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Since the beginning of time, warfare has been a constant struggle to gain an advantage over enemies. The Romans fought to expand their empire. The Mongols fought to protect their trade routes and a desire for national sovereignty sparked the Revolutionary War.
There are many reasons behind military conflicts, but all share one thing in common: the need for personal protection.
As early as 1400 BC, body armor was seen on the battlefield. The past centuries have seen many advancements in body armor, necessitated by the changing landscape of war and its weaponry.
Arguably the Great War was the first military conflict that necessitated the need for advanced body armor. The sheer scale of casualties during the war was unlike anything seen in previous wars, due in large part to the usage of the first weapons of modern warfare.
Recuperating mechanisms allowed for an increase in the rate of fire, high-velocity cartridges became standard and advanced propellants, new explosive materials, and shrapnel meant large artillery shells could be fired at a longer range with greater casualties.
World War I also saw a major shift in battlefield strategy. For years most military conflicts were fought at a close range. But with new weapons, close combat was no longer needed and was soon replaced by trench warfare. Together these changes necessitated advancements in military-grade body armor.
American troops needed armor that would protect against more powerful weapons and shrapnel. The most common type of armor used by American troops in World War I was the M1917 steel helmet, mandated to resist penetration by a 230-grain caliber .45 bullet with a velocity of 600 f.p.s."
Close to three million of these helmets were produced during the war. Gas masks also became essential, as World War I saw the first widespread usage of poisonous gas.
Body armor as we think of it today was not widely utilized during the Great War. Instead, some troops wore chain mail shirts beneath their uniforms to help protect against shrapnel and bullets.
Bulletproof vests were issued to some troops, however, the armor of World War I tended to be cumbersome and difficult to maneuver while wearing.
Weaponry and battlefield strategy in the early years of World War II saw little change from that used in The Great War. The same can be said for body armor and personal protection equipment.
However, within a few years, the development of ballistic missiles, jet aircraft, and atomic weapons changed the look of modern warfare forever. Combat was no longer confined to trenches.
Bombing raids, high powered guns both on land, by sea, and by air, (and even below ground) necessitated armor that would protect a greater area of the body and provide greater strength and resistance.
The M1917 helmet of WWI was replaced by the M1, which provided greater protection from missile and overhead shell fragments. In response, the helmet took on a more dome-shaped look and extended down the front and back providing a greater area of coverage without impeding vision or mobility.
Additionally, new mandates required all helmets to resist penetration by a 230-grain caliber .45 bullet with a velocity of 800 f.p.s. The M1 was also the first helmet to incorporate a suspension liner designed to act as a shock and impact absorber.
An interesting fact here – the suspension liner was designed by Riddle…yes, the same company that manufactures football helmets.
Body armor also became more common during WWII. The most common type of body armor used was the flak jacket designed to protect against fragmenting materials such as those seen in anti-aircraft artillery.
The flak jacket was made of heavy canvas (weighing over 20 lbs!) and had metal body armor plates sewn into it. The flak jacket protected shrapnel and bullets. Another type of body armor used during WWII was the M1941 jumpsuit, made of cotton and metal body armor plates sewn into it.
The M1941 jumpsuit protected against shrapnel and bullets but did not provide as much protection as the flak jacket, yet it was easier to wear.
Like in previous conflicts, advances in armor during the Korean War were necessitated by corresponding advancements in weaponry and strategy. For example, while tanks had been used in WWII, the Soviet-built T-24 tank required greater ballistic protection for American Troops across the battlefields.
The M1 helmet of World War II continued to be used throughout the Korean War. The greatest advancements in military-grade body armor came in the form of improved flak jackets and bulletproof vests and plate carriers.
Not only did troops need protection against higher-grade weapons, but they also needed greater maneuverability.
The M-1951 vest, which utilized Doran plates, became a standard issue to American troops. Made from a strong fiberglass laminate, the Doran plate was first used by the United States Marines during World War II, however, it didn't come into widespread use until the Korean War.
The plates were inserted into pockets on nylon vests to cover the front and back portions of the torso as well as the shoulders. For greater comfort and maneuverability, the plates could be molded to fit the contours of the individual. The T-52-2 vest weighed approximately 8 lbs. and was designed to protect against fragmented shrapnel.
Meant to be worn as an outer layer, this vest was made of 12 layers of flexible nylon, enclosed in a heat-sealed water-repellent vinyl. Given Korea's environment and wet climate, water-repellent armor was necessary.
Additionally, the T-52-2 vest came in three different sizes (something new to military body armor) resulting in a proper fit and consequently greater protection.
Vietnam posed its own set of unique issues that the US military had to overcome. The warm humid climate and constant rain made body armor incredibly uncomfortable and, in some cases, impossible to wear.
As a result, many troops chose not to wear body armor while traveling from point to point to maintain greater maneuverability.
Guerilla warfare further complicated matters, as American troops were forced to fight off unexpected, close-range attacks.
During the Vietnam War, American soldiers primarily used two types of armor: light and heavy. Light armor, such as the M-69 flak vest, was designed to protect against shrapnel and small arms fire. Heavy armor, such as the M-60 tank, was designed to protect against larger projectiles and explosive devices.
Aircrew body armor became more important than ever during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam war, lighter silicon or carbide-plated body armor vests were used to protect the navy, air force and marine corps airmen, while taking into consideration the need to conserve weight as much as possible.
Unlike previous conflicts, the Vietnam war necessitated flight crews to fly at a lower altitude, making them more susceptible to small arms weapons from the ground.
Perhaps the biggest advancement in body armor up through the Vietnam War came with the development of Kevlar fabric, which has since become synonymous with ballistic protection.
With an NIJ rating of IIIa, Kevlar can trap and stop bullets from a vast amount of small ammunition and is still the strongest of all soft-plated body armor available today.
When the Gulf War began in 1990, American troops were ill-prepared for the hostile environment they would face. Enemy forces were equipped with armor-piercing bullets and high-powered rifles, and the body armor of old provided little protection.
The Personal Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) was developed in response to this threat. The PASGT is a fragmentation vest that provides level IIIA body armor-stopping power. It is made of Kevlar, a strong synthetic fiber that can withstand high-impact forces.
The operational environment of Afghanistan necessitated the need for lighter armor. The rocky terrain, elevation changes, and tactical need for long-range patrols made the PASGT used during the Gulf War prohibitive.
Advances are still being made and new military-grade body armor is being developed to meet the needs of troops facing today's modern warfare tactics.
One such development is the introduction of the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV) which is designed for maximum freedom and agility to complete and maneuver tasks.
The multi-piece system is part of the larger Solider Protection System (SPS) and is modular, giving soldiers the ability to make adjustments to coverage and weight based on their specific needs at a given time.
And with greater technological advancements in military weaponry worldwide, it will become even more important for American soldiers to be able to modify their armor at a moment's notice.
The advances in military body armor are also influencing personal body armor. As more information and technology is shared between the two industries, private companies can develop products that offer similar levels of protection as military-grade gear. This includes bulletproof vests and body armor plate carriers that can stop high-powered armor-piercing bullets.
While there are still some differences between military and personal body armor, the lines are becoming blurred as the two industries continue to work together. With each new generation of products, we get closer to achieving total protection from all kinds of threats.
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