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Body Armor History

The history of the development of armor and arms begins with that of the human race. Humans throughout recorded history have used various types of materials to protect themselves from injury in combat and other dangerous situations. At first, protective clothing and shields were made from animal skins. As civilizations became more advanced, wooden shields and then metal shields came into use. The details of pre-Homeric armor must always be largely a matter of inference. The detailed descriptions of shields and armor in the Homeric epics carried a great appeal for the audience of that time, and provide considerable insight into archaic shields, greaves, helmets, and breastplates for modern readers.

The hoplites, who formed the main Athenian army, wore helmet, body armor, greaves and ieshld, and fought with pike and sword. The helmets were either Corinthian, which covered the face to the chin, with slits for eyes, and often had no plume or crest; or the Athenian, which did not cover the face (though sometimes it had cheekites which could be turned up if necessary), had crests, some triple, with plumes of feathers, horsehair or leather; a steel cap without crest, plumes or cheek-plates. The Spartan army's body armor consisted of breast and back plates fastened by thongs or straps and buckles; sometimes poverty compelled a man to be content with a leather jerkin strengthened by metal plates, or even a quilted linen or lined shirt.

The equipment of the Roman soldier, passed through a number of changes. By the end of the Punic Wars, for defence they wore a side-covered headpiece and a round buckler 3 ft. in diameter. The heavy-armed carried a scutum formed of two boards glued together, covered with canvas and skin, and incurved into the shape of a half-cylinder; its upper and lower edges were strengthened with iron rims and its centre with a boss (umbo). A greave was worn on the right leg, and the helmet was of bronze with a crest of three feathers. The wealthier soldiers wore a cuirass of chain armor (lorica), the poorer a brass plate. The Lorica Segmentata was believed to have been introduced in the ranks of the Roman Army during the first century AD and widely used at the height of the Roman Empire.

By the time of the Norman Conquest of England, weapons and war gear have advanced little or thing beyond the age which saw the Dacian warrior armed m crown to foot. The Bayeux tapestry, with its more than six hundred figures, pictured all the circumstances of war. A knight was reckoned fully armed if he have helmet, hawberk and shield; his weapons are sword and lance, though he sometimes carries axe or mace and, more rarely, bow. The coat of mail, which the Norman called hawberk and the English byrnie, hangs from neck to knee, the sleeves loose and vering the elbow only, the skirt slit before and behind for ease in the saddle.

The 14th century, the high-day of chivalry, the age of Crecy and Poitiers, of the Black Prince and Chandos, the age which saw enrolled the noble company of the Garter, the art of the armorer and weapon-smith strides forward. At its beginning many knights were still clad in chain mail with no visible plate. At its end, the knight is often locked su plates from head to foot, no chainwork showing save the cli mail edge under the helm and the fringe of the mail skirt or hawberk.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Western Europe, a profound change occurred in the military capabilities of that portion of the Continent. Various weapons employing gunpowder gradually replaced pike and halberd as the standard infantry weapons, and armor gradually disappeared from the bodies of both infantry and cavalry soldiers. With the advent of firearms (c.1500), most of the traditional protective devices were no longer effective. In fact, the only real protection available against firearms were man-made barriers, such as stone or masonry walls; manmade fortifications such as trenches and ditches; or natural barriers, such as rocks and trees. By 1700, with the invention of a socket bayonet that could be fitted onto the end of the flintlock musket without plugging the barrel, the pike disappeared entirely and along with it the helmet and body armor that had been designed primarily for protection against pikes and swords.

The US military didn't place much confidence in bulletproof vests. The first bulletproof vests soldiers used weren't issued by the military. Union soldiers in the Civil War bought bulletproof vests from peddlers who traveled around Army camps in Northern Virginia. During the Civil War, a number of types of protective shields and breastplates were developed by interested parties, and some of these were considered for possible official military usage. However, no standard official form of armor was available, and all forms were purchased by individual soldiers. Two types have been described as being most popular among Union soldiers. These consisted of the "Soldiers' Bullet Proof Vest" manufactured by the G. & D. Cook & Company of New Haven, Conn., and the second most popular type of breastplate was manufactured by the Atwater Armor Company, also of New Haven. Both types consisted of metallic ballistic material made up of a number of steel plates. The vests were made of cast iron and were incredibly heavy. The Atwater armorplate would defeat a jacketed bullet fired from a caliber .45 pistol at a distance of 10 feet. The chief factors in the discontinuance of body armor at that time were the inconvenience due to the extra weight and bulk and the marked ridicule of those individuals who were wearing the armor by their comrades who did not avail themselves of the protection.

One of the first recorded instances of soft armor use was by the medieval Japanese, who used armor manufactured from silk. Although the first U.S. law enforcement officer to lose his life in the line of duty, New York City Deputy Sheriff Isaac Smith, was shot and killed in 1792, it was not until the late 19th century that the first use of soft armor in the United States was recorded.

