Basics of Medieval Armor

Basics of Medieval Armor


Armor has been used in various forms since humans evolved enough intelligence to make it. It is thus no surprise that it features heavily in history and works of fiction alike. Some forms of armor were so weird they are not even used in fiction, while on the flip side fictional armor can often be partly or completely dysfunctional.

Basic Principles

Armor is supposed to keep person alive. Because of this, there is logic in what it protects and doesn’t. These principles are visible in armor from antiquity until modernity. Specifically, this reflects the set of priorities in armoring the body that are consistent over time and space. While ACOUP states that this holds true “prior to the advent of gunpowder”, this qualification is actually incorrect – same concerns existed for entirety of human history, both before and after the advent of gunpowder. Only thing that differed was technonogical and practical ability to fulfill the requirements.

Ability of soldiers to armor themselves was often limited. It could be limited simply by monetary means – full suit of armor was always expensive, no matter the era. Or it could be limited by technological means – as gunpowder weapons became more powerful, metal armor had to retract in coverage in order to provide the useful defense without a crippling weight penalty. No matter what, soldiers often had to prioritize, and this determined armor choices.

Tier I – High Priority

This covers the areas that are “must haves” for armor, the areas where any injury is likely to be fatal. Specifically, the head and the torso, both of which contain vital organs.

Tier IA – Very High Priority – Head

While the above may imply that head and torso armor come in a package, this is not actually true. Be it antiquity or modernity, head has received clear priority over the torso. While brain is protected by the skull, there is no muscle beyond the bone, and brain itself is a very sensitive organ. Consequently, head is very vulnerable to damage, especially the blunt force trauma. What this means is that cranial protection was the first on the list when considering any sort of protection.

In fact, soldiers tended to prioritize metal head protection over any kind of body protection, even though textile armor was much cheaper than metal helmet. Helmets were among the last armor to be abandoned with advancements in gunpowder, and the first armor to return – though nature of trench warfare may have played some role in that as well.

Tier IB – High Priority

Torso is next in terms of priority. It contains all the vital organs that are not brain, as well as a mess of important veins and arteries. When it comes to torso itself, chest usually takes priority over the belly – both because it contains more crucial organs, and because it is easier to armor due to not being so flexible. There are exceptions to this – some armors preferred providing plate protection to belly over the chest, but in general, rigid defences tended to first appear in the chest area. Body armor also tended to cover the front of the body first, with back being covered later.

This armor also covered the chest and the belly, but not the hips or thighs. Greek and Roman muscle cuirass, Greek linothorax and Roman lorica segmentata all terminate at the natural waist (narrow region just above the hips), with protection for lower torso and upper thighs being provided by a sort of a hanging skirt. Early medieval plate cuirass also terminated at waist. Poor Romans in the early Republic would wear a helmet, a shield, and a pectoral – a metal plate covering the chest right above the heart – but nothing else.

There are several reasons for this. Hips and upper thighs are much more difficult to armor without impeding mobility (in fact, anything below the ribcage is difficult to armor without impeding mobility to at least some degree). Hips also contain a lot of bone and less vital organs. Nature of melee combat also means that greatest threat is always to the head and the chest, as short weapons struggle to hit targets lower at the body. Even with longer weapons, such as spear which has no trouble reaching hips or thighs, attacks there are less likely.

Tier II

Second tier defenses are basically extension of the first tier defenses. They cover hips, upper thighs and shoulders. All three areas are also tempting targets: they are not much more mobile than torso itself, and still have high potential of disabling the target. They are also difficult to armor as they contain the joints whose mobility simply cannot be restricted.

Ancient armor that had rigid protection only for the chest still did what it could to protect these areas as well. This was often done by attaching pteruges – hanging strips of leather attached to armor. Mail armor – lorica hamata – extended the mail skirt down to knees, and added second layer of mail to protect shoulders from downward attacks. Similarly, European almain rivet – mass-produced plate armor for pikemen – typically consisted of a helmet, breastplate, and tier II defences – shoulder protection (pauldrons), hip protection (fauld) and thigh protection (tassets).

Historically, one never sees Tier II protection without full set of Tier I protection. But fantasy often opts for so-called “doughnut” armor, where person has plate limb defences, but only mail or non-rigid textile armor for torso. This is likely a consequence of interpreting pictoral evidence such as funeral effigies, where torso plate is often covered by textile (whether by a surcoat or by a jupon), or else torso armor is a brigandine or other sort of semi-rigid body defense where metal protection is underneath textile or leather fronting. These can often make it seem like soldier is wearing plate limb defences and only non-rigid torso armor, but it should be repeated – this was never really the case.

