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A Brief History of Armour

A Brief History of Armour


What is Armour?

Who at some point in their lives hasn't dreamed of being a great hero? One of the greatest heroic images in history is that of the Knight in Shining Armour. Most people don't realize that this image is just one step in the world's long history of warfare.

From my personal perspective warfare is a fascinating tactical and technological evolution. The technological evolution of warfare can be broken down into two equal, basic forces, ways to kill people (Arms) and ways to keep people from being killed (Armour.)

Arms include everything from clubs, to swords, to modern firearms.

Armour literally means "a protective covering." Today this can refer to such things as Kevlar body armour, a hockey helmet, or even the heavy steel plates that blanket most modern assault vehicles. Historical body armour is separated into three classifications; "Lamellar", "Plate" and "Mail."

This website is about the classification known as "mail". Mail is defined by historians as an armour that is made from chain or chain links, woven together to form "metal fabric". I've discussed Lamellar and Plate a little further down.

Mail is also known as "Chainmail", "Chain Mail", "Maille" and "Chainmaille". These colloquialisms represent an ongoing debate over the origin of the word "Mail". I prefer to stick with the historians that find "chainmail" a redundant term, since "mail" already defines a material made from chain. Despite this, you will find that I've used of the term "chainmail" throughout most of this website, this is my attempt to avoid confusion with the modern worlds of electronic and postal mail.

Chainmail armour can be further broken down into three "pattern families", which I describe as "European", "Persian" and "Japanese".

European describes a family that covers almost all the mail made in Europe from the second century B.C.E. to modern day using the same fundamental pattern as a basis.

I personally have no verification for the use of the Persian family's historical use.

The Japanese family is possibly the oldest of all chainmail patterns, as the same fundamentals would appear to have been used by the Etruscans over 3000 years ago.

It is impossible to describe the workings of any of these patterns with mere words, that's what my illustrated chainmail patterns section is for. Basically each family focuses on a certain style of interlocking its links. In European mail this creates to effect of having alternating rows that stretch in one direction. In Persian mail this creates thick, complexly interwoven patterns and in Japanese mail this creates simple, grid-like patterns.

Too truly understand the evolution of armour, you also need to understand the evolution of arms and warfare. That sort of research could take a lifetime, in order to save time and space what I've written below is just a basic guide to the different types of historical armour. It is by no means complete, the study of armour is always evolving and barring great archaeological discoveries some armour types such as "Banded Mail" may remain mysteries that are lost in time.

As I mentioned earlier, historical body armour is usually divided into three classification; Lamellar, Mail and Plate. However, there will always be armour types that go beyond simple classification.


Lamellar

Hardened leather, hides and fur are the most likely candidates for being the oldest form of armour known to man. It is not hard to imagine primitive man taking note of how the thick hides of certain animals protected them.

It didn't take long for plain leather armour to evolve into Lamellar. Lamellar armour consists of any armour where a protective material has been sewn to a base material, like leather or cloth. Lamellar armour includes such types as Brigandine, Scale, Splint and Ring.


Chainmail

An evolution of Lamellar armour gave birth to Mail Armour. This type of Lamellar consisted of large, heavy rings sewn edge-to-edge onto a leather shirt. The makers and users of Ring Lamellar soon realized that they could create a superior form of armour by linking their rings together, instead of sewing them to a base. Armour with linked rings became known as Mail or Chainmail*.


Plate

Plate armour has also had a very long history. Its first incarnations are seen as large bronze chest plates worn by several cultures in the Ancient World. Later evolutions in plate armour include Roman Lorica Segmentata. Plate armour in it's most complicated evolution consisted of covering the body with dozens of articulated metal plates. This "Full or Articulated Plate" is the armour that gave rise to the term "Knight in Shining Armour". It is interesting to note that the high mechanical evolution of Articulated Plate armour came to an end with the invention of firearms. Firearms spurred Articulated Plate to evolve full circle into the familiar territory of heavy metal breast plates.

Plate armour is still seen today in the form of the padding used for many "high-impact" sports.


Conclusion

Personally I do not believe that there was any one armour that was truly superior to another. Every type of armour has it's place in history, with it's matching arms and styles of warfare.

