Swordsmanship for Dummies Part VIII: A Sword’s Effects on the Human Body (2)

Black Knight: ‘Tis but a scratch.
Arthur:       A SCRATCH?  Your arm’s off!
Black Knight: No it isn’t!
Arthur:       Well what’s that then?
Black Knight: I’ve had worse.
Arthur:       You LIAR!
Black Knight: Come on, you pansy!

Inigo Montoya: Dont mess with his father.

Last week we discussed what the possibilities were of your characters making it through a sword fight (let alone  lifetime of them) and emerging unscathed, and the answer was…slim-to-none.  This week I would like to take a moment to look at what actually happens to the human body when the near-inevitable wounding occurs.  In short, the human body was designed to work as a whole, and damage to part of it will almost always affect its over all performance.  There are two particular aspects of this I want to look at today:  damage to muscles/tendons and the effects of cumulative blood loss.

If we’re going to write realistic battles (whether fantasy, science fiction, or science fantasy) and if we accept the fact that people in battle have a tendency to get hurt badly, then we need to know more about what happens to their bodies as a result of those injuries.  You have probably read books or seen movies in which the hero valiantly carries on the fight despite the many, gaping wounds he has received, and then eventually rises above the pain to overcome the villain.  Usually, he then gets a good night’s sleep and, except for a little stylish blood left over, he’s right as rain the next day.  One prominent example of this is our favorite Spaniard, Inigo Montoya.  (You killed his father!  Prepare to die!)  Inigo is wounded in the stomach and both arms.  He shrugs it off, kills the six fingered man, and for the rest of the movie (admittedly a very short time) doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the blood gushing from his innards.

The muscles and tendons of the human body

If you disrupt its balance, you can do far more damage than you would think. This image from http://parkourtrain.net

“Look you stupid B—–d you’ve got no arms left!”:  Injuries to Tendons and Muscles

The human body is a wonderful example of creative bio mechanics.  Our frames are perfectly balanced between opposing muscle groups, and the pull-relax dynamic of these muscles is what makes our incredible range of motion possible.  Unfortuantely, when we sustain an injury to part of this system, it causes significant problems for the whole.  An injury to an arm or a leg is almost guaranteed to cause this kind of damage, and it will almost immediately have deleterious effects on someone’s abilities.

Unfortuantely, I can talk about these sorts of injuries “first hand.”   Several years ago I was working with a table saw and, late one evening, I got sloppy.  I managed to drag the first two knuckles of my right hand across the blade when a board jumped, and I spent the night in the hospital undergoing emergency surgery.  As a result of my carelessness, I sliced the skin and muscle on my index finger, annihilated the backside tendon on my middle finger, and took out a bit of the knuckle bone.  The doctor, who had worked on injured from Iraq, called the result “dog meat” and though he did find enough of my tendon to stitch back together, he didn’t seem too sanguine about my ultimate recovery.  By the grace of God and the tender ministrations of an excellent therapist (Becca Duncan of Duncan Therapy in Lynchburg, VA), I’ve made a near complete recovery.  At the time, though, it was definitely a revealing “experience” (one I would not like to repeat).  I found that my finger snapped forward to a ninety degree angle, and I couldn’t move it straight.  I knew my brain was sending the proper signals, but the finger simply wasn’t responding.  I eventually set it straight with my other hand, where it stayed “glued” in place by the rapidly drying blood.  Gruesome, I know, but that’s the reality of the sort of thing you’ll be talking about if you want to write about injuries in anything other than a comic fashion.

Your characters will experience the very same thing.  Bear in mind that my cuts were no more than half an inch deep, and they still caused considerable damage.  I still can’t close my right fist properly.  Imagine what would happen if your character suffers such an injury to an elbow, wrist, shoulder, or the broader part of the hand!

Injuries to muscles can have a similar effect.  Remember, the muscles of the body are perfectly balanced, one against the other.  If you damage (and therefore weaken) one of them–through a cut to a leg or arm, for instance–it can no longer “pull its weight.”    The person’s body will be pulled toward the uninjured side.  In fact, when trying to move toward the injury, he/she will be pulling against not only whatever weight they are pushing, but also the over balanced muscle on the other side.  The result would be serious pain and a feeling of incredible weakness.  In short, they probably couldn’t keep it up for long.

“What are you going to do? Bleed on me?”:  Blood Loss*

A pint of blood

Image from Livestrong.com

Another important consideration to take into account is the amount of blood your character is losing.  If all he or she has is a few cuts and scrapes that can bleed “heroically” then well and good, but if you’re talking about a serious wound, then in short order very bad things start happening to the human body.

  • 0-15% Total Blood Volume Lost:  This is a Class I Hemorrhage, involving the loss of up to 750 ml of blood–3.17 cups.  It is equivalent to blood donation, and the body, with proper rest, recovers from it easily.  As many of us know, however, even normal blood donation can leave you light headed.  People are advised to lie down, eat a little, and in general take it easy.  Your heart rate and blood pressure are fine, but you can feel a little nervous.  You could portray this in your battle scene by having your characters feeling dizzy.  Their energy would be drained and their movements would begin to become sluggish.  This is the only stage where sustained exertion is even theoretically possible.
  • At 15-30%:  This is a Class II Hemorrhage–beyond 750 mls.  Your heart rate and blood pressure rise as your blood vessels start to constrict, diverting desperately needed blood to your vital organs.  Your arms and legs will feel cold and you may begin to hyperventilate, gasping for breath as your extremities are deprived of oxygen.  You may develop warning signs of heart failure.  A character who has lost this much blood would be in serious trouble.
  • At 30-40%:  This is a Class III Hemorrhage.  Your body is now in fully in hemorrhagic shock.  Your blood pressure drops like a rock, your pulse rate trails off, you sweat profusely, and gasp for air.  You are pale, and movement becomes difficult to impossible.  Essentially, the tissues in your extremities are dying as your body desperately diverts the blood you have left to your core.  This is the critical phase and your character would require immediate medical attention if you want him/her to survive.
  • Over 40%:  This is a Class IV Hemorrhage.  This is it.  At this point, there is a 50% mortality rate within the next fifteen minutes.  Your pulse will barely register, your blood pressure probably won’t at all, and your vital organs are now failing.  Good bye.

“It’s just a flesh wound…”

There is one case where you can have your dramatic cake and eat it too:  the flesh wound.  Superficial cuts to skin and fat will bleed profusely (especially light head wounds) without causing catastrophic blood loss or physical damage to the workings of the body, but here is an important point to remember:  If your hero is the skinny, wiry, muscular type, then he or she probably has little, if any, of that type of flesh to cut.  If you can see the muscles “rippling through their chiseled bodies” then virtually every successful blow they suffer will do serious damage.  If you want lots of blood, you need to give them a little more insulation.  In fact, archeologists and historians have discovered that the gladiators of the ancient world were intentionally fattened up  for just this reason.

Oh, and remember, adrenaline only gets you so far, so be careful in using it as the sort of “catch all” excuse for why your hero (or villain) can press on despite the odds.  After all, your adrenal response may allow you to ignore pain, but it won’t knit your tendons back together.

On that happy thought, have a great week!  And since I can’t reference it so much without giving you the chance to watch it…

*These descriptions and definitions were taken from the following:  http://www.baata.org/polezni/blood%20loss.pdf.


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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on April 21, 2011, in Books, Brian Melton, Characters, Fantasy, History, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Swordsmanship for Dummies, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Very interesting information. Not the type of story I would normally be interested in, but you held my attention.

    • Thanks! Actually, I’m not much of one for blood and gore either, but I do find that there needs to be a balance in any kind of “serious writing.” Details distract me from the story if they aren’t handled properly.

  2. That was disgusting. I loved it. Funny, how we get so caught up in the fact that it’s a movie that we ignore these details of what is humanly possible. Yet, we scream at the dumb girl in a horror movie “Don’t open the closet door! The killer is there!” Oh, and thank you for the gladiator detail.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 BTW, there’s an excellent article on the diet of gladiators in an issue of Smithsonian Magazine from the last year or two. They discovered a graveyard of gladiators, and were making educated guesses about their lifestyle from the bones. It was pretty interesting stuff.

  3. Thank you for this information, Brian. I will make use of it in the story that I’m working on, in which the characters have to keep moving (running away) despite injuries.

  4. Great article, as usual.
    Got more detail on the table saw incident than before and for anyone who thinks he overplayed this, it was none too pretty after the surgical fact either–stitches and swelling and pins-oh,my!!!!
    BTW have more Smithsonian info fodder for you tomorrow.

  5. I know a science fiction application for this that needs to be made: zombies! Rigor mortis isn’t their only problem if they’re missing half the muscle groups in their arms and legs from the bites they received before their death- even if they apparently don’t have to deal with blood loss and pain. I’d like to see someone do an anatomically considerate rendition of these classic movie monsters.

  1. Pingback: Living Your Book: Doing Battle | Lantern Hollow Press

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