Kneeling Down in Free-Play & Weapon Sparring Rules
by John Clements, ARMA Director
In weapon sparring, rules requiring fighters to kneel down or sit when struck in the legs or hips are silly, unrealistic, and encourage poor skill. Such rules are a bad idea and there is a better way.
Because such rules are so pervasive among practitioners and organized groups, it is important it be fully addressed and its significance established. While this may surprise some and shock others, knowledgeable weapon fighters would agree, for the arguments though debatable, are solid and worth hearing. Only those who are not serious would consider this matter unimportant in fighting.
The rules governing many popular Medieval combat weapon sparring system include a requirement that fighters go down on their knees when hit in the legs (weather it be full leg-target or just the thigh). This is often referred to as the "kneeling down rule". The general idea is that if your leg is wounded, you're immobilised; you cannot stand and must fight from your knees. Seems reasonable enough. If you're hit in the arm you can't use your arm, right? But, this does not hold up after serious consideration. Those wishing to conduct more realistic and more martial practice must stand up (figuratively and literally) for what makes sense. Kneeling down rules must be disregarded.
First, consider this: if an arm is slightly wounded, perhaps you won't be able to use it. It could be disabled and you'd drop anything and hold the arm in-close. But then, if an arm takes a serious blow, face it; it would be hacked off severed. The average blow from a sword or axe would easily dismember. No doubt about it. If an arm is lost in the middle of combat, that person would surely die. In their moment of shock and pain an opponent would finish them. At the very least, they couldn't continue. Few would argue this. Now, apply this to the leg a much larger mass of muscle and bone. If your leg is cut off, you die. The question is, what about a blow that doesn't cut off the leg but still disables it?
The solution for many sparring systems, whether playful fantasy ones or serious methods, has been to drop down and fight from the knees. It is a very poor solution. This has been the rule for so many organizations for so long that no one seems to ever question its validity, notice its flawed reasoning or contemplates anything else. It is obvious something is wrong and it's time for a change when one can hear things at a practice like: "Watch out for so-and-so he's really good on his knees!" or "Don't hit what's-his-name in the legs, you'll be sorry". This is nonsense. It's like saying "don't cut off their right arm, because their left one is even better". Historical artwork depicting battle scenes is totally and completely absent any single instance of a warrior fighting from their knees. You never hear of ancient armies crawling into battle on their knees or read about Lancelot fighting toe-to-toe with some poor sap sitting down in front of him. It is only the delusions of a certain Medieval-society that originated this rule notion, that ever since almost every organized sparring system has blindly copied.
Answer this simple question: Can you kneel down for longer than you can stand? No, of course not. Give it a try. Kneeling down is more stressful on the legs since it actually requires the use of additional muscles. If you are in a position where your legs are damaged, kneeling or even sitting down is harder. It is certainly harder to do than standing on one leg and dragging the other. Besides, if one is hit in the knee itself, how could you then possibly kneel?! This is even more so when we consider blows that damage the hip-bone. Unfortunately, this obvious piece of physiology is completely missed by many Medieval weapon sparring rule system precisely because the rule-structure permits, and even encourages, "ground fighting" from a kneeling or sitting position. This blinds one to the natural disadvantages of fighting from the knees. Many individuals (and some groups) have elevated kneeling down from a clear position of disadvantage into one of comparative advantage thus defeating the entire reason for rules making a leg-wounded opponent sit in the first place!
The "kneeling rule" has had an unintended side-effect. By creating artificial and contrived rules to protect (and in some cases, even give advantage to) those fighters who have "lost" their legs, it practically creates a beneficial position out of being wounded. This is outrageous. By a twisted logic, rules have been constructed in some sparring systems that virtually favor combatants positioned on their knees. The whole problem of this "advantage" is magnified under rules that exclude the lower legs (knee, shin, foot) as legitimate targets or that disallow pushing against a sitting opponent's shield, to begin with. Those on their knees have even more advantage in this way. They know exactly where and how the standing opponent will try to hit them and they can expose almost any part of their own legs in leaning forward to hit. The problem is even increased further under rule systems using super light, Nerf-like, "boffer" swords. With little effort required to swing them for "touch kills", those on the ground can easily make the required (soft) contact.
The target areas on a kneeling/sitting fighter are made so limited, that the standing attacker is forced to expose himself to an effective counter-attack. When they lean forward to strike, they are instead hit by the kneeling or sitting fighter who has far fewer targets exposed. Instead of being a handicap, kneeling down this way actually seems, contradictorily, to improve the grounded fighter's defense! By this kind of reasoning, we could claim standing on our heads to be a "good fighting position". Even more insane are accounts of uninjured fighters getting down on their own knees in order to fight under "equal" conditions (!).
Under some sets of sparring rules, the standing fighter cannot even make use of the one greatest benefit there is to remaining standing while fighting: shifting around. Circling around is usually outlawed and opponents must be faced frontally. Taking advantage" of a wounded opponent by side-stepping and striking from the flank or rear before a grounded foe can turn is forbidden. Fighting from the ground then becomes a pseudo-tactic. Under these rules, taking a wound in the leg is barely an inconvenience. It should also be pointed out that the kneeling party is in fact NOT hurt, but can freely twist and turn even when on the ground. Yet, the uninjured, standing fighter is restricted in their movement actions. This is ludicrous. Granted, many of these nonsense rules are based on a fictitious sense of "chivalry", but their true reason for existence, as with similar rules, is to protect those fighters who cannot move well or defend their legs (this is what is often called "playability for everyone").
