Posting Date - 04/16/17
This is a general guide as to how armor works and functions in a real world space, mostly aimed at creative types like writers and artists to pull basic information from without having to look for it or finding incorrect information or posts based on subjectivity rather than objectivity. It's not always easy to be able to tell the difference between the two, especially if you don't have a career that involves either using it or studying it or some kind of military history to help you figure it out.
This guide will focus more on ancient, dark age, medieval, renaissance, and some later age armor, but not modern armor.
That's where I come in. I am an apprentice martial arts and self-defense instructor, with a specialty in Japanese swordsmanship and samurai arts. Part of my job is to wear a suit of armor quite frequently. Another part of this is to study the history of my lineage as well as a general martial arts history and gain at least a competent level of understanding of warfare from around the world since its inception until now. As of this posting date, I have over 6 years of consistent training in many styles, which can be found listed here in a convenient resume form if you'd like some credentials so you can verify this information as accurate.
DISCLAIMER: I am of trainee instructor/apprentice rank, but even then, I am not fully licensed, and anything I have written is not intended as actual instruction for how to use one practically. Do not attempt to use information like this without seeking out a class and reliable instructor yourself. Any injuries you sustain are not my liability. If you try to learn this or other martial arts solely from video and/or books and/or poor pictures posted, you will regret it, as those resources are intended as a supplement for those already in a physical class and doing hands-on training to begin with. This is intended for creative reference only and none of the information herein would be usable as a practical use lesson at all, anyways.
Greetings, if you're reading this, I assume you're either a creative type (or just really interested in armor). I am too, and I understand all too well the frustrations of hunting down reliable information to reference. Especially now that the internet is as prevalent as it is, there's far too much misinformation out there about any topic, and my career of martial arts and self defense is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to misinformation. Hopefully, with this guide, we can deck your characters out in a form of armor that suits them, either on a cultural level (where they're from and what resources they have will play a huge factor in it) and/or a personal taste level. There's a lot of subjectivity on this, especially regarding aesthetic, that's passed off as pragmatism that rubs me wrong, so hopefully this helps set things right for your endeavor.
So let's get to the dressing room.
Let's get this out of the way: armor is complicated. From how many pieces there are, to how many variations on what parts exist, to regional differences, materials used, how much or how little you don, extra equipment, what kind of position or soldier or attacker you are, cultural and religious influence, how much you can afford, and even personal taste can influence how your set will look in the end. Throughout history, all styles and versions have been valid at one point or another, including nothing at all, or just plain ol' fighting naked (it happens more often than you think). What you wind up looking like will reflect a lot about you or your character.
Generally, we're looking at 8 different areas of the body that are covered by armor. Not all need to be accounted for in a complete set; many styles didn't cover everything, or were simply unaffordable. This is just a guideline as to what can be covered. Lists of related words/styles not complete but meant to spurn further research.
HEAD: The top-most part of your body. This category governs armor that protects any or all of the head from the top of it to the chin. Helmets are usually the term used for this kind of armor. They can be visored or not, encompass the whole head or not, have eye and mouth holes/slits, strap under the chin, fasten close, all sorts of things. Cloth, leather, and/or various metals are common materials used to make them.
Related Words and Styles: Armet, Barbute, Coif, Great Helm, Kabuto, Kettle Hat, Pickelhaube, Sallet, Skull Cap, Zischagge
FACE: Stuff that covers your face, specifically, almost always combined with a helmet. These are usually the visored parts of the helmet. They will be made out of the same material usually as the helmet. Exceptions can be cloth bandannas used for breathing and/or hiding the face and plastics/rubbers used in stuff like gas masks.
Related Words and Styles: Buffe, Mask (including Bandannas and Gas Masks), Visor
NECK: Pieces of armor that cover the neck, specifically. They can be sewn in as part of the helmet and drape down and around the neck, be sewn into/bolted on top of a torso piece, or be a separate piece entirely. Some helmets, especially practice or sparring or sporting armor, may include a thick flap under the chin that protects the neck notch specifically. They are usually metal, but thickly wound cloth or tightly sewn cotton or tough leather padding are not unheard of.
Related Words and Styles: Aventail, Bevor, Gorget, Pixane
TORSO: Any and all armor that covers the front or the front and back of someone. This usually encompasses the shoulders, chest, stomach, shoulderblades, and upper and lower backs. This is the main and bulkiest part of any suit of armor. They can be made of cloth, leather, or various metals, and many use several kinds of materials layered in specific fashions for comfort, resource allegation, and reinforcement reasons.
