Middle-eastern mounted warfare


How to make a kalkan shield?  

(I have been dreaming to find such an article on the net. I have not found such so I have made my own to help you.)

The shields of the Middle-east were circular and usually domed. They were constructed of many materials, including iron, steel, bronze, leather, cane, wood, even crocodile hide or turtle shell. However, iron/steel and the cane shields, called kalkan were the most frequent.
For size, thickness and other measurement see the shield section in Sources – Modern studies.

For me kalkan (wicker) shields are the most interesting. 0,5-1 cm thick sticks of different plants were sewn or woven together in a spiral shape with different types of cords to form a domed, circular shield. At the end it usually gets a metal umbo and metal rivets that hold the strapping.


I guess a lot of you are interested in kalkan shields. I typed in Google many times „how to make a kalkan shield”, but haven’t found any good English site. I have found some Polish webpage about it, and I have a photocopy of a really good, detailed Polish article about kalkan making (Norbert Kopczyński, "Próba rekonstrukcji kałkana bojowego na podstawie tarczy ze zbiorów Muzeum Wojska Polskiego"). Unfortunately some pages are missing, and I don’t find it on the net.


Therefore I offer here my attempt with pictures. Of course this is not the best kalkan shield of the world, maybe thoose Polish craftsmen would call it bad, but it is my first try. I always try to improve my methods and materials, I would be glad to get advices from experienced kalkan-makers.

I will test it against the bow (strong horn-sinew bows and war arrows) but I have no information at the moment about the strength of the original shields. Its resistance depends on the type of plant, cord material and thickness, glueing and the way of sewing. Therefore my test cannot be representative, so the main task of my shield will be participating in weapon change practice.


As I have seen on original specimens, most of the kalkan shields are based on a wooden round core of around 15-20 cm diameter. The umbo is missing on the following original specimen, so the core is visible: (note that the umbo was riveted on the wicker-part, not on the core!)

In this picture too the core is clearly visible:

It is not visible but it must be practical to form a groove on its edge to support the first row of shafts. There are two rows of holes on the core, the inner ones hold the cords for the first row of shafts, while the outer holes the second row. For too many holes would make the core weak, several cords go through one hole, thus forming triangles, as you can see on the picture.

Honestly I was impatient when I started my shield. I had no opportunity at that time to make this core, I started without it, because I was interested in the wicker work. As always, impatience has its price.:) I had problems with its form, without a perfectly round core it was impossible to keep a perfect shape, as I use naturally grown rods which are tapering. Fortunately as I proceed with the spiral, it got more and more perfect, with enough rows it become perfectly round on its own. However a shield with a core must be more robust, so you should start yours with a core. (I will try to post-core it.)

Here is a picture after post-coring: the core is made of two layers of wood riveted together that their edges form a groove to fit the first row.


What kind of plants should we use? Thoose which has strong, flexible, long, gently tapering shafts. Rattan is available worldwide, but you should experiment with the natural vegetation of your homeland. I try to portray a Mamluk, but I am not familiar with the plants of Egypt, Jordan or Syria, so I searched at home. The inner half of my shield is made of hazel (Corylus avellana), while the outer half is of willow (Salix sp.) which seems to be weaker but more flexible. Thus I can examine the difference of resistance against arrows with plants of different characteristics. On the first picture you can see a nice willow branch just worked into the shield, which tapers only 1mm/1m.


The process of barking depends on the type of plant. In the case of hazel the bark should be hulled continously as you proceed with the sewing. If you use willow, hull all the bark right after you cut it from the tree. Sometimes you can easily pull it off until it is fresh, but if it dries it will be terribly hard.


Use water!!!

The shaft will dry out and you have to sop it into water before bending further, especially when close to the core. I broke my shafts many times when I was lazy to get some water on them... The more time it spends in water, the more flexible it will be.


On the picture below you can see the trick to have an "infinite" shaft. Cut diagonally both the end of the "old" and the "new" shaft.


For sewing I use natural hemp cord of 1-2 mm diameter. I have seen many ways of sewing, I used a simple 8-form sewing between two shafts. It is quite a time and cord consuming process. First I have tried it with a big needle, but it was too hard to push through with a 2 mm cord. Now I cut the end of the cord to a pointed form and make it stiff with some glue. I pierce the shield between the two shafts with a 2 mm wire, then I can easily push the cord through it.

