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!

 

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The Axeman Cometh!

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In today’s post I shall talk about the most iconic Viking weapon of all- the battle axe. It is always associated with the Vikings, as their weapon of choice. And yet, in reenactment, it is seldom used. Just look at any image of a shield-wall clash, and look what weapons are they using:

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Swords, swords, swords, some spears, one or two axes here and there.

Why is that the case? Why does everyone use a sword? Mostly because the swords are “fancier” and because the axe gets a bad press, due to its alleged “clumsiness” and difficulty in use.

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The axe often seems like the poor warrior’s choice, something one will use, before he gets the money to buy a “proper” weapon- the sword. In my humble opinion, this is a completely wrong idea!

Contrary to popular belief, axes are not clumsy, slow, or difficult to control. A well made, quality axe is fast, well balanced and a pleasure to use. It will go exactly where you want it to, stop when you wish, and it is capable of a whole range of nasty tricks to use on your opponents. Actual battle axes, like these below, were designed for speed, agility and cutting power:

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Each axe would have slightly different properties, and the choice was much up to the individual warrior.

ImageAn axe is a wonderful weapon to use, if you know how- it is not in any way inferior to the sword, it just requires a different technique to use. It requires a direct approach and a certain aggressiveness, willingness to attack first and keep the pressure up. Let me outline to you some techniques you can use with the axe, to convince you how useful can it be:

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Feinting- yes, it is possible, and I encourage it strongly! Because an axe is a chopping weapon, with all the weight and force on the top of it, it is easier to “sell” your attacks to the opponent. A wide swing for his body will provoke a reaction, as axe blows are harder and more difficult to stop than sword or spear blows, as well as generally more intimidating. Once your opponent has committed to a defence, you can swiftly change the direction of your attack (a light, well balanced axe can do it in a blink of an eye) and strike at the exposed parts of his body.

ImageHooking of shields- this is a powerful and widely used technique, using the axe shape and the leverage it gives you, you just hook it behind your opponents shield and pull it away from their body. Then, you can push your axe into their exposed body or slash across it, in one swift move.

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Changing the range- oh yes, an axe can be used to fight a distance, as well as in extreme proximity, something a sword cannot do very well. When you are far from your opponent, use the whole length of the axe haft to strike from afar, or get face-to-face and simply slide your hand up the haft, making for a shorter weapon, ideal for close-quarters or tight spaces. Even better- start from afar, and as you deliver blows, get closer and closer, until you are almost stepping on your opponent. Then shorter your weapon and finish them, while they try to get away.

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Disarming/taking control of weapons- yet another trick that uses the shape of the axe and the leverage it gives you. When you parry a blow from your opponent, you can use the axe to hook it round the weapon and using a simple circular parry, direct the weapon away from you, or even disarm your opponent completely. Than step in and hack them down at will. Note- do not use this against two handed spears or Dane axes. Their size and the fact they are held two handedly gives your opponent much more leverage then you have and you will loose in this situation.

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Intimidation- psychological effect of an axe is not to be underestimated. When you rain blow after blow on your opponent, and always present the danger of disarming them or taking their shield away, it makes them intimidated. Also, when you constantly step on, and keep the pressure up, the enemy is more likely to make a mistake.

Unlike the sword, the axe is not good as a defensive weapon, and should be used for offensive. An axeman must be aggressive and ready to get close and personal and to deliver the first strike, but also must have solid defence to protect his advance. This is where many reenactors choose swords instead, as they allow a defensive style of combat, when you just wait for your enemy to over-commit on an attack, or use parry-riposte to defeat them. The axe is a very direct weapon and should be used as such.

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The “axe-head effect”- this is a trick for a clever warrior, who knows the range and size of his weapon. You use the shape of the axe head to get to opponents body through his defence- even if the shield, or the weapon stops the blow, the axe head may still connect with the body if you place it smartly. You can target the shoulders with a straight blow, or step to the side and the the axe head around enemy’s shield. You may even get through a sword or spear parry, if you deliver the blow the right way. This obviously works better with longer axe-heads.

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The Shield-Wall- the axe is a fantastic weapon to use in the tight spaces of a shield-wall. You can use it at full-length to attack and parry from a distance, or if the lines clash, shorten it and fight without any difficulty, while the swordsmen can barely get a good swing going! Also, the axe is great at knocking down opponent’s weapons, due to its extra weight at the top- this is especially true for spears.Also, with the axe you can hook opponents shields and open them up for a strike from your comrades. This works best at a distance, when you hook a shield and force it open, while your mate (preferably a spearman) gets the killing blow at the same time.

Last, but not least- the axes just look cool, and are such an iconic weapon. They also make for a great show combat and, since they force a more aggressive stance provide better entertainment value for the public.

Hopefully I have convinced you of the virtues of the axe- let us see more on the battlefield!

What are your thoughts on axes? Write down in the comments below!