Related Words and Styles: Breastplate, Brigandine, Chain Mail, Cuirass, Do, Full Plate, Hauberk, Plackart,
ARMS: Armor that protects the upper arm, elbow, lower arm, wrists, and hands. These often come in segmented parts due to the elbow, shoulder, and wrist joints, and many styles only cover certain parts of the arm, such as the hands and wrist. They usually come in leather or various metals.
Related Words and Styles: Ailette, Besagew, Couter, Gauntlet, Gloves, Pauldrons, Rerebrace, Spaulder, Te, Vambrace
LEGS: Armor that protects the hips, crotch, thighs, knees, legs, and feet. These often come in segmented parts due to the knee joint, and many styles only cover things like the hips and crotch as well as the upper foot and front of your leg. They usually come in leather or various metals.
Related Words and Styles: Bases, Boots, Chausses, Codpiece, Cuisses, Fauld, Greaves, Poleyn, Sabaton, Sandals, Schynbalds, Tasset
SHIELDS: Large slabs of some kind of sturdy material used to deflect blows or projectile ammunition. Usually held in an "off" hand while your "main" hand handles a weapon. Few styles exist that can be used without being held, lending itself to some minor extra protection if you dual wield or two-hand a weapon. Common materials are wood, leather, leather covered wood, and various metals.
Related Words and Styles: Baluse, Buckler, Heater Shield, Kite Shield, Lantern Shield, Mantlet, Parma, Round Shield, Scutum, Targe
MISC: Parts of armor not restricted to one body part, but usually to aide in buffering other parts of armor in areas where protection is weak or nonexistent, as well as general accessories that may or may not have come in handy in aiding protection, but were considered part of the standard uniform anyways. Perhaps it's all you have/the best you got/all you can afford. They come in many materials.
Related Words and Styles: Belt, Boiled Leather, Cape, Chaps/Hakama, Gousset, Horo, Jack of Plate, Lame, Loincloth, Mantle, Pelt, Rondel
In addition to the cloth/leather/metal trifecta that dominates most of the materials used throughout history and across the globe, other components used to make armor have included wood (sometimes lacquered), gemstones, precious metals, and bamboo. If it's malleable, it's usable. If some material exists in the world you're working with that armor could possible be forged from, it's viable material. Be aware though that no material is truly perfect or ideal and is getting superseded as to what's "best" constantly, and armor is always to be improved upon. Softer metals such as gold will bend and break in combat a lot easier, and may not be "optimal" material, but perhaps your character is too showy or doesn't care.
Armor can be an incredibly personal thing, just as much as a weapon can mean to someone. After all, it is often made to your body specifications and job requirements, and styles and uniforms and overall "feel" change between cultures, and even in nations and other smaller territories within the same cultures. What they require or barr from being worn will change, and figuring out what's important for your character to bear will tell your readers/viewers a lot about what kind of person they are and what kind of values they and their culture have. Places like universities may have their own coats of arms. Additionally, some very important people may have their own coat of arms, but this is usually seen with people like the Pope and whatnot.
Most common ones people are familiar with are the coat of arms, which is an esutcheon (a shield-shaped base for a coat of arms) held up by two supporters, topped with a crown and that topped with a helmet and mantling, further topped by a torse and crest. On the very top is a battle or rallying cry, while the very bottom is a motto of some sort. Not all coats of arms follow this method or include all these elements, but at its fanciest that is the minimal of what you're looking at. Some can be as simple as the imprint or pattern of a flower (common in things like Japanese Samurai clans) or an animal. Many will contain specific colors or visual patterns, like Scottish tartans.
You're most likely to find these emblems either painted on, etched into, or forged of more precious materials and commonly seen on helmets and shields. Other things include flags and banners, which were used to denote both the coat of arms of where you were from or what clan you descend from/work for and things like rank and order within the military group.
Colors, animals, specific arms and armor, mythical creatures, plants and flowers, basic patterns/shapes, tools, forces of nature, and religious imagery make up more common elements, known as a 'charge', of these emblems all across the globe. European coats of arms tend to be a lot fancier than Japanese mon, but both represent the same kind of principles and ideas and the thought process behind them would be similar. Spending time thinking on what your character values, what their nation values, what their culture values, and what their family or clan values will help you forge some powerful imagery. Perhaps they value one symbol over another (i.e. they go by their family/clan's emblem but not their nation's) or have a hard time deciding which one to use.
Various branches of a military, police forces, and units within branches of the military may have variations on a coat of arms.
This isn't to say all this is required by everyone and anyone. Perhaps your character made their own emblem up; personalizing their armor with stuff like this will also say a lot about them. Maybe they like to also paint patterns or images or their nickname or unit name/number on their helmet. Perhaps they like to show off and put their favorite symbol on their cape or up front on their chestpiece. Maybe they get their padding and armor dyed specific colors that aren't regulation uniform tones. A mask might be what they prefer to express their identity. The kind of material they get it made out of, the accessories they boast, and whether they keep it clean or like it dirty are also important factors.
