Swords are an iconic weapon in many popular movies, books, and video games. While they have been long since replaced with guns and other modern weapons in conventional warfare, there is still something about swords that draws people in.
There is a real-world application too, as many attackers still use the likes of knives and machetes. With that in mind, you may wonder about the best martial arts with swords. Thankfully, that’s what I’m here to find out. Join me as I explore the 20 best martial arts that use swords.
Table of Contents
- Swords and Martial Arts
- 20 Best Martial Arts with Swords
Swords and Martial Arts
Before I got started looking into the best martial arts with swords, I thought it was important to note that the use of swords can vary hugely from one martial art to the other as there are many different sword styles.
Some sword-based martial arts have adapted to modern self-defense and have transitioned to focusing on knives or sticks for practical application. Others have leaned more heavily into romantic ideals of the past and specialize in breathtaking displays of grace and athleticism.
Some styles use fast-paced, full-contact sparring, while others take a solo, meditative approach. Regardless of where you’re from or what kind of training you want to do, martial arts with swords is a fun and exciting discipline to learn.
Learning to use a sword isn’t just fun; it’s also great exercise. Training in martial arts that uses swords can help you build strength, balance, and flexibility. Styles range in intensity from intense cardiovascular sport forms, to acrobatic dances, all the way to low-impact meditative forms.
No matter your goal or skill level, there is a martial art sword form for you. Whether you’re looking for a way to connect with cultural traditions, competing in a combat sport, adding a new dimension to your self-defense system, or looking for a hands-on way to study history, these 20 martial arts that use weapons are great ways to learn the many aspects of the sword. Let’s get started.
20 Best Martial Arts with Swords
Iaido is a Japanese martial art that teaches students quick drawing techniques. This martial art teaches students to draw their sword, slash at an opponent, wipe, and resheath the blade in one fluid motion. Techniques in Iaido typically start from a sitting position.
Modern Iaido doesn’t include sparring but still features competitions where practitioners perform the same kata side by side. Judges then decide which student performed the kata best.
Iaido focuses on precise timing, footwork, and internal self-development, making it a good martial art for students who want to learn how to use a sword in a more meditative environment.
Kendo is a Japanese form of sports fencing based on traditional samurai techniques and one of the most famous sword fighting martial arts. Kendo uses shinai bamboo swords, allowing for safe sparring at full speed. This sport has gained a lot of popularity in Japan, and interest in this exciting martial art has grown worldwide.
The modern form of Kendo was organized into a sport in the mid-20th century. Kendo practitioners wear a special helmet, breastplate, and gloves during sparring. The shinai is used in a two-handed style modeled after historical techniques used for traditional samurai swords.
Kendo matches are won by making strikes to valid targets on the opponent to earn points. Despite its competitive nature, Kendo still emphasizes self-development and a traditional Bushido mindset in addition to athleticism. Martial artists looking for a competitive version of traditional Japanese sword fighting are sure to enjoy Kendo.
Eskrima, also known regionally by the names Arnis or Kali, is the national martial art of the Philippines. It heavily focuses on weapons, especially sticks, but also includes blades, knives, and empty-handed techniques. This martial art originated when indigenous fighting techniques were combined with European fencing practices during colonial times.
Modern eskrima is popular as a form of self-defense. Eskrima training begins with weapons training and progresses to empty hand and grappling techniques as students become more experienced. This martial art doesn’t use solo forms for training and instead relies on sparring to build muscle memory and confidence. Eskrima techniques are a practical and intense addition to an effective self-defense system.
4. Krabi Krabong
Krabi Krabong, which translates to “sword and cudgel,” is a weapons-based martial art from Thailand that shares some origins with Muay Thai. In addition to swords and cudgels, this martial art includes training on how to effectively use knives, staffs, and even crossbows.
Modern versions of this dynamic and aggressive martial arts are still used today by the Thai military for training, as well as for personal self-defense.
Krabi Krabong trains students in both practical sparring techniques and stylized weapon dances. In Thailand, this martial art is considered healthy exercise and a competitive sport, as well as a way to develop the student’s character and connection to their cultural heritage.
