The targe and its use.
With this essay I intend to look at the shield known as the Targe (an Targaid) as it was carried and used by highland forces through the 17th and 18th centuries.
I have dealt with Targes before both here, and here. Highland targes were small shields between 18-21” in diameter, held with an enarmed grip. That is with the arm thrust through a strap and the fore grip held with the hand. In the manner of a knight or hoplite. They were robust being formed of two plys of conifer wood. According to some sources oak could be used, in the author’s opinion this would create a needlessly heavy shield which would also be prone to splitting so was unlikely to be common. The shield was covered with leather and set with brass studs and bosses. The collection from the Royal Armouries features a spread of diameters from 48cm to 53cm with most examples being around 49cm and with a spread of weights from 1.95kg to 3.2kg. Some examples featured extensive embossing and could be very fine pieces indeed. Object v.105 is remarkably plain and it tempting, given its date, to attribute it to Wm Lindsay’s workshop as a targe made for ordinary soldiers.
Some targes feature dismountable spikes to be set in the centre of the shield and while they are described in period as proof against shot this seems quite unlikely. The author has shot modern reproductions with black powder firearms and the shields did not hold up, targes were likely proof against the larger weapons, halberds, two handed swords and so on that they encountered. From period weapon musters it appears targes were not carried by the entirety of the fighting population. From the 17th century Athol muster it seems 23% of the fighting force carried targes, from Moidart in 1745 (after many disarming acts) 7 men of 80 had targes not including officers which accounts for 8.75% of the force. In the late 16th century a redshank force in Connacht featured 180 targeteers in a force of 600 (30%). If we assume the officers in Moidart were furnished with targes then that percentage comes up to 20% which is more inline with earlier figures.
We should expect this as the targeteer was a specific combat role and indeed a common one in 16th and early 17th century Europe. Generally mainstream European shields were slightly larger and were made from steel plates, solid steel, layered wood and leather. European fencing masters dealt with the target in their fencing manuals which proliferated at this time. I will look at a range of works from fencing masters and see how they discuss using the target in fighting. It must be remembered that in many cases these men were describing implementing weapons within the context of their entire system and philosophy of fighting. It must also be remembered that the fighting described in manuals is by necessity somewhat abstracted and does not, could not reflect the reality of mass combat.
I have rendered what I consider key ideas in bold and offer commentary or clarification where appropriate.
Discourse on Wielding Arms with Safety 1570 Giacomo DiGrasssi
We start with Digrassis’ section on the sword and round target. Giacommo DiGrassi was a 16th century fencing master whose 1570 treatise “Discourse on Wielding Arms with Safety” was translated into English in 1590.
I have slightly modernized the spelling of this treatise to aid comprehension while trying to maintain the original flavour of Digrassis’ work.
The round Target would require a long & most exquisite consideration because it is of circular form, most capable, and most perfect of all others. But for that my purpose in this my work, is to write that only which I know doth appertain to this Arte, giving leave to every man to busie him self in his own profession. And leaving a great part of this consideration to the Mathematicians & Historiographers to reason of his divers qualities or passions, either who was inventor thereof, either, whether it be a weapon of antiquitie, or of this our age, And coming to discourse of that, wherein it profiteth in this our time, (being a weapon so greatly honoured and esteemed of Princes, Lords, & Gentlemen, that besides those thereof in their affairs, as well by day as by night, they also keep their houses richly decked and beautified therewith,) And considering only that thing, in the round Target, among al other weapons which may either profit or hurt in the handling thereof, I say, that the said round Target round even diversely holden, borne and used, by divers men in divers ages, as well as the other square Target, and other weapons of defence, as well as of offence. And there want not also men in our time, who to the intent they be not wearied, bear it leaning on their thigh as though that in this exercise (in which only travail and pains are available,) a man should only care for rest and quietness. For by means of these two, strength and activity, (parts in the exercise of weapons, both important and necessary) are obtained and gotten.
Other some, holding their whole Arm bowed together, have carried it altogether flat against their body, not regarding either to ward their belly, or utterly to lose the sight of the enemy, but will at any hand stand (as they think) safe behind it, as behind a wall, not knowing what a matter of weight it is, both to see the enemy, and work other effects, which, (by so holding it) may not be brought to pass.
Of the manner how to hold the round Target.