These were chosen out of many for the variety of colors and symbolism used, and in no way represents the author's personal or political views on anything.
Coat of arms of the Ottoman Empire
Seal of Sikkim
Emblem of Vietnam
Principality of Sealand's coat of arms
Finland's coat of arms variants
The Prince of Spain's personal coat of arms
Clan Graham's crest
Lion and Sun
Okinawa's royal crest Bonus: Info on the Tomoe/Mitsudomoe
Saitou Clan mon
Gallery of kamon
Coats of arms by charge/element/symbol
The order you should get dressed in is Underwear/Underclothes < cloth armor/pants/tunic < Leather armor < Chain and other light metal < Heavy metals/plate < Things like rondels and goussets that cover gaps in plate/heavy armor < Belts/capes/weapons/equipment/bags/accessories < Helmets
Helmets usually have either cloth and/or leather layered under any metal helmets to both soften how heavy they are against the skin and collect sweat. They often go on last, often to the facts they may cut off visibility needed to dress with and they can muffle hearing or cut it off entirely unless you are facing the person you are speaking with directly.
If you do not have all those layers, go by whatever would supplement your layer next.
This clearly doesn't cover all of them since this few should give you an idea how the system works.
Underwear/helmet (The poor bastard)
Just a nice hat (The poorest of all bastards)
I would strongly suggest any axe-wielding, pelt-wearing barbarians and sword-swinging, chainmail bikini-equipped amazons have at least some form of underwear or another at, if you'll pardon the joke, the bare minimum on under their stuff, to at least prevent the pinching of more sensitive goods. Underwear and some kind of cloth or leather padding would be optimal for these brave and brazen souls.
Remember: Chafe happens.
Q: Aren't chainmail/battle bikinis unrealistic in terms of protection? Wouldn't it be better to just give everyone full plate armor?
A: This is going to be a very long answer and likely to make some people mad. I will note now I am not in favor nor against either extreme, as they have their own advantages/disadvantages you may not be aware of. I am arguing mostly from a pragmatic/practical standpoint.
I can understand being frustrated by the aesthetic of a chainmail bikini and who designs it for what audience, but the idea that it's "bad" armor or, in some instances I have read about, would somehow snap your sternum or crush your chest in combat, are rather over-exaggerated. Claiming you're acting in defense of pragmatism/practicality when you're mad at a stereotype and/or aesthetic is not a way to plead your case. Any armor is better than none, and if your character genuinely enjoys wearing it, why not? Yeah, it's not optimal full body protection, you ARE trading off a lot of defensive capabilities, but in the case of speculative fiction, you can get away with a bit more, especially if your character is a seasoned combatant and understands concepts like parrying and footwork in order to help protect them. Most fighting styles/schools historically will put an importance on these sorts of aspects and things like how to dodge and retreat and not just have you rely on your armor/shields for defensive capabilities (it also gives you tactical advantage to dodge or parry and hit them at a better angle than just bashing each other face-to-face). After all, your armor does have to last you a while. If magic has any role in your world or story, perhaps it can help shield them or maybe healing magic means less fear of dying from taking risks. It's about on par with giving a guy nothing but a pelt over his head and a loincloth, perhaps a bit more than that.
It's also better than fighting naked or in your basic clothing, which far too many people in the history of warfare have had to manage on. In situations armor would be a detriment to your capabilities (especially in regards to things like mobility and dexterity and getting the hell out of there), abandoning armor and going in your skivvies or such was not unheard of. In times when cannons and muskets first were commonly used, armor that had been used up until then proved useless and too clunky to work around their ballistic capabilities. It wasn't until more modern armor developed to work with and around that did it come back in style for everyone to use. If your character is in a fantasy world and someone does an equivalent, like say, flinging fireballs, your heroes may be better off dumping some armor in exchange for mobility and not roasting to death in ultra-heated metal. If anti-siege tactics such as boiling oil/tar get deployed and dumped on you as well, you'll probably want out of whatever it's sticking to ASAP.
The general reaction I've been seeing is to swing the complete opposite direction, perhaps a bit too far, and give their characters all full plate armor with massive shields and helmets that hide the characters' identity. This is equally unrealistic, for reasons you may not be aware of.
First of all, plate armor is ridiculously expensive, both on the person buying its' cost and what resources the maker and/or kingdom's stores have. It has to be made to that person, after all, and the king most likely will make you pay for it out of your own pocket.
