Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Duke Henrik on Armor

A common complaint about the use of plastic and aluminum is that it does not accurately replicate the weight of armor in period. This complaint has become especially loud with regards to alluminum shields, which have become common and are much heavier than the shields used in the early days of the SCA (my knight used a shield that weight eighteen pounds, and I have used one that weighed more than 20 pounds). Aluminum, because it allows you to use a large shield without significantly greater weight, is seen as "cheating."

In a conversation on the Western Chivalry List Duke Henrik of Havn wrote the following. Henrik is the first first crowned king of the SCA and the person credited with having worn the first "real" suit of armor in SCA fighting (a mail haubrek and a norman helm with a nasal that he had fitted out with a catcher's mask). He is also a serious reenactor, who takes part on occasion in the Battle of Hastings reenactments in England:


Now to clarify what I was trying to say about the weight of armor. Over the years I have learned that period armor was usually not as heavy as many immagine it to have been. As Alfred commented, early SCA armor was heavy. This often was due to over engineering and/or limited access to materials to make it from. My first mail hauberk ( made of wire I got free, from coat hangers - about 13 gage steel wound on a half inch diameter mandril) weighed 40 pounds. Others used 14 gage bailing wire wound onto 3/8 inch mandrils. Modern 18 gage, 9mm Indian or Pakistani mail replicates early period round wire mail much more accurately and is rivited to boot. The later period flat ring mail is also well represented by Indian and Pakistani rivited mail replicas, now available. I have a section of Turkish mail of the 14th century that is nearly a duplicate of the modern replicas, both in ring size and thickness. Wet=ight si also duplicateed. Such mail hauberks weigh in the 20 to 25 pound rang e, giving the same coverage.

Old freon tank helms weighed much more than some modern period duplicates, and were much larger and ungainly, making defending blows harder. some people wore little or no limb armor since mandates were less or non existant, depending on time and place. Period plate made of light gage spring tempered steel is now availabe to those who can afford the extra cost, but protect and weigh about the same as plastic body armor. Cuirboile and rawhide armors are also lightweight, when properly fashioned and they too offer as much protection as plastic at similar or even less weight.

My point here was simply that the difference between the weight of a period material armor and a modern plastic or titanium or aluminum armor is negligable, if done well. To chastize someone for using one over the other because of the weight advantage that was formerly presumed to exist, can now generally be shown to be based on misinfirmation of what period armors weighed compared to modern replicas using well engineered period materials.

In other words, if thin gage hardened spring steel armor of equivalent strength and protection to 14 gage mild steel can be made, and it weighs the same or less than Aluminum, Titanium or Plastic armor of identical size and protection, then why are the latter armors not just as acceptable to wear and fight in? Equally, if hardened leather or rawhide armors or those made of other forms of period materials , can be nmade to weigh much less than 14 gage mild steel, but still offer the same protection as 14 gage mild steel armor, why can't Aluminum , Titanium or Plastic armors that weigh AND PROTECT the same, not be just as acceptable?

Although I don't care for the asthetics of using modern materials that are significantly removed from period materials, I have to admit using them is no less an advantage than using the well engineered period armors. And as such, no stigma should attach to anyone doing so.

It may have been that the belief that people using aluminum ( titanium, plastic, etc.) shields or armor were in effect cheating, by not having to carry the weight of the steel standard. But now we know that standard was set at a time where access to a more period one was not inexpensively available to the great majority of fighters. Equally unknown then, was the lack of information about the properties of the other materials available and used in period, that we now have access to. Coupled with a desire to not only be overly cautious regarding individual safety, but also concerned about making changes to rules that have maintained that safety for decades, change to the requirements are unlikely to occurr any time soon, at the Corporate level.

So to address the White Elephant of "Cheating by using modern plastic or light weight metals for armor and shields" is really not the issue of great magnitude we used to think it was. Really it's a misunderstanding of just how light weight armor and shields sometimes really were. The simple example I gave was that a period Viking Round shield made of 8 mm thick linden wood and 28 inches in diameter, could weigh as little as 4 pounds or so ( I have a 13 mm thick by 28 inch diameter plywood disc that weighs 3 and 3/4 pounds, add a 5 and 1/2 inch diamerer hemispherical, 14 gage steel boss at 16 ounces and the shield made from these articles would excede the strength of the linden and yet weigh only 4 and 3/4 pounds) and yet offer the same protection as a 4 pound aluminum shield of the same diameter. The only effective difference between the two is the greater longevity the alluminum 's strength would provide. To say using one over the other is cheating, is rediculous, because it weighs the same as period materials.

I have linden wood boards to make an 8 mm thick shield 32 inches in diameter and they weigh about 6 pounds. Add the boss and the total is 7 pounds. The most recent find of a Viking shield was in Denmark in September 2008. Reports of analysis on it show it was 6 to 8mm thick and 32 inches in diameter. Likely, when assembled with it's boss, it weighed around 7 to 8 pounds, when new.

We usually select materials to make shields and armor last longer while being beaten uppon , Tourney after Tourney. They are mandated to offer extra protection, for safety reasons, not because period ones did. The Coppergate helmet was made of much thinner iron than 14 gage. I'd estimate it was closer to 18 to 20 gage. It is very small, offering very little clearance between the head and the metal. Hardly room for a thin leather liner, much less 1/2 inch closed cell foam. It's total weight is likely arround 5 pounds.

