Bucklers vs. Shields

“Why would someone use a buckler instead of a shield?” is a question I get asked by a number of people.

I-33 Manuscript

We see the use of the buckler as part of martial system in the I-33 manuscript, the oldest pedagogical fencing manuscript that we have a record of dated between 1270-1320 CE. The manuscript has several names: The Anonymous Tower Fechtbuck, The Walpergis Manuscript (named for the Saint alleged to appear in some of the pages), The “eye-thirty-three”, The “one thirty-three”, the “0-33” and so on. Further uses of the buckler are explored in such works as the Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuck (dated 1450’s) and show a variation on the buckler designs which could be used for catching the blade. The two books show very different uses of the buckler with the sword.

While the I-33 depicts the fencer striking a blow from of seven wards which shows him invariably keeping the buckler and shield together when making the strike so that the buckler covers the extended hand, Talhoffer often has the sword and buckler unpaired. Both these types of fighting, hands paired and unpaired, have their pros and cons. The hand is the part of the body which is extends furthest forward and is often at risk of being targeted by a fast defensive fighter, so covering it with the buckler against counter attacks makes a great deal of sense. However, by unpairing the sword and buckler a fencer can cover himself against a strike to the head or body while simultaneously entering with a counter.

But this doesn’t really answer the question of why the buckler would be used over a larger shield. While the I-33 was being written, the heater shield would have been the favourite among crusading soldiers and mercenaries alike.

So why the buckler?

The buckler is and was light and portable, which meant that it saw a great deal of use in civilian life. Shields or Rotella were heavier, larger and more ungainly to carry around in a day to day context and would have been used more by professional soldiers.

Sword and Buckler

The shield of course offers more protection and can be used as part of shield wall whereas the buckler would likely only be used for personal defence. Due to its size offering less defence and the fact that many of them were made entirely of metal, it’s likely that the buckler would have been used more offensively than the shield.  

It’s reasonable to assume that the rim of the shield would have been used to make strikes in a much in the same way as a knuckle duster or similarly to the way World War soldiers were trained to use the rims of their helmets to make strikes as seen in Army hand-to-hand fighting manuals at the time.

There are also different examples of renaissance buckler types that seem to be designs to potentially catch or break the blade.

So which is better? Well, that all depends on who is using it and what for. I would sooner hide behind a large plank of wood in a fight for my life than a small one, especially if I were fighting more than one opponent or if my opponent had a spear.

However, shields can be heavy and the longer the fight goes on in my experience, the more you find your shoulder tiring, your arm dropping and the shield creeps closer and closer to your body exposing the leg or the head. The buckler is much lighter and can be used in faster, more aggressive fencing without the shoulder becoming too tired from the shield being held with an extended arm.

Here’s a video of a fight between myself and Esther from the Academy of Historical Fencing. It was a very nice technical fight with a fast and precise opponent.

But which would you use in a fight to the death? Would you use a round shield, heater shield, kite shield or some other weird and wonderful thing like this?

2 thoughts on “Bucklers vs. Shields”

  1. Now that I’ve had a little bit of experience with both viking shields and bucklers (and maybe 10 minutes of combat with a rotella)… I’m still torn.

    There are definitely pros and cons to each, the buckler is of course smaller, lighter and faster making it more practical to carry around but harder to fully defend with.

    The viking shield is significantly larger, generally offers better protection and can be effective against multiple combatants to an extent. On the downside it’s heavier and less practical to carry around – it also obscures a lot more of your vision, I find going in for a high attack causes someone to raise their shield, blocking their line of sight and leaving their legs open.

    My brief experience with the rotella was interesting, I liked the size of it but the way it’s carried changes things up – it’s certainly easier to hold strapped to your arm but it prevents you moving it around as freely as a buckler or viking shield. I suspect it would be considerably less effective against multiple combatants than the viking shield.

    I wonder what a rotella sized shield with the buckler/viking style grip would be like to use; and what would it be called? A small shield or a large buckler?

  2. A rotella is definitely a shield. The difference is that unlike the buckler and Viking shield, which is gripped in the centre, is that it’s strapped to your arm. This means that it’s less manoeuvrable and it shortens the reach of your shield rim, but it’s more secure in a lot of ways making it more difficult for your opponent to displace. From what I know, it would normally be used with a side sword as well rather than an arming sword as it’s a later iteration of the shield.

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