In the previous blog I noted that some of the techniques seen in I.33 and “Medieval Sword and Shield” were not suited to shields larger than bucklers. This suggested that a blog on larger shields might be useful. What might the Middle-Ages teach the modern riot shield user?
One of the first documents I found was the paper “Reconstructing Early Medieval Sword and Shield” by Hand and Wagner, the authors of Medieval Sword and Shield. I was surprised to learn that there were no surviving medieval fechtbuch on shield use. The oldest known texts on shield use are from the Renaissance, when shield use was already well on the wane. Medieval artwork showing shield use is less than ideal, due to lack of perspective and other factors that affect realistic, accurate depiction. While there are no manuals on battlefield use of shields, Talhoffer’s 15th century fechtbuch does show the use of very high duelling shields used in judicial combats. This has supplied Hand and Wagner with some suggestions on how shields could have been used.
Hand and Wagner quote the following passage from Giacomo Di Grassi (1570) on how to use a round shield (“target”):
“Of the maner how to holde the round Target
If a man woulde so beare the rounde Target, that it may couer the whole bodie, and yet nothing hinder him from seeing his enimie, which is a matter of great importance, it is requisite, that he beare it towardes the enimie, not with the conuexe or outward parte thereof,… Therefore, if he would holde the said Target, that it may well defend all that part of the bodie, which is from the knee vpwardes, and that he maie see his enemie, it is requisite that he bear his arm, if not right, yet at least bowed so little, that in the elbowe there be framed so blunt an angle or corner, that his eyebeames passing neere that part of the circumference of the Target, which is neere his hande, may see his enemie from the head to the foot. And by holding the saide conuexe parte in this manner, it shall warde all the left side, and the circumference neere the hande shall with the least motion defend the right side, the head and the thighes.”
Points to note are that both the surface of the shield and its circumference (rim) are used to protect the user. The right side of the rim is used to protect the right side of the user. The shield should be held so that it does not obstruct one’s view of the enemy. The least motion of the hand is needed to move the shield to defend the strong side, head or thighs.
I also had a look at the sword and shield chapter of John Clements’ “Medieval Swordsmanship”, a comprehensive work, although I have some issues with Clements’ writing style.
Clements shows a variety of ways a shield may be moved to counter attacks from various angles. Given a shield may mass eight to twelve pounds or more, there is wisdom in using a hold that minimizes any extraneous movement.
Fighting with a Shield
Some description of how a sword (or other weapon) would have been used with a large shield will be helpful. Clements describes three guards (or wards) for use with a shield and sword: high, middle and back. Similar techniques are used for axes, maces, spears and other weapons. Cycling from one of these positions to another is simple, and they allow strikes to made with little shield movement.
From the high guard the sword can make vertical, horizontal and diagonal cuts, thrusts and parries to either side of the shield. It can even deliver rising strikes from some angles. The hand is held just above forehead level, with the pommel just within peripheral vision. The blade slopes 45 degrees upward and inward so there is no clue to which direction the attack will take. The ochs (ox) position is similar but has the point directed forward. High guard is called high cocked guard in Attack, Avoid, Survive.
Middle position is well suited to thrusts and is less fatiguing if maintained. Cuts are best made by shifting to high or back position.
Back position is also known as “tail” or nebenhut. It allows cuts or thrusts to be made from a wide range of directions, and the weapon hand is hidden from the foe. The position is, however, poorly suited to combat from close formations where comrades may be behind and beside a fighter. A similar position, with a club or mace held vertically, is shown in figures 35-37 of Hand and Wagner’s paper.
Typically we see shields used with the face towards the threat, and they are depicted as chiefly protecting the left side of a fighter. The shield may even be moved to the left for an offensive move to be made!
Angling the Shield
The passage from Di Grassi got me thinking. If you can defend your right side with the right side of the rim, why not position the shield so that it covers the entire torso and as much of the right arm as practical? Hand and Wagner suggest an “open ward” with the shield sloped at an angle around thirty degrees. Conceivably, a shield held at such an angle could cover most of the torso while presenting an angled face that is more likely to deflect attacks. A turn of the waist would increase protection to the right side, or create the “inner ward” Hand and Wagner describe. A drop of the hand would deflect low strikes.
