Body Armor Past and Present
A Thorough History of the Armored Man
Ever since men realized small objects hurled at high speeds could put other men in the grave, there has been a constant arms race between the projectiles and protection. Every advancement in weapons was matched with an equally ingenious development in armor.
Ancient Scale Armor
The concept of armor was introduced to Bronze Age peoples like the Egyptians when they discovered ore could be smelted and formed into sheets. Like the scales of a fish, small discs of copper or bronze could be laid over each other to create scale armor. While this armor was effective against swords and arrows, only the Pharaoh and certain members of his court could afford them. The grunts of the Egyptian army frequently charged into battle wearing nothing more than a belt, a loincloth and a cowhide shield. While the sight of a thousand screaming, shirtless men was no doubt a terrifying sight, it looked more like advanced target practice for enemy archers.
The Greeks – Linothorax and the Muscle Cuirass
Centuries later, the Greeks, those inventors of democracy, invented a true people’s armor: the linothorax. It was made with strips of linen and cotton layered over one another in the same way modern Kevlar is manufactured. Arrows and sword strikes meant little to the linothorax, but a determined spear thrust in the belly would usually be enough to end the warrior wearing it.
Unfortunately, Greek warfare at the time was a pushing contest with spears, and only bronze cuirasses, called thorax heroikon (heroic chests) were spear-proof. They were worn mostly by rich officers and nobles, since back in those days, everyone had to buy their own gear, and only people with coin could afford the sheets of bronze and artistry involved in making the bronze armor. Otherwise, poorer warriors received their armor as a hand-me-down.
Muscle cuirasses were shaped to resemble an idealized male torso, complete with rippling abs and nipples. This was essentially the armored dress uniform of the ancient world. If there were a party or parade in Ancient Sparta, you could be sure both the Spartan kings (yes, they had two men reigning at the same time) and all their officers would be in attendance wearing their glistening bronze armor.
Knightly armor of the Middle Ages
From the fall of Rome to about the 13th century, chainmail was the armor of the day. It was cheap, easy to smith, and provided great protection against all types of attacks. For hundreds of years, the charge of mailed warriors on horseback or on foot was the bane of all who stood before them. However, everything changed once the crossbow came to Europe.
In contrast to longbow archers, who would require years of training to be proficient, a crossbowman could master his weapon in the span of only a few weeks. Also, the crossbow bolt could defeat armor. This meant a rag-tag band of angry peasants equipped with crossbows could, in theory, revolt against their rulers and turn an army of knights into pincushions with a volley of crossbow bolts (hint hint).
The ruling governments of the time did not like this very much and Pope Urban II passed legislation to ban the weapon in 1096 (hint hint). Under pain of excommunication, “murderous” crossbows were not to be used against Christian enemies… which in essence meant shooting a Muslim or a heathen was fair game. On a related note, the same council also forbade jousting tournaments. Needless to say, jousting continued until the 16th century, and so did crossbow archery.
Since no one conformed to the pope’s “assault weapon ban”, the armorers of Europe were forced to develop plate armor. Built of steel or iron, it was shaped for practicality rather than aesthetics. The metal abs and nipples of the long-dead muscle cuirass were replaced with a sloped metal breastplate. New close helmets covered the whole head. Pauldrons, greaves and sabatons enclosed the warrior in a suit of steel, making him nigh invincible.
The new plate armor, equipped on both man and horse, turned the knight into a living tank. Nothing short of pure blunt force trauma delivered at close range would be able to take him down. This armor enabled knights to live long and storied careers full of exploits worthy of song – until the gun was invented.
Hundreds of years prior to the development of anime, Japan was a land of mystery to the rest of the world. An extremely insular country, Japan had mostly developed on its own for the greater part of history. Then the Portuguese introduced them to the musket. Contrary to popular belief, the samurai quickly adapted firearms, creating a whole new martial art dedicated to the new weapon: hōjutsu, the way of the gun. It wasn’t as simple as “point and shoot.” The new martial art had its own stances, rituals, and exercises just like aikido, karate, and kenjutsu.
