Every prospective writer goes through that investigative phase when he attempts to cram as much “real” data about the subject he is going to write as he can. For people in the adventure/fantasy genre, that usually means weapons, fencing, that sort of stuff. “The story must have realistic sword fightings!” and all that. Well, I’m here to tell you that you probably shouldn’t bother. Both in books as well as visual mediums, there’s a tool way more abused than weapons: armor.
Even in the unlikely event that whoever is reading this is the director or writer behind a big-budget movie, weapons may not be the thing you want to focus the most if you want to be “realistic.” Besides, that’s why you have your choreographers and historical consultants (to ignore them because what they deem realistic is also boring.) And while realistic swordsmanship can be ignored as long as nobody dies anything so stupid it puts their lives in danger, there is something that cannot be ignored, and that’s material sciences.
I don’t care if your characters are funky ninjas flying through the air; I expect armor to behave like it should, for the same reason I expect wood or stone walls to behave like they do in real life. Fantasy is fantasy because characters can punch through walls thanks to magic, not because walls cease to work like they should. So the same happens with armor.
It’s honestly a waste of time for a writer to spend hundreds of hours reading manuals of historical fencing, trying to get the movements right (something that isn’t even possible to convey in words) just to get someone die of a sword cut… through chain mail or plate armor, which is both impossible and absurd. So, without any attempt at being exhaustive, here are a few things you might want to keep in mind if you are into writing stories in a pre-modern setting with lots of people hitting each other.
1.Leather armor doesn’t exist.
The biker, BDSM look that fantasy characters sport nowadays is a cinematic and artistic license. It never existed; it’s just fashionable medieval-punk, which, to some people, looks cool and makes it look gritty and realistic, but it’s as realistic as steampunk is to real Victorian England.
Most importantly, no, your “thief” or “sneaky” character wouldn’t go around wearing any “leather armor.” First of all, that thing can be noisy, and second, you want to be inconspicuous, and carrying layers of leather stripes with more belts and studs you can count is everything but inconspicuous. If you want to infiltrate a place, your best armor is to dress like the people who are supposed to be inside. Or you can do like Conan the Barbarian and strip down to your loincloth. That also works.
Now, has leather ever being used as a protective material? Sure, but it has nothing to do with what people think as “leather.” It wasn’t soft, elastic, or something you carry to sneak around dungeons. It was hardened leather, or boiled leather/cuir bouli.
The confusion probably stems, indirectly, from Dungeons & Dragons, who popularized the idea of “studded leather.” Now, it should be mentioned that the original creators of D&D knew what leather armor was, as this from the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DMG 1st edition shows:
Notice the “cuirass” part, a word that, by the way, comes from the French “cuir” or leather because, I presume, historically, many cuirasses were first cheaply made with leather. In any event, as you can see, there’s no indication the armor referenced is somehow flexible or useful for “stealthy” characters. The confusion most likely appeared due to Studded Leather and how artists represented it.
Studded Leather doesn’t exist. It makes no sense to add studs to cloth or leather. I’d venture that what Gygax interpreted as studs was most likely a picture or drawing of a brigandine. This:
That was the pre-internet era, so the confusion is understandable. If you only see the outside, that looks like “light” armor, just cloth with some strange studs, but those studs are there to hold and fasten the inner layer of plates inside. This armor is, technically, metal armor, not leather.
In fact, if you want your “thief” to carry any armor, the ideal option is a mail shirt. It’s relatively light, can be worn under normal clothes, can be worn for an entire day without overexerting yourself, and it offers good protection. Now, why did the original D&D (and all fantasy games afterward) limit the thief/rogue to leather armor? I don’t know, but probably for game-balance reasons.
2. Arrows are not effective against anything well protected
Let’s get this thing out now: longbows were not the machinegun of the Middle Ages. If they were, trench warfare would have been invented in the 14th century, not the twentieth. There’s not a single historical source describing an arrow or crossbow bolt piercing through plate. I don’t care if you are Legolas or the best archer in the entire multiverse, your arrows won’t pierce through metal cuirass. Against leather or mail, at close range, I guess that’s possible, but not when plate is involved.
And what about the famous battle of Agincourt? Well, the short answer is: it did not happen like may you think it happened. The heavily-armored French knights were not mowed down by a constant rain of arrows from the English longbowmen. And while we are at it:
3. Parabolic shooting is a waste of time
It may look cool in movies, all those archers aiming up to the sky to rain down arrows on a hapless enemy, but unless their target has basically no protection, that seems to me like a waste of precious arrows. In fact, a hint that such a tactic is nonsense is that nobody tries to do the same using crossbows (because instinctively we know that would be bullshit.)
Shooting so far away to do long-distance parabolic shots means your arrow will arrive its target with very little energy. So it doesn’t matter if a longbow has a maximum range of 300m or whatever, at that distance, gravity will be the only thing pushing down the arrow and it will most likely fail to injury anything wearing some form of protection. For maximum damage and penetration, you want to shoot at your targets so close you can mock their mothers and they will hear you.
