The Use of Military Models of SCA Combat

by Hector of the Black Height

from the "Proceedings of the Inaugural Session of the Northern War College"

While there are many parallels between military science and the analysis of SCA mass melee combat, and while the SCA is trying to achieve a simulation of medieval combat (the degree of success of that simulation remains a subject for debate among participants), there are some glaring incompatibilities between SCA combat and real life battles. These incompatibilities do not completely invalidate the use of military models and concepts when analysing SCA combat. They must be kept in mind, however.


Perhaps the most glaring difference between SCA combat and martial reality is that SCA fighters do not fear actual death or injury (see Note 1). Of course not; we’re on the field with our friends, having fun. As a result, our fighters do not behave the way soldiers behave in battle (see Note 2). There is no real fear and our fighters behave accordingly. Our battles usually end with the complete annihilation of one side, and in many cases the winner will be left with 10% of his force still standing. This does not in itself contradict formal military doctrine; in fact, one of the Principles of War recognized by the former Red Army of the USSR was Annihilation, which indicates that SCAdian military scientists might consider studying Soviet writings in translation (see Note 3). However, even a jaded critic would allow that the most doctrinaire Red Army commander would not willingly have sacrificed 90% of his force in most circumstances. Russian concepts aside, the SCA’s tendency to fight to the last leads to what a military scientist would consider to be peculiar situations on the SCA battlefield:

suicidal bravery, which often leads to more offensive action, deeper penetration and less flank security than a ‘real’ military commander could expect or tolerate;

a practical inability to retreat in the face of the enemy, as there is no real incentive to learn this most difficult of infantry operations (see Note 4);

no real individual drive to form up on others for psychological support. This is especially true in the Middle Kingdom, with a stronger tradition of tournament fighting than melee fighting, and leads to fragmentation on the field (see Note 5) and, in turn,

a surprisingly weak chain of command overall.

Fun is the fundamental difference between the approach of a SCAdian commander and a professional army officer or military scientist. There is no human cost to a battle in the SCA; in fact, some units ask for ‘suicide missions’ to get knocked out early and with honour, so they can get to the showers while there’s still hot water available! This is one of the facts which suggests to many that SCA combat should be compared with a contact sport like football.

Technology and Technique

In addition, there are technical differences between the SCA and reality, which in turn drive tactical differences. We do not have horse cavalry, projectile weapons (at least not at Pennsic, and even when we do use projectile weapons they are less effective than the items they mimic) or siege artillery. Apart from brief and transient pride, there is no incentive to develop a high degree of expertise at mass combat, because there is no deterrent to defeat. Whimsical legends of early Pennsics aside, our Wars do not decide borders or accrue ransoms for the victors.

Our forces are probably as disciplined as many medieval armies (for period examples of insubordination, chaos and idiocy on the field, read some of the descriptions of battles in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror); SCAdian fighters are exponentially better educated and many are far more proficient with their weapons than the average medieval foot-soldier, who was probably an empressed farm-boy swinging a tool plucked from the shed at home. Those peasant lads feared death, so they stood in ranks and fought with desperation because it was psychologically comforting as well as the safest thing to do. Their commanders feared death or capture (and subsequent economic ruin caused by their ransom price), so they disciplined as best they could the soldiers who could bring them victory and they fought their battles with whatever knowledge and ability they had, for personal security and gain. SCAdians fear virtually nothing, and on the field we behave in a manner consistent with a total lack of fear.

Recognizing Flaws or Fighting the Problem?

Having said all that, I still believe a military model is the best strategic parallel to SCA combat. Most of the Principles of War apply directly to SCA mass battles; all apply indirectly. The scope of a mass battle is far more complex than any sporting situation; our ‘plays’ may last hours. Our game’s goal is martial, the actual defeat of an opponent in collective combat. We do not kick a ball or propel a puck. We eliminate opponents by hitting them in the right place, hard enough that they fall over and drop out of action, and by maneuvering units of fighters to contact, to facilitate the disruption and defeat of opposing units through shock action.

We take the stage-managed scenarios of the football field, multiply their scale one hundred times and add an aspect of finality to each participant’s approach akin to a boxer’s desire for a knock-out. Finally, we take the emphasis off the referee’s role as arbiter. Seldom does a marshal call a fighter dead; each fighter acts independently. Each fighter bears ultimate responsibility for his or her own actions, a strange parallel with a real battlefield.

I believe that tactically the SCA’s style of heavy-weapons mass combat is a strange cross between martial art and contact sport. In many respects modern sports models are better suited to small-unit rattan tactical training than military models: this is especially true when coaching methods and drills are discussed (see Note 6). On the larger scale, which is the purpose of a War College, I believe that focusing on the basics of military thought is valid. Military models will remain valid so long as those analysing SCA combat do not forget the difference between SCA and real behaviour and so long as they consciously accentuate the similarities and do not ‘fight the problem’ by trying to resolve all the discrepancies that must appear. As with many theoretical models of human behaviour, sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders when awkward details come to light, in order to preserve the benefit of the model as a whole. I think it’s important that SCA martial leaders do not let those awkward details invalidate a useful training and planning tool, the military model. Through the use of the military model we can add a degree of complexity and interest to the melee field which adds to the fun and flavour of our game as well as to the intensity of our recreation of medieval warfare.

NOTES to this essay:

Note 1: To be fair to those seeking historical parallels with the SCA, there were casualty-free battles in period, cited by Machiavelli in The Prince. These were battles in the wars of the Italian city-states fought on both sides by mercenary armies who had no desire to get killed for pay; Machiavelli decries them as farces. I have no idea how large the grand melees fought by medieval tournament societies became, but given social and technological limitations on travel, I doubt there was ever a 2000+ participant melee for fun in period.

Note 2: While I acknowledge this is a sweeping generalisation and there are significant anthropological and philosophical arguments against this generalisation (see John Keegan’s magnificent A History of Warfare in particular), in a short article this will have to suffice.

Note 3: Another strength of the Soviet military model for SCA commanders is the Soviet concept of a level of operations between tactics and strategy, called ‘operational art’. There is no real ‘strategy’ to SCA combat. Our battles are set-piece and stand alone, there is virtually no interest in logistics, and so on. There is a definite tactical perspective, the focus on co-ordinating fighters within a spear’s length. Co-ordinating units on the thousand-fighter field is an operational art beyond tactics but less than strategy. Failure to recognise this can lead to commanders’ micro-management of the fighters on the field, at the expense of the ‘big picture’ which is where Pennsic battles today are won.

Note 4: To be fair, SCA protective equipment imposes far greater limitations on hearing and vision than any period commander had to overcome. This is especially significant in a retreat, where ease of communications and unimpeded observation are critical.

Note 5: In A History of Warfare, Keegan mentions one theory, that the tendency of the Greek phalanx to ease right in the advance was caused by each hoplite trying to get closer to his neighbour’s shield for protection. As an aside, Keegan was most taken by a recent academic description of ‘real’ combat in the phalanx, which reads very much like a description of life in the shieldwall at Pennsic.

Note 6: It could be argued that modern infantry tactics, based upon tactical ‘battle drill’ (as opposed to the manual at arms for the loading and firing of muskets or even foot drill to co-ordinate the deployment of pikes) correspond with some sports coaching methods, but military battle drill is a very modern (post-World War One) development. Sports coaching is a closer parallel with a longer history and a far greater -- and more useful -- literature to draw upon.

Copyright 1997, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.