30 January 2014

Real-world Weapons: The Empty Hand

This is the last "melee weapon" in my Real-world Weapons series. There will be upcoming episodes on missile weapons and armour.

I lied before when I said that the stick was the oldest weapon - that honour clearly goes to the empty hand.

The man advantage of the empty hand as a weapon is that it's always available. It's also surprisingly potent.


You ask how I force others to the ground under my feet with such prowess,
I tell you that because I grapple each man and throw him down;
The victory palm is appropriately held in my right hand
. - Master Fiore Dei Liberi
I can remember a time before I studied martial arts when I wondered why throws were so prevalent - I'd fallen down before, and it wasn't too bad.

Then I learned a bit, and one of my instructors laid it out so clearly - a throw doesn't make someone fall down, a throw is throwing someone onto their head. The goal is to bounce the persons head off the ground, stunning them, knocking them out, or killing them. In any case, once they're on the ground, they're (relatively) easy pickings for a neck stomp, sword thrust, or dagger attack.

Throws are some of the most difficult maneuvers to execute (hence the Master depicting throws in Fiore's book is the most ornately dressed), but a proper throw can be devastating.

An example throw, from Fiore:

Here the Scholar (with the gold band on his leg) is depicted in the middle of throwing the student to the ground. The upper arm has disrupted the student's balance by shooting through his centre, and as the student begins to lose his balance, the Scholar "helps" the process along, directing the head down with his upper arm and propelling the student to the ground by grabbing and lifting the leg.


Because I triumph over those who fight with me,
I carry torn-off broken arms as a decoration.
[And I do not lie when I tell you that I have broken and dislocated many arms in my life.]
- Master Fiore Dei Liberi
Locking the arms of all opponents
In such a way that none can safely extend their right hand,
To show my success I carry a pair of keys in my hand.
- Master Fiore Dei Liberi
The body is organized in a certain way. Limbs bend in this direction, but not that. If you bend them forcibly in that direction, they are remarkably fragile. It's possible to cause immense pain and massive damage forcing limbs the wrong way.

There are a couple basic kinds of locks - keys and bars. For an example of a key, extend your arm straight out to the side, then - bending only at the elbow - point straight up. Now, try to rotate your arm at the shoulder to point backwards - you almost immediately hit the end of your range of motion.

If someone were to force your arm back like that, it would be immensely painful. They could apply a great deal of force, likely damaging your arm and almost certainly driving you forcefully to the ground.

The classic bar is the arm bar - this is basically forcing the elbow joint backwards by grasping the hand of an outstretched arm and applying force just above the elbow. Very little force is required to do massive damage to the elbow joint.

The Scholar executing an arm bar. Here, the hand of the outstretched arm is held in place by the Scholar's head (every part of the body is dangerous!) and the Scholar's arm is applying force behind the elbow. From here, the elbow can be stressed to breaking, or (more likely), the Student will bend to relieve the stress, and the Scholar could propel the Student's head into the ground.
The point with locks is applying force in a way that the victim cannot resist, either because (like an armbar) it's a 2-on-1 situation (two arms vs. one) or because the body has few muscles that can operate in that axis (like the key I described). Or both.

Various empty-hand defenses against weapons result in locks, for instance a two-handed defense against a vertical dagger strike can transition into the key I described, or an off-hand defense against a dagger attack from the high left side can be blocked and transitioned into an armbar.


In my right hand I hold your dagger, and I gained it through my skill, which is so good that if you draw a dagger on me, I will take it from your hand. -Master Fiore Dei Liberi
While a popular TV/Movie trope is the "trick" sword move that disarms the enemy, this is highly unlikely. In order to take a weapon away, you have to get your hands involved.

This can arise from an empty-hand defense against an attack, or as a natural result of weapon play.

For instance, if an attack ends with the opponent's pommel in reach, it may be possible to grasp the pommel and twist it against the opponent's thumb, forcing the sword out of their hand while your sword ensures that they cannot land a hit while you're doing that.

An ideal empty-hand dagger defense ends with a disarm - one example would be stopping a blow coming from high on your left side and redirecting their energy past you and twisting their arm down and to your right. Executed properly, your forearm will press against the flat of their dagger and force it out of their hand.


I can't find the exact passage at the moment, but Fiore reminds us that we should never forget striking with the empty hand - i.e. punches, kicks, knees, headbutts.

The ideal targets are the soft spots - the solar plexus, the neck, the nose, the groin, or places where great damage can be done - the knee, for example, can be devastated by a kick.

