Tag Archives: knife fighting

Q&A: Unarmed Parry

How realistic is stopping a knife from killing you by grabbing the blade with your hands?

Kind of. It’s realistic in the sense that it can and does happen. At the same time, it probably won’t save your life. Knife wounds to the palms, (called, “defensive wounds,”) are fairly common when someone has been attacked by a knife wielding opponent. Usually, what happens is they’ll attempt to block the knife by putting up their hands, palms out, and their palms and fingers will take the initial assault. That I’m most familiar with the term from autopsies should say a lot about how well this usually works out for the victim.

If you’re dealing with a situation, where someone’s trying to stab you and your only option is to catch the blade with your hand, it is better than dying. However, it is also a very temporary solution, and one you can’t repeat after using. It’s also, probably, not your best option.

When you bleed, your body is trying to do two things; first clean the wound and expel any foreign objects in it, then seal the wound over to allow the tissue to heal. Fresh blood is aggravatingly slick. Once exposed to oxygen, blood becomes tacky and coagulates over the course of a few minutes. (Specific clotting times vary based on a number of factors. For example: if your character is an alcoholic, their blood’s ability to clot will be severely impaired.) It only remains tacky for a few minutes, and will then harden into a solid mass, so the window here is fairly narrow.

When you take a knife to the hand, you’re going to bleed all over your hand. That means your hands will get slick, and have a harder time gripping the blade. This is before you consider the part where your hand is actually getting cut to pieces. Eventually the blood will clot (whether you survive long enough to see this or not), at which point gripping the blade would become easier, but that’s not a realistic consideration because the fight won’t last long enough to get there.

As I’ve said before, your body functions on a kind of pulley system. Your muscles pull on tendons which in turn tense against your skeleton, causing your limbs to move. When you start cutting tendons, the pulley system starts to break down. Some of the most delicate pieces of this system are in your hands and feet. Start carving those apart, and your hand will not work. This isn’t an, “oh, I can force my way through on sheer willpower,” situation. The mechanical components critical to making your hands work will be damaged or destroyed. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh has been turned into butterflyed steak. Catching a knife with your hand will stop that strike, but it means your hand will not work again. Yes, if you survive, it can be repaired surgically, but that’s not going to keep you alive.

The better option, if you have sufficient manual dexterity to catch the blade is to catch your opponent’s wrist instead. Again, this isn’t a great position to be in, and wrist grabs are some of the weakest and riskiest holds, but it is far better than trying to grab their knife. Your arm or hand might get nicked by the blade, but that is vastly preferable to taking a direct blade to the hand. Going for the wrist is a legitimate strategy and a part of some knife fighting doctrine. Granted, your best option would be to maintain distance, and never let a knife wielder get close enough to attack, but that’s not always a practical option.

-Starke

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How easy is it for one character to accidentally kill another character in a playful knife fight? I need two of them to be fighting and a third to jump in between, causing one of the first two to trip up and fatally wound the other. How exactly does this work? I don’t just want to use logic I’ve made up.

Really easy.

There’s not really any such thing as a “playful” knife fight, not when it comes to live weapons.
Live weapons are what we call real knives, rather than practice weapons
or fake knives.

It’s also a terrible idea to do this without any sort of
protective gear. Now, there are definitely real world idiots who will
do it and call it “fun”. They are the same real world idiots who often
end up as cautionary tales on the six o’clock news. It’s also how bad
things like stab wounds happen, people get injured, and/or die.

You’ve basically got two idiots actively trying to cut and stab each other. Even if they’ve got some kind of pact to avoid the truly vital areas, someone is going to the hospital when this is over. And that’s just if nothing goes wrong.

Initially, if you know nothing about weapons, you might assume, “Well, that’s not that bad. They do that sometimes with swords, right?”

Nu-uh.

Knife combat is faster than sword combat, it happens in a range that is much closer to your body than sword combat, and has a lot less margin for error.

You can deflect a sword with a sword.

