6 min read

For Authors: How did your characters learn to use weapons?

For Authors: How did your characters learn to use weapons?
A little SCA heavy fighting. I'm the one without the shield.

Ran across a discussion online between some authors, regarding how long it would take someone to learn how to use a certain weapon. The answers were phrased based on modern experience with different martial arts. The most common answer is "years" which is flat wrong when we look at the available historical records for learning European weaponry.

In my experience, that's also pretty wrong for modern weapon work. Part of the issue is that learning to fight with weapons these days means absorbing a martial system, and learning to replicate the standards of that system. The Hollywood trope of learning Japanese martial arts has imprinted this on us. You must find the right master and dedicate your life to learning their complex and mysterious methods. That's not inaccurate and is the recommended path if you want to become the scion of a traditional Japanese martial arts school.

However, since fantasy novels tend to follow the stereotypes of European weapons and armour, is that still accurate in this case? How did someone learn to use weapons back in the old days, and how long did it take?

A little caveat, first. Europe, like Africa, is a continent (or sub-continent if you prefer) and not a country, so exceptions are the rule. Also, the time frame that covers the use of non-firearm weapons is quite large, and includes a ton of variety.

That aside, I'm going to focus on an area I know well, that being the martial arts of Italy and the Iberian peninsula, between the 1400-1600's. Specifically, since there is a nifty paper on it, the city-state of Bologna, covering exactly what a Fencing master was paid, and how long it took them to teach certain weapons. You can find the paper here: Income and working time of a Fencing Master in Bologna in the 15th and early 16th century

This paper is really great for me, because I teach these same classes modernly, so I can compare how long I take to teach the material to how long it took them in the "good old days." And the difference between how long I take and how long it takes them tells me some important things about the environment of teaching weapon arts at the time.

To quickly sum it up, the hardest weapon to learn was the two-handed sword. It required 2-1/2 months of theory work, and 2-1/2 months of practical work for a total of 5 months.

For reference, this would likely be closely based on Achille Marozzo’s work, which for two-handed sword: (Marozzo's third book on Wikitenauer) covers about 17 chapters, and what feels like about a hundred techniques. It's a lot, honestly. The instructor at the time wanted about $4000 CDN (he settled for about $2000) per student to teach this, too. $400-800 a month is a sizeable chunk of cash. But apparently it was a popular enough class that the primary concern of the teacher was limiting his classes to 20 students at a time. I'd love to have that kind of income from teaching, I really would...

Moving on, Sword and Buckler took about 3 months, and every other weapon, including wrestling, stick, sword, etc, took about 2 months. Sword and bucker lessons gave you the best "bang" for your buck, costing about a third what two-hander lessons cost. Dagger was the most expensive on a per-class cost. That makes sense to me...Bolognese dagger at the time was a pretty sophisticated self-defense art. You can read some of it here (scroll down to "Presa 1".

No mystery to it. All laid out in the historical records for us. And it makes sense to me. If you give me a month or two with someone, I'm going to teach them to use any given weapon very, very well.

The trick is that weapons aren't very complex, as long as you have a certain kind of background. Looking over Marozzo's two-hander section, you've got a LOT of moves to memorize. Hundreds. For a modern person, this can be daunting or seemingly impossible. Even some of the short weapon lessons, like the one for using two swords at the same time, include nine formal lessons, with a minimum of three 0r four "moves" for each lesson. That's at least twenty-seven physical motions to memorize.

If you've got a lifetime of martial arts training, no problem. You can memorize the whole thing in a hour if you try. For an average person? The standard is to add one extra motion a class. So...twenty-seven days. A month. And then another month to learn to use those moves in combat. Sounds about right.

By the way, another great way to learn to memorize long sequences of physical actions? Dance. Guess what was more popular back in the days before radio and TV? That's right, dancing. So your fantasy hero probably was used to memorizing dances by watching others, and could probably pick up new techniques for weapons quickly. So no need for long years to master weapons. Unless, of course, they planned to teach. But for going out and using the weapons for duels or warfare? A month or two is lots.

The big question here is why does it take so long to learn to fight with a weapon these days? One reason is that most of us are just not very good at memorization or physical movement these days. We're out of practice, and that makes it much harder to acquire skills. The other reason is that martial arts practice is a predominantly social skill (You can read more about this in this book)

Since it's a social skill, we tend to focus more on looking like the other practitioners that on performance. Success comes from being able to imitate the unconscious body clues of the other practitioners as a sign of deep learning of the material.

Actual fighting skill is a whole different beast. As weapon skills tend to be something you can pick up in a month or two, they are clearly not extremely complex.

Which leaves us in a bit of a quandary as writers, because having a character progress from terrible to amazing as a sword fighter is a trope that is WAY too much fun to give up on. We love writing it, and we love reading it.

Do we have to give it up to be realistic? Hell no. But if we want to write this trope better, we need to understand the reality of learning and fighting a little better. It will give us stronger stories to tell, and more relatable stories...because as writers we may not know how to swordfight, but we do know how to overcome adversity, and to overcome our own mental struggles. And this is also how you become a good sword fighter.

Being a good fighter with weapons has very little to do with technique learned. Instead, it's almost entirely down to learning to be deceptive. Heck, my friend Maija Soderholm wrote a brilliant book on this: The Liar, the Cheat, and the Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play from the perspective of her non-European martial art. It's a universal principle. Getting good is a process of learning how to master your body language, read someone else’s, and offer them false cues to your movements. This is very complex and requires substantial sparring time. Or a teacher who is exceptional at creating drills.

Your characters' first few lessons are likely to be very discouraging, as they will understand every technique being used to defeat them, but won’t be able to see or understand how it was used against them. They will go through a phase of thinking that their opponent is just faster than them, and will probably try to move faster to beat them. That will result in them losing even faster. They won’t have any success until they learn to see the setups and the feints.

If they have a good teacher, that teacher will spend time having them watch other students fencing, and explain what is happening. They will also do slow practice with them, were they exaggerate the setups so that the student can learn to see them. They will likely learn certain ways to carry their body (like a certain stance or guard, maybe) that help them learn to fake out their opponents better.

It's going to be a mental struggle more than a physical one. Learning weapon arts means stepping into a world that makes no sense, that twists your sense of reality. Success comes only when you learn to perceive beyond what your eyes tell you, and understand how your own sense lie to you.

Maybe it's just me, but that seems like the basis for a really good personal growth story.