A modern boar hunt and its implications for sword fighting

This blog contains graphic descriptions of a modern boar hunt.  If you are squeamish about such things you might want to give it a pass.  

"The boar is so fierce a beast, and also so cruel, that ... he despiseth and setteth nought by death, and he reseth full piteously against the point of a spear of the hunter. And though it be so that he be smitten or sticked with a spear through the body, (he will...) wreak himself on his adversary with his tusks, ... and breaketh and rendeth cruelly with them ... instead of a sword."

Bartolomeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, mid 13th century bestiary.


Arthur slaying boar

British Library MS Royal 20 A V fol. 49


Modern Boar Hunting

As was shown in the previous post on Medieval boar hunting, the chase was understood as prime training for war.  While some historical martial artists have written about the boar hunt as a way for modern people to practice aspects of the chivalric arts, few people within the Historical European Martial Arts community or reenactment groups seem to have tried to apply boar hunting to their martial practice (see Swinney and Crawford's article from Acta Periodica Duellatorum linked here).  To be sure, it is a daunting, dangerous, gruesome, and expensive endeavor.  It is also fascinating.  

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of participating in a boar hunt with several friends from my local historical European martial arts club.  Four of us went down to Texas where we had contracted a guide who took us out searching for hogs with his pack of very well-trained dogs.  When you hunt boar with dogs you often, for safety's sake, do so with knives instead of guns.  Below is the knife I used for this hunt, for scale, the blade is a foot long and almost three inches wide. In fact, the blade is made from the end of a sword blade that I refashioned.


hunting knife     close up of cross

A hunting knife I made myself at Arms and Armor using a cast of a cross from a historic German hunting sword

I had considered bringing a longer weapon as advised by Gaston Phoebus (see quotation below) such as our Friedrich IV spear but was advised against it due to the density of the underbrush we would be pushing through.  The use of a knife is also arguably more intuitive than a spear, and it is quicker to bring to bear in a tight situation when a spear might get hung up on branches or vines.
hunting spear  Friedrich spear


"If one dares attack a boar in his den one should do so with a ‘barred’ spear, i.e. one that is equipped with a crossbar below the head, or ‘winged’, to prevent the weapon from entering too deep, thus enabling the hunter to keep out of range of the boar’s deadly tusks. For the same reason one should grip the shaft in the middle and not near the head. If the boar is attacking one must not couch the spear but wield it with both fists. But if the hunter has struck one should couch the spear and with all one’s might press against the boar. If the beast is stronger than the hunter, the latter should change from one side to the other but not for a moment relax his hold, and keep pushing until God or men come to his aid."Gaston Phoebus quoted in Swinney and Crawford "Medieval Hunting as Training for War: Insights for the Modern Swordsman", Acta Periodica Duellatorum.

Milton the boar

 A trophy of a previous hunt named Milton

The hunt began with the release of some hounds, known as bay dogs because their job is to find a boar, corner it, and make enough of a ruckus that the hunting party can follow their barks and howls to the quarry.  Once the dogs  found a boar the hunters approached with another dog with a different job, the catch dog.  This is usually a large bully-breed such as a Pit-bull or Boxer equipped with a armored vest, whose job it is to bite the wild pig on the ear, thereby slowing it down and occupying its business end.    

livre de chasse  boar hunt


When we set the catch dog on the first boar we had at bay it took off, dragging a 75lb dog through a thicket and into a dry steam bed where we pursued it.  My friend Jeff, a skilled hunter and veteran of many hog hunts, attempted to grab the hog by the back leg, but it turned on him quickly, lifting the catch dog into the air as it spun.  Jeff leapt onto the stream bank, holding onto a branch and keeping the hog back with his foot.  At the same time I approached from behind and thrust my dagger, as Phoebus instructs, behind the shoulder-blade, up into the heart and lungs.


    hunting Richard Swinney with hunting dogs and quarry.
 Me posing with the dispatched quarry and Richard  Swinney with a boar.

