Collections: Armor in Order, Part I

Evaluating armor designs, especially in works of fantasy or speculative fiction, can be a tricky business.  Often times, we can see a design and know something is off about it, but not quite what.  Or alternatively, fans and internet commentators will blast this or that design in TV or a movie simply because it does not conform to their own narrow vision of what armor is ‘supposed’ to look like.  I’ve seen fictional examples of gambesons, muscle cuirasses, mirror-plates and pectorals all mocked by self-appointed expects – and these are armors that were worn historically!

So how can we do better assess if armor ‘makes sense,’ even when it is a non-historical design?  Here is one heuristic: armor comes ‘in order.’  What do I mean by that?  It means that there is a set of priorities for armoring the body, prior to the advent of gunpowder, that are broadly consistent (with some exceptions) across many cultures and places.  And that list of priorities, as we’ll see in a moment, is based on physical and biological realities and so should apply in both historical and fantasy settings.  A character’s armor – almost any character’s armor – should thus conform to this sort of priority list.

This ‘order of armor’ isn’t the only sort of heuristic for thinking about armor – we’ll talk about some others in the future – but it is an important and relatively straight-forward one.

This topic is coming as two posts: in this first one, we’re going to construct an ‘order of armor’ – the priority list for what gets covered in what order.  In a second post, we’re going to apply that heuristic to some TV, movie and video game armors and see how they hold up.

In constructing the ‘order of armor’ we can think about it two ways: the first is the perspective of a soldier equipping themselves.  They only have so much money, but many options for armor.  What is purchased first?  Where is the most money spent?  And what pieces are only obtained as an afterthought, or if the cash is available?  Likewise, if weight is an issue, what armor is discarded first?  Last?

The other way to think about it is in terms if armor development: what kinds of protection develop first and why?  What I have always found fascinating, is that the answers to these two sets of questions actually correspond – not perfectly, but quite well.  That is, armor development often follows the same priorities as an individual’s armor purchase.

Ok, so enough prologue – what is the order of armor?

First off, without any question, is head protection – by which we should be clear means cranial protection, not facial protection.  If you can afford nothing else, protect the head.  This is so important that we often see soldiers acquiring rigid metal head protection (meaning a helmet) before acquiring even textile body armor (it should be noted any kind of metal body protection is much more expensive than textile equivalents).  Very light infantry – Roman velites, unarmored medieval bowmen and the like will often still wear a helmet.  Likewise, as gunpowder increasingly made armor obsolete on the battlefield, metal head protection was the last element to drop away (and the first to return in the modern period).

So, step one: Protect the Head.  The reasoning behind this makes easy sense: a serious head-wound is very likely to be lethal and extremely likely to be debilitating.  Moreover, the head is rigid and fairly easy to armor; the cost-to-benefit ratio is extremely favorable.  Keep this in mind for when we get to the face.

Where to next?  The body – specifically the chest and belly.  This is where all of your vital organs are and the area is a mess of important blood veins.  As we’ll see, the level of blood-flow through an area matters a great deal in prioritization between limbs and regions of limbs.  This is no great surprise – apart from our skulls, the rib-cage is the only part of our body mother nature saw fit to armor with a cage of bone.

What is worth noting here is what is not covered in the chest and belly and why.  First: if it is necessary to choose between the two (as with a smaller rigid-armor reinforcements like mirror-plates and pectorals), it seems to me the general trend is to reinforce the ribcage before the belly, but there are key exceptions: metal reinforcement to Greek textile armor (the linothorax), for instance, favor protecting the belly over the chest.  Second, some body armor will cover the front of the body, but not the back; early medieval breastplates often lacked matching backplates, while the Roman pectoral may have been worn with only a front plate (the evidence is unclear).  Mirror-plates (plate reinforcements in non-rigid armors) often appear only on the front of armors as well.

Tibetan Mail armor with Mirror Plate (18th century, current in the MET) – note how the armored belt sits at the natural waist, above the hips.

More consistent: this ‘body armor’ stage includes the chest and belly, but not the hips or thighs.  You can see this with Greek muscle cuirasses, early medieval plate cuirasses and the Roman lorica segmentata, all of which terminate at the natural waist – that is, the region just above the hips, rather than the thick part of the hips.  Likewise, poor Romans in the Middle Republic would wear a helmet and a metal plate covering the upper chest (the pectoral) and little other armor (perhaps padded textile garments – the evidence is unclear) besides.  Why?  Well first, the hips contain a lot of bone and less vital organ, although they do contain a lot of big arteries.  But the other thing to consider is this: the mechanical force for every kind of armed, melee strike the body can be subjected to begins at shoulder height.  Consequently, many shorter weapons struggle to hit targets low on the body; getting closer in order to get the reach to land a hit on the hip means exposing yourself to attack.  That’s not to say the hips are safe – the single most common weapon in almost all pre-modern warfare, the spear, has no trouble reaching the thighs or hips.  Nevertheless, a hit here is less likely.

