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Armor

Before the advent of firearms, body armor was an essential part of the defense of a warrior. It may have been heavy, hot and expensive, but those are small nuisances in a fight for life or death. This text gives a short overview of armor types. Only general properties are outlined, but these can be used as a basis for a RPG armor system, either simple or elaborate.

Body parts

Armor can cover the entire body, or just part of it. Here is a list of body parts and armor parts that cover them. As you can see, English armor vocabulary is heavily influenced by French.
Not every body part is considered equally important, so each has been given a rating. The total for all body parts combined is 100%.

Name Protects Importance
coif, helmet head 20%
aventail, bevor, gorget neck 10%
aventail, pauldrons, spaulders shoulders 5%
cuirass torso 25%
brassarts, rerebraces, vambraces upper arms 10%
bracers, gauntlets, vambraces lower arms 5%
gauntlets, gloves hands 5%
chausses, cuisses, faulds, tassets thighs, upper legs 10%
greaves lower legs 5%
boots, sabatons feet 5%

Helmet

Because the head is such a vital part of the body, helmets deserve some extra attention. They come in a wide range of shapes. All helmets are a compromise between protection and freedom (sight, hearing, breathing, weight, moving the head), trading one for the other. In the list below, helmet models are roughly categorized in order of increasing protection. Note that some helmets include throat/neck protection, which is not taken into account in the list, but of course does add additional protection. The focus is on battlefield helmets, not tournament models, which tend to be heavier and bulkier.

  • Skull cap: Covers only the upper part of the skull. Examples: skull cap, kettle helm, Japanese kabuto.
  • Open helmet: Skull cap with additional protections like nose guard, face mask, and/or cheek guards. Examples: (classical) Illyrian helm, Chaldician helm, Attican helm, Roman helmets; (medieval) spangenhelm, nasal helm, burgonet.
  • Half-open helmet: Covers the entire head but leaves a T- or Y-shaped area in the face open for seeing and breathing. Examples: (classical) Korinthian helm; (medieval) barbute.
  • Closed helmet: Covers the entire head. Usually equipped with a moveable visor. Examples: close helm, bascinet / hounskull, armet.

Materials

Early armor was made of cloth or leather. These were quickly surpassed by metals. But soft armor remained in use as material for undercoats, to protect less vital areas like limbs, or the whole body if money was short supply. Early metal armor was made of copper, a relatively soft metal that was easy to work. Copper was quickly supplanted by the tougher bronze, usually in a mix of up to 88% - 90% copper and 10% - 12% tin, called "classic" bronze. The next revolution was iron working, which required an entirely different smithing process at much higher temperatures. Early iron was of low quality, but less scarce than the tin needed to produce bronze. The final step was to transform iron into steel, making it much harder. Smiths gradually improved their methods of making wrought iron (too little carbon content) and cast iron (too mach carbon) into steel (just enough carbon). Ancient and medieval steel was better than bronze, but still less than the best factory-produced modern steel. In the meanwhile, some societies which lacked a sufficient source of metals used materials like horn or wood. The Chinese even invented paper armor, which is suprisingly effective and lightweight, but not durable.
The table below lists effective properties for common (and some uncommon) armor crafting materials. The data given for paper, cloth and leather is not for a single layer, but a padding of several layers.

Material Weight Protection Cost Durability
paper light poor cheap very low
cloth light poor cheap low
leather light poor cheap low
horn moderate moderate expensive high
copper heavy poor medium high
bronze heavy good expensive very high
wrought iron heavy moderate medium medium
mild steel heavy very good expensive high
medium steel heavy superb very expensive high

Construction types

Here is a list of different types of armor. All metal armors require some kind of undercoat to protect the skin from chafing and this is considered to be part of the armor.

Cloth

All cloth armor consists of several layers of cloth made of linen, wool or cotton and quilted together. It can be worn as an undercoat for heavier armor or as an independent armor itself. The latter variant is specialized, thicker in places where protection matters the most. Cloth is always composed of several layers, from just a few up to 20 - 30. Cloth armor is called gambeson, aketon, arming doublet and many other names.

Leather

Leather is animal hide, hardened by tanning. It is often used as undercoat for other types of armor, but sometimes also used standalone. Leather can be hardened by boiling in oil, becoming "cuir bouilli", which is harder but also more brittle than normal leather. More common is tanned and waxed leather that is much more water-resistant than untreated leather. Like cloth, leather armor usually is a padding of several layers.

Lamellar

Japanese lamellar cuirass Lamellar armor is made of studs, laced together with strings. The studs can be made of iron, bronze, horn, leather or even animal shells. It is easy to make and maintain. Lamellar armor can be worn as indepent armor or over a secondary layer, for instance mail. When damaged, the strings are easy to repair, even in the field by a common soldier. Its origin is ancient and it has remained popular in Asia for millennia.