At that time, the military explored the possibility of using soft armor manufactured from silk. The project even attracted congressional attention after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. But while the garments were shown to be effective against low-velocity bullets (traveling at 400 feet per second (ft/s) or less), they did not offer protection against the new generation of handgun ammunition being introduced at that time that traveled at velocities of more than 600 feet per second. This, along with the prohibitive cost of manufacturing the garment ($80 each, which is equal to approximately $1,500 in today's dollars) made the concept unacceptable. Armor of this type was said to have been worn by Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria when he was killed by a shot to the head, thereby precipitating World War I.

During World War I most of the participating countries developed various forms of protective devices for the torso and the extremities, but the excessive weight or lack of adequate protection restricted their general use in combat. Some form of body armor was seen on all fronts from 1915 through 1918, but only on experimental basis, and body armor was never in general usage. The most successful use of armor was by sentinels, members of patrols, and stationary machinegun crews. Despite the relative low troop acceptability because of excessive weight, it was generally believed that these forms of personnel armor had great potential value.

Numerous military authorities had advocated the use of body armor during World War I, but it had only reached a preliminary testing stage before it was generally rejected. During World War I, the United States had developed several types of armor. One, the Brewster Body Shield, was made of chrome nickel steel, weighed 40 pounds, and consisted of a breastplate and a headpiece. This armor would withstand Lewis machinegun bullets at 2,700 f.p.s. but was unduly clumsy and heavy.

Studies of casualties of British forces through 1916 indicated that more than three-quarters of the wounded men could have been saved if some form of armor had been worn. The preponderance of wounds derived from fragmentation-type weapons (either shrapnel or shell fragment). Studies of French casualties showed that 60 to 80 percent of all wounds were produced by missiles of low to medium velocity. Therefore, the British were interested not only in metallic but also in nonmetallic ballistic material. They developed a silk-lined necklet which was purported to stop a 230-grain pistol ball at 600 f.p.s. However, the primary materials, extremely difficult to obtain, deteriorated very rapidly under combat conditions and were considered costly ($25). In addition, the British also studied a 6-pound body shield that was approximately 1 inch thick and was made of many layers of linen, cotton, and silk hardened by a resinous material.

The US Patent and Trademark Office lists records dating back to 1919 for various designs of bullet-resistant garments. One of the first documented instances where such a vest was demonstrated for use by law enforcement officers is detailed in the April 2, 1931, edition of the Washington, DC, Evening Star, which reported on a vest demonstration for members of the Metropolitan Police Department. However, none of these designs proved entirely effective or feasible for law enforcement or corrections use.

The next generation of ballistic vests was introduced during World War II. The US military started researching and issuing what became known as "flak jackets" during World War II. Bomber crews often returned from missions over Nazi- occupied Europe telling how the "flak was so thick you could walk on it." Each of those puffs of smoke in the sky contained thousands of pieces of shrapnel. In early October 1942, an analysis of wounds incurred by US Eighth Air Force combat personnel revealed that approximately 70 percent were due to relatively low velocity missiles.

In 1942, the Army Air Forces started issuing flak jackets to aircrews. The flak jackets also included steel plates sown into cloth. They hung over the chest and stomach like a catcher's chest protector. They were pretty heavy. There was a helmet that completed the ensemble. The vest had a pull tab to dump it quickly if the plane ditched in the water or the crew had to bail out. The "flak jacket," constructed of ballistic nylon, provided protection primarily from munitions fragments, but was ineffective against most pistol and rifle threats. These vests also were very cumbersome and bulky and were restricted primarily to military use. These first flak jackets were heavy, but they did stop flak.

US officials had adapted the flak vest from the Royal Air Force. Samples suits were received in the United States in July 1943, and the Army Ordnance Department and various civilian institutions were responsible for producing approximately 23 types of flyer's armor. The armor workshop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art became the main design research laboratory in the development of flyer's armor. They were used by flexible position gunners in four-engine bombers like B-17s and B-24s. Some aircrew in medium bombers like the B-26 and B-25 also used them.

On July 8, 1943, then Colonel Malcolm C. Grow was awarded the Legion of Merit for developing the flak vest. As the Surgeon of the Eighth Air Force, he ordered a survey of Eighth AF wounds and found that 70 percent were caused by missiles of relatively low velocity. He surmised that some type of light armor might offer protection to air crews. He contracted with the Wilkinson Sword Company, a British firm, for a 22-pound armored suit that withstood a .45 caliber round fired at point blank range. He concluded it would also stop flak and successfully tested the handmade suit on a B-17 crew. Soon the ''flak suit" was mass produced by both the British and the Americans. This light body armor and the addition of a steel helmet were Grow's ideas that saved many lives and improved combat crew morale.

