Tag Archives: writing violence

Q&A: Raising a Militia

What do you think of the plot that goes the bad guys announce they’ll come back to fight soon but the majority of the good guys have no clue how to fight and it’s up to a couple of people to train everyone asap?

I’m not wild about villains who announce their presence, and then wander off and give people time to get ready. I’m fully aware there are legitimate, character, and story reasons a villain might do this, it’s just something I just have a hard time buying that structure. The reasoning being, if your villain announces their intentions, someone will try to stop them. So, either they should keep their mouth shut until their ready to act, or they should act to suppress any resistance before they can finally enact their grand plan.

Should this matter to you? Probably not. This is just my personal taste. There’s certainly room for Saturday Morning Cartoon villainy that requires someone to announce their intentions. There’s even real world examples of this. Monty Python taught us that, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” However, as it turns out, that was a lie, the Spanish Inquisition would file notice a month in advance, to give the accused the opportunity to secure testimony and other exculpatory evidence, (or put their affairs in order.)

So, it’s fine, just not to my taste. That doesn’t reflect on you, and shouldn’t impact your decision to write it.

The good news is, if you have a few characters with similar training backgrounds and a willingness to work together, you have everything you need to set up a combat training class. What, exactly, this will look like depends on the technology involved, and the combat doctrine the characters are following. They’ll need improvised training weapons, and (somewhat obviously) live weapons. (From a logistical standpoint, if your characters are using firearms, they’ll need at least roughly one thousand rounds per weapon to train the recruits, and then equip them. This is a factor that a lot of people overlook when trying to equip untrained militias.)

For melee weapons, you can begin walking the recruits through basic techniques, then moving to group drills. For some techniques, you’ll need to pair trainees against one another. In these cases having assistants who’ve already undergone training can work wonders for making sure that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. For melee combat, the purpose is to drill the movements until they become rote. This means if someone is training incorrectly, they’ll be committing those errors to muscle memory. Assistants can be invaluable for finding and assisting recruits before these mistakes become ingrained. At this stage, the use of training weapons is preferable.

If you’re dealing with ranged weapons, then you’re going to need to commit time to training them on those weapons, in order to be able to operate them under the stress of combat. To a certain degree, some of this is the same. You’re getting them to commit acts like aiming, firing, and reloading to muscle memory. That said, they also need to learn how to fire accurately.

Beyond basic combat training, you’ll need to instruct them in basic battlefield tactics. This includes things like how to move through an area safely without exposing themselves to enemy attack. This will look radically different depending on the technology in use.

Your militia will need a coherent chain of command. This is really important when things start going sideways. The priority will probably be a simple structure where the most experienced combatants are spread out and can direct the recruits.

Parallel to this, the experienced combatants need to identify useful skills in the local population. This includes things like medical training, hunters, engineers, and someone can manufacture weapons and armor. Skills that can be useful. If a specific role isn’t available, the next best thing may have to suffice. For example, if you don’t have access to a doctor or nurse, a veterinarian can do the job in an emergency.

Specialists are useful for a number of specific functions. Some are self-explanatory (you’ll need medics to help treat the wounded), you’ll need builders to help fortify their location (aided by whatever materials are nearby, which may also involve miners or lumberjacks), you’ll need hunters as skirmishers, for reconnaissance, and possibly as trappers. Just because the villain said they’d come back doesn’t mean you should hold them to their word, stay vigilant and prepare. A smith can be useful for aiding in the fortifications, or assisting in arming the militia.

While having a well trained force is important for winning a battle, taking control of the battlefield, restricting how, and where, your opponent can attack, and using every resource at your disposal to undermine them is vital to victory. How your characters do that will depend on their ability to tilt the odds in their favor.

Your villain said he’d come back. That doesn’t mean your characters should just sit around waiting for the inevitable. They have time to prepare, dig in, and make sure that by the time the villain arrives he never had a chance.

-Starke

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Q&A: Be Careful of “Everyone”

Do soldiers or people who want to join the military usually look down on civilians in general as weak, or look down on disabled civilians who couldn’t join? I have encountered this from a few family members, unfortunately, and wanted to incorporate that experience into my novel, but I don’t know if this is common for former soldiers or if it’s more about age or some of my family members just being mean. What are your thoughts on this?

I think the best way to view the different branches of the Armed Services regarding their attitudes is that they all have their own cultures. The culture of each branch is based on their shared experiences, and those shared experiences do differentiate them from civilians who lack their background. Sometimes, this can result in an “us versus them mentality” among specific individuals but looking down on civilians as weak isn’t part of that culture. Regarding civilians as being unable to relate or understand their experiences is more on point. This is true to an extent, but it’s also true for every subculture from EMTs to police, to surgeons, and even Hollywood insiders.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly have difficulty relating to the story one of Starke’s friends told him about two Marines taking turns drinking from a bottle of liquor, zapping themselves with a light socket, and running headlong into a wall before switching places and repeating. I’m also just as sure after hearing that story a Marine would find nothing strange about it, and also cackle.

There are generational differences between the cultures. There’s a different culture among those who served in the past and are now civilians themselves versus those still serving. There’s a different sub-cultures among the officers and special forces than the general enlisted. Everyone agrees the Marines are weird, especially the Marines.

