The Problem of Armour in Medieval Combat Reconstruction

Journal of Western Martial Art
December 1999

by Gregory Mele

Today a wide variety of groups practice historical swordplay, to various degrees of realism. These include "live-fantasy" boffer fighters, for whom "Medieval combat" is simply a facet of the bigger game, the martial sport of many American derived medieval "recreation" societies, the "battle pageants" many living history groups perform for the public, and the pure martial focus of organizations such as the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts or the Historical Armed Combat Association.

This article is not an attempt to compare and contrast the overall "validity" of any of these methods or groups. These issues have been addressed in a variety of places, and there's really little more to be said of it. Furthermore, the development or evolution of arms is a perpetual chicken-and-egg discussion, which is far beyond the scope of any essay. The focus of this article then is limited to one of the most complicated, and vital, technical problems in developing a martial study of Medieval combat: the use of armour in sparring.

Why Bother?

It is a fair assessment to say that the study of Medieval combat, is the study of armoured combat. Those who fought did so with weapons designed to injure flesh by defeating armour.  Those who could afford armour wore it and those who couldn't, wanted it.

Also, as one who has fought in a variety of armours,

as well as without anything more than a helmet, I can assure the reader that once mail or plate is added to the equation, the impact on technique can be profound. Certain strikes and actions simply cannot work against certain armours, and the lightly equipped combatant can quickly find the danger of closing with a steel-clad juggernaut. Likewise, the armoured combatant finds that his own movement, perception, and technique needs to adjust to the extra gear.  Plus he can find that the fine harness of the mounted knight when fighting against a lightly armoured foe who understands how to keep their distance, can often be as much of a hindrance as a help.

Medieval masters like Fiore Dei Liberi, Hans Talhoffer, and Pietro Monte distinguished between armoured and unarmoured fighting.  They included entire chapters of "harness fighting" to address exactly these issues. To the student of the Renaissance school of personal defence, armour and its effects on combat are not particularly relevant or important. But for the would-be Medievalist, to say you study the longsword, the hache (polaxe), or the sword and shield, but do not ever train in armour, is to completely misunderstand the nature of Medieval combat.  Regardless of whether your interest is in foot or mounted fighting in the Age of Mail or the Age of Plate, the factor of historically accurate armour must be considered.

A Brief Lesson in "pseudo-history"

Discussing any martial art is difficult, and often infuriatingly so when that art corresponds to almost a thousand year time period. Therefore, to try and insure that author and reader are speaking the same language, following are founding principles of the basis for my discussion.

Firstly, by "Medieval," I am speaking of the period roughly measured from the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century to the second half of the 15th century AD. By the latter 1400s, the militaristic technological and cultural innovations of the Renaissance were already well underway, and combat styles and philosophy had begun the transformation into the methods so well recorded by the 16th century masters. This does not imply a disconnection between the two schools, especially in the armours worn or the use of two-handed weapons, but it does signal the shift in focus on melee weapons, particularly the sword, from that of the battlefield, to that of "personal civilian defense."

Secondly, from an armour standpoint, the Medieval period can be further divided between the Age of Mail, and the Age of Plate. The Age of Mail begins with the lightly armoured Germanic tribes that would create new kingdoms from the old Roman Empire, and ends with the High Middle Ages of the 13th Century. This is a huge period, which begins with warbands of lightly and unarmoured men, with only a small elite core of "professional" warriors. The sword was invariably the property of a champion, a noble, or a king, and body armour was generally held only by the wealthiest of warriors. But this same "age" ends in an era where the mounted knight was clad head to toe in mail, and the professional, armoured "serjeant" and footsoldier had become commonplace figures on the battlefield. In this feudal period, the mounted knight came into his own, bringing with him specialized accoutrements, such as the lance, the heater shield, and a longer bladed slashing and stabbing sword.

The Age of Plate, begins roughly in the 14th century, with the further rise of professional infantry, be it the English longbowman, Genoese and Flemish crossbowman, or the vaunted Swiss pikeman. This century marked a pronounced "arms race" which began with the supremacy of the mail clad knight, and ended with the same figure, now clad head to toe in steel plate, struggling (often failing) to maintain his dominance on the battlefield.

