WR - War Commands & Melee Tactics Part II
Michael and Tiffany Geisendorff
crator at mail.swbell.net
Mon Feb 22 12:44:42 PST 1999
Here is the rest of Duke Kein's Essay:
Stuff That Works For Me
An Essay on Melee Tactics
by Duke Kein MacEwan
I have been fighting in the SCA for 12 years now. I have commanded
units from 2 fighters to the entire Eastern army. At Pennsic XXII, I
commanded the largest force ever commanded by an Ansteorran King in a
foreign war. I have commanded the Ansteorran forces at Gulf Wars twice I
have on many occasions defeated larger forces or forces with a distinct
advantage. I occasionally feel like I actually know what I am doing.
I am writing this essay in the hope that it will help anyone who
wishes to learn the strategy and tactics that I use in SCA combat on the
battle field. I will try to include things that will be of interest to a
beginner or a seasoned veteran.
Chapter One: Job Descriptions
The shieldmen are the backbone of any unit. They are what keeps the
unit from being overrun by the enemy. They are the main part of the
defense of the unit. I split shieldmen into three different types.
1) Shield in the line. Any shieldman must be aware of and capable of
the duties of the shieldman in the line. The shieldman in the line has
three main duties. They are;
1. Keep your buddies alive: This is achieved by holding your place
in line, following orders well and intelligently and paying close
attention to the enemy. Communicate with your teammates. Sometimes a
friend can be saved by simply saying, "(Insert name here), Behind you!!"
This sounds simple, but I have seen men die on the field because their
buddies didn't think to yell at them.
2. Stay alive: This is achieved by keeping your eyes open and your
view unobstructed. Do not get distracted from your attention on the
enemy. Enemy spearmen and archers are waiting to catch you daydreaming.
Do not focus on one danger to the exclusion of all others, either. This
is called "tunnel vision" and it will cause spear points and crossbow
bolts to sprout from your head and body. Some people teach that your
eyes should be hidden behind the shield so that they are not a target. I
think that it is too important for a shieldman to know what is going on,
so I teach shieldmen to hold their eyes just over the shield and protect
the top of their head and their eyes with their weapon. Also important
in staying alive, is not over extending. Do not go for the kill if it
exposes you too much.
3. Kill: In a static battle a shieldman can sometimes get a kill
when he is paying attention and he sees that one of the enemy is
distracted. Look for kills on the angles to your left and right. You
should only take this opportunity if you are 70% sure of getting the
kill and 98% sure of surviving the attempt. If they are in a formation
that is charging then the shieldmen must lay about themselves with
semi-wild abandon. Ferocity is important and you can knock an entire
unit off balance by projecting your determination. Hit them hard. Make
them crumble. But remember to stay alive and keep your buddies alive. An
experienced tournament fighter will usually get more kills in these
situations. Don't let anyone tell you that single combat skills are not
important on the melee field.
Inexperienced fighters are often relegated to duty as line
shieldmen. These fighters should remember that if they fall the entire
unit might fall. So, inexperienced fighters, if you want to be a
valuable addition to the melee unit then I have one word for you:
PRACTICE!! (That goes for experienced fighters too. Just because you're
the hottest stick on the tourney field doesn't mean you won't get
tunnel vision and let Joe Newbie gut you with his spear.)
2) Flank shield:
The flank shields are the shields at each end of the shield wall.
They are very important because they define the limits of the unit. The
flank shield must have an excellent understanding of the commands that a
commander will give. If one of the flank shieldmen screws up a command
then there is a good chance that at least half of the shieldmen in the
wall will as well (say that three times fast). Flank shieldmen should
be skilled at defense because they only have a buddy to protect them on
one side. They should be aware of enemy flankers and take appropriate
action against them as long as they can take that action and maintain
a) Right Flank :
This shieldmen is the one that all other shieldmen will be looking at to
set the speed and direction of any maneuver the unit makes. It is very
important that this shieldman has clear communication with the
commander. The right flank also has a greater opportunity to kill the
enemy than most of the line shieldmen. If the timing is right then he
can kill several enemy fighters on the line by throwing rap shots that
strike his opponents. He should not throw caution to the winds. He must
remember the duties of a line shieldman for he is one. He should be
aware that the enemy directly in front of him will probably be left
b) Left Flank:
It is important but not essential that this fighter be left handed. It
is better to have an experienced right hander here than an inexperienced
lefty. He should do all the things that the right flank does. He should
also check the line periodically and make sure it is dressed.
