Mobility in Medieval Plate Armor

Medeival Plate ArmorDoes medieval plate armor slow you down and make you easier to hit in melee combat? On the face of it, you’d definitely think so. But the truth of it is that plate armor was designed to allow freedom of movement and weighed less than the gear of a modern soldier or firefighter. That’s about all I’m going to say for now. There are a ton of great resources on this topic online, so I’m just going to point out a few of them.

Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions

This article from Dirk H. Breiding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art debunks a number of myths regarding ancient armor, including the idea that plate armor made the wearer immobile. He also points out that not all plate armor was too expensive for common folk. That’s something I hadn’t realized before. But as with everything, there were different levels of quality and cost.

Weapons That Made Britain: Armor with Historian Mike Loades

This video shows that full plate allows one to stand up from a fall with relative ease. Mr. Loades does a controlled fall off a running horse and gets back up while wearing plate armor. Although to be honest, he does look a little awkward as he stands up.

Other Videos

This next video is fairly low quality, but does an excellent job showing the range of movement and speed that are possible while wearing a suit of plate armor. I’d hate to face this guy’s whirling sword.

Here’s a French video showing some guys in full plate armor doing various things like climbing up and down ladders, getting up from prone positions, doing jumping jacks, and demonstrating some cool half-swording techniques.

Of course, that doesn’t mean plate was like wearing your birthday suit. All that armor still weighs 50 to 70 pounds, some of which is weighing down your arms and legs. Some scientists actually did a study to see how much effort it takes to wear plate armor while running on a treadmill. Unsurprisingly, it’s harder than wearing no armor at all—about twice as difficult in terms of total energy expenditure. It was also harder than wearing the same amount of weight in a backpack. The plates on the arms and legs requires your muscles to work harder to move around.

How would we model this in a roleplaying game?

It seems to me that plate armor wouldn’t make one any easier to hit, as long as you have the minimum strength required to move your arms and legs. You would get tired faster, for sure. I remember seeing a video from the historian Mike Loades that showed some guys fighting in full plate armor. They got tired really fast. I can’t find that video now. But in my experience, most fights don’t last long enough for that to be a factor. You might want to start factoring it in after a full minute of intense fighting, if the combat lasted that long.

Plate armor does have other vulnerabilities. It takes a long time to put on, and you can’t do it on your own. If you’re wakened in the middle of the night, you’re stuck without your armor. Plate armor is also vulnerable to piercing weapons like poll axes. Half-swording techniques let you use a sword like a giant spike to pierce armor. Arrows? Not so much. Plate armor that’s properly formed, hardened, and tempered is practically invulnerable to arrows.

17 comments so far

  1. Boris | Sunday, 3 February 2013, 12:00 pm |

    “… Plate armor does have other vulnerabilities. It takes a long time to put on, and you can’t do it on your own. …”
    I think this point is a bit off. If the armor is meant for combat (not show or maybe tournament jousting) then the wearer could put it on himself, of course it would be faster with help.

    I think your point that it does not make you harder to hit is generally true. In my limited experience with SCA armor and combat; when the armor fits it does not get in the way dodging or evasion: doing almost anything takes more effort with armor on like running, walking and swinging a sword; the reason I did not do much fighting in the SCA was that I overheated very quickly in armor.
    Fatigue/encumbrance is rarely done well in RPGs and is the main negative to wearing armor. I think hit points in D&D and Stun in Hero are game systems that try and mostly fail to simulate fatigue/encumbrance combat effects.

  2. Ben | Sunday, 3 February 2013, 6:58 pm |

    Boris, you may be right about being able to put some types of plate armor on by yourself. I’m pretty confident there are some types that you couldn’t do by yourself. This video demonstrates two different types of armor being put on. They help each other in certain places where they don’t really need it, but I’m convinced that some of those straps and ties would be practically impossible to do by yourself.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XP3LiwNWrk0

    As for fatigue, part of the problem is that it’s not very fun. It feels pretty unheroic to lose a fight just because you got tired. And it’s kind of boring to track fatigue points. That’s why I feel it should only come into play after a significant amount of combat time. Perhaps a quick roll every 5 to 10 rounds to see if you’re succumbing to fatigue yet.

  3. Ben | Sunday, 3 February 2013, 7:38 pm |

    I finally found the video I was looking for about how tiring it is to wear plate armor:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=9s9F3XNOALA#t=223s

    And continued here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3qqfrL8Frk

    This guy wasn’t used to wearing armor, but he was reasonably fit. He only lasted 2 minutes 16 seconds before becoming completely exhausted.

  4. Ing | Monday, 4 February 2013, 1:11 pm |

    In the bit of reading I’ve done about Agincourt (not a whole lot, just a bit–equal parts history and fiction), I got the impression that fatigue was probably the single biggest thing that killed the chances of the French knights.

    They slogged on foot through a recently plowed, very muddy field for almost a quarter mile (being harassed by longbowmen all the way) before they finally reached the English line. The longbowmen didn’t actually take a huge death toll, but they were dangerous enough to force the French to stay bunched up in the middle of the mud instead of taking the firmer ground at the edge of the woods (and possibly outflanking the English). The French were probably half-dead from fatigue by the time they actually reached the fight, while the English knights were fresh as daisies.

