The psychological advantages of armor

Edric Streona

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Feb 2016
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Japan
Ah. Original Hussars. I had the 18th/19th century versions in my head... non of which wore armour .... unless pigtails count.

The Napoleonic cuirass may have offered minimal protection from very long range musket fire... but since barely anyone but the rawest troops would try long range musket fire... it would be rare. At Waterloo they were reported to make a rattling sound when shot .... but died in the same numbers as Dragoons and chassuers.

I can’t speak for earlier periods... lower calibre muskets? As to getting hit by cannon... I can take it as full truth, possiblely a badly loaded shot? Misfire? A ball had been spent and lost some power?
 
Apr 2018
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USA
@Dan Howard

That's a good point, and I certainly don't want to exaggerate how heavy armor was. However it generally did require a lot of conditioning to get used to the weight, and even then I don't think the downsides ever quite disappeared completely. And again getting back to the psychological aspect, even if the soldier was fully fit and happened to be in a situation where armor didn't actually offer much protection, he's still likely to imagine that the weight on his shoulders would put him at a disadvantage in a foot race if he suddenly tried to run away and might fight more fiercely as a result. It's a psychological gamble sort of like Cortes burning his own ships or that one passage from Sun Tsu.

Pietro Monte as an example does talk about differences between fighting in plate harness vs fighting while lightly armor and does note that in battle a footman in full plate armor should ideally never step backwards, only forwards, and that he needs to focus a lot more on keeping his center of mass directly above his feet so that he doesn't accidentally fall over. The Collection of Renaissance Military Arts and Exercises of Pietro Monte ? Mike Prendergast
 

HackneyedScribe

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Feb 2011
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Siege of Smolensk (1609-1611). Jan Wejher was hit by a cannon ball shot by a Russian on the rampart (it did not bounce first). He was saved by his cuirass, which was damaged but not penetrated. Wejher barely survived; when he recovered he donated his armour to the Carmelite Monastery in Loretto.

Aleksander Gosiewski from the unit of voivode of Smolensk was was hit by a cannon ball in 1633. The armour was dented but not penetrated. Unfortunately it skidded off the surface and continued through his arm, leaving it severely mangled.

During a battle between Liubar and Chudniv (1660) a hussar named Prusinowski, under field hetman Jerzy Lubomirski had his breastplate crushed by a cannon ball, denting but not penetrating it. There are three separate accounts saying that he was wounded but survived. One eyewitness (colonel Samuel Leszczyński) wrote that the dent was so large that he could put his hand in it.

Hussar breastplates were pretty heavy. There are multiple extant examples in various museums that are 8-9 mm thick across the chest. They were specifically designed to stop firearms.
Do you have specific quotes for these by any chance? Frankly I'm surprised the force of impact from a cannonball didn't outright kill wearer. I would like to read the context, to see if it's a glancing blow or for some other specific reason that the wearer survived.
 

paranoid marvin

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Aug 2015
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uk
Armour was designed to give the wearer protection, but also freedom of movement - which included the ability to get up if knocked down. It was incredibly expensive not only because it took a long time to make, but because it was very cleverly designed. I think some of the misconceptions for not being able to get up after being knocked down come from jousting, where the arms locked into place to hold the lance firmly. Great if you're in the saddle, but not too easy to get up when your arms are constricted.

Battlefield armour was made to survive blows long enough to fight back, but also to be able to be given time enough to surrender if outfought. Most of the time knights would be given the chance to surrender and be ransomed, so this also encouraged them to fight on the battlefield as they knew (unlike peasants) they were likely to survive - win or lose.
 

Dan Howard

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Aug 2014
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Australia
Do you have specific quotes for these by any chance? Frankly I'm surprised the force of impact from a cannonball didn't outright kill wearer. I would like to read the context, to see if it's a glancing blow or for some other specific reason that the wearer survived.
Why waste your time on this? It is obvious that they are flukes that hit the plate at just the right place and angle. The armour was designed to stop hand-held firearms, not artillery. I only brought up the subject to demonstrate that some types of armour can easily stop a musket.
 
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Todd Feinman

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Oct 2013
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Planet Nine, Oregon
Do you have specific quotes for these by any chance? Frankly I'm surprised the force of impact from a cannonball didn't outright kill wearer. I would like to read the context, to see if it's a glancing blow or for some other specific reason that the wearer survived.
You'd think with that kind of deformation that all of the ribs on that side would be be broken and could puncture lungs, organs could be damaged. Whiplash and back trauma. Have to hit just right for the person to possibly recover from injuries.
 

