Sword Camp 2008: Tactics Day, Day Four

Tuesday was Tactics Day. It opened with a class on ground analysis; how to match your tactics to the ground you have to fight on. We analyzed a particular area of the site for access and escape routes, cover, concealment, impediments to movement, and the way all these affect possibilities for attack and defense.

Then we did a tactical exercise. A running team was tasked to move between two particular points, and a blocking team to disrupt them and prevent the move. I ran the blocking team. Identifying a bottleneck on the route, between a clump of trees and the fence at the edge of the property, I set up an ambush with a group hidden on the far side of the trees and two demonstrators to draw the running team forward through the gap so they could be taken in flank.

This was the right general idea (or a right idea, anyway) but through a first try I discovered that I had placed my demonstrators too far forward; they triggered suspicion in the runners, who could then break engagement before they committed to shooting the gap. Pulling them further back made the ambush work; I got to watch the flank charge I had planned come off perfectly.

Heather segued this neatly into a discussion of how to design formations and subunits to fit tactical situations, This in turn led into a discussion of tactical roles — point, trail, line fighter, flanker, and scout. The most interesting part of the discussoion was when each of us did an evaluation of another student’s fighting style and psychology and evaluate how it would fit different tactical roles.

Since I already know my tactical type, the analysis of me came as no surprise. I’m a line fighter with command ability and some shock-trooper tendencies — good at holding ground, steady in a clutch, particularly dangerous at close range, and good for a shock charge over short distances. This is pretty much the classic heavy infantry profile — not somebody you’d want to use as a scout, roving flanker, or point man, but the right guy to put at front and center of your battle line where the shit is seriously likely to hit the fan.

My wife Cathy is a line fighter too, but with more mobility and no shock-trooper tendencies; in the tactical doctrine the school teaches, she belongs on the flank end of a battle line, positioned for an option to peel out and support the flankers if the tactical situation requires it.

The afternoon was devoted to vehicular tactics. We learned how the U.S. military mans and equips a four-seat vehicle for convoys and thunder runs — driver, navigator riding shotgun, morale officer in the left rear seat, and reloader in the right rear. Each non-driver an arc of defense around the car they’re responsible for. And if you’re wondering why “morale officer”, it’s because part of third seat’s job is to run the music system. Sal says good choice of battle music is actually important; it helps the team mesh by giving them a cadence, a rhythm to track.

We then experimented in stationary cars and real but unloaded guns. We practiced taking our team positions, managing the weapons, watching our arcs of fire, and bailing out of the car with weapons ready on command. Having sat second seat (the navigator position), I can say that bailing out in good order when you’ve started a shotgun in your hands, an assault rifle propped between your knees, and a .45 in a thigh pocket is not a trivial skill.

It’s not doctrine for the navigator to carry a pistol, but it isdoctrine that within mission constraints each fighter should carry whatever personal weapon makes him feel comfortably armed, if only for psychological effect. For me that’s a heavy, short-barrel .45ACP 1911 pattern like the Colt Officer’s Model or Kimber Ultra II, though I’m almost equally happy shooting a .40 in a similar weight and form factor.

(Yeah, I know. Long barrel, better accuracy. But I believe that tiny advantage is really only relevant for marksmen; I don’t think it matters a damn at typical self-defense engagement ranges, so I’d rather train with a concealable weapon that I can carry routinely.)

We wrapped up the day’s classes with a live convoy exercise; no weapons this time, but following the protocols for movement, coordination, tactical signalling, vehicle spacing, and observation. Non-drivers practiced watching their firing arcs for unusual events.

The night’s fight was a Dragon Tourney. Five of the most skilled fighters were roped together to form the dragon, somewhat decreasing their mobility. A glaive (the head), two single-swords (the claws), a belly (sword and shield) and a tail (spear). The dragon lives in a lair, which it cannot move outside. Fighters must come to face it, one at a time and must kill all parts to win. This is so difficult that Sal offered a prize of $300 put towards a battle-ready steel sword to anyone who could win it.

