Armored Thoughts
Interviews with Full-time Professional Master Armorers

Part I     Part II

 

Peter Fuller - Medieval Reproductions, Calgary

CabinetOswords.jpg (8369 bytes)1.             How long have you been doing armor, for fun or professionally?

I started making armour as a hobby in 1980.  I always wanted to have my own armour, but at that time, there was no one that I knew of that was making armour professionally, so I couldn’t buy any reproduction armour, and I didn’t have the financial resources to purchase authentic armour (I was still in college).  So I figured that the only way I was going to have any armour of my own, was to make it myself. In 1994, I started Medieval Reproductions, and began making armour for a living.

2.             Do you have an area or period of historical armor you specialize in creating?

No; I make armour from Roman to Renaissance; lorica to lobster-tail.  As the song says, “I’m very versatile.”

3.             Do you have a particular favorite piece or harness that you most enjoy constructing or working on?

I don’t have a specific piece that I enjoy working on, but I do prefer working on armour from the Early and High Medieval Period, say, from Hastings to Agincourt.  This was the Period of Chivalry, which really appeals to me.   Once you get into the Renaissance, you’re into the age of mercenaries, and I begin to lose interest.  I know that the fifteenth century is the armourers’ “finest hour”, but to me, armour is a physical representation of the age it hails from, and being a big fan of chivalry, the earlier stuff appeals to me more.

PeterandArmors.jpg (40925 bytes)4.             Where did you first acquire an interest in historical armor and when did you make the realization you had a real aptitude for doing it?

When I was four years old, a salesman came to our door selling Ajax laundry detergent.  Back in the early sixties, Ajax ran a series of television commercials where a white knight would joust with the clothesline to get your laundry clean.  Well, this salesman was dressed in a suit of armour painted white.  As he gave my mother his sales pitch (I can still hear his muffled voice; he never raised the visor of his helmet as he spoke), I stood there, mesmerized.  I had never seen anything like that in real life before (which was no big surprise, since I was only four).  I spent the rest of the morning with my nose pressed against the front window, watching this guy walk up and down the street.  From that moment on, I was hooked!  (I can remember talking to [arms & armor authority] Claude Blair several years ago, and he asked me how I became interested in armour.  I told him this story, and he smiled hugely, and said, “It always starts very young…”).  To answer the second half of the question, I realized I had an aptitude for making armour when I completed my second great helm.  The first piece of armour I made was a great helm, complete with a crest.  It was somewhat primitive, as was the first full armour I made.  But my third project was a Pembridge helm, which came together very nicely.  It was then that I realized, “Hey, I can do this…”

PF2.jpg (21383 bytes)5.             Can you identify any major breakthrough that transformed your own study of armor making?

When I first started making armour, I had no sources to draw from for reference.  I had some kid’s books I had acquired as a child, but no serious texts on arms and armour.  So I went down to the Glenbow Museum [in Calgary], and sat in the armour gallery, sketching everything I could.  I had read somewhere that museums didn’t allow cameras in the galleries, but I took a chance the next time I went to the museum, and asked the person at the front desk if they would let me take some photos of the armour.  They called the Curator of Military History and asked him if it was all right, and he said yes, and then asked if I would like to see the armour in storage.  I made an appointment with him, and got my first opportunity to handle the armour in the collection.  This also initiated a relationship with the Curator, Barry Agnew, and was the beginning of a twenty-one year friendship.  I ended up working for Barry in the Military History Department for six years, and during that time, I was in charge of the armour collection.  This allowed me to examine the armour in intimate detail anytime I wanted.  As a result, I gained invaluable information about armour construction and function.  I would examine the armour during the day, and go home at night and try to copy what I had seen.  This allowed me to give my armour the same look and feel as the real thing. 

