The Evolution of Shields: From Ancient Soldiers to Riot Police

Throughout history, shields have been an important part of waging conflict. As conflicts evolved, so did the designs of shields.

Apr 21, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
evolution-of-shields-from-ancient-soldiers-to-riot-police

 

Since ancient times, warriors and soldiers have used shields as an important part of their kit. The quality of a shield could mean the difference between life and death, and as a result, much thought went into the design and production of shields.

 

As well as the material used to make it, the shape of a shield was of primary importance to the wielder. Some were designed with the individual fighter in mind, some were designed to be used in file, and others were designed to be used while fighting on horseback. This is the story of how shields evolved from ancient times all the way to the present.

 

Shields in the Ancient World

double arc shield
Chinese double-arc shield, via greatmingmilitary.blogspot.com

 

When shields were first used in warfare, they were made from simple materials that could be easily worked. From the late Predynastic Era to the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, the shield generally represented the only form of body protection afforded to Egyptian soldiers. The shields were made of cowhide, flat at the bottom and tapered towards the top.

 

In China, shields were made of lacquered leather with a wooden (usually bamboo) frame. The shields were usually rectangular shaped and slightly wider at the bottom. For a handle, a strip of bamboo ran down the center of the reverse. Shields in China would evolve in construction to involve lacquered layers of leather or wood held together with rattan. By the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE – 206 BCE), bronze was being used, but it was heavy and made shields tiring to wield. A popular design that lasted for many centuries was the “double arc” design which had the left and right sides of the shield angled back toward the wielder.

 

mycenaean shield weapon
A fresco depicting a Mycenaean shield of the figure-of-eight design, via World History Encyclopedia

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The Mycenaeans of ancient Greece made use of two main shapes in their shield designs. The tower shield that protected the entire front of the body went out of fashion with the introduction of bronze armor. A figure-of-eight shield was adopted and became widely popular. These shields were made of several layers of hide and often reinforced with bronze plates. Crescent-shaped shields were also used on horseback, as their design curved around the wielder and provided an easier riding experience.

 

At the time of the Greco-Persian Wars, the most common shield design among the Persians was a large rectangular wicker shield. In contrast, the Greek hoplites used a round wooden aspis (hoplon) which has become symbolic of ancient Greek culture. What made the aspis so effective were several factors. It was used in conjunction with the shields on either side of it. The “shield wall” was formed with overlapping shields so that each soldier protected the one next to him too. In addition, the more complex form of grip shifted the weight from the wrist to the whole arm and shoulder, meaning the shield was more manageable.

 

shield greek aspis
The construction of an aspis, clearly showing the more complex way the shield was grasped, via fishki.net

 

Originally, Romans used the aspis, but this was eventually replaced with a quintessentially Roman design. Around the 4th century BCE, the iconic scutum evolved, becoming a symbolic icon of Roman legionaries. The scutum was a large rectangular tower shield that provided almost complete coverage for the Roman legionary. It curved back, creating a semi-cylinder, protecting the sides of the soldier as well. Its construction consisted of three sheets of wood glued together and then covered in canvas and leather. The handle was a horizontal piece of wood that was protected on the offensive side by a metal bowl-shaped feature called a “boss.”

 

Although the aspis was easier to wield and more durable than the scutum, the latter offered more protection and, when used en masse, could be used in the famous testudo formation that the Roman legions employed in certain situations. It involved the legionaries using their shields to create a box shape with a roof that provided almost complete coverage for the unit operating it.

 

weapon shield testudo
Roman reenactors using their shields in a testudo formation, via Spangdahlem Air Base

 

In the rest of Europe, Germanic tribes of Central and Northern Europe tended to use round shields made of wood, leather, or wicker, and often with metal fittings, including a boss. Sometimes the boss was replaced with a large spike to turn the shield into an offensive weapon. The Celts adopted a distinctive elongated oval shield made of wood.

 

European Shields After the Fall of the Roman Empire

norman shields bayeux
Norman kite shields as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry. The depiction of how the riders held their shields is accurate, although not necessarily directly in combat. While riding, the shield was held pointing backward to stop the shield from constantly knocking against the knee, which at the end of a day of riding, would result in significant swelling and pain, even while wearing padding and mail; via BBC

 

At the beginning of the Dark Ages, Europe was fractured into many smaller warring states, each adopting its own styles; shield designs were numerous throughout the continent.

 

Of particular note is the evolution of the shields in England starting from the Viking Era.

