Tag Archives: medieval weaponry

Plate Mail: D&D Myth? – Medieval Weaponry and Accoutrements

Mixed cuir bouilli plate and lamellar

Mixed cuir bouilli plate and lamellar

If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons, you are familiar with plate mail. If not, all you really need to know is that it is basically the best armour you can buy, short of magically enhanced protection. Well, at least, it used to be. Then at some point they introduced ‘full plate mail’.

But wait! Plate. Mail. Is it plate, or is it mail? How can it be both?

If you poke around the internet a bit, you’ll come across the general notion that plate mail is a total D&D fabrication and historically inaccurate. I’ve even seen forum debates on this topic. You had plate armour, which was what we all have in our heads when we think of knights in shining armour, and you had mail, which tended to comprise of interlocking rings of iron, or similar.

Nothing really springs to mind in connection with plate mail (although D&Ders might find themselves assigning this language to plate armour, by default). The Baldur’s Gate wiki tells me this:

Plate mail is a combination of chain armor with metal plates covering the vital areas such as the chest, abdomen and groin. Similar in construction to bronze plate mail, true plate mail comprises chain and leather.”

Full plate mail is the best armor a warrior can buy, both in appearance and protection. The perfect fitted interlocking plates are specially angled to deflect arrows and blows and the entire suit is carefully adorned with rich engravings and embossed details.”

Well. We have two kinds of armour, both of which use the word ‘mail’, and only one of which is described as actually including mail…

I’m going to say that ‘full plate mail’ was actually just full plate, which was worn over mail, but of which the full plate was not, in any sense of the word, a type of mail.

As for ‘plate mail’… It turns out that there actually was a kind of armour for which ‘plate mail’ is a fairly accurate description, and the Baldur’s Gate wiki description is pretty darn good.

Basically it works like this. Armour is layered. Mail is one of those layers (with a few layers underneath). If you were wealthy, full plate was your top layer. But what about the poor sods who weren’t so wealthy? You know, the common soldiers.



Turns out there were other kinds of plate besides full plate, including a lot of stuff made out of ‘cuir bouilli’ – or boiled leather. It was almost as hard as iron. You had brigandines, which was leather lined with cuir bouilli or iron plate. You had lamellar, which was a kind of scaled armour – basically cuir bouilli or iron scales attached to a coat. You also had articulated cuir bouilli plate – think full plate, but made out of boiled leather. You might dismiss this as ‘leather armour’ (the poorest form of armour in D&D) but it was really hard. Really hard. You also had odds and ends of iron plate used in conjunction with all this other stuff – basically pieces of iron plate that did not amount to a full suit.

So what do you have if you throw a brigandine or lamellar over mail and toss in some articulated cuir bouilli or iron plate? Well, layers, obviously. More layers than you had before. But you also have a pretty good mix of mail and plate, which at the same time is not full plate. Or as the wiki says, a combination of chain armour with plate protecting the vital areas…

Most the research in this post was done for my upcoming novel In the Company of the Dead and drew from a post by Joseph Malik – you can find his posts on armour here and here. Don’t assume the pictures I’ve used here are good examples of armour – they are just to demonstrate the different types. You should definitely read Joseph’s posts in full.

How To Carry A Claymore: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books


So in last week’s post I talked about the basket-hilted Scottish broadsword. I noted that this sword became popular after armour was obsolete, which meant it was more likely my hero would carry a weapon he could use effectively against an armoured foe.http://dekor-okno.ru

So Lyram now carries a basket-hilted broadsword as a clan relic and a claymore for battle.

This all led to another question – how do you carry a claymore? The things are huge. Taller than me, even. OK, I’m not that tall, but I’m not that short either.

Presumably it needed to be carried on the back, but I didn’t know the answer, so I looked it up.

And I learned a few things.

It is exceedingly difficult to draw a claymore from a back sheath without removing or severely damaging one’s own head. Uh, maybe not a good idea.

It is arguably even more difficult to put it back in the sheath without being able to see what one was doing.

This meant claymores were carried one of two ways. Either in a back sheath where the shoulder harness could be easily dropped off to allow the sword to be drawn without decapitating oneself, or more simply in the hand.

But wait, it gets more complicated.

