(About): A Period-Accurate Replica with Fully Authentic Riveted Articulation
The medieval Armet Helmet stands at the cusp of an era. Steel plate armor was becoming accessible to more and more soldiers, and new forms of heavy weaponry had arisen to puncture and defeat it: the crossbow, the pike and the halberd. Basic black powder weaponry and cannon were being created and refined, although they were not yet decisive on the battlefield. The age of chivalry was receding into the mythical past (if, indeed, it ever existed in the first place). The age of gunpowder and steel was fast approaching. It is this world which produced the armet: a second steel skin. It was the first helmet which both enclosed the whole head from collar to crown, in the manner of a great helm, and could also rotate with the ease of a simple bascinet. Its service straddles two worlds: it was used both by soldiers in full-plate, wielding greatswords in the Wars in Lombardy, and by light cavalrymen on horseback shooting snaplock pistols in the face of bombardment by cannon almost two centuries later.
Our histprical reproduction of an Armet Helmet is made for us the truly excellent Darksword Armory. Their artisanal workshop in St-Laurent, Quebec has become synonymous with painstakingly accurate, high-quality replica arms and armor. Their philosophy is: if it can’t be used to crack a shield or stop an axe, what’s the point in it? Like all of their products, their armor is designed with re-enactors and roleplayers in mind: they are all functional, battle-ready pieces of equipment that closely mirror the real historical originals, in the heritage processes used to create them, and in the careful selection of materials. A piece from the Darksword workshop is likely the closest any of us will get to the experience of wielding and wearing genuine historical arms and armor.
The Right Steel
Our Armet Helmet is made from mild steel. This the perfect material to make a 15th or 16t-century Armet. It had long been assumed that most armor up until the end of the medieval period was made from iron, but more recent studies, for example, the towering work The Knight and the Blast Furnace by archaeo-metallurgist Alan Williams, have discovered that a significant proportion of surviving armor from the late-medieval period was made from steel. In fact, some areas, such as the heartlands of Gothic armor production in Germany worked exclusively in steel, with no pieces of wrought-iron armor being found after 1450 – many of the German armors that William sampled had even been heat-treated or tempered. There is some variability in consistency and quality of the steel used, especially outside of the major centres of armor production – but this would mean a 15th-century Armet Helmet would likely have been on a par with anything a modern metalworker could make with similar materials. Thus, Darksword’s production methods and their fantastic results can be thought of as making as few compromises necessary in order to achieve the most authentic result possible, outside of a 16th-century armorer’s workshop. If you want to learn more about medieval metallurgy in the context of late-medieval armor production, we have delved into more depth below.
As Close to the Originals as Can Be
We have gone to great lengths to ensure that our medieval armet helmet is a faithful reproduction in its construction and design. The Armet is generally distinct from its cousin the close helm only in the way that it opens to accommodate the head. The lower ‘jaw’ of a close helm is more akin to an articulated bevor, hinged with the rest of the visor from the same rivets, meaning that the helmet comes apart in half, front-to-back. A 15th century armet hinges apart in the other axis: side-to-side, with either one or both halves of the cheek guard hinging out to the side. Confusingly, historical texts don’t tend to distinguish between armets and close helms, but they are kept distinct by modern armor enthusiasts and historians who wish to describe the equipment more precisely – but nevertheless, our Armet Helmet is authentic to this design, the side-hinge held shut with a securely riveted hook. The visor is pierced with two separate occularia (sight slots), a design seen on some 15th-century armet helmets, and the ventail (lower ventilation visor) is pierced with plenty of holes to permit better airflow during strenuous activity. Both the visor and ventail are articulated from the same rivet, meaning that our Armet Helmet has three visor configurations for greater flexibility: closed, visor-up, and open-faced. The crown of our armet has a tall, proud crest. This was an innovation from the late 14th-century, conceived in an attempt to frustrate the heavy downward blows of crushing, plate-defeating weaponry of the era: the steel was much stronger and stiffer edge-on, and so could absorb the blow much more effectively. The interior edges of our Armet Helmet have been carefully rounded, and the helmet is lined in comfortable leather so that it can be worn all day without painful rubs. We do however recommend that you wear it with another layer such as an arming cap to cushion yourself even more effectively.
This all combines to create an Armet Helmet that is superior to all others. It is a fully-functional, rugged piece of armor that is perfect for historical re-enactment, comfortable enough for a day of roleplay, and will draw delighted gasps at any Renn Faire. It can be used to top off your impression of a 16th-century cavalryman, to arm your paladin LARP outfit in equal measure. You won’t find a more historically faithful, versatile Armet Helmet for sale.
