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Armour or armor (see spelling differences) is a protective covering that is used to prevent damage from being inflicted to an object, individual, or vehicle by direct contact weapons or projectiles, usually during combat, or from damage caused by a potentially dangerous environment or action (e.g., cycling, construction sites, etc.). Personal armour is used to protect soldiers and war animals such as war horses (the application for the latter is called barding). Vehicle armour is used on warships and armoured fighting vehicles.
The word "armour" was introduced into use in the Middle Ages as a borrowing from the French. It is dated from 1297, as a "mail, defensive covering worn in combat" from Old French armoire, itself derived from the Latin armatura "arms and/or equipment" with the root arma "arms or gear".
Armour has been used throughout recorded history. It has been made from a variety of materials; from rudimentary leather protection, personal armour evolved to Mail and full plated suits of armour. For much of military history the manufacture of metal personal armour has dominated the technology and employment of armour. Armour drove the development of many important technologies of the Ancient World, including wood lamination, mining, metal refining, vehicle manufacture, leather processing, and later decorative metal working. Its production was influential in the industrial revolution, and influenced commercial development of metallurgy and engineering. Armour was the single most influential factor in the development of firearms, which in turn revolutionised warfare.
Significant factors in the development of armour include the economic and technological necessities of its production. For instance, plate armour first appeared in Medieval Europe when water-powered trip hammers made the formation of plates faster and cheaper. Also, modern militaries usually do not equip their forces with the best armour available because it would be prohibitively expensive. At times the development of armour has paralleled the development of increasingly effective weaponry on the battlefield, with armourers seeking to create better protection without sacrificing mobility.
Well-known armour types in European history include the lorica hamata, lorica squamata, and the lorica segmentata of the Roman legions, the mail hauberk of the early medieval age, and the full steel plate harness worn by later medieval and renaissance knights, and breast and back plates worn by heavy cavalry in several European countries until the first year of World War I (1914–15). The samurai warriors of feudal Japan utilised many types of armour for hundreds of years up to the 19th century.
Cuirasses and helmets were manufactured in Japan as early as the 4th century.Tankō, worn by foot soldiers and keikō, worn by horsemen were both pre-samurai types of early Japanese armour constructed from iron plates connected together by leather thongs. Japanese lamellar armour (keiko) passed through Korea and reached Japan around the 5th century. These early Japanese lamellar armours took the form of a sleeveless jacket and a helmet.
Armour did not always cover all of the body; sometimes no more than a helmet and leg plates were worn. The rest of the body was generally protected by means of a large shield. Examples of armies equipping their troops in this fashion were the Aztecs (13th to 15th century CE).
In East Asia many types of armour were commonly used at different times by various cultures including, scale armour, lamellar armour, laminar armour, plated mail, mail, plate armour and brigandine. Around the dynastic Tang, Song, and early Ming Period, cuirasses and plates (mingguangjia) were also used, with more elaborate versions for officers in war. The Chinese, during that time used partial plates for "important" body parts instead of covering their whole body since too much plate armour hinders their martial arts movement. The other body parts were covered in cloth, leather, lamellar, and/or Mountain pattern. In pre-Qin dynasty times, leather armour was made out of various animals, with more exotic ones such as the rhinoceros.
Mail, sometimes called "chainmail", made of interlocking iron rings is believed to have first appeared some time after 300 BCE. Its invention is credited to the Celts, the Romans were thought to have adopted their design.
Gradually, small additional plates or discs of iron were added to the mail to protect vulnerable areas. Hardened leather and splinted construction were used for arm and leg pieces. The coat of plates was developed, an armour made of large plates sewn inside a textile or leather coat.
Early plate in Italy, and elsewhere in the 13th–15th century were made of iron. Iron armour could be carburised or case hardened to give a surface of harder steel. Plate armour became cheaper than mail by the 15th century as it required much less labour and labour had become much more expensive after the Black Death, though it did require larger furnaces to produce larger blooms. Mail continued to be used to protect those joints which could not be adequately protected by plate, such as the armpit, crook of the elbow and groin. Another advantage of plate was that a lance rest could be fitted to the breast plate.
The small skull cap evolved into a bigger true helmet, the bascinet, as it was lengthened downward to protect the back of the neck and the sides of the head. Additionally, several new forms of fully enclosed helmets were introduced in the late 14th century.
Probably the most recognised style of armour in the World became the plate armour associated with the knights of the European Late Middle Ages, but continuing to the early 17th century Age of Enlightenment in all European countries.
