What MythBusters’ “Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight” Test Means to Fight Direction of Sword Fights

In Sword Points #4 – Distance Albion Schoole of Defense Fight Director Michael Cawelti talked about the three basic distances in sword fighting:

  • Fighting Distance
  • On Guard Distance
  • Trash Talk Distance

We can demonstrate those distances in fencing, or with stage combat choreography, but how do they play in modern, real-life situations? Turns out the principles Michael mentioned still apply.

The MythBusters TV show decided to investigate what happens if you bring a knife to a gun fight. Does a someone with a knife have a chance against someone armed with a gun? The intuitive answer for many people is “no way!”, but what do actual tests say? Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman created a test to find out the minimum distance at which a person with a knife is dangerous to a person with a gun. In their test, Jamie tries to attack Adam with a foam knife from various distances, and Adam tries to draw a realistic looking semi-automatic paint ball pistol from a holster, cock the slide and shoot Jamie before being stabbed. The test was electrically scored in a manner crudely similar to modern electrically-scored fencing.

In the tests they found that with Jamie starting from 16 feet away Adam could “draw and cock but not fire” before being stabbed. And even when Jamie started from longer distances and Adam could shoot him, Jamie’s momentum allowed him to stab Adam anyway.

Now, there are some elements to the experiment design which people may quibble with:

  • Jamie started with a drawn knife.
  • Adam started with a holstered, un-cocked semi-auto with the safety on.
  • Adam isn’t a fast draw expert.

Those are valid points to consider, but on the other hand

  • Jamie likely could have drawn a knife while running.
  • Adam is a trained, experienced gun handler, less so than a professional competitive shooter, but more so than the average person who owns a gun but doesn’t actually practice shooting from holstered position.
  • Adam knew in advance, with total certainty to expect a sudden attack by Jamie and had multiple chances to practice under the exact circumstances.

So, I think we can confidently take away from the tests that a sudden attack from an assailant with an edged weapon can easily kill even if they start from surprisingly far distance, just as we noted with sword fighting. (Running away seems like a really good idea.)

Now, back to sword fighting and stage combat choreography trash talking distance. Do people sometimes trash talk at a distance that is completely unsafe? I’m going to say, “absolutely yes”. People do unsafe things all the time, from tailgating to trash talking inside of punching or stabbing distance of another person, because people don’t necessarily intuitively feel the danger because it hasn’t affected them yet, or to show that they are so tough they just don’t care, to be intimidating, to dominate by getting inside people’s personal space. And could a person in “Fighting Distance” or “On Guard Distance” be killed almost instantly by an opponent not impressed by his trash talking or has no moral or social qualms about doing so? “Absolutely, yes.”

So whether the characters in your drama trash talk inside or outside of safe distance will depend on their character, and on the moral strictures of the time and place of the story. Are the characters careful and smart? Or are they impetuous hotheads? Can their opponent just attack and get away with it? Or do the strictures of the time require they duel in a specific ritual fashion with rules and timing that they must obey, in spite of their wish to do otherwise? Where they stand should be a conscious and deliberate choice on the part as a fight director with full knowledge of the danger of trash talking in-distance.