Q&A: Drowning in Armor

Hello, I was wondering if it would be possible for a man’s armor to weigh him down enough to cause him to drown? Like of he were on a ship and was wearing really heavy armor, and he fell off the ship would be be unable to float

The short answer seems to be: yes, though that’s not really a full answer.

Generally speaking, the position is you can’t swim in full plate, and this appears to be mostly true. The extra weight and lack of articulation mean it will be much harder for you to break surface. In deep water, for example during a naval engagement, this is likely a death sentence.

Worth noting that full plate, usually, only weighed around 70 pounds at the most. (Your average full plate combatant would be wearing around 50lbs of armor.) It was entirely possible for someone wearing this to recover after being knocked down, and while there is some impaired mobility, the wearer still has plenty of freedom to actually fight, and move around their environment. Heavy armor doesn’t mean you’re trapped like a bug, if you fall over.

The weight is a factor. Any extra weight will reduce buoyancy, and making swimming much more difficult. Plate armor is quite capable of weighing you down, to the point that it really is possible (if dangerous) to walk along the bottom, while wearing heavy armor.

I’m aware of testing in the last decade, where someone attempted to swim in armor, and the results were mixed. He could, barely, and was unable to break the surface from a depth of 12ft (roughly 4m). Now, it’s possible that someone who was fully accustomed to fighting in plate may do better, but you’re still looking at a situation where your combatant would lose energy much faster, may not be able to tread water, and if they sank, would probably die.

Plate armor also limits articulation. This isn’t to the extent that it will prevent someone to get back up if they fall, but, it does cause problems with swimming. It limits your range of motion, and slows everything down a little, which has a severely detrimental effect if you’re trying to keep your head above water. So, it’s possible to swim for short distances (though, I think all of the credible reports involve knights simply walking along the bottom, and climbing out.)

Though it’s not surprising, water is not good for armor, and salt water is particularly corrosive. Just sea spray alone would seriously rust up your character’s armor long before they saw combat. This is still an issue today, and part of why most navies used gold for their rank insignia. Gold does not corrode, meaning their insignia would survive sea conditions, where most metals would not.

The other thing is, until relatively recently, armor, beyond a breastplate, was pretty uncommon shipboard. They may have some armor, sealed away below decks, being maintained for when they made landfall, but they wouldn’t wear it, even in combat. Again, the exception may be a light breast plate, and helmet, but someone trudging around in full armor would be far less safe than someone in a shirt and coat.

Even if your character wears full armor when they’re on land, they’d probably store it below, while at sea, and carefully clean it at every opportunity.

Somewhat unrelated, but also worth knowing that, historically, it was a pain to transport horses by water. Historically, this was accomplished by placing the animal in a canvas sling, to support its weight, and prevent them from being injured by the movement of the boat (or ship), while at sea. Apparently, even under the best of circumstances, sea travel was extremely stressful for the horses, and the resulting mortality rate was high. While I don’t have any hard information, I can’t imagine that many of the animals would survive if the ship came under enemy fire.

Looping back, it’s not impossible for someone to swim with 50lbs of extra weight distributed across their body, but that will require they’re a strong swimmer. It’s not impossible for someone to swim with impaired range of motion, but that will require more energy. When you put these two things together, it’s probably not impossible for someone to swim in armor, but realistically, it’s not happening.

It’s also distinctly possible that your character wouldn’t know how to swim. Historically, particularly in the early modern period (so, during the golden age of piracy), it was surprisingly uncommon for sailors to actually learn how to swim. I’ve seen speculation for why this was the case. Some reasonable factors were that many sailors, particularly in the navies, were pressed into service, without much training beyond being able to do their assigned job. Other relevant factors include the lack of agility with helming a large sailing vessel, and as a result, if you went overboard you were doomed.

So, yes, going overboard in heavy armor would kill your character, but it’s highly unlikely they’d be in heavy armor to begin with, if they were operating aboard a ship.

Since someone will probably bring this up, if I skip over it: There’s also The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, where numerous French knights became mired in knee high mud and drowned in their armor. When you read full descriptions of the battle, it sounds like they were pressed under infantry who died on top of them, and then drowned, rather than it simply being their armor killed them. The major factor here was that combat was funneled into very tight choke points, and the mass of combatants simply piled on top of each other, like a heavily armed mosh pit from hell. As a result, any of the French fighters who fell (literally fell over, not killed), were trapped as bodies pressed in behind them, and couldn’t escape the mud.


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