A range of ranges

September 28, 2012
European medieval print showing disarming techniques

European disarming techniques

Recently, I’ve been working on grappling techniques with the sword. This might seem like an odd thing to do – after all, you’re holding a three-foot knife, why are you grabbing your opponent? There might be quite a few answers (you’d rather not kill them, for example), but the simplest is that they’re just too close to do anything else.

There are four basic ranges in kenjutsu: thrusting range, cutting range, striking range, and grappling range.

In the first, you’re too far away to hit with anything other than a step and a tsuki, or extended thrust with the sword. While it’s certainly possible to hit with this, it only works if your opponent is disabled or seriously distracted – crossing that much distance gives him a lot of time to parry or evade.

The second range is what most people normally think of as “swordfighting range”. This is surprisingly close with a katana – if I can cut you effectively, I can just about punch you as well. In a “typical swordfight”, if such a thing existed, the combatants are darting in and out of this range. They try to just “ride the edge” so as to be close enough to move in and cut if the opportunity presents itself, while not being close enough to be cut themselves.

The third range is striking range. This happens when both people step forward at once, or when the swords engage and someone moves in. One doesn’t normally punch and kick (at least, not the extended tae kwon do-style kicks that people think of martial artists as doing) with a sword, because it puts the striking limbs in too much danger. Instead, low kicks (like a soccer kick to the shin or ankle), elbows and knees, shoulder strikes, and strikes with the tsuba, tsuka, and ha. Note that striking with the ha is different from cutting – normally, you do it with your off hand on the spine of the blade, and it’s a sharp pushing motion rather than a slash.

In the closest range, there’s nothing you can do but grapple. If, for example, my sword ends up behind your back (while the rest of me is in front of you!), I really can’t cut you effectively, and my striking options are severely limited. This might happen because you moved inside my cut, but then failed to counter effectively, leaving us body-to-body. At this point, if I simply step away, I’m likely to get cut. I need to use my body structure, my root, and my weight to disrupt you, before you do the same to me.

Obviously, one needs to learn to fight in all the ranges in order to be an effective combatant. The critical thing, though, is being able to transition from one to the next without having to “throw a switch” and change tactics. Your parried tsuki can circle directly into a kiriage (rising cut) as you step in (or your target does); when that fails to penetrate his armor, it can reverse course and become a tsuba strike while you draw his intent down with a low kick. One step through and behind him with the inside leg turns into a reaping step, using your tsuka (with your off hand reinforcing it) for leverage on his neck. All of this can be done as a single continuous movement (Musashi’s “one cut“), starting from outside combat range and ending with your opponent on the ground, your foot on his chest, and your blade at his throat.



  1. If you end up with your sword behind your opponent’s back you could always pull your tanto (or knife) and drive it into him either on the side or behind him. Of course, that would go against the whole “not wanting to kill him” thing.

    Good article on grappling as an adjunct skill. Most fighters (myself included, embarrassingly enough) tend to focus on one range of combat and would find themselves beyond their depth if they were taken out of it.

    • That’s true, assuming that 1) you have a tanto, 2) it’s not trapped beneath the opponent’s body, and 3) you can get to it. Have you ever tried pulling a knife while grappling? It’s really quite difficult most of the time, and unless you’ve put a lot of practice into drawing the tanto quickly without looking at it you’re going to have trouble.

      I’m not saying that’s not a good answer if you can pull it off, just that it doesn’t negate the need to be able to fight in that range, at least long enough to clear a weapon and use it. There are actually all sorts of fun things (well, fun for me, anyway) that you can do when you’re grappling with a sword – for example, if my sword is behind your back and my arms are around you (let’s say you charged in and grabbed me around the chest), I can drive the point of my sword down between your feet and lever sideways. Ideally, this would hamstring you, but at the least it’s going to mess up your structure and probably make you want to get the hell away from me.

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