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Gothic armour.
An actor wearing a modern reproduction of medieval plate armour.
King Afonso I of Portugal anachronistically depicted as wearing a plate armour, which actually was not used in his lifetime.

Plate armour or plate armor is personal armour made from large metal plates, worn on the chest and sometimes the entire body.

Contents

History

Plate armour protecting the chest and the lower limbs was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but it fell into disuse after the collapse of the Roman Empire because of the cost and work involved in producing a lorica segmentata or comparable plate armour. Single plates of metal armour were again used from the late 13th century on, to protect joints and shins, and these were worn over a full mail haubergeon. By the end of the 14th century, larger and complete full plates of armour had been developed. During the early 1500s the helmet and neckguard design was reformed to produce the so-called Nürnberg armour, many of them masterpieces of workmanship and design. European leaders in armouring techniques were northern Italians and southern Germans. This led to the styles of Milanese from Milan, and Gothic from the Holy Roman Empire. England produced armour in Greenwich and they both developed their own unique style. Maximilian style armour immediately followed this, in the early 16th century. Maximilian armour was typically denoted by fluting and decorative etching, as opposed to the plainer finish on 15th century white armour. This era also saw the use of Close helms, as opposed to the 15th century style sallets and barbutes. In Japan elite Samurai wore armour made of tightly sewn plates which had many of the properties of solid plate armour. With the arrival of Europeans the Japanese would add solid plates to their designs. Turkey also made wide use of plate armour but incorporated large amounts of mail into their armour, which was widely used by shock troops such as the Janissary Corps. In the rest of the world, though, the general trend was torwards mail, scale, or lamellar armour.

Full plate armour was expensive to produce and remained therefore restricted to the upper strata of society; lavishly decorated suits of armour remained the fashion with 18th century nobles and generals long after they had ceased to be militarily useful on the battlefield due to the advent of powerful muskets. Reduced plate armour, typically consisting of a breastplate, a burgonet, morion or cabasset and gauntlets, however, also became popular among 16th century mercenaries and there are many references to so-called munition armour being ordered for infantrymen at a fraction of the cost of full plate armour. This mass-produced armour was often heavier and made of lower quality metal than knight armour.[1] From the 15th century on, armour specifically designed for jousting (rather than for battle) and parade armour also became popular. Many of the latter were decorated with biblical or mythological motifs.

Armour was not confined to the Middle Ages, and in fact was widely used by most armies until the end of the 17th century for both foot and mounted troops. It was only the development of powerful rifled firearms which made all but the finest and heaviest armour obsolete. The increasing power and availability of firearms and the nature of large, state-supported infantry led to more portions of plate armour being cast off in favour of cheaper, more mobile troops. Leg protection was the first part to go, replaced by tall leather boots. By the early part of the 18th century, only field marshals, commanders and royalty remained in full armour on the battlefield as they were tempting targets for musket fire. However, cavalry units, especially cuirassiers, continued to use front and back plates that could protect them from distanced fire and either helmets or "secrets", a steel protection they wore under a floppy hat. Other armour was hidden under decorative uniforms. Body armour made a brief reappearance in the American Civil War with mixed success. However, the armour vests of the time were expensive and thus bought by individual troops and not issued, meaning that the effectiveness of the armour varied widely depending on its maker. Plate armour was successfully implemented by the famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang, giving them a large advantage in their gunfights against police. The cavalry armour of Napoleon, and the French, German, and British empires (heavy cavalry known as cuirassiers) were actively used through the 19th century right up to the first year of World War I, when French cuirassiers went to meet the enemy in armour outside of Paris. During the war both sides experimented with shrapnel armour and some soldiers used their own but dedicated ballistic armour such as the American Brewster Body Shield was not widely produced.

Plate armour briefly re-appeared during World War II on some Soviet Guard (elite) infantry units, who wore steel breastplates that could stop rounds fired by pistols and submachine guns. The Japanese and Americans made several prototypes but none were mass-produced due to their cost and the need for metal elsewhere. In the Korean War, body armour was re-introduced for U.S. foot soldiers, and then to a greater extent in the Vietnam War. Modern U.S. soldiers in Iraq now always wear light-weight Kevlar helmets and armour vests, the latter often augmented with more-or-less rigid ceramic plate inserts. The U.S. Air Force used flak jackets as a form of plate armour. The 1970s introduction of aramid (Kevlar or Twaron) body armour brought sheet metal (especially titanium) trauma plates back into fashion as a form of rifle-grade add-on to flexible vests, and ballistic metals are gradually improving with stronger and lighter alloys being steadily developed. Lighter ceramic plates are still the choice of most first-world militaries, but titanium and ballistic steel are still in wide use by those wanting a less costly option.

