Archive for the ‘Body Armor The Good The Bad and The Ugly’ Category

Titanium has acquired a somewhat legendary reputation in the past decade and a half. Relatively unknown by the general public until the early ‘aughts, it became a marketing tool to add a “cool factor” to everything from credit cards to golf clubs. Due to the hype, many folks assume that Titanium equates to invulnerability.

However, the truth is, Ti has very specific properties that give it an advantage in certain narrow uses. Roughly half the weight of steel, it has a better strength to weight ratio. It has 60% more density than aluminum. What this means is that titanium on a per-volume basis is inferior to steel, but will be lighter.

The most common alloy is designated 6-4, (also known as Ti6Al4V), which contains 6 points of Aluminum and 4 points of Vanadium. The alloying elements improve both the ultimate tensile strength and the hardness. Even alloyed, however, Ti is unable to achieve significant hardness compared with steel.

Titanium is also highly resistant to corrosion, and is used extensively in salt water environments. This is actually due to a very durable corrosion layer (Titanium Oxide) that forms very quickly when Titanium is scratched. Non-magnetic, Titanium finds use in mine probes.

As armor, Titanium works well in certain applications. As lightweight trauma plates in concealable soft armor, it is nearly unrivaled. In thicknesses of 2.1mm, it exhibits standalone level IIIA performance, and has no issue with rust. As rifle armor, it leaves much to be desired.

Against pistol bullets, Titanium performs well because of its combination of tensile strength and toughness. Rifle bullets, because of their high velocity and small frontal area, punch through Titanium more easily than an equivalent thickness of still. A titanium rifle plate would need to have a thickness of 11mm to be equivalent to a level III steel plate. This would be extremely expensive, compared to steel, since titanium is currently about 14 times more expensive than steel. Though there are some manufacturers that currently make titanium containing rifle plates, they are hybrids, with a steel strike face. The titanium then functions as a backing material, where its properties are more appropriate.

In vehicle armor, Titanium has gained greater acceptance, simply because it can be utilized in thicker cross section. In this application, it is superior to steel in many ways- it is much lighter, and corrosion resistance. In thicker section, its resistance to typical threats faced by vehicles is impressive.

To sum it up: titanium is a good choice as trauma plates for soft armor vests, but there are better options for use in rifle plates.

The final class of materials for use in rifle plates is a familiar face- UHMWPE. Despite its drawbacks in soft armor format, in hard/rigid applications, this material does not show as many weaknesses. For reasons that are still not fully understood, the heat tolerance of PE hard armors is much better than soft armors (showing a danger zone of 195-200 degrees F rather than 180 F). This may be due to the typically thicker profile, thus providing a larger thermal mass to heat (taking longer and requiring more ambient heat to achieve irreversible denaturing). Also, contact shots are not as likely to have such a high risk of penetration due to the physical properties of a rigid defense compared to a flexible.

In addition to finding wide application as the backing material in many (if not most) ceramic plates (and a VERY effective steel/UHMWPE hybrid by Armored Mobility, the TAC3S), it is also used as the sole material in a significant number of plates by various manufacturers. In a hard armor format, UHMWPE offers some notable advantages: it is positively buoyant (it floats), is immune to acids, zero spallation/splash, and makes for the lightest rifle plate available. The drawbacks are moderate-high cost, and the thickest profile of any rifle plate (some have likened it to wearing a Wheaties box on your chest). In addition, UHMWPE plates typically do not stop M855 Green Tip ammunition, while having no difficulty with M193 (the opposite of most steel plates).

UHMWPE plates stop rounds by means of frictive braking. The fibers of UHMWPE squeeze and apply compressive braking force to rounds that strike. Generally the projectile is embedded about halfway into the armor when it is stopped. This leads to no splash or spallation, since the round remains mostly intact. M855 is thought to penetrate due to the incompressibility of the steel penetrator. Regardless of the mechanism, it is important to take into account when considering potential threats.

