Women in Armor

On Friday at 2:30PM in the Hyatt’s Hanover C-E, the Armory presented “I am No Man: What it Truly Means to Fight Like a Girl”, a panel featuring women who fight in different types of armored combat. The panel’s title evokes one of Eowyn’s lines in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. When the Witch-king of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul, tells her by the body of the fallen Theoden that no man can defeat him, she pulls off her helmet and announces, “I am no man.” She then kills the Witch-king.

The panelists, Amy Graham, Kristin Brumley, Sandra Lagnese, and Christine Shapiro, began by introducing themselves and talking briefly about the types of combat in which each of them engages. Graham opened the panel, introducing herself as a full-contact medieval combat participant who competes domestically and internationally. She’s the 2017 captain of the USA Broadswords Team. She is a bohurt fighter, which means she engages in mass melees. Her preferred weapon is the halberd, a large axe head on a six-foot pole. Noting that she’s a brawler and not as good a swordswoman as some others, she said she would rather take an opponent down with a punch to the face.

Graham segued into commenting that when she was growing up, people were taught that women were weaker, not fighters, and played with dolls, not swords. For that generation, the ultimate criticism was someone threw, fought, etc., like a girl.

Her path to armored combat is different from that of some others’. Twelve years ago, she weighed over 400 pounds and was a dedicated online gamer. Nine years ago, she had gastric bypass surgery and started to learn about her body. In 2012, she was sitting at work watching a friend participate in a tournament in Poland. Graham said that “awoke something,” and she knew she wanted to that although women were not then allowed to compete.

She contacted the US team and was told they would create a women’s team if they could get six women armored and ready. By May 2013, they had those women and announced that women could compete in 2014. Graham was the captain of the first US women’s melee team, which won a gold medal in Spain that year. Still, some men won’t fight her or train with her because she’s female.

Graham concluded her formal remarks by pointing out that 51% of the medals at the 2016 Olympic Games went to women and that running, throwing, and shooting like a girl is now a good thing.

The next speaker, Kristin Brumley, participates in Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA), which is not a sport but a martial art. They wear modernized versions of armor, which has a lot of padding because they’re being hit with steel. Brumley competes in tournaments around the United States. Grinning, she said she got into historic steel combat to get out of a bad relationship and that martial arts helped her develop self-respect. She began training with longswords and found that fighting for herself helped her become herself. She left the bad relationship and was able to manage her depression.

Brumley said people ask her whether fighting hurts, whether the sword is heavy, and how she competes against people bigger than she is. She went into longsword fighting feeling at a disadvantage and had to learn how to compete. Ultimately, she realized that mentality was not accurate. She doesn’t feel disadvantaged by being a woman. Being smaller taught her that she can face off against bigger opponents because she’s faster. The point isn’t gender, she says, so much as it is what the opponent can do versus what she can.

The third speaker, Sandra Lagnese, participates in HEMA and bohurt, as melee fighting is known in other countries. She was part of the team that fought in Spain the first year women were allowed to participate. She fights in all versus all matches, including “guys whose armor weighs more than I do.” At one point, she was grappling in a group of about 15 combatants, and they fell in a big pile. She realized she wasn’t hurt and could breathe, concluding that armor really does work.

When she has all her gear on, no one knows she’s a girl. Some opponents, she says, hold back because they don’t want to hurt a girl, but “we eventually will hurt them and they have to fight back.” She became interested in HEMA because her husband was putting a kit together to participate and she realized that she also wanted to do that. He put getting her armor ahead of getting his. Lagnese was also in the military, which gave her the attitude, “Why not? I can do this.”

The final speaker, Christine Shapiro, began participating in HEMA after attending a panel on Japanese fighting at a con in Columbia. Every panel she attended featured the Palmetto Knights, an organization in Columbia, SC, devoted to research, training, demonstration, and competition in historic martial arts. At the con, Shapiro met Lagnese’s husband. When Lagnese was unable to participate for a year, Shapiro borrowed her armor and joined in. She was hooked after her first event. Because she and Lagnese are the only women in their area, they always fight men.

