You live in a city or country where you cannot carry a gun and your car breaks down. Your cell phone is out of juice but you see a store a couple of blocks down the street. Earlier in the day you had attended martial arts training and still have a trunk full of weapons. Now you see a bunch of guys approaching talking garbage.


I know this is a contrived situation but I had to figure out a way that one might legally have spears, staffs,  swords, daggers, clubs, tomahawks, and such to talk about the differences in fighting methods. Before we get going into this discussion I would like to mention my expertise is with unarmed combat (Kenpo Karate or Eastern Martial Arts (EMA) if you will). While I have always had an idea how to use improvised weapons (I understand Kenpo staff fighting methods) , I’ve only started practicing improvised weapons and historical European weapons (HEMA) in the last year or two.


I’ll will try to limit this discussion to the differences I see at each distance. To start lets take an unrealistic view of how an unarmed man might fight a long sword attack. :)





Most EMA would tell you that in any weapons attack, you have two good choices; move in fast and smother the attack or move back to avoid the attack. While one might also be able to take off in other directions, or find something to block the attack, really running might be the safest strategy here. Why? Because this was an unrealistic attack that the attacker actually waited for the defender to move inside before attacking.


But there is something else to consider, the guy with the sword did not point it at the defender. I mean if the point was aimed at or reasonably close, the defender would have never dared to rush in and impale himself.


But we have started the conversation. First thing to talk about is distance. Remember no guns but the attacker might have bricks or rocks. Seeing you by yourself they are probably confident – you let them approach. You find out for the sake of argument they want to beat you into a pulp. What do you do? Remember running is the best choice if you have somewhere to go (meaning you think you have a good chance at getting away).  But for the sake of this exercise we assume you cannot run.


Here are the distances:

Long range might be for the spear or staff.

Medium-Long range might be for the swords or baseball bat.

Medium might be for the daggers, clubs, or hatchet.

Short-long range might be for kicks.

Short range might be for punches.


So with spear or staff (not half-staffing but quarter staffing) you can keep the attackers off easily with stabs and swings. One spear or staff really is superior to a few guys with shorter weapons. You can change stances and swing or stab at will all the while keeping a safe distance. It is true you will have to move around a bit but if you have room – you will probably come out ok. So I would prefer to fight long range against a bunch of guys if I had my choice.


Next choice for me would be to have a sword or baseball bat or even a short battle ax! I would still likely have a distance advantage (assuming my attackers had daggers or clubs), but I would feel confident with any of my swords against short arms or unarmed men. I could easily change stances at will without any issues (like a side kick hitting me with my feet together).


Now if all I had were medium range weapons (daggers, medieval daggers, clubs, tomahawks), I would still be able to depend on my weapon to keep my attackers limited in their attacks, but I would also risk getting hit by their attacks since our critical distance would likely be the same (they could reach me as I could reach them). So I would have to depend on superior fighting skills with stances, movement, bridging the gap and out without getting hit and such. This is a lot closer to an even match up and might be overwhelming if my group of attackers know how to fight (not as likely).


If I was unarmed or only had a pocket knife, the first thing one notices is the distances are more important than ever.  I would no longer be able to change stances at will but would have to make sure my opponent was out side my distance or he would catch me with my feet together (very bad if I got knocked to the ground). If I was trying to keep them off with a pocket knife, I would wrap my other hand and wrist with my shirt to parry some of the knife counter attacks away. I also could not depend on any degree of safety because the pocket knife would not keep the attackers away from me… too short of a weapon.


If I did not have a pocket knife and they had short weapons, I would use my shirt and belt combo to try and even things up or even pick up whatever was around me. I would watch carefully the distance while darting in and out with my attacks – parrying any blades all the while.


If I did not have any weapons (and I could not run for some reason), I would have to use my arms to parry as I was darting in and out with my attacks. Staying back and just letting the attacks come is not an option because you would be fighting their game. Letting them set up on you and win the day! NOT!! No as I understand how to fight and quickly how to incapacitate opponents, I would gladly take some injuries (remember I’m fighting multiple guys with short weapons) to take them out one by one. So in that situation if I was successful I would have taken out my attackers and have to tend my wounds (and live!).


But keep in mind the last scenario would not be possible unless one was already a trained and a good unarmed fighter. If he was not (a good unarmed fighter) then most people would not survive an armed gang attack. My chances are only better but not hugely better because I practice for this sort of thing. Remember a fight is a living, breathing thing like fire. You never really know what is going to happen. But you attempt to hedge your bets by training.


The biggest surprise I’ve learned in HEMA (studying Bolognese sword and buckler right now) is – because of the distance being farther, stepping through is accepted. Unlike boxing, karate, or mma where an opponent is at risk whenever they change stances – that is not the case in sword fighting (at least so far). I am also still trying to get use to the T stance instead of a forward bow. I’m so use to the forward bow because of defending groin shots with my front knee in karate. In sword fighting there are a lot of forward lunges so they just keep the foot in that position.


I hope you have enjoyed this article comparing variations in armed and unarmed fighting. I look forward to your thoughts!





If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

5 Responses to “Fighting Distances; Considering Variations in Armed and Unarmed Fighting”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    Yes, I did enjoy this comprehensive article, John! I’m afraid I know so little about the use of these weapons that I can’t contribute anything of worth.

    The kids at one school I attended when very young did bully me and called me Zorro after I accidentally stuck one with a pencil. I wish I knew more then of what I don’t know much of now :-)

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    The important thing I think is that martial artists learn or at least think about the use of improvised weapons. Funny you should mention a pencil but it has a sharp point that is longer than an average pocket knife.

    The karate staff would hold off most other weapons assuming one used he/her reach advantage. That is a good thing to know. :)

  3. Gary Says:

    I’m all about self defense and I will promote every form that can help, especially the more vulnerable amongst us

  4. candesecurity Says:

    I believe everyone should be allowed to carry a self defense weapon on them. Now some states allow a stun gun or pepper spray and others do not. I can carry a self defense training in any state and this can be just a effective. What is the difference between being able to knock someone out with a good punch or with a stun gun or pepper spray? both have the same result.

  5. Demarcko Says:

    A very good point candesecurity. I wish that everyone would have that same mentality. We are currently working on spreading this idea. Self-defense is the most fundamental of all human rights and should not be restricted.