Military Body Armor Advancements Through the Years
Body Armor: Past, Present and Future
Ever since there have been wars or disputes with weapons, humans have built protection from those threats. As technology improved, so did body armor technology and the materials from which it was made. What inspires innovations in body armor? Movies? Criminals? Law enforcement? Possibly all of these do, but not everything that is tested can withstand the test of time.
Military body armor technology is constantly being researched by governments worldwide. Better body armor is an advantage on the battlefield — with body armor that is lighter, stronger, and more flexible, military members can more effectively respond and take action in intense situations.
In this article we’ll take a look at the past and present of body armor, and then see if we can predict the future of body armor.
Early Body Armor Systems
Some of the earliest known body armor systems were modeled on (and very similar to) metal plate armor worn during medieval times. The problem with this type of body armor is that it was designed to protect wearers against blades and edged weapons. But these metal body armor plates did not have the ballistic integrity to protect against bullets and high velocity projectiles. When muskets and early firearms were introduced to the world, metal plate armor began to lose significance and the search for more effective body armor was inevitable.
One of the next big advancements in body armor design came during the English Civil Wars, when soldiers were issued cuirasses – body armor systems made up of a breastplate and a backplate together. These cuirasses had two layers of metal plate body armor – a softer inside layer and a harder outside layer.
During this time, Japan was already experimenting with softer body armor systems and even had body armor that was made from many layers of silk, intertwined for strength.
Wars and Innovation
Not many soldiers wore body armor during World War I, although it was beginning to make its way into the military. Body armor was too heavy and cumbersome to be widely accepted in the military ranks. The lightest US model weighed around 40 lbs. Those soldiers who did wear body armor where often in positions that didn’t require them to move, such as machine gunners.
Tragically, most soldiers of WWI were left unprotected on the battlefield.
Criminal Gangs Inspire Body Armor
Body armor technology didn’t advance much between WWI and WWII. One of the most notable progressions made during WWII may have come from the rise of gangs in the United States. Criminals began creating makeshift body armor by compressing layers of cotton and cloth. These “vests” could stop lower power, low caliber handgun rounds and help protect against impact. To defeat these vests, law enforcement began carrying larger caliber rounds, such as a .38 or .357 MAG.
Better body armor was now in demand by criminals and law enforcement, as well as soldiers.
During this same period, Britain began issuing body armor systems that included manganese plates. For the first time, body armor existed that provided the same level of protection as the early designs without the excessive weight.
Nazi-Defeating Flak Jackets
Next, bomber crews began adopting flak jackets to protect themselves from low velocity shrapnel, as opposed to bullets. These flak jackets were still very heavy, as they were comprised of steel body armor plates sown into multiple layers of nylon. The jacket was accompanied with a heavy-duty apron and a helmet.
In the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, US infantry soldiers and tank crews were issued bullet-proof vests that were made of doron plate, a fiberglass-based laminate. This was a huge breakthrough as body armor designers continued to search for lighter, stronger materials.
During WWII, the US Army introduced a nylon fabric vest that held aluminum or plastic plates. These plates provided better protection and frag resistance than previous models. This became a standard issued item within the US Army. But outside of the military, the demand continued to grow within the law enforcement community. In 1969, Smith and Wesson developed a barrier vest for law enforcement. This vest incorporated nylon and steel plates, and gained popularity in the first commercial market outside of a military context.
Kevlar Body Armor
Another one of the biggest innovations for modern body armor came in 1965 with the discovery of Kevlar – a lightweight material with superior strength and flexibility. The inventor of Kevlar was Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist at DuPont. Kevlar was originally meant to be used in car tires, but became an instant hit among body armor manufacturers. In 1971, the National Institute of Justice began testing the ballistics of Kevlar plates for the purpose of developing standards for US law enforcement.
By 1975, law enforcement had adopted the K-15, a Kevlar vest with steel plate over the wearer’s heart. The vest was made up 15 layers of Kevlar, and also incorporated a steel plate that sits over the heart of the wearer. In the 1980s, the US Army created the PASGT (Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops), which included a new type of Kevlar vest and helmet. This bulletproof vest weighed about nine pounds and provided better protection than earlier designs.
The PASGT lasted until the Iraq War, when the army adopted the IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) system. The IBA consists of a layered Kevlar vest and SAPI (Small Arms Protective Inserts) plates. This body armor system was the first to provide protection against 7.62 FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) rounds. With plates inserted, the IBA weighs roughly 16 pounds. There are also additional components that can be added to the system, such as groin, throat and arm protection.
Composite / Ceramic
Lightweight, flexible body armor plates continue to take center stage over steel plates. And UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) is stealing the show. These fibers are extremely lightweight and strong. For use in body armor, sheets of UHMWPE fibers are layered at different angles, producing a lightweight armor that is strong from every direction. UHMWPE has improved ballistic protection and enhanced mobility.
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The swimmers cut is a fairly new take on maneuverable, lightweight armor. These body armor plates have sections missing at the top of the shoulder, which increases range of motion and flexibility.
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Modular Replaces Tactical Vest
Modular scalable vests (MSVs) are now replacing outer tactical vests, such as the IBA and IOTV. For storing gear, MSVs use a slotted rubber-like material that replaces the traditional hook-and-ladder system.
The MSV weighs around 25 pounds with body armor plates, which reduces the weight of older models by over 25%.
If you’re looking for a modern, premium modular tactical vest package, you might want to check out Spartan AR500 Omega™ Packages.
New NIJ Standards
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) will soon issue their revised standard, which includes guidance for testing female body armor, along with adjustments to the range of small caliber ammunition used in testing and decreasing the priority of blunt trauma testing.
Liquid Body Armor
Scientists have been researching sheer thickening fluids (STF) for years. STF is a made up of a liquid, polyethylene glycol, and hard particles of silica. Researchers at the US Army are currently testing kevlar vests that are pre-soaked in STF liquid body armor.
STF is a fluid with strange properties. When a STF-soaked vest is impacted by a bullet, the liquid hardens. Although the technology looks promising, it is still in the testing phase. It’s hard to tell if it will be a viable option in the future.
Slime Body Armor
The US military has been researching hagfish slime for its strength and flexibility. The slime contains mucus and threadlike fibers that could lead to the next generation of body armor. Many believe that slime body armor will be stronger and lighter than Kevlar and other current systems.
Foam Body Armor
Composite metal foams (CMF) are another interesting technology to keep your eye out for. CMF is still going through testing, but is said to smash 7.62mm armor-piercing rounds into a fine dust. Its application and various uses are still being researched for the military and law enforcement.
What new trends are you seeing for the future of armor? Leave a comment below and let us know!