You deflect a knife with your free hand.

Playing with knives is a lot like playing with guns. While some of the other weapons like swords and staves will give you some room to mess around, knives don’t. All live weapons are deadly, but the major issue with the knife is that there isn’t much blade so it limits your options on what you’re aiming to hit.

While swords have the capacity to block and deflect with the blade itself, all knife strikes directly target the body and the deflection comes from the free hand because knife combat is supplemental to hand to hand. It happens in the same range as a fist fight. If you want to imagine what that’s like, think of your favorite fight scenes with fists.

Now, imagine the same thing happening if they’re holding a knife.

Knives are not toys.

The short answer is: they’re playing with real weapons and those weapons have a live edge. You never want to play with weapons because, even in the right hands, weapons are dangerous. The difference between someone who knows what they’re doing and someone who doesn’t is the understanding of just how dangerous a weapon can be. All the safety rules still apply with a gun, whether you know how to use it or not. Any mistakes made can end up costly, especially if your characters run around like chickens with their heads cut off afterward because a mistake happened and no one is trained in first aid.

So far as I can tell, there’s a mistaken impression on the internet about dangerous objects and skill sets where people believe that if you reach a certain skill level then mistakes don’t happen to you anymore. It’s the same problem that a lot of very skilled real world people have where they assume that because they know the rules, they can break them. This does or doesn’t apply on a case by case basis and the difference between who is smart and who is dumb often boils down to respect.

The dumb person believes that because they understand how knives work, knives can no longer hurt them.

The smart person understands that no matter their skill level, knives are always dangerous and mistakes can happen even under controlled circumstances.

One becomes reckless while the other cautiously takes risks.

So far, your characters are working in the first category.

Good enough to know what they’re doing, dumb enough to think they’re gods.

This is the perfect headspace for them to be in if you want one of them to die.

When working with live weapons, one behaves under a very strict set of rules because it is very easy to hurt yourself, your partner, or some fool who comes flying in out of nowhere.

I could see your setup actually happening. I know exactly how dumb some people can be.

What’s most important for you to understand if you’re going to do this scenario is that every single character involved made a catastrophic error in judgement and that they are all idiots.

The two who decided to fight with live knives are morons.

The one who decided that the best solution to stopping them was to jump between them and their very real weapons is just as stupid. If they are the one who dies, then they honestly had it coming.

It breaks every single safety rule. It’s very dramatic, but it heightens the danger in the situation. People will do it. Still, it is so dangerous that they usually get hurt and getting stabbed is way worse than a punch in the face.

These two shouldn’t be “playfully” fighting without supervision anyway, but again people are stupid. The less knowledge they have, usually the dumber about it they are.

In an allegorical, real world story, a friend of Starke’s once came home to find his roommates duking it out with a fire axe and one of those cheap dropforged katanas.

My martial arts instructors, who should’ve known better, allowed two underage black belts to spar with the old UFC gauntlets from the early 2000s that had fiberglass inserts to protect the knuckles. The end of that story is my brother nearly lost an eye when the other boy’s punch connected solidly enough to crack open his eye socket.

Starke knew a black belt in karate who told him a story about how two other instructors weren’t paying attention when they let some lower belt levels free spar. The end of that story is they both kicked each other and broke their legs.

My dad once went off a ski jump while buzzed and fractured his leg in seventeen places.

Humans have the capacity to be really stupid, especially the ones who should know better.

You don’t have to stretch that far for a character to do something stupid and that stupid results in someone hurt or dead.

However, when you take this tact, you have to accept is that it’s the result of stupidity. This isn’t some accident that no one could’ve predicted, it isn’t a tragedy that came out of nowhere. It happened because these characters were engaging in unsafe practices and taking unnecessary risks. Everyone in this situation made serious errors, especially the one who decided that jumping between the two characters with weapons was a good idea.

So, yes, it’ll be tragic. However, it’s important to recognize the difference between the tragedy that is unexpected and the one which is predictable. This is the kind of tragedy you can see coming with bells on.

