Q&A: Sparring

My protagonist needs to win a “friendly” spar against a fellow Marine who has at least six inches and a hundred pounds on her. How does she beat him? He’s a bodybuilder who’s more into the aesthetic of strength than actual balanced fitness, so she probably has the edge in endurance and agility, but as long as they’re both at least pretending they’re not trying to seriously hurt each other, his sheer size still seems like it outweighs everything else.

I’m going to take issue with some things here.

We’ve said this before, but, apparently this needs to be discussed again. Sparring isn’t about winning or losing, it’s a part of your training.

Sparring is not, “play fighting,” it’s about learning to put techniques together.

Most of martial arts training consists of practicing the motions until they are reflexive and second nature. It’s about retraining your body until you don’t have to think about what you’re going to do, and simply do it. This won’t win a fight, for that you need to learn to transition smoothly from one technique to the next.

Sparring is the process of learning to turn the techniques you drilled with into something you could actually use against a real opponent.

Sparring isn’t about winning or losing. It’s not a low stakes fight your characters can do to show off. It’s your character learning to chain their techniques together.

How’s she going to beat him? She’s certified in MCMAP. She’ll do it using her training. But, they’re both trained in MCMAP, so this is the next issue.

When it comes to creating a character, who they are is the sum of their experiences, training, and views. Your characters are Marines.

Your marine can’t weight 100 lbs more than her. At most, he can weigh about 60 lbs more than her. This is because the Marines have very strict weight requirements. If your character is 66 inches tall, she must weigh between 117 and 170 lbs. Now, the Marines kinda expect her to be trending towards the upper end of that spectrum, because muscle mass is heavy.

If your character is 66 inches tall and her foe has six inches on her, that’d put him at 72 inches (6 feet), and he can weigh between 140 and 184.

See the problem? He literally cannot exceed her weight by 100 lbs with them both passing physical. You can adjust the heights a bit, but, without pulling apart the entire chart, there’s just not enough range for that kind of weight difference unless he’s much taller than her.

This is also where the whole, body builder idea doesn’t quite work. Marines are specifically pushed towards balanced fitness. The goal is to turn out effective combatants, not meatheads who think their pecs of steel will stop a bullet.

I get that the idea here was to show up the misogynistic meathead, but that’s not a marine.

Also, stereotypes aside, I’ve never met a dumb marine. A few idiots who were in the army, and at least one navy vet prone to dubious life choices, but never a marine. They’re weird, but not dumb.

The military’s training structure prioritizes teamwork. They are not single operators, they are a unit. They train with their unit, and fight with their unit. Soldiers live and die by their ability to work together. All the hellish training Marines go through is there in part to build that bond, not just between individuals but with everyone who shares a similar experience.

You don’t need to prove your female character can fight. She’s a Marine. She can kill someone. She’s trained to do it. That’s not a question. Writing a sparring session on the idea she needs to win puts you in the wrong mindset, because, again, sparring is not about winning or losing. Sparring is all about figuring out how to use the skills you’ve been drilling in a free-flow environment where you act and react to an opponent.

If you don’t believe me, let’s quote the Marine’s own training manual:

1. PURPOSE. The purpose of body sparring is to bridge from static to dynamic and inoculation to interpersonal violence.

a. Bridge from Static to Dynamic. Body sparring is the bridge between static punches and a dynamic environment. This is the final stage of training after executing punches in the air and on pads. Free sparring gives Marines the opportunity to apply the individual techniques they have learned in a realistic environment with a live resisting opponent. Executing techniques one at a time in the air is much different than using them together against another person who is defending themselves and also trying to hurt you.

b .Inoculation to Interpersonal Violence. Inoculation is the process of introducing something to the body so it can defend itself in the future. By introducing Marines to violence on a personal level, they will be more prepared for a real close combat scenario.

This is a learning experience, not a contest.

Sparring is just about providing a live experience with a resisting partner, not an exercise in who can hurt the other more.

The part you’re having an issue with is that you don’t know what it is Marines are trained to do. The good news is they make their training manuals available online. So, in the event you’re willing and able to do the research, you can write an entire sequence that is up to code.

2. CONDUCT OF THE BOUT. Free sparring is a training tool designed to develop Marines’ skills and confidence, and must not become a fight club or beat-down.

This is the problem with almost all sparring sequences in fiction. If you’re using it for dramatic tension then you’ve already sabotaged the purpose of the exercise, and your character’s own training. No competent instructor will pair up two people who have a legitimate beef with each other, because neither will learn anything from it. Any instructor who wants to stack the deck against a misogynistic meathead will stack the deck so hard against him that he can’t win, and has no method of recourse. They use someone who has already finished training or one of the TAs. They can also turn it into a good learning exercise for said meathead about making assumptions and assuming size matters. There’s nothing like the experience of someone half your size tossing you around the room to bring the point home.

However, it won’t be your female character currently in training who makes that point. She can’t. She doesn’t have the experience or the skill for the defeat to be so total that it sticks in the student’s memory forever. The woman who makes this example will be someone who has finished their training. This teaches your male students a valuable lesson and gives your female students motivation, and a reminder to work towards when the going gets tough.

The only way this scenario works on face value with the antagonism angle is if she’s sparring someone much greener than her who she has no problems turning into mush.

b. Maturity. All Marines must control their egos and tempers at all times. Marines who demonstrate immaturity, lack of control, or unsportsmanlike conduct will not be allowed to participate.

Sparring is not a free space to beat the crap out of someone you don’t like. The only grading score here is that you can achieve a kill with a simulated weapon before your opponent. That’s all the Marines care about. And in case you thought they didn’t have rules for girls… you were wrong.

b. Safety Gear. The safety gear required for body sparring is head gear, mouthpiece, 16 ounce (minimum) boxing gloves, and groin protection. Females must also wear a flak jacket for added protection for the female anatomy.

