Rings of Steel: The Evolution and Impact of Chain Mail

For centuries, mail armour, also known as chain mail, served as a vital form of protection for soldiers and warriors across the globe. Units as chronologically and geographically diverse as the Greek Hoplites and the Japanese Samurai extensively utilised mail.

Despite its potential weight, mail offered outstanding protection and was relatively affordable and straightforward to produce. Over time, mail evolved to address the changing demands of the battlefield and the preferences of its users.

Existing examples vary from the exceedingly simple to the highly intricate. In the contemporary era, mail continues to be employed as protective gear in certain contexts. Few other forms of armour have remained as universally favoured and effective over such an extended period as mail.


Etymology of Chain Mail

The origins of the word “mail” are somewhat obscure. One hypothesis suggests it stems from the Latin “macula,” meaning ‘spot’ or ‘opacity’ (as seen in the macula of the retina). Another theory connects it to the Old French “maillier,” meaning ‘to hammer’ (akin to the modern English “malleable”).

Khevsurian soldier in chain mail armour
Khevsurian soldier in chain mail armour, Georgia – sometime in the late 1800s.

Civilisations that utilised mail developed specific names for each type of garment made from it. The standard terms for European mail armour are derived from French: trousers are known as “chausses,” a hood as a “mail coif,” and gloves as “mitons.” A “camail” or “aventail” refers to a mail collar attached to a helmet. A knee-length shirt of mail is termed a “hauberk,” while one that reaches mid-thigh is a “haubergeon.” A “jazerant” is a piece (or pieces) of mail sandwiched between layers of fabric.

Tibetan warrior in chain mail
Tibetan warrior in mail reinforced by additional mirror plate


In medieval Europe, a waist-length coat was referred to as a “byrnie.” However, the precise construction of a byrnie, including whether it was made of mail or another type of armour, remains uncertain. Acknowledging the byrnie as the “most highly valued piece of armour” to the Carolingian soldier, scholars such as Bennet, Bradbury, DeVries, Dickie, and Jestice note that:

The exact nature of the Carolingian byrnie is a subject of debate among historians. With only artistic and some literary sources to rely on, due to the absence of archaeological finds, some believe it was a heavy leather jacket adorned with metal scales, sewn with strong thread.

It was notably long, extending below the hips and covering most of the arms. Conversely, other historians argue that the Carolingian byrnie was essentially a coat of mail, albeit longer and possibly heavier than the traditional early medieval variants. Without more definitive evidence, this debate persists.


The origins of chain mail trace back to ancient civilizations, long before its widespread use across the medieval battlefields of Europe. Its development is a testament to the ingenuity of ancient armourers, who sought to provide soldiers with protection that was both flexible and durable. The historical journey of chain mail, from its inception to its adoption in Britain, is a fascinating tale of technological innovation and cultural exchange.

Iranian or Turkish Chain Mail
Iranian or Turkish chain mail and plate

The earliest known examples of chain mail have been traced back to the 3rd or 4th century BCE, with discoveries in regions that today encompass parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. These ancient prototypes of chain mail were likely inspired by the scale armour worn by warriors of preceding eras, where metal plates resembling fish scales were attached to a leather or cloth garment. The leap to interlocking rings came from the need for armour that offered both flexibility and breathability, allowing warriors to move freely without sacrificing protection.

The Celts

The Celts, a collection of tribes with origins in central Europe, eventually spread across the British Isles, bringing with them not only their culture and languages but also their advanced metalworking techniques.

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These skills were particularly evident in their craftsmanship of chain mail, an armour that played a significant role in the Celts’ martial exploits across what is now known as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Celtic chain mail, characterised by its intricate network of interlocking metal rings, offered a revolutionary approach to personal defence. Unlike the rigid, cumbersome armours of previous eras, Celtic chain mail provided warriors with essential protection without sacrificing flexibility.

Fragments of iron chainmail from a Celtic warrior grave (3rd century BC )

This allowed for greater mobility in battle, a crucial advantage in the swift, melee-centric skirmishes typical of the era. The Celts’ innovation in chain mail construction was not just a military necessity but also a reflection of their sophisticated understanding of metallurgy.

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The terminology associated with chain mail, particularly the word “maille,” traces its etymology to the French language, yet it is deeply rooted in the Celtic influence that permeated early medieval Europe. The word “maille” originates from the Latin “macula,” meaning “mesh” or “net,” a direct reference to the mesh-like appearance of the armour.


This linguistic connection highlights the profound impact of Celtic culture and technology on the broader European context, embedding their legacy within the very language used to describe this iconic form of armour.

