Historic Steel Combat Comes to Dragon Con

In a program called “What Is Historic Steel Combat?” (Hyatt Kennesaw, 1PM Friday), Armory staffers explained different types of historic combat being practiced today. Allen Johnson explained that combat sports span historical periods and different methods but explore accuracy and are dedicated to historic accuracy, not only what works in a situation. His fellow presenters set out a wide range of options in methods and approach for anyone interested in these arts.

Noah Fowler is a member of the Eleventh Claudian Legion, a group of Roman reenactors in the Atlanta area. They focus on teaching and education about the ancient Roman army from its beginning to the fall of Rome. They require 100 percent accuracy in their recreations but do not fight with live weapons. Their goal is to interest more people in ancient Rome. His battle gear, or kit, represents the period from the early first century AD to the invasion of Britain.

The main challenge their group faces is in numbers. Because interest in Rome is not as big here as it is in the Civil War or World War II, Roman reenactment groups can field around twenty people at a time, which precludes demonstrating tactics that involve large formations. Groups dedicated to the latter periods, however, can field thousands of reenactors. He contrasted that with the situation in Europe, where fighters dedicated to ancient periods can field thousands of members.

Keith Cotter-Reily of HEMA, the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance, described his group as being oriented more toward martial than reenactment activities. They require fighting styles to be based on written records and span the period from roughly 1295 to 1900 AD. Gesturing to the wall behind him, where a replica of Anduril, Aragorn’s sword, hung, he noted that the sword weighs six pounds. However, no longsword weighs six pounds. Most are two to four pounds, he said, with four being unusually heavy. “In medieval mythbusting,” he said, “weapon weight is a big one.”

HEMA fighters use rapiers, sabers, longswords, and sword and buckler. If something martial has been written about the weapon, it can be used. When the group has tournaments, fighters score points only for moves that are document in period manuals. They will be giving demonstrations at Dragon Con using nylon weapons for safety reasons.

Photo courtesy Palmetto Knights
Photo courtesy Palmetto Knights

Trey Sutter of the Palmetto Knights, a group that fights in full armor, explained that they are required to document the styles of their armor as being historically accurate for a particular geographic area within a period of 50 years. For documentation purposes, he said, funeral effigies are excellent resources. The effigies are generally made shortly after the person’s death, whereas manuscripts sometimes take license and museums, focusing on creating an interesting display, may combine styles of armor that don’t actually belong together. He described an incident in which a famous museum exhibited a suit of armor that was later shown to be inaccurate. Because of other such incidents, their group gives little credence to museum exhibits, except when a suit of armor was made all at one time and for one person, like Henry VIII’s armor.

Their group does step back from authenticity in combat in favor of what works. “The goal is to drop the opponent. This is medieval mixed martial arts,” he said. Once an opponent is on the ground, the fight is over. But he also noted that their group had spent a lot of time trying to reinvent tactics, only to conclude that medieval methods were best. “They spent a thousand years doing this,” he noted.

The last formal presentation came from Sam Andrews of the Empire of Medieval Pursuits (EMP), which he described as “a conglomeration” of all the other styles. His group engages in historical reenactment but focuses on authentic combat based on styles used between approximately 300 BC and 1750 AD. They also use bohurt and rattan styles. When combatants use rattan, as opposed to steel, someone being on the ground does not end the fight.

The EMP fighting style is a hybrid of others, the difference being that the fighters call the shots on themselves and incorporate different styles of armor. His kit for rattan battles is all leather except for the helmet, which must be metal. Hands, kidneys, elbows, and other vulnerable parts must be protected. When the group engages in steel combat, their system is similar to that of HEMA except for EMP fighters calling shots on themselves. Once a “substantive” blow, one that would not be survivable if the weapon inflicting it were real, is struck, the fight is over.

An audience member asked whether their fighting styles are similar to those of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Andrews replied that the equipment is the same but the rules differ. In EMP matches, blows may be struck anywhere except the feet—unless a foot is raised to kick, in which case the blow is legal.

Photo by Stuart W. Brothers
Photo by Stuart W. Brothers

In response to a question about whether the rattan weapons were in the Japanese style, Andrews said they can be, but the group uses weapons made in European, Chinese, and other styles as well. Sutter added that rattan becomes “soft and squishy” over time, making it less dangerous in exhibitions.

The formal presentation ended, and the presenters moved to different areas to take questions about their specialties. Sutter passed around his helmet, letting people feel the weight of it and discussing the various dents in it. He called attention to the loose attachment of the padding inside, with the space between the padding and the helmet providing additional shock absorption. He added that their group, being American, tends to use a lot of football terminology, which European opponents don’t understand. A five-on-five team consists of a center, whose job is to stay on his feet, two guards to protect the center, and two flankers to go around the other side’s defenders and attack, like outside linebackers.

In the lobby outside Kennesaw, Fowler demonstrated parts of his kit. He carried a large shield shaped like a curved square. His is not padded at the top, but real one would be. Without padding, having the shield shoved into the soldier’s face could inflict injury. In addition to carrying the shield, soldiers carried all their weapons and gear on their backs and still marched about 20 miles in a day. He reiterated the challenges of low manpower and cited the UK’s Ermine Street Guard as a group that fields up to 80 fighters, which he described as a century, and can demonstrate whatever formation they choose.

For more information on these groups and their Dragon Con presentations, check the websites referenced in this article and the Dragon Con Armory schedule.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.