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!

 

 

They found one in Birka…

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Today,a little technical talk about the little world of reenactors, and the problems we are dealing with. Prepare for some strong opinions, for this is a matter that touches each reenactor in one way or another, and most of us feel pretty strong about it.

What am I talking about? Something I touched upon before, mainly the authenticity and the rules of our competitive “game”. Long ago, I talked about what authenticity is for your average reenactor, why we use authentic standards, and how we aspire to achieve them.

This time however, I am going to highlight some problems I see in reenactment, and my opinions about them. I hope you’re ready- let the rant begin!!

Looking the part- when is authentic inauthentic?

Let’s take a look at our imaginary dedicated reenactor. He looks great, does he not? Look at the splendid lamellar armour, and the owl-guard helmet with huge aventail, all lovingly polished and maintained. Look at the supple fur cloak (no doubt faux, to spare animal suffering and avoid a vicious beating at the hands of nude PETA models). Take in the detail of armguards, and the incredible detail that went into the haft of damascene steel axe. Thor’s hammer, displayed proudly, rivals best modern jewelry pieces when it comes to intricate design. And let us not forget those incredible tatoos, visible when the armour is off!

But wait a moment… Our guy is supposed to be a viking warrior in mid-tenth century, A Dane raiding in Egland, Frankia and the Irish sea. He is well-to-do, but certainly not wealthy (if he was, he would hung up his axe and shield, and go spend his cash on mead, women, mead, more mead and a pet polar bear. Or get himself a warband to do his raiding for him). So, why does he use damascene steel, the most expensive type known at the time? Not only for his sword, but also axe, knife, seax and Thor-knows-what else. A metal which we know for a fact was used only for choices, most expensive weapons- almost exclusively swords, and harder to get your hands on than almost anything imaginable at the time. So, we have all the right things, made the right way… But of the wrong material. And the fur? No one wore fur cloaks, and we know this also, for a fact. Why do some insist to use fur “because they had it” is beyond me. Fur was used for hats sometimes, as it was for trimmings in cloaks and gloves, or to sleep upon. Only royalty could afford fur cloaks, and even they did not wear it around like an every-day garment. Just two examples or doing the wright thing- wrong.

Next up, is the armour. How exactly did our Dane, get his hands on a suit of lamellar armour, which in every material available, written, archaeological or illustrated, only Slavsic, Asiatic and Byzantine warriors used lamellar armour. Europe, warriors used mail- Vikings, Saxons, Franks, Normans, Celts and every other nation. We have mentions of various leather armour, but these are inconclusive, scant and very vague. It is an established fact, the mail was used throughout Europe, as body armour.

“Aha!” I hear a familiar voice. “They found one in Birka, Sweden, they found lamellar in there, dated to 9th century!”. Yes, so they did. ONE, singular plate of a lamellar armour, with no real idea, whether it was from a whole suit, or just a loose piece for sale or a spare. Also, have a look at the map. Birka, is in Eastern Sweden, far out on the Baltic shore. It is closer to Slavic and Rus states than it is to England or Frankia. So, logically, by trade or war, some stuff from the East made it there. But would the busy merchants of Birka export suits of armour to Britain, Danemark and beyond? How come, by the same extension, we do not use Coppergate helmets in Poland, or Saxons-style coats in Kiev? Where are all the beautiful Irish items, which I have no doubt German and Danish warriors would love to wear?

No one uses them- or if they do, very rarely, practically unnoticeable. But it seems, when exports from East are concerned, there is not a distance they would not go. Lamellar armour, Slavic “cavarly axes” and Asiatic sabers and re-curve bows: all of these seem to make their way as far as the shores of Spain, with no evidence at all. Except for that one piece of metal found in Birka. Because, obviously, this justifies the use of this anywhere. Never mind, that there were Slavic tribes near river Oder, who used these items, much closer than Birka was geographically. No, we know for sure that the two styles did not mix on that border. But if it was in Birka, than that settles it, it’s fine anywhere at all.

Obviously, if you are actually portraying a Rus warrior from near the Volga river, than the Eastern style equipment is a must. But do not pass it off as ok, for a Norse invader in the Irish sea basin, please. Same applies for those living in America, Australia and all other places around the globe- pick a time, a place, and create your character based on these, please, do not create a “no timeline” mesh of five different styles…

Playing the game: When is it too much?

