|Chain Mail for beginners
C. Arilius Genialis
| Choices, choices!
Once you have chosen which re-enactment group
to join (for me an easy decision), there remain a bewildering number
of choices to be made. For Roman military re-enactors, some of the
What type of soldier, Legionary, Auxiliary or Archer? Not too difficult
this, provided you don't have an obsession with water-wings made
from inflated bladders or with combing through cornfields for lost
arrows choices are:
What type of helmet? Well, the Imperial Gallics
really do look the part, but the Coolus is easier and cheaper to
get hold of. Pompeii or Mainz pattern sword? Or something more obscure?
And finally, the really big ones. Lorica segmentata
or lorica hamata? And if the latter, do you buy it or make it yourself?
After a period of dithering, the decision for me came down to choosing
between the cost and potentially long wait for segmentata (though
it looks stunning) or taking the Taurus by the horns and making
my own chain mail. I plumped for the latter option, which is how
I came to write this article.
The first thing to sort out was how exactly
to go about making chain mail. It's not the sort of thing you
can find out in a book from W H Smith's. There are a few stages
on the way to getting some answers.
Making the links
- Find yourself a friendly, clued up armourer
who doesn't mind helping you out
- Ask them both several times how easy it is,
as you keep forgetting and worrying that it will be all too
- Get one of them to show you and perhaps let
you have a go. Discover that they really are friendly and won't
bite, even when you ask stupid questions.
- Gird your loins, take the plunge and
buy a small quantity of material, plus the necessary tools,
to have a go at making a small piece yourself. Don't be fooled
by the ease with which you join up the links, instead observe
how long it takes to make your small sample. This is generally
the time to run away screaming.
- If you suffer from a stubborn refusal to look
facts in the face, and share a house with people who don't mind
irritating clicking noises whilst watching the tele, decide
to press ahead with it all.
The basic principle of Roman chain mail is that each link is
connected to four adjacent links in a regular, repeating pattern.
This is built up to form a sleeveless 'shirt', coming down to
about groin height (this is correct for our period, the 1st
There are some differences depending on whether you are a Legionary
- Legionary mail should have shoulder doubling
whereas this is optional for Auxiliaries.
- Legionary mail is made up of two types of
link, one with a square profile and one with a round profile.
Auxiliary mail is made up solely with round profile links.
The following is a description of how I made my legionary chain
mail. This is a fairly standard mail shirt for our purposes.
There are undoubtedly a huge range of possible variations on
this theme (different link size, link thickness, link material),
again your friendly neighbourhood chain mail expert can advise
Always seek advice from within the unit
on where to obtain materials. Most or all of what you require
can be bought at very reasonable prices from within the unit,
saving you worry as to whether you've got the right stuff and
time finding suitable suppliers.
- A reel (at least 500m, probably more) of welding
rod, 1.2mm diameter. You will need to double the quantity for
- 30,000 to 40,000 M4 spring washers (legionary
mail only). Don't, under any circumstances, pop down to B&Q
for hundreds or thousands of little packets!
If you are fitting shoulder doubling you will also need:
- Clasps to secure it at the front (I got mine
- A means of securing the doubling to the main
shirt at the back. String is commonly used, though I used larger
and stronger round links (6mm in diameter and 1.5mm thick).
- Leather for edging round the neck and for
lining the doubling
- Leather thread (I used artificial sinew)
Again, seek advice from within the unit on suitable tools. It
is prudent to pay a bit extra for high quality tools as they
take a real pounding!
- Strong cutters, able to cut through the 1.2mm
welding rod. Side cutters are no good for this. When buying
these, check the two halves don't have any play in them, and
check that the two cutting edges mate along their whole length
(look down the length to check the alignment)
- At least two pairs of pliers for bending the
links into shape. I ended up with two smallish pairs of snub
nosed pliers, plus long nosed pliers for some of the really
fiddly bits. The snub nosed pliers need to be quite small but
also very sturdy. The gripping faces need to be toughened so
the links don't chew them up too badly (the cheap ones I bought
initially were quickly damaged). Again, check there is no lateral
play in them. Afrinus recommends cutting a diagonal groove into
one corner of the pliers to improve the grip on the links.