If a man would so bear the round Target, that it may cover the whole body, and yet nothing hinder him from seeing his enemy, which is a matter of great importance, it is requisite, that he bear it towards the enemy, not with the convex or outward parte thereof, altogether equal, plain or even, neither to hold his arm so bowed, that in his elbow there be made (if not a sharp yet) at least a straight corner. For besides that (by so holding it) it wearies the arm: it likewise so hindereth the sight, that if he would see his enemy from the breast downwards, of necessity he must either abase his Target, or bear his head so peeping forwards, that it may be sooner hurt than the Target may come to ward it. And farther it so defendeth, that only so much of the body is warded, as the Target is big, or little more, because it cannot more then the half arm, from the elbow to the shoulder, which is very little, as every man knoweth or may perceive: So that the head shall be warded with great pain, and the thighs shall altogether remain discovered, in such sort, that to save the belly, he shall leave all the rest of the body in jeopardy. Therefore, if he would so hold the said Target, that it may well defend all that part of the body, which is from the knee upwards, and that he may see his enemy, it is requisite that he bear his arm, if not right, yet at least bowed so little, that in the elbow there be framed so blunt an angle or corner, that his eyebeams passing near that part of the circumference of the Target, which is near his hand, may see his enemy from the head to the foot. And by holding the said convex parte in this manner, it shall ward all the left side, and the circumference near the hand shall with the least motion defend all the right side, the head and the thighs. And in this manner he shall keep his enemy in sight & defend all that parte of the body, which is allotted unto the said Target. Therefore the said Target shall be born, the arm in a manner so straight towards the left side, that the eyesight may to behold the enemy without moving, for this only occasion, either the head, or the Target.
The hurt of the high warde, at sworde and round Target.
Because the round Target containeth in it most great & sure defense, therefore ought not any edgeblowe which may easily warded with the single sword without the help of the Target be delivered. Thrusts also enter very difficultly to strike the body, because the Target, by means of the least motion that is, seemeth to be, as it were a wall before the body. And to thrust at the legge is no sure play. That which remaineth to be done is, to thrust forcibly with the sword: and when one perceives, that the point thereof is entered within the circumference of the enemies Target, it is necessary that he encrease a left pace, and with the circumference of his own Target, to beat off the enemies sword and Target, to the end, it suffer the thrust so given of force to enter in. And (having so beaten & entered) to continue on the thrust in the straight line, with the encrease of a pace of the right foot.
When he findeth himself in the high ward, he shall encrease a half pace with the hinder foot gathering upon the enemy, as near as he may without danger. And being so nigh that he may drive his sword within the circumference, then as soon as he perceives his sword to be within it, (his arm being stretched out at the uttermost length) he ought suddenly to encrease a left pace, beating off with the circumference of his own Target, the enemies Target: and with the increase of a pace of the right foot, to cause his thrust to enter perforce. This also he may practice when the enemy endevoureth, to withstand the entrance of the thrust, when it is already past, within the circumference of his Target.
But if the enemy (as it may fall out) ward this thrust not with that parte of the circumference, which is near his hand, but with that which is above it (by means whereof his target discovereth his eyes) then he may very commodiously, encreasing his paces as aforesaid, recover his thrust above, and force it underneath, with the increase of a pace of the right foot. And this is a more sure way of thrusting than any other.
The defence of the high ward, at Sword & round Target.
For the defending of the thrust of the high ward, it is most sure standing at the low ward, and to endevour to overcome the enemy, by the same skill by the which he himself would obtain the victory. In the very same time, that he delivereth his thrust, a man must suddenly increase a slope pace with the left foot, beating of the enemies Target with his own, & driving of a thrust perforce with the increase of a pace of the right foot. And with this manner of defence being done with such nimbleness as is required, he doth also safely strike the enemy, who cannot strike him again, because, by means of the said slope pace he is carried out of the line in which the enemy pretended to strike.
The hurt of the broad warde, at Sworde & round Target.
|Broad ward on left|
It is very difficult to strike in this broad ward, if first with much compassing & gathering of the enemy, a man do not assay with the circumference of his Target near his hand, to beat off the enemies sword. And being so beaten, to encrease a left pace, and farther by adding there unto the increase of a pace of the right foot, to discharge a thrust. But it shall happily be better in the handling of these weapons, not to use this broad ward: for the hand is borne out of the straight line, in the which he may strike both safely and readily: And before it return into the said line, there is much time spent.
And farther, a man is not then in case with his Target to beat off the enemies sword: But if happily he be, yet (though he be very ready, as well with the hand as foot) his thrust shall never enter so far that it may hit home: For the enemy, with a very small motion of his Target forwards, may very easily drive the enemies sword out of the strait line. Therefore, he that would change or shift out of this ward, to the intent to strike, must of necessity be passing nimble & ready, and before he delivereth his blow, must beat the enemies sword with his Target.
