Tag Archives: knives

Q&A: General Terminology

What would be the difference between using a knife and using a dagger in combat?

I know you included your name, but I’ve anonymize it, because I don’t want this to sound like a teardown of you.

“Knife” is a catch all term. It includes an incredibly diverse range of bladed implements, ranging from kitchen utensils to combat tools and technical equipment. So, it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that there’s no such thing as, “a knife,” in any definitive sense; there are many knives, not just one.

Daggers are, slightly more uniform than that. They usually refer to double edged knives intended for use in combat; and yes, daggers are knives. These might be offensive weapons or parrying tools, and each of those are different weapons. These would later evolve into more specialized variants, like the stiletto; which is a dagger, and not a dagger.

That’s the problem. These aren’t two separate weapons. Not like asking, “what’s the difference between a sword and an axe,” for example.

There is a legitimate question here: “How do you use different kinds of knives in combat?” Unfortunately, the answer is almost as diverse. There are knives designed to parry your opponent’s mainhand weapon. There are narrow blades designed to be inserted through gaps in their armor. There are broad blades, designed to carry themselves via their weight. There are serrated blades designed to do as much tissue damage on the way in and out. This is before you consider curved blades designed to slice more effectively, straight blades for piercing stabs, and a dizzying array of different combinations of designs.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

Hotheads to who jump into fights at a moments notice over a slight or insult with something to prove are beginners. They’re not (usually) seasoned soldiers. Seasoned combatants understand the costs and consequences of violence, both to themselves and the people around them. They’re more likely to make mental calculations regarding risk, assess risk, and decide whether they will or won’t fight. The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

This doesn’t sound like its a duel, but if you were thinking it might be then I’ll lay down some facts.

Duels are highly ritualized as a form of combat, and come with very specific rules of what does and doesn’t constitute a duel. (Much less the people who can take part in them.) Duels, Code Duello, Medieval Duels. If you’re up for reading some Medieval Charters in regards to dueling as a legal means of settling disputes, here’s some. In some cases, they’re a means of settling a dispute or challenge to ones honor.  We still have duels today as a point of fact, it’s just the duelists and their swords have been replaced with lawyers. For a duel to be a duel, they’d both need to be armed. Usually with the same weapon, otherwise its not a test of skill or fair. Weapons inherently offer advantages over each other, and if you’re not fighting with the same weapon then that would be cheating. This fight between these two is not be what we’d call Right Honorable Combat, and its probably illegal.

“Daggers and such” covers a lot of ground.  It could mean one of these characters has daggers, swords, polearms, or even a flail. Also, when fighting with weapons, you’re usually fighting with intent to kill. If that wasn’t the other character’s intent, they might put their weapon away when facing off against the character who is unarmed. I’m going to assume this unarmed character is squaring off against an opponent who carries a dagger. However, I did note the plurality of weapons. You will immediately run into trouble if you don’t hammer down which weapon the unarmed character is facing, or if they decided to dual wield with the second weapon as defensive. Different weapons require different approaches as each comes with its own concerns. Distance is a major one. The only universal rule is: don’t get hit.

Start with the assumption one of these characters is actively trying to kill the other, if he wasn’t then he’d put the weapon away. Outside of highly ritualized and carefully moderate dueling structures where one might call for time at first blood, a highly skilled character will understand weapons are for killing. With weapons, especially bladed weapons, skill level isn’t a matter of deciding when you kill and when you don’t. It is a matter of deciding whether or not you care to risk your opponent’s death. If they were interested in a test of skill or even just a friendly hand to hand bought, they wouldn’t pull it to begin with. Your main character needs to win this duel because if they don’t, they’ll be either grievously wounded or dead.

Working under a predetermined outcome when writing a fight scene is the worst decision. What we want in our heads won’t necessarily translate to the page, and more importantly characters who know they’re going to live will behave differently from characters who don’t know they will. Simulating the chance of death in your mind by entertaining death as a possible outcome will force them and you to work harder. They’ve got to earn their right to survive.

Now, your character isn’t planning to win because the plot needs to progress. He’s fighting because he wants to live.

Feel the difference? We’re now six inches closer to real tension.

Highly skilled doesn’t translate to guaranteed survival, it just means you’ve got a better grasp of what’s happening, how screwed you are, and potentially have more tools to escape a bad situation. They allow the character to recognize the danger their facing, what the intent of their opponent is, and, hopefully, act accordingly before its too late. There is, however, only so much training can give. Weapons are one of the situations where an unskilled character can make up the difference against one who is highly skilled. Weapons are the great equalizer. A guy with a knife is a guy with a knife. Whether you’ve been training for five minutes or eight years, there’s a extremely high chance of death if you’re unarmed and unarmored. The difference between the person who has trained for five minutes and the one who trained for eight years is that the experienced one has a better understanding of what it means when someone pulls a knife. They know it means they’re at an 80% or greater chance of death. They know a wrong move could, at best, result in an injury they may never recover from. Their chance of victory is razor thin where the margin of error is next to none. This is why smart warriors don’t fight other people with weapons without weapons of their own or, if they cannot avoid it, change the rules.

