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Volume 1634
Swords on Mars
by Rick Johnson

I believe that one of the endearing facets of the Barsoom series of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Master of Adventure, is the idea of sword-play.  John Carter wins not by the luck of a stray bullet or a missile fired from a thousand miles away, no, our hero wins because he has the courage to face his enemy, face to face, but a few feet away with naught but a piece of sharp metal to win or lose.  It is this flash of steel, the reactions and skills of each and the honor of those involved that attracts us.

Yet, in a world of firearms that carry thermo-nuclear rounds, the desire to avoid these weapons in favour of edged cutlery appeals to our senses of morality, decency, integrity.


Today, if you face a man with a knife, he is likely to pull a handgun.  Yet, when John Carter faces a man with a long-sword, his opponent, evil as he is, drops his revolver, one containing nuclear rounds of frightful destruction, and faces JC with an equal or lesser weapon.  It is this honor, so lacking in our mundane lives, that fascinates us.

In one of my own Fan-Fic stories I explore that concept of honor.  Why would a race that possess aircraft, bombs, nuclear rounds, artillery and such still insist on settling their differences, be it between individuals or nations, with a three foot piece of Forundus Steel?  Could Earth do that?

Hardly.  History proves that despite all our efforts to outlaw ‘weapons of mass destruction’ we still use them at every opportunity.  The Crossbow was outlawed for fear it would exterminate humanity.  Then it was allowed to be used against infidels, then against whomever.  Biological, chemical and nuclear weapons are outlawed and the US is at the forefront of this... but only because they are no longer the only nation to possess them now (note a common fact of history that is overlooked is that the United States is the ONLY nation that has used all three weapons of Mass Destruction!  And the US has used them exclusively against civilian targets.  No other nation, not Hitler’s Germany, not Stalin’s Russia, not Mao’s China can make that claim).

So we, on Earth hesitate to use these weapons only for fear of retaliation.  If we were the only nuclear power, then we will gladly nuke the other guy into extinction.  If we are the only people who possessed military-grade Anthrax, then we would gladly spread them across the world.  If we were the only… you get the idea.  We call it human nature.

So why is Barsoom different?  Why do they possess these weapons or the ability to manufacture them, yet refuse to develop them?  Honor?

Perhaps.  Honor works only so long as you face a man with equal honor.  Once you face a man with a sword and he pulls a radium revolver, honor goes out the window and the next time (assuming you survive this encounter) you will leave your swords at home and carry and extra hand-gun.

No, Barsoom uses sword-play because they ARE afraid that they will use mass weapons.  Most of the planet depends on the waterway system that leads from the North Polar ice-caps.  One nuke there, one vial of Anthrax onto the waterways and the entire planet dies!  Only a madman would do such a thing and even on Barsoom, the madmen hesitate.

The ONLY way to survive is to enforce a sense of Honor at all costs.  Better you die at the hands of an evil man (who is quickly cut down by your fellows) than risk escalation that would destroy the planet.  So honor is enforced from Hatching.  You may be dead but your name lives on as someone to emulate.  Your dis-honorable opponent lives on too, but as someone revile, someone whose name causes you to spit.  Honor is enforced from birth and legend to ensure that violence does not escalate to planetary destruction.  On Earth we talk about tactics winning wars at all costs, Barsoom passes legends of the honour of the individual.

And the sword encourages this.

Napoleon said once that a Man will fight to the death for a piece of cloth he can wear on his chest.  The General knew that men may fight for pay but they die for honor, be it national or personal or family.  We on Earth have forgotten this and encouraged people to believe that honor in war is stupid, suicidal.  That winning at all costs is the sole goal.  Thus we have no more honor.  Delta Force, the best the US has, tortures prisoners of war as did Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War.  The FBI requested Congress to legalize Third Degree Torture.  We carpet bombed civilians in Dresden and Hanoi.  Where has our honor gone.

But Barsoom!

