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!

 

 

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!

Seax and Scramasax- how to use one?

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Hello, and Welcome!

This post will be a start of a series, in which I will talk in more detail about using different weapons in combat. Naturally, as I have not been in the reenactment for a very long time myself, many times I will refer to my more experienced friends, when it comes to using weapons I am not so proficient with.

The series will start with a weapon I HAVE  a lot of experience with- a seax.

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What is a seax? The shortest answer is- a Viking age side-arm, similar in size and use to a dagger. Larger Seaxes, also known as scramasaxes, are more akin to short swords, and the largest of them all, a langsax was basically a sword, with a simplified design, suitable for a poorer warrior.

Nearly every reenactor carries a seax or a scramasax, as a secondary weapon, to be used if the primary one is lost, damaged or becomes trapped. For many warriors it is a symbol of status, more than a weapon and is elaboratory decorated, to reflect this.

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But enough about what the weapon is- let us go into more detail about how to use it.

The most important thing about seax is- it is short. With this weapon you have no reach, and so must get very close to your opponent, to stand a chance of hitting them. This forces a warrior into a very pro-active stance, and to utilize an aggressive, offensive style of combat.

With this approach, confidence is essential. A warrior must be willing to get uncomfortably close to the opponent, and to put up with furious blows, as he tries to close the distance. Your footwork will be essential, especially the ability to close in very fast.

In order to close your distance in the fastest possible way, you need to perform what we like to call a “waddle”. Instead of making a regular “shuffled” step forward, like you are taught in fencing, with one leg in front of the other, this time, you put your back leg in front of the leading one, pivoting your front foot as you do so. Look at the picture below:

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The red line represents where your back foot should land. Your front foot stays where it is, merely pivoting, to keep your balance right. The green line represents your weight centre, moving forward. The black circle is the tip of the weapon, now so much closer to the opponent, than it was before. This method of movement s much faster than regular steps, and allows for rapid advance and retreat. This is what you need to employ, if you want to close in fast on your opponent, to be able to use your seax.

The most important advantage of a seax, is that it is short. Once you have closed the distance, the length does not matter anymore- but speed does. Being a small, short weapon a seax is very fast indeed, and allows much greater agility than other, larger weapons do. Also, do not forget, that most weapons become in nt useless, than very difficult to use at close-quarters. Pole-arms and spears are useless once you are face-to-face, swords become difficult to use and maneuver. Only axes can compete at very close proximity, and that is provided, that the user shortens the grip in time. So, get close to the enemy, and use the speed and agility of your weapon to your advantage.

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There are two ways of scoring “hits” once your are close up to your enemy. One, is to use feints and rapid movements to get around your enemy’s defence and hit him on an exposed part of the body.

The other, is to create an opening for yourself, usually by using your weapon to move the opponent’s shield (or weapon) out of the way and coming in with a hit. Below is an illustration of the latter method:

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As you can see, my seax is coming over the opponent’s shield, which is angled away from his body. This is, because using the hilt of my weapon, I have hooked his shield out of the way, just like with an axe,and went in for the hit on the chest straight away.

This technique requires not only speed, but also confidence, belligerence and certain amount of aggression.

Below, you will see a simple drawing, in aid of the first method of attack, the one utilizing feints. Red spots in black circles represent the most common points where a hit is possible- this is where most faints are aimed for. The arrows indicate the direction of the faint (up-down, left-right and so on). All those who have practiced combat should be familiar with the concept already. I would like to point out, that with seaxes and scramasaxes, feints can be performed much faster, and therefore more effectively, especially, if you perform left-right sort of feint, which can be difficult to master with a larger weapon.

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Additional advantage is that because of a much shorter distance between you and your opponent, there is less chance of spotting a feint- only fast or experienced warriors will be able to react in time.

Avoid striking the opponent’s shield, as you fight with a seax. It is pointless as a show weapon, due to its small size, and wasting valuable seconds on hitting a shield is the last thing you need. Instead, each blow should be aimed at the body, intended either as a killing blow, or a feint. Your each move should be aimed at hitting the opponent, or distracting him, rather than making “showy” moves and impressive strikes, of which so many swordsmen and axemen are fond of.

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A seax has one more important advantage- it allows you to easily take control of your opponent’s weapon. How does it work? It is a very simple principle, based on bio-mechanics. Any weapon has what is called a “strong” point and a “weak” point. The further away a point on a weapon is from the warrior’s hand, the “weaker” it is. Look at the photo below. Blue line indicates “strong” point of the sword. Here, the warrior has full control of his weapon and should win any bind he comes into. Yellow line indicates the middle section of the weapon, whereas the red line indicates the “weak” point of the weapon, over which the warrior can easily lose control, as per the laws of leverage:

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With a seax, nearly all of your weapon is “strong”, because of the limited length. More control gives you more leverage. The only time you can really lose a bind, is if your opponent holds his weapon in two hands (like a pole arm or a long spear). With a seax, if you do come into a bind, you can easily move the opponent’s weapon out-of-the-way and take control of it, thus allowing you to create an opening into which you can strike.

