According to many popular post-apocalyptic movies (Six String Samurai, for one), someday we're going to run out of bullets. How are you going to survive when Hollywood's not there with Jean-Claude or Mel Gibson? Read on.
1 - Draw your sword before you engage. We've all seen samurai movies where Musashi or his equivalent draws and kills in one slice, but you aren't Musashi and he was just showing off. It takes longer to draw a sword than it does to get hit. On the other hand, if your sword and scabbard are suitable for a quick draw, and you practice, this can be a great surprise attack.
2 - Engage slowly. If you run in like the Baron von Munchausen, your enemy only needs to stick out his sword and wait. By engaging slowly, you are able to maintain control and focus on key positions - your feet, your sword, and your opponent's sword.
3 - Guard yourself at all times. If you don't protect yourself, you'll lose. Keep your sword in position so it runs from the bottom of your torso to the top of your head.
4 - Keep your sword out in front of your body, called putting your opponent "on point". The farther out your sword is extended, the farther away your opponent will stay and the less chance you have of getting sliced.
5 - Measure twice, cut once. In the vast majority of cases, medieval sword fights ended with the first blow struck. If your blow misses, you'll open yourself up to attack. Make sure you see a trajectory for your sword that will result in a positive hit.
6 - Win by not losing. Concentrate on staying alive. Stay on the defensive. Eventually you'll get the opportunity to defeat your opponent with minimal danger to yourself.
7 - Keep distance. If you are out of range of an instant stroke you can take time to plan and maneuver. If you are in range of an instant stroke you should have already started your instant stroke or you will be struck.
8 - Be confident. If you act scared, your opponent will take advantage of your lack of confidence and will attempt to frighten you into making a false move. If you are aggressive and display confidence your opponent may be intimidated by you instead.
You must learn proper parrying form or you will be cooked...you can not possibly dodge all attacks. What is important is that you learn to parry while exposing as little of the vital targets on your body as possible.
In defence, when it's enough to only move your wrist, move just the wrist. When the wrist is not enough, move the elbow. When the elbow is not enough, move the shoulder. When none of this is enough, retreat.
Retaliate. When your opponent attacks, he leaves some of his body exposed. Parry his blow, then strike back.
Know the length of your sword. If both fighters are correctly judging length, you'll only ever have the opportunity to hit with the top six inches or so. Keep your eye on your sword and that of your opponent at all times. However, focusing just on the opponent's sword is not advisable, since you can be misled. A skilled fighter should be able to judge the direction of the opponent's next blow by examining his posture.
In fencing (fighting with a stabbing only sword), always keep your sword point directly at your opponent, if you parry (block) exactly to the end of the side of their body they will not be able to hit you. Overextending yourself (parrying past that point) will leave your vulnerable.
Maintain your balance. Keep your weight evenly balanced on both your feet. Never cross your feet as this will throw you off balance; only the slightest bit of force can knock you over. There is a reason that almost all martial arts stress balance (there are one or two weird ones where your constantly falling and recovering.) It gives you more options to move. But, don't present your legs as an easy target either. If your opponent allows you to take advantage of a leg shot, use it. If your opponent goes down, then the fight is over.
Positioning of the body is important. Keep your body perpendicular and the shoulder of your sword arm pointed toward your opponent (like fencers do). This makes your torso a smaller target and will protect many of your vital organs.
If you're using both hands to grasp a sword (as with a so-called "bastard" or a hand-and-a-half sword), keep your strong hand right under the swordguard and the other hand (the off-hand) right above the pommel. Keep your arms bent at elbows, with your strong fist in front of your solar plexus and the sword positioned as described above. When defending, your strong arm should not move far from this position.
If your sword is properly balanced, it will work as a lever. Use your off-hand to guide it, and your strong hand to lend the force to the attack or parry.
Examination of eyewitness accounts show that many sword duels were won by gashing the opponent's arms or thighs, then waiting until blood loss made them faint, at which point they were at their assailant's mercy. Hands, feet, arms and legs are legitimate and useful targets, and will often be easier to strike than the torso or head.
Watch your opponent carefully. Notice where he is looking - this may be the area where he's preparing to strike. When your opponent is about to attack, his fists and shoulders may tense for a second.
Be aware of the terrain around you and use it to your advantage. Sending an opponent tumbling backwards over an obstacle behind him will surely help. Same as positioning him in such a way so that he is fighting with his face towards the sun (you can identify that by looking at your shadow - it should be pointing in your opponents direction). Just remember that same tricks can be used against you.
"The best samurai is the one who never draws his sword."
Never, ever turn around. We've all seen the end of The Return of the Jedi, where Luke does the fancy spin maneuver. In real life that doesn't work. Turning around means turning your back to your opponent with no sword to guard you.
Never, ever let go of your sword. We all appreciate the scene in Willow where Mad Martigan tosses the sword this way and that with the greatest of ease, but if you aren't holding on to your sword, you may as well not have one. A single blow on an airborne sword will send it flying and you become defenseless.
If you are in a true sword fight, seriously consider running away. When Abe Lincoln was challenged to a duel, he skipped it (and became president years later). Sword fighting is a good way to get killed. That's why duels are illegal. A three inch thrust or slice in your neck/face area is fatal or debilitating, 80% of the time. The most likely outcome of a true sword fight is that one person dies fast, and the other dies slow. If you do survive a sword fight but get hurt, get medical attention immediately.
When using a two-handed blade, keep your arms from crossing. This usually leaves your blade in a position where you cannot effectively use it. Use the "lever" grip described above.
Sword twirling is usually reserved only for drum majors leading a marching band. In combat sword twirling can result in losing the grip on your sword, as well as leave you exposed to attack. That said, doing a "windmill" with a two-handed blade can leave a less experienced fighter intimidated - though it is tiring, and is not advisable against a more experienced opponent.
When fencing (for fun, like kids with sticks), the #1 mistake most people make is they try to hit the sword instead of the person. If you keep that in mind -- hitting the person (his hand, body, or head), not his sword -- you can more easily defeat someone who is sword (or stick) slapping. Plus you find your posture and confidence change, and that usually spooks an amateur.
Remember, expect the unexpected. There never were any clearly defined rules of sword fighting other than try to win. Your opponent could kick at you, throw dirt in your face, or other things to distract you. These are tactics that you can also employ.
Expect to get wounded. Often duels ended with both participants wounded and/or dying.
The most important thing to remember is that "swordplay is not play." It is very serious business to draw a sword. Swords were designed for killing, no other purpose. Treat a sword with the same respect as a firearm and others will treat you with respect. In that way you may win a duel without ever drawing a sword.