For one reason or another, human beings have been battling each other since the Stone Age. In military warfare, just as important as tactics and weapons is the use of body armor.
So here at Bulletproof Zone, we’ve got that very subject in our sights – from nutshelling modern U.S. military armor to taking a stab at the future of protective wear for the armed forces.
But to better understand military body armor, we first need to take you right back to when it all began…
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MILITARY BODY ARMOR
It was the Bronze Age when metal armor was first forged. The Assyrians built the first ever permanent army, and mastered making weaponry and scale armor from iron. With it, they went on to crush Sumerian city-states and rule over a vast empire for some 2 centuries.
LATE MIDDLE AGES – THE ARMS RACE BEGINS
Since the swords and spears of Mesopotamian times, of course, weapons have gotten a tad more powerful.
To say nothing of a more cunning enemy. The turning point came around 1400 A.D. with the arrival of ‘true’ firearms, especially ranged weapons.
The metal armor of the day just couldn’t offer the required protection so for the next 400 years fell out of widespread use.
AMERICAN CIVIL WAR – THE BODY ARMOR RENAISSANCE
Even during the Civil War of the 1860s, army soldiers had to pick up such gear from peddlers who traveled around army camps and recruiting posts.
Of the dozens of styles up for grabs, the most popular was the ‘Soldier’s Bullet Proof Vest’ – a regular military vest sporting front and back pockets into which were tucked cast iron plates.
So hefty were they and reckoned by many to be unmanly that most were ditched by the wayside en route to the battlefield.
WORLD WAR II – THE FLAK JACKET IS BORN
The limited use of ‘battle rattle’ continued throughout WWI. But that all changed during the Second World War with the development of the Flak Jacket.
With the clue in the name, the job of the ballistic nylon-made ‘Flyer’s Vest’ was simply to protect the wearer against anti-aircraft fire.
And, together with the M1 steel helmet, saved the lives of countless air force pilots and artillerymen. Flak jackets were remodeled several times over the years; Doron fiberglass body armor plates were added later, and used to great effect in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
SWINGING SIXTIES – THE MATERIALS REVOLUTION
It was the ‘60s, though, that saw materials pop up on the radar that have since transformed military protective gear the world over.
- In 1963, the accidental discovery of Ultra-High Molecular Weight PolyEthylene [UHMWPE] at DSM.
- In 1965, aluminum oxide ceramic plates made their operational debut to U.S. heli crews in the Vietnam War.
- In the same year, Kevlar was identified purely by chance.
Fired up by DuPont’s new claim to fame, the U.S. Armed Forces set about fashioning a new body armor system for the present day.
THE EVOLUTION OF MODERN UNITED STATES MILITARY BODY ARMOR
Except for the United States Space Force [USSF], the American military are made up of a handful of branches:
- United States Army [USA]
- United States Navy [USN]
- United States Air Force [USAF]
- United States Marine Corps [USMC]
- United States Coast Guard [USCG]
While their ultimate mission is defense of the homeland and its interests, each carry out their own ops in varying scenarios domestically and overseas.
As it happens, there’s well over a dozen body armor systems that have been adopted by the U.S. Armed Forces in the last half century.
Here, we’re targeting the major ones:
PERSONNEL ARMOR SYSTEM FOR GROUND TROOPS [PASGT]
Introduced in 1983 as the main body armor for the army, marines and air force, the PASGT replaced the flak jacket and M1 helmet.
Versus which, the PASGT ballistic vest and helmet were a much better fit. They also improved the protection from shell fragments and added resistance from side arms.
Both the PASGT body armor vests and helmets were armored entirely from Kevlar (ballistic grade K-29) – a first for American military body armor.
The system is still used by army reservists and the trademark PASGT helmet by navy sailors.
Before the last PASGT was turned in, though, there was a serious need to protect wearers from rifle rounds. So a stop-gap body armor solution had to be created.
- INTERIM SMALL ARMS PROTECTIVE OVERVEST [ISAPO]
Brought in from early 1996 and worn over the PASGT vest, the ISAPO plate carrier contained front and back pockets into which boron carbide hard armor was inserted – the first time ceramic plates were given to U.S. ground troops.
While they could protect against 7.62mm ball ammo fired from high-powered rifles, the PASGT vest/ISAPO combo weighed in at 21-25lbs so was widely criticized by U.S. troops. Only a few thousand ISAPOs were fielded and it was retired, along with the PASGT, in early 2003.