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.

Image

 

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.

Image

 

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.

Image

 

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

Image

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

Image

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.

Preparing for Crown Redux

It is looking like Elizabeth and I are planning on entering the next May Crown Tournament. While this is not an absolute I have started planning out my preparations for this. Some of you may think that 7-8 month lead in is a bit much I would argue that depending on what you are wanting to achieve it may not be enough.

Anyway, just as I have done previously I am splitting my time into blocks with specific preparation and training to be done. I am also following my previous advice of looking at what gear and equipment I may need. So my training plan will break down into several slightly overlapping phases. I will be looking to have most of this done by Rowany Festival and then use the few weeks after that to rest and get ready for the tournament itself.

Physical/conditioning

I have about six months to get physically prepared for the tournament. I am currently working on both stripping fat and maintaining basic strength. By body fat percentage is now at 23% and I would like that to be comfortably under 20% by Christmas. This is going well so far but there is always the issue of also loosing muscle mass while dropping weight. After Christmas I will probably not focus on the fat loss and this will mean changing my eating a small degree.

Gym work at the moment is a tricky balance. I have cut back on the number of workouts and have been upping the intensity. I am focused on maintaining muscle mass during the fat loss process. I am just running though the five principle lifts of squat, dead-lift, rows, bench press and shoulder press. These are done to failure with high weights and very low reps. What I am finding is that this does require a few day of recovery so I am only doing this once a week at the moment.

This is also complicated in that I am also training for a 100km charity ride at the end of this month, so I need to spend time on the bike doing a lot of climbing work. This sort of training does not mesh well with a pure strength building program.

In a month or so I will be able to increase volume and intensity, moving to a more generalist program to build  across several areas of fitness. This will take me through to February and is working out three times a week, three recovery days (60 min runs/ride) and a rest day. From there the focus will be on developing power and endurance. This will all taper off around Easter and I will just be in a maintenance phase. I also will need to incorporate a lot of stretching in all of this as I need to develop greater range of movement in my shoulders as this is very poor.

Combat Training

The idea is to spend the first few months just stepping back and refining technique. I am playing with a mace to develop a better control of distance and timing. I am also working on refining all my basics. All my sparring time during this period needs to be focused on clean correct technique. Besting opponents is not the goal here. In fact I should cut down my in armour time and concentrate on drills, the pell and focus mitt work.

After Christmas I will start upping the armour time and look at getting as much exposure to opponents with different styles and weapon forms as I can. This is mostly about still being in a learning phase. I will be looking at getting an understanding of the timing and options of what I will be facing in Crown.

Then several weeks out armoured training is cut back again. Here you just run through ‘mock’ crown fights. This is just working though everyone at training (with their understanding) and doing either a single or best of three pass only. The idea here is to build the ability to end the fight on your own terms and in your own time. It is to replicate the mental pressures of the tournament. Every bout must count for something.

The last bit I would throw in here is Festival will be for getting in some fighting and having some fun with it all. It would be silly to break myself at this stage.

Gear

I need to make a fair bit of new kit. I will have to replace my helm. I am looking at making a new one out of 3140 spring steel. It will be a copy of my current helm as I very much love it but ithe poor thing is now about 14 years old and is need of repair or replacement. I also need to make a new vambrace. My current one is way too big and is causing me issues in gauging the hits. This is not good.

I am also planning on making a new arming doublet along the lines of the pourpoint I am currently using to secure the leg harness but with collar and sleaves. A heraldic will then go over this.

So all of this is in the planning stages. We have lot of things that will have to happen before we do enter Crown but at least the training starts now.

If the shoe fits…

Someone the other day pointed out that all of us in the Whyte Companie wear period(ish) shoes and boots rather than the more common GPs or steel caps worn by many combatants. During the conversation I remarked that it was not only an appearance thing but also almost a necessity to have footwear that was both light and that you could have the right balance and ‘ground feel’ in.

We have talked before that in tournament combat footwork is primary. Most mistakes in any technique begin with problems in stance and position. So it is vital that you have the right equipment to allow you good footwork. I would venture that heavy boots weighting a few pounds are not the best tool for the job.

Looking though the fechtbuchs everyone is wearing reasonably light turnsole shoes or boots (I am going to ignore all the very pointy ones…). So it follows that using such shoes is entirely appropriate for our tournaments, particularly as the feet are not a legal target.

Most Eastern martial arts forgo the use of shoes in any form. This is often to allow the participants better balance and movement. It allows you to move easily on the balls of your feet rather than having the weight on your heels. Japanese tabi are a good attempt to produce a shoe with good ground feel. We have found that light shoes enable similar ability.

