One of the more ridiculous aspects of post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows is how individuals are often suited up in bulky athletic armor and equipment, including hockey/football shoulder pads and motocross chest protectors. Not only would this type of “armor” do little to protect the wearer in a combat situation, it would likely be cumbersome and uncomfortable, too. What is meant to look “cool” on the screen would actually serve little purpose in any real-world scenario.
The first thing to understand is that armor has been used for millennia in various forms, and today, military planners still struggle with providing armor that offers adequate protection while being comfortable.
“ … lead loses to steel.”
“As far as we have historical records, there is evidence of people trying to use armor,” said Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete, professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “It has been a natural concept to have protection from sharp objects.”
Through the centuries, armor has evolved, and man has used various metals, including cooper, bronze, iron, steel and even titanium, while materials ranging from bone to hide have long been used, as well. There has constantly been a tradeoff in terms of weight and protection. Armor should be strong enough to defeat the weapons of the day while being light enough to provide maneuverability on the battlefield.
A common misconception about body armor is that it is “bulletproof.” This is something of movie fiction; in fact, there are many different standards for ballistic protection levels. One of the most common is the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which sets armor protection levels.
First, “bulletproof” vests are designed to “trap” (that is, to slow down a bullet so that it cannot pass through to the wearer). Vests generally come in two types: hard and soft. The former are designed to stop high-caliber and armor-piercing rounds, whereas the latter are designed to protect from small arms, including handguns. Hard construction is also effective against sharps—knives, needles and similar stabbing and slashing weapons—while soft vests typically provide considerably less defense from these same weapons.
Protection is measured from NIJ Level IIA, which is tested to stop 9mm and .40 S&W rounds fired from short-barreled handguns, to NIJ Level IV, which is tested to stop .30-caliber, steel-core, armor-piercing rifle rounds. Rounds such as .44 magnum, 5.56mm and 7.62mm NATO fall within these levels, as well.
NIJ is considered the world standard for ballistic testing of stab-proof vests, but the United Kingdom’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST) actually oversees the ratings of vests that are meant to stop knife and spike attacks.
This is important because another misconception is that a vest that can stop a bullet can surely stop a knife. However, stab-proof vests are created differently. These vests are rated as Knife Resistant Level 1 (KR1) or Knife Resistant Level 2 (KR2). These ratings factor energy level, velocity, total missile mass and maximum penetration. A KR1 vest can stop up to 36 joules of energy with a velocity of 6.2 meters per second that has a maximum penetration of 20mm; whereas a KR2 vest can stop up to 50 joules with a velocity of 7.3 meters per second and maximum penetration of 20mm.
Finally, there is also Spike Level 1 (SP1) and Spike Level 2 (SP2) protection, which is another rating for vests that are designed to provide additional protection from spiked weapons.
Vests, therefore, need to be graded according to the protection against both bullets and edged/spiked weapons.
Plate armor remained in use until World War I, but it was mainly relegated as an anachronistic element of the cavalry. In fact, the “cuirass” is still used as part of the ceremonial uniform of Great Britain’s Household Cavalry, as well as by other ceremonial units. However, with the introduction of firearms, breast plates gradually were seen to have lost their effectiveness in battle.
It was only during the fighting in the trenches of World War I on the Western Front and in the Alpine fighting between Italy and Austria that body armor was considered again. This is because the accuracy of rapid-fire weapons—notably, the machine gun—gave fresh inspiration to the concept of armor. Ironically, because of the weight, most armor was actually used to protect the machine gunners, rather than protect the infantrymen from machine gunfire.
“As far as we have historical records, there is evidence of people trying to use armor.”
The reasoning was simple: Machine gunners were stationary but could come under small-arms fire; and the armor was so heavy and encumbering that it was only really useful to an exposed stationary soldier!
Further developments of armor continued in the interwar era, but it was during World War II that advances in armor picked up—and, again, it wasn’t mainly with the infantrymen. Instead, it was with bomber crews, who were, once again, limited in mobility by their position on the aircraft. Flak jackets and specialized helmets were developed to protect crews from high-velocity bullets from enemy aircraft, as well as shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns.
American soldiers used body armor in subsequent conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East, but Space Age materials rapidly replaced metal plates. Kevlar and ceramic materials weighed less while offering greater protection. In many ways, this was a throwback to what worked in antiquity.
Today, we think of Greek soldiers in bronze armor, but they wore something much different just as often.
“There was laminated linen that was used as armor during the era of Alexander the Great,” added Aldrete. “It was essentially fabric and glues, and the same principles are used in today’s composite armor. We’ve recreated some of this armor, and my students could literally shoot the armor with bows, and the arrows would not penetrate the [it].”
