What advantages did mail provide compared to other forms of armor?

The thread title sums up my question pretty succinctly. Mail was a common form of armor for a variety of cultures for centuries. My question is basically, why mail instead of other forms of armor that were available/known to the people who used mail?

Flexibility would seem to be the obvious answer. It was also presumably a bit cooler to wear than plate (which, I understand, got uncomfortably hot quite quickly).

As I understand it, the biggest advantage is that mail is mostly one-size-fits-all, and what little fitting needs to be done, can be done very easily. So once a suit of mail is made, it remains useful for many generations. Plate, by contrast, has to be custom-made for every wearer, so once the original owner dies or retires, the suit becomes nothing but scrap or a museum piece.

It was easy to repair and reuse, which is handy if you’re equipping a couple thousand soldiers.

There were a few other forms of armour known to people who used mail.

There was the metal breastplate, which went back millennia, But it has the disadvantage that it only covers the torso and lacks flexibility. You could have attached mail to the breastplate, or wore it underneath, and that is what a few people did. But that gets cumbersome and heavy. The quality of metals available when mail was standard tended to be basically cast iron, meaning that you needed a good solid chunk of metal to provide stopping power *and *resist shattering. Mail didn’t rely on the metal to actually stop damage, the mail was just to stop penetration, the padded undergarments were what stopped the damage. IOW the mail was mostly there to stop the undergarments being shredded, rather than providing any actual protection. As such mail could be made much lighter than a breastplate with equivalent stopping power. Mail itself is heavy stuff because all the weight hands from the shoulders. If you start tacking it a rigid steel rigid breastplate it starts to get really cumbersome. You could have worn a light breastplate with heavily padded undergarments and got the same protection as mail with about the same weight, but that would just have meant that you were wearing the equivalent of rigid mail. The metal breastplate also lacks flexibility, which can be a real bitch when riding horses.

There was the segmented metal armour that the later Romans loved so much, but it is at best a compromise. The gaps between the plates made it much less effective at stopping *all *attacks than mail, meaning that you still had to wear heavily padded undergarments to get the same protection. Because it wasn’t jointed, the weight still fell mostly on the shoulders, and it still had big gaps everywhere that the plates couldn’t be fitted, such as the elbows or under the arms. Attaching mail to segmented armour was tried but wasn’t practical.

There were the boiled leather armour which produced a solid leather plate. These were much lighter than steel plates or mail, and they seem to have been effective against shortswords but you didn’t want to rely on them against axes or arrows. So mail is a much better option if you can afford it.

There were the padded armours, basically coats made of multiple layers of fabric, but since that was what was worn under mail anyway, they were obviously less effective. The biggest problem was that they got chewed up every time they got hit. After 10 minutes in a battle they were shredded and useless.

There were the rope armours, but they were really only used by people who couldn’t afford metal. While a bit tougher than padded armour, they still had to be thrown out after every fight, which suggests that in an all-day battle, you spent half the day effectively unarmoured. And of course the logistics of having to carry a complete new suit of armour for every day of a campaign makes it impractical.

There were lamellar armours, where you rivetted/sewed small pieces of rigid material to each other or to a leather jacket so they overlapped. The roman scale armour was made out of steel plates, the Japanese/Chinese lamellar armours were as often made of boiled leather, ceramic, bone or other material. While everyone agrees that mail armour must have been better, because it replaced scale in Europe, nobody is quite sure why. Mechanical tests show that goop quality scale is somewhat stronger than mail and much better at reducing impact damage. The most convincing explanation I have read is that the gaps between the plates in lamellar armours were big enough to permit arrows to go through, whereas mail will stop arrows. But lamellar armours were never superceded in East Asia, and were common in Persia and India until the gunpowder age. So the advantage of mail may not have been all that large and it may have been as much a fashion that saw mail dominate in Europe.

And finally there were the coat-of-plates type armours. Basically leather jacket with metal plates the size of playing cards or larger sewn into it. These were odd, because they have existed for millennia, and keep falling in and out of fashion. Even in the late Middle Ages, they were common armour for the nobility and worn alongside articulated plate. They obviously weren’t as effective as a full set of field plate, but they seem to have been preferred over mail at that time. That may have been an effect of better missile weapons, with the plates capable of stopping firearms, crossbows and longbows from a distance where mail wouldn’t. But the coat-of-plates was around in various forms in various places continuously for millennia. It was worn regularly alongside or over mail. It didn’t give as complete coverage as mail, which seems to have been its biggest disadvantage. But it was much less cumbersome because it could be tailored to rest on the hips and arms as well as the shoulders. It was better at stopping heavy blows, and it was cheap and easy to repair. The coat-of-plates were commonly worn with chain armour filling in the gaps, much as with early articulated plate, suggesting that the coat-of-plates was a superior armour that just couldn’t cover the whole body.