Did you envision your characters wearing protection in this sparring session? They better be.

Remember…

Training not only the physical but also the mental is crucial to the development of the combative mindset. Body sparring prepares the Marine to function when faced with stress and violence. These skills are the building block to developing the physical skills and combative mindset vital to success on the battlefield.

Whatever other goals for this scene you may have as a writer, you want to keep the above in mind. This is what your characters’ sparring session is for. If they are not learning this lesson through this training in your narrative then you are failing them as well as yourself. You are also failing in showing their combat ability and professionalism. Marine is a mindset, it is a profession, and will become a core part of your character’s personal identity. If you haven’t begun researching who the Marines are, what they do, what their outlook on life is, and how they behave… now would be good time to start. This is who your character (male or female) is going to be at the end of their training.

How does your character “win”? By using her training. Now, go take another look at MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.)

Everything Milspec has to be available publicly. If you want to write soldiers, say thank you to Uncle Sam. You can read up on all of the training documentation online. Therefore, there is no excuse for you not to do your homework. They will tell you exactly how the Marines handle sparring, put together by Marines for Marines, and you too can follow the training outline.

I will leave you with this last instructor note:

Unsafe Conditions. It is the referee’s, and RSO’s, responsibility to immediately stop the fight if they see any unsafe condition such as a defenseless fighter, safety gear problems, or if a fighter is injured. A fighter is defenseless if they appear unable or unwilling to intelligently defend themselves by exposing their back, falling to the ground, dropping their weapons,or dropping theirs hands. If any safety gear is unserviceable, missing, or not fitted properly the fight must be stopped to correct the problem. If a fighter appears to be injured, by screaming or yelling, the fight must be stopped. Once the unsafe condition is corrected, the referee will restart the fight.

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Heavy Infantry

i feel like usually in fantasy settings you see characters combine super heavy armour with an equally heavy weapon, like a warhammer or a battleaxe, but how feasible is this realistically? i feel like the combined weight of both alongside the full body motion needed to control the weapon would wear someone out ridiculously fast, even if they are trained and have a lot of endurance

The first thing to remember is that, heavy weapons, weren’t really that heavy. Real warhammers often weighed less than 3 lbs. Even the heaviest battle axes rarely weighed more than 5 lbs.

Now, fantasy art can get kinda goofy. That’s reasonable enough, and can result with situations where you have cartoonishly exaggerated proportions on the weapons. This is where you end up with warhammers that look like supermassive sledges, and busterswords.

It’s also reasonable, in some situations, to see a character using a sledgehammer as an improvised weapon. Most sledges will run around 8lbs though you can buy much heavier ones. Pretty much anything your character’s doing will get by fine with an 8lb sledge. That is heavy, as weapons go.

So, yes, when you’re talking about characters in fantasy wielding supermassive weapons, that would quickly exhaust a real fighter. Sometimes this is just artistic license, sometimes there’s justification in setting (ex: if the characters aren’t human), and sometimes it’s legitimately an oversight. “But, Oblivion said my character could wield a 62lb greatsword!”

Armor does get much heavier. This where you’ll often see legitimate problems with the fighter wearing out quickly in the real world.

I’m not as confident on the weights of historical armor off the top my head, but 60-80lbs of armor wasn’t unreasonable for plate. And, yeah, someone could train, and get used to, that extra weight. The idea that someone could carry an extra hundred pounds of armor on them isn’t any stranger than the idea that someone who weighs 300lbs could still be physically active.

Armor can wear you out, but that more to do with heat. Armor is very effective at trapping body heat, and that heat will exhaust you. This is something you can learn to work with, but it’s why fighting in armor requires conditioning. The extra weight is a reasonable tradeoff for the the protection you get.

Again, artistic license will see comically exaggerated armor. It depends on the exact source you’re looking at. So, if you see someone walking around wrapped in what looks like half a ’57 Chevy, that’s probably not going to work. (There’s an edge case here where you could see armor that heavy if it is self-carrying. Though, that’s rare in fantasy, and more of a sci-fi thing.)

Armor needs to be maneuverable. You can find videos of people wearing full plate and doing handstands or basic gymnastics in the stuff. If your armor seriously impairs your movement, it’s not going to allow you to fight in it. This can be an oversight by an artist who doesn’t understand this, and that’s a fault with their design. There’s also a few rare outliers like jousting armor, which did impair movement, but was designed for very specific situations, and not combat.

Lack of mobility is something that you’ll sometimes see with heavy utility armor. For example: hazardous environmental suits may not give you a full range of movement, but if you’re not going to be fighting in them, that’s not a problem. However, when you’re designing armor for combat, if you can’t fight in it, it won’t work.

Heavy infantry did combine heavy armor and heavy weapons. There’s real history there. But, that can be played up in art. There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing fantasy out of the realistic. Even stuff like Lord of the Rings is, ultimately, more about superhuman characters, rather than any reality of historical combat. So, it depends on the story you’re going for. A world filled with wizards, monsters, and epic heroes can absolutely have an over the top comic book aesthetic. They may even be able to justify it against objective reality. The characters are wearing armor forged from some mystical metal, or enchanted to augment the wearer’s strength and endurance. Whatever the cause, it is defensible as an art design.

-Starke

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Q&A: Combat Training for Girls

If we have a 22 year-old woman taught to use a sword by her father (in a historical fantasy kingdom setting) what would have a been a reasonable age her to start learning (using wooden swords)? In this setting, there is no social norm against woman learning to fight in any capacity. And if my setting is more Western, what would be a minimum reasonable age when she could carry her own real sword?

At the same age as the boys.

This is the problem when you want to do these setups. You have to forget that your character is female. There is literally no difference between a girl’s combat training and a boy’s. It is exactly the same, the expectations are the same, and the part where she’s female is tertiary as best. If you over focus on the fact she’s female (any hint of her being treated differently) in a setting where social norms about women in combat don’t exist will result in you shooting yourself in your own foot.

