run through the abdomen, slowly collapses to the floor. Although mortally wounded, the knave fails to expire instantly in the same fashion as his predecessors, but watches from a distance while the one responsible for his impending demise engages the arch villain in the final combat of the film. A full two minutes later, while the two remaining adversaries are fiercely engaged, the dying rogue manages to summon enough strength to draw his dagger and hurl it toward the exposed back of the story's hero. The dagger fails to find its mark, however, and as the weapon glances harmlessly off the base of a column, the fatally stricken wretch finally gives up the ghost. Certainly dramatic, such portrayals of death nevertheless leave one to question whether the movie industry's depiction of death at the hand of the swordsman is consistent with reality. 

Another motion picture of particular interest, because it touches upon the theme of this thesis, is the 1960 film, "Spartacus." Early in the story a scene is presented representing the training of men newly recruited for gladiatorial combat. In this sequence, an experienced swordsman charged with the responsibility for training newcomers to the gladitorial school provides a demonstration in which various areas of a man's body are marked with colored dyes to indicate particular regions where differing categories of wounds may be inflicted. The instructor prioritizes wounds to various areas of the body and instructs his pupils to strive to deliver cuts or thrusts either to the region of the neck or to the central area of the chest where the heart lies, because wounds inflicted in these places, he says, will yield an "instant kill." Next in order of priority is the type of wound which, the instructor explains, yields a "cripple." For this type of wound the arms and legs are indicated. Last, strokes of yellow dye are applied to the surface of the pectoral muscles, to the flank area, and to the abdominal region to designate those areas which, when wounded, yield what the instructor describes as the "slow kill." He concludes by admonishing the neophytes to be wary of an adversary so wounded because, ". . . a slow kill may have enough life left in him to kill you before he dies." While this advice is delivered by an actor from a script written for a medium of popular entertainment, the caution seems reasonable, but given the reputation that motion pictures have for their lack of verisimilitude, the interested scholar may wish to further his investigation of this subject, using resources of a more reliable character.

next time, The Dubious Quick Kill...

Dubious Quick Kill - Part One

This is the first installment of our first guest article.  Owing to the length of this original text we will publish parts until the complete version is online.  I would like to thank Maitre A. Crown, who first published a shorter and modified version of this article at his website many years ago and I'd also like to thank Maestro F. Lurz, the author for making his original thesis available.  Among his many achievements, Maestro Lurz served as Assistant Director of the Fencing Masters Training Program at San Jose State University and served on its board of examiners.  This board certified many of the fencing masters that we have all worked with since.  A common thread throughout the instruction of these contemporary masters of the Italian tradition is efficiency and effective swordplay.  In this article Maestro Lurz provides historical and forensic evidence for the importance of these traits.


 The science of swordsmanship has come down to us from ages long ago, and the details of its earliest origins and much of its subsequent development are lost, along with countless other priceless treasures, among the dust and ashes of time's terrible passage. Consequently, one can only witness with the mind's eye that fateful moment in history when a club-wielding combatant first realized the unique property of a sharp stick and the advantage to which it could be employed. The moment became history; the stick became the weapon that changed the world.

 Though not entirely lost, detailed information on the actual practice of swordsmanship is not altogether clear, owing to the passage of the era during which such weapons were used, the unreliability of personal anecdotes and biased accounts, unreported events, and the lack of any photographic means by which combat between swordsmen could be recorded. For the average individual, an understanding of what was involved in swordplay has been confused further by the motion picture industry. Scenes of cavaliers contemporaneously fighting dozens of adversaries while swinging from chandeliers, sliding down banisters, and leaping over furniture render a popular view of swordplay altogether inconsistent with the historical record. Although these performances may captivate a theater audience, such antics would doubtless be looked upon with considerable disdain by the fencing masters of the past.

the duelist was guided by a basic principal of fencing understood by all serious fencers who faced the possibility of involvement in the duel: to hit without being hit

