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The untold truth of Captain America's shield

There are a few things about Captain America that have remained steadfast throughout the character's nearly 80-year history. There's his unbreakable resolve to do what's right, and then there's his commitment to defending the red, white, and blue. And, of course, there's his his iconic shield. Captain America's shield is one of the most recognizable superhero accessories of all time, and it's nearly impossible to separate the hero from his unusual weapon. Steve Rogers without his shield is like Thor without his hammer, Spider-Man without his web-shooters, or Wolverine without his claws. And while every single one of these instances has occurred in both comic books and movies, these characters — especially Cap — always feel incomplete without their usual accoutrements. But when you really think about superheroes and their associated weapons, Cap and his shield are actually pretty strange.

Thor's hammer makes sense because of its mythological roots, while the weapons of Wolverine and Spider-Man are related to their namesake animals. But a shield? For a super soldier who was created to fight the Nazis? You'd think Captain America would be carrying around an assault rifle, not an ancient piece of defense tech that he uses as an offensive weapon. And yet, somehow, Captain America and his shield just work. And that probably has to do with the fact that Cap's shield has a very complex and interesting history. So take a look below at the untold truth of Captain America's shield and find out more about this patriotic piece of personal armor.

Cap's original shield wasn't round

By now, the image of Captain America's shield is pretty ingrained in pop culture. Its red, white, and blue color scheme, its stars and stripes design, and its round discus appearance are all instantly recognizable. And of these design cues, it's the shield's particular shape that allows it to be such an effective weapon for Cap. He can throw it at his foes with great velocity and accuracy, and even ricochet it off of objects so it returns to him. And while the round shield has worked well for Cap over the decades, the character originally wielded an entirely different piece of armor.

Captain America made his first appearance in 1941's Captain America Comics #1, where he's memorably seen punching Adolf Hitler in the face on the issue's cover. In Cap's hand is a shield, but it's not his familiar round one. Instead, Cap carries a classic "heater" shield, similar to what a medieval knight would've carried. The shield is adorned with an American flag design motif, just like his later round shield, but its shape gives it an entirely different aesthetic. The trouble is, that aesthetic might not have been original to Cap, as it looks remarkably similar to the chest plate of rival MLJ Comics' (now Archie Comics) patriotic hero, the Shield. And wouldn't you know it, MLJ sent Timely Comics (now Marvel) a cease-and-desist letter about the design, and by issue #2, Cap was holding his now-familiar disc-shaped shield.

Cap's shield is made of vibranium ... mostly

Cap's most frequent shield is his iconic round one. And while the shape is part of the secret sauce that makes Cap's shield so special, even more important is the material it's made of. Cap's shield is composed mostly of vibranium, a fictional metal in the Marvel universe. Vibranium is considered one of the strongest and most durable materials in the entire world of Marvel Comics, and it all comes down to its unique properties. As you may have guessed from its name, vibranium is extremely good at absorbing vibrations. That's why Cap's shield is bulletproof, why he's able to use it to break his fall when jumping out of buildings, and why it's almost impossible to destroy (though this absorbing ability kind of flies in the face of all the ricocheting the shield does).

In addition to Cap's shield, vibranium is also closely associated with the African nation of Wakanda and its king/hero, Black Panther. The advanced country has a huge stockpile of vibranium, and the Wakandans use it in virtually all of their technology — including in Black Panther's superhero suit. 

But Cap's shield is generally considered a step above even the vibranium artillery found in Wakanda. That's because the shield isn't entirely vibranium. Instead, it's a blend of an experimental steel-alloy and vibranium that was accidentally invented by metallurgist Myron Maclain during World War II, while he was trying to create an indestructible metal for the U.S. government. It's this special blend, sometimes referred to as proto-adamantium, that makes Cap's shield one of a kind.

FDR gave Captain America his shield

Captain America is a product of World War II. Created before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and thus before the U.S. entered the war, Cap was nonetheless still clearly in favor of an interventionist strategy for America — hence him punching Hitler in his first appearance. So it makes sense that the man who gifted Cap his most recognized possession would be the president who led America into the war: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

While FDR did appear in some Timely (aka Marvel) Comics issues of the time period (he made his debut in 1940's Marvel Mystery Comics #10), he wouldn't bestow the shield upon Captain America just yet. The event in question didn't occur until a retcon story decades later. Captain America #255, published in 1981, marked the 40th anniversary of its titular character, so to celebrate, Marvel re-told Cap's origin story by clearing up prior inconsistencies in order to create the definitive tale about the birth of Captain America. 

In this new version, on a day which will not live in infamy, Cap received his vibranium shield from FDR in the Oval Office. The president hyped up the new metal to Cap, while the hero excitedly remarked on how he'd be able to throw it much better than his ol' heater shield, foreshadowing what would become the character's go-to move. 