The panel then took questions from the audience. The first questioner asked whether there were rules to prevent injuries in these competitions. Lagnese said there are rules for combat and regulations about what participants wear. Brumley added that each tournament has its own rule set, which is focused in HEMA on trying to judge martial arts ability versus sport. Graham noted that the Historic Medieval Battles group (HMB) for steel fighting has an international oversight group that makes the rules, trying to standardize them for the 33 participating countries. The US, she said, has higher standards for armor than other countries because of access to better grades of steel.

An audience member asked how regulations for armor and weapons are different for HEMA, as opposed to other steel fighting. Graham responded that HEMA armor must be historically accurate, that the pieces of a fighter’s kit must all be designs that fit within a period of 200 years. The only leeway, she said, is for gauntlets because those of the period were “iffy” and people need t

heir hands.

Brumley added that HEMA has a checklist, which includes requirements that women wear chest plates and men wear cups. She said she’d been at one tournament where a male combatant forgot his cup. She grimaced, and the audience cringed in sympathy. Skin must be covered completely, and elbows and hands must be protected. Good hand protection, she said, is the hardest to find because it has to move well.

The next questioner wanted to know what are the worst things TV and movies get wrong. Brumley answered that she does stage combat, which is not real fighting and can’t be, because real fighting “doesn’t look cool.” A real fight is over much faster. Graham added that she often sees helmets and armor from mismatched periods as well as other gear errors.

The panelists were then asked for their opinions on having a women’s division in HEMA longsword fighting. Lagnese said she thinks it’s good for getting people involved, citing the example of women-only martial arts classes, which draw women who are more comfortable starting in that environment. Brumley added that many women compete both in the open division and in the women’s division. She enjoys watching the women’s division because the techniques are so good.

A question about the cost of participating in these sports elicited the response from Graham, “I’m wearing my Harley.” Her gauntlets, alone, were $1,200. Brumley said HEMA is a little cheaper, that $1,200 would cover most of a fighter’s kit. Lagnese added that HEMA has sizing that makes it easier to get a good fit.

One audience member asked the panelists about their exercise regiments. “I pretend to be a Jedi,” Brumley said, drawing laughter. She went on to add that Jedi need quick movements, bursts of speed, a lot of jumping and squatting. Lagnese does high-impact and interval training. She said she can run six miles, but that isn’t useful for the sport. She needs more short bursts of speed as well as grappling ability. Shapiro noted that endurance is important. Graham added that carrying up to 80 pounds of armor “takes a lot out of you” and that she has to be able to do damage. She does upper-body work because she has to be able to lift a seven-pound halberd and bring it down so people feel it.

The panel was asked how they deal with taunts or people who think they aren’t as good as they are. Brumley, who is petite, said she hasn’t had direct taunts but has had comments about her height and size. She disciplines herself and doesn’t allow them to take hold. Lagnese said, “I know my own value.” She’s heard such talk in both the military and civilian sectors and that trying to prove people wrong just leads to being caught in a rut.

The next questioner wanted to know what the women’s biggest assets, other than the underestimation factor, were against male opponents. Brumley said women’s lower center of gravity is helpful. Graham called that “a big positive.” In her slightly crouched battle stance, she’s harder to push over. A short fighter who sinks down is also hard to see because of limited vision in the helmets. Tipping one’s head forward to look down causes the center of gravity to shift forward. Lagnese added that martial arts don’t focus only on strength but on technique, which is valuable in HEMA as well. Focus on technique, she said, is a longer and harder road but is an advantage against brute strength.

There is some talk about forming a youth division using foam weapons, and people are developing protection and weaponry for kids. Adults also train with foam weapons and synthetic swords. For SCA fighters wanting to start HEMA, Brumley, who started with LARPing said, learning the different rules is the biggest challenge. For example, head shots weren’t allowed in LARPing, and it took her a long time to learn that in HEMA, “heads are great.”


More information on forms of steel combat can be obtained from Graham, who is on social media as Badass Valkyrie, or by visiting the Armory (Hyatt Kennesaw). The Palmetto Knights are in the Armory, and they have a mailing list on which they send out information. They also have a website, www.palmettoknights.com.

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.