Mail (armour)

Mail (armour)
Riveted mail and plate coat zirah bagtar. Armour of this type was introduced into India under the Mughals.

Mail (maille, chainmail) is a type of armour consisting of small metal rings linked together in a pattern to form a mesh.



Mail was a highly successful type of armour and was used by nearly every metalworking culture. Mail first appeared some time after 300 BC. Its invention is credited to the Celts.[1] It may have been inspired by the much earlier scale armour.[2][3] From the adoption by the Romans of Celtic mail [1] to its decline in the 17th and 18th centuries the history of mail was one of proliferation. From its start in Europe it came to be used in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, India, Tibet, Korea and finally Japan. Through trade, mail spread around the world yet its basic design remained the same although certain features of mail armour started to change during its journey eastward.

Mail continues to be used in the 21st century as a component of stab-resistant body armour, cut-resistant gloves for butchers and woodworkers, shark-resistant wetsuits for defence against shark bites, and a number of other applications. Mail is also used in reenactments, decorative uses and jewelry.


Mail byrnie from the Museum of Bayeux

In the Dark Ages, mail was often referred to as "ring maille" to distinguish it from other types of mail, such as plated mail. In the Middle Ages, scale armour died out, but mail remained under the French term "maille" or "mayle", meaning "mesh" or "net", which derived from Latin macula, or "mesh in a net". In the Victorian period, interest in the Middle Ages was rekindled, and the Gothic revival began. Because of its resemblance to chains, "maille" took on the name of chain mail. The word mail refers to the armour material, not the garment made from it. Civilizations that used mail had different terms for the individual types of garments. In the English language, European types of garments made with mail are leggings (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. A shirt made from mail is a hauberk if knee-length and a haubergeon if mid-thigh length. A waist-length coat in medieval Europe was called a byrnie, although the composition of a byrnie is unclear. Noting that the byrnie was the ″most highly valued piece of armour″ to the Carolingian soldier, Bennet, Bradbury, DeVries, Dickie, and Jestice[4] indicate that:

"There is some dispute among historians as to what exactly constituted the Carolingian byrnie. Relying . . . only on artistic and some literary sources because of the lack of archaeological examples, some believe that it was a heavy leather jacket with metal scales sewn onto it. It was also quite long, reaching below the hips and covering most of the arms. Other historians claim instead that the Carolingian byrnie was nothing more than a coat of chain mail, but longer and perhaps heavier than traditional early medieval mail. Without more certain evidence, this dispute will continue".

Mail armour in Europe

Statue of a Gallic warrior. This armour uses a highly unusual vertical orientation of the rings.

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 earliest finds of mail are from the 3rd century BCE from Horný Jatov, Slovakia, and a Celtic chieftain's burial located in Ciumeşti, Romania.[5] 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.

"David rejects the unaccustomed armour" (detail of fol. 28r of the 13th century Morgan Bible). The image depicts realistically the method of removing a hauberk.
Mail armour and equipment of Polish medium cavalryman, from the second half of the 17th century

After the fall of the Western Empire much of the infrastructure needed to create plate armour was lost and it was replaced by mail armour in most regions. Eventually the word "mail" came to be synonymous with armour. It was typically an extremely prized commodity as it was expensive and time consuming to produce and could mean the difference between life and death in a battle. Thus, it was usually only worn by chieftains, nobility, and wealthier soldiers or mercenaries. A Viking haubergeon was said to cost the equivalent of twelve milk cows and a suit often cost as much as a small house. Mail from dead combatants was frequently looted and was used by the new owner or sold for a lucrative price. As time went on and infrastructure improved it came to be used by more soldiers. Eventually with the rise of the lanced cavalry charge, impact warfare and high-powered crossbows mail came to be used as a secondary armour to plate for the mounted nobility.

By the 14th century, plate armour was commonly used to supplement mail. Eventually mail was supplanted by plate for the most part as it provided greater protection against windlass crossbows, bludgeoning weapons, and lance charges. 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.[6] A mail shirt interwoven between two layers of fabric is called jazzeraint, and can be worn as protective clothing. Mail typically persisted longer in less technologically advanced areas such as Eastern Europe but was in use everywhere into the 16th century.

During the late 19th and early 20th century mail was used as a material for bulletproof vests, most notably by the Wilkinson Sword Company.[7][8] Results were unsatisfactory, Wilkinson mail worn by the Khedive of Egypt's regiment of "Iron Men" [9] was manufactured from split rings which proved to be too brittle, the rings would fragment when struck by bullets and further aggravate the damage.[10] The riveted mail armour worn by the opposing Sudanese Madhists did not have the same problem but also proved to be relatively useless against the firearms of British forces at the battle of Omdurman.[11] During World War I Wilkinson Sword transitioned from mail to a lamellar design which was the precursor to the flak jacket.

