Gambeson: warrior's best friend

October 25, 2018

When we talk about body protection, there is little that can compete with the well known medieval gambeson. Often used as armor unto itself or as padded under armor, the gambeson (aka aketon or arming doublet) was a vital part of a medieval soldier or knight’s equipment since the X century.

Historical image of a gambeson in use
Saint Georges Et Le Dragon
Miniature from a Book of Hours (c. 1380?)

Despite being made of soft material, a thick enough gambeson provides excellent protection. Composed of many different layers of fabric, they prove very difficult to cut through; the layers usually consist of linen or wool, but historically people have filled them with many different types of stuffing between layers. They also absorb a surprising amount of shock, which could be the difference between life and death if you encounter a foe carrying blunt weapons.

In the late 15th century, jacks replaced gambesons and became the main form of standalone fabric armor. According to illustrations and text sources of the period, a jack is shorter and somewhat more fitted than the earlier gambeson. Here’s a quote that not only provides instructions on how the proper jack should be made, but also claims it to be a comfortable and reliable protection against many types of weapons of the time present in Europe:

“... this jack should be laced in front, and under the opening must be a hanging piece (porte piece) of the same strength as the jack itself. Thus the jack will be secure and easy, provided that there be a pourpoint without sleeves or collar of two folds of cloth, that shall be only four fingers broad on the shoulder; to which pourpoint shall be attached the chausses. Thus shall the wearer float, as it were, within his jack an be at his ease; for never have been seen half a dozen men killed by stabs or arrow wounds in such jacks, particularly if they be troops accustomed to fighting." (“A Critical Inquiry Into Antient Armour, as it Existed in Europe...”, Vol. II, by S.R. Meyrick)

The effectiveness of the fabric protection was confirmed by some modern tests (such as those conducted by Allan Williams, “The Knight and the Blast Furnace…”). In the mentioned test a standalone 30-layer jack withstanded a simulated two hundred joules sword blow… and 30 layers was not a rare thickness for a 15th century jack. In fact, it was more of the standard for the period. Since a slashing sword blow or an arrow hit rarely generate more than 120 joules of energy, we can assume that this late generation gambesons would provide good protection against swords (though thrusting blow with a sharp blade would still penetrate) and arrows, but of course would not save its wearer from powerful polearms hits, especially when the attacker is mounted, or crossbow bolts.

However, this topic is still not well researched - though you can find many extremely interesting amateur tests on Youtube and forums to get an idea of what a properly made fabric armor is actually capable of, even without the use of modern materials. The key characteristic, however, is the jack being “properly made”, which is not always the case. One way or another, hundreds of years of the widespread use in various regions of the planet are indirect, but very conclusive if not indisputable evidence of effectiveness.

Armstreet is known for its functional and reliable Eastern type gambesons. When creating them we were inspired by the padded armor of the the Middle Eastern nations, as well as the Great Steppe nomads’ traditional body protection. In general, eastern-style armor is not very popular among modern users in North America and Europe, since most of them recreate images of Western knighthood and military organizations of the Western Europe, with great hype around the Viking age in the last decade.

But in the eastern regions of Europe the historical reconstruction and role-playing often have a more motley look. One can find western knights fighting alongside or against heavy Mongol horsemen, Slavic druzhina (military forces of the Slavic chieftains) or Arabic ghilman (elite slave-soldiers or mercenaries in the Middle East countries in Middle Ages). Quilted armor, historically also very popular among the listed groups of warriors, differed from its Western counterparts in the way of fastening, decor and length.

Eastern Roman Cataphract
Modern illustration by Christos Giannopoulos

One of our older padded armor models - Asian Gambeson Padding - illustrates well some of the main features of Eastern armor of this type. As you can see, it is quite long and completely protects the hips and even the knees of its owner, has full-size sleeves and a beautiful trim on the hem, shoulders, collar, cuffs and lapels.

Asian Gambeson Padding by ArmStreet Asian Gambeson Padding by ArmStreet

Another example is our Asian Type Long Gambeson. It reaches the wearers ankles and is fastened with five handmade leather straps and bronze clasps. It also has lacing for mounting a metal armor on top of it, which in this case would be a lamellar, laminar or a partial plate armor.

Asian Type Long Gambeson by ArmStreet Asian Type Long Gambeson by ArmStreet

And there is something closer to European look and design - Medieval Under Armor Padding. It was created as a medieval fighting under armor gear and we consider it to be more of a “sport under armor padding”.  This SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) and rebated steel fighting oriented piece has been designed taking into account practical needs of sword fighters. This gambeson looks awesome but its main advantages are engineering ones, not aesthetic. External layer is made of thick and durable cotton, inner one is made of perfect quality natural flax lining. Clasps are flat enough to be comfortable when worn under plate armour. Neck has overlapping piece to provide full-round shock-absorption with gorget worn on. This piece can be used with both western plate armour and eastern type armour like lamellars and scale armor.

Medieval Under Armor Padding by Armstreet Medieval Under Armor Padding by Armstreet

Like all armor, gambesons have weaknesses. Anyone who has suffered through wearing thick padded armor in the summer knows that it can significantly hamper your movement and can get very, very hot, very fast. That is exactly why we worked hard to develop our own special design for our padded jackets: the “Kingmaker” and “Errant Squire” series.

Linen Gambeson “The Kingmaker” Woolen Gambeson “Errant Squire”

All models in these series are made in two pieces: a sleeveless vest and a crop-top body part. What is great about this feature is that it allows your arms to function independently from the rest of your movement.