If we look at the illustrations that Di Grassi provides of round and square targets it is plausible that what it is showing is the right edge of the target on a line close to the outside of the right shoulder.
Against missile fire the shield was probably held perpendicular to the threat, for maximum cover. The angled position would prove more useful for close combat. This is essentially the open ward that Hand and Wagner describe, with the variation that the right edge extends to the outside of the right arm. The shield might even be angled in two planes at once, which might improve visibility.
This concept of angling the shield addresses several elements of the conventional (“forward”) depiction of shield use. A human male is around 20 inches wide, so why are most shields 28-32 or more inches wide? To the left side of a user the shield protects an area of empty air, meaning non-functional mass to carry. If the shield is sloped vertically more of its width is used to defend more of its user. I.33 and Medieval Sword and Shield illustrated how vulnerable a sword-hand was without a correctly used buckler. Fighters using larger shields must have had some means to protect their weapon-hand. With the shield angled, middle-level thrusts might have been made without the weapon-hand passing beyond the forward rim of the shield. Similarly a sword-hand in high ward or tail ward would be some distance behind the protective zone created by the shield. The forward rim of the angled shield can be used offensively, and has more impact than striking with the flat. It is possible that both sword and shield were sometimes thrust forward at the same time, in a technique similar to “stab-knock”. The forward edge of an angled shield may hook the inner edge of the foe’s shield. The fighter may then swing his sword across the face of his own shield to cut behind the enemy’s shield.
There is no evidence shields were used this way, but neither is there any that proves they were not. It is likely a variety of techniques were used, varying with the user’s skill, understanding and situation. It would be interesting to conduct some experiments.
Shields and Vision
Many years ago I watched an interesting demonstration by a pair of Roman Legion reenactors. “A” thrust at “B’s” eyes, so B raised his shield. In the moment that the shield blocked B’s vision, A stepped in and slammed his shield against B’s, knocking him off balance. The attack to the eyes was repeated. This time B parried upwards and outwards with his sword. As the sword was swept to A’s left, his sword arm was extended so B struck it with his own shield.
A nice demonstration of the offensive applications of shields, but also of one of their liabilities. The Scottish fencing master Donald McBane (1664-1732) notes:
“This Target is of great use to those who rightly understand it, but to unexperienced People is often very Fatal, by blinding themselves with it, for want of rightly understanding it.”
Certainly there are numerous period illustrations that appear to show a shield blocking a user’s vision, although lack of perspective makes any interpretation open to question.
Clements argues that it is inefficient to parry with a sword if one has a shield. The shield frees the other weapon to attack while a defence is conducted. The Roman demonstration illustrates there are times when the parry with a sword or other weapon is preferable to movement of the shield. Perhaps raising of the shield should be accompanied by an outward swatting movement to open a new line by which to keep the enemy in view? This might incorporate a simultaneous cut to the enemy’s attacking arm.
Recently I read a very interesting book called “Medieval Sword and Shield” by Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand. The generic title is a little misleading, since specifically the book covers the fighting system shown in I.33. Royal Armouries Ms. I.33, which is the earliest known surviving European fechtbuch (combat manual) and addresses the use of the sword and buckler. The book “The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship” by Jeffrey L Forgeng has a very nice reproduction and translation of I.33. The above volumes sit side by side on my bookshelf.
I.33 is not an easy work to understand. Medieval conventions on artwork make is uncertain as to the actual postures of the fighters, and the text is often less than clear and has some probable errors. It has been suggested that the manuscript was written for readers already familiar with the system described. Perhaps there was once an earlier “beginner’s course” manuscript, since lost to history.
If you read I.33 you will appreciate what a sterling job Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand have done in interpreting I.33 into a realistic fighting system. The book is comprehensive and logically laid out. Nearly every technique described is illustrated by a photo sequence, and in most cases the text is on the same page as the photos. As I know from personal experience, the latter is often much harder to achieve than one might think!
Stab-Knock and Shield-Knock
I.33 only deals with the use of sword and buckler, and the way these are used is distinctive. The buckler is seldom used independently. If the sword is held back in a cocked or charged position the buckler is advanced towards the foe. When the sword is forward the buckler is kept near the sword hand, and moved so that it is always between the sword hand and the likely approach of the enemy’s blade.