Tier III

Third tier armor is the least important, but not necessarily the most rare. In fact, lower leg and shin protection is seen just as often, and sometimes more often, than some elements of the Tier II protection.

Reason for this is the shield. Shields rarely cover the lower part of the leg, which besides has to be forward for balance. This makes lower leg a tempting target, and greaves are a common defense for Greek and Roman soldiers, and appear quickly in Middle Ages as well (mid-13th century, whereas plate cuirass appears only in mid-14th century). For comparison, soldiers who often fought under protection of large pavises often had no leg protection at all.

Legs and arms, requiring significant mobility yet being difficult to hit, were some of the last areas of body to be armored. Even lower priority was given to feet and hands, for similar reasons – even when long-sleeved mail was widespread, it took time for hand protection to appear.

Neck and Face

Neck and face are special cases, as while they are absolutely crucial, they also have to be left largely unobstructed for reasons of mobility, situational awareness and communication. Some armors focused on static missile warfare – such as the Dendra panoply – had extensive neck protection. Close-combat troops could not have such protections, and so thick scarves were used. In Middle Ages, aventail and later bevor and gorget largely solved the issue.

Face protection has similar issues. It is necessary, yet soldiers also need to see, hear, communicate and breathe. For this reason, highly enclosed helmets such as the Greek Corinthian helmet are an exception rather than the rule – most helmets left face unobstructed, or at least allowed obstructions to be removed (by employing visors, mail covers etc.).

Evolution of European Armor

Early armor might have been just rawhide. Earliest metal armor was likely plate bronze armor – Dendra panoply was dated to 15th century BC, and it is essentially early plate armor.

source: Reddit

Mail – armor made of interlocking iron rings – is believed to have been invented in Eastern Europe about 500 BC. In areas oriented more towards archery, various types of small-plate armor – such as the lamellar armor – had existed for a long time, in fact since 8th century BC in Assyria. But it was not generally used among the more sedentary peoples of Europe who were oriented more towards melee combat, for which mail provided far superior protection.

Some cultures such as the Byzantine Empire combined lamellar armor with the mail, but in Western Europe, mail was used alone. Gradually, small additional plates or discs of iron or steel were added to mail to protect the more vulnerable areas. Areas protected by these plates expanded with time, eventually giving rise to the full suit of plate armor. Alongside the plate armor were also used other types of cheaper armor, such as the textile armors (gambeson), segmented armors (lamellar, coat of plates, brigandine) and similar.

Advances in production techniques served to eventually make the plate armor cheaper than mail, especially as the Black Death significantly reduced the available workforce. Old greathelm was also gradually abandoned, and the small skull cap originally carried underneath it evolved into a number of true helmets – bascinet, sallet, barbute…

Plate armor would develop into a full suit of plate by 14th century, and remain such until 16th century. But various types of plate armor would stay around for a long time, if far shorter than mail, and would become perhaps the most recognizable style of armor in the world. Variations of plate armor would survive until today – breastplates had been used in World War I cuirassiers and some assault troops, and in World War II by the RAF personnel as well as Red Army combat engineers and assault infantry. Today, armor made of synthetic fibre (kevlar) and sometimes ceramic and steel inserts is used by infantry.

By 15th century gunpowder weapons were becoming widespread, necessitating a gradual increase in armor thickness. Whereas 14th – 15th century full suit of plate weighted some 15 kg, by the late 16th century it weighted 25 kg or more. Either armor was sufficient to stop crossbow bolts as well as the gunpowder weapons of their time, but as gunpowder weapons kept improving, weight of armor started to become prohibitive. As a result, first infantry and the cavalry began to abandon protection – first protection for legs, then arms, and the last to go was the breastplate which would survive in its traditional form even until early 20th century. By the beginning of 18th century, only commanders wore full suits of plate armor, and even they soon abandoned it.

Mail Armor

Mail or maille is a type of armor consisting of a mesh of small metal rings. Mail is often incorrectly called “chain mail”, but this is a tautology (unnecessary repetition). Word mail comes either from Latin macula, meaning “spot” or “opacity”, or from French maille which means “mesh”, “a loop” or “a stitch”. At any rate, term “chain mail” had only appeared in 18th century, long after its heyday.

