The History of Body Armor

The History of Body Armor
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We’ve covered a lot when it comes to body armor, from the different materials used in the more modern forms to the science behind creating the most advanced plates on the market. But we’ve never covered the history of armor. So, today we’ll do just that, from pre-modern body armor to what you’ll find in today’s market.

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Pre-Modern Body Armor

Body armor hasn’t always offered a sleek, lightweight feel. In fact, it’s relatively recent—considering how long body armor has been around—that armor has provided such a high rate of protection with such a slim and easily carried structure. 

In the middle ages, particularly what was seen in Europe, we saw heavy-plated armor. But before that, there was leather, fabric, a leather-fabric combination reinforced by quilt and felt (yes, you read that correctly). Luckily, there were stronger materials such as mail, which is made of iron or steel. The more rigid armors were made of metal, horn, wood, and even plastic which is actually used in some body armor produced today. Of course, there were other materials used to create body armor. It really depended on who you were, the money tied to your name, and the materials available that would determine who got the best armor.

Luckily, best is not defined in the same way as today. Today, we’d describe the best armor as being lightweight, comfortable, slim, and easy to maneuver in. Unfortunately, the King’s armor, which would have been the best in the pre-modern era, was quite the opposite. 

If you don’t know the story of David and Goliath, David was given the King’s armor to go up against Goliath, a giant. However, when he tried the armor on, it was uncomfortable and heavy, and he decided to go into battle with only the clothes on his back, a slingshot, and a few stones. 

Unfortunately, even today, if a department or unit decides against the lightweight options, you’ll find that our law enforcement and military members are more likely to forgo their body armor too. This is because it gets in the way, slows them down, and they’re under the impression that it’ll do more harm than good. David seemed to have taken the same approach.

But, unlike David, we’re going up against ammunition, which probably would have penetrated even the best armor of his time. This is why it’s better to get body armor, like what we have here at ShotStop®, that’s lightweight without being cumbersome. But, we aren’t quite there yet in this story; next up is the 11th century.

11TH AND 13TH CENTURY BODY ARMOR

It’s believed that there was a time when military personnel, particularly in China, would wear up to seven layers to protect themselves. If you lived in 11th century China, that could be as little as five layers of rhinoceros skin. But if you lived in some areas of 13th century China, you might have used ox hide instead; still layered but with a different material.

CHAINMAIL BODY ARMOR

No, we aren’t talking about the chain mail you got back in the 90s; we’re talking material for body armor. Chain mail was an attempt at making maneuverable and much more comfortable armor. Maneuverability was afforded to those who wore chainmail because they used a more flexible material, which consisted of loosely closed rivets and internal leathers. 

Photo Credit: Samuraiantiqueworld, Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Samuraiantiqueworld, Wikimedia Commons

However, there was a considerable problem with chainmail body armor, it was easy to penetrate, yet it was still widely used across the Roman Empire and western Europe. In fact, western Europe saw the advantage in using mail as secondary protection around the 19th century by wearing it under their plates. It’s thought that the Europeans chose this method because they wanted to close the gaps that the plates didn’t cover.

Mail wasn’t just available for the torso either. Chain mail was used to create armor for legs and hoods as well.

ANCIENT GREECE BODY ARMOR

If you lived in ancient Greece, you would have probably worn plated armor. In those days, that would have most likely consisted of something known as a cuirass. In Ancient Greece, that meant bronze armor. But, it was originally a thick leather material or iron, and eventually, that became steel that would protect the wearer’s torso. And that’s where we start to get into the more modern versions of the body armor you’ve come to know in today’s century.

STEEL BODY ARMOR IN THE 14TH CENTURY

While mail body armor was the main source of protection for both the torso and limbs back in western Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, plates made of steel finally made their way into the 14th century. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually used as you see it today. Instead, steel armor was more of additional coverage for joints, such as the knees and elbow, as well as shins. Of course, steel is a very heavy material, so they probably weren’t feeling too unfortunate. It was better than wearing the elaborate metal suits you’ve probably seen in movies, where there are only slits for eyes and holes in the helmet so the soldiers could breathe — imagine trying to run in that! Luckily, we’ve moved far away from metal suits for our armor, as it was definitely needed come the 16th and 17th centuries.

Photo Credit: Göran Schmidt, Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Göran Schmidt, Wikimedia Commons

16TH AND 17TH CENTURY BODY ARMOR

Around the 16th and 17th centuries, something happened that made it necessary to improve body armor, and that was the improvement of firearms. Unfortunately, this equated to thicker and much heavier armor. But, as you might expect, this was impractical as it significantly hindered mobility. As a result of this and cost (all that material is expensive), plate armor started to disappear, at least from the infantry. 

Modern Body Armor

Now, let’s fast forward a bit to the more modern body armor you were actually alive to see in use. More sophisticated armor was needed because weapons became more advanced. Wars went from swords and other hand tools to firearms. Warriors were now expected to face more dangerous forms of ammunition from rifles, pistols, and machine guns, as well as shell fragments, and the old style of body armor just wasn’t going to cut it.

GUNPOWDER AND BODY ARMOR

Kind of like David and Goliath, it made more sense not to wear body armor at all when facing gunpowder weapons. Armies decided to forgo the heavy suits of armor because they wanted their troops to have the capability of fighting long wars and maintaining stamina throughout. The suits didn’t allow this, nor were they capable of deflecting projectiles from gunpowder firearms. 

BODY ARMOR IN WWI, WWII

Photo Credit: Army Ordnance Department, Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Army Ordnance Department, Wikimedia Commons

Not wearing body armor wasn’t the answer, but it took a while for leaders to get that and take action on it. Because of WWI and the horrendous outcome of artillery damage to our brave warriors, combat helmets made of metal were finally employed. And in WWII, bomber crews had flak jackets.

NEW BALLISTIC PROTECTION INTRODUCED IN THE KOREAN WAR

And then, there was the Korean War. If you thought seven layers of ox hide was a lot, during the Korean War, the Amy has something known as the M-1952 armored vest with 12 layers of laminated nylon. This laminated nylon was a step in the right direction when it came to flexibility. And since it gave some ballistic protection against shell fragments, it stayed in use during the Vietnam War as well, with some minor changes later on. These changes didn’t really give more protection, but it did result in a new name, the M-1969.

Today’s Body Armor

Since the Vietnam War, there have been a lot of changes to the materials used in body armor. For instance, Kevlar was introduced, steel plates were improved to take on more powerful ammunition, and ceramic plates were created to improve on the weight of steel.

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If you’re interested in learning about the differences between steel and ceramic body armor, check out the extensive blog: What Are the Different Types of Body Armor?

Luckily there have been even more improvements since then. Here at ShotStop®, we want to deliver the best, better than even the King’s armor. That’s why we’re dedicated to creating the lightest, most maneuverable, and comfortable armor. We’ve done this by using a patented proprietary Duritim® technology.

Duritium is basically “a portfolio of ballistics technologies including a next-generation polyethylene that has an unusually high tensile strength. This tensile strength combined with ShotStop’s patented computer-navigated layering lends itself very well to ballistics protection, basically kinetic energy disbursement.”

-Jason Henkel, Director of ShotStop® Operations

If you’re interested in learning more about our modern-day body armor plates, check out our video: What is Duritium® Technology, where Jason gives a more in-depth explanation of how Duritium is used in our plates.

And if you want to learn how ShotStop® can get your unit into the thinnest, lightest, most comfortable body armor, send us an email: ShotStop@sales.com.


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