The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Sunday, 9 January 2011

To armour or not to armour

This is an involved and complicated subject. My primary goal is to briefly look at the use of armour/protection in training historical arts in the modern. However I will first briefly look at the use of armour in the combative environment.

-Armour in real combat – Protection versus Mobility plus other considerations
The decision to wear armour and what forms that armour may take has always been dictated by a number of factors. Of course the armour offers protection against attacks, However this advantage has to be weighed against other considerations. Firstly by wearing protection, ones mobility will be reduced, both in the range of movements possible and the speed at which movement can be carried out. The distribution of the weight of the armour will affect balance. The weight of the armour will increase exertion and its coverage of the body will also have detrimental effects on the bodies’ ability to loose heat contributing to the speed at which one will become fatigued.
Weather and environment factors will increase and exacerbate all the detrimental effects already mentioned.
The cost of armour, either in monetary terms or in the time taken to manufacture it contributes to restrict the use of and types of armour. These factors are linked to considerations of status. Armour re-enforces the distinction between the warrior and the civilian. The quality and craftsmanship of the armour, serves to help separate the high status warrior from the low. Such display of status could lead to individual being singled out in combat by enemies. However if you happened to be on the loosing side in the aftermath of an engagement, the display of your high status may lead you to being taken prisoner for ransom while your lower status followers are shown no mercy.
The likelihood of being hit and what you might actually be hit by and the effectiveness of the armour against those attacks has also to be considered.

Despite the negative aspects when we look through history, armour of one form or another is a reoccurring constant within in the context of combat. Someone wearing armour will be generally far more prepared and willing to aggressively engage the enemy than an unarmoured person will. This effect on the perception of risk can have both positive and negative affects in real combat and in training

-Not getting hit versus reducing the damage taken when you are when you are
A point that needs to be made is that armour is generally worn to protect the areas of the body, which are deemed most vulnerable, or those that will cause the greatest damage if hit. Generally the most vulnerable targets will be given priority when armour is chosen or issued. The Armour worn may redirect the impact or reduce damage taken from a hit, though no armour makes you completely safe. There is the paradox that as one wears more armour the potential for being hit increases as it reduces mobility.

Here I am defining Mobility, as the ability to move as freely as possible with the intention of not getting hit, versus protection, reducing the effects once hit has happened.
The less armour you wear the more of your mobility you maintain, arguably making it harder for you to be hit in the first place. Of course if hit, less armour will mean that you take proportionately more damage.
One has to strike a balance between mobility and protection. While arguably mobility is more important, In certain situations ones ability to move may be restricted by other factors, for example in a tightly packed formation on a battlefield, in which case protection, becomes more desirable.

Finding the right balance may be a personal choice, such as a 15th Century man at arms choosing between and Italian armour for its protection or a Gothic harness with its mobility. Or the decision may be imposed on you by someone else, for example the armour issued to a Roman legionary or modern soldier in Afghanistan.

-Armour in training - Replicating reality or reducing pain/injury
Armour in training follows two basic types. Firstly armour that replicates the armour that will be used in real combat. Secondly is armour that is used solely in training, it is used to reduce pain or injury.

If you are replicating armoured combat, then you should wear facsimile armour of the type worn in the combat you are recreating on a regular basis. While this may not be possible or even necessary all the time appropriate armour should be worn when possible and when training out of the armour, how the armour affects the movements and techniques must not be forgotten. In Japan a number of the oldest Bujutsu Ryu, regularly train their armoured combat techniques out of armour. In Europe it seems we see a similar situation in some of the manuals. The un-armoured half-swording and pollaxe techniques illustrated in Talhoffer for example, show what would generally be considered armoured fighting styles being practised in normal clothes. Fiore’s dagger plays are also illustrated with combatants in civilian clothes, a not uncommon situation when illustrating dagger. However text states that certain techniques would be better done in armour, while others work both in and out of armour.

What must be remembered is that when training for fighting against an armoured opponent the objective is to defeat or neutralise the armour worn. When attacking an armoured opponent one does not primarily attacked the armour. One has to learn to attack targets where there is less or no armour, or by making use of the opponents’ armour to help defeat them. The goal is to utilise and maximise the advantages offered by ones own armour, while reducing the advantages and to use and to do the opposite to your opponent.

Amongst those who favour sparing and freeplay as training methods, in the modern reconstruction of un-armoured historical combat, protective armour of some form is used as matter of course as a way to reduce the inherent risks. However many people who train in a more formal and structured way also use varying amounts of protective gear.

In this context the form protective armour takes and the function it really serves is an important consideration. In much the same way that a soldier needs to balance protection and mobility, a modern practitioner wearing protective gear needs to balance the desire to reduce injury with how that will affect ones mindset as well as the way the movements are carried out. Serious consideration should be made of what constitutes appropriate armour and when or if it should be used at all. It should be remembered that these effects on training would be both positive and negative, conscious and unconscious.

As mentioned above, for real combat the most vulnerable targets generally are armoured first. The same is seen in the protective equipment worn for unarmoured combat training. However this cause the problem, that by doing so, one has transformed unarmoured fighting in to armoured and this risks counter intuitive responses being conditioned in both attack and defence.

-Not getting hit and reducing the damage once you are
The rational of not getting hit at all, as opposed to reducing the damage once you are hit applies equally to training as it does to real combat. Arguably it is more important in training, as how you perform in reality will be dictated by how you have trained.

