Q&A: Throwing Knives Versus Throwing Knives, and Other Projectile Weapons

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: First of all, your explanation upon the dagger vs. sword battle is TRULY HELPFUL in my writing as I have no idea what to do about that kind of situation when one of my characters is in that scene. However, as you have stated, one shouldnt just carry a single dagger or a sword or a bow, and you must carry at least a bunch of weapons— So, what about someone who carries a handful of knives and is skilled in throwing them against someone with a sword? No matter the distance?

Are we talking about throwing knives or actually throwing knives, because one of those is a specific weapon type designed for projectile throwing and the other one is someone who likes to give their knives away. As a great Marine once said, “when you’ve thrown your knife, you’ve given your opponent your knife.”

Distance always matters. The type of projectile you have, its weight, is relative to understanding it’s effective range. I know you brought up throwing knives to get away from the range discussion, but, you know, different projectile weapons have effective ranges too. This is a question of force and momentum versus inertia and wind resistance. The weapon needs enough force behind it to not only reach its target but also impact at high velocity, otherwise it doesn’t do much.

A thrown weapon has a shorter effective range than a bow or a crossbow. The throwing knife has the additional problem of being much lighter than other throwing weapons like the throwing axe and the javelin, meaning it can’t travel as far. They’d still have to be decently close to the sword guy for their knives to maintain effect. A standard knife is even less aerodynamic than a throwing knife, meaning you need to be even closer. That’s not the only issue with throwing a knife though.

The combat problem with throwing knives as a weapon is they fit a specific niche and are, basically, trick weapons. They can be dangerous but only under specific circumstances. You can use them against someone who is unarmored, but you’ll just annoy an armored opponent. This will include the city guards, local knights, and anyone with a dense wool coat. If padded armor can stop an arrow, a throwing knife has no chance in hell. They’re among the weakest of the projectiles, both in speed and force. A swordsman who has experience dealing with projectiles could parry them without much cost. For reference, they lose out to the throwing axe and the javelin.

Throwing axes can be parried in flight, but due to the weapon’s weight combined with its momentum it has a higher cost to stop. Martial combat is all about physics, which is a discussion about weight, inertia, momentum. Even when you successfully block, parry, or clash with an opponent, you take a portion of that force into your body. This is to say, vibration. A little like what you feel after hitting a large metal bell with a hammer. So, “ouch!”

In case of the javelin, the Northern Germanic Tribes used to catch those in flight and throw them back at the Romans. They played a game as children where they would throw sticks back and forth, and that translated into catching and throwing Roman javelins. Turned out to be an ugly surprise for the Romans.

You’ll run into a similar problem with knives, especially if you’re just throwing regular knives. Knife throwing is a common parlor trick. The further back into history we go, the more common it becomes. People used to (and still do) play knife throwing games similar to darts. Bored soldiers and sailors liked to throw their knives at things. The knife is a small weapon, doubling as a utilitarian tool, and less vital than some others so soldiers would play with them. They shouldn’t, but they did. Modern soldiers still do. So, the chance your character would run into people completely unfamiliar with knives and the throwing of knives is unlikely. Given how weak the knife is as a projectile (especially one not designed for throwing), the worst thing that can happen isn’t that another character catches the knife and throws it back, but they take the knife and keep it. Now, your main character is down a knife and that knife may be used against them next. Besides, knives aren’t exactly cheap to replace. This is doubly true when talking about specialized projectiles that aren’t regularly requested from the local blacksmith.

They’re going to need money to support their hobby. Throwing knives aren’t like arrows which can be produced easily, cheaply, and are more in demand. You’re more likely to find a local fletcher who can make good arrows than a blacksmith who’ll reproduce a carefully crafted throwing knife from a set of throwing knives. The less common the gear, the harder it is to replace.

Crossbows and bows have the reputations they do for a reason, they were warfare mainstays. The longbow, in particular, served as the artillery of their day. Eventually, generals replaced bowmen in the back lines with cannons. I understand the resistance to utilizing the bows or crossbows, especially if culturally stereotyped Archer doesn’t fit the archetype you have in mind for your character. However, it’s worth remembering that there’s often a vast gap between media and real life. In fiction, dangers presented by archery is often downplayed. The upper body strength question is also usually ignored. Bows are given to lithe, skinny people like Legolas (who is an elf and supernaturally strong), our cultural ideal of Robin Hood, or female characters like Katniss. In a lot of fiction, the bow (even more than the crossbow) is treated like the equivalent of a gun. Which, no. The bow isn’t at all like a gun.