Also during World War I a mail fringe, designed by Captain Cruise of the British Infantry, was added to helmets to protect the face. This proved unpopular with soldiers, in spite of being proven to defend against a three-ounce (100 g) shrapnel round fired at a distance of one hundred yards (90 m).

Mail armour in Asia

Tibetian warrior in chainmail reinforced by additional mirror plate

Mail Armour was introduced to the Middle East and Asia through the Romans and was adopted by the Sassanid Persians starting in the 3rd century AD, where it was supplemental to the scale and lamellar armours already used. Mail was commonly also used as horse armour for cataphracts and heavy cavalry as well as armour for the soldiers themselves. Asian mail was typically lighter than the European variety and sometimes had prayer symbols stamped on the rings as a sign of their craftsmanship as well as for divine protection.[citation needed] Indeed, mail armour is mentioned in the Koran as being a gift revealed by Allah to David:

21:80 It was We Who taught him the making of coats of mail for your benefit, to guard you from each other's violence: will ye then be grateful? (Yusuf Ali's translation).

From the Middle East mail was quickly adopted in Central Asia by the Sogdians and by India in the South. It was not commonly used in Mongol armies due to its weight and the difficulty of its maintenance, but it eventually became the armour of choice in India. Indian mail was typically light in construction and was often used with plate protection. Plated mail was in common use in India until the Battle of Plassey and the subsequent British conquest of the sub-continent.

The Ottoman Empire used plated mail widely and it was used in their armies until the 18th century by heavy cavalry and elite units such as the Janissaries. They spread its use into North Africa where it was adopted by Mamluk Egyptians and the Sudanese who produced it until the early 20th century.

Mail was introduced to China when its allies in Central Asia paid tribute to the Tang Emperor in 718 by giving him a coat of "link armour" assumed to be chainmail. China first encountered the armour in 384 when its allies in the nation of Kuchi arrived wearing "armour similar to chains". Once in China mail was imported but was not produced widely. Due to its flexibility and comfort, it was typically the armour of high-ranking guards and those who could afford the import rather than the armour of the rank and file, who used the easier to produce and maintain brigandine and lamellar types. However, it was one of the only military products that China imported from foreigners. Mail spread to Korea slightly later where it was imported as the armour of imperial guards and generals.

Mail armour (kusari) in Japan

Edo period Japanese (samurai) chain armour or kusari gusoku
Edo period 1800s Japanese (samurai) chain socks or kusari tabi

The Japanese had more varieties of mail than all the rest of the world put together.[12] In Japan mail is called kusari which means chain. When the word kusari is used in conjunction with an armoured item it usually means that the kusari makes up the majority of the armour defence.[13] An example of this would be kusari gusoku which means chain armour. Kusari jackets, hoods, gloves, vests, shin, shoulder, thigh guards, and other armoured clothing were produced, even kusari tabi socks.

Kusari was used in samurai armour at least from the time of the Mongol invasion (1270s) but particularly from the Nambokucho period (1336–1392).[14]The Japanese used many different weave methods including: a square 4-in-1 pattern (so gusari), a hexagonal 6-in-1 pattern (hana gusari) and a European 4-in-1 (nanban gusari). [15]Kusari was typically made with rings that were much smaller than their European counterparts, and patches of kusari were used to link together plates and to drape over vulnerable areas such as the underarm.

Riveted kusari was known and used in Japan. In the book Japanese Arms & Armor Introduction By Robinson, H Russell NA on page 58 there is a picture of Japanese riveted kusari,[16] and this quote from the translated reference of Sakakibara Kozan's 1800 book, The Manufacture of Armour and Helmets in Sixteenth Century Japan, shows that the Japanese not only knew of and used riveted kusari but that they manufactured it as well.

"… karakuri-namban (riveted namban), with stout links each closed by a rivet. Its invention is credited to Fukushima Dembei Kunitaka, pupil, of Hojo Awa no Kami Ujifusa, but it is also said to be derived directly from foreign models. It is heavy because the links are tinned (biakuro-nagashi) and these are also sharp edged because they are punched out of iron plate".[17]

Butted and or split (twisted) links made up the majority of kusari links used by the Japanese. Links were either butted together meaning that the ends touched each other and were not riveted, or the kusari was constructed with links where the wire was turned or twisted[18]two or more times, these split links are similar to the modern split ring commonly used on keychains. The rings were lacquered black to prevent rusting, and were always stitched onto a backing of cloth or leather. The kusari was sometimes concealed entirely between layers of cloth.[19]

Kusari gusoku or chain armour was commonly used during the Edo period 1603 to 1868 as a stand alone defence. According to George Cameron Stone,

"Entire suits of mail kusari gusoku were worn on occasions, sometimes under the ordinary clothing".[12]