Now, the above doesn’t apply to the people who want to join the military. People who want to join the military and look down on people who don’t share their passion are fans. They’re not any different from any other fan out there. They aren’t part of the military culture or its rivalries yet. They want to be. They behave the way they imagine they should. They co-opt their beliefs about the military into their identity or use the identity to justify their own biases. Remember, though, it’s not just them. They’re not really any different or more special than the katana fans, the Krav Maga fans, Star Wars fans, or Naruto fans.

Personally, if you plan to write about anything to do with the military, I always recommend the more information on hand the better. Read web comics like Terminal Lance about daily life in the US Marine Corps, most of the US training manuals are actually available online which will give you insight into the thought processes of the people who wrote them. You may not enjoy or agree with the humor, but experiencing it can be instructive.

In my experience, I have several family members who served in the US Army. Neither my brother nor I were ever pressured by them about serving, or regarded as weak because we didn’t. My grandfather, who guarded General MacArthur’s family during WWII, celebrated when my father got out of the Vietnam draft due to a medical condition. Neither he nor my grandmother wanted my father to go to ‘Nam. My co-worker appreciates his time in the Navy, and he’d have liked to recommend his son join up. However, the Armed Services of today are very different from when he served. His son didn’t want the risk and he respects that.

The short answer is there are veterans who are assholes and veterans who aren’t. There are people who make their service too much a part of their identity, and feel they’re owed more than what they got. There are people who understand their service was their choice, who don’t resent others for choosing differently.

There’s never anything wrong with using your own life experiences for your novel. They’re yours, you should use them. All I’d caution you about is making the jump from “these people” otherwise known as your family members to a general perspective shared by everyone who ever served. Your family members aren’t alone in their attitudes, but theirs isn’t the only attitude that exists.

When following the everyone route, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t share your experiences, even those who are willing to accept the perspective from a single character or in a story about a specific group of people. They stop short when you switch over into that perspective as ideological fact uniformly followed by everyone everywhere. Everyone everywhere is being intellectually lazy and that can impact the reader’s suspension of disbelief. While you don’t have to show those other perspectives, you want to practice leaving room in your narrative for a variety to exist.

-Michi

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Q&A: What The Value of a Good Education?

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: Since there’s a definite advantage, what DOES mean the difference between the training a Marine gets versus what a criminal gets? Experience and refinement, since the military has had so many years to figure out what’s effective versus the criminal who’s more or less starting from scratch? Focus, since the Marines are getting Actual Lessons versus the criminal’s just sort of learning on the job, as it were? Something else?

There’s a few basic problems in the way most media approaches violence which is what throws people who’ve never received any training off.

  1. There’s an assumption being good at violence comes from talent and not hard work.
  2. There’s an assumption that violence is not a skillset.
  3. There’s an assumption that if you’re good at one kind of violence, you’re good at all of them.

None of these are true.

Violence is like any other skillset. Education is king, and the quality of education you receive, as well as who you receive that education from, matters. Education opens up your possibilities, exposes you to new ideas, individuals, and experiences you might never have considered. It allows you to learn from others whose experiences are great than yours, and lets you learn from their success and their mistakes. In an organized system, you have a system backed by a few hundred years or more. This system is co-operative with multiple people working toward a singular goal. The value of this cannot be overstated, especially in the world of violence where everything changes with every new discovery.

In the US Armed Forces, training is updated every six months in response to newly developed counters, tactics, and strategies that upset the current status quo. We often view the military as stuck in its ways and, socially, that may be true. However, when it comes to developing new technologies, new fighting tactics, new strategies for a changing combat environment, they are on the cutting edge. They have access to the militaries of other countries, and are constantly adopting new techniques into their curriculum either from allies, guerrilla fighters, or from individuals while being stationed in foreign countries. A Marine’s hand to hand training pre-WWII and post-WWII are very different beasts. Every Marine today benefits from experiences gained by servicemen in previous eras. They learn from their successes and their failures.

Criminals don’t get training. Usually, they have to learn on the job and most of their additional education comes from other criminals while networking in prison. They can be very good at what they do, but the scope of that technique is limited. The chances they’ll have a general or even hand to hand skillset to back up their chosen specialization is low. If they have learned hand to hand, most of it comes from television, boxing lessons they had in high school, or what they’ve experienced from police or witnessed police use. They have fewer options, every weapon they learn how to use is on their own dime and based on what they can scrounge or barter from their local arms dealer. There is no coherent system, a low chance of mentoring, no real opportunities outside a limited pool, and even if you do get mentored, you’re at risk to be the fall guy.

The value and benefit of training cannot be overstated. If you ask someone who has had martial training what the value of training is, the first thought after staring at you in confusion is everything. You get everything from training. Training provides you with the building blocks, it provides you with your connections, it provides you with the scenarios where you can practice. Someone who is self-taught has no stances, they have no base and therefore no defense, they don’t know how to maximize the effectiveness of their punches, they probably can’t kick at all, they’re not particularly flexible, they may or may not have learned the value of cardio.

Self-taught criminals are very good at ambush tactics, but lose out in a protracted conflict. Why? They have nothing else and need nothing else. Ambush tactics are sufficient to deal with most people, including professionals (if you can catch them unawares). Criminals are better served by developing their social engineering, their ability to appear different than how they are, to blend in with society until the time comes to make their move.

Criminals and Marines have different approaches to violence because their goals are not the same. Criminals, especially assassins, have more in common with spies than they do soldiers. They don’t want to stand out from the crowd because when you appear suspicious, you’re a second away from getting caught.