Mail was often used as a layer in more complex armor arrangements. Even basic mail was always worn with gambeson or arming doublet underneath, both to prevent chafing and to provide protection from blunt attacks as well as arrows, from which mail could not protect well. Sometimes mail itself was supplemented by armor atop it – such as scale or lamellar. During the late Middle Ages, mail armor was also supplemented with more advanced forms of armor – brigandine and plate armor, and eventually plate armor became the primary form of armor with mail only covering gaps in plate. Mail could also be wowen between two layers of protective clothing, in an arrangement known as jazzeraint.

mail armor was more than just mail

Mail was especially effective against slashing attacks by edged weapons, but also provided considerable protection against piercing attacks as well. Denser weave and thicker rings made mail more resistant, but it was still vulnerable to thrusts, missiles and dedicated anti-armor weapons. Dense mail could also be heavier than plate armor offering comparable coverage. While weight was generally comparable for plate and mail armor (15 – 25 kg for full mail armor, 15 – 30 kg for full plate), plate armor had weight better distributed along the body, thus making it less exhausting to wear. Flexibility of the mail also meant that strikes, especially with blunt weapons, could still injure the wearer. Even attacks that did not pierce the mail could still cause bruising, fractures and head trauma, though that danger could be reduced by wearing gambeson and rigid helmets underneath the mail. Mail had an important role in reducing the cuts which could get infected and lead to death.

Until the 14th century mail was made of alternating rings of solid and riveted rings. Afterwards, it was made exclusively from riveted rings. Solid rings were made of punching from a sheet of metal. Riveted rings were made by drawing out a wire and cutting it into pieces.

Hauberk / Haubergeon

Hauberk (no.4 on the graphic) is a type of mail armor that is woven into a tunic or a shirt. The sleeves could go only to the elbow, or even extend to encompass the entire arm, including the hand. It was usually a thigh or knee length with a split at the front and the back to the crotch so that wearer could ride a horse. It sometimes also incorporated a hood or a coif. Haubergeon (“little hauberk”) refers to a shorter variant with partial sleeves, yet two terms are often used interchangeably.

Earliest extant example was found in Ciumesti in modern-day Romania and dated to 4th – 5th centuries BC. Romans adapted mail after encountering it, and spread it throughout the Mediterranean world. From there it was adapted by virtually every iron-using culture with the exception of the Chinese. Mail hauberk however was expensive, both in terms of iron required to produce it and man hours necessary, and so was rarely used by common foot soldiers.

Mail coif

Coif (no.8 on the graphic) is mail protection for the head – a flexible hood of mail that covered the head, neck, throat and top of the shoulders. It essentially imitated civilian coif, which is a linen head wear used from 12th to 15th centuries. Despite the popular depictions, mail coif was always worn with padding (10) – whether integral to the coif, or a padded cloth coif being worn underneath the mail coif. By the late 15th century, mail coif had been replaced by aventail.


A mail collar – a circle with a hole for the neck to fit through. It covers shoulders, chest and upper back.


Mail voiders – that is, mail that covers areas not protected by plate.


Mail hose, either knee-high or covering the whole leg.

Plate Armor

Plate armor had, in various forms, existed for even longer than mail did. Dendra armor, discovered in Dendra in Greece and dating from late 15th century BC, consisted of metal bands which formed the protective cuirass and shoulder guards. It is in fact contemporary with scale armor, which likewise dated from late 15th century BC but whose earliest representation comes from the tomb of Kenamon who lived during the reign of Amenhotep II (1436 – 1411 BC).

Different forms of plate armor continued to be used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, with muscle cuirass and lorica segmentata being particularly (and perhaps unfairly) famous. Logistical reasons however caused it to be abandoned in favor of easier-to-maintain mail and scale armors, and it was only from 13th century that single plates began to be added to armor again, first to protect joints and shins. Plate protection gradually expanded to encompass more and more of the body, and by 15th century full suits of plate had developed, with mail used mostly to fill the voids not covered by the plate armor. Infantry – who were both poorer materially and thus less able to afford full suit of plate, as well as being more constrained by the weight requirements – often used suits of partial plate, most often discarding leg and sometimes also arm protection.

Full suits of plate continued to be used throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, but advances in firearms technology led to gradual thickening of the plates and thus increase in weight. Because of this, battlefield plate armor gradually contracted. First to be abandoned was protection for lower limbs, and first by infantry. Already by 16th century mass-produced munitions armor, consisting of a helmet, a breastplate, tassets and pauldrons, was popular among the infantry. It was of lower quality and heavier for given coverage compared to cavalry armor, but could stop most weapons used at the time. But as weapons grew more powerful so armor weight increased, until it simply became to heavy to be carried by infantry.

By the 18th century only the helmet and the torso armor (cuirass) remained in use by cavalry, while infantry had abandoned armor altogether sometime during the late 17th century. Nevertheless, lavishly decorated suits of armor continued to be popular with generals and other commanders even during the 18th century, as they could still protect from long-range hits by muskets and rifles. Cavalry cuirass was in fact used up until the first year of World War I.


Helmets were the basic piece of armor kit. Even a person who could not afford any other piece of metal armor would try to procure a metal helmet. Helmet was the last piece of armor to disappear from use and the first to reappear.

