Armoring a New Fighter

Armoring a New Fighter

So you've googled the SCA, maybe attended a practice, and are interested in fighting....fantastic! Cobbling together a full set of legal armor can be a little overwhelming to a newcomer. My best advice would be to find a fighter in your local group who can help inform what other area fighters use and what the local emphasis is in armor. I live in the Kingdom of Atlantia, and much of the focus on our armor is in sports performance on the field. My personal kit has a mix of repurposed sports gear as well as hand-made pieces using simple hardware and heat-formed kydex. I keep much of this armor hidden under my fighting tabbard. Other prefer to outfit themselves in full plate armor; there are many options for historical period and style as well. 

Sir Carlyle assisted me in designing and building my own set of armor when I started out, based on his own experience building his own kit. However, he's a man over six feet tall, and so his patterns had to be adapted in order to work for my form. Together, we drafted a new female form chest pattern that has been useful for other female fighters in my local area. 

SCA Armoring

Class I taught for the Shire of Roxbury Mill regarding basic SCA armoring, with a particular focus on using formed kydex armor hidden by a tabbard. 

SCA Armoring Class Handout

My helm: a Barbute style with distinctive "T" or "Y" face

The Helm

The most expensive part of any kit is typically the helm, but it's also the most important. Head trauma and concussions should be taken seriously, and therefore it's important to invest in your helm. If you are new and just starting out, I recommend asking for a loaner helm as you build the rest of your kit. Purchase your helm later when you can choose one you will be happy with for a long time. 

The heavier the helm is, the harder it is for a blow to jostle your head with the kind of force that tends to cause concussions. Generally, I'd recommend 12 gauge stainless steel, with 14 gauge being the bare minimum. Mild steel offers an immediate savings in the cost of your helm, but requires consistent upkeep and care to keep it looking nice. Leaving it to molder in the back of a truck or in a closet between practices/wars will lead to rust, corrosion, and a considerably less impressive helmet on the field. Mild steel should never be left out in the rain and should be kept clean and dry; kept wiped down with WD-40. Stainless steel will not rust, and requires considerably less care overall than mild. 

There are a wide variety of helmet shapes and styles to choose from, from kettle helms to bascinets to sugarloaf helms. Generally, let the setting and time period of your persona guide your helm style choice, but there are practical considerations as well. Levels of visibility, ability to breathe, and price all play a part as well. A common loaner helm given to newcomers is the simple basinet style with a bargrill front. This helm offers high visibility, breath ability, and can really help someone new to being in armor condition themselves to it. 

A Modern Armor Material - Kydex 

Kydex is a thick plastic, typically black in color, that can be heated using a standard household oven, or using a heat gun to be formed into a variety of shapes. Kydex comes in large sheets, one or two of which should have enough material to produce most of an armored fighter’s kit. The material is relatively low in cost, and extremely lightweight on the fighter. Because kydex can be formed and reformed using heat, it is possible to use a heat gun to target areas and make each piece a well finished and well-fitted piece of armor.

The kydex plastic is rigid when it cools and provides solid protection even against stronger than telling blows, particularly when padded using adhesive foam padding on the interior. While kydex is obviously NOT a period material, most of the armor can be hidden under a period-looking fighting tabard or tunic, minimizing an anachronistic appearance. At the same time, it is a modern material that is easy to form, work with, and obtain for the average person and I would highly recommend it for someone looking to put together a kit. 

Pros of Kydex

Cons of Kydex

Kydex Armor Process - Overview

Here is, in a nutshell, the process for making your own kydex armor. An anecdotal note, but, I had no previous experience with armoring and very limited experience with power tools, and yet I was able to cobble together an entire kit, and what’s more a kit that I can adjust over time if need be. First you need to obtain a sheet of kydex and a pattern for an armor piece. Again, I would recommend talking at your local practice or with local SCAdians to get a pattern or at least compare your pattern to someone else’s design. In the Shire, Sir Carlyle and myself have a variety of patterns for armor pieces such as legs, male and female chests, as well vambraces for arms and elbow cops, and are happy to trace them or create a copy for someone else. 

The easiest way to create a pattern is to use a large sheet of paper, and form it around your body for the piece of armor you are making. Use a sharpie to draw the shape you would like the eventual kydex to be in. You can then cut out the shape, adjust and trim to size, and then use this shape made of construction paper to trace out on your kydex sheet.

Once you have a pattern for the piece you’re creating, you use a handheld jigsaw saw to cut out the shape from the flat kydex sheet. Typically after cutting out the piece, you will want to use a metal file to sand the edges of the kydex smooth, as they can be rough or jagged from being cut out. Once the piece is prepared, you’ll place it on a cookie sheet to heat in the oven. Heat the kydex at 250 degrees for 10 minutes, or until the material is floppy/soft. Be sure to be cautious when removing the kydex, and use oven mitts.

