This last weekend was the second half of the Asfolk grand opening. I posted a bit about my two days with the guests from Hurstwic, Reynir A and Bill Short, last week. The second weekend featured Roland Warzecha of Dimicator, from Germany, and Thegn Thrand, who posts YouTube videos of various scenarios and tests.
Second Weekend at Asfolk
This time there were four two-h0ur seminars, but I had to miss the first one due to kid duty. Nonetheless, the kids were there, carving runes into soapstone and otherwise having good fun.
The seminars were very interesting. Roland studies the medieval fight manuals deeply, such as Talhoffer, Fiori, and 1.33, and his Dimicator group also brings knowledge of viking recreationist fighting arts to the table.
We covered “feeling” drills, as we touch shields and try and get inside and outside of the shield – basically grappling subtly with the shield, or perhaps feinting is the better term. You push and probe until you find a bit of give and weakness, and then exploit it while your opponent tries to counter. We learned several “plays” that way, and my left shoulder is both sore and noticeably larger then my right after two solid days of working with the shields, which are 10-15 lbs.
One interesting technique I wanted to cover in more detail, because it was not what I expected.
Late on the second day, our last seminar, we were told to put our shields down, and we did some sword-to-sword play. By this time, I was feeling bold, so I used a steel (blunt) replica instead of the wooden swords we were using.
We spent a lot of time on strikes and maneuvering, and learning to work with the center of rotation of the sword with a given grip. Moving the sword in tune with its balance makes it faster, and more effortless.
But after a bit of that, we turned to disarms, using a move present in Talhoffer and 1.33 and other manuals, and of course present in most joint-lock techniques in Asian martial arts as well – people are people, and we all bend and break the same way.
But what I was expecting was not what we did.
Blade Grabbing 101
Here are a series of still pictures.
The first shows a strike to cover by Thrand, and Roland showing one way to come up under the swing with a reinforced deflection. His posture is common in the fighting manuals, and when first examined looks like an exaggeration, but it’s not. It’s a modified deadlift position called the “hip hinge,” and is well balanced, and takes important targets away from the foe while also extending reach. The sequence of what muscles and body parts are activated when you’re fighting to not die as opposed to score a point first with proper spirit has probably been the biggest revelation in my brief training at Asfolk.
After the block, Roland reaches his hand closer to the point of the parry. Note he’s still in no real danger from the covering blow. Also realize that training with wood (shown) is different than training with blunt steel which is different than training with sharps. The sharps tend to really “stick” on the bind, and provide a lot more friction and resistance to blade sliding than one might think. So some of the “well, I’d just slide my blade up his and injure him!” works much less well in practice than in theory. More on that later, concerning shields.
Here Roland grips the blade, securing it firmly without endangering his hand.
What? Yeah, turns out it’s perfectly possible to grip even a sharp blade with a clamping action in a way that pretty much completely avoids the edge. The proper grip is demonstrated on a blunt sword, below, and the grip was used to drag each fighter across the mat a bit, just to show how much clamping force could be applied, as well as how much blade control.
At this point, the disarm part of the technique is completed with the same “snake” motion you’d use for shoulder lock (and which was demonstrated and sourced to Talhoffer later, in case for some reason, by choice or happenstance, you found yourself closer than the distance shown above), and the sword is stripped from the attacker’s hand. In that same motion, the person doing the disarm does a strike from the left shoulder with a circular motion around the pivot point of his own weapon and strikes to the head of the foe. The disarm pulls him into (or keeps him in) striking range.
Aggressive Shield Binds
One more thing, a bit of experimental archaeology. Some of the finds were shield clamps – used to put rawhide on the edge of shields. Some of these clamps were very thin – as thin as 1/16 of an inch. That thinning doesn’t just happen in hand-crafting cultures – it requires work, and that work is only going to be done for a very good reason.
The theory was that the thin shield could bind a blade in certain circumstances, and then be used to effect a disarm.
Well, first we had to build a shield, which we did. Very thin, purposefully tapered from maybe 0.25″ or 3/8″ in the center down to 1/16″ on the outer edge, and both sides were faced with hide, which in turn was secured to the shield with hide glue (made by boiling rawhide until it forms a paste). The entire thing was then edged in rawhide strips.
This shield was surprisingly heavy – heavier than the 1/2 or 3/8″ wood-only shield that tapered to .25″ that was Arthur’s primary shield.