Cap has used many different shields

After swapping out his heater shield for his nigh-indestructible and eminently-throwable round shield, you'd think Cap would've been set for life. But you'd be wrong. Cap has actually used a ton of different shields over the years, even though he always inevitably returns to his classic vibranium discus. 

In the '80s, after refusing to be a government agent, Steve Rogers gave up the mantle of Captain America and took on the identity of "the Captain." This new identity came with a new costume, and naturally, a new shield. This shield was created by Tony Stark and was made of adamantium, another legendary Marvel metal that's best known for being the substance that's bonded to Wolverine's skeleton. And while adamantium is harder than vibranium, it lacks the latter's absorption properties, making it less than ideal for Cap's needs. Cap has also frequently employed a photon-energy shield. He's used numerous versions on many occasions, and they're all pretty similar. Instead of carrying around a physical shield, Cap wears a device on his person that generates a nifty shield of energy on his forearm.  

In the MCU, Cap gave up his shield and identity after the events of Captain America: Civil War. He was left without a weapon, but he was given one by Black Panther in Avengers: Infinity War. This "shield" was actually a pair of semi-retractable vibranium gauntlets, and while Cap couldn't throw them like his old shield, they still managed to come in pretty handy against Thanos' alien horde.

There have been shield-bearers besides Cap

Captain America and his shield may seem inseparable, but there are actually loads of other characters who've had the privilege of strapping on the star-spangled icon. When Steve Rogers quit being Captain America and became the Captain, it's not like his shield was locked away in a safe. It was used by the superpowered John Walker, who became the new Captain America, and would later go on to become the hero U.S. Agent while using a different shield. 

When Steve Rogers was killed after the events of the comic book version of Civil War, there was some debate over who should inherit his shield. While Hawkeye was the only Avenger who could properly throw the thing, the shield ended up with Cap's longtime friend Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier, who also took on the identity of Captain America until Rogers' resurrection and his own subsequent — and temporary — demise (this is comics, nobody stays dead for long).

Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, has also used the shield during his time as Captain America. He took up the mantle after Steve Rogers became an old man, and operated for a couple of years as the Captain America of the Marvel Comics universe, only recently relinquishing the identity back to Steve. The MCU has put the character in a similar situation, with an elderly Steve Rogers personally gifting his shield to Wilson at the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame.

Captain America's shield is extremely tough

Due to its vibration-absorbing abilities, Cap's shield is extremely tough. But just how tough is it? Over the years in the comics, Cap's shield has managed to withstand some remarkable punishment, some examples of which have stretched the bounds of believability. 

Depending on the era and writer, the Incredible Hulk is sometimes depicted as the strongest creature on Earth when he becomes enraged. And yet, by some miracle, Cap has been able to go toe-to-toe with the Hulk more than once, even taking a direct punch to the shield from the big green guy on several occasions. Remarkably, Hulk has never even put a dent in Cap's vibranium wonder. Ditto Thor and his hammer. The thunder god's weapon Mjölnir is nigh-indestructible itself, being composed of the unearthly and mystical metal uru. And yet, Cap's shield has been able to withstand blows from Thor's hammer in both the comics and in the MCU without breaking. 

Then there's Wolverine. His adamantium claws are said to be able to slice through any substance, including, presumably, vibranium. And yet Cap's shield, which is proto-adamantium — a mix of vibranium and some other mysterious alloys — has been scratched by Logan's claws numerous times with nary a mark to show for it. You can blame that on adamantium being a poor substitute in a failed recreation of the original proto-adamantium.

The shield has been destroyed many times

In spite of the brutal punishment Cap's shield has been able to take over the years, it's still been destroyed ... and more than once. The bulk of these destructions have taken place in alternate universes, or they have otherwise been reversed. 

One of the first to break Cap's shield was the supervillain Doctor Doom. In the iconic 1980s storyline Secret Wars, Doom acquired the powers of the Beyonder, one of the most powerful beings in the universe. With this new power, Doom was able to obliterate Cap and his shield, but the Beyonder soon brought Cap and his shield back to life. 

The uber-powerful villain Molecule Man, who has the ability to manipulate the molecules of anything, also destroyed Cap's shield. Not only that, but in a tremendous show of power, he did it while simultaneously disintegrating Thor's hammer, Silver Surfer's surfboard, and Iron Man's suit. He later used his powers to reassemble all of the items. 

Thanos holds the distinction of being the only one to destroy the shield in both the comics and the MCU. In the Infinity Gauntlet comic book storyline, Thanos shattered the shield with one punch while in possession of the gauntlet. In the MCU, he hacked chunks of it off with his enormous blade, and he didn't even need any Infinity Stones to do it! When it comes to wrecking Cap's shield, Thanos is clearly the king.