I think there’s a perception among some writers that if you write a self-taught fighter, you get to skip having to learn about violence. You don’t have to dirty yourself by learning about government organizations or other groups whose perspectives and attitudes you may not like. You get some additional cache for beating the system. If you know nothing about violence, getting to skip the hassle of learning is definitely an attractive idea. Most of the authors whose novels I’ve read that had fighters who were “self-taught” took this route. The characters and the narrative suffered for it. All they really wanted was an excuse where they wouldn’t need to explain how their character knew or could do what they did.

Violence isn’t any different from acquiring any other type of skillset. Studying martial combat is just like studying basic mathematics, learning to speak a second language (or even your first language), or learning to read.

This question is a lot like asking, “what’s the value of high school?” or even just school in general. What do you learn in school that provides you with an advantage over people who’ve never been to school? What is the value of a good education?

-Michi

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Q&A: Angels, Physics, and Wings

Disregarding the physics of it, how do you think the ability of an ‘angel’ ( basically a human with wings in this case ) to fly would influence their fighting style? Would it be an advantage, or a hindrance, you think?

This is a bit like asking, “disregarding their ability to move, what’s the fastest car?”

Physics is a critical component of hand to hand combat. Things like momentum and leverage are what you use in a fight to harm your opponent. Techniques are just the way you apply the laws of physics to your opponent.

So, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say, “if you disregard physics, nothing stops you from turning your foes into chunky salsa.”

A more reasonable example of this is if you’ve got an angry, 200lb, bird man who can take flight at will. They can land on the exact spot they want, because they’ve been doing this for their entire life. They drop on someone, and it’s over. This is part of why the physics are so important. The amount of force they apply on landing is a direct result their mass and velocity. Without physics, there’s no grounding element, no limits, and no way to reasonably predict the limits.

That said, there are huge problems. On the ground, a winged human would be at a combat disadvantage. There’s a lot of very fragile tissue on their back which is vulnerable in melee, and can’t be fully shielded by the fighter’s body. You can’t really armor it without making the wings non-functional, and if you’re emulating birds (which seems likely), you’re looking at hollow bones, which will never heal properly from being crushed. At range, they’d make the character a larger target. You don’t need to hit a normal human sized target, just clip their wing.

The only way to get around these disadvantages is to veer into the overtly supernatural. If the wings are conjured when need and otherwise don’t exist, then getting in the way wouldn’t be an issue. If they were somehow immune to harm that would still have the mobility issues on the ground, but at least they’d be less of a liability.

You started with, “angels,” and then backed off of it onto normal humans. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re wanting to work with the idea of angels as supernatural creatures, then being able to disregard the laws of physics at a whim isn’t that far out there. As they exist in religious texts angels (or whatever your preferred term for them is; the general concept of divine messengers is nearly universal in religion) are more akin to cosmic horrors than Roma Downy standing under a key light. So that’s a situation where I would say, “ignoring physics,” is entirely legitimate, and the results can be suitably gory.

-Starke

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Q&A: Choke Holds

How long does it take someone to lose consciousness from a choke hold? Google gives you answers that are anywhere from a few seconds to seven minutes.

That’s because there are many different types of choke holds with different positions, focuses, and purposes. They all require different amounts of time to take effect.

The one that takes seven seconds is: the blood choke.

The blood choke is strangulation, where you cut off the blood flow to your opponent’s brain by choking the carotid artery with pressure. The terminology I learned for this one was the triangle choke (confusing, because there’s a separate variant you can perform with your legs) which is decent because it describes the positioning of the arm, but its also called the rear naked choke and others depending on discipline. You form a triangle around your victim’s neck, with your elbow under their chin, and then squeeze. This choke is designed to cut off the blood circulation to their brain. Starving the brain of blood will put your opponent under much faster than starving it of oxygen. You also have a much smaller window on this choke between putting someone under and death.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like putting someone to sleep. When you knock someone out, they usually wake up a few seconds later.

The one that takes seven minutes is: the two hand throat grab.

The two hand throat grab is ironically the least effective choke and one of the easiest to escape from. This is because while the position is more stable than the single hand grab (which is very easy to break), the dual hands get in each other’s way. This choke hold goes directly after the windpipe, squeezing to cut off oxygen to the brain. Seven minutes is a very long time for professional martial combat. Consider that the standard street fight lasts less than thirty seconds. Martial Combat is all about economizing your time efficiently and this choke is not efficient. However, unlike more effective choke holds, it is easy to do. You’re also unlikely to kill your victim with it, unless you sit there squeezing their throat for about twenty minutes. The reason why I say this is because the hands get in the way of each other and don’t completely cut off the oxygen flow. It’s really hard to squeeze the windpipe shut with your fingers. Ironically, it’d be faster to smother them with a pillow.

These are the two (three) big ones most people think of when discussing choke holds. However, chokes aren’t the only way to strangle someone. There are quite a few techniques from the palm strike to the knife hand designed to perform similar functions like closing the carotid artery or collapsing the windpipe.

When considering knockouts, it’s very important to remember that a knockout isn’t the same as putting someone to sleep. Therefore, it isn’t “safe” and consequence free the way a lot of media portrays.

