Armor for Beginners

 

Armor Types

Contents
Introduction
Armor Glossary
Armor Types
Selecting the Right Armor / Armor Resources

There are several types of armor made from a variety of materials. Because of the healthy historical re-creation community that flourishes across the world, there is a wealth of information on how to make your own armor as well as any number of modern armorers who serve a variety of armoring needs from pure costume to pure history.

Armor in the medieval era was made chiefly of iron, steel or leather. Bronze and brass found use as trims for different pieces of armor, and certain types of horn were used in some armors as well. The armor types examined in this article will generally be made from one or more of these materials.

Because of the needs of some re-creation groups, aluminum has seen fairly widespread use as a cheap, light alternative to steel or iron in armor. Although this is a creative and useful solution to the problem of mobility, it does not accurately reflect the conditions under which armor would have been worn in the Middle Ages. Aluminum - although a commonly existing element in nature - was unknown as a metal in the Middle Ages and was not available in processed form until several centuries later. Therefore aluminum armor is not allowed for use in the Mercenaries Medieval Combat Guild and will not be discussed in terms of analysis.

Each type of armor will be analyzed according to the following categories: Peak Area of Use, Most Often Used In (pieces of armor), Pro/Con, including amount of noise one makes while running in armor.

Please note that when judging the “Peak Era of Use” in the analysis of each type of armor, the earliest date considered will be 800 A.D., as that is the earliest date in the scope of the MMCG’s study.

Leather Armor
Leather was a cheap and relatively easily accessible material to obtain during the Middle Ages. Although rarely used for clothing, it found use in certain types of armor. Most purely leather armor would have been worn early in the Middle Ages, although leather continued to see use as a foundational material for other types of armor even into the Late Middle Ages.
There has been much debate concerning a type of armor called cuir boilli, which is a type of leather armor boiled in wax until reaching a tough, wood-like consistency. This material holds up well under bludgeoning strikes, but can actually be easier to cut through with a sharpened blade than softer leather that has not been treated with wax.
It is fairly certain, though, that medieval warriors sometimes went to battle in a type of boiled leather armor - whether that leather had been treated in wax or not. Decorated leather defenses - especially cuisses and greaves - can be seen depicted in effigy on knights’ tombs as late as the early 13th century.

Peak Era of Use: 800 - 1100 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Bracers, cuisses, greaves.
Pros: Relatively cheap and easy to work with. Easily decorated. Light and mobile. Quiet.
Cons: Only good for certain pieces of armor. Does not protect especially well. Susceptible to damage by weather and age (i.e., warping, cracking). Commercially available leather armor is usually very heavily influenced by fantasy designs.

Ring-Armor
Ring armor is essentially leather with heavy metal rings (usually steel or iron) sewn directly onto it. This provides slightly more protection than just leather. However, there is no direct evidence of ring-armor being worn at any point in history in Europe (although there have been finds of Asian ring-armor). European iconographic evidence seems to suggest the existence of such defenses, however. This type of armor might have been worn in the Early and High Middle Ages, and may even have seen use by poorer soldiers in the Late Middle Ages.

Peak Era of Use: 900 - 1150 A.D. (?)
Most Often Used In: Bracers and cuirass.
Pros: Still fairly cheap, and easy to make with basic leatherworking skills. Light and mobile, and better protection than plain leather. Quiet.
Cons: Still only useful for certain pieces of armor. Not very good against percussive or crushing blows. Commercially available pieces often influenced by fantasy elements.

Scale Armor
Scale armor is usually made of a leather backing with scales of a rigid material either sewn or riveted onto it. This rigid material can be boiled leather, horn, or metal (steel, iron, brass, bronze). Scale armor is usually made in overlapping rows with the scales attached at the top of the row and hanging down.
This type of armor is depicted often in artwork of the Early Middle Ages, and then seems to suffer a fairly sharp drop in popularity as mail grows more widespread and accessible.
The term “mail” was often used in early history to merely denote “armor.” So occasionally, terms like “scale mail” will be found. However, the correct term is simply Scale Armor, or "Leaf Armor."

Peak Era of Use: 800 - 1150 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Cuirass, bracers, greaves, tassets.
Pros: Protects well against slashes and mildly well against crushes. Medium weight. Not terribly difficult to make with basic leather and metalworking skills.
Cons: Distribution of weight is generally in one place, making the armor seem heavier. Difficult to maintain in case of damage. Only useful for certain pieces of armor. Difficult to find commercially. Very loud.

Brigandine
Also sometimes called a Jack, Brigandine is made of small steel or iron plates sandwiched between layers of leather or canvas and riveted in place. It was a popular defense on its own for less wealthy soldiers and as a second layer over mail for richer knights. This type of armor sees fairly widespread use in the High Middle Ages, and slowly tapering off (although not disappearing completely) in the Late Middle Ages.
What many role playing games refer to as "studded leather" armor is likely a confused interpretation of medieval artwork that depicted Brigandines (as the only visible metal part of the armor is the rivet structure holding the plates underneath in place).
Most of what is known about this type of armor is taken from either iconographic sources, or - like the Coat of Plates - from a mass grave site near Wisby largely excavated between 1928 - 1930, and full of remains from a battle fought in 1361.