While the science and art of fencing owes its origins and evolution to deadly combat, fencing now has been elevated (or perhaps demeaned) to the level of a sport. Modern innovations arising out of fencing's increasingly athletic character, plus modern technology and the conduct of fencing strictly as a game, have opened an ever widening gulf between fencing as an athletic exercise and fencing as a means of defending oneself in a duel. Motivated to excel in the sport for the honor and prestige such excellence confers, the modern competitive fencer seeks to win the touch, and with it the medals, awards, and other accolades which bear testimony to the victor's athletic prowess, within the limits of conventions which, while based on dueling practice, nevertheless allow for victory through means sometimes incompatible with serious swordplay. In contrast, the motive forces that drove the duelist to face an adversary with deadly weapons were many and complex,  and the goals of the genuine swordsman were vastly different from those of today's sport fencer. By appearing on the terrain de combat, ready to fight, the duelist also won honor, respect and prestige. Out of grim necessity, however, he was compelled to pursue through his skill as a swordsman two important goals which are of little interest to today's fencing athlete: to place his adversary hors de combat, and to survive the ordeal intact. To accomplish these ends, the duelist was guided by a basic principal of fencing understood by all serious fencers who faced the possibility of involvement in the duel: to hit without being hit.

 This work will explore the subject of dueling from the 15th through the 19th century via an examination of historical accounts of duels and through modern forensic medical literature pertaining to the subject of penetrating wounds, specifically those caused by sharp instruments. Its purpose is to gain an appreciation of the extraordinary durability of the human body and how difficult and dangerous it could be for a swordsman to eliminate an adversary. For the purposes of this discussion the weapons under consideration will include the rapier, the smallsword, and the sabre. 


In order to gain an understanding of swordplay as it applied to the duel, it is necessary to become familiar with the weapons used and the types of injuries they had the potential to inflict. Throughout the medieval period, swords commonly consisted of a broad, straight, double-edged blade. The guard consisted of a cross bar, or quillion, at right angles to he blade, a grip of wood wound with leather or cord, and a heavy pommel fixed at the end. While the efficacy of the thrust over the cut had long been known, the medieval sword was nevertheless designed as a cutting instrument suited to use in warfare. By the 16th century, however, the increasing popularity of private, personal combat called for a lighter, more versatile weapon. Suited to thrusting as well as cutting actions, the rapier became the preferred weapon for duels fought against an adversary now on foot and unprotected by defensive armor.

  1. The rapier, developed through the influence of the theories and techniques of swordplay being taught at that time by the masters of the Italian fencing schools, possessed a long, narrow blade ranging from 86 to as many as 150 centimeters in length. Double-edged and ending in a sharp point, these blades were designed to employ both thrusting and cutting actions. Rapier hilts were of a wide variety of types and styles, but generally consisted of quillions, a hemispherical cup or a series of rings to protect the hand, a knuckle guard, a grip and a pomme1. As time passed, improved fencing techniques for the rapier were developed, which in turn, called for changes in rapier design. As a result of this evolution, the weapon became shorter and lighter, and the guard became smaller. 
  2. The final step in the evolution of the rapier produced the smallsword, which first appeared toward the end of the 17th century. The blade architecture of these weapons initially included designs that were elliptical, diamond, or even hexagonal in cross-section; but a grooved, triangular shape, producing a blade that was stiff, strong, and light, finally became the preferred design. Unlike the early rapier, the smallsword was used exclusively for thrusting. Consequently, the later, triangular blades frequently possessed either no sharp cutting edge, or retained it only partially, not for the purpose of delivering a cutting stroke, but to discourage an adversary from deflecting the blade with his unarmed hand or grasping it in an attempt to effect a manual disarmament. 
  3. The first fencing treatise to make mention of the sabre was published in 1686. The weapon became known in western Europe through contact with Hungarian light horsemen who, in turn, learned of it through the Turks. The sabre was equipped with a grip, guard, knuckle bow and a pommel. The sabre blade was frequently curved, with a sharp edge extending from the guard to the point. The back side of the blade also possessed an edge which was sharp along its distal third. Although relatively heavy sabres were used extensively by the cavalry of all nations as a weapon of war, a lighter form weapon was also employed in dueling practice. The sabre was intended mainly for cutting, but like the rapier, it was also effective in thrusting.

next time, the Evolution of the Duel...