We all love a character with a unique set of fantasy armor: the baresark Rek from David Gemmell’s Legend with his enchanted armor of bronze, or Tomas from Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Cycle with his gleaming white dragon armor which gifted him incredible power.
Although such armor exists, unfortunately, in fantasy worlds, it’s important to understand how things work in the real world, even at a basic level. For fantasy stories to be more believable, we need to understand how armor, particularly fantasy armor with magic abilities, interacts with our characters.
This guide will arm you with what you need to enrich your tales.
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A Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Armor
Below, we’ll take a look primarily at European medieval armor. The reason being is that it’s the most commonly used in the fantasy genre. We’ll also cover fantasy armor in some detail, and throughout I’ll give you lots of ideas and inspiration to help you create your own awesome pieces of fantasy armor.
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- A Guide To European Medieval Armor
- Chain Mail
- Plated Armor
- Other Types Of Armor
- Fantasy Armor
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The development of medieval armor kicked off during the Hundred Years War between the English and the French. English archers were butchering the French with arrow storms, wiping out their cavalry in particular. The French had to do something, and so an arms race ensued. Weapons were built to defeat armor, and armor built to withstand weapons. A vicious cycle with vicious motives.
Let’s have a look at a few types of armor.
Mail was one of the first types of metal armor developed, arguably by the Celts, though other sources say its origins came from Eastern Europe.
A depiction of a Celtic warrior in mail
A coat of mail was a complex web of metal rings, each locked with an iron rivet. Such coats were made from brass or iron, though steel was deemed best due to its toughness.
A coat of mail
A jacket or coat of mail was usually worn with a hood, or coif, of the same material to protect the head and neck.
A chain mail coif
As time marched on, small plates of leather or iron were added to the mail to protect key areas, such as the vital organs.
A coat of chain with plates of iron
Mail was particularly effective against glancing blows. In battle, you are trying to strike a moving target, so mail was sufficient as most blows were glancing ones. Clean, powerful strikes were needed to disable a foe wearing mail. Blunt weapons were effective, causing haemorrhaging and concussion, so padded garments known as a doublet or gambeson were worn underneath to provide added protection.
Mail was lightweight and flexible. Good for the mobile knight. It was pretty easy to make, though laborious, and easy to repair. Another benefit to chain mail, a point which can slip the mind of writers, is that it was cheap and efficient, able to accommodate different sized warriors, unlike expensive plated armor, to which we now turn.
Most picture the knight when we talk about plated armor—rigid tin men that can withstand all manner of blows. Something like this:
Armor of a knight
As you can see, a knight’s armor is made up of a lot of different pieces. It took a while to get ready, with the help of somebody else needed, usually squires, who began with the feet and worked up from there.
Both doublets and chain mail were worn in conjunction with plated armor for that added protection, particularly for areas plate could not cover, such as arms and the groin.
Coats of plated armor soon came about, which consisted of a series of plates linked on top of one another. They could withstand high-velocity strikes from a javelin or lance, driven home by somebody charging forwards on horseback. Only the most powerful strikes could pierce such armor. They looked something like this:
A coat of overlapping plates
One of the main defensive strengths of plated armor came from its curved design, which deflected both blades and arrows. As with mail, steel was the best material due to its hardness, which was obtained by heating the steel to extreme temperatures and then submerging it into cold water, a process known as ‘quenching’. You may have seen steel workers doing this after forging the likes of blades and horse shoes.
Once quenched, the steel was re-heated to make it more resilient. Heating to the perfect temperature was key. In pre-thermometer times this was difficult as you can imagine, so instead, armorers observed the colour of the heated steel. When heated, steel turns from yellow, to brown, to blue, to red. Once blue, it is quenched a second time, permanently fixing its hardness. Arrows will bounce off steel crafted in such a way—unless from close range, as we discussed last week.
Wearing a suit of armor was like being in your own private world. The senses were deadened: sight limited, sound muffled, breathing stifled (depending on the type of helmet). It would have been extremely warm too. But it provided an odd sense of security. Fully geared up, you were a walking fortress.
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With all that armor, it’s often assumed the medieval knight was immobile. Not quite. Each suit of armor was tailored to the individual. The aim was not to cause any impediment to movement. A warrior had to fight the enemy, and to fight his armor as well would be too distracting. The pieces of armor around the vital organs—the chest and head—were thicker and heavier than those on the arms and legs to try and reduce weight as much as possible.