When pursuing wild hogs with edged weapons it is necessary to work together as a group. I think that this is one of the primary lessons for historical martial artists, who usually study dueling rather than combat.  If I had not been correctly positioned on the opposite side  of our quarry from my friend Jeff, he might well have been gored.  This was no accident.  Prior to the hunt we had discussed the importance of staying spread out and not getting stacked up behind one another, a position that makes it very difficult to aid your companions if they meet a hog in close quarters.  We had also talked through some scenarios and in order to make it less likely that someone might freeze up or hesitate when confronted with a dangerous and quickly changing situation.  I think that the ability to quickly decide and act in the moment is effectively trained by normal HEMA practice, though the introduction of real danger adds significantly to the stakes.    

Maxmillian processional figures of Bear Hunters

"A wild boar...is the beast of this world that is strongest armed,
and can sooner slay a man than any other. Neither is there any beast that he could not slay if they were alone sooner than that other beast could slay him, be they lion or leopard, unless they should leap upon his back, so that he could not turn on them with his teeth. And there is neither lion nor leopard that slayeth a man at one stroke as a boar doth, for they mostly kill with the raising of their claws and through biting, but the wild boar slayeth a man with one stroke as with a knife, and therefore he can slay any other beast sooner than they could slay him."

Edward of Norwich, The Master of Game, early 15th century.

boar tusks
A Texas boars natural armaments
The second lesson for historical martial artists is the effectiveness of thrusting as a killing stroke.  Wild hogs are tough beasts, armored even.  Across their backs they have a thick layer of hard fat called a cape that protects their internal organs.  This cape is often anecdotally credited with stopping bullets (though I find this doubtful). In the Middle Ages it was referred to similarly, as in this line, again from the Master of Game:"They have a hard skin and strong flesh, especially upon their shoulders which is called the shield."

I had prepared for thrusting through this armor to be difficult - it was not.  My dagger slid through the cape and into the heart with no perceptible resistance.  I was also prepared for the hog to struggle and turn on me, and perhaps to live for up to a minute.  Thankfully, this was not the case.  The boar immediately collapsed and bled out in a matter of two or three seconds.  When we cleaned and processed the meat that evening it became clear that my thrust had cut its heart cleanly into two pieces.  One of the other hogs killed by my friend in a similar manner had severed ribs where he stabbed it.  The thrust sliced the rib of a 250 pound wild hog entirely in two before continuing into its heart and lungs, and he didn't even notice hitting the bone.  


 The effectiveness of a single well-placed thrust to quickly kill a formidable foe is instructive for sword fighters. In contemporary HEMA circles there is a lot of emphasis on cutting with proper structure and power.  Indeed, these are necessary to cut effectively.  I wonder though if we need to think about the thrust quite differently.  After this experience I think it very likely that just about any thrust that lands in HEMA-style fencing is very likely to run through and through.  This has implications for sword fighting practice.  Thrusts are very artificial when they hit a mask or a 400 newton jacket, flexing the weapon and keeping the opponent at a distance.  If, however, a thrust encounters essentially no resistance then the mechanics of everything that happens after the thrust are very different.  The antagonists will not be kept apart by a flexing sword, instead the distance will collapse as the sword goes through one of them.  This also means that the distance created by a feder thrust which provides some protection against afterblows or concurrent hits will not happen.  

Think about the last time that you hit a fencing partner with a thrust.  Now, imagine that the sword had gone straight through them with no resistance.  How would that alter the dynamics of the next few seconds?  Additionally, how might skirmishing in groups alter our training? I'm sure this is not an exhaustive account of the implications of boar hunting for training to fight with swords, but I hope these observations are useful or interesting to some who read it.   

 Boar spears in the Jagd- und Fischereimuseum Munich

Jagd- und Fischereimuseum, Munich

Medieval boar hunting resources:

Blog post by Thijs Porck, Boars of battle, the wild boar in the early Middle Ages

Medieval Hunting as Training for War: Insights for the Modern Swordsman, Swinney and Crawford, Acta Periodica Duellatorum. 

Full text of The Master of Game: The Oldest English Book on Hunting

Livre de Chasse/book of the hunt, Gaston Phoebus, Count of Froix.  

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