The sound of sword strikes echoes through the towering pine trees in Black Forest, just north of Colorado Springs where the Colorado Wardens practice their sport. Armor, long swords and shields are just some of the equipment in the group’s armory.
What they do is not a choreographed re-enactment or costumed performance. It’s full-contact medieval armored combat using blunt weapons. It’s a sport based on tournaments that took place in the Middle Ages.
The first time he fought in armor, Jeff Lexa of Colorado Springs said he couldn't get enough.
"I just got beat into the ground and threw some people around," he said. "I loved it. I couldn't wipe a smile off my face no matter what happened to me."
Lexa is one of several Wardens who traveled to Europe this week for an international competition. He will fight with other competitors from across the country in various melees.
Lexa said his armor, called a kit, is based on a style from the early 16th century and weighs close to 100 pounds. He uses it when he competes in team melees. That’s when as many as 300 armored combatants take the field to battle it out.
“We're doing this for sport, as they did back then. That's the historical root of this, to replicate combat,” Lexa said.
There are also one-on-one duels, a specialty for national champion Shoshana Shellens of Black Forest. Her black and steel gray kit weighs about 45 pounds, which she said allows for better mobility and visibility.
“Everything fits into the bag a bit like Tetris,” she said as she unpacked plated leg protection called greaves and cuisses. She also has metal gauntlets for her hands and wrists and foot armor. Her helmet is a German clap visor that weighs about 8 pounds.
There are some 21st-century features hidden beneath that historic exterior though. The brigandine chest armor she uses is made with titanium, a modern lightweight metal and there’s modern gel padding that goes under everything.
“This keeps the armor from abusing me when the armor is hit against me,” Shellens said.
In the international competitions in Europe this week she expects to duel in women's sword and shield events.
But during practices she fights men, including ones who are a lot taller and bigger than her. Like Benjamin Splitter of Sheridan Lake, who stands a whole head above Shellens.
He loves this sport so much he drives nearly three hours from his home on the Eastern Plains to get to the Wardens’ weekly practice sessions. He just finished putting together his mid-14th century kit a few months ago, including a gorget, which is basically a wide chainmail guard designed to protect his neck and shoulders.
“When you start getting into it, you feel more (like) it's part of you,” he said about his kit. “It's wonderful.”
The kits have to meet authenticity standards for competition, set by the sport’s governing bodies. Most fighters buy their gear from professional armorers. It can cost around $2,000 and that's just a starting point.
But some like Ian Webb of Colorado Springs prefer to make part or all of their own kits themselves.
“Because I'm a big guy, I recognize that I'm going to be a very large target,” he said. “So I wanted a kit that's going to protect me in any case, whatsoever.”
At 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, Webb often fights using a poleaxe or halberd, which is a long-shafted staff topped with an ax head.
He and the others practice using a stationary target called a pel. In this case it’s a stack of tires among the trees. Webb pounds it over and over again creating rhythmic loud thuds.
The fighters sometimes spar with what’s called a soft kit. It doesn’t include armor and involves foam-covered training weapons.
Webb and Travis Chuning of Woodland Park wallop each other with them. They’re dressed in gambesons, long well-padded tunics that tie closed. Webb’s is light brown, ragged and worn from use. Chuning’s is purple and a bit newer. They also wear modern helmets, shin guards and gloves.
But soft doesn’t necessarily mean safer, Webb said. “Armor works. We get a lot less hurt in armor than we do out of armor.”
During a melee, like the ones he’ll compete in during this week’s championships in Europe, Webb said the armor creates a kind of tunnel vision and mutes some of the external sound. But, he said, it heightens internal senses.
“It's all really muffled. You're hearing thunk, thunk, thunk,” he said. “You hear your own heartbeat, you feel your own breath. You're just so focused on what you're doing, what you're experiencing, the pains that you feel when somebody strikes you, the exhaustion in your lungs.”
Chuning is still putting his kit together, but he’s already hooked on the sport.
“You're breathing in the smell of the dirt, the sweat and like you have all the metal and leather in your nose,” said Chuning. “All you hear is these other dudes clanking around you. You get this huge rush of excitement and happiness and adrenaline. You get punched around and you do some punching around, you throw some people down and you just feel like this badass warrior.”
Chuning calls it armored mixed martial arts. “I do the nerdiest form of MMA that you can do and it's awesome,” he said.
It is a sport that combines nerd and jock. Some people come to it because they grew up fighting imaginary dragons with broomstick swords and trash can lids for shields, or because they’re interested in history or it keeps them strong and fit. Members of the Colorado Wardens said what keeps them going is the camaraderie and support they share with each other.
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