Matheus Bane decided to test a replica medieval longbow against period armor, because he had read so many conflicting — and poorly supported — opinions.
First, he decided to use the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) procedure for testing modern body armor:
The NIJ ballistics test specifies the use of a box of Roma Plastilian #1 clay. (Figure 1) The clay is calibrated by drop testing to a specified resistance. The testing standard threshold is 1.7” of clay deformation for the armor to pass (NIJ 0101.04). The penetration threshold is much smaller though. The NIJ stab test indicate a 0.28” max to pass (JIJ 0115.00). The standard assumed in this test is that the wearer sustaining a wound less than 1.7” of deformation who is brought to the hospital will survive and, as they state in the forward, “The penetration limit was determined through research indicating that internal injuries to organs would be extremely unlikely at 7mm (0.28 in)”. In the 1400s this standard would have been much less. Without modern medical treatment many wounds we consider treatable would become fatal.
Then he calculated that an arrow shot from a 75-lb-draw bow would have the same velocity at point-blank range as an authentic 110-lb-draw bow would have at 250 yards, so he shot his bow at just 10 yards.
He shot four kinds of arrow:
- needle bodkin (type 7)
- short bodkin (type 8)
- wide broadhead (type 13)
- curved broadhead (type 16)
He shot at a number of different kinds of armor:
- jack coat – 15 layers of linen stitched to one layer of deer skin on top, the “most serviceable defense in the fifteenth century” according to one expert, might have up to 30 layers of linen
- butted maille – a cheap form of “chain mail” that may not have even been used in medieval times, with the rings simply closed in a circle with the ends butted together, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
- riveted maille (average quality) – made up of 18 gauge iron wire with a 5/16” inside diameter, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
- riveted maille (high quality) – made
up of 18 gauge steel wire with a 5/16” inside diameter, over 2 layers of quilted linen stuffed with 1” cotton batting
- coat of plates – 3” square plates, covered with 1/16” thick leather and padded with 8 layers of linen
- plate armor – 4.57 mm thick, over 3 layers of quilted linen.
His goal was not to demonstrate that a longbow could defeat all armors of the time, but that’s what he found:
This was the first test that was performed and was, by far, the most surprising. Although defeated by three out of the four arrow types, the effectiveness of slowing down arrows was great. The deerskin rolled into the penetration in the needle bodkin tests and acted like a break. The linen padding was enough to distribute the force of the short bodkin and keep the deformation under the fatal threshold. The armour that I tested was the thinnest documented jack I could find. The thickest was almost twice as thick, and in my opinion, would have been enough to stop the needle bodkin as well as the short bodkin that the thinner armour stopped. The bladed arrows on the other hand were much more in line with the outcome that I expected. The cutting force against the deerskin and linen was very efficient and ended in a 3.8” penetration. The jack coat at its thickest would have been an effective armour on the battlefield, although I expect very hot and resistant to movement.
Many people believe that butted maille existed in period as an armour type. I feel that this test shows the main reason why it was not used. The butted maille was no match for any of the arrows that were shot at it. Even the short bodkin and large broadhead had 1.7” of penetration. The biggest reason that I feel that this armour type was not used was the fact that either the penetration was excessively deep or only slightly deep but broken rings were pushed into the flesh. Not only would this armour not stop arrows, but it would introduce more dangers. In the case of the barbed arrows, the armour only impeded the arrow from being withdrawn. In my test shots all the barbed arrows needed to be pulled through, not pulled out. The best summary that I can give on butted maille is that it would be better to be wearing nothing rather than butted maille.
Riveted Maille (average quality)
This test patch, albeit riveted, was not much better than the butted test. The rings were inconsistent in craft and the integrity of the metal around the rivet was questionable on average. Although the penetration depths were slightly shallower, every arrow was fatal. I only had two test patches so I decided to only test the arrows that were of lesser potential penetration and save the type 16 arrow for the high quality test. The needle bodkin, or as it is referred to at times, the maille bodkin, popped open one link and pushed in to a depth of 2.8”. With such a small area of amour contact, this arrow would be difficult to stop with any period maille. The short bodkin did not punch all the way through but instead pushed rings through the padding and into the flesh, breaking the skin to a depth of 1.3” and also leaving a dent very close to the fatal threshold. The broadhead cut many rings but not enough to get the barbs past the rings. Although not full penetration, the depth was 1.8” and it too sent broken rings into the flesh. Riveted maille of this quality was not much more effective than butted.
Riveted Maille (high quality)
The last maille tested was made of rings of high quality metal and craftsmanship. The metal around the rivets was consistent and solid. The needle bodkin performed exactly like the previous maille, breaking one link and penetrating 2.8”. The short bodkin however did not penetrate the metal and bounced off. This seems to be a good sign, but the deformation was 1.8”, which is over the fatal threshold. The broadhead arrow once again did not get the barbs past the maille but in this case did not introduce rings into the flesh. The penetration was 1.3”. Finally the type 16 arrow, which is indicated as the most common, cut through the rings and the padding to a depth of 3”. This head was very efficient and deadly against this armour and, in my opinion, should take over the title of maille arrowhead from the needle bodkin. Although the needle bodkin penetrated further, the type 16 arrow would not be able to be removed while the armour was in place and would cause a much larger cut in the body. This high quality maille shows that the craftsmanship of the rivet has a great impact on the penetration of arrows. If the wearer was using thicker padding under the maille, the short bodkin and the broadhead could possibly be rejected safely. No matter how thick the padding, except the very impractical thickness, the type 16 and the needle bodkin arrows would not be stopped by maille armour.
Coat of Plates
The small overlapping plates under the leather were a good defense against arrows. Only the needle bodkin penetrated at all, and, although technically past the threshold, the wound would be very small and unless hitting a major organ likely survivable. The other tests did not penetrate but did leave large plate-sized deformations. These dents were well within the threshold but would have had an impact on the wearer. The leather outer layer would also help in oblique angle shots in giving the arrow head a purchase point. This would increase the number of arrows that made full contact. Although protective, the coat of plates would have been an uncomfortable armour to be struck in by a longbow.
The outcome of this last test came as no surprise. The plate stopped most arrows. The needle bodkin again punched past the threshold but would not create a great risk to the wearer. The padding that was tested seems to be the bare minimum of arming coats. If this layer was increased, I believe that none of the arrows would have touched the skin. There also was very little to no deformation. With a slight change in padding, this armour would be comfortable and very protective against the longbow with any arrowhead.
Most soldiers on the battlefield would have been at risk from the longbow. The average archer would have had the tools to wound or kill most armour types. Even with the advent of coat of plates, the archer would have had an impact on an advancing army. Only the most expensive and well made plate armour wearers would have had an advantage. Although even with plate, I only tested the impacts to major protected areas. The joints and gaps would all still be vulnerable being mostly of maille until the 16th century. Without significant metal to withstand the energies of an arrow or excessive padding to spread out the force, arrows of the 1400’s would have been deadly.