Spangenhelm and Nasal Helm

Nasal helmet saw use from Early until High Middle Ages. Nasal helmet developed from the basic skull cap design by addition of a single strip that extended over the nose to provide additional protection. It appeared in the late 9th century and became a dominant form of helmet throughout the Europe. Helmet began to lose popularity at the end of 12th century in favor of helmets which provided more facial protection.

Nasal helmets could be of both one-piece and “spangenhelm” (multiple piece) construction. Spangelhelms were constructed of four to six individual pieces which were connected with metal strips. The frame had a conical design culminating in a point. Spangenhelm originated in central Asia and Ancient Persia, arriving into Europe via today’s Ukraine, carried by Scythians and Sarmathians. Spangenhelm remained in use until replaced by the one-piece nasal helmet.

Spangenhelm with aventail

Early helmets were universally conical in shape, but in 12th century the shape became more varied. “Phrygian cap”, with forward deflected apex, was popular for most of the century. In later half of 12th century the popularity of such helmets declined, and round-topped nasal helmets came into fashion.

In late 12th century another variant of nasal helm was developed, with a flat top and a square profile. This helmet would develop into an enclosed helmet – essentially a flat top helm with facial visor – and eventually the great helm.

Enclosed Helmet

Enclosed helmet is a forerunner of the great helm, and is sometimes referred to as an early great helm. It was essentially a nasal helm with a facial visor, thus providing full facial protection. Later variants also provided partial protection for the sides and the back of the head. It was developed near the end of the 12th century, and by 1240 was largely superseded by the great helm.

Great Helm

The Great Helm or heaume, or also pot helm, bucket helm, barrel helm or Crusader helmet, developed in the late twelfth century in the context of the Crusades, and remained in use until the fourteenth century. Early great helm was a flat-topped cylinder of steel encompassing the head, with only small openings for eyes and breathing. Later designs became more curved, especially on the top in order to deflect blows better.

Great helm

Despite significant protection offered, the great helm also limited wearer’s vision and ventillation. Underneath the great helm the knight typically wore a close-fitting skull cap (cervelliere) or bascinet (a development of the skull cap) to provide greater protection. Bascinet eventually replaced the great helm as knight’s primary means of protection, often gaining visor in the process. Great helm thus fell into disuse by the 15th century, but its evolution – the frog-mouthed helm – continued to be used in the tournaments.

Skull cap (cervelliere)

Cervelliere or a skull cap is a hemispherical, close-fitting helmet that protected the top of the head. Introduced during the late 12th century, it was worn either alone or, more often, over or under the mail coif. A great helm could be overn over both, but was often removed during the close combat. Thus the skull cap elongated to cover the sides of the head and the neck, gradually evolving into the early forms of the bascinet.


The earliest versions of the bascinet – in the early 14th century – had no visors and were worn underneath the “great helm”. The great helm, which impeded breathing and vision, was often discarded after the initial clash of lances, leaving only bascinet as protection during hand-to-hand combat.


By the mid-14th century, most knights had completely discarded the great helm in favor of visored bascinet. The visor was often conical, giving the appearance of a beak. Neck was protected at first by mail protection (camail or aventail), while at the end of the 14th century neck defense was replaced by plate assembly, the gorget. The helmet had a series of small holes around the bottom edge of the helmet which were used to sew in a padded liner. Bascinet was often secured by tying it to surcoat or armor.

Bascinet, either with or without a visor, was the most common helmet in Europe during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. During this period, it evolved from a shorter form with less pronounced point to a longer form with severe point. In Germany, a more bulbous version appeared in the beginning of the 15th century. During the first half of the 15th century, more plates were added to protect the throat, creating the “great bascinet”. Both the helmet itself and the visor gradually became less angular, and by the mid- to late- 1400s the great bascinet had evolved into the armet. Some knights wore bascinet without a visor for better visibility and breathing during the hand-to-hand combat. Bascinets in the 14th century commonly came with an aventail – a mail attachment that replaced the coif, protecting the neck.


Armet is a 15th century bowl helmet enclosing the entire head. Bottom of the face is protected by hinged cheek plates which fold backwards. A gorget was also attached, and later armets had a visor. Visor / bevor of the armet is split down the middle, with two halves hinged on the cheeks and opening outwards.

early armet

Like bevor used with the sallet, armet closely followed the contours of the neck and the throat. But since armed was a single piece helmet, it had to have means of opening to be worn and removed. Typical armet consisted of four pieces: the skull, two large hinged cheek-pieces which locked at the chin, and a double-pivot visor.