-Michi

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I’ve often heard that knife fights are mutual suicide, simply because it’s so hard to avoid getting hurt while disabling an opponent. Is that true? If so, could you give any tips on writing a realistic knife fight between two relatively equally skilled characters?

We did a post called “Knife Fighting Do’s and Don’t’s” which you might find helpful, it’s also full of links to other resources which may be helpful.

Knife fights are dangerous, in large part because every blow is potentially fatal due to cumulative bleed out/nicking something important or even seemingly unimportant, there is no time for error much less room as combat happens remarkably quickly with the high lethality causing a sudden end, and the fight itself often happens in a blitz.

Even in the hands of someone who has no idea what they’re doing, the knife is incredibly dangerous. Just bull rushing into someone and stabbing them repeatedly in the sides or gut often as many as ten to twenty times will kill them. This is often the case in muggings, for example, and why the knife is a very popular choice. You don’t need skill in order to kill someone with a bladed weapon. You don’t even really need it to be effective beyond understanding the concepts like slashing and thrusting, swinging wildly in the heat of the moment is remarkably effective in this case.

This is the first and perhaps most important tips to writing a character who is experienced and skilled, they understand the dangers inherent in the weapon they are wielding, they recognize it, respect it, and respond accordingly. One of the problems some writers get into when trying to convey skill is to go with the approach of, “it’s not a problem for me, but it will be for you”. This is valid, the problem is that they assume the danger is nullified rather than their character’s comprehension of that danger being the deciding factor. If I know the risks involved, I can take more or navigate more easily than someone with no experience at all. However, the danger itself never goes away. No matter how skilled you are every fight can end with you lying bloody on the ground.

That’s just the way it is.

If you write a character who fights, they and you should always carry the worry of them dying in the back of their minds. And if they don’t, then you should figure out why instead of assuming it’s natural because they have “skills”.

All right, let’s dig in: Knives

Remember, two hands.

When people who have never done martial arts (and even sometimes people who have) there’s often an over focus on the weapon or on the striking, the hitting. In knife fighting and just in general, the off hand or the second hand/hand without the blade is extremely important for both defense and control. All blocking, deflecting, and the openings created will be made with the off-hand. You stop the arm with one hand, cut it with the knife. This protects you and allows you to keep fighting. The off-hand may become a sacrificial body part as necessary to lock up the enemy blade, getting the knife lodged somewhere non-vital if perhaps unpleasant is sometimes necessary to opening the path to victory.

Defense is important.

The blades will not be clashing like a swordfight (which they shouldn’t be clashing in a swordfight anyway, but that’s a different kettle). All blocks, defenses, and redirects will happen with that other hand.

Keep It Tight

Tempting as it is to use words like “swinging” or others in a similar vein, try to keep your vocabulary to descriptors that imply tight, controlled motion. You don’t want a feel that’s wild and out of control but rather intentional, directed, and focused.

“He lunged forward, swinging wildly.”

Versus:

“He stepped back, off-hand catching the wrist and redirecting the incoming dagger. Slashing his blade across the back of the enemy’s hand, he dropped down. With a forward lunge, he cut up along the underside of the arm, tucked tight, and drove his weapon into their gut.”

Debilitate, Disable, Finish:

If you have the option to lunge for the kill then great, but the best way to keep your enemy from stabbing you on the way out is to get rid of their weapon first. Attacking the hand that holds the weapon on your way in ensures that you can get rid of it. The best way to avoid a double suicide is to not be so focused on killing your opponent that you forget about their weapon. The guy you just stabbed six times in the gut can still stab you before he collapses.

Prioritize your threats.

If you have the opportunity to remove the participant before the weapon then fine, but 9/10 you’re going to want to focus on ridding them of their ability to kill you on the way out before moving in.

Move, Move, Move

It can be difficult to think in multiple directions, especially if you have no experience with two bodies interacting. They aren’t going to stand there hacking at each other, they’re going to try to create openings. As any hit from the knife can be deadly due to cumulative bleed out, avoidance is the primary name of the game.