We also had a common plywood reenactor’s shield, sold online. It was maybe 1/2″ throughout, plywood rather than linden (also basswood), and edged in thick rawhide. It is very, very heavy, a real beast.
We contrived a situation where the shield being tested might be able to intercept a blade strike. It wasn’t too hard – the foe gets the inside of your shield, which allows a flicking strike to your shield arm, which would slash fingers or the inner part of the wrist. To counter, the shield is dropped down and in, meeting the edge of the incoming sword with the grain of the wood.
That’s important, by the way – the grain direction in a proper shield is well known, as it’s oriented perpendicular to the buckler grip. So the direction you move the shield is quite purposefully and knowingly the one that will give the blade the best chance of embedding into the direction of the grain.
Anyway, long story . . . less long . . . the reenactor’s shield was not capable of doing this. The thick rawhide and dense plywood repelled the sharp blade every time. Both the “bear” shield which was just wood, and the purposefully thin shield were capable of catching the blade, and then the defender could use the same “snake” motion, this time with the shield itself, to twist and thrust in with the shield while carrying the sword off line.
At the very least, it put the other guy a beat behind the pace, in pure reaction and recovery mode. At best, it was effectively unreadying the sword and neutralizing it completely, at least long enough to deliver a set of hopefully fight-ending blows to the head, neck, and unprotected lower legs of the now-bound fighter.
A nifty demonstration. Was it the way things always happened? Almost certainly not. But it seemed a viable technique for the right circumstance, and might explain why the shields could be made so darn thin – the hide-reinforced shield was remarkably dense and heavy.
In a way, it reminded me of bulletproof glass. A hard outer facing, a soft and pliable binding layer (the glue), and a relatively tough substrate (the wood). The outer edge would look the same – rawhide on the edge, glue in the middle, wrapped around the wood. Laminates tend to do well for energy absorption.
Mail Penetration Tests
Thegn Thrand also brought a riveted mail shirt, looking to me like one of the Dressed for Battle flat ring, dome-riveted shirts, for testing. We had guests from the Oakeshott Institute as well. Discussions of metallurgy and bloomery iron were part of both last weekend and this weekend’s activities, and there was a great panel discussion I’ll post as soon as the link goes up.
In any case, the mail was pretty impervious to thrust and cut by a one-handed sword with a fairly wide tip profile, even if sharpened to a high degree. One-handed and two-handed spear thrusts defeated the mail easily. Other practitioners noted that both one and two-handed thrusts with the more narrow-tipped longswords they were using could pop rings and penetrate the mail as well.
The mail was hung from a board, backed with a multi-layered cloth garmet, and both were placed over modeler’s clay as a flesh simulator.
Much of this depends on the precise nature of the metal, the manufacturing process (wedge, drift, punch, rivet style), and of course the ring size and geometry. The very, very uneven quality of ancient metal was referred to frequently.
A proper Design of Experiment would vary or control ring size, construction method, and ensure that the gambeson simulator and the backing material were the same and properly representative of flesh – gelatin might be a better bet for consistency, but tends to be a bit springy. Instrumentation would be nice too, though challenging. Then a variety of controlled threats could be introduced, and the results noted. Randomized order should be employed to minimize that kind of error.
More on this later as more video and other trials come available. I guess for me, it met my expectations – a wide, broad point could not apply enough wedge force to fail the rings. A narrow spear point with good geometry easily defeated the mail, sometimes popping rivets, sometimes causing the rings to fail in tension, and never “cutting” the metal.
All in all, though, a great weekend of training, learning, and fun.
Followed by beer. Raar!
For all of that, I’m even more convinced that my thesis that you cannot really (and more importantly, should not) separate the grappling part of combat from the striking part, and the more that the systems and mechanics for the two resemble each other, the better it is for both versimilitude and mechanical quality.
We freely intermixed disarms and strikes, grapples and pushes and shield bashes. We constantly used the shield on both offense and defense, and probed the other fighter’s intentions and distance with what can only really be considered shield feints and beats.
The viking shield is held buckler style, rather than strapped, and that added an interesting dynamic to handling the shield, providing notably flexibility and also notable vulnerability. You need a strong left shoulder – but that develops rather quickly with practice.
Excellent weekend, then – and we now return you to your regularly scheduled blog content!