Leather has a variety of uses both in our daily lives and throughout history.
As one of humanity’s earliest inventions, leather has been utilized in many different forms to do many different things, one such use being the creation of armor.
You’ve likely seen or heard of leather armor in movies or certain games, usually in a rather negative light.
Leather armor is almost always near the very bottom tier of armor you could use in a role playing game, only utilized for some boost to mobility it supposedly gives in comparison to the heavy plate armor, with film showing the bizarrely dressed leather armor users mowed down by the swift sword strikes of metal-clad heroes.
But how much of this is actually true?
The short answer is: It’s complicated.
Certain pieces here and there are pretty true to life, though like anything in popular culture supposedly “based on a true story”, you should be cautious about believing anything at face value.
The truth about leather armor and its use throughout history is much more complicated, the same being said about its effectiveness in combat.
Let’s find out why that is by taking a look back in time to examine the origins of leather armor, what it can do, and why we don’t see it used very often anymore.
Leather Armor Across Cultures
Despite the frequent setting of medieval Europe, leather armor has actually been used across the world by many different cultures throughout history.
Leather as protective armor can be seen across many European countries as well as most of Asia. Various African countries also made use of leather armaments, especially in the north near Egypt.
There are many factors that go into why this might be, as well as why other cultures did not make use of leather in their armor. This can be especially confusing given that many of those cultures used leather materials in ordinary clothing.
One possible reason for this might have something to do with the availability or quality of metal and metal forging within those cultures.
Japan, for example, is known for the poor quality of the iron the country naturally has within its land, to the extent that some even label it “pig iron” due to the extremely high levels of carbon found within the ore.
This is what encouraged the multiple folding technique for the construction of blades as well as one explanation as to why leather pieces could be found in sets of traditional armor.
Leather Armor Myths and Misconceptions
As a result of how it’s portrayed in media, there are some long held misconceptions about what, exactly, leather armor is and what it can do. But before we get there, let’s go over some genuine myths about leather armor, including what leather armor isn’t rather than just what it simply can’t do.
For starters, leather armor is not a series of soft leather pieces sewn together.
The keyword is “armor”, after all. You’ll most often see this in homemade costumes and, depressingly, supposedly realistic reproductions walking around Renaissance fairs.
This kind of clothing is completely useless at fulfilling the requirements of actual armor, being totally unable to stop piercing blades or blunt force trauma in a meaningful way. Were you to wear this sort of armor into battle, you’d probably be one of the first to die.
Studded Leather Armor
The same goes for “studded leather” armor. Utilizing the same soft leather in its construction, this type of clothing seems to believe that simply putting metal rivets into its surface is the same as actually making you safer. Were these studs applied to a real piece of hearty leather armor, maybe it would help to deflect blows some of the time, but it’s a largely useless addition that only serves to make you more conductive to electricity.
What this kind of armor is supposedly based on, however, is the brigandine, an actually useful piece of equipment combining sturdy leather or cloth with metal plating (a topic we’ll discuss in more detail further on) riveted inside it, with what appears to onlookers as “studs” along the outside due to the metal rivet marks. Make no mistake, though, as the rivets themselves aren’t there to do much more than hold the plates inside the clothing.
Don't Believe D&D
Finally, the idea that thieves, rangers, or any other “class” of warrior would choose leather armor for some sort of boost to mobility is largely fabricated. For leather armor to be viable as armor, it’s going to weight quite a bit in its own right.
Thick leather, while less heavy than sheets of metal, is still going to be weighty. Its mass is one of the major factors in protecting the wearer, so if it were really so lightweight and mobile, there wouldn’t be much use for standard plate armor to begin with.
What Can Leather Armor Do?
With some of the more common myths about leather armor out of the way, we’ll discuss what the actual benefits of leather armor happen to be. And, contrary to how it may seem, there are some genuine benefits to using leather in the construction of armor.
For starters, leather itself is usually a very tough material. Naturally scratch and abrasion resistant as well as durable over a long period of time, the kind of hardened, battle-made leather used in the construction of armor takes these benefits to the next level.
While there aren’t any magical benefits to your sneaking ability or extra dexterity to be found, leather is a tough material that can be effectively used to guard against stabbing, slashing, and bludgeoning.
Leather is also one of the easiest and most common forms of material to get your hands on. Since ancient times, leather has been used for all manner of things, and this has as much to do with its versatility and strength as it does with how easy it is to find.
Rather than a lengthy mining, smelting, and refining process needed to get the ingots necessary for plate armor, leather is acquired through animal hides, most commonly from domesticated stock like cows.
While neither process is exactly the kind of project you’d take on in your garage, it’s somewhat easier and generally cheaper to produce leather over metals.
Combined with Metal
Additionally, one of the most popular and effective ways of using leather in armor involves combining it with metal. It’s this strategy that made Japanese armor, for example, as formidable as it was.
As mentioned previously, Japan’s ore is naturally very impure, leading to low quality steel and iron. To get around this, they developed a method of alternating strips of leather and iron to help one material’s weaknesses compensate for the other, as well as covering them in a heavy coat of lacquer to further reinforce and weatherproof the material, making it so the leather and metal pieces on a set of armor can’t be distinguished at a glance.
There is also evidence of this kind of armor being utilized in early Europe prior to the more conventional and recognizable plate armor came into fashion, though it’s difficult to find any surviving remnants of such.
Finally, European buff coats (long coats made entirely from leather) came into use in correlation with the rise of guns. Either worn on their own or underneath more extensive metal armor, these coats were useful in deflecting bladed weapons from a user whose main form of combat would be long ranged in nature.
What Can’t Leather Armor Do?
But with the good comes the bad, and that means we’ll inevitably have to go over what leather armor isn’t good for. And, for starters, leather armor just isn’t as good as metal armor. If you were to examine a piece of leather armor the same weight and size as a piece of metal armor, the metal armor would almost always be able to last longer and protect you better than the leather.
In the same way that leather armor can’t be small and flexible in order to protect you, a more protective piece of leather armor will logically need to be thicker with more layers. There comes a point where you simply can’t add on more layers, though, and it’s around that point when leather can no longer be improved.
On the other side of the equation, metal is a naturally harder, stronger, and more durable material, meaning it requires less to accomplish just as much. So, while leather can often be seen worn underneath plate armor or used to fill gaps and as straps on armor, it’s just smarter to make the majority of your armor from metal as opposed to leather.
It has a much easier time protecting you from the elements than it does sword strikes or arrows, which wear it down much quicker than its metal counterpart.
Leather armor will always be a fixture of popular media, even if it is quite often misrepresented. But whether or not they get it right, the historical foundation of leather’s use as armor is there. Just maybe not in the way many assume it was.
Whether you’re researching to fact check a TV show, planning your next LARP, or are just really curious about leather, you should now have a pretty good foundation on the usage of leather armor throughout the ages.