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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The ancient art of stabbing people

Here's a blogified version of a talk I gave on BarCamp London 5. Most BarCamp talks tend to be about Internet, computing, startups and the usual topics that everybody's heard about over 9000 times. This one is going to be different because it talks about ancient human history.

London is the stabbing capital of the world. While rests of the world shoots at each other, 29% of our homicides are good old making holes in thy neighbour. But stabbing is older than humanity. Here's a photo of an orangutan getting his food by stabbing some fish.

Our closest relatives chimpanzees also hunt with spears. Here's a chimp sharpening a spear, so it makes good holes.

Chimps use spears to hunt for galagos like the one here, killing them while they sleep. Can you imagine anything more adorable than a monkey stabbing a cute little sleeping galago? What is clear from these examples is that stabbing is an instinctual behavior for hominid primates including humans, and that sense of fair play isn't.

Prehistoric humans obviously used stabbing tools for hunting. It's not really clear at which point we started to use them to stab fellow humans. There's plenty of ancient skeletons with wounds caused by weapons, but some of them might just be hunting accidents. When a group is hunting accidents are very common - lately Dick Cheney shot a 78-old guy in a face while hunting for quail, and when half of humanity hunted daily for whatever they could find it's certain many people died of stab wounds even without any foul play. Or if you didn't like someone you could make it look like a "hunting accident" and the rest of the tribe probably couldn't tell.

At some point people clearly started systematically killing each other. That's a good time to ask the question - why stabbing? When you look at most movies and computer games people almost exclusively slash, shoot, and bludgeon each other, while stabbing is very rare. Historically on the other hand stabbing was the best and most common way to hurt other people through almost entire human history.

The first thing to forget is shooting - unless you're firing at point-blank range there's almost no way an arrow or bullet is going to hit the intended target. Even with modern precisely manufactured and very powerful weapons, if they didn't have insanely high rate of fire you'd be better off with a knife than a gun. For virtually the entire history the way bows, crossbows, guns, slingshots, and all other projectile weapons were used was a large number of people shooting another large group of people. You had a small chance of hitting a particular guy at a distance, but some of you will probably hit some of them. Unfortunately for you the other guys will catch up with you quickly, so very few battles were won by just shooting with small weapons.

The main problem with bludgeoning is its low lethality. Human body can take a very high number of blows before you die. It's going to hurt like hell, and some bones might be broken, but you will only notice that after adrenaline rush of the battle cools down. If you're trying to bludgeon some guy to death, it's going to take so much time that he might very well die of boredom before he dies of wounds.

Stabbing on the other hand was very lethal - a deep stab would can destroy vital organs, cause massive bleeding, or if it doesn't work, kill by infection. Before the invention of antibiotics, what happened very recently on historical scale, even a very small stab wound could easily kill you a few days after the fight.

Slashing was somewhat popular, but there are many problems with it. First, it is a lot slower than stabbing. It also has a short range - long slashing weapons like huge jrpg swords would be way too slow to be practical. It also causes shallow wounds that are a lot less likely to kill than deep stabbing wounds, is much easier to parry, and its effectiveness is seriously reduced by even light armor. There are also technological issues - many materials like bronze are too weak for long slashing weapons, and you need a lot of metal to make a sword than just a spearhead that you attach to a wooden stick.

Most historical slashing weapons are really hybrid stabbing/slashing weapons, with stabbing being the primary mode of use.

It's time to leave prehistory and enter history. The best known spearmen in the world are Greek Hoplites, and among them obviously Spartans.

The "300" movie is very inaccurate in its depiction of ancient Greek warfare. Persians didn't really have war rhinoceros, and Spartans didn't fight barechested to show off their abs. Hoplites were really fighting in heavy armor, as the very idea was to make holes in the enemy before he makes holes in you - bare chest doesn't really help with that.

Here's a guy reenacting a Greek Hoplite. I totally love those reenactment guys and great photos they provide. You can see he's got a good stabbing tool, and the best body protection he can get, even if it hides some of the muscle.