(History): Steel at the Dawn of the Early-Modern Era
For most of the medieval period, relatively soft iron would have been used to make chainmail and helmets – although refining useable iron from ore and creating armor was incredibly time-consuming, it was comparatively easy to produce on a small scale. Early plate armors such as the ‘cote of plates’ also used iron plates sewn into garments, which gradually evolved into standalone plate armor. The real revolution in armor came with the gradual introduction of the blast furnace and iron casting to Europe, somewhere around the first quarter of the 13th-century CE. Historians and archaeologists generally agree that the sites of Lapphyttan and Vinarhyttan in South-Central Sweden show what is likely the earliest evidence of blast furnacing and iron casting in Europe – the position of Sweden at the head of the Volga trade route might well imply the migration of these metallurgical techniques, from China, where blast furnaces and iron casting had been used since the 1st-millennium BCE.
Fair-Weather Forges and Weather-Busting Blast Furnaces
The problem with steelmaking in early-medieval Europe was largely a climactic one: refining metals was always a matter of going against the elements. A cold environment with inconsistent winds meant that iron bloomeries fed only by atmospheric conditions could get hot enough to create an iron bloom, a spongy mass of pure iron and impurities which would be retrieved when the bloomery had cooled and was laboriously reheated and beaten to purify it into wrought iron. South Indian metallurgists, by comparison, were able to produce ‘Damascus steel’, also known as ‘wootz’ steel, well before the medieval era because they were able to harness hot, strong and consistent monsoon winds to feed their crucible furnaces (as well as applying some extremely clever metallurgical techniques).
However, the blast furnace overcame these climactic limitations: where a bloomery was merely fed by a down-draft of air from the top of the flue, a blast furnace was fed with a constant stream of air from a mechanically-powered bellows into the base of the furnace. This created a positive pressure, extremely high-temperature environment capable of driving off far more impurities and liquefying the iron, which would run red-hot out of the bottom of the furnace. The early blast furnaces at Lapphyttan, and similar early European blast furnaces in Switzerland and the Upper Rhine, were likely merely bigger, more efficient modified bloomeries; there is likely a continuum from one to the other, with no clear revolution in design that we can yet establish. We know that, in England certainly, there is a monastic connection to the burgeoning metallurgical industry. Two of the earliest discovered blast furnaces in Britain – the one discovered on the grounds of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, and the cannon-foundry at Queenstock (now the village of Buxted, East Sussex), both appear to have been founded by the Church. Regardless, we can say with confidence that blast-furnace technology was widely spread by the last quarter of the 1400s CE.
How an Armet Helmet is Born
To get a better idea of the processes that would have been involved in the creation of an Armet Helmet in the late 1400s at the height of their popularity, let’s trace its creation from the moment the red-hot iron spills from the plug at the base of the conical blast furnace. The liquid iron was either channelled into moulds and allowed to cool – this is ‘cast iron’, used in the early period primarily in the casting of early cannon. Or it was merely cast into blocks known as ‘pigs’ (apparently the channels feeding into the mould look like a sow feeding her piglets to a the heat-addled medieval metallurgist), and was then further refined. The iron from blast furnaces was extremely high in carbon (2-4%), and so when cast it was extremely hard but also very brittle and unsuitable for working. To create metal suitable to be worked into our Armet Helmet, the iron had to undergo refinement in a ‘finery forge’ to drive off the carbon and impurities to convert the raw ‘pig iron’ into workable steel. After this final stage of refinement, the finished bar steel would have been sold likely at a local market town, bought by a trader, shipped elsewhere likely by boat, sold and bought again, taken overland by mule, and sold to a fine armorer in search of good quality steel from which to make the Armet Helmet commission for a lord from a foreign land.
The armorer and his apprentices would work the steel cold (literally, without heating it) into shape, annealing it to counteract the work-hardening that risked making the steel too brittle, and heat-treating it when the time was right, forge-welding or riveting plates together, articulating and hinging, finally cleaning off the scale and polishing it to a gorgeous high sheen. After the entire harness of plate is complete, the armorer has timed it perfectly: the lord’s agent arrives on precisely the right date to collect it, thankfully not waylaid by bandits. The agent returns to the lord, and presents the harness and armet helmet to his lord. The lord is pleased, and the armorer receives a letter from a messenger singing his praises, along with three further commissions from the nobleman’s courtiers. He wipes his forehead with a sigh of relief, and goes back to work. Voila – an Armet Helmet from ore to f(ore)head.
Multiple Militias in Munition Maille
By the dawn of the 16th-century, the production of steel was becoming an industrial process rather than an artisanal one. Instead of an individual smith with a handful of apprentices producing bloomery iron on the small scale, now a large blast furnace with water-powered bellows was the workplace of a dozen workers, whose labour was specialised and divided, resulting in efficiencies of scale and much greater volumes of production. This resulted in the first mass-produced suits of plate armor, known as ‘munition armor’. Hitherto, fine plate armor had been produced as bespoke individual pieces, and later as tailored whole garnitures consisting of an entire unified ‘suit’ of armor. With cheap, plentiful iron and steel, armorers in Germany began creating a type of half-armor called Almain Rivet. From an English mangling of ‘Allemagne’ or ‘Allemani’ (ie. German), the armor was made from simple, mass-produced interchangeable pieces, and could be bought in bulk and used to outfit a personal guard or small military force – it usually has a simple open-faced burgonet or morion helmet, but some examples are paired with an armet helmet.
