Back before body armor was readily available or affordable for the everyday American, it was designed for and used by the military to protect individuals in combat from fragmentation. Because, even though our guys looked sexy as hell in their OD Green Utilities, that did little to protect them from the red hot shrapnel from Charlie's grenades.
Originally, mass produced body armor wasn’t designed to stop direct fire projectiles. It was designed to slow down and stop shrapnel or fragmentation from causing as much damage to the body. Bring in the flak jacket. The term flak jacket usually brings to mind images from the Vietnam War. Some salty draftee going toe to toe with the Viet Cong, jacket splayed open like a rock star on stage (completely defeating the purpose).
This was the first time, since the invention of the rifle and cannon, that armor had developed enough to once again become standard issue for the world’s militaries. It had taken a back seat in the 17th to 18th centuries when firearms changed the landscape of warfare. They had become so effective, that to stop them required armor that was too heavy and bulky. It started to make a showing again around the time of the civil war, with a few companies making variations of vests and plates that could prevent shrapnel and small arms fire.
Unfortunately, for the fighting men of the military, they were not seen as a viable option for mass distribution. Because the Flak Jacket was the first widely issued armor, it is largely attributed as the grandfather of modern body armor.
What is fragmentation?
Fragmentation, in this context, is any object, or part of an object, that can cause damage to the human body. This could be as severe as manufactured shrapnel from grenades or mortars, to parts of a rifle after a catastrophic malfunction (Check out the Kentucky ballistics .50 Cal exploding video). Weapons malfunctions tend to be overlooked as an issue for most people because they are a very rare occurrence. From an offensive perspective it is a useful tool for wounding or killing your enemy without having to directly target or engage them. This presents many challenges when looked at through a defensive lens.
Apart from the normal Hollywood fragmentation that we see in movies, there is another type that is equally as important that has a nasty habit of getting overlooked, fragmentation of projectiles when they hit steel plates. I’m sure we have all seen slow motion footage of projectiles hitting steel plates, if not you should look it up. This presents an interesting problem, “if I use steel plates I can still get severely injured”.
What happens when something hits my steel body armor?
Whether it is a direct hit from an enemy projectile, or some other type of shrapnel, two things will happen. One, it will get deformed, when it’s kinetic energy gets transferred back into itself, and it will find the path of least resistance to continue its movement. This means that there will be sharp edges, and it will get directed outward from the point of impact on the plate. Think of your sibling’s snowball hitting your trash can lid shield when you were a kid. It didn’t go through the plastic, but if the shield was below your head, you still got a face full of snow. If the plate is bare, this can cause major issues.
If you are in a basic firearms stance and take a round to your plate, what is surrounding the edges of your plate?
The answer is lots and lots of vital areas and arteries. The top of your plate points directly at your carotid artery, which runs on each side of your neck with little anatomical protection. If both arms are raised, such as when holding a rifle, pistol or shotgun, the 10 and 2 O’clock of the plate point directly at the brachial arteries, which run from your armpit to your elbows in both arms.
Lastly, if sitting down, such as when you are driving, the bottom of the plate will redirect objects to your femoral arteries that run down both inner-thighs. You also run the risk of less life threatening, but still very dangerous injuries, such as loss of eyesight. Even with eye protection, shrapnel from a plate could get underneath it since it was redirected upwards. If you are imagining these injuries, it can paint a very grim picture of the results of getting shot while wearing a bare metal plate. Arguably, they are all way better than actually getting shot, but that does not mean they should be ignorantly discarded as non-issues since they can easily be mitigated.
How to stop it?
How much is too much?
Firstly, how much protection is too much?
There is definitely a limit where continuing to add frag mitigation would decrease mobility to the point that it makes getting wounded increasingly likely. If you look like the kid from “a Christmas story”, but instead of coats, it's body armor…..you’re getting shot…..like a lot. Because of this we focus on quality over quantity. You start with the most vital areas that do not impair our basic movements. This is mainly going to mean that you need something on or around your plates that will catch and prevent injury from fragmentation. There are many options to accomplish this, and we will talk about all of them and their pros and cons.
Let’s discuss soft armor.
Soft armor is usually made out of Kevlar or a Kevlar blend. It prevents the fragments from penetrating its layers by catching them in the material. It is perhaps the most effective method of preventing injuries from fragmentation. It also offers the benefit of adding protection from direct fire, as most soft armor is rated to stop pistol calibers without the need for a plate. The biggest cons to soft armor are cost, weight and bulk. Soft armor is not cheap and can cost as much as the plates themselves, it also adds a fair amount of weight to your kit and can be bulky if you are running a minimalist rig.
Next, let’s talk about rubberized liners.
These have become increasingly popular in the industry. Mainly due to their cost effectiveness. It is very cheap for a company or individual to get a set of plates coated with a rubberized liner such as rhino liner. These coatings, when applied properly and thick enough, can be effective against a lot of ammo types. One of the issues that these coatings can run into is delamination.
This is the separation of the liner from the plate and drastically limits the liners ability to prevent fragmentation. This can happen if the coating was applied improperly, has sustained too much damage to properly adhere to the plate, or was too hard of a consistency and become more of a plastic instead of a rubber over time. It is important to research each company’s specific procedures for a rubberized fragmentation coating, to ensure that it will be up to the standard that you need.
Mitigation Sleeves or Liners
Lastly, is a mitigation sleeve or liner.
This can be a pouch type device or something that is applied directly to the plate. This is what we use for our products. We use a Kevlar lined layer that stops and holds fragmentation in the plate, preventing it from causing injury. This System is only slightly more expensive than what most companies charge for the rubberized coatings, but offers the bigger advantage of being purpose designed and built to prevent projectile fragmentation, instead of repurposing a product from another industry. It also does not add nearly as much weight or bulk to the plates, making it ideal for minimalist plate carriers.
Once you have taken care of mitigating fragmentation from your plate you can add other secondary measures as needed. The less movement that is required the more you can add with less downside. For example, a turret gunner could wear some of the extra gear such as a throat protector or shoulder guards, that would be too much extra weight and bulk for someone who is about to rush across an open field. Companies make many different add ons for plate carriers that can be a great secondary level of mitigation, but are not required for every situation.
No matter which type of mitigation you decide to go with, it is imperative that you deliberately plan for fragmentation in your armor set up. It is a very real and dangerous issue that is often overlooked by new and experienced shooters alike.
If you are still unsure about what you need for your armor setup or would like to further your education, check out our other articles on a variety of armor related topics.