Experiments in arms and armour

Open to public view.

Experiments in arms and armour

Postby UncleDicky » 07 Oct 2016 09:32

I first became aware of Matt's organisation when I started to study the treatises, however, I quickly became interested in the videos of how the historical weapons were actually used.

There is absolutely no substitute for handling the weapons and wearing contemporary harness for understanding how combat happened and the various ways to incapacitate or kill an armoured foe.

One of the reasons I started to study this was because I am planning a series of historical novels based across the ages and I have got very fed up with the formulaic 'action' sequences you read in many historical novels. One of the most guilty, especially on medieval combat is a very famous novelist who sometimes writes about a rifle officer.

In his earlier dark-age books, his description of the shield wall was pretty well researched, I wish I could say the same about his 1300 and 1400 books. The phrase 'his helmet crumpled like paper' when referring to a French knight's bascinet got me thinking. You see I own several helmets, including a Sallet and a bascinet and whilst the sallet is lighter but trades manoeuvrability for safety the bascinet is a different matter altogether. I examine my one and look at the 2mm thick carbon steel (14 gauge ) and realise that such a helmet would certainly not 'crumple like paper' even if it were smacked with a heavy lead mallet. You'd certainly concuss the recipient and possibly break his neck but there's a reason why the modern full contact tournament brigade wear bascinets even when historically inaccurate for the rest of their armour - simply put they offer a level of protection and safety on a different level to other helmets.

But what about the great helm???
Well, by the 1300s the great helm had pretty much been superseded by the visored bascinet. The great helm was worn over an open faced bascinet when charging an opponent. Once lances had been used and cast aside and the horseback melee started the Great helm would be removed and often swung from a chain attached to the knight or to the saddle of his horse. He would then fight hand to hand in an open faced bascinet with a mail aventail attached. Should a further charge be required, he would recover his coal scuttle and put it on top of the bascinet once again. Such levels of protection - padded arming cap - mail aventail or coif, bascinet, great helm demonstrate the violence of the heavy knight charge.

As I am about to embark on writing these books, I have taken a leaf out of Anthony Riches's book. Riches writes sword - and - handle stuff set in the reign of Calgalus and his excellent (and very violent) series follows the fortunes of the Tungarian auxiliary cohort that was based at Houseteads fort on Hadrian's Wall at the time. In order to research the books, Riches walked the length of the wall wearing a period Centurion's equipment. a week or so of rain, heavy wool tunic, heavy, heavy mail, a heavy helmet, shield and the thin leather belt is enough to bring home the experience.

As my books are set during the Wars of the Roses in the same part of the world (and before you get excited they are aimed at young adult yoofs) I decided that the only way to write convincingly was to dress, as a reasonably fit modern man, in period harness and wield the period weapons.

The respect I now give to those who wore this kit for real is palpable. OK I am in my mid 40s and like most modern Britons spend too much time loafing and sitting at a desk, even my levels of fitness are way off those required to carry the weight of a man-at-arms harness (although a close fitting plate suit of custom armour would be a lot lighter than the cobbled together gambeson, mail, plate suit worn by most of the armoured men)
Without a doubt the most uncomfortable and heaviest item is the mail - plate worn over the gambeson is heavy but not crushingly so - mail is different - possibly because it sits on your shoulders and even if you use a belt to distribute the weight you can feel your spine compressing. Moving quickly is possible but only for short - very short distances - a brisk walk is what possibly equated to a 'charge' of armoured footmen at the time. When you consider the distance those French knights 'ran' to engage the English at Agincourt you cannot doubt their courage or their fitness.

I have a longsword (although it isn't a battlefield type), a pole axe, a rondel and a war hammer.
Now the war hammer was a horseman's weapon - the main arm, as many of you know would be the pole axe, the longsword being for back up and the rondel being possibly the nastiest of the lot in terms of a killer.

My poleaxe is just under 7 foot long from base to spike. The axe is remarkably small, it's other side is a narrow hammer, out of the top a 7" spike points. The haft is square in profile to avoid the axe or hammer from twisting in your gauntlet grasp. At the other end is a ground spike that doubles as another killer. When wearing armour it becomes very obvious quite quickly that it is highly unlikely that your plate will be punctured by a weapon. With good quality plate, a war hammer spike would have to hit at 90 degrees with some considerable force behind it to have a chance of penetrating and more often than not, this wouldn't happen due to angles and fluting on the armour - the reason why basinets are pointed at the back is to deflect blows to the head. The axe blade appears pretty useless against armoured foes unless used against an ankle, hand, or joint, but remember you'd also be fighting lightly armoured enemies/horses etc and where it does work is in hooking and pulling a leg - I would suggest that tripping an armoured opponent would have been a very effective tactic. Once on your arse in the mud, in 50 odd kilos of steel and heavy cloth - getting back on your feet is going to be a real struggle, never mind the lack of flexibility parts of you have in plate. This is where the spike would come in very useful - aimed at the groin, armpit or under the helmet, the spike is square in profile and is designed to pop the rivet of a mail ring. its sharp enough to punch through the linen gambeson. At 7" long its more than long enough to get through the armour and get 3" into someone's abdomen - more than enough to cause a wound that would incapacitate.
The thin hammer looks remarkably ineffective but it's not designed to crush a helmet, the whole axe only weighs in at a couple of kilos. It's there to cause damage to the joints of the armour, a strong blow to the elbow, knee or shoulder can cause the plate to become a danger to the occupant by driving in an edge, blocking movement or breaking a bone.

