Weapons and armour

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Since I just reviewed David Weber’s Oath of Swords I thought now would be a good time to talk about weapons and armour.

Urban fantasy is my current favourite genre, but traditional fantasy and I go back a long way. And let’s face it, most traditional fantasy is set in a medievalesque world, usually involving swords and armour and stuff like that.

Now, the thing is, since we don’t have much in the way of swords and armour in day-to-day life nowadays (mostly), finding out practical information about this can be quite difficult. And practical information is what you need for writing fantasy, not the high-falutin stuff that might be great to impress people with at dinner parties.

First thing is, why am I talking about weapons and armour in the same post? Wouldn’t two posts be better – one for weapons and one for armour?

Actually, no. One major conceptual thing you have to get your head around is the fact that armour and weapons are two sides of the same coin – defence and attack. It’s an arms race. As soon as somebody invents a weapon, someone will invent armour to make it ineffective, or less effective at least. Once the armour has been invented, someone else will develop a weapon to overcome it. And so it goes on until you get thermonuclear devices.

For instance, wide adoption of handguns on the battlefield coincides with the decline of plate armour. This is not coincidental: plate armour would mostly stop a pistol ball, but only the really heavy stuff stops a musket ball. So when muskets start being used, plate armour suddenly has its risk-benefit ratio drastically altered. The wearing of plate was always a tradeoff between protection and mobility, so if the protection quotient is suddenly reduced by the appearance of a new weapon, suddenly the ratio becomes unfavourable and plate armour is mostly abandoned. In general, only the breastplate (and sometimes backplate) and helmet survive in most cases. The bevor also survives as the gorget, which is still part of some army uniforms.

So, weapons and armour are linked; you can’t pick and mix. To some extent, the same is true of military technology progression as a whole. Chain mail (sometimes called mail, or maille – from the French for ‘net’) is relatively easy to make. Boring, but easy. (Made properly, each link is individually riveted into a ring. Jobs do not get more tedious than this.) Plate armour (never ‘plate mail’, please – metal armour is either plate or it’s mail) takes a lot more skill and equipment, not to mention know-how, to construct. However, it provides much better protection. Therefore, as plate armour technology advances, mail disappears until it is only found (amongst those who can afford plate) in those bits that are hard to armour, such as the groin and the underarms and inside the elbows. Even these areas are plated by the time you get to the tonlet armour of Henry VIII, which is generally recognised to be the pinnacle of the armour’s art. This is why you do not see a warrior dressed in plate armour fighting alongside one dressed in in mail – unless they come from different cultures with different technological standards.

I shall stop here, because specific stuff can go in future posts. However, to conclude:

  • Always accessorise your armour and weapons correctly. Turning up to a battle dressed in plate armour and carrying a rapier is worse than wearing sandals with socks. Just don’t go there.
  • The right armour is a statement everyone can respect. If plate is ‘in’ this year, do not turn up in a mail hauberk. It doesn’t matter if you inherited it from your great-granddad; there is no such thing as ‘vintage’ when it comes to armour.
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