Getting Started in Steel Sword Fighting

By PierreC
October 21, 2015

Having helped a number of fighters get geared up, and doing it myself a couple times, I wanted to take the time to list out some of the commonly asked questions about how to get started.  


Always double check with the group that you are planning on fighting with to understand the particulars of the rules, gear specifics, etc.  The items below apply in general, but in some case I specify which group has specific requirements (such as ACL helmet requirements).  These comments and suggestions are my own, but I've gathered them over 20 years of fighting plus 3 years of being involved with the various incarnations of the US Battle of Nations and then IMCF teams.


Some assumptions are also made (that the person reading this is interested in eventually competing at one of the major international tournaments such as BoTN or IMCF world championships).  



1.    Armour/Weapons:

  • Starting point – find a time period that you like, and a region you like and do some research.  You will need to select a basis for the armour you will eventually be purchasing.  There are a number of sources for this, historical artwork, effigies, museum examples, etc.  Some organizations are more strict than others when it comes to specific documentation of where the type of armour was from.  In general the rule is that all of your gear should be from the same time period (within a 50 year span of time).

List of possible sources and starting points (This list is not exhaustive, if you find more reliable sources, please share):

Medieval Armour <> - A great site with examples of helms, armour, etc.  A good place to start looking for examples and inspiration.

Effigies and Brasses <> – One of the standard documentation resources

Landeszeughaus Graz Armoury (photos) <>

Landeszeughaus – Official site <>

Manuscript Miniatures <>

Armour in Art <>

Kunst Historisches Museum Wien (Vienna) <>

Wiktenauer – Good site for searching for historical fighting manuals, treatises, etc. <>

  • Don’t order your armour before you have your softkit, because you will need it to get an accurate measurement for your smith!
  • Review the rules of the group(s) you will be fighting with.  Each group has requirements for armour materials, weight, thickness, authenticity, minimum coverage, etc.  When in doubt ask an experienced fighter or the team captain/leader of your club/region/squad/etc.
  • Send photos of your measurements if possible, it can help a smith understand how your measurements apply, if possible take a body cast as well.
  • Decide on what type of materials you want your armour made out of, and be sure your smith can work with that type of material.  Be sure to double check the rules, not all groups allow all types of materials (example titanium is currently only allowed as primary protection by the HMB)
  • Get greaves that go all the way around your legs, your leg is target, and good greaves can prevent injuries.
  • Be sure to get very solid knees and elbows, you will get hit there inadvertently, especially when you get knocked down.



Q- Where do you buy armour from?

– There a number of possible sources (If you know of additional sources, please pass them along)

<LIST of armour sources>


Q- Where do you buy weapons from?

A-   There a number of possible sources (If you know of additional sources, please pass them along)


Q – Does this mean I am limited to certain types of weapons to match with my armour?

A – Depends – by strict interpretation yes, your weapons should match the same time epoch as your armour, but this is currently rarely enforced.  Some weapons are generic enough (short sword, broad sword, hand axe. most falchions) that they are ubiquitous to almost any time period.


Q – What are the earliest and latest time periods that are allowed?

A – The only written rule currently is for HMB.  13th century – 17th century.  IMCF in general uses this same time epoch, but this has not been codified.


Q – What is the reason there are some many people who fight in HMB/IMCF wearing 1300’s –1400’s gear? (Wisby, coat of plates, corrizina)?

– It is fairly easy to document, reasonably inexpensive to purchase, and can be made reasonably light.  That being said the lighter the metal the more padding you will need.  A solid breastplate/backplate will absorb more force, but will potentially weigh more.


Q- If heavier gear absorbs more impact, wouldn’t you want the heaviest available?

– No, if you are fighting using HMB or IMCF rules, and fighting in the melees, the name of the game is endurance.  If you are wearing more weight than the other guy, you will get tired faster, even if you can take the hits, you won’t be able to maneuver or hit your opponent, and won’t be an asset for your team.  There are pieces of armour that you want to take extra care in getting the best possible, but that isn’t always ‘the heaviest’.


– What are the most critical pieces of armour in general?

– Helmet and gauntlets.  Your helmet need to be protective enough to deflect shots, have the right combination of padding, fit you properly, and provide good visibility and breathing.  Gauntlets are critical since you will get hit in the hand (it is valid target) and you will need to be able to hold your weapon, grapple with your opponent, and possibly hold their weapon as well.  Gauntlets should be padded to allow you to take a hit to the hand, or punch without it causing direct injury.  Strongly recommend against ‘finger’ gauntlets, as those do not provide the same level of protection as mitten style gauntlets.


– What should you wear under the armour?

– Depending on the direction you are going, you should select the appropriate padded garments to go under your armour.  For the 13th/14th century Western European type armour we mentioned earlier, that means a padded gambeson and padded chausses (legs).  It is critical that you get these items BEFORE you are measured for any armour you are buying, since your smith will want to have your measurements including any padding.  Especially if you are going for thinner steel for your armour, you will need more padding.  Remember you will be protecting against weapons, but ALSO against other very large individuals who want to push you into the ground or possibly into other very large individuals.