- A 4mm round bar, used in a VARIABLE SPEED
electric drill to form the welding rod into the round links
- An awl and suitable needles for sewing the
Square section links
These are easy, but also the most mind-numbingly boring part of
the job! Take your M4 spring washer, grip it firmly on one side
with one pair of pliers, then use the other pair of pliers to bend
the washer flat. You will need to "over-bend" the washer as it will
spring back when you let go (that's why they're called spring washers).
With a bit of practice you will be able to bend it just right so
that it is nice and flat when you let go.
Washer before bending
Washer after bending
|If you are making auxiliary mail, you will
do something similar but starting with an open round section link
instead of an M4 spring washer.
Round section links
These are a bit trickier! The first stage is
to form the welding rod into something that looks like a tightly
coiled spring. Then this is stretched out and cut into individual
turns, each of which forms a link.
Firstly, fix the 4mm bar firmly into the chuck of your electric
drill. Then uncoil about 3m of the welding rod, making sure that
it won't get caught up on anything as you coil it onto the bar.
Secure the end of the welding rod into the chuck of the drill (I
poked it into the gap between the jaws of the chuck then bent it
over so it is ready to be coiled round the bar).
Wear suitable protective gear (thick gloves and eye protection as
a minimum) for the next bit as the rod can twang around quite alarmingly!
You will also need to have your cutters to hand before proceeding.
Keeping the free welding rod in place with one hand, operate the
electric drill at the slowest possible speed to coil the rod onto
the bar. Keep the turns tightly packed, i.e. each turn touches the
adjacent turns. Stop when the coil has nearly reached the end of
the bar, then cut the free end of the rod about an inch from the
bar. Be very careful doing this as the tension in the coil makes
it unwind a couple of turns as soon as it is no longer restrained
by the uncoiled welding rod. So keep your hands clear and be ready
for sparks to fly!
You should now have a coil of the welding rod 4mm in diameter and
1.2mm thick. NB it obviously makes sense to make up a number of
coils at one sitting, as this takes quite a bit of setting up.
Made up coil prior to stretching and cutting
|When you are ready to make some links, first make
sure you are on your own or you have issued ear defenders to your
partner. Then grab hold of the two ends of your coil with your pliers
and stretch it out until there is a decent gap between adjacent
turns (you will need to get the closed links through this gap when
making the mail). Trial and error is the only way to be sure you're
getting this right.
Finally, use the cutters to cut the rod into individual links. It
is important to cut each link with the cutters at the same angle
and with the cuts lined up, otherwise you might not be able to get
the links to close (if the ends overlap) or they may end up with
a gap in them. Again, trial and error (and a lot of practice!) is
the only way to get this right.
Round link after stretching and cutting
|Making the mail
There are various ways of making the mail.
All typically involve making up smallish pieces and then joining
them together. I have set out the method I followed (courtesy of
Bvt) though others have different preferences.
Start off with one round link. Hook four square
links onto it then use your pliers to close the round link. Repeat
this ten times so that you have ten 'molecules'. Now take one 'molecule'
and arrange it as shown below. Pretend this is Mickey Mouse with
the upper pair being his ears and the lower pair being his cheeks.
|Take another round link and loop it through Mickey's
ears from below. Now take another molecule to make a second Mickey
Mouse, and hook the second Mickey's cheeks onto the round link.
The two molecules should look like this
Two molecules waiting to be joined
|Finally, bend the round link closed. The two molecules
are now joined and should look like this
Two molecules joined together
Add eight more molecules in the same way
end to end. Once all ten molecules have been joined you will have
a strip of chain mail, with two rows of square links (20 in each
row) and a single row of round links down the middle (19 links).
The next step is to make up more strips and join them up end to
end to make one long strip. Before you can do this, you need to
know how long it's going to be! The strip will go horizontally
around your body, so the starting point is your chest size. Add
2" onto this to provide enough slack to get the mail over your
shoulders (remember, it doesn't have any 'give' in it at all once
the links have been pulled tight). If you are thinking of having
a leather subarmalis, add another 2" on top. Above all, if you
are in doubt make it a bit too big rather than a bit too small.
