Body armor has undergone a remarkable evolution over the centuries, adapting to the changing needs of warriors and law enforcement. From the earliest forms of protection to the cutting-edge materials and technology used today, body armor has a long tradition of safeguarding lives on the battlefield and in everyday life. But what is body armor? And how has in changed with advances in science and technology? Let’s cover an overview of advancements, and options that are suitable for todays threats on the battlefield and at home. 

Ancient to Modern Times

In ancient civilizations body armor was often made from materials like leather, cloth, and metal. The Greeks and Romans used bronze and iron for their armor, while the Japanese crafted armor from lacquered plates of leather or metal. These early forms of body armor provided a degree of protection against weapons like swords and arrows, but they were heavy and limited in their effectiveness.

Medieval body armor
Medieval body armor

As technology and weaponry advanced, so did body armor. During the Middle Ages, knights wore suits of armor made from interlocking metal plates, providing better protection with a limited degree of mobility. However, these suits were still heavy and cumbersome.

In the 20th century, the development of modern fibers like Kevlar revolutionized body armor. Kevlar, a lightweight and flexible ballistic material, is ideal for bulletproof vests due to its incredible strength. Kevlar was quickly adopted by law enforcement officers and the military for its high protection level against handgun rounds,shrapnel, and blunt force trauma. Modern ballistic vests have also expanded to incorporate ceramic plates, designed to absorb kinetic energy, can stop high-velocity and even armor-piercing rifle rounds.

Kevlar sheets
Kevlar Sheets

Ancient body armor, while innovative for its time had several limitations when compared to modern standards. These limitations stemmed from the materials used, the design of the armor, and the manufacturing techniques available at the time.

As times changed the ballistic materials used in ancient body armor which previously provided protection began to show their limitations. Weaponry always advances faster than what can defeat it, and as gun powder became more prevalent and found its way onto the battlefield metal armor and heavy cloth which was effective against swords and arrows offered little protection against bullets.

An interesting note on this, the Conquistadors actually found some limited success, as their armor was curved to a point in the middle leading to glancing shots that would deflect lead rounds. 

Furthermore, ancient body armor was prone to damage and wear over time. Leather and cloth could become brittle and tear, while metal armor could rust and corrode, not to mention damage from battle that could only be repaired so many times. 

Finally, ancient body armor was often handcrafted, leading to inconsistencies in design and quality. This made it difficult to produce armor that offered consistent levels of protection, but also why blacksmithing was such a valuable trade. 

In contrast, modern body armor, made from materials like ballistic steel and Kevlar, offers improved protection against blunt trauma and is incredibly strong.

Today, body armor continues to evolve, with new materials and technologies constantly being developed. Advanced ceramics, like boron carbide and silicon carbide are being used to create lighter armor that effectively absorbs kinetic energy. Additionally, new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing are allowing for more precise and customized armor designs.

Body armor has come a long way from its humble beginnings. From the leather and metal armor of ancient times to the high-tech materials and manufacturing techniques of today, body armor has evolved to provide better protection against advancing technology. 

Modern Materials in Body Armor

Modern body armor, designed to absorb kinetic energy, has evolved significantly from the days of leather, cloth, and metal. Today, advanced materials like steel, metal alloys, silicon carbide ceramics, and high-strength synthetic fibers are used to create body armor that offers superior protection and performance.

Steel Armor for Ballistic Resistance

Steel armor is the most common form of civilian body armor in circulation today. It is known for its high strength, hardness, and ease of manufacturing, making it an affordable and effective material. Steel is more resilient than other materials due to its high hardness and durability, giving it the ability to provide greater protection against successive hits. Steel body armor, effective against blunt force trauma, shatters incoming projectiles due to its hardness, preventing breakage like ceramics.

Types of Steel Used in Body Armor

There are several types of steel commonly used in body armor, each with its own composition and characteristics. First, for clarification, the “AR” prefix denotes the “Abrasion Resistance” of the steel as measured on the Brinell Hardness Scale. The higher the number the harder the steel is, but also the more brittle.

  • AR500 Steel: AR500 steel is a high-strength, abrasion-resistant steel that is commonly used in body armor. It is known for its toughness and ability to withstand repeated impacts without deforming or breaking.
  • AR550 Steel: AR550 steel is a higher-strength version of AR500 steel, offering greater protection against ballistic threats. It will generally be roughly one pound per plate lighter than AR500.
  • AR600 Steel: AR600 steel, used in armor plates, is an even higher strength steel that is used in body armor to lower the weight by about 1.5-2.5 per plate, the initial hardness allows Tacticon AR600 plates to stop 300 Win Mag.
  • AR1000 Steel: AR1000 steel is incredibly high hardness steel that again weighs even less. The high hardness also increases the ballistic protection against faster 5.56 rounds but can make the plate brittle against 7.62×51 and other calibers that deliver more energy. 

Advantages of Steel Armor

There are many benefits of steel body armor that have led to its popularity overtime. 