The minimum age is going to depend on her father, and will depend on her social station, which also depends on the kind of training she receives. This also depends on the sword type in question, whether we’re in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, and if she’s expected to do anything else along with the sword fighting. For example, if she’s a knight versus a duelist. If her father is a mercenary who needs all hands on deck quickly, or can take his time about deciding when he lets her loose. If she apprentices outside of him, as knights did when they were sent out to serve as pages, then squires before they became full-fledged knights at twenty-one.

The problem here is that this girl’s training will go through several stages with weapons that are, technically, real. All training weapons are real. The wooden sword is a real weapon. The steel training sword which is blunted is also a real weapon. They are just not as immediately dangerous as a live blade, and she will never ever train with a live blade even after she receives one as her graduation present. The graduation present will probably coincide with whatever this setting considers her age of adulthood, which could be anywhere from fourteen to twenty-one depending on her social status. This one is going to depend on her father, and her setting. Her father might give her a real sword to take care of in her early teens which she gets to train with but not use on practice dummies or spar with, to teach her the importance of caring for her weapon. She might be allowed to carry it when traveling as her father’s second, but not use it outside a means of self-defense

There are a lot of different options here because Western training for combat was a highly personal experience dependent on the student’s master and, for the Middle Ages, tied heavily into ascension into adulthood rather than the regimented militarized structure or the comprehensive training systems we see coming out of, say, China.

So, the answer is when her father decides its appropriate for her to have one. Which is usually the point where he decides she can be responsible with it, and not kill herself or someone else. She still won’t be allowed to use it, but she can carry it. If she comes from a wealthy family then she’ll go through a few different swords because she’s constantly growing. If she doesn’t, she’ll probably just get the one she receives when her apprenticeship ends. Or whenever she has the means to buy her own sword from the local blacksmith, one that’s built to her specifications.

Carry and use are two different terms. Having and using are also separate terms. Your character can receive a weapon for the purposes of their training that they’re allowed to carry but not use.

You’ll need to study up on Western combat, specifically the era you choose to base the “historical” part of your historical fantasy on. With the resurgence of HEMA, there are plenty of fantastic resources online you can turn to for advice on sword combat. Matt Easton’s scholagladitoria channel is a great jumping off point. This can be great for defining the culture your character comes from and the type of combat she could expect to engage in. This, in turn, will hone the type of training she received from her father.

Writing a character’s training can be very difficult if you don’t understand the specific type of combat your character is going to engage in, and “sword combat” is not specific. There are lot of different types of swords with hundreds of variants in how to use them, and many that had their own specific purpose. Outside the Renaissance nobility, most sword combatants weren’t duelists. Duels, historically, were used as a means of settling legal disputes. While there were duels, the Middle Ages was more about various warlords fighting over territory. Their knights trained to engage as heavy infantry or heavy cavalry or both. They were usually trained on multiple different weapons, riding, hunting, and developed many other skills to aid them in warfare.

For purposes of writing your female character as a combatant, you need to forget she’s a girl. My answer about when the weapon gets carried would’ve been the same if you never mentioned the character’s gender. There are plenty of women who were, historically, trained in sword combat by their parents or were warriors due to circumstances. Too many for them all to be one offs or exceptions. The big thing to understand though is that the training doesn’t change regardless of whether your character is male or female. Her father would give her the same training he would’ve given a son.

If you haven’t considered filling your story up with female fighters in a universe that’s supposed to be gender neutral in terms of combat, then I encourage you to reconsider. To go any other way is to engage in a disingenuous girl power fantasy that does more to emphasize the female character’s special nature than it pushes the narrative that “women can do it too.” Normal requires there be more than one, and there be variety. This can be done specifically through minor characters peppered throughout your narrative, not just warriors or leaders but blacksmiths, farmers, merchants, etc. There also can be no, “but you’re a girl!”

She’s the rule, not the exception and therefore no one will give a shit.

-Michi

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Q&A: People Wear Armor Because They Want to Win

nipplepersecution said to howtofightwrite: I don’t know if you’ve already answered this at some point (I would be super greatful for a link if you have) but how would an unarmed and unarmored person trained in hand-to-hand combat take out a fully armored knight with a sword? Would it even be possible? Unarmed person is a strong built 5’5″, armored knight is 5’10”

So, you know that scene in any Jackie Chan movie where he hits overwhelming odds and goes, “nope!” then runs in the opposite direction? This sequence is that sequence, and sensible people who value their lives disengage and retreat. They run with purpose, but they still run. The height has no bearing on this fight by the way, the armored knight could be 5’5 and the person who was 5’10 wouldn’t have any better odds. The sword would be bad enough by itself, the armor just makes everything worse for the unarmed/unarmored person.

Would it be possible? Yes. However, possible doesn’t mean easy or that you could do it in a conventional way. I bring up Jackie Chan (not just because he choreographs amazing fight scenes) because he does a great job showcasing the age old tactic of utilizing your environment and finding higher ground or a place to fight that’s more advantageous. If the unarmed/unarmored person chooses to stand and fight this suggested setup is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrell. It’d be the same with just the sword, which can keep you at a range where you can do nothing or just the armor because you don’t want to go into fisticuffs with the guy or girl wearing a medieval equivalent to brass knuckles. (I assume you’re thinking of plate as opposed to chainmail, leather, or padded armor. It is worth remembering that none of those would make this situation better.)

