Nothing Certain but Death and Axes

Axe_KitRae

Why do swords get the glory?

Swords get most of the glamor in the pre-modern world of warfare. They’re flashy, elegant, and loaded with symbolism. When you think of a knight or a soldier of the middle ages, I bet you think of them with a sword. But when it comes to raw, lethal power, there is nothing quite like an axe.

Just to belabor my point on the sword bias in history:

Name three axes in history or fantasy that had names. Go on. I’ll wait quietly.

Not so easy, is it?

Now, name three named swords, in history or fantasy.

Yeah, if you have any historical or fantasy leanings at all, the list should come spilling out. Excalibur (King Arthur), Stormbringer (Elric of Melniboné), Glamdring (Gandalf the Grey/White), Longclaw (John Snow), Andúril (Aragorn), Ice (Ned Stark), Sting (The Police. Also, Bilbo Baggin’s sword). Want more from history? Durendal (Song of Roland), Joyeuse (Charlamagne), Tizona and Colada (El Cid).
I may have gotten carried away there.

Never has metaphor and image come together so disturbingly.

Never has metaphor and image come together so disturbingly.

The point is not that swords are overly glorified (God, but do I love swords), but that axes are underly glorified. They are the NFL offensive linemen of the weapons world. They are the Honda Civics of combat. Not flashy, but brutally efficient and reliable.

Axes may well have been humanity’s first real weapons. Museums in Europe are overflowing with flint axeheads crafted by Neolithic warriors.
The first axes in recorded history (that I am aware of) were labrys. I spent ten minutes looking for labrys in a book on female anatomy before I realized it was an ancient battle axe. And that battle axe was not happy when I asked her to show me her labrys. Wait. I’m drowning in a spiral of innuendo.

Labrys.
Ancient Greece.
Now I remember.

The labrys was the great double-bladed axe of the Minoan civilizations (The Minoans were from Crete and the Aegean Islands, in case that D you got in ninth grade history is coming back to bite you). They had lovely double-bladed axes, mostly for ceremonial purposes. And enjoy that mental-axe-image, because there really were no other double-bladed battle axes in history.

Read that last sentence again.

I know you didn’t read it again, so I’ll write it again.

Awesome, but fantasy.

Awesome, but fantasy.

There really were no other double-bladed battle axes in history.

Despite the prevalence of those types of axes in fantasy entertainment, they were incredibly rare in European history, and not very common outside of Europe, either.

Think about it. You’re a warrior. Running around fighting people. Sometimes running at them. Sometimes running away. But you’re always running. So why would you want to carry a ridiculously heavy piece of steel that had *THE SAME WEAPON ON BOTH SIDES?* It’s not like you’re going to get bored of the side you are hitting with and switch. Why not put a spike on the other side? That way you can punch through armor with one end, and crush mail or sever limbs with the other. And, really, steel was not cheap, so using it to clone your axe blade was not the best use of resources.

Moving on from the Minoans. The Romans used axes, but mostly as tools to cut down trees and such. The next big development for axes in battle really didn’t come until the 6th century or so, when the Merovingians perfected the Franciscan axe. These axes were fairly thin, with a high arch leading to a slightly curved head. Great for your run-of-the-mill dismemberings, but even better when hurled. Ironically, these axes gained fame during Charlamagne’s reign, even though it was his sword (and that of Roland) that survives in our historical knowledge base.

Vikings were all about power. And beards. And beard power.

Vikings were all about power. And beards. And beard power. This is a Viking-Franciscan design.

I don’t suppose it’s possible to write an essay about axes without talking about the Vikings. They had a reputation for axes, and a well-earned one. The Dane axe—most popular in the 10th and 11th centuries—had many variations. The most common version was a light, thin blade with a wicked edge and a forward sweep that allowed for extra killin’ power. These were sometimes mounted on short hafts (perfect for boat raids on unsuspecting monks) or on long poles (perfect for on-foot raids against unsuspecting monks).

The Vikings also perfected the bearded axe—a technique for disguising their axe as a person so that unsuspecting monks wouldn’t know they were being attacked until the last moment.

No. That’s not actually true.

The monks probably never knew they were being attacked because they died instantly.

Axe_BeardedYeah, okay, the disguise thing isn’t true either. A bearded axe is actually an axe blade with a long heel that hangs down. This bit of blade gives the wielder a greater cutting surface, but, more importantly, it provides a great hook. Why would you need a hook? Well, the Vikings (and the Saxons, really) fought in shield walls—long lines of men, shoulder to shoulder, holding shields. Trying to get through a shield wall was ridiculously hard. So, Vikings came up with the bearded axe. You strike with your axe *over* the opponent’s shield. Catch the inside rim of the shield with your axe. Pull hard. Suddenly, the shield dips and you opponent’s surprised face is pounded by your friend’s axe. Tada.

I’m not really going to talk about polearms in this post—that’s a whole nother post in itself. But I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the pollaxe. It’s one of the most lethal battle tools ever created, and it’s possible that it took as many lives as all other axes put together. The pollaxe (or polaxe, or poleaxe, or oh-dear-god-don’t-hit-me-with-that) became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, during the golden age of plate mail. Armor became so strong during this time that it became really, really difficult to actually kill anyone (well, anyone of importance, right?). And what fun was that? So the polaxe was created. A long shaft, crowned with a steel head (stop it, pervert) that featured an axe-blade on one side and a spike or hammer-head on the other. And usually with another spike at the top, just to make it lethal from any angle.

Axe_Poleaxe

Fierce in battle, the poleaxe was also the peasant answer to a pole tax.

These axes could be swung with enormous power, and regardless of what side you used to strike with, death or grievous injury was usually the result. The spike could punch through armor like a hot knife through something really flimsy like paper or wet drywall or lingerie. The blade could crush armor and cut through the mail, flesh and bone beneath. This was the tool of choice among medieval infantrymen, and it was devastating.

In the high Middle Ages, swords in battle were relatively rare. It was the axe and the bow that typically won the day. And yet the knight with the sword is the most resounding image of that period. That axe lobby needs a better PR firm.

Shields (or, How Not To Get Hit with Something Really Heavy or Sharp)

We all have primal instincts. Hard-wired impulses that are key to our survival. The search for food. The need for shelter. The fear of spiders (okay, that may not be hard-wired in everyone, but it is with me). And, an often overlooked instinct: The overwhelming desire to not get hit with something really heavy or really sharp. Or really heavy and sharp, for that matter.

Humans have used a variety of methods to address this impulse. They have developed leaping skills. Learned to dodge and duck. Mastered the ‘look-out-behind-you’ technique. But perhaps our most successful tool for avoiding death by sharp-and-heavy is the shield.

The Spartans held a pass for three days using hoplons.

The Spartans held a pass for three days using hoplons.

Examples of shields go as far back in history as we have the ability to look. But perhaps the most well-known shield from classical history is the Greek aspis (or hoplon if your lips are feeling frisky).

The aspis was round shield, made of wood and often covered in leather. Sometimes a layer of bronze was added for added nose-breaking strength. This shield was the template for most of the shields in the Greek and Roman empires for centuries. In fact, the round shield is the most common style in all of history. Something about holding a wheel in your hand just feels right, I guess.

The Romans extended the shield, making it oblong for better coverage of the body and to show the Greeks they didn’t need their damn round shields. These shields were called the parma, and tasted great on pizza. After a while, the Romans decided that an oblong was still too similar to the damn Greek shields, so they added corners and made them rectangles.

The scutum is the shield normally associated with the Roman legions, and it was *way* effective. While the Greeks had created the phalanx (a shield wall held in place by ranks of soldiers), the Romans perfected it. The legionnaires were not only good at the phalanx, they came up with trick formations, like the testudo.

Can't hide behind a wall? Bring one with you. The Roman Scutum.

Can’t hide behind a wall? Bring one with you. The Roman Scutum.

What is the testudo? Well, it’s not a battle formation used to guard the male genitals. (Found that out the hard way). It’s box of shields formation. The first rank kneels, setting the bottom edge of the shield on the ground. The second rank stands, holding their shields above the first rank. The third rank holds their shields straight up in the air. And the formation is mirrored behind and to the sides. Opponents see nothing but shields no matter where they look. Take that, Greeks!

And since we’re talking about Greeks, we should probably mention the Persians, who became the arch-enemies of the Greek city-states. Soldiers in the Persian army typically used oblong wicker shields. Wicker shields? Like, wicker? Patio-furniture wicker? Yeah, it may sound kind of useless, but the Persians kicked the crap out of just about everyone (using those wicker shields) and had one of the largest empires in the history of the world, so who’s laughing now? Besides my crazy neighbor in the room next door.