Basically, mail gave good protection combined with good good flexibility and relatively light weight. It was a good all-round armour. Once people learned how to make rigid-yet-flexible steel plates that could be beaten into complex shapes rather than cast, articulated armour proved superior. But until then mail was lighter and less encumbering than solid plates and gave much better coverage. The smaller holes between segments made it better against arrows than than lammellar armour, and the resistance of metal to cutting allowed mail to be worn over padded armour to preserve it and allow the padded armour to do its job.

Mail wan’t “one size fits all” – one thing that the mail-fabricators at conventions point out is that mail, unlike cloth T-shirts, doesn’t stretch. (You don’t put on a mail shirt like a T-shirt, either). It’s more “One Size Fits Anyone This Size or Smaller” (provided you don’t mind it’s being too big).

I suspect the advantage is that mail fits all around, without chibnks, and can be lighter than crude plate armor. The disadvantage of a mail shirt is that the weight is pretty much all borne by the wearer’s shoulders, which can get tiring after a while. Well-made plate armor distributes the load better.

As I understand it, especially with the longer mails that went to the knees, the belt used to hold the sword/axe also cinched the mail at the waist, giving a second point of support to distribute the weight somewhat better.

There is some misinformation in this thread, however, that I wish to clear up. First, maille never really went out of style - from its adoption in Rome as lorica hamata in the 1st century to the end of the era of armour in the late 16th and mid 17th century. It was used as an “under” armour for most time periods, as supplementary protection in addition to other forms of armour. As far as protection goes, the main advantage to maille armour was flexibility of coverage; it could be worn on nearly every surface of the body to provide some protection from attack without significant binding of movement.

Most plate armour, save for a handful of examples in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, used maille underneath plate, though in some cases, the mail was gussetted in to areas where flexibity was ideal, such as joints. Prior to the late 15th century, mail was worn beneath most plate, and usually over padded coats. The three worked together to create a cohesive whole - the padding to absorb shock, the maille to prevent cuts, provide flexible coverage, and to disperse force, and the plate to absorb the brunt of the damage over critical areas.

The idea that maille didn’t provide actual protection and was there to keep undergarments from getting shredded is fairly ludicrous. Maille on its own is amazingly protective, providing excellent protection from slashing/cutting attacks, moderate protection from piercing/stabbing attacks, and even a bit of protection from bludgeoning/smashing attacks. When combined with a padded undercoat of even moderate thickness, a coat of maille can turn most kinds of attacks from potentially lethal to potentially survivable, and that’s really what it was there for.

Flexibility had nothing to do with the reason why larger breastplates weren’t used in earlier periods, and certainly not because it made riding horses difficult. - if that were the case, why, at the height of the age of jousting (late 14th through early 16th centuries) were jousting suits almost entirely made of plate? Most breastplates pre-15th century were fit to cover from the collarbone area to the bottom of the ribcage, an area that does not, in general, require a whole lot of flexibility. A lot of that reads like experience gained from reading role-playing books, which have to justify “levels” of protection, as opposed to practical experience combined with historical accounts.

Rather, it was more a matter of expense and lack of suitable materials - in earlier periods, the types of metal used for breastplates tended to work wither too softly, making it too prone to damage, or too hard, making it more prone to shattering and cracking. Also, the amount of work needed to create sufficiently sized plates was cost/effort prohibitive - it required the work of a smelter to create the ore, a platner to turn the ore to sheets, and a skilled armourer (not a blacksmith) to turn those sheets into usable forms.

Maille, on the other hand, could cut out the work of a platner and could be done by a common blacksmith, whose apprentices were already being trained to draw wire from ore in order to make nails and other such things. Weaving the maille itself requires no real skill save for knowledge of how its done, so was work apprentices could do far cheaper than a master smith or armourer.

I speak from experience, having spent hundreds of hours working sheet metal into armour under the tutelage of a master armourer with thousands of hours experience, that moving plate into complex forms takes definite skill and art. I can’t tell you how many projects I have had to scrap entirely because of the difficulty in getting a piece to do what I wanted it to do. In my case, as a hobbyist, I could just throw the pieces into a scrap bin to be recycled, but in the case of a working armourer, that piece would either have to be heated and re-platened, or at the very least gone over two or three times in the hands of a master just to make it workable. Contrast that to the fact that I have taught numerous college kids, with no experience in metal working whatsover, to weave maille, a process they could sit and do quite successfully after minimal tutelage while watching television - and what they produced was pretty much indistinguishable from what a master armourer would make.

