A Comprehensive Exploration of Medieval Chain Mail: Types, Construction, and Historical Significance

A Comprehensive Exploration of Medieval Chain Mail: Types, Construction, and Historical Significance

Chain mail, or simply “mail,” was a type of armor used from antiquity into the early Renaissance, renowned for its adaptability and protection against slashing weapons. The name for chain mail originates from the Old French word “maille,” and it is further derived from the Latin term “macula,” signifying “mesh of a net.” This protective garment has been vital in safeguarding warriors from the dangers of the medieval battlefield. This article aims to shed light on the various types of chain mail used during the medieval period.

Historical Background

Before diving into the types of mail, it’s essential to understand its historical significance. Chain mail’s origins can be traced back as early as the 4th century BC with the Celts, and its use spread across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In the medieval period, mail was the primary form of armor defense until the widespread use of plate armor in the late Middle Ages.

Basic Construction

Chain mail is composed of small metal rings linked together in a specific pattern. The most common pattern used in Europe was the “four-in-one,” where each ring passes through four others. The rings could either be riveted, welded, or butted together. Riveted rings provided the best protection as they were less likely to come apart upon impact.

Materials Used

The earliest mail was made from wrought iron. However, as blacksmithing techniques evolved, steel became more prevalent because of its superior strength and durability. The mail could be coated in oil or beeswax to prevent rusting.

Types of Medieval Chain Mail


The Hauberk is arguably the most iconic type of chain mail, known as a long shirt that often extended to cover the upper legs and included full-length sleeves. Warriors would wear it over a padded garment called a gambeson to protect against blunt force and to ensure the mail did not chafe the skin. Some hauberks even featured a hood-like extension called a coif.


Shorter than the hauberk, the byrnie was a waist-length shirt without full-length sleeves. It was popular during the early Middle Ages but was gradually phased out in favor of the longer hauberk.


This was a hood that protected the head, neck, and shoulders. The coif could be worn alone or as an extension of the hauberk. It would often be worn with a helmet for additional protection.

Chausses and Sabatons

Chausses were chain mail leggings, while sabatons were mail shoes. These were vital in providing protection to the lower limbs and feet, which were vulnerable in battle.

Mail Mittens

These mittens, sometimes called “mufflers,” protected the hands. They could be integrated into the hauberk or worn separately.

Mail Collar or Bishop’s Mantle

This was a type of wide collar, sometimes extending down the chest and back, offering added protection to the neck and shoulders.

Mail Bikini

Although not commonly used in battle, some female gladiators and entertainers wore decorative mail pieces resembling modern-day bikinis.

Why Did Knights Wear Chain Mail?

Knights wore chain mail during the medieval period for several compelling reasons, reflecting the armor’s effectiveness, adaptability, and symbolic significance.

  • Protection: Chain mail was primarily worn for protection against attacks, particularly slashing blows from swords and other edged weapons. The interlocking pattern of rings absorbed and redistributed the force of a blow, preventing or reducing injury.
  • Flexibility: Unlike rigid plate armor, chain mail allowed for a greater range of motion. Knights needed to be agile in battle, whether on foot or horseback and chain mail provided a balance between protection and mobility.
  • Adaptability: Chain mail could be fashioned into various forms, such as hauberks, coifs, chausses, and mittens. This allowed knights to choose the level and areas of protection they needed, adapting to different combat situations.
  • Layering with Other Armor: As plate armor technology advanced, chain mail continued to be used alongside it, offering additional protection for areas that plate armor couldn’t adequately cover, such as joints and the underarm regions.
  • Symbol of Status: Possessing and wearing chain mail was also a status symbol. The significant expense in terms of materials and craftsmanship meant that only wealthier knights and nobles could typically afford it. Owning chain mail was a display of both financial means and martial commitment.
  • Defense Against Projectiles: While not impenetrable, chain mail provided some defense against projectiles like arrows, particularly if the arrows struck at an angle or if the chain mail was worn over padded garments.
  • Comfort and Fit: Worn over a padded undergarment called a gambeson, chain mail could be more comfortable than it might initially appear. The gambeson helped distribute the weight and prevent chafing.

In summary, knights wore chain mail because of its protective qualities, flexibility, adaptability, and status as a symbol of prestige and martial valor. It served as a key component of a knight’s defense, embodying both practical utility and the cultural significance of the knighthood.

Evolution and Adaptation

European vs. Asian Mail

While the basic concept of chain mail remained consistent, regional variations emerged over time. European mail often utilized a denser pattern with smaller rings, while Asian versions, like the Japanese “kusari,” had larger, butted rings linked in a unique pattern.

Integration with Plate Armor

As plate armor became more common, chain mail was adapted to be worn alongside it. For instance, a knight might wear chain mail chausses with plate armor greaves and sabatons. This combination ensured protection against both slashing and piercing attacks.

Was Chainmail Armor Heavy?

20 and 30 pounds (9 to 14 kilograms). While this may not seem extraordinarily heavy, it’s worth considering that this weight was distributed over the entire body. Coupled with additional pieces such as a coif for head protection, chausses for the legs, or a shield and weapons, the cumulative weight could be quite burdensome.

Despite its weight, chainmail’s design allowed for a surprising degree of mobility. The interlocking pattern of rings provided flexibility, enabling warriors to move, bend, and fight with a range of motion not often afforded by rigid plate armor. However, the weight could still be fatiguing, especially over long marches or extended periods of combat.

The material and construction method also played a role in determining the weight. Finer, denser mail with smaller rings would typically be heavier, but it also offered better protection. Conversely, lighter mail with larger rings or fewer overlapping layers could be lighter but might compromise safety.

