Tag Archives: throwing knives

Q&A: Throwing Knives: A Limited Tool in Both D&D and in Reality

How feasible would throwing knives be in such a scenario in real life? In D&D for example, the dagger can be used both as melee and as short-range thrown weapons, but I suspect throwing knives is an entirely different skillset from shanking and stabbing and cutting throats so most knife fighters might not be any good at throwing them. To say nothing of the danger in giving up your weapon for only a chance to score a hit.

znorton

About as viable as they are in D&D (assuming your DM isn’t giving you an infinite supply of knives and forgetting that you’re handing out murder party favors.)

So, the D&D problem is that dagger doesn’t do much damage. They’re something in the range of 1d4+Str, which is marginally better than just punching someone. If you have Weapon Finesse, you’re going to be using the exact same stat block to fight in melee or throw them, so it’s effectively the same skill. You can’t throw one without provoking an attack of opportunity. So, realistically, you get a single 1d4 attack against an enemy at range, and afterwards you no longer have a weapon.

Yeah, that sounds about right. You might get lucky throwing a knife, but you’ll probably hit with less effectiveness. Unlike in D&D, throwing a knife accurately is an entirely different skill from stabbing someone. There’s overlap in understanding anatomy, but being able to reliably put a knife where you want it is very different if you’re still holding the weapon.

Of course, if you throw your weapon, you no longer have your weapon. And, if you throw your weapon and one of your foes retrieves it, they now have a weapon. In fact, it’s entirely possible to accidentally arm your enemies with this tactic. Sort of like an incredibly aggressive version of Santa Claus.

The major difference is that you could potentially kill (or at least seriously injure) someone with a thrown knife, which isn’t a danger in D&D, as the rules are written. This also applies even more if you’re still holding onto the blade, as a knife can be quite lethal in experienced hands, though not so much in D&D. In order to make a knife an effective weapon choice in that game, you’ll need a mix of class features (mostly sneak attack, though there are some other avenues) and feats. Without that, the dagger will likely remain the weakest weapon your character has proficiency in.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in the real world, as a primary combat weapon, the knife is very limited. It’s effective as an ambush tool, for parrying, and as a close quarters opportunistic option, but it’s not a good weapon to base your entire combat style around, because it’s far too easy to “hard counter.” Against aware enemies armed with conventional infantry weapons or sidearms, your knife fighter is screwed. (As a reminder, I mean, axes, swords, spears, ect. Not guns, though, again, if you bring a knife to a gunfight, that’s not a wise choice.)

The irony with the D&D example is that they’re two completely different roads to the same point. The dagger is a poor front line combat option in both cases, and a poor ranged weapon, but the logic isn’t the same.

-Starke

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Something I’ve always wondered: how practical are throwing knives/axes in a fight? What’s to prevent them from spinning too fast/too slow and hitting with the non-bladed end?

Throwing axes are fairly practical. At least, they saw a fair amount of use historically. They’re light weight, and easy enough to train on, but still retain enough mass to do considerable damage on impact.

Throwing knives are more of a novelty trick. They lack the mass of an axe, and are a lot more finicky to connect with. You can throw them, but it’s not a great option.

Spin speed is controlled by the thrower. Really, this one is that simple. It’s a skill they need to practice. As I said earlier, knife throwing is trickier. It’s very easy to screw that up and accidentally connect with the hilt, if you don’t know what you’re doing. In contrast, axe throwing is fairly easy. On contact, the mass of the head will do most of the work for you, so even botching a throw so the haft connects first will usually result in a hit (somewhere). Ideally, with an axe, you want the weapon to make one complete rotation in air, and connect head first.

-Starke

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In media, throwing swords and knives and even axes almost always works. In reality, assuming you were aiming at a stationary target with nothing in the way, just how effective would throwing a bladed weapon be?

This might sound like a cop out, but it depends on what the weapon is. Specific dedicated throwing weapons did exist. Off hand the Javelin comes to mind (I know, it’s not what you’re thinking of, but there it is). Dedicated throwing knives do exist. I’m not sure if there were dedicated throwing axe designs, or if it was just re-purposing convenient hand axes.

Getting hit with a javelin is bad news. Some varieties, like the Roman Pilum, were designed to penetrate shields. The Pilum was also reportedly able to punch through armor, due to its design. It also sidestepped the real problem with most thrown weapons: Even if you kill someone in the process, you’re giving your enemies an extra weapon to use on you.

Getting hit with a flying axe is not going to do you any favors. Axe strikes are nasty, and having one lobbed into you is close enough.

It’s one of those weird cases where, I know it happened, but I don’t know much about it’s actual use in warfare.

Modern axe throwing is usually end over end. With the axe spinning on the point of balance. You can find videos of this pretty easily. As with knife throwing, it’s a hobby for some people, and you can even buy targets marketed for throwing axes. The modern throwing axes I’ve seen favor a single large curved blade on the head, and a haft that curves towards the blade. I have no idea if that’s just ergonomics, or if it actually helps with throwing. I suspect the latter, but, that’s just a guess.

The one thing I’m fairly sure of is you weren’t throwing your only axe. You’d throw spares, so you still had a weapon on you. The last thing you want to do is give someone else your last weapon.