Ian Bottomley in his book "Arms and Armor of the Samurai: The History of Weaponry in Ancient Japan" [20] shows a picture of a kusari armour and mentions kusari katabira ( chain jackets ) with detachable arms being worn by samurai police officials during the Edo period. The end of the samurai era in the 1860s, along with the 1876 ban on wearing swords in public, marked the end of any practical use for mail and other armour in Japan. Japan turned to a conscription army and uniforms replaced armour.[21]


Mail armour provided an effective defence against slashing blows by an edged weapon and penetration by thrusting and piercing weapons; in fact the Royal Armoury at Leeds concluded that "it is almost impossible to penetrate using any conventional medieval weapon"[22][23] Generally speaking, mail's resistance to weapons is determined by four factors: linkage type (riveted, butted, or welded), material used (iron versus bronze or steel), weave density (a tighter weave needs a thinner weapon to surpass), and ring thickness (generally ranging from 18 to 14 gauge in most examples). Mail, if a warrior could afford it, could provide a significant advantage to a warrior when combined with competent fighting techniques. However, a good sword blow arriving in exactly perpendicular angle to the surface could cut through the links;[24] when the mail was not riveted, a well placed thrust from a spear or thin sword could penetrate, and a poleaxe or halberd blow could break through the armour. In India, punching daggers known as katars were developed that could pierce the light mail used in the area. Some evidence indicates that during armoured combat the intention was to actually get around the armour rather than through it—according to a study of skeletons found in Visby, Sweden, a majority of the skeletons showed wounds on less well protected legs.[24]

The flexibility of mail meant that a blow would often injure the wearer, potentially causing serious bruising or fractures, and it was a poor defence against head trauma. Mail-clad warriors typically wore separate rigid helms over their mail coifs for head protection. Likewise, blunt weapons such as maces and warhammers could harm the wearer by their impact without penetrating the armour; usually a soft armour, such as gambeson, was worn under the hauberk. Medieval surgeons were very well capable of setting and caring for bone fractures resulting from blunt weapons[citation needed]. With the poor understanding of hygiene however, cuts that could get infected were much more of a problem[citation needed]. Thus mail armour proved to be sufficient protection in most situations[citation needed].


A manuscript from 1698 showing the manufacture of 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. Guild marks were often stamped on the rings to show their origin and craftsmanship. 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 "theta" links from India. Very few examples of historic butted mail have been found and it is generally accepted that butted mail was never in wide use historically except in Japan where mail (kusari) was commonly made from butted links.[18]

Modern uses

Practical uses

Neptunic shark suit

Mail is used as protective clothing for butchers against meat-packing equipment. Workers may wear up to 8 lb (4 kg) of mail under their white coats.[25] Butchers also commonly wear a single mail glove to protect themselves from self-inflicted injury while cutting meat.

Woodcarvers sometimes use similar mail gloves to protect their hands from cuts and punctures.

The British police use mail gloves for dealing with knife-armed aggressors.

Scuba divers use mail to protect them from sharkbite, as do animal control officers for protection against the animals they handle. Shark expert and underwater filmmaker Valerie Taylor was among the first to develop and test the mail suit in 1979 while diving with sharks.

Mail is widely used in industrial settings as shrapnel guards and splash guards in metal working operations.

Electrical applications for mail include RF leakage testing and being worn as a faraday cage suit by tesla coil enthusiasts and high voltage electrical workers.[26][27]

Stab-proof vests

Conventional textile based ballistic vests are designed to stop soft nosed bullets but offer little defence from knife attacks. Knife resistant armours are designed to defend against knife attacks, some of these use layers of metal plates, mail and metallic wires.[28]

Historical re-enactment

A woman models a haubergeon and coif of modern make.

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. Depending on his or her fitness, a fighter wearing hauberk and chausses can run, lie, stand up, jump, do somersaults (or even cartwheels), and even swim wearing full armour. 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 worn today for re-enactment and recreational use can be made in a variety of styles and materials. Most recreational mail today is made of butted links which are galvanized or stainless steel, this is historically inaccurate but is much less expensive to procure and maintain than historically accurate reproductions. Mail can also be made of titanium, aluminium, bronze, or copper. Riveted mail offers significantly better protection ability as well as historical accuracy than mail constructed with butted links, at the same time riveted mail can be more labour intensive and expensive to manufacture. Some television shows such as Deadliest Warrior have incorrectly portrayed butted mail as having been used historically in Europe or the Middle East when in reality Japanese mail (kusari) is one of the few historically correct examples of mail being constructed with butted links.[18]

Decorative uses

Major's shoulder chains
A modern example of the use of mail, a braclet using the roundmaille weave.

