Some of you may know that the gaming scene is abuzz with the launch of Ubisoft’s newest title, For Honor. This game pits three factions of history’s greatest warriors against each other. They are Knights, Vikings, and Samurai. It’s the classic schoolboy debate of which fighter is the best given the context of their weapons, armor, fighting styles etc. Of course, these groups have never fought each other historically, so it is all speculation brought to life in a pseudo Deadliest Warrior type fantasy match-up between warrior cultures that never battled it out.
I, for one, have been having a great time with the game. Sure it has some faults but at its core it is quite fun. But that is beside the point. For Honor is clearly fantasy despite it trying its best to “be based on real historical combat techniques” or whatever nonsense they claim. I appreciate the effort Ubisoft, but no, it’s a fantasy.
The point of this article is to bring up the discussion of what would happen if these warrior-factions really did battle it out for supremacy? I want to start a small little analysis of these warrior’s arms and armor in the historical context that they would have been found. I would also like to remove some of the ignorance and stereotypes that surround them.
Disclaimer – I do not claim to be an expert on this topic but one of my side hobbies and fascinations has always been the study of ancient and medieval weapons, armor, and battle tactics. Probably due to all those fantasy books and movies I watched coupled with my love of the imagery of iron-clad warriors duking it out on horseback on the sandy fields of Medieval Times.
I take pride in trying to educate myself as best as I can on the subject of arms and armor of ancient and medieval / Renaissance warriors and I try to find non-biased sources of information. I am a semi-active member of the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA) and as such have delved into gleaning as much knowledge as I can about the time periods we represent in the club. That said, much of what I have learned has been from online sources including historical YouTubers such as ScholaGladiotora, Lindybeige, Skallagrim, and others. These gentlemen are far more knowledgeable than me on these subjects but do it semi-professionally and I believe can be used as a fairly reliable source of information on the subjects presented.
First off, we need to set the stage for our analysis to keep things fair. I am analyzing each warriors as they seem to appear in the game For Honor. This means that I am analyzing each warrior at their absolute best and most iconic. This means a Viking from around 900AD, a Knight from around 1400AD, and a Samurai from around 1600AD. I would also like to remove any racial stigma surrounding the warriors. As far as this analysis goes, each warrior is equally strong, fast, skilled, and physically fit.
Vikings have a bad stereotype of being shirtless lumbering brutes with axes and horned helmets. This is completely untrue (except the axes) despite the imagery that Hollywood, fantasy, and video games (including For Honor) cram down people’s throats. Vikings were actually a very resourceful people who just so happened to excel in exploration and raiding and consequently became very good fighters. Their heyday was 800-1000AD and as such, have the most primitive gear set of the three warriors. Typically a Viking would be armed with an axe or spear and a large round shield. They would likely wear some sort of light padded armor or helmet. Wealthier Vikings would be armed with swords, chain mail, and thick helmets. Some may have bows or other weapons such as the saex (knife) or the infamous Dane axe.
We know from history that the Vikings were prolific warriors for the time and came up with some ingenious tactics and weaponry for the time. However, they fall way behind both the Samurai and the Knight when it comes to historical context and technology. I doubt many of their arms or armor would be able to hold a candle to the advanced plate armor of the knight or the intricate and protective suits of samurai armor. Likewise, their armor would be near useless against weapons such as the longsword, poleax, and nodachi. As such, I’m afraid to say that the Vikings don’t stand much of a chance in this fight. Cool in theory, but being 500 years out of date with weapons and armor tends to lead to getting murdered a lot. If nothing else, Vikings can take pride in the fact that, essentially, they helped create the Normans who in turn created Chevaliers, AKA, the first Knights.
So with the Vikings pretty clearly out of the picture, it really comes down to the debate of Knight vs Samurai. Let’s take a look at what the Knight brings to the table.
The biggest factor the Knight brings to the battle is his armor. Wow is it good. I want to immediately smash the stereotype that plate armor is clumsy, clunky, and heavy. Wrong. Dead wrong. A suit of plate armor, including chainmail underneath, is around 65lbs. Distributed across the entire body that is not too bad considering the massive amount of protection it allows. In addition, the plates are articulated and fitted to the man, allowing for a very good range of movement. A knight could run, crouch, climb, pick himself up, and even somersault if need be. So again, plate armor is NOT clumsy.
Now that that is out of the way let’s look at what it offers. Well, simply put, it offers the knight near invulnerability to most weapons. A padded gambeson alone can stop certain types of piercing attacks from the likes of arrows and spears. A knight has a gambeson, covered in chainmail, underneath an articulated shell of steel armor. Not much is getting through that. Cutting attacks are useless against the steel plates, and even the heaviest sharpest blades would have difficulty getting through the chainmail and gambeson underneath. It is the reason many knights needed specialized weapons like the mace, poleax, and warhammer in order to have a hope of killing each other. For me, this is the single biggest factor in why the Knight can be victorious (more on that later).
The biggest downside of plate armor is vision. Many knights would be mounted, and as such, mainly needed to just see straight ahead as they charged in with lances. However, for foot combat, a knight may be forced to remove his helmet, or at least his visor, in order to see incoming attacks effectively. Many helmets had this function built in, but it does offer up a small weakness in the armor.