The longsword -
much nonsense is talked about medieval european swords and how they are inferior weapons - much of this is based on ill-informed and poorly staged popular video 'experiments'. I prefer to rely on Matt and other expert's opinions on this. Studying the highly tapered blade of a battlefield sword, here is another device designed for piercing mail. The major advantage a sword has on the battlefield is its speed. There's been plenty of speculation over the years as to the sword becoming obsolete when plate emerged - this is imho - simply nonsense and is written by those who have never handled a longsword before. However, look at the historical record, the late medieval battle of Bosworth and the later Flodden, both King Richard III and King James IV were known to have wielded swords. The post mortem examination of skeletons of those known to have been killed in battle at the time shows wounds that would have been caused by a very sharp blade - whilst you could get an axe or a bill to sharp - those of us who own modern sharp swords know that you'll never get them as sharp as a sword because the steel isn't as good quality - this would have been even more the case 500 years ago.
Half swording is definitely the way to go if you find yourself poleaxe less. and again - it's under the helmet, in the groin, the back of the legs, the armpits and down the gauntlets that you aim. All you need to do to put someone out of the battle is to cause a wound that is sufficiently painful or bleeds a lot - whether they die then or suffocate in the mud doesn't matter - this is why the miseriecord (mercy giver) became known - to have a weapon specifically designed for putting people out of their misery indicates to me, that there would have been a lot of gravely wounded armoured men lying around.
My Rondel dagger is similar to a miseriecord in as much as it is a 10" three sided spike with a very pointy end and a ruddy great disc on the hilt. It's the ultimate armoured man killer and you can see how devastating this would be when applied with force to a mail clad area of the body. Handling one of these, I would guess that this type of weapon may have been the big killer on a battlefield of the period. The sword and axe used to trip and wound, but the killer was the rondel dagger, for control, application of mail penetration, there's little to rival it. Obviously you would have to get in close so I suspect it would be used to finish off those already down or as a weapon of last resort.

Hammer -
I've used this a few times to see how easy it is to penetrate plate. With the right blow you can dent a sallet, but a bascinet is more difficult to harm - you certainly wouldn't 'crumple it like paper'. Many fiction writers drastically overestimate the weight of contemporary weapons. Hand a hammer or a longsword to someone who has never held one before and their first comment is on how light it is and how quick. I blame Robert Howard and Conan for this!

I continue my research and have just ordered a brigandine which I suspect will be a lot easier to wear than the mail/plate combo - especially for a foot soldier!
Recruit in training
Posts: 8
Joined: 06 Jul 2016 09:48

Re: Experiments in arms and armour

Postby Dan Howard » 08 Nov 2016 05:00

A lot of the confusion regarding weapons terminology can be cleared up when it is discovered that we use some words differently today. A medieval hammer was a spike - what we would call a "pick" today. What we call a hammer today was called a poll at the time. The type of shaft is irrelevant - "poll" and "pole" are completely unrelated words. The etymology of poll can be traced back to a word that means "head" (hence the words "poll tax" and "election poll"). Sledge-like hammers were called "mauls". The word "mallet" literally means "little maul".

This is a good photo.


The weapon on the right is a warhammer. The pick-like spike was called a "hammer" while the flat bludgeoning part on the back was called a "poll". This weapon was also called a "pollhammer". Most hammers had much shorter spikes. The weapon on the left was called a "pollaxe" - an axe with a poll on the back. Most weapons that are called pollaxes today should really be classed as halberds. If it doesn't have a poll then it can't be called a pollaxe.

This shorter pollaxe was sometimes used in abattoirs. The animal was stunned by a blow on the forehead before being slaughtered.


The modern verb "pollaxed" refers to someone who gets hit and falls just like an animal that has been stunned with a pollaxe.
User avatar
Dan Howard
2nd Lieutenant
Posts: 387
Joined: 25 May 2010 00:53
Location: Maitland, Australia

Re: Experiments in arms and armour

Postby Thearos » 29 Nov 2016 01:11

I thoroughly dislike the battle scenes written by the man who writes about the Rifle Officer
Posts: 1311
Joined: 30 Apr 2011 10:16

Return to Arms & Armour, History, Militaria, Archaeology, Art

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 3 guests