Knife vs sword—do you have a hope?

No. Well that was easy. The answer’s still no but I’d like to explore why that’s the case. I’d also like to explore why, if you’re so unlikely to succeed, we have sections on this in historical manuals. If you are so likely to fail, what’s the point in trying at all?

So let’s back it up. Why are you likely to fail? You have a knife. A fairly short weapon. One you can only use in one hand. Your opponent has some kind of sword that’s at least three times as long as your weapon, and probably longer. As we’ve talked about before with reach and measure, the greater the difference in the lengths of the weapons, the greater advantage the longer one has. So, there’s a big distance where they can hit you and you can’t hit them , and you’ve got to cross it in order to reach them to have any hope of striking. That’s the main problem, but there are more.

See, if they’ve got a longsword, for example, they can use it in two hands. Your knife or dagger can’t be used in two hands. Even if you manage to parry with it, the amount of force they can bring to the blow means you’re likely to injure your wrist or arm by absorbing blow after blow. Let’s say you get lucky though and they don’t strike really hard. You’ve still got the problem of virtually no hand protection and your weapon itself, being so small, can’t cover as much of your body anyway.

Fine then, what can you do? We see the same basic principle applied as in any length disparity: stay out of measure, cover your line when they attack and close in. What does this look like against a cut? They cut down from their shoulder, you move the blade into the way, hoping to catch it on the forte, and you absorb enough of the blow to not be cut in two as you step in to grapple them and stab somewhere else. What about against a thrust? They try to thrust you but instead of moving the blade into the angle of the incoming blow, you move it across your body, hoping to catch and displace the thrust , again stepping in and grappling once you’ve done so. In one you’re effectively seeking to meet their blow with force of your own, in the other you’re using less force but covering more of yourself in a greater chance to intercept them. Doesn’t actually sound too bad, does it?

Here’s the problem though. With great reach comes… many opportunities for feinting. Because there is such a big distance where the swordsman can strike without being struck in turn, they can also change their angle of attack as they strike or thrust, effectively feinting in their measure. And they can do this safely, because their measure isn’t their opponent’s measure—they can’t be struck as they lose a tempo changing to a feint. Not if they do it right anyway. And time and time again, I have seen plenty of people feinted and hit as they’ve tried to defend themselves with a dagger or a knife. Good fighters most of the time, sure, but they’re at such a disadvantage they need to get incredibly lucky or be against timid, new fighters to stand much chance of succeeding.

So why do ancient manuals teach knife/dagger vs sword? It seems like the most useless thing, doesn’t it, if any competent fighter with a sword can beat you regardless? I’m thinking primarily here of Fiore’s Fior di Battaglia. But see, his underlying premise, in my opinion, is to teach you how to be safe and fight in any situation you face. There’s no point only learning how to fence with a majestic longsword if you’re more likely to be assailed in a back alley by thieves with knives before  you have a chance to draw anything. If someone comes to attack you with a sword but you’ve only got a dagger on you, sure, you might be incredibly disadvantaged, but do you just give up and die or do you fight, knowing what options you have? Fiore’s manual is a system of self-preservation in all circumstances, in trying to maximise your chances of survival. It’s not fool-proof, it’s just the best chance you’ve got.

So is it worth learning how to fight with a knife or dagger against a sword? I’d say yes. You don’t actually have much of a hope, I think we’ve covered that, but I’m very much in Fiore’s mindset that it’s better to train with a disadvantage some of the time so you can be more flexible in whatever situation you face. You might even get lucky and be facing people who over-estimate their likelihood of success and give you a simple blow they doubt you could block at all. Or they might realise you’re not going down without a fight and pause for a few seconds, thinking how best to take you. Those few seconds could be enough for you to call out to some friends or even just leg it and find somewhere more favourable—like anywhere else. Training with such a disadvantage helps remind you, I think, what should be your top priority in any fight: staying alive—and what you can do to try and achieve that.

(Photo of Fiore’s dagger vs sword sourced from Wiktenauer)

One thought on “Knife vs sword—do you have a hope?

  1. When I was learning fencing (for a short time, admittedly), our instructor was using mainly Fiore’s works. Each time we got to train with daggers, he started by reminding us that we should never, ever try those techniques unless we have our backs against a wall.

    On the other hand, training with daggers sure made me appreciate the sword’s range and feel a bit more comfortable in grapple situations.


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