As most of you will know, combat in reenactment is more than just a show. It is also a competitive sport, and we all try to outdo each other, or compete to be better warriors/groups. My problem is, when people turn a historically accurate (within reason) sport, into a game which look thus:

“Whoever can touch the other guy with the metal bit first, wins!”

Enter a host of problems, like those listed below. List is probably not exhaustive, but it should give a god idea of most prevalent issues:

Holding one’s spear by the very end of it, with a head so light it may as well be an arrow, and a shaft so thin, it could be mistaken for a pool cue.

Using overly long axe haft, similarly thin to spear one, with  a tiny axe-head, more resembling a flattened nail than a tool of war.

Waving around a sword (or two) with the combined weight of a walking stick, and no broader than two fingers put together. Because the term “broadsword” was always metaphorical, wasn’t it?

Creating spears so long, they are actually pikes. Authentic viking pikes, just like you’ve seen… Exactly. Nowhere.

Spearmen crouching on their legs so low, their heads are at crotch level, poking and slashing at lower legs in the hope of touching a right spot for a “valid hit”.

Swordsmen spending their whole duel desperately trying to brush each other’s shoulders with tips of their swords, with one half spent in a high, static bind and the other spent with both warriors on their tip-toes, and shields stuck firmly up their chins. Swap shoulders for heads and arms, depending on which rules you fight by (as some rules allow heads and/or arms as valid targets).

These, of course, only happen with some warriors and generally do not disturb our fights. But when you see combatants trying to bend rules, it stands out all tho more, for being uncommon practice. The issues relate both to safety and to authenticity.

How can you control a spear, held out by the very end? with five feet if shaft and a spearhead ahead of you, you just cannot do it properly. Try, see how well you do! Unless you create a weapon unrealistically thin and light- which means, in a real fight, it would never create enough energy to actually cause harm. Not to mention one firm tap of an axe would break that five-feet arrow in a second. Authenticity is also compromised, when we make weapons and equipment merely resembling the actual ones. So what, if the sword is the right shape, if it also is so thin, it may as well be a skewer. It is important, that reenactors aim for historical accuracy, as well as a fun game.

Mountain out of a molehill- sort of!

Good news is, that, like any issues they always seem bigger than they actually are. There is enough of “bad practice” going round to make us grumble, but all in all, we are all having fun and loving it. We manage to stick to our ethos, and provide exactly what we aim to: informative entertainment, for us and the public. We like our hobby the way it is, and though there are problems around, they are not in any way interfering with our enjoyment.

So what was the point of this long rant the, you might ask, if you can put up with the problems you’ve listed? Well, we all like a good grumble, don’t we? Also, I am hoping to stir some discussion and comments on this topic, hopefully from my supporters as well as critics. Because regardless of who is actually correct, it is good to exchange views. Till next time!

 

 

 

 

 

How to use a shield- single combat

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In this post, we will have a closer look at using a shield in single combat, where the conditions are very different from those we would expect in a shieldwall. We will look at how to protect yourself effectively, and how to use a shield to it’s maximum advantage.

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First point to remember- this guide is not THE  definitive way to use a shield. It is only showing my personal experience and perspective, and as I am not yet a veteran reenactor, there are still things I must learn as well- but enough foreword, time to get on with the post!

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1. The basic stance

Just as in the shieldwall, the most basic way to use a shield, is to simply hold it in front of you, and put it in the way of incoming blows.

Standing with your legs wide apart, knees slightly bend, and feet forming the letter “L”, hold the shield about 6″ away from your body, keeping it straight, preferably with your elbow touching your side. You can have either the “shield” leg forward, or the “weapon” leg forward, depending whether you want to use a more defensive “shield stance”, or a more aggressive style of combat.

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In this technique, all you do is intercept the opponent’s blows, moving the shield to parry- couldn’t be simpler! As long as you have good reflexes, are not put off by feints, and do not flap your shield about, you should be able to block just about any blow, and stay alive in a fight.

