Some Melee Tactic Basics

by Tristan Ritter von Eisig

For those fighters out there that wonder how they can make themselves more useful, and therefore have more fun in battles, this article is for you. For the sake of terminology for this writing, strategies will reflect large and medium sized unit maneuvers and tactics will refer to small unit and single fighter techniques. The focus here is on both making the single fighter and the small fighting group aware of things they can use to good effect, and to providing some insight as to what goes on at the strategic level in many battles.

As you all know, in melee every different weapons form has its strengths and weaknesses. On a tactical scale, the objective is to always be able to implement your greatest strength against your opponent’s greatest weakness.

Here are the specific qualities of the most common melee weapons styles. Here they are addressed as a group of them, rather than by single fighter.

Shieldmen control the flow of battle. They are difficult to kill as a group, and provide good protection from archery. When used to push other units, they provide excellent disruption, not unlike in football. Many shield fighters do not use this aspect of their form, greatly cutting their effectiveness. Disrupting a unit by pushing through it will render it useless for a period of time. This can only be done with shields. If a small cleanup unit follows your main group, they can dispose of the remnants left behind.

Spearmen are like artillery, they have very effective offense and a range that is greater than any other. For spears, their greatest defense is their mobility. They work the best when the opponent either cannot or does not cover the ground between them quickly. For example, if you have terrain that does not allow a fast charge like trees, or ground features like hill ridges, or even grounded shield walls. Their weakness is maneuverability. Spears require room to work. If crowded either by an opponent or their own side, they lose almost all effectiveness.

Polearm and greatsword fighters provide offense in that close combat situation when spears cannot work. They are much more maneuverable than a spear, and give the shieldmen much needed support.

Two weapon fighters are used for a number of different things. They are used for disruption of spear units, mop up of stragglers, and flank harassment. If a two weapon fighter is particularly talented or well known, they may be used for distraction to draw off a greater number of the opponents team to keep them otherwise occupied. Mobility and a keen sense of awareness are critical to pulling this off.

Other weapons are not as great of use to general melee tactics than these. They will range from bastard sword to madus or bucklers. While they can be of effect, they will undoubtedly fall into the distraction category, which smart opponents will not likely fall for.

Each of these styles has nuances that may not be obvious, but which make them very effective. For every weapon form, there are things to do that will render them as effective as they can be. In every case, not doing anything is not one of them. It is true that it may take a moment to assess where you can be of greatest effect. If you are in a small or medium unit engagement, you should be posing a serious threat to the other side at every moment, if you are not, you give them of time to figure out exactly how to attack your unit’s weaknesses.

Here are some things that each of the above styles will need to practice and perfect to make them a more productive part of the team.

Shieldmen must be able to move quickly to gain ground when necessary. As warshields tend to be large and heavy, this is a challenge. Warshields also tend to obstruct vision, depending on how they are mounted. Make sure you are not a blind fighter, because if you are you are no help to your team. You will move slower, and you will not know what is going on around you. Shieldmen must also move together when they are commanded. This command can and should come from either your unit leader, or an experienced shieldman. Shieldmen should also be able to disengage a unit. This means backing up while still maintaining your defense. This is often referred to as ‘refusing’.

Spearmen must try to get themselves to a position to strike all the time. The only exception to this is when you are exhausted from doing this. Also, use this downtime to see what is happening in the battle. Too often mistakes are made because no one saw what was happening. Spearmen must also be able to work in teams. This means not only being able to fight without fouling your other spears on your team, but striking when a fellow spearman hooks a shield open. Often this opening only exists for a few seconds, and time is critical. To be the most effective, a spearman must also be able to fight while moving. This is the greatest challenge. Since mobility is a spearmans greatest defense, make sure you can have some kind of offense when you are mobile.

Polearmsmen and greatswordsmen have the most difficult job out there. They must support other fighters, either shields or spears. They must be dispersed among the middle of the group, to give support when the unit is pressed, yet clear the way for the spears when they are called for. This means they must be very aware of what will be happening in the near future. They must also be aggressive in filling the gap. Failing this could cost the people they support.

Two weapon fighters need to aggressively cleanup when their unit overruns another. Any time wasted here will provide the opponent to rise and regroup. If used for group disruption, they must go in quickly, and survive the charge long enough to really perform the disruption.

