The idiot's guide to chain maille

Chain maille, or simply mail as it is more correctly referred to is a type of metal armour found across many areas of the world, including Europe, Asia and Japan. It consists of small metal rings that are linked together in different patterns to form a flexible protective mesh. Maille makers, like the majority of armourers, left no written treatises on their craft and it is only within the past ten years that craftsmen based at the Royal Armouries in Leeds have begun to offer suggestions as to how Western European maille was made.

It’s thought that iron was pulled through a series of draw plates to achieve the required thinness.  The resulting wire was then coiled around a hand mandrel and heated in a forge.  A pair of snips was used to cut the wire coil into a series of metal rings, each slightly open at one end.  This procedure was repeated until sufficient metal rings were available.  How the maille was actually constructed is still uncertain.  One theory is that the end of each ring was hammered flat and a small hole made in it using a metal punch.  It would have been tedious and time consuming work.  Once enough punched rings were available, riveting could begin.  

Today, we will concentrate on European style maille and its uses in theatre, historical re-enactment and full-contact armoured fighting.

European mail was first in Europe worn by the Celts, who are credited with its invention. The earliest known example of maille was found in the grave of a Celtic chief in Ciumesti Romania, dating from approximately the late third century BCE.

It was commonly worn during battles in the Middles Ages, becoming less common in the late 14th and 15th centuries as it was superseded by full-plate suits, which offered a more effective protection against stronger weapons such as crossbow bolts. It was however still employed as a layer of secondary protection under plate

Mail Patterns:

European 1 in 4 is the standard for mail construction that has been found in examples and references from the European area since the second century BC. Names simply after the pattern, in which each link loops through four others to create the strength and familiar mesh. This is the pattern used in all the examples we will examine for construction today.

Example 1: Aluminium butted mail (9mm)

Butted aluminium chain maille

This example, created from aluminium would be unsuitable for re-enactment or full-contact fighting. The distinctive colour of the rings identify it as a modern metal and as such is not historically accurate. It would be a good alternative for theatrical or television work where a suitable appearance combined with comfort is required. Aluminium is far lighter that any of the authentic metals and as such is often used in these circumstances.

The construction type, ‘butted rings’ are described as such because the two ends form the circular ring by ‘butting’ the ends of the piece of wire in the ring against one another with no other form of fastening.

This example also demonstrates the rounded ring. This shape retains the circular profile of the wire used of construct the ring, and this type of mail ring was used alongside flat rings.

Example 2: Mild steel flat riveted rings with washers (9mm)

Mild steel flat riveted mail

Alternating riveted rings with solid circles that were punched from a sheet of metal have been found in examples of mail dating back as far as Roman times. Alternating closed with solid rings in this way drastically increases the strength of the armour and also the manufacturing time of any mail garment. Punched metal rings are far quicker to produce than closed riveted mail.

Flattened mail was created in the same way as rounded mail, but was hammered after it was shaped.  Flattened mail has different qualities to rounded mail, when manufactured authentically, including:

  • The flat cross section is more thrust resistant as it resists being bent open more that rings with a rounded profile.

  • The increased surface area of the ring enabled a stronger, wider rivet to be introduced, increasing the strength of the final mesh.

  • The weave sits closer to the body and also interlocks more tightly, better deflecting piercing weapons.

Riveted rings such as these afforded greater protection that butted mail, which could be stretched to splitting if enough cross-ways force was applied. After the rings were flattened the ends were overlapped and a small hole is made into which a rivet was applied. The type and nature of the rivet used varied according to the time-period and location. Please see the references below if you would like more information on this subject.

Riveted flattened mail is generally accepted to be the most generally authentic type of mail to wear for re-enactment. Riveted mail combined with solid rings is also one of the strongest and most stable mail combinations so is suitable for full contact armoured combat, as long as the manufacturer is known for high quality mail suitable for this activity.

Example 3: Mild Steel round rings with riveting, 17 gauge (9mm)

Round riveted steel rings

This third style of ring demonstrates how rounded rings still required flattened ends to create the best profile to punch and hammer rivets or staples through, thus creating once again the stronger end result of riveted mail. It also better demonstrates the shape of genuine historically accurate flatted ring which, upon close examination, actually has a squared profile, retaining much of its thickness. This is compared to modern day examples which resemble very flat washers. The document by Vegard Vike (listed in references) gives some excellent examples of this in what is a comprehensively written and detailed comparison of three different mail samples.



Posted in Armour Authenticity  


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