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 two-handed "broadsword"!

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:

** 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