Peak Era of Use: 1150 - 1400 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Cuirass, cuisses, gorget.
Pros: Protects well against slashes and moderately against crushes. Medium weight, but fairly evenly distributed. Not terribly difficult to make with basic leather and metalworking skills. Easily commercially available.
Cons: Moderately expensive. Only good for defending relatively large areas. Not especially useful for arms or shins. Does not breathe very well. Can be moderately loud.

Coat of Plates
This armor is constructed in the same manner as a brigandine (steel or iron sandwiched between layers of leather and canvas). It differs in that the plates are substantially larger in a Coat of Plates - usually running the width of the torso. This type of armor was fairly widespread in the Late Middle Ages. Most of our knowledge of Coats of Plates - which come in many different patterns - is taken from finds at the site of the Battle of Wisby.

Peak Era of Use: 1300 - 1500 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Cuirass (exclusively)
Pros: Protects well against cuts, thrusts and crushes. Medium weight, fairly well distributed. Simple to make with basic leather and metalworking skills. Fairly widely commercially available.
Cons: Moderately expensive. Not very flexible. Only used for cuirass. Does not breathe very well. Can be moderately to very loud.

Splinted Armor
Splinted armor is another leather/plate hybrid. In this case, the leather is only used as a backing as opposed to being constructed in a sandwich manner. Plates are long narrow strips (or splints) riveted onto to the leather backing so that they are exposed. This type of armor predates either of the other leather/plate hybrids, and saw use in the Early Middle Ages and partially in the High Middle Ages.

Peak Era of Use: 900 - 1100 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Bracers, greaves.
Pros: Cheap and easy to make. Offers good protection again cuts and mild protection against crushes. Fairly light. Quiet.
Cons: Not useful for protecting large areas (torso, thighs). Not widely commercially available.

Lamellar Armor
Lamellar armor is similar to scale armor. It is usually made of small, thin scales of metal, horn or boiled leather. However, instead of lacing directly to a leather backing, the scales in lamellar armor usually lace to each other. Also, their alignment is usually bottom-to-top patterning in rows instead of scale armor’s top-to-bottom pattern.
While lamellar armor was much more widespread in the East (China, Mongolia, Japan), it did see use in Europe during the Early and High Middle Ages - predominantly in areas close to Middle-Eastern influence (Byzantine Empire, Italy).

Peak Era of Use: 1000 - 1250 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Cuirass, bracers, cuisses, greaves.
Pros: Excellent defense against cuts and thrusts. Decent protection from crushes.
Cons: Moderately heavy. Loud. Difficult to make. Not widely commercially available. Hot.

Mail Armor
Often mistakenly called by the Victorian-invented name “chain-mail,” mail armor was far and away the most popular and widespread type of armor used during the Middle Ages. Made of interlocking steel or iron rings riveted closed, mail is flexible and tough. It was used nonstop from the height of the Roman Empire until the end of the Renaissance, reaching its peak in use during the High Middle Ages.

Peak Era of Use: 950 - 1300 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Hauberk, gauntlets, chausses, coif.
Pros: Flexible. Simple to make. Widely commercially available. Offers good protection against cuts. Accurate for every time period in the MMCG.
Cons: Moderately heavy, and bad distribution of weight. Poor defense against thrusts and crushes. Loud. Moderately expensive. In fact, most commercially available mail is either quite expensive or not riveted (and even most riveted mail for sale is not the same as historical riveted mail).

Plate Armor
Often associated with the “knight in shining armor,” plate armor is the strongest type of armor that was worn in the Middle Ages. It was formed of iron or steel plates that fit together by a system of rivets and straps. It could be simple nearly to the point of crude, or ornate to the point of florid. It was sometimes painted in order to keep rust from forming. Nearly all helmets were made of plate.
As with “scale mail” the term “plate mail” has appeared in role-playing games and has worked its way into the popular lexicon of medieval fantasy enthusiasts. However, the proper term is simply “plate armor.” (See Scale Armor).

Peak Era of Use: 1350 - 1500 A.D.
Most Often Used In: Everything. Especially helmets.
Pros: Excellent protection against everything. Widely commercially available. Good distribution of weight, even though it is heavy.
Cons: Hot. Unbelievably Loud. Expensive. Heavy, even with good distribution of weight. Poorly fitted plate armor can be difficult to move in. Difficult to make without advanced knowledge of metalworking. Commercially available plate armor varies hugely in its authenticity and quality.

Continue to Selecting the Right Armor / Armor Resources

 

   
 
 
     
   

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