Apparently it wasn’t unknown for the sheath to ‘grip’ these swords. I haven’t found a good reason why, but I suspect this was a problem common to many swords. It presented a particular difficulty with the claymore because the thing was so damn big that holding the sheath in one hand and levering the blade clear with the other wasn’t easy.

So many swordsmen who carried these beasts of war also had a man filling a squire-type function, who would carry the claymore for the warrior, and/or assist him to unsheathe it as needed.

So what I thought was a relatively simple question turned out to be quite complex.

And the moral of the story: don’t cut your own head off drawing your sword.

The Basket-Hilted Broadsword: Medieval Weaponry and Accoutrements

Basket Hilted Broadsword
Basket Hilted Broadsword

Admiral Sir Thomas Allin – Allin’s sword hangs on a heavy baldric of the type needed for a basket-hilted broadsword

Basket-hilted broadswords were characterised by a basket-shaped handguard – surprise surprise! The rapier is one of the most commonly known basket-hilted swords, but the broadsword was the version in military use, while the rapier was worn over civilian dress.

The broadsword was “broad” by contrast with the rapier, and as a military weapon was suited to cut-and-thrust fighting, as compared to the thrust-oriented rapier. The broadsword was the double-edged version of the weapon (gaelic: claidheamh leathann), while the backsword was the single-edged version (Gaelic: claidheamh cùil), and neither term is contemporary to the sword itself. The weapon was typically around 95 – 105cm in length. It was often used with a Scottish dirk (Gaelic: biodag) in the left hand, or alternatively a targe (shield). The dirk might also be held behind the targe. The handle of every dirk was unique, as they were carved by their owners.

In the 18th century the broadsword came to be particularly associated with Scotland. Hence sometimes it is called the ‘Scottish broadsword’. This was how I came across it in the first place – the kingdom of Ahlleyn in my latest WIP, In the Company of the Dead, is loosely inspired by Scotland, and my hero, Lyram, needed a weapon.

‘Scottish broadsword’ by Rama available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basket-hilted_sword#mediaviewer/File:Claymore2-Morges.jpgunder a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 France  Full terms at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en

‘Scottish broadsword’ by Rama available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basket-hilted_sword#mediaviewer/File:Claymore2-Morges.jpgunder a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 France Full terms at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en

What type of weapon led to how big which led to how it was worn…. Despite its length, the broadsword was worn on the hip, albeit in a baldric because of the extra weight of the basket hilt.

The broadsword came into use after the musket made armour obsolete, and therefore also heavy weapons like the claymore. There are no muskets in my WIP, so I’ll have to equip Lyram with a claymore as well for actual battle. His broadsword might therefore become a largely ceremonial item of historical significance.

The basket-hilted broadsword is still worn as a ceremonial weapon by officers of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

How To Properly Remove An Arrow: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books

Remove An Arrow
Remove an Arrow

Have you been shot with an arrow? Don’t yank it out like you see in the movies!

OK, you probably haven’t been shot with an arrow… At least, I hope not. Unless maybe you’ve been practising with friends for the zombie apocalypse. If you are currently experiencing an arrow wound, skip forward a few paragraphs.

Who am I kidding? Go to the emergency room!

But the point remains that what you see on-screen is for dramatic effect rather than accuracy. Even if the person is dead and you are only retrieving the arrow for re-use, yanking it out of a corpse is likely to give you nothing more than a stick with pretty feathers on one end.

The definitive source of information on arrow wounds is the notes of one Dr Bill who lived during the American Civil War, and I came across it after I shot one of my characters with an arrow and then realised I had no idea how life-threatening the wound was.

Interestingly, arrow wounds could be more dangerous than gunshot wounds, largely because a gunshot was more likely to pass through the body, and even if it didn’t, the shot could be safely left in the body to be encased in bone or tissue. Arrow heads, on the other hand, are sharp and continue to injure and inflame the tissue around them – ultimately resulting in infection and death. As you might imagine, removing the head was therefore vital.

So why can’t you just yank it out?

Arrow-heads were secured to the shaft using gut, which would begin to loosen when it got wet – such as from your blood soaking into it. This meant that yanking on the shaft was likely to rip the head free and leave it in the body. Once detached from the shaft, locating and removing the head was much harder and caused more trauma to the wounded.

A shaft could, however, be carefully ‘twirled’ to determine if the head was lodged in bone. Alternatively, the doctor could enlarge the wound and use a finger to follow the shaft to the head to check if it was stuck. Ugh. Pass the whisky.


If the head was not trapped in bone, the arrow could be safely pulled free after enlarging the wound. But what if it was lodged? In this case, a larger incision was required, and much force would be applied to pull it free. A loop of wire could be used to apply traction, alternatively the esteemed Dr Bill used dental forceps, and later forceps of his own design. The force required to pull the head free was so great that in one instance Dr Bill reported bending the forceps, and in another that he would have fallen to the ground if someone hadn’t caught him.

An additional worry was that arrows that struck close to the bone might have their tip bent into a ‘fish-hook’ shape. Such arrows couldn’t be safely drawn from the body without additional precaution. The tip always needed to be checked, and if it was bent, it first needed to be pushed deeper into the body to pull the bent tip free, and then the doctor must cover the tip with his finger as he pulled it out to ensure it didn’t snag anew.

So if you are shot by an arrow, what are your chances of survival?

Ask your doctor! Go now!

But for a man wounded by arrows pre-modern medicine, the answers vary. To start with, it was unusual for a wounded man to have only one arrow wound, given that an experienced archer could shoot six arrows or more a minute. Dr Bill reported an extreme case of three men with a total of 42 arrow wounds amongst them. I’m guessing they all died… And I’m not sure the experience of having that many arrows removed, without anaesthetic, would be preferable to a quick death either…. So the more arrows you have stuck in you, the worse your chances.

Injuries to the chest were most common, with large numbers of fatalities associated with lung punctures. If there was no lung involvement, the wounded had a good chance of survival. Nearly all wounds to the abdomen were fatal owing to the risk of blood vessel and intestinal damage. It was fairly typical for a gut wound of any kind to pretty much be the end of you, owing to all the icky stuff in your bowels and intestines encouraging all kinds of infection, and there being no protection to the abdomen from ribs or other bones.

Remove An Arrow

Wounds to arms and legs were more likely to have the arrow pass clean through, in which case the majority would heal within a week with minimal complications. Sounds like your best outcome to me. Wounds to the head were rarely fatal unless it was a shot to the eye as an arrow would not generally penetrate the skull except at extreme close range. Uh… but please don’t take this as encouragement to go around aiming bows at people’s skulls!

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The Morningstar – Distinguishing Your Bludgeoning Weapons: Medieval Weaponry and Accoutrements


Flail. Mace. Morningstar. I’ve been asked what’s the difference?

Quite simply, they are all crushing weapons. The flail features one or more striking heads attached to a handle by a rope, strap or chain. Both the mace and the morningstar have the head affixed directly to the handle, and so are the two most similar of these three weapons. A mace may or may not have flanges or knobs, but does not have spikes. A morningstar always has a spiked head, and most particularly, has a spike extending straight up from the top of the head. A flail may have spikes, but of course is differentiated from the morningstar by the head not being affixed to the shaft.

And now we’ve come full circle.

Each weapon is worth examining separately, so today we have the morningstar. Previously we have examined the flail and the mace.

Due to the morningstar’s design, it inflicted damage to an enemy via a combination of blunt-force and puncture wounds.

While superficially similar, the mace and morningstar developed independently, and when the mace transitioned to wholly metal construction, the morningstar retained its wooden haft. Additionally, the morningstar traditionally had a longer reach, with a typical weapon having a haft of six feet more – although cavalry weapons were typically shorter. Some weapons were even bigger! I don’t think I’d want anyone swinging that thing at me.

One example housed in the Vienna museum is a whopping 7’ 9” in length! This is a professionally made military morningstar, and the top spike itself is 21 inches in length. I don’t know about you, but that’s long enough to go clear through me and out the other side.

Cruder morningstars also existed, and were usually cobbled together by peasants out of hand-cut timber and fitted with nails and spikes. Pretty sure I still wouldn’t want someone hitting me with that.

It’s a Flail! A Mace! No, it’s a Morningstar! Simple Chart To Work Out the Difference

Fails, Maces and Mormingstars