We can see, by placing the Armet Helmet within its metallurgical context shows just how much this helmet straddled the Medieval past and the Early-Modern future.
(History): Armets and Armor
As noted above, the medieval armet helmet is a tricky historical niche to ferret out as a distinct lineage of historical helmets. In the Middle Ages, the word ‘armet’ merely meant ‘a helmet’, and referred to a variety of heterogenous forms of head protection. The broad definition of an armet that we use today has broadly three components: an armet helmet must (1) fully enclose the head, (2) be light enough to move with the movements of the head, and (3) be put on by means of a lateral hinged opening. As we shall see, these core elements emerged in the first half of the 15th-century, and remained a key manner of helmet construction until well into the 1600s CE.
Maverick Smiths Design a New Helmet
The earliest helmet that we have positively identified as ticking all three of these boxes is a Milanese helmet dated to 1420 that has fortunately survived down to the modern day. Historian and prolific medievalist Ewart Oakeshott encountered the helmet when it was in the legendary Churburg armory in the Italian Tyrol – but it has since passed into a private collection. As historian Ewart Oakeshott remarks, the Churburg armet bears some resemblance to the great bascinet, the evolution of the earlier bascinet form into a monstrous great helm-like construction which incorporated an integrated gorget which was riveted to the chest. This resemblance prompted Sir Guy Laking, the august art historian and Keeper of the London Museum, to theorise that the armet was in fact a direct descendent from the frogmouth bascinet – the early ‘single-visor’ types, which have a unified visor in which the occularia are punched straight into the single visor plate, rather than formed by a gap between the top edge of the visor and the brow of the helmet, seem to support this idea at first glance. However, arms and armor are rarely so straightforward as to follow set lines of descent, with leaps of invention and arbitrary changes in taste tying the smooth course of progress up in knots. The idea of a hinged opening to a snug-fitting helmet was already a current in armor development around the time that the armet emerged. The so-called ‘Venetian great bascinet’, a fine collection of which were discovered in 1840 at the Venetian colony of Chalcis, Greece, may well have influenced the armet helmet, having a single cheek hinge which permits the bottom half of the helmet to articulate. Found amongst the same trove, there is also a smaller barbute helmet which also exhibits this distinctive hinged style. Thus we can tentatively posit that the armet was likely an insular Italian invention, stemming from likely a very small number of original helmets, or perhaps even one individual smith, which innovated the two-piece cheek hinges based on the contemporary single-hinged bazineto from Venice. As well, we know that armets were often reinforced by the addition of a heavy combined bevor and gorget called a wrapper, that would fit over the lower half of the armet, secured by leather strapping around the back of the neck – this fantastically well-preserved Italian armet helmet at the Met Museum, New York, is one of the few to survive with its original matching wrapper. A curious feature of some armets is the strange, mushroom-like protrusion at the nape of the neck, that almost appears like a winding key for a clockwork knight. The function of this oddly positioned rondel becomes clear when the helmet is paired with the wrapper – the vulnerable leather straps are protected from sneaky chopping blows by the mushroom rondel.
The Armet in Medieval Art
From this apparently isolated beginning in northern Italy, the armet helmet quickly became widespread, spreading out from Italy to Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and England within a decade or two of its innovation. Again, we are faced with the partial difficulty of differentiating between the close helm and the armet in contemporary medieval art, because they appear near-identical when closed, even in photographic comparisons. A possible candidate is the figure wielding an enormous messer single-edged sword on the winged altarpiece taken from the town of Bruneck, currently in the Tyrolean State Museum. The whole scene depicts the martyrdom of St Ursula, and the armored figure is clad in clearly Gothic armor which may well be a depiction of the boxy Kastenbrust style. They sport an unvisored helmet which closely resembles the Churburg armet! Perhaps the clearest example of the armet in contemporary historical medieval art is the fresco dated to 1440 at the Museo Diocesano Tridentino in Trient, Italy. Although the detail is not perfect, the armet is clearly identifiable from its distinctive strapped wrapper.
The Armet In a Changing World
After its emergence in the 1400s, the Armet Helmet had an enormously long run of use. Henry VIII imported Italian and German master armorers to found the Royal Almain Armory in 1511, whose majestic and distinctive ‘Greenwich armor’ typically featured a highly decorated high-combed armet helmet – the finest example of this is the complete surviving garniture of George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, dated to 1586. Plate armor in general died a swift death in the face of rapidly developing gunpowder weapons like the matchlock musket, and so after 1600, only a handful of armet helmets were likely made, relegated to the history books by more practical helmets like the burgonet and pot helmet, confined almost exclusively to the tourney field.
The only question remains – what does your armet say about you? Is it a cutting edge 15th century armet helmet, developed by radically inventive Italian maverick armorers? Or is it a relic of a forgotten age of chivalry, clutched to by a landed gentry whose ancient prerogatives were being washed away in a tide of powder-smoke? Answering these questions can give you a sure-fire way to build a look around your medieval armet helmet that truly says what you want it to say.
Material: Mild steel