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Unusual Materials in Arms and Armor

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Most historical arms and armor were made of metal, leather and stone.  This is the thread for historical weapons and armor made of weird shit.

 

682px-Armor_and_helmet%2C_Gilbert_Island

 

This is an example of armor made from the Gilbert islands made of thick, woven coconut fiber.  The helmet is made from a pufferfish.

 

I've seen a set similar to this in another museum.  The woven fiber body armor looked like it would be reasonably effective.  Coconut husk is pretty tough and the vest was very thick.  I wasn't so sure about the helmet.

 

The Gilbertese were also the foremost users of shark's tooth weapons, although other Polynesians used them as well:

 

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Several historical examples I've seen are these strange, branching designs:

 

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Polynesians were not the only ones to use teeth in their arms.  The Mycenian Greeks made helmets out of boars teeth.  One such helmet is described in the Iliad, and there are a few archeological discoveries of such:

 

Boar_tusk_helmet_from_Athens.jpg

 

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And finally, a club used by Inuits made from the penis-bone of a walrus:

 

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The wooden armour of the Tlingit is pretty fascinating.

I do occasionally wonder why laminated wooden breastplates and the like weren't more common as a relatively cheap and lightweight form of protection. My guess is that glue was an issue, as with composite bows. Even so, a layup of alternating strips held together with hide glue/pitch/resin and rawhide would be doable pretty early on.

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It looks like I'm definitely not the first person to ask this question.

General consensus is that making a wood breastplate just gets you something heavier than a metal equivalent and takes relatively more work. I'm not too convinced by this, but will post my more detailed thoughts in a bit.

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While I'm procrastinating on this, here's another thing I wonder about: just how cheap was padded or quilted armour? I imagine that in some societies the cost of the fabric and time would be significant. This would also depend on the quality of the cloth, which would of course affect the quality of the armour.

Going with a modern analogy, a ballistic vest is about 2-4 times as expensive as a high quality jacket. This is partly because kevlar is expensive, but also because you have 15-30 times the fabric going into the garment (all those layers).

In the end, I'm not sure that a good gambeson was all that much cheaper than, say, lamellar armour covering the same area.

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Yes, but a gambeson is useful to wear under standard armor of the day, and therefore will be in steady production, while lamellar armor would not be.

So a peasant could pick up a used gambeson or whatever on the cheap.

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Yes, but a gambeson is useful to wear under standard armor of the day, and therefore will be in steady production, while lamellar armor would not be.

So a peasant could pick up a used gambeson or whatever on the cheap.

I'm pretty much ignoring that factor here, but it is certainly true.

A garment optimised for padding might, however, look a bit different from one optimised for protection. I'm thinking here of two layers of cloth with stuffing in between versus multiple layers. So you might find that a mail hauberk plus padded undercoat (both widely made) is actually cheaper than a suit of cloth armour (layers of high quality linen or similar with leather facing) for the same level of protection. The padded undercoat alone, however, would still provide a bit.

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While I'm procrastinating on this, here's another thing I wonder about: just how cheap was padded or quilted armour? I imagine that in some societies the cost of the fabric and time would be significant. This would also depend on the quality of the cloth, which would of course affect the quality of the armour.

Going with a modern analogy, a ballistic vest is about 2-4 times as expensive as a high quality jacket. This is partly because kevlar is expensive, but also because you have 15-30 times the fabric going into the garment (all those layers).

In the end, I'm not sure that a good gambeson was all that much cheaper than, say, lamellar armour covering the same area.

 

 

I'm not familiar with the historical sources or archaeological finds regarding quilted armor, but a few possibilities occur to me.

 

The first is that the Gilbertese coconut husk armor above shows that you do not need to use the same type of fabric for armor as you do for clothing.  It may be misleading to look at the cost of a square meter of fabric intended for clothing, multiply that by the amount that would be in an armored garment, and come up with a cost at the end.  It seems reasonable to me that you could take shortcuts in the production of armor fiber; card it less, use courser fibers, or even just stuff a bunch of fiber between two textile layers.  Only the innermost layer (or your undershirt) will be touching your skin, the rest is just fiber that needs to be strong and between you and the incoming blades.

 

Another thing that occurs to me is that lamellar armor needs a rather lot of dissimilar materials.  You would need cows for leather and someone who knows how to work leather and a smith who knows how to make the metal bits and someone who can assemble them all.  In a society without motorized transport of materials, that might suck.  It could well be easier to source a bunch of fiber locally, since every farmer's wife will have a spinning wheel, than it would be to source the components of lamellar armor.

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It looks like I'm definitely not the first person to ask this question.

General consensus is that making a wood breastplate just gets you something heavier than a metal equivalent and takes relatively more work. I'm not too convinced by this, but will post my more detailed thoughts in a bit.

Okay, detailed thoughts time.

From bow making, which would use a lot of the same skills and techniques, you have a couple of issues with making a wooden breastplate. The first is your raw material: there are all sorts of woods and some will be better for the task than others. One approach would be to make a laminated, curved structure to get your breastplate in a solid piece and limit splitting. This implies that you need thin strips, as wide as possible, for steaming to a form and laminating together. Which also sort of implies the technological wherewithal to make boards and planks. So anywhere with a viable shipbuilding industry or access to bamboo is off to a good start.

The next issue is your glue. Unlike a bow (which you can keep in a case until needed), your breastplate needs to be able to get wet for extended periods without coming apart. This means that fish or hide glue is tricky (although you can use it for the core) and that the surface needs to be protected by a covering, wax or lacquer. The best approach, I'm guessing, would be something like a resin or pitch-based glue, a rawhide covering and a wax or paint coat.

The final issue is manufacture. Taking all of the above together you have a pretty complex process: making and steaming strips to shape, layup over a form (perhaps with pinning), drying, covering and finishing. It would draw on a bunch of existing tech (bow making, shipbuilding and, of course, shield making) and be reasonably involved, but the product wouldn't be any better or worse than a metal equivalent overall.

Given the above, my guess is that we don't see much wood armour simply because any society big and complex enough to have an industry capable of making it generally had other, equally-good options for getting there. It wouldn't necessarily be cheaper ir easier to mass produce, and would still rely on a number of products and processes to pull off.

For the wildcard: I sometimes wonder why it took so long to discover linoleum, given that the properties of resin and linseed oil have been known forever. My guess is that it is, in fact, old news and somewhere out there there is an ancient piece of plastic waiting to be discovered.

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The early "gambeson" are pretty simple. Anything from a simple linen or wool tunic with straw stuffed into it all the way up to quilted leather or linen jackets. They really didn't show up in Europe as widespread until the 13th century. There is some great level of debate on their use during the migration period and Viking age Scandinavia due to lack of archaeological evidence. We do know the Byzantines and steppe tribes wore them and the Kievan Rus had contact with both, so it is likely the eastern armies used them. This is also where the parts of the lamellar armor found at Birka Sweden are theorized as originating from. 

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Reserving spot for actual writeup on Chinese Paper armor.

 

It was actually a thing but it's really hard to get actual data on it.

 

Semi related, a great deal of the more fantastic Japanese armors were simple rawhide plates faced with paper-mache and lacquer.

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Semi related, a great deal of the more fantastic Japanese armors were simple rawhide plates faced with paper-mache and lacquer.

They also did things like using butted mail (and, closer to the topic, bamboo slats) in armour. Japanese armour is a wonderland of slightly off-kilter stuff.

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