By about 1400 the full harness of plate armour had been developed in armouries of Lombardy. Heavy cavalry dominated the battlefield for centuries in part because of their armour.
In the early 15th century, advances in weaponry allowed infantry to defeat armoured knights on the battlefield. The quality of the metal used in armour deteriorated as armies became bigger and armour was made thicker, necessitating breeding of larger cavalry horses. If during the 14–15th centuries armour seldom weighed more than 15 kg, then by the late 16th century it weighed 25 kg. The increasing weight and thickness of late 16th century armour therefore gave substantial resistance.
In the early years of low velocity firearms, full suits of armour, or breast plates actually stopped bullets fired from a modest distance. Crossbow bolts, if still used, would seldom penetrate good plate, nor would any bullet unless fired from close range. In effect, rather than making plate armour obsolete, the use of firearms stimulated the development of plate armour into its later stages. For most of that period, it allowed horsemen to fight while being the targets of defending arquebuseers without being easily killed. Full suits of armour were actually worn by generals and princely commanders right up to the second decade of the 18th century. It was the only way they could be mounted and survey the overall battlefield with safety from distant musket fire.
The horse was afforded protection from lances and infantry weapons by steel plate barding. This gave the horse protection and enhanced the visual impression of a mounted knight. Late in the era, elaborate barding was used in parade armour.
Gradually, starting in the mid-16th century, one plate element after another was discarded to save weight for foot soldiers.
Back and breast plates continued to be used throughout the entire period of the 18th century and through Napoleonic times, in many European (heavy) cavalry units, until the early 20th century. From their introduction, muskets could pierce plate armour, so cavalry had to be far more mindful of the fire. In Japan armour continued to be used until the end of the samurai era, with the last major fighting in which armour was used happening in 1868. Samurai armour had one last short lived use in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion.
Though the age of the knight was over, armour continued to be used in many capacities. Soldiers in the American Civil War bought iron and steel vests from peddlers (both sides had considered but rejected body armour for standard issue). The effectiveness of the vests varied widely—some successfully deflected bullets and saved lives, but others were poorly made and resulted in tragedy for the soldiers. In any case the vests were abandoned by many soldiers due to their weight on long marches as well as the stigma they got for being cowards from their fellow troops.
At the start of World War I, thousands of the French Cuirassiers rode out to engage the German Cavalry who likewise used helmets and armour. By that period, the shiny armour plate was covered in dark paint and a canvas wrap covered their elaborate Napoleonic style helmets. Their armour was meant to protect only against sabres and light lances. The cavalry had to beware of high velocity rifles and machine guns, unlike the foot soldiers, who at least had a trench to protect them.
Today, ballistic vests, also known as flak jackets, made of ballistic cloth (e.g. kevlar, dyneema, twaron, spectra etc.) and ceramic or metal plates are common among police forces, security staff, corrections officers and some branches of the military.
The US Army has adopted Interceptor body armour, which uses Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts (E-S.A.P.I) in the chest, sides and back of the armour. Each plate is rated to stop a range of ammunition including 3 hits from a 7.62×51 NATO AP round at a range of 10 m (33 ft). Dragon Skin body armour is another ballistic vest which is currently in testing with mixed results.
The first modern production technology for armour plating was used by navies in the construction of the Ironclad warship, reaching its pinnacle of development with the battleship. It was also naval engineers that constructed the first tanks during World War I, giving rise to armoured fighting vehicles. Aerial armour has been used to protect pilots and aircraft systems since the Second World War.
In modern ground forces' usage, the meaning of armour has expanded to include the role of troops in combat. After the evolution of armoured warfare, mechanised infantry were mounted in armoured fighting vehicles and replaced light infantry in many situations. In modern armoured warfare, armoured units equipped with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles serve the historic role of both the battle cavalry, light cavalry and dragoons, and belong to the armoured branch.
The first ironclad battleship, with iron armour over a wooden hull, La Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in 1859; she prompted the British Royal Navy to build a counter. The following year they launched Warrior, which was twice the size and had iron armour over an iron hull. After the first battle between two ironclads took place in 1862 during the American Civil War, it became clear that the ironclad had replaced the unarmoured line-of-battle ship as the most powerful warship afloat.
Ironclads were designed for several roles, including as high seas battleships, coastal defence ships, and long-range cruisers. The rapid evolution of warship design in the late 19th century transformed the ironclad from a wooden-hulled vessel which carried sails to supplement its steam engines into the steel-built, turreted battleships and cruisers familiar in the 20th century. This change was pushed forward by the development of heavier naval guns (the ironclads of the 1880s carried some of the heaviest guns ever mounted at sea), more sophisticated steam engines, and advances in metallurgy which made steel shipbuilding possible.
