Winter War Maneuvers

It has been a long time since we posted anything about melee, so for a change of pace, I thought I’d provide a recap of a melee training that I ran recently. I was not initially planning on attending the event (5 hour drives are the new normal for event travel, but it’s a bit much every other weekend…), but I found out at Twelfth Night that it’s 1) a major event for war prep 2) that my wife’s apprentice brother, Killian, was the C&T MiC and 3) that the KEM and KRM were ok with us doing heavy rapier melees (which are usually verboten). So, I volunteered to run some melee training.

The day started with what is, I think, the most universal aspect of the SCA; namely that we spent the first part of the morning for people to arrive, get armor on, and then were immediately called to court. I was pleasantly surprised during this period, however, as people actually started the day by fighting pick-ups. I got a few passes in with Killian where I tried to use some Bolognese technique. It went OK.

After court, we got everybody gathered together and started the melee practice. Given that Calontir is C&T default and doesn’t usually do melees, the obvious first topic of discussion was to talk about the rules. We focused on 3 main aspects:

  1. No cuts – This one’s probably my biggest worry for Gulf Wars. Most of the Calontir Steel fighters really want to deliver cuts all the time, so this is going to pose an obvious problem for heavy rapier melee. I had to scold a few fighters throughout the day about delivering cuts.
  2. Engagement/Front 180 Degrees – Mainly this involved telling them to step in front of people before hitting them. There isn’t DFB in the Gulf Wars war point melees, but we went over them anyhow (Pennsic exists too). Unfortunately the published conventions for Gulf Wars seem to be self-contradictory about whether they’re using the Society definition (engaged with everyone at lay on, only hit in front 180 degrees) or whether more complicated rules for engagement are in place (like rattan). I’m not sure why the Gulf Wars convention makes a specific note about not hitting people in the back of the head and makes references to “having engagement”, for instance, as this is *already* part of Society rules.
  3. Behavior – Most of the fighters have only done melees as part of the in-kingdom C&T melee experiment, so they really haven’t had exposure to the finer details/unwritten rules of behavior in melees at large events. This part included explaining how to indicate that you’re dead, dying defensively (the taking a knee variety, not the lay down and get trampled version), not dying to the ground (because it will cause a hold), echoing a call of “hold”, avoiding words that sound like “hold”, taking a knee when a “hold” is called, how to use holds to cool down (mask & glove removal), not touching other fencers (even pats on the back and likewise, especially when they’re on the other side), etc.

After this was done, we moved into the “meat” of the class. I prepared a handout that is available here.

Part 1: Being a Pawn

To put it bluntly, novice melee fighters are much like the pawns on a chess board. They aren’t going to rack up a massive kill count and they have limited offensive capabilities, but they’re highly useful for forming defensive lines and controlling territory, especially when you provide them with an appropriate support structure (like each other). By planning on using newer melee fighters in this way, it is possible to greatly restrict the amount of information and number of tasks that they need to consider at any given time (and keeping things simple for novices is really important). One result is that a truncated version of Wistric’s Rules of Melee that includes only rules 1-4 (Don’t die, Don’t let the guy next to you die, Kill the enemy, Remember the objective), can serve as a perfect template for prioritizing the tasks that individual novice fighters need to accomplish.

Essentially, fencers should focus on these “rules” in order such that if they can only accomplish 1 thing, then that thing should be to stay alive; if they can accomplish 2 things, then they should try to also defend their friends and so on. The advantage of this approach is that it simplifies melee into a small number of simple tasks for novices. In general, they defend themselves, support their friends,  and try to exploit chance opportunities to kill the enemy (They’re not going to be creating such opportunities yet). Ultimately it is important to be aware of the objective, however the objective is usually aligned with staying alive and killing people and novices can generally rely on their commanders to keep the objective in mind for them at larger wars. The elegance of this system is that, as fighters improve at melee, they are able to make the basic tasks more automatic and can therefore add additional more complicated tasks (including the rest of Wistric’s rules which are largely related to being in command).  Ruairc and I used a similar framework a few years ago when we were providing <5 min melee classes to new fencers at events.

