Fightin’ Fiction II: 3 More Melee Myths

Since the first article I did in this Fightin’ Fiction series was so popular, I thought I’d double down and do another one in the same vein. So, here you go, three MORE melee myths.

Like the last article, this one is aimed at authors who would like to add more realism to melee combat in their work. The first article covered some broad stroke concepts, but I’m going get just a bit more granular with this article. Again, everything here should be taken as advice on writing melee combat in a very specific way. It is NOT the only way to write melee combat nor is it the BEST way to write melee combat. It’s a stylistic choice, and if it suits you, awesome. If it doesn’t suit you, also awesome. Also, yes, I’ve broken every one of these “rules” in my own writing, shamefully bowing to the almighty “cuz it sounds/looks cool.”

And away we go!

1) Heroes don’t wear helmets (but they should). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a hero on screen armored everywhere EXCEPT the one place that would likely result in her death if she were hit there. I mean, come on, if you armor everything else and leave your head bare, you’re basically saying to every enemy on the battlefield, “Hit me right HERE!”

Like armor and shields, helmets work really, really well. Hell, they might be the single most important bit of armor on a warrior’s body. Most helmets were shaped so that blows from weapons would slide off them to some degree, blunting the impact of the strike. As with body armor, thick padding was worn beneath the helmet to absorb even more of the impact. There’s ample evidence that helmets saved the lives of their wearers, and it’s kind of hard to imagine a warrior going into battle without one. I sure as hell wouldn’t.

The fix: So, yeah, I do understand why heroes don’t wear helmets on screen. They want you to see the actor’s face (and probably hear him or her speak). But you don’t have that limitation when you’re writing, so give your heroes (and bad guys) helmets to go along with their armor and show those helmets working every now and then. Have your hero take a shot to the head that rings his bell but doesn’t cleave his skull because of the helmet. Or, do the reverse: have your hero level a mighty blow against the bad guys melon, only to have her blade deflected by his cunningly wrought helm.

2) More than the blade. This one is kind of sword specific, but nearly every medieval and renaissance fighting manual I’ve seen teaches that the blade is not the only part of a sword that can be used to attack an opponent. The quillons and the pommel can make great weapons in certain circumstances, especially when close in. Smashing a guy in the teeth with the steel pommel of your longsword will definitely ruin his day. A warrior could also flip her sword around, grab it by the blade (it really won’t cut you that way), and use the quillons like a pick against heavy armor. There’s also half-swording, which is technically still using the blade, but the warrior grasps the blade in the middle with one hand and uses the sword more like a spear or dagger to gain extra power and control in a thrust, which can be useful against heavy armor.

The fix: Easy, have you hero smash bad guys in the face with the pommel of his sword when he’s in close, half-sword that dude in chainmail to death, or flip his sword around and use the pick-like quillons to end that mook in the flat-top helm.

3) Two weapons is better than one? I know; this one hurts. Wielding two weapons is cool, and hey, you have two swords or battleaxes or warhammers or whatever, so you can attack twice as much, right? Well, not really, especially if you have two longish weapons. One will invariably get tangled with the other and reduce your attack vectors. I’m not saying it was never done, just that it’s not all that great except in very specific circumstances. When you do see it historically, it’s almost never on the battlefield. Why? Well, it seems there were three primary weapon systems for foot soldiers on a medieval field of battle. (I really can’t see a situation where dual-wielding would be a good choice for cavalry.)

  • Weapon and a shield. This system is great for a couple of things. As I said in the last post, having a small, mobile wall in front of you is handy for keeping the bad guys’ weapons from splitting your skull. In formation, shields let you make a big mobile wall with your buddies (a shield wall), which is damn good at keeping missile weapons from killing you (missile weapons were kind of common on medieval battlefields). Oh, and here’s a pro tip, weapon and shield IS dual-wielding because a shield can easily be used as an offensive weapon, and a very effective one at that. Just sayin’.
  • Two-handed Weapon. The second weapon system was a two-handed weapon, usually something in the spear/polearm family. These are great for penetrating heavy armor (more leverage), and they’re just fucking wonderful in formations, allowing you to presents a forest of pikes or halberds to the enemy. That’s a pretty intimidating battlefield formation that’s effective against infantry and cavalry, who could absolutely murder foot soldiers out of formation.
  • Missile weapon. The last weapon system is a missile weapon of some kind, which, with a few rare exceptions, requires two hands (and even the one-handed type were usually paired with a shield). Missile weapons are great because you can kill the enemy without getting close to him, and when there’s a bunch of folks with missile weapons you can do cool stuff like make Spartans fight in the shade and whatnot.

So, you see, there’s really not a good reason to dual wield on the battlefield. It’s not great in formation, it won’t keep arrows off you, it won’t let you fire arrows of your own, and it won’t keep cavalry from riding you down and slaughtering you. As I said, it’s not that dual-wielding was never done, but when you do see it, it’s typically  in a civilian setting, and the off-hand weapon is smaller and primarily for defensive purposes.

Here’s a great video posted by Skallagrim (great channel, by the way), where two HEMA instructors discuss two-weapon fighting at length with demonstrations. They show a couple of ways it can work and some reasons it doesn’t. Keep in mind, this is not a discussion of a battlefield situation. It’s taken from the point of view of civilian dueling (no armor).

The fix: Hey, I can overlook the odd two-weapon fighting bad-ass here and there, but if you really do want something a little more realistic, use the dual-wielders sparingly and away from the battlefield if you can help it. Also, make those that do use that style all the time very special individuals (they’d have to be to fight like that and stay alive).

There you go. Three more melee myths to heed or ignore in your own combat scenes. As usual, if you have any experience in this area yourself, use the comments to chime in. Or, if you just want to tell me why your dual-battleaxe-wielding bad-ass doesn’t NEED a helmet, please do so below.

3 Comments on “Fightin’ Fiction II: 3 More Melee Myths

  1. My understanding is that in the Middle Ages, some knights eschewed the cover-your-whole-head kind of helmet because the helmet made it hard to see (it was probably particularly limiting to peripheral vision), and that too could get you killed. There was a trade-off, and you had to decide what you were willing to give up. This presumably would not apply to the top-of-the-head-only steel cap type of helmet.

    • Yeah, there was probably some of that, and many later helms had visors, which allowed a knight or man-at-arms some flexibility. The real danger with not covering your face is arrows, and many of the notable arrow wounds from that time were, you guessed it, in the face. Here’s a great video from Scholagladiatoria (one of the best HEMA channels on YouTube) that discusses plate armor and longbows. He goes into a bit of detail about helmets and facial wounds from arrows. It’s long but fascinating:

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