fechterSnBtrng.jpg (15075 bytes)The Sword & Buckler Tradition - Part 1

By J. Clements 

Along with the longsword as a foundational weapon of training, the ARMA has always emphasized the sword and buckler as a vital tool of study.  We now present here one of the most comprehensive looks at this system ever offered.  The conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence are somewhat surprising and may lead students of the subject to reappraise the historical importance of this fencing method . 

As a fencing tradition in Europe the sword and buckler method was one of the oldest and most continuous combative systems.[1]  To a large degree however, its place in fencing has been overshadowed by both the popular image of sword and shield fighting in the Middle Ages and the later Renaissance idea of rapier and dagger duelling.  But today, modern enthusiasts and students of historical European martial arts are once again acquiring respect for this effective weapon combination.   The result is something of a re-evaluation of the familiar conception of this versatile fighting method.

footcombat.JPG (131707 bytes)Although, the sword and buckler is often associated with the fencing methods of the early 1500s and with the common serving man, it was a form of fighting with a much longer tradition. Sword and buckler fighting also became a “combat sport” of sorts, but not before it had already long been a martial system of self-defense and battlefield skill.  What is recognizable about the buckler is that it was foremost a military tool used in war by both soldiers and knights.  That the tradition survived longer than large shields and ended up occasionally facing off against the rapier has engendered it (no small thanks to Shakespeare) with something of an unjust legacy.   Given its military fitness, its eventual unsuitability for civilian duelling and urban combat during the age of the rapier comes as no surprise. 

ManessischeHandschrif1325.jpg (22729 bytes)But the study of the sword and buckler has suffered somewhat from a lack of attention by historians of fencing and Medieval warfare.  On the one hand, it is so ubiquitous as to not be of much significance, and on the other, because of comparisons to 16th century rapier fencing, it is frequently viewed as being somehow brutish or unsophisticated.  Further, while assorted types of shield developed and changed their shapes and sizes, bucklers remained much more consistent, so scholars and historians have not had much reason to focus on them.  As well, unlike shields bucklers served no heraldic function either and this too has perhaps limited some of their appeal. 

La Petite Defense

jacquerie1358.JPG (70292 bytes)A buckler differs from a shield in that the latter is carried by straps and worn on the arm whereas the former is held in single-hand in a “fist” grip.  It is difficult to trace the history of the weapon as many times any type of round shield or small targe would be called buckler, regardless of whether it was held in the fist or worn on the arm.[2]  The buckler was a small, maneuverable, hand-held shield for deflecting and punching blows. It was usually round and made of metal but occasionally of hardened leather or layers of wood. (Tarassuk & Blaire, p. 105).  Bucklers were typically round and frequently between 8 to 16 inches in diameter, but octagonal, square, and trapezoidal versions were also known.

1375French.JPG (122175 bytes)Considerable varieties of bucklers were developed.  Often a pointed spike protruded from the central boss or umbo.[3]  Many bucklers were pointed with a central tip or several smaller “teeth”.  These points could be used offensively to great effect as well as aided in binding and deflecting an opponent’s weapon.  John Stow wrote in 1631 how using the buckler’s long “pyke” (a spikes 8- 12 inches long) it was the habit of the old fighters “either to breake the swords of their enemies, or suddenly to runne into them and stab”. (Aylward, p. 17).  An English Royal proclamation in 1562 even complained of “bucklers with long pykes in them.” (Norman, p. 24) and a spiked buckler from c. 1607 was even found at the Jamestown settlement fort in Virginia.  Some 16th century bucklers also had raised metal rings, hooks, or bands that allowed for the catching or knocking of opposing blades.  Samples of bucklers with these can be seen on display today in the Wallace Collection Museum in London.  Even the special concave buckler, ostensibly developed in the 1500s to more easily facilitate deflecting of rapier thrusts, seems to appear much earlier in a French image of 1375.   The light and shadow in the artwork clearly show the buckler to be curved inward and given the variety of short, tapering, thrusting swords in use at the time, this is not difficult to accept. 

BattleofOtterburnLate1300.jog.jpg (242925 bytes)The versatility of the sword and buckler as a method of fighting can be said to lay in its simplicity. As a two-weapon combination, it is simultaneously defensive and offensive.  It offered some protection against missile weapons and was convenient for facing heavier weapons such as polearms and axes.[4]  Yet, its small size made it agile and quick.  Combined with a good shearing sword or tapering cut-and-thrust blade, it could deflect attacks, strike blows of its own, and yet still allow the user’s own sword to cut around in any direction.  Another advantage of metal bucklers was that unlike wooden shields, the point of an opponent’s weapon would not get stuck in the face of the buckler nor would the edge of a blade damage the rim (although, when this occurred it could be used to the shield man’s advantage).  In many of the historical images of sword and buckler combat the familiar fighting postures found in longsword fencing manuals can be easily discerned, such as the wards of: high, middle, low, back, and hanging.