The defence of the broad warde, at Sword & round Target.
Because in every occasion or accident a man standeth safe in the low ward, I will endevour in this case, to place him also in the same ward, for the encountering of the hurt of the broad ward. That therefore which by mine advice he shall do, is that he take great heed, not to suffer his sword to be beaten off any manner of way. And when the enemy without this beating presumeth to enter, he must in the selfesame time increase a left pace & safely deliver a thrust underneath with the increase of the right foot. And farther, when the enemy shall perfourme, that is, first find the sword and beat it off, (seeing of necessity if he would enter and hit home, his sword must pass by the circumference of the Target near the hand) then, to withstand the entry, it is requisite that he drive the enemies sword outwards on the right side with his Target and with the increase of the said pace, that he enter and strike him.
The hurt of the lowe warde, at Sword & round Target.
A man may strike in this ward, the right foot being behind, and before, & in both ways, he may bear his sword either within or without. If therefore he find himself to stand with the right foot behind and without, he shall assay at any hand, before he determine to strike, to find the enemies sword with his own, and as soon as he finds it shall clap to his Target, and strike perforce with a low thrust, increasing with the right foot. But finding himself to stand within, no more with his sword, then he doth with his Target, he shall prove whether he can find the enemies sword, and having found it, shall straine it fast between his own sword and Target, & then shall deliver a thrust with the increase of a pace of the right foot, the which thrust of force speedeth: This being performed, he shall settle himself in this, or in either of these ways in the low ward with the right foot before. And as he so standeth in this arde, he may after the same sort strike either within or without.
Therefore finding himself within, he shall provide to meet with the enemies sword, and with the increase of a left pace, shall clap to his Target, for the more safety, and then drive on a forcible thrust, with the increase of a pace of the right foot. And finding himself to bear his sword within the said ward, and with his right foot behind, he shall indevour to find the enemies sword with the Target, and having found it, shall close it in between his own sword and Target, & with the increase of a a left pace, shall perforce hurt the enemy, with the increase of a pace of the right foot.
Now, all these thrusts, no doubt shall speed every time that the enemy either makes no traverse motion with his body, either as he striketh, commeth directly forwards, or else being fearful, goeth directly backwards, for it is not possible that one man go so fast directly backwards, as an other may forwards. Yt is therefore diligently to be observed in this ward, never to determine to strike, either in the handling of these, or of any other kind of weapons, if (with one of them) he shall not first find the enemies sword. The which redowneth to the great profit of every man, but especially of those, who have strong arms, for that they are the better able to beat back the enemies weapon.
Of the defence of the lowe warde, at Sword and round Target.
All the foresaid thrusts are warded, by not suffering the sword to be found by the enemy with either of his weapons. For the enemy (not finding it, will not sasure himself, or presume to enter, without first finding of the sword) may most easily be stroke and not strike, if a man increase a slope pace, (to the end he may void his body from hurt,) and with the increase of a straight pace of the right foot, do also discharge a thrust beneath. And after this order he may strike safely, (not only when his sword is not found by the enemy, but also when it chances to be found) if he be ready and nimble to make his slope pace, and to beat off, as forcible as he may, the enemies Target with his own sword and Target, thereby forcing a low thrust to enter in, with the increase of a pace with the right foot. And thus much concerning the true striking & defending of the sword and round Target.
Comments..... It’s not the easiest read but there is good information on how to hold the shield to effect the best defence while avoiding obstructing one’s view. DiGrassi presents a very active use of the shield controlling the opponents sword while out manoeuvring them.
Brief instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defence (Unpublished but written between 1599 and 1605) george Silver.
This work was a draft of a piece to follow up George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defence (1599). Silver wrote a piece denouncing “itallianated” rapiers and continental fencing systems and challenged fencing master Vincento Saviolo to a public duel to settle the difference. While Saviolo declined the offer the dispute created a real sensation in London society even influcing Shakespeare’s work.
The sword & target has the advantage against the sword and dagger, or the rapier and poniard.
The sword and buckler has advantage against the sword and target, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.
The two handed sword has the vantage against the sword and target, the sword and buckler, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.
