Common Historical European Armor Types and Playing them in UO

First of all let me say this: There's no actual requirement that armor in UO be realistic or that, if it is realistic, it matches European models, and both are good things. I like the diversity of styles we have in this game.

For all we know a given suit of armor your character has could rely primarily on magic for protection. Or it might not actually be armor at all, just a uniform, costume, or regular clothes, and a character's protection might come mostly from dodging, ducking, blocking with shield or weapon, and whatnot. Or your armor might have some kind of semi-magical technology that makes it work.

The possibilities are endless, and it's not up to me to tell you to or not to do certain things in how you play your character.

However....Some of you though might be like me and just like the idea of your character's armor being realistic. Maybe it adds to the common-ness of your character (like Sam Winchester said, “I’m just a guy”), or maybe you like the idea that your character could be transported to the RL Middle Ages, or a low magic world like George Martin's Westeros, and still get by as a warrior of some kind.

And for those folks, here is some basic information on historical European armor types and some very basic suggestions on how to portray them in UO. I'm focusing on European armor types simply because I'm more-familiar with them than with other cultures’ armor. (So the very common Asian armor type called “lamellar,” though a great armor design and worn throughout Asia during the Middle Ages, isn't covered here beyond mentioning it a couple of times.) I'm focusing on the Medieval period because most Western fantasy is based on that period (sort of anyway...). I'm also painting in very broad strokes here and there're a lot of nuances that I won't be catching. I also won't be talking about helmets very much. Which is a shame but when I tried to include helmets the article got too long. Also a lot of us just like wearing various kinds of hats anyway and in UO there’s rarely any functional difference. And, since it wasn't uncommon to wear a helmet under a hat (sometimes this was called a “secret”), or to style a helmet to look exactly like a hat, there's a pretty extreme amount of variety when it comes to helmets.

A lot of information about historical armor is in flux because a lot of work is still being done. For example, for a long time it was assumed that artistic depictions of armor from the Middle Ages were mostly fantastical in nature. Then, just a few short decades ago, someone got around to designing some real life armors based on the artwork and, a lot of the time, the artwork was proved accurate. And now you can have real armors based on artwork, or knights’ funeral effigies. And sometimes you can actually find a historical suit of armor that artwork was based on.

Finally I also note that I've never studied this stuff professionally and am relying on a very uneasy combination of academic and non-academic sources. If you get curious and start reading (I got some suggestions below), stuff you find may differ.


  • Leather Armor

    People will say either that this was the common armor of the foot soldier, or that it didn't exist. They're both wrong. It probably existed, but there isn't universal agreement about what it looked like. If it existed, it wasn't as common as people think, and it didn't look anything like it does in UO.

    In places other than Europe variations on leather armor, made out of rhinoceros hide, were more common. (Kind of like how we might make leather armor out of dragon or drake hide in UO.) I've also seen one reference in a book to a ceremonial armor style that was mostly leather, reinforced with some metal strips. (The idea was that if the enemy attacked during the ceremony, this armor could still work.) Also, stretching outside of the Medieval period, in the early modern period they invented a long, very cool-looking style of leather coat called a “buff coat” which they wore as armor (either underneath some plate armor or by itself, depending on money and circumstances). Buff coats proved pretty effective at repelling gunshots, sword cuts (a good thrust would defeat it but a cut had a harder time), and other things that were faced in the early modern battlefield.

    So anyone who tells you that leather armor didn't exist at all? They're flat-out wrong. Correct them and say “it existed, it's just not what you think. There’s nothing wrong with my fantasy character wearing leather armor made out of fantasy creatures like dragons.”

    I may as well say that studded leather armor, however, almost definitely didn't exist – if you were wearing leather armor why would you put studs in it that basically screams out “aim between the studs if you want to hit the weak spots in my armor and kill me?” But see below for a possible historical model for studded leather.

    Cloth Armor

    So leather armor sort of existed, but cloth armor both existed and was common in Europe, probably elsewhere too. It's fair to say that cloth armor occupied the space in real life that we sometimes think leather armor occupied: the armor of the common foot soldier. Common people would've worn cloth armor as their sole body protection (often called a “gambeson”), and nobles/richer people would've worn a thinner type underneath their metal armor (often called an “aketon” or an “arming doublet”). Essentially it was like wearing a thick, padded coat, or a blanket with sleeves, and people who have tested it say it was actually pretty effective. Sometimes the gambeson versions had an external layer of rawhide, sheepskin, or something else.

