What is Body Armor/Ballistic Armor?

Body armor refers to any of a number of protective garments used by military and police in a variety of cultures through history to protect the wearer against the blows or projectiles of an opponent.  Ballistic armor, though often used interchangeably with body armor, refers specifically to protective attire designed to protect the wearer from bullets.  Body armor was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Chinese soldiers of the Ch’ing Dynasty used plates of bone and lacquer connected with silk cord.  Japanese craftsman constructed elaborate armor suits, helmets and face masks using a variety of materials including leather, lacquer, iron and wood, often bound together using silk cord, for their Samurai clientele.  Bone bound with buffalo sinew was used for breastplates by native American warriors.  The Zulu trained with small and easily maneuvered shields of tanned animal hide on flexible wooden frames to deflect the spears and arrows of their opponents.


In Europe chain-mail and armor plating was used for centuries by knights until advances in firearms and ballistics technology made metal body armor increasingly impractical.  As firearms increased in accuracy and velocity after 1600, effective body armor became too heavy for the wearer to don the traditional  “suit” of amor and still retain the ability to maneuver effectively on the battlefield.


By the 17th Century, body armor in Europe referred to a steel breastplate or cuirass.  Still, the weight of body armor made it impractical for most warriors and so, by the mid-18th century, body armor was rarely encountered on the European battlefield. 


In the early 20th century advances in lighter weight materials resulted in the gradual reappearance of body armor.  The experience with trench warfare in WWI and the resultant increase in head wounds convinced first the French and later the Germans to design steel helmets (stahlhelm) to protect the head against shrapnel.  The Germans even designed a front plate of thick steel to fit on the stahlhelm which could protect against direct hits from rifles.  These were issued mostly to snipers and machine gunners.


In the interwar years the Japanese Army equipped some of their troops with body armor made of steel and quilted cloth.  However, the use of body armor by other belligerents, with the exception of the steel helmet mentioned above, was rare.


Body armor began to reappear in the United States in the 1920s when quilted cotton garments were found to defeat lower velocity pistol rounds.  In WWII  ballistic vests in the form of “flak” jackets were developed to protect U.S. Army Air Corps crews, especially gunners, from anti-aircraft flak.


In the 1960s in Vietnam, US ground troops were issued personal body armor, which they continued to call flak jackets, of heavy nylon which could reduce or mitigate words from shrapnel but that were useless against high velocity pistol and rifle rounds.  This situation persisted until the invention of lightweight material such as Kevlar from DuPont in the late 60’s and early 70’s which could be used to manufacture lightweight body armor.  Vests made of these lighter weight materials  began to gain currency among police and military beginning in the 1970s and continuing to the present day.


Today body armor is manufactured of a variety of materials including woven aramids such as Dupont Kevlar and Taejin Twaron, unidirectional aramids such as Honeywell’s Goldflex and high molecular weight polyethylene products such as Honeywell Spectra and DSM Dyneema.  Each material has its advantages in terms of strength, flexibility and cost.  Manufacturers of these materials are constantly improving their performance and coming out with newer, superior performing materials.  Often body armor is constructed of hybrid panels of more than one material in order to combine the advantages of several products.  Helmets are now usually made of either polyethylene or pressed, laminated aramid fiber (such as Kevlar).



Nowadays body armor is divided into two broad categories, concealable and tactical vests.  Concealable vests are worn under the shirt, blouse or tunic “concealed” from view.  These are used almost exclusively by police and personal security.  Concealable vests typically employ lighter materials to allow for comfort needed for the officer to wear the ballistic vest throughout the day.  Police body armor in the United States is usually designed to protect against common threats such as .38 caliber, 9 mm, .357 magnum and .45 ACP handgun rounds.  When confronted with a rifle threat, police will often don an active shooter kit consisting of a military type body armor with plates that can stop rifle rounds.


Military body armor is designed for a different set of threats; namely, shrapnel and high velocity rifle rounds such as the 7.62 and 5.56 NATO round.  Military body armor is normally worn outside the clothing and contains pockets on front, back and, often, the sides to accommodate hard plates which are needed to counter high velocity rifle rounds. The plates can be constructed of steel, polyethylene or other materials, but ceramic is the most popular today.  These plates will stop the rounds one would expect to encounter on the modern battlefield.  The plates augment the soft ballistic material of which the vest panels are composed.  Without the panels, the vest is satisfactory for shrapnel, fragments and most pistol rounds.


Today all bona fide body armor is certified by the National Institute of Justice, which is a U.S. Department of Justice entity dedicated to research, development and the promulgation of sensible, safe standards of compliance for ballistic armor and other law enforcement equipment.  Ballistic armor that does not have NIJ certification should be avoided at all costs.  The process for obtaining certification is straightforward and relatively inexpensive.  All too often the reason for a manufacturer not to obtain this certification is the foreknowledge that the manufacturer’s body armor will not pass an objective field test either because of poor design or, more commonly, because  the manufacturer is using cheaper, inferior ballistic material and dare not risk an objective laboratory test and periodic mandatory retests that the NIJ requires of its complaint products.  A list of manufacturers and their compliant products is available on the NIJ website:  www.justnet.org.


Be safe!