Can swords cut through plate armor? We put this question to the test by using an Arms and Armor longsword to try and cut through plate armor. While this question has been asked many times since the Victorian Period, it was also something that medieval Europeans liked to think about. There are many extant illustrations of knights cutting through armor that might lead us to believe that a good sword wielded by a strong knight could simply slice and dice armor - but this is misleading.
Codex Manesse, or "Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift", an illuminated manuscript from the early 14th century
Instead, many of these portrayals seem to be relaying stories of, essentially, mythological levels of prowess. Sometimes these are in relation to legendary swords made by the mythological figure Wayland the Smith, who is supposed to have forged the swords Durendal and Almace. These swords were essentially magical and were alleged in the Song of Roland to have been able to cut through several inches of iron. Much like modern action movies, these stories and illustrations would have exaggerated the capabilities of the swords and knights for dramatic effect.
Legs cut off in steel greaves?
In this video we use an Arms and Armor longsword to attempt to cut 14 gauge mild steel with a rolled edge, a 14 gauge mild steel vambrace, and a hardened pauldron made by our friend and Arms and Armor alumnus Josh Davis now of Davis Reproductions. There are some limitations to this experiment as earlier armors like the first pictured above were probably made of ductile iron rather than steel, so the mild steel we use is not a perfect analogue due to its more homogenous nature. The edge geometry of the sword we used is also probably somewhat finer than the edges of war swords from the period in which the above feats of prowess are alleged to have happened. Additionally, like all of our swords, the one we use here is made of 6150 carbon steel, which is both harder and more durable than many period medieval swords. Of course, this video does not test thrusts against armor, which we will try in a later video.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985