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I'm writing a timeline where the Russian Empire figured out how to make magical armor. By fully immersing plate armor in holy water, that plate armor is now fully bulletproof. No projectile will pierce it but explosives can still damage it. The Russians give this plate armor to all of their elite troops and plan to use them to win the Crimean War.

How would any contemporary military defeat these plate armored troops? Maces could still be effective against plate armor but anyone trying to get close to an elite soldier is probably going to get shot up.

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    $\begingroup$ "How would any contemporary military defeat these plate armored troops?" Obviously, cannon. From the early 17th century to the early 20th century, most soldiers were killed by cannon, not by bullets shot from hand-held firearms. Then came machine guns, then came missiles and smart bombs... But in the time of the Crimean war, it was cannon. Armor resistant to small arms fire would have been irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 13, 2023 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JamieB: Yeah, it is inefficient. At the Battle of the Nations, 400,000 rounds of artillery ammunition were expended, resulting in 133,000 casualties out of about 560,000 soldiers on the battlefield. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 13, 2023 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP But my thinking is most of the kills would have come from small round shot fired from the cannons, not actual barrel sized cannonballs. I don't readily see any sort of breakdown in the type of ammunition expended, though, but all of the various shots seem to get labeled as "artillery ammunition". napoleonistyka.atspace.com/artillery_tactics.htm (Although 400k rounds for 133k casualties is quite efficient! Contrast that to bullets vs casualties in modern warfare.) $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Feb 13, 2023 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ dip your bullets in holy water, the resulting deitic feedback will cause an demiurge antidemiurge annihilation explosion. seriously it is your magic you decide how it works. if maces work bullets work or you need need to do a lot more explaining. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 13, 2023 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ VTC. Bullets provide concussive damage. Oddly, so do explosives. You don't get it both ways. Either all concussive damage works or no concussive damage works or you need to define the limits of your magic system. This Q is very much of the type, "how can I defeat my godlike character?" which is off-topic here because it has only one answer: create a weakness. What weakness do you want? Because per the help center, we're here to help you build your world, not to tell your story. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 13, 2023 at 23:43

13 Answers 13

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I would ask you to first refine your question. It is hard to come up with a scientific/rational tactic in order to defeat magic, which by definition is not playing by nature's known rules.

Be that as it may..

If nothing can penetrate the armor, then you need to attack the person inside.

Burning chlorine or phosphorous gas would easily defeat the people inside the armor. Chemical weapons are nothing new to the time if you take a look at WW1-like technology. Any napalm-like fluid or hot oil would be quite dangerous. Even a "Molotov cocktail" or two could prove rather effective.

Presumably nothing can penetrate the armor, but a human is still inside. Look up HESH tank rounds. They are soft rounds designed to squish when they hit the target. The idea is to hit the tank so hard that internal metal fragments break off and hit the occupants. Even so, shooting soft, high velocity rounds would not penetrate the armor, but it would be like being hit by a freight train. The blunt force would still cause you a lot of damage. Having magical bulletproof armor is not going to help if all your ribs are broken, a lung is punctured and you have internal bleeding. Being shot, even if you have modern bulletproof armor, is no picnic. It still causes a lot of damage - it just doesn't immediately kill you.

You would also be wrapped in metal. Any kind of electrical weapon would be quite dangerous. Electricity at the time was not what it is today, but this is about the time Edison and Tesla were dueling for the future of AC vs DC. Wheel out a king-size Tesla coil or even bury an unshielded high voltage wire grid and those fellows will have trouble.

The smart battlefield commander would also take advantage of the inherent shortcomings. Plate armor is not as heavy as most people make it out to be, but it is more clumsy to wear, does not allow good ventilation or field of view. You are not going to be agile over rough terrain and concealment is harder. Armored units wouldn't want to operate during the day due to heat and wouldn't see as well at night and would be almost entirely unable to hear.

This means that smaller, more agile light units could run rings around the armored units. You would want to have lots of obstacles in the way and lead an armored unit in to bad territory, like a ravine or hilly terrain or a forest. This seems to favor commando raids and asymmetric engagements.

You would want to run a defeat-in-detail strategy where a small allied force would lure out an armored unit in to unfavorable terrain, call in other allied units and then collapse on the armored unit, likely at night. Mortars should first open up with gas rounds, like white phosphorous and mustard gas, followed by high explosive and incendiary loads. Forward observers would watch to guide the salvos and spot holdout areas. Then infantry close and toss Molotov cocktails and gas grenades. They should fire high-caliber soft lead bullets. Shotgun slugs would likely be fairly effective. Lever-action guns like the Sharps Carbine firing soft 45-70 rounds would be ideal. Percussion cap side-gate muskets firing soft 68 calibre ball would also be quite effective and cheap. Teams of five should then sweep the area, binding legs and hands of any prisoners with heavy wire.

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    $\begingroup$ Not that sure about electricity. People working on high-voltage (and high-amperage) lines wear a metal suit specifically because it conducts electricity better than their body (they also wear insulation inside the suit). If you put the armor in contact with an electric wire, the current will go wire -> armor -> ground and mostly ignore the resistive human inside. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. I agree about electrocution being perhaps not a big threat. But the first thing I thought of was induction cooking. A high frequency AC field could heat up any armor that passed over it. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 18:29
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Flamethrowers

They've been around in various forms since ancient times, and impenetrable steel just turns into an easy-bake oven.

Poison Gas

The really good poison gas didn't come along until a bit after the period you seem to be aiming for, but since gas masks weren't particularly good either even things like finely-powdered quicklime would likely be pretty effective. Historically red-hot sand worked pretty well too.

Concussion Grenades

Any shrapnel won't get through, but a half stick of dynamite will still turn the insides of the target to jelly.

Big, Heavy Bullets

If maces are still effective then a 4-bore elephant gun delivers the equivalent of being hit by a professional wrestler swinging a ten-pound maul, and does it at range. Will probably take a few hits to bring him down since it won't poke any holes in him, but the impact is still going to hurt. Shoot him in the head for best effect. A shot to the knee might work pretty well too. Knees are delicate.

Snipers

Plate armor has vision slots big enough to admit a small, fast bullet. Shoot him in the face!

Shotguns

Plate armor has breathing slits big enough to admit most of a load of birdshot. Shoot him in the face!

Paint

If the armor somehow has protected vision slots so that nothing goes in through it, then a splash of fast-drying paint over the outside will still blind the wearer, and then your fighters can take him down and hog-tie him. Load the paint into burstable capsules and shoot him in the face!

Snipers Again

The armor will have to come off, at least partially, at least occasionally, for biological reasons. Shoot him in the buttocks.

Traps

Bear traps, pit traps, deadfalls, noose snares. You don't have to kill him, or even hurt him, to take him out of the fight. Just trap him so he can't do anything until the battle is over.

I think that covers most of the major categories. Lots of variations available within each one. Take a few general principles and run with them.

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Okay - Magically bullet proof armour.

So, I'm assuming then that things such as hardened penetrating cores, increased muzzle velocity and all the standard methods to defeat armour aren't going to work.

However - since Explosive damage still works on your armour and you mentioned that Maces work, I'm going to presume that Crush injuries are still a thing.

In which case: Large Diameter and projectile weight - something in between a traditional Cannon and a Musket/Rifle. The goal is not to punch through the armour - but to inflict massive internal injuries from the force of the impact in much the same way the HESH (High Explosive, Squash-Head) Ammunition works with tanks.

Also - a transition to Mortars - Mortars were in use in the 18th century, not quite the modern tube mortars, but I think we can use a little artistic licence here and have something that is in-between the time specific spigot and bombard type mortars and a modern mortar - the blast damage would be hellish on the occupants of armour, even if they didn't have to worry about Shrapnel damage.

