I always found forearm guards to be rather quaint and decorative rather than effective in battle. Then I came across this answer by Eric Lowe on Quora. Like me, Eric confesses to originally writing off forearm guards as fantasy. His research, however, showed him something unexpected: a number of historical sources referred to them and even explained how to use them in battle!
While the image above accurately describes what I thought of forearm guards, it turns out that parrying a thrust with a forearm is actually pretty much just fine. You’re already slapping the blade from the side and can even do it with a bare hand if you’re feeling gutsy.
This is also a historical method to use the cape to defend, even against cutting swords. Here’s Giovanni dall’Agocchie on the subject (tr. Jherek Swanger):
… there’s a difference when it comes to parrying [with the cape], because the cape can be cut and pierced, whereas the dagger cannot. Therefore I want to advise you that when you parry either mandritti or riversi [i.e., forehand or backhand cuts; i.e., any kind of cut at all] with your cape in defense of your upper body, you must parry your enemy’s sword below its midpoint, and before the the blow has gained force.
Of course, a steel vambrace cannot be cut or pierced, so you can essentially treat it as a super-cape. In a similar manner, the Iberian fencing master Domingo Luis Godinho notes that sometimes people will armor their forearms with planks of wood under their sleeves in street fights, but he does not recommend the practice because any plank of wood that you can conceal in this manner can be cut through with a good blow—but, of course, a steel vambrace would be another matter.
Finally, there’s the advice of the famous knight and commander Pietro Monte, who says this when discussing fighting in plate armor (tr. Mike Pendergrast and Ingrid Sperber):
Sometimes we should let go of the reins, so that we catch the adversary’s weapon with the left hand. But we should have an iron hand cover or we should take or parry it with the arm…
It is therefore appropriate that, whenever the other urges his horse towards us, we urge ours against him, and if he throws any blow with a sword, estoch, club [clauas, which Monte has previously clarified is the technical Latin name for a warhammer], or similar, we should receive it with our sword or arm …
We also have records of people sometimes wearing forearm guards in duels. Here’s a fresco by Niccolò Circignani depicting what was called the “duel of the century” between the famous soldiers Ascanio della Corgna and Giovanni Taddei. We don’t know whether Circignani was an eyewitness to the duel or not, but Circignani was a contemporary of both della Corgna and Taddei. Notice the silver-colored protection on the combatants’ left arms, which is the arm that is most commonly held forward in the two-sword style both combatants most likely used. In the fresco, Ascanio is seen killing the younger Taddei with a thrust to the chest after wounding him with thrusts to the unprotected arm, which is exactly how contemporary textual accounts describe the fight.
But What If…
The usual objection at this point is, “But wouldn’t that hurt/break a bone/slide off the vambrace into your upper arm?” followed by “Wouldn’t a parry like that be easy to fake out?”
The answer to both of these objections is, “Sure, if you do it wrong.” It’s important to remember that there are plenty of wrong ways of following written martial arts advice. Certainly, if you just sort of stick your forearm out and let someone smash it with a warhammer, you run a real risk of having that whole arm disabled, even if you don’t break a bone (and there’s a real risk that you will break a bone). But if you push your forearm and body into the incoming blow, and take the impact “before the blow has gained force” (to use dall’Agocchie’s phrase), and place your forearm below the hammer head into the haft of the weapon … well, that’s another story. You’ll notice that Monte explicitly mentions driving towards the enemy when you do this, and that in the image above from Nicolleto Giganti, the fencing performing the hand parry is also attacking forward. In a similar manner, when defending against a bladed weapon that might slide off the vambrace into your unprotected upper arm, it’s important to take note of the angle at which the blade is going to hit you. But really, this is just the ordinary advice we would expect to accompany any fighting technique: yes, there are ways to do it wrong; practice doing it correctly.
What about against really fearsome blows, like from a poleaxe or a halberd? The same advice still applies. Push in, catch the blow lower down on the haft before the blow has fully developed, and you’ll be fine. Let a full blow smash into your forearm with the part of the weapon the attacker intends to hit you with, and you’ll have a bad day.
What about being faked out? Well … again, sure. That’s a risk. But it’s a risk with all parries; any defensive motion can be faked out. The solution to not being faked out is not to limit yourself to certain kinds of defensive motions but rather to better learn how to read your opponent—or, better still, to learn how to psychologically and tactically pressure your opponent so they don’t have the mental bandwidth to think about trickery. Searching for the un-fake-out-able parry is a fool’s errand.
So… surprisingly, yes. Defending with steel forearm guards is an actual thing!
If you enjoyed the above, you may wish to get Eric’s book, The Use of Medieval Weaponry. Happy writing!
All images via Quora.