Sword and Target Tactical System Used by Europeans in the Americas, 1500-1650
by Rick Orli
First Published in The Moderne Aviso
(c)1995 richard j. orli
One of the military arts practiced during the early colonial period, such as at Jamestown
(1607-) is the use of the target and sword as part of a combined arms force. The use of
the target (or 'shield') and sword was by this time obsolete in Europe. While a common
weapon of the Scottish Border Reeves in the then current and past generation, the target
was not part of most army's first line armaments. However, this tactical system proved
very effective against the Indians throughout the Americas. Targeteers have two jobs:
shielding the slow-firing Musketeers from missile fire and attackers, and leading the
charge in shock combat. This article explores some of what we know of the experience of
the Targeteer in the New World.
The most detailed description of battle against native Americans is from Bernal Diaz's
report of his experience as a Targeteer in The Conquest of New Spain*. Much has been made
about the European advantages of gunpowder, horses, and metal armor and weapons. However,
gunpowder ran out completely in several key battles, and after many months of fighting the
Mexicans** were able to deal effectively with the horses. Spaniards were consistently able
to beat the natives with or without gunpowder, with or without horses, often relying on
the same quilted cotton armor worn by the Mexicans. The metal swords were also not
exceptionally better than the obsidian-tipped and edged Mexican weapons - in fact, a
Mexican once chopped off the head of a Spanish horse in battle with a single blow from a
Although weapons and armor quality was a Spanish advantage, without question the biggest
factor was that the Spaniards were mean SOBs with a level of experience in war and close
combat that is difficult for us to comprehend - even the war-and-blood obsessed Mexicans
were highly impressed. A third advantage was method - the Spaniards used close order
formations while the Mexicans used open order.
The Spaniards mastered the short sword and shield of the Tercio, as an explicit revival of
the classic Roman legion's tactics. Proven effective against professional pikemen, the
Tercio helped establish the Spanish reputation as the finest fighters in 16th Century
Europe. The Scots and English did not have the same tradition of close order tactics, but
clearly knew how to fight in unison.
Open order techniques are discussed in detail by di Grasse in his 1570's fencing manual.
In outline, he suggested:
- an open stance, the target is held away from the body, edge rather toward the opponent's
- deflecting rather than absorbing blows
- striking with sword while warding blows
- attacking using the edge of the shield as an offensive weapon
- attacking with the thrust only, as cuts are too easy to ward
- attacking, first probing the perimeter of the target, penetrating with a committed
attack once past the target's edge.
In close order formation, the rules for single combat such as explained in di Grasse may
not all apply. It is most difficult to "fence" in the usual sense in close
order. Further, the evidence was clear that the heaviest casualties along the line of
battle were trivial compared to the losses suffered as the result of a rout. Therefore, it
is likely that the emphasis of any training was first, never be a coward, second, attack
as aggressively as possible regardless of the risk to your own life, third, keep your
position in the ranks at all costs. The following are my speculative "rules" for
- The "open" way of holding the target is probably correct in formation shock
- Formation must be adhered to at all times. As Daiz explains:"we did not dare break
formations for any of our soldiers who was bold enough to break ranks to pursue their
swordsmen or captains was immediately wounded and in great danger."
- Rely on the shield of the man to your right, try to overlap enemy formation with your
right flank (implies recessed left flank)
- Have a buddy system or small teams that will fight together well as small units.
- In contact, move forward, forcing your opponent to walk backwards. Attack at all costs.
- Better to absorb hits and losses than retreating, since retreating may lead to a rout
and catastrophic losses.
What makes the Spanish victories even more impressive is that the Mexicans apparently did
not route easily - perhaps this is partially explained by the great Mexican numerical
superiority, perhaps the open-ordered approach is less brittle than the close-ordered
approach. In most European battles, once shock combat started one side or the other
usually lost nerve and/or cohesion fairly quickly. The Mexicans apparently charged and
kept coming, or accepted a charge and heavy casualties without panic in most cases. At any
rate, Mexican officers stood their ground - many Generals and Princes are listed killed
after every battle. This led to shock combat battles of an hour or even longer, unusually
long duration by European standards.