Plate armor is the other person wearing forty to sixty pounds of solid steel, the weight distributed across the whole of the body, and the only weak points are usually at the joints or points of articulation where the armor pieces separate. The mistake most make is assuming that because armor is heavy, it is difficult to move in or significantly slows the fighter down. This is not true. Heavy armor infantry were highly mobile, and trained to develop the endurance to fight for prolonged periods in armor specially tailored to their body. Your unarmed fighter could wear this individual down but they’d have to work for it, and that’s the sprinting, jumping over walls, fences, climbing buildings, and running across rooftops types of work for it. Stand and fight will result in them being cut up by the sword before they can get into a range to be able to harm their opponent. And even if they do manage to wear the knight down, the knight still has their armor. The best wearing the knight down does is buy the unarmed fighter time to find a weapon like a longarm/polearm which might lend them some advantage or a friend who can help them turn the tables.

Would you enjoy punching a tank? The answer is probably no. And knights aren’t just tanks, and they’re not just good at wielding swords. There’s an entire hand to hand and grappling system for knights in armor, and they were usually trained to handle multiple weapon types. So, if you unarmed fighter can manage to get rid of the sword or get themselves into a tight quarters environment where the blade is more of a liability than a help, they’ll still have to deal with an armored opponent capable of punching their lights out.

There needs to be a strong contextual reason in your narrative for the unarmored character to even think about engaging in what amounts to an almost certain suicide by sword. Even then, if they must fight, there’s no reason to battle this armored character on their opponent’s terms or the ground which benefits the armored character. The armored character has every advantage, there’s no reason to give them more.

One of the issues with the way fiction writers approach arms and armor is they think of them like accessories, a trait you give one character to differentiate them from the others. Arms and armor are really about taking an advantage over your opponent, about getting the upper hand, and bettering your own odds of survival. You bring a knife to a fist fight because you want to win, not because you want to fight fair. There’s no fighting fair when your life is at stake.

The problem for the unarmed fighter is that a even decent swordsman, or a poor one, has the means to keep them at a range where they can do nothing while the swordsman slices them to ribbons. The armor ensures that even if they do get successfully themselves past the blade without dying (a challenge all by itself) then their attacks won’t do much. The steel will hurt them more than their blows will hurt the swordsman. Their lack of armor means that any blow the sword lands has the potential to be fatal, even if the wound is not deep. A sword doesn’t need more than an inch of penetration to land a killing blow. Once someone starts poking holes in your muscles, they stop working. The unarmed/unarmored fighter has to be better than perfect to succeed where the armored swordsmen can be merely okay to not great, and even then the unarmed fighter will likely still die.

None of this means impossible, it just means you’re going to have to work really goddamn hard to sell the sequence. This is where the Jackie Chan advice is helpful because you don’t need your character to win in order to cement them as a badass in your audience’s imagination. A chase scene can be as exciting as a fight scene, and a chase scene can easily transition into a fight scene. It’s important to know when your character is outmatched for the sake of your own narrative tension, so you don’t blow your story on a one off in a desperate need to prove yourself. Running from the guy who brought the gun to the knife fight, especially when he had the presence of mind to draw before the knifer could get in range, is having a sense of self-preservation. A sense of self-preservation and threat assessment are important skills for any trained fighter to possess.

-Michi

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Q&A: A sword is not load Bearing

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

So… There’s this scene in a book where a swordsman thrusts at a guy with two knives and the thrust was deflected so the swordsman stumbles forward. Knife Guy grabs the swordsman’s collar and then demonstrates to an apprentice that he can a) stab Sword Guy in the throat b) stab Sword Guy in the chest and/or c) cripple Sword Guy. Is Sword Guy just a bad combatant or is this actually usable?

I’m hoping this scene occurred in a safe training environment and not in a live scenario because so many more problems pop up if it did. They’d be a whole other post about why you don’t train people while fighting for your life (even against a subpar opponent, you’re confident your trainer character could beat.) That would be a whole other post about how stupid that makes characters look.

The short answer is that whether or not Sword Guy is supposed to be a good combatant is dependent on the narrative and the author who wrote it. There’s a lot about the scenario that doesn’t make sense and makes both characters look like idiots, along with a general side of “not how this works”. This includes a third arm problem. The author knew just enough to be aware of certain concepts like deflection, stumbling, and grabbing someone by the collar but not how they work or what causes them.

Let’s start at the top.

1. A sword is not load bearing.

Swords weigh between two to four pounds. They’re not heavy. The only way it’d be possible for the swordsman to stumble on a thrust would be if he had to throw his entire weight behind the sword, and have the forward momentum carry him forward. (Which is why the great axe is swung in a figure eight pattern.) However, you don’t need deep penetration with a sword and a thrust is about the tip, not the whole sword. A thrust moves off one leg, not both, in a step forward (if that) and a deflection will not unbalance your opponent on its own. If the weapon weighed twenty pounds, then it couldn’t be deflected. It’d have too much forward momentum. The swordsman would never come close enough for the Dual Wielder to grab him, and the Dual Wielder couldn’t grab him by the collar anyway because he’s duel wielding.

However, this is all predicated on the idea that the swordsman stumbled close enough to be in range for the Dual Wielder. Swords add an extra four or so feet of distance. He wouldn’t be close enough for the dual wielder to reach him. Dual Wielder would have to come to Sword Guy and not the other way around. An experienced knifer would know that.

2. Dual wielding knives is about a sacrificing defense for offense.

Outside specific tools like parrying daggers (which are not the same as regular daggers), knives exist to accentuate hand to hand. Using two means you’ve made a conscious choice to sacrifice utility and defense for more offense. Sacrificing utility includes collar grabbing. He would either need to drop one of his knives (bad) or he sprouted a third arm.

You can hold the knife or grab the collar, not both.

3. The sword is never out of play.

A good rule of thumb is: deal with the weapon first.

This technique that’s being shown off assumes that your enemy will politely stand there while you move two ranges in (from sword to hand to grappling) so you can grab them by the collar to stab them in the throat or chest or stab them in a joint to take them out of the fight. (Let’s ignore the chest too because you’ve got to deal with the breastbone and the unprotected stomach, abdominals, gut is just a few inches lower.)

