HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY. Swedish production of steel armor started thanks to Gustav Vasa. Now one can believe that the craft has fallen into oblivion. But in Mölnbo in Sörmland there is a new armor master.
A dull banging of metal against metal fills the small smithy when a piece of annealed flat plate is hammered out into a softly rounded shape. In the warm glow of the ace, a professional appears who is the first of his kind since 1781. Albert Collins received his master’s degree in 2020, 239 years after Sweden last had an armor master. But we take it from the beginning.
– I still have old drawings of knights and armor from when I was 5-6 years old, so the interest was early. And I still remember the feeling when I saw Aranäshjälmen at the Historical Museum for the first time as a child. Then it is clear that Ivanhoe gave some inspiration, says Albert Collins and smiles broadly.
It was above all the craftsmanship and tools that fascinated him. How an armor is manufactured in practice. When he then received a weld as a Christmas present as a 16-year-old, now 30 years ago, it became the first step. He went on some live, a kind of live role-playing game, but was really most interested in the costumes.
– I made ring armor and got through the job at Fjäderfabriken Spiros which made spring steel rings for the armor. There I learned, among other things, hardening and tempering. But the most important thing was that I saw that there was a market for the type of work I would like to do, says Albert Collins.
The goal: Make armor with 16th century technology
Back to the present, he shows around his smithy, located in a whitewashed small building right next to the family’s residential building, in the middle of vast fields outside Mölnbo in Sörmland. Here he has devoted tens of thousands of hours of failures and successes to learning the profession from the ground up, and to recreating the tools used in ancient armor making from historical literature, paintings and woodcuts. In recent years, in addition, he ate what became his most challenging work: the Master’s test, which in itself became a way to revive the armaments industry as a recognized profession.
– My goal was to make an armor in the same way as in the 16th century, with the same limited set of tools. The armor itself is a combination of two in design, one worn by King Erik XIV and one by Johan III.
Albert Collins was given the opportunity to look at the preserved original armor in detail, and chose which parts would be recreated in his own master sample. The now finished armor is on display in Livrustkammaren’s ongoing exhibition Mästarprovet in Stockholm, along with the recreated tool bench.
For those who have seen the master test at the museum, or one of the film clips on social media where Albert Collins tests his armor, one thing is clear. Here is a sense of detail, where each punch, line and decoration shows a genuine interest in recreating history as it actually was.
– It is easy to get hold of cheaper, mass-produced armor. My goal is always to get as historically correct armor as possible, and there are small, small details that make a difference.
The work with a whole armor begins at a different end than the different steel constructions: the undergarments. Armor is not consistently close to the body, but in different fastening devices that run from the different parts of the garment. The extra volume of the breastplate protects, for example, the heart and lungs from indentations of sword blows and shots from muskets. The armor has developed as the weapons have become more powerful.
– In the 14th century, the chain mail was primarily protected, to be replaced by more and more comprehensive sheet metal towards the end of the century. In the early 16th century, when firearms began to be used more and more, the armor was completely played out as primary protection, even though it occurred in armholes and writing, among other things, says Albert Collins.
Different technology for “shot-free” armor part
At the end of the 15th century, parts of the armor began to be made bulletproof, mainly helmets, backs and chests.
– There are a few different techniques for making an armor part “shot-free”, as it is called in ancient writings. One way is to merge steel. Then you have hardened carbon steel on the outside and a softer steel with a lower carbon content on the back. It becomes a bit like a composite material where the hard surface stops the ball, and the soft back deforms and absorbs the energy so that the ball stops.
The plate needed to be up to 10 millimeters thick to handle the muskets of that time, which had a very large impact energy.
Very little documentation is preserved from early production, so Albert Collins has had to test himself to the right methodology. Swedish armor production begins with Gustav Vasa. During his reign, Sweden was a major exporter of steel, but imported armor and weapons. Backwards, thought Vaasa, and had the royal arms manufactories established on Jädersholme in Arboga in 1551. There was good access to hydropower, with 42 lakes that connected to the Arbogaån, and it was close to forest as fuel and building materials.
– Vaasa sent recruits down to the continent and managed to get some champions here. In Arboga, there were soon 21 different professional categories, such as swordsmen, blacksmiths and armaments makers from mainly German Augsburg and Nuremberg.
It was difficult to get the professionals to want to stay, but Vaasa paid well and eventually the expertise spread to Swedish blacksmiths and to more and more cities. The professional skills are growing, until the last known master of armor making dies in 1781: Olof Berg. The next chapter in the history of the craft came to a halt for 239 years, when the list of armor masters could again be filled in with Albert Collins’ name. And he hopes that there will be more in the future.
Facts: The road to job creation
When the idea arose to try to recreate armaments making as an official profession in 2014, Albert Collins began by taking in an apprentice in his smithy. Just getting it done according to all the rules of art was easier said than done in a profession that in practice did not exist, but it got its solution by a craft school in Leksand granted an exemption and let him set up a syllabus under his own auspices.
The next step was to contact the Swedish Crafts Council, who were positive about reintroducing the profession and with it the opportunity to get a master’s certificate by showing professional experience of ten years and proof of professionalism. The last step was the talks with the Swedish Forging Association, which now administers the profession.
Tip! The creation of the masterpiece is described in detail in Albert Collins’ book The Making of a 16th Century Armor. You can also watch films about the armor via Livrustkammaren’s Youtube channel, search for “Mästaprovet”. Via Albert Collins’ own channel, he shows how it is possible to put on the armor.
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