The Mexicans had a cultural imperative that was a disadvantage in battle against
outsiders. Two essential functions of battle were to provide sacrifices, and tests of
honor for the best of the best. The ultimate achievement for a warrior, that won the
blessings and riches of heaven and earth, was the capture of an undamaged prisoner in
battle. Diaz reports that again and again, a Mexican would, at a moment of victory, drop
his war club and attempt to grapple with and drag off a Spaniard. In the face of Spanish
tactics and cohesion, this failed almost every time. In contrast, a Mexican would feel
obliged to stop resistance, once beaten (selected by the gods for sacrifice?).
The following excerpts describe some engagements with small coastal tribes and the
Tlascalans. The big battles with the Aztecs, including the destruction of the Spanish army
in the retreat from Mexico City, were yet to come.
"They rushed on us like mad dogs and completely surrounded us, discharging such a
rain of arrows, darts, and stones upon us that more than seventy of our men were wounded
in the first attack. Then, in the hand-to-hand fighting, they did great damage with their
spears... With our muskets and crossbows and good swordplay, we put up a stout fight, and
once they came to feel the edge of our swords they fell back, but only to shoot at us in
greater safety... I said to Diego de Ordain, "I think we ought to close up and charge
them. It's the thrust and edge of our swords they really feel!"... I remember that
whenever we fired our guns, the Indians gave great shouts and whistles, and threw up straw
and earth so that we could not see what harm we had done them. They sounded their trumpets
and drums, and shouted and whistled, and cried, 'Alala!, Alala!'
When it was over, we bandaged our wounds with cloths, for that was all we had, and sealed
our wounds and the wounds of our horses with the fat from an indian corpse we had cut up
for this purpose.... we found more than eight hundred dead, most of whom had been killed
by sword thrusts, the rest by cannon, muskets, or crossbows. ... wherever the horsemen had
passed there were great numbers of dead and wounded. The battle had lasted over an
hour." The Spaniards lost two killed.
The Spaniards relied on the horse troopers for tactical offense: "We decided
that the horsemen, in groups of three for mutual assistance, should charge and return at a
trot, and should hold their lances rather short; and that when they broke through the
Tlascalans' ranks they should aim at the faces, and give repeated thrusts, so as to
prevent them from seizing their lances. If, however, a lance should be seized, the
horseman must use all his strength and put spurs to his horse. Then the leverage of the
lance beneath his arm and the headlong rush of the horse would either tear the lance free
or drag the indian along with him."
5 September, 1519. ... "The crossbowmen were warned to use their supply of arrows
very carefully, some loading while others were shooting. The musketeers were to act in the
same way, and the men with sword and target to aim at the enemy's bowels, so as to prevent
their coming so close as they had done before. We were four hundred, of whom many were
sick and wounded, standing in the middle of a plain six miles square swarming with indian
warriors. When they began to charge the stones sped like hail from their slings, and their
barbed and fire-hardened darts fell like corn on the threshing floor - each one capable of
piercing any armor.... Their charging swordsmen were repelled by stout thrusts from our
"Once I saw our company in such confusion that despite the shouts of Cortes and the
other captains they could not hold together. The Indians were charging in such numbers
that only by a miracle of sword play were we able to drive them back and reform our ranks.
"We moved through the midst of them at the closest quarters, slashing and thrusting
at them with our swords. And the dogs fought back furiously, dealing us wounds and death
with their lances and their two-handed swords."
* Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, 1565, J.M. Cohen translator (1963). Penguin
** For simplicity I use 'Mexican' to include both the Aztec empire, properly know as
Mexicans, and the Tlascalans and costal tribes, who were enemies of the Mexicans.
# G. Di Grasse, His True Art of Defense, 1570