Let’s move up in history to the next big Shield Event: The kite shield, made famous by the Normans. These shields were what armor scholars like to call “roundish” at the top, and tapered to a point at the bottom. They were great for horsemen because they weren’t *round.* And the human body, as we know now, is *not* round either. Except for my high school shop teacher. But I digress. The longer shields covered the torso and legs of a rider. Footmen liked them because they *weren’t round.* And they could protect much of their body in combat. They could also be hung around the neck and worn as a sort of armor wall, leaving their hands free to fight or drink beer or whatever.

Vikings reinvented the art of the shield-wall.

Vikings reinvented the art of the shield-wall.

The Viking shield was popular around this time, too, and a century or so earlier. These shields were round, often with a metal boss at the center and painted in the colors of the user. Vikings brought back the whole phalanx thing with their shield wall. What is a shield wall? Well, imagine a rugby scrum with weapons. Sort of. Vikings would meet their enemies on a field of battle by crashing into them, their shields slamming into their opponent’s shields. The front lines of both armies would shove at each other, while simultaneously jabbing with swords and spears at legs, over the top at heads, and basically through any crack they could find. The description of these shield walls made them sound absolutely hellish. If you were up front, you couldn’t retreat. Think a mosh pit where you’re being shoved toward a blender.

The kite shield and Viking shield eventually gave way to the heater shield, which was especially popular in the winter. Okay, I made that up. Heater shields have nothing to do with heat. Except that fighting in armor makes you really hot. Okay, that has nothing to do with heater shields either. They were named that because they look kind of like the bottom of an iron. Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not in charge of naming stuff, or I would have named it the Gruelthorpe shield. Because it sounds bad-ass. And stuff.

holydefender1_l

Heater Shield. See? Fire. It’s a… it’s called a heater… oh forget it.

Anyway, the heater shield was typically flat on top, and curved to a point at the bottom. It’s the shield most people think of when they imagine a medieval knight. Me, I imagine a person-shaped shield, made of diamonds. Because why shouldn’t your shield be shaped like you? And because diamonds. These shields were popular from the 12th century to about the 14th century. Because in the 14th century, plate armor started getting silly hard to penetrate (which reminds me of a girl I knew in high school…). So, knights ditched shields and started carrying big-assed swords and axes that could be swung with all their might in the hopes of maybe scratching another knight’s breastplate.

Another shield that was popular at this time was the pavise. These were huge shields used by crossbowmen to hide behind while they reloaded, or prayed, or cowered. Pavises had spikes on the bottom edge that could be driven into the earth so they would stand on their own, or they could be held up by assistants.

sbbr-buckler-platted1_l

Buckler. Or, in Texas, belt buckler.

Bucklers started becoming popular around he 15th century. These were small shields (10-18 inches or so in diameter usually) that could be held easily and used to block attacks, and to strike with. Although typically made of metal, buckler shields were light, easy to carry and gave rise to the Frisbee craze of the 60s. Sword-and-buckler combat became wildly popular in the 16th century, and dozens of manuals on fighting techniques were written.

After the 17th century, shield use became less and less popular. There were some shields still in use after that, most notably the Scottish targe—a small round shield used highlander’s against the British. But guns kind of took away our hard-wired impulse to block sharp-and-heavies, and replaced it with the new duck-and-cover impulse.

Helmets: All you ever wanted to know…

Medieval and Renaissance warriors weren’t all that dissimilar from zombies, really. They tended to smell bad. They grunted a lot. They attacked in hordes. And the only way to ensure death was to hit them in the head.

Unlike zombies, Medieval and Renaissance warriors were aware of this weakness, and they tended to encase their heads in metal (and I’m not talking about the golden crown that Khal Drogo gave to Viserys, for you Game of Thrones fans). Of course I’m talking about my favorite piece of medieval armor—the helmet!

There is a lot of confusion about the different helmet types. What’s the difference between an armet and a close helm? Why do frog’s mouth helms have such sissy names? Could you really cook in a kettle helm? What’s so great about a great helm? Well, I’m here to tell you! I’m going to go through each of the helms in Chronological order. And yes, I know I’m skipping a few, but in the interest of brevity, I’m going to stick to some of the most common types. As always, if you find that I missed something, feel free to not contact me and complain. Kidding. If you have any comments or ideas, I’d love to hear them in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

 

The helmet that launched a thousand movies.

The helm that launched a thousand movies.

Corinthian Helmet – 8th century B.C.E.: Yeah, we loved the movie 300. Leonidas and his happy few, taking on the entire Persian army (and some really strange creatures that apparently the Persians brought out for battles). The Spartan helmet worn by Leonidas and his crew is a creative design based on the Greek Hoplite helmet (otherwise known as the Corinthian helmet). Another Corinthian style helmet was the Troy helmet, used in the Troy movie. The Hoplites were among the most heavily armored soldiers in history. Their helmets covered most of their face, with huge cheekplates and a long nasal that left very of the face exposed. A tall horsehair crest (front to back, or from temple to temple) was often added to the helmet to indicate rank or unit, or just to make these helmets that much more bad-ass. Variations of the Corinthian helmet were seen in Greece and Italy for hundreds of years.

 

 

Helmet_Spangenhelm

Spangenhelmens ara gooda, ya?

Spangenhelm, 6th -10th century: That’s the 500s to the 900s, for those of you chronologically challenged. Spangenhelm is German for “Please buy Volkswagens.” These types of helmets were usually a bit conical (pointy toward the top). These are the helmets you typically see in movies when the time period is somewhere between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Norman conquest. They usually have cheek pieces and can be highly decorated, sometimes have face masks, and occasionally have chain mail aventails that protect the back of the neck. Variations of this type of helmet go all the way back to the first century A.D., but only a very few are capable of this sort of time-travel. Yeah, not funny. But, seriously, this is an ancient type of helmet. Some Viking helmets came down from this family tree. And the Sutton Hoo helmet, although it has more in common with a Roman Cavalry helmet, is “spangenhelmish.” Which, in German, means, “Pretty please buy Volkswagons.”

 

Helmet_Norman

The Norman helm–named after Norman Mailer. (Not really).

Nasal Helm/Norman Helm, 11th – 13th century: Yes, I know that nasal helms have been around since the Byzantine Empire, but the height of their popularity in modern culture is the 11th-12th centuries. These helmets gradually replaced the spangenhelms. They’re the ones you see soldiers wearing in the Robin Hood movies. The ones worn by the Normans who fought at the Battle of Hastings under William the Conqueror. A lot of Viking helmets are actually similar in design to Norman helmets (although probably having more in common with spangenhelms). Nasal helms are usually conical, and they make your voice sound really pinched, which is why they call them nasal helms. Okay, not true. But kinda funny? Maybe? They’re called nasal helms because of a piece of metal that extends over the nose, preventing a Tyrion Lannister sort of nose-chopping-off injury. (For those who actually read the books.)

 

 

helmet_Kettlehelm

The iron hat.

Kettle Helm, 11th century: This is another example of a helmet that lasted for much, much longer than one century. The 11th century is when the helmet was most popular, but variations of this type of helm have existed all the way into World War II. Kettle helms are also known as “chapel de fer,” which, in French, means either a church made from the hair of animals, or an iron hat. Many variations of these helmets exist, but all have wide metal brims, and most do not have any sort of face protection. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t get their name from soldiers cooking their meals in these helmets. The name supposedly stems from the shape, which resembles a cooking pot. And, really, heating metal over and over again is probably not something you want to do if your brain depends on the strength of that metal.

 

Helmets_Cevelliere

A skull-cap with drapes.

Cervelliere, 12-14th centuries: The cervelliere wasn’t truly a helmet. It was a steel beanie worn on top of the head, usually over a chain mail coif. Excellent for protecting the top of the head from sword blades and pigeon crap. This, again, is something that was used for much longer than I have designated, but instead of being worn as head protection, it was worn over a chain coif and under a great helm, as extra protection.

 

 

 

The Greatest Helm. Ever.

The Greatest Helm. Ever.

The Great Helm, 12th to 14th centuries: How can you not love a helmet that has “great” in the name? And these helmets are, without doubt, great. They should be called the Awesome Helm. The protagonist in my The Scourge Trilogy wears a great helm, even though he admits they are going out of style, being replaced by “those hideous new hounskull helmets with the muzzle-shaped visors.” There are other names for this sort of helmet: pot helm (popular in Colorado), bucket helm, awesome helm, and barrel helm. (See what I did there? If I say it enough, it will become true). Great helms cover the entire head. A great big cylinder of steel, with eye slits and (often) perforations near the mouth for breathing pleasure. These helms were originally flat-topped, which looked cool, but provided a lovely target for war hammers and poleax spikes. The evolved version was called the Raichu Helm, and could shoot huge bolts of lightning and… wait… no… I’m thinking of something else. The evolved form was actually still called a great helm, but was curved to deflect blows. Great helms were typically worn over a padded hood, and sometimes a chain coif and cervelliere (and if you have to ask what a cerverlliere is, you have failed the Strongblade Helmet School final exam)(Hint: see above). Crusader Helmets (one born my knights in the first few Crusades) were examples of great helms.

