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I'm asking a question elsewhere and I'm sure I've heard some historical text to back this up as well as sound reasoning: you want your strongest arm to stop yourself from getting killed by using a shield. Any attack you make is a bonus.

  1. Is this at all historically verifiable?
  2. If so where was this style dominant?
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Deja vu. I think I've read this somewhere also, but I don't know where. –  American Luke Sep 7 '12 at 0:16
    
You have been watching too many Captain America trailers/movies. They are fiction. Any resemblance to historical fact is purely unintended. –  Pieter Geerkens Apr 6 at 19:55

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Perhaps you're thinking of a video game, because I'm sure that what you posit makes no sense whatsoever in hand-to-hand combat.

A shield is just movable armor. It's big enough not to require a lot of accuracy in placement, just a shift toward the direction of attack. Its design, at some minimal level, will resist blows from hand weapons passively, i.e. requiring no strength. You could faint underneath a scutum and it would still deflect the odd sword thrust from your body.

Even if you're 100% successful in blocking his blows with your shield for the first few minutes, however, you'll eventually get tired, and find yourself on the pointy end of his blade. If you don't run away, you must attack him and kill, injure, or frighten him enough to remove that threat, and the enemy is not going to impale himself on your sword in the spirit of cooperation and fair play. Stabbing, slashing, or punching a disabling blow is going to take a lot of strength, and if any civilization used its dominant arm for shielding instead of swording, it's not likely to have lasted long enough to have a written history.

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Further, you really need to use your dominant hand for the weapon. Trying to hit hard enough to do damage or kill with the off hand is quite hard - you can hit almost equally with your fist, but you run into dexterity and aim issues very quickly with any weapon. Plenty of fighting styles used no shield at all. –  gothwalk Sep 11 '12 at 11:47
    
+1. Loved the "impale himself on your sword in the spirit of cooperation and fair play". –  Felix Goldberg Dec 28 '12 at 21:10
    
looking at the wall plans of Babylon helps one figure out where the shield would be as well. the steps up the walls were made so as to cause the attackers' shields to face away from the wall, making them vulnerable to the defenders' missile attacks. coincidentally, this also reveals that the predominant shield arm of that era was the left arm. –  code4life May 20 at 3:14

This only makes sense if you are not holding a weapon (e.g. a shield bearer). If you are holding a weapon, the weapon should be in your right hand for accuracy and strength.

I have studied several different styles of sword fighting and also the history of the sword, but I have never seen any reference to using a shield in the right hand when a weapon is present.

There are circumstances in which a left hander might choose differently, however.

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It makes sense that in formations, everyone uses the same arm to hold the shield since the benefits of order in the formation far outweigh those of individual strengths. For example, hoplites carried their shields on their left arms, covering also those to their left. Anyone who was trained to be a hoplite would learn to use the shield on their left arms and would consequently find that to be their stronger shield arm irrespective of their natural preference.

Perhaps such a choice was possible in societies that did not fight in formations and did not enforce the use of a specific arm in training. I'm not aware of any.

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Thus the prejudice against left-handers which only ended very recently. My dad recalls an elementary school classmate where the teacher tied his left arm to the chair to force him to use the right hand to write. Natural lefties were a liability in massed hand-to-hand combat - you couldn't predict where and how someone else in the line would be swinging their sword or holding their shield, and fencing instructors had no experience to draw from in training lefties to attack or defend. –  RI Swamp Yankee Sep 7 '12 at 13:20
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@RISwampYankee - There's a lot more to anti-lefty prejudice than that. In uneducated societies, just being weird in some way is more than enough to arouse suspicion. However, outside of formation fighting, being left-handed would be a downright advantage in hand-to-hand fighting, just as it is in confrontational sport situations, like baseball batting and pitching. –  T.E.D. Sep 7 '12 at 15:09
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Remember, dueling is not combat, fencing is not baseball. Close-formation infantry wins battles, and if there's a tradition of left-hand weapons training before the modern day, it's not recorded. –  RI Swamp Yankee Sep 7 '12 at 18:45
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@T.E.D. the spiral stairs in castles curled up clockwise so that right handed defenders (coming down) have an advantage over right handed attackers (going up). So a left handed attacker would have an advantage –  none Oct 4 '12 at 5:06

As a useless piece of extra trivia to this, the fact that mounted warriors of knights generally held their shield in their right arm, whilst riding a horse, shielded them from attack from someone coming from the opposite direction.

As this habit of riding on the left side, with the shield held in the right arm evolved and developed over time, it's the reason why cars in the UK drive on the left hand side of the road!

Here's some additional research to driving on the left hand side of the road –

In the past, almost everybody travelled on the left side of the road because that was the most sensible option for feudal, violent societies. Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further from him. Moreover, it reduced the chance of the scabbard (worn on the left) hitting other people.

Furthermore, a right-handed person finds it easier to mount a horse from the left side of the horse, and it would be very difficult to do otherwise if wearing a sword (which would be worn on the left). It is safer to mount and dismount towards the side of the road, rather than in the middle of traffic, so if one mounts on the left, then the horse should be ridden on the left side of the road.

Source

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Do you have a Citation? –  Pureferret Dec 4 '12 at 21:27
    
I'm afraid I don't have a direct reference for this. A lot of what I write here comes directly from memory - the result of having spent many years reading history books. It's perfectly rational and logical when you think about it, considering most people would be right handed and would be most likely to attack with a weapon in the right hand. With someone facing you coming from the opposite direction, that attack would come from your right hand side. I'm sure there will be a reference to this out there if you're prepared to research it. –  spiceyokooko Dec 4 '12 at 23:41
    
I also remember reading something about the shield arm and the rotational direction of spiral staircases in medieval castles being related. Something about defenders having more room to swing their blade while attackers are hindered by the central pillar. –  Nate Kerkhofs Apr 2 at 14:52

By heraldics the shields for one figure designed to face to the enemy. So the figure was facing leftwards, and generally the shield was worn on the left hand.
Try to imagine the concept, the shield's face facing out on the left hand, and the figure looks towards left, so towards the enemy.

The case is different with more figures, that is more complex, but a single figure gives a good hint on the usage.

I have a good book on this subject, but the wikipedia article also good enough.

So traditionally it was worn on the left hand. The arguement of "stronger hand" falls if you consider in a battle you need to kill or incapable the enemy, so it is more essential to use the weapon with the hand which is stronger and more precise.

Left handed people are more problematic in this subject, I have no sources yet to decide if they worn their shield on the right hand, and the weapon on the left hand. I can either imagine that they were forced to learn the righthanded fighting or they were left alone as exceptions of the rule.

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According to the Wikipedia page, "Shield", the shields were shown always in the left hand. The reason might be, if the shield was in the right hand, then it would be harder to kill your opponent or in worse cases opponents. Another site is http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/rosivach/cl115/military/hoplites.htm

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Do you have sources for this, or is this just speculation based solely on the images of one web-page? –  American Luke Dec 28 '12 at 19:25
    
As a matter of fact I do PIE. ;-) –  danilka1 Dec 28 '12 at 21:52

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