Does Bulletproof Mean Just That?

War is as old as mankind, and ever since our first battles among each other, we’ve always tried to protect ourselves as much as we tried to inflict damage. Our ancestors wore chainmail and thick metal plates to deflect arrows and swords.

Today, soldiers use anti-ballistic armour to protect themselves from bullets and flying fragments used by ordnance. That doesn’t make them invincible however, so just how bulletproof is anti-ballistic armour?

The History of Anti-Ballistic Armour Before the First World War

The first attempt at a bulletproof vest dates to the 16th century, believe it or not. In 1561, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian the Second had armour tested against gunfire. This obviously can’t be compared to modern armour, as the technology and the materials we use today were far away from being discovered.

An example of ancient armour that was actually effective at stopping rounds, or musket balls at least, can be found in the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides wore three-layered cuirasses (torso armour) that were capable of stopping bullets and protecting the wearer.

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For a long time, armour was only available to the army, but if we skip to 19th century Ireland, we’ll find that a tailor in Dublin started producing and selling bulletproof armour in his shop.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the Koreans developed the first anti-ballistic armour similar to modern-day armour. They tailored vests with ten layers of cotton, as they found that was enough to stop a round. One such vest is still preserved to this day and you can find it in the National Palace Museum of Korea.

First World War Anti-Ballistic Armour

In 1915, the British Army Design Committee became the first designers of anti-ballistic armour used in the First World War. Initially, the armour was only available as a private purchase, Eventually the Dayfield body armour entered service in 1916 as an issued item, although not all soldiers wore it. In fact, only 2% of enlisted men wore the armour!

Dayfield Armour
The Dayfield body armour of WW1. It was hardly ever worn though was popular with officers.

In the British Army, there were three types of armour. Rigid armour, made up from metal plates and fabric, intermediate armour, made up from small metal plates, and soft armour, made up from cotton and other fabrics.

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They weren’t very effective, though, as rigid armour was heavy and immobilising, intermediate armour would force the small plates into the wearer’s body upon impact and hurt them, while the soft armour offered very little protection.

However, the First World War marks the first investments into body armour, and by the Second World War, flak jackets and body armour would become more commonplace.

Anti-Ballistic Armour in the Second World War

All the major forces started using body armour to a small degree during the war, as British and American medical personnel concluded that most deaths in the First World War could have been avoided if armour was worn.

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Five thousand sets of anti-ballistic armour were produced and distributed among the British in 1941, firstly for evaluation. The armour was met with great approval as it didn’t immobilise movement and it offered a lot of protection.

This armour consisted of plates that covered the torso and the lower back, which are the most vulnerable parts of the body. Another type of body armour was born at the same time – the flak vest. This vest embodies the true meaning of the term ‘anti-ballistic armour’, as its main purpose is to protect from case fragments coming from ordnance.

Flak Jacket
American bomber crew seen here wearing their flak jackets.

Wilkinson Sword

They offered great protection against fragmentation grenades, artillery, and shotgun shells. However, they did not protect against bullets. The first flak vests were produced in 1943 by Wilkinson Sword as a response to pilot deaths.

It was previously believed that pilots were mostly killed by bullets, but reports showed that fragments from explosive ordnance were, in fact, the leading source of death.

Flak vests were quickly adopted by both the United States Army Air Forces and the Royal Air Force. Armour was incorporated in the US Marine Corps in the form of Doron panels. These panels, made from fibre-reinforced plastic, were sewn into the jackets and they were first tested in the Battle of Okinawa in 1944.

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Lastly, Soviet forces also employed armour, but there were too few sets and they were too far in-between to make a noticeable difference in battle, as the Soviets had the greatest Allied ground forces by number. The armour was surprisingly effective, though, as it could stop 9mm rounds shot point-blank!

Armour in the Vietnam War and the Invention of Kevlar

After the Second World War, several types of armour were used in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The armours tested during the Korean War are generally considered a failure as they couldn’t stop bullets, despite being highly mobile. Similar vests were distributed among the crews of low-flying aircraft (especially helicopter crews) during the Vietnam war.

Flak Jacket
A U.S. soldier wearing the iconic flak jacket, of the Vietnam War. These saved countless lives.

The world of body armour would change in 1971 with the invention of Kevlar. Stephanie Kwolek, a Polish-American chemist, was amazed to discover a liquid crystalline polymer solution with unmatched strength and stiffness. This solution was used to make Kevlar, which is used to make body armour to this day and is the basis of modern body armour. Kevlar is essentially a type of fibre used to make fabric.

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When layered, it’s capable of stopping several calibres (more on that later). DuPont de Nemours was the first company to produce and distribute Kevlar body armour among law enforcement in the United States. The armour had quickly proven its effectiveness in the field, and soon after that, it would be introduced all over the world.This marks the beginning of the final stage of anti-ballistic armour development, as it’s the same technology we use today.

Types of Modern Anti-Ballistic Armour

The two main groups of ballistic armour are soft and hard armour. Soft armour, as the name suggests, is made of woven fabrics and protects the wearer from .22 LR, .380 ACP, 9x19mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, and the .44 Magnum rounds. We’ll cover the exact levels of protection and the calibres later, but the best soft armour protects the wearer from most handgun rounds and smaller rifle rounds.

