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The concept and advisability of wearing protective armor is nothing new.

From the armored knights of the middle ages, and ever after, men have sought to protect themselves from bullets and other threats.

 
 
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A History of Bullet Proof Vests and Body Armor

The homemade armor worn by Australian outlaw Ned Kelly in 1880, and now on display in Australia's State Library of Victoria.

The armor has many bullet impressions, but none penetrated.

Click on the image to open a larger picture of this suit of armor.

Part 3 of a new series on body armor.  See links to other parts of the series on the right.

 

 

The knights in armor, glorified in legends and stories, are merely one early example of rigid armor being used to protect combatants from other combatants.

In addition to evolving solid armor, flexible softer armor has been in use since medieval times too.

But it is only from the mid 1970s that modern bullet proof vests became practical in terms of size, weight, comfort and cost.

Continued developments in artificial fibers and manufacturing techniques have seen steady, albeit slow, improvements in bullet proof vests in the 35 years since then, and exciting new technologies may offer much greater improvements in the future.

A Quick History of Body Armor

There is nothing new to the concept of using some type of device to shield oneself from an enemy's attack.  Indeed, the word 'shield' itself also refers to devices one would hold in front of oneself, to protect against the enemy's sword or other weapon.

Armor itself first came to be used in the form of an item of clothing in the middle ages, when knights would wear either rigid hinged armor or more flexible 'chain mail' type armor.

The development of firearms made these early types of armor obsolete, but in the 1500s, solid metal armor designed to withstand firearms started to appear, with one of the first recorded instances being in 1538 when the Italian Duke of Urbino commissioned a bullet proof vest from an armorer in Milan, possibly of Damascus steel.  He died shortly thereafter, but of poison.

The word 'bulletproof' itself dates back to the late 1500s, indicating an awareness and appreciation of the concept.

In the English Civil War (1642 - 1651) Oliver Cromwell's cavalry were equipped with double-layered metal cuirasses (vests) that were designed to be bullet proof.

One infamous use of armor occurred in Australia in 1880 when four outlaws known as the Ned Kelly gang built their own body armor out of ploughshares.  They concealed their armor under long coats, and in a shoot-out with the police, their armor was hit repeatedly but never penetrated.  The armor comprised a helmet, vest, and apron, with additional protection for the shoulders and weighed almost 100 lbs.

But the balance of each person's arms and legs were unprotected, and it was repeated shots to these unprotected parts of their bodies that finally stopped them.  Fascinating details here.

Different countries and armies continued to experiment with solid protective garments, and by World War 1 the US was equipping some of its soldiers with a combination of breastplate and headpiece known as a Brewster Body Shield.  This device, made from chrome nickel steel, could protect against rifle bullets, but weighed 40 lbs.

Flexible protection

Initial attempts at developing something one could more comfortably wear and still be protected against firearm bullets - lighter weight and more flexible than solid metal - revolved around using natural substances, of course, primarily woven silk (first used by the medieval Japanese).  Improvements to firearm technologies and the increasing speed of bullets more than kept up with improvements to silk type armor, and the cost of such garments was also extremely high, making them impractical for all but the most wealthy individuals.

As an interesting aside, it is believed that Archduke Ferdinand was wearing a silk bullet proof vest, but his assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 - the event that resulted in World War 1 - was in the form of a shot to the head.

There have been US patents granted for bullet proof garments dating back to 1919.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, gangsters in the US started wearing vests made from multiple layers of cotton padding and cloth.  These worked quite well against the not very powerful handgun rounds commonly used at the time, and resulted in the FBI changing to more powerful pistol rounds, first the .38 Special and subsequently the .357 Magnum.

Flexible body armor first approached something like mainstream use in World War 2, with bulky flak jackets being adopted, and made out of nylon.  Unfortunately these were not only cumbersome to wear, they were also of limited value; providing some protection against shrapnel but no real effective protection against rifle or even pistol bullets.

The revolution that introduced modern body armor

Things finally started to change in the 1960s with the development of new artificial fibers that could be used to create more effective, less bulky, and lighter protection.  These new fibers were termed aramids and first started to appear in the early 1960s (DuPont's Nomex was the first, developed in the early 1960s and first marketed in 1967).  Perhaps the best known aramid is DuPont's Kevlar, developed in 1965 and first commercially used as a replacement for steel in racing tires in the early 1970s.

