What would happen if you tried to use a cloak to block a sword?

Eric Lowe (and here) has two illuminating answers to this question – both opening up many possibilities in fiction writing.

It’s not a shield

Before going into any details, the first thing to remember is that a cloak is not a shield. Sometimes, the cloak gives way like a curtain, but most of the time a sword penetrates the “fall” of the cloak. You can’t just sort of wave a cloak at a sharp sword and expect it to deflect a thrust. You’ve got to actually push the thrust off-line from the side.

As for cuts against a cloak, we have a couple of direct comments on that from period fencing masters.

… there’s a difference when it comes to parrying, 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., cuts] with your cape in defense of your upper body, you must parry your enemy’s sword below its midpoint, and before the blow has gained force.

Giovanni dall’Agocchie, 1572


It is not permissible to crudely take the opponent’s blows on the cloak, because although sometimes it doesn’t do damage, other times it does notable damage; I have seen arms mangled from having taken blows on the cloak.

Domingo Luis Godinho, 1599

In short, it’s possible that nothing would happen. You maximize your chances of this if you block the sword close to the hilt, where the sword has less cutting power (because that part of the blade isn’t moving as fast as the parts closer to the tip), and if you jam forward with your block, so you aren’t so much blocking a cut as stuffing it before it’s developed.

It is also possible that the sword would shear through the cloak and cause, in Godinho’s chilling turn of phrase, “notable damage.”

It is also possible that a cloak may actually pose a risk, as this quote explains:

While your opponent is wrapping the cloak around his arm he is distracted. Stab him in the face.

Carranza, De la philosophia de las armas.

What about the material?

There are also a handful of situations in which a cloak can do things that a buckler can’t. Marozzo discusses the situation of being attacked on a street by a mounted assailant, for instance, and notes that, in that situation, you can and should throw your cloak over the horse’s eyes.

The fencing masters pay almost no attention to what the cloak is made of. One presumes that this would have an effect, but it may be that any effect was mostly academic. A good cutter can cut through quite a few layers of wool, so it’s possible that a student who told his teacher, “Oh, don’t worry, maestro, my cloak is made of good, thick stuff” would be told that it still doesn’t matter: a sword cut (let alone a thrust!) can go through it anyway.

So, if your character is going to block a sword even with a good heavy cloak, he still needs to either:

  • do it properly (per dall’Agocchie’s advice) or
  • think again (per Godinho’s advice).

Was it ever done historically?

Yes, it was absolutely done historically. Here’s the issue: empty hands in a fight are dumb. Even if you have a one-handed weapon, your second hand should have a role to play and you should know what it is.

The most popular answer, historically, was to wield a shield of some sort (probably closely followed by guiding your horse). This was even more popular than putting a second hand on your one-handed weapon, which is presumably why sidearm shields developed and became so popular: even in a street fight or self-defense situation, you could have a shield of some sort. It is not surprising that the oldest fencing manual we have discusses the use of the sword and buckler. Nor is it surprising that that manual is deeply interested in how to defeat someone with a sword and a buckler.

Fencing with buckler | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Bucklers were so popular and so effective, that they were the subject of legal and cultural arms control. The thought was, essentially, that people would be less likely to engage in street fights if they didn’t have their precious bucklers.

Ultimately the anti-buckler forces won, but that doesn’t change the fact that an empty hand in a street fight is stupid. In the wake of the buckler, the civilian companion weapon of choice became one of three things. In no particular order:

Choice one: the dagger

Fencing | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Daggers are, frankly, not as good as bucklers – but they’re also more legitimate for people to carry around. This is counter-intuitive to some people, but consider: daggers are tools, while bucklers have no use other than fighting. That seems to have been how medieval and Renaissance people saw it, anyway.

Choice two: nothing

Empty hands are also not as good as bucklers, but if you’re going to have an empty hand, you should remember to grapple with it when appropriate.

Duel | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Choice three: the cloak or cape

Cloaks and capes are also not as good as bucklers, but they’re even more legitimate than a dagger: they’re just outerwear, equivalent to a modern-day coat. Nobody can begrudge you for wearing outerwear! Accordingly, we have plenty of treatises discussing the use of swords and cloaks/capes.

So how do you do it?

Most masters recommend wrapping the cloak around your arm. How far you wrap it depends a lot on what kind of sword you’re facing. Against swords with a fair amount of cutting capacity, the cloak is generally wound almost all the way around the arm, with only a small “fall.”

Fencing | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Against less cut-capable swords, the fall could be longer, to cover more of the body.

Duel with cloak | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

A cloak-wrapped arm can be used in defense in two ways.

The first and safest way to use it is as a shield against a stationary sword. That is to say, you parry the strike with your sword (or your dagger, if you’re fighting with cloak and dagger – yes, that was an actual thing), and then, once the enemy’s weapon has stopped moving, you place your cloak-wrapped arm against it to constrain its movement and leave your weapon free to strike.