The sallet (also salade or schaller) replaced the bascinet in northern Europe and Hungary during the mid-15th century. It probably appeared first in Italy, where the term celata is first recorded in 1407. Earliest sallets were a variant of a bascinet, intended to be worn without an aventail or a visor. The rear was curved into a flange to protect the neck, and sides were drawn down to protect the cheeks.

Medieval German sallet (1480 – 1490)

Some sallets were close-fitted while others (the “German” variant) had a “tail” at the rear. This tail was sometimes articulated, consisting of a number of lames. Sallet could be worn alone, but was often worn with an extended gorget called bevor that protected the wearer’s jaw. Occularia could take form of a slit in the visor, slit in the front of the (visorless) helm, or the brim. There was no need for breathing holes due to natural gap between the helmet and the bevor. Sallets for infantry often had no visor, but rather the brim of the helmet was raised forward so that it didn’t obstruct the vision.

Bevor itself could be made of a single solid piece or else multiple articulated lames, covering the neck and the chin. Bevor combined with the sallet – and later the burgonet – to provide complete protection for the head and neck. Bevor was positioned on the gorget – a steel or leather collar designed to protect the throat.


Barbute was popular in Italy at around the same time as sallet, but was rarely if ever seen outside Italy. Designed to imitate Greek Corinthian helmet, it had a T- or Y- -shaped opening for the eyes and the mouth. Unlike the sallet, barbute itself protected the jaw and the neck. Some models had a sharp “comb” at the top of the helmet, designed to deflect the blows.

Italian barbuta. In my opinion, one of ugliest medieval helmets.

Close Helm

Close helm was worn in the late medieval and early Renaissance era. It carried a visor that pivoted up, and unlike previous helmets it wholly enclosed the head and neck area. Overall it is very similar to an armet, but instead of two cheekpieces it has a bevor which is attached and pivots the same way as the visor. It opens by swinging upwards, and shares the pivor point with the visor. Helmet largely appeared in the late 15th century.

French close helmet

The close helm was popular for both battle and tournaments. Tournament version had heavier construction but visor that had bars for better visibility.


Burgonet, sometimes also called the “Burgundian Sallet”, was a Renaissance and early modern helmet that succeeded the sallet. It is characterized by a skull with a large fixed or hinged peak projecting above the face-opening, and an integral, keel-like crest or comb running from front to rear. To the skull were attached substantial hinged cheekpeaces which usually did not meet at the chin or the throat. A flange protected the back and sides of the neck. While burgonet was usually open-faced, sometimes a falling buffe – visor that was closed by being drawn up – was used to protect the face.

16th century German burgonet

Burgonet came into use early in the 16th century, and had attained its classic form by 1550s. Burgonets were worn mostly by cavalry – cuirassiers, demi-lancers and hussars. They were also popular among the mercenary Swiss pikemen, perhaps first being taken by them as trophies from defeated cavalry. Burgonets were popular as they were much cheaper than large closed-face helmets, as well as being much lighter than them.


Morion is open-faced combat helmet that originated in the Kingdom of Castille. It was used from the beginning of the 16th to early 17th centuries, and usually had a flat brim and a crest front to back. Initially used mostly by the Spanish, some thirty to fourty years later it was widely popular all across Europe.

Basic design was relatively simple, protecting the top of the head. Crest atop the helmet was designed to strenghten it, and later versions had cheek guards and even removable faceplates.

Neck protection

Aventail or Camail

Aventail or camail is a detachable mail hung from the helmet to protect the neck and shoulders. In some cases aventail could also cover part or entirety of the face. Earliest examples were riveted directly to the edge of the helmet, but from 1320s onwards in Western Europe a detachable version replaced this type. The detachable aventail was attached to a leather band which itself would be attached to the lower edge of the helmet by a series of staples called vervelles. Holes in the leather band would be positioned over vervelles and a waxed cord passed through to secure it. Aventails largely replaced the complete mail hood (coif), completely replacing it by the 15th century. It would often – but not always – have a padded layer underneath, both to make it more pleasant to wear and to provide extra protection.

medieval aventail


Bevor is worn with the sallet to cover the jaw and the throat, and also covers part of the sternum. It may cover the back of the neck if worn with the bascinet instead of a sallet. It could be one-piece or made of lames, and was sometimes worn with a gorget. It could also be worn with other types of open helmets, such as kettle hats. As a result, it was very popular during the heyday of open helmets from 1450 until nearly 1550. Combination of open helmet with a bevor gave rigid neck protection while still providing excellent visibility and flexibility for close combat. When not needed, bevor could be removed completely, or lowered to protect only the neck. In battle, upper part would be raised to cover the face. In the 16th century, bevor developed into a falling buffe.

