Chainmail had already been used by the ancient Romans (who most likely had adopted it from Celtic tribes). Throughout most of the Middle Ages, chainmail remained the armor worn by knights. And there were 5 good reasons why chainmail was popular for so long. But this article will not go into the advantages of chainmail. Instead, I would like to talk about a topic that most of us are not familiar with: The production of chainmail in the Middle Ages and the time it took to make a shirt of chainmail.
The entire process of making a full suit of armor took up to one year if done by one singular armorer. When the different steps of production (drawing the wire, making rings, assembling the shirt, and riveting the individual rings to close them) were divided among multiple craftsmen, mail armor could be made much faster.
Let`s take a closer look.
How long did it take to make chainmail in the Middle Ages?
Mail armor is a pretty effective type of armor and was not only used in the Middle Ages, but also by the ancient Romans.
However, a full suit of chainmail was not only extremly expensive, it also took a lot of time to produce just one of it. The exact amount of time necessary to make on Hauberk (shirt of chainmail) depended on many factors, for example, the size of the rings and whether or not the rings were riveted or just butted. The latter was much quicker but made the armor less effective.
The entire process of making a full suit of armor took up to one year if done by one singular armorer. When the different steps of production (drawing the wire, making rings, assembling the shirt) were divided up among multiple craftsmen, mail armor could be made much faster.
Speaking of the different work steps that went into one shirt of chainmail. Let`s look at how chainmail was made.
How was chainmail made in the Middle Ages?
Unlike plate armor, chainmail could be made quite easily since the armorer only needed iron or steel wire and the normal blacksmithing tools. That was actually one of the 5 reasons why chainmail was used for so long!
First, the wire had to be drawn until it reached the desired diameter. Then the individual rings were formed but still left open. The overlap of the rings was flattened and holes for the rivets drifted through the overlap. After that, the individual rings were interwoven so that they formed a mash. Then, the ends of the rings were either welded together or riveted to close the ring. That process was continued until the entire shirt of chainmail was assembled.
Do you want to find out more about which diameter was commonly used for the wire? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But let`s turn towards the first step of making chainmail.
Bringing the wire to the right diameter
Chainmail was made up of thousands or even tens of thousands of small iron or steel rings. These rings were made from iron or steel wire. But before the rings themselves could be made, the thickness of the bought-in wire first had to be reduced to the desired diameter (which depended on the wishes of the customer).
First, the wire that was later turned into rings was drawn until it had the right diameter. Apart from elbow grease, a draw plate, a sturdy vice, and tongs, were needed to draw the wire.
That process of drawing the wire was repeated until the wire had the desired diameter.
Making the rings for the chainmail from wire
As soon as the wire had the right diameter it could be turned into individual rings.
For that, the wire was winded with a mandrel so that it formed a spring. The spring was taken off the mandrel and cut into rings. An overlap needed to be left on the rings when they were cut (at least for riveted chainmail).
Afterward, the rings were annealed for the first time. The overlap was flattened so that the holes for the rivets could be drifted, and afterward (before the holes were drifted) the rings were annealed for a second time. Then the flattened overlap of each ring (a shirt of chainmail could have 30.000 to 45.000 rings) was carefully drifted.
Speaking of the rivets. The rivets that were used to close the individual rings in a shirt of chainmail were wedge-shaped until the middle of the 14th century. Later, domed rivets were used instead.
Ok, so now we have the rings with drifts for the rivets in them. The only thing left to do was to assemble the shirt of chainmail.
Joining the rings together to shape the chainmail
After the last step, the armorer would look at tens of thousands of rings, each with a flattened overlap through which the hole for the wedge had been drifted. Each of the rings was now bent open and interwoven with the neighboring rings. Then the ring was riveted. That was then repeated for each ring until the shirt of chainmail was complete.
By the way. The armorers used rings of varying sizes in one shirt of mail so that it could flex better and fit precisely to the body of the knight. So the parts of the mail armor that had to remain more flexible (like the elbows) were usually made from smaller-sized rings to allow the bearer the best possible mobility.
Medieval armor in general was actually pretty flexible and didn`t limit the mobility of the knight who wore it!
When the last ring was riveted, then the work of the armorer was finished. He had produced a shirt of chainmail that consisted of up to 2,6 km (1,6 miles) of wire and offered excellent protection. Additionally, the shirt of chainmail was also tailored to the body of the knight who ordered it so that it didn`t hinder his mobility.
Speaking of wearing chainmail. Have you ever wondered what knights wore beneath chainmail and plate armor? I was actually quite surprised when I found out that a considerable number of knights did not wear any padding beneath their chainmail. But that is a story for another time. For more information on why some knights didn`t wear padding beneath their chainmail and what knights wore under plate armor, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).