Scale and Lamellar Armor
by Dan Howard
Continues our in-depth examination and discussion of low-tech armor. This week concentrates on scale and lamellar armors. This is intended to clarify and expand upon the brief mention of these armors in GURPS Basic and Low-Tech, and designed to be used in conjunction with the article "Armor Damage in GURPS" published on September 7th 2001, and the article "Chainmail -- Why Bother?" published on September 14th 2001. Those sections discussing armor maintenance, rust-proofing, and armor quality may also be applied here.
Scale Armor (TL1)
Scale armor, sometimes called jazeraint, is the oldest known type of metal body armor. The initial concept may have been inspired by observing animals such as fish and reptiles. Scale has had a long history of use in Egypt, Asia and the Mediterranean. The earliest records depict Mesopotamian and Sumerian troops in 2500 BC wearing bronze helmets, studded cloaks (see p. LT50) and kilts of scale. Many Assyrian sculptures, show warriors fighting in chariots wearing scale armor. The asiatic Hyksos are believed to have introduced scale into Egypt during the second millennium BC -- Ramses II was depicted wearing it in battle. In the biblical story of David and Goliath, Goliath is described wearing "a helmet of bronze upon his head, and clothed in scale armor, the weight of which was five thousand shekels of bronze." Many Roman sculptures portray officers in fine scale armor. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts figures like Guy, Count of Ponthieu, in a sleeveless scale hauberk.
Scale armor is made of small, thin plates of iron, bronze, or brass usually laced to each other in horizontal rows with leather or wire. Each row is then laced, sewn, or riveted onto a cloth or thin leather backing. Scales are staggered from one row to the next to increase the strength of the armor. Scale can also be fashioned from non-metallic materials such as leather, wood, horn, bone, or even horse's hoof. The Chinese used lacquer for hardening leather scales and laced them together with silk (p. LT49). Treat this type of scale as Reinforced leather (PD 2; DR 3; $120; 12 lbs. see p. LT115).
Well-made scale armor is extremely attractive. The Romans called it lorica squamata and it was widely used, especially by cavalrymen and officers, because of its comfort and superior looks. Scale is also lighter, more flexible, and it 'breathes' well compared to more rigid armors, so it is more suitable for warmer climates. Scale is difficult to maintain however. It rusts or tarnishes quickly, is difficult to clean, and can shed scales.
Low-Tech states that it takes 1 1/2 hours per pound to create standard scale armor (sidebar p. LT44). This figure is for heavy scale. Light scale requires a greater number of scales and takes twice as long (3 hrs/pound). This assumes that two people (possibly an armorer and his apprentice) are working together to fashion the scales, wire or lace them together, and attach the rows to the backing. The smaller the scales, the more that need to be fashioned and the greater the manufacture time. If an armorer is working by himself then manufacturing time is doubled.
There are two main types of scale armor, which are dependent upon the size and gauge (thickness) of individual scales. Light scale is more attractive and comfortable, but heavy scale offers better protection. All scale armor is susceptible to impaling attacks from below, however, and thrusting attacks angled upwards reduce the PD (imp.) and DR (imp.) by -1. If the defender is at least three feet higher than the attacker (such as a horseman vs a footsoldier), then any thrusting attack with a Reach 2 or greater impaling weapon gets this advantage. If both combatants are on the same level, then this sort of attack can only be attempted from within Close Combat. It must be an underhand thrusting attack using a Close Combat impaling weapon (Reach C) such as a dagger.
As mentioned above, scale can shed scales, especially in combat where a sword cut can slice off scales by hitting the rivets or lacing. If the optional armor damage rules are being used, then any critical hit on scale armor inflicts one extra penetration point.
Light scale (p. LT115): Individual scales are fairly small (1/2 to 1 inch wide) and very thin. Their strength comes from the staggered, overlapping rows, and the backing behind them. Light scale is very flexible and can be fashioned into sleeves and leggings enabling all over bodily protection. Manufacture time is 3 hrs/pound. This will be used as the basic armor and modifications can be added when applicable. A corselet protects areas 9-11, 17-18.
Light scale corselet: PD 3 (cut), PD 2 (cr./imp.); DR 4 (cut), DR 2 (cr./imp.); Weight 15 lbs; Cost $260.
Manufacture time is 3 x 15 = 45 hours.
