Archery- a game changer

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This time, as opposed to my usual posts, I will be writing about a weapon I have no personal experience of. To be precise- I have been on the receiving end of it, and I fought with archers deployed by both sides. I can use a bow (and hit a barn door if it’s not too far) but I am not a qualified archer, nor do I own a bow.

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Nevertheless, I can appreciate the huge tactical effect using archers has on a battlefield for reenactors. Archers on a battlefield are a true game changer. But, not all of you will be familiar with combat archers. They are a pretty rare sight and most re-enactment societies do not allow archers to use bows and arrows in combat, except for display or educational reasons. The Vikings Society (based in Britain, for those who may not be aware) however, does allow combat archers. They must pass a strict test, the bows must not exceed  certain power, arrows must be rubber-tipped and the fletching must be longer then on a normal arrow, to slow it down.

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An archer has same target area as other warriors for valid hits, but they are not meant to shoot above mid-chest height. If they do, there is a real danger of hitting an opponent’s face, due to the fact that an arrow, once released, cannot be controlled.

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Many of the societies that do not allow combat archers, say it is done for safety reasons- but this is not a reality I know. Archery was employed safely by the Vikings Society for decades. As long as all safety guidelines are followed, danger is minimised.

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Reasons for not using archers are of course varied and I will go back to this point later- but for now let’s get into the main point of this post. The HUGE effect archers have on battles they take part in. Obviously, the first thing you will notice about bows, is their range. As well, as their ability to hit targets in second, third or even further ranks during a battle. With a bow, one can attack in any given direction with same power, speed and accuracy.

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Primary targets for an archer? Warriors with two handed weapons, such as large spears or dane-axes. Warriors with no shields, or only carrying small ones. Warriors that are not paying attention and not covering themselves, or those who have their backs/sides turned to the archer for whatever reason. And, in case of The Vikings Society combat rules, “wounded” warriors, who await their chance to recover and get back in the fight (in our Society rules, we use a two-hit rule, whereas if a Valid Hit is scored on a Warrior, he does not die immediately, but is instead “wounded” and has 10 seconds in which to recover. The “wounded” warrior cannot defend himself or take any action other than to retreat a couple of steps. If within the permitted 10 seconds a second Valid Hit is scored upon a Warrior, he is out of the game. If no blow can land, Warrior recovers and can rejoin the fight).

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This creates obvious strategic differences, as oppose to what happens when there is no archers, namely:

-Combatants must be more aware on the battlefield. It is not enough to fend off spears, swords etc.- one must also keep an eye out on any archers that might hit from the side, or to an exposed leg, even when battle lines are far apart.

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-Warriors using two-handed weapons, or those with no shields, must be doubly aware. Ideally they would seek protection behind other warrior’s shield or behind their own battle line. Warriors with no shields would never be relied upon to hold a line without support, as archers would pick them at will. This forces more unit cohesion, more use of shields and prevents a situation where a couple of two-handed spearmen can hold a gap against a large number of foes. With archers present, they would be shot down in very short order, thus encouraging more realistic battle order and unit composition.

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-Warriors with no shields, or those with two handed weapons are forced to be more careful when out of hand weapon range. Often a warrior armed with a  long spear or a dane-axe can act with almost total impunity, picking targets, moving about, stepping out from their line, not using any shield cover to give them more room to maneuver and use their weapons… Not so if archers are present. When arrows are flying about, these warriors must remain cautious and protect themselves behind shields at all times. This limits the effects long weapons have on the battlefield and can force a more close-combat orientated battle, as two-handed weapons are not granted the free reign they normally have when there are no archers about.

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-Flanking moves must be executed more carefully, again due to the danger that warriors, moving fast and keen on getting to their opponents to cut them down, may forget that there is danger behind enemy lines. Usually, if a band of warriors manage to get around an enemy flank, than the battle is almost as good as won. Provided the flanking force act fast and take out a good number of opponents, a flank can be rolled out quickly and chaos created in the enemy lines. With bows involved the situation is not so clear cut- there is little use from a flanking move, if your flankers  get turned into pincushions, before they have the chance to take anyone out. If any flanking is to be attempted, it must be done with consideration, making sure warriors protect each other.

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-Wounded warriors (if combat rules permit two, or more Hits per warrior) must be more careful and be well protected behind their own lines. Because “wounded” warriors usually (some Societies do differ) cannot defend themselves in any way whatsoever, it makes them prime targets for archers. It is up to their comrades to make sure that “wounded” fighters are well protected and cannot be taken out by a chance shot.

So, just from a few basic considerations above, it is clear how huge effect even a few archers will have on a battlefield. It is also, it must be said, very authentic and realistic to use archers in reenactment fights, as they were present in every Dark Age army and used extensively. Why then so few reenactment societies allow the use of combat archers?

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Some will answer with safety concerns, citing risk of lost eyes, damaged ribs and a plethora of other risks associated with having a ballistic missile shot at you with force of anything between 20 to 40 pounds. However, I have addressed the safety concerns before and The Vikings show that use of archers on battlefield does not pose any higher risk than any other weapon, provided proper training and supervision are employed. With rubber tips, slowed-down arrows, reduced-strength bows and very strict training and testing regime, I would argue that archers are safer than many spearmen, who happily shove a  7-foot stick towards your face while “aiming for a high shot”, or near on take your knees out, while “looking for a leg shot”, sometimes holding their spear with very little control. Not to mention over-enthusiastic swordsmen and axemen, who shatter collarbones and crack ribs with cheerful abandon, claiming afterwards “I thought you were wearing padding” and grumbling about “game for tough boys” when a kick to a shield nearly takes your teeth out. These are exaggerated examples of course, but they do illustrate that a danger from a bow is no different than that from any other weapon, perhaps lesser.

