text copyright 2012 David Belt
Chainmail: A History, A Tool, A Lifestyle
Over the next few weeks I will be writing a multi-part series on chainmail. I am frequently asked questions and have become something of a resident expert on the subject. Here, I will be sharing some of what I have learned. Last week, we covered the history of chainmail. This week, we will be looking at chainmail as a tool and covering its practical applications.
Part 2: A Tool
Chain was originally designed for use in pulley systems as a replacement for rope in heavy duty applications and is still used for this purpose today. If innovation has taught us anything, it is that tools often have more uses than that for which they were originally designed.
Around 400 BC the Celtic empire developed the gladius, an iron short sword with a bronze and wooden handle. This weapon would later become standard issue for soldiers throughout Europe due to its quick deployment, ease of use, and most importantly, the ability to penetrate the bronze and leather armors of the time.
During this time period, technologies in bows were also advancing, including the development of the armor piercing crossbow. By 200 BC, these weapons were so prevalent, bronze and leather armors were made obsolete.
As Celtic technology started the demise of conventional armor, Celtic technology also devised the answer in what would eventually be called European chainmail armor. This armor was made of thousands of iron rings, riveted together into a shirt or coat of mail.
The effectiveness of this new armor style was twofold. First, the riveted iron rings could not normally be penetrated by the weapons of the time. A layered padding of thick cloth or hide was worn under the chain to help cushion the blow from a mace or heavy handed sword. This padding would also reduce the impact speed of bolts and arrows, limiting their ability to penetrate, as well. Secondly, the flexibility was vastly superior to its stiff leather and bronze predecessors, allowing the wearer complete freedom of movement on the battlefield.
The most common design of chainmail armor was the hauberk. This armor consisted of a chest piece, which fell as far down as the knee, and ¾ length sleeves that ended just past the elbow.
Variations to hauberk did include a hood, called a coif. While the coif was widely used, it was equally ineffective. The head did not have the same padding as the body, so there was no protection from skull fracture, and lacerations could be caused by the riveted chain. Any rust on the chain could then lead to an infection, which was a leading cause of death on the battlefield. Imagine being killed by your own armor…
Another common variation was the inclusion of leggings and full length sleeves. Since the majority of chainmail armor in Europe was mass produced for large armies, there was little to no custom fitting outside of the nobility. This meant full length arms and leggings were bulky and cumbersome, weighing limbs down, and often, tiring the wearer before the battle was over.
By 1400 AD, metallurgy had replaced iron with steel, and tempering techniques allowed for the manufacturing of steel plates that functioned superior to chainmail. While chainmail was widely used to support the new plate mail, it eventually died out completely and was no longer in use in Europe by 1600 AD.
In Asia, however, chainmail was still in military use until the 1800s, most notably in Japan, where the kusari armor was fashioned for the samurai. Kusari was an elegant design with as many variations as there were samurai, because each suit of armor was custom fitted to the samurai. Kusari largely composed of tempered steel rings woven around leather strips, providing fluid movement and full body protection.
Firearms ultimately remove the feasibility of all metal armors as the increasingly powerful weapons would easily punch through the heavy armor.
There are, however, other modern applications for this ancient tool. Deep sea surveyors will wear a suit of chainmail, commonly called “Shark Mail.” This armor consists of approximately 100,000 titanium rings and is very effective at preventing most injuries caused by shark bites.
Another modern use of chainmail is the butcher’s glove, which pairs nicely with a butcher’s knife and prevents accidental loss of butcher’s digits.
In a surprise return to warfare, Pinnacle’s Dragon Skin armor is an adaptation of scale mail which was an early form of plate and chain armor. While this modern armor of Kevlar fused metal discs has no direct connection to the chain of old, designer Murray Neal admits the design was inspired by medieval scale mail armor. Dragon Skin armor is used today by law enforcement and military throughout the world as a means of defense against firearms and bladed weapons.
No one knows what the future holds for chain, but one thing is certain. Chainmail has been and will continue to be a very useful tool.
Join me again next week as I start to really “geek out” when I delve into the lifestyle, past and present, of chainmail.