That the sword and buckler has the vantage against the sword and target. The sword & target together has but two fights (wards or positions), that is the variable fight, & the close fight, for the close fight, the number of his feet are too many to take against any man of skill having the sword & buckler, & for the variable fight although not so many in number, yet too many to win the place with his foot and strike home. The sword & buckler man out of his variable, open & guardant fight can come bravely off & on, false & double, strike & thrust home, & make a true cross (a solid parry with the sword) upon every occasion at his pleasure. If the sword & target man will fly to his guardant fight, the breadth of the target will not suffer it, if to his open fight, then has the sword & buckler man in effect the sword and buckler to the single, for in that fight by reason of the breadth, the target can do little good or none at all.
Comments........Silver here is arguing that the target is less versatile than the buckler and that a targeteer has to make too many moves and is too slow compared to other weapons. He appears to be discussing the target in the context of a duel or private fight which is ironic given that he was arguing against duelling.
The Expert swordmans companion (1728) Donald McBane
Donald McBane was a career soldier who served in the British army in Scotland and the low countries. He fought against highlanders twice at Mulroy (1688) and Killekrankie (1689) and fought with Malrborough’s army at Blenheim (1704) and Malplaquet (1709). He claims to have fought over 100 duels and fought as a stage gladiator in London. His work is principally concerned with the small sword
If you meet with a Man with Sword and Target, and you with your small sword, take off your Coat and Roll it around your Left Hand, and take a wet Napkin and put it under your Hat, and that will prevent his, in case he hits you either on the Arm or Head. Save the Blade of your Sword as much as possible, by slipping his Blows, and your Sword Hand making always high Feints to his Face, he will raise his Targe and blind his sight, that you may have an easy Opportunity to take him in the Belly; I reckon a Man that does not understand a Target, better to want it, than to have it, it would have been better for him to have a cane or Scabbard in his Left Hand, to parie a small sword, than a target to blind him: and when a Man with a Broad Sword, draws against a Man with a small sword, let him stand upon a high hanging Guard at great length, and then he can Parie by the way of Quart or Tierce by Moving his Hand,, and as he Paries let him make a small stroak constantly to his Sword hand, or making a back stroak or under stroak to keep him off, and in Constant Motion, for he will soon be tired, because his Sword is heavier, and have the Left hand always before his Breast to Defend, an if he understands to parie he may change to a Medium, and slip and throw; But still the small sword hath great odds of the broad, for the small Sword Kills, and you may Receive Forty Cuts and not be Disabled.
The target is of great use to those who rightly understand it. But to inexperienced people it is often very fatal, by blinding themselves with it, for want of rightly understanding it. Therefore who has a mind to use it must take care to have it on an edge (compare with Digrassi) so as to cover his left side, from which it is a defence against ball or any weapon.
Comments.....McBane clearly understands the targe, he certainly fought highlanders armed with targes in his earlier career. He mentions avoiding the sword of his opponent and accords generally with DiGrassi in that the targe is held on edge and that control of the opponents sword is desired. As regards lethality it might be noted that every British soldier who was wounded with a sword at Culloden was saved. Smallswords are often seen as effete weapons carried by dandies an fops but in the author’s opinion based on many handling sessions, small sword are terrifying, a very dangerous weapon.
The use of the broad sword. In which is shown, the true method of fighting with that weapon, as it is now in use among the highlanders; Thomas Page (1746)
Thomas Page was a sword seller and possible fencing master operating in Norwich. I have dealt with the authenticity arguments around this work in this article here. I have illustrated these pieces with images from Camillo Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms with Philosophical Dialogue (1553) as these images appear to illustrate the techniques Page is describing nearly two centuries later. This may imply a Europe wide tradition that Page was relaying or perhaps that Thomas Page had read Agrippa.
We come now to the Method us’d by the modern Highlanders, Fighting with the Sword which is founded upon the Rules and Lessons already given; from which it differs only by making use of a Target upon the Left Arm, as was before observ’d; by the Addition of which, the Guards made by the Sword are often omitted, except the Outside, and the Blow is received upon the Target, and several Throws that are dangerous in the single Sword are here us’d with Safety as every Throw on the Inside, below the Middle of the Body; all which at the single Sword will lay entirely Open to be cut whilst here you lie cover’d under a Target, the use of which is the following Manner.
Arm’d with a Sword and a Target being upon the Left Arm, advance to your Enemy with a square Body, and always under an Outside Guard, with your Target advanc’d a little before your Sword, and in a Direction levell with your Adversary’s Breast, ready to receive any Throw that he shall think fit to give; but wait not for it, it being safer to attack than be attacked, let your first Throw be an Inside betwixt your Adversary’s Target and the Sword; which if he receives upon the Target, recover an Outside, and pitch immediately to a Hanging, but dwell not a Moment upon it, but from that (which here is design’d only to give a Swing to your Arm) throw home an Inside at his Left Ribs underneath his Left Elbow, which will be open’d by your pitching to a Hanging, and by his raising a Target to cover his Head which will otherwise be expos’d to be cut.
With the Target the cuts at the Leg are differently made than without it, for under Cover of that it is safe to go down to either Outside or Inside, without receiving a Throw first.
When two or three Throws have been made without Success, with your Body still square (that is your Legs crossing the Line of Defence at right Angles) and full facing your Adversary, drop both your Target and Sword as low as your Waste, your Sword still within your Target,and in that Posture lay your self open and wait for your Adversary’s Throw, which when he makes, receive it not upon the Target, but upon the Fort of your Sword; and at the same Moment by pushing your Target against his Hilt, drive his Sword sideways and downwards out of the Line, by which his Head will be expos’d defenceless; at which you may safely Throw, because his Sword will be held down by your Target, and his Left Arm and Target will be held down by his own Blade.
Another infallible Method both of Defence and Offence is, advancing briskly to your Adversary under an Inside Guard, receive his Outside upon your Fort, and at the same Moment instead of throwing an Inside, step briskly about with your Left Foot as in the Traverse (half a Circle at least) which will bring you under his Fort; and with your Target, which will be then under his Hilt, throw up his Sword and Arm, that you may have a free Passage for your own Sword, which you have lower’d and shortned in your coming about; and with a sudden Push slanting upwards, thrust in the Point between the Ribs on the Right Side, which commonly finishes the Affair.
These are the Principle destructive Methods of Wounding in Modern Use; and when executed with a quick and a strong Arm, and directed with a sharp and steady Eye, seldom fail of Success, except where an alert Adversary is more steady at Defence than your Hand at Throwing: In the last two Cases indeed, no Defence is practicable, if you suffer your self to be lock’d in the first, or to be clos’d upon the last; but how easy is the Defence in either, when in the first, only by stepping into the Back Traverse, you at once free your Sword, and by returning to your Posture may wound your Adversary, and be cover’d under your Target; and in the last Case, by retreating as he comes about with his Left, you put your self out of the Reach of his Target, and much more out of that his Sword, whilst he lies wholly expos’d on his Left Side to your Inside Throw, how artfully soever, or how strongly soever it be made; but the same Weapon which makes the Attack, is capable of preventing the Wound.
Comments..... Page gives us some techniques to try here in common with DiGrassi the opponent is controlled with the target and sword and how techniques that are risky with a single sword are possible with the defence of the target.
Memoirs of the Rebellion in 1745 and 146 Chevalier De Johnston
When within reach of their enemies bayonets bending their left knee, they, by their attitude cover their bodies with their targets, that receivee the thrusts of the bayonets which they contrive to parry while at the same time they raise their sword arm and strike their adversary. Having got within the bayonets and in the ranks of the enemy the solders no longer have any means of defending themselves, the fate of the battle is decided in an instant and the carnage follows. the Highlanders bring down two men at one time with their dirk in the left hand and another with the sword.
Comments.....The chevalier was an eyewitness to three charges the method described here accords with the treatises quoted above. The opponents weapon is controlled and a single time attack is made, that is an attack at the same instant as the opponents attack which is possible because of the target. There are other accounts describing the sword being used to cut aside bayonets and pikes which makes a bit more sense to me given the small size of the shield.
The treatises warn of the hazards of blinding ones’s self with the shield, agree that the opponents weapons must be controlled with the target and sword before an attack is made and that the target limits the options of the fighter. Silver notes this as a disadvantage while Page states that it is because of the advantage the shield gives. The target is frequently described as “a wall” and the treatises state that a fighter must manoeuvre into position in order to launch attacks. The targe is feinted in both McBane and Page being drawn up high to defend the head before the true attack is made on the body.
The treatises are remarkably consistent over a few hundred years and hundreds of miles to the extent that I have been able to illustrate Page’s work with Agrippas. Would a highlander recognise the techniques listed here....? Given the consistency of the treatises I’d have to say likely yes. Would they agree with the opinions of the authors....well given that it’s martial arts I think we can definitely say a big NO!
Some truly beautiful targes can be found at this site
Fandabidozi recently made a superb video on targes
The Cateran society have done sterling work bringing many of these treatise to life