Alternate blog title: ‘Blunt force trauma, your friend and mine!’
I watch too much television. As I’ve gotten busier with writing and work again I’ve had to cut way down, but you’d better believe when I was laid up sick that I watched anything and everything I could find. And…I saw a whole lot of people get hit in the head with blunt weapons. Sticks, baseball bats, maces, hammers and knuckle dusters.
Also once a whole table. That was cool.
And more often than not I saw the people who were hit with these weapons walk away from the fight with nothing more than a bloody lip or a short nap.
Real life doesn’t work that way at all.
If you’re writing a story about people with super powers by all means have them shrug off blunt force trauma like it’s nothing, or have them heal it up in a matter of moments…but if your characters are even remotely human then there are some things you should know about fights involving blunt weapons no matter if they’re a stick or a hammer or even a piece of furniture.
As always I’d like to point out that while I know a lot about fighting I’m not especially good at it (my dentist loves me), so your mileage may vary. Also I should say that this for information for your writing and not for you to test out on other humans.
1. It is absolutely possible to kill someone with a single blow
All too often the news carries stories of people who have died during street violence, not because they were stabbed or shot, but because they got hit in the head. Humans are pretty tough in a lot of ways, especially fit, determined humans…but we have a design flaw. Our brains slosh around in cerebral fluid like an egg inside a spherical bottle of water. If you hit the outside of the bottle too hard, or even move it too quickly from side to side, the egg will smash into the side of the bottle and break. Your brain is the egg, please treat it gently.
We’ve also got a real problem with falling down. We’re bipedal, so if we get knocked over it’s quite possible for us to smack our heads on the ground if someone hits us and this can and is immediately fatal to a lot of very unlucky people.
If your main character gets clocked in the skull with a baseball bat and they’re not Wolverine’s second cousin, at the very least that should mean a major knockout that causes them to suffer for some time afterwards. Without super powers or magic of some kind, getting knocked out is a big deal and a really bad one can leave someone with permanent brain damage. I actually think having a character dealing with concussion whilst also fighting the forces of darkness (or fighting for the forces of darkness if that’s how they roll) makes for a good plot point in the right kind of story.
2. Blocking a blunt weapon with your arms is a really bad idea
I see this a lot on television, not so much in books, although it does still come up. Character A attempts to smack character B in the skull with a stick and character B just kind of takes the hit on their forearm. While it is technically possible to stop a blunt weapon with your arm, the most likely outcome of doing that is that character B’s arm snaps like a calcium matrix inside a meat sheath (I’m bad at metaphors) and character A then gets a free shot at character B’s head.
This can be the same thing even with hand to hand combat, especially when it comes to blocking kicks. A heavy round kick, especially one that connects with the shin as you’d see in Muay Thai can easily break the arm of anyone trying to block it with their forearm. In fact sometimes we’re taught to deliberately aim for the arms of someone with a good defensive guard in order to do just that.
It’s a fun sport.
3. Untrained people using blunt force weapons usually go for the head
Most untrained fighters are head hunters, they want the fastest way out of a fight they can find, and that means wrapping their weapon of choice around their opponents temple. This is where a lot of accidental deaths happen. It could be a good plot point to have a protagonist clock someone across the side of the head with a weapon (or even a hand, shin or foot) meaning to knock them out, but end up killing them accidentally. This would be especially true for someone suddenly getting superhuman strength.
3. But the leg is sometimes a better target
Pretty much everyone protects their head if you swing something at them. Sure, they might do it badly, but virtually every human has the instinct to shield their noggin from outside blows. Legs are a different story. Unless you’ve had some practice, moving your legs out of the way of an incoming strike is very difficult. A leg with even half a person’s bodyweight on it can easily be broken across the knee, even if all you’re hitting them with is your own leg let alone a crow bar.
Breaking a shin or a thigh bone is much harder, but it can be done, even accidentally (Google Anderson Silva leg break if you don’t believe me…and you have a strong stomach). If you want to show a character as being superhumanly strong, or simply having superb striking power, have them break someone’s thigh bone with a leg kick. It’s an extremely serious injury that looks horrific and shows a terrible amount of power in the person doing the breaking.
4. It takes a lot of effort to swing a weapon repeatedly
A lot of characters in both fiction seem to have endless energy when it comes to breaking heads. Fighting takes a lot of energy, and fighting with a heavy blunt weapon like a sledgehammer or a bit of concrete on the end of a piece of rebar takes it out of even phenomenally strong, fit people if they’re not used to it. Any character using a sledge should be tired after a few shots, especially if they are untrained or otherwise not Thor.
In a prolonged fight it can be hard to even keep your hands up to protect your head, let alone swing around something heavy.
5. Taking a blunt weapon off someone is really difficult
It’s not as hard as taking a knife off a person, or a gun for that matter, but most serious blunt weapons give the wielder an advantage in both reach and leverage against an unarmed person. This means your protagonist is either going to have to be very good or very lucky to make a weapon take work, even against someone who’s only got a stout stick. Even at very close range, where a blunt weapon is less effective, there are still a wide variety of of digs, rakes and joint locks someone who knows how to fight is going to know how to do…and that’s assuming they don’t just opt to take the time honored route of smacking their opponent in the face with the butt of the weapon.
They get less useful during extremely close range clinch and ground fighting unless the person wielding them is specifically trained for it, but getting to that close range is a mission and a half for anyone without a weapon of their own.
6. Lunging is a legit way to strike
Almost everyone things about a swing when they think of blunt weaponry. It makes sense, it’s the easiest way to deliver a lot of force behind a blow, and just about anyone can swing a stick hard enough to hurt. That said, a very effective technique is a straight lunge. Hitting someone with the narrow end of whatever you’re holding focuses a lot of force over a narrow area, and while you can’t lunge as hard as you can swing a stick or a bat, that narrowing of the impact area makes up for a lot.
It’s also an unexpected move that can set up a swing or other strike, especially if the target gets caught in the throat (yet another way someone can die with one hit) or the eye. And on top of that if the end is narrow enough (think pool cue) then it’s entirely possible to stab someone in the eye. You’re more likely to hit an eye by accident than design, but still don’t try this at your next pool night.
A character could though.
7. Weapon focus can be an issue
People, especially those with no training, who get their hands on a weapon tend to use it to the exclusion of all other things. And why wouldn’t they? It gives them the best chance of winning the fight and taking the least damage while doing so. However someone who is over focused on their weapon can miss out on other opportunities and lose track of dangers.
Here’s an example: there’s a story that went around my gym of a guy in the USA who turned up to a pre arranged stick fight amongst other martial artists and was set against a man many times his size who was also an experience stick fighter. The guy who’d shown up was an excellent grappler, but had very little clue about separating people from their teeth via piece of wood. His solution was to throw the stick at the big guy’s face, tackle him to the ground while the big man was distracted and choke him unconscious. The big man was too focused on the stick part of the stick fight to think his opponent had other options.
Another, simpler example: If your main character has a stick in their hand they should absolutely belt an attacker with it…but should also consider kicking said opponent in the groin should the need and opportunity arise.
8. Watch your fingers
The first time I spared with anyone using weapons, literally the first thing my opponent did when we started was smack me across the fingers so hard I dropped my stick. It was an important lesson: even holding a weapon your hands are full of tiny, oh so breakable bones. We were using light sticks and I had a glove on, but it was still enough to bruise three fingers and make me wonder why I never got into volleyball as a sport.
This can be a cool trick for a protagonist to use on a bad guy they don’t want to kill, or a harsh lesson for them to learn. A heavy weapon can absolutely pulverize the bones in a hand, and this can make for a truly gruesome end to a fight scene.
9. Internal injuries
Blunt weapons don’t typically pierce the skin unless someone manages to pull off the pool cue trick I mentioned above and as I said most people swing for the head, but when someone does connect a blunt weapon to the body the results can be truly horrific. Broken bones are the most obvious problem with getting hit in the chest with a blunt weapon, but it can get so much worse than that. A hard blow with a hammer or heavy stick over the heart can simply stop the heart cold. Internal organs can be crushed or bruised and internal bleeding can kill you just as dead as external bleeding.
This is on top of severe muscle damage and smashed joints. It is possible to take a blunt weapon strike to the chest if you’re prepared for it and the person swinging it is nice enough to hit you on top of a large muscle, but if they catch bone or one of the human body’s many squishy bits, it can end the fight just as surely as a head shot.
I’d like to give special mention to liver shots, mostly because I’ve received a few so I feel qualified to talk about them. Getting hit in the liver, even with a kick or a punch, can drop you to the ground in agony with one hit. The liver is not built to take a beating and since it’s so vital to your survival (not to mention chock full of the toxins it’s filtering out of your system). The first tournament I ever entered I took such a hard kick to the liver I passed out. The pain is astounding, and it seems to fill up every part of you to the point that you can’t even scream.
It’s also a lot worse if someone hits you in the liver with a weapon. Trip to the hospital worse.
The pain does pass (usually), but it’s a legit way to have a character end a fight especially if they’re fighting with someone they don’t want to kill, but have to take out of the fight completely for a little while. There is a second or so pause before the pain really sets in, so someone with a gun might be able to fire a shot before they were incapacitated, but otherwise anyone taking a hard liver shot without being ready for it is going to hit the floor.
10. Knives are still worse
This last point is just my opinion, but all things being equal I’d far rather fetch up against someone with a blunt weapon than that same person with a blade. Knives can deliver a fatal injury with surprisingly little force, and while they don’t give as much of a reach advantage as something like a staff, they make up for it by still being useful at extremely close range. While blunt weapons can be lethal, it is possible to walk away from an unarmed fight with someone wielding a stick without too much damage (I’m not saying it’s certain, even for people with mad skills, just possible). A unarmed confrontation with a knife is that much more likely to end up with death or serious injury as an outcome.
On top of that knives are easier to hide, easier to deploy (usually) and easier to wield without getting tired. Assuming equal size and skill, in a face off between a character with a stick and a character with a knife, the character with the stick is in more danger.