6.             What was one of the hardest skills to learn in armoring?

It was all difficult, since I had never done any metal work before I started making armour, and I couldn’t go to anyone for advice.  There was no “Armour-making School” I could attend, and books like Brian Price’s for instance didn’t exist back then.  I had to teach myself how to do everything through trial and error. I also had to make a lot of my own tools (which I still have to do).  My grandfather taught metallurgical analysis during the Second World War, but he had no interest in helping me.  I finally got him to explain to me how to dish and planish a piece of sheet metal, which took him all of five minutes.  I then took that tidbit of information, and started from there.  The only techniques I learned from someone else are how to raise, which Brian Price taught me, and how to chase, which Jeff Deboer taught me.  Everything else I learned on my own.

7.             What is your favorite historical period to wear?

I like full mail, and I like late fourteenth century full plate. 

8.             Is there a piece of work you are most proud of?

I would probably have to say the Beowulf helmet I made (it went together very nicely), and the Churburg harness I made for Hank Reinhardt.

9.             Is there some major accomplishment in armoring you still hope to achieve?

I have some ideas that I’m fomenting, but they are not developed enough for me to discuss yet.  Perhaps in a future interview.

10.        Do you have a particular favorite style of harness or helmet of your own that you most favor?

I have a late fourteenth century style harness (which I call “hounskull armour”).   It’s similar to the armour of the Black Prince, as seen on his effigy in Canterbury Cathedral.  It’s full plate, but it’s still the Age of Chivalry, which, as I’ve said, appeals to me. 

11.        If so, what makes it a favorite?

I like the fact that it is full plate, but it is simple.  It retains all of the functionality of later plate armour, but it is not hampered by a lot of the “busy-ness” of later armours.  There’s a beauty in simplicity that I find appealing.

12.        How active are you in training or practicing in your armors?

I’m a founding member of the Medieval Arms Society of Calgary.  We started the group five years ago, and we try to practice weekly.  I fight, for the most part, in full mail, c. 1200 - 1250.   However, I have suited up in later period stuff from time to time. 

13.        How would you say today’s custom armor industry compares to that of say 10 or 15 years ago?

I’ve been pretty isolated up here in Calgary, so I really don’t have a clear idea of what the industry was like ten or fifteen years ago.  When I was growing up, I thought I was the only kid in the world that was interested in knights and armour; none of my friends had the least bit of interest in it at all.   I was never involved in the SCA, and I’ve only just gotten involved in re-enactment in the last five years.  So I can’t really comment on the “Industry”.

PF1.jpg (52362 bytes)14.        Where do you see the custom armor industry in 10 years?  What developments do you anticipate, or would you like to see?

When I started making armour for a living in 1994, the interest in armour and the Medieval Period in general was on the rise.  I figured I would have five or six good years, and then the market would begin to wane, people would lose interest, and go on to the next fad.  However, to my surprise, the interest has continued to grow, and shows no sign of slowing down.   When I started, I was mostly making quality armour for museums.  Then I started getting orders from collectors, and then re-enactors.  Now I’m getting orders from jousters, while still filling orders from all of the previous groups, and I’m busier than I’ve ever been! 

         One of the biggest problems I see right now is a lack of good custom armourers.  The waiting list (as everyone knows) is debilitating; you can wait years to get a good custom harness made, and those of us who are making the good quality armour are running the risk of getting burned out because of the overwhelming demand.   This is due to the fact that there are too few good armourers out there, and the demand far exceeds the supply.  What I would like to see in the future, is a marked increase in the number of good custom armourers.  However, for this to happen there needs to be some changes in the industry that will precipitate this.

15.        Is there a major demographic that makes up your major customers?  That is, do you produce more items for private collections, the film industry, re-enactors, performers, costume ware?

As I said, my major clients are museums, collectors, re-enactors, and now I’m starting to produce for jousters.  I’ve done some work for the film industry (a production company once rented every piece of armour I had for the film, “The Mighty”, with Sharon Stone and Kieran Caulkin), but they are more interested in artistic expression than historical accuracy.  Because of this, I’ve stopped doing any work for film or television.

16.        How many expert armorers of top notch artistry and accuracy would you say there are in North America or Europe at present?

As I said, I’ve been isolated up here, so I’m not really in the loop as far as who’s out there, and who’s doing what.  I am only aware of a few really good armourers in North America, and I haven’t a clue who is working in the U.K. or Europe, of course, with the exception of Bill Radford, who is arguably the best armourer in the world right now.

17.        What are some of your feelings about the recent growth of the mass off-shelf market in armor (aimed at the general public) as opposed to the professional custom-maker’s individualized work?

Not everybody can afford high quality, custom-made armour.  As a result, companies like Museum Replicas have been mass-producing armour of a lesser quality for a lower price.  I see no problem with this, since it allows a greater number of people the opportunity to own armour, and fulfill the dream that I had when I first started making armour back in 1980.

18.        What changes have you seen in interest in armor in recent years? Do you see more or less knowledge on their part of clients in what they’re looking for? 

Movies have a certain influence on the armour industry.  When Braveheart came out, it seemed like everybody wanted Mel Gibson’s coat-of-plates.  However, that influence was slight, and didn’t really change the industry significantly. 

         Most of the clients I deal with are discerning collectors, or serious re-enactors.  As a result, they have usually done their homework, and they know what they want.  They will ask me questions about construction, or whether some particular element is appropriate to the period they want to portray, but they have a good general knowledge of the armour they want.   Every once in a while I get somebody who doesn’t really know what they want, and I have to work with them to find out what that is, but you find those people in a lot of artistic disciplines.

19.        Do you think historically accuracy is becoming more appreciated among those looking for reproduction armor?

Amongst the re-enactors and collectors, yes.  They want it to look right, and be period-appropriate.  However, there’s still the odd one that thinks they can improve the wheel, and want changes to design and construction, etc.  I end up telling them that they don’t want historical armour; they are looking for fantasy armour, which I don’t do (with one notable exception; the Shao-Khan helmet for T.V.’s Mortal Kombat).

20.        What changes if any have you noted in what people are doing with their reproduction armor nowadays? Are they having it made for different reasons than in the recent years?

Yeah; they’re fighting in it.  When I first started making armour, as I said, most of my clients were museums or collectors.  The museums needed the armour for hands-on educational programs (you can’t let school kids try on authentic armour!), and the collectors wanted armour to place in a display case beside the authentic armour they had collected.   Nowadays, a large percentage of my clients are fighting in their armour.  How the armour stands up to modern re-enactment combat is the true test of its quality.

21.        Can you offer any thoughts on the main differences between Milanese and Gothic armors in terms of their how their design and fit could have historically affected the wearer’s fighting method?

All field harness was designed to be fully functional, and not impede the movement of the wearer.   Milanese had larger, more encompassing pauldrons than the German Gothic armour, but when you examine contemporary artwork, it doesn’t appear to be a problem.  The sallet and bevor allows for a reasonable amount of air to breathe, but the armet, especially with a wrapper, would quickly become impossible to breathe in.  I’ve noticed in contemporary artwork that the visor on the armet remains up until the very last moment, so perhaps this was their solution.  I’ve never fought in either style of armour, so I can’t really comment first-hand.

         You have to remember as well, that knights fought primarily on horseback, at least 90% of the time.  When you are not using the large muscles in your legs (the horse provides your motive power), you’re consuming a lot less oxygen.  Having trained on horseback to fight at the Hastings 2000 event in Britain last year, and having fought on foot for five years, I can say with some authority that there is a BIG difference.   Full armour was [not really] designed for foot combat; it was designed for mounted fighting, where your legs are stationary.  The only movement your legs would make, would be in getting on and off the horse. 

         The knight distinguished himself from everyone else on the battlefield by the fact that he was a mounted warrior.  It was a symbol of his class, and he set it aside only temporarily, and only under extreme circumstances.  If you look closely at the armour depicted in the fighting manuals, you will find that it is essentially cavalry armour. However, there are occasions when the mounted knight was required to fight on foot (i.e., the English at Agincourt), but this was the exception, not the rule.  And battlefield armour was always cavalry armour.  The tonnelet armours which were for foot combat in the tournament, which was a secondary form of fighting, and by no means the main event.  Even these were designed with detachable pieces at the front and back, so that the wearer could mount a horse.  Keep in mind, that the tonnelet and foot combat armours are all 16th century.   Before then, there was very little specialized armour for the tournament.  And in the High Middle Ages, there was none at all.

22.        Are there any observations you could offer on the effects real swords had on historical armor?   Any issues you would care to address on that matter?

As I previously stated, I fight mostly in mail.  I’ve discovered that the combination of quilted gambeson under mail is surprisingly protective.  We fight with “live steel” as opposed to wooden wasters, and even though we pull our blows, every once in a while a strong blow gets landed.  However, the worst injury I’ve sustained was a bruise.  Last year, seven members of MASC went to England to participate in the Hastings 2000 battle re-enactment.  It was a live steel event, and all we had was hauberks and nasal helmets.  There was a certain degree of apprehension, since our faces and legs were unprotected.  However, for an event involving 1300 infantry and 100 cavalry, the injuries were insignificant.  One of our fellows got a split lip when someone hooked his shield with their axe and he pulled back a little too hard.  We received numerous blows on the mail, but we hardly noticed them. 

         Swords were ineffective against plate armour.  That is why a full range of other weapons were designed and used, such as axes, maces, and hammers.  The only kind of sword that could be used against plate armour was a thrusting sword, and then only when stabbing at the joints, or “chinks” in the armour.  But trying to successfully hit one of these points in a fight, when both combatants are moving around, would be extremely difficult, even for an experienced swordsman.  Therefore, the image of two knights in full armour, fighting with longswords, is a bit of a misnomer.   Neither one could seriously injure the other.

23.        What advice do you have to offer the young fledging novice hoping to begin learning the craft of historical armor reproduction for fun?

A number of things.  First, take metal shop in high school.  This will give you some practical experience in working with metal.  Next, read every book you can get your hands on about arms and armour.  Then read them again.  Then read them again.  Then get a copy of Brian Price’s book, Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction, and memorize it.   Next, buy a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, and memorize it.  Then take a life drawing class, even if you can’t draw.  If you want to be able to cover the human body in steel, you have to have a good understanding of its’ shape (and shapes).  While you’re doing all of this, find somebody that already makes armour, and become their friend.  Then spend time watching them make armour, and ask every question you can think of (without becoming a pest!).   Then start making some simple pieces.  The only way to REALLY learn, is by doing.  And most importantly, don’t get frustrated because your fist piece is not as good as you expected.  Keep at it; you’ll improve the more you do.

24.        What special projects do you have on the horizon?

I’m trying to get caught up with the projects I already have, namely six full armours, each of which will take me three to four months.  I also have a dozen or so helmets to make, not to mention various and assorted other component pieces.  As a result, I can’t really think too far into the future. 

25.        Finally, what advice can you offer for the beginning enthusiast wanting to get into Late Medieval armored combat training for the first time?  (what items are most important to first acquire, how much should they expect to spend, and how long should they anticipate in getting a harness)?

The first thing is to begin training; armour is not necessary for this.  Get used to handling a sword before worrying about getting into armour.   Once you’ve developed the basic skills of sword fighting, then begin wearing increasing amounts of armour.  Start with a gambeson, and then a shirt of mail.  One of the more difficult things to get used to, is wearing a helmet that covers your face, visored or not.  It takes a lot of practice getting used to fighting, seeing, and breathing, in a great helm or close helmet. 

With regards to purchasing armour, you can pretty-well spend whatever you want; the price range is wide open.  But, caveat emptor; you get what you pay for.  If you think you can buy a full armour for a $1,500, then be prepared to replace it on a regular basis; it won’t hold up to re-enactment combat.  Good armour is hand-crafted, and therefore expensive.  So is a good sword.  This whole discipline is not for the tight-fisted.  If you want to play, expect to pay. 

As far as a time frame for getting a harness, it varies depending on who you go to.  Some armourers have as much as a five-year waiting list.   I think the average is about two to three years.  Unfortunately, this is the current reality of purchasing armour. 

            And please, don’t order some armour, and then phone the armourer and tell him you have an event coming up!  All that does is get him frustrated and stressed.  Be patient; we’re all doing the best we can to get you your armour as soon as possible…

See the Article “Iron Tailors” by Peter at www.medievalrepro.com/Irntalrs.htm

 

 
 

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