How Armor Actually Worked: A Look at Armor through the Ages

Hey! Another Bret-Deveraux inspired paper today. I am going to look at different suits of armor from about 500 B.C to about 1700 A.D. Then I am going to explain which I find most effective. Anyways, lets start.

Our adventure begins with the Ancient Greeks. The Ancient Greeks, as you probably know, were divided into city-states. (Large city’s and the surrounding countryside.) Because of this, they could not call themselves an empire, and almost never had a professional army. Instead, every male citizen would own a suit of armor, and when it was time, they would all form an army and go to war. Because of this, the soldiers bought their own suit of armor (they would call it a panoply) which would cost roughly the amount of a modern car. Now lets look at what this armor was like.

Depending on how rich he was, a Greek hoplite could get different suits of armor. For the poorest citizens only a shield, helmet, and spear was available. A richer hoplite would have a thick fabric torso and tunic. The richest would have bronze breastplates and greaves. The spear would be a 6-8 foot wooden pole with a bronze spike at the end. The shield would be made of oak and about 3 feet long and would generally have a bronze sheet over it. That way, it wasn’t to heavy but there would still be a metal stopping the blow. Helmets seriously ranged in style depending on time and place, but would generally have a bronze skull and neck covering with a facial visor. A cheaper helmet would not include a face covering, and the cheapest no neck guard. In the end, Greek armor wasn’t bad. Some of the most successful conquerors in the world only had a shield and a helmet. Take the Vikings as an example. Or the Mongols. Most had a simple shield and helmet.

Next I am going to go into Roman armor. There were many different kinds of armor made for the Roman army, but I am only going to explain two. The Romans called them Lorica Segmentum and Lorica Hamata. Lorica Segmentum consisted of rectangular metal plates linked by cords placed onto a tunic.

Lorica Segmentum

Lorica Hamata was just chain mail. Later legionaries and auxiliaries would use chain mail as it was an amazing new invention. Not only was it fairly cheap and most could afford it, it was amazingly impervious. It was pretty much impossible to cut with the blade of a sword, so your adversary would have to be armed with something that could puncture or pierce the chainmail. So basically, either a spear or a bow. Interestingly enough, the Romans did not invent this ingenious armor. Rather, they adopted it from the Gauls. (The inhabitants of France and Spain at the time.)

Lorica Hamata

Roman armor outside that was simple. A large curved shield, 2 javelins, a shortsword, and a helmet. If you want more on Roman arms, read The Reason the Romans Won: Part 1.

After the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Europe went into a period known as the dark ages. Terrible wars raged as the Huns and the Vikings ravaged Europe. Scientific and technological advancement was forgotten, replaced by war and strife. But the inventions of the past were kept, and as most could not afford fancy armor, chainmail became a treasured artifact. Most of the time, warriors could only afford a shield and sometimes a helmet. (As I said, already a pretty good defense.) Anyways, eventually, Europe recovered. Tribes formed into nations, nations to kingdoms. Slowly, but surely, Europe entered the middle ages.

Armor came to it’s most complex and interesting in the middle ages. As horizons of warfare expanded, so did the variants of armor used. The most basic and cheap armor would be a leather gambeson. It consisted of thick leather padding with a filling of linen or wool. It wasn’t very reliable, but it was better than nothing. Being so thick, if someone swung a sword at you with not much force, it would generally catch the blade. But if one put a lot of force into a blow, especially with a two-handed swing, it would easily slice through the cloth. A lot of soldiers could afford only this, especially during the Crusades when poor monks and peasants were the ones fighting instead of a professional army.

A Gambeson shirt

The next level of armor, was, yup, you guessed it, chain mail. With the production advancements in the medieval age, chainmail became cheaper and most professional soldiers could afford it. People began experimenting with it and trying it in different designs. Chain mail shirts, pants, gloves, tunics, and full body suits were invented! But a problem arose: Headwear! Plate helmets were expensive and cheap helmets such as the kettle helmet left your neck unguarded.

Kettle Helmet

But as always, there was a chainmail oriented solution: The chain mail coif, a alternative to expensive plate helmets which would still protect your head and neck.

Chain Mail Coif

Anyways, chainmail was great. So great, that everybody realized that unless they could find some way to beat chainmail, they would have to stop killing each other! And everyone, knowing how dire a circumstance that would be, adopted a new style of warfare to fight chainmail: Pike warfare. This had been used by the Macedonians before, but it really came into effect during the Middle Ages. Basically, a bunch of dudes form ranks and stick 20 foot long pointy poles into each others faces. The points of the pike could pierce the small holes in the chain mail, or given enough force, split the rings themselves. Pike warfare was quite dangerous. The picture on the front of my blog is of pike warfare:

Now, everyone realized chainmail wouldn’t cut it for the elites, so they begun to engineer a new kind. Plate armor. It was made of something like 2mm of compact steel, and not only was impermeable to slashing, but also almost impossible to pierce. At first, this seemed like perfect armor. But there were many downsides.

1.)Cost The first was, it was expensive. Even though it was made of plates instead of rings, it was much harder to produce for several reasons. Being compact, it took more steel. Also, they had to craft the plates in a way that it would completely protect the user and give them maneuverability. So most soldiers in an army could not afford plate.

2.)Flexibility and Weight While chainmail left you fairly dexterous, Plate was quite inflexible. Even with fine craftmanship and design, plate armor was pretty fixed together and it was hard to maneuver in it. If you were knocked on the ground, you couldn’t really stand up, and that was the end of the battle for you. Plate armor’s solidity meant it could way from 33-55 pounds! Combined with its inflexibility, it heavily hindered the users ability to swing a weapon or even move around.

Even with all those downsides, most people who could afford plate armor wore it. There was nothing that could break it… or was there? As always, warfare adapted, and people started using crossbows more. The amount of force created by a crossbow could pierce even the thickest plate. Plus, they were cheap and easy to use. But if you want to read more on crossbows, I wrote a post on them. Anyways, a few more weapons were developed further like maces which could bludgeon one without piercing their armor, and they would generally be knocked unconscious and so they could be sold for a ransom.

All of these arms and armor were used, and I was going to write about what kind of arms and armor I believe to be best, but I’ve decided to save that for my next paper. So long!

2 thoughts on “How Armor Actually Worked: A Look at Armor through the Ages

  1. How effective was plate armor against early .50+ caliber Handgonnes used at the beginning of blackpowder warfare? I appreciate how you provide an in depth look at pike warfare in a way that is both informative and understandable. Great article. Please write more about this era of worldwide military history.

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    1. Thank you so much! I am not sure, but hand cannons were won of the least effective early gunpowder weapons, and were replaced by the arquebus and musket. A heavy enough weapon would be able to puncture most plate, though.

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