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The biggest reason, in my opinion, for why most societies reject archery on a battlefield, is precisely the effect it has on the game. With many societies, long, two-handed spears and axes are the kings of battle-lines, many combat systems favour these weapons (or mid-ranged weapons, like one-handed spears) overly, making their users the elite, the killers and the winners of battles. But, when archers are introduced their reign comes to an end. They must seek cover, they must adjust their battle order and tactics, they must play a different game, to the one they have been for so long.  It is also worth mentioning, that many reenactment societies do not use a Two-Hit rule, but a One-Hit rule, where one Valid Hit means you are out. In that sort of game, archers become even more deadly, as a warrior stricken from afar by an arrow cannot seek cover and get back in the game- he is dead and out. This would make archers very dangerous indeed for those societies and would make early stages of battles very different to what they are now. It is this reluctance to introduce a game-changer to the system, that makes battlefield archers such a rarity. Currently, most societies are content with combat systems, where three, or four warriors with no shields can form a valid and successful battle line. They are content to allow two-handed weapons impunity and safety  (apart from their opposite number of course, who will have same range) and happily make warriors able to parade without concern as long as they are out of spear range. They are also content to keep out the missile phase as a whole out of a battle.

I believe, that by doing this, they miss out. Not only on authenticity and variety, but also on strategic opportunity for a more balanced and more fluid game, a longer and more testing contest. Will the situation change? Who knows. I would like to think, that maybe a few people will read this post and be given an idea to toy with and maybe try out. A bot of a discussion and counter-argument would also be great. Because it is discussion, even if from two opposite view points, that leads to change and progress.

 

 

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How to make a Viking tunic- the lazy man’s way

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This time, I am going to publish a type of post I have not done in a long while. It has been so long since I posted about making a garment… I thought I’d share my latest experience on making a Dark Age tunic.

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The tunic is suitable for Viking, Saxon, Norman, Slavic or Celtic setting. The basic design, as most of you will know, is so ubiquitous, that it can easily be used for practically all Dark Age cultures in Europe.

There are of course a lot of guides and patterns available online already, not to mention ready-made items available to buy from a variety of suppliers. You are all probably familiar with the most basic patterns, where you essentially sew a few rectangles together, put a hole for a head in and add side gussets.

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So how is this design different? Well, instead of using a traditional pattern, I have developed one of my own, to ensure better fit- almost tailored if you like. Since I am not very good at making patterns, or garment design, I had to come up with a very simplistic way of creating a pattern that would fit me well, instead of just sort of hanging loose like a sack with armholes and a head opening put in.

In the end, what I had done, was to take an old throw-away shirt and cut it into separate pieces- front, back and both sleeves. Since the shirt fit well, I knew that the final garment also would. Once the sacrificial shirt was cut up, I was ready to modify the cut-out pattern, to make it actually authentic.

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I have made the garment longer, so that it comes down to just a little above the knee. I have made an authentic neck-line and added side gussets (tunic is a side-split type) and gussets under the arms. Once finished, the tunic would still look authentic and be perfectly usable, whilst fitting a little better and allowing a better range of movement.

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Once I had my pattern drawn out and cut out, I set about putting the garment together. First, front and back pieces were sewn together, and a head opening made. To make sure I did everything correctly, I tried on the garment at each stage of production. Sleeves were added on as a second stage, But I did not sew them up all the way. Instead, i have left a fair bit loose near the arm, so that I could put a gusset in. I have also left hemming until last.

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Next stage was putting in the arm gussets and sewing the sides together, but only a little bit. Most of the length of the side split on the tunic was taken up by the side gusset, and only a few centimeters space was left between where the side gusset ended and the arm one begun.

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Side gussets were sewn in last- all left to do after was to hem the tunic in, finish the neck line and add optional decoration. On my garment, I have added some Saxon-style embroidery near the neck, so that tunic will form a part of my Saxon outfit. Though it could technically be used with other outfits too, if needs be, it would look odd if I did so.  If you are making your first tunic, or need one for more that one type of outfit, best to steer clear of decoration, which gives the cultural context away. On the side note, may I add, that embroidery takes time. A LOT of time. Even that little bit I did took few good hours to complete, from drawing on a pattern with a pencil, to putting in the last stitch.

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So there we have it- a Saxon tunic, with a bit of embroidery and a good, flattering fit, made easy by using a sacrificial shirt instead of copying often complicated sewing patterns. It is a bit of a cheat, but it looks right, make me look good and it was the quickest way to make a tunic from scratch I have tried so far, apart from the most basic “sack with sleeves” type of design. Now the only question is, when will I get to wear it? Time to think of a show to go to as a Saxon warrior…

New Season, New post

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So, after a winter hibernation it was time to dust off the kit, polish the blades and head to the traditional beginning of the re-enactment season in Britain- the York Viking Festival.

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For a lot of re-enactors this is not the first show of the year (taking place on the last week of February), but thanks to its size, atmosphere and Viking feel many of us consider this the kick-off of the season. The Yorvik show, as it affectionately known, is a multi-society event, hosted by Regia Anglorum and attended by several of other societies. Of these the Vikings are the largest one by far, followed other, smaller societies from around Britain and guests from abroad. The big plus of the event is a large trader’s market, where traders from across Europe ply their wares and many a re-enactor goes there to purchase new kit or get replacements, before the new season starts off properly in the second half of Spring.

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I myself have made a few purchases there this year, though I had to show some brazen cheek to get myself in… Having considered a meal and a cup of tea a more urgent priority, I have arrived at the market just as it was closing down and no one was allowed in. Myself and my good friend Sven the Short had to do a good bit of blagging, with Sven explaining how I arrived all the way from Poland for this (much more impressive than a town few hours drive away), while I looked doe-eyed at the Steward in charge… Let’s just say that after some shameless begging we were allowed in, followed by stares of righteous condemnation from those that were denied entry. But hey, since when did the Vikings bother with such things as queues or closing times?

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I have of course written about the Yorvik festival before. Some of you may remember that it lasts all week, with the final day being the culmination of the event. This was the day that we attended (as is the case with most re-enactors, there aren’t that many of them around for the whole week, but they descend en-masse for the final day, when the battles take place) and as every year the day consisted of a mid-day competitive fight, followed by a grand finale in the evening, where the re-enactors would recreate a story that serves as background for an epic battle. The theme of the grand finale changes every year- two years ago it was a war between the Norse Gods, last year it was the fall of Erik Bloodaxe and this year it was the invasion of the Great Heathen Army and the death of king Aella of Northumbria.