Other body locations:
Light scale sleeves (areas 6, 8): weight 6 lbs.; cost $120; manufacture time 18 hrs.
Light scale leggings (areas 12-14): weight 9 lbs.; cost $180; manufacture time 27 hrs.
Heavy scale (p. B120; p. LT41): This is the metal scale armor as described in Basic Set (p. B210) and Low-Tech (p. LT41). The scales are larger (up to 3 inches wide) and a heavier gauge than light scale. Heavy scale is also cumbersome and less flexible, so it is difficult to fashion into sleeves or leggings. Because of this, the entries for arm and leg scale armor in Basic Set (p. B210) and Low-Tech (p. LT116) should be disregarded (use the Light scale entries above instead). The shoulders, however, can be extended to protect part of the upper arms. It protects areas 6, 8 (roll 5-6 only). Cost, weight, and manufacture time is +20%. The corselet can also be extended down in the form of a skirt to protect the legs (see Hauberks, below). Heavy scale provides PD 3 (cut/cr.), PD 2 (imp.); DR 4 (cut), DR 3 (cr./imp.); Cost is 120%; Weight is 150%; Manufacture time is half that of light scale (11/2 hours per pound).
Note the weight of heavy scale is much less than that shown in Basic Set (p. B210). The scales used by recreationists today are usually heavier than historical examples. All types of scale armor are fairly flexible and because of this, the wearer is susceptible to Blunt Trauma (see below).
Several innovations were developed to improve the effectiveness of scale armor.
Medial ridge (TL2): To increase resistance to strong blows each individual scale was embossed along its back with a ridge or crease. The ridge provided extra reinforcing without increasing overall weight. This sort of scale armor was very attractive. It gave the impression of feathers so the Romans called it lorica plumata. +1 DR (cr.); +50% to cost and manufacture time; weight is unchanged.
Vertical lacing (TL2): In the 2nd century A.D., the Romans began lacing each scale to its vertical, as well as horizontal, neighbors. Flexibility was compromised slightly for the benefit of increased protection against impaling attacks. +1 DR (imp.); weight is increased a little (+1 lb); cost and manufacture time is +50%. Can only be applied to torso armor.
Scale mail (TL3): Another method of increasing damage resistance is to use fine-mesh mail (see the chainmail article for more on fine-mesh) as a backing instead of cloth or leather. Scale mail combines the best features of both fine-mesh mail and light scale. Its manufacture is extremely labor intensive, however, and without slave labor the cost of production would have been ridiculous. Scale mail offers PD 3 (cut/imp.), PD 2 (cr.); DR 5 (cut/imp.), DR 4 (cr.); cost is 12x; weight is the same as heavy scale; manufacture time is 40 hours per pound. The 'vertical lacing' augmentation mentioned above cannot be performed on this, but 'medial ridge' reinforcement often was. The difficulty and expense of acquiring scale mail meant that was a kind of status symbol among the upper class. Treat this type of armor as if it had fine decoration (see Decoration, below).
Below is a breakdown of the described scale types.
Torso (Areas 9-11, 17-18)
Light scale corselet
Heavy scale corselet
Scale mail corselet
Lamellar is a form of semi-rigid body armor most often associated with Japanese samurai, but also used by the Byzantines, Romans, Russ and other Dark Age warriors. The Assyrians (900-600 B.C.) are thought to have first developed lamellar armor. It was widely used in the Byzantine Empire and proved to be very effective. An anecdote recounted by Anna Comnena describes when Alexios took two simultaneous charges from Frankish heavy cavalry and was merely pushed partly off, then back onto his horse without sustaining any injury. The Vikings may also have used lamellar -- archaeological examples have been found at Birka and Gotland (Wisby). It is also possible that some Norman nobility may have worn lamellar at Hastings.
Lamellar consists of small rectangular plates called lames or lamellae, attached to each other with lacing. A more advanced type of scale armor, lamellar differs from scale in four main ways. Firstly the scales are a heavier gauge and overlap each other more. This provides better protection, but the extra metal increases its weight. Secondly, it is assembled in an inverse manner to scale, so it is no longer vulnerable to upward thrusts. Thirdly, the construction is stronger and there is no need to attach it to backing material. Finally, the rows are not staggered, individual lamellae line up vertically as well as horizontally.
