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4

Chainmail myths and the foibles of “historical testing”,

Chainmail armor is perhaps the most misunderstood type of armor in history, often viewed by people who don’t know much about ancient or medieval weapons as a low quality lesser form of armor. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, and the reputation of chainmail has suffered as a result. Typically when one thinks of chainmail one thinks of Europe and the Middle Ages. In fact, chainmail has been used all over the world by many cultures and dates to ancient times, including civilizations such as the Ancient Celts (who possibly invented mail), Ancient Rome,Medieval Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan.  Chainmail was even used by warriors in remote areas well into the 19th and early 20th century. Today chainmail is still in use, used by butchers and meatpackers to protect from accidental cuts, used in stab resistant vests employed by law enforcement, and even used by divers to protect against shark bites.

There are many reasons why chainmail is looked down upon by modern peoples uneducated on the effectiveness of ancient or medieval armor.  Contributors include movies and video games.  One common source which I feel contributes the most to the chainmail myth is modern “historical testing” of chainmail armor, often on TV shows such as on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, or the many Youtube videos on the subject.  Typically what occurs in this testing is that a so called historian or expert will test a piece of replica chainmail against replica weapons.  To the amazement of the viewer, the mail is sliced to smithereens with a sword, skewered like a kabob with spears, and pierced to death with arrows.  To the uneducated viewer, it would seem that chainmail was a completely useless type of armor, and even the most reputable of sources makes similar claims, that chainmail was deficient and was not effective for protection.  I can think of no better example than this clip from a History Channel show, the testing of which begins around 2:50.


There is a problem with the idea that chainmail was ineffective, and even basic reasoning and logic should expose that problem.  After all, if chainmail was so ineffective, why did anyone bother to wear it into combat? Why did knights, nobles, and soldiers spend fortunes on chainmail when it was almost useless?  Why would cultures across the world spanning thousands of years bother using it if it didn’t do its job of offering bodily protection?

The truth of the matter is that in reality, chainmail was exceedingly effective for its purpose, and in the cultures that it was used, in the time periods it was used, it was often among the best if not the very best option available. A warrior who went into battle wearing mail had a much greater advantage over opponents with lesser armor or no armor at all. So why do these “historical tests” often show it as being ineffective? First, it must be known that there are two basic types of historical chainmail, butted and riveted. There is a third type, welded mail, but this is mostly a modern creation that wasn’t used in history. Butted chainmail is a constructed out of wire bent into rings with the ends touching. The wire ends are abutting hence the name “butted” mail. There’s nothing fastening the two ends together, thus butted mail tends to be very weak and easy to damage.

The other common type is riveted chainmail. Riveted mail consists of metal rings that are fastened together with a metal pin or rivet.  As a result, riveted mail is much stronger than butted mail, in fact it’s typically 10 to 15 times stronger. Generally speaking riveted mail also tends to have a denser weave using better quality materials.

Butted chainmail really only has one purpose; as costume armor.  It is not meant to be used as real protective armor, and there are only a few examples throughout history of butted mail being used in combat.  Soldiers, knights, and warriors throughout history almost always used riveted mail due to its strength.  I cannot stress this point enough, butted mail is not real armor.  It is cheap costume armor produced for collecting, LARPing, cosplay, trick or treating, or perhaps ceremonial purposes.  It is not made to protect someone in combat. I should also note that in combat a suit of mail was typically not worn alone, but often worn with a padded jacket such as a gambeson. This not only added extra protection, but prevented chaffing and discomfort.

So in historical tests performed on TV or Youtube, what type of armor is most typically used? Well, whether its ignorance or because the producer bought a cheap piece of armor in order to save a few bucks, more likely than not butted mail will be used.  Thus why such experiments often have terrible results.

Unfortunately there are few tests using actual chainmail armor with riveted links.  However those few that do exist have a totally different story to tell and show just how effective chainmail really is.

In this video a person actually wears a suit of riveted mail while his friend stabs him with a knife.

I would suggest checking out some youtube channels such as skallagrim, the metatron, scholagladiatora, ThegnThrand, knyghterrynt, and shadiversity.  They do a good job dispelling the many myths about ancient and medieval weapons and armor, as well as giving loads of quality historical information.

It was witches who developed an extensive understanding of bones and muscles, herbs and drugs, while physicians were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold. So great was the witches’ knowledge that in 1527, Paracelsus, considered the ‘father of modern medicine,’ burned his text on pharmaceuticals, confessing that he 'had learned from the Sorceress all he knew.’
—  Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses - A History of Women Healers (1973)