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I will only talk about this epic evening battle shortly, as from my personal perspective, it was not much of an attraction, fun as it was. The acting and talking bit at the start went on for too long to my liking, resulting in some 30 minutes of standing in the cold, awaiting a signal to enter the battle arena. Armies formed, and a mighty battle ensued, at which point, the real the fun began. This evening fight is purely for show and all that is expected of us is to stick to the script and give a good show, while trashing each other. We are not expected to take or make kills, unless the script calls for it, we know what will happen before hand and we can just have fun with the fight. It’s just that this year the fight was somewhat too short (the acting bit cut into it too much) and the organisers decided to use a lot of smoke machines, blowing smoke all across the battlefield. Whilst great for mood, it did not help the fighters (especially my group, who were right by the machines and could hardly see through the damn smoke). It was a fun fight and there was a great fireworks display at the end, but I’ve seen better show fights.

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The competitive mid-day battle was what the show was all about. As usual, we had 3 rounds, re-setting the battle each time. The armies consisted of Regia Anglorum (the hosts) on one side and the Vikings and other societies on the other, with numbers pretty much equal ( a fact hotly contested each year, usually by the defeated side’s grumpiest few or the winning side’s most boisterous few). As Regia were the hosts, it was their combat rules we were using when it came to the fighting (pretty much every society has different combat rules). Without going into details, Regia system greatly favours spears and results in armies consisting mostly of lightly armed spearmen supported by a few mailed swordsmen. The Vikings and other societies rely more on close-quarters and are not as adept in using spears en-masse or at a distance Regia warriors are most comfortable with (they use a LOT of long, two-handed spears). In previous years, many a battle was lost by the Away team by trying to win with Regia at their own game. The line would advance forward, then stop and engage in spear-range fight, which they would inevitably loose. Usually, one or two groups (usually Y Ddraig, my group) would try to charge past the spear-points and pin the Regia warriors in close-quarters, where it was us who held the advantage. This ended, more often than not, in one band of warriors breaking through the enemy line and then being cut down by their reserve, whilst the rest of the line were content with being poked to death by massed spears.

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This year common sense prevailed and an agreement was reached, where all the Away line would charge down the Regia lines and bring the fight to them on our own terms.

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This resulted in one of the best, hardest and most enjoyable free-fighting I have taken part in. No one likes an easy battle that’s over in a minute. This time, in each of three clashes that made up the competitive battle, we had a real fight on our hands, with neither side giving a quarter and all of the warriors coming back with a sense of a battle well-fought and a victory hard-earned (or a defeat that was by a narrow margin).

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Instead of talking through the whole of the battle, I will simply post a few links to some great videos, showing all the clashes- you will find the at the end of the article. There, better than any of my words can describe, you will see on your own, how the battle unfolded. What I will mention, is that the Vikings and Others did not do enough on their left flank- there were too few men there (especially in the last of the three clashes) and they did not advance or pressed the enemy hard enough. More men should have been moved from the centre, where they were not needed and more effort should have been made to get stuck in and push on. Other than that however, the Viking plan worked great and gave Regia a great deal of trouble. The Hosts did win 2-1 in the end, but  you will see yourself, how close the final clash was and how close Regia came to defeat. Especially after a few years of the Away team getting beaten flat each time, this felt great.

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I will tell you in more detail about the exploits of the right flank of the Vikings army, where me and my comrades from Y Ddraig fought. We formed the first line of our flank, with another group behind, ready to charge in after us. The plan was simple- advance, then as one bear down on the enemy, past their deadly spear points and into close range. Move as one, keep pushing and never stop, whilst killing as many opponents as we could. Once through their line, flank their centre and get them from the side and from behind.

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The plan was the same for all three clashes. Three times, me and my friends of Y Ddraig were at the vanguard. Each time we advanced towards the enemy, spears waiting. Thanks to discipline and momentum, we pushed on hard. All of the front line dispensed with spears entirely, this would be a closely-fought affair after all. All armed with hand weapons, our first task was to parry the spears and get them down. An axe is the best weapon for this, thanks to it’s shape and balance. Was I glad I brought mine with me… After pushing through the spears, we then had to keep going, until we were in reach of hand weapons. Then, we had to keep going and keep pushing to drive the enemy back, to make them lose their fortitude, their balance, maybe even fall over under the pressure of our advance.

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Some of us concentrated on controlling opponent’s weapons and parrying any attacks that came- I was one of those. My job, as an axe man, was also to pull down enemy shields and open them to attack. It is not an easy job to do under pressure and whilst under attack, but when your timing is right and when you keep with your unit and if you remember to keep your defences up- it works a cinch. The press of bodies was considerable, especially when our secondary unit charged in and we kept on going, without stopping.

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Three times it was us, Y Ddraig, to form the first line. Each time, we pushed past the spears and into the enemy line. Three times we pushed them back and hewed them down, forcing Regia to send reinforcement and deplete their reserve. Each time we pushed as far as we could, coming out on the enemy rear. We earned a lot of glory that day. It was not quite enough to win all three clashes- our left was not as lucky and whilst on the first clash it fared well, on the other two it fell and so what we had achieved on the right, was undone on the left. It was a hard fight and we fought well as a unit. Each time I pulled down a  shield with my axe a mate of mine would find a way to put an attack in at the exposed enemy. As I was holding down spears or weapons with my axe, others kept pace as a unit, allowing us to push forward. We all pressed hard, always keeping the enemy on the back foot. And once the lines broke, we stayed together, to attach the enemy rear. Regia fought back well and fought hard, putting enough resistance in the centre to keep it at standstill and fighting back our left, routing it in 2 of the 3 clashes.

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The battles were exhilarating. Win or lose, this was the most fun I have had at York ever. An OK scripted battle, successful market visit and a fantastic competitive fight. A good start to the season- now, time to finish off some kit…

As promised, here are some videos taken during the competitive battles (both are filmed from behind the Away team lines, mostly from the left wing perspective. Look for Y Ddraig on the extreme right, duded with white shields with red circles):

 

Videos filmed by Gordon Bailey, published on Ost Centigas channel. Photo credit to Jon Brownridge and Max William, from whom I have shamelesly pillaged the photos.

