For centuries mail armor, also called chainmail, was used for protection by soldiers and warriors all over the world. Soldiers and warriors as chronologically and geographically disparate as the Greek Hoplites and the Japanese Samurai all made extensive use of mail. Although it could be quite heavy, mail provided excellent protection and was relatively cheap and easy to manufacture. Over time, mail evolved to meet the needs of the battlefield and the tastes of those who wore it. Surviving examples range from the very simple, to the very elaborate. In the modern era mail is still utilized as protective equipment in certain situations. Few other types of armor have proven so popular and so effective for so long as has mail.
Etymology: Mail Armor or Chainmail?
It is unclear exactly where or how the term mail originated. It is possible that the term derives from the Latin word macula, which means “spot” or “opacity;” possibly a reference to the metal rings or the ability to see through the armor. Another theory is that it originated from the Old French word mailler, which means “to hammer.” In modern French, the word maille, refers to “a loop” or “a stitch,” possibly lending some credence to the theory of the term’s French origins. The earliest records of the term appear in Old French and Anglo-Norman as maille, maile, or male, and in Middle English as mailye, maille, maile, male, and meile.
In modern popular culture, this type of armor is often referred to as “chain mail” or “chainmail.” This term appears to have originated around 1786 in Francis Grose’s A Treatise on Ancient Armor and Weapons. By 1822 it had found its way into popular culture thanks in large part to Sir Walter Scott’s The Fortunes of Nigel. Despite its modern usage, the term is ahistorical as Medieval sources only use the term mail when referring to this type of armor. It is also somewhat redundant as both “chain” and “mail” have similar meanings. Today the use of “mail” and “chain mail” is somewhat contentious, with most scholars and academics preferring “mail” while “chain mail” is firmly embedded in the popular conscience.
The First Ring: Origins of Mail
The origins of mail armor are somewhat mysterious, although it is commonly believed to have first been developed by the Celts. For the present, the oldest known examples of mail armor were from the tomb of a chieftain who was buried in Horny Jatov, which lies in the Slovakian part of the Carpathian basin. These examples have been dated to the 3rd century BCE, though it is possible that mail was developed much earlier. In Italy, there is possible Etruscan evidence of mail dating to the 4th century BCE. However, this evidence is open to interpretation as it may be interpreted as mail or simply a decorative pattern on the clothes of several soldiers. Mail also appears to be referenced in the Avesta, the 5th century BCE holy scripture of Zoroastrianism.
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Regardless of when or where it was invented, it appears that mail was inspired by or developed from scale armor. First developed during the Bronze Age, scale armor saw widespread use. It consisted of many overlapping scales or plates of various sizes and shapes. These were attached to each other and to a backing of leather or cloth in overlapping rows. Attempts to provide greater flexibility and protection likely resulted in the scales being shrunk down into rings. This also would have reduced the amount of time needed to make the armor and simplified the process.
Links in a Chain: Manufacturing Mail
Making mail armor began with forming the wire which would be used to construct the rings. Since mail was commonly made out of wrought iron, there were two primary methods for making the wire. The first was to hammer out the wrought iron into plates which were then cut into thin pieces. These were then repeatedly pulled through a draw plate, a type of die with holes of different diameters until the desired diameter was achieved. The second method was to forge down an iron billet into a rod and then draw it out into a wire. Rings were then formed from the wire and linked together. Several patterns have been used, but the most common was the 4-to-1 pattern, meaning that each ring was linked to four others.
When the rings were linked together, it was critical to ensure that they did not split open when they received a slashing or thrusting attack. This was accomplished by riveting the rings closed. One of the ways that the quality of the mail could be determined was by examining the number of riveted rings compared to the number of solid unriveted rings. Solid rings were made by punching from a sheet and were forge-welded together. Riveted mail was utilized in Europe from at least pre-Roman times, with solid rings falling out of favor in the 14th century. Outside of Europe, solid rings were far more common, especially in India. Butted, split, or twisted links where the wire turned or twisted two or more times so that the ends meet but are not riveted were primarily used in Japan.