A map of Celtic invasions and migrations in the Balkans in the 3rd century BC

The spread of chain mail across Europe and its enduring presence in the military history of the region underscore the extent of Celtic influence. As the Celts engaged with other cultures, both as traders and warriors, their chain mail techniques were adopted and adapted by various peoples, contributing to the armour’s evolution. The diffusion of chain mail is, in many ways, a mirror to the spread of Celtic diaspora, marking paths of conquest, trade, and cultural exchange.

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In crafting their chain mail, the Celts exhibited a remarkable attention to detail. Each ring was individually forged, typically from iron, and then intertwined with others to create a flexible, durable mesh. The process was labour-intensive, requiring not only a deep understanding of metal properties but also a significant investment of time and skill. The end product was a highly effective armour that could absorb and distribute the impact of blows, significantly reducing the risk of injury.

The Romans

The Romans, renowned for their military acumen and the ability to assimilate and refine the technologies of the peoples they conquered, came into contact with chain mail during their extensive campaigns against the Celtic tribes of Europe.

Roman Foot Soldier in Roman Army Museum, Greenhead, England

Recognizing the superior protective qualities and flexibility of chain mail, which was markedly different from their traditional armour, the Romans were quick to adopt and incorporate this innovation into their own military arsenal. This adoption marked a big moment in the history of armour, as the Roman Empire’s endorsement of chain mail, known to them as “lorica hamata,” lent it an unprecedented level of legitimacy and exposure.

Lorica Hamata

The “lorica hamata” was ingeniously designed, consisting of thousands of small iron rings linked together to form a protective mesh that could withstand the rigours of battle. This armour was not only effective in offering protection but also provided the flexibility necessary for the wide range of movements required in combat. Its integration into the Roman military ensemble represented a significant advancement in personal protection, enhancing the legionaries’ resilience on the battlefield.

Roman chain mail in Hall Castle Museum
Roman chainmail in Hall Castle Museum

As the Roman Empire expanded, so too did the influence of its military innovations, including the use of chain mail. Through a combination of conquests, trade, and interactions with various cultures within their expansive territories, the Romans facilitated the spread of chain mail across Europe and into the British Isles. The presence of the Roman military in Britain served as a conduit for the introduction of “lorica hamata” to the islands, where it was adopted and adapted by local populations.

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Roman engineers and metalworkers contributed to the evolution of chain mail, refining its design and manufacturing techniques to suit the specific needs of their military. This period of innovation saw the introduction of improvements such as the incorporation of shoulder doublings to protect against downward strikes and the use of alternating rows of riveted and solid rings to enhance durability.

Moreover, the Roman adoption and adaptation of chain mail had a lasting impact on the development of European armoury. The “lorica hamata” served not only as a crucial component of the Roman legionary’s equipment but also as a symbol of the empire’s might and technological prowess. It underscored the Roman military’s ability to integrate and perfect foreign technologies, enhancing their effectiveness in conquest and governance.

Chain Mail in Medieval Britain

During the medieval period in Britain, chain mail underwent significant evolution, both in terms of its cultural symbolism and its technical design, reflecting the changing dynamics of warfare and societal structures. With the Norman Conquest in 1066, chain mail quickly became a hallmark of the knightly class, symbolising not only martial prowess but also the chivalric ideals that underpinned feudal society.

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Norman and Anglo-Saxon soldiers in mail armour.

The Normans, leveraging their military innovations and organisational skills, effectively popularised chain mail, making it a standard component of the knight’s arsenal. This widespread adoption marked the beginning of a new era in the use of chain mail, combining its history with that of the medieval knight and the feudal order.

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The design of chain mail garments saw considerable refinement and expansion in coverage throughout the medieval period. Initially, chain mail took the form of a short hauberk or a shirt extending to the mid-thigh with short sleeves.


As warfare evolved, with the introduction of new weapons and tactics, so too did the design of chain mail, leading to the development of longer hauberks with full sleeves, leggings, and even mittens to offer comprehensive protection.

Chain Mail hauberk from the Museum of Bayeux
Mail hauberk from the Museum of Bayeux

The integration of integral sleeves and leggings into the hauberk transformed it into a full-body suit of armour that was both flexible and resilient, capable of providing effective defence against the slashes of swords and the thrusts of spears.

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The manufacture of chain mail in medieval Britain evolved into a highly specialised craft, emblematic of the period’s technological and artisanal advancements. Guilds and workshops dedicated to armoury emerged as centres of innovation and excellence in the production of chain mail.

Hypothetic reconstruction of High Middle Ages ring mail by Karl Gimbel, ca. 1890

The creation of chain mail was a laborious process, requiring the forging, shaping, and linking of thousands of small metal rings. Each ring had to be carefully interlocked with four others in a pattern that maximised the armour’s strength and flexibility, a technique known as the “4-in-1 pattern.” This meticulous process highlighted the artisanal skill and dedication required to produce chain mail, making armourers highly respected professionals within medieval society.

