Both eastern and western martial arts traditions relied on the sword as a primary weapon form before the invention of gunpowder changed the practice of warfare. Likewise, both eastern and western cultures developed sophisticated fighting styles using this deadly weapon to its best advantage. Although sword fighting is an ancient art no longer used in modern warfare, it continues to be practiced by martial arts and historical re-creation groups today.
The German longsword was used in the medieval and early Renaissance periods in Europe. It is also called a bastard sword or a hand-and-a-half sword because, while it is usually wielded with both hands, it is light enough that it can be wielded with one hand at need, as when riding on horseback. Because the German longsword usually requires both hands, it serves as both an offensive and defensive weapon, and fighters cannot carry a shield, dagger or other defensive item. The German longsword can be used in a variety of ways to cut, thrust, spear and bludgeon the opponent. Although medieval sword fighting has the popular reputation as a brutal act requiring strength rather than intellect, the practice actually requires precision, and cuts and thrusts are taught so as to maximize impact with minimal exertion.
As historian Sydney Anglo points out, defining a rapier flummoxes even specialists in the field. The popular image of a rapier is a light sword used for thrusting where intellect and finesse replace the brute strength assigned to sword fighting in medieval Europe. However, as Angelo points out, the rapier is used as much for cutting as thrusting. Rapiers were especially popular weapons during the Renaissance in Europe. Because they are one-handed offensive weapons, rapier fighters often wield a defensive weapon as well in their non-dominant hand, usually a dagger or small shield. Rapier fighting continues today using both historical weapons and styles as modern fencing.
The golden age of the samurai in Japan spanned from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Samurai warriors practiced intense physical and mental training, combining sword fighting with Zen Buddhism with the intention of making thought and action simultaneous so the samurai could wield a sword seemingly without thinking. Although samurai warriors used many different weapons, the best known is the katana, a curved sword with a single cutting edge. The practice of the samurai art of the sword is called kendo, meaning "the way of the sword," or kenjutsu, in which students practice in pairs using katana or wooden swords called bokken. Students practice prescribed series of attacks or, with safe weapons, spar at full power.