Inspired by Would a full body diamond armor and sword guarantee survival and victory against a medieval battalion? and my question What would iron-age tools and weapons be like if they were redesigned with modern metallurgy? I thought I'd take another tack around this topic.

I'll be blunt this time and not wrap it up in a fancy premise. If we were to refashion weapons and armour for hand to hand melee combat but with modern technology and materials, how would they be different from their medieval forebears?

This being worldbuilding I can't resist a fancy premise. So let's imagine that the great goddess Handwavia has declared it taboo for people to try and kill each other with anything other than force or energy generated by their own bodies. If it interests you (it interests me), we can say that bows are also allowed if they're drawn by hand.

Expense is no object. It doesn't matter if building a vest that's effectively impervious to sword blows or a sword that can lop off limbs without blunting is absurdly expensive, so long as it's possible. Knights and nobles are the class that fights after all.

(My ill-educated guess is that defence would predominate. We don't have much that can improve on a steel cutting edge for attacking people with, but with modern synthetic and ceramic material, we can probably fashion lightweight, flexible armour that's almost impervious to such assaults.)

  • $\begingroup$ So you can pull the string of a bow but can you reload a crossbow ? You transfer you energy from your arms to a spring so it allow a lot of new human-strengh-operated siege weapons. Trebuchet were reload with a guy running in a giant hamster wheel. With today material we could make incredible killing machinery. $\endgroup$ – Rigop Sep 8 '16 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ I would bet on modern materials, in particular for lighter armor. $\endgroup$ – Theraot Sep 8 '16 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Oh my go(o)d(n)ess... this opens up such a can of worms. Remember the following: energy is never created nor destroyed, it only ever changes form. So a human cannot generate energy, they can only convert it from one form to another. So... if pedal on my exercise bike, make electricity, use that to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen, compress into canisters and make them go BOOM in the face of the enemy, does that count or not? How many steps from "generating" to "using" are we allowed? (If 'zero' then the only thing we are allowed to use is punching, kicking and choking. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 8 '16 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ May I cheat a bit? As a obese man, I can use my own fat to make a Molotov cocktail. That's energy from my own body and definitely harmful if you are trapped in a steel (or carbon) armor $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Sep 9 '16 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ Following in the footsteps of my loophole-happy forebears I would like to mention the Girandoni Air Rifle which used compressed air to fire a projectile at lethal velocity (think muzzleloader lethal, not 5.56 NATO lethal). It reportedly took something like 1500 strokes with a hand pump to fill the air chamber, but technically that would be purely human power, and the air chamber was not limited to a single shot, either. Also, the weapon was very quiet compared to chemical-driven firearms, and had a relatively high rate of fire. $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Nov 7 '16 at 18:14

I don't think it would change much, compared to the middle ages. Let's compare!

Middle Ages Depending on which time period you refer to, my answer differs. For most of the middle ages, cloth armor like the "gambeson", a padded torso and arm armor was dominating for most soldiers. Steel helmets were worn whereever possible. If you had the money, chainmail was worn. A crusader for example might have worn a gambeson with chainmail on top. Later, in the 15th century and beyond, platemail became the dominant choice of armor. Contrary to common believes, platemail allows for great mobility and agility if forged right.

Cutting through a chainmail with a sword is veeeery hard to do (i would say almost impossible in real combat). Also, piercing with a spear or arrow becomes difficult, especially when there is padded armor underneath. While arrows with special tips had good chances, i think melee weapons had a tough time. Blunt weapons like warhammers or maces did better, and often a sword blow would crack or shatter the opponents arm without actually piercing the armor.

Yet, in "real" combat, blows would most often not align perfectly, the opponent would deflect or dodge most of the power, and so armor protected very well from the "pricks" and half-hits that were most common (and would still have fatally wounded an unarmored opponent).

With introduction of platemail, the game stepped up a bit. Platemail is pretty invulnerable to most melee weapons. Anything below a halbert wielded during a charge should not have been able to puncture a breastplate. Given that the wearer is not helpless on the ground of course. Special weapons (warhammers mostly) were invented that allowed to puncture platemail, but most weapons were completely inefficient against platemail. So combat techniques adapted. The warriors shifted their focus to the weaknesses of the armor. Knees, elbows, wrists, neck, armpit, groin, hands and face had to have weak points, so the wearer could move at all. Fighters focused on hitting these weak points. To make that easier, "sword wrestling" was in heavy use, aiming to throw the enemy to the ground or immobilize them, so hitting the vitals became possible.

Even when crossbows and musquets spread on the battlefields, platemail remained the armor of choice until the late 17th century.