One disadvantage of Mail, that I would like to note, is it's weight. Well made armour of any sort should be shaped to the wearer's body, and distribute weight as evenly as possible. While this can be done with high-quality mail, it's still far from the near perfection of some articulated plate armour. This, combined with the fact that some tight mail patterns tend to trap a lot of body heat making wearing Mail for extended periods quite tiring.

The highly developed weight distribution that became possible with the era of Articulated Plate was simply amazing. A warrior clad in a suit of properly made Articulated Plate would have been able to do cartwheels in his armour. Each plate balanced perfectly to a part of his body. This effectively dispels the myth of knights in armour falling off their horses and not being able to stand up. Such stories must have developed from certain examples of Tournament Plate Armour. Tournament Plate was specially designed to take the incredible impacts of jousting, so that it was very, very heavy. Such armour would have never been worn outside of a tournament environment. Again, it is important to compare the armour to the opposing arms and warfare techniques of when it was used.


Deeper into the history of Chainmail

The history of Mail is a lot longer and more complicated than most people suspect. Samples of Mail go back as far as the Etruscans, that means that Mail has been around for over 3 millennia ! It would seem that Etruscan is constructed in a pattern that is more closely related to Japanese and some Italian patterns than the common European 1 into 4 pattern. The Etruscan Mail also appears to have some small metal plates on it's surface, which would make it more of a hybrid Mail-Lamellar armour.

Because the Etruscan Mail pattern is more akin to Japanese patterns and because historical examples of Mail don't make an appearance for another 2000 years, one can assume that Etruscan Mail isn't the base for European Mail. Most scholars, in fact, believe that European mail developed from a Ring Lamellar type of armour as I mentioned earlier.

This brings us up to somewhere around the 2nd Century B.C.E. when the Roman Legions start to invade Gaul. The Romans found that the Gauls wore the first known examples of European Pattern Mail shirts and soon adopted it as a common armour for their secondary troops. Roman mail shirts were referred to as Lorica Hamata.

The Roman Lorica Hamata are interesting in that half of the links that made up the shirt were solid rings, punched from metal sheets. This technique continued in some later European Mail examples, but most European mail is made fully from drawn-wire links. Another example of Mail with punched links is called "Theta" or "Bar Link" which comes from Persia and Indian. It is called "Theta" or "Bar Link" because the punched links have a bar across their center which makes them resemble the Greek letter "Theta".

From the 2nd Century of the Common Era, through the fall of the Roman Empire and into the so called Dark Ages, Mail seems to have been a common armour all over Europe. Including down into what we now call the Middle East, north into the Viking Cultures and even in the far east where the Japanese developed their own styles of mail. The sole culture that didn't develop its own Mail Armour is China, although they did wear imported Mail from the Middle East.

The design of Mail armour can be amazingly wide and varied; I've seen samples where the rings are over 1" across and others that contain hundreds of thousands of rings barely 1/8" across. In some samples of superior European Mail, the maker will have links with an amazing variance in the same shirt. Thick heavy links over the vital organs in the chest, lighter, thinner links for the arms and areas that needed less protection.

Almost all authentic European mail from the Roman time forward has links that are either welded or riveted shut. (For now this website only covers mail with butted links, I hope to include details of creating riveted and welded links in the future.) This was because the drawn wire used for the links was very weak due to the high slag content of early smelting techniques. For the mail to have protective value that justified it's construction time, the links had to be as hard to open as possible. Mail loses protective value as soon as a single link has been opened far enough to slip apart from neighboring links. This is where Mail that included solid punched links had an advantage.

As mail evolved in some cultures it became common to use the flexible mail to link together larger and larger protective metal plates. This was especially common in Persian examples of Plate and Mail Armours. Persia also claims to have some unique mail patterns all their own, but I've never seen first hand evidence of historical examples of these patterns and use the name "Persian" simply for lack of a better name. Hopefully I will eventually be able to include more historical evidence for persian patterns in the near future, along with information on how to work with plate and mail patterns.