Of course, Sword Guy still has his sword and edged weapons can cut you coming and going.

If sword guy is using two hands then he can rotate his sword and come back across on the deflection. It assumes the blade is not coming on a downward angle on the thrust, which is not getting deflected. This also assumes sword guy is not half-handing (where one hand is halfway up the blade) which can’t be deflected/parried.

So, all Dual Wielder did was open up his side to a blade that can be reoriented and brought sideways. Which assumes the deflection could happen in the first place, which is unlikely because…

4. You don’t parry with knives.

Again, that’s what your free hand is for.

There’s a problem with this scenario regarding the size of the knives in question. Some knives or daggers like bayonets are long enough they could concievably parry a sword, and get away with it. However, if your blade is long enough that it can parry a sword then grabbing someone by the collar is superfluous because you will be able to strike them before you are in range to grab their body. You’d also be putting your weapon outside the range where it is most useful to you, which is goes against the lesson this teacher is trying to impart.

5. There’s a misconception about depth.

You don’t need to go deep with a blade to do damage. Think about how painful a papercut is, or how easy it is to cut yourself while cooking. Surface level cuts to the skin can cause you to bleed out over an extended period, especially during times of high activity when your heart is rapidly pumping blood through your body. You don’t have to go deep to start cutting muscles in the arms or legs, which can debilitate your opponent.

A lot of writers obsess about stabbing someone in the heart or running someone through with a sword, but the true danger of bladed weapons is that it doesn’t take much against an unarmored opponent. That’s why people wore armor, and part of why the formality of first blood in duels exists. A single cut can be deadly. Surface level injuries with these weapons in the right place can kill you, especially if left without medical attention. Every cut you land is bad for your enemy.

6. We moved two ranges in.

We talk about range sometimes on this blog, but the key thing to remember is that range just means the distance it takes for a specific attack to hit your opponent. Grabbing hold of someone’s collar puts you in grappling range, which means that the person is right up next to you. This is close enough that your arm couldn’t reach full extension if you punched. This is the range where hooks, elbows, and upper cuts come into play.

The kind of stumbling this scenario is talking about is the kind you get when you grab someone and pull them forward. It’s actually very hard to get someone to stumble on a basic attack because most stances will have you set your balance, and your body moves together when you attack. So, in order for you to stumble a large amount of force must be delivered into you or you’re purposefully knocked off balance. All a deflection does is shift the strike off vector so that it misses. If you follow up with nothing, then the other person either resets to their original fighting stance or changes tack and like rotating the blade, kicking, or striking with their other hand. There’s no reason for Sword Guy to stumble at all, certainly not stumble through two other ranges (sword and hand) into grappling without the Dual Wielder needing to do anything. The best way to get someone to stumble forward is to catch them off balance and yank, which can’t be done if you’re holding a weapon.

Conclusion:

The basic problem of this scenario is that it sounds good on the surface but falls apart when you stop to think about it. The scene also lacks key understanding of how these weapons function and why they work. Dual Wielder has an overfocus on the neck/chest, neither of which are particularly good strike points. Remember, the sternum protects the heart from a stab or downward strike. If you want to get there, you’re going to need to go through the ribs. The neck is difficult because if you’ve got short weapons then you have to be up close. Both these places sound good to novices because they know they work or that they should work.

Writing weapons means brushing up on your anatomy. You need to study how the human body works, where it works, and how it breaks. You can cut someone on the wrist, either going after the artery in the forearm or just to distract them while you move in on the better protected target. With knives, two cuts are better than one. You don’t need a lot of penetration.

-Michi

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Q&A: Gang Arms

hi i’m writing a story set in the present day and my MC is part of a street gang. realistically, what kinds of weapons would they have?

This is heavily dependent on where the gang is based, and how connected they are. For example: a street gang in the UK or Hong Kong won’t have access to firearms the way a gang in south central LA will. Really won’t, but we

When creating any organization, with armed members, you need to ask, “what could my characters realistically get their hands on?” There a lot of relevant factors. Does the organization have a centralized armory, and the ability to buy equipment (including weapons) for its members? Does it enjoy official sanction that allows it (or its members) to obtain restricted (police/military) weapons? Is there money to buy gear? What’s available on the market?

When we’re talking about a street gang a lot of those choices are made for you, and the primary consideration, “what’s available, and what can they afford?”

In countries with strict firearms regulations, guns are going to be expensive, and rare, on the black market. This also requires that your gang has access to black marketeers, which isn’t a certainty. At that point, you might have individual members who have firearms, but those are probably going to be relatively senior members, and probably ones with ties to organized crime. It’s also distinctly possible that even if a character does have access to firearms, they might not carry them because the weapon itself will bring too much attention from local law enforcement.

Conversely, if you have a nation that was a warzone, or where a previous military regime collapsed, black market weapons could be very common. I’m thinking former Warsaw Pact states here, though, it’s also true elsewhere. At that point, it would be entirely plausible that gang members would have access to things like AK variants.

It’s difficult to generalize because, we’re talking about the entire world, and there are a lot of factors. So, if you have place in mind, I’d suggest you research crime in that area. In the modern era of Google, there a lot of resources. I’ve got an academic paper on gang violence in modern Australia open in the other window right now. Probably not relevant for you, but this information is out there.

In the US, you’d usually expect to see a mix of low end civilian weapons. Things like cheap handguns and shotguns. That said, even in the States, you can start to get into some unusual territory.

Historically there have been a lot of, “join the military or go to prison,” stories. There’s truth to this, and it was used as an alternative sentencing option in the past. In recent years, this has fallen out of favor, and while some courts may attempt to offer military service as an alternative sentence, these, “recruits,” are now expressly forbidden by most branches of the US Armed Services.