The challenging fighters did a bit of plotting of their own, unknown to the dragon. When the start was announced, we took weapons and formed up out of sight of the lair. Rose (yes, steaks-off-the-pilot-Rose from MacGyver Day) fired up a set of bagpipes and we marched to the lair in formation, our front line of sword-and-shield men flanked by torches. I was the shieldman on the left end. The fighter behind us held aloft a bunch of the heraldic banners made by previous classes, and there was (for some reason nobody actually explained to me) a large inflatable sheep on a pole.

Tobin, the guy I’d made my best holmgang kill on two days previous (and, incidentally, Rose’s boyfriend), actually defeated the dragon and copped the hero prize. For defeating five of the best fighters in the school single-handed, he earned it.

Afterwards, Scott Kennedy and Matt-the-instructor showed me how to fight a glaivesman. The trick is to parry the glaive aside with your weapon after the opponent has committed to a thrust, then grab the shaft with your other hand and run up it at the enemy. Once you’re past the glaive head, he has no effective strike (but watch for a backup knife).

Matt-the-instructor observed that I got the variation of this technique where you block with a dagger down very quickly, much faster than most students new to it. A few minutes later I figured out why, and told him. The windshield-wiper-like motion you need to do with the dagger is essentially the same as what empty-hand fighters call a soft outside block. I already had that some combat applications of that motion in muscle memory; adding a new one wasn’t hard. And recognizing points of congruence between different styles is fun.

Tomorrow: The Zombie Apocalypse!


  1. A lone polearmsman is very nearly meat in SCA combat. Too many people go for the high thrust (which is easier to block), and the best target for a polearm in close is illegal – going for the knees on down.

    As a spearman, your first shot is the mobility kill to prevent the “walk up the shaft” attack that’s so prevalent in mock fighting styles. Even worse is when the shaft of the weapon is more dangerous to your opponent than the blade.

    (I politely pointed out to one fighter, over a decade ago, that the best shot I could make would be to hit his tibia hard enough to bruise bone; his shield wasn’t going to cover it. And if I miss, down, I trip him with the spear and likely take out his ankle. A person with a sprained/broken ankle does not have much odds of fighting successfully against a man with a spear and patience. However, that’s illegal by SCA hard suit rules. Too likely to do real injury.)

  2. >So what was the chosen battle music?

    Anything with a regular, heavy beat is serviceable. If I may judge by Sal’s tastes, Special Forces teams favor hard rock, metal, and the better grade of rap-metal. Groups that often show up in the school’s fighting mixes include AC/DC, White Zombie, Nine Inch Nails, Drowning Pool, Lynkyn Park, and Evanescence. But the Pirates of the Caribbean movie soundtracks are favorites too.

  3. >Hey ESR, I bet you didn’t know that that 1911 in your pocket is a machine gun.

    Read it. That’s not going to stand — if the D.C courts don’t kick their asses over that perverse definition, the Supremes will.

  4. I always figured Linkin Park to be whining and wristcutting music myself. Haven’t these people heard of Rammstein? :)

    My sister used to love them. Of course my sister’s irredeemably poor taste seems to be cross-cutting; she thinks Dane Cook is the funniest guy ever.

  5. Hmmmm … have Sword Camp (or similar) battle-music playlists ever included Heather Alexander’s “March of Cambreath”? Lyrics as well as beat would appear to fit Sword Camp (judging from your description of the camp).

  6. ‘Procurans Odium’ (written by Richard the Lionhearted’s minstrel) definitely needs a spot on the playlist, particularly if you’re fighting at dusk or in a drizzle.

  7. Kate and Jeff: Yes, both the March of Cambreath and some Ramstein track where they’re yelling “Bang bang…firefight” are in the regular fighting mixes.

  8. Oh, and the exemplary-of-poor-taste band that my sister loved was Linkin Park, not Rammstein.

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