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Body armour’s past, present and future

For people working in various industries today, body armour is an essential part of everyday life.


April 7, 2015
By SafeGuard Clothing

Soldiers on the front line of combat in war-torn countries, police officers patrolling high-crime neighborhoods, SWAT teams confronting armed criminals and terrorists, DEA agents raiding high-risk drug labs, security guards working with vulnerable high-profile VIPS – these individuals (and more) all rely on the protection body armour offers against various threats. Without a doubt, the biggest risk workers operating within any of the aforementioned capacities will face is bullets, and so ballistic vests remain one of the most widely-used forms of armour around the world.
While body armour has changed significantly over the years, it still continues to evolve, with exciting and fascinating changes looming in the near future, set to revolutionize the way in which soldiers, law-enforcement officers, and security specialists are protected. Before we take a look at some of these possibilities, why don’t we start at the beginning?

A Brief History of Body Armour
For most of us, thinking back to the early days of body armour will likely evoke images of knights in shining metallic suits: those bulky, gleaming, cumbersome outfits. Of course, this was one of the big breakthroughs in armour, with the medieval period taking advantage of metal-crafting techniques. However, since humanity’s earliest days, armour has been used in one form or another. The first type of armour was animal hides, worn to soften impacts from clubs and other blunt attacks, while warriors in ancient China covered themselves with rhinoceros flesh; in subsequent centuries, Greek soldiers began to use bronze shields, and European knights and soldiers wore suits of armour (which would leave the wearer exhausted after prolonged use) and chain-mail. Variations of these suits continued to be used, becoming more streamlined and practical.

During the First and Second World Wars, body armour had become less clunky and cumbersome, yet still proved something of a burden for soldiers. However, many infantrymen were left without armour of any kind – while metallic vests were created by private companies and advertised as available, the cost of outfitting each soldier was deemed too expensive. A waistcoat of metallic scales was worn by some, and armour began to become less costly to produce as new designs were discovered.
 
Armour Today
Body armour has, obviously, undergone significant changes within the past several decades, offering wearers more of a lightweight, comfortable, reliable form of protection against a wider range of ammunition-types. A vast and varied selection of vests are available, offering defense against bullets, blades, and spiked weapons, in different styles to suit individual applications.
Today, soldiers, law-enforcement personnel, and some emergency-service workers wear body armour to stay as safe as possible in various locations and situations. Depending on the likelihood of danger they expect, the type of vest they wear may vary: as each vest is assigned its own rating based on the amount of protection it offers, matching the right vest to the potential threats is essential. Most vests today are manufactured with Kevlar, a widely-used material offering a tight weave to resist various weapons, with some incorporating ballistic plates for enhanced performance.

Ballistic armour is designed to absorb a round’s energy on impact and redistribute it throughout the multiple layers of Kevlar, flattening the tip to stop penetration (though severe swelling and bruising may still occur). Five levels of protection are available (as rated by the National Institute of Justice following stringent tests), offering defense against many types of ammunition from common handgun rounds (9mm. .40 S&W, .44 Magnum) to high-velocity armour-piercing rounds (.30-06 caliber). The more protection vests offer, the heavier and bulkier they are, though they continue to become more and more streamlined over the years, providing a more comfortable wear. They are generally produced in covert and overt styles to suit diverse applications: for law-enforcement personnel operating in undercover situations, or security specialists in need of discrete protection, covert vests can be worn underneath clothing, and offer ballistic protection up to level IIIA; overt vests are the standard type, worn over clothing on occasions in which discretion is unnecessary and visibility is key. The highest-level vests – III and IV – are generally too bulky to be worn underneath clothing, and are of an overt design by default.

Stab and spike protection is also widely-used (particularly by security personnel and police officers in certain neighborhoods with higher stab-rates than gun-related crimes). These are made with a Kevlar weave even tighter than that found in ballistic vests, which both generate friction against blades and trap pointed-tips respectively.  

Body armour for military use now offers protection to the groin area, while accessories to cover the head, arms, and eyes are all available too, offering resistance against certain rounds, fragmentation, and blunt trauma.

The Future of Body Armour
As the demands of military and law-enforcement personnel continue to increase, with terrorists and criminals gaining access to advanced weaponry, body armour continues to evolve, offering exceptional defense in extreme situations. Technology is set to play a larger role, with exosuits and fluid-based vests set to transform protective clothing for future users.

Researchers at MIT and within the U.S. Army have worked on creating a form of armour which features an oily fluid filled with iron particles – when activated with a magnet, these particles are pulled together to form a rigid material within less than a second. When the magnetic force is removed, the vest loses its rigidity and becomes soft again, ensuring a more lightweight form which is easier to carry and more comfortable to wear. Ideally, in future variations of this design, the magnetic effect will be replaced by electricity, allowing soldiers to simply switch their armour on or off; this is still believed to be between five to 10 years away from being tested in the field.

Exosuits are continually under development: these full-body metallic suits are designed to provide wearers with a high level of protection, and to also help make carrying equipment easier (as this is a common complaint among soldiers, often carrying guns, ammunition, radio equipment, rations, and other pieces of essential kit) and potential enhancement of movements. Often compared to the exosuit featured in the Iron Man films, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) is hoped to be begin field-use in 2018: this will provide head-to-toe bulletproof protection, and allow the wearer’s vital signs to be monitored at all times, while giving them essential mission information and guidance on the move via an advanced internal HUD (Heads-Up Display). Though the cost of these will be expensive (to say the least), the full-body protection it would offer, and the in-helmet tactical information, would give soldiers the edge they need in the field.

While these are still some years away, today’s body armour provides dependable, comprehensive protection wearers need in multiple volatile situations, and, with a lightweight, comfortable design soldiers of the past would have longed for, continues to save lives time and again.