Hoplites did not fight alone - weight of all the armor slows them down a lot, and spear is not the greatest weapon unless at the right range. Hoplites fought in a phalanx. Phalanx is a long line of hoplites, many people deep, and sometimes many kilometers long, with all spears pointing in direction of enemy. Big shields are used to protect you and the guy on the left. It is very deadly as long as the enemy is in front of you and the formation holds. It also has very low mobility - it can go forward fast enough, but changing direction without breaking formation takes ages.

It is very vulnerable from the back and flanks, so it must be long not to get outmaneuvered, and it must be deep not to be broken by a frontal assault. Another useful thing is that the guy standing behind you also points his spear in direction of the enemy.

Greek and in particular Spartan Phalanges dominated Greek warfare, but they were far from invincible. In battle of Lechaeum a bunch of lightly armored Peltasts throwing javelins, which is like no-contact stabbing, destroyed Spartan Hoplite unit by "throw a javelin and run" tactics. That's the only such case in history, as normally a Phalanx was accompanied by support troops like Peltasts and cavalry, so tricks like that didn't work and the fight returned to phalanx superiority.

A much more significant blow to Spartan reputation for masculinity was battle of Leuctra where significantly smaller Theban hoplite army led by openly gay-married Sacred Band of Thebes totally pwned Spartan asses and killed Spartan king.

At some point Greece and in fact most of the known world was conquered by Macedon. Macedon armies also used Phalanx formation, with a tiny difference of using very long spear called sarissa in place of traditional short Greek spear dory.

Sarissa was very heavy, was carried in two parts that were only assembled before the battle, and was almost completely useless as a weapon except when used as part of a Phalanx.

The difference as shown by the reenactors is very clear.

And here are they charging at each other. Both weapons make sense only in a Phalanx, and sarissa more so. It also takes two hands to use, so Macedonian reenactor has a much smaller shield attached to his arm, while Greek reenactor can hold a big shield in his left hand.

The real power of sarissa can be seen in Macedon Phalanx. Now instead of two spearheads between you and the enemy there are five, what significantly increases enemy's expected number of blood-letting holes.

Here's another picture of a Macedon Phalanx, this time from one of my favorite games Rome: Total War. The game shows warfare with reasonable levels of historical accuracy, so there's a lot of hot stabbing action.

This was one of the greatest triumphs of stabbers. Macedon Phalanx was a deadly force but very vulnerable. Alexander used his tactical genius to leverage its power and minimize its vulnerabilities, and so conquered most of the world in just twelve years starting from a very small kingdom.

Here's a picture of Alexander showing equipment of Macedon cavalry. They used 4 meter long spears which they used to stab people. Charging with couched lance known from late Medieval era was completely unknown to the ancient people.

The next big power after fall of Macedon was Rome. Roman army completely changed many times during Roman history. At first Romans used walls of spears just like Greeks. Here's a picture of Roman Triarii from Rome: Total War.

Roman Legions in their best known form fought using short sword gladius. It was primarily a stabbing weapon. Romans didn't introduce many technical innovations to the art of stabbing, they were really good at tactics, engineering, and especially politics.

Another important part of Legionary equipment were usually two pila. They were thrown before engaging in melee. The part behind the head is made of soft iron which bend on impact, making it difficult to get rid of a pilum. This way even if pilum hit a shield, now the enemy had a sharp point sticking out of it, was made the shield a lot less useful or even dangerous to the user.

No history of stabbing would be complete without mentioning the most famous stabbing victim - Julius Caesar.

Caesar was killed by repeated stabbing with a Roman utility knife pugio.

Senators who killed Caesar intended to restore the Republic. The assassination was successful, but as far as restoring the Republic, it was an epic fail.

There were almost no innovations in stabbing technology for the next millennium after stabbing of Caesar. In late antiquity stabbing from horseback got quite popular. Here's a picture of heavily armed Parthian Cataphract cavalry.

