Body Armor: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Part I

Posted: February 28, 2014 in Body Armor The Good The Bad and The Ugly
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This will be the first part of an ongoing series providing an in-depth look at modern body armor, the materials used, and the pros/cons of these same materials. I will do my best to make it accessible, without pontificating too heavily. I will rely on my trusty readers to keep your humble author firmly grounded in reality, so if things get out of hand…let me know.

Without delving too far back into the history of protective gear (which, like a history of the martial arts, would involve sticks/rocks/major bones, and other guys wearing the skins of luckless beasts to prevent getting injured/killed by these sticks/rocks/major bones), it can be said that humans have always tried to give themselves an advantage in mortal contests. When the gun came on the scene, it shook things up a bit, but did not alter this fundamental reality. It just took a while for science to catch up.

The first verifiable shot-proof armors date back to the late 15th and early 16th century, appearing in both Europe and Asia. These were typically heavier versions of the standard plate armors (usually just the breast/thoracic plates), and while they did the job, the increased weight (never mind bulk), made these largely impractical in a combat setting.

And forget about concealment.

Armor smiths, lacking modern test methods, would use the expedient of shooting the finished article as a means of proofing it, and the dent was your guarantee that it would stop a round (as long as you shot it with the exact same combination of black powder, lead round-ball, barrel length, distance…). The first bench tested armor.

Most armor, by and large, fell out of favor after that, because carrying all that weight detracted from mobility (translation: on campaigns that lasted months or years, all the non-essential kit gets sold for beer/grog/mead/ale money and women of negotiable chastity).

With some notable exceptions (The ACW,The Franco-Prussian War, Ned Kelly’s gang, and the Great War), steel fell out of favor, at least for a time, as a personal armor material.

The first true “concealable” bullet resistant armor came about in the late 1800’s, and it is interesting to note that two inventors working (at first) separately, came up with very similar ideas A Ukrainian Catholic priest by the name of Casimir Zeglin developed a fabric-based armor that was successful at stopping the typically low-velocity, unjacketed projectiles of the times. He would start a tradition later used by Richard Davies of Second Chance, proving the efficacy of his armor by wearing it whilst being shot. The first successful demonstration was given in 1897, and over the next 30 years the concept was refined. A Polish inventor, Jan Szczepanik had also been developing silk-based body armor, and the two combined their talents to bring the vests to market in 1901 The vests consisted of silk, of a very tight weave. 4 layers was sufficient to stop most typical pocket pistols of the 1890’s-1900’s. The thickness was 1/8″ and the Areal Density (or AD, you will be seeing this abbreviation a lot) was .5 lb/ft sq.

Among the first notable “saves” attributed to his armor was the King of Spain, Alfonso VIII, who’s “uparmored carriage” protected him from an assassin’s bomb at his wedding in 1906. A notable “fail” (if only because the assassin chose an unprotected target area, the head) was Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, who was wearing a silk-based vest.

Concealable silk body armor continued to increase, gaining modest popularity in the 20’s and 30’s, both with peace officers and their opposite number. During the Prohibition, the wearing of bullet-resistant vests became such an issue that the FBI developed the .38 Super for the 1911 in large part to enable penetration of soft armor and car bodies.

During World War II, body armor made some headway. Aside from some very Ned Kelly-esque steel armor suits worn by a few Russian troops for urban combat, they consisted of fabric. In the early years, bomber pilots would bring extra (silk) parachutes to place under them, which did a fair to underwhelming job at protecting from flak.

Development of the “wonder fiber” Nylon led to the manufacturing of the first “flak jackets,” heavy, bulky vests that gave the wearer modest protection against this very deadly threat. These jackets saw limited use, due to their encumbering nature. Similar armor was used in Korea and Vietnam, (the latter conflict which also saw the introduction of the first rifle-proof armor in years). Something better was needed, to get weight and bulk down. And something better was just around the corner.

Next In Part II: Kevlar Arrives on the Scene

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