Editor’s note: This is the first instalment of a two-part series from ARES Research Assistant Patrick Senft, examining the history of ballistic shields in warfare. The second part of Mr. Senft’s research will be published in the near future, and will bring the story from the interbellum period up to present day, as well as presenting some conclusions.
To protect a soldier from the threats they encounter on the battlefield is to make the soldier less likely to be wounded, more emboldened, and, thus, more effective in combat. En masse, developments in armour can enhance an army’s chance of victory. In its most basic form, ‘ballistic armour’ consists simply of a layer of protective material between the soldier and incoming projectiles. With the right material (matched to the threat), an otherwise-lethal incoming force can be partly absorbed and distributed over a wider area, thereby rendering it benign—or at least non-lethal. Whilst the term ‘ballistic armour’ is generally understood today to refer to armour capable of stopping projectiles from firearms, the origins of modern armour lie with the earliest attempts to protect individuals from arrows, slingstones, and other historical projectiles. Throughout history, the protective layer was either attached directly to the soldier—like a cuirass or modern ballistic vests—or carried further out from the body—as with a shield. Over time, both shields and armour became more robust. However, more and thicker protective layers of armour do not directly correlate with more victories won; not only survivability but also mobility affect the outcome of battles (Marapoti, 1984). Accordingly, the development of personal body armour has been shaped by both of these factors. As these variables’ influences on the outcome of a battle changed over time, so did the physical forms of body armour.
A different approach to personal armour is the shield. As in pre-gunpowder times, a shield’s protection came with three fundamental drawbacks: First, if the shield is carried by the soldier, it only allows for one arm to be used in combat; secondly, it weighs the soldier down and makes marching and balancing more difficult; and finally, the soldier is only shielded from one direction. Up until recently, to protect against higher-velocity projectiles, a shield would be increasingly made thicker and heavier, burdening the soldier even further and hindering his own operation of a firearm. Therefore, when a shield was employed to protect from ‘modern firearms’, these drawbacks are exacerbated. Despite such hinderances, efforts to supply soldiers with shields to protect them in combat have persisted throughout history and, on some occasions, the circumstances have been such that the benefits compensate for the drawbacks described above.
Broadly speaking, a distinction between three categories of shields can be made, as follows: portable shields (shields that are predominantly intended to be carried by the soldier), set shields (shields that are intended to be put in a static position), and push-shields (shields combined with wheels or tracks intended to be pushed towards the enemy ) (Dean, 1920, p. 179). Each category of shield represents a different prioritisation of the shield’s mobility versus its protective capability and is more or less favourable in specific combat circumstances.
This article highlights the circumstances in which guns and shields were used concurrently by outlining the concept’s history from its pre-black powder origins into its modern guise. It is clear that a shield has been considered a useful asset for certain missions when it is large enough to cover the majority of the user and mobile enough for the user to also engage the enemy. However, once the shield becomes too heavy for effective mobility, it is most often replaced by either a static defensive position or modified offensive tactics to achieve the same outcome without the need for a shield.
The Demise of Non-ballistic Shields
In protecting primarily against missiles—as opposed to armes blanches—early ballistic shields were frequently used long before the power of an explosion could be harnessed to fling projectiles at them. One such type of shield was the pavise, a large, typically rectangular shield that could be propped up by a stake and provided protection for the archer or crossbowman behind it. These shields first appeared on the battlefield in the second half of the 12th century in Italy and had reached England by the 1350s. When used by a crossbowman (often supported by a team of one or two people to load the crossbow), a sturdy pavise could prove a significant advantage on an open field or during a siege. During the Battle of Jaffa in 1192, for example, a Christian army consisting predominantly of 2,000 crossbowmen equipped with pavises found itself almost impervious to the enemy’s arrows, and routed an Ayyubid army roughly three times its size (Runciman, 1951).