Therefore, while chainmail armor was indeed heavy, especially for its wearers at the time, its design allowed for an advantageous balance between protection and flexibility. The weight was a necessary trade-off for the security it provided on the battlefield.

How Much Did Chainmail Cost in the Middle Ages?

In the medieval era, chainmail was a significant investment, and its cost varied depending on factors such as the quality of materials, craftsmanship, and the specific type of chainmail being produced.

The labor involved in creating chainmail was intensive. Each individual ring had to be meticulously crafted, shaped, and riveted or welded by hand. A single hauberk could require over 20,000 rings and take a skilled armorer several months to complete. Consequently, the labor cost alone was substantial.

The choice of material also played a vital role in determining the price. Higher quality steel or the use of alternate metals like bronze would drive up the price. The complexity and length of the chainmail, such as whether it included a coif or extended to cover the legs, would further add to the cost.

Acquiring chainmail could be a burdensome expense for a common soldier or knight. Often, the wealthier nobles and knights could afford the best quality chainmail. In some instances, rulers or lords would supply their elite soldiers with chainmail as part of their equipment.

In today’s currency, the cost of a full hauberk might equate to several thousand dollars. It was a significant expenditure that reflected the wearer’s status and martial commitment in the Middle Ages. The high cost of chainmail underscores the value placed on protection and craftsmanship during this fascinating historical period.

Could Chainmail Stop a Sword?

Chainmail was specifically designed to provide protection against cutting and slashing attacks, such as those delivered by a sword. The interlocking rings of chainmail form a mesh that can effectively absorb and redistribute the energy of a slashing blow, preventing the blade from cutting through.

Yet, chainmail’s effectiveness against swords is not absolute. While it can generally stop a slashing attack, it is more vulnerable to thrusting or stabbing motions. A well-aimed thrust with a sword could penetrate the gaps between the rings or even force them apart, especially if the chainmail was constructed with butted rather than riveted rings.

Additionally, while chainmail might stop the sword from cutting the flesh, the force of a heavy blow could still cause bruising or internal injuries, particularly if not worn over a padded garment like a gambeson. In conclusion, while chainmail was an effective defense against slashing sword attacks, it was not impenetrable.

What Were the Weaknesses of Chain Mail?

Chain mail was an essential part of medieval armor that provided valuable protection, but like all forms of armor, it had its weaknesses.

  • Piercing Attacks: Chain mail was highly effective against slashing blows but was more vulnerable to piercing attacks such as arrows, bolts, or thrusts from weapons like spears and swords. The points could pass through the gaps between the rings or even force them apart if not riveted.
  • Blunt Force: While chain mail could dissipate the energy of a cutting blow, it was less effective against blunt force trauma. Maces, hammers, and other blunt weapons could cause significant injury without cutting through the mail, leading to broken bones or internal damage.
  • Weight: As previously mentioned, chain mail could be heavy. Though it allowed reasonable mobility, its weight could cause fatigue over time, particularly in a prolonged fight or march.
  • Maintenance: Chain mail required regular maintenance to prevent rusting and degradation. This included cleaning, oiling, and sometimes repairing broken or damaged rings, which could be labor-intensive.
  • Cost and Time: The cost of materials and the time needed to produce chain mail made it an expensive and time-consuming piece of equipment to produce. This limited accessibility for lower-ranking soldiers.
  • Limited Protection: While it offered substantial protection to the torso, arms, and sometimes legs, chain mail did not cover every part of the body, leaving areas vulnerable.
  • Heat and Cold: Chain mail did little to insulate the wearer from extreme weather conditions. It could become unbearably hot in hot weather, while in cold conditions, it could offer very little warmth.

In the end, despite its effectiveness in many combat scenarios, chain mail had significant drawbacks that could be exploited with the right weapons and tactics. Its susceptibility to piercing and blunt force, along with its weight, maintenance needs, and exposure to environmental conditions, defined the limitations of this otherwise revolutionary form of protection.

Decline in Use

By the late medieval period, advances in weaponry, especially the longbow and crossbow, made chain mail less effective. The growing use of plate armor, which provided better protection against these threats, also contributed to the decline of mail. However, chain mail didn’t disappear entirely. It continued to be used as secondary armor and saw a resurgence in some areas during the Renaissance.

In Modern Times

In modern times, chainmail has transitioned from its historical role in warfare to various contemporary applications. While no longer used in military armor, chainmail is utilized in certain industries for safety purposes. For instance, butchers and food processors wear chainmail gloves to protect their hands from cutting instruments. Similarly, shark divers sometimes wear chainmail suits to defend against potential shark bites, as the interlocking rings can prevent sharp teeth from penetrating the skin.

Furthermore, chainmail has found a place in the realms of fashion, art, and historical re-enactment. Designers have incorporated chainmail into clothing and accessories, blending traditional craftsmanship with modern aesthetics. Historical enthusiasts and re-enactors meticulously create chainmail to authentically replicate medieval armor. Chainmail’s enduring appeal demonstrates its adaptability and the continuing fascination with the blend of functionality and design that characterized this remarkable form of protection.


Chainmail’s legacy as a vital component of medieval armor persists in the modern imagination, symbolizing the artistry and ingenuity of ancient blacksmiths and armorers. Its various forms served as a versatile and often effective means of protection, illustrating the balance between mobility and defense. Despite the emergence of more advanced materials and methods, chainmail’s fundamental design principles continue to be relevant, finding applications in contemporary safety equipment and even fashion.

The study of chainmail provides a window into the broader history of warfare, technology, and culture. Its construction required skill and dedication, its wear denoted status and valor, and its evolution reflected broader military strategy and technology changes. Today, chainmail serves as a tangible link to a fascinating era, inspiring modern craftsmen, historians, and enthusiasts to explore and preserve a unique aspect of our shared heritage.