In Europe, as plate armour began to develop it became common to start using mail to protect areas that needed to flex more than the ridged metal would allow. Mail became common in elbow joints, knees and so on. This plate and mail "Transition Armour" , along with Persian Plate and Mail are some of the Armours that cross classification, as I mentioned before. It wasn't long before full plate armour became more popular and with the invention of fully articulated joints, mail started to loose its popularity. It still held a place in history though, used as decoration and armour up until The First World War.

Today mail is still being used by a few industries. Butchers commonly wear fine mail gloves to protect their hands, and shark divers wear entire suits of fine mail. This fine mail is made from incredibly strong, welded links and is woven on large machines. Please refer to the suppliers section for information on industrial mail suppliers.

Our current world also has other decorative and practical uses for Mail. Mostly in the worlds of historical recreation groups, Live-Action Role-Playing groups, as well the fashion and costuming industries. Modern chainmail artists also have access to all kinds of tools and materials (Stainless Steel, Titanium, Niobium, Aluminum etc…) that historical armour makers didn't.

There's one culture's mail armour that I've just touched upon so far: Japanese mail. It is highly variable in pattern, superior to European mail in many ways and also inferior to European Mail in some ways

The common Japanese patterns were lighter and more open than European, but they were made of superior quality tempered wire that wasn't riveted. Some links in Japanese mail were double or even triple wrapped for strength. Like the best European Mail Makers, the Japanese also paid attention to which parts of the body the armour was supposed to be protecting. Mail over one's chest would be thick and strong, but on an elbow where flexibility was more important, it would be lighter.

Of course, it's not really fair to compare Europe to Japan, as the fighting styles of each evolved on completely different tangents. European armour needed to be heavier to deal with the bigger, crushing weapons common in their battles, even if heat exhaustion from the thicker, less breathable armour was common. Japanese combat techniques used lighter, faster weapons and thusly mobility was more of a concern.

The Japanese were also fond of using mail as decoration or in combination with plates much like the Persians. The Japanese word for Chain is Kusari and each of their patterns had its own proper name. The common 4 into 2 square Japanese Pattern that I specialize in is called Hitoye-Gusari. A similar 6 into 2 hexagonal Japanese Pattern is Called Hana-Gusari.


Mail as an effective armour

The first thing to remember about all armour is that it is 50% physically defensive and 50% mentally defensive. Part of any fight is throwing your opponent off guard. If he doesn't understand the strengths or weaknesses of what he's facing then you've got the advantage. Armour, especially armour that hides the face was very effective on this level.

For superstitious people, fighting an opponent wrapped in a flexible steel shirt would have been highly intimidating, especially when the wrong kind of blow just slid right off their armour.

Almost all Mail would have been worn over a padded shirt, which would have also helped it to redistribute weapon impact.

As far as mail's physical strength goes you have to consider many factors, including size and quality of the links. You also have to consider the common kinds of blows one would be facing in a medieval battle. Basically there are three kinds of blows to be considered: piercing, crushing and slashing.

Mail is strong against piercing blows only to a certain point, if a spear or arrow is travelling with enough velocity it will go right through most mail. The development of devastating piercing weapons like crossbows and longbows is what led to the evolution of plate and mail armour types. Which could be shaped to deflect the force of piercing blows. Even plate armour was eventually rendered next to useless with the incredible piercing damage that can be inflicted by firearms.

Mail protects against crushing blows by redistributing the focus of the blow. For light and medium crushing blows it would be fairly effective. But again, if the blow was heavy enough, say from a spiked flail or heavy battle-axe, it doesn't matter if the mail itself isn't broken, the bones underneath will be.

Slashing blows are where Mail really shines. It would take an extraordinarily heavy blow from a very sharp sword to cut mail with a slashing attack. Moreover since the impact of the slash would be redistributed, being hit in this manner whilst wearing mail would have little or no effect.

Mail is also effective overall because it protects against having one's skin broken. In an age before antibiotics this was very important.


For Further Investigation

I plan to post a list of recommended books and resources for further information about armour in the near future. In the meantime you might enjoy this excellent and illustrated look at a variety of armours, their construction and uses : Armour and Warriors of the Silk Road by Norman J. Finkelshteyn - Armourer.



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