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Unlike hard armour, soft armour isn’t heavy, but it doesn’t offer the same level of protection. It can be used with a ballistic plate, increasing the level of resistance. Hard armour, on the other hand, is usually based on the ballistic plate system, the steel plate with a fragmentation protective coating system, or on the hard-fibre system. There are also armour designs that combine two or all three systems in the design.

US marines being issued with MTVs or Modular Tactical Vests at Camp Foster.

Plastic Plate

Ballistic plates are large plates that are inserted into a plate carrier. The plate carrier itself is not bulletproof and only serves to safely tighten the plates around the wearer’s body. The plates can also be added to soft armour, enhancing protection. There’s no single material used for a ballistic plate, with ceramic usually being one of the most common materials, but also metal (titanium alloys), and hard plastics.

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As of late, nanomaterials have also been researched for the use in anti-ballistic armour. The ballistic plate system is the most common system used by the military and law enforcement. The plate itself is too hard for bullets to penetrate it, so it catches the bullet while breaking under pressure.

The plate is weakened at the target point of the shot and another shot at the same spot might penetrate it. Also, the kinetic energy is transferred onto the wearer’s body and it’s still capable of inflicting damage, although that damage usually can’t be compared with getting shot!

Bomb Suits

Also known as blast suits, bomb suits are the heaviest type of anti-ballistic armour as they’re designed to protect every single inch of the wearer, aside from their hands. This armour is incredibly heavy as it’s supposed to be able to withstand the force of an explosion. It does this by combining Kevlar, foam, and plastic, which doesn’t only stop the fragments, but minimises the damage done by the explosion wave blast. While the suit is good at its job, it’s also incredibly difficult to wear. It weighs about 36 kilograms (80 pounds), and that doesn’t account for the equipment the bomb disposal technician is bringing with them.

Bomb Suit
A German EOD technician wearing a bomb suit. Safe but still not entirely bombproof.

Heat Stroke

This presents massive ergonomic problems, as dismantling bombs requires a high level of dexterity. Also, if the technician assumes the device will go off, they need to run away as far as they can as quickly as possible – this is almost impossible while wearing such a heavy suit. Another thing that has to be noted is heat exhaustion – this is something that many EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) technicians experienced during the conflicts in the Middle East. The reason it’s so hot inside the suit lies in the materials – they don’t release body heat, so the wearer is essentially stuck in a tiny greenhouse.

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Wearing the suit at room temperature is exhausting enough and causes overheating – wearing it at temperatures higher than 40°C is unimaginably fatiguing. It’s very difficult to remain calm and think straight when you’re suffering from heat stroke, not to mention the mental pressure the explosive device itself is causing. Despite the flaws and discomfort, bomb suits have saved the lives of hundreds of EOD technicians in modern-day conflicts.

What Does Anti-Ballistic Armour Protect You From?

Aside from the bomb suit, which is designed to protect you from flying fragments and the explosive blast itself, anti-ballistic armour is designed to protect from bullets and fragments. According to the National Institute of Justice of the United States of America, there are six armour levels. The British Home Office Scientific Development Branch recognizes seven levels of armour, but they’re very similar and the NIJ is internationally recognized as the prime authority on this question.

Type I armour protects the wearer from .22 LR and .380 ACP rounds, which are small calibre rifle and handgun rounds.

Type IIA armour provides protection from 9x19mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP rounds, which are all slightly larger handgun calibres, on top of providing protection from Type I calibres.

Type II protects the wearer from all aforementioned calibres in addition to .357 Magnum rounds.

Type IIIA protects from all of the above and the .357 SIG and .44 Magnum rounds.

Type III armour can stop all calibres above and the 7.62x51mm NATO round, which is a rifle round.

Finally, the Type IV protects from .30-06 Springfield round, which is an armour-piercing round capable of penetrating through all of the armours mentioned before. Anti-ballistic armour can protect the wearer from most small arms, but there’s still no armour that can stop large calibres, such as the .50 cal.

So, How Useful Is Anti-Ballistic Armour in Practice?

Bullet Plates
British Army bullet plates. Sadly it seems we will always need ballistic vests.

Despite only protecting from small arms, anti-ballistic armour is still very useful in combat. There isn’t, and most likely never will be, armour that protects the wearer from artillery however. Aside from artillery, the biggest danger to soldiers in combat comes from small arms. Large arms, such as machine guns and sniper rifles, still pose a serious threat, but the future of anti-ballistic armour may offer a solution for that as well.

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Something that’s often overlooked is the effect anti-ballistic armour has on fragmentation. When a frag grenade explodes, the explosive blast isn’t the only dangerous element to it (and regular hard armour won’t protect anyone from that) – it’s the thousands of tiny fragments flying around. Body armour and helmets are very effective at stopping these fragments from damaging the wearer and they’ve proven their usefulness over the ages. Hopefully, the technological advancements in nanotechnology will be enough to protect soldiers from larger calibre fire.