Finally:

Horse Cavalry. Think the infamous charge of the Light Brigade against the Russian guns in the Crimea - even a perfect scenario for the gunners (Box Canyon, single direction of attack, pre-ranged cone of fire) - they still got overrun by the Light Brigade - a big, slow, cumbersome knight is going to get picked apart by Horse Cavalry.

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  • $\begingroup$ How about old fashioned shrapnel rounds (a casing filled with explosives and ball bearings intended to explode on impact) with the ball bearings replaced by incendiary material, or just extra explosives, if those are going to count as "bullets" .. they already had those after all. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 14, 2023 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ Also, are the russians going to have gunners dressed in this armor? cannon crews will either be vunerable (because unarmored) or ineffective (because loading a cannon in full plate seems like an absolute pain $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Feb 14, 2023 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @lupe Properly fitted full plate isn't particularly encumbering. Loading cannon in it wouldn't be physically difficult for someone conditioned to carrying the weight. The hard part is thermal management. Firing big guns all day can get darned warm, and plate armor often doesn't have the best ventilation. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Jun 9, 2023 at 21:37
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The Nobel Peace Prize honors the inventor of dynamite

It was not until Alfred Nobel perfected safe, transportable nitroglycerine that true terrorism was able to take shape. The Russian nihilist movement used the invention many many times to blow up their emperor Alexander II and finally succeeded, after destroying palaces, trains, dinner parties, and villages. Thanks to this amazing contribution to world peace, your 19th century Russian elite soldiers clad in magical armor, will have their arms, legs, bodies, and heads fully protected from small projectiles; however, while they will also be protected from small paper sticks wrapped around nitroglycerin, those particular parts may become difficult to find when the paper sticks unravel.

Plate armor died because of explosives, not better guns. Bring your magical armor back two more centuries and you will rule the world.

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For a Broad Definition of "Bullet"

Where this really means any gunpowder-accelerated projectile, there is a simple solution.

Fix bayonets! Yes, this unit would literally bring about tank-like capabilities and radically impact the battlefield, but bayonets, sabers, and other hand-to-hand weapons were used at this time by even lowly foot soldiers. The neigh-invincible soldiers still need to breathe and move, so there are gaps for these weapons to enter.

Even taking a musket and using it like a club (hitting with the stock) works in a pinch. The person inside will still feel blunt force trauma, even if the armor is fine!

No special equipment needed, just a lot more up-close-and-personal work than most people really like. (And beware the people who really do like this kind of fighting.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Fighting someone in armor who knows what they're doing is brutal, even without the armor being fully impervious to penetration. youtu.be/8vYFFx4whoE $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Jun 9, 2023 at 21:56
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3 solutions

Bulletproof armor is certainly going to be very difficult for ground troops to deal with, especially when elite soldiers are equipped with such. Becuase of this, it seems almost impossible to kill one of these guys without suffering casualties.

Depending on when we are in the 19th century, planes might be in use. If I were an enemy of the Russians, I would fight their elite troops with bomber planes. Special stealth scout troops can be equipped with radios with the mission to seek out these elite soldiers and call in bombers.

Depending on how powerful this armor is, even if the bombs cannot penetrate the armor the sheer force of the explosion is enough to cause severe blunt damage.

But there will always be those occasions when you don’t have access to bombers, and for these dire days you make sure your soldiers are equipped with hammers/maces.

As you mention in the question, maces will still deal a considerable amount of damage to armor, but the troops might be shot up. I propose a solution to this exact problem is the way your soldiers fight, not what they do it with. Soldiers may begin adopting fighting styles that rely heavily on stealth allowing them to get closer to the elite soldiers. But because they are still elite soldiers, their lives are worth more than the normal soldier so don’t be afraid to take a few casualties.

Here are a few weaknesses of plate armor your soldiers can use to take advantage of their Russian adversaries:

People wearing plate armor are slow, they won’t be able to catch up to your if you run away.

Helmets will lower the soldiers visibility, making it easier for sneaky soldiers to sneak up on them.

Joints in the armor pose weaknesses. Want to give your plate armor wielding soldier more mobility, well now they have a glaring weak spot. Want to give them more armor, well now they are slow and immobile.