Second, it's not a viable style for every kind of soldier; medics and archers and gunners and such won't need as much as those charging into the fray or the cavalry will. Third, the more rigid an armor is (say, just a plate instead of wearing a chain suit that's flexible) the easier and more susceptible it is to bending/snapping/breaking/denting/warping from stuff like blunt force weapons, sometimes making it impossible to remove without further wrecking it. If your intent is to avoid cutting/slashing open of organs or lopping off of limbs, as is a common complaint with battle bikinis, you'd be better off with chain armor, especially with padding under it.
Third, if you get stuck in humid and/or overheated territory, you're going to roast and get heat sick pretty quickly. The Crusaders who tried to invade Muslim lands way back when were caught off guard by how hot the Middle East was and wound up sluggish and riddled with heat stroke and dehydration, and because of this they were easily driven out of Muslim holy lands solely because the Muslims were used to it and equipped properly.
Fourth, and this one is rather nasty, but you're most likely not removing that stuff for quite some time on the battlefield, so if you have to take a piss or take a shit, it's going in your armor and it's gonna sit there for a while. Imagine your whole armor decked out like this and smelling to high heavens. Who takes care of it after? Why, the warrior's lucky squire gets to wash your toilet-stained armor out.
This isn't to say full plate is bad. This is more to illustrate going only in one extreme or the other probably won't work out as intended for your characters and/or armies, unless you have a very plausible way around it using magic or such, and even then it pays to know how to dress for the occasion and the mission/territory you'll be shipped off to.
On a creative note, outfitting everyone in the exact same suit of armor is going to be incredibly boring and repetitive from an aesthetic standpoint, and may make differntiating characters not out of uniform a difficult task. If they're going to be in similar enough outfits, bust out your personalization and heraldry boxes and make them distinct enough. You don't need to go into overdrive but a few marks that would make them "them" wouldn't hurt. Historically, clothing like surcoats and tabards and banners/flags like the Japanese sashimono existed emblazened with something a bit more uniquely personal in order to identify that unit specifically as someone, and not just their kingdom and/or clan affiliations and/or their military unit. These banners would be worn strapped to the person's back, usually held in place with rope.
The TL;DR is both extremes are bad and have some major tradeoffs the other extreme doesn't. Plan carefully, and perhaps go in moderate protection, unless the job commands one extreme specific or three.
Q: What are the recommended sets of armor for specific jobs/soldier types?
A: If you're here looking to see if archers dressed a particular way, or if knights did it heavy, or maybe if pikemen did it polished, you're in the right place. The truth of the matter is, despite what video games and tabletop may tell you, there's no real universal agreed upon set of clothing or armor for any particular job. While it might behoove a close melee fighter to wear more layers and/or heavier armors made out of stronger materials, or perhaps giving your ranged units something more mobile and flexible, there's no set hard limit on this. You went out in what you could either afford to get yourself, what was furnished to you through conscription or such, and/or whatever it was you could scrounge off the dead or the enemy stores on a battlefield. This leads to some more customization, as not every mage needs to be in a bathrobe only, and not every knight needs to be covered in more plates than the royal banquet table. It could benefit to keep your fictional armies to a set standard depending on job or rank or class and if their kingdom or country can afford to, furnishing them a basic set, but from there it's all up to you and your finances and/or pilfering abilities and finding what fits for you. (See also Q+A #6)
Don't feel like you have to limit yourself to anything, but do use common sense when dressing your characters. While it wouldn't be out of place to have your assassin heavily armored (especially if they're in disguise), it wouldn't be the first go-to for them. Finding out why they may favor it though is always a fun experiment in character making.
Q: Is it possible to be mobile/dexterous in heavier suits of armor?
A: Absolutely, but don't expect to be able to do it too long before exhaustion sets in from flipping around with a third of your body weight strapped to you.
Q: Can men/women/NB characters/people wear (x) armor?
A: Armor isn't gendered and doesn't care who wears it, it just cares you take good care of it and that you stay alive.
Q: Throughout history and across the world, what is the most common set of armor seen on a person?
A: A basic helmet and breastplate/torso armor, material being varied. But if you look around the globe at any point in history, you'll most likely see a lot of poeple in just this outfit. It covers most of the most vital parts of the body (brains, organs, etc) and would be cheap enough to outfit most people in while not skimping on too much protection. If you were trained to fight in any capacity, you were at least given this much. Combining resources like cloth/leather or leather/metal or all three meant there would be more than enough to go around.
Q: How much time/money/resources are generally spent on armor upkeep? Who takes care of it? Does armor reflect anything about your social status?