For one thing, the bow requires a lot of conditioning for upper body strength. Different bows have different draw weights, so you should always investigate the type of historical bow you envision a character using. Unlike swords and other melee weapons, the draw happens in the shoulders with the most strain placed on a single arm. With medieval longbows, you’d be looking at a draw weight between 90 to 160 pounds. They require a lot of upper body strength in the shoulders to draw and wield effectively. They also require a lot of care on the part of the archer to maintain combat readiness. The English and Welsh archers of their day could draw and fire roughly eight to ten arrows per minute. The crossbow was slower with one to two bolts per minute. Modern bows, comparatively, you’re looking at 30 to 60 pound draw weight. A lot of advancements in technology make the drawing easier while applying greater force.

The strength of the bow is you can fire a single shaft, carrying a lot of force that impacts on a single point. The end result for the weapon’s effectiveness is the amazing power of physics. The bow still sees occasional use in modern warfare today because, unlike a gun, it’s a truly silent killer.

Despite what anime and some fantasy narratives will tell you, bolts and arrows cannot be parried by a sword mid flight. They are too fast and have too much force behind them, especially arrows. Arrows and bolts, depending on type, can go through armor. It isn’t guaranteed, but they can. Arrows and bolts never completely invalidated armor, including plate armor, the way firearms eventually did. Bolts from crossbows have a shorter effective range from arrows. While crossbows fired more slowly, but they were easier to use.

Both Lindybeige and Scholagladiotoria have some great videos about arrow ballistics, bows (longbows specifically), and (English) warbows. Which I recommend watching, if you’re interested in historical archery either for writing or just in general. I really recommend watching the Lindybeige video for an in depth discussion on the additional gear your archer would wear to avoid the injuries they might get, along with proper posture, and Hollywood cliches.

You might assume, due to common assumptions that body types are static rather than changeable, if you weren’t born with the ability to easily build muscle in your upper body (like a man, unlike women who build muscle more easily in their legs) or aren’t a big, brawny sort of person that you can’t wield a weapon that requires a lot of strength.

This is wrong.

Very few people have all the correct muscles preconditioned for success and seamlessly learn to perform any sort of martial arts without effort. Training is what you need, specifically conditioning, to build specific muscles you’ll be regularly using. Outside your bone structure, which isn’t as malleable, athletics change your body. In fact, some health and fitness gurus have developed programs and exercise regimens which will help you achieve a specific type of body rather than just the healthiest version of you. Fiction will tell you that the type of body have will decide what sort of heroic profession or martial type you’re best suited for. That’s crap, straight up.

Some women and men might face more difficulty learning to use a bow in the beginning, or take longer to build up muscle for bows with heavier draw weights, but a slow start never negates a strong finish.

What separates the skilled from the unskilled is enthusiasm, being unwilling to give up in the face of difficulty or challenge, and lost, and lots, and lots of practice. They might have natural talent, but skill is the product of hard work. Conditioning is the part of your training which builds up your wind, your muscles, and your flexibility. These are your runs up with the hill, your wind sprints, your jumping jacks, your push ups, your pull ups, and other exercises.

I do recommend watching Lindybeige’s Three General Principles of Combat as he does a good job of going over the basic principles. Though, one thing he neglects to mention when discussing ideal ranges is that the size differences between two children are actually greater than the size differences between adults. So, it is much easier to get to your ideal range in a fist fight. Hand to hand ideal ranges are defined less by size, and more by the type of discipline you practice.

Different martial arts have their ideal ranges for where specific techniques are most effective, translating loosely to kicks, fisticuffs, standing grappling, and ground fighting. While most martial disciplines cover all four, they often specialize in only one or two. A Taekwondo specialist will prefer to start further away from their opponent so they can make good use of their legs versus a boxer or a wrestler who’d rather be up close. There are outliers like Muay Thai, where the kicks and stances have been adjusted to be effective in the hand range, but we’re discussing general principles.

That said, however, there are historical examples of individuals unscrewing the pommels of their swords and chucking them at their opponents to win duels at tournaments.

So, you know, anything’s possible.

(If you’re questioning the validity of pommel throwing, understand they did it as a method of distraction rather than immediate victory. It’s a specialized dueling tactic where you’re technically not cheating by bringing a second weapon, but you’re cheating. Throw pommel. Distract opponent. Gain the initiative. Hit first. Win.)

-Michi

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