Imagine an alternate history, where weapons types didn't advance past "medieval" type weapons. So like: swords, maces, flails, crossbows, bows, polearms, mauls, etc. I'm intentionally excluding "gun"/explosive type weapons.

A great list is List of premodern combat weapons, minus the Gunpowder weapons.

But weapon and armor materials technology did improve, so there's still the ability to manufacture alloy, composite, ceramic, kevlar, etc. materials.

What would combat body armor consist of?

I'm thinking riot gear type armor, but that wouldn't do well against cutting weapons like swords. Not sure on bolts and arrows.

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    $\begingroup$ Crossbow bolts fly through kevlar (youtube has videos of this, crossbows are actually quite effective vs modern armour unless it's a full plate...modern armour is designed to stop a low mass high velocity slug and not a high mass impact like a bolt)...and riot gear armour would be nearly ineffective vs a flail. Interesting question $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Sep 14, 2016 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth, that's what I figured with arrows and bolts. Rifle plates might work. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2016 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ Riot gear, anyone? $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2018 at 19:19

5 Answers 5


Considering that there were very few weapon types, I believe we can reasonably protect against all of them. The gear would have to be something resistant to piercing and cuts (swords, spears, arrows) with a good amount of padding underneath to defeat mauls and other blunt weapons. This is a jack of all trades -version of such armor and should offer some protection from each weapon type.

Let's say a protective outer layer made of layered kevlar or dyneema, with polyurethane coating. (This setup is common in cut-resistant items, such as gloves designed to protect from knife cuts.) Layer with cushioning materials underneath (and perhaps a couple of cushioning layers in the outer part as well), and you've got yourself a pretty solid set of protective clothing. As an added benefit, it should be fairly light compared to what was used in medieval combat.

This armor is, however, still susceptible to fire and will not absorb all the energy from a very determined flail-swinging muscleman or a lancer, among other things. It will, however, provide decent protection in a melee, turning hits that would outright kill an unarmored person into mere bruises or relatively minor injuries. As an added defense against crossbow bolts or arrows one could add a removable ceramic plate to the front part of the armor, although this would add considerable weight.

Edit: Another reply correctly pointed out that ceramic armor is designed to absorb the energy by breaking, making it only usable against a single or at best two or three hits. In this, however, the medieval armorsmiths had the right idea when they created scale mail. There have been concepts thrown around of a scale mail made out of ceramic armor, which could be a very decent solution against crossbow bolts and arrows. It would, however, add considerable weight, so the usefulness of such a design remains debatable and depends entirely on how thick the scales would have to be in order to be effective.


When it comes down to it...our modern armour is designed to stop modern weapons (almost exclusively guns). We sacrifice any other trait of armour to stop guns in particular...so when you look at modern armour, it actually fares pretty poorly vs medieval weaponry (I think the running theory is you shoot the guy with the sword before he gets to you). Kevlar holds together well and protects vs bullets by taking the impact and spreading across a larger surface area. Vs high speed low mass impacts such as bullets, this is decently effective. It would also stand up really well to a slashing attack. However vs high mass impact (a stabbing sword/knife or a cross bow bolt, or a spear for that matter), it doesn't fare so well. A modern version of chainmail would fair better in this domain. It certainly provides no protection vs blunt impact.

Ceramic plates are actually designed to be one (possibly two) use vests...similiar idea as above, the impact from a bullet shatters the plate and spreads out the impact across a larger area. This works well vs a first hit (and I suspect it would fare decent vs a crossbow bolt) but since the plate shatters, it really isn't that effective vs multiple strikes.

This isn't to say modern materials wouldn't make a far greater suit of armour though. Full plate isn't that effective vs the punching power of a gun, so we generally ignore this route in modern days...however if guns were not present, I'm pretty sure we can make a modern version of full plate that would stand up to any piercing, slashing, or blunt impact very well (blunt would be the most effective, but much padding can be put under this full plate to reduce the effectiveness of that). My guess is light and extremely strong metal half and full plate would start to dominate the battlefield.

Just to add a chunk:

Modern armour is designed as a one shot defence to save your life once so you can get out of there. Cost of material is second to the cost of the life. This is very opposite of medieval times where the sword is often more valuable than the troop wielding it. Medieval combat is often a grueling process with fights lasting for a much longer duration, so the armor must be semi durable and reusable after several hit. The requirements behind modern armour and medieval armour are vastly seperated

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    $\begingroup$ just note that the medieval cost of equipment vs the cost of the soldier is mostly a misconception (context always matters) - soldiers were not as cheaply disposable as so many like to think, nor was equipment all that expensive. We tend to think of the arms and armor of the nobility, which was very expensive, but your standard pole arm like a bill, a dagger, a kettle helmet, and a cheap gambeson cost very little. Even just looking at swords they vastly varied in price from your expensive nobleman's sidearms right down to a 5-penny rusty from someone's grandfather. $\endgroup$ Sep 15, 2016 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ Chainmail can stop blunt impacts, depending on where they hit. If the mail is pulled tight over the skin, such as on a shoulder, it will probably make the blow worse. If it hits sideways at a spot where the mail is just hanging, moving the mail is going to absorb a fair amount of energy. $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2018 at 19:42

I'm not sure for long term durablity, but there are a few really strong engineered plastic like materials, about as strong as steel but really light. I think biggest improvements would be made in awarness. Some transparent metal or something as visor and radio's inside helmets.

Mediaval armor already had pretty good mobility, so lighter, more comforable armor and awarness would be the key improvements. You would not tire as fast and you could actually see and hear clearly. I imagine you would maybe still want to keep steel plate in some high hit areas as it's just really damn effective and durable.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd suggest specifying which plastics you're referring to, or providing links to lists or other sources or references. $\endgroup$
    – Harthag
    Feb 18, 2019 at 21:48

Meta materials

New arrangements of long-used materials is a concept that is creating materials with very unusual properties. For example, there is a new arrangement of metal, I think it's called "microlattice" that is lighter than dandelion fluff, while metal foam made of ordinary steel and aluminum, arranged like a sponge, yields bullet-proof metal that is actually lighter than a solid chunk of aluminum of the same thickness.

But we're looking for sword and mace proof, not bulletproof, right? Well, other answers have already pointed out that cutting (and piercing) is relatively easy to deal with, using high density polyurethane and similar materials. So that leaves blunt force. Here we turn to nature's ready made solution, the club (yes, it's really called a club) of the Mantis shrimp. It's microscopically interwoven material arrangement is VERY impact resistant. So we just weave the Polyeurethan/Kevlar/or similar material (or layers of materials) in this structure, maybe with a bonding agent, and viola, the outer shell would be strong enough that death from severe sloshing of the internal organs would be more likely than the armor breaking or deforming.


This is more of a side point, as the other answers covered armor materials quite well. My point is that any armor in this world should be fire-resistant, hermetically sealed and have an air supply or at least a gas mask.

While these things sound like defenses against very modern weapons, one should consider that chemical and biological warefare are ancient. Greek fire (flamethrowers) was used by the Byzantine Empire, wells were poisened and disease was used in sieges.

So the battlefields of your alternative history are quite possibly within flamethrower lit nerve gas fog, where infantry armed with all the weapons you mentioned is not trying to stab or crush the ememy to death, but simply tries to slice open their protective equipment, so nervegas or napalm can do their jobs.


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