Ned Kelly's armour -
Photo by State Library of Victoria
During a siege at Glenrowan,
in June 1880, all four members of the Kelly gang, (Ned and Dan Kelly,
Joe Byrne and Steve Hart), wore suits of armour made from the mouldboards
of ploughshares. The armour was worn in an attempt to protect the gang
from police gunfire. Somewhat ironically, this now famous armour was
used just once, but nevertheless made the Kellys a household name. Despite
the police wanting the armour destroyed after the siege, it fortunately
survived and over a century later, the now familiar image of the Kelly
armour is ubiquitously used and easily recognised. It has even become
an Australian icon. Regardless of how one may view the Kelly gang or
their actions, the historical value of their armour is indisputable.
The origin of the idea for
the Kelly gang to make and use armour is not known. There are a number
of theories on the inspiration
for the armour, none of which are supported by evidence. However it is
widely believed that Ned himself conceived the idea. A sworn affidavit
was taken by Constable Phillips (16/09/1881) and read by Supt. Hare at
the 1881 Royal Commission (see Royal Comm.Q17786 for full conversation)
claiming that Phillips had overheard Joe Byrne saying to Ned during the
ruinous siege at Glenrowan, "Well it's your fault; I always said
this bloody armour would bring us to grief." This comment implies
that if Ned was not the instigator of the concept, he was certainly the
champion of it.
The suits would have been made to measure for each gang member. All four
suits were comprised of a steel breast-plate, back-plate, and a helmet.
Each suit also had a lappet to protect the groin and thigh area, with
the possible exception of Joe's (see 'Joe's armour' below). Ned's suit
also consisted of shoulder pieces to protect the upper arms, and a back
lappet. The suits were very heavy, Ned's being the heaviest, weighing
around 97 pounds (44kg).
The armour was made from heavy iron mouldboards from farmers' ploughs,
allegedly some were stolen and some donated, (mostly from around the Greta
district in northeastern Victoria). It is believed there were approximately
between 20 and 30 mouldboards required to make the four
sets of armour used by the gang. They were all roughly made to the same
design, although Ned's also included shoulder caps. After the siege, the
police announcement to the public that the armour was made from ploughshares
was treated with ridicule, disputed, and deemed impossible (even by an
expert plough maker).
The exact method of construction is not known for certain, however recent
scientific tests have provided more information (see below). The method
widely accepted is that mouldboards were heated in a makeshift bush forge,
and then beaten straight over a green log, before being cut into shape
and riveted together to form each individual piece, (i.e. a breast plate,
back plate, helmet, etc.). The pieces would then have been joined together,
(i.e. over the shoulders, or at the sides of the chest), by straps (most
likely made of leather). The suits were tightly fitted and the men would
have had to be strapped into them. The helmets rested on the shoulders
however, and were separate from the rest of the suit, (so would have been
able to be put on, or removed, with relative ease). Ned is known to have
had a padded fabric 'skull cap'. Holes at the top of his helmet indicate
that it was fitted with suspended straps, so his head could take some
of the weight of the helmet. This also would possibly have aided him in
a better range of movement. (Note: It is not know whether the rest of
the gang had similar skull caps).
Joe Byrne's armour was recently scientifically tested by ANSTO
(The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation). They were
able to determine the maximum heat the metal reached, the method used
to straighten or bend it, and to confirm the near age of the steel.
Their findings support the theory that the Kelly gang made their own
armour in a bush forge (which even at its hottest produced far less
heat than a professional blacksmith's forge), and confirm that the suit
is highly likely to be genuine.
(For more detailed findings - click HERE)
The people who made the armour remain anonymous. Police conducted an extensive
search for the armour's creators in the weeks and months following the
Glenrowan siege. Despite their being numerous leads, and a narrowing down
of suspects (typically local blacksmiths), no hard evidence was ever discovered.
Making the armour was, at the time, treason. Anyone involved in its production
ran the risk of being caught, tried and hanged, so it is understandable
why those with firsthand knowledge of the truth remained silent. Self-preservation
and a desire to divert suspicion from the true craftsmen were worthy causes
for Kelly sympathisers to create deliberately misleading stories about
the armour's creation. Over the years there have been various claims,
which may or may not be true, as to the identity of the creator/s of the
armour. Unfortunately none of these claims have been able to be verified
as they rely entirely on oral history.
It is worth noting that all four suits, although they vary somewhat, are
of a similar design and construction. If all the suits were made the same
way as Joe Byrne's (see above), then there is a good chance they were
all made by the gang members (and some sympathisers), rather than professional
attitude to the armour
The Victorian Police had prior warning of the existence of the armour,
its effectiveness (that it was capable of deflecting a bullet at 10 yards),
and the Kelly gangs' plans to use it for protection in a forthcoming raid.