 

Helmet_hounskull

A hounskull, in its hideous glory.

Hounskulls, 14th century: We go from my favorite helm, to my least favorite. As mentioned above, the protagonist of The Scourge expressed his distaste for these helms. Although they provided effective protection for the face and better ventilation than the awesome helm (I’m still trying…), they were not the most artistic of helmets. Hounskulls were basically tall bascinets with beaked visors that could be raised when not in combat. Slits in the visor allowed for vision, and tons of little holes around the beak provided air. But no amount of perforations can help bad taste.

 

 

Where does the baby go?

Where does the baby go?

Bascinet, 14th century: I probably should have mentioned this before the hounskull. Bascinets were a little more common, and it was a common practice for knights to put their babies to sleep in them when it was bedtime. Hmm. I might be mixing that last part up. Anyway, bascinet helms were typically open-faced. You could attach a pig-face visor to them, which terrified the housemaids and made the helmet a hounskull (see above). Bascinets usually were worn with chain mail aventails that protected the back of the neck and the throat. This was replaced later by a steel bevor to protect the neck/chin.

 

 

You can't get much cooler.

You can’t get much cooler.

Sallet, 15th century: Ah! Another one of my favorites. This is the helmet worn by the Laraytian Standard soldiers in my The Beast of Maug Maurai trilogy. The sallet was a half-helm, really. A bascinet with a long, curved brim at the back to protect the neck and shoulders. Add the half-visor that protected the top half of the face, and you have a work of art. These helmets were sometimes worn with bevors that swept upward to cover the mouth, chin and throat (parts left open by the sallet). Some version had the visor integrated. Others had swiveling visors. And some had ad-visors, tiny people that would sit on the brim and talk to you about your best options in combat. No. Wait. I think that last one was a dream I had. Never mind. This helmet was enormously popular in Germany and Italy.

 

Helmet_Armet

yeah, helmets are cool.

Armet/close helm, 15th century: Yeah, a few medieval scholars just groaned when they saw both of these helmets in the same category. You see, these helmets are often lumped together, even though they are vastly different from one another. Or not. The only real difference is that armets have swiveling cheek plates, while close helms had bevors that pivoted upward and away from the face with the visor. Close helms are typically identified with the 16th and 17th century, as well. So there are grounds for historical grumbling when the two helmets are lumped together. Both helmets fully enclose the face, and are more fitted to the wearer’s head than many of the other helms from history. Both are also really damned cool. Fine pieces of medieval helmetry.

 

 

Not much use except for jousting.

Not much use except for jousting.

Frog Mouthed Helmet, 15th Century: For a really cool looking helmet, this has a seriously dorky name. They could have gone with arch-helm, or razor-helm, or awesome helm (if that wasn’t already taken, right? Right?). It was called a frog-mouth helm because the lower brim juts out like the open mouth of a frog. But, seriously? Sigh. Anyway, this type of helm was used almost exclusively for jousting. The narrow visor and the jutting lower brim protected the jouster’s eyes. These helms included an elaborate web of straps inside that kept the steel from actually touching the knight’s head. This prevented the transfer of energy from lance to skull. Maybe the National Football League should look into this, eh? In the third book of The Scourge trilogy, Sir Edward wears one of these when jousting, and isn’t very impressed.

Richard provided a frog helm for the joust, and it is not comfortable. I can see very little and hear even less. The entire thing hangs suspended on my head by a web of leather cords intended to keep the steel from slamming my face when struck by a lance. I suppose it is a clever invention, but I would have preferred my great helm.

 

Often highly decorated, and highly cool.

Often highly decorated, and highly cool.

Burgonet, 16th century: Burgonets were similar to armets, but they had a characteristic ridge that along the top of the head, starting at the forehead and curling back like a crest. These helmets did not typically have face protection, but had long cheek pieces and a long, curved brim at the front. Sometimes something called a falling buffe was added to protect the face. A falling buffe was a piece of metal that used to be shiny but, over time, became dull. Um. Yeah, not really. Okay, a falling buffe was a visor/bevor that was made from several metal plates and could be attached to the burgonet. Many ceremonial types of these helmets were made, often in Italy. And there are some *fine* examples of these works of arts. Poke around the internet. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Paging John Smith...

Paging John Smith…

Morion, 16th-17th centuries: The Morion is best known as the conquistador helm. You know, the one the soldiers wore in Disney’s Pocahontas. These types of helmets were similar in a “Yeah, I’m a Kennedy, too” sort of way to Burgonets. They both have the long, curving crest looping back from the forehead, although the morion crest is often slightly larger. And they both have brims along the front (and sometimes the back). Morions can have cheek pieces, but typically do not. They rarely had any type of face protection. The fantasy novel I am currently working on features these helmets. More on that at a later date…

 

 

Okay, that’s kind of like an entire book about helmets. We really should charge you for this. If you would please leave your name and email, I’ll send you my Paypal information and you can donate to the making of this encyclopedic blog post. If you’re still here. Hello? Heloooooooo?

 

 

The Zombie Survival Manual — Part Four

Ranged Devices

 ScourgeCover_New_250I spot another staggering shape moving toward the river. Then another. A horde of them lurch into view. Ten or twenty of them. More than I’ve ever seen. More screams ring out from the “virtuous” people of Meddestane.
“Tristan…” I trail off because Sir Tristan is already spanning his crossbow. He puts the nose of it against the toe of his boot and cranks the windlass that draws the cord back. I unsheathe my sword. The people in the river are slogging toward our bank. They stagger through the water, and I can’t tell the plagued from the healthy. Sir Morgan dismounts.
“Get back on your horse, Morgan.”
The dead feast in the narrow river. They catch the old and weak and kill them under the water. The heads of the dying disappear into the river. Sometimes the victims have an instant to cry out before the Medway swallows them.
Sir Tristan fires the crossbow. I don’t know how he can tell friend from foe. Perhaps he can’t.

– From THE SCOURGE by Roberto Calas

 

DarylDixon

Daryl Dixon. Hero. Crossbowman. (Actor).

If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, then you’re probably a fan of the crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon. He’s one of my favorites, but I’ve often wondered how well a crossbow would really do in a zombie apocalypse.

I spent an unhealthy amount of time doing research and thinking carefully about just such a thing for my historical fantasy trilogy, The Scourge. And today, in this final chapter of our Zombie Survival Manual, I’m going to share with you the results of my unhealthy thoughts:

Killing from a distance in a zombie apocalypse is a …ahem… no brainer. I mean, why wade into the zombie stream when you can sip a beer and put holes into them from a rooftop? Well, for one thing, items that kill from a distance require ammunition (or, in some cases, *are* the ammunition). Also, killing from a distance require perfect aim. A body shot won’t kill a zombie, right? Join me for some fuzzy mathematics!

A head accounts for about 15 percent of the body. So, assuming you hit the zombie every time, you have a 15 percent chance of striking the head. But you won’t hit the zombie every time. This is a horror-movie come to life. You’re going to be panting, possibly sobbing, possibly curled in a fetal position. Even if you’re a stone-cold killer, you’re going to miss sometimes. And if you miss 20 percent of the time, you’re now down to a 10 percent chance to hit the head. And when you think that the brain accounts for less than half of the human head, you are now down to a 5 percent chance (2 percent if the person was a congressman or congresswoman). And really, you need to actually hit the brain stem, right? That’s what controls motor functions. So you’re not down to a 1 percent chance. For every one hundred shots you take from a distance, you will kill one zombie. Is that what you really want? Is it? IS IT?

(Don’t bother trying to correct my math. I’ve been officially declared mathematically disabled. Seriously. So if you try to correct me, I’m going to scream discrimination.).

Okay, so I may not have taken into account all factors (like marksmanship and training). And, yeah, if you hit pretty much any part of a zombie brain you’ll take it down. Even still, using a crossbow or similar ranged device is not as easy as Daryl Dixon makes it look. Below are some of the most popular pre-gunpowder devices you might use in a zombie apocalypse, and how they might fare.

 

sbc-italiancrossbow1_lThe Crossbow:

Advantages: Kill things from far away (duh). Incredible power.

Disadvantages: Extremely slow reloading. Must have ammunition.

Since we started with Daryl Dixon, let’s talk about crossbows. And I’m talking about medieval crossbows, not the rapid-fire modern ones. A medieval crossbow was a thing of incredible power. Crossbows were the original weapons of mass destruction. Anyone could use them. They were lethal. They were extremely portable. And they were relatively easy to make. But crossbows were made to kill humans, not zombies. Hitting the head of a zombie, as I mentioned, is difficult. They walk funny, which causes their heads to sway from side to side. And a medieval crossbow doesn’t have a scope. Another problem? Reloading. There are a half-dozen ways to reload a medieval crossbow, and none of them are good. It can take a full minute to reload, which would be fine if zombies honored the “time-out” rule. But they don’t. And if the hungry dead get too close while you load, your time will be out.

