by Michael Edelson
One of the nice things about having the tools and equipment to repair your own mail is that you can get a bit adventurous with it. Such was the case a couple of days ago, when I decided to repair a mail haubergeon that didn't need repairing...at least not at the time. I had just gotten my hands on Revival Clothing's cotton gambeson and was curious just how good a combination gambeson and mail really were. I decided to conduct a series of tests to find out.
Part 1 - The Armor and Target
The defendant in this case is a free hanging pell covered with gambeson and mail.
Mail - the haubergeon is an inexpensive type available on Ebay from Von Sussen enterprises. It's imported, probably from India, and arrived with a lot of bad links that needed to be repaired. It was a bargain at 400 dollars, as the same exact mail with better quality control is sold by others for nearly twice the price.
It is made from individually riveted flattened rings (18 gauge, 9.5mm ID) and weighs approximately 20lbs, making it a good compromise between defense and weight.
9.5mm is not the smallest diameter you can find, but a decrease in internal diameter or increase in wire thickness is always accompanied by an increase in weight. An 8mm shirt of the same size may weigh an extra 5 to 10 pounds, which is no small thing when you consider the additional weight of plate, gambeson and other elements of a transitional harness.
Gambeson - the gambeson used in the test is a new offering from Revival Clothing, designed as a less expensive and sturdier alternative to their linen gambeson, widely acknowledged to be one of the best on the market. The cotton gambeson is intended to be used by those who need a protective garment for WMA sparring and intend to wear no other armor. While it is too bulky to use under a plate or transitional harness, it is very suitable to wearing under mail if mail is your only other defense. This gambeson features 'le grande assiette' sleeves (exaggerated armholes) for increased mobility. Despite its thickness, it is padded with cotton batting and breathes quite well; it will not bake you alive like some of the cheaper gambesons that are padded with artificial fibers.
Pell - to simulate a human being to the best of my ability without either capturing an actual specimen or buying a large side of pork, I decided to use a free hanging pell. Like a standing person, the pell can react to strikes my moving in the same manner a person would fall back, drop an arm, etc. The pell is made from a 4x4 beam covered in two layers of foam padding (pool noodles), wrapped in duct tape and covered in canvas. It is suspended from a 3ft long chain.
Part 2 - The Setup and the Weapons
To set up the target, the gambeson was mounted on the bell with the neck opening near the top.
Once the gambeson was hung, the pell was removed from the hook, the mail haubergeon was mounted over the gambeson and the pell placed back on its chain. The result was a sturdy suspension of mail and gambeson that was similar to the way it would be worn by a human being.
Now that the target was ready, it was time to prepare the weapons. I decided to test the harness against two types of weapons, the bow and the sword.
Bow- the bow I chose was a Martin Saber compound bow set to a 50lb draw.
Although I do own more traditional bows including a longbow, only a compound bow could guarantee that the arrow would strike exactly where I wanted it to. Due to the location of the tests, accuracy was paramount.
The arrows were regular target tips, which are the closest I had to bodkin points. There have been other tests using broadheads and similar weight bows where the arrow failed to penetrate the mail and gambeson, and I remember wondering why the tester chose an arrowhead that was not designed for piercing armor when much better points are readily available. Although I was not aware of this at the time of the test,Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knighthas a photograph of various medieval arrowheads and one of them has the same shape as the target points I used.
Sword - Although I have a variety of swords to use, I chose the MRL Sword of War for several reasons, the first and foremost of these being that the sword is expendable. It is also a heavy sword and while it cannot compare to the higher end swords available on the market, it has a reasonably hard edge and has performed well in other cutting tests I have put it through.
Part 3 - The Tests
The first test was mail vs. bow. I fired four arrows at the target, two from twenty feet, and two from sixty feet, which was the maximum range I had available.
The first two arrows (20ft) penetrated the mail, gambeson, and lodged in the wood at the center of the pell, though not deeply. They were very easy to remove, which indicates that the mail and gambeson robbed the arrow of quite a bit of energy even at this short range. To provide some perspective, an arrow fired from this bow at 20ft into the pell itself is quite difficult to remove from the wood and can often result in damage to the arrow.
This shows the level of penetration that was required to lodge the arrow in the wood, albeit only slightly.
The second two arrows (60 ft) did not fare as well as the first two. The first of the two penetrated the mail but was stopped by the gambeson, which would not have resulted in an injury for the wearer. The second arrow penetrated both mail and gambeson, but did not achieve anywhere near the level of penetration of the first two, which indicates that it too would most likely not have resulted in injury.
These images show the broken links.
This image shows the damage to the gambeson's outer shell.
Here is the damage to the inner shell. This is from an arrow fired at 20ft.
The hole circled in red is from the first arrow fired at 60 ft., which bounced off the pell. Note the difference between it and the one next to it; this indicates that it was about to pierce the gambeson but failed to make it all the way through.
I believe, based on the results, that it is safe to say that a range of 30 or more yards would have yielded results that would not have been in the bow's favor, though a heavier bow would likely have increased the lethal range by a small margin.
Conclusion:a modern mail shirt backed by a gambeson will most likely stop the average modern bow at a range of 30 yards or more, and may prevent serious injury at a range of 20 yards.
The second part of the test was mail vs. sword. Before explaining the results, I would like to state that I have a good amount of training and experience in test cutting, including traditional training in Japanese sword arts with a heavy emphasis on tameshigiri. I have fairly recently switched my studies to historical European swordsmanship and have conducted extensive test cutting experiments using a variety of swords and cutting media. My only point in bringing this up is to put the results into perspective. As I have in the past cut through butted mail, I did not expect what happened when I struck the target with the heavy war sword.
I attempted to cut through the mail and gambeson a total of seven times and attempted to thrust through it three times, twice with my left hand on the blade in the half sword position. I was literally amazed by the results. The gambeson padded the mail to such an extent that I managed only to scratch the links with the sword, despite my best efforts. I could not find a single deformed or otherwise damaged link.
I walked away from the experience with a sense of awe and respect. Mail is an incredible defense, and while it may not be the best against everything, the question of whether a sword can cut through mail has finally been to put to rest, at least for me.
The sword did not fare as well as the mail, but the damage was easy to repair.
Conclusion:a modern reproduction sword cannot cut through a modern mail shirt backed by a good gambeson when used by the average trained swordsman. A type XV or sword with a similar point may be able to pierce mail, but a sword lacking such a point cannot (again, when used by the average trained swordsman).
Some readers may be wondering what I set out to prove. Was I attempting to demonstrate the resiliency of historical mail? No. I do not know how this mail compares to historical mail, or how a modern compound bow compares to an English longbow or a Saracen war bow. I do not even know how a modern production sword compares to a historical original.
What I wanted to know was how a modern piece of reproduction mail fared against weapons that bore a close resemblance to their historical counterparts. The compound bow may be a thoroughly modern invention, but it is used to propel an arrow, and in this case with an arrowhead that closely resembles historic originals. The MRL Sword of War is not my idea of a quality sword, but it's edge hardness is roughly on par with what is expected of medieval weaponry and it can stand up to use against mail, therefore it is able to deliver its edge effectively on target.
If historically accurate mail is better than the one I used for the test, then that says very good things about historically accurate mail. As it is, the mail available today is of very good quality, even if it's a bargain piece with poor quality control.