Intensive research in the first half of the 1970s saw Kevlar adapted to be used in the manufacture of a totally new type of wearable (and even concealable) ballistic vest, with a report from the NIJ (National Institute of Justice) in 1976 concluding that Kevlar based body armor was sufficiently practical and effective as to be beneficial for police officers to adopt.

Kevlar has made modern body armor possible, and although the fiber is now 40+ years old, it still remains the dominant material used in vests designed to protect against pistol bullets, supplemented with solid steel or ceramic plates to give greater protection against rifle round when necessary.

Kevlar has had several 'upgrades' - the original Kevlar was superseded by Kevlar 29, which was the first version used for production models of bullet proof vests in the 1970s, which in turn was superseded by Kevlar 129 in 1988 - a product DuPont referred to as a second generation of Kevlar fiber.

In 1995, Kevlar Correctional was introduced, which added some stab-resistant capabilities (prison officers are more at risk of being stabbed by inmates with make-shift spike weapons than they are at risk of being shot), and then Kevlar Protera came out in 1996.  There have been no new enhanced Kevlar products since then.

Alternatives to Kevlar

In addition to Kevlar, other materials of note include Spectra, Spectra Shield and GoldFlex from Honeywell.  Honeywell claims Spectra has the highest strength to weight ratio of any fiber in the world.  It is also very cut resistant.

Spectra Shield has layers of Spectra fiber sealed between sheets of polyethylene film.  GoldFlex is similar to Spectra Shield but instead of using Spectra fiber, which is polyethylene based, it uses an aramid (Kevlar type) fiber instead.

Another product is Twaron, made by Twaron Products.  Its main claim to fame is that it has lots of finely spun single filaments that act as an 'energy sponge', absorbing and dissipating a bullet's energy.  It is also claimed to be lighter weight for the same amount of protection than, eg, Kevlar.

A product from The Netherlands is Dyneema, which again boasts a very high strength to weight ratio, lightness, and high energy absorption.

And then there is Zylon from Japan.  It is claimed to have twice the tensile strength of Kevlar type aramids.

It is relevant to note that the fibers used for bullet proofing have other uses too, including manufacturing other types of industrial protective clothing, making other strong light objects (eg fishing poles and tennis rackets) and even brake linings.

Dragon Skin Armor

Most current flexible bullet proof vests are of woven fabric.  An interesting alternate approach has been taken by a Californian company, Pinnacle Armor.  They have created a flexible vest which comprises about 150 2" wide ceramic disks, each individually mounted on a vest carrier, and all overlapping each other so as to provide an overall solid barrier, but with flexibility for easy wearing and movement.

This has been a controversial new approach, with some experts proclaiming it to be a brilliant step forward in body armor design, and others citing concerns and failures in some testing procedures and in some specific combinations of bullet angles when they hit the Dragon Skin vest.

Some commentators are claiming the US Army deliberately engineered testing circumstances that would cause the Dragon Skin armor to fail, and the situation is further complicated by some apparent quality control issues Pinnacle had in its early production runs.

Future Trends

The continued enhancements to fibers has resulted in bullet proof vests that are lighter and less bulky than their predecessors.  They are not necessarily any stronger or more bullet resistant, but for the same amount of resistance, they are definitely lighter and easier to wear.

In the past, improvements often came by way of making the fibers thinner and the weave tighter, but the extra cost of this becomes greater and greater and is at a point now where continued reductions in fiber size are not cost effective with present technologies.  Some manufacturers are now looking at three dimensional weaving as a new way to make stronger lighter garments.

New technologies and new materials are needed.  Some are on the horizon - a new fiber called M5 seems promising, but is not yet in commercial production.

Carbon fibers produced from carbon nanotubes are also being developed.

Another interesting technology is a shear thickening substance that is normally flexible but which thickens up when experiencing sudden strong forces.

Are your eyes starting to glaze over yet?  No wonder!  By the early 2000s, and simply using present technologies, more than 80 different manufacturers offer NIJ certified body armor.

Fortunately, as you'll see in subsequent parts of this series, it is actually quite easy to choose a good bullet proof vest.  So please click on to find out how.

Part of a multi-part series

Please click the links at the top right of this page to read through other parts of this extensive series on body armor and the protection it offers.

 

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Originally published 11 Jan 2011, last update 28 May 2011

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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Body Armor Series
1.  Do You Need Body Armor
2.  The Need for Body Armor
3.  The Evolution of Body Armor.
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