Two theories come in to play here Operant conditioning and Risk Compensation. By the rules of operant conditioning, learning takes place through positive and negative re-enforcement. In this context positive means that something is added and negative means something is taken away. As a basic illustration, a child learns that fire burns by touching the candle flame, it hurts and is unpleasant and positively re-enforces the parents warning not to stick ones hand in the flame. In terms of operant conditioning the gloves negatively reward me for getting hit by taking away the pain. In the terms of risk compensation the gloves make me feel safer which can encourage me to take greater risks.
The danger of this is that rather than training me to not get hit it is actually encouraging and rewards getting hit.

If not wearing armour one can not afford to be hit and one learns to deal with the opponents attacks by avoiding them through movement and/or by controlling them with your available tools, in this context being your offensive/defensive weapons.

By feeling exposed to the threat posed by your opponent an appreciation of why it is better to not get hit is encouraged stimulates the desire to perfect ways of not getting hit.

We should not forget that even if your armour does take the hit, the armour is not infallible and might fail. Energy can still be transferred through the armour into you, and damaging you anyway. The hit might disrupt or take your balance, which will already be affected by the armour. Or it may damage your armour, further reducing your mobility. All of which allows your opponent to keep attacking and hitting you and this will increase the likelihood of you taking more damage and in the long run, loosing.

-Increased safety increases risk taking
I mentioned above the theory of Risk Compensation. It stems originally from research in to road and traffic safety. Basically the theory states that in general people will take risks based upon their perception of danger or upon their perceived ability to deal with that danger. This has shown that the improvement in anti locking brakes and seat belts as has actually increased the risks that drivers take when driving and not improved road safety. It has also be found that where stretches of road have been made “safer” by improving visibility etc., that it has actually increased dangerous driving.

In a training context there is an important other side to the equation, the more protection my partner wears the less awareness of their danger I have. It can encourage poor control, “if i hit too hard or my targeting is a bit sloppy it doesn’t matter because my partners gloves etc. will take care of it”. Not only are we encouraging poor training for and application of the skill, we are also increasing the likelihood of having an accident.

Research found increasing numbers of cyclists wearing cycle helmets and other protective gear has not improved cyclist safety, partly because the cyclists take more risks because they feel safer but also because car drivers drive more aggressively around cyclists who wear protective gear.

A combative analogy is boxing. Here, hand and wrist injuries occur despite or arguably more often, because of hand and wrist strapping and the design, size and weight of boxing gloves which has lead to an altering of punching technique away from what is practical or effective with an un-gloved hand. This is also a reason why quite often when boxers get in to fights not wearing their gloves, they often do more damage to their hands than those who are less skilled. Bigger and heavier gloves is also the likeliest cause of brain damage in boxers, largely due to the fact that the gloves encourage hitting the head, while their weight and size turns hits into heavy concussive pushes rather than snappy punches.

-Awareness of danger increases safety
Understanding your own vulnerability and that of your opponent and by avoiding protective equipment you increase truer intuitive awareness, this ultimately increases safety in a far more sustainable way. However this requires a different approach to training, different parameters than training with protection does. Having more appreciation for the danger develops more control of your actions, position and distance. Your safety becomes your responsibility, not that of your armour.

-If you are worried about getting hit or have been, look at how you are training rather than adding more protection.

I have seen a tendency that people who fear getting hit or injured or who have been hit or injured in training jump to the decision to start wearing more protective gear. However it should be considered what may be wrong with the actual training methods employed or how and why certain techniques are carried out that could lead to the accident happening.

Misunderstood or poor training methods and/or poorly applied principles generally lie at the heart of almost all accidents. Adding protective gear does not address the core issue behind the accident, all it does is reduce the pain etc. once it has already gone wrong. If anything adding protective equipment, as we have seen with Risk Compensation, will actually increase the chances of accidents happening in the first place

However there may be times when wearing some protection is helpful. A strike delivered to target with force may help both attacker and receiver understand the dynamics of an action better. In such a case protection would be needed.
For example in some of the older Bujutsu use is made of padded protective gear to allow strikes to specific targets in certain kata. Others make use of armour and weapons similar to that used in modern Kendo so they can incorporate aspects of freeplay in their training. It should be noted however that this is by no means a universal practice. Though carried out by some classical Ryu, they are ones that trace their lineage to the peaceful period of the Tokugawa shogunate, many of the oldest Ryu make no use of protective equipment at all but rather rely on the physical aspects of training to minimise risk in training

-Conclusion
Armour and protection are by their nature designed to alter how those engaged in combat can operate. There are pros and cons to it use and combatants throughout the ages have taken these in to consideration.

If one decides to use training methods that require the use of armour and protection then one should take time to consider the implications of its use. The effects of the protection, Operant conditioning and Risk Compensation will have on what and how you train and in the long term how it will affect your ability to actually practice the skills you have been training. It may actually increase risk taking and therefore not improve safety. Protection can be used, but such use should be context specific and appropriate to the situation being trained.

None of this is to say that those organisations that wear protective equipment while training are wrong. Rather it covers some of the reasons why the Guild does not use protective equipment in regular training.

Always remember that the best way to avoid pain and injury is by not getting hit. One should achieve this either through movement, by dealing with the opponent’s attack with your own weapons or through a combination of both.

Jonathan

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