The Dying is in the Details: Combat Diatribes #1, On the Use and Maintenance of Expensive Cutty Things

DISCLAIMER: I am not a member of of the All United States Kendo Federation or any legitimate school of martial arts. I’m an amateur who likes swords. Thus, take any ‘skill-oriented’ statements I make with a grain of salt, and when in doubt, always listen to the professionals over me. This goes double for the metallurgy in the fifth paragraph, since I’m not a smith and it’s actually gotten pretty scientific these days. Now, you may continue reading.

And hoo boy, sorry about that drought. Finishing exams, moving back home for the summer- you get the idea. Probably. Anyway, here’s this post, featuring a title rivaling the average nodachi in length! Just kidding, nodachi were a classy six feet at most, that title’s simply absurd. Now, while I try to figure out just how I want to open the next entries in my other two things, here’s yet another serial piece that I’ll do each Saturday until I run out of ideas. This time, my absolute favorite stuff in writing- the MURDERY BITS. Wait- let it sit… okay, that’s better. No, you have not actually been reading a psychopath’s rantings this entire time without knowing it. Or at any rate, if you didn’t know, then neither did the psychopath! Either way,  in addition to all the other long-winded foolishness, you may now enjoy the spectacle of Cullen McCurdy raving about how people kill and die in books. Maybe some stuff about sparring practice and magic, who knows?

So, to begin, you may have noticed that there are a lot of swords in fantasy settings. One might even say there are hordes of swords. Well, for such a remarkably common subset of sharpish weapons, authors sure do love to use them in the most ridiculous ways. “My character dual-wields his swords!” “My character uses his sword backhand!” “Oh yeah? You two are wusses! My character backhand dual-wields!” Ugh. I believe it was Musashi (and probably many other samurai, and knights, and so on) who observed in his Book of Five Rings that ‘there are only so many ways to cut a man down’. For your martial edification- find a long, straight implement in your house, no less than three feet in length, preferably nearer three and a half. This is now your sword. Grip it backhand, as in this picture here. Note that the ‘tip’ of the sword now points behind you, to one side of you, or generally in any direction other than the one in which your opponent should actually be standing.

Picture 12


Do you see the problem yet? You’ve just lost much of your flexibility (enjoy being constantly disarmed- well, just once really), any strikes from the left side or directly overhead are now impossible to pull off correctly (I.E., edge-on), you can’t stab things that aren’t behind you or on the ground, and even your right-hand strokes have no real power behind them. This position is worse in every single way, and there’s not one good reason to use it as a ‘stance’. So stop doing that, all of you. And don’t bring up lightsabers in Star Wars- when wielding an immensely destructive weapon which cuts through flesh instantly from any angle at any speed, you want as much control as possible.

This brings us nicely to combat myth #1: Characters who use their weapons in weird ways, or just have impractical weapons, are more awesome. That’s directly opposite to how we think about anything else. Why should combat, which is a more serious thing involving the deaths of thinking, living people, suddenly make us forget the vaguest idea of how to portray it in a way that isn’t completely stupid? Look at it like this: most sword, axe, spear and bow handling traditions have origins going back thousands of years. If some young kid comes along and thinks he knows of a better way than all these ones already tested in battle, that kid will probably be slaughtered by someone without a massive ego problem. Strange styles are one of the main marks of an amateur (trust me, I should know); most of us, myself included, have a tendency to do ridiculous stuff out of a misplaced want for ‘interest.’ I’m pretty sure if it comes to setting a killing sword of your own against that of your opponent, the fact that you’re fighting to survive will prove interesting enough for all concerned.

As far as impractical weapons go, some of the worst offenders are weapons that morph into other weapons. I would not trust a sword that turns into a crossbow to hold up in a duel, and I wouldn’t trust the crossbow component to shoot straight. The crossbow components would totally throw off the balance of the sword, and the sword components would make the crossbow needlessly dangerous to load and fire. Again, a few hours of googling would cure most of these misconceptions- if you can’t spare that for the sake of your sprawling 500 page fantasy novel’s climactic battle, I feel no shame calling you a hack.

On the note of easily cured misconceptions, here’s a favorite set of mine: Katana are lighter than European swords. Katana are sharper than European swords as well as being more durable. Katana are just better. In a word, NOPE. In point of fact, katana in their day and age tended to be heavier than their European brethren in similar length ranges. Yep, even accounting for those big metal crossguards, and those actually let the swords handle more lightly because they shift the point of balance closer to the hand! The heaviness of katana mostly because katana don’t have the same amount of tapering as European swords; that, in turn, is because there’s always been a low supply of iron in the Japanese home islands, which made it a bit difficult to forge swords with, erm, let’s say consistent carbon content. Katana of the time tended to have extremely hard edges, so the sharpness part is correct- but barring skilled methods of folding steel, the rest of the blade could run a gamut of hardness. This isn’t to say that all katana were bad- a master smith in Japan was still a master smith, and his swords would always be excellent, just as in Europe, India, or anywhere else.

But for less talented craftsmen, ones who didn’t have as much skill in ironing outthe impurities in their metal, this was a huge issue. On which note, folding steel is a method which exists solely because smiths realized it would even out carbon content throughout the sword. In this age of almost entirely homogeneous industrial steels, it’s really just an expensive aesthetic touch- very pretty, but not functional, and for some steels (Spring steel for one) it’s actually harmful to a blade’s tensile strength. That beings said, lamination, the art of forging a sword from several billets of steel with different carbon content, is still pretty damn useful- you get a strong, flexible spine and a hard cutting edge. It’s just a huge pain in the ass, so expect to pay more out of pocket for that.

As for whether katana are ‘just’ better, that’s obviously stupid. Different weapons are better suited to different people. Personally, I really like the aesthetics and particular handling of a katana, and with better steels forming the blade, that extra weight makes for a great cutting sword (which is the point, right? [PUNZ!!!]) Of course, some of that cutting power comes from having a very forward balance, but that makes the sword harder to control in general, and especially painful for longer use. That being said, I surely don’t think they’re ‘better,’ and if we were to suddenly find ourselves back to medieval warfare tomorrow, I can think of several situations in which a katana would be worse. As opposed to, say, a nice big halberd, or maybe a naginata. You can’t beat polearms for versatility, and only a pike is better for horse murder.

That’s enough chatter for now. Next time, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty- how I feel swords should be used in fantasy (or Sci Fi where they appear, and I think you’ll be surprised by what I have to say there), and just as importantly, all the ways a character WOT USES POIN’Y OBJECTS FER STABBIN’ BLOKES can still be awesome, without weighing them all down with swords and nothing but swords, or tripping them up with hilariously idiotic fighting styles.

(Find Part Two Here)

One thought on “The Dying is in the Details: Combat Diatribes #1, On the Use and Maintenance of Expensive Cutty Things

  1. This is why I don’t write action-adventure stories. I would end up spending most of my time learning about swords and archery rather than writing said story.

    Liked by 1 person

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