Importance of the Full Leg Target in Weapon Sparringjcbio.jpg (2938 bytes)

John Clements

The idea of excluding lower leg targets in weapon sparring is a fundamental error. It is limiting, unrealistic, and historically inaccurate. Doing so promotes a misunderstanding of fighting and weapon use. Hits to the lower legs should not be excluded in any sparring.

 The most noticeable effect of not targeting the full leg is to the distance fighters must engage from. Proper fighting distance is distorted and numerous repercussions result. Without including lower leg target areas, there is no need to stand back and use a weapon's natural reach. Instead, fighters can only strike by having to get in close to hit around and behind shields. Once at this forced short range, a longer, more historical length weapon can actually become a hindrance.

With full leg targets, fighters are forced to be much more wary and fight further away in order to prevent their legs from being easily cut out from under them (even from under shields). Else, they have to shorten the distance for closer blows. But in doing so, the opponent has to first move across ground where his legs are momentarily vulnerable (which is not that easy to do). If the opponent does get in close, one can still block high and strike down low or simply back step. These are common fighting techniques when lower leg targets are included. Otherwise, we end up exclusively with the step-right up, in-your face, slug-it-out method so common in forms of popular full-contact Medieval stick fighting.

With full leg targets, fighters are forced to be much more wary and fight further away in order to prevent their legs from being easily cut out from under them (even from under shields).

This also has the effect of virtually doing away with any significant footwork or cutting slashes. The result of excluding lower leg targets is the typical toe-to-toe bashing away at one another. There is no need to use decent footwork in maneuvering, lunging or evading. Instead it's all reduced to point-blank, over-the top/around the back whacking that only uses small steps and snapping, club-like hits. This style is hardly swordsmanship.

This also explains the popularity of such shorter swords in rules discounting lower leg targets. Why bother with a historically accurate length blade if the rules inherently favor shorter ones? There's no need to have a blade long enough to threaten an opponent's legs from a distance, or capable of blocking attacks against one's own. It is laughable how anyone can claim to be doing "historical" fighting and then flat out ignore the length of the vast majority of real Medieval swords.

By being oblivious to the lower legs during sparring, a good number of fighters are cheating themselves out of a fuller combat experience.

Without having to defend the lower legs the entire nature of fighting is changed. This is the single most significant result of excluding lower leg targets. Targeting the whole body is what opens up real tactical and technical possibilities. Having to defend the lower legs requires the use of lower parries and wards (i.e. moving the weapon down). This in turn, obviously necessitates learning to cut and block from positions other than with the weapon held up, behind or resting on the shoulder. Yet , this understanding of weapon use is disregarded as a result of eliminating hits to the knees on down. By being oblivious to the lower legs during sparring, a good number of fighters are cheating themselves out of a fuller combat experience. Just hitting to the thigh is not enough and doesn't make up for this crucial loss.

In addition to obviously reducing the amount of potential targets, excluding the lower legs has the affect of decreasing the number of possible cuts and attack angles. More profoundly, this limits the stances, the positions and the parries a fighter need learn and practice. This then, further reduces the amount of practical techniques available and all feints that go with them. If no attacks are made to the lower legs, then no parries are needed there and no feints are made there. Therefore, no stances or positions are ever taken that realistically guard or threaten the whole body. One does not train to fake hits on, or make blocks for, areas that are off-target. Thus, there is then a substantial decrease in overall fighting moves (and corresponding ability) simply because the lower legs are not available for attacks.

When huddled together in mass combat, the problems created by excluding lower legs is even more evident. Where legs would naturally be open all over, there is instead a jumbled, static collection of fighters shoulder to shoulder with no need for wider stances or room to step and maneuver. Often, a bent knee is the closest target available and most easily struck when foes are packed tightly and cannot maneuver. But, this never occurs when lower legs are forbidden and so the style of group fighting is also affected.

Anyone who has switched from sparring under rules that exclude lower legs to those that don't, will see the difference. If use to being confined to sparring under conditions limiting leg blows, one may a first find their legs open to attack and easily hit. However, with effort one will quickly learn to deal with it. Eventually, as skill in attacking and defending there becomes second nature, they will wonder why they didn't fight this way sooner. The sheer increase in tactical options and sparring fun makes it essential.

The reasoning behind rules excluding lower legs hits originates almost exclusively from ideas of "safety". Prohibiting lower leg targets is standard practice in a number of Medieval combat systems. If fighting full-contact with wooden sticks or live-steel, even a blow of only few pounds of force can shatter a knee cap and possibly cripple an individual for life (even through plate-armor). This makes sense and is certainly something to avoid. However, when examined closely, there are strong reasons not to buy the "safety argument".

