Warren Neilson said the first armored combat bout he had was with his brother, Ryan.
“It was actually pretty close for just two guys that were kind of unsure what we were doing and having a good time,” said Neilson.
“That first fight was exhilarating. So tiring, but exhilarating.”
The High River native and member of the Calgary-based Company of the Silver Gryphons of the Heavy Armoured Combat Sports Association (HACSA), said he’d seen the event at medieval festivals over the years. At a recent show, he saw a demonstration by the Silver Gryphons, decided it was time to take a swing at it, and he’s been fighting for the past seven months.
Now, after winning a recent qualifying tournament in Okotoks that drew a crowd of more than 500 people, Neilson, his brother, and Silver Gryphons captain Richard Manns, will be headed to the International Medieval Combat Federation (IMCF) world championships at the Belmonte Castle in Spain from April 30 to May 4.
“We’d been wanting to kind of experiment with it a few years, give it a try, find out what it was all about,” said Neilson, who played football in high school and was looking for another team contact sport.
“We’re big history buffs, we like the combat, the tactics of battles – we always studied that and really enjoyed it.”
To get a chance to live out a real-life battle in a sport setting was appealing.
“I told my brother, ‘let’s go,’” he said.
Heavy armoured combat sports growing in Calgary and across Canada
There are two types of fights in heavy combat sports: group fights and duels, said Manns.
In the group fights, the idea is to get an opponent to make three points of contact with the ground (example – knee, foot, foot) by striking your opponent with a blunted weapon. No cheap shots, like to the knees, the groin or the neck, said Manns.
Once all the team members are down, or if there’s a three-on-one situation, they lose. Then the next round.
The duels are like fencing – except instead of electric counting, you have to get a good strike on the opponent’s armour.
“You need to make sufficient contact to get a point. Like, if you tap each other, it’s not a point,” said Manns.
The Silver Gryphons have nearly 20 members after launching their local company 18 months ago. They practice at a gym near the Cheesecake Café on Macleod Trail.
There are at least eight companies from coast to coast to coast within Canada. The sport is in its infancy here in North America, but it’s slowly gaining steam, Manns said.
“People are really seeing what it can be,” he said.
“When they watch us, they say, ‘Oh look at those re-enactors.’ And then they see us hit each other and they’re like, ‘oh, I want to do that.’”
Getting involved in heavy armoured combat
While it’s big in Europe, Manns said he’s trying to build more interest in Calgary and southern Alberta.
The Silver Gryphons practice once a week. For $30 insurance, a weekly gym fee and a set of armour starting at roughly $1,500 one can get immersed in heavy armoured combat. In the interim, Manns said he’s got some spare armour for newcomers to use just to test their mettle.
Most of the armour comes from overseas and weighs between 60 and 120 pounds.
“One of the things about our sports is trying to stay to historical analogs, meaning that (the armour) should have existed at one point in time,” he said.
“We aren’t cosplayers, we aren’t reenactors – we’re guys who are doing the real thing. This is full-scale, live and unscripted, so we’ve got to make sure it’s safe. We’ve got to make sure it’s not just guys walking in there with Skyrim cosplay stuff.”
World Championships and a bigger Calgary heavy combat event in June
Neilson said he doesn’t expect to do win much in the world championships. He’s there for the experience and he hopes to wield it back here in Alberta to stir up some excitement in the sport.
“What I expect to bring home from Europe is just an absolute wealth of experience and knowledge that I’m going to get from guys who do this, there’s some places where they do this pretty much for a living,” he said.
“They know the ins and outs of the sport like the back of their hand.”
Manns said he’s hoping an upcoming event planned in Calgary for the Nutrien Centre at Stampede Park from June 19 to 21 will push the sport ahead even more.
“It was kind of unheard of two or three years ago here in Canada and now I’m working hard to build it,” he said.
“Right now, we’re hoping for a little more Canada-wide recognition. We’re hoping for improved relations between the US, the Mexicans and possibly South Americans. We want the Europeans to start seeing us as big contenders in putting on events in this sport.”
They’ll have teams from all over the world competing at the Calgary event.
Getting to the world championships
Having been to world competitions, Manns knows the financial challenge of loading up the gear, having it pass customs and ensuring proper transport to the events.
“I can tell you that I pay a ton in airfare, luggage fees, transportation, splitting up armor and weapons and you get a lot of questions from customs,” he said.
“I bring my helmet as a carry on, so when I bring it with me, I get a lot of looks.”
The trio will be joined by 17 others from the companies across Canada, as the Team Canada entry.
Neilson and his brother have started a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of their international travels so they can compete for Canada.
“The fees to transport your equipment there and back are usually pretty high,” Neilson said.
They want to go overseas, bring back the experience and continue to grow the sport in Canada.
“We would love to grow the sport, grow our team. And you know, and just make this sport huge in Canada and North America,” Neilson said.