Javelin- introduction to being a skirmisher

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After a long winter hibernation, it is high time for another post on the blog. This time, I am going to talk about a weapon which is not seen very often on the battlefield. It does however have a huge potential and is tremendous fun to use- the javelin.

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For thousands of years Javelineers were used in armies throughout the world and the dark age armies were no different. Javelins have been used by skirmishing units to harass the enemy, kill or encumber them and their mounts and in outflanking maneuvers. Mainline units also utilized the javelin, be it just prior to engaging in combat, or as a weapon of opportunity throughout the battle.

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Javelin is a very effective weapon, when used right. Heavier and larger than an arrow, but smaller than a spear, javelins could inflict some serious damage, even on an armoured foe. It did have it’s limitation: a shorter range and less power than an arrow or a sling, you could only take a limited number on a battlefield. It did have some serious advantages though, mainly that it was capable of rendering enemy shields near useless by getting stuck in them. It was good for killing horses, due to it’s superior weight. A man throwing a javelin could still benefit from a shield and fight in a shield wall, whereas an archer could not. Also, a javelin took a lot less practice than a bow and it did not require such strict maintenance, so it was easier to equip large number of warriors with them.

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But enough of a historical note- time to consider how a javelin is used in reenactment combat. The most important thing about it, is that a javelin IS NOT a competitive weapon. It is used FOR DISPLAY only and javelineers will never aim to “kill” their opponent- they will only ever throw their missiles against a shield. Why do they not use their javelins in competitive combat? The reasons for this are pretty obvious. A javelin is essentially a small spear, with a lot of weight behind it compared to an arrow or a slingshot. As opposed to reenactment arrow, it has a metal head. Even when used as a hand weapon it can cause grievous harm. In order to hit a target, a javelin must be thrown with a considerable force, otherwise it will fall short or loose direction. When thrown properly,  a javelin has enough force to easily break bone and pierce flesh. No one wants to be at a receiving end of a metal-tipped projectile, weighing some 2kg, moving at a speed approaching that of an arrow. In addition to that, a javelineer, once he has loosed the javelin, has no control over the projectile. This means, if anything untoward happens, there is no way to pull or stop the blow. It is for these reasons, that javelins are restricted as “display” weapons, only used against shields, in order to demonstrate a missile attack. It is also perhaps why javelins are seldom seen, as many warriors sadly deem them redundant.

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Despite the fact that it cannot be used in competitive battles (until the reenactors find a way to use a javelin safely, which we are working on for some time now and may eventually find an acceptable solution), a javelin is huge fun to use. It gives an extra dynamic to a fight, with a “missile” phase of the battle sometimes being just as exiting to watch and to participate in  as the hand-to-hand combat. Imagine advancing towards your enemy, as their archers loose waive after waive of arrows, and the slingers hurl their shots at your line. As you get closer, lightly armoured skirmishers approach and hurl javelins, which thud heavily against the shields in your line, only to retreat after discharging their missiles. Finally, as the lines are about to clash, more missiles come your way, with arrows flying high, slingshots going past your heads, or thumping warriors on their bodies and last of the javelins hitting your line, with maybe some even piercing weaker shields and getting stuck for good.

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It is a whole battle onto itself, never mind the combat! I know from experience, that a determined javelin assault can slow down, buckle or disrupt an advancing line, even though all those involved know that javelins cannot be used to score valid Kills. The sheer mass and force of the javelins, together with psychological effect of their use is enough, especially against less experienced warriors. Also, let’s not forget, that a javelin can achieve some impressive distances, up to even 25 meters (usually it is thrown from 4-7 meters) which is not that far off a small bow. Some of the best javelineers can even achieve longer distances, approaching those of actual athletes. Using a javelin is a test of skill, accuracy, daring and stamina. Not only that, you also get to show off some more, as javelineers often skirmish ahead of the main army and form a focal point of early stages of the battle. Javelin display is also one of the more impressive elements of a battle, with onlookers frequently excited (or frightened!) by a well done display. No longer are you confined to being just another shield in a wall! Instead you are a daring, dashing skirmisher, you dart in and out in front of your hapless foes, and pepper them with missiles, that often cause an advancing line of steel, wood and flesh to buckle, slow down or even retreat under fire. You get to be a hero for a short moment and you get the rush and the joy of standing out from the crowd, whilst performing some of the most dangerous and demanding tasks on a battlefield.

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So, now that I had have you hooked (hopefully!), time for some practical considerations. How does one use a javelin effectively? See some pointers below:

  1. Forget the usual stance and combat style. Whilst throwing a javelin, you will inevitably end up out of balance, not covered by shield, not facing the enemy the right way etc. This is fine. All you need to do, is be able to get away, or resume your fighting stance fast in things get too close and personal.
  2. Hold it right. Hold your javelin either like you would a dart (with tips of your fingers), or as athletes do, resting it on the palm of your hand. Hold the javelin at the balance point, or just behind. If throwing long distance, you might want to hold it slightly further back, this will allow you to generate more energy with same motion (try it as an experiment- hold the javelin close to its tip, then throw. With each throw hold it further back, until you hold it just a foot away from the end. You will notice, that the throw gets easier and the distance increases the further back you hold the javelin).
  3. Aim. Always keep eye on your target, but do not aim for too long, as this will throw you off. Just like with a bow- nock, draw, loose, no faffing about. Eye on the target, set and throw. Remember, that over distance javelin will tend to dip down, until it hits the ground, so take it into account (Personally I find it helpful to see the very tip of my javelin in the corner of my eye as I aim, but some find it distracting).
  4. Use the Force. A javelin must be thrown hard, in order to fly straight and true, otherwise it will fall short of it’s target, or change it’s course too easily. Do not be afraid to put some considerable force in the throw- after all, there is a plank of wood (also known as the shield) between you and your opponent, so they should be safe. It helps if you manage to put a spin on a javelin (especially for longer throws) as it flies more like an arrow, straighter and more accurately.
  5. Assess the risk. As a javelineer, you must be conscious that you can easily injure someone, especially if you take them unawares. ALWAYS make sure your target knows they are about to receive a javelin (usually a short moment of eye contact and a nod suffices). Do not throw, if you feel unsafe about it, if the target is too far, moving too fast, or does not know you are about to throw. Consider weather conditions, slippery grass, slope etc. and make your assessment. If in doubt- DO NOT THROW. And, just to reiterate, ALWAYS make eye contact with target before throwing. If your intended target indicates that they are not ready, or do not wish to receive the javelin, move on to someone else. Due to the nature of the weapon you could easily kill or maim with it, and each time you use it, you must use common sense and judgement. This is why javelin requires skill and experience and not many warriors choose to use it.
  6. Be like a flowing stream. By which I mean, move fast, with fluidity and try to avoid getting into sticky situations. Javelineers usually serve as skirmishers, so they move a lot, run fast, hit hard and retreat quickly. You are there to run around flanks, harass a main line, protect your archers, or delay an enemy. This is not the tank core! Welcome to the skirmishing world, where melee is avoided and keeping in line doesn’t matter. It is a different type of fight altogether and not suitable for everyone.
  7. Show some panache! Scream, make faces, shout insults and make as much noise as you like. Move fast and hit hard. You are there to make a show and to distract, so do it in style!
  8. Do not overburden yourself. Carry no more than 3-4 javelins, and do not bother with more than two other weapons. Not only does it look silly, it also impedes your own moves and effectiveness.
  9. Release the javelin at the right moment. Draw your arm back, stretch it out, then bring it forwards and throw. Release just as your hand passed your shoulders, and keep your arm straight as you do so. You do not want to send your javelin spinning to the side, but keep it flying straight, so make sure your arm moves in a straight line and not in a curve.
  10. Use your wrist. By giving the javelin a “flick” or a “push” with your wrist just as you release it, you add power to the throw. It is a hard move to explain, but see someone do it, or watch athletes compete in javelin throw and you will see what I mean.
  11. Aim at shields only. Never aim anywhere else than an opponents shield (ideally just under the boss) or just short of your opponent. Safety first!
  12. Make sure you have plenty of practice, to co-ordinate your arm and your eye. Just like when throwing a dart, the eye picks a target and the arm should adjust the height, angle and force of the throw to hit the intended target. Also make sure you practice in your wargear, as throwing a javelin while wearing a helmet, gauntlets and a shield is a lot different to what you may know from your sports class.

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Using a javelin is a demanding task, as it is actually a lot more dangerous than other weapons we use, due to the fact that it is being thrown and not directly in your control. It requires skill, co-ordination and practice, but it is HUGE fun to use. It is a different kind of a fight. Personally, I would like to see more javelins used on the battlefield, as they make for a great show and add great dynamic to any fight. The biggest reason why we do not see many javelineers, is the fact that a javelin cannot be used competitively- a fact that hopefully may change in the future. In the meantime, I would like to encourage everyone to give javelin a go and see for themselves what a great weapon it is to use.

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Viking (and Dark Age) Combat Training Exercises

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So far, on my blog I have discussed various weapons and the more (and less) advanced techniques of using them in combat. I have discussed weapons individually, I talked about shields, there was even a generic training post in the early days. But what I have missed out up until now, was the training regime itself, other than mentioned in rather generic terms. As we all know, practice makes perfect. I heard once, that Olympic athletes say, you must repeat a motion 20,000 times, before your body and mind truly master it. With this in mind, I am going to talk about exercises, techniques and ideas for training in Dark Age combat. Without further ado, let us delve right into the long topic of training…

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1. Individual and Pair Exercises:

a) Sparring

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Simplest and most common way of getting better, at any kind of combat. Find an opponent and go at it. Again, and again. To keep things more organised, it is good to have a third person watching and telling you from an outsider’s point of view what you are doing right and what you should do differently. Swap partners as often as possible, to get a wider spectrum of opponents and challenges.

b) Half-Speed Sparring

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This is when things get a little different. Just as before, find an opponent, and go at it- only this time, do EVERY move at half the normal speed. The idea here, is to build up muscle memory, so the moves you make come out naturally, almost as a reflex; but also to give you and your opponent time to think through and observe each action and it’s effects. Everything is much slower, so you have plenty of time to analyse, think about each move and see exactly where the move is or isn’t working. It is important (and a tad difficult) to make sure EACH AND EVERY move is done at half speed, by both opponents. It is harder, and more tiring , than might seem at first! Again, it is a good idea to have an outsider watching and giving you feedback.

c) Figure of Eight- Standing and Moving

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As an individual, practice both your footwork and your attacks and defense in this simple exercise. Walk forwards and backwards performing the eight basics attacks (head, shoulders, sides, legs, thrust), then do this whilst standing still. While it may seem it is not doing much, you are still practicing your footwork, and control of your weapon and shield, as well as your general stance. Use both “shield” and “sword” stance, “shuffle” and “waddle” walk, stationary position, moving backwards and forwards. Never underestimate the importance of this exercise, because, as any combat specialist will tell you, if your feet are in the wrong place, chances are everything else is. Strength, control and balance all come from the roots: make sure you train yours!

d) Accuracy Training

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On a flat surface, put some suitable targets, you can hit with your weapon. Cones, sticks stuck in the ground, old furniture, punching bag or even a cardboard cutout of yourself- anything will do. Take your weapon and hit the targets, in a random order, making sure you hit SAME EXACT SPOT each time (mark it maybe, or just try to hit top of a target, or some specific part of it, as long as you know exactly where your blow is supposed to land). Spread the targets around, so you are forced to turn and move as you strike. The aim of this exercise is to develop accuracy and confidence in delivering an attack. If you can consistently hit top of a cone whilst striking fast and moving around, you should be able to hit an exposed part of an opponent’s body with equal precision. When repeated enough, this exercise will help you to hit where yo aim, and make sure each blow lands where it is supposed to, safely and accurately, as well as with lethal speed. Repeat the exercise at half speed and full speed, making sure you do not form a pattern, but strike randomly. The more often you do this, the better.

e) Play with weapons

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Try different stances, and weapons, Try different grips, Spin a weapon around, jab it in the air, practice pirouettes, try out new moves on imaginary opponents. Any form of “play” will do, as long as you keep doing it. A warrior must be intimately familiar with his weapons and protective equipment, to use it effectively. You weapons and shield should be extensions of your body, your armour should feel like second skin. Make sure you know the feel and the balance of all of them and that you are used to wielding them; otherwise, handling something you only use twice a month, you will never achieve the result you aim for.

