Most Famous & Best Swordsmen in History [Updated]


Working the Flame is supported by its readers. We may earn commission at no extra cost to you if you buy through a link on this page. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

List of the Best Swordsmen & Most Famous Swordsmen in History [Updated]

Swordsmanship was an important feature of masculinity in many cultures in history. In times of frequent warring and combat, both sword making and wielding allowed populations to defend against outside threats and individuals to prove themselves capable and respectable.

We generally think of swordsmen in a medieval European context, or perhaps as brave and elusive samurai of Japan.

While several of the swordsmen discussed here are of these times and places, we will also look at great fencers and fighters of the Age of Enlightenment, when good swordsmanship was still very much a sign of accomplishment and masculine bravery.


1) Johannes Liechtenauer

(1300-1389, Germany)

Illustration of Johannes Liechtenauer, who was a German fencing master in the 14th or 15th century.

 

Johannes Liechtenauer was a highly accomplished German swordsman whose fighting style influenced the fencing tradition in Germany. He is known for his calculated blows and maneuvering techniques.

In addition to being a powerful fighter, Liechtenauer taught his skills to many others who would go on to be master fencers.

The teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer were recorded by his students in a mnemonic poem called the Zettel. This summarized their teacher’s words of wisdom and aided students after Liechtenauer’s passing in 1389.


2) Fiore dei Liberi 

(1350-1410, Italy, France, Germany)

fiori dei liberi
An illustration from Fiore dei Liberi’s famous The Flower of Battle treatise on fencing. His teachings helped define German fencing in the Middle Ages. The Public Domain Review / CC BY-SA

Fiore dei Liberi was an Italian fencing master and teacher. He participated in five duels for his honor and taught his art in royal houses across Europe. He is widely considered one of the best fencers and teachers in European history.

While a highly skilled swordsman and instructor, Fiore dei Liberi is most well-known today for his treatise on fencing called The Flower of Battle. This manual is one of the oldest surviving guidebooks on the topic of fencing and swordsmanship and provides insight into medieval fighting styles and practices.

Fiore dei Liberi fought and studied fencing for over 50 years before writing The Flower of Battle and other works that unfortunately did not survive through the centuries. He truly is an authority on medieval European swordsmanship.


3) Kamiizumi Nobutsuna

(1508-1577, Japan)

Kamiizumi Nobutsuna
This illustration shows details of samurai armor and the appearance of these famed fighters. Samuraiantiqueworld, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kamiizumi Nobutsuna is one of the celebrated samurai of 16th century Japan. He is known for improving upon the kage-ryu sword fighting style that was popular at the time.

Like other swordsmen, Kamiizumi Nobutsuna dedicated part of his career to instructing others in fighting and defense. He opened his own school called Shinkage-ryu, or New Shadow School. His teachings emphasized defensive, protective style fighting that incorporated many low, stealthy stances.


4) Sasaki Kojiro

(1583-1612, Japan)

Sasaki Kojiro fighting
A monument to Sasaki Kojiro and Miyamoto Musashi depicting their famous duel. Kojiro would be defeated, but is remembered for his contributions to samurai teachings. Roger Ferland / CC BY-SA

Born just after the great Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, Sasaki Kojiro was another samurai of the Sengoku period of Japanese history. Sasaki Kojiro is widely considered the most skilled swordsman ever and is known for his fast, downward striking style.

Sasaki Kojiro became a master of the Chuyo-ryu school, and was gifted with the use of the nodachi, which was a longer version of the katana.

Although  Kojiro is remembered for his excellent fighting skills, he was ultimately defeated in a duel with the great Miyamoto Musashi, who is described below.


5) Miyamoto Musashi

(1584-1645, Japan)

miyamoto musashi samurai
Miyamoto Musashi was one of the greatest samurai in Japanese history and is known for his defeat of Sasaki Kojiro. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Miyamoto Musashi was a contemporary of Sasaki Kojiro and an extremely skilled fighter. He was born in the Harima Province of Japan and fought for the Toyotomi clan.

Miyamoto  Musashi purportedly fought and one his first duel at the age of thirteen and would go on to win 60 other duels in his lifetime.

The greatest of these is considered by many to be his duel with Sasaki Kojiro, in which Miyamoto Musashi fought using only a wooden oar and won.

Musashi is also remembered for perfecting a two blade fighting technique that would be replicated by contemporaries.

Miyamoto Musashi eventually retired from fighting and became an ink painter and writer. His famous Book of Five Rings describes a plethora of samurai tactics, fighting strategies, and philosophy.


6) Donald McBane

(1664-1732, Scotland)

Portrait of Donald McBane, a Scottish fencing master, from Donald McBane’s The Expert Swordsman’s Companion (1728).

Donald McBane lived a very colorful life as a professional soldier, tavern keeper, and brothel owner in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He was an extremely accomplished swordsman who claimed to have participated in over 100 duels throughout his lifetime.

McBane opened his own fencing school where he taught students techniques he learned in his years as a soldier and other skills of his own invention.

His fighting style was powerful and assertive. One of his famous moves, “The Boar’s Thrust,” involved dropping to one knee and jabbing one’s sword upward for an uppercut blow.

Not one to retire, Donald McBane continued working as a prize fighter well into his 60s, despite having accumulated dozens of wounds in his time soldiering. Late in life, McBane completed an autobiography of his time as a swordsman and a fencing manual entitled The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion. 


7) Joseph Bologne

(1745-1799, Guadaloupe, France)

Contemporary etching of a painting (1787) depicting Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Joseph Bologne was the son of a plantation owner and an African slave and was born in Guadeloupe in 1745. Bologne moved to France and spent most of his life there. Despite facing discrimination and even two assassination attempts in a time when many did not think highly of mixed-race people, Joseph Bologne found great success as a violinist and fencer.

He regularly participated in fencing matches attended by royalty from across Europe. While they likely came to see him out of curiosity for his appearance and parentage, the royals left these matches impressed by Bologne’s skill and respectful of his accomplishments.

During the French Revolution, Joseph Bologne served as a colonel in the first all-black regiment in Europe.

Leave a Comment