What are we doing here?

As part of a discussion the other day some asked what would I remove from SCA combat to make it ‘better’.

Better is a very subjective idea. A lot of  it depends on what it is you are trying to do. Some people will describe SCA combat as an attempt to recreate knightly tournament combat, others will say that it is live action roleplaying with a lot more bruises.

So here is an attempt to have a think about how SCA combat rules effect what it is and how it works and what may not work.


SCA combat has evolved over 50 years mostly by trial and error. It started as an attempt to stage armoured combat of the middle ages. When they started they did not have access to armour, equipment or any understanding of what historical European martial arts looked like. Indeed I suspect that no one had herd of Fiore or Talhoffer at this point.

What then evolved was a rule system that allowed people to put on various levels of armour and go out and have competitions, massed combat and other things. It is a rule set that allows a reasonably simple level of entry. The equipment requirements are also very accessible. The SCA has certainly grown but is not the only game in town. It now exists along with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), HMB (aka Battle of Nations), Metal Weapons, LARP, Jugger and probably stuff I have not yet heard of.

So to create a system in order to replicate combat we introduce rules to make sure people do not get badly injured. This is where we start to get compromises in EVERY system. Even MMA has rules of what you can and cannot do, there is a list of attacks that are not allowed. HMB does not allow thrusts and side strikes to the knees etc.

The more rules to put in place to minimise the risks the further you move from anything approximating a real duel or contest.

An extreme example of this would be some LARP games. No protective gear is needed (apart from eyes) and the weapons are very light and padded and you cannot strike the head. Having some armour gives you extra ‘hits’, all you need to do to score is touch your opponent with a weapon. LARP combat is a matter of just tapping your opponent multiple times, there is no need to take weapon type into account. This all leads to fights that have people leaping about, flailing madly in all sorts of weird ways. Yes this is a lot of crazy fun, a even passable facsimile of historical combat, no. (To be fair, LARP players are under no belief what they are doing is in anyway realistic.)

So what about SCA combat? Let’s look at some of the compromises.

No hand to hand. SCA rules do not allow the very wide range of kicks, punches, elbows, take downs, leg sweeps etc that are an intrinsic part of fighting. Looking at many of the fechtbooks I would argue that many armoured fights would end up with some level of take down or ground fighting.

Taking out hand to hand stuff means we lose a very important component of any martial system. It also means that combatants can stand toe to toe and slug it out with no fear of a kick or disarm. Watch any great weapon duel where the two combatants get in close and you can see how odd this can be. It also means that being able to step and move are not as important as they would be historically.

Effects of weapons. SCA combat has an ‘assumed armour’ standard. It is basically mail body armour and nasal helm. Sort of 10-12th century. It also assumes that a single strike from handed sword can put someone in this armour down. I am not totally convinced this is the case. There are plenty of literary examples of knights trading blows to little or no effect. Yes there are also some examples of people being cut in two from a single blow, but I would argue this is grand story telling. I would also refer to a lot of test cutting people have done with weapons trying to cause damage to something (poor pig carcasses) covered in padding and mail. Armour works. Watching the HMB people is also interesting. Ok their gear is mostly 14th century (a lot more plate) and the weapons are blunted. But you can see that repeated strikes with even two handed axes does little to slow down an armoured man. So the SCA rules makes single handed weapons way more effective than they probably are.

Armour. The SCA has a minimum set of armour standards. It is for protection against rattan sticks. It is in no way encouraging historical armour. You are able to get away with a helm, some basic covering of the joints and that is about it. This means that SCA combatants (and yes I am one of these) can largely compete in what is effectively no armour. No weight of gear restricting your movement or slowing you down. The SCA likes to think of itself as a game of armoured combat, yet many of it’s top competitors can go onto the field with little armour at all.

Target areas. In the SCA you cannot strike below the knee and the hands are basically invulnerable. The no below the knee thing means that graves are not a requirement (see note above) and also means that low leg sweeps with pole weapons are not going to happen. The invulnerable hand thing, alongside the almost universal use of protective basket hilts (not at all a medieval item) means that weapon blocking is common place. The targeting of the hands was a common technique in many of the historical texts. Indeed in many manuals the main purpose of the buckler was to prevent the hands from being struck. Again these things mean that staying in measure and trying to block attacks with your weapon is a viable tactic, after all, your hand will not get ‘hit’.