Two of the core techniques of I.33 are “stab-knock/ thrust-strike (stichslac)” and “shield-knock (schlitslac)”.
A stab-knock is made when the buckler contacts and controls the opposing blade. Since the fighter is to keep sword and buckler together the stab-knock is both an attack and defence in single time. While the term thrust or stab is used, the attack may actually be a draw-cut or push-cut (aka “file”). Contrary to the tired old myth that medieval swords were only swung, I.33 shows a number of thrusts. Often the line of the sword obstructs the threat from the foe’s blade. This is reminiscent of the Long Har Chuan variant where an arm punches over an inward parry, simultaneously taking the parry over and striking. Addressing another common myth; in I.33 a parry or bind with the blade often precedes the involvement of the buckler.
Shield-knock generally refers to binding the foe’s bucker with your own. Ideally this pins the opponent’s sword and buckler against his body, allowing the fighter’s sword to attack independently. The latter assumes the enemy has his sword-hand and buckler close together, as recommended by I.33. Shield-knock is sometimes seen applied to a buckler alone, or sometimes the sword-hand. If the enemy has not protected the sword-hand with his buckler then striking his arm with the buckler, preferably edge-on, is suggested. Shield-knock differs from stab-knock in that the sword may be wielded independently when a shield-knock is used.
Distance, Wards and Counters
I won’t attempt to discuss most of the techniques in Medieval Sword and Shield since they would be hard to understand outside the context provided by the book.
A useful concept that the book describes is that of close distance, wide distance and out of distance. Close distance is when the fighters can strike each other without moving their feet. Wide distance is that where a stepping movement is needed to move into striking distance. Out of distance is where more than one stepping movement would be needed to reach striking range. Such terminology is fairly common in sword fighting circles but often not so clearly and simply stated in other martial arts.
Another useful concept is the book clearly distinguishes between the terms “ward (custodiis)” and “counter (obsesseo)” as used by I.33. A ward is a position you adopt before making an attack, while a counter is a position adopted in response to a ward. It is stressed that one should not “lie” in a ward. This echoes my own frequent comments about positions and stances not being static and being transitional.
What can Medieval Sword and Shield teach the modern serviceman or prepper? More than you might think! For example, several of the core techniques show elements of Long Har Chuan, and I will deal with that topic further in a moment.
In Crash Combat I advise the baton and machete user to become familiar with rising and horizontal strikes. The two most versatile wards of I.33 are “underarm” and “priest’s special longpoint”. The bucker is held in a similar position for that recommended for the unarmed “alive-hand”.
While we have machetes and other long blades, a buckler is unlikely to be used. Some of the buckler techniques are not suited to larger shields such as a riot shield. In two of my books I describe using a helmet of entrenching tool in the weak hand to defend from a blade. The I.33 principle of keeping such a defence between your weapon-hand and the threat is directly applicable.
I.33 shows very few attacks to the hands or arms. The implication is that if the buckler techniques described are used such attacks are highly unlikely. In combat without bucklers the hands and forearms will often be targeted, whether a machete, baton or smaller blade is used. This is why you must keep your hands and yourself moving.
Long Har Chuan and Weapons
As I mentioned already, we can see the core principles of Long Har Chuan being used in some of the fundamental techniques of I.33. Long Har Chuan boils down to two ideas: When we make an inward parry, we take over with an outward parry. When we make an outward parry we simultaneously make an action with our other hand, either a strike or the beginning of another parry. If we parry a foe’s right hand with an outward parry from our right hand we would move left and hit him with our left hand.
Using a machete or baton has some influence on how Long Har Chuan is applied. If you have a long weapon in one hand you will likely favour its use. In offence the weapon has more reach and inflicts more damage. For defence it has more reach and is less vulnerable than your empty hand.