Roman Soldiers wearing the Lorica Segmentata(from the Column of Trajan, 2nd century AD) – note how the metal segmented armor they wear terminates at the natural waist, leaving less protection for the hips or thighs.

The Second Tier

I am putting these defenses together because they seem to have similar priorities and show up around the same time: hips, upper-thighs, and shoulders.  All three areas are tempting targets: less mobile than arms or legs, with high potential to disable a target.  They are also all more difficult to armor, because they all contain joints where you simply cannot sacrifice mobility.  Any armor that significantly restricts mobility in those joints is a non-starter – looking at you, Brienne of Tarth’s early-season pauldrons that don’t seem to let her get her hands above her head.

You can see the emphasis on these areas with historical armors that cover almost nothing else.  The Roman mail armor, the lorica hamata of the Middle Republic, extends the mail body armor down to the knees, and adds a second layer of mail and padding over the shoulders for extra reinforcement.  The concern makes sense: the shoulders are a logical target for the diagonal downward cut or bash that all humans seem to instinctively know.  Likewise, European almain rivet (mass-produced plate armor for pikemen) from the early 16th century typically included shoulder protection (plate pauldrons) and protections for the hips (called a fauld) and thighs (tassets), but jettisoned the rest of the full plate harness.

Roman Soldiers from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (2nd cent. BC) – note how the mail armor covers the shoulders, waist and thighs, but not the legs or arms. In particular, note the ‘shoulder doubling’ (the second layer of protection on the shoulders)

It should be noted that you essentially never see any of the second-tier protections without a complete set of first-tier armors.  But fantasy settings often present characters with rigid plate shoulder defense, but only non-rigid textile armor (cf. Catelyn Stark’s guards S2e3 of GoT).  I think this is a misreading of 14th century English funeral effigy armor, where it can often look like the figure has plate pauldrons but only textile body defense.  This can be because the figure is wearing a semi-rigid transitional metal body defense (like a coat-of-plates or a brigandine) which can appear like a padded jacket to a non-specialist, or because the breastplate itself is covered in textile (like a tabard or surcoat), which was still common in that period (the ‘alwite’ armor – plate uncovered by textile – really only becomes common in the 15th century).

The Third Tier

Of the third tier of armors, the one that stands out ahead of the rest is lower-leg and shin protection.  Greaves – a pair of metal plates covering the front of the legs – are quite common in armor systems.  While there is more danger of a lethal wound in other parts of the body, the key consideration here is actually another piece of equipment: the shield.  Shields rarely cover the lower part of the leg.  Greaves thus appear as common parts of the armor of Roman soldiers in the Middle Republic and Greek hoplites; they also emerge fairly rapidly as rigid defenses in the Middle Ages, with the first examples showing up in manuscript illustration in the mid-13th century (for comparison, the plate cuirass does not really appear until the mid-14th century, 100 years later!).  The shin is also, of course, a fairly easy part of the body to armor.

Some of the last parts of the body to be armored are the legs and arms.  This may seem strange, as you generally need legs and arms to fight, but it makes perfect sense.  First, both legs and arms require considerable mobility and so are fairly hard to armor.  Moreover, they are both actually quite hard to hit, precisely because they tend to move a lot in combat (arms also have a habit of carrying things like shields and swords which can block attacks).  That tends to make these parts of the body low priority.

Lower priority still are hands and feet protection.  Looking, for instance, at the Norman knights on the Bayeux Tapestry, one might note that they have mail armor covering the arms and legs, but not the feet or hands.  This follows on the same principles as arms and legs: feet and especially hands are even harder to armor and both are much harder to reliably hit with a weapon.  Wounds to the extremities are also far more survivable than wounds to the core of the body.

Neck and Face: Special Cases

Defenses for the neck are the one truly idiosyncratic part of this order of armor.  On the one hand, the neck is very important to protect, as a serious neck wound is almost certain to be fatal and the neck, being at shoulder height, is a tempting target for almost any kind of weapon.  On the other hand, the neck is extremely hard to armor: mobility in the neck is crucial and the shape of this part of the body is difficult to protect.  The cost-benefit of those concerns for the most part dominates the question of “is the neck likely to be protected?”

For certain kinds of warfare, especially those focused on static missile exchange, head mobility and field of vision is not as important.  Thus, we see a very high collar on, for instance, the bronze age Mycenean Dendra panoply.  Likewise, the armor tradition of the Tlingit people of what is today Alaska, produced in organic materials (leather, wood, etc) shows similar designs around the neck, for much the same reason.  The loss in mobility, vision and breath was a small price to pay in missile warfare for protecting such a vulnerable area.