Armor of Maximilian I with bevor


Gorget is a steel collar that protected the neck, covering the neck opening in a complete cuirass. Gorget was often paired with a bevor, as well as helmets such as the great bascinet and the armet.


Torso armor


Brigandine is a cloth garment with small steel plates riveted to the fabric that was used from 12th to 16th centuries. Plates could be riveted underneath the cloth, or between two layers of clothing. Brigandine is usually sleeveless, though sleeved brigandines were also known. Many brigandines appear to have had larger l-shaped plates over the lungs.

Depiction of brigandine

Brigandine was commonly worn over a gambeson and/or mail shirt, and was soon adopted as protection by soldiers ranging from archers to knights – it was relatively cheap and easy to repair in the field. Men-at-arms combined it with helmet and plate protection for the limbs. While brigandine was not as protective as a plate, it was far closer to plate than to other alternatives such as mail and the gambeson, and was in fact cheaper than mail. As a result it was popular with foot soldiers, which is where it gets the name – foot soldiers were originally called “brigands”, and usage of term “brigand” to mean a robber comes from the fact that out-of-work soldiers often robbed people.

Jack of plate is similar armor, but with plates being sewn into the clothing. It was often constructed by recyling brigandines, and was popular with soldiers, rebels, peasants and robbers alike.


Cuirass is a piece of armor formed of single or multiple pieces of metal which protects the wearer’s torso. Early cuirass consisted of a front plate, but in later suits of armor the front plate was connected to back plate and this assembly was referred to as a cuirass.

Cuirass came in and out of fashion through history. Muscle cuirass was popular in antiquity, and was usually made of bronze and, later, iron. But it was not until 14th century that a cuirass became an established element of medieval armor. Throughout the 14th century the cuirass became more common, and also more commonly joined by plate defences for limbs. By the close of the 14th century the mail was no longer visible on knightly figures except the camail and the edge of the hauberk.

Throughout the 14th century, the cuirass was worn covered by the jupon. This helped with identification as the jupon was emblazoned much like the surcoats of 12th century, and also helped with defense against arrows. The cuirass throughout the 14th century was always made of sufficient length to rest on the hips – otherwise it would have to hang from the shoulders, interfering with wearer’s movements.

15th century Gothic cuirass – plackart is also visible on its lower half, and below the belt is the fauld with tassets hanging from it

Early in the 15th century the panoply started to be worn without any surcoat, though in the concluding quarter of 15th century a type of short surcoat with short sleeves – known as tabard – began to be worn over the armor. Also during this time small plates began to be attached in front of the shoulders to protect the vulnerable areas – specifically the armpits – where plate defences of the upper arms and the cuirass left a gap on each side. About the mid-15th century the breastplate began to be made of two parts, lower overlapping the upper and affixed with a strap or sliding rivet to allow flexibility.

In the second half of the 15th century the cuirass was sometimes superceded by brigandine, a defence consisting of a textile jacket lined with metal plates riveted to the textile. Rivets would be visible on the surface, thus producing the myth of “studded armor”. In the 16th century – around 1550s – the cuirass gained a vertical central ridge (tapul), which eventually developed into a peascod cuirass.

In 16th and 17th centuries foot soldiers wore corslets, which at the very least consisted of chest peace and tassets, but some included also gorget, back armor, full arms and gauntlets. Mounted soldiers wore heavier and stronger cuirasses, which continued to be used in some cases until the 20th century.


Plackart is a plate reinforcement which composed a bottom half of the medieval breastplate, predominantly worn in the 15th century. Plackart, and breastplate as a whole, stopped at natural waist. Plackart itself covered bottom half of the torso and was attached to breastplate which covered the upper half. Plackart could be fixed, so that breastplate was a solid piece, but more often it was attached with rivets in a way that allowed it to slide and give movement. In the 16th and 17th centuries plackart extended upwards, covering almost the entire breastplate so as to give additional protection against firearms. Gothic plackarts were often fluted, which provided decorative element but also made armor stiffer, stronger, and deflected the blows away.


Faulds are a piece of armor worn below the breastplate to protect the waist and the hips. They could be arranged in narrow bands of metal covering only the legs, or surround the entire hips in a form similar to skirt. Faulds could be riveted to the breastplate, or made into a separate piece of armor that breastplate then overlaps.


Culet is armor similar to faulds but designed to protect the small of the back and the rump. The culet was often made of fewer lames than the faulds.

Arm armor


Cowter or couter is the defense of elbow in a piece of plate armor, fitting between the upper and lower canons of the vambrace. Initially just a curved piece of metal, couter gradually became an articulated joint.


Spaulders are armored plates worn on the upper arms and shoulders in a suit of armor. Their use declined during the Renaissance era along with the use of plate armor.