2. Group exercises:

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And now, let us take a look, at training exercises done in groups. The more, the merrier, and I would recommend group size of 8-16 as ideal, but let’s face it; you will want to use as many people as you have available, and if your group has 50 members ready to train, then good on you!

a) Circles- with and without Honour

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This is simply sparring, but on a bigger scale. We start, by getting all the participants to form a rough circle and raise their weapons, once they are ready. If the Circle is with Honour, contestants will engage in honourable one-on-one duels, with no backstabbing, ganging-up and no alliances. Each duel lasts till the first Valid Hit scored on your opponent- losers lie down dead or leave the circle, while the winners find a new opponent. This goes on, until a lone victor remains, who is the overall winner of the circle. With the Circle is Without Honour, anything goes, and every dirty trick imaginable is allowed.

b) Circle of Infinity- individual and warbands

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The idea is exactly the same, as above, but with one important difference- when the person who killed you, is in turn killed by someone else, you are allowed to go back into the Circle and fight again. When you are killed, all those whom you have defeated are going back into the Circle. This takes a lot longer to find a victor, and sometimes may go on for what like seems forever (hence the name). There comes a point though, at which one person manages to defeat all of their opponents, and win the Circle. This exercise, while a lot longer, does allow for more fun for all the participants, and it does mean, you get several chances to win, and ultimately more practice.

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When the Circle of Infinity is played with warbands, the difference id, that warriors group into bands of between 3 to 6 warriors, and fight it out as units. Each time a warrior is killed, he/she goes to a designated spot known as “the dead-pile” or “the re-spawn”. Once there are enough dead warriors there, they form a new warband, and enter the competition again. This time, there is no single unit which wins, but rather the exercise goes on, until everyone has had enough. The idea here, is that not only you learn to work in a unit, you also learn to work with a variety of warriors and weapon combinations, against largest possible variety of opponents.

c) Hunting Parties

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Very simple exercise, where bands of between 3 to 6 warriors compete against each other, just as they would in a Circle of Honour. Warriors practice tactics, mobility, battlefield awareness and working as a small unit, as well as finding solutions for problems encountered in combat. It is important, while fighting other warbands, to have some sort of a plan- this exercise helps warriors to practice coming up with various stratagems, as well as honing their leadership skills.

d) Shieldwall- Infinite Shieldwall

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This time, two opposing groups form their respective shieldwalls, and fight it out, until one side is vanquished. Just like with the Hunting Parties, warriors practice the most essential skills with combat, and this form of fighting is the most common and important to Dark Age combat. Formation, tactics, battlefield awareness, individual skills, team work- they all come into play in the shieldwall, and it is in the shieldwall, that the warriors are truly tested. Infinite shieldwall means, that units behave, as if they were in the middle of a huge shieldwall, with no flanking, running round sides etc. The only way to go is forward- towards the enemy and their blades. Most essential exercise for any group that takes reenactment combat seriously, shieldwall must be practiced at every conceivable opportunity, as often, and for as long as possible.

e) Formation Practice

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This set of exercises focuses on various aspects of what one might call a “Viking Age military drill”. Shieldwall is more than just two straight lines clashing, and there are various manoeuvres involved, some more, some less common. Wheel, about-turn, advancing, retreating, reforming, receiving a berserker, forming two lines, forming one line, adopting shield-burh formation, forming a boar-snout… Things can get pretty complicated! It is important to have a person (preferably multiple people) in the group, who know how to perform these maneuvers and who can instruct and drill the others. Formation practice is equally as important as combat practice, as without it, it is very hard to keep discipline and cohesion within a fighting unit, not to mention that if you never practice, say, about-turn, you will not be able to perform one, when called upon to do so. Now, wouldn’t that be embarrassing…

f) Rotating Shieldwall

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It is a variation of the traditional shieldwall, where warriors, after each clash is concluded, rotate clock-wise, to shift places within their formation, and ultimately join the opposing team. Say you start in the middle of a 6 man wall. After first clash is finished and one side has won, each warrior moves along one space clockwise, so you will end up second from left. One more clash, you end up at the end of your line. After one more clash, you will join the opposing team, while a warrior from the opposition’s left-most flank will join yours. Usually this goes on, until everyone is back in their original spot. What makes this exercise great, is that you sometimes end up with uneven, or bizarrely arranged sides, teaching you to fight when odds are stack-up against you, or in your favour, and to deal with a variety of opponents and weapons combinations, as well as how to cope when forced into a certain spot in a formation.

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And there we go: a run down of some of the most important (and my favourite) exercises and training regimes. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I have encountered many exercises I have not mentioned here, and I am sure there are some I have not yet heard of. For the sake of keeping things manageable, I have not gone into too much detail about each training technique, and I rely on the reader’s common sense and experience when attempting to replicate any of the above. Do you have any comments on these exercises? Have you got any you would like to share, which I have not included? Feel free to comment and discuss below. Until next time!

 

How to fight with a viking age sword

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After a long time without a post (life does get in the way every now and again) it is time for a new post, which will cover the most glorified weapon of them all: the sword.

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The sword was a weapon pure and simple, with no other utility. It’s purpose- to kill. It was an equivalent of a quality car back in the Dark Ages, and only the rich and the professionals could afford one. Swords were beautiful, efficient and glorious tools of slaughter. But how does one use a sword in reenactment combat?

“Hit them!” some might say- well, they are not far off… But sword is more sophisticated to use than any other weapons and allows a wide variety of techniques, most of which other weapons have great trouble duplicating. In this article, I will cover the basics of Dark Age swordsmanship, to give you pointers on how to get familiar with it, and what to avoid, when waiving your shiny piece of steel about.

