5 Common Armor Misconceptions

Like many of you, I’ve been a fan of fantasy fiction for years. While I love Larry Correia and Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy, I’m still partial to the old heroic and epic varieties as well. There’s just something about dwarves in armor with their mighty axes, elves with their bows, and evil just beyond the horizon.

Unfortunately, a while back, I started actually studying medieval armor. I won’t say it made it impossible for me to enjoy fantasy fiction, because that would be untrue, but I will say it gets annoying when writers make some of these mistakes.

So, if you’re writing some good, old fashioned fantasy, then maybe knowing these misconceptions are actually misconceptions will make your writing that much stronger and reduce if fewer headaches from readers who know a little something about armor.

1. There’s no such thing as chain mail.

I see you scratching your head now. I mean, you’ve seen it in museums, right?

Well, not really. You see, the term “chain mail” is a creation of the Victorian era. In period documents, they would come across the word “maille” and it was believed that the term was synonymous with “armor”. Well, during the era of maille, it really was. You either wore interlocking rings of steel, or you were probably running an awful lot. That was just the nature of the beast.

However, during that Victorian era, they began to use the word “mail” to mean armor.  However, they were wrong. Later scholars realized the mistake, but by then a lot had been written about “chain mail” and the term had wormed its way in.

Similarly, there’s also no such thing as “plate mail” or other “mail” type armors.

2. Plate armor is too clunky to move easily

This misconception’s been around for a long, long time. While plate armor is heavy, all things considered, it’s not nearly as clunky as people think. Back in the day, plate armors were properly fitted to the person wearing it. Plus, it was attached to an arming jacket which distributed the weight far more evenly than many people realize.

There are medieval depictions of soldiers doing handstands in plate armor, and some people have replicated it with reproduction suits as well.

Personally, I never did any such thing, but mostly because I can’t do a handstand for crap out of armor.

3. Armor was so heavy, the warrior needed help to mount their horse

Horse crap.

Yes, the armor was heavy. I’ll acknowledge that, and I’ve said so before in this very post. However, we’re not talking about the weight of another person on your back. In fact, modern combat troops carry heavier loads into battle than the medieval knight.

Somewhere along the way, a popular myth evolved that knights had to be lifted into the saddle. This may come from heavier jousting armors in later period, though I’ll admit that I’m not sure. What I do know is that the armor worn in combat wasn’t an issue.

4. Vikings had horns in their helmets

Oh, how I hate this one.

Somehow, people got the idea that the Vikings had horns on their helmets. Personally, I blame Minnesota for this, but whatever.

I’ve looked at a lot of Norse helmets through the years. I’ve looked at a lot of helmets for people who predated the Norse. You know what I’ve never seen? Horns.

Not. A. One.

They sound fierce, but if you’re a writer wanting to use this to make your barbarian look scary, keep something in mind. Horns stick out, which means a sword hitting it is likely to do some interesting things to the helmet. Since helmets weren’t necessarily tied in place, well…let’s just say there’s a really good reason we don’t find Norse helmets with horns on them.

5. All armors at all times and all places

I blame Dungeons & Dragons for this one. Their arms and equipment section has all these different armors your character can buy. For simplicity sake, they’re all in there together, and players can pick and choose to their heart’s content.

However, armor isn’t that simple.

You see, if you use a generic late medieval/early Renaissance Western European setting for your world, scale armor isn’t really as likely to show up on a knight as plate armor. Scale’s hay day was really during the Roman Empire, while plate armors first started showing up during the 14th Century.

Meanwhile, if your world is based on the Middle East, plate armor as we typically think of it is unlikely to ever show up. This is due to a lot of factors, ranging from technology (in the case of scale) to environmental (such as the Middle Eastern armors).


So, there you have it. Five common armor misconceptions that have shown up in a lot of fantasy fiction through the years. However, there are hundreds of such misconceptions that we have only recently begun to understand. What are some of your favorite misconceptions?


29 comments on “5 Common Armor Misconceptions

  1. Good to see someone work on making armor more accurate.

    In practice, if there’s a surcoat over the maille, and a padded jack underneath, there isn’t much difference in the protection both give against a sword. Depending on the amount of coverage, there really isn’t much difference in the weight of the two either.

    Later plate, the heat treated stuff the Germans and Italians were coming up with in the fifteenth century and later, would turn longbow arrows and crossbow bolts.

    Another thing that’s not done accurately is the effectiveness of a sword. Sword’s won’t cut through quality armor {plate or maille}, and really, thrusting through it is nearly impossible too.

    Heavy clothes and swords is another issue. Heavy clothes can foul a cut, making a cutting sword less effective in the winter, or in a cooler climate, like the later fourteenth century through the fifteenth. A thrusting sword can still work, but it means a stiffer, thicker sword than before.

    Thanks Mr. Knighton, you’ve made my morning.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you enjoyed it.

      Another thing that’s not done accurately is the effectiveness of a sword. Sword’s won’t cut through quality armor {plate or maille}, and really, thrusting through it is nearly impossible too.

      Absolutely. What most people don’t understand is that by the time of Gothic and Milanese armor’s heyday, sword fighting instruction focused on thrusts through gaps in the armor, such as the arm pits or the eye slot in the helm. There was also a fair amount of bludgeoning, IIRC. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a lot of grappling and dagger work too. I remember Bob Charron saying at one point during an event, that in his opinion the reason grappling was so important in Fiore is that it’s an excellent way to disable an opponent in armor.

    I remember asking him if it was possible that an armored man might be better armed dealing with another armored man one on one with a dagger than a longsword.

    He looked at me funny for a moment, then said “Yeah”.

    The thing is, grappling and dagger work are not as romantic as swordplay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. If I understand correctly, that’s something that western martial arts groups are working to correcting by making sure to include the grappling. And I agree about the dagger completely.

      In fact, it might be interesting to have two armored foes facing off at a dramatic moment, the hero lose his sword, then win with the dagger. When people comment on that fact, maybe say something about how that may actually be better anyways. Could be amusing. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is a little off topic, but I’ve found it highly interesting watching HEMA {Historical European Martial Arts} evolve over the last sixteen years.

        Bob Charron was the “last word” on Fiore in ’01 and ’02. If anyone is today, it’s probably Guy Windsor. Things that were taught “yesterday” aren’t today, as the interpretations of the manuals have progressed.

        If there’s anything that makes me wish being ten years younger, it’s the fact that I’d have loved to have been younger physically through the last sixteen years. A stroke seven years ago {a good one}, and being sixty three now means I watch. Participating is past tense for me…..


        • Yeah, I’ve been out of it for about that long. Charron was “The Man” back when I was really following HEMA. Of course, I need to pick that back up before I start my fantasy novel, but since I’ve got a post apocalyptic series I’m working on the next installment for, and a biopunk/cyberpunk novel in the works, that’ll be a little while. 😀


  3. My favorite example of #2 is where they show #3 is false by doing a vault-from-the-ground mount. 😀

    Which is pretty impressive by itself, without armor, but not totally out of the question– my dad is pretty short and he was doing that in his 50s.


  4. This would be awesome as an infographic. I was wondering if I could have your permission to take a stab at it? I would give you full credit and hopefully repost it here.


  5. You know, I went about the rest of my work day with the plan of mentioning works that got the armor fairly accurate. But then I realized that I hadn’t kept up with my fantasy reading, and most everything I’ve read and enjoyed over the years is dated.

    I will mention S. M. Stirling’s “Dies the Fire” series, at least the first one. Considering when the first one was written, it’s apparent he at least used the best online sources of the time, mentioning at one point one of the characters as being a member of HACA. The group at that time was considered a quality Western Martial Arts study group, and had a heck of a website.

    The armor is fairly good, in fact much of it is. If I have a beef on the accuracy part of it, it would be the longbow. The Welsh longbow {sometimes known as the English longbow} was a game changer in England’s on again, off again conflict with the French. The thing is that the weapon system as used, required a man to pull a 100+ pound pull bow.

    Stirling’s series has a lot of women taking up the longbow, and training with it along with the men. Problem is, I doubt many women would be able to develop the muscles to power the longbow. There is a distinct difference of the longbow’s efficiency at sixty pound pull, and 120lb pull.

    But the armor was fairly accurate.

    Another fantasy that works well is “Paladin” by C H Cherryh. It doesn’t work because of accuracy of arms or armor, it works because of her character building, and the clash of wills between the main character {the paladin}, and the country girl that gulls him into teaching him swordsmanship.

    The author avoids details, while making the character play and world building carry the story. This one was a five star in my notebook.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Look to the Celt’s of Caesar’s and Marius’ day for horns, i think, but they weren’t cow’s horns.


  7. While it is not a subject I have made a vast study of, or am that knowledgeable about, I think it’s so rife with errors because writers have taken movie tropes (and Mark Twain) as gospels. The other is that in a day of automation and relatively cheap materials people just don’t get a good handle the difficulty, the time and costs involved. Labor values of course were entirely different – so were lifespans. ‘Bespoke’ armor was for the very rich.(even off the shelf armor – yes, you could buy that – was going to cost you more money than the average infantryman could put together (you have a year’s income, spare? In a time when 35 was ‘old’. Firearms did not in fact put armor out of business (unless you assume centuries as the normal ‘out of business’.) Armor wasn’t proof against everything, but an armored man could survive attacks that would kill or maim unarmored men. People were no stupider at figuring new ways of killing before gunpowder – the roman weaponry was actually very varied and impressive and designed to be effective against the type of foes they faced (where they did lose was when they tried to use techniques effective against one foe, against another that fought differently – what worked well on Goths, worked badly on Parthians… but they adapted or died.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hate to do this, but 35 was not “old”. Records from the 1000s, 1200s, and well into the 1600s show people living to 60s, 70s or 80s easily.

      Two things to note there, 1, infant mortality was higher, much higher, so that skews any “average” statistics. If you remove fatalities before 1 year of age, the curve starts to look a lot more a more modern curve.

      Also, while death from infection and illness were common, you were still only dealing with fractions of the population, and small onces at that. I have read a low at 7 ot 8% succumbing to to illness over a 10 year period. While VERY high by today’s standards, again, 35 was NOT old, and was not treated as old or elder, or even “up there” in any of the translated texts or documents I have had the opportunity to read. ,


      • I think you need to consider the percentages. Yes, people lived into their 60’s and older, but the percentage who did were pretty small. The *average* life expectancy would have been much lower. And when you tie in the child mortality rate, it goes even smaller. This is outside any extenuating causes of death such as the Black Plague and other epidemics.


      • Cisco, it’s an interesting -a complex discussion – which largely hinges on what you define as ‘old’ . You’re partly correct and partly wrong IMO. Yes the Medieval Britain life expectancy was 30 – due to the child mortality. And yes, if you lived to 21 you might well see 64…. _if_ you were an aristocrat (but then you could afford armor). None-the-less even in that cohort most of the deaths would happen closer to the 21 than later, especially among soldiers. My definition of ‘old’ would the same as it was in Zulu society – be a grandparent A common man of 35 – a foot-soldier, would in many eras have been a grandfather – which is consider a reasonable marker in most societies as ‘old’. You could maybe push that to 40, even at a stretch 45.

        I do think you’re conflating a number of things. The age individuals COULD live to and the age the median did live to are very different. One of my favorite illustrations of the change in life expectancy in modern times are actuarial tables for life expectancy of adults for pensions. Insurers like to win. A century ago they were looking at an average 5 year payout… now they’re looking at about 3 times that. You’re also looking at the people for whom accurate records were kept – who were not your ordinary bloke, nor in times of war. The diet, living conditions and life expectancy of your middle and upper classes were vastly different to the poor – from whom foot soldiers were indeed drawn at times. I’ve seen some interesting research showing that in the very poor the survival was abysmal – with the ranks of the ‘poor’ being ‘recolonized’ from above. What you’re missing with 7-8% is that 1) That wasn’t soldiery in conflict, 2)that’s at the end of vast extirpation curve, meaning they had lived through what would kill the vast majority of modern humans. They still died in startling numbers every time there was a war, a siege, or a local outbreak of disease. One of the sieges I read up on to write TRM had more than 2/3 of the attackers and their camp… dead to disease (bloody flux and malaria). 3)Survival varied a great deal within the same country and different times. Just after the Black death for example, people starved to death for lack of agricultural workers (and agricultural wages did not touch that level again for around 400 years) . The age of breeding changed quite a lot – in both directions over that time too – so therefore so would ‘old’.

        But it’s pretty moot anyway. You had less time to accumulate money between generations was what I was trying to say, and it was hard unless born to wealth to afford armor, especially the good stuff.


        • However, my the late Medieval and early Renaissance, we see armies outfitted in fairly decent armor for the day.

          Of course, this closely ties with the rise in professional armies where commanders had sufficient motivation to protect their troops – even at their own expense – due to the cost in training them appropriately. It wasn’t the best, but it was sufficient quality to both protect them and to not inhibit mobility.


    • They have definitely taken what writers before them wrote and continued on with it. What many of them don’t know is that the study of armor is continuing. They’re constantly finding new bits, interpreting old bits, etc.

      For example, a few years back, I read about a helm that had been dug up decades earlier, but it was mistakenly classified as a cooking pot. However, someone realized it was a ridge style helmet, common during the late Roman Empire.

      Things like that show us that, even as writers, we shouldn’t be stuck to the belief that what is known now will be what is known a decade later. Sure, you may have to stick to some oddities in the latter books of a series for continuity’s sake, but when you start your next series? You may want to realize that what you knew then may not be accurate today.


    • Hello Dave

      The medieval period certainly wasn’t monolithic, either over a period of time, or across countries.

      Armor was indeed very expensive…… around 1000AD. Not so much by 1400. Of course it depends on your definition of expensive.

      “Foot soldiers” weren’t necessarily from the poor, nor were they necessarily peasants. In England, the longbowmen came from the yeoman class, or the “freemen” if you prefer. Many of the archers of the longbow companies during the so called “100 Years War” were armored with helm and maille.

      In some of the Northern Italian city states, the militia was formed from the citizens of the city. Many if not most were small businessmen {smiths, tailors, shopkeepers, etc.} They were responsible for their own arms and armor, and the city had a list of arms they had to keep up. This would be late 14th century into the 15th.

      The same in a lot of the German cities. Some of this is pretty well documented around 1400AD.

      Spain was a lot poorer at this time, and armor was more expensive. But by 1500 Spain was fielding armies that were armored with helmets and breast plates.

      In other words, it depends. It depends on the time, and the place.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I can second your observation that modern fighting men carry a lot of weight. When I was going through the tactical training at Hurlburt Field to be a combat aviation advisor, we ran around in the standard “plate carrier + mitch helmet + rucksack + M4 with ammo” that has been used by infantry forces in the U.S. for 20+ years. I was carrying the radio one day (even more weight) and had a chance to weigh myself before we loaded up on trucks to be moved to another range.

    I was carrying approximately 120 lbs of weight. At the time, I weighed around 175 lbs, so that was a significant load. Every step I took took some conscious effort on my part. Granted, I was in great physical condition, but I could just imagine if I tried to run around in that stuff for a month or two months versus the week and a half that the tactical phase lasted. So yes, I find it highly unlikely that knights would wear so much armor that they couldn’t mount a horse without a crane. Just falling off the beast would probably break your neck. Although the production values are cheesy, I used to enjoy watching the “Full Metal Jousting” reality show on cable a few years back. You can still find the episodes on Youtube, I believe.

    By the way, a few years ago, I found a copy of “Medieval Combat” by Hans Talhoffer (translated by Mark Rector) that Barnes and Noble published back in 2000. Great book, I highly recommend it to anyone (like me) who reads a lot of fantasy/swords and sorcery and plays pen-and-paper RPGs. The book includes sections on mounted combat, sword and buckler, dagger, pole-axe, shield only, unarmored fighting with longsword and, of course, grappling and wrestling. Excellent resource, should be easy to find on-line, I would think.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As a life long D & D player I feel a need to defend the spirit of the game as well as the rules. I started playing in 1978 at the local college and was fortunate to have a couple guys in the group that were Military History majors. We started many a night debating what types of weapons and armor were available, and as you pointed out there was different armor and weapons throughout history, we decided to allow all the armor and weapons on the charts, but it would depend upon which part of the world we were currently campaigning in, mainly because it was a “fantasy” world where all things were possible. Let’s face it, you had wizards and dragons, so where was the harm in mixing armor?


    • Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been playing D&D for the last 20 years and it’s still one of my favorite past times.

      However, there are people who take what they see in D&D and are trusting that what they see is what it’s like. You guys had military history majors. In several groups I’ve been in, I was the only one who studied the subject. Of particular amusement when someone tried to argue with me what a “greave” was, arguing that it went on the arm. It wasn’t until the rest of the group, who knew my interests, finally stopped the guy and let him know that when it came to armor, they were going to rely on me.

      My point is that a lot of people accepted what they pick up from D&D and take it as fact, such as the idea of all armors at all times. No, as a game, they’re not obligated to do anything but make something fun (and obligation I think they botched with 4th Edition). It was just a statement based on my experiences. 🙂


  10. Listening to the wrong experts can be an issue, too– I have no idea where the famous idea that stallions will attack a menstruating woman so they’re only ridden by men originally came from, I just know that when I asked my mom she nearly busted a gut laughing. She’s got decades of experience on ranches, and around wild horses, plus she’s the one that collects “strange animal behavior” stories; her favorite horse ever was a stallion that would attack men with a certain color of hair. The scars on that animal when they got him were horrific, and really didn’t mesh with the supposed “got caught in wire” source.

    The best we could figure was either some horses being trained to respond to blood, or the way that herd stallions will sometimes treat women like they’re mares, and will target their mount if it’s not also a mare. Or a polite excuse to keep hot-blooded women off of the idiot magnet stallions. (WHY some people think a dangerous mount is a great idea, I don’t know. It’s not like stallions have to be vicious, uncontrolled and wild, but it’s at least as probable as small dogs being annoying.)

    Liked by 1 person

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