Sword and Shield Fighting
To my knowledge there are no historical manuals that cover the details of fighting with the sword and a full-size shield. The SCA has done an excellent job of rediscovering this fighting method. It is my fear that the details of sword and shield fighting might be lost to history again and it is for this reason that I have made a project out of detailing in writing the various sword and shield techniques that have been taught to me. I encourage people to feel free to copy and past this information where ever they think people may find it useful and for the purpose of spreading and preserving it.
It is my opinion that a person with a shield has a much better chance of surviving on a battlefield as a foot-soldier. One should learn to fight with the shield even if their main interest is two handed swords or other weapon forms because they will learn what to expect if they fight a shieldman. I will cover a few basic techniques that SCA fighters use effectively. It is my opinion that if you want to learn to fight in any medieval style, your best and cheapest option is to go to a local SCA practice. Here I will attempt to give you a preview of some of the things you will learn.
Here are some things to keep in mind with the shield that become clear from practical fighting experience. The mid section is protected very well so the main target area is the head and legs. A person must maintain eye contact at all times so the head is very exposed. The whole strategy is how to get around the shield. There is no point in hitting the shield intentionally, all your strikes should be high or low in an attempt to get your opponent to move his shield around and create further openings.
A very effective strike is a horizontal onside that goes "horizontally" across the top of the shield to the head. Pointing the top corner of the shield up will block that while maintaining visibility so it is not a fullproof attack but one that is credible. Diagonal or vertical attacks to the head are almost never useful because they will hit the shield before they hit the head.
Here is a video of a Horizontal On-Side done slowly.
The sword comes across the top to the shield to the opponents head. The sword rotates on its point of balance as it extends out fully. The sword hits with the true edge. The power come from rotating the hips. The shield remains covering the body. The sword is then retracted to the starting position to protect the side.
In executing the on-side you want to bring your elbow out in a straight line and have your wrist high above your eyebrow. The blade should be at the same line as your wrist or dipping below that in an effort to get behind the shield. Blade should never be above the wrist or you will only hit a shield. Do not swing the arm out. The hand should be moving forward in a straight line while the sword makes the arch. Remember that straighter is faster and faster is stronger. At more advanced levels you can can manipulate your fingers to gain different angles of attack.Only three fingers need grip the sword handle at any time. The thumb with either the index finger and middle finger...or the ring finger and pinky. By keeping two fingers loose you can pivot the sword in your hand to create leverage, additional power and follow through. This applies to all the sword strikes I will describe and is one of the great secrets to swordsmanship that allows a sword to attack with great speed, power and at a variety of angles. After the attack recover into a defensive position or flow into the next attack.
The second basic attack is an Off-Side. This is an attack to the opposite side executed by raising the elbow up over you opponents shield line and letting your hand drop to the left if you are right handed.
Here is a video of an Off-Side done slowly:
In the off-side attack the body tilts in the direction of the attack to generate momentum as your arm starts moving. The sword extends out fully. The sword hits with the true edge. The Elbow is then retracted and drop down quickly to recover the sword and get in a defensive position.
In executing the off-side shot make sure your elbow comes up to your ear line. The wrist should be on the same line as you elbow or below that. This will allow you to drop the blade behind the opponents shield. Elbow should never, never be below your wrist and blade line. That will result in a diagonal blow that can only hit the opponents shield.
Think of these attacks as jabs, not knock-out punches. We are not cutting through and stepping in with the other leg. The leverage that the sword provides is enough so that you don't need to over-commit yourself. You can make a killing blow and still be defensive. You are whipping your blade out with speed, letting its momentum do the work for you and then bringing it back very quickly to defend or execute another strike. Visualize the sword making contact about six inches into the pell (or on the other side of the head). Squeezing bottom two fingers while you relax that top two will allow for final acceleration and follow through. This will insure a hard hit. If you don't do this, the tendency will be to start recovering before your shot has had a chance to do its job, should it get past the other persons defense. Remember, put your hip into the strike, extend fully for full effect and then recover. The amount of hip motion can vary somewhat with the strength of the person. A very strong person may use use less hip motion while a weaker person will relay on more hip assistance.
A good variation of the off-side when in close is to strike with the forte rather then the tip. The forte is moving slower then the tip so you must make up for its lack of speed with more more force. You do that by putting your body into the shot and punching the sword out. This is a technique best suited to stronger and heavier people.