But we all want to do more than just stay alive… This is where more advanced techniques come into play. Allow me to introduce you to one of my best friends- Mr. Active Shieldwork

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2. Active Shieldwork

I have touched upon this technique in my previous posts, especially the one about using seax and scramasax. The idea is to use your shield as actively, as if it were another weapon, instead of a static defense. By using your shield proactively, you can intercept coming blows before they go anywhere near you, take control of enemy’e weapon, or create an opening in their defenses.

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Taking control- a simple exercise in active shieldwork, is to try to take control of the opponent’s weapon as he makes an attack, then counter-strike yourself. It is a modified version of the traditional parry-riposte you will know from fencing. When your opponent makes an attack, instead of waiting, move your shield quickly to intercept it. Once the weapon has connected to your shield, keep contact, and push out forcefully, ideally trying to keep the opponent’s weapon near your shield boss. In this way, you take control of the weapon and know it’s exact position- plus, by pushing out, you make sure your enemy cannot use it. Once you have done this, you can attack your opponent, who will be very vulnerable. You must be very quick and fluid though, to make sure your move works. You must think of it, as if you were trying to grab the weapon with your own hand- the shield is merely an extension of it.

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This technique will require you to have a more flexible grip on your shield, to be able to move it a variety of directions. It is a good idea to keep your shield at a slight angle, rather than square on, presenting the edge to the opponent, rather than the flat. This will give you more flexibility on moving your shield- but remember to always move it on purpose, never just flap it about.

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Bat it out of the way- when parrying a blow with your shield, instead of simply intercepting the enemy weapon, use your shield to actively bat it out of the way. Move your shield fast and with strength, as if you were trying to strike the enemy’s weapon out of their hand. In this way, you will unbalance your opponent and create an opening you can use to defeat them. You must move swiftly though, your attack must be simultaneous to your defensive action, otherwise you will give your opponent time to react and recover.

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Follow the weapon- imagine your shield is covered in glue- and the the opponent’s weapon is stuck fast to it. Could they make an attack? Could they defend effectively? Exactly. When you parry an attack, follow your opponent’s weapon and keep contact with it all the time- as long as you can feel it on your shield, you know precisely where it is, and that it cannot hit you. Best way to do this is to keep the weapon near your boss, where you have the most control over your shield. If you master this technique, it becomes extremely difficult to hit you, provided you have the speed, confidence and accuracy to make that first parry and keep contact afterward.

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Shield- a weapon of defense. Instead of using your shield purely to defend yourself, use it to attack and actively create openings in your opponent’s defenses. Best way to do this, is to hold your shield at an angle, presenting the edge to your opponent. When in combat, strike your opponent’s shield with yours, either on inner or outer edge. If you manage to hit the flat of it, you will notice, that the shield is really to push aside- it will open almost as a revolving door, creating a space where you can attack your enemy. It can be very effective, but requires a large enough shield, preferably 30″ in diameter or more, and a swift, decisive action, otherwise you simply leave yourself open to an attack. Also, do not use this trick too often, as it is easy to anticipate.

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And lastly- drop it! Final technique I am going to share with you is very risky- but the risk may just pay off. Firstly, hold your shield very lightly- just with the tips of your fingers. Instead of using your shield to parry an attack, your weapon, Once the enemy’s attack is safely and securely stopped- drop your shield down on the ground, and grab the opponent’s hand at the wrist, or by the hilt of a sword, haft of an axe etc. Push up, or pull down- hard, and fast. Your opponent will be defenseless, unbalanced and practically disarmed. Simply finish off with a killing blow! Remember though- there is a very good chance that you may end up being killed, because you dropped your shield in a wrong moment. This technique is a very much one trick pony, and works only if you get the element of surprise. You must be fast, decisive and aggressive, and a bit of luck will go a long way too.

This will be enough for one post- I hope you find the techniques I described here useful, and that we will see more warriors on the field using shields actively, instead of holding largest piece of wood they could find statically in front of them- something which is not only not very impressive, but also not accurate historically, as many sources and research shows. Till next time!

How to use a shield- shieldwall/formation

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The question posed in the topic may seem a redundant one at first- after all a shield is just something you put in front on the body to take the blows. But is it really all that simple? Anyone who has been doing combat for a while will know, that there is more to using a shield than getting it in the way of the blow.

