Posts Tagged ‘body armor’

Over the past 15 years, we have been designing, building, innovating, and improving armor, tactical gear, and related equipment. Our philosophy has ever been, “there’s no such thing as over-engineering, merely proper engineering.” After wearing out, destroying, and dissecting more pieces of personal gear than we can recount, there were some themes that kept repeating: stitching geometry, materials, and design are all critical. It sounds like common sense, but after witnessing many gear failures, and tracing them to their causes, we saw that common sense is not so common.

We began to design gear that incorporated advanced materials. Materials normally only found in ballistic armor, such as Kevlar and Twaron. We sought out the best materials, and when they couldn’t be found, we had them custom milled to our specifications. And we realized that using ballistic-rated materials could enhance the overall protective capabilities of the entire system, meaning that pouches and load-bearing gear was no longer pure parasitic weight.

The results of that decade of design, planning, innovation and re-design are now available to you, a dividend that you can benefit from when you purchase any of our FragTuf(TM) gear.

When you see the FragTuf(TM) name, it means that the item is stronger, lighter, better. There are three levels of FragTuf(TM) construction:

FragTuf-A: Utilizes our signature dual-stitching, combining mil-spec Kevlar and Nylon. Can also include advanced HANK (High Abrasion Neoprene Kevlar) laminate.

FragTuf-B: Includes everything found in FragTuf-A, but goes a step further, and contains between one and three layers of fifth-generation woven ballistic aramid.

FragTuf-C The most rugged FragTuf gear includes everything A and B has, with the addition of our custom-milled SpallGuard aramid material, usually in places other makers would use mundane padding.

Our goal is to create a comprehensive line of gear, that is both universally compatible with everything we make, as well as interchangeable and compatible with as much extant gear (current, future, and legacy) as possible. To give you the absolute maximum number of possibilities in setting up your kit, with the absolute best quality and durability.

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!

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