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On engaging multiple opponents

On engaging multiple opponents

photo credit Dave Bledsoe

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This post was sparked by an article which appeared on the blog, Something Weird Happens When Three Master Fencers Battle Fifty Novices.

The video itself is from a Japanese television show;  it pits three Japanese Olympic fencers against 50 fencing students.

Each participant has a housing on their chest holding a balloon:  blue for the students;  red, yellow and green for the Olympic fencers.  If their balloon is burst, that person is out of the game.

It’s a fascinating look at group mentality and fighting tactics.  Note the Olympians:

  • Almost never stop moving, except when in a superior tactical position;
  • Maneuver to areas which limit the directions opponents can come at them, using terrain;
  • Maneuver around the group of students so the students get in each other’s way;
  • Pick off students who cannot move or fight properly due to the crush of those behind them;
  • Fight singly, but occasionally and without warning come together to drive off knots of students or to pick off the best opponents.

Only near the end do the “surviving” students learn to work in groups, instead as individuals.  That, of course, does not guarantee success…



The tactics they used aren’t new.  In fact, they’ve been written about for centuries both in the East and West.  Within the Cutting Arts we practice the same by making cuts against multiple targets set at difference heights, directions and ranges.

There are many enemies applies when you are fighting one against many. Draw both sword and companion sword and assume a wide−stretched left and right attitude. The spirit is to chase the enemies around from side to side, even though they come from all four directions. Observe their attacking order, and go to meet first those who attack first. Sweep your eyes around broadly, carefully examining the attacking order, and cut left and right alternately with your swords. Waiting is bad. Always quickly re-assume your attitudes to both sides, cut the enemies down as they advance, crushing them in the direction from which they attack. Whatever you do, you must drive the enemy together, as if tying a line of fishes, and when they are seen to be piled up, cut them down strongly without giving them room to move.

Miyamoto Musashi, Book of Five Rings, Book of Water


Tactical Swordsmanship


photo credit: John “Jay” Glenn

As is pointed out in Bertrand’s “Tactical” Swordsmanship: Scenario-Based Training for the Sword, “Techniques are not tactics”.  Being skilled with a blade is not enough;  one must also have an understanding of how to use terrain, how to move, how to make your opponents get in each other’s way.   He notes that in reading The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, a 16th century Italian artist, soldier and musician, he realized that Cellini only lists one or two formal one-on-one duels, but describes numerous barroom knife fights which were nothing more than “down and dirty fighting, often initiated with the dagger and resembling nothing so much as assassinations. The fights are frequently lopsided, with Cellini facing a number of men on his own, or a handful of his friends standing up to fifty men of the city watch.”

Bertrand goes on to comment:

With the advent of firearms, we are accustomed to fights ending in a matter of seconds, but in the days of hand-to-hand, they could go on and on, and a small group of determined swordsmen could hold their own against a much greater number. And well-dressed gentlemen of Cellini’s day, like narcotics agents of our own time, never left home without their body armor—in this case, a discreet mail shirt worn under the doublet.


The more I read of Cellini’s exploits, the more I realized that despite my study of the sixteenth century fencing treatises, I was completely unprepared for a humid Roman night at the tavern. There was a whole level of combat reality that had passed me by: the realm of tactics.

While much of Bertrand’s article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of various weapons (based on length of blade vs tactical situation), Bertrand suggests a modern Western martial arts practitioner needs to learn four main lessons for tactical fighting:

  1. Assessing the situation: Know the appropriate weapon to use “If your opponent is seated across a table from you, drawing your sword doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, if he is some distance away, or already in the process of drawing his own weapon, not drawing your own sword is foolish.”
  2. Learn to control distance:  In other words, “…it is not enough for the student to draw his own weapon in response”.  The student must know when to back up or charge in, in order to maintain control of the fight and for their weapons to be effective.  In Japanese martial arts, this concept is known as ma’ai, “proper distancing”.
  3. Learn to act decisively:  To put it another way, learn to think on your feet.  Stopping to think about what to do next in a real fight would be fatal.
  4. Subordinate technique to tactics: In a fight against multiple opponents, fancy blade-or-foot work is nowhere near as effective as simply moving so only one opponent at a time can reach you.


An excellent modern Eastern martial arts reference for tactics in fighting multiple opponents is a set of  articles on Surviving A Multi-Opponent Attack by Christopher Caile, including sections on:

While this set of articles focuses on unarmed combat, the tactics he describes follow precisely those suggested  by other fighting styles when encountering multiple attackers, enhanced for the average reader by the use of charts to show how to move around the opposing group.

