History of Armour and Weapons Relevant to Jamestown

The first known use of armour was by the Egyptians (1500 B.C.) The armour was a cloth, shirtlike garment overlapped with bronze scales or plates sewn to it. The armour was very heavy, causing this style of protection to be short-lived.

The Assyrians (900-600 B.C.) developed lamellar armour; small rectangular plates or lames were sewn to a garment in parallel rows. This style of armour was used into the 16th c. A.D. The Assyrians also used bronze helmets, shields and arms.

In 8th c. B.C., Greek technology refined armour by fashioning bronze plates to fit over distinct parts of the body, i.e., following the musculature of the body part it was protecting. Their armour was the bronze breastplate and backplate, termed the cuirass, greaves, which protected the shins, and brass helmets. The Greeks used a massive shield called an argive which covered the body from chin to knee.

Rome was founded in 753 B.C., but 500 years of warfare were needed for Rome to gain dominance of the Italian peninsula. The Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks using their version of the argive (scutum), greaves, helmets and cuirass.

By the 3rd c. B.C., Romans developed a cuirass of linen covered with bronze lames and a shirt of interlocking metal rings called mail. It is believed mail was a Celtic invention. (Celts were ancient people of western and central Europe including Britons and Gauls.) Mail, or chainmail, was made by winding wire tightly around an iron rod, cutting the wire into rings, and interlocking the rings together by soldering or riveting each individual ring closed. A mail shirt weighed between 14 to 30 pounds.

Roman military technology changed throughout the years of the Empire, and by the first c. A.D. they had developed the lorica segmentata, a body armour of iron bands fastened together with leather straps. Bronze or iron helmets were still used, as were mail and scale armour, and the scuta, a shield of laminated wood covered with linen and/or hides with a metal boss for holding the scuta.

Rome fell in 456 A.D., and bronze armour was rarely used for many centuries, instead leather and mail armour predominated.

Charlemagne (king of the Frankish Empire, 768-814 A.D.) introduced the first tenants of feudalism by requiring military service to the king through ownership of land and a byrnie (bûr.n_). The byrnie was a waist length mail shirt.

The Normans invaded England in 1066 and defeated the Saxons at the battle of Hastings. The Bayeux Tapestry is the best documentation of armour and arms used at that time. Hauberks (hô.bûrk) were worn, long tunics, knee or shin length, made of riveted mail. The warriors wore some type of gown under the mail for further protection from weapons and chafing. Their legs were covered by chausses of mail or by cloth or leather. They also wore coifs, a mail hood, under their conical iron or bronze helmets. They carried wooden shields covered with leather and paint, with two leather hand grips versus the single metal boss of the scutum.

By 1250, the use of plate armour became more pronounced, reaching its apogee by 1450 with the knights being completely covered by a suit of armour, i.e., "cap-a-pie" (head to foot). At first the hauberk was enhanced with mail mittens, and the evolutionary process continued with plate armour attached to the mail to cover the most vulnerable places such as the arms and legs. Eventually, all parts of the knight's body were covered with plate armour. A full suit of armour weighed approximately 60 pounds, but contrary to popular belief it did not incapacitate the knight if he fell on his back. The weight of the armour was evenly distributed about the body. Armour was finely articulated and served its primary purpose well, providing a defensive casing around the knight while allowing him to attack his adversary. The introduction of firearms to the battlefield in the 16th c., however, doomed the full suit of armour or the "harness" as it was called.

The 16th c. was a transitional period for armour. Because of firearms, there was an attempt to "proof" armour against small shot fire, i.e., musket fire. To bullet proof the armour meant to make it heavier and less maneuverable. Therefore, less armour was worn. Armour production was divided into two spheres: 1) utilitarian for use by the common foot soldier based on their function in battle, and: 2) high quality suits of armour or harness made especially for nobles to use in ceremonial events. King Henry VIII created the first royal armour workshop in England in 1515 at Greenwich.

Throughout the 16th c., and into the 17th c., distinct types of armour evolved into use to protect the soldier:

Corselet or "pikeman's suit" was a suit of half or three quarters length armour consisting of the cuirass, gorget and tassets. Its weight was approximately 35 pounds.

Helmets evolved into three major types (all open-faced): 1) the morion, 2) the cabasset and; 3) the morion cabasset. The morion's brim formed high peaks front and back with a raised comb atop the helmet. A later version of the morion used by English pikemen was called a "pot." The cabasset had a flat narrow brim and was tall with a "pear stalk" at the top. The morion cabasset combined the high peak brim with a "pear stalk" top. Quality helmets were one piece of forged steel.