 

English_longbow3The Longbow:

Advantages: Range. Speed. Accuracy.

Disadvantages: Must have ammunition. Years to master.
The medieval longbow was a game-changer. This sort of bow proved to be even deadlier than the crossbow, as proven definitively at the battles of Crecy and Agincourt. A well-trained longbowman could put an arrow through a wedding ring at thirty paces. But you’re not a well-trained longbowman. Very few people are, these days. You see, it took about ten years to learn how to use an English longbow. And you have to start when you’re young, because pulling back the strong of a longbow is monstrously difficult. When bodies of English archers were dug up, most of them had deformities in the bones of their shoulders—deformities that allowed them to perform an act that normal men could not. But even if you find a longbow with a lower pull-weight (one that your feeble little-girl arms might be able to pull), you still have to place the arrow in the head. Which is feasible, but not always manageable. Reloading is far quicker with a longbow. If you train hard, you might be able to get off six or seven well aimed shots in a minute. So that’s a bonus. But if you fight for five minutes, that’s 35 arrows. Are you carrying 35 arrows? And many of the arrows will shatter when they hit –will you be able to replace them? Lots of problems with longbows, but definitely a good tool for back-liners or from the safety of a rooftop.

 

sba-spartanspear1_lThe Spear:

Advantages: Versatility. Powerful at close range.

Disadvantages: Inaccurate. One-shot.
Spears are versatile. They can be used in melee combat, and they can be hurled at opponents. But in a zombie apocalypse, they will never be more than auxiliary defense items. In melee, leverage and physics make it difficult to pierce a zombie skull with a spear. And a thrown spear is not exactly a finesse item. Hitting a head with a spear is like trying to land your pencil in the pencil cup from across the room. And if you do hit the head and kill the zombie, congratulations! You now have nothing to fend off the zombies with! But you can high five your friends as you die.

 

BolasThe Bola:

Advantages: Immobilize enemies. Easy to make.

Disadvantages: One-shot. Need plenty of room to use.
Bolas are not a typical medieval items. But in the interest of silliness, I have decided to include them. No, you can’t really kill a zombie with them. Well, maybe you could, but you can kill zombies with a chair too. And a chair might be slightly more functional. Bolas are tools used by early South- and Central American people to hunt (and are still used in Argentina sometimes). It takes balls to use a bola in a zombie apocalypse. No, seriously. Bolas consist of a series of cords with weighted balls attached to the ends. You swing the balls over your head and hurl the entire contraption at an animal to entangle its legs. Sometimes the bolas were used to take down birds in mid-flight.

Bolas are not very efficient against the hungry dead, but they are an intriguing accessory. Immobilizing a zombie is just as good as killing it. Of course, you’d have to have dozens of bolas to immobilize a herd of zombies. Not very feasible. Thumbs down to bolas. Even if Batman made them cool.

 

sbch-franciscaaxe1_lThrowing Axes:

Advantages: Versatile. Coolness factor.

Disadvantages: Hard to throw properly. One-shot.

Axe. Another versatile tool. You can slash with it. You can throw it. You can wear it as body spray. Strong enough for a man, but made for a human (not a zombie). As mentioned in my previous post, axes are brilliant for the zombie apocalypse, unless you throw them. Because: A. If you’ve ever tried to throw an axe at a renaissance festival, you know how tricky it is send it blade-first into the target (so you’ll probably just end up bruising the zombie’s forehead with the shaft) and B. Even if you do land the blade in the zombie’s brain, now you’re empty-handed. And what happens when you are empty-handed in a zombie apocalypse? Do I even have to axe that?

 

TrebuchetThe Trebuchet:

Advantages: Unmatched killing power. Coolness factor.

Disadvantages: Ridiculously inaccurate against zombies. Reloading time. Ammunition is heavy.


The trebuchet is a big-assed siege device that hurls massive stones hundreds of yards. A lot of fun in a zombie apocalypse, but you can only really use it from behind a wall. Or from far, far away. But I’d really, really like to see one of these used against a zombie horde.

 

I have tallied the strengths and weaknesses of the assorted items and have come up with a scientific(ish) chart rating the various ranged tools that can be used against zombies. Feats your eyes below, where the English longbow seems to have run away with the show. So go. Don’t be slow.

RangedEffectivenessChart

I hope you have enjoyed Strongblade’s Zombie Survival Manual. Read each of the segments carefully. Study them. Feed your brain. Because when the hungry dead rise, you might as well give them a good meal.

 

The Zombie Survival Manual — Part Three

ZombieSurvivalLogo We’ve come to the third section of our Zombie Survival Manual, where we discuss perhaps the most perfect medieval killing implements ever created. No, I’m not talking about rats with plague. I’m talking about axes and polearms. Countless medieval battles and skirmishes have been won with these implements, and if you find yourself in a zombie apocalypse, there’s not better tool to have in your hands (or their heads).

 

Axes and Polearms

ScourgeCover_New_250When we are armed and armored we remove the bar and yank the door open. Tristan holds the poleax high over his shoulder as I peer out into the hallway. I see Joseph, the reeve, shuffling toward us. The morning light reflects from his eyes and I see no whites. He snarls as he lumbers toward me. I back into the room and Tristan drives the spike of his poleax deep into Joseph’s skull. The reeve twitches, then topples awkwardly. Blood leaks from his shattered skull and pools swiftly across the floor.

We walk cautiously into the hallway. A woman –from the kitchen staff by the look of her apron – crouches by the open stairs feeding upon a man whom I can’t identify. She hisses, then stands and runs at us. Red boils pepper her face and neck. I hold my sword in two hands and swing sideways, opening her throat and spraying the hallway with blood. She tumbles to the ground. Her head bounces and rolls along the wooden floor until it comes to rest against a wall.

“You fool,” Tristan’s smile has returned. “Who’s going to cook now? You need to think things through more carefully.”

I peer over the carved wood railing, down to the foyer, and see blood smeared across the floor. Someone screams in the distance.

– From THE SCOURGE by Roberto Calas

Axe

Axe “body spray” meant spattering blood in the Middle Ages.

I’d like to start by pointing out here an important distinction brought up by Strongblade fan, George Massie. When I’m tapping away at my keyboard, imparting this vital information about the upcoming zombie apocalypse, I am speaking about well-built, tempered-steel items. Please refrain from using stainless steel swords or axes. If the words “Made in China” are stamped anywhere on the product, there is a good chance that it will be useless against the undead (although it might look really cool in your hands)(but remember, drooling and shuffling isn’t cool at all). By all means buy stainless steel to display proudly in your home. But you don’t want to be this guy when the hungry dead rise. Thanks for the reminder, George!

I may have alluded to the fact that a zombie apocalypse is very similar to war in the late Middle Ages. Combat against armored opponents was all about penetration power and speed (which reminds me of something my girlfriend once said, but that’s material for another post). Soldiers relied on weapons that could unleash tremendous amounts of force. They had to, because heavy armor stopped all but the most powerful of blows. Swords were a rarity on the battlefield. So what did they use? Well, four out of five warriors prefer the fresh, minty striking power of axes. And the fourth warrior preferred to run away.

Of all the axes and polearms on the medieval battlefield, there was probably none more effective than . . .

 

Poleax

Most polaxes had hammers on the back, but that steel thorn would do just fine.

The Polaxe:
Advantages
: Fast, powerful, light, versatile, capable of cutting or crushing.
Disadvantages: None.

Ever heard of Agincourt? A miraculous battle where heavily outnumbered English soldiers defeated a French army. Two weapons were responsible for the victory: The longbow and the polaxe. We’ll discuss the longbow next time. Because I want to focus on the finest killing weapon ever created. The polax is a the swiss-army-knife of combat. Zombies coming at you from the left? Use the axe blade to prune them back. Zombies on the right? The hammer-head will turn them to mulch. Zombies dead ahead? Ventilate them with the jutting spike on top. It’s killing in 3D! And the zombies don’t even need special glasses! Every move you make with a polaxe kills something. It’s death incarnate.

I would normally take a moment here to mention weaknesses, but there are none. The polaxe has great reach but can still be used at close range. It is durable and strong, but light enough for extended combat. Eric Schweighauser posted on our Facebook page that he would pick a poleax against the hungry dead, and I’m with him.

If you are at all serious about the zombie apocalypse (and face it, who isn’t these days?) then go out and get yourself one of these. No, get three. Or four. Because when money is no longer valid, the new currency will be polaxes. Yeah. They’re that good.

Other useful weapons?

Tomahawk2

The Tomahawk: A real coup in the zombie apocalypse.

