-- Lord Giovanni di Fiamma
If an opponent consistently fails to acknowledge hits, there are three possibilites: he is UNWILLING to acknowledge them, UNABLE to feel them, or IGNORANT of the injuries that would have attended the hit, were the blade real. The first problem answers to stern discipline and, if necessary, removal from the lists; the second is addressed by attention to practice and, perhaps, the fit of gear; the third problem is vanquished only by knowledge. I propose, therefore, to offer some reflections on how wounds actually occur in edged combat, that my gentle readers may better acknowledge their opponent's skill.
Let me first state my underlying assumptions:
-- UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, SOCIETY RAPIER RULES ARE ASSUMED: If your Kingdom's rules differ, they take precedence over my opinions (although after reading this, you may wish to bespeak your Rapier Marshal about those rules...!) Note specifically that for wound-calling purposes, I assume combatants have naked heads, and have taken doublets OFF. I do not propose to enter into debates on whether it is more LIKELY that folk wore doublets in fight, or no... and if the thrust is employed against the torso, it hardly matters anyway.
--THIS IS NOT "DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS", NOR IS IT "X-MEN": I assume that each combatant responds to wounds as do normal men and women. I have no patience for those who would argue, "I could survive this because I'm (fill in the blank with the prevarication of your choice)". Combatants who assume they have access to esoteric Eastern disciplines to alter pain and shock should be subjected to esoteric Western artifacts... arquebuses, culverins, and bombards come to mind.
-- IT IS VERY EASY TO GET KILLED BY SHARP RAPIERS: There is considerable evidence for this. Master George Silver decried the deadly efficiency of the rapier in the duello, noting that many duels of honor ended in both parties' death; this is backed by Parisian records for the period which consistently show at least half of all duels, year after year, to culminate in double kills. (Compare this with archaeological evidence from Hastings, where exhumed warriors were almost all found to have multiple old bone scars, suggesting that armored cut-and-hammer warfare could produce horrible wounds without rapid death). Forensic scientists have established that sharp knives penetrate human skin with no more than four pounds per square inch of pressure. Once the skin is breached, no other tissue offers ANY significant resistance, save bone. As all vital organs in the body are less than four inches from the skin's surface at some point, it becomes obvious that a very little thrust can cleave, literally, to the heart of the matter...
--NOT ALL "DEATHS" ARE REALLY DEATHS: Many wounds do not kill instantly, but produce rapid shock and unconsciousness, or crippling inability to continue to fight. SCA rules lump all of these together as "kills" to speed the game's resolution... though the real effects be diverse. I shall note examples below.
This being established, let us reflect on the effect of blows to varied body parts.
--THE HEAD: With its holes, nooks and crannies, the skull offers multiple entry points to the questing rapier point, all of which lead straight to the brain. It is unfortunate that many parts of the skull, such as the bone under your temples, are relatively light, and can be breached with a bare-fist punch... one may assume a steel rapier would have little difficulty penetrating as well. All fighter jokes aside, we need our brains; slicing the brain leads to unfortunate results. Further, thrusts to the eye or nose would tend to stop a fight right then and there, even if the opponent was not slain instantly. Finally, draw cuts would leave deep scalp cuts; such a cut, unattended, can bleed a fighter to death in 5 to 10 minutes... and in a prolonged fight, no one will have the liberty to tend such a wound! Even a tip cut or stramazione (a perfectly period technique, and *QUITE* effective, some Kingdons' rules to the contrary) could produce severe blood loss. For our purposes, any reasonable head strike should serve to end the duel.
--THE NECK: This structure holds all the major nerve, blood, and air conduits from head to body... and is clad only in muscle, with relatively fragile bones armoring only the nerve bundle. It should come as no surprise that neck cuts and thrusts are essentially instant fight stoppers, either by immediate death or inability to fight on.
--THE CHEST: Much is made of the ribs' protection of the heart and lungs. Unfortunately, as trauma surgeons all know, the ribs have many spaces between them... and a knife can be counted on to slide into those spaces. (This tendency is aided by the fact that the ribs offer no glancing surface; their convex shape insures that a point will slide right into the inter-rib space.) Penetration of the heart or aorta leads to a swift death, as rapid bleeding drops the blood pressure to zero immediately, and unconsciousness follows thereafter. Cuts and thrusts to the lungs lead swiftly to blood pooling in the bronchi, leading to suffocation, or to air leaks which squeeze the lungs between the chest wall and the air bubble. Again, either causes a rapid cessation of the fight. Draw cuts will often find their way between the ribs, despite assumptions to the contrary... especially as the tip of the sword swoops in and out, following the draw cut's wrist motions.
