Tag Archives: improvised weapons

Q&A: Improvised Weapon: Pickaxe

This is a rather crazy question, but how would a pickaxe fair as a weapon?

If it’s a weapon of opportunity, then fairly well. For example, if you have a character in a struggle against someone else, they’ve lost their weapon, and the only thing they can reach is a mining or climbing pick, that is going to mess someone up.

There’s a bit of a bonus here, the pick’s beak is an excellent armor penetration tool. So, in that very narrow tailored situation, it’s a good option for a single surprise attack. A lot of real weapons, including pole-arms and warhammers used similar pick designs for this purpose.

Depending on your setting, your character might carry a pair of ice axes. These are, basically, single beaked climbing pickaxes, designed for digging into and scaling ice walls. Again, not a weapon, but if it’s all your character can reach, they can still probably put one into the skull of an unsuspecting enemy.

A pickaxe isn’t a great weapon for a straight up fight. Limited strike options are the big issue here. You need to swing it in a fixed, linear, path, and against an armed opponent who can defend themselves, that just wouldn’t work.

The main difference between a war hammer, and a normal pickaxe is the weight and reach. These were (usually) longer weapons, with a single beak, a blunt face, and a head that could be used in linear thrusts (sometimes with an additional spike on the end).  This meant there were far more options to attack with one.

For whatever it’s worth, an ice axe is much closer to a warhammer in overall design. It still has an adz opposite the beak, but the overall design is much lighter, and probably more versatile than an actual warhammer. Ice axes have a spiked haft allowing you to (potentially) use it as a thrusting tool. To be fair, I am speculating a bit, and it would depend on the materials and design of the specific ice axe.

If the idea is, “my character has a pickaxe as their favored weapon,” then no. That wouldn’t work out. However, if the idea is, “my character is desperate, and the only thing they can get their hands on is a pickaxe,” then, yeah, there is some utility there. Especially against a foe who doesn’t see it coming.

-Starke

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Out of curiosity, how realistic is stabbing someone with the heel of a stiletto shoe?

It is realistic in that can and does actually happen.

It’s most commonly seen in bars when drunken angry women get into fights and hit the other person with their shoes, but you can blind someone with a stiletto heel so there’s that.

Is it effective?

It really depends on if you know where to aim and get very lucky, or just get lucky. The eye going is probably the best endgame result. It is worth saying that you can take out the eye with just about anything, including a number 2 pencil.

I don’t really recommend it.

If it’s the only thing you’ve got, then it’s better than nothing.

-Michi

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Jumping on the farm equipment bandwagon, how effective would a hoe be in combat, both in a “serious” fight, and in a fight where it’s “grab the nearest thing that could hurt someone, if you catch my drift.

You’re in luck! The Okinawan hoe called a kuwa has a self defense form associated with it. The kuwa is a bit different than the standard American hoe, but you can fuck someone up with it.

You can basically use most of your standard staff techniques with a hoe without any problems, and have the added bonus of utilizing the metal piece for both strikes and control depending on how practiced you are at hooking things.

A good rule of thumb when looking at farm implements is to assume that just about all of them can be (and have been) used as self-defense weapons at one time or another. This includes the hand scythe, kama, and sickle. Your standard issue farming scythe is actually an outlier and that’s because it is awkward to handle from the way the blade positioned. The war scythe itself were made when farmers took their scythes to the local blacksmith and fitted it so the blades pointed up rather than sideways like a standard issue polearm. Any farming implement with a straight pole like a hoe, a pitchfork, a shovel, or even a broom easily transition. This is because of the pole itself; when the farming implements are removed it’s just a wooden staff.

Staves are among the easiest weapons to learn, and the techniques feed directly into the more advanced longarms like the spear or halberd. You can and often do make use of both ends, switching between them in a diagonally crisscrossing pattern.

So, if you had a shovel, you could roll it over and use the head to attack your opponent’s food (stabbing downward) then either bring it back to strike again with the head or simply roll it over as you advance to strike high with the wooden butt then on the step back to strike their ribcage with the shovel.

