Reality of weapons fighting

The History Channel has a lot of documentaries on the realities of gun fighting in the Wild West.  One thing the viewer quickly get is how much of what we think we know about the subject were embellished by writers of the time to sell newspapers, magazines, and books.   If we think about it, in China or the West, from the days of epic poems to modern media, when it comes to martial art, it has always been exaggerated.

One area where this gives people the wrong idea is what weapons fighting is like, specifically, what does it take to incapacitate/kill an opponent.  In movies, sword fights tend to end in a sensational, gory fest of decapitation and dismemberment…


In Chinese, chop (劈pi or 砍kan) means a big powerful cutting/splitting motion. You can do that with a jian (straight double-edged sword), but in reality jian fighting is more like (small) knife fighting. You don’t need to split someone in half to kill or disable them. If you got a one inch deep cut on the opponent’s thumb, back of the hand, wrist, inside of arm or leg, on the neck, face, front of the torso… , it would be very serious.

This is true even for heavy dao or katana.  In terms of practicality, anyone who has spent time in the kitchen can appreciate how difficult it is to separate a joint in one clean stroke when you’re preparing meat for dinner, especially when it’s not frozen.  Now imagine doing that when that body is sweating, moving, and resisting. In real life that’s very hard to do. Fortunately in weapons fighting even the smallest cut will do the job. That’s one major difference between empty hand fighting and weapons fighting right – the margin of error.

Giuseppe Castiglione, Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in ceremonial armor

In terms of body armor, there has always been an inevitable tradeoff between protection and mobility.  You can never make it as strong as you want – complete protection.  Because that would mean it has to be so thick and heavy, that you’ll be barely able to move.  Remember that European knights in full armor had to be mechanically lowered onto their horses.  And if they ever fall off…

For these reasons, the real value of the armor then is probably not in offering complete protection against the most powerful direct hits from all weapons, but to save us from those smaller glancing blows that would otherwise incapacitate us.


1 Response to “Reality of weapons fighting”

  1. 1 graculus
    2009-09-03 at 8:41 AM

    I’m sorry to bring this up because I have a lot of respect for most of the comments you have made on boards like rumsoakedfist etc. but I’m afraid this is just nonsense:

    “Remember that European knights in full armor had to be mechanically lowered onto their horses. And if they ever fall off…”

    European knights had no trouble getting into their saddles while in full armour – old knights might have occasionally used a mounting block, but that’s as far as it went. I know they had that scene in the Olivier Henry V, but that was pure fantasy. Medieval armour was designed not to be cumbersome – despite its weight, it was possible to be quite mobile. Vision and breathing were likely to be more of a problem.



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