1. Celtic Mail
According to the Greco-Roman authors Diodorus (V, 30:3), Strabo (II, 3:6), Appianus (Syriaca 32, 1-3), Livy (37:40), and Varro (De Ling. Lat. V, 24:116), the Celts were the inventors of mail armor. While Celtic warriors were often depicted as naked by their more “civilized” opponents, many were, in reality, well protected by their fine mail armors. The earliest examples of Celtic mail have been recovered from Eastern and Central European sites; generally located in Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Celts were skilled metalworkers who specialized in highly detailed, intricate work.
The Celts used mail primarily to construct hauberks, which were essentially shirts made from mail. Celtic hauberks were short sleeved or, in some cases, lacked sleeves altogether. They were reinforced around the shoulders with straps, as this area would have been exposed to attack that could incapacitate the warrior and which facilitated putting the armor on and taking it off. The Celts left no written records of their own and most examples of Celtic mail are fragmentary at best. So much of what we know is based on artistic depictions which can be open to a variety of interpretations.
2. Hellenistic Mail
In the 4th century, the Celtic Boii and Volcae, among others, pushed into the Carpathian region and the Danube basin. By the beginning of the 3rd century, they began to launch raids into Thrace and Macedonia which culminated in the “Great Expedition” of 279 BCE. After devastating much of Greece and carving out a kingdom in central Anatolia known as Galatia, the Celts became a ready source of mercenaries for the various Hellenistic kingdoms. Although many Greeks despised anything they considered as “barbarism”, mail was adopted by many Hellenistic soldiers.
Hellenistic soldiers wore mail hauberks which conformed to their stylistic tastes. The most basic form resembled a larger tank-top; it lacked sleeves but hung low enough to protect the loins and possibly the upper thighs. More elaborate hauberks resembled the more traditionally Greek linothorax. These resembled the simple hauberk but included two flaps that went over the shoulders. Mail was also likely used to enhance the defensive properties of existing armors since its flexibility allowed it to cover areas that would otherwise have been left unprotected.
3. Roman Mail
The Romans first encountered mail as a result of their conflicts with the Celts in the 3rd century BCE. First employed during the Roman conquest of Hispania beginning in the late 3rd century, the Romans wore mail armor until the final collapse of the empire. Known as the lorica hamata, the Romans favored mail because of the greater coverage it provided and its low maintenance. The constant friction of the rings rubbing together kept it relatively free of rust. There were different versions of the lorica hamata for the legionaries, auxiliaries, cavalry, and skirmishers. Although briefly supplanted by the lorica segmentata in the 1st Century CE, the lorica hamata returned to prominence by the end of the 2nd Century CE and remained the preferred body armor of Roman soldiers until the end of the empire.
The lorica hamata was manufactured out of iron and bronze. It consisted of alternating rows of solid and riveted rings, usually around 35,000-40,000 in number. During the Republican era, the armor lacked sleeves but provided protection to the shoulders with flaps similar to those found on Celtic and Hellenistic mail hauberks. By the reign of Augustus, the shoulder pieces were expanded until they reached the upper arms. Over time, sleeves were added and gradually lengthened so that by the 3rd century CE, they reached down to the elbows. The standard lorica hamata weighed around 11kgs and, with proper maintenance, could be used for several decades. Slaves at Rome’s state run armories were capable of producing one lorica hamata every two months.
4. Persian Mail
The Romans are most commonly credited with introducing mail armor to their Persian foes. Although Hellenistic armies also made use of mail, it was on nowhere near the same scale as the Romans. After defeating and overthrowing the Parthians, the Sassanid Persians adopted mail armor sometime during the 3rd century CE. Scale and lamellar armor were already widely used at this time, so mail supplemented rather than supplanted existing types of armor. Mail was especially useful to the Persian cataphracts. These were a type of heavy cavalry, where both the horse and rider were completely encased in armor, allowing them to plow through enemy formations with near impunity.
Persian mail was just as heavy as its Roman or European counterparts. Since it was initially used by cataphracts, Persian mail covered more parts of the body. Along with long sleeved hauberks that reached the wrist, the Persians also made use of mail leggings, coifs or hoods, and even face coverings. They also used mail to protect their horses with barding or body armor made from mail.
5. Medieval European Mail
Mail armor was used extensively across Medieval Europe. Immediately after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire it was available only to the wealthiest of warriors. As time went on mail became more readily available, so that mail became synonymous with armor. Although mail remained expensive, it was still available to soldiers of common origins. Mail was often worn in conjunction with a padded jacket or brigantine to provide additional protection. Lances, bludgeoning weapons, and crossbows proved capable of defeating mail and by the 14th century, their widespread use had spurred the adoption of plate armor. However, mail was never fully superseded. It was used to cover areas that were left exposed by plate armor and some European cavalrymen continued to wear it well into the 17th century.
Medieval European mail usually made use of the 4-to-1 pattern and was very well made. It was commonly constructed with riveted rather than solid rings making it quite strong. During the Crusades, Muslim observers often commented on how European knights wearing mail were able to keep fighting even after being riddled with arrows. The rings of Medieval European mail were also often flattened with a hammer and pliers. This would have made the armor more comfortable while also making it more solid and durable so that it was better able to resist blows.
6. Islamic Mail
Large numbers of Arabs served both as allies and as mercenaries of the Roman and Persian empires. It was through these contacts that the Arabs were introduced to mail as a form of armor. Mail armor was highly valued in Arab society and only the wealthiest warriors could afford it. According to the Quran, the knowledge of how to manufacture mail armor was revealed to David by Allah as a gift. According to the translation of Yusuf Ali 21:80, “It was We Who taught him the making of coats of mail for your benefit, to guard you from each other’s violence: will ye then be grateful?” The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries spread mail armor into Central Asia and across North Africa.
The rings of Islamic mail armor were sometimes stamped with prayer symbols for both divine protection and as a sign of their superior craftsmanship. Another form of Islamic mail armor was the kazaghand, jazerant, or jazeran. This was a mail hauberk that was cloth lined and covered with high-quality fabric, often silk. The kazaghand was particularly popular because of its comfort and attractive appearance. However, it was not durable, as the cloth quickly wore out and tore in battle.
7. Chinese Mail
The Chinese first encountered mail armor in 384 CE, when allied Kuchi warriors arrived wearing “armor similar to chains.” However, mail did not really catch on until 718 CE when diplomats from the city of Samarkand brought a coat of mail as a gift for the Tang Emperor. The city had recently been conquered by the Arabs, who were well equipped with mail armor. Mail never really caught on in China, where lamellar armor remained popular. Chinese armies consisted of mass levies, so equipping all of these soldiers with mail armor would have been expensive and time-consuming. As such, mail was something of a foreign luxury good imported from the west by wealthy individuals looking to show off their status.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), Chinese armorers improved their mail armor so that it could better resist arrows. This innovation was likely the result of pressure from the Jurchen and Mongols, who relied heavily on bows and arrows and who would ultimately destroy the Song Dynasty. This was accomplished by utilizing more closely interlocked rings. The Chinese also mixed lamellar and mail armor to provide a greater degree of protection. Chinese mail hauberks were both short and long sleeved.
8. Turkish Mail
The Abbasid Caliphate’s conquests in central Asia in the early 8th century CE spread mail armor to the nomadic Turks. Turks were recruited in large numbers to serve across the Islamic world and eventually established kingdoms and empires of their own. By the 12th century, Turkish warriors introduced Turkish-style mail armor in India, Egypt, North Africa, and the Sudan. The Mamluks of Egypt, slave soldiers originally of Turkish origin, were noted for their use of mail armor. Perhaps the most famous Turkish warriors of all, the Ottoman Janissaries wore mail as well and wore it until the 18th century.