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1. The principles

A Viking Age sword is a hacking weapon, first and foremost. It’s weight, balance, size and breadth all speak volumes about how it was used. This is not a fencing sword, or a rapier. You must keep this in mind when using the sword, as it will be rather different from swords from later periods, or indeed earlier ones. A sword must be held firmly, but gently, to allow flexibility of movement. Use hacking, rather than thrusting- and not just for practical reasons, but also for safety. A thrust carries a lot more force than a cut, therefore there is a greater potential for injury, especially with a naturally heavier blade.

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When attacking, same principles apply as with other weapons: eight areas of attack, and eight of defence. Blows to the head are forbidden in our combat system, but we teach how to defend against them just in case.

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A sword is different from other weapons in the fact, that it can be very effectively used as a defensive weapon, and is therefore better suited for less aggressive warriors. But, it can equally well serve as purely offensive weapon, and with (usually) double-edged blade, and between 30 to 40 inches of killing edge, there is a lot more you can do, than say with an axe, which can only “kill” with a short blade on it’s head.

When striking, a warrior uses the edge, not the point of the blade, and always pulls the blow to the body, to prevent injury.

2. The techniques, the tricks and some advice:

When using a sword, it is a lot easier to make feints and change direction of an attack, due to different balance of the weapon. Look the example below:

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A warrior can rapidly change direction and speed of an attack, thanks to more evenly spread balance. Sword point can travel a large distance with just a small move of a hand, at great speed, with less effort than a spear or an axe would usually require.

Cross guard of a sword is very useful in taking control of enemy’s weapons and performing circular parries. When in a bind, the closer the bind point is to the cross guard, the more control you have over it, thanks to better leverage. This is known as “strong” or “weak” bind, whereas “weak” bind means you have very little control over it, and must apply a lot of force, to force leverage, as oppose to a situation, when you can control the bind with little effort.

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Thanks to principles of “strong” and “weak” bind, a sword can be used to create openings in the opponent’s defence. In this photo, a combatant uses a bind to move opponent’s weapon out of the way, and then to attack as soon as a space becomes available.

In defence, a sword can parry effectively and hold a blow well, while being better at swift counter attacks, than most other weapons.

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Sword is great at medium-range, but becomes a lot less useful in close quarters. Be aware of it, and be prepared to either retreat from an advancing opponent, or deter them from advancing by putting up appropriate response, for example a series of attacks, or a side-step, or a dogged, unflinching defensive stance.

Using a shield in tandem with a sword is a great way to exploit openings in your opponent’s defence. Remember the active shield work, I have talked about in my other articles? How would you use a shield to take control of an enemy’s weapon? Can you use it to attack? Can you follow the enemy’s weapon and keep it in touch with your shield to make any attacks very hard to perform?

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Footwork, like with any other weapon, is key. If your feet and your balance are in a wrong place, your weapon will also be. Keep your feet wide apart, in an L-shape, with knees slightly bend, and adjust your stance as you move your weight center. Practice walking, stepping and waddling, to make sure you automatically keep your balance.

You may try to change your stance as you fight, to give yourself different options, and present your opponent with different challenges. How about a low stance? Aggressive sword stance? Can your conceal the blade behind a shield, and strike out unexpectedly, where the enemy cannot see the initial direction of the blow?

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When holding sword underneath the shield, you give yourself great way of striking at opponent’s legs and lower torso, or “sneaking” a blow under the shield. Trade off- vulnerable to being overrun, by a fast and decisive warrior, with little room to move the sword out of the way.

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Holding a shield at an angle, rather than straight on enables better active shieldwork, and puts more distance between warriors- but what about leaving sword arm more vulnerable, than it would normally be? How much extra effort would need to be put in, to parry incoming blows with a  sword, rather than shield? Is the advantage of having two “tools” to use in a fight big enough?

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3. A few words to sum it up:

The stuff I have talked about above, are just some more general and basic techniques, for using a sword using a sword. There are a lot of more advanced tricks and techniques, which will be explored later, in more detail.

Sword is an amazing weapon to use, and it is iconic, just as the axe is, for the Viking Age. It requires plenty of practice, but it is so worth it! If you haven’t had a go at a sword yet, try it out, and use the examples I gave above. And if you already are a swordsman, what would you add and how do you keep your opponents on their toes?

Until next time folks!

Guide to using a spear

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Today, I present to you a guide on using a spear in reenactment combat. I will only discuss one-handed spear, as using spear in two hands is a topic deserving of a separate discussion in itself.

In my experience, using spear is one of those disciplines , which takes seconds to learn, and years to master. After all, a spear is just a long stick, with a metal point. To quote Zorro “pointy end goes in the other man”. Couldn’t be simpler! But, there are many ways in which to “stick the pointy end” in your opponent, and techniques, that ensure combat is both safe and entertaining, while remaining competitive.

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1- Hold it right!

Many of you will probably turn around and ask, why would anyone need rules on how to hold a spear. Well, there are some- every reenactment society will have different ones, and to keep this post at a manageable length, I will only quote rules from The Vikings society, which I am a member of.

There are just a few simple rules to follow:

Spear must be held in middle-third of it’s length. No ice-pick grip or holding it at the very end, to gain leverage or more reach. Reasons? Historical accuracy is one(show me one, just one historical reference to anyone ever holding a spear in combat by the very end of the shaft, I dare you…). Safety is another, as with gripping spear by the end you have little control and by using it as an ice-pick you can injure someone, or loose control (remember, there is some 4-6 feet of shaft behind you). Combat effectiveness is the last reason- by holding spear in the middle you get the best mix of reach, control, balance and speed.

Spear must be held overhand or underhand, with no couching it under your arm. The point of a spear must always point downwards, never upwards (this is to prevent face injuries, as when spear point’s up and you thrust with it, your opponent’s face is naturally where the point will go towards). This is again for safety reasons. In actual combat, you would happily stab people in the face- in reenactment, we avoid it at all costs.

That’s about it- also remember to always have both your feet planted on the ground, when making an attack with a spear.