In the end, that’s where maille’s real advantage is. Cheaper and easier to produce, using techniques already trained by a more available workforce, with a moderate to high amount of flexible protection against the weapons used at the time.

Another quick point - maille was often worn with belts and garters, which help distribute the weight load more evenly across the body. A garter just above the swell of the calf, a belt at the waist with the maille overlapping it, and garters just below the bicep do an excellent job of easing the heft of a maille suit. Additionally, maille was often “pointed” to an undergarment, that is, tied with small ropes to a base undergarment to additionally help in weight dispersal.

Yes, but if you tie the mail to your shirt, aren’t you just transferring the weight to the wearer’s shoulder, only now via a different route? My understanding was that plate armor was used in part because it provided a way to get that weight off the shoulders and onto the structure of the armor itself.

Using garters and a belt would help, but the mass of the torso portion still seems to depend upon the shoulders.

A properly tailored undercoat fit pretty snug. It hugged the shape of the body, and allowed the arms and waist to bear part of the burden of things tied to it. When I made my first properly fitting jupon (padded undercoat), I could point my legs to it, which allowed the tight jupon to transfer the weight of them to my waist above my hips, rather then just hanging from my shoulders. Because of the snug fit, my shoulders remained fairly unburdened until I put on the maille and pauldrons, but again, a bit of pointing and a few garters helped a lot.

My current kit, which uses a jump harness to support the legs (kind of like suspenders) adds a LOT more weight to the shoulder region…but has the benefit of being quick to put on, and something I can do on my lonesome. Since I like the appropriate retinue to properly dress me for battle, I have to make occasional historical sacrifices. :wink: Points are awesome, and they work…there was a reason they were used in period, but they also make getting dressed at least a two man job.

And for that matter, if breastplates made it hard to ride, why would the last real armor worn in the west (before the 20th century) be breastplates on cavalry?

Cite. No, really, a cite for this, please. Japanese and Chinese lamellar scales were only ever made out of (always laquered) rawhide or (often laquered) metal AFAIK, I’d love examples of anything else. Especially ceramic!

Bump, because I really want an answer from Blake.

Now that I am not as rushed, I wanted to go through Blake’s post and point out some inconsistencies that bother me - not meant to be an attack on you, mate, but these are bits of misinformation that are both common and plague serious students of medieval armour.

This depends entirely on the breastplate. While certain later period breastplates were indeed inflexible (and meant to be, as they were meant to take the brunt of the impact of a charging lance), many breastplates where articulated so as to provide both protection and flexibility.

The Chahar-ai-ne, or “Coat of Mirrors” for example, is articulated at the sides of the plates either through leather strapping or by being pointed directly to maille.

The Churburg 13 breastplate is similarly articulated (I fight in a copy of this exact breastplate).

Not as heavy and cumbersome as you might think. I have word a suit very similar to the following for up to nine hours at a stretch, during which time I was involved in running and heavy combat. My suit, which is actually built thicker than the actual historical piece, weighs about 90 lbs, but with proper pointing, it definitely doesn’t feel that heavy. At the end of the day, I’m about as encumbered as any fat guy running around doing unusual exercise for 9 hrs might be.


Nonsense. Maille itself is actually pretty decent at dispersing force: the interweaving links allow the maille to distribute the force of a blow over a larger area, and the weight helps it to hang in a manner that is resistent to inward movement. The padding underneath definitely helped to absorb the shock of the impact, but to imply that it did all the work and that maille was there to protect it is just silly.

Again, practical experimentation has proven this to me - I have tested various forms of armour and layers of armour. A plain padded jack, frankly, HURTS to get hit in. It offers a bare minimum of protection. Maille over the same jack was surprisingly effective - there was still a bit of a sting to the blow, but the maille was very good at dispersing the power from the point of impact into a larger area. Maille on bareskin hurt - not as bad as just the padded jack, but it was painful and left a very interesting looking bruise. Plate on bareskin, not as bad, but still hurt. Plate over padding, barely any sting. Plate over padding and maille? It was like being an invincible war machine…I have taken hits from oak axe handles swung by huge opponents, and felt little more than the force of movement pushing me backwards. It kind of makes me giggle with insane glee to be so armoured… :wink:

Hahahaha! No - my plate stuff actually weighs less then my maille. Maille is heavy, but flexible. A breastplate, because it is rigid, can be made of much thinner material than the maille, which is made of thicker wire both to help with protection and to keep it from pulling apart under its own weight (though the later was only a significant problem in early maille, which was butted rather than riveted).