-Michi

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Emotions Are Not A Weakness

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective? Often strength is seen as the same as being unemotional (not just being able to hide them) and not being ‘soft’ at all. Empathy, kindness, patience, etc, are considered weaknesses. Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the only mediums I have seen that places some value on these traits even when the characters fight. Is there room for these traits in real life martial arts, other combat, or militaries?

Put. The. CW. Down.

If Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only example which comes to mind you either need to broaden your horizons or reevaluate what you’ve been reading/watching. You don’t need to expand beyond the YA, where this attitude flourishes, but you may want to read some better material or chase Avatar’s actual genre. Avatar: The Last Airbender is part of the martial arts fantasy adventure genre, known as wuxia in China, and for that genre it actually lives in the shallow end of the pool for the material its discussing.

I challenge you to go watch Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Letters from Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, M.A.S.H, Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Black Clover, Claymore, That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Full Metal Alchemist, read Protector of the Small, All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey to the West, or countless other novels, manga, and comics which delve into this topic at length, and tell me they promote the idea of the emotionless combatant. Oh My General is on Amazon Prime right now. You can watch Ice Fantasy, Eternal Love/Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, A Korean Odyssey, Violet Evergarden, Mr. Sunshine, Train to Busan, and many others are available on Netflix. I mean, watch Captain Marvel and Captain America: The First Avenger. Neither of these two are emotionless drones. I mean, have you watched The Two Towers? Aragorn and Legolas were in the process of becoming unglued at Helms Deep, they started yelling at each other in Elvish so the Rohirrim wouldn’t know how scared they were in order to maintain moral.

I’m not sure where you’ve gotten this perspective from. Though, it is a common misread of combat discipline, compartmentalization, and that someone must not have emotions if they don’t outwardly show their emotions in performative way or let their emotions rule them. The emotionless drone plot is one that does occur in many East Asian narratives, but its not presented as a strength. The plot revolves around the individual running away from a traumatic experience and giving up their humanity as a result, this is treated as a display of weakness rather than strength. You need your emotions, we make some pretty shitty choices without compassion, kindness, and empathy. You need your emotions like anger to give you purpose and to drive you. You need your frustrations to dig deep, to find the strength to overcome. You just can’t allow them to control you.

At the beginning of your question you asked,

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective?

These three words are not the same, they do not share the same meaning, and to combine them is to misunderstand the difference between being emotionally distant or withdrawn and being emotionally stunted. You then go on to combine being stunted, withdrawn, and distant with the idea of having no emotions at all.

Someone who is emotionally distant has emotions, but is choosing not to connect to other individuals in the moment. This is a choice.

Someone who is emotionally withdrawn has exited their emotions from the situation. They are unreachable, and are trying to protect themselves.

Someone who is emotionally stunted is someone who has not actually developed their emotions, and as a result experiences them in an often explosive and immature way. Emotionally, they are a child in the body of an adult dealing with adult emotions. They are more likely, rather than less, to be controlled by their emotions.

Someone who is unemotional, is someone who does not feel at all and that is different from all of the above.

None of these are a person who practices combat discipline because combat discipline is a necessary survival mechanism for keeping yourself and your friends alive. Combat discipline doesn’t negate your emotions, but uses them for motivation while keeping the mind clear. They are able to review the situation logically, and make rational decisions. Combat discipline doesn’t necessarily follow someone out of a combat scenario. They can and do emotionally engage with others outside of violence. (They can emotionally engage with someone during a combat scenario also, however their emotions are not the basis of their decision making.)

Your emotions are positive and negative, and both can be manipulated by your enemy. They can also manipulate you. You can use your emotions to justify narcissism, use your anger to justify harming others, and can make incredibly poor long term choices for the good of others based on short term gratification. The desire to feel like a good person can be destructive when that desire blinds you to the reality of the situation you’re inhabiting, when your life and the lives of others are riding on that decision. There’s a lot more to violence than technical aptitude. There are a lot of ways to kill someone, many which involve maneuvering someone into a position from which they can’t defend themselves. An easy way to do that is by manipulating your opponent’s emotions, their desires, their anger, their greed, their compassion, their kindness, and their empathy. If you approach a situation blindly, you can fall.

There’s a combat tactic called a honeypot, where you specifically wound an enemy soldier and leave him/her out in the open. When the other soldiers come to rescue them, you kill them.

This is a tactic which specifically preys on the human desire to help a comrade who is suffering. The trap relies on you to jump based on a knee jerk emotional response, to act without thinking.

This is where your emotions can get you into trouble and why combat discipline is a necessary skill to develop. If you don’t, then even a high school bully can bait you into acting against your own interest and maneuver you into a bad situation.

Read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and you’ll start to get an idea.

The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. – Sun Tzu

You want to reduce the opportunities someone has to take advantage of you. Only by shoring up your mind and seeking clarity, can you defend yourself against an enemy’s mental attacks. We like to imagine that battle takes place only in the clashing of bodies, but strategies and tactics are provided by the mind. A clever enemy will strike at you in all the places you are weak, often in those you do not expect.

The mistake is assuming this means the character cannot have any emotional connections at all, that they must have no emotion and must be a drone to save themselves. Many writers have taken this direction on the assumption the emotionless approach is the best way to secure victory, even if it’s a self-sabotaging one which exists only in the fantastical.