We’re still living with the fallout of this. Because of their experience in the military, some gang members in the US received advanced combat training, and developed connections that allowed them to procure military grade hardware after they filtered back into civilian life, and rejoined their gangs. So, while your average street gang wouldn’t have an M249 floating around, it’s not impossible they’d have someone with the hardware, training, and ability to instruct others in its use.

Another possible factor is organised crime connections, though this has less effect than you might expect. If you have a street gang that’s working with an organized syndicate, you might see a slight shift in their hardware, but it wouldn’t be particularly drastic. This because organized crime and black market weapons aren’t, really, synonymous. Both gangs, and organized crime benefit from a robust network of black market arms dealers, but neither one really runs that. Arms dealers are their own factor. However, gang members may have access to a better quality of black marketeer if their gang is working with a syndicate, and more cash to spend on their weapons.

Remember that gangs are opportunists. If a gang member gets their hands on a high-end tactical handgun, they’re probably going to keep and use that. So, while I said they’d probably have a mix of cheap weapons, that’s because they could afford (or easily steal) those. But, there is a real possibility for some diversity, particularly if they’re operating in more upscale areas.

Some gangs have started recruiting upper middle-class latchkey kids, via social media. This means you may, rarely, encounter gang members who have much better quality hardware available to them. Either, because they stole their parent’s gun, or because they helped their gang knock over one of their neighbors, and found it when tossing the place. (This is also possible if you have a gang that’s aggressively expanding its territory.)

For gang members, or most criminals really, the handgun is ideal. It’s easy to conceal and useful in close quarters. It doesn’t matter that they’re low power; you’re not going to be using them against armored foes. Also, you’re not going to be engaging at long range, so that limitation doesn’t matter.

So, it really matters where your fictional gang is located, and what its resources are.

-Starke

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Q&A: Crescent Moon Spade

How good of a weapon is a Shaolin spade? Because I saw a page about it that said that it was originally just a *spade*, and I just thought of your improvisatory weapons posts.

That might not be best way to think about it.

Shovels and similar tools are already pretty solid choices for improvised weapons. You have a blade on one end of a pole (or a grip, in the case of something like a trowel.) While they’re not designed for use on people, they are designed to drive a lot of force into an object (the soil.) At that point, applying that force into an opponent isn’t much of a stretch. You’re doing what it’s designed to do, just on “an unapproved target.”

The Monk Spade or Crescent Moon Spade is, basically, an augmented staff. The hooked blade would function as a defensive tool, allowing for some parrying, while the flat blade would function as a striking tool.

When we’re talking about improvised weapons, we mean picking an object in your environment and repurposing it as a weapon. In the case of the Monk Spade, someone looked at the shovels used by Taoist or Buddhist monks (I’ve seen it attributed to both groups) and decided to make a weapon based off of that design. At that point it’s no longer an improvised weapon; it is a weapon.

How good is it? As far as I can tell, historically these were used by traveling monks. The overall design is sound, and in the hands of a trained martial artist, they work, they’ll do their job. That’s what matters.

In a larger scale of, “how good is it in comparison to other weapons?” I don’t know. Like I said, it’s effectively an augmented staff. It was, apparently, well chosen for the situations it was used in, and it survives in the martial arts disciplines that trained with it. There’s no really value in saying, “but, this other weapon is so much better,” because if it consistently keeps the practitioner alive, while dealing with their foes, that’s the only metric that counts.

-Starke

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Q&a: Weapon of Choice

Is it possible to have a character using the sling and knives as their weapon of choice and trains for their one hundred year life because it’s more inconspicuous, even though they could use a spear and/or a sword decently? Idk, the character I’m writing is strange, but I don’t want to make it too overboard.

That sounds like someone who’s more of an ambush fighter, or assassin, rather than someone who trained for direct combat. Within that context, the sling seems a little strange, but it does make sense. The daggers and sling are both easy to conceal, so a character could carry both of them on their person, and have access to a ranged and melee weapon. Again, that’s more of an assassin or infiltrator’s approach to combat, rather than a straight up fighter.

Your weapon of choice is more about how you approach combat, rather than a preferred style, or aesthetic choice. Multiple weapons would further refine, or plug holes in that selection.

If your character is supposed to be a sneaky, backstabbing type, then a sling isn’t the weirdest ranged option. If they’re supposed to be a fighter that goes toe to toe with their foes, instead of someone shanking people in a back alley, then you’re probably going to want to trade the dagger for a sword. It’s still possible they’d carry both, and use the daggers clandestinely, while using the sword for open combat. That’s more in the range of plugging weaknesses.

If you have a character who operates clandestinely, (like a spy or assassin), it’s entirely plausible they’ve developed proficiency with a lot of weapons they don’t normally carry. This is also true for any character who has extensive combat training, but aren’t using it currently. Ex: Former soldiers or mercenaries.

Weapons are tools. You bring the tools you need for the job at hand. You may know how to use a much wider array of tools. Weapons of choice tell you how a character prefers to approach a problem. It doesn’t tell you everything about what that character can do. Your character could, very well, be proficient with swords and spears in addition to knives, but they’re only carrying a knife because they’re planning to do something specific, and openly carrying weapons would give them away. Especially if your character is more experienced, that’s not “over the top.”

The trade-off with a more experienced character is, they’re more likely to encounter people who know them, or know of them. If your character spent years training with a sword and developed a reputation as an excellent duelist, then that reputation would precede them. This isn’t over the top, it’s a natural side effect of having a character who’s been active for years, or even decades.

If your character is an assassin, having a reputation, and being recognized is a serious problem. Even if that reputation is for something other than being an assassin. It means, people will remember who your character is after the bodies are found, and remember that you were there. This can easily spiral into a complex problem for your character.

Spies have it worse, because being recognized is an immediate threat, and jeopardizes whatever they’re working towards.