Understand Anatomy

While knife fighting is fast and vicious, it’s also very much about anatomy. You get get downright surgical with a knife if you want and when writing your fiction it’s best to brush up on all the tendons, ligaments, veins, and so forth that are close to the surface and up for grabs or slashes in this case.

Medical knowledge will help you with combat in general, but with knife fighting you really want to know what can get cut to make X stop working before moving in for the kill. It sounds simple in practice, difficult in execution.

Study Actual Knife Combat/Combatants

This may seem like a no brainer, but if you really want to understand what it looks like when someone experienced handles a blade then you want to spend some time looking at guys like Michael Janich, the bladed weapons practice in Silat, Krav Maga, Marines, etc. It’s best to get that experience in person, but YouTube will also be your friend here. There are a lot different martial styles which include knives as part of their disciplines.

Take everything with a grain of salt and remember that videos online won’t make you an expert. If you’re a US citizen, you can also track down most of the Department of Defense manuals for the military available for free online. Some of the information such as that from Rex Applegate is outdated but finding his books and reading through them may help you imagine.

Half of writing anything is studying, learning what it is, what it does, learning so you can imagine the techniques in different ways. Theory for a writer is just important, if not more so than technique. You may not be able to perform it in life, but if you can grasp the theory then you can start applying that to your characters and their approaches to different situations.

Remember Violence is Problem Solving, Think of Your Character’s Personality.

Learning that all combat is not universal, that different approaches exist will help you branch out when writing your characters and allow you to develop combat styles unique to them. A good example of a narrative which does this is Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, wherein Matt, Elektra, Frank Castle, and Wilson Fisk all have different approaches to using violence as a means of solving problems, where the way they fight is also an expression of who they are as people. The kinds of violence your character engages and the way they choose to utilize violence as a means of problem solving is an expression of their personality, not just their skill level.

Two characters of similar skill level can have very different fighting styles, even if they’ve studied in the same style. Take into account who these characters are and let that dictate how they choose to use violence. Not all characters are going to be efficient killing machines. Some are going to be joyous free spirits bouncing their way from one enemy to another, leaping and bounding with a blood streaked grin across their face.

You may think you know nothing, but take what you learn and then apply that knowledge to your character. Let them decide what to do with it. They might use it, they might ignore it.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

What is most important here is figuring out how to sell the scene to your audience in a variety of different forms.

-Michi

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So whats the deal with some characters holding their bladed weapons backwards? I first saw it with Starkiller in Force Unleashed. Of course being me I thought it was cool and unique but nowadays I’m just thinking: “How the hell does that acutally work?” I know its for theatrical effect but I cant take it seriously anymore.

That’s okay, nobody should take Starkiller particularly seriously.  Not that it matters, but Starkiller’s reverse grip is supposed to be a variant of the Shien lightsaber form. Which is a polite way of saying, “he’s probably doing it wrong.”

If you’ve never looked at Star Wars’ extended universe, there’s supposed to be seven different lightsaber forms, all with Asian sounding names. And then everything falls apart, because there’s actually nine different forms, and they’re numbered I-VII. Shien is the second Form V (or the first), and if it sounds like I’m about to gnaw my own arm off to escape, I am.

There is absolutely no reason to wield a sword in a reverse grip except in trying to say, “I look like a badass,” and actually saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

However, you will find people holding knives in reverse grips for any number of reasons.

The biggest advantage from holding a dagger in a reverse grip is concealment. You can have the knife out, ready to use, but still hide its outline against your arm. This makes it harder to see, and more difficult to defend against. Which is the reason you’ll frequently see assassins and rogues depicted holding their blades like this.

Reverse grips are somewhat inferior for parrying incoming armed attacks, but they can also do very nasty things to an unarmed opponent who tries to parry incoming knife strikes. Generally speaking, a reverse grip makes the knife slightly harder to deal with.