Limb hits. Ok getting hit in the leg and then being able to fight on while kneeling and being able to change arms if your arm is hit. I am sure we do not have to talk about this one.

Indestructible super light shields. SCA shields are basically Indestructible. That two handed axe, well you can keep statically blocking that all day long…Historically shields broke. Weapons could get stuck in them. Shields were made to be reasonably light and manoeuvrable but this also meant that they could be smashed. The commonality of the big aluminium SCA means you can wave around a big blocking thing that weighs little and is never going to break. Again this feeds into the primacy of SCA combatants standing toe to toe trying to score a hit around a big ultra light shield.

Judging of hits. The SCA rules stipulate that the person getting hit calls the effect of the strike. The obvious problem here is that it is very easy to cheat the system. This system also leads to very inconsistent levels of what can be judged a scoring hit. One persons kill may be someone else’s ‘not good’. What looks good from the sidelines may have been a very glancing strike. I could also mention edges here but I have ranted about that previously. Also the level of ‘power’ that is needed to score is totally arbitrary; it varies from group to group and changes over time. So it is no wonder that this is the main area were disagreements and conflict arise.


So going through this list it is obvious that the SCA does a poor job of recreating medieval armoured combat. I think it can be a fun game and lots of people enjoy running around trying to hit other people. However I think it is important to understand what it is and what it is not. A fun game that can be played with a minimal of gear and training? Yes. A reasonable facsimile of historical combat? Absolutely not.

Training needs less Ego and more Leggo…

I have been in a number of discussions about how to teach/couch people to develop a range of skills.

I have been doing some reading around various sport and martial arts pedagogy and there has been one very important thing that stands out. The key to advancing in any activity is ‘simple practice’ or practice that focuses on gradually building higher level skills through constant practice and refinement of the fundaments.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a trainer of the tournament arts is how do I get a student to develop a range of necessary skills to succeed in armoured combat. It is one thing to get someone to be able to strike the pell correctly or to run through a pad drill but get them to be able to move and cut to an opening in an opponent’s defence while moving the shield into a good position is another.

What should be obvious at this point is that any time you run into a problem teaching a high level skill to someone there is a problem with one of the fundamental skills that supports it.

If all of the fundamental movement skills are there it shouldn’t take much coaching from me to get someone doing a pretty good version of what I want them to do. If it takes me more than five minutes to get someone to start grasping what I’m asking them to do then I start to think there may be something more than “bad technique” at play.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate my point. On the right are High Level Skills we all want to do and on the left are Fundamental Level Skills that are often lacking when someone runs into problems with them…

High Level Skill Fundamental Level Skill
Throwing a pendulum Warm up motion
Striking with power Body movement and position
Flourishes (combination attacks) Body Position and foot work
Thrusts Returns and grip

So this list is just by way of an example but you should get the idea. You could even have another column to the right of the fundamental level skills of Foundation or Body Movement Skills such as body weight squats, lunges and Kettle Bell swings, but that is another post.

Now the problem many people run into is that we all want to focus on the left hand column but it is right hand column that holds the keys to real progress.

This means that often when we want to improve a high level skill you don’t want to look to a higher level skill or technique, you want to look back at the fundamental skills and techniques and improve on them.

Again, this gets tough when the Ego tells us that we’re too advanced to go back and work on the basics or, worse yet, that we’ve gotten this far without mastering them so they can’t hold the key to going even further.

This mindset comes from protecting the image we have of ourselves as a “good” combatant and not from a sincere desire to master our art at a higher level.

The funny thing is that by focusing on your fundamental level skills you’ll improve your high level skills without really trying.

“If you continue in this simple practice every day you can attain something wonderful.” – Shunryu Suzuki

The key is a “simple practice”, one that focuses on gently nudging our high level skills up through a constant study and refinement of the fundamentals.