Numerous investigators in the Ordnance Department and in the other technical services had contemplated the development of armor for ground troops in the early stages of World War II. However, very preliminary investigations had shown that most models were too heavy, were incompatible with standard items of equipment, and tended to restrict the mobility of the soldier. A considerable number of the vests and aprons were produced and were scheduled for field testing and observation by a joint medical-ordnance-infantry team just at the cessation of the war in the Pacific.

In May 1943 the Dow Chemical Company laminated a fibrous glass fabric which immediately proved very promising. The initial product consisted of layers of glass filaments of Fiberglas bonded together with an ethyl cellulose resin under high pressure. Some of the individuals working with Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Georges F. Doriot, then director of the Military Planning Division, Office of the Quartermaster General, decided that the project should be known as the "Doron Project" in his honor. Therefore, the glass fiber laminate manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company became known as and continued to be called doron.

The production of the M12 vest was slated to continue to a certain degree after August 1945. The M12 vest was made of thick aluminum plates and had ayers of nylon cloth. It weighed 12 pounds and 3 ounces and provided an area protection of 3.45 square feet. The design had been modified to provide greater protection for the anterior portion of the thorax both by increasing the width of the main frontpiece and also by increasing the size of the anterior flap over the heart and great vessels. It was not until the Korean War that it was utilized in the field. With the rebirth of body armor during the Korean War, the M12 vest was used initially by American troops in conjunction with the newer all-nylon-type vest. Following the completion of the initial surveys and standardization of the final end item, all US frontline troops were equipped with the newer all-nylon or doron vests, and the M12 vests were used by Republic of Korea troops.

After the war, research continued to make flak jackets lighter and better. During the Vietnam War, many soldiers, Marines and airmen received flak vests. Again, the vests would stop shrapnel but not a bullet. Those were hot, uncomfortable, heavy and bulky. It was extremely hard to move around in them. Most service members wore them without shirts. In helicopters, most service members sat on the vests.

It would not be until the late 1960s that new fibers would be discovered that would make today's generation of concealable body armor possible. The development of Kevlar and ceramic materiel in the 1970s and 1980s made real bulletproof vests possible. U.S. service members in hot spots around the world count on these armored vests to protect them as they do their jobs. Concerned by this rapid increase in officer fatalities and The National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (NILECJ)-predecessor of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ)-initiated a research program to investigate the development of a lightweight body armor that on-duty police could wear full time.

The investigation readily identified new materials that could be woven into a lightweight fabric with excellent ballistic-resistant properties. Following initial laboratory research, the agency concluded that the objective of producing body armor suitable for full-time police use was achievable. In a parallel effort, the National Bureau of Standards' (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology) Law Enforcement Standards Laboratory (now known as the Office of Law Enforcement Standards (OLES)) developed a performance standard6 that defined ballistic-resistant requirements for police body armor. Of all the equipment developed and evaluated in the 1970s by NIJ, one of its most significant achievements was the development of body armor that employed DuPont's Kevlar ballistic fabric, which was originally developed to replace steel belting in vehicle tires.

One analysis of the differences in injury patterns between soldiers equipped with modern body armor in an urban environment compared with the soldiers of the Vietnam War focused on combat casualties sustained by United States military forces in Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 3 and 4, 1993. This was the largest recent urban battle involving United States ground forces since the Vietnam War.There were 125 combat casualties. Casualty distribution was similar to that of Vietnam; 11% died on the battlefield, 3% died after reaching a medical facility, 47% were evacuated, and 39% returned to duty. The incidence of bullet wounds in Somalia was higher than in Vietnam (55% vs. 30%), whereas there were fewer fragment injuries (31% vs. 48%). Blunt injury (12%) and burns (2%) caused the remaining injuries in Somalia. Fatal penetrating injuries in Somalia compared with Vietnam included wounds to the head and face (36% vs. 35%), neck (7% vs. 8%), thorax (14% vs. 39%), abdomen (14% vs. 7%), thoracoabdominal (7% vs. 2%), pelvis (14% vs. 2%), and extremities (7% vs. 7%).

No missiles penetrated the solid armor plate protecting the combatants' anterior chests and upper abdomens. Most fatal penetrating injuries were caused by missiles entering through areas not protected by body armor, such as the face, neck, pelvis, and groin. Three patients with penetrating abdominal wounds died from exsanguination, and two of these three died after damage-control procedures. The incidence of fatal head wounds was similar to that in Vietnam in spite of modern Kevlar helmets. Body armor reduced the number of fatal penetrating chest injuries. Penetrating wounds to the unprotected face, groin, and pelvis caused significant mortality.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:42:22 ZULU