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.


  1. Hi Charles,
    I'm am interested seeing how you treat this area of combat in your game,
    especially how you might handle differences in size/weight between opponents.

    To what extend can armour prevent injury from being thrown or falling or indeed prevent joint injury due to lock/bars? Is it more difficult to come to grips with a mailed or plate armoured opponent?

    unrelated but: I have aslo wondered: Is there a difference in the style/method of armed fighting when armoured compared to unarmoured?

    The only similar comparison I can think of is the difference between bareknuckle boxing and modern sports boxing. Gloves protect the hand from damage from striking hard points on the opp (fist, elbow, skull). And there are a range of techniques that are effective in bare knuckle fighting but useless when gloves are on.

    So when are you revealing/releasing your game in total?

    Looking forward to it.

  2. "differences in size/weight between opponents. "

    I don't, mostly. Strength gives a damage bonus, as in D&D, but that's about it. For my money, the increase in complexity is not worth the increase in detail.

    I may revisit this, my damage system is still a work in progress.

    "To what extend can armour prevent injury from being thrown or falling or indeed prevent joint injury due to lock/bars? Is it more difficult to come to grips with a mailed or plate armoured opponent?"

    Well, a good padded helmet could help your head if it gets thrown on the ground. Re: bars/locks, the armour does not typically help. Mail, especially, being flexible, does nothing to protect against locks. Plate - in the era I'm interested in - is literally just plates strapped to a padded jacket. So it won't help, either.

    Plate armour WILL protect you from some hard techniques, though. Imagine punching a steel helmet - it will do little to your opponent, but would be pretty bad for your bare hand.

    Plate covers the main striking targets - nose, neck, solar plexus. Knee strikes will still be effective.

    "Is there a difference in the style/method of armed fighting when armoured compared to unarmoured?"

    Yes. Armour protects you the most from weak attacks, uncommitted attacks, and lets you be a little more aggressive. Armour also makes your unarmed attacks a little more powerful against an unarmoured opponent.

    Before plate armour, shields were more common, but the rise of plate armour saw the decline of the shield in favour of more powerful, two-handed weapons.

    Obviously, if your opponent is armoured, you need to totally change up what you're doing. A strike with a sword that would cut off an unarmoured arm would do little or nothing to an arm encased in plate. Two-handed weapons and techniques are required. Locks and close play becomes more important. Thrusting is preferred to striking, unless you have a poleaxe or similar.

    "So when are you revealing/releasing your game in total? "

    Probably this year, maybe next year.

  3. I got a lot of thoughts regarding this, but I just realized I need to re-read all my KDF unarmored and armor grappling books to make sure I get my points straight.
    But good stuff, and I'm looking forward to your future release.

    1. I'm always interested in your take!

    2. It just occurred to me that with the level of detail I will want to go into regarding this, I really should do a blog post on it.
      I might just end up doing a more abbreviated "Real Weapons" series on my blog.
      I'll let you know when I've done it, which will be sometime next weekend or the week following it.

    3. I did not realize you had a blog! I have subscribed, and am looking forward to your contributions.

  4. You just made a huge argument for more Grappling in D&D. I am pretty sure every DM now hates you. :D

    1. You can use the draft of my simple unarmed combat system:


      It doesn't get any simpler than that. And it has the bonus of being tolerably plausible, too.