Due to their properties, some applications (maritime, swimmers) tend to benefit from their use. If the thicker profile is not a hindrance, they can be quite effective. As always, assess your needs and potential threats before making a decision.

Up until the 1940’s, steel was one of the primary materials in both offensive and defensive arms. During WWII, a new ceramic material was developed for use in antitank projectiles, called Tungsten Carbide, or WC. These penetrators were heavier, harder, and denser than anything that had been used up until that time. At the close of the war, WC was commonly found in most high velocity anti-tank round cores.

WC was extremely hard (much harder than steel plate), but it was also extremely heavy. For armor, at least that worn by personnel, a lighter, yet still extremely hard material was needed. Silicon Carbide, and later Boron Carbide, were first used on armor during the Vietnam War, in derisively named “Chicken Plates.” These were very heavy, and typically were used as improvised seats by helicopter crews to protect against ground fire.

Another material also started to find use in armor, specifically Alumina (Al2O3, which is very similar to Sapphire).

Each of these ceramics underwent significant improvements over the years, both increasing their purity and density (higher purity and density result in better material properties).

Ceramics stop projectiles by a different mechanism than steel plates. While steel plates rely on their combination of hardness AND toughness to cause the impacting round to mushroom, fracture and subsequently splatter (with attendant danger to the wearer), ceramics use a combination of yawing and eroding to render the projectile ineffective. Since the ceramics used in rifle armor are all up in the high 8’s or low 9’s on the Moh’s hardness scale, there are few projectiles that are harder than they are (certain WC cored rounds come close). When a rifle round hits a ceramic plate, there is localized fracturing (causing the projectile to dump massive amounts of its energy) of the ceramic. The projectile will typically yaw off-axis, increasing its frontal area, as well as being eroded by the very hard ceramic particles. These residual projectile pieces are then caught by the backing material of the plate, typically rigid aramid or UHMWPE laminate.

It is important to note that UHMWPE laminates are wholly inappropriate for use in soft armor, due to their sensitivity to heat, poor resistance to contact shots, and poor breatheability. In a hard armor format, it appears that their heat sensitivity is diminished, and breathability is not an issue. It is still not recommended to leave your hard armor containing UHMWPE (either as part of a ceramic plate, or pure UHMWPE plates, more on those next time) in a high heat environment. Specifically, soft armor is at risk at or above 180 degrees, while hard armor is at risk above 200 degrees.

Due to their nature, and depending on their construction, ceramic plates still may experience front face spall, usually consisting of ejected ceramic particles.

Ceramic plates give wearers the option of upgrading their protection level to stop AP (Armor Piercing) rounds that typically blow right through level III plates. Level IV will stop M2AP (black tip) .30-06 rounds, which contain a VERY hard steel penetrator (often found undamaged after punching through up to 1/2″ mild steel). The level IV ceramics erode and yaw this round, increasing its frontal area, and making it easy for the backing material to catch it.

Ceramic plates are typically built using one of two types of construction: monolithic or mosaic. Monolithic utilizes a single piece of ceramic, while mosaic uses multiple smaller tiles arranged and bonded to the backing layer.

Monolithic plates are typically much more expensive, since sintering (hardening) larger plates requires larger autoclaves. Much more QC expense is also incurred, since if a larger plate has a flaw, the entire piece is discarded. This expense is compensated for, because monolithic plates can be built with complex curvature or shapes, compared to mosaic. Mosaic plates are conversely more affordable, using many smaller tiles arranged together and bonded with an adhesive, typically epoxy. It is typically more difficult to form complex plate shapes with mosaic construction.

There are currently three types of ceramic materials that find general use in rifle plates, in ascending order of cost/effectiveness/weight. They are:

Alumina (Al2O3): A whitish ceramic with a good combination of hardness (mid to high 8’s on the Moh’s hardness scale), toughness, and cost effectiveness. This ceramic is still the most-used for general low- to mid-priced ceramic plates. With good design, Alumina plates can be quite protective and comfortable. Chemical structure very similar to Sapphire.