Another interesting solution to this problem is to adapt to the new generation of warfare and begin equipping your own soldiers with bullet proof armor! Surely if holy water is all it takes, it would be fairly easy for other countries to adopt this technique. This could lead to every soldier on the planet using maces and bomber planes.

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    $\begingroup$ 19th Century means 1800-1900, so there's no planes yet unless OP is planning other, more significant changes to the timeline. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Feb 14, 2023 at 15:13
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People wouldn't bother penetrating the armor, they would either crush it or opt to avoid it, like typically done with medieval armor. But even assuming your magic armor is 100% invulnerable AND stops momentum AND stops heat etc ... you still have at least holes for eyes and mouth.

This is a large enough weakness - bullets can hit you there, or perhaps shrapnel. Then you have flamethrower - your body and even most of head will do fine being covered by armor, but your eyes would burn. Finally, and most likely, chemical/biological weapons have existed for a very long time and would be the weapon of choice here. Just note that they wouldn't be quite as effective as in trench warfare of WW1.

That said, one side armed with conventional weapons of the era, the other side having access to the same weapons and same numbers AND magical plate armor - that magical side will easily win. Even today for any land-based conflict (it wouldn't help in water or air though).

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Naval guns, Cannons, Howitzers & Mortars

The advent of Russian armor-plated troops will bring naval artillery back from the water to land. If a half-inch breach loader can't pierce it, naval artillery laughed: they pierce ship armor since day 1. Even a tiny swivel gun with a mere 2 inches in diameter packs enough punch to pierce about 2.5 inches of naval steel plating on a ship, though the damage to the ship as a whole is neglectable. The moment 4-inch or even breach-loading 24-pounders usually used to sink real ships like HMS Warrior, come to be used on land, the slow-moving armored troops get turned into leaking steel cans of pulped soldiers. The naval guns will only advance slowly, but they can and will destroy the armored battalions. Even if you don't penetrate the armor, the hit person is thrown back by the impact and dies of the concussion, maybe taking anyone behind them with them.

Though technically the guns we look at didn't ever leave the land entirely: 10-pounder Parrot Rifles are field artillery and pack enough punch to endanger naval ships, 12-pounder Withworth Rifles would serve as field artillery with flat trajectories, 12-pound Napoleon would use intermediate trajectories (howitzer style), each of those responsible for many many deaths in the US Civil War. And the 24 cm Mörser M98 would plow under the Boxer Rebellion between 1899 and 1901.

Oh, and as icing: large-bore guns and naval guns don't shoot bullets, they shoot shells - projectiles filled with gunpowder - and shot - solid balls or containers of solid spheres. And some of those are really mean.

  • Large-bore artillery pieces and Shells were among the first to be loaded with more potent explosives. Dynamite was available starting 1867 - and as a result, explosive shells became deadlier, smaller, and faster at the same time!
  • Martin's Shot is a shell filled with molten iron. The containing shell shatters on impact and sets the target on fire and have enough kinetic energy to throw a human more than a few dozen meters. Anyone hit directly is crushed, and anyone standing next to them is set on fire by 1000 °C hot metal and cooked in their armor.
  • Case, Cannister, Carcass Shot Hailshot, Grapeshot, Shrapnell and the diaphragm shell are a long line of submunition-shells. They contain a few dozen sub bullets that are fired from atop and between the target infantry, throwing the bulletproof people around like puppets.
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Earthworks, cannon, and water

You've got your lightly armoured force of troops against a heavily armoured opponent. What do you do?

Make them attack you.

Through a marsh.

You're already building earthworks to protect your men, both in defense and attack - it's not that hard to build a ditch in front, and flood it. Now you've got people in plate armour treking through the mud. Some might drown. Others might get stuck, and you can chuck cannon balls at them. There's no point in shooting them, but it's also harder for them to shoot you, as their plate armour will make reloading even slower.

Try and hold battles at river crossings, retreat if the terrain isn't favourable - you can march faster and further than the guys in several pounds of steel. Save musket fire for their horses, gun crews and unarmoured support troops.