A Lengthy Legacy

bucklrvs.JPG (19099 bytes)In the Middle Ages, bucklers were common armaments among both knights and common soldiers – even more so than shields.  A buckler was less cumbersome and more agile than a larger shield and easier to carry about or wear on the hip.  We know that sword and buckler play was a popular pastime in northern Italy, in Germany, and in England. As British historical fencing researcher-practitioner Martin J. Austwick has pointed out: “The earliest references to professional combat instructors or masters of defense as they were to become known all have one thing in common.   They refer to schools of sword and buckler.   Add to this the fact that the earliest known fechtbuch or fight book is dedicated solely to sword and buckler combat, then it becomes apparent that sword and buckler combat is arguably the oldest surviving martial tradition within Western Martial Arts today.”[5]

Triumphzug1.JPG (176878 bytes)The primary use of the buckler in Europe was by infantry. Light infantry, made up of commoners armed with bucklers and swords or falchions lined up behind troops with pole-weapons, were used frequently in armies during the 1100s to 1300s. Early Medieval pictorial sources, from c.650 to c.1100, additionally show bucklers in use by Celtic, Frankish, and Byzantine horsemen.  Medievalist Donald Kagay reports of ordinances from 1363 by the Crown of Aragon’s parliament of Monzón which specified the military equipment required for frontier troops on active duty.   Light mounted troops were required to have among their weapons a cuyrase (breast plate), a camisol (maile shirt), helmet, lance, and a small round leather shield called a darga de scut.[6]  Bucklers are also common in Medieval artwork depicting Middle Eastern warriors, but these small shields are actually for mounted combat and are typically held sideways by two straps as opposed to the center-held buckler with its single handle.  But the sword and buckler was most effective in foot combat such as with the Italian Rotulari (c. 1475) buckler infantry. One historian best explains their development: “It was to combat the new emphasis on field fortifications that a new type of infantry became popular in Italian armies. This was the so-called ‘sword and buckler’ infantry, first experimented with by Braccio. They were lightly armed, agile, and equipped for hand-to-hand offensive fighting. The type had already been developed in Spain in fighting with the Moors, and the establishment of Aragonese in Naples in the 1440s clearly had something to do with their appearance in Italy at this time.”[7]

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There is no question of the buckler's popularity over the centuries.  The Holkham Picture Bible Book from the early 1300s offers illustrations of combat including that between mounted knights using sword and lance, and between common soldiers (le commoune gent) on foot using axe, falchion, spear, and short sword with small round buckler. (Prestwich,  p. 115). An image, dated to the 2nd half of the 14th century, of sword and buckler facing longsword, can even be found in the chapter on violent crimes from the State laws of King Magnus Eriksson, Sweden.
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Fresco paintings from c.1340 of northern Italian infantry fighting with sword and buckler can be found on the castle of Sabbionara at Avio in Trento. A late 13th century image from Tuscany also depicts maile-clad helmeted infantry armed only with sword and buckler.  A French illumination from c.1317 of the Legende de St. Denis shows militia meeting the king and equipped with buckler among other weapons (MS Fr. 2090-2. f.129r. Paris).  A carved relief depicting two sleeping Swabian guards from c.1350 shows them equipped with sword and buckler and wearing maile and partial plate armor. (Nicolle, Arms and Armor, p. 191).  An astrological text from the late 14th century offers a colorful image depicting a range of martial exercises practiced in the sun outdoors, including sword and buckler fencing. (C. F. Black, p. 132)
Another manuscript illustration of a boar hunt dated c.1300-1350 shows two hunters armed with sword and buckler and sword and cloak. (Nicolle, Arms and Armor, p. 191).[8]   A c.1305 image from Flanders of the battle Courtrai portrays numerous maile-clad helmeted Flemish militiamen on foot with bucklers, but no larger shields are shown. 

frenchc1317LegendedeStDenis.JPG (223241 bytes)

archbucks.JPG (167605 bytes)At the Agincourt battle in 1415, the only defence recorded for the English bowmen is a round buckler 1 foot in diameter.  (Edge, p. 65).  The 1457, Bridport Muster Roll shows that many of the common folk called up (including 5 apparent women) were equipped with sword and buckler. While a description by Dominic Mancini in 1483 of the equipment of the troops under Richard Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) noted, “the sword is accompanied by an iron buckler.” (Edge, p. 128).  The Spanish sword and buckler men of the early 1500s are among the best known proponents of the weapons.  They wreaked havoc up and down the battlefields of Europe, even against the famed Swiss pikemen.  A favored tactic was to close against pike formations and try to roll under the polearms then pop up among their clustered opponents where their shorter weapons could wreak havoc. 