The emotionless drone is also a misreading of Taoism/Daoism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions; just as Avatar also misunderstands the philosophies of the material it draws from. The search for enlightenment and transcendence has nothing to do with giving up your emotions, giving up what matters, and going to live on a mountaintop away from anything which can threaten your inner peace. Aang cannot give up Katara because Katara is not an object Aang can control or possess. Giving up your desires is code for giving up your illusion of control, giving up your preconceived notions of who someone else is, and realize only when you have given up the illusions which blinded you can you see clearly. The distinction between Aang’s love for Katara and Aang’s love for his idea of Katara is important. While the Avatar narrative is steeped in these themes of enlightenment and transcendence, it never delves into them and, as a result, the martial arts component of the fantasy becomes a prop. Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of Avatar: The Last Air Bender is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.

It is important to remember when asking questions about the real world and real world martial arts, that the bending martial arts of Avatar are based on four distinct Chinese martial arts: Baguazhang (Air), Tajiquan (Water), Hung Guar Kuen (Earth), and Northern Shaolin (Fire). All these martial arts have a real history, with real philosophies, ones that are often contrary to their use in Avatar. Baguazhang and Tajiquan are what are commonly referred to as “soft” martial arts in the West, but better definition for them is “internal”. They are meditative, philosophical, and introspective martial arts with a focus on Daoist transcendence.

Part of Avatar’s problem is the idea that only specific people are born with the ability to bend, and therefore only specific people practice the martial arts rather than manipulating the elements being the result of interest, hard work, and training. This piece of worldbuilding is in defiance of all the martial arts and genre conventions it utilizes, such as Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers. Bending should be attainable to the average person even if they’re not born with natural talent, but isn’t. Transcendence through enlightenment, harmony, and understanding of the natural world is barred based on the luck someone has when they’re born. Avatar has the same problem as Star Wars after the introduction of midichlorians.

Compare to Naruto, which as a shounen manga/anime has a far better grasp of chi/qi/ki baked into its world building, where the distinction for the average person becoming a ninja is access, and where the discussion about the place of emotion in warfare is contrasted with individual loss and suffering and the prejudice which results from it. There’s also a lot of ugly crying in that first episode. Never let it be said real men don’t cry.

Most of war, shounen, and other martial arts fantasy narratives discuss the importance of relationships, of the bonds created between people which give them motivation to survive through horrific circumstances, through trauma and loss. How those bonds cause pain which can destroy you, and how they can save you in the hard times, how we can mistake one emotion for another, how feelings are an important component of what it is to be human.

The idea of characters being emotionless is mostly just a cheap out to avoid needing to write the characters as having difficult emotions which can be hard to express, are frightening, make us ugly or unlikeable, self-obsessed, or, in romantic stories, letting in that one special person who awakens their long buried feelings. In poor writing, kindness, compassion, patience, empathy are the province of certain characters rather than regular human traits because possessing empathy makes those characters look better.

So, no, being emotionless doesn’t make someone a better warrior. Giving up your emotions is the coward’s way out, it’s a means of escaping difficult feelings and pain, and repressing so you don’t have to deal with them. Facing your feelings takes real courage.

The truth is someone can go to war and return fine without any trauma, not be damaged, still be a loving parent, sibling, child, husband/wife, even after they’ve ended the lives of others. This can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. Likewise, compartmentalization can be hard to understand. They don’t have to find the act of killing hard, usually they take more exception to losing those they care about.

-Michi

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Q&A: A character can only teach what they know

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: How does one teach fighting? The teacher in question is a dirty street fighter who learned via being beaten up until she learned how to stop that, but assuming she doesn’t want to just pummel her student.

A teacher teaches the way they’ve been taught, especially new teachers who have no other examples to pull from. The problem, of course, is that beating someone up as a training method doesn’t actually teach anything other than how to survive being beaten up. (If the student even learns that, they may just learn how to get beaten up.) This is the sort of slug fest, even when you lose, that makes you feel powerful and strong when you come out the other side (Fight Club is an excellent example) but this is an illusion. You don’t actually learn technical skills from slugging it out with someone else.

The problem here is while I could talk about the methods one uses to teach fighting that won’t actually help you that much, because the methods are entirely dependent on the individual’s experiences and what they’re learning how to do. So, this street fighter can’t teach their student anything they haven’t learned how to do or teach from a method they wouldn’t have any reason to know especially if those methods are outside the realm of their own experience. This will be even harder if she’s never taught before and has no one to go to for advice. This gets even harder if you’re planning to tell a story where either teacher or student has to go outside their own sphere and are up against professional or seasoned combatants used to fighting higher caliber opponents than the ones you find in backroom brawls.

Have I mentioned street fighters are, by their nature, low tier?

They have the capacity to be dangerous, just like everyone else. They have the capacity to do harm, but in terms of technical skill they are at the bottom. No amount of “dirty fighting” changes that because “dirty fighting” is just breaking the expected/established rules of combat and everyone else already does that.

Again, you cannot teach what you don’t know and not all training is created equal. Instructing someone in the combat arts requires a certain level of technical skill, the ability to process and understand that skill, then contextualize it so someone else without the same experiences can understand and imitate. A street fighter can teach a lot of other skills, survival skills for the streets, but they don’t really have the luxury of putting together a robust training regimen to pass on their fighting skills. Mostly because they don’t have that many skills to begin with.

Stop an ask yourself an important question, what did this street fighting character learn from being pummeled? There’s the generic “until she learned to put a stop to it” but that’s generic and doesn’t tell you anything about her experience, about what she learned to do from being beaten. What did she specifically learn to do? How does she, specifically, fight?