    So I'd actually say that this stuff, cloth armor (especially the “gambeson” type) with some kind of hide as an external layer, is your “leather armor.” Dye your leather armor to look like cloth, make sure everything is dyed the same color, and, presto, your character is wearing perfectly realistic cloth armor that makes more sense for your peasant or common-born warrior. I submit that a gambeson, underneath a robe or dress, is also great to imagine your mage wearing because it's the next-best-thing to, and yet is more realistic than, not wearing any armor. (You didn’t see Gandalf’s gambeson but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have one.)

  • Ring Mail

    Another controversial topic here. Like leather armor, it probably didn't exist, and/or wasn't common, in Europe in the real life Middle Ages. My understanding is that artistic depictions of “ring mail” in Europe (like on the Bayeux Tapestry) is actually really badly drawn chain mail. There's some evidence that Ring Mail existed and/or was more common in the east, ancient China in particular. Indeed in ancient China the clay warriors built to guard the tomb of the First Emperor wore functional ring mail. (Apparently they were supposed to come to life in the afterlife and stand guard over the Emperor.) So it's not like your ring mail actually being ring mail, is totally unrealistic, it's just not good if you're looking to imitate common historical European styles. It makes a neat prop to depict another kind of armor though – see below.

    Scale Armor

    It definitely existed but generally not often in Europe. European art is a surprisingly accurate source for a lot of armor styles but scale armor is an exception. There was an artistic convention in Europe to show ancient or foreign figures in scale armor, as a way of driving home how ancient or foreign they were. (You know how in American movies sometimes a character has a British accent as a method of telling you that the character is foreign, sophisticated, educated, or all three? It was like that.)

    So really it's fitting that the only scale armor in UO (or am I missing something?) is the dragon scale armor. It isn't used all that often so it definitely fits the exotic, ancient, or foreign feel this armor was supposed to have in Medieval Europen art.

    Finally I note that from what I've read, while scale armor existed (in one famous instance in China they made it out of a thick, layered paper), more common was the similar “lamellar” design which isn't covered here. (But look it up and feel free to think about how to portray it in UO because it's really cool. Many Samurai armor types seem to be trying to portray lamellar armor.)

    But for present purposes, I suggest that if you're trying to imitate common European historical armor styles, forget about trying to portray scale armor because, at minimum, it was uncommon.

    Chain Mail

    In the Middle Ages they would've just called this “mail,” but “chain mail” has entered the modern lexicon so that's what we'll use. Chain mail would've been a very popular, very common type of armor in Medieval Europe and, it must be said, in Ancient and Renaissance Europe, and throughout most of the rest of the world too. In Europe it went through various stages, from an elite armor that was difficult to make, to an armor for the masses that was mass-produced and considered relatively easy to repair while on campaign, to eventually going back to an elite armor for Renaissance/late Medieval nobility to wear under their fancy clothes.

    As you all know, we have chain mail in UO. Unlike in real life, in UO our chain mail shirts are exclusively of the long-sleeve variety – in real life, while the long-sleeve variety existed, the short-sleeve or no-sleeve version (basically a chain mail vest) were both more common.

    Because UO requires you to have sleeves to be effective, if you're going for the “full chain mail shirt” effect, I would say to use ring mail sleeves and color them carefully to be the same color as your chain mail shirt. (I've discovered that sometimes, in the Enhanced Client the chain mail shirt will hide your sleeves but don't rely on this.) Leather or studded sleeves can work too. Color them differently from your chain mail shirt and, presto, what you have is a chain mail vest over an aketon. (Make sure you have a studded or leather gorget matching colors with your sleeves – aketons and gambesons usually had a neck-protecting collar.)

    Chain mail leggings existed in real life but they were heavy and awkward and it was mostly high status people who were going to be mounted most of the time that wore them. Ring mail, leather, or studded leather looks good with chain mail tunics. Also the Tokuno leggings called “suneate” look a lot like Medieval European leggings that I've often seen paired with chain mail shirts in art – basically these were pants with metal plates fixed to them at least in the front. This was of particular importance to cavalry soldiers.

  • Coat of Plates

    Along the way a funny thing happened – people got the bright idea to put another layer of protection over chain mail, usually metal plates held together by fabric or animal hide. Usually the metal was inside the fabric, and visible parts of the metal poked through to anchor the metal in place. Sometimes the metal was on the outside, creating a kind of “scale armor” or “lamellar” effect. (See above.)