Another view of tactical fighting from an Eastern martial arts source includes the following suggestions:

  • Don’t stop to fight (one opponent)
  • Tie up line of fishes (as suggested by Musashi)
  • Escape through the weakest opponent
  • Keep your eyes wide (looking around)
  • Use the proper stance
  • Take the offensive (keeping opponents off balance)
  • Regard yourself as a dead person


Why practice fighting multiple opponents?

Modern unarmed martial arts practice this as a part of preparing the student to defend themselves in dangerous real-life situations.  Students of the armed arts, both Eastern and Western, know it’s highly unlikely they’ll be called to fight a bladed combat.

So why study this?  In part, we reach a deeper understanding of our arts when we practice them as they were used in real-life situations, as opposed to the formal, staged combat of sparring and Eastern kata.  We learn to move as they moved, react as they would have reacted, seeing how our weapons would have been used in such desperate cases.

From another aspect we improve our technical skills, applying them in situations which require instinctive reactions, precise aim, and learning to anticipate — or force — openings in our opponent’s defenses.

And, finally, it’s a heck of a lot of fun!


Can you win? 

Generally speaking, the concept of multiple attackers on one defender goes against the idea of “fair play”, and so is considered something exceptional.    The point of practicing against multiple attackers is to be ready should it happen to you.

The opinion of both classic Eastern and Western fighting masters is that the average person — fighting against multiple attackers — would have to expect to at least take serious wounds in winning, and at worst would be killed.  You can win, but the likelihood of emerging unscathed is small.  A person of exceptional skill and training will have a better chance, and good ground improves your odds, but it’s still a dangerous option.


photo credit: William George

Guile has it’s place too.  By way of example: there is an old Japanese story of a samurai who is ordered to go and kill a group of six bandits.  Knowing he isn’t skilled enough to win against six, he still seeks them out as ordered.

Encountering them, he tells them why he has been ordered that, but that he doesn’t want to fight.  One of the six bandits, hearing what he thinks is cowardice,  attacks and is killed in a lightning exchange.  The samurai continues to say he doesn’t want to fight, but another of the bandits charges and is killed by the samurai.  A third bandit, seeing his two comrades killed by such a “coward”, also charges in and is struck down.

Suddenly, the samurai’s attitude completely changes and he says “Six against one I didn’t stand a chance against.  Three at one time I can kill”, and proceeds to finish off the bandits.

In other words, it’s not a scenario a fighter would normally seek out, but when encountered a warrior must do whatever is needed to survive.

To be too cautious in a deadly situation limits the choice and effectiveness of actions and may doom the defender.  As was noted over 2000 years ago by Virgil, the Roman poet and author of The Aeneid, who said:  “Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem”, commonly translated as: “The only hope of the doomed is not to hope”.   A sentiment much echoed in Japanese texts, where dojo masters and samurai philosophers famously instructed their students to consider themselves already dead.

…the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death

Miyamoto Musashi, Book of Five Rings, Book of Ground

In the modern sword arts, we practice fighting multiple opponents for skill and fun.  In real-life fighting situations, one should never be afraid to run from too-high odds, a concept somewhat humorously referred to as “Run-Do” and taught as a first option in most modern Eastern martial arts.

Lastly, let me quote a historic Western source, Hanko Döbringer’s Fechtbuch (1389) — one of the earliest instructional manuals on longsword fighting —  who had a number of things to say on engaging multiple opponents.

Mostly, don’t.

He is a brave man who fights his own weaknesses.
It is no shame to flee when four or
six (foes) are at hand
Do not strike at the sword but wait for the

This is not great courage,
but great stupidity to try for four or six [opponents];
this will become clear to you that you will
get the very opposite
just as if you had bought it.
It is better to hide away in a bed
than to display such great clumsiness.
But it happens that you may defend against
four or six,
if you are careful, and if you behave chivalrously
and you part well from them
then you will defend well against all.
This is right for a brave man,
But let all listen clearly,
and without danger say,
that he is called a brave man
who can stand equally against his injury,
him I want to praise at all times.
Chivalrous and without any misdeeds
and without complaints and courageously
free, he is a true fighter.




One Comment

  1. The posting are is very interesting to read.You are explain the concept of multiple attackers in nice way.

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