The advantage is that it has two-thirds less weight than bronze armor but provides that same protection.
“The other thing that has been largely forgotten is that bronze armor and later, iron armor, could only be made by a specialist like a blacksmith,” said Aldrete. “In the ancient world, most women could weave cloth.”
One facet of body armor that is often overlooked, especially in movies and video games, is any form of appropriate head protection. Soldiers wear helmets in combat, because a head injury of any kind can be an instant “game over” situation.
Helmets have been worn on the battlefield since antiquity. There have been arguments that combat helmets only really returned to the frontlines during the World War I. An often-repeated story tells of a French general who watched as a soldier’s life was saved because the soldier tucked a soup bowl under his kepi. That story is almost certainly pure fiction—not just because even the French wouldn’t have soup bowls or soup at the front lines, but rather because head injuries were such a concern that a skull cap was introduced to provide some protection.
As expected, the skull cap was uncomfortable and actually did little to protect wearers, even from low-velocity (i.e., artillery) impacts. Soon, more-robust helmets were introduced, including the British MKI “Tommy” helmet and the now somewhat infamous German Model 1916. Steel helmets evolved after the war, but by the 1980s, steel gave way to modern ballistic materials such as Kevlar.
Surplus helmets from the U.S. military, as well as helmets from practically every other nation (even Russia and China), can be bought online. A helmet is something that is probably far easier to buy as a surplus item than to try to make.
As has been noted in the recent studies of concussions and other head trauma, a helmet has to do more than stop a blow to the head—it needs to disperse any kinetic energy to reduce the chances of serious brain injury. These are called “brain buckets” for good reason!
As with athletic helmets, those designed for combat should be considered “single-damage” items, meaning that if the helmet does take a serious blow, its structural integrity could be compromised.
The other thing to keep in mind is that in many cases, military helmets have been designed to be worn for extended periods of time with minimal discomfort. A helmet that isn’t comfortable is taken off … and then it does no good!
While the weaving of cloth is now as much a lost art as blacksmithing, homemade armor can also have its advantages. There are also options for crafting armor by using similar techniques to those that have worked throughout the ages.
Today, there are many choices for “costume” armor, but few of these would be ideal for daily wear – and this would include chainmail.
“This would depend on the type of situations that would be encountered,” explained a spokesperson from Medieval Armour, a maker of authentic chainmail and plate armor using techniques similar to those used centuries ago. “Chainmail would prevent slashes and ease blunt force trauma a bit, but it would not protect the wearer from being stabbed with a thin blade or stop an arrow. Protection with this would be enhanced by wearing a gambeson underneath.”
More importantly, chainmail tends to be quite heavy—normally weighing more than 30 pounds per piece—although, compared to plate armor, it is on the lighter side of homemade armor.
Chris Hertell, owner of Basement Dweller Creations, crafts serious-looking armor that isn’t meant to be a costume.
“I don’t work with foam or other lightweight ‘cosplay-safe’ materials,” he explained. “There are steel plates bolted on, and while the surrounding vest is just padded cushion, the plates will stop bullets. It weighs about 7 pounds.”
Hertell said he opts for steel, because “lead loses to steel.”
“Kevlar gets expensive, and I like to use cheaper materials,” he added. “I like to use what is at hand and what would be left at the end of the world.”
Of course, ballistic armor is fairly affordable already and is something that can be readily found at surplus stores and for sale online. In the end, it might be best to have a mix of armors, because, just as you don’t want to bring a knife to a gun fight, different types of armor serve different purposes.
One advantage that commercially available armor can have over anything of the DIY variety is that it is generally rated to let you know the level of protection it can provide.
“Armor must be strong enough to defeat the weapons of the day while being light enough to provide maneuverability on the battlefield.
In the end, it might be best to have a mix of armors because, just as you don’t want to bring a knife to a gun fight, different types of armor serve different purposes.”
Despite rumors that it is not illegal to own ballistic body armor or items such as “bulletproof vests,” the truth is a bit murky. At the present time, it is legal for most people to buy body armor in a face-to-face transaction. No ID or background check is required, and no special record-keeping is needed. Body armor can also be sold via a store, gun show or online and shipped in 49 states. Only residents of Connecticut, at present, are required to make a purchase in a face-to-face transaction.
However, body armor cannot be shipped, taken or otherwise brought outside the United States without federal permission.
More importantly, convicted felons surrender their right to own body armor or even possess it (18 U.S.C. 931)—unless their employer requires it and they get written permission to do so. Retailers are not currently liable for what happens to body armor after it is sold.
Gregory S. Aldrete
Frankenthal Professor of History and Humanistic Studies
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.