Once you know what she can specifically do then you know what she can teach, and start the process of her figuring out how to teach it. If you’ve never thought seriously about the specifics of her fighting abilities then that’s the flaw you need to address. Her limitations are not a bad thing depending on what you need her for as a character and what she needs to teach her student for your narrative to work.

A drill sergeant can only teach you how to be a soldier.

A boxing instructor can only teach you how to box.

A taekwondo master can only teach you taekwondo.

And on and on it goes.

“Street fighters” generally learn to fight by brawling, usually through backroom and backyard brawls. If they don’t learn quickly, like about knives and other weapons, they die fast. This isn’t some cohesive fighting style that’s carefully cultivated and passed on from one fighter to another. When we talk about “street fighters”, we’re usually discussing gangs and similar groups who survive and thrive in the dark corners of society. The romanticized “dirty” component is usually them trying to get a leg up by using knives and other weapons in ambush combat where they finish the fight in the opening blows. Ambush combat is where you take your opponent by surprise and attack before they have time to retaliate, but for street fighters this is often a one trick pony. They often don’t have the stamina or the technical ability to keep going if the first attack fails. Outside underground boxing tournaments, they often operate in groups because numbers will make up for that lack of skill. They don’t usually have the ability to coordinate effectively in a group, but that also usually doesn’t matter because they’re preying on those of even ability or those less capable than themselves. Numbers are what give them an edge over law enforcement because high enough numbers trump skill.

All your street fighter knows how to do is survive ambush combat and execute ambush combat, which is what the beating or brawling process in the street fighter “training” is for

This probably isn’t the romanticized ideal of the “dirty street fighter” you imagine, the deadly fighter whose skills are honed by battles fought to ensure their survival on the streets. The one whose hard won knowledge beats out the soft warriors in their castles. Whose dirty tactics turn the tables to give them an edge while battling the honorable upper crust. The ones who dare to break the rules of warfare because they and they alone understand, “the only fair fight is the one you lose.”

The problem is that anyone who fights in a life or death situation understands that rule. Everyone fights dirty. Everyone takes every advantage they can to win because winning is surviving. Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day. There is no pure combat, no clean combat, and no proper way of doing things. The ideal exists because the ideal is comforting, but warfare is not an honorable business.

I mean, there are soldiers making jokes on Instagram right now about hunting and how they want to say they hunt people but don’t want to sound like a psychopath.

Jokes on you though, because they do. They hunt people.

The romantic ideal of honorable combat which must be embraced for dirty fighting to work is actually bullshit. Honorable combat is a notion that exists both for society’s comfort and to set up rules for controlled combat scenarios like tournaments. You’ll still find people there who are standing by the letter of the rules but breaking with the spirit of them. Like those knights who would unscrew the knob off the sword hilt and bean the other knight with it at the start of the match before attacking. The reason behind the act was to distract their opponent so they could land the early points which would ensure their victory. Yes, nobles were often ransomed during the Middle Ages but plenty of regular soldiers were blinded, had their limbs removed, were imprisoned, or killed by the enemy after capture. The same often happened to those nobles who had no means or no wealthy patron to pay their way.

So, the question you should be asking yourself is how would your street fighter train someone to fight? What does she know how to do? What doesn’t she know how to do? What has she learned that her own master didn’t teach her? How would she choose to impart similar lessons to her student in ways that aren’t vastly outside her own experience or things she wouldn’t think of? Because most of the answers I could give you about how people learn to fight would involve her going to watch some other training master in some other part of the city to see how they train their students then try to imitate that, which ultimately defeats the purpose of what you’re after. She’d be teaching them to fight like someone else and not like herself.

The problem with fiction is that the best writing holds to the rules of the world it exists in. Which means that your character may be the best street fighter but she can only use her experiences to train her student to (hopefully) be the best street fighter. This doesn’t mean they’re the best fighter who can take on all comers, this just means they’re the (hopefully) best street fighter and will have to learn more from other teachers in order to progress through any other sphere. This is also a standard storytelling technique in most sports and martial arts movies, so learn to embrace it.

Remember, the world of the combat arts is vast and specificity is key. Your characters can’t act outside their knowledge without explanation, and a character who comes from a conventionally trained fighting background before going to the streets is very different from one for whom the streets are their only experience. You should review the fighting style you envision this character possessing and ensure it fits with the background you’ve set for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Common accidents are not cliche

For a beginner attempting to use rope/chained weapons, how cliche would it be to have them getting it wrapped around themselves?

I kid you not when I say the first and most common injury you’ll get from the three-section staff when first learning to wield it involves hitting yourself in the head.

Chain/rope weapons are about gaining force with momentum, which means you’re learning to keep the weapon in a state of constant motion. With a weapon like the shaolin dart, the nunchaku, or the whip chain, you use your body as the guide to redirect the weapon while it is moving. This is not just your hands and your wrist, but your upper arm, your shoulders, your sides, your legs, and even, in some cases, your neck. The more complicated the motion, the more difficult the weapon, the more likely you are to make mistakes during training, and chain weapons are the pinnacle for weapon difficulty.

Look at the three-section staff, if you can’t imagine it rebounding at the wrong angle and hitting you squarely in some place very painful during the learning process then… well… lol. That’s unrealistic.