--THE ABDOMEN AND BACK: Those fighters who have ever been kicked in the belly will appreciate... or at least understand... just how excruciating the diffuse, ill-localized, grinding pain of abdominal injury is. Assuming that you miss the aorta, or the vena cava (both of which are approximately an inch thick, all up and down the midline), the intestines and kidneys are RICH in pain fibers, and will vehemently object to being cut or stabbed. Further, the spleen and the liver are rich in blood vesels, making a stab there almost as good as an aorta injury for bleeding and shock. Note herein that the thick muscles of the back offer little resistance to a thrust. Draw cuts may not enter the back as easily as from the front... but will sever the paraspinal muscle groups, and render standing mechanically IMPOSSIBLE. Belly draw cuts, even if they don't penetrate, will sever the belly muscles, producing the same problem.
--THE GROIN: Any fighter, male or female, that has taken a kick or blow to the groin, knows that this is a bad idea. I see no further need to comment...
--THE ARMS: Thrusts or draw cuts to the armpit easily enter the brachial or axillary arteries... which is no more than six inches or so from the aorta's root in the heart itself. This is why the armpit attack results in a victory for us... and often death in the real world. (For ease of play, I teach my students to accept any blow to the inner arm's upper half as entering these arteries, and resulting in a "death". Half an arm is easy to remember, even when excited...) In general, a committed thrust or cut to the arm should remove the arm from play entirely. Our rules allow an injured forearm to be used as a loose-hanging appendage, to replace the buckler we should have been more careful with... but in real life, those wounds are often so painful as to make this impossible for the average fighter, baring intoxicants. The honorable fencer may therefore wish to therefore foreswear all arm use, even with a forearm shot. Hand shots result in the UTMOST difficulty in holding a weapon, even if "only one finger" was hit. (I find that in demonstrations of this, no one is willing to try taking a sabre cut to "just one finger" to see if they could hold their sword... even with heavy gauntlets.) Again, your rules may allow you to continue with such a hit. But I suggest that it is at least as honorable to acknowledge your opponents' skill in hitting you with such precision. (How do YOU know they WEREN'T aiming?)
--THE LEGS: As above, so below... The femoral arteries are further from the heart; but they are bigger... hence inner thigh/groin shots are accepted as kills. For other leg thrusts and cuts, the convention has been to fight from the knees, following Society heavy weapons tradition. It is FAR more likely that a crippling leg blow would result in the cessation of the duel, or in a leg held flat, in as minimal tension as possible... but kneeling fight is so ingrained in our SCA culture that I forebear to take issue with it...
Having discussed these sanguine topics, let us close with a consideration of how to apply these to blow acknowledgement. One mark of the duelist of note is the way he accepts blows; this is reflected in his acceptance of the light blow, and the blow which would affect his fight DESPITE the rules that his Kingdom will let him "get away with." An even more honorable fighter does these things, and alters his fight to show his opponent what has happened... such as the fighter who, when tip-cut across the forehead, drops offhand weapons to wipe or staunch the "blood", or the duelist who holds his "legwound" even while ground-fighting. A final elegant refinement is seen in the fighter who cedes a long duel because his non-killing wounds have finally caused him to succumb to "blood loss" (the real way in which most combat knife fights are decided). An easy technique to keep track is to set for yourself a number of passes or attacks in which you must prevail... I find this easier than to try and count time in the midst of a fight. Note, that a fighter faced with impending exsanguination would be like to throw "all they've got" into an attempt to win victory... and the leisure to bind their wounds and seek chirurgy!
These techniques and approaches will not particularly improve the beginning duellists' technique, nor his game (save as they reflect, perhaps, more on strategy... to avoid wounds!). But assiduously considered and practiced they can reflect a duellist's concern for honor and courtesy... which, in turn, enriches courtesy and increases honor. Such concerns distinguish the honorable duellist from brigands and assassins, and are greatly to be encouraged in aspiring fencers.
At the time of this essay's composition, Lord Giovanni di Fiamma, a Florentine
physician, polymath, and expatriate teacher of Fence in
Queen Elizabeth's England, was Caid's first Free Scholar and first Queen's
Champion of Rapier; Cadet to
Don Etienne de Longres of Trimaris; and serving as Kingdom Chirurgeon to the
He is now a Companion of the Order of Duellist, Caid, and of the Order of the White Scarf, Trimaris. Don Giovanni currently resides at his manor of Drake's Haven, Castlemere, Trimaris.
Dr. William Ernoehazy, Jr. is a board certified specialist in the field of Emergency Medicine and a Naval Officer. His interests include computers, Internet research, Worldcons, space exploration, and Elizabethan and military history (!). Following Brust, he hopes to get some sleep Real Soon Now.
Either of them can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org