Monday, September 3, 2012

Armor Steampunk Style – a short history of body armor from the Victorian Era to the middle 20th century

An iron heart and a steel breastplate – garrotters, dacoits, and lascars, beware!

As the renaissance ended, so did the importance of personal body armor, due to improving gun technology.  By the beginning of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), very few military personnel even wore a breastplate and metal helmet, other than combat engineers (sappers and miners) and heavy cavalry (cuirassiers).  Generally, the only metal vestige of armor was the officer’s gorget and even that was fading fast from military panoply

The American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War opened a new era of quick military movements where offense out weighed defense and outmoded Napoleonic Era zone control tactics.  This is also the period that began a renewed interest in personal protection that was light weight and portable.

By the Civil War American inventors came up with several “bullet proof” shirts or vests, none of which were very effective or light.  Generally they were a scam put upon gullible soldiers and those who did buy this armor were derided by the others.  Original account of a Civil War bullet proof vest The image to the right is an advertisement from March 22 1862, page 192, Issue of Harper's Weekly Magazine for a bullet proof vest.  Buyer beware.

 For the ultimate, real steampunk armor you have to go Down Under to Australia and check out the Ned Kelly Gang in the 1870s to 1880.  Their massive steel armor shirts and helmets would indeed turn bullets, but they were terribly heavy and the loss of mobility and poor peripheral vision in the viewing slits made these sets of armor very limited indeed.  They were so heavy the gang decided against leg armor as being way too cumbersome and so it was to prove their undoing.  The full story is on the Wikipedia link provided on their name.  More recently, Clint Eastwood emulated the Kelly gang in A Fist Full of Dollars (1964) in this rewrite of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, Red Harvest and Kurosawa’s later 1961 movie, Yojimo.  So much for movie trivia.

The only successful set of body ballistic armor was made much like ancient Chinese armor, formed from many layers of silk.  Ukrainian born Casimir Zeglen was an unlikely armor maker as he was a Catholic Priest living in Chicago; who made the first commercially feasible bullet proof vest in 1897. Zeglen's vests were made of silk fabric.  Silk, like spider web material is incredibly strong for it size and has a high tensile strength, which made it perfect for strong, tightly woven ballistic cloth.  Zeglen’s vest was offered for sale at the astounding cost of $800 US dollars, well out of the range of all but the wealthiest.  He went on to produce sheets of the cloth, which could be made into a curtain to armor the passenger section of a vehicle.
Of interest, Archduke Franz Ferdinand did wear a bullet proof vest on the day that his touring car received a bomb attack while in Sarajevo.  He survived the bomb but was shot in the neck later in the day; so began WWI.  His vest didn’t cover the throat.  Take note.

Different inventors played around with armor schemes, but nobody was buying until the outbreak of WWI.  The first piece of medieval armor to be reintroduced was the steel helmet.  But they were not brought back to stop bullets, which they didn’t, but the dangerous steel splinters of shrapnel from the hellish artillery.  The Germans and the Allies both introduced helmets and toyed with facemasks to stop shrapnel, but they were impractical and set aside.  The only vestige of the facemask experiment is the “Frankenstein” facemask mounting lugs seen on German and Austrian WWI helmets.

The U.S. Model 8A experimental helmet is another example of a throwback to medieval sources of a visored sallet.  It face is protected by a raiseable ballistic visor with eye slits.  The prototypes were produced in 1918 by the Ford Motor Company for trials but only 1,300 were made.  The interior was a standard Brody style suspension system.  Even more sallet- like were the earlier 1917 ridged M2 and M5A, experimental helmets, both without a visor. 

Body armor was also reintroduced in limited quantities by belligerents and experiments were rampant and often ludicrous.  The Germans had a massive set of armor made for machine gunners, since they didn’t move from their emplacements, but were constantly snipped at.  A super heavy breastplate could and did turn rifle bullets, but at the expense of movement.  Sniping got so bad that the Germany also had brow armor for the forehead and was held in place with those vestigial helmet lugs.  Finally, those lugs had a use.
Body armor was pretty much shelved after WWI, until the Soviets produced light steel breastplates for their combat engineers, shock troops and tank riders in WWII.  They wouldn’t stop a rifle bullet and might stop a 9mm SMG or pistol bullet at medium range … at least until the Germans improved their 9mm cartridges in 1943 and that was the end of that.

Our modern ballistic vests use space age concoctions of ceramics, graphite, and good old steel these days.  For now, body armor is back until new improvements in ballistics returns the knightly vestiges back to the museum.


Here are a few images of contemporary Steampunk outfits.  You can recycle an old medieval costume breastplate or make one fresh with foam sheets or fashion one out soft sheet aluminum or even go with the ever-popular chainmail look, with a few enhancements.  I hope to see a few sets of steampunk armor at CoastCon or Mobicon next year.  They would be good for a Call of Cthulhu RPG or LARP set in the 1880s!
------------------UPDATE 23 OCT, 2012----------------

After I posted this blog entry, I turned up this excellent steampunk armored corset from and it was so different, I just had to add this piece to the blog.  I suggest a visit to their site if you like interesting armor.

-------------------Update 17 Jan 2013---------------------------

I finally found an image I have seeking for the WWI US Army experimental helmet for snipers and machine gunners which completely covers the head in a very medieval sort of way.  It might have been pretty good for shrapnel, but vision and hearing was highly impaired and it just wouldn't stop a rifle bullet.  Additional update:  As of May 2014, I inserted more information into the body of the text and some links to the helmet.

U.S. Experimental Model 8A, 1918

Update June 2016   --------------------------------------

If this article was of interest to you, I highly recommend you download a copy of Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, pub 1920 by Bashford Dean PhD, who was the curator of armor at the Met, printed by Yale University Press.  The book has a nice overview of the history of armor of earlier times leading up to WWI.  It shows a lot of very interesting experimental helmets I hadn’t encountered before, especially some of the visors that were attached to helmets.  The book also discusses a range of body armor along with ballistic cloth, much of which varies from medieval to the very modern in look.  Download for free from the Met at their website

UPDATE: I have a new hat/helmet post 2 May 2017-- Mr. Pratt’s Gun Hat or How to Be Fashionable But Deadly in the Trenches
Links of Interest
Here are a few additional links about Ned Kelly:

This is a great article about restoring and installing Ned Kelly’s armor in an Australian Museum