One of the problems for beginners and those who’ve never worked with weapons is understanding that you use utilize more than just the blade when you fight. The entire weapon actually gets used. With staff weapons, that’s both ends, and the hands transition up and down the length of the weapon to create a distance advantage over your opponent. You can hold it at the middle to strike or at the furthest ends. This creates a flexible combat style that transitions easily to a multitude of improvised weapons.

When your looking to adapt a household or farming implement into a weapon, its important to think about the actual movement set associated with it. How it moves dictates how it will work in a fight. The hoe’s design leads to sweeping motions, driving down (like you would into dirt) or up (in the opposite direction) because the bladed part is horizontal to the staff. However, because of the hook, one might (theoretically with Jackie Chan-esque ingenuity) be able to reach around behind the head and twist to achieve a makeshift throw.

In answer to your question, the hoe wouldn’t be out of left field as a weapon choice if your character was in the garden working and got attacked. Most gardening tools can also double up as improvised weapons as needed. Depending on your character’s temperament, weed killer can easily become a means of chemical warfare. Also the hose.

The scythe really is the odd man out.

If you want to run with the idea of improvised weapons, I really recommend intense studies of Jackie Chan for choreography ideas with special attention paid to his Chinese films.

-Michi

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At this point scythes are asked about ad nauseum, so let’s look at a different farming implement: the Pitchfork. What do you say about them? How useful are they as weapons?

They’re not ideal, but the basic design is solid. The
biggest issue is the materials it’s been made from. Depending on that answer,
then if it uses an odd or even number of prongs in its design may also be
relevant.

Pronged polearms were a thing. Off hand, the Ransuer and
Spetum come to mind. The designs vary, between bladed wings or additional
tines. To an extent, the pitchfork looks, relatively, like an actual weapon,
and can be used as one in an emergency. The wings or tines help to prevent
overpenetration and migration, which can make pulling the weapon back out of
the victim more difficult. Basically, the cross guard will catch on the outside
of the victim. With polearms that lack this design, it’s possible to lose your
weapon in a foe, because you can’t pull it back out.

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest concern is what the
pitchfork was forged from. If it’s simple pig iron, it’s probably not going to
hold up in combat. This doesn’t mean the pitchfork can’t be used in combat,
just that it probably won’t survive heavy battle. Tines (particularly along the
edge) are more likely to break off. That said, even if just the central spine
survives, the pitchfork could probably still be used. Though, at that point,
looking for an alternative might be a good idea. The material it’s forged from
will also affect how well the pitchfork’s tines will hold an edge. If it’s just
being grabbed because it’s convenient, then that’s not much of an issue, but if
it’s a persistent weapon in a hardscrabble militia or resistance, this becomes
more of a consideration.

While you will see bifurcated polearms, a pitchfork with an
even number of tines is at a disadvantage for surviving combat. This is
because, if there’s a tine mounted in line with the central shaft, that will
take the bulk of the force on impact, and stress to the other tines should be
reduced. If there is none (and the shaft mounts between two tines), then the wings
will take additional stress. It’s not much of an issue if you’re talking about
an actual weapon, but, if it’s an iron farming implement designed for moving
hay that sees extended combat, this could become a real consideration.

The curve of the tines doesn’t do the pitchfork any favors,
but again, there were multi-tined polearms.

I’m not sure how much
abuse a pitchfork would take. Mostly, because it will come down to the
individual tool’s condition and original quality. A good one, made from decent
iron, should hold up pretty well. A cheap one forged from pig iron is more
likely to break. A modern steel one would probably be roughly as durable as a
dedicated weapon. If your character’s just running someone through, it should
be fine. If they’re intending to couch pitchforks against a cavalry charge,
then I’d expect some would be breaking on impact.

The really basic takeaway is that, unlike the scythe, the
pitchfork is similar enough to a weapon that it could see practical use.

Another, similar option, is the shovel. Usually people think
of using shovels in combat as striking with the flat of the blade, but an
in-line thrust against a living foe is an entirely viable combat option. It’s
arguably a more versatile option than the pitchfork, because it can be employed
in multiple strike patterns. Something the pitchfork has issues with. It’s also
likely to be more durable, because the blade is a solid chunk of metal, instead
of the tine structure. Depending on how the blade was forged, it may be more
vulnerable to getting stuck in an opponent, however. It’s just less popular
among the villagers with torches crowd.

