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.

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).

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?

 

Finishing

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.

 

Functionality

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.

 

Research

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?

 

Patterning

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.

 

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 1, putting it together.

This post is all about making armour…

As many of you may know, I love sallets. I love the lines and shape of them and have in time modelled my kit and impression around the need to wear them. Anyway, my current sallet has been in service for about 15 or 17 years. I love that helm but it was getting time to replace it, as all things will wear out eventually.

I intended to replace it with basically the same thing. There would be a few small changes to things I got wrong all those years ago. I have been intending to get started on this for a long time, but always had other projects on the go. I have also been looking at some of the posts on Armour Archive about a raising technique that makes things very fast and I wanted to try this new method out.

Basically you make up the helm in flat sheet with only two dimensional bends. You weld it all up and then sand back the welds flush. Then, under heat, you work the form down to the desired shape. The technique was developed by Robert Macpherson, whose work is fantastic and I wish I had 1/10 of his eye and talent. The raising  involves compressing the metal and hammering the form from the outside rather than working the form from the inside as is common with a lot of modern armouring. I did a test run on a shield boss and it worked a treat. So I drafted up a pattern based on the old helm and off to the workshop!

Here is the pattern mock up next to the old helm.

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I drafted the pattern over the old helm. This ended up being a big mistake. This technique requires you get the pattern spot on, as I will explain soon…

Cutting out the plates.

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From here it is a straight forward job of bending the plates and welding it all together. The top portion of the helm is in 2.5mm mild and the bottom plates are 2mm.

Top of the helm welded up.

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The front of the helm. Top welds have been sanded back.

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Helm all welded up. I should have done the bottom plate in one piece. The weld there would cause problems latter on…

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After this I sanded back the welds on the outside. I am supposed to do the same for the inside welds but these were relatively flush anyway (the bonus of doing with gas welding) so I did not spend too much time doing this.

The next step is to light up the torch and start hammering.

Always remember your hat.

Time to have a bit of a chat about equipment.

Tournament combat can be an equipment intensive activity. You need a set of armour to play. Your armour not only protects you from your opponents’ attacks it also is a critical part of your overall appearance and presentation. You should put some thought and care into your amour and associated gear. Look after it and it will look after you.

So, were to start? Possibly the most important and obvious item is your helm. This is what most people will identify as ‘you’. It is in a very real way you on field ‘face’.

I would recommend getting the best helm you can afford. They do not tend to get worn out as quickly as other pieces of armour and can last you many years.

Have a think about what style you like. Is there are particular time period or look you are after? If you are just starting off there is no need to spend hundreds of dollars on a new helm. Ask around to see if there is anything going second hand. New helms can be purchased for under $200 from the US.

Here are a few things to think about:

• Get a helm from someone who knows what the SCA is about. Do they have a good understanding of the armour rules and requirements? Chances are that they will know what you are doing and will be making helms that work well for what we do.

• Avoid some of the Indian/Chinese etc items. While these suppliers are fine for a lot of armour many of the helms are not suitable for SCA combat. Often the welds are poor and the material too thin.

• 2mm minimum. I would not use a helm with less than a 2mm thick skull. 1.6mm, while legal will just get dented. I make my helms out of 2.5mm and they last years.

• Chin straps. Many people put these too high. The best place is to have the attachment point in line with the back of the jaw bone just under the ear.

• Padding. You do not have to line the entire helm with padding. Some strips of padding that suspends the head is fine. Better yet is a horse hair or linen period liner.

• Breathing is more important than vision. Make sure you are able to breathe comfortably. While a lot of closed face helms look great, make sure you get some air, air is a Good Thing.

• Avoid moving parts. I generally do not like helms with too many moving parts such as visors, catches etc. These are all things that can break or go wrong. Remember that you are going to get hit a lot and your helm takes the brunt of this.

Let’s go shopping!

Take some time and have a good look around. Yes you can spend a lot of money on a helm but you do not have to. Take your time and get something that will work for you.

Here is a list of suppliers to get you started.

There is no spoon

The next time you are at a tournament I invite you to watch the various participants. Ignore for the moment what they are doing, but look instead at how they walk into the field. Can you pick the winner of a match by their presence alone? How do the more experienced carry themselves compared to the novice?

This is not an idle musing on deportment but rather thinking about our purpose and focus on the execution of the armed encounter.

It has been often said that you can win something by being confident in your training and abilities. I think this is often true. A person who is sure they have done the training hours, given enough sweat and effort takes this confidence into the match they now will face. This also represents a calm of mind and allows the individual to focus on the task at hand.

This is not the bravado of someone who tells you that they are awesome, despite never having been at practice. But certainty and clarity that they can do what they need to do to be victorious.

If having the right mindset is vital, how then do we arrive at that point? There are a great many books and websites devoted to what we now will call sports-physiology. If you want to read this sort of thing (and I suggest you do) then In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick is a good place to start.

One of the interesting things Orlick points out is that success does require a high level of enjoyment in the given activity. So it is essential that we enjoy what we do. We do need to seek a ‘rush’ of excitement and fun in our tournaments and wars; we cannot be all focus and intensity. Now having said that, it is important to have some level of focus or we will not succeed at all.

