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Would it be possible to make a crude scale mail out of oyster or some other mussel shells. If so how effective would it be? Do I need to invent some kind of super tough oyster for it to work?

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Real shell armor does exist. How practical it was is unknown however.

The breastplate of tula was made by drilling and sewing hundreds of shell fragments to a leather base. Helmets of cowry shells also exist. The big issue is it would not survive many hits, shells are brittle and the bigger the individual pieces of shell the weaker that will make the armor because the more that will end up broken after each hit. I apologize the museum website may require some scrolling to see the close up image.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ "shells are brittle". This is critical: something can be "hard" and "brittle" at the same time. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ Yes in fact the two are often related, crystal lattices are often both hard and brittle, for instance diamonds are amazingly hard but you can also smash one into powder with an iron hammer in seconds, whereas a copper coin is rather soft but you can pound on it for hours without it breaking. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 18:51
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Could you do it? Absolutely yes. Would it be WORTH doing? Well, that's trickier.

Oyster shells are very, VERY tough. Tough enough that the DoD is currently trying to replicate its qualities in modern armor. So toughness isn't an issue at all, and if you could actually MAKE some, it would make very effective protection.

That's where this gets tricky though: How you do you attach the shells to an underlayer or to each other in a way where they won't just constantly be coming off when struck. When you're crafting the scales yourself out of metal or whatnot, you can control the shape to have proper attachment points. Oysters don't NORMALLY have any convenient way to firmly attach them to anything else. If we were trying to do this in our world with our oysters, the way you'd probably have to do it would be by drilling holes in the oyster shells so you could use laces to attach them. This is how traditional scale armor was constructed back in the day.

Of course, the very qualities that make you want to use oyster shells make them VERY difficult to drill, so the time and effort you'd spent making a set of armor like this would be all out of proportion to any reasonable benefit.

I see two possible solutions: You either introduce a tool or technique that's particularly effective at easily putting holes in oyster shells, but impractical as a weapon (some kind of acid might do nicely), OR you find or create a species of oyster that has particularly pronounced protrusions that can easily be used to secure it to armor.

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    $\begingroup$ Time consuming is not necessarily an impediment, chainmail takes forever to make but it was still popular. your big issue is it will not last for very long. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ @John Can you elaborate? Why wouldn't it last very long? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ Drilling holes in shell is a simple task anyone can do (a bow drill with a hard pointy rock as a bit works well) - this is a negligible consideration and would take less time than tanning the leather backing. The problem is the brittleness of the shell. Modern ceramic body armor has the same issue - it is great for taking the energy of a bullet, but the plate itself is destroyed in the process (how the energy is dispersed). If you want something to last, it must be capable of flexing with the impact, otherwise it breaks to dissipate the energy. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ We've made shell beads from oysters from millennia. It's not a big deal. Plus, you can always use vinegar to help? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 19:38
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A couple layers of shells should provide a good set of armor if you have nothing else, though they will certainly start cracking with every good hit so don't expect it to last long.


For every question, there's an oddly specific research paper that gives the answer: Shell Hardness and Compressive Strength of the Eastern Oyster, Crassostrea virginica, and the Asian Oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis.

According to the above paper, the compression strength(ability to not crack) of oyster shells varies based on thickness. About 1000 Newtons are needed to crack a 1mm shell, 2000N to crack a 3mm shell, and 4000N to crack a 5.5mm shell. According to this site, a good swing of a baseball bat hits a baseball with 3400N of force, so if the oyster shells in the armor are 5mm or more it would provide decent protection.

However, this Physics StackExchange answer goes into how much force a hammer hits a nail with: more than 9000N, which is likely closer to what armor would need to withstand in a fight. Thankfully, the original paper shows that compression strength increases non-linearly as shell thickness increases, meaning increasing thickness leads to greater and greater resistance to cracking.

Although it wasn't measured, a 7mm thickness would resist up to 7000N of force, and 10mm should resist at least 10000N if the increase continues at the same rate. Though there's probably diminishing returns, a couple layers of shells should give the strength needed to resist glancing blows, and maybe even a few direct hits before shattering.

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    $\begingroup$ 10mm of shell, overlapping in places, is going to be pretty heavy I would have thought. Might be worth a back-of-envelope calculation for e.g. a breastplate. My guesstimate: using half of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_surface_area and guessing at 2g/cm^3 for the solid shell density gives a weight of around 20kg for 10mm thick torso-covering suit . . . a bit on the heavy side, but not impossible. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 20:57
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Two things: Firstly, in the absence of metal, it might be a very worthwhile endeavor, comparable to chain mail.

Secondly, not everything had a practical element, generals wore leather muscle cuirass long after better things came along because it was prestigious and looked cool, likewise a labor intensive armor made of beautiful, shiny shells might be used both because it was practical and BECAUSE the labor intensive nature of making and replacing broken shells showcase the status of the warrior or chieftain, and thicker shells on leather could be items of high status, while thinner shells strung over straw padding might be a more affordable, but less effective and impressive armor.

Finally, on a slightly unrelated note: Giant clams baby, you would have the most expensive and prestigious suits, reserved for high priests and kings, be literally carved out of the shells of MASSIVE shells, from killer clams, with the rough outer layer sanded off, leaving a breastplate of unparalelled protection, and BEAUTIFUL mother of pearl finish!

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  • $\begingroup$ and unparalleled weight a single giant clam shell weighs over a hundred pounds. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 13, 2022 at 23:50
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Not actual shells, but artificial shell analogue materials

Can you make a dress out of silkworm cocoons? Not really. But out of silk? Definitely.

The same is true for oyster shells. Such shells are layered calcium carbonate and biopolymer composites, and they're very, very tough, which is one of the prime requisites of an anti gun armour.

More importantly, if engineered right, they'll crack sacrificially in a way that stops bullets better than steel, weight for weight. It won't survive many shots, but no other armour does either. This is called fracture energy. Its upper limit often correlates with toughness.

This is how military grade sintered alumina armour (which weighs about 10-15 kg) works. I've got personal connection to this. I got to work on sialon in a lab as a ceramics chemistry intern; they were making body armour and the ballistics results were nothing short of incredible. Artificial shell could be incredible in this regard.

The real questions involve aesthetics. You won't be growing body armour out of actual shells in real life; they'd be boring looking shiny flat plates. But...artificial worlds aren't real life. If you want an anime style shell armour, go for it.

PS If its for swords rather than guns, stick to steel.

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