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'Sword and Fist?'
A Man Question About Robert E. Howard's Literary Swordsmanship from Joel


"James, I've been following your Howard reviews and also your fight writing. You seem to stress the open hand alongside a weapon, not the fist. Yet Howard's heroes do plenty of "clouting" with the fist of the off hand while at work with the sword."

-Joel

Thanks for the hard question, Joel.

No sword or knife art I know of teaches the use of the fist other than to hammer downward onto the wrist of an opponent's blade hand.

Further more, since blade fighters lead with the blade with the same right hand that boxers keep back, converted boxers like myself never really feel comfortable throwing the rear hand punch even when it would be useful, which is rare. And let me tell you, Joel, even with dull wooden knives, there is a lot to be uncomfortable with when you are facing the prospect of being stabbed.

That said, there were gauntlet fighting arts in antiquity and the late Middle Ages saw the use of steel gauntlets that make punching in a sword fight make some limited sense.

I am currently rereading and reviewing The People of the Black Circle, where Howard describes Conan in the following action:

"He split the man's skull—ducked another swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled a man with his left fist and stabbed another in the belly..."

The last sequence in the above passage, the punch followed by a stab [sometimes on two different opponents] works well together and was the foundation of Greco-Roman swordsmanship—punch them with the shield and stab them. Or check his buddy with the shield and stab him. Both motions are shifting bodyweight forward and sink together like a right followed by a jab. A slash and punch would have to be a backhand slash followed by a punch.

Taking the above passage as realistic, which it is, how does a fighter without gauntlet dueling experience and not a left-handed man, essentially change bio-mechanic gears from slashing, and chopping with one hand to punching with the other.

First, punching in swordsmen has one source—shield use and Conan is sometimes depicted wielding a shield, though less so than would be normal for a swordsman wielding the types of blades he most often does. There are various dramatic reasons for this in the multitude of scenes crafted by Howard. One, undoubtedly, is that no one of Howard's time knew how a shield was used in combat and blade combat tended to be depicted in a more modern fashion. This is fine, as most Conan tales are essentially modern, with a thief on horse with the woman he abducted, or a pirate tale, or at the close of a battle when shields have been shivered and rent.

This said, the only stick fighters and swordsmen I have trained with that ever took to a shield as soon as it was put in there hand was boxers, and Howard was a boxer. He had to know instinctively that swordsmen sometimes punched one another and they did. Below are the four reasons this tends to happen, all of which I have experienced:

1. The swordsman is accustomed to having a shield in hand and does not. This sometimes results in disastrous blocks with the fist—I've done it, punching the descending stick!

2. The swordsman is a left-handed or switch-hitting boxer, used to sinking in the straight rear hand.

3. The swordsman wished he had a dagger in his off hand and didn't and punches out of frustration.

4. The swordsman wears gauntlets which beg to be used for a punch.

In the end, Joel, a punch is sometimes the right thing to do with an empty hand in a swordfight. But more often than not, an openhanded check is more useful. Of course, if you are Conan, and whoever you punch is going down, the closed fist becomes more endearing as an augment to the blade.

Twerps, Goons and Meatshields: The Basics of Full Contact Stick-Fighting

https://www.amazon.com/Twerps-Goons-Meatshields-Contact-Stick-Fighting/dp/1534600159/ref=sr_1_19/168-8034070-1678468?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1469556258&sr=1-19&keywords=james+lafond

Add Comment
ShepDecember 28, 2016 8:56 PM UTC

Although I'm sure REH didn't mean it this way, the sequence of action described could have referred to a left-handed backfist to an attacker on Conan's "nine" or a spinning horizontal hammerfist to some foo' trying to tackle the mighty Cimmerian from behind. Both of these punches could have been tactics of desperation when the hero's sword was stuck in the rib cage of the opponent directly in front of him.

I don't ever recall Conan kicking anyone during his scrimmages. This probably reflects the "code" of REH's time, when even roughnecks felt that kicking was unmanly. (Doughboys in WW1 were bemused by the conventions of French savate, saying that "The French they are a curious race—they fight with their feet and f@ck with their face.")

Nevertheless, I would guess that less-inhibited Hyborian warriors would likely incorporate a stomp to the knee when they were entangled at close range, and maybe even a knee to the jimmies when an opening presented itself.

What say you?
responds:December 30, 2016 8:15 AM UTC

Thanks for the input, Shep

In fighting with dull machetes I have found that opponent's who come from a martial arts background that stressed low kicks are very tricky to deal with. When the kick gets to groin level it exposes the shin and foot as a target. I once chopped into a bare shin with a small steel shield and that dude suffered.

Knees are a good idea but usually don't cooperate and require too much targeting while you are trying to keep an eye on his blade and use your weapons. A lot depends on how bent his knee is, so doing it while your eyes are elsewhere is a problem.

The single most effect kick in blade fighting we found to be the rear leg sliding stomp kick—a checking kick taught in Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do, slammed into the shin or ankle of an advancing.

In a stick fight groin kicks are real sweet shots, but with blades the groin kick is best set up by putting the man in trouble and on his heels and then putting him on his back with a shin kick to the pelvis. I have been taken out by this a couple of times.

However, on three occasions I was not taken out by a groin kick and scored a wicked cleave simultaneous to the kick.

We will soon be posting video in which I was dropped with a belly kick by Damien as I cleaved him.

Also, the kick to the stomach to break a weapon bind is a viable and proven tactic which I have also fallen for.