Scale

Scale armor is made from studs like lamellar, but these are attached to both each other and the undercoat. The scales overlap each other and the result looks like the skin of a fish, hence the name "scale" armor. It is also called "leaf" armor. An example is the Roman lorica squamata. Scale armor is known since ancient times but was largely supplanted by mail.

Laminar

This type of armor consists of (usually horizontal) bands that overlap each other. Another name is "banded" armor. The Roman lorica segmentata is an example. It was largely superseded by plated mail when that type of armor was introduced.

Brigandine

Brigandine armor consists of metal studs riveted into an undercoat, sometimes under an outer layer of leather. The studs can be adjacent or overlapping.

Splint

Splint armor resembles brigandine, but here the studs are expanded into strips. Like brigandine, these are riveted into the undercoat, without any outer layer. It is most commonly used to protect the lower arms and legs, where strips are aligned with the limbs.

Coat of plates

This type consists of medium sized metal plates that are sewn onto an undercoat. It is often confused with brigandine, but its plates are larger and the method of attaching them to the undercoat differs.

Plate

Knight and warhorse clas in plate armor Plate armor is made up from large plates, all custom made to fit specific parts of the body. The plates are linked together by rivets and straps. If well-crafted it is superior to all other types. Average thickness of plate varies from 1 mm (limbs) through 2 mm (cuirass) and 3 mm (helmet) to 4 mm (Renaissance bullet-proof cuirass). It uses less material and can be made in less time than mail (see below), but requires a very skilled smith and thus is more expensive.

Mail

Warrior in mail armor with coif Mail is often named "chain mail", though that name is a Victorian invention. "Mail" is the official term. It consists of interlocking metal rings. Mail protects well against cuts, but is weak in protecting the head and joints. Its quality depends very much on the material, the weave density and ring thickness and also upon the type of construction: riveted is better than welded is better than butted. Mail is best supplemented with a thick undercoat to protect against thrusting and crushing attacks. A "byrnie" is a waist-length mail shirt, a "haubergon" reaches down to mid-thigh and a "hauberk" down to the knees.

Plated mail

As the name denotes, this type is a mix between plate and mail. It is not a suit of armor where some parts are plate and others mail, but rather medium sized plates joined together by mail all over. The plates can be adjacent like in lamellar armor or overlap like in laminar. This type is popular in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Armor type table

The table below gives a rough categorization of the pros and cons of different types of armor. Legenda for appliance: + = very suitable, ~ = somewhat suitable, - = unsuitable.

Type Protection Burden Cost Appliances
  General Thrusts Slashes Crushes Weight Flexibility Loudness Purchase Maintenance Head Neck Torso U.arms L. arms Hands U. legs L. legs Feet
Cloth poor poor poor good light flexible quiet cheap moderate - + + + + - + + -
Leather poor poor poor good light flexible quiet cheap moderate ~ ~ ~ + + ~ + + +
Lamellar good very good very good good heavy stiff loud expensive easy - - + + + - + + -
Scale moderate poor good moderate medium medium very loud medium hard - - + + + - + + -
Laminar good moderate good good heavy stiff very loud medium moderate - - + - - - - - -
Brigandine moderate moderate good moderate medium stiff moderate medium hard - + + - - - + - -
Splint moderate moderate good poor light flexible quiet cheap hard - - - + + - + + -
Coat of plates good good good good medium stiff loud medium moderate - - + - - - - - -
Plate very good very good very good very good heavy stiff extremely loud very expensive very hard + + + + + + + + +
Mail moderate poor good poor heavy flexible loud medium hard ~ ~ + + + + + - -
Plated mail good moderate good good heavy medium loud expensive hard ~ ~ + + + + + ~ ~

Use in roleplaying games

In combat without firearms or magic, but just plain old melee and missile weapons, armor is a vital part of defense. It does not make you less likely to be hit, like Dungeons & Dragons states, but instead absorps impact energy, decreasing wounds. The price that the armored warrior pays is encumbrance and hampered senses. But how much?
Using the data listed above, you can build many different armor "systems". Players who want detail should go for "piecemeal armor", where different parts of the body are protected by different pieces of armor. Attacks should be directed at those specific parts of the body and the type of attack (thrust / slash / crush) should be specified too. You can calculate the protection value of the armor by multiplying: construction type x material x thickness x quality. Similar formulas can be set up for other attributes like weight, freedom of movement, loudness, hampering of the senses and cost.
If you do not want so much detail, you can calculate an overall armor score by rating the whole as the weighted average of the parts. For instance: This value 8 helmet combined with this value 6 cuirass, which also covers the shoulders, without any other protection, has a total value of ((8 x 20%) + (6 x (25% + 15%)) / 100% = 1.78, rounded to 2.
If even that is too much work, you can use predefined sets of armor and have each rated at a fixed value. For instance: This humble brigandine has an armor rating of 2, while this splendid royal suit of plate armor rates at 9.

References