The history and development of armor has been the unending contest between the armorer
seeking to improve his client's defense and the weapon-smith trying to make new and better
weapons for penetrating those denfenses.
From antiquity there has been body-armors made of hides or quilted fabric. In the fifth
century BCE, mail came into use. It was made of large numbers of small iron or steel rings
linked through its neighbors. Mail was worn over a quilted under garment to prevent the rings
from chafing the skin, it made a useful defense against cuts from a sword. However, it was less
effective against the heavy blow of axes and maces, while the point of an arrow or spear
might burst the rings apart. For this reason, from the thirteenth century onwards, experiments
began to be made to reinforce mail with rigid plates either of hardened leather or metal.
At first only body-armor was used, either over or under the mail shirt. Later the especially
vulnerable joints of the shoulder, knee and elbow were protected by saucer-like plates, the
thighs were enclosed in quilted tubes, and the head and face were encased in a helm of steel
or hardened leather. These plates were designed to spread the force of a blow in order to
minimise its bruising effect, and to prevent the bones from being broken, as well as to prevent
the penetration of a weapon point. The impossibility of identifying a man with his head entirely
concealed by his helm led to the development of a system of devices to aid in identification,
known as Heraldry.
During the fourteenth century plate began to be used more scientifically. It was no longer employed
simply as a rigid defense. By placing plates at angles a weapon could be deflected away from a vital
By the fifteenth century the mail was almost completely covered or replaced by plates. Vertically-
hinged metal tubes protected the limbs, linked at the joints by narrow plates overlapping
like the tail of a lobster, so when the joints were flexed no unguarded opening would be exposed to an
opponent's weapon. Wherever it was found impossible to use plates, like at the armhole, mail
continued to be used.
In the sixteenth century, a complete armor for use in the battlefield weighed only about fifty pounds
and this was carefully distributed all over the wearer. The wearer could mount his horse quite
normally from the ground or, at the most, from a mounting-block. The plates were designed to allow their
wearer complete freedom of movement. The joints of the foot-armor, for example, are more flexible
than any human foot.
During the late sixteenth century complete armor fell out of use because, as firearms became more effective
and their users better trained, mobility was found to be a more effective defense than additional
or heavier plates. A lightly armed horseman could close with musketeers more rapidly than the heavily
armored calvaryman and was therefore underfire for a shorter time. Body-armor such as the breastplate
and open faced helmet survived through most of the seventeenth century, being used by pikeman of infantry
units. They continued to be used by some heavy calvary units until the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871),
by which time experiments had already begun to devise body-armors proof against modern firearms.