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"Portable Shield for Skirmishers." Patent no. 21726, filed by Robert Larmour, 1885

 

Patent no. 21726. Filing year 1885.

"Portable Shield for Skirmishers," Robert Larmour.

It is difficult to design innovative equipment for the military, which is a conservative institution notoriously slow to change. For example, it took William Silver Oliver 15 years of persistence and modifications to get his military accoutrements accepted by the Canadian Army. Robert Larmour's "Portable Shield for Skirmishers" (above), on the other hand, never stood a chance, as the patent betrayed a lack of understanding of where warfare was headed in the 19th century.

Larmour designed the light steel shield, which he termed a "portable rifle-pit," to be carried across battlefields and periodically set up on the ground while the soldier was shooting. Spiked poles propped it up at an angle to deflect bullets while the kneeling soldier took aim through a hole in the middle of the shield. As well, small holes near the top of the shield enabled the soldier to see where he was going when he was moving.

The invention's deficiencies are clear. Infantry in Larmour's day wanted equipment to be as light and as flexible as possible, and sometimes abandoned equipment to facilitate movement. Larmour's "light" steel shield, added to the rifles and other accoutrements bearing down on a soldier, would have achieved the opposite. The holes in the shield were another problem. Larmour claimed that carrying the shield at an angle would reduce the exposure from the holes, but this would have been awkward and slowed the soldier's progress even further.

Larmour seemed aware of the drawbacks, but brushed them off. "It is not necessary for the purposes of this specification to explain how the skirmishers carrying my portable shield may be manoeuvered," he wrote in his patent application. "It will be sufficient to say that each man carries with him a portable rifle-pit, and therefore can approach the enemy with as much impunity, and with quite as good a chance of escaping being shot, as the enemy, who may at the time be protected by an ordinary rifle-pit."

By 1885, the year Larmour applied for his patent, the only shield for infantry was the rifle-pit, or trench. The last remaining vestiges of medieval armour, breast and back-plates, were used by some European heavy cavalry until the start of the First World War, but quickly proved ineffective against high-powered rifles and machine guns. From that point on, armoured vehicles protected troops on the battlefield. But Larmour would have been pleased, surely, to learn that portable shields not unlike his own saw a renaissance of sorts, as tools for special tactical police teams in late-20th century America.

References

Summers, Jack L. Tangled Web: Canadian Infantry Accoutrements, 1855-1985. Bloomfield, Ont.: Museum Restoration Service, 1992.

"Armour." Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armour
(accessed October 18, 2005).

"Trench Warfare." Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_warfare
(accessed October 18, 2005).