You’d be surprised how little your torso needs to flex on horseback. Most jousting suits are articulated to allow for the little movement needed.


Again, no. Lorica segmentata was amazingly effective at stopping blows - at least as effective as later coats of plate and brigandine armours. The limited coverage had nothing to do with not being able to cover areas and everything to do with how the Legions who wore segmentata fight - the vast part of their unarmoured body was covered by their scutum, a large, curved rectangular shield, that was used to shield themselves and the other men on their line. With that kind of protection, it made no sense to armour and add weight to areas that were “non-vital” - hence, only the head and torso were heavily armed, as precaution against what attacks might slip through. And there were, in fact, segmentata based arm defenses, like this:


The real reason lorica segmentata fell out of use was that, despite its superior level of protection to lorica hamata (maille), it was expensive to make, expensive to maintain, and could fit a smaller range of soldiers than the more flexible maille could.

While there is nothing directly wrong in this statement, it should be noted that MOST armour was unreliable against axes or arrows. Only plate provides reliable proof against arrows (yes, even bodkin pointed arrows), and there wasn’t an armour made that could reliable defend against a properly wielded axe, especially one on a pole. There’s a reason that halberds (an axe on a really long stick) were the weapon of war in the later, plate heavy periods.

Hardened leather was mostly used as munition armour for lower grade soldiers - it was better than plain padding, and since the leather was available any time an animal was slaughtered for food, it was cheaper than maille. However, it was only minimally better than padding, and used mostly as defenses in non-vital areas - as greaves covering the shin or vambraces covering the forearm. It was also sometimes used mostly ornamentally over the top of maille.

I have never heard of armour made of rope, outside of that used by more primitive tribal societies. Rope armour was never used, to my knowledge, in the same time period that maille was available. I will grant that my focus of study is mostly on what was used in pre-17th century Europe and the Middle East…so I could be wrong. I would very much like to see a cite that shows rope armour being used by any non-aboriginal, non-tribal war units.

Again, not my area of expertise, but I have only ever seen Eastern lamellar made of metal or leather, both usually laquered. I have heard apocryphal stories of bamboo. I have seen first-hand ceremonial bone suits, but they were clearly not intended for combat.

Huh? I guarantee that not everyone agrees that “mail armour must have been better” - lamellar and scale are both superiour in protection to maille - but where they are not as superior is in upkeep and universal fit. A suit of scale or lamellar basically has to be fit to the soldier - it does not flex like maille (though it does allow a good range of movement), and thus, has to be fitted and tailored to the soldier. Maille, on the other hand, can be made “off the shelf” and will fit a much wider range of users. Plus, maille is far easier to repair, and cheaper, not needing platened plates. Have you ever worn lamellar? There is no gap between the plates to allow an arrow passage - each plate overlaps in a row, each row overlaps the next row.


Where are you getting your information? Coats-of-plate were essentially smaller plates riveted and only sometimes sewn to a base garment, and were used extensively as full body defenses in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. This period is often known as the “transitional period” amongst armour historians, because it was a turning point where the production of larger plates of steel became more reliable and cheaper than at any other point prior in history. Please note that maille still considered to be a base armour and a standard used by levy fighters and militia, but during this period, the nobility (and anyone with sufficient funds to armour themselves) moved into a much heavier reliance on riveted steel plates.

This armour is an example of a suit (a reproduction, but I have seen originals of every piece represented) that is almost entirely made of said plates, save for small areas where maille would have been gusseted or worn underneath:


I think, at this point, I’ve made a pretty good argument as to why maille continued to be a standard base for armoured combat prior to the 17th century, and I hope the information I have provided helps clear up any misconceptions formed. The important thing to remember is that armour, like all technology, was both adaptive and evolving - but often, the base forms remained present as cost-efficient options for arming masses of troops. Levy fighters in plate didn’t occur until the very end of the armoured period of warfare, and even then, they often only wore plate in vital areas…whereas full suits of plate were often only worn by the nobles who could afford them.

Woeg - can you give us a brief primer on the various coat-of-plate armors? What’s the difference between lamellar, splint, brigandine et al?

