Armor (also spelled Armour) is a protective layer of material used to protect something from damage. Some types of armor includes armor for buildings, armor for vehicles and armor for personnel (generally referred to as body armor). Putting armor on people or putting them in metal boxes to keep them safe is important because we can be killed by sharp rocks or branches or basically anything else at all except grass and leaves. In fact not even those. This is because because our skin is not armor and it sucks. This article will focus mostly on body armor.
Types of Body Armor
Numerous forms of body armor have been developed over the millennia by civilizations with various levels of technology and resources on hand.
- Leather armor - not just any leather would do; soft leather offers no protection against blades. You need specially treated leather to be effective. Another name for this is "cuir bouilli" or "cuirbouille". The exact method of creating is unclear, as simply boiling leather in water (as the French name implies) will result in leather that’s hard but highly brittle (like diamond) to the point it can be snapped with one's bare hands. The best guesses are that animal glue and/or oil were involved. The high biodegradability (and, to many vermin, tastiness) of leather, especially with period natural treatment, has created a near total lack of historical examples surviving. Whatever it is, what is for certain is that this was the result was not flexible like a modern leather jacket, but would have a fairly solid shape (one possible method of creating it resulted in leather sturdy enough it could actually be used to chop wood). The general consensus is that it had less presence in Europe (though there are surviving inventory accounts that confirm it existed). Meanwhile, in the East (both middle and far) it did exist (with inventories and accounts confirming Chu and Zhou armories using rhino or water buffalo hide), it wasn't that much widespread either and disappeared once other materials were obtainable. These circumstances became more prevalent as metalworking became more accessible. On the Central Asian steppes or in areas with large amounts of livestock, the leather was more widespread as lamellar or scale armor. This was likely a matter of resource availability as the nomadic tribes had little access to metal outside of trading and would prioritize using it for tools, swords, speartips, and arrowheads instead. Regarding the tribes in the Americas as well as the Polynesian and Austronesian islands, where metalworking was noticeably diminished or not present, leather armor was relatively common while bone, shell, and coins were used as external reinforcing elements. Some examples include the Baju/Baru tribal war garb (made from hide, turtle shell, &/or crocodile skin) in the Nusantara Archipelago in Austronesia. On the other hand, all these regions gradually phased out leather once they gained reliable supplies of crafted metal or firearms via trading or learning metalsmithing. While phased out as as a primary form of protection, Buff coats were still made of leather and retained to act as cushioning underneath metal breastplates. It also served as slashing protection for exposed joints or in cases where wearing metal armor was inconvenient.
- Real-life note: while sometimes seen on TV and in video games, there is no such thing as studded leather armor as mentioned below in Brigandine's section. Think about it. How does adding a metal studs cause a significant increase to the armor's effectiveness? You will see this mistake in many RPGs. This idea probably came from people misunderstanding some of the other kinds of armor that use cloth as a binding agent on the outside.
- Padded cloth armor - Cloth bundled in sufficient thickness was one of the first forms of armor, since bronze armors tended to be too expensive or too heavy to be widely used. Cloth continued to be used mostly as padding underneath metal armor, to help absorb blows and all through the middle ages continued to be the go to protection for men-at-arms in lieu of expensive metal plate or mail. Despite what you might think it (obviously) provided one of the best protection against percussive strikes, second only to full plate (which have padded cloth integrated into it), surprisingly high level of protection against slashes and swings, unless the blade is razor sharp (most historical blades weren't that sharp) and while it barely ever provides full protection against piercing weapon heavier than a shortbow arrow, it does lower the depth of penetration, often turning instantly lethal wounds from glancing stabs or slashes to survivable if debilitating, or even surface damage, with an added bonus of often catching enemy weapon (although given in most times where blades get stuck in padded cloth after stabbing through, they pierce deep enough to kill so it's more to the benefit of your companions than yours). Sometimes confused with Brigandine armor (which externally appeared to be made of cloth with metal studs but also contained overlapping metal pieces). Besides the Gambeson and some Austronesian Baju/Baru war jackets woven from hardy fibrous plants, some other historical examples include:
- The distinctive ancient Greek armor called "Linothorax" (literally meaning linen torso): believed to be made out of quilted linen with glue laminate and is presumed to fall under this category, though historians can't be entirely sure as no full examples survived the centuries. Lighter versions known as "Spola" were worn by the Greeks and Macedonians.