Jacks or brigadines, canvas coats riveted on the inside with small iron plates, were developed in the 14th century. The heads of the rivets protruded on the outside of the brigadine giving a distinct pattern.

Padded cloth armour was canvas stuffed with cotton.

Buff coats were coats of heavy leather called buff leather.



The crossbow was in use in China in the 3rd century A.D.

1100 A.D. William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, was killed by a crossbow.

Original crossbows in Europe were composites of wood, horn and glue. The bow string was made from hemp or flax.

By the 14th century, the crossbow was made of steel and several different devices were used to "span" or pull back the bow string; the graffle hook or belt and claw, the windlass, the crannequin and the goat's foot. The front of the crossbow had a stirrup so the crossbowman could get proper leverage to span the bowstring. Bolts or quarrels were the arrows used.

Point blank range was 60-70 yards, and maximum range at a 45 degree of elevation was 350 yards. The rate of fire was two quarrels per minute. Because of this slow rate of fire, the crossbow was not an efficient weapon against Native Americans.


The longbow became legendary because of its use by the English during the 14th century. The longbow was actually introduced to Edward I by the Welsh during his campaigns to subdue them in the 13th century.

The longbow was a "self" bow because it was made of one wood and not a composite. The wood used was Yew (Taxus baccata, an evergreen tree or shrub with flat dark green needles and scarlet berries). The longbow was made from the bole of the tree (the trunk) versus the bough (the branches), which made it extremely strong.

The length of the longbow was from foot to eye level of the bowman. The arrow length was a "cloth yard", i.e., the distance from the tip of the nose to the tip of the middle finger. This allowed for the maximum draw on the bowstring.

The rate of fire was six to seven arrows a minute with the first arrow still in flight when the sixth or seventh arrow was fired. The effective minimum range was 200 yards and maximum range was 400 yards. According to English accounts, the Powhatans' bows had a point blank range of 40 yards and a maximum range of 120 yards.

The longbow was inexpensive to make, and English law required possession of a longbow as well as requirements for practice with the weapon on a regular basis.

There are two references to use of the longbow in America by the English: 1) Raleigh was told to equip 150 of his expected 800 men with longbows. Did he send longbowmen to Roanoke? 2) After the 1622 attack, 400 longbows with 800 sheaves of arrows (a sheaf has 24 arrows) were to be sent to Jamestown. The leaders of the colony, however, directed that the weapons be sent to Bermuda and stored there within easy sailing distance of the colony. It was feared that if longbows fell into the hands of the Powhatans they would learn English technological secrets and improve their bows, making them more deadly.


Gunpowder was introduced into Europe from China in the first half of the 13th century.

Guns are first mentioned in a 1326 manuscript depicting a vase-shaped cannon firing a large arrow. Cannons were used by the English at the battles of Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415).

The handgun (an eight or 16 inch iron or bronze tube held in a straight wooden stock ignited by poking a hot wire into the touch hole) appeared in the 14th century Germany developed the first mechanical means of handgun ignition; a matchcord was held in a lock which pivots toward the touch hole by applying pressure on a trigger. The matchlock was born and was first depicted in a 1411 manuscript.


By the late 15th century the matchlock was a subsidiary of the crossbow and by 1550 it had supplanted it as the main weapon on European battlefields and in the New World. It held its predominance until the 1620's, and by the fourth quarter of the 17th century it had virtually disappeared from use.

Matchlock terminology is confusing because it was known by three separate terms: 1) harquebus or arquebus, 2) caliver and, 3) musket.

The harquebus or arquebus was the most used firearm in the mid-16th century. During the 16th century, it was synonymous with the caliver, which meant that they were small match lock muskets NOT requiring the use of a rest to support the weight of the gun. In the 17th century, the term harquebus was used to identify a wheel lock firearm.

The musket was the largest matchlock requiring the use of a rest to support its weight of 20 pounds. It is believed the Duke of Alba introduced the matchlock musket into Spanish service in the mid-16th century. By the 17th century, the English matchlock musket weighed 16 pounds and was 10 gauge. (Gauge is the diameter of a gun barrel as determined by the number of lead balls in a pound that exactly fit the barrel.) Its point blank range was 30 yards.

All matchlocks were based on the same firing principle; a matchcord (a loosely braided cord of hemp or flax soaked in a salt petre solution, allowed to dry, which burned at a slow rate of four to five inches an hour), held by a serpentine, a metal lock or arm, attached to a sear (inside the lock plate) which was attached to the trigger bar (which was later changed to a true trigger). Upward pressure on the trigger bar, or pulling the trigger, acted through the sear to depress the serpentine/matchcord onto the flashpan causing the ignition process. A light spring attached to the lock plate forced the serpentine back to its original position away from the flashpan. For safety, the flashpan was covered by a hinged plate which was pulled back from the flashpan by the firer prior to pulling the trigger.