  • High Level of Protection: Steel armor provides rifle rated protection against ballistic threats. It is capable of stopping bullets and other projectiles. Nearly every piece of steel armor on the market is meets NIJ level III body armor or level III+ specs. 
  • Durability: Steel armor is highly durable and can withstand repeated impacts without deforming or breaking. This makes it an ideal choice for body armor that needs to withstand harsh conditions and heavy use. Due to the nature of steel and with quality coating steel armor will last virtually forever, and most plates are sold with a warranty period of 20 years.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Steel armor is more cost-effective than other materials like ceramics and high-strength fibers. 
  • Availability: Steel armor is readily available and can be easily sourced from a variety of suppliers and manufactures. 

A few quick notes based on the lists above, in terms of weight a properly coated 10×12 plate of AR500 steel armor will be roughly 8-10lbs. The steel itself is actually only about .30s of an inch thick, but any quality plate should come with a full fragmentation coat to protect the steel from rust and the wearing from spall and fragmentation.

Coated steel armor
Steel armor pre and post coating

Spall is what happens to steel on the opposite side of a bullet impact, where small parts of metal break off from the plate itself due to the impact. Fragmentation is the actual bullet fragments, which disperse in all directions at a high rate of speed after impact.

It sounds scary, but with a quality coating fragmentation will be stopped for several rounds.

When compared to other materials steel armor offers comparable ballistic resistance and performance at a generally lower cost. However, steel armor is typically heavier than these materials, which is a drawback. Nonetheless, steel armor remains a popular choice for reliable protection and durability in their body armor. There are many options for steel plate carriers on the market. 

Ceramics for Lightweight Protection

Ceramic plate body armor plates has come incredibly far in the last few decades and is a viable alternative to steel armor. While there are many different options for ceramic plates, many offering greater protection than steel and bring the advantages of light weight body armor. The ceramics used, including boron carbide, are incredibly hard, yet still lightweight, and utilize a backing material to catch fragmentation and mitigate the force of the impact.

Ceramic plate body armor
Ceramic composite armor

High-Strength Fibers for Durability

High-strength fibers like Kevlar® and Dyneema® are commonly used in bulletproof vests for their protective qualities. These fibers are known for their lightweight nature and high tensile strength, making them great for soft body armor that still allows for flexibility and movement. High-strength fibers are used in soft body armor to provide protection against handgun rounds while still remaining lightweight and providing more coverage.

Performance Standards and Testing

Performance standards for body armor is set by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). These standards define the minimum performance requirements that body armor must meet to be classified as a certain level of protection. 

NIJ Standards and Ballistic Testing

The NIJ standards for body armor are based on extensive research and testing to determine the level of protection needed to stop various types of bullets and other projectiles. These standards define the different levels of protection offered by body armor, ranging from Level IIA to Level IV. Each level of protection is designed to stop specific types of bullets, with higher levels providing greater protection against more powerful ammunition.

To evaluate the body armor level, the NIJ conducts ballistic testing using standardized procedures. This testing involves firing bullets at the body armor at specified velocities to determine whether the armor can stop the bullets and prevent them from penetrating the armor. The results of these tests are used to determine whether the body armor meets the requirements of the NIJ standards and is capable of providing the level of protection specified by its rating.

Overview of NIJ Standards

As of November the NIJ has finally published the standards they released in 2018. We have previously published an extensive article on body armor that dives more deeply into the development of the new standards, but we will go over the basics of the new NIJ 0101.07 standards here. 

  • RF1: (Previously NIJ .06 Level II)This level of protection is designed to stop 9mm and .357 Magnum ammunition fired from handguns. 
  • Level 2: (Previously NIJ Level IIIA)This level of protection is designed to stop 9mm, .357 Magnum, and .44 Magnum ammunition fired from handguns, as well as 12-gauge shotgun slugs.
  • RF1: Defeats M80 7.62×51, the previous test round for level III, except it only needs to defeat three rounds instead of six. In addition these tests now also require that it must defeat 3 rounds of 7.62×39 and three rounds of M193 5.56. 
  • RF2: This level is basically level III+ it must stop all the same rounds as RF1 plus M855 5.56 which has a small steel core. 
  • RF3: This level is the only level IV, there were no changes or updates, it must stop one round of M2 AP (armor piercing) 30.06 and a lesser threat. 

The NIJ standards for body armor play an important role by being the gate keeper for modern body armor, a certified piece of armor means a lot for the company.

Testing is rigorous and expensive, once a piece of armor passes there can be no deviation in the manufacturing process, and several pieces are randomly selected to undergo a FIT test to determine continued compliance.

Nij label
Official NIJ label

Be wary of labels that say NIJ compliant, or tested to NIJ level___, because this is not the same as NIJ certified. 

Emerging Technologies in Body Armor

Metal body armor plates have been used for centuries, and the current steels used are very durable, leaving no end in sight for its continued use. However, science advances every day, meaning body armor will continue to become more effective, and lighter. 

