Medieval Mythbusting

On Sunday at 2:30PM in the Hilton Grand Ballroom, the Palmetto Knights present a program called “Medieval Mythbusting” and debunked misconceptions about medieval armor and weapons. The program started with the announcement that the group had decided to see if their armor was bulletproof. They displayed a hardened metal rondel 1.5mm thick. It had dings, a couple of holes, and a crack in it. The dings were made by a 9mm firearm, and the crack came from a full-gauge magnum round, leading them to conclude that the armor is bulletproof, at least against small arms fire.

The group’s members then set out to test a helmet on a stand. The helmet was made of steel typical of the historic era of its design. The first test , three blows from a standard arming sword, produced a couple of dents but nothing that would injure a person wearing the helmet. Blows from a mace caused a big dent and some creases, but still nothing that would injure the wearer or, as they put it, “defeat the helmet.”

A two-handed axe created a much bigger dent but not one deep enough to hurt the wearer because of the space and padding inside the helmet. The St. Catherine’s Execution sword, so named because the only documentation for it is in a painting of someone executing St. Catherine with it, caused a deep dent that would’ve injured a person wearing the helmet.

The group then traded the battered helmet to a stronger one such as nobility or royalty would’ve worn. This helmet was heat-treated and tempered, which made the armor stronger. The process also made it more expensive, which was why only the wealthy could afford it.

A blow from an axe created no damage. A large sword struck sparks but created only a tiny nick. There was more damage to the sword than to the helmet. The St. Catherine sword produced no damage. When one of the group picked up the second helmet and hit the first helmet with it, the first helmet collapsed under the blows.

Allen Johnson took questions from the audience while other members of the group set up for the next demonstrations. He noted that one myth about swords is that they’re very heavy. A knight’s one-handed sword, however, weighed about three pounds. A longsword might way three and a half to four pounds, while a two-handed weapon like a claymore might weigh five to seven pounds but would feel lighter if it was well made. Knights could use them quickly and effectively.

Johnson also noted that there is no such thing as a blood groove, no phantom force that sucks a blade into someone’ s body. The scoop down the center of a blade is called a fuller and takes out some of the weight. It is not a blood groove.

A member of the audience asked whether the katana was as powerful a weapon as he had heard it was and how the folding of the metal affected it. Johnson replied that the katana is “the most mysticized weapon” but that it was steel and subject to the laws of physics. The folding process was to remove impurities in the steel. Japanese steel had more impurities than European steel and so required the folding, which had nothing to do with strength. He added that the katana was designed to cut soft targets, not to be used blade-to-blade. A European sword or armor would defeat the katana. He drily noted that the katana cannot cut “concrete, other swords, or an SUV.”

The next questioner wanted to know how effective armor was as protection. Johnson answered that an armored knight is a tank. Armor cost the equivalent of $1,500-$2,000 in modern money. The knight’s life depended on it, so he put his life savings into the armor.

After the Q&A, Keith Cotter-Reilly demonstrated a variety of cuts on rolled tatami. He began with a Brescia sword, an Italian blade, and an Oakeshott blade. The Oakeshott is used more for battle against armored opponents because it has a narrower tip and is designed to thrust into gaps in armor. He also had a dau, a single-edged Chinese saber designed for cutting, like a falchion. He also had a backsword, a weapon with a single edge and a beefed-up back side.

After the cutting demonstration, the program moved to testing the resistance of fabrics. The first sample was natural linen that was 10 layers thick, about a finger’s width, before it was sewn together. This was consistent with what civil guard would’ve worn in the 1400s. His first strike went through the linen but put only a dent in the tatami. A moving strike produced more damage. Cotter-Reilly noted that power plus technique was not as good a technique and that the cut he’d made would barely cause a bruise.

The linen sample was switched for one of linen with wool inside. The new fabric square was wrapped around the tatami to create a double layer that would be more like the thickness of a medieval gambeson. There was no penetration from a slashing cut, though a thrust punctured it, going 2.5 inches into the tatami. Only a running strike cut through the fabric, and Johnson noted that there’s no opportunity for such a windup in a real fight unless one is very lucky.

After the program ended, audience members lingered to talk to the presenters.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.