On-side and Off-side shots normally will be 80% of the shots you will use in a tournament so you must master these well. When practicing, practice throwing successive On-side shots first on your pell. Do 20 at time, holding you shield and then rest. Do this for 5 sets for a total of 100. Doing this 3 times a week will create muscle memory so you can throw the shots without thinking. Then practice throwing your On-side shots with occasional leg shots. Drive it to the leg is the same manor you learned in hitting the head and recover. Throw it without looking at the leg. Be careful not to let your hand drift out. The hand should move in a straight line. With helmet on, you will usually have to lean over to see the leg and that will expose your head. Learn to throw leg shots without looking. Then practice throwing successive off-side shots. Do 20 at a time for 5 sets. Be aware of where your elbow is and keep you shield in place during these drills. When you get comfortable you can begin doing combinations between On-side, Off-side and On-side leg. At first do doubles and later triples. Then reset yourself. Usually after a double and triple your defensive stance will begin to fall apart in tournament and you will have to reset yourself. So don't bother going past triples until you are really good.
The On-side and Off-side resemble very much what is described in German period texts as the "Zwerchhau" which are high horizontal blows. The On-side can be done with a variation that when relaxing the wrist and the top two fingers allows the sword to make a vertical cut over the top of the shield that resembles what is described in German period texts as the "Scheitelhau".
The next basic strike is a wrap shot. Here you are using the back edge of the sword (false edge) to get around the shield by bending at the elbow. The target is the back of the head, back of the leg or the back of the torso. Against a lefty handed fighter or two-weapon person, it may be his arm too. It is often done with a step to the side of the opponents shield and in closing.
Here is a video of a Wrap shot done slowly so you can see it.
This is started the same way you would an on-side except that you are aiming the sword tip sixes to a foot to the right of the target. If you let go of the sword the sword would go flying over your opponents left shoulder. Because you are holding to the sword, the sword has no place to go so the centripetal force swings it back around. This is no different then swinging a flail in a circle. The sword wraps around on its own if you give it enough speed and hold on to it. Don't practice this with sharp swords because if you miss the pell, the sword blade is coming straight back to you. Use a shield to keep from hitting yourself. The Wrap is often thrown as a finishing shot in a series of combinations because it is harder to do into other shots after throwing one. Later on with a lot of practice, you will be able to start with a wrap and move into other combinations shots. Practice throwing successive wraps in groups of 20 for 5 sets. Be careful not to let your elbow drift out. Keep the shot tight.
A wrap done straight overhead is know as a "scorpion" wrap. The false edge of your blade will strike your opponents head. You will then drop your elbow down to recover into a defensive position. These are used very sparingly, if ever at all. A lot of people have reported that this shot causes shoulder problems, so it is not a very popular one.
A Wrap done straight down under your opponents sword arm and up to his upper back or head with the false edge is know as a "Grass Cutter ". Remember to recover into a defensive position quickly. There is also a similar version of this shot to the back of the leg called a "J-hook". The terminology changes from region to region. This low line wrap come much more naturally then the overhead scorpion wrap.
Wraps to the back of the leg are very effective because most fighters (and period knights) don't have armor back there. It takes a lot of practice to get them right and be able to execute them in a fight. You can only learn to do them from someone that knows and can watch you and correct your form. I recommend joining a local SCA group. You can find one near you from their website.http://www.sca.org/ This is a very cost efficient way to learn to fight. The cost is a usually a $5 donation per practice. Often times there is not donation asked at all.
As a sidenote, it is interesting to note that a wrap is not entirely unhistorical as some people claim. It resembles a historical strike called a "Sturzhau" (Plunging Stroke, J-hook) also "Winckerhau". I have been told that it is mentioned in "Lecküchner's Messerfechten".
The word "Moulinet" can be loosely used to describe any twisting motion, so I am really demonstrating a version here that works well for me and has a purpose. The purpose is to cut down vertically along the inside of the shield. The geometry normally makes it impossible for a right handed fighter to cut down the inside of the shield of another right-handed fighter. By lifting the hilt up high and pointing the tip down over your left side, you are now in a position to strike with the back of the sword. The twisting motion allows you to now hit the opening behind and to the left of the shield (left from your perspective). With the back edge you can reach deep and sometimes get to your opponents sword arm at the elbow. This strike is usually hard enough to understand if you see it live and it is repeated several times, I doubt any video will make it clear enough, but I will post one anyway.
This slot-shot is more often done with the true edge and comes down vertically on the inside to the shield between the sword and shield. It is commonly know as a "slot-shot". With the true edge it is more powerful but you give up some of the angle advantage as when done with the back edge.
The Slot-Shot somewhat resembles a strike shown in period texts as the "Schielhau". It serves the same purpose of striking down vertically along the left side of a right handed swordsman.