One can find many examples with removable sleeves among the historical sources. They were usually tied to the vest, but this kind of design makes the junction and armpits vulnerable. We managed to solve this problem, while retaining the authentic look and increasing the comfort of use.

Historical gambeson with removable sleeves

We made the linen version of the “Kingmaker” breathable, comfortable, and applicable to many different situations. It is made of our premium 100% flax linen, including the lining and finishing touches. We’ve stuffed it with a breathable natural cotton batting (which is a relief during hot seasons).

Linen Gambeson “The Kingmaker” Linen Gambeson “The Kingmaker” Linen Gambeson “The Kingmaker”

The thicker and sturdier canvas version of the “Kingmaker” gambeson is for those who are looking for an everyday soldier type of protection. Canvas is a very practical material that is perfect for rainy weather and will withstand harsh conditions. We consider it to be more of a “heavy duty” padded jacket.

Canvas Gambeson “The Kingmaker” Canvas Gambeson “The Kingmaker” Canvas Gambeson “The Kingmaker”

And, finally, the woolen “Errant Squire” — great for chilly nights and cold climates, it will not only keep you safe, but also warm. Lined with a robust cotton, this garment has a decent amount of structure and will hold up well against any shock from sparring swords or axes and will serve you well in conjunction with mail or plate armor.

Woolen Gambeson “Errant Squire” Woolen Gambeson “Errant Squire” Woolen Gambeson “Errant Squire”

ArmStreet has always been good at making padded armor, but these three gambesons make us proud and are highly appreciated by our customers. Only the highest quality materials, seams and patterns — and, in addition, you can choose from a variety of color options and combinations to get a unique color scheme for your team.

The two piece design also means your arm movement won’t pull up the lower part of your padded armor, so the attached leg harness will always stay in place. The vest also stays in the right place and in no case it will expose your lower torso, even when you’re in a high guard.

Another essential part of your gear is hand protection. Here at ArmStreet, we have long earned a name for ourselves, producing some of the best gauntlets on the market with our own unique design. For a long time we used to sell our gauntlets complete with some factory made gloves, but about three years ago we started to produce our own inner gloves for gauntlets to fulfill the needs of our customers that fight in steel armor and for those using just the quilted armor or need proper gloves for sword fencing as well.

As for now, there are three models that basically cover most of the of fencers’, reenactors’ and role players’ needs: Padded Medieval Gloves, Padded Fencing Gloves and Padded Medieval Mittens Gloves.

Fencing Gloves are multipurpose, they go well as a main hand protection for live-action role playing games, light sword-fighting formats and many other occasions. There is a lacing to adjust the gloves to your hand size. Articulated fingers and tactile properties of the leather allow perfect grip and flexibility, making these gloves suitable for using with both sword and polearms. They are staffed with 5 mm thick foam insulating pads to protect from impacts. Extended cuffs protect the wrists. The gloves cushion and distribute the weight of the weapon.

Padded Fencing Gloves by ArmStreet Padded Fencing Gloves by ArmStreet

Padded Medieval Gloves are default inner gloves for all our finger gauntlets. They are very similar to the previously mentioned model, but have some extra leather around fingers to connect with the gauntlets. The gloves are padded with foam stripes, but optionally the padding can be made of smooth gloving leather. The pads absorb kinetic energy from physical impacts, reducing the hitting power of received blows, while the strong exterior leather protects hands from possible scratches and scrapes. This model is great for Historical Medieval Battles (HMB) and other full contact fighting with steel weapons.

Padded Medieval Gloves by ArmStreet Padded Medieval Gloves by ArmStreet

Same idea was used to design our Padded Medieval Mittens. These are especially made to be inner gloves for those who prefer a pair of sturdy practical steel mittens to fingered gauntlets. By default we use a gloving suede for them, but they could also be made of gloving leather. One can find many SCA fighters wearing them, as well as Battle of the Nations teams.

Padded Medieval Mittens Gloves by ArmStreet Padded Medieval Mittens Gloves by ArmStreet

Overall, the gloves of our manufacture compared to those we used before are softer, more flexible, have more sophisticated design. We paid attention to choosing the proper leather, so the material the gloves are made of provides amazing grips in all possible conditions of use. Here is a short video review with a demonstration.

And let's not forget about the legs, which also need good care and protection. Medieval chausses gained popularity in the beginning of XI century and became an essential part of both under armor clothing and civil costumes. They were worn both by men and women, covered by long dresses in the second case, and usually had strings to attach to a braie or to an arming belt.

The word itself - “chausse” - meaning stocking, survives only in modern French as the stem of the words chaussure (shoe) and chaussette (sock).

“The Kingmaker” series includes great padded linen chausses, made in the style of XIV century pants. And they also can serve you on their own as a basic protection or be worn under metal armor with a variety of mounting options thanks to eyelets and ties. Complete with the vest and the crop-top it gives you a complete image in colors of your choice.

“The Kingmaker” Linen Chausses “The Kingmaker” Linen Chausses “The Kingmaker” Linen Chausses

So, whether you are role-playing a noble knight or a regular soldier, looking for a reliable and convenient under armor for a live steel tournament, going alone or with your comrades-in-arms — we will offer you a proper protection and provide you with plenty of options to choose from!

And, you know, safety first, right? But good looking safety is even better ;)

Tell us about your fighting experience and how you use your gambesons in comments!

You may check all our gambesons for sale available at the moment here!