Low-Tech calls Japanese armor laminated steel (see p. LT115) to distinguish it from European lamellar armor. This is misleading as Japanese and European lamellar were very similar in both the size of the lamellae and the method of construction. The differences were mainly cosmetic: the shape of the lamellae differed slightly; braided silk lacing was often used instead of leather; and the Japanese almost always lacquered their steel.
As in Europe, Japanese lamellar was usually made from leather or steel. Steel lamellae, called sane, were lacquered both for decoration and to rust-proof them. This was a complicated process involving many layers of different types of lacquer. Because of this, the cost and production time is triple that of unlacquered lamellar (treat as fine decoration; see the Chainmail article for more on rustproofing). Sane were then laced into horizontal rows with either leather thong or a flat silk braid -- usually brightly colored -- so that each sane overlapped the one on its right. The horizontal rows were then laced to each other with more leather or silk.
While producing scale armor is a fairly simple, repetitive operation, manufacturing lamellar is more complicated. The metal must be forged, the plates trimmed to shape, and at least seven holes must be punched or drilled. Individual plates must then be assembled into horizontal rows and those rows linked vertically to make the cuirass. Since lamellar plates are longer than scales, and the finished item is less flexible, the neck and arm openings of the cuirass must be made with specially shaped lames in order to provide the best possible protection while allowing freedom of movement. Lamellar construction takes 2 hours per pound.
As with scale, low-tech armorers could create lamellar from a variety of readily available materials. Archaeological samples of lamellae vary from metals such as steel and bronze, to rawhide, waxed leather, horn, ivory, and whalebone. Lacing materials can range from metal wire, to rawhide or leather thongs, to braided silk or linen cord. Non-metallic lamellar armor should be treated as Reinforced leather (PD 2; DR 3; $120; 12 lbs. see p. LT115).
There were many types of lamellar armor. The shape of the lamellae may have differed but they were all of a similar size. The main difference was the amount of overlap. The greater the overlap, the more lamellae that were required, the heavier the final product, and the better the protection. Lamellar can be split into three general categories -- 'light', 'medium', and 'heavy' -- based on the amount of overlap and the overall weight of the armor.
Light lamellar will be used as the basic armor and modifications can be added when applicable. It was designed to avoid significant overlap and thus greatly reduce the armor's weight, and the number of lamellae required for construction. The Japanese called it iyozane. Lamellae only overlap by a small amount -- up to one quarter. Because of its reduced weight and increased flexibility, troops requiring speed and mobility preferred it, although it was susceptible to blunt trauma (see below).
Light lamellar cuirass: PD 3 (cut/cr.), PD 2 (imp.); DR 5 (cut/cr.), DR 3 (imp.); Weight 20 lbs; Cost $560. Protects areas 9-10, 17-18.
Manufacture time is 2 x 20 = 40 hours.
Medium lamellar: The most common type of lamellar, the Japanese called it kozane. It overlaps by about half the width of the lame -- effectively doubling the thickness of the metal. A special half-lame is added to the end to maintain a constant thickness. +1 PD, +1 DR (imp.). The extra mass of medium lamellar means that the wearer is not susceptible to blunt trauma (see below). Cost and weight is 1 1/2 x.
Heavy lamellar: A rare type of lame that is wider than medium lamellar and punched with three rows of vertical holes instead of two. The Japanese called it shikime zane. It is assembled in a double overlap, each lame overlaps its neighbor by three-quarters, which effectively triples the thickness of the metal. +1 PD, +1 DR (cut/cr.), +2 DR (imp.). Many more lamellae are required for this than for the construction of light lamellar. It is also very cumbersome -- usually only worn by cavalry. The mass of heavy lamellar means that the wearer is not susceptible to blunt trauma (see below). Cost and weight is 2 x.
Note that lamellar armor does not normally cover the lower torso (area 11). This is because most lamellar is not flexible enough to allow enough movement in the waist. In most cases lower torso protection was added separately, usually in the form of some sort of kilt or apron (see Other Locations, below). Only light lamellar may be extended down to cover area 11. Add +25% to the weight, cost, and manufacture time.
Rigid Lamellar: Sections of lamellar sometimes had extra leather thongs concealed under the lacing to lock the rows together, thus improving their resistance to impaling damage. This was used most often on upper torso armor (areas 9-10, 17-18) because other sections of armor needed more flexibility. +1 PD (imp.); +1 DR (imp.); +25% to cost and manufacture time; weight was slightly increased (+1 lb.). This cannot be applied to light lamellar as the lamellae do not overlap enough.