Silicon Carbide (SiC): A dark grayish ceramic (with a bluish tinge), this ceramic is more expensive, and harder than Alumina (Moh’s 9). Also slightly lighter, it finds use in medium to medium-high price point level IV plates.

Boron Carbide (B4C): The most expensive ceramic used in armor, and the second hardest material on Earth (behind diamond), it is also much lighter than Alumina. This material is used in the highest-end rifle plates, and can be enhanced with new methods (such as sinterless pressing) to achieve nearly 100% theoretical density (meaning there are no gaps between particles). A dark gunmetal colored ceramic.

As with all materials, ceramic has its advantages and drawbacks. It is very effective, on a per-weight basis, compared to steel (can be up to 40% lighter than steel plates). It can be made to withstand much more potent threats, such as black tip AP rounds (which again, blast straight through level III). And finally, ceramic monolithic plates can be shaped into complex curvatures, far exceeding the capabilities of steel, to better conform to the shape of the body. With these advantages come weaknesses- ceramic plates are much thicker than steel, making them more difficult to wear concealed. They are MUCH more expensive, some 6th gen ceramic plates pushing $1.5K PER PLATE. And finally, their major Achilles heel is their fragility. Ceramics, especially monolithic plates, are susceptible to rough handling. Cracking, chipping, or even complete destruction of the strike face can occur if the end user mistreats their armor. It is recommended to floroscope (X-Ray) your armor once per year if at all possible, to detect cracks.

I will be making an effort to review several different options for ceramic rifle plates (as funds permit) over the next few months.

As always, it is imperative that the end-user assess their needs and mission requirements when making a determination of what sort of plates to purchase. Each subset of plate types has their definite advantages and disadvantages. In the next post, we will examine the final plate material. Until then, cheers!

Steel has been the material of choice for body armor for centuries, ever since the method for hammering out large, uniform sheets of bloomery iron was rediscovered in the 13th century. Today, advances in steel technology have continued to made this material viable as a protective material.

Steel plates find use in concealable armor as trauma plates, generally having a thickness of 1-3mm. These plates can provide everything from trauma-only, to standalone IIIA protection. Sizes range from 5″ X 8″ to 8″ X 10″. There are a few notable “in between” plates, such as the Second Chance K-30, which will stop 7.62X39 soft core.

Today, most steel plates will be of the “rifle” persuasion. It is important to note that currently, ALL steel rifle plates for personal protection are level III at the highest. Steel plates that will provide level IV (AP) protection are prohibitively heavy for use as wearable armor.

It is important to remember that level III spec calls for protection vs. 6 rounds of M80 ball @ 2750 fps. This means that many round can (and have) been able to defeat level III steel. A few years back, a minor scandal erupted when plates from a well-known manufacturer were found to be easily penetrated by M193 ball above 3000 fps (ironically, I had experienced this same phenomena a week prior to this revelation, and chalked it up to a bad batch of steel. M193 exceeds the shear strength of AR500 steel, and will cause shear-plug failure in the plate. Think a paper hole-puncher, but with steel. The full mechanism of why/how M193 penetrates steel armor is not fully understood, but there are several working theories (to be expounded upon later).

The upshot is, make sure when you buy steel plates, they have either been subjected to additional proof/bench testing, or do not trust them to stop anything but M80 ball.

Steel plates are nearly always sold as “ICW” (In Conjunction With), but I *ALWAYS* advise wearing soft armor behind them. This is for additional blunt force trauma protection, as well as catching any back face spallation (a possibility with all rifle plates).

Steel for rifle armor typically falls into a very specific hardness range, generally 500-600 Brinell (which is VERY hard as far as steel goes). AR500 (“Abrasion Resistant,” 500 Brinell) is the most commonly used commercial steel for rifle armors. It has good uniformity, low cost, and works fairly well.

