Armor never wearies by Timothy Dawson (review)


'Armour Never Wearies'

But the writing here sure does.  🙂

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a book on such an esoteric topic would be dry, but Dawson scrupulously avoids any kind of summary or conclusions. He gives a lot of detailed diagrams of individual scales and possible reconstructions, but no timelines or maps, so it is not always clear what period or area a particular find is relevant to. He also seems unwilling to give any real details about the weight of a suit (or pieces) of the armors, how well it might prevent penetration by various weapons or compare to other types of armor of the same period, and so on — the sorts of things someone interested in arms and armor might wonder about. Instead we have a detailed description of how different types of scale and lamellar armors depicted in period art might have been made, and how various archaeological finds might fit into the reconstructions. He is pretty careful to avoid speculation, but doesn’t always explain why he disagrees with other people’s ideas about the armor or even who specifically he means to criticize or dispute.

Still, it is s probably the only book ever written about scale and lamellar armor, so if you’ll want to read it if you have any interest in armor. The author is an historical reenactor, so he includes photos of actual suits he’s built, even photos of himself wearing them, which is neat. I was able to track down an article he cites in the book (and which he also wrote) that mentions, in passing, his tests of reconstructed lamellar armor against sword, spear, and compound bow, but there is not a lot of data, and no comparative tests against other types of armor were done, so it is hard to draw specific conclusions about the effectiveness of lamellar. He says he couldn’t pierce it with contemporary weapons, and his bow was an 82 pound draw longbow shot at 20 feet, using what sound like bodkin or armor-piercing arrowheads, so it sounds like lamellar is as good as mail or plate; it is stiffer than mail and so would be a little better versus impact weapons, but much more expensive to produce than plate, which explains why it fell out of use everywhere people had access to plate.

The article is “Kremasmata, kabadion, klibanion: some aspects of middle Byzantine military equipment reconsidered,” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, vol. 22 (1998) p. 38-50. An open source scan (pdf) is here.

D&D-wise, this book got me revisiting the question of what kinds of armor should a campaign include. AD&D is a grab-bag of stuff from the dark ages through early middle ages (with late medieval full plate optionally added in the DMG). Most simplified systems strip it down to leather, chain, and plate, but  really there is something funny going on in any campaign world where mail armor is cheaper than plate (the amount of work involved in cutting, bending, and riveting all those links is insane). My brother, who as big an arms & armor nerd as me, has argued that mail would really better for adventurers because, among other things, plate will overheat you pretty quickly, while mail acts as a radiator, letting heat escape. (Other factors being that mail is pretty repairable in the field while plate is less so; mail could be removed before you drown, unlike plate; and mail stops weapons almost as well as plate in most cases — remember, knights were jousting with lances before full plate was being made, and they survived.) But mail was too pricey to compete with plate — besides plate looks awesome, and you don’t really need a shield with it. so my point is by the time full plate armor is available, your real choice is between partial and full plate armor, not between mail and plate. D&D “plate mail,” if it is as I assume mail with a few bits of plate added at the joints and perhaps a chest piece, might reasonable coexist as an improvement over mail, and of course mail continued to see use long after they stopped making new suits, as hand-me-downs and inventory from armories, but I’m tempted to reduce all armors to maybe three classes — light (leather or padded); medium (scale or mail, or half-plate or less); and heavy (a full suit of lamellar or reinforced mail, and  any kind of plate armor).


Published in: on May 29, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Armor training

I was discussing house rules for D&D with my brother and mentioned that I liked the LotFP rule that essentially removes weapon and armor restrictions in favor of limiting certain activities (arcane spell casting, skill use) while encumbered.  He thought it better to keep existing weapon & restrictions by class because using certain weapons*, and wearing heavy armor, actually require some training.

I used ‘class based damage’ in my Telengard campaign before, and part of the thinking there is that more martial classes just use weapons more effectively. A fighter does d8 with a mace because he’s a fighter who has been trained for war; a thief does d6 with the mace because his training is mostly in stealth and skills. So Tom suggested class-based AC, such that fighters would derive the full benefit of mail or plate while other classes got only a smaller increase in AC from the same armor, again based on the class’ training.  So maybe leather/mail/playte add a base of +1/+2/+3 to ascending AC, so while fighters and clerics add another +2 or 3, thieves and mages add nothing.  This also boosts AC for unarmored fighters, which is nice if you’d like more swashbucklers and barbarians in you basic D&D.  I’m leaning towards just leaving the armor restrictions as they are (although I’m not convinced that this is functionally different from saying thief skills can only be used if encumbrance is medium or less, and arcane spells can only be used if encumbrance is light or none…a wizard will almost certainly be better off in no armor, casting spells, and a thief would pretty dumb to forgo using skills just so he can have heavier armor…which raises the question of why bother changing armor restrictions at all…)