2.    Soft Kit:

Depending on the time period you have chosen, you will need to order the appropriate type ofsoftkit (Soft kit in this case refers to a padded jacket or gambeson and padded leg covering or chausses.  There are many styles of each) that will be the foundation for the armour.  For 13th and 14th century armour, the softkit isn’t just padding, it is also where the armour pieces (pauldrons. Rearbraces. Vambraces) attach to, using laces or armour ties that connect your gambeson (padded jacket) to the armour pieces.


For later armour (15th century and later) the armour is usually attached to itself, and doesn’t usually attach to the padding, but the padding is important to protect you from the armour when you are hit, fall down, or are crushed under 300+ pounds of loving teammate.


Items to consider:

  • Materials – the most common materials for gambessons are linen and wool.  Usually the best performing are linen shell with wool padding.  Other materials that have been used are cotton and bamboo.
  • Off the rack vs. custom – If your build is such that off-the-rack clothes fit you well, or you don’t mind having a gambeson that isn’t tailored to you, but ‘works’ you can find some good and less expensive options by buying an off the rack gambeson.  One of the risks there is you do not always know what materials will be used, some vendors will use non natural fibers for padding, or will make the padding minimal.  That being said there are potentially some good deals to be had.
  • Heat vs. protection - If you are planning on very light armour (using thin steel such as 22gauge 4130, etc.) then you will need thicker padding to be safe.  If you are planning on having thicker armour then your padding can be minimized, to protect you from being injured by your armour, without adding in additional bulk or heat retention.  Even if you live in an area that isn’t that hot, remember that many of the tournaments, festivals, etc, that you may be fighting at may be at places that are not your normal climate.  Always expect the Polish heatwave of 2012, and be prepared.


Q- Where do you buy gambessons from?

– There a number of possible sources, one of the first questions is do you want a custom made garment? Or are you of a size that can easily wear off the rack type garments?

<LIST of clothing sources> (If you know of additional sources, please pass them along)

3.    Historical Shoes/Boots:

For either HMB or IMCF tournaments historical shoes/boots are required.  The standard requirement is that the shoes are historical in design and materials and have natural soles.  Although in practice thin/flat rubber soles are allowed.  Hobnailed soles are also allowed, but may not always be the best choice depending on the surface you may be fighting on.

Guidance is that (as always) your gear needs to be from the same time epoch (so 16th century bucket boots will not with 13th century armour)

Work boots, non-historical boots, are not allowed.

Sources for historical shoes:

Viking Leathercraft <>


4.    Fitness and Training:

For this sport fitness and training are key.  This sport requires speed, strength, endurance, skill, and tactical awareness.  Depending on the type of fighting (1v1 or melee) you will have different specific challenges, but most of this is transferrable.

Each person will have different goals and particular exercises or work out routines that work for them, but in general you want a balanced workout that provides for cardio and specific muscle work.

Build your balance, core, and stability.  I strongly encourage everyone who is interested in this sport to start with squats, you can always improve your legs and your core strength.

I suggest switching out your work out routines so you have adequate recovery time and also vary your work out to achieve maximum impact from your efforts.

Don’t overdo it.  Every year there are more people injured getting in shape or practicing than get injured in the tournaments each year. 


Increasing your cardio and breathing (and recovery) is also very important.  Try tabata exercises.

Tabata exercises -

Include Running/elliptical/cycling for pure cardio (I do not recommend practicing running in armour, as it will cause additional wear and tear on your body)

Include punching practice, if you can while wearing your helmet (to practice visibility and breathing)


4.1          Weapon and armoured training

It is also important to know how to move in your armour and also use your weapon effectively.  Here are some suggestions.

A Pell is an object for practicing hitting with a weapon.  You can make a pell out of just about anything (a fence post, a pole, a tree, a tire, a block of wood hanging from a tree, etc.).  The purpose of a pell is to gain familiarity with how the weapon swings and feels as it strikes an object.  Some fighters like to do strikes against a pell as part of their daily workout routine.  You can also use a pell to learn what your optimum weapon range is, help with practicing combinations, etc.

  • 1v1 sparring – a chance to face off against an opponent is always a good opportunity to practice your skill and test your endurance, movement, and armour.


  • Practice what is feels like to fall in your full kit (either have someone knock you over or just fall over) to see how the padding and armour work together.  Expect you may need some spot padding in some places such as knees, hips, bottom of your greaves, edge of helm, etc.  Practice getting up safely.


 5.    Rules


Locations of the rules:

IMCF Rules -

HMB Rules -




Change Log


July 01 2015 - fixed/re-added the links to the reference section, added in Jolly Knight, added in 'art in armour' reference site

July 01 2015 - Added sections 3, 4, and 5

October 10 2015 - added age of craft to gambesson and weapon sections