Body armor has played a crucial role in human warfare and personal protection for thousands of years. From ancient civilizations to modern day warfighters and law enforcement, the use of armor has evolved in response to advances in weaponry and technology. This article will explore the fascinating history of body armor, tracing its development through various eras and highlighting its impact on warfare and society.
What is Body Armor
Body armor is a generalized terminology for protective equipment. Nowadays we have Kevlar, ceramic, and polyethylene body armor for ballistic protection, but this hasn’t always been the case. Body armor is a protective garment designed to absorb or disperse the impact of a projectile, blade, or blunt force, thereby reducing injury or death. Body armor can be made from a variety of materials, such as ceramic, fiber, or steel. It may cover only specific parts of the body or offer full-body protection, depending on its intended use.
The history of body armor dates back to ancient civilizations. Warriors in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China wore padded clothing, and leather, or bronze armor during combat. The ancient Greeks and Romans further refined the use of metal armor, developing the lorica segmentata, a type of segmented plate armor made from iron strips making it more flexible than other armor of the time.
Middle Ages Armor
During the Middle Ages body armor continued to evolve, European knights wore full suits of plate armor made from iron or steel. This period also saw the widespread use of chainmail and padded cloth armor, known as gambesons. Chainmail and gambesons were often worn with or without steel plate armor. Neither offered much in the way of stab, or arrow protection, but they did protect well from slashing attacks.
Worthy note, the Spanish Conquistadors had some interesting armor. Their helmets and torso armor were highly curved, featuring a prominent peak down the midline. This made the armor much more effective against projectiles like spears, arrows, and even the early firearms of the time because the fast-moving projectile would ricochet off the curved portion and divert to either side if struck straight on.
Late Modern Era Armor (Civil War, World War I & II)
In the late modern era, body armor experienced changes as new technologies and materials became available. However, firearms made the adoption of body armor pretty much non-existent as it was woefully ineffective and tremendously heavy.
During the American Civil War, some soldiers wore iron breastplates for protection, but these were cumbersome and not widely adopted. For the most part, nobody wore armor in the civil war.
In World War I, soldiers were issued steel helmets to protect against shrapnel. These helmets did nothing to stop bullets but could prevent fragments from explosions from causing a fatal head wound under certain conditions.
Flak jackets made of ballistic nylon were introduced in World War II to protect aircrews from flying debris. Body armor for infantry was not adopted because aircrew body armor was heavy and deemed too constrictive for ground forces as it weighed 15-35 lb depending on configurations. Let’s also not forget the sheer number of soldiers deployed and the massive effort it took just to arm them.
Modern Era Armor
Thirty years post-war saw the invention and wide adoption of Kevlar. Kevlar was useless against rifle rounds but saw adoption by the military in the form of a flak jacket, and most law enforcement. Law enforcement saw varying degrees of use in the first decades Kevlar was around. Some departments and individual officers thought this was a useless and uncomfortable idea and refused to issue/wear it. Many officers in rural cities begged for it because they had seen the realities of the job.
Modern body armor consists of soft armor and hard armor plates made of varying materials like Kevlar, polyethylene, ceramic, and steel. Hard armor plates cover less of the body for weight and mobility reasons (i.e. they don’t bend). Soft armor vests are made to stop handguns, which make up over 90% of shootings, which is why they are so popular among law enforcement. Hard armor is concerned with rifle rounds, which is why the military uses it. Plate carriers and vests hold the armor and distribute the weight to keep the user balanced. Today’s body armor is lighter, more comfortable, and more effective than ever before, offering protection against a wide range of threats.
Armor Protection Areas
Helmets have long been used to protect the head in combat. Modern military and law enforcement helmets are typically made from advanced materials like Kevlar, and polyethylene, providing ballistic and impact protection. Most armor helmets are only level IIIA, however, there are some companies who have developed rifle helmets as well.
The torso is the most critical area to protect. Modern body armor typically consists of a carrier and protective plates that cover the chest, back, and sometimes the sides of the torso. Modern soft body armor is lighter than armor plates, and due to its flexible nature can wrap around the body for more coverage.
Some body armor designs also include protection for the arms and legs, such as ballistic shoulder pads. These may be used by military personnel or specialized law enforcement units. They were seen often in the early days of the Global War on Terror and were generally rated for pistol and shrapnel.
Shields have been a very protective piece of equipment during combat. Even though a soldier may have been wearing armor, a shot from a sword still does damage. A shield allows the user to block the attack, preventing injury, and allowing them to take less overall damage. Modern shields like those used by swat teams are generally only rated Level IIIA or Level III and weigh anywhere between 12-40 pounds. Often shields feature a bullet-resistant glass viewing window.
Modern ballistic shields are made from materials like Kevlar or steel and can protect against gunfire, explosives, or other threats.
Common Body Armor Materials
Ceramic materials, like aluminum oxide or silicon carbide, are often used in armor plates due to their high hardness and ability to shatter upon impact, absorbing and dispersing the energy of a projectile. Ceramic rifle plates are lighter than steel plates and can be made up to level IV plates that can stop armor-piercing rounds. The only downside is the risk of cracking, however, NIJ does drop test plates to make sure they can stand up to most uses.
Kevlar and other aramid fibers like polyethylene are commonly used in modern body armor. These fibers are extremely lightweight, strong, and capable of absorbing and dispersing the energy from pistol and shotgun rounds. However, they are limited in their ability to be used as a stand-alone rifle plate.
Steel is a classic when it comes to armor and is still capable of being used as rifle armor today. Steel is often the most affordable, but heaviest form of body armor. Steel plates prevent the risk of fragmentation and spalling when struck, so measures must be taken to prevent secondary injury.
Armor Testing and Threat Levels
Ballistic testing and standards for body armor are set by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the U.S., which categorizes body armor into levels based on its ability to stop specific types of bullets.
Ballistic testing involves firing specific ammunition at the armor from specific distances and measuring the impact. The testing is intended to measure not only whether the armor can prevent a bullet from penetrating but also the amount of blunt force trauma allowed through the armor. These standards are evolving and changing to assess protection against ever-improving ballistics.
Soft Body Armor Rating
- Level IIA will stop 9mm, 40 S&W, and 45.
- Level II Soft armor will stop 9mm, 40 S&W, 45, and 357 Magnum.
- Level IIIA will stop all of these, and also a 44 Magnum and 357 Sig traveling at 1450 FPS.
Hard Body Armor Rating
- Level III will stop six (6) shots of 7.62×51
- Level IV will stop one (1) round of 30-06 armor piercing
While these testing procedures are standard, there are many other rounds in common use, it is important to have a complete picture of the strengths and weaknesses of these levels.
Future of Body Armor
In order to discuss the future of body armor, it’s crucial you have a solid understanding of what body armor is and why you need it in the first place. The future of body armor is likely to be driven by advancements in material science, nanotechnology, and smart technology.
Lightweight and stronger materials are leading to lighter, stronger armor that can provide the same or better protection as current body armor.
Nanotechnology is showing potential in creating body armor that is not just bullet resistant but also flexible and lightweight. The U.S. Army has announced they are studying this currently.
The future of body armor is promising, throughout history as threats have changed armor has evolved to counter them. New standards are being developed to push the manufacturing of better body armor for modern threats. Regardless of the history of body armor and how technology evolves, the goal remains the same, to ensure the safety and survival of those who put their lives on the line.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.