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Body Armor Through the Ages

A tale of innovation

For as long as man has known violence, man has sought protection. You would never go into a fight without means of defense - in a fistfight, you would utilize your arms and hands to protect yourself. In a sword-fight, you would utilize special clothing, armor, and of course your blade to protect your vitals from being slashed. In a gunfight, you would utilize ballistic protection to prevent your vitals from being shot.

After all, no one plans on being injured, right?

In our current day and age, body armor has evolved into an exquisite combination of protection and mobility - the ideal duo for body armor.

But, like most man-made technology, it wasn’t always that way. Here’s some interesting facts:

  • The first “effective” body armor created for US soldiers was made in World War 1, and looked like a clanky iron man suit.

  • Prior to 2001, American body armor did not provide sufficient protection against the AK-47.

  • In 2008, a SAW gunner with a full load-out and IOTV carried over 120 pounds of equipment.

  • Between 2004 and 2007, medical evacuations from the battlefield due to spine/back injuries more than doubled those from actual combat.

  • Most of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) are not issued armor - because, as their logistics instructor has famously stated, it would “sap their fighting spirit”.

Indeed, the world of body armor is a fascinating one.

The Origins of Body Armor

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive history of body armor. There have been numerous books written on the subject, and even those can hardly capture thousands of years of human technological advancement in this sector. This is just a little article.

Naturally, the evolutionary lines of weaponry and personal protection have moved at strikingly similar rates. As mankind created deadly weapons, so did they create better protection for themselves - with some playful deviations, of course.

Our tale begins some 2 million years ago, when our descendants from the Paleolithic period utilized animal skin as protection against whatever threats they expected to encounter - be it predatory animals, rival groups, and so on. As mankind evolved and learned how to live more efficiently, that efficiency carried over into other aspects of life - including weaponry. Obviously, an animal skin is not going to be extraordinarily effective against a well-made bow, or a large rock club. So brought about the introduction of new forms of protection - including the utilization of materials like rock, bone, and metal to withstand the ever-rapid growth of weaponry.

Mail (or chainmail) appears to have been introduced around 500 BC

It may come as no surprise that the first “record” of body armor was discovered in the Middle East - Iraq, to be specific - around 2,500 B.C. The armor of this time predominantly consisted of small individual plates (known as “scales”) attached to each other, then attached to a cloth backing in overlapping rows. This quickly gave rise to varieties of plate-style armor, forged from metals like bronze.

Around 500 BC

Mail (or chainmail) appears to have been introduced around 500 BC, presumably by the Celtics, and was quickly adopted by numerous nations - most notably, the Roman Empire. It was also around this time that Lamellar armor grew in popularity in East Asian provinces, particularly in China. Lamellar is the armor you tend to think of when you think Ancient China - small, rectangular metal plates (or leather, often from thick-skinned animals like the rhinoceros), laced into horizontal rows, and often studded:

Middle Ages

At the commencement of the Middle Ages, various mail and steel plate armors were all but standard across Europe and the surrounding regions, utilized by Medieval and Renaissance knights and cavalry. These styles of armor had been virtually perfected for the needs of that time, and were quickly woven into ceremonious displays and signs of valor and respect for nobles. They were actively used by many nations, even up until World War 1 in some instances.

It was during this time that the Japanese also began producing their historically famous series of armors, ō-yoroi and dō-maru (known commonly today as Samurai Armor). These styles held and continue to hold deep ceremonial significance and value for their Japanese owners.

Middle Age Armour

As the Middle Ages progressed, mail armor and plate armor gradually became intertwined - plates were installed to protect particularly vulnerable areas, and the general rise in wars and skirmishes throughout Europe prompted a golden age of armor experimentation that lasted for several centuries. Unfortunately, the standardization of mail and plate armors made producing high-quality, lightweight armor in bulk much more difficult. Nations were prompted to utilize cheaper, heavier metals to produce it, causing the armor to become notoriously uncomfortable for the everyday soldier of the time.

The Age of Gunpowder

Gunpowder had been utilized in ranged weaponry for centuries prior to the early pistols and arquebuses of the 16th century - the acclaimed inventors were the Chinese, who utilized it in various flying projectiles that ultimately led up to the invention of the cannon. However, as smaller and more portable gunpowder weapons improved through the years, rulers and strategists quickly realized that it was much cheaper (and effective) to deploy groups of unarmored soldiers with guns, rather than knights with expensive armor. This age saw a major decline in the overall use of body armor, and set the foundation for the famous Line-Infantry tactics observed from the 17th to 19th centuries (think Revolutionary War).

Perhaps the most interesting clash of old-world and new-world equipment was the commencement of World War 1. Wars tend to push military innovation to the top of a nation’s to-do list, so it’s easy to imagine how things would advance during “the war to end all wars.”

Brewster Body Armor, 1917

Interestingly, it was not uncommon for mail and plate armor to be spotted on the battlefield at this time. Newly-invented machine guns were unreliable and not incredibly prominent, and the infantryman's rifle was not yet advanced enough to dissuade old-fashioned countries from… well, doing things the old-fashioned way. Even World War 2 saw this type of fighting from countries conquered by Germany early on - Poland was particularly famous for charging German tanks on horseback, and even winning several battles with this method.