Unlike pauldrons, spaulders do not cover the arm holes when worn with a cuirass. The gaps may be covered by besagews or even left bare, exposing the mail underneath. Spaulders do allow for superior mobility compared to pauldrons, and were thus more popular among the ground troops.


Pauldron is a component of plate armor which evolved from spaulder in the 15th century. Like spaulders, pauldrons cover the shoulder area.

Pauldrons tend to be larger than spaulders, covering the armpit and sometimes even parts of back and chest. A pauldron typically consists of a single large dome-shaped piece to cover the shoulder (the “cop”) with multiple lames attached to it to defend the arm and the upper shoulder. On armor designed for mounted combat, one pauldron would often sport a cut-away for lance arrest.


Gardbrace is extra plate that protects the top of the shoulder, worn over the top of the pauldron.

Pauldron with a gardbrace


Rerebrace (brassart, upper cannon of vambrace) is plate which covers the section of upper arm from elbow until the area covered by shoulder armor. Splint rerebraces were a feature of Byzantine armor in the Early Medieval period. The rerebrace re-emerged as a part of plate armor in the 14th century. In this form it was a tubular piece of armor between the shoulder protection (spaulder or pauldron) and the elbow protection (couter).

Italian rerebrace


Besagew is a circular plate (roundel) designed to protect the armpits, and is typically worn with spaulders. Pauldrons did not require besagews as pauldrons themselves protected the armpit. This protection was crucial as armpit is the location of the axillary arteries. Besagew could be attached directly to the spaulder, or else to the mail underneath.

15th century Gothic arm armor, showing (top to bottom) pauldron, besagew, rerebrace, couter and vambrace

Armor without besagews may employ larger shoulder defenses (e.g. winged pauldrons), or leave the mail exposed.


Vambrace or Lower Cannon of the Vambrace is protection for the forearm. It was developed in antiquity and used fairly consistently. Name itself originates from the 14th century. Vambrace may also refer to arm armor as a whole (that is, an assembly covering the lower and the upper arm and the elbow). Vambrace may have a separate couter, or one integrated into the vambrace itself. It is usually combined with gauntlets.

Like other plate elements of the armor, vambrace could be made of steel, iron or boiled leather. Leather vambraces were sometimes reinforced with longitudal strips of hardened hide or metal.

Guard of Vambrace

Guard of vambrace is an additional layer of armor that goes over the cowter. Lower canon of the vambrace is the forearm guard, and the upper canon of the vambrace is the rerebrace.


Gauntlets are armored gloves that cover the hand and the wrist of the combatant. During the 12th century mail mittens or “muffs” were developed to provide protection for the hand. It was only in the 14th century however that armorers began to develop fully articulated plate armor, which allowed use of plates to protect hands.

15th century Gothic gauntlets

Gauntlets could be designed in the fingerless “mitten” style which was possibly more protective and allowed fingers to share heat but forced wearer to move fingers together with only thumb being capable of independent movement. Alternative was the fully fingered “glove” style which permitted use of all fingers.

Demi-gauntlet only protects the back of the hand and the wrist. They are worn with gloves made from mail or padded leather. Demi-gauntlet provides better dexterity than full gauntlet, but lacks finger protection.

Leg protection


Chausses were a medieval term for leggings, which were clothing for legs that was not connected like pants are, but rather hang from the belt around the hips. Mail chausses were mail armor made in form of the leggings, and were the primary form of leg protection from the 11th to 14th centuries. One of the first depictions of mail chausses is the Bayeux tapestry (1066 – 1083) which shows William the Conqueror and several other Normans wearing them in the Battle of Hastings. Vast majority of Normans however had no leg protection at all. Chausses became more common as the 12th century progressed, and by 1200 nearly all knights and men-at-arms wore them. Infantry, being less well off and also reliant on on-foot mobility, often forwent wearing any leg armor. From about 1200 onward, padded, quilted breeches would be worn over the upper leg mail chausse, forming the gamboised cuisse. Chausses became obsolete in 14th century as plate armor developed.

depiction of open chausses

Chausses could be enclosed or open. Enclosed chausses enclosed the entire leg, and usually had a permanently attached leather sole. There could also be an entire shoe attached to chausses instead of just a sole, though that solution was rarer. Open chausses had an open backside. In essence, they are a ribbon of mail weave that is tied together with a leather lace running zig-zag on the backside of the leg. The mail is fixed to the shoes with a lace running under the sole.


Poleyn is a reinforcing plate that covers the knee. It is one of the earliest plate additions to mail armor, having appeared after 1230 or so. Later (15th century) versions were articulated to connect with the cuisses and schynbald or greave. It often included fins or rondel to cover the gaps – projection guarding the side of the knee was characteristic of the 15th century poleyns.

