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Combat in Fantasy – Part Two: Top Ten Tips for Wearing Armour

Armour. Often the subject of heavily debated book covers. Rule of thumb? The heavier it is, the more protection it offers, but the more it slows you down. You need to pick kit that suits a character’s personality and physical strength – hey, even the movies get that much right.

My top ten tips, below.

1. Whatever you’ve been told, helmets don’t have horns.

Viking by thomaswieveggWhy? Well, the moment you try your best swing-your-longaxe-round-your-head manoeuvre, you’re going to catch your forearm, drop your weapon, look like a twonk, and wind up with something cold and unwelcome in your gizzard. Take the pointy bits off, they’re heavy and they’re in the way.

2. It might look good, but a full set of steel plate, with padding, weighs about four stone.

Not only that, but it’s downright uncomfortable, and you can’t sleep in it, scratch in it, or pee in it (well, you can, but it’s not advisable). Sitting down in it is fine – until you try to get up again, and running in it requires the lungs and muscles of a horse. It also comes with a whopping great jumble of buckles, ties and straps, meaning you can’t get it on or off in a hurry, or without help. Plus, there’s all the cleaning. If you’re in plate, best get yourself a squire*.

*Also useful for throwing in the way of jabby spear points that are trying for the armour’s joints. Because, trust me, they do love to go for the weak spots.

3. Don’t be fooled, chainmail is heavier than it looks.

A The Exile's Return by Charles Keegangood belt will take some of the weight off your shoulders, but you run around in that stuff for a couple of hours, and you’ll either be very fit, or in need of an apothecary. It’s also stinky, noisy and it rusts easily. If you haven’t got as far as a squire (or you’ve run out), then the best way to clean it is to put it in a cement mixer with a bag of sand…but feel free to give that one some creative interpretation.

4. Leather armour comes in various forms.

If we leave aside the studded glory of Uber, the Long-Haired Master of Rock, then it can vary from hardened, boiled and carved leather, (good defence but kind of clunky), all the way to something lighter and softer, ideal for your stealth-types. Do wear something underneath it, though, as soft leather sticks to your skin when it gets wet. And when I say sticks, I mean you’ll need to take it off with a knife.

5. The arms race is alive and well – and has been for over a thousand years.

Point Blank by MarkBulahaoSlashing weapons will cut through leather. Pointed weapons will stick through mail. Crushing weapons will turn your shiny Palandic breastplate into a piece of 3D art, and your spleen along with it. Whatever you wear, it’s the layers underneath it that really count – your padding doesn’t just stop the chafing, it spreads the impact of a blow and ensures your ribs stay where they should be.

6. Don’t just think Western.

Very briefly: cross-layered silk and bamboo are both incredibly strong in relation to their mass, and much better suited to warm/humid climates that wearing lots of metal (clever stuff). Scaled armour or lamellar was used in both East and West and defends more like plate, but with the movement and weight of chain. I’m sure you can think of others – feel free to leave them in the comments!

7. Shields.

King Arthur by Michael KomarckGet one.

(Unless you’re the ambidextrous smartarse, then go find the biggest one and befriend the person carrying it. After all, there’s no harm in insurance).

8. Never trust an archer.

Whatever the movies tell you, arrow-tips smeared in wax stick as they hit – and one hundred and fifty pounds of incoming pressure will go through your armour like a red-hot monoblade. (And, just for that finishing touch, there was probably a dead rat in the bottom of the quiver). Multiply said archer by two hundred of his/her mates, each one shooting twenty shafts a minute, and, unless you’re a Spartan, you really need to be somewhere else.

9. Just in case it’s a thing…

A strong woman can fight in heavy armour. A strong man can fight in heavy armour. A strong horse can fight in heavy armour. Train lots, it helps.

10. The (deep breath) chainmail bikini.

Mythic Heroes by DenmanRookeAlong with its masculine equivalent, the ‘Conan’; beloved of movie posters, gaming campaigns and cheesy book covers everywhere.

Good for – consenting adults. Bad for – battlefields everywhere. Though (unless you’re the horse) you may gain unlooked-for benefits in both maneuverability and shock value.

Seriously, let’s retire these, shall we? They can quite happily remain at private parties, where enemy soldiers, orcs, goblins, fang-toothed monsters, evil necromancers, and/or the forces of chaos are unlikely to rampage. Unless, of course, they were on the invite list.

You can check out Danie Ware’s latest novel, Ecko Burning, second book in her Ecko series, here (for US) and here (for UK). You can also check out her website to find out more about the series or follow her on Twitter.

Title image by Ilacha.



  1. Avatar Caleb Ross says:

    Very informative and amusing article – squires are some of the best cannon fodder you can think of – and I’m going to be using this as a reference for the start of a lot of my research into proper medieval combat.

    Also, I didn’t actually know that plate weighed that much. With it’s prominence in fantasy, I thought it was a lot more effective than it turns out to be.

  2. Avatar Moisés says:

    Plate armour, I agree, was not something to wear often. But it evolved through the ages, one of the latter periods being the Maximillian, which made them way lighter yet stronger. Also, articulations had improved a lot in time, so while I can understand the point of the mention (most stick to the ‘thick’ kind of plate in fantasy) it needn’t be as it says there.

    Though I agree asian armour (specially the Japanese) was another level. I suppose the ‘best’ armour would be from some material that had the characteristics of bamboo: resistant and relatively light. Which is why many authors focus on the creation of such materials, one famous example, mithril in LOTR. But in the realistic level, few materials are so ideal.

  3. Avatar Alexander Ballard says:

    4 stone sounds like a lot of weight to carry but the average US soldier on patrol carries double that with gear, weapons, and body armor.

  4. Avatar J.T. Buckley says:

    Plate armor, though bulky and heavy, was designed to fight in. Many people confuse the Plate that was designed to with stand a bullet with common combat plate. They were very different. Also Tourney Plate, which is what most examples are of that people still have, was also extremely heavy. It usually took a winch and several strong lads to lift them. But field combat plate was designed to protect the wearer, and be maneuverable. To be accurate chain armor was probably more bulky that a suit of well made plate. Plate armor was also made custom for the wearer therefore was a bit more maneuverable.

    Now a bit about medieval archers. First until they English started conscripting the Welch bowmen, archers were nothing to worry about. They were untrained people who didn’t have a sword so they were handed a bow instead. Most archers were undisciplined and ran at the first sight of trouble. Once the Welch bowmen can along it became a different issue all together. Now this is only pertinent if you are writing historical fiction. Fantasy can allow for as well trained archers as they like.

  5. Another point that’s something of a bugbear of mine – you wear a well-designed* helmet in battle, if you want to leave it in a vertical posture, and you DO NOT take it off in the thick of the fighting so everyone can admire your good looks and immaculate hair.

    *includes protection for the nose and cheeks.

  6. Shields. Get one and learn how to use it – as a weapon as well as a defence. Otherwise it’ll be more of a threat to you than to the enemy.

    Newbies in my books with a mouthful of blood or black eyes after smacking themselves in the face with a shield rim in any number of ways? Totally based on reality…

  7. Avatar Scrove says:

    When dealing with Plate armor, this will help, then watch the original video in the details if you want even more information on actual armor.

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