Standards for the Laurel

I was doing some cleaning out of the computer files and found some old item. This is a letter I wrote back in 2009 to the Lochac Order of the Laurel (the SCA’s award for top level arts and crafts practitioners). At the time I was the only dedicated armourer in that group and they were trying to determine what the standards should be. Being a bit focused on providing some objective criteria, I attempted to get my ideas written down.

I give you here the first part, which is the general standards. I wrote a full rundown of what various other people were doing and what their skills and abilities were. That bit will remain unpublished.


Some notes about standards and assumptions for the laurel.


Ok this might be a bit long but bear with me.  I think I need to get some of my thoughts and assumptions expressed for general comment and consideration. It is better that we look at what the order is looking for as far as standards go before we apply that to particular candidates.

Sorry if I drop too far into jargon – I can answer any technical question if anyone wants me to.

What are we looking for in a laurel level armourer?

Think of this as costume as it makes a good comparison (but this does have its limits).

The art of armouring has advanced massively in the past few years. Some of this advance is due to the internet with the ability to share information and resources but also with the publication of Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction (TOMAR).


It can be said that there is now a ‘TOMAR standard’ The TOMAR standard has in effect raised the bar on what we can expect from people working in the armour field.  If someone is capable of executing the projects in TOMAR then we would recognise them as being a reasonable journeyman standard, about were a Kingdom level award would sit. The TOMAR projects walk you though all the major bits of harness and is mostly 14thC transitional gear with basic embellishments.

Before TOMAR, we had to make a lot up by trial and error and experimentation. Now the basic skills and techniques are clearly set out and explained.  When I was admitted to the order, techniques like raising were considered only for the very advanced, but have now become part of the basic skill set.

The general body of armouring skills and knowledge has progressed significantly.

So the skill set I would be looking for in peerage level armour would be:


Common use of appropriate techniques.

Sinking, ridging planishing and fluting form the backbone of working techniques.

Raising should be well understood and be used.

I would expect the candidate to be using cut and weld only were appropriate (this will be a bit of a discussion topic).

I would expect the person to be able to use these techniques with reasonable speed and accuracy.

A well developed understanding and application of heat processes (annealing, hot work, shrinking and tempering).



Ability to capture the right shapes and line of the original forms.

This can be really hard to define. The example would be like some of the costuming. One outfit may look fine to a casual observer but to someone who knows what to look for, the seams are in the wrong place, the waist is too low, etc.

Attention to using the appropriate materials is important.

Many period pieces display a subtlety of line and shape that can be hard to pick unless to are looking for it, but contribute to the overall look.

Work needs to look like a period example on close examination?



They must finish the pieces to the appropriate level. This does not mean how high can you get the polish. I would be looking at the cleanliness of the ridges flutes and rolls, the accuracy of the general hammer work and the crispness of the planishing and sanding.

The edges need to be finished – there are several different common edge treatments from the period.

They should be making the catches, hinges and other add-ons.

Should be able to make buckles (and plates) and does so.

Strapping and leather work should be of high standard

Should be able to produce historically correct liners and suspension.



All the pieces should work well together and function to both protect the wearer and allow appropriate range of movement.

The candidate needs to have an excellent understanding of fitting and attaching the components of harness.


Does it all work?

I do not expect the person to be able to create the foundation garments, but they do need an understanding on how they affect/support the harness.



The candidate has a very good understanding of the historical record.

The candidate is able to reproduce a given primary example or be able to work in the style of a given school/centre.

The person understands the differences between the dominant styles and forms.

As a side note we no longer recommend laurels in ‘costuming’ we recommend them for making, understanding and being able to explain the clothes and accessories for one or more particular times and places. So are we looking for an area/component of specialisation?



The candidate can draft their own patterns and understand how to alter templates to achieve various form changes.


Body of work

I would look at the consumers for a guide on this. There will need to be a reasonable body of pieces out there at an appropriate level.  I would suggest that we would not consider many of the SCA sport armours (mostly cut and weld constructions, made to meet a price point) as being ‘at level’. We would not think about giving a Laurel to a costumer who made lots of basic T-tunics…


Advancing the Art

The candidate must be bringing something new to the field or excelling and pushing the levels in well-trodden ground.