Dan Howard

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Aug 2014
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You'd think with that kind of deformation that all of the ribs on that side would be be broken and could puncture lungs, organs could be damaged. Whiplash and back trauma. Have to hit just right for the person to possibly recover from injuries.
These cuirasses never rested against the skin; there was a considerable air gap which gave a good buffer against deformation, but these guys were all severely injured. If I had to choose between no armour and instant death, or heavy armour and a few months in hospital, I'd choose the latter.
 
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Apr 2018
281
USA
Anyways, here's a translation of Vegetius' thoughts on armor: The Military Institutions of the Romans (De Re Militari)

16th and 17th military thinkers tend to give a very similar conclusion. They would point out that the Ancient Romans and their medieval forefathers were frequently able to march or fight for lengthy periods of time in heavy armor, and complained that that modern soldiers thought similar armors were too heavy only because they would refuse to wear them often enough to get used to the weight.

Armor proponents would also argue that even if armor wasn't 100% musket-proof it would still be much better than nothing, providing a number of very good reasons:

Thomas Digges said:
But because some Patrones of these new corruptions (for defence of their bad cause) alleage: That the late famous inuention of Great Artillerie and Fireshott, vn∣knowen to the Antiquitie, and so farre surmounting all the Auncient Romane and Graecian Engines both in ter∣ror and effect) hath necessarily enforced so great an al∣teration of Armes, Weapons, and Militarie Order, as the discipline also must cleane chaunge: I thinke it fit to set downe some of their chiefe and principall Reasons.

1 First therefore (say they) it is now to small purpose to weare Armes, seeing the furie of the Fireshott is such, as no Armour is able to holde it out.

. . .

