As the title suggests, this post is not strictly tied to roleplay, however it may help to clear up some of the rampant misconceptions about medieval arms and armour, so that historical or fantasy roleplays can be conducted more accurately. Hopefully it will provide some insight and fun facts some of you were not aware of. I am by no means attempting to portray myself as a know-it-all, I merely think it is an intriguing topic of discussion and there does not seem to be anything akin to it here on the site. If this discussion can be of use to anyone, then publishing it was time well spent!

Now, I know that in fantasy settings some leverage has to be given. In a fantasy world, weapons may be forged from different materials that did not exist in the real world we know, or the strength and speed of a certain race may permit them to perform otherwise ridiculous feats with weapons, or puncture certain pieces of armour that should be, by and large, impenetrable. I acknowledge these facts.

As an avid student of military history, arms and armour, ranging from ancient periods, through the dark ages and middle ages, right up to the Renaissance, this is a topic I am extremely passionate about. In the past I have engaged in HEMA and historical reenactment, so fortunately I've been lucky enough to wear mail, handle swords and spears and simulate real medieval combat. In turn, I believe that this allows me to speak with a little bit of accuracy on those topics. I am not going to go into heavy detail regarding each subject, so, if you read this and feel I have missed something, believe I am wrong, or would simply like me to elaborate on an item in particular, comment and let me know.

So, without further ado, here we go!

One of the biggest misconceptions about arms and armour that I'm keen to highlight, is the perceived notion that they were incredibly heavy and/or cumbersome. This idea is mainly perpetuated by Hollywood, tv shows and video games. Even so called historical documentaries have circulated flat out lies.

I am going to start with armour first, most notably plate armour. Yes, a wearer would notice the weight and being encased in steel is incredibly hot. However, people who could afford it and owned a full suit of armour would be highly trained in combat whilst wearing it. If their stamina was at a strong level, wearing the armour would not impede them. It certainly would not hamper their mobility, although there were a few minor restrictions. There is a tendency for people to believe that armour limits movement greatly, when in reality, the impediments are slight. Plate was designed for maximum efficiency, knights and soldiers needed to be able to fight in it for extended periods of time, sometimes hours! They required full mobility as well as protection from weapons. A full suit, depending on thickness and exactly how much of the body was covered, could weigh anywhere between 30-65 pounds, which to a fit and well trained individual, is not very much at all.

This link to a video shows how knights could run, jump, roll and even perform star jumps in a panoply of armour. - Mobility in medieval armour

Also important to note is just how effective it was. It was so popular because it worked! It is incredibly difficult to puncture hardened steel plate with a sword, nor can you slice through it with ease. Even heavy axes may only scratch or dent plate, with the exception of certain pieces forming cheek guards or visors on helmets. One sure way to defeat plate is to stab or slice into the small, uncovered gaps in the suit, or to use percussion weapons such as maces, warhammers and poleaxe heads (hence their popularity in the late middle ages), whose kinetic force can cause internal damage. Even crossbows and to some extent, longbows, long thought to be capable of piercing armour deeply, would struggle to wound a knight encased in steel. While close range shots have proven to punch small holes in military metal, it is likely mail or gambeson, even both, would have also been worn beneath.

What about mail? Many common soldiers would not have been able to afford full body protection and therefore would have settled for mail covering their vitals, probably with gambeson (layers of padded linen sewn into a shirt) above or below. Butted mail was easily broken by blows from weapons, however, riveted mail, the most commonly used, provided excellent protection against cuts and slices. Constant strikes over long periods could eventually damage mail, yet it is highly unlikely that a single powerful cut would cleave it. Mail can be punctured with the thrust if a point slips between the overlay of the links. Was mail heavy? It depended on how large the rings were and on the size of the hauberk or shirt. But we can safely assume that if full plate rarely weighed more than 65 pounds, then a single shirt of mail would not be so heavy as to hinder movement.

There is so much more that could be said about armour but the main misconceptions I hear about have been covered, so I will move on to swords.

The sword. An iconic, majestic weapon. Again, not as heavy as people would have you believe. For example, migration era swords or dark age swords such as those used by anglo-saxons and vikings, could weigh as little as 900 grams. A medieval arming sword, sometimes known as the knightly sword, weighed as little as 1 kilogram (The same as a bag of sugar!) to 1.2 kilograms, again depending on the amount of material used and the length of the blade. A medieval longsword (bastard sword or hand a half sword), could weigh anywhere between 1 and 2 kilograms. Again, not particularly heavy or unwieldy to someone trained in its use.

Other misconceptions about swords include terminology, what specific parts were called, and the roles those specific parts played. As an example, the hilt is often mistaken as the guard, when in reality, the hilt encompasses everything but the blade. The small, trench-like line running down the blade is not a blood groove, it is called a fuller. Its purpose is to reduce the weight of the weapon, nothing else. A sword's hilt is composed of a guard or crossguard if it happens to be a cruciform hilt, a handle/grip, and the pommel. Also worth noting is that historically, many, not all pommels were hollow. This allowed them to serve as a basic counterweight, while reducing material at the same time. Another misconception is that swords are all incredibly stiff. While in some cases this can be considered true, most swords are pliable and flex well. Most swords are quenched, as a blade that is too stiff is likely to break. A blade that is too soft will bend and warp. A precise balance needs to be drawn. This also aids with shock absorption.

Sword terminology is not all that important in a fantasy setting, so some loose blanket terms can be applied. A sword designed to be held in one hand can be referred to simply as a one-handed sword, arming sword or knightly sword. A longsword, also known as a bastard sword or a hand and a half sword is longer, designed to be wielded in two hands, but can also be used quite comfortably in one. A greatsword has to be wielded with two. There also seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the term broadsword, which video games and movies paint as any sword with a broad blade. Regardless of the girth of the blade, early to late medieval swords were still dark age swords, bastard swords or arming swords. Broadsword, like longsword, is a relatively modern term and can also be used to describe a more modern basket hilted sword.

One last thing on swords! There was a historical technique called halfswording, in which a fighter would grip the blade of their own bastard sword in their free hand, effectively turning it into a small spear. This gave more pinpoint control of the point, allowing it to be thrust more easily into gaps in heavily armoured foes. I mention this because another false impression is that holding sharp blades is impossible without getting cut. While gloves or gauntlets were used, this could also be done with bare hands. If held tightly and correctly, the hands would not be cut. If a sword had a heavy pommel not a hollow one, then it could be held by the blade in both hands and used as a bludgeoning tool. This has been illustrated in the fighting manuals of Talhoffer.

I sincerely hope that this mega rant was interesting, and if not, then at least useful! Whether it be for roleplay or learning something you may not have known, let's hope the misconceptions regarding medieval arms and armour are swiftly dealt with.

If these subjects interest you, remember to engage in your own research too. Happy roleplay!

(Please note: I am not an expert, and just because I have studied history and taken part in certain activities, does not make me infallible. I have recently learned that some of this information may not be 100% accurate, so if you are reading this, standby for updates!)

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Very useful information, Bannoc!

Thank you for this blog.

You are welcome Cirel my elven friend! I await your reply eagerly :D

It is indeed a very interesting read and you bring up many points that I wish to keep in mind. I will probably refer to this article from time to time during our rp( when ever we pick that back up) and in writing in general. :)

I will be referring to this for future guidance! 

Thank you Winter! I will be getting to all my posts tonight after work, I will have one for you then!

The Winter Apocalypse said:

It is indeed a very interesting read and you bring up many points that I wish to keep in mind. I will probably refer to this article from time to time during our rp( when ever we pick that back up) and in writing in general. :)

And thank you everyone for the great comments! If there is anything you would like me to cover in a future blog, or you have any queries regarding certain aspects of medieval combat, arms or armour, feel free to comment and let me know!

