Q&A: Never Bring a Knife to a Swordfight

Hello! I have a quick question. I want to write a fight scene between two characters, one with a dagger and one with a sword. For the sake of the plot, the dagger wins, and due to the backstory, those are the weapons that make the most sense for them. Is it possible for a dagger to win against a sword, and if so, how?

Shank them. Knife them in the kidney, slit their throat, whatever, but kill them before they have a chance to draw their sword. Failing that, nope, outside of an extremely contrived scenario, they’re pretty much screwed.

So, we’ve talked about this in passing recently. In fairness to the author of this question, this ask came in before this week’s greatsword question. It’s not a case where they saw that and asked anyway.

As an open combat tool, the knife is remarkably for niche how ubiquitous it is. It has utility as a non-combat tool, it’s small and lightweight, so it’s entirely reasonable for any combatant (and even a lot of non-combatants) to carry knives on their person. Half of the jobs I’ve had as an adult seriously benefitted from carrying a knife, for the utility.

So, how do you use a knife in a fight? The knife is very effective against an unarmed foe. It is very effective against a foe armed with a knife. You may have realized, if your knife is highly effective against a foe with a knife, what about theirs? Yeah, you’re probably both going to die. It is incredibly easy for both participants in a knife fight to suffer fatal injuries. The knife (depending on the design) can be useful as an off-hand parrying tool. You’re not planning to actually kill someone with it, the goal is to tie up their weapon allowing you to finish them off with your sword, however, if the opportunity presents itself, you can still stab them.

The final situation where a knife can be effective in combat is as a surprise. In rare situations where you can get within knife range and just pull it and stab them before they realize it’s there. The problem is, this is a lot closer to the ideal use of a knife, outside of combat.

The knife excels as an ambush weapon. If you want to kill someone before they realize anything’s happening, that’s when the knife really shines. You have a blade; it is the bare minimum of what you need to get at vital organs. You can easily hide it. Hell, you can easily hide it’s profile behind your arm. You can quickly deploy it. You can put an end to an unaware foe before they realize anything’s wrong, and you can do it quietly. In the hands of someone who understands how the human body is put together, the knife is an amazing assassination tool. And an absolutely terrible battlefield weapon.

The biggest problem with this match up is reach. A greatsword is going to be at least five feet long. That’s five feet your knife wielder needs to be able to be able to move through, to attack, without being able to effectively defend themselves. The greatsword wielder simply needs to keep their blade between themselves and the knife fighter, and the knife fighter cannot approach (or attack) without being impaled. Worse, if the swordsman half-hands their blade, it’s entirely possible that they can safely thrust while keeping their blade too stable to effectively parry with a knife.

There is an inverse to this, because if a knife fighter can close the distance, the greatsword is useless. It’s nearly impossible to use a sword (of any kind) against someone who is less than a foot from your face. This is the one serious advantage of the knife, it has a minimum effective distance of zero.

When we’re talking about reach, there is both a minimum and maximum effective range for any weapon. Maximum effective range will be the furthest the weapon can successfully land a strike. (Note: This is slightly different for firearms, as they’ll have a maximum effective range, and a maximum range.) If an enemy is within that range, you can attack them, and potentially injure or kill your foe. If an enemy is within the minimum range, you can’t effectively attack them. For most swords, if a foe is within arms reach, you’re going to have a very difficult time striking effectively. If someone is literally laying on top of you, you can’t really use the sword. You might be able to punch them with the cross guard, or bash them with the hilt, but, there’s no way to get at them with the blade, they’re too close.

So, with a greatsword, you have a weapon that is highly effective at ranges from about 2-3ft to 7-10ft If you step into that range, you’ll be cut down.

With a dagger, you have an effective range of 0 to your extended arm’s length. (And, you start losing options at a distance greater than your shoulder to elbow.) This gives you marginally more reach than an unarmed fighter, but it’s not a significant jump.

So, for your knife fighter to win, they need to get past the sword, and they don’t have a way to do that if these characters are fighting each other. They don’t have the reach. They don’t have the leverage to effectively parry. They don’t have the superhuman mobility needed to close that gap without the sword user repositioning.

If, instead of a knife, your “knife fighter,” was using a sword and board, they could block strikes coming in on the left, or protect themselves from thrusting attacks. Worst case, they could parry on the right, and the close and bash with the shield.

If your knife fighter was using a sword in their main-hand, and the dagger was a parrying tool they could punish any attempt to half-hand, as it would put the greatsword user within thrusting range. This would force the greatsword wielder to keep both hands on the grip, limiting their leverage, and it’s possible your knife fighter could parry the weak of the blade. It’s still a messy match up, but it’s not suicidal.

If your knife fighter carries a pistol, they could put a shot into the greatsword user, then finishing them off before the fight began. If you’re sitting there thinking, “that’s a random suggestion,” it’s the greatsword. The first greatswords date to the 15th century. There was never a time in the real world where greatswords existed independent of early firearms. The metallurgical and forging advances which opened the door to seven foot swords came after gunpowder started seeing widespread use in warfare.

This isn’t a consideration in fantasy settings, particularly ones with advanced magic, however in historical settings (and also low fantasy settings), it is a serious consideration. If your character has a greatsword, they should be living in a world with muzzle loading, smoothbore firearms. They would also be living in a world with plate armor sturdy enough to deflect limited gunfire. The Greatsword was not an iron age weapon. As I’ve mentioned before, the German Zweihander and Scottish Claymore represent two of the most advanced “heavy,” sword designs ever fielded. (I’m also not trying to be exclusive here. The Spanish had the Spadone, for example, and there are a number of other European greatswords. The Claymore and Zweihander are probably the best known varieties, but there were others. There’s also the French Flamberge, but that’s slightly more complicated subject, as the name referred to an undulating blade style which appeared on everything from daggers up to greatswords.)

So, your character’s best, and probably only, hope is to shank the greatsword wielder before they know they’re there.

-Starke

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One thought on “Q&A: Never Bring a Knife to a Swordfight”

  1. “Hidalgo” had a pretty funny version of this exact fight, almost certainly an homage to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (sorry, I can’t find the video online).

    A raider pulls out a pretty cool looking scimitar.

    Frank pulls out a knife.

    The raider thinks this is hilarious.

    Frank throws the knife and kills the raider.

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