Episode 188: Duel Dilemmas

Air Date: June 10, 2012

A person armed with a knife cannot win a fight against a person carrying a pistol.


As Jamie practiced knife-throwing techniques, Adam made a leather belt holster and worked on quick-drawing with a paintball pistol. They then faced off against each other, standing 16 ft (4.9 m) apart; Jamie used water balloons with the same weight as his knives. Even though Jamie could throw before Adam drew and fired, after several trials Adam was able to shoot Jamie and dodge the thrown balloon.

Next they investigated the scenario of a charging knife wielder. Adam and Jamie determined that Jamie could run 24 ft (7.3 m) before Adam could draw, cock, and fire his pistol. When Jamie ran at Adam with a foam knife from this distance, Adam was able to shoot him; a second test at 20 ft (6.1 m) gave the same result. However, when Jamie started at distances of 16 ft (4.9 m) or less, he successfully stabbed Adam without being shot. They decided that a knife wielder at close quarters could have an advantage over a gunfighter, depending on the circumstances, and declared the myth busted.

In a sword fight, the first person to attack will lose.


After Adam and Jamie received kendo training, Adam built a rig to randomly determine whether he or Jamie would have to attack first, and a second one to indicate when a hit had been scored. Each of 20 bouts ended in either a tie or a victory (defined as being the first to land a blow to the head) for the person who attacked first.

A primitive two-stage missile called the “Fire Dragon”, which could discharge a salvo of rocket-propelled arrows, existed in 14th-century China.


Kari built two models for small-scale testing, one based on historical drawings, the other with changes to make it more aerodynamic. When placed in a NASA wind tunnel, the first model proved to be highly unstable, but the second did not. For a full-scale model, Tory built an internal quiver to hold the arrows and designed an ignition system to fire them off all at once. The system performed well in the blast chamber, launching the arrows with enough force to embed them deep in the wall.

Building the Fire Dragon to an overall length of 6 ft (1.8 m), the Build Team took it into the desert to fine-tune the ignition timing. The goal was to launch the arrows at the peak of the flight, using a fuse cut to an appropriate length; although the stabilizing fins fell off in midair, the arrows did launch at once.

After a Fire Dragon warhead achieved a range of 800 yd (732 m), as opposed to a single rocket arrow’s 650 yd (594 m), the team set up 10 of the weapons and aimed them at a group of dummies and a castle wall 800 yd (732 m) downrange. Seven of the arrow salvos fired, but only a few arrows landed in the target zone and no targets were hit. The team classified the existence of the Fire Dragon as plausible, but noted that the weapon was highly unreliable.


  1. Garett says:

    The sword fight myth tests didn’t make any sense. In any actual sword fight with trained combatants, the reaction is not to stand there and try to quickly hit them when you see them make the first move. The first one to attack will lose is all about the fact that the patient one is able to wait, analyze the opponents movement and be prepared to dodge or block the initial strike, leaving the opponent open to a counter attack.

    • erwin says:

      Garett, you are absolutely correct. This is a rare instance of J&A not understanding the myth. The first to swing loses because he is dodged/blocked, and leaves himself open for a counter attack. Against untrained opponents this is almost a sure win not only in Kendo, but fistfighting, fencing, etc.

  2. Robert Marks says:

    Garrett’s pretty right here. I’m into German longsword, and one of the first things we are taught is an exercise where he who strikes first really does lose. It breaks down like this:

    1. The attacker begins his blow to the defender’s head.
    2. The defender strikes into the attacker’s blow while stepping to the side, aiming for the attacker’s head.
    3. The defender’s sword deflects the attacker’s blade off-line, and strikes the attacker in the head.

    This is one of the first exercises we learn in German longsword, and one of the most basic principles. Everything else is built upon this principle to some degree or another (this is a gross simplification, but still fairly accurate). And, it is a clear case where he who strikes first loses.

  3. samurai says:

    So if it’s one of the first exercises you learn in German longsword, that means everyone knows it. So when 2 practitioners with this knowledge had a duel, how did anybody ever win?

    • Damian says:

      Your opponent might be better at executing the move than you.

    • dhwang says:

      There’s many ways. Like Damian says, execution is key and this depends on your experience and skill level. Another thing that comes to mind is called “fake”. You fake your first move, easy.

  4. samurai says:

    But since both swordsmen know not to draw first, it’s a perpetual stalemate.

    • Adam says:

      Get a pistol.

  5. Martin Kandler says:

    On the sword fight,because each combatant starts with the sword in front of him, as soon as he brings it back to strike
    the opponent , it tells the other person that he is attacking.
    What if they both stood with the swords raised, and brought them down on the signal ?I think you could beat the others reflexes.

  6. Sean says:

    Too many variables to consider. Largely the results will depend on the training of each swordsmen, and the type of blade.
    Ex: I coach saber and have fenced about 21 years. One of my favorite techniques is launch a short attack, draw the opponent into a counter (which will also fall short) then close the distance while s/he is recovering.
    All forms of combat are ruled by initiative and training. Likely whoever formulates a plan, then acts first (whether to strike, or draw your opponent to move etc) is the one who will win if all other factors are the same.

  7. Jeroen says:

    The conclusion of the “In a sword fight, the first person to attack will lose” myth is incorrect. Yes, the myth is not true/busted as in that you will not ALWAYS lose when you strike first, but it is incorrect to say that the one who strikes first is way more likely to win.

    As a kendo practitioner you learn a lot of techniques where you react to the initiative of the opponent. Those techniques are called Oji waza and are very effective. I dare to state that about half the valid points that are made in kendo are the result of Oji waza techiniques.

    Oh and receiving a men strike should not hurt at all. Either the men helmet did not fit properly or (what I think the case was) you were hitting eachother way to hard.

  8. 103David says:

    Working some years for the Ren Faire, i happened to pick up a fairly realistic dagger & rapier discipline which in turn taught me a number of things. First, there are way too many variables to categorically predict anything in a real sword fight. Sure, study, hone your skills, keep in shape, etc. and you will definitely have the advantage, but a sure thing? Not. A real sword fight is a wild and wooly thing and victory is largely dependent on convincing your opponent to dance the same dance you are. But nonetheless, the most feared is the untrained, because you don’t know what the heck they’re going to do. Never forget, however professional and competent you become, the world is full of amateurs.
    This pretty much applies to all martial arts and I really can’t think of any exceptions.

  9. Jesse says:

    I don’t like the results for the Kendo fights, the reason they say the first to move loses is because the other can parry that attack before attacking. That’s the true meaning behind it, not adrenaline letting you move faster. It’s one of the few sword arts that’s is a thinking mans fight if you will. Like in chess you don’t go in blind, you study your opponent to find a weakness, I just don’t think they broke that myth down right.

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