The absence of a shield can also prove critical in battle. In 1346, at the Battle of Crécy, some 5,000 crossbowmen in the French army engaged in an archery duel with English longbowmen. The crossbowmen in French service had little time to prepare for the battle and were forced to leave their protective pavises behind. The situation was made worse by the onset of a rainstorm which dampened their bowstrings, thus reducing their range. As a result, the crossbowmen had to engage the English archers without their usual protection and at a shorter range and, consequently, were rapidly defeated and routed (DeVries, 2007). It is clear that, in times before the advent of the firearms, shields were a decisive tool of war, and their absence could prove damning.
With the increasingly widespread appearance of early handheld firearms—such as the arquebus—on battlefields from the early 1400s, the pavise found a new role. Whilst the projectiles fired by these new arms could defeat the pavise of an enemy, such shields were still found useful to defend the gunner against attacks from more primitive weapons. As firearms became more widespread, new solutions were required. Pavises were combined with thick bundles of sticks or other handy material to slow down projectiles, or replaced entirely by heavy iron shields. These developments were not restricted to Europe. Similar developments took place in Japan, where the arquebus was introduced in the Sengoku period (1467–1615) and initially used together with large, pavise-like shields known as Tate (盾). Shields were uncommon in Japanese warfare, although the pavise concept was not new to Japan. When these traditional wooden shields proved insufficient, they were augmented with bundles of wet straw to allow them to withstand bullets (see Figure 1.1) or were replaced entirely by thick rolls of bamboo. Smaller, hand-held metal shields (Tedate; 手盾) were also used to resist gunfire (Gunsen History, 2017).
Semi-mobile defensive works were also employed during the Ottoman effort to establish control over eastern Asia Minor. The Ottoman use of the wagenburg contributed significantly to their victory over the Safavids at the Battle of Çaldıranor (1514). A wagenburg, or wagon fortress, was a defensive arrangement of war wagons that were chained together, protected by heavy wooden shielding, and manned by crossbowmen and gunners (Ágoston, 2013). Such defensive formations, though larger than later push-shields, apply similar principles at a larger scale.
It is tempting to conceive of a smooth transition from the ‘old’ plate-steel armour of the mounted knight to the ‘modern’ soldier riding into battle within an armoured fighting vehicle, yet there is a significant period in the intervening history where soldiers went into battle wearing little-to-no body armour. Early firearms’ increasing ability to defeat shields meant that the latter became increasingly thicker and thus heavier, which turned a somewhat-portable pavise (or Tate) into a static defensive structure—much like a wagenburg. Advances in metallurgy allowed better metal shields to be produced, but at the same time allowed guns to withstand higher pressures and thus fire more energetic projectiles (Dean, 1920, p. 51; McLachlan, 2010). As a result, the use of shields in conjunction with guns was largely abandoned in general military use for the next three hundred years. Conversely, concepts such as surprise and mobility became increasingly important in providing the soldier with the protection the shield cold no longer offer.
Military reforms such as those that took place during the reign of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1611–1632), were borne out by the events of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The Swedish army, for example, saw large units of foot infantry mounted upon horses for long-range raiding—the first large-scale adoption of mounted infantry, or ‘dragoons’. This flexibility and mobility enabled the Swedes to surprise and defeat their opponents (Ney, 1965, p. 316). As the concept of mounted infantry spread, the ability to undertake long marches in order to mount surprise attacks increased in importance and made the cumbersome nature of contemporary body armour increasingly undesirable. As a result, both developments in small arms and in infantry tactics caused the decline of first the shield and then body armour. It was not that the shield could not be designed to stop small arms fire of the day, but that the necessary weight and bulk to do so would inhibit the swift manoeuvring of new-model armies, and so it was abandoned by the majority of modern powers except for specialised roles.
