What are important factors to consider when using one weapon to disarm another? i.e. using a sword to disarm someone with an axe vs using a lance or another sword
The caveat I’m going to start with is that weapon disarms, armed or unarmed, aren’t the violence “get out of jail free” card for escaping violence’s more unpleasant aspects (such as, you know, murder.) Weapon disarms are extremely difficult, time consuming, finicky, prone to failure, even in the hands of an expert. In fiction, the weapon disarm’s primary use is to demonstrate extreme skill differences between one combatant and another.
The “extreme skill” differential makes disarms a terrible choice to lean on as an alternative if you’re planning to write a character who fights professionally but refuses to kill. (This is a Saturday Morning Cartoon character. A lot of writers who want the glory of violence but are uncomfortable with the idea of their character killing will try it.) On a literary level, disarms will screw your narrative tension hard. Beyond their use in the real world, weapon disarms are an action movie trope. They’re flashy, they’re visually fun to watch, they’re often used for comedic purpose, and, again, they provide the audience with a solid sense of superiority which connects them to a character. You’ll only see a disarm about one to three times per action movie and in very select circumstances. Disarms are what we call Fucking Around. (Trust me, you don’t want to find out.)
In the real world, attempting a disarm will probably kill you. This is true across the board. Armed or unarmed, skilled or unskilled, they are that dangerous and difficult to pull off. You’re far more likely to be killed in the attempt than you are to succeed. That’s why the real world advice is, “don’t, unless you know you’ll die anyway.” In the self-defense context, unarmed disarms are utilized only in a last ditch attempt to save your own life because it’s better to die fighting.
Now that we’ve covered the depressing reality, let’s move on.
Understanding the real world statistics for weapon disarms is crucial to writing disarms in fiction. Understanding the disarm’s combat role is crucial to correctly applying them in their fictional role and crafting characters who could convincingly use them effectively. They can rather easily destroy your character’s credibility, especially when utilized in the “get out of jail free” aspect. Or, you know, portraying them as easy.
Weapon disarms are among the most technical and tricky martial arts techniques and, realistically, if you’re here on this blog asking how to do it, you probably won’t be able to write your character doing a disarm without at least a few years of martial arts practice. Weapons or no weapons, the functional idea is basically the same. However, even understanding the theory, it’ll be difficult to grasp the mechanics without practicing those mechanics yourself. If you don’t understand how the weapon moves and the applicable techniques, you won’t be able to write a disarm because disarms are all about manipulating those movements and techniques past the point of no return. To put it simply, weapon disarms are joint locks.
Yeah, you heard me.
The functional goal, theoretically, of a disarm is to get your opponent into a position via angles and pressure that makes it fundamentally impossible (from the perspective of body mechanics) for them to hold onto their weapon. That’s where the whole “extreme skill” differential or demonstrated mastery comes in. Your goal is not to take the weapon. Your goal is to force your opponent to let go of their weapon. The perspective difference here is very important. Disarms can be done by accident, but the chance of lucking into a traditional one is low (outside of numbing out someone’s hand or arm, which also works.) To get there, you have to go in with intent to disarm and control the fight from start to finish. If you can’t control your opponent and the flow of the fight, you can’t disarm them.
Disarms also require overlooking opportunities which may end the fight more quickly. This extends the fight, meaning you have to fight longer to achieve the same objective. Ultimately, it’s an unsustainable practice outside of specific encounters/contexts. Given your opponent’s objective is not the same as yours i.e. “disarm” vs “end the fight by any means,” you provide them with more opportunities to defeat you using this method. This puts you, the one seeking to disarm, at an extreme disadvantage. This gets worse when discussing different weapon types, especially those of differing lengths, because, depending on which weapon you have, you might already be at an extreme disadvantage due to a combat concept called reach.
The length of your weapon determines how much distance is required for contact. A shorter weapon means you need to go to greater lengths to strike your opponent, while a longer weapon means you can strike sooner. Most swords are longer than the hand ax, for example, and have greater reach. Spears and staves are longer than most swords.
I don’t even want to think about disarming someone who has a spear if you only have a sword, or (worse) an axe. The stabilizing control of hands on the mid-shaft and end shaft is just brutal. Choosing to go for a disarm is consciously deciding to shift the arrow from horrifically screwed to completely fucked. (You’ll have a similar problem with any two handed weapon, so swords where the hilts are long enough for two hands are also an issue. You can’t do the fencing disarm commonly seen in film with any sword other than that specific type: sabre, epee, foil. The rapier can also be done, but the point of contact is different because the weapon is longer.) It is a lot easier to do disarms with weapons of the same type than weapons of different types, unless you’re using a weapon (or set of weapons) specifically designed for disarms, trapping, and breaking such as the deer horn knives from Baguazhang. However, weapons designed for combat in one culture do not seamlessly transition to having the same effectiveness against similar weapon types from other cultures. (Points to Laini Taylor and Daughter of Smoke and Bone for realizing deer horn knives exist, points deducted for trying to unironically use an the earth version in battle against space angels and their swords of unknown origin.)
There is no one size fits all.
This brings us to our next problem.
The types of disarms you can do is heavily dependent on the type of weapon you have, which is me saying: design matters. Historically, weapons weren’t actually standardized and there are many different types within a familial subgroup that extend far beyond the question of, “two hands or one?” There are all kinds of little quirks that could completely screw a warrior attempting a disarm, such as the length and curvature of the axe head and the length of the shaft because these will adjust whether or not you can catch/hold/lock the axe with your blade or spear shaft and the angle necessary to force the weapon from your opponent’s hand. And all this gray area theory is before we get the actual skill of your opponent themselves.
If you’re starting to think this sounds like complex math, you’re right. This is why in the risk vs cost benefit analysis, disarms lose out. They cost significantly more than they’re worth, especially since you can’t even guarantee you’ll have defeated your opponent once you’ve removed their weapon. Even if you succeed, you haven’t won. Why? Violence is not that clean. Once you’ve demonstrated you’re unwilling to kill to protect your own life, you are dead.
So, what can you do instead? Attack the wielder, not the weapon.
Attacking the body makes your life significantly easier and that’s why we’re trained to do it. It is much better to ensure your opponent cannot fight than it is to take their weapon because taking your opponent’s weapon does not ensure your opponent cannot fight. If your immediate knee-jerk reaction to this is, “but I don’t want my character to hurt anyone” then maybe you need to rethink their choice in using combat as their means of problem-solving. There’s no non-violent violence, not even in Aikido.
This is where attacking or disabling the hand or the arm comes in. If you persistently smack the hand or the wrist (rather than jabbing it with the pointy,) you’ll numb the hand. (You could also potentially break the bones, but let’s ignore that for a moment.) Once the hand starts to numb, your opponents grip on their weapon will loosen and, eventually, they’ll be forced to let it go. One of the problems of wielding weapons is that if you’re clashing too much, the vibrations from the force of impact will tire out your hands and arms over time. This is why you’ll occasionally see martial artist characters smacking their opponents (who they don’t want to kill) with the flat of their blade or hitting their extremities with a staff, etc. While it might be played for laughs, they’re actually bruising their opponent’s muscles to make fighting more difficult.
Or, you can just roll with black humor.
“You said you were going to disarm them.”
“Yes, they are now disarmed.”
“They’re dead, Jess.”
“They’ll never hold a weapon again. That’s disarmed.”
Or, lop off the limbs. That joke works too.
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