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Coat covered with gold-decorated scales of the pangolin. India, Rajasthan, early 19th century.
Dacian scale armour on Trajan's column.

Scale armour is an early form of armour consisting of many individual small armour scales (plates) of various shapes attached to each other and to a backing of cloth or leather in overlapping rows.[1] Scale armour was worn by warriors of many different cultures as well as their horses. The material used to make the scales varied and included bronze, iron, steel, rawhide, leather, cuir bouilli, seeds, horn, or pangolin scales. The variations are primarily the result of material availability.

Scale armour – a defence of great antiquity – began in the Middle East. The earliest representation is the tomb of Kenamon, who lived in Egypt in the reign of Amenhotep II (1436–1411 BC).[2]


Scale armour is armour in which the individual scales are sewn or laced to a backing by one or more edges and arranged in overlapping rows resembling the scales of a fish/reptile or roofing tiles.[3] The scales are usually assembled and strapped by lacing or rivets. Lorica squamata is an ancient Roman armour of this type.[1]

Other types of armour made from individual scales but constructed in a different manner have their own separate names, such as lamellar armour where the individual scales are perforated on several or all edges and lashed tightly to each other in straight ridged rows and do not need to be attached to a backing. The Romans also had a variant called lorica plumata in which the scales were attached to mail.[4]

Historical information


The Scythians' horse warriors appear to have used scale or possibly lamellar armour, evident both from contemporary illustrations and burial finds in kurgans. The armour was made from small plates of iron or bronze.

Due to the semi-rigid nature of the armour, the Scythian variety was made as breast- and back-plates, with separate shoulder pieces. Some finds indicate partial armour, where a leather shirt or similar garment has sewn-on scales in places, particularly around the neck and upper chest.

Roman scale armour

Fragment of lorica squamata. Each plate has six holes and the scales are linked in rows. Only the "lowermost" holes are visible on most scales, while a few show the pair above and the ring fastener passing through them.

The individual scales used to construct Roman armour are called squamae[5] or squama.[6] During Roman times, scale armour (lorica squamata) was a popular alternative to mail (lorica hamata) as it offered better protection against blunt force trauma. Hellenistic-Attic lamellar armour was also widely used in Middle Eastern empires, such as Persia and Byzantium. In these areas, scales were commonly dished (that is, with a bowl effect from a depression being hammered into a flat piece of metal) in order to benefit from the extra protection offered by a rounded scale.

According to the statement of Herodotus, the ancient Persians wore tunics with sleeves of diverse colours, having upon them iron scales of the shape of fish-scales; this comparison indicates scale armour, and not mail, is meant.[7]

Scale armour is not of frequent occurrence on the grave monuments of the German frontier. On two tombstones of the Sertorii at Verona (one that of a centurion, the other that of a standard-bearer) both figures are represented wearing a tunic of scale armour which covers the shoulders and comes down below the belt. The Carnuntum monument of Calidius (a work of the middle of the first century) shows also a scaled tunic of a centurion. Again, in the collection of marble portrait-busts from the great Gallo-Roman villa of Chiragan near Toulouse, the Emperors Antoninus Pius and Severus both appear wearing corselets of scale armour.

Medieval Europe

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Metal scale armour was used throughout most of the European world for the duration of the medieval period. It was commonly used to augment other armour types, predominantly mail, but also plate armour taking the form of a cuirass over mail, scale pauldrons, or faulds (the lower part of a breastplate that protects the lower stomach, hips and groin). There is also evidence for scale sabatons (protective shoe coverings) and scale aventails. The use of these scale armoured components is commonly depicted in period art and funeral effigies. The funeral effigy of Sir Albrecht Von Hohenlohe circa 1325 AD depicts him wearing scaled body armour underneath his surcoat and over a mail haubergeon. Sir Albrecht's armour appears to be additionally riveted to the backing.[8]


Scale armor was typically reserved for officers and senior soldiers in the militaries of various Korean states, including the period of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, due to cost and duration of production.[9] As with other scale and lamellar styles of armor in other parts of the world, this armor was effective against light missiles and stabbing[9] as well as against blade slashing, but not against heavy thrusts (e.g. from spears, ballista-type projectiles, and sword thrusts).

Early in the Joseon era (1392-1897), due to the cost and difficulty of bulk transport, an initiative was begun to replace metal (usually iron) components in armor with hardened leather in a majority of armor delivered/issued to military personnel.[9] The tradeoff of this initiative (which was begun as early as 1457[10]) was that while lighter, warmer, and more flexible than iron-scaled armor (as well as less costly to produce and easier to transport), the leather-based scaled armor provided less effective protection in combat.[9]

By the time of the Japanese invasions of Korea from 1592-1598, some Korean military armor components had been switched over from iron to hardened leather, but extant examples and contemporary documentation indicate that those Korean personnel wearing armor still utilized iron scales and such armor proved to be effective against most Japanese weaponry (not so much against firearms) in combat.

Over the course of the Joseon Dynasty, Korean scaled armor changed in style. Initially the scales were on the exterior of the armor and thus attached to a base leather and fabric backing, but by the later Joseon era the scales (by this time mostly hardened leather) were riveted inside the armor coat,[11] forming a type of brigandine armor.


