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Lost Arts: The European Longsword Part II - Fighting Against Armor

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Lost Arts continues its look at the art of the European Longsword, this time looking at a vital military skill, fighting an enemy in armor.

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For the second installment of Lost Arts, we will continue to look at the lost martial art around the wielding of the the European Longsword. If you are new to the series the first article is going to have to be required reading as it discussed why the Longsword qualified as a "Lost Art", the sources that provide the information, the basic information about what qualifies as a Longsword, and how it was used in unarmored combat. In fact if you have the time it might be a good idea to go brush up on that article even if you already read it, so here is the link.

As said in the last article the Longsword was widespread through Europe from approximately 1350 to 1550 AD, and during that period if a man wished to serve in a military capacity learning to fight in armor and against armored enemies was vital.

There are many recreations of armored fighting that include swords, one of the most popular is the Battle of Nations, which hosts huge events that feature everything from single combat to 21 man team melees. While these events do capture the intensity and violence of fighting, for the safety of competitors they disallow many of the most effective attacks against armored foes. While grappling is allowed, the rules encourage a style of fighting highly ineffective against armor, using cuts and bashes in attempt to batter an opponent to the ground.

So what you actually get is a demonstration in how not to fight an armored foe and a demonstration of the sturdiness and protective value of a good suit of armor.

Battle of the Nations France 2013 09-05-13 1vs1 #7 7 fight Belgium vs UK / Yurijful (via Yurijful)

So we can dismiss this sort of recreation, it is fun and entertaining, but not an accurate recreation of the skills and tactics used in armored combat. Let us move past that and look at how armor was used and combated.

Armor was not new to combat, armored infantry and cavalry were mainstays of Western military tradition since antiquity, but at the end of the era known as the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance the craftsmanship of steel and iron armor had peaked.

In addition to the centuries old standbys of chain mail, reinforced leather, and partial plate, armorers of the period produced articulated, full body steel plate armor fitted to the wearer.

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Italian suit of armour, c. 1450 from Wiki-commons

This kind of armor was the height of military technology and provided amazing protection and, unlike chain mail which hung heavily on the shoulders, distributed the weight of the armor evenly across the body, giving a warrior great mobility.

A danger when looking at this armor is picturing rows of men in these suits, steel plates shinning the in the sun as they ride their horses past the ranks of infantry men to cross a green field of grass and flowers, preparing to meet a similarly equipped army in open battle.

While these classic, set piece battles did occur they were extremly rare. The different kingdoms of the era were not the unified nation-states that we think of today. They were not held together by a sense of shared nationality, but rather a complex system of political alliances, marriage, and family ties. As a result they didn't have the governmental structures or apparatus to field armies the size of those of the Empires of antiquity, so wars could not be conducted on the grand scale of the Empires of old.

Militates were not state sponsored organizations that were given a standard set of equipment. Soldiers had to provide their own equipment and came to the military already trained in arms, there was likely some form of unit training for military purposes, but there are not surviving manuals on that subject. So the kind of men who had the money to afford this top shelf armor, the time to train, the fortitude to seek battle, and had combat experience were in high demand.

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A near contemporary portrayal, within a century, of the Battle of Barnet from the English War of the Roses. Armored combat, including foot soldiers fighting with swords are depicted.

The larger nations--and I use the word nations loosely--had small professional forces that formed the core of their armies. All across Europe mercenaries were common and often not short of work as their experience and professional soldiering was consistently required. The most famous were the Condottieri, the military free companies of Italy, which was divided into dozens city-states. The Condottieri were famous for their fighting prowess and fickle nature, fighting for whichever side paid the highest.

With these kind of forces large scale, highly organized warfare was not the standard practice of the day. Instead militaries favored low intensity, asymmetrical warfare. During the 100 Years War both the French and English referred to this kind of warfare as Chevauchée, which focused on raiding enemy territory and reducing its value to the enemy. Engagements would not really be refereed to as battles so much as raids, ambushes or skirmishes, but they were no less deadly to the combatants. This low grade warfare would feature small raiding groups relying on surprise and fast violence for success. In this kind of warfare a warrior might not always be able to get on his armor or even have it with him at the time of combat, which made being able to fight both unarmored and armored critical skills.

The rarer, larger battles would take place, in most cases, with forces of at most about 10-20 thousand a side. Armies would be composed of non-standardized bodies of infantry formed with combinations of  ill-equipped levies and more professional man-at arms. The noblemen would be mostly concerted in the cavalry, and there would also be a large contingent of archers, crossbow men, and in some cases artillery pieces. Battles would be largely exchanging arrows and artillery fire, with actual hand to hand combat occurring in short bursts. This could vary based on regional differences in approaches to warfare.

