“Swashbuckler” is a compound of “swash” (archaic: to swagger with a drawn sword) and “buckler” (a small-shield gripped in the fist) dating from the 16th century.While men at arms and sellswords of the era usually wore armor of necessity, their counterparts in later romantic literature and film (see below) often did not, and the term evolved to denote a daring, devil-may-care demeanor rather than brandishment of accoutrements of war, and modern “swashbuckling” heroes might not carry swords at all.
Swashbuckling adventures and romances are generally set in Europe from the late Renaissance up through the Age of Reason and the Napoleonic Wars, extending into the colonial era with pirate tales in the Caribbean. The larger-than-life heroics portrayed in some film franchise adventures (most notably the Indiana Jones movies) set in the modern era have been described as swashbuckling.
Jeffrey Richards traces the swashbuckling novel to the rise of Romanticism, and an outgrowth of the historical novel, particularly those of Sir Walter Scott, “… medieval tales of chivalry, love and adventure rediscovered in the eighteenth century”. This type of historical novel was further developed by Alexandre Dumas.
John Galsworthy said of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1888 swashbuckling romance, The Black Arrow, that it was “a livelier picture of medieval times than I remember elsewhere in fiction.” Anthony Hope’s 1894, the The Prisoner of Zenda initiated an additional subset of the swashbuckling novel, the Ruritanian romance.
The perceived significant and widespread role of swordsmanship in civilian society as well as warfare in the renaissance and enlightenment periods led to fencing being performed on theater stages as part of plays. Soon actors were taught to fence in an entertaining, dramatic manner. Eventually fencing became an established part of a classical formation for actors.
Consequently, when movie theaters mushroomed, ambitious actors took the chance to present their accordant skills on the screen. Since silent movies were no proper medium for long dialogues, the classic stories about heroes who would defend their honor with sword in hand were simplified and sheer action would gain priority. This was the birth of a new kind of film hero: the swashbuckler.
Four of the most famous instructors for swashbuckling swordplay are William Hobbs, Anthony De Longis, Bob Anderson and Peter Diamond.