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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.


NOTE: See also the files: b-battles-art, tournaments-art, battle-ideas-msg, jousting-msg, marshalling-msg.





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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

    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



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

   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.


Plan Alpha:

   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.)


Plan Beta:

   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



Other Formations:

    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

   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

   Double time means "advance" as above except at a trot.


Triple time

   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.


Slide left

   The formation moves to the left without turning or breaking their



Slide Right

   Same as "Slide Left" but right. Do I need to tell you this?


Angle Left

   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

   with them.


Angle Right

   Same as "Angle Left" but right. I am going to assume that you know

   this now.


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.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org