The History of Body Armor

Body armor has been around for centuries, and some of the techniques used to create it have remained largely unchanged. From as early as 1400 BC soldiers have been outfitted in armor, and with the advancement of metal forging and the increased availability of strong metals, armor soon became harder and more advanced. Chain mail is perhaps the closest parallel to modern body armor, with its layers of tightly woven metal rings working to disperse the energy of an attack and ‘catch’ weapons in its web. Indeed, some stab proof armors still use chainmail. Another comparable invention is plate mail, which was often utilised alongside chainmail and is synonymous with armor. Everybody knows the image of a knight in shining armor, thick plates of steel or bronze protecting him from attack. Modern ‘hard armor’ works in exactly the same way, sometimes using the same material.

With the advent of firearms, body armor struggled to keep up. More and more the technology favoured the attacker rather than the defender, and traditional armor like plate and chainmail became less and less effective. However, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries thick plates of metal were still useful to soldiers, as it provided some protection against the weak  firearms (relative to today’s standards) being used, and would still protect against the much more commonplace swords, arrows and pikes. Interestingly, it was the development of pikes that changed the face of warfare much more than firearms did, as it negated much of the protection plate and chainmail armor offered and drastically altered offensive tactics on the battlefield.

As firearms became stronger and more commonplace, armor was much less useful. Eventually, plate armor had to be so thick as to be practically useless to a soldier that needed to move his body. Plate armor had something of a resurgence towards the end of the 19th Century as it provided some protection against explosives and shrapnel, which was useful in the artillery-heavy campaigns of 19th Century warfare. Heavy plate armor was even used as late as the Korean and Vietnamese wars, which severely hindered American soldiers on the battlefield due to its weight and the stifling heat. Weight and temperature control are still the main areas of development for body armor. There were early forays into using layers of fabric as armor during these periods, and even as early as the 15th Century, when Chinese soldiers would use dense layers of silk in much the same way modern armor uses Kevlar.

It was really the invention of Kevlar that created modern body armor. In the late 1960s DuPont began developing their para-aramid fiber Kevlar, which is lightweight and incredibly strong. This allowed body armor to be made that was light and thin enough to be worn for long periods comfortably, and even for it to be worn discreetly. Over time other companies developed their own materials, allowing body armor to be easily and cheaply available for the first time. This technological advancement cannot be over emphasised, as it allowed for a wide range of objects to become bullet proof, and the research behind these aramids is still helping to advance body armor technology. There are a number of exciting areas being researched currently, and ‘futuristic’ armors are closer and closer to becoming a reality.