Mail remained in use as a decorative and possibly high-status symbol with military overtones long after its practical usefulness had passed. It was frequently used for the epaulettes of military uniforms. It is still used in this form by the British Territorial Army, and the Royal Canadian Armour Corps of the Canadian Army.

Mail has applications in sculpture and jewellery, especially when made out of precious metals or colourful anodized metals. Mail artwork includes headdresses, Christmas ornaments, chess sets, and jewellery. For these non-traditional applications, hundreds of weaves or patterns have been invented.[29] Public forums have been created where mail practitioners can show and discuss techniques and weaves and display their creations. M.A.I.L. (Maille Artisans International League) and the Ring Lord community forum are two of the most popular.

In film

In some films, knitted string spray-painted with a metallic paint is used instead of actual mail in order to cut down on cost (an 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. Such ABS mail coats were made for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, in addition to many metal coats. The metal coats are used rarely because of their weight, except in close-up filming where the appearance of ABS rings is distinguishable.


See also

mail based armours
(made from mail)
armours supplementary to mail
(typically worn over mail armour as a jacket)


  1. ^ a b The ancient world, Richard A. Gabriel, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007 P.79
  2. ^ Philip Sidnell, Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006 ISBN 1852853743, p.159
  3. ^ Robert E. Krebs, Carolyn A. Krebs, Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003 ISBN 0313313423, p.309
  4. ^ Bennet, M., Bradbury, J., DeVries, K., Dickie, I., & Jestice, P. Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World. Thomas Dunne Books, 2005, p. 82
  5. ^ Rusu, M., "Das Keltische Fürstengrab von Ciumeşti in Rumänien", Germania 50, 1969, pp. 267–269
  6. ^ Reed Jr., Robert W."Armour Purchases and Lists from the Howard Household Books", The Journal of the Mail Research Society, Vol. 1. No. 1, July 2003
  7. ^ "Men Who Wear Armour.". The Daily Mail. 1886. 
  8. ^ Randolph, T.H. (1892). The Wilkinson Sword Catalog. The Wilkinson Sword Co. Ltd.. pp. 41. 
  9. ^ Google Books Iron Men
  10. ^ Robinson, H. Russel (2002). Oriental Armour. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 85. 
  11. ^ Stone, George Cameron (1999). A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: In All Countries and in All Times. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 69. 
  12. ^ a b George Cameron Stone (2 July 1999). A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: In All Countries and in All Times. Courier Dover Publications. p. 61. ISBN 9780486407265. Retrieved 18 February 2011. 
  13. ^ A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: In All Countries and in All Times, George Cameron Stone, Courier Dover Publications, 1999 p. 403
  14. ^ Brassey's Book of Body Armor, Robert C. Woosnam-Savage, Anthony Hall, Brassey's, 2002 p.92
  15. ^ Ian Bottomley& A.P. Hopson "Arms and Armor of the Samurai: The History of Weaponry in Ancient Japan" P.57 & P.186 ISBN 1862220026
  17. ^ The manufacture of armour and helmets in sixteenth century Japan: (Chūkokatchū seisakuben) Kōzan Sakakibara, C. E. Tuttle, 1964 p.84
  18. ^ a b c George Cameron Stone (2 July 1999). A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: In All Countries and in All Times. Courier Dover Publications. p. 424. ISBN 9780486407265. Retrieved 18 February 2011. 
  19. ^ The manufacture of armour and helmets in sixteenth century Japan: (Chūkokatchū seisakuben) Kōzan Sakakibara, C. E. Tuttle, 1964 p.85
  20. ^ Ian Bottomley& A.P. Hopson "Arms and Armor of the Samurai: The History of Weaponry in Ancient Japan" pp.155–156 ISBN 1862220026
  21. ^ The connoisseur's book of Japanese swords, Kōkan Nagayama, Kodansha International, 1998 p.43
  22. ^ "Medieval Military Surgery", Medieval History Magazine, Vol 1 is 4, December 2003
  23. ^ Deadliest Warrior: episode 2; katana unable to penetrate chain mail
  24. ^ a b Thordeman, Bengt (1940). Armour From The Battle of Wisby 1361. Stockholm, Sweden: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien. pp. 160. 
  25. ^ Schlosser, Eric (September 3, 1998). "Fast-Food Nation: Meat and Potatoes". Rolling Stone magazine (USA), Issue 794,. Retrieved 2007-12-05. 
  26. ^ Douglas, David (director) (2002). Straight Up: Helicopters in Action. Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. 
  27. ^ Blake, Terry. "Dr Zeus - Testing of HV Suit w Twin Musical Tesla Coils". Daily Planet Segment 2008. Discovery Channel. 
  28. ^ Illustrated Directory of Special Forces, Ray Bonds, David Miller, Zenith Imprint, 2003 p. 368
  29. ^

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