Prioritise naval forces, too - if you can sink their ships, their plate armoured troops on them are just a liability.

Horse drawn artillery can be used for skirmishing, too - fire a few shots out of musket range, then move. Shoot any cavalry that tries to follow you. If they're armoured, shoot their horses. If a bullet won't kill them, a fall from a horse might.

Starving them out of positions might also be successful. Plate armour wasn't, by all accounts, terrible to move in. But it belonged to an age with completely different army logistics - no one is expecting a knight to carry their bedroll, pack, supplies etc on their back. Either the opposing army needs much more logistical support (vulnerable to attack) or they're going to have to carry all their own stuff, making them vulnerable to exhaustion, and hugely less manoverable.

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By fully immersing plate armor in holy water, that plate armor is now fully bulletproof

But the British were protestant, so something involving the King James Version of the Bible? Maybe they discover how to wave the KJV over a barrel of gunpowder so that bullets, powered by protestant gunpowder, could penetrate holy watered armour.

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Plate armour cannot be cut. It must be crushed. You get this, as you mention maces (or warhammers) would work only the wielder would be killed.

So projectiles that have a lot of mass and crushiness.

Trebuchet

treb

Cannon

cannon


There were lots of ways in the 19th century of delivering things on the order of 10kg from 100s of meters. These were designed for use against stone walls, but could work for anti-personnel use against uncuttable enemies. The kinetic force they deliver is similar to a mace/hammer, but from range.

In short you need to remember to crush your enemies. It is one of the three best things in life.

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2 Tactics

  1. Ignited Blankets (From movie: Baahubali)

You shoot out oil-covered blankets high up in the sky towards the army of the army with magical plate armor. Right before the blankets landing, you shoot out fire arrows straight to the blankets lighting them on fire. The blankets drop onto the army rendered them covered in oil and distracted them for a little bit, and then the fire arrows hit, which will make the blankets and the people under them burn. This will cause severe damage to those people since the fire will be difficult to put out. After this, the areas of the incident will largely covered in black smoke from the burning blankets, which also reduces the visibility of the army causing them demoralized.

  1. Traps

You dig the surface land where the army will march through. Dig it wide and deep enough that will make them unable to climb up once they fell into it. Something like 5 meters or more. The cover on the trap must be indistinguishable from ordinary ground around that area though. The people who fell down there wouldn't be able to get out, and will ultimately die from starving. You should also make it triggered manually to make it happen at the right moment to get most of the army trapped. You can also fill the traps with water if possible, so that people who fell down there will drown, which kills way faster than starvation. Since the plate armor is heavy, people wearing it will have difficult time swimming/trying to not get drown -- let alone realizing later that you can't even climb up from it after that.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ever tried launching a blanket at high velocity? $\endgroup$
    – Sneftel
    Feb 14, 2023 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ (It doesn’t work) $\endgroup$
    – Sneftel
    Feb 15, 2023 at 19:53
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  1. Hit them harder. Cannons can fire grapeshot, bolas, normal cannon balls, etc. Assuming physics is the same, the rapid acceleration from being hit by cannon fire is still bound to break bones. Cavalry charges might be a little more difficult but being rammed on the end of a spear by a speeding horse-rider combo is bound to feel like getting hit by a small car in terms of energy. Depending on the terrain, throwing boulders/ causing landslides can be an option.

  2. go for the gaps in the armor. Depending on how expensive it is or what the characteristics are, there is no way that a solder would be totally encased in it. Molotov cocktails, poison gas, and even hand to hand combat can target armor gaps. Or you can take inspiration from 1. and set explosive charges around them. Blasts would be directed into the gaps. chucking feces and dead people into their camps will definitely get biomaterial into the armor operators.

  3. Avoid them entirely. If your troop has higher mobility, hitting logistics can make them fall back due to lack of supplies or even starve if cut off by harsh weather. Special ops behind the front lines can wreak havoc if unaccounted for.

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