Never Bring a Knife to a Spear Fight

Vito Pandolfo

If you have experienced any medieval recreation, or trained with any martial arts weapons, you will likely enjoy this, but if you have not, hopefully we will demystify some of what some fantasy entertainment and a lot of Hollywood has led us to believe. This is a useful discussion for nearly any fantasy role playing game that needs a more realistic edge – no pun intended here.

One of our Game Masters in Colorado wrote to us with a dilemma. His player was complaining. His character - who was a highly-experience knife fighter with some ability to fight with two knives concurrently - used a spear, he ended up with a greater chance to attack overall than when he was using his knife. This made the player irate, and yes admittedly, I first asked questions like “well, did you generate the character’s attributes and skill percentages correctly?”, and such. Metal, Magic and Lore requires that players put time into character generation (90 minutes to 2 hours), and mistakes can get made. But alas, no, that wasn’t the case. The numbers were right. And so this led to my explanation about fighting with a spear vs. a knife.

In one of my mixed martial arts endeavors, a fellow practitioner once said, “if you get into a knife fight, you are going to get cut”. We are going to put that statement on the table and just leave it there for the moment. In the mean time, let’s look at a simple fact: throughout centuries of history, no matter where we turn on every continent where there are conflicts, was the spear. East Asia, the South Pacific, Eastern and Western Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, Caucasia, North and South America….you name it! Nearly every tribe encountered in history, including Native Americans, though this is not as commonly known, has relied on a spear first as a hunting tool but also as a weapon. And not only tribes in earlier stages of technological development, but also as organized armies were concerned. These devices were used first two-handed, but later in tandem with shields in some form (some skin with wood frame or wicker, rattan and later wooden). Sometimes these were used in tandem with an ax, though this is less common. Often when used in warfare, spears were used in lined formations; also true in multiple places in the world, the Middle East, Europe, the far East in India, Korea, Japan, China. We can go on and on.

The spear is a great little tool. It keeps you at a safer (not totally safe, but safer, mind you), distance from your enemy, it is easy to get a good firm and leveraged grip on (it is important not to drop your weapon), and is conceptually easy to understand – you push the pointed end into a desired location. Surprisingly, it is also, as weapons go, somewhat difficult to block, from the opponent’s point of view; the business end. This is due to the fact that the user can easily adjust the angle of the pointed end, can have a two-handed grip which provides strength and leverage, and when visually observing the end from a head-on direction, it can be particularly difficult to get a proper depth perception. Add all this together, and when you are the wielder, it can appear to be surprisingly easy to pass an opponent’s defenses to have the point find its mark. In fact, the real disadvantages to the spear are few; it is long and cannot be used in a confined space or easily in multi-directions (NO, not John Wu style fighting, that is cinema…), it is difficult to use when the opponent is up close, though this can be somewhat overcome, it still does not provide a great defensive repertoire. How long does it take to learn a spear to a simply effective level? Not long at all; give me 20 men and 20 days, and we can have a small, organized contingent.

Now, back to the knife. Where do we see the knife being used in warfare? Well, it has been used, but only in covert warfare, or close-quarters combat. It is super effective for being stealthful and sneaking up on an opponent to take him with surprise, but that is a different matter. We are really looking at where it was used in formations of small groups. And the fact is: it was not. But that being said, there are other factors to consider, which is that in many ways a knife can be a better weapon than a spear. It is much faster, lighter, and a defender can react to incoming attacks faster. It does not have reach but it far far better up close. It can just as effectively slash and thrust, so there are two clear attack modes, and if the knife has a substantial cross-guard it can be a great little shield, as well. But despite all these benefits, it is not used in warfare as a spear is. Give me 20 men and 20 days, and we can have a small contingent who can either be dangerous to themselves or others, situation specific. It is not reliable in that regard. We need more like 20 weeks (or more, for sure).

It is certainly true that a highly trained knife fighter can overcome a simply trained spear wielder, because the training can overshadow the ease of use of the spear. But it is not easy, nor should this be taken lightly. As per the statement, “if you get into a knife fight, you are going to get cut”, well this means that a knife is meant for the up-close-and personal. And if your opponent has one and is ready for you, well, the odds are even. Which weapon would I prefer? Well, it depends on my purpose. In a 1-1 confrontation, I would almost always put my money on the spearman. The amount of training required for a knife fighter to overcome a spear is far greater than the reverse. And if the spearman is trained well, this might be an ugly little fight for someone. (and I don't mean the spearman).

Now if we were conducting some covert ops, or infiltrating some target location using stealth and speed, well, the knife is certainly the choice. But that is for another article. In the open field, the spear is the king. It is the under-appreciated and overlooked weapon in fantasy gaming, as is its brethren offshoots. Certainly in MM&L, every party makes sure they have a spear. So hopefully, in your other fantasy games, with a couple of adjustments, you can emulate how this simple and elegant tool has made its way prevalently into the history books.