You often hear people speaking of being ‘in the moment’. That moment were time slows down and you do everything right. This is that critical time that we all try to replicate every time the lay-on is called. How do we get to that point? I am still not sure, and if I was I would be earning a great deal more than I am…8-)

There are some things I do to try to get myself in the right head space. Not all of this works for everyone.

Preparation

As I mentioned earlier, you must be sure you have done everything you can do in training and preparation before you walk onto the field. Sometimes this needs to be measured in months if not years. Do not be put of by this, but rather understand what you can do and make sure you can do it well. This may mean blocking that attack by His Grace until you see an opportunity to counter.

Gear

I like to ensure that all my harness is in excellent working order. Everything works and I have confidence that nothing is going to break or fail on the day. Do any repairs well before that day of the event, running around trying to fix something with borrowed tools is not the best way to keep calm. Make sure you are comfortable with your harness and that it gives you the protection you require. I make sure that my gear helps me set the right example on the field, retouch the paint on your shield, re-tape your sword and wash your arming doublet.

Walk the Field

This is something I do before any big tournament. As early as I can, I have a wander around the field. I make it mine. This is all about getting into the right frame of mind. It is the beginning of drawing in my thoughts so I can focus on the competition to come.

Consort

I mentioned the role of the consort some time ago. Something I have seen that is excellent is the couples who work out where they will stand before every bout. Knowing where to look helps in staying focused.

Be ready

Listen for the calls to arm and stand ready. I often try to be ready and waiting for my opponent to arrive at the entrance to the lists. This also extends to making sure all your gear is packed the night before. You alone are responsible your own gear.

You are a Noble

In the SCA at least everyone is considered a member of the noble class. Be one! In The Book of the Courtier, Castigilone describes the courtier is described as having a cool mind, a good voice (with elegant and brave words) along with proper bearing and gestures in addition to having a warrior spirit, to be athletic, and have good knowledge of the humanities. Everything you do must be with a certain level of ease and grace. Step confidently onto the field and perform your salutes with confidence, and poise. Look like you know what you are doing. Those watching have come to see knights performing great deeds of arms, be that knight.

To Make a Sword (Part Two)

Ok, the second part of how I make up my rattan swords.

4. Thrusting tip

I now cut out some close cell foam to make up the thrusting tip. This needs 3/4 inch of foam. I like to use the medium density grey foam. I find the camp mats to be poor quality and tend to be too soft and degrade quickly. You could use the rubber ones, but they can add to the cost and do have a poor tendency to tear…

So cut out as many disks of foam as is required and use fiberglass tape to attach to the tip.

The thrusting tip going on. I use about four strips of tape cross wise and then a quick spiral to hold it all in place.

5. Webbing

I now run a strip of nylon webbing along the cutting edge, over the tip. I normally just buy tie-down straps and cut them up. The webbing gives a layer of protection to the rattan and secures the thrusting tip. I have NEVER had a tip come off using this method.

The webbing going over the thrusting tip. I then secure it with fiber tape.

6. Spiral Wrap

I now use the fiber tape and cover the entire blade section with tape, going in a spiral down and then back up. You want to get this on as tight as possible. I run the tape with only a slight overlap.

7. Find and adjust the balance point

This is one of the more important stages. The balance of a sword is often more important than the total weight. Generally the further towards the tip then the sword will move slower but hit harder. As the balance point moves towards the hand the sword will feel to move/turn over faster but it will not hit with authority. Maces are an extreme example of this.

Pop the basket hilt on and see were the sword balances (you may need to put a small bit of tape on to keep the hilt in place). If the balance point is too far towards the hilt (as in the picture) then you add more spirals of fiber tape to the top end of the sword to move the balance further out. It is almost impossible to move the balance point in using this method, but you could just use a lighter hilt.

Finding the balance point. I like it to be a bit further out than this, so I just add more tape to weight up the blade. Just keep adding tape and checking your progress.

8. Attaching the hilt and finishing touches.

Once you have the sword balanced it is time to fix the hilt on (although you can do this as you are organising the balance). I use fiber tape and will twist it into a ‘rope’ to bind the tangs down firmly. Do not use hose clamps, they always seam to come loose and are annoying to attach. If the hilt becomes loose just re-tape it.

I then add some hockey tape to cover the blade and mark out the thrusting tip and blade. Do not use the plastic duct tape, it is a bugger to get off and looks ratty in seconds. I tend to re-tape my swords every few practice sessions as I use the makes and cuts to see were I am striking and ensuring I am not hitting flat.

I run a bit of the hockey tape over the grip for comfort reasons and also cover the fiber tape I used to attach the hilt. I think it is worth making sure all your gear is neat and finished, it shows that you care about what you are doing.

I attach the lanyard to the back of the basket hilt as this keeps it out of the way. I also dislike the slip knot lanyards and they are a bugger to get off sometimes and can garrote your wrist in some circumstances.

I also have a padded disk to stop my hand banging on the hilt.

This one ended up being about 1.2kg / 2.6 pounds.

Sword taped up and ready to go!

So there is how I make up my swords. Good luck with yours.