I’m going to assume too that you’re going with the old Defeat Means Friendship trope. You want Character A to be fought to a standstill by Character B who disarms them, then when put under threat to their life surprises Character A by letting them live and giving them back their weapon. (Which promptly causes Character A to stab them if we’re being realistic, but that’s not what the trope is about. If you want this trope, please give the weapon back later.) The problem, of course, is you’ll completely undercut Character A’s combat ability if you do it wrong.

Personally, my favorite rendition of this trope is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood film with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland where Robin Hood dueled Little John on the bridge with a staff after Little John called him out over his bow. Robin took Little John’s challenge (he can’t resist a challenge), dueled with a weapon he was less familiar with, lost, and got dunked in the river. Their friendship was born out of Robin Hood’s good humor over his bath and his appreciation for Little John’s skill. (This is a great foreshadowing for the archery competition later in the movie.)

In the film, we had plenty of opportunities to see Robin’s skill earlier. Little John needed to establish himself. By having him beat Robin with the weapon that is his specialty, we as the audience understand how skilled he is. Just as when Friar Tuck fought Robin to a standstill later as Robin attempted to recruit him. (And his men pranked him about the good friar’s skill with a sword, aka they lied.) Robin’s friendships with his men evolve not from his skill or how he’s better than they are, but in his ability to handle defeat gracefully and genuinely appreciate their skills. In both moments, we see him duel to test out these potential recruits. In both, he gets a good dunking in the river that is entirely his own fault.

You see, Robin establishes his ability much earlier in the movie when he lays claim to the deer killed by Much the Miller to protect him from Sir Guy of Gisborne. He then carries it into Nottingham Castle. (Saxon taking an illegally killed deer into a castle full of Norman knights alone.) Dumps the deer carcass on Prince John’s table in the Great Hall during dinner, and proceeds to tell Prince John, Sir Guy, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marian, the Bishop of the Black Canons, and all his knights over the dinner he’s invited himself to that he’s planning sedition to fight John’s rule. After hearing him out, John attempts to have him killed by the castle’s men at arms and all the knights present. Robin, still alone, then fights his way out of the Castle.

In the process he shows off his sword skills, his archery skills, his moxie, his fluency with treason, his strategic/tactical ability, and his quick thinking. (The fight scene that follows is probably one of the best if you ever want to write one person versus a whole room full of people. It involves the fine art of running away with purpose and the occasional murder.)

We know about about Robin. We know he’s brash, reckless, and incredibly skilled. That’s why the later fights with Little John and Friar Tuck have so much meaning when it comes to establishing their skills. They can go toe to toe with the guy who strutted into Prince John’s castle as a wanted man then got back out again while the heavily armed and armored inhabitants tried to kill him.

Whatever purpose you have for this fight scene, it’s important to remember what it is establishing in the relationship between these two characters. Take the lesson from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and understand it isn’t enough just to win. The fight scene needs to be there for a reason. Perhaps, more importantly, the kinds of fight scenes you write must revolve around what you’re trying to say about these characters abilities. Two characters you want to be seen as evenly skilled need to fight evenly. Friendships aren’t built on superiority. The protagonist being beaten is a different category from all other fictional defeats, it doesn’t delegitimize them the way it will a character we spend less time with. For the protagonist, defeats they survive are learning experiences and we learn far more about a person by how they handle defeat than we do when they win.

Robin Hood isn’t less awesome because he loses to Little John at the bridge, he’s actually that much more incredible than he was before. We learn its not just his skills he appreciates, but those of the people who best him. We know Robin is willing to fight others on their terms for the fun of it, rather than his own. Little John being better than Robin at one skill doesn’t take away from Robin’s previous victories. Robin’s acceptance shows his abilities as a leader better than being superior with a staff he made five minutes prior.

A character fighting another character when they have a weapon and the other character doesn’t isn’t showing that both are equally skilled. It’s actually showing one with a significant advantage over the other. When the underdog beats him, the underdog is shown to be much more skilled. That’s the point of unevenly balanced fights in fiction.

Little John: “I’ve only a staff and you threaten me with a long bow and a gray goose shaft. Are you not man enough…?”

Robin Hood: “Give me time to get myself a staff.” – The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Two characters fighting with the same weapons are on an even field, this is a battle of skill. Two characters fighting with different weapons are unevenly balanced, the shifting advantages make the combat difficult and the scene becomes about one character problem solving around their disadvantage. A scene where two characters are highly skilled but one is armed and the other is not will end with the unarmed character either dying or proving they are that much more skilled than the one with the weapon.

Disarms are difficult against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. There is no room for error, especially with a knife which can cut six different times in six different ways before you’ve a chance to grab it. Disarming someone who knows what they’re doing with their weapon is much harder.

A knife offers no room for error, every strike has the potential to be deadly. In order to disarm your opponent, you need to catch them by the wrist (not the knife) which puts one in direct line to get stabbed. You’ve got to catch the knife while simultaneously keeping yourself outside of stabbing distance. You can kick a knife out of someone’s hand, but then you don’t control it. You can attack the person instead of the knife as some self-defense disciplines encourage, with the theory being the person can’t use their knife if they’re disabled but so long as the knife is in hand that’s the present danger. Understand that inside their range the knife is as dangerous as the gun, if not more so. The knife is still as relevant today as a weapon as it was a thousand years ago. Think about that.

