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The Spear (Yari), The Doorway, Terrain, Multiple Opponents & Exploring Scale

There are several key ideas to cover by looking at this single situation - the spear vs the sword through a doorway.  In this post, this simple situation leads us to the following 4 broad points:

  • Obviously, the tactics of the spear vs the sword through the doorway.
  • The often overlooked importance of terrain and how it plays a part in fighting more than one person.
  • Understanding large-scale engagements from small-scale encounters, and vice-versa.
  • Why a syllabus is often only a starting point, so you need to keep looking at the 'other side' in training.

A Victorian Account of The Spear and the Doorway

The following account relates to what is known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and is taken from here. Hodson refers to the well known Brevet Major William Stephen Raikes Hodson (19 March 1821 – 11 March 1858).

Colonel Sir Edward Thackeray, V.C., who was attached to Seaton's column, gives a vivid picture of Hodson thoroughly enjoying himself as a Paladin of the olden time.  It was early in the morning of 17th December, while the dawn was yet cool and grey, the column was near Puttiali, when distant shots were heard. Taylor and Hodson, attended by some of his troopers, rode forward to reconnoitre: they reached a village which seemed to be deserted; there was no sign of life, the gates were built up, and there was no admittance.

Taylor sent two men back for some powder-bags to blow up one of the gates: meanwhile, both officers dismounted; and, while Taylor and Thackeray lay down under a tree for a short nap, Hodson took a hog-spear and wandered about on a voyage of discovery.

He happened at length to stray into an enclosed yard, at one end of which was a long, low one-storey house: the door was fast bolted. Taking a run and a kick Hodson forced open the central door but found not what he had expected. Instead of an empty house, he saw dimly in the darkness of the room ten swordsmen in front of him; and he remembered too late that he had left his pistol and sword elsewhere.

In a moment the sepoys stepped forward to attack him!  Hodson seized the situation in a flash, stepped back one pace into the yard, and, as each swordsman carne through the narrow doorway, so low that he had to stoop and could not immediately use his sword, Hodson met him with a spear thrust.

Taylor says that this occurred within a few yards of where he had been lying down: Hodson came back to Taylor and said, "Come and have a look at what I have found in here.”  They went together, the troopers following, and Taylor was rather horrified to see ten armed men, dead or dying, stretched about the floor of the room.

The Tactics of the Spear vs the Sword through the Doorway

Readers of my previous posts may realise I view things through a dualistic lens, that is I see two broad methods which I often refer to as simply 'long' and 'short', and categorise most everything into one of these two 'sides'.  To complete the broad picture, there is also changing from one to another and the attempted use of both which is how I view 'nito'.  The spear is most definitely on the 'long side', which is why I find it useful as a tool to understand the two 'sides'.

As we have seen in the posts on common tactics of the spear, the spear wants to keep the centre and avoid the bind, while in the case of the shorter weapon a lateral avoidance, beat or bind and then an entry is the name of the game.

In the above example Hodson, with the longer weapon, steps back a pace from the door meaning he can comfortably strike through the doorway whilst remaining out of range.  The swordsmen have lost the ability to move laterally as they move through the restriction of the doorway, their movement probably being further hampered as the bodies piled up.

This is the classic right thing to do on the side of the longer weapon - had he rushed into the hut the spear would have been useless and had he have taken up a position at the doorway he could have been struck and could not fully retrieve the spear between strikes, on top of giving up the centre.

The Importance of Terrain

The terrain is something that is always at play.  In the above example, there is the type of ground (possibly flat, probably dirt), the size of the hut and its ceiling height (small) and the architectural feature (a bottleneck) of the doorway.

Often we do away with terrain in training as it is either inconvenient or dangerous, however we must consider a few things:
  • How does the training area compare to likely areas of combat?
  • How do likely differences affect what I do and how I do it?
One common example of this is the training surface.  Martial artists typically train on one of three types of a surface; a wooden floor such as a hall or basketball court, a foam jigsaw mat or a vinyl covered foam mat.  We also rarely wear shoes when training.  Obstacles aside how well does this represent where we expect to implement what we are training?  Probably not very well.

It is important to note the terrain factor will not always hinder you - it is incredibly easy to sweep out peoples legs when they are standing on grass with shoes on, much easier than bare feet on foam mats or wooden floors - conversely you are in much greater danger of having your legs swept from under you at the same time.  Stance and movement will vary based on the surface.

Taking the sword as an example, there may be some who say they are not interested in the terrain factor, they simply want to practice the way of the sword and as it is no longer relevant to modern life these things do not matter.  This is incorrect as:
  • It is impossible to fully understand the way of the sword (or whatever) without cognisance of the context in which it was designed to be used.
  • The terrain is an important martial factor, and if it is no longer relevant to school X then school X is in danger of no longer practising 'martial arts'.

How terrain can play a part in fighting more than one person

I recall a friend of mine running a workplace session, and when asked about multiple attackers he took a quick survey of how many people the attendees thought he could fight before he was worried about the outcome - stunningly the figures ranged from six to fourteen!  People were disappointed to know that he considered two people a massive problem.

In the example of Hodson, he fights ten (or based on typical tales, up to ten) swordsman armed with a spear.   The spear is only part of the equation - I've little doubt had he let them out of the hut and fought them on open ground he would maybe have killed a couple of them before being killed himself.  Here is a credible example of terrain, in conjunction with the right weapon and the right tactic, allowing one person to fight up to ten.

Musashi kills Yoshioka Matashichiro

The Yoshioka clan was justifiably outraged and the head of the clan was now the 12-year old Yoshioka Matashichiro. Yoshioka challenged Musashi to a duel near the Ichijoji Temple just outside Kyoto. He brought with him to the duel as many as 72 swordsmen, archers and musketeers. But this time Musashi changed tactic, instead of being late, he arrived at the temple many hours early.  When Yoshioka Matashichiro and his men were arriving, they were expecting to have to wait for Musashi.  Instead, Musashi assaulted Matashichiro and his men from a hidden position (possibly a tall tree which he had climbed) and killed Matashichiro. Musashi directly escaped while being attacked by dozens of his victim's supporters. With the death of Matashichiro, this branch of the Yoshioka School was effectively destroyed.

This escape is one of the most famous 'one against many' tales in martial arts lore.  The story has it that Musashi planned and made his escape through paddies, paths and passes that enabled him to fight one person at a time.

In both of these examples, we see how terrain can be used to reduce the number of opponents that have to be fought at any given moment.  This is an important tactic for the outnumbered. 

Understanding Large-scale Engagements from Small-scale Encounters

As one man can defeat ten men, so can one thousand men defeat ten thousand. However, you can become a master of strategy by training alone with a sword, so that you can understand the enemy's stratagems, his strength and resources, and come to appreciate how to apply strategy to beat ten thousand enemies.

One of the themes of Musashi's writing is that small scale and large scale engagements mirror each other in terms of strategy and that you can use this to take a specific understanding about one scale and use it to solve a similar problem in the other.

The doorway is essentially a bottleneck, on the large scale this can be mirrored in a number of ways, the most obvious being a pass.

The Battle of Thermopylae

Consider the famous battle between the Greeks and the Persians in 480BC.  This is perhaps the ultimate (if often oversimplified) accounts of the use of terrain to squeeze a larger force into something that can be fought.

A Greek force of approximately 7,000 men marched north to block the pass in the middle of 480 BC. The Persian army, alleged by the ancient sources to have numbered over one million, but today considered to have been much smaller (various figures are given by scholars, ranging between about 100,000 and 150,000), arrived at the pass in late August or early September. The vastly outnumbered Greeks held off the Persians for seven days (including three of battle) before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history's most famous last stands. During two full days of battle, the small force led by Leonidas blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians, fighting to the death. (Others also reportedly remained, including 400 Thebans; these Thebans mostly reportedly surrendered).

By considering these cases we can see the equivalencies Musashi proposes - in this case, force a larger force into a bottleneck and you will have to deal with fewer people at any given moment.  If we have a working solution in one scale, we can attempt to solve an equivalent problem in another in the same way.

Why a Syllabus is often only a Starting Point

Let us think about a couple of examples of the sorts of things you find in some syllabi, that in some way related to terrain, I will pick two very general scenarios;  a Jujutsu technique with a person defending themselves from the ground & and a sword technique where one steps through a doorway. Is it the instructor's sole job to demonstrate said techniques, and then assist people in reproducing those techniques?


If you are able to mimic one Jujutsu technique on the ground, or one sword technique relating to a doorway, it does not mean you are competent in those contexts.

These techniques (assuming whatever context is not comprehensively covered within the system) are simply a window into that particular context.  The instructor needs to facilitate an exploration of that context, not just choreograph a replication.

The instructor does not necessarily need to be a master of that context - in some cases unless the exact context is thought of as highly likely, no one does.  If people are allowed to explore a context through simulation, they will often quickly work out the broad brush strokes themselves as long as they are basically competent.

Let's take the example of the spear and the doorway - or probably in many schools one person with a long stick (Bo or Jo) and a few with shorter weapons (knife or baton).  As people have a few goes they should quickly work out:

  • The things you really should not do, as it gets you hit/killed.
  • The things that seem to get positive results.
These are the things that you really want people to learn quickly for what-if scenarios, so in the unlikely event a similar thing happens they have these bare minimum tools.  I have absolutely no doubt I could build a complete system based on doors, pillars and walls - but except for a limited number of circumstances it is not necessary for most people to have any more than the broad brushstrokes.

Keep Looking at the Other Side

One way these sorts of things open windows is to the other side of the equation.  If I have the short weapon and my opponent the long, with a doorway involved, what should do and not do?  If I do those things, what should my opponent then do?

If you practice taking a weapon, why wouldn't you practice retaining it if someone does the same to you?

This is one of the easiest ways to facilitate these explorations - if you are stuck just change sides and go from there.

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