shield, piece of defensive armor, worn on the arm or shoulder to ward off weapons during combat, used prior to the dominance of gunpowder. Originally for individual defense during hand-to-hand combat, it is the most primitive and universal item of defensive armor. Shields were made of hide or wood, often reinforced with metal, and could be round, oblong, or rectangular. As armies developed, soldiers carried matching shields to link together for fighting in formations, such as those used by Assyria (2500 B.C.). A soldier's body armor complemented his shield. Heavy infantry carried larger shields than did skirmishers, cavalry carried smaller shields, and bowmen often carried none. Modern riot police carry plastic shields for protection.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.