Very early armor before the 10th century CE was made of metals and offered protection against sharp instruments such as knives, swords, and spears. These were typically hand carried with a handlebar and not worn. For millenia, sharp metal weapons were the preferred weapons in warfare, until a major innovation happened in China.

In the 9th Century CE Chinese monks accidentally discovered the ancient form of gunpowder as we know it while experimenting with its use for a life-saving elixir. Although its composition was known, its constitution and proportions by weight were a closely guarded secret and that was key to its explosion.

The Mongols emerged as a warfaring tribe, and their conquests acted as a vehicle by which gunpowder would spread to the rest of the world. It is documented that the gunpowder technology had reached the Middle East by the 13th century CE, at which point traders, as well as crusaders, would have come into contact with it. From the middle east, its use spread to the Ottoman Empire (present-day Syria and Turkey) and eventually to Europe.

Gunpowder was still unstable and unsafe, and it remained stagnant for over two centuries until Italian scientists found a safer alternative in the 1800s. Alfred Nobel found a nitroglycerine-based Dynamite later that improvised on the Italian invention and established itself as a safe explosive for use both in civilian and military applications.

The evolution of gunpowder paved the way for its use in handheld guns in the 1400s. The history of armor is in more ways than one related to the history of gunpowder, and its incorporation into firearms.

In medieval times, armor had a significant functional use in combat to protect the wearer. Very little was known to the wearer about its composition, albeit the wearer had a role to play in its outward appearance, comfort, and aesthetics. Every armor suit was a work of art, and it would sometimes take months or even years to make one. So only the privileged had access to ownership.

With time, the monarchs or rulers of tribes realized the need to provide armor to their front-end fighters, and mass production of armor came to the fore. One of the earliest written works on armor by Buttin

 enlightened the modern reader on ancient armor and its usefulness and functionality.

Analysis of ancient armor by metallurgical studies and its effectiveness against threats show that it was not that bad for its time. Also, there are written records about the popularity of armor in the 1500s and 1600s, and initially the royalty, but later the soldiers wanted one they could call their own to protect themselves in the field.

The study of ancient armor provided valuable data about the importance of ornamentation on its exterior, the labor that each piece endured, and the size of the armor provided insights about the physical attributes of the wearer of that time. The materials used for armor gradually evolved with time from textiles, to chain mail, to metals such as brass and bronze, to steel, to other synthetic yarn-based textiles.

During World War I, several British and American officers came to the realization that many casualties could have been avoided had their soldiers been equipped with effective armor. However, no standard armor was issued to the troops at that time. Instead, soldiers had the option to purchase their own protective gear individually.

Following the conclusion of World War I, a significant innovation in the form of Nylon, a synthetic fiber, was introduced and swiftly found application in various fields. Notably, fabrics made from ballistic Nylon demonstrated excellent capability in containing shrapnel and certain types of ammunition. Companies like Wilkinson Sword capitalized on this discovery and developed flak jackets to safeguard Royal Air Force aircrew from flying debris and shell fragments generated by Nazi anti-aircraft gunfire.

World War II marked a pivotal moment when armor was officially issued to combat soldiers. Flak jackets became standard equipment, provided to both British and American Air Force and Navy personnel. Over time, the material used for these jackets shifted from metals to synthetic textiles, which, while not entirely foolproof, helped to reduce injuries caused by shrapnel and small arms.

To enhance protection, many flak jackets were designed with pockets where wearers could insert metal plates for added defense. Despite being bulky, heavy, and cumbersome, these Nylon flak jackets with metallic plates served as a significant improvement over having no armor at all during those critical thirty years.

1960 was a watershed year for US Law Enforcement agencies. As early as the 1700s, Police officers across the US carried guns. These often wildly varied from State to State, and person to person. There were no formal laws governing the use of firearms by Police. Until the 1900s Police departments were poorly funded as well, so a typical Police department had a small force primarily to maintain law and order.

In 1960, LAPD made history when it purchased a gun. From that year, police departments collectively began purchasing guns and ammunition for their personnel instead of individual purchases. As crime rates increased, and with additional funding, law enforcement agencies began buying guns in ever larger numbers.

Something else was happening at the same time. An increasing number of police were gunned down on the streets by criminals. The criminals would oftentimes grab the police’s weapon to shoot them. So in other words, the threat to the police was their own weapon, and they needed armor to protect themselves. While some police officers would raise funds and wear body armor, gradually the police departments began purchasing armor for their staff.

In the 1950s and 1960s America, variations of the flak jacket were improvised for use by police personnel mainly in inner cities, but gradually everywhere. Around that timeframe, Dr. Stephanie Kwolek, a scientist working at Du Pont laboratories discovered a gooey super strong fiber. Among its many uses, it did a remarkable job defeating pistol fire. This was the birth of Kevlar ( a registered trademark of Du Pont), a para-aramid fiber that quickly gained acceptance as a material of choice for all body armor. Competition eventually caught up with them- initially in Europe, and later in Korea, but even today Kevlar is synonymous with aramid fibers.

The aramid fibers were initially woven into varying textile fabric designs and used as raw materials in building body armor. These fabrics were also coated with resins and then molded into a composite form that found use as a rigid helmet or torso plate. Adoption was quick and all-pervasive. Kevlar became synonymous with body armor.

So, we have followed how the materials for armor evolved gradually over a millenia culminating with the invention of Kevlar in the early 1970s. In the upcoming post, we will examine how the laws and regulations in the United States gradually shaped the evolution of the armor industry, and the concomitant standards.


Notes sur les armures al'épreuve” Anneces 1901.