This page is to explain the basics, and I do mean basics, of combat in the SCA using rattan weapons. I've put off writing this page for a long time, because there are so many different styles and variables in combat, but here it is. The topic will be broken down into easy to digest sections: why would a sane person want to do this, what is rattan anyway, what sorts of weapons can I use, do I really need all that armor, where do I get the stuff I need, and how can I find a place to get trained.
It is a fair question to ask why a sane person in the modern age would want to put on a bunch of heavy armor, walk out in the heat of the summer sun, and let a bunch of other crazed people try to whack him (or her) with heavy blunt instruments. The whole concept on one level is completely absurd. It is a dangerous proposition to be sure, especially if one doesn't take care to get proper training and wear appropriate protection. We don't even let people do it without signing a waiver, and you have to be at least 18 years old. Still, as crazy as it seems, and as dangerous, there are many sports which have worse safety records and are played habitually by people all over the world. Football is a full contact sport which sends people to the hospital on a regular basis, and which I think is crazy, but schools all over the country have football teams. The same is true for basketball, hockey and soccer. The reason people participate in those sports is very much the same as the reason people take part in SCA combat- it is exciting, can be thrilling, gives you an adreneline rush, and is just plain fun.
Will SCA combat train you for self protection? Well, not in a direct sense, but it will build confidence and give you quicker reflexes, much like some other martial arts will. But the point of it was never self protection. The point was having fun while participating in a medieval sport, and in the process learning something about life in the middle ages.
SCA combat is often referred to as "rattan" combat, so just what is rattan? Well, rattan is a cane or reed, much like solid bamboo. You can see it in the framework of those wicker "papa-san" chairs. Being a reed it is made of many long parrallel fibers held together inside a hard husk. Because of its nature it is both flexible and durable and when it breaks it doesn't leave jagged or sharp ends, which makes it ideal for SCA weaponry. In the dim mists of the past some recall using pine for swords, but those swords were quickly discarded because they were neither flexible nor durable and they broke leaving sharp pointed projections which could cause severe injuries. Some groups use steel weapons with blunt or "bated" blades, and while those are durable they have a thin cross section which concentrates the force of impact and they also are not very flexible. This causes many groups using those weapons to either fight at a slower speed or choreograph their fights. Using rattan as a safe material we in the SCA neither choreograph our fights, nor do we slow down the action. SCA combat is as real as it gets without real swords and real injuries, and to do that we make our weapons entirely out of rattan, with or without padding (The exception to this rule is the spear, which can be made of pultruded fiberglass with a padded tip, but which can only thust and may not cut).
Using rattan and padding a wide variety of weapons can be simulated safely, but not everything is allowed. We make swords out of unpadded rattan in several lengths: short sword, broadsword, bastard sword, and greatsword. We can also make polearms, which in some kingdoms must be padded, but which do not need padding in other kingdoms (see your kingdom rules) and may take a variety of forms: glaive, bill, halberd, partisan, or poleaxe to mention a few of the main types. We can also recreate axes and maces. We do not recreate flails, which are hinged weapons and ball and chain weapons, because we have found that it is very difficult to do so safely. You see, a flail acquires a great deal of momentum and power because of the hinge or chain and if it has a head of sufficient weight that doesn't bounce off unrealistically the recreated weapon is basically not distinguisable from the real one in its effect. In addition the weapons with chains include and entanglement factor which is too much of a safety risk. Still, we are able to draw upon quite an arsenal of weapons that we can use.
The amount of armor you are required to wear varies a little from kingdom to kingdom, but there is a list of things that are pretty universally required. First and foremost you MUST have a helmet, because blunt trauma to the head can kill you otherwise. The helmet must be made of steel and really needs to be 14 gauge or heavier, though some of the older ones are 16 gauge. If the steel isn't heavy it will only dent and you'll need to do repairs or replace your helmet more often. Also, though a heavier helmet takes getting used to it is safer because it gives your head a certain amount of inertia and takes up more of the shock of the blow. The helmet nees to be strapped securely to your head and also needs to be padded fairly heavily.
Besides a helmet you must have neck protection which also covers your cervical vertebrae, groin protection, kidney protection, rigid knee and elbow protection that covers the points on each side of the joint as well as the front, and gauntlets (a good set of hockey or lacross gloves is the absolute minimum hand protection and I strongly recomment either reinforcing them with plates or getting real gauntlets). Many kingdoms also require protection for the point of the shoulder and for the forearm, and I would certainly recommend it. Other than the minimum requirements you can paint yourself blue if you like, but personally I suggest protecting everything you can.
In many ways the amount of extra armor you wear is up to personal preference and is a matter of basic tradeoffs. More armor is heavier and more restrictive, but it is also more protective, so there is a trade between mobility and protection. Stiffer armor, like plate armor, can also be restrictive of movement to some extent, but the stiffness spreads the impact over a larger area and therefore protects better against bruising or other blunt instrument trauma. Some people prefer the lighter more flexible armor and leave it up to their mobility and defensive instincts to protect them, which is fine, but remember that we do not have weight classes so if you are not large you may still have to face a giant toe to toe. Personally I wear a pretty complete suit of plate armor when I go out to play with the big boys.
Where to get the stuff you need depends on what stuff you want. The hockey or lacross gloves that are the minimum hand protection, as well as the groin protection, should be available at almost any good sporting goods store. You can also get good shin guards there, and sometimes forearm guards. If you want real stuff you can go to one of the many SCA armorers. That's where you need to go for a helmet anyway, unless you want to buy steel and build one from scratch. Body armor can be made from those big plastic 55 gal. drums cut up, which you can often find cheap or free from places that get supplies in them. The stuff looks ugly, but can be either covered up with a tabard or surcote, or you can make it into scale armor or some other type that looks more authentic despite the plastic. Black looks a lot better than blue if it's visible. Rattan can be found from some of the armorers, or it can be shipped from the importer. I have a few good links to start with below.
Mechant's Row has listings for several armorers, some of whom also carry rattan.
Bamboo and Rattan Works, Inc. is a large importer of rattan on the east coast. This link gives you their address and phone number. When you order "weapons grade" rattan from them, they know what it means. They do a lot od SCA business, mostly in bulk.
To get training you need to find your local SCA group, or, rather, the closest group that holds some sort of fighting practice. Such a practice requires a marshal, who is the safety official who checks you stuff to make sure it's safe, and also makes sure the fighting itself doesn't get unsafe. You can find your local group by following the "geography" links on the main SCA website. Once you find the local groups around you call the marshal and he or she can tell you where the practice is and when.
When you get to practice first learn to defend yourself with a shield and then use a broadsword, because most fighters use that combination. Look for the more experienced fighters and see if they'll give you pointers, or if there's a knight in the local area he or she will be a good person to learn from. Your marshal will also be able to point you to people who can be helpful in training.
I'm not going to go into specific instruction on particular forms and techniques here, it would take way too much space, and you can't really learn from reading anyway. Like the reason for the SCA in the first place, combat is learning by doing. So, anyway, best of luck and maybe some day we'll meet on the field!