Each rule was paired with a demonstration performed by having the fighters form two lines that were at light engagement. Rule 1 was illustrated by demonstrating that you can focus on parrying in order to stay alive. Rule 2 was demonstrated by showing how to parry blows coming at your neighbors and how by virtue of standing next to your teammates, you are controlling an area of space that protects them. The transition between Rule 2 and Rule 3 was demonstrated using the “zipper” drill, which was also used to illustrate how attacks are usually performed on the diagonal (like pawns in chess). Rule 3 was additionally demonstrated by pointing out that attacking is the riskiest behavior, and so novices should focus on attacks of opportunity (opponents lunge, unit turns a flank, etc). I explained rule 4 and provided an anecdote about an army that killed the other side but failed to capture the loot bags and who therefore lost. The demonstration for rule 4 occurred later in the day.

We then divided the group into two teams and ran a sequence of 4v4 (ish) fights in rapid succession. Initially the teams had a lot of trouble forming and keeping themselves in line. Some fighters would retreat, others would move forward aggressively. In order to counter-act this, I appointed a commander for each team whose job was to stand behind the line and keep them in order. After about 10 run-throughs, we discussed what worked and what didn’t and took a water break.

Part 2: Unit Commands

After the break, we moved onto the next topic of conversation. Many of the people who read this blog are familiar with the typical list of commands that are used in rapier melees (advance, press, stand fast, charge, step, fall back, rally); however I restructured these in order to simplify the list of commands that a novice fighter needs to know (as shown in the handout). Specifically, charging and skirmishing are relatively difficult skills to train a unit to perform and so I removed those from the list of “basic commands.” Similarly, advancestand fast, and press were removed from the list of basic commands. All 3 of these are relatively intuitive, however they are ultimately just reminders for things that the fighters should already be doing. The advance command isn’t typically given when a unit is engaged with the enemy and it’s fairly intuitive to just follow your unit at lay-on, so there’s no need for fighters to memorize or practice it. Likewise, both stand fast and press are commands that should be something that fighters do by default. When these are needed, there is rarely sufficient time for the commander to notice, relay the command, and have fighters respond. Instead, these commands primarily serve as reminders rather than as core commands on their own. As a result, the basic commands can be reduced to:

  1. Fall Back –  Because rules 1 and 2.
  2. Rally – Because rule 2.
  3. Step –  Because rules 3 and 4.

After explaining and demonstrating each of these commands, we went back to 4v4 melee fights. Each unit continued to have a commander who tried to use these commands. Each commander was in charge for ~3 run-throughs. Periodically we convened to discuss what was working, to correct misunderstandings about the commands (like say, using the step command at lay on to move to measure), cool off/take a short rest, etc.

At one point while we were resting, the king opened court and gave out an AoA for C&T (Stile Fyrd) to a fighter named Mikhail.

At the end of this section, I added resurrection to the 4v4 melees. We did two ~5 minute rez fights before I added an objective (other than kill people till I say to stop), which was to reach the opposing team’s rez point and touch it.

At the end of this melee, I asked them how many of them forgot the objective at least once during the fight (all of them raised their hands).

We then took a longish break for lunch. Many of the fighters were pretty tired at this point, since they’ve never really had to fight continuously for several minutes. After lunch, there were more pick-ups and the KRM ran a run-through of the C&T melee experiment. This involved 3 run-throughs each of 1) 3v3 no rez 2) grand melee and 3) 3v3 capture the mcguffin (the KRM) with rez.

After a water break and a bit of re-arming on the parts of people who weren’t allowed to take part in the C&T melee experiment, we reconvened to continue the melee training when court was called on the rattan side of the field to give out an AoA for rattan combat (Iren Fyrd).

