Wistric’s Weekly Warfare #5: Armament   Leave a comment

A Philosophical Note

It’s worth noting to start that there is not universal agreement on the optimal armament for melee.  There are entire kingdoms that believe you should get the longest sword you can find, get another just like it, and take those.  The Middle Kingdom melee manual prescribes particular armaments for particular “positions” on the melee field.

Of more importance to the discussion within Atlantia, Dante di Pietro argues that Sword and Dagger are the best option in melee (http://www.freewebs.com/dantedipietrohma/meleewpnsevaluation.htm).

Sword and dagger is typically the most common form that people use when participating in single combat, and this familiarity is a strong recommendation for its use in melee.

His argument against the use of case is that

very few individuals are capable of fighting with two swords effectively, typically resulting in the form of “sword and long metal stick” or “sword and forgotten, immobile arm”. This causes a person to have a weak side which can be attacked more easily by an opponent; one should avoid case unless skilled and practiced in the form.

The error I find in Lord Dante’s argument is the assumption that fighters do not practice with case, and therefore do not know how to use it.  I assume that if you have taken the time to find this and read this far, you’re interested in becoming a better melee fighter.  Which means you should be practicing melee, and doing so with the most effective form a skilled fencer can take into a melee: Case.

My advice below is based on the premise that you practice and seek to improve your skill with the weapons form you choose.

Case of Rapiers

A case (or pair) of rapiers is the most obvious armament to take out on the rapier field.  Unlike armored combatants, we can’t push through lines with heater shields, and so we need to create holes by eliminating opponents and their weapons.  Bringing maximum (well-aimed) point-density onto your opponents’ sword hands is your best option.
This is why Easterners show up with two 45” blades.  The problem is that most people simply don’t have the fitness, strength, and body size necessary to wield 45s effectively.  Stick to what you can aim and fire quickly.  Most everybody can manage a 40 (I currently use a 37, but find myself coming up short in line fights and am stockpiling for a 40).  Triplett and Darkwood make light 40 blades that work just fine.  I’ve only known one or two people (Geoffrey ap Clwyd) who can manage longer than a 40 in a melee.  Usually, 45s are too easily pushed aside, and their owner stuck like a pig.

And so, if you’re only ever going to be in a line, a case of well-managed long blades is going to get you through the day.

Of course, you might not end up in a line.  This is where mixed-case comes in.

I admit to a certain amount of bias, I fight long-and-short (40/37 and 30).  The 30 provides a brutal amount of sweeping and deflection power when closing on isolated or disorganized targets, though sweeps can also be launched with the long blade, and offers a variety of range that permits sweep-and-stab combos without breaking stride while passing opponents.  And against opponents with long-and-dagger, the forty negates the long while the 30 keeps the opponent out of dagger range.  In non-line combat, either small melees or rapid flanking maneuvers, more flexibility of range and power is needed than two long blades necessarily provides.

Sword and Dagger

Despite my disagreement with his overall conclusion, I will reiterate Lord Dante’s point on dagger: If you are unfamiliar with case but well-practiced with dagger, fight dagger.

If you are severely dominant in your sword hand to the point of being unable to use a second sword, but still able to use a dagger, fight dagger.  However, if either of these conditions can be overcome with diligent practice, then a fighter in pursuit of better performance in melee should give that diligent practice.

Sword and Buckler/Shield

Buckler provides a highly effective static defense.  I find it most useful for relative newcomers to melees who are not thinking much about using their left hands at all (I use buckler for my first year and a half in melees).  Once a fighter becomes more comfortable with splitting attention between their hands, the buckler should be replaced by an offensive secondary.

At war, especially, fighters will be seen carrying heater shields.  In general these fighters are primarily armored combatants and are not thinking about their exposed legs.  An easy leg shot immobilizes these fighters, and they become speedbumps rather than the front rank of a charge.  This is not to say that a well-practiced group of fencers might not use heaters as an effective defense in, say, a doorway, but I have not seen it done yet.

Sword and Stick

Sticks function as a dagger or short sword, without the offensive capacity.  There are a few notable fighters who can effective use a stick in melee, generally in skirmishing fights.  However, a line of fighters armed with sword and stick will not last long against an equally well-trained line carrying case.

Single Sword

If you have nothing else, the single sword is still the prince of all weapons.

Sword and Cloak

If you have nothing but sword and cloak, take single sword.


The rise of the use of zweihanders and other two-handed blades for tournament fighting has led to their use on the melee field as well.  I am generally unimpressed with their use so far.  While they would seem to provide more leverage in sweeping opponents’ blades out of the way, the most common blades in use (Alchem), are floppy enough to give up that advantage and are generally no more powerful than a 35”.  Marco-Krieger armory makes a stouter zweihander blade, however they are no longer producing new blades.  Zweihanders, which generally have blades greater than 40” and handles up to a foot in length, do provide for the neat trick of gripping the sword by the pommel and thrusting single-handedly at targets up to five feet away.  This is ultimately a single trick, and vulnerable to a well-timed parry.

Missile Weapons in Melee

The typical use of missile weapons takes the form either of rubber band guns or archers.

RBGs tend to be unevenly distributed and inaccurate.  They are cumbersome to load and short-ranged, and usually show up on the field in such small numbers as to be almost worthless.  Fencers fall to the temptation of sniping with RBGs, which simply are not up to the task.  On the other hand, an evenly-equipped force could fire a crowd-clearing volley and then close to finish the task with swords.

Archers do have the advantage of range and accuracy when well-trained.  They can take the role of artillery or snipers, either providing counter-fire against enemy archers, or taking out enemy commanders and heroes.  However again there are a couple of vulnerabilities: Archers have a minimum range of 15 feet, and therefore always need a guard for defense.  Archers are relatively few in number, and rarely show up to the field in great numbers.  At most, either side in a battle may have three archers, at which point a difference of even one is decisive to the outcome.  So it does not hurt to bribe your archer friends.


Warfare in the 16th century did not include the rapier.  The Spanish had sword-and-buckler units, though their swords were more for cutting and chopping than thrusting.  The rest of Europe relied on the Swiss, and their imitators the Landsknecht, who fought in masses of pike.  Within these units, a few select soldiers would be armed with arquebuses (~10% early in the century, up to 25% later in the century) and a few others, “dopplesoldners”, armed with zweihanders for carving through enemy pikes.

In SCA rapier, the pike is still an experimental weapon.  Versions created so far are either ugly (foam noodles on sticks) or too stiff.  Somewhere a perfect design exists (Alchem flexidagger blade mounted on a spring mounted on a flexible fiberglass shaft is my current project), at which point a pike-and-shot unit could own the melee field.  Until then, though, train well with two swords.

Posted February 2, 2009 by wistric in Melee, Wistric's Weekly Warfare

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