The power of all these shots originate from the lower body and hips. The arms just guide the sword in to hit the mark. After you learn the basic shots the next thing is to practice using them in combinations. Here instead of recovering fully you go straight into the next shot. You should not expect your first or second shot to land, but if you can defend yourself with the shield to stay alive long enough, perhaps your 6th combination shot may land. When you have finished your combination sequence, ember to recover into a defensive position quickly.
Here are some combinations done on the pell:
One of the hardest shots to land is a thrust. Sounds simple but your opponent can usually see it coming. The thrust can only travel as fast as your hand can push it while the cut travels three to four times faster because of the arch it makes (rotational acceleration). It is best to use a thrust in combination with cuts. If your thrust miss you go straight into and on or offside cut. Don't allow yourself to get dependent on thrust or you will not develop your cuts. The thrust can act a windup for a cut and a cut can set up a thrust. The advantage here is that you can have a cut and thrust within one fencing time. A fencing time is defined as a single fencing action.
It is important to learn how to throw shots while keeping the shield defending the body. It sounds obvious and easy to do, but it requires a lot of practice so you do it automatically without thinking. The natural thing to do is pull you arm back for balance when you throw one arm forward. That will get you killed. You should never pick up a single hand sword to swing it around unless you have a shield in the other hand. The two work together and also restrict one another. Your shield will also create a blind spots that change as you move it around. You must know where those are and anticipate being attacked from that direction because an experienced opponent will attack you from there. Your own shield also creates blind spots for your opponent too. It can hide the position of your sword from your opponent. You sometimes have to anticipate the likely position of your opponent's leg, arm or head and attack it with out seeing it.
Next thing I will mention is the actual weapons themselves. The shields come in all sorts of different sizes and shapes. I recommend you start with a basic heater. Shoulder width wide and a length from you chin to your crotch. Use a diagonal strapping on the inside with a hard handle. Down the road you can experiment with other styles. It would be a good choice to use whatever style shields the more experienced members of you practice group are using because you will be able to get better instruction on that. The sword most fighter use is about 3 lbs and 28 inches long blade with a point of balance three of four inches down the hilt. That is what you should start with too. As I said before, the key to using a sword is to using your lower body to create momentum and conserving your arm strength. Often times you can just rest it on your shoulder and strike an on side snap straight from there.
A tip for fighting Two-Handed weapons with a shield is to close in and get your shield on their weapon. Keep it pinned down with the shieldwhile striking them with your weapon. Likewise the tip for the longsword or polearm is to keep distance and create distance when it is lost. It is a lot easier for a shieldman to fight a non-shielded person. If a longsword-man or pikeman truly want to master their weapon, they must practice fighting sheildmen to get good at it.
Here are some more videos of my drills that you may find useful. Keep in mind, we don't fight pells, we try to do repeated motions in order to create muscle memory. We then take that muscle memory to fighting practice where we try to do it against a real person. Does not mater if you hit the person in practice, what is important is that strike the same way as you did the pell against the now live target. Once you can execute your strikes without having to think how to do them, you can think about timing, distance, fakes and other ways to beat your opponent.
Remember, the strikes are designed to hit a person behind a shield. Those shots will mainly be to his head and legs. The body is too well defended, occasionally you might get a wrap around his shield if he opens up too much. If the person does not have a shield it is all that much easier to fight him... but you should train to beat the best possible defenses.
Here are my softball drills. We are not looking for power here. We want accuracy and good form. Keep the shield up, strike over your shield and his to his head. Click below.
Softball drill Right handed
Softball drill Left handed
Here are my drills against the tire using a bit more power and speed. Not full speed of power or you will not be able to see the strikes on my cheap camera. Click Below.
Combinations on the Tire-Pell
Combinations done slower calling out the shots
I must add the disclaimer that my form is hardly perfect. You would do much better learning from an SCA Knight then me. My videos are only intended to interest people and give an idea so they may pursue this course of study further in the SCA..
In any training system some compromises will have to be made for the sake of safety. Either, the weapons will be padded, or the moves will be slow and controlled, or the armor will be unrealistically heavy, etc... I am sure that when medieval knights trained they also observed some restraints. Not a good idea to kill ones own squires. My opinion is in that by training using different methods you will round out the shortcomings and compromises of any one training system.
Fighting with your sword in front of your face and starting your shots from there offers certain benefits. For one, the sword is in a better position to be used defensively and offensively. The shots are telegraphed less because you are not winding up so much from your hip and shoulders. Initiating on-side and off-side shots from in front of your face requires a lot of arm strength unless you use the snap method.