At least there we can regain some of that personal integrity that we have lost as a people.

And for that, we need the sword.

A sword is more than a piece of metal with an edge or point.  You can trust a sword, swear on a sword, believe in a sword.  Knights used to send their swords home to stand proxy during their weddings.  Men were knighted with a sword and sworn to honor and integrity.  Marriage ceremonies were finalized by walking under an arc of drawn swords.   A woman could sleep in the same bed as a man and with a sword laying between the two, no one could impugn her honor.  Nations used swords as their national symbols (remember Excalibur?) and to the Samurai, the short sword was their soul, a weapon that would even recover their lost honor as they gutted themselves.

Smiths were honored in most places, the Japanese smith often was a priest and always dedicated his forge and blade to the Kami of that shrine.  The Keris was made by magickian-priests.  A broken sword could only be reforged by a man blessed by the gods.

Yes, the sword is the thing.


So we have this race that is taught from hatching that honor is more important than life itself.  To swear an oath then break that oath is so dastardly that you will live in disgrace forever. Better you thrust your own short-sword or dagger into your own breast than be forced to break oath, to loose honor.  Thus casting your sheathed blade to the feet of an admired person is the greatest honour you could offer.

And with a race that lives a thousand years, well a man can become very conservative over the centuries.  The call of “I’ve done it this way since before your country was discovered by some lost navigator” has meaning.

So you are given a sword almost as soon as you are hatched.  I would imagine that there is a profound ceremony with this, the proud parents deciding to give great-great-great…. grandfather’s sword that is a half million years old to the new child or give him one captured in a major battle form a valiant enemy or have one made for him instead.  Such a decision would mean much to family and friends and with these surrounding you as this blade is presented, speeches and explanations given, you would be encouraged to follow the code past death.

Do Jews remember their Barmitzva’s?  Do Catholics remember their First Communion?  Can we expect any less from the Red Man’s Sword-presentation?  Properly done, the ceremony will affect the newly adult Red man forever.

Then comes a lifetime of training. Centuries of lessons, centuries of duels and battles.  We hear of a Samurai who could wade through an army, leaving death in his wake, so skilled was he.   We hear of Suliman the Magnificent dropping a silk cloth onto his Scimitar and watching it fall in two, then he tossing a pomegranate into the air and cutting it into slices before it touches the ground.

When you have centuries to train, such stories are but casual exercises to keep your wrist limber.  Who knows what tales of skill the Red man can tell after 700 years of sword-play.  Even a Red Man of a bare 40 years, barely reaching maturity, would have a skill beyond that of our best Olympic fencers.


So with such a Cult of the Sword and centuries with which to practice, what would these weapons look like?  Would they be some fantasy blade with more metal in the decorative hilt than the blade could possess, one that you would find at a swap meet to attract the casual Goth wanna-be?  Or something very plain and utilitarian?  Curved or straight?

Looking at Earth’s history we see that most working swords tended to be rather plain.  The really fancy blades tend to be presentation swords or symbols of justice, the actual fighter preferring to spend his money on a blade that won’t break in combat, then adding a plain hilt and other furniture.  If wealthy, he may choose to have the plain guard etched and gilded but the blade is what matters.  The rest is simply decoration. You admire the sword, not the furniture.

Swords are designed for their use.  This is a fact that many people forget.  They are tools and you wouldn’t add wings and chains and fancy decorations to a screwdriver so why to a sword whose purpose is to kill?  European broadswords were straight-edged and heavy for one reason, you stood up to your enemy and hacked away at his armor until you killed the man.

As armor became too heavy to dent, and porcelain was invented to create better steel, the swords became a bit lighter but now had points with which to punch through weak areas in the armor.

As firearms evolved the ability to penetrate armor, this was abandoned and the need for a heavy hacking sword ended and these were replaced by light thrusting and cutting Rapiers.  Weapons that relied more on skill than on mass.  And with the change in weapons, came a change in fighting style.