Effect on the Kingdom

I would be looking at the candidate’s effect on their own group and the Kingdom as a whole.  They should be encouraging the adoption of more period harness and field presentation?

Teaching and promoting the arts also come in here.


I will not go into the general Peerage criteria, as it is part of a more generalist conversation that everyone can join in on.


No Buts But the But

 I thought I would share some comments from a serious coach, Dave Nixon. I have done a small edit to put this into the realm of swordsmanship.

The power of linguistics is amazing. You can literally swing the mood of a conversation with one single word.

There are a few words we should remove from our vocabulary straight away. One of these words is the word: But.

Whenever providing feedback refrain from using this word at all costs. But takes away. It’s the middle of a poop sandwich. And nobody wants to eat one of those.

Simply sub it for the word ‘and’. This subtle little change makes a massive difference on the back end. ‘And’ adds to your point. Rather than taking away.

Example… “That was a good cut, but next time keep your stance lower and it will be even better.” “That was a good cut and next time think about a lower stance to make it even better.” A simple example that makes a massive difference on the back end.

Next training session, pay attention to just how often you said the word but.

-Dave Nixon.

Death and Taxes


Time for a little bit of a soapbox moment.

Many of us got into the combat arts because it was something that was cool, playing around with sword just sung to us or we had a love of history/martial arts/whatever. In sort most of us got involved in whatever art we study because it was fun.

Then something happened. People started talking about safety, liability, insurance and risk mitigation. What we started doing because we loved the idea of Knights became a game of bureaucrats.

Yes, I understand the need to comply with the modern world of insurance and liability but at what point do we go too far in a contagion of compliance?

Lets us grab a few friends and do some practice in a local park. Do I really need to seek council permission? Do we really have to set up a roped off area?

At what point do we stop having fun with doing ‘medieval stuff’ because it just takes too much paperwork?

I can go to the park and kick a ball around and no one thinks twice about. I can take my bike out to plummet down a mountain side without signing a thing.

I understand that for formal sponsored events we need to do the minimum of compliance, but why is it that to participate in an SCA tournament I need to go though several levels of cards, sign in and checks (often by officials who’s knowledge of the requirements are haphazard at best). At a kendo tournament I only need to put in an entry form and in mountain biking, pay my entry and sign a simple waiver (with no one breathing over my neck)?

Perhaps we need to step back and ask what is it we are trying to achieve. What are the minimum hoops we need to jump through? Let’s focus on doing medieval stuff rather than trying to be all important with rules and procedures.


Going without GPS

So here we are again, writing on this little blog.

Back at Easter I was in Melbourne for the National Kendo Championship and grading. The main aim of this was to go for my first Dan grading.

I had been preparing for this exam for some time. I was attending every training session I could. I spent time at home revising kata. I was going to ace this with flying colours.

I failed.

The study of any martial art or combat sport will always have its ups and downs. There will be time were we have a crap training session. There are time that, despite all our training and efforts we get knocked out of a competition a lot sooner than we would have wished. We have bad days were nothing goes right.

Now I could give you some nice hippy stuff about ‘we all have bad days’ and ‘setbacks build character’. I won’t. These times suck. Sometimes they suck total ass, and there is nothing you can do about it. Life can be like this. Not everyone can be a winner.

It was a long drive back from Melbourne.

So what can we do when we have failed at our goals or not reached our expectation?

I am not sure I can answer this. Sometimes we only need to wait until a new day and things will be different. Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and go again. Each of us will have our own share of disappointments and failures. I suppose that is just the nature of things.

What is important is that we do pick ourselves up again. Maybe we will walk away; maybe we will look at what we need to do next time. Each of us has to answer this stuff in their own minds and hearts. It is because we hazard the chance of failure that makes the pursuit of success something worthwhile.

So after the bitter disappointment of the Melbourne exam I took a bit of time out of the dojo. I got some feedback from my teachers, all of whom told me of their exam failures. Some perspective was gained and maybe some humility learnt. Training began anew.

So after a very short time I was able to test again, this time in Sydney in June. I passed. So here I am, kendo first Dan. This is a big thing for me. I have had support form a bunch of wonderful people to get here. But this is just another step. In time the disappointments will be forgotten except as some dim memory as will the successes. There will be new thing to do, new challenges. I will both fail and win through. This is just the way of things.