1 And first for leauing Armes in respect of the furie of the Fireshot which no portable Armor is able to resist, is both friuolous and false. For there are many reasons to vse conuenient Armes, albeit that were true that they profited vs nothing against the Fireshot. For they de∣fend vs from the Launco, from the Pike, the Halberd, the Iauelin, the Dart, the Arrow, and the Sword: yea and from the greater part of the fireshot also that any way endaunger vs in the field: I meane euen the por∣table and indifferent Armor that is made (n•t of Mus∣ket or Caleuer proofe) but onely against the Launce and Pistoll. For the greatest part of the fire∣shot that touch the bodies of any man in the field, graze first and strike vpon the ground: And from all such shot, a meane Armor verie portable and easily to bee worne by any souldier, sufficeth to saue a mans life, as ordinary experience in the field daily teacheth. For indeed to lade men with armes of Musket proofe (I am of their opinion) were not possible to endure, and meere folly to put in vre for many respects: too long to com∣mit to writing in this place. But this light and meane Armour is still to bee continued in all battailes and bat∣talions that shall encounter with Pike or Launce, be∣cause it assureth the life of man greatly from all other weapons, yea and from the most part of the fireshott also.
Sir John Smythe said:
Their Horsemen also, and themselues seruing on horsebacke with Launces, or any other weapon, they thinke verie well armed with some kind of head∣peece, a collar, a deformed high & long bellied breast, and a backe at the proofe; but as for pouldrons, vam∣braces, gauntlets, tasses, cuisses, and greues, they hold all for superfluous. The imitating of which their vn∣soldierlike and fond arming, cost that noble & wor∣thie Gentleman Sir Philip Sidney his life, by not wea∣ring his cuisses, who in the opinion of diuers Gentle∣men that sawe him hurt with a Mosquet shot, if he had that day worne his cuisses, the bullet had not bro∣ken his thigh bone, by reason that the chiefe force of the bullet (before the blowe) was in a manner past. Besides that, it is a great encouragement to al forraine Nations their Enemies that are better armed, to en∣counter with them and their soldiers that they see so ill armed. And as their ill arming is an encouraging to the Enemie, so it is vnto them a discouragement, and a great disaduantage. For in case anie horseman or footman piquer so ill armed, should bee wounded on the thigh, or chieflie on the arme or hand, either with Launce, Pique, Sword, or any other weapon, his figh∣ting for that day were marred; besides that, by such wounds receiued, he is put in hazard either to bee slaine or taken. And to the same effect it hath been a maxime in all ages amongst all great Capraines, and skilfull soldiers, that the well arming of horsmen and footmen is a great encouragement vnto them to fight valiantlie; whereas contrariwise being euill armed, it is a great discouragement vnto them encountring with well armed men, and most commonlie through wounds receiued, the verie occasion that doth make them to turne their backes.
Sir John Smythe said:
But whereas I haue before armed all the piquers, and battleaxes ordinarie, I meane, that are to enter into squa∣dron in Corslets complete, and that contrariwise I do vn∣derstand that diuers of our Captaines of this time when they receaue any English bandes readie armed and furni∣shed to serue withall either in Fraunce, or the Lowe Coun∣tries, and that the piquers of those bandes are deliuered vnto them armed in corslets complet all sauing gauntlets; they presentlie giue, or throw awaie all their pouldrons, vambraces and tasses in such sorte as the soldiors doo re∣maine armed only with burgonets, Collers, Cuirasses and backes, contrarie to all true discipline: Certenly, it seemeth vnto me verie strange, that the lacke of Iudgement, or ra∣ther the ignorance of this time in matters Militarie should be so great, that they should contemne the arming of their shoulders, armes, handes, and thighes, and only seeke to guarde their brests, bellies and backes, in respect as I doo thinke that they would preserue only those their vital parts: when it is verie well knowne by all experience Militarie, that such as come to be wounded in their shoulders, armes hands or thighes, do oftentimes by such woundes, come to be in their Enemies handes, and mercie, who many times vpon such aduauntages do put them to the sworde▪ Besides that it is more then strange that such Captains do not censider that soldiors with their legges and thighes do march forward to incounter with their Enemies, and with their shoulders, armes, and hands, they do vse their wea∣pons and fight with their Enemies; whereas cotrariwise with their bellies and backs, (which they altogether seeke to guarde) they do neither march forward against the ene∣mies, nor fight: which is a great skorne and mockerie that some of the men of warre of this time should so imitate the French, and Flemish fashions, who of late yeares, haue scarce remained one whole yeare in one order and man∣ner of arming, but haue still chaunged from fashion to fa∣shion. Howbeit such of our Captaines as do contemne the wearing of pouldrons, vambraces, gauntlets, and tasses doo vainelie alledge for the reason and excuse of their so dooing; that battles now a daies doo neuer come to ioine, but that they doo onely fight in skirmish; which is a verie vaine conceit and a friuolous excuse, and contrarie to all reason and true experience of diuers battles, that them∣selues may remember haue beene fought in France, and in diuers other Countries, within these few yeares: consi∣dering that whensoeuer there are two Armies of Enemies in the field, or two puissant powers of horsemen and foot∣men, and that the one armie or power of them vpon any aduantage or conueniencie of ground espied, shal resolue to giue battle or fight, that the contrarie power or armie shall not be able to refuse the battle, vnlesse they will turne their backs and betake themselues to their heeles; and that by reason that armies when they are in march, cannot as∣sure themselues alwaies to find grounds of such aduantage and strength, wherevpon the enemies resolution to fight they may suddenly intrench, or incampe & fortifie them∣selues. Besides al which, it is to be noted as Vigetius and di∣uers other ancient,* and more moderne notable historio∣graphers do write, that so long as the Romanes did obserue their ancient orders and discipline militarie, they did pre∣uaile against all other Nations; but that assoone as they be∣gan through effeminacie to neglect the same, and to leaue the couering and guarding of diuers partes of their bodies with armour in respect of the poise and heueth therof, and other su•h important matters, that presently their Empire began to decline: in such sort as ye Gothes, Vandals, Hunnes, & other septrional Nations, as also of later years the Ara∣bians, and the Sarasins did chieflie with weapons of volee, ouerthrow them in many, and manie battles, wherof and of the contempt of their archery insued the losse of a great part of the Romain Empire, and finallie vpon ye neglecting & forgetting of the like discipline did likwise ensue ye vtter ruine of ye two notable christian Empires of Constantinople & Trepisonda with diuers other christian Kingdoms. And thus far concerning the apparelling, arming & weaponing of halbarders, or battleaxes: So as I haue now finished the apparelling arming, and weaponing of all sortes of foote∣men by our Nation in these daies vsed, and therfore I will God willing proceed to the apparelling, arming, weapo∣ning, and horsing of all such different sorts of horsmen, as we now a daies doo vse, with some other such sortes of horsemen also, as I would wish should be in vse and exer∣cise for the defence of the Crowne and Realme, as also for any forren inuasion.
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Regarding armor vs muskets.