In the East and West as cavalry caused a change in tactics, the sword became longer and curved to give a swift cut as your horse galloped past the enemy.  This led to the Saber and Katana and scimitar, all of which are made for cut quick slashing attacks as you rush past each other.

Once inside a building or in other close quarters, the standard sword becomes useless.  My daughter never tires of telling the tale of when I demonstrated how dangerous a broadsword is inside by accidentally smashing the chandelier and cutting a blade from the ceiling fan.  Thus the shorter cutlass, short-sword and wakazashi were developed.  The Samurai would leave his longer Katana at the door (as being useless inside) but his short wakazashi remained by his side.  The ninja of Japanese fame were said to carry a sword shorter than the katana but longer than the wakazashi as a compromise between outdoor and indoors.  The naval marine and pirate preferred the short curved cutlass for close quarters on deck a boarded ship while the gentleman would carry the small-sword for use indoors.

Form is dictated by use.


Thus, by looking at Earth’s History and the design of blades as warfare and battle evolved, we can make some guesses as to what swords the Red Man would carry about his day.  Fortunately, the modern Barsoomian wears no armor (though the ancient Barsoomian may have done so and so they would have used heavier swords and axes) thus their swords would be light, thin weapons suitable for the weaker strength of a .38 gravity. With no armor to penetrate why carry a heavy sword that you could barely lift?

The Barsoom military is divided into three units, the Navy, the Cavalry and the Infantry.  Using Earth evolution as an example we can assume that the Infantry would be standing, face-to-face with their opponent using thrusts and the occasional slash.  Thus their swords would be rapier-like.  Ornate hand-guards with long, straight and thin blades about 30” long.  In addition they would carry a short-sword of similar design (possibly even a carefully matched set) but with maybe a 16” blade and a thrusting dagger. Their firearms would be the long battle-rifle and revolver.

The Cavalry would be mounted on thoats and as these passed each other, slashing attacks would be the norm.  Since thoats, like horses, don’t want to smash into each other, they would instinctively clear each other by some distance.  Thus the main weapon of the cavalry would be a long single-edged saber with a blade longer than normal, perhaps 36” long.  Short swords would be useless on Thoat-back but useful indoors so would be similar to that of the infantry, curved or straight as the owner preferred.  Knives would be more a tool than a weapon so they would be a light hunting or carving knife. They would need a shorter rifle suitable for a saddle and so would favour a carbine though the standard revolver would be used.

The Navy, a recent force, would be faced with two forms of fighting.  First distance shooting so their rifles would be the long infantry rifle but their revolvers would have a longer barrel similar to many older navy handguns.  Then as the ships clashed and were lashed together, the weaker would need a hatchet or small hand-axe to sever these lines.  Once boarded though, the close quarters of a ships deck would make the longer rapier and saber useless so they would prefer the light cutlass or small-sword with a 20” blade and a shorter version of maybe 10” blade.

Each of these would, of necessity, be determined by the form of fighting each would perform.  Forms which would be unique to each.

Thus we can chart this as follows (measurements are blade lengths only):

Rifle long battle rifle short carbine long battle rifle
Revolver long barreled standard standard
Long Sword cutlass 20" saber 36" rapier 30"
Short sword cutlass 12" short sword 18" short sword 18"
Knife hunting knife hunting knife dagger
Axe hatchet n/a n/a
Lance n/a lance 12' total  n/a
Packs Duffle saddle pack back pack

Of course, each would carry a canteen, medical kit, food rations and a hip pack with personal gear such as a mirror, Jetan set, memories, radium torch and anything specific the person chose to carry (though Barsoom, not having a magnetic field the compass would not exist).

For those who are not regular military (though all are presumed to be Reserves), they would carry whatever mix-and-match weapons that they chose, some their military issue, some family heirlooms, the poorer people whatever they could find from duels or on a long-dead battlefield.


And what would be the chances of an Earth-human who transits to Barsoom?