These efforts were not always focused on foreign enemies. To restate, state large countries were not nation-states, but incredibly complex webs of multi-nuclear political connections, and domestic strife would have been just as deadly and at times more common than foreign conflicts.

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Longswords depicted in the Assassination of Louis I, Duke of Orléans and brother of the King of France, who was killed by agents of his nephew in a play for power in 1407.

The Germans referred to fighting in armor as "Harnessfechten" and we are going to focus on the longsword use in harnessfechten.

Now it is very important to start with that the longsword was not the first weapon a warrior would pick to use in battle against a foe wearing a full suit of plate. The primary weapons in battle often provided a good deal more reach, such as pole arms or larger swords, and there were weapons specially designed to combat armor. But the longsword could worn on a warrior's person, making it something akin to a side arm in battle and a weapon of personal defense away from the battlefield, so tactics to combat armor were developed.

First it is important to note that cutting against metal armor was basically a useless exercise, remember the longword was a light and nimble weapon and it didn't have the weight or power to cut through quality armor or deliver enough concussive force to break bone under armor. Thrusting through a piece of plate was also likely a pointless attack, though a good sword could pierce most other types of armor.

To drive home that point below is a video from the History Channel show Mail Call. The show was hosted  by R. Lee Ermey, a retired United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant and actor. In this video he dives into one of the most hotly debated and also irrelevant topics in sword history: katana vs longsword.

Make no mistake, the video is awful for the purpose it was made, but it can be useful to us. At the end of the video, around the 6:10 mark, they test both swords against a chest piece of European style, seeing which sword could punch straight through the chest piece. In the end the katana is declared the winner, but I would argue the real winner here is the armor as neither sword is really able to do much to it.

So trying to power through armor was useless, and if you are unarmored and fighting an armored foe attempting that tactic is likely the last thing you are ever to do because the protection afforded by armor allowed a warrior to take a hit to deliver one. To get through a suit of plate armor a warrior had to attack the gaps with precise attacks, and since an armored foe likely had a form of lighter armor under his plate a little extra force would be needed as well.

This problem basically eliminated the outside fight of wide, or two step, range because at that distance the chances of scoring a hit with the kind of precision and power needed against an active and moving enemy is very close to zero.

To fight armor a warrior had to get in close, increase his control of the point of his sword, be able to defend against blows, and be ready to grapple. To answer to the this problem, across almost all the sources, was half-swording.

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A half-swording guard from the Fiore dei Liberi, an Italian manual

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Half-swording in action from the manual of German fencing master Hans Talhoffer

Half-swording was a technique in which a fighter would hold his Longsword with one grip on the handle and another on the blade, giving a fighter excellent control of the tip of their sword and turning their weapon into a giant lever that can be used in close range fighting.

Now to answer the first question that naturally arises here, yes you can safely grip a sword like that. There have been multiple demonstrations that show there is a technique to holding a blade and when done correctly even a bare hand is safe against a sharp blade. Also keep in mind that soldiers would be wearing leather gloves or metal gauntlets for hand protection. Also remember that these soldiers cared for their own weapons, and we have accounts of fighters who left their favorite spot on the blade to grip duller so they didn't have to worry about how they gripped.

Half-swording allowed a fighter to close the gap, while defending against blows and enter grappling range. Below is a demonstration video of some basic half-swording techniques. Note how the fighter using the half-sword technique is able to defend against powerful cuts and then use his weapon as a lever in grappling, while often also bringing the tip of the blade to an opening in the armor.

That strategy would be similar to what a half-sword fighter could use against an aggressor using an ax, club, mace, fail, or another weapon that required wide swings to be effective. When two men with longswords met, especially if they were wearing armor, could both employ half-swording.

In that case the first attack would often be to thrust or try to cut at open parts of the armor, using the half-sword grip for increased control over the point of the sword. A-half_medium

A half-sword thrust finding a gap at the shoulder from the Gladiatoria, a German manual from the 1430's from an unknown author

If the initial thrust could be turned the combatants would engage in a clinch fight, one in which they used their swords as large levers. They would maneuver for position, trying to get into position were they could do damage or trying to achieve a takedown.

For two examples here are videos of Dierk Hagedorn, head instructor at the Hammaborg School of Historical Sword Fighting,  teaching a few takedowns using the Longsword drawing from the German manual the Gladiatoria. Both videos start with the primary source images that the technique is drawn from and them a breakdown of the movements involved. It is a fine demonstration how entering grappling range with a Longsword in a half-sword position was like getting to wrestle with the aid of a crowbar.

Gladiatoria : Part 1/6 : Swordfight in Armour : Hammaborg (via Dierk Hagedorn)

Gladiatoria : Part 2/6 : Swordfight in Armour : Hammaborg (via Dierk Hagedorn)

There was another way to employ the Longsword, as a club. Now, as previously stated, the Longsword blade was too light and the weapon was too well balanced for the blade to really deliver concussive force to the degree to really do damage through armor. However the handle, pommel, and cross-guard, in order to balance the weapon, were quite hefty.

