Japanese Chain Armor

as presented to the Atenveldt Collegium

A.S. 29

Most documents produced in the Society concerning chain mail (hereinafter referred to as mail) pertain to the production and use of the standard 4:1 "international" mail seen in European armors from the 11th Century onward. This one will concern itself with other patterns and knits of mail, in particular that of the Japanese armors produced during the Nambokucho period (1336-1392) and used in much armor through the end of the Momoyama period (1573-1603).

Unlike European armors of mail, plates were often introduced into the links in order to provide a better surface with which to prevent penetration of a weapon. Since the Japanese armors had almost always consisted of scales of leather or iron laced together, it was a simple transition to plates linked with mail, which offered a much stronger link than the silk cords traditionally used.

In the Japanese armors, chain is used to fill gaps between plates, and also to protect areas of great flexibility, such as the armpit. Leaf-shaped or rectangular pieces of mail were hung from the underside of the upper arm in order to close the gap left in the armor when the arm is raised.

In all examples of Japanese mail, the mail itself was sewn to a backing of cloth or leather, and was never left bare. Sometimes the mail was "sandwiched" between two layers of cloth or leather. To prevent rusting, the links themselves were lacquered, generally in black. This was true even if the rest of the armor were made of a more eye-catching color.

The most common pattern seen in Japanese mail is so gusari, made by connecting one link to four others, in a square pattern. This pattern is rarely seen alone, nearly always being used to connect square plates to one another. Other patterns with plate include linking oval plates to one another, or even octagonal plates.

These square patterns are typical for large expanses of coverage, such as the skirtlike kusazuri which covered the thighs. The nakagawa, or back and breast coverings, were also sometimes made in this manner.

Seiro gusari is a variant of the so gusari, consisting of the same patterns, but using links of two or more turns, not unlike the modern "keychain" split ring fastener. Seiro gusari is less common, as it took far more effort to produce. However, as the multiple turns gave the mail greater strength, it was more commonly used in areas such as the wrist and forearm pieces (tsutso gote, shino gote, and oda gote) to provide extra protection without sacrificing flexibility. It did, however, weigh more than the normal so gusari.

More rare than the so gusari and seiro gusari was the asa no ha gusari.. Rather than forming a square pattern of links, it formed a hexagonal pattern. As such, it provided a denser coverage than either of the other two patterns. Asa no ha gusari was used almost exclusively in arm guards (gote) because of the difficulty in making large quantities. Using the hexagonal pattern, the Japanese armorer would link hexagonal plates into the mesh. It was less flexible than the square patterns, and thus provided greater protection against crushing blows. This was most important in shielding the relatively weak bones of the hand and forearm.

Most Japanese mail was not riveted, relying instead on the strength of the metal itself to hold the butted links together.

The standard 4:1 "international" mail pattern became common in Japan near the end of the Momoyama period, and continued in popular use even to the end of the Edo period. However, much more material is available on the construction of this, so I will skip its discussion with a recommendation to the reader to get a copy of The Compleat Anachronist's "Best of the Hammer," which contains two excellent articles by Master Knut Oststrom on the construction of 4:1 mail, as well as a discussion of riveted mail. There is also another excellent article in The Known World Handbook on this subject.

Constructing so gusari and seiro gusari (Fig 1)

Both of these square patterns can include round links joined by oval links, or simply be made of round links. To make the so gusari mail of simple round links, you will follow these directions:

1) Form a long chain of single links.

2) Folding the chain back on itself, link the rows together.

3) Continue adding more chain, and folding and linking until you have an expanse of square mail.

This by itself is sometimes used for upper arm or thigh armor. To make lighter mail, as was seen on the skirts of body armor, simply leave square holes in the fabric of the mail (Fig 2).

In order to make this same pattern of seiro gusari, you have two choices: make your links of more than one turn (difficult, but not impossible!) or simply use two separate links on each connection. (Fig 3)

The flat links were always round, while the vertical links were sometimes of oval construction. This made for a "flatter" construction of mail than otherwise. (Fig 4)

Adding plates to so and seiro gusari

1) Make a strip of your square mail after producing links of the size you wish to use.

2) Measure the distance between opposite edges of the links, in the size you wish to make (Fig 5)

3) Cut your plates accordingly, and punch or drill holes in them to allow mail links to pass through them.

4) Use your square pattern to fasten the edges of the plates together. I do not recommend more than one flat link between plates (Fig 6) or the armor will be too flexible for use on large body surfaces (belly, kidneys, or thighs).

Constructing asa no ha gusari (Fig 7)

1) Form a long chain of single links.

2) Folding the chain back on itself, link the rows together.

3) Continue adding more chain, and folding and linking until you have an expanse of mail of the shape you need.


Adding plates to asa no ha gusari is somewhat more difficult than with so gusari as you have six edges to match instead of four. Measure the outside edges of a single hexagon of your asa no ha gusari. Make your hexagonal plates of this size, and punch or drill holes to allow the links to pass through them. (Fig 8)

Edited for the WWW 7/10/96 - iain@iaincaradoc.org - Last updated 7/12/2001

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