Why do we want to know about musketeers and ninjas?
There are three questions which have plagued mankind since time immemorial. The first two deal with uninteresting subjects like world peace and macro-economics and will thus never again be referred to in this article. The third, ah, yes, the third, however, is of vital importance: Could a musketeer defeat a ninja in a duel?
Yes, I know, at first glance this might not appear to be a particularly important question, but the editors of a particular science fiction blog assured me that the future of humankind depended upon its outcome. In order to do my part for humanity, I agreed to write this terrible, terrible article, which, in fact, never got published.
No, really, why did they ask you to write about this?
I wrote a fantasy novel called Traitor’s Blade in which there is a scene where a sword-wielding magistrate called a Greatcoat (kind of like a musketeer but not really) is forced to duel two Dashini Assassins (sort of like ninjas only not ninjas.) This, I am told, makes it my duty to evaluate the historical record to assess whether a musketeer or a ninja would prevail in an actual duel.
And how does this qualify you to write this article?
Weren’t you paying attention? I wrote a novel. A whole book. It was, like, a lot of work. There are pages and pages of words. Many of the words are things like “sword” and “thrust” and “parried.” Still not convinced? I also used to choreograph sword fights for the theatre! A-ha! That got you, didn’t it?
Odd, you still don’t look reassured as to my qualifications. Well, let me put your fears to rest. In accordance with the high journalistic standards expected of an article of this nature, I have enlisted the aid of two fictional characters (we couldn’t afford real experts) which I invented myself (we also couldn’t afford licensing fees or a copyright lawyer.) Thus in exploring the major dimensions of the duel in question, I will at times defer to Armand, member of the Les Mousquetaires de la Maison Militaire du Roi de France (a.k.a. “The Musketeers”) and to Hiroshi of the…hum…Hiroshi is pointing a rather deadly blade in a manner which seems to indicate that he’d prefer I not discuss his exact affiliations (a.k.a. “The Ninjas”)
Okay, fine. Get on with it.
Armand: This reader makes rather impertinent statements. I’m tempted to teach him some manners!
Hiroshi: You waste your time. The reader is already dead, he simply doesn’t know it yet.
Umm..the reader is just a fictional construct I created to ask questions. You’re fictional, too, so why am I responding…ah, the hell with it, let’s get started.
The classic image of the musketeer is of the dashing moustachioed figure in the fleur-de-lis tabard brandishing a single rapier (as opposed to, say, a musket.) The rapier was indeed the sword of preference at the time for duelling but it was also common to carry an off-hand weapon such as a main-gauche (a type of dagger) or a buckler (a small shield.)
The ninja had a broad selection of weapons both conventional and esoteric, from darts and shuriken (throwing stars) to caltrops, blow darts, and small eggshells filled with blinding powder. Interesting thing about the blinding powder—
Hiroshi: speak another word and your life is forfeit.
Umm…right, let’s move on.
Armand: You make it sound as if the ninja had a superior assortment of weapons but a well-trained duellist might also, when the need arose, defend himself with a pair of rapiers, rapier and cloak, or even rapier and lantern.
Hiroshi: Next you’ll tell us you fought with rapier and housecat when the need arose.
Armand: Better a housecat than some of those preposterous toys you toss about.
A duel, that is, a fight in which both opponents are fighting with declared weapons within the confines of an agreed-upon space, is likely to come down to swords, in this case, the rapier versus the katana. John Clements wrote an excellent article years ago on the various considerations in assessing whether a katana would defeat a rapier in combat or vice-versa (you can still read it here )
Now, while we know that the primary duelling weapon in Europe during the time in which musketeers were employed was the rapier, but it’s an open question as to which sword was most common for the ninja. For the purposes of this argument, I’m going to make the assumption that the classic Japanese katana was the primary bladed weapon of the ninja, rather than the shorter, straighter ninjatō, which may or may not have been a weapon of the period.
One of the most common debates amongst sword enthusiasts is whether a rapier fighter could defeat a samurai wielding a katana. The Katana is, lets face it, the finest bladed weapon ever devised. There have been tests showing it doing better against armour than a European broadsword – which is a heavier weapon designed to rupture armour. The katana is also lightning fast.
Hiroshi: Our steel is like our souls, sharper and better tempered than the weak fabric of lesser men.
Armand: I must protest this outrageous—
Give me a second. I’ll get to the rapier…
The katana is still a cutting weapon whereas a duel usually gets down to who puts the pointy end of the weapon into the other guy first. The rapier is a longer weapon, and a trained duellist would have developed an almost preternatural awareness of distance and reach.
Armand: Ah, you see? Clearly the rapier is the superior weapon just as the musketeer is the superior fighter.
Hiroshi: What good will your weapon do you when your eyes are blinded by my powders?
Ah, yes, that brings us to…
As expert assassins, we can safely assume the ninja would have a wide range of means of distracting and disorienting an opponent even during a duel in broad daylight.
Armand: Dishonourable! This is outrageous—
On the other hand, let’s remember that the musketeer was trained and experienced in dealing with the chaos of a battlefield, with weapons firing all around and opponents on all sides. Furthermore, the expected context for a ninja is one of stealth attacks and striking before the opponent even knew they were there. The ninja would likely seek out the most advantageous position from which to make the first, decisive blow.
Hiroshi: The fat fool would be dead long before the duel had even begun.
Uhm…actually, it’s in the very nature of a duel that both parties would have to be aware of each other, begin from equally advantageous positions, and have to wait until the signal was given for the fight to begin.
Assuming two opponents of roughly equal skill in their respective arts, each forced to fight with a declared weapon and beginning on even terrain—
Hiroshi: I would never agree to such an outrageous—
Armand: Ah, so you are scared. Do you wish to withdraw?
Hiroshi: I…accept the terms of combat.
It’s very likely that the musketeer will seek to gauge his opponent’s strengths, using the greater length of the rapier to keep distance between the two while feinting to draw a wasted attack.
Hiroshi: My katana is faster.
Armand: Perhaps, but the cutting movement of your katana requires that the blade travel much farther than the thrust of my rapier.
This is the crux of the matter: in a fight along straight lines the advantage immediately goes to the longest and fastest weapon. The ninja would need to bridge the distance between himself and the musketeer, and would therefore seek to change the terrain – to put the musketeer off-balance or distract him long enough to gain the single second required to bridge the distance.
Okay, so who would win?
In my own novel, Traitor’s Blade, Falcio’s ultimate victory over the ninja-like Dashini assassins comes from a combination of factors. First, he’s studied many of the tricks they use and has prepared for them. Second, he uses the longer reach of the rapiers to good advantage, keeping just out of reach of the assassin’s blades. Third, he finds a way to use the Dashini’s own tricks against them: distracting them for the brief instant required to lunge with both rapiers extended, piercing their bellies and taking them out of the fight.
Although of course the world never saw, nor will it ever see, a musketeer duel a ninja, it’s highly likely that the musketeer, with the greater reach of his weapon and the fact that his fighting style is highly tuned to the spacial and temporal dynamics of a classical duel would be the victor. However what this really shows is that the effectiveness of weapons and martial techniques is dependent on their context. A musketeer would likely never survive an ambush from a ninja nor have the training to withstand an assassination attempt.
We have a tendency of assuming that there must be one ‘greatest’ style of martial arts and one ‘greatest sword’. We keep looking for the most daring or the most skilled warrior. But the outcome of combat is at least as dependent on how suited the particular weapon or technique is to the terrain and situation as it is on the quality of those weapons and techniques.
Hiroshi: This article offends me. The writer has penned his own death warrant.
Armand: Indeed. The scurrilous cur must pay the price for this slanderous screed.
Hiroshi: Then we are agreed.
Armand: Yes! At last, a meeting of the minds! However there is one small problem.
Hiroshi: Which is?
Armand: We must decide who gets to kill him first!
Hiroshi: Perhaps a duel to settle the matter…