There has always been one sure-fire way to get me shouting at a movie screen. It’s that scene were the knight in shining armour shows up…sans gorget. Plate armour without a gorget is like pants without a crotch. Almost as bad was in “Game of Thrones” when we see a training scene for recruits. Full contact weapons training, and they only wear breastplates for protection? It must be a land of magic…no concussions, no broken fingers…
Buying armour is a big and scary step for western martial artists. It’s not just that it’s expensive, it’s that it’s mysterious…and rare. As a consequence people tend to look for modern solutions, or wind up with armour that’s little better than decorative. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can chose good, functional, comfortable and affordable armour, without too much effort.
Affordable armour is, of course, relative. If you start out playing hockey as a adult, you can expect to fork over $500-$600 for a set of new equipment. Buying a decent bike and gear can run you a thousand. You can get reasonable and useable armour in this price range…the good stuff, of course, runs much higher.
Armour can be bought piecemeal as you can afford it. It’s not the best approach, but it’s pretty common. If you do this, start with a good gorget. It’s an essential piece of armour. It protects your throat and collarbones, but almost more importantly it can provide the attachment points for the rest of your armour. Everything works better with a well-fitted gorget. Some styles of armour don’t rely on a gorget as much, of course. We’ll get into that in a bit.
The second most important piece of armour would be gauntlets. Busted fingers are no good. Well formed gauntlets are the thing to look for. The mere presence of steel doesn’t mean squat. The steel should be shaped to let the force of the blow spread over as much surface as possible. Flat plates might be okay on a reined hand that expects a single blow at high speed, but they just won’t hold up to the constant impact of sparring and competition blows. Mitten style is a good cheap option but look for a deeply curved and protected thumb. Thumbs get hit a lot, and hard.
You can get away with hockey gloves for a bit, but they aren’t optimal. Modern padding tends to be light but very bulky. Leather is a poor choice for armour for the same reason. You tend to think of leather as being the lighter and faster option for armour, but it’s not. It has to be thicker to provide the same protection, and that thickness inevitably means less mobility. It slows you down, and alters your technique substantially.
Steel armour that is well made and chosen fits extremely well. It’s articulated to move with minimal resistance, and can be surprisingly snug to the skin. It does weigh more than other options, but it’s inherent rigidity, combined with a correct set of supporting garments, spreads the weigh comfortably. Once you are used to it, it fits like skin.
After gorget and gauntlets, you want a good heavy gambeson. You could get this first, as it can double as a regular training garment. It depends on your long-term goals, though. If you are okay with regular light contact and never plan on going very heavy, a gambeson might be all you ever need. If you are going with chain or a plate breastplate, a gambeson is the way to go. A lighter, even thin, gambeson would be better if you plan to go with a jack-of-plate or brigandine.
From the gambeson, you can go cheap and tough it out with just elbow and knee cops, or go full out and get proper arms and legs. At this point…or earlier, really, you need a good helm. Anything after that is mostly decorative or specialist.
All of the above you can make yourself. All you need is a stock of sheet steel, something to cut the steel with, a very good hammer, a drill or some punches, a file, a stock of leather for straps, and something to shape the steel on. An anvil is the way to go, but you can make do with a number of other options. The Armour Archive can get you started, with basic patterns and instructions, but I would highly recommend jumping into the forums and making friends. It’s also a place to find armour for sale, or get in touch with armourers who can make armour that runs the range from dirt cheap munitions grade all the way up to functional pieces that would be perfect for time travel to the Renaissance.
ps. In case you missed it, there was a Sunday post this week!