Daggers are essentially short swords, but the same principle is here. To stop a knife when one is unarmed, you need an immediate and brutal response. You need an immediate and brutal response when you’re armed too. This is not a weapon where you’re given time, consideration, and distance. It is fast, brutal, and over quickly. Any hit, even a glancing blow, has the potential to be end game. Character B can’t allow themselves to suffer no injuries, otherwise they’ll spend the next few months hoping their stitches don’t get infected or they’ll bleed out before they can get medical attention. This can be a problem as, against a knife, it’s often necessary to give up a body part in order to take it. It can’t strike other, more vital places if it’s in your hand. (Not a great option.) Or buried in the bone in your forearm. (Better.)

When fighting, one actually has to work around the knife. This is easier said than done, again knives are fast. They’re near modern fencing levels of fast while also much more deadly. They’ve got a lot less distance to cover and they’re very sharp. Forget about catching the blade unless your character has solid leather gauntlets (though those might get cut), metal is better.  They’re going to need to stop the arm long enough to take hold of the wrist and twist the dagger out of the enemy’s hands.

Disarms against weapons, especially when you have none of your own, are always incredibly dangerous. Skill means you can do them at all, but it doesn’t make them any safer or any more of a good idea. Gun disarms are for when you were going to get shot anyway, and you might as well go down fighting because there’s less than a 50/50 of success. Knife disarms are the same way.

The sad truth is that disabling someone is much more difficult than killing them, it is much riskier, and you’re much more likely to die in the attempt. We double that against someone who knows what they’re doing. Weapons are serious business and they’re designed around killing human beings.

Good fight scenes are about progressing the story forward. They teach us about the personalities of the characters involved, how they work, how they think, what their morals are, and they communicate more through the character’s actions than you think. Be careful with what you’re attempting to say.

An unarmed character disarming a mook with a knife will tell us a lot about their character without damaging anyone (except the mook we may never see again.) An unarmed character encountering and disarming another major character with a knife is a very different story, especially when this is the first time we meet them.

By and large, the rules of action are these:

  1. The protagonist is the baseline for understanding all narrative violence. They are the net point, all audience understanding of skill within the narrative begins with them. You want a character the audience understands is better than the protagonist? They beat the protagonist or beat someone established as being better than. (The villain murdering your martial arts master.) By constantly winning the protagonist undercuts everyone else.
  2. Have your protagonist lose or fight opponents to a standstill, usually on mostly even ground.
  3. They can defeat and disarm an important enemy, but only that enemy has thoroughly proved their worth in battle and you don’t wish to use them anymore. It can be a redemption kickstarter, but we need to witness their villainy and skills first. The hero better earn this win.
  4. Keep your characters on a relatively even playing field for tension unless there’s a very specific reason not to. Unarmed characters versus armed characters may seem like an easy way to establish skill, but you are catapulting them into a level of action you and they may not be prepared to make good on. (Also if one character beats another at the previous character’s specialty, what’s the point of that character?)
  5. Violence escalates and your story will escalate with it. Unless utilizing a different sort of action (see: Robin Hood), you can get caught in a cycle of enemies ratcheting ever higher in skill in order to maintain tension.
  6. Your villain is either more skilled than your hero or on an even keel with their own advantages that ensure they remain dangerous, no matter the humiliations they may suffer throughout the story. (Robin Hood steals Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s tax collection while he’s traveling in the forest, kidnaps him and his men, humiliates them, and makes them walk home. Sir Guy sets up an archery tournament and takes him captive, planning to hang him. He is saved by Marian, who sneaks out of the castle and visits his men with a plan.)
  7. Set your hero at the disadvantage, but stay within the realm of reason even when that reason may feel ridiculous. (Wesley fighting Fezzik in The Princess Bride.)
  8. Understand the kind of action you want in your story. Realism is the rules of reality within your setting. Worry about abiding by them and maintaining suspension of disbelief.
  9. Do not be afraid to humiliate your hero in order to set up the skills of other characters. If Character A is the protagonist, then Character B taking the knife from him could result in a good life lesson. (This is a traditional plot point when the protagonist meets their martial arts master. Not so great for showing two characters of equal skill level.)
  10. Inside out, rather than outside in. The justification of a fight is character driven as the character justifies the narrative. Violence is a means of problem solving, if your characters are not problem solving then they’re not using their skills effectively.
  11. Fight scenes are there to support your narrative, they do not have to be there. Don’t let the fight scene override the rest of your story. Act to maintain your tension.
  12. All violence must be paid off with resulting character interaction later in the narrative. Violence almost causes more problems than it solves.

Saying two characters are highly skilled is not enough, you need to show it and show it as a means that undercuts neither. A character who has already been proven as a great fighter earlier can lose to another in order to bolster that character’s cred with the audience. Remember, the POV character and protagonist always have more starting cred to their name than any other character.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I hope it helps.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Can you fight with a pocket knife? How would you hold it without being in danger of it folding up and slicing off your fingers or something?

Personally, if it doesn’t have a locking mechanism, I wouldn’t try using it in combat. During normal use, you’d never apply pressure against the back of the blade, so the knife wouldn’t be at risk of folding. Additionally, if you were concerned about a risk of the blade folding, you’d grip the handle along the edges, avoiding the groove that holds the blade for storage. But, that’s not really an option in combat.

Larger folding knives usually have some kind of safety catch designed to prevent the blade from collapsing on your fingers while using it. This may be as simple as a bent plate that snaps into position stabilizing and locking the blade while open, or it may be a hinged mechanism that holds the blade in place, and can be released by pressing a control somewhere on the grip.