 

The Vikings used flat round shields with a simple handle, often with a boss. This made the shield maneuverable from one-on-one combat and could also be used in a shield wall. The shield wall was a vital part of early medieval warfare, and virtually every pitched battle at this time was a struggle of men in shield walls trying to break the shield wall formations of the enemy. In England, their Anglo-Saxon adversaries also used round wooden shields of an almost identical design. Round shields such as these were designed for armies fighting on foot.

 

The Norman invasion of England in 1066 would significantly affect the evolution of shields as the focus of combat shifted and mounted soldiers became more widespread. The Normans introduced the kite shield to England, which departed significantly from their round predecessors in that they were designed in the shape of a teardrop and were used primarily on horseback. And unlike the round shield, the kite shield curved inward at the sides.

 

shields teutonic knights
Teutonic knights with heater shields, via about-history.com

 

Norman kite shields were worn on the forearm by use of enarmes – two leather straps riveted to the inside of the shield. A longer strap called a guige was also attached to the shield. The guige went over the shoulders, allowing the bearer far more mobility when riding.

 

Over time, armor became better and protected more of the body. This reduced the need for a shield, and the kite shield got progressively smaller until the shield became the classic heater shape. The heater shape was like a triangle and was (and still is) used to depict complex heraldic designs.

 

While some shields became smaller, the need for bigger shields arose for crossbowmen. The pavise was a large rectangular shield that could be set up on the ground without needing to be held in place. Behind the pavise, the crossbowman could use both his hands to fiddle with the finicky reloading mechanism of the crossbow. The pavise was also used by musketeers as gunpowder took over tension as the primary means for propelling projectiles.

 

shield crossbow pavise
Genoese crossbowmen using pavises. From the book The Crossbow by Mike Loades, with the illustration by Peter Dennis, via Osprey Publishing

 

For many of the soldiers on foot, better armor was available, and technological changes on the battlefield facilitated a shift to polearms. Increased numbers of cavalry required more effective means to counter them. In the late 15th century, the pike started appearing on the battlefield more often, and over the next two centuries, it dominated the battlefield. The pike was a long spear that needed two hands to wield it, thus rendering the shield unusable by pikemen. Gunpowder also made its introduction to the European battlefield, and sword and shield footsoldiers slowly got replaced with musketmen who accompanied the pikemen in “pike and shot” formation.

 

Shields During the Renaissance

shield giganti buckler
Illustration of bucklers being used in conjunction with rapiers, from a book by Nicoletto Giganti, via thetavernknight.wordpress.com

 

While the shield almost disappeared from the battlefield, it was still found on the streets, as duelists made use of it, albeit in a much smaller form. Rapier fencing found a niche as a popular activity during the Renaissance. While the right hand (for most people) was occupied with wielding the rapier, the left hand could wield something else. Many items were used in the offhand, from daggers, capes, and small shields known as bucklers. These shields were a perfect complement to the extremely fast motion needed for rapier fencing, and, although they were around hundreds of years prior, they found a marked increase in use in the urban environment.

 

Meanwhile, in other less technologically developed places in the world, people made shields out of a variety of materials. Aboriginal Australians crafted shields out of wood and bark, while many African tribes stuck to the tried and tested method of constructing shields out of hardened leather. The Zulu shields are iconic examples of leather shields that were used in the 19th century.

 

Shields in the Modern Era

shield riot police
Riot police adopting Roman tactics, from Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters, via Buzzfeed

 

The Renaissance era gave way to the age of gunpowder. Massed ranks of soldiers armed with muskets and bayonets faced off against swift, saber-wielding cavalry and devastating cannon. By the Napoleonic era, the shield was unlikely to be found anywhere on the battlefield.

 

In the First World War, attempted experiments to bring shields back into use proved worthy of further experimentation, and many “set shields” were employed on the battlefield.

 

In modern times, plastics and complex compounds have reinvigorated the ability to provide personal protection in the form of armor and shields. The military makes use of shields in certain circumstances, including breaching buildings, and for protection against bomb blasts, while riot police can be found using plastic shields identical in shape to their predecessors. Large rectangular shields are used to hold the line, while small units of police using round shields make quick forays into the crowd to make arrests before retreating back behind the shield wall.

 

Shields have been around since antiquity, and have proved their worth, winning countless battles and saving millions of lives in the process. The usage of shields today may be found in more particular niches, but they are certainly no less effective in doing the job they are designed to do.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.