The rapid pace of change in the ironclad period meant that many ships were obsolete as soon as they were complete, and that naval tactics were in a state of flux. Many ironclads were built to make use of the ram or the torpedo, which a number of naval designers considered the crucial weapons of naval combat. There is no clear end to the ironclad period, but towards the end of the 1890s the term ironclad dropped out of use. New ships were increasingly constructed to a standard pattern and designated battleships or armoured cruisers.
Armoured trains saw use during the 19th century in the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), the First and Second Boer Wars (1880–81 and 1899–1902),the Polish–Soviet War (1919–1921); the First (1914–1918) and Second World Wars (1939–1945) and the First Indochina War (1946–1954). The most intensive use of armoured trains was during the Russian Civil War (1918–1920).
During the Second Boer War on 15 November 1899, Winston Churchill, then a war-correspondent, was travelling on board an armoured train when it was ambushed by Boer commandos. Churchill and many of the train's garrison were captured, though many others escaped, including wounded placed on the train's engine.
Armoured fighting vehicles
Towards the end of World War I, armies on both sides were experimenting with plate armour as protection against shrapnel and ricocheting projectiles. The first proposal for a tank was by the Austrian Oberleutenant Günther Burstyn who, in 1911, proposed a design for "motor artillery" (Motorengeschütz) with a turret, but his design never progressed beyond a German patent in 1912.
Armoured cars were put into use by the British on the Western Front. Initially an innovation to aid the recovery of downed pilots, they were sidelined when the front became static. They continued to be used in the more open Middle East battlefields.
Tank or "landship" development, originally conducted by the British Navy under the auspices of the Landships Committee was sponsored by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill and proceeded through a number of prototypes culminating in the Mark I tank prototype, named Mother. The first tank to engage in battle was designated D1, a British Mark I, during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (part of the Somme Offensive) on 15 September 1916.
In contrast to World War II, Germany fielded very few tanks during WWI, with only 15 of the A7V type being produced in Germany during the war. Most German tanks were captured British ones. The first tank versus tank action took place on 24 April 1918 at Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, when three British Mark IVs met an advance of three German A7Vs, supported by infantry. Tanks were knocked out on both sides, but the German attack failed and they retreated.
Mechanical problems, poor mobility and piecemeal tactical deployment limited the military significance of the tank in World War I and the tank did not fulfil its promise of rendering trench warfare obsolete. Nonetheless, it was clear to military thinkers on both sides that tanks would play a significant role in future conflicts.
With the development of effective anti-aircraft artillery in the period before the Second World War, military pilots, once the "knights of the air" during the First World War, became far more vulnerable to ground fire. As a response armour plating was added to aircraft to protect aircrew and vulnerable areas such as fuel tanks and engine.
Tank armour has progressed from the Second World War armour forms, now incorporating not only harder composites, but also reactive armour designed to defeat shaped charges. As a result of this, the main battle tank (MBT) conceived in the Cold War era can survive multiple RPG strikes with minimal effect on the crew or the operation of the vehicle. The light tanks that were the last descendants of the light cavalry during the Second World War have almost completely disappeared from the world's militaries due to increased lethality of the weapons available to the vehicle-mounted infantry.
The armoured personnel carrier (APC) is a relatively recent development, stemming from trials and experiences during the Second World War. The APC allows the safe and rapid movement of infantry in a combat zone, minimising casualties and maximising mobility. APCs are fundamentally different from the previously used armoured half-tracks in that they offer a higher level of protection from artillery burst fragments, and greater mobility in more terrain types. The basic APC design was substantially expanded to an Infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) when properties of an armoured personnel carrier and a light tank were combined in one vehicle.
Naval armour has fundamentally changed from the Second World War doctrine of thicker plating to defend against shells, bombs and torpedos. Passive defence naval armour is limited to kevlar or steel (either single layer or as spaced armour) protecting particularly vital areas from the effects of nearby impacts. Since ships cannot carry enough armour to completely prevent penetration by anti-ship missiles, they depend more on destroying an incoming missile before it hits, or causing it to miss its target.
Although the role of the ground attack aircraft significantly diminished after the Korean War, it re-emerged during the Vietnam War, and in the recognition of this, the US Air Force authorised the design and production of what was later to become the A-10 dedicated anti-armour and ground-attack aircraft of the Cold War.
- Ballistic vest
- Powered exoskeleton
- Rolled homogeneous armour
- Japanese armour
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