- A gambeson is unlike most “soft” armor in that we actually have a fairly good understanding of its construction due to some 15th century writing detailing how to make it (deer skin with a ~30 layers of linen).
- Aketon is roughly equivilent to a gamebeson, being made of raw cotton (which is not the soft, smooth, fluffy stuff the clothes you're wearing are made out of) rather than linen. Generally assumed to be a corruption of the arabic word for cotton.
- A hard, quilted, and 2 inch-thick form of cotton armor was used by the Mesoamericans such as the Aztecs, Toltecs, and the Tlaxcalans. Called ”Ichcahuipilli” in the Nahuatl, it was often hardened with resin-like substances like brine salt. In combat, it was effective against obsidian-edged Macuahuitl/Macana sword-clubs and arrows. They were also effective enough that Spanish Conquistadors sometimes adopted them for use in the summer to avoid being baked alive in their steel cuirasses. Other related armor include decorated sets called "Tlahuiztli." Similar thickly padded cotton tunics were worn by Incan nobles and Muisca warriors in South America (with the former using small wooden planks to reinforce the back).
- An early bulletproof form of cotton armor worn by the 19th century Joseon Koreans called “Myeonje baegab.” It was invented when they confronting Western armies at the same time the Western powers began probing expeditions into Qing China and Tokugawa Japan (pre-Meiji Reformation). While effective against low velocity bullets from black powder firearms, it was prone to being burned from incendiary hazards like explosions or red-hot shrapnel.
- Various early forms of pistol-proof armor were documented that were made from layers of silk but were usually expensive and restricted to wealthy politicians or nobles (for example, Franz Ferdinand ironically was believed to have owned one but wasn't wearing it on his fateful final day, though as he was shot in the neck it wouldn't have made a difference).
- Paper armor - this one sounds crazy, but apparently it was actually a thing in 10th Century China. The Mythbusters tested it out and it might have been actually effective... at least, so long as it does not get wet, a bit of of an issue considering human beings tend to sweat when under the stress of matters of life-and-death. Indeed citizen, this is testable by you! Obtain a notebook and ensure it is tightly closed. Then, stab it with a knife as hard as possible. Apparently, it was also used by some ethnic tribes as late at the 19th century while interlayered with cotton and was good against smoothbore muskets and bayonets but not breech-loading rifles.
- Scale armor - An early form of armour, sporting overlapping metal (cuirbouille and lacquered leather were also used) plates arranged in a similar fashion to roofing tiles, which were riveted/sewn onto a backing cloth or leather and oftentimes loosely laced together in rows. One of the earliest examples of armour, used predominantly in Eastern cultures most distinctly used to deck out their early heavy cavalrymen and horses both in this. These "Cataphracts" were said to be able to get showered in arrows without getting hit. Used by Rome as the lorica squamata, apparently simultaneously with mail. The art of Grandes Chroniques de France shows (at least) helmets with such an appearance existed in Europe as lower class armor in or before 1270. Made a small, unsuccessful comeback in Dragon Skin
- Bamboo armor - basically wooden armor, but with the advantage in that you can shape bamboo more easily. Bamboo is also notable in the sense that it has a high strength weight ratio. It also is rather weather resistant.
- Mirror armor - an early form of plate, this was a small round bronze plate attached to the torso. Besides physical protection, it was also believed to ward off the supernatural. The plate itself was frequently a supplement over a suit of mail, but plenty of poor warriors throughout ancient history made due with hoping that no one would hit them around the single non-encompassing plate they strapped to their chest (beats having no armor..).