5. Historical European Martial Arts
Historical European Martial Arts, sometimes called Western Martial Arts and often abbreviated to HEMA or WMA, is a growing modern movement to recreate European martial arts that died out over the course of history.
Practitioners study historical documents and manuals to try and decipher how techniques were used and then practice them to learn their practical usage. Techniques from 1300-1800 AD from European countries such as Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Scotland, and England are the most popular due to the relative abundance of historical documentation that practitioners can draw on.
Swords are a favorite weapon that HEMA practitioners learn to use, along with sticks, axes, polearms, and hand-to-hand combat. This martial art is new and growing, and new competitions and events where skills can be demonstrated and practiced are being founded worldwide. Martial artists who enjoy studying history for lost treasures are sure to enjoy HEMA.
6. Foil Fencing
Foil fencing is one of three modern Olympic sword sports. The origin of the foil was as a training weapon to teach students how to duel with the rapier, a light sword used by European nobles in duels to settle disputes. Foil fencing was one of the two fencing styles included in the very first modern Olympic games in 1896. Of the three fencing styles, foil is the most popular and widespread.
In foil fencing, only the body is a valid target, and the blow must be a stab from the blade tip. Hits to the arms, legs, or head, or hits to valid targets with the edge of the blade don’t count toward winning the round for the foil fencer.
Competition foil fencers wear a conductive vest that will light up the score box when touched by the spring-loaded button at the tip of a competition fencing foil. The rules of foil favor parries and ripostes, so foil fencers can have a higher focus on defense than other styles.
7. Saber Fencing
Saber is the second style of Olympic fencing. This style differs from foil and epee by allowing hits from the edge of the blade as well as the tip, simulating slashes as well as stabs. The modern saber was originally derived from both naval cutlasses and the dueling sabers used historically in Hungary and Italy, and along with foil fencing, it was first included in the first modern Olympic games in 1896.
The target area is the entire upper body except the hands. Competition saber fencers wear a conductive helmet, jacket, and gauntlet that will light up the score box if hit by the opponent’s wired blade. The rules of saber favor the attacker, making it an aggressive and dynamic sport where both fencers launch into an attack as soon as they can, with individual rounds often lasting only seconds.
8. Epee Fencing
Epee fencing is the third of the modern sport fencing varieties. Epee fencing shares similar origins to foil fencing. It was modeled after a dueling weapon of French nobles called the épée de combat, a sword similar in size and usage to the rapier. Epee fencing was added to the Olympic Games a little later than the other two styles, making its debut as a modern sport at the 1900 Olympic Games.
Like foil, hits in epee only count if they are made with the tip of the blade. Unlike foil or saber, there are no right-of-way rules to determine which fencer had priority in an exchange. The winner is instead determined by which hit landed first.
The entire body is a valid target area in epee fencing, so quick counterattacks to the opponent’s arm are a favored tactic used in this style of fencing. A special button is attached to the tip of an epee blade to register hits on an electric scoreboard.
9. Krav Maga
Krav Maga is a deadly self-defense system developed in the 20th century by combining techniques from judo, boxing, wrestling, and street fighting techniques to make a brutal and efficient martial art still used by the Israeli Defense Forces today.
In addition to open-handed and grappling techniques, Krav Maga teaches students how to use weapons and counter attacks from armed attackers. Knives and guns are used in Krav Maga, as well as improvised weapons such as broken beer bottles.
Weapon techniques taught by Krav Maga are intended to be used for strict self-defense and avoids any kind of showy techniques.
Gatka originated in the Punjab region of India, most often by the Sikh people. Sticks are used as substitutes for swords when practicing Gatka techniques. Small rounded shields are used to block strikes in Gatka techniques. Both traditional and competitive sport forms of this martial art are practiced in India.
Traditional Gatka includes many spinning movements and twirling weapons, as well as kicks and flying leaps. Special long robes and turbans are worn during demonstrations, which accentuate the swirling movement of Gatka techniques.