It is well known that in period, metals were valued much higher than today. Protective equipment was engineered, not to last through many Tornament seasons (consisting of being pounded upon in both practice and competition - as we use it today) but to last only long enough to preserve the wearer, much as today's plastic automobile bumpers are designed to absorb a single collision (or attack). If we permitted armor of that nature to be used, instead of the 14 gage standard , it would doubtless weigh no more that modern materials weigh - which do provide the equivalent protection and longivity of the heavier standards.

So, to sum up. Holding plastic and light weight metals or materials as forms of cheating, is an errer we should finally dispense with. There is no cheating where advantage is gained in this fashion, unless it is specifically legislated against.

The only remaining issue is, who can afford one material over another and is spending large sums to gain access that others can't afford, another issue we wish to address?



nusbacher said...

You make a case that using modern materials isn't "cheating" by saving on weight, but the question goes deeper than that.

Is the aim of SCA combat to replicate mediaeval combat by replicating the properties of mediaeval equipment? Plastic armour might fit that bill (though lexan never dishes like steel nor forms like leather), but what about the rest of it? The effectiveness of two-stick as a rattan fighting form (it would never work with real broadswords) is testament to the difference between rattan and steel.

Is the aim of SCA combat to recreate the look and feel of mediaeval combat? Top marks for the man in the full chain mail shirt, but the red gaffer tape on his sword makes it all fall down flat to an observer who isn't accustomed to seeing Mediaeval Man wielding something wrapped in vinyl.

Of course the answer to that is that the SCA does both (and sometimes neither). So having a shield that never notches (and never catches an opponent's blade in the edge) isn't cheating. Wearing armour made of mild steel instead of wrought iron isn't cheating. Wearing armour made of authentic leather made in an inauthentic way isn't cheating.

But wait ... if we're going to accept plastic armour and aluminium shields, why not get something more positive out of modern materials? If modern fits in, then give that man a plastic axe-head for his poleaxe that will make it perform as we know mediaeval poleaxes did, and get rid of those silver Q-tip glaives! If modern fits in, give that man a shield that can catch swords in the edge when used adroitly. If modern fits in, then use it to make the nauseating aspects of SCA combat less nauseating.

Lyonet de Covenham

Scott said...

My only concern with modern materials is the look. I want to fight a proper knight or man at arms of the medieval period. or at least as close to it as my imagination can manage.

I don't want to stand with or against anyone armed like this :


If you have plastic plates in your Coat of plates, so be it. if you have plastic vambraces covered by some other material that's fine with me.

But if you look like a plastic washbarrel transformer or a teenage mutant ninja turtle, it's not to much to ask that you change or find somewhere else to play.

tsafa said...

I have had the benefit of having handled some real period armor. The cuisse (legs) I handled where about 20 to 22 gage (very thin and light), lighter then my aluminum legs. The difference is that period armor was Tempered. Heat treatment was key to taking very light armor that would normally be crushed by a sword strike and giving it some rigidness.

I examined, a number of pieces of armor and they all had this quality of thinness and lightness. The nasal helmets I examined weighed less then two pounds. They were not intended to take repeated direct blows. In period people had to live in their armor and march for weeks before even getting to the battle... or stand guard duty for hours on end. The lightness and thinness of the armor is one reason why swords were still effective against armor. A sword blow to a 2 lb helmet, my not crush the skull but it might knock a person senseless.

One of the biggest differences between our modern concept of armor and period armor is that when we spend $1,000 we expect to get a few years of use out of it. In period armor was disposable. Blacksmiths were near the bottom of the social ladder and often followed armies around offering their services after every battle.

Today we don't have the luxury of cheap blacksmiths, simply because most of us are not that much higher up on the social scale as a medieval noble would have been relative to a blacksmith. Furthermore, very few armorers have the blast furnaces necessary to temper large pieces of armor. Tempering also has a failure rate that would have to factored into the cost and passed along.

There are not too many shields that have survived, but I would think they would have maintained the same idea of lightness and disposability.

All these factors combined, tell me that while aluminum or plastic, may not be the right material... it does capture the right idea of what medieval people had in mind when they made armor.

Anonymous said...

I have also had a chance to handle period pieces, both field armor and tourney armor. The interesting thing is that the tourney armor is about as over engineered as our typical SCA armor, and the field armor is surprisingly fragile. When holding two different pieces in hand, the field armor feels like it's about as thick as an eggshell. The field armor was usually backed by some pretty thick (cheap, light) linen and other padding, so I would assumethat it is going to use a layerd effect to keep the Soldier safe. In the SCA, I think we discount how thick gambesons were in period.

Having been a police officer, SCA fighter and Army soldier all my life, I have been wearing armor in combat(SCA and real) since I was 18. It is remarkable with real life armor that we design it to take one good life saving hit or so, and we get new armor after the fact. It would seem that concept hasn't changed. I wear my armor for long, long hours on the job, but for tourny or war, I can ditch it after a few hours.

Weight is so important on how much effort it takes just to do your job. From what I have seen, the closest we have in our time is the use of spring steel, which seems to me that it weighs about the same as the period field pieces I have seen. Period tourney armor is very on par with typical SCA heavy and my "period" Elizabethan jack of plates is much like my Level III soft armor.

Don Samuael Kingdom of AnTir
CPT Pipkin, US Army SC