The History and Types of Armor: From Bronze Age to Modern Times


What is an armor? What is the history, types, art and development of armor? Information about armor uses from bronze age till now.

ARMOR, is a covering to protect the body from injury by weapons. It may include a shield borne by the wearer. Primitive armor probably was made of hides and wood. This article is concerned with metal armor, particularly the type worn by European warriors.

The steps in the perfection of armor may be traced from its beginning in the Bronze Age, through the thousand years when mail made of iron rings was most in use, to the era of knights clad in plate armor. For connoisseurs, the finest period of the armorer’s art occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. But armor faded in importance as firearms became increasingly powerful and battle tactics changed, in the 17th century, from assaults by heavily armored troops to fast cavalry skirmishes. During the 18th century, armor became obsolete except for ceremonial occasions.



Bronze Age Armor

The earliest metal used for armor was bronze. Sumerian warriors of about 2500 b.c., wearing small conical helmets and cloaks apparently of leather or cloth with discs of metal attached, are represented in an inlaid panel in the British Museum. A limestone stele of about the same date in the Louvre shows other Bronze Age soldiers wearing conical helmets with nose bars surprisingly similar in shape to helmets worn in 1066 a.d. by the troops of William the Conqueror. An Egyptian wall painting of about 1500 b.c. shows in detail an armored garment of a type later known as a fazeran, which consisted of a cloth tunic entirely covered with overlapping bronze scales arranged in horizontal rows. Armor of this type was flexible yet gave good protection. It continued in use, especially in eastern countries, until nearly modem times, with iron scales replacing the bronze. Its disadvantages were, first, that its entire weight hung from the shoulders and, second, that a dagger or arrow point could penetrate between the scaled.

As metallurgical skill developed and bigger pieces of bronze could be worked, it became possible to make larger helmets, shield coverings, breastplates, and other pieces of body armor. Soon after 1000 b.c. bronze armor of high technical and artistic quality was available. A Greek helmet of the 6th century b.c. now in the City Art Museum of St. Louis, Mo., afforded not only good protection for head and face, but it was also a magnificent work of art. Its silver crest was presumably a commander’s insignia. The soldier in the ranks wore breast- and backplates, greaves, which covered his shins, and a helmet with nose and cheek pieces and a crest of horsehair directly above the skull piece. His arms and thighs were bare. He carried a large shield of round, elliptical, or hourglass form, of wood and leather with a bronze rim.


The Etruscans developed armor much like that of their colonial Greek neighbors in southern Italy. Both, in turn, influenced the emerging Roman civilization technically and artistically. More than 500 years after the Greek helmet shown above, a Roman bronze helmet with face mask was ornamented with projecting busts in the round. This is now in Nijmegen, Holland. The mask itself is the surprisingly beautiful face of an idealized warrior.

Introduction of Iron. Iron first appeared about 400 b.c. and was well known by the beginning of the Christian era. It was difficult to produce and consequently expensive, so it was used at first only for small, important pieces such as lance points and sword and dagger blades. By the time of the Roman emperors, however, iron and steel (iron containing a small percentage of carbon which permitted it to be hardened and tempered) was readily available. The armor of legionary soldiers in the 2d century b.c. consisted of rings or pieces of chain sewn on a leather undergarment. By the end of the 1st century b.c., iron scales were “similarly applied to leather, and by the 2d century a.d., overlapping horizontal iron strips were riveted or sewn to leather or cloth.

During the centuries after the fall of Rome (476 a.d. ), both mail of interlocked rings and defenses of iron or steel plates, including scale armor and metal-studded cloth and leather, continued to be used. Garments were made of the jazeran type already mentioned. Others were made of scales held together by lacing only. Still others were of scales or of scales combined with larger plates riveted inside a cloth or leather garment. Defenses of this type were used in Scandinavia in the 14th century and in Italy and elsewhere in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were known as brigandines.

