BURNS, TENNESSEE - It’s early on a Saturday afternoon and nearly 400 weekend warriors have gathered to do battle on the grounds of a state park just outside Nashville, Tennessee. But they do not carry wooden or steel copies of medieval weapons. They take the field armed with arrows, swords and shields made from foam.

Foam fighting, a type of Live Action Role Play, began in the mid-1970s in Washington, D.C., as a full-contact battle game with padded weapons. Today, foam-fighting groups can be found across North America, Europe and Australia.

Veteran warrior Nathan Larkin says it owes more to fantasy fiction than any historical event. 

“A lot of the games started and originated from people reading ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of The Rings’ series and wanting to be able to go out and relive that in real life.” Larkin, who goes by the battle name Vander, is a member of Nashville’s Medieval Combat Society, Dur Demarion.

Safety first

All weapons and equipment used during combat are inspected before each battle, to ensure that they comply with a long list of safety regulations. Today, that responsibility falls to Ian Nichols, battle name Talon, who is acting as Field Marshall. He carefully checks every piece of armor and weapon, “whether it be the large eight-foot (2.5 meter) weapons or some of your smaller three-foot (1 meter) weapons, even arrows and rocks.” 

On this particular day, Talon decides to ban archers and their arrows from the games. A light rain has left the arrows damp. He worries that could make the foam tips less pliant and so more dangerous.

Ahead of the battle, warriors spar in pairs and small groups. New players have to memorize a long list of rules, but Vander says the biggest challenge is taking that first swing. 

“Once you do it a couple times it’s easy to get into it,” he said, “but it does take some time to try to get people past that cultural tipping point of we’re taught never to hit anybody.”

Foam fights are chaotic. Vander uses his sword and shield to protect comrades carrying pikes, spears and bows. He explains his strategy: “You’re going to want to keep them on the side, you have your shield on so you can more easily block for them and you’re going to block yourself with your sword, because keeping them alive — that reach that they have — is going to result in more enemies defeated.”

A family affair

While Nashville’s Medieval Combat Society, Dur Demarion, hosts weekly gatherings, today’s event, Beltane, is an annual one, held since 1989.

Whole families attend, dressed in period costumes. Vendors sell authentic clothing and foam weapons. And there’s a feeling of camaraderie, as Vander said. 

“It’s a great way to get out and exercise, get out in the fresh air. It’s a great way to meet friends. Most of the people I know are part of the community now,” he said.