A Brief Introduction to
Armoured Longsword Combat

By Matt Anderson and Shane Smith
ARMA Virginia Beach


Introduction:

Most practitioners of historical fencing have not extensively explored armoured fighting techniques. This is due to several factors, including the expense and difficulty inherent in obtaining a decent reproduction harness. The fact that most harness fighting techniques involve thrusting and violent grappling actions is also daunting. Still, several members of the ARMA, Virginia Beach study group have for several years had a keen interest in trying to recreate the type of harness fighting we see in the fechtbuchs. Not the hack and bash type of display commonly seen at Renn faires, or the armoured stick fighting practiced by some medieval reenacting groups, but something more like what might have really been seen in 15th century Europe. We knew from our examination of the fechtbuchs that real armoured fighting of the period was efficient, effective and brutal.

Certain tactical basics became apparent early on. The edge of the sword, for example, is relatively useless against plate armour. Most source texts show no edge blows at all. Rather, armoured sword fighting is all about putting the point into a relatively unprotected area. In order to thrust effectively and accurately to these relatively small targets such as the face, armpit, inside of the elbow, and other areas which are not covered by plate armour, and defend them, half-swording is the predominant technique. Half-swording, with a firm grip closer to the point, gives one the thrusting accuracy to hit these relatively small areas. It also enables one to thrust with power and body weight behind the attack, often necessary in order to penetrate the maille and padded garments between the plate defenses. Grappling moves such as trips and throws are an essential element as well. Levering with the sword, arm and wrist locks, even kicks and hand strikes are all useful techniques against an armoured man. It is often necessary to throw your opponent to the ground and perhaps hold him there in order to make an opening for your finishing move.

The more we studied the source texts, the more we realized that the only way to really learn how to fight in armour was to armour up and try to duplicate what we saw in the source texts. We have studied and experimented with several sources and many techniques but in this article, we will focus on what we have learned in our exploration of the armoured longsword techniques from Fiore Dei Liberi's Flos Duellatorum.

Weapons:

Shane and I use pretty generic 14th C. style swords for most or our training. They are blunt and have rounded points. These weapons are a compromise we have made for training and especially free play in armour for safety reasons. In period, weapons specifically designed for armoured fighting with strong, acutely tapering blades optimized for thrusting were used. The swords illustrated in Fiore's Dei Liberi's book, for example, appear to be very tapered and long, exactly the type of weapon one would want for this work.

Here, Shane shows an example of the perfect weapon for armoured longsword. It is extremely stiff, with a long, strong point that will penetrate maille with ease.

This is the business end of a good thrusting sword. The blade has a diamond cross-section and is actually very thick in cross-section at the point, forming the equivalent of a long, strong steel spike.

A thrust through a maille-clad plastic soda bottle.

This is the result. The blade has pierced the riveted links of maille easily, passing completely through the bottle. These results were obtained using modern imported maille and a reproduction sword; period maille may or may not have been as easily defeated.

The effect on the links. They are spread apart and broken open by the long, tapering point.

 

The Manual:

Flos Duellatorum, written by Fiore Dei Liberi in 1409, is one of the most detailed and useful examples of medieval fight books yet recovered. It is laid out in a very systematic way, by sections covering wrestling, dagger, single sword, staff/spear, longsword, armoured fighting, and mounted combat. The armoured fighting section contains only six guards and ten techniques. There are, however, many possible extrapolations of the techniques presented and really, if one were to master these few techniques and various ways they can be employed, he would have a good foundation for armoured fighting with the longsword. There are three known versions of the manual, the Novati/Pissani-Dossi, the Getty, and the Morgan. We have based the material presented here primarily on the Novati version as the guards are presented very clearly and a complete English translation by Hermes Michelini is available on the internet compliments of the Knights of The Wild Rose website. We have also studied the Getty version, which differs somewhat from the Novati and contains a great deal more explanatory text.

 

Guards:

Shane (left) stands in the "Short Guard" or "Snake". The threatening point of the snake is obvious. Fiore says of this guard "I have a sharp point to go through harnesses." By shortening the half-sword grip, one gains a little extra range for a thrust. From this guard, quick, accurate thrusts can be thrown out at targets of opportunity, especially the face. Matt is in the "True Cross," which feels a bit odd at first, as you are essentially turning your back to your opponent. Fiore: "I am the True Cross, ready for strikes and thrusts." After some experimentation, we have learned to make use of this as a guard that invites attack. In response to a thrusting attack, one can pivot rather quickly either forward or back to set aside the thrust and bring the point on line.