Now that the players have been described, let’s talk about how to use them together. Let’s start with some of the current tactics used for limited front (only from one side) scenarios such as a bridge battle.

In a limited front situation, a group is usually attacking a position, or defending one. This is usually determined by the objective of the battle. It is more clear in a castle battle, where the object is to take the castle from the defenders. However, the situation is not as clear when on a contested bridge, a side goes on the attack, takes their objective, and then switches to defensive tactics to hold what they have gained.

Let’s address offensive and defensive tactics separately.

One of the most popular defensive tactics is the establishment of a kill pocket. Kill pockets are situations where you use the landscape (or barriers) to form a semicircle of troops, that surround an opening that only a few enemy troops can fit into or through at a time. Therefore allowing a large number of attackers to face a few defenders. Since this tactic is so effective, it is commonly used. It is also quickly recognized and feared. It has come to pass that kill pockets will not be engaged directly, rather attacked from the other side (if possible) or penetrated with a concerted offense. Units that engage a kill pocket without a special plan for dealing with it are usually destroyed handily.

One of the most common defensive tactics is to ‘ground’ the shields in a strong position. That is to say, that the shieldmen kneel and overlap their shields on each side, presenting no target to the opponent. Often this is used to hold a position for a time from a superior force, as it will take your opponent a long time to disrupt your unit. Most shields made for this type of tactic tend to be very tall, and heavy shields, sometimes also very wide. Shields like this are not very useful for a mobile unit. A grounded shield line is good for holding ground for a short to medium period of time. The greatest threat they will encounter is when a large number of spearmen face them, and start picking away at them using their superior range and mobility.

When using a grounded shield line, there are a couple of ways to look at this keeping your unit from getting picked apart. One idea is to ‘rake’ the enemy spears. This is sending a small unit of shields from one end of the line, and running forward and then all the way down the spear line, to return back through your wall on the opposite side. This action disrupts the enemy spears, and gets them away from your shields – for a brief few moments. Unless you are prepared to rake every minute or two, which will cost the lives of quite a few of your reserves.

Another more sound tactic is called ‘pulse charging’. This cannot be done from a grounded line, however. When spears come forward to harass your shields, you charge into them just long enough to disrupt them, hopefully killing a few, and sending the rest back through the line. Then you retreat back to your original position. If they send their spears forward again, then perform another charge. A smart opponent will not put all their spears up front when your shieldmen are standing. They would be nearly helpless if you charged.

Yet another tactic is to ‘open’ the shield rank. That is to provide enough space in between the shieldmen for a spearman to step forward and engage the enemy spears. This is better than just sitting there, but still dangerous. Why is this so? In the same space that your line will alternate shields and spears, your opponents can have solid spears. This gives them up to a two against one advantage in offense. Remembering that teamwork, the enemy should make short work of the friendly spearmen, only to turn on the shieldmen on their knees without their fellow shields to cover them.

Probably the most flexible approach is to have the shieldmen standing, so as to provide a threat of pulse charging, while maintaining an open rank to bring the spears forward if needed. This would allow the greatest adaptability to differing situations.

Offensively, the most difficult task to deal with is taking a heavily defended position, even with superior numbers. Remember, a good defensive position will make it so that only a portion of your forces will engage the enemy at a given time. This creates the necessity of ensuring that the small number of troops sent to face the opposing position have maximum effect against it, and have the support to exploit their success. Without these, their efforts will either be ineffective, or effective and wasted.

The tools used for breaking up a defense are: charging, pushing, capital weapon (spears and polearms) attacks and distraction (if flanking is at all possible).

Charging can come in a wide variety of useful methods. This can include a general charge when the enemy is disorganized, or otherwise unprepared. These charges consist of a normal formation of shields in front, with polearms and greatswords in support. This general charge can be meant to push a unit, either to merely move it, or to destroy it. It would destroy a unit to be pushed off a bridge, or the like. Pushing a unit, especially pressing up into an obstacle like walls or trees can be extremely disruptive, and should be used when the opportunity presents itself. Rendering a unit helpless in this fashion tends to break it’s morale.

Another useful charging method is to charge for penetration. This means each shieldman attempts to penetrate through the entire unit, and meet up on the other side. Following each shieldman should be a polearm or greatsword to either kill or further disrupt the enemy, with cleanup assuring their death going through last.

