Imperial Austria: Treasures of Art, Arms and Armor from the State of Styria

Why was Armor Made?

    Half armor for a hussar; made in Nuremburg, 1590-1600; Joanneum Graz, Landeszeughaus. Photo: Lynn Diane DeMarco
    This armor comprises cuirass, mail shirt and helmet. Hussars entered imperial service during the 16th century and served as light cavalry. They were ideally suited for the hit-and-run conflicts against the Ottoman Turks, and were equipped very much like their Turkish opponents.
The era of plate armor lasted 300 years, from about 1340 to 1650. This period covers the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For over 2000 years soldiers had been wearing garments of iron mail, with added protection for certain parts of the body. Why the change to armor of solid plate?

It was because protective armor had to keep pace with the evolution of weapons of attack. Combat was the defining feature of the noble class of medieval Europe. When nations themselves were not at war, lords were often fighting among themselves, or they were practising the martial arts through jousts and tourneys.

When maces, capable of crushing bones, began to come into use and when, around 1340, arrows shot from powerful longbows proved able to pierce coats of mail, it became necessary to develop better protection. So metal plates were designed to fit over the most vulnerable parts of the body: shoulders, elbows, knees, etc. By the beginning of the 15th century the process of encasement in armor was complete. The art of the armourer reached its pinnacle in the middle of that century, and the century that followed saw increasing elaboration of decorative armor.

    Sporting crossbow with winder and bolt; probably made in Austria, 1550-1600; Joanneum Graz, Abteilung für Kunstgewerbe. Photo: Matthias Wimler
    The crossbow remained popular for target shooting and hunting long after firearms made it obsolete for war. As a sporting weapon it was clean, quiet, and fired reusable projectiles.

Another factor in the development of plate armor was the rapid development of firearms. The first cannon fired in Europe was in Italy in 1330, at the same time that plate armor began to appear. Portable firearms appeared in armories in the 16th century. They gradually superseded bows, swords and pikes (long lances some 12 feet in length) as infantry weapons. By mid-century even the modern cavalryman carried two or three pistols and an harquebus; cavalry now combined speed and firepower. However, cavalry no longer dominated battles as medieval knights had done - the infantry had recaptured the dominant role.

    Matchlock musket made in Suhl-Henneberg, Thuringia, 1600-1620; and bandoleer probably made in Styria, 17th century; Joanneum Graz, Landeszeughaus. Photo: Richard Margolis
    Although spark-producing ignitions such as the wheel-lock and early flintlocks were much safer, the cheaper and reliable matchlock remained the most common form of gunlock on European infantry longarms until the end of the 17th century. To speed loading, musketeers carried premeasured charges in weatherproof containers suspended from a crossbelt called a bandoleer.

Plate armor proved itself strong enough to protect the life of the wearer. Made from solid metal, it could resist blows from the new weaponry. But the same characteristic made the material difficult to work - a newly-made suit of armor which had successfully undergone proofs of strength would receive a stamp indicating its quality and was more expensive than unproven armor.

It was important that plate armor not obstruct the movements of the wearer. Plate armor was therefore designed as an ensemble of pieces - numbering as many as 200! - attached to the padded body of the soldier. The parts were all articulated to allow movement, much like the tail of a lobster. Armorers needed a knowledge of human anatomy to design armor that would move smoothly with the movements of the body.

The parts of the warrior's body most at risk to life-threatening injury were those the most heavily protected: head, chest, and shoulders. Next highest priority was given to body parts active during combat: arms, hands, elbows, knees and legs. Finally, feet were given protection. The amount of protection each soldier had depended on what he could afford and his military rank.

    Pikeman from Waffenhandlung von den Roren, Musquetten undt Spiessen, by Jacob de Gheyn, 1607; Joanneum Graz, Landeszeughaus. Photo: Richard Margolis

The king wore full armor, artistically decorated; he probably owned several suits for different types of occasions. The aristocratic cavalryman, such as officers, was typically well-protected by a complete, or almost complete, suit of armor. The foot-soldier would be issued with half armor, protecting only his chest and head; and these items were mass-produced, not custom-designed for each soldier. The least enviable role in a battle was the part of these soldiers.

Full body armor was, however, doomed to extinction. The reason: firearms. At first these lacked power and portability. It took a century before their projectiles were able to penetrate plate armor. To make the plate thicker offered no solution, since this just made cavalrymen heavier and therefore slower and less mobile.

Related resources:

Armour Construction

The Apprentice Armorer's Illustrated Handbook for Making Mail

The Legacy of the Horse: 600-1630, The Middle Ages -- Emergence of Light Cavalry

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Date created: November 16, 1995Last updated: July 13, 2001