Now, if you have a character who’s working as a thief or spy, and they need to infiltrate a situation where they can’t openly carry a weapon, they might choose not to carry any weapon. This is a complicated decision. The short reason is: If they’re caught carrying a weapon when they shouldn’t, it’s an immediate tip-off that they’re not who they say they are. Combine this with the part where a dagger isn’t going to do much good going up against a guard with a spear, however, a smart operator may be able to talk their way out of situation like that, if they’re found. (Obviously, this is contextual. A character who’s someplace they could have reasonably gotten lost can do this. Someone found on in a secret base under a volcano’s going to have a hard time saying they got lost looking for the bathroom.)

The basic concept is only strange if you say they intrinsically know how to use a sword and spear. If they train on a wide variety of weapons, they’d still be proficient with them, but they might only carry weapons that work for their current goals. That’s normal.

-Starke

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Q&A: Practical Torture Goals

I would implore you to do actual research on torture and how torturers behave. A lot of the information you present as fact is dangerously misinformed. Torturers are not ‘professionals’ and does not yield accurate information. You shouldn’t be answering any questions on torture if you haven’t read O’Mara. This isn’t about torture being bad. It’s about torture not working at all. I apologize if I seem harsh, but this needs to be said.

I have read Shane O’Mara’s work. Not all of it, and not recently. I skimmed through years ago. Though, judging by your question, I’m not entirely sure you are familiar with his work.

The irony is, there’s not a lot of difference between O’Mara’s position and ours, when it comes to torture. The biggest discrepancy is perspective. He’s a neurologist who had a focus on the specific effects of stress and pain on the brain. My background is political science, so my interest grew out of examining coercive methods used by nation states. As a result, my specialization is more focused on what it does at a policy level. And we both come to, nearly the same point:

People forget the reality of what torture was used for, and has been used for through the generations, a quite different purpose: To spread fear, extract confessions, all of those kinds of things. But, the royal road to gathering reliable information? No.

Shane O’Mara – “Your Welcome” (Podcast Interview)

This gets into a fundamental misunderstanding about what torture is, and why you use it. Many people who’ve never looked at torture in depth, including the interviewer in that podcast, and the person who sent this ask, believe it’s about extracting information.

No.

The perception of torture as intelligence gathering is pervasive. It’s honestly difficult to point to uses of torture in popular media that get at the real point behind its use. The ur-example of this misconception would have to be 24, and it’s ends-justify-the-means embrace of torture.

The problem is, as the US Military’s Enhanced Interrogation Program learned in Iraq, torturing someone only makes them tell you what they think you want to hear. This was not new information. Nearly every organization in history that’s employed torture has understood this.

Most civilians do not. Many organizations have exploited this fact to further their agendas.

Torture excels at extracting false confessions. To make the suffering stop, you put a narrative in front of someone, and they will crack and sign off on it. This is the true power of torture. It doesn’t tell you what’s real, it coerces the victim to agree with your version of the truth.

Confessions are not reliable, in any sense. Someone may admit they committed an act for any number of reasons unrelated to the truth. Social norms put faith in the idea of a confession as, “the truth,” but that is just words; like everything else, it shouldn’t be taken at face value. As mentioned above, torture exploits this norm, and relies on that general acceptance of confessions to glaze over all the incongruities. Even when those confessions are patently absurd or downright impossible, people will still say, “but they confessed.”

I remember an example of this a couple years ago, from another person bringing their favorite academic into a discussion. In that case it was James Wasserman, an author who wrote a history of the Knights Templar. The end of that order came from confessions extracted under torture by one of the Inquisitions. (I don’t remember which one.) Even knowing that the confessions were coerced, Wasserman sees nothing wrong with taking them at face value. (Also the reason he comes to conclusions that radically differ from every rational academic that looks at the subject.)

That said, unlike Wasserman, O’Mara does something interesting. We’ve always known you can’t get good information from torture, and O’Mara decided to take neurology and look at why. The answer has to do with how memories work.

The brain stores memories as chemical chains. Under the best of circumstances, this is not a good, robust, long-term storage system. In some ways it’s surprising it works as well as it does. Stress and trauma both adversely affect your ability to form new memories and retain them. This has nothing to do with torture per se. If you’re put through six kinds of hell, you’re going to forget things.

Again, this isn’t exactly new information. It’s something that most therapists and investigators are well aware of. If you’ve been a victim of violence, even if it wasn’t perpetrated by a human, you may have experienced this. You might not realize it. I’m sitting here, thinking about my first dog attack and realizing, I don’t really remember that day. I remember that it happened, (and I can still find the scars on my left hand), but if I’m being completely honest with myself: a lot of the details are just gone. I do remember the sounds. Unfortunately, and if pressed, I could present a partial chronology of that day, but it would be reconstructed from information I have about when it was, what I was doing, things that happened before and after the attack.

Even without resorting to extreme events like that, your memory of traumatic or highly stressful experiences isn’t going to be completely clear. Ironically, this can also screw you over. If you get stressed out over a test in school, that will impair your ability to study, and even your ability to recover information during the exam.

Within this context, sleep deprivation has a significant effect on your cognitive abilities. This puts a fair amount of stress on your system for no real value. So, pulling an all-nighter before a test is not recommended.

Caffeine, and other stimulants don’t, really, help here. They’ll help you stay awake, they’ll help you feel more alert, but they won’t make up for the lost sleep, so the cognitive impairment will still be there, you’ll just look sober.

So, stating the obvious here but, having bunch of armed men attack and capture you, being dragged off to a dark room somewhere, isolated from any support network, being yelled at, and being threatened… That’s all kinda stressful.

In fact, many interrogators will seek to prolong the stress of capture as long as possible. They’ll use loud music, bright lights, keep the room cold, prevent them from sleeping (with all of the associated sleep deprivation considerations coming into effect) in an attempt to keep their captive off balance, to prevent them from settling into a new norm. While they’re in this state, they’re more susceptible to suggestion.