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Using a shield is a large topic, and therefore I will split it into two posts- one about formation and one about single combat.

First one to go, is the shieldwall. Most of reenactment fighting is done in formation, be it war-bands, hunting parties, or shieldwall clashes. In all of the above use of the shield is essential, and each one needs a slightly different approach.

1. Basic stance

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In shieldwalls and in loose formations, best way to hold a shield is square in front of youd body, some 6 inches away from you, keeping it straight. Do not put the shield too high up or under your chin, because hits to the shield may cause you injury- I have seen people getting hit in their faces by their own shields simply because they held them too high, or at a wrong angle. Firm hold and good stance are essential. Do not put the shield too low either, because that will expose your chest and shoulders to hits, which means your battle-line career may be very short lived, and consist mostly of staring at the sky as a battlefield casualty. When in stance, put your shield leg(usually the left, if your are right-handed) in front, bend your knees slightly and keep feet wide, in an L shape, firmly on the ground.

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2. Adopting a shieldwall

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When warriors form a shieldwall, they overlap their shields, to form a barrier, with each shield locked by 2 others on either side of the warrior- exactly like a hoplite phalanx. When holding a shield in this formation, keep it perfectly straight, with your elbow touching your shield. When interlocking, push out with your elbow against your partner’s shield, while pulling in with your hand at the same time against your other partner’s shield, In this way, by creating even pressure, shields are kept tightly locked and even a large, burly viking running at full speed should not break through the formation, but be repelled- as if hitting a wall.

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3. Using the shield to defend

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In this formation, shield should not move a lot relatively to each other, as this breaks up the formation. Blows to the upper body should be parried with your weapon if they are directed at your shoulders or taken on the shield if directed at the chest. To defend lower body you may quickly put your shield down, and bring it straight back up. A shieldwall relies on everyone keeping formation and keeping their shields locked- it is when this formation breaks up, that a battle is lost or won, therefore your shield should move as little as possible and only when necessary. Shieldwall combat consists mostly of parrying incoming blows and so it is important to parry with your weapon as well as the shiled and only strike when an opportunity presents itself.

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Larger shields are more useful in the shieldwall, as they cover more of your body, and do not require moving a lot. Beware of creating too large shields though, because if a man holding a 38″ shield is slain, this creates a huge gap in the wall through which enemies can push through- this is when the discipline, training and skill of the warriors in formation comes into play, as their task is to cover the gap without breaking their own shieldwall.

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Smaller shields are less useful in the middle of a formation, but can be very handy at the edges of it, where warrior are more liable to split off or try to flank the opponent. Greater maneuverability of smaller shields helps greatly when it comes to more flexible fighting required at the flanks- though large shields can and are used there too. There are no set rules about which shield goes where, and a lot will depend on individual preference and battlefield situation.

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A lot of the time your opponents will try to force your shield open, hook it out of position, or take control of it to create a gap. This is when keeping together a s a formation becomes hugely important, because a shieldwall is like a chain- only a strong as its weakest link. Hand axes, two-handed spears, dane axes all can be successfully used to hook shields, or force them out of the formation by using leverage. Experience and discipline will prevent this from happening, but only if your train, you will be prepared to deal with these situations. Keep your shield in the wall, stay together with your unit and be aware of what is happening around you- remember that the killing blow seldom comes from the man you are facing, but mostly from those to your side, with attacks you do not see coming. Keeping your shield in a good position is essential to counter those blows.

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Sometimes a shieldwall may adopt a more loose formation, where instead of locking shields together, warriors will keep them “rim to rim” or with tiny gaps left between them. Same will happen when fighting skirmishes between war-bands and hunting parties. This allows for a greater freedom of movement, so you can move your shield more freely, and move about as and when needed around the battlefield- but remember to stay in formation, and keep the shield in a good stance, straight in front of you at all times.

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Important- never angle your shield towards your face when in a shieldwall, this may cause glancing blows to come up and hit your head or face, causing serious injury. Nor should you angle it downwards, as this will leave you vulnerable to hits on the shoulders and chest, and make it easy to hook your shield with an axe or force it open with a spear thrust.

