This medieval fighting force, we'll just call them the Bruiser Army, uses only unarmed combat, but how are they still effective? They have absolutely no range compared to the spears and swords of their enemies, and much less range compared to the bows. Their method of fighting leaves them very vulnerable, certainly not good for winning battles. While I know that many knights did use unarmed combat in their fighting style, they obviously depended on their actual weapons more.

I do want the Bruiser Army to be effective, and consistent at that, but without making other armies simply incompetent or giving this army some kind of magic (I would prefer making magic a non-factor), I don't see a way to do that effectively. The main idea I thought of would be using fear tactics, but seeing as I want this army to go against other competent armies, with actual weapons, I'm questioning the effectiveness of those tactics.

So, is there any way to make them consistently effective against other competent armies despite these disadvantages? I don't expect this army to win every battle, but I don't want them to lose every battle either.

I believe it is important to mention that the Bruisers do have enough resources to be properly armored, gauntlets and all. They don't wield weapons because of strong cultural and religious reasons that stem from the heavy worship of the God of Unarmed Fighting and Savagery, Pugil.

As a last note, the Bruiser Army is willing to disarm their enemies and throw those weapons. However, they will not bring any kind of weapon with them or attempt to even use a weapon, aside from getting rid of it immediately, in order to honor their god.

Edit to answer comments: The Bruisers, which can be "giants" (to the realistic extent), do wear proper armor, and the gauntlets they wear can be heavily modified to increase their combat potential. Shields are acceptable for defensive purposes, but their fists should be the primary method of attack rather than shield bashing. Poisons could also be acceptable, but I'd prefer the idea of a teargas better than the idea of a lethal poison to emphasize unarmed combat.

If there isn't a way to make the Bruiser Army successful by itself (which it might come to that considering many factors addressed in Shadowzee's and other answers), then I could change them to be a subset of an army. Of course, I would try to exhaust all other possibilities before that, such as potentially engineering.

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    $\begingroup$ Could this army be made of giants of their respective society? People of very large stature and strength, selected specifically to evoke fear. A fear that these goliaths may or may not be able to rip ones heads off their bodies. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Apr 4, 2019 at 0:18
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    – JBH
    Apr 4, 2019 at 0:22
  • $\begingroup$ do they wear armor? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 4, 2019 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ What do the words army and armed have in common? $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2019 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ Is it possible for this army to a subset in another army? In other words, that army would have actual weapons, break the enemy's formation, and then the Bruisers would be involved in exploiting those breaks? I still wouldn't hold them as very effective, but it's much more possible IMO for the Bruisers to have a chance in unorganized melee than against organized forces. (Answer have already demonstrated how hopeless the Bruisers against shield walls.) $\endgroup$
    – mVitus
    Apr 4, 2019 at 2:55

11 Answers 11


Presumably this group has existed for a while. This is a religious prescription, so it's a law, not physical reality. And the best way around a law is a technicality. And they've had time to think of a few.

So, these pugilists don't use weapons. They can use tools, and they can discard weapons. Make them exceedingly good engineers. They can throw up a ditch and berm, and sharpened stakes aren't a weapon - they are an engineering feature. Caltrops aren't weapons, they are just sharpened garbage you discard. If enemies step on them, well, that's on them.

A dam is another fun project for your guys the day before the battle. If a field gets turned into calf deep mud that makes enemy horses useless, well coincidently your guys drill in muddy fields on Tuesdays!

If someone were to coat a bunch of pigs in pitch and they happen to get lit on fire and stampeded into a cavalry charge, that isn't a weapon - you're just getting an early start on dinner.

If you like the fear idea, why wouldn't your guys specialize in night fighting? They don't care about archery or cavalry, so go nuts. A confused battlefield where everyone is mixed up and can't see anything until they are close? Sounds perfect.

If you are okay with your guys using shields, a shield isn't a weapon. Even if you don't use it offensively, it will help mitigate casualties at range, and might allow you to bull past a spear wall. Design the shields for it. Charge into combat, drop the shield and start breaking bones.