Part 3: Basic Tactics

The third section of the melee practice was focused on how to make tactical decisions during a melee. We discussed how a unit can be at an advantage while the overall army is at a disadvantage (and vice versa) and we discussed different kinds of advantage. I pointed out how the combination of global (army-level) advantage and local (personal/unit-level) tells you what you’re supposed to be doing at any given time. I provided a table for this in the handout as shown below:


Part 4: 2v1 Drills

The discussion of advantage/disadvantage transitioned into a discussion of how melees can be broken down into a series of 1v1 and 2v1 fights (parity, advantage/disadvantage). I had them line up in a mock 3v3 fight and then I showed them different ways that the unit could be divided (3-0, 2-1, 1-2, 1-1-1 splits) and had each fighter tell me whether they were ad an advantage, disadvantage, or parity and what they should be doing in that situation.

From there, we performed a series of 2v1 exercises. We started with fencers out of armor without swords at a walk. The focus was on having the 2 move together while pursuing the 1. We rotated through this exercise for about 20 minutes and discussed what worked/what didn’t work between trials.

Then we put masks on and grabbed swords and ran the same exercise, with each fighter rotating through the different positions. After a few cycles through the line, I started counting the time that each pair took to kill the 1. Earlier in the practice, the fighters had balked at the idea that it could be done in <10 seconds, but in practice, they were killing them in 3-5 seconds.

We wrapped up the melee portion of the day with a 4v4 resurrection melee. The objective was to capture a mcguffin (my hood) and carry it across the field to the other side of the field (where their opponent’s rez point was located). Afterwards, we discussed the melee and reviewed the key points for the day. Pick-up fights resumed afterwards.


Overall, I think that the melee practice went well. It helped to highlight some major deficits in fitness/endurance, but I expected that it would. There’s a big difference between tournament fighting and fighting continuously in a melee. I tried to mitigate this as much as possible by having regular rest periods, by delivering the “talking” parts of the class during these rests, and by specifically having the fighters walk to rez and during some of the drills. On the positive side, the fighters were relatively quick to figure out how to work together in a line, follow the commands, and press when necessary. I think that performing the 2v1 drill without fencing gear first was a useful addition to the training as by making the movements slow, it was easier for the fighters to see what had happened and to focus on using their numerical advantage rather than individual skill to beat the 1. Furthermore, focusing on moving as a group is easier to do when you don’t have to worry about swords, etc. The drawback to this approach is that it trained the 1 to be initially compliant, but this was easily corrected once we repeated the drill with swords.

If I can get the same group of people for a future training, I’d like to practice the 2v1 drill some more and then use it to transition into training the fighters to perform the “skirmish” role.


12 comments to Winter War Maneuvers

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Were any of your fighters familiar with armored melee? Were any of them fighters who previously had out-of-kingdom heavy rapier authorization? (Before the Calon Steel program, Calontir fighters were allowed to authorize rapier in another kingdom.)

    • Gawin

      Only 2 of them had rattan experience to my knowledge and I don’t think that any of them had out-of-kingdom authorizations before Calontir made their program official. 2-3 of them fought in the HR melees at Gulf Wars last year.

  • Wistric

    Are you going to be at Gulf? And who’s commanding Calontir? You?

    With so little melee experience in the army, how would you make use of a pawn-heavy force such as Calontir?

    I like the simplified commands. Though I’ve mentioned elsewhere my preference for using “advance” or “forward” when engaged instead of “step” – Like you say, it’s intuitive, and I haven’t found “step” (and the attendant “1 2 3 STEP!” process) to yield superior results.

    Did you run the 2 vs 1 on a limited field?

  • Gawin

    I’m planning on being at Gulf. I have no idea who is commanding.

    The easiest way to use a novice force at a major war is to engage in line fighting. I’d argue that’s precisely *why* those battles tend to be set up in such a way as to reward line fights rather than more dynamic maneuevering.

    “Step” is absolutely not the same thing as “advance” or “forward.” “Step” is specifically used in order to cause the entire unit to step forward *at the same time.*

    In contrast, advance, forward, and press are used to order the unit to move aggressively forward in a disordered fashion.