The Tomahawk:
Advantages
: Fast, ranged, decent penetration power, light.
Disadvantages: Slow to remove after a strike

Okay, not exactly medieval, but certainly historical. Micheal Koselke mentioned these on our Facebook page, and he’s absolutely right. These are brilliant. In terms of all-around efficiency, it’s hard to beat the tomahawk axe. Again, let’s get our definition straight: I’m not talking about the stone-headed weapons created by Native Americans. I’m talking about the steel-head versions crafted by the English. These metal versions were basically modified naval boarding-axes that settlers traded to the Native Americans. Which is odd, since some of those traded axes were no doubt used to kill settlers. But I digress.

The tomahawk was used by Native Americans and settlers alike. They were an invaluable tool for skinning, gutting and for personal defense. They can be thrown with a lethal accuracy, and can penetrate a skull on a solid hit. And some of them have smoking pipes on the side opposite the axe blade. How awesome is that? Take down a few zombies, then toke up with your bedraggled band of bloody and traumatized survivors.

As I mentioned above, tomahawks can also be thrown, which is way-high on the coolness factor. But unless you have a large supply of axes, the last thing you want to do is throw them away.

Disadvantages? Tomahawks don’t have the penetration power of polaxes. To get through a skull, you need to swing hard. And those of you who passed the bar know that the laws of physics aren’t kind to narrow weapons striking a skull. The blade becomes wedged, and removing a wedged blade takes precious seconds. And there are no time-outs in a zombie apocalypse.

Halberd

Halberds: The perfect weapons. Until they’re not.

Halberd:
Advantages
: Excellent combat range, versatility, great penetration power.
Disadvantages: Relatively slow, Loses effectiveness at very close range

And when I say halberd, I mean all of the long-hafted pole weapons except the poleax. That includes but is not limited to: The Bardiche, bill, fauchard, ranseur, war scythe, glaive, guisarme, spontoon, pike, and sharpened pole vaulting poles. Each of these weapons has its own particular strengths and weaknesses (except the pole vaulting pole, which has only weaknesses and is a spectacularly bad idea). But all of these weapons share the same basic characteristics: a long pole with a killing doo-hickey on one end. This doo-hickey can be an axe head, a spike, a hook, or all of the above. Unlike the poleax, these polearms are always very long. They were used to keep enemy armies at a distance, mostly so that gunners could fire into their ranks with impunity. But poelarms were also lethal in their own right. Swinging a long staff generates a lot of momentum. In fact, if we calculate the strength of a halberd swing, using Rotational Kinetic Energy (KER = .5Iω^2 and I = mr^2), and we add Angular Momentum (L = Iω) and throw in Centripetal Acceleration (Ac = ω^2r or v^2/r) just for the hell of it, we come up with the following equation: Halberd + Swinging Really Hard = Horrible+Torturous+Death.

Polearms are also quite good for forcibly removing horsemen from the saddle, but unless you get the vary rare “Mounted Zombie Apocalypse” that particular advantage won’t be an advantage at all.

There are other problems with these types of pole weapons. Polearms were typically used in ranks. That means, to be fully effective, everyone in your survivor party should have one, and you should keep riflemen behind you to thin out the herd. But a single halberdier can be flanked easily. And when you get flanked by zombies, your shiny halberd will be about as effective as that sharpened pole vaulting stick.

 

And, like always, I have data to back up my confident analysis. Feast your eyes on the Axe and Polearm Effectiveness Chart:

AxeEffectivenessChart

See you next week when we talk about ranged weapons!

The Zombie Survival Manual — Part Two

ZombieSurvivalLogoHere continues the Strongblade Zombie Survival Manual. In my last post, I spoke about the effectiveness of swords in a zombie apocalypse. Today, I’m going to talk about the effectiveness of heavy things that can crush bone to bits and spatter blood in a twenty-five foot radius. That’s right. Get your maces and mauls out, because today, I’m talking about bludgeoning implements.

 

Bludgeoning Tools

I look away from the portcullis and kick at the fiends advancing on this side of the gate. They fall upon me with their ungainly weight. Pin me to the stones and pull at the plates of my armor. They are clever chickens, these demons. They know they cannot hurt me until my armor is off.

Two of them pull at my helm with both hands. The strap at my chin bites into my flesh. My sword is still trapped in the head of a demon. I cannot find the [blade]. I flail with my hand, striking a swollen arm. It is like punching dough. The strap tightens against my chin and creaks. Either the rivet holding it to my helm will break or my jaw will. I strike at the demons with my hands, pull at them, scratch at their flesh with my gauntlets.

ScourgeCover_New_250More and more of them tug at my armor. I kick a gourd-nosed monster in the face three times, crushing cartilage and tearing flesh, but it continues to pry at the greave on my left shin. The greave snaps off and the creature falls backward holding it in two misshapen hands. I swing wildly at another demon with my fist. It is a good blow. An astounding blow. So powerful that it causes the monster’s head to explode in a cloud of blood and bone and flesh.

I made a demon’s head explode.

I look at my gauntlet. There is no blood on it. I look back up at the creature as it falls sideways. A man in rusted chain mail stands beside me. I did not make a demon’s head explode. He did.

The man swings something heavy and black and another demon head erupts. The pressure on my helm ceases. I glance back at the portcullis. It is up at about waist height. The demons outside make no attempt to enter.

“Get up!” The man in the rusted mail holds a flail. His entire body lurches as he swings the spiked ball in a slow, wooshing circle.

– From THE SCOURGE:NOSTRUM by Roberto Calas

There is nothing more satisfying than pounding a human skull with something blunt and heavy. The thud of metal on bone. The warm spray of blood. The beautiful vibrations in your hand and the grunt of your victim as his (or her) body crashes to the ground. An exhilarating experience.

Or so I’ve heard.

Think about the times when you are most frustrated. Those moments of mindless, infantile rage. Do you feel like slashing something at those moments? Stabbing something? No. You feel like going PC-load-letter on the nearest inanimate object. You feel like picking up something heavy and hulking out with it. It’s an innate desire in humankind—the urge to crush. That urge is your primal self. And, in a zombie apocalypse, you should listen to your primal self. Because blunt objects are, arguably, the best choice when dealing with the hungry dead.

It is difficult to penetrate a human skull with a blade, but hammers and maces and mauls were designed to do just that. When only a head-shot will do, you can’t go wrong with a bludgeon. And one of the best all-around bludgeoning tools is:

his is a LARP war hammer. It is a foam reproduction of a real medieval war hammer. Use this awesome hammer for all your pre-apocalypse activities. Use a real war hammer against real zombies.

his is a LARP war hammer. It is a foam reproduction of a real medieval war hammer. Use this awesome hammer for all your pre-apocalypse activities. Use a real war hammer against real zombies.

The War Hammer:

Advantages: Fast, excellent penetration power, light, often equipped with a spike for added lethality.
Disadvantages: Wide swinging arc, small striking area.

No one could possibly fault you for bringing a war hammer to a zombie battle. Well, they could, but you have a war hammer in your hand, so they probably shouldn’t. And even if you didn’t have a war hammer in your hand, they still wouldn’t say anything because the war hammer is a damn good choice. (Although if you didn’t have one in your hand, they would probably fault you for not bringing a killing implement to the zombie apocalypse. So, really, you can’t win with these people. Haters gonna hate. And stuff.)

Let’s start by getting our definition’s straight. When we talk about a war hammer, we’re not talking about the thing Thor uses (called Mjolnir, if we’re getting all technical and stuff). We’re talking about that thing to the left. A European war hammer from the late middle ages. Light, fast and lethal. It’s loosely related to the poleax, which I’ll talk about in a later post.

There are two types of war hammers. The long-handled ones, used by footmen against mounted opponents, and the short-handled ones, used in the lethal duck-duck-goose games played by horsemen against foot soldiers.

Because of the slow swing and long haft of a horseman’s hammer, it is not as effective against the hungry dead (unless you are mounted, in which case you should probably just ride the hell out of Dodge). What I’m referring to is the footman’s hammer. A thing of zombie-crushing beauty. Light, fast, heavy. It was made to penetrate steel helmets, so what chance does a rotting skull have? The head is a one-pound block of iron or steel, usually with four raised points at the front to focus the power of your blow. And if that doesn’t do it for you, just flip it over and pound with the steel spike on the back. And once you’ve finished off the hungry horde, you can always use the spike to open a can of Hi-C or Hawaiian Punch. Ahhhh. Apocalyptically refreshing.

The drawback to a war hammer is the same as most bludgeons: You need room to build up the momentum necessary to crush bone. So, when the dead close in, your hammer becomes far less effective. And that’s when you’ll remember the second drawback: It’s difficult to kill yourself with a hammer when the demons start tearing chunks out of you with their teeth.