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4. Using a shield in an attack

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When attacking in a formation, it is equally important- nay, imperative- to keep up your defence. One can parry incoming blows all day, but it is usually when one puts in an attack, that the killing blow comes in. When attacking do not expose parts of your body, keep your shield in front and locked with other warriors. Be aware of your surroundings, and always be ready to parry or attack as opportunity presents itself- but the golden rule is, keep your defence tight, and keep your shield in a good position, ready to parry.

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When advancing, same rules apply, keep pushing, stay in formation, keep the line and move as a unit- all the while keeping your shield in an optimum position, at a right angle and right in front of you. Important- do not press your shield tight against your body, but keep it away some 6-8 inches. In this way, you have better control over the shield and more freedom of movement, plus, should any blow penetrate the shield- and I have seen it happen plenty of times- the weapon will not strike directly at your body.

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Hopefully with the basic tips above you will have a better understanding of how to use a shield when in battle. Obviously there are some more advanced techniques, but these are best taught in training, with your fellow warriors. Remember- it is training that makes perfect, and shield training is one of, if not the most, important things you will do as a warrior.

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Training Weekend!

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The title says it all- an annual Training Weekend for the Vikings reenactment society, which I was able to attend this year, for the first time. WARNING- most of us did not bother with fully authentic gear, as there was no public, and event itself is very casual- jeans, shirts and sports shoes ahead!

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On the Easter weekend this year, some 250, if not more society members gathered together, for 3 days of combat training, camping, lectures, workshops and, of course, deciding on some vital society matters.

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Having arrived on the evening before the first day, most of us set up camp on the grounds provided, and set out to the beer tent, for some much-needed refreshment! The night was windy and wet, but the morning found us in perfectly good mood and some improved weather has added on to the enjoyment.

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First order of the day, was combat training- sessions were held for basic weapons, spears, two-handed spears, axes, advanced sword combat, bows, javelins and slings, as well as for display combat. Plenty of choice for everyone, and an opportunity to hone a skill, or learn how to use a new weapon.

In my case- I have decided to expand my weapon range, and learn to use a spear, which I did on a lengthy, well-organised training session led by a wonderful Training Thegn (not the man in combat trousers with a Dane axe, he was just an assistant, equally great to work with- Thegn is visible with glasses and no helmet on second photo).

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Once the spear training was over, it was time for lunch and a quick drink, before afternoon sessions began- lectures, workshops and some fighting in the woods- I attended a very interesting lecture on mead hall and its importance in the Anglo-Saxon culture, as a cornerstone of society. Much like the modern pub, but with added functions of a temple, feasting hall, centre of authority and way for a chieftain/king to show off his wealth and build networks.

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Later that day I took part in what was called an Extreme Viking Event. A hike into the woods, with no modern equipment allowed, only the authentic stuff, and only what you could carry on your own back. The participants were split into two opposing groups, and set up two camps in the woods, where they stayed over night. We were supposed to fight each other, through the night and then perform a Dawn Attack. Sneaking through the woods at night, axe in hand, waiting to ambush another team, sneaking into their camp, defending yours, and sleeping rough for a night- all these things were the highlight of the weekend for me!

And, once we got back to the main camp after the Dawn Raid was finished, there was more combat training to be had, after quick breakfast- there was a lot of group training as well, and a tournament for best fighters, one champion for each type of weapon- all followed by a warband fighting competition, and more beer tent fun.

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As luck would have it, during axe competition, I have managed to hit an opponent in the neck (no injury just a light blow landed in wrong spot), which is a big no-no for safety reasons- if you are reading this, know, you have a pint on my next time I see you!

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And, on Easter Monday, our last day of training- much of the same, just cut short, as we were leaving by mid-afternoon. Last highlight of the event, was a 2 hour-long fight in the woods, with some 16-18 warriors o each side. Use of terrain, obstacles and the wide area of battle allowed for plenty of tricks to be used and made for some really fun combat conditions, which you do not normally get to experience.

So, all in all it was an amazing weekend, I learned lots, had massive amounts of fun, and cannot wat for the rest of season to come in! Bring on the summer!

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