If a Longswordsman completely reversed his grip of the weapon and gripped the blade with both hands, he could use the sword as a club. Known as "Morte-striking", some Longswords had cross-guards and pommels specifically designed to do serious harm in morte-striking.

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A morte-strike depicted in the Codex Wallerstein in a fight between two armored fighters, note the shields and spears laying on the ground, denoting they had been lost, broken, or discarded before Longswords were used.

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A morte-strike being used by a unarmored fighter against an armored one in Han's Talhoffer's Longsword manual.

For an example of this technique, I will turn to John Clements, director of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA). Clements has been on the forefront of interpreting primary sources into actual physical movement and then testing them through trail-and-error in sparring to help increase our understandings of these techniques.

Clements has done many, many videos and this one nicely recaps everything we have covered thus far and provides a good live spar demo of some of the techniques discussed. Take note of how well the armored fighter is able to move despite the extra weight he is carrying and the physical toll even a short spurt of combat takes on both fighters.

Outside of half-swording, there was another option, called Wrestling at the Sword, or Ringen am Schwert by the German traditions. If a warrior could take an armored opponent down, then he would have the help of gravity to held drive his point home as he attacked the gaps in the plate armor and tried to piece the secondary layer of armor.

Takedowns could be done from half-swording, with a regular grip on the sword, or with no sword at all. Here is a quick example of a takedown with an entry of a simple cut.

Overleg Throw - Ringen am Schwert ("Wrestling at the Sword")

Combat manuals are full of armor wrestling techniques that don't require swords to finish but were very much apart of a swordsman skill set. At this point we enter techniques that didn't rely on equipment of the period but worked purely with the bio-mechanics of the human body, so the techniques are far more universal, far more likely to survive to this day, and likely are older than the Longswords and Medieval nations they were employed with.

It is also important to keep in mind that swords did break, be it on the armor of a foe, in the midst of half-sword grappling, or just because a mounted warrior feel from his horse and landed on his sword. So Ringen was a highly combat effective form of unarmed fighting that worked against both armored and unarmored foes.

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A man-at-arms using an outside trip after having lost his Longsword from the Gladiatoria

After a takedown, a ground fight could very well follow and the goal in most cases was not submission hold. A pretty standard part of a solider's personal kit would include a dagger or knife of some kind, and this would be a much faster and easier way to kill an enemy than a submission hold of some kind. So the goal was often to gain control of a grounded enemy and then use a dagger designed to pierce armor to find a gap in the armor and drive it home with the aid of gravity. These daggers were known as "the dagger of mercy" because they were often used to dispatch a wounded enemy, known as a mercy stroke. Other sources also say it is because a downed opponent would plead for mercy when the dagger was poised to strike.

In this scenario having really good armor was a boon, because one of the real ways to make a tidy profit in warfare was to defeat a wealthy enemy and capture him alive and then ransom him back to his family. In addition to the ransom, the victorious warrior would get to keep the armor, which often could be worth just as much as the ransom. In yet another historical example of why being rich is such a nice thing, if a man-at-arms or knight was wearing armor that made it obvious he was wealthy his plead for mercy on the ground was far more likely to be honored than an average solider's.

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A pin similar to the modern reverse scarf hold from the Gladiatoria note the dagger poised to deliver the final blow

As this concludes it is very important to remember that this is a very general overview of the art of fencing with the Longsword, and there is a depth of technique and details in every phase of fighting here as there is in modern day MMA. If these two articles have really peaked an interest in Longsword work then have a look for a HEMA school or another re-creationist group in your area.

In terms of legacy, the Longsword has had a cultural impact on the Western world as tales of knights wielding two handed swords is firmly ingrained into our culture. Looking at the development of western martial arts and the real legacy of armored fighting is the Ringen aspect of it. Wrestling was widely practiced, mostly as a jacketed wrestling similar to Judo, but in it you can see the foundations of the wrestling traditions that would come to form the basis of catch wrestling, Olympic Freestyle, or the regional styles that would be adsorbed into Greco-Roman Wrestling.

We will close with a highlight of Ringen school where the similarities between Ringen and modern wrestling and Judo can be very clearly seen. I highly recommend turning down the volume or outright muting this video however.

Art of Ringen: Martial Art of Medieval Germany

Special Thanks for Patrick Wyman, currently pursing a Ph.D. in Medieval history,   who is assisting with this series with his historical and medieval expertise. Also thanks to my wife, who also holds a degree in Medieval history and was a historic re-creator, who also helped with this piece.

For more MMA and Grappling analysis, history, technique, and discussion be sure to follow T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.