The loading procedure was slow. The rate of fire was two times a minute, and it required great caution because the lighted match was always in close proximity to the powder.


Wheel locks were sometimes called firelocks or harquebuses. They were developed around 1520, but their complexity and cost kept them from being widely used, especially in America.

The wheel lock had a superior ignition system to the matchlock. Its ignition system worked much like a modern cigarette lighter. A rough-edged steel wheel (which was wound with a key) was released by pulling the trigger, causing the wheel's edges to strike a piece of pyrite held in a separate metal arm called a dog head. The dog head/pyrite had been placed on top of the cover to the flashpan, the cover automatically opening with the pulling of the trigger. The contact of the wheel's edges with the pyrite started the ignition process. Loss of the key made the weapon useless.

Two complete and six fragmentary wheel locks have been discovered at Jamestown.


The flintlock was first developed in France in the early 17th century. Its ignition system proved more reliable than the matchlock and wheel lock. In addition, it was less complicated, safer, and less expensive to produce and maintain. Its principle was the same as starting a fire, striking flint on steel. Any weapon which used this ignition system was a flintlock. Today, six distinct types of flintlocks are recognized. However, in the 17th century these distinctions were not used. The classifications are: 1) snaphaunce, 2) English lock, 3) dog lock, 4) Scandinavian snaplock, 5) miquelet lock and, 6) the true flintlock. These terms merely denote revolutionary stages of development and/or regional differences.

SNAPHAUNCE--the flint was held in a vise on one end of the cock while the other end of the cock pivoted on the lock plate. When the trigger was pulled, it swung the flint bearing end of the cock in an arc to strike the steel called the battery. The battery was mounted on a separate pivoting metal arm opposite the cock. The flashpan was below the battery and was covered by a pan, which was either physically moved or automatically opened with the pulling of the trigger to expose the flashpan to the sparks created by the flint hitting the battery. The only safety on the weapon was the pivoting away of the battery from the flashpan. At Jamestown, one lock without a battery, one lock plate and three batteries have been found. Snaphaunces are the least found flintlock artifacts in America.

ENGLISH LOCK WITH ITS VARIANT THE DOG LOCK--the principle innovation was the forging of the steel and pan cover into one piece called the hammer or battery or frizzen. (Frizzen is more of an 18th c. term.) When hit by the flint held in the cock, the hammer would kick backwards away from the cock exposing the pan. The safety device was the half-cock position for the cock. The English lock achieved this with a notch in the tumbler inside the lock plate while the dog lock was a catch on the outside of the lock plate which held the cock in a half cock position. At Jamestown, one complete English lock and one complete dog lock have been found in addition to numerous cocks, most being of the dog lock variety.

MIQUELET--A mid-16th century Spanish innovation with the main spring on the outside of the lock plate. This saw very little use in America and only one has been found at Jamestown.

SCANDINAVIAN SNAPLOCK--Its distinctive characteristics are that some had a separate steel (hammer) and pan cover, while some had a frizzen of one piece. These were used by the Swedes while settling the Delaware River Valley in 1638.

TRUE FLINTLOCK--was developed in France between 1610-1615. Its innovation was the development of the sear inside the lock plate to move vertically to engage notches in a tumbler in order to hold the cock in a half-cock and/or full-cock position(s). It supplanted the dog lock by the third quarter of the 17th century and was probably introduced to America by 1660.


1607--matchlocks with some wheel locks and snaphaunces.

1609--John Smith reports 300 muskets [matchlocks], snaphaunces and firelocks [wheel locks] at Jamestown.

1611--Martiall Lawes--all musketeers must carry muskets and officers, including sergeants and corporals, must carry snaphaunces or firelocks.

1624-25--1,089 firearms listed as being in the colony, of which only 47 are matchlocks.

1676--accounts relate that everyone is using flint arms and no matchlocks are being used. The use of the matchlock was not abandoned in Europe until the early 1700's. The conditions in the New World dictated the use of a more sophisticated firearm.


Bull, Stephen, An Historical Guide to Armes and Armour.

Fleischman, John, "Royal Armor Makes Great Escape From Tower of London, " Smithsonian Magazine, vol. 13, no. 7, October 1982.

Funcken, Lilane and Fred, Arms and Uniforms: The Age of Chivalry, vol. 1, 2, and 3.

Martin, Paul, Armour and Weapons.

Peterson, Harold, Arms and Armor in Colonial America: 1526-1783.

Bill Warder
Park Ranger
January 1995

Revised by Jen Loux
William and Mary Intern
November 1995

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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