    At first the metal plates were on the bigger side and the armor came to be known as a “coat of plates.” We don't actually have this in UO, sadly. However, to my mind, ring mail tunic and sleeves together achieves the desired visual effect when dyed a softer, dark color. (And thusly a type of armor that either didn't exist in Europe or at least wasn't common in Europe can be a good stand-in for a type of armor that was actually pretty common in Europe for awhile.)

    In real life, coats of plates eventually they gave way to full plate armors and, a little earlier, to the type described below.

    Brigandine Armor

    Brigandine armor had the same basic idea of the coat of plates, except the metal plates were a lot smaller and there were a lot more of them. The result was that the hide or fabric outside looked....Well, “studded.” It's very likely that artistic depictions of brigandine armor are the origins of the “studded leather” myth.

    Sometimes, an entire suit of brigandine armor was worn. In UO of course a full suit of studded leather plays a full suit of brigandine armor very well. Sometimes a (sleeveless) brigandine coat or vest was worn over chain mail, like the earlier coats of plates were. The best I can think of to play this in UO is to have a studded tunic and ring mail sleeves, standing in for a chain mail shirt underneath the brigandine vest. To me this never quite looks right but maybe you can pull it off better than I can. Sometimes a (sleevless) brigandine coat or vest was worn over a gambeson with no additional layer. One of my characters, Duncan, actually does just this. I play it by having studded sleeves colored white (the studs don't show very well, which enhances the effect), and a studded tunic dyed a different color.

    Full Plate Armor

    Full plate armor, of course, also existed, and when the image of a Medieval knight pops into your head that knight is probably wearing full plate armor. Full plate armor wasn't as heavy as people think, especially when it was designed for a single wearer. (Anyone else old enough to remember the Dexterity penalty in old-time UO? Not realistic in the slightest unless you were wearing someone else's plate and didn't really know how to wear it. In which case you were better off just wearing chain mail.)

    In real life plate armor in fragments was sometimes worn with the other types of armor described above – the rule was “anything you can afford that stops you from dying as quickly. Here in UO wearing plate pieces with other pieces never quite gets the same effect to me, and other pieces get the correct effect. In UO our plate mail pieces are clearly designed to mimic the late Medieval / early Renaissance full plate suits – the classic “Knight in Shining Armor.” In UO, I recommend Samurai armor as a stand-in for partial plate armors. For example: studded tunic for a bridandine shirt, then studded or plate hiro sode as a stand-in for partial plate arms.

    To play full plate armor in UO is easy: Just wear plate armor. For a helmet I'd recommend the close helm, which is very close to a historical “sallet.” Plate helms and nose/norse helms work but, historically, those more-often were paired with chain mail and a coat of plates than with full plate suits. But they look cool with the full plate suit and they aren't terribly ahistorical so it can still work.

    One thing you need to keep in mind though: If your character is wearing full plate armor, then he or she has someone help put the armor on, OR has some magic, OR has some kind of clockwork technology (ARMING GOLEM!!!) that helps him or her put it on. Full plate armor, in real life at least, supposedly can't be put on by yourself. (This is one reasons why Knights had Squires, and/or worked in pairs.) Also it takes time to put on – between 6 to 10 minutes depending on the specifics and depending on who you ask. So if your character is the type that likes to be ready at a moment's notice, you may want to consider almost every type of armor on this list except for full plate.


    And there you have it. Some information on historical armor types and brief suggestions on how to play them in UO.

    Here are some suggested sources for additional information.


    Mike Loades, “Swords and Swordsmen” and “The Longbow”

    Constance Bouchard, “Knights in History and Legend”

    Michael Oakeshott, “A Knight and His Armor”

    Michael Oakeshott, “A Knight and His Weapons”

    Various authors, “Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance”

    Various authors, “Knights and the Golden Age of Chivalry”






    Royal Armouries (especially the “How a Man Shall be Armed” series and various videos they have about armor and weapons during the English Civil War – on an unrelated note they also have an original Star Wars blaster prop)

    ANYTHING with Tobias Capwell or Mike Loades as a commentator or presenter, especially Mike Loades's great series “Weapons that Made Britain” which has an extensive episode about armor

    Websites other than YouTube:

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