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2- Hit zones:

When using a spear, hit zones is exactly the same as with any other weapon- the only difference is, you are not supposed to perform thrusts to the opponent’s legs. Instead, you should push the spear point past their leg and slash against it. This is to prevent knee injuries and leg injuries, which can be quite severe, when thrusting is involved. Thrusting to other body areas is fine, as long as it is done under control and blows are pulled.

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3- Defending with a spear:

While spear can be used to parry or deflect blows, it is not very good at it. Not only will vibrations caused by hits to the spearshaft make it difficult to hold on to the weapon, but also, if parry is not good enough you may loose control of your weapon, or have it batted out of your hand. Generally best way to defend is to use your shield, and/or dodge incoming blows. If you must parry with a spear, it is best to do it, using overhand grip, with spear tip pointing down. In this way, you can defend yourself rather well, while maintaining control of your weapon- simple move the spear to intercept any incoming blows. Major disadvantage however, is that you loose the ability to attack effectively. Defending with underhand grip is hard and I would not recommend it, unless you have no other option.

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4- Advantages of a spear:

Reach! While using a spear, you generally outreach most of your opponents. It is a huge advantage, especially while fighting in formation, where spears really come to the fore. The ability to hit an opponent while being out of their reach is a tremendous advantage. and any spearman must ensure to maximize it in combat. In a shieldwall, spears rule, and it is the spearmen who decide outcome of many battles. Remember, that with the extended reach, you have the ability to pick and choose your targets, and also engaged more than one person. As long as you have someone next to you with a hand weapon to parry incoming blows, you can concentrate on picking out enemy warriors.

Speed. While other weapons rely on slashing and hacking, with a spear you thrust to make an attack. As the fastest route between two points is a straight line, a thrusting attack tends to be faster then a slashing one. Spearmen can really take advantage of this, and thrust at incredible speeds- not only to kill their opponents, but simply to make nuisance of themselves, and force their opponents on the defensive. Sometimes, simply by putting in a blow against a shield, you can distract an opponent, or make then take a step back. This is very useful when holding a gap in a line, or trying to make a break-through. You would be surprised how many warriors I have seen retreat, or fail to attack, simply because I have been thrusting at their shields like mad with my spear, forcing them on the defensive by speed and ferocity of my attacks- none of which aimed to score a hit, but simply to create a psychological effect.

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Easy to use. To learn basic techniques of spearfighting takes very little time, and there are not many advanced techniques, unlike with a sword or an axe. Spear is a very straightforward weapon, but one which takes years of practice to master. There are some very nifty tricks for spearmen too (like using your spear to disarm your opponent, or performing a circular parry with it), but I would only recommend them if you have learned all the basics and are sure you can control your weapon and your blows at all times in the heat of a fight.

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5- Disadvantages of a spear:

Reach. Wait, what!? Yes, you read it right. Look at your spear. 4-6 feet of wood, ending with a pointy metal tip. Which bit inflicts damage? The metal bit. What happens when someone comes within 4 feet of you? You stab them with the metal bit. What happens when they are 2 feet away, or at a “bad breath distance”? Oh-oh. Once your opponent has made it past your spear-point you cannot harm them anymore. All you can do is retreat, to gain more distance, or defend like mad. Or abandon your spear in favour of a close-combat weapon. This is a big disadvantage of a spear, because one the enemy comes to close, it becomes useless. Keep that in mind, and always be ready to retreat/move away, or if you cannot, make sure you have someone with you who can deal with close-quarters melee. This is why it is important to have plenty of spears in a shieldwall, but even more important not to have TOO MANY spears in a shielwall.

Vulnerable in defense. As discussed above, defending with a spear, while possible, is not the most effective defense. Best thing to do, is to keep enemies at a distance and use your shield to good effect.

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6- Fighting techniques:

By far, the most common technique with a spear is a feint. Thanks to it’s speed, spear is really good at feinting, and with added reach you can exploits gaps in defense more easily. As discussed in my previous posts, the principles of a feint always remain the same: make it seem like you strike in one spot, while you actually do it somewhere else entirely. Deception, after all, is the basis of the art of war!

Waiting for a gap. This is not so much a  technique in itself, but just something spearmen do. because of your reach, you can attack not just the person in front, or immediately to your side- you can attack further down the line as well. Wait and watch your opponents, spear ready, to see if any of them will step out of line, lower their shield, or turn around a bit. As soon as you see a gap… Bang! Thrust right in, to score that Hit (or slash if it is a leg you are aiming for). This is probably my favorite thing about a spear, and I hope you will see why. All I need is for an opponent to make a mistake, and they are out. And believe me, in the heat of the battle we all leave ourselves exposed at one point or another. All a spearman must do is wait for the right moment to strike.

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One very useful trick I will discuss, is opening of the opponent’s shield. When in a fight, strike at the opponent’s shield, to the side opposite their weapon-hand. You will notice, if you push hard enough, that the shield will “open” and your opponents’s body becomes exposed. This is because you apply plenty of force to one spot, which a warrior holding a shield cannot do. The laws of bio-mechanics do the work for you! Once your opponent is exposed, you can do one of two things. You can: A) Wait for a comrade to attack the enemy while he is “open”. Perfect for teams of two spearmen, or fighting in a formation. B) Withdraw your weapon as fast as you can and attacking the still exposed body of your opponent. This requires plenty of speed and practice, but is deadly in a one-to-one fight. There are several more tricks and techniques spearmen use, but these are better left out in favour of more basic techniques, which will still do the job just as well.

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7- Practice:

Spear is a weapon, which you can train with very easily. All you need is the spear itself, some room and something to hit. Every technique I have discussed can be practiced with the very basic equipment, and you can do it almost anywhere. Spear is a weapon, which though rather simple in it’s use, does require a lot of repetition. You will use same styles and same hits over and over, and though it may seem too simplistic to even bother, believe me, without this constant repetition no one can become a good spearman. So, if you feel like giving it a go, go get yourself a spear and try it out. If you are using one already, compare your experiences to what I have described here- is there anything you would add?

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Til next time!