Category Archives: Combat

Gamer’s Guide: The Buckler

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)

Buckler Image from Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l'Arme (1570)
One example of a spiked buckler from Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’Arme (1570). Lines indicate how a small buckler can protect a larger area.

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.

An image from the Codex Wallerstein, A German fighting manual from 1556.
An image from the Codex Wallerstein, A German fighting manual from 1556.

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.

On Fighting Small Creatures – Lessons Learned From My Son

When I was in college, Nerf™ released their first swords and bow and I quickly had a makeshift armory hanging in my dorm room. A few years ago, they started their N-Force™ line, which includes swords, a mace, a battle axe, and other goodies. I have most everything in this line and my son and I go outside and play with them. As he has grown, Nerf™ weapons proved to be a bad choice for our style of play – the foam on the swords are not thick or dense enough to protect against the plastic core. I’d rather let him swing as hard as he can, so we have moved to full contact swords like those found at Forged Foam . I hope to make some swords of my own (he wants an axe) and share those projects here.

During our battles, I made some observations about fighting smaller opponents. Before my experience, I thought that the primary factors in a combat like this would be reach and target size. What I hadn’t considered is the effect of angle. Your opponent is not just small, but is also low, and that changes a lot. If you are using a long weapon, like a spear, the angle isn’t so bad; but most of my observations are based on using a sword. Before continuing, please understand that I’m just some random guy with no particular authority on historical combat – take my ideas with many grains of salt and feel free to add your own observations and ideas.

The Head is Almost the Only Target

Obviously, I’m not trying to club my son on the head, but it takes a lot of effort to swing at any other part of the body.  You have to swing very low in order to hit any part of the body other than the head or maybe the shoulders. In real combat, this isn’t a bad thing, the head and neck are excellent targets. However, it does mean that any helmet worn by the small opponent matters alot. A kettle helm would act similar to a buckler, providing a cone of protection against downward swings. Your swings are also easier to block, since many will be coming downward.

Your Reach Isn’t as Good as You Think It Is . . .

Your sword is at maximum reach when you are holding it straight out from your shoulder. As you aim downward, you are effectively shortening your reach. You may still have the advantage over your opponent, especially if he has a proportionately shorter blade, but it’s just not nearly what you think it is.

. . . Unless You Take Advantage of Footwork

You can cover a lot more distance in a single step than your opponent. You can engage and disengage your opponent easily. You can use your stride to your advantage to control the combat.

Your Shield Might Be Useless

I like shields. There is a reason why they are so prevalent throughout history – they work. Your shield design matters. Most shields are designed to primary protect the upper body and the upper legs. If the shield is strapped to the arm, instead of using a boss grip, then it is very difficult to drop your shield enough. This makes it very difficult to block a low, horizontal swing – which is exactly the way you are being attacked.

This requires a longer shield, but you don’t want anything that hampers your ability to maneuver (see above). I just built a boss-grip long shield with the grip up towards the top. We haven’t tried it out yet, but I am hopeful. Until then, I have found that an off-handed sword, carried in a low guard, seems to work the best.

 So what are the best tools and approaches?

For the larger combatant: You need to protect your lower body. Note that most plate and scale armor overlaps top-over-bottom. Against a small opponent, this creates gaps that a small opponent can exploit unless you have additional armor underneath, like mail under a suit of plate. For weapons, I’d go with bashing weapon that is likely to dent an opponent’s helmet.

For the smaller combatant. The helmet is the most important line of defense, a kettle helm will really help. A long weapon is useful, but I’d use a slashing weapon, like a glaive, instead of a thrusting weapon like a spear.

These are just my thoughts on the subject. Let me know what you think. The way my son is growing, my size advantage won’t last for long 🙂