The sport form of Gatka is called Khel. In Khel, martial artists wear padded armor and helmets instead of robes and practice simplified techniques at full speed in sparring competitions. Martial artists interested in Sikh culture and history can learn a lot by studying Gatka.
11. Shaolin Kung Fu
Shaolin Kung Fu is one of the most well-known of the Chinese martial arts. This martial art covers a wide range of techniques, including both empty-hand techniques and weapons training.
Shaolin Kung Fu contains over 100 distinct styles, with 18 being popular to this day. The techniques used in demonstrations of this martial art are acrobatic and showy and can almost resemble a dance in practice.
Shaolin Kung Fu was originally performed by monks at the Shaolin temple. 18 weapons are taught in this martial art, including several types of swords. Thin and flexible jian swords, wide dadao blades, and unique hook blade techniques are all taught in Shaolin Kung Fu. Practicing Shaolin Kung Fu is a great way to build balance, flexibility, and stamina.
Hankumdo is a sword-based martial art from Korea. This martial art uses the characters of the Korean alphabet to represent the strike order of different sword forms, making it easier for people familiar with the language to remember exactly how their sword needs to flow during practice.
Hankumdo was designed to be a fully Korean sword art without influence from other countries. It is often taught in conjunction with Hapkido and other Korean martial arts as the base of both a self-defense system, as well as a path for self-development. Hankumdo is a good martial art choice for techniques that are easy to understand yet a healthy challenge to master.
13. Huiyen Lallong
Huiyen Lallong is a martial art from the Manipur region of India. This martial art teaches both armed and unarmed combat, with swords and spears being the most common weapons used. In addition to fighting techniques, Huiyen Lallong also teaches ritualistic sword dances, which are sometimes performed at festivals, funerals, and other special occasions.
The armed subset of Huiyen Lallong techniques is called Thang-Ta. The dance forms of Huiyen Lallong can include elaborate footwork and can even include spins or flips. Students sparring using Huiyen Lallong maintain a low wide stance for balance and mix kicks in with sword slashes to gain the upper hand in the match.
Kobudō is a weapons-based martial art developed in Okinawa, Japan. This martial art teaches the use of a wide variety of weapons, including improvised weapons such as boat oars, farming sickles, and weighted chains. These techniques are said to have been developed during the 14th century when Okinawan peasants were forbidden from owning weapons.
Kobudō teaches students how to effectively use many different weapons, including some that weren’t intentionally intended to be used for self-defense, such as improvised farming implements.
This can be a good way to teach students to make do with what they have in a self-defense situation where the ideal weapon may not be readily available. Students who want to learn how to defend themselves with whatever they have available can learn many helpful techniques by studying Kobudō.
Donga, also known as Nguni stick-fighting, is a martial art from South Africa that teaches how to fight with sticks and shields. This largely regional martial art was brought into worldwide awareness on TV shows like Deadliest Warrior and Last Man Standing.
Donga can be practiced for a variety of reasons, including as a competition, for self-defense, and as a continuation of ancient traditions and ceremonies. Donga is traditionally practiced only by men (a separate but related style of fighting called Ula is used by women), and the techniques used resemble both sword fighting and quarter-staff fighting with their own unique flair.
Originally developed in the 16th century, Itto-Ryu is a traditional system of Japanese sword fighting that influenced the development of Kendo. Itto-Ryu teaches students how to use long swords, traditional katanas, and short swords.
It had a focus on dueling techniques when it was being developed. There are many different lineages of Itto-Ryu, each with its own distinct history and style, including Ono-ha Ittō-ryū, Mizoguchi-ha Ittō-ryū, and Nakanishi-ha Ittō-ryū.
While each style of Itto-Ryu varies slightly from the other, self-development is a core concept that they all share. Itto-Ryu students practice sword forms solo or in pairs to perfect techniques passed down through history.
Itto-Ryu techniques are concise and don’t include any unnecessary or flashy movements. Itto-Ryu is a great martial art for students looking for a modern way to learn historical katana techniques.
