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Viking Combat by Mark Hatmaker


For today’s historical-combat exercise, we are going to follow a weave of martial endeavors that begins with the American Frontier’s rough & tumble strategy of “Attacking the Buckler” and goes back to Viking archeology. From there we’ll move on to a “chicken or the egg” style debate about whether or not a French martial art came before a similar martial art born on the Emerald Isle. Finally, we’ll tie it all together and end with what all this historical and archaeological speculation has to do with modern day approaches to self-defense.

The American Frontier

We begin our journey in the wilds of the American Frontier. A rough and tumble land that sparked a fighting style of the same name—a fighting style that was all-encompassing and vicious in war, and was a bit more restrained (but still mighty vicious) for “friendly” competition.

The early days of frontier survival called for a ready skill with a musket, tomahawk, and whatever else was close at hand. In the case that no weapons were available, the violence fell to the hands themselves and the other natural weapons of the body.

The rough and tumble style was and is an amalgamation of boxing and wrestling styles from the many lands that made up the melting pot of the frontier, but it was also a bit more than that as necessity and exposure to different ways sparked innovation. One such spark was the concept of “Attacking the Buckler.”

What Is A Buckler?

A buckler is a small shield worn over the forearm of the off-hand of a sword, pike, or ax-wielding warrior. The lead hand took care of the offense while the off-hand took care of defense (although offense with the bucker was not off the table).

The buckler is held by sliding the forearm through a rope loop or leather thong in the center of the buckler and then gripping a second handhold towards the inside edge of the buckler. If one drops a buckler and adopts a mock “holding a buckler” stance with both arms you will then be standing in a very good approximation of a boxing stance.

Attacking the Buckler

When wielding a weapon against a buckler-wielding opponent, the buckler was not always ignored. Striking the buckler with force could occupy the opponent and/or upset the balance/base for the next offensive strike not aimed at the buckler.

When things went empty handed, this same idea of “Attacking the Buckler” remained. That is, rather than treat the empty-handed encounter as modern sportive applications do, where one must treat the defending arms (twin bucklers) as obstacles to be surmounted or worked around, the rough and tumble style saw them as viable and prime targets. (I cover specific tactics for “Attacking the Buckler” empty-handed in some of my material). “Attacking the Buckler” is a wise strategy well worth reviving, as is the opposite strategy of “Ignoring the Buckler” which we will discuss in a moment.

Let’s Talk Vikings

The sagas of these legendary Norsemen are filled with battles and gore, and if one is an ardent reader they will have come across more than a few tales of amputations taking place in the midst of battle. A fair number of these amputations were of the legs or feet. But the sagas are stories, not history. Just how accurately do the stories relate to what was occurring in Viking battle?

An Archeological Perspective

In 1905 on the island of Gotland near a town called Visby, Oscar Wilhelm Wennersten and Nils Pettersson began the first archaeological digs that revealed the aftermath of the Battle of Visby which was fought in 1361.

Approximately 2,000 bodies have been exhumed in the ongoing study of Visby and an examination of the wounds on the skeletons of those who were likely of battle-age has proven to be quite illuminating.

Wounds from cutting weapons (swords or battle-axes) occur in 456 skeletons. Of these cutting wounds, only 15% of the total are wounds to the arms. One would presume that the use of shields and bucklers is what kept this total so low. With that 15% in mind, does that mean that the head wounds took the lead? Not by a long shot.

Wounds to the lower extremities came in at 65% of the total. Although the sagas are rife with stories that depict shields and bucklers being chopped to bits, it seems the more effective and perhaps preferred method of attack was to “Ignore the Buckler.”

Ignoring the Buckler

Ignoring the Buckler” can be taken to the unarmed realm (or as an adjunct to the armed realm) if we look at low-line kicking in combat, which is, in essence, an “Ignoring the Buckler” strategy whether it be used for better balance, the pragmatics of battlefield terrain, or the on-the-nose- strategy of choosing to avoid that which protects your opponent.

There are many references to low-line kicking in the rough and tumble of the American frontier, but let’s keep this on the other side of the pond for now as we follow Viking migration.

Viking Expansion

As the Norsemen raided, and in many cases intermingled, built allies, inter-married, and settled down along the coasts of Ireland and Scotland, we also see the “Ignoring the Buckler” strategy utilized by various Celtic tribes in both weapons-play along with the use of low-line kicking.


The Gaelic word, Speachoireacht (say “spacker-okt” and you’ll come close to the proper pronunciation) refers to a method of low-line kicking that both targets the shin similarly to the purring kick of Welsh and Cornish tradition, the oblique kick of Filipino Pananjakman, or the coup de pied bas of savate, and also uses the shin as the striking surface.

