Armour or armor is protective clothing intended to defend its wearer from intentional harm in combat and military engagements, typically associated with soldiers. Armour has been used throughout recorded history, beginning with hides, leather, and bone, before progressing to bronze, then steel during the Middle Ages, to modern fabrics such as Kevlar, Dyneema and ceramics.

Armour was also commonly used to protect war animals, such as war horses and elephants. Armour for war horses was called barding. Armour has also been produced for hunting dogs that hunt dangerous game, such as boars. Since World War I, armoured fighting vehicles are protected by vehicle armour.

In modern usage, Armour, or the armoured is also a heavily armoured military force or organisation, such as heavy infantry or heavy cavalry (as opposed to light infantry or cavalry). In modern armoured warfare, armoured units equipped with tanks serve the historic role of heavy cavalry, and belong to the armoured branch in a national army's organisation (sometimes, the armoured corps). Heavy infantry have been replaced by mechanised infantry.


Japanese Samurai Odoshi Armour.
Japanese Samurai Odoshi Armour.

Throughout human history, the development of armour has always run parallel to the development of increasingly efficient weaponry on the battlefield, creating an arms race of sorts across multiple civilisations to create better protection without sacrificing mobility.

In European history, well-known armour types include the lorica segmentata of the Roman legions, the chainmail hauberk of the early medieval age, and the full steel plate armour worn by later Medieval and Renaissance knights, and a few key components, (breast and back plates) by heavy cavalry in several European countries until the first year of World War 1. (1914-15).

In East Asian history, lamellar armour and brigandine was popular. In pre-Qin dynasty times, leather armour was made out of exotic animals such as rhinoceros. Chinese influence in Japan would result in the Japanese adopting Chinese styles, their famous 'samurai armour' being a result of this influence.

Transition to plate

Little by little, small additional plates or disks of steel were added to the mail to protect vulnerable areas. The knees were capped with steel, and two circular disks were fitted to protect the underarms, by the late 1200s. The small skull cap evolved into a bigger true helmet, as it was lengthened downward to protect the back of the neck and the sides of the head. Steel plate was then developed to protect the shins, feet, throat and upper chest, and soon (mid to late 1300s) most of the mail was covered by these protective plates. The next phase saw the plate cover almost all parts of the mail, and several forms of closed-helmets were introduced in the late 1300s.

Plate armour, 1400 - 1620

Main article: plate armour

Probably the most recognised style of armour in the world, associated with the knights of Late Medieval Europe, but continuing later through the 1500 & 1600s in all European countries. Heavy cavalry continued to use breast- and back-plates into the early 20th century in elite cuirassier units.

Early modern armour

Armour of King Stefan Batory of Poland, painted by Jan Matejko.
Armour of King Stefan Batory of Poland, painted by Jan Matejko.

Conventional wisdom says that plate armour faded away on the battlefield soon after firearms were introduced. This is very much not the case. Crude cannons were being used before plate armour became the norm. Soon, in the 1400s a small, mobile "hand cannon" was being used by horsemen. Improved crossbows, and the first pistols and pre-musket long arms, began to take a heavy toll on the mail clad, and partially plated knights and foot soldiers. Rather than dooming the use of body armour, the threat of small firearms intensified the use and further refinement of plate armour. There was a 150 year period, that more and better metallurgically advanced steel armour was being used, precisely because of the danger posed by the gun.

In the early years of pistol and muskets, firearms were relatively low velocity, the full suits of armour, or breast plates actually stopped bullets fired from a modest distance. The front breast plates were, in fact, commonly shot as a test. The impact point would be encircled with ingraving to point it out. This was called the "proof" . It was not uncommon for a man in armour, mounted on a horse, to ride up closer to the enemy, in a tactical Manoeuvre called "The wheel", and discharge his hand-cannon or later, pistols, right into the faces of the adversary at close range. Cross-bow arrows, if still used, would seldom penetrate good plate, nor would any bullet but one fired from close range. In effect, (and this has long been misunderstood), plate armour actually came to replace chain mail because it was relatively, "musket ball proof". Plate would stop all of these at a distance. Hence, guns and cavalry in plate armour were "threat and remedy" together on the battlefield for almost 400 years. For most of that period, it allowed horsemen to fight while being the targets of defending musketeers without being easily killed. Full suits of armour were actually worn by generals and princely commanders right up to the second decade of the 1700s. It was the only way they could be mounted & survey the overall battlefield with safety from distant musket fire. The armour shown here of the Polish King, Stefan Batory, is an early example of the "field-marshall style" battle armour.

Plate Armour for Horses

The horse was afforded protection from lances and infantry weapons by steel plate barding. This gave the horse protection and enhanced the visual impression of a mounted knight. Late in the era, elaborate barding was used in parade armour.

Characteristics of armour

Going back to the heyday of armour in the 1400s, most parts of the human body have been fitted with specialised steel pieces, typically worn over linen or woollen underclothes and attached to the body via leather straps and buckles, with mail (maille) protecting those areas that could not be fitted with plate (the backs of the knee for instance). Well-known constituent parts of plate-armour include the helm, gauntlets, gorget or 'neckguard', breastplate, and greaves worn on the lower legs.

Typically, full-body plate armour was custom-made for the individual. This was understandably a very time-consuming and expensive undertaking, costing as much as a family house or high-powered car in today's money. As such, it was almost exclusively the luxury of the noble and landed classes, with soldiers of lower standing generally wearing cheaper armour (if at all) typically limited to a helm and a breastplate. Armour often bore an insignia in the interior, that was only visible to the wearer upon removal. Full plate armour made the wearer virtually impervious to sword blows as well as providing some protection against arrows, bludgeons and even early musket shot. Although sword edges could not penetrate the relatively thin (as little as 2 mm) plate, they could cause serious concussive damage via the impact. Also, although arrows shot from bows could often pierce early plate at close range, later improvements in the steel forging techniques and armour design made even this line of attack increasingly difficult. By its apex, toughened steel plate was almost impregnable on the battlefield. Knights were instead increasingly felled by blunt weapons like maces or warhammers that could send concussive force through the plate armour resulting in injuries such as broken bones, organ haemorrhage and/or head trauma. Another tactic was to attempt to strike though the gaps between the armour pieces, using daggers to attack the Knight's eyes or joints.

Contrary to common misconceptions, a well-made suit of medieval 'battle' armour (as opposed to the primarily ceremonial 'parade' and 'tournament' armours popular with kings and nobility of later years) hindered its wearer no more than the equipment carried by soldiers today. An armoured Knight (trained since his teens in its wearing) could comfortably run, crawl, climb ladders, as well as mount and dismount his horse without recourse to a crane (a myth probably originating from an English music hall comedy of the 1830's, and popularised in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). A full suit of medieval plate is thought to have weighed little more than 60 lb (27 kg) on average, considerably lighter than the equipment often carried by the elite of today’s armies (e.g., SAS patrols have been known to carry equipment weighing well over 200 lb (91 kg) for many miles).

Plate Armour slowly discarded

Gradually starting in the mid 1500s, one plate element after another was discarded to save weight for foot soldiers, but breast and back plates continued to be used though the entire period of the 1700s through Napoleonic times in many (heavy) European cavalry units, all the way to the early 20th Century. Rifled muskets from about 1750 and later, could pierce plate, so cavalry had to be far more mindful of the fire. At the start of World War 1 the French Cuirassiers, in the thousands, rode out to engage the German Cavalry who likewise used helmets and armour. By that period, the shiny armour plate was covered in dark paint and a canvas wrap covered their elaborate Napoleonic style helmets. Their armour was meant to protect only against sabres and light lances. The cavalry had to beware of high velocity rifles and machine guns like the foot soldiers, who at least had a trench to protect them. Machine gunners in that war also occasionally wore a crude type of heavy armour.

Modern personal armour

A modern ballistic vest.
A modern ballistic vest.

Today, bullet proof vests made of ballistic cloth (e.g Kevlar, Dyneema, Twaron, Spectra etc.) and ceramic or metal plates are common among police forces, security staff, corrections officers and some branches of the military. For infantry applications, lighter protection (historically known as a flak jacket) is often used to protect soldiers from grenade fragments and indirect effects of bombardment, but usually not small arms fire. This is because assault rifles usually fire harder, higher-energy bullets than pistols, and the increased protection needed to stop these would be too cumbersome and heavy to use in combat.

The US Army has adopted Interceptor Body Armor, however, which uses ceramic plates in the chest and back of the armour. Each plate is rated to stop 3 hits from a 7.62 round at a range of 10m, though accounts in Iraq and Afghanistan tell of soldiers shot as much as seven times in the chest without penetration.

Despite advances in the protection offered by armor against projectiles, as the name implies, modern ballistic armour is much less impervious to stabbing weapons unless they are augmented with anti-knife/anti-stab armour.


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