Column charging is useful for penetrating an even line. This is a charge of only a few fighters wide, meant to divide the target unit, and get a group through to the other side in one piece. This is done by making a column of two or three shieldmen wide and at least three deep. Then, just as they charge, a space is opened in the friendly line to let them through. It is important to make sure that a plan is executed to exploit the opening that they create.

Another type of charge that is not as widely used, as it is more specialized, is the isolated charge. This is a single person or two people close together, that try to disrupt and penetrate a unit, creating a weak point for a larger charge. This is the most effective when the target line lacks sufficient capital weapon support. The people used to charge should be determined by their ability to survive and penetrate a hard defense. They will always receive a hail of blows from the opposing line, and must survive them, as well as be able to create a disruption upon hitting the opposing line.

Often times, lines have strong points of resistance. These are either smart shieldmen that are organizing their line and providing a capable defense, or a group of large shields that are providing a stable anchor point for the rest of their group to use. In smaller engagements, the entire line can be a strongpoint. These points can be difficult or seemingly impossible to penetrate, but removing them is usually to your advantage.

For fighting on a bridge, keep in mind that killing an opponent is as simple as pushing them off the bridge. For that reason, be wary of getting caught in a push near the edge of a bridge.

Pushing most often happens singly, and merely by opportunity. For example, you get turned so you are facing the edge of the bridge, and an opponent steps to face you, and you charge. However, when used intentionally and as a group, you can force entire units off a bridge. One way is to charge at their corner, hitting the four or so people on the end forcing them over the edge. It helps here to send a column not from the edge of the bridge, but more towards the middle, charging at a 45 degree angle. This will be more conducive to the enemy falling off the bridge, rather than falling back. Care must be taken to quickly fill any gaps in your line as you don’t want to present a breach for your opponents to charge into. This is a difficult tactic, as it takes good communication and timing.

Pushing is also useful for bunching up capital weapons, making it hard for them to maneuver or be offensively effective. Spears are especially vulnerable to being pushed. If an enemy unit has an abundance of spears, lacking shield support, charge to push them. They will soon either rout (turn and run) or be useless and easily killed.

When faced with a unit behaving in a defensive manner, it is important to use their immobility against them. A defensive unit will either have grounded shields, or be tightly packed together, with their shields locked together. You can judge how defensive a unit is behaving by how much each individual shieldman can see. If their faces are tucked well down behind their shields, they are certainly not preparing for a charge, and are going to be moving nowhere.

An enemy unit with a locked shield wall should be picked apart with spears. This brings me to spear and polearm attacks as an offensive tool. The two most effective killing techniques on the battlefield are the face thrust, and the chop to the head. Even without the face thrust, the spear is the most devastating offensive tool. This is because it is hard to keep track of what is going on up to twelve feet away from you. Therefore, if a line is just going to stand there, the most effective offense to put to them is a line of polearms with spears in between, about a step or two back. This threatens the head (polearms) and the face, body and legs (spears). This tactic provides you no defense, as there are no friendly shields in the line. However, if completely static with shields tightly locked together, your opponents provide you with the protection of their own shields.

In this formation, polearms should be raining down blows, and spears will either be hooking shields and pulling them down, or striking under them to the legs and bodies.

Because this is so effective, most units will not give you this opportunity. Rather, they will provide some sort of threat to keep this from happening. It can be to keep the shieldmen standing to give the possibility of a pulse charge, or it could be the threat of a flank attack. There are many things to use to keep this from happening, but the most reliable is not to have a unit stand still and lock up tight.

When polearms cannot get close due to the threat of enemy spears, usually firing over their own grounded shields, use your own spears. Grounded shields mean a totally static unit. Like fighting over a barrier, spears with the greatest mobility have the best chance of offensive success. Then, when the enemy offense is dealt with (spears killed), have the spears hook over shields and dispatch them. This is when polearms may be brought in if necessary.