-Starke

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Assuming the shafts are roughly the same, which is the superior improvised weapon, a scythe or a broom?

Whenever we get a question like this, I always assume the person in question has never actually seen a scythe in action. I’ll link the video from Lindybeige. This is what a scythe looks like.

Of the two, the broom is the better weapon and you can use it as an improvised staff. Plus, you can capture dust bunnies and other grossness in the broom head and shove them into your enemy’s face. Never underestimate potential revulsion as a means of psychological warfare to create openings.

Other improvised weapons better than scythes: fireplace pokers, pitchforks, shovels, and sledgehammers. If you need a stand in for the scythe, industrial shovels and pitchforks are pretty decent. The shovel especially.

The problem with the scythe is that the size and shape of the head unbalance it. You have to hold it in a very specific way and that way makes it unsuitable as a weapon. Well, unless your character wants to be waving a curved blade at their enemy’s ankles. Any other vector of attack would be a challenge.

Broom all the way, especially if it’s a sturdy, wooden broom with a hefty shaft.

-Michi

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Do you think modifying tools and improvised weapons to make them actual weapons, a la Dying light is possible or practical?

Sort of. I can’t speak to Dying Light specifically. I’m not
a huge fan of zombie focused video games, so I passed on Dying Light. If they
kept up Dead Island’s habit of simply adding elemental effects to weapons by
strapping batteries and cigarette lighters to them; not so much, no. (It’s also
been about five years since I played Dead Island, I might not be correctly remembering
exactly how its crafting system worked.)

When you’re looking at an apocalyptic situation, where there
is no industrial production anymore. It doesn’t matter if this is nuclear,
biological, supernatural Armageddon, or just a crippling economic downturn
resulting in failed states and feral cities. You’re definition of practical is
going to include things that someone in a pre-collapse environment would ignore.

At that point, yes, pulling the blade off a paper cutter, or
grinding a chunk of rebar into a spear is a practical solution to needing a
weapon and not having any other options. It’s not ideal, but it could be the
best option available.

Something that came up with the hardware store post earlier,
but I didn’t really spell it out at the time: Practical is a question of
finding something you can use effectively for combat. The loaded term exists to
distinguish weapons that are intended for combat from ones that are designed as
display pieces, (or martial arts that are focused on combat, as opposed to ones
with other priorities.)

When you’re in a hardware store, practical is just about
filtering good options from bad ones. When you’re in a zombie apocalypse, it’s
about identifying what you can turn into a functional weapon from what you can
scavenge, not a hard rule set before the End of Days.

In that specific context, yes, converting items in your
environment into weapons is a practical option. At that point, the concerns are
more focused on finding objects that can be easily converted with available
resources. Cutting and grinding a sword out of a vintage Buick’s bumper is only
a practical option if you have a vintage Buick, the necessary skills with
metalworking, access to the tools to do the work, and the time to use them.
Failing any of those points, and it’s not a real option.

One minor bugbear for me, and I don’t know if Dying Light
does this, but the entire idea of serrating a blade to increase its
effectiveness. Technically, this has some basis in reality: serrated blades do
more damage to soft tissue. But they are also aggravating to sharpen and hone.
In a modern environment, it’s not a huge consideration, because most people
honestly never bother sharpening their knives at all. But, when you’re actually
maintaining weapons for combat, it’s a more significant consideration.

-Starke

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I saw your post on improvised weaponry, and I wanted to ask: what about a fire axe? How big/strong would a character need to be to wield something like that effectively?

You’d need to be able to lift about five pounds.

The problem isn’t the weight, it’s being able to balance it and perform repetitive/continuous motions over an extended period of time. This is where the “strength” and “size” misnomers come in for a lot of people.

The kind of physical activity required is like being able to do a bunch of pushups or run laps around a track. It’s not a strongman’s one time five hundred pound lift.

Your character can be any size, be any shape, and weigh anything.