The first thing we must consider is that today, and for the last 100+ years, the sword has been nothing but a curiosity.  Something to be played with by fencing schools and kendo schools and other martial art Sports (the last time I recall a sword being used in wear was when the Polish Horse-Cavalry charged a German Panzer Division with drawn sabers.  The result is obvious).  And I must emphasize Sports for why seriously train in a weapon that is illegal to carry almost anywhere in the world?  Modern Sport-Fencing is a far cry from actual sword-combat.

Therefore a modern man who transits to Barsoom will have almost no experience with a blade save what she sees on Television or the movies.  Those few who study Fencing, Kendo or the other sword arts will be faced with the problem that all the rules they learned for safety, have now ceased to exist.

If you are a normal person, like Mike, you will be lucky to know which end to hold. If like me, you have studied Fencing and Kendo, you will be a tyro, equal to the Red Man’s child, newly hatched for one reason.  I have a job to work and a family to support and so cannot devote as much time to my sport as I would like. I cannot spend six to ten hours a day in the school because I have a life to live that opposes this sport.

Thus if I and Mike were to transit to Barsoom, he would look at a sword and be killed by the first Red man he met because he never touched one in his life.  I would last longer because I have been trained, but the result would be the same as my training and experiences would be as far below that of a Red Man as Mike’s would be below mine.

We would survive only if we found a school or teacher willing to keep us alive long enough to learn to live.  In fact, our only survival skill would be the ability to RUN AWAY!  As one person said, “I’d have a yellow belt in the martial art of Sayonara”.

Now with John Carter, we have a slightly different situation.  The man grew up in a world where dueling with a sword was expected of a Gentleman. He had been trained in fencing, at least the saber and possibly the foil and epee.  He also had fought in a number of wars where rushing at each other with a saber was a normal part of war.  The Civil War, possibly the Indian Wars and the War of 1812 and maybe even the Revolutionary war were conflicts in which her served with blade at his hip.  The man obviously had some experience with a saber in combat and duels.

And when he transited to Barsoom, he also had the advantage of being more than twice as strong as the Red Men he faced.  So here is a man with training in the saber and possibly foil & epee, a man who had faced and killed men in war and duels with these weapons and so one would suppose that he would be a bladed superman on Barsoom.

Yet, in Princess of Mars we learn that he must take lessons with the newly-hatched Green men. And his early sword fights show that he is little more than adequate.  In fact over the first trilogy, he mentions time and time again that he survived only because of his superior earthly strength and agility.

So much for Earthly fencing skills. The centuries of training and experiences of the Red Man were more than enough to defeat John Carter who often survived only due to luck or strength.

What chance would George or even I have?


Among the sword community, we often wonder who would win, a fencer or a kendoist.  A French Musketeer or a Japanese Samurai.  We can argue this for years, and do so, but until we find a hundred Kendoists who have no experience (including TV & the cinema) with the rapier and also find a hundred Fencers with no experience or knowledge of the Katana, we will never know.

In America many Kendoists are also experienced fencers.  I started in kendo, went to Fencing then returned to Kendo so I am not one to ask.  Yet… give me a Shinai and match me against a foil and I will probably win simply because I know his moves but he does not know mine.  Give me a foil and face me against a Kendoist and I will win for the same reason.

Martial Arts are essentially the same.  Kung Fu trains against Kung Fu and despite the school, a Rising Block is still a Rising Block, a Horses Stance is still a Horse Stance.  Karate trains against Karate and Shotokan or Te, the moves are basically the same.  When they face each other, the matches are usually even.  Yet, when my Kung Fu Sifu sought to demonstrate some techniques on me (somewhat brutally) I was able to get out of his locks because I had also been trained in ninjitsu, an art of which he was totally ignorant.  When the Kung Fu studio began to train against Karate moves, that school won almost constantly for the same reason I mentioned in the above paragraph yet they never trained against ninja.