Modern Combat Now, how would modern technology influence all this? Whew. On the weapon side, it's possible to manufacture more durable, lighter (or more likely: better balanced, since physical impact depends on weight) and more flexible weapons. I don't think the sword would vanish, it proved to be the weapon-of-choice for millenia. We could have sharper edges, but i don't think the weapons could improve that much more. look at modern firefighter axes and tools. They are sturdy as hell, and razorsharp, but an axe is an axe...

On the armor side, i am thinking carbon nanotube armor. See here: Carbon Nanotube on wikipedia That stuff can withstand almost any physical blow (bullets, even), and is super lightweight. It's far superior to most materials we can actually use, but let's assume we have that stuff. Because i think using our "more common" modern materials will not change the essentials of what i am saying, just making it more complicated.

So armor still follows the same principle: you cannot penetrate platemail at all, but you have to go for the weak points. But these days, the weak points can be layered with kevlar and other modern materials. Your visor can be made from transparent aluminium or armored glass, so that's even not a weak point anymore, AND you get perfect vision. Try wearing a medieval full helmet, it's horrible. You don't see sh... shiny things.

Sooo. I think battling other combatants will be primarily about getting them to the ground, and exposing their weaknesses for a good, full-force thrust to their weaknesses, killing them like that. Maybe nets, bolas and the like will see a revival? Also, armor-penetration weapons like the warhammer or the halbert will be veeeery common, while axes and swords might be less frequent.

Sadly, i think bows are gonna have a bad time.

lastly, don't underestimate that armor is expensive. So if, on the modern battlefield, not all combatants are armored in fullbody platemail, it looks rather different. In that case, the balance of weapons will shift a bit.

TL;DR: I think it will more or less resemble battlefields of the 16th century, minus the firearms. :)

Afterthought: do tasers work, if i charged them with muscle power?

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  • $\begingroup$ You can hook your taser to one of those hand-powered flashlights and 'charge' them with 'muscle power' XD $\endgroup$ – Skye Sep 8 '16 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not familiar with what carbon nanotube armor would be, but would modern weapons evolve to inflict crushing injuries to the man-under-the- armor, since penetrating weapons would be less effective? Even if the enemy is running around in impenetrable light weight armor, if it has no way of dissipating energy, I can smack him in the chest with something hard in an attempt to break ribs, cause internal bleeding, or otherwise incapacitate him. $\endgroup$ – Snyder005 Sep 8 '16 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Snyder005 - In theory, yes. The problem with this is that modern armor DOES dissipate energy quite well. A lightweight kevlar vest stops a bullet from penetrating your body, but the impact might shatter a rib or two. That's why law-enforcement or military level armor is cumbersome and unwieldy. Thick layers of fabric and ballistic gel absorb energy and dissipate it to a point where a bullet might knock you off your feet, but doesn't break your bones anymore. Since medieval weaponry has lower levels of energy, i think the blows might pretty much leave you unaffected. $\endgroup$ – Andreas Heese Sep 9 '16 at 6:23
  • $\begingroup$ And just for completeness purposes, i edited my answer with a wikipedia link to carbon nanotubes. $\endgroup$ – Andreas Heese Sep 9 '16 at 6:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Andreas Heese Modern bulletproof vests aren't rated to stop knives. They sometimes do, they sometimes don't. It is more than about "energy" or "damage" that an attack does, it's also about how that energy is used. The knife is heavier, and has the attacker's hand and arm giving it additional mass. In addition, it also cuts through the kevlar, a few strands taking all the force on a small area, rather than a bullet which usually just bulls through. $\endgroup$ – ltmauve Mar 22 '19 at 19:44

The actual style of combat probably wouldn't change much, it is still men fighting with melee weapons and bows. But if you had modern manufacturing, there would be some SIGNIFICANT material changes that may drive some battle actics.

For starters, a modern compound bow is LIGHT YEARS ahead of anything they had back then, even the vaunted English longbow. Here is a good technical summary of the longbow. The bottom line is that these bows can generate around 75 joules/55 foot pounds. Modern compound bows can hit 90-100 foot pounds, as seen by this bow review. Plus modern bows can shoot better in more varied weather conditions, have durability and reliability improvements, and most important, have CONSISTENCY, so the arrows and bows have better tolerances than in the medieval period. So modern archer units are going to be DEVASTATING compared to historic archer units. Can modern armor compensate for more powerful bows so the tactics can stay the same?