Looking at the weapons. Knights would bring weapons such as the longsword, poleax, and mace / flail. Some would carry shields as well. Most of these weapons are designed for a specific purpose, and that was to fight and kill other knights. Again, many of these weapons have a stereotype of being heavy and clumsy. Also, not entirely true. Weapons such as the mace are admittedly heavy, but they needed to be in order to bash and crack their way through plates of steel. On the other side of things, weapons like the longsword are actually surprisingly light and agile weapons capable of slashing, stabbing, and bashing. There were even variations to emphasize one of the above ways of harming someone. I would even go so far as to say that they are comparable to the Samurai’s katana in terms of perceived “lightness” and agility, weighing in at around 2.5-3.5 lbs and an average of around 48 inches long. Again, this is an important factor to keep in mind for later.
Furthermore, Knights would be trained from a very young age in the mastery of all forms of weaponry and fighting techniques including grappling, wrestling, and unarmed combat. Knights were the special forces of the medieval battlefield. Not only were they expertly trained in the art foot combat, but the primary role of the knight was atop a charging horse. I won’t get too into that because they are not depicted as such in For Honor but it can’t be ignored. Not only would an opponent have to dismount a charging steel-clad knight from his horse, but once he does, the Knight is still perfectly at home fighting on foot with sword, shield, mace, or poleax.
So, the Knight is a steel-clad walking murder machine, what can the Samurai do about it?
Samurai are probably the warriors who are the most skilled in the use of bladed weapons. They seem to almost exclusively use the iconic katana and nodachi or perhaps the naginata. Other weapons include the bow and the kanabo club. Despite their simplicity, these weapons are exceptionally deadly weapons and are an ingenious design given the very limited natural mineral resources Japanese smiths had at their disposal. That said, katanas are not all-powerful swords capable of cutting through anything with a single touch, as they are often portrayed in movies and TV shows. They are essentially, as are all swords, a sharpened piece of metal with a handle. Granted, they are extremely beautiful and elegant in design but they are not magic. They are designed to be the weapon of the Samurai to be used in battle against other Samurai and peasant soldiers alike. They remained generally unchanged for centuries so they obviously got something right.
As an aside, I would also say that the katana and the longsword are probably the two most recognizable swords in the entire world, and rightly so. They are both very similar in what they do and who they were wielded by. I would say that the katana is a much more baseline weapon that is consistently going to do the same thing. It is sturdy, fast, and excellent at cutting. The longsword has a bit more variation but is equally deadly. Both weigh approximately the same, are approximately the same length (longswords are typically a bit longer), and both do the same function of cutting and stabbing. However, the katana is probably slightly more efficient at cutting and the longsword is definitely more effective at stabbing. All in all, they are equally effective at what they are trying to achieve.
Samurai armor is incredibly beautiful in its design and function. It does have a lot more gaps than that of the knight’s armor but those gaps allow for greater flexibility and comfort on the battlefield. Underneath their armor, Samurai have cloth and silk garments similar to that of the Knight, but without the chainmail. This allows more flexibility (and stylishness) at the cost of added vulnerability. Many suits of Samurai armor are capable of withstanding hits from any weapon found on the battlefields of Japan, and some have even been found with dents from musket balls fired from the Portuguese Arquebus! These suits of armor are no joke! It is designed to be worn on horseback for mounted archery as well.
Who Would Win?
So this brings it down to the final question – who would win? Well, after much deliberation I would have to say that the victor is the Knight. Of course it is a very close call as both the Knight and the Samurai are comparable warriors in almost every way. Their swords are nearly identical, their armor is very protective, and both are highly trained warriors. However, I will explain my logic as to why I give the edge to the Knight in this match-up.
The biggest factor that puts the Knight above everything else is his armor. I simply cannot see a way that the Samurai can reliably pierce through the Knight’s plate armor. Yes there are gaps, but the primary weapon of the Samurai, the katana, is rendered nearly useless by the fact that it cannot cut through chainmail, let alone steel plate. Stabbing a gap or crushing through the plate are the historically proven ways to get through a Knight’s armor, and the Samurai just do not have a way to do it reliably. Honestly, the bow and arrow is the best bet for a Samurai as it is their most accurate piercing weapon and they were proficient with it from horseback. Simply put, the Samurai have never had to adapt their weapons to fight someone so heavily armored as a Knight.
On the flip side, the Knight would have a difficult time harming the Samurai as well considering how strong much of the Samurai’s armor is. However, Knights are used to fighting other Knights. They would be armed and trained with armor-piercing weapons that would make the Samurai’s armor less resilient as it was intended to be. Samurai armor is exceptional at protecting against hits from the katana, nodachi, and naginata but Samurai armor has gaps, and those gaps are not as well protected as those of the Knight. A well-placed longsword stab or crushing hack from a poleax in an unarmored location would spell doom for the Samurai whereas a well-placed slash from a katana or naginata would most likely leave the Knight unhappy and hurting, but not cleaved and gushing blood as is the weapon’s purpose.
All in all, it is a bit of a silly question, as neither warrior had ever encountered the other. Likewise, if they did start fighting, I’m sure both sides would quickly adapt their weapons and armor to begin countering one another. As is, I give the advantage to the Knight, however, after a prolonged engagement, many Samurai would definitely adapt weapons to “crack open” the Knight, so to speak, just as the Europeans did to each other for centuries.
I hope you enjoyed this and I would love to read your opinions and comments on the subject!