When one considers all the many hours of fighting that is lost, all the opportunities for stand-up experience that is missed, it is astounding. It is immensely silly, particularly in large group battles, to see isolated fighters sitting waiting for someone to come hover over them. Rather than be busily engaged in shifting, side-stepping and lunging, warriors are marooned around the battle field sitting on their knees. They have to stand up, walk over to someone who agrees to stay there and fight, then sit right back down. Sometimes fellow combatants are required to lift a wounded fighter, carry them to a new location, and then place them back on their knees in order to continue fighting. This is just plain silly. If they can stand to walk around to re-engage, why not just let them walk and fight?
Rules requiring kneeling when wounded also affect the very tactical choices a leader has for maneuvering forces in group battles. If part of the force must stop to sit down, how can they possibly be maneuvered around the field? A commander can't rally warriors to out-flank, breakthrough or regroup if they are sitting all over the place. How can there possibly be any true tactical mobility? The whole battle turns into a slow, unrealistic, isolated sit-in with a few wanderers straggling around (hardly the exciting, classical clash of arms and men a battle should invoke). The entire pace of fighting is reduced. Of course, if real tactical ability is not something one cares about, not something one would even recognize, then this would not be a big deal, would it?
Sometimes it is claimed that the kneeling rule helps fighters remember they've been hurt. Are serious practitioners really going to forget they've been wounded in the leg because they are standing up? Are other people that fearful that there are dishonest participants who will do this? If so, then why have hits based on honor at all? Surely, fighters can act as if their legs are injured just as is done with injured arms?
There are usually rules, completely lacking in common sense, that are related to kneeling down such as not allowing a limb to be "re-hit" once it has already been struck and disabled. There seems to be a bizarre reasoning that a leg is somehow "specially protected" or has a greater defense, by the sheer virtue of its status as a wounded limb! This makes no sense. If a limb is hurt once, it can be hurt again and again until it is severed or the person dies. The leg is not considered amputated, so there is just no cause to exclude it as a continued target (if it was, how could anyone continue on!?). The true basis, everyone knows but few will admit, is really to excuse inferior fighters and "give them a chance" instead of compelling them to improve.
All these problems detailed here occur among a range of various weapon sparring systems because fighters are simply not allowed to stand and hobble, nor drag a wounded leg while fighting. The real reason behind all these apparently unrealistic kneeling rules is simple: It is about "playability". That is, these rules reflect a lack of martial spirit, which is very much the case with the more lighthearted and playful fantasy groups. This has the overall effect, of course, of reducing overall skill down to the lowest common denominator instead of promoting real fighting ability (a sort of "anyone and their grandmother can participate" form of mock combat). It is a shame, since a more rigorous standard of rules could have a tremendously beneficial result with only simple changes.
Aside from the negative effects on fighting, there are a multitude of anatomical and physiological reason why the kneeling rule is ridiculous, some of which have already been mentioned. Could we really imagine a Medieval warrior, wounded in battle, on his knees, shifting and twisting to face enemies charging at him from various direction? Could he survive even a few seconds from such a position? This is pure stupidity. The fact is, one can't stand, kneel, or even sit still, let alone continue fighting without a leg, a shin, or even a foot. Take a serious blow at the hip, knee, or shin and a person would be in agony. A blow to the legs serious enough to keep one from standing would surely be so painful as to keep one from fighting. Even accounting for courage and adrenaline, a person would just not be able to function. So, where then to draw the line between playability and realism?
If fighters can't be considered killed just by a wounded leg, and they can't be expected to lie down and moan, what then? The alternative is the Limping-Leg Rule. This rules provides for the following: One could not run or walk after a disabling leg blow, but may still stand and fight. Movement is limited to limping by dragging the wounded leg (no hopping). One could also kneel on the good leg, but not the injured one. If a leg is hit again, it must certainly count again (no excluding it). This rule is the intelligent and effective alternative.
Of course, none of this in any way prevents fighters from voluntarily kneeling down any time they feel like it, injured or not. It is only to prevent the position from being insulated from the realities of combat, prevent standing fighters from being unnaturally restricted, and realistically increase the amount of available targets.
The standard leg hit rules have become a virtual institution among most Medieval combat groups. Many individuals are reluctant to "give it up" and lose the "consolation prize" that the kneeling position gives them. Changing it would mean they have to fight almost the same way with an injured leg as they do unhurt without special provisions. The truth is, it is harder to keep fighting when you have to remember a leg is wounded and keep it stiff or drag it.
Some would say "Yeah, that's true, it is harder, so why do it?". Ah, but here we see that being harder really is the matter of it, isn't it? By having to remember the injured limb and having to drag it or just keep it stiff you really are distracted and fighting at a disadvantage, not just mimicking something. Because someone is still standing and fighting with a wounded leg, if they make a lunge or step out and expose a leg to another hit, they know they will die. This is a big difference from the supposedly awkward position kneeling down was originally intended to cause.
If you start with an assumption (such as "you must sit and you cannot stand"), then never then look back to analyze the original premise, how will you ever know if they are faulty, illogical or just inferior to something else? Assumptions create ramifications far down the road that are usually quite subtle. This is the case with kneeling down requirements during any sparring that is simulating any manner of Medieval combat.
Many participants refuse to re-consider issues of rules. They do this out of apathy and indifference (the "it works fine, why change it?" attitude), they do it out of tradition or nostalgia for the "original rules"; out of bias and favoritism for "their personal rules"; and out of familiarity with the current rules. These are all reasons for lack of examination of the rule-structure or willingness to implement change. If one finds themselves growing angry while reading this critique of kneeling down rules, perhaps they should asked themselves why that is, and engage in some introspection about their own preconceptions.
The suggestions offered here with regards to fighting on knees is this: Experiment. Just try out this alternative for a decent length of time. The results will certainly show if one is honest with themselves. If you have to ask what's with all this bitching about fighting from the knees, then you may be missing a lot more in sparring and fighting than just what was presented here.