Suppose your enemy has a machete in his right hand, and you are configured the same. Your first move will be to bind his blade. “Bind” has a number of different meanings in blade fighting, and is used here to mean a sustained contact between blades, usually to exert control. Contact his blade on the outside, with your own, remembering that the strongest part of a blade is near the hilt, so attempt to bind “forte to forte”. Press his blade to your right and step in to your left. Make contact with his weapon arm with your left hand at the wrist, forearm or inner elbow. This hand controls, checks and monitors his weapon arm. This frees our weapon hand to unbind and strike at the foe’s neck. Rather than a broad swing, this may the a thrusting action, resulting in a thrust, draw-cut or push-cut. If we instead sensed his weapon arm reacting we might instead strike down at it with our blade. The procedure is similar for a bind on the inside of his blade, but in this instance his other hand is a potential threat and your should be ready to strike at this if necessary before attacking the neck. As can be seen, both inward and outward parries/ binds are taken over by the free hand to free the blade for use.
Over Christmas I made some changes to the Global Editions of “Attack, Avoid, Survive”. These were mainly changes of font or tweaks to improve readability. The sort of things that nobody but the author are likely to notice. Due to the caprices of word processors, this took way longer than it should have, minor changes throwing dozens of illustrations out of position. I may have finally learnt my lesson, so do not expect any further modifications in the near future, if ever!
The Mystery of the Muay Thai Roundhouse
Of course, during this I did add some more content. Mainly paragraphs or sentences clarifying existing sections. The book is now a couple of pages and several hundred words longer.
As I added some extra text to the section on roundhouse kicks a memory stirred. Some reference to the roundhouse kicks of Muay Thai being different and “the leg swung like a baseball bat”. I consulted a few references on Muay Thai that I have. There is no doubt that Thai boxers make very effective use of roundhouse kicks, but I could find no difference in the description of methods. I realized that the origin of the half-remembered quotation may be Wikipedia. Reading the section on Muay Thai roundhouses, I was informed that the leg was straight on impact and that power came from rotation of the body. That is exactly what I had always done, and I cannot see any other way to do it. How could I execute a circular kick without involving the hips or waist? I consult the “Essential Book of Martial Arts Kicks” from Tuttle Press. There is a section on “Straight Leg Roundhouse” and a mention of its use by Muai Thai. I am told that it is no longer a whipping kick but a “momentum” kick. I presume this refers to kicking with a follow through. The description could be read to mean the leg is forced to keep straight, but such would cause tensing and is contrary to increasing momentum and good kicking technique.
I will explain here that I originally learnt my kicks in Karate, polishing my technique with Capoeira. Roundhouse kicks were taught by adopting horse stance and kicking through 180 degrees to one side from the other. In Capoeira roundhouse kicks were snapped off from ginga. The rear foot left the ground and struck out in front of you, following a course that was effectively a horizontal snap kick. With either, your leg finished straight if your kicking leg was properly relaxed. It was impossible to not use body rotation with this kick, and probably dangerous to try!
It was only when I began to read about how other styles performed roundhouse kicks that I solved the mystery. For me, a roundhouse began when the kicking foot was still on the ground. For others, it started once the knee was raised up in the air. Hip rotation might be used for a kick from the back leg, but there were a variety of other kicks considered roundhouses. The raised knee position could be used to throw either a roundhouse, side kick or hook kick, so was useful for competitions. My Karate style had not been interested in sport and competitions, so the roundhouse I had learnt was closer to the powerful form used in Muay Thai. Of course, it is possible that the Wiki writer fell into the trap of over-specificity, looking for differences where few actually exist.
Essential Book of Martial Arts Kicks
The “Essential Book of Martial Arts Kicks” is worth a look, if you keep in mind it is primarily concerned with sport, tournaments and competition. All the kicks include an example of a self-defence application, but some of these will be more applicable or practical in the real world than others. The authors comment that most hook kicks are relatively new, implying they are something that has evolved more for competitions than actual combat. I was also intrigued to see crescent kicks were highly thought of. Personally, I am quite fond of crescent kicks, but have some reservations about their use in real combat. They are, however, a very good training aid for certain modes of footwork and maneouvre. The authors suggest that the broad striking area of a crescent kick is compensated for by the unexpectedness and variety of targets that it can attack, which is worth pondering. While the book has an emphasis on Karate and Tae Kwon Do, some attention is given to variations used in Savate, Capoeira, Chinese and Indonesian styles. A number of the Capoeira kicks and tactics seldom encountered in other styles are included, but I would have liked to see more Capoeira and Savate.
