Monday, March 26, 2012

Combat Theory 01: armed and unarmed

In the comments on the post about lightsaber battles, rejiquar asked if there were good beginning resources for writing and/or drawing believable combat scenes. I offered a partial answer there, but since this is a topic that plays to two of my particular interests - writing and martial arts - I thought I'd throw out some thoughts here. This might become a regular series, if it holds my interest and/or if enough of my readers find it interesting, so feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Obviously, I'm not going to be discussing self-defense in anything other than general terms, here. If you want to learn how to defend yourself, you need to find a competent instructor and spend some time training. Instead, I want to look at some elements of combat theory that might be helpful if you want to write medieval/fantasy fight scenes.

So, for starters, let's look at some of the differences between armed and unarmed combat.

First of all: a weapon, any weapon, is a huge advantage. Melee weapons - anything from a knife to a spear - offer a huge advantage in reach, leverage, and damage. With a weapon, you can hit from farther away; you can hit harder, and the edge of a blade (or even just a piece of wood) will deliver the force better than an empty hand or a foot ever will. Ranged weapons take this principle a step further, allowing you injure an opponent while staying well and truly out of his reach - unless he has a ranged weapon of his own, of course. The ideal situation is to have a weapon with enough reach that you can strike your opponent while he's still too far away to strike you.

The brings up one of the very nice things about using weapons: they offer quite a bit of gender equality. A five-foot-tall woman, facing off in unarmed combat against a man who's six-foot-four and twice her mass, is at a serious disadvantage. He has better reach, more weight, and almost certainly more muscle. He can hit her from farther away, and do a lot more damage. And if they move to a grappling situation, he can use his weight against her, too.

Put knives in their hands, though, and suddenly muscle and weight make a lot less difference. With a blade, it doesn't matter so much how hard you hit; it's much more important if you hit, and where you hit. So now the man still has an advantage in reach, but the difference in muscle now makes very little difference.

Now put swords in their hands, instead of knives. The man in this scenario still has more reach, but with each of them holding three feet of sharpened steel, the difference in reach is relatively slight and unimportant. It's still there, but it doesn't matter anywhere near as much. At this point it's mostly technique: skill versus skill.

Change them to using spears, and now there's essentially no difference in reach or ability to inflict damage. As long as nobody is too weak to use the weapon (which shouldn't be the case for reasonably able-bodied adults), the differences in strength and reach are unimportant, and the difference in weight can actually be a disadvantage for the heavier person. (It makes him less maneuverable.)

This also brings up another point: in unarmed combat, it's possible to absorb a blow from your opponent in order to deliver a more powerful blow of your own. I've heard this described as "sacrificing a pawn to capture a queen". With weapons of any sort, it really doesn't work that way. Weapons do so much more damage (and remember, antibiotics are a very new invention, historically speaking) that this sort of trick essentially doesn't work. Sure, you can take a blow to the leg in order to hit your opponent's head - but with any sort of weapons, you're still in real danger of having your leg disabled, not to mention death from blood loss or infection. At the very least, you've rendered yourself unfit for any further fighting until you recover.

From a fighting and/or self-defense perspective, weapons are basically always an advantage.

Oh, one other thought on armed and unarmed combat: there's more stylistic variety in unarmed combat. Some of that has to do with context. A style developed for men fighting in full plate armor is going to look very different from a style designed to fend off multiple unarmored opponents. But a lot of it is just difference in emphasis and body types.

With weapons, on the other hand, there's a certain sort of parallel evolution. There are only so many ways that a blade of a particular weight, shape, and balance can be used by a human body. So you find that katana techniques (designed for use with, basically, a two-handed saber) also show up, historically, in techniques for the Swiss two-handed saber. It's not because one style borrowed from the other; it's because there are only so many effective ways to use a blade of that approximate size and shape.


  1. I always felt fantasy swordfighting should have maneuvers totally different from real life? Frex, the 'absorb a blow to perform a more powerful one' is a tactic I'd expect Highlander-type Immortals to exploit all the time, given that only headshots count.

