Body armor has been around for as long as there have been people throwing stones or chucking spears at each other.
In today’s world technology makes the projectile much more powerful. And the medieval suit of armor, while reasonably effective at stopping stuff from piercing the person underneath, has the disadvantage of being rather heavy. (Also, it seriously reduces mobility, as any jouster will tell you.)
Soft Body Armor
In recent times “soft” body armor has replaced the wooden shield or suit of armor. In the late 19th century American military looked into the use of silk, taking a page from medieval Japanese who manufactured a type of body arm using silk (lots of silk). The idea got more support behind it when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
This experiment with silk actually worked with low-velocity bullets (those traveling less than 400 feet per second), but with new developments in ammunition which sent ammo hurtling at more than 600 feet per second, the body armor concept needed to evolve. In fact, “bullet proof” is not an entirely accurate term – it is more correct to refer to body armor as garments which are bullet resistant.
During World War II the famous “flak jacket” made its debut, using ballistic (able to withstand projectile force) nylon – and while it helped, it was more effective at stopping fragments than direct hits. It was also big and bulky. (Still not good for jousting.)
The 1960s and 1970s saw body armor dramatically improve as researchers developed new fibers which could be woven into lightweight fabrics and still provide resistance to projectiles. Kevlar (originally developed to replace steel belting in tires) entered the language as a sort of synonym for “bullet proof vest” and is now used extensively in law enforcement as a material that’s bullet-resistant and relatively light and wearable.
Now Kevlar and Twaron (another high tech resistant fabric) are finding their way into the consumer market as well. A mother in Atlanta who was a former police officer developed a backpack that incorporates a bullet-resistant panel (as well as a solar GPS and emergency alert button) to give parent some way to ease their minds and provide a measure of protection for their children in light of the recent rash of school shootings.
A Chantilly, Va. man partnered a fellow University of Mary Washington alum to start a company which features several lines of bullet-resistant clothing that can be comfortably worn to work. The company, American Armor Attire, offers a line suits, vests and even pullover polo shirts. They can also modify already existing garments by incorporating bullet-resistant material.
And then there’s dragon skin. Everyone knows dragons have impenetrable scales, and the body armor counterpart is a ballistic vest developed primarily for use in the military which uses two-inch circular discs which overlap like scale armor. Although there has been some controversy over the integrity of some privately manufactured lines of dragon skin vests, these bad boys protect the likes of special ops forces, generals, and Secret Service personnel. They’re also being used to cover some civilian contractors who work in troubled zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
There’s an old saying that “clothes make the man” (or woman). In the case of body armor, clothes are also making protective shields for a growing number of people, including government and military officials, business professionals – and now even school children.