While these arrow energies seem high (since they can take down bears and elephants) it is important to realize that the measly .22 rimfire can hit this energy level. Obviously there is a penetration advantage to a slow heavy arrow (400 grain arrow) versus a small bullet (40 grains), as this article exhaustively discusses. But arrows are in no way at the energy level as bullets, especially modern rifle calibers. It is very difficult to get data on arrows expressed in modern ballistic terms, but certainly hard armor, designed to stop jacketed rifle rounds, would definitely stop arrows. Soft armor (mainly intended to stop pistol bullets) not so much, as arrows have a cutting quality missing from most pistol rounds.

So, will riot shields stop arrows? Probably not at close distance. Here is a typical ballistic shield, rated to III-A. For pistol bullets, this would be plenty. For fragments, which can be sharp edged, this shield can stop a 17 grain fragment at 2000 fps, which is around 150 foot pounds of energy. So on paper it may stop an arrow from penetrating, but perhaps not as arrow penetrating qualities are different from small fast fragments. BUT add in a polyethylene plate rated for and you can harden the center of the shield, mostly protecting the wielder. However with a curved shape, anti-shatter film, and 4-6mm thickness, even a plexiglass riot shield would probably deflect or stop most arrows outside of very close range.

So, we can somewhat neutralize the archer threat with shields. Plate armor of the period was 2mm thick or so, and was generally proof against arrows. Modern arrows might penetrate so you would have to increase the armor thickness or go to a harder modern steel, which may be more difficult to work with to make the intricate shapes necessary for plate armor. To reduce cost an make armor more transferable between different people, it may look more like umpire armor with interlocking plates, backed by cut resistant fabricenter image description here This could be factory made, rather than individually crafted for a specific person. Replace the PE plates with steel, add in foam backing, and it would not only resist blunt force impacts but resist stabbing as well. You can see here that there are standards for stab and spike protection as well as ballistic protection.

The long and short of this is that defensive armor has made big jumps that haven't really been matched by offensive tech, aside from improvements in missile weapons (bows, and crossbows if allowed). But polearms, swords, spears, etc haven't really seen like improvements. Modern armies could afford to outfit EVERYONE in advanced stab and penetration proof armor. It is likely that melee weapons would focus on long narrow spikes mounted on dense hammer heads in order to defeat the armor. Swords would be almost worthless against armored combatants. CAVALRY would be prominent, since the lance and mounted archers would still be as effective. Eye slits would be much less vulnerable since we have plexiglass inserts but the same basic tactics of knock your opponent over and stab him under the arm or in a joint with a narrow, thick blade would still work.

It is entirely possible that battles fought this way would be totally indecisive, that the men would fatigue before they could kill or wound many of the enemy. The communications and logistical aspects of modern battlegrounds would need to be addressed as bands of armored men drive around the countryside, seeking a fight where they will be assured a clear victory, not just another stalemate. It is quite likely that rather than having actual battles, some sort of tournament evolves to decide the victor since actual conflict would be too indecisive.

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One thing is that steel fabrication and metallurgy has improved significantly since the late middle ages so we can certainly say that the overall quality of armour specifically would improve significantly.

While the very best plate armour was of decent quality heat treated steel (at least for critical areas) and pretty effectively arrow proof we now have very sophisticated alloys like Hardox which should be pretty much impervious to any reasonable hand wielded weapon.

Having said that the materials used for modern military body armour may not be as useful as you might think. High tensile strength textiles like kevlar etc are good against slashing and fragmentation injuries but slashing is already well covered by the solid plate and fragmentation isn't an issue in this context. They are also poor against penetrating weapons and so not necessarily any improvement in protecting vulnerable joints which can't easily be covered by plate compared to chain mail.

One area where there are obvious improvements is in the padding worn under armour as modern foams, gels and breathable fabrics as well as a modern understanding of blunt trauma injury mechanisms could very probably increase protection and certainly improve comfort.

On a similar note cooling vests (originallly developed for F1 drivers) could dramatically improve the combat effectiveness of an armoured soldier. Modern reenactors and HEMA practitioners often cite heat stress as a key factor in armoured combat.

It is also fair to say that chaep steel and modern manufacturing methods would make it possible to kit out entire armies in cheap basic armour. At this point it is worth saying that the best medieval plate armour was as much about the fit to the individiual as the materials and so you wouldn;t necesarrily be able to mass produce teh vey best armour but cheap 'munitions grade' armour for every soldier (eg helmet and breastplate) woule greatlky increase their survivability.

Equally while kevlar etc aren't necessarily better than good plate a combination of balistic textiles and plastic plates would be a very cheap and lightweight way to give all of your soldiers failry decent protection.

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