A reverse gripped knife can also be used to augment some unarmed styles. This is really a case-by-case option, but for certain kinds of punches, a dagger will simply add an extra laceration to the strikes.

This also allows you to “two hand” a knife or dagger, by applying additional force with the off hand to the hilt, and driving the blade with both arms. There aren’t a lot of applications for this, but if the situation calls for it, the results are dramatic.

It’s also worth pointing out, because knives are so light, it’s very easy for a practiced knife fighter to switch their grip mid combat. When you hear characters talking about the balance of a knife, this is one of the reasons that’s an important consideration. A knife that’s not balanced to the fighter’s tastes will take longer to adjust in combat.

-Starke

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In a battle between a burly man who wields a zweihander with years of training and experience and a small woman who grew up in the most dangerous part of the city brandishing a dagger, who is more likely to win? The outcome of the fight will not affect the plot in any way I can’t handle.

In a fight, she’s going to die. The only way to get past his sword is to kill him preemptively. Once the sword is out, she’s dead. More than that, she has no way to close the distance to even injure him. Quite literally, she will not even slow him down. This isn’t a background question, or a gender question, it’s just a weapons issue.

He’s swinging a 5 – 6 foot long blade that weighs about as much as your laptop (4 – 7 lbs). We can talk about it being slow (for a sword) or heavy (for a sword) but it’s very important to understand, she cannot get within six feet of him and live. It’s still a very agile, lethal, and fast weapon.

It’s also important to remember he’s not a video game character. He’s not going to make some big overly telegraphed attack and then end up with the sword buried in the masonry long enough for her to run up and shank him a couple times. Doesn’t happen.

If she never fights him. She just comes up behind him in a crowd, buries her dagger in his kidneys, and leaves him to bleed to death, she can come out on top. But a quick assassination strike is her only option. Really, that’s the combat role of a dagger, outside of some very situational stuff.

So you have a character that’s geared for heavy infantry combat vs. a character who is effectively unarmed. That’s never a good situation.

Also? She should know that. When you’re talking about someone who’s effectively an opportunist, she would know she has no chance in a stand up fight with a soldier/ex-soldier/merc. If presented with this guy, her options are to either shank him, or run. If he’s ready for a fight, then she needs to be someplace else, now. Someplace he can’t follow her. If that’s through a black market he can’t enter, through a church, into somewhere neither of them want to be (like the tavern they’ve both been thrown out of for completely different reasons) but that will raise less of a fuss over an “unarmed” woman racing in, than a main armed with a greatsword. Because, honestly, a big guy with a greatsword barreling into anywhere is rarely a welcome sight.

It’s important to understand, running isn’t cowardice. A character choosing not to commit suicide against an armed opponent in a back alley brawl is just being smart.

On a writing level, I’m going to leave you with a question: If it doesn’t matter for the plot, then why is it there at all?

Whenever you’re working on a scene, it needs to be in the story for a reason. It needs to move the plot forward, or provide more character development. Something. It needs to do something.

Killing off a character because, “eh, might as well,” is usually a bad idea. There are legitimate reasons to do so, but they get into some really tricky territory. Killing characters to promote the idea that, “no one is safe,” can easily backfire, leaving you with readers that no longer care. Even in the best circumstances, the more characters you kill, the less their deaths matter.

Simply snuffing peripheral characters because you can, doesn’t really get you anything. If neither of these characters are important enough to affect the course of the plot, why are you spending time looking at them fighting? It becomes a weird kind of filler that can just as easily be cut.

-Starke

Are there any dual knife styles out there?

Eskrima comes to mind. Normally, we think of it as combat using short sticks, but the original style was designed around using dual blades.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what else to recommend. Neither of us have spent any time studying knife fighting, so we’re not well versed in the formalized knife styles.

Most modern close quarters military training will include some knife forms, but I’m not aware of any that actually employ dual wielding. They may exist, I just don’t know of any.

-Starke