Normally, you’ll start to see these on blades over three inches, though some smaller knives do include locking mechanisms.

I wouldn’t worry about the blade taking off the user’s fingers, but, having the blade collapse, cutting into the index finger, would be a real concern.

The thing about this is, most pocket knives that lack a locking mechanism aren’t going to be large enough to use effectively in combat. So, the risk of them folding on your hand is fairly slim. Larger knives should lock open. It’s also worth noting that I’ve never seen one of these mechanisms fail, I’m sure it can, but it’s an extremely rare occurrence.

If you end up with a knife large enough to use in a fight, but without a locking mechanism, I’d recommend against using it. At all, really, even as a utility tool, I’d worry about the risk of it folding. These locking mechanisms aren’t there so you can stab someone, they’re a safety feature for using the knife under normal circumstances. A large folding knife without a locking mechanism of some kind just wouldn’t be safe to use.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

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?”


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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron.

do you have any comparisons on how big a knife has to be to do x amount of damage and the type of the blade? (I don’t really know if that made much sense)

It doesn’t really work like that.

Damage as a value is something you see in games because it’s an easy to
articulate abstraction. “You have a knife it does five points of damage. You
have a character, they have fifteen hit points.” That’s very easy to calculate,
and you’re looking at 3 attacks before the character expires.

What knives, and most weapons, actually do is tear apart tissue. It’s not
that your liver takes X amount of damage, it’s “did the knife pierce it? Is it
now bleeding?”

For games, that’s a bit daunting. It’s a lot easier to say a character can
take a fixed amount of damage before they expire, then tell the players to work
within that limit. At that point, it’s a natural fit to say that weapons have
fixed damage values. You can then modify these two elements to create a sense
of verisimilitude. It’s not how the world actually
works, but it feels good and creates a legitimate tensions for the

The closest you get to a hit point style calculation in the real world is, “how
fast are you loosing blood?” Usually, that’s what will kill you. At that point,
the only real distinguishing element is how big a hole did your weapon make. It
doesn’t have to be very big to get the job done. Bigger holes, or more holes
will get the job done faster.

The size and shape of a knife isn’t about how much damage it does, but how
you can use it. Anything over three inches is long enough to kill you. Larger
knives allow for different strike patterns. At a slightly abstract level, with
larger knives you’re trading speed and agility for mass. So, you use them in
different ways, prioritize different targets, and fight at different ranges.
Small knives are usable at zero range, while large knives (like machetes or bayonets)
actually have a minimum effective range, like swords and other “full sized”
melee weapons.

There is a purpose to the hitpoint abstraction, even in your writing, so
long as you keep in mind that it’s an artificial system. As we’ve said, many
times before, combat takes a toll on its participants. HP can be a legitimate
way of pacing your fight scenes, so long as it’s not information you’re putting
directly in front of your audience.

You never want to say, my character took X damage from that attack, but if
you’re actually writing about how your character narrowly avoided a blow that
caught and tore their jacket, or how they skinned a knuckle.

If you honestly have a hard time pacing fight scenes, giving your characters
a fixed value representing their health, stamina, and general good luck keeping
them out of harm, and then chipping away at it isn’t the worst possible exercise.
So long as you don’t turn around and then simply relate a turn by turn
breakdown of who slapped whom around, you may find it helpful in gauging how
fast your fight scenes should play out.

But if you’re close enough to use them, knives will absolutely ruin somebody’s


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron.

Hi! I was working on my book, and I decided that a character of mind needs to carry a concealed blade of some sort. As I was thinking through weapons, I remembered the Hidden Blade from Assassin’s Creed, and I got curious. Is that actually plausible? I have no idea how the blade is sprung, or resheathed. Anyways, if you can shine some light on that, it would be cool to know. Thanks a lot! Love this blog btw.

I’m having this weird sense of deja vu.

Anyway, joking aside, OTF (out the front) switchblades are real. The actual mechanical structure of the hidden blades are possible with modern technology. Someone carrying around a self cleaning OTF knife in 1191? That’s less likely.

But, Jack Bauer carrying a Microtec HALO III in early 2000s LA? That’s a real knife you can buy. Or could when 24 was in it’s first couple seasons. I think the HALO III, specifically, was discontinued.

The biggest problem with Assassin’s Creed is just that the hidden blades would gunk up with organic material. The games say the blades are self cleaning, which would imply some pretty ridiculously tight mechanical tolerances. Which is possible, but not likely. In setting, I’ve always been under the impression that the hidden blades were based on First Civilization technology, but otherwise they’re anachronistic, for what they’re capable of, and the eras they’re used in. In the real world, you probably want to wipe the knife off after using it, before retracting it, though that’s usually good advice for any blade you just buried in someone.

As for spring assisted collapsing knives, I literally have a Hoffman Richter HR-15 about six inches from my hand right now. So, it’s reasonable to say, “yes, these things do exist.”

Collapsible knives can be easily concealed in almost any pocket. Ones with belt clips can be attacked to the cuff of a jacket or shirt just as easily, though they will hang a little strangely.

I honestly prefer non-powered lockblade knives, because they’re quieter, and easier to collapse one handed. Most OTF knives require two hands to rearm. That said, some do have push button recharge mechanisms, so it’s not a universal truth.