Side Kick Variations
Well worth a read is the chapter on side kicks. Side kicks are a very useful real world technique, and this chapter illustrates side kicks thrown from a number of unconventional positions or combined with evasions. Some of these may be considered hybrids of side and back kicks, and many of the above positions may also be used for a back kick instead. One of the setups illustrated resembles the start of an outward crescent kick from the lead leg, and can be used to attack an aggressor on the outside gate.
The pectoral position is a very useful position to carry a knife. It is accessible with either hand, and if the wearer is seated or prone. It can be readily utilized to cut a jammed seat harness, or when rolling on the floor with an aggressor.
This topic came up in one of my discussions on soldier’s load. Modern servicemen have a lot of gear to carry, and many do not believe carrying multiple knives is warranted. If you are going to carry a single fixed blade knife, then the weak-side pectoral position is a good place to place it. This influences the form of the “pec-knife”. Pec-knives are discussed in “Survival Weapons”, and their use in “Crash Combat”. The more general discussion of knife use for defence in “Attack, Avoid, Survive” are also relevant.
You sometimes see quite large knives carried in this position, but for most of us an overall length of less than eleven inches is more practical. There is a wide choice of fixed blade knives in this size range. Harder is finding a knife of sufficient thickness and robustness. If this is going to be a soldier’s primary blade then it must stand up to some rough treatment.
A few weeks back I encountered the Gerber Strongarm. This just seemed to shout “I will be a great pec-knife!” Just before Christmas I got an email telling me the variant I wanted was back in stock. Money was short, but I had had a rotten day and a few minutes before midnight I gave into temptation and ordered a Strongarm. It helped that the price listed was about 30% less than most other stockists! Would you believe it? I looked the next day and the price had jumped a big chunk. I had ordered just in time! A few days later the Gerber Strongarm arrived. I wish I had had the money for another, but as it is I may run out before the end of January. Buy books please, people!
The Sheath and Extras
An important component of a potential pec-knife is the sheath. This mode of carry is most convenient with the knife inverted and the pommel downwards. Obviously it is necessary that the knife is fully secure in this position, but still capable of being easily drawn when needed in a hurry. The sheath of the Stongarm has a large clip that engages a depression on the hilt. Note that this releases with an audible click, which may affect your tactics in some scenarios. In addition to the clip, the smaller-width hanging strap has a retention strap with a popper. The latter feature is one of the few I have issue with. This is a little tight, the slight increase in grip width my lanyard has added making it sometimes fiddly to close. The length of strap past the popper is also on the short side, and may be difficult to pull on if wearing some gloves. It may be necessary to sew an extension onto this part.
An important feature of this sheath is that it is ambidextrous, so the knife can be inserted securely with the edge either to the left or right. This is useful for a pec-knife, it being considered to be prudent to carry your knife with the main edge outwards, away from your throat.
A couple of accessories are included in the box. I have already mentioned that the smaller-width belt hanger has the retention strap. This affixes to the sheath by a strap and popper. A larger width belt hanger can be attached to the smaller by poppers. Both belt hanging loops have poppers, making the easy to detach or attach without rethreading a belt. A device that allows the sheath to be mounted horizontally is included, as is a device allowing easy attachment of the sheath to MOLLE/ RALS systems.
The knife itself comes with either a semi-serrated or plain edge, and is available in either black or a more practical coyote brown shade. The blade is 4.8 inches long, and 3/16th thick. Overall length is 9.8 inches and weight is given as 7.9 oz. Blade material is 420HC stainless steel with a dark grey coating. Grip is a rubber coating over glass-reinforced nylon. There is a resemblance to Gerber’s LMF II knife. The LMF II is heavier (c.12 oz) and costs more. I have not handled a LMF II, but the Strongarm seems a better choice for the pec-knife role.
The butt of the Strongarm ends in a blunt triangular point that might serve for applications such as window breaking. This feature is thoughtfully provided with a lanyard hole. I know I have said this before (yesterday actually!) but it really is surprising how many expensive knives are not provided with provision for a lanyard or other features to reduce the chances of loss.
Making a Chest Rig
There are plenty of good reviews of the Strongarm out there, so I will concentrate on specifics of rigging it as a pec-knife. This is actually very simple. Obviously, you can mount the sheath directly on your webbing, but what if you are not wearing such? The Strongarm is potentially a very useful knife, and you may want it when you are not in full tactical gear. I have seen the Strongarm described as a “cross-over” knife, good for urban and wilderness.