If you were to try this with a bare arm (or simply your sleeves) the opponent might be able to push or pull his sword across your arm with enough force to give you a serious wound, which you’d have to defend against rather than counter-attacking. The cloak removes that danger.

Block with your arm

Duel with cloak | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

The second way you can use the cloak-wrapped arm is like arm armor: you literally block the opponent’s strike with your arm.

You can sweep aside a thrust with a bare arm, though you run the risk of the moving edge slicing your arm up. The cloak removes this danger, making it a fairly reasonable option.

Remaining in the [guard of] coda lunga e stretta, if your enemy throws a stoccata [an underhand thrust] to the face, I want you to strike it to the outside with your cape and all in one time you will strike …

Achille Marozzo, tr. William Wilson

Blocking a cut with the cloak-wrapped arm was considerably more controversial. There were very eminent fencing masters who recommended it; here’s Antonio Manciolino in 1530:

If he attacks with a mandritto [a descending diagonal cut] or a fendente [a vertical descending cut], pass forward with your left foot, parry with your cape and deliver a thrust to the opponent’s flank.

Antonio Manciolino, tr. Tom Leoni

Obviously, this is not something you can do with any safety with a bare arm. Can you do it with a cloak-wrapped arm? As we saw above, plenty of fencing masters thought it was needlessly risky, because someone who is really good at cutting can absolutely shear through the cloak and into your arm. Domingo Luis Godinho, for instance, specifically points out that he’s seen the arm block work – but he’s also seen people receive ghastly wounds as a result of it.

In Eric’s opinion, there are a lot of variables at play. One is the difficulty of cutting through tough cloth, as discussed above. Another is the target’s motion. If the target is moving away from your sword, the cut is considerably harder; if the target is moving toward your sword, the cut is considerably easier. Now think about the motion of your arm as you parry that cut. Was your arm still moving towards the sword when contact was made? Had it stopped? Was it maybe even moving backward, sort of riding the blow? Do you trust your physical ability to pick which of those it is?

You can see why some people were skeptical.

Speaking of cushioning blows, that’s the point of the “fall” (the bit of the cloak that hangs below your arm). It is quite easy to thrust through a cloth if it is pinned against something fairly solid (e.g., a body), and hard, but far from impossible, to do the same with a cut.

A cloak thus provides very little protection if you’re wearing it. If, however, the fabric is free-floating, it is relatively difficult to penetrate even with a thrust. Thus, the fall of the cloak acts like a sort of shield – which is why, if you weren’t going to be directly opposing cuts with your cloak, you might not wrap it so completely, thus giving yourself a larger fall.

Use as a net

The last thing you can do with a cloak is, of course, to use it as a net.

Duel with cloak | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

There are variations here: you can throw the cloak onto the opponent’s sword to trap it momentarily, or throw it at the opponent’s face to blind him for a moment. You can literally cast the cloak, or you can keep a fistful in your hand so you don’t entirely lose it.

This is effective – when it works. In particular, you really can trap somebody’s sword for a moment by just flinging a weight of cloth on it and they will have to disentangle it; they won’t be able to just slice their way out.

Just don’t miss

There are two catches. The first is that it doesn’t always work: you might miss. Your opponent is moving, after all, and has a vested interest in being able to see and use his weapon. He’s not just going to stand there while you fling several pounds of wool at him. And if you do miss, well, you don’t have a cloak anymore. Even if you held onto a bit – which shortens the range at which you can throw it, obviously – you still have to recover it.

Don’t throw it

The second catch is that you cannot throw the cloak while having it wrapped around your arm. You’ve got to pick. There are a lot of sword-and-cloak treatises and the general consensus is that a wrapped arm is better than a thrown cloak. Of course, if your arm becomes unwrapped in the midst of combat, you can still make use of the cloak by throwing it then.

Not a wartime thing

The use of the cloak while fencing was not a wartime thing.

In combat kit, you either:

  • had armor good enough that you decided not to carry a shield,
  • carried a shield, or
  • carried a buckler, if your armor was light and your primary weapon required two hands. Archers, for instance, frequently carried swords and bucklers as sidearms.

However, it was by no means limited to the duel. In fact, it was not particularly common in formal duels, when people could agree on rules and weapons, making improvised weapons like cloaks unnecessary. It was primarily a street fighting/self-defense weapon and used fairly extensively in that scenario in times or places when more purpose-built companion weapons were illegal or simply culturally unacceptable.

Is the cloak better than a dagger or an empty hand, ready to grapple? In a sense, it’s not so much better as different. Think of it as a middle ground between a dagger and an empty hand. It can’t directly wound your opponent, like a dagger, but it has greater leverage as a defensive weapon and can blind or entrap an opponent, which a dagger can’t. It’s not nearly as good at grappling as an empty hand, but it can at least temporarily disable an opponent’s sword. Plus, it protects you much better than an empty hand through the wrapped arm and the fall.

No surprise, then, that fencing masters continued to discuss a cloak’s use from the 16th century through the 18th!

If you enjoyed the above, you may wish to get Eric’s book, The Use of Medieval Weaponry. Happy writing!

All images via Quora.