You’re going to lose control of a chain weapon at some point (probably multiple points) during training. And, honestly, you’re going to end up with it wrapped around you at some points on purpose simply because that’s a great way to make it stop moving.

The question about whether or not this will be cliche in your writing is going to depend not on the character getting their weapon wrapped around them, but how this occurs and what kind of motion they were going for to begin with.

Take a moment, (or an hour if you watch this instructional video with John Su) to familiarize yourself with the movement patterns of the weapon you want to write.

If your character is doing a forward spin at the side of their body, then the chain is unlikely to wrap itself around their whole body as part of a mistake. The chain is actually unlikely to wrap itself around anything. In fact, the weapon is more likely to lose the forward momentum, hitch in the middle, stop spinning, and fall to the ground. The chain whip is likely to only wrap itself around the neck, for example, if the practitioner is doing a specific technique which involves the neck. Or a technique which involves their body, and in those cases more likely to wrap around a specific body part in a tight spiral than the whole body.

So if you were imagining the whip chain wrapping itself around the character’s feet and body in such a way that they fall to the ground then you’re not just edging toward the territory of cliche but also that of unrealistic. Mistakes that come from the chain moving in an unnatural manner for the sake of showing the character making said mistake are going to be cliche.

You have to be going pretty fast for the weapon to wrap around you multiple times, and part of your training is learning to control it just enough so you can perform a catch and release. This involves learning to not just moderate your speed at specific junctures during the technique, but also mastering the patterns of circular movement. It’s not just that the weapon is going to wrap around you, but that you control when and how it does.

See take this example. They won’t be going this fast in the beginning, they should practice slowly and in individual pieces or they’re far more likely to hurt themselves. However, even an experienced practitioner can end up with the whip chain hitting them or wrapped around them in a way they didn’t intend.

Still, the term beginner is also a misnomer. The whip chain or nine section chain, the rope dart, the three section staff, the nunchaku, are all advanced weapons at the end of a comprehensive martial arts curriculum. They are Eastern weapons, and there is a specific pattern of advancement all students follow before they reach a point where the weapon becomes accessible. So, you don’t join a martial arts school and get to start using a chain weapon right off. You will begin building the whip chain’s technical foundation while studying the staff, just as you begin with hand to hand techniques before gaining access to the staff weapons. If the character you envision learning to wield the whip chain does not have at least three to five years of martial arts training under their belt with a firm foundation in hand to hand and, at least, some training on the staff then that is not realistic. More likely they’ll go through the staff weapons and the bladed weapons before they get to the flexible weapons. (This is especially true if you plan to have them using the whip chain in combat rather than exhibition.)

Your character may end up a specialist in flexible weapons, but they should have a solid foundation in martial combat before they get there. Remember, this is a weapon that specifically builds on the techniques of other weapons. They progress together, and you can’t learn one without the other.

Now, there are weapon traditions like some Western traditions where you can pick and choose what your character knows. These specific chain weapons are just not one of them.

Don’t forget.

The chain weapon isn’t just going to wrap around your characters so they get tangled in it, it’s gonna full on hit them too. More often than not. Sometimes in the face.

Example: Downward arc over the head, under the left armpit, across the right shoulder, and whumph right into the nose/mouth.

If you want this weapon wrapping around your characters, you gotta get that circular patterning down so your audience can visualize the misery your characters inflict upon themselves.

-Michi

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Q&A: Size Matters Not, Medieval Shoes, and Knife Fighting

Hello! Recently I heard that there is no way that a 60 kg woman can defeat a man weighs more. Is that true? There is a rumour that woman are also mostly useless as policemen and firefighters because of their lack of strength. Is that so? You’re my most reliable source.

Whoever said this is a moron. The weight argument is the preferred stomping ground of idiots who have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t regularly make arguments that a man who weighs 140 pounds is completely useless as a police officer compared to a man who weighs 180 or 220, do they? Remember, you heard it from them, all men who weigh 160 pounds need to give up on his sports dreams now and go invest in knitting. And a man who can’t get above 150? Forget it, he’s trash. (Remember, Bruce Lee weighed 60kg, 132 pounds.)

“Someone who is short can’t defeat someone who is tall.”

We take gender out of the argument and the argument itself becomes ridiculous. This is an argument that’s not based in facts or reality, but rather one based in gender bias and societal conditioning. The “science” argument is just there to legitimize their position, but has no real basis in reality. The argument is telling you a woman can’t defeat a man because she’s a woman. Ask, what about a 220 pound woman? And watch them sputter.

This person you were speaking to was fantasizing all violent conflicts as duels, or physical conflicts with no surprises. Violence is not a stats game. Weight will do jack all against a knife, for example. This fantasy man will go down like a wet paper bag from a blow by a tire iron. Let’s not talk about guns. Even with weapons removed from the mix, weight isn’t an issue except in grappling. Here’s the thing: weight is a main consideration to the untrained, the ones with no martial training.

They hyperfocus on size rather than technique because size is the only advantage they have. They think weight is unbeatable because it has always worked for them. Weight does matter on the playground, size is intimidating when you’re six and up against a bullying boy of twelve. Starke likes this comment from a police officer once told him which is, “most people haven’t been in a fight since high school.”

