Body armour is as ancient as warfare itself. From the earliest limes man has sought to protect himself from the blows and missiles of his enemies; and the materials he has used have been extraordinarily varied, dictated by local availability and craft skills as well as by the type of threat faced. The most common materials in ancient and medieval times included quilted fabrics of various kinds; bronze and iron scales and plates; flexible coats of ring-mail; and many different combinations of all these materials. The working of large bronze plates reached a high degree of sophistication in ancient Greece; and the legions of early Imperial Rome were issued with ingenious flexible cuirasses of iron plates mounted on leather harness. In the High Medieval period the working of steel plate reached a peak of perfection in complete suits, proof against virtually all contemporary weapons, yet so finely articulated that the knight could move with surprising freedom.
In cultures far from Europe, armour has been devised using materials which seem to us bizarre, but which were found to be effective against local threats. In pre-conquest Mexico, quilted cotton jackets were toughened by soaking in brine, and armour was constructed from overlapped plates of hardwood. The ancient Egyptians used crocodile-skin; North American Indians used corselets of wooden rods; Gilbert Islanders used coconut fibre, to protect themselves against weapons edged with shark's teeth; and in Borneo, warriors arrayed themselves in bark armour covered with fish scales.
In the Western world the development of effective hand-held firearms led to the gradual abandonment of plate armour during the 17th century. Nevertheless, protective armour never entirely disappeared, and a range of privately purchased devices were still to be seen on the battlefields of the 19th century. The American Civil War saw the use of several popular types of armour; and one surviving breastplate, tested 100 years later, proved able to withstand a bullet from a •45cal. Colt automatic at a range often feet—a truly remarkable performance. Home-made armour passed into legend with the exploits of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, whose crude, 971b helmet and body armour protected him from Martini Henry rifle bullets: in his 'last stand' at the Glenrowan Inn his armour stopped 17 bullets,
The first item of body armour to see widespread service in the 20th century was the military helmet. It is estimated that its use in the Great War prevented 2 to 5 per cent of the total casualties. This represents approximately 700,000 to 1,875,000 dead and wounded—a truly remarkable figure for so simple a device. Here, a wounded British soldier holds aloft his Mark I steel helmet, which was pierced by a shrapnel ball but which saved his life on the Somme battlefield, December 1916. To this day the military helmet remains the only item of body armour in many armies. (Imp. War Mus.)
although he suffered 28 wounds in the arms and legs before his capture.
On a fateful Sunday in June 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg thrones, failed to wear his silk protective vest—one of numerous commercially available armours advertised at the turn of the century—because of the oppressive heat of Sarajevo. The appalling aftermath of the bullet which killed him led directly to the re-introduction of military body armour by the European powers.
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