3) Reserve shield:
The reserve shields are both the safety net and the surprise attack
of the unit. They are almost always experienced fighters. I place my
reserve shields behind the spearmen. They have 3 main duties beyond the
duties of any shieldmen (see above). These duties are:
A) Protect the flanks: A reserve shieldman must pay close attention to
as large a view as possible. He must have an understanding of the
dynamics of a situation. If the reserve shields have not been given
specific orders to attack, then they must watch carefully for enemies
who arrive in the backfield of the unit. They must engage these enemies
and protect the commanders and spearmen.
B) Flank the enemy: When the time is right, the reserve shieldmen can
turn the tide of the battle. They do this by having a good idea of the
"big picture" of an engagement. Any time two forces meet, there will be
a time for each of them when they are vulnerable to a fresh attack.
C) Solve problems: Reserve shieldmen must be patient. If they wait and
let an engagement unfold somewhat, then they can see when and where to
apply their attack or fill in holes in the defense. They should always
shore up a weakness on their own team before exploiting a weakness of
the enemy. It is not useful for a reserve unit to go and slay three
times their number if the rest of their unit dies while they are seeking
glory. This leads to conversations like the following:
Squire: "Did you see me, Boss!? I attacked on the right flank right
after Lay On was called. I got in their back field and killed 4 guys!
Then I got 2 guys when the ten of them gave me single combat at the
Knight: "No I didn't see you because our left flank was overrun and I
was busy fighting 14 guys. They swept our back field, slaughtered our
line, broke my spear, dented my helm, and gave me a bruise on my thigh
the size of New Hampshire. By the way, I've decided not to vote for you
in the next circle."
I cannot stress enough that reserve shieldmen must pay attention to
everything. In the opening moments of an engagement they will probably
be the only fighters in the unit who are not actively engaged with the
enemy. Even the commander is probably trying a few shots with his spear.
They must see any threat to the unit and deal with it without awaiting
orders. Reserve shields must understand that sometimes they will have
the most glorious job in the unit and sometimes they will not even swing
Spearmen are the teeth of a unit. They are the ones who will get the
most kills in almost every situation. I strongly recommend that every
spear have a sturdy hook on the end. It should not be so big that it
will interfere with effective thrusts, but it should be large enough to
do the job.
Spearmen should work together and communicate well. They must double
team their targets whenever possible. One spearmen can hook a shield
while the other thrusts. Or they can attack a target in two places at
the same time. Spearmen can be defensive. They can defend their friends
against enemy spear thrusts quite effectively, but no spearmen should be
thinking that he is there solely for the sake of defense. He must keep a
sharp eye for targets.
Sometimes a good target is only available for a second. Watch for
them out of the corner of your eye. If you look at a shieldman, he will
know that you are thinking about targeting him and he will be ready for
you. Look for targets on the angles. Also look low. Often shieldmen
begin to concentrate on the defense of their heads, and their bellies,
groins, or thighs come open.
Try to keep your spear working at the enemy as much as possible as
this will tire the enemy shieldmen. It will also tire you, so be aware
of your fatigue and rotate out of the line when you are tired so that
your unit can keep a constant supply of fresh spearmen attacking the
enemy. If your unit has no reserve spears to spell you then go defensive
for a bit while you refresh your
strength. It is easier to rotate spearmen than shieldmen.
Avoid over extending. An enemy spearmen would rather kill you than
the shieldman in front of you. A sudden rush, thrust and retreat can
sometimes be effective in taking out an enemy spearman who is being a
special nuisance. If you do this you should arrange for another of the
spearmen in your unit to defend you as you make the rush. If you make
this arrangement then you will probably survive your attempt. If you do
not arrange for your defense, then every enemy spearman in the line will
target you as soon as you step out. Remember that every Ansteorran
fighter is worth three fighters from any other kingdom, so if you kill
spearman and then die it is a bad trade.
Do not get tunnel vision and concentrate on one target. If there is
an enemy Duke with a spear in the line opposing you, do not focus solely
on him. His squire will probably gut you.
If you are in the open field you must see the opening and react
quickly. Sheildmen on the open field are usually more vulnerable to
attacks on the angle or attacks when they are engaged with your
shieldmen. They are also more of a threat to you because your lines are
not as well defined as they are on a bridge or in a static situation.
If you are overrun and a shieldman gets past the point of your spear,
do not give up. If you concentrate on defense and escape, you can
survive his attacks and retreat to a range where you can bring your
spear back into play. I will sometimes run away from an opponent with my
right hand only on the butt of the spear. I will drag the spear over my
shoulder behind me.