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One last piece of advise- PLAY with your weapon. Often and repeatedly. Get to know it’s feel, the balance, the weight. Get used to it, until it becomes an extension of your arm- that way, even if you are not practising in a duel, you will become better at using your weapon, simply because you are so used to it!

So, to sum up- seax gives you speed, leverage and agility, but it has very limited range and does not look as impressive, when used in combat. It requires speed, confidence and aggression when used, and your footwork must be top-notch if you want to maintain distance control. It is not an easy weapon to master, and for most of us it will remain merely a secondary weapon- but there is a saying amongst reenactors, that a man with a seax and a small shield can kill ANY warrior, provided he is really good with those. There are few enough seax users in the reenactment, but those that do use it prove just how good a weapon it is, when used correctly.

Next time, I will write more about the seax, but this time I shall focus on fighting with seax alone and no shield, which is a different sort of combat altogether.

Until next time!

Safety Measures

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This time, I am going to talk a little bit more about how we, the warriors keep ourselves safe on the battlefield. Viking and early medieval combat displays are very exciting events, that gather a lot of attention. The reenactors always ensure that the displays are dramatic, entertaining, competitive and as close to the historical combat techniques as practicable, whilst also remaining safe for all those involved.

It is fairly easy, when it comes to public safety- separate battlefield/fighting arena, double set of ropes, instructions from the organizers, signs etc.

But how do the fighters keep themselves from harm?

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1. The Equipment

Warriors use protective equipment, to keep safe. Some of it mandatory, some optional. Let us start with a couple of mandatory items:

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Gloves. Possibly the least authentic bit of gear we use, as the Vikings or their counterparts would not use them. A thick mitten or leather-reinforced gauntlet will not stop a sword blow cutting your fingers off. But it will stop a blunt weapon from breaking your fingers, by taking most of the force away from the blow. Without appropriately armoured gloves, a reenactor’s career would be very short and painful indeed, and finger/hand injuries are the most common ones seen on the field.

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Helmets. Although not every reenactment society makes them mandatory, the one I am a member of does, and for a good reason. Head injuries can be very serious, and face injuries are not uncommon. A helmet provides essential protection to a warrior’s head, and gives him extra safety when getting into closely-packed shieldwall combat, where it is very easy for a blow to go astray.

Now, onto the optional pieces of protection, starting with the most basic and obvious one- a shield. No explanation necessary, I trust, and although it is not mandatory, as some warriors are using  two-handed weapons, or maybe a weapon in each hand, each warrior owns one, because hand weapon + shield is the most common and basic weapon combination in reenactment.

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Arm-guards. Again, not every warrior is using them- but I can attest to the fact, that they are very useful indeed. Made of thick, hardened leather, and cut into an appropriate shape, they are great at taking the “sting” out of a blow. The protection they offer to forearms and elbows has saved many a warrior from bruises, cuts and fractured bones. Especially, when a warrior uses an aggressive style of combat, or likes getting close to his enemies, thus exposing himself to more blows. In that situation, arm-guard are just amazing.

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Padded armour. Otherwise known as gambesons. a gambeson will protect the warrior’s torso, legs and shoulders, as well as his arms. Made of multiple layers of batting and cloth, padded armour is amazing at absorbing kinetic force of the attack, and in doing so, preventing injuries. It is also a very good-looking piece of kit, and warriors wearing it appear more fearsome, and look more like professional warriors, ready for battle. The authenticity of padded armour in the Viking age is still disputed, but  so far no one has come up with evidence, that it was not used, and so, it is allowed, with appropriate materials and patters being used. And did I mention, it looks cool?

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Chain Mail. The best, most costly form of armour in the Viking age, mail offers supreme protection to its user. It is great at stopping cuts and was the dominant form of armour for many hundreds of years. Mail comes in many varieties, and a warrior may have a small “t-shirt”, or a full-length suit of armour, depending of his preference and availability of cash. Historically,  mail was very expensive and only the richest and the elite warriors could afford one. In reenactment, mail is used as an elite kit item, representing warriors wealth and status- but it also offers great protection from incoming attacks, by absorbing their force. Plus, it looks even better than padded armour, and make a warrior seem truly formidable!

Miscellaneous. Many warriors also use additional protective equipment, such as modern knee-braces, or elbow pads, even jaw guards. Whilst not really authentic, these items can, and do prevent many injuries on vulnerable parts of the body, and warriors with long years of experience will tell you, that they area very good investment.

But equipment is not everything! even with blunt and rounded-off weapons, helmets and all protection imaginable, injuries would happen everyday if not for the most important factor- the warriors and their training.

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2. The Warriors

Each warrior, who takes part in a combat display, must do so in a safe and controlled manner. It does not suffice to say “ok, I will be careful, not to take someone’s eye”. Each warrior must pass a series of safety and combat tests, to make sure he/she knows what they are doing. It takes skill and practice, to learn to use weapons in an entertaining, accurate and safe manner.