The discussion also reminded me of one of Plato’s dialogues, the Laches, where, right at the beginning, the characters discuss whether it is a good idea to hire a teacher of hoplomachia — “fighting in armor” according to the translation I read in college.  The idea is rejected because the Spartans have the greatest warriors and do not study hoplomachia.  One participant (Nicias) even says that the hoplomachia teachers avoid Sparta as if it were ‘sacred ground’ — the Spartans apparently would not suffer such fools.**  I think the reality is, the Spartans did a lot of training in armor, just not the specific kind ‘hoplomachia‘ the character in the dialogue was peddling — which may have been something more like ‘fencing,’ i.e. a combat sport rather than a true martial art.  Apparently hoplomachia meant the actual warrior’s skills in Homeric times but by Plato’s time meant something like ‘swordplay’ or ‘fencing’.

I have read about medieval knights wearing their armor all the time until they were strong and agile enough to vault onto a horse, or scale a wall, or even do a cartwheel in it, and seen video of re-enactors at the Leeds museum do such things; Tom also related an anecdote about a Renaissance Fair acrobat who said he wore mail under his clothes until he could perform his routine in it, and it took him three years of practice to manage it.  So what we’re really talking about is learning to compensate for the encumbrance of armor.  I think there is a way to understand the existing limitations on armor as reflecting this same reality — thieves and magic-users just don’t wear armor because it interferes with their freedom of movement which they need to function in their primary roles.  The LotFP rules make this more explicit, but leave the option to wear some armor open, much as the Unearthed Arcana rules gave thieves some leeway to wear a few heavier armor types.

I guess I should note that the rules for Rolemaster were way ahead of me on this too, as wearing armor was a skill to be developed alongside everything else (in fact, a suite of skills for different armor types!).  I never questioned those rules back in the day, and they still make sense.

So the bottom line is I have come around to accept limitations on armor use.  I might keep it tied to encumbrance, or might leave open the possibility that characters could learn to wear heavy armor, and now that I think of it, maybe fighters (and clerics) should face smaller penalties for climbing and jumping in armor, since they are trained to bear it.


Update (since writing this post up last week):

I asked about these issues on “AncMed,” the Society of Ancients’  yahoo group, and one member gave a very interesting response, based on his re-enactment experiences:

Hi Mike

Just based on my own 15th century replica experience it’s pretty easy to wear armour straight off, the issues are usually:

a) getting it on properly in the 1st place! This is very dependent on what sort of armour it is – so I’d anticipate a lorica would be pretty straight forward, but like even a simple back & breast-plate it is helpful to have an old hand or a mate around to tighten fastenings & ensure that the straps are not tangled. In many ways learning to fight in a close helmet is probably more of an adjustment – but again it depends upon what type of helmet it is. Similarly you need a lot of training to fight with a shield effectively – my guess is much more so than just wearing the armour.

b) My own experience is that ‘soft armours’ such as jacks etc. are dead easy to wear & fight in & mail shirts are similar. The issue with mail however is that it generally ‘hangs’ all it’s weight on the wearers shoulders, so it’s best belted to take the weight of the mail skirt on the hips. Or if it’s worn under a ‘hard’ armour — such as a breast plate — the mail is reduced and the mail sleeves & skirt are best sown onto a padded under garment (an arming doublet). Mail is hot to fight in & you will dehydrate quickly. Surprisingly the same is true of soft armours such as jacks — which to give any real degree of protection require to be quite thick. However, mail & most other metal armours also conduct the cold very quickly (which is not the case with soft armours) and so I’d imagine many deaths after battles caused by hypothermia adding to shock. Soft armours, unless greased or tarred will also get sodden with sweat & rain of course, which can make them a lot heavier even than mail!

c) more complex 15th century harness requires an established process or order to put on.  So it’s standard practice in full harness to put your leg & arm harness on first — it’s a sort of ‘inside-out’ process — nearest the body first: arming doublet, leg harness, arm harness, mail standard, upper breast plate, then fould & skirt and tassets, and finally shoulder plates, gorget, helmet and gauntlets. You will need at least 1 assistant — usually to click the sliding rivets on the back & breastplates into place (using a bear-hug technique) and also to tie on your shoulder plates and do the rear strap up on your bevor. For speed, you can leave off the leg harness & just drop the upper breast & back plates on over the arming doublet. Or, as we see in some 14th century illustrations you get mounted men-at-arms in just their arming doublets, with helmets, arm & leg harness, as this is the camp ‘dress-down’ state of a fully armoured man (a crab without his shell!).

As has been stated here previously the weight of a full harness is distributed over the whole body so unlike mail it’s not a huge burden initially, but once fatigued it’s a true burden — especially leg-harness.

Fighting in full harness is a truly learned skill (not one that I ever fully mastered!). It requires lots & lots of practice and training (both individually & in groups) so as not to injure yourself as well as your friends. Whilst (in my experience) it makes you feel truly invulnerable (9 feet tall) equally you can be exceptionally vulnerable, as you have restricted vision, a generally poor top-heavy point of balance (helmets & shoulder plates move your center of balance upwards quite considerably) and the fact that once in it it’s not really a quick process to get out of it.

Fighting in full harness is about using the whole body — yes you’ve got your sword, dagger, mace or pole-axe but equally you are wearing another +6olbs of hard & often deliberately sharp outer shell.  Elbow points are truly deadly (hence the common expression of “giving somebody the elbow”). In fact your elbows are deceptively dangerous weapons.  I remember a re-enactment of the Battle of St.Albans many years ago. We (The White Company Men-at-Arms) were engaged in a hand-to-hand melee in a series of mocked-up stage built houses and an opponent with a sword & buckler (in a metal breast plate thankfully) engaged me unexpectedly from my rear right side – just slightly inside of my visor slit line of vision. I was expecting my back to be covered, but my supporting bills were engaged with other assailants — all I saw was a flash of opposing livery colours (Staffords – red & black) & a raised sword. As I was also engaged with my pole-axe with another armoured enemy with a longsword to my front instinctively I jerked out with my right elbow with as much force as I could muster & the impact knocked my assailant off his feet & threw him out through a low window a full 2 or 3 yards, winding him badly. From my rear, I was extremely vulnerable as the backs of my thighs are unprotected and a sharp blade could easily slide up under my shoulder plates and into my shoulder.

Similarly, if you get hit by a pole-axe (the hammer or blade) on a sliding rivet in your shoulder plates, it will lock the whole arm and you end up looking like a bird with a broken wing as your arm is locked in the position it was in when the rivets were locked, again making you extremely vulnerable.

d) I don’t know about ancient Greek linen armours or greaves, but again I guess they’d become 2nd nature after a while.

Hope that helps, but we probably need to bear in mind that we (me) are nowhere near as fit or ‘hardy’ as those ancient or medieval soldiers – more used to physical graft and burden carrying than us ‘soft’ modern types!!!

Mark [Fry]

I asked for a little more information about the armor ‘locking up’ and Mark expanded on this, as well as adding some other interesting insights about armor use in the late middle ages:

The issue with armour ‘locking’ is the fact that much of the 15th century shoulder armour plates have sliding pins & rivets to allow the plates to travel freely over each other but at the same time keep any gaps to the minimum. So a denting blow on an area where the rivets would normally travel freely effectively locks those two plates together. It’s thought that is the real purpose around the hammer heads often found on one side of a poleaxe. Once the men-at-arms had his arm/shoulder restricted in this manner he was extremely vulnerable to the long sharp pointed spikes at either end of the poleaxe which were slid into gaps in the harness. Even a long sword, grasped 6″ or so back from the point to give it some rigidity is just as effective. Have you seen the DVD Reclaiming the Blade (it’s got John Howe in it from the Company of St. George amongst others)? Well worth getting if you can find a copy. 15th century sword fighting in harness was a matter of using all parts of the sword so the guard & pommel are equally lethal even against a chap in armour.
The idea that a man in good quality harness is like a beached turtle if felled is (as I’m sure you know) complete rubbish. We used to turn cart-wheels, make rolls, and easily get off & on horses unaided in good fitting full harness. In fact there was an incident when one of our number fell off the castle wall at Rockingham, in full harness, during a demonstration. With his arming jack underneath he just bounced down the grassy incline — after falling some 10 feet or more. Apart from a headache (probably hang-over induced) he had a few minor bruises, that was all. There used to be some pretty good footage of arming 15th century harness on the Company of St.George website — it’s worth trying to get access to this.
I developed a theory (whilst in the White Company) that there was no such thing as ‘billmen’. Nik Gaukroger & I have had endless debates about this previously.
My theory is that you had men-at-arms (of various status) and ‘soldiers’. The soldiers were mostly archers (Longbow armed) but would be very happy to pick up bills or similar pole-arms as & when required (such as guard duty etc.) for off-battlefield duties (as they appear in 15th century illustrations). The men-at-arms fought in distinctive units — more heavily (fully armoured) & therefore higher status or more experienced (hence the more comprehensive harness) guys at the front, with less well armed chaps at the back (so these are what modern re-enactors would call ‘billmen’) in sallets/kettles, brigandines or munition back & breastplates or jacks, maybe arm harness but probably not leg-harness. These guys’ ‘role’ was primarily to make sure that the guys in the full harness operated at maximum effect — so they watched their backs, defended them if they were knocked over & helped them up and generally stabbed or cut with their own pole-arms around the better protected & also fight their opposite numbers in the melees.
Similarly, I think that we’ve got our interpretation of later medieval hand-gunners all wrong. We see them primarily as skirmishers, when in reality all the illustrations of the period show them relatively heavily armoured and fighting in the front-ranks of mixed bill &/or pike or spear formations (there is a great 15th century Flemish illustration of this but I cannot remember the source at present). All of which makes great sense as I think that they probably operated a bit like ‘anti-tank’ weapons – as they were probably the best means of shooting down the very heavily armoured front-rank foot men-at-arms.
Anyway … all just an interesting theory 🙂

I should mention that anyone interested in ancient and medieval warfare, weapons, armor, and armies — especially if you are interested in wargames — should join AncMed and/or The Society of Ancients.  I’ve been lurking AncMed on and off for years and it’s been quite an education. Although you sometimes get some heated arguments, the level of sophistication and maturity (not to mention scholarship!) is usually very high.



*He mentioned flails specifically, as opposed to a simpler, handier weapon like a short sword; I think he’s right about that.  Likewise pole-arms seem more complicated to wield than spears, and while you see depictions of peasant levies armed with spears, clubs, and simple pole-arms derived from agricultural tools, you don’t see them carrying great-swords, halberds, and so on.  So maybe the ‘simple’ versus ‘martial’ distinction in 3rd and 4th editions are a good idea.

**Nicias also mentions that one of the teachers of this art made a fool of himself with a weapon he invented that combined a spear and scythe.  Apparently when he tried to use it in a boarding action to cut another galley’s rigging, it got entangled and he was dragged the length of the ship.  So any early guisearme apparently failed to impress the Greeks.  It’s a very interesting anecdote, though, as a reminder that even the Greeks experimented with polearms.

Published in: on January 3, 2012 at 10:24 am  Comments (5)  
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Full metal stress test

I’ve been reading the Society of Ancients’ Yahoo group list serv lately (AncMed) and in between the debates about hypastists and chariotry and medieval Tibetan cavalry, there are always interesting links to new articles.

Here’s a recent one: researchers put some dudes in full plate armor on a treadmill and gave them a stress test!  And there is also a link to the journal article for you scholars (only the abstract is free though).

(Image from the linked BBC article)

Shocking findings:

“They found that the subjects used high levels of energy, bore immense weight on their legs and suffered from restricted breathing.”

I immediately assumed that the restricted breathing could be partly a matter of poorly fitted armor; you can’t just buy it off the rack you know.  But the volunteers for the study are re-enactors and it sounds they may have brought their own replica armor.  Perhaps most surprising to me was that although modern soldiers carry a similar total weight in thier kits, the armor was more fatiguing than a backpack because of the weight on the lower legs.  I would have guessed that being distributed around the whole body would make plate armor less fatiguing than a similar-weight pack.

But just as Roman gladiators training with double-weight weapons and shields, another Ancmed member says, at least the knights of Malta (and maybe other knights) trained with double-weight armor!  I’ve certainly read about knights being trained to scale walls and suchlike in full armor, so it could be that the knights of old (or at least the serious warriors, if not every knight) had amazing stamina and strength by modern standards.  I would think that being in the sun for any length of time in full amror would also be exhausting.  I can undetstand why the conquistadores abandoned their plate armor in Mexico, even if it was impervious to native stine-tipped weapons.

Published in: on July 21, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (3)  
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