    In the roleplaying games I’ve run, fatigue is something I’ve rarely paid attention to, even when the game has rules for it. I dunno how necessary it is in a game, though. As long as the combat system and game scenarios are mostly plausible, it’s fine with me; realism comes in second to just having fun. :)

    On a more serious and only slightly related note, this reminds me of the gun debate — the vast majority of people (if they think about it at all) are working on rumors, bad assumptions, bad information, and being manipulated by people who spread wrong ideas on purpose (for a variety of reasons). When it comes to “assault weapons,” most people who support banning them don’t even know what they are. When it comes to how swordplay really works or how fast a body really could shoot a bow or whether plate armor really is so cumbersome, even people like me with a long-running interest in medieval-style warfare and general history don’t get as close to the truth as we ought to. Meanwhile only a few people (hooray for Ben!) :) actually test the equipment for themselves and dig under the myths to find *real* information.

  5. Devin Gunnels | Thursday, 14 February 2013, 8:21 am |

    I’m with Ing; role-playing games aren’t realisitc, but who cares? You gotta suspend your disbelief and have fun ‘cuz that’s what it’s all about- IT IS a game, after all! :) Although I must admit, I’m still very intrigued by real-life medieval equipment (especially armor) and how they actually function as opposed to how theyr’e portrayed in games.
    For example, chainmail is actually a little more restrictive to movement than a full harness,(harness meaning the full suit of plate armor)and provides virtually no protection from bludgeoning weapons. But if i were to use these elements in the game, it would get confusing and there would be balancing issues, and more importantly, take away from the fun.

  6. Devin Gunnels | Thursday, 14 February 2013, 8:36 am |

    OOO I just remembered! You talk about games that don’t track the fatigue of armor and instead just hamper mobility? I know a game were they use fatigue instead of mobility! DRAGON AGE ORIGINS! In DAO, armor has a fatigue penalty instead of a max dexterity limit or agility penalty or whatever. That fatigue penalty, which is higher for heavier armors, adds to the stamina cost of your abilities. So, that’s somewhat close to what you were saying, right?
    And if not, sucks to you cuz that game is cool.

  7. Devin Gunnels | Thursday, 14 February 2013, 8:38 am |

    ugh, one more post- just realised it was Ben who said the thing i agreed with, not Ing. sorry for the mix up; you rock Ben.

  8. Ben | Sunday, 17 February 2013, 3:39 pm |

    Devin, I sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic about these issues. There are some things, like tracking fatigue and arrows, that bore me. Other details add to my enjoyment; for example, since I’m so fascinated with medieval armor and weapons, I enjoy the detail of knowing exactly what type of armor my characters have, what body parts it covers, etc. But mainly for purposes of whether it protects them from damage (the important part).

    I have played Dragon Age 2, but not Origins. I enjoyed DA2 for the most part, but never finished the game. When it comes right down to it, I’m not really a computer gamer. But that mechanic sounds exactly like armor should work. It doesn’t make you slower, but limits how much effort you can exert over time. Sounds perfect.

  9. higgins | Tuesday, 26 March 2013, 12:38 am |

    Hey!

    Nice to see you’re blogging again. Here’s another interesting lecture about armour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqC_squo6X4

    I also have the “Putting on Armour” demonstration from Hammaborg, which they have apparently taken down from their youtube channel. If you want to get your hands on that, just email me.

  10. Ben | Tuesday, 26 March 2013, 11:03 am |

    Thanks, higgins. It’s nice to see you’re still checking my site. :) That lecture does look very interesting. It is on the long side. I’ll have to keep it handy to watch later. Thanks again for stopping by!

  11. John Hilde | Wednesday, 17 April 2013, 3:39 am |

    Really interesting videos & some very true facts of medieval plate armor.Is there any alternative to minimize time while put on plate armor or if its weight can be reduced? Keep blogging as i need to know much more about medieval armor….

  12. Ben | Wednesday, 17 April 2013, 7:09 am |

    John, I don’t know the answer to your questions. I’m still a beginner, myself. But I will definitely blog about anything else interesting that I learn. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. […] easily in plate armor, doing jumping jacks, pull-ups, etc. You can find even more video evidence here. Simply put, Ser Vardis shouldn’t have tired out faster than Bronn on account of his armor […]

  14. Katheranne Reese | Monday, 22 July 2013, 10:34 pm |

    Plate armour was definitely expressly designed for battle. Its slow to put on, but this is why knights had squires. You cannot put most plate armour on by yourself, the buckles go places that one simply cannot reach. (I have helped many a knight into plate and unless they have very little or a specific design, it’s nearly impossible alone.)
    Another weakness to armour is blunt force weapons. A mace can take out a knight quicker than anything if used correctly. Aim for the joints and they are stuck. Even an inch bend at a key point can immobilize.
    A beck de corbin works well too. Pull them off the horse then beat ’em with the hammer.
    Also of course in close quarter combat, smaller daggers (stiletto) either through the eye slit, inside of the elbow and back of the knee. There are some swords where part of the pommel is actually a stiletto.

    I’m not sure if you have one already, but I would love to see a post on warhorses!!

  15. Ben | Tuesday, 23 July 2013, 7:39 am |

    Katheranne, thanks for your comments. You summarized the best ways to kill an armored knight very succinctly! You also reminded me that I would love to do a post on that subject. I seem to recall seeing a video about it once that I might be able to dig up. I’d also enjoy doing a post on warhorses, but it’s not a subject that I’ve done a lot of research about. I’m not sure how soon I would be able to get around to it, but I will put it on the list for sure.

  16. Ben | Monday, 23 December 2013, 4:32 pm |

    Here’s another good video on this subject:

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