Viking with Roland Warzecha; Riveted Mail test with ThegnThrand

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.

Sword Disarm

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!

Gaming Take-Aways

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!

8 thoughts on “Viking with Roland Warzecha; Riveted Mail test with ThegnThrand

  1. So, apply that learning to GURPS and narrow-tipped thrust/impaling weapons versus mail – this sounds to me like it validates the notion that those weapons should in fact have an armor divisor against mail. Would you agree?

    1. For a few reasons, I’ve always liked the concept. I certainly think that it’s reasonable and has support in both theory and experiments like this one.

      I’ve proposed similar things to make the thrust a bit more dangerous, and folks rightly feared it. Right now, combining low damage for thr, even with the impaling wound modifier (and blech to impaling damage type) is usually a poor selection.

    2. There are a number of problems with giving armor divisors against mail to extra pointy weapons based on these tests: reproduction mail seems to almost always have far too large internal ring diameters compared to ring thickness when compared to historical examples. One thing I have noticed, after it was pointed out to me by others (including Dan Howard), is that historical mail often (though not always) has very small internal ring diameters, especially in areas likely to get hit. Indeed, if you look at authentic originals, you often cannot really see through the holes in the rings whereas with modern reproductions you can see through them quite well. This means that even the extra sharp points of later weapons would have trouble finding the purchase they need between the links to burst the mail.

      I imagine the large link diameters in modern reproductions is probably because of manufacturing costs, times, and techniques: smaller internal diameters mean many more rings. Since modern reproductions almost never need to stand-up to sharp pointed weapons, they do not need to take as much care to make them as point resistant.

      There are also a number of other problems with modern reproduction mail in terms of strength and quality. Dan Howard points them out here:

      Basically, modern reproduction mail is not battlefield armor, it is not intended to be. It is intended to look good and provide some protection and semblance of the original thing while still staying affordable to most potential customers who want to buy something for recreation, not as a piece of gear intended to one’s your life in one’s vocation.

      There is likely a reason the common weapon types, such as swords, in the “age of mail” were still cut oriented weapons. It is not that they did not know about thrusting swords, examples of thrusting oriented blades in Europe go back to the Celtic iron age, but rather it was probably more effective with swords to either try to cause injury through the mail with a powerful blow (in a cast style striking with the tip where there is most energy) or attack around it than try to stab through it. Remember, even early jousts were done in mail (though with a shield) with sharpened war lances. While there was stronger jousting mail used by some, mail obviously was expected to work fairly well against even a lance thrust (though obviously not always).

      1. *Edit above: most weapons in the age of mail were not “cut oriented” as I say above, most swords were. But spears were ubiquitous, as were lances, so it is odd that knights did not begin reinforcing their mail until heavier polearms, more powerful cutting swords, and other impact weapons started becoming more prominent. It is my theory that at this point, though thrusting against mail was not particularly effective, it was still more effective than trying to cut against rigid armor with a sword.

      2. This is true of some historical examples, and not others. Case in point, there was a sample of roughly 1,000-year-old mail brought over by the Oakeshott institute that seemed fairly close to the tested shirt in question.

        Also, the quality of each shirt and weapon was in no way uniform, and as soon as it’s edited, I’ll link up to a great panel discussion by some folks – including both forgers, historians, and users of the weapons, that happened late in the event schedule at the Asfolk opening.

        As I noted in my post: “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.”

        1. Agreed that it was not true for all historical examples and that quality varied, but I think that is better simulated by varying the quality of mail (modern riveted mail would be, at best, light mail, so DR3/1*cr). Fine mail and heavy mail would represent the better historical examples. There are also a number of optional rules in GURPS to reduce the effectiveness of cutting weapons against armor, so these could be used to better simulate the increased potential of a thrust. That said, I think an armor divisor for later thrusting weapons makes mail far too weak against such attacks. Even if you manage to burst a ring, you still only get those weapons a few inches through the mail, then you have to subtract the padding, which reduces penetration depth even more. In the end, that will be a wound, but how serious?

          I actually use a home-brewed optional rule that I think simulates historical armor effects pretty well. Basically:

          -Balanced cutting attacks get an AD of (1/3).
          -Unbalanced cutting attacks get an AD of (1/2)
          -Impaling attacks usually get an AD of (1/2), but for non-thrust oriented sword types (like Oakeshott 10, 11, 12(?), and 13), they get (1/3).
          -Unbalanced Crushing attacks get an AD of (1)
          -Balanced crushing attacks get an AD of (1/2)
          -other kinds of attacks get the usual AD of (1).

          I also tweak weapon stats, so thrust oriented swords usually get -1 to their listed swing damage in exchange for the better AD. I also give all two-handed weapons an additional +1 to all of their damage to simulate the greater power of these weapons.

          Finally, I have extended blunt force trauma rules that make it much more useful in most situations.

          I find that this prioritizes the thrust against armor with appropriate swords and makes using unbalance crushing weapons against armor really attractive even though it has the worst wounding modifier.

  2. Man, you are living the dream! Getting to hang out with figures who have for years (a decade in Roland’s case) been models for how I viewed HEMA and hoploligical concepts. Color me green!

  3. Getting to hang out with and learn from Roland Warzecha and Thrand, how cool! I watch both of their YouTube channels and find their work exceptional. Roland’s research and practice of historical techniques with sharps is amazing and I find his conclusions on techniques, sword grips, etc. extremely compelling. I also think there is no one on YouTube who does historical weapon testing as well as Thrand. It is not perfectly scientific, but given what he has to work with, he does an amazing job. I particularly like how he has demonstrated rather conclusively that there are ways of using swung swords against flexible armor that are far more effective than most HEMA people seem to think–mainly with a cast blow that strikes near the tip (most HEMA practitioners try to strike near the harmonic node in a slicing motion, which slices tatami mats and flesh best but doesn’t work against armor). I wish more people would listen to Roland and Thrand!

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