While early armour tended to be worn as clothing intended to defend its wearer during combat between armed forces, armour has been used throughout recorded history, manufactured from a variety of materials, non-metallic and metallic. For much of military history the manufacture of metal armour in Europe has dominated the technology and employment of armour. Its production has been influential in the evolving industrial revolution, and influenced commercial development of metallurgy and engineering.
Armour production was a cause of the development of many important technologies of the Ancient World, including wood lamination, mining, metal refining, vehicle manufacture (chariot), leather processing, and later decorative metal working.
Armour was commonly used to protect only soldiers, foot and mounted. Starting with the rudimentary leather protection, the personal armour evolved to mail and full plated suit of armour. Armour was the single most influential factor in the development of firearms that revolutionised warfare, and has returned in the shape of armoured fighting vehicles in the attempt to enable ground troops to breach field defences unscathed. Sailors and pilots have also benefited from use of armour, with armoured warships dominating naval warfare until the building of the aircraft carriers.
War animals such as elephants and war horses, have also benefited from armour, the application for the later called barding. Armour has also been produced for hunting dogs that hunt dangerous game, such as boars.
First modern production technology for armour plating was used by the navies in construction of the Ironclad warships, and reaching its pinnacle of development with the battleship. It was the naval engineers that also constructed the first World War I "tanks" giving rise to armoured fighting vehicles protected by vehicle armour.
In modern ground forces' usage, the meaning of armour has expanded to include the role of troops in combat. After the evolution of armoured warfare, heavily armoured military forces are organised using armoured infantry, mounted in armoured fighting vehicles and replacing light infantry in many situations. In modern armoured warfare, armoured units equipped with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles serve the historic role of both the battle cavalry, light cavalry and dragoons, and belong to the armoured branch in a national army's organisation (sometimes, the armoured corps).
Air forces also sometimes employ armour. Aerial armour has been used, notably, in protecting the pilots during the Second World War, and in designing heavily armoured aircraft that would be expected to suffer more than usual damage from ground fire.
The resistance to penetration of armour is related to the thickness of the steel—2mm armour requires about three times as much energy to defeat as 1mm armour.
For the elite full-body plate armour was custom-made for the individual. Most armour was bought off the shelf and some was modified to fit the wearer. The cost of armour varied considerably with time and place as well as the type of armour, coverage it provided and the cost of decoration. In the 8th century a suit of Frankish mail had cost 12 oxen; by 1600 a horseman's armour cost 2 oxen. A typical suit of full plate harness cost around 1 pound sterling in 14th century England and a man-at-arms in the same period made 1 shilling per day and so his armour cost about 20 days pay. Plate armour was limited to those who could afford it: the nobility, landed classes and mercenary professional soldiers, who did most of the fighting in the Medieval period. Soldiers of lower standing generally wore less armour. Full plate armour made the wearer virtually impervious to sword blows as well as providing significant protection against arrows, bludgeons and even early firearms. Sword edges could not penetrate even relatively thin plate (as little as 1 mm). Also, although arrows shot from bows, crossbows and early firearms could occasionally pierce plate especially at close range, later improvements in the steel forging techniques and armour design made even this line of attack increasingly difficult. By its apex, hardened steel plate was almost impregnable on the battlefield. Knights were instead increasingly felled by polearms such as the halberd and blunt weapons such as maces or war hammers 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 through the gaps between the armour pieces, using daggers, spears and spear points to attack the man-at-arms' eyes or joints.
Contrary to common misconceptions, a well-made suit of medieval 'battle' armour (as opposed to the primarily ceremonial 'parade' and 'tournament' armour popular with kings and nobility of later years) hindered its wearer no more than the equipment carried by soldiers today. It should be remembered that an armoured knight would be trained to wear armour from his teens, and would likely develop the technique and endurance needed to 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 1830s, 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. (For example, SAS patrols have been known to carry equipment weighing well over 200 lb (91 kg) for many miles.)
Many factors have affected the development of armour throughout human history. Significant factors in the development of armour include the economic and technological necessities of armour production. For instance plate armour first appeared in Medieval Europe when water-powered trip hammers made the formation of plates faster and cheaper. Also modern militaries usually do not provide the best armour to their forces since doing so would be prohibitively costly. At times the development of armour has run parallel to the development of increasingly effective weaponry on the battlefield, with armourers seeking to create better protection without sacrificing mobility.
In European history, well-known armour types include the lorica segmentata of the Roman legions, the mail hauberk of the early medieval age, and the full steel plate harness 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 I. (1914–15).
In November 2006 it was announced in Greece that the oldest surviving armour in Greece was restored and will be put on display soon (see picture). The armour dates from the Mycenaean Era around 1400 BC, some 200 years before the Trojan War and is referred to as the Dendra panoply.
In East Asian history laminated armour such as lamellar, and styles similar to the coat of plates, and brigandine were commonly used. Later cuirasses and plates were also used. 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 samurai armour being a result of this influence.
Mail, sometimes called by the neologism "chainmail", is made of interlocking iron rings, which may be riveted or welded shut. It is believed to have been invented by the Celtic people in Eastern Europe about 500 BC. When these Celts moved West they took mail with them. Most cultures who used mail used the Celtic word Byrnne or a variant, suggesting the Celts as the originators. The Roman Army used mail for almost all of its history. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD the infrastructure to make plate was largely lost in Europe, as a result mail was the best available armour during the ensuing Early Medieval period.
Gradually, small additional plates or disks of iron were added to the mail to protect vulnerable areas. By the late 1200s, the knees were capped, and two circular disks, called besagews were fitted to protect the underarms. A variety of methods for improving the protection provided by mail were used as armourers seemingly experimented. Hardened leather and splinted construction were used for arm and leg pieces. The coat of plates was developed, an armour made of large plates sewn inside a textile or leather coat.
Early plate in Italy, and elsewhere in the 13th–15th century were made of iron. Iron armour could be carburised or case hardened to give a surface of harder steel. Plate armour became cheaper than mail by the 15th century as it required much less labour and labour had become much more expensive after the Black Death, though it did require larger furnaces to produce larger blooms. Mail continued to be used to protect those joints which could not be adequately protected by plate, such as the armpit, crook of the elbow and groin. Another advantage of plate was that a lance rest could be fitted to the breast plate.
The small skull cap evolved into a bigger true helmet, the bascinet, as it was lengthened downward to protect the back of the neck and the sides of the head. Additionally, several new forms of fully enclosed helmets were introduced in the late 1300s to replace the great helm, such as the sallet and barbute and later the armet and close helm.
Probably the most recognised style of armour in the World became the plate armour associated with the knights of the European Late Middle Ages, but continuing to the early 17th Century Age of Enlightenment in all European countries.
By about 1400 the full harness of plate armour had been developed in armouries of Lombardy Heavy cavalry dominated the battlefield for centuries in part because of their armour.
In the early 15th century, small "hand cannon" first began to be used, in the Hussite Wars, in combination with Wagenburg tactics, allowing infantry to defeat armoured knights on the battlefield. At the same time crossbows were made more powerful to pierce armour. 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 in which better and more metallurgically advanced steel armour was being used, precisely because of the danger posed by the gun. Hence, guns and cavalry in plate armour were "threat and remedy" together on the battlefield for almost 400 years. By the 15th century Italian armour plates were almost always made of steel. In Southern Germany armourers began to harden their steel armour only in the late 15th century. They would continue to harden their steel for the next century because they quenched and tempered their product which allowed for the fire-gilding to be combined with tempering.
The quality of the metal used in armour deteriorated as armies became bigger and armour was made thicker, necessitating breeding of larger cavalry horses. If during the 14–15th centuries armour seldom weighed more than 15kgs, than by the late 16th century it weighed 25kg. The increasing weight and thickness of late 16th century armour therefore gave substantial resistance.
In the early years of pistol and arquebuses, firearms were relatively low in 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 often be encircled with engraving to point it out. This was called the "proof". Armour often also bore an insignia of the maker, especially if it was of good quality. Crossbow bolts, if still used, would seldom penetrate good plate, nor would any bullet unless fired from close range.
In effect, rather than making plate armour obsolete, the use of firearms stimulated the development of plate armour into its later stages. For most of that period, it allowed horsemen to fight while being the targets of defending arquebuseers without being easily killed. Full suits of armour were actually worn by generals and princely commanders right up to the second decade of the 18th century. It was the only way they could be mounted and survey the overall battlefield with safety from distant musket fire.
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.
Gradually starting in the mid 16th century, one plate element after another was discarded to save weight for foot soldiers.
Breast and back plates continued to be used through the entire period of the 18th century through Napoleonic times in many European (heavy) cavalry units, until the early 20th century. From their introduction, muskets could pierce plate armour, so cavalry had to be far more mindful of the fire.
Machine gunners in that war also occasionally wore a crude type of heavy armour.
At the start of World War I 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.
The ironclad was developed as a result of the vulnerability of wooden warships to explosive or incendiary shells. The first ironclad battleship, La Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in 1859; she prompted the British Royal Navy to start building ironclads. After the first clashes of ironclads took place during the American Civil War, it became clear that the ironclad had replaced the unarmored line-of-battle ship as the most powerful warship afloat.
Ironclads were designed for several roles, including as high seas battleships, coastal defense ships, and long-range cruisers. The rapid evolution of warship design in the late 19th century transformed the ironclad from a wooden-hulled vessel which carried sails to supplement its steam engines into the steel-built, turreted battleships and cruisers familiar in the 20th century. This change was pushed forward by the development of heavier naval guns (the ironclads of the 1880s carried some of the heaviest guns ever mounted at sea), more sophisticated steam engines, and advances in metallurgy which made steel shipbuilding possible.
The rapid pace of change in the ironclad period meant that many ships were obsolete as soon as they were complete, and that naval tactics were in a state of flux. Many ironclads were built to make use of the ram or the torpedo, which a number of naval designers considered the crucial weapons of naval combat. There is no clear end to the ironclad period, but towards the end of the 1890s the term ironclad dropped out of use. New ships were increasingly constructed to a standard pattern and designated battleships or armored cruisers.
Armoured trains saw use during the 19th century in the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), the First and Second Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899–1902), the First (1914–1918) and Second World Wars (1939–1945) and the First Indochina War (1946–1954). The most intensive use of armoured trains was during the Russian Civil War (1918–1920).
During the Second Boer War on 15 November 1899, Winston Churchill, then a war-correspondent, was travelling onboard an armoured train when it was ambushed by Boer commandos. Churchill and many of the train's garrison were captured, though many others escaped, including wounded placed on the train's engine.
Towards the end of World War I, armies on both sides were experimenting with plate armour as protection against shrapnel and ricocheting projectiles. The first proposal for a tank was by the Austrian Oberleutenant Günther Burstyn who, in 1911, proposed a design for "motor artillery" (Motorengeschütz) with a turret, but his design never progressed beyond a German patent in 1912.
Tank or "landship" development, originally conducted by the British Navy under the auspices of the Landships Committee was sponsored by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill and proceeded through a number of prototypes culminating in the Mark I tank prototype, named Mother. The first tank to engage in battle was designated D1, a British Mark I, during the Battle of Flers-Courcellette on 15 September 1916.
In contrast to World War II, Germany fielded very few tanks during WWI, with only 15 of the A7V type being produced in Germany during the war. The first tank versus tank action took place on 24 April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux, France, when three British Mark IVs met three German A7Vs.
Mechanical problems, poor mobility and piecemeal tactical deployment limited the military significance of the tank in World War I and the tank did not fulfil its promise of rendering trench warfare obsolete. Nonetheless, it was clear to military thinkers on both sides that tanks would play a significant role in future conflicts.
The development of effective anti-aircraft artillery before the Second World War meant that the pilots, once the "knights of the air" during the First World War were left far more vulnerable to ground fire. This not only created the requirement for the introduction of the cockpit armour plating that eventually came to be known variously as the "bucket" or the "bathtub", but also the design of such aircraft as the Il-2 which also were heavily armoured to protect the fuel and engine, allowing much greater survivability during ground assaults.
Today, ballistic vests, euphemistically known as a flak jacket, 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.
The US Army has adopted Interceptor body armour, which uses Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts (E-S.A.P.I) in the chest, sides and back of the armour. Each plate is rated to stop a range of ammunition including 3 hits from a 7.62×51 NATO AP round at a range of 10 m, though accounts in Iraq and Afghanistan tell of soldiers shot as many as seven times in the chest without penetration . Dragon Skin body armor is another ballistic vest which is currently in testing and reportedly provides even better protection.
Despite advances in the protection offered by ballistic armour 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 (usually a form of mail).
Tank armour has progressed from the Second World War armour forms, now incorporating not only harder composites, but also Explosive Reactive armour designed to defeat shaped charges. As a result of this, the main battle tanks (MBT) designed since the late Cold War era can survive multiple RPG strikes with minimal effect on the crew or the operation of the vehicle. The light tanks that were the last descendants of the light cavalry during the Second World War have almost completely disappeared from the World's armed forces due to increased lethality of the weapons available to the vehicle-mounted infantry.
The armoured personnel carrier (APC) is a relatively recent development, stemming from trials and experiences during the Second World War. The APC allows the safe and rapid movement of infantry in a combat zone, minimising casualties and maximising mobility. APCs are fundamentally different from the previously used armoured half-tracks in that they offer a higher level of protection from artillery burst fragments, and greater mobility in more terrain types. The basic APC design was substantially expanded to an Infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) when properties of an armoured personnel carrier and a light tank were combined in one vehicle.
Naval armour has fundamentally changed from the Second World War doctrine of thicker plating to defend against shells, bombs and torpedos. Passive defence naval armour for use against shells and other projectile weapons has almost completely disappeared on modern warships. It has been replaced by systems designed to detect and evade, or in the case of the cruise missiles, to destroy threats, including extensive use of radar, sonar and electronic warfare.
Although the role of the ground attack aircraft significantly diminished after the Korean War, it re-emerged during the Vietnam War, and in the recognition of this, the US Air Force authorised the design and production of what was later to become the A-10 dedicated anti-armour and ground-attack aircraft of the Cold War.