You can buy, or make, OTF knives that will behave like the hidden blade in Assassin’s Creed. Though, it’s also worth pointing out, those may run you afoul of local weapons laws, depending on where you live.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron.

If a character wishes to disable their opponent’s arm by stabbing them with a knife from behind, which would deal more damage – leaving the knife in, or pulling it out?

Pulling it out.

If you leave a knife in the body, then it blocks the blood from leaving the body. As the attacker, this character will want their opponent to start bleeding out and to keep their weapon. It is worth noting that a knife is a solid stabby weapon that’s very good at killing.

This is why characters who dramatically pull the knife out in media are morons. They are in a highly stressful situation, engaging in strenuous physical activity, both of which will lead them to a quick bleed out. (Your heart pumps your blood through your body and it will not stop just because someone cut you. The faster your heart goes, the more quickly blood is being pumped. The blood must flow somewhere. In this case, right out the hole.)


Is there a disadvantage to someone using two daggers against their opponent using a sword?

Yes. Not being able to reach the swordsman.

Any semi-competent swordsman will be able to keep their blade between themselves and their opponent. At that point, they should be able to skewer the knife fighter without reprisal.

Actual combat isn’t like, say, D&D. It’s not that one character can deal 1d8 damage, and the other can deal 1d4 in two separate attacks and they’re standing in adjacent spaces. Your knife fighter needs to be closer to their opponent than the sword allows. If they try to close that distance, they’re very likely to end up run through in the process.

Real world combat involves a concept called “reach”. You see this one relied on a lot by some writers, but very few actually grasp what it means. Reach is the distance you have between yourself and your opponent, basically how far it takes to hit them. Hand to hand uses reach to define the different zones around the body, how far it takes to hit someone with your legs, how far it takes to hit an opponent with your hands, when you’re in the grappling zone, to define which techniques get used when. One usually transitions as you get closer, so from legs, to hands, to grappling, until we fall into ground fighting.

That’s very basic and the rules change drastically depending on the styles involved (more so than the body type). With weapons, reach or the distance it takes to strike your opponent is also very important. Different weapons come in different lengths, shortening or lengthening the distance.

Knives, particularly short knives, are most useful when supplementing hand to hand combat rather than weapon combat. They provide an added benefit when placed against the distance involved and blades are more effective than hands/fists.

When placed against a weapon with greater length, as I said above, like a sword it has a disadvantage because it must close a greater distance in order to reach the opponent. The same is true for the sword versus a longarm/polearm such as a staff or a spear. The sword must close a greater distance in order to strike, while the spear has the ability to strike from a safe distance where the sword cannot reach them. The situation can change based on environment and the people involved are very important. However, in the flat comparison of two weapons: the sword has the advantage because of it’s greater reach.

More importantly, the concept of the slow and lumbering longsword is a myth. Swords are very quick. The best advantage a knife wielder has in the scenario is to kill the swordsman before they can draw or be in an advantageous range before the fight begins. They can also work them into a position where the sword loses it’s advantage due to the environment or situation.

In traditional combat, the second weapon often serves a defensive purpose rather than a primarily offensive one. It behaves like a shield, locking up the other weapon and creating openings in the opponent’s defense so the wielder can strike. This won’t help two knives much against a sword, because reach is still an issue and the second weapon doesn’t negate it. Two knives don’t function in the same manner as say a rapier and a parrying dagger, but it is worth keeping in mind for when you’re writing your scene.


Knife Fighting Do’s and Dont’s

Scott: What they gotcha teachin’ here, young sergeant?

Jackie Black: Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.

Scott: Don’t you teach ‘em knife fighting. Teach ’em to kill. That way, they meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to hell.

Spartan, 2004

There really is no right answer to knife fighting, except, perhaps, the above quote. When you’re setting out to write a scene, it’s best to assess your priorities first and what your story needs. In the real world, knife combat comes in many different forms and works as a supplemental weapon in most military disciplines. It’s a common weapon in self-defense situations, and can be used both by the aggressor and the defender.

What is a knife?

Primarily, it’s a tool and, like all tools, there are situations where it thrives and those where it dies. It succeeds as an ambush weapon, as a builder on hand to hand, and when fighting in very tight quarters. Combat with knives is very quick and very deadly. As an ambush weapon, it is often used to close the distance or rush a target. Allow the knife wielder to get close to an opponent wielding a sword or a gun before either can be drawn and they will have the clear advantage. However, take the knife out of tight environments and it’s effectiveness will decrease dramatically. This is why it’s unlikely to be the only weapon in a character’s arsenal, especially not when you’re writing a professional combatant.

What kind of fight are you writing?

The knife is a deadly weapon in the hands of anyone, it doesn’t require any specialized training to be able to wield it. It’s more user friendly to killing than even a gun and can require less maintenance. Basic understanding works fine. You pick it up, you stab, and then you stab some more. The stabs may all go to one place, often the gut, but five or six into one place will leave the other character bleeding out on the sidewalk.

It’s up to you on whether or not you want to (or if it’s even appropriate to your story) write a scene which is more sophisticated. Remember, it doesn’t have to be. The basic principle of the knife is incredibly simple: You’re gonna shank a dude.

So, don’t freak out.

