Chain Mail vs. Ring Mail – Are They the Same?

A large sheet of chain mail.

Do you remember playing the game telephone as a child where a message is passed from person to person until the last person in line repeats what he heard to the whole group?

If you do, then you recall that the final message repeated is usually wildly different from the original.

Unfortunately, this is exactly how confusion often develops around certain terms and misnomers take root in our everyday language. 

As you learn about the art of making your own chain mail, at some point you will likely run across the term ring mail and wonder if it refers to your chosen hobby or is something else entirely. 

What is the difference between chain mail and ring mail? Chain mail is the term used to describe traditional body armor made of interlocked metal rings and, more recently, the art of using jump rings to create jewelry and other items. Ring mail refers to a garment with rings attached but not linked, but its past existence is highly debated.

It can be embarrassing to be caught using the wrong terminology.

As you read through the following, you will clearly understand the difference between chain mail and ring mail and why the two terms are sometimes confused.

Chain Mail Vs. Ring Mail

The terms chain mail and ring mail are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. 

If you are thinking about learning how to create garments, jewelry, or other items by interlocking metal pieces together, you should be aware of the correct terminology associated with your new hobby.

Chain Mail

Technically, chain mail refers to the flexible, heavy body armor made of interlocking metal rings that was popular among soldiers and knights during the medieval period in Europe. 

Although brass and iron were occasionally used when making mail, steel was by far the most popular material due to its strength. 

Mail reigned supreme until the rise of the more protective plate armor in the 14th century.

However, plate armor was much too expensive for most people of the time to consider, so the use of mail persisted until the widespread use of guns proved the covering to be outdated and ineffective.

Prior to the 18th century, this type of protective covering was simply referred to as mail, meaning mesh or mesh net. 

It’s interesting to note that the word itself only referred to the armor material, not a specific garment.

For instance, a knee-length shirt of mail is called a hauberk, a hood to cover the head is a coif, and coverings for the legs are called chausses.

The word chain refers to a series of interlocked metal rings.

It is thought that when the term mail began to be used to incorrectly describe any protective armor, the need arose for a way to distinguish between true mail and other armors.

Hence, the word chain was added to eliminate any possible confusion, although it is rather redundant to use both words when speaking of true mail.

Chain Mail in Modern Times

Because not many people today walk around in full mail, the term chain mail has evolved to include a variety of crafts made with interlocking metal rings known as jump rings, though true historians would certainly not agree with this current usage of the term.

Today, chain mail crafters enjoy make all kinds of items including:

  • Garments, such as shirts and bikinis.
  • Gloves to protect the hands while using knives or saws.
  • Historical replicas for plays, events, etc.
  • Scrubbers for scouring dirty pans.
  • Jewelry items, such as bracelets, rings, and necklaces.
  • Decorative items, such as interesting wall hangings and candle holders.

Although many people like to make their own jump rings out of various wire gauges and materials, many others simply buy jump rings in bulk for whatever project they happen to be working on.

Jump rings can be found in bright aluminum, copper, sterling silver, niobium, silver or gold filled, brass, plated metals, metal alloys, and metals with various finishes.

Though jump rings used for chain mail work are typically round, they do also come in other shapes, such as oval and triangle.

You can find jump rings in a variety of colors, various gauge sizes (how thick the metal is), and different diameters to accommodate any project from a full mail suit to a simple ankle bracelet.

Know that projects made with larger jump rings will lack the rigidness of those constructed from smaller rings, but the larger rings are much easier to manipulate.

Ring Mail

The term ring mail is used to refer to a piece of cloth or leather that has metal rings sewn onto it. The rings, however, are not interlinked in any way. 

This type of “armor” is significantly inferior to traditional mail in that it is incapable of preventing damage caused by the thrusting of a sword or other sharp, penetrating objects. 

In fact, there hasn’t been any archaeological evidence found to prove that ring mail was ever used in European battles of any sort, though some evidence seems to indicate that it may have been used elsewhere in the world, though only rarely. 

Some think that forms of ring mail may have been worn underneath true mail (and the associated padding worn in conjunction) to provide ventilation and an additional protective layer, as the mention of eyelet doublets (thought to be a variant of ring mail) in historical documents seems to suggest.

However, many believe that ring mail never existed at all. “Ring mail” would more accurately be termed ring armor, as mail, if you recall, is mesh formed from links purposely connected to one another.

With “ring mail,” the links may lie adjacent to one another, but they are not connected to each other or anything else other than the fabric.

While ring mail’s existence in history may be a moot point as far as you’re concerned, you should know that if you’re working on a project that involves linking metal rings together to form a flexible, durable mesh material, you are not making ring mail.

The correct term in modern times would be chain mail or simply just mail.

Why the Confusion?

Scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries are blamed for much of the confusion that exists today over mail terminology, according to Arador.com.

Two historians in particular seem to be at fault. 

In the later half of the 1700s, Francis Grose, a Victorian writer, was one of the first to use the term mail to describe any form of body armor made of metal.

His use of the word in this broad, general manner would include plate and scale armor, neither of which are true mail.

Samuel Rush Meyrick, a writer in the early 1800s, is credited with contributing to the confusion as well.

While studying and attempting to interpret mail featured in various illustrations and tapestries of his contemporaries, he invented several terms to describe what he thought he was viewing.

These terms included banded mail, trellised mail, mascled mail, and, you guessed it, ring mail.

Since then, scholars have determined that most of the renderings Meyrick was studying were likely simply the artists’ attempts of reproducing the basic European 4-in-1 weave, and thus, Meyrick’s supposition that the depicted patterns actually existed has been largely discredited.

Additional Confusion in Modern Times

Popular books, such as Three Hearts and Three Lions; book series, such as A Song of Fire and Ice (and its award-winning, derived TV series Game of Thrones); and games, such as Dungeons and Dragons have also likely also contributed to the confusion that exists with the two terms.

Related Question:

What Is the Best Way to Start Learning Chain Mail Weaves?

Ideally, beginners should spend a fair amount of time watching a few basic weaves being woven by someone with experience.

This is often done through videos, but a face-to-face lesson is often more helpful as you can ask questions and hear feedback as you attempt a couple of weaves.

Books and online tutorials with plenty of illustrations are also helpful as you can work on each step at your own pace.