(Incidentally, those have always been my favorite types of armor - effective, but not showy like plate; a proper soldier’s armor).

I own both a suit of Japanese armor and a suit of 14th century armor, Woeg is spot on.

Certainly! Please keep in mind that terminology here is fairly broad, so I am going to go with construction techniques to try and keep it more uniform.

In general, armour that was made of of small plates of steel/metal were bound together in one of the following methods:

Laced to other plates: Small plates with numerous punched holes, through which heavy leather/sinew lacing tied the plates together. This is the most common form of construction for middle eastern lamellar (usually rectangular plates about an inch to two inches wide and two to three inches tall) and for many forms of eastern armour. The plates are generally overlapped by anywhere from 1/4 to half the width of the plate, and then these rows are overlapped in a slight offstep pattern to the rows below them, with lacing tying it all together. The main advantage of lamellar is superb coverage with very reasonable flexibility; the overlapping plates are also fantastic at dispersing force across the entire suit and away from the point of intitial impact. The main disadvantage is that, once laced together, the plates can be a real pain to repair or replace without undoing entire rows. Think of it almost like a split rail fence - easy to put up when you start at the beginning, a real pain in the neck to replace a spar that breaks once its all together.

Some examples of laced/lamellar construction:



Riveted/Sewn to a backing material: This is how most scale armour and some splinted armour is put together - a steel plate is riveted or sewn to a base garment, usually made of leather or heavy cloth made of wool or linen canvas. In the case of scales, the individual plates are sewn or riveted from a single point, usually at the top of the scale, starting at the bottom edge of the garment with each row overlapping and slightly offset from the row beneath, to give the maximum amount of coverage. The advantage to scale is that it provides the same level of coverage as lamellar, but even greater flexibility. The big disadvantage is that, being attached at a singular point, these scales act much like a fish’s scales: great protection when attacks come “with the grain”, following the direction of overlap, but much weaker protection if an attack comes “against the grain”, coming up from the overlap. A good thrust at an angle coming up from the bottom of the scales could slide between the rows and through the much weaker undergarment. Scale armour mostly fell out of favour once mounted combat became de rigeur. Splinted armour is constucted in a similar manner, but usually with multiple points of attachment. While this alleviates the problem posed above by the scales, it also drastically reduces flexibility, and as such, splinted defenses are usually used on limbs and not as often on the body, though there are some exceptions (certain Charhar-ai-ne suits were splinted in construction as opposed to all leather articulation). Also, in these cases, there is often a small gap between plates.

Examples of armour attached to a base garment:



Riveted/Sewn behind/between a base garment: This is the category where coats-of-plates and brigandines mostly fall. In these cases, the plates were attached behind a garment (or between two layers), rather than on top of it, with significant overlap between the plates. This type of armour provides excellent coverage and protection, is still quite flexible, and actually less likely than the above construction method to have the same weakness for said plates - the base garment being on the outside keeps attacks from skipping across the steel and into weak points.

I would like to note here that it is this style of construction that has led to a belief in the fictional “studded leather” category of armour. I have not encountered any form of historical european armour that was mearly leather with a few metal studs on the outside - I have encountered plenty where the studs were actually rivet heads holding large plates to the back of the leather. Don’t trust D&D folks! :wink:

Within the category, there are two main forms of torso armour - the coat of plates, which is larger overlapping plates riveted to the back of a garment, and brigandines, which use the same general principle but with hundreds, sometimes thousands of smaller plates.

This is a coat of plates: http://www.aemma.org/images/wisby_coatOfPlates.jpg

This is a brigandine: http://www.armourarchive.org/patterns/brig/16thBrig.jpg

The only place I disagree with you is about being showy - one of the other advantage to this type of armour was fashion, believe it or not. Brigs and Coats of Plate could be riveted to heraldic garments, to allow a wearer to display the colors of his liege and to be more readily identifiable on the field…and looked pretty sharp as well! A proper brig, done in velvet, in heraldic colors, can be a real showy piece of armour!

Again, this is all pretty broad - if you have any questions about specific time periods, construction methods, or what have you, I’m happy to oblige!

Just to see the variation there could be in just the coat-of-plates type from one battle, this guy has recreated a range of examples from the Battle of Visby. Tell me this isn’t bling!

Another thing to note about lamellar - every historical example I’ve seen, from Byzantine to Tibetan to Chinese to Japanese, has the overlap being from the bottom (i.e. opposite to the way scales overlap), which makes sense when you consider they were often worn by horsemen (as well as footsoldiers.)