Shields are hand-worn armor pieces created in incredible variety of materials and shapes used to stop projectiles or redirect physical blows.
They provide passive protection by closing one or more engagement lines during combat – they are used to intercept attacks from close-ranged weaponry and projectiles such as arrows and bolts.
Shields were used for hunting long before they were used for warfare, partly for defense and partly for concealment in stalking game, and it is likely that the military shield evolved from that of the hunter and herdsman.
The size and composition of shields varied greatly, depending on the tactical demands of the user. In general, the more effective the protection afforded by body armour, the smaller the shield – similarly, the longer th reach of the soldier’s weapon, the smaller his shield.
Often shields were decorated with a painted pattern or an animal representation to show their army or clan. These designs developed into systematized heraldic devices during the High Middle Ages for purposes of battlefield identification.
The Greek hoplite, a heavy infantryman who fought in closely packed formation, acquired his name from the hoplon, a convex circular shield, approximately 90 cm (3 feet) in diameter, made of composite wood and bronze. It was carried on the left arm by means of a bronze strap that passed across the forearm and a rope looped around the inner rim with sufficient slack to be gripped in the fist.
In the 4th century BC the soldier of the Roman Republic, who fought primarily with the spear, carried an oval shield, while the later imperial legionnaire, who closed in with a short sword, protected himself with the scutum, a large cylindrical shield of leather-clad wood that covered most of his body.
In the early European Middle Ages, round shields made with light wood and reinforced with leather were designed for intercepting incoming blows to deflect them. The Normans introduced the kite shield around the 10th century, giving protection to the user’s legs.
As body armour improved, knight’s shields became smaller, leading to the familiar heater shield style. Both kite and heater style shields were made of several layers of laminated wood, with a gentle curve in cross section. The heater style inspired the shape of the symbolic heraldic shield that is still used today. Eventually, specialised shapes were developed such as the bouche, which had a lance rest cut into the upper corner of the lance side, to help guide it in combat or tournament. Free standing shields called pavises, which were propped up on stands, were used by medieval crossbowmen who needed protection while reloading.
Even after the introduction of gunpowder and firearms to the battlefield, shields continued to be used by certain groups. In the 18th century, for example, Scottish Highland fighters liked to wield small shields known as targes, and as late as the 19th century, some non-industrialized peoples (such as Zulu warriors) employed them when waging war.
During the 19th century, non-industrial cultures with little access to guns were still using war shields. Zulu warriors carried large lightweight shields called Ishlangu made from a single ox hide supported by a wooden spine. This was used in combination with a short spear (assegai) and/or club. Other African shields include Glagwa from Cameroon or Nguba from Congo.
In 20th century, use of shields by military is non-existent, and almost all shield duties are passed on to specialized units such as riot squads, anti-terrorist units, bomb disposal units and various types of special tactical unit. Modern shields are made from the mix of various build materials, which include not only various alloys of metal, but also advanced materials such as polymers, polycarbonates, transparent synthetics, and various bulletproof materials such as Kevlar and bulletproof glass. Shields are also used as a stationary protective measures, and additions to static or portable weapon stations. The Battersea Shield is one of the most significant pieces of ancient Celtic art found in Britain. It is a sheet bronze covering of a (now vanished) wooden shield decorated in La Tène style. The shield is on display
in the British Museum, and a replica is housed in the Museum of London. The Battersea Shield is currently dated by the museum to c.350–50 BC, though later dates up to the early 1st century AD have previously been suggested.
In heraldry, an escutcheon is a shield that forms the main or focal element in an achievement of arms. The word is used in two related senses. First, as the shield on which a coat of arms is displayed; second, a shield can itself be a charge within a coat of arms.
The largest human image of a shield consists of 394 participants, and was achieved by The Salvation Army of Greater Birmingham (USA) in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 16 November 2018. The Birmingham Salvation Army made the human image as a kickoff to their 2018 Red Kettle fundraising drive.
Targe was a general word for shield in late Old English. Its diminutive, target, came to mean an object to be aimed at in the 18th century.