4. Most weapons cut or pierce through essentially nothing.
Weapons are tools, and that’s how you should think about them if you write them in your story. They have certain purposes and tasks to accomplish, like a hammer or a hacksaw have. And if the “target” changes, so should the weapon, or at least how it’s used. You wouldn’t use a hammer to cut a piece of wood or knife and fork to crack open a crab, wouldn’t you?
This is of the utmost importance when armor appears. In unarmored combat, pretty much anything with some weight or a pointy end may do teh trick in a pinch. Ideally, a sword or a spear, but if that is not available, there are a lot of improvised weapons lying around. But when people start wearing armor, weapons must necessarily change. So, no, a “sword” is not a universal weapon that can do everything (and if I see a katana cutting through armor, I’m gonna punch you.)
You wouldn’t cut through wood with a wooden knife, right? So why do people assume there’s nothing weird about a steel word (basically, a very long knife) cutting through steel? It’s impossible, and it wouldn’t pierce it either. And no, “weak spots” may not be the answer. Remember that armor was worn in layers, which means that under the plate you wear chain, and under that something padded. So a thrust through, let’s say, the armpit might be more effective, but it still has chain and cloth to deal with.
5. Concussive damage is the answer to all your problems.
When people wearing heavy armor (which in some contexts may be just mail) start appearing, you have two options: you either bypass it by targeting the non-protected areas (usually face) or you pound your opponent like you are trying to make mashed potatoes with his brains. That means using polearms, maces, hammers, etc. Or just hitting your target really hard with your long sword if nothing better is available. A sword won’t cut mail, but it may break the bone underneath. And even if it doesn’t, the sheer force of the impact will hurt.
What that means is that most fatal injuries that heavily-armored warriors (as in, full plate, covering the entire body) would suffer would most likely be closed injuries, not open. That means broken bones, perforated lungs from a broken rib, broken femur/pelvis leading to internal hemorrhage, broken skull, etc. Keep that in mind when making descriptions of wounded and dead warriors. Most writers tend to assume it would look like a bloodbath, but a lot died (if at all) from “invisible”, internal injuries.
6. Go easy on the disembowelings and the fountains of blood.
Speaking of gore, and that’s a point for the fans of grimdark, disemboweling is something that happened rarely, if ever. That’s why it was used as a torture/execution/sacrifice method, because you need a helpless, tied, victim. Against a moving, angry target, it’s kinda hard and dangerous.
It can happen at a smaller scale, as in a puncture wound from a spear (and something sticks out a bit) but the idea of a wide, horizontal cut that opens your entire abdomen and everything spills out like some disgusting pasta Bolognese dish? That’s… unlikely. First of all, if the target is wearing any armor at all, that would never happen because pretty much nothing cut through armor, but even in unarmored combat, it’s also unlikely to happen.
The most common wound you’d get in your abdomen or chest regions are perforations from piercing attacks. Slashing attacks against those areas are not very useful. They are slower, they take more time, they are easy to block, they have a shorter range, you might not even have enough space if you are fighting in close formation, etc. They also do less damage since reaching critical organs with a cut is way harder than just jabbing something pointy into somebody’s body.
If you want to cut things and make fights messy and gory, hands and fingers are the most likely targets.
7. The low-fatality rate of armored combat
What all of this should tell you is that realistic armored fights were, relatively speaking, a somewhat safe thing. Compared to unarmored combat or the American Civil War, I mean. It is surprisingly hard to kill someone encased in armor. I’m mentioning this because when writers, designers, etc. think of “realistic” war, they usually think “everybody dies and there’s blood and guts everywhere.”
Look at this cutscene from the video game Witcher 2. The important part is just 25 seconds, and it starts at 21:25
Someone thought that making this assault look like the Omaha Beach disembarkment was a good idea. It has almost all the errors I have listed in this post, plus idiots charging like maniacs. Arrows pierce through armor and instakill like it’s nothing, people get easily sliced through heavy armor, one guy gets stabbed with a sword through plate, etc. It’s not gritty or realistic, it’s just nonsense.
If that were a real fight, however, first of all, nobody would charge and they would most likely carry polearms. But if they had to fight with swords, they certainly wouldn’t fight in that swing-around-until-you-hit-something style.
The point is, very few of those fighting there would have died unless someone took some time to finish them off once already beaten to the ground. And since we are talking about medieval war, with nobles/knights fighting, they would not be killed, they would be captured and ransomed because all those guys were rich.
In conclusion: for realistic war/fighting, knowledge about armor is more important than fancy knowledge about fencing or swordsmanship and whatnot (and swords aren’t even the most common weapon through history anyway—that’s the spear.) Leather armor doesn’t exist, unless you mean hardener leather. No weapon cuts through metal, and few pierce it. Bowmen are neither machine guns nor snipers, and against heavy armor, they are not that effective unless you get really lucky. Keep in mind that not all injuries involve blood and a lot of them are closed/internal ones.