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.
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
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.
2. Adopting a shieldwall
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.
3. Using the shield to defend
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
4. Using a shield in an attack
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.
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.
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.