The Age of Mail

In central and western Europe, from the 11th century onward, mail of linked rings was predominant. When actually going into battle the mailed knight put on an iron helmet over his mail hood. At first this was a relatively small domed cap. It consisted of a circular rim around the head at the forehead, four vertical strips rising to meet at the top of the head, metal plates filling the spaces between them, and a bar descending from the forehead over the nose. Later these were replaced by larger—usually flat-topped and more or less cylindrical—helmets covering the face as well as the rest of the head. Only a horizontal slit was left for vision, with various smaller openings below it for ventilation.

After the latter part of the 12th century the suit of mail was reinforced here and there by additional defenses of quilted fabric, leather (both raw and hardened by cooking in oil), and metal plates. Usually the knees were the first parts to receive these additions, followed by the shins, elbows, and breast.

The trunk portion of the body was most frequently protected by a “coat of plates” of the brigandine type. Additional small defenses of plate were applied to cover the joints or the shoulders, elbows, and knees. All were worn over the mail tunic (hauberk) and leg coverings (chausses). Additional defenses for arms and legs appeared. At first these were simple strips of metal attached by straps or lacings, but later they became complete tubular defenses opening on hinges (the inside of the thighs, however, was left unarmored for convenience in riding). Gauntlets, with overlapping finger scales, came into common use along with defenses of plate for the upper part of the foot. Collars of plate were added to protect the neck. On his head the knight wore a basinet style of helmet over his hood of mail, or the basinet alone with a neck-guard (camail) of mail attached to its lower edge and hanging down past the neck opening of the hauberk, For a major battle, a great heaume was worn over the basinet. This was solid plate armor, and covered head, face, and neck down to the shoulders. There was, of course, no official shape for heaumes. Some were fiat-topped, some rounded, and some almost pointed. Knights sometimes wore, instead of any of these forms, a simple, rather broad-brimmed iron hat.

During the second half of the 14th century the various pieces of plate armor which had been added to the knight’s defenses began to coalesce. The separate pieces protecting the forearms, elbows, and upper arms joined to form a single arm defense; the thigh, knee, and shin guards formed a complete covering for each leg. Breastplates and backplates added horizontal lames (narrow plates) to protect the lower abdomen, and pendant plates, in addition to leg armor, to protect the upper thigh. As plate armor became more complete, the necessity for a full suit of mail beneath it vanished. In the 15th century, mail was usually confined to relatively small areas at exposed joints—armpit, elbow, crotch, and knee—although shirts or short shoulder-capes of mail might be worn instead of plate armor when immediate battle was not expected.



Types of Plate Armor

The so-called “Gothic” armor produced in the 15th century and in the first years of the 16th is the finest of all to the connoisseur. From the military standpoint it afforded the best combination of security and practicability; from the metallurgical standpoint it showed the greatest skill in manipulating a most intractable material; and esthetically it combined beauty of form without sacrifice of utility.

The best Gothic armor was made of a metal that, on the inner surfaces of the plates, was a soft, tough iron, almost of the quality of wrought-iron. Yet the exterior surface had been changed—by exposure to free carbon under great heat and subsequent quenching—to a steel of glasslike hardness. It was not a rolled sheet metal of uniform thickness, such as is used today for containers and automobile bodies. Rather, each part of a suit of armor was formed from a lump of metal hammered from the center toward the edges until the proper shape was attained. Thus the metal would be thickest at the most exposed part and thinnest at the edges.

There was no standard type of 15th century armor. Although the best specimens that have survived are of plain polished steel, there is ample evidence that armor was sometimes painted or chemically colored. Furthermore, it frequently had cloth or leather riveted to its plates, either inside or out. Variations in style ranged from the utilitarian to the most wildly fanciful.

The piece of armor which varied most in design was the helmet. This could be the steel hat, or chapel-de-fer; a salade, or bowl-type covering coming down to the mouth, with a slit at eye-level for vision; a barbute, deeper and more cylindrical, resembling a classical Greek helmet; a basinet, large and heavy, resting on the shoulders and having a movable visor in front of the face; or an armet, a small helmet completely enclosing the head, with a visor that could be raised to reveal the upper part of the face, and two hinged sidepieces enclosing the lower face and chin. If a helmet of the salade type was worn there was usually also a separate chin guard or mentonnière, attached to the top of the breastplate. With the armet there might or might not be a neck protection of mail.