Lastly, I mentioned distraction. More of a large scale strategic move rather than a tactical one, it is the quickest way of getting a unit to move while sacrificing none of your troops. That is threaten to engage the enemy from the side or rear. If you are besieging a castle, and one entrance has a strong defense, punch through the other, and enemy forces will either thin to provide reinforcements to the breach, or will charge to avoid slaughter. This is called the hammer and anvil tactic. Have a kill pocket (anvil) set up outside one gate, then send a pushing force though the other gate (hammer). The enemy will either resist the push with all their force, or charge into the kill pocket. The latter guarantees the quickest death to the victim, the former allows the offense in the kill pocket to step up and engage the enemy from behind.

This type of flanking is the basis of open field fighting, which is the next topic.

The goal of open field melee is similar to basic of limited front engagements. If we proceed under the assumption that you are facing a similarly sized force, the goal is for all of you to take on as few opponents at a time to quickly dispatch them and move on to the rest.

SCA melees tend to have only two tactics: charge and flank. A charge is self-explanatory, with one group smashes into another group. A flank is where a force is sent around the end of another unit to hit them from the side or rear. When no significant opposition to either of these is performed, they are very effective. The key is to use both these tools to create a situation where no significant opposition is given to one of them. For example, send a flank unit out to one side. In response, the enemy unit spreads thin to deny the flanking unit an end to wrap around. Then, use your more compact main force to charge into the thin line. A thin line is not a significant defense against a concerted charge. Conversely, if the enemy unit stays in one group, and ignores the flank and engages the main force, use the flanking unit to hit the side of the enemy unit where they are very vulnerable.

All open-field SCA tactics are based on these two tools. There is also no strategy or plan beyond the first few seconds of a battle, so it is the responsibility of every fighter to have the basic concepts of these tools and how they are used to make the right choices in the middle of the fray. This means every fighter has the knowledge of the leader, and in fact, must lead when the need exists. If they spot a weakness, they must form up and strike. Only when everyone does this, will a unit be successful.

Open field tactics center on maneuvering. Anyone who has been in melee knows that movement is the key. The adage ‘if you stop you are dead’ is something to keep in mind. Why is this adage true? It is true because a smart opponent will assess you, and move to where they can inflict the most damage to your group. If you stop moving, you give them the opportunity to move to a position where they can hit you in a weak spot. A moving target is hard to hit.

There is another common misconception about movement, and that is that your unit has to maintain integrity (stay close together) while at a full run. This is nonsense. A full run on the battlefield is to be avoided. The reasons for this are that full runs tire your troops, they spread them out, and afford little or no strategic advantage. Movement should be done at a fast walk or trot at the fastest. This will make keeping unit integrity much easier, and let your unit be effective when it reaches it’s objective, rather than arrive with exhausted troops.

Assigning an objective is easy for limited front engagements. The objective is constant, and the battle is slow moving enough to adapt easily to changing conditions. Open field combat moves much faster and makes adapting difficult. In the open field, strongpoints appear and move quickly, making spotting them and hitting them difficult as well. Many times in a open field, strongpoints are to be avoided. Since strongpoints are often tightly grouped, locked shields they do not move well. Here it is more important to take out the most mobile threat first as they are more dangerous that the static threat. Even if a commander spots these things, on field commands difficult to hear. Perception is a major concern. Since any one person can only see a portion of a battle, they can only apply themselves where they see the greatest opportunity, not where the greatest opportunity exists in terms of the big picture.

It is therefore the duty of each fighter to learn how to spot these things and communicate them to the rest of their unit. This will afford the unit the most flexible, and quickest adaptation to a particular threat, or opportunity.

Communication is the single most important skill a combat unit has. If it is poor, they will be lucky to be successful. In that case, they must rely on personal skill to gain victory. A unit with good communication can concentrate fire and be much more effective.

In the beginning, the best thing for shieldmen to communicate is their movement. This is only important if they are being pressed, or are pressing a weaker force. It is important so that the unit can move together rather than leave people to be surrounded individually. Of these two, it is more important to yell that you are being pressed, and have to drop back, as your fellow shieldmen can see you press forward, but cannot see you drop back. Since fading back without warning leaves your fellow shieldmen vulnerable, it is doubly important to let them know what is going on in your range of vision.

It is important for capital weapons to keep their eyes on what will happen to the shield wall in the upcoming minutes, and put them into position to deal with the short term future. If they see a distant flanking unit, chances are the shieldmen do not. This communication will benefit the entire unit.
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