Advancements in Material Science

Advancements in material science have led to the development of stronger and lighter body armor materials. For example, the use of high-strength fibers like Kevlar® and Dyneema® has allowed for the creation of body armor that is both lightweight and highly protective. Additionally, advancements in nanotechnology have enabled the creation of body armor with enhanced ballistic resistance and durability, although this is still in R&D.

Applications and Considerations

When choosing body armor you must understand the differences and consider carefully what you need. For example, the most important considerations should include the level of protection needed and the comfort of the armor. Different types of body armor are available for various uses, including military, law enforcement officers, and civilian applications.

Choosing the Right Body Armor for Your Needs

Selecting armor is a personal decision, and one you want to feel confident in. There is nothing worse than spending a few hundred bucks and realizing you bought the wrong thing, and having to spend more. For some basic examples, the average military personnel are issued soft body armor and level IV plates. The soft armor is for shrapnel, handgun rounds, and explosives, whereas the plates are for rifle rounds and direct fire.

The vast majority of law enforcement is issued bulletproof vests made of soft body armor due to the high incidence of handgun involvement in shootings. Officers may keep rifle plates in their vehicle for an active shooter or other similar situations. Those in rural areas may opt to wear soft armor vests that feature a pocket for a thin, light rifle rated plate to wear in conjunction with their Kevlar.

Many civilians choose steel plates, as they protect against the most common threats in the civilian world. While they may be heavier than more expensive ceramic options they are often half to a quarter of the price. Additionally, the weight matters a lot less for civilians as the armor is not worn on a regular basis or for long periods by most. In urban environments one may forego rifle armor completely and opt for a vest of soft armor for the additional coverage and weight savings.

Finally, for those who want constant, available, and desecrate protect, a bulletproof backpack may be the way to go.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Body Armor

Body armor is not regulated in most countries, unless it is rifle rated armor. In fact, in the U.S. ITAR restrictions mandate that we cannot export Level 4 body armor without approval, however sales to U.S. citizens are unchecked. In other countries rifle rated armor can be illegal depending on the country, and others have laws for handgun armor. 

Overview of Laws Regarding Body Armor

The laws and regulations regarding body armor vary significantly from country to country and even within regions of the same country. In the United States, body armor is legal (Except for New York residents) everywhere for civilians to own and wear, but there are restrictions on convicted felons and individuals with certain violent convictions. Some states also have specific laws governing the purchase and use of body armor, such as requiring a permit or license. For example, New Hampshire requires all sales to be in person. 

In other countries, such as the United Kingdom there are stricter regulations on the possession and use of body armor. In the UK, body armor is classified as a prohibited weapon, and it is illegal to possess or use body armor without a valid permit or license.

Traveling with Body Armor Regulations

For those traveling with body armor it is important to check with your destination first. For the most part TSA will not stop you, however they have it written in the flight agreement that they can if they want to. You should expect weird looks and questions, however I have never seen them stop anyone or take the armor (But they can). 

When in doubt, do you research and determine the best course of action. This may include packing body armor in checked luggage, declaring it to officials, and providing any necessary documentation or permits.

What is bulletproof body armor made of?

Bulletproof body armor, often referred to as ballistic vests, is typically made of strong, lightweight materials such as Kevlar® or Dyneema®. These materials are woven into layers to create a flexible, yet highly protective barrier against bullets and other projectiles. It also takes the form of rifle armor made from ceramics, steel, and other composite materials.

What material is used in military body armor?

The military uses a combination of soft armor and ceramic rifle plates, as well as helmets made from Kevlar, to protect against blunt trauma and ballistic threats.

What are the raw materials for body armor?

There are several ranging from Kevlar fibers, UHMWPE, ceramic compounds such as boron carbide, Alumina Oxide, and ballistic steel, it all depends on the threat level of the armor. 

What is the strongest material for armor?

Ceramic body armor plates are the only material used in armor that can achieve NIJ level IV or the new RF3 standard in the form of composite plates. For this reason ceramic composite is generally considered the strongest, however steel is the most resistant to repeated impacts, even in the same area.

Final Notes

Body armor is a foundational piece of protective equipment that has evolved significantly over time. From ancient times to modern innovations, body armor has undergone numerous advancements in material science and technology, resulting in stronger, lighter, and more effective armor.

The use of advanced materials like steel, metal alloys, silicon carbide ceramics, and aramid fibers like Kevlar have revolutionized body armor, providing users with enhanced protection and comfort. These materials offer superior ballistic resistance and durability, making them ideal for body armor applications

The industry has come a long way from the rudimentary craft of ancient times to make ballistic protection that can be trusted, in whatever way of life you are on.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.

1 thoughts on “The Science Behind What Body Armor is Made of

  1. Liam says:

    Informative article Jason, thank you for the insightful information. Curious, will Tacticon Armament be delving into the AR1000 Steel Armor arena?

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