Martial combat places its focus on disruption. You roll your wrist against the thumb when someone grabs you to escape because the thumb is the weakest point in the grip. You block a punch before it extends, because you put your extended arm against a fist with the elbow still bent that fist is going nowhere. Step between someone’s legs and a simple push to the chest or head can destabilize their whole body. The force of a punch comes, not from physical strength, but from the hips and shoulders, from the momentum generated by your body. You can control a tall man by grabbing him by the head and craning it sideways so his whole body is off kilter. Where the head goes, the body follows.

Size has its advantages, and its weaknesses. Exploiting those weaknesses is what martial training is all about.

This person can’t conceive of a world where weight isn’t considered important, where it doesn’t really matter because you’ve already learned to deal with it. There will always be someone who is taller, someone who is physically stronger, who is physically faster, who is more clever, who is smarter, who is more gifted than you are. However, that’s no reason to give up.

There are policewomen and female firefighters, female soldiers, female EMTs, guerrilla fighters, mercenaries, a female soldier just recently qualified for special forces training this November. You can check out Samantha Swords if you want to look at women who practice HEMA. There are women all over the martial arts world. They own their own schools, they compete in tournaments, they are self-defense specialists who run their own seminars teaching other women.

“No way”, especially when used broadly about an entire gender that reflects half of the planet’s human population, is an argument you can ignore.

I’ve been researching, but I don’t know if I’m just really bad at it or what, because I was wondering if it would make sense for my medieval military to wear tall, slightly heeled boots kind of like Wonder Woman’s, and if the boots would inhibit their movement too much or if I should change their footwear

Historically high heels are riding shoes and they’re for your cavalry, so the foot stays in the stirrup. Your standard infantry would not wear them. Generally, the shoes word during the middle ages (depending on period) were completely flat. The high heel didn’t become a fashion item until the 1700s and, in the beginning, were still worn by men.

Here are some middle ages shoes. Here are more shoes. The sabaton is the piece of armor which goes over the top of the shoe and protects the shin. This is the armor, depending on period, your soldiers (who were able to afford the armor) would wear. Wool and leather were also armor worn during the period. You can also watch Lindybeige discussing the reenactment medieval shoes he ordered for his HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) and why they work well with sabatons.

Some other resources: Medieval Warfare, Scholagladiatoria, and Wikitenaur.

If you don’t mind helping, what type of build would a knife fighter need/develop? And how would they train/be trained? Thanks so much.

An athletic build like the kind you see off of long distance runners. Their muscles will be long, developed by hours of stretching them out versus thick like you get off weight lifting. This build will be more a product of their physical conditioning regimen than their training, and what you’ll get off most martial arts combatants who don’t run around in heavy armor or are bowmen/women. You do a lot of physical conditioning in any sort of martial training to build up your endurance. This means lots of running, lots of wind sprints, lots of development of the lungs, and the body’s core to build up balance. They’ll be doing a lot of sit ups.

How they were trained would depend on the era they exist in, the country where they live, and the kind of blades available. This is part of the problem with general questions like this because martial combat training is very specific to and heavily reliant on the world your character exists in. Combat and martial training are responses to environmental threats, so a character who has to deal with heavily armored opponents on the regular will be trained differently than someone who grew up in South Central.

Knife fighting is butcher’s work. You don’t need to be trained in the use of a knife to wield one effectively in close quarters. They’re a fast weapon that is used to gain significant advantage in hand to hand combat. Bull rush, stab a guy in the stomach six times, and he’s done. The knife itself is a utility tool in most martial arts systems and primarily used to support other weapons, or, again, as a hand to hand tool. You use the knife because you want an advantage in unarmed situations.

Ergo, your knife fighter will also be/should also be a skilled hand to hand combatant because if they have been trained to fight will start with hands first. Hands are safer, and in a structured system provide the building blocks which are necessary for the more deadly techniques.

Marc MacYoung’s “Knife Fighting Lies” is a good breakdown about the difference between knife fighting taught in martial arts versus knife fighting in the real world. Keep in mind when reading that he’s specifically discussing knives in self-defense and rebuking the fantasies of martial arts, but it is a good breakdown if you want to bring a knife fighter into your fiction.

When asking about knife fighting, I assume you mean systems like Indonesian and Filipino martial arts such as Silat and the kerambit. Or, something similar. The graceful, deadly knife fighter of fiction is going to come out of traditional martial arts systems that heavily emphasize hand to hand where the knife is a utility tool accentuating techniques the student has learned. This means the knife fighter’s training won’t really be any different from that of the standard martial artist. Their training will depend on the system used, and what that system prioritizes. Use of the knife will be the last thing they learn rather than the first. They will never train with a live knife, especially never with a practice partner. The practice knife will be made of rubber or wood or blunted metal (like all practice weapons, the only time you will train with a “live” weapon is sticks or staves, and even the ends of those can be padded during sparring.)

Knife fighting is deadly. Knife fighting is about killing other human beings. Knife fighting can easily end in a double homicide with both participants dead if they both have knives. Knives are ambush weapons, so practically its not good to think of them as dueling tools. Knife fights are usually over in a few moves, so we’re talking a fight that lasts (at best) thirty seconds. Most likely, the fight will be shorter than that. Any wound from the knife can kill you, and you won’t escape unscathed.

Sammy Franco has a good discussion of knife fighting you can find on his website.

Kill or Get Killed by Colonel Rex Applegate (1943) is still considered the go-to manual for Western style hand to hand combat. I’d say this is a good starting point for anyone with an interest in knife fighting from a modern combat/warfare perspective.

-Michi

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