The Self-Delusion of “Good in a ‘Real Fight'”

Hii how are you both? I like your blog’s tips as a fan of fantasy fiction, but I thought you could answer a real-life question. I do HEMA (im not good at it but its good fun!) and something comes up every now and then that i thought you could weigh in on with more authority.

Theres a big guy who isnt the best, but whose refrain is that he would win in a real fight since he wouldnt be holding back. He says its not a gender thing, just a size thing.

Since everyone has to hold back so we dont injure each other (and we still get plenty of bruises) he’s right, it’s an artificial environment.

Does he have a point that everyone’s restraint disadvantages big guys more, or is he being a bit of a poor sport?



He’s deluding himself, in a variety of ways.

Generally speaking, size doesn’t help, especially not in armed combat. It just means you’re a larger target for your foe’s weapon. Sword combat isn’t about being bigger and stronger than your opponent, it’s about opening your foe up and filleting them.

It’s important to remember that being bigger does not make you tougher, and no theoretical biological advantage makes you tougher than steel.

The entire point of using a blade is cutting your foe, not bludgeoning them. The emphasis here is to point out that you do not mindlessly hack away with a sword, trying to brute force your way through your foe’s armor, you look for openings and either slice through them, or thrust through them.

Now, if you’re using blunted edges, it is true that he could cause some misery if he didn’t hold back. However, that’s true for pretty much anyone in your group. You’re not competing to hurt one another.

Even with blunt weapons, like warhammers, maces, or mauls, you’re not relying on your strength, you’re using the inertia of the weapon to cause harm, so being a big guy still doesn’t offer any real advantage there.

Guys like this aren’t uncommon. They’re convinced that they’d be good in “a real fight.” In actual combat they would, inevitably, go down with the first hit, and then whine about how the fight wasn’t fair (if they survive.)

This is may be a bitter pill, and I’m not judging you for this, but there isn’t a single member of your group that would be okay in a real swordfight. The defect is in HEMA, not in you. HEMA, like many martial arts, is a revived art. This means, at some point in the past, the last person who was properly trained in your combat style died without passing that knowledge on. Someone in the 20th Century found surviving training manuals and manuscripts and did their best to rebuild the martial art from scratch.

This isn’t a case where the best techniques survived and have been codified, instead the only filter on which techniques survived is which texts survived the following centuries.

More than that, we know our reconstruction is wrong (or at least, incomplete.) We know this because of Polish Crosscutting. Unlike HEMA, this is not a revived art. It was (at least partially) preserved. It does a number of things that HEMA preaches against, and it decimates HEMA practitioners in competitive bouts. To be clear, Polish Crosscutting is not some incredibly effective set of sword techniques, it’s just better preserved than HEMA.

The end result is, our understanding of Historical European Martial Arts is extremely limited, with serious gaps. Against someone who actually knew what they were doing, any one of you would be screwed. And that’s not the point of the exercise.

This is going to somewhat duplicate the previous point, but, as you said, you’re training recreationally. This is for fun, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you’re training recreationally, or for sport, you are not training to use your skills in, “real,” combat. Again, you’ll find guys who are studying other recreational or sports martial arts and hold that up as their ability to handle themselves in “a real fight,” and they’re also deluding themselves.

If you want to train for combat, you train to kill people, not to, “fight.” It’s not fun, it’s not recreational, you’re not doing it to prove you can fight. It’s about ending another person’s life as efficiently as possible.

The idea of, “a fair fight,” (or in this case, “a real fight,”) is an illusion. It’s actively dangerous to both participants. In a real life or death, situation you’d want to take him out in as few strikes as possible. Realistically, we’re talking about ending his life in less than a second. Ideally, before his brain even realizes he’s in combat, and can react, though that’s bit harder to do reliably. If he is aware he’s in danger, neutralize his weapon, then end him. Again, the goal is for combat to be over in under five seconds. That probably won’t happen, but it should give you an idea of just how fast this would need to be. The longer you’re in combat, the greater the risk of you taking a hit, and in real combat, that’s a risk you cannot afford to take. Any injury means you’re at a disadvantage when you’re facing your next foe.

Killing someone is an entirely different discipline from recreational martial arts (and even from competitive sport combat.) If you train to kill people, you’re ready to kill people. If you train to have fun, you are not. If you’re in a real fight with real weapons, you’re not fighting to, “win,” you’re looking to end your foe.

To be fair, he may not be a poor sport about this. He probably, genuinely believes he can take any one of you. But, if he believes it’s because, “he’s holding back,” and he’s not one of the better duelists, yeah, he would not survive.


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