Q&A: The Reasons Speed and Finnesse are so Important in Combat

Is there any form of serious real-world fighting that doesn’t care much about speed or finesse, and just wants to pick up a big, heavy object to clobber the enemy with? Or is this a fictional shorthand for “this character is a dumb brute” without a real-world referent?

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Not really. I was going to start with a joke like, “axes, hammers, and cruise missiles,” but the truth is, those do require precision and speed.

You can’t do without speed, that is absolutely vital. Even in the cliché example of a character swinging a massive club, it’s physically dependent on speed to inflict harm.

A quick, and very basic, physics lesson: F=MA. That is to say, “Force = Mass * Acceleration.” In the case of clobbering someone with a massive object, you need to get it up to speed. Once you do that you can deliver a lot of force to the target, however, it’s also harder to get it moving. You need to expend energy to get that object going, and the larger it is, the more energy you’ll use. This is where a tradeoff happens in weapon design: A heavier weapon can deliver more force, however, it will require more energy from its wielder. If they can’t get it up to speed, it may actually underperform a lighter weapon.

(In general, lighter weapons actually come out ahead here, because getting them up to speed takes dramatically less energy. It’s been years but, my recollection is that the energy needed increases geometrically to linear increases in mass. So, if you keep the acceleration the same, doubling the mass of an object would quadruple the energy consumption. Someone with more of a physics background might be able to correct me there.)

Additionally, if you lack speed, your foe will have time to respond before you complete your strike. A lot of combat exists in a range where you’re pressing against the brain’s ability to process information quickly. Specifically, there’s some lag between when you see something occur, and your brain processes what happened. This is in fractions of a second, but when you slow down, you’re giving your opponent more time for their brain to catch up with what’s happening.

(This is also why most real combat styles focus on keeping your arms inside your profile, while visual media prioritizes placing them outside. Your brain identifies and tracks objects by finding the outline. If that outline is clear, tracking the object is easier, and significantly faster.)

For example, if you’re fighting with a baseball bat, it is significantly more effective to jab with the tip, rather than swing it. Swinging the weapon creates a massive, clear, outline that your foe can track, while simply jabbing them is faster and offers limited visual information. It may connect with less force, but it will reliably connect, where a swing gives your opponent plenty of time to interrupt the strike.

As for a fighting style that eschews finesse? That’s called, “the real world.” There’s a very noble goal for being able to manage how a fight flows, but in real combat, it’s not happening.

So, let’s pull this apart a little. In violence, finesse is a means, not an end. You’re trying to use as little energy as possible to inflict as much harm as you can. The thing about this is, you always want that. It’s a survival instinct. The less energy you expend to neutralize a threat, the safer you will be. The less energy you have after a fight, the less you’ll be able to defend against future threats (until you’ve recovered.) Getting into a battle of attrition is incredibly dangerous, because you can’t be certain you’ll outlast your opponent.

Finesse is being precise with your strikes to maximize their effect.

The problem is, precision in training and precision in combat are worlds apart. When you’re training (even when you’re using something big and kludgy) you’re going to train to strike for maximum effect. When you’re fighting, even if you’re fighting with, “a weapon that requires finesse,” you’re going to be struggling to land blows exactly where you want. Your opponent is moving and fighting back. While training may have prepared you for this moment, you’re going to have to adapt, and that adaptation will not be graceful.

Combat is not graded on who looked cooler. It’s not graded on who had the better technique. The only thing that matters is who survived and who didn’t. You train to be precise so that when the actual fight starts you have a better chance of ending it before it gets out of hand, and if that fails, you’ve got a better chance of getting in a decisive hit.

So, if the question was, “did people ever go out there and beat each other to death with hammers?” The answer is yes, but, the hammers were much more agile than you might have expected, and the people who trained to use them had a pretty good idea of how to be efficient with the things.

-Starke

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