The Manufacture of Chain Mail

Numerous methods of interlinking rings in armour have been established since ancient times, with the 4-to-1 pattern—where each ring is linked to four others—being particularly prevalent in Europe. This pattern was almost universally adopted across the continent. Mail was also widely utilised in East Asia, especially in Japan, where a variety of additional patterns were developed, leading to a complex nomenclature specific to the region.

A manuscript from 1698 showing the manufacture of mail

In Europe, from the pre-Roman era onwards, the rings composing a piece of mail were commonly riveted shut. This method significantly reduced the likelihood of the rings splitting open under the force of a thrusting attack or the impact of an arrow.

A close up of a reenactor making Roman Chain Mail, Legio XXI Rapax Roland zh.

Until the 14th century, European mail typically featured alternating rows of round riveted rings and solid rings. During the 14th century, European mail craftsmen began the transition from round to wedge-shaped rivets, while continuing to incorporate rows of solid rings. Over time, the use of solid rings ceased, and European mail was predominantly made from wedge-riveted rings alone.

Forge Welding Chain Mail

Initially, both riveted and solid rings were crafted from wrought iron, though some later examples were made from heat-treated steel. The wire for the riveted rings was produced either by hammering out wrought iron into plates and then cutting or slitting these plates, or by forging an iron billet into a rod and drawing it out into wire.

Reenactor making Roman Chain Mail, Legio XXI Rapax Roland zh.

This wire was then repeatedly pulled through a draw plate until it reached the desired thickness. Waterwheel-powered drawing mills, depicted in several period manuscripts, were commonly used in this process. Solid links, on the other hand, were typically punched out from a sheet. Guild marks, indicating the origin and quality of the craftsmanship, were often stamped on the rings.

Although forge welding was occasionally employed to create solid links, documented examples from Europe are scarce, with the camail (mail neck-defence) of the 7th-century Coppergate helmet being a notable exception. This technique was more prevalent outside Europe, such as the “theta” links found in India.

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Historic examples of butted mail are rare, and it is widely accepted that butted mail was not extensively used historically, with the notable exception of Japan. In Japan, mail (kusari) frequently consisted of butted links. The Moros of the Philippines also utilised butted link mail in conjunction with plate armour.

Chain Mail Effectiveness

The efficacy of mail armour against weapons is influenced by four primary factors: the type of linkage (riveted, butted, or welded), the material used (iron compared to bronze or steel), the density of the weave (a denser weave requires a thinner weapon to penetrate), and the thickness of the rings (typically ranging from 1.0–1.6 mm in diameter, equivalent to 18 to 14 gauge wire, in most instances). For those warriors who could afford it, mail provided a considerable advantage, especially when used in conjunction with skilled combat techniques.

European wedge riveted mail, showing both sides of the rings, 16th to 17th century.

When the mail was not riveted, it was vulnerable to penetration by the thrust of most sharp weapons. Conversely, riveted mail offered superior protection, being penetrable only by a forceful, precisely aimed thrust from specific spears, or thin swords designed specifically for piercing mail, such as the estoc.


Moreover, powerful strikes from weapons like the pollaxe or halberd could breach the armour. Strong projectile weapons, including more powerful self bows, recurve bows, and crossbows, were also capable of penetrating riveted mail. There is evidence to suggest that during armoured conflicts, combatants often aimed to bypass the armour rather than penetrate it. For instance, an examination of skeletons from the Battle of Visby on Gotland showed that a majority of injuries were inflicted on the less protected legs.

Indian zirah baktar / zirah bagtar, (mail and plate shirt), detail view showing the amount of possible penetration by an arrow head, 17th c, the shirt is formed of rows of theta-link alternating with rows of riveted mail.

Despite its formidable protective qualities, mail was not without its vulnerabilities. The flexibility of mail meant that a wearer could still sustain injuries from a blow, such as severe bruising or even fractures, and it offered minimal protection against head trauma.

Warriors clad in mail typically donned separate, rigid helmets over their mail coifs to protect their heads. Additionally, blunt weapons like maces and warhammers could inflict harm through impact forces without actually penetrating the armour; it was common practice to wear soft armour, such as a gambeson, underneath the hauberk to mitigate such injuries.

Medieval surgeons possessed the skills to set and treat bone fractures caused by blunt weapons effectively. However, with a limited understanding of hygiene at the time, cuts that became infected posed a significant risk. Nonetheless, mail armour provided adequate protection in most combat scenarios.