There are a few other options regarding steel plates, specifically Bainitic steel, and HHS (High Hardness Steel). Bainitic steel utilizes a special heat treating process to produce a particular crystalline phase within steel, called Bainite. This material acts as reinforcement to the crystal lattice of steel, rendering it stronger and tougher than normal quenched/drawn steel plate. At this time, it is still not widely used in personnel armor, though it has found growing use in vehicular armor. Bainitic armor is an excellent choice for personal armor, though the price is typically about 1.5 times higher than normal AR500.

HHS is another option, and describes steel that is hardened to 600 Brinell or above. This allows it to be made thinner than AR500 while having greater ability to stop projectiles. It does have issues with cracking due to its extreme hardness, and is approximately twice as expensive as normal AR500 steel.

Steel plates are extremely durable, often capable of absorbing tens and even hundreds of hits while still retaining ballistic protection properties. With no fragility issues, steel plates are a good choice for use in scenarios calling for extreme ruggedness. With their thin profile (unless coated with a polymer/elastomer finish), they make a good choice for concealable/PSD use. Steel plates are also the most affordable/cost effective rifle armor solution.

One of the biggest drawbacks of running steel plates is their heavy weight. Most 10″ X 12″ steel level III plates weigh around 8 lb. EACH. There is also the issue of rust and corrosion. Finally, as has been discussed before, steel plates suffer from front face splash/spall. Projectiles stopped by the armor will splatter, sending clouds of high velocity core and jacket fragments at a 90 degree angle to the impact. This endangers the wearer’s face, throat, and extremities, and precautions need to be taken by the wearer (

In closing, it is important to evaluate your needs, and determine if steel plates are the correct choice. Next time, we will look at ceramic plates.

Stay safe!

As we transition from our overview of soft armor, the microscope is focused on the question of rigid defense. An interesting side note is how much history reflects the current situation when it comes to protective gear. Typically, a man-at-arms from the 14th century onward would wear a maille, garment (byrnie (shirt) or hauberk, coif, and sometimes leggings), with hard defenses over the top. Today, the same system works well, with soft armor providing the correlate to the maille, and hard/rifle armor standing in for the plate defense.

When considering modern rigid armor, it is important to have a thorough understanding of threat level ratings and the needs of the end user. There is a common misconception that ALL hard armor will provide protection against centerfire rifle rounds. This is far from the truth. Rigid trauma plates have been utilized in concealable soft armor for decades, typically made of steel or titanium. While some of these legitimately increase the threat level rating of the armor they are worn with (and some are even standalone rated themselves), they do NOT give protection from rifle fire.

Hard plates stop projectiles using a different mechanism from soft armor (which must only contend with pistol rounds). When soft armor is hit with a round, the fibers interact with he (relatively) large frontal area. Like a net, these fibers catch, slow, and stop the round, absorbing the kinetic energy by elongating (very slightly), and “fiber pullout.” The later is very similar to “playing” a fish on a fishing line. By allowing line to pay out, under drag, the fish is depleted of energy. The more fiber pull-out force is applied to the round, the more efficiently it is stopped.

Rifle rounds, because of their narrow cross section, do not engage enough of the fibers for them to apply a stopping force. Centerfire rifles will not even “see” soft armor. Hard plates are required, and stop rifle rounds using three distinct methods (sometimes a combination of two of three): mushrooming/deforming, shattering/yawing, and frictive braking. Different material plates have different effects, and we will look at specifics in later posts.

There are some specific plates that will stop lead core 7.62X39 rounds (The Second Chance K-30 plates specifically), but my personal recommendation is thus- if you are wearing rigid plates larger than 6″ X 8,” they should be rated a minimum of level III.

A side note is neccessary- for some time, with increasing frequency of late, manufacturers have started releasing level IIIA hard plates. I am lukewarm on these, for the simple reason outlined above. IF YOU ARE WEARING RIGID PLATES, YOU MIGHT AS WELL DERIVE RIFLE PROTECTION. The only scenarios that these plates would be appropriate might be if you were fairly certain that rifle rounds would not be encountered, or if you were looking for a moderately concealable plate to protect you against blunt force trauma (bats, fists, knives) over and above what your normal concealable armor provides.