16th century poleyn


Steel shin plate that was used during antiquity, lost, and again came into use during mid-13th century, remaining in use until the 15th century. Schynbalds were metal plates strapped over chausses. Each schynbald was a single piece of steel that covered the front and outside of the shin. Unlike greaves which supplanted them in full suite of armor, schynbalds protected only the front of the lower leg and were not connected to other armor components. Both poleyn and schynbald were worn over the chausses and held in place by leather straps. Schynbalds were obsolete by sixteenth century.


Greaves cover the lower leg, front and back. It could be made from a variety of materials, but in late Middle Ages they were made most often from steel. Ancient greaves were closer to medieval schynbalds in design, as they protected the front of the leg – specifically the tibia or shinbone, which is just under the skin and thus highly vulnerable – from attack.

15th century greaves

Greaves reappeared in 1230s – 1250s, at first in form of the schynbald. Fully enclosed greaves (“closed greaves”), protecting the entire lower leg, first appeared around 1290 and became popular in the 1320s. Closed greaves consisted of two plates joined on the outside by hinges and fastened with buckles and straps on the inside.


Cuisse is a plate that covers thigh. Maille skirt or tassets of a cuirass could protect the thigh from blows from above, but a thrust from below could easily avoid these defenses. Cuisses were thus worn on thighs to protect from such blows. Padded cuisses, made in a way similar to gambeson, were worn in the 12th and 13th centuries, usually over chausses. Poleyn may have been directly attached to them.

15th century cuisse

Continental cuisses typically did not cover the back of a thigh due to continental preference for mounted combat. English, preferring the foot combat, generally used fully encompassing cuisses.

Cuisses could be made from brigandine or splintered leather, but from 1340 onward they were usually made of steel plate armor. From 1370 onward they were made of single steel plate.

Sabaton or Solleret

Sabaton (solleret) is plated protection for the foot which started appearing from mid-14th century onwards. 14th and 15th century sabatons, particularly those in Gothic-style armor, typically end in a long tapered point (called “poulaine”) well past the wearer’s foot, following the fashion of the time. In some versions, point could be removed. During the 16th century sabatons abandoned the point, enging instead in a sort of a “fan” shape (the “bear paw”) which stopped at wearer’s toes but could be much wider than the actual foot. Later sabatons were made with a round or a slightly pointed toe. In some sources, only the broad-toed version is called a sabaton, while the pointy one is called solleret.

15th century gothic sabatons

Sabatons were the first piece of armor to be put on, and were constructed of lames (e.g. toe cap, articulated lames, foot plate, ankle plate, hinged heel cap). They were not commonly worn by foot soldiers, who often forewent not just the sabatons but leg armor in general, wearing instead leather boots or shoes. Reducing the leg armor helped reduce the fatigue during the foot combat, and boots also offered better grip and stability on varied ground conditions. Consequently, usage of sabatons was restricted almost exclusively to heavy cavalry.

Sabatons passed out of use along with greaves in the second half of 16th century.

Tassets, cuissets, knee cops, greaves and sabatons completed the full plate leg harness.

Tasset (Tuille)

Tassets are bands hanging from faulds or breastplate itself to protect the upper legs. Tassets may be made from single piece or else be segmented.

tasset on a Gothic cuirass

From the 16th century onward tassets were sometimes integrated with cuisses to create fully articulated leg defenses stretching from the lower edge of the breastplate to the poleyn.



Lames are bands of steel plate, placed together and linked so as to be able to articulate. Linkage could be done by either sliding rivets, leather straps or cloth lacing. Lames are used to provide protection to areas where mobility is necessary, such as the joints (shoulders, knees and waist).

Doublet or Arming Doublet

Arming doublet or aketon is padded clothing worn under the armor. It is similar to gambeson, and thus offers a degree of protection even on its own. What differs it from gambeson are primarily the arming points for attaching plates. Fifteenth century arming doublets also contain mail goussets (voiders) that are sewn into the fabric and cover the areas on body that are not covered by plate, such as inner areas of elbows or armpits.

15th century arming doublet

Doublet was commonly made from flax, but rich knights could afford to provide it with silk or velvet lining or outer shell.


Rondel is a term for any circular plate. Rondels protecting various areas may have specific names.

Besagew, a rondel protecting the armpit, is the most commonly seen type of rondel in armor. Rondels are also seen on the back of the armet helmet, but their purpose in this case is unknown. Rondels were also, but far less commonly, used to protect point of the elbow (a purpose normally fulfilled by a fan), side of the head, or metacarpal parts of some gauntlet designs.


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