I appreciate the efforts on this post, and I applaud the spirit behind it, but as a history scholar and HEMA lecturer, there's some stuff in here that makes me cringe in near pain. Some of it is right, some is in the spirit of right and some is wrong. If you would like me to correct, site sources, and give you some more accurate information, I will cheerfully provide it. Other wise, I will just butt out. 

I'm no lecturer, but I did train in Hema a bit. So perhaps to you it seems that I am overstepping my bounds somewhat? I did more reenactment than HEMA, and there are some big differences between the two communities. Perhaps you could enlighten me via inbox as to what is wrong? And I can update the post accordingly. The segments to do with plate armour and swords are correct at least, no? I've held replica swords made my Albion and believe the weights of the weapons and part terminology is correct? And I know that you can't stab or slice through plate armour with a sword. Although percussion weapons have been around forever, they saw a marked rise during the rise of full plate harness in medieval Europe, no? Anyway, I'm no consummate expert, just a passionate student and would hate for any of this to be considered misinformation when it was designed to make roleplay combat a bit more realistic. Please get in touch, I would love to see your sources and am always willing to correct and learn. Please do inbox me!

Nice job Bannoc.

Thanks for the information.

I can see it's going to be really useful, but recommend anyone into historical do a bit of research for themselves too.

Knowledge is power eh!

Yeah, that's a good point, everyone should do their own research too, so I should definitely recommend it. Knowledge is indeed power, my friend! If any of what I have written here is faulty, then I will soon edit accordingly. It's a fascinating topic and I would love to hear and learn more from anyone who is enthusiastic about this stuff! Thanks for taking the time to read and reply objectively. Jenna and Cu!

Pffffft, I say! Who needs swords or bows when you can just use your hands?

Oh gosh, no. This has nothing to do with cred or bounds, it's just that some of what you wrote was inaccurate and I just wanted to establish some provenance as to why I felt secure enough to offer a contradicting opinion. :)

I will send you some more info via inbox, but since you specifically mentioned it, I will say that a sword could absolutely pierce or cleave through plate if properly wielded. Scheitelhau often split plate helmets in two like coconuts. It all depends on the weapon and the skill of the user. Your average dopplersoldner would have been able to do this easily.

Your sections on swords were great! The terminology and parts were accurate and god knows I love to see my favorite, the arming sword, getting mentioned under the proper name. I am a girl with small hands and bone structure, even with the Red Dragons or Superior Fencing longsword glove, or Casper Andersen's new one, the name is escaping me right now, my fingers would break too easily in typical longsword comps, so I stick to arming, small sword and rapier/dagger. No complaints or corrections in that section. :) Also, Albion does great work, don't they? Love them. We have several by them and Eric Mchugh of Crown Forge and one of Albion's VP's of design is a very good friend. Great taste in weapon's makers, you have there. Which Albion do you have, out of curiosity? *Loves to talk swords* I will inbox you with some more info after I am done with my replies. Cheers!
Bannoc the wanderer said:

I'm no lecturer, but I did train in Hema a bit. So perhaps to you it seems that I am overstepping my bounds somewhat? I did more reenactment than HEMA, and there are some big differences between the two communities. Perhaps you could enlighten me via inbox as to what is wrong? And I can update the post accordingly. The segments to do with plate armour and swords are correct at least, no? I've held replica swords made my Albion and believe the weights of the weapons and part terminology is correct? And I know that you can't stab or slice through plate armour with a sword. Although percussion weapons have been around forever, they saw a marked rise during the rise of full plate harness in medieval Europe, no? Anyway, I'm no consummate expert, just a passionate student and would hate for any of this to be considered misinformation when it was designed to make roleplay combat a bit more realistic. Please get in touch, I would love to see your sources and am always willing to correct and learn. Please do inbox me!

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