ELIZABETHTON — Complete with 137 pounds of stainless steel armor, Sir Ijams Von Ackahoff and his trusty Clydesdale, Hercules, galloped toward their opponent. When his lance hit the chest of Sir Paul Schneider, the crowd gasped following the echo of the cracked wood that flew through the air.
“The shudder goes from the little hairs on your toes all the way to the top of your head,” said Ackahoff, better known as Sir James Acuff. “It shudders all the way through your body. The impacts are incredible.”
For the first time, those attending the Sycamore Shoals Celtic Festival can experience the thrill of a real joust performed by the Lords of Chivalry, a group of professional heavy armor jousters who compete in tournaments and perform publicly across the country.
“I’m thrilled that they’re here,” said Mary Lynn Ekstrom, an honorary board member of the Celtic Festival. “I think the crowd has been very appreciative of their efforts. Everybody is kind of elbowing and trying to scoot around people so they can get a better view of what’s going on.”
Getting a glimpse is important because the action happens in a split second. At the Saturday afternoon show, the knights took part in “the gaming” to show off their skills and accuracy. Each one took a turn aiming their lance toward a ring held by a squire, and later they attempted to throw a spear into a bale of hay before trying their luck at hitting a quintain, a lancing target, a certain way so that it wouldn’t swing back and hit them in the head.
Sir James Acuff even knighted a local squire earlier in the day. John Byington of Church Hill was surprised by the ceremony, which made him eligible to compete in his first public jousting. Now that he’s official, the new knight is looking to upgrade his chainmail armor, perfect for light jousting, to full-plate armor made for body contact. The history and horse lover is also a Civil War re-enactor who gets a thrill out of the realness of a Lords of Chivalry show.
“It’s amazing to see the reactions from people,” he said. “They don’t realize how real it is. When they hear the impact, their eyes widen.”
The type of jousting performed at Sycamore Shoals is mild compared to the tournaments. Acuff says less than 30 people in the world compete in this “extreme sport” that continues to grow in popularity. At 60 years old, the Murfreesboro native is making a career out of jousting.
“A lot of us have played all the sports, done it all,” Acuff said. “This is the toughest thing you’ll ever dream of doing in your life. In real competitions we ride a lot harder and a lot faster.”
On the grounds of the Celtic Festival, the knights aren’t quite looking to “un-horse” one another, but when the landing consists of deep sand like what is set up at tournaments, the hits get harder and they don’t hold back on the horses. Acuff has won several titles while riding Hercules and wearing the custom armor that takes more than a year to make and costs at least $10,000.
The knights use a bit of humor to add to the entertainment value of their shows, still yet, there’s a lot of concentration involved when it comes to getting everything to work just right.
“You’ve got to pay attention to that horse and make sure he doesn’t stumble,” Acuff said of his 2,000 pound steed. “You have to know where he’s at and you have to know where you are on the hit. We all work together with this.”
Though it may be a niche sport, jousting is easily compared to the mainstream entertainment sources of today.
“This is the demolition derby of the faires of Europe for 1,000 years,” Acuff said.
The Lords of Chivalry will perform today at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area. Admission to the festival is $6.