"Dirty" Techniques

Fiore was writing a book of war for people who would be engaged in lethal combat. As such, no effective technique is omitted or disallowed.

Someone choking you? Gouge their eyes.

Someone grappling close? Knee them in the groin (by all accounts, this is very effective regardless of their sex, despite what some may think).

Fish-hooks (digging a finger in between the teeth and the cheek) can be very effective at moving the opponent around, using the principle "where the head goes, the body follows".

Against a bear-hug from behind, grab a finger and twist it backwards until it breaks.

Someone's hand near your face? Bite their finger off.

Someone's face near your face? Bite their nose or ear off.

In a fight where you expect death is on the line, no technique can be rejected as "dirty" or "unsportsmanlike".

Integration with Weapons

I alluded to this in the section on disarms, and several times before, but the empty hand is always available, even when you're holding a weapon. It's totally possible for a winning move in a fight to be dropping your sword and attacking a vulnerable arm with a lock, or dropping your pinned poleaxe and moving in aggressively for a throw.

Summing Up

The human body is a very potent weapon with the right skill and training. I definitely know people that in a hypothetical fight to the death, I would not bet on me even if I had a sword and they did not, such is their skill at unarmed combat.

I also can't overstate how disorienting, painful, devastating some of these techniques are even in a friendly environment.

The empty hand - the first and last weapon of humanity. Don't underestimate it.

17 January 2014

Would Magic Change the World?

Following on from an interesting (if frustrating) discussion with Alexis at Tao of D&D, I'm going to talk about whether magic would change the world.

There are four scenarios worth considering, representing the ends of two "dials" on magic - how recent it is, and how prevalent/practical it is:
  1. Magic has always been around, but it's incredible rare/difficult.
  2. Magic has always been around, and it's very common/easy.
  3. Magic has only recently been discovered, and it's incredibly rare/difficult.
  4. Magic has only recently been discovered, and it's very common/easy.
Scenario 1 and 3 would result in a world much the same as our own. For whatever reason, there is some intrinsic barrier to widespread dissemination of magic. Perhaps (like Harry Potter) some people are Wizards and can do magic, and some people are not and can not and that's that. Perhaps magic requires certain ancient or otherworldly artifacts that cannot be duplicated, or materials of incredible scarcity. Perhaps magic has such catastrophic side effects that it is outlawed, or simply not practiced out of prudence.

There are any number of possible explanations, but the point remains - a small amount of magic, even if around for a great deal of time, would not have any significant effect.

Scenario 2 would be wildy, radically different from our world. As different as the world of a modern Briton is from an agrarian Brit living under the Norman yoke in 1088. Positing a world where anyone can do useful magic with the equivalent of, say, a six-week nightschool course would result in a world where everyone who's anyone retains one or more potent magic-users. Magic is used in industry, warfare, trade, diplomacy... Much as computers have transformed every facet of our current world, plentiful cheap magic would transform the ancient world, and therefore transform every subsequent age beyond recognition.

Instantaneous communication, teleportation, magical lie detection, purification of elements, transubstantiation of elements, battlefield artillery, mass production of wondrous objects... The possibilities are limitless, and it is difficult to make any kind of prediction about what such a world would be like. It would depend greatly on the exact types of magic that are feasible.

But to argue that plentiful, cheap magic, available over the long term, would not cause at least the degree of transformation that computers and industrialization did is insupportable.

Scenario 4 would be a world like our own transitioning into a different kind of world, like England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Forward-thinking businessmen and princes would be making the most of the new-found magic in industry, commerce, and war. Most people would still be living pre-revolution lives.

Perhaps centuries of alchemical and astrological work were converging on a single solution to the problem of practical magic, and near-simultaneous discoveries were made in several places. Perhaps some planetary convergence opened rifts to another world. Perhaps powerful beings have returned to this realm, bringing magical potential with them.

None of this is Earth-shattering. I wouldn't think this is particularly controversial even (although I might be surprised). I don't think Alexis and I disagreed so much in our conclusions as our premises - if I understand correctly, he's thinking of a Scenario 1 world, and I'm looking at all the possibilities.

That said, we play a game. If you want to play a game where powerful, plentiful magic has always existed, but the borders of Europe are the same in 1088, the feudal system is in place in Norman England, and in every way the world mimics our own (but there's powerful, cheap magic everywhere), all power to you. It's a game. Do what works for your game!

But don't try and tell me that's a plausible historical scenario. It's not.