The MCU's Stark connection

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed a number of things from Marvel Comics. The movie franchise made Spider-Man a mentee of Tony Stark, put an Infinity Stone in Vision's forehead, and made Ego the Living Planet the father of Peter Quill. Captain America was also subject to a number of movie-specific changes, including the origin of his very special shield.

In the MCU, Cap's shield is fully composed of vibranium rather than an alloy. But that's not the biggest change to the item made by the MCU. Cap's shield also has a different inventor in the movies. Rather than being developed by accident by Myron Maclain, the shield was invented — quite deliberately — by Howard Stark, who just so happened to be the father of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. Cap selected the unassuming shield, which Stark apparently constructed using the entire U.S. military's supply of vibranium, and immediately had its mettle tested by Peggy Carter firing a few rounds into it.

It's a memorable scene in Captain America: The First Avenger, and it also served a deeper purpose than just showing how Cap got his shield. The scene also made a strong connection between Cap and Stark. This was important at the time, since Iron Man — Howard Stark's son — was the main breadwinner in the MCU, and the other characters were still unproven. The Cap-Stark connection also set up the future relationship in-universe between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, which would go on to form the backbone of the entire franchise from The Avengers on.

Cap's shield is durable enough to last a thousand years

Not only is Cap's shield immensely tough, but it's extremely long-lasting. In fact, it seems to be incapable of breaking down over time. We say this because Cap's shield is shown to be still in use, and still an effective weapon, over 1,000 years after its creation. 

In the alternate universe of Earth-691 (within the Marvel Comics multiverse, most storylines take place within the "reality" of Earth-616), there is a mutant astronaut named Vance Astro. While Astro originally hails from the 20th century, he ends up traveling through space for over 1,000 years in suspended animation until he's found by the original Guardians of the Galaxy of the 31st century (this is an entirely different team than Star-Lord's group in the MCU). Later, Astro goes on an Arthurian quest for the long-lost shield of Captain America, which is rumored to still exist ... somewhere. Vance Astro manages to find the shield, which is as good as new, and he goes on to use it as his weapon of choice under the identity Major Victory. 

They sure don't make 'em like they used to.

Cap's shield once doubled as a windshield

Most fans would probably agree that Captain America's shield is pretty darn cool. It's basically indestructible, makes for an unusual weapon, and is all kinds of iconic. But there's one incarnation of Cap's shield that is way less cool and way more, well, cheesy. 

Back in 1979, long before anyone dreamed of anything like the MCU, Captain America appeared in a low-budget TV movie on CBS. This film made considerable changes to the character, rendering him nearly unrecognizable to fans of the comics. In the movie, Steve Rogers isn't a weakling looking to fight the Nazis in World War II. Instead, he's a former Marine in the '70s, who drives a van around the country. After he's nearly murdered, Rogers is given the FLAG formula — a super-soldier serum invented by his late father — and gains superhuman strength and speed. He's then gifted a patriotic uniform (complete with motorcycle helmet) and a jet-powered motorcycle with a peculiar windshield. The windshield of the bike is actually Cap's shield, and it's constructed of what appears to be clear plastic rather than vibranium. This version of Cap detaches the shield from his bike when he wants to use it, then throws it at bad guys in dreadfully comic fashion. It's arguably the only time when Cap's shield has been uncool. Well, that and the film's sequel.

The symbolism behind Captain America's shield

There's something to be said for a hero who uses a shield — an instrument of defense — instead of a traditional weapon. There are a number of theories as to why Cap only uses a shield, but no one seems to be able to 100 percent agree on just what it represents. The most obvious symbolism behind the shield, and probably the theory that most people believe, is that the shield represents Cap's defense of American ideals. Cap is a patriot, and he defends the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that America is supposed to uphold. The shield may also symbolize Cap's non-aggression and non-lethality. He's a defender of the innocent, not an aggressor, which given his World War II origins, would make sense for a representative of the good ol' U.S. of A.

Another interesting theory, posited by author Simcha Weinstein in his book, Up, Up, and Oy Vey!, is that Cap's shield represents the Shield of David, a Jewish symbol. While Cap isn't Jewish, his creators — Jack Kirby and Joe Simon — very much were, and they purposely created Cap to fight the Nazis after seeing the atrocities being done to European Jews by Hitler.

Then there are some cynics who think the only reason Cap carries a shield is because he was a ripoff of MLJ's the Shield. Whether or not that was the case at the character's conception, it's undeniable that today, Cap and his shield are a powerful symbol to many.