Knights’ Armor Was Much, Much Lighter Than You Think

“Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” —Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones (Season 1)

In A Nutshell

Many movies and TV shows incorrectly depict armored knights shambling around awkwardly like metal-encased zombies. Worse, even the most heavily armored troops are often just slow-moving kill-count fodder for any hero (or heroine) with a sword or a bow. But real armor wasn’t as heavy or cumbersome as is imagined, and it was incredibly difficult to pierce or cut.

The Whole Bushel

Even the heaviest plate armor, typically weighing about 23 kilograms (50 lb), wasn’t much heavier than a modern soldier’s rucksack. Knights and men-at-arms were just as mobile as their modern counterparts (if not even more mobile). Armorers were exceptionally good at their jobs; the steel plates or chain mail they ensconced their customers in allowed for surprising mobility. Medieval chroniclers wrote about fully armored men-at-arms scaling siege ladders like sets of monkey bars.

In a number of modern tests, a wearer, obviously not trained as a knight, was able to perform somersaults and cartwheels. In the videos below, you can watch an old, armor-wearing Medievalist throw himself off a horse and pop back up with little difficulty. No doubt a trained soldier, accustomed to wearing armor regularly, would perform even better.

And unlike the previously mentioned rucksack, a knight’s armor made him almost impervious to the most common weapons of his era.

Swords? Essentially useless when swung. A simple suit of chain-mail could blunt most sword slashes. And combined with the padded fabric or leather worn underneath, mail was enough to dampen hits which otherwise would kill a man. Slashing wildly with a sword at plate armor was a complete exercise in futility. The best bet was stabbing one’s armored opponent in the eye slit or hopefully puncturing his suit with two-handed jabs. No sword, not even a katana, could cut through plate armor.

Though the bow has been much mythologized, taking a knight down with arrows took a lot of ammunition. It also helped to have a significant terrain advantage, like the one the English bowmen held over the French cavalry at Agincourt. That’s because most bows couldn’t even punch through mail. Medieval writers noted knights coming out of battle so absurdly covered with arrows that they looked like porcupines, but were unwounded. During the later Middle Ages, the typical bow’s arrows literally bounced off plate armor wearers.

Knights weren’t slicing through each other like human-shaped sticks of butter. But they were bashing one another with maces and other blunt weapons hoping to cripple or immobilize the other. Failing that, knights in battle resembled mixed martial arts fighters whose finishing move is a dagger to the face (or armpit). During the Middle Ages, it was often easier (and more profitable) to capture an enemy knight rather than find a can opener and kill him.

By the 16th century, armor was so protective—it completely enclosed the wearer—yet flexible and mobile, NASA would later emulate armor construction they observed in British museums to create the Apollo spacesuits. Previously, NASA’s idea was basically a box with sleeves. Medieval armor saved the first astronauts from landing on the Moon wearing something better suited as a Halloween costume.

Show Me The Proof

The National Museum of the Middle Ages, Cluny: Armored combat in the 15th century (video)
Weapons That Made Britain: Armour (video)
Central European University: Arms and Armor
Spirit Of The Sword: A Celebration of Artistry and Craftsmanship, by Steve Shackleford
COSMonline: How Henry VIII helped put man on the moon

  • Hillyard

    Very interesting. But not stupid.

    • Lisa 39

      I just kept picturing battle scenes from lotr while I read this, pretty cool.

      • edzyl blane

        Its game of thrones for me…

        • TheMadHatter

          When we think of game of thrones, we don’t think of battle scenes, if you know what I mean.

        • Lisa 39

          I haven’t seen it yet but from comments I’ve read here on kn and LV I think I want to 🙂

          • edzyl blane

            Wait…So you haven’t seen GOT yet?

          • Lisa 39

            No I haven’t.

      • It was some medieval fuck scene for me.

  • inconspicuous detective

    ugh i hate how video games haven’t caught onto this yet. (yes, brief nerding – out moment…bear with me guys) “heavy” armor. two handed weapons. they’re on screen and are treated as being super heavy and slowing movement, limiting reflexes, ect. it’s crazy. claymores for example were not heavy, at least not nearly as heavy as people think. now armor too? COME ON!!!

    • Hillyard

      Well from what I know about video games (not much) they do show the female armor being minimal. I’m pretty sure that’s lightweight.

      • inconspicuous detective

        it has the same effect; besides, i’m not so desperate that i play as a scantily clad female warrior. if i want it, i got it, man 😉

        • Ray

          What does a 10 year old got?

          • inconspicuous detective

            not sure. why don’t you inform us? you’re the resident 10 year old, and village idiot.

          • Ray

            Do you need a nap? You seem cranky. You’ll find out what you can do with a woman when you’re 12-15. What cartoon is your picture from?

          • inconspicuous detective

            you’re really running out of material (never had any to begin with). you can do better than that, right? i mean you’re 14, an atheist, you gotta have someone you can ask for advice in a battle of wits…well this is more like a slaughter of wits as i’ve managed to kick your ass all over these two wonderful sites but c’mon, kid. give it up. no matter how badly you wanna win this, you can’t. you’re following me around on here only makes you come off as my little bitch, a personal troll because i’m that much of a personality. everyone can see it except you, and you keep doing it like a fool. if you wanna keep diving on the sword go ahead, but i’m not gonna continue to indulge you by smashing you back down to your own level every time you get a hard on to lose in a word fight.

          • Ray

            You must be the most retarded person on listverse. None of that is right plus you try to make your retarded little insults about me in comments to other people. Do you think about me all the time? Your mother should spank you. What is the cartoon from your picture?

          • Ray

            None of those claims are true. It’s also funny how you insult me on random lists and I’m your personal troll. Grow up. I’ll probably just ignore you from now on because I really hate kids.

          • Ray

            Which useless mod erased my comment? Is incontinent detective’s mother a mod on this site? This comments section is such a joke.

          • oouchan

            Calling people names is off limits. You have been told that before. Address the comment not the one making it. That is all.

          • Ray

            I didn’t call him names. I’m confident that he’s mentally handicapped. It’s just the way he is.

          • oouchan

            You called him the R word. That is calling someone names. Knock it off.

          • Ray

            The R word is only name calling if it’s not true. In this case, it’s just the truth. He called me an atheist. Isn’t that name calling? Maybe you just don’t like me.

          • oouchan

            Do I really have to explain the difference between the two?
            Just play nice. I’m done with this.

      • Nathaniel A.
    • Ray

      You should go tell mommy about this too. She kiss it and make it all better.

    • Bart Hugh Dennis Welch II

      While plate armor was nowhere near as slow and cumbersome as they’re depicted in vidya games, the stuff was still heavy. Even with proper training you were still going to be slower than if you were in lighter armors. I mean, seriously. Wearing around 150 (for some armor) extra pounds of animal skin, metal rings and plates of steel on top of arming clothes isn’t exactly wearing a loincloth.

  • Clyde Barrow

    Interestingly enough, the screwdriver was invented for the purpose of applying plate armor during the Middle Ages.

    • Hillyard

      So drinking a bit of vodka mixed with OJ made slipping that stuff on easier. Makes sense.

      • Clyde Barrow

        Hmm, and here I thought vodka + OJ = Double homicide.

        • Hillyard

          Depends on whether it’s shaken or stirred.

          • Clyde Barrow

            Or if you have a creepy guy named ‘Kato’ living in your pool house…

          • lonelydisco

            Oh, no ….

  • Albert

    I wonder if knights hopped around on invisible horses and had guys following clapping empty coconut halves together.

    • Joseph Wilson

      lmfao

    • TheMadHatter

      Only the stupid English kaaaaaanigits!

      • Albert

        Tis’ but a flesh wound!!!

        • TheMadHatter

          I will save the prince and your death will not have been in vain!

          • Albert

            BRING UP THE HOLY HAND GRENADE!!!!

          • TheMadHatter

            We are the knights of ni!
            Bring me a shrubbery!

  • sam

    do you need padding to wear heavy armour
    because iv bought a set

  • Regan Walker

    Loved this post. As an author of medieval novels, I work hard at authenticity and, through my research, I learned that the first knights–in the 11th century–wore chain mail that was much lighter than that which followed. And I loved all you had to say about armor generally being lighter than thought. Thanks for the great post. I will share it!