When it comes to a knife, anywhere on the body is a convenient target. Anywhere. This is one of the few weapons where you really don’t need to know much about it to write a scene. The knife is fairly intuitive. Unless your character needs to get fancy with their martial combat, then you do need to study. Even then, you still need to pick your martial art and do your research. Plenty of martial styles have a knife component, so it’s more a matter of searching through the different styles to find the one which fits your character and story.

Below the cut, I’ll discuss some basic theory and suggestions that hopefully will be enough to get you a jumping off point into the fine art of shanking. This is no means a comprehensive list, just basic beginner tips.

Knife fighting isn’t sword fighting with minis. This is the first, and most important, lesson. They belong in separate categories. Knives are supplementary weapons in hand to hand and when included significantly raise the threat level to what that individual intends. When someone whips out a knife in combat, they are raising the stakes from “someone might die” to “I definitely want to kill somebody”.

Knife combat is very fast and any received injury will be devastating. Someone with a knife versus someone without one has a significant advantage. Knives are very dangerous and, if your character isn’t careful, a fight can easily end with a double suicide when both characters are bleeding their guts out on the side of a highway.

There are a lot of different kinds of “knife fighting” out there and many different techniques available for you to look into for your character. The question is what kind of knife fighting are they trained in/used to? Many traditional martial arts all around the globe have their own set or subset of combat tactics when wielding a knife. Military and Police H2H do as well, though the techniques employed by Police will focus less on using a knife and more on disarming/subduing an opponent who carries one. The knife is a very common weapon for street level criminals and it’s genuinely viewed as the most dangerous of the weapons one can encounter in that environment. (Yes, even more dangerous than a gun and also more common.) Some of the more “militant” or “practical” self-defense subsets advocate using knives for self-defense.

Whatever you choose to go with in your story, it’s best to remember this one simple rule when it comes to knife combat: like all bladed weapons, knives are for killing. If a character pulls a knife on another character then they are making an active threat on their life. Their intentions no longer matter, the threat is “if you don’t give me what I want, I will kill you” or “I plan to kill you”.

Knives are best suited to opportunistic combat and tight spaces. In a wide view for the professional combatant, they are usually the fallback weapon or situational weapon that gets pulled when the character needs to either be stealthy/carry an easily concealable weapon, or give them an advantage within tight/confined spaces where a sword, pole arm, or gun aren’t practical. Knives are easily concealable, very dangerous in unarmed/unarmored combat, and often end with someone dead or grievously injured.

If your character specializes in knife combat, then they need to be able to accurately assess the appropriate situations where knife combat is viable and where it is not. Weapons are specialized for different situations. Accept that bringing a knife to a gun fight or sword fight is a losing proposition if they try to take them head on. What makes a character “skilled” is not their ability to face all comers or overcome the rules by virtue of being awesome, it’s in their ability to accurately assess a situation and develop a plan of action which plays to their strengths. While their plan may go sideways (no plans are ever guaranteed success), it’s the thought that counts.

Do Hang onto Your Knife

This seems like simple and obvious advice, but your character is not guaranteed to hold onto their knife throughout the entire fight. The character’s knife can be just as dangerous to them as their opponent’s if they fail to keep a firm grip. Without properly applied pressure, the blade can simply slip free, slide through the hand and cut it open, or be dropped when filled with adrenaline. Cutting and stabbing another individual relies on pressure, if the character’s grip is not secure then they may simply lose the knife. Characters with little to no combat experience will be more subject to this law. Even so, mistakes can happen to anyone regardless of experience level.

Do Avoid the Blade

Knives are very dangerous weapons, any cut your character suffers during the fight can potentially be lethal. The reason for this is blood loss. The more active you are, the more blood your body pumps through your heart, if there is a hole in your body then the more blood will escape during the fight. The more holes you get, the more blood escapes and there is nowhere on your body a knife can hit that won’t draw blood. Your veins are everywhere. One single hit can lead to a chain of from bad to worse.

Knife fights happen within very close proximity, even if your character is armed that won’t protect them from getting cut. A character is going to want to stay out of range of the knife until they are ready to commit. Instead of grasping and grappling, you’re going to be looking at a fair amount of ducking, dodging, and deflecting. It’s not like with basic hand to hand where you’re characters can simply trade blows. The fighters want to keep the knives as far from them as humanly possible. Catch the blade either early in the swing (as the arm draws back) or late in the swing (after they’ve fully extended) to initiate a counter attack, or cut under as they swing. Whatever your character does, their priority is going to be on keeping that knife away from them so the other person cannot reverse and stab.

Use your characters “free” (non-weapon carrying) hand for blocking, deflecting, and controlling. Characters who use the Phillipino martial art escrima may supplement their free hand with a short stick or a baton. Characters wielding two knives give up their ability to deflect and control their opponent. They are trading their defensive options for more stabbing power.

Do Keep Track of the Blade

This is more for when you the author are writing, but also a good plan for your characters. When writing fight scenes, especially when both characters are armed, there’s a bad habit of writers imagining the sequence like a video game. The knife is important only so long as it’s there to establish a threat, once one character gets the upper hand then it’s immediately forgotten.

Don’t forget it’s there. Even if it gets knocked free or knocked away in the fight. As the writer, always know where the weapons are even if the other characters forget about them. Anything can happen with a free weapon. Any other character can pick it up, any other character can make off with it, and be waiting when your victorious protagonist walks around the corner. If the character still has the knife, then they can still stab your protagonist even when they are winning. Sometimes, even when they are dying. Keep track of all weapons in the scene.

