What the heck is leather armor?

I’ve been doing a lot of research into various types of armor for Adventures Dark and Deep lately, and one thing has me a tad puzzled.

Just what the heck is the “leather armor” in AD&D supposed to be?

Wikipedia tells us that in the Middle Ages, mail (what is called chainmail in AD&D, following the incorrect Victorian terminology) and plate (encompassing plate mail, field plate, and full plate) were the norm. There’s lamellar, but that is really just scale mail without the backing, and can be composed of scales of either leather or steel. Even made of leather, it hardly seems like the sort of thing a thief would use and still be able to remain silent.

Is it some sort of breastplate of cuir bouilli? Leather scale armor (on a backing of leather)? Lamellar?

Can someone with a better knowledge of historical armor help me out on this?

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

17 thoughts on “What the heck is leather armor?

  1. I thought the classic D&D concept was cuir bouilli for a cap and "breastplate" and a few other such assorted "plates" over inflexible portions of the limbs with normal clothing/padding underneath?

    How historically-accurate is that? No idea.

  2. The trouble is, cuir bouilli is a material, not an armor type. You could, in theory, make plate mail or lorica segmentata out of cuir bouilli.

  3. In D&D sources and in The Fantasy Trip, I have always seen it presented as cuir bouilli: specifically, a shaped one-piece breastplate and other large pieces of shaped leather, essentially "non-metalic plate". I have also seen it stated that it's completely ahistorical.

    What I wind up using the AC for instead is thick leather, hide, fur, or padded armor. But that's because I'd rather treat "leather plate" and "leather scale" as AC 3/AC 5 vs. wood and bone weapons or lighter materials and AC 7 vs. metal or harder material weapons.

  4. Could be similar to English Civil War Buff coats, which were cheap, could protect against sword slashes, and were relatively light and flexible compared to the proofed tasseted half-armour that was falling out of fashion for both infantry and cavalry.

  5. I always assumed it was a cuirass which were originally made from leather (hence the root word). Underneath the armor you wear a brigandine which is basically D&D's padded armor but when worn together you form the traditional "leather" armor. Interestingly enough, "studded" leather in D&D seems to be an evolved brigandine jacket which had metal rivets or plates sewn into the coat.

    D&D's chain mail is a hauberk since it comes to knee length and 3.5's "chain shirt" is a byrnie although I prefer chain shirt or mail shirt better even if it's not accurate.

  6. I think 'Leather armour' is something like the 'longsword'. A catch-all term for what were technically a bunch of different things. Even normal, thick leather is an effective armour, as demonstrated here:
    http://www.thearma.org/Videos/NTCvids/testingbladesandmaterials.htm .

    The leather cutting is about 2/3 of the way down. Also if you go up one level there are some nice clips of some guys free-playing with longswords etc. Very interesting to watch the difference in styles when they are armoured: http://www.thearma.org/Videos/Armored_Free-Play.htm


    unarmoured: http://www.thearma.org/Videos/Federschwert_sparring.mp4

  7. I concur with the various statements regarding breastplates. The TLF (the French equivalent of the OED — http://atilf.atilf.fr/tlf.htm ) confirms Twitt's etymology, which seems to suggest that at some time in the distant past, a cuirass was an object made from leather not from metal. In other sources I have seen reference to caps and other things in cuir bouilli as well, though.

  8. I ever asume that "leather armour" was what here in Spain call "coleto": it was a type of light armour used in late medieval and renaissance times, when the prevalence of firearms render the heavy metallic plates obsolete. The coleto was a sleveless jacket, fitted closely and usually descended to the hips, made of flexible leather. It was a "swashbuckler" armour, offering a light protection to cuts but allowing free movements.

    Some clips:


  9. I would say leather armour can basically be laminated, lamellar, scaled, or plated. It is not so much the form, but the material that matters. It is basically poor man's armour, unlike padded armour, which is also a foundation layer. D&D scale armour should not be thought of as leather, in my estimation. The relative lack of quiet is not as signifciant as the bulk and freedom of movement for thieves.

    Regardless, Gygax describes all of these armour types as he imagined them twice in the DMG.

  10. As much as I like all of these theories, I've always just went with the "leather armor is a jerkin and a cap" theory, since the only people wearing it are thieves and that's how thieves look when they're drawn in pictures.

    Historically, of course, it was just another material used to make armor, the "boiled leather" other commentors keep talking about. But your own satisfactory answer is going to depend on how much "realism" you're looking for. I'm cool with soft leather jerkin and cap combination, although I'm not at all sure how much armor that'd provide to anybody. Probably just barely more than wearing nothing at all, which the Armor Class bears out.

  11. Remember there is preservation bias The armor we have today is biased towards what can last over the centuries.

    Ring and Scale have to be mounted on a cloth or leather backing. I view Leather armor is simply the same pieces of armor without the addition of Rings or Scale.

    It is cheap and offers a offers a little protection for a lot less weight. It would plausibly exists as we know they are producing leather pieces for Scale and Ring type armor.

  12. Cuirboulli being hardened leather is just as stiff as plate. To me it make no sense to use as thief armor as leather was always portrayed as being more supple to allow the thieves the use of their skills.

    It is also has to be fitted like Plate so there are is more cost associated with it's manufacture.

  13. I always just assumed that "leather armor" was simply sturdy leather clothing. Like real lederhosen worn by craftsmen of old to protect their laps from dropped tools.

  14. Though somewhat dated, Claude Blair in "European Armour" defines three types of armour: soft, mail, and plate, with leather as being either a type of soft armour, or, when hardened, as a type of plate (whether as large plates like later full plate armour, or smaller plates riveted/sewn to a backing or laced together). Thus, its not a truly distinct type of armour so much as a way of making two of the three types.

    In terms of effectiveness, I would rate the armour types as follows:

    Soft: helps reduce the effect of a hit, but does not provide proof against attack.

    Mail: nearly (but not quite 100%) proof against any human muscle powered attack, apart from very powerfully driven thrusts (i.e. from a charging poll axe or a fairly powerful crossbow)

    Plate (cuir boulli or whalebone): similar to mail, but not as flexible hampering mobility/dexterity to a greater degree.

    Plate (metal): proof against all but extreme attacks (arbalests/ gunpowder arms) or attacks that circumvent the plates (i.e. half sworded thrusts aimed at the visor slot, armpit, etc.)

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