New Worlds: Unarmed Combat

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

After talking about weapons and armor, it seems only fitting to close out the month by talking about what you do when you have neither of them.

I’ve been studying shōrin-ryu karate for nearly ten years under a man who has been practicing for nearly sixty-five years and is a ninth-degree black belt. He travels internationally to teach and helped found an organization to promote our style. And if you ask him, he will be very blunt: “If the other guy has a sword and you don’t, you lose. Or you run away.”

Yes, bare-handed styles of fighting have techniques designed for opposing someone with a weapon. But those techniques are best viewed as what you do when you have no other choice — when you can’t run away and can’t talk the guy down. The whole point of weapons is to increase the threat you pose to the other person, by extending your reach and adding something (weight, a sharp edge) that inflicts more damage for less effort. Unless you have go go gadget arms with claws at the ends, as an unarmed person, you’re at a disadvantage.

All other things being equal, of course. If it were my shihan against a farmboy who’s just picked up a sword, I’d bet on Shihan. Ditto if the person with the weapon is particularly small or weak or slow. But weapons are a force multiplier, and so the unarmed combatant needs a big advantage to make up the difference. I’ve mentioned games before, and it’s worth noting that many of them reflect this imbalance in their mechanics, at least to some degree: you can be an incredibly effective unarmed fighter, but you generally have to invest a lot of effort into doing so (representing specialized training and magical or technological augmentation). An ordinary character who throws a punch won’t get much result out of it, except possible a sword through their spleen.

So if fighting unarmed is so useless, why do we pay attention to it?

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first: because it looks cool. Other kinds of fights can also look cool, of course, but bare-handed combat lends itself to a close focus on the body rather than the weapon, making a display out of the strength, speed, and agility of the combatants. It’s also inescapably personal. There’s no sniping from a distance, no objects acting as intermediaries; the characters are up in each other’s faces, hearing every sound, feeling every shift of weight. From a narrative standpoint, that kind of thing is powerful.

But of course human societies didn’t develop unarmed combat styles because they made for good stories. They did so because of the point I raised back when we discussed the social constraints on weapons: the “best” weapon is the one you have with you.

When I played a hard-hitting monk in a Legend of the Five Rings game, I joked that the nice thing about my combat build was that the only way to disarm my character was by literally removing her arms. (And her legs, too, while you’re at it.) If you learn to use your body as a weapon, then so long as you can move, you’re capable of attacking and defending. Guards took away your sword? That’s okay. Can’t bring a knife through the metal detector? No problem. Not only that, but there’s no risk that your enemy will gain control of your weapon and use it against you. (Well, they can get your arm in a lock or something, but schoolyard taunts aside, “stop hitting yourself!” is not a major feature of unarmed fights.)

This is important for characters who aren’t allowed to carry weapons, or can’t afford them, or who need to worry about being jumped in situations where they might be without their usual armament. I mentioned before that some weapons develop out of ordinary tools; people train to fight with their hands and feet for a similar reason. If there’s a significant risk that someone will come after you in your own home, or in the public baths, or any other unexpected location, then either you can walk around armed to the teeth all the time — which, as we’ve said, has its own problems — or you can learn to defend yourself with whatever comes to hand, even if that’s just your hand.

Barehanded fighting also has the situational advantage of being relatively non-lethal. Yes, movies show us people dying on the spot from punches and kicks all the time; that doesn’t mean it’s realistic. (In particular, breaking somebody’s neck with a single twist of your bare hands? At a minimum it’s extremely difficult, and I have yet to find convincing evidence of it even being possible.) Death from this kind of blunt-force trauma is likely to come later, from a collapsed lung or brain injury or something in that vein. Which is a disadvantage if you’re an adventurer out to kill monsters and take their loot . . . but an advantage if have taken a vow against killing, or you live in the kind of civilized society where murder is frowned upon. And grappling styles, whether they’re jujutsu or western wrestling, help you capture and immobilize people for later questioning or other such purposes.

Finally, of course, unarmed fighting isn’t all about fighting. While that’s its ostensible purpose, as even a brief glance at East Asian martial arts will show, people have often practiced these disciplines for other benefits. It’s good exercise, strengthening the body, improving endurance, promoting flexibility, developing balance, and so forth; it also can serve a meditative purpose, helping focus the mind and relieve stress. For some practitioners, it may have a spiritual component. European and American men sometimes encouraged boys to learn boxing as a way of teaching them discipline and getting them off the streets — or they boxed for money, treating the display as an entertaining spectacle or a livelihood.

Since these essays are aimed at speculative fiction, I naturally have to concede that magic or advanced technology can improve the effectiveness of barehanded strikes. But it takes some careful worldbuilding to put them on a level with weapons, explaining why that same magic or technology doesn’t also improve the effectiveness of swords or guns — that, or just lean on the Rule of Cool. If you want kung-fu wizards or boxers punching through walls, have fun with it; I’ll hardly blame you for it.

After all, ten years of karate says I think this kind of thing is pretty shiny . . .

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Unarmed Combat — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Unarmed Combat - Swan Tower

  2. And of course, in many cases the unarmed fighter does have a big advantage:

    the armed fighter assumes his weapon translates into automatic victory.

    • I don’t know that I would call that a big advantage, or one that applies in all that many cases. Against an armed opponent who doesn’t really know how to use their weapon and thinks merely having it in hand is enough to ensure victory, maybe — but the weapon is a significant enough factor that against anybody not phenomenally stupid, the unarmed fighter is still at a disadvantage. Not an insurmountable one, but they don’t have the upper hand.