    Step is harder to perform because it requires practice and training, but its benefit is that the unit is able to maintain its cohesion and use it to their advantage. I generally find “press”-like commands to be almost useless unless one unit is at a significant advantage. Using the “press” command from parity is suicidal.

    *Note Edited for clarity*

    • Wistric

      How much success have you had with “Step” in large melee scenarios?

      • Gawin

        I’ve seen it work plenty of times at Pennsic, especially in the town battles. The key seems to be that 1) You need to actually be with your own unit. When units get mixed up with other groups that don’t know what’s going on, then you aren’t meeting the “practice and training” bit mentioned above. 2) The lines need to be relatively “fixed” in position – It doesn’t accomplish much when the opposing unit can give ground without consequence 3) The opposing unit needs to be finite. Step works particularly well when opposing units are isolated from each other as, otherwise, it isn’t really feasible to take and maintain ground without creating a salient.

        • Wistric

          #1 is the reason for my preference. Trained units, especially in town battles which are almost always rez, break apart very quickly. You can train a unit to execute “Advance” when engaged as they would “Step”. And “Advance” is intuitive for those heterogenous units (The Melee Melange) to still execute, if with a lower cohesion rate. So if your unit makes up 50% of the front line, “Step” moves half the unit forward. “Advance” moves 50% + whatever of the rabble responds intuitively to the call, which is by default a greater number, even if it’s just one extra.

          • Gawin

            “Trained units, especially in town battles which are almost always rez, break apart very quickly.” – Then they aren’t trained, are they? There’s a far larger argument to be made about keeping units together, which is a tangent for another time. You could also ensure that the “rabble” knows how to perform the basic commands. Indeed, “the ability to carry out standard Calontir Army commands” is part of kingdom law for receiving the AoA-level combat awards here.

            Certainly telling a unit to “advance” is a more intuitive way to tell them to go forward, but it isn’t actually a “maneuver” in the tactical sense because it doesn’t actually create an advantage; it merely provides an instruction. If a unit is faced with an opposing unit that they are at parity with or are at a disadvantage against, then performing an “advance” won’t allow them to defeat that force, because that’s not what that command does. Furthermore, the added disorder may place your unit at a further disadvantage in these situations.

            With regards to how this plays out in practice, my observations are that in general, the use of “press” commands by a unit that is at parity with its opponent results in a meat grinder. That being said, from a strategic point of view, Atlantia’s fencers generally have a fitness advantage over their opponents, so such attrition battles play to their strengths. For units with less conditioning and for non-rez battles, even casualty rates are an unacceptable outcome.

            In contrast, the point of the “step” command is to use maneuver in order to create an advantage when there wasn’t one. If you are already at an advantage, then there’s no need to use the “step” command (because “press” or “advance” or “forward” will do just fine). Instead, the “step” command is generally best used when units are at parity (if you’re at a disadvantage, you should be falling back). The cohesive action of the unit is used to disrupt the opposing unit, creating a momentary series of local numerical advantages (to which the obvious, but difficult, counter is for the unit to stand fast – maneuver is countered with maneuver; cohesion with cohesion). Of course this requires practice because being better at things than other people requires practice. You can’t just rub a melee unicorn and make a wish.

          • Ruairc

            Indeed, “the ability to carry out standard Calontir Army commands” is part of kingdom law for receiving the AoA-level combat awards here.

            This is fantastic. Atlantia should replicate.

            I think there’s value in contextualizing step as a command to gain ground in good order. It may end up meaning much the same thing as “advance” or “press” in practice, or with an exemplary unit, but depending on how it’s taught, I think many fighters will identify step with “take ground” as opposed to advance “move forward in good order” and press “kill everything, cohesion be damned”.

          • Gawin

            That’s how I intend for it to be conceptualized. There was a bit of initial confusion about using the “step” command for moving units forward at lay-on initially during the practice, which I did need to correct.

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