Despite the reliability of the informant, (Daniel Kennedy who knew the
Kellys and had been a police spy for over a year), and his repeated warnings,
the idea was dismissed by the senior police (such as Superintendent Hare),
as nonsense and Superintendent Sadlier told the Royal Commission he believed
it to be "
an impossibility". Astonishingly, no
directive was ever issued to investigate the reports further. Just days
after Kennedy's third warning had been ignored; police were confronted
with confirmation of the armour's existence first hand, when the Kelly
gang demonstrated the 'impossible' armour's resistance to bullets at the
During the siege
Despite the police being forewarned of the Kellys' armour, and the apparent
ineffectiveness of police gunfire against the Kellys during the siege
(even as the gang stood in the open while being shot at), the police did
not realise they were using body protection. The siege mainly occurred
during the dark (which reduced clarity of vision), and the idea that a
gang of outlaws would have invented their own armour was not likely to
have even occurred to police, even amongst those higher-ranking officers
who had some prior warning, (which was almost certainly not made known
to the general members of the force). In fact, the armour took a long
time to come to mind even when provided with proof. Constable Gascoigne
engaged in close gunfire with Ned (whom he recognised by voice) and shortly
after told John Sadlier that he had "
fired at him point
blank and hit him straight in the body. But there is no use firing at
Ned Kelly; he can't be hurt." Sadlier wrote that even after such
a comment "
no thought of armour" occurred to him.
Toward the end of the siege, Ned emerged in the early morning light from
the bush near the inn, and made his famous and extraordinary 'last stand'.
The police he was firing upon did not recognise him, but returned fire
only to be amazed to see their bullets bounce off his chest and head.
Homemade body armour was such an unlikely expectation that, even when
only meters away, police were disbelieving. Their disbelief was such that
uncertainty arose as to whether the bullet-proof creature in the mist
was even human. Ned was verbally taunting the police at this time, and
witnesses stated they could hear a metal like sound as he banged his chest
with the butt of his gun. But it wasn't until Ned was shot in the legs,
fell, and was captured that the police fully comprehended the significance
of the armour and its effectiveness.
After the siege
Immediately after the siege members of the police force were as fascinated
with the armour as everyone else, (the press reported the incredible nature
of the armour world-wide). It didn't take long however, for police authorities
to realise the potential danger inherit in the armour. They became seriously
worried that its very image may excite the public imagination, or even
become inspiration to other would-be rebels. But mostly their concerns
lay in the possibility that the armour would be a symbol by which the
Kelly gang would be 'inappropriately' revered. Many in the police force
wanted the armour destroyed, fortunately however, after much debate it
was instead carelessly stored (without care or appropriate attention).
The armour was designed for
gunfire protection whilst fighting. It was flexible enough to be worn
whilst riding a horse, but was primarily calculated to be worn whilst
We know that the gang had
the rail line torn up (just past Glenrowan station) with the intention
to derail and wreak the specially dispatched police train, which they
knew would be sent as soon as word of Sherritt's murder reached police.
Whilst in prison and awaiting execution, Ned claimed that it had been
the gang's intention to stand nearby and shoot any survivors of the wreckage,
who otherwise may have provided resistance when the gang attempted to
take any surviving senior police hostage.
Because the Kelly gangs' plans
for Glenrowan utterly collapsed, their true and entire strategy will most
likely never be known. So it is impossible to conclude with any confidence
that the armour either did, or did not, perform successfully its initially
intended purpose. We can conclude, however, that the armour did stop bullets
from hitting most vital body organs and kept the gang alive for some time
longer than would have been expected without it.
Conversely we can also say with some confidence that had they not been
wearing the armour, escape from the police would have been easier and
even likely. Also Ned's (at least initial) belief in the invulnerability
of the armour was perhaps the main reason he chose to stay at Glenrowan
and push a poor position, rather than immediately abandon the gang's plans
and attempt to retreat.
Before it's use at Glenrowan
the armour was pre-tested by the gang and found to be effective at stopping
a bullet at a range of 10 yards and was therefore believed, at least by
Ned, to make the wearer almost invincible. During combat the armour proved
to be only partially effective in protecting the gang as it had a number
of design flaws that restricted vision and movement, as well as leaving
- Vision: The most
hindering flaw was the restriction of vision the helmet created for
the wearer. The helmets were solid, heavy and entirely cylindrical with
the exception of a narrow slit made at the front for eyesight. Wearing
a helmet significantly reduced normal range of vision, and limited it
to a narrow band directly ahead. As a result, not only was there no
peripheral vision, but also accurate aiming of a weapon was made extremely
difficult. Some evidence of this constraint was perhaps that despite
the significant number of rounds fired by the gang, only one member
of the police force (Supt. Hare) was wounded during the entire Glenrowan
- Weight: Another
significant disability brought to the wearer was the sheer weight of
the suits. Ned's own armour weighed a total of 97lbs (44kgs) and thus
would have made normal movement extremely difficult and speed impossible.
- Vulnerability: Also,
although the armour certainly protected the wearer from direct hits
to those parts of the body that it covered (i.e. head and torso) the
remaining uncovered areas were naturally left utterly vulnerable. It
was in fact this vulnerability that critically injured Ned, and killed
Joe. Both were shot in areas unprotected by their armour - Ned in the
legs, and Joe in the groin.
Joe, Dan, and Steve's suits
and Where to find them
Immediately after the siege
at Glenrowan people expressed fascination with the Kelly armour. Ned's
armour was even being tried on and photographed before the siege had completely
ended. Afterward, requests were made to the police to borrow it as an
enticement to the public to attend various charitable or social events.
The Kelly armour, or replicas, are frequently on display and never fails
to attract crowds.
Unfortunately the journey
of the sets, from their application to the present day, has not been a
smooth one. Joe's is the only suit to have remained intact since the siege.
Considerable confusion arose however, over the other three sets composition.
Because police never handled the suits with appropriate care, chaos developed
over which piece belonged with which set, and whether specific plates
were used as breast or back protection. Although Joe's armour is privately
owned, public institutions own the other three sets.