Armor, a defensive covering for the head, body, and limbs, used as a protection in battle. Armor of some kind seems to have been used by almost every civilized and savage people, from the earliest historic times till the gradual improvement in firearms rendered it useless as a means of defence wherever these were employed. Even of late years body armor has been worn by cuirassiers in the armies of several nations of continental Europe, but it has proved worthless as a protection against bullets from the present perfected small arms. - In the most ancient times defensive armor was undoubtedly made of skins; but history gives little account . of this, and the oldest complete and authentic records we possess speak of metal armor. From the earliest times of the Old Testament (a complete panoply being described in 1 Sam. xvii.) to the fall of the Roman empire, bronze or brass seems to have been the material used for helmets and body armor by all the principal nations of antiquity, while their shields and bucklers were sometimes made of wood covered with leather or studded with brass, of bull's hide or of wickerwork covered with hide, as well as of solid bronze like their armor and weapons; for the ancients were long ignorant of the art of tempering steel, though they tempered bronze to a wonderful hardness.
Even when the Romans, at an early date, introduced steel for weapons, their defensive armor remained of bronze; and the same was the case with that of other nations. - The armor of the Hellenic chiefs, as described by Homer, and, with slight modifications, that of the Greek warriors during all the period of their country's greatness, consisted of a crested helmet which could be drawn down so as to partly cover the face; a small breastplate, worn so low as to leave the whole clavicular region bare; a plated waistband, from which hung a short kilt or petticoat of cloth or leather covered with narrow metallic plates; and greaves or sheaths of solid metal for the legs from knee to ankle; the greaves were moulded to the form of the legs, and sometimes covered the knee. The Greeks carried at first large circular shields, covering almost the whole man; afterward smaller ones of the same shape. - The Roman soldiery wore armor almost exactly like that just described, save that they carried oblong instead of round shields. After a time, too, they rejected the greaves, and fought with the legs bare.
So few changes were made in the armor itself, however, that even in the time of the crusades the soldiers of the eastern empire still wore exactly such equipments as are pictured in the bass-reliefs of Trajan's column. - The oriental nations adopted at an early period an armor made of overlapping scales of metal sewn upon leather, and fitting the whole body of the wearer. They also clothed their horses in this armor. The Sarmatians especially are said to have worn this armor, if indeed they did not introduce it. - Such were the principal kinds of armor in use among the leading nations of eastern Europe and of the Orient; but it was in western Europe that the complete defensive armor afterward used, which reached its perfection in the middle ages, had its origin. A manuscript of the reign of Charles the Bald (A. D. 860) shows the armor of the western nations which had once been Roman provinces, or had come in contact with Romans, to have been similar to the Roman dress just described. But soon afterward great changes began.
We have little to show the manner of these changes, but we find their result, two centuries later, shown in the Bayeux tapestry, executed some time after the invasion of England by William the Conqueror (1066). This shows the Saxons to have adopted an armor consisting of a long tunic reaching to the knee, and made of leather upon which were sewed stout metal rings, close together. They wore conical steel caps. The Normans wore similar tunics or shirts, divided so that they fell on each side the horse of a mounted knight; but they made their armor of actual mail, formed of rings woven together like those in a modern curb chain; they wore long sleeves, which the Saxons had not, and long hose woven of rings. The Norman shield was in shape like a modern smoothing-iron. The fact that this flexible mail might be driven into the flesh by a hard blow, in spite of the heaviest lining, led to the introduction of plate armor. First the square-topped helmet of the templars was adopted, covering the whole face, and having a door opening laterally on hinges.
Then poldrons, or plates covering the shoulders, genouilleres, or knee-pieces, of jointed steel splints, and plate shoes, were added to the mail; and this was the suit of armor, of the best and most approved construction, so late as to the time of the third crusade of Richard Cœur de Lion and Philip Augustus, in 1189, both of which monarchs are represented in their great seals equipped and armed exactly as described. Without detailing the gradual but constant encroachment of plate armor upon mail, it is enough to say that it lasted for 200 years, adding piece by piece, until in the beginning of the 15th century we find complete suits of plate, casing the wearer in steel from head to foot. From that time this armor was gradually improved, until it reached its perfection during the reign of Henry VII. In the suit of that time we find perhaps the greatest security and beauty ever combined in armor. The whole suit is fluted; the neck is defended by pass guards, rising perpendicularly from the shoulders; the helmet assumes a natural form; the back of the neck is protected by flexible plates; and the whole of the headpiece is made to adapt itself to every movement.
The horse's head is guarded by the chamfront, to which are added the manifaire, protecting the crest and arch of the neck, the poitrel of solid plates covering the counter, and the croupier, also of solid steel, extending over the whole rump of the animal from the castle of the saddle to the tail. These parts of the horse armor constitute what is called the barding proper. It was in this reign that the art of defence had so far surpassed the means of offence, that it is on record that in Italy, where the best armor, that of Milan, was made, two armies fought from 9 o'clock in the morning till 4 in the afternoon, in which battle not only no person was killed, but no one was wounded. From this date, however, the use of armor has constantly declined, and with the description given above its real history may be said to end; for piece by piece was gradually laid aside as firearms were used and improved more and more, and hand-to-hand conflicts were avoided. At the beginning of the present century the only troops who still wore defensive armor were the heavy cavalry of the Austrian, Russian, and French imperial armies, who were all cuirassiers.
Napoleon I. made great use of this arm, but at Waterloo the iron-sheathed cuirassiers went down like grass before the English household troops, who wore no armor; and in the last battles of the Crimea, although there were cuirassiers in the armies of all the three belligerents, no use was made of them in the field. In the early part of our late civil war an attempt was made to introduce bulletproof waistcoats of steel among the national troops, but they were soon laid aside. - For a detailed history of armor, see especially "A Critical Inquiry into Ancient Armour," etc, by Dr. (Sir Samuel) Meyrick (2d ed., London, 1844); also an excellent essay and catalogue in the Catalogue des collections composant le musee d'artillerie, by O. Penguilly l'Haridon (Paris, 1862).
Greek Armor. (From the Ornaments of an Etruscan Mirror.)
Roman Armor. (From Trajan's Column.)
Norman Spearman. (From the Bayeux Tapestry.)
Full Suit of Chain Mail, Time of the Early Crusades.
Armor comprising both Mail and Plate, A. D. 1370.
Early Armor of Plate, A. D. 1416.
Fluted and Perfected Plate Armor of Henry VII., 1485-1509.
Armor of Man and Horse, A. I). 1534.