Furthermore, a whole specialized subset of the armourer's craft was developed to reduce casualties in the ever more fanciful, and less martial, tournament and joust. These heavy, often ponderous harnesses never intended for battlefield have helped lead to the popular misconception that the plate armoured knight was a clunking, shambling, Medieval "Tin Woodsman."

It has been debated that, with the increased invulnerability of armour, actual weapon skill declined, particularly in use of the sword, and did not really revive until armour began to fall out of fashion in the later 16th century. It is interesting that 15th century longsword manuals often show one set of tactics when the combatants are fighting unarmoured and then show a simpler, but just as brutal set for fighting in plate armour.  The armoured style relied on greater thrusting while also usually resorting to grappling and wrestling. The student of the longsword was also advised to forego his edge all together when facing armour, for it was considered useless in such a fight.

The Problem of Reconstructing Armoured Combat

The trick, then for the would-be Medieval martial-artist, comes in trying to determine how to reflect these considerations in their own study, training, and practice. Any system, short of fighting to the death with real weapons, will be artificial, and to a certain degree arbitrary. The issue becomes determining how "realistic" you want your system to be, within the limitations of non-lethal sparring. In order to do this, a variety of questions has to be asked. Some of the most important, are:

  1. What is the purpose of your combat study? Is it purely martial exercise? Is it for public demonstration and education? Is it practical living-archaeology? Or is it just to have fun? The answer to this question will dictate which approach is and is not acceptable for you.
  2. What sort of sparring method are you using? Steel blunts? Wooden wasters? Padded weapons? Foam swords? Rattan sticks? Stage props?  Is your sparring full-contact or semi-contact?
  3. Based on #2, what concessions must be made for the sake of safety? What are acceptable risks?  What targets areas are allowed?
  4. What strata of Medieval society are you trying to reflect? This might seem a strange question to our modern mind, but it is important to remember that Medieval culture was a rigidly hierarchical one. Thus, "knightly combat" will reflect a far greater deal of armour, weaponry and martial "technique" than later pike drills. Particularly when it comes to swordplay, the average foot soldier of the Medieval period, who were primarily missile or pole-weapon troops, would not have training equal to the nobility. A similar Eastern parallel could be found comparing the methods of traditional kenjutsu with the simplified batto-do methods used to train Japan's officers in World War II.  There were also numerous versions of unarmoured or lightly-armoured sword & buckler practice studied in the Middle Ages.

If your goal is to study the entire spectrum of Medieval combat, from unarmoured levy to plate clad duke, then owning and training with a wide variety of weapons and armour will be imperative.


The systems presented below for incorporating armour use in your sparring, range from extremely simple to "realistically" complex. These four categories are essentially derived from my own experiences with a variety of swordplay groups, utilizing an equally wide variety of approaches. I have also had many conversations with members of various living-history/reenactment associations around the world, and have tried to gain an understanding of their own methods and ideals for armoured combat. In detailing the pros, cons, and overall analysis of these methods, I have tried to do some from the point of view of a serious, martial practitioner, interested in realistic weapon use and free sparring.

I. Ignore it.

Simply put, you don't use armour at all, or if you do, it is cosmetic, with combat focusing on the technique of weapon handling or the fun of play. Weapons are used either out of range, or semi-contact with limited targets, or can be fought full-out using padded weapons and perhaps a helmet, if head blows are to be included.

This method is used by some fantasy boffer groups, many living history groups, for whom armour use is often a symbolic costume prop based on the social rank the individual is portraying, and many solitary, or isolated groups, of martial practitioners.


Cost -- you can make a weapon and go play.

Endurance -- certainly, fighting unarmoured saves a great deal of energy, and allows combatants to fight longer, faster, and move more naturally.

Training -- If your goal is to achieve true martial skill with Medieval weapons, you can invest the time and money you would spend on making or buying armour on training and buying replica weapons.


Distorted Sparring Technique -- especially if some sort of full helmet is not worn, sparring can seriously suffer, as target areas are eliminated and force is reduced in the interest of safety. The latter can be offset somewhat by the use of padded contact sparring weapons, but for living history participants, the lack of armour, and use of steel blunts requires severe restrictions on target areas, weapon use, and legitimate martial technique. Furthermore, it leads to a completely distorted understanding of armours value, and the number of techniques that are simply rendered harmless by its use, such as slashes and draw cuts.