Inside the helmet there might be a padded cap, or the helmet itself might have a lining of cloth attached by rivets around the lower edge of the metal. The same function—protection against chafing and temperature (for armor could get very cold in winter or hot in summer) — was served by padded cloth undergarments. These garments also had laces attached, to which the arm and leg units of the armor were tied. The laces passed through eyelets in leather tabs riveted to the top edge of the defenses.

In addition to the helmet, a suit of armor consisted of six main units; one for the trunk, another for the shoulders and neck, two for the arms, and two for the legs. Each of these in turn consisted of several smaller parts, connected either by being riveted to leather strips or by a series of interlocking studs, keyhole slots, and rotatable turning pegs. The trunk armor had a breastplate and a backplate, united by straps at the shoulders and sides. To the lower edge of each were attached horizontal lames which, sliding over each other, gave flexibility at the waist. This was accomplished by a rivet in the upper lame passing loosely through a slot in the lower one, allowing them to slide and permitting a certain amount of bending. To the lowest lame were attached tuilles (flat plates) or tassets (short groups of lames), which hung down over the tops of the leg armor.

The shoulders were protected by separate pauldrons, usually attached to a neck guard or colletin which might fit under or over the breast-and backplates. The arm guards consisted of a tubular defense, or rerebrace, for the upper arm; an elbow guard, pivoted to it front and back; and a forearm guard, or vambrace, also pivoted to the elbow guard. Each of these pieces might have one or more sliding lames at top or bottom for flexibility, but the three were usually attached to each other, and put on as a unit. The vambrace was generally made in two pieces, held together by a hinge with a spring catch so that it could be opened as the hand was passed through it and then clasped snugly around the forearm and wrist. The hands were protected by separate gauntlets, of hinged and sliding lames, and finger plates riveted to leather straps.

The leg armor was similar to that of the arm, except that the armor for the upper leg was open on the inside of the thigh. As with the arm, flexibility was provided by sliding lames at the top of the thigh, above and below the iaiee, and at the ankle. The feet were guarded by sabbatons or sollerets of hinged and sliding lames which covered the top of the foot only, but had a leather strap or sole to hold the plates in position. In addition to all these pieces many armors had also a pair of circular rondels hung from the shoulder straps of the breast- and back-plates, or from the pauldrons, which gave extra protection to the shoulder joint. Further protection at the shoulder and elbow joint, the crotch, and the inside of the knee joint was usually given by mail. This might take the form of small pieces sewn to the undergarment, of sleeves or legs, or of an entire garment of mail worn under the plate armor.

The Art of the Armorer

Such a suit of armor would weigh from 55 to 65 pounds (25-30 kg), yet it was not particularly uncomfortable. Of course, it had to fit perfectly. The joints had to come at exactly the right places, and few adjustments were possible. This accounts for one of the common misconceptions about armor. The curator of an armor collection often hears the inquiry: “Weren’t the people who wore armor as a rule quite a lot smaller then men today?” It is true that men today are generally larger than their European forebears, but not very much. The misconception arises because much of the armor now on exhibition in museums is the outgrown armor of young men. Their arms and legs grew so long that the joints no longer worked properly; their bodies grew too stout for their old breastplates. Therefore, they hung their old armor on the wall of the ancestral castle and ordered a new suit to fit their adult stature. And, in all probability, they were buried in it. It was the outgrown armor which was preserved, unscarred by battle.