The skills they need fall more in line with being able to swing the axe multiple times, balance for its weight, swing it fast enough to hit their target, and recover (get themselves into a ready position so they can strike again) quickly.

The recovery is the key bit because recovery is where the openings are and where most of the critical mistakes happen.

90% of the time, the moments when your character is going to get hit will happen in the moments preceding their strike (their windup) or in the moments after it doesn’t land/misses/connects poorly. “Recover” is one of the most difficult concepts for the inexperienced fighter to grasp and most of them don’t do it, they don’t reset their defenses to ready for the next strike or block an incoming attack. It is difficult to keep up a continuous assault if your unfamiliar with the concept or the weapon in hand.

For example: the trick with using a fire axe as a weapon is to swing it in a figure eight pattern, and keep it moving. This allows the weapon to move faster via its own weight and reduces the strain on the arms. Once it starts moving, you ensure that nothing can stop it except for an incoming body. The continuous motion also creates a solid, intimidating defense.

The fire axe is in a category similar to a machete. It’s the cousin of a real weapon and can act as a weapon when necessary much more easily than trying to transition a dinner plate into a weapon to beat people with. Hammers, sledge hammers, culinary knives, dinner knives, etc, are in that same category.

They aren’t “improvised” in the same way a beer bottle or a garbage can lid is, they’re much closer to being weapons and make the transition fairly easily. Call them second-cousins. They’re not as suited for the situation as the medieval weapons designed for war, but they’ll work in a pinch.

However, unless they have a background in HEMA, most people who pick up a fire axe are going to use it the way they think an axe should be used. They aren’t going to think about figure eight patterns, attacks on alternate angles, spinning defenses, and rolling strikes. They’re going to use it the traditional way, like a lumberjack or a fireman trying to break down a door or split some wood. (Which works perfectly well when dealing with stationary objects that can’t fight back.)

This is going to be where the problems of the axe occur. While the overhand is a very powerful strike, there’s a reason why it was generally performed in conjunction with a shield.

The overhand/overhead motion creates huge openings in the defense both coming and going, it’s also repetitive and easily adapted to. When you bring your arms up, you expose your entire torso. When the arms come down, your head is now in an easily reachable range. The time which it takes to lift the axe back into position and bring it down are where the openings are.

For most people, axe strikes are also stationary.

What the axe has in its favor is that it is a recognizable weapon and also terrifying. The axe has been the favored weapon of Hollywood horror monsters, it’s recognizable for what it can do, and person threatened with it will know that they are being threatened with a weapon. 

This isn’t like a character standing around with a bottle of hairspray and a lighter while pointing it at their aggressor, a beer bottle, or just a can of spray paint.

Walking out with an axe is like walking out with a knife, or even a sword. It may seem weird for the situation, but their opponent is going to what it means, what it is, and what it can (potentially) do.

While the weapon can’t fight your battles for you, intimidation and headgames are part of warfare. If your character wants to intimidate an attacker or an enemy, then the fire axe is going to be a lot more useful than the frying pan or the dinner plate.

Can any character pick up a fire axe and go to town?

Yes.

If you find yourself asking the question of “Can X do Y?” when it comes to combat. The answer is probably going to be yes, especially if it involves size, weight, height, or any of those statements about sex, gender, and body type.

Much as Hollywood and society at large want us to believe that the only ones capable of combat are six foot tall men between 180 to 225 pounds, life doesn’t work like that.

Physical activity is as much a matter of mind as it is body. You can learn to adjust to your body, condition your body, and adapt your body to the technique. It doesn’t matter who your are or your size, if you try you can learn to do the thing. If you decide to give up because of some arbitrary reason, then you won’t.

Most of us give up inside our own heads before we try.

And the only combat metric that matters is: did you live?

After that, everything is gravy.

When working with fiction, we create a simulacrum of real life. The point is to stick in enough “real life” bits to sell the audience on the suspension of disbelief.

What matters most is that you asked the question.

-Michi

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something I’ve learned from this blog is that almost nothing makes a good weapon if it wasn’t designed to be a weapon. is there /anything/ at all that you could find in, say, a hardware store, that you would consider an acceptable weapon in a pinch?

Of the top of my head? Crowbars, claw hammers, sledgehammers, hatchets or axes, box cutters (though not as much with utility knives), flamethrowers, nail guns, probably some variety powered saw I’m not thinking of (though, not chainsaws), flashlights. Though, really, a decent sized wrench is better than nothing.

Crowbars or pry bars are a simple length of solid steel. Usually either round, or flat (the round ones make better weapons because of ergonomics), these are hooked on one end, and both tips flatten to a semi-sharp blade. You can’t whittle with one, but you can certainly use it to take an opponent apart.

Hammers and axes are actually weapons. I used to own an 8lb sledge with a “misuse can result in serous injury or death,” warning label. Because what we really need to do is inform those people who haven’t realized you can use a sledgehammer to kill people, that it’s an option.

Claw hammers are slightly shorter than traditional warhammers, but it’s still the same basic design, just intended for civilian use. As a weapon, it even retains the reverse beak, which will allow the wielder to hook the hammer into their foe.

Hatchets and axes are in roughly the same situation. They’re not identical to real weapons, but they’re close enough that it doesn’t matter.

Box cutters are folding knives with a 3″ to 4″ blade. They’re not an impressive weapon, and some cheap ones might come apart in combat, but it’s a knife, and can get the job done.

Incidentally, longer knives intended for things like clearing brush may be an option (this includes the machete). They’re not intended for use as weapons, but they’re still better than nothing.

Worst case, larger screwdrivers can function as an improvised stiletto. It’s not elegant, it’s not a weapon, but you can probably put that in some poor guy’s neck.

So, if you’ve never spent a lot of time in rural areas, the inclusion of a flamethrower might seem a bit deranged. We’re not talking about military grade combat weapons, these are propane powered torches designed for clearing away dead brush and starting controlled burns. In most states (and I think in Canada) you can purchase small propane powered flamethrowers. You’re not going to want to get into firefights with people using one of these, but, again, if you have no other options.

A similar, slightly more horrifying option, is the thermal lance. This is actually welding equipment, so you’re not going to see this in most hardware stores, but it does exist. The thermal lance is a plasma torch, these are used to cut through reinforced metal. While I’m not sure exactly what this would do to a human being, I’m quite certain the results would be very unpleasant.

Nail guns, at least at short range, might be an option. I’ve honestly never really looked into how viable these are as weapons. You honestly might need tool to skin contact for it to work.

Flare guns are another option. Most commercial flare guns fire a 12gauge shell. The flares themselves are very low power, but will burn on contact. The gun itself can’t use normal 12gauge shells, it will explode. Flare shells can be loaded into most (or all) 12gauge shotguns, however, semi-automatic shotguns will not cycle between shots because there’s insufficient force. Still, getting hit with one of these will probably kill you.

The problem with chainsaws is that the viscera will get pulled into the motor and jam the system. This is probably true of most powered saws, though I’ve never really looked into it. That said, if your character just needs to kill a single foe, a powered saw should get the job done.

It might have sounded like a joke, but a loaded flashlight can be a pretty formidable choice. Particularly something like a D-Cell Maglite. These are practically a weighted baton in the right hands, and can do a lot of damage on impact.

The thing that’s probably messing with you a bit is, nothing on the above list (with the possible exception of the hammers and axes) makes a particularly good weapon. (Also, if you’re actually planning to write a scene in a hardware store, some of the above items won’t be in a functional state on the floor. Sadly flamethrowers, thermal lances, and a few others come, “some assembly required.”)

With enough creativity you can probably kill someone with most of the objects in your environment. Improvised weapons are about finding what you have immediate access to, and deciding which is the best option from that list. It’s not about getting “a good weapon,” just finding something you can kludge into one.

A character who takes a flat head screwdriver around as their weapon of choice is going to come across as slightly goofy. A character who, while struggling to fight off an attacker, grabs a nearby screwdriver and drives it through their foe’s neck, won’t. That’s the difference.

