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.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 0:16
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    You have been watching too many Captain America trailers/movies. They are fiction. Any resemblance to historical fact is purely unintended. Commented Apr 6, 2014 at 19:55
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    The phrase is not "the best offense is a good defense" for a reason...
    – TylerH
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 20:23
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    Arm strength is related only to how much you use the arm. For most people, the "dominant" hand is only stronger because they use it more. Anyone who practices sufficiently with a shield is going to be strong enough to use that shield with whatever arm they practice with. What makes a hand "dominant" is that it is better at fine control.
    – user15620
    Commented Aug 9, 2019 at 22:11

10 Answers 10


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
    Commented Sep 11, 2012 at 11:47
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    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
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 3:14
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    Feint is where you pretend to do something but do something else. Faint is where you lose consciousness which you do not want to do in a fight.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 22:56

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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    "There are circumstances in which a left hander might choose differently, however." Yes, simply being left-handed is circumstance enough to choose to wield your weapon in your left hand...
    – TylerH
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 20:25
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    @TylerH Lefthanded people would have fought mostly with the weapon in the right hand as most combat was group combat and when you fight as a group you don't want someone swinging from a different direction, particularly where shields are involved.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 0:39
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    @Daniel well, most combat was group combat, yes, but not structured group combat like a phalanx and shield wall by the middle ages (the time frame of this question). Also, my comment wasn't to suggest that left-handed people always wielded a weapon in their left hand, no matter what. It's just to underscore the obvious point about left-handed people being different from right-handed people in handedness.
    – TylerH
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 14:42
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    @TylerH The vast majority of group combat was structured combat, something that ancient and medieval fighting in pop culture in both computer games and the movies rarely shows. Most of the time it's a free for all which is not how people fought. Superior weapons, armour and stamina are the hallmarks of better troops along with training. Even peasants wielding farming tools would have formed blocks of troops standing shoulder to shoulder. Safety in numbers.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 22:43

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. Commented Sep 7, 2012 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.
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 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. Commented Sep 7, 2012 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
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 5:06
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    @none There is a castle in UK - sorry, can't remember details - where the family was genetically left-hand dominant, so built the spiral staircase anti- clockwise, thus putting attackers at an immediate disadvantage.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Aug 9, 2019 at 23:34

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.

  • I think I finally understand what the first paragraph is trying to say, but it doesn't work unless the shield is upside down. An emblem facing to the left side of a plane held to your left would be facing your back and not towards the enemy (unless you were fleeing).
    – lly
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 17:38

In addition to the other reasons for the shield on the left, the shield on the left makes it easier to parry sword thrusts in single combat, assuming your opponent is right-handed.


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


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.


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    Do you have a Citation? Commented Dec 4, 2012 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. Commented Dec 4, 2012 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.
    – Nzall
    Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 14:52
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    WRONG!!!! the shield was always held in the left and the weapon in the right, simply look at any contemporary illustration of statues for confirmation eg. Codex Manesse or Paulus Hector Mair The left (sinister) hand was rather looked down appon in Judo-Christian societies, and was was reserved for wiping the arse in Islamic and Indian.
    – arober11
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 10:45
  • The shield goes to the non-dominant hand. Try rather simple sword cuts with the dominant, and the non-dominant hand. Using the non-dominant hand really messes with your brain, just like brushing your teeth or combing your hair with the non-dominant hand. Afterwards, decide which hand to use for the shield and the sword.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 13:59

Regarding left handed people it is believed that they were forced to learn to fight right handed, as has been pointed out this was to allow them to work as part of a formation. However it is also believed that once formations broke up individuals may have switched to their dominant hand, as in a melee they are nolonger a disadvantage to their comrades.

In melee or a one on one fight a left handed person has an advantage, they would be used to fighting right handed opponents where a right handed person would not be used to left handed opponent. This puts the right handed person at a disadvantage.

Some swordsmen (both left and right handed) are believed to have trained with both hands. This gives two advantages, firstly it builds strength in both arms, secondly having some skill with your non-dominant hand would be useful in the event of injury or has been pointed out when attacking up a castles spiral staircase.

Interestingly in the British army left handers are still taught to shoot right handed. This is be cause of the current in service rifle (SA80) is a bullpup design which can only be fired right handed (unless you want the casings ejected into your face). It can be fired left handed only if the bolt is configured on the left hand side, and the MOD refuses to buy left handed rifles.

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    We like to see citations for things. You've said some interesting things, some of which I know to be true and some I don't know about, but you got that from sources we don't know and so we can't evaluate it. Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 15:54
  • You make that sound like a recent thing but all service rifles are made for right handed people and crew served weapons are fed from the left for the same reason. Casing ejects to the right. Bolt action on the right near the trigger, muskets with flash pan on the right - all designed for right handed people. There are sporting configurations for left handed people but not military which needs standardised equipment.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 1:18

It turns out that with sword-and-shield, or any weapon with shield, where one should hold the shield is based on the shield type. Example: in China in Three Kingdom war about 245 AC. They had many shields, recognisable as typeof light and heavy shield. Light shields are used with the left hand and combat in non-open field and with charging troops. The heavy are used with the right hand and combat in open field when formed as a group in formula Turtle form. That's it.


Just to chime in on your reasoning of maximizing defense at the expense of offense.

The Macedonian phalanx used a Sarissa spear which was 2-3 times the length of the traditional Greek Dory spear. It was so large that it required two hands to hold the spear. The Macedonian shield was thus smaller than the traditional hopolite shield and held in no hand but draped around the neck of the soldier.

Sarissa The sheer bulk and size of the spear required the soldiers to wield it with both hands, allowing them to carry only a 60 cm (24 in) shield (pelta) suspended from the neck to cover the left shoulder.

A good offense is often the best defense. The Macedonian Phalanx's protection wasn't the undersized shield at all, but rather was the five layers of spears facing outward the longer spears afforded the formation.

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