First, are we really expected to believe that after more than 25 years of massive experience and expertise in armor and padding, modern Medieval combat practitioners have never been able to come up with a way to safely pad and protect the knee? Has no one ever thought to combine thick padding with extra steel? Historical warriors found their armor sufficient enough for real weapons. After all, is the knee cap really all that different from the throat, the bridge of the nose, or the hand? Yet, these are all legitimate (and safe) target areas.

Are we really expected to believe that after 25 years of experience, modern Medieval combat practitioners [can't] come up with a way to protect the knee?

If we buy the safety claim about targeting the knee, why then allow hits to the thigh but not the shin? Cannot hits to the lower thigh potentially strike the knee just as hits to the upper shin might? To this we often hear the claim that blows skipping down to the shin "might" hit the knee by mistake. If so, then why exclude the foot at all? There is certainly no chance of being hit in the knee when someone is hacking off your foot! Excluding the foot makes no sense whatsoever (forget about leg wounds, how can you fight with half a foot?). Yet, the safety argument proponents ignore this fact of physiology.

Some will even argue that the foot is a "useless" target. They say going after the foot (and even the shin) exposes one too easily to an attack from above. Well, obviously when the opponent knows you can't hit anywhere else in between! How can one force an opponent to guard their knees or shins if, when you drop down your weapon, he can count on knowing exactly where you intend to strike i.e., the foot. To make lower leg targets viable and force an opponent to be wary, the whole leg must be included. You can't attempt a strike or feint on the foot without also threatening the knee and shin in the process. The same can even be said for blows aimed at the thigh. In fact, the threat value of striking the thigh (and hip) is actually increased when an attack can easily drop lower and hit farther down. After all, historically, warriors did often have to armor their shins and feet.

It is here that the concept of using padded contact-weapons reveals one of its many virtues. With contact-weapons the safety-argument disintegrates. Padded weapons virtually eliminate the claim that fragile knees will be smashed. When armor or padding is worn, even full contact blows on any part of the lower legs (or the body) can be satisfyingly and safely delivered. All that is left is an unwillingness by certain participants to face battle where their deficiency in defending their lower legs will show. Can you blame someone for not wanting to enter into a fight where they'd quickly get their shins swiped right out from under them?

Another reason the lower legs are often ignored is because some enthusiasts argue that there are indeed accounts of historical tournaments where participants were not allowed to strike there. This is true to a certain degree. But, there are also accounts of combatants fighting with wooden barriers between them and even with whale-bone swords, yet no one tries to simulate that! To single out one reference to one form of tournament and then narrowly focus on it, is to misconstrue and misrepresent Medieval fighting. This is particularly so when the motivation is not to authentically recreate that exact tournament form, but instead to use it as a convenient excuse for inferior rules. Such an approach is limiting and yet again, forces one to become stylized for reasons having little to do with historical accuracy or fighting prowess.

For every reference to tourneys excluding legs, there can be found two or three that don't.

There were late Medieval tournaments that excluded all hits below the waist (not just the lower legs), but they were uncommon. In fact, for every reference to tourneys excluding legs, there can be found two or three that don't. The vast majority of Medieval tournaments had no such prohibition against striking anywhere. Besides, in real battle there were no exclusions on any target areas. Restricting hits on the lower legs is not about some distorted conception of "chivalry" in fighting, its about poor attitudes in weapon sparring.

What is really astounding is that many individuals have come to believe that lower leg targets are somehow irrelevant. By the fact that they themselves don't bother or have experience with them, they seem to feel that making strikes against lower legs targets has little value. This excuse is like people playing in shallow water arguing that swimming isn't important anywhere because they never had to learn to swim. Here we have fighters, without any real experience in lower leg targets, telling us all how it doesn't matter in combat anyway. The hypocrisy in this is incredible.

Sometimes the sport of Kendo is even cited as another justification for limiting leg targets. As a ritualised form of sword duel, Kendo does not hit anywhere below the waist, let alone to the legs. This is due entirely to matters of etiquette and others issues having nothing to do with either safety or effectiveness of blows to the lower legs. The same thing can even be said of modern foil fencing which targets only the torso region and saber fencing which only targets from the waist up. Epee fencing, on the other hand includes the full body.

Examination of historical arms and armor alone reveals that the lower legs were protected more than not and weapons were usually designed with the length to strike them. It's worth recalling the interpretations of the battle of Visby remains. As well, listings of early Frankish military equipment specifically included lower leg armor (mail chauses) along with helms, and mail coats. A good deal of Medieval artwork shows figures wearing leg protection as their only apparent armor defense. To be sure, there are also plenty of illustrations of armored warriors without leg protection. This would indicate that, like most choices of personal weapon and armor to use, it is a matter of what advantage to balance with what handicap.

A good deal of Medieval artwork shows figures wearing leg protection as their only apparent armor defense.