About those ratings. NIJ ratings are the most commonly encountered, and can be somewhat confusing. Level IIIA is a soft armor rating, and provides protection from hot .44 Magnum and 9mm subgun rounds (typically at velocities found in 16″ barrels). Level III is a rifle/hard armor certification, and the spec is: 6 rounds of M80 ball at 2750 fps, fired at a distance of 15 feet, striking within a 6″ circle. To further confuse the issue, manufacturers generally specify whether the armor is “ICW” (In Conjunction With), or “standalone.” ICW requires soft armor (usually level II or IIIA) to be worn behind the plate in order to meet the full spec. This can be for several reasons- first off, ICW plates can be thinner in profile, usually sacrificing some of their backing material (usually a rigid aramid or UHMWPE composite). Secondly, ICW plates may not make their BFD (backface deformation) numbers without some additional padding behind the plate. Finally, the ICW plates may occasionally have issues with backface spall/break through (rounds that either transmit enough energy to cause ejecta, or barely penetrate).

What this means is, if it says ICW, believe it. Wear soft armor behind your plates. I go one step further, and recommend you wear soft armor behind ALL hard plates, even stand alone. The reasons for this are: the added weight and bulk of 4th and 5th generation woven p-aramid plate backers is negligible, and having the extra padding (in the event of a ballistic strike) will be MUCH appreciated after the fact.

Level IV plates exhibit a higher nominal rating than level III plates, but many make the mistake of assuming that they are “better.” Better, as always, is subject to the requirements of the end-user. The spec for level IV plates call for stopping ONE round of M2AP Black tip, at 2800 fps, 25 feet from the muzzle. There is no requirement for more than one round, so hypothetically the plate could stop the round and disintegrate into a fine powder (generally, they won’t). IF you expect to face AP threats, then IV makes sense. But if you only anticipate standard lead or mild-steel core threats, III makes more sense (and usually is more cost-effective).

Also, it is important to note the specs. PAY ATTENTION to the specs, as some rounds that should be “expected” to be stopped will penetrate. III is M80 ball, IV is M2AP. Manufacturers will often include an addendum to the certification if they have bench/proof tested other rounds over and above the NIJ rating. More details forthcoming in future posts.

Next, we will look at the various plate materials, their relative benefits and drawbacks, and how you can choose the best for your intended use.

Stay classy folks.

Note: edited to add more material

With the push to create ever-thinner, ever-lighter concealable body armor, companies cast about for materials that had even better strength-to-weight ratios than UHMWPE. In the late 90’s, they believed they had found a miracle material.

Developed in the late 80’s by SRI International, and marketed by Toyobo a Japanese company, PBO Zylon [poly(p-phenylene-2,6-benzobisoxazole)] promised to be the holy grail of the armor industry. With nearly TWICE the strength and Young’s Modulus of Aramid, and over twice the decomposition temperature (1202 F), Zylon looked to be a champion. Armor companies immediately started producing high-end vests using the new material. Within a short time, laminates began to be used as well, with names such as Z-Shield and Z-Flex.

The armors produced were impressive, unbelievable even. Thinner, lighter, and more comfortable than anything produced up until that time. Nearly a quarter of a million vests were produced before the shine came off the rose.

Despite the impressive statistics put up by Zylon fiber, these were “ideal” numbers. After time in the environment (especially the harsh conditions body armor is subjected to), it was found that Zylon degraded at a horrifying rate. Light and humidity exposure caused as much as a 60% decrease in the effectiveness WITHIN AS LITTLE AS SIX MONTHS. Due to how the fiber was finished (a phosphoric acid scouring process), small amounts of water (such as the vapor found in human sweat) could react with trace quantities of phosphoric acid remaining on the fibers, and trigger those acids to break down the fibers. UV light accelerated the breakdown.

