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Capture the Ringleader to Catch the Bandits


Disciplines > Warfare > The 36 Stratagems > Capture the Ringleader to Catch the Bandits

Stratagem | History | Discussion | See also

This stratagem number: 18

This group: Stratagems for Attack
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Capture or kill the enemy commander.

This is particularly effective if the opposing army is larger and is extrinsically motivated by such as money, superstition or fear.

If the army is loyal to their leader, then use the fact that they will be enraged by the death or capture of their leader to entrap them.

Even better, if the leader can be shown as weak or incompetent, then the faith the army has will likewise be seriously weakened.


This is the eighteenth stratagem of thirty-six.

Group name

Stratagems for Attack

Alternative names

To Capture the Brigands, Capture Their King

Defeat the Enemy by Capturing their Chief

To Catch the Bandits, First Catch Their Ringleader

To Capture the Bandits, First Capture Their Leader

Or even:

Kill the Body by Cutting Off The Head

Disable by Decapitation  


An early form of warfare in China was that the two armies would line up against one another. The generals of each would then go forward on horseback and fight to the death. The winning army would then pursue and slaughter the losing army.

There is an ancient poem which describes this strategy:

If you draw a bow, draw the strongest,
If you use an arrow, use the longest
To shoot a rider, first shoot his horse.
To capture a a gang of bandits, first capture its leader.

When Zhang Xun was fighting Yin Ziqi, he ordered his archers to fire arrows made from the plentiful wormwood branches. Seeing these makeshift arrows, the enemy soldiers rushed to Yin Ziqi to tell him the news of inaccurate archery. Seeing this, Zhang Xun could now target the enemy leader and had an arrow shot into his eye. Yin retreated in agony and his army fell into chaos.

The principle of capturing or killing the opposition leader is well known and used through history. Perhaps because of this the leader that once led from the front ended up leading from the rear or even more distantly.


When the army does not like their leader or where the leader is the primary motivating force, then removing the leader removes their reason to fight.

Morale is surprisingly important for armies and an energized small force can overcome a demoralized larger force. And a good way of demoralizing is to harm the leader.

A variant on this strategy is to capture or destroy anything that they hold dear or which is a motivating force in any way.

By changing their motivation, you can change what they do.

See also



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