Below is a table showing the characteristics of various lamellar constructions. A cuirass encases the upper torso, protecting areas 9-10, 17-18.
Upper Torso (Areas 9-10, 17-18)
Lamellar cuirass, light
Lamellar cuirass, medium
Rigid lamellar cuirass, medium
Lamellar cuirass, heavy
Rigid lamellar cuirass, heavy
Most warriors, both Japanese and European, wore lamellar layered over a lighter type of armor. Leather and padded cloth were common under-armors. Those who could afford it wore mail (this would have been the case with Alexios in the anecdote described by Anna Comnena, above). Low-Tech states that any armor can be worn over any other, subject to GM approval (see p. LT114). The catch is that massive amounts of armor are bulky and hamper movement:
For every point by which the DR of the inner layers (every layer but the outermost layer) exceeds 3, reduce the wearer's effective DX by -1. (see p. LT114).
In the case of some types of armor the DR varies. To solve this simply average the three DRs.
Light lamellar: (5 + 5 + 3)/3 = 13/3 = 4.33.
Because it exceeds 3 but is less than 6, there is a DX reduction of -1 if it is worn under another type of armor.
Lower Abdomen Protection (area 11): The semi-rigidity of lamellar severely limited the amount of movement in the waist. For this reason body armor often stopped here (only covering areas 9-10), and a separate section of armor was worn on the lower abdomen (area 11). European and Asian warriors usually adopted a different type of armor to protect the waist such as a scale or mail skirt, or some sort of leather kilt. Hauberks could also be worn (see below). The Japanese developed an apron of large lamellar panels called kusazuri .
Upper Leg Protection (areas 12-14; roll 1-3 only): Mounted samurai sometimes wore underneath the kasazuri two larger panels called haidate, designed to protect the thighs (areas 12-14; roll 1-3 only). The upper section, which was layered under the kusazuri, was padded giving +1 DR to area 11. They were extremely awkward to walk in, however, and wearing haidate reduces one's Move by -2. The more typical method of protecting the thighs was the Hauberk (see below).
Upper Arm protection (areas 6, 8; roll 5-6 only): The nature of lamellar prevented it from being used to create joints. Shoulder and upper arm protection was attached separately, and the underarm was always vulnerable (see Special Attack -- armpit, below). Separate lamellar guards could be added to protect the shoulder and upper arm. The Japanese called these sode ('sleeve'). Note that lamellar was never worn on the lower arm. Forearm and wrist protection usually took the form of plate or splint armor. The same armor was likewise used for shin greaves.
A device unique to early Japanese samurai was called the o-sode ('large sleeve'). A mounted archer could not use a shield so this was developed as a replacement. Each shoulder was protected by a large rectangular panel of rigid lamellar. They were laced to the cuirass and hung down to just above the elbows. O-sode functioned like small shields, sliding off the arms when they were raised to shoot, hanging behind to protect the shoulders and the entire upper back (areas 9-10; rear only). Add +2 PD to any attack striking this area whenever the defender is firing a bow (but it no longer protects the upper arms). The entire weight of o-sode was born by the shoulders making them a little restrictive (-1 to all melee and thrown attacks). However, given that early samurai were mainly mounted bowmen, this wasn't much of a problem.
Heavy Scale kilt (area 11)
Kusazuri (area 11)
Haidate (areas 12-14; roll 1-3)
Sode (areas 6, 8; roll 5-6)
O-sode (areas 6, 8; roll 5-6)
A neat method of decoration was to alternate steel scales with other metals such as bronze or brass so that a checkerboard effect was produced. Weight and cost is unchanged. This, however, would reduce the defense capability of the armor (-1 DR), so plating was more common. Plating or gilting was used both for decoration and to improve rust resistance. See the Chainmail article for more on decoration and rustproofing. Gold plate could be gilted onto the scales. White metal plating of scale was frequently either silvered or tinned. The Japanese usually lacquered individual plates in various colors, including gold (gold dust was ground into the lacquer). Plating and lacquering increases cost and manufacture time by 3x (treat as fine decoration). If gold is used then the cost is 5x (very fine decoration).
