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Targe (from Old Franconian *targa “shield”, Proto-Germanic *targo “border”) was a general word for shield in late Old English. Its diminutive, target, came to mean an object to be aimed at in the 18th century.
The term refers to various types of shields used by infantry troops from the 13th to 16th centuries. More specifically, a targe was a concave shield fitted with enarmes on the inside, one adjustable by a buckle, to be attached to the forearm, and the other fixed as a grip for the left hand. These shields were mostly made of iron or iron-plated wood. From the 15th century, the term could also refer to special shields used for jousting.
From the early 17th century, until the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Scottish Highlander’s main means of defence in battle was his targe. After the disastrous defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, the carrying of the targe would have been banned, and many would have been destroyed, or put to other uses. Those which do remain appear to be of quite intricate patterns, and are well decorated, indicating that they would have originally belonged to important people.
Targes are generally, but not always, round shields between 18 in and 21 in (45–55 cm) in diameter. The inside of the targe was formed from two very thin layers of flat wooden boards, with the grain of each layer at right angles to the other. They were fixed together with small wooden pegs, forming plywood. The front was covered with a tough cowhide which was often decorated with embossed celtic style patterns. This was fixed to the wood with many brass, or in some cases, silver, nails, and occasionally brass plates were also fixed to the face for strength and decoration. Some targes had center bosses of brass, and a few of these could accept a long steel spike which screwed into a small “puddle” of lead which was fixed to the wood, under the boss. When not in use, the spike could be unscrewed and placed in a sheath on the back of the targe. A Highlander armed with a broadsword in one hand, dagger in the other and a spiked targe on his arm would have been a formidable enemy in close combat.
The back of the targe was commonly covered in deerskin, and a very few had some packing of straw etc. behind this. Some targes, usually those actually used in battle, had their backs covered in a piece of red cloth taken from the uniform of a government soldier (a “Redcoat”) that the owner had killed in battle. Although all the old targes show signs of handles and arm straps, of various designs, there is very little evidence to indicate that there was any guige strap for carrying the targe over the shoulder.
The face of a targe typically used two general patterns – concentric circles, or a centre boss with subsidiary bosses around this. There are a few notable exceptions, such as a targe in Perth Museum in Scotland which is of a star design. Although some targe designs appear to have been more popular than others, there is very little to indicate that there ever were “clan” designs. The nearest that one might come to finding a “clan” design is possibly the four identical targes which came from the family armoury at Castle Grant. It appears more likely that targe designs were individual to their owner. During the 1745/46 Jacobite uprising, a William Lindsay, a shieldwright in Perth made hundreds of targes for Charles Edward Stuart’s army. He made a distinction in price between an “officer’s targe” and an ordinary targe.