Materials

The first plate armour was that of bronze, being worn by elite soldiers in Greek armies in particular. Bronze, while not as strong as iron, was easier to find and work, which lended itself well to making large plates. Iron eventually came to be used in the advanced militaries of Europe and the Middle East. Gradually methods of making steel were perfected and steel replaced iron in most capacities except munition armour. Steel was continually being made stronger and thicker to protect from bullets but eventually the needed protection was too heavy and expensive for most troops. In the 20th century titanium and super-hardened "ballistic steel" came to be used for trauma plates. Eventually ceramic plates made from aluminium oxide and silicon carbide were introduced as well.

Composition

Plate armour could have consisted of a helmet, a gorget (or bevor), pauldrons (or spaulders), couters, vambraces, gauntlets, a cuirass (back and breastplate) with a fauld, tassets and a culet, a mail skirt, cuisses, poleyns, greaves, and sabatons. While it looks heavy, a full plate armour set could be as light as only 20 kg (45 pounds) if well made of tempered steel.[2] This is less than the weight of modern combat gear of an infantry soldier (usually 25 to 35 kg), and the weight is more evenly distributed. The weight was so well spread over the body that a fit man could run, or jump into his saddle. Modern re-enactment activity has proven it is even possible to swim in armour, though it is difficult. It is possible for a fit and trained man in armour to run after and catch an unarmoured archer, as witnessed in re-enactment combat. The notion that it was necessary to lift a fully armed knight onto his horse with the help of pulleys is a myth originating in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.[3][4] (And, in fact, the mere existence of plate armour during King Arthur era is a myth as well: 6th century knights would have worn chainmail instead.) Even knights in enormously heavy jousting armour were not winched onto their horses. This type of "sporting" armour was meant only for ceremonial lancing matches and its design was deliberately made extremely thick to protect the wearer from severe accidents, such as the one which caused the death of King Henry II of France.

Tournament armour is always heavier, clumsier and more protective than combat armour. The rationale is that nobody wants to get killed in a game, but on battlefield the question is about life and death, and mobility and endurance is more important aspect on combat survival than mere passive protection. Therefore combat armour is a compromise between protection and mobility, while tournament armour merely stresses protection on cost of mobility.

Summary list and comparison of pieces of armour

See also components of medieval armour for an extensive table listing the various pieces of armour and comparisons between them.

Effect on weapon development

15th century depiction of a melee. A breast plate is pierced by a sword. Note that, as with all art, the veracity of this image might be questionable.

Plate armour is virtually sword-proof. It also protects the wearer well against spear or pike thrusts and provides decent defence against blunt trauma. The evolution of plate armour also triggered developments in the design of offensive weapons. While this armour was effective against cuts or blows, their weak points could be exploited by long tapered swords or other weapons designed for the purpose, such as poleaxes and halberds. The effect of arrows and bolts is still a point of contention in regards to plate armour. Some argue that longbows and/or crossbows could regularly pierce plate armour and some contend that they could do so only rarely due to the fact that arrow heads were made of much more inferior metal to the highest quality steel available. It stands to reason that the cost to equip archers with such arrow heads would be unthinkable. The various flutings on the armour are not only decorations, but they reinforce the plate against bending under blunt impact and can cause any strike by a thrusting weapon that grazes the armour, rather than hit squarely, to glance off the surface of the plate and be less likely to slide into a more vulnerable joint. In armoured techniques taught in the German school of swordsmanship, the attacker concentrates on these "weak spots", resulting in a fighting style very different from unarmoured sword-fighting. Because of this weakness most warriors wore a mail shirt (haubergeon or hauberk) beneath their plate armour (or coat-of-plates). Later, full mail shirts were replaced with mail patches, called goussets, sewn onto a gambeson or arming jacket. Further protection for plate armour was the use of small round plates called besagews that covered the armpit area and couters and poleyns with "wings" to protect the inside of the joint. The evolution of the 14th century plate armour also triggered the development of various polearms. They were designed to deliver a strong impact and concentrate energy on a small area and cause damage through the plate. Maces, war hammers and the hammer-heads of pollaxes (poleaxes) were used to inflict blunt trauma through armour.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Wise, Terence (1983). The Wars of the Roses. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 0850455200.  
  2. ^ James, Lawrence (2003). Warrior Race: A History of the British at War. St. Martin's Press. pp. 119. ISBN 0312307373.  
  3. ^ Ellis, John (1978). Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare. Putnam.  
  4. ^ Woosnam-Savage, Robert C.; Anthony Hall (2002). Brassey's Book of Body Armor. Potomac Books, Incorporated. ISBN 1574884654.  

References








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