Here Shane stands in the 'Upper Snake." Fiore tells us that this guard "levels out great thrusts" and "protects against strikes." We have made very effective use of this guard as a starting position for downward thrusts to the face, levering actions using the point of the sword and in warding off any high strike such as the murder stroke (this is not shown specifically in Fiore's manual but is quite common in German sources). Matt demonstrates the "Middle Iron Door," which is "always ready to throw away great thrusts." This is the only guard that is not a half-sword technique. By maintaining the grip on the hilt, quick (though less powerful) thrusts to soft targets such as the face can be thrown out at a longer range than with a half-sword grip. The low point of the sword has a deceptive effect, which tends to make judging the range a little more difficult for the opponent.

Here Shane is in the "Guard of the Arrow" aka "Archer." Note how the sword is cocked back, like an arrow in a drawn bow. In a similar way the sword is ready to be thrust out powerfully and to ward off attacks, or as Fiore says "good for hitting and protecting." Matt is in the "Bastard Cross." The defensive qualities of this guard are obvious. Rather than threatening with the point as the other guards do, the hilt is forward, the left hand in an overhand position on the blade, ready for strong levering and grappling at the sword coupled with a powerful pass forward of the left foot or a backward pass of the right. Transitioning from this guard to either High Serpent or Archer can bring the point on line for a thrust while simultaneously setting aside an attack.

 

Techniques:

The following are interpretations of the techniques shown for armoured longsword. By no means are these the only possible interpretations and in fact many more possibilities and variations exist and can be demonstrated. These are presented as examples of ways to arrive at what we see in the manual and we have been able to perform them all at full speed, in full harness, and against opposition quite effectively. This, coupled with the similarity to the images and text in the manual make us confident that they are certainly effective interpretations and possibly similar to what Fiore actually taught his students.

Shane faces Matt in Iron Door, about to thrust upward toward the face. Matt waits in Bastard cross.

FOB_master_parry.jpg (26887 bytes)

As Shane attempts his thrust, Matt passes the left foot forward, stepping slightly off line to his left, engaging Shane's blade to deflect his thrust. Note that although this appears to be an edge parry, it is only made using the strong portion of the blade to deflect a thrust in a closing action, not using any cutting portion of the blade and not to block any kind of cutting action.

FOB_thrust_to_face.jpg (26095 bytes)

Matt sets aside Shane's thrust and continues on to bring his point on line, thrusting Shane in the neck.

FOB_hand_crush.jpg (27011 bytes)

Here, Shane has rushed forward catching Matt off guard and trapping his hands. Fiore says of this technique "Here I hurt your hands to come to close range, and so hard the harness won't protect you."

FOB_tip_throw.jpg (23782 bytes)

The inertia of Shane's attack forces Matt to step back with his left leg to avoid falling backwards and Shane follows up by stepping behind Matt's right leg and placing his sword across Matt's, driving his blade back and throwing him across his leg. This is a fairly powerful throw and if done forcefully and quickly, will almost always result in the opponent landing on the back of his head. A quick thrust to the face or groin while the opponent is still on the ground, dazed and confused, would be a good finishing move.

Here Shane and Matt are in a bind at the half-sword. Matt will step through with his left foot, and force his sword to his right so that it points over Shane's left shoulder, reaching with his left hand over Shane's right shoulder and thrusting his blade over Shane's left shoulder.

FOB_neck_throw.jpg (22762 bytes)

By grasping his blade again, Matt is now in position for a very strong throw. Fiore: "You feel the sword behind your neck and I'll show you death on the ground." This is a pretty clear reference to stunning or disabling the opponent with a powerful throw, then finishing him off on the ground with a thrust.

FOB_wrist_rake.jpg (27617 bytes)

Here, Shane has thrust his point behind Matt's sword under his right forearm.

Passing back his left foot, Shane disarms Matt by tearing the sword from his right hand. Note that Shane's pommel is also in a perfect position for a strike to the face, a devastating follow-up.

Shane, in Archer, faces Matt who is in Bastard Cross.

FOB_overhead_pommel_throw.jpg (24641 bytes)

Matt suddenly lunges forward, trapping Shane's sword with his vambrace. Note that Matt's right leg is now behind Shane's left.

