I have a knight fighting a dragon with an electric breath weapon, I'm wondering what would actually happen when the knight was struck by the weapon, assuming it has the power of a 'regular' lightning bolt.

How would somebody wearing full plate armour (with appropriate leather padding) be affected by a lightning bolt? Would the Faraday cage effect protect them from death, and what injuries would the knight likely suffer? Would sweat caused by exertion affect the result?

Let's assume that this knight is actually on foot (because it probably gets silly if they are on a horse, also with barding).

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    $\begingroup$ Why is your knight in a plate to begin with? In Witcher series(the book) Geralt says something like: "No armor or shield will save from a manticore's claws or wyvern's tail." Considering the amount of energy delievered in a single blow there's no point to try and block it. Hence why witchers rely mostly on speed and agility to evade attacks. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Dzink
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 15:23

2 Answers 2


Lightning strike surges average about 30 kA (yes, kiloamperes), peak at roughly 100 kA, and follow a roughly triangular-exponential waveform with a 10 µs rise and a 1000 µs fall time. However, the peak voltage is only around 1.5 kV due to the low dynamic impedance offered by the ionized arc core. This is still enough to pose three hazards, not just two, though:

Electric shock

The classical hazard people think of when they think of a lightning strike is electric shock — and a 1.5 kV source can definitely do that; however, the short duration of the impulse means that it’s the equivalent of a single big zap as opposed to a sustained contact, which likely would reduce the risk of the heart going haywire (fibrillation), ironically. Furthermore, being inside a metal thing definitely has something of a Faraday-cage effect, even if it is imperfect. Short-distance arcs have a resistance on the order of tens of ohms, so even a couple of gaps in a suit of fullplate will not keep it from diverting the bulk (>90%) of the current around the body instead of through it.

Bulk Heating

The high currents involved in a lightning strike cause significant resistance heating to anything that tries to conduct them; this is a major damage mode for wires and other metallic objects that must endure a strike, and is the reason strike terminations (lightning rods) use hefty, dedicated grounding conductors. Fullplate is 5–10 times thinner than a strike terminator, and is made of a poorer-conducting material (steel). Still, the sheet resistivity of steel is on the order of 10−4 ohms per square, which means that a breastplate offers very little resistance to electricity overall — but either way, the high currents involved yield a peak power dissipation well into the megawatt range, more than enough for significant Joule heating to take place.

I’d expect further heat contribution from induction heating, however, this effect is much harder to compute as it’s strongly frequency dependent.

Arc Blast/Flash

This is the least-known mode of injury involved in most electrical incidents, but it causes the bulk of the actual damage, and can seriously or fatally wound a victim without shocking them.

(See this later answer of mine for more in-depth discussion on arc flashes in a similar situation.)

Arc Flashes consists of a combination of intense heat (temperatures of ~20,000 Kelvins), radiant energy (from far IR to deep UV), concussive blast caused by the vaporization and rapid expansion (tens of thousands of times) of metal, and rapidly propelled superheated shrapnel (a result of the other factors); taken together, an unmitigated arc flash is easily equivalent to nearly a pound of TNT going off in your face, if not more. This would be the primary damage mode the knight would have to contend with, and could easily destroy significant portions of the knight's armor and gambeson instantaneously, while leaving him contending with the equivalent of a small pipe bomb going off at point blank range.

In Conclusion

End of story: the knight is a lot more screwed than basic electrical knowledge predicts. Expect him to be laying on his back with a gaping, smoldering hole in his breastplate, wondering WTF just hit him.

  • $\begingroup$ Would the arc flash be worse wearing plate, or offer a tiny bit of protection? $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 1:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Mazura -- the plate is the culprit in the arc flash, actually -- you'd get burning and shock if you were in leathers or cloth, but no arc flash. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ He will also be deaf, not that it matters much. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 1:51

Depends on how interconnected the plates are and how well these interconnections handle the heat.

Worst case is each major section is isolated from the rest using padding and isolating lubricant. In this case there will be arcing across the seams and possible fire of the padding. If the wearer is touching the metal in 2 spots or the leather is thing/compressed enough to conduct it (or the salty sweat created a conductive path) one of which is near the feet and the other is close to the impact then some of the current will go through him. Possibly killing him.

Best case is where the armour is fully interconnected (using polished chainmail across gaps or even explicit wires for this purpose). Here you have a faraday suit which will protect him fully and allow him to laugh it off. Unless the high power lighting is sustained for a long period which will turn the armour into an oven or burn out some of the interconnections which will result in the option above.

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    $\begingroup$ They never mention grounding wires in armor in fantasy...for shame! $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ Even with poor connections, I would imagine it may be easier for current to be transmitted via the oiled leather than through the person. (You do oil your leather and armor, to protect them from water.) $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ You completely overlooked arc flash -- which is what will likely do this knight in! $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Commented Feb 28, 2015 at 5:15

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