Fantastic universe, but not necessarily magic involved in the process. You face a guy who has a shield (tower shield or not). You do not have a shield, but you are a better swordsman. How do you win?

According to Dark souls, your best option is to kick the shield, but realistically speaking it is hard to think of better ways to leave yourself exposed to a counter attack. Other video games taught us that waiting for your opponent to attack and leave an opening is the best way, but if your opponent is worth his salt he will likely block most of his openings (as shown in this video).

So my question is: how can a skilled fighter (with swords, maces, etc) deal efficiently with shield users, other than tiring him or reducing it to splinters?

FYI: Yes, I do consider a shield a weapon as much as a mean of protection.

Post-answer edit: TheDyingLight answer was the most complete of all (mainly because my open question not specifying the weapons/armors involved), but please check the rest of the answers too. Each one adds a new detail, a new point of view on the matter that you cannot ignore and certainly I will not. As my first post on this site, I sincerely thank each and every one of you.

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    $\begingroup$ Is time an issue in that fight? Because, for lighter fighter it may be easier just to wear out the heavier one. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ In that case we come back at the "tiring your opponent". My question was if there was a way/technique to effectively deal with them, kinda like "Spears can make a stand against cavalry charge". $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ As a rule of thumb, consider not accepting an answer within a few minutes of you posting a question. Users of this site are spread around the world a little, and you may find you get better answers by waiting at least 24 hours (and preferably 48) to maximise your audience. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ Leaving questions up for a couple of days before accepting an answer is almost always a good idea, I never leave them less than a week so everyone gets a run at it. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ My bad, newbie here. I'll do that and check it in two or so days :) Thanks a bunch! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:51

7 Answers 7


I practice early medieval (Viking) style semi-contact as a hobby. With blunt steel weapons not with some LARP toys. I can tell you how we deal with an enemy with a shield and then some historical methods I know. Now our fights are not entirely realistic, they do not devolve into fierce unarmed struggles, at the end, where we attempt to scratch out eyes and bite. Additionally, an enemy is "dead" after one hit. This too is unrealistic as there is an important difference between the stopping and killing power of a weapon. Being mortally wounded and still fighting on for some time was a common thing and truly problematic. There is an account of a rapier duel where both combatants pierced each other about a dozen times until they both dropped dead. This is bad for obvious reasons. You want to take out the other guy while stopping him from taking out you. You do not want to stab a sword through his belly that he does not notice in his adrenaline rush. It might get stuck and now you are unarmed in close melee distance to a guy who is still armed and combat-capable for a few more seconds. With that out of the way, the following list will go through your weapon setup and detail the options you have. I will assume the shield-bearer has a round shield and a Viking age sword. Techniques might vary if the defender wears some other kind of shield.

  • one-handed sword Be quicker. A shield has to be used actively. It does not give you a magical defense. If you do not know how to use a shield you are better off in a fight without it. Move in slowly and just smack his head. It sometimes startles even experienced opponents. Grab his shield with one hand and open it. Alternatively going for the head only to let your sword glide down the side of the shield to get the legs is one of my favorite maneuvers. As for "an opponent worth his salt" I manage this against my trainer, a fighter with 20+ years experience about 10% of the time. Getting lucky is always an option.

  • one-handed sword and ax This is one of the few sensible dual-wielding setups. Why? The ax hooks open the shield and you thrust into the opening. You will usually win the tug of war as your opponent gets slightly startled and you got Archimedes on your side. Though this is much easier against handheld shields than against those bound to the arm.

  • one-handed sword and shield Now you got the same setup as your opponent. The options from the one-handed section still apply. Other options like using your shield to block the enemy's sword between the shields or between your armor and shield are now available. A friend once even showed me a technique where you either give up the sword or your arm gets broken. Actively using the shield is also an option. Either straight into the face to inflict damage, against the enemy shield to open it or as a feint. Bonus point for style if you throw away your sword, in the end, bashing him to death with the side of the shield. It's way bloodier.