Okay, assuming you haven’t adequately prepared for the zombie apocalypse (we tried to warn you), and you don’t have a war hammer handy. Below are some other Bludgeoning items you might want to consider.

Maces have been symbols of power for hundreds of years. Show the zombie horde your power. And when I say that, I mean, hit them in the head with a flanged mace like this.

Maces. Shattering skulls for thousands of years.

The Mace:

Advantages: Fast, good penetration power, light, sometimes flanged or spiked for added lethality.
Disadvantages: Wide swinging arc, small striking area.

Maces have been symbols of power for hundreds of years. Show the zombie horde your power. And when I say that, I mean, hit them in the head with a flanged mace like the one to the left. Maces are close brothers to the war hammer, in the dysfunctional Pulveration family. Except that the striking points—even on flanged maces—are not as focused as on a hammer. But if a war hammer is not an option for you, then reach for one of these beautiful instruments of zombie annihilation. And show the zombies your power.

 

paladinwarhammer1_l

Maul. The name says everything you need to know.

The Maul:

Advantages: Monstrously effective at killing, coolness factor off the charts, Builds muscle and endurance.
Disadvantages: Wide swinging arc, extremely slow speed, wielder becomes exhausted quickly.

Mauls are the sledge hammers of the Middle Ages. Massive, powerful, intimidating. You can get a bloody nose just by looking at them. One blow will completely obliterate a head. Zombies are mindless, but even they are afraid of mauls. So, a perfect choice, right? Wrong. While a maul will give you high marks for style, its heavy weight and slow swing will put you on the menu after two or three swings. Exhaustion comes quickly with a maul, and an exhausted survivor is what we like to call “dinner.” Or worse.

 

Cool, powerful, but slow.

Cool, powerful, but slow.

The Flail:

Advantages: Excellent penetration power, style points, builds muscle and endurance.
Disadvantages: Wide swinging arc, slow speed, risk of self-injury.

In the second book of my trilogy, The Scourge: Nostrum, a man who calls himself Praeteritus uses a flail to fend off the hungry dead. A flail is a spiked metal head connected to a handle by a short chain, Like a maul, the flail gives him high marks for style. Unfortunately, the flail requires a lot of room to use effectively. Add to that the amount of energy required for each swing and you have a tool that kills you faster than your opponents.

 

No.

No.

The Club:

Advantages: Better than using your hand.
Disadvantages: It’s a club.

Don’t. Just don’t.

 

 

Fast, but useless.

Fast, but useless.

The Staff:

Advantages: Fast in hands of well trained wielder, good range.
Disadvantages: Very poor penetration power, wide swinging arc

The staff, cudgel, or quarter-staff is a decent choice against unarmored humans, but a poor one against zombies (whether they have armor or not). A staff can crack a skull on a skilled strike, but who cares about cracking skulls? Your opponents have loose flesh dangling from their faces. Some of them don’t have any damn noses! (And, you might ask, “If they don’t have any noses, how do they smell?” And the answer to that, of course, is, “Terrible.”) To kill the hungry dead, you have to get past the skull, into the brain. And a staff is not effective at doing that.

I’ve included a diagram that details each of the items discussed above, their strengths, weaknesses, and overall effectiveness. The higher the rating number, the more effective. Print it out. Study it well. Keep it with you always. Keep it safe. Your life may depend on it. Or you may have to jot down someone’s phone number and not have paper available.

 

BluntEffectivenessChart

The Zombie Survival Manual — Part One

ZombieSurvivalLogoSo you’re hanging out at the mall food court with your best friend—talking about football or space probes landing on comets, or maybe about the merits of The Evil Dead 2 versus Army of Darkness—when you hear a scream. Not a Jerry-Springer, I’m-gonna-whoop-your-ass-in-front-of-Abercrombie-and-Fitch scream, but an H-P-Lovecraft, Dear-God-his-entrails-are-coming-out-of-his-ear sort of blood-curling howl. You shove another handful of fries into your mouth and turn to look, then stop chewing.

One of the fries falls from your open mouth and lands on the red plastic tray.

It has begun.

The hungry dead have risen, and you’re fresh out of fries.

(Editorial aside: Please note my use of “the hungry dead,” here, not “the walking dead.” Because it’s not the walking that causes problems. Sure, it would be unsettling—and possibly violate several health codes—if the dead wandered like stray cattle across our cities. But really, what would be the danger? The occasional cost of quarter-panel repairs for your car. Higher dry-cleaning bills in crowded pedestrian areas. Maybe more slip and fall lawsuits in supermarkets. The real danger is the whole eating-your-cerebral-cortex thing.)

At Strongblade, we have always seen ourselves as both providers of fine historical/fantasy reproductions, and educators of the public. And there can be no finer act of education than protecting all of you from . . . The Zombie Apocalypse.

In the upcoming series, we will discuss the most efficient ways to survive an outbreak of the hungry dead.

Some of you know that I wrote a bestselling trilogy about a zombie-like plague in 14th century England. The Scourge is about a knight trying to fight his way through this post-apocalyptic medieval landscape to reach his wife. Where relevant, I will include snippets from the book. Because knights. And zombies (called ‘plaguers’ in my books).

In this first part of the series, I want to talk about the various weapons that can be used to provide undead relief. I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon, and provide a bit of historical, martial and literary insight into each one. Starting with weapon one: The sword.

Let it begin.

THE SWORD:

Advantages: Multiple edges, decent range, coolness factor

Disadvantages: Difficulty removing from bodies quickly, Awkwardness at close range, poor at penetrating skull.

 

NostrumCover900x600Tristan stands and straps his helmet on. “More of those things, Edward.”
I stand slowly, stoop and catch my breath.
“What’s wrong, old man?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I reply. “That creature hit my breastplate hard. Just need to catch my breath.”
He stares at me, the great helm hiding his expression.“There are only three,” he says. “I’ll take them. You get the rest of the walnuts.”
I shake my head and stand straight. “You want all the glory.”
I hold my sword in the long guard and take a deep breath.
The demons hurl themselves at us.
I hit the cobbled road again.
The impact blackens my world for an instant and fills the back of my nose with the taste of fire. I struggle against the creature, but I have so little strength. My sword is in its stomach, but it does not seem to care. One of the demon’s eyes is as large as a doorknob. The monster gouges at my visor, its twisted teeth clack against the bevor at my neck. It gibbers as it searches for openings in my armor. Desperate groans and growls. Hands batter my helmet, make my ears ring. I push at its chest. A thin black tongue thrusts out from its neck in a bloody spray. Not a tongue. The tip of Tristan’s sword. I shove the demon’s head to one side hard. Tristan pulls the blade back and hacks two-handed at the neck. Once, twice, and the third cleaves the head from the body. Blood spurts as the misshapen head tumbles to the cobblestones. The arms continue to rake at me for three or four heartbeats before the demon realizes it is dead.
“Excellent strategy,” Tristan says. “Letting it get on top of you so that I could kill it easily.”
“Shut your mouth, you baboon,” I say. He helps me up.
“I’m glad we shared the glory, Edward.”
 
— From THE SCOURGE:NOSTRUM by Roberto Calas

 In my historical fantasy trilogy, THE SCOURGE, the main characters tend to use swords when fighting the zombie-like demons that have overwhelmed their country. The characters are knights, so this is appropriate. The protagonist, Sir Edward Dallingridge, hacks his way through waves of undead while trying to reach his wife (who is a hundred miles away). In reality, the European medieval sword—while an excellent choice against lightly armored troops or unarmored opponent—is a is a difficult weapon to use against writhing hordes of undead.

sba-warspike1_lSwords are designed, primarily, to slash. Zombies are designed to not give a crap about slashes. See our problem? In most zombie mythos, penetrating the head is the only way to kill them. Sure, a powerful slash can cleave a head, but when you are swarmed by the undead, who has time for powerful slashes? And even if you had the time, you encounter the age-old and highly technical problem of sword-stuckery. A blade that penetrates the skull will remain lodged there until dislodged by an equal or greater force.

Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a master, swords can be as good a weapon as any for fighting the hungry dead—especially small groups of them. Swords actually have a lot of good traits going for them. Well-made, well-sharpened European swords can shear off parts of a skull, so as not to get stuck. Swords have multiple, razor-sharp cutting edges, a good three-foot length to keep opponents at bay, and you get instant street cred just for showing up with one. There is nothing that will make you look cooler in a zombie apocalypse than strapping a medieval sword to your belt. So if you’re trying to be the alpha in your survivors’ group, then a sword may just be the ticket.

But wait . . . there are dozens of swords available. How can I write one post about all of them? Aren’t I generalizing to a ridiculous degree?

Yes and no. A Japanese katana might be a little more effective against zombies. Katanas are quick and curved, which makes it hard to get them trapped in skulls. But the same general principals apply. Swords are slashing weapons. Zombies laugh at slashing weapons. Until you slice the top of their skull off, kick their twitching body, and shout, “Who’s laughing now, lurchy? Who’s laughing now?”

