Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What is authentic?

re-posted from the Armour Archive

We speak of authenticity as if it were a single and simple thing, but that is often not the case. Modern re-enactors, martial artists and sport combat enthusiasts all use and maintain their armour in different ways, and none of us use it just like the original armour was used. This often forces us into a variety of compromises.

1. Chemical and physical composition - we can measure the composition and even analyze the crystalline structure of medieval armours and use that as a basis for planning our reconstructions. If we did this then as I understand it we would use far more work-hardened wrought iron for pre-1350 armour than is currently done. For post 1350 armour a steel of moderate carbon content, at least close to the surface of the steel, would most commonly be appropriate. Modern 1018 mild steel is not a very good simulator of either of these materials. Modern 1050 steel may be as close as we can get to the later armour material without custom-smelting steel with deliberate impurities for reproduction purposes. And those impurities varied from time to time and place to place, with the most "desireable" impurities resulting in a reputation for the local ore to produce "good steel" in places like Solingen, Germany. There is nothing commercially available that comes particularly close to the wrought iron used in earlier armour.

2.Structural performance - If you want your armour to have a comparable resistance to denting/deformation to what the original would have had, you might be willing to forego a close chemical match in favor of some other material that gets the job done. Thus 4130 alloy steel might be used instead of 1050 to get a similar end result. Likewise, a thicker piece of mild 1018 steel might be used to achieve the dent resistance that you would expect from any piece of armour from the age of plate. This kind of thinking may have contributed to the use of very heavy 12 and even 10 gauge armour by some people within the SCA, and the corresponding belief that plate armour is inherently too heavy to wear without handicapping your combat ability.

3. Weight and thickness - If we are actually trying to do something in our armour, the weight becomes a critical factor. This is where mild steel fails IMHO. If you need to add inauthentic weight/ thickness in order to get even marginally acceptable structural performance from your armour and this causes you to perform/behave inauthentically while wearing it, what is the point? Of course, for locations where your historical exemplar didn't wear armour, the most authentic weight is as close to zero as possible.

4. Finished shape - This factor gets a bit tricky but I think it is important. I see little to no evidence that knights and their well-armed retainers went about in armour battered and dented until it looks like a prune. If you use your armour to withstand hard contact through multiple bouts, multiple times per week and you do not have the services of a professional armourer on staff to daily remove the signs of this wear and tear, then you may achieve a more authentic appearance and presentation by using armour that retains its original finished shape much better than the original would have done. In this way spring steel armour may give a more authentic appearance under actual conditions of use than some other options, even when used to represent what might originally have been wrought iron.

5. Polish - Similar to the shape argument, a case can be made that medieval armour wearers did not go around looking like rusty buckets. If you will be wearing your armour rain or shine, multiple times per week and you do not have the paid staff to polish it between uses, then you may again be able to maintain a more authentic appearance with a more rust resistant alloy of steel. Note that this does not give carte blanche for wearing mirror-polished stainless with in-authentic shaping, nor does it allow the active fighter to go long without needing to clean up tape marks and other marks of use, but it does allow a more moderate workload while maintaining a suitable, authentic appearance on the field.

With all of these parameters of authenticity in mind, I currently choose to make most of my combat armour from 410 alloy spring stainless. For a purely display piece or an exploration of medieval armour manufacturing technologies I would make different choices. Others may weight these factors differently and select different compromises, and that is fine too.

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