There is a continuum to all of this. It’s part of why studying for tests in an academic situation is such a good example: In the entirety of your life, it’s a pretty minor stress, but it is stressful, and the details you’re being asked to retrieve are trivial. So that’s some of the first information your brain will dump when things start fraying. When you put someone in real danger, the stress will start dumping much more important things. It’s not like you’ll forget your name, or where you were born, but it could easily dump information an interrogator would be interested in; like the names of people you met at a party last week.

All of this information also applies to witness testimony. Even when the investigators aren’t leaning on you, the stress from the original event can easily play havoc with your memory. This is one of the reasons why investigators need to be careful when they’re interviewing victims, because they can easily corrupt the victim’s memories simply by asking the wrong questions, and getting the victim to reconstruct their memory on the spot, which won’t necessarily match what happened. Of course, an unscrupulous investigator can push a victim to remember things that didn’t happen, simply by asking leading questions. If you’re suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea eyewitness testimony right now, good. You should. As with confessions, as a culture, we put way too much faith in them.

When you put this together, it explains why torture doesn’t yield accurate information. Again, this was known, but the neurology wasn’t. So, in this sense, O’Mara does make an interesting and useful contribution to the lit. He’s connecting stuff we already knew in different fields and saying, “this is how it works together.” He’s also getting into the neurochemistry, which is interesting to a degree, but not particularly accessible. The exact reasons that your brain has issues with sleep deprivation make for a fascinating discussion, but if I start talking about neurotransmitter reuptake again, people are going to glaze over.

You should start to see why torture excels at getting people to confess to things they didn’t do. Even confessing to things that aren’t possible or are patently absurd.

In most cases, someone will do anything they can just to end the suffering. Being tortured sucks, and if you just need to sign on the line to make it stop, a surprising number of people will do so. Even if it’s not the truth. Even if they’re signing their lives away.

On the other end of the spectrum, torture someone for long enough, and the lines between the real world and fantasy start to blur, or come apart entirely. You’ll get confessions about how they summoned up The Devil for an orgy and bake-off, or how they were plotting to mount laser cannons on frogs to assault New York. It sounds bonkers, but the victim may be so broken, they can’t tell the difference anymore.

I’m honestly unsure where this line about, “no professional torturers,” comes from. Especially given O’Mara has talked about the NKVD, CIA, Enhanced Interrogation Program, and many other intelligence agencies. That is to say, groups that do employ professional interrogators. I’ve seen this line come up several times, and the only way I could possibly attribute it to O’Mara is by deliberately misreading his methodology. The idea that no one gets paid to lean on others is patently absurd. Even the Mafia and Cartels have professional torturers. How well they do their job is a different question, but I’ve seen some genuinely disconnected comments about torturers being nothing but unhinged psychopaths, and that’s not supported by any reputable source.

I get the appeal of being able to say that, “a rational person couldn’t do this,” because it makes the world feel safer, but the truth is, there are people out there who come across as normal and are paid to do horrific things to other human beings.

The other side of this is that some of the EIP interrogators did end up with PTSD. It takes a pretty specific mindset to be able to do this to someone without suffering psychological harm in the process. That said, it’s not that different from other careers where you deal with horrific experiences on a regular basis, such as EMS, LEOs or soldiers.

The horrible thing about the real world is, torture works. It doesn’t gather usable intelligence, and if you thought that was the point, you fell for the big lie. Torture is about making someone confess to things they never did. It’s about making them agree with your version of the world, irrespective of the truth. It’s about scaring people. Convincing them to never oppose your organization. It does all of those things, and if you’re stepping back and saying, “no, it can’t possibly be that bad,” it worked on you.

Torture is scary; it shows how horrible the world, and the people in it, can be. There’s no shame in looking away and saying, “I can’t deal with this.” I don’t blame you. But there’s no virtue in lying to yourself and saying, “no, it doesn’t do anything. It can’t. I need the people who do this to be cartoonish super-villains.” I don’t blame you for the instinct, that’s better world, but not the one we live in.

-Starke

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Q&A: Learn, Write, Revise

I’m writing a sword fight, but no matter how many times I feel like I’m writing it wrong. I can only get maybe 4 paragraphs out of it and that’s not even including the action or feeling. When I try that I just end up deleting it. Do you have any advice on how to write a realistic one? And what are some of the most common stances in sword fighting?

The first piece of advice is, don’t delete anything. If you’re writing a scene and feel it’s not working, finish it anyway. You learn by doing, and finishing the scene gives you the material you need to dissect your own work. This also applies to stories as a whole. If you’re not satisfied with the final result, you have more to pick through, and you can see what works and what doesn’t.

No one’s rough drafts are perfect. Everything takes rewrites. There’s no merit to presenting a final version and saying, “this was my rough draft.” Rather than mastery of your craft, it shows a complete lack of respect for your work.

The second piece of advice is to remember that, in written works, speed is conveyed by the length of your sentences. An action scene with entire paragraphs will read much more slowly than one where your characters are acting with a handful of words. Economic use of language is key.

Carefully consider each sentence in the scene, and cut them down to as few words as possible. (Example: Remove unneeded words.)

At this point, remember to give your audience time to breathe. This will naturally fit in the combat lulls. When characters break contact, and catch their breath, you may be able to afford a short paragraph, before going back into the fray.

As to learning about sword combat, I’d strongly recommend Matt Easton’s YouTube channel, Scholagladitoria. Depending on the era, and the cultural reference points, there’s an enormous range of possible styles, and different weapons. I realize, with almost 1,400 videos at the time I’m writing this, Easton’s channel may be a bit intimidating, but he’s always interesting and educational.

-Starke

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.