Equipment of the Billman

Perhaps more than anything else, a 15th century soldier is identified by what he carried into battle. His armor and his weapons were the most readily observed parts of his kit, and it is the armor and the weapons that are used to represent the eras of warfare. A soldier’s choice of equipment, were he lucky enough to have a choice, would determine his functionality and role in battle. Every piece of kit had its strengths and weaknesses.

voulges, halberds, 15th century soldiers
Examples of Halberds and Voulges used by the Willensstark soldiers.

The most important item for a billman was his bill, the polearm he marched into battle with. Without this weapon, a soldier was not functional within the billman formation. The strength of the formation comes from the tightly packed soldiers, all pointing their polearms at the enemy to create an impenetrable wall. A soldier without a polearm is a weak point, unless he is otherwise armed and armored well above his station, as the officers may be.

There are many types of polearm, each with its own uses and drawbacks. One of the more common polearms among the Willensstark Fahnlein is the voulge. Little more than a heavy cutting blade with a long, sharp point attached to a pole, it is both simple and effective in its ability to chop and to pierce armor. An evolution of the voulge is the halberd, a weapon somewhat akin to an axe with a long point and a hook on the back end. The blade may be used for cutting, the point for stabbing, and the hook for grabbing an enemy by the weapon or joint and pulling them away from the safety of their formation. The disadvantages of these weapons is that their bulk makes them heavy.

A lighter, faster option is the glaive, a weapon resembling a large knife on a pole. With a cutting edge and a thrusting point, if fulfills the necessary functions of a polearm without being weighed down by the weight of extra parts. But the simplicity and lightness of the glaive is also its weakness, as it has less utility than the voulge or the halberd.

The billhook is something of a midpoint between these two extremes. Developed from an agricultural tool, the body of the weapon is a forward-curving hook, which may be used to hook the enemy, grab their weapon, or punch through their armor with a solid hit.

A thick pair of leather gloves or a good pair of steel gauntlets would do wonders towards keeping your hands, which would often be a primary target for the enemy.

A point was added for thrusting, and most billhooks also have another spike on the backside for chopping with. The second piece of kit a soldier would be concerned with would be his helmet. Above all other pieces of armor the helmet was valued by billmen. A strike to the body may take you out of a the battle, but if you’re lucky you’ll survive. A strike to the head will most certainly take you out of the battle, and will likely take your life as well.

There were a wide variety of helmets in use, each covering a different level in the trade-off between visibility and breathability and protection. Two of note which cover the ends of the spectrum are the kettle hat and the sallet. The kettle hat is an entirely open helmet, used primarily by infantry, with a wide brim surrounding the cap. In such a helmet, you have a full range of vision, your breathing is not impaired, you can hear well, and you are even shaded by the brim. However, this design leaves the face entirely open to attack. Much more protective, the sallet features a visor which covers the face below the eyes, greatly reducing the targets presented to the enemy. However, the sallet greatly narrows the vision, breathing can become laborious, and hearing may even be difficult. To counter-act this, many sallets feature an articulated visor which may be raised by the wearer, so that they can see and breath, find their enemy, and bring the visor back down as they march into battle.

15th century soldier, helmets, kettle hats, mail coif, sallet
From left to right: Two similar kettle hats; a mail coif; a sallet, visor raised; an open-faced barbute; a T-faced barbute; and a sallet, visor down.

The basic unit of armor was the padded jack or gambeson, a thick coat padded with wool, sometimes up to an inch thick. This padding could stop a glancing cut from a polearm or sidearm, but gave little resistance to a solid thrust. On its own, the jack essentially served a “better than nothing” role, as it was simple to make and easy to move in.

A soldier using a sword needed to aim for the gaps in the enemy’s armor while defending himself, and this may not have been quick enough to survive. More common on the battlefield were axes.

Where the padded jack was not the only armor present, the jack most often served as cushioning, both to make the armor more comfortable, and to absorb the concussive force of blows to the armor. Over the jack was warn the body armor. In the 15th century, mail was still known, but was rapidly giving way to steel plate armor.

Mail was, generally, lighter than plate, and more flexible, but it did not offer as solid of a protection as steel plate, and was more susceptible to being pierced. The breastplate of a billman, the main body protection, was often of lower quality steel. It offered protection by the thickness of the steel and the shape, usually rounded to deflect strikes away from the center. It was only in more finely crafted armors that the steel was of high enough quality to offer resiliency of its own, allowing the armor to be thinner and more finely fit to the body of the wearer.

gauntlets, spaulders, gorget, breastplate, 1th century soldier
Gauntlets, spaulders, and a gorget are being worn to complement the breastplate.

Protective as they were, breastplates did much in the way of inhibiting the movement of the wearer. A soldier wearing a breastplate would find he cannot bring his arms close over his chest, and cannot flex at the waist as much as he is used to. While it is quite possible to move and function well enough to fight in a breastplate, it can be especially limiting if you are not used to it, and it is more added weight to carry while fighting. The 15th century soldier would have to keep all of these in mind alongside the prospect of marching into a bristling pile of polearms.

A peasant billman would take whatever armor he could get, but the hands were usually the next place protected, if not even before the breastplate. A thick pair of leather gloves or a good pair of steel gauntlets would do wonders towards keeping your hands, which would often be a primary target for the enemy. Spaulders would cover the shoulder and upper arm, and would usually be attached to armor for the neck known as the gorget. Armor for the legs was uncommon among infantry, for multiple reasons. Armor for the legs had to be particularly well-fitted to keep from hindering movement, and that was typically something a peasant soldier could not afford. There were social factors as well. It was popular to wear close-fitting clothing on the legs, to show-off how well-muscled and fit you were, and even armor could not escape the clutches of fashion.

swords, hammers, axes, 15th century soldiers
Soldiers practicing with a variety of swords, hammers, and axes.

If the lines failed or a soldier lost grip of his polearm, he had to be quick, and for this he needed a sidearm. The sidearm of a soldier had to be small, much smaller than the weapons often carried by knights and officers. A soldier needed to be able to maintain tight formation while carrying his sidearm, and had to be able to draw it fast when he needed it. For this, soldiers were most often constricted to weapons which could be wielded easily with one hand.

Hammers and maces were popular in the age of plate armor, as they were incredibly effective in crushing armor and transferring bludgeoning force through the armor and into the man wearing it. But a hammer could be unwieldy, and so soldiers wealthy enough may have chosen to use a sword.

The balance of a sword made it much easier to parry away enemy attacks while launching precise strikes. However, a soldier needed more training to use a sword effectively, and his options were more limited. A sword could not cut or piece armor, and could only seldomly deliver enough force to crush or break armor. A soldier using a sword needed to aim for the gaps in the enemy’s armor while defending himself, and this may not have been quick enough to survive. More common on the battlefield were axes.

15th centruy soldiers, formation, drill
Soldiers marching in the daily formation drill.

Axes were common tools, easy to produce and to use, and most peasants had at least an axe for cutting wood. A more dedicated axe may have a spike or a hammer opposite the blade, for more effectively dealing with armor without becoming unwieldy.

Assuming a soldier had a choice of sidearms, many factors would determine his choice. How strong was he? How fast was he? How well-trained was he? How well-equipped was the enemy? All of these would have to be considered. Every piece of gear the 15th century mercenary carried had its trade-offs, between how well the soldier would be able to defend himself, to how well he would be able to move and attack the enemy. But what mattered more than the weapons and armor was the man behind them. This was why the successful mercenary company was one which was well-disciplined and well-trained: because the men needed to know how to effectively use their equipment to be effective in battle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *