Mail (also maille, often given as chain mail or chain maille) is a type of armour or jewellery that consists of small metal rings linked together in a pattern to form a mesh. Mail armour provided a highly effective defense against the weapons of the Medieval Period. Tests conducted by the Royal Armoury at Leeds concluded that, "it is almost impossible to penetrate using any conventional medieval weapon. This construction can ward off a slashing blow by an edged weapon and penetration by thrusting and piercing weapons, preventing the point from cutting through to the skin.
The flexibility of mail meant that a blow would often injure the wearer, potentially causing fractures or serious bruising. It is to be considered however, that most Medieval physicians and physicians of earlier time periods could usually set broken bones, and the mail prevented more serious, infection-prone injuries. However, fractures and extensive bruising did kill warriors as well. The word chainmail is of relatively recent coinage, having been in use only since the 1700s; prior to this it was referred to simply as mail.
The word itself refers to the armour material, not the garment made from it. A shirt made from mail is a hauberk if knee-length, haubergeon if mid-thigh length, and byrnie if waist-length. Mail leggings are called chausses, mail hoods coif and mail mittens mitons. A mail collar hanging from a helmet is camail or aventail. A mail collar worn strapped around the neck was called a pixane or standard. It should be understood that this is not like a modern collar that wraps around the throat and back of neck but is rather a very small poncho in that it drapes over the shoulders and covers the breast and upper back.
Mail was invented some time in the mid 1st millennium BC, but it is unknown where and by whom it was first used. It may have been invented independently in East Asia and in Europe. The earliest finds are from a 4th century BC (Rusu, M., “Das Keltische Fürstengrab von Ciumeşti in Rumänien”, Germania 50, 1969, pp.267-269) Celtic chieftain's burial located in Ciumeşti, Romania. It is believed that the Roman Republic first came into contact with mail fighting the Gauls in Cisalpine Gaul, now Northern Italy. The Roman army adopted the technology for their troops in the form of the lorica hamata which was used as a primary form of armour through the Imperial period.
The use of mail was prominent throughout the Dark Ages, High Middle Ages and Renaissance, and reached its apex in Europe, in terms of coverage, during the 13th century, when mail covered the whole body.
The primary drawback of mail is that the flexibility of mail made them a poor defence against head trauma, since injuries like skull fractures and brain damage could be inflicted simply by force transferred by a weapon that did not pierce the mail. This was the reason why mail-clad warriors wore separate, often rigid, helms over (or sometimes under) their mail hoods or coifs to better deflect or absorb this force rather than rely solely on mail for head protection.
In the 14th century, plate armour began to supplement mail. Eventually mail was supplanted by plate for the most part. However, mail was still widely used by many soldiers as well as brigandines and padded jacks. These three types of armour made up the bulk of the equipment used by soldiers with mail being the most expensive. It was quite often more expensive than plate armour. A mail shirt interwoven between two layers of fabric is called jazzeraint, and can be worn as protective clothing.
Extant mail is common, but it is not proportionately represented in museum collections.
The Japanese used mail (kusari) in a limited fashion in armour beginning during the Nambokucho period (1336-1392). Two primary weave methods were used: a square 4-in-1 pattern (so gusari) and a hexagonal 6-in-1 pattern (hana gusari). Kusari was typically made with rings that were much smaller than their European counterparts, and on a much smaller scale - rather than creating full garments of mail, small sections were used to link together plates and to drape over vulnerable areas such as the underarm. The rings were not welded shut, though some pieces were constructed of rings that consisted of two or more turns, similar to the modern split ring commonly used on keychains. The rings were lacquered to prevent rusting, and was always stitched onto a backing of cloth or leather. The kusari was sometimes concealed entirely between layers of cloth or leather.
Many modern armourers prefer the French spelling "Maille" in order to avoid confusion with the term chain letter for "chainmail" or postal delivery for "mail".
Several patterns of linking the rings together have been known since ancient times, with the most common being the 4-to-1 pattern (where each ring is linked with four others). In Europe, the 4-to-1 pattern was completely dominant. Mail was also common in East Asia, primarily Japan, with several more patterns being utilised and an entire nomenclature developing around them.
Historically, in Europe, from the pre-Roman period on, the rings composing a piece of mail would be riveted closed to reduce the chance of the rings splitting open when subjected to a thrusting attack or a hit by an arrow. Up until the 14th century European mail was made of alternating rows of both riveted rings and solid rings. After that it was almost all made from riveted rings only. Both would have been made using wrought iron. Some later pieces were made of wrought steel with an appreciable carbon content that allowed the piece to be heat treated. Wire for the riveted rings was formed by either of two methods. One was to hammer out wrought iron into plates and cut or slit the plates. These thin pieces were then pulled through a draw-plate repeatedly until the desired diameter was achieved. Waterwheel powered drawing mills are pictured in several period manuscripts. Another method was to simply forge down an iron billet into a rod and then proceed to draw it out into wire. The solid links would have been made by punching from a sheet. Forge welding was also used to create solid links, but the only known example from Europe is that of the 7th century Coppergate mail drape. Outside of Europe this practice was more common such as the well known "theta" links from India.
