The History of Body Armor, From Medieval Times to Today

The History of Body Armor, From Medieval Times to Today

Sam Bocetta

When writing about the history of military weapons and equipment, most people tend to focus on guns and ammunition. They point out that both small arms and artillery shells have grown more and more powerful with every passing decade.

What a lot of people forget to explain is the reason why bullets get more powerful. Since the invention of the first bullet-proof vests in the late 19th Century, every generation of soldier has worn increasingly sophisticated protection. There has been a true arms race, where every advance in body armor has required a more penetrating round to overcome it, before these more powerful rounds are again defeated by better body armor.

Today, I’m going to look at this untold story, tracing the development of body armor and some other types of protective gear from the early 20th Century to today. But in order to understand the body armor of today, we first have to go right back to where it all began.

The Early Modern Era

The invention of true “body armor” directly followed the development of ranged weapons. As soon as muskets became widely used in the 16th Century, soldiers sought some form of protection against projectiles.

Unfortunately, the only materials available to early ballistics engineers – metal plate – was not very good at deflecting or absorbing the energy delivered by gun fire. The earliest recorded types of body armor were closely modeled on the plate armor worn by medieval knights, and while this was good at protecting the wearer against edged weapons, even early musket balls would go straight through it.

During the English Civil Wars, some developments were made. Soldiers were issued with musket-proof cuirasses which consisted of two layers of metal plate, one softer than the other. The outer layer was designed to absorb a bullet’s energy, and the thicker, softer inner layer then slowed the bullet to prevent penetration.

This, surprisingly, is exactly the same principle used in modern-day body armor. It’s also worth noting that, even at this early stage, some armies were experimenting with soft armor – in medieval Japan, armor was made of many layers of silk.

The 19th Century

As firearms became a standard weapon in the middle of the 1800s, many manufacturers sought to make bullet-proof vests. It seems that the earliest mention we have is of a tailor in Dublin, Ireland, who offered such vests for sale in the 1840s. However, these vests remained quite rare, if only because they didn’t actually offer that much protection.

That didn’t stop people trying to make better body armor, though, and the 19th Century brings many tales of criminals fashioning their own protective gear. The most famous of these is Ned Kelly, an Australian outlaw who beat ploughshares into rudimentary armor. He used a makeshift forge, deep in the bush, to beat metal plates into something resembling armor. In the end, however, the fact that his homemade protective gear did not protect his arms and legs led to his downfall.

The 19th Century presents some other strange stories. At various times and places, it was reported that bullets had been stopped by silk handkerchiefs. Being ignorant of the earlier Japanese experiments with silk, these reports caused much interest, and grand claims were made about the impermeability of silk to bullets.

In an era of assassinations, many royal families were especially interested in garments that could stop bullets! In fact, it is thought that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, owned a silk vest that would have stopped a bullet. If only he had been wearing this vest when assassinated in Sarajevo, the First World War might never have happened.

The First World War

The soldiers in World War I were, by modern standards, dangerously unprotected from enemy gunfire. Though there were several attempts to develop body armor for soldiers of all the nations involved, two obstacles prevented these designs from being adopted. The first was that, even by the 1910s, the only way to make body armor was from metal, and this impeded troops’ mobility too much to be practical. The second problem was cost – with millions of soldiers deployed by most armies, making and issuing body armor to infantry soldiers would have made the war even more ruinously expensive.

That said, some soldiers did wear armor during WWI. German machine gunners, in particular, were issued with “lobster armor” that effectively stopped small arms fire, even if it meant that they could not move. The US also tried to develop body armor for its soldiers, but with the lightest models still weighing 40 pounds, they were not widely adopted.

This lack of protection was one of the major reasons why the First World War was so costly in terms of lives lost. The British Army Medical Services released a report, towards the end of the war, that said that up to 75% of all battlefield injuries could have been prevented by effective armor.

Between The Wars

Body armor was not really regarded as an essential military item until several years into WW2, and as a result the development of effective protection for soldiers did not advance much between the wars.

However, soldiers were not the only people who needed protection. During the 1920s and 1930s, the era of Al Capone, criminal gangs in the US started to experiment with improvised armor made from compressed layers of cotton padding and cloth. These items were light enough to still move around in.

Though they didn’t provide all that much protection against bullets, it must be remembered that the guns issued to law enforcement in the US at this time were quite under-powered by today’s standard. These vests would stop .22 bullets, and even .45 ACP rounds if fired from a distance.

This is the reason why the FBI and other law enforcement swapped to a larger cartridge – the .38 Super, or the .357 Magnum. These rounds are still the choice for law enforcement officers today, and it may be surprising to learn that they were originally adopted to overcome body armor.