These dangerous properties were brought to light in 2000 by a researcher at a major University, and CONFIRMED by Toyobo in 2001 (who, to their credit, had never recommended this fiber for use in body armor). These findings were dismissed, and Zylon continued to be used in soft armor.

If not for the tireless efforts of individuals such as Kevin “Mad Dog” McClung and Dr. Gary Roberts, this dangerous material may still be used in vests. This in spite of at least 3 deaths directly attributed to Zylon breakdown, leading to vests failing during bullet impacts.

After these high profile failures, and do to the revelations of Zylon’s unsuitability, a rush for the door ensued. Zylon was pulled by numerous manufacturers, and it was decertified by the NIJ for use in armor. The trouble is, a lot of these vests still remain in circulation today, either because the wearer was not made aware of the issue, or unscrupulous sellers feel that making a quick buck selling, essentially, garbage, is more important than the wearer’s safety.

Zylon should never, EVER be used in armor. If you have a vest that contains ANY, it is not safe, even if it is only a small portion. Identification of this material is paramount, and I will be posting a tutorial in a future post to allow people to determine what their armor consists of.

So avoid Zylon, at all costs, and stay safe!

Next time: We look at hard armor. Same time, same channel!

In the late 80’s and early 90’s a relatively new material was making an appearance in concealable body armor. Based on the Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene molecule, this material offered tensile strength 8-15 times that of steel on a weight-to-weight basis. This was up to 40% higher than Aramid fiber. Developed by DSM, this material became known by two different trade names, Dyneema (DSM) and Spectra (Honeywell). Initially, this material was utilized as both a woven panel (which had immediate problems, as will be discussed below), and later in a laminate form (called Shield technology, similar to Gold Shield aramid laminate).

In the same way that aramid laminates utilized a poly-film matrix, so too did Dyneema and Spectra laminates. The UHMWPE fibers in laminate armor materials are unidirectional (all running in the same direction) and offset by 90 degrees in each successive layer. While this material, which is still widely used in soft armor, has impressive performance (much lower AD than aramid based armors, no UV susceptibility, positive buoyancy), there are fatal flaws that an end-user must be made aware of.

In addition to having the drawbacks of aramid laminates (de-lamination/peeling, extremely poor breateability), UHMWPE laminates also suffer from heat sensitivity. The UHMWPE molecule is chemically similar to garden-variety Polyethylene (the same material used in plastic milk jugs). When Spectra or Dyneema is exposed to temperatures above 170 Degrees F, it permanently and irreversibly denatures/reverts to the same milk-jug plastic (which has absolutely NO ballistic properties at all).

Because armor is often exposed to a wide range of temperatures (for example, in many parts of the country, a car trunk/interior can easily reach 180-190 F), this is a major concern. Furthermore, since there is no visible change to the material, there is no way for the end user to know if their armor is still viable, or merely layers of coffee can lid. Originally, woven UHMWPE armors were produced (called Spectraflex), but since the higher surface area of the woven fibers made the armor even more prone to heat degradation (a hot cup of coffee, for instance, would have a greater effect on a woven UHMWPE vest compared to a laminate, due to the vapor/moisture barrier properties of the laminate), they were quickly withdrawn from the market.

In addition, Spectra/Dyneema based armors fare poorly in situations where they may be subjected to contact shots- the hot muzzle blast gasses can melt the armor around the impact area, allowing the bullet to penetrate more layers (sometimes even the entire vest) than would have been possible with a woven aramid based vest. All laminates suffer poor contact shot resistance, but UHMWPE is especially susceptible. I will be dedicating a post on contact shots in the coming months.

What does all this mean for you, the end user? First of all, it is vital to identify armor containing UHMWPE, and to a similar extent, first and second generation laminates (I will be posting a tutorial on armor material identification in the coming months). If you are able to assess your needs prior to purchasing armor, ask yourself if you will be operating in environments that expose the weaknesses of UHMWPE or laminates (potential for elevated temperatures, likelihood of contact shots, requirement for high exertion/perspiration). If none of these circumstances are likely to be encountered, the dangers of UHMWPE/Laminates will be minimized. But if one or more apply, it is strongly recommended you find an armor system consisting of 100% WOVEN ARAMID.

