One of the issues that has arisen recently, particularly in comments, is the utility of armour. What I mean here is exactly what use armour is at a unit or army level. I suspect that a lot of the way we look at this (guilty as charged) is from the individual’s point of view, and it might be interesting to see how that changes as we move to higher viewpoints of army organisation.
Individuals, it seems, have a bit of a love hate relationship with armour. Often soldiers are being castigated for discarding it. Armour is in its classical form anyway, hot, heavy and unwieldy. And it is not actually used that much, except in a combat situation, which was not the everyday experience of any solider through history.
Despite the propensity of role players to have their characters in full armour every moment of the playing time, this was not usual. On the march, soldiers did not usually walk along in full plate. Indeed, in medieval times, arming was one of the pre-battle rituals that the likes of Richard III made into a statement about kingliness and authority. But he did not wear his battle armour all the time. He would have been seen as very strange, let alone rather smelly.
To be fair to role players, whenever they were in a game, armour was usually a good idea, as hours of walking and riding with not much happening is rather dull to role play, and so something dangerous usually did happen, at least in my experience. But I digress.
So individuals often discarded their armour, or, in an ambush situation, were not actually wearing it anyway. But this does not seem to have affected the tactics of the unit so unarmoured. A pike unit is a pike unit whether in full panoply or not. And there are therefore a limited number of evolutions a pike unit can make, whether in armour or not. Pike in the English Civil War tended to discard armour as the war went on. The reason for this is unclear, but probably has to do with mobility, uselessness against musket fire and cost.
Before anyone raises the question of musket proof armour, which is said to exist, I think it important to note that most breast-plates which were so deemed were, in fact, claimed to be pistol proof and, as a re-enactor armourer told me once, the proofing dents were all in the same place, suggested they were made using a hammer and blunt instrument, rather than proofed by the discharge of a pistol.
So, for an individual, armour may be seen as important but not that important. It is kit which can be discarded if necessary or if it seems either an encumbrance or to be unusable. In battle, to the individual, it can be very useful, even a life saver. That incoming arrow with your name on it can be deflected by a helmet, particularly if it is a glancing blow, rather than aimed directly at you. So, at an individual level, armour is a good thing in battle, saving wounds and death.
However, at a unit level, as I have mentioned, the presence or absence of armour is not going to make a huge difference to tactics. True, there may be some units which organise around who has the greatest amount of armour. Hence, in Roman times, the tribal foot of many nations featured the ones with full armour in the front ranks. After all, they could take the initial damage and let the lightly armoured ones bring up the rear.
There may also be here, of course, something to do with wealth and social ranks. The higher social rank you are, the more money you have to buy armour and the more likely you are to take the lead in a warrior situation. So the more likely you are to be at the front anyway.
However, it is also fairly clear that, for example, not all ranks in a Macedonian phalanx were armed the same. The rear ranks were more lightly arrayed, the front ranks more heavily so. Even here armour tended to be discarded to the extent that it is reported as having been re-issued when Alexander reached India and the army encountered foes who relied on firepower.
What sort of conclusions can we draw from these considerations?
Firstly, armour can be important to an individual, but does not affect the tactics or activities of the units to which those individuals belong. A pike unit is a load of soldiers armed with long, pointy sticks no matter what those individuals might be wearing.
Secondly, the impact of armour at the unit level is, presumably, to increase the ability of that unit to resist the enemy. What I mean here is that an armoured pike unit, subject to an arrow discharge, will have greater resilience to the shooting than one without armour. It is thus less likely to acquire what in modern euphemistic language is called a mission kill; by which is meant that it is more likely to carry out its task.
However, I am not convinced that the historical record actually allows us to make that big a thing about armour. The record shows that often units have operated effectively having disposed of their armour. How big an effect armour has may simply be a matter of interpretation or the records and, at the end of the day, a question of the taste of the rule designer. While for the individual soldier the possession of a bit of something between his flesh and the outside world could be of vital importance, I am not wholly convinced that we can see the effect of that in the unit as a whole.
I do wonder if the thing about armour is a legacy of older rule sets, which started out with the individual soldier and built up to an entire unit. In that case, the armour of the individual would still count, to a greater extent than, perhaps, the historical records allows.