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  • Writer's picturePSBN David

Blunt End Forward: Korean Shields and Armour

We’ve talked about the history of a lot of tools used for offense, but what about the other side of the equation? For every innovation in weapons, there’s also an innovation following shortly after in the defense against those weapons.


Defense comes in a few flavours: shields, armour, and structures like walls and castles. There is a huge amount of history and design that went into every aspect of the defensive structures, so we’re going to stick with shields and armour for this month.


The interesting part of both of these is that there’s a lot of preconceptions of what that looked like. In the West, we likely picture a knight in shining armour, though he’d likely only have a shield if facing off against a dragon. A lot of the famous heroes, both in the West and East, aren’t depicted having shields. It somehow doesn’t fit the ideal of a hero, as if it’s less “defending against attacks with your shield” and more “hiding from danger behind your shield”. More commonly, you would see the rank-and-file soldiers with shields, but never the hero.


Nevertheless, not-dying is a great way to continue building your heroic legacy, so let’s learn a bit about armour and shields!


 

Armour


When you think of armour, people in the West are likely imagining a knight in shining armour, covered head to toe in solid metal plates. Of course, fancy has a high price tag, so you can’t exactly outfit your whole army with that kind of armour. On top of that, underneath said armour was even more armour, meant to quite literally fill in the gaps.


Full plate armour, despite the look, did still offer a lot of mobility to those wearing it. This was accomplished by not actually putting plates in every conceivable spot as you’d only be adding weight and hindering the person wearing it. Instead, they would use things like chain mail and/or many layers of thick fabric, which is the kind of armour that most soldiers would be wearing all over the world.


As you can imagine, Korean soldiers would have been pretty worried about arrows. Soldiers from more rural areas would be wearing the padded fabric armour, whereas the more well-equipped troops from cities could be wearing metallic armour (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_armour). While not full plate, they would have chainmail (a bunch of little metal loops chained together) with metal plates attached to it.


This wouldn’t mean that the poorer soldiers were out of luck. Fabric armour sounds pretty useless offhand, but it was actually incredibly effective at stopping arrows and swords. Pointing to a more Western example talking about this, the YouTuber Shadiversity discusses this type of armour and how effective it was https://youtu.be/ODS7ksbBRuE.


Mike Loades with the Discovery Channel tested an English longbow against the gambeson and found that it effectively stopped the arrow https://youtu.be/CULmGfvYlso. As well, another video from Tod’s Workshop tests how effective the armour is at stopping crossbow bolts https://youtu.be/fzWipvLiCjY. A note to keep in mind for this video is that he’s using a modern crossbow that has several times the power of what would have been seen hundreds of years ago, and he’s also a lot closer to the target than would have been the case in reality. Take those results, put him 3x the distance away and a fraction of the power, the linen armour would be able to stop the bolt from penetrating.

This is why cloth armour stuck around for so long. Even in later periods when metal production lowered in cost, cloth armour was still used. A type called brigandine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigandine) was essentially cloth or leather with small metal plates riveted along the inside.


In the later Joseon period, a similar style to the brigandine, called lamellar (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamellar_armour), was used. Lamellar was a little different in that they took to lacing the metal plates directly to each other, rather than a cloth or leather backing.


You can see that as metalworking techniques improved over time and reducing the costs of it, they could incorporate more and more metal into their armour. As from the various videos, cloth armour was resistant to many kinds of attacks, but not as much as metal.


 

Shields


A shield is a simple thing made interesting through its underlying complexity. At its core, a shield is just a barrier against enemy weapons. The complexity came entirely from its usage and design.


As an example of this and jumping away from Korea again, the famous Greek Phalanx formation was a great usage of shields. In a rectangular formation, each hoplite would have a shield (called a hoplon or aspis) that was roughly 1 meter in diameter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phalanx#Hoplite_armament), allowing it to protect from about the chin to the knee while spanning far enough to be able to cover the person beside them slightly as well. These shields would be quite heavy and constructed from wood and bronze. As such, the Phalanx wouldn’t be a fast unit, but instead essentially like a modern-day tank constructed out of humans (remember Leonardo da Vinci’s tank design would come hundreds of years later https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonardo%27s_fighting_vehicle).


Coming back to Korea, both Korea and China used a more lightweight shield made out of rattan, called the deungpae (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rattan_shield). As rattan doesn’t have a wood grain like many other wood types, it doesn’t split, which would be a major weakness for wooden shields made in other areas. The protection you lose from not having a metal exterior would be made up for in the weight, allowing a soldier to react much faster to an incoming strike compared to a large, heavy Greek aspis. Keep in mind that material sciences back then weren’t as up-to-snuff, so the metals that each civilization would be working with would be extremely heavy iron or steel. The weight difference between a wooden and metal shield would be significant.


Tying back into the shield formations, Korean and Chinese soldiers using these shields would be the head of the Mandarin Duck formation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jixiao_Xinshu), blocking the enemy from reaching the spearmen behind them. The shield-bearing soldiers also had swords, indicating that all the people behind them didn’t totally hate them, though I could not find evidence of whether or not straws were drawn for who went into this position.


 

As throughout all of human history, whenever we’re limited in our technology, we have to get clever. There’s always a balance to be struck, whether it’s cost, materials, or function. Being encased in a lead block would protect you from all kinds of attacks, but you’d likely have a lot of other issues to worry about first.


This month’s moral: your thick winter coat is probably not half-bad protection against sword attacks!

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