  • two-handed sword (longsword) Firstly everything from the one-handed sword applies. Secondly, the ground rule for dealing with two-handed weapons as a lone shieldbearer (battle-line is way different and beyond the scope of the question) is to run them down. The long weapon will have more range, mobility (due to the greater leverage two hand offer) and deal more damage. Thus you "untersschreitest die Mensur", the fancy German way for saying you must move into a distance the enemy weapon is no longer effective and you can bash the crap out of the enemy. They of course know this and will attempt to retreat and kill you while running backward. It is quite effective and usually, the shield-bearer wins, but not always. If the long weapon-user has a backup short-sword or dagger, giving up the long weapon for it can also be very effective. this is true for all the following long weapons.

  • spear High-Low, Low-High is the doctrine. Go for the face and then for the feet. Your spear is faster because of leverage. If he does not rush you, you will eventually find a gap.

  • Dane-axe See spear. Additionally, you can split the shield. This happens even with blunt Dane axes so a sharp one will be even more efficient. Hooking is also an option. Open up the shield, thrust the blunt tip of the axe into his face and kill him while he recovers. Or hook his knee and throw him down.

  • polearm See Dane-axe. Polearms are the best weapons there are. Hence their popularity in the middle-ages.

  • spear and shield Useful combo. You sacrifice the leverage of the spear for a lot of protection. This was the setup of most classical armies for a reason.

  • axe and shield The lone one-handed axe sucks for defense but is amazing for offensive maneuvers. The shield... Well, it is a simple and dangerous combination and will help you deal with the shield-bearer easily.

  • full plate armor I am gonna get medieval on your arse. This is not quite medieval, but renaissance. Get a set of full plate armor, laugh about how he fails to injure you, grab his shield and sword, give him a headbutt and kill him. Should you doubt the effectiveness of full plate armor, google half-swording a set of sword techniques which was developed as a response to it.

  • dagger You are screwed. This is only slightly better than bringing a knife to a gunfight. A dagger should only ever be your last backup weapon.

  • incendiary grenade Throw a Greek fire grenade at him or dirt or stones. Distract him with some sort of projectile and then land your blow, while he is distracted. Works very well.

  • javelin The Romans used special javelins (pilum) which got stuck in their enemy's shields to weigh them down and force the enemy to drop them. From Ryan_L's comment: "The pilum did not just weigh down the shield, it also got in the way. The lead arrowhead would bend under the weight of the shaft, leading to the shaft hanging below the shield. It would thus get caught up on the terrain if you did not hold the shield quite high. So you could either put up with your shield constantly getting stuck on things, or drop it entirely; neither prospect is very appealing."

  • one-handed axes, maces and mauls All of these weapons have the same fundamental problem. Amazing offensive capabilities, but due to the fact that they are top heavy they suck at defending. A shield remedies this as I already pointed out, but if you wield them alone your opponent can just parry an attack and then he grabs your weapon and a force struggle ensues. Grappling techniques are really amazing if you have a free hand. Axes are especially woundable as you can just pull the sword up the shaft and hook into the axe-head. Generally these weapons are inferior to swords as they are slower.
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    $\begingroup$ The pilum didn't just weigh down the shield, it also got in the way. The lead arrowhead would bend under the weight of the shaft, leading to the shaft hanging below the shield. It would thus get caught up on the terrain if you didn't hold the shield quite high. So you could either put up with your shield constantly getting stuck on things, or drop it entirely; neither prospect is very appealing. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun I was aware of that, but since I was sitting on the train writing that I had a lot of time on hand. Thus I decided to go for a full weapon breakdown insted of a sword relared one. Additionally about half of my ponts are applicable to his conditions. One-hand, two-hand, all of the polearms partially since a greatsword is used like a polearm and not like a sword, axe and sword maybe, throwing stuff and plate armor definitely. OP did not specify the avaliable equipment beyond sword and that means a lot of things are possible. Thanks though. Considering range means anti-tank gun is best ;) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Kyyshak I guess it depends on the ruleset you use. I see that it is an effective move when arms and hands are no-hit zones. If hands and especially lower arms are hittable as they would be in a real fight it seems like a risky move. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 21:46
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for HEMA $\endgroup$
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ Bullet point 2 includes the phrase "thug of war" (sic). I think that is an excellent phrase for the scenario in question. :) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 14:51