In modern re-creationist and re-enactment societies (such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, Adrian Empire, Regia Anglorum and the Medieval Combat Society) and live action role-playing games (LARPs), suits of mail and mail jewelry are handmade from rings of wire. They may or may not be welded or soldered but are rarely riveted. They may also be made of split sprung steel washers. Usually two pairs of pliers are used to bend the washers open and closed while "knitting" the mail. The resulting mail is usually heavier than traditional wire-wound mail, but very durable. When not used for combat, aluminium is sometimes used to reduce the garment's weight by as much two thirds, with a decrease in strength.
Modern butted mail can be made with household tools (cutters, mandrel for wire coiling and pliers for knitting). Making a hauberk and chausses will take roughly 180 hours. Modern mail makers often refer to the size of rings they are working with by the inner diameter, which is approximately equal to the diameter of the rod around which the wire was wrapped to create the rings. Wire thickness is measured in either millimetres, American Wire Gauge or Standard Wire Gauge, or in decimals of an inch to avoid confusion. In modern mail-makers' terms, mail made of rings with an inner diameter larger than about 10 mm (3/8") are known as "macromaille," whereas mail with rings with an inner diameter smaller than 3 mm (1/8") are known as "micromaille."
Probably the easiest means of producing mail is to wrap wire around a rod, also called a mandrel, to produce a coil of uniform size and shape. The mandrel may be turned by hand or driven by a power tool, such as a drill. The coil is then cut into rings. Depending on the material, rings may be cut with a jeweller's saw, a rotary tool with a cut-off blade, mini-bolt cutters, diagonal cutters, aviation or tin snips, or a hack saw. One of the most effective methods, with the cleanest cut, is shearing pliers, which make a very close overlap cut. Stretching the coil slightly before cutting is an easy means of opening a gap in the rings for assembly (with practise, deformation of rings resulting from this stretching can be eliminated). Another way to acquire suitable butted rings is to buy them from a factory that produces springs, as the process is essentially the same.
Recently there has been a movement within the modern reproduction industry to make more historically accurate mail items. The majority of this type of mail is manufactured in India using a form of mass-production, reducing the cost. This style of mail lacks some of the intricacies of the period mail it is meant to replicate. There are a handful of people around the world who are attempting to replicate mail in a more accurate fashion, however this approach is costly.
Protective mail for industrial or other practical applications is knit and welded by machine from wire. However, these machines were largely produced in the 1920s and 1930s and are disappearing as newer materials, such as Kevlar knit and fibreglass, have displaced mail.
Mail is now used in protective clothing for butchers (against meat-packing equipment), workers may wear up to 8 lb of mail under their white coats. Scuba divers (against shark teeth) and animal control officers (against animal teeth). Shark expert and underwater filmmaker Valerie Taylor was among the first to develop and test the mail suit in 1979 while diving with sharks. The British police use mail gloves for dealing with knife-armed aggressors.
During World War I, mail was evaluated as a material for bullet proof vests, but results were unsatisfactory as the rings would fragment and further aggravate the damage. A mail fringe, designed by Captain Cruise of the British Infantry, was added to helmets to protect the face but this proved unpopular with soldiers, in spite of being proven to defend against a three-ounce shrapnel round fired at a distance of one hundred yards (92.3m).
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that mail is a viable alternative to heavy leather for protecting motorcyclists from injury should they be thrown from their motorcycles.
Many historical reenactment groups, especially those whose focus is Antiquity or the Middle Ages, commonly use mail both as practical armour and for costuming. Mail is especially popular amongst those groups which use steel weapons. A fighter wearing hauberk and chausses can run, lie, stand up, jump, do somersaults (or even cartwheels), and even swim wearing full armour, depending on the fitness of the wearer. A modern hauberk made from 1.5 mm diameter wire with 10 mm inner diameter rings weighs roughly 10 kg and contains 15,000–45,000 rings. Mail can be used under everyday clothes and many reenactors wear a hauberk under their regular clothes to accustom themselves to it.
One of the two real drawbacks of mail is the uneven weight distribution; the stress falls mainly on shoulders. Weight can be better distributed by wearing a belt over the mail, which provides another point of support.
Mail also has applications in sculpture and jewelry, especially when made out of precious metals or colorful anodized metals. Recent trends in mail artwork include headdresses, Christmas ornaments, chess sets, and all manner of jewelry. For these non-traditional applications , hundreds of new weaves or patterns have been invented.
In some films, knitted string spray-painted with a metallic paint is used instead of actual mail in order to cut down on cost (a notable example being Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was filmed on a very small budget). Films more dedicated to costume accuracy often use ABS plastic rings, for the lower cost and weight. Thousands of such ABS mail coats were made for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, in addition to many metal coats. The metal coats were used rarely because of their weight, except in close-up filming where the appearance of ABS rings would have been clearly distinguishable.