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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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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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Q&A: Force Multipliers

lonewolfpawprints said to howtofightwrite: I’ve been told that the mere act of possessing a knife is as effective as 10 years of martial arts training. What do you think of this claim?

The claim makes sense in the statement’s original context, which was probably trying to articulate the dangers of force multipliers, the knife as an ambush weapon, or a self-defense professional discussing knives used in muggings against unarmed combatants. In every one of these examples, it’s a (admittedly bad) metaphor trying to illustrate a concept that can be difficult for individuals with limited backgrounds to understand.

What the claim isn’t is a blanket declaration of fact, because in that context it makes no sense at all. However, someone makes the statement, someone else parrots it, and we’re off to the races. Now, you’re here with a statement ridiculous on its face because it removes all the conditions and is basically saying knives are magic.

The knife is a force multiplier in hand to hand combat, making the individual who carries one far more dangerous than one without. The 10 years is trying to convey that the knife, especially as its one of the most common weapons encountered in a modern, urban environment, is a very dangerous weapon that has killed many experienced individuals.

Getting your students to grasp how dangerous (clear, and present, will kill you even in inexperienced hands) can be very difficult due to how the knife is often disregarded in popular culture or written off as a weapon for gang members or fantasy rogues.

The actual example is this: “You have two martial artists of equivalent skill who have both trained for ten years, but one of them has a knife. Add an additional ten years to the guy with the knife, and that’s what you’d be facing.”

This is not adding a literal 10 years of training, this someone trying describing the additional dangers presented by a force multiplier. What this example doesn’t mean is that a person without any training at all has ten years of martial arts training, will magically turn you into a martial arts master, or that the knife makes up for training you don’t have.

Someone utilizing the knife as an ambush weapon in a mugging can stab you multiple times to the point where you will bleed out and die on the street.

Someone with actual training in using the knife will kill you much faster than the mugger.

Someone with no martial training trying to use a knife for self-defense can brandish it, at best. If the threat of violence doesn’t work, they won’t know what else to do with it other than swing wildly. Swinging wildly will risk the blade being taken away.

The knife is not a replacement for martial training, it adds an additional force bonus to what you already possess, and makes you more dangerous in hand to hand combat; especially against an unarmed opponent.

Try to remember, for the most part, martial combat doesn’t have universal rules. There’s a lot of great advice out there, but everything is contextual. Everything is conditional, there’s always an exception, and those conditions and exceptions when utilized appropriately significantly change the field of battle.

Here are some basic examples:

Size doesn’t matter except when ground fighting.

Ground fighting, when lying on the ground, like grappling has to deal with the full weight of gravity. Here, weight, height, limb length, and leverage all play a significant role that they don’t while standing.

The gun is king except in close quarters, when you aren’t given time to draw.

There’s a double whammy for this one. If you don’t have time to draw or your opponent is past the gun, the gun is not king, which is where the eight foot or two meter rule (these are different distances) comes in. However, those rules only apply to Weaver/Teacup/most normal stances, and don’t apply to those individuals trained for close quarters shooting. (Like CAR.)

You might think some of these are obvious, but there’s often a rush to generalize information so its easier to understand. Generalizations can impede your understanding and, ultimately, take statements out of context. However, it is easier to generalize than itemize all the situations where a statement isn’t accurate.

-Michi

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Q&A: There’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing

I have a taller, drunker, more experienced, overconfident person try to stab a shorter, sober, less experienced person (they have SOME experience, but knives/close combat isn’t their specialty so they’re better at Disengage-and-Get-the-Hell-out-of-Dodge than prolonged fighting). I’d like it to go Shorty: Yeep?! A knife? Both: Struggle over control of knife. Drunky: Loses control of the knife Shorty: Accidentally stabs Drunky in the chest/heart. I’d appreciate advice on how to have it go. Thanks!

Someone who is experienced with a knife knows precisely what it means when they draw one, even when they’re drunk.

They want to kill you.

If they’re drunk enough to be tipsy with their judgement impaired enough to commit murder in a public place but not drunk enough to be tripping over their own feet, then they’re going to be a very dangerous opponent. Knives are very good for killing at close ranges and drunken people can be very difficult to anticipate. Think about this, Drunken Fist is an entire martial art built around learning to move like you are drunk while being sober. This is because the way you move when you are drunk will throw experienced fighters off. A drunken person is looser, faster, and has their tells muted by the strange movements of their body. (Writing drunken characters is made easier if you yourself have ever been drunk, or been around people when they’re drunk.) You end up in a place where things will either go fantastically well while you’re on autopilot i.e. performing complex gymnastics you were too afraid to do before or driving yourself home without incident, or horribly. Drunk crashing, murder, falling to your death, and all other terrible to straight up weird things that can happen when your brain is not firing on all cylinders.