The most difficult part of creating armor with kydex is the forming. The kydex will be hot from the oven and should be handled carefully, but the material must be warm in order to be soft and malleable. I would recommend having a friend help you with forming the kydex to your body. A few helpful hints for that: have the person who will be wearing the armor put on sweatpants/a thick material over the body part/limb that you are forming armor for. It is extremely important that you do not apply a hot kydex to bare skin; it could burn and at the very least would be very uncomfortable for the person. Preferably, the person having armor formed should be wearing all pads and clothing they would be wearing during fighting, to give a more accurate fit and account for bulk. So, have a barrier of material between the body part and the kydex, and have a friend (wearing gloves) mold and form the kydex around the body part. Hold it in place for a few moments, and then have a handful of wet washcloths ready. Use the wet washcloths to wipe and cool down the warmed kydex when it is formed. The cooled kydex will be rigid in the formed shape.

While this process will get you the basic shape of whatever armor piece you’re making, you should take the time to do some targeted shaping with a handheld heat gun. These can be purchased for around $20, or borrowed from a friend, and blast heat with a concentrated nozzle. Using it you can heat small sections and use gloved hands to mold the kydex. I would particularly recommend this process with larger pieces, such as legs and chest armor, in which fit is very important. Again, another benefit of kydex is down the road if you notice any pinching, discomfort in your armor, you can use a heatgun to make small adjustments to the piece .

If you haven’t already, once formed you should file the edges of the kydex piece smooth, and then attach padding to the interior of the armor piece. I would recommend an adhesive-backed foam padding sheet. These have peel off backs that can be easily applied to the interior of the armor piece and create a uniform padding for the user. I would recommend ¼” inch thick foam padding for armor use. Once the piece is padded, you are ready to add strapping and use your new armor. 

Adhesive-backed foam padding sheets, ideal for armoring!

Strapping and Attaching


Once you have a formed and padded piece of kydex, how do you make it useful? Well, the next step is to think about how you want to strap or hang your armor pieces. This can vary depending on body shape and preferences, but generally I would recommend using leather to connect your pieces, and attaching straps and leather by sewing, using artificial sinew. Another option is to use metal rivets to rivet your pieces to the leather, but these can be uncomfortable and less stable over time than the secure stitching. I have used both methods and found sewing to hold up better over time, and being more comfortable in use. 

The general outline for strapping an armor piece is to make a strap out of a hardware buckle, a strip of leather, and a leather punch. Use the leather punch to insert the buckle, and then punch holes to sew the buckle in place. Cut out another strip of leather, and punch holes for the buckle to fit. Buckle hardware can be found at most hardware stores, or ordering through a supplier such as Tandy. You’ll need a leather punch, and I would highly recommend artificial sinew as the fiber for sewing armor pieces. You can find artificial sinew online, or at craft stores in the leatherworking section. I’d also recommend a thick leather needle, which will make sewing easier for you. 

Using simple strapping, you should be able to complete limb armor pieces, such as elbow cops, knee cops, vambraces (forearms) and shoulders/a collarbone piece. For something like a chest armor piece, I would recommend not reinventing the wheel, and instead going to a hardware store and buying something like a cheap workshop apron, and then cutting off the straps to reuse them for your armor. These are typically nylon or paracord and thus durable for fighting purposes. For your leg armor, I would recommend picking up a leather C-belt to “hang” your rigid armor from. If not a leather C-belt, which can be pricey as an initial investment, then find a weight lifting belt or other thick leather/nylon belt that fits comfortably around your waist. The importance should be that you can hang a little weight from the belt and it rests fully on your hip bones and supports the weight. Then create leather loops and hang the leg armor from the belt to provide support and keep the armor in a fixed position on your leg. 

General Armor Advice

And finally, some general armor advice. In general, particularly if you are initially trying out armored combat and unsure if you want to make a large initial investment, you should look into loaner gear available through your local group so that you can attend and try a melee event. I fully believe it’s a “Try once and you’ll buy for life” activity.

Before purchasing that cool looking Legolas helm from Etsy, or any variety of armor made abroad, always check with a local marshall to ensure that the gear will be SCA legal and work for combat in the Kingdom of Atlantia. This prevents heartache for you, the marshall, and the MIC at any future events you want to fight at.

Along that same idea, try if possible to have your gear inspected by a warranted marshall before you attend your first melee event to fight. This helps assure you that you will pass inspection, and you just have to focus on passing your authorization. The last thing you want to worry about is your gear on the day of, when you should be having fun on the battlefield.

Don’t neglect your soft kit! You should have knee and elbow pads under your rigid protection, and I would recommend a paintball jersey for a base level of chest protection/padding. For men, any groin protection should also be washable for general maintenance. 

And finally, you should think about how you’re going to transport your kit to the field. It’s helpful to have some kind of bin to put it all in and carry or roll to the field. I would recommend looking into rolling tool boxes, as they are large, typically durable, and can roll your kit to the field. 

Rolling tool box that makes a handy armor bin. 

Coifs: Important for protecting long hair and scalp from the interior of your helmet/chainmail