Turkish mail armor was very similar in appearance to Persian mail armor. There are many different styles of Turkish mail armor, since Turks served across the Islamic world. Although they were famed cavalrymen, the Turks, including the famed Janissaries, also fought as infantry. As such, mail was often used in conjunction with scales, lamellar, or plates in order to provide a greater degree of protection to soldiers in a variety of different combat situations. Ottoman mail armor, which accounts for the majority of the surviving examples, consists of alternating rows of solid and riveted links. The riveted links made use of rounded rivets.
9. Indian Mail
Turkish warriors first made their way to India in the 11th century, but it wasn’t until the 12th that they had introduced mail armor to the subcontinent. Eventually, it became the armor of choice across much of the area, as India was home to many skilled armorers. Mail was used not only to protect Indian warriors, but also war elephants that went into battle with protective armor of their own. The armies of the Mughal Empire made extensive use of mail armor. The widespread use of mail armor in India only began to decline and disappear after the Nawab of Bengal was defeated by the British at the Battle of Plassey.
Since Indian mail armor was derived from Turkish examples, it too bears many similarities to Persian mail armor. Indian mail was constructed with alternating rows of solid and riveted links, which make use of round rivets. It also often integrated solid plates and scales in order to provide a greater deal of protection to the wearer. The Indian use of mail to provide additional protection to war elephants is perhaps the best demonstration of the skill and versatility of India’s armorers when working with mail.
10. Japanese Mail
Mail was known in Japan from at least the time of the Mongol invasions of the 1270s and 1280s, though it was not until the Nambokucho Period (1336-1392) that it really caught on. Japanese armor was heavily influenced by climatic and geological conditions, as Japan has a wet, humid climate and is iron poor. This meant that extra care had to be taken in the care and construction of mail armor in Japan. The rings of Japanese mail were smaller than their European counterparts and were occasionally lacquered to inhibit rust. Kusari, or mail, was used to construct jackets, hoods, vests, gloves, shin guards, shoulder guards, thigh guards, and even socks. Entire suits were sometimes worn under clothes for protection. Most commonly, it was used to protect areas not covered by the standard lamellar cuirass of the Samurai.
The Japanese used three main patterns to make mail armor; a square 4-in-1 pattern, a hexagonal 6-in-1 pattern, and a European 4-in-1 pattern. Later the rings were double or even triple upped in an attempt to make them bulletproof. Along with being lacquered, they were also always stitched onto a cloth or leather backing. Most rings were either butted together, so that the ends touched and were not riveted, or wire used to construct the rings was turned or twisted several times; twisted links always connect to a central butted ring. Riveted rings were known either being developed locally or copied from European examples.
11. Modern Mail Armor
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, experiments were conducted with mail to see if it could be used to construct bulletproof vests. During the Mahdist War (1881-1899) both Egyptian and Sudanese forces made use of mail armor that was intended to resist bullets. The mail armor proved useless at stopping a modern bullet and, in some cases, fragmented, causing worse and further wounds. Mail was also used during World War I, when a mail fringe was added to some British infantry helmets. Although it proved capable of protecting the face from shrapnel, it proved unpopular. Early tank crews made use of mail veils on their splatter masks to protect them from steel fragments flying around inside their tanks.
Today mail has been put to a wide variety of non-military uses in a variety of fields. It has been used to create stab-proof vests for VIPs and by both butchers and oyster shuckers who commonly wear mail gloves. In 1979, mail was used to develop a shark-proof suit to protect scuba divers from shark bites when working closely with these animals. Metalworkers use mail as splash and shrapnel guards to protect from flying metal and electrical workers use it for RF leakage testing and to create Faraday cages. Mail is also commonly used as a decorative element in military uniforms and to create jewelry, clothing, wall hangings, and ornaments. As a result of its artistic use, hundreds of new, non-traditional patterns have been developed. The use of mail will, therefore, most likely continue long into the future.