Just remember, when they’re drunk they have all the skills they possess when they’re sober. Their inhibitions are gone, which makes them more dangerous and not less. An angry drunk person is more likely to run you down with a car because they’re running on impulse and the concept of consequences is a distant third. Martial arts retrains your reflexes so you can function without thinking, react without thinking, and do what you want in the moment when you want to do it. Alcohol takes away the inhibitions that will stop you from doing what you want in the moment when you want to do it.

Now, here’s the worse news. Being able to anticipate your enemy’s movements in order to intercept their strikes before they reach extension is necessary when you’re looking at any kind of disarm, but especially with knives. You have less than a second to recognize what’s happening and react, which requires you see the draw coming from starting movements in their eyes, shoulder and chest muscles rather than when they actually pull the knife.

Knives are no game, they are deadly and you are much more likely to get stabbed while attempting any disarm than you are to take the knife away. Knife disarms are less dangerous than gun disarms, but that’s like saying your 99.9% chance of failure has been bumped down to 95%. You’ve got slightly better odds of survival, but they’re not great. You’ve got a better chance if you know what you’re doing than if you don’t, but the likelihood is that you’ll still get stabbed or accidentally impale yourself trying the disarm. If you’re not used to working with knives, you’ll lose track of the knife and its length. Your body’s reflexes won’t be trained to move completely out of the way, and you’re likely to get stabbed just trying to stop the blade from hitting you. It’s important to remember that knives are very dangerous even when you’re practiced, and in a scuffle it is easy to misjudge distance. If you fuck up, you’re getting stabbed, possibly multiple times in rapid succession. If you grab the blade, you’re getting cut or stabbed. If you fail to stop the arm before the attack gains inertia and don’t get out of the way, you’re getting stabbed. If you block the knife with your arm/forearm, you’re getting stabbed.

Knives are often portrayed as the smaller, less dangerous brother of the sword. That is not at all true. They are more dangerous, more flexible, more vicious in close quarters against unarmored/unarmed opponents, and do not require much skill to wield effectively. They are fast, they’re blink and you’ll miss it fast. This is zero to sixty in a fraction of a second with a bleed out following not long after.

Knives used in the hand range and are supplemental to fists. The fight begins in the range where the knife will have access to the entire body, and it is a weapon that can puncture your gut, sever tendons, and cut open muscles. Not only that, but you’re not going to get stabbed the one time. If they get the opportunity, you’ll most likely be stabbed six or seven in rapid succession.

Remember, if someone pulls a knife on you, they are threatening your life. The same is true for your characters. If they are in a situation where someone has pulled a knife on them, their life is being threatened. If they pull a knife on another character, they are threatening that character’s life. Regardless of the character’s intention when they draw their weapon, it is important to understand what the action means and what the threat is.

So, let’s talk about knife disarms.

Some Golden Rules of Knife Disarms

Don’t. Touch. The. Knife.

In knife combat, your target is the arm that holds the blade and not the blade itself. This is especially true if you are unarmed. So, don’t grab the blade. Grab the wrist. Grab the arm. Then, once the arm stops moving, you can take the knife by grabbing the handle and rolling it against your attacker’s thumb to forcibly release the grip.

Get Off The Vector!

You have to get away from the blade when that blade comes at at you. Your choices are to go forward, back, or to the side. Forward to stop the arm before the swing begins, backward to keep from getting stabbed while you go for the knife, sideways to get out of the way. You always want the knife off an attack vector on your body so that when you try to take the blade they can’t just lean into the attack a little harder and stab you.

They will do that, by the way. If you get a bad grip or they twist out of it, they can just roll over and finish what they started. Meanwhile, depending on which angle you stopped it, you risk getting cut/cutting yourself just moving the knife into position for the disarm.

Your combat reflexes are also a problem when dealing with knives, most of the traditional ways you’d move to block an attack will get you stabbed (albeit in a slightly different place than your aggressor intended.) One of the big issues with knife disarms is if you’re not worked to working with knives is that you’ll walk right into the strike even if you successfully “stopped” it.

Catch Before Extension or After. Do Not Try The Disarm During.

