Body Armour – Napoleonic Style!

‘They don’t make things like they used to.’

Maybe, in the case of protective clothing for the military, that’s a good thing!

Carabinier (left) and Cuirassier

You might think that in the 19th century, long after heavily armoured knights thundering across the battlefield had disappeared forever, body armour was completely discarded. But that’s not strictly true, though nowadays it might not seem much like protective clothing to us.

I’ve blogged before about French cavalry Cuirassiers and Carabiniers. As well as brass or steel helmets these regiments of heavy cavalry were issued with steel breastplates – cuirasses – and matching backplates. Ignoring its weight, which became a problem if the cavalryman was unhorsed, this armour proved effective protection against sword-strokes and even long-range musket fire. Not cannon fire, though, as the picture below shows. Oops.

Buffalo-hide cuirasses, occasionally worn by British officers, owed their use to the thick leather overcoats of a century before.
These were private purchases, most often worn, it would seem, if a man had previously been wounded in the body.

Standard-issue clothing gave a certain amount of protection. British cavalry were instructed to overtake fleeing enemy infantry to cut backwards at them with their swords. The reason becomes clear when you consider what the infantry wore.

They carried a backpack make of cow-hide – with the hair still on it. Presumably this made a more comfortable pillow when the men bivouacked(!) The pack was usually strapped on over a heavy wool greatcoat. Underneath all this the infantryman wore his wool uniform jacket, over which was a pair of leather cross-belts to carry ammunition pouch and bayonet. Even without underclothes, all this wool and leather made it pretty difficult to cut through to the man beneath with a single sword-stroke or thrust.

Cavalrymen also wore thick wool. Arms and heads were their most vulnerable points as enemy horsemen tried to disable, if not kill them. British hussars soon found their fur caps (busbies) fell off at the first opportunity. They had no straps to anchor them. Even if the headgear stayed on, it was made with no reinforcement. French light cavalry headwear was fitted with iron hoops inside which might just be enough to deflect a killing or disabling blow.  And British heavy cavalry bicornes were soon discarded in favour of a metal helmet which at least offered some resistance to an opponent’s blade. As well as not disintegrating when it rained. Which it did, in Spain and Portugal – a lot.

Another way French cavalry improved their protection was to roll their cloaks before an action, strapping them over one shoulder. This produced an effect similar to the infantryman and his pack – a multi-layered pad of thick material across the back. Thick enough to deflect a sword-stroke, maybe.

French dragoons also wore gauntlets with heavy leather cuffs. Hands and arms were a favourite target for swordsmen, even if inadvertently. Short leather gloves worn by most light cavalry weren’t really that protective – of necessity the material had to be thin enough for the wearer to have some ‘feel’ of the reins. The sword hilt was supposed to offer some hand protection, but both the British heavy and light cavalry sabres were fitted with a narrow knucklebow; useful for punching your opponent in the face (apparently a favourite close-quarter tactic) but pretty hopeless as as a guard.

Admittedly the heavy sabre also had a circular hand-guard, but troops often ground half of this away because it cut uncomfortably into the leg when the sword was carried in its scabbard.

Of course, none of this protection was much use against firearms. There were no ceramic plates, no kevlar; nothing guaranteed to stop a bullet. Stories abound of lucky escapes, of shots being stopped or deflected by personal effects. Books (especially Bibles, which was quite apt) and pocket watches were pretty common saviours. The relatively slow speed and large size of musket balls meant their paths could be altered drastically by buttons or epaulettes.  Unfortunately, these properties also meant if they did strike home terrible wounds could result as they bounced off bones and internal organs.

Some men actually suffered serious injuries, not from shots themselves, but from metal buttons struck from their own, or even others, clothing. Or, more horribly, other casualties’ body parts. In fact many soldiers’ anecdotes from the Peninsular war are so unlikely-sounding they would be barely believable if included in a novel. So if you happen to be reading a story of the times and think ‘that can’t possibly have happened’, it probably did.

The reason I started thinking about body armour, and thence this post, is slightly obscure. Cavalry stirrups of the period were attached to the saddle with a leather strap, much as they are today (the stirrup leather). The buckle of this strap sat about halfway down the front of the cavalryman’s shin when mounted, and the spare end of the stirrup ‘leather’ was looped across in front of the buckle a couple of times. This protected the buckle with three or four thicknesses of leather and is always assumed to have been done for that purpose. After all, cutting your opponent’s stirrup leather disables his fighting ability in the same way as cutting his reins would.

But what if it’s not about that at all? What if the folds of leather over the buckle are not to protect the fitting itself but to deflect a sword cut aimed at the rider’s shin? Makes more sense, doesn’t it?

Of course we’ll never really know. The reason for looping the leather in that fashion wasn’t written down in any treatise on cavalry equipment. Not one I’ve come across, anyway.

Because at the time it probably fell under the general heading, ‘assumed knowledge’. You know – stuff which came naturally. Commonsense to people who lived then but which we’ve largely forgotten today – for example, the fact that big, noisy machines (eg. cars, lorries) can frighten horses. Especially when they speed past just a couple of inches away.

Now that’s when I could do with some body armour.

(Top three images copyright


~ by cavalrytales on July 4, 2011.

2 Responses to “Body Armour – Napoleonic Style!”

  1. You’ve left out the military plaits worn by the French cavalry. Human hair is one of the most difficult things to cut (hence the Revolutionaries’ insistence on cutting short the hair of those on their way to la Guillotine) and when plaited, it becomes even more difficult to cut through–hence the plaits at the back sides of the neck and also down over the sideburns.

    And now, I’ll be puzzling over the reason for the folds every time I look at stirrup leathers…


  2. Ah – cadenettes. And queues – didn’t mention them either, though the Brits got rid of them (officially)in 1808. I was humming and haa-ing about stocks, but they seem mostly to have been issued so infantrymen stood straight and tall in line. They rubbed like hell otherwise, apparently.

    Slapped wrist accepted!


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