Don’t Grab the Blade

Your hand is full of nerves and important tendons necessary for maintaining a grip. A blade will slice through all of them and cripple your character, leaving them bleeding and unable to defend themselves. Your hand is a mechanical marvel, it is incredibly delicate. When damaged, it can take a long while to recover, assuming it ever does.

This is why deflection is so important in knife fights, as well as more risky blocks that expose lesser parts of the body to injury in exchange for more important ones. These blocks include using the edge of the forearm, where the bone is closest to the surface and there are few important muscles, to attempt to catch or lockup the blade in the bone. This is, however, incredibly risky. Alternate knife grips, such as a reverse grip, can avoid this block by slashing under instead of the expected over and sever the veins and tendons before following up with a stab to the ribs or gut. If you really, really, really must have your character do something with their hand then instead of grabbing the blade, ram their hand through it. It is terrible advice and will do long term damage to the hand, but if there’s no other way out go that route. Your character will appear slightly smarter because they attempted to lock the blade up in the bones inside the hand. Locking up the knife creates an opening for them to attack. It’s definitely a sacrificial gesture, but if it’s your hand or your life then go with the hand.

Deflect at the hand, the wrist, the elbow, and upper arm. Make contact with the opponent and not the blade itself. If your character must attempt a disarm (very dangerous), catch the wrist or the hand. Take the hilt, torque the blade against the thumb (not the fingers) to pop it free. The other character won’t be able to hold onto the blade. Like with most martial actions, taking the knife isn’t about strength. It’s about attacking the weak link (the thumb), forcing the hilt into a position where the attacker can no longer maintain a grip.

Disarms are exceedingly dangerous to perform. So, when writing, always try ensure that the necessary body parts are protected and the blade is redirected somewhere else. Best if it’s in a position where it can no longer come at you again.

Don’t Fuck Around

One general problem many authors have is they assume when someone becomes “good” then basic threats no longer apply. In game terms, they level past certain dangers and when they do those dangers no longer apply. Now, this is a common cliche in many martial arts movies. The trick is understanding that it’s a failing on the part of the student and their overconfidence inevitably brings them back down to earth.

It doesn’t matter how good your character is, combat is always dangerous. A character’s professionalism is defined by how seriously they take the threats made on their life and the part where they recognize the inherent danger present in any situation. What they know will not keep them safe from danger. It gives them a better chance and that’s all.

You never level past danger. Whether they’ve seen one battle or a hundred, treat every threat seriously and end it quickly. The longer a fight goes on, the greater the chance that something will go wrong.

Don’t Prolong Suffering

It’s cruel. If your character is in a situation where they must kill, then killing quickly is kindness. While this should probably go under “Don’t Fuck Around”, this is deserving of its own topic.

In Dune, when young Paul Atreides must duel Jamis to secure his position within Stilgar’s Fremen tribe, he is initially condemned by the other members of the tribe when he prolongs the fight. The issue for him is that while he is an exceptionally skilled combatant, he’s never killed before and is hesitant to take a life. However, his lifetime of training has left him so skilled that the Fremen see his behavior as cruel. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that he is going to win. All his hesitance does is tease his opponent with false hope and prolong his suffering. There is no out for Paul, he must kill.

This was an important scene in the novel because of the way it highlighted the difficulty in the act of killing another human being even when one has been brought up their life to do so. It also humanized the Fremen. While their laws are strict and their culture brutal due to their harsh environment, they won’t thank any protagonist for prolonging the suffering of someone they care about.

Holding off doesn’t make your character look like a decent human being. There is more to the conversation than killing bad, living good. What Paul does to Jamis is a form of torture. It is unintentional, but that doesn’t change the end result. When your characters are in a situation where they are more skilled than their opponent and you have placed them in a situation where they must kill then mucking around, prolonging the scene, is cruel.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The scene I put forward from Dune is powerful and informative, it serves a purpose. What you should do is recognize the act for what it is, allow other characters to notice the same, and condemn the character for it.

Don’t Give the Knife Back

If someone tries to kill you, don’t give them their weapon back once the fight is over. In novels, this is treated as “sportsmanlike” behavior. A sign the character has defeated their enemy and are now proving they are the bigger person. It’s stupid. There’s nothing stopping them from burying that knife in your character’s back or their ribs the minute they turn around. Just defeating someone doesn’t stop them from wanting to kill you. It also won’t stop them from stabbing someone else.

Lots of characters do this. If you have a character engaging in this behavior, and they just might, think about it when you write the consequences of the decision.

Do Lock Up the Hand (and other body parts)

Attack the portions of the body they use to fight. Carve up the hand/arm first to get it out of the way, then go for the main body. Author’s often get too invested in “kill shots”, they sometimes forget that getting from Point A to the killing blow has intervening steps, like getting through their defenses. If the character has the option to go straight in to take them out of the fight and the situation allows it, then all the better.

However, sometimes a character is going to have to do a little extra work than just rushing forward and stabbing the other character. If the other character has a knife, then 9/10 they’ll just be running into the other person’s knife. This advice goes hand in hand with “Avoiding the Blade” and keeping track of the weapon. While the knife can easily be switched between hands, it’s a good idea to create openings in their defenses. This can be done using either the “free”/defensive hand or the knife itself. Where the enemy knife is will be important to targeting and response. Attacking the arm or wrist holding the blade can be helpful to ending the knife’s threat.