Okay. So maybe it’s worth looking at the various types of swords and their various strengths and weaknesses in a zombie apocalypse. I have added a chart below, complete with a handy cutout line, so you can keep it in your wallet when the hungry dead come to snack. The overall rating is calculated using a point system for each of the categories. The higher the rating, the more effective against the hungry dead.

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 

SwordEffectivenessChart

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 So, the Roman gladius has it. Lethal penetration from the V-tip. Easy to use in close quarters, and blazingly fast. Killing barbarian hordes turns out to be remarkably similar to killing zombie herds. Those Romans were way ahead of their time.

Check back in a few days for the next installment, where we look at hammers, maces and flails!

Zen and the Stage Combat Sword

Stage fighting. The timeless art of not dying.

(This is part 2 of a two-part article on the difference between battle-ready and stage-combat swords. You can find the previous article here.)

If anyone can fill Yoda's shoes, it's this guy. Sort of.

Beaker will be playing the role of Yoda.

So, in my last post, I talked about battle-ready swords. And Yoda.  And I promised to reveal the secret of the crop circles in England. So, in this second part of the post, I want to address stage combat swords. And Beaker, sidekick to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, of Muppets fame.  And, as promised, I will reveal the secret of the crop circles.

But first, let’s talk about stage combat.

 

When you battle on stage, you are trying to accomplish three things:

  1. To present a skillful display of martial prowess that will impress and entertain the audience.
  2. To move the story forward in an energetic fashion
  3. To not die.
Stage fighting. The timeless art of not dying.

Stage combat. The timeless art of not dying.

The skillful display of martial prowess requires training, practice and choreography. Moving the story forward requires a good script and a director that understands the need for good pacing and realizes that a fight scene must not just introduce action, but also says something about the characters. And to not die requires good stage combat sword. And actors who like each other.

But what is a good theatrical combat sword?

Well, let’s start by saying what it’s not. A stage combat sword is very different from a battle-ready sword. You see, each sword has a completely different purpose. A battle-ready sword, historically, was meant for one thing: Killing people. A purpose directly opposed to directive 3 of stage combat. We talked last time about how tempering a sword allows it to hold a good edge, although making the blade more brittle. In stage combat, we don’t want a brittle blade. We want a blade that won’t send shards of metal into an audience (unless you’re trying to pioneer 3D live theater, in which case you might want that, although I would consult an attorney before moving forward). In stage combat, we want a sturdy blade, one that will endure hundreds of performances, thousands of sword on sword strikes. And one that will do the least amount of damage should an accident occur. So, how do we achieve this?

Latex and rubber. Not just a fetish anymore.

Latex and rubber. Not just a fetish anymore.

Well, you could always use a high-end LARP sword. A lot of movie studios are using the more detailed rubber swords and foam swords that LARPers are using. These weapons are safe and look good on camera. And Beaker approves of LARP weapons. I just watched Hercules last weekend and I think I noticed a LARP sword that Strongblade sells being held by Dwayne Johnson. Nintey-nine percent of audiences won’t notice, especially for quick shots on camera. But on the stage, well, that’s a different story.

On stage, the audience will have a long time to look at the weapons, and they will expect to hear the sounds of steel on steel when swords meet. So, for the stage, you need a strong, high-carbon steel weapon. But there is one thing not everyone agrees on. And, that is, as Hamlet so eloquently stated, “To temper, or not to temper?” (Most people aren’t aware that Shakespeare wrote the original version of Hamlet with that line in it.) (Editor’s note: That’s becauseShakespeare didn’t write that. Stop making stuff up).

Some stage combat performers like tempered swords, because they have a harder surface and won’t suffer so many nicks and scratches. Tempered swords also flex back to their original shape when you flex them. But, as mentioned earlier, if you flex a tempered sword too much, it may break, turning your performance into the aforementioned 3D live theater. A non-tempered sword might bend during a performance, though, which isn’t going to help your audience suspend disbelief (and may symbolize bad things about your main character if he is male).

The best way to make a decision on tempering is to assess the type of sword you will be using. Many re-enactors and performers use a non-tempered, high-carbon blade that is really thick. A thicker blade is less likely to bend (which is what I tell my fiancée whenever I can).

Crash cars don't have hood ornaments. Learn from this.

Crash cars don’t have hood ornaments. Learn from this.

Regardless of whether you temper a weapon or not, there are a few things that are not optional. Your stage combat weapon should have a full tang, just like a battle ready weapon. It should also have squared or rounded thick edges, a rounded (not pointed) tip, and should *never* be sharpened (see directive 3 of stage combat).

Beaker, of Muppet fame, once said something important about stage combat weapons. He said, “Meep meep meep. Meep meep meep, meep meep–meep meep meep, meep meep Meep meep meep; meep meep..”

And I think that says just about everything you need to know about stage combat weapons. Although he left out the part about guards. You see, on a real, battle-ready sword, the guard is used only for incidental contact. On stage, there are many more sword-on-sword strikes, which means more chance of the guards being struck. Because of this, the guards on a stage combat sword should be made of very strong steel, with no decorations or plating.

These have absolutely nothing to do with stage combat.

These have absolutely nothing to do with stage combat.

What about balance? We talked about how important balance is for a battle-ready sword. Is it important in a stage combat weapon? The answer is long and rather technical:

No.

Some people cling to the belief that they need a perfectly balanced weapon for stage combat, but those are the same people who think that cars should get a new paint job before taking part in a demolition derby. Safety and durability are the two most important factors in a stage combat weapon. Everything else is just lipstick and eyeliner.

 

Do any of you agree or disagree with what I’ve written? Do you have any stories about stage combat? Let us know in the comments! Who knows, you might win some swag.

 

Oh, and now, for the unveiling. I will reveal how the crop circles were made in England. The answer was discovered by Beaker, of Muppet fame. And I will let him tell you in his own words”

“Meep meep meep, meep meeep meep. Meep meep, meep meep meep, meep meep: Meep Meep. Meep. Meep meep.”

That Beaker. He’s wasted working for Honeydew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zen and the Battle Ready Sword

Sword fighting is like cool Chinese stuff.

There’s a popular saying in the sword industry: “Don’t put your tongue on the polishing wheel.”

Um. And there’s another popular saying in the sword industry that might just be a little more relevant than that one: “A sword is not an axe.”

A sword is not an axe. Unless it's this sword.

A sword is not an axe. Unless it’s this sword.

Okay, maybe that’s not really saying, but it should be. Because swords really aren’t axes. If you want to cut down saplings or thorns bushes, then you probably don’t want to buy a battle-ready sword. You want an axe. And as I hope I’ve established here, a sword is not an axe. Unless you name your sword “Axe,” in which case you have found a loophole. But you still shouldn’t use it to cut down brush.

I hear the questions all the way from my computer desk as I write this, which is odd because I’m writing this in your past, and you probably live really far away from me. Your question: “But why *can’t* I use a sword to cut down saplings? It’s battle-ready, right? That means it’s really, really tough.” And I give you my best Yoda nod, and say, “Much to learn, you have, young Jedi. Much to learn.”

Let’s start with definitions.

Strongblade sells battle ready swords. But what does that really mean? And what’s the difference between a battle-ready sword and a stage combat sword? In this two-part article, I will answer both those questions. And I will also tell you how the crop circles in England came to be there. But, in this first part, I will focus on battle-ready swords.

There really is no industry-standard definition of “battle-ready.” It’s one of those terms that people throw around, like, “special forces,” or “best-seller,” or “licensed practitioner of medicine.” What a joke. I mean, I perform surgeries all the time and I have no medical degree whatsoever. You see what I mean? The terms sort of mean something, but there is no exact specifications for it. There are some pretty solidly established minimums for battle-ready swords, and that’s probably the best place to start.

YodaKnight

Yoda hopes he doesn’t have to repeat his lesson.

Construction
I think everyone agrees that a sword should be made from carbon steel. Especially this guy. And not just a little carbon. A good sword should be made from high-carbon steel. Stainless steel swords look nice, and they’re usually pretty inexpensive, but as that guy in the link found out, they shatter easily. Carbon steel won’t shatter. This is why Conan’s dad didn’t talk about “The Riddle of Stainless Steel.” It was just the “Riddle of Steel.” Learned your lesson now, you have? asks Yoda. Yeah, Yoda. Just because.

Tempering
We’ve talked about tempering before, so I won’t go into too much detail, but tempering is a heat-treating process that makes a sword flexible on the inside and brittle on the outside. Which is the complete opposite of me. I am flexible on the outside, but inside I am shattering and crying and calling for my mother and wishing Saturday morning cartoons came back.

Sword fighting is like cool Chinese stuff.

Sword fighting is like cool Chinese stuff.