For close-combat troops, for whom such restrictions were unacceptable, you often see efforts to do what one can for the neck: high collars, or thick scarves.  The Roman focale or soldier’s scarf of the Imperial period may have been such an effort to use a thick textile to provide at least some protection to the neck.  Interestingly, the near contemporary (third century) Chinese soldiers depicted in the sculpture of the Terracotta army likewise wear high and thick scarves protecting the neck.

Soldiers in the Terracotta Army (3rd cent. BC, Xi’an, China). Note the thick scarves to protect the neck. The armor, a kind of lamellar, follows the order we have discussed here, protecting the first and second tier areas, but not the third.

The key problem (how to armor the neck without restricting movement too much) is essentially resolved in the Middle Ages with the introduction of the aventail – a skirt of mail (backed with padded textile) that hung down from the helmet over the neck, fitting snugly under the chin.  In the later Middle Ages, this was supplemented by plate protections (gorgets and then larger bevor plates worn with a particular type of helmet, the sallet).

For works set in, or modeling off of European armoring traditions, then, we might say that any character of means post-1066 or so, ought to have neck protection in the form of at least an aventail.  Certainly, for a fantasy environment, if a full plate harness is an option, it should include ample neck protection.  Game of Thrones is a serious offender in this, as we clearly see that mail exists, and the City Watch of King’s Landing even wears a (poorly made and designed) sort of aventail, but somehow all of the other – far wealthier and better armored – characters opt to go without any protection for the neck.  Probably something to do with their collective phobia for helmets.

That bring us to face protection.  This is a special case for the same reason as the neck: huge benefits in protection (because the face is very vulnerable) contrasted against huge trade-offs in vision and breathing.  Talking visors is another post – for now, I want to note that the vast majority of pre-modern helmets do not feature a lot of face protection (the most you usually see is cheek guards), but visored helmets appear from almost every era.  That said, one type of character should almost always have face protection: any character wearing a full plate harness.  This has to do with the kind of fighting someone is expected by the time they are adding plates for the elbows (couters), knees (poleyns) or armpits (besagues) – at that point, the face should almost certainly be protected by a visor.

So those are our rules. If they are difficult to follow, here’s a handy chart of them, from the most important on the top to the least on the bottom:

Not pictured: Plot Armor. The Most Important Kind.

Alright, so that’s the difficult part out of the way.  Now on to the fun part: being insufferably judgmental about some movie, videogame and TV armors!

14 thoughts on “Collections: Armor in Order, Part I

  1. I think there is a mistake in the chart, it should say “pauldrons” for the shoulder armour.

    Excellent article and excellent blog overall. I am devouring the posts one after another. Many thanks for the read!

  2. There is one very important item missing. Which I would call Tier 0: The Shield

    Shields are held instead of being worn, and not generally considered to be part of a “suit of armor”, but they have the same purpose as armor.

    Shields are very easy to make and easily available, and the amount of protection they provide beats basically everything else. Some forms of fighting make hold shields impossible, and once we get to full plate harnesses at the very end of armor development, shields become actually unnecessary.
    But generally speaking, the very first step when considering protection is to think about getting a shield. Even before looking for a helmet.

    1. Special case. Note minimal shields on Macedonian pikemen, and no shields on Early Modern pikemen. For that matter, shields seem to not have seen much use in Japan.

      1. After the establishment of the Bushi, but the early samurai were horse archers from an agricultural society so kinda strange in a bunch of regards.

    2. Oh, and I’ll also note that a decently-sized shield opens offensive options, starting with various kinds of shield bash (boss to the face, rim to the foot), but also control options. The latter are usually only a thing in personal combat, but the former can be used by formed unit, and may have influenced Roman armour – smacking the rim of the shield into a foe’s foot necessarily exposes head and upper body to someone’s attack, which the heavy upper-body protection would at least alleviate.

  3. I agree on the importance of the shield. Even during the era of pike and shot formations, there was limited use of the Rotella also known as the Rodela or Rondache. This type of round shield was famously used by Spanish and Italian soldiers who were armed with sword and shield whose main job was to engage both pikemen or halberdiers. It was also heavily used by the Conquistadors.

    There were even claims of the existence of especially thick and domed versions of this type of round shield made of metal that could resist early black powder weapons.

    And regarding the lack of shields used by the Japanese: there are finds of shields dating from the Yayoi period and the Kofun period. Furthermore, while Samurai mostly didn’t use shields, they were certainly in use by the infantry. And the Samurai themselves used the Sode that served a similar purpose.

  4. Is this result published somewhere? This sounds too authoritative to not be from a legendary paper or something. I’m afraid someone’s writing a giant list of exception somewhere.

  5. I feel like discussion of face protection is incomplete without mention of nose guards on helmets. Very common way to offer a bit of frontal protection without compromising vision or breathing.

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