Another popular misconception is that armor was tremendously hampering; that a man, once fallen, could not rise without the aid of a derrick. Nothing could be further from the truth. Armor was practical—it had to be; men trusted their lives to it. Except in the case of mail, armor did not bear all its weight on the shoulders. The weight, which in total was no more than a modern soldier’s field kit, was well distributed over the body. An armored man could lie down, rise again, climb stairs or a ladder, run (not very fast), descend a rope hand over hand (but hardly climb it, unless he were exceptionally strong). Any competent knight was expected to be able to run alongside his horse and vault into the saddle without using the stirrup.

The principal sources of armor were northern Italy and southern Germany. In a general way, the Italians preferred smooth, polished armor; its beauty was derived from excellence of form alone. The German armorers excelled in flutings, scallopings, and the addition of brass borders and ornaments. Among the great Italian armorers were the Missaglia family of Milan, Paulo and Filippo Negroli, Pompeo della Chiesa, and Bartolommeo Campi. Among the Germans were Wolf of Landshut, Jorg and Lorenz Helmschmied of Augsburg, Conrad Seusenhofer of Innsbruck, Coloman Colman, Matthaus Frauenpreiss, and Kunz Lochner. Excellent armor was also made in France, Spain, and England.



Influence of the Renaissance

As the 16th century wore on, styles in armor changed markedly. The chaste simplicity of the early Italian armor gave way to a decoration of parallel flutings favored by Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) of Austria and such armor was named after him. The pointed toes of Gothic foot defenses were replaced by exaggeratedly broad toe coverings. The salade helmets became less popular, and were replaced by closed armet or burgonet helmets, whose lower edges interlocked with the outturned top edge of the colletin. This type of helmet became a virtual turret which could be turned in any direction without exposing an opening at the neck. Arm defenses developed a similar rotating joint below the shoulder, and the acquired increasingly elaborate decoration, though at the sacrifice of the simple beauty of the Gothic period. With the flowering of the Renaissance, armor sometimes developed curious and fanciful tendencies. Helmets were made with grotesque face masks. Whole suits of steel wqjre made to copy civilian cloth costume, with its puffed and slashed doublets and tight hose. Renaissance decoration was applied to armor in many ways. The surfaces might be etched with acid to form a roughened background to areas which had been protected from etching by acid-proof varnish. Gold was applied to the steel surface by evaporating gold amalgam, by burnishing gold leaf or wire onto a heavily roughened surface, or by inlaying gold into the steel. And, by the use of hammer and chasing tool, the surface of the armor might be embossed with designs in relief. But magnificent as this embossed decoration was, it deprived the armor of one of its principal advantages: the smoothness of surface that easily deflected a spear point or arrow. However, since such embossed armor was far too costly to be used for other than ceremonial purposes, this loss of practicality was not too serious.

With the 17th century there appeared two factors which radically affected the development of armor. One was a great improvement in the power and effectiveness of hand firearms (which had been in existence through the whole period of plate armor ). The other was a change in cavalry tactics, favoring lightly-armed, swift-moving bands of skirmishers. More powerful bullets required thicker armor to resist them; fast cavalry skirmishing called for lighter riders on lighter, faster horses. So armor developed in the direction of thick, strong, bullet-proof breastplates and helmets, increased flexibility from the use of sliding lames in place of solid plates, and the gradual elimination of arm and leg defenses.

Tournament Armor

Armor was fundamentally equipment for military activity. But there was one kind of armor intended only for sport—for the knightly tournament, one of the most exacting and exciting sports man has ever engaged in. And just as today’s Olympic pistol champion uses a weapon which a soldier might deem fantastically impractical, so tournament contestants of the 15th and 16th centuries wore armor especially designed for that one purpose. Often, it would be grotesque and awkward for any other use.

There were many different kinds of tournaments, and there was tournament armor to fit each different set of rules. For some tournaments the knight could be suitably outfitted by merely exchanging his regular helmet for a special model and by adding two or three reinforcing pieces over his regular war armor. Other types of tournaments were so violent and dangerous that a special suit of armor had to be worn, with a huge helmet solidly bolted to breast- and backplates. Such a suit might weigh 90 to 100 pounds (41-45 kg), but it needed to be worn for only a short time.


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