Armor therefore wasn’t that heavy—a suit of armou weighed approximately 50 pounds, which is around 3 to 4 stone. If a knight fell from a horse, he could quite easily pick himself up, not stuck on the ground like a tortoise knocked on its shell.
This video provides an interesting perspective on a knight’s movement.
The appearance of armor was a big deal for knights. Chest plates had grand etchings. Pauldrons, gauntlets, and even leg armor were fashioned into elaborate designs. Here are a few images. Share your favourites in the comments below!
Helmets were arguably the most distinctive feature of an armored knight. Some had pointed snouts, the purpose of which was to deflect arrows when walking into arrow storms. The eye slits were narrow to prevent all sizes of arrowheads from finding their way through. Vision in such helmets was extremely limited, but this was the cost of added protection.
The front part of helmets, or the visors, were there to raise or open so the wearer could breathe during taxing hand to hand combat or scan around the battlefield.
Some helmets had chain attached which hung around and protected the neck, called an aventail, and most were padded inside, for added comfort. Who doesn’t like being comfortable when killing?
As with body armor, great efforts were made with the designs of helmets. Here are a few different types:
We mentioned gambesons above. These were worn on their own by those wanting greater speed and flexibility, but also by those unable to afford stronger armor. The padded material could absorb blows from blunt weapons and provided some protection from cuts, but against well forged weapons they were useless.
Another type of cheap armor, one up from gambesons, was boiled leather, also known as cuir bouilli. Strips of leather were boiled in water, though some sources record oil and wax being used, and even animal urine. Reeking of piss on the battlefield was another weapon in the arsenal I suppose. Leather could be stitched into coats, or added to mail to provide added protection.
Celtic leather armor
Here’s a video showing the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of leather armor against arrows. Excuse the ‘on hold’ background music.
And let’s not forget the trusty steed. As knights became fully armored, so did their mounts. Some wore a trapper – a covering of full chain mail—and down the line, some horses even had their own plated armor. Expensive indeed, and heavy—stronger horses had to be bred to handle the weight.
Imagine this charging right at you
I sincerely hope you’ve found some inspiration for your fantasy knight armor, fantasy leather armor, fantasy plate armour or fantasy medieval armor generally.
It can genuinely be tough to come up with cool ideas for fantasy armor without drifting back to things that we’ve seen in the likes of Dungeons and Dragons, The Elder Scrolls and movies like Lord of the Rings. But I find looking back in time, to the likes of the medieval period, can provide some wonderful and unique ideas.
And what we’ve covered here today is only just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond medieval Europe, you have the Far East, the Romans, Viking… Before you know it you’ll have designed a full set of fantasy roman armor or fantasy Viking armor.
In this section, we’ll take a look at some cool pieces of fantasy armor that people have designed over the years, to give you even more inspiration for your own designs.
Here’s a fantastic image that Thomas Feichtmeir, AKA Cyangmou has put together. It illustrates brilliantly the differences between fantasy armor and the boring armor of reality, in this case, Gothic armor. For a bigger image, just click on the link above.
To discover more awesome fantasy armor pictures, head over to Pinterest and just search for ‘fantasy armor’. You’ll be blown away by the number of awesome things on there.
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Here’s a superb glossary, with pictures, of all types of armor.
And if you want more, this documentary is excellent.
Here’s a cool video on making leather fantasy armor by YouTuber, Prince Armory. It gives you an idea of the capabilities that armor can have.
Armor that features in fantasy stories. Such armor may have elegant and grand designs, sometimes based around the likes of dragons. Fantasy amor may also bring with it magical abilities, as well as curses.
Coming up with ideas for fantasy armor can be tricky. Luckily there are lots of sources of inspiration:
1. Search for fantasy armor on Pinterest. You’ll find scores of pages filled with brilliant images of fantasy armor.
2. Look in the history books. Throughout the ages, all manner of weird and wonderful pieces of armor have been crafted.
3. Look at games, TV shows, movies and table top games, like Dungeons and Dragons. They’re filled with brilliant ideas that could inspire your own.
The beauty of fantasy armor is that you have the freedom to create anything you like. It is, however, important to acknowledge the impact the armor may have on your characters. Think of the weight, the comfort, the need to maintain it. All of these can have an impact on how you design your armor.