Why would you want a sword to be brittle anywhere? Well, perhaps brittle is the wrong word. You want the sword to be more rigid on the outside–harder and less flexible. Why is this? Because you want that sword to hold a nice edge. And to hold a nice edge, you need a really hard metal. The problem with hard metal is that it breaks more easily. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a cool concept from the Chinese philosophy, Taoism, that explains this. The Taoists know that an oak tree is stronger and more rigid than a blade of grass. But when a powerful storm hits, it is this rigidity that makes the tree snap in the wind. A blade of grass is flexible enough to wave and flow with the storm, and it does not break. Or, as Yoda likes to say, “Upon a polishing wheel your tongue should never rest.” Yoda knows nothing of Taosim.

Because of this rigid edge, a tempered sword will actually break before a non-tempered sword. Without heat treatment, a high-carbon sword will bend easily, but won’t break (see oak tree/grass blade analogy above). But without the heat treatment, you can’t get a nice sharp edge on the sword. And, as you know, people don’t kill people. Sharpened swords kill people. But you shouldn’t let your sword kill people. It’s not cool. And totally against all Taoist principles. And Yoda doesn’t like it either.

Tang. Not even remotely what we're talking about.

Tang. Not even remotely what we’re talking about.

Tang
To be a strong, battle-ready sword, the high-carbon steel should be quenched in a barrel of Tang®. Apparently this powdered orange drink used by astronauts has a certain chemical in it that gives the steel . . . um . . . okay. I’m reading my notes now. What I said is incorrect. *Waves hand in Jedi fashion* These are not the tangs you’re looking for.

The tang is actually the narrow part of the sword that you attach the grip to. There are a lot of different types of tangs, but the strongest style is the full tang. This means that the blade and the tang are made from one piece of steel. Some sword blades have the tangs welded onto them. Which is like using blades of grass as the foundation to your house. (Yeah, I’m reeeeeeeally stretching that grass metaphor). Welded tangs have a tendency to snap off, and all you can do is keep pretending you still have a sword blade, and complimenting your opponent on his skillful ability to avoid being hit.

 

Melina in split sword dagger

Yeah. balance matters.

Balance
Balance is really a subjective thing. Some people like a more forward weight, so their strikes have more power. Some prefer a more rear balance, so the blade isn’t so top-heavy. And others swear that the center of balance should be a few inches north of the guard (north being toward the tip). A sword may not be balanced to your liking, but it could still be a fine battle-ready weapon.

A battle-ready weapon, although it is finely crafted using the best materials and forging techniques, should not be smashed against things, or used to chop down saplings. You would no more use a battle-ready sword to cut brush than you would use an F1 car on your road trip to Florida. Fine swords are meant to be used in battle by skilled swordsmen, who know the strengths and limitations of their weapons. I cringe every time I see a movie with sword fighting in it. Usually because the script sucks. But the other common reason for my cringing is the fact that the combatants are using their swords to block their opponent’s blade. Sword fighter in the Middle Ages rarely used their swords like this. Their weapons were too big an investment to use as a shield. Interestingly, they actually *had* shields. And why did they have shields? So they wouldn’t have to stop a hurtling piece of 3lb metal with one of their most expensive pieces of equipment—their swords. When two swords meet, bad things usually happen. Even though Hollywood would have us believe otherwise.

And there lies the fundamental difference between battle-ready swords and stage-combat swords. The latter are meant to take sword on sword abuse, and are typically used by actors rather than trained swords fighters. So check back soon to see the second part of this article, about stage-combat weapons. And crops circles.

Come back, you must.

Medieval Mug Shots

beer-flood

Beer and bread. Um…you’re doing it wrong.

A history professor of mine once told me that there two things every civilization in history have had—beer and bread. Which proves that humankind is not stupid. If you’re going to pick two things to have in your civilization, you can’t do much better than those. Although I’d try to sneak a little cheese in as well, because pizza is a glorious thing. And bacon, because, bacon.

But I’m not here to talk about bread or pizza, or even bacon. I’m here to talk about beer. Or, more specifically, about vessels used to hold beer. Yes, Medieval drinkware.

Many of you have probably heard the urban legend about lead tankards in the Middle Ages. According to legend, if you see your reflection in a tankard and say Bloody Mary three times, you will . . .  no . . . wait . . . the urban legend is actually about a woman who drugs men, puts them in a bathtub filled with ice and takes out their kidneys with a tankard so she can sell the organ on the black mark . . . no,

The chupacabra lives inside pewter tankards. Or something.

The chupacabra lives inside pewter tankards. Or something.

wait . . . that’s not right either. I can’t really remember the urban legend, right now. I think it had something to do with Richard Gere. Hang on.

Okay. I found it. The urban legend about medieval tankards is this: They were made out of lead, and the lead leeched into whatever it was you were drinking. This caused severe lead poisoning, which knocked the person unconscious. And, for some reason, medieval people couldn’t tell the difference between a dead person and a passed out friend that should be laughed at and drawn on with sharpies. So the “ignorant” medieval people put the unconscious person on a table for three days to see if they woke up. And that’s how, the legend says, the “wake” before a funeral came about. Except that medieval people weren’t stupid. The average medieval human knew more about death than most people in the 21st century, and could easily tell the difference between unconscious and rotting.

Pewter tankards, the cool, safe way to make an imbecile of yourself and pass out.

Pewter tankards, the cool, safe way to make an imbecile of yourself and pass out.

Yeah, some people did get lead poisoning from the tankards, but it was a slow process, that didn’t involve falling suddenly unconscious. Passing out is a symptom of an epic night, not lead poisoning.

Another problem with the myth is the lack of actual…you know… tankards in the Middle Ages. Tankards really didn’t become popular until the 16th century. Although, once they came into fashion, they were everywhere.

The typical tankard was similar to the engraved tankards sold by Strongblade. Many had lids that could be opened by levering back a gilded tab with your thumb. Why lids? Well, many homes and public houses still had thatched roofs. And thatched roofs were like entire universes of crawling, pooping and flying things that tended to fall out of their universe into yours. And if they fell, it was best they didn’t do a trans-dimensional half-gainer into your ale.

Entire ecosystems live in thatch. Better cover that tankard.

Entire ecosystems live in thatch. Better cover that tankard.

So if there weren’t really many medieval tankards, what did beer drinkers use to hold their ale or beer or mead or cider in teh Middle Ages? Wooden mugs?

Yes, sometimes.

Wooden mugs were easy to make and rugged. The only problem was how they were made. Wooden mugs were typically built using several pieces of wood, fastened together and sealed with brewer’s pitch or pine tar or ear wax. Okay, ear wax was never used in mugs (except when your friend passed out from ‘lead poisoning’ and you smeared all sorts of things inside his mug without telling him). But wood has a tendency to warp. And when a wood mug warps, the seals tend to break and your ale ends up leaking all over the floor (a threshed floor, which also had its own universe of creepies). Sure, you could carve out a mug from one

Mouths. Providing a home for beer since 1500 BCE.

Mouths. Providing a home for beer since 1500 BCE.

big-assed piece of wood, but blocks of wood of that size were typically reserved for beams or furniture or toilet seats When you drink all that beer and eat all that bread, you’re going to need a good toilet seat).

So they didn’t use tankards, and they didn’t use wood. So what the hell did people in the Middle Ages use to drink?

And the simple answer is: Their mouths.

Yeah, not funny, I know.

Don't just drink. Get medieval on your ale with leather jacks and bombards.

Don’t just drink. Get medieval on your ale with leather jacks and bombards.

Okay, the real answer: The most popular drinking material in the Middle Ages was leather. Yes, leather! Leather was easily available, could be shaped, never warped, always held its form, and could be sealed easily with pine tar or brewer’s pitch (never ear wax. No, no.)

Okay, so leather is more accurate, historically, but I much prefer a nice pewter tankard when drinking beer. Accuracy be damned.

There were various types of leather drinking vessels, and each had its own name.

The most common was the ‘jack,’ a tar-coated mug that flared at the base and was sealed with black pitch. Because of this dark coating on the inside, jacks were sometimes called black jacks. And yeah, there’s a very good possibility that the black jack used for hitting people in the head was named from the mug. Why? Because bar brawls happened in the Middle Ages, and if you had a hard leather mug in your hand, that’s what you used to pound people in the head with. Seriously.

A close relative of the jack is the ‘bombard.’ Which is just a *really big* jack. It shares the name with medieval cannons, either because both had huge mouths, or because both could get you bombed.

Lastly was the bouteille. A long, slim mug with a narrow mouth. Sound familiar? It should be. Bouteille’s were the Middle Age predecessor to our glass ‘bottles.’

All three of these types of vessels were typically made from leather. Because the skin of cows, goats, camels or gerbils was plentiful in the Middle Ages.

Wait. I think I’m mixing up my urban legends again.