As they say, “All is fair in love and war,” something that the warriors and soldiers of the past seemed to have embedded in their hearts, way way before rules and guidelines for conducting war became a thing with the Geneva and Hague Conventions. In the past, it was but a lawless open world where anything and everything was possible. The result was some of the most unconventional, astonishing, and sometimes hard-to-believe combat techniques. Winning is the name of the game, whatever it might take.

Pretending to be a Cow

What are you willing to do to ensure the success of your plan to take over a castle?

It was during the First Scottish War of Independence against the English. At that time, the Scots had successfully taken over the majority of the castles from the English hands, except for a few. One of which was the fortress of Roxburgh, which was a key strategic fortress in a highly defensible position; a conventional siege proved to be useless in capturing it. On February 19, 1313, Robert the Bruce’s key lieutenant, The Black Douglas, came up and pulled off a rather unconventional attack at the seemingly formidable castle. His idea? Dress up as a cow.

The ruins of the famous castle of Roxburgh, a favorite of Scottish kings, seated on its massive grassy mound between the Rivers Tweed and Teviot. Painter: E. W. Haslehust

The plan was to attack the night of Shrovetide, which was a Roman Catholic holiday “that was solemnized with much gaiety and feasting.” The Black Douglas dressed 60 of his men in black cloaks and positioned them around the castle on all fours to make them appear like cattle grazing in the fields. Even more convincing if they practiced mooing. Anyway, when the English were busy with their feast, probably all while feeling thankful for the bountiful food and cattle outside, the Scots began to deploy their rope ladders hooked onto the end of extra-long spears. They fixed these ladders to the battlements, and it wasn’t until one of the members of the garrison emerged to find out that the cows were at the top of the ladder. He was quickly killed by dirk, and then his body was pulled over the castle wall.

Soon, the castle was overrun by the Scots, and the English governor locked himself away in the main Donjeon tower. He had to surrender later on because he was badly injured by an arrow, and they wanted to return to England.

Once the English were eliminated, Robert the Bruce ordered the fortifications to be demolished, as he did with most castles. The remnants of the castle can still be found on the banks of the River Tweed today.

Pankration, Fighting with No Limits

Pankration was an ancient Greek martial art that literally translates to “all of the might,” which pretty much tells you about the principle behind it. Imagine boxing or wrestling, only that you could bite your enemy’s nose or maybe gouge his eyes if you felt like that would make you win. If that was not brutal enough, attacking the enemy’s genitals and strangulations was also totally legal. It was pretty much expected as it was part of the ideal way of training soldiers.

The Battle of Thermopylae engraving
The Battle of Thermopylae engraving. (Abbott, Jacob, 1803-1879, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Spartans were said to be well-trained in pankration. In their last stand at Thermopylae, they reportedly used Pankration skills after losing their armaments. The Spartans fought with bare hands, feet, nails, and teeth to kill as many Persians as possible before dying to the last man.

Bringing an Oar in a Swordfight

Duel between Miyamoto Musashi vs. Sasaki Kojiro. (Yoshifusa Utagawa (active ca. 1840-1860), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1612, the legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was scheduled to duel a skilled opponent in a swordfight on Ganryu Island, a small locale in the strait located in the middle of Honshu and Kyushu. Mushashi himself was a legend, having killed his first opponent at age 13 and fought a total of 60 duels in which he was victorious.  Now, it’s important to note that Musashi was known to have dedicated his entire life to the way of the sword. He was said to refuse to even get in a bathtub, for he could not leave himself unarmed, not even for a brief moment.

His opponent Sasaki Kojiro was no push over himself, he was the martial arts instructor to the Shogun of Japan and was greatly feared and respected as a swordsman.  His advantage was to make his own swords a couple of inches longer than the standard giving him a reach advantage over his opponents.  Mushashi was aware of this and how dangerous it was in a sword fight, even as he knew he could neither afford or have the time to make a new sword that could match the reach of Kojiro.  On the day of the duel, Musashi took time to carve a makeshift sword from one of the oars of the boat that would row him over to the island, taking care to make it longer than he expected Kajiro’s sword to be, thus arriving several hours late. His opponent, Sasaki Kojiro, was understandably pissed to be kept waiting, and he cast aside the scabbard of his sword, showing his anger and that he meant real business. Kojiro was the perfect samurai in appearance and demeanor wearing his finest clothing for the duel in case he was killed. This way he could be buried looking his best  Mushashi was practically a beggar by comparison and showed up wearing dirty rags as if he knew he would not be buried that day.

Musashi meant business, too. By angering his opponent he probably expected to gain an advantage expecting his opponent’s rage to make him careless. He took up his wooden oar of a sword, and the two attacked each other twice. Mushashi’s longer oak sword worked, Kojiro’s first glancing blow cut nothing more than Musashi’s headband, while Mushashi’s blow gashed Kirjiro’s head.  On the second attack, Kajiro’s blow again cut Mushashi’s clothing without injuring him while Mushashi’s blow sliced open Kajiro’s throat, killing him.

Defeating the Shogun’s personal martial arts instructor armed with a makeshift wooden sword was Mushashi’s most famous duel and would probably make anyone think twice about challenging him to single combat.