Matt immediately drives his pommel over Shane's right shoulder, throwing him over his leg. In this case, the finish would likely be a pommel bash to the face as Matt's hilt will be close to Shane at the completion of the technique.

FOB_underhand_pommel_throw.jpg (28453 bytes)

Shane and Matt again in a strong bind at the half-sword.

Shane passes his right leg forward, placing his right foot behind Matt's left. At the same time he swings his hilt under Matt's blade, driving the pommel over Matt's right shoulder. Shane will now drive his pommel back, throwing Matt over his leg.

FOB_thumb_lever.jpg (30125 bytes)

Here, Matt has disengaged from the bind and thrust his point behind Shane's thumb. If done correctly, this has the effect of creating a scissor action between the blade of Matt's sword and the grip of Shane's. This is quite painful, even with gauntlets, as soon as some pressure is applied. Fiore: "I hurt your hand, well you can feel it, and I can hit you with the pommel."

A close-up of the thumb scissor.

To complete the technique, Matt pulls back with his left hand, pinching Shane's thumb tightly and drives his right hand forward, in this case, putting the cross in Shane's face; notice that Shane's thumb is the pivot point for the violent wrenching action with the sword.

Shane faces Matt in Archer, Matt is in Upper Snake.

FOB_wrist_trap_and_face_thrust.jpg (30101 bytes)

As Shane thrusts upward to the face, Matt steps slightly off line to his right and reaches under Shane's left arm, grasping his right wrist and simultaneously putting his point in Shane's face. Obviously if taken to completion, the point of the sword would have been driven deeply into Shane's skull.

 

Final thoughts on training the armoured longsword

So you've decided to give earnest historically accurate harnessfechten a try? There are a few things that you should keep in mind if you hope to implement your own productive and powerful armoured combat training program.

First, remember that good historically accurate armoured fencing begins with good scholarly research. You must be prepared to spend a lot of time with your nose buried in the source-texts and period images. As if that weren't enough, you must then work through your interpretations and those of others with hours of hands-on experimentation in replica armour to insure the martial validity and historical accuracy of your work. This process of hands on experimentation begins with slow-motion walk-throughs of a given technique and progresses gradually to full speed application with intent. Only when a technique is shown to work at speed in both drilling and freeplay within the parameters set forth in the source-texts can we then begin to reasonably assert that our theories and interpretations are worthy of tentative acceptance. Remember that no matter how good your current interpretation, there is never an adequate excuse to stop looking into alternative points of view. To do otherwise is to perhaps be given over to mediocrity by default.

Second, in application remember that armoured fencing is largely about the point. Almost all you will do is done in order to allow you to thrust your point into a soft and unprotected part of your opponent's body. No more, no less. Whether the thrust is delivered from range or from a leverage in the bind, or even after you grapple your opponent to the ground, the goal remains constant .The truth of the matter is that plate armour simply is not effectively cut with a sword's edge, in spite of what you will see portrayed in movies and at many Renn fairs. When it comes to armoured longsword combat, the thrust is paramount.

Last but not least, this is one of the most dangerous forms of fencing to seek competence in. This brand of swordsmanship is one that carries many dangers that while not necessarily peculiar to it, are much magnified in significance due to the nature of the technical applications. There is a very real threat of injury to the joints while grappling and levering as seen in the source texts. The tremendous forces that can and will be placed on your shoulders and elbows can easily dislocate them if you are not careful. For this reason, a thorough warm-up is absolutely prerequisite for armoured fencing just as it should be for unarmoured fencing. It is likewise critical to wear proper safety gear to include adequate eye-protection as a rule and perhaps a mouthpiece when engaged in any significantly intense training with a fellow Swordsman. The huge importance the source-texts place on thrusts to the face and visor demands such precautions. Remember that the most important piece of safety gear you own is between your own ears; do NOT neglect to have it fully engaged in the work at hand. Train smart. Train earnestly. Train safely.

About the Authors:

Matt Anderson is a longtime scholar of the sword who began his martial arts journey studying Judo. He is Director of the ARMA Virginia Beach (VAB) Study Group and has been involved in researching and promoting historically-accurate armoured fighting. Shane Smith studied and taught Asian Martial Arts for several years until joining, before pursuing Renaissance martial arts as a member of VAB. He is active in practicing and teaching armoured and unarmoured combat.

 
 

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