Take about two metres of paracord. I know frugality is a virtue, but it is prudent to have a little too much rather than start again. The Strongarm sheath has a number of “screwholes” down each side. Pass one end of your paracord through a hole near the sheath mouth, and the other through a hole on the opposite side, second from the end. This should be made clear from the photos. Experiment with what arrangement suits you personally. Pull both ends of paracord so the middle makes a snug length across the front of the sheath. Now take both lengths, hold them together and tie a single knot in both. This can be an overhand knot but a figure-eight may be more comfortable when worn. You should have created a large loop with the knife sheath threaded on it. This loop should be large enough to pass your weak-side arm through, the knot sitting somewhere between your shoulder-blades. Take the long, free ends and form them into a second loop using the knot I call a “slip-bend” in my free book on knots. Place your other arm through this loop and tighten it by sliding the two parts of the slip-bend apart. The Strongarm sheath should be hanging just before your weak-side armpit. If you have the small-width belt hanger still attached this may be used to anchor the sheath to a belt, if you wish. Note the snap-link, added by a magnus-hitch. The lanyard can be attached to this when greater security is wanted. It also proves useful for holding other items. I later relocated the snap-link to below the sheath, where it helps keep it in position.
A chest-rig for a knife can cost tens or hundreds of dollars. This one is simple, lightweight, comfortable and costs just a couple of metres of paracord. If you like this, throw some of the money you have saved this way!
In a recent blog I had a wander into the field of fighting knives. Today I would like to share some additional musings.
Firstly, it is valuable to recognize that names such as “fighting knife”, “combat knife”or “tactical knife” are in actuality rather euphemistic, particularly in modern applications. A knife vs knife duel is unlikely. There is an adage that if you find yourself in a fair fight you did not plan properly, and this should be remembered when considering knife use. Knives are generally used either as weapons of desperation or advantage.
One of the points I made in the previous post is that probability of use did not justify carrying a large combat design. A multi-role survival blade is a far better encumbrance, and most such designs usually serve well in a defensive or offensive role. It is no secret that I regard the kukri as superior to most fighting knives on the market. If a dedicated fighting weapon is needed, it should be a small to medium-sized design that compliments the large and small survival designs likely to be carried as well.
That said, what are useful features to have in the hypothetical situation where carrying a large combat blade is prudent? Something for you time-travellers and trans-dimensional trippers to consider 🙂 Some of these comments may be relevant to medium combat knives too.
Firstly, we will ignore the field of swords and stick to knives and daggers, not anything longer than a cubit.
A point ignored by many manuals on knife use is that even relatively light clothing can provide a surprising amount of protection from a knife cut. The garment may be shredded but very little damage may reach beneath the skin. Even if you are using a knife defensively with the intention of “cutting and running” it is important to use the point first against any clothed area.
The second consideration for a fighting knife is with respect to whether the opposition will be utilizing armour. One of the most useful designs for use against armour is that of the pesh kabz. Mechanically a knife is a wedge. The pesh kabz blade tapers in both width and thickness, and has a T-shaped cross section. In effect the blade is an isosceles triangle in all three planes. The blade is narrow enough to find its way through openings in the armour, yet retains a useful cutting edge if needed. Some time back there was a vogue for non-metallic knives, including those in a tanto configuration. A pesh kabz configuration would have been far superior. As stated in “A Glossary Of the Construction, Decoration and Use Of Arms and Armor In All Countries and In All Times” by George Cameron Stone, “The knife is obviously intended for forcing an opening in mail; and as a piece of engineering design could hardly be improved upon for the purpose.” (p.494) Pesh kabz are either straight or have a recurve that brings the point closer to the axis of the hand. The latter are often very attractive in form. I have an example of each, and I would not complain if issued one of these instead of a Fairbairn-Sykes. A modern pesh kabz has a useful potential as a knife among modern medium fighting knives.
Bagwell and Bowies
Shortly after writing the recent blog, I came across some references to Bill Bagwell, who claimed to have identified the features that were most desirable on a combat bowie. This included a distal taper, convex profile and edge and a sharpened false edge. The false edge is often quite long, creating an acute point. The blade is over nine-inches long, and over an inch or more wide.