    Jedi/Sith could perform some really out-there maneuvers. Consider: from the movies, it seems lightsabers actually have mass of some kind and react to one another allowing the fighter to parry and block like real swords.

    So, in the middle of one of those old-timey 'Captain Blood' clashed sword duels, could one fighter be pushing his sabre hard against his opponent, and the opponent respond by switching off the blade, flipping it around in his hand, then power it back up to backstab the now off-balance opponent?

  2. Yep - addition of new powers or technologies changes the way things work. Remember the personal defense shields from Dune? "The slow blade penetrates the shield."

    And it's human nature to look for cheats - with the immortals, for example, there seems to a brief moment of shock when they're badly wounded... so I'd expect to see more of them using the sword and sawed-off-shotgun fighting style.

    The basic gist is that writing action/fight scenes should be approached like anything else- focus on showing, not telling; make sure the stakes are known; maintain cause and effect.

    I had also watched The Raid: Redemption this weekend; it had very brutal fight scenes in there(Indonesian style martial arts). What it makes me think of is truly complete fighting systems(like military training) focus on effectiveness and efficiency. They start with assault rifles, get cut off from supplies and start to run out of ammunition. They have to switch to their sidearms as ammo runs low, and then knives and nightsticks, finally ending up fighting hand to hand. And that movie probably has the most realistic knife fighting I've seen; fast and brutal, not scaled down fencing.

    The other side of martial arts is peace-time evolution. The samurai in Japan started out primarily as bow users, in mass open combat. The change to emphasizing swords I think came about when combat became more ritualized and between smaller sized forces(less use of peasant levies with spears). Jujitsu began as wrestling techniques to be used while in armor; later the heavy jacket gi was used for training purposes(it actually makes it easier to be grabbed).

    Just covering the changes from jutsu's(technique) to do's(art) is a very broad topic. Also, there is the divide between sport and combat; sport karate is within a series of restrictions to prevent injuries. Once you get used to these restrictions(i.e. no blows to the face, pulling your punches), it can leave you less effective in an actual fight for survival(like Dune, where Paul Atreides had been well trained but had never had to strike a lethal blow).

  4. Good points. And it's not just Japanese styles that made that sort of transition; Tai Chi used to be a formidable fighting art. Still is, if you can find someone who teaches it that way.

  5. Tai Chi is actually one of the martial arts I would like to study; Aikido is the other. I end up reading more about them than actually looking to participate; something I should remedy.

    I think I'm drawn to them as somehow more useful? Tai Chi teaches body awareness and control, which are useful to everyday life. Aikido promotes flexibility, and the forward rolls have apparently saved some people from motorcycle accidents.

    Tai Chi is also interesting because of its focus on teaching a series of movements first, before worrying about their application. I've seen discussion that someone just starting out in martial arts would be pretty inept in a real fight for the first few years; mastery and understanding is hard. Using grammar as a metaphor, they are teaching you the shape and form of letters/small words. Simple katas are example sentences; mastery is about understanding how to connect things.

    I had seen Tai Chi is supposed to be paired with a more aggressive style taught after the basics are mastered; I don't recall the correct name but I think it was translated as 'cannon fist'. Which just sounds awesome.

  6. Tai Chi and Aikido should be eminently compatible; there's nothing about either one that you'd need to unlearn in order to learn the other. That said, I'm not sure that Tai Chi truly needs to be paired with anything, if it's taught as a complete system. (I feel compelled to note hear that anything I say about styles is going to be something of a generality, as individual teachers make a huge difference in how a particular style is taught. In fact, I'd argue that's vastly more important to find a good teacher than it is to find a good style.)

    I like the grammar metaphor; it's apt. Modern/Mixed Martial Arts type tend to reject that approach; they prefer to just start making sentence and refine them as they go, and they supplement the background skills in other ways.


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