Silat is a martial art system that encompasses a number of smaller regional martial arts from Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other nearby countries.
Since it combines a number of smaller martial arts, there are a lot of different stories and legends about the historical origins of Silat, but the modern version was codified in the late 20th century. Similar to Eskrima, Silat’s training begins with weapons and progresses to unarmed techniques.
Silat teaches both striking techniques and weapons training, with an emphasis on unique local swords, such as the wavy-bladed kris sword and the curved claw-like karambit blade. Techniques using sickles, spears, and machetes are also taught to Silat students.
Silat weapon techniques include many circular motions to take advantage of momentum and include low wide stances and techniques for tripping opponents.
Kalaripayattu is a martial art developed in the Indian state of Kerala. Some sources date the origin of this martial art to the 11th century, while other traditions suggest early forms of it could date as far back as 3,000 years ago. Kalaripayattu experienced a resurgence in the 20th century, as interest in Indian traditions was growing in the region.
Striking, grappling, weapons training, and even some forms of yoga are all incorporated into Kalaripayattu. Students of this martial art are trained in how to use traditional vaal and urumi swords, as well as a unique sword and spear combination technique. Modern Kalaripayattu focuses on self-development through physical and mental training rather than direct combat.
19. Qingping Jian
Qingping Jian is a martial art from China that focuses only on the Jian, a traditional Chinese straight sword. This martial art was founded in the 19th century but drew on older historical styles of Chinese sword fighting.
Qingping Jian combines flowing movements with practical applications, bridging the gap between showier styles like Shaolin and sport or self-defense styles. This martial art contains over 300 distinct routines for students to learn to achieve mastery of the Jian.
Flexibility, nimble dodges, precise footwork, and outwitting opponents are tactics that Qingping Jian emphasizes. Modern Qingping Jian isn’t used in combat and is typically learned as a form of self-development and demonstrated during performances rather than sparring.
20. Tai Chi
Tai Chi is a popular martial art originating in China with a heavy emphasis on meditation. In Tai Chi, choreographed forms are practiced in slow motion in order to achieve mental and physical health benefits.
While there are many open-hand forms, there is a subset of 32 Tai Chi forms that use a sword for balance and physical conditioning. The sword used for Tai Chi is a light and flexible blade called a Taijijian. This modified version of the traditional Chinese Jian blade is often decorated with a tassel and is used only for form practice.
There can be some overlap between Tai Chi sword forms and the sword forms of other Chinese martial arts, such as Shaolin Kung Fu, making it a good martial art for cross-training.
Studying Tai Chi is widely thought to have many health benefits, including increased balance, flexibility, and gradual strength training. As a low-impact martial art, it can be accessible to a wider audience than some of the more physically intensive martial arts.
Students who are elderly or recovering from injuries or illness may find Tai Chi easier to get them back on the martial arts path than some of the more dynamic martial arts. Tai Chi is a great way for students of all strength levels to access the mental and physical benefits of martial arts.
Is there a martial art that uses swords?
There are a wide range of martial arts that use swords. As you can see above, some of these are used artistically, others in sword sports, and some as a part of their self-defense system.
What is the most effective sword fighting style?
The most effective style would be one that gives you real-world applications by teaching you sword skills for realistic scenarios. Examples of such martial arts are Silat, Eskrima, and Krav Maga.
What is the art of fighting with swords called?
There is no specific name for fighting with swords other than sword skills or swordsmanship. As we’ve seen, many different types of martial arts use swords, and they all go by different names.
Is sword fighting a real thing?
It’s easy to look at movies that contain sword fighting and wonder whether it was really ever a thing and if it has relevance in the modern day. While movies may exaggerate the art, there are many types of sword fighting, and it has always been an important part of combat. Even to this day, anyone in a combat situation needs to know how to fight when more powerful weapons aren’t available.
Does kung fu have swords?
A similar question is “Does Wing Chun use swords?” and, considering Wing Chun is a form of kung fu, the answers are the same. There are forms and styles of kung fu that teach sword training, although they rarely form a significant part of the curriculum.