Traditionally one dragged the shield out of alignment using the edge of their own shield, if you're using a sword but have no shield then there are two possibilities:

  • You are using a two-handed weapon, a polearm or a sword like the Zweihänder in which case you have a reach advantage and actually can simply pound your opponent until they give you an opening while trying to get close enough to retaliate.

  • You are using a one-handed weapon you don't have reach advantage but you do have a free hand, you will be wearing gauntlets, grab the shield and pull. FYI you can actually pull the same stunt with your opponent's sword if you're wearing the right kind of gauntlets and you're fast enough (especially if they're using a single edged blade) but it's a good way to lose fingers if you get it wrong.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly my thoughts on the matter. The swordfighter must rely on his free hand to grab/inmovilize the opponent shield. Edit: The reach factor is also very important and I did not initially considered it. My thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @EricJusteHernandez All good, do note that while you can also block with a vambrace if you lose your shield odds are you'll end up with bruised or broken bones in the process. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ Your reach advantage may only last long enough for a single strike. If they deflect or block it and step in, you may find it difficult or impossible to wind up for a second strike (depending on your weapon, of course). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime True but always remember that you can hit with more than the blade of a sword, pommel strikes are often used to disable limbs for example. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash yes, there is the outside chance that your opponent might not just kill or disable you instantly, but I wouldn't want to rely on it ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:55

There are various relevant old jokes, such as "if you want to get there, don't start from here", or perhaps suggestions to avoid entering into an arse-kicking contest if you only have one leg.

Given that you've got yourself into this mess already, my first thought would be "distract my opponent so my friend can stab him in the side". If you've managed to get into a fight with a better equipped opponent and failed to bring a friend (and seriously, at this point you should be reconsidering your career) the best approach may be just to run away (or "make an expedited retrograde manoever" if you find the idea of running away to be distateful). You're probably less encumbered than your opponent is; put some distance between you and them, find some terrain that you can use to your advantage.

No friends, can't run away? Oh dear, oh dear.

Did you bring a side-arm? Something like a pilum would be ideal, though they are perhaps a little large. A francisca might also go down well, and there have been reports of them being used to break shields. Other smaller and lighter throwing weapons are unlikely to help, especially against larger shields.

No side arm, no friends, no escape?

The proximal cause of death at this point is likely to be stupidity, but you may yet escape if you're lucky. This is going to rely on your opponent being inept (a dangerous gamble), or being less fit than you (ie. the tiring out that you wanted to avoid) or you levelling the playing field by removing either their weapon or their shield from play without getting killed yourself (challenging, even against less skilled opponents). Frankly, I don't fancy your chances.

But enough changing the subject.

I'd like to go one up on Ash's perfectly good answer and suggest wearing a good suit of armour and wrestling.

heavily armoured knights wrestling

This isn't an unreasonable tactic, after all heavy armour can be pretty difficult to get through with hand weapons. Techniques like half-swording are already important in that situation, and necessarily bring you closer to your opponent, so your poorly-equipped attacker might reasonably already be quite familiar with getting very up-close-and-personal. Parry or bind your opponents sword, and chuck yourself on them before they can bash you out of the way with their shield. Once you've got into a good struggle snuggle, the shield will go from being a useful bit of defensive kit into a serious hinderance.

You might be able to apply the same technique if you were poorly armoured, if you were desparate. Again though, I don't fancy your chances.

