The Enlightenment to the Present

Although most troops ceased wearing armor by the eighteenth century, military engineers (sappers) wore bulletproof helmets during sieges, and some horsemen wore breastplates and helmets against sword cuts and firearms. The knight's neck defense, or gorget, became a symbol of officer's rank, and many armors became theatrical props. The Napoleonic wars briefly revived the use of some cavalry armor, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, its military use was again largely ceremonial. There were some exceptions, such as the breastplates privately acquired by both sides in the American Civil War (1861-1865), and Australian outlaw Ned Kelly's crude 100-pound body armor worn during a shootout. World Wars I and II revived interest in protective armor on a large scale. Allied and Axis physicians and scientists worked with curators to develop helmets and body defenses for ground troops and "flak jackets" for aircrew, but they used media and technologies little different from those of centuries earlier. Armor developments late in World War II and the Korean Conflict benefited from new plastic polymers. Soldiers' needs in Vietnam led to better armor, but it remained rather heavy and hot. The invention of Kevlar in the 1980s provided a material five times stronger than steel. Produced in fabriclike sheets, then laminated and encased in textiles, this has produced a new range of highly protective and light armor and helmets for the military, sport, law enforcement, and individuals. However, even more remarkable systems are under development in commercial and governmental laboratories, striving to produce another breakthrough technology, one just as dramatic as the suit of knightly plate armor that continues to fascinate us.

See also Military Style; Protective Clothing; Techno-Textiles; Uniforms, Military.

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