Following the “Great Sword Hunt” of Lord Hideyoshi in 1590, weapons were confiscated from all the peasants. Hideyoshi wanted to keep his people under control, and only the samurai class were allowed to carry anything larger than a carving knife. The same rule applied to guns. The rank and file foot soldiers who made up the bulk of Japanese feudal armies fell into a lower subclass of samurai called ashigaru, many of whom were armed with muskets alongside spears and bows.
Before the musket came to Japan, a samurai’s armor made him just as formidable as a European knight. After they discovered bullets could go through iron and leather plates, a new type of armor had to be invented. The tameshi gusoku was a type of steel armor strong enough to stop subsonic musket rounds. Blacksmiths who made these armor pieces took design cues from European armor and shot them before delivery to “prove” they could stop bullets (hence the word “bullet proof”).
If a samurai wasn’t felled by an arrow to the neck, he would be struck by a hail of bullets fired by lowborn ashigaru. The ruling classes were probably glad these common soldiers with the killing firepower of the gods were forbidden from rising out of their caste to become something greater.
Renaissance Munition Armor
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the nations of Europe were facing a similar problem. During the Peasants’ War of 1524 and several wars thereafter, European nobility learned the hard way that lowborn peasants with guns and a few days of training could take down armored noblemen who had trained for war since birth. In another leg of the arms race, the constantly warring armies of Europe had to develop a type of body armor which could be both bulletproof and mass produced.
During the late Middle Ages, armor was tailor-made for the individual knight. Due to its customization, a knight’s armor cost more than many peasants would make in a year. To get around this, blacksmiths of later centuries created half-armors with no arm or leg pieces which were essentially one-size-fits-most, which made them affordable enough for wealthier peasants. These new munitions grade plate cuirasses were usually made with thick steel and “bullet proofed” in the same way a samurai’s armor was. It was during this era when plate armor began its long decline. The noble on horseback shed his sabatons in favor of boots and breeches, and the knight in shining armor was transformed into the pistol-armed black rider, so named for the color of his armor. Where a knight would run down an opponent with a lance, the black rider would charge and fire his two pistols at close range before drawing his sword to hack away at his terrified enemies. The era of chivalry was truly over.
However, with mass production of armor came quality control issues. Many breastplates were never “proofed” at all and simply issued to soldiers without anyone knowing if they could even do their job. Heading into battle wearing one of these breastplates would be a coin toss when the lead started flying.
The First World War – armor returns
Guns continued to dominate the arms race into the early 20th century. The musket gave way to bolt-action rifles as technology advanced. It took time for commanders to realize that marching lines of infantry headlong into an enemy equipped with bolt-action rifles was just throwing their lives away. This era of history saw the grandiose scale and order of line battles give way to trench warfare.
Tacticians and scientists on both sides of the conflict tried to come up with various ways to break the stalemate in the trenches. Among the ideas proposed on both sides was a return to armor. These suits of armor always looked ridiculous and were usually very unwieldly. Many soldiers today complain about having to low crawl in full battle rattle, however, a select few unlucky Americans in WW1 had to wear the Brewster armor: 40 pounds of solid steel.
Dr. Otis Brewster, the armor’s inventor, was confident enough in his creation that he volunteered to test it himself by receiving a burst of fire from a .303 machine gun. Brewster lived and said that the force of being hit was “only about one tenth the shock which he experienced when struck by a sledgehammer.”
While Brewster armor could stop most contemporary ammunition, it exposed the wearer’s arms and legs to enhance mobility, which was a real problem. Whoever wore the steel suit could neither turn his head nor shoot in the prone position. The blocky helmet also made proper cheek weld and aiming impossible. There was no armor on the sides or back, since Dr. Brewster estimated that the extra plates would make the armor weigh a total of 110 pounds, more than what would be reasonably expected for any soldier to carry.