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For each weapon they use, a warrior must pass a competency test, to prove he/she is able to use it safely and with skill. Warriors train regularly, and training officers watch over them, to make sure safety rules are adhered to. Whilst in combat, there are rules by which warriors must abide. There are body parts, we may not attack (head for example), blows we cannot perform (like thrusts). Warriors must also “control” their blows and “pull” them, when making contact with another warriors body.

What does it mean? It means, that the blow is made to look like it can kill, but is actually very precisely controlled, and never hits the opponent at a full force, but only hard enough to make it look convincing. Warriors are taught techniques, that make their attacks look vicious and deadly, whilst remaining fully controlled.

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Warriors, and their training are the most important part of our safety system. It is a game after all, a hobby, and we want to make it safe for all those involved. Accidents and injuries do happen, as it is a combat sport. From common bruises, to serious injuries requiring hospital attention- but such occurrences are rare, and very seldom something actually happens, though many times warriors come close to an accident. It is because of our level of competency, safety rules and equipment, that we are able to enjoy our hobby, and share it with the public, for the benefit of all.

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Raid on Lindisfarne!

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The Vikings first arrived to Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island, in 793. Ever since Viking reenactment started up, they have been coming back, although now they are not pillagers, but performers.This year, on the first weekend of August I had the chance to take part in this fantastic show, held in one of Britain’s most beautiful corners.

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The island is very spectacular. The historical and natural beauty are amazing. For me, the especially interesting bit was the tidal causeway, connecting the island with the Northumbrian coast. When the tide is down, the road is exposed, and island can be reached- but when the tide comes in, it floods the road, and the island is cut off. The natural environment of this place is truly unique.

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But enough about the environment! Time to talk about the show itself. The Viking village was pitched in the ruins of the priory, where the fighting arena was also set up. It was there, that the spectators would see the Lindisfarne raids reenacted before their eyes, over Saturday and Sunday.

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The usual Living History set up was put in place- craft demonstrations, authentic food, and reenactors talking about the life at is was at the turn on the 8th Century. The monks of Lindisfarne were also present, to tell the visitors about life in the priory:

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The main part of the show, was the story of Lindisfarne, and the start of the Viking Age. The peaceful life of the monastery was ruined by the Vikings, who came over to plunder the riches of the priory. UNder the leadership of Ragnar Lothbrok, the Vikings came to Lindisfarne and, after killing the monks took all the treasure they could carry:

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Historically, the Vikings returned home, and then came back for more, only to be faced by an army of Northumbrians. Some of the locals were taken as slaves, and the brave Northumbrians decided to free them as well as punish the Vikings for their raid on the Holy Island. This is where the history ends, and the show takes over. Great battle ensues, between the Vikings and the Northumbrian Saxons, which the Saxons manage to win, after a great struggle. The last surviving Viking is taken prisoner, and forcefully baptised, before being put to death:

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As a “show fight” or a “display battle”, this battle had a pre-determined result- the purpose here was to entertain the public and provide a jolly good bash for the reenactors. Such battles usually follow very similar scenario: first, the taunts and insults are exchanged, both sides make noise and try to intimidate each other. Than, the lines clash fiercely, usually two times, with plenty of big blows, noise, screams and impressive fighting. Lines then separate and prepare for a third clash, in which the loosing side will withdraw and loose men, as if they were loosing a battle. Sometimes, the two sides will separate one last time, and clash yet again, at which point the loosing side will be killed to a man, or routed of the field. THe trick here, is to make this all believable and entertaining. Also, the “loosing” side must remember not to fight too well and make their rout look believable. Conversely, the “winning” side must remember not to make the fight one-sided and that some casualties, or occasional setbacks are necessary.

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It is after the “Show Fight” is over, when both sides have a competitive re-fight, during which warriors fight only to kill and the best side emerges victorious.

Side note- it is essential for warrior to stay hydrated! No one realises how important water is for armies, until they take part in a half-hour battle themselves…

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That was the battle of Lindisfarne- there was of course the traditional Kiddie Vike, when the children were allowed to take on (and, quite rightly wipe out) the fearsome Viking Warriors, as well as individual combat competitions and weapon displays.

It was also during the Lindisfarne Festival, that two of my good friends have tied the knot, and were married during a traditional ritual of Handfasting- presided over by Konungr himself, the president of the Vikings Society. All the traditions were observed, the gods were invoked and the mead was shared between all those in attendance. It was a wonderful and touching ceremony, in which I had the privilege to be involved. Dear friends- live a long and happy life together, and may all your dreams come true!

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And that is all from Lindisfarne Festival 2014- I shall be looking forward to coming back next year, and to buying more of the delicious mead they brew on the island!

Photo credit- whenever the photos were not taken by myself, they were taken by Y Ddraig’s keenest photographer, Baggsy. Thanks a ton Bags!