Q&A: People Wear Armor Because They Want to Win

nipplepersecution said to howtofightwrite: I don’t know if you’ve already answered this at some point (I would be super greatful for a link if you have) but how would an unarmed and unarmored person trained in hand-to-hand combat take out a fully armored knight with a sword? Would it even be possible? Unarmed person is a strong built 5’5″, armored knight is 5’10”

So, you know that scene in any Jackie Chan movie where he hits overwhelming odds and goes, “nope!” then runs in the opposite direction? This sequence is that sequence, and sensible people who value their lives disengage and retreat. They run with purpose, but they still run. The height has no bearing on this fight by the way, the armored knight could be 5’5 and the person who was 5’10 wouldn’t have any better odds. The sword would be bad enough by itself, the armor just makes everything worse for the unarmed/unarmored person.

Would it be possible? Yes. However, possible doesn’t mean easy or that you could do it in a conventional way. I bring up Jackie Chan (not just because he choreographs amazing fight scenes) because he does a great job showcasing the age old tactic of utilizing your environment and finding higher ground or a place to fight that’s more advantageous. If the unarmed/unarmored person chooses to stand and fight this suggested setup is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrell. It’d be the same with just the sword, which can keep you at a range where you can do nothing or just the armor because you don’t want to go into fisticuffs with the guy or girl wearing a medieval equivalent to brass knuckles. (I assume you’re thinking of plate as opposed to chainmail, leather, or padded armor. It is worth remembering that none of those would make this situation better.)

Plate armor is the other person wearing forty to sixty pounds of solid steel, the weight distributed across the whole of the body, and the only weak points are usually at the joints or points of articulation where the armor pieces separate. The mistake most make is assuming that because armor is heavy, it is difficult to move in or significantly slows the fighter down. This is not true. Heavy armor infantry were highly mobile, and trained to develop the endurance to fight for prolonged periods in armor specially tailored to their body. Your unarmed fighter could wear this individual down but they’d have to work for it, and that’s the sprinting, jumping over walls, fences, climbing buildings, and running across rooftops types of work for it. Stand and fight will result in them being cut up by the sword before they can get into a range to be able to harm their opponent. And even if they do manage to wear the knight down, the knight still has their armor. The best wearing the knight down does is buy the unarmed fighter time to find a weapon like a longarm/polearm which might lend them some advantage or a friend who can help them turn the tables.

Would you enjoy punching a tank? The answer is probably no. And knights aren’t just tanks, and they’re not just good at wielding swords. There’s an entire hand to hand and grappling system for knights in armor, and they were usually trained to handle multiple weapon types. So, if you unarmed fighter can manage to get rid of the sword or get themselves into a tight quarters environment where the blade is more of a liability than a help, they’ll still have to deal with an armored opponent capable of punching their lights out.

There needs to be a strong contextual reason in your narrative for the unarmored character to even think about engaging in what amounts to an almost certain suicide by sword. Even then, if they must fight, there’s no reason to battle this armored character on their opponent’s terms or the ground which benefits the armored character. The armored character has every advantage, there’s no reason to give them more.

One of the issues with the way fiction writers approach arms and armor is they think of them like accessories, a trait you give one character to differentiate them from the others. Arms and armor are really about taking an advantage over your opponent, about getting the upper hand, and bettering your own odds of survival. You bring a knife to a fist fight because you want to win, not because you want to fight fair. There’s no fighting fair when your life is at stake.

The problem for the unarmed fighter is that a even decent swordsman, or a poor one, has the means to keep them at a range where they can do nothing while the swordsman slices them to ribbons. The armor ensures that even if they do get successfully themselves past the blade without dying (a challenge all by itself) then their attacks won’t do much. The steel will hurt them more than their blows will hurt the swordsman. Their lack of armor means that any blow the sword lands has the potential to be fatal, even if the wound is not deep. A sword doesn’t need more than an inch of penetration to land a killing blow. Once someone starts poking holes in your muscles, they stop working. The unarmed/unarmored fighter has to be better than perfect to succeed where the armored swordsmen can be merely okay to not great, and even then the unarmed fighter will likely still die.

None of this means impossible, it just means you’re going to have to work really goddamn hard to sell the sequence. This is where the Jackie Chan advice is helpful because you don’t need your character to win in order to cement them as a badass in your audience’s imagination. A chase scene can be as exciting as a fight scene, and a chase scene can easily transition into a fight scene. It’s important to know when your character is outmatched for the sake of your own narrative tension, so you don’t blow your story on a one off in a desperate need to prove yourself. Running from the guy who brought the gun to the knife fight, especially when he had the presence of mind to draw before the knifer could get in range, is having a sense of self-preservation. A sense of self-preservation and threat assessment are important skills for any trained fighter to possess.


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