There is a fairly common fantasy trope that bothers me. Take a look at the guy on the right, here. You’re looking at your fairly standard fantasy barbarian type. Twin swords, skulls and hides, bare chest, etc.. It is common for fantasy worlds to depict these fellows as the kind of guys you do not want to mess with–tough, deadly, and more than a match for any armored knight from any civilized country. The problem with this is, of course, that it is complete and utter hogwash.
As a military technology, fantasy worlds, authors, and fans often underestimate high-quality half plate, plate-and-mail, and even the rarely worn full plate armors of actual historical Europe. They are thought of as being too heavy and too cumbersome, and that warriors that who wore this stuff could be easily overpowered by a fellow like our friend on the right here, simply by dint of the fact that he is ‘faster’. This idea is inherently false and, while our bare-chested fellow might be expected to defeat an armored opponent, the odds are rather heavily stacked against him if, in fact, he’s fighting a guy who knows what he’s doing in that suit of mail.
First off, let’s dispel the ridiculous myth that being clad in plate mail suddenly means you can’t move around. Even the heavy stuff wound up weighing about 50-60 pounds, distributed across the whole body. When you consider that modern soldiers are expected to march around carrying even more weight than that, and they can move around, it isn’t all that crazy to expect a medieval knight who has trained in this stuff more-or-less his entire life could comfortably maneuver himself with it. A soldier who can’t move on the battlefield is a dead soldier, and people didn’t spend centuries crafting suits of expensive armor because it meant they were killed by whoever happened along in a leather tank-top. Granted, a guy in full plate armor isn’t going to be scratching the small of his back and he certainly isn’t running a marathon, but in the relatively short-term usage it would be expected to be used (i.e. a battle), a physically fit man who had practiced in the stuff would be comparably as agile as a guy without the stuff. The guy without the stuff would simply last much longer and could run faster. This is, of course, partly why the guys in the heavy armor often rode around on horses.
A suit of armor isn’t clothes–it’s a weapon. Just like a shield is a weapon. It suddenly enables you to do stuff on the battlefield the unarmored guy can’t, such as, I don’t know, grab the other guy’s sword by the blade. Or not bother trying to parry, since you know full well this Conan-wannabe’s overhand swing is going to glance off your helm like rainwater (just like has happened to you hundreds of times while training) while you’re running him through the guts. Suddenly, your enemy went from having a target of your whole body to having a couple, pretty small targets for him to hurt you–your armpits, the back of your knees, maybe your groin, and that’s about it. Provided the armored fellow knows what he’s doing (keeps himself from getting off balance, doesn’t needlessly exert himself, etc.), the guy without the armor is royally screwed.
But…what if the unarmored guy is, like, super super skilled?
Well, yes, an exceptionally skilled fellow has a much better chance of beating a less skilled fellow. Of course, if the less skilled fellow is wearing steel from head to toe, skilled guy is going to have to work his ass off to win. He’s much better off running away, hiding, and trying to get off a cheap shot when armored guy isn’t looking.
One fantasy series that pays attention to the uses of armor is George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The Dothraki, for instance, eschew armor in favor of speed. This gives them strategic advantages and allows them to hit and run quickly, but in close combat is often shown to be very, very stupid when used against armored knights. Barristan the Bold in the most recent book proved the foolishness of not wearing armor quite clearly. At the same time, Tyrion’s mercenary friend Bronn shows what happens when an idiot throws on a suit of armor and chases a guy around the room without using his ‘weapon’ correctly. Had he stood there and bided his time, Bronn would have been a dead man, and no mistake. As it was, he had to work his ass off to beat that moron (who, let’s be honest, was carrying the idiot ball).
So, no more of this ‘plate mail sucks’ nonsense I frequently detect among fantasy fans. No, it doesn’t. It is a potent military technology that was only rendered obsolete by the invention of the gun. If nobody’s packing heat, plate mail (and the physical conditioning and training to use it) is as good as it gets.