Making a suit of 17th century cuirassier armour

By Andrew Braund, MA Conservation Studies, specialising in Metalwork 

A little over a year ago, a blog post of mine was published where I discussed the issues of trying to further my interests and studies during the pandemic with various projects.  

One of these projects was working on a suit of 17th century cuirassier armour, which I had managed to make a start on, rough forming some of the components. A year later of working on it between my studies, it has progressed somewhat. It is now half finished, with the gauntlets, Iron hat (helmet) and back and breast plates being entirely wearable and largely finished. This set of armour is largely inspired by a set in the Army Museum in Paris and as such, I have tried to give my pieces a blackened finish using a chemical treatment.  This has been my first time “blacking” or indeed patinating any armour and it is substantially more difficult to get a uniform and pleasing finish on these large surfaces than it is on much smaller parts (as I discovered). 

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The Iron Hat

Arguably my most ambitious individual element to date, this was my first time raising a helmet from a flat sheet. After fine tuning the shapes of both the top and the brim and riveting them together, I made a brow band and a band around the brim in steel. When I blackened the hat, these were left bright for contrast. I also fabricated and attached a bracket with an adjustable nasal guard, this feature is common on most surviving examples of this type of helmet as well as the European zischägge (a lobster-tail pot helmet). With the bracket and adjustable nasal guard completed, I then riveted in a padded helmet liner which I had purchased; sadly textile work is not one of my skills. 

The Gauntlets

The gauntlets were actually quite a fun little challenge and were quite satisfying as I visited my old adversary shell articulation with more confidence and better equipped to handle it than previously. Simply put, shell articulation is a method of riveting individual plates of metal to each other in such a way that facilitates movement using each rivet as a pivot point. It is possible that I could have achieved more movement by filing out slots for the rivets to travel along, however I decided that the articulation was adequate without this, and as they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (an old adage which is quite relevant for conservation). The plate at the base of the thumb is attached to the rest of the gauntlet by a leather hinge. I consciously made the decision not to add fingers to this pair of gauntlets as I was concerned it might impinge my ability to reload my musket (the making of which will be another project in the future). To finish I rolled the edges of the cuffs, blackened the plates, riveted them and installed leather straps. 

The Back and Breast Plates

I had never done a single piece breastplate (or backplate for that matter) and found myself having to regularly check the shape of my piece against photographs of originals. I found working on larger pieces particularly challenging as the curves and shapes are much more subtle and any imperfections are more obvious. However, I found the backplate particularly challenging and may have had a crisis of confidence. Not only have I never made a backplate before, but I found not having eyes in the back of my head and being able to see how it sits on my back incredibly frustrating, and using a mirror is awkward and difficult. Eventually though, I powered through and made something that at least seemed to fit. I folded over the exposed edges and then did a lot of fine tuning to marry the back and breast plates together. I then blackened them before making and attaching the straps that make them wearable.

What I have so far and where to next

Well, we never stop learning and that is certainly true here, although my armour is by no means perfect, it is mine and many of the originals have little imperfections. It is doubtlessly an improvement on both ambition and execution over my previous set of armour, however it is far from finished. I still have two large elements of armour and one small to make (and possibly a sword if I get time). My next task will be to start work on the tassets (a series of bands that cover the upper leg); I shall need to make a paper pattern from scratch for this, again having never made a pair of tassets this is a little intimidating. Once I’ve patterned and made my tassets, I shall turn my attention to the gorget and the pauldrons. The gorget is a relatively small piece which protects the area around the neck, however it also serves as the attachment point for the pauldrons which are formed from a plate on the point of the shoulder, with lames extending both towards the neck and down the arm. Once I have made all these (and providing they work) I should have a full set of cuirassier armour. 

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