Spread out one basic strip as made in Stage 1 (without pulling
it too 'tight') and measure its length. Use this to work out how
many of these strips you need to get the length described above.
You can then work out how many basic strips you need to make up
your long strip (you might need an abacus to help you here).
Once you've made up your first long strip
you can then spread it out (again without stretching it too 'tight')
and double check that you've worked everything out correctly.
Remember the old carpenter's saying, "Measure twice, cut once"!
I found that, with a 40" chest and allowing room for a subarmalis
(or other future expansion), that 15½ basic strips were required.
In other words, my long strip consisted of two rows of 310 square
links joined by a row of 309 round links. Don't worry, the missing
round link will arrive on the scene later!
Now you're going to have to start really
Once you have a few strips of the correct length, as described
in Stage 2, you can start to assemble them into something resembling
a mail shirt. Essentially this involves joining the strips side
by side, as you add more and more strips you are making more and
more length on the shirt.
To join the two strips together, first take one strip and insert
a round link into Mickey's left cheek and ear of the first 'molecule'
in the strip. Then hook Mickey's right cheek and ear from the
first 'molecule' of the second strip. Now close the round link.
It should now look a bit like this (though your strips will be
Now add a second round link to join up the second and third links
of each strip. It should now look something like this.
Continue until the two strips are joined
up along their entire length.
|Now you can think about joining the two ends
of the strips together to form a round 'cylinder'. This cylinder
will go around your body (poor thing). This is achieved in exactly
the same way that you would join two 'molecules' together. I joined
each strip up into a cylinder as I added it to the main body of
the shirt, rather than make up a big flat sheet and then joining
all the ends of the strips together. This was principally so I didn't
get confused as to which way round the whole thing was meant to
You basically keep going in the above style
until the cylinder is long enough (i.e. you have joined up enough
strips side by side) to reach from your groin to under your arms.
Once you have done this you need to start thinking about leaving
Essentially you now start make up strips that are long enough just
to reach from one armhole to the other. You may think that means
half as long as the strips you were making before, but you would
be wrong! A Roman legionary is nothing if not fashion conscious,
and therefore requires a tailored mail shirt. So, the strips across
the front of the mail shirt actually need to be a bit shorter than
the ones that go across the back. I was told to halve the total
number of (square) links in a strip, then take 4 links off for the
front and add four links on for the back. So, in my case, there
are 151 square links on the front of my shirt between the armholes,
and 159 square links on the back between armholes.
Now it's time to put together the finishing
Firstly, as you continue adding rows to the front and back, there
will come a time when you should split each row into left and right
halves, and then shorten each row as you continue. This will give
a 'v' shape to the front and back to make a sensible hole for your
head to go through. I basically made this up as I went along, and
recommend you do the same (by this stage you will be pretty confident
in your mail making techniques so have the confidence to judge what
to do here!). Of course, you can always take sly glances at other
soldier's shirts to get an idea of what to do.
Secondly, when you get to the top, you will discover that the rows
on the front of the shirt are going in a different direction to
the rows on the back (when you've spent some time making up the
mail this will make sense to you). I solved this by using two rows
of round links to form the 'seam' across the tops of the shoulders.
The finishing touch is to sew some strips of leather around the
neck hole to avoid the links scratching your delicate skin. You
are now the proud owner of a mail shirt!
If you are anything like me, now is the time
to give the whole thing a rest. You have a shirt that you can wear
to shows, no-one will send you home for not having shoulder doubling.
However, after a while, the thought that you really should have
that doubling will get too strong. So, pick up your pliers for the
Basically, I suggest you have a look at how other soldier's doubling
works and decide on the best approach to making yours. I made mine
as a flat sheet (that now sits across the back of my shoulders)
and then adding strips on the left and right that come across the
top and are secured at the front by the clasps. The very front section
is narrowed even further to give a sort of L section. Mine is secured
part way down the back of the main shirt with the larger links used
(see the list of ingredients above) for extra strength. I leave
it to others with more knowledge to say whether this is more authentic
than the arrangement where it is joined at the back of the neck
and then extends in both directions (I can't describe this any better,
but if you want to see what I mean look at Pacatianus's mail).
So, now you really are the proud owner of a fully functioning mail