Getting to the Point (Of Bladed Combat)

30 Jul

      Had some questions addressed to me recently on an author’s forum regarding writing sword fighting scenes. It’s a good excuse, here, to get into a brief discussion of combat with bladed weapons in general.
      First of all, I’ll point out that it’s extremely rare to see any sort of combat situation in America (or most other places) where two or more combatants have bladed weapons drawn and are fighting with them. That is simply not the way real world combat situations occur. If someone pulls out a knife, they’re not going to wait for you to pull out your knife (assuming you even have one). They are likely going to stab you before you ever have a chance to get to your weapon. But the realities of knife self-defense are a topic for another time. Instead, I’m simply going to address the (unlikely) circumstance that both participants have pulled out bladed weapons and are preparing to engage in combat with them.
      From a technical perspective, this leads to the interesting question of whether you should attack or counterattack (Note, most fighting arts which specialize in combat with bladed weapons do not like to use the terms “defend” or “defense” believing these phrases connote too passive a mind set. They instead refer to defending against an opponent’s attack as being “counter offensive,” meaning the other person would attack before you do but you somehow prevent his attack from cutting you while immediately attacking him with your own weapon. This is essentially a semantic argument over terminology and not really that vital to the discussion at hand).
      Many modern martial arts specializing in self-defense or military combatives, when addressing close quarters combat, prefer the first option recommending that you always seize the initiative and attack first, before the opponent. There is a great deal of merit in this approach given that a person reacting to an attack will always be a split second behind the person initiating the attack which, in theory, means the person who strikes first will always have the advantage, both physically and psychologically. However, when bladed weapons are being used by both combatants, the optimal strategy becomes a little less clear.
      You would think, if you attack first with a sword or knife against someone similarly armed, you should have the advantage as they will have to first recognize your attack and then move quickly enough, after the attack is already underway, to somehow stop your blade from cutting them before they can even think about counter attacking you. This can be accomplished, on their part, in a number of ways: by avoiding your blade; by blocking your blade with their blade; by blocking your weapon arm with one of their arms; or by actually cutting at your weapon arm with their weapon. All of those defensive measures would, theoretically, be followed up by a counterattack with their own weapon against a vital target on your body.
      These are fairly logical means of defending against a bladed weapon attack which not only trained people would use but most rational, intelligent people would employ in such circumstances, even if untrained. However, it’s also an approach which would seem to give some small advantage to the person who initiates the attack.
      But one problem may arise when you are initiating an attack against an untrained individual who is not rational or intelligent. Say you stab at someone with your weapon. Now any half-way reasonable person, even if they have a weapon of their own, knows this is dangerous and is going to try and not get stabbed before they look to stab you. But if you are dealing with a crazy person, someone under the influence of drugs, or just a complete idiot, there is the possibility he may ignore your attack and simply step forward and try to stab you. While you will likely be successful in stabbing them with your attack, there is also a good chance that, a fraction of a second after you stab them, they will successfully stab you.
      This is not what you want in a fight with knives or swords.
      This is one reason why many fighting arts which specialize in combat with bladed weapons recommend generally taking a more counter-offensive approach. The theory is that by waiting for your opponent to initiate the attack, he will both create an opening in his defense which you can exploit and he will commit his weapon, which will allow you to know where it is going and thus (hopefully) take the appropriate action to prevent getting cut by it. This type of counter offensive approach is something I have heard propounded in both Filipino martial arts and classical Western fencing styles. While I am not totally convinced by the arguments in favor of this approach (there is simply too little empirical evidence to go by as few living people have ever witnessed two individuals actually battling with real bladed weapons) I do believe they make a strong, logical case for the counter-offensive method.
      However, one other thing to consider is that most current weapon arts, even the ones that claim to be designed for the battlefield, are largely based on dueling. There is a significant difference between the one-on-one dynamics involved in a duel and what you might encounter on a military battlefield. On a battlefield, you would likely not have the time or luxury to wait for an opponent to make the first move and expose himself to counterattack. You may well be dealing with multiple opponents and if you start waiting around for the person in front of you to commit himself to an attack, the person to your left or right might suddenly stab you. Thus, in a battlefield situation, the optimum strategy might well be to take the initiative going straight for the nearest opponent and cutting him down as quickly as possible before going on to the next opponent and attempting to dispatch him as quickly as possible. Against multiple opponents you simply would not have as much time to wait and look for openings as you would in a one-on-one duel.
      In a self-defense situation on the street, either of these situations might come into play. You might be confronted with a single, knife wielding foe with no one else nearby; you might be confronted by several armed foes; or you might be confronted by one person but with several other people nearby about whom you are uncertain of whether they are threats.
      From a purely technical perspective, the idea of counterattacking, rather than attacking first, may have some merit in bladed combat. But, as with most other things in combat, it would have to be employed at the appropriate time and place.


2 Responses to “Getting to the Point (Of Bladed Combat)”

  1. Pain #1 August 1, 2012 at 2:39 am #

    All that makes sense. It seems to be purely situational. Whether you attack or counterattack – it is up to the situation. You have to make the call while you are in the moment – while you are summing up the risks. That makes perfect sense. You will never know whether there will be one or many opponents. Whether your opponent will be on drugs. If he will be crazy of professional. Who knows? You won’t know until you are there. I agree with everything that you said. After years of fencing with both foil and saber, I find that hack and slash only works if you know what your hacking and slashing at. I too have heard of the benefits of both the attack and the counter attack. It depends on the situation and the intstructor. I feel, the situation warrants the call as you have said previously. Good work! Best Regards, Blade Girl

    • Mark Jacobs August 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback, Blade Girl.

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