A type of armour composed of interlocking links of metal wire formed into a mesh… more properly known simply as mail in its period since chainmail is a retronym, linking it to other types of armour to which it is only slightly related. The links are typically made of iron or steel, although examples made from bronze have occasionally been found.
Almost any part of the body can be armoured with mail from the kusari tabi1 of the Samurai, through the more familiar hauberks and haubergeons of Europe to the face veils worn by the Ahlmoravids and WW1 tank crew alike.
Mail has been found dating back as early as the 3rd Century BC and contrary to popular belief mail was the standard armour of Roman legionaries for most of the Marian and Augustan period (known as the lorica hamata) and it lived on into the twentieth century in some more remote parts of the world (generally China and central Asia) - a well deserved lifespan for an effective form of armour and even today mail made from stainless steel link sees limited application in the meat industry and amongst divers in shark infested seas. In between times it served most of the worlds metal using cultures in one form or another, even at the height of plate armour chain pieces could be found covering joints in the suit and those were only weak points by comparison to the remainder.
Well made and backed with a solid layer of padding mail can be extremely hard to breach - a cutting weapon required a good hit to sever the links and as long as they remained uncut damage was limited to whatever blunt force was not adsorbed by the padding. When plate and mail is thrown into the mix - pieces of plate armour worn over a suit of mail - then getting a sword to penetrate becomes very difficult indeed.
The main drawbacks to mail were the poor weight distribution (the weight of a piece of mail will naturally hang from the highest point it can), the higher quality of metal needed to draw wire (as against forming cheap plate or scales) and the hundreds of man hours that go into forging and jointing all of the thousands of links required for a decent sized piece2.
The actual construction of mail can vary quite a bit - the rings can be punched from a sheet of metal or turned from wire - or a mixture of the two - and loose ends can be butted, soldered or riveted together. Different styles of chain vary in how many neighbouring links any given ring is joined to.
Quality of any given piece of mail armour will depend on a lot of things - the quality of the metal from which the rings are made, their size and thickness, the way they are jointed and the number of cross links being the main factors. In general, a more heavily linked piece will be stronger than a less heavily linked one, but is also prone to be heavier, less flexible and more expensive.
Mail is normally worn over a layer of padding - a gambeson for the torso and a coif or arming cap for the head, both to provide protection from the blunt force of blows stopped by the mail, to adsorb sweat and to cushion the weight and chafing of the armour itself. Relevant names for pieces of chain armour include the hauberk - a widespread European design, consisting of a coat of mail, hanging to the knee, the smaller haubergeon which hung to mid-thigh and the waist length byrnie. Mail "trousers" were known as chausses and other pieces might include a camail or aventail (which hung down from a helmet to protect the neck) or a pixanne (which protected the neck and shoulders).
Game and Story Use
- Mail armour should be a lot more expensive in most RPGs than it is usually cast as being. It should also be quite a bit more effective. The stuff was also more encumbering than full plate, not least due to its poor weight distribution.
- Different styles of mail making may provide important clues to an enemy's origin - it may be possible to determine the armourer who made a piece - or at least the city or nation in which he trained - by looking at how it is jointed.
- Some ways of making mail are better than others - your cheap, low durability, poor protection stuff is made up of butted rings, many of them punched and infrequently jointed, the best mail is heavily jointed and made of riveted rings drawn from the best quality wire. If there's enough granularity in your RPG it would be good to see a difference.
- Mail can be replaced link by link if necessary - in the style of My Grandfather's Axe a given piece can be very old indeed and may have some trace of the ancient hero who once wore it.
- It is traditional, albeit not terribly realistic, for swordmaidens in a heroic fantasy campaign to wear chainmail bikinis.