Q&A: Knives Out

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: What are the odds of winning a fight when one character is skilled in daggers more than swords, and in this fight, the opponent uses a sword?

The short answer to this question is almost none, barring being indoors, especially if you’re envisioning a straight forward fight. The answer to why is a concept called reach.

Reach is commonly misunderstood by a lot of writers and even some martial artists when it gets applied as a blanket statement to all combat (including hand to hand, where the difference between two people of different heights is centimeters), but with weapons of two different lengths it’s a game breaker.

The dagger wielding character has weapons that are between three to six inches. The sword, if its a longsword, is probably between thirty-six to thirty-nine inches. That’s a three foot difference full of bladed steel. Your dagger wielding character needs to get past the three feet, to be eight inches away from their target before that steel stops being a danger. (And, that’s if the sword wielder doesn’t half-hand, or chooses to hit your dagger wielder with the pommel of their sword.) Even then, the blade can still cut.

There is no guarantee your swordsman isn’t also trained in hand to hand along with their swordsmanship, allowing them to utilize their blade (or simply fight) in close-quarters. Most were.

Say it with me, “daggers are for shanking.”

The Kill Zone: Who hits first?

The first problem for the dagger wielder is that the swordsman can hit them long before they ever manage to close. This allows the swordsman to control the battle tempo, allowing them to attack without giving the fighter with the daggers opportunity for recourse. Daggers will be on the defense, looking for an opportunity to close so they can strike and, if the swordsman is just mildly competent, those opportunities will be few and far between.

The second problem is that the sword’s greater range also gives them a wider array of targets than the dagger wielder has access to. For example, the swordsman can aim for the foot and, from there, carve up the groin to the chest without an issue. Thrusts easily transitions to slices with the point, which change to hews across the body. The sword’s defense is total. If they keep up attacks, all daggers can do is respond.

The third problem is blocks and counters. They can’t, daggers really aren’t designed for that. They could try to Deflections? The sword will recover in a few fractions of a second. While that’s enough for another swordsman to move from parry to strike, the daggers are too short. They’d be about midway to the swordsman, and take a hewing strike or just a retreating cut to the their side (or somewhere more vital to continuing combat, like their arm. The arm/leg/foot/hand get caught in just a basic slice and that’s it for using those body parts.)

The fourth problem? Well, they can’t bull rush. All they get out of a rush is plowing headlong into the steel end of a long blade. A swordsman can set their weight in stance to take that hit without being forced to even take a step back.

You should never fight a superior weapon on that weapon’s terms. You have to fight on your own, where you negate the other wielder’s advantages. If your dagger wielder isn’t planning ways to use their environment to negate the swordman’s massive advantage, you may want to rethink your fight scene. (And yes, fighting in an alley makes the situation worse for Daggers. Indoors where the sword’s movements are limited by tightly clustered objects like furniture, or in ambush before the sword is drawn.)

Targeting Extremities: How do you run when you can’t move?

What many authors forget about, because they don’t normally work with bladed weapons, is how dangerous they actually are. They also think you need to go directly for the interior parts of the body, such as the heart, the head, stomach, and neck.

Combat is, ironically, far more sophisticated than that and, with an unarmored opponent, cuts and lacerations can be debilitating to any part of the body you hit. While your heart is pumping, your heart will be pumping that blood out of your body. Holes in the body mean the blood leaves the body, the more holes, the faster that happens. This is the strategy with both sword and dagger, you can target major arteries with your daggers or your swords, but anywhere actually works.

The primary targets are usually the best defended. So, you don’t go for those unless the enemy puts up a very poor defense. You start outside, on the extremities, and work inward. If you take the arm, they can no longer use it or will be forced to use it more slowly, to their own detriment. If you take the foot, you cut off their maneuvering. If you pierce their thigh, similar problem. Keep in mind, you don’t have to cut the extremity off. A cut or piercing thrust is enough. Cut muscles or pierced muscles, even surface cuts, mean debilitated muscles. With their defense disabled, you go in for the kill.

On the other hand, your dagger wielder cannot reach the swordmans extremities without closing past the three foot bladed steel barrier that is constantly in motion.

Eliminating Threats: How the combatant thinks.

Combat is all about calculated risk. Every action, every decision is a trade off. You want to maneuver past the enemy’s defenses without taking injuries. No injuries is preferable, but unlikely. Any injury means recovery time, which can severely hamper you’re ability to move forward to the next fight. You want to fight from the position which favors you, and gain nothing in fighting from an underdog position. If you’re forced to, you work with what you have. If you choose to, prepare to suffer.

All weapons are not created equal. Every weapon has a field which is favorable to it. The sword, for example, loses out to the staff or spear when out in the open. However, in areas that are denser like a marketplace or city street, the spear or staff will run into maneuverability issues just like the sword does when indoors.

Canny fighters know how to turn their disadvantages into advantages by changing the field of battle, such as luring the swordsman indoors where his strike pattern is more limited. At worst, they know when to disengage and retreat. Survival is more important than ego.

As a writer, you should always try to understand the threats your characters are facing so you don’t accidentally tip the scales too far in one direction and then try to treat the ensuing battle as equal. Bringing knives to a swordfight is a lot like bringing knives to a gunfight, the upset can be brilliant if you plan your scene around getting past the gun/sword’s advantages or horribly one-sided if you don’t.

Your dagger wielder should shank like their life depends on it (because it does.)

The Sliding Edge: Why blocks and deflections with daggers don’t work.

The short answer here is simple: the dagger is actually too short for deflecting another bladed weapon. Outside of parrying daggers (which are a different animal entirely, and paired with a long blade like a rapier), daggers do not deflect other daggers. That’s what your off hand is for.

If you have chosen two daggers, you’ve chosen that offensive life. This means your fighting style is all offense, all the time. Offense is your defense. You will run headlong into a wall when you encounter a weapon which forces you on the defensive.

You might be wondering, “but why can’t I just cross my blades?” Because, while it’s a favorite move for anime, it doesn’t actually work. A pincer block like that is about pressure and you can’t apply enough pressure to stop the incoming blade before it hits.

Swords and daggers don’t clang together when they hit, they slide on those sharp edges. The goal of the swordsman is to protect his blade’s edge, and the same goes for the daggers. The goal, even when parrying, is to apply opposing force to redirect the opponent’s weapon away from its chosen course. Sword combat isn’t about strength, it’s about geometric angles. A dagger wielder doesn’t have that option if they have two weapons, their blades are too short, they have no choice but to attack and keep attacking. This is great if they’re against an unarmed opponent, but a problem if they are not in range to hit anything.

Choose your field of battle wisely. Or? Better yet? Carry additional weapons. Most real warriors throughout history carried multiple weapons to avoid this problem. The conceit of single weapon styles is from anime and role-playing games like DnD or video games. A warrior carrying a spear, a bow, a sword, and a dagger was not unheard of. They’d also carry a variety of more specialized weapons depending on the type of battlefield they expected to encounter.

You could lure the swordsman into territory that doesn’t benefit him, only to have him switch up and come at you knives out.

The well-rounded warrior was the warrior who survived.

-Michi

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