Nets. Nets aren't weapons, they are for fishing and trapping stuff. A heavy net will screw up a spear or pike wall pretty well though, especially en masse. Pretty good at tripping horses too, depending on design.

If your guys are fully equipped with plate, facing a shield wall - have teams, you can physically throw your guys over it, into an enemy formation. It's unconventional, but that's the kind of thinking you need. Being jammed into a worse-armored enemy formation where they can't bring their longer weapons to bear is exactly where you need to be, and they can break the wall from behind.

Propaganda - as a wonderful movie once said, wars are won in the will. Most of a battle is convincing an enemy to run away. Your guys have a network of agents spreading rumors and stories of their ruthlessness/invincibility/strength/godly favor.

Ritual - No one wants the gods upset with them, so maybe you can convince at least some enemies to fight by your rules. Probably a long shot realistically, but something that could be worked in to a narrative.

And the best idea... fire. A nice mix of incendiaries can be used herd the enemy, even if you won't use them offensively as a weapon. Your guys are good at directing controlled burns, using alchemical mixtures. They can also create smokescreens, providing concealment from archers and/or enhancing the fear effect.

The bottom line is, if your guys have sufficient resources for each member of their force to have a good suit of plate, you are going to be better equipped than almost any army in human history. You aren't going to be hugely worried about ranged weapons - even a high draw longbow or crossbow won't be super effective, doubly true if you go with shields. In order to kill people in plate reliably in real life, you often had to wrestle them to the ground and stab them through a weak spot. That's where your guys excel. If they are able to bend their proscription to have at least knuckle spikes or brass knuckle type things, that will help.

So, in summary - they may well be at a disadvantage on a macro level, but there are many mitigation strategies that can be devised. And really, their weakness will be killing/disabling the enemy fast enough. They will be incredibly hard to kill if they are a whole army of plate equipped guys.

*edit slight expansion

  • $\begingroup$ It came down to either this answer or Shadoweze's answer. While I feel like Shadoweze's answer was very informative and precisely showed me the flaws of having an unarmed army, this answer did show several strategies and interesting ideas that could somewhat mitigate the inherent weaknesses. $\endgroup$
    – Pugil
    Apr 5, 2019 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ Combat engineers from hell... I like it. :) $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Feb 18, 2020 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Presumably they are religious enough to not be looking for loopholes in their faith to carry shields or nets. Just the unending training in hand to hand, as well as techniques to force such engagements. Kind of like Stephen R Donaldson's Bloodguard, from the Thomas Covenant books, maybe? $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Jan 7, 2023 at 19:34

Sorry but my answer is a straight up No. Unless this bruiser army consists of giants or is much larger in size you don't stand a chance. They key word here is Army. Because while you could win a small skirmish against a squad or small group of armored soldiers, when facing a shield wall, rows of spears and organized squads of Knights you have no way to actually retaliate against an attack or break their formation without huge sacrifices.

Firstly the investment into troops who would be able to fight an armed opponent is too massive. Anyone can take a farmer, give them a spear and teach them how to thrust. Your Bruisers will need to undergo years of unarmed training and have the equipment to be able to defend them from arrows and deflect some shots. Thats a huge resource sink and burden on the economy when someone could easily amass an army of farmers and give them each a spear. All the farmers simply stand in a double row, point their spears at your bruisers and wait for them to impale themselves in the spears. Your bruisers need to get close to the farmers to have a hope of taking them down, but the farmers will be easier to amass, easier to equip and cheaper to train. They have a long reach and since you can stack rows of spears together, your Bruisers will need to effectively walk themselves into a wall of spikes.

Your bruiser army also can't address a shield wall. They have no way to break or reach around the shield except via brute force, so not only do they need to over power the shields, they need to dodge the spears and pole arms reach over the top and through the gaps while trying to break down the shield wall.

You also don't have a way to deter cavalry and your army being flanked. If a knight was to charge your army, their spear/lance would kill 1 person, the impact of their horse will likely kill another and their dead flying body will likely kill a third. A knights combined mobility and formation means that your Bruisers have no way to get close. The knights just shave away at the sides of your formation killing your soldiers without them every being able to retaliate.

Finally you also have the issue of archers and crossbows. They will hide behind their walls of troops and slowly chip away at your troops. Since your only protection is armor, your going to require a huge investment into heavy armor, which makes them much easier targets for those pesky pears that are stabbing them to death. If you have enough armor that none of it matters, the enemy could probably crawl away faster than you could walk towards them.

You cannot be consistently and effective win with such a huge flaw in your army. Because the enemy only needs to take advantage of your flaw (no weapons and no range) to win a battle. So you might be able to win 1 or 2 battles, but from then on, its a losing streak. (For narrative reasons, you can always create situations where your army wins. aka. surprise attack, night attacks and so on).

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    $\begingroup$ (+1) The only way to make it work is by making Bruisers magically strong (think an army of trolls) or magically inmune to slashing, piercing and bludgeoning damage (à là Dungeons&Dragons) or probably both. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Apr 4, 2019 at 8:45

Kung-fu cavalry.

cavalry charge source

To be competitive without weapons your army needs an advantage. Horses can be that advantage. If I am on foot with a rifle facing a wall of war horses charging me (like the image above), I am going to lose even if the guys riding them have no weapons. Trained war horses are weapons, and back in the day horses were trained to kill with kicks and by trampling soldiers on foot.

Unarmed combat to me means martial arts. Bajutsu is one of the mounted martial arts - usually entailing weapon use from horseback but also kicks. I can imagine a martial art where the mass and momentum of the horse is used to augment blows delivered by the rider with hands and feet.

Horse mounted cavalry is tough enough. You could expand this to include elephants (done many times in history) or buffalos (unfortunately never actually done that I can find) to make your unarmed army even tougher and more fantastic.


Location, Location, Location

On the plains, hills, and open fields that most wars were fought on, a traditionally armed army is going to trump an unarmed one every time. But other terrains could give advantages to an unarmed army.


The water provides cover for close range attacks, and allows significant mobility to an unarmed force that is not afraid of swimming that an armored force would not be able to take advantage of. Additionally, the wet conditions will make bows much harder to use, and the plants will provided opportunities for camouflage.

Enemy weapon of choice: The spear. Spears (and their variants, harpoons and tridents) are popular fishing tools for a reason. Everyone moves slower in the water, which means that if you see your opponent coming, they're easy to spear.


Lots of craggy, uneven shapes to blend into. Paths that aren't accessible by horses, people wearing armor, or people trying to hold things. Easy ways to kill people by pushing them off cliffs.

Enemy weapon of choice: Bows. If someone gets shot off a rock face, they're almost certainly out of the fight, and there's not a lot of room to maneuver while you're trying to scale a mountain. Also spears. Extra range is always useful.


No sight lines for bows, lots of vegetation to entangle spears, lots of places to blend in, and the ability to drop down and attack from above. Climbing trees is another thing that unarmed attackers can do that armored or sword carrying soldiers have difficulty with.

Enemy Weapon of choice: Probably swords? For once a spear's range might prove more of a hindrance than a benefit. And swords can probably perform double duty by cutting through the undergrowth.

Fields of Loadstone

As far as I know, these don't actually exist. (Wikipedia says that the leading theory is that loadstones are magnetized by lighting strikes, so I'm sure you can see why.) But if you put enough magnetic ore in one place, then it's going to make the use of any sort of ferrous material nearly impossible. Horseshoes and armor will stick to the ground, and keeping your weapons steady will be near impossible. You'd need a lot, though. So don't add this unless your worldbuilding can support it.

Enemy weapon of choice: Bronze weapons, spears (with the heads removed, and the points sharpened), obsidian tipped arrows.

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    $\begingroup$ The "mountain" points apply even better in caves. Other than the rare large galleries where conventional weapons can be employed by groups, unarmed warriors trained to feel their way by touch using both hands have an edge in spades over noisy, armed types relying on primitive illumination. (As discussed by Lloyd youtube.com/watch?v=HQZqbGME5HY torches are not a realistic illumination option in caves while candles and oil lamps have significant limitations.) $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2019 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ The issue with all of these locations are that they are generally impassable to an army. So they are not interesting to fight in, because you can simply let the enemy starve as they try to move their supplies through it. $\endgroup$
    – Whitecold
    Apr 4, 2019 at 15:55

Fight Dirty

If the armed forces of the age have any rules of engagement, break them.

Long story short, people use weapons because they work. If they didn't work people wouldn't use them. So anyone not using weapons is at a disadvantage. However, people also have rules of engagement. These are not constructed to win a battle better. These are constructed to ensure that, at the end of the war, the war was worth fighting for. Its to ensure that we accept the price that was paid.

If you break those rules, then you take advantage of assumptions the enemy has made about what is good for them and what is bad for them. That psychological advantage may be substantial. You effectively use their military training against them.


The problem is armor

There are a number of advantages to unarmed combat, if used wisely.

  • Unarmed combat is close-in combat.

    • You are inside the fighting arc of swords, spears, etc. They're still dangerous, but they're meant to be used at some distance, not smell-your-breath distance.

    • Your enemy becomes susceptible to friendly-fire (another enemy combatant pretty much needs to get behind you to spare his buddy).

  • It's great for urban warfare (inside a city/community) where there's less space to swing things and by the time you have someone in your arrow's sights, they're on top of you. The same would be true for a dense forest. I believe you'd also have an advantage in a swamp or very soft ground.

On the other hand...

  • In open country, you're at the mercy of archers. Stealth and surprise become important assets.

And then there's armor...

Unarmed combat requires precision against armor. You can't just break their leg/arm or whomp them in the chest. You can (it might knock them off balance), but the heavier the armor, the more likely you'll hurt yourself as them. This means you need to attack the head and joints specifically. Not just the least-armored points, but also the points that produce the most debilitating damage. This requires more than just swing-your-fist combat. Now you need to care very much about exactly where the blow will land and what it will do when it lands. We're talking Bruce Lee level of notoriety here.


  • Stealth and surprise
  • Leverage and precision
  • Close-in combat
  • Pick your location wisely, make them dance.
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    $\begingroup$ Unarmed-against-armored fighting relies more on grabs, holds, and throws than strikes, for reasons that should be fairly apparent. It's still by no means easy, but it was a skill that knights would have some practice with. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Apr 4, 2019 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ A number of real life ninja arts are specifically aimed at dealing with heavily armored opponents. However, ninja used ranged weapons fairly often, melee weapons a lot, and various other tools. Might want to consider poisons, if that's not considered a weapon. $\endgroup$
    – nijineko
    Apr 4, 2019 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ Plus, heavily armoured opponents who fight for a living are not pushovers in the hand to hand, not at all. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Jan 7, 2023 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ @chiggsy true, but heavily armored people also are a liability. I once read an article that suggested a quarter of the dead at the battle of Agincourt may have died because they fell over in the mud and either drowned or suffocated because they couldn't even roll over. A well-trained heavily armored soldier is incredibly dangerous... until he falls over. (Plate mail light enough to easily get up from the ground isn't heavy armor. It just looks impressive.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:54

Are they allowed armour? A Bruiser army with effective, or extremely effective (magical) armour could ignore the arrow-storm, push through the spearpoints and beat the living daylights out of their opponents at close quarters.

Maybe they bathe in a magic pool to gain invulnerability (making sure they heels are well soaked), maybe it's in their diet or is a blessing from some anti-weapon deity or they have a pact with some demonic being ("neither blade nor point shall harm thee , while you keep my Laws...")

Without armour, I'm afraid they're dead.


Depends. The most important aspect of medieval warfare was the siege. If your castle is in a hill(to make using trebuchets difficult), with abundant water and food, with tall, inclined walls (to mitigate siege towers and ladders), you MAY be able to defend the gate (the weakest point of a castle) because for every invader there will be many bruisers.

In field battles your bruisers will be slaughtered even if the enemy is an army made of peasants with spears.


Giants would seem like the obvious choice to recruit for your army.

Giants at least as strong as war elephants.

Not using weapons really restricts the possible tactics of the giants. They could only do what elephants without weapons could do.

War elephants basically did three things:

  1. Attack using weapons like blades attached to tusks or swords or chains held in their trunks.
  2. Carry archers and spearmen and other warriors and sometimes giant crossbows or cannons on their backs.
  3. attack using their own strength as weapons. Knocking down and trampling men, kicking men, picking men up and throwing them to their deaths, picking men up and hitting other men with them, etc., etc.

Giants the size of elephants or larger would probably be restricted to to the third category if they were part of a weaponless army. They could wear armor like some war elephants did without breaking the rule against weapons.

I have invented a possible tactic for war elephants that involves two elephants picking up a tree trunk with their trunks and marching up to a dense enemy infantry formation and tossing the tree trunk horizontally into the infantry, knocking down a bunch of men that the elephants could then step on. Two giants could do that was well as two elephants could. Would that violate the rule against weapons?

Elephants sometimes throw sticks and stones and tree branches and tree trunks and stuff at other creatures including humans. Giants could pull giant sized carts full of big rocks up close to the enemy and then rapidly pick up rocks from the carts and throw them at the enemy. Would that violate the rule against weapons?

Giants could throw nets over bunches of enemy soldiers and pull them out of their formation and to a place where other giants could stomp or roll on them. Making a gap in the enemy formation that giants could charge into. A retiarius was a gladiator who used a weighted net as his main weapon, usually against a secutor. Would that violate the rule against weapons?

Giants could lasso enemies and pull them out of formation and kill them. Would that violate the rule against weapons?

If their enemies don't all wear full body armor, giants could whip several men at once with giant whips, disorganizing them so they can't fight the giants. Would that violate the rule against weapons?

Giants could charge into enemies and start kicking everyone within reach, each kick being instant death to the victim.

Giants could grab warriors and throw them at other warriors, or pick up warriors and hit other warriors with them.

A giant could run into a cavalry formation, pick up a horse and rider, and throw them at other horsemen.

If horses could run faster than giants the enemy horses would probably all panic and run away from the roaring and yelling giants.

A giant could run up to an enemy formation, lie down, and roll over them, crushing them to death.

Or possibly you might want to write a story where humans can talk with elephants and war elephants are characters in the story.


Unarmed combat can be a very effective strategy in one-on-one combat with an opponent armed with a bladed weapon. Against a single opponent, it is not hard to move inside of the arc of a sword or axe, or grab the shaft of a spear at which point the fight is pretty much guaranteed to dissolve into a grappling match of which your combatants would have the clear advantage. The hard part is when you start talking about armies. Once you take down the guy in the first line, you're completely exposed to the guy behind him, and you are basically insta-dead, or you are looking at a phalanx, where layers of polearms insure that you simply can't close enough space to use your hands before getting impaled.

Your idea could probably work well for a police force, but not so much for an army.


There are many ways to solve this problem:

  1. Get wild and fast horses, that respond to no one but you.
  2. Get people who are immensely huge, and strike fear into the enemy just when they are marching.
  3. Get people who have an incredible knowledge of self-defence and offence, such as Jiu-Jiu Jitsu, Karate, Kung Fu, Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Taekwondo, Chinese Martial Arts, Hapkido, and such.

There are other ways to do it, of course, but those are the basics.


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