This is the “chicken or the egg” portion of the show. The mention of or allusions to speachoireacht stretch back to the Norse Invasions, whereas savate literature began its heyday in the 18th-century. Who borrowed from whom matters to many, but this is not my way of thinking. The wisdom of a wise borrow outweighs the dubious bragging rights of an “I was here first!

It is revealing that while there was a form of speachoireacht that was practiced with two participants only kicking, it was primarily used in conjunction with boxing and wrestling, and one can easily imagine that in times of sword, ax, and shielded battle, it often came into play.

The Take-Away

It seems our bellicose historical ancestors on both sides of the pond did not see bucklers or defending arms as puzzles to be cracked, obstacles to be avoided, or thwarts to their attacks. They pragmatically and wisely chose to make a target of what was intended to be a defense or to go beneath the defense altogether.

So, whether our influence be rough and tumble, Viking ways, savate, speachoireacht, Muay Thai, or what have you, the historical lesson to be learned is not to focus so much on the “how” or “what” of a given technique, but to use the strategy of “Attacking and/or Avoiding the Buckler“.

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21 thoughts on “Viking Combat by Mark Hatmaker”

  1. I have been buying numerous survival items for my grandsons that love the outdoors. I have been very pleased with everything that I have bought. Great company and great quality survival gear. Thank you.

  2. For authentic info about Sword & Buckler Combat, see “Talhoffers Fechtbuch of the Year 1467” which can be downloaded for free somewhere as a PDF. Talfhoffer was a Military Combat Instructor, but he seems to have been a religious type of guy, who was saddened about civilians fooling around with edged weapons. His work seems intended to put people off fighting as much as to illustrate the techniques used at that time.

  3. Very cool Mark. Thanks for looking all that up and writing it out so well!

    I’m a history buff, and love learning the things our ancestors knew. It’s amazing to see how history repeats itself. “There’s no new thing under the sun,” and I guarantee that none of the peoples you mentioned were responsible for the first development of the “ignoring the buckler” move.

  4. Good discussion. There is little doubt that when the goal
    Is to win unconditionally- i.e., without rules – the lower extremities would often be targeted. God discusson well done.

  5. I’ve always knew this & it’s plain common sense. I love the power of low kicks. There’s nothing like it. My favorite movie realistic low side kick is Bruce Lee building his “Chi” while winding back his right hip to whip a low kick across Han’s neck while on his knee’s in the scene next to the glass cases of Han’s prosthetics. BADASS!!! SPEED SPEED IS WHAT YOU NEED! Snap that & jump back in the Cadillac!

  6. My French ancestors, by way of the Crusades in the early 12 century, ended up in Ireland where they were awarded a land grant, settling down there for many years, sometime later arrived in what would become the US in the early 1600’s. Undoubtedly bringing the French form of Savate with them. That’s one way it likely arrived in the new world, it certainly makes sense.

  7. A very good point Mark! I’m pleased with the history lesson too! So many today are consumed worrying about defenses instead of looking for weaknesses. If our forefathers consistently did this many of us would not be here today. Thank you for a great lesson! Simple and effective.

  8. Do not forget that the Savate kick can be done in combat to displace the patella. There are three ways to do it: sideways or upward,( most likely motion, as the foot rises and if strong enough, will separate the patellar tendon as well as the “quads” tendons from their insertion in the tibia, and will prevent the adversary to stand up, for a very long time. Sideways, left or right, will allow the patella to move to one side or the other of the knee, and will allow the knee to bend backwards, in total opposition of the regular bend of the articulation. Hence, destruction of the ligaments of the knee and lots of repairs surgically. Most people have no idea how devastating “La Savate” is as a form of combat.

  9. Awesome stuff!!! There’s so much logic in the history of the moves we see all the time in MMA and movies and take for granted. I guess you can chip away a block of ice or demolish it with one blow but the outcome is still the same; ice cubes then water!

  10. My Kung Fu training is “Southern Style” and uses low kicks. Since I have long arms and short legs it is much better
    for me then trying to stand on my head to try to kick someone in the head.

  11. I learnt first hand how effective a kick to the knee is. I was taught by a horse that kicked me while I was mounted on another horse. The hoof caught me just below the kneecap. Fortunately it did not strike the kneecap. The pain was intense. I was incapacitated for six weeks due to damage to the ligaments..

  12. Good thoughts. As far as the low kicks go, most people are only expecting the person they’re attacking to go high and use their hands. The muay Thai pivoting kick to the thigh is a very powerful kick.