cavacalbo1.jpg (64761 bytes)By 1500, the Spanish infantry of Gonsalvo de Cordova used short thrusting swords and bucklers, wore steel caps, breast and back plates, and greaves. (Oman, p. 63).  The infamous Machiavelli himself in his own 1521 Arte of Warre, wrote of how at the battle of Barletta in 1503 the Spanish sword and buckler men dealt with the Swiss pikemen: “When they came to engage, the Swiss pressed so hard on their enemy with their pikes, that they soon opened their ranks; but the Spaniards, under the cover of their bucklers, nimbly rushed in upon them with their swords, and laid about them so furiously, that they made a very great slaughter of the Swiss, and gained a complete victory.” (Machiavelli, p. 66). As Machiavelli tells it, the Spaniards at the battle of Ravenna in 1512 fell furiously on the Germans, “rushing at the pikes, or throwing themselves on the ground and slipping below the points, so that they darted in among the legs of the pikemen.”  The Spaniards “made so good a use of their swords, that not one of the enemy would have been left alive, if a body of French cavalry had not fortunately come up to rescue them.” (Machiavelli, p. 70).  “This fight was typical of many more in which during the first quarter of the sixteenth century the sword and buckler were proved to be more than master of the pike.” (Oman, p. 110). In 1618 Adam van Breen wrote a work in the Netherlands on military drill which in 1625 was reprinted as Mars His Field, “or The Exercise of Armes, wherein in lively figures is shewn the Right use and perfect manner of Handling the Buckler, Sword, and Pike...”[9]

Author Wilbur Prescott writing on the art of war in late Medieval Spain, suggests the reason for the proficiency of the Spanish sword and buckler men of the early 1500s, was curiously, their considerable experience in late 15th century siege warfare which at the time relied heavily on close combat skills with shields. (Prescott, p. 26).  Following along the work of Vegetius (influential throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance), Machiavelli even suggested that armies of the time should actually equip their soldiers with swords and bucklers.  Their advantage in pike warfare lay in the well-timed ability of such agile fighters to close in among the longer weapons of their tightly packed adversaries. In 1583 the Italian military writer Cesare d’Evoli said he favored small round metal shields for deflecting pikes. (Anglo, p. 220). 


Footnotes for Part 1

[1] The word is derived from the Old French bocle for the “buckle-like” boss or umbo on a shield.  The term “boss” is from the 12th century French Boce, bocle, called bloca, in 12th-13th century Spain (Nicolle, Arms and Armor, p. 549).

[2] The 1611 edition of Florio’s Italian-English dictionary, gives Brocchiéro, Broccoliéro, as “a buckler, a target, a shield.”  Although often described as near synonymous with the buckler, a targe (or targa and adarga) differed from a buckler in that it was a small wooden shield with a leather cover and leather or metal trim.  Some were also covered with metal studs or spikes.  Unlike bucklers, targes were worn on the arm like other types of shields.  They were also usually flat rather than convex. Elizabethans referred to the practice of “Sworde and targat”. The word “targe” apparently comes from small “targets” placed on archery practice dummies.  Some forms of medium sized steel shields from the Renaissance are often classed as targes or the Italian rondella . Though associated with the Scots, the “targe” was actually used throughout Europe. They were most popular in the early Renaissance and the Scots were merely the last to use them.

[3] Following Livy, T. Thomas’s 1587 Latin-English dictionary, Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, defined umbo as “the bosse of a buckler or shield (London, R. Boyle).  Thomas also listed Parmularius as “A buckler or target maker, or he that useth such a one” and the old Roman Pelta as “A target or buck­ler like a halfe moone: also a square buckler or targen.”

[4] It has also been speculated that an advantage of the buckler in the crush of Medieval combat lay in its adaptability.  Whereas a larger shield worn on the arm could be hooked or pulled by various types of polearms and axes, thereby vulnerably encumbering the fighter, a smaller more nimble hand-held buckler could easily dislodge itself from such attempts or suddenly be discarded by a fighter.

[5] http://albionacademyofarmes.org/essay1.htm

[6] A Government Besieged by Conflict. Paper delivered by Donald Kagay at the 13th Annual  Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference at the New College of South Florida, March 16th, 2002. Pp. 34-35.

[7] Michael Mallet. Mercenaries and Their Masters – Warfare in Renaissance Italy. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, NJ, 1974, p. 155.

[8] Interestingly, the cloak is interestingly wrapped around the left arm identical to the manner that was to become the custom in the 16th century.

[9] De Wapen-handelinge van schilt, spies, rapiers, en targis. Nae de nieuwe ordere, vanden...prince van Oraignien, Mauritius van Nassauw ... Door Adam van Breen in figuren ... The Hague, Ghedruckt ...door H. Hondius, 1640.

The preceding material was excerpted a forthcoming book on Historical Fencing due in 2003.  © Copyright 2002 by John Clements.


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