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July/August 2011
SpotLight

Paper Armor? Indeed.

Medieval Defense and Modern Standardization

paper armor

Karl Randall’s thesis addresses the history of paper armor.

All roads lead to standardization, even those that involve medieval paper armor. Just ask Karl Randall, whose research into medieval weaponry led him to an education in materials testing and standardization.

And, yes, you did read that correctly: armor made of paper.

Randall is a full-time lecturer in the English department at Kyungsung University in Busan, South Korea. In pursuit of a master’s degree in history, Randall researched and wrote a 2010 thesis titled, “An Investigation of Paper Armor and Its Effectiveness Against Period Weaponry.”

In the introduction to his thesis, Randall notes, “While paper armor was by no means invulnerable, it did provide an effective defense against swords, arrows, spears and even muskets from eight century CE to end of the nineteenth century CE.”

In order to prove the effectiveness of paper armor, Randall decided to do testing, but he had little idea where to start.

“With undergraduate degrees in finance and economics, I didn’t have a clear idea of how large and wide-ranging the field of materials testing really was,” says Randall. “Particularly with regard to test standards, while I understood that I wanted an evaluation of shear strength and puncture resistance of different armor samples, simulating the blows of swords and arrows, I had this vague notion that materials tests were done in some form of supermarket-like setting.”

Randall says that he directed his questions to Stephen Mawn, a staff manager at ASTM International. Mawn helped Randall understand the breadth of the testing field, which in turn led Randall to revise his approach to locating test facilities.

“Rather than start by trying to find a test lab, I needed to identify exactly which tests would best approximate the results I needed, a process where ASTM staff again provided invaluable advice,” says Randall.

Mawn helped Randall understand the complexity and specificity involved in the materials testing field. Mawn also noted that, no matter which tests Randall decided to run, in the end their applicability with regard to measuring cut and puncture resistance by period weaponry would be an approximation at best. As Mawn humorously pointed out in a quote that Randall included in his thesis as a footnote, “There isn’t much demand for that sort of thing.”

In addition to Mawn and ASTM staff managers Brynn Murphy, Jennifer Rodgers and Kevin Shanahan, Randall spoke to George Koerner, a member of ASTM Committee D35 on Geosynthetics, who was instrumental in identifying puncture resistance tests.
Ultimately, Randall used ISO 13433, Geosynthetics - Dynamic Perforation Test (Cone Drop Test), to test for puncture resistance. The standard yielded different results from Randall’s field testing and understanding the two divergent results proved to be a key point in passing his thesis defense. The difference, Randall discovered, was that quilted samples soaked in brine (a practice historically used in the construction of some types of paper armor in Korea) outperformed non-brine-soaked samples in field tests, while lab tests showed exactly the reverse.

Randall says his research into paper armor — and, subsequently, standardization — has led him to contemplate writing a follow-up to his thesis, in which he would outline the effects of salt-brine treatment used in the construction of paper armor.

“With luck, the results could potentially be used to improve modern anti-ballistic vests through the application of different surface treatments or coatings,” says Randall. “Who says the study of historical arms and armor can’t have practical applications in the real world?”