The Art of Chainmail

Chainmail was the earliest form of metal armour and was probably invented before the 5th century by the ancient Celts. The name mail comes from the French word "maille" which is derived from the Latin "macula" meaning "mesh of a net". The armour itself involved the linking of iron or steel rings, the ends of which were either pressed together, welded or riveted. Sometimes the rings were stamped out of a sheet of iron and these were then used in alternate rows with riveted links. The most common form of chainmail is the "four-in-one" pattern in which each link has four others linked through it. A few shirts have been found that appear to have been made of quilted fabric or leather to which were sewn rings and scales, and these shirts are not considered "true" mail.

Each piece of mail was fashioned specifically for whichever part of the body it was intended to protect. For the head there were the coif, aventail, mail fringe and a "bishop's mantle"; for the torso, the shirt, hauberk, skirt and breeches; for the upper limbs, mail sleeves and mittens; for the lower limbs, chausses and sabatons.

Until the 14th century, mail was the primary armour for the average soldier. The main use of chainmail was to stop the wearer from being cut by the opponents blade. Mail did nothing to stop the damage from the force of the blow however, and was usually worn over a thick, padded undergarment. From the 1320's, shirts of mail, known as hauberks or byrnies, were often provided with flared sleeves covering to the middle of the forearms, and were long enough to reach past the wearer's knees. Some of the larger hauberks often had sleeves that were extended to form mittens for the hands. This was also the period when a shorter type of hauberk, the haubergeon, began to be used more regularly, its lower edge stopping to just above the knees. Some haubergeons had a flap-like extension at the center of the rear edge of the base which could be pulled up between the legs and laced in front to form a breke of mail to protect the genitals.

As there were developments in the armouring world, mail began to have a subordinate role in relation to plate armour, first being used as a linking elements for the various plates and then, in the 15th century, it was used to protect the more vulnerable parts of the body such as the elbow, neck, and knees joints. Mail shirts retained defensive importance during the 16th century with light horse and infantry armours, especially in conjunction with small pauldrons or spaulders and elbow length gauntlets which left part of the arms bare. In these cases, sleeves of mail were attached to the arming doublet worn under the armour. After this time, the use of mail slowly diminished as better plate armour was developed for the arms and legs, although it was still in use as late as the 17th century in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The craft of making mail is quite separate and distinct from that of the process of manufacturing plate armour. Because so much mail was produced, we can assume the method of manufacture must have been fast, allowing for division of the labour within the workshop. The most skilled task, the final linking of the rings, would have been done by the master craftsman, who would have been kept supplied with rings and rivets. The early stages in the production of mail, (the simple, labour intensive tasks) were left to apprentices and assistants.

There were two possible methods of producing the rings for the mail. Closed rings were made by punching them from a sheet of metal with a double punch, or by simply punching a hole in a piece of metal and trimming the outside edge. Open rings were usually made from iron wire. There has been (and still is) much controversy as to whether or not the ancient armourer knew the art of wire-drawing. This process of making wire involves the drawing of a forged metal rod through successively smaller and smaller holes until the rod was the right size for making rings. A similar method was to cut the wires from a thin metal sheet and then file, scrape and hammer them into the right size. It is more likely that a combination of both of these methods was used in which a strip of metal was cut from a sheet about 3 mm thick and then this was drawn through smaller and smaller holes, until the proper diameter of wire was reached. This length of wire was then wrapped around a


An evolution of Lamellar armour gave birth to Mail Armour. This type of Lamellar consisted of large, heavy rings sewn edge-to-edge onto a leather shirt. The makers and users of Ring Lamellar soon realized that they could create a superior form of armour by linking their rings together, instead of sewing them to a base. Armour with linked rings became known as Mail or Chainmail*.

Short History of Chainmail

And the methods and madness therein.

Chainmail has been used as a protective armor as far back 400 BC, and may have been used even earlier still. The oldest chainmail comes from Celtic graves. Rusty masses were found in these graves, and it is believed that they were chainmail. Historical accounts of chainmail can be found in many places, including the Bayeaux Tapestry. This tapestry depicts warriors Soldiers in Chainmail from Bayeaux Tapestrystripping the fallen enemies of their mail during battle. This not only serves as a window into the period in which chainmail was commonly used, it shows the great value inherent in even the common warrior's mail.

Chainmail was quickly phased out with the invention of plate mail and hardened steel. Plate mail was a better protector of the vital organs, and offered a different sort of design flexibility for the blacksmith. Beautiful details could be etched on the new plate mail, and many saw it as a way to showcase their artistic talents. Still many warriors chose to wear chainmail underneath their plate mail, as chainmail was comfortable and did not chafe.

We at Knotwork Links Chainmail try to preserve that level of perfection and great value with our modern chainmail pieces. Each is hand made, from the purchase of the wire up to and including the finishing polish. Wire is hand wound around a steel dowel, creating a sort of spring. This spring is the cut apart by hand, making the individual links, which are used in various patterns. These links are then closed by hand, using two pair of heavy duty or needle nose pliers. The final polish is applied after a vigorous machine driven scrub. The end product is one filled with much love and dedication.

machine made butcher's gloveChainmail is so versatile and functional that it is still widely used today as a protective shield. Butchers use chainmail and leather gloves to prevent deep gouges from stray blades. Shark divers use chainmail body suits and gloves to protect against a fatal shark bite. And Renaissance festival goers everywhere see chainmail as a way to show off good taste and high style, while still enjoying the comfort and flexibility of the renaissance lifestyle.

1450 B.C.

The earliest reference that I can obtain thus far, is located in the days of Moses. The clothing pertaining to the high priests were to be donned and patterned similar to a coat of mail.

EXODUS 28:31-32 " And thou shalt make the robe of the ephod all of blue. And it shall have a binding of woven work round about the hole of it, as it were the hole of a coat of mail, that it be not rent." [American Standard Version, 1901]

Note: The KJV used the words: " it were the hole of a habergeon..."

* * * * *

1020 B.C.

In the battle of David against Goliath, it seems both sides used coats of mail in their armour.

I SAMUEL 17:5-7 "And he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was clad with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass. And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a javelin of brass between his shoulders. And the staff of his spear was like a weaver's beam; and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and his shield-bearer went before him." (ASV)

NOTE: The Hebrew word for this body armour is shiryon.

1020 B.C. * the armour Saul offered David ................I SAMUEL 17:38

853 B.C. * Ahab in fatal battle of Ramoth-Gilead ......I KINGS 22:34

443 B.C. * the armour of Nehemiah's workers ..........NEHEMIAH 4:16

161 B.C. * royal armour protecting war-elephants ....I MACCABEES 6:43

NOTE: In their Commentary On the Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, in their comments on I SAMUEL 17:5 ,discuss the differences between scale armour and chain mail :

333 B.C.

According to the Dictionary of Wars by George C. Kohn (1986), " the second great battle between King Darius III of Persia and Alexander the Great took place at Issus in present-day Turkey. Alexander's 35,000 troops were greatly outnumbered by the Persians, but the latter were poorly trained ... Alexander's troops pursued the Persians, killing 110,000 of them (Macedonian losses were 302). Darius escaped, leaving the royal family behind to be captured by Alexander." (pp. 221-222)

" Since the battle of Issus, Darius had provided his soldiers with more effective arms; instead of the javelin his horsemen were armed with a longer sword and a short thrusting-spear, such as the Macedonian cavalry carried, in part at least they were provided with link-armour, and the infantry were given a larger shield." [The Generalship of Alexander the Great by Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, Rutgers, 1960.]

* * * * *

220 - 167 B.C.

In Book VI section 23. Polybius discusses the Roman Military System, which he, as a former Greek general, was able to describe in detail, as concerns armament.

" The next age group, known as the hastati, are ordered to wear a complete panoply. The Roman panoply consists in the first place of a long shield (scutum). The surface is convex; it measures two and a half feet in width and four in length, and the thickness at the rim is a palm's breadth. It consists of two layers of wood fastened together with bull's hide glue; the outer surface is then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. The upper and lower edges are bound with iron to protect the shield both from the cutting strokes of the sword and from wear when resting on the ground. In the centre is fixed an iron boss, which turns aside the heavy impact of stones, pikes and weighty missiles in general. Besides the shield they also carry a sword which is worn on the right thigh and is called a Spanish sword. This has a sharp point and can deal an effective blow with either edge, as the blade is very strong and unbending.

" In addition, the hastati carry two throwing spears ( pila ), a bronze helmet and greaves. The spears are or two kinds, the slender and the thick. Of the thicker kind some are round and a palm's breadth in diameter, others are a palm square. The slender spears which they carry as well as the thicker variety are like medium-sized hunting spears, the length of the wooden shaft being about four and a half feet. The iron head is barbed and is of the same length as the shaft. They take great pains to ensure the utility of this weapon by attaching the iron firmly to the shaft. It is fastened into the wooden shaft halfway up its length and riveted with a series of clasps, so that in action it will break rather than come loose, although its thickness at the socket where it meets the wood measures only a finger and a half. Finally, the hastati wear as an ornament a plume of three purple or black feathers standing upright about a foot and a half in height. These are placed on the helmet and the general effect combined with the rest of the armour is to make each man look about twice his real height, and gives him an appearance which strikes terror into the enemy. Besides this armament, the private soldiers also wear a brass breast-plate a span square, which is placed in front of the heart, and is called a heart-protector ( pectorale ). This item completes their panoply, but those who are rated at a property qualification of above 10,000 drachmae wear instead a coat of chain-mail (lorica). The principes and triarii are armed with the same weapons, except that instead of the throwing-spear, the triarii carry long thrusting-spears (hastae). "

" The Roman panoply consists in the first place of a shield [thureos].....Along with the shield is a sword [machaira].....Next come two javelins [husson] and a helmet [perikephalaia] and a greave [knemis].....Now the majority, when they have further put on a bronze plate, measuring a span every way, which they wear on their breasts and are called a heart-guard [kardiophulax], are completely armed, but those who are assessed at more than 10,000 drachmae wear instead, together with the other arms, cuirasses made of chain mail [halusidotous thorakas *]."

*Note, this is the same term used to describe the "mail made of rings worked together like chains" in the battle of Bethsura.

161 B.C.

"Early the next morning the king (Antiochus Eupator) broke camp and rushed his army along the road to Bethzacharia; there his forces were drawn up for battle and the trumpets were sounded. The elephants were roused for battle with the juice of grapes and of mulberries. The great beasts were distributed among the phalanxes; by each were stationed a thousand men, equipped with coats of chain-mail and bronze helmets." I MACCABEES 6:33-35 ( New English Bible ).

28 B.C.

" When Augustus in association with Agrippa was conducting that very unpopular operation, a revision of the senate (28 B.C.), it was said that beneath his toga he wore mailed armour and carried a sword, that he had ten of the toughest and loyalest senators standing round his chair, and that the other senators were allowed to approach him one by one, and even then not until they had been thoroughly searched." [ The Army of the Caesars by Michael Grant, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974; The Protection of Rome and the Regime 31 BC - AD 14, P.87 ]

98 - 117 A.D.

" But in the next century A.D., the time of Trajan, a corselet in common use possessed overlapping breast- and backplates of metal, strengthened by iron hoops, fastened at the front with studs and slots, and made flexible by hinges at the back, which allowed freedom of movement - or alternatively the fastenings, fore and aft, were leather cords. Further strips of metal served as shoulder-pieces. Sometimes a scarf was worn to prevent the metal plates from chafing the skin. There were also several types of mail armour, one of which consisted of a series of interlocking rings, while another comprised metal scales sewn in overlapping rows on a leather coat." [ The Army of the Caesars by Michael Grant, Introduction: The Roman Soldier, p. xxi ]


In Warriors of Rome, An Illustrated Military History of the Roman Legions by Michael Simkins (Blanford, 1988), there are several excellent artistic renderings and interpretations of Roman and Gallic armour. In the final chapter, Military Equipment, a lengthy discussion covers the types, history and manufacture of various armour, including chain-mail, under the heading Body Armour:

" The origin of mail remains obscure. The earliest examples of that extraordinary material were found in Sarmatian and Scythian graves, dated to the fifth to sixth centuries BC, and one may conjecture that the invention of the material took place some considerable length of time before that period.

" It has often been supposed that the Celts were the inventors of mail, a suggestion which is supported by an observation from the Roman historian Varro, who referred to Roman mail as 'Gallic'.... the Celts were certainly highly skilled metal-workers and so entirely capable of that innovation. One may, of course, say exactly the same of the Assyrians of the seventh to eighth century BC....

" As a defensive material, mail has one major drawback: it was very laborious to manufacture. The problem was partly overcome by the introduction of alternate rows of punched rings, which did not require to be joined; thus reducing the overall time in manufacture by as much as a quarter. The punched rings still had to be linked together with riveted wire ones, or could be left as a simple butted circlet, without riveting. The latter was ... not as strong ... but the cost ... greatly reduced."


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