A lot of the time, we’ll get a question like, “I want my character’s weapon of choice to be a machete,” at which point I go into the entire discussion of how, “it’s a tool,” and “it’s not designed for combat.” It’s not that you can’t kill someone with one, but it shouldn’t be your characters first choice when dealing with a situation. It’s not a good weapon, but sometimes it’s the only option your character has.

-Starke

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How dangerous is a pen? Like, a normal pen. The kind you write with. How dangerous would it be to stab someone with it?

Cheap, plastic, ball-point pens can be pretty nasty in the right hands. If you know where to stab someone for maximum effect, you can kill with one. The cylindrical structure will stay ridged, so you can drive it in with a shocking amount of force.

Being able to use improvised weapons like this is very dependent on your practical understanding of human anatomy. If you know exactly where poking a hole in someone will do horrific things, it’s an option. Otherwise, you’re better off just reaching for a letter opener, or a heavier ink pen.

It’s probably worth noting that tactical pens are a real thing. These are a viable self defense tool and can really mess someone up. Though, again, the expectation is that you know where to put it for maximum effect. The differences from a normal pen is the heavier construction, (usually titanium, though I’ve seen aircraft aluminum and stainless steel advertised). These sometimes also feature sharpened edges, false tips, and extended non-slip grips to allow for easier use as an emergency weapon.

-Starke

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Hey, I’m writing a fight scene at a fancy restaurant. If my character had a choice of weapon between grabbing a fork or a butter knife (rounded point), which should they choose?

The fork.

It has pointy ends and it’s better for stabbing.

However, in a fight scene at a restaurant, it’s worth remembering all the other available pieces that will allow a character to smoothly transition between weapons. Most of the time, thought stops at the cutlery but a restaurant is full of makeshift weapons that will aid the characters in their fight if they’re clever enough to see them.

Plates.

Heavy duty, ceramic plates are good for bashing, throwing if necessary. It’s usually a stage gag, but it works really well.

Wine. Water. Coffee.

Hot soup also works. Grab it off the table, throw it in their eyes to blind them to create opportunity for an attack.

Wine Bottles

If left at the table, the solid glass of the wine bottle can be useful for hitting. It’s not as heavy duty as a Jack Daniel’s bottle, but it’ll get the job done. This is even more true if the wine bottle has not yet been uncorked and is still full. Then, it functions as a makeshift club holding up against a great deal more abuse than an empty wine bottle which will break apart in your hands.

Chairs.

When dealing with multiple opponents, but if they’re light enough to be picked up and wielded then the chair’s legs can be used to deflect attackers and maintain distance while backing toward an exit.

If they are sitting at the table, a good basic combination would be:

-grab wine glass, throw wine into attackers face

-grab hold of their wrist, take fork, stab hand

-pick up plate, smash plate into face

-if it survives then possibly edge into throat or sharpened edge of now broken ceramic.

-exit hastily if enemy is no longer capable of fighting to avoid confrontation with local law enforcement.

Restaurants really are full of weapons, plenty of weapons, including many objects that the average person won’t regard as a weapon. You just have to sit down, adjust your perspective, think about it, and start getting creative.

This is all just in the main dining area, long before we move to even better areas like the food preparation and the kitchen. Remember, a lit cigarette can be a weapon. It’s all about how you think and how rough you’re willing to get.

The Ambush vs. The Preparation

Another thing to consider is whether or not this scene is planned out in advance by the characters rather than it being spur of the moment (such as them being ambushed or suddenly decide to attack). A character who is preparing to make their move can set themselves up with better options than a character who has to hit the “go!” button.

They can:

If there is a bar, they might order hot alcohol like a hot tottie which is a hot mixture of water, lemon juice, whiskey, and honey. The alcohol will burn when thrown into the face, the honey (or any kind of sugar) will ensure it sticks thus prolonging the burning. This is surprising thick for a beverage. Excellent for creating openings or tying up one attacker while moving in on their friend. (This is not an approach for kindly characters.)

Order any kind of red meat or food type that will ensure they have a steak knife. They may have come without weapons or been forced to leave their weapons at the door, but they can have some of them back with clever dinner pick.

-Michi

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