- Mail - the iconic armor made of interlocking rings. One of the most common and effective type of armor from the ancient world to the middle ages. Flexible and easy (though time-consuming) to make, it was widely used by many cultures. It was also significantly easier to repair, as a break could easily be mended by replacing a few rings, whereas a hole in plate armor might require a complete replacement. While fairly effective against foot soldiers, the crossbow and the lance charge required knights to wear extra armor over mail for additional protection. In the modern era, they are used for non-combative roles, such as shark suits, butcher's gloves, animal control, and dealing with high-power electrical wiring (because electrons "slide" along the mesh rather than penetrate", admittedly the mesh must be very tightly made). Some nations still use mail armor to supplement riot gear. Note that it MUST be backed with leather or something stiff, otherwise knives will drive it into the body. Just for the love of god: don't get shot. The British tested this in WW1 and the bullets ends up dragging the links into the body with it. They did wind up using it to protect crew inside a tank from spalling that was reliably created from even non-penetrating hits against its armor (early tank armor just wasn't very thick, and the issue lessened by the time of World War II's technological advances in tanks).
- Plated Mail - Also known as Mail and Plate armor or splinted mail, this is not what some sourcebooks refer to as platemail, which is basically just plate armor worn over a mail hauberk. Plated mail integrates metal plates into the rest of the mail pattern, ranging from large rectangular plates on areas like the chest, to small plates arranged like fish scales on areas that require more dexterity, such as near the shoulders and back. A form of transitional armor in Europe alongside brigandine as knights gradually shifted from full mail to plate armor, it was popular with medieval Slavs, Eastern Europeans, Persians, Indians, and other Asian kingdoms.
- Laminar armor - armor made from overlapping bands of metal. A predecessor to full-body plate armor, most famous example is the ancient Roman Lorica Segmentata, though it was less prevalent among the Romans than is usually portrayed and mail remained in use among the Romans' frontline infantry, even in the Segmentata's heyday. Other examples existed such as the Dendra armour from Mycenaean Greece, some Warring State Period samurai armor once muskets were in use, or Renaissance Polish Hussars but the latter was held together by sliding rivets rather than leather strips and laces used in Greek and Roman versions of the armor.
- Lamellar armor -
Essentially scale armor sewn togetherNot exactly. armor made from overlapping pieces of leather or metal, each piece being laced side-by-side to create semi-rigid rows, which then are laced together to form a complete suit of armour. This form differs from other "overlapping plates" types of armour in that it is self-contained and does not rely on backing material to keep the all the pieces together (unlike Scale or Brigandine). Again it is one of the oldest types of armour and was still in use as recently as 1930s.
- Samurai armor - depending on the period, it could be lamellar, laminar, or even western plate (but not wood. That has no basis in history). The helmet (kabuto) had a distinct shape that often featured ornaments and even a removable facemask (Darth Vader's helmet is said to be a hybrid of a kabuto and a German stahlhelm).
- Ashigaru armor - Worn by conscripts, it featured the same kinds of breastplates, a lesser helmet (which was sometimes made of wood) and some minor stuff but was overall less complete than samurai armor.
- Brigandine - a.k.a "Corazzina,” “Coat-of-plates,” and “Jack of Plate” armor. Brigandine is a "poor man's plate" and was quite popular in medieval Europe as part of "transitional" armor alongside plated mail (when knights began transitioning from full mail to plate armor), when worn in combination with mail and metal splints covering the limbs. While it may not provide as sturdy protection compared to full plate, it was very easy to make and repair. Also, while not as flexible as mail, it had more rigid protection against blunt force trauma. In essence, it was a compromise between the two while also being cheaper. Even after nobles and knights began using full plate armor, it was still kept as a form of armor for all rank-and-file men-at-arms; even seeing use in the New World by colonists against the natives’ arrows. It was also widespread across all of Eurasia with evidence of its existence seen as far out as as Turkey, India, Russia, China, and even Japan. Often confused with "studded leather armour" or the padded cloth gambeson. In modern day warfare, ballistic vests with trauma plate inserts made from metal or ceramic on the front, back, and sides of the body are spiritual successors to this form of armor.
Construction-wise, it’s essentially an inverted suit of scale armor with the backing cloth on the outsideNot quite. Underneath the cloth and over the padding, a "brig" is built from overlapping plates of various sizes and shapes, riveted onto a leather or cloth "jacket", but it differs from other "overlapping plates" armours in that:
- A) the plates are *usually* bigger and shaped according to where they go on the armour (scale and lamellar mostly use same-sized, same-shape plates),
- B) they are riveted (or sewn in the Jack-of-Plate’s case) inside the leather/cloth and not on the outside and
- C) the plates are not linked together in any fashion and fully rely on their fastening to the backing to keep them where they're supposed to be.
