What do you get when you interlock a series of metal rings together in a pattern? If you said “chainmail armor”, then you win the prize! Known as one of the earliest types of protection, it would be fair to say that chainmail armor has had quite a successful run and is, in fact, still used today.
The longevity of chainmail armor comes from its effective prowess, both on and off the battlefield. One of its major appeals was the flexibility it gave the wearer. It was light and allowed for ease of movement, which was of the utmost importance when engaging in battle. It also proved to have a great deal of resistance against piercing and thrusting weapons, as well as cutting blows from edged weapons. In addition, chainmail armor was cost effective and accessible for almost anyone to make.
The earliest impression of chainmail armor dates back to almost 3,000 years ago where it surfaced in Etruscan civilization. However, this pre-dates other forms of chainmail by 2,000 years and thus, it was most likely not the inspiration for European chainmail.
Flash forward to the 2nd century BC where the Gauls were the first to be spotted wearing European chainmail armor. The Romans saw this and said, “Hey! That’s cool!” and jumped on the bandwagon. This manifested its self in a chainmail shirt called the Lorica Hamata that was unique with its technique of using solid punched out rings versus the more common approach of drawn-wire links. This type of chainmail remained steady through the fall of the Roman Empire into the Dark Ages.
The Middle Ages brought about the next innovation in chainmail armor with its process of crafting wire from steel. After the wire was formed, it would be shaped into small interlocked rings. An overlapping ring pattern, consisting of many flat rings, was also characteristic of this period. When it came to the actual assembly of the rings, it was far from simple. As most chainmail armor shirts were comprised of roughly 40,000 rings, whoever did this job had their work cut out for them.
As the Middle Ages came to a close, chainmail armor was confronted by the threat of replacement due to the emergence of plate armor. For some time, these two armor types worked in conjunction with one another with plate armor making up the main configuration and chainmail being used to protect the joints. As time went on, plate armor became all-encompassing and by the end of the 16th century, chainmail armor had graciously made its exit.
Attempts for a chainmail comeback surfaced from time to time. One of them was in the late 19th and 20th centuries where chainmail was used to construct bulletproof vests. Another was during World War I where chainmail fringes were added to helmets for facial protection. Both of these implementations didn’t have a lasting presence. However, chainmail proves to be alive and well today and can be found in gloves for butchers and woodcarvers, suits for scuba divers and animal control officers, electrical and industrial environments, and jewelry and decorations.