-- Even a two-pound, padded stick can do some damage if it's not used properly. A rattan, hardwood, or steel sword used injudiciously without proper protection can bring your sword fighting days to a rather gruesome end.

Overall Analysis

In short, the above approach, if used with a safe helmet and padded contact-sparring weapons, and perhaps a few pads here and there, isn't a bad way to begin the study of Medieval combat, and allows new participants to join in quickly. Furthermore, sparring can be conducted almost immediately, so that students can learn what "feels" right, without simultaneously learning to cope with the weight and restrictions of different sorts of armour.

However, used as an end in itself, this system seems to inevitably create a distorted picture of how these weapons and techniques would have been put to work on the battlefield. In particular it holds faults when facing an armoured opponent on the one hand, by over-emphasizing "light touches" and drawcuts, and under playing strikes from the shoulder (full-arm) or elbow (half-arm) in favor of striking from the wrist.   On the other hand, it also holds faults by not providing an understanding of how the wearing of armour affects movement and balance.

II. The Assumed Armour Standard

Essentially, all combatants are required to wear a certain level of protective armour, and what is a "good blow" is defined by some specific sort of requirement, usually force level. Combatants may wear as much additional armour as they see fit, but this does not affect the rules of how the combat is conducted or what legitimate blows to which targets are allowable. Depending on what the minimum armour requirements are, this allows padded, wooden, or steel weapons to be used with a far greater freedom of target and technique than is found above.

This method is essentially the one pioneered and practiced by the SCA, and many other rattan or steel combat groups.


Inclusivity -- Not all men are created equal, and some just can't carry around a whole lot of mail or plate armour. This system allows combatants to find a "base level" they can all play at, and does not directly penalize those who do not want, or cannot afford, to wear steel armour all over their bodies.

Some Diversity of Armour -- Since you are required to wear a certain minimum of armour anyway, combatants are more likely and willing to add additional pieces of gear for added protection, appearance, or authenticity.

However, this said, with no particular advantage going to steel armour, this additional armour will usually be leather or splinted construction, since most combatants will not want to trade the loss of mobility and speed for the sake of appearance.

Simplicity -- As soon as you determine what the actual rules of combat are (i.e., do we fight to land a "killing" blow or go for set number points?). The conditions of victory are simple, and easily kept track of by combatants during a fight. This is particularly useful when staging large melees.


Inclusivity -- Not all men are created equal, and some just can't carry around a whole lot of mail or plate armour. This was true in period as well, and consequently required each individual to decide how much gear he would wear in the field. To create a "base level" standard allows those who are lightly armoured to fearlessly stand toe-to-toe with an armoured tank if they choose, rather than properly moving and voiding his attacks, until that "chink in the armour" is found.

Blow Acknowledgment -- The problem with this is that if the standard is something along the lines of "what the blow would have done against "x" armour if it was "real," is nearly impossible to judge. Most combatants don't know enough about what real weapons did against real bodies, let alone against real armour, to make that determination. This leaves force as the only real measuring tool. If not monitored carefully, when using wooden or metal weapons, this can lead to a vicious circle in which blows become progressively harder the more armour is worn, until the armour fails in its actual purpose, and a real injury is caused (thereby leading to even more requirements for armour safety).

Cost -- In both time and money. Armour's darn expensive to buy, and can often require a wait of four months to a year or more to get. A lot of armour can be made on your own, but requires tools, time, and the development of some very specialized skills to be safe and half-way historical.  Otherwise, armour standards drop to the lowest common denominator of such things as aluminum, plastic, and street-hockey gear.  Thus as before, this system allows combatants to find a "base level" they can all play at, and does not directly penalize those who do not want, or cannot afford, to wear steel armour all over their bodies.

Distorted Sparring Technique -- This system does nothing to compare the affects of fighting unarmoured vs. light armour, light armour vs. heavy armour, or unarmoured vs. heavy armour. This tends to have the exact opposite affect of the first system, in which techniques such as slashes and draw cuts are never used, because the armoured opponent cannot feel the blow.  Similarly, many good thrusts are not counted because the safe simulated weapon too easily skipped off the hard armour.

Again, depending on your goal, this might not be an issue, but for the modern Medieval martial artist, it must be understood that this distorts understanding of technique and study of real combat.

Overall Analysis

This system allows for a wider variety of sparring weapons to be used, and is simple, but it is also highly artificial. Groups using this system have found that blow "calibration" can be highly subjective.  The need to constantly remind some combatants that they may be wearing plate armour, but the "armour standard" says they are wearing mail, and they should thus gauge blows differently, can be a constant problem.

However, if the group's goals are very period specific, such as "the Third Crusades", or "late Medieval knightly tournaments" or "Pas d' Armes", this isn't necessarily a bad system. The armour standard can be based on specific armour of a period, and combined with full-body-target sparring, can produce a reasonably good approximation between opponents of "equal" or "knightly" station.

Finally, for large group combats (say forty or more) a simple, universal system allows for the battle to be easily maintained, without constant questioning of which weapon type pierced whose armour class.

III. The "Hit Point" System

In this system a set number of "hits" is required to "kill" or an opponent. Different weapon types do different set numbers of hits (e.g., a single-hand sword does two hits, a battle axe does three, a spear does one, etc.).  Armour is rated by how many additional "hits" or good-contact blows are required to defeat an opponent, or rather how many strikes the armour "absorbs" before it is rendered useless.


Armour and weapon diversity: This system does encourage different sorts of armour by providing equal protection relative to the type and amount of armour worn. Likewise, different weapons will be more effective than other against certain armour types, which again, is a closer approximation to real combat.   This realism is significant as it affects the historical style of fighting each combatant personally prefers.

Inclusivity -- for the same reasons as the assumed standard. If you are quick, but not particularly strong, you can opt to fight with gear that emphasizes this, without the added disadvantage of "leveling the playing field," by making all armour equal to the "baseline."  If you are strong but not particularly fast, then the superior defense of heavy armour may serve you better.  If the weapon you choose to use is especially effective against a certain armour type, this can be simulated as well, and this is highly significant

Wider Range of Sparring Techniques: If the system uses sparring weapons that allow for virtually unarmoured opponents, as well as those in full, half, or partial kit, then a wider range of cuts, slices, slashes, thrusts, and grapples can all be used. Usually in a hit point system, however, any landed blow counts as a generic "hit", which is where the artificiality of the system emerges. Although, larger or heavier weapons, if realistically weighted, can then be considered to do be doing more damage than lighter ones (e.g., a dagger compared to a halberd).


Arbitrariness: While the idea that a man in light leather is killed by one sword blow, but another man in a steel breastplate is killed by four or five, provides some simulation of armour's protective value, it still does so in an artificial way. Simply put, in a real fight, who's to say that any of those five blows would do the job? Or that the first blow might not get lucky? What about direct thrusts to the gaps in armour?  This system is in many ways an improvement over the first two, but still addresses the issue of armour in a very mechanical, artificial way.

Complexity and Lack of Historical Context:   Many of the groups using this sort of system have developed very complex, and often unwieldy, rules to address the diversity of armour and weapons.  Having to stop and count up how many hits you or an opponent has taken on a limb or body part is a huge distraction in the quick chaos of realistic group sparring.  It is too easy to lose track of "wounds" and forget someone is still viable for fighting back. Also, who's to say that a two-handed sword is more or less capable of killing someone than a poleaxe? Has anyone taken the field in a real battle, to provide first hand evidence?

The use of test cutting and working with real, sharp weapons can help develop a more realistic system, however, not many people are willing to take a $250 - $2000 sword and start beating on a steel helmet in the name of "science." Even then, is that to prove each and every fighter could then objectively do that with each and every blow?  So, what tends to happen then is that the system is based on what seems "reasonable" to the participants, growing and changing with the group, until a system requiring color-coded weapons and hit point charts emerge, making the whole thing resemble a table-top role-playing game more than a historical martial art.

Cost -- as in the "Assumed Armour" standard above.