Armor and Stealth
Armor is noisy, and easily noticed, making sneaking around difficult. In addition to any encumbrance penalty (see p. B67), armor imposes an extra penalty to Stealth, equal to PD-1 (maximum penalty of -3). If different armor types are worn on different body locations, then use the armor with the highest penalty. Special preparation can reduce the chances of being detected by the enemy. Spending 10 mins to pad or tie down rattling buckles and rubbing armor segments can reduce the enemy's Hearing roll by -1.
Lacquering (see Decoration, above) also reduces the amount of noise made by armor. Another method is to wrap each individual segment in silk cloth or fine leather. Treat as fine decoration and triple the costs accordingly. Both of these methods reduce the enemy's Hearing roll by an additional -1. If appropriate camouflage colours are used (see p. B65) then the enemy also gets a -2 to his Vision roll.
Blackening armor (see Chainmail article -- Rustproofing) cuts down on glare but does little to reduce noise. If blackened armor covers all the main body locations (head, torso, arms, legs) and is worn at night time or in deep shadow, then reduce the enemy's Vision roll by -2 (in addition to any darkness penalties).
Special Attack -- armpit: As stated above, lamellar could not be used to effectively cover joints. The armpit was especially vulnerable. A thrusting attack to this area only needs to contend with the lighter layer of protection worn underneath. An impaling wound in the armpit is no laughing matter. It could sever the brachial artery and the nerves controlling the arm, before puncturing the lungs and heart. Treat as a thrusting attack to the vitals but at -6 to hit. If the attack roll is missed by 1 then the torso is hit instead. This attack damages the torso but can also disable the arm. On a critical hit, instead of rolling on the Critical Hit Table, the arm is automatically crippled (see p. B127). This is in addition to any damage done to the torso.
Blunt trauma: Often when a defender wearing non-rigid armor was struck with an impaling or cutting weapon, even though the armor prevented the attack from piercing the skin, the impact of the blow often left severe bruising or cracked bones. GURPS already has blunt trauma damage for Kevlar vests (see p. B211) and the same rule can be applied here with a small modification:
When all of the damage in a cutting or impaling attack is absorbed by the armor, any rolls of 6 on any damage dice result in one point of crushing damage per 6 rolled being applied to the wearer.
For example, a warrior wearing light lamellar is stabbed with a dagger doing 1d-3 damage. The attacker rolls a 6, which results in 3 points of damage. This is totally absorbed by the armor but, because a 6 was rolled, the defender takes 1 point of crushing damage.
Brigandine (p. LT98): Can only be made from light scale or light lamellar. Brigandine was designed for concealment. Sometimes mistakenly called a coat-of-plates, the name 'brigandine' came from the tendency of robbers and brigands to wear it. Low-Tech describes this armor in detail, including rules for Holdout (p. LT98). The best brigandine was made in Milan, Italy. It was the fashion of upper class gentlemen who frequented brothels and other disreputable parts of town, providing good protection from a knife or rapier blade. Brigandine was also worn as a regular part of the fashion of the day. The rows of studs fastening the plates to the fabric were often deliberately left visible on the outside of the garment. Visible studs obviously negate any Holdout bonus.
Hauberks: Flexible armor can be extended into a long skirt that falls down to the knees (protecting areas 9-11, 12-14, 17-18). It is split either up the sides for infantry, or front and back for cavalry. Manufacturing a hauberk adds +50% to the cost, weight, and production time. This type of protection leaves the shins exposed, however, and any attack that hits the legs will strike the exposed part on a roll of 5-6. A hauberk can be made from medium and heavy lamellar but, like the haidate mentioned above, the wearer suffers a -2 Move penalty because of its awkwardness.
Bronze & Brass: During the Bronze Age (TL1), copper alloys were used extensively in the manufacture of body armor. They are +20% heavier than an equivalent item made from steel. Cost is 80% and manufacture time remains unchanged. Alternatively, if the weight is kept the same as a steel item, the inferior material results in a DR reduction of -1.
Superior steel: Add +1 DR, weight is unchanged. Cost is doubled. This could be equivalent to steels originating from regions like Damascus or Solingen (see p. LT86). Local ores from these areas contained impurities that happened to improve the quality of steel.
(Many thanks to Thomas Barnes, Peter Dell'Orto, Shawn Fisher, and Bob Huss.)
Article publication date: January 11, 2002
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