The Second World War

During the early years of World War 2, military planners were still stuck thinking about the last war. As a result, they didn’t really prioritize the development of body armor. As the war progressed, however, it became increasingly apparent that body armor was a necessity for certain types of troops.

From 1940, the first recognizably modern form of body armor started to emerge. The British led the way, issuing armor made of manganese plates to anti-aircraft and naval gunners. These vests were enormously popular, because for the first time they provided protection against low-velocity projectiles while still allowing the wearer to move around.

What really spurred on the development of modern body armor, however, was the bombing campaign in Europe. By 1943, it was recognized that the majority of injuries to bomber crews was caused by (relatively) low-velocity shrapnel, rather than by bullets. This led to Wilkinson Sword developing the first “flak jacket”, made of nylon.

The first signs of truly modern body armor, however, would have to wait until the closing year of the war. The US, having finally recognized the importance of issuing effective armor to its soldiers, had developed bullet-proof vests made of Doron Plate, a type of fiberglass laminate. Vests that incorporated these plates were first used by tank crews in the Battle Of Okinawa.

Post War

It was clear by 1945 that laminate plates were the way forward when it came to body armor. During the Korean war, a number of new vests were produced for US infantry soldiers. The most commonly used was the M-1951, which used either aluminum or plastic plates to stop projectiles.

Officially, it was claimed that these vests were able to stop 7.62mm rounds at point-blank range, but in practice it was found that they were not that effective. Still, they offered good protection at range, and also against bomb fragments, and slowly became an important part of the modern infantryman’s kit. 

Developments in non-military body armor were also made during this period. Smith and Wesson started to market a “barrier vest” for law enforcement officers in 1969, and this quickly became a popular item. It used a combination of quilted nylon and steel plates, and was the first “bullet-proof” vest to see widespread use in non-military contexts.

The Revolution – Kevlar

The next big advance in body armor, and the one that set the mould for armor produced up until the modern day, came in 1971. Stephanie Kwolek, a research chemist working for DuPont, was experimenting with liquid crystalline polymer materials. After much work, she finally found a material with exceptional strength and stiffness, and this material came to be known as Kevlar.

Kevlar was a revelation. When woven and layered into a fabric, it has five times the tensile strength of steel, whilst still being flexible and lightweight. The potential of the new material was instantly recognized, and by the mid-1970s it was being tested by the National Institute of Justice with a view to producing Kevlar vests for police officers.

A Kevlar vest, the K-15, was adopted by law enforcement in 1975, and still forms the basic design of body armor in use today. It used 15 layers of Kevlar, and also incorporated a steel plate that sits over the heart of the wearer. This “Shok Plate” is still in use today, because it significantly reduces blunt trauma and provides extra protection for the heart and sternum.

By the 1980s, between 30% and 50% of law enforcement officers wore Kevlar vests on a daily basis, and they saved many lives. By 2006, it was estimated that some 2,000 lives had been saved by the introduction of body armor in the police force.

Today

That just about brings us up to the modern day. Though the Kevlar vests of the 1970s still form the basis of most modern body armor, it is also worth noting that, even now, no vest will be able to stop every bullet or projectile.

In practice, there is a compromise to be made between mobility and protection. Especially in modern warfare, where troops are expected to be extremely active, wearing truly “bullet-proof” vests would be an impediment. In most cases, the vests issued to US service-people today are designed to stop 9mm rounds, 7.62mm rounds at range, and most shrapnel.

Recent trends in body armor are surprising when looked at in a historical perspective. For many years, the primary focus of body armor development was to provide greater and greater protection. This process now seems to have peaked, and in fact the most recent forms of body armor provide less protection than those of the 1970s, because it is felt that improved mobility makes up for this.

Alongside this development, there has been a long-overdue focus on providing protection to other areas of the soldier’s body. The modern US infantry soldier carries a huge range of protective gear, including glasses to prevent eye damage and ear plugs to prevent hearing loss. While getting hit by a bullet is worse than losing your hearing, in reality it is a pretty rare event, whereas even now many servicemen come back from the field with irreparably damaged hearing.

The Future

Since Kevlar revolutionized body armor, research has been ongoing into similar fabrics. A number are now produced by a variety of different companies, such as DSM's Dyneema, Honeywell's Gold Flex and Spectra, Teijin Twaron's Twaron, Pinnacle Armor's Dragon Skin, and Toyobo's Zylon. These new materials offer even greater penetration protection than Kevlar, and promise to become standard in the body armor of the future.

Looking further ahead, it is reported that the US military is now working on body armor that makes use of rheology – the technique that is used to produce elasticity in skin care products and advanced automotive devices.

Whatever the future, however, there is definitely no sign of body armor disappearing. Ever since its beginnings in the 16th Century, it has has become an increasingly important part of a modern soldier’s equipment, and today it is all but essential.

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