Better than salt money

Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation

On fighting, and combat skills.

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(There are lots of youtube links, as illustration.  I have anchored to the point I need, and (hope) I have indicated which one’s are specific, and about how long to watch them)

I’m going to assume you think our ancestors weren’t stupid.  I’m going to assume this because I assume you aren’t stupid. It happens, however, that lots of narrative about fighting is both stupid,  and assumes our ancestors were too.  Charlie Stross has a series of guest posts on “martial arts”*  they are good as far as they go§, but they gloss a few things.  Some because they weren’t relevant to the questions at hand, and some because we, as a culture, don’t see martial arts in our day to day lives.  We don’t have that many people who are trained in the practical aspects of beating people up, and the ways we use to commit organised slaughter are neither widely practiced, nor the sort of thing which makes for decent entertainment.

Not that books and films don’t try (see the posts referred to above, or any war flick in the past 40 years which has gunpowder).

Digression (topical, I promise):  I sell knives for my pocket money (technically I sell cookware, in practical terms my interests, and expertise means 80 percent of my time at work is spent behind the knife counter).  There is a lot of nonsense about knives, and sharpening, and everything which touches on cutting tools.  Honest, I heard a guy the other day saying, “I like damascus blades because they are lighter than steel.   Knife makers don’t help in this regard.  One (well known, and highly regarded, knife maker used to have literature which said European swords weighed a ridiculous amount (IIRC it was 50 lbs, but my mind refuses to accept that, so that I sort of want to say 15).

The fact is, european swords, and japanese swords (when they were a primary weapon) both came in between 1.75-2.75 lbs (there are some exceptions, at the heavier end).

Physics limits what one can do.  As an example go get a hammer.  Hold it at arm’s length… for as long as you can.  Even an 18 oz. hammer is going to be work to do that with.  Make it 5 lbs. and it’s a lot of work.  Make it a sword.  Now imagine your opponent managed to fool you into missing; now you have to get it back to a guard position before you get clobbered.

(blend digression back into conversation)

Which brings me to the bit about stupid.  I’ve read (lots) about how heavy/awkward armor is.  I read that nights couldn’t mount without a derrick, that if they fell they were helpless without someone to pick them up.


Assume that people aren’t (at root) stupid.  Who, in their right mind, is going to spend a lifetime training to use a weapon system which is designed so as to make them slow, and vulnerable?

Pop quiz, how much did a Roman legionnaire’s kit weigh?  What about a soldier at Waterloo?  How about Verdun?  What about guys landing on on the beaches on D-Day?  How about Inchon?  Guys slogging their way to Dien Bien Phu?  On the road to Baghdad in 2003 (which was my war).  All of them were about 60 lbs.  Which is a bit less than the armor of someone in “harness”† was carrying.

Why is this number so consistent?  Because it’s about the maximum someone can haul around, and still be anything like rapid in movement.  The heaviest I’ve ever been hauling, when we stepped off on a march, was 82 lbs of gear (don’t look at me, I didn’t make the packing list). With all that I was able to keep pace (about 2.5 miles an hour), and do all the things needed (flop to the ground, get up, run a couple dozen meters (crossing danger areas), take a knee (to scan the area/establish a hasty perimeter) etc.  At  the end of the hump (about eight miles), I was tired, but not worn out to the point of being combat ineffective.

So why do we think people couldn’t make adequate armor, which also let them move about?  Because we stopped using it. When it moved from a tool/weapon of battle, to a mark of status; and armor became a specialised sort of equipment; of minor utility (think cuirasses on lancers) because the hand weapons which could pierce it had pretty much disappeared from the battlefield; then the sword came to be the weapon of both offense and defense.

But the offense (understandably) became point focused, because it doesn’t take much in the way of protection to keep a sword’s edge from cutting you‡; the shift was pretty much complete by the early 17th century, because even if the edge wasn’t effective, the point would go right through. Because people no longer wore armor it was seen as ungainly.  Hell, it is ungainly if one is not practised in it’s use.  I used to work renaissance faires. I spent a few years donning a chain hauberk every morning.  I spent the entire day in it.  I walked, ran, climbed trees, did the occasional 270º flip in it (dramatic pratfalls go over well).

I also did swordplay in it.  No we weren’t going full-tilt, but we were using live steel.  I’ve been thwacked.  I got bruised. If you want to see what happens when someone gets hit while wearing plate:

Watch the first 42 seconds of this this piece of film on 15th century armored combat (we’ll come back to other parts later).  Did you see how little the guy who got thwacked seemed to notice?  (If you’ve not hit the videos in the third footnote, go do that now. If you watch it front to back it’s about ten minutes, but I’ve marked out the important bits, each of which is 10-20 seconds).  One of the other things to notice in that clip is how both of them were holding weapons with solid points, and the armor was specialised in ways to defeat points (smooth curves, and lipped edges).  These are things which we don’t see in depictions of armored combat.  The SCA (for all it’s good points) doesn’t really understand armored combat.  They are of the “hack and bash” school of thoughtˆ (in this they are not alone: Viking re-enactors do that, as to the people in the Armored Combat League (an international group which does SCA sorts of fighting with dead steel weapons: I do like the woman on the Spanish team; more than holds her own, but I digress)

