Armour is a great thing. It keeps people from dying. The history of combat is in many ways the history of armour. Looking back it’s a historical arms race between the weapons used and the armour used. Let’s look back shall we, at the symbiotic relationship between swords and armour and carry it through to the present day.
We know that people have been wearing armour for almost as long as they have been fighting. We also know that fighting technology changes throughout the course of human history. Rather than look at the entirety of all armour ever, we’re going to look at certain times of historical note. First stop in today’s tour is Rome in the time of the first professional soldier. I think most people are familiar enough with the Roman Legionary. Armour covers the torso, a helmet with an open face and greaves protecting the shins. The weapon of the legionary is the short sword, properly called the Gladius.
At first glace there are some oddities that become apparent if you know about sword fighting. First off the arms and upper legs are pretty exposed. The sword itself is also realy damn short and provides almost no hand protection. The first explanation that springs to mind is that maybe the smithing technology didn’t exist to do better. This however, would be false as we know there was a class of Gladiator that wore a suit of armour that covered him head to toe. So why didn’t the army use this seemingly impenetrable suit of armour? We could quote the cost of such, or the fact that marching forty miles a day weighed down that much would be insane. For the most part though, the reason was that it wasn’t really necessary. Mostly because I deliberately left out a critical piece of equipment. The shield. Roman soldiers had a big shield called the Scutum, that especially when in formation, they could quite effectively hide behind. This made the Gladius the perfect weapon because it meant your sword couldn’t be controlled effectively by the opponents weapon and extra armour would just be redundant. Here we see weapons and armour perfectly matched for each other.
Let’s jump ahead a few centuries. Once Rome fell, the idea of a permanent standing army became all but impossible. Purchasing weapons and armour was left to the individual. Iron chainmaille became one of the most used forms of personal protection and shields became smaller. The fight with the arming sword and buckler became the most popular method of sword fighting for many hundreds of years. Again we see the relationship between attack and defence. Single handed swords, shield primarily to protect the hand and maille covering everything else.
Eventually, once the production and refining of steel became an option, armour began to get more advanced. Plate became the order of the day and when you are wearing what is effectively an interlocking network of shields, carrying an extra shield was kinda silly. Plus having an extra hand on the sword for extra leverage became necessary for an effective strike. Hence two handed swords, which were not massively longer or heavier than their one handed counterpart.
Then came firearms. As these improved armour became less and less useful. It eventually came to pass that armour was primarily used for protection during training, which lands us at today. When training with the longsword, for example, armour comes highly recommended. Some would say that it’s required for any sparring with any weapon, including the rapier. Me, I like feeling a little exposed. A mask and gorget is all that I want when fighting with the rapier especially. I want to know that although it’s unlikely, I could be hurt. It reminds us to be respectful. It reminds us that we are trying to simulate a deadly fight with a deadly weapon. So wear enough protection that makes it so you wont die, but I feel scrapes and bruises are an essential part of the game.