Article – Thoughts on the ‘Billmans Suprise’

By Anthony F.

Recently, I have been giving some thought to the ‘Billmans Surprise’ and how accurate this is.

This is not sour grapes on my part – although I was hit this way at the weekend – rather it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

Firstly let’s set the context. Tournament and field use.


Daggers were not used in tournaments at the time. Really, they can only be used by grappling and finding the squidgy bits, and to quote Ben Godden – “That was considered extreme, even back then”.

There is only one illustration I can find that is possibly in a Tournament usage, and that is by the Emperor Maximillian. It shows a single dagger, not used in conjunction. 

I’ve already removed daggers from Harrington tournaments (I have staged a single round with only daggers before now, but not in onwards melees). 

Partly, for authenticity, but also for spectacle – which is what a tournament was about, even in the 15th Century. 

On playtesting, when participants had multiple hits, people were ‘drum rolling’ daggers on them and I remained unconvinced they had the lethal character I identify with a good strike. Certainly, not enough impact to trouble someone in a tournament back then.

To be fair – we are not always using prescribed tournament weapons in tournees (there are no usage of bills for example, which are a staple of the U.K. Battlefield). According to Rene of Anjou swords were square edge and designed so as not able to pass through the helmet grills, and leather clubs for maces. We don’t used these as standard. Later illustrations from the Beuchamp pageant seem to show rebated blades and narrower slits – which is more akin to our modern field equipment.

But again no daggers.

True, Talhoffer shows daggers in arenas, but examining the context, these are judicial combat and not tournaments. And again, single hand usage – not in conjunction with a second weapon like a spear.




This usage is interesting. Daggers were worn, but I have seen no evidence either in manuals or period illustrations for a dagger in the rear hand on a staff weapon. 

Indeed, if we look at what daggers were used for, most of the fight books I’ve seen then they are in a civilian (unarmoured) context. 

Once armour is worn, then it becomes grappling, and forcing open visors, up beneath the breastplate etc. A dagger is clearly going to do very very little to a man in even a small amount of armour unless you can find an opening.

In terms of experimental archeology, what is happening at UK reenactment events however, is combatant A is in half harness or above, and encumbered. Combatant B, is lightly armoured, using a bill in the spear mode, with a dagger in the rear hand. Whether they are truly in control of the weapon is I think down to the individual’s strength, weapon length, and grip.

The billman (Combatant B) carries the dagger because they know someone is going to get past the point and close. Rarely, are they actually using the bill as it would have been used (ie. short haft) – but let’s go further.


Combatant A closes, binds and moves in and cleaves him with his longsword. Combatant B hits him on armour with the dagger, and under our rules then a good hit is struck by both. Perhaps our dagger man is quicker and takes the score. But Armour is there so we go to work on a monday morning. Let’s take a step back.

When this happens in a demo with all eyes watching it looks dire. Why? Because we’re propagating a re-enactorism that a man in armour can be taken out with a long knife. HEMA, and oriental arts also mention ‘acceptable outcomes’ – most of us would take a cut from a dagger if our opponent was split down the middle.


No, of course we are not going to start wrestling to the ground and jamming daggers in through the visor, but I think we need to change the status quo because we are educating people on something which is clearly wrong, and promoting an inaccurate combat philosophy. 

The Billman should be working towards striking their opponent with their Bill. If they can’t do this then it’s probably because it’s too long for them to use in a way a bill should be used, and they are relying on a dagger to compensate for the fact that the weapon head is too far away to readjust once displaced.


Going forward, I see four possible future approaches:


1. Status Quo – do nothing


2. Allow them in a *battlefield* context only. Remove from any demo which is run as a tournament.


3. They only count if they do not hit plate armour (similar to Hartley tournaments, and the ‘Naseby variant’ of the Harrington Skirmish rules). The flip side is this approach could encourage injuries from the untrained, and thrusts to the arm pit are technically above the bottom of the sternum and hence off limit under most rules.


4. Allow daggers to be ignored by those with an armour level of 3 upwards (see the RTO armour weightings for reference). Dagger length would be defined as per the Mss agm resolution. 


As a community of living historians, I think we should discuss these in order to challenge this reenactorism.

Personally, I like the idea of option 4, both in a tournament and battlefield context.

All opinions are welcome! 



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