Heavy-weapons fighting is a historically accurate martial art based on the chivalric combat of the Middle Ages. Competitors strap on metal armor, pick up swords crafted out of rattan wood, and bash the hell out of one another. Here — the nerdiest slice of America — is the last place where you can actually get medieval on someone's ass.

A week before the tournament, Duke Mittion and three other fighters strapped on their armor at a weekly gathering of the Shire of Sea March (Palm Beach County, to those of us with our feet stuck in the Mundane World).

Trimaris, like all kingdoms, is chopped up into shires and baronies. The Shire of Sea March covers Palm Beach; Broward is Sangre del Sol; Miami-Dade is the Shire of Southkeep. Though all shires plan their own activities, heavy-weapons fighting is usually a staple across the country — AKA the Known World.

Heavy-weapons fighters battle it out in a melee in which two sides face off in large-scale combat.
Kyle Swenson
Heavy-weapons fighters battle it out in a melee in which two sides face off in large-scale combat.
Heavy-weapons fighters face off.
Kyle Swenson
Heavy-weapons fighters face off.

Mittion, currently a knight, has been king of Trimaris multiple times in his 30 years with the SCA. Though local membership numbers have recently taken a dip ("World of Warcraft," Mittion grumbles) and the popularity of Game of Thrones hasn't brought in tons of new members, like a dutiful den leader/drill sergeant, he continues to train dozens of fighters (or squires) in his backyard, lit by floodlights.

The Society for Creative Anachronism originally popped up out of the counterculture stew bubbling over in 1960s Berkeley, California. In May 1966, a group of medieval-studies students there threw a chivalry-themed backyard party to protest the 20th Century. The festivities included a combat tournament for fighters outfitted with wooden swords and motorcycle helmets.

The party took off. Today, the SCA is an official nonprofit organization, with 19 kingdoms stretching all over the globe. By the group's own estimate, there are more than 30,000 members. In Florida, the Trimaris currently has an official membership of more than 3,000, with about 2,000 actively participating.

Ask SCA members to define what the group is and they will usually first school you on what it's not. Sure, technically, it's historical reenactment, but they don't act out real historical battles, like, say, Civil War reenactors. And yes, the action is grounded in medieval times, but the SCA isn't like a Renaissance Faire either, where the fighting is staged. And it's definitely not LARPing — live action role playing — which is like a live game of Dungeons and Dragons, with people tossing bean bags as magic spells and swinging foam swords. Such depths of geekery are even scorned by the SCA's standards.

No, the SCA is hard-core. A lot of its legitimacy comes from the heavy-weapons fighting. Combat has been part of the SCA since the very beginning, and one could argue that it's the most important element. Historical knowledge is all well and good, acting skills will make a participant popular, but brute force determines who will be king.

The objective is pretty simple: to kill the opponent. Well, metaphorically speaking.

Each fighter has to be outfitted with a set of historically accurate armor, including neck, torso, knee, and elbow protection made out of metal or heavy leather. Each helmet must be made of steel. Though some raggedy fighters have been known to start with "armor" fashioned out of a stop sign sandwiched between two pieces of carpet, a new fighter can probably pick up a "cheap" plastic or aluminum outfit for around $250, and a used helmet can go for $150. Some people, though, spend up to $5,000 on suits made by master blacksmiths.

"Armoring yourself is a progression," explains Kurn, the king. "You buy and adjust and do some more stuff and work to fix it. So it's never a finished thing until you've been doing it for years."

There are group battles, small-team melees, and, most common, one-on-one tournament-style face-offs — like the Crown Lyst. Most combatants arm themselves with a shield and a sword fashioned from Rutan, a bamboo-like wood. There are no set dimensions on the fighting field, and women can fight right along with the men. It's open season on the torso, upper thighs, arms, and the head outside of the facemask. For a blow to count, it's got to be hard. It also has to be clean; shots that nick the shield or sword — or "catch traffic on the way in" — don't count. A knock to an arm or leg means the fighter can go on, but without using the maimed member. Hard body and head shots kill; a kill shot ends the match. Skirmishes can be over in less than 30 seconds; epic battles stretch ten minutes or more.

The sport looks like part fencing, part gladiatorial smash-bash.

"If we were using steel weapons with the techniques and motions that we use in our fighting, we would incapacitate one another," Kurn says.

But here's the important part: Even though two marshals orbit the combat for safety purposes, it's on each individual fighter to call whether they've been hit with a kill shot or not — a self-policing honor system.

Now, can you tell me anyplace else in this office-jaundiced, hot-yoga-loving world of ours where you can actually smash somebody up in armor like that? I didn't think so — which is why it was so important for me to test it out at the practice.

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4 comments
anon
anon

If you think it's impressive in Trimaris, you should see the UK branches. We all use 4-H grounds and sometimes freed-up pastures. They get to rent castle grounds...

brinvinn
brinvinn

Sounds ike some crazy smack to me dude. Wow.


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smdrpepper
smdrpepper

I had no clue that the SCA was here in Florida.  Used to hang out with a group in St Louis and ended up learning how to make chain mail.

 
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