This system is used by the more combat-oriented fantasy ("boffer") groups, such as Dagorhir, Amtgard, IFGS, Darkon, etc. and in a far more historically refined manner, and also among some committed historical fencing groups.

Overall Analysis

As a sparring system, the "hit point" system can be quite versatile, if it is combined with realistic wound rules, and the proponents of the system use scholarly and hands-on (ie: test cutting) research to devise a point system that allows for a variety of weapons and armour, without requiring a scoreboard.

The Blow Negation System

In light of considering the above pros and cons, the following system is my own attempt to devise a way of "rating" arms that would allow for a wide degree of armour, weapons, and techniques, without cumbersome point systems. To do this, I have essentially taken the more realistic version of the "Hit Point" system as provided on the HACA page, and refined it a step further. Rather than assigning a lot of different "points" to armour or weapons, I have chosen instead to make heavier armour progressively more resistant to those sorts of attack it protected best against in history.


Armour and weapon diversity: This system, like the standard "Hit Point" system, encourages the widest diversity of arms and armour by providing protection directly influenced by the type and amount of armour worn, and the weapons used. The advantage over the hit point system in this instance is that it focuses on how armour protects, rather than just using a running tally of "points."

Inclusivity -- again, you can opt to fight with a full variety of weapons and armour (particularly when using padded sparring weapons) without the added disadvantage of "leveling the playing field," by making all armour equal to some sort of imaginary "standard."

Widest Range of Sparring Techniques<: Again, if you are using weapons that allow for virtually unarmoured opponents, as well as those in full kit, then the full range of cuts, slices, slashes, thrusts, and grapples can be used. Furthermore, when wearing heavy armour (mail and plate), combatants can work with steel blunts in a manner that is more reflective of the reality of late Medieval combat, using solid blows where the heavy armour is worn, and working on making light, semi-contact blows to the "gaps," in order to score the one or two "points" necessary to defeat their opponent.


Arbitrariness: Well, face it, any sparring system just isn't real. As I said before, that first blow might not get lucky. Assumptions are still being made as to what really happens in a fight, but the advantage over the above systems is that it tries to do so in a manner that is less mechanical and more intuitive.

Complexity: I actually think this system is less complex than some of the Hit Point systems I've seen. However, if a principle focus of your sparring is group combat, then keeping track of who hit whom, where, and with what, can become a nightmare. To be really useful in any sort of large group combat, the system would probably need to be simplified.

Finding the "Perfect" System

The system I have proposed is not necessarily "the best system" or the most "realistic." Additionally, it is one intended specifically for earnest martial sparring, not reenactment displays or fantasy games.   As I have tried to stress over and over in this essay, such ideas are really relative to your objectives. In this case, I was interested in a system that I thought fit with the HACA approach of focusing on interpreting and applying the martial skills of actual historical methods as Western fighting arts. Therefore, I tried to develop a system that would match this idea, and work with a variety of sparring and training methods.   In the process of developing this system, I made a list of suppositions of what a "martial" sparring system should include. I present them here, as food for thought for the reader's own research and recreation.

What should an armoured combat sparring system do?

  1. Provide for a diversity of weapons and armour to be used by combatants.
  2. Be realistic enough not to provide unrealistic benefits to certain weapon styles, yet simple enough to be easily remembered and used in the heat of battle.
  3. Only acknowledge armour made of real, period materials, as being "armour", so that its use requires fighters to make realistic decisions of mobility vs. weight, and endure it's stress.
  4. Be able to have the basic premises of its system stand up to the scrutiny of scholarly research, and practical archaeology, and then flexibly adapt to new findings.
  5. Deviate from the historical model only in the interests of safety (such as bar grills on open-faced helmets), and to only use pieces of a-historical armour (padding) as safety-gear, rather than to provide additional, unrealistic benefits.

Of course, having a system of armoured sparring is one thing, implementing it is the challenge. This challenge is one students of Western swordplay should take up.

Journal of Western Martial Art

Greg Mele is a member of the Chicago Swordplay Guild and is the director of Swordplay Symposium International, an association of scholars, swordsmen, smiths, and researchers dedicated to actively promoting the serious study and redevelopment of all forms of Historical Swordsmanship.