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Wearing Chainmail

Chainmail is kind of magical. It conforms to your body, fixes your posture, sheds heat, feels great, is self-cleaning, and turns most blades. On the other hand, it’s also heavy as hell, might bruise you, makes you and/or your clothes filthy, and can hurt your back if you’re as dumb as me and wear it every day before you’ve worked up to it.

After I made my chainmail shirt, I wore it every day for months. Because, uh, science. Here’s what I learned:

The shirt:

My shirt weights 12lbs and is composed of an estimated 12,240 rings. The rings are 5/16” inner-diameter, 16gauge mild steel and joined in the common “European 4 in 1” pattern. They are “butted,” in that I didn’t weld or rivet them shut. A welded or riveted shirt is substantially stronger — most attacks against my shirt don’t cut the rings, they deform the rings until they open. There are historical examples of butted chainmail (primarily east of Europe), though riveted chainmail was either more common or better survived to the modern day.

withshirtMy shirt is roughly t-shirt shaped. I really don’t have any idea how long it took to make. People on chainmail forums seem to estimate 40 hours to make a basic shirt like mine. I’m guessing it took me a lot longer than that, since I’m not a fast worker and I spent an ungodly amount of time figuring out how to get the sleeves right. Also I was busy watching Battlestar Galatica.

When I was done, I stitched scavenged leather into a collar, a finishing touch which both helps bring the shirt together aesthetically but also seems to keep the shirt holding up better. (The rings on the corners of the neck hole bear the most weight and deform the soonest.)

I usually wear my chainmail shirt over a black sleeveless t-shirt. You can see between the links, so my clothes underneath are visible. Usually, I wear either a punk vest or another black sleeveless shirt over the chainmail, which keeps the shirt out of direct sun and I also think looks much better.

Heat:

Because of how much surface area it has, chainmail functions as a heat sink and disperses heat very effectively. This effect is counteracted in part, however, by how much harder your body has to work in order to wear it. Also, in direct sunlight, it seems to get pretty hot. But with a loose-fitting cotton shirt over it, or out of direct sun, it can have a cooling effect. I wore it hiking in the summer and it was more or less fine.

When I first put on my shirt, it tends to feel very cold, but it quickly warms up to my body temperature.

Historically, chainmail was worn over a gambeson — a thick, quilted shirt that absorbs some of the impact of attacks. Since I’m not planning on deflecting sword blows on a regular basis, I don’t bother with a gambeson. I’m certain wearing a gambeson in summer would be kind of awful.

Weight:

With chainmail, all the weight is on your shoulders. If you’ve got a very long chainmail shirt, I hear you can put a thick belt around your waist to move some of the weight to your waist, but you’re still holding a ton of extra weight directly on your shoulders. This forces me to stand and sit with correct posture. I bet warriors had damn good posture back in the day — even goblins probably couldn’t slouch.

40lbs backpack. Not recommended for wearing over chainmail.
40lbs backpack. Not recommended for wearing over chainmail.
When I wear my 40lbs backpack on top of my chainmail, I usually end up with chainmail-shaped bruising along the front of my shoulders under the straps.

When I wore my shirt daily for several months, it eventually hurt my back. I’d hoped I would just build up the strength to wear it, but now that I’ve paid a little more attention to how muscle gain works, I think I’d try wearing it every three days or so for awhile first.

It turns out that I can, in fact, swim in a chainmail shirt. The extra weight makes it take a good bit more work to doggy-paddle, and, if I remember correctly, I couldn’t float on my back. I’m pretty sure a soldier thrown overboard in battle would have time to shed their armor before they’d drown.

Reactions:

withshirt2I’m usually pretty weird looking in general, so I don’t get that much more attention for wearing a chainmail shirt — it just gets lost in the overall aesthetic. The comments have all ranged from enthusiastically positive (non-sarcastic “nice chainmail!”) to just kind of curious. Also I get a lot of the questions that I’m trying to answer in this post.

Believe me, if you think wearing chainmail sets you apart and makes you look tough, try being male-assigned and wearing women’s clothes in public. I do that too. It takes a hell of a lot more courage to wear a cotton dress than a chainmail shirt.

How it feels to wear:

I love my chainmail shirt. I love how it conforms to my body (though it clings like some dresses, and curves like bellies are more visible than in other garments). I love how the first hour I wear it, it’s hard to wear, then I forget about it, then at the end of the day I take it off and feel so light and free.

Rust:

My shirt is made of mild steel. It sometimes rusts. When I wear it regularly, the rust comes right off. I kind of don’t believe that people back in the day worried too much about oiling their chainmail or even shaking it up in bags of sand. It’s made of tiny interlocking rings — they rub on each other constantly when its being worn. If it’s not being worn, you can just give it a good shake every now and then.

Of course, nowadays one could just make a shirt out of stainless steel. I like things with a nice patina on them, though, so I went with mild.

One reason I wear black underneath and overtop of it is that the steel gets my clothes filthy and gray, which doesn’t show up on black. The chainmail also gets any exposed skin filthy. Neither of these things bother me.

Armor Class:

Sometimes as a dumb party trick, especially when no one realizes I’m wearing chainmail, I stab myself in the gut with a knife. Note that I am not an intelligent person. Anyway, if the knife has a broad enough tip that it can’t find its way through the rings, it won’t cut me. I’ve done weapons tests with my shirt, and found that overall it protected from all stabbing knife blows. Machete blows almost never penetrated the shirt, though most blows deformed rings.

Also, since it's magnetic, it can double as a refrigerator door.
Also, since it’s magnetic, it can double as a refrigerator door.
An axe penetrated the shirt most of the time, but with substantially reduced cutting power (it cut the surface underneath the chainmail up to around 80% less than when it struck the unprotected surface). Four out of five blowgun darts found their way through the links. My friend who throws real throwing knives (thick, sharpened spikes, none of this ninja-online-store bullshit) managed to consistently penetrate the shirt much more effectively than any other weapon I’ve tried.

Still, there’s something kind of badass and comforting feeling about walking around in a shirt that you can’t jab a knife through.

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