Armor: What not to wear into battle

U. LEEDS (UK) — Medieval soldiers may have felt protected wearing suits of armor into battle, but research shows the armor actually limited their ability to fight, draining energy and restricting breathing.

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that soldiers carrying armor in Medieval times would have been using more than twice the amount of energy had they not been wearing it. This is the first clear experimental evidence of the limitations of wearing Medieval armor on a soldier’s performance.

During warfare in the 15th century, soldiers wore steel plate armor, typically weighing 30-50 kilograms. It is thought this may have been a contributing factor in whether an army won or lost a battle.

“We found that carrying this kind of load spread across the body requires a lot more energy than carrying the same weight in a backpack,” says lead researcher Graham Askew from the University of Leeds.

“This is because, in a suit of armor, the limbs are loaded with weight, which means it takes more effort to swing them with each stride. If you’re wearing a backpack, the weight is all in one place and swinging the limbs is easier,” explains Graham.

The research team included academics from the Universities of Leeds, Milan, and Auckland along with experts from the Royal Armories in Leeds, UK. Researchers worked with highly skilled fight interpreters from the Royal Armories Museum, who wore exact replicas of four different types of European armor.

They undertook a range of walking and running exercises, during which their oxygen usage was measured through respirometry masks, providing researchers with a picture of how much energy was being used by the participants.

The study also showed that the armor had a clear impact on the soldier’s breathing. Rather than taking deep breaths when they were exerting themselves—as they would have done had they not been wearing armor—the interpreters took a greater number of shallower breaths.

“Being wrapped in a tight shell of armor may have made soldiers feel safe,” says co-investigator Federico Formenti from the University of Auckland. “But you feel breathless as soon as you begin to move around in Medieval armor and this would likely limit a soldier’s resistance to fight.”

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