Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Buckler

The buckler was a small, maneuverable, hand-held shield for deflecting and punching blows. It was usually round and made of metal but occasionally of hardened leather or layers of wood. Bucklers were typically round and frequently between 8 to 16 inches in diameter, but octagonal, square, and trapezoidal versions were also known.

The versatility of the sword and buckler as a method of fighting can be said to lay in its simplicity. As a two-weapon combination, it is simultaneously defensive and offensive. It offered some protection against missile weapons and was convenient for facing heavier weapons such as polearms and axes. Yet, its small size made it agile and quick. Combined with a good shearing sword or tapering cut-and-thrust blade, it could deflect attacks, strike blows of its own, and yet still allow the user’s own sword to cut around in any direction. Another advantage of metal bucklers was that unlike wooden shields, the point of an opponent’s weapon would not get stuck in the face of the buckler nor would the edge of a blade damage the rim (although, when this occurred it could be used to the shield man’s advantage). In many of the historical images of sword and buckler combat the familiar fighting postures found in longsword fencing manuals can be easily discerned, such as the wards of: high, middle, low, back, and hanging.
As described in an informative essay published by the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts, the buckler was introduced in the 13th century and remained popular with both soldiers and swordsmen for around three hundred years before finally falling into disuse in the 17th century.

The practice of striking one's buckler with a sword as a means of issuing a challenge or as a distraction, like stamping one's foot on the piste, while fighting gives us the word swashbuckler.

Thomas Fuller in his 1662, The History of the Worthies of England (Everyman Edition) described “swashblucker” as coming from the action of “swashing and making a noise on the buckler.” Apparently they would strike on their own bucklers with their swords during fighting. Similarly, Baret’s Alvearie of 1573 mentioned “to swash or to make a noise with swordes against tergats” while Ben Johnson in his early 17th century play, Staple of News, included the line, “I do confess a swashing blow”. Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet also has the Capulet serving man Gregory make his “swashing blow” (i.e., a wide cut). John Florio also mentions, “A bravo, a swashbuckler, one that for money and good cheere will follow any man to defend him; but if any danger come, he runs away the first, and leaves him in the lurch.” And yet, in 1602 William Bass wrote a religious study that metaphorically referred faith to the confidence found in the “Sword & Buckler” as “The Serving Man’s Defence.”
As the rapier replaced earlier swords, so did the dagger and main-gauche replace the buckler, though rapier and buckler continues to appear in fencing manuals of the 17th century.

Characters in the Flashing Blades roleplaying game trained in the Italian and French fencing styles may carry bucklers as an off-hand parrying weapon. One of the advantages of the buckler in the FB fencing rules is that it's stronger than most blades, increasing the chance of breaking an opponent's sword. One of the characters in our campaign likes to carry a buckler as well as a swordbreaker.

The rules in Flashing Blades are intended to facilitate playing over a fairly lengthy period, covering the reigns of kings Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV. This involves some necessary abstractions, of course, some of which I've addressed through house rules to capture more of the feel of the 1620s, when our campaign is set.

One of the abstractions in the game is that fighting styles and weapons remain consistent between 1589 and 1715. For my campaign, however, I want to capture the changes which occurred over the 17th century - rapiers and off-hand weapons should slowly be supplanted by the single smallsword as the weapon of choice among gentilhommes. Indeed, fighting with a buckler in the grand age of the swashbuckler should become increasingly rare.

I can handle this ebb and flow of time and fashion in the campaign a couple of ways. Frex, I can introduce house rules which change the styles and weapons available to the characters - after about 1650, a new fencing style, the 'smallsword' or 'court' style, with an emphasis on point-work - thrusts and lunges - will become available to the characters. As far as the existing fencing styles go, I could also simply say they're no longer available, but that's a bit too heavy-handed for me - rather they will simply fade into disuse among the non-player characters in the setting, making them an anachronism by the latter years of the Sun King's reign.

The buckler-wielding King's Musketeer in our campaign will start to experience this soon. His buckler brands him as a 'low' fighter, a barodeur, particularly among gentlemen, and they may comment upon it, dismissively perhaps - at their own peril, of course, for if Riordan O'Neill takes offense, they may well find themselves getting a first-hand demonstration of the buckler in action!

I prefer this to simply ruling weapons like bucklers or fencing styles out of the campaign. It gives the players the opportunity to make interesting choice about their characters, of finding their place in the game-world. Perhaps Riordan's player will embrace the image of a street-tough, or maybe he will conform to the social mores of the period and stop carrying the buckler. Either way, we both learn something about the character in actual play.

The referee controls the setting in a roleplaying game, but that control stops at the player's characters. Giving the players intriguing choices, and resolving the consequences of those choices in a way consistent with the game-world, is the referee's role.


  1. Swashbuckling adventures have lots of merit. Can be used for pirate campaigns. So huge overlap and use.

  2. Wow, very cool! I've never really thought much about writing sword-era historical fiction, but this makes me want to.

  3. So no one ever actually "buckled their swash"?

    But they did swash their buckler?

    That's kinda disappointing...Now I'm sad.

    But nice article/post. I've really enjoyed this blog since I found it a couple of weeks ago.