Arms and Armor

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Arms and Armor

Arms and armor changed significantly during the Renaissance, with improvements in one of them often leading to modifications in the other. New military tactics and techniques triggered some developments, while others were based on fashion. Armor and weapons were not simply tools of war; they also served important social and artistic functions.

Development of Armor. The most popular form of armor during the Middle Ages was mail—sheets of interlocking iron rings. Though flexible and strong, mail did not protect as well as solid plates. In the 1200s armorers began making plate armor out of materials such as leather and, eventually, steel. The earliest plate armor protected the lower legs and knees, the areas that a foot soldier could easily attack on a mounted knight. Over time, armor expanded to cover more and more of the body.

By the early 1400s, knights were encased in complete suits of over-lapping steel plates. A full suit of armor might weigh as much as 60 pounds, but its weight was distributed over the entire body. A knight accustomed to wearing armor could mount and dismount a horse fairly easily and even lie down and rise again without difficulty. A foot soldier wore less armor than a knight. He might have an open-faced helmet and a shirt of mail with solid plates covering his back and chest.

Armor changed again as firearms became more common. Rigid armor would crack when hit by a shot from a pistol or musket. Some armorers responded by making their armor harder, while others produced plates that would dent rather than breaking. However, the only really effective technique was to thicken the armor, which made it too heavy to wear in battle. As armor became less useful, soldiers tended to wear less of it. By 1650 most mounted fighters wore only an open-faced helmet, a heavy breastplate, and a backplate. By 1700 armor had all but disappeared from the battlefield.

Tournaments called for special armor. Since participants did not have to carry the armor's weight as long as they would in battle, they wore heavier armor that offered them greater protection. Each specific event in a tournament required its own type of armor. Some contests involved battles between mounted knights, while others featured hand-to-hand combat on foot.

Most armor, even that worn in battle, was decorated in some way. The decoration ranged from etched borders around the edges of plates to detailed images of saints or ancient heroes. Some very expensive armor was inlaid with patterns in silver or gold. Highly decorated weapons and suits of armor were status symbols, worn only at court or on special social occasions.

Development of Arms. Renaissance weapons fell into three basic categories: edged weapons, staff weapons, and projectile weapons. Edged weapons included swords and daggers. Renaissance swords often had thin, stiff blades to pierce the gaps between the plates in a suit of armor. The blades were usually straight and had two sharpened edges, although some swords featured curved or single-edged blades. Large swords swung with two hands were common among foot soldiers in Germany and Switzerland.

A staff weapon, a pole with a steel head, was used to cut, stab, or strike an opponent. Heavily armored mounted knights favored the lance, a wooden shaft 10 to 12 feet long with a steel tip. Foot soldiers, especially in Switzerland, often used the halberd, a 5- to 7-foot shaft with a head that had both a cutting edge and a point for stabbing.

Projectile weapons were designed to hurl objects at great speeds. The simplest of these, the sling, threw stones or lead pellets. Most archers in the 1300s and 1400s used the longbow. Both it and the mechanical crossbow could shoot arrows capable of penetrating plate armor at certain ranges. In the 1500s, firearms gradually took the place of bows.

The first pistols, called "hand cannons," appeared in the early 1300s. They were little more than a barrel with a handle, or stock. The barrel had a chamber, or breech, that held shot and powder. The soldier loaded powder into the open end of the barrel (the muzzle) and packed it tight with a rod. The bullet went in after the powder. The gunner touched a lighted fuse to a small hole in the barrel to ignite the powder and fire the shot.

Over the next few hundred years, various improvements made firearms more reliable and easier to fire. The most important development was the invention of firing mechanisms, known as locks, in the 1400s. The simplest kind was the matchlock. It had an arm that held the lighted fuse. Pulling a trigger turned the arm, touching the fuse to the powder. Even easier to use was the wheel lock, which removed the need for a fuse. It ignited the powder by striking a spark from a piece of iron pyrite when the trigger was pulled. A variation of this, the flintlock, relied on flint to produce a spark.

Heavy cannons, or artillery, appeared about the same time as firearms. Artillery pieces were loaded and fired in much the same way as firearms, but they fired much larger stones and iron balls. The biggest artillery pieces were used for castle sieges*. The largest gun ever built could hurl a 300-pound stone ball up to two miles. However, siege cannons weighed thousands of pounds and could not be moved easily. By the late 1400s, field artillery had been developed that could be mounted on wheels and transported. Cannons also became common aboard ships. Like armor, many cannons were highly decorated with designs or the owners' coats of arms*.

(See alsoWarfare. )

* siege

prolonged effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress or town with armed troops, cutting the area off from aid

* coat of arms

set of symbols used to represent a noble family

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Arms and Armor

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