16th-17th century "muskets" tended to have a somewhat larger caliber, a longer barrel, more weight, and were likely a bit more powerful than most later flintlocks were.

It's true that a round bullet fired at super-sonic speeds would tend lose energy very quickly over distance, it might hit armor at a steep angle and bounce off, it could have ricocheted off the ground before hitting, when fired there was a good chance that the powder was somewhat damp or some of the charge was spilled, etc. And there are certainly many anectdotes of armor resisting musket bullets. However it still seems to have been widely agreed during this period even, among armor proponents, that any sort of armor plates thick enough to truely be considered "musket proof" would be too heavy for practical use in combat, either on foot or on horseback.

You do start to find examples of some pretty thick breastplates in the 17th century, occasionally up to 8-10 mm thick, but these examples as far as I know are primarily made of wrought iron, so they still may not have been truely musket-proof at very short ranges. Perhaps the last place in Europe using medieval methods to produce high-quality armor plates made of heat-treated steel was Greenwich, England in the late 16th century, sometimes including two separate breastplates layered on top of each other. However Elizabethan military authors were still pretty convinced that it was impractical to actually make armor "musket proof". We know that Sir John Smythe actually owned a nice suit of Greenwich armor himself, but he still described the musket as a weapon ". . . the blowes of the bullets of which, no armours wearable can resist."

In his 1671 Pallas Armata almost a century later, Sir James Turner claimed that it actually was possible to make armor which was musket-proof and convienent to wear assuming that the Cuirassier was a fairly strong man on a fairly strong horse (the average size of a musket bullet by the time he was writing had dropped from perhaps 2-1.5 ounces to around 1.33 ounces or less, and "musketeers" no longer required a forked rest to support their weapon), however he still noted that his opinion was in the minority and that most of his contemporaries at the time still believed that a musket bullet would either pierce through their breastplate or else "beats the Iron into the Horsemans body, which is equally dangerous."

A cannon ball has a much larger cross section and would require far more energy overall to penetrate than either a musket ball or an arrow, so I could definitely see one being stopped or deflected by a breastplate if it happened to be traveling slow enough. I'm not convinced that it proves the armor was "musket-proof" however.




Edit: At the end of the day I think that muskets overall did have a significant upper hand in the arms race against armor in that it became much easier to make a more powerful musket than it was to make and wear a thicker breastplate. If you went back in time to one specific date in the 1600s and made yourself a cuirass out of high quality steel you could probably make it thick enough to be pretty much impervious to all small-arms of the day, but if you tried to make troops wearing that sort of armor common then the enemy musketeers would soon react by using larger powder charges, steel bullets, or go back to using larger caliber muskets with longer barrels, and if necessarily even going back to something like the man-portable "arquebus a crocs" or "hook guns" of the early 16th century which could fire 25-35mm bullets.
 
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Apr 2018
281
USA
The Napoleonic cuirass may have offered minimal protection from very long range musket fire... but since barely anyone but the rawest troops would try long range musket fire... it would be rare. At Waterloo they were reported to make a rattling sound when shot .... but died in the same numbers as Dragoons and chassuers.

Regarding Napoleonic armor and the exact opposite end of the spectrum, I know of at least one Prussian (William Muller, Elements and Science of War, 1811) who argued that the iron cuirasses used by the French were largely useless since a horseman's chest was already covered from stray bullets by the head and neck of the horse.
 

Edric Streona

Ad Honorem
Feb 2016
4,520
Japan
Regarding Napoleonic armor and the exact opposite end of the spectrum, I know of at least one Prussian (William Muller, Elements and Science of War, 1811) who argued that the iron cuirasses used by the French were largely useless since a horseman's chest was already covered from stray bullets by the head and neck of the horse.
His logic is partially true. It was also easier to hit a horse. A dead or wounded horse is better than a dead or wounded cavalryman... with out his horse he’s fairly useless, a horse with out a rider can remount a formerly useless man.
Prussians abandoned the cuirass in 1790 but brought it back after 1815.