Ming dynasty tomb guardian statue in mountain pattern armour, a possible variation of scale armour

Horses covered with scale armour are mentioned in the ancient Chinese book of poetry, Shi Jing.[12]


Japanese (samurai) individual scales are called kozane.[13] Japanese scale armour constructed from fish type scales (gyorin kozane) were reportedly constructed in Japan as far back as the Fujiwara period (11th century). "A primitive type of Japanese harness, the single laminae being of boiled leather, cut and beaten into pieces shaped like fish-scales."[14]


Kadazan people in Sabah make armour from scales of the Sunda pangolin.[15]


The Javanese people has a type of scale armour called siping-siping. It is a protective jacket with scale-shaped metal plates, possibly made of brass.[16]: 78–80 

Equine Scale Armor

Ancient Western Asia

Archaeological Findings

Horse Armor found at Dura-Europos, photo from Yale University Art Gallery

At the ancient site of Dura-Europos, there were two full sets of scale armor for horses found during archaeology excavations. These sets of armor were determined to be from the Roman occupation of the city in the 3rd century CE. They were found in Tower 19, a defensive tower on the edge of the city, after destruction and fire due to defensive tactics. They were folded, one with an arrowhead still in it, and very well preserved.[17] These horse "trappers"—a term used in Simon James' excavation report[17]—were made of a textile base covered by a layer of metal scales, one with iron and one with bronze. Seeing as the armor sets were found within the city walls, they are assumed to have belonged to the Romans. However, the style of armor is tied to the Sasanian Empire so there is some confusion as to who the armor belonged to. Also found at Dura-Europos were drawings, or graffiti, that depicted scale armor on horses and cavalrymen.[17]

Graffito of Clibanarius, Excavated by the Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos (block M8, Christian Building)

Comparison with other armour types

Scale armour offers better and more solid protection from piercing and blunt attacks than chain mail.[18] It is also cheaper to produce, but it is not as flexible and does not offer the same amount of coverage. Forms other than brigandine and coat of plates were uncommon in medieval Europe, but scale and lamellar remained popular elsewhere.

Modern forms of scale armour are sometimes worn for decorative or LARP purposes, and may be made from materials such as steel, aluminium, or even titanium.

A similar type of modern personal armour is Dragon Skin body armour, which uses ballistic fabric and high-impact resistant ceramic plates to protect against pistol and rifle fire. However, its "scales" are not exposed.



  1. ^ a b Armed Batavians: Use and Significance of Weaponry and Horse Gear from Non-military Contexts in the Rhine Delta (50 Bc to Ad 450), Author Johan Nicolay, Publisher Amsterdam University Press, 2008, ISBN 90-5356-253-2, ISBN 978-90-5356-253-6
  2. ^ H. Russell Robinson, Oriental Armour, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, 2002.
  3. ^ Publication: Anthropological series, Volume 13, (Field Museum of Natural History : 1909), Author Field Museum of Natural History, Publisher The Museum, 1913, Original from Harvard University P.258
  4. ^ Roman military equipment: from the Punic Wars to the fall of Rome, M. C. Bishop, J. C. Coulston, Oxbow Books, 2006 – History P.95
  5. ^ A new and complete dictionary of arts and sciences, Volume 4 P.3046
  6. ^ A new Latin-English school-lexicon: on the basis of the Latin-German lexicon of Dr. C. F. Ingerslev, George Richard Crooks, Christian Frederik Ingersley, Alexander Jacob Schem, J.B. Lippincott, 1861 P.859
  7. ^ Berthold Laufer (1914), Chinese Clay Figures, p. 239 OCLC 2301581
  8. ^ Boutell, Charles. 1847. Monumental brasses and slabs. London: G. Bell
  9. ^ a b c d Kim T, Hwang JY, Park GY, Lee MW. "Innovativeness in tradition: a comparative study of traditional leather armor scales and modern materials." Published 2023 August 5.
  10. ^ Office of Royal Annals. "Annals of King Sejo." 1457 January 3.
  11. ^ Park, J. "Yungwonpilbi." 1813.
  12. ^ Notes on turquois in the East, Volume 13, Issues 1-2, (Google eBook), Berthold Laufer, s.n., 1914 P.306
  13. ^ The Watanabe Art Museum Samurai Armour Collection Volume I ~ Kabuto & Mengu, Trevor Absolon, Toraba Samurai Art, 2011 P.70
  14. ^ Chinese clay figures: Prolegomena on the history of defensive armor, Part 1, Berthold Laufer, Field Museum of Natural History, 1914 P.196
  15. ^ Davies, Glyn, ed. (2022). Wildlife Atlas of Sabah. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia: WWF-Malaysia. p. 220. ISBN 978-967-0237-73-2.
  16. ^ Jákl, Jiří (2014). Literary Representations of War and Warfare in Old Javanese Kakawin Poetry (PhD thesis). The University of Queensland.
  17. ^ a b c James, Simon (2004). The Excavations at Dura-Europos conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters 1928 to 1937. Final Report VII: The Arms and Armour and other Military Equipment. Oxbow Books. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-84217-371-8.
  18. ^ Goldman, Norma."Reconstructing Roman Clothing", in The World of Roman Costume. Eds. Judith Lynn Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994): 213–237.