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    $\begingroup$ As established, it is a combat involving two singular adversaries, one armed with a weapon and a shield, and the other one armed without a shield, but with the latter one having a clear expertise/proficiency advantage. Your comment is full of alternatives and variables to keep in mind, but could be simplidied to "no matter how good a swordmaster is, he could never hope beat in a duel an apprentice who has the shield he lacks" (which I believe is false). Still, many thanks for the out-of-the-box ideas. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ @EricJusteHernandez I never say that it is impossible, but that getting in to such a situation is the height of stupidity, and getting out of it is going to require a certain amount of luck. Yes, even for the swordmaster. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ Nice to know that :0 I wasn't that conscious of the unproportionate advantage given by a shield (or lack of). For this question, let's assume destiny/circumpstances made it so that the foe had a shield but you do not. I like to clear the fact that the unshielded one is greatly at odds, not just minor annoyed by it. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @EricJusteHernandez I've fought down my contrarian urges and added an answer slightly more in keeping with the question ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 20:28

I suggest using axe - it's the weapon specifically designed to break shield (especially strapped one, which the axe can also break or cut their shield arm if swing directly to the shield) and it can also hook the shield. Here an image how to hook the shield to the side:

enter image description here

If the user must use sword,this falx sword can deal shield (especially strapped one) and cut the enemy limb (depend on the shield type since real scutum/tower shield is thin) or hook the shield too.


enter image description here

Here are some example images from a quick google search (I don't know the real source is) it force roman to wear special arm guard and modified their armor just to deal with the Dacian falx men.

enter image description here enter image description here

Also, falx and two-handed axes like halberds or Dane axes can just reach around, ignoring the shield to cut or hook the person's exposed body directly - like their head, neck, arm, leg, or other body part not covered by the shield especially the arm that wield the weapon to unarm them.

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    $\begingroup$ And now you got your only melee weapon stuck in the enemy's shield and he still has a sword. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ it wont stuck long it can also just hook or pull the shield out if it stuck while mantaining range unless the enemy use spear or longer weapon, most warrior bring their secondary weapon anyway also dagger to finish off, for falx it can also reach around from the shield to cut the person arm or any exposed body side. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ Well, but the question was about one-on-one combat. Fighting in a shield wall is way different. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ yes? i think this is still valid for one on one combat, im pretty sure i dont mention shield wall or troop or multiple people though. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ My bad, misread flax as phalanx and thought you ment shield wall. From my combat experience I can tell you that you don't casually split a shield, even a thin one we use for our sport, much less a thick historical one. If a shield gets split, usually a daneaxe user ignoring all safety concerns is responsible. You must commit fully to splitting a shield and even then succees ain't guaranteed. Ever tried splitting firewood? The axe gets stuck. And even if it doesn't get stuck, the enemy will twist shield to disarm you. Considering backup-weapons: I need 0.2 second to stab you when in position $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 18:05

Using the same approach used by sports, where the defending team is actuating a solid defense, the key to break the wall is: keep trying and feinting until the defender leaves an opening.

In basketball the attacker keeps moving the ball around, same in soccer. In chess or in box the attacker prepares attacks trying to weaken the defender position. And so on and so forth.

Don't forget the saying

the threat is stronger than the execution

Just because you have a sword, you have already an advantage: you can feint an attack, but the shield bearer cannot feint a defense. It's either defend or take the blow.

With the proper combination of movements it is possible to force the defender to leave an opening and then strike.

Repeat until necessary.

(if you have anything which can obstacle the defender movement, that is even better: throw a row or a net on the ground, and let he stumble in it while dancing with his shield to block your feints)

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    $\begingroup$ Feinting also sound a superb technique, related to the "tire the opponent" but with an objective: create an oppening rather than waiting for it. I'll note that too, thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:41

(Assuming your enemy has a shield and sword, not just a shield...)

  • Using inherent disadvantages of a heavy shield:
    • You can tire him out.
    • Feint or otherwise draw his attention to one side, attack from the other.
    • Trip or shove him so he falls and either has trouble getting up with the shield or is forced to abandon it.
    • Lure him into difficult terrain, such as a river ford. You can "make" your own bad terrain by throwing things like caltrops on the ground.
    • Flank him from behind.
  • By attacking the effectiveness the shield:
    • Break the shield.
    • Use a weapon (axe, hook) to pry away the shield.
    • Jam weapons into the shield to pull it away, or just make it more bulky.
    • Set the shield on fire (not really a sword tactic).
  • Circumvent the strengths of the shield:
    • For a smaller shield, attack the feet which it cannot easily protect.
    • Stab over the top or from the sides. This is apparently even easier with flexible weapons like flails.
    • Use blunt/concussive weapons. A very heavy weapon like a mace or a hammer, even if it doesn't damage the shield, will send a strong shockwave to the arm behind it. You could hurt or bruise the arm, preventing effective use of the shield, you might even manage to break it. You could also knock him on the ground.
    • Throw things over the shield (not really a sword tactic). Anything flammable or otherwise liquid may be able to get through. Sufficient volume of missiles may also result in a few getting "lucky".
    • Use gas weapons (not really a sword tactic). Shield is no help against noxious smells, fire, toxic fumes and the like.

Kicking never seemed like a good idea to me. If it's a tower shield, it would be like trying to kick in a door that has someone leaning on it from the other side. You'd just as soon hurt your own leg. A smaller shield would be very hard to kick as the target is small and he would dodge it, besides he could then grab your leg and make you fall or stab it. If you were going to kick you might as well kick his exposed legs or stomp on his feet. Maybe if you had some kind of spikes on your feet or knee...

Although one wonders the wisdom of fighting a shielded man in the first place. In combat, defense naturally has an advantageous position, but less initiative. It cannot act, it must react. The attacker dictates the terms of the engagement. Maybe defeating the shield user head on is your only option... Or maybe you can ignore him entirely, and go for something else that he is not protecting, but is important to him. He will either be forced to concede an objective to you, or he will attempt to chase you down with his shield, which puts him at a disadvantage. Of course, conversely the shield user's strategy is likely to be to sap your initiative and force you to take him head on.

  • $\begingroup$ "Kicking never seemed like a good idea to me. If it's a tower shield, it would be like trying to kick in a door that has someone leaning on it from the other side." Or trying to kick in a door that has someone leaning on it from the other side only to find out they aren't leaning on it from the other side. I've kicked and bashed in doors as a firefighter, and you use different methods if think there will be continued resistance (something against the door) or if you expect it to suddenly give way. If the shield bearer takes a sudden step back so resistance suddenly goes away, kicker falls. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ Tire him out sounds a really good tactic, to be honest. If the shield is heavy and you're under no time pressure, just bait him towards you and wear him down. Make no real attempts to attack him until he has worn himself out defending your feints with the heavy shield. Even better, run away and go find a decent crossbow. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 17:34

Besides the ideas put forth already, from fighting in the SCA there were three methods of dealing with a shield, besides brute force or lightning speed

1) As has been put forward, kick or strike the outside of the shield with great force, prying open room for an attack on the inner edge (nearest the wielders center line)

2) strike the inner edge of the shield, pushing it in, which causes the outer edge to provide less protection for the side and back. Then attack, using a long weapon, at the backside of exposed side or back. You are reaching around the shield when you do this.

3) Feint and cause the defender to raise the shield to protect their face, and then time the real attack for your backswing or the spin the sword technique in your hand (forget the proper name) when they will lower their shield to get a look at what you are doing.

All attack methods have counters moves. And those counter moves have counter moves. In the end, between skilled fighters, it's about using combinations of tactics to force the other guy to make that final mistake.


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