A: The short answer for all of this is: it varies. Whether you need to do quick repair on the battlefield or are in need of a full repair/checkup post-battle, and what culture you hail from will all influence everything in this question.
If you're on the battlefield, there are fast methods of cleanup and repair for weapons and armor both that most anyone can learn to do and involve the stripping and removal of all the "furniture" (parts that hold weapons/armor together and/or form parts of it like handles, guards, straps, etc) and then a quick cleanup/polish with a clean rag. It's then checked for any major chipping or denting and if possible, it's removed or sharpened or hammered out or tightened or loosened or whatever it is it needs then and there, and then the furniture is put back together with any part replacement made, resources and supplies permitting. This can take up to an hour or two for large pieces, depending on levels of dirt and damage and the person's experience. Some people prefer to do the work themselves during a break in battle or pass the work off to their squires and lower ranking soldiers, if warranted for whatever reason, be it your time is best used elsewhere or you want to teach them or you simply want to pull rank.
More thorough repairs/replacements/sharpenings/etc are done post-war, when you get to go home and ship your stuff off back to the smith who made it. Much like sending your phone back to the company for cracked screen repair, they handle it in-house with factory/smith-fresh supplies and get it back to you like new. This is especially if the armor was made for you and you want to keep it and not have to pay to completely replace it. Armor you found/stole/inherited may not be quite right fitting and need adjusting, either by your hand and/or a professional's.
Some say cleanliness is next to godliness. A lot of cultures had their warrior class act as a role model, and this meant a modicum of hygiene and self-care went into your routine when out in public. Some historically like the Japanese Samurai would bathe 4 or more times a day and change clothing every time they did in order to keep up appearances and set a standard for cleanliness and health. Samurai would also toss aside anything used to clean or maintain equipment onto the battlefield, considering it dirty and unusable. Appropriately enough, during the Battle of Sekigahara (the battle that finally unified Japan), the fighting styles that died out were ones that didn't emphasize either keeping equipment clean and/or how to get around a dull or person-encrusted weapon. The more you know!
Of course, those with more money (or more time to pilfer/raid enemies' corpses and armories) always had more armor, or at least better and more customized armor and accessories. If you were poor, guess what you were wearing when you went out? Unless you were furnished a basic military set, enjoy fighting in your plain clothes, your robes, your underwear, or naked if you have naught at all. Armor was bigtime status and very much worth it considering it's what helped keep you alive.
If you're wondering, nowadays, a lot of metal weapons and armor are taken cleaned with/polished/treated with 3-in-1 oil (which is a form of mineral oil) and a product called Nevr Dull wadding polish. Both smell extremely like gasoline/petrol and are incredibly toxic and flammable but they get the job more than done. It removes rust, prevents further rusting when applied as a thin layer over it and stored properly, and acts as a general lubricant for moving/drawing/etc. Walnut oil and candle wax are favored for things like wood and bamboo. If nothing else is around, general mineral oil will do in a pinch for metal. We use it often at our dojo to help restore old and rusted/dulled/improperly stored equipment people find at cost of a small fee, and the same techniques are usable on any kind of metal tool or precious object that's rusted, in need of a spit shine, or just needs a way to be safely stored.
Q: Who are your favorite armies/militaries in history? Why?
A: I put this question down from myself to give a few examples of successful armies that relied on layering and basic outfitting rather than going in one extreme or another as proof this stuff works better than you'd think. Keep in mind this is a more subjective questoin/answer unlike the others. But, in no particular order, my top 3 are:
The Roman Legionary / The Greek Hoplites (tied)
The Mongolian Hordes
The Japanese Samurai
These three comprise some of the most successful militaries in history, either by virtue of territory gained, battles won, or whom they were able to trump despite the odds. The Romans were master tacticians and experts at battlefield placement and the Greeks so good at forming units to the point that even me, someone studying samurai arts, is required to study important Greek and Roman battles as part of my education to understand how war works in general. The Mongolians remain unbeaten as far as land conquered and ruled over, as well as how to assimilate cultures and enact fair citizenship laws such as freedom of religion. The Samurai are the only people in history to defeat the Mongolians, with the help of a fortunate storm as their ships came to Japanese ports, when the Mongolians landed the Samurai effortlessly slaughtered them, shaming them to never return.
A common trait between all those forces is they wore a basic, layered uniform and not too much armor, relying on either superior manpower, incredible strategy, or both to make up for not being covered from head to toe.
Honorable mention goes to the Chinese forces of antiquated ages for inventing a lot of why most of the rest of us are successful now, and the historical Islamic militaries for enacting rules of engagement such as "Don't harm the enemy's medics" and "Preserve anyone you conquer's culture and libraries."