After all, if they can’t use the arm then they can’t use the knife. These kinds of blows are, however, just openers to attack the other more sensitive parts of the body.

You’re not just attacking veins. Good slashes will also cut through or damage the muscles and ligaments necessary for a person to keep fighting. In this respect, it’s best to think of knife combat as surgical. While on the one hand, it can be blunt. It can also be incredibly precise and ridiculously fast. This kind of speed and precision you won’t get from a longer weapon.

Do Study Police Blotters and Medical Files

Knife injuries will teach you more about knife combat than all the techniques in the world. Learning what a weapon can do to somebody is part and parcel to developing a healthy respect for the weapon. When we get right down to it, knife combat is pretty gruesome.

Do Remember There Are Different Kinds of Knives

There’s the dagger. Daggers typically possess two edges or are double-sided blades. They are the traditional variant of the combat knife. Daggers, such as the parrying dagger from fencing, can also be used as tools or secondary defensive weapons instead of offensive.

And the knife. Typically possess a single edge, primarily used for cutting, and are tools. However, the term also applies to most modern combat knives.

The terms can be used interchangeably.

What is your character carrying? A tactical knife? A switchblade? A kitchen knife? These are different and one isn’t a weapon. I mean just look and those are just the modern ones. Also keep in mind that throwing knives are not the same as throwing a knife. Throwing knives are made for throwing, if your character is throwing a regular knife then they need to make some adjustments for weight and balance.

Worth remembering: throwing a regular knife just means your character has lost theirs. Knife throwing has become a narrative fast hand for saying that “my character has impressive accuracy” and often used in cases where it makes very little sense. Knife throwing is a skill, as throwing anything is a skill. It’s a very nice party trick, but means almost nothing in regards to combat viability. It’s a lot like tossing around a baseball or a paper airplane. Anything you throw and don’t want to lose, you still have to go out and retrieve.

Because knives are also tools, be prepared to distinguish between the improvised weapon (such as cutlery or any utility knife) and the actual weapon such as a combat knife (a weapon designed around the idea of stabbing another living person). For characters who use knives for combat will not mix the two unless it’s absolutely necessary as it damages the knife’s functionality both as a weapon and also as a tool.

Do Use Sensation Appropriate Verbs

Depicting combat in your writing is often about finding the right words that generate the appropriate feel of the motion you’re aiming for. In this case, hard sharp words like cut, thrust, slice, slash, stab, drove, instead of hard but round words implying crushing force like “hit”. “He hit him with the knife.” Does that sound right? When we use the word “hit“ we conjure images of kinetic force, a knockback, and a slight bounce. Words that imply blunt force trauma are out, unless it involves hitting someone with the butt of the knife hilt (though why would you do that? It’s not a sword pommel). Knives and bladed weapons go “in”, they impale. There is driving force behind the edged weapon, but also a sense of smoothness in the action.

Soft words also can work in certain situations like : slip or slid, like “he slid the blade between his ribs”.

You can also use words like “caught” to convey what happens to the blade when it penetrates the body. “She tried to yank it back, but the blade had caught in Adam’s ribcage.”

I hope these have been helpful to you.



Stay Safe Media – This self defense vlog run by edged weapon’s expert Michael Janich is very helpful for those looking to get quick information about knives and knife combat. Janich’s predominate focus is on self-defense, but he puts a primary focus on framing the training through real life situations. His videos have been very helpful to me and hopefully will be to some of you as well.

Contemporary Knife TargetingContemporary Knife Targeting by Michael Janich isn’t really about targeting per say, it’s mainly about William Fairburn’s Timetable of Death, which is used by Police and Military to determine how long someone has from resulting knife injuries and why it’s flawed. This is pretty much why I recommend the book because it spends a vast majority of it’s time going in depth into a discussion of how quickly someone will die from which injury. If you want to write about knife fights, this one is worth a look.

Dune – Frank Herbert’s Dune has some very well written knife sequences, but also good world building explanations for certain kinds of behavior. The Fremen culture is very reactive to what Paul and Jessica do when they join. Paul must convince them he is what he says. While stories in which the hero isn’t given carte blanche to do what they like aren’t uncommon, characters dealing with consequences other than the basic “death is bad” or “I can’t believe you did that” are slightly more unusual. There are more kinds of horror and emotional rollercoasters than just easily grasped indignation.

Spartan – I linked the above quote at the beginning and while Spartan doesn’t talk about “knife fighting”, you do see another colder perspective in the main character. It’s more about attitude than knives, but worth considering.

U.S. Military, Systema, Israeli Military, Kali and Escrima from the Philippines, and many other martial systems have a knife component to their training. It’s up to you to decide what level of knife combat your character is trained in and find a style which corresponds accordingly.

As always, keep in mind that combat constantly changes, evolves, and grows over time. All martial systems are not created equal, they were developed to deal with specific challenges faced by the culture in question. While they might not lose cultural relevance, combat effectiveness changes with the times. A character who spends his weekends practicing Kendo or Iaido is not the same as a samurai from 1185. The modern special forces, or even just the basic soldier, are a better comparison.