It is important to note that this applies only to soft armor. UHMWPE/Spectra/Dyneema/Aramid Laminates find extensive use in hard/rigid armors (both as a pure defense and as backing material for the strike face. This will be discussed in a later post, but for now, please note that evidence strongly suggests in a rigid configuration, UHMWPE/Laminates do not exhibit the same dangers/weaknesses as when utilized in soft armor.

Next: The most dangerous (to the wearer) soft armor material. Stay tuned.

And so it was that a great need was upon the land. With projectiles achieving higher velocities, and greater penetration, Nylon just was not cutting the mustard. Even though it excelled silk for use in soft armor, it still lacked the requisite tensile strength to stop modern copper jacketed handgun rounds in anything approaching wearable ADs.

In 1965, a Dupont chemist named Stephanie Kwolek stumbled upon a new material while searching for alternatives to steel in tire reinforcements. This new material had a tensile strength 5 times that of steel on an equal weight basis. The structure resembled natural silk, but what made Kevlar outstanding was the propensity for the fibers to form cross-linked hydrogen bonds at 90 degrees to the polymer chain. This gave the new fiber exceptional tenacity, making it ideally suited for use in ballistic armor.

This, combined with excellent heat and flame resistance (Aramid fibers do not burn, they char at around 700 F), lead to a resurgence in concealable personal body armor. Richard Davies, founder of Second Chance, immediately saw the potential of this fiber, and the modern “bulletproof vest” was born.

Kevlar is the trade name for aramid fiber developed by Dupont, but there are several different brands of aramid fiber, including Teijin’s Twaron. Though originally discovered by Dupont, Teijin, a Netherlands based company, perfected and patented an aramid fiber processing method that Dupont later licensed to use themselves. Whether we are talking about Kevlar aramid or Twaron aramid, the properties are very similar.

To this day, aramid is widely used in armor applications. During the 70’s and 80’s, the only form used was woven fabric, cut and layered up to 35 plies deep. In the 90’s, new iterations of bullet resistant composites were brought to market, including laminates.

Laminates were introduced in search of the ever moving goal post of thinner and lighter armor. Of course, as has been the case throughout history, heavy and cumbersome armor is not fun to wear. To get folks to wear their armor, thin and light make sense. However, as will be seen, laminates were not necessarily better, and could even be seen as a step backwards (at least the first and second generation iterations).

Laminates such as Goldflex and Gold Shield utilize polypropylene films (chemically similar to food preservative film) to sandwich unidirectional aramid fibers in alternating 0 degree and 90 degree layers. Admittedly, this results in a very good material for stopping bullets, including hits near the edge of a panel, and at acute angles to the panel.

Unfortunately, several drawbacks rear their ugly heads with aramid laminates. First off, they have the breatheability of plastic wrap. Which is zero, since similar materials are used as vapor barriers. Secondly, the plastic film has a nasty tendency to melt when the panel is subjected to the hot muzzle blast of contact shots (an event all-to common in the course of law enforcement). In contrast, woven aramid is extremely effective at resisting contact shots. Finally, armor made with first and second generation laminates experience accelerated wear, since the adhesion of the film is degraded by repeated exposure to flexing, heat, cold and moisture.

While an armor built with woven aramid could reasonably be expected to survive (and remain fully effective!) for over 25 years (and I have personally verified that they HAVE), a laminate constructed armor is usually toast after only two years of normal wear. The edges curl, the layers peel apart, and the ballistic effectiveness drops to unsafe levels. In much the same way that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, first and second generation laminates are hobbled by their use of, essentially, plastic wrap in their construction.

Next episode, we will look at another laminate, one that has great numbers, but hidden dangers…

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