Despite the sensational developments in materials and advancements in bullet proof vests over the past decade, a lingering question still pops up from time to time about a vest that originated when many current soldiers were still in diapers. What is Dragon Skin body armor? Perhaps the continued interest has more to do with the mythical visions conjured by the name, rather than anything else.
...the Myth Surrounding it Endures
During the early 2000’s, with the United States embroiled in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, an intriguing style of body armor came to market amid the nightly news coverage of the war. Embraced by nearly instant media sensation, the bullet proof vest made by Pinnacle Armor was known as Dragon Skin. Its moment in the sun came and went very quickly with accolades from staunch advocates, which were soon followed by failures in military testing and a lack of certification from the NIJ, the agency of the United States Department of Justice that researches and certifies body armor for official use. But, the myth surrounding it endures.
The original Dragon Skin body armor (SOV-2000), was designed with two-inch diameter circular discs made of silicon carbide ceramic matrices that were adhered into position with an epoxy resin. They were not too dissimilar from the ceramic plates utilized in other bullet proof vests. The discs were layered in an overlapping pattern that, when viewed under x-ray, presents a remarkable scale-like image, like its namesake. The vest was covered and wrapped in high-tensile strength fiber material. At the time, it was believed that the layering of smaller plates would allow the armor to flex and contour more easily to the body and provide greater range of movement, and compared to other large plate designs of that era it was likely true. The vest was adopted, temporarily, by at least one police department in California, and a number of units were purchased privately by members of the armed forces and government personnel who served in the high-risk conflict theaters. A large number of the vests were purchased under contract for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
The on-film demonstrations were impressive
It was also purported that Dragon Skin body armor could outperform most other designs, including the (then) current Interceptor body armor used by the United States Army. In 2007, a wave of unofficial tests were performed for popular television shows on the History Channel and Discovery Channel, and the vest was demonstrated to resist any penetration from a variety of weapons in calibers ranging from 9mm, 5.56 and 7.62 rifle ammunition (no armor-piercing ammo), an AK-47, and even a close range detonation from an M67 grenade. The on-film demonstrations were impressive. NBC News set up an independent, albeit limited curriculum of tests, and then supported the amazing results with interviews from two retired military officers who heralded the design . As media attention usually does, it garnered the interest of politicians and led to an investigation into the U.S. Army’s body armor systems to insure that our men and women in service were being supplied with the best protective equipment available.
But the problems for Dragon Skin body armor actually began in 2006, at least one year prior to the media blitz. The Air Force returned over 200 of the 380 vests acquired for testing due to faulty manufacturing and several failures to meet the protection levels required (failed penetration tests). They terminated the contract. Pinnacle Armor appealed the contract termination, but lost the case. The U.S. Army also found in its testing that Dragon Skin did not meet military standards. Live fire tests revealed a high percentage of full-penetration and shattering of the small ceramic discs with standard ammunition, and complete penetration with armor-piercing rounds. The other issue from their observation, related to what happened to the integrity of the Dragon Skin construction when it was subjected to extreme environmental conditions, ie, real-world abuse.
Combat takes place all over the globe and in all seasons. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen may be subjected to extreme heat in the deserts, Arctic cold, submersion in rivers, swamps, and oceans, and covered in oils, dirt, spilled diesel fuel or gasoline. The body armor issued to these men and women needs to withstand these elements and continue to protect them, and the military tests typically include exposure to all of these, as well as live fire to evaluate the armor’s real-world functionality. By most accounts, it was here that Dragon Skin body armor also failed to make the grade.
After exposure to either extreme heat or cold, or to diesel fuel or solvents, the epoxy adhesive used to bind the individual discs in place would fail. In a number of tests involving multiple shots or impacts, some or all of the discs would slip out of place and collect in the bottom portion of the vest, leaving large areas of the torso completely exposed. It’s hard to know for certain exactly how the tests were conducted, as the results remained classified for many years. What is known for sure is that the military cancelled all contracts for Dragon Skin, and in 2006, the U.S Army banned the use of privately purchased body armor, mentioning Dragon Skin specifically in the ban .
Perhaps the biggest blow to the future of Dragon Skin body armor was the loss of its NIJ certification in late 2007. The NIJ had originally certified the vest as compliant with Level III protection in December of 2006, but after receiving information from the Department of Defense regarding performance failures, the NIJ requested additional submissions of objective evidence. The NIJ later rejected the resubmission of the vest, indicating that Pinnacle Armor’s evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that the vest maintained its ballistic performance. Pinnacle Armor sued the government and the case was not dismissed by the courts until 2013 , although Pinnacle filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
Who knows what the truth may actually be?
In the end, it’s difficult to fully unravel the story of Dragon Skin, because so much conjecture and accusation still exists regarding the various testing procedures, personal motives of people involved, and classified or unavailable test results. Who knows what the truth may actually be? The only thing for certain is that it failed to fully penetrate (no pun intended) the military body armor market in the early 2000’s.
Other factors would have likely limited the vest’s total acceptance for military and law enforcement work. Despite its ability or inability to stop rifle fire, Dragon Skin body armor was bulky, and heavy. The vest weighed 47.5 pounds! It was also thicker than the standard issue U.S. Army body armor of the day, and as little as an extra half inch of thickness can impede the efficient shouldering and firing of a rifle.
Even as the questions about Dragon Skin still linger, it would be considered a relic compared to the vests in use today. Modern advances in Kevlar, steel, ceramics, and UHMWPE (Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight-Polyethylene) have ushered in new designs that are lighter, stronger, and extremely resistant to the elements. The modern day soldier, peace officer, and well-prepared civilian has a host of affordable and outstanding body armor to choose from in all levels of protection, and for every situation.