Often times the shieldman who I am running from will try to strike me
down, but instead he strikes my spear shaft. Sometimes he runs up close
behind me and the spear shaft gets tangled between his legs and he
stumbles. This does not upset me at all. Then I have achieved the
distance that I want, I will stop and turn around to my left, lifting my
right hand up and over my head. This puts the spear shaft directly into
my left hand and I am once again a dangerous opponent. This takes
practice. If you are in a limited front battle (bridge, castle, etc.),
and your shield wall is charged and you are crowded in and cannot fight,
then point the butt of your spear up over your head. Choke up on the
shaft until your hands are only two feet from the
head of the spear. Use your spear to block blows to your head from
swords and polearms. Thrust down into the faces and chests of your
opponents. Doing this can make you effective when you would normally be
Left handed spearmen have an advantage because they tend to thrust
toward the sword side of most opposing shieldmen. All spearmen should
practice using the spear with their off hand on the butt of the spear.
Sometimes the only way to hit the target is to switch hands.
Polearms are the claws of a unit. When two shield walls come together
is when the poles get their turn at killing. The enemy shieldmen are
used to worrying about thrusts from in front of them, but when the walls
close together then a poleman can rain blows on top of their heads. Then
the polearms should get in and replace spears. Get the spearmen to move
back so that you can work. You have to spend most of the time standing
back while they work, so make sure they back up when your time comes.
Poles and spears working together can be especially useful. The poles
can strike from above while the spears go low and thrust for bellies and
Poleman can also be useful on the flanks. They can make short work of
an enemy flanker after a reserve shieldman has stopped his charge. They
can also stop an enemy flanker if things are desperate. If the flanker
is a right handed shieldman then put your polearm along the left side of
your body and concentrate on blocking his blows. If he is left handed,
put the pole on the right side of your body. Stop him with your body
and start yelling for your buddies to kill him. You will probably not be
able to kill him yourself, but that should not keep you from trying.
If the scenario is a static battle then the poles may not get to
fight much. Poleman should be aware that they will not be fighting for
90% of the time in a bridge or static scenario. They should be thinking
of ways that they can contribute. They can help defend shieldmen and
spearmen with the heads of their weapons. They can do traffic control to
make sure the spearmen have plenty of room to work. They can try to
steal enemy spears by grabbing the shafts with their gauntleted hands.
They can watch the enemy carefully and tell the commanders if the enemy
is making some plan or move. Above all, they must not
become impatient and expend themselves foolishly, because when the
shield walls come together on a bridge, pole arms are invaluable. I lost
a major bridge battle, because the poles that I had held in reserve
until I needed them had grown bored and done a suicide charge. When the
enemy charged and I needed those poles to chop them up, they weren't
there, and the enemy marched over us.
Archers are becoming more and more important on the Ansteorran
battlefield. Archers should integrate themselves into a unit, moving
among and behind the spears or to the flanks, looking for targets. It
is important that you stay alive, but your buddies will be busy, so if
you find yourself in danger, RUN! The best place to run is into the back
of your own shield wall.
Imagine your attackers dismay, when instead of running down a helpless
archer, he finds himself engaged with two reserve shieldmen and a
nervous polearm man. You should warn your buddies that you are bringing
enemies into the backfield. Screaming bloody murder is usually quite
You can sometimes stop a charging enemy by pointing your weapon at
him in a threatening manner, even if it is not loaded. This sometimes
allows you that extra second you need to run and scream like a banshee.
You should attempt to make every quarrel or arrow count. Get as close
to the enemy as you can before firing (remember the minimum distance
rule). You will sometimes be ignored until you reach a certain range. A
good archer can find that range and stand just past it getting good
shots, until he or she is noticed. If an enemy is looking at you, he is
very hard to hit. SCA missiles do not move as fast as the sword blows
that all fighters are used to blocking or dodging. Look for fighters who
are not focused on you. Look for targets on the angles. The enemies
directly in front of you are probably aware of you and defending against
you. Be inconspicuous. If you don't have good targets, MOVE!
An archer should keep a mixed quiver of both thistle and Markland
heads. Use the Marklands for long range and the thistles for short range
or for when your target is engaged in combat. If a fighter is in actual
physical contact with the enemy, he is unlikely to feel the impact of a
Markland arrow, so thump him with a thistle. The new Baldar blunts seem
to be a good
compromise between the accuracy of a Markland and the punch of a
Archers can team up. Archer pairs or groups of three can be very
effective. One archer can move in one direction being very visible about
it while his partner stays put and remains inconspicuous. The enemies
will have a tendency to move their defenses to bear on the visible
archer, giving the other archer good shots at flanks. If the enemy sends
out a runner to kill the visible archer, the runners flank is open to
the inconspicuous one. (The visible archer should still run.) Archers in
groups of four or more become very juicy targets for flankers, so avoid
"archer clumping". (I invented that term.)