Cataphracts look a lot like Medieval knights. Both them and their horses are heavily armored, and they use long spears to stab enemies. They didn't have stirrups, and still stabbed their enemies instead of charging at them.

This way of fighting didn't change until Late Middle Ages. In Battle of Hastings depicted by Bayeux Tapestry you can see cavalry having stirrups, but still using their spears as stabbing weapons, not for couched charge.

At some point in the Medieval era couched charge was developed. It was a result of better horse-riding technology including stirrups, nailed horseshoes, and solid tree saddle, as well as better armor of soldiers, which required more punch from the charge.

Cavalry was heavily armored, both riders and horses.

Here's a great photo of a knight reenactment.

Late Medieval infantry battles also had a lot of happy stabbing. Because soldiers were so heavily armored, slashing was almost useless. Armor like that needs to be pierced if you want to kill, slashing plate armor with a sword is not much better than bludgeoning it with a club.

And finally era of heavy cavalry was over. But it wasn't because of gunpowder yet. At first gunpowder was used more for siege artillery than for a field battle - guns were too slow and inaccurate for battle, but city walls are hard to miss and aren't really going anywhere.

What killed heavy cavalry was rise of pikemen and halberdiers, who were in many ways similar to ancient Greek Phalanx, and definitely not something you want to charge.

Masses of mercenary pikemen charging at each other were a bloody and quick way to resolve their differences.

One problem with pikes and other long polearms is that when fighting gets close enough, they are very hard to use, and something like sword is a lot more practical.

Pikemen armies saw gradual introduction of firearms. Arquebus is a very slow weapon, so unit equipped with them can easily be crushed by cavalry or infantry charge. A combination of arquebusiers, pikemen, and sometimes also swordsmen, and halberdiers can deliver hot lead over the distance, and make stab holes in anybody who comes too close.

This was however the end of stab-centric armies. As you don't need to shot and stab at the same time, "pike and shot" formation always leaves half of the troops unused. We could give everybody a gun and a pike, but that would be rather unwieldy and heavy. But hey - isn't a gun already a long stick that just needs something sharp on its end?

The idea isn't new, even 13th century Chinese cavalry used it. In this case it was more of a spear with attached gun than a gun with attached bayonet.

Muskets with bayonets replaced "pike and shot" armies. Even in Napoleonic Wars bayonet charges were important part of military strategy, as rate of fire was very low. Also a quick decisive charge is much more likely to rout enemy forces than slow fire.

As rate of fire increased tremendously, bayonets became less relevant. Now they're basically utility knifes, and even at very short ranges it makes a lot more sense to shoot than to stab. Stabbing after long history is no longer part of mainsteam military.

Tradition of stabbing continued for some time after mainstream militaries moved on. Polish heavy cavalry Hussars dominated 17th century Central Europe. They had those cool bad-ass wings, nobody's really sure what for.

Even in 19th century, Zulus were able to build an empire using mostly spears. It was probably the last stabbing-based empire in human history.

Now that stabbing is no longer of any military significance, it's mostly used for crime by people without access to guns, like the British. But you can stab even without a knife - there's a great collection of improvised stabbing tools from prisons - The Art of Shiv by Brett Yasko.

I tried to keep historically accurate but some simplifications were necessary for the sake of a good story. If you have any questions - use comments below the post.


Will Higgins said...

Great work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a most excellent history of stabbing. :) One quick question, though: you mention that the Spartans wore Hoplite armor, but it was my understanding that they fought naked, to intimidate their enemies. Perhaps that's just a legend? But you have to admit that being charged by an angry phalanx of nude Greeks waving their (ahem) giant spears would probably be more disconcerting than facing an armored foe. :)

taw said...

Eric: Spartans did not fight naked ever, I don't know where you got the idea other than from 300.

Hoplites don't really need high individual mobility, as the formation can only move very slowly and if Hoplites started running the formation would collapse. On the other hand they need good armor - if too many die formation collapses.