- Plate armor - armor made from single, solid pieces of metal. Bronze plate armor had been used in ancient times, but was limited to helmets and sometimes breastplates due to the weight of the armor. Full suits of plate armor were not possible until improvements in smithing allowed for large bars of steel to be hammered out into single pieces. A popular misconception about full plate is that it's very hard to move in, to a point it's exclusive to cavalry. While this is true for a tourney plate specifically designed for maximum protection in jousting tournaments, an actual battle plate was designed with maximum mobility in mind, and it was not uncommon for a knight (or later an officer) to do a somersault or dance with his lady while testing his new plate armor. Technically speaking, modern body armor for many nations use are in sense partially plate armor, with a carrier holding a solid plate.
- Jack Chains - if you were too poor to afford proper plate armor, you could at least add some metal reinforcements to your gambeson called Jack Chains. These were essentially gauntlets, elbow plates, and shoulder guards linked together by chains and attached to the arms so that one could, at bare minimum, block slashes to their sides without getting cut, or use it as a improv shield against incoming sword attacks.
- Makeshift Armor - Not really a set of armor in the traditional sense, generally makeshift armor is what ever one could scrounge up to make a protective wear. In the modern day, this is a protestor (think 2014 Ukraine Revolution) go to for long term engagement. Generally, motorcycle and safety helmets alongside heavy thick jackets, protective sports gear, or motorcycle gear would be the go to, as well as whatever one can strap to themselves. Don't be wearing something that might shatter easily though if you expect to be shot at, because that might manage to injure you even worse with the flying bits.
- Flak Jackets - The first standard-issue modern body armor to be developed, Flak Jackets were developed in WWII out of high-strength nylon to protect aircrews from fragments fired from flak cannons in conjuncture with manganese steel plates. While good against shrapnel and pistol rounds, it was still ineffective against rifle bullets. Before the invention of Kevlar and ballistic vests, this was the only kind of body armor available to modern soldiers expected to walk.
- Early 20th century armor - in WW1 and 2 many nations began experimenting with various forms of body armor to deal with shrapnel. This included steel breastplates, lamellar and steel plates in canvas carriers. This was more experimental than anything else. The biggest users of body armor in WW2 were the soviets who issued "steel bibs" to their soldiers. These could stop shrapnel fire and pistol bullets (a big deal given that Sub Machine Guns were a common infantry arm for urban combat) but were on the heavy side and were restricted to urban warfare or motorized infantry.
- Ceramic armor - Originally descended from the ceramic “Chicken plate” armor worn by helicopter gunship crews, it is typically, high-strength ceramic plates (typically made from boron carbide) are used as an energy-absorbing component in some ballistic vests (otherwise the wearer would suffer blunt trauma and internal bleeding from a bullet impacting the vest). A common myth is that Ceramic trauma plates shatter after only a 1-2 hits. This somewhat of an exaggeration, although generally plates are certified to take one well aimed steel-cored 7.62x63/53 mm rifle round (in layman's terms, a armor piercing sniper bullet) straight in and anything more you get out of it is pushing your luck. These are some of the best plates for infantry.
- Ballistic vests - "bulletproof" armor vests able to stop bullets of varying sizes and speeds. For "soft" armor, the use of high-strength fibers that "catch" the projectile, thereby slowing them down enough to prevent them from penetrating, are used, typically for security guards, low-intensity combat areas jobs, and cops. For "hard" armor, ceramic/metal/ultra-high-strength plastic/combination-of-the-previous may be used in the form of solid plates. Body armor may come in as either a standalone vest (i.e. "soft" kevlar vest) or a carrier (which can further more simply be a holder for a solid plate or a combination of "soft" and "hard" armor). Options of groin, neck, and shoulder protection may be included with the vests but aren't used unless you're in a SWAT team or fighting in close quarters in a building.
- Ballistic Visor - A visor of transparent, bulletproof, plastic. Despite its weight, bulk and making it impossible to use a standard rifle properly, it's only really suitable against low powered handgun rounds and thus it sees little use outside of European SWAT counterparts.
- Blast suits - full-body armors capable of absorbing the heat and shrapnel of a bomb blast. The only part that isn't protected are the hands, since wearing thick gloves is detrimental to manual dexterity. So if a bomb goes off, you may be maimed and lose parts of your hands - but at least you're not dead or torn to ribbons by shrapnel! May also include a closed air supply in the case of biological or chemical bombs. Commonly worn by EOD technicians.
- Power Armor - As of current, we already have prototype exoskeletons, but they're one of the many inventions that isn't in common use purely because of current limits on battery power (all current examples are plugged into a power source). There isn't as much a need for such strength in direct combat like in fiction, as it's designed more for load-bearing in mind, allowing for bigger, heavier guns and/or more ammo. However, that could include allowing the user to wear heavier armor as well. Generally speaking, the servos and external components are rather exposed. Think STALKER's exoskeleton for modern military exoskeleton prototypes. Frankly, you're more likely to find these systems being used by workers in a vehicle factory than on the battlefield, and that will likely remain the case until the power situation is figured out.
Modern Body Armor
With modern technology and all it's amenities, a large choices of body armor exists on the market (the NIJ level approved list for body armor products consumes 212 pages on a PDF file, and that's just stuff the manufacturer has paid the considerable expense to have tested by the NIJ instead of in-house). That said it is good to know what levels of protection for both ballistic and melee threats are.
- Ballistic threats Aka bullets most of the time. Soft body armor (aka Kevlar, UHMW Polyethylene, Dyneema, etc) that is rather flexible, but also vulnerable to high velocity threats. Thus most body armor of that class is relegated between II to IIIA. From there on out, it's hard body armor, which usually consists of some sort of metallic (usually steel, but titanium and high-strength aluminum are options too), ceramics, and composites. NIJ Standard III to IV stop those threats. Technically, though only rated up to 30-06 AP rounds (IV), some plates of body armor offer higher than IV. Some have even shown to stop a .50 BMG round, though the likelihood of one surviving such a shot from the sheer force of it hitting them even without going into them is still in question. Standard helmets only go up to level III
- Since some common threats are just above certain ratings, like 55 grain 5.56 from a 20 inch barrel penetrating level III or 5.7 pistols beating most soft armor, the NIJ system is currently undergoing an overhaul. While most western countries use NIJ rating standards, at least as a secondary, Russia has its own, completely unconnected, system for rating armor.
- Stab threats Protects against low energy stabbing objects (aka knives and maybe some small swords). Stab and piercing vest should not be trusted for higher level threats such a two handed weapons such as an pickaxe, sledgehammer, axe, spear, and even affixed bayonets. Even a knife in the hands of someone who can put an unusually high amount of force into stabbing can defeat a stab vest. However it is still great for stuff people would likely to conceal where rapid quick jabbing is likely to occur. Of course there is probably protective gear such as riot gear that could be more withstanding of heavier two handed threats, but it's likely best to not take a pickaxe to the chest in the first place.
Overlap between the two categories is minimal. Metal ballistic plates will stop knifes, though said plate covers minimal body area and is typically heavy. Soft armor is one or the other, though one could be worn over the other at the cost of bulk.
For soft armor vests, the original materials used to make the dozens of layers that catch bullets and absorb their energy were either silk, cotton, or nylon. Ultimately, they were replaced with high strength synthetic polymer fibers with Kevlar being the first invented in the the 1970's. It's been competing ever since with over a dozen rival polymer formulas. The standard hard armor trifecta of UHMWPE (essentially dense polymers ratched up to 11), Steel/titanium, and Ceramic usually places Ceramic at the top. As ceramic is not vulnerable to steel-core or fast-moving threats, it does not fold to M855 and M193 at the NIJ III level like UHMWPE and Steel do, respectively. What makes metals and UHMWPE appealing for plate inserts over ceramic is cost reduction and (assuming the plates haven't been penetrated yet) reusability. On the other hand, metal plate inserts need to be coated with high strength resins and polymer covers to prevent metal fragments from ricochets and spalling from hitting soldiers in the face or limbs.
Yurop and Russia
Outside of the US, there are standards like VPAM and GOST, HOSDB and SK. Of these, the HOSDB is the only one not designed for military and civil use, while the rest are comprehensives intended for both military and civil protection.
Anatomy of armor
Basic terminology of the different parts of armor. Unless you were very wealthy, such as a knight, not everyone had every part of their body covered in armor.
- Helmet - protects the head, one of the most common pieces of armor.
- Gambeson - padded cloth armor suit worn underneath metal armor to absorb blunt force and protect the wearer from the armor itself (metal and boiled leather aren't nice to unprotected humans skin, especially under extreme temperatures). Later variants often reinforced with sown-in mail in places actual metal armor above it have gaps and joints.
- Cuirass - protects the torso. If its made from a single piece of metal, it is a breastplate. Most breastplate are associated with full-body steel plate armor, but ancient Greeks had a bronze version called the "heroic Cuirass", or the Roman "Lorica Musculata", often molded with fake muscles and various decorations.
- Plackart - lower torso reinforcement that would overlap with a breastplate for extra protection, and connected to the faulds. The reason for this reinforcement is to act as a cushion for blows to the chest, as there is enough space between the plackart and curiass that it acts as additional padding to prevent soft tissue damage underneath.
- Faulds - a metal skirt attached to the breastplate, allowing some leg protection while offering mobility. Alternately, if the Faulds are in two pieces (one for each leg), they're known as Tassets. If a separate piece protects the ass, it's called a culet.
- Lance Rest - the lone offensive feature of armor (aside from the rare spikes), enables holding using a lance with less energy wasted on sliding around. Makes the energy transfer so efficent that lances can actually break when used.
- Gorget - protects the neck. With certain helmets, such as the Sallet, the gorget protected the lower head where the helmet did not.
- Bevor - a related piece of neck armor. Unlike the Gorget, these did not surround the entire neck but covered the front of the neck at the throat and chin. If segmented by folding laminate plates, it was called a Falling Buffe.
- Pauldrons - protects the shoulders. The real life versions are nowhere near as big as those on space marines.
- Spaulder - Armor used to protect the upper arm between the vambrace and the pauldron. Later replaced by the simpler Rebrace (also called an Upper Cannon).
- Gauntlets - protects the hands.
- Bracers (also call vambraces or braces) - protects the forearms and wrists.
- Manica - Armor that covers an arm, used primarily by the Romans. Typically used to protect the sword arm when it leaves the safety of a shield, but gladiators are known to have worn just it and the attached pauldron.
- Couter (also called Cowter or Elbow Cop) - essentially a metal elbow guard.
- Greaves - similar to modern shin guards, they protects the legs.
- Poleyn (alternatively called Genouillere) - basically a metal knee guard.
- Sabatons - protects the feet (you don't want some smartass spearman stabbing at your unarmored feet now, would you?)
- Codpiece - Yes, believe it or not, you could get dick armor too. Ordinarily this was just to armor the groin area like an athletic cup, but some people like King Henry VIII made massive codpieces to show off how well-endowed they were.
- Tabard - Technically not armor, but was the decorative sleeveless coat that would drape over the armor of knights. Besides being used as an identifier through the knight's heraldry, it also shielded armor from the desert sun so that the knight wouldn't boil in their own armor.
- Sashimono - Japanese equivalent. Essentially a way for armor to hold a small flag. Associated more with ashigaru armor than samurai, but samurai did wear them as well.
- Flak Armor: This is actually a ballistic vest, not Flak armor. Think an ESAPI (or the new XSAPI)plate modeled off of a cuirass. It can withstand stubber fire all across, up to rifle caliber, so consider most modern rifle ammo utterly pointless. The problem is, it starts getting shaky at the 12.7mm level, which... Unfortunately for the Imperial Guard, a lot of stuff can be considered "higher" than said level.
- Carapace Armor: Better flak armor (the 40K kind which is a ballistic vest) but with much more coverage and better quality materials. Generally heavier and cumbersome, but only issued really to those more capable of making the most use out of it.
- Powered armor: Space marine general issue, as well as several powerful Imperial organizations. Comes with both long term and short term necessities, with high-grade ceramite and admantium for protection, stabilizing and targeting gear to assist, and general life support if the being inside doesn't already have some. Very fancy. Honestly, it has its own article for a reason and this list section would do it no justice.
Armor in Fiction
|Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace - Club |
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
|Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon |
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling
|Armor:||Armor - Fantasy Armor - Helmet - Pauldron - Shield|