Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Old style, that is, leather and horn and metal and cloth, with not a thread of kevlar to be seen. I got interested in the subject back when I was playing in the Society for Creative Anachronism. At it's best it's a group of interesting people researching and spending weekends living somewhat like the middle ages were like(at it's worst, it's pretty bad, but let's skip that for now).

Yes, at one time I, among other things, made armor and made weapons like swords and spears out of rattan and used them(formally 'heavy weapons combat'; more commonly 'hitting people with sticks'). And, since I had then- and still have- a serious regard for the idea of keeping my body in a fairly undamaged condition, that meant learning something about armor.

There were many kinds, basically broken down into types:
Chain mail, linked metal rings
Scale, overlapping pieces of leather or horn or metal(like the scales on a lizard)
Plate, actual pieces of sheet iron or steel shaped to fit various parts of the body. No, not those, dammit.
Quilted, pieces of heavy canvas with wool or something similar in between and stitched together.

Over time I used all of these but plate and quilted; I wasn't interested enough in hitting people with sticks to spend the time to learn and make plate, and it wasn't in my time period anyway, and quilted just didn't seem like enough to me. Though I did come damn close to a plate breast and back at one time. A friend and I took a bunch of the steel straps(about 1/2" wide) used to hold bundles of brick and such and wove them together, then stuck some foam on the back for padding; some more pieces, riveted together at the ends and fanned out in the middle/foam-backed also/ made the shoulder pieces, and I will tell you that was tough. You couldn't get a real- as in sharp- sword through it with a cut, and unless someone caught a seam exactly right penetration in a thrust was very limited. Big drawback to this was stiffness, it had no give at all when you moved.

The best armor I used for SCA fighting was leather scale. A tunic of light leather, loose enough to wear a padded gambeson under it, with leather scales about 2x3.5" laced on. I soaked the scales in wax to stiffen them, and this stuff was a treat. It would move with you fairly well, and you could take a hit hard enough to actually make you stumble sideways and not get hurt. I made a piece for my left(forward) leg with the same construction, and used it until I gave up fighting. Last time I saw the guy who bought it, he'd taken the scales off("It was too heavy and hot for this climate" he said. Idiot)

Mail is interesting stuff. Most was/is made in a pattern called '4-through-1', meaning exactly that; every link not on an edge has four others linked through it. It's marvelously flexible, and could be made with the ends of the rings overlapped and riveted(the best) or just butted together(cheaper). Usually worn with a padded tunic(gambeson) under it, it beat the hell out of nothing, and did a fairly good job of stopping cuts, but something like an arrow with a narrow point could punch right through, and a spear could do the same if hard-driven.

Plate armor is a lot like the weapons of the period, in that it wasn't as heavy as people tend to think. Tournament armor was one thing; you weren't expected to move around a whole lot in it, so it could be made seriously heavy. Some late-period breastplates were nearly 1/2" thick, you got on your horse and then put it on. Actual fighting armor was another thing. About ten years ago I saw a show on the History Channel(I believe) on plate, some researchers went through some private and museum collections and used a small ultrasound probe to measure the thickness of pieces, and it was very consistent; breastplates averaged about 2 millimeters, leg and arm pieces about 1mm, helmets about 3mm. More vital areas had heavier metal, less vital lighter pieces. If I remember right a suit of full plate- again, actual battle armor- weighed about 60 lbs, well-distributed over the body so it could be moved in. A mail hauberk(the jacket) and pants and a good helmet would weigh about the same, but it was not as well distributed; the weight was mostly borne by the shoulders and hips.

Of course armoring came to a crashing halt(literally in some cases) with the introduction of firearms. Somewhere in one of the British museums is a beautiful set of plate with a hole about .65 caliber in the chest to illustrate why. A crossbow with a good angle could put a bolt through it, and a longbow could do the same(points made for war were often either four-sided with a blunt point, or actually shaped like a chisel), but once they figured out how to make firearms in quantity armor was through. Until that odd stuff called Kevlar and Spectra came around, and ceramic plates that'll stop an armor-piercing bullet.

We're still using helmets, too, though of different stuff the patterns often look familiar. Last helmet I had was a modified spangenhelm(sp?). This was a pointed top(sometimes a downward stroke, if a little off-angle, would glance off it), sides and back extended down to cover the sides and back of the head and neck, and a visor in the front to cover down to a little below chin-level. I made it with a hinged visor; easier to get on and off, and if I ever got really hurt I wanted it to be as easy as possible to get the damn thing off. The guy who bought my scale also bought it, and aside from putting a horsetail on top, it stayed the same. If I can find it, I'll try to take a picture of the pattern I used to make it and post it. Lots of riveting there.

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