If you are going to have a long, sharpened false edge, an obvious question is why not have a double-edged cut and thrust blade? Historically, one of the cut and thrust weapons par excellence was the Roman gladius. The gladius was a sword, but if you shorten the blade you have what is effectively the Roman pugio. I have seen it claimed that a Roman soldier who lost his gladius could still fight effectively with his pugio. The width and length of pugiones give some credibility to this claim. Supposedly the Gerber MkII was inspired by the Mainz-pattern gladius. Pugiones seem to have retained the more attractive, wasp-waisted leaf-shape of blade long after the gladius had become straighter-edged and more utilitarian looking. This may have been that swords were issued while daggers were commonly a private purchase. In other words, a pugio-type design offers a broad blade, acute point and the cutting advantage of curved edges. A central rib was a common feature, increasing the capability against bone or body armour. A flat blade with a rib is effectively a pair of pesh kabz back-to-back. Fullers might also be included in a modern design, and some use of them was made in ancient pugiones.
Another good design for a large or medium combat knife is the jambiya. Indian/ Middle Eastern designs such as the jambiya and pesh kabz tend to be neglected in the west, but have much to offer. The interest in kerambits/ karambits shows knife-users are open to the potential of curved blade designs. Fairbairn himself experimented after the war with a jambiya-like knife he called the “cobra”. Like the pugio, the design of a large tactical jambiya could include fullers and a central rib. A slightly curved blade can create an initially wider wound than a straight blade of similar dimensions. This is illustrated in the figures taken from Richard Burton’s “Book of the Sword”. The very curved blade cuts a wide channel, but needs considerable force to penetrate sufficiently. Incidentally, the primary cutting edge of a jambiya is the concave edge. You will commonly see it held or photographed upside down. Examples with a false edge and the geometry of some grips make it clear that the main edge is the concave. The jambiya is held like a claw or hook. This has the tendency to drive the point into a target rather than causing it to glance off. The blade can also reach over and hook limbs. The curved edges give a cutting advantage.
The Russian/ Caucasian/ Georgian khanjali/ kindjals/ qama have straight or curved blades that resemble gladius, pugiones and jambiya, but some are long enough to be considered short swords.
Some decades ago, a knife called the “Hobbit” gained some attention. This was effectively an inverted jambiya. The main edge should have been concave and the serrations would have been more useful on the convex side. A modern, medium tactical jambiya would also be a welcome addition to the market. Many years ago I attempted to sketch what one might look like
Around 1922-24 the British Army conducted an extensive series of experiments. The 17″ sword bayonets then in use had proved to be unwieldy and too heavy for trench warfare. Their reach against cavalry was no longer needed and they were poor multi-purpose implements. On October 2nd, 1924, a report by the Small Arms School stated:
“ (a) It has been conclusively proved during the war, and since, with our present system of training in the bayonet, that ‘reach’ is not a main factor but that ‘handiness’ is. A man with a short handy weapon will beat an equally skilled man with a longer cumbrous weapon practically every time. As regards length of blade for killing purposes, the Physical Training Staff went into this in considerable detail during the war, and came to the conclusion that a 6-in. blade was sufficiently long to deal with the most thickly clad of our enemies—potential or otherwise. The most thickly clad was taken as being a Russian in winter clothing.
…(c) The bayonet suggested for future adoption on the Mark VI rifle is one of about 8 inches in length, cruciform in section, and without the useless handle and cross-piece”
reproduced in The Lee-Enfield Rifle (p.135). Maj. E.G.B. Reynolds.
The Roman Vegetius famously declared “…a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal”. He was talking of a stab from a broad gladius blade, rather than a narrow bayonet or knife, however. Many authors clarify “two inches, in the right place”, the latter condition not always possible to achieve in combat!
Some of the criteria for a primary fighting knife are different to those for a bayonet. A blade of between nine and eleven inches seems to be the optimum, and was the size of most pugiones. The blade should be at least one and a half inches at its widest. Specialist fighting designs, such as main gauche, may need to be longer.
If we look at pugiones, kindjals and jambiya we find something of a consensus on grip form. Most examples feature a relatively slim grip with a broad, flattened butt. A narrow grip between two wider areas often gives a good grip for a single hand. If you hold the knife or sword with the blade flat and level and the knuckles upwards you will find the pressure of the palm on the butt nicely counterbalances the weight of the blade. The pugio usually had an expanded section in the middle of the hilt which improved grip, functionally similar to the ridge on a kukri handle. Any grip should include provision for a wrist loop. It is surprising how many knives costing hundreds of dollars lack this useful feature!
On the subject of grip, how a knife is gripped is a topic that some authors treat in some depth. Fencer grip, hammer grip, sabre grip, ice-pick grip, foil grip, ninja grip and so on. Only recently I noticed that the actual orientation of the hand was seldom mentioned. Elsewhere I have discussed the “paintbrush grip” for double-edged blades. This tends to place the blade with the flat of the blade in a horizontal direction. When I hold a single-edged knife I place the blade in a similar orientation, although my finger positions will be slightly different.
The reason for holding the knife so is not so the blade will slip between the ribs. Whenever possible you should avoid thrusting at the ribcage. If you do have to strike the ribs there are advantages to a horizontal blade angle, however. I have seen it claimed that a horizontal blade that strikes a rib is more likely to glance past or split the rib than be stopped by it. The main reason I hold a blade horizontal is that it makes more sense to me to have the edge as well as the point directed towards the threat. If my hand is pronated (palm down) the blade slopes in. If palm up, it slopes outward, but in either case the main edge is towards the enemy rather than down towards the floor. Some older sources describe holding the blade edge up, but this limits manoeuvrability.
The guard of the fighting knife is something that is not usually given sufficient thought. If the knife has a guard, it is typically a simple crossbar or equivalent. A simple crossbar works well on a sword. It will usually be wide enough to protect the hand. Enemy blades seldom touch it since a sword is long enough to parry attacks a foot or more away from the hand. Some writers claim the main function of a sword guard was originally to stop the user from hitting his knuckles on an enemy shield. The crossbar on a knife is seldom wide enough to effectively protect the hand. At best, it acts as an arrest to reduce the chance of penetration beyond the blade and to compress tissue for deeper penetration. Even when the crossbar is long enough, it only provides protection in one plane. Suppose, for example, you parry or block an attack with your blade. Since the blade is shorter, the contact point is going to be much closer to your hand than if you were using a sword. Contact point is most likely to be on the flat of the blade, so the strike is very likely to glance down and hit your thumb or back of your hand. Potentially very nasty
In a Modesty Blaise novel a character observes that Willie Gavin makes a steel against steel block, and reflects on Gavin’s skill, knowing that this is the most difficult of defensive movies with the knife. Substitute “bloody dangerous” for “difficult”! Certain styles of knife-fighting base themselves on sword fighting, so techniques involving parrying may be encountered.
One of the lessons here is to avoid using your knife (or your other hand) to parry, if possible. Avoid letting your enemy make any contact with your weapon or hand. If you do make contact execute a “beat” and strike to the hand and arm beyond. Keep both hands moving, and keep moving yourself. Use your ginga and the other techniques in my books to avoid and attack rather than parry and block.
As an aside, the above implies there must be some length of blade over which parrying becomes practical. Drexel-Biddle taught parrying, but had his students were training with hand-held sword-bayonets. I would be fairly confident parrying with a ten-inch kukri. Shape and design probably contributes too. The forward curve of a kukri or jambiya increases control and compensates for length.
All that said, if I am designing a primary fighting knife, I would include a guard. Down-curved quillons that can catch a blade would be nice, although how realistic this is is debatable, and such a feature certainly needs to be backed by protection for the hand behind. An oval or ovaloid guard, such as found on a tanto, might be a good option. As I understand it, “tanto” actually means (very) short-sword and it is not technically a “to” or sword unless it has a to-type guard and other sword fittings (Cameron Stone, p.604). Most modern knives sold as tantos would not be classed as such, and the wikipedia article is erroneous [!]
A guard that provides protection in two planes may be problematic to wear. One option is to offset the disc so less of it is against the body but it still protects the outside of the hand. Renaissance daggers often combined quillons with a “thumb ring”, the latter a misnomer since it was positioned to defend the outside of the hand rather than involve the thumb.