Brief Introduction to
Armoured Longsword Combat
By Matt Anderson and Shane Smith
ARMA Virginia Beach
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Matt sets aside Shane's thrust and continues on to bring his point on line, thrusting
Shane in the neck.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Shane faces Matt in Archer, Matt is in Upper Snake.
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.
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.