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Sword and knife fighting: overview

  • Dual fighting w/sword & dagger (military knife)
  • Sword is used for range and additional strike power (swords are relatively larger and heavier and should therefore hit harder than daggers)
  • Dagger is used for close-quarters (AKA up-close-and-personal) combat, as well as exploiting gaps in enemy defense (stabbing chinks in enemy armor).

Pros:

  • More capable in close quarters than dual swords

  • Better at penetrating armor than dual swords

  • Can strike farther and harder than dual daggers

  • Users should be able to adapt to dual-wield swords and daggers instead of a sword and a dagger on the fly (read: to adapt to changing combat situations)

  • Swords and knives are commonly used, making it relatively easy to train large amounts of people to dual-wield them together

  • Trainees could be taught to dual-wield throwing knives alongside a sword, enabling ranged attacks at the cost of lousy close-range weaponry (throwing knives are bad for stabbing and slashing things)

Cons:

  • The sword will be a hindrance in tight quarters

  • Daggers can only be used in close range, making them useless unless your opponent is practically on top of you

  • Swords and daggers are disproportionate, which will likely offset one's balance when using a sword and dagger together

  • Dual swords are better at dealing damage overall

  • Daggers can't block, parry, or disarm opponents like a sword can

Now, if training isn't an issue (dual wielding is usually unfeasible due to the vast amount of training required to effectively wield two weapons at once), and therefore one can wield a sword and dagger simultaneously and effectively, would dual-wielding a sword and dagger be an effective strategy in combat?

To clarify:

I am asking about a soldier using a sword and dagger simultaneously and effectively, and whether being able to do so would actually be useful in a combat situation. The fact this combo exists as a companion weapon set suggests it would be useful, but as I have no experience nor any real knowledge in this area, I would like further input on the viability of this strategy.

The best answer will account for the pros and cons here and explain whether or not sword-and-knife fighting will be actually useful in a combat situation. The best answer should also elaborate on why it will be useful, as well as where and when this strategy will be most and least useful.

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  • $\begingroup$ I might make this an answer later, but some Samurai did essentially this with long and short swords. Miyamoto Musashi, author of "The Five Rings," was a pioneer of the technique and extremely effective with it. That book discusses the style, if memory serves. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2021 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ (1) Soldiers didn't use swords, except in special situations (such as, for examples, sailors boarding an enemy ship), or specialized forces. The only army where most soldiers routinely carried swords was the Roman army, and even in the Roman army their main weapon was a spear. (2) Sword and parrying dagger (a.k.a. "left hand dagger") was a very common set of weapons used for one-on-one combat for about two or three centuries, from the 1400s to the 1600s. We have numerous manuals teaching how to fight duels using this combination of weapons. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 17, 2021 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ My understanding is that often, the shorter weapon was used in a primarily defensive way, while still allowing it to perform an offensive function if the primary weapon were otherwise occupied). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parrying_dagger $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Sep 17, 2021 at 23:46
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    $\begingroup$ A battle is not a sum of individual duels. In most combat situations swords were basically useless; only officers carried swords and used them mostly to point towards the enemy while crying "Forward my braves!" Swords were used by specialized forces, such as light cavalry, but in their case they had no way of holding a sword and a dagger at the same time. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 17, 2021 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP swords are not so much useless as way more expensive than weapons that can do the same job, but yes a sword and shield will serve far better in actual warfare, Sword and dagger were common in duels were you could not use a shield. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 18, 2021 at 3:42

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Historically, this was fairly commonplace, if not necessarily popular. However, I think you may have a slightly… “romanticized” view of its usage, but let’s get down to it.

So, sword and dagger is actually a very effective form of combat and we see it multiple times in many different cultures, though not always in the same “format” if you will. When you dual wield any melee weapons, you generally use one hand for blocking, parrying, and feints, and the other for attacking. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but rather a useful generalization.

For instance, the samurai often were armed with a bow, spear, katana, wakizashi (short sword), and a tanto (knife), however they didn’t seem particularly found of dual wielding any of these weapons, though that doesn’t mean it was never done.

Closer to your example is something like a rapier or arming sword and a parrying dagger. Here’s the thing though, the dagger is mostly going to be useless for offense. Both historically and in my own experience as a martial artist, dual wielding is tricky at the best of times, and when the weapon in your off hand is substantially smaller than the rest of the weapons involved, you aren’t going to be attacking with it. Rather, the dagger is used for parrying, blocking, and otherwise deflecting and binding the opponent’s blade. This doesn’t mean the knife is useless in close quarters, far from it, but ideally you take care of your opponent long before things come to that.

To specifically address some of your concerns, actually one sword is better at almost everything than one dagger. It moves faster, hits harder and from further away. It can also defeat armor better via half swording or the “murder stroke” which is grabbing the blade and striking with the hilt, effectively making it a light hammer. Also half swording, which is grabbing the hilt with one hand and the blade with the other, makes the sword equally adept at close range combat as a dagger.

As far as training goes, dual wielding anything is not easy, and it’s not the same as just using a knife or just using a sword. Getting the flow and rhythm of two weapons is pretty difficult and takes very good coordination.

As for your cons we already addressed that swords still work well at close range.

  • Daggers actually have a bigger range than you might think, though nothing even approaching a sword.
  • Dual wielding a sword and dagger will have no affect on your balance, as swords aren’t that heavy and daggers are often pretty thick and sturdy. Even if there was a significant weight difference it still wouldn’t throw off your balance, humans are great at compensating for that sort of thing.
  • Many swords are quite poor at dual wielding, the difference in damage output is pretty small.
  • Daggers are great at parrying, in fact the most common arrangement of dual wielding in European history is the sword and parrying dagger.

So yes, this is very useful, but it works very differently than it is usually depicted in modern media.

Also, I would advise you to determine what kind of swords and daggers you are talking about, as well as what type of armor you are facing. If we’re talking about fully armored samurai or knights in full plate, you want a single, two handed weapon that you can put real power behind with a dagger as backup. Dual wielding in that situation will be almost useless.

Edit: I almost forgot, no common soldier would be dual wielding. Common soldiers almost always used spears, not swords. They are cheaper, easier to repair or replace, and it super easy to train someone to be proficient with a spear, much less so with a sword.

Edit #2: I did forget this part, don’t use throwing knives in warfare. Throwing your knife is almost universally a bad idea. Throwing knives are most useful as a distraction, as they are low mass and fairly low velocity. In addition, in a combat situation they have low accuracy, low penetration, and next to no stopping power. If you want throwing weapons, javelins, darts (big combat darts), and honestly rocks are much better options.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your thorough and reasonable answer! It really clarifies the situation for me. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 18, 2021 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Alendyias no problem, you can find a lot of good info on this subject on YouTube and TikTok. I recommend Shadiversity, Thatswordguy, and Robinswords. $\endgroup$
    – Nick
    Sep 18, 2021 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ "the most common arrangement of dual wielding in European history is the sword and parrying dagger" Nah, the usage of sword and parrying dagger pales in comparison to the usage of sword and shield, which was actually the most common arrangement of dual wielding in European history. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Sep 18, 2021 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, though I just want to precise that swords are generally better in and during fights. I don't wanna use swords for cooking, for instance x). $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Sep 18, 2021 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ agree with Nick, pretty much what i want to say, for @Kilisi well OP dont mention the soldier armor, and i personally think it still viable if they have good armor protection such as full plate armor, shield get to dwindle after the advance of plate armor to the point they can use 2h weapon well, including 2h sword or great sword such as zweihander, it just not necessary to dual wield weapon as Nick already mention unless in duel scenario, and one free hand can help in grappling. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Sep 19, 2021 at 9:50
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dual wielding is usually unfeasible due to the vast amount of training required to effectively wield two weapons at once

This is absolutely not the case. Wielding a second weapon in your off-hand does require additional training and practise, but it does not impose some kind of weird ability-draining penalty that can only be overcome by superhuman effort... this is a game-balancing mechanic from the likes of D&D, and not an accurate observation of the real world.

I am asking about a soldier using a sword and dagger simultaneously and effectively, and whether being able to do so would actually be useful in a combat situation

It is entirely possible to do so, and indeed it has been done in the past. Famously, Miyamoto Musashi was an advocate of the long-and-short sword style, and wrote about its pros and cons in his work, The Book Of Five Rings (PDF) which is worth a read if you've not come across it before... it isn't very long, and it should correct some of your misconceptions (so I won't doing a point-by-point nitpick here, this time!)

Here's the thing though, it is unusual not because it is extremely difficult, or expensive, but because in almost all combat situations using a shield is a much better thing to do with your off hand.

Shields are substantially more effective against missile fire (until someone brings along an arquebus, of course) and rather than just being a passive chunk of defense they can be used to bind the weapons of your opponent and make strikes, too. Anyone using a sword (or axe) and a shield was "dual wielding" already, but again, only the likes of D&D turn shields into purely passive bits of armour instead of tools and weapons in their own right.

But here's another thing... soldiers wielding swords was certainly a thing, but spears, pikes and halberds were even more often a thing (and remember that having a large weapon like this does not preclude the use of a shield! D&D isn't telling you the truth about this, either!).

On a battlefield, reach is very valuable, hence the popularity of pikes or spears (and even Miyamoto approved of them... samurai weren't just sword-wielders, after all) and obviously their horseback counterparts, lances. Against armour, warhammers are far better than mucking about with half-swording or trying to bash people with the handle of your sword.

Use what's appropriate. Consider what your opponents are using. Have a diverse army. A whole lot of sword-and-dagger peeps are going to fare very badly against an army using spears and crossbows, for example.

In a non-battlefield situation, especially if your opponents aren't going to be heavily armoured, sword-and-dagger is much more appealing, and quite effective. You haven't specified the job your soldiers are doing, so being more specific is impossible!

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I am a DnD fan, so your points on how it diverges from reality are much appreciated, as well as your analysis on dual-wielding in general. Thanks for the enlarged perspective! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 20, 2021 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Alendyias I like that in 5e they've removed the penalty for dual wielding, but still let specialists have an advantage. Still not enough shield bashing and no love for bucklers, but there are plenty of other TTRPG systems in the sea.. $\endgroup$ Sep 20, 2021 at 14:53
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It's not really suitable for melee warfare. It is and has been used for dueling though.

A shield is preferable for any sort of organised melee as it can block melee weapons and missiles and most melee situations start with ranged attacks. It would be extremely difficult to block an arrow or sling missile with your dagger.

Africans did throw daggers very effectively before melee, but they held several behind their shields and did that part of the fighting with spear and shield.

There are several major problems with dual wielding in this fashion. Which is why no one has done it historically.

  1. You have no ranged defense.
  2. You cannot stop a heavy weapon with a dagger. And organised melee infantry usually use heavy weapons.
  3. You're a danger to the movements and safety of your comrades.
  4. You could not be used in tight formations.

However it's a reasonable and common secondary weapon to have on you in case you lose your shield or need to poke someone through their eyeslit while you sit on them.

In terms of usage dual weapons are dangerous in single combat, but they're better if they're close to identical in weight. They give an advantage of being able to attack multiple sides and angles almost simultaneously like this video of my boy training and they improve the off hand dexterity. But they're also limiting in some respects (you don't want to tie you arms into a knot).

You can also attack multiple sides and angles with a single blade, like in this vid of my other boy training.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the further clarification! I appreciate your points, as they have expanded my perspective. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 20, 2021 at 13:37
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The problem is that the sword/dagger commonly used for civilian defense i.e. in cases where a one or more people end up in melee combat in a civilian setting or otherwise in duels.

In massed combat however the primary weapons of infantry soldiers were either some kind of pole arm if they were 'line infantry' or alternatively if they were missile troops crossbows, bows or arquebus etc. Those were their primary weapon and the one they were expected to do their fighting with. In both cases the idea is to maximize reach and prevent your enemy from getting close to you and both classes of weapons do this much better than swords or daggers.

Swords and daggers were the reserve or 'back up' weapon (like pistols are today for soldiers). And they were reserved for situations where a soldier had either lost their main weapon or couldn't deploy it. For example your line gets overrun or your engaged in a siege etc and have no choice but to fight in close quarters when defending or attacking a wall or street or God forbid a tunnel under the fortifications.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yep, except for the Romans and their swords but they had a huge shield. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Sep 19, 2021 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ And pilums. They were supposed to use them all first before engaging in direct combat. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Sep 19, 2021 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, excellent weapon, but single use per battle normally $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Sep 19, 2021 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ I think the basic point still applies. 'You don't use your gladius until you've used your pilum's'. Later era's? If you are a missile trooper and run out of arrow etc then and only then do you start using your backup weapon. If you are line infantry? Again you use your pole arm first and foremost. If you lose it and only if you lose it do you then switch to your secondary weapon. (Excepting of course the special circumstances mentioned in my main post.) $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Sep 19, 2021 at 11:39
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very good answer, thanks for the historical perspective, but as reserve weapons, how are swords and daggers? $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 20, 2021 at 13:41
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Use your stronger arm to puncture, shortest blade goes in the strongest arm to take advantage of leverage and lesser weight.

Use the longest blade in your most dexterous arm, use it to open the enemy defenses then rush in and wrestle it to the ground, with the strongest arm stab the enemy wherever their vulnerable point is.

it go like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOgSOXSjthE

The guy used the sword to open the enemy by forcing his arms up, then dropped the sword to grab him and throw him on the ground with enough force to make his armor burst off his body. The next step would have been to stab him to death multiple times.

Yes you grab someone while holding a blade, with a shorter blade its easier tough.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, thanks for your answer! All the other answers covered feasibility, whereas yours showed A) it can be done and B) how it can be done well! Thank you, and welcome to the site! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 20, 2021 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure he would have been stabbed to death only once. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Some Guy
    Oct 6, 2021 at 8:02

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