Now Fencing in Europe and America is essentially uniform as well.  Kendo in Asia is essentially uniform as well. Yes there are hundreds of schools but a thrust is still a thrust and School-A will teach ‘thrust from the waist’ while School-B will teach ‘thrust from the solar plexus’.  Minor differences.  Once one school develops a new move that allows them to win a tournament, it isn’t long before the other schools have copied that move and adapted it to their ‘style’.  In most cases it isn’t the style of fencing that wins but the skill and experiences of the members of that school.  And you send your best to the tournaments.

So on Barsoom, with the Red Man fighting with swords for a half-million years and more, it is safe to assume that any new moves would be copied and passed around quickly until Red Man fencing is as similar as European Fencing or Kendo.  One way of fighting with hundreds of schools teaching ‘we wrap our index finger around the guard while they (spit in disgust) point their thumb along the tang so we are better than they.”  Experience and skill matters more than style and a man who has fought wars and duels for 5 centuries is probably superior in skill and experience to someone who has only held a sword for ten years.  The playing field is level.

Yet, Okar!  Omean & Kamtol!  Dor!  These are places where they trained in isolation, developed skills different from the Red man’s norm.  Okar using a hook-sword and concave shield as an example.  These raced trained mainly against themselves but also against the occasional Red man who wanders by to be enslaved as the Black Pirates or Therns or Okarans study his moves and develop counter-moves.

Since the Red Man never faced these styles and the Yellow, Black and White Men have faced the Red, we are now in a situation of a fencer who is also a kendoist facing a kendoist who never saw a foil.  No wonder the White and Black races won so often.  They knew the Red styles but the Red Men were fatally ignorant of the Black and White and Yellow styles.

One would think that these could reclaim Barsoom.  They did not because they continued to hide and fight a limited war where they were assured of victory with no Red survivors.  But after a very short time of contact, the Red Men would learn and develop tactics to counter the other races and status quo would return, save the superior numbers of the Red Men would prevail .


With all this, what can we conclude about swordsmanship on Barsoom?

  • That honor is the most important part of the conflict, even more important than winning.
  • That every Service uses a different arsenal with different sword-tactics.
  • That swordplay among Red Men would be uniform as would that among the other races.
  • That centuries of experience in dueling and war would create an almost superman with a sword.
  • That any Earthman who transits to Barsoom had better find a protector and teacher really fast!
  • And that tales of those upon the Red Planet will always entertain us for they live the life we would, but cannot.

I'm the guy winning - Rick

Viking Sword
Viking SwordViking Sword      .Viking Sword
Viking Swords
Japanese Daisho
Japanese Daisho
Cutlass             ~           Katana
EstoicSword Kit
Estoic            ~         Sword Kit
Fantasy Sword
Fantasy Sword
Fantasy Swords
RapierSmall Sword
Rapier                    ~                         Small Sword
Light Sword ~ Broad Sword ~ Rapier
Light Sword ~ Broad Sword ~ Rapier
Richard Johnson
Richard Johnson

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ERBzine 1645: Johnson: ERB Fan Profile
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ERBzine 2394: Dinosaur Survival On Earth

ERBzine 1578: Barsoom Questions
ERBzine 1370: Mapping Barsoom I: Can It Be Done?
ERBzine 1562: Mapping Barsoom II: Compromises
ERBzine 1565: Mapping Barsoom III: The Past
ERBzine 1633: Valley Dor
ERBzine 1634: Swords On Mars
ERBzine 1711: A Panthan of Mars
ERBzine 1712: Spy: Arrival On Mars
ERBzine 2165: Battle at U-Gor
ERBzine 2166: Lost On Barsoom
ERBzine 2167: Meeting of the Panthans: Pt. I
ERBzine 2168: Meeting of the Panthans: Pt. II
ERBzine 2169: North to Barsoom
ERBzine 2196: Jahar
ERBzine 2303: Return to Barsoom I: Letters

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