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A bit of backstory:

So I wanted to know if there were any advantages of women fighting against men. And the only thing I came across was lower center of gravity. On average, women lose against men in both strength and speed (I think just sprinting/running) but have a lower center of gravity. However, I never found anything which really complimented the lower center of gravity. There are answers saying that a lower center of gravity helps with throws (judo, jiu jutsu, etc.) but doesn't really apply to sword fighting.

But then I wondered if the lower center of gravity would help in side to side movements. And if it would help in deflecting opponents attacks to off balance them.

So overall... do women have any advantages in sword fighting? I'm more specifically interested in long sword fighting.

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    I think the biggest disadvantage women have in sword fighting in general is that their decreased height requires a shorter length sword. When you have a fight between swordsmen, and there's a significant difference in sword lengths, probably the longer of the two will win. And that's just because the longer the sword is, the harder it is for the shorter of the two to enter in close enough to execute a cut without getting cut. The longer of the swords can also sweep out a larger area, which requires the opponent to be faster. Jun 26, 2017 at 2:24
  • And as for the center of gravity, that's for leverage. That's why it can be used to an advantage in grappling arts when there's a difference in height. In sword fighting, however, leverage plays no role except for disarms, throws, and other techniques requiring jujitsu. Jun 26, 2017 at 2:28
  • @SteveWeigand I'm not very familiar with sword fighting, but would a lower center of gravity help with throwing an opponent off balance if you're pull them by the neck? The situation I'm thinking of is if the woman uses the crossguard to throw her opponent by the neck. Kind of like using a murder stroke, but instead of hitting them with the crossguard, just using it as leverage.
    – A. L
    Jun 26, 2017 at 2:50
  • I'm not sure of the scenario you're describing. But if you're talking about a grapple on the neck, it requires her to get close to her opponent, inside the sword range. But that's a huge hurdle. Jun 26, 2017 at 15:01

4 Answers 4

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There's basically two factors here that matter.

Height and Reach

Reach matters with melee weapons, however... it matters most when you're fighting with similar weapons. Since your context is specifically "sword vs. sword" presumably of similar type, reach is going to matter.

You can change the effects of natural reach with things like longer weapons (polearms, for example) or a means of blocking while entering - shields, parrying weapons, etc... which is typically what you see happens with smaller combatants of any gender.

Skill

For weapons, skill matters the most. It's about reach, timing, and angles, not hammering through people's defenses. This is why even in the sparring heavy/competitive spaces you find a broader age range of high level practitioners than empty hand sports. So in this regard, the usual issues of strength matter less.

Of course, if you are thinking about things like grappling included in your sword fight, or the larger context of "We're marching 30 miles, carrying camp equipment for our army, then we fight" - strength and frame size can become very important.

In short

So, while women have no specific advantages in a sword fight, the usual claims of disadvantages are not in the way most people think, and unless you're looking at a duel of similar weapons, most people would just do the sensible thing and fight with a different weapon to make up the difference of reach.

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  • Having a lower center is, debatably, a potential advantage, although it can be offset by reach. Strength and reflex speed and how they combine are other considerations. To be clear, not brute dead-weight strength, but rather tensile strength.
    – decuser
    Jul 14, 2017 at 23:29
  • Great point about grappling. As a practitioner of wudang and tai chi sword, 2/3 of my training is empty hand, striking and grappling. In the HEMA show "Knight Fight" which featured armored melee, putting an opponent on the ground with throws was a regular technique, as was punching.
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 23, 2020 at 2:05
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    I wonder too if the reach factor is why the naginata was the signature weapon of the onna-bugeisha (women knight errants.)
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 23, 2020 at 2:08
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Not really no…

The winner in a fight is generally the one with the more skill. And skill can be acquired regardless of gender. The nature vs nurture debate might rage here saying that some people are better suited genetically (mentally or/and physically) to certain things rather than others. Still, spend ten years doing anything for eight hours a day and you will master it. Certain things such as weight, height, equipment quality, willpower, luck, etc., do play a part. However, such are relatively minor adjustments compared to skill.

The plural of anecdote is not evidence and while this or that event clearly shows David winning against Goliath, statistically Goliath squashes David a much larger number of times. Not a perfect analogy but you know what I am driving at…

On average, women tend to be physically smaller and less strong than men. That is a disadvantage when yielding mêlée weapons: Both strikes and parries will be weaker. The weight of the weapon one can swing will either be less or one will not be able to do it for as long as a stronger opponent. Any increase in speed/agility by giving up weight is negligible: it actually does not matter that much if you are athletic. Size cannot be changed, but does not affect your hitting area that just in any case at mêlée range.

While some might claim that cleavage is distracting (thus bikini-armour) and that gentlemen do not hit ladies, this is nothing but sexist manure. However, sexism might spur a woman to excel by training much harder than her male counterparts to prove she is as good as they are. This was the case of an old sensei of mine. Clearly, most of the time, it is a turn off and not a performance enhancer -- just to be clear.

Something that I did notice is that dancers pick up kata (empty handed or weapon based) at an accelerated rate: they are used to following patterns and their eyes grasp the movement much quicker than most non-dancer. Since most dancers are female, this is an advantage but not one linked to gender.

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  • Well, the skill argument is kind of moot since that applies to almost everything that you can do. I'm going for more of an objective/average points, like how spears have the advantages over swords in that they are long, but lose their advantage once the fight enters short range, and the reverse goes for a dagger.
    – A. L
    Jun 26, 2017 at 8:48
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    I was going to share the common chestnut about women having a higher pain tolerance, but a quick bit of research showed that had been disproven several times over... Jun 26, 2017 at 13:06
  • Women tend to be more flexible than men, does flexibility help in anyway with sword fighting?
    – A. L
    Jun 26, 2017 at 22:01
  • @A.Lau Citation needed about flexibility. Flexibility neither helps nor hinders with sword fighting provided that there is some. Jun 27, 2017 at 7:19
  • @Sardathrion well I've read that because they're more flexible because of the requirement of childbirth
    – A. L
    Jun 27, 2017 at 7:21
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When it come to sword-fighting, the most commonly brought up variables to consider that a woman would have differently vs. a man are that in general women don't have as much muscle mass as a man and are generally shorter (with consideration of course for obvious exceptions like a particularly tall, swole woman fighting a particularly short, wimpy man, etc. People's bodies regardless of gender have a surprising amount of variety in them you know... ).

The muscle mass issue matters in regards to two things:

First, it may limit the kind of sword you can use comfortably. This point is a bit complicated since there is a surprising variety of swords with differing weights, balances, profiles, etc. within a specific class of sword and having less muscle mass isn't a handicap per se since you can just pick out a sword that you feel comfortable using and focus on attacking certain targets more than others depending on what the situation calls for. This discussion of the different types of swords within a specific class and whether any one of them is "better" or "worse" could be an entire discussion in-of-itself, but to give you just a brief example, take a look at these two longswords: Two longswords from Reddit Both those weapons are types of longswords, but one is very thin, pointy and light while the other is wide and chunky and a beefy chopper. The former will be much easier for someone with much less muscle mass to wield vs. the later, but both can kill equally well; just in different ways. The chunkier sword is nice if you want to guarantee an easier cut and the thin one will have deadly thrusts, but that doesn't mean the lighter sword cannot cut at all if you hit the right target and accelerate it enough to deliver an effective cut. One of the most commonly targeted hits in HEMA longsword is often the hands and in a man vs. woman fight over who can hit who's hand more easily, the gender of the hand holding the sword doesn't matter that much at all and what's more important is the sword itself and the speed at which the hand holding the sword can hit. Theoretically, yes, a stronger person could wield a longer sword and potentially wield it more easily than one who isn't as strong, but you have to keep in mind that swords are primarily sidearms and there is a point of diminishing returns regarding how long of a sword any individual will want to carry around and remain practical for everyday wear and use (unless of course you're talking about greatswords which cannot be comfortably worn, but that's an entirely different kettle of fish to get into :P ).

The second issue regarding strength is that it will make grappling more difficult if you have less muscle mass. There are a number of styles of longsword (Fiore comes to mind) that emphasize grappling and not having the strength can be a detriment. With that said though, depending on the sword you choose and how comfortable you are at using it, you can compensate for the grappling weakness by either keeping the opponent at bay to prevent a grapple from occurring in the first place, or if a grapple does occur, choke up on or retract your sword into a stance like half-sword or schlussel to enhance your grappling game. Muscles are nice in grappling, but they make a poor defense against a sharp blade applied up close if you know what I mean...

As for the height difference, this also can be quite complicated, but what that usually entails is that certain targets are easier/harder to hit and this actually goes both directions. A shorter person can more easily hit a taller person's legs, but a taller person can more easily hit a shorter person's head. A shorter person can more easily duck and evade attacks and hit the larger person since the opponent is a bigger target, but a taller person can keep a shorter person away from their core more easily due to their longer arms and reach. Again, this may not matter that much if you're primarily targeting an opponent's hands or arms since those are fairly easy to hit regardless of height when your opponent inevitably tries to attack you by stretching out their arms toward you during a cut.

TL;DR Women due to size and strength differences are generally at a slight disadvantage, but in the mess of other variables like the type of sword you're using, reaction time, skill level, fitness level, different martial arts philosophies, personal psychology, how sharp your sword is, how easy your opponent's clothing is to compromise with your sword, what guard you're currently in vs. your opponent's, etc. it's not actually that big of a disadvantage and some of these things aren't always a clear black or white advantage/disadvantage. In other words, gender is just another variable in a sword fight that makes things complicated just like everything else an individual who is not the same as you brings to any martial encounter and a good martial artist/swordsman/swordswoman will be able to compensate for these variables to hopefully come out on top.

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I wouldn't say advantage but my experience is that women have greater aptitude for Wudang sword which is often subtle and indirect.

(For this reason it is also important to train in Shaolin sword if starting young enough, for its emphasis on building physical strength, and techniques such as aggressive thrusts and lunges, even if lunges are not recommended for historical fencing.)

  • Wudang fencing heavily relies on the concept of "inviting your opponent's blade" by letting it get within a few inches of your body.

This allows more decisive counters, and the best strike in swordplay is the safest—not an initial thrust, hoping to hit before your opponent reacts, but having countered definitively, such that a riposte can be delivered with no possibility of reply.

As footwork and posture can be said to be even more crucial in wudang sparring than other internal arts b/c swords can be instantly fatal, having more grace, lower risk tolerance, and even some dance training, is a huge asset, speaking as a teacher, both in terms of poise and flexibility.

  • Women have been shown to be slightly more risk-averse on average, which is a huge advantage in any contest that can be instantaneously lethal.

(Sometimes women students have trouble making cuts like they mean it, but they typically have better basics than the guys.)

Here's a video of Cheng Man-Ching doing an internal fencing exercise designed to develop "sticky" (maintaining contact with the opponent's blade to control it and counter decisively) and teaching intention (swordplay is the channeling of intention through body and blade.)

Although sword sparring comes mostly to wrist cuts, point fighting, and occasional wave counters, having developed the stickiness and intention shown in the wudang fencing video is ever more essential.

FIE fencing, because of the use of non-combat weight weapons, and lack of consequences for getting hit, clearly makes pure speed definitive in competition, but HEMA longsword suggest that historical weight weapons can mitigate that advantage.

Wudang is advantageous here because it utilizes the waist, not arms, to make "drawing" cuts, thus lower strength shouldn't be a factor. Waist is also use to power and enhance the power of a variety of cuts and thrusts and counters, pretty much everything. As for cuts which purely rely on wrist strength, it doesn't require all that much to slice into skin and flesh with a sharp edge.

  • Speaking as someone who trained under a master 5' tall, lower center of gravity is definitely an advantage is countering (deflecting to gain advantage)

At least in this style, which is close fighting, and, aside from the primary technique of wrist cuts, prefers to attack from inside.

In the recent HEMA program, Knight Fight, which featured armored melee, hip throws were a regularly applied technique, and lower center of gravity can be definitively advantageous in grappling.

If I lock blades with someone down by the guard, putting them on the ground is my goto. (Wudang fencers typically spend as much or more time practicing grappling in the form of tai chi & bagua as they do on blade training.)

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