In different ways both groups buy into the idea that swords go through armor.  The ACL also buys into the idea that a knight who fell down was hors de combat, since they are “live” until they fall down.  We know swords didn’t do that.  We know because people played at tournaments for fun.  We also know that deep cuts, esp. ones which introduced foreign matte into the wound were (as often as not) fatal, and often crippling.  Since knights weren’t dropping like flies after every tournament…

So how mobile were men in armor?  If we look at paintings, we get the idea they were pretty capable.  If we look at “books of defense” we see lots of energetic movement being taught.  I’m gonna go out on a (pretty strong) limb here and guess the techniques in the books weren’t that far removed from those being done when wearing armor, even though the pictures are usually not of armored men. 1:  It’s harder to learn two completely different techniques, 2: what books showing techniques in armor are similar styles, 3: when people try those techniques in armor, they can do them.

More examples, from another source: Fighting in harness.  If you practice Judo, or Aikido you might have a sense of deja-vu starting around 1:55.  If we look at the work required to do good stage combat, where the actors aren’t in armor, but the swords can still injure; but the fight must look realistic, we see that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish: Reclaiming the Blade shows the same sorts of techniques in the harness fighting segment, being done by people in street clothes; as compared to doing things in harness. Note the level of physicality, esp. the amount of up/down movement.  Also note the actual weapon for killing the armored opponent is a triangular spike.

If we slip a bit earlier in the video we see just how agile one can be in plate armor.

Narrative (visual, and literary) tends to lose that level of ease.  We forget that people aren’t dumb, and that if someone were that clumsy, someone would have found a way to exploit it.

We also get confused by the vast power differential which skill in swordplay (even absent armor) gave a competent fighter.  Those swords all had points.  If we accept the idea that they were not just slashing/poking weapons, and that there were systems of use which made them weapons of leverage, then the peasant with a billhook is at a massive disadvantage against a single person who knows what he is doing.  In a melée that billhook could be used to pull someone to the ground (which is the purpose of so many of the twisty/spiky bits on halberds and other polearms of the day), where the confusion of being swarmed (those helmets had limited visibility, better than you might think, but a far cry from a wide field of view) would negate those advantages.  Make the peasant the sole focus of someone who is used to killing people, and give him a sword capable of the sort of smashing and cutting in the videos in the footnotes, and it would take a group of brave (to the point of foolhardy) people, willing to die, to deal with a marauding soldier.  Make a a group and nothing short of other soldiers is going to keep them from plundering the town (which is what made the 30 Years War so devastating, esp. to the Germanies, where so much of the contention was taking place).

Guns put all that to bed.  Swords, in short order, became specialist weapons; primarily for cavalry; where the problems of smoothbore innaccuracy, and the difficulties of reloading muzzle-loading weapons, meant that after a few rounds, the cavalry were either useless, vulnerable, or relegate to sword or lance (though we do get the pleasant, and peaceful, diversion of the carousel from the name for the (usually pointless) drill of firing while riding a circle.  It fell out of favor (in short order) because pistol and carbines were weak, and inaccurate: if the opposing horse put their spurs in and charged the group performing the caracole was usually routed, as they were quickly disordered.

Swordplay from horseback, however, is different to swordplay on foot.  By the end of the 16th century the idea of mobility in armor was gone, swords were lighter, and the sense that the larger swords of the previous era was to bash through armor seemed reasonable.

I suppose I ought next to deal with the idea of generalship in non-gunpowder armies, which, apart from logistics; motivation, was largely about being able to analyze terrain.


*I put it in scare quotes because what we tend to refer to as martial arts are forms of close combat, doe hand to hand; they fail to encompass most weapon arts (which includes distance weapons like bows and firearms), and don’t encompass questions of fieldcraft, which (as a soldier) I can say is both martial, and can be a game changer in a group on group fight).

§ I say that as someone who has been in my share of actual fights, as well as trained in a few martial arts (which includes a lot of weapons)

†Harness is the 15th century word (in English) for a suit of plate armor, it’s whence we get the term, “died in harness”.

‡This video is of people using late 15th century longswords to cut.  They are attacking “tamashigiri” which are tatami reeds, wrapped around a 1″ piece of bamboo.  When soaked in water they are supposed to behave as human limbs would when cut. Some interesting things at these points: at the 53 second mark we see an unsupported piece being split.  At  7:26 there is a  demonstration of “short” cuts (i.e. cuts without time to wind up). At 9:38 we see a demonstration of what happens to a pinned roll of tatami when covered with linen, in particular take a look at the effects from 10:11-10:23.

ˆIt’s not that SCA heavy weapons fighters aren’t good at what they do; they are, and I’d not like to be facing one in the lists, but their weapons aren’t swords/axes/maces, and they do things with them which aren’t doable with those weapons.  Which leads to a fighting style which, while interesting (and more subtle than most observers understand) doesn’t reflect the reality of how the weapons they are representing were actually used, nor what they are really capable of doing. Which in turn affects both how the make their armor, and what they do in it; which in turn affects how people who see them understand what armor is, does, and is capable of doing.


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