melee-tactics-art - 11/6/98
"An Essay on Melee Tactics" by Duke Kein MacEwan. Recommendations and guidelines for use in group warfare scenerios in the SCA.
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
From: larkin at webstar.net (Lord Larkin O'Kane)
To: ansteorra at Ansteorra.ORG
Subject: ANST - An Essay on Melee Tactics
Date: Thu, 09 Oct 1997 01:06:52 GMT
Organization: Trelac, Ansteorra
An Essay on Melee Tactics
By HRM 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 tactical 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 i s 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 line integrity.
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 duty of a line shieldman
for he is one. He should be aware that the enemy directly in front
of him will probably be left handed.
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
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
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
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 a stick.
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 so on as you step
out. Remember that every Ansteorran fighter is worth three fighters
from any other kingdom, so if you kill one 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
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 clos e
behind me and the spear shaft gets tangled between his legs and he
stumbles. This does not upset me at all. When 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 helpless.
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
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 legs.
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 effective.
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 thistle.
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
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 times.)
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
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.
Chapter Three: Commands
Form up means, get into your positions quickly and efficiently.
Unless otherwise stated, form up in Plan Alpha.
Dress the line
Dress the line means get the shield wall in shape. If you are a
line shieldman, you should look right to see that you have the
proper spacing between you and the next fighter, then look left to
make sure your buddy is doing the same. If you are behind the line,
you should assist the line shieldmen in doing this in whatever
fashion seems appropriate (remember they are your friends.)
You should dress the line after any maneuver, whether told to or
Advance means "Go." Walk forward in a normal fashion. It is
important to "dress your line" while advancing. Do not stop until you
are given the command "Stop". Walk over or around obstacles while
maintaining your speed. It is very important to maintain your speed
while approaching the enemy. Many units slow down when they enter
spear range. This is foolish. The enemy spears have more time to do
their work. You should quickly get so close that the enemy shieldmen
are protecting you from the enemy spearmen. If line shieldmen slow
down on approaching the enemy, it is usually very inconvenient for the
friendly spearmen because they have to step over the corpses of their
line shield companions to engage the enemy. If no order to stop is
given, after you engage the enemy, you should attempt to continue at
the same speed over your opponents.
Advance to engage
Advance to engage means advance (as above) until your shieldmen are
engaged with the enemy shield to shield, then stop and fight.
Advance by step
Advance by step means to take one step forward. The command should
be given as follows. "Advance by step!"..... everyone waits......
"Step!" ..... everyone steps. Further "Step" commands can be given
without the preparation command.
Double time means "advance" as above except at a trot.
Triple time means "advance" as above except at a jog.
Same as triple time, but faster and meaner.
Retreat by step
Same as "advance by step" except backwards.
Single file left
The commander calling this command should be on the left flank of
the shield wall. All fighters in the unit should pivot 90 degrees
left where they stand . They should then follow the person in front
of them closely. The commander should lead the unit where he wants
them to be then stop. When the unit stops all fighters should pivot
90 degrees back right.
Single file right
Same as "Single file left", but to the right.
The formation moves to the left without turning or breaking their
Same as "Slide Left" but right. Do I need to tell you this?
Advance at an angle to the left. Make it a 45 degree angle unless
the commander tells you otherwise. He should try not to make it
too complicated as few soldiers bring protractors onto the field
Same as "Angle Left" but right. I am going to assume that you know
Refuse the Left
This command is used when the wall is about to be flanked. It must
be executed quickly and accurately. When this command is given, the
shieldman on the right flank pivots slowly to his left. The shieldman
on the left flank runs backward on a curve that is the circumference
of a circle that has a radius of the length of the shield wall. Every
other shieldman moves backward at an appropriate speed to keep a line
formation between the two flank shields. Spears and poles move
backwards behind that line. Rese rve shields move to the left flank
and support. Continue this movement until the commander says "Stop". I
hope this explanation is clear and no one has to get out a geometry
textbook to figure it out.
Refuse the Right
I leave this as an exercise for the student.
This command is used after your unit has engaged the enemy, when
your unit has scattered into individual fights or smaller units. Upon
hearing this command a fighter should disengage from whatever
engagement he may be in and form up with his buddies in Plan Alpha in
front of whoever is calling the command. He/she should also begin
shouting "regroup". This command, quickly followed, can win a battle
for you. If your unit is a UNIT when the bad guys are a scattered mob,
you can take advantage of their conf usion and destroy them.
Retreat (When in Plan Beta)
This command addresses the problem of an enemy charge when your
unit is in Plan Beta. The command should be given as "Retreat one
two". One the word "retreat" the spears and poles in the front line
have to take two steps back and to the right. On "two" the shields
in the front line take one step back while the shields in the back
line take one step forward. This puts your unit into Plan Alpha one
step back from where their original line was. This takes practice.