Beware enemy archers. Hiding behind a pavise or a shield wall is one
way of keeping them from shooting you, but it is difficult to be
effective while hiding. Moving is almost as good and allows you to shoot
some of the bad guys. A moving target is difficult to hit. If you are in
the open, don't stop to reload! Either reload while you are moving, or
find someplace to hide. Shooting them first is also a good way of
keeping enemy archers from shooting you.
I am hesitant to put instructions here about choosing targets,
because, in general, I say that if you have a choice between two
targets, take the easier target and get the kill. I say that as an
archer. As a commander, I say that it would really be handy if you
killed off the enemy commanders first. So, here is my list of
priorities, in order, of who to choose to kill first: Skilled
commanders, Skilled flankers, Skilled archers, Skilled spears, Unskilled
commanders, Unskilled spears, Line shieldmen, Unskilled archers,
Everyone else. Other commanders will probably have a different list.
Let this list influence your shot selection slightly. Mostly, take the
sure shot and get the kill. I would rather have a low priority enemy
dead than a high priority enemy missed and alive.
Many people, when they think of archers, they think of massed units
of archers who darken the sky with flights of deadly cloth yard shafts.
While romantic, it has been my experience that putting all your archers
in a single unit is a mistake on the SCA battlefield. Why? Because, they
are very vulnerable to flankers. It has also been my experience that
volley fire is a waste of time and missiles. Volley fire supposes that
if you get enough missiles in the air, some of them are bound to strike
home. While it is sound in theory, in practice I have found that we
seldom have enough missiles. Basically, volley fire orders archers to
shoot all at once at a certain time, whether they have a target or not.
Believe me, it is difficult enough to hit an enemy when you have a
target. There is no reason to waste missiles when you don't.
If you fight with a great sword, act like a polearm. All other
weapons, should act like reserve shieldmen.
Chapter Two : Formations
For purposes of this chapter, I am using a unit size of twelve
fighters. If the number of fighters in the unit is twelve the ideal
ratio is 5 line shields/ 4 spears/ 1 pole/ 1 archer/ 1 reserve shield.
The unit commander should be one of the spears. This ratio is definitely
not set in stone. If the unit is smaller or larger the ratio should be
applied as well as possible.
This is the standard formation that you will usually see on the
battlefield. It involves having the line shields in front, standing
shoulder to shoulder. Sheildmen might lock their shields together or
leave a six inch gap between each shield, depending on the preference of
the commander. I prefer a six inch gap. Spears and polearms stand behind
the shields. Reserve shield(s) is/are behind the spears and poles. The
archer slides in where best he can.
In the open field, this formation is fairly good for line units, not
so good for cavalry units. Its weakness is the flanks. It is good on a
bridge or limited front. If it is used on a bridge in a large battle,
you should make sure that friendly fighters do not crowd the back of
your shield wall so that the spears can't work. (There is a trick to
this. All fighters are eager to join the battle, so
keeping them back is a constant struggle. You must be polite, but
insistent, and be ready to tell the same fighters to move back several
I'd love to take credit for inventing this formation, but the fact
is, I stole it from Hrabia Jan. He and Bjornsburg used it in the first
Outlands war. I'm sure that Jan probably researched it from some period
text, and it might be as old as the Romans. It's fairly radical on the
SCA battlefield, though.
This formation has half the line shields in front with a sword's
length between them. The spears and poles filter into the gaps between
the front line shields. The other half of the line shields are behind
the spears and poles, about 5 ' behind the first rank of shields in line
with the gaps. Reserve shields hang out in the back until needed.
In this formation, every fighter has a "sphere of influence" which is
the circle in which he can strike an opponent by taking one large step.
Any enemy within an individual's "sphere of influence" should be engaged
and killed. The strength of this formation is that so many of the
"spheres" intersect. Thus when an enemy strikes the unit, the enemy
finds many weapons turned against him.
Another strength of this formation is that an enemy flank attack meets
much the same resistance as a frontal attack. Plan Beta is also useful
for units that are light on shields. Great swords, poles or two weapons
can take the place of the second rank of shields.
The are two problems with this formation. One problem is that it
requires most fighters in the unit to be of medium ability or better.
This problem is easily solved through practice. The other problem is
that is slightly more vulnerable than Plan Alpha to a concentrated
frontal assault. This problem is addressed and solved in the next
chapter on commands.
I find this formation to be very useful in the open field, whether
for cavalry or for a line unit. It can be useful on a bridge if the
enemy has gone stationary, especially if they have grounded their
I mostly make due with these two formations. I occasionally will
use a column formation to get a lot of troops through a small hole
quickly, but I form up plan Alpha or Beta as soon as I can.
I have seen other formations used, but having seldom used them
myself, I do not feel qualified to write about them.
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