What Works For Me: An Essay on Melee Tactics

From Ansteorra History Wiki
Jump to navigationJump to search

What Works For Me: 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;

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 end." 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 and 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. Shieldmen 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 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 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 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 shields.

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 not.
  • Advance: 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.
  • Charge: 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 formation.
  • 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. Reserve 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.
  • Regroup: 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 confusion 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.