The rules of blocks and deflections are necessary to grasp if you want to write knife disarms. Against fists the difference is getting hit. With a knife, failure means you will be stabbed. Blocks and deflections are not about physical strength, they rely on disrupting the body’s mechanics.

In many martial arts, a punch or kick is broken down into stages.

Chamber. Extension. Recoil.

Chamber is when the arm or leg is bent before they extend into the strike. Stopping a punch or kick must be done before the arm or leg extends. If you want to stop a knife thrust, you need to catch that thrust in the moments before the arm fully extends i.e. while the elbow is still bent.

Extension is when the arm extends into motion, when it has gained momentum, and the moment before the elbow or knee locks into place.

Recoil is when the arm or leg withdraws after the strike, pulling back into the chambered position before returning to position.

The easy one to conceptualize is the overhead strike where the arm cycles into a downward arc to strike at the throat or shoulder. You catch the arm while it’s still behind the head before it reaches the zenith of the circle and begins to come down, i.e. while the elbow still points behind the head instead of facing you. This is the stage before the strike gains momentum. If you catch it too late, the strike will go through your block and hit you. With a knife strike, the stakes are higher. If you fail, you’re taking a blade to your shoulder, chest, or neck.

The second option with a knife is to catch the arm after it has extended, which means you must get out of the way of the strike first. The strike goes past you, and you catch the arm before it recoils for another strike.

Keep Track of the Knife.

You can deflect knife strikes, and that works under similar principles as a block. You redirect the arm somewhere else. The issue with this method is you need to have pinpoint precision for exactly how far the blade extends as part of their arm. In order to cut you, a knife just needs to connect. If any body part is within reach, it risks being cut. If your body is on line or on the same vector as the knife when you stop it, you risk your opponent pushing past the catch and stabbing you anyway. You need to track the extra reach of the blade at all times or risk being stabbed even when you do everything right. You always want your body off the knife’s vector, and the knife away from you.

When you’re writing knife combat this step is crucial to conveying tension and necessary to remember when you’re positioning your characters. In a fictional world, your characters will only be stabbed when you decide they will be. They only fail when you decide they will. This can lead to sloppy writing and negation of danger, which negates your tension if you’re not abiding by the rules. To convey that sense of danger, you need your audience aware of the knife; where it is, how close it is, what it’s doing, if your character let it stay on attack vector, tried to stop it, and didn’t get out of the way.

It’s All About The Thumb

Don’t fight four fingers when you can fight one. If you’re going to take a one handed weapon held in a forward facing grip away from someone, roll that weapon back against the thumb and twist. Focus on the weak points in the grip rather than attacking the whole grip.

Gotta Go Fast.

You don’t have time to play around with a knife, if you imagine a prolonged scuffle for the weapon or if your character gets into one then they significantly increased the likelihood they were getting stabbed. The closer that knife is to your body, the greater the chance of penetration, and even surface level nicks are deadly. They don’t need a single finishing blow, they can just cut away quick enough for you to bleed to death. This is the point of first blood, by the way. You take a wound to your body where you begin bleeding, no matter where that wound is, and you are at a serious disadvantage.

The longer this fight goes on, the more the advantage gets handed to the person with the weapon.

Onto some other problems.

The chest is not a good place to stab someone, you’re not getting to the heart unless you’re damn lucky. You’ve got an entire plate of bone called the sternum protecting it. The more necessary your body parts are, the more protection they get. You need a lot of force, and it’s just not worth the effort. Not when you have the stomach there and much readily available. Though, that’s not a quick death. You’re character can try but between their inexperience and the difficulty of the target, this drunk character isn’t going to die. The other major arteries are the same way, there’s not a lot of chance you’ll get them if you’re not experienced at finding them.

With a knife, you need to be skilled at using it in order to deliver sudden and immediate death otherwise you’re stuck with lingering, painful death from a slow bleed out after your major internal organs have been turned into chunky salsa.

Now, this fight is happening in a public place, so there’s a greater likelihood of this character receiving medical aid quick enough for them to survive or someone being close enough to intervene. More than that, where are their friends? And the other bystanders? And the bartender? I have a hard time imagining these two characters being the only ones duking it out in an empty bar.

A character used to disengagement isn’t going to take the option to fight a dangerous opponent against whom they’re outmatched if they can run away. That’s just… smart. A bar provides you with a lot of opportunities to do just that. There are a lot of options to get objects between yourself and the person attacking you in order to create the opening needed to get away. They’re also in the kind of tight quarters where they can’t control their own movement and could get forced into the knife by someone else in the environment or the environment itself. They’ve got no margin for error, and the bar is a situation where there’s a chance all the errors will occur.

