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Body Armour: A History

Way Back...

To many, body armour is synonymous with medieval knights charging into battle in full plate and chainmail. Knights in shining armour are the most popular idea of what body armour is, and for a long time plate and chainmail were the standards- indeed, the ideas and materials behind them are still used today. Nevertheless, the history of body armour stretches back far further than this, and armours more in line with modern Kevlar for example have existed from as far back as the 15th Century.

Plate & Mail Armors

As early as 1400 BC body armour has been utilised, with soldiers outfitted in breastplates and helmets made of metals. The increasing accessibility of metals and metal forging meant that soldiers were equipped with more ornate, thicker and stronger armours, culminating with the ubiquitous knight in plate and mail. However, even before these medieval soldiers, individuals were utilising fabrics as armour, with some 15th Century Chinese using layers of silk as protection in a direct parallel with modern vests. Of course, even our early ancestors used layers of skins and furs as protection, and not only from the elements.

The image of knights in plate and mail is not only the most common, but has directly influenced modern armour; some armours still use plates of metal to protect against serious threats like explosives and high calibre ammunition, and even chainmail is still utilised in stab proof vests.  However, these plate and mail armours were not only heavy and cumbersome, but expensive. Furthermore, as the nature of battle changed it increasingly became more trouble than it was worth. Crossbows presented the first real threat to armour, but it never found the popularity of the bow and arrow because of its slow reloading. This was just as true with early firearms, and so while armour remained in use, the beginnings of change were there.

Advancements

Once firearms became quicker and stronger, and most importantly cheap to produce, armour began its decline. The weight and bulk of armour soon made it more trouble than it was worth, and it fell out of favour in contemporary battlefields. However, towards the end of the 18th Century and beginning of the 19th it had a resurgence, as it proved to provide some protection against the artillery weapons and explosive commonly used in wars of that era. Traditional armour using thick layers of metal were even used by American soldiers in the Korean and Vietnamese wars, and were extremely uncomfortable in those hot and humid environments.

Introducing Kevlar

The most important development in the body armour industry was the use of plastics in creating strong yet light fibres. These fibres were used by DuPont in the 1960s to create Kevlar, a brand known to all as being used in bullet proof vests. These plastics, known as aramids, create fibres with an extremely high strength-to-weight ratio that are still flexible, offering great potential for dispersing energy and coping with impacts. Similar products began to be created by other companies that utilised aramids and plastics, and soon body armour became stronger, lighter and more accessible than it had ever been.