World War Two and the Flak Vest
Body armor for infantry was largely abandoned in World War I for being too heavy and impractical. However, when it came time for the second World War, heavy steel body armor saw limited use with the Soviets and the Japanese. The Russians issued 8 pound steel breastplates to their engineers, which were good enough to stop German submachine gun rounds. The Japanese made suits of small steel plates sewn into pockets on the front of the vest, which also had a special Shinto bulletproof charm on the inside (This did not always work.)
Meanwhile, the United States Air Force began to experiment with body armor for its pilots and bomber crews. The armor did not need to be as heavy as the infantry armor of World War I, which could take direct fire from a large caliber rifle, but it still needed to protect the wearer from shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns.
Working in tandem with the British, the Air Force developed the flak vest: a cotton apron that housed steel plates sown into multi-layered nylon. The new vest proved to be quite effective, reducing pilot and crew fatalities from shrapnel immensely. Sometimes, pilots would sit on their flak vests, since the majority of anti-aircraft fire would pierce the plane from below.
The Flak Vest evolves
Thanks to its distinguished performance in World War 2, the flak jacket continued to serve in Korea and Vietnam where it once again found service on the ground with the infantry. The Army’s flak vest was a bearable 8 pounds, but was primarily made of nylon and cotton without the small steel plates the Air Force used in its vest.
Like its Air Force counterpart, this lightweight flak vest could only stop shrapnel. If it received a direct hit from a 7.62x39mm – the primary round used by the enemy – the wearer would die. A push was made to integrate some sort of plate system in the armor to give it more protection. This resulted in the creation of Variable Body Armor.
The ceramic plates managed to stop an AK round, but it made the armor weigh 20 pounds. In the tropical humidity of Vietnam, this was a nightmare for many troops. According to Vietnam vet and author Stephen E. Atkins, no one wanted to wear the new vest because it was more likely that a soldier wearing the armor would die from heat exhaustion rather than an enemy bullet. Even in modern armies of countries that traditionally operate in humid tropical environments like Burma and the Philippines, heavy armor is often ditched in favor of lightweight protection.
In the mid-60s, the DuPont chemical company anticipated a gas shortage. They predicted that Americans would want lighter tires with a similar strength to what they were used to. Enter chemist Stephanie Kwolek. After various experiments, Kwolek was able to create a light, heat resistant material five times stronger than steel: Kevlar.
She didn’t understand the fiber’s protective applications at the time, but Richard Davis soon did. Richard was a pizza delivery guy from Detroit who kept getting shot at while delivering pizzas. After his pizzeria was burned down, Davis decided to change the lives of those who were in constant danger like himself, like the police.
Davis contacted DuPont and bought some of their new lightweight tire material. Fashioning it into a vest, he tried selling it to police. To prove his product worked, he shot himself in the chest over 200 times over the course of several demonstrations.
Eventually, the Department of Defense caught on to the idea and began issuing Kevlar helmets and body armor to replace their aging steel helmets and flak vests. These newer evolutions of military armor weighed 30 pounds and included bulletproof plates that were, at long last, capable of defeating enemy rifle fire while being light enough to move around in.
Countless thousands of lives have been saved by Kevlar vests all over the world. The helmet, while not designed to take a direct hit from a 7.62x39mm, can still save soldiers from grazing hits. These life-saving products are available to the average American citizen but are usually prohibitively expensive.
Tom Nardone, an engineer with experience working for Sikorsky and Ford, noticed that bulletproof vests made of Kevlar cost $1,000. In the same way that early armor was inaccessible to commoners, Nardone thought this was way too much for the average consumer, so he sought to reduce the price to a more realistic $300 by using of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene ballistic inserts instead of Kevlar. This low price point was especially valuable to security guards, smaller police departments, sheriff’s departments or other small agencies, who usually had to buy their own gear and couldn’t normally afford a thousand dollar vest.
In 2013, BulletSafe was launched, selling vests made of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene for the low price point of only $299.97. Soon, BulletSafe received NIJ certifications for Level IV plates. The company continues to be a maverick in the world of bulletproof protection to this day and will continue to hold to its commitment to provide effective and affordable bulletproof protection.