Spectacular historical combat—in a mall

Recreating explosive historical combat, the Band of Iron Lions is bringing medieval fighting to a renaissance fair near you.

Two members of the band face off in one of many bouts for the day.

Two dueling fighters, Wolfgang and Sir Daniel, slowly circle each other, armed with bright, shining longswords and wooden shields. As they spar, the announcer, Mercutio, commentates on their movement and respective fighting style, dissecting the nuances of combat for the crowd of onlookers. Swords clang. Fighters grunt. It’s a lot of spectacle, especially considering it’s all taking place in a Ross Dress For Less store.

Sir Daniel suddenly lashes out with a flurry of blows. Wolfgang masterfully deflects the attack with his sword. Both fighters return to a neutral stance. They slowly circling each other. Sir Daniel takes a low lunge. He’s going for Wolfgang’s legs. It’s a clean, unblocked hit. The winner is decided. The crowd applauds as Mercutio—real name Adam Rotondi—drums up excitement for the next bout.

“If you’ve seen the sword fighting in movies, or if you’ve seen sword fighting in media, comparing that to the real thing can be quite a shock,” Rotondi says.

So is the rest of the festivities at the Bohemian Arts Festival, if only because of the setting. Held in Merle Hay Mall, Des Moines’s aging northside shopping mecca, vendors are situated up and down the main strip of the place, selling a variety of medieval and fantasy-themed goods that would never be carried by mall anchors like Old Navy or Target. Attendees are walking around in costumes, dressed up as princesses, rogues, and fairies. It’s a miniature renaissance festival, complete with live combat. It’s also a reminder that, in stark contrast to the festival’s surroundings, life used to be very different. 

“These are things that have been done throughout most of human history. We’ve just lost the way a little bit,” Rotondi says.

More than historical combat

The Band of Iron Lions has been around for about three years, formed out of the ashes of the disbanded historical combat group, The Free Company of the White Stag. Since then, they’ve been slowly gaining members and traveling around to different renaissance fairs and festivals, showing off their fighting to anyone who’s interested. They have around a dozen members total, but not everyone can consistently make it to events, so each performance features six to ten members on average. 

Their fights are not choreographed. Instead, they battle using Historical European Martial Arts which uses unsharpened swords, shields, and other weapons. All of the combat is inspired by how real historical combat was done across a variety of cultures and time periods. Each spar plays out as if each fighter was unarmored, so any clean blow earns a point.

But it isn’t all about fighting and combat. During downtime, members can be seen at their camp, nestled in between an Auntie Annie’s and an ice cream shop. Many spend their time chatting with the public or teaching interested festival goers the basics of using a sword. Some bide their time by working away at medieval arts and crafts, using a wide selection of historic tools and materials to make things during downtime. One member uses an ankle loom to weave a Brocade fabric. Another member makes yarn on a spindle.

Sam Eue, a member of the group weaves a brocade fabric.

“It’s always fascinating to see people’s reactions to this. Even at festivals and because we allow people to hold this stuff,” says Michael Potter, president of the Band of Iron Lions. “To see young kids holding a sword bigger than they are and their eyes are bugged out, and they’re like: ‘Oh my gosh.’” 

At camp, there’s a rack holding a plethora of unsharpened swords and weapons. If you ask, they’re more than happy to let you hold one, even giving free short lessons to anyone who’s interested. For children, the Lions allow them to at least hold one of the massive swords on display. It’s a dream come true for any kid obsessed with knights and castles.

But the main draw to sword-fighting is the love of historic combat. Every member who fights has a historical fighting style and a matching persona. There’s a German fighter, a Scotsman, a Spanish fighter, an Italian fighter, a Viking, and more. Members primarily train in one style, but it’s also common for someone to branch out and try new weapons or styles. 

“We tend to let our outfits and our fighting styles be a little more in that direction where you can see distinct fighting styles amongst different fighters,” Potter says. 

Potter is most acquainted with the longsword inspired by German fighting styles, but has gained experience with a variety of different weapons over the years. He has been involved with Historical European Martial Arts for almost eight years now, first getting into the sport because his wife brought him to the renaissance fair. It was then that he met his current group’s predecessor, the Company of the White Stag. Since then, he’s been honing his craft and amassing an impressive collection of swords, armor, and other gear.

“I really like that it’s historical. We base our techniques off of historical manuscripts,” Potter says. “We try to strive towards that historical fighting as best as we can.”

You can learn how to swordfight, too

The Band of Iron Lions offers lessons at their training sessions. If you’re interested in learning how to swordfight, tuition is free for the first month, then $50 a month to train and learn with them. Potter notes that it’s cheaper to learn than almost any other martial art. During the summer, they train outdoors at Gray’s Lake Park in Des Moines. When winter sets in, they rent an indoor facility in Ankeny. Someday, they hope to have their own building.

At camp, a sign advertises free sword lessons. You can pick up the basics in just a few minutes.

“We do our best to accommodate as many people as we can because we want to teach you that this is a cool thing. This is fun,” Potter says. “We’re not expecting people to be tournament-capable fighters. We’re expecting people to enjoy themselves and to have fun.” 

But even Potter knows you can’t please everyone. “Some people are scared of it because it’s just combat. Some people don’t like that, and that’s understandable,” he says.

Scott Mueller, who fights as Wolfgang, chimes in. “We hear a lot of people who are like, ‘This is cool. We want to do it.’ And then about 1% of them show up.”

In the summer of 2024, the band will be traveling across the Midwest to different renaissance festivals to show off their historical fighting skills to the masses. Potter, of course, loves performing for folks, But the festivals are also a chance to meet others with an interest in historical combat and share knowledge about the history of warfare.

The camp of the Band of Iron Lions is always open to visitors and those interested.

“We’ve had Civil War reenactors and World War II reenactors come talk to us. And we share knowledge about how things evolved through history,” Potter says.

Until then, there’s another battle about to start in front of the Ross Dress for Less. The armor is on. The swords are ready. Let the action begin. If you’re interested in seeing the Band of Iron Lions perform, you can find them at one of many renaissance festivals across the Midwest. A calendar with all of their appearances can be found on their Facebook page.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *