Cavalier guards, the charge is short, and therefore so sweet.
The trumpet sings, the field is open, and somewhere saber ringing is heard.
The sound of strings still echoes but the captain’s already on the saddle.
Do not promise young maidens eternal love on earth
Bulat Okudzhava. Cavalier’s song
People love classifications. It makes it easier for us to understand the world. So, it makes no surprise that we often think of armor as a ladder: from leather hide to Roman armor, then on to Medieval plate armor, which was abandoned as gunpowder made it obsolete.
In fact, this oversimplified version of events forgets the cuirass or breastplate. Ubiquitous in the 17th and 18 centuries, the breastplate worn by cuirassiers in the 17th and 18th century could stop pistol and short carbine bullets even at close range as Pieter Buis and topwar.ru explain.
An Arms Race
Between the 15th and early 20th centuries, firearms got more prevalent and powerful. Armor developed accordingly, its weight of armor first stopping on a “sustainable” level, but then changing in shape. As thicker armor was needed, the coverage began to shrink from the full plate harness to cuirass, backplate, and arms and legs covering only from some angles. When the arm and leg protection got too heavy to stop newer firearms, it was removed in favor of thicker cuirass.
This could still save your life. During the Battle of Malplaquet (1709), Peter Drake got a handful of dents in his cuirass. In his memoirs, he mentions that he got shot with pistols several times. The bullets hitting his armor only left dents but at least one shot passed through his calf and the other through his shoulder. Drake lived a long life and published his memoirs.
Testing the Cuirass
In 1807, an interesting experiment took place in Russia: cuirasses were tested by shelling. They tested a lighter, privately purchased breastplate weighing 4.5kg, made of low-carbon steel/wrought iron and a German steel cuirass (these were privately allowed to be acquired by gentlemen officers). They also tested an old cuirass from the Seven Years’ War, connected by forging layers of steel and iron, whose bib weighed 6 kg. During the test, shots were fired from a 17.5mm-caliber army infantry rifle (musket).
The bullets penetrated the first cuirass from distances of 105 and 145 meters. However, the shots only sometimes penetrated the second cuirass (but not always) and they failed to penetrate the third, heaviest one.
They then fired at them with a pistol, firing from a distance of 17 and 23 meters. The bullets penetrated the first cuirass but not the other two.
They also tested a sapper cuirass made of one bib, which weighed 7 kg. At a distance of 23 m, it withstood all bullets except for Tyrolean carbine.
In principle, it would be possible to make a cuirass and completely impenetrable for the bullets of that time. However, its weight would have to be around 8 kg.
In 1825, the French produced just that: a cuirass weighing around 8 kg that protected from a musket bullet from a distance of 40 m. It had a variable thickness: 5-6 mm in the center and 2 mm at the edges. The back was very thin – just 1 mm. It cost the treasury 70 francs each.
As rifle technology progressed, so did armor. Around the 1880s, the French began to manufacture cuirasses made of chrome steel. These protected a rider from the Gra rifle bullets at a distance of 100 meters. After 1891, the French began to make cuirasses from a new chromium-nickel steel. This could withstand the standard blunt-headed with a lead core and copper-nickel sheath bullet of the French Lebel rifle of 1886 from a distance of up to 375 meters. However, an 1898 ogival bullet (the equivalent of today’s armor-piercing bullets) made of tombac alloy could pierce it from any distance.
An important thing to keep in mind is that armor, guns, bullets, and gunpowder were all ‘crafted’ from heterogeneous materials rather than manufactured from standardized materials. Even though two breastplates were of identical thickness, one might have turned out stronger than the other. The same goes for muskets and powder which, aside from their innate variance in quality, also suffered performance degradation from the weather, improper loading by the soldier, etc.
Then, there was also the intended design process itself. A lot of private purchases were just wrought iron, while state armories usually took more care to provide good steel and adequate thickness.
There are a number of French cuirasses worn at Waterloo that have non-penetrating dents from infantry muskets from Ney’s assault on the Allied squares. It required a little over 7kg of good steel to accomplish that, with the front plate running from 2mm at the edges to 4mm in the center. The backplate was only 1mm thin and probably wouldn’t have stopped bullets at all.
Of course, there are some things that no cuirass in the world can stop… like a cannonball.
A Gilded Cuirass
Not all cuirasses were mass-produced. The work of art below was produced around 1825 by Coulaux Frères, Manufacture Royale d’Armes de Klingenthal in Alsace. It is one of only two famous cuirasses with rich engraved and gilded ornamentation from the restoration of the French monarchy, and a rare example of luxurious armor from that period. It was probably specially commissioned by François Marie Louis Victor, Baron de Latour-Foissac (1851-1757) in anticipation of the coronation of Charles X of Bourbon.
As Colonel of the Queen’s Cuirassier Regiment, Latour-Foissac was the commander of the detachment that accompanied the royal carriage during the solemn procession to the Reims Cathedral. However, due to his age and deteriorating health, Latour-Voissac, an experienced veteran of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, received permission to retire from active service just two days before his coronation. The cuirass was probably worn by his successor, the Comte de Saint-Mar.
In its design, the cuirass closely relates to the standard model of 1825. However, it bears distinguishing engraved and gilded ornaments made from trophies of weapons and foliage. In concept and execution, the decor demonstrates a noticeable similarity with the blades of luxurious sabers made for high-ranking French officers at the Klingenthal manufactory from the Directory (1795 – 1799) and Restoration (1814 – 1830) eras.
The cuirass was probably engraved and gilded by François-Xavier Biche (1793-1841), who became chief engraver in Klingenthal in 1822 after the resignation of his father François-Joseph Bichat (1756-1831).
I hope all this has inspired you. Happy writing!