The History and Evolution of Body Armor


History of Body Armor

As law enforcement and military professionals increasingly use firearms, the need for protection and body armor is becoming more important. While early forms of ballistic body armor were created in the mid-1800s, modern body armor wasn't created until the end of World War II. Read more about body armor history and who invented body armor and bulletproof vests.

Early Uses of Body Armor

The earliest iterations of body armor in medieval times were made with a variety of materials, including leather, chainmail, wood, horn and metal. In battles, officers wore armor as a symbol of power and status — the more ornate the armor, the higher the wearer's rank. 

As weapons technology developed, so too did body armor. Metal body armor protected against edged weapons, but it wasn't strong enough to protect against the high-velocity projectiles and gunfire that came into use in modern warfare.

Metal body armor was also rigid and heavy, greatly decreasing soldiers' agility and movement. Military planners began researching alternatives to create lightweight yet durable body armor for soldiers in the 1900s, especially during World War II. Many parties, including criminal gangs and military planners, helped invent the bulletproof vest and created modern body armor.

Body Armor Usage by Major U.S. Wars

The need for protective clothing began to arise as firearms became the standard weapon type in the 1800s. Although firearms were used during and after this time, bulletproof vest technology didn't become widely popular until many decades later.

While the origin of modern bulletproof vests came about in the mid-1800s, this armor was still quite rare and didn't offer a high level of protection. Many body armor historians also believe criminal gangs played a large role in creating protective body armor because they were among the first groups to experiment and make their own protective equipment. 

Learn more about the history of body armor through some major US wars:

World War I

Compared to modern standards, World War I soldiers were largely unprotected from gunfire. During World War I, body armor was very expensive to create on a wide scale. Metal was one of the few effective means of protection, but it reduced a soldier's overall speed and mobility.

Although some soldiers did wear body armor during World War I, many soldiers didn't have access to it. During this time period, the body armor used was also only designed to stop projectiles from smaller firearms. While the U.S. attempted to create body armor for soldiers, it couldn't do so effectively because even the lightest models were still quite heavy and impeded movement.

Because soldiers had significantly less body armor and protection during the First World War, more lives were lost. Many historians believe significantly fewer deaths would have occurred if soldiers had access to quality body armor.

Between World War I and II

The United States continued researching and developing body armor for soldiers that would later be widely used in World War II. Between these wars, there was little military advancement in body armor protection levels. Important developments in body armor actually came from criminal gangs.

While World War I had ended, criminal gangs began to improvise their own body armor using silk, compressed cotton padding layers and cloth, providing protection without hindering mobility. While these prototypes didn't provide high-level protection against bullets by modern standards, they were effective against the lower-powered firearms of the time. These early prototypes could stop a .22 caliber bullet if fired from a distance.

World War II

During the first years of World War II, military planners still struggled with creating effective body armor. One of the first forms of modern body armor emerged in the later years of the war. While military planners were looking to develop body armor to protect against gunfire, bombing campaigns also greatly increased the need for body armor. 

The U.S. began issuing bulletproof vests using manganese steel plates and canvas to protect soldiers from shrapnel and gunfire. These vests were so successful that they reduced fatalities from chest wounds by 28%

After World War II

Following World War II, it became quite clear laminate plates were one of the most effective and efficient materials for body armor. While military body armor continued to advance, non-military body armor also experienced numerous advancements after World War II.

How Kevlar Changed the Body Armor Industry

How Kevlar Changed the Body Armor Industry

One of the most significant updates to body armor occurred with the invention of Kevlar®, developed by chemist Stephanie Kwolek  in 1965, is a lightweight material with superior flexibility, durability and strength. Originally, Kevlar was made for car tires, but it quickly became popular among body armor manufacturers.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) began researching Kevlar plates in 1971 for their ballistic properties to develop standards for law enforcement. In 1975, law enforcement adopted the K-15, Kevlar body armor with a steel plate over the heart.

The K15 was made with 16 Kevlar layers and an additional steel plate. By the 1980s, the army refined Kevlar vests and helmets by creating the personnel armor system for ground troops (PASGT), which provided adequate protection and weighed approximately nine pounds.

How Body Armor Is Used Today

Modern body armor is a fundamental aspect for law enforcement, security, military personnel and citizens. Although modern bulletproof vests are incredibly durable and strong, no vest is 100% effective at stopping every projectile or bullet. Instead, body armor can provide a high level of protection from many projectiles and greatly lower the risk of severe injury.

Modern body armor is a blend of protection and agility. While more durable levels of body armor are available, their weight, mobility and agility pose problems for the wearer. Modern body armor focuses on finding the compromise between adequate ballistic protection without sacrificing mobility and range of motion. 

Modern body armor also focuses on protecting other areas of the body. While a bulletproof vest is an essential aspect of body armor, manufacturers have focused on protecting other areas of the body with bulletproof helmets, protective eyewear, tactical gloves and more.

As body armor evolves, manufacturers continue to focus on providing a high level of projectile and ballistic protection while improving mobility. Certain body armor manufacturers like Atomic Defense are looking into rheology (Non-newtonian) body armor, which offers elasticity to the armor, potentially improving movement.

Bulletproof Vests from Atomic Defense

Premium Bulletproof Vests and Body Armor

At Atomic Defense, we are dedicated to providing quality body armor for law enforcement, military professionals and citizens looking for ballistic threat protection. We are proud to be a leading provider of body armor and tactical equipment at an affordable rate.

We are proud to offer bulletproof face masks, plate carriers, bulletproof vest accessories, active threat equipment and more. We combine high-quality equipment at an affordable rate, ensuring our clients get the protection they need at a price they can afford.

Contact us online to learn more about our body armor and tactical equipment.


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