Shield - Middle Ages

Middle Ages

In the early European Middle Ages, simple round shields made from linden-wood wood covered on both sides by leather were typical. Over time, these were displaced by the kite shield, which was rounded at the top and tapered at the bottom. This gave some protection to the user's legs, without adding too much to the total weight of the shield. Kite shields were commonly used by cavalry as well.

As body armour improved, knight's shields became smaller, leading to the familiar heater shield style. Both kite and heater style shields were made of several layers of laminated wood, with a gentle curve in cross section. The heater style inspired the shape of the symbolic heraldic shield that is still used today. Eventually, specialised shapes were developed such as the bouche, which had a lance rest cut into the upper corner of the lance side, to help guide it in combat or tournament. Free standing shields called pavises, which were propped up on stands, were used by medieval crossbowmen who needed protection while reloading.

In time, some armoured foot knights gave up shields entirely in favour of mobility and two-handed weapons. Other knights and common soldiers adopted the buckler (origin of the term "swashbuckler"). The buckler is a small round shield, typically between 8 and 16 inches (20-40 centimeters) in diameter. The buckler was one of very few types of shield that were usually made of metal. Small and light, the buckler was easily carried by being hung from a belt; it gave little protection from missiles and was reserved for hand-to-hand combat. The buckler continued in use well into the 16th Century.

In Italy, the targa, parma and rotella were utilized by common people, fencers and even knights. The development of plate armour made shields less and less common as plate armour eliminated the need for a shield. Lightly armoured troops continued to use shields after men-at-arms and knights ceased to use them. Shields continued in use even after gunpowder powered weapons made them essentially obsolete on the battlefield. In the 18th Century, the Scottish clans used a small, round shield called a targe that was partially effective against the firearms of the time, although it was arguably more often used against British infantry bayonets and cavalry swords in close-in fighting.

During the 19th Century, non-industrial cultures with little access to guns were still using war shields. Zulu warriors carried large lightweight shields made from a single ox hide supported by a wooden spine, these were called Ishlangu. This was used in combination with a short spear (assegai) and/or club.

Although the size of shield would vary due to personal preference and role, most were thin compared to common belief (a misconception aided by the depiction of heavy shields in films). When used in fighting, shields were most effective when used to cause glancing blows. By deflecting a sword blow to the side, rather than blocking it head on, the attacker could be rendered open to a counterattack. This technique allowed the shield to be made lighter and more easily wielded, while reducing the amount of energy and risk of injury posed to the shield-bearer.

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