In one sense, it's arguable that lower legs can sometimes be more vulnerable when a shield is used than when fighting with sword alone. A shield user can often be made to lift his shield and momentarily blind himself, thereby becoming vulnerable to an incoming blow changing its line of attack downward. Anyone who really believes the lower legs are irrelevant should try fighting with someone good at hitting them there. They themselves may not bother striking their opponent s lower legs, but they will fast learn the mistake of exposing their own.

So, why then among certain organized Medieval combat associations do so many enthusiasts continue to hold dear to ignoring the lower legs in sparring? It seems fairly clear that among certain organized Medieval groups, there is an apparent effort to avoid alternatives to protect the knees and instead, assert all manner of excuses for not doing so. This is due to something deeper. There are reasons at work that go far beyond lame assertions that hitting to the knees and below is impractical, unsafe, or not worth simulating.

The reality is that there is a strong clique within certain Medieval combat groups that does not wish lower-leg targets to become commonly accepted or allowed. The reason is obvious. It opens up a whole new world of fighting techniques and tactics for which the majority of these combatants are ill-prepared. Anger and resentment can occasionally surface from leg exclusion adherents when this issue is brought out.

Some Medieval combat enthusiasts may simply be heavier, or slower, or older. They may have pet moves and skillful techniques perfected specifically for their method of toe-to-toe, close-in fighting used under sparring systems that ignore lower targets. Keep in mind that nothing about allowing full leg targets would prevent anyone from using any "close-in techniques", it would only make them significantly less valuable than they were before. It is this very problem that is the real cause of so much opposition to full leg targets from some using established sparring rules. Including full leg targets would seriously reduce the effectiveness of a lot of fighters who can not adapt.

Allowing lower leg targets gives an advantage to agile fighters who move to protect their legs while hitting away on the enemy's own.

Let's face it, allowing lower leg targets gives an advantage to more agile and more mobile fighters who can move in and out and side-step as necessary to protect their legs while hitting away on the enemy's own (just like in real life battles). This advantage is especially so when the opponent trains only to fight with a style typical for sparring rules excluding lower leg hits: face-to-face with a sword pulled in tight against their cheek and shoulder. This is almost useless from a farther distance.

Less agile fighters are invariably unable to use the necessary quick footwork and stepping required in fighting at the realistic distances created by including the entire leg (i.e. the whole body). Many of these enthusiasts are well aware of their inability to move their feet as necessary in avoiding lower leg blows (to properly control fighting distance). They prefer instead, to stand shield-to-shield and head-to-head, slugging it out, bashing away, and not having to actually move about in the manner that swords and weapons demand. Thus, their weapon They will not bear any other rules that will alter their skill or adversely affect their prestige and status as fighters.

Though the lower legs may only be a quarter or so of body total area, fighting without regards to them has an effect far out of proportion. The feet and the legs attached, are the foundation from which we fight. There is no where an opponent goes without first changing their stance or taking a step. Instead of presenting combat as a sort of full, complete "circle", excluding them creates only a 180 degree understanding. It restricts and focuses fighting on the upper torso without regard to the human body's natural inclination to move when striking. Training and practice that ignores the full leg only gives half the proper understanding.

It is incredible how people can think they are sparring realistically when they don't know how to defend their lower legs or deliver effective attacks there. Practitioners who ignore the lower legs are deluding themselves. No matter how much they tell themselves that their legs aren't vulnerable, no matter how hard they try to believe they couldn't be hit there, the reality is otherwise. All they have to do is fight with full-leg targets against someone practiced at it and they will quickly see the cold truth.

Medieval combat fighters like to assert their skill as legitimate and authentic, but this simply does not hold true under rules that isolate participants from ever having to learn or gain realistic ability. Teaching fighting without taking precautions to protect one's own legs or take advantage of the enemy's vulnerability is foolish. It's ridiculous to train and practice without regard to some of the most vulnerable and obvious targets on an opponent's body. It is also naive and ignorant to believe true fighting capacity is being developed without making sufficient effort to protect and defend one's own.

See also: Kneeling Down in Weapon Sparring Rules

Back to the Essays Page

CG2119_leg1.jpg (89979 bytes) CG2119b_leg2.jpg (71314 bytes)
cpg152_053_Elisabeth_von_Nassau-Saarbrücken.jpg (67170 bytes) cpg152_054.jpg (68960 bytes)
cpg152_057.jpg (71491 bytes) cpg152_373.jpg (58864 bytes)
cpg67_178.jpg (55601 bytes) cpg67_181_down.jpg (56900 bytes)
cpg67_182_ankle.jpg (56386 bytes) cpg67_187.jpg (51493 bytes)
cpg67_189.jpg (47332 bytes) LoserFalls_cpg152_066.jpg (70935 bytes)
footLekM.jpg (35120 bytes) downonone.jpg (37312 bytes)

Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.