The weaving pattern looks like a "8" shape on two adjacent shafts. Look at the picture above. On the outermost shaft there are spaces between every round of cord. When I start a new piece of cord I make one end stiff and pointy and a knot on the other end. Push the cord through shaft 1 and 2 FROM BELOW (that way the knot on the end of the cord will be on the inside of the shield, which is covered with fabric). Then go around shaft 2 and push it between 2 and 3. Then go around 3, and push it again between 2 and 3. Now You can go again between 1 and 2 from below, but in the next space, and start again. Quite simple, do it again a couple of thousand times! ;) I always had to use my wire, that was really time consuming. I didn't manage to do it with needle, but if You use thinner cord it should be quicker with the cord on a needle.

As you can see I use a leather strap to hold the end of the shaft tight.

Here are some "real-life" pictures of the weaving:


Forming the dome:

In that Polish article I saw a professional „doming stand”, made of wood. By fixing it to the core of the shield it helps to keep the desired domed shape with every row. Again, I discovered it after I started my shield, so I made it only with „eye measuring”. As on the following picture, the desired shape can be achieved this way, too.


Both the inside and the outside of the wicker part is smeared with animal glue. This makes it more durable.



The umbo and the straps should be fixed to the shield strongly but not damaging the shafts. We need rivets, simple rivets for the umbo, but special rivets for the straps, because we have to attach rings to the inner part of theese rivets.

A simple rivet can be formed from strong wire, but an easier way is using such screws:

Cut them to the desired length, but don't forget the shims! Use shims on both side of the shield, they can also be a decoration, as on the shield above. The rivet length also depends on the padding. For example the central four rivets must be longer as they also hold the padded pillow in the centre of the shield.


An other way is to form a loop from a piece of massive wire or rod. The loop will be inside the shield and fold out the protruding two pieces on the outside:

Always make a probe piece of two short shafts, and try riveting on this probe! Never experiment with new methods on a nice, big kalkan!

Here are my test pieces: drill between the two shafts to make room and push through the screw with shims. Set it up on the anvil with the ringed part down, and start hammering the other end. Hold it perpendicular, otherwise the screw will bend sideways. To avoid rotation of the "rivet", make the hole on the shim under the ringed part of the screw not round but rectangular. This way the screw-ring gets stuck and cannot rotate. Moreover the hammering of the other end will push so hard the ringed part, too, that it won't open for sure.



Usually the inside of the shield is covered with (in most cases red) textile and there is a padded pillow in the center to protect the fist when the shield is held with the X-strap.

I have experimented with animal glue, but it made the fabric stiff, I didn't like the feel of it. So instead I secured several layers of textile with the rivets and the leather rim around the perimeter.

After the umbo is riveted to the wicker part, proceed with the central four rivets. Don't forget to put the pillow also on theese rivets.

Then complete it with all 10 rivets and sew around a stripe of leather.




The usual strapping system is the following:

- there are four rivets around the centre of the shield holding two crossed straps thus forming an X. This is big enough to grab with one hand, and this way you can hold the shield far from your body to avoid penetrating arrowheads.

- there are two rivets for one strap on the left side and other two rivets with one strap on the right side. With theese straps you can use the "typical" shield holding position. Push your forearm through one strap and grab the strap on the other side. As on most kalkans the straps are made of relatively thin cords, you can hold the bow together with the abovementioned strap. So you can shoot the bow while holding the shield which is an advantage in battle and during a siege. According to Saracen Archery, this method is "shooting from beneath the shield". As the attacker during the siege you can approach the walls crouching or on your knees while holding the shield and the bow in one hand above your head. You can reload freely with the other hand.

- there is one rivet above and one rivet below the central part. Theese two hold the long strap for carrying the shield over your shoulder. The other important task of this strap is to stabilize the shield while held together with the bow.


So on a usual kalkan you will see 10 rivets on the front in the following arrangement:

Sometimes the two rivets on one side are closer to each other than on the other side, like on the second picture, because your elbow needs greater space than your hand (especially in bazubands...)

If we have the rivets properly arranged, make the strapping:


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