Combat Anatomy

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By Tivar Moondragon

or, “If that was a real blade, what would it have done to you?”

One of the basic assumptions of SCA rapier combat is that we are expected to call our blows as if the blades were real. This is a simple enough concept on paper, but can be a little trickier in practice, especially if the fighter is not familiar with how the human body is put together, or how it behaves when hit by a sharp blade. Another factor is that the SCA’s rules tend to simplify things a bit—for example, assuming that all hits to an arm or leg would be equally disabling. This is done to make blow-calling and the overall “play” of a fight less complicated.

This article is intended to give fighters an understanding of anatomy as it applies to SCA rapier rules and fighting conventions, so the fighters will be better able to call blows in an anatomically realistic and SCA-appropriate fashion.

Penetration Resistance

In the 1977 edition of the Legal Medical Annual, Dr. Bernard Knight, a British forensic pathologist, published an article entitled Some Medicolegal Aspects of Stab Wounds. In the article he described how he had tested the skin’s resistance to penetration from stab wounds. His testing instrument was a kitchen knife mounted in a spring-loaded handle with a recording gauge to tell how hard the knife was pressing before it penetrated. His subjects were human cadavers undergoing routine autopsies.

Dr. Knight discovered several basic facts:

  1. “During the experimental work it became apparent that the skin was by far the most resistant tissue, apart from bone or calcified cartilage. Once the knife penetrated the skin no further force needed to be applied to cause rapid penetration of the tissues beneath the skin.”
  2. When the blade was pressed slowly, the skin would “dimple in” like the effect of a weight on a trampoline. Once penetration occurred, the skin would spring back up around the knife blade. There was a distinct “threshold level” between dimpling the skin and penetrating it.
  3. Using slow pressure, “with a very sharp knife, the amount of pressure needed to penetrate the skin of the torso varied between one half and three kilograms (1.1 to 6.6 lbs).” When the blade was moving at speeds simulating combat, however, “penetration occurred so readily that no reading was recorded upon the scale of the instrument.”
  4. The sharper the blade was, the more easily it penetrated.

Several of these basics apply directly to SCA rapier fighting. Once the skin has been punctured, it may be assumed that the blade has penetrated for several inches and has caused serious damage to whatever organs or tissues are in line with the point of impact. It's not like hammering a nail where you need to keep applying force to get the blade to go deeper, it's more like slicing a tomato--once you get through the skin, the rest is easy. (There are a couple of possible exceptions to this, but they will be covered later.) From a practical standpoint, a hit from a fast-moving attack is more likely to feel “good” than is a hit from a slow-moving attack. A “light” hit—one that can be felt, but would not penetrate—is also possible, if the blade hits below that “threshold level” of force mentioned above.

The Machine

Based upon their reading of Dr. Knight’s paper, Dons Iolo FitzOwen and Christian Dupré of Ansteorra developed the first Machine. They found that thin splits of rawhide that had been thoroughly soaked in water exhibited a penetration resistance similar to that of human skin. They set a piece of rawhide in an embroidery hoop and mounted it on a postal scale so they could measure the forces involved. The current version of The Machine uses a fishing scale and pivot arm with a ratchet mechanism to record the amount of pressure applied.

(Click here for details on The Machine's design and construction.)

The Machine allows SCA fighters to get a hands-on feel for the penetration resistance of skin. It also allows for experimentation with different types of blows and angles of attack. One result of this experimentation is evidence that “glancing blows don’t.” A sharp blade that strikes the skin at almost any angle will penetrate and do damage, it won’t skip off the way our blunted practice blades can. It can also be demonstrated that putting cloth over the rawhide (simulating clothing over skin) does not appreciably change the penetration characteristics of a thrust. So, bearing all this in mind, what would happen when a real blade hits different parts of the body, and how do we apply that to SCA fighting?


The upper part of the head is comprised of the cranial portion of the skull, with a layer of skin (and probably some hair) over it. A thrust that came in at close to a 90° angle to the surface would have a reasonable chance of penetrating and hitting the brain, but if a sword were to hit at an acute angle, it is unlikely that it would penetrate due to the skull’s smooth curved surface. Bear in mind, though, that even if such a blow glanced off the skull, a sharp blade would still leave a painful and very bloody gash in the scalp. This is one area where SCA rules take precedence over anatomical reality. Unless we are fighting with real blades, there’s no way to tell precisely how any one individual will react to a specific blow. You can find anecdotal instances of people receiving wounds who were so high on adrenaline that they continued as if nothing had happened. You can also find instances of people receiving much less serious wounds who collapsed almost immediately. But even if a wound wasn't instantly fatal, factors like pain, shock and blood loss would still have a serious effect on a fighter's ability to continue. The SCA’s convention is that any such injury would be sufficiently debilitating that the fighter would be unable or unwilling to continue the fight.


The fencing masks or helms used by SCA rapier fighters normally present a smooth curved surface, designed to let a blade slide off fairly easily. The human face does not have that advantage. The facial portion of the skull is full of nooks and crannies, just perfect for catching a blade and giving it an easy entry into the brain cavity. As with the upper head, even a blow that didn’t reach the brain would be likely to produce so much pain, blood loss, and shock that the assumption is that the fighter would be unable or unwilling to continue.


Imagine dropping a thousand-pound rock on a major freeway just before rush hour. That’s similar to what happens when a sword penetrates the neck. The “traffic flow” that can be disrupted includes the carotid arteries (blood flow to the brain), the jugular veins (blood flow from the brain back to the heart), the trachea (you do like to breathe, don’t you?), and the spinal cord (all nerve communication between the body and brain—yes, it’s protected by the vertebrae: a stack of small, easily broken bones.) With the exception of the spinal column, all of these are in the front section of the neck—prime target area—and damaging any of them means the fighter will be unconscious or dead in a matter of seconds. In the unlikely event that the sword missed all these important areas, there are a fair number of muscles whose job is to keep the head upright and able to move properly. Damaging any of them means that the head is likely to be flopped over onto the shoulder—an untenable situation for continuing to fight. So for SCA purposes, any hit to the neck should be considered an “instant kill.”

Upper Torso

The upper torso is the area within and around the ribcage. It consists primarily of the lungs and heart, the ribs themselves, and the overlying muscles and skin. At first glance, the ribs might look like a significant defense against a blade, but that’s an inaccurate perception. There is quite a bit of space between individual ribs, and a blade thrust that is parallel to the ribs would have little trouble bypassing them. Even a blade that was thrust perpendicular to the ribs would most likely penetrate several inches before it wedged between them. If a blade hit a rib it would almost certainly skip off and continue on into the chest cavity. The only possible exception is the sternum, which is a bony plate that joins the ribs together at the center front of the chest. If a blade were to hit it at exactly 90° it’s possible the blade wouldn’t penetrate. It’s far more likely, though, that a blade that hits the sternum would slide off to one side or the other and continue into the chest cavity. Any thrust that hits the heart or any of the blood vessels that feed into or out of it is going to cause death in a matter of seconds. A thrust that penetrates a lung would take a little longer to cause death, but again pain, shock, and blood loss would most likely render the fighter “disinclined to continue.”

Lower Torso

The lower torso is the area below the ribs and above the legs. Most of that area is filled by the intestines, but there are several organs such as the stomach, spleen, liver, and kidneys between the intestines and upper torso. Puncturing any of these organs is going to be bad news; a hit to the spleen, liver, or kidneys may be considered an “instant kill”; a hit to the stomach or intestines would take longer to produce death but, as with a hit to the lungs, pain, shock, and blood loss would render the fighter “disinclined to continue” (although he might have time for a short, dramatic speech before collapsing).

Arm and Hand

The arm has a complex system of muscles, tendons, and bones that work together to make it move. Damaging any of them is unlikely to be immediately fatal, but it does mean that the arm won’t be able work properly. In real life a lot would depend on which specific muscles or tendons were damaged and on how severe that damage was. In the SCA, all arm hits are considered to render the arm useless for fighting. This is done both for ease of play and to prevent arguments about precisely how much damage might have been done by a particular hit. The one exception to this is a thrust or cut that hits the brachial artery (the main artery from the torso into the arm, located on the inside of the arm from the armpit down toward the elbow). A hit there would cause rapid blood loss and should be considered a kill.

The hand is also comprised of a complex set of bones, muscles, and tendons. As with the arm, the amount of damage from a specific hit would vary, but for SCA purposes they are all considered to be equally debilitating.

In most kingdoms, the convention is that if the hand is hit it is useless, but the arm may still be used for “closed-fist” parries. If the arm is hit, it renders the hand useless, too. A thrust directly to the shoulder joint may be considered as an arm wound if the blade was angled outward when it hit. If the blade was angled inward, it must be assumed that the blade penetrated the torso and caused sufficient damage to be considered a kill. There is also the concept of “stapling.” If a fighter is hit on the arm or hand in such a way that a real blade would most likely have punched through the arm or hand and continued into the torso, it should also be counted as a kill. This is not required by the rules, but is more realistic.

Leg and Foot

As with the arm, the leg and foot are a complex system of bones, muscles, and tendons. Damaging any of them will make movement more difficult, and when fighting—where precise footwork is so important—this can be a major disadvantage. For SCA purposes, a hit anywhere to the leg or foot is presumed to render the leg useless. This is not anatomically accurate, but is done for ease of play and to prevent disputes about the effect of particular blows. The one exception to this is a thrust or cut to the femoral artery on the inside of the upper leg, just below the groin. A hit there would prove fatal in a matter of moments. Also, if one is fighting Cut and Thrust Rapier, any leg wound is considered a fight-ender.

In Ansteorra, the custom is that a fighter with a leg wound must stay planted in one spot and cannot move or rise up on the injured leg. (An exception may be made in a melee situation when a fighter has been “legged and left.” In that case the fighter is allowed to crawl slowly toward the action, dragging the wounded leg, but he must plant it again before engaging the enemy.)

Other kingdoms may have different customs, such as allowing the injured fighter to rise up momentarily, or “posting” (where the fighter is allowed to continue standing, but may put no weight on the injured leg). If you're traveling out of kingdom, don't assume that the what's done at home will be done the same way in other places. It's best to ask about such things before a problem develops in the middle of a tourney or melee.


To sum up, any hit that is hard enough to penetrate skin may be assumed to have done significant damage. If that hit is to the head, neck or torso, it should be considered a kill. A hit to an arm or leg is presumed to have rendered the arm or leg useless. Fighters may, of course, decide at any point that they are “disinclined to continue” and yield the fight even if they haven’t been touched.