I have one student that has extremely fallen aches and has been wearing GP style boots for a long time. Their footwork needed to develop more flow and quickness, so I convinced him to try training in some Vibram FiveFigures.(1) The difference in footwork was immediately noticeable, and the student reported that they felt they could move a lot better than with the older boots and that they were generally more comfortable.

So for those of you wanting to work on your foot work I would almost insist you lose your GPs or Johnny Rebs. Try doing some training in bare feet or very minimalist shoes. Get yourself into something light and reasonably period. It will make a world of difference.

(1) Our Kingdom rules say that all combatants “must wear sturdy footwear which provides adequate protection and support of the foot an ankle for the terrain and activity of combat”. So Fivefingures are probably not kosher at official combat events unless you do something about covering the ankle and they look unacceptably modern. But then the riding boots I use are only light 1.5mm leather and that gives me almost no ‘protection’. Having said that I have a pair for all my out of armour training.

Draw up the shield-wall, oh shoulder companions

A matter of shields.

An interesting conversation started up a while back on the matter of shields. The question came to ‘what is the best shield’. Like many of these questions the answer is ‘it depends’…but as that is a rather unhelpful answer let explore this a little more.

The first thing I will mention is that I am not a big fan of the large lightweight shields. I think they are a form of cheating. Before the advent of the large aluminium barn doors you almost always had a weight issue if you wanted to use a large shield. Seeing some folk with an enormous centre grip shield that they can flick around just does not seem right. However, aluminium shields have a place. For some small framed combatants they can get a shield that will last and is not too heavy. They can be made to fold down for transport. You can have a shield that will last and last.

So what are some of the things to think about when deciding on what shield to use?

Type of combat:

Wars generally call for the largest shield you can carry. War combat is normally on of working as a unit, with the shield wall being a principle component of this. A large shield allows you a solid static defence and is good for covering you and your friends against pikes and arrows. A bit of mass in the shield is also useful in dealing with charging and being charged. Centre grips are sometimes a liability as they do not work well with resisting a solid and determined charge.

Tournaments are mostly about personal preference. Every sort of shield will have advantages and weaknesses. It is critical to be aware of all of these. The type of shield will also depend on the style of combat you do and this is probably reflected in the time and effort you put into training. For many people starting out or unable to commit a great deal of time to training and practice, a large shield can be an attractive option.

Size

Small shields are easily manoeuvrable and are given to an aggressive style of combat. They allow you to use many of the offensive shield techniques such as tilts and hooks. I feel you are more ‘in the fight’ with a small shield and you are able to see what is happening and make your attacks without a large board getting in the way. On the weakness side, the small shield does require you to be precise in your defence as they do not allow for a lot of errors.

I would define a small shield as anything under 18-20 inches in any length. Of cause this is not an exact definition and depends on how big the person is using the shield.  I currently use a 18 inch half round. It is not that good at defending the low line of attack and does require me to use my sword too much to add to the defence.

As shields get larger the way you employ them  changes. The shield becomes more static and your defence becomes more passive. While not bad overall, I think in using a large shield you rob yourself of some of the offensive options and render yourself too passive in the fight.

So what is a large shield? Anything that is getting to the two by three foot range is probably getting too gig to use effectivly. Having said this, it also depends on the size of the person using it.

Shape is also a consideration

There is a wide variety of shield shapes out there, but you will note that things basically come down to rounds and heaters. While these are tested and tried forms, it sometimes will not hurt to try playing with something else such as kites etc.

I personally do not like squares as they just look wrong. There is also a few folk here using wankles to great effect.

Again, each shape will have its advantages and disadvantages. You need to be aware of these, not only for your defence but also in understanding your opponents weaknesses.

Another small personal thing, madus, just say no. They are a cheat and I feel the same way with crusiform great sword.

Centre Grip?

Centre grip shields are growing in popularity in this Kingdom and are the dominate form in some places. While they do give you a number of defensive advantages I find that they are weak offensively (think about hooks, tilts etc) and are in turn very open to your opponent controlling your shield. So if you like using a centre grip you will need to be aware of these weaknesses.

I have noted that some lighter build folk find a centre grip much to their liking, so this may be something to explore.

So in the end the type of shield you use is mostly up to you. There is no perfect shield. Everything has advantages and weaknesses and it is up to you to decide what you are willing to compromise on or take advantage of.

Remember that no shield will do the work for you. You need to train and practice constantly to master weapons and whatever shield you use.