Like most fantasy gamers, I’m fascinated by medieval and ancient arms and armor. Over the past few years, I have been delving deeper into the history and usage of historical weapons. So I find it interesting when a historical item is described differently in an RPG. As I research, I plan on creating “Gamer’s Guides” for different weapons and armor that will discuss different weapons from both a gaming and historical perspective. Before I begin this discussion, I need to point out that I am not a professional historian. I do not claim to know everything about the topic and I will point out areas of greater uncertainty.
What is a buckler? (Gamer version)
The Pathfinder SRD defines a buckler as “This small metal shield is worn strapped to your forearm. You can use a bow or crossbow without penalty while carrying it.” Obviously, not all RPGs are the same, but a similar definition can be found across many other fantasy RPGs and many gamers use this definition. The key points are that the buckler is a small shield that is strapped to the arm in such a way that allows you to feely use both hands.
What is a buckler? (Historical version)
The buckler is a small shield that is held in the fist. (Wikipedia). Bucklers are usually held out away from the body, doing so creates a “cone” of protection that maximizes the effectiveness of a small shield.
Who used a buckler?
Bucklers were very popular as a civilian shield. It’s small size meant that you could carry it as part of civilian dress without impediment. On the battlefield, the buckler was popular with those who used a sword as a backup weapon, such as an English longbowman. Larger shields were simply infeasible, but they could carry a buckler hooked over their sword hilt until they needed to engage in melee.
Did shields exist that meet the gamer’s description of the buckler?
Ok, so maybe historians and gamers use the term differently, but are their other shields that fit the description? There were plenty of shields that strapped onto the forearm. However, most of these shields still had a handle to grab onto and did not allow any significant use of the shield hand. A knight could hold onto reins, but wouldn’t be able to use that hand for much else.
The Scots had a shield called a Targe that comes close. The targe is a circular shield that has one strap for the forearm and a strap that acts as a handle. The size of the targe allowed warriors to hold a dirk in their shield hand and its blade would extend beyond the edge of the targe, allowing it to be used in combat.
The targe come close, but it’s not quite what gamers picture when they talk about bucklers. The Codex Wallerstein, a German fighting manual, shows something closer to the gamers idea of a buckler. In it, the spear fighters have a shield that is called a tournament shield, a targe or a tartsche. This fits the gamer description – it is small and straps on the arm and leaves the left hand free to hold a weapon. I have yet to encounter any other examples of this and the Codex Wallerstein presents the image without additional description. The image demonstrates one of the challenges with such a shield – you must keep your arm bent in front of you to keep the shield facing the opponent. With a spear (or other thrusting weapon), it appears that you can do this, but it is hard to imagine other weapons that would allow this.
What about archers? A frequent statement by gamers is that archers wore bucklers at the same time that they used their bows. We do know that some archers carried bucklers with them, but it appears that they were meant to be used only when in melee combat. I have yet to find a historical example of how bucklers would be used in archery. I hope that this is a lack of knowledge on my part, and if anybody has good examples, please share. My main concern is that an arm-strapped shield requires the left arm to be bent. Either the archer bends the arm, drastically reducing draw length, or draws to full length and gets little protection from the shield. Anyways, I might be missing something, hopefully I will revisit this article later with more information.
Does it matter?
How much historical accuracy do we need in games? Only as much as we want. However, it becomes important when we want to add historical elements into our fantasy gaming, especially when we start reading history to find familiar terms used in different ways. There are a lot of things from history that haven’t been explored in fantasy gaming and we can mine historical resources to create new gaming experiences.