Anakin Skywalker faces Obi-wan Kenobi, lightsaber against lightsaber, on a battleground of lava rivers and giant mining machines.
The Man in Black fights Fezzik bare-handed on a rocky mountainside.
Syrio Forel faces a group of armed knights in a courtyard, with nothing more than a wooden training sword.
A lot of genre’s most memorable battle scenes involve difficult match-ups in the worst possible place. Today, I’m going to take a dive into the nuts and bolts of melee combat, and ask the question: how would you choose the right weapon for the fight at hand?
Let’s consider the battleground.
There are infinite possibilities for where a fight can occur, and, in real world combat, weapon effectiveness is frequently determined by the environment. So let’s start with environmental factors.
Space is the first major concern. A fighter needs room to maneuver, or even room to swing! The average sized room is almost untenable for a long spear, for example, and it just gets worse as the space gets smaller and narrower. Thrusting swords like rapiers can work in a narrow hallway. Cutting swords, like katanas: not so much. If you are in serious danger of swinging and hitting the walls instead of your opponent, then you have chosen your weapon poorly. Short weapons, like daggers and knuckledusters, are your friends in close quarters.
In contract, huge open battlefields are practically owned by ranged weapons like warbows that are ludicrous to imagine indoors. (If you do, however, manage to park a ballista in your kitchen for the purposes of medieval warfare, please let us know. For science.)
The next environmental factor: what medium are you moving through or over? Are you slogging your way through mud? Waist-high water? Are you underwater entirely, or even in outer space? Are you on ice, or loose gravel; upside-down, or hanging off a cliff? Your choice of weaponry here has to overcome the disadvantages that you, assumed to be a bipedal mammal, suffer when fighting somewhere that isn’t as nice and flat as a mall floor.
This factor influences two things: your speed of movement, and your ability to generate force from friction. Being able to swing a sword depends very highly on whether you can brace your body against the ground, and suddenly losing traction completely robs you of that. On ice, or floating around in zero-G, means you have nothing to brace against and your strikes will be very weak, or simply unpredictable because you can’t control your own momentum. Moving through a medium thicker than air slows you right down, and could make striking almost impossible.
So what’s the solution?
Apart from the obvious one (bring a ranged weapon), fighting where you just can’t get enough traction to strike with a basic melee weapon, or you can’t move fast, is going to require some changes to your fighting style as well as your armaments. Fighting underwater? Forget hitting your opponent with a sword and go to grappling. A chokehold is just as effective regardless of the medium because it depends on nothing but your own strength. Likewise, some good old fashioned jujitsu goes a long way if the environment means you’re likely to fall and end up on your back. If you have to use a weapon, pick something that’s hooked and good at cutting. It keeps your target in range and gives you some extra options for damage.
Just like Fezzik in The Princess Bride, who you’re up against is just as important as where you are.
The first thing to know is that ten-on-one is a losing battle. Absent some kind of magic or other woo-woo nonsense, there is no way any single fighter is going to take on ten others at once and come out on top. But that said, if you are inclined to try fighting against overwhelming odds, then your best bet is to back up, let your opponents come to you, and only engage one or two at a time. Your choice of weapon should be whatever you’re most comfortable with, or whatever works with the environment.
If you’re not fighting other bipedal mammals, then I’m afraid all bets are off. If it’s something that isn’t as smart as you, then I suggest you figure out a way to outsmart it! For everything else, you might try staying really still and hoping it doesn’t see you.
Size is the next concern. Is your opponent much bigger or smaller than you? For one-on-one melee combat with any kind of weaponry, even your fists, it’s a big problem if there’s a big difference in size. By and large, the fighter with the longer reach has the advantage; being able to hit a target without risking a hit in return is significant. But having a shorter reach also means that your effective working range is smaller as well, and you can use that against your opponent.
A fighter with a spear against one with a sword and shield is a good example of this. A spear means longer reach and ability to strike safely, but once the swordfighter gets inside the working range of the spear-wielder, then the advantage of reach swiftly becomes a disadvantage! By and large, you need to choose weapons that make the best of any advantage you can get from the start. Against someone much bigger, you need long reach or ranged; against someone smaller, you need something that lets you adapt quickly and keep them out at your best working distance. (Avoid ballistas, is what I’m saying here.)
Finally, let’s talk about relative strength. You’ll be happy to know that swords are fantastic equalizers in this respect, and it’s not only fine but absolutely recommended to go up against a stronger opponent with your sword of choice. Swords are big steel levers, and you can overcome a sizeable difference in strength with nothing more than good technique. What I WOULDN’T recommend is grappling, unless you really can’t avoid it. A lot of wrestling and jujitsu is more about the technique than raw power, but you just don’t want to give anyone significantly stronger than you the opportunity to bring that strength to bear in a way you can’t control.
Remember: sometimes the only winning solution is to run like hell and return to fight another day, preferably in better circumstances.
I hope you enjoyed this little foray into what-if theorycrafting. If there’s any particular situation or circumstance you’ve always wondered about, leave a comment below 🙂