You’re basically trying to engineer a situation where this character is forced to kill this other character. The goal is to use alcohol to force the situation and then level the playing field. The problem is you’ve got a character, by your own admission, where this kind of fight isn’t their forte and a situation where knife disarms need to be for them to be successful.

Taking a knife from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing with it is difficult and you’re at high risk of getting stabbed. Taking a knife from someone who knows what they’re doing, even if they’re drunk, is almost impossible. They’ve trained their body and their reflexes to do this, even when they’re in no condition to be doing this. The drunken fencer accidentally killing another sober person is ironically more likely than the drunken fencer getting killed. Depending on how much they’ve drunk and what their tolerance is, the alcohol actually makes killing easier because it removes their inhibitions. They don’t have to second guess anything, they can just do. They call it liquid courage for a reason.

Now, that’s from a practical standpoint. From a narrative standpoint, this piece of violence will be trivial unless the death of this other character leads somewhere interesting with real, severe consequences for your protagonist. If the violence doesn’t go anywhere and just exists for cheap guilting or to prove the character can kill then it just isn’t interesting. Violence is a high risk tool with high risk consequences that you can use to create real stakes, but when violence is misused you also cheapen your entire narrative. You can destroy your stakes, wreck your tension, and end up boxed in by your own writing.

What’s the point?

Did this other character have a real reason to draw their knife on this other character and attempt to kill them? Or are they just a puppet sacrificed to establish the protagonist?

It better be a really good reason, let me tell you. Alcohol takes away inhibitions, but it doesn’t make you do anything you weren’t already prone to doing. The beef better be real, and based in the sort of emotional reaction you’d be willing to ruin your life over.

Where are the other characters?

Where is the bartender?

Who else is going to intervene?

When setting up a versus in your head, it is really easy to over focus on that and forget about everything surrounding your characters. A drawn weapon is a danger to everyone in the room, not just the character who is being threatened. Other people, whether they’re friends, allies, enemies, or strangers, will be inclined to jump in. A bar fight has stakes for the owner and employees of the establishment, they can’t stay in business if their bar isn’t safe. Drawing a weapon represents a direct threat to that safety for the social order.

These consequences and considerations are part of your world building. Ask yourself, is there someone close enough to stop this fight?

You may not see it that way, but you should be aware of the fact that the bar brawl scene is cliche. One countless other writers have already used for some cheap, consequence free violence to show how their protagonist is a badass. The violence in fictional bars rarely goes anywhere. Cheap violence damages your narrative.

So, don’t be cheap.

You don’t need a character behaving violently to show that the character is dangerous or knows what they’re doing. In fact, doing so runs counter to showing that.

Lastly, there’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing. This is especially true when you’ve killed the other person. Knives are like guns. They’re weapons used to kill the other person. Characters who have any experience with martial combat know that. They know what holding a knife means, the threat it represents, and how the combat is going to end. They or the other person will be seriously wounded or dead. Even when you’re wielding one in self-defense or fighting someone else with a knife, that is the outcome.

“Oh, but I didn’t mean to do that” is not a good justification, legally or narratively. “He was going to kill me so I killed him first” is better. “I killed him because I had to.” “I killed him to protect someone precious to me.” “I killed him because I wanted to.” “I killed him because he threatened my life.” “I killed him.” “I… yeah, I did.”

If you’re going to have your character kill another character, you need to put on your grown up pants and have them mean it. This is especially true when they’re trained. Accidents are not a get out of jail free card, or a great way to show your character knows what they’re doing but just couldn’t control it, or particularly meaningful way of raising the stakes.

Killing another person requires commitment. You don’t get there through half-measures. Humans are actually rather difficult to do in. We’re impressively good at killing each other, but it takes a fair amount of work. Besides, I mean, this character is drunk. He’s got a better than average chance of stabbing himself with the knife or falling on it and killing himself, or falling into a table and stabbing some innocent bystander long before this other character has time to take the knife from him.

You gotta commit. Whether in martial arts, or in your writing, or in life, you won’t get anywhere with half-measures. We cross the threshold by acting, by believing we’ll get there, and by committing to what we’re about to do. The same goes for your Shorty.

There aren’t clean endings to knife fights. Violence requires you be willing to hurt and even kill another person. The same is true whether or you’re on the giving or the receiving end. If they can’t commit, they’ll never stop that knife to begin with.

-Michi

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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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