Snapping calls for keeping your pinky and ring-finger loose as you grip the sword. Then as you execute your strike, at the last second you squeeze those two fingers. The effect is that you create a lever within your hand and the sword accelerates about an inch forward before impact. You still give it a little hip twist and put some body into the strike.
Fighting Left Handed
Normally when a right handed fighter fights another right-handed fighter with sword and shield, each man's sword match's up against the other mans shield. In the case of off-handed fighters, a righty against a lefty, the two shields will match up and the two swords will match up on the same side. This changes the fight considerably.
Righty against righty is the same fight as lefty against lefty. It is only with lefty against righty that things change. For this reason, I will not refer to the matter as an issue of left handed or right handed, but rather as off-handed or like-handed in the case of righty vs righty (and lefty against lefty).
My primary form is sword and shield. I fight both right handed and left handed in the SCA, MSR and in unofficial circles with less restricted rules. I also fence rapier both case and with dagger.
In the case of rapier, longsword, polearm, or single sword were no shield is involved fighting off-handed presents little difference. With rapier dagger there is some issue because you can not comfortably block the rapier with you dagger. For off-handed fighter is has to cross over to the other side to offer defensive assistance. A rapier fight between off-handed fighters will resemble more of a single rapier fight. The daggers will be largely out of play unless they cross them over their rapier or fight in an extreme refused guard where the dagger is out in front of the tip of the rapier. In any case the off-handed opponents will be use to fighting single and will not have trouble adjusting. Crossing your blades is also very risky and should be avoided.
When fighting sword and shield, with a heater size shield, the fighting style changes significantly from like-handed to off-handed fights. In a like-handed fight, the shield is held more open so it covers the the side and front partially. It only need cover half your chest. The sword side of you chest will be out of reach from the other fighter. There is an advanced shot that can hit that opening, but that is the exception. The front foot is always pointing at your opponent or the direction you plan to move in. The back foot among like handed fighter will set further back and to the side for balance. The angle can be anywhere from a 90 degree "L" to 45 degrees.
In an off-handed fight, the first thing that must change is the foot-placement. The back foot must be at a "T" directly behind your front foot. This will shift the shield in front of you body. An off-handed fighter presents little threat to the shield side of your body. His sword arm can't reach you. You sword side is wide open. He can throw wraps all day at your sword side from behind his shield. You can do the same to him if he does not bring his shield over. You have to tilt you body so you shield is flat in front you, not off to the side. Putting one leg behind the other and bringing your shield arm over, will do this.
The shield naturally hinders some of your offensive capabilities as well as you visibility. The bigger the shield, the more defense you have but the more your visibility and range of attack will be hindered. Moving the shield across you body as I mentioned before will hinder you even more. Not a problem since both fighters are limited in a similar way. It is very hard to throw an on-side cut from the position I mentioned. If you try to throw an on-side cut, you will naturally rotate you body, move your shield and expose yourself. On-sides are still possible if you raise you hand up high and strike over you shield but it is awkward. Your main offense is an off-side cut that comes over your shield to his head (from the shield side) or an on-side wrap to his head or body. The wrap is an on-side cut where you rotate the wrist and strike with the false edge. The dynamics of this cut allow you to bend you arm at the elbow around your shield (and his) to get to your opponent. You will not see you target, you have to anticipate where your target is based on what you can see.
A word of caution on shield bashing and charging. Yes, it does have a place in fighting but it can easily be turned against you because you typically open your shield and move it forward in order to bash. A skilled opponent will be happy to take advantage of this opening. It is more useful when used infrequently. Among like-handed fighters, hooking the edge of your opponents shield and gently pushing it aside can effectively create an opening for you to get your sword in without exposing yourself. If you are interested in SCA fighting be aware that shield-bashing is prohibited.
If you have any questions you may contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a video that I call Sword and Shield 101 that covers various cuts.
This video covers thrust when using the Sword and Shield.
Here are some tests with a sharp sword on Tatami Mats.
After the initial results became obvious,we decided to test different quality swords.
Just as a side note... it is harder to make horizontal cuts on tatami then diagonal ones. The diagonal cuts pin the mat to the ground and use that as a cutting block to some extent. In the case of a diagonal undercuts you are using the weight of the mat and stand as you cut through. With the horizontal strikes if you are not going full speed the mat will just get knocked over.
Another issue is that when hitting something more solid the sword might bite in an inch but then it stops. When you cut through the tatami the sword keeps going. It can have the effect of pulling a person out of position.
Here is a video of me fighting Sword and Shield:
Here is a video of me fighting against a two-swordman with my sword and shield:
Here is a video of me fighting against a polearm with my sword and shield:
You can find more videos on You Tube if you search Tsafa1