A New Helm – Part 3, Finishing Up

After all the hammer work is done it comes time to start sanding. I start by using a 80 grit belt for the initial cut back. This is a bit aggressive but as I am working in reasonably thick metal I can afford to do this.

rough sanding done siderough sanding backsanding


I then go over it with a 120 grit belt looking to remove the previous sanding marks. After this I use greaseless compound. This is a paste that goes onto a buffing wheel and acts like a soft sanding belt. Again I work over the entire helm looking to get an even finish. I am not trying to get a perfect finish. Some sanding marks are OK.

sanding done side sanding done front


Before starting the polishing I put in the roll on the bottom edge and set the holes for the liner and chin grill.

ready for polish 1 ready for polish 2


Polishing is done first with maxicut on a sisal wheel. Then multishine on a stitch wheel. 

polishing in progress

The final polish is done with green chrome to bring out a deep finish.

polishing done polishing done2


The final bits are putting in the liner rivets. These were cast findings I have had for a while. Cast by Sir Felix from a master made by Sir Leofric. Added also was the chin grill. These grills are a SCA sport fix. They work well and give you excellent breathing, but are a modern tweak.

Finished side finished 1:3


So there is the new helm. I am not totally happy with this project. I am planning on doing it again later in the year using spring steel. But until then it will do nicely.

in action


A New Helm – Part 2, Shaping

The helm blank is now together and it is time to light up a hot torch and start hammering.

I am using a LPG/oxygen mix to get the material hot and just hammering it down onto a ball stake.

This technique is very fast once you get it going, as in “holy crap that was fast”. I managed two complete heating passes on the helm in the first session. The basic shape is already there. I should have been able to do a clean up pass under heat to have the main shaping done at this point…



A few issues emerged. I pulled up the keel as the first thing. This was a mistake and I should have waited until I had the basic shaping passes done. Pulling up the keel will ‘lock’ the from to a significant degree and make it very difficult to majorly change the shape after you have put it in. It also resulted in a major stuff up.

The other big issue I had was the helm was way too big. I am used to being able to size down a helm as I go. This is not that easy with this technique. I was going to spend a lot of time and effort working the helm down. As it was at this point, it was about one inch too big in the side and about two inches too much front to back.

Fortunately it is just a matter of working the form down to reduce the size.

I was also going through O2 at a furious rate, this is partly using too much heat in places and having to do extra passes.

Working it down on the big T-stake. Unfortunately I lost some of the nice shape in the skull.




Working it in. You can see where the keel is not coming down with the rest of the skull.




The black lines are me working out where the occularia will end up.




At this point it was time to work down the front and start pulling up the chin section. I have done this in some ways with the full visors on previous projects. As your work the visor (or front part in this case) down you end up pushing up a ‘wave’ of material as you go. So you just work it down to where you will have the occulaia and you have the basic form.





I then use a fluting stake to define the shelf.







Once I had the face looking OK I did an initial planishing run. The grid is so I can keep track of where I am up to.




I was having issues with the keel. As I mentioned, I brought this up too early and it hampered me in the sizing. In an effort to get it looking right (you can see in the photos it is way too tall) I managed to fold it over at the front. 



To fix this I decided to cut out the metal where I had folded it under, hammer in the remaining keel bits and weld it all back up. I was a bit disappointed that I needed to do this, but as the entire helm was welded anyway I should not be that bothered by this. I did not take a photo of the fix up. I also tidied up the keel over a fluting stake and a bit of heat.

So here is the helm in the process of being cleaned up/planished. (Before anyone asks, the red on the table is me making up some red leather belts, not a sacrifice to the armour gods.)


Planishing is one of the more tedious processes. It just takes time. You also need to be aware of getting to a point of diminishing returns. Yes you can hammer the piece to being very smooth, but you can also just cut things back with a sanding belt. 

That now is the primary work completed. I had to adjust and then square off the bottom edge. Cutting out the occularia was done with a angle grinder and jigsaw and then files to clean it up.

Now onto finishing!