Early Ballistic Shields
Early ballistic shields—those designed from the outset to resist small arms fire—were few and far between. Those that saw any battlefield use were only to be found in very niche roles, as described. There are other types, however, that went beyond the defensive application and incorporated a means of returning fire. Most notably, a number of shields combined with matchlock guns are listed in an inventory of the arms of Henry VIII from 1547. Sixteen of these combination gun-and-shield devices are currently held in the British Galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum (see Figure 1.2). They may have originated from a design by Italian painter Maestro Giovanni Battista, who wrote to the court of Henry VIII in March 1544 to offer his mercenaries’ services to the king and to supply “round shields with guns inside them” (Metcalf, North & Balfour, 2001).
Fragments of several such shield-guns have been found amongst the wreck of the Mary Rose, an English warship that sank in July 1545 off the coast of the Isle of Wight (The Mary Rose, 2020). These shields were apparently stored in the ship’s orlop deck and thus seem to not have been ready for immediate use, but their presence likely indicates that they were taken aboard with some military purpose in mind. All surviving shields are made in a similar manner, consisting of plates made from thin strips of wood (possibly oak, ash, or elm) that were glued together and stacked on top of one other with the grains crossing at a 90° angle for strength. The wooden shield was then edged and faced with a layer of either iron or steel. Whilst these shields would most likely have stopped a contemporary bullet, the contraption as a whole is far too heavy and awkward to be of much use, and they did not see widespread issue. As a result, these shield-guns remain a rare historical curiosity (Smithurst, 2018).
The first notable use of shields to protect soldiers during ‘modern combat’ occurred during the Russo-Japanese War, especially during the siege of Port Arthur (1904–1905) (Jacob, 2015). During this battle, Japanese troops pioneered the practice of fitting their field artillery guns with gun-shields to protect the crew from fragmentation and small arms fire—a design that would be almost universally adopted by the time of the First World War. Simultaneously, the Japanese troops employed man-portable shields (commonly referred to as ‘Chiba shields’) in significant numbers (see Figure 1.3). These shields were used to protect barbed-wire-cutting teams, officers engaged in reconnaissance, as well as men digging saps or trenches in no-man’s land (IHRU, 1956). Chiba shields were either fitted with two eye holes or one narrow viewing slit, and weighed between 25 lbs (11.3 kg) and 37 lbs (16.8 kg) at a thickness of some 0.4 inches (10 mm). Anecdotal evidence suggests they were impervious to contemporary small arms fire. Despite the obviously cumbersome nature of such shields, they proved quite effective under battlefield conditions of the time, provided they were used in conjunction with suitable doctrine, training, and battlefield coordination (Dean, 1920, p. 151).
First World War
Arguably, the circumstances for the employment of shields were amongst their most favourable during the First World War. After an initial phase of rapid troop movement, most fronts settled into the well-known stalemate. Subsequently, many nations developed and fielded some types of shields for a variety of trench warfare applications. These included portable shields, set shields, and push-shields, and the period gave rise to innovation in how these were designed and employed.
France issued two models of portable shields in significant numbers, namely the French-designed and produced Daigre shield (of which 65,000 examples were ordered) and the Japanese-made Chiba shield discussed previously. Of the latter type, a staggering 500,000 examples were ordered according to some sources, although it seems unlikely this many were delivered (Grand Forks Herald, 1916). The Daigre shield measures about 23 × 14 in (584 × 355 mm) and consisted of a 0.275 in (70 mm) plate of chrome steel covered in a thick layer of anti-spalling coating, for a total weight of about 21 lbs (9.5 kg). For ease of use, arm straps and loops that allowed the shield to be carried around a soldier’s neck and ‘worn’ much like traditional body armour were attached to the reverse of the shield (see Figure 1.4). The Daigre design was effective against standard German bullets—even FMJ cartridges with their projectiles reversed, which appear to have offered some increased armour penetration capability—when fired from close range, but was not able to stop purpose-built armour-piercing projectiles even at moderate ranges (Dean, 1920, p. 180).
A similar design of portable shield, known as the Ansaldo shield, was adopted by the Italian military during the First World War. This shield was made of 0.25 in (60 mm) thick chrome-nickel-vanadium steel and weighed about 21 lbs (9.5 kg). Similar to the Daigre shield, the Ansaldo model could be used as a portable shield attached to a soldier’s arm or worn over a soldier’s shoulders like body armour. However, the Italian design could also be used as a set shield, resting on two ‘legs’ which, when picked up, could be rotated out of the way (see Figure 1.5). Ballistically, the Ansaldo shield appears to be similar to the Daigre model in terms of performance, as it was required to resist five rounds of standard Italian ammunition fired at it from a distance of 110 yds (Dean, 1920, p. 151).
At the dawn of the gunpowder age, set shields were used during the largely static sieges of fortifications such as castles. Similarly, they saw their most successful use during the First World War once the front lines became largely static. A large variety of set shields were developed and employed by the parties to the conflict, and these were of varying shapes and sizes. Most featured a firing-slot with a shutter, anti-spalling features, and a supporting structure to keep the shield upright (see Figure 1.6). Some were standardised and produced in quantity, whilst others were expedient designs developed under duress. Writing in 1920, American arms and armour specialist Bashford Dean noted that the contemporary set shield was made of:
“[Any] good alloy steel to resist at 50 yards service ammunition, German, English or American, should be at least 0.25 inch thick; this entails the weight of a pound for each 14 square inches of surface. To stop a German bullet reversed, the plate should be 0.30 inch thick, giving a weight of 12 square inches to the pound. To stop an armour-piercing bullet, a plate of the best alloy should be at least 0.4 inch thick or a pound for each 9 square inches of surface”– Bashford Dean (Dean, 1920, p. 182).
Set shields were predominantly used in support of specific roles, such as to protect soldiers during the digging of a new trench or to provide semi-mobile cover to snipers. A fundamental problem of all set shields was that they were hard to camouflage because of their rectangular shape—leaving them prone to being targeted by artillery. Additionally, the shields only covered the shooter from the front and thus in some cases allowed the enemy to pinpoint the user’s lines and exposed their flanks (Pegler, 2008, p. 63). To overcome these drawbacks, camouflage was employed. The German army, for example, went to great lengths to disguise their set shields and purposefully ‘decorated’ their forward trenches with a plethora of textures, colours and shapes featuring “a mess of wire, multi-coloured sandbags, rubble and odd lengths of corrugated iron” (Pegler, 2004, p. 91).
To increase protection for snipers, the Germans also placed set shields at acute angles to the line of their trenches, facing both left and right in an interval of about 100 yards. This created an interlocking field of fire and made counter-sniping very difficult (Pegler, 2004). By comparison, early in the war, the British took great effort to maintain an orderly trench and struggled to effectively employ set shields and snipers in general (Hesketh-Pritchard, 2013). To counter German set shields, the British could not initially rely on artillery fire to destroy them, due to a shortage of munitions. They also lacked a sufficient number of skilled snipers and adequate equipment to shoot through the loophole of the German shields. As a result, the British Army and individual soldiers purchased large-calibre big game hunting rifles capable of injuring the shooter behind a set shield by penetrating it or causing spalling from the shield (Pegler, 2004, p. 90).
German soldiers also faced a similar struggle in countering set shields. As one solution, soldiers would pull a cartridge’s projectile from its case, reverse the projectile, and load it back into the case. Thus, the broader base of the projectile, with its exposed lead core, would leave the barrel first and, reportedly, enhance the round’s ability to defeat armour (Hesketh-Pritchard, 2013). As both sides learned to use and defeat shields—through the development of purpose-built armour penetrating ammunition by 1916—they were forced to increase the protective capability of shields. This was achieved by placing two shields in front of each other and by producing thicker shields. These efforts made the employment of shields even more difficult, however, and so their use became increasingly rare as the war went on.
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Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:
AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area from a safe distance to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities