Each week on Deadliest Warrior, a new episode will pit two of the most feared warriors civilization has ever known against each other. Along with the use of 21st century science and the latest in CGI technology, each episode enlists warrior-specific world-class fighters and experts to provide insight into what makes these combatants tick, analyzing every facet of their unique skills of destruction, culminating in a head-to-head final fight between two legends of the battlefield that will produce the deadliest warrior.Recent match-ups include “Gladiator vs Apache”, “Viking vs Samurai”, and “Knight vs Pirate”. The general setup of the show is to get some “experts” to evaluate the weapons used by the warriors in the contest, feed this information into a “state-of-the-art computer program”, and get an “objective” conclusion about the result. Each warrior has special advocates pulled in to argue for their side during the evaluations, and the smack-talk flows thick.
I’m surprised that they don’t hit any of the “classic” matchups that I would expect: “Pirate vs Ninja” or “Knight vs Samurai”, for example. They seem to prefer throwing opponents with radically different fighting styles against each other. The outcome of such a contest would really be determined more by the circumstances of the fight than by the equipment of the combatants. For instance, in “Gladiator vs Apache”, the outcome would largely depend on whether the battle was more like a woodland ambush or an arena bout.
Alas, the show never addresses the circumstances of the fight. The evaluation revolves entirely around the amount of damage the combatants' weapons can do to various ballistics gel dummies, pig bodies, and other human analogs. It goes without saying that the choice of weapons assigned to each combatant will significantly affect the outcome of a contest.
As a quick example, we’ll look at one contest: “Samurai vs Viking”. Each warrior comes to the fight with four weapons, with each weapon assigned to a category: long-range, mid-range, short-range, or special. The weapons assigned to the Samurai are the katana (short-range, the classic Samurai sword), naginata (mid-range, a pole-arm used for both slashing and thrusting), yumi (long-range, a type of bow), and kanabo (special, essentially a weighted club). The Viking comes to the fight with a great axe (short-range), long sword (mid-range), spear (long-range), and shield (special).
The show’s methodology is to directly compare the long-range weapons to each other, the short-range weapons to each other, etc. The evaluators give an “edge” to one warrior or the other for each weapon type, depending on which weapon did more damage in their tests. I don’t really know how their “state-of-the-art computer program” works, but I’d have to guess that it starts the combatants at long-range and performs some kind of test to see if one warrior kills the other. If there’s no kill, it advances them to mid-range and tests again, and so on until it finally gets a kill at short-range. The program runs through the entire procedure 1000 times, and the warrior with the most wins is declared "the deadliest warrior" (shown in a dramatization that apparently does not try to simulate the computer outcomes in any meaningful way).
I immediately see a problem with their evaluation, though. They evaluated the Viking shield based on how much damage it could do with a shield punch, compared to the damage that could be inflicted by the kanabo. It goes without saying that the kanabo is a more practical way to deal damage than a shield punch, but the usefulness of the shield as a defense was never really evaluated.
For instance, they compared the yumi to the spear and concluded that the Samurai would have the advantage at long range. Now, I won’t dispute that the yumi has superior range and accuracy, but the Viking shield apparently wasn’t factored into the long-range portion of the contest. Bows were a well-known weapon to the Vikings, and any Viking with a grain of sense would put his shield up in front of him upon noticing that his enemy was armed with a bow, allowing him to close the distance in relative safety.
The shield would remain a factor at mid-range. If the Viking succeeds in blocking a stroke from the naginata with his shield, he can move inside it’s range.
And the shield continues to be a factor at short range. Here, the Samurai may decide to draw his katana, but the Viking has no incentive to abandon the protection of the shield to use the two-handed axe. In close combat, the Viking would probably continue using the long sword, if he had one (the reason many Vikings carried axes being that they were much less expensive than swords). The shield continues to afford extra protection for the Viking, allowing him to attack without being as vulnerable to counter-attack, and there’s a very real possibility that a katana slash would bite into the edge of the shield and stick, trapping the blade. Effectively disarmed, if only briefly, the Samurai would be extremely vulnerable in such a situation.
I’m not saying that the Viking should have won this match; I’m just saying that many factors affecting its outcome were overlooked. For instance, in their heyday, Samurai were primarily horse archers, not footmen. A Samurai on horseback with his bow would have a considerable advantage, as he would be able to maintain his distance and repeatedly attack his opponent with little danger of a counter-attack. As I said, the circumstances of these fights would have a huge effect on their outcome.
Even their weapon-to-weapon comparisons are dubious. For instance, their comparison of the Pirate cutlass to the Knight's broadsword resulted in an “even” evaluation, despite the fact that the cutlass is exactly the sort of weapon against which the Knight's armor (listed among his assets) would be most effective.
And let's not even start on their characterizations of which warrior had honor, discipline, and courage on his side; they don't really affect the outcomes, anyway.
So Deadliest Warrior is really a show about smack-talk and breaking things, not a serious scientific evaluation of historical combat practices. The outcomes seem to be based much more on popularity than on any real science, since getting a desired outcome is easy to achieve simply by choosing which weapon comparisons to make to give the desired results.