Due to the major stunt in body armor advancement brought about by this time, nations had a hard time figuring out whether or not personal body armor solutions were even viable - a dilemma that persisted for almost a century. As was shown above, some funky ideas were developed, including full-metal suits. Ultimately, most nations chose to almost entirely drop body armor (with the common exception of helmets) in favor of camouflage and lighter clothing that allowed armies to move long distances quickly. This is why you usually don’t think body armor when you think World War 2, Vietnam, and so on.

Group of U.S Soldiers wearing armor during World War Two.

However, it is now much less imperative for soldiers to cover massive amounts of ground on foot - we don’t see a lot of modern-day “conquering” like they used to centuries ago, and even when it is done, it is a completely different ball game now. Modern advances in land, sea, and air support have enabled much of the hard work from the old days to be done with ease, as opposed to large infantry ground forces being forced to “push” their way into a sector - not to say that doesn't happen, of course. The point is, the everyday soldier’s load-out no longer revolves around pushing hundreds of miles into a nation - rather, it is centered around several multi-mile patrols in a day, followed by a return to a nearby base.

The dawn of Kevlar and the modern age of Body Armor

The invention of Kevlar vests in 1971 established arguably the entire foundation for modern body armor. Kevlar, a synthetic fiber woven into a layered fabric, had five times the tensile strength of steel with only a fraction of the weight. Naturally, such a revolutionary form of protection found increased prominence in the military and law enforcement sectors, with roughly 50% of American LEO’s utilizing it by the 1980’s.

Armor fabric

Even today, Kevlar sees widespread use with police and military around the world, and will likely continue to for years to come. The development of improved ballistic fibers like Dyneema - which possesses one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios of any material on Earth - are further advancing the technology. One can expect there will be continued advancement with ballistic fibers.

One area that has recently expanded dramatically in the body armor world is the civilian market. Civilians are demanding body armor in numbers greater than ever before, and companies - like Predator Armor - are recognizing and attempting to meet this demand. Today, you can obtain all sorts of body armor on the civilian market, depending upon your needs:

  • Steel armor: offers an extraordinarily efficient and inexpensive means of personal protection when utilized properly.

  • Ceramic armor: used as early as Desert Storm, aims to provide a lighter-weight option, at the expense of fragility and cost.

  • Polyethylene armor: seeks to further the benefits of both steel and ceramic while addressing their disadvantages, offering an extraordinary lightweight body armor that can consistently stop a variety of rounds. Cost and production inefficiencies have made this a less commonly utilized option, though this is already changing as the technology continues to improve.

There are of course other fun ideas that get bounced around from time to time (Brewster, Dragon Skin, it’s a fun rabbit hole for anyone interested), but these three armors make up what may be considered the holy trinity of modern, civilian body armor.

So, what does the future of body armor look like?

The real answer: Who knows?

Military technology evolves at strange and unpredictable rates, outside of major wars at least. When the military likes something, it tends to cling to it with an iron fist (ie. the M4), and we can’t necessarily blame them for that. However, if there’s one thing that the higher-ups do not seem to mind burning money on, it’s R&D to satisfy their own fever dreams. Failures of communication between the guys and gals on the ground and the top brass result in a plethora of overly-ambitious yet inevitably-doomed projects; an issue which has plagued large militaries since they’ve existed. Sometimes these ideas become reality due to that miscommunication, but most of the time, they are just abandoned or quickly replaced.

To be fair, there are some neat projects in the works right now. None of them will likely see the light of day in their current forms, as projects will perpetually evolve and merge with one another. The most realistic near-future outlook will see further development of current popular body armor types, like Polyethylene. Focusing on increasing the percentage of the body being protected from gunfire while reducing the weight of the armor itself is a difficult yet important task.

As far as what the not-so-near future may bring, well, the sky’s the limit. Some believe exoskeleton suits and “iron man” soldiers are the future, since they’d provide nearly 100% ballistic protection and allow for individuals to carry hundreds of pounds of gear without feeling virtually any of it. Some believe advances in nanotechnology and microfiber materials will produce legitimate body armor that is only mere atoms thick. Believe it or not, there are prototypes and proof-of-concept models in existence today for both of these ideas. Graphene is one of these futuristic materials that has been tested for body armor. Here’s a screenshot from one of the Army’s recently displays of what the future soldier “could” look like:

Integrated protection system- Soldier running

And still, there are some who believe we will see a repeat of the early 20th century - that is, a preference for stealth over more/better armor. As robots and drones become commonplace on the battlefield, the need for soldiers to be put directly in harm’s way will, thankfully, be reduced significantly. And when soldiers are deployed, the latest advances in camouflage very well may be all they need - especially as the military continues to work on adaptive (invisible) camouflage. Who needs protection if the enemy can’t see you?

We’ll leave it to you to guess what the future will hold. But if it is anything like the past several thousand years, it’ll surely be exciting.



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