Master sword fighters are a recurring motif in fiction, but there were also several historical figures who were renowned for their ability to wield a blade with deadly precision. From soldiers and samurai to duelists and expert fencers, take a look back at the adventures of six legendary swordsmen.
1. Miyamoto Musashi—Japan’s Sword Saint
The life of Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi is obscured by myth and legend, but this “sword saint” reportedly survived 60 duels—the first of which was fought when he was just 13 years old. While he occasionally served as a soldier, Musashi spent much of his career wandering the Japanese countryside and doing battle with any warrior who dared challenge him. He is said to have perfected a two-blade fighting technique, but he was so accomplished that he often engaged in single combat armed with only a wooden sword, or “bokken.” One such duel came in 1612, when he squared off against a rival samurai named Sasaki Kojiro using a sword carved from the oar of a boat. Kojiro was known as one of Japan’s greatest swordsmen, yet Musashi easily dodged his attacks and delivered a fatal blow with his wooden weapon. Having never been bested in battle, Musashi later retired from dueling and became an acclaimed ink painter and writer. His Book of Five Rings is now considered a landmark text on martial arts and strategy.
2. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges—The Gentleman Fencer
The mixed-race son of a white nobleman and an African slave woman, the Chevalier Saint-Georges came of age in late-18th century France and received a gentleman’s education that included violin lessons and training with a renowned fencing master. By his teenage years, he was already an accomplished swordsman, having bested a fellow master who made a disparaging remark about his race. The multitalented aristocrat later became one of the most celebrated fencers in France, often participating in matches attended by European royalty. The Chevalier’s varied life also included stints as a military man—he led an all-black regiment during the French Revolution—but he is most famous today for his exploits as a musician and composer. Among other accomplishments, he served for a time as director of the Concert des Amateurs, one of the top orchestras in France.
3. Donald McBane—The Scottish Duelist Extraordinaire
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Donald McBane’s colorful career included side jobs as a tavern-keeper and brothel owner, but he is best remembered as one of the 18th century’s most accomplished swordsmen. A professional soldier by trade, this Scottish highlander was a born brawler who claimed to have participated in at least 100 duels, including a few in which he crossed steel with several different opponents in succession. Along the way, he also opened a fencing school and developed a sword-fighting technique that combined graceful movement with swift and deadly lunges. One signature move, the “Boar’s Thrust,” called for the fighter to drop to one knee while simultaneously jabbing his sword upward in a vicious uppercut blow. Despite suffering some two-dozen wounds from musket balls, bayonets and grenades during his military career, McBane continued dueling well into his old age and even worked as a prizefighter in his sixties. Shortly before his death in 1732, he summed up his experiences in a raucous autobiography and fencing manual titled The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion.
4. Achille Marozzo—The Renaissance Fencing Master
The oldest known European fencing manuals date to the 1400s, but the most important early treatise didn’t arrive until the mid-16th century and the work of the Italian master swordsman Achille Marozzo. His book Opera Nova (A New Work) is a compendium of Renaissance-era swordplay that boasts detailed outlines of fighting stances, parrying techniques and even instructions for how to defeat left-handed opponents. “You must never attack without defending, nor defend without attacking,” he writes in one of the manual’s early chapters, “and if you do this you shall not fail.” Little is known about Marozzo’s life, but he is believed to have come of age in Bologna and later made his name as the operator of one of the city’s top fencing academies. One contemporary wrote that the Italian was “a most perfect master” in the art of sword fighting and “had trained an immense number of valiant disciples.”
5. Julie d’Aubigny—The Ferocious Lady Sword Fighter
During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Julie d’Aubigny fascinated the French public with her outsized personality, heavenly singing voice and deadly sword skill. The daughter of a court nobleman of King Louis XIV, d’Aubigny was a fencing prodigy who bested male opponents from a young age. After fleeing a loveless marriage during her teen years, she began an affair with a fencing master and made her living staging sword-fighting exhibitions in taverns. Despite having no vocal training, she later found fame as a contralto opera singer and spent several years performing under the name “Mademoiselle de Maupin,” or “La Maupin.”D’Aubigny also took part in numerous sword duels, including one against a nobleman who initially mistook her for a man. In another famous incident from 1695, she scandalized the guests at a masked ball by kissing a young woman on the mouth and then fighting—and defeating—three different swordsmen who tried to defend the lady’s honor. D’Aubigny continued her remarkable career as a singer and duelist until her early thirties, when she abruptly hung up her sword and entered a convent. She would remain there until her death a few years later in 1707.
6. Tsukahara Bokuden—The Wandering Swordsman
There is perhaps no better example of the “wandering swordsman” than Tsukahara Bokuden. Born around 1488, this Japanese samurai left home at age 17 to test his skills against other warriors. Over the next several years, he won numerous duels with live blades, including one against a man who wielded a 6-foot-long pike. As his fame grew, he began to travel with a large entourage of followers and founded his own school of swordsmanship. Bokuden went undefeated in dozens of duels and is said to have killed some 200 men both in single combat and in military engagements. Yet as he grew older, he no longer wished to prove himself against other swordsmen. In one legendary incident later imitated in the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, Bokuden was supposedly challenged to a duel by an arrogant young samurai. The elderly master agreed and rowed with the man to an island, but when his opponent hopped out of the boat and drew his sword, Bokuden simply pushed away from shore and left him stranded.