Gauntlets are a type of glove which usually runs from the forearm to the fingertips. A number of gloves are actually called gauntlets, although the context is usually clear from the usage. In most cases, a pair of gauntlets is designed to serve a protective function, ensuring that the hands of the wearer are not damaged by activities which range from sport fencing to butchering. Specialized gauntlets for a wide range of needs are sold by specialty purveyors who focus on outfitting specific professions and hobbies. Some fashion designers also use gauntlets in their designs, although these gloves serve a more ornamental function.
In the original sense, a gauntlet was a glove worn with plate or chain mail. These gauntlets were usually lined with leather to make them more comfortable, and covered in metal to shield the forearm, wrist, and hand from harsh blows. Over time, militaries evolved so that chain mail was no longer necessary, but some form of sturdy protective glove has always been required, as hands are extremely delicate and susceptible to damage in combat.
The sense of a gauntlet as a heavy, protective glove has been carried over into other fields as well. Scientists routinely use gauntlets as part of space suits and laboratory equipment to protect their hands, while biologists utilize them to handle animals ranging from falcons to feral cats. Gauntlets are also worn by butchers and other professionals in rough industry to ensure that they are not injured. They may also provide protection from cold weather, especially when lined with fleece or insulating synthetic fibers.
Many athletes also wear gauntlets as part of the uniform for their sports. In heavy combat-based sports, Kevlar® or leather gauntlets may be worn to provide sturdy protection without the weight and inflexibility of metal. Kendo and fencing both require gauntlets for practice and tournament wear, reflecting the military origin of these sports, as well as concern about the hands of the athletes.
In the sense of “throw down the gauntlet,” a gauntlet is also a glove. Traditionally, slapping someone with a glove is considered a challenge to combat, as is throwing a gauntlet in front of someone. In this usage, the word “gauntlet” is taken from the Old French gantelet, which is a diminutive form of glove. “Running the gauntlet” is not actually related to gloves; it is derived from gatlopp, a Swedish word which refers to running through a course.