When phalanx formation collapses being a naked guy with too heavy shield and a long spear isn't exactly an enviable position.

Anonymous said...

Picts fought naked. Maybe that's what you're thinking about? Clever article, and suddenly people are learning history. Now isn't that great?

jhobson said...

Good story. The favorite British stabbing tool at the moment is the kitchen knife. I recently read a paper that gives good information on the relative efficiencies of different Kitchen Devil models in achieving penetration for minimal force:

phil varner said...

I saw "Eastern Promises" the other day, so this was particularly interesting considering the prominence given to slashing and stabbing.

Mark Dominus said...

Thanks for posting this. I really enjoyed this.

Anonymous said...

That was one fine article. And with great pictures too. Thank you very much for this good read.

Anonymous said...

Polish Hussar's wings were used as "noise makers". Very effective to scare opponent's horses.
Secondly these wings are eagle's wings - symbol of Poland.

taw said...

Rysiek: I've heard this theory too, but Wikipedia says they tried reenacting it and it didn't work that way:

Polish Hussars were also famous for the huge 'wings' worn on their backs or attached to the saddles of their horses. There are several theories to explain their meaning. According to some they were designed to foil attacks by Tatar lassos; another theory has it that the vibrating of feathers attached to the wings during the charge made a strange sound that frightened enemy horses. However, experiments carried out by re-enactors and movie-makers since the 1970s and more recently by Polish historians in 2001 contradict such ideas. Possibly the wings were worn only during parades and not during combat, but this explanation is also disputed.

Peter said...

Maybe they wore it simply because they look awesome...

Anonymous said...

The wings ware used for the sound they would make when the horse was galloping it would make the horse go faster from the high pitched whistle they would make.

Eric said...

that was the funniest article i have ever read ;P
If you guys already knew the history it would be a lot funnier
i am a different eric fyi

Anonymous said...

"Even with modern precisely manufactured and very powerful weapons, if they didn't have insanely high rate of fire you'd be better off with a knife than a gun."

Where exactly did you come to this conclusion? Ever heard of the US Marine Corps? Yeah, right there is arguably the best infantry rifle marksmanship program in the world. And no, they don't use "insanely high" rates of fire to kill their targets, they use precision semi-automatic fire and rarely ever miss. I recall reading about a battle in Iraq where all the insurgents appeared to untrained eyes to have been executed at point blank, but investigators determined that it wasn't so and that they'd been engaged and killed by Marines with precision fire from scoped M16A4s. Then there's also the trained sniper, who engaged his targets from 6,7, 800 yards away with conventional sniper rifles. They also rarely miss. Then, of course, we have what I like to call the "uber sniper" armed with an M107 big bore rifle who engages his targets from 1 to 2 MILES away and also rarely misses!

So, taw, feel free to bring a knife to a gunfight if you like, but you won't be around to complain when a trained marksman puts a hole in your head from 5 football fields away.

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading right after you made that statement"unless you're firing at point blank range there is almost no way an arrow or bullet is going to hit the intended target". While that was true with ancient smooth bore firearms, it is not true for any moderately practiced bowman and certainly is not true for a practiced shooter with a modern firearm. That statement shows your complete and utter lack of knowledge when it comes to any kind of usage of bows or guns throughout history and makes it incredibly hard to believe that anything in the rest of your article about ancient fighting techniques with swords or spears is even close to accurate either. This lack of knowledge wouldn't bother me in the least except that you decided to write an article about it as if you're an expert on weapons, which you VERY clearly are not. Maybe you should stick to writing about "kittens, technology, and video games"

taw said...

Anonymous: All statistics show extremely low hit chances with pretty much every ranged weapons in realistic military conditions, especially with ancient weapons I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

guns are too mainstream haha joke

well yeah they are correct about the guns. But, once you're out of ammo in real combat you have to rely on your knife that u can use mostly to stab or throw at people. Which is another effective way to kill.

it is a great article anyway but you compared today's guns (accurate based on who is using it) with the old medieval guns(which sucks)