Throwing knives are really more of a party trick than a viable combat option. It’s one of these things where films and media makes it look a lot more useful than it actually is. In the handful of situations where you just need to put a knife in that guy over there, and walking 15 feet sounds too much like work, throwing a knife is a legitimate option. Otherwise, you’re better off delivering it by hand. Into their kidney or through their favorite artery.

Or you could shoot them. There’s no risk of them throwing the bullet back. Just a thought.

Dedicated throwing daggers tend to be just a blade without much, or any grip, since a knife is usually thrown by gripping the tip between the thumb and forefinger, and flicking the wrist while releasing the blade. I’ve never been able to get the hang of it, though I do have a real knack for misjudging the spin and connecting with the target with the handle.

Throwing swords is a very bad idea. It did happen. There’s actually surviving training manuals that talk about it, and suggest methods. Those same training manuals will also call you an idiot, well, technically a “knave,” for even considering it, but, it can be done.

Historically, a thrown sword would be gripped over the shoulder, across the guard, fingers toward the pommel, palm on the flat of the blade, and then thrown in line with the blade, like a spear.

I want to say actual use of this was mostly restricted to judicial duels, but, I’m not completely certain. Judicial duels would also see combatants bringing swords with threaded pommels, unscrewing them before the duel and then throwing it as a distraction. There’s a lot of question as to how, exactly, that worked, but it does pop up in training manuals as something to do or worry about your opponent doing.

-Starke

Hey! Quick question. I’m very aware that in battle or over enemy lines throwing knives is an incredibly stupid thing to do/use as a weapon, because you’re giving your enemy a weapon, very hard to aim, etc. My question is, for children and teenagers (and older folks as well) training for battle, would throwing knives be a good exercise in focus and logical learning (adjusting one’s position and aim to hit the target) or are they really just useless/for show and should only be used for sport?

No, they’re pretty much best as a sport or sideshow entertainment. Also drinking games, because nothing says fun like someone who’s pickled chunks of their brain handling sharp objects.

Throwing knives teach you how to throw knives, and nothing else. It doesn’t really translate into other weapons at all. The movement and fundamentals of aiming won’t help you with throwing an axe or a spear, and it won’t really help you to learn, or to adjust your aim.

There’s that rare exception that your character could take someone else’s knife and throw that to kill a third person quickly and quietly. But that’s incredibly situational.

I mean, yes, if your badass knows knife throwing, and you set that up with them doing it in a bar in the first chapter, and 300 pages later after everyone’s forgotten, they sneak up behind someone, shank a guard in the neck, take the guard’s knife and flick it into another guard fifteen feet away before he can hit an alarm… sure, that’s fine. Goofy, situational, over the top, but, you know, fine. But, it’s just not practical as a primary combat technique.

-Starke

Speaking of knives and daggers, what about throwing them? Is there a difference? Can you explain?

The best knives for throwing are the ones that have been designed and properly weighted for it, you know, throwing knives. Knives that were created with the intention of being thrown. When throwing with a knife or dagger that is not for throwing, one must work to actively counter the uneven weight distribution to ensure that the pointy end goes into the target. Otherwise, it will harmlessly bounce off their chest. (It’ll hurt some, but hey, it’s their lucky day as you just gave them a knife!)

In the sub-spectrum of knives and daggers, it’s important to remember that there are many different kinds and each weapon has it’s own unique weight even ones that were forged to be identical or created by machines on an assembly line. So, every time a character throws a knife, they’re going to have to adjust to it’s weight and point of balance. If they are practiced at throwing, then they may do this automatically but it’s a good idea to give the nod anyway because it will lend a sense of realism.

Secondly and most importantly, despite it’s recent popularity as “the skill” in the YA genre, throwing a knife has very limited practical combat applicability. In the long run, the knife or dagger will be more useful to your character in their hand than it will be in some schmuck half-way across the room. The schmuck may be dead, but now your character has lost their knife. Depending on the setting they exist in, a well-crafted knife could be expensive and hard to come by. Even when using general throwing knives, every knife lost is one that they’ll have to replace and that can get expensive, fast. Most characters aren’t going to have time to go scouting through the bodies of the people they’ve killed looking to get their knives back and will view any knife they throw as an acceptable loss.

Unlike an arrow, which can’t really be used as a weapon (or makes a useful one) when not on a bowstring, a knife can be picked up by the enemy and used by that enemy against the knife’s previous owner. If you’re going to give your character knife throwing as a skill (but it’s weird when it’s knife throwing but not knife fighting), then this is an important concept to keep in mind.

Knife throwing can tell the reader that a character is comfortable with their knives, was possibly in a lot of situations where they were very bored with their knives, or they are living in a time period where they need to be able to conceal a ranged weapon and guns are not available. However, throwing knives is a tertiary skill, not primary one. You can’t really substitute archery for throwing knives and vice versa.

One of the qualities